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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
April 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.
Russians’ Anti-Americanism Arose Before Putin and Will Outlast Him, Volkov Says
Staunton, VA, April 25, 2016 - The anti-Western and anti-American attitudes found by Russian pollsters peaked in early 2015 and since then have somewhat subsided, but they are likely to continue for some time even when sanctions are lifted because their roots lie not so much in Putin’s propaganda as in Russian experiences in the 1990s, according to Denis Volkov.

In an article December 25 in Vedomosti, the Levada Center sociologist reports that polls found 81 percent of Russians had a negative attitude toward the US and 71 percent toward the EU in early 2015 while now these figures are 64 and 60 percent respectively.

Such fluctuations in Russian attitudes toward the West have been a feature of Russian life since the end of Soviet times, he points out, rising at times of high tension as over Yugoslavia in 1999, Iraq in 2003, Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine since 2014 and then “rapidly returning to [more] stable positive value” after the crises pass.

But since the 1990s, he says, that is long before Vladimir Putin came to power, Russians shifted from their enormously positive view of the US and the EU at the end of Soviet times to a consistent distrust and dislike of the West; and that underlying attitude is likely to preclude any new era of good feelings at the popular level for many years whatever the Kremlin does.

Many now forget that at the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s, “Russian society was delighted by the West, chiefly by the US. America seemed to Russians to be a model society … and the chief ally in the world arena. Rapprochement with the West [then] seemed more important than cooperation with the former Soviet republics.”

Consequently, Volkov continues, “the foreign policy of Yeltsin and Kozyrev was not imposed from abroad as it is common for people to say now but rather reflected the existence of a broad societal demand for rapprochement with the West and the inclusion of Russian in the club of leading world powers.”

But Russia’s economic crisis at that time and the West’s obvious disinterest in bringing Russia into that club meant that such attitudes lasted only for a few years; and by 1993, differences over major foreign policy questions between Moscow and Western capitals heightened the sense that the West was still hostile to Russia and did not wish it well.

Polls at the time showed that Russians were very negative about the American bombing campaign in Iraq and especially NATO’s military actions in Yugoslavia, and those events deepened Russian hostility. In 1996, only six percent of Russians were prepared to call the US an enemy, but by 2008, 35 percent were; and now, this figure is 46 percent.

Already in May 1998 and not in Putin’s time, “about 75 percent supposed that Russia was seeking to weaken Russia and transform it into a raw materials supplier. Today such views are supported by 80 percent” of Russians. The big change came in 1999 with Yugoslavia, well before Putin came to office.

But after he did so, Volkov argues, anti-Western views among Russians were “intentionally used by the Russian authorities for the interpretation of events taking place in the world and for justifying Russian foreign policy ambitions as a forced response to the aggressive actions of the US and its NATO allies.”

That pattern was very clear in the case of the Maidan in Ukraine. Originally, only about 20 percent of Russians were inclined to blame that action on the West, but by 2014, “such an explanation was accepted by the Russian population as the main one,” the result of government information programs.

If one considers the likely course of development of such attitudes in the future, the Levada Center sociologist says, it is probable that after the lifting of sanctions, “generally positive attitudes quickly will be restored but suspicions about the hidden hostility of the West toward Russia and also distrust of the US and the EU will remain for a long time.”

That will certainly be the view of the members of the ruling elite, Volkov says, as most of them came out of the Soviet-era security services and have cold war views about the West. Those in Russia who think differently are “in a subordinate position” in the Russian political system and have been “marginalized and stigmatized.”

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Eventually a Hybrid President and a Hybrid Country Run Into Un-Hybrid Realities, Naumova Says

Staunton, VA, April 25, 2016 - The term “hybrid” -- now applied in Orwellian fashion by Russian propagandists to everything they want people to accept as just the opposite -- has taken on ever more absurd forms. No one has punctured the ridiculousness and dangerousness of this Kremlin code word better than Moscow commentator Svetlana Naumova.

At, she says she is not waiting until the Duma passes a law making criticism of the president a crime but has decided “to subject herself to self-censorship” by not mention the name of the Kremlin leader and by hurrying to declare that “any coincidence with real people and events is coincidental."

“And so,” she begins, “once upon a time on the earth there appeared a hybrid president of a hybrid country. Everything in this country as we know from the first tales was hybrid, that is, as it was supposed to be but was not in fact: hybrid war, hybrid citizens, hybrid laws, hybrid food, and even hybrid truth.”

“And the president in this hybrid country also was hybrid because he was chosen each time in hybrid elections in which the hybrid people took part but only in the role of quite un-hybrid sheep. A very different group, hybrid oligarchs who were supposed to be entrepreneurs and bankers but in fact were ordinary thieves, in fact named the president.”

“It is terrible to imagine,” Naumova continues, “but this president had a life which was also hybrid. First a hybrid childhood with a hybrid family … then hybrid studies in a un-hybrid university … and further the hybrid defense of a hybrid dissertation” which was assembled from “un-hybrid American texts.”

After getting his education, the hybrid president “as it were occupied an important administrative post but in fact simply was attached to the briefcase of one un-hybrid boss.” But because of this attachment, even then this “hybrid” was able to steal millions of un-hybrid dollars.

