Friday, December 4, 2020

Kremlin has Confused Temporary with Permanent in the International System, Shevtsova Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – Vladimir Putin and his team have made the classical mistake of believing their own propaganda, accepting what are in fact temporary blips in the development of the international system that benefit Russia as something permanent that Moscow will be able to count on well into the future, Liliya Shevtsova says.

            In fact, what has been happening internationally is both temporary and already moving in directions that will leave Russia at an increasing disadvantage, something all the bravado in the world won’t obscure from those who utter it or many who listen to it, the Russian political commentator argues (

            Initially, it appeared that the pandemic would paralyze the West and give Putin new running room and that the populist wave that brought Donald Trump to power in the United States was something Moscow could count on to keep Russia’s opponents off balance and even make them more willing to accept what the Kremlin does.

            Instead, there have been five major moves in exactly the opposite direction. First, “not in a single leading Western country have national populists taken power,” and Trump’s defeat in the US is a signal that the national populist wave is anything but unstoppable.

            Second, the pandemic has awakened the European Union from its lethargy and made it more willing to act collectively against those who don’t play by the rules like Putin. Third, the incoming Biden administration is clearly going to push for a return to rules of the game. It may not seek expansion, but it will by so doing “strengthen its vitality.”

            Fourth, having been shaken by Trump’s isolationism, Europe has come to recognize that it cannot count on the US alone for its security and must take steps to be a power in its own right. That is what is happening. And fifth, the rise of China has refocused and reenergized the West. Recognizing that it is being challenged and by someone other than Russia, it is taking measures.

            (Shevtsova doesn’t mention in this regard one of the most profound insights ever offered on the nature of the US in particular and the West in general. At the time of Mikhail Gorbachev’s first visit to Washington, his chief Americanist, Georgy Arbatov observed that Gorbachev was going to do something more serious to the US than any of his predecessors.

            Namely, the Soviet leader was going to take away its enemy; and without an enemy, Arbatov continued, it was not clear whether the US or the West more generally could function.) Now, the US and the West again have an enemy; and it isn’t Russia, something that leaves Moscow in an unprecedentedly difficult position.

            “A new reality is being formed,” Shevtsova says. “In this reality, there is no place for the models of behavior Russia has been accustomed to – balance of forces, spheres of influence, multi-polarity and bi-polarity all are losing their meaning.”

            What this means is this, she argues. “The most favorable period of world politics for Russia is coming to an end.” Other countries view it with suspicion or hostility, but more than that, they don’t see it as the primary challenge any more. That is China, and Russia has no idea how to function in an environment where it has been demoted in this way.

            Of course, Moscow retains the ability to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries so as to destabilize them. But the more it does so, the more it energizes the leaders of Western democracies to come together to oppose it, something Putin and his team had thought was no longer a possibility.

            And that means this: “foreign policy is ceasing to be a resource of power for Russia.” Given that, what role is left for Putin who clearly is uninterested in domestic affairs except to make money and wants to be a power player in the international system?  Not much at least not now.

            “Within the country, the Kremlin has been able to exploit the pandemic to solidify its positions,” but the coronavirus has left Moscow in a far sadder position abroad.  Russia is no longer trusted to be a partner, and it is no longer even the main enemy. It is being pushed to the margins, somewhere Putin had never planned for it to be.


Pandemic Only Exacerbating Russian Death Rate Kremlin’s Social Darwinism has Pushed Up, Zhelenin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – The Kremlin is trying to blame the pandemic for all the rise in deathrates among Russians; but in fact, Aleksandr Zhelenin says, those rates had been on the rise already, the result of the Putin regime’s social Darwinism that has condemned many Russians to shortened lives already and that will condemn still more.

