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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
August 16, 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.
Russia’s New Poor Ashamed of Their Poverty and Try to Hide It, Sociologist Says
Staunton, VA, August 16, 2016 - In Russia today, with the gap between rich and poor again widening, Olga Simonova says, “poverty is viewed not as an individual’s misfortune but as his fault.” As a result, while they complain to pollster, Russia’s new poor do not turn to the state even when it could help them.

As a result, the Higher School of Economics sociologist says, they “do not give the government the chance to help them,” they drive themselves “into an ever larger dead end,” and the government’s anti-poverty programs even in their reduced size “are ineffective”.

Simonova’s remarks are reported by Anatoly Komrakov of Nezavisimaya Gazeta today as part of a broader discussion of increasing income inequality in the Russian Federation and its implications for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, including ever more negative outcomes as far as their health is concerned.

He notes that the Academy of Economics and State Service in a report released yesterday says that “one of the factors of increasing income inequality [is] the reduction of the real size of pensions, welfare payments, and pay for workers in education and health care,” all trends driven by Russia’s economic crisis.

Simonova and her colleagues at the Higher School of Economics, Komrakov continues, point out that this situation has consequences far beyond just belt tightening. “The greater social inequality, the more sharply felt is the view that it is difficult to do anything to change ones own local social status.”

And that sense, in turn, the scholars says, leads to the next “link of this chain – to serious stress, depression and the possible development of heart and circulatory diseases.” (They don’t mention alcoholism but that too is a likely outcome of such depression, other studies and simple logic suggest.)

Komrakov points out that “poverty has become a new mass phenomenon in contemporary Russia,” thus creating a situation in which “the majority of citizens, especially those who grew up with the ideals of equality and brotherhood propagandized in the USSR, find it difficult to adapt to the new realities.”

But the journalist points out that if the new poor are ashamed of turning to the government, they are largely unconstrained as far as complaining to pollsters. The Levada Center, he notes, recently found that “two thirds” of Russians feel “tension between the rich and the poor, with 41 percent saying that it is “’very strong.’”

Some politicians, like the leaders of Just Russia and the LDPR, have played up on this theme during the Duma electoral campaign. But the ruling United Russia and the KPRF have not, in the first instance so as not to call attention to the problems in the economy and in the second apparently so as not to make problems for itself with the first.
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Moscow Again Tries to Put the Issue of Non-Citizens in Latvia in Play
Staunton, VA, August 16, 2016 - Russians, both citizens and non-citizens in Latvia and Estonia, have had the unique right to travel both to other European Union countries and to the Russian Federation without a visa, something that has attracted some Russians to move there in order to have that advantage.

But now Moscow appears to have changed the rules: On August 10, it blocked a young Russian without Latvian citizenship who was born after 1992 from entering the Russian Federation, with border guards declaring that such people could do so only if they had a Russian visa, something not hitherto required.

The Latvian foreign ministry has issued an advisory to such people who may be planning to visit the Russian Federation to check with updated information on the site of the Russian embassy in Riga. To date, however, neither the embassy nor the Russian Foreign ministry has confirmed this as Moscow’s new policy.

As will be recalled, the three Baltic countries were occupied by the Soviet Union and thus under no legal obligation to offer citizenship to those who were moved onto their territories by the occupiers. That meant that in the early 1990s, the share of non-citizens was far higher than it is today: most Russians living there have chosen to take citizenship in their country of residence. 

According to the most recent statistics, 84.13 percent of Latvia’s population are now citizens, with only 11.75 percent (252,017) being non-citizens and 2.61 percent citizens of Russia. The situation in Estonia is similar. 

There, 84.2 percent of the residents of Estonia are citizens of that country, with non-citizens forming only six percent (80,754) and citizens of the Russian Federation seven percent (90,657). If these trends continue, this issue will disappear within a decade. 

Why then might the Russian government be taking this step now and is it an indicator of Moscow’s more general policies toward the Baltic countries? There appear to be at least three reasons for this action if it does in fact prove to be a new policy rather than a simple glitch and one additional reason for thinking it will backfire on its Russian authors.

First of all, Moscow may be trying to call attention to the issue of non-citizenship both among younger ethnic Russians in Latvia and Estonia in the hopes for causing them to become more pro-Moscow than they have become in recent years and in the West where some commentators and politicians have sought to play up this issue against the Baltic states.

Second, Moscow may have decided that it would prefer an “Estonian” rather than a “Latvian” outcome, one in which non-citizens increasingly choose to become citizens of the Russian Federation rather than citizens of their state of residence and thus give the Russian government additional leverage inside these countries.

And third, Moscow may be uncomfortable with the ability of such people to move back and forth between Russia and the EU. While that is something many non-citizens and Russian citizens in the Baltic countries value, it is inconsistent with “the besieged fortress” that Vladimir Putin has portrayed Russia as now being.

Those are all likely to be compelling reasons for some in the Russian capital, but ultimately Moscow may decide to back down because this policy is likely to backfire. On the one hand, more non-citizens in Latvia and Estonia are now likely to choose Latvian or Estonian citizenship rather than Russian citizenship given that the EU is far more attractive than the RF. 

And on the other, the introduction of such visa requirements will have the effect of reducing the ties between Russians living in Latvia and Estonia regardless of citizenship status and Russians in the Russian Federation, effectively cutting them off from Putin’s much-ballyhooed “Russian world.”

