Staunton, VA, March 11, 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 73rd such compilation. It is “a double” because I missed last week due to illness. It is only suggestive and far from complete but perhaps one or more of these stories will prove of broader interest.
1. ‘Putin is War; Putin is Death.’ Russian support for Vladimir Putin may not be quite as universal as assumed if a banner put up and then immediately taken down in Moscow is any guide. Moreover, as those in the Kremlin plot about the president’s re-election, commentators are pointing out that the 2018 Russian presidential election will be “no less intriguing than those in Azerbaijan and Zimbabwe,” hardly the reaction Putin might like to have. Two other pieces of Putin news: the Russian president had to redefine the borders of Europe in order to claim, otherwise falsely, that infant mortality in Russia is now lower than in most European countries, and Russian officials have announced that under Putin, there is one real growth industry: the criminal code which has been adding 25 pages a year under Putin’s presidency.
2. Kazan Residents Appeal to ‘Comrade Trump’ While Others Say He is ‘the American Stalin.’ A group of residents in Tatarstan’s capital have called on “Comrade Trump” to come to their aid. Meanwhile, a Russian nationalist site has described the US president as “the American Stalin.” It isn’t clear whether they mean that in a positive or negative way given Russian feelings about the Soviet dictator. Meanwhile, officials in Kaluga Region have concluded that Trump is genetically related to the population there.
3. A Medvedev Russia Would Be as Bad or Worse than Putin’s, Analyst Says. While Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev continues to enjoy a more positive reputation in the West than Putin does, an increasing number of Russians offended by his corrupt behavior and by his tendency to say there is “no” money, work or anything else people want have concluded that their country would be no better off under him than they are under Putin. There have even begun to appear signs at demonstrations calling for Medvedev to leave office.
4. Two Things Motivate Russians: Their Pay and the Possible Loss of Their Jobs. According to Dmitry Potapenko, only two things motivate Russians today: their salaries and the fear of losing their jobs. The second fear is more than twice as widespread as the former and so Russian officials seek to hide unemployment by cutting back hours and wages rather than firing anyone. According to Moscow experts, Russians are less sensitive to the decline in their national economy because they now have so little money that they increasingly exist outside of the formal economic structures. In any case, they have no sense of the reality that Russian GDP is falling rapidly relative to the GDPs of other countries. Other bad economic news over the last ten days included: the return of public bonds, an acknowledgement that any money coming into Russia now is speculative rather than investment, a realization that 40 percent of Russian professions are going to see a contraction in the number employed in the coming decade because of computerization, and the growth of indebtedness of Russian cities and regions to almost three trillion rubles (US $50 billion) with little prospect that any of these money can be repaid.
5. Putin Puts Health Care Beyond the Reach of Russians Financially and Geographically. Vladimir Putin’s health optimization effort, a euphemism for massive closures, means that many Russians now cannot afford health care and that those who can often must travel hundreds of kilometers to get it, often dying on the way and). Other bad social news over the last two weeks includes: trash is now forming a ring around major cities creating a health disaster for the future, Russians cut spending in retail stores by 3.7 percent last month over the month before, cutbacks in higher educational institutions mean that many Russians who want to enroll won’t be able to, the heat was turned off at a defense plant because the company hadn’t paid its electric bill, only two of Russia’s cities now have tap water that is safe to drink, more than half of all Russian foods are adulterated, including high-end items like caviar and ), and finally and most horrifically, Russia has been identified as a country where those who commit rape are most likely to be able to escape any punishment for their crime.
6. Monuments War Continues Unabated. This week, officials claimed that a statue of Lenin and a statue of Nicholas II had wept, something that some Russians saw as a divine sign and that others dismissed as a political ploy. But those were far from the only engagements in the Russian “monuments war.” Among the others: Russian officials say that Soviet and tsarist films can’t be extremist by definition although some local officials disagree and are pursuing cases against those who commemorate the White Russian movement, supporters of the canonization of Rasputin continued their campaign, the Roman Catholic Church announced that it will follow the Moscow Patriarchate and Muslim groups and seek its property back from the Russian state as well, a group of liberal activists have called for renaming Sheremetyevo airport in honor of Mikhail Gorbachev, the KPRF has launched a campaign to fight desecration of Stalin monuments and bans on memorializing the Soviet dictator ( and ), the fight over renaming Ingushetia Alania continues despite official promises that it won’t happen, and the memorial to Boris Nemtsov was again destroyed immediately after a march in his honor. Meanwhile, to the horror of some, a perfectly Putinist memorial has been erected in Chechnya, with no names or other indications of just what it is for.
