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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
June 8, 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.
Fewer than Half of Ukrainians Blame Moscow Alone for War in the Donbass, New Survey Finds
Staunton, VA, June 8, 2016 - Forty-eight percent of Ukrainians blame Moscow for the war in the Donbass, while 33 percent blame both Moscow and Kyiv and nine percent blame only Kyiv, according to polls conducted by Ukraine’s Razumkov Center for a report on the evolution of Ukrainian identity.

That report, now available online shows that Ukrainians overwhelmingly support a Western orientation for their country and membership in Western institutions like NATO, something that makes the findings about their attitudes toward the war in the eastern section of the country somewhat surprising.

At, commentator Yury Vasilchenko says “it is difficult to imagine Croatians would have blamed their government for the fact that the puppet republic of Serbska Kraina was set up on their territory.” Why then, he asks, are so many Ukrainians doing exactly that?.

Some blame Ukraine’s information policy ministry and its failure to conduct effective propaganda. Undoubtedly, there is some truth in this given its fitful performance, but to lay all the blame on that government agency would be “incorrect.” Instead, he says, this set of attitudes reflects the promotion of several myths by politicians, experts and posters on Facebook.

 Among these myths are the following, Vasilchenko suggests:

· First, “the military conflict is useful for the authorities of Ukraine and the Russian Federation” because they use it to justify failures in other spheres and to make profits. 

· Second, he writes, there is the myth that “Ukraine could have avoided the war by agreeing with the leaders of the separatists already in the spring of 2014.” This myth, he says, “works particularly well among residents of the Donbass and” IDPs.

· Third, there is the myth that “simple people are not guilty when politicians unleash a war. This is a very dangerous myth because it justifies the Russian occupiers and their puppets in the Donbass.”

The last myth explains why Ukrainians are overwhelmingly negative to the Kremlin regime but are either neutral or positive toward Russians as such, Vasilchenko writes. And that is why many Ukrainians are quite ready to forgive and forget those who have acted as they have in the Donbass or even in the extreme case to consider them “innocent.”

In other words, the commentator continues, “there exist [in Ukraine] a significant number of citizens who do not yet understand that the detonator of the conflict were those residents of Donetsk and Lugansk Regions who called on Putin for support.” These were “simple pensioners, miners or ordinary lumpen,” he writes.

If there had not been their anti-Maidan, there wouldn’t have been a war,” and consequently today, Vasilchenko says, “almost 40 percent of [Ukraine’s] compatriots are ready to make peace with these people.” That points to real dangers ahead: explosions like those in the Donbass “could be repeated somewhere else.”

There are of course “other myths,” he argues, including the notion that “reforms lead only to impoverishment of the population” or that the authorities are using the war to justify their failure to reform. But it is critically important to understand why these myths are now so widespread.

“The Ukrainian authorities,” Vasilchenko concludes, “have themselves created fertile ground for the development of [such] harmful myths.” Kyiv doesn’t yet have a clear and well-defined strategy about the future of the occupied territories.” And until it adopts one, he says, “the number of victims of the myths about the war will alas only grow.”

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Ordinary Russians Mistakenly Placing Their Hopes in Donald Trump, Bykov Says
Staunton, VA, June 8, 2016 - That Vladimir Putin should express his admiration and support for presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is no surprise. Not only does Trump reflect some of the same populist and nationalist themes the Kremlin leader does, but Putin welcomes Trump’s unilateralism and isolationism as something that might benefit Russia.

But the more interesting development, Dmitry Bykov says, is that ordinary Russians too are placing their hopes in the American politician, convinced that he will personally aid them with money to address their immediate personal problems such as buying a wheelchair.

Of course, the Moscow commentator points out, any Russian who was foolish enough to ask Trump for money would quickly attract the attention of the Russian security services as “a foreign agent,” something those who see Trump as “the last hope” for Russians who cannot could on their own government.

But the more interesting and mysterious question, Bykov suggests, is why Russians are inclined to believe that Trump will help them. Some may see him as one of “ours,” a crude populist, and thus see him as somehow like Russians, who in many cases are inclined to be generous to a fault.

Or this Russian support for Trump may reflect a more cynical desire by ordinary Russians for revenge on the US and especially on those Republicans whom they blame for inflicting so many hardships on Russia. For such people, “what is bad for America is good for [Russians].”

Moreover, “with such presidents as Trump, no enemies need [to be created]: they do everything in that regard on their own,” Bykov suggests. That is one of the reasons why Putin supports him, feeling “intuitively that Putin for Russia is approximately the same thing as Trump for America.””

The Moscow writer says that he “even sometimes thinks that perhaps Trump is a deep-cover [Russian] ‘mole,’ our agent, introduced like Shtirlits about 30 years ago.” In many ways, he writes, Trump acts in a disciplined but cynical way “in the best traditions of the chief special service.”
Of course, Bykov says, such Russian expectations are “for nought.” If Trump becomes president, he “will act in the interests of his own ratings,” just as he has done up to now. And it will be easier to keep them high if he shakes his fist at Moscow rather than “makes friends with Russia.”

More to the point, he concludes, “to place one’s hopes in liars, demagogues and populists” is a reflection of despair as Russian history has repeatedly shown. Russians need to “help themselves” rather than think they can count on some support coming from the United States.
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russians are Drinking Ever More Moonshine at Great Risk to Their Health, Experts Say
Staunton, VA, June 8, 2016 - Moscow has trumpeted a decline in sales of alcohol as an indication that its policies are making Russians healthier and improving life expectancies, but in fact, the only sales that have dropped are for increasingly expensive officially-registered alcoholic beverages. Sales of moonshine and even more dangerous surrogates have increased.

