Staunton, VA, December 23, 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 63rd 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. “There are No Ex-KGB Officers Just as There are No Ex-German Shepherds.” In a week when some Russians were suggesting that Vladimir Putin should become Russia’s new tsar and when some of his supporters in Europe nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, the Kremlin leader took time out to tell his special services that their chief task now must be to expose the nefarious plots of their Western counterparts to organize a Maidan-type rising in Russia. This is the latest confirmation of Captain Aleksandr Nikitin’s dictum about KGB officers like Putin who go into politics. Meanwhile, Putin’s press secretary declared that Putin is “an absolute liberal.” Only the president’s “enemies” call him a conservative.
2. How Bad are Things in Russia? Children Ask Father Frost to Send Them to the Dentist. There are many ways to measure how bad things are in any country but perhaps the best way to evaluate that is to listen to children who likely will say things that their parents have learned to suppress. This year, Svobodnaya pressa-Yug reports, Russian children are asking Father Frost not for toys but for more practical gifts, including in some instances paying for their visits to the dentist so they can overcome toothaches. But there are plenty of other indications that Russia’s economic problems are getting worse. Among those reported this week are the following: to save money, Moscow has cut it spending on nationality policy programs by 50 percent and is reducing the number of traffic signs on the streets of major cities, some pensioners are getting IOUs rather than their full pensions, government funding for basic science has been cut for the fourth year in a row, Russians are now spending 80 percent of their incomes on necessities, capital flight rose to 5.7 billion US dollars in the last month alone, ZIL factory stops producing trucks, cutbacks in prisons mean prisoners are dying without getting the medical care they are entitled to, the Russian government acknowledges that no one can live on the minimum standard of living amount the government itself sets, the shadow economy now makes up 22 percent of the Russian GDP, and people are staying in their apartments even when the walls collapse around them because they have nowhere else to go. Not surprisingly, Russians tells pollsters that life is getting worse, and experts predict that depression is sweeping across Russia. Indeed, the situation is now so dire that some Duma deputies worry that lifting sanctions could make the situation worse. Meanwhile, Russians appear to be drinking more vodka – production of that high-test spirit rose 45 percent over the last 12 months and to judge from the death toll in Irkutsk – now 72 in that city alone – more dangerous surrogates as well.
3. Duma Gelds Itself. This week, Duma leaders said that the Russian parliament wouldn’t take up any proposed legislation for final passage until they had received the go-ahead from the Russian government, formalizing the Russian parliament’s slipping into a mere appendage of the state despite all the bold comments of some of its members. That has done nothing to slow the decline in Russian respect for the institution, with some Russians saying they’ll now run their pets for Duma deputy seats and others suggesting that the Duma will now spend its time dreaming up taxes on the air Russians breathe. The executive is tightening the screws in other ways as well: there are now only nine regions plus the two capitals where mayors are elected directly by the population, and officials in the regions are firing newspaper editors so that there won’t be any unwanted coverage of what they are doing.
4. Past Overwhelms Present for Russians. Several years ago, Russian complained that when they were watching television, they saw more about Ukraine than about their own country; now, some say they see more about the past than about the present given that under Putin, “history is becoming the main current event”. Indeed, things have moved so far in that direction that some are now saying that Soviet myths are real, more real in fact than what people remember of see around them. This flood takes the form of fights over history like one over how to stress the continuity of Russian statehood by declaring the period between Nicholas II and Stalin a time of troubles, but it finds its most concrete expression in the continuing monuments war. Among the events in that war this week are: Rostov puts up a statue of Stalin, Penza presses for statue of Beria, Vladivostok puts up a statue honoring Nicholas II, and money is collected for memorial to murdered journalists in Dagestan. Meanwhile, LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky has called for changing Russia’s hymn and flag and for taking down what he says are “Masonic symbols” from the Kremlin.
5. Russia Stripped of Two More International Athletic Competitions, May Lose More and More Medals. International sports federations have stripped Russia of two upcoming international competitions. Ukraine has called for it to be stripped of all others, including the all-important 2018 World Cup, and the IOC has announced that it is checking all Russian competitors in the last three Olympic Games for drug use. Russian officials are both furious and frightened, and they have announced that they will seek financial compensation for the competitions they have lost already.
6. Record Traffic on Northern Sea Route – and Much of It is Chinese. Moscow is celebrating the fact that 2016 saw a record in the amount of cargo carried on the Northern Sea Route, but it is likely to be less happy with the fact that China, not Russia, is becoming an ever more important player on that route, reaching accords with Scandinavian countries and building more icebreakers. Meanwhile, in another important transportation development, Moscow has begun introducing a new system that will allow it to change the gage of trains travelling to and from Russia in significantly shorter times, thus reducing the delays that had been common in the past.
7. Russian Government and Russian Business Destroying Northern Peoples, Leaders Say. The leaders of the numerically small peoples of Russia’s far north tell the United Nations that decisions by the Russian government and actions by Russian businesses are destroying the bases of their way of life. Among the horrors that Moscow and its businesses have visited on these peoples is an enormous amount of junk that neither has ever cleared away. The northern peoples do have one ally, however, the weather: This week, a Russian court had to cancel a hearing about a reindeer herder who shot Gazprom managers because the temperature outside the courtroom was too low.