7. Unlike Rest of World, Russia Doesn’t Have a Zero Tolerance Policy on Doping. Russian experts point out that there is a major divide between Russian sports officials and those in other countries. Everyone else has a zero-tolerance policy; Russia doesn’t and seeks to work with athletes who have taken drugs rather than just exclude them, something that reflects the longstanding existence of a state doping program and also yet another way for Moscow to muddy the waters in the current doping scandal. In any case, Russia has not been invited to take part in an anti-doping meeting in Washington on March 22, its efforts to call the international doping reports into question have fallen flat, and Russian sports tsar Vitaly Mutko has been blocked from seeking election to the FIFA board. Nonetheless, Moscow has achieved some traction in its defense of its right to host the 2018 World Cup by suggesting that it will oppose Los Angeles as the host city for the 2024 Olympiad if the US continues to oppose it on the 2018 competition and some positive press for its report that Moscow has acknowledged failures in its anti-doping program and is spending more money to combat the illegal use of drugs by sports figures.
8. Half of All Current Russian Residents were Born after 1991. Although the Putin regime remains obsessed with the Soviet past, this year marks an important tipping point: half of all residents of the Russian Federation were born after the USSR ceased to exist. And among those born since 1991, the share of ethnic Russians is down and that of non-Russians and especially Muslims up. But perhaps the greatest disconnect between Putin and reality as far as demography is concerned is this: Putin is promoting a conservative mobilization effort predicated on the notion that Russians remain predominantly rural when in fact they are now overwhelmingly urban.
9. Russian City Proclaims It is ‘Gay Free.’ In an echo of Nazi times when German officials declared this or that place “Judenfrei,” the mayor of Svetlogorsk has proclaimed that his city is now “gay free” and that he intends to keep it that way. Meanwhile, other activists are seeking to prohibit the Disney film “The Beauty and the Beast” because they say it promotes homosexuality.
10. Russia’s Transportation Infrastructure Ranks alongside Gabon’s. Russia’s transportation infrastructure is so underdeveloped that it now ranks with that of the central African country of Gabon. Worse, some Russian officials say that laws and fines won’t be enough to make it better: those responsible for building and repairing roads who fail to do their jobs adequately should be sent to prison.
11. LDPR Politician Wants to Legalize Fan Hooliganism. Most world leaders oppose and take active measures to limit or ban altogether hooliganism by sports fans, but a Russian politician wants to legalize it so that fans who support one team can take out their aggressive feelings against those of another.
12. Russian Nationalists Want to Boycott Eurovision Contest. Because the Eurovision competition this year will take place in Ukraine whose representative won it last year, Russian nationalists are demanding that Moscow boycott the international song competition and possibly organize its own alternative to distract attention from the Ukrainian event.
13. Moscow’s Nationality Chief Urges Politicians Not to Exploit Ethnic Divisions. The head of the Federal Agency for Nationality Policy has called on politicians and officials not to use ethnic divisions in pursuit of electoral advantage. But the true significance of his agency in the Russian official constellation is reflected by the fact that its employees are paid less on average than those of any other government structure.
14. Urals City Asks to Be Transferred from One Oblast to Another. Many cities and towns located near the edge of one oblast have closer relations with people in another, and now one such city has petitioned Moscow and the two regions involved to redraw the border so that it can be in the region to which it feels the most connected.
15. Russia Now Center of New HIV/AIDS Infections in Europe. Given cutbacks in spending on anti-retro-viral drugs and the influx of heroin from Afghanistan, Russia today is now the largest generator of new HIV/AIDS cases in Europe.
16. Russian Criminal Statistics Aren’t to Be Believed, Moscow Experts Say. Many Russians prefer not to report crimes to the police, and the police have their own ways of deciding what crimes they will record. As a result, Russian crime statistics simply cannot be accepted as accurate or even an approximation of the situation in that country, experts say. In a related development, Moscow has announced that it will ignore a European Human Rights Court order to address the problem of torture in Russian prisons and camps.
17. Russia No Longer Dominant Producer of Rocket Launchers. For the last two decades, Russia has played a disproportionate role in the production of rocket launchers, supplying them even to the United States. But now that market has disappeared, and Russian producers of first stage rockets have seen their market share slip to two percent with no sign of any recovery ahead.
18. Muscovites Get Sick More Often and Die Earlier than Residents of Other World Cities. Within Russia, residents of Moscow have better health care and live longer than most Russians. But if one compares the situation in Moscow with that of major cities around the world, Muscovites get sick far more often, have less access to medical care and die younger than do the others. Moreover, health care in the Russian capital is collapsing with entire sectors, including those involved in mental health, now at risk of closing down.
19. Moscow Works to Hide Problems in Northern Sea Route. The northern sea route in which Moscow has placed so much hope is not doing as well as planned, not only because of massive corruption but because the construction of its icebreaker fleet is now far behind schedule. Russia’s solution? Restrict media access to what is going on by banning the head of The Barents Observer from visiting the country for the next five years.
20. Killing of Homeless Animals Continues Unabated in Makhachkala. Despite the media outcry and promises to provide new shelters, the killing of homeless animals continues unabated in the Dagestani capital where even the intervention of local imams who point out that such actions violate the principles of Islam appear to have had little or no impact.
21. Russians are Most Ashamed to Live So Poorly in So Rich a Country. Polls show that Russians are in fact ashamed of many things despite the bombast of their leaders and that they are most ashamed of living so poorly in a country which would appear to have all the resources necessary for people to live far better.
