Monday, November 30, 2020

Moscow to Impose New Limits on Subsidies to Crimea and North Caucasus, Zubarevich Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 28 – The Russian finance ministry is fed up with the repeated requests from the authorities in Russian-occupied Crimea and three republics in the North Caucasus (Chechnya, Daghestan and Ingushetia) for more money and plans to require them to yield control over spending decisions, Natalya Zubarevich says.

            The new rules will mean among other things that the federal subject governments can’t increase the number of their employees or their pay or seek loans from other institutions without Moscow’s advance approval and that they will be forced to deliver regular reports on their situation, the Moscow economic geographer says (club-rf.ru/opinions/2478).

            These federal subjects have become notorious for their lack of fiscal discipline, certain that whatever they do, Moscow will bail them out. But it now appears, Zubarevich says, that that era is at an end and that “these regions which have enjoyed geopolitical priority may have a little less priority” in the wake of the pandemic. 

            The finance ministry may have some success with all these units except Chechnya because as it well known, Chechnya’s chief Ramzan Kadyrov doesn’t apply to the finance ministry for money. He goes directly to Vladimir Putin; and the Kremlin leader has not been known to say no to Kadyrov very often.

Kremlin Using ‘Foreign Agent’ Label in Ways Similar but Fundamentally Different than Soviets Employed ‘Enemy of the People,’ Trudolyubov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 28 – Moscow’s increasing application of the term “foreign agent” to its opponents smacks of the Soviet-era phrase “enemy of the people,” Maksim Trudolyubov says. But while it is superficially similar and designed to exclude opponents from political life, it is fundamentally different because the Russian state does not claim to have absolute truth.

            The Bolsheviks, the Meduza commentator says, believed they were in possession of exactly that; and consequently, for them to label someone an enemy of the people was to charge that person not just with heretical error but also to declare war on that individual (meduza.io/feature/2020/11/28/chem-putinskie-inostrannye-agenty-pohozhi-na-stalinskih-vragov-naroda-a-chem-net).

            That led to denunciations, show trials, mass shootings and the GULAG, but today “we live in another time and in another political reality. The Soviet Communist Party, having driven out and destroyed the former elite, occupied as a result its own social niche. In today’s Russia, the elite in essence occupied the niche of the party” with its own unwritten rules.

            But there was and is one big difference: the new elite “did not bring to society any great doctrine,” setting it at odds with its Soviet predecessor which claimed to “know the course of history and to understand what should be done with the country,” Trudolyubov continue. And so in dealing with its opponents, it only wants to transform them into the outsider or other.

            “The label ‘foreign agent,’ which was introduced in law in 2012, is suitable for this goal: it allows the regime to avoid a conversation on the basis of equality and partially undermines the social support of its opponents given that people are nervous about having any dealings with ‘agents.’”

            But the commentator asks, “is this technology as in Soviet times or in other totalitarian regimes capable of transforming an argument into a war?” The answer is that it won’t be able to because of features of Russian law “which simultaneously make the actions of the powers easier and reduce trust in these actions.”

            The powers that be keep expanding the number of actions that can lead them to classify someone as “a foreign agent,” but they do so mostly for their own careerist interests. After all, they will gain promotion if their statistics on finding such “agents” go up and what could be simpler than adding to that possibility?

            “The laws on ‘foreign agents’ are no better and no worse than a multitude of other weakened norms which hang over the Russian citizen as a potential danger,” the commentator says. This can lead to real misfortunes for individuals, of course; “but it is not so horrific as was the political machine that generated enemies of the people” in Soviet times.

            And that means this: “laws about foreign agents will not be able to finally transform public discussions into a war” as the designation “enemy of the people did.” The new laws don’t induce fear and they haven’t caused Russians to conclude that foreign actors are to blame for their problems.

            Some propagandists may say that, Trudolyubov acknowledges; but when people go into the streets to protest, they are holding the powers that be responsible for the problems not blaming them on some foreign forces or their “agents” inside Russia itself.

