Staunton, VA, January 13, 2017 – 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 66th 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 Potemkin Crowds. Most leaders have false information presented to them by subordinates who want to make a good impression, something often referred to as the construction of Potemkin villages, in honor of the work of a favorite of Catherine the Great. But Vladimir Putin has transformed this practice, possibly in what some would describe as a “hybrid” manner by coming up with Potemkin crowds surrounding him. Over the last few weeks, close observers of the Kremlin leader’s photographs with others have discovered that the same five or six people keep showing up in pictures of Putin with fishermen and Putin with other groups. Meanwhile, commentators keep trying to come up with a description of Putin himself. Some now say that he is a mafia capo while others suggest that he is “the last khan of the Golden Horde”. But perhaps the German weekly Bild captured him best: it said that he now tops the list of the worst leaders of the world.
2. With Trump, Some Russians Say Washington is now ‘Nashington.” Encouraged by the Kremlin media, Russians have long spent more time focusing on other countries than on their own. In recent years, they obsessed with Georgia, then Ukraine, then Syria, and now with the rise of Donald Trump on the United States. Some Russians are even suggesting that with Trump in the White House, Washington will become “ours” just as the Crimea did after the Anschluss. But Russian reaction to Trump varies. The Moscow Times reported that Russians laughed at Trump’s press conference. But one group of Russians in addition to the denizens of the Kremlin is certainly delighted: Russia’s oligarchs who have seen their wealth rise with the US stock market by US $29 billion dollars since November 8. The Russian media and especially more independent web portals have featured a debate between those who think Putin will now control Trump to Russia’s benefit and those who argue that Trump will behave more independently and in a more fundamentally hostile way to Moscow than did Barack Obama.
One commentator has even suggested that Trump’s election is America’s analogy to the February 1917 revolution in Russia and will be followed by even more radical changes (see also here). The latest reports that Moscow used a honey trap against Trump have sparked enormous interest among Russians even though polls show that any talk of sex remains among the most taboo subjects for most of them.
3. KGB Officers Who Became ‘Biznesmeny’ Learned Some New Things But Forgot Nothing. Almost like the Bourbons of whom it was said they learned nothing and forgot nothing, those Russians who came out of the KGB to become the country’s “biznesmeny,’ its oligarchs and the core of Putin’s regime did not forget much and continue to view operations in much the same way that they viewed their earlier assignments as one commentator points out. Thus, despite the widespread assumption that they are something new, they continue to act just like they did before, different only in that their returns now involve enormous sums of money rather than awards and promotions. Other developments in the state sector this week included: oligarch Igor Sechin pushed the government to save the Moscow Patriarchate’s bank, it was discovered that officials had installed someone to oversee education in a Urals city who lacked even a secondary education himself, and Kommersant reported that Russia will be only one of the top five countries with cyberforces and not the predominant one its leaders think and that others fear. And in yet another indication that things are only going to get worse, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the flamboyant LDPR leader who often has been a bellwether as to where the Kremlin is heading, is calling for the reintroduction of exile as a punishment.
4. Monument Wars Continue. Either the weather or opposition groups knocked over a temporary monument in Sochi to the victims of the recent military aircraft crash, anger is spreading about the plans of officials in Kaliningrad to restore the hunting lodge of Nazi leader Herman Goering, something that has only intensified now that the governor there has been photographed in a jacket which appears to have Nazi symbolism on it concerning Berlin’s protectorate of Moravia and , and the Russian Orthodox Church has declared that Red Square should not be a place for burials, Lenin’s or anyone else’s. But the big scandal in this area last week concerned plans by officials in St. Petersburg to accede to the Moscow Patriarchate’s demands and return St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the church. More than a hundred thousand people have signed a protest letter against such plans. They are especially outraged by the church’s demand that the government continue to subsidize the operation of St. Isaac’s even after it is returned to the church, a demand that flies in the face of the church’s obvious wealth and the fact that it is currently spending 150 billion rubles (2.5 billion US dollars) on church construction and that it is trying to hide what it is doing and how the state is providing much of this money.
