A defaced Putin billboard in Sevastopol, a naval base on the southern tip of the Russia-occupied Crimean Peninsula. (Photo: social media, March 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 typically presents a selection of 13 of these other and typically neglected stories at the end of each week. This week, it offers almost a double – 25 stories from Russia and 12 from countries in Russia’s neighborhood because of the extent to which the Navalny demonstrations eclipsed other news.
This is the 76th such compilation. It is only suggestive and far from complete – indeed, once again, one could easily have put out such a listing every day — but perhaps one or more of these stories will prove to be bellwethers of the future or of broader interest now.
1. Putin is ‘an Autocrat but Not a Tsar’ and ‘a Criminal but Not Stalin’
This week, Putin attracted attention for his visit to the Arctic where he announced some grandiose plans even as he cast doubt on the human origins of climate change. Many found Putin’s words unpersuasive given first that he earlier promised to expand protected areas in the Arctic but in fact has cut them, second that it is far from clear that there is any money to pay for his plans, and third that evidence surfaced of Soviet plans to use human means to change the climate in the Russian Far East.
Putin was also widely attacked for his attempts to impose his power vertical on the Russian Academy of Sciences, something scholars said would further undermine Russia’s capacity for growth and development.
2. Russians Amused by ‘Meester Trump’ and His Tweets But Politicians Say He’s No Different than Obama
The American president still delights many Russians who say that his tweets sound even better in Russian than they do in English. But now that he has imposed new sanctions on Russia, Russian politicians “have ceased to distinguish” him from his hated predecessor, Barack Obama.
3. Putin’s Plan to Boost Russian Military to Soviet Size Faces Serious Hurdles
Vladimir Putin attracted attention this week by issuing a decree calling for the Russian military to expand to a size almost equal that of the Soviet one. But it is unlikely he’ll be able to do that.
On the one hand, even by raising the upper draft age, Moscow is finding it difficult to find enough soldiers. Indeed, Putin didn’t boost the size of this spring’s draft sufficiently to get to his goal. Nor did he indicate how he would avoid having such an army dominated by non-Russians. And on the other, it is far from clear that the Russian economy could support what a larger military would entail, not just more soldiers but bases and military equipment.
And this week brought more bad news on the military front: all second and third stage motors for the Proton rocket have been recalled to fix problems, and Moscow has been caught again trying to hide just how many casualties its forces in Syria have suffered.
4. Russians have Become Poorer Four Straight Years – and There is No End in Sight
Russian statistics show that Russians have suffered their fourth straight year of declining real incomes, and economists say that even if the Kremlin’s plans to turn things around are ultimately successful, at least initially, these innovations will make the situation worse in the short and medium term.
Three other pieces of economic news:
- Regional debt rose again last month,
- An international rating agency found Russian banks rank below those of Mexico,
- But polls suggest that some Russians at least are quite willing to pay higher taxes despite everything.
5. Social Problems Continue to Multiply
Wherever one looks in Russia, there are intensifying social problems. Among those which were noted in the media this week are the following:
- No one should be breathing the air in Omsk as the atmosphere there has more than 400 times the permissible level of chemical contaminants
- There are now more HIV/AIDS cases in Russia than tuberculosis ones
- Tuberculosis is an increasing problem among wealthier groups
- Bears searching for food are driving people out of their homes in Pskov oblast
- Book sales in Russia are plummeting
- Drug use is down overall but up significantly among younger age groups
- More than half of all products in Russian stores do not correspond to Russian government sanitary norms
- And Russians are wrestling with problems for which they have no answers, including how to make graduate education useful for those who do not intend to pursue an academic career.
6. To Fight Alcohol Surrogates, Moscow May Ban Night Sales of Perfume and Cleaning Supplies
Russian officials say that one way to reduce the consumption of alcohol surrogates is to ban the nighttime sale of perfumes and cleaning supplies. Another official wants to promote beer drinking as a way of getting people off vodka. But no one has any idea how to deal with the biggest problem of all: ethnic Russians are ruining their health by overconsumption of hard alcohol, and members of Muslim nationalities are experiencing better health and even living longer because they consume far less of that.
There were two other alcohol-related stories that received a great deal of media play: a prostitute declared that she didn’t take money for her services but only various amounts of vodka, and a man threatened to blow up a store unless he was given a bottle of vodka.
