Staunton, VA, December 30, 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 64th 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’s Busy Week. Even as Russian propagandists say that the Kremlin leader was not involved in the Russian doping program, something improbable on its face, Vladimir Putin had the kind of busy week in which he acted in ways that show he is involved in almost everything that goes on in Russia – and regrettably in other countries as well. Asserting that no one in the world can create problems for Russia that it can’t overcome, Putin took a number of steps showing that he is quite able to do so on his own. Among others, he signed the so-called “sadist law” allowing jailors to beat prisoners with impunity; he vetoed a Duma-passed measure – for the first time since 2012 – that might have helped local governments; he gave a grant for patriotic education to his biker buddies; he ensured that a journalist who had reported about assassination attempts against him was fired from Moscow television; he promised to help build a Buddhist shrine in Moscow; and he denounced the practice of using Islam and terrorism in the same sentence. (It will be interesting to see if those in the US who so criticized President Barack Obama for making a similar argument will say anything about the Kremlin ruler’s declaration.)
But not all the news for Putin was good. Polls showed that Russians were paying less attention to war and more to economic problems at home and that Russians are watching television less and turning to the Internet more, thus reducing the impact of his chosen means of maintaining control. And he can’t have been happy that the Parisian satirical journal published a cartoon about the crash of the Russian plane over the Black Sea with the legend that “the bad news is that Putin wasn’t onboard”. But Putin is looking ahead: his officials declared that in the upcoming elections, they want 70 percent of all voters to take part and 70 percent of those who do to vote for the Kremlin candidate.
2. Two Christmas Requests Highlight Russia’s Economic Problems. Russian children say that their preferred Christmas and new year’s toys are imports, and a village in Buryatia has asked Father Frost to bring them electricity, something they haven’t had for the last 20 years. More serious economic indicators also pointed in the wrong direction: Economists say that the Russian economy can’t easily recover until domestic demand increases, more than 15 million pensioners are now working illegally, teachers in the Transbaikal say they won’t go back to work in January until they are paid at least half of their December salaries, nearly a quarter of all Russian regions are virtually bankrupt, one local government has run out of money to clear snow even before the first snow falls, unemployment went up in 81 of Russia’s regions last week, and Russian officials announced that they have now destroyed 9000 tons of food Putin has banned from entering the country.
3. Social Problems Intensify. The past week brought fresh evidence that social problems are getting worse across the board in Russia. Vertical mobility has almost completely ceased, a new study finds, inter-faith tensions are now so high that religious leaders are asking the Kremlin to intervene, the Kremlin has lost effective control of some of its youth movements whose leaders are acting increasingly independent, the absurdity of Moscow’s anti-terrorist operations was highlighted when Moscow launched an anti-terrorist operation against a group of striking miners, officials acknowledged that many working on ethnic issues aren’t adequately prepared and promised to make them live according to a code now being prepared, violence within families is increasing, in some regions by as much as 16 percent this year over last, and prices for critical drugs are skyrocketing as a result of government policies, price gouging and corruption. Unfortunately, but completely understandably, those not directly affected by such things are not paying attention to them. One survey, for example, found that two-thirds of Russians know nothing about the brutality taking place on a regular basis in the country’s prisons. And that regime-encouraged ignorance is one of the reasons that Russians are currently more optimistic about the future than they were a year ago and trust Putin as much as ever. But even those attitudes could spell trouble ahead: one group of Russians has proposed making the Russian national idea “to live well,” something that could lead to demands from a population that clearly isn’t at present.
4. Monument Wars This Week Involve Stalin and Rasputin. This week, three more major statues of the Soviet dictator went up in Kuibyshev, Arkhangelsk, and Rostov, thus continuing a trend that one commentator says reflects Russians’ desire a strong hand at the top to punish the rich given that neither officials or the courts currently do much to protect ordinary people. The biggest event of the week in this sector, however, involved the centenary of the murder of another odious Russian, “the mad monk” Rasputin. His supporters portrayed him as a holy man whose murder led to the destruction of Russia and the tsar, but his opponents said he was to blame for the revolutionary upsurge that overthrew Nicholas II. Meanwhile, one activist tried to combine what can’t be combined by putting a cross on a statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of Lenin’s Cheka, Russian officials began investigating the Yeltsin Center after Mikhalkov denounced it, and the Circassians finally achieved the erection of a statue of one of their 19th century resistance leaders. But there was one monument, certain to be short term, that no one seemed to have any particular problem. The city of Toliatti has put up a New Year’s tree decorated with pictures of Putin, Medvedev and their comrades in arms.
5. Russian Officials Concede Moscow had Massive Doping Program. In interviews with the New York Times, Russian officials finally conceded what they could no longer deny: Moscow had a massive doping program to boost the chances of its athletes to win in recent Olympics and other international competitions. But these officials and others immediately went into damage control mode, insisting that Vladimir Putin knew nothing about it and that Russia shouldn’t be punished for what it has now admitted. This effort is all about saving Russia’s position as host country for the 2018 World Cup, especially given that mounting evidence that the Russian government at the highest levels was directly involved, that neither venues nor hotels are ready for the competition or are likely to be, Dmitry Medvedev’s bold statements notwithstanding, and that FIFA is considering this and other possible sanctions against Moscow for its past violations of anti-doping rules.
6. Putin, Blaming Foreigners for Irkutsk Tragedy, Raises Taxes but Won’t Ban Alcohol. Vladimir Putin says that the death of 75 people in Irkutsk from drinking an alcohol surrogate is a tragedy and justifies raising taxes on alcohol and restricting the sale of alcohol and surrogates during the holidays but that there is no reason to try to ban drinking in Russia as its problems are no worse than those in Scandinavian countries. The Russian president also blamed foreigners for what happened in Irkutsk, although he provided no evidence for that assertion. Meanwhile, Russian officials have banned the sale of some surrogates and restricted the sale of alcohol in Moscow during the upcoming holidays.
7. The Bible is Extremist at One End of Russia but Not at the Other. A group of Evangelical Christians won a case in St. Petersburg against Russian customs for classifying the Bible as extremist and refusing to allow its importation, but at the other end of Russia, a court in Vladivostok declared that the Bible is extremist and ordered more than three dozen copies to be destroyed. This is just one pair of problematic Russian court cases in a year that was filled with many. The results were mixed, but they were overwhelmingly in the direction of greater repression.
8. Top 100 Russophobes are Overwhelmingly Russian. The latest listing of “the top 100 Russophobes in the world,” according to one assessment, is overwhelmingly dominated not by Ukrainians or Americans but by Russian citizens, an indication that many Russians call Russophobes anyone who disagrees with them on almost anything and that it will take decades if not longer for Russians to reach the kind of accord on basics that might allow a civil society to emerge there.
9. Two Out of Three Russians Think Restoring USSR is Impossible. A new poll shows that two-thirds of Russians think that there is no possibility of restoring the USSR, even though the share expressing regret about 1991 has gone up the fraction believing it was inevitable has declined. Those attitudes exist despite the drumbeat of commentaries suggesting that the USSR is coming back. One recent one on the nationalist Rex news agency portal, for example, declared that “there is no alternative to the restoration of the USSR in the future”.
10. Studying Foreign Languages or Religions Other than Russian Orthodoxy Said Harmful. Duma deputies continue to promote some of the most obscurantist views imaginable, declaring this week among other things that studying foreign languages in Russian schools is “harmful to Russian national traditions” and backing a crackdown not only on non-Orthodox faiths but also on religious experts who have protested.
11. Bigamy Said a Solution to Russia’s Demographic Problems. A Russian commentator has suggested that “the best way” for Moscow to solve Russia’s demographic problems is to permit bigamy and thus boost birthrates. A more serious proposal to address Russia’s demographic disaster comes from the labor minister who points out that Moscow must address super high mortality rates among adult males, something it has failed to do in the past and is unlikely to do anytime soon because of the enormous costs involved and because of the inevitable opposition to measures like restricting alcohol consumption.
12. Moscow Court Declares Maidan a Coup; Ukrainians Say 1917 Revolutions Illegal. A Moscow court has ruled that the Maidan revolution of dignity in 2014 was “a coup d’etat” and thus illegitimate, a decision with no legal force but that Russian nationalists have welcomed.
13. Putin has Russia in So Many Wars Now that Muscovites Aren’t Sure Whom They’re Fighting. A survey of Russians in the streets of Moscow by Radio Liberty journalists found that Russians are far from sure just whom they are fighting now.
And six more from countries near the Russian Federation:
1. Turkey to Help Gagauz against Moldovan Government, thus Aiding Moscow. Now that relations between Moscow and Ankara have warmed again, the Turkish government has announced that it plans to do more to help the Christian Turkic Gagauz nation promote itself against Chisinau, a move that will end by helping Moscow by bringing more pressure against the Moldovan authorities.
2. Saakashvili Wants to Rename Russia ‘Novorossiya.’ Mikhail Saakashvili, the former Georgian president who most recently headed Odessa, says that Russia should be renamed “Novorossiya” to highlight its differences from the various forms of Russia that existed in the past.
3. Ukrainian Shops Now Offer Chocolate Donald Trump Christmas Figure. Under the slogan, “Make Christmas Great Again,” stores in Ukraine are offering chocolate Father Frosts with the face of incoming US President Donald Trump. Given Kyiv’s hostility to the Russian-originated Father Frost and its support for the “European” Santa Claus, those who buy and eat this figure may be making a different kind of political statement. Meanwhile, in neighboring Belarus, the government has banned all private Father Frosts. Only those employed by the state will be allowed to work at all.
4. Ukrainian Villages Make Money by Selling Lenin Statues They’re Taking Down. A Russian outlet has pointed out that some Ukrainian villages have decided that the best way to fill their depleted budgets is to sell the statues of Lenin and other Soviet figures they have been compelled to take down as part of Kyiv’s de-communization effort.
5. Moscow Can’t Get Bids for Rest of Kerch Bridge Construction. Moscow has set the amount it is willing to pay for the completion of its bridge to Russian-occupied Crimea so low that no Russian firm is prepared to put in a bid, officials say. But that is hardly the only problem with the bridge: Moscow, it has been discovered, has not made any arrangements to build the railroad infrastructure at either end of the bridge that would be necessary to make it economically useful.
6. Russians in Latvia Complain Moscow is Helping Them Less than Warsaw Does Poles There. The Polish government really provides assistance to ethnic Poles in Latvia and other countries in the region, local ethnic Russians say, while Moscow does little to help them. This is just part of a larger problem that Nezavisimaya gazeta has surveyed: for all of Putin’s talk, the Russian bureaucracy simply isn’t prepared to do much for his “Russian world” beyond the borders of the Russian Federation.