5. Putin’s Priorities: Russia Now Spending More on Prisons than on Health Care. As the Russian economy continues to struggle – for a listing of some of the indications of this, see here – ever more disturbing news is emerging. Among the worst this week are the following: Moscow is now spending more on prisons than on health care, leading to emergence of a black market in key drugs and a deterioration in the nation’s health, Russian officials are now celebrating as a triumph alcohol consumption figures that are higher than those which provoked Mikhail Gorbachev to launch his ill-fated anti-alcohol campaign; the government’s anti-smoking efforts are repeating in the words of one commentator “all the mistakes of Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol effort”; Russia’s cities are increasingly environmentally filthy leading to protests in various parts of the country demanding that things be cleaned up; according to experts, almost two-thirds of the new HIV infections in Europe are now occurring in Russia.
6. Repression Spreads Across Russia. The Moscow Times reports that Moscow has blocked 1200 Russian websites since 2014 and ordered other sites to remove some 20,000 items, and Yandex has announced that it is excluding all news sites not registered in Russia from its new search function. Some Duma members are now urging that the definition of extremist crimes be broadened to include any attacks on Russians and their history. Meanwhile, officials are prosecuting a Yoga instructor for “illegal missionary activity”, and some Russians picking up on the ugly messages from their leaders are taking things into their own hands: In Novosibirsk, a group of thugs beat someone with long hair they suspected of being gay. There was one piece of good news this week: a Vladivostok court, following criticism from the Russian Orthodox hierarchy and human rights group, reversed itself and declared that the Bible isn’t extremist and shouldn’t be burned.
7. More Pressure at Home and Abroad to Strip Russia of 2018 World Cup. Nineteen national anti-doping organizations have called for a ban on Russian participation in international athletic competitions and for stripping Russia of the right to hold such competitions until it cleans up its act. Meanwhile, problems are mounting at home in Russia’s preparations for the 2018 World Cup. Ever more people recognize that the St. Petersburg stadium intended as one of the venues for that competition has become a black hole into which money disappears without a trace. Indeed, complaints about that have become so loud and widespread that officials in the northern capital say they won’t shift money from social needs to stadium construction despite Moscow’s insistence that they do just that. If Moscow wants the stadium, they suggest, let it pay for it
8. Economic Problems Now Hitting Russia’s Defense Industry. One of the Soviet Union’s few successes was that it was able to operate a highly successful military industrial complex even when the rest of the economy was in trouble. Putin has not been able to replicate that success, and problems in the broader economy are now hitting the defense industry. Not only are there reports that that sector cannot deliver the ballistic missile launchers Russia needs to deliver nuclear weapons, but officials have been forced to recall 20 percent of a new line of Sukhoy jets, an indication of problems in that closely-related area as well .
9. Putin’s National Guard Forced to Drop Plans to Disarm Russians. After detaining some 20,000 Russians over the long winter holiday, Putin’s new National Guard has been forced to very publicly to back down from its call for a ban on pneumatic weapons, the latest indication that the group, which the Kremlin appears set to use against its domestic opponents is generating anger among the Russian population and that officials are having to back away from its more extravagant projects.
10. ‘Just Like Under Brezhnev,’ Russian PEN Center Expels Opposition Journalist – and Others Resign in Solidarity. Yet another disturbing development in Moscow that has not attracted the attention it deserves was a decision by the Russian PEN Center to expel an opposition journalist, something that was a regular feature of the late Soviet period. But this time around, other journalists and writers not only protested the decision but have resigned in protest leaving the body a shell of its former self.
11. Chechens, Russian Nationalists Attack Independent Journalists. While Moscow has been orchestrating the expulsion of journalists from the PEN organization, the Chechen regime of Ramzan Kadyrov has been attacking Gregory Shvedov, chief editor of the Caucasian Knot news agency, and even threatening to do violence to him and his colleagues an ugly coming together of two groups hostile to media freedom.
12. Like the Foolish Man, Russia Building on Sand in Occupied Crimea. The Russian occupation authorities in Crimea are building a road there that is likely to disintegrate quickly because they are building it across artesian sands without putting down an adequate foundation. That is not the only highly symbolic move they are making: construction of the Kerch bridge, which Putin has declared a national priority, is not going as well as Moscow claims and there are reports that it too could collapse at any time.
13. Soviet-Style ‘Internationalism’ Returns to Putin’s Russia. In Soviet times, it was often said that the clearest example of the internationalism the regime promoted was when a Russian, a Ukrainian and an Azerbaijani got together to beat up a Jew. Now, in Putin’s times, there is this update: a group of people have beaten up a Tatar because they thought he was a Ukrainian.
