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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
April 28, 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.
Are Some of Russia’s Federal Subjects on the Road to Self-Liquidation?
Staunton, VA, April 28, 2016 - Valentina Matvienko has pulled back her suggestions about regional amalgamation in the face of widespread opposition, but the possibility that Moscow will restart Vladimir Putin’s effort to combine federal subjects to reduce their number continues to agitate many.

One of the most intriguing is offered by philologist and blogger Nikolay Podosokorsky who suggests that the Federation Council chairman’s words were a trial balloon and that Moscow likely will move to join together some of the smallest and weakest federal subjects in the near future.

He argues that the Russian authorities “even before any crisis are seized by ‘a mania of combining’ (according to the precise expression of philosopher Aleksandr Rubtsov): the optimization of hospitals, schools, universities, libraries, museums, theaters and other institutions.”

“At a higher (all-Russian level),” Podosorkorsky suggests, “this mania is expressed in the fusion of institutions at the federal level,” and “at the international level, in territorial expansion (South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Crimea and the Donbass).” Indeed, “one could say that geopolitics in the heads of our leaders overwhelms everything else.”

Russian leaders, he says, “are dissatisfied with any variety because where there is variety, there is always the danger of competition, differences of opinion, the display of initiative from below and the growth of centrifugal forces, and above all [the Russian] powers fear this more than fire and therefore strive to unify and amalgamate everything.”

“Undoubtedly,” the commentator continues, “now the idea of liquidating a number of subjects of the federation by joining them to others has economic causes.” But combining the federal subjects will save less money than most imagine and may even end up costing the country even more.

However, the impulse to unite is coming not just from above but is also being driven by demography: a large share of the regions of Russia are losing population. Indeed, 40 regions, according to Rosstat figures from earlier this year have lost significant shares of their population since Vladimir Putin first became president.

Among the hardest hit have been Tula, Novgorod, Arkhangelsk, Vladimir “and other regions of the Central and Northern portions of Russia plus several regions in the Urals, Siberia, and the Far East, Podosorkovsky says. All of these would be candidates for amalgamation with their neighbors.

According to the blogger, among those regions which have lost population to the point that they are likely to fall below 500,000 residents and which do not have strategic importance for other reasons are the very most likely candidates for amalgamation because they have no other importance for the center except economics and the draft.

Podosorkovsky says that in his view, Moscow will continue the liquidation of autonomous districts with the exception of petroleum-rich Nenets and Yamalo-Nenets AOs and also will “unify a number of regions like Novgorod. For the Kremlin,” he says, “this will mean a reduction in expenses; for residents, a further degradation of their territory.”

What makes his argument so intriguing is that it points to the amalgamation of predominantly ethnic Russian regions rather than the combination of non-Russian and Russian ones. If he is right, then that would mean that the relative share of non-Russian republics in the federal system would increase as the number of Russian regions fell.

That seems almost unthinkable given Putin’s values; but stranger things that this have happened – and it is worth noting that this idea is out there.
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Can Russia, However Much Sub-Divided, Ever Escape Its Past? Krasheninnikov Asks
Staunton, VT, April 28, 2016 - When the Soviet Union disintegrated, those who came to power in most of the successor states were members of the second or third-tier of the Soviet elite; and they quickly reproduced at the level of the new states systems which reflected their origins and experiences.

That raises a serious problem for the future, one that few people have wanted to face: If the Russian Federation disintegrates, can any of the “successor” states avoid the same fate, with the new group of leaders coming almost exclusively from the same elite that has driven that country into its current disaster?

One who has is Fyodor Krasheninnikov, a Urals writer and activist who has just issued the second edition of his 2008 book, “After Russia.” In a review of it on the Rufabula portal, Vadim Shtepa, a Karelian regionalist now living in exile in Estonia, provides insights into the Urals writer’s ideas.

Krasheninnikov’s vision of the future, one that reflects his experience of having lived through the disintegration of the USSR, is dark. He casts it in the form of a dystopian novel in order to avoid criminal charges since, unlike Shtepa, he continues to live in and thus be subject to Russian laws.

