A Baker’s Dozen of Neglected Russian Stories – No. 60

December 2, 2016
A menu sign at a Russian cafe has satirical names for the types of coffee --"KaPUTINO," "Represso," "Russiano," and "Vatte" -- after Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called for changing "Cafe Americano" to "Cafe Russiano."

Putin May Launch a Charm Offensive by Taking Cosmetic Steps to Avoid Real Reform, Kashin Says

Staunton, VA, December 2, 2016 — Both to keep his domestic opposition off balance and to take advantages in changes at the top of Western countries, Vladimir Putin may soon launch a charm offensive, using what some call a “putting lipstick on a pig” strategy in which he will make small cosmetic adjustments that promise more but do so to avoid making any major changes.

In a commentary for Radio Liberty, Russian journalist Oleg Kashin says that it is rumored that in the Kremlin, there is a safe in which there is an envelope containing the regime’s last “trump card” to be used when things appear so bad that there is no other obvious way out. On that envelope is written “in large red letters, ‘Liberalization’”. 

Inside that envelope, he says, there is “a plan,” one “precise, long and clever” so that when it begins to be implemented “not everyone will immediately take note” of what is actually going on and may even be fooled by it. Kashin says that a senior official who helped prepare this plan has shared with him some of its features. 

Among its features, he says, are the following: the dismissal of the notorious culture minister and the disbanding of the Military History Society “for lack of funds,” the dispatch of Putin’s biker buddy back to his biker base, a sudden decision not to introduce Orthodox culture lessons into the schools, and the imprisonment of someone for having killed Boris Nemtsov. 

Other steps include: allowing the movie Mathilda to be widely shown, a new television program to which opposition figures will be invited, a softening of limits on foreign adoptions, dropping charges against Aleksey Ulyukayev, and Putin, during a visit to the Butovka proving ground saying that he is against the full rehabilitation of Stalin. 

Such a strategy., he suggests “will not immediately but very quickly change the atmosphere in society.” There will be fewer alarmist commentaries and more predictions of further liberalization. And one sign of this will be that each such act by the Kremlin will be presented as “a signal” of Putin’s intentions.

The presidential elections will pass quietly whenever Putin decides to hold them, and many in the West will decide that now is the time to cooperate with the Kremlin leader because he has turned the corner and will only do more good things if the West will only show some support. 

But that will only demonstrate, Kashin continues, that once again both have been deceived because “the main secret” of the Putin regime is its ability “to change everything while changing nothing.” That happened under the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev “and after the Bolotnaya Square demonstration and after Crimea, and certainly will be realized once again.”

“To say ‘the worse the better’ is considered unseemly, but the reverse, ‘the better the worse’ in fact adequately describes Russia’s prospects which risk consisting of a cosmetic liberalization with the preservation of the most awful elements of the state.” “Insurance” against this consists of the most repellent people around Putin and the coming to their senses of others. 

The latter are the more reliable, of course, especially if they quickly recognize that this charm offensive is “entirely a deception and that it is directed at the strengthening of the powers that be” rather than anything else. In that, Kashin says, is its true essence: “it is not liberalization but rather a provocation.” 

Eliminating biker buddies or obscurantist culture ministers won’t fundamentally change the system. Instead, such steps will take the pressure off the regime to change significantly, he concludes, ending with the warning: “fear liberalization” when it is clearly being carried out on behave of “honest, in the sense of open, reaction and authoritarianism.”

A Baker’s Dozen of Neglected Russian Stories – No. 60

Staunton, VA, December 2, 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 60th 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 Brezhnev or St. Matthew? Many Russian critics suggest that Vladimir Putin’s state of the nation speech showed that he is becoming more like Leonid Brezhnev every day, presiding over a country that is in stagnation or worse but insisting without evidence that things are getting better and better. But Putin’s biker buddy “The Surgeon” suggested that those who listened to the speech were hearing something like the Gospel of St. Matthew, elevating the Kremlin still higher in the pantheon of heroes. Others said that the most important thing about the speech was what Putin didn’t say: chaos isn’t needed domestically so the speech was the most boring of his 13 such addresses to date, according to one; and others noting that he refrained from the anti-Ukrainian and anti-American rhetoric that had informed his earlier remarks. But if Putin said little in his address, the Kremlin was busy in another way: the Duma was scheduled to take up 140 different bills, the largest daily number ever, and the Kremlin released two strategy documents including one on foreign affairs. 