Putin, a Careful even Cautious Man, Doesn’t Wear a Mask in Public Because His Base Consists of Coronavirus Skeptics, Pastukhov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 28 – Appearing on Ekho Moskvy this week, Vladimir Pastukhov argues that Vladimir Putin doesn’t wear a mask in public because his base consists of coronavirus skeptics, that the Kremlin will find it far easier to deal with Joe Biden than it did with Donald Trump, and that the real leadership crisis in Russia will come in the late 2020s.

            The Kremlin leader, the London-based Russian analyst says, is a careful and cautious man, especially when it concerns his health. He has remained in the bunker and those who visit him have had to undergo quarantines. But he is also a political animal, and that explains why he doesn’t wear a mask in public (echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/2748306-echo/).

            Putin is very well aware that his core electorate consists of “covid dissidents” who don’t really believe in the virus and who would be offended if their leader appeared to defer to the experts. Putin does defer in all but the most public of places. There, he doesn’t wear a mask, Pastukhov says, because “he cannot lose face.” 

            According to the Russian historian, Putin “knows and understands his people well,” and therefore he doesn’t put on a mask. Lying behind this, of course, is a national characteristic of Russians, their fatalism, and the notion that if God intends someone to live or die, that is what is going to happen.

            With regard to the approaching change of presidents in the United States, Pastukhov says that the Kremlin should be breathing easier because it will find Biden to be a more rational and considered opposite number than Trump has been because the new man won’t have to prove he isn’t a Russian agent, something the incumbent has always had to do.

            “Trump was a good find for the Kremlin,” the analyst continues. “I am certain that there were for many years before his presidency very good commercial and non-commercial, formal and informal contacts with Trump. I’m not prepared to say he was recruited but he was under the influence of Putin beyond any doubt.”

            But once he won the American presidency, Trump found himself forced to prove on any and all occasions that he wasn’t a Russian agent and thus, “in a certain sense, he became more Catholic than the pope” as far as dealing with Russia is concerned, routinely taking a harder line than was necessary or than he would have preferred.

            Biden doesn’t have that problem and so doesn’t have to prove he isn’t something that in fact no one could believe otherwise. As a result, the incoming president “at a minimum won’t have to prove he isn’t a Russian agent, and he will thus act rationally.” That should work to Moscow’s advantage.

            At the same time, Russians should give up the notion that the incoming president will devote more attention to Russia. Biden is going to focus on domestic issues like race and overcoming the pandemic. Too many people in Russia suffer not only from fatalism but from the notion that everyone in the world is obsessed with Russia. That just isn’t true.

            And finally, in his discussion of what is taking place in Russia now and when the country will face the period of greatest tension, Pastukhov suggests that however strange it may sound, Russia’s ruling elite is simultaneously acting as if Putin is eternal and as if they must do everything to prepare for when he not longer will be in the Kremlin.

            It is pushing through measures that won’t be needed as long as Putin remains but won’t work when he departs. It is perhaps the case that this reflects a generational struggle between the oligarchs and their children and grandchildren.

            Pastukhov says that in his view the period of greatest tension in the Russian pollical elite will occur between 2025 and 2028. Putin will win the Duma elections next year and the presidential one in 2024, but then he will face problems because of instability in leading countries, economic problems in Russia, and difficulties of implementing the constitutional amendments.

            The latter is critical because Putin put in place not simply arrangements to allow him to stay in office but also to shift Russia from a pseudo-democracy to a corporate state dictatorship in which democratic elements will increasingly be dispensed with, something that has the effect of making any leadership transition even more difficult and potentially explosive.

            The bill for these changes will come due right after Putin is re-elected president four years from now. 

             

Pandemic in Russia May Be Plateauing But at Level Twice as High as in August

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 28 – “Plateauing” is the word of the day, with officials in various parts of the Russian Federation saying they were at or near a plateau in the pandemic but acknowledging the new plateau is twice as high as the one in August (vtimes.io/2020/11/27/kovid-vzyal-novuyu-stupenku-a1679).

            But at the moment, the numbers continue to rise. Officials reported registering 27,100 new cases of infection and 510 deaths, bringing those tolls respectively to 2,242,633 and 39,068, with some places like St. Petersburg being particularly hard hit (t.me/COVID2019_official/2072 and regnum.ru/news/society/3122025.html).

            Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin announced that the government was distributing 80 billion rubles (1.1 billion US dollars) to 39 especially hard hit regions (krizis-kopilka.ru/archives/82068). Talk about tougher measures is sparking both more violations and more complaints from Russians online (regnum.ru/news/3127485.html and regnum.ru/news/3127337.html).

            Moscow is distributing small amounts of the Sputnik-5 vaccine to hospitals but not enough to meet the demand; and the medical supply system is failing to meet the requirements event of apothecary shops in the capital (rbc.ru/society/28/11/2020/5fbf44319a794782c5754f9f and znak.com/2020-11-28/deputat_gosdumy_pozhalovalsya_chto_v_moskve_emu_ne_vydali_lekarstva_ot_covid_19).

            Looking to the future, some medical experts are saying that the majority of Russians will have been infected by the end of the year but adding that this won’t guarantee that they won’t be reinfected unless they are vaccinated (ura.news/news/1052460748), while others are insisting this means not everyone will have to be (regnum.ru/news/3127532.html).

            On the economic front, Accounting Chamber head Aleksey Kudrin says the there is more unemployment ahead and that a third of all small and mid-sized businesses in Russia will close, leading to a million Russians falling into poverty (regnum.ru/news/3127629.html and kp.ru/daily/21712093.5/4329625/).

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

·         Almost half of all Russians suffering from HIV who display coronavirus symptoms are not going to hospitals because they fear they will lose their anonymity. As a result, a larger share of them are likely to develop full-blown AIDS (rbc.ru/society/27/11/2020/5fbf7bb19a7947a0d039c69a).

·         Russian doctors who have been fighting the pandemic for months say that they no longer approach their work with fear but with the conviction that they have the tools they need to cure most of those who come for care (kommersant.ru/doc/4592558).

·         500,000 Russians have taken out insurance policies against possible loss of life from the coronavirus (vedomosti.ru/economics/articles/2020/11/26/848480-koronavirus-prostimuliroval-strahovanie-zhizni).

Gazprom Continues to Focus on Exports Rather than Serving Russian People

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 27 – Over the last five years, Gazprom has laid 9,830 kilometers of pipeline inside Russia, bring gas to 1358 population centers and boosting the share of these having gas and no longer having to rely on firewood, coal or heavy oil from 66.2 percent to 71.4 percent, the editors of Novyye izvestiya report.

            But now it is clear, under the impact of the pandemic and associated economic crisis, that Gazprom intends to focus mostly on developing export pipelines rather than on bringing gas to more Russians despite this having been named a priority by Vladimir Putin (newizv.ru/article/general/27-11-2020/drova-i-ugol-vmesto-golubogo-topliva-gazprom-ne-toropitsya-gazifitsirovat-rossiyu).

            The company and the government behind it are pleading poverty given their recent losses, and there is some truth in that. But at the same time, what this means is that Russia will not come close to meeting Putin’s target of 83 percent coverage by 2030 and that many Russians will thus lack one of the amenities Moscow has long promised them.

            What is striking, the editors suggest, is the shamelessness of officials in ignoring these plans for the Russian people and instead focusing on export sales from whose earnings the state and its leaders will benefit far more than the population (newizv.ru/news/economy/09-11-2020/gazifikatsiya-rossii-po-novaku-dengi-gazpromu-otvetstvennost-gubernatoram).

            Because most of the remaining population centers without gas are small, protests are likely to be small as well, and the problem is likely to be ignored in Moscow and other big cities. But without gas, many Russians in those places will suffer. And the country as a whole will thus pay a price for this corporate-Kremlin decision.

Moscow Likely to Use Chairmanship of Arctic Council to Build Up that Body’s Secretariat and Cement Russian Influence

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 27 – Moscow will assume the chairmanship of the Arctic Council next year, and there are already indications that it plans to use that position more actively to promote its immediate interests in the North and to enlarge the Council’s secretariat, a move that could cement Russian influence there for years to come.

            The Russian government is already signaling that it plans an activist approach during its three-year term there, scheduling various meetings involving officials, politicians and scholars to discuss the way in which the Council can be used to promote Russian interests (pnp.ru/top/rossiya-gotovitsya-k-predsedatelstvu-v-arkticheskom-sovete.html).