His book is based on the premise that the Russian Federation breaks apart into several regional states. “But then,” Shtepa summarizes, “in one of the central-Russian republics power is seized by a former policeman who dreams of ‘the greatness of power,’ and to his surprise easily takes Moscow and begins from there a campaign for ‘the rebirth of Russia.’”

But while this imperial project does not succeed across the entire space now occupied by the Russian Federation, the attitudes of the new rulers continue to have a large and typically negative impact on almost all of the new states, in much the same way that the attitudes of the rulers of most of the new post-Soviet states have.

It could hardly be otherwise, Krasheninnikov argues in his book. These people were part and parcel of the previous regime; and they simply acted in the same way that they had on a larger stage on their new and smaller ones. His view is so bleak, Shtepa says, that it could almost be Kremlin propaganda which suggests that however bad things are, they could get worse.

Shtepa in his writings has also discussed what a post-Soviet future might be like. And like Krasheninnikov, he recognizes its dark side, having talked about what would happen if Russia simply divided “like an amoeba” with each of the new parts reproducing all of the old in miniature.

And also like the Urals writer, Shtepa has acknowledged that if this happens in the next round of imperial devolution, the outcome may be even worse because “the Kremlin ‘vertical’ will not disappear but only multiply in dozens” of mini-states “with no less dictatorial approaches.”

But in contrast to Krasheninnikov, Shtepa holds out the possibility of a more optimistic outcome at least for portions of the post-Russian space. He says that if the successors can agree on a treaty-based federation or confederation, the controls built into those systems may prevent the values of the past from being reproduced.

But he gives the last word to Krasheninnikov who says that he wrote his novel not to describe what he wants to see happen but as a warning about what could if nothing is done. He suggests he does not see the future as unbearable because it may be radically different than the present but because it may be exactly the same.

That is what the disintegration of the USSR taught him, the writer says. The future can be exactly like the past. Had he written that “in place of Russia suddenly would appear a multitude of flourishing democratic states … that would have been a utopia. “Unfortunately,” he adds, he “does not see any preconditions” for that.

Nevertheless, Krasheninnikov concludes, he does not consider his book “a sentence or even more a prophecy. This is precisely an anti-utopia, more about today and about how that threatens our future.” Russians need to think hard about how to avoid that and thus avoiding falling in the trap of a vicious and ever-repeating circle.

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
4,500 ISIS Militants Now in Central Asia, Russia’s GRU Says
Staunton, VA, April 28, 2016 - General Sergey Afanasyev, deputy chief of the GRU, the Russian military’s intelligence service, says that approximately 4,500 people in Central Asia have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State and that they constitute a problem for the countries of the region and ultimately for Russia as well.

In reporting his remarks, Moskovsky Komsomolets asked Azhdzar Kurtov, the editor of the Problems of National Strategy journal issued by the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI) for his reaction.

Kurtov expressed a certain skepticism about the number Afanasyev reported. “It is in general strange,” the RISI editor said, “to think about where this number came from because now GRU officers can collect information only in Syria and Iraq but not in Central Asia.” Moreover, it is necessary to make distinctions between loyalists and activists.

That there are ISIS loyalists and activists in Central Asia is beyond question, he continued. “More than that, according to certain parameters, the situation in Central Asia is very similar to the one which preceded the appearance of ISIS in the Middle East” – poverty, brittle authoritarianism, and explosive demographic trends.

At the same time, Kurtov argued, there is no chance at present that ISIS could expand into Central Asia as it has in Syria. That would require the further destabilization of the states involved and the influx of more radicals from Afghanistan, many of whom are Islamists but not followers of ISIS.

In his view, even though the borders between Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, on the one hand, and Afghanistan, on the other, are relatively poorly defended, the armies of at least the last two of these states are strong enough to counter any visible threat, especially given that it is likely to remain divided and fragmentary.

Kurtov concludes by noting that for the time being, the ISIS radicals and the Taliban are fighting one another even more than they are working to extend Islamic influence. “Certain Russian diplomats have even proposed cooperating with the Taliban in the struggle with the Islamic State because it is the lesser of two evils.”