8. Posters Protesting Kremlin Policies Appear in St. Petersburg. A group of anti-capitalist activists have put up posters in the northern capital with slogans like “Foreign Travel? Only in Your Dreams!” “Option Three in Russian Hospitals: Pay or Die,” “There are Now No Limits to How Long Russians Must Work,” “The Minimum Living Standard is Now even Lower,” and, in a direct reference to Putin, “Patriotic Roaming: We’ll Drown in Our Own Homes”).
9. Russia’s Unfriendly Skies Just Became Even Less Friendly. The same week that the Duma passed a law allowing jailors to beat prisoners with almost complete impunity, Aeroflot, Russia’s main airline, announced that it has authorized its cabin crews to beat drunken and unruly passengers, the latest effort to contain a growing problem.
10. California’s Separatists Open ‘Embassy’ in Russian Capital. Russian-based Americans who are calling for a referendum to allow California to secede from the United States have opened an office in Moscow which they are styling as “an embassy,” an indication of yet another way the powers that be there are interested in thumbing their noses at international diplomatic practice in general and in relations with the US in particular.
11. Exhibit Throws Light on Something Many Russians Say Doesn’t Exist: Ghettoes in Their Cities. Many Russian investigators continue to insist that there are no ghettoes in Russian cities because of the influence of the propiska system, but a new exhibit in Moscow highlights their increasing importance in Russian urban life.
12. Western Opposition to Kremlin Idea Proves Moscow is Right. One of the weakest arguments anyone can make on behalf of something is to say that it must be right because of who opposes it. Unfortunately, this week, one of Russia’s leading specialists on nationality issues and a major force behind the idea of a “Russian nation” law made exactly that kind of claim. He declared that the fact that this measure is opposed by Russian nationalists and Western specialists shows that it must be correct.
13. War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and ‘Russia is the New Leader of the Free World’ Because It Can Destroy Everyone. In the increasingly Orwellian world of Putin’s Russia, it should not come as a surprise that some of his most ardent supporters are prepare to drain all meaning out of words in order to make them mean what they want. One such figure has just declared that “Russia is the new leader of the free world.” Why? Because its military has the capacity to destroy all other countries. Commentator Vladimir Pozner has provided a useful explanation for this and much else. Russia’s chief problem today, he says, is that it is ruled by people who have not ceased to be Soviet in their mental makeup.
And six more from countries in Russia’s neighborhood:
1. Ashgabat Decrees: If There are No Lines, There are No Shortages. The lines for scarce goods are getting ever longer in Turkmenistan; but the government has come up with a solution: ban lines, on the principle that if there aren’t any lines, there aren’t any shortages.
2. Belarusian Soldiers Swear Oath to USSR. In a move Belarusian commanders say is only to highlight the role of Belarusian troops in the past, new soldiers in one unit in Belarus have been compelled to take an oath of allegiance not only to their own country but to one that no longer exists, the USSR. That has sparked fears that Putin may invade Belarus in the near future and given more fodder to Russian nationalist commentators close to the Kremlin to declare that Belarus, Belarusians, and the Belarusian language don’t exist apart from Russian. Meanwhile, Moscow outlets have spread the story that Belarus can’t control things on its own territory and couldn’t on its own block what they say is a Ukrainian plot to kidnap Putin in Minsk and dispatch him to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
3. 80 Years Ago This Week, Stalin Expelled Iranians from the Caucasus. The 80 thanniversary of one of Stalin’s crimes was marked this week when Azerbaijanis recalled that in December 1936, the Kremlin dictator as part of his effort to close off the USSR from outside influences expelled thousands of Iranians then living in Azerbaijan and elsewhere in the Caucasus.
4. Kyiv Wants European Santa Claus to Replace Russian Father Frost. Ukrainian officials are actively discouraging Ukrainians from promoting Father Frost and the Snow Maiden this Christmas because the two are Russian symbols. Instead, they are calling on their countrymen to boost the role of Santa Clause because he is a European figure. Despite that, some Kyiv commentators say, Europe is ceasing to be a source of hope for Ukraine. Meanwhile, a Donbass activist has defined what he says must be Moscow’s goal in Ukraine: “liberating” that territory from the Ukrainian nation.
5. Lukashenka’s Paper Revives All-Purpose Soviet Excuse: ‘but in the US, you lynch Negroes.’ The official newspaper of Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka has revived the excuse Soviet propagandists routinely offered when anyone criticized anything in the USSR: “but in the US, you lynch Negroes”.
6. Ukraine’s Population Projected to Fall by 20 Percent over Next 20 Years. A continuing excess of deaths over births, the result of falling fertility rates and still high adult male mortality rates, and the exodus of many to work abroad means that the population of Ukraine will fall by 20 percent by the mid-2030s, demographers say.