Russia Update: Russians Watch Protests in Yerevan with Apprehension – or Inspiration

June 26, 2015
Protesters in Yerevan with signs complaining about Russian state media coverage of their demonstration.

Russians commentators have been concerned about how their government will react to the protests in Yerevan, which they are determined to see as a “Maidan.” Meanwhile, some in the Russian opposition have been inspired.

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here.


Russia This Week:

Is ‘Novorossiya’ Really Dead?
From Medal of Valor to Ubiquitous Propaganda Symbol: the History of the St. George Ribbon
What Happened to the Slow-Moving Coup?
Can We Be Satisfied with the Theory That Kadyrov Killed Nemtsov?
All the Strange Things Going On in Moscow

Special features:

‘There Was No Buk in Our Field’
With Cash and Conspiracy Theories, Russian Orthodox Philanthropist Malofeyev is Useful to the Kremlin
Alexey Navalny On the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
Theories about Possible Perpetrators of the Murder of Boris Nemtsov

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Establishment, Opposition See Different Sides of Former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov Who Died Today

Today June 26, 2015, former prime minister and intelligence chief Yevgeny Primakov died after a prolonged illness.

Primakov served variously as foreign minister, prime minister, and chief of intelligence in the Soviet era and in the Yeltsin Administration and was also an academician in the Russian Academy of Sciences. He had not held office under President Vladimir Putin.

Primakov was most famous for ordering the plane in which he was traveling to the US for talks to turn around mid-way over the Atlantic in 1999 when he learned of NATO’s bombing of Serbia, which he condemned as a “historic mistake.” It was a watershed in the Kremlin’s foreign policy; Kommersant wrote at the time that Primakov “had turned around Russia.”

Over his long career, he remained loyal to the Kremlin through various regimes although he criticized some aspects of President Vladimir Putin’s policies and was believed to be the leader of an influential group of hardliners tempered by pragmatism. Regarding the war in Ukraine, he believed “Crimea is ours” but “the Donbass should remain part of Ukraine.”

Last year, as the chess champion and opposition leader Gari Kasparov noted, “Primakov has ordered that this ‘travelling Russian Spring’ circus be ended” regarding the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic.”

In this last six months before his death, Primakov was in the news as an outspoken critic of Putin’s economic and foreign policies through his speeches at the Mercury Club, a prestigious group where Russia’s top bankers, business people, economists and officials are members.

As we reported, on Jan. 14, the Ukrainian blogger Pavel Praviy wrote about various theories for why President Vladimir Putin was missing, and speculated about which figures  might take over from him. He mentioned the faction critical of Putin headed by Primakov and the speech where he “tore Putin’s policy to bits”:

– He said Donbass should remain in Ukraine
– He opposed Russia’s self-isolation
– He advocated a move away from Russia’s role as “the world’s gas station” and diversification of the economy
– He acknowledged anti-semitism, chauvinism and neo-Nazis as big problems in Russia

While Medvedov once called Putin “a nationalist in the best sense of the word,” Primakov said a difference should be made between nationalism and patriotism:

“Nationalism is NOT limited to protection of cultural and historical features of a given nation and the need to defend its interests. That would be acceptable if the essence of nationalism DID NOT consist in opposing other nations on which the nationalists usually look from on high.”

Primakov’s starkest comment in this speech was:

“There are no grounds to believe the readiness of the executive government to propose a justified plan based on concretely specified actions to turn the country toward diversification of its economy and its growth on this basis.”

The Mercury Club speech then was an “ultimatum” to Putin, which Putin clearly ignored, and now he has to “pay” for this.

As The Interpreter‘s syndicated columnist Paul Goble wrote in January:

Many in Russia and the West are celebrating Yevgeny Primakov’s
argument presented at the Mercury Club this week that
hyper-centralization, a policy associated with Vladimir Putin, is a
threat to the Russian Federation and its economic recovery and his call
for devolving more powers to the regions of the country.

