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The Interpreter
@Interpreter_Mag
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Interpreter_Mag
September 11, 2015

Publication: Windows on Eurasia
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The Interpreter
@Interpreter_Mag
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Interpreter_Mag
Moscow Mulls Mobilizing Transdniestria and Gagauzia against Pro-Europe Activists in Chisinau

Staunton, September 10, 2015

An article in the September 10th issue of Nezavisimaya gazeta highlighting opposition by Transdniestria and Gagauzia to the pro-EU protests in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau is another indication that some in Moscow are hoping to use these two groups in the north and south of that country to block any further Moldovan moves toward Europe.

The Moscow paper’s Svetlana Gamova writes most of those taking part in the demonstrations in Chisinau are “oriented toward the integration of the country in the European Union” while many in the Slavic-majority Transdniestria in the north and the Christian Turkic Gagauzia in the south favor integration with Russia.

Dmitry Konstantinov, the speaker of the Gagauz autonomy Popular Assembly, told her that the Gagauz are offended by the appearance of Romanian flags among the Chisinau demonstrators. “Our own path,” he said, “is to the East.” If Chisinau continues in a Western direction, Gagauzia will seek “a civilized divorce” from Moldova.

The Gagauz parliamentary leader added that he and his colleagues are making contact with Moldovan politicians who share their opposition to a turn toward Europe and are prepared to act on it. Gamova for her part says that the 1994 Moldovan law setting up the Gagauz autonomy “gives the Gagauz the right to self-determination if Moldova changes its status.”

That is somewhat disingenuous, of course, although it may reflect current Moscow thinking. The Moldovan act does not say that Gagauzia can choose to leave Moldova if it changes its foreign policy direction but allows that only if Moldova changes its borders by becoming part of Romania or in some other way.

Also opposed to what is going on in Chisinau, Gamova writes, is the “unrecognized republic of Transdnistria” in Moldova’s north. Its leader, Yevgeny Shevchuk, has declared that as a result of the Chisinau demonstrations, “the situation is destabilizing and Tiraspol insists on its right to a civilized divorce from Moldova.”

Last weekend as many as 100,000 people came into the streets of the Moldovan capital, the largest protest since the early 1990s, to demand a change in the government and immediate parliamentary elections. The protest continues with protesters camped on in some 150 tents in the main square of the city, fed and otherwise supported by residents of the capital.

Many but far from all of the demonstrators were and are pro-European, Arkady Barbaroshie, the director of Chisinau’s Institute of Public Politics, says. Many are simply disappointed with the current government, including some ethnic Russians and other Russian speakers.

Many of the participants are calling on the organizers of the protests, the Civic Platform Dignity and Truth, to form a political party to compete in new elections. Its leadership supports integration with the EU and is consulting about its further moves with “ambassadors of ‘civilized countries,’” that is, Western ones, Gamova writes.

After those meetings, one of the leaders of the group told the crowd that the EU is calling on the Moldovan authorities to enter into dialogue with the protesters, another step that undoubtedly is setting off alarm bells in Moscow and leading officials there to consider how they might stop what they undoubtedly see as another “color” revolution in the offing.

So far, Gamova writes, the demonstrators have advanced the following demands: “the resignation of the president, head of parliament and prime minister, the holding of immediate elections for parliament, direct election of the president, the formation of a government of national salvation, the retirement of the head of Teleradio-Moldova and of the law enforcement organs, and bringing to justice those officials who are guilty of corruption.

In addition, she says, “the activists called upon the West not to give new loans to the existing authorities and to declare them persona non grate in the EU and the US.” If the authorities do not meet their demands, the protesters said their next step would be to declare a general strike.

Moldova’s prime minister, Vladimir Strelets, said he was ready to meet with the protesters and to offer “’a road map’” for overcoming the crisis but suggested that outside forces were behind efforts to force the government from office. “On its own initiative,” he said, “the government will not go into retirement. That would be an act of cowardice and irresponsibility.”

President Nicolae Timofti also said he would not resign because he is “convinced that such a decision would bring instability to the Republic of Moldova. The vacuum of power would cause a new political crisis” that would be used by internal and external “forces” against the Moldovan people.

"I recognize,” he declared, “that my positions for Europe, for NATO and regarding the illegal creation on our territory of a Russian military base have made me into a target for revanchist, neo-Soviet, anti-Western and anti-national forces.” But such attacks will not turn him from his European path.

