Staunton, VA, December 16, 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 62nd 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. For Putin, a Decidedly Mixed Week. Vladimir Putin’s much-ballyhooed victories this week – Donald Trump’s appointment of pro-Moscow officials and the defeat of opposition forces in Aleppo in alliance with Syria’s Bashar al-Asad – have not been unalloyed. On the one hand, reports about the Kremlin’s interference in the US elections has raised concerns around the world and prompted Ekho Moskvy to poll its readers as to whether they’d like to have Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson as Russian president. And on the other, Putin’s actions in Aleppo have sparked outrage around the world and his efforts to defend himself may be backfiring in Russia itself: The Kremlin leader gets support from the usual sources – Patriarch Kirill says the war in Syria is “just, defensive and holy” – even as his emissaries claim that charges against Russian forces are falsified. But Russians may be asking themselves just how long they will be tied down there, given the appearance of a new calendar addressed to Russian forces in Syria that continues through December of next year and by the statement of one Syria woman, dressed in traditional Russian clothes, that “I’m at peace when my land is under your control”. But in addition to these problems, Putin got some more bad news: Almost a third of Russians say they have a poorer opinion of him now than they did a year ago, even his allies on the post-Soviet space won’t join him in condemning the demolition of Soviet statues in Poland, and his aides say that his signature policy, a new law on the Russian nation, isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Indeed, the Kremlin official responsible for coming up with a draft says it won’t even be prepared until August 2017.
2. Russia, Having Lost a Trillion US Dollars in Capital Flight since 1991, Is Losing More at an Increasing Rate. A Russian newspaper has documented how Russia has lost a trillion US dollars – that is a one followed by 12 zeros! – since 1991, and new reports suggest that the pace of outflow is again increasing dramatically, up 700 percent over the last year. Not surprisingly, Russian officials have denied all this, but they now do acknowledge that the country’s reserve fund will run out of cash next year. Other bad economic news this week includes: a deputy prime minister says that more Russians are now poor than official figures show, economists say that the prospect for new jobs in the monogorods is miniscule, and Moscow analysts say that the Russian government is now trying to balance its budget on the backs of the poor and the unemployed. But despite all this, many Russians now say they are trying to save money for the future in the expectation that things are going to get even worse.
3. US Anti-Doping Officials: No International Games Should Take Place in Russia Until Moscow Changes Course. The US anti-doping agency, following the release of a report documenting that the Russian government operated a secret doping program that involved more than 1000 Russian athletes, says that Russia should be expelled from the International Olympic Committee and that no international athletic competition, including presumably the 2018 World Cup, should take in Russia until Moscow comes clean and cleans up its act. Moscow has reacted to the new doping report in its usual way, claiming that it is entirely invented as part of an anti-Russian plot. But even Russian experts concede there is too much evidence in the report to dismiss it in this way, and some are expressing real fears that Putin’s rush for the gold at Sochi may have the effect of killing of Russian sports at the international level for some time.
4. Russia’s ‘Monuments War Threatens to Become a Civil War.’ Anger on all sides about monuments to dictators and White Russian leaders going up and about monuments to Soviet leaders coming down have so divided Russians that “the monuments war threatens to become a civil war,” in the words of one commentator. This week the major controversy was over the fate of the Yeltsin Museum in Yekaterinburg, something some want torn down because of the messages it sends about Russia and that others insist must be defended for precisely that reason.But there were other clashes on the fronts of this “war.” Among them: a monument to General Markov is going up, electricity to the Tolstoy Museum has been cut off, calls for Lenin statues to go because he was a murder, a Siberian was jailed for opening a museum devoted to Admiral Kolchak, and a Stalin monument is about to be erected in Arkhangelsk.
5. Obscurantism Continues to Spread across Putin’s Russia. Parents and students are angry that the Russian Orthodox Church and now anti-extremism crusaders are taking so much class time in schools and universities that subjects they view as more important are being sacrificed. But that is just the tip of the iceberg as far as obscurantism in Russia is concerned. A senior Russian churchman declared that theologians trained in the West are just as dangerous as jihadist terrorists trained in madrassahs in the Middle East, the Patriarchate is now using its own personal guard to attack its opponents, plagiarization of dissertations is now extending into the publications world and on the same corrupt bases, and the European University in St. Petersburg has been closed by Moscow officials. In still other developments this week, Internet freedom took another nosedive in Russia with Moscow officials proudly declaring that they have blocked 26,000 “extremist” sites. They presumably are less thrilled by the report that the agency responsible for that managed to block for a time its own IP address by mistake.
6. Medvedev at It Again. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev can hardly speak without offering his listeners a fresh supply of observations that are alternatively amusing and disturbing. This time around, he has said that Moscow’s spending more on the military-industrial complex is a way to boost Russia’s civilian production and that the country is now producing more medicines but that prices are going up. Some commentators have suggested that with Medvedev, listeners don’t need fact checkers; they need reality checks.
7. Another Orwellian Development. Dozens of Russians were arrested for reading the Russian Constitution in public on Constitution Day, even though polls show fewer than half of Russians have ever done so and evidence suggests that the Putin regime doesn’t care what the country’s basic law says anyway.
8. Russian Active Measures have a Long and Odious History… As the world grapples with the fact that Moscow interfered actively in the US elections, Russian outlets are featuring stories showing that their country has a long and even distinguished history of active measures. Not only did the tsarist government mint counterfeit Dutch coins to fund its fleet development, but it bribed numerous members of the French National Assembly before World War I to get French loans for Russian projects. But in some ways, the most intriguing story to surface this week concerns the use of a Chekist favorite against the Soviet population. A new book by historian A.V. Venkov documents that Stalin’s secret police ran a “Trust”-like operation in the early 1930s against Cossacks in the Don not only to undermine resistance to collectivization but also to gather compromat on Nikolai Bukharin. (See A.V. Venkov, “Delo senina” ili operatsiya “Trest’ na Verkhnem Don (Moscow: Airo-XXI, 2016).
9. … And are Again Becoming More Vicious Abroad and at Home. The BBC reports that Russian hitmen have killed at least 12 people in Turkey, women workers at an emerald plant in Siberia say they are now being harassed “Gestapo-style” at work, and there are suggestions that the Russian secret police is planting child pornography on the computers of its opponents to discredit them not only in the UK but in Karelia as well.
10. Zhirinovsky Says Russians Should Celebrate Christmas on December 25 ‘Like Everyone Else.’ Under the calendar the Russian Orthodox Church still uses, Christmas falls 13 days after it is celebrated elsewhere around the world. LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky says Moscow should change to the international date, something that would significantly shorten the Russian winter holiday period. Intriguingly, the proposal by the flamboyant Russian politician has gotten support this time around from hierarchs in the Moscow Patriarchate.
1. Ukrainian President Calls for New Sanctions on Moscow over Aleppo. Petro Poroshenko has called for the imposition of new sanctions against Russia for Moscow’s role in the devastation of Aleppo in actions that many describe as crimes of war and crimes against humanity.