Friday, November 28, 2014

Window on Eurasia: More than 70 Percent of Russians Don’t Have Clear Idea about ‘Russian World’

Paul Goble


            Staunton, November 28 – Seventy-one percent of Russians in a poll conducted by VTsIOM earlier this week said they had not heard enough about the main ideological theme of the Putin regime, the Russian world, to be able to describe it; and only one Russian in eight was ready to try to provide a definition of that world to pollsters.


            In announcing these findings, VTsIOM general director Valery Fedorov said that in his view, “this means that we are at the beginning of this project and not at its end,” although he noted that the same survey had found that 63 percent of Russians believe that the “Russian world” is more likely to exist than not.


            The sociologist stressed that the term has a long history: it wasn’t created yesterday or even a decade ago. But for a long time, it was employed only “in a narrow circle of intellectuals, ‘despairing bureaucrats,’ and did not pass” in the population at large. But in the last year, “everything has changed” and people should understand it better.


            This is not the only poll result in recent days that is likely to concern the Kremlin. A second poll found that up to 80 percent of Russians say that the “Crimea is Ours” project, itself part of the Russian world idea, has led to a decline in their standard of living (


            And a third found that Russians are now focusing far more on the continuing decline in the value of the ruble than they are on the Russian annexation of Crimea (


Window on Eurasia: Foreign Pressure Did Trigger the Maidan – Pressure from Putin

Paul Goble


            Staunton, November 28 – Most analyses of recent developments in Ukraine start with the Maidan, but it may be more useful for understanding why those have occurred if one considers the actions that led to the Maidan and the extent to which these were both unplanned and counter-productive, according to Mikhail Fishman. 


            The Moscow journalist says that the Maidan was “to a great degree provoked from outside,” but “not in the sense in which Vladimir Putin loves to talk about” such color revolutions. Instead, Putin himself was the outside force, and the impact of his actions led Yanukovich to take the decisions which triggered the Maidan.


            The Ukrainian president was already a failure before all this happened, Fishman says, but had he not, under pressure from Putin, turned “180 degrees” on the issue of signing an agreement with the EU at the Vilnius summit, “hundreds of thousands of people would not have come out into the street (


            “No one knows” exactly what Putin said to Yanukovich at their critical November 9 meeting, Fishman concedes, “but there is the suspicion” that the Ukrainian leader knew what was coming given the harsh words he had been hearing from the Kremlin in the summer and fall of 2013.


            Ukrainian and Polish officials have said that even before November, Putin had sought to intimidate Yanukovich with the threat of a Russian annexation of Crimea.  And it is certainly likely that such threats were not delivered on an “extemporaneous” basis but rather part of a general policy.


            What is striking, Fishman says, is that just before the summer of 2013, “Russian officials were not excluded Ukraine’s membership in two trade zones at one and the same time,” and that could have been arranged with some careful sleight of hand, especially as the EU was not moving quickly given its insistence on the release of Yuliya Timoshenko.


            Given this, “it is very difficult to describe what happened between Moscow and Kyiv from May 2013 onward within the framework of some strict logic,” Fishman says. Instead, one needs to consider an alternative approach, one that focuses on Putin’s personality rather than Russian national interests.


             Moscow’s approach was full of contradictions up to that time because Russia’s interests in Ukraine were contradictory, but when Vladimir Putin went to Kyiv, he did so “not as a guest of Yanukovich” as one might have expected but “as “the builder of the Russian world,” something that preceded his change in Moscow’s course.


            Pressure on Yanukovich intensified to the point that “by the end of August, anti-Russian attitudes in Kyiv were more like hysteria” than anything else. And then at the end of September, Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s close aide, took charge. It was clear to all that “Putin was on the attack” and would continue to do so.


            What was not clear then was his goal.


            If Putin wanted to preserve the status quo, his actions included “a change of serious managerial errors” of the kind one has seen Russian leaders make before as in the case with Nicholas I in the lead up to the first Crimean War.  “But possibly,” Fishman argues, what we have seen is “a somewhat different case.”


