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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
March 25, 2016

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.
Is Moscow about to Recreate a Nationalities Ministry?
Staunton, VA, March 25, 2016 -  Duma members said last week that they would like to transform the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs into a ministry for nationality affairs “with corresponding financing, staffing and authority.”  And Igor Barinov, the agency’s head, acknowledged that he was “not against” such a step.

On the one hand, such a move seems unlikely given budgetary stringency at the present time and given that such a decision would be a kind of repudiation of Vladimir Putin who disbanded the ministry of nationality affairs at the start of his first term and has been reluctant to create a genuine replacement.

But on the other, such talk in is being driven by widespread concerns that Moscow has not come up with an effective nationality policy, thus putting the country at risk, and by the inability of the small and underfunded agency to carry out even its limited responsibilities.

From the perspective of the Kremlin, there is an even more fundamental problem in this sector. If a government agency for nationality affairs is not given enough power to override other ministries, it will be ineffective because it will not be able to intervene successfully in the work of other agencies.

But if it is given such powers, such an agency would amass so much power that it could threaten the freedom of action of the powers that be, something it seems unlikely Putin would tolerate even if Russians are saying that the absence of a nationality policy and of an agency to carry it out carries with it threats to the future of the country.

Nonetheless, the Duma discussion and Barinov’s apparent interest in encouraging the creation of a ministry for his sector suggests that the Kremlin may decide that it has little choice to create a ministry to give the impression that it is doing something even if the country’s leaders are unwilling to give it the support such a bureaucracy would need to be effective.
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Moscow Losing Control over Institutions It Set Up to Control Muslims
Staunton, VA, March 25, 2016 - The decision of Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov to “liquidate” his republic’s Muslim spiritual directorate (MSD) calls attention to a much broader and more serious problem: the Russian authorities are rapidly losing control over the very institutions the tsarist and Soviet governments established to control Muslim parishes.

Since the end of Soviet times, Moscow has lost control of many of the roughly 10,000 Muslim parishes to radicals; but until very recently, it could rely on most of the MSDs, even those set up independently of the Russian state in the 1990s, to work with the secular authorities to promote “traditional Islam” and fight extremism.

Now that has changed: Islamist radicals have seized control of some MSDs, thus limiting their utility to control Islamic parishes, leaving the Russian authorities with the choice of ceding control of Muslim religious life entirely to Muslims, replacing the radicals at the risk of radicalizing others, or dispensing with the MSD system and creating something new.

Yevkurov’s action in disbanding the MSD in order to remove a mufti he has been seeking to oust since the end of last year highlights both the difficulties local officials have in dealing with MSDs where radicals have seized control and the lack of a Moscow policy in this area, according to Ruslan Gereyev, director of the Center for Islamic Research in the North Caucasus.

Gereyev’s words and his suggestion that it remains unclear what will happen next in the MSDs either in Ingushetia or elsewhere in the Russian Federation are cited by Vladislav Maltsev in an article on March 25 in Nezavisimaya Gazeta).

Catherine the Great created the predecessors of the MSDs after occupying Crimea to give the Russian state an institution that could supervise and hopefully control all Muslims in the empire. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the MSD system decayed and by the 1930s had been destroyed.

Then during and after World War II, Stalin recreated the MSD system first in Ufa and later in Tashkent, Buinaksk and Baku and ensured that those in these institutions were thoroughly vetted by or even employees of the Soviet security services. Indeed, the heads of the MSDs in most cases were reputed to have the rank of colonel in the KGB.

With the collapse of the USSR, there were only two Soviet-era MSDs left within the Russian Federation, the Central MSD located in Bashkortostan and the North Caucasian MSD in Dagestan. (The MSD in now independent Azerbaijan has remained involved in the supervision of Shiites across the post-Soviet space including Russia.)

These MSDs, however, were soon joined by others organized by Muslims and government officials in non-Russian republics. There are now more than 80 of them; and it is sometimes the case that there are as many as six MSDs in a single republic or region, opening the door to competition, mutual denunciations and a way to power for radicals.

Many Muslims in the post-Soviet states wanted to do away with these institutions entirely given that they have no basis in Islamic tradition or practice and because of their notorious reputation especially in Soviet times. But the bureaucratic Russian tradition and the authorities desire to have someone other than individual Muslim parishes to deal with has kept them alive.

But now that radicals have seized control of some MSDs, Russian thinking about these institutions may be changing, especially given the fact that radical MSDs can hide from the Russian state authorities the actions of individual parishes and can even promote the radicalization of parishes that were not radical earlier.

If the Russian government as a whole or individual non-Russian republics individually or collectively disband MSDs, what might take their place? One possibility would be the restoration of the Soviet-era institution of the Committee on Religious Affairs, a body that was totally controlled by the KGB.

Another might be to allow Muslims in Russia to operate at the parish level as Muslims do in most other countries without any Christianity-like hierarchy over them. But at a time of increasing Muslim radicalization, that seems unlikely – and so actions like those of Yevkurov are increasingly likely without moving to disband all MSDs across the country.

