Staunton, VA, October 14, 2016 – 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 53rd 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 Offers New Lies for Old. Many in the West were so excited by Vladimir Putin’s acknowledgement at long last that he sent Russian troops into Ukraine, something he and his regime have long denied, that they failed to notice that his admission included another lie, that the Ukrainians made him do it by mistreating Russians. This pattern has become so common – Putin is now doing the same thing in Syria – that perhaps it should be given the name of “the Putin perplex,” because it achieves exactly what he wants, sowing confusion among his opponents.
2. Is Putin Choosing a Hot War Because He Can’t Afford a Cold One? Wars, hot or cold, are expensive, and leaders enter them at great risk to themselves if they lack the resources to carry them out. According to some analysts, Putin doesn’t have the resources for a cold war and so may be considering a hot one where he still has nuclear weapons. He and his government have lost support from the population. He is internationally isolated – only six of 252 world leaders sent him birthday greetings. His government has been forced to cut back in subsidizing the media that deliver his propaganda. And he may have decided that promoting the notion of a hot war is his least bad alternative. But as others have pointed out, he doesn’t have the resources for a hot war either.
3. Some Russians Putin to Rule Forever – and He’s Trying to Arrange That. A group of Russian nationalist activists has called for the Russian constitution to be changed so that Vladimir Putin will remain president for life. For his part, Putin seems to be doing what he can to arrange that, criminalizing any criticism of his rule, planning to put a million Russians under government surveillance, and promoting both Stalinist music and the Soviet flag.
4. 14 Million Russians Drop Out of Middle Class as a Result of Current Crisis. Because of the current crisis caused by the collapse in oil prices and the imposition of sanctions as a result of Putin’s aggression, 14 million Russians who had been members of the middle class have now fallen into poverty. The problem for the population is even wider than that: according to new data, 40 percent of all Russians saw their standard of living decline over the past three months alone. A quarter of all Russians cannot pay their utility bills, and more than 600,000 are at risk of personnel bankruptcy. Adding insult to injury, Moscow is not promising any real improvement for at least three years, and an increasing number of Russians have concluded that the Kremlin is ignoring the problems that they face.
5. Doctors Tell Russians: ‘If You’re Sick, Go to Church and Light a Candle.’ Medicines and medical care are in increasingly short supply – and the government has cut spending on health care by 33 percent for next year – that some Russian doctors are now telling their patients that if they get sick, they shouldn’t turn to the medical profession but rather go to church and light a candle. Meanwhile, officials reported this week that as many as 40 percent of the medicines being used in Moscow are fake or adulterated and do not work as intended, that Russians have no legal protection against medical testing that may harm their lives, and that Russia’s burgeoning prison population is now a breeding ground for many serious illnesses. This week, Moscow declared a group fighting HIV/AIDS a foreign agent but it did allow the importation of western condoms again. One sector where the authorities seem to be spending more is on punitive psychiatry because it is useful to the powers that be in their struggle with political opponents.
6. Russian Force Structures in North Caucasus Said Inflating Number of Militants to Justify Bigger Budgets for Themselves. Experts says that the siloviki have taken to inflating the number of militants they face in order to justify bigger budgets for their own institutions. There is evidence that the Daghestani authorities are assisting in this process. All this is part of an even larger problem. While the Russian authorities say that interethnic relations in Russia have been improving, they report more convictions for extremist crimes, the result of new laws and administrative and political needs.
7. Fights over Memorials Increasingly Divisive. Russians have often fought their political battles by talking about the past rather than the present. Now, they are fighting about the future by engaging in conflicts over the statues and memorials that they want in their cities. On October 14, the statue of Ivan the Terrible went up in Oryol, even as officials in St. Petersburg took down the memorial to Marshal Mannerheim and moved it to a museum in Tsarskoye selo. Russian commentators denounced Mannerheim as “a white guard” even as some of them praised Ivan the Terrible as “the most humane leader of the Europe of his times”. Meanwhile, a statue to the Tsarevich Aleksey who was murdered by the Bolsheviks has gone up in Yalta, and an effigy of Alexander Solzhenitsyn has been “hanged” in front of the GULAG museum in Moscow. The statue wars are not only setting one group of Russians against another but dividing ethnic Russians from non-Russians, with cases of vandalism of statues in memory of non-Russian heroes being vandalized, and some non-Russians demanding statues of their national heroes given that the Russians seem to be able to put up almost anyone they want.