            Despite the claims of state media, the Rosbalt commentator says, the coronavirus was “not the only cause” of the rise in death rates, the fall in birthrates, and the consequent decline in the number of Russians. Many other things that the regime has done or not done are more responsible (

            Among these are “the decline in the real incomes of the majority of the population, the closure of medical points in the villages, the worsening of access to medical services as a result of the reduction in the number of hospitals and clinics throughout the country, and the absence of positive life prospects for many people”

            The pandemic has only highlighted these problems and made their impact worse, Zhelenin continues, a classical example of the fact that “the true essence of every specific state just as of every individual is revealed in extreme circumstances.” When times are good, shortcomings don’t stand out, but when times are bad, they do.

            What is clear now if it wasn’t clear earlier is that the Putin regime has adopted the crudest form of social Darwinism, one in which the regime takes care of its rich supporters but leaves to their fate everyone else. As a result, far more Russians are suffering and dying than would otherwise be the case.

            The pandemic shows this. Initially, the Kremlin responded more or less well, approving a lockdown that actually kept the coronavirus under some control. But that came at the cost of harm to the economy, and so the Kremlin retreated from protecting the people in order to ensure that its profits did not go down.

            Now, when infections, hospitalizations and deaths are far worse than last spring, the Kremlin has retreated into its typical pattern of lying about what is going on. It says the pandemic is under control, which it isn’t, and the economy is on the way back, which is anything but true.

            As a result of Putin’s choices, “the Russian people now has returned to wild capitalism, where everyone is on his own and only the strongest survive.” In the 1990s, the regime could blame the Soviet past, but now, the propagandists don’t even address the problems: their constant refrain is that everything is fine, a claim everyone can see is not true.

            But the Kremlin propaganda machine is silent not only about today’s problems but about any bright future, an implicit acknowledgement that one isn’t coming for the overwhelming majority of the population and a reason that fewer and fewer people see having children as something rational under the circumstances.

            “And so,” Zhelenin concludes, “the present and the future are both depressing. The pandemic and the economic crisis (both worldwide and our own, self-created) are thinning the ranks of Russians. This situation can be changed only if the entire system is changed. But that is prohibited, and so the country and its people are in a dead end.”

            Those who believe in social Darwinism may not be unhappy about this, but it is a terrible tragedy for everyone else. 

Russia Sowed Seeds of Its Own Disintegration by Not Separating Metropolitan Center and Colonies, Inozemtsev and Abalov Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – In a new book, Empire without End: Russia in Search of Itself, Vladislav Inozemtsev and Aleksandr Abalov argue that Muscovy followed European strategies in building an empire but, unlike them, failed to separate the metropolitan center from its colonies and thus sowed the seeds of its own disintegration.

            European powers, the commentator and historian argue, generally kept the two largely apart (France with Algeria was an exception); and so when the colonies left, it did not pose a direct threat to the territorial integrity of the metropolitan center. Muscovy didn’t, and so it and its successors have had to face disintegrative pressures that extend into the center of the state.

            The Snob portal publishes an excerpt from the book (in Russian, Moscow: Alpina, 2020), in which the two make that argument about Russia’s approach, one that first promised even greater success in its imperial project than the Europeans had but ultimately entailed a far higher price than they paid (

            In empires which sought to incorporate colonies into a single state, like the Roman in classical times and the Russian more recently, the inevitable desire of the colonies to leave “automatically set off a process of the destruction of the state as a whole.” That has meant, they write, that Russia has never been able to form “a firm political unit.”

            When Muscovy became Russia, this situation became even worse and less susceptible of a solution, the two write. This has two significant consequences. “On the one hand, ‘the metropolitan center’ became wrapped up in the imperial state and ceased to exist as a distinct subject” and thus as the focus of the regime which did not use the periphery to benefit the core.

            And on the other, in the course of this transformation, the notion was formed among Russians of the fundamental similarity of all imperial territories, a view that had the effect of convincing Russians that “any contraction of territory would be a catastrophe,” rather than leading them to conclude that some parts could be lost without damage to the others.

