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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
November 15, 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.
Objective Factors Ultimately Trump Subjective Ones in Russian-American Relations

Staunton, VA, November 15, 2016 - There is an old saying among American lawyers that when trying a case, if the facts are against you, argue law; if the law is against you, argue facts; and if both are against you, raise your voice. Unfortunately, lawyers are not the only ones who follow this dictum and focus only on those factors which appear to favor their position. 

In the last week following the election of Donald Trump as US president, media in Russia with hope and in the West with concern have suggested that the subjective factor of the personal relationship of the two is going to immediately and forever transform the Russian-American relationship, something the Kremlin appears to be hoping for and that many in the West fear. 

It is certainly true that personal relationships matter in international relations and they matter profoundly in the short term just as they do in domestic ones, but it is also true that those ties however strong they may be are in almost every case quickly “trumped” over the longer term by objective factors regardless of what one or both of the parties think they want. 

When Mikhail Gorbachev appeared as the leader of the Soviet Union, many Western leaders developed a personal relationship with him that led to predictions of a glorious new age of Russian-American partnership. When he lost power and was replaced by Boris Yeltsin, many felt that the absence of a similar rapport undermined the possibility of change. 

But in both cases, objective factors like the economy and the military overwhelmed the subjective ones, pushing the two sides in directions that their leaders may or may not have wanted or pursued. That pattern has been typical, and the same thing is likely to be true today after a brief “era of good feeling” between Trump and Putin. 

Since Trump’s election, the Kremlin-controlled media has been promoting the idea that the incoming American president will change course so dramatically that it will do miracles for Russia, a view many commentators elsewhere have accepted as something both inevitable and long-term.

But three stories on November 15 should disabuse those who expect either a miracle of a disaster: 

· First of all, the Russian economy is in deep trouble; and it won’t be revived even by an end of sanctions. Elvira Nabiullina, the head of Russia’s Central Bank, warned that her country faces three tough years ahead. And many of Trump’s policies, including expanded drilling for oil, a re-industrialization of the US, spending on infrastructure projects, and ending some international trade arrangements will only make that process more difficult and more contentious. 

· Second, while Moscow has been celebrating the victory of what it considers “pro-Russian” presidential candidates not only in the US but in Moldova and Bulgaria, experts on Eastern Europe point out that however much these leaders may feel, Russia today lacks the resources to substitute for the European Union and they know that too. Consequently, they aren’t likely to tilt as far in the direction of Moscow as Moscow thinks. 

· And third, and perhaps most important given Putin’s use of force or the threat of its use, the Russian government is having to cut back on its spending for the military, effectively gutting much of its vaunted power. When a country can’t provide its soldiers with sufficient clothing or health care or pensions, its army and navy are less the allies it may like to think they are. 

Putin and Trump or at least their advisors are very much aware of all these things, and these trends rather than their smiles will almost certainly dictate how their countries behave or are forced to behave in the future. Trump, however much Putin hopes, isn’t going to be Russia’s savior; and Putin, however much some in the West fear, isn’t going to dominate Trump.

The objective factors for either development aren’t present; and it is time for people to lower their voices and take them into consideration in their analyses and projections.

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
By Arresting Ulyukayev, Putin has Crossed a Dangerous Line, Russian Commentators Say
Staunton, VA, November 15, 2016 -  The arrest of Aleksey Ulyukayev, the incumbent minister of economic development, for bribes “sharply changes the rules of the game … among the power elites” by suggesting that if a minister can be taken down in this way, so too can anyone else, according to Russkaya Liniya.

Dozens of senior officials have been removed from office for bribery and other crimes, “but not one of them was publicly accused of a crime, and all of them, with the rare exceptions … went quietly on pension. Now, however, everything has changed, the old system of checks and balances has been shaken and this cannot fail to put one on one’s guard, the portal says. 

Similar levels of shock have been expressed by Moscow commentators across the political spectrum. Many predict that more such “tectonic shifts” in the Russian capital are ahead. And Vladimir Zhirinovsky suggests that now “everyone must be afraid.

More cautious writers have sought to limit its meaning to being an attack only against liberals and reformers or as a move toward bringing down the Medvedev government. And some have linked it to the US elections or wondered about Putin’s precise role in it

But given Russian history, some are suggesting that Ulyukayev’s arrest represents a return to Stalinism or to the period of Ivan the Terrible when the ruler launched attacks on those around him in order to win favor with the population and destroy any in the elite who might challenge him. 

Perhaps the most intriguing of commentaries of this kind albeit an indirect one comes in the course of an interview by Modest Kolerov on Regnum with Russian historian Oleg Ayrepetov about the ways in which the events of 1916 led ineluctably to the revolutions of 1917. 

That is because, the two appear to agree, those things that the opposition did to try to save the situation had the effect of undermining the state still further. Those who killed Rasputin, for example, although this is not one of the cases they discussed, believed they were removing a cancer from the throne, but they only accelerated the collapse of tsarist authority.