7. Russian Statistics, Never Reliable, Appear Set to Get Much Worse
Researchers are expressing alarm about the way in which the transfer of Rosstat to the economic development ministry is likely to make statistics even less reliable than they are now. As bad as things are at present, they say, this move will make it worse. And bad they are already. Here are some examples from this week:
- Moscow was able to understate the collapse of foreign travel by including Abkhazia as a foreign destination
- Rosstat inflation statistics are so distorted that no one should rely on them
- Rosstat reported that Russians were becoming healthier when regional figures showed just the reverse
- In the most ridiculous release of the week, Rosstat reported an average salary for doctors that researchers say only 5.7 percent of them get.
But these problems are not limited to Rosstat by any means: In Daghestan, doctors said they would not confirm any harm inflicted by the police or siloviki unless the latter authorized them to, something very unlikely ever to happen, and VTsIOM, a polling agency with links to the Kremlin said it publishes only ten percent of the survey results it collects for clients. One can understand why: In making that statement, officials there said that they had found that one Russian in every four still thinks the sun goes around the earth rather than the earth around the sun.
8. No Let Up in Monument Wars
The high – or rather, low – point in Russia’s monuments wars this week was a decision by the authorities to refurbish the Pushkin Statue in Moscow over the coming months, thus depriving the Russian opposition of one of its favorite places to demonstrate.
Among other developments on this “front” were the following:
- Moscow announced it would spend two billion rubles (33 million US dollars) to restore the Motherland Calls statue in Volgograd
- The fight over St. Isaac’s showed no sign of being resolved
- A recently erected statue honoring Russia’s construction workers was knocked down by a strong wind
- The Old Believers, following the Orthodox, the Muslims, and the Roman Catholics, now say that they want the government to give them their churches back
- Officials in Irkutsk announced plans to build a Museum of Russian America there
- Fights continued over plans to build a cathedral and a mosque in Yekaterinburg
- A Lenin statue was decapitated by vandals in Oryol
- A prominent Muslim leader spoke out against anyone erecting a statue to Ivan the Terrible because of the latter’s sacking of Kazan
- Kaliningrad officials say they lack the funds to restore a memorial to the Great Fatherland War and that they won’t restore an imperial palace there either.
9. German Athletes May Boycott World Cup if FIFA Doesn’t Move It from Russia
German sports organizations say that German footballers may refuse to take part in the 2018 FIFA World Cup if that competition is not taken away from Russia. Despite the continuing doping scandal, it appears unlikely that FIFA has the will do to that.
Indeed, it said this week it saw no reason to move the competition. Nonetheless, news coming out of Russia was not encouraging: Putin admitted that the Russian anti-doping system had broken down. Evidence of this was provided by the Russian government shortly after he made that remark: it took one of the banned substances off the list of drugs athletes are not allowed to use.
10. Protests Spread and Authorities Prepare to Crack Down
There were protests across Russia last week that had nothing to do with corruption or with taxes on long-haul drivers. Among those were environmental issues in Sochi and Asbestos and over ethnicity in Buryatia. The Putin regime was preparing to respond: it was noted that Russia now has more police per capita than any other country, including North Korea and that the FSB is now actively studying how to torture those it detains.
Other developments were more closely linked with the widely covered Navalny protests, but some aspects of those protests and their fallout were not covered extensively. Among these:
- St. Petersburg deputies want to impose a minimum age for those taking part in demonstrations
- Russian siloviki are now going after the children of those who do take part in demonstrations
- Unexpectedly, last Sunday’s demonstrations did not spark a dramatic rise in Yandex searches about the issues involved.
Perhaps the two most important results of the protests were these: parliamentarians decided they must talk about the problems raised, but some of them said that fighting against corruption in Russia was unpatriotic.
11. The Islamic State Creates a Russian-Language Website
Reflecting the fact that more than 10,000 people from Russia and other former Soviet republics are now fighting for ISIS and that it expects to recruit even more, the Islamic State has set up a Russian-language website to promote itself to Russian speakers.
12. Nothing Sells in Russia as Well as Russophobia, Schulmann Says
Russian scholar and commentator Yekaterina Schulmann says that Russophobia or charges of Russophobia guarantees public attention because “nothing sells as well in Russia” as that.
