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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
November 4, 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.
A Baker’s Dozen of Neglected Russian Stories – No. 56
Staunton, VA, November 4, 2016 - 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 56th 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. Is Putin a Russian Trump? Many in Russia and the West have suggested that US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is an American Vladimir Putin, but now there are indications that the reverse may be true as well. This week, the Kremlin leader fell victim to one of his own propaganda stories -- which wasn’t true -- because no one around him is prepared to speak truth to power (see here, here and here).  Putin had a bad week in other respects as well: he was named one of the world’s greatest enemies of media freedom by Reporters without Borders, and a Russian commentator suggested that Putin couldn’t stop talking about the Boston marathon bomber because he has a guilty conscience about the case. In response, Putin has taken the step so many world leaders have when they find themselves in trouble. He’s making no effort to change his policies, but he is hiring Western public relations firms to improve his image.

2. More Bad Economic News on All Fronts. Bankruptcies have become so frequent that Kommersant has been forced to publish additional pages this week just to list all of them. China been able to purchase a quarter of Russia’s gold-mining industry at firesale prices while Ford has announced that it is ending production at its St. Petersburg plant. The Russian state is now slated to run a deficit until at least 2034 and even military pensioners aren’t getting the one-time payments they were promised. Still worse, 60 percent of Russian employers say they will be cutting back on employment, and the real value of pensions fell by 3.3 percent in September alone. Not surprisingly almost half of Russians are prepared to be paid off the clock and in the shadow sector of the economy. For some Russians, the situation is becoming truly dire: there are reports that school children in Chelyabinsk are being fed with soup made from worms, that deaths from flu are up by 300 percent because there isn’t enough medicine available, and that ever more Russians are choosing to die at home rather than go to the hospital for possible treatment.

3. Will Russia’s Statue Wars Never End? Each week brings fresh evidence that fighting over statues and other memorials is for many Russians the most important thing going on in their lives both because of what it says about the past of their country and its future. Among the most notable developments in this sector over the last seven days: LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky wants to rename Moscow’s Lenin Avenue for Ivan the Terrible. Others want to declare Ivan the forefather of Putin’s new Russian nation. Another commentator has suggested that everything started going wrong when Stalin was removed from the mausoleum on Red Square. At the same time, some statues are being taken down or vandalized, sometimes by the population and sometimes by the authorities (see also here and here). There are also more complaints among Russians that some of the statues reflect the elite’s interest in monarchism.

4. Russians Increasingly Uneasy about Putin’s War in Syria. While support among Russians for the military operation in Syria remains above 50 percent, according to a Levada Poll, there are signs that it is softening with fewer people expressing unqualified backing for the effort than did earlier.

5. Three More Reasons Russia Should Not Be Allowed to Host World Cup. The stadium in St. Petersburg despite massive cost overruns has failed to meet FIFA standards. There have been more clashes of Russian soccer louts beyond the ability or willingness of the Russian police to stop them. And there are indications that a new wave of Russian doping scandals are about to break.

6. Instagram Beats Out Facebook in North Caucasus. Ramzan Kadyrov’s use of Instagram has attracted the most attention, but people in the region say that that social medium is vastly more popular in the North Caucasus generally than is Facebook, with the number of friends on it ten times or more than of thenumber on Facebook. Meanwhile, some of the smaller language communities in the Russian Federation are exploring the ways they may be able to use the Internet to save their endangered languages).

7. Russians Delighted Sovietology Making a Comeback in the West. In many ways, Russia behaves like a small country rather than a great power and is obsessed with the attention good or bad it receives anywhere in the world. Some websites track how many articles appear about Russia in this or that country. Now, Novaya Gazeta has published a large survey of what it calls “the return of Sovietology” in the United States. In a not necessarily related development, the Russian media have begun talking about the supposed existence of a Russian military medal to be awarded for “the occupation of Washington, D.C.

