Staunton, VA — May 12, 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 each week presents a selection of 13 of these other and typically neglected stories at the end of each week. This is the 82nd such compilation, and it is again a double issue. Even then, it is only suggestive and far from complete, but perhaps one or more of these stories will prove of broader interest.
1. Putin Said Transforming Russia into Gigantic ‘Island of Dr. Moreau.’ Even though the Kremlin-controlled media did as much as possible to promote the idea that Vladimir Putin is “the greatest hockey player” of Russia or perhaps of all times and places, perhaps the best description of the Kremlin leader and what he is trying to do came from a blogger who described him as an updated version of H.G. Wells’ 1896 anti-hero, Dr. Moreau, and suggested that he is trying to make his Russia into one large isolated island of madness. In other Putin-related stories, one analyst suggested that Putin is so popular with Russians because like them he wants to proceed into the future looking only at the past, and commentator Sergey Markov says that he will be formring a new organization to promote Putin because the existing Russian Popular Front is not in his words “Putin enough”.
2. Victory Day Highlights Russia’s Current Problems and Its Past Ones. The Kremlin pulled out all the stops to make the Moscow Victory Day a success, including a failed effort to prevent rain by seeding the clouds to the west of the Russian capital. But the Putin regime was criticized for detaching the victory from the actual war and for hijacking the holiday in other ways as well. Moreover, polls showed that the importance of the holiday for Russians reflects primarily the declining significance to them of other holidays. But in addition, the holiday highlighted Moscow’s current isolation. Putin didn’t even greet the presidents of two former Soviet republics and only one head of another country – Moldova – showed up for the parade. And the 124,000 former Soviet soldiers who actually fought in the war were neglected, with one veteran who had been promised an apartment getting an umbrella instead. The regime couldn’t keep ethnicity from surfacing either: Armenians and Azerbaijanis taking part in one demonstration ended up fighting with each other. But perhaps the most embarrassing were two articles a about the past. Soviet-era diplomat Valentin Falin reprised his old argument that the US and the UK set in motion World War II with the goal of destroying the USSR and a carefully researched study showed how Stalin and other Soviet commanders encouraged Red Army troops to rape their way as they advanced, including within the borders of the USSR.
3. Trump White House Says ‘This is the Problem with Russians: They Lie.’ After the Russians insisted on having a TASS photographer in the Oval Office and then posted the picture, White House officials said that the Russians had misrepresented what they planned to do, declaring that “this is the problem with Russians: They lie”. But Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said that the meeting had been a good one because Donald Trump unlike Barack Obama was not a man of principle but rather someone who wants to do deals. Presumably Lavrov prefers Trump to Mitt Romney who ran for president in 2012. Romney said that “”we destroyed the USSR and we will destroy Russia”. For his part, the US president insisted that he meets not only with Russians but with Ukrainians, although the latter session was brief and arranged reportedly only after Kyiv paid Washington lobbyists US $400,000 to make it happen. Meanwhile, a Russian analyst now living in the West insisted that Putin views former Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn as a Russian agent and will use him in the future.
4. Economic Collapse Seen Driving Ruble Down to 500 to the US Dollar by 2019.Moscow experts say that the Russian economy is in such bad shape and has so few prospects for recovery that the ruble may fall from about 60 to the US dollar now to 500 to the dollar by 2019. Russians continue to get poorer faster but still blame the West for their plight, income inequality already among the greatest in the world also continues to expand, Russians now lack money for basic services although they can still buy food, and adding insult to injury, the economies of Eastern European countries are performing far better than that of Russia. The economic decline is forcing the Russian government to cut back and to tell regions that they must do exactly what Moscow asks or give the money back. One republic, Mari El, is already bankrupt, local businessmen say. In other bad economic news, Sberbank has closed almost 10 percent of its branches; and falling incomes mean that Russians can’t afford to purchase dachas even though their owners have dropped the prices and even though many use dacha land to raise food.