            Together, these factors led to “the absolutization of the imperial foundation” in Russian politics and to insistence on defending imperial possessions regardless of where they are and how appropriately they are part of the core of the state as if they were in fact part of and identical to “the mythical metropolitan center.”

            The most serious consequence of this, of course, was that “the Russian people which could have felt itself the bearer of the heritage of ancient Rus did not take shape, even though the myth about ‘Russianness’ and about Russian history were laid down and accepted quite profoundly by the imperial metropolitan center.”

            As a result, Inozemtsev and Abalov say, “as soon as the empire encountered serious challenges, it turned out that is most natural ‘component parts’ demonstrated an active striving to exit from the imperial structures.” That explains the controversy that has arisen with Ukraine already and with Belarus in prospect.

            “The undefined nature of the borders of the metropolitan center lead in the end to a situation in which ‘the renewed Russia’ of the 1992 model, having lost territory on which it historically began,” was faced with challenges to its control and now force except state power to hold them within its borders.

            Given the way in which the Russian empire arose, “there is nothing surprising” in the way it is coming apart.” Indeed, the two authors suggest, it could hardly have been otherwise, with more negative consequences likely for the Russian state and the Russian people in the future.


Putin’s State Council Another Nail in the Coffin of Russian Federalism, Sidorov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – Some thought that the inclusion of the heads of federal subjects in the State Council as Vladimir Putin suggested almost a year ago would lead to the strengthening of federalism in Russia, but in fact, the legal theory underlying the State Council represents the legal death knell of the federal system, Kharun Sidorov says.

            It throws the Russian Federation back to the situation the Russian Empire was in after the Speransky reforms established a State Council for the tsar two centuries ago, one in which all officials were simply representatives of the autocrat and had no independent status, the Russian commentator says (

            Although the recently passed legislation creating the State Council is silent on many issues, it is clear on the legal theory underlying it, Sidorov continues. It is based on the principle of having “a single system of public power.” Many have seen this as eliminating a special status for municipalities, but it eliminates that of republics and regions as well.

            What that means is that “before us is the completed power vertical, which has existed de facto for a long time but was given legal form only in 2020 as a result of the Putin amendments to the Constitution and the adoption of the law on the State Council,” both of which have been approved in rubber stamp fashion by the Constitutional Court.

            Such “’a common legal space’” means, Sidorov says, reinforces the idea of “unity and indivisibility” of the population and of its political space, the Russian Federation as a whole. “The multi-national status of the people of Russia” has thus been reduced to something purely “declarative.”

            “In the process of forming the post-Soviet Russian statehood, many republics within the Russian Federation proclaimed their sovereignty” on the basis of their right of national self-determination; and these declarations were recognized explicitly in the 1992 Federative treaty and in the 1993 Russian Constitution, even if they were not respected.

            But “from the new formulations, we see that Moscow understand ‘the multi-national people of Russia’ not as a combination of nation states but in essence as a single nation of a unitary state and for it ‘multi-nationality’ is a synonym for poly-ethnicity which has been stripped of any political content.”

            This attitude reflects the fact that the inclusion of governors in the State Council does not increase federalism but eliminates yet another aspect of it. Most governors are now appointed by Moscow and those that are not are harassed or criminally charged so as to prevent them from representing their regions. And being in the State Council won’t change that.

            As a result, Sidorov continues, “the State Council in its current configuration is needed not so the regions or even more local self-administration can form the policies of the federative state but on the contrary so that ‘the center’ which already for a long time has been at the head of a unitary state will find it easier to control  them.”

            What Putin has thus done is what Mikhail Speransky did in 1810 when he created a State Council for Alexander I, putting in place an institution that would make it easier for the autocrat to control the entire country and signal that no local arrangements were to have any standing unless the tsar personally agreed to them.

            Just over two centuries on, Sidorov concludes, Russia has come full circle, employing what looks like a representative body to deny the component parts of the country any representative or self-standing. 

