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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
December 30, 2015

Publication: Windows on Eurasia
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Apocalypse Soon? What Will Happen to Russia if Oil Falls Below Ten US Dollars a Barrel
Staunton, VA, December 30, 2015 -- The dependence of the Kremlin on the price of oil has long been obvious. A year ago, some wags suggested that if oil prices fell to the level they are now, Vladimir Putin would not only pull his forces out of Ukraine but apologize to Kyiv and even begin to learn Ukrainian himself.

Now that oil prices are in the mid-$30 range, some analysts are speculating that they will fall still further, possibly to below $10 a barrel, something that might not have the impact last year’s joke suggests but that will clearly put additional constraints on Moscow and possibly provoke even more radical changes as a result.

One of the most thoughtful discussions of these possibilities is provided by Kirill Lyats, the general director of Moscow’s Metaprotsess” analysis company in an article on RBC entitled “Apocalypse Today: What Will Happen When Oil Falls Below $10."

Lyats begins by asking: “Will [the Russian] economy survive if the price of oil is below $10 a barrel?” And he answers, “of course,” it will. Indeed, oil was at that price as recently as 1998-1999. What matters is “not the absolute price for oil but the structure of spending” not only in the petroleum sector but in the economy as a whole.

Even when oil prices were that low, some companies continued to invest in the development of fields because “sometimes, the correct strategy is not to react to the crisis but to act according to the plan one has set.”  Not all companies are in a position to do that, and in reality in Russia, those among major firms that could are “extremely few.”

When oil prices were high, many of them got used to acting as if they would always be that way, and the government assumed that its best strategy was to monopolize them and expand abroad rather than to develop the branch and the economy at home as a whole. Now it is paying the price for that miscalculation.

If oil prices continue to fall, Lyats says, there are some obvious steps that the Russian government and Russian firms must take. First of all, they must cut costs. The government must cut fees or even eliminate them altogether so that corruption will be reduced; and firms must become more competitive and efficient.

That will involve cutting salaries and wages in the oil and gas sector, something that will have a snowball effect both in other sectors and on government incomes. But once the shocks have been absorbed – and they can be, the Moscow analyst says – the country will be better off for the future.

This all can be achieved, he suggests, by “a broad, decisive and well-organized deflation” and by reducing the role of the state in the economy so that bureaucrats and officials won’t be able to act as parasites on the economic activities of others via licenses, fees, and corrupt activities, he continues.

Indeed, Russia should be ready for a new round of even more serious privatization, something that could be promoted by “decriminalizing economic crimes” and the selling off of many state companies whose managements have been anything but competent, having grown fat and lazy in the times of high oil prices.

Another step Moscow should take is one that the US took 40 years ago: it should prohibit the export of oil, a step that would not only drive prices up, a trend Russian firms with oil interests abroad could exploit, but also have the effect of forcing the petroleum sector in Russia to investing more money in oil processing firms, whose products are in every case more valuable and profitable than oil itself, especially when the latter is so cheap.

Some ideas now being floated won’t work, Lyats says. The defense industry won’t be a driver of growth, he says. “The Soviet Union clearly showed that.” Instead, the growth of defense firms will simply become yet another way for officials and their allies in business to raid the treasury.

“There must be a privatization of [Russia’s] military-industry complex” just as there must be one in the civilian sector. Any further monopolization will only promote “the degradation of thought and production. Not everything in this regard is now visible, but in the medium term, our backwardness will become ever more obvious.”

One sector the government should be promoting, the Moscow analyst continues, is nuclear energy, but even more important, it should be investing in transportation and logistics both for the domestic market and for Russia’s role as an emerging transportation hub between Europe and Asia.

Summing up, Lyats says that “the prospects of the fall of oil to below $10 a barrel are not a threat but the last chance to change things for the better, to stop fattening snobs and bureaucrats and to get involved in real production within the country, to change its approaches to spending and in general to become more tight-fisted, economic and effective.”

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
If Lenin Had Had His Way, The USSR Might Still Exist – But It Would Be Speaking Chinese
Staunton, VA - December 30, 2015 -- Ninety-three years ago today, the First Congress of Soviets created the USSR, a state that died just before its 69th birthday. Many in Moscow still regret its passing and continue to speculate on what might have allowed the world’s first socialist state to survive in the face of both its international opponents and domestic opposition.

The editors of the Regnum news agency note today that in its first 35 years of the existence, the USSR saw “the number of republics grow from four to 15 and the area of the Union greatly expanded. Who knows perhaps everything might have been different if China, the GDR, Cuba and Vietnam” had joined it as well?

