Staunton, VA, February 24, 2017 – 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 72nd 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. Putin, World’s Richest Man, Now ‘Personification of Evil.’ Several Western media outlets have calculated that Vladimir Putin is now worth at least US $200 billion, making him by far the richest man on earth. But that has not prevented him from becoming, MGIMO professor Valery Solovey says, “the personification of evil,” a status few leaders since Hitler have achieved. This week, however, he was increasingly elevated for other reasons by Russians: LDPR head Vladimir Zhirinovsky said the Kremlin leader should be addressed like a king or emperor as “your highness”, and a Duma deputy proposed amending the constitution so that Putin could be declared president for life and not have to worry about anything as trivial as elections ever again. The campaign to make it a crime to criticize him continues, and one analyst points to an important feature of the Putin media: it is used not just to set the agenda of the population but also and sometimes more importantly for settling accounts among members of the Moscow elite.
2. Kremlin Views Trump as ‘Stupid, Un-Strategic, and Manipulable,’ Moscow Editor Says. Mikhail Fishman, editor of the English-language Moscow Times, says that Moscow has “made a puppet” of the new US president, “playing” him because people in the Kremlin “consider him a stupid, un-strategic politician” and thus someone “Putin is confident he can manipulate. His words echo what is supposedly contained in a seven-page dossier on Trump that the Kremlin ordered prepared according to US outlets but that Putin’s press secretary has denied any knowledge of. Over the last week, as Trump has made statements and selected officials Russia is less than pleased with, the Russian media has swung against the US president both qualitatively – stories about him are increasingly critical – and quantitatively – Russian media mentions of Trump have fallen by 75 percent. Putin’s press spokesman did go out of his way to say, however, that the Kremlin had not issued orders that the media refer to Trump less often. Two other Trump-Russia stories failed to get much notice: According to one, Ramzan Kadyrov’s daughter is going to emulate Trump’s daughter and launch her own fashion line, and Trump, according to Russian media, plans to block Muslims from the Russian Federation from entering the United States.
3. Moscow Works Hard to Hide Continuing Slide of Russian Economy. Russian officials and media outlets trumpeted the fact that there was a rise in the disposable incomes of Russians during January, claims that attracted interest in some Western outlets although ones that have been dampened by analysis showing that this upward tick was solely the result of one-time payments to pensioners. A similar pattern is likely to obtain when Moscow changes its official market basket definition next month. Meanwhile, however, the bad economic news continued to flood it: Moscow’s cash reserves fell by US $100 million US dollars in the last week alone; there was a 20 percent decline in new housing last month as compared to a year earlier; Rosneft announced that its profits had been halved between 2015 and 2016, and dacha prices have fallen 11.8 percent year on year as Russian seek to unload second homes to bring in additional incomes. Two additional pieces of economic news are especially noteworthy: the Russian government is mulling limiting cash purchases of major items as a way of fighting the shadow economy, and it is now wrestling with a problem it earlier denied having: people who are employed but who make too little money to rise about the official poverty line.
4. Pensioners Charged with Theft for Stealing Food to Eat; Senator Says They Should Get a Job. Some Russian pensioners are now so poorly off that they are forced to steal small amounts of food from their neighbors in order to survive. The Russian government is siding with the neighbors and bringing charges against the starving elderly. Still more insensitively, one Russian senator says old people who don’t have enough money for food should “get a job”. Protests continue to spread across Russia and to become more political. (For a sample of reports on them, see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)
There are plenty of other causes that may spark more demonstrations in the future: Russia now ranks last in the effectiveness of its healthcare system and its medical education system is collapsing; two-thirds of Russian food-processing firms are said to violate sanitary norms and ten percent of milk on the shelves of Russian stories is adulterated; street violence is rising to the point that one commentator says Moscow now resembles Tombstone in the old American West; Muscovites now wait in car lines longer than the residents of any other city in the world except Los Angeles, Aeroflot retains antiquated and unfair work rules for its flight attendants and they are suing the company; the Duma is largely eliminating local assemblies’ right to propose laws; Moscow is tearing down 8,000 slum apartment blocks but forcing their residents to move further away from the city center, and gas prices continue to rise.
5. St. Isaac’s Fight Only the Beginning of Fights over Religious Property. Many Russians are speculating that if St. Isaac’s is ultimately handed back to the Russian Orthodox Church, many other national treasures including even the Hermitage may be as well. That explains some of the force behind protests against the church on this issue. But there is another emerging challenge: Encouraged by what they see as the Moscow Patriarchate’s success, leaders of Russia’s Muslim community are now making plans to claim property that was taken from them and have already had some success in court in that regard (see here, here, and here). One matter of particular concern is the emergence of shadowy and often violent supporters of the church, who often change the name of their organizations to avoid being held accountable. Also this week, Russia acquired its own Macedonia-style name problem as South Ossetia proceeded with its plans to add Alania to its name, something many in the North Caucasus object to. And just to prove that there is no historical event too old to forget or fought over, this week, activists in Yekaterinburg announced plans to mark the Ice Battle Alexander Nevsky fought against the Teutonic knights nearly a millennium ago.
6. A Mixed Week on the Athletic Doping Scandal. This week brought fresh evidence of the Russian government’s direct involvement in the doping scandal that has rocked Russian sports since Sochi with several coming forward to say senior officials told athletes that if they ever talked about the doping, they would be banned from competition for life. But at the same time, the Russian sports authorities now have decided to take a hard line against Western demands that they come clean on the doping issue, apparently convinced that they can win out if they do. They have some basis for optimism: the IOC has given Russian athletes preliminary approval to take part in the 2018 Olympics in Seoul (), and the IAAF has allowed three Russian athletes to participate in competitions under neutral flags. But perhaps the best commentary on the entire matter declared that the Sochi Olympics, at least as Russians imagined it at the time, was “the last positive event” in that country.