Moscow’s Frequent Replacement of Leaders in Makhachkala has Done Little to Decriminalize Daghestan, Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – Moscow is on its fourth leader in Daghestan in the past decade, something that highlights the growing importance of that North Caucasus republic in the center but that has done little or nothing to decriminalize the situation or put the republic on the path to economic growth, Sergey Zharkov says, summarizing the views of experts.

            The analyst for the Prague-based Caucasus Times says this reflects both the specific nature of Daghestani society and politics and problems beyond its borders, including the ways in which the strength of clan-based criminality there is linked into and protected by criminal authorities in Moscow (

            As a result, Zharkov suggests, Moscow’s constant seeking out of new republic heads reminds one of “a change in the decorations in a theater where most of the actors remain the same.” Republic heads change, but despite some high profile moves by them, political and social arrangements below them continue much as they did before this last decade.

            “None of the last three leaders of Daghestan, including Magomedsalam Magomedov, Ramazan Abdulatipov, and Vladimir Vasiliyev, served to the end of their terms,” he says; but despite that, the council of ministers consists mostly of the same people in the same positions they occupied when these changes began.

            This is likely a general problem with Moscow’s approach to regions: it changes the person at the top at will but can or chooses to do little to ensure that the new leadership really addresses local problems and introduces change. But at the same time, Daghestan because of its nature may present an extreme case of this.

            It is the largest, most densely populated, and most multi-ethnic federal subject in the country, and it is the only one that does not have a single titular nation but rather four large and several dozen smaller ethnic groups. As a result, each governor faces the same problem as his predecessors: “the struggle with clans” based on these communities.

            What each governor has done is to go after one or two high profile individuals but then to allow the system to continue more or less unchanged.  But now, as a result of the pandemic and the Karabakh war and its aftermath, that may not be enough because Daghestan’s importance has grown as port on the Caspian and oil processing center has increased dramatically.

            According to Eduard Urazayev, former nationalities minister in the republic, the new governor Sergey Melikov may feel pressure to do something more but so far more than half of his senior aides are people who have been in power since Abdulatipov’s time, raising questions about his intentions and even ability to act.

            Melikov has made one declaration that suggests he will adopt a new approach soon, Murtuz Durgichilov, former head of the Daghestani service at Radio Liberty. The republic head said that under him, “the popular assembly will be structured according to the ethnic pattern of the republic, but the government of Daghestan will be formed by professional standards.”

            The former will preserve the ethnic balance in the republic, while the latter, if in fact Melikov acts on it, will mean an entirely new approach, one that could destabilize the situation and make Daghestan more of a problem for Moscow than it now is. And there is a larger problem as well.

            If Melikov does challenge the ethnic balance in the republic government – and as the first Lezgin in the top job there in more than a century, his own person represents a threat to many – then instability is likely. And more than that, because the republic’s ethnic clans have protectors in Moscow, it could unbalance political relationships there.

            History suggests that the new governor may take some high-profile actions but won’t go too far lest he come into conflict not only with forces in his own republic but in Moscow as well. If he steps over the line, some at the center will likely work to remove him, actions that will only continue the kaleidoscope of power in Daghestan.

            And while yet another new leader may arrive, he too will find himself far more constrained than he could have imagined. As a result, Daghestan is likely to continue to live its own life, no matter how much some in Makhachkala or Moscow would like to see significant change.

Census Results Likely to Lead to More Reductions in Non-Russian Language Instruction

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – Among the reasons non-Russians are worried about the upcoming census is that their numbers may decline outside of their republics and the leaders of other federal subjects will use those declines to justify further cuts in the number of schools where such languages are offered and the number of hours of instruction in these languages.

            A roundtable in Orenburg this week shows that they have genuine cause for concern ( and

            Orenburg is an especially sensitive place as far as Bashkirs are concerned. Until 1925, the republic had a common border with Kazakhstan; but Moscow carved out an ethnic Russian oblast – Orenburg – in order to block Bashkortostan and other Idel-Ural republics from having an external border.