5. Ancient Rome had More and Better Public Toilets than Moscow Does Now. One Russian commentator says that ancient Rome had far more and far better public toilets than Moscow does now, just one of the stories about serious social problems and the regime’s failed efforts to cope with them this week. Among the others are the following: the Duma wants to prohibit any reporting about suicides lest more Russians kill themselves, Putin’s much-celebrated “demographic miracle” has collapsed, two Duma deputies want to prohibit sex on first dates, although they haven’t indicated how they will enforce that, Putin’s healthcare optimization, a euphemism for serious cuts, has left some in hospitals without food, led to the closure of others putting dangerously infected patients on the streets, and led more than a third of Russians to say that they prefer self-medicating rather than risking a doctor visit. Meanwhile, it has become obvious that the regime doesn’t have the money it needs to meet its promises and ever more Russians are going into debt for electricity, water and sewage. The US Trade Representative reports that intellectual piracy has increased 300 percent in Russia over the last year, and a survey has found that the very worst roads in a country noted for just how bad its highways are are to be found in primarily Russian regions at the center of the country.
6. Russian Support for Kadyrov Rises by a Third Over Last Year. Despite or perhaps because of his anti-gay campaigns and thuggish behavior, including administering electro-shock torture to a historian who disagreed with him, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov nonetheless saw his approval rating among Russians rise from 31 percent to 42 percent over the last 12 months.
7. Chechnya Set to Make Monument Wars Much Worse. As has been true when St. Isaac’s wasn’t at the center of the monuments war, the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg was, this week because the museum had to apologize to European curators for director Sergey Mikhalkov suggested that their award was a Nazi prize. But perhaps more serious controversies are being brewed up by Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov who plans to open a major memorial in Moscow to Stalin’s victims and has sponsored an exhibit on the victims of Soviet political oppression in his republic. On other parts of this front, supporters of Nicholas II announced plans to prepare for the centenary of his murder and a Putin relative said he wants to erect a memorial in Omsk to White leader, Admiral Kolchak. Not even art very much pre-Soviet is being spared: vandals have covered with graffiti art from the last Ice Age in Siberia.
8. Russian Protests Increasingly Taking On a Political Dimension. Russian protesters are now more likely to make political demands ranging from the retirement of officials in regions and at the center and to an end to political terror by the Kremlin. The authorities have responded by taking a harder line of more bans and tougher fines and the introduction of facial recognition technology to allow the government to track who is at which demonstration. At the same time, the authorities seem more concerned about their image and have directed officials not to force government employees to take part in regime-approved demonstrations lest that backfire.
9. Putin’s Promises to Protect World Cup Visitors Only Call Attention to Russia’s Problems. Vladimir Putin has introduced special security measures in advance of what he hopes will be the 2018 World Cup competition including a ban on meetings and special guards at nuclear power plants. The planned venues are still in bad shape with one supposedly finished being so poorly done that a Russian soccer team has refused to play in it. Meanwhile, French authorities say their investigation of Russian doping has moved into high gear, Ukraine has said it won’t broadcast any World Cup matches if they are held in Russia, a response to Moscow’s refusal to broadcast the Eurovision competition now. But Putin remains upbeat about hosting even more international athletic competitions in the future, including more Olympiads.
10. Will the Axe Be Officially Recognized as a Weapon? Russians are rushing to acquire weapons at such a rate that there is now a ready market for World War II-vintage guns, and some in the government are thinking about classifying the axe as a weapon and thus making it subject to special limitations.
11. Russia’s War in Eastern Ukraine Cost Moscow Two Billion US Dollars Last Year. Moscow has spent at least US $2 billion on its invasion and occupation of Ukrainian territory in the Donbass alone, an enormous sum given Russia’s economic difficulties. Indeed, ever more Russian analysts say that Moscow will have to continue with its efforts to destabilize Ukraine because it can’t afford to invade more deeply into Ukrainian territory. Other bad security news this week included: the collapse of the airplane construction industry in Voronezh, the effective end of the Russian space program, and increasing problems with establishing an effective chain of command in the integrated Russian-Armenian military.
12. Moscow Likely to Cut Funding for Arctic Projects by 75 Percent. Despite Russian bombast and consequent Western fears about Russian expansion into the Arctic, the Russian government says it is considering cutting its planned budget for Arctic development by 75 percent next year. And officials point out that Moscow is already unable to fund many of its announced plans for infrastructure there.
13. Moscow has Lost the Battle on Social Networks. Despite Putin’s decree making anonymity for Russian users of the Internet illegal, a decree that is unlikely to be effective and despite Moscow’s success in cutting the share of Russian Internet traffic on foreign servers from 60 to five percent over the last several years, Russian experts say that Moscow has lost the battle for control of social networks: they are expanding and changing too fast for the regime to rein them in.
14. Putin Regime Expands Effort to Promote Snitching. The Russian government is using various means, including incentives, threats, and the indoctrination of school children to encourage Russians to turn in other Russians in the manner of the Soviet “hero” Pavlik Morozov who was killed by relatives for turning in his parents to the Soviet militia.
15. Moscow Patriarchate Says Terrorism has a Nationality and It Isn’t Russian. Hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church and its missionary arm are insisting that terrorism has a nationality and that the media and population should talk about it so that Russians will know exactly where the threat is coming from.
16. Russian Orthodox Church Takes Lead in Opposing Kazakhstan’s Shift to Latin Script. Russian officials don’t like it that Astana plans to shift Kazakh from a Cyrillic script to a Latin one, but the primary Russian spokesmen in opposition to the move are hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church both in Kazakhstan and in Russia.
17. Moscow Patriarchate Wants Supermarkets Closed on Sundays: ‘Russians Must Go to Church.’ The leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church is often denounced for its archaic views on various social issues and its support of repression, but it may cost itself more public approval by a move in another direction: It wants the Russian state to prohibit stores being open on Sunday so that Russians will be able to go to church.
18. ‘Orthodox TV Must Be Political,’ Chaplin Says. Russian Orthodox Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin says that the planned Russian Orthodox television channel must be political because the church is called upon to be involved with social and political life.
19. Insulting Religious Leaders Must be Punished as Form of Extremism, Duma Deputy Says. Outspoken Duma deputy Vitaly Milonov says that anyone who criticizes religious leaders should be charged with extremism and punished.
20. Are All Protestants Banned in Russia? Some police in the regions apparently think so. One told the leaders of a Baptist congregation that Protestantism is against the law, an overreach that his superiors rejected.
21. Tatar Outlet on Muslim-Finno-Ugric Rapprochement. One of Moscow’s greatest fears is the formation of an alliance between Russia’s Muslim nations and its Finno-Ugric ones. Now, a leading Tatarstan journal has begun a series on the history of their interrelationship, highlighting the many occasions on which they were united against the Russian state.
22. Muscovites Don’t Like Hipsters But Novosibirsk Residents Do. A new study finds that residents of Novosibirsk are much more positively inclined toward young hipsters than are the supposedly more open-minded Muscovites. The residents of the Siberian city view them as creative people; the Muscovites see them as dissolute.
23. Only One Russian in 12 Believes Officials Declare Their Incomes Honestly. A new poll finds that only eight percent of Russians think that officials required to declare their incomes have done so honestly. Most think the officials are doing everything they can to hide their earnings, much of it corrupt.
24. That Only Half of Russians Like Stalin is a Good Sign, Commentator Says. Many have been struck by the reports that 50 percent of Russians have a positive view of the Soviet dictator, Ilya Milshteyn says; but given how hard the Kremlin has worked to promote him, they should instead be impressed that half of the population still views him correctly and negatively as a despot.
25. Zavtra Says Future will be Totalitarian, Socialist or Fascist. A commentator in the Russian nationalist paper says that the future belongs to totalitarianism. The only open question is whether it will be socialist or fascist.
