Stanton, VA, January 27, 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 68th 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. Kremlin Lowballs Prospects for Putin-Trump Accord. Lest things go wrong and Vladimir Putin not get the concessions from Donald Trump he hopes for and so that if he does, Russians will have another reason for viewing him as a hero, the Kremlin is lowballing prospects for an accord, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declaring that it won’t be so easy to reach agreement with Washington. Meanwhile, as various Russian commentators point out, the Kremlin leader continues to lie about Russia’s role in Ukraine perhaps because ever more Russians are angry about that and even willing to protest against his policies. But Putin continues to signal his happiness about Trump’s behavior: state television praised Trump for not making any mention of democracy in his inaugural address.
2. Russians Have a Better Opinion of Trump than Americans Do. Seventy percent of Russians think Donald Trump is competent and will be a good president, a far higher figure than is found among Americans concerning the same questions. A major reason for this is that Russian state television has covered Trump so extensively and positively that many Russians could be excused for thinking that they live not in Russia but in the US.
Indeed, a new survey found that Russians paid more attention to Trump’s inaugural address than they did to traditional new year’s celebrations. But various studies suggest that this positive view of Trump is more deeply held than many expect and could even work against Putin not only by highlighting the reality that in the US elections do have consequences but also by making it more difficult for the Kremlin to come out against the US president if it decides it needs to. Right now, however, Russians and Putin are inline on Trump, with Russians celebrating the triumph of religious and conservative values in the US under him and others pointing to the fact that two religiously committed women now head the education ministries in the two countries. Indeed, Russians are trying to position Trump squarely within the Russian tradition. Some are now describing him as “the Siberian candidate”, others arguing that the American president is a descendant of Russian rulers, and still others putting Trump in the apocalyptic tradition, arguing that his arrival presages the second coming of the Messiah. In other Trump news from Russia, one Russian writer says that Americans who don’t like Trump are infected by Russophobia and hate him because of his wife’s Slavic origins. But the Trump Organization is trying to profit from Trump’s popularity in Russia. It is seeking to register the slogan “keep America great” as its own brand there.
3. Russians Now Have So Little Money They Don’t Notice How Poor They Are. Those familiar with the lyrics of the country ballad “Song of the South” will recall that in 1929 many Americans were so poor that they didn’t know the stock market had crashed. Something similar appears to be happening in Russia today: incomes have dropped so far that Russians don’t recognize how far and fast they have fallen recently. But for those who do keep track, the economic situation in Russia is dire and getting worse whatever the Kremlin says. Among the indicators of that this week are: Some Russians are calling for the wider use of the death penalty because it costs so much to hold prisoners. Moscow slashes research funding by three billion US dollars over the next three years. Teacher salaries cut in 52 regions of Russia. Moscow ends maternal capital program because there is no money. Moscow says there is only enough money now to give decent health care to elite. Omsk has money for only five of the 91 stoplights it is supposed to have. Gas rationing begins in Magadan. Even where there are worker shortages, firms aren’t paying on time or at all. Half of all Russians are now using credit for basic needs. Pensions are set to fall in each of the next three years. Real incomes for those who are working have fallen six percent over the last year. And one million people in Russia are now living under conditions of modern slavery.
4. Obscurantism and Repression Intensify. The Russian government has decided that the notorioius Yarovaya laws should not be cancelled but rather defined with greater precision, something that could have good or bad outcomes. That Russian legislation is going largely in a wrong direction was confirmed when the Duma passed the law ending criminal penalties on those who commit violence within the family and when the Moscow authorities refused to allow anyone to protest against this act. In addition, the government announced that everyone entering Russia will now be fingerprinted. Russia’s education minister called for a return to “the best traditions of Soviet schools”, which some saw as pointing to more ideology and less substance. Officials announced that 13,000 Russians had been charged with corruption in 2016, while Transparency International declared Russia “one of the most corrupt countries” on earth. The culture minister has proposed increasing the tax on foreign films by 1400 times so as to restrict their entry. And people in Chita have called for eliminating laws restricting the sale of alcohol because most ignore them. Finally, in yet another competition Moscow probably doesn’t want to win or at least acknowledge, one commentator says that Russia has the largest number of “politically controlled” prostitutes of any country.