8. Russia’s Buddhists Say They have Law but Not Always Officials on Their Side. Russia’s Buddhist community is becoming increasingly active, and its leaders say that now they have law on their side but not yet officials who are charged with enforcing it. As a result, there is open discrimination against them in places where they are supposed to have full rights. Unfortunately, that pattern holds for most of Russia’s religions where new laws are being used by officials not to go after extremism but rather after in particular those Christian denominations that the Moscow Patriarchate doesn’t like.

9. Number of Political Prisoners in Russia Doubled over Last Year, Memorial Says. The Memorial human rights organization which is increasingly being hamstrung by Russian officials says that the number of political prisoners in Russia has doubled over the course of the last year to more than a hundred.

10. For Russian Media, Liberals Play the Role Witches Did in Earlier Centuries. A Novaya Gazeta commentary suggests that under Putin, liberals have come to play the role witches did in earlier centuries, a powerful and evil force that must be vanquished again and again. Meanwhile, on Halloween, parents in Moscow were urged not to let their children wear Hitler, Stalin or Putin masks because these might prove too frightening for others.

11. North Caucasians Whose Houses are Damaged During Counter-Terrorist Operations Can’t Hope for Compensation. Budget cuts are having another serious consequence for people in the North Caucasus. Those whose residences or farms are damaged by Russian siloviki during counter-terrorist operations now have no hope of getting any compensation, something that will only add to their anger at Moscow.

12. Russian Blogger Suggests Opening Danzig-Like Corridor to Kaliningrad. A Russian blogger says that Moscow should use force to create a Russian corridor through Belarus and/or Lithuania so that the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad won’t be isolated. He argues that this is especially important because of rising military tensions in the Baltic region. That Kaliningrad is now in trouble is suggested by reports that the city’s mayor has put his town hall on the market in order to try to raise money to bridge a budget gap.

13. Russians Don’t Recognize Russians Wearing Traditional Dress as Russians.There is a famous story about two 19th century Slavophiles who dressed up as Russian peasants and who each assumed that the other was a Persian or some other foreigner as a result. Now, in an updated version of the same story, a group of Russians has tried wearing traditional Russian dress in Russian cities only to discover that other Russians can’t imagine where they are coming from.

And six more from countries in Russia’s neighborhood:

1. Ukrainian Intelligence Agency Symbol Appears to Be Striking Russia with a Sword. Ukraine’s national intelligence service has adopted a new symbol and because it appears to have a sword ready to strike Russia, many in Moscow are furious.

2. Ukraine Finds Pulling Down Communist Symbols May Not Be Having Desired Effect. Some Ukrainians are concerned and some Russians are delighted by new polls showing that in Ukraine, the pulling down of communist-era statues is not at least yet contributing to the elimination of all sympathy for the Soviet past.

3. Tajik Officials No Longer Allowed to Have Russian Dual Citizenship. In yet another sign of the unpacking of empire, Dushanbe has ruled that Tajik officials must not have dual Russian citizenship. If they want to keep their jobs, they must give up such attachments.

4. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan Reach Border Accord. Tashkent and Bishkek have defused a potentially explosive situation by reaching agreement on 49 disputed areas along their common border. Those have been the site of violence in the last several months.

5. Kazakhstan Should Be Written as Qazaqstan in English, Astana Officials Say. Senior parliamentarians in Kazakhstan say that the name of their country should be written in English as Qazaqstan and not Kazakhstan. That may seem a small thing, but it in fact opens the way to a larger shift away from the Russian script to a Latin script in that Central Asian country.

6. Baltic Countries Prepare Their Citizens for War, as Russians Buy Up Land in Finland. Estonia and Lithuania have issued special pamphlets for their citizens explaining what they should do if Russia invades. Meanwhile, in a sign that Putin’s “hybrid” war has yet another aspect, Finnish officials report that Russians are buying up property in Finland that could be used as military staging areas in the event of a Russian invasion.