26. A Sad Sign of the Times: Some Muscovites Will Rent Only to Slavs. Signs have appeared in some Moscow apartment blocks specifying that the owners will rent them only to Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians), a measure of the hostility many feel toward non-Slavs from within the country and abroad.
And 12 more from countries in Russia’s neighborhood:
1. Poroshenko Says Visa-Free Travel ‘Final Divorce’ of Ukraine from Russian Empire. The European Union’s decision to offer visa-free travel to Ukrainian citizens represents “the final divorce” of their country from the Russian empire that has dominated it so long, according to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. He and other Ukrainian officials and commentators expressed the hope that as of next year, Ukraine will mark the end of World War II in Europe on the day the West does rather than the one Moscow continues to insist upon.
2. Nearly Three Million People have Fled from War-Ravaged Eastern Ukraine, Red Cross Says. The International Committee of the Red Cross says that 1.5 million residents of the Donbass and Crimea have fled to other parts of Ukraine, 1.2 million have gone to the Russian Federation, and 100,000 have gone to Belarus.
3. If Moscow Can’t Complete Kerch Bridge, Will Threaten Ukraine? Andreas Umland, a German scholar resident in Kyiv, argues that if the Russians fail to build the bridge from the Russian mainland to Russian-occupied Crimea, Moscow will almost inevitably be driven to launch a new wave of aggression to seize a land corridor to the Ukrainian peninsula. His suggestion has triggered a serious debate in Ukraine and elsewhere.
4. Russian Occupiers Use Sexual Tortures in Donbass. The Russian occupation forces in the Donbass have used sexual torture against those who oppose them, just one of the ways in which Russians there and in Crimea feel even less constrained by the Russian constitution and Russian laws than do officials in Russia itself.
5. Flights from Belarus Now Land at Moscow’s International Terminals. Having moved to tighten the border between the so-called union state, Moscow has now taken the next step and shifted flights from Minsk to the international terminals in the Russian capital so that passengers will have to go through customs formalities.
6. French Residents of Belarus Only Diaspora to Vote for Le Pen. Belarus gained another and less than noble distinction. Its French residents became the only diaspora in the world to give a majority of their votes to Marine Le Pen.
7. Pro-Moscow Gagauz Government Looks to Turkey for Investment. The leadership of the Gagauz autonomy in Moldova is now seeking investment from Turkey given that Russia has not proved able to provide it with the assistance Moscow had earlier promised.
8. Russian Ambassador Lays Flowers at Memorial to Lithuania’s Anti-Soviet Forest Brothers. Aleksandr Udaltsov took a step this past week that few of his colleagues would emulate: the Russian ambassador to Vilnius laid a wreath at the memorial to the Forest Brothers as the anti-Soviet fighters in the 1940s and 1950s are remembered.
9. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania Make Plans to Link into Polish Energy Grid. To lessen their dependence on Russia for energy supplies, the governments of the three Baltic countries have agreed on a common plan to tie into the Polish and thus European energy grid.
10. Kazakhstan’s Communists Say ‘Send Lenin’s Body to Us.’ The Communist Party of Kazakhstan says that it will be pleased to provide a final resting place for the founder of the Soviet state if Russia decides to shift him out of the mausoleum on Red Square.
11. Emoticons are the New Aesopian Language for Turkmenistan’s Bloggers. Given the extremely repressive nature of the Ashgabat regime, the few bloggers in Turkmenistan in order to continue to post anti-government statements have turned to the use of emoticons to signal how readers should take what they say.
12. Real Breaking News: For the First Time Ever, Uzbek TV Criticizes the Militia. The post-Karimov government is loosening up in various ways, one of the most obvious is in its supervision of the media. Last week, for the first time ever since Gorbachev’s glasnost period, Tashkent television actually carried a story criticizing the actions of the government’s militia.
The previous Baker’s Dozen, no. 81, can be found here.