At the very least, a new fight over Muslim organizations and the role of MSDs is now brewing – and it is one that Moscow so far has not offered much guidance that will allow regional governments to defeat radicals. Indeed, Moscow’s silence so far appears likely to make the situation more unstable at least in the short run.

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
A Baker’s Dozen of Neglected Russian Stories – No. 25

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 twenty-fifth 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. Even Putin Admits There are Massive Human Rights Violations in Russia. In a measure of both just how bad things are in Russia and how duplicitous Vladimir Putin is about that and everything else, the Kremlin leader says that there were 3.2 million violations of human rights registered in Russia during 2015 alone. Of course, he did not acknowledge his own role in boosting that number. And his operatives took down the Levada Center site after its polling found that his public support was slipping.

2. Russian Arrested for Wearing Putin Mask, Others to be Jailed for Insulting Russian President. One Muscovite has been arrested four times now for wearing a Putin mask as a form of protest. Other Russians stand to serve six years in prison if they insult the president according to a new measure under consideration in the Duma.

3. Moscow Moves from Closing KGB Archives to Destroying Them. In its effort to control the past in order to control the future, the Kremlin has fired archive directors, persecuted authors for articles and books which offer a view of the Soviet past it doesn’t like, and routinely presented an alternative reality unfamiliar to those who have actually studied Russia’s history. Now, the Kremlin has taken the next step to ensure that only its version of history will survive: it has moved from closing archives about the Soviet security police to actually destroying portions of them.

4. Russian Economy Down But Economic Crimes Up.  Despite the decline in the Russian economy over the last two years, the number of economic crimes in the country has continued to grow.  And the size of bribes appears to be growing as well, especially in Moscow. Bribes in the Russian capital are now 3.5 times those in the provinces.

5. Russians have Increasingly Positive View of Stalin but Wouldn’t Want to Live Under Him. A new poll finds that ever more Russians think Stalin was a positive figure in their history but they also say that, despite that belief, they wouldn’t want to live under the system he created. Another survey finds most Russians say that in 1991, they would have backed the continued existence of the USSR.

6. Russian Far East Suffering from ‘Epidemic of Falling Bridges.’ Russian officials are scrambling to cope with the latest case of the failure of Russian infrastructure: “an epidemic” of collapsing bridges in the Far East. Meanwhile, residents of the Moscow suburb of Lyubertsy have organized a competition to identify the largest and deepest pothole in roads there.

7. Sakha Residents Demonstrate Against Moscow’s Plans to Resettle Russians in Their Republic. More than a thousand residents of Sakha took part in a demonstration against Moscow’s plans to offer free land to Russians who agree to resettle in the Far East, including in the Sakha Republic

8. Chechen Capital Rated ‘Most Secure City’ in Russia. Grozny has been rated “the most secure city” in the Russian Federation, a reflection either of the duplicity of Ramzan Kadyrov and Vladimir Putin’s willingness to go along with it or the result of the Chechen leader’s increasingly repressive rule.

9. Russia Air Routes Now Even More Moscow-Centric than in Soviet Times. One of the sad if comic aspects of Soviet life was that residents of one region who wanted to fly to a nearby one often had to travel via Moscow, thousands of kilometers out of their way. Now, after the collapse of most regional carriers and the closing of nearly a thousand airports, experts say that situation has returned and that the Russian air travel map is now even more Moscow-centric than it was.

10. Two Percent of Pregnant Urals Residents HIV Infected. Doctors say that one in every 50 pregnant women in the Urals is HIV infected. But journalists report that there is no money for HIV/AIDS testing there, so the situation may be even worsen.

11. Russians Say Doping Scandal a Western Conspiracy Against Their Country. As ever more Russian sports stars are found to have violated international doping rules, Russians tell pollsters they view the whole thing as nothing but a Western conspiracy designed to keep Russians from winning. Russian parliamentarians are angry as well: they say that in Soviet times, the sports minister would have been shot for allowing such scandals to occur or at least become public knowledge.

12. Academic Fraud in Russia So Widespread It is Now an Academic Subject. A new field has emerged in Russian scholarship – the study of academic fraud. It appears likely to grow because Russians increasingly view university degrees as goods to be purchased rather than as recognition of study.

13. Russia No Longer Manufactures Pianos. Given its economic difficulties, Russia has had to stop producing many things; but perhaps the hardest to bear for many is that that country with its rich musical history no longer produces pianos. 

And four more stories from Russia’s neighbors:

14. Ukrainian Extreme Right Penetrated by Russian Security Services. Most people assume that Moscow works hardest to penetrate and control groups which are pro-Russian, but in many cases, its security agencies work to penetrate and direct groups that may be ostensibly anti-Russian. That gives Moscow additional leverage and sometimes plausible deniability. Now, there is growing evidence that Russian security agencies have penetrated the Ukrainian extreme right.

15. Fears of Islamic State, Not Mistreatment Driving Russians Out of Central Asia. Most commentators have suggested that ethnic Russians are leaving the five Central Asian countries primarily because of the increasingly nationalist approach of the governments there, but a new study concludes that most Russians departing from the region are now doing so because of fears about the actions of ISIS.