            The Arctic Council includes eight countries – Denmark, Iceland, Canada, Norway, Russia, the US, Finland and Sweden as well as a number of observers, including most prominently China. There has been speculation that Moscow may press for China being upgraded to a full member, something other members appear to oppose.

            But now there is a sign suggesting that Moscow may pursue a different strategy to increase its influence over the body. Russian senator Grigory Ledkov, who also heads the Association of Numerically Small Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East, is calling on Moscow to expand the Council’s secretariat (nazaccent.ru/content/34585-grigorij-ledkov-neobhodimo-usilit-rol-sekretariata.html).

            Ledkov cast his proposal as a means for expanding the ability of the numerically small peoples to play a bigger role in the work of the Arctic Council, but given Moscow’s history of using such support elements to promote its power, it is all but certain that expanding the secretariat there would boost Russian influence.

            And just as the Arctic is becoming ever more important because global warming is allowing for more access, so too any change in the bureaucratic arrangements of the Arctic Council that result in the creation of a larger and permanent secretariat can be counted on to give those who appoint its members a larger say in decisions.

            For the next three years, that is going to be the Council’s chairman, Russia; and so controversies about this possibility are certain to increase. 

 

Chechens Likely to Overtake Bashkirs and Chuvash as Fourth Largest Nationality in Russia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 27 – The all-Russian census now slated to occur in April 2021 is likely to upend the rankings of the non-Russian peoples as far as size is concerned, with some declining significantly and others showing an increase, Ruslan Gabbasov says, arguing that distance from Moscow and religion are the most important factors explaining this trend.

            Those peoples in the Middle Volga who practice Islam – the Tatars and the Bashkirs – may decline but far less than those in that region who remain animist or have adopted Russian Orthodoxy and find it easier to assimilate to the Russians, the Bashkort activist continues (idelreal.org/a/30966566.html).

The Muslim peoples in the North Caucasus are, with the exception of the Circassians, mostly increasing, with the Chechens on tract to overtake the Bashkirs and Chuvash as the fourth largest nationality in the Russian Federation. But religion is not the only factor that explains what is occurring, he says.

Geography matters as well. “If national republics are geographically far from the center of Russia, then the number of their peoples despite the demographic hole the entire country finds itself is growing. And contrarywise, if the national republics are located in ‘the nucleus’ of the country and surrounded by other oblast with predominantly Russian population, the number of the indigenous peoples of the republics is declining.”

That is why some nationalities in Siberia and the Russian Far East are doing better than one might otherwise expect, even when as in the case of the Tuvins, the Buryats and the Sakha, they do not have the advantage of being Muslims who are more traditional with regard to family size and less susceptible to assimilation.

There is little question, Gabbasov says, that fewer Bashkirs will be enumerated in the upcoming census. They aren’t growing in any region as a result of “several interconnected factors” – the economic crisis, unemployment, and lack of confidence in the future, all of which are generating alcoholism, suicides, divorces, and decisions to have fewer children.

Moreover, ever more young Bashkirs are putting off starting a family until they have made a career in Moscow, St. Petersburg or the Russian North; and when they do decide to have children, it is too late to have more than one or two. Neither Ufa nor the World Bashkir Kurultay has been able to convince them to do otherwise.

The Bashkir republic government has failed as well to attract Bashkirs back to the republic or to promote economic development so that Bashkirs will have more reason to have more children sooner. Instead, Ufa has obsessed about the issue of whether Bashkirs will be counted as Tatars in the northwestern portion of the republic.

That is a problem, but it is minor compared to all the other issues, Gabbasov says. And the focus on it appears designed to suggest the regime cares when its failure to act in other areas shows that it doesn’t (cf. windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2020/05/tatar-bashkir-conflict-over-northwest.html).

“Today,” the activist says, “it is very important that the upcoming census be conducted honestly” so that Bashkirs do not continue to deceive themselves about the extent of their decline. If the numbers are falsified this time, by the following census, it may be too late to turn things around and save the Bashkir nation.