Staunton, VA, December 9, 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 61st 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 Increasingly Viewed as ‘the Russian Trump.’ Many Western commentators have suggested that US President-Elect Donald Trump is an American version of Vladimir Putin, not only because of his admiration for the Kremlin leader but because of his personal style. Now ever more commentators Russian and otherwise are suggesting that Putin is in fact the Russian Trump, someone with a similar electoral bases and also given to making off the cuff remarks like talking about his retirement plans or imposing breathalyzer tests on senior officials. But however much they may have in common, other commentators are warning Putin that he had best not try to deceive Trump given Trump’s record of reacting badly to such actions. Whether Putin sees this reversal of the usual comparison as a good thing or bad given the increasing willingness of many to compare the Kremlin leader with everyone from the North Korean dictator to the pope is unknown, but Putin probably was pleased this week when Russia’s top Father Frost, the Russian counterpart to Santa Claus, said it was a good thing for Russian parents to give their children toy guns to prepare them for adulthood.
2. Russia Now has Most Unequal Income Distribution in the World. Not only do international experts say that Russian has the highest degree of income inequality in the world and has Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev admitted that real incomes are falling for most, but adding insult to injury are reports that the minimum income in Russia is now being set by people who spend more than that amount in a single dinner at a Moscow restaurant. The spate of bad economic news for most Russians has grown so large that some Moscow media outlets are simply providing weekly lists of the ten worst examples. Among some of the most notable of these reports this week are the following: More than half of all Russians are now seeking alternative sources of income, Muscovites are lining up for cheese at the Italian embassy and they are buying foreign currency at a rate not seen since 2014, officials are talking about imposing tolls on all Russian roads, residents of some cities are now living on their credit cards with no sense they will ever be able to pay them back, and a new law if passed will mean that the ill and the dying will be assessed taxes for not having a job. Perhaps the only bright spot this week is a story that some Russians have decided to make light of their problems: a bar called “Sanctions” has been opened where perhaps some can go to drink and forget their problems.
3. Will Russians Soon Walk Down Sverdlovsk Street to Get to Nicholas II Square? The incomplete renaming craze in Russia, along with the demands by various groups to take down or put up monuments has created an absurd situation, some commentators say with streets named for the murderer of the last tsar coexisting with streets named for the tsar himself and prompting some cities to simply stop naming streets altogether which is creating other problems. Among the battles on the monument and nomenclature fronts this week are the following: a statue of Sadri Maksudi has gone up in Kazan, Moscow is going ahead with renaming two streets for Castro but Makahchkala doesn’t want to rename even one for the late Cuban dictator, a statue of the notorious anti-Semite V.V. Shulgin has been erected in Gorokhovets, the Russian Orthodox Church has declared Ivan III a national hero, the Komi have put up a statue to a mythical national hero who fought the spread of Christianity in the Middle Volga, the Krasnodar Cossacks have put up a memorial to Alistair Crowley, some human rights activists are upset that benches in Oryol look like something from the Third Reich, communists have complained about the increasing rapprochement between Kremlin officials and the family of the Romanov pretenders to the throne, some want a memorial to those who were killed in the October 1993 storming of the Russian parliament, and an increasing number of people want to collect money to build a memorial to those who died in the GULAG. Perhaps one Russian nationalist has come up with a useful idea given this cacophony: he suggests that Russia’s coat of arms should be Malevich’s Black Square. That way each person could read his own symbols into it. Meanwhile, there were two other controversies this week about names. Some object to the name of the restaurant in the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg. It is BarBoris. One can imagine that both supporters and opponents of the former Russian president might have problems with that. And some Russians undoubtedly were unhappy to learn that the famous Molotov cocktail was not invented by a Russian but rather by Finns who were fighting Stalin’s aggression against that country.
4. Once Again ‘a Person from the Caucasus’ to Define What a Russian Is. Stalin, a Georgian defined what nations in general and the Russian nation in particular were in Soviet times. Now under Putin, a person from the Caucasus, Magomedsalam Magomedov, a Dargin who once headed Daghestan, is drafting the new law on the Russian nation, something that at least a few Russians and others will find ironic. That was just one of the intriguing political developments this week. Others include: a call by a Duma deputy to conclude “a non-aggression pact” with the Soviet past, complaints by some Duma deputies that they are having to work too long and too hard, and poll results showing that the share of Russians who believe that the Constitution effectively defends their rights has fallen from 48 percent last year to 38 percent now.
5. More Reasons for Stripping Russia of Right to Host 2018 World Cup. Even as Russian cities begin issuing “fan passports” for the 2018 football competition, ever more reasons are surfacing for stripping Russia of its right to host those games. The IOC has extended its sanctions on Russia for doping, and the Russian Olympic Committee has added representatives from the illegally annexed Crimea and Sevastopol. Meanwhile, American athletes are mulling not going to a competition in Russia if it remains in Sochi, the site of Moscow’s most massive doping scandal. The Russian authorities have reacted as one would expect, seeing all these attacks as a concerted effort to denigrate Russia and Russians and announcing plans to investigate FIFA for promoting homosexuality, something that is illegal in Russia.
6. More Russians Seeking Political Asylum in the US and More Gastarbeiters Entering Russia. For a variety of reasons including not just economic ones, more Russians have sought political asylum in the US this year than at any time in the last 20 years. Meanwhile, this year also saw a surge in the number of labor migrants coming to Russia from the Caucasus and Central Asia. One major driver of emigration is the increasing obscurantism and authoritarianism promoted by the regime and the Moscow Patriarchate; but another is the collapse of the Russian medical system. Moscow is restricting ever more imports of medical equipment and medications, something that means that ever more Russians who remain in that country are at risk of death.
