Letter From the Editors
Spring has sprung in the Northern Hemisphere, and the muddy season is upon us. That’s certainly the case in eastern Ukraine, where both sides in the conflict are moving troops and equipment into place in anticipation of the drier roads and fields that will allow for renewed combat operations. It’s unclear what Russia stands to gain from a new round of fighting, but Aleksandr Ryklin of Republic.ru posits that the Kremlin’s plans may stretch far beyond Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces, and even all the way to Moldova. Belarus’s decision to transship its oil exports through Russian seaports, rather than the customary ports in the Baltic states, is equally opaque, especially because the country also appears poised to nationalize pipelines and other assets in Belarus owned by a subsidiary of Russia’s Transneft. Whatever Lukashenko’s reasoning, he definitely intends to hold on to power by holding a constitutional referendum next year. Leaders of other CIS countries have followed his example by turning to their constitutional courts to help them stay in office as long as possible and to validate their suppression of protests.
This hunger for power can also be seen in Russia’s attempt to throttle Twitter traffic. Russia made this move after Twitter failed to take down from its Web site what Russia deems “illegal content.” Darya Gormonenko and Ivan Rodin argue that what concerns Russia more is the opportunities Twitter presents for opposition figures, rather than any inappropriate content. However, it knows that the Russian people are not in favor of censoring politically sensitive material, so it has taken a moral angle to obscure its own motives and gain popular support for the throttling. Whether federal communications watchdog Roskomnadzor can pull off a shutdown remains to be seen, particularly in light of its past failure to block the messaging app Telegram. It will also have to iron out the technical glitches it encountered during the slowdown, including when official Web sites also started to experience lapses in operation.
There is at least some clarity on the foreign affairs front. Russia and China have agreed to extend their Treaty on Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation, and to work together to combat color revolutions, which they believe are backed by the US and its allies. Experts have doubts about whether the Russian-Chinese relationship can grow from a partnership into an alliance. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov paid a whirlwind visit to Saudi Arabia. He and his Saudi counterpart appeared to agree on many Middle Eastern and North African issues, with the exception of Syria, where Russia seems determined to divide the opposition even as Saudi Arabia calls for Syrian unity.
Russia’s economic situation, however, remains murky and inextricably linked to politics. Novaya gazeta’s Yevgeny Gontmakher takes a retrospective look at Russia’s economy to predict what the next 20 years will look like. The consumer and credit boom of the early 2000s, he writes, was based on the shaky foundation of high prices for commodity exports. The political situation did nothing to help maintain this apparent growth, and a decade-long stagnation set in. Gontmakher concludes that Russia needs the kind of sweeping institutional reforms it enacted in the 1990s to avoid further stagnation and degradation. In fact, in a new report, S&P names “power transition” as one of three risk factors that will have a strong impact on the economy. According to the rating agency, this is a risk factor because Russia lacks precedent for a competitive election, and the economic consequences of one are unknown.
So, is there a way out of these muddy ruts of precarious alliances, internal dissent and economic stagnation? Many of our contributors this week seem to agree that the only solution is new leaders willing to put the greater good ahead of their own political ambitions.