Indeed, the Russian government may recognize that this step, which may seem desirable to them for some reasons, will end by helping both Riga and Tallinn to integrate ethnic Russians there, making them more Latvian or Estonian -- even if some of them retain many aspects of their Russian culture.
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
When Even Petrozavodsk is Far Away – the Death of a Karelian Region
Staunton, VA, August 16, 2016 - The Loukhi region of Karelia is dying, a native Karelian, the grandson of a Finn who is married to a Ukrainian, says. There is no work, there are no prospects, the population is aging, becoming more alcoholic, and declining in number. Indeed, he says, the only enterprises that have opened in Putin’s time are Internet stores.

Identified as Pavel by Kasparov portal writer Maksim Sobeski, who says he has changed the name to protect his source, the Karelian provides a deeply disturbing picture of a portion of the Russian Federation foreigners almost never see and even Russians have only the most cloudy and distorted ideas about.

Sobeski notes that “Loukhi arose as a railway station on the line connecting to Murmansk. Then after the revolution, mines and lumber processing industry opened, and people came for the subsidized wages. They didn’t live badly,” but then everything collapsed in the 1990s. The mines were flooded and the wood was sent to Finland rather than processed there.

Residents are driven to stealing what they can. Not long along, they stole 17 kilometers of power line, and now whenever anyone works on the power line, there have to be as many guards as workers to keep that from being repeated. And those with jobs only have them if they are willing to travel enormous distances, Pavel says.

And such arrangements are completely stupid: “Our brigade from Loukhi is sent to clean the road in Olonets 700 kilometers away, while people from Petersburg come to us” or even further away. At least the pay is better than nothing. And at present, “railroads and highways are “one of the few sectors which are generously financed in Karelia from the budget.”

One of the saddest aspects of life is that “the people in Loukhi live without roots. There are very few Karels any more; most residents come from elsewhere hoping for big salaries and low cost homes. But the salaries almost completely have disappeared, and house prices are so low that no one can sell a house and move elsewhere. Trapped, they turn to alcohol.

“Many Karels were russified long ago,” Pavel says. “After the war, Karelia was filled up with ethnic Russians. Before that, many Karels in the most rural places didn’t know that there was a USSR and that a Soviet-Finnish war had happened. Some had heard that a Karelian republic had been proclaimed, and they thought they lived in it.”

Pavel notes that his grandfather was “a Finnish soldier,” something that was concealed from his father and from him for a long time.” Both tried to locate relatives in Finland in the 1990s but were unsuccessful. They hoped to be “repatriated to Finland” because there people can live in dignity.

Since 2000, the population of Loukhi has fallen from 20,000 to 12,000; and it will continue to fall. Those who can find work elsewhere will leave, and the old will die. But moving out is hard because housing prices are so low. With what you get, Pavel says, you can’t have a roof over your head even in Petrozavodsk.

At some point in the future, he concludes, he “together with his wife and children will leave Loukhi forever,” possibly gaining the chance to see places like Petersburg – which he visited once – or Vologda oblast – where he worked or even happily to spend time with his wife’s relatives “in sunny Ukraine.”
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Moscow More Likely to Use Terrorism against Ukraine than to Launch Conventional Attack, Bessmertny Says
Staunton, VA, August 16, 2016 - Moscow is unlikely to launch a conventional military attack against Ukraine in the near term, according to Roman Bessmertny. It simply isn’t prepared to do so or to suffer the international consequences. Instead, he says, the Russian side is more likely to use terrorist attacks and other means of heightening tensions in Ukraine.

In an interview on Kyiv’s 112 Ukraina television channel, Ukraine’s former representative to the trilateral contact group said that officials are currently considering several different scenarios for the future of Russian-Ukrainian relations, including heightened tensions

Within that vector, the ambassador suggests, three possible vectors are being discussed, but only two of them are likely. The first and most widely discussed is that Russia will launch a broad military offensive. But “Russia isn’t prepared” for that and consequently, this possibility should be considered very unlikely.

The second possibility is that Russia and pro-Moscow forces will carry out various terrorist actions, including the seizure of hostages. In Bessmertny’s view, “this is considered as the most probable” scenario. And the third possibility is that the Russian side will ramp up the information war, something he also considers likely.

Such conclusions, of course, reflect an understanding of Vladimir Putin’s “hybrid war,” the Kremlin leader’s use of various tactics that have plausible deniability and that many in Russia, Ukraine and especially the West will dismiss as something less that full-scale Russian aggression.

But Bessmertny’s words should be the occasion for international recognition of exactly the opposite, albeit something few are yet prepared to say openly: From the blowing up of Russian apartment buildings to bring himself to power in 2000 to now, Putin has transformed Russia into a terrorist state, ready to use terrorist means and to cooperate with those who do.

That makes Russia far more unpredictable and dangerous than it would be if it played within the normal rules of international relations and even war and means that all countries from Russia’s neighbors to its geopolitical competitors however much further afield must now think about how to respond to someone who has shown himself unconstrained by what most expect.

And in doing so, those threatened by Putin’s policies need to reflect deeply that the normal means of containment that worked so well against the Soviet Union are unlikely to be equally successful against him and that new tactics and strategies need to be developed and put in place.

What these should be and whether other governments will be prepared to act on them, of course, remains to be seen. But Bessmertny’s words should be an occasion for doing so rather than one in which leaders will calm themselves with the assurance “at least there won’t be a war.” Instead, they must recognize that Russia is simply carrying out a war by other means.