Some Russians who can’t leave are taking out their frustrations on Russian doctors. As a result, the health ministry is calling for a new law that would equate doctors with police and impose higher penalties on those who attack doctors than other ordinary citizens. Two other non-economic developments which may have an impact on the future: the number of pagans is dramatically on the rise in Russian prisons, and Russians are fascinated and perhaps angered by reports that their government which can’t ensure them a decent life expectancy is now spending massive amounts of money to try to bring back extinct species, something they imagine they could be counted among.
7. Nearly One-Third of Russian Champagne is Fake, Officials Say. According to Russian government agencies, 30 percent of what is marketed as Russian champagne is in fact carbonated sweet soda, an announcement that will further exacerbate debates on how or even whether Russians should celebrate the new years holiday. Meanwhile, Russia’s communist party has contributed to confusion on just when that holiday should be marked: the KPRF wants the government to change the calendar so that New Year’s Day will be on January 14 new style as the Russian Orthodox Church says rather than on January 1 as the rest of the world thinks.
8. Moscow Closes More Psychiatric Hospitals but Wants to Create Register of the Mentally Ill. Both for economic reasons and because of the worldwide trend at de-institutionalizing the mentally ill, Moscow has closed many of the country’s psychiatric hospitals: there are now only three in Moscow for its 12 million people. With so many of the former patients now on the street, Moscow officials want to create a register of the mentally ill, something that could be a rational step or a new means of extending the political use of psychiatry onto Russia’s streets.
9. Passports May Become Another Means of Government Control. Some Russian officials and politicians want to have the passports Russian citizens carry have a line noting whether or not the bearers voted in elections, the latest effort to step the rapid decline in what are increasingly meaningless elections there. In another passport-related matter, activists for the numerically small peoples of the North are insisting that a nationality line be restored to passports as a means of protecting the smallest nations against assimilation and mistreatment (regnum.ru/news/society/2213591.html).
10. ‘Kadyrov Says What Other Federal Subject Heads Think.’ Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is often viewed as a complete outlier in the Russian political system, saying and doing what others cannot. But one Russian analyst says that almost all leaders of the federal subjects think much as he does but lack the courage or opportunity to say so. In the event of a crisis, that could mean that what seems exceptional could spread quickly. And another commentator says this could happen also because most Russians identify first and foremost with their villages, cities or regions rather than the country as a whole.
11. Aircraft Carrier Joins Cannon and Bell as Another Russian Project that Doesn’t Work. The obvious shortcomings of Russia’s lone aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, which has had serious problems not only in making its way in the sea but also launching and retrieving aircraft, strongly suggests that it will soon join the famous Russian bell in the Kremlin that cracked before it could be run and the equally famous Russian cannon there that never was fired as a monument to unfulfilled Russian aspirations. One Russian Orthodox priest has suggested a solution: he says that if a priest blesses a Russian rocket, it won’t fall out of the sky. Presumably that means that the prison transport vehicles that his fellow priests have already blessed will succeed in transporting Russians to jails and camps.
12. Russian Foreign Ministry Says Her Use of Fake Jewish Accent Promotes ‘Friendship of the Peoples.’ Mariya Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, to promote “friendship of the peoples”. Having thus given that Soviet-era term new content – or more precisely given it back the content that wags at the time said it had – the Russian foreign ministry has joined with other government agencies in promoting the idea that the Russophobe is the new “enemy of the people” in Putin’s times (echo.msk.ru/programs/just_think/1885398-echo/).
13. Russians May Drink ‘Rossiano’ but Karelians Want Their Very Own ‘Kareliano.’ Residents of the Karelian Republic say they don’t want to drink Rossiano but rather their own coffee brand, Kareliano, yet another mark of the divisions in the Russian Federation that many, including in the Kremlin, refuse to take seriously (nazaccent.ru/content/22563-v-otvet-na-rusiano-v-karelii.html).
1. Despite Moscow’s Disinformation, Ukraine will Host Eurovision 2017. Over the last two weeks, Russian-government outlets have put out stories claiming the Eurovision 2017 contest will not be held in Ukraine because Kyiv isn’t ready and that organizers will be forced to shift the competition to Moscow. These claims are false, and both the Ukrainian government and the Eurovision organizers say that the competition will occur in Ukraine, whose representative won last year. In a related development, the EU moved toward granting visa-free travel to Ukrainians (and to Georgians).
2. Kyiv Calls on World Community to Recognize Holodomor as Genocide. The Ukrainian parliament adopted a resolution calling on the countries of the world to recognize the 1932-33 terror famine as an act of genocide.
3. Belarusian Opposition Sees Solution to Minsk’s Problems in Soviet Anecdote. At the end of Soviet times, a joke circulated that the way Estonia was going to obtain independence from the USSR was to declare war on Finland and immediately surrender. Now a Belarusian opposition leader has come up with an analogous idea for his country: Belarus, he says, should declare war on a Scandinavian country and immediately surrender as well.
4. Uzbekistan to Drop Visa Requirements for Citizens of 27 Countries. With the passing of Islam Karimov, Tashkent has announced plans to open up to the world by taking a number of steps including dropping as of January 1, 2017, all visa requirements for citizens of 27 countries around the world.
5. Nazarbayev Says Kazakhstan was Once Russia’s Colony but Won’t Be Again. Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev says that his country was at one time “a colony” of Russia’s but that it is not now and will not be again. To that end, his government has been cracking down on pro-Moscow separatists, imposing this week a five-year jail sentence on one of them.
6. Turkmenistan Officials Call in for ‘Conversations’ Those who Use Social Networks. The government of Turkmenistan is now applying an old Soviet technique at intimidation to a new challenge: it is calling in for “conversations” all those it determines are going on line and participating in social networks.