“But because this case took place in a hybrid country with a hybrid legal system, then instead of landing in an un-hybrid jail, he became a hybrid president,” Naumova says. “Naturally all this hybrid president had was hybrid: hybrid pay (as if small but in fact large enough for luxury villas and expensive watches), hybrid ratings (ostensibly at record levels but in fact as thought up by compromised hybrid PR specialists).”

Moreover, Naumova continues, he has “a hybrid opposition (which appears to speak against the hybrid regime but in fact tries to fit in to the un-hybrid feeding trough of the hybrid masters of life) and hybrid allies (as it were partners of the hybrid president but when his back his turned, they may use against him an un-hybrid knife).”

“But despite all his un-hybrid wealth gained by unbearable hybrid labor and hybrid wars by which the hybrid president tried to distract attention of the hybrid slaves from his own un-hybrid crimes … the normal un-hybrid world did not want in any way to recognize the hybrid greatness of the hybrid dictator.”

Moreover, “the un-hybrid leaders of the un-hybrid world powers shy away from the hybrid present as from the plague. But the un-hybrid people laugh over the hybrid country, eternally rising from its knees, with its wild hybrid values and ties.” That infuriates the hybrid president and he begins to fear “not only his un-hybrid enemies but his own hybrid friends.”

And consequently on the horizon appears an anything but hybrid military tribunal; and “it is becoming clear to all that even an army of hybrid guards will not be in a position to save from un-hybrid justice the un-hybrid criminal generated by a hybrid country.” And consequently, just like any other tale, this one will come to an end.

That is especially true in this case “because hybrid truth can be truth only for hybrid people, but for everyone else it remains a lie and a deception. Hybrid food can feed only hybrid people and only on paper, but hybrid war can and does kill not only hybrid but real people.” And ultimately that means that the hybrid leader and even his hybrid country will collapse – when they come into final contact with un-hybrid reality.

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Putin Now Experiencing ‘Impotence of Omnipotence,’ Shevtsova Says
Staunton, VA, April 25, 2016 - Many of the apparent contradictions in Russia today, Lilia Shevtsova says, can be explained by the fact that Vladimir Putin and his regime have entered what Argentinian political scientist Guilliermo O’Donnell once called “the impotence of omnipotence,” the gradual loss of power by leaders who remain in office for a long time.

In a wide-ranging interview with News.Online.UA, the Russian analyst says that “the unlimited power” that the Kremlin leader had enjoyed has now degenerated in the ways O’Donnell found was characteristic of South American dictators who were in office for extended periods.

In the case of ever more issues, Shevtsova continues, Putin can’t solve problems on his own but is forced to meet with others (as in the case of wage arrears) or recognize that he cannot do anything – such as fighting corruption – even though it threatens his power vertical. To do so, he would have to open up of the system that would threaten it and him in other ways.

Moreover, despite Crimea, Putin does not have the mass support he did. While his approval ratings remain high although lower than they were, ever more Russians say that they are not happy with what is going on in their country. “And Putin himself does not believe he has mass support – otherwise why would he create his own National Guard?”

But more is at work, the Russian commentator says, that just the psychology of the leader. There is “the logic of one-man rule at the stage of exhaustion, which pushes the leader to this or that set of actions. At a certain stage,” she continues, “authoritarian leaders become hostages of their own regimes.”

Some of Shevtsova’s most interesting comments concern Ukraine. She argues that “any Russian leader, functioning in a system of autocracy could not be indifferent to the flight of Ukraine” away from Moscow, given that from his point of view this represents “an amputation of an important element of Russian statehood.”

But more than that, the Ukrainian Maidan demonstrated and confirmed something else: Russia in contrast to Ukraine is “still not a post-empire but one incompletely dissolved and frozen at that stage.”

“Of course,” Shevtsova argues, “there was the hope that the West would ‘swallow’ the annexation of Crimea and Russian aggression in the Donbass,” adding that in her view, “had Putin known what would happen” in terms of Ukrainian resistance and Western opposition, he would not have gone beyond Crimea.

But he did, and that too has contributed to the process by which “Putin’s power has been transformed into powerlessness.”

In this new situation, which she uses Zygmund Bauman’s term “interregnum” to describe, the Russian elite is trying to find a new balance between restraining the West and cooperating with it. The Russian political class does not want to give up its access to the West, but it also does not wan to give up the means it has to produce is wealth at home.

The West too is seeking a new balance, Shevtsova suggests, because it fears what would happen if it isolated a nuclear power and consequently, there will be contacts between them. But – and this is critically important – “this does not mean a return to the old model of business as usual.”

Ukraine is a central factor in this search on both sides, and the results of what Shevtsova calls its “dramatic experiment” – to “escape the post-Soviet model without having the chance for rapid membership in the EU and NATO” – is likely to determine far more than just its position in the world. Ukraine’s “fate may be one of the most serious challenges for the 21st century.”

Ukraine has a chance to make the transition to a modern democracy if Western leverage in Ukraine remains strong, while Russia has much less of a chance in this regard because those in charge in Russia do not face similar Western influence and know that moving in a Western direction will compromise their sources of wealth and power.

“The Russian elite has become European at the level of consumption, but in order to preserve their incomes and consequently their power,” Shevtsova says, “they must isolate ordinary Russians from Europe” and from European values.  Thus, “the Kremlin will struggle with Western values inside Russia even as it tries to achieve compromises with European business and elites.”

Whether Putin and the Russian elite around him can do so in their now weakened position remains to be seen.