22. Moscow Introduces Visa-Free Visits to Russian Far East. The Russian government has introduced a program under which foreigners can visit the Russian Far East for up to eight days without securing a visa. The country whose nationals are likely to take the greatest advantage of this is China where residents of border regions routinely travel to Russian areas to purchase goods at lower prices.
23. Omsk Eternal Flame will Burn Only 17 Days a Year. In a story that seems to come straight from the pages of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, officials in Omsk say that financial stringencies mean that eternal doesn’t mean eternal when it comes to a war memorial there. Instead, the “eternal” flame will be lit on only 17 days a year.
24. Will Tourists Come to North Caucasus During Counter-Terrorist Operations? Vladimir Putin and other Moscow officials have called for the development of resorts in the North Caucasus to help bring economic development to that troubled region, but it is far from clear that even Russians will want to come given the dangers of violence there.
25. Russian Penal Officials Reject Calls for Separate Jewish Jails. Saying that if they created special prisons and camps for Jews, they would have to do so for other ethnic groups and that such a step would make Russia’s penal system unmanageable, the leaders of that institution have rejected the idea although they concede that it sometimes might make sense to divide prisoners up according by nationalities.
26. ‘Don’t Let Us Die’ Chelyabinsk Villagers Ask. Protests are on the rise across Russia, but none of the demonstrations or petition drives is more plaintive than that by villagers in Chelyabinsk Region who are asking officials simply to provide them with enough food and other goods so that they can survive their hard life.
And 12 more from countries in Russia’s neighborhood:
1. Baltic Governments Call for International Tribunal on Crimes of Communism. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have renewed their call for the convention of an international tribunal on the crimes of communism
2. Central Asians Want to Make Dead Aral Sea an Extreme Tourism Destination. Finally conceding what many have recognized for a long time, the governments bordering what used to be the Aral Sea have acknowledged that that body of water has died and won’t be coming back. To take advantage of the new situation, they are calling for organizing extreme tourism visits to the seabed of the former body of water
3. Hunger Spreading in Tajikistan. Water shortages and distribution problems mean that hunger is now spreading in some rural areas of Tajikistan, officials admit.
4. Finland Celebrates Centennial of Independence from Russia. Finland which secured its independence from Russia a century ago has begun a year-long celebration of that fact.
5. Activists Transform Lenin Statue into Shevchenko One. In honor of the great Ukrainian poet’s birthday, activists in Ukraine transformed a statue of Vladimir Lenin into one of the poet, the latest example of “de-communization” in that country.
6. Anniversary of Stalin’s Death Attracts 20 to Gori. Only 20 people showed up in Gori, the birthplace of the Soviet dictator, this year to mark the 64th anniversary of the death of Joseph Stalin, a figure that some connoisseurs of these things judged to be about right.
7. Kyrgyz Cemeteries Now to Be Divided by Religion. Kyrgyz Muslims and Kyrgyz Christians will no longer be buried next to one another, Bishkek officials say. Instead, the cemeteries in that country will have Muslim sections and Christian sections for the exclusive use of the followers of those religions.
8. Georgia Issues Map without Russia. A publisher in Tbilisi has issued a map showing the world as it is with one significant exception: the map doesn’t show Russia but instead a new body of water, which the publisher refers to as “the Ocean of Dreams”.
9. Russian Priest Wants Museum in Kuropaty to Show that ‘Not Everything in the USSR was Bad.’ A Russian Orthodox priest has entered into the battle over the fate of Kuropaty, the site of mass graves from Stalin’s times in Minsk. Drawing on what the Soviets did to confuse the situation about the execution of the Polish officers at Katyn, the priest is calling for the erection of a museum at Kuropaty that will show that “not everything in the USSR was bad,” an extreme form of apologetics for the Soviets by a Christian religious.
10. Turkmenistan Oppressing Uzbek Minority. In many countries in Central Asia, the titular nationality has a long history of mistreating ethnic minorities. The situation with the Tajiks and Uzbeks is especially well known. But this problem exists in Turkmenistan as well, although because of Ashgabat’s totalitarian control of the media, far less is known about how it mistreats ethnic Uzbeks. That makes a new article an important revelation.
11. Fifty Percent of Tajik Women Abused by Family Members. Every other woman in Tajikistan is the victim of physical and mental abuse by members of her family, according to Dushanbe experts. In another development highlighting problems in Central Asia, Kyrgyz women are now engaged in what is called “birth tourism” to the Russian Federation because they fear their babies will die if they are born in hospitals at home where infant mortality rates are crushingly high.
12. Crimean Tatars Will Never Accept Cultural Autonomy, Leaders Say. The Russian occupiers of Ukraine’s Crimea say they are prepared to offer Crimean Tatars national cultural autonomy but not any ethnic territory as such. Crimean Tatar leaders say that they will never accept the former because they have a right to the latter under international and Ukrainian law.
The previous issue of A Baker’s Dozen, No. 72, can be read here.