Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Baker’s Dozen of Neglected Russian Stories – No. 78



A new Russian robot called FEDOR can shoot with both hands. Photo via @Rogozin 

Staunton, VA, April 14, 2017 - The flood of news stories from a country as large, diverse and strange as the Russian Federation often appears to be is far too large for anyone to keep up with. But there needs to be a way to mark those which can’t be discussed in detail but which are too indicative of broader developments to ignore. 

Consequently, Windows on Eurasia presents a selection of 13 of these other and typically neglected stories at the end of each week. This is the 78th such compilation. It is only suggestive and far from complete – indeed, once again, one could have put out such a listing every day -- but perhaps one or more of these stories will prove of broader interest. 
1. Putin’s Election Program – Promise Massive Change But Keep Everything the Same.  The post-Crimea consensus having collapsed, and repression having ceased to intimidate and begun to anger Russians, Vladimir Putin has no choice but to promise massive change when he runs for re-election to keep himself in power and thus everything just the same, Moscow commentators say. This week, commentators laid particular stress on three problems facing the Kremlin leader: he is trying to act internationally as if Russia had 22 percent of the world’s GDP and not the two percent it does have, popular culture including new cartoon film is narrowing the distance between Putin and his boyars, thus undercutting the assumption that Russians will always support the former as a check on the latter, and Putin’s talk about not allowing color revolutions in Russia and the former Soviet space has called attention to a risk that he earlier refused to discuss and raised concerns about what may in fact happen next

2. Trump has Betrayed Russia to Escape Impeachment, Moscow Commentator Says. Maksim Shevchenko says that the only reason Donald Trump did not live up to Moscow’s expectations for better relations between the US and Russia was to avoid being impeached and removed from office by the American establishment. But some Russians think the US president won’t be able to escape that fate: LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky who hosted a champagne celebration on Trump’s election now says that he will drink champagne when Trump is impeached.  Vladimir Putin has suggested relations with Washington have been degraded since Trump took office, but some analysts near the Kremlin say that they still expect Trump to deliver on his election promises. Other Russians are just angry: some are now blaming Trump rather than Barack Obama for the fact that they aren’t getting their pensions, and a group of Cossacks in St. Petersburg has decided to strip Trump of his rank of esaul in their unit because of his bad behavior toward Russia. But perhaps the most interesting observation about Trump from Moscow this week came from one writer who said that Trump’s reaction to the gas attack in Syria shows that he has a heart, an organ that he suggested Putin lacks. 

3. Could Concerns about Inflation Save Russia from Repressive Yarovaya Laws? Some commentators have pointed out that if the Yarovaya package of repressive measures is enforced, that will cost Moscow some 4.5 trillion rubles (US $75 billion), an amount that could threaten to trigger a new round of higher inflation. Meanwhile, the last week brought another harvest of bad economic news: Russia’s foreign debt is up dramatically, capital flight doubled from the first quarter of 2016 to the first three months of 2017, officials said that as a result of sanctions, Russia can no longer produce its own large gas turbines, one commentator has offered advice on “how to make money in Russia and stay alive while doing so”, corruption has assumed a new form in Russia – it is so much a part of the system that corruption in the usual sense hardly exists anymore, losses from financial crimes in Russia in 2016 were the largest ever, and experts say that the real level of poverty among Russians is now twice as high as the government says. 

4. Social Problems Multiply Exponentially. Despite Dmitry Medvedev’s latest entry in the Marie Antoinette sweepstakes by saying that banning Western produces makes Russian life better, the problems Russians face in their daily lives are increasing at a staggering rate. Among the bad news in this sector in the last week alone are the following stories: At present, one hospital is closing every day in the Russian Federation and other medical facilities are being cut back at almost the same rate. As a result, one in four Russians isn’t getting needed medical help.  But there is little likelihood that the medical situation will improve soon. According to the Moscow times, Russian doctors are now paid less than Russian fast food workers. Moscow’s pro-natalist policies have exhausted themselves, experts say, and now even millionaire cities are beginning to see their populations decline. As for entertainment, Russians face a bleaker future: charter flights to Turkey may be stopped, and while more vodka is being produced, prices for it are going up. One thing that Russian authorities are doing to promote domestic tourism: they are making low-cost prostitution services an integral part of their programs for resorts. Young Russians are increasingly unhappy about life in their country, and so the Kremlin has decided to address the problem by creating its own new bureaucracy to deal with it. With the spread of gun ownership, mass poaching is now a serious problem in the Russian North.  Because their pensions are so small, ever more elderly Russians are going back into the workforce. And at the same time, more Central Asian and Caucasian labor migrants are leaving Russia but Russians aren’t taking their jobs because they don’t want to occupy such unskilled and low-paying positions, a new study finds. 

5. Ethnic Tensions Increase Across Russia.  Reports suggest that ethnic antagonisms between Russians and non-Russians are on the rise and not just tensions among non-Russians as was largely the case earlier and. In ordering Moscow to pay compensation to the victims of the Beslan disaster, the European Human Rights Court sharply criticized the Russian government for its handling of ethnic relations. Chechen officials attacked Novaya gazeta for its coverage of Grozny’s repression of gays and threatened them with physical reprisals, leading the Kremlin to denounce that and other media outlets to come to Novaya’s defense. In addition, a Duma committee rejected the idea of allowing federal subject courts to rule on extremism; only federal courts can do that, it said, another sign that popular tensions are having official consequences.  But there was one piece of good news: longtime and much-hated Mari El governor Leonid Markelov was not only fired but has been charged with massive corruption. 

6. Protests on All Kinds of Issues Spread as Officials Try to Contain Them In addition to the long-haul truckers strike and the fallout from the March 26 Navalny anti-corruption protests, Russian citizens went in the street to protest all manner of things, from access to education in Tomsk to living conditions in Yakutsk to workers who haven’t been paid since 2015.  Under pressure from the Kremlin officials have used all manner of means to block or isolate these protests. In Dagestan, for example, officials are rejecting applications for protest meetings by invoking the terrorist threat they say such meetings present.

7. Student at Russian Military Academy Arrested on Suspicion of Planning to Divert Guns to Terrorists. Russian police arrested a student at the military academy in St. Petersburg on suspicion that he was seeking to seize arms held at that facility and divert them to terrorists. That was not the only security news this week: Reports surfaced about dedovshchina and corruption as continuing problems in the Russian armed services, Russian scientists have developed a robot and the first thing they have taught it to do is to shoot a gun, and one Moscow commentator pointed out that in any new cold war, Russia have not have any allies, leaving it far more at risk than was the former Soviet Union. 

8. Two Really Frightening Messages about War from Moscow.  Two Moscow commentaries this week are truly scary: The first in reacting to calls for an investigation of the gas attacks in Syria points out that World War I began with calls for an investigation of a terrorist attack, the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, implying that looking into the Syrian matter could have similar consequences. And the second suggested that for Russia, despite all the suffering it would experience, a nuclear war has certain “pluses,” the kind of talk that makes it easier for leaders to think they can fight and win a nuclear exchange. 

9. Monuments Conflicts Continue to Spark Social Activism in Russia.  One commentator suggests that he would welcome a decision by the Russian government to hand back even more churches to the Moscow Patriarchate because public opposition to such moves would help build civil society. There are certainly enough churches left to do so, with some 5,000 now falling apart. St. Isaac’s in St. Petersburg is slated to be handed over to the Orthodox Church on July 12, despite continuing opposition.  But the government may slow down this process less to meet public complaints than because of the expense: the Russian Orthodox Church has asked the state to give it 13 billion rubles (US $200 million) to rebuild churches, but the authorities are only prepared to give 2.9 billion (US $50 million). Other news this week from the monuments front includes Polish charges that the Russian government is now doing what the Soviet regime did at Khatyn by falsifying the list of who was killed there. Activists plan to erect a statue to the 1920-21 Tambov peasant uprising, Moscow is planning a memorial to the victims of World War I. Activists are collecting money to erect in the Russian capital a statue to the victims of Stalin’s repressions, Moscow says it will move the statue of Gorky back to where it stood in Soviet times and will put up a statue to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as well. 

10. Work on Rostov Stadium for 2018 World Cup Stopped Because ‘There is No Money.”  Officials say they have no funds to continue working on the modernization of the soccer stadium in Rostov that was supposed to be one of the venues for the scheduled 2018 World Cup competition in Russia.  Meanwhile, despite more violence at football matches in Russia this year, Moscow officials promised there would not be any clashes when the World Cup matches take place in their country.  They also continued to lash out at the WADA for its investigations on the doping program in Russia. 

11. ‘Jewish-Masonic Conspiracy’ Thinking Making a Comeback in Russia. Ever more commentators and media outlets have revived the notion of “a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy” as the force behind the Russian revolutions of 1917 and all of Russia’s misfortunes since then.  That tsarist-era staple of those given to conspiracy thinking has been joined recently by talk about “a deep state” on the model some have suggested exists in the United States and opposes Donald Trump.  In the Russian version, the deep state consists or and is a weapon for liberals domestic and foreign. 

12. Can Moscow Narrow ‘Think Tank Gap’?  Russian commentators argue that one of the reasons Western governments do a better job in addressing many issues is that they have the assistance of experts in think tanks who can speak more freely than government employees usually can. These commentators bemoan the fact that Russia does not have a large think tank community and urge that the government get involved in creating one.  A recent meeting of the Higher School of Economics and Russian officials suggest that there is a possibility that Russia can move in that direction given that the independent scholars felt free to criticize officials and the regime in the harshest terms and the officials sat quietly and took it. 

13. Russians Get Porno Site Back but May Lose Facebook.  The Russian government agency which regulates the Russian Internet has unblocked the Pornhub site, but a Duma deputy has called for banning access to Facebook in Russia, a clear indication of the Kremlin’s priorities and its assessment of just where the threats to its power come from. 

And six more from countries in Russia’s neighborhood: 
1. Moscow Sets Up Radar Site in Belarus.  Minsk has still refused to allow Moscow to open a military airbase on Belarusian territory, but in an example of the Kremlin’s “creeping” advances, the Russian military under cover of its current operation, West-2017, has set up a radar locator site there. 

2. Part of Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses Burns. A small fire damaged an estimated 600 of the wooden memorials at Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses. No foul play is suspected at that world heritage site near Siaulai where more than 400,000 crosses have been erected by Lithuanians and their supporters over the years. 

3. Ukrainian Remittances from Russia Home Said Larger than IMF Loans and Foreign Investment. The more than a million Ukrainians living in the Russian Federation are currently sending home more money than the total of IMF loans and grants and direct foreign investment, giving Moscow significant if often ignored leverage. 

4. Russia will Not Take Part in or Broadcast Eurovision Competition in Kyiv. The Ukrainian authorities refused to allow Russia’s candidate to take part in the Eurovision competition in Kyiv this year because she had violated Ukrainian law by visiting occupied Crimea and making pro-Moscow declarations about it. Efforts to find a workaround have failed, and Moscow has announced that it will not send anyone to participate in the competition this year or cover it on Russian television. 

5. Russia Violates International Law by Drafting 20 Crimeans into Its Army. International law prohibits an occupying power from compelling those living under its control to serve in the military. But Moscow, which has routinely ignored international law in recent years, has violated this provision as well by drafting approximately 20 young men from Crimea this year. 
6. Kyrgyzstan Closes Four of Its 106 Muslim Madrasas. Saying that they want to prevent the spread of Islamist extremism, Bishkek has closed four of the madrasas on its territory declaring that their curricula are “incorrect.” At the same time, it has allowed 102 others to remain in operation. They presumably are “correct”.

Published in Press-Stream April 14, 2017 in Publication Windows on Eurasia


Monday, April 24, 2017

Wait and See

At the Power Vertical, Brian Whitmore takes a sanguine view of developments in 2017 so far:
It appears that, at least for the time being, that the populist wave may have crested and is receding. 
And it also appears that Moscow's much-publicized meddling in Western elections is leading to greater vigilance in Europe.

Defending the Centre - 2

Emmanuel Macron’s success in the first round of the French presidential election leads one to speculate about the chances of a revival of centrism in Europe. While many mainstream media outlets are still plugging the ‘rise of extremism’ narrative, directing their attention and that of their readers to Marine Le Pen, the likelihood that the French electorate is starting to weary of the tensions provoked by the right wing seems to be growing.

Looking elsewhere in Europe, the prospect of such a change does not seem unrealistic. Indeed, as the researcher Ulrich Speck recently pointed out on Twitter, while in France the centre has a slight majority, in Germany the centre has a majority of around 80 percent. And while the party system in France is beginning to break up at the edges, in Germany it is still strong. If Angela Merkel stays the course, the hopes for a centrist, less divided Europe could be far from delusionary.