13. Creating Christian Political Parties in Russia Would Open a Pandora’s Box
Many are calling for the formation of one or more Christian political parties in Russia, but taking that step, commentators says, would open a Pandora’s box not only by dividing Christians but by encouraging Muslims and other religious groups to do the same thing.
14. Moscow to End Northern Peoples Benefits for Those Who Live Outside Their Homelands
Russian law specifies that Moscow provides specific monetary benefits to members of the numerically small peoples of the North; but now, to save money, the central government is providing such funds only to those who live in the region and engage in traditional economic activity. Those who move elsewhere will no longer get the benefits.
15. Russian Gun Rights Advocates Say Russian Laws Protect Criminals
Russia’s guns rights advocacy group says that Russians need guns for self-deference but that existing laws make it hard for them but not for criminals to get firearms.
16. Moscow Commentators Denounce NATO Study on Russian Humor
Russian commentators say that a NATO study of Russian humor shows just how bankrupt the Western alliance is. The NATO study is available at stratcomcoe.org; the Russian critiques at rubaltic.ru and echo.msk.ru).
17. Putin’s Troll Factory Expands into Major Media Holding Company
18. Putin’s Foreign Agents Law has Forced a Third of All Russian NGOs to Close Down
The law introduced by Vladimir Putin requiring any non-governmental organization receiving money from abroad to identify itself as “a foreign agent” has led 33 percent of all Russian NGOs to cease operations.
19. Four Out of Five Russians Say They’ve Never Personally Encountered Corruption
Despite evidence of massive corruption in Russia and the attention that issue has received recently, 78 percent of Russians, according to a new poll, say that they personally have never encountered the phenomenon.
20. Russian Interior Ministry Says There are 10 Million Immigrants in Russia
Few statistics are more politically sensitive than the numbers of immigrants legal and otherwise now in Russia. The numbers offered by various outlets range from three million to 18 million or more. Now the Interior Ministry has entered the fray and suggested there are 10 million immigrants at present.
21. Moscow Media Claim that Alaska Would Have Been Better Off Russian Blows Up
The Russian media claimed that Alaska would have been “a more developed region” if it had remained part of Russia, a claim it said was based on a statement by an Alaskan official. But the claim, absurd on its face given conditions on the other side of the Bering Straits blew up in the faces of those who made it.
22. Hijab Again Legal in Two Russian Federal Subjects
Many Russians oppose the hijab, seeing it as an offensive symbol of Islam, and they have tried to prevent school children and others from wearing it. But now the courts in one region, Mordvinia, and the government in another, Chechnya, have restored the right of Muslim women to wear this traditional dress.
23. Putin Promises Russians Will Live Longer to Hide That There Will Be Fewer of Them
Vladimir Putin has proudly projected that he will increase life expectancy in Russia by four years in the coming decade. It is unlikely that he can do that, but regardless of whether it happens, one commentator suggests the Kremlin leader is only making that projection to distract attention from a fundamental reality: over the same period, there will be far fewer Russians as a result of falling fertility rates and rising mortality ones.
24. If Putin is Pushed Out, Russia will Disintegrate Regionally
Russian commentators are again arguing that only if the current Kremlin leader remains in power will Russia avoid civil war and disintegration. What is interesting about the latest suggestions in this regard is that most of them point to Russia falling apart regionally rather than along ethnic lines.
25. Half of Russia’s Elderly Help Others Even More Needy than Themselves
Russia’s elderly, even now when the Russian government is making it ever more difficult to live on their pensions or even to get them, are frequently helping others who are in an even more difficult position than themselves, with about half of all elderly doing so on a regular basis.
And 12 more from countries in Russia’s neighborhood:
1. Planting Season Explains Absence of Belarusian Protests
Many observers have suggested that the Belarusian protest movement has run out of steam, pointing to the fact that opposition figures have not called for any demonstrations until early May as evidence. But the reason for the absence of protests in the coming weeks is not a decline in anti-Lukashenka sentiment but rather the requirement that people in the regions plant their crops and thus cannot easily get away to take part in demonstrations.
2. Moscow Tries Again to Play Hungarian Card Against Kyiv
The Russian government is working with some in Hungary to promote the idea that a Hungarian autonomy should be formed in the Western part of Ukraine. The idea has periodically surfaced, but Russian outlets have stepped up their articles about this possibility in recent days.
