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 70th 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 Says Russians have a Glorious Past and a Glorious Future — But What about the Present? Vladimir Putin continued avoiding discussing Russia’s current problems by telling Russians they have a glorious past and a glorious future), an approach that has prompted some observers to suggest that the Putin regime loves the dead – one even described the Kremlin leader’s government as “necrophilic” — or those not yet born far more than it does the living. One Moscow political analyst suggested this failure to focus on the present may make the upcoming presidential elections an explosive time for the country.
2. ‘Putin’s Russia has Only Two Allies – Donald and Trump,’ Kovalev Says. Tsar Alexander III famously said that Russia has only two reliable allies, its army and its fleet. Russian rights activist Sergey Kovalev has updated that. Today, he is quoted as saying, “Russia has only two allies – Donald and Trump”. That is only one manifestation of the obsession many Russians have with the new American president. Another is that Russians have doubled their purchases of air tickets to visit the US since Trump took office. But not all has been smooth sailing this week and many in Moscow expect that there isn’t going to be the dramatic warming of relations that they had expected. The Russian government was outraged when a Fox News anchor suggested that Putin was a murderer and demanded an apology, even though Trump sought to gut the charge by saying that the US has its murders too. However, Trump’s response should have made the Kremlin even angrier than the question, Andrey Illarionov says, because in effect he reduced Putin to the status of an ordinary criminal rather than that of a government leader. Meanwhile, some analysts like Nina Khrushchev are suggesting that Trump is proving too unpredictable even for Putin and that Moscow would have found it far easier to work with Hillary Clinton. And now that it appears there won’t be any quick “grand bargain” about Ukraine, Russian officials are denying that there was ever any chance of what they had long suggested would happen. Nonetheless, some Moscow analysts are saying that Putin is closer to getting what he said in Munich a decade ago he wanted in Europe than at any time in the intervening period.Looking further down the line, one Russian analyst has suggested that Trump is more likely to die in office than to be impeached, and another says that Trump is ignoring Ronald Reagan’s real genius in dealing with Russia. According to Aleksey Shiropayev, that consisted of the former US president’s careful distinction between the Kremlin which the US opposed and the Russian people with which the US wanted good relations.
3. Moscow’s Mixed Messages on Its Military. Rarely has the Kremlin sent such a mixed set of messages about the state of its military as it did this week. Putin’s spokesman said that Moscow hopes the pro-Russian separatists have enough bullets to resist Kyiv because implicitly Russia isn’t going to supply them with any more, and Russians were apparently horrified by just how much it cost to send the country’s only aircraft carrier to the Syrian coast at a time of economic hardship. But at the same time, Moscow announced a major shipbuilding effort, something it said was being slowed by profiteers and a doubling of military production in its Urals plants over the next two years. It also said it was doubling its purchases of decoy inflatable tanks, an announcement that could be read several ways. But there is one part of the Kremlin’s siloviki program where there were no mixed messages: Moscow will continue to ensure that its domestic security services are well armed and capable of defending the incumbent regime. Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin said this week that Putin’s National Guard, which is charged with doing that, should be “armed to the teeth”.
4. Russian Stores Now Said Selling Dog Meat for Human Consumption – and Other Bad Economic News. The flood of bad economic news this week continued, headlined by a report that Russian food stores are now offering dog meat for people to eat. But that story barely beat out two others for the top spot: Russia’s anti-monopoly agency said the Kremlin was ‘the biggest threat to a competitive Russian economy”, and the Kaluga governor said that the state, given financial stringency, shouldn’t have to support pensioners. Instead, their children must take full responsibility for them. Other bad economic news includes: radical price increases are predicted for vodka, cognac and champagne, 18,000 highly trained foreign specialists have left St. Petersburg over the last two years and capital flight has continued at an alarming rate from the country as a whole, some bribes can now be paid with bank cards, Russian milk production is far too low to meet the country’s needs, Russia’s relatively low inflation, experts say, not the product of wise government policy but rather the increasing impoverishment of the population which lacks money to buy much, the northern capital says it doesn’t have enough money to deport illegal immigrants, profiteering in agriculture increasing under cover of “import substitution”, and hidden unemployment is spreading to conceal just how much production and demand have fallen.
5. It’s Not Just the Economy, Stupid, Gudkov Says. Sociologist Lev Gudkov says that Russia’s transition to a more open political system reflects not just mistakes by the regime and economic hard times but the continuing strength of Soviet attitudes among the Russian people. Supporting his contention is a new study which shows that Russians who are not risk averse have a difficult time getting through the country’s higher educational institutions. Other societal problems this week include: Russian officials say that it is all right with them if people continue to drink surrogate alcohol sources like perfumes and cleaners if Moscow can get the manufacturers of these products to pay alcohol-related taxes on them, and other officials have discovered that fake alcohol production now involves elite brands many of which are being exported. In some parts of Russia, education is now at risk because there aren’t enough school buses to get children to distant schools, and that makes the victory of Yekaterinburg protesters especially sweet: they were able to force officials to suspend plans to cut back public transport there. Like many countries, Russia has a problem with pornography. The government and many ordinary Russians want to ban porn sites on the Internet, but there is some confusion in Moscow’s policy. On the day it blocked one pornography site, it unblocked another, a leading porn actor called on Russians to protest to get his site back up, and some Russians said that the “unofficial” mascot for the Russian government’s censorship office is an erotic anime character. Perhaps it is no surprise given all this that the Intelligent Russia Party disbanded itself for lack of support. On a more serious and tragic note, ever fewer Russians can get the medicines they need, something that moves to ban homeopathic cures will only exacerbate. That has sparked some cancer suffers to protest and derision about Moscow’s claims that a uranium mining town has lower cancer rates than the country as a whole.
6. Moscow Now Giving Russian Orthodox Church Facilities the ROC Never Owned. The Russian government in the name of restitution is giving to the Russian Orthodox Church facilities it never owned or had any connection with, including churches confiscated by the Soviets that had belonged to other denominations. That and the statements and actions of Orthodox activists who are demanding ever more things be returned has prompted some to say that Russia is now in the grips of “Orthodox fundamentalism”. Meanwhile, Russia’s monuments war continued unabated in large ways and small. The Kolchak memorial in St. Petersburg was attacked again, the picture of Stalin with a child handing in the office of one children’s ombudsman sparked ever more anger, especially when it was discovered that the girl wasn’t an ethnic Russian but rather a Buryat, and a new investigation found that ordinary Russians can’t even get the gravestones they want without paying bribes to officials and criminal groups.
7. Internet Petition Seeks to Move 2018 World Cup from Russia to Poland and Ukraine. An online petition is calling on FIFA to strip Russia of its right to hold the 2018 world championship and move the venues for that to Poland and Ukraine. Meanwhile, more evidence surfaced that Russian sites for the competition aren’t anything close to ready, and Moscow had to announce that it won’t naturalize any new players for the world cup to make up for Russians who are now competing for other teams. (The number of Russian athletes now competing in all sports under neutral flags has risen to 35. Russia has been suspended from participation in the World Athletic Games to be held this August, and the IBU has called for stripping Russia of the right to host the biathlon competition in 2012. Given all this back and forth and fears that talking about the issue might even make things worse, the Russian Duma has postponed hearings on the doping scandal Russian athletics remains embroiled in.
8. Russian has No Term for ‘Conflict of Interest.’ Sometimes the absence of terms in one language for those that are common in others plays a critical role. At a time when many in Western countries are talking about “conflicts of interests” as threat to democratic governance, The Moscow Times reminds us that the term and what it stands for “don’t translate” into Russian.
9. Moscow Slams the Door on Syria’s Circassians. Even as Russia’s military involvement in Syria has made life in that country ever more dangerous for its Circassian community, the Russian government has effectively blocked Syrian Circassians from repatriating to their homeland in the North Caucasus, according to a Circassian activist who has been tracking Moscow’s policy on that issue. As a result, many of the Syrian Circassians are likely to die, especially given that the country’s dictator knows that they want to leave and will view them as disloyal.