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Today Far More Dangerous than USSR Was and West Far Less Ready to Counter It, Analysts Say
Staunton, VA, November 4, 2016 - Russia under Vladimir Putin is far more dangerous to the West than the Soviet Union ever was, two Russian analysts argue; and the West for the moment at least is far less capable of dealing with the challenges and threats the Kremlin leader now poses, according to a third.

The two analysts who suggest that Putin’s Russia is a greater threat both draw on the work of Western analysts: Radio Liberty’s Yaroslav Shimov on Bulgarian scholar Ruslan Stefanov and Svobodnaya Pressa’s Pavel Shepilin on French author Nicholas Henin.

Stepanov, the director of the Sofia Center for the Study of Democracy, is one of the co-authors of the CSIS study, “The Kremlin Playbook” which examined Moscow’s new approach to the countries of the former Soviet bloc. But the Bulgarian scholar extends its conclusions to the West more generally.

He suggests that because the Kremlin is prepared to use money far more freely than the Soviet Union ever did, it can acquire positions of power in many countries both among those who are prepared to sell to it or who hope for economic advantages in trade with Russia, something the USSR could not do as well.

And he adds that because the current Kremlin is less interested in promoting a single ideological agenda than was the USSR, it can build ties to groups that in the past would have opposed Moscow and can achieve its goals by promoting nationalism in particular countries and chaos internationally rather than seeking to expand its bloc as such.

French journalist Nicholas Henin in Shepilin’s telling completely agrees. He points out that Russia now has “a multitude of levers of influence” and is far more skillful in forming public opinion both at home and especially abroad.

“If you support leftist views,” Henin says, today’s Russians “will play on your anti-Americanism. If you are a businessman, they will seduce you with promise of major contracts. If you are in the military, they will tell you that ‘in the contemporary world, we are the only country which knows how to make use of force.’” And “if you are a Christian, [the Russians] will say, ‘we share your desire to struggle against the spread of secularism.’” 

Soviet operatives could never be that flexible and dexterous or that generous in the use of funds.

According to the French journalist, Moscow doesn’t care whether it has to use money or propaganda to achieve its ends, and it is exploiting the rise of angry anti-globalist forces within various countries to break down the West as an entity and thus increase Russia’s relative position and power.

Across the West, Henin argues, many in the population think they have been sold out by trans-national elites; and Moscow under Putin is playing up those fears in order to displace existing governments and undermine the European Union and other international organizations. When you win by supporting chaos, this is a good strategy, at least for a time.

The split between elites and populations in many countries has become so great that Moscow does not have to do much to win by supporting the anti-globalist, nationalist and traditionalist side. The “angry people” it is speaking to, in many cases don’t have the ability to take power yet; but they are already changing the balance in Moscow’s favor.

Putin’s success, however, is likely to be temporary, Liliya Shevtsova says, because it reflects not his strength but the current demoralization of the West. And history shows the West can come back especially when as now it is presented with a challenge. In short, Putin may be laying the groundwork for his ultimate defeat.

Twice in the last century, the West was in a similar position, at the end of the 1920s and then again in the 1970s, but in both cases, the Moscow-based Brookings Institution analyst argues, “the existence of an opponent in the form of the Soviet Union forced the West to bring itself up to snuff.”

After the disintegration of the USSR, the West lost this external stimulus, and “liberal democracy began to lose its drive.” But Putin’s recent actions have begun to help the West recover. After trying the soft approach of sanctions, the West has recognized that it has to use hard power as well to contain Moscow.

In the short term, NATO’s response has allowed the Kremlin to generate a certain “military patriotism” at home, Shevtsova says; but that will not last. And in the end the Kremlin leader will discover that he has already “given the push for the consolidation in the West of new political forces.”

The old elites who thought that what happened in 1991 was forever will either have to change their views or be replaced by others who recognize that the new reality is going to be very different than what many had imagined or at least hoped for. And Western countries will be forced to recall their currently forgotten principles – and to act upon them as in the past.