But few
of them have paid equal attention to his suggestion that national
districts should be folded into larger and predominantly ethnic Russian
regions, a step Putin also has pushed with some success and one that
many non-Russians view as another move toward the destruction of the
national republics and the ultimate assimilation of non-Russians.

said that there is no threat of any “color revolution” anywhere in the
Russian Federation, but he argued that “for the resolution of economic
problems, the economy needs decentralization” given that problems “can
arise precisely from an extraordinary centralization of all spheres of
life, including economics.”

The tributes to Primakov from establishment figures left out his criticism of Putin:

Translation: Yevgeny Primakov was a non-opportunistic patriot of Russia. Therefore he will be particularly missed now.
Translation: Yevgeny Primakov has died. With his famous turn over the Atlantic, he began the turn of our country toward protection of our sovereignty and national interests.
Translation: Patriarch of Russian politics Yevgeny Primakov has died at the age of 86.

Translation: Yevgeny Maksimovich Primakov has ended his life’s path. A legendary man. Many a generation will thank him for his work for the welfare of Russia.

Translation: one of the most respected politicians in the country and in the world, Yevgeny Primakov.

Primakov’s mother was Jewish, his father was Russian, and he was educated and made his career as a secular Soviet communist official. Yet the Russian Orthodox Church’s leader Patriarch Kirill will preside at  his funeral:

Translation: Patriarch Kirill will personally perform the service for Yevgeny Primakov.

Opposition figures remembered another side of Primakov — his opposition to the war in Ukraine and call for decentralization of power:

Translation: Yevgeny Primakov was one of the politicians who publically called to accept Art. 20 in the struggle with unlawful enrichment.

Translation: Primakov wrote these verses not long before his death : (  An excellent profile by @kozenko, read it.

Translation: Primakov was a wise politician. He advocated the decentralization of power, advised Putin to get out of the Donbass. Rest in Peace.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russians Watch Protests in Yerevan with Apprehension – or Inspiration

Protests in Armenia’s capital of Yerevan, now in their eighth day, have attracted substantial press coverage in Russia both in the state and unofficial media, and a lot of discussion on social media.

Riot police have battled protesters who refused to disperse with clubs and water cannon.

The New York Times described the issue as follows:

The protesters, who want the government to reverse a decision allowing a
steep rate increase by a Russian-owned electricity company, were
undeterred by the use of force to break up a peaceful, festive sit-in
near the presidential palace that began late Monday and lasted through
the night.

As AFP reported:

Owned by the Russian state-controlled
holding Inter RAO, Armenia’s power distribution company said the hike
was needed due to a sharp devaluation of the national currency, the

The company refused to comment Wednesday
but its head said earlier that it would not be able to guarantee steady
electricity supplies if tariffs are not increased.

Armenia, an ally of Moscow, has been hit
hard by the economic crisis in Russia brought on by falling oil prices
and Western sanctions over Ukraine

Inter RAO is headed by Boris Kovalchuk, the son of Yury Kovalchuk,
head of the Bank of Russia. Both Yury Kovalchuk and the Bank of Russia
have been placed under US sanctions for their role in the annexation of the Crimea.

In the Eurasia region, when Russia catches cold, it’s not just that
other countries sneeze; they can get pneumonia. The ruble collapse and
economic crisis in Russia this year caused disruption in the economy of
Armenia, and a dramatic downturn in flows of Central Asian and Caucasian
labor migrant flows, as some of these countries rely heavily on

Armenia has been a faithful ally of Russia, its fellow Christian
nation, which it has seen traditionally as a protector and bulwark in
its opposition to Azerbaijan and Turkey, although this has changed in
recent years as Russia has invested more in building relations and
energy projects in these countries.

When the proposition was put to the UN General Assembly
last year whether to support the territorial integrity of Ukraine and
thereby not recognize the annexation of the Crimea by Russia, Armenia
voted with Russia against the resolution, although a majority of
countries of the world approved it, including even some of Russia’s
regional allies, notably Georgia and Azerbaijan;  Kazakhstan abstained.