In the U.K.an alliance of Labour moderates and Liberal Democrats led by Tony Blair and Tim Farron appears to be slowly forming behind the scenes, in spite of LibDem denials. A new electoral force led by these two pro-EU, anti-Brexit politicians could change the balance of power in Britain decisively, supplant the incoherent Labour leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, make UKIP irrelevant and deprive Theresa May’s government of its current populist surge.

These are not vain expectations: though the path to a centrist Europe may be long and complex, it certainly exists, and is beginning to look more promising. Whatever happens to the presidency of Macron, France is not going to be the ‘third domino’ after Trump and Brexit, and the question now is whether there and elsewhere electorates that have tired of party politics can be persuaded to vote for groupings that represent a true change in European political life. Will they reject the sham-democratic, populist scenarios promoted by sections of the press and media that represent the vested interests of a few?

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Defending the Centre

In Foreign Affairs magazine, two recent items address the widening problem of the demise of political centrism. In their essay The Liberal Order is Rigged: Fix It Now Or Watch It Wither, Watson Institute's Jeff D. Colgan and Princeton academic Robert O. Keohane place emphasis on two high-profile examples:
In 2016, the two states that had done the most to construct the liberal order—the United Kingdom and the United States—seemed to turn their backs on it. In the former, the successful Brexit campaign focused on restoring British sovereignty; in the latter, the Trump campaign was explicitly nationalist in tone and content.
Looking for reasons to explain the populist resurgence, the authors settle on what they perceive to be the 'hijacking' of globalisation by a 'capitalism' (economic empire-building) that has, in their view, left the ordinary person behind. Traditional political parties, in their estimation
must do more than rebrand themselves and their ideas. They must develop substantive policies that will make globalization serve the interests of middle- and working-class citizens. Absent such changes, the global liberal order will wither away.
A related article by Atlantic Council researcher Alina Polyakova examines the way in which European centre-right parties, dismayed by the rise of the populist far right, attempt to mimic their right-wing rivals by adopting similarly illiberal policies, and are then surprised to discover that the electorate prefers the undiluted populism of groupings like Front National to the ersatz versions offered by traditional parties. With concern, she emphasises that because of this the centre right
across the world should not give in to the far right, and the center left must stand firm on progressive principles that channel voters’ anxieties rather than feed them.
Polyakova focuses on France and the Netherlands: but the United Kingdom, not discussed by the author in her piece, faces a similar displacement of political forces: Mrs. May's government has adopted nearly all the policies of its fringe rival UKIP.  Here the process appears to be developing in a way that contradicts the author's argument: far from losing support, the May government is actually increasing its lead over the steadily shrinking opposition, mainly by espousing the positions of the populist right. Tory conservatism, once identifiable as centre-right, is drifting further and further away from the centre -- and a right-wing, pro-hard Brexit Tory government already looks like the victor in the forthcoming general election.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Cancrizans

With Donald Trump’s tacit endorsement of Marine Le Pen’s candidacy in the French presidential election after the Paris terror attack, we enter a phase of history that is once again ‘unprecedented’. Never before have the United States and Europe formed an apparent alliance in the name of ideas and aspirations that seek to rout and displace democracy, and in the words of Garry Kasparov, ‘to roll back the progress and values of the modern world.’

As Kasparov notes, Le Pen, Putin, IS and Trump form a quartet devoted to the weakening of institutions that can challenge that roll-back. Putin in particular is indifferent to left and right, intent solely on acquiring power and causing disruption. Yet it’s hard to see the strategy here: for example, while in his public statements Trump avoids saying anything that could upset Putin, almost in the same breath he expresses views that appear to contradict Putin’s policies at a basic level. The most recent example of this is Trump’s letter to Congress on the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, in which he declares his support for the Act and makes clear 'our commitment to its robust and thorough enforcement.’

What’s one to make of these contradictory steps and counter-steps? At the time of the recent U.S. missile strike on the Al Shayrat airfield, which marked an apparent reversal of Trump’s policy as he stated it during the presidential campaign, numerous voices were heard praising the shift and ascribing it to a ‘new Trump’ who was, according to them, now showing his true, democratic hand. Yet it’s doubtful that Trump has really abandoned his support for Assad, his determination to crush IS, and his willingness to join an alliance with Putin to achieve that goal.