16. In Kharkiv, Bandera Statue May Replace Lenin One. A statue of Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera will go up in place of a statue of Lenin in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv if local activists have their way.

17. Transfer Payments Home by Tajik Gastarbeiters Fall by Another Two-Thirds. Tajikistan’s problems have been compounded by the fact that transfer payments from its gastarbeiters in the Russian Federation, already lower in 2013 and 2014 fell by another two-thirds last year, yet another example of how Russia’s problems are spreading to other former Soviet republics.

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Moscow’s Reaction to Brussels Attack Highlights Growing Gulf between Russia and the West, Yakovenko Says
Staunton, VA, March 25, 2016 - Almost no Russian official or pro-Kremlin commentator limited himself to expressions of sympathy in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Igor Yakovenko says. Instead, nearly all the representatives of the Russian establishment sought not only to blame the victims but to exploit the attacks for Moscow’s political gain.

This pattern, the Moscow commentator says, both raises questions about how such people view the world around them and both underscores and expands the growing gulf between Putin’s Russia, on the one hand, and the countries of the democratic West, on the other.

“Observing the reaction of Russian politicians and media figures to the tragedy in Brussels,” Yakovenko says, he “constantly has asked himself how such people behave in their own families and among their friends. Do they at the funerals of friends or relatives also declare that the person who had died is guilty of his own death?”

But that is exactly how Moscow commentators have responded to the Brussels tragedy, he continues. “Practically none of the Russian representatives of the establishment could limit themselves to simple sympathy, which is the normal human reaction to the death of people and the suffering of those nearby.”

Instead, in Russia’s public space, reactions ranged from “open happiness” at what happened in the Belgian capital to claims of the “we told you so” variety and statements that the Europeans can only defend themselves against terrorism if they adopt measures like Vladimir Putin has and cooperate with Moscow on Moscow’s terms.

Yakovenko says this set of attitudes was prominently displayed on Wednesday on the Politics program of Russia’s first channel hosted by Pyotr Tolstoy and Aleksandr Gordon. “Naturally,” they gave the first word on this subject to the outspoken and outrageous Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.

"It is extremely difficult to find someone who can at one and the same time pose as an angry opposition figure, a loyal patriot, a convinced enemy of the West and the real opposition, and at the same time who is 100 percent loyal to the authorities and regularly collects the votes of the 10 percent of the supporters of a caricature of fascism,” the commentator says.

Zhirinovsky said on the program with regard to Brussels: “Europe is burning and let it burn. One needs to be happy about this. No cooperation … We will declare sanctions against them forever!”

After that outburst, almost anyone else might appear to be a complete liberal. Certainly several of the other participants on the show were less extreme, but a careful examination of their comments shows that they were inclined in the same direction but were constrained from expressing it so dramatically.

Thus, for example, Pyotr Tolstoy, one of the hosts complained that Federica Mogerini, the EU’s foreign minister, had made to reference in her press conference about the Brussels tragedy to the losses Russia has suffered. “And he added that Europe has been wrong about Russia for 25 years, “thinking that [it] has the right to give [Moscow] advice.”

Other participants, including military expert Igor Korotchenko, adopted a similar line, something that showed that “the terrorist acts and the reaction to them had displayed the gulf not only between the values of Europe and the Islamic world but also between those of Europe and those of Russia,” Yakovenko continues.”

And “this gulf between Europe and Russia became ever deeper” with the comments of the participants of this program and of others in the Russia media over the last few days.

In an article in today’s Novaya Gazeta titled “The Apocalypse Was Yesterday,” Aleksandr Mineyev, that Moscow paper’s Brussels correspondent, shows how that gulf is deepening and widening from the perspective of Europe.

The Brussels attacks, he says, have prompted the expert community in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe to begin “a profound analysis” of why these attacks happened and what must be done to prevent them in the future without sacrificing the freedoms Europeans have long been accustomed to. 

But none of these analyses make any mention of Russia, Mineyev points out, or even statements like those of Zhirinovsky. “For Belgian and French experts and politicians, excluding persons like Marine Le Pen, the terrorist acts in Brussels and earlier in Paris are not the subject of geopolitics of the time of the Holy Alliance but a new internal problem of Europe.”

“Belgium gratefully received a delegation of the FBI from New York,” he notes, “but it did not react to Russian calls to cooperate with its special services. Such cooperation on issues like terrorism requires trust,” and “towards Russia after Crimea, ‘Novorossiya,’ and Litvinenko,” that doesn’t exist and will take many years to restore.

“Russia is not considered either a cause or a factor of the resolution of the problem of terrorism in Europe.” For Belgium and the European Union, the main issue is “not the struggle with ISIS and the role of Russia in the victory over this terrorist organization.” Instead, it is maintaining the balance between the struggle against terrorism and human rights.

Russians and Europeans thus do not see the problem in the same way. “Perhaps,” Mineyev says, “the problem is rooted in the mentality” of the two. “Judging from the Russian media,” he concludes, “out compatriot is ready for ‘Crimea is ours’ to suffer losses of a material and reputational kind.” The Europeans in contrast are not.