Arresting Ulyukayev could be another such case, something done to defend the powers that be that in fact undermines them, a confirmation of the old observation that the most dangerous time for a bad state is when it concludes that it has no choice but to do something to try to rectify the situation.

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Kremlin Released ‘Genie of Intolerance’ Provoking Pogroms Across Russia, Gulbinsky Says

Staunton, VA, November 15, 2016 - The Putin regime’s attempt to mobilize and direct civil society by unleashing “the genie of intolerance” has had the horrific consequence of leading to the spread of pogroms and pogrom-like activities by groups whose members feel they have the blessing of the authorities to act against others, according to Nikolay Gulbinsky. 

In Nezavisimaya Gazeta on November 15, the Moscow commentator says that “the situation in Russia ever more recalls the theater of the absurd” in which politicians call for banning plays, books, and films they have never seen or read,  something that even Soviet leaders did only rarely. 

It would be bad enough if such proposals were being made by individual political figures like Natalya Poklonskaya, Gulbinsky says; but unfortunately, standing behind her is “a certain movement with the name ‘The Tsar’s Cross’ and several other even less well-known social organizations.”

“In other words,” he continues, “the inquisition-like fervor of the former Crimean procurator and currently deputy from ‘the party of power,’ arose not by itself: she was fulfilling ‘the demand of her voters.’” And such involvement of “’the popular masses’ in repressive policy is … sad from the point of view of the country’s prospects.”

In recent months, there has been “a wave of pogroms” against art exhibits and people that groups encouraged by the regime to view as alien to Russian culture or the Orthodox Church have taken things into their own hands. Government agencies are at least ostensibly not involved with these actions, even though they have encouraged them in various ways, Gulbinsky says.

But what is especially worrisome is that these groups have forced society and the state to bow to their will, something that raises many questions including “How and why does the authoritarian state being built in Russia now tolerate this?” and “why is [the state] so intolerant to completely peaceful protest actions at the same time?”

“To answer these questions,” the commentator says, one must look at recent history. When the USSR was falling apart, people talked about how civil society would arise and become a force for good. That was because most forgot Leo Tolstoy’s warning that “bad people willingly come together to achieve their goals while good ones somehow are unwilling to do so.”

Russia is hardly the only country where that is true, but because of its history, it has suffered more from this tendency than many others. And now, Russian civil society groups “having gained a certain strength and influence are beginning literally to tyrannize over citizens,” forcing them to hate what they hate and to back what they back.

The general view was that the Russian state should not be involved in creating and structuring Russian civil society, that the latter should have “the chance to develop without any interference from the state.” Such an arrangement was as absurd as expecting a garden to grow without a gardener. But that is what the Russian state did at first. Then it changed and made things even worse. The fruits of first neglect and then intervention are now clear to see. 

Yeltsin did little to structure civil society, but when Vladimir Putin came to power, he sought to exploit what people called civil society to promote himself and his policies. He organized a series of youth organizations, the chief task of which was to support him and to “compromise liberal parties and nationalist movements.”

These groups achieved a great deal for him and because they were “entirely dependent” on the Presidential Administration,” they ceased their activities exactly when the Kremlin stopped financing them and called for them to disband. But then in response to the liberal demonstrations of 2011-2012, the situation changed and changed fundamentally. 

In order to show his power, Putin needed groups that could stand up against the liberal demonstrators, and he used various means to call them forth, Gulbinsky says. He needed something more powerful than the Nashis of the past and so he turned to something much more potentially destabilizing and frightening. The new groups of “civil society” consisted of “a varied conglomerate of nationalist, monarchist, ‘Orthodox,’ Stalinist and other movements and organizations which were united by only one thing – hostility to the ideas of liberal democracy,” the Nezavisimaya Gazeta writer suggests. 

They assembled on Poklonnaya Hill on February 4, 2012, under the nominal leadership of Sergey Kurginyan; but as a result of this meeting, “the signal was given” as to what the authorities wanted and would permit, “and society received the message.” New groups arose opposed to minorities, Ukraine and the West more generally. 

Then, Gulbinsky says, the government “gave the radical nationalist groups a truly tsarist present having adopted in June 2013 a law about countering any denigration of the religious convictions and feelings of citizens,” a law which showed that for the state, “believers are a more valuable category of citizens than non-believers” and should be treated as such. 

(For the ways in which radical Russian Orthodox groups in particular have accepted that notion, see among others the articles this week at Kommersant and Chronicle of Current Events).

The sanctions regime against Russia and the failures of the Novorossiya project are forcing Vladimir Putin “to soften his anti-Western rhetoric and to look for opportunities for renewing dialogue with the West,” something many believe will now be more possible as a result of the election of Donald Trump as US president. 

In such a situation, Putin has a vested interest in suppressing these radical civil society groups that he created and supported in various ways, not only because he has never been comfortable as the populist some view him as being but also because an authoritarian state can’t function well if such groups exist. 

Today, Putin’s force structures are strong enough to suppress these groups, but doing so won’t be easy, Gulbinsky suggests, because putting the genie of intolerance back into the bottle is inevitably going to be more difficult and require more force than those who were happy to let it out in the first place now suppose.