Similarly, in his foreign policy appointments, President Trump has so far shown indifference to direction and ideology: Secretary of State Tillerson’s recent visit to Moscow ended with him remarking that U.S.-Russian relations were at a ‘low point’, and warning Russia that it risked becoming 'irrelevant' in the Middle East by backing Assad. At a Security Council meeting held the day after the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack, the new U.S. Permanent Representative at the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said that Russia and Iran have ‘no interest in peace’ and somewhat later charged Russia with ‘siding with Assad’. Little of this appears to harmonise with Trump’s Middle East policy statements during the campaign.

My own view is that Kasparov is correct: while Le Pen, Putin, IS and Trump in a sense work together to challenge the conventional view of the world and international relations that has been carefully built up since the end of the Second World War, their goal is ultimately the channelling of influence away from the centre and towards the extremes, no matter whether of right or of left. If this requires the forfeiting of previously held positions and policies, so be it: the aim is a dynamic process of backwards, crab-like movement, bypassing and manipulating political and electoral institutions, frustrating the pundits and commentators, leaving the press and media behind, and mapping out a new world that’s created not by slow, measured progress and democratic debate but by the amassing of global power in the hands of a few individuals whose ideas and visions are as yet obscure, but don’t look like the dreams of democrats.

(Cancrizans: [medieval Latin] moving backwards, from cancrizare, to move crabwise.)  

Friday, April 21, 2017

Chechnya: Image and Reality


Those who have been following the reports of gay men fleeing Chechnya in the face of a Chechen government-backed campaign of intimidation may have wondered exactly why Novaya Gazeta has decided to publish these accounts right now. While homophobia is widespread in Russia, and given a certain degree of official toleration, the fact (vigorously denied by the authorities) of its being official state policy within Chechnya is acquiring a much higher profile than its prevalence elsewhere in the Federation.

The stories and narratives emanating from the Republic are certainly disturbing: “They want to exterminate us,” says Ruslan, a gay man forced to leave his wife and children

Human rights organisations like HRW and Caucasian Knot have been quick to take up the stories and investigate them further. In spite of official denials, it does appear that some kind of campaign of intimidation has been started against those whose sexuality deviates from the locally accepted norms. But perhaps it’s as well to reflect that the reports first appeared in Novaya Gazeta, a paper that has a strong tradition of human rights reporting – Anna Politkovskaya was a journalist on the publication – but one that also (like nearly all other mainstream Russian media) has some links to the Russian state and its intelligence services.

Few will question that the LGBT community in Chechnya – as elsewhere in the Russian Federation – do not have an easy time, and that indeed their personal security and their lives may be in danger. But a question-mark does hang over the timing of the reports, and the inevitable danger that they may be used to further bolster the negative image of Chechnya and Chechens that has been built up over the years in the minds of Russians – and Westerners – by Russian press and media. 

Web magazine on Russia

The Interpreter magazine continues to deliver excellent coverage of events and crises in Russia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, in spite of the fact that its funding was cut off twice – first by Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia foundation, and then by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Exactly what lay behind these regrettable decisions remains a subject for speculation, but the fact that the magazine has refused to succumb to financial pressure and has continued publication regardless is testimony to the perseverance and commitment of its staff, in particular Catherine Fitzpatrick, who is currently managing the enterprise almost single-handedly.

Among other items, the current issue of the magazine contains features on the Ukraine war, a survey of recent Russia-related events including flights by Russian nuclear-capable bombers within 100 miles of U.S. territory in Alaska, an account of the aftermath of Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow, with sweeping arrests of opposition figures, and an article from Novaya Gazeta on threats of retribution against journalists from Chechen clergy over articles on persecution of LGBT.

Let's hope that The Interpreter will continue to be updated, in spite of its current difficulties, as it’s one of the few independent English-language sources of reliable information about developments in Russia and the ‘Russian world’.


Restarting the blog

After rather a long hiatus, I'm now considering restarting A Step At A Time - Putinism, Trumpism, LePenism and Brexit are all subjects that need attention, and now is as good a time as any to give it. I'm also putting up a tip jar in the form of a Donate button, so if you feel that you have found something useful in the blog, which goes all the way back to 2004, by the way, please feel free to insert a dollar or two.