Letter From the Editors

Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko visited Russia on the occasion of Cosmonautics Day (April 12), which commemorates Yury Gagarin’s historic 1961 orbit of the Earth. This year, the red-letter day marked the safe return of Belarus’s first female cosmonaut, Marina Vasilevskaya, from the International Space Station.

Lukashenko did not miss the chance to score political points from this achievement. Dmitry Taratorin quotes him as saying: “Her flight represents a new level of participation in space programs . . . of sovereign Belarus and a new level of allied, very kind, brotherly relations between Belarus and Russia.” The effusive batka added: “Marina is between two empires – the Russian [empire], the most advanced in space, and the Americans. You realize, it’s not just optics. This is our country’s greatest victory.”

Of course, the optics alone are impressive: two longtime authoritarians congratulating each other on continued cooperation (which, Roman Chernikov argues, adds up mainly to political repression and propaganda).

Moscow had its own cosmic accomplishment to celebrate, too: the placement into low Earth orbit of an Orion booster carrying a heavy payload, along with an experimental CubeSat adorably named “Gagarinets.” These high-tech toys were launched aboard an Angara A5 rocket from the Vostochny cosmodrome for the first time.

Andrei Vaganov, editor in chief of NG Nauka, emphasizes that this launch, while touted as a great success, followed two failed attempts in the previous days. He also notes the relative rarity of Russian space flights: “And it is very difficult to figure out what came first – the chicken or the egg. We are making few space flights either because the technological basis of the Russian economy is not fit to respond to innovations. . . . Or, conversely, the technological backwardness is due to the fact that we are clearly beginning to lose ground in space exploration.”

A similar suspicion of technological lag lurks behind this issue’s other major story: the breach of a dam on the Ural River, which caused the worst flooding in 100 years in various parts of Orenburg Province. These articles have all you could ask for from Russian news coverage: precise figures on high-water marks; first-hand reportage by intrepid journalists on the ground (and on the water); touching rescue stories with colorful commentary by plucky survivors. But the most important element (to a media hound, at least) is the finger-pointing by pundits and officials alike – about corruption, building code violations, and callous negligence on the government’s part.

By the way, we should mention that the Ural River itself straddles two empires, flowing along the continental border between Europe and Asia. Kazakhstan, downriver from Orenburg, also suffered major flooding in which over 15,000 people had to evacuate – although the Russian press was too swept up in its own currents to pay much attention to its neighbors.

One other empire that can’t escape attention is China. This issue of the Digest shows the Celestial Kingdom both asserting its own power and deferring to the power of others. In the first case, NG reports a roiling debate in the European Parliament over Chinese security forces patrolling cities in the EU. The latest country to establish such cooperation is Hungary. During the debate, Hungarian oppositionist Katalin Cseh erupted: “If this is not interference in a country’s internal affairs, then I don’t know what would be considered such interference!”

By contrast, Izvestia has evidence of Beijing showing deference in another area: financial transactions. “Several major Chinese banks have introduced tougher controls for payments from Russia. Before processing a transaction, the Bank of China . . . asks whether the payment has anything to do with the LPR, DPR, Crimea, Iran, North Korea, Cuba or Syria.” If so, the payment is blocked. Business consultant Aleksei Poroshin explains that Beijing is protecting itself from potential consequences of Western sanctions.

You might say that China, too, is trying to maintain balance between two empires. As the old Chinese proverb goes, “He who treads softly goes far.”