5. Russia’s Monument Wars Sink to a New Low – the Bottom of the Marianas Trench. Just when one had concluded that Russia’s monument wars couldn’t sink any lower, they have done so, at least physically. Russian officials announced that they have put a Russian flag and cross at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, the deepest place in the world’s oceans. The fight over the handing over of St. Isaac’s to the Russian Orthodox Church continued to roil the waters of the Russian media, but there were some other stories that deserve attention: Russia’s culture minister says he wants to build an alternative memorial at Katyn in honor of the Soviet victims of Nazi atrocities, yet another Soviet-style effort to distract attention from the Soviet atrocities against Polish officers there. More Russian cities are taking down memorials to White Russian leader Admiral Kolchak now that St. Petersburg has taken the lead. Moscow runners are competing in a 10 kilometer race called “The Ten Commandments” and in a one-kilometer race called “God is One”. And the erection of a pro-Russian statue in Dagestan has sparked ethnic tensions in that North Caucasus republic. Meanwhile, as debates about the Soviet past have heated up – one Jewish leader was condemned for saying the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact opened the way for World War II – another Russian commentator argued that Moscow needs to set up its own ministry of counterpropaganda. But new polls suggest that large fractions of the Russian population are ignorant of their nation’s past and prefer it that way. But it is not just ordinary Russians who lack knowledge: officials in one Russian school this week mistakenly handed out a Dutch flag thinking that it was a Russian one.
6. ‘The Longer Moscow Denies Its Doping Program, the More Isolated It Will Become.’ That is the judgment of one prominent Moscow commentator in a week filled with events that confirm his judgment. Following the showing of a film in Germany about the Russian government’s doping program, German sports organizations demanded that Russian athletes be barred from the next two Olympiads, and new reports surfaced that as many as 80 percent of Russian athletes used illegal performance-enhancing drugs in the past. Moreover, a Czech athlete familiar with Russian sports said that Moscow has not done anything to change its approach beyond making bold declarations. And Moscow’s First Channel said it was “temporarily” dropping sports news, possibly so that it doesn’t have to report on or lie about any of this.
7. Chinese ICBMs on Russian Border ‘No Threat’ but 57 NATO Tanks in Poland Are. The Kremlin says that China’s decision to put ICBMs on its border with Russia is no threat to Moscow, even though earlier this month it argued that 57 NATO tanks in Poland are a danger to Russia’s national security. But that may be whistling in the dark because tensions between Russia and China are bubbling up not only because of cutbacks in Chinese imports from Russia but also because ethnic Chinese in the Russian Far East have now clashed with Russian students there.
8. Moscow’s Push to Militarize Arctic Outrunning Its Ability to Finance It. The Kremlin has announced plans to open more than 100 new military facilities in the Russian Far North this year and to expand its presence in the Arctic Sea as well. But the finance ministry along with other officials in Moscow has called for a halt in the construction of Arctic vessels because the Russian budget can no longer support such spending.
9. Anti-Semitic Outburst Highlights Moral Degradation of Russian Society. Duma leader Petr Tolstoy’s suggestion that the Jews who destroyed Orthodox churches in the 1920s are now working to keep the state from returning them to the faithful sparked outrage among some Russians and eventually his apology. But more seriously, it prompted several commentators to say that Tolstoy had said no more than what most Russian officials, including Putin, think in private and that his words were really an effort to restore “historical truth” rather than a manifestation of an ancient evil.