            That is suggested by the fact that the program Putin advanced when he ran for a third term had no real content and that “the main problem consisted in its complete lack of an agenda: to rule is fine but quite boring” if all he was going to do was to continue what he had already put in place.


            But that left Putin with no challenge and consequently, Fishman says, the Kremlin leader “decided to take a risk” to prevent his country’s slide back into stagnation and to occupy himself with a kind of adventure.  That possibility, one that reflects Putin’s personality, goes a long way to explain what Putin did regarding Ukraine beginning last summer.


            German Chancellor Angela Merkel spent four hours with Putin in Brisbane attempting to find the answer to the question as why Putin had done what he had done. She didn’t get an answer, but the reason for that may not be the one many have suggested: that Putin keeps his cards close to his chest.


            The real reason, Fishman says, is that Putin doesn’t have an answer, that “he does not know why he provoked the conflict in Ukraine’s southeast.”  That would fit the facts that suggest Putin had earlier decided to create a crisis somewhere without reflecting in any detail on just what the consequences of any one of them might be.


            From the Kremlin leader’s perspective, this is a kind of adventure, one that by definition he has decided he does not know in advance just how things will turn out, a dangerous one to be sure but more interesting perhaps to him than being a president who simply adopts a policy of continuation with no opportunities for creativity.



Window on Eurasia: Moscow Coming Up With Ever More Euphemisms to Hide Russian Losses in Ukraine

Paul Goble


            Staunton, November 28 – Because Vladimir Putin continues to insist that there are no Russian military personnel in Ukraine, the Russian defense ministry has been forced to use ever more euphemisms in order to hide the reality that Russian soldiers are dying there. Now, the Russian dead will be called “those who died in exercises on the border with Ukraine.”


            On Tuesday, Deputy Defense Minister Nikolay Pankov spoke to the Russian Council on Human Rights. In his remarks, he insisted in the words of Elena Racheva of “Novaya gazeta” that “Russian soldiers are not taking part in military activities in the east of Ukraine but all those who have died will receive compensation” (


                In the months since August when evidence began to mount about the deaths of Russian military personnel inside Ukraine, the journalist notes, “the defense ministry has never acknowledged that [Russian] forces have crossed the border of Ukraine. It has never apologized to their relatives, published lists of losses or indicated their number.”


            “In general,” she says, officials have acted “as if they had forgotten about them.”


            During his presentation this week, Sergey Krivenko, a member of the council and a coordinator of the Citizen and Army Movement, said, “Pankov did not mention the word ‘Ukraine’ once.” Instead, he and his colleagues repeated the official line that there are no Russian forces beyond the borders of the country.


            When Pankov and those accompanying him were asked why there were so many dead soldiers if their loss was the result as claimed of maneuvers, he and they said that “they would not talk about that.” Pankov said he had a list “on his desk” of the losses but ‘for understandable reasons’ would not make it public.”


            But ascribing the losses to exercises is becoming increasingly unsustainable, the “Novaya gazeta” journalist says. “Military personnel know that when more than four or five people die in exercises, this is a real emergency. There must be a commission, an investigation and the removal of commanders.”


            The number of Russian losses in Ukraine is far larger than that, and ever more Russians are learning this in a most bitter way. While Moscow pays them up to five million rubles (100,000 US dollars) for their losses, it doesn’t return the personnel effects of the soldiers or tell the truth about how they died.


            And there is yet another problem for Moscow. Russian television regularly talks about the heroes of the Donetsk and Luhansk “peoples republics,” but it doesn’t call the Russians who have lost their lives in Ukraine heroes or give them orders and medals. Instead, it lies about these losses, thus adding insult to the injuries the families have suffered.

Window on Eurasia: ‘Russia Can Lose Belarus’

Paul Goble


            Staunton, November 28 – Analysts and officials in both Moscow and the West have long operated under the assumption that Russia will always be able to retain Belarus as a reliable satellite. But recent statements by Alyaksandr Lukashenka and actions by Belarusian nationalists are raising questions about that assumption.


            In an article yesterday on the “Svobodnaya pressa” portal entitled “Russian can lose Belarus,” commentator Andrey Polunin  says that the anti-Russian attitudes which dominate Ukraine are spreading to Belarus and that the loss of Belarus could be entail far greater costs to Moscow than many assume (


            Polunin points out that in recent months, Belarusian nationalists have become more active than the “systemic” opposition, Lukashenka himself has spoken in defense of Ukraine against Moscow, and the Belarusian media has been filled with articles criticizing Russia and raising questions about Mensk’s current tight relationship with Moscow.


            “All this,” the commentator says, “recalls the Ukrainian scenario,” and thus deserves close attention. Specifically, he says, it is time to ask “how probable is it that a Maidan will occur in Mensk and that Belarus like Ukraine will choose a pro-Western course with a complete break in relations with Russia?”


            Bogdan Bezpalko, the deputy head of the Center for Ukrainian and Belarusian Studies at Moscow State University, told Polunin that a Maidan in Mensk was becoming “ever more probable,” not because of the actions of the nationalists but because of the position of Lukashenka and his regime.


            Most Belarusians are not inclined to rock the boat, he said, but “Belarusian elites themselves have taken up the theme of nationalism in order to protect themselves … and they have begun an era of ‘soft Belarusianization’ of the country.” That is “even more dangerous” than the Ukrainization Kyiv carried out earlier because the Ukrainian version was so crude.


            Mensk is acting in a much more sophisticated and careful way, gradually increasing Belarusianization in much the same way and with the same results as the story about the difference between a frog thrown in boiling water and one put in water that gradually is heated makes clear.


            Nonetheless, Bezpalko says, the situation can change very quickly.  “One must keep in mind that Ukrainization cannot be reduced to the question of language alone.  This is a change of identity which is much more dangerous.” Many who are now Ukrainian nationalists speak Russian, and their language doesn’t prevent them from being so.


            That shift in identity without an immediate shift in language is precisely what one should be worried about in the case of Belarus, the Moscow scholar says.


            He adds that the Belarusian case presents yet another threat: Because Belarusians do not have a national tradition of dissent of the kind that Ukrainians do, young Belarusians may soon decide that Belarusian nationalism is “a fake.”  But that in fact is not something that makes the situation better for Russia but rather worse.


            If young Belarusians turn from nationalism, they are likely to become “supporters of globalization, European integration and will view European values as an alternative to the Russian cultural-civilizational ones, including gay parades,” Bezpalko says.


            He added that in his view, Russia’s loss of Ukraine was not so disturbing as many think and that the potential loss of Belarus could be much more serious than many now imagine.  In the case of Ukraine, Moscow can stop providing the kind of assistance it has been providing over the last 20 years and walk away.


            But the situation with regard to Belarus is “somewhat different.” Belarus is “the single true ally of Russia in the near abroad,” an ally which relies on Russian military power and has opened its territory for Russian bases. If Belarus turned away from Moscow, the situation would be dire indeed.


            “In the case of the loss of Belarus, we would completely return to the borders of the 16th century and this would be our strategic loss.” 


            Tamara Guzenkova, the head of the Moscow Center for Research on the Problems of CIS and Baltic Countries, also spoke with Polunin. She said that “anti-Russian and pro-Western attitudes are intensifying in Belarus,” something that can be seen both in the official media and especially on the Internet.


            She suggested that there were two reasons for this. On the one hand, the West, which had been seeking to find a champion among what she described as the “uncharismatic” Belarusian opposition, has now turned its attention to Belarusian civil society and its online manifestation.


            And on the other, the shift in Belarusian attitudes reflects Lukashenka’s reaction to the Ukrainian crisis, one in which he has had to take into account Belarus’ location between Russia and the West, the upcoming presidential elections in Belarus, and his need to refinance his debts next year.


            According to Guzenkova, “the real tragedy for the Belarusian people consists in the fact that because of the way political realities have taken shape, any pro-European rhetoric a priori automatically is transformed into anti-Russian language.” And that is leading ever Belarusians to think that they stand before a choice.


            That is, “either with Russia or with the West,” and when the question is posed that way, there is a very “serious danger” that Russia could “lose” Belarus.