To judge from Gamova’s article, some in Moscow must be thinking that they could only gain if they set Transdniestria and Gagauzia against him.

-- Paul Goble

The Interpreter
@Interpreter_Mag
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Interpreter_Mag
Kremlin Now Wants Russians to See Sanctions as Having Nothing to Do with Ukraine, ‘Nezavisimaya Gazeta’ Says

Staunton, September 11, 2015

Moscow has “shifted from the logic of a dispute to the logic of isolation” and is seeking to convince Russians that Western sanctions imposed following the Crimean Anschluss and Russian invasion of the Donbas have nothing to do with those events but rather reflect permanent Western hostility to Russia, Nezavisimaya gazeta says.


In a lead article today, the editors of that Moscow paper draws that conclusion on the basis of a recent declaration by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov that sanctions will remain in place for a long time because they are intended to limit Russia’s ability to act independently.

Ryabkov’s words, the paper says, “reflect a transition to the completely isolationist logic in which the Russian authorities act today;” and that in turn reflects the conclusions of Presidential advisor Sergey Glazyev that Russia must move in the direction of “still greater economic isolation from the West.”

“Initially, immediately after the flight of Viktor Yanukovych, the annexation of Crimea, and the beginning of the conflict in the Donbass,” the editors say, “the logic of the Russian authorities was somewhat different.” Then, it stressed Russia’s “right to defend its ‘own,’ that is the Russian speakers” and drew parallels between Crimea and Kosovo.

No one spoke then, the paper continues, about sanctions remaining in force for any length of time apparently because the Kremlin believed that the West would “recognize their senselessness and cancel them not being able to live without Russia.” Now, the worsening of the economic situation has led to “a change in logic.”

For the Kremlin now, “citizens must be convinced that sanctions are not the result of Crimea or the Donbass.” Instead, a new “’correct’” interpretation is being offered: “the West and especially the United States cannot deal with our stormy growth, wants to slow it, and Ukraine is the occasion for doing so.”

In the former interpretation, there is great room for diplomacy; in the new one, there is little room left because Russian diplomats must soon follow politicians and television commentators in insisting that “’the West always hates us, it wants to ruin us, there is nothing to talk about with it.”

But such a shift raises some questions, the paper’s editors say. “For example, if the Russian authorities always knew that the West would not allow the strengthening of Russia, then why did they so poorly prepare the country for the present and as they assert inevitable pressure on it?”

Other questions also arise: Why didn’t the Russian authorities try to make the ruble less dependent on the price of oil? Why didn’t they try to find alternative sources of credit? And perhaps most important, because of the enormous support they enjoy from the population, why didn’t they use “this resource to carry out systemic reforms?”

If the authorities were not willing to do that in the “fat” years, they certainly will not do so in the “lean” ones now, Nezavisimaya gazeta concludes.

Of course, there are at least two other explanations for Ryabkov’s statement, one domestic and one foreign political. Domestically, the Kremlin may fear that ever more Russians will draw a direct line between what Putin has been doing in Ukraine and their current suffering. Such a shift in opinion could threaten the regime.

And in foreign policy terms, Rybkov’s statement may have a double purpose. On the one hand, it may lead some in the West to call for a reduction in sanctions in order to show Russia that the West doesn’t “always” hate it. And on the other, if sanctions are loosened or cut back, the new logic now on offer in Moscow will allow the Kremlin to take credit.

-- Paul Goble

The Interpreter
@Interpreter_Mag
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Interpreter_Mag
Putin Seeking to Destabilize Ukraine While ‘Imitating’ a Russian Pullback in Donbass, Portnikov Says

Staunton, September 11, 2015

In an effort to get the West to end its sanctions on Russia, Vladimir Putin will continue to sharply reduce pro-Moscow military actions in the Donbass over the next month, Vitaly Portnikov says; but even as he does so, the Kremlin leader will do everything he can to destabilize and thus discredit Ukraine from the inside.

This combination, Portnikov argues, suggests that Putin is preparing for a “Minsk 3” agreement when he meets with the leaders of France, Germany and Ukraine in Paris on October 3, an agreement that will require “joint guarantees.” Otherwise, the four could have met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

It appears, the Ukrainian analyst says, that “if it isn’t seeking a way out of the dead end it finds itself in the Donbass, Russia will attempt to imitate this exit” in order to extract as much as possible from the West. Indeed, since August 29 when Hollande, Merkel and Putin spoke on the telephone, “the intensity of fire from the side of Russian forces … has fallen sharply.”