            That was the ostensible basis for Moscow’s denial of union republic status to the six republics of the Middle Volga, but in the last several years, the issue has resurfaced with activists in that region and further afield calling for Bashkortostan to recover “the Orenburg corridor” and thus open the way to independence (, and

            These efforts have not yet taken off, but people in the Middle Volga continue to focus on the size of the Bashkir and closely related Tatar communities in this potential bridge region. The two now number roughly ten percent of the oblast’s population, according to the most recent census; and officials have been cutting back on the amount of instruction in their languages.

            If the 2021 census shows a further decline, it seems reasonable to expect that more cutbacks in Bashkir as well as Tatar language instruction will follow and even increase.

            At the roundtable, Bashkir deputy education minister Alfiya Galeyeva said that the situation is dire: Only 249 children are receiving any Bashkir-language instruction in only nine schools in Orenburg. She said Bashkirs in Orenburg have told her they are worried that school consolidation, known in Russia, as optimization, will worsen their situation.

            Despite her concerns and those of the people with whom she spoke, Aleksey Pakhomov, the Orenburg oblast education minister, insisted that what is going on is the result of “natural demographic shifts.” When the numbers of children speaking a language decline, there will be less demand for instruction in it.

            “According to our data,” the Russian official said, “the optimization of schools and the closing of them in small population centers with pupils transferred to larger educational institutions is a natural process, in the course of which, the number of children studying Bashkir will contract.”

            It may be “natural” from his perspective, but it is worrisome to Bashkir parents. And they have good reason to believe that if the upcoming census shows their numbers to have declined and the size of the population centers where they live to have declined as well, there will be even less Bashkir education in Orenburg than ever before. 


Pandemic Growing Threat to Russia’s National Security, ‘Zavtra’ Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – Zavtra warns the pandemic is posing an ever greater threat to national security because it is increasing distrust in the authorities, involving violations of individual rights, leading to fears of increased control, and infuriating people over distance learning and employment, making protests and other forms of instability more likely (

            The pandemic continues to spread and grow ( Russia set a new record for deaths from the coronavirus today, with 589 lethal outcomes being recorded. The authorities also reported that they had registered 25,345 new cases of infection, bringing those totals to 41,053 and 2,347,401 respectively (

            The number of schools reported in quarantine nearly doubled over the last 24 hours, with 56 percent of Russians telling pollsters that they were tired of having children being kept at home and taking classes online ( and

            Vladimir Putin said the country’s healthcare system was expanding to take care of the increased number of coronavirus infections (, but despite that and despite the beginning of vaccinations next week, many localities, including St. Petersburg, are imposing tough new restrictions on all places where people might gather (

            Looking forward to end of the year parties, about half of all employees said they would attend company parties if reasonable precautions were taken, but nearly a third said they would not because no restrictions at such functions would protect them from infection  (

            Vladimir Putin announced the mass vaccinations will begin next week and that two million doses are ready for that ( and Other officials said 100,000 Russians had already been vaccinated ( It appears that many of the first to get the vaccine are uniformed military (

            The authorities continue to say that they will meet domestic needs first and that the program will be completely voluntary for all groups ( and But the state media is fearing ever more scare stories apparently intended to convince people to be vaccinated (

            On the economic front, experts say the decline in Russian industry is accelerating again (, with one sign being a more rapid decline in the use of public transportation ( Bicycle riding, however, has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic.

            Meanwhile, in other pandemic-related developments in Russia today,

·         The Supreme Court has ruled that Russian business people have the right to refuse service to anyone not wearing a mask (

·         Consistent with patterns elsewhere, the pandemic has increased the total workload of Russian women more than it has of Russian men (

·         Some epidemiological models suggest there will be a third wave of the pandemic after the second ends and that then the coronavirus will become a seasonal disease like the flu (