2. Russians See Trump Pushing Cuba Back Into Moscow’s Embrace. Officials in Moscow and around the country have  raced to put up statues or rename things in honor of Fidel Castro. But several commentators have focused this week on US President-Elect Donald Trump’s promise to get tough with Havana as presaging a return of Cuba to Moscow’s embrace. There was some informal criticism of the late Cuban dictator: some Russians read placards saying that this one has died (Castro) as meaning that others (like Putin perhaps) eventually will.  And a Moscow paper has had fun with the fact that one Russian company named after Trump went bankrupt. 

3. Russian Economy Hits Bottom and Keeps On Digging. Russian officials now insist that the economic crisis in Russia has bottomed out, but there are ever more reports that it is now headed even lower. Among the stories pointing to that conclusion this week were the following: Russia’s production per person has fallen from 51st in the world to 71st now and is currently behind the figures for Lithuania and Latvia, Moscow is spending less on roads and they are getting even worse than in the past, Chinese tourism isn’t boosting the Russian economy because the Chinese are arranging to organize things so Chinese firms service Chinese visitors to Russia, Moscow kills metro construction plans over the next three years  for all cities except Moscow, Moscow eliminates all subsidies for Russian railroads thus sending prices up, children and pensioners now outnumber workers 11 to 10, Russian prisons cut spending on food for the incarcerated and some Russian restaurants put rat meat on the menu. But there were two pieces of “good” news this week: the government has been able to find more money for war and propaganda, and the departure of Central Asian gastarbeiters and the Russian demographic collapse have combined to push wages up for some low-skilled Russians. Not surprisingly under the circumstances, Russians overwhelmingly favor more restrictions on the entrance of foreign workers even though such things will hurt the economy over all

4. Russia Far Less Free than Most Other Former Soviet Republics. Russia is slipping ever further behind on international rankings of freedom and now lags behind most former Soviet republics on the Human Freedom Index. One measure of that is that over the last eight years, experts say, the number of Russians convicted of Internet extremism has gone up 6400 percent. 

5. Fights Over Memory and Memorials Intensify Across Russia. Even as Russia prepares to enter 2017, the centennial of two revolutions whose commemoration is certain to split that society further, Russians were very much divided by history this week. Children of NKVD officials and committed Stalinists sought unsuccessfully to block access to a new list of Stalin’s executioners. Other “monument” controversies included: a statement by a senior Moscow Patriarchate official that is all right to put political figures of today on icons, a decision by the Russian defense ministry to put up a statue not to real heroes but rather to how they were shown in a Russian film, a decision in Nizhny Novgorod to put up a monument to murdered Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, an attack on a monument to Stalin’s victims in Magadan in which vandals wrote “Stalin lives” over and over its sides, another delay in erecting a statue to the reindeer herder heroes of World War II and), and complaints by one Russian nationalist that a Karelian town’s new coat of arms is too like that of Finland. 

6. Ignorance and Obscurantism on the March.  In a week during which Moscow Patriarch Kirill collected his 35th honorary degree, it should come as no surprise that ignorance and obscurantism were on the march in various places in the Russian Federation. Among the clearest indications of that are the following stories: the culture ministry says that scholars who are worried only about accuracy will “burn in hell”, the archbishop of Kazan says that dinosaurs walked the earth at the time of Jesus, and the civic chamber has turned to a clothing firm to prepare a human rights report even though the latter has no expertise on such questions. Also this week, debate raged about expanding Orthodox religious instruction in the schools, with supporters saying that such a move was necessary to save Russia from extremism and decay and opponents arguing that it will take time away from more important subjects and promote intellectual decay .

A second major debate arose when Putin ordered Russian officials to choose between becoming academics or keeping their government jobs. The officials now as in Soviet times view academy positions as a kind of insurance in case they lose their other positions; the Kremlin opposes this because it can make officials more independent-minded. But this debate also had the effect of highlighting that many who are elected to the Academy of Sciences don’t really deserve to be there. But perhaps the final indignity for Russian scholarship this week is that science ceased to be a budget line in the Russian state budget document, even as reports surfaced that nationality policy is to get one in its stead. 

7. One in Six Pregnant Women in Some Russian Regions HIV- Infected. Even though Russian officials are downplaying the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in their country, statistics show that in some Russian regions as many as 15 percent of all pregnant women are now infected with HIV. Tragically, ever fewer of them are getting the medicines they need to survive because Moscow as an economy measure has cut back in the amount of such drugs for their treatment. 