That fall-off, Portnikov continues, has prompted the French president to speak “even about the possibility of lifting sanctions against Russia” if the Minsk accords are fulfilled. It is unlikely that Holland would have said that “if he did not feel that the Kremlin beast was not really close to withdrawal and needed support from the civilized world.”

Putin “really is in a very complicated situation, perhaps the most complex from the moment power was transferred to him by Yeltsin,” Portnikov says. The Russian economy is collapsing, and even his advisors are talking about the lack of sufficient gold reserves to support the ruble.

The Kremlin leader may soon not have the money needed to pay its social security obligations, and Putin and his entourage “remember what happens with Russians when bravura television hysterics are not accompanied by the payment of their accustomed subsidies, pensions and salaries.”

This means, he suggests, that “Russia is again in the customary fog of revolt and destabilization” itself. Putin has to do what he can to avoid that, and one important step in that direction is to eliminate sanctions or at least ensure that there won’t be new and more serious ones imposed.

Putin always faces a serious problem in the Middle East, Portnikov argues, primarily because he wants to show that he can support a totalitarian regime that has loyally supported Moscow. If he doesn’t back Syria’s Asad, he will have shown that he won’t or can’t support even his allies, not a message the Kremlin leader wants to send.

“But the resources of the Kremlin adventurist are really limited, and for sending forces to Syria, Putin needs relief in the Donbas,” and hence the current reduction in violence there. In this situation, what concessions is Putin prepared to make, given his own goals and given the attitudes of the West?

According to Portnikov, it is quite likely that even Putin hasn’t decided yet and that he realizes that what will happen in Paris on October 2 will depend to a large extent on what happens over the next three weeks.

Putin may very well keep violence in the Donbass at a low level: that will help him with his Western interlocutors. But he will beyond any doubt “rock the boat” of Ukraine “because it is important to him that [Ukrainian President] Poroshenko will arrive in Paris without any sense of prospects and be ready for new concessions” of his own.”

Moreover, over this period, the Ukrainian analyst suggests, Putin may also take actions in the Middle East designed to drive up the price of oil, something that will give him more leverage and reduce that of the West on Russian behavior.

With regard to Ukraine, it seems clear that Putin will now “throw all his reserves into the destabilization of the situation” there, making use of everyone from “the most anti-Ukrainian chauvinists to the most patriotic patriots” to embarrass and weaken Ukraine both in reality and even more in the eyes of the West.

Thus, Portnikov says, the next few weeks are critical because “the stakes in October are really high.”

-- Paul Goble

The Interpreter
@Interpreter_Mag
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Interpreter_Mag
Weapons from the Donbass Bleeding into Ukraine as Well as Back into Russia

Staunton, September 11, 2015

The enormous number of weapons in the Donbas as a result of the actions of pro-Moscow forces in that Ukraine region are already casting a shadow on the rest of Ukraine, something Vladimir Putin probably welcomes, as well as on adjoining areas of the Russian Federation, something he certainly does not.


Today, Kyiv’s Segodnya newspaper reports that “Ukraine is filling up with illegal weapons from the zone of military actions” both because individuals bring in weapons for their personal use or because of organized contraband networks.

This influx of weapons not only makes possible the political use of weapons such as the grenade tossed in front of the Verkhovna Rada on August 31 but also allows for the spread of increasingly violent crime and numerous weapons-related accidents across the entire country, the paper continues.

The paper offers numerous examples and then suggests that the authorities must improve the monitoring of weapons in the Donbass, control any that are taken out, and increase penalties for those who illegally bring in or keep weapons.

Dmitry Tymchuk, a military experts and Verkhovna Rada deputy, says that are present “no one can say precisely how many weapons are already on the territory of Ukraine.” But it is clear that the largest source of them comes from contraband networks rather than from the decisions of individuals to take guns or grenades home with them.

Officials have to do more to track how weapons found got into the country, he argues, and he also suggests that the situation could be improved if Kyiv adopted a law legalizing the possession of guns for self-defense but requiring that all such weapons be registered with the police.

Vladimir Fesenko, a Ukrainian political scientist, disagrees. Adopting such a law would make the situation worse, increasing the number of gunds and leading to a rise in violent crime. If more people have more guns, they will certainly use them, he argues. Thus adopting such a law would be “a most enormous mistake.”