3. Crimean Occupation Forces Building Company Towns There
Even though company towns (monogorody) in Russia itself are rapidly dying out, the Russian occupation forces in Crimea are planning to create analogues of these disasters there.
Other occupation news this week:
- There have been 43 kidnappings since the Anschluss
- Moscow has increased subsidies for flights to Crimea hoping that more Russians will travel there
- The occupation authorities say that Crimean Tatars are not filling the classrooms in Crimean Tatar language schools
- Bashkortostan closed its representation in Crimea.
4. Revisionist History on Central Asian National Delimitation Raises Questions about the Future
According to a new history of the national-territorial delimitation of Central Asia in 1924, Central Asians, not Moscow, promoted the idea. That challenges the accepted wisdom that Moscow took this step either as part of a divide and rule campaign or to promote itself in the eyes of colonial subjects in British India as solicitous to Muslim concerns. But if the new interpretation has an impact on the thinking of current elites in the region, that could open the way for border changes or recombinations of various ways.
5. GUAM Creates a Free Trade Zone
At the urging of Kyiv, the organization of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova have agreed to form a free trade zone by the end of this year. If these countries succeed, it will further undermine the importance of the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, a group of communists has announced a counter-effort, calling for the restoration of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union as a first step toward the restoration of the USSR.
6. Russian Historian Says Soviet Deportations from Baltics Didn’t Have an Ethnic Character
In yet another revisionist claim that is contradicted by all available evidence, a Russian historian argues that Stalin did not deport people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on the basis of ethnicity but only on the basis of class status and antagonism to Russia.
7. Kazakhstan Justice Ministry calls for Imposing Death Penalty on All who Threaten Country’s Stability
Kazakhstan may soon have the most draconian law in the post-Soviet space if Astana goes along with a justice ministry call for introducing the death penalty for crimes that threaten the stability of the country.
8. Kyrgyzstan Officials Must Know Kyrgyz by 2018
The Kyrgyzstan government says that by next year, all its officials must know the national language. Many now speak only Russian even though Kyrgyzstan has been independent since 1991.
9. Moldovan Government Wants to Withdraw from CIS
Chisinau officials say that their country is planning to pull out of the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States. If it does, and given Ukraine’s suspension of membership, Moscow will no longer be able to claim that that group includes the majority of the post-Soviet states.
10. Belarusian Young People Turning from TV to the Internet
A major reason that Russian influence in Belarus has declined is that young people are no longer watching television, most of it Russian produced and supplied, but instead relying on the Internet which is much less Russian dominated than TV.
11. Kazakhstan Now Providing ‘Citizens for Russia and Wives for China’
Experts in Kazakhstan say that Central Asian country is increasingly the source for additional citizens for the Russian Federation and wives for Chinese husbands.
12. Only One Russian in 25 Thinks Moscow Should Help Kyiv Restore Control over Donbas
A new poll shows that Russians who have an opinion are nearly equally divided between those who think that the Donbas should be absorbed into Russia and those who think it should become independent. Most striking, however, is that only four percent think that Moscow should, as it is committed to doing under the Minsk Accords, help Kyiv restore Ukrainian control over the region.
- ‘Putin is the Bin Laden of today’ and other neglected Russian stories
- “Even large Russian cities are beginning to die” and other neglected Russian stories
- “Putin is War; Putin is Death” and other neglected Russian stories
- “Kremlin views Trump as ‘stupid, un-strategic, and manipulable,’” and other neglected Russian stories
- ‘Moscow can’t find builder for new military base on Ukrainian border’ and other neglected Russian stories
- ‘Russian spies interfered with Nobel Committee to prevent Poroshenko Peace Prize’ and other neglected Russian stories
- Why did Putin say Russia’s prostitutes were ‘best in the world’ and other neglected Russian stories
- Russians calling Washington ‘Nashington’ and other neglected Russian stories
- Like Crimea, ‘Trump is Ours,’ Russian products proclaim and other neglected Russian stories
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Tags: alcoholism, Belarus, crimes of the Russian occupation regime in Crimea, demographic decay, economic collapse, economic crisis, healthcare crisis in Russia, HIV/AIDS, international, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Putin, Putin regime, Russia, Russia's Anschluss of Crimea, Russia's occupation of Donbas, Stalin, tuberculosis