Some in the Russian opposition has been intrigued to see a sustained
protest over time — which they have not been able to manage themselves
— and over an economic issue — of which they have plenty, but for which they have been
unable to muster large demonstrations.

Translation: Anyway the Armenians are great! We should learn from them before it is too late.

Some Russians are using the hashtag “YerevanMaidan”:

Ukrainians are using it more:

Alexey Navalny didn’t have much to say about the events in Yerevan,
preoccupied with his own primaries now, the arrest and beating of his
colleagues, and his recent debate with Anatoly Chubais. He has retweeted
pictures from Western or Russian journalists of the scenes in Yerevan.

Some bloggers have pointed out that the Armenian demonstrators are unhappy about the way they are being covered in the Russian media:

Translation: Tariffs, electrical power, that’s it #YerevanMaidan

Other Russian commentators have been apprehensive about Moscow
over-reacting to the demonstrations on a single issue, especially if the
protest is misinterpreted, as Paul Goble has noted in his column
syndicated by The Interpreter:

If Moscow Fails to Understand that Yerevan is Not a Maidan, That Alone Could Make It One, Markedonov Says

Ukrainian commentator Eidman also commented on this issue:

Putin and His Entourage Can’t Imagine People Can Protest on Their Own, Eidman Says

The state media has done exactly what these analysts have cautioned
against, as can be seen from an article on Rossiyskaya Gazeta‘s site (translation by The Interpreter):

The events in Armenia force many to ponder where what
is happening will be a repeat of the Ukrainian Maidan. Some political
analysts are certain that if the course of the protest is analyzed, it’s
clear that they were prepared with the techniques of the “color
revolutions.” Other experts believe the unrest has exclusively social

RG and other state media have concentrated on publicizing the Kremlin call for
a compromise and an end to the demonstrations, stressing Russia’s close
ties to Armenia. Presidential administration spokesman Dmitry Peskov said:

Armenia is our closest partner, we are united by
historical ties with this country, with the Armenian people. Of course
we are carefully observing what is happening there and unquestionably,
we hope that in the nearest future this situation wlil be settled in
strict accordance with the law and there will be no violations.

Critical blogger Oleg Kashin, who recently returned to Russia after
two years abroad, had an interesting interchange with an Armenian who
has lived many years in Russia.

Translation: No, it’s just cool that usually “Armenians for
Putin” are against the Yerevan demonstrations, and you are for them,
you’re great.

Translation: Yes, I’m for Putin! But I know what is happening in Yerevan! My task (modest ; )) is to reach whomever I can so as not to allow an incorrect interpretation.
Translation: And by the way, are you originally from there? The headlines are always from Sochi and Derbent )
Translation: I was born, grew up and my parents live on a central street of Yerevan ) I go there five times a year) I know who is on the street.
Translation: If anti-Russian sentiments begin, I will throw all my efforts into reconciliation.
Translation: It’s good when you have a motherland (
Translation: always! But I also consider Russia my Motherland! I’ve lived here since 1997 (I’m 19 years) in Moscow )
Translation: I thought so!

Translation: Why so sad about the motherland, Oleg? Don’t you really not have one?

Translation: Russians don’t have statehood, yes.

Kashin is referencing the discussion often outlined by Paul Goble about how Russia began “an empire before a state” with “nationalism without a nation.”

Translation: I know specifically that there aren’t anti-Russian sentiments there. But they can begin if it is not correctly reported.

In 2010, mass demonstrations broke out in Bishkek over the increase in electricity costs for consumers, and then more protesters came when the independent publications reporting on the initial protests were shut down. Eventually, then-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev was toppled. At the time, there was speculation that Russia helped the demonstrators, including some who turned violent, because Moscow wanted to get rid of Bakiyev. By June, the protests were followed in a predominantly ethnic Uzbek part of the country by a mass pogrom in which more than 400 people were killed.

This is a template for how Moscow may understand such unrest — that while it may begin locally on single issues it can grow to be more universal and a challenge to leadership and stability; because Moscow itself has meddled in the region in such instances it imagines the West does the same thing.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick