Staunton, VA, October 21, 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 54th 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. Is Putin Most Like Nicholas I, Muammar Gaddafi or the Pope? Commentators trying to explain Vladimir Putin have taken to comparing him to a variety of figures past and present. One suggests he is lonely like Nicholas I. A second says he may resemble Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi at least as far as his end is concerned. And a third suggests his messianism and the loyalty he elicits from his followers means that he is like the pope. But however that may be, Putin continues to pursue his own path, with a new 2017 cheesecake calendar and a special heavily armored car for him to travel about it. And he is spawning some truly intriguing phenomena: the appearance of a factory producing “President Coal” listing Putin’s achievements and discussions about reviving Soviet-era practices like quotas for women and other groups in parliaments, given that elections now mean not much more than they did in Soviet times.
2. If a Tree Falls But No One is Allowed to Report It, Does It Make a Sound? The Putin regime took two steps this week to ensure that no matter how bad things get and perhaps especially as they get worse, fewer and fewer people will know about them. Prosecutors declared that criticism of Putin and his regime constitutes extremism and is thus subject to criminal sanctions, and the economic development ministry banned any predictions about the slowing of the economy, even though other parts of the Russian government are making such prognostications.
3. Russian Central Bank Admits Russian Middle class has ‘Disappeared.’ The economic crisis in Russia is deepening and has become so obvious that even the Central Bank put out a statement talking about “the disappearance of the middle class,” the stratum that Vladimir Putin earlier took so much credit for creating. Other bad economic news this week including the reduction in next year’s budget for health care by a third or more, a rise in deaths because of Putin’s cutbacks in hospitals, growing unhappiness with wages and salaries that can’t keep up with rising costs as others report that real incomes have now fallen back to the level of 1999, and an increasing trend among retailers who are offering goods like milk in smaller packages so people can buy something.
4. Will Ivan the Terrible Stand Where Dzerzhinsky Used To? A group of activists want to erect a statue of Ivan the Terrible in front of FSB headquarters in Lubyanka Square where one of Cheka founder Feliks Dzerzhinsky stood until 1991. Meanwhile, a Russian Orthodox hierarch has called for erecting a statue of Ivan in Kazan, the city the Russian ruler sacked in 1552, and officials in St. Petersburg want to name a street in that city in honor of Ivan. In other reports from the statue war fronts, a historian reported that Ivan the Terrible did not view himself as a Russian, people in Russian-occupied Crimea have spontaneously destroyed a statue of Lenin and anything but spontaneously made plans to erect a statue to Putin. One commentator has suggested that in Putin’s Russia, erecting a statue can “cure” any problems the country has.
5. Russians Less Enthusiastic about Putin and War than Many Think. Activists have been arrested for putting up a sign asking that God grant them a long enough life to see a real Russian revolt against the powers that be. Demonstrators in many cities have held protests calling for the regime to stop spending on war and spend money on social services as well. Some took part in an international protest demanding that Putin end his aggression in Ukraine and Syria. And there is evidence that ever more Russian young men are coming up with new and creative ideas to avoid the draft now that service may involve going into combat.
6. Kremlin Now Says Kyiv Wanted to Give Crimea to US. Russian propaganda is becoming ever more hyperbolic and unbelievable. The latest claims include that Moscow had no choice but to seize Crimea because the Ukrainians were planning to hand over the peninsula to the Americans and that – and this may be an indication of Putin’s planning — Finland is “Russian land from time immemorial”.
7. Moscow Patriarchate Closing Churches Just Like the Bolsheviks, Ukrainian Priest in Moscow Says. The pastor of an Orthodox congregation in Noginsk near Moscow that the Moscow Patriarchate wants closed because it is subordinate to the Kyiv patriarchate says that the Moscow Patriarchate is behaving exactly the same way as the Bolsheviks did as far as religion is concerned. He says he and his parishioners have no plans to give up the struggle against the Moscow Patriarchate’s plans.
8. Moscow Patriarchate Does Kremlin’s Bidding Abroad in Two Ways. The Moscow Patriarchate, although ever less influential among Russians within Russia, is quite prepared to win points with the Kremlin both as a “soft power” adjunct to Moscow in dealing with foreign countries and as a cover for Russian espionage activities abroad.
9. Putin’s Treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses Resembles Hitler’s. Efforts by Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church to close down all activity by the Jehovah’s Witnesses resemble the actions Adolf Hitler took against them in the 1930s, experts say. What is especially worrisome is that the Kremlin is rapidly extending what it is doing against the Jehovah’s Witnesses to other religious organizations, thus gradually killing off religious freedom for all but the Moscow Patriarchate’s followers.