By making that reference, the Regnum editors intentionally or not have raised a question that many have preferred to forget: the USSR might have expanded in exactly that way if Lenin had lived because Lenin believed that the borders of the USSR should expand to include all countries that had had a socialist revolution in them.

But in fact, it expanded to the borders that it had at its end because Stalin believed that non-Russians who had not lived under the Russian Empire would not tolerate being part of a Russian-dominated state for long. And consequently, he did not move to include within the USSR countries that had gone socialist in Eastern Europe, Asia or Latin America.

Stalin violated his own view only when he occupied Western Ukraine, Western Belarus, and parts of what is now Moldova and when after a gap of 25 years re-imposed Russian rule in the Baltic countries, and it was these violations that almost certainly contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Had Stalin moved the USSR’s borders further outward, the Soviet Union likely would have exploded even earlier; but if it had survived in the form Lenin wanted, it would not be a Russian-dominated system but rather one in which the majority of its population would be speaking Chinese, certainly something that would give even the most pro-Soviet Russians pause.

The fight between Lenin and Stalin took place largely out of public view. In his draft theses on the national colonial question for the second congress of the Komintern in 1920, Lenin outlined his view that as the revolution spread, so too should the borders of the Soviet state, an idea that the Red Army’s invasion of Poland may have made appear plausible.

Stalin registered his objections in two code cables, one of which was published in Soviet times only once and by someone who did not die in his sleep, as a result as a footnote in the third edition of Lenin’s collected works and one of which remained unpublished until after the demise of the USSR.

In both, Stalin made clear that national identities would remain powerful even after a socialist revolution and that trying to impose Moscow’s control on those who had never experienced Russian rule before would be a mistake. He said that the Poles would never accept Soviet RUSSIAN rule and that the same would be true elsewhere.

In the event, Lenin was incapacitated and died not long after the USSR was formed, and Stalin was able to put his ideas into practice, ideas that gave birth to a world socialist system in which there were many states not one with the kind of diversity that he had no intention of allowing within the Soviet Union.

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Moscow Decision Puts Cossacks on Track Toward Becoming a Nation
Staunton, VA, December 30, 2015 -- Cossack activists have long sought official designation as a separate nationality rather than a stratum or subgroup of the Great-Russian nation, and they have been opposed in this by Russian officials who fear triggering the exit of more subnational groups from the Russians and spark demands for Cossack republics in various parts of the country.

But now the Russian government itself has taken a step which will only encourage Cossacks to continue to make demands for designation as a separate nation and may even presage a decision by Moscow to grant them that status in the hopes that such a move would help the Russian authorities to keep the situation from getting out of hand.

According to a report today, the Russian government five days ago issued an order transferring supervision of the program for the development of Russia’s Cossacks to the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs.

Specifically, the agency will now oversee programs that had been run by the former ministry for regional development, including the monitoring of the activities of Cossack patrols, the fulfillment of government programs for the government’s program for the support of the Cossack hosts, and the training of government specialists who deal with Cossacks.

Most people are unaware of just how large, spread out and diverse Russia’s Cossack communities are. There are 13 different voiskas or “hosts,” some of which are Orthodox, some Buddhist and some even Muslim. They are found from the borders of Ukraine to the Pacific Ocean. And they number in the millions.

If Moscow does recognize them as a separate nation, that step would reduce the number of ethnic Russians counted in the census by millions, something the Russian authorities are very much against; and it would spark demands not only for a potential Cossack Republic or Cossackia in the Donbass and Kuban but for Cossack entities elsewhere.

Consequently, it is highly unlikely that the authorities will move to grant the Cossacks their wish; but it is certainly the case that this latest decision, likely the result of bureaucratic and budgetary considerations, will have a political impact, mobilizing more Cossacks than ever before and thus creating more problems for Moscow than it may now anticipate.
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Ten Most ‘Enchanting’ Proposals of Russian Politicians in 2015
Staunton, VA - December 30, 3015  -  Russian officials and politicians have outdone themselves this past year with the often strange ideas they have offered, sometimes without any apparent thought in advance. As 2015 goes into the books, Slon journalist Aleksandr Baklanov offers his personal selection of the ten most “enchanting” of these proposals.

His list is as follows:

1. In a Crisis, Russians Urged to Eat Less.  Ilya Gaffner, a United Russia Duma deputy, suggested last January that Russians should respond to the crisis by eating less.  By August, if he was paying attention, he would have discovered that 60 percent of Russians are economizing on food.