10. To Mark Start of Year of the Environment, Moscow Steps Up Attacks on Ecological Activists. Vladimir Putin has declared 2017 the Year of the Environment in Russia. Moscow officials are marking it in their own inimitable way by attacking those who seek to hold Russian officials accountable to their destruction of the natural world. The FSB has organized a new provocation against Ecological Watch on the North Caucasus which did more than anyone else to call attention to Moscow’s destruction of the environment there in advance of the Sochi Olympiad. And Russian officials have attacked the Greenpeace organization for its complaints about Moscow’s malfeasance in the Arctic and suggested that the group is to blame for slowing down the development of the Russian North.
11. Domestic Violence Surges in Russia After Putin Decriminalizes It. Reports from around Russia suggest that domestic violence is rising now that Vladimir Putin has signed into law a Duma measure dropping criminal penalties against it. Official statistics show that two out of three of the victims of such violence are women, something that explains Russia’s high divorce rate and the fact that now nearly a third of all Russian families are headed by single mothers. Activists remain outraged by this plague and a law they see as promoting it. They plan a Moscow demonstration on February 12 against the new law.
12. Now Russians Can Be Charged with Separatism Even If They Have Never Called for It. Russians are now being charged with separatism even if they have never called for it, and they are being given warnings by prosecutors for books that they don’t even possess, the latest steps back to the Stalin era when officials could always find a charge if they wanted to regardless of the facts. Another step in that retrograde process came this week when a Russian was convicted for the first time under a law that makes it a criminal offense not to turn someone in.
13. Some Russians Say Gotland Should Be Russian and Pacific Islands Should be Russia. Some Russian nationalists say that Moscow should absorb the Swedish island of Gotland into the Russian Federation. Meanwhile, a wealthy Russian wants to recreate “a Russian Empire of the Romanovs” on some currently disserted Pacific islands as a guide to how Rusisans should live in Russia itself.
And six more from countries in Russia’s neighborhood:
1. Moscow Classifies Crimean Tatar Milli Mejlis as an Extremist Organization. The Russian occupying authorities stepped up their persecution of the Crimean Tatars and now have officially declared that that nation’s representative assembly is an extremist organization, another step on the way to creating a pro-Moscow substitute. Related to this, the occupiers have declared that they want to be the ones reaching out to the Crimean Tatar diaspora around the world.
2. Lukashenka Not Last Dictator of 20th Century Europe but First of 21st.Belarusian opposition figure Vladimir Matskevich says that the West is wrong to think of Alyaksandr Lukashenka as “the last dictator in Europe.” There are many others and unfortunately there are likely to be even more. Consequently, it would be better to think of Lukashenka as “the first dictator of 21st century Europe”.
3. Belarusian KGB Confiscates Pro-Moscow Books. The Belarusian security service has seized books in Belarusian stores that promote a pro-Moscow line. It has been particularly active in taking off the shelves books that attack the nation’s Litvin identity, one that treats Belarusians as completely distinct from ethnic Great Russians.
4. Even NATO’s Non-Lethal Aid Critical in Combatting Russia’s Hybrid War, Kyiv Experts Say. Many in Ukraine as discouraged that the Western alliance has not provided Kyiv with the kind of weapons it needs to fight the Russian invasion, but a meeting of defense and security experts in Kyiv says that even NATO’s non-lethal aid has been critical not only by allowing Ukraine to shift its own resources to purchase lethal weapons but also by providing Kyiv with guidance on how to respond.
5. Internet Replaces Imams as Primary Source of Muslim Knowledge in Tajikistan. Polls show that Muslims in Tajikistan increasingly distrust imams and mullahs as sources of knowledge about Islam, preferring instead to rely on the Internet. That preference undercuts Dushanbe’s efforts to recreate a Soviet-style official Muslim “clergy”.
6. Will the Russian Letter ц Return to the Tajik Alphabet? In the 1990s, Dushanbe eliminated several Cyrillic letters from its alphabet, arguing that the Tajik language didn’t need them. Now, one of those letters, ц, usually transliterated as –ts is making a comeback and may soon enjoy official sponsorship. Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan, a fight has broken out over how to spell or even call the city most people now refer to as Almaty.
The previous issue of A Baker’s Dozen, No. 69, can be found here.