He urges tighter control at the borders of the combat zone and also the establishment of a “buy back” program in which the government would pay people who would agree to turn over the weapons in their possession voluntarily.”

Meanwhile, illegal weapons are flowing into the Russian Federation. (For background, see "Returning Donbass Veterans Bring War Home to Russia With Them").

In today’s Yezhednevny zhurnal, commentator Dmitry Oreshkin suggests it poses a serious problem for the Russian authorities.

As a result of this influx of guns, the political analyst says, “the Kremlin is now encountering an obvious problem: people accustomed to living for a year and a half under conditions of complete illegality to solving their problems with the help of guns are leaving Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts” are bringing their weapons and their values with them.

Now that Putin is wrapping up his adventure there, Oreshkin says, these people have no future or any willingness to return to a peaceful life. As a result, there is “an obvioius threat of the growth of banditism and an obvious problem for the FSB: how is it to struggle with these militants who were thrown into the Donbas when they come here?”

Almost certainly, he continues, the FSB and the Russian police will deal with such people “decisively” just as they did after the Afghan war. The FSB will say: “we didn’t send you there, and that means we don’t owe you anything. Go and live in a camp for refugees but don’t steal” or the consequences will be extremely severe.

-- Paul Goble

The Interpreter
@Interpreter_Mag
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Interpreter_Mag
A Russian Court Decision isn’t a Precedent Unless Kremlin Says So --and Often Not Even Then

Staunton, September 11, 2015

Ramzan Kadyrov vitriolic reaction to a decision by a Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk court to declare a book containing verses from the Koran extremist has sparked widespread anger and debate about the reach of Russia’s anti-extremism law, but it has also highlighted the fact that in Russian jurisprudence, there is no system of precedent.

Consequently, as Rustam Dzhalilov points out in a commentary on this controversy, if one court finds something extremist, a dozen others may disagree, and vice versa, if this decision is reversed on appeal, “everything may remain as it was before” such a step might be taken.

But there is an important exception: if a book, pamphlet or article is declared extremist by a court and then that publication is included in the justice ministry’s list of extremist materials, it typically is treated as extremist throughout the Russian Federation even if the decision of the court of first instance is overruled on appeal.

The Kavkazskaya politika journalist spoke with Aslambek Ezhayev, a longtime publisher of Islamic books in Russia, about a practice that makes Russia a crazy quilt of legal situations despite Vladimir Putin’s claim to have restored “a single legal space” across the Russian Federation.

Ezhayev notes that the first book with Islamic texts to be prohibited in Russia was al-Tamimi’s Book of the Single God, which was declared extremist by a Moscow district court in 2004 and became the second book to be included in the Russian justice ministry’s list of extremist materials.

The first “mass prohibition of Muslim books,” he continues, occurred after law enforcement officers raided a medrassah in Orenburg Region. The authorities confiscated all Russian-language books on Islam and a court then declared them to be extremist. Of the 68 books involved, only 18 were found to be “extremist” on appeal, but all 68 are still on the justice ministry list.

Subsequently, Ezhayev points out, the authorities have engaged in similar mass bans on the basis of the name of the author, the title of the book, the publishing house involved and so on with little or no concern about evaluating the content. Unfortunately, he says, divisions among Muslims have helped the authorities with one group denouncing another as extremist.

Almost all of these mass bans have started in obscure local courts and the decisions of these courts are selectively taken up by the justice ministry, with some of the decisions becoming “precedents” for others in this way and others simply irrelevant for behavior in any place but the territory of the original court’s jurisdiction.

The current case about which Kadyrov has complained is for those who keep track of this trend “nothing new.” The only reason it is attracting attention is because Kadyrov is saying something. If anyone else did, neither journalists nor investigators would be paying any attention, Ezhayev says.

There is only one way out of this “absurd” situation, the Islamic publisher says. The authorities must find the will and wisdom to do away with such “black lists” as the one maintained by the justice ministry so that books ultimately not found to be extremist aren’t treated as if they are.

Until that happens, one or more of the hundreds of courts like that in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk will find books extremist on the flimsiest of pretexts not because they have received a telephone call or telegraph from the Kremlin but because declaring materials extremist allows the authorities in the easiest possible to look good in the eyes of those above them, Evzhayev says.

-- Paul Goble

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