8. Emigration Poses Double Threat to Moscow. Emigration from Russia is not only much greater than Moscow admits, but it contains a double threat to the country, Russian commentators say. The brain drain it represents undermines the ability of the country to develop in the future and the current emigration may come to play the same role the Russian emigration did at the end of the tsarist period and help mobilize Russians at home against the Kremlin.
9. Trump’s Remarks about Women Said Viewed by Many Russians as ‘Normal.’ While an overwhelming majority of Americans have expressed shock and anger about Donald Trump’s remarks about how he thinks women should be treated, most Russians accept the words of Republican candidate for US president as entirely normal, at least judging by their own experience in Russia, one commentator says. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s reference to Trump’s words will do nothing to change their view nor will the discovery that the Russian city dubbed the most hospitable features numerous advertisements for bordellos.
10. Two Plus Two Doesn’t Equal Four in Russian Schools Anymore. Parents of pupils in one school have discovered that the correct answer to a mathematics problem their children were asked to solve was not the one the teachers wanted because it was not “patriotic” enough, yet another indication of the increasingly Orwellian world of Putin’s Russia. Commentators are also upset that some school textbooks still fail to show Russia’s politically “correct” borders in Crimea and elsewhere.
11. Nannies Replacing Grandmothers as Childcare Providers, Breaking Cultural Transmission Belt. In some Russian families, mothers are turning to nannies rather than grandmothers for childcare, a shift that disrupts the transmission of cultural values from one generation to another, according to a new study.
12. Russian Post Office Puts Up Sign in Braille – and Then Covers It with Plate Glass. A Russian post office has tried to become more user friendly for its blind customers by putting up a sign in Braille, but then, in an exemplar of the problem Viktor Chernomyrdin highlighted years ago, it has vitiated the utility of this sign by covering it with plate glass so that the blind cannot read it.
13. Photo of Drunk Siberian Family Goes Viral. A picture of a family in Siberia lying drunk amidst piles of trash, captured by Google Maps, has gone viral on the Runet. Those photographed say they did nothing wrong – they weren’t shown drinking or having sex in public – and therefore no one should be offended or even taking notice of their activities.
And six more from countries around the Russian Federation:
1. Dalai Lama Condemns Russian Aggression in Ukraine. The spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists has now condemned Moscow’s actions in Ukraine as aggression, thus putting him ahead of some Western leaders who contort their language in order to avoid calling those actions by their proper name.
2. Is Kyiv about to Get Creative on CIS Exit and Citizenship? One Ukrainian analyst has suggested that Ukraine should not simply leave the CIS but work to organize an anti-Moscow alliance of post-Soviet states, and another has suggested that Ukraine should follow the model of the Baltic countries and have both citizens and non-citizens among its population especially if Moscow’s agents in the Donbass continue to hand out passports to people under its control.
3. Border Dispute between Belarus and Ukraine Heating Up. Belarus and Ukraine have not yet resolved all the issues involved in the demarcation of their border, thus opening the possibility that the issue can be trotted out when needed to make a broader political point.
4. Belarusian Foreign Minister Says Greatest Threat to Minsk Not NATO but Dependence on Moscow. Speaking in Poland, Minsk’s top diplomat said that the greatest threat his country now faces comes not from NATO but rather from continuing to be too dependent on Moscow and thus constrained in its actions.
5. Tashkent Mosque Named for Late Uzbek Leader. There is now an Islam Karimov mosque in the Uzbek capital, just one more sign of the personality cult that continues and is being promoted by his successors as a way of building their own authority.
6. Bishkek Insists on Censoring Film about 1916 to Avoid Offending Russia. The Kyrgyzstan government has demanded that independent film makers drop several scenes in their movie about the 1916 rising in Central Asia against Russia lest they offend the current Russian government.