7. Russia’s Force Structures Didn’t Have a Good Week. The last seven days have not been good ones for Russia’s military despite Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s bold talk about a “post-West” world order and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin that Russia now has a third ally (in addition to the army and the fleet) and that this is the defense industry he oversees. There were anti-war and anti-military protests in various cities and complaints that the Kremlin had chosen the wrong day to honor the defenders of the fatherland and had overly masculinized and militarized Russia’s calendar of holidays (see here, here, here, here and here). But there was even worse news: Transparency International found evidence of corruption in the Russian defense ministry, a poll showed that a quarter of all Russians support those who try to avoid military service, and reports surfaced that Moscow was filling its draft quotas by forcing newly minted Russian citizens among the labor migrants to don uniforms. Moreover, despite what Rogozin said, defense workers in Vladivostok went on strike to demand payment of back wages, and the defense minister himself had to concede that a certain small portion of Russian nuclear weapons aren’t combat ready.
8. Russia’s Foreign Ministry, a Major Producer of Fake News, Launches Website to Unmask It in Others. The Russian foreign ministry in yet another Orwellian twist has put up a web page devoted to unmasking fake news but only what it finds to be fake news released by others and not what many see as the flood of fake news it produces itself.
9. 37 Languages in Russian Federation Either Dead or Near Death. Experts say that 37 languages that used to be spoken by peoples living in what is now the Russian Federation are extinct or are at the brink of dying in the next few years. Some of those at risk are fighting back. Ingushetia’s government has ordered that all meetings in its education ministry must be in Ingush rather than Russian, and some numerically small peoples of the North have appealed to Putin to protect their languages by blocking the influx of Russian speakers.
10. Moscow Mufti Asks Saudis to Allow Gastarbeiters to Use Some of Russia’s Haj Slots. Ravil Gainutdin, the head of the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR), has appealed to the Saudi authorities to allow Russia to include 300 to 400 Central Asian and Caucasian migrant workers among the 20,500 haj slots that Riyadh has allocated to Russia. On the one hand, this will allow Russia to fill its quota, something it did not do last year because of economic problems; and on the other, it will give Moscow significant leverage over the predominantly Muslim labor migrant community.
11. Moscow Wants 100,000 Russians to Study in Chinese Universities by 2020. Even though only about 16,000 Russians are now enrolled in higher educational institutions in China, Moscow would like to see that number rise six-fold over the next three years to 100,000, something that will require a dramatic expansion of Chinese language instruction in Russia and may create problems in China.
12. Moscow Wouldn’t Have Problems Baltic-Style Non-Recognition Policy on Crimea. According to one Moscow analyst, the Russian government would not be averse to seeing the West adopt a non-recognition policy with respect to Crimea modelled on the one it employed against the Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries. That earlier approach, the analyst says, satisfied Washington’s need to symbolically support the Baltic countries but did not get in the way of cooperation between the US and Moscow.
13. House on the Embankment Marks 86th Anniversary. The House on the Embankment, erected in 1931 to house Soviet officials and their families and made famous around the world by Yuri Trifonov’s novel, is now 86 years old. Because so many Soviet officials passed through it, often on their way to the GULAG or death, its historians say, the building is filled with real and imagined ghosts.
And six more from countries near Russia:
1. Ukrainian President Says West Must Not ‘Appease’ Russia. Petro Poroshenko has called on the West not to “appease” Vladimir Putin and his regime, an appeal that calls attention to the ways in which what some Western leaders have been doing in recent years recalls the failed policies of Britain and France in the years before World War II. At the same time, Kyiv experts argue that Ukraine must use all legal means to hold Moscow accountable even if it is a near certainty that the Kremlin will ignore any decision taken against it.
2. SIPRI Documents Moscow’s Supplying Heavy Weapons to Donbass. The Russian government has introduced troops and provided heavy weapons to those fighting against Kyiv in Ukraine’s Donbass, the respected security analytic center SIPRI says. The Russian government clearly has enough money to do that, but it doesn’t have enough to feed its own people or to annex eastern Ukraine, according to Moscow commentator Yevgeniya Albats.
3. Kyiv Urged to Recognize Passports of Russia’s Non-Russian Republics, Regions. Now that Vladimir Putin has decided to recognize as official documents, the passports issued by the so-called Donetsk Peoples Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic in Ukraine’s Donbass, some Ukrainian commentators have urged that Kyiv announce that it will recognize the passports some non-Russian republics and Russian regions have issued as equally authoritative. Meanwhile, Belarusian officials say that they do not recognize as official documents the passports the two breakaway regions of Ukraine have issued.
4. Street in Russian-Occupied Simferopol to be Named for Churkin. Occupation officials in Ukraine’s Simferopol says that they will name a street there for Vitaly Churkin, who until his recent death was Russia’s permanent representative to the UN and who earlier in career gained notoriety as a Soviet diplomat for his defense of Moscow’s shooting down of the KAL flight in 1983.
5. Afghanistan’s Ambassador in Moscow Says Tajikistan is ‘a Russian country with a Powerful Drug Mafia.’ In most undiplomatic language, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the Russian Federation described Tajikistan, which neighbors his homeland, as “a Russian state” that has “a powerful drug mafia”.
6. Nazarbayev Says Officials Who Respond in Russia to Those Speaking Kazakh Will Be Fired. In the latest move in his effort to promote the national language, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev has issued an order that will require that any official who responds in Russian to people who appeal to them in Kazakh will be fired.