2. Legalize Gay Marriage Because ‘Love Works Miracles.’  TV personality Dmitry Kiselyev picked up on Vladimir Putin’s suggestion that Russians shouldn’t get worked up about gay marriage and proposed legalizing homosexual unions. After all, he declared, “love works miracles and who can be against that?”  But the majority of the State Duma were.

3. Prohibit Those who Owe Fines from Getting Married.  The state agency that handles the registration of official acts like marriage suggested that it should not register anyone applying to get married if he or she has not paid all government fines that have been levelled against them. That restriction apparently has not been put in place but those who owe now can’t leave the country.

4. No One Should Earn More than Putin.  Oleg Nilov, a Just Russia Duma deputy, proposed that no Russian businessman be allowed to earn more than Vladimir Putin’s official and very nominal salary.  Not surprisingly, neither business nor the government supported that.

5. Legalize Polygamy.  Chechen officials say that polygamy should be legalized in Russia becxauase “if a man can support another wife, then why not?” Muslim officials in Moscow suggested this would simply legalize existing relations and protect women. And Duma deputy Elena Mizulina said that it was “backward and stupid” to punish people for polygamy.

6. Moscow Urged to Burn Clothing Coming from Abroad.  The head of Russia’s textile industry urged Vladimir Putin to extend his program of destroying contraband food to clothing as well and thus boost the earnings of textile workers.  So far, there has been no public reaction from the Kremlin.

7. Duma Deputies Want Russians to Apply for Permission to Go Abroad.  Any Russian who wants to travel abroad should have to apply for an exit visa. The idea has support in the government even though officials say that they will not use such an arrangement to limit the freedom of Russians to travel.

8. No Vodka on Fridays.  A Moscow deputy, Aleksey Mishin, has called for officials in Moscow to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages on Friday as a way of promoting sobriety.  But neither the Moscow city government nor the Russian one have approved the idea.

9. Russian Parents Don’t Want Putin to Delay School Opening. Vladimir Putin suggested moving the first day of school from September 1 to September 15, but Russian parents were overwhelmingly opposed and the government has decided to leave the date where it has been at least for the time being and for primary and secondary schools.

10. Ban Language to Fight Terrorism. Aleksandr Ageyev, a Duma deputy, has proposed banning the Telegram messenger system because terrorists can use it to recruit people or direct their activities. The founder of Telegram responded that perhaps Russian should ban language because “there are indications that with the help of words, the terrorists communicate with one another.” Perhaps as a result, Moscow has left Telegram in peace, again for the time being.

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Ankara’s Backing of Crimean Tatars Seen Leading to Harder Russian Line Against Turkey

Staunton, VA, December 30, 2015 --  Moscow officials are furious that Turkey is showing support for the Crimean Tatars -- especially given that most Western governments have shifted their focus to ensuring a continuation of the ceasefire in the Donbas and are not raising the issue of Russia’s illegal annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula as often as they did earlier.

Andrey Klimov, deputy chairman of the Federation Council, says that in his view, “Ankara’s support for extremist groups of Crimean Tatars in Ukraine is an attempt to annoy Moscow in retaliation for the trade restrictions” Russia imposed on Turkey after the shooting down of a Russian plane on the Turkish-Syrian border.

Ankara has been involved with the Crimean Tatars even when the peninsula was still part of Ukraine, he says. But now Turkey has stepped up its activities. “Apparently,” Klimov says, “President Recep Tayyip Erdogan fancies himself a successor to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire.”

“But,” he continues, “Russia has the strength and means to curb these neo-Ottoman ambitions.” Moreover, he says, Moscow has friends in Turkish political circles it believes it can count on. “I know many politicians in Erdogan’s inner circle who don’t like his anti-Rsusian provocations.”

If these continue, Klimov says, “Turkey’s ruling class will split,” and “the boomerang Erdogan has shown will certainly come back” – an implicit warning that Moscow may seek to destabilize Ankara and an indication of how sensitive the Russian leadership remains about Crimea and the Crimean Tatar activists who keep reminding the world about what has happened.

Vladimir Zharikhin, the deputy director of Moscow’s Institute for CIS Countries, says that no one should make much of Crimean Tatar claims that they are getting military uniforms from Ankara or other aid. Most of the items “are easily available from any retailer selling fishing gear,” he suggests.

The Moscow analyst takes the same hard line on Turkish-Crimean Tatar links. “In fact,” he says, “Islyamov and Chubarov are agents on the payroll of the Turkish intelligence service. But both are generals without an army. The Tatars who live in Ukrainian territory next to Crimea need no extremists,” but “these two will keep trying to foment unrest with Ankara’s support.”