10. Moscow Failing to Build Roads to and from Kerch Bridge Project. The Kerch bridge project, which may never in fact be completed given problems with the seabed and with cost overruns, typifies Russian construction efforts in another way: Moscow has made no plans as yet to develop the roads leading to and from the bridge so that the bottlenecks the bridge is intended to eliminate will simply occur before or after vehicles pass over its still-incomplete span.
11. Kalmyks Want Mongolian Citizenship and Mongols Want Latin Script. Mongolia is posing a challenge to Moscow far greater than just its efforts to divert water from its rivers that would otherwise flow into Lake Baikal. The Kalmyks, a Buddhist people who live in a republic adjoining the North Caucasus, say they would like to have dual Mongolian-Russian citizenship so that they could make religious and economic pilgrimages more easily to Ulan Bator. And Mongolia appears set to become the next republic to do away with the Cyrillic-based alphabet Moscow imposed on it when Mongolia became a Soviet satellite in the 1920s, thus reducing still further the number of nations using a variant of the Russian script.
12. Moscow Acquires a New Military Partner: Swaziland. Russian opposition figures have been pointing out that the West has an elaborate alliance system while Russia has almost no allies it can count on. Perhaps to counter such reports but in an unintentional way confirming them, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev played up a new military cooperation agreement it has with Swaziland, a country whose army numbers only 3,000 men, 25 percent of whose population is infected with HIV/AIDs, and one where life expectancy is now 48 years. But Swaziland has a tradition of cooperating with Moscow: In 2007, it eliminated a visa requirement for Russians.
13. Russia is Only Country in World Where Polls Show Trump Could Win Election. Polls taken in countries around the world currently show that there is only one country where Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president of the US, would win a majority of votes: the Russian Federation. In other news on this front, Several commentators have pointed out that the Russian government and to a certain extent the Russian people are currently looking for all the wrong kind of friends in all the wrong kind of places. (See, for example, here.) And Russian journalists have tracked down the individual who presented himself as the leader of the California independence movement at Moscow’s secessionist conference last month: He is an English-language instructor who lives in Yekaterinburg, Russia.
And six others from countries in the former Soviet space:
1. Ukrainian Parliament Says USSR Shares Responsibility for Outbreak of World War II. The Verkhovna Rada has adopted a declaration saying that the Soviet Union, because of its alliance with Hitler as embodied in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, shares responsibility for the outbreak of World War II.
2. French President Says NATO Should Admit Ukraine as a Member to Stop Putin. If nothing else will stop Vladimir Putin’s aggression in and against Ukraine, French President Francois Hollande says, according to French journalists, that NATO should arm Ukraine and admit to as a full member of the alliance admit Ukraine into the alliance.
3. Russian Orthodox Metropolitan in Minsk Prepared to Take Belarusian Citizenship. Metropolitan Pavel, a Russian citizen who was named to his current post by Moscow Patriarch Kirill, says he is ready to take Belarusian citizenship even though Alyaksandr Lukashenka says he doesn’t have to. His words suggest that pressures against the Russian church in Belarus are increasing. Another indication of Belarusian unhappiness with Russia is that a group of Belarusian activists is now circulating a petition calling on their government to close the border with the Russian Federation.
4. Uzbeks Press for End to Exit Visas. In the wake of the death of Islam Karimov, Uzbek activists are calling on Tashkent to end the Soviet-style practice of requiring anyone who wants to leave the country to get an exit visa from the authorities. Unfortunately, there is little indication that the new government will accede to their request.
5. Political Use of Psychiatric Prisons Spreads to Kazakhstan. One of the most distressing facts of life in the post-Soviet space is that the most horrific actions by one government are quickly copied by others, especially if there is not an outcry against them. One such action, the political use of psychiatric prisons against political opponents, is now taking off in Kazakhstan after it has experienced an explosive revival in Putin’s Russia.
6. Is Kazakhstan about to Start Taxing Sex? Governments in the post-Soviet space, faced with falling revenues and rising needs, are considering various unusual taxes. In Russia, some have suggested taxing people’s shadows. But perhaps the most intriguing proposal has surfaced in Kazakhstan: there some activists have called on the government to introduce a tax on sex. People would be required to declare how often they had sex and pay a tax accordingly. Under their proposal, those who engage in homosexual acts would have to pay at a much higher rate.