And six more from countries in Russia’s neighborhood:
1. Fewer Ukrainian Soldiers Dying from Combat than from Accidents. A new report finds that in 2016, 224 Ukrainian soldiers died in combat against the Russian invaders, but 256 died from accidents of various kinds. Meanwhile, two additional Ukrainian demographic data points were released: demographers say that almost half of Ukrainians will not live to their 65th birthday and officials say that 23,000 people have fled from Russian occupied Crimea to the rest of Ukraine since the Anschluss.
2. 84 Percent of Russian Emigres Going to Former Soviet Republics and Baltic Countries. A survey has found that more than eight out of ten Russians choosing to emigrate from their homeland are going to former Soviet republics and, especially, to the three Baltic countries. Another study found that alcohol tourism is leading Scandinavians to go to the Baltic countries and Balts to Russia or Belarus.
3. Belarusians Choose Patriotic Gifts over Soviet Ones. There are many ways to measure shifts of opinion, but one of the most intriguing is to track whether people buy gifts associated with their own country or those linked to another. This year, in contrast to some earlier ones, Belarusians chose gifts that were Belarusian in origin and subject rather than those explicitly Soviet, according to retailers in that country.
4. Bellona Says Russian Atomic Power Plant Unbelievably Unsafe. The international environmental watchdog group says that the atomic power plant Russia is building in Belarus is setting new records for unsafe construction patterns and warns of disaster ahead if these mistakes are not corrected.
5. By Lifting Visa Requirements, Belarus has Created a New Problem for Russia. Because border checks between Belarus and Russia are minimal, Minsk’s decision to cancel visa requirements for residents of some 80 countries who want to visit Belarus for five days or less is creating problems for Russia whose officials fear that those who want to enter Russia but can’t get visas will come via Belarus.
6. Rising Number of Kazakh Women Marrying Chinese Men Sparks Anger in Kazakhstan. Ever more ethnic Kazakh women are marrying Chinese men, a development that has sparked protest meetings and even calls for a legal ban on such marriages.
The previous issue of A Baker’s Dozen, no. 65, can be found here.
Staunton, VA, January 13, 2017 – Ukrainians and their friends and supporters have been so worried that any grand bargain between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump will be a new “Munich” in which Ukraine will be handed over in whole or in part to the Kremlin that they have not considered fully just what any “deal” might look like, Petr Oleshchuk says.
The Kyiv political scientist who teaches at Shevchenko National University says that they should be given that such “’a broad accord’ between Russia and the US really is being considered at the level of people who are responsible for foreign policy in the Trump Administration”.
This week, Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee to be secretary of state, said that the US could recognize Crimea as Russia if there were to be “a broader agreement which the people of Ukraine would recognize.” There are “several logical conclusions” which flow from this, Oleshchuk argues.
First of all, it suggests that people on Trump’s foreign policy team are considering just such “a broad agreement … that is ‘a big deal’” and something which is no longer in the realm of “conspiracy thinking but is a reality, although still only hypothetical,” the Kyiv analyst suggests.
Second, Tillerson’s words imply that any “’big deal’” would be possible “only if there were agreement on the part of the leadership of Ukraine.” Clearly, Trump’s people now recognize that any unilateral move by Washington on this question would “destroy the world order,” while that could be maintained if Ukraine itself agreed to a shift. And third, Oleshchuk says, those who want a deal must thus be thinking about how to get Kyiv on board, perhaps by putting pressure on the Ukrainian leadership or perhaps by trying to buy it off or “most probably” by “a combination of the first and the second: promises of ‘Marshal Plans and threats of ‘a Russian attack.’”
To be sure, Ukrainians should expect especial generosity. “Even if one approaches Crimea as ‘a good’ to be exchanged, no one will give the real price for it.”
And there are two more aspects of the situation that Ukrainians must keep in mind. On the one hand, any grand bargain between the US and Russia will not be about Ukraine alone but about other issues including China. And on the other, if Trump can’t get a deal with Moscow quickly, then his interest in any such deal will wane quickly.
Consequently, if there isn’t “a Munich” this year, there is not likely to be one in the future, Oleshchuk says, a conclusion that makes an implicit argument of exactly how Kyiv should proceed.