10. Has a Russian Official Absconded with Smallpox Virus? The former head of the Russian virology center where that country’s supply of smallpox virus has been kept – only the US and Russia have such samples left and the World Health Organization has declared that the disease and of course immunity to it no longer exist — has disappeared, raising the frightening possibility that he has taken some of this virus to use in trade with officials to escape punishment for corruption or even sell it to terrorists. There was more bad news on the virology front this week: tuberculosis and HIV infections in the Urals region have shot up dramatically over the last year, officials say.
11. Moscow Pensioner has Massive Arsenal. Moscow police have discovered and confiscated a massive arsenal, including machineguns and other heavy weapons, held by a pensioner in the Russian capital. Meanwhile, the city authorities have taken steps to make Moscow safer: residents will no longer be able to keep bears or other large animals in their apartments.
12. Moscow Urged to Stop Sending Money to ‘Unprofitable’ Villages and Send Pensioners Instead. Russian commentator Mikhail Delyagin says that the Russian government should stop throwing good money after bad in what is a fool’s errand to try to save the country’s dying villages. But LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky proposes that Moscow shouldn’t send money to these places anymore but that it should dispatch pensioners in order to ensure that the population remains in these places and thus protects Russian national security.
13. Despite the Horrors of Putin’s Russia, There are Many Genuinely Good Russians. Given how many horror stories there are coming out of Putin’s Russia, it is sometimes difficult to remember that the reason that many of us seek to fight against them is because there are in that country some genuinely good people who deserve a better life than the Kremlin offers them. There are many stories about such people. One this week was particularly affecting: a Russian woman adopted a Kyrgyz girl even though many of her associates treated her with contempt given that she could have children of her own.
And six more from countries near Russia:
1. 30,000 Crimean Tatars have Fled Their Homeland since Russian Occupation.Faced with ever-increasing repression that shows no sign of easing in the year ahead, 30,000 Crimean Tatars have fled their homeland, approximately 10 percent of the nation’s total population.
2. Could Ukraine Shift from a Cyrillic to a Latin Alphabet? As Ukraine seeks to escape from Russia’s orbit, one commentator has suggested that in addition to promoting the Ukrainian language, Kyiv should consider changing the alphabet in which it is written from the Russian Cyrillic to one based on the Latin script used in the West. Such a change would be extremely expensive and is unlikely to happen anytime soon, but the appearance of such suggestions underscores how much Ukrainians want to move away from Russia and toward Europe.
3. Catholic Church Seen Promoting ‘Creeping Belarusianization’ in Belarus. Some Russian commentators, drawing on the traditional hostility of their country to Rome, say that the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus is promoting what they call “the creeping Belarusianization” of that country. Meanwhile, there is a new upsurge of interest in Belarus to identify as Litvins, the ancient name of the Belarusian people, to distance them from Russia.
4. Intelligentsia Forced Minsk to Declare Belarusian the State Language. Most Belarusian officials were reluctant to declare Belarusian the state language of their republic even though all other Soviet republics had taken a similar step by that time, Belarusian commentators recalled this week on the 26th anniversary of the decision to do so. According to them, the only reason that Minsk declared Belarusian the state language was that the intelligentsia mobilized to demand that their rulers not be more Russian than Moscow.
5. So Many Tajiks Now Fighting for ISIS that Dushanbe has Regional Census on Them. Tajikistan officials now maintain a data base listing the number of Tajiks who have gone from each region of the country to fight for ISIS in the Middle East. That is probably more indicative of popular attitudes there than the government’s proud claim that the number of Tajiks seeking to enroll in the only Muslim higher school in the country has fallen by half over the last year. Indeed, that may be a warning sign as well because many who might hve studied there in the past now go to underground medrassahs or abroad.
6. Nazarbayev’s Reforms Mean Both More and Less than They Seem. Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s proposals about power-sharing as a means to prepare for a future transition mean both more and less than they seem. They mean more because the 76-year-old leader is aware that he is not immortal, but they mean less because they do little to share real power as long as he is alive. Indeed, one Moscow commentator says that Nazarbayev is “sharing power” in order to keep it or even to become more powerful still.