8. 2018 World Cup Faces a New Problem: Russian Hotels Refusing to Host Fans. Even though Moscow is pressing the cities where the 2018 World Cup is slated to be held to finish their stadiums and even though Vladimir Putin this week said Russia was introducing the most modern anti-doping program ever, Russia faces two new obstacles to successfully hosting that competition.  Hotels in a number of competition cities say they won’t host World Cup fans because of government interference in their operations; and FIFA officials are certainly aware that Russian police are blocking Russians who want to complain to them from demonstrating when the representatives of the international football association come to Russia for negotiations. 

9. A Sign of Danger Ahead:  More Red Ink in North Caucasus Budgets than Elsewhere. Because of cutbacks in Moscow subsidies and because of rising social costs, almost all Russian regions have ever larger budget deficits. But the largest shortfalls are now in the North Caucasus, where Moscow has bought a kind of peace by using force and spending money. Now, the money is running out, and that raises the question whether Moscow will have to use more force in the future.

10. ‘We Haven’t Seen Any Beatings,’ Russian Penal Authorities Say. Russian penal officials deny that there have been any “violations” of the law in dealing with prisoners; but they have shown that they have an addition way of hiding that reality: any prisoner who complains is certain to be punished and possibly subject to a new prison term. 

11. Russians Now Drinking More Medicinal Alcohol than Major Brands of Vodka. Moscow has been celebrating a decline in vodka sales as an indication that Russians are drinking less, but there are two reasons to doubt that claim: Sales of equipment for distilling samogon have surged, as have purchases of medicinal alcohol that many say isn’t being used as intended and that now exceed vodka sales. 

12. ‘Should Russia Annex Khakasiya?’ Muscovites Asked. Russians don’t know the geography of their country all that well. When journalists asked Muscovites this week whether they favored annexing Khakasiya, many said they did, even though that Turkic republic in Siberia has been part of Russia for centuries.  But Russians aren’t the only ones who have trouble with Russian geography: Czech airlines recently identified in one of its ads the city of Ufa as Moscow, prompting some to ask: does Yoshkar-Ola really look like the Russian capital?

13. You Can Now Drink a ‘Represso’ While Contemplating Whether USSR is Russia’s Past or Russia’s Future. A Rostov café is now selling some new coffee creations: kaPutino, Rossiano, and Represso. That means it is now possible to drink a represso while contemplating whether the USSR is part of Russia’s past or about to become part of Russia’s future. 

And six more from countries in Russia’s neighborhood: 

1. Central Asian Dissidents in Trouble Even If They Escape Abroad. Human rights and democracy activists not only have a bad time in the autocratic countries of Central Asia, but they increasingly are targeted by those regimes even if they manage to cross the borders into other countries, according to a new study. 

2. Is a Personality Cult the Only Thing Holding Tajikistan Together? In a commentary with clear application to a number of other countries, a Lenta.ru analyst says that the only thing holding Tajikistan together is the cult of personality that its leader is promoting around himself. Without it, he suggests, that Central Asian land would descend into chaos. 

3. Tajik-Kyrgyz Border Now the Hotspot in Central Asia. Now that Uzbekistan has moved to improve relations with all of its neighbors, the latest being Turkmenistan, the border within the region along which tensions are greatest is that between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan where new violence has broken out. 

4. Three Signs Central Asia is Moving Away from Russia and One that It Isn’t.  Kyrgyzstan calls for the closing of a Russian military base on its territory, Tajikistan changes the names of 16 streets in its capital to eliminate the Soviet inheritance, and experts in Kazakhstan urge that Kazakhs drop the –ev and –ov endings of their family names that Russians and Soviets insisted on; but in Aktyubinsk, a Kazakh court has convicted a man for criticizing Vladimir Putin. 

5. Ukraine to Honor James Mace, US Historian of the Holodomor.  Ukrainian officials say they plan to erect a memorial to James Mace, the executive director of the US Commission on the Ukrainian Famine (1986-1990), who did so much to promote international attention to Stalin’s act of genocide against the Ukrainian people. 

6. More Latvians Watching Russian TV than Did Three Years Ago. Latvian television has suffered from a collapse in advertising revenue, and because of what some see as a decline in the quality of programming as a result, surveys show that more Latvians are watching Russian television than did three years ago.