That is the disturbing message from the expert community, according to an article by Anatoly Komrakov in Nezavisimaya Gazeta June 8, who says Russian experts believe that if the authorities maintain their current approach, 40 percent of all alcohol consumption will be from unregulated sources in 2019.

The Russian statistical agency has announced with obvious pride that alcohol sales in Russia, despite an economic situation that might have been expected to drive them up, have fallen for the second year in a row, the result, Rosstat says, of higher taxes and rising prices and one that has improved public health.

But in fact, alcohol purchases and consumption have not fallen but risen, the result of decisions by Russians to produce their own moonshine, purchase samogon (home brew) from others, or use surrogates like perfumes and mouthwashes that contain alcohol to satisfy their needs for escape from reality.

One measure of this that the authorities do keep track of involves sales of samogon apparatuses. Now widely advertised online, these increased by 300 to 400 percent during 2014 alone, as Russians chose to produce alcoholic beverages for themselves or to make money by producing and selling them to others.

Another measure that indicates overall alcohol consumption among Russians is rising rather than falling is that “in the regions of Russia, mortality from home-brew alcohol is growing.” In 2015, the rate of such deaths rose by 32 percent in 2015 from the year before; and in Krasnodar Territory by 27 percent year to year.

Vadim Drobiz, the director of the Moscow Center for Research on Federal and Regional Alcohol Markets, says that to date, moonshine is mostly consumed by “marginal and creative people” but that if the government continues its current policies, such forms of alcohol will constitute “no less than 40 percent” of the country’s alcohol sales three years from now.

Production of samogon for personal use is legal in Russia now, although the sale of such products is now. At present, he estimates, about 200 million liters of moonshine are now being produced each year, much of it by people who can’t afford to purchase registered alcohol at current prices.

The Russian authorities have closed many places where officially- registered alcohol can be sold, but for each of the ones closed, three “illegal” ones emerge, most often in rural areas. A few years ago, alcohol could be sold in about 300,000 places; now, it can be sold only in about 210,000. Illegal sellers are more than making up the difference, Drobiz says.

He predicts that Russians will produce “up to 800 million liters” of moonshine annually by 2019, four times as much as now; and a figure that will overwhelm officially registered alcohol in many places. And in addition, Russians are likely to be consuming more surrogates as well.

The immediate health consequences and the longer term impact of that trend on demography are enormous and undercut Moscow’s efforts to improve public health and extend life expectancy.
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Moscow’s Five Fears about Kazakhstan
Staunton, VA, June 8, 2016 - Soviet authors invariably spoke of “Central Asia and Kazakhstan” rather than lumping the latter into the former category, a reflection of the special role that republic played in Russian eyes sometimes as a bridge to and often a barrier against the spread of developments from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Since 1991, ever more Moscow commentators have spoken of Central Asia as a whole and included Kazakhstan within it even though most have continued to view it as different, a place with a still-sizeable ethnic Russian minority and a bulwark of stability against threats from the four other Muslim countries in the region.

And at the very least, present-day Russian writers have assumed as did their Soviet predecessors that Kazakhstan will align itself with Moscow rather than combine with the other Central Asian states to challenge Russia’s influence across that critical region, a testimony to the continuing impact of the logic behind Stalin’s borders in Central Asia.

The events of the last few days in Kazakhstan, both in the capital and in the northwest region, have shaken Russian confidence about their assumptions regarding that country even though these events have not yet played out, been fully explained, or the forces behind them identified.

As in any such fast-moving and murky situation, speculation is rife with some writers blaming the Kazakhstan government, others the Chinese or the Americans, still others Islamist fundamentalists, and a few even the Russian government which supposedly wants to punish Nursultan Nazarbayev for his independent positions.

But enough commentary has appeared since last weekend to show that the Russian leadership is deeply frightened by what is taking place in Kazakhstan for at least five reasons and is uncertain what to do because the events in Astana and Aktobe have left its working assumptions about that country and Central Asia in ruins.

These fears include among others the following:

· First and most important, the Kremlin is terrified of any instability in the political elites of the countries in its neighborhood, understanding full well that that calls into question its promotion of stability as the chief value of allying with Russia and fearing that any turbulence could open the way to Maidan-like developments that would challenge Moscow’s rule. For examples of this kind of argument, see here and here.

· Second, with instability and Islamism approaching the Russian border, Moscow is clearly fearful about the spread of these things onto its own territory both as the result of the work of activists who will now find it even easier to penetrate Russia and as collateral damage from what might be a new massive influx of refugees from Kazakhstan to the Russian Federation, an influx that could shake Russian society just as much as refugee flows have affected Western Europe. On this, see here and here

· Third, Moscow fears that the US is behind this, to disrupt Moscow’s links with China, and simultaneously fears that China, which is now investing more heavily in Kazakhstan than in the Russian Federation, may have played a role in order to displace Russian influence in Central Asia with Chinese domination.

· Fourth, Moscow seems convinced that the situation in Kazakhstan emerged precisely because the share of ethnic Russians in the population there has declined so precipitously over the last 30 years. Up until 1985, ethnic Russians had a plurality; now, they are outnumbered two to one by ethnic Kazakhs. Because similar trends are occurring in all the post-Soviet states, some in the Russian capital fear that what is happening in Kazakhstan could happen elsewhere sooner or later. On that, see here.

· And fifth, although it is unclear how widespread this fear is, at least some in Moscow are expressing concerns that what has occurred in Kazakhstan is what faces Russia in the near future. That is, they view Kazakhstan as a petrostate, which Russia is as well, and with its income down and its authoritarianism growing, the regime there and perhaps in Russia as well can’t escape popular challenges unless it liberalizes -- something neither Astana nor Moscow is ready to do.  On that danger, see the sources cited here.