Window on Eurasia: West Split between Those Who Take Freedom for Granted and Those Who Don’t, Kyiv Historian Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, November 28 – Russian aggression in Ukraine has opened a new divide in the West between those who take freedom for granted and those who know that it must be defended or it can be lost, according to Vladimir Vyatrovich, the director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory.


            Many in the West have come to take their freedoms as a given, but Ukraine has shown that freedom has a price and must be defended or it will be lost, the Kyiv historian says. That is “an extraordinarily important” lesson for today when some are offering security or the illusion of imperial greatness in exchange for it (


            The world needs to recognize that “what is taking place now is not a war between Ukraine and Russia and not an internal Ukrainian conflict. It is a struggle between European liberal-democratic values and the Soviet ones on which Putin operates.” And it needs to recognize as well that the first are directly threatened by the second.


            Putin has made it clear that his ambitions include “the restoration of influence in the borders of the USSR. If he succeeds in subordinating [Ukraine], then his next target will be the Baltic countries.”  Consequently, he has to be stopped in Ukraine before he attacks countries already in NATO and the European Union.


            In his campaign in Ukraine, Vyatrovich says, Putin has relied on much drawn from Soviet propaganda in the past. That is a source of strength for him as many in Ukraine and elsewhere still live according to those values.  But it is also his weakness because “this idea is retrograde and does not have anything in common with the present.”


            Ukraine’s efforts to rethink the Soviet past and move toward a different future is thus a direct challenge to Russia not only because “the rebirth of the USSR is possible only if Kyiv participates” but also because “the condemnation of the crimes of the communist past acquires an entirely different sound if Ukraine joins in that.”


                “It is na├»ve to hope that if another ruler replaces Putin, Russia will change,” the Kyiv historian says. Putin is “playing on the imperial ambitions of Russia,” not creating something which did not exist. Unlike other former imperial powers, Russians have not gone beyond them and come to view empire as a burden rather than a value.


            Ukrainians have never been as committed to subordinating themselves to the authorities and the tsar as Russians have. “On the contrary, Ukrainians have always struggled against any power,” something that has opened the way to the possibility of change but has also added certain difficulties to that process.


            Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich failed precisely because he operated on Russian assumptions, something that provoked a rising against him and ultimately his loss of power, Vyatrovich argues.


            This divide between Ukrainian and Russian values also helps to explain separatism in the east of Ukraine. As a result of Soviet policies, many Ukrainians who had been living there lost their lives and their places were taken by “workers from Russia during the period of industrialization.  As a result, the culture there from the beginning was Soviet.”


            That pattern was compounded in Soviet times by Moscow’s subsidies to the Donbas, and the end of those subsidies has left the population with lower incomes and a sense drawn from the Moscow television channels it still watches that everything is still wonderful in Russia.  All that has worked to preserve Soviet culture there.


             But Ukrainian influence has been sufficiently strong in places like Kharkiv and Odessa that Putin’s plans to create a collection of “peoples republics” in Ukraine has collapsed.


            Ukrainians cannot rely on that alone, however, the historian says.  “The main lesson of history for Ukraine is that in order to oppose an aggressor, the citizens and the authorities must unite.” Only by so doing, he continues, can Ukraine avoid risings within its own territory when as they must things get tough.


            “Now,” Vyatrovich argues, “Russia is interested in preserving an enclave beyond the control of the Ukrainian authorities,” and it is thus using exactly the same scenario it employed earlier in Georgia.  And it is using tactics extremely similar to those the Bolsheviks used in Ukraine in 1918-1919.


            Those include many that are now called “hybrid war:” the creation of parallel governments, military formations supported by the Bolsheviks, and an enormous propaganda effort.


            Those were relatively successful at that time, Vyatrovich says, but the situation today is different. Fortunately, “the Ukrainian state is much stronger and the level of national consciousness of the people is an order of magnitude higher.”





Thursday, November 27, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Moving to Establish ‘Total Control’ over Religious Organizations, Lunkin Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, November 27 – New amendments for the Russian law on freedom of conscience now being prepared by the justice ministry establish in fact “a system of total [government] control over religious organizations” in the Russian Federation, according to Roman Lunkin.


            Lunkin, an expert on law and religion at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says that “the phobias of the bureaucracy about public initiative and the religious variety of the country are leading to the disappearance of religious organizations (non-Orthodox above all) from public life” (


            This system of control, he continues, involves not only the issue of identifying any foreign sources of income that religious groups may have and the possibility that they will be classified as “foreign agents” but also from other parts of the proposed amendments to the existing law.


            They individually and collectively, Lunkin says, open the way for massive, repeated and unannounced inspections of religious groups if the authorities believe that the latter are not providing the information they are supposed to.  That perhaps will not disturb many groups who believe that they are being perfectly transparent.


            But they and others who may not be are not to be the judge of that. Instead, the authorities are, and any religious group the authorities want to inspect can fall victim. That is especially likely to be the case for Muslims and for the so-called “non-traditional” religions and groups like the Salvation Army, various Christian missionaries, and the Scientologists.


            “There is no good sense” in any of this, Lunkin says, and consequently, official monitoring of religious groups to the point of harassment will continue.  While “Russia has avoided the path of the Central Asian states which harshly block the activities of religious groups,” it is using law to limit their activities in ways that strike their rights and core values.


            Because a religious group cannot get official registration without clearing the hurdles that the new law imposes as far as declarations about sources of income, none will receive it except “as a political indulgence” that is likely to be given only to the Russian Orthodox Church and others that keep close to the official line.


            “It is possible,” Lunkin concludes, that the Russian justice ministry doesn’t like the idea of registering any group and “doesn’t want to see any more.” The new amendments may even make that likely.




Window on Eurasia: Lake Balkhash May Disappear in Five to Six Years Thanks to Chinese Demand for Water

Paul Goble


            Staunton, November 27 – Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkash, the largest body of water in the former Soviet space and the 15th largest lake in the world, may follow the Aral Sea into extinction, becoming like its more famous counterpart, a series of smaller disconnected lakes and dried out places within five or six years, according to Petr Bologov.
            One of the reasons for this is the same one that killed the Aral Sea: excessive use of water by populations living along the rivers whose waters had fed that body of water. But in addition, there is a new one: China is blocking the flow of the rivers flowing from its territory into the lake (
           If Lake Balkhash dies that quickly and because of these Chinese actions, its impact on the politics and the population of the surround area is likely to be even greater than has been the death of the Aral Sea. On the one hand, given that the lake’s basin includes a fifth of Kazakhstan’s population, its death will affect how that country views China in the future.
          And on the other, those feelings are likely to be even more negative because the population in the affected areas is likely to suffer from skyrocketing rates of cancers as a result of exposure to newly-exposed rare earth minerals from the lake bed and from plunging life expectancies as a result, if the experience in Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakia is any guide.
              Lake Balkhash has been under stress since the 1970s because of Soviet-era industrial and agricultural expansion and the growth of population around the rivers which flow into that body of water.  But the situation has become critical since China began its program of developing Xinjiang in order to attract more Han Chinese to the area and thus overwhelm the local Muslim populations.
               China has thus increasingly taken water from the Ili River which has provided much of the water for Lake Balkhash and that in turn means that less of this water is coming downstream into the lake.  Ecologists project, the journalist says, that by mid-century, China will have cut the downstream flow by 40 percent.
               In 2001, Kazakhstan and China signed an agreement about trans-border rivers, but the new Chinese development program for Xinjiang has made that a dead letter. In 2007, Kazakhstan proposed negotiating a new accord, but up to now, Beijing has refused to do so, thus exacerbating the situation of Lake Balkhash.
              If it were not for the Chinese, Bologov says, Kazakhstan could save Lake Balkhash. It has already taken steps to ensure that more water flows into the lake.  But because of China, Astana’s efforts won’t be enough, and Kazakhstan can only hope that the international community will put pressure on Beijing to agree to talks.
           If that doesn’t happen, Lake Balkash will follow the Aral Sea into extinction and far faster than anyone imagines.