Friday, September 18, 2020

Fewer than One Russian in Seven Favors Annexation of Belarus, Levada Center Poll Finds

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 17 – Only 13 percent of Russians favor the absorption of Belarus into the Russian Federation, two percent more than did a year ago but far fewer than the share favoring a situation in which the two countries would remain independent but have close economic and political ties, according to a Levada Center poll conducted at the end of August.

            These figures are significant in that the Levada Center uses a variety of techniques to get a sample reflective of the Russian population as a whole rather than some other pollsters who are less careful in that regard (thinktanks.by/publication/2020/09/17/levada-tsentr-13-protsentov-rossiyan-za-vhozhdenie-belarusi-v-sostav-rossii.html).

            Thirty-two percent of the sample say that Moscow and Minsk should maintain relations at their current level, up from 28 percent a year ago. Forty-one percent say that they should develop closer economic cooperation, down three percentage points from 2019. But only 11 percent, the same as last year, favor an arrangement in which they would have a common ruler.

            The sociological service also reported that Russians rank Belarus as Russia’s “closest friend” internationally, with 58 percent making that declaration, down four percentage points from 2019. At the same time, only two percent say it is an enemy of Russia, more or less unchanged from a year ago.

            Obviously, under Putin, the opinions of Russians on this matter are hardly determinative; but they do make any drive to absorb Belarus more difficult. And at the same time, these Russian attitudes are an important political resource for those Belarusians who want to maintain their independence.

            Indeed, Belarusians could easily decide on the basis of data like these that the best way for their country to be independent would be to remain a close friend to Russia and that any move away from Moscow might be the thing most likely to trigger precisely the kind of aggressive Russian response they hope to avoid.

            Such a calculus is also something that those in the West who hope for Belarus to become a free and democratic state need to recognize as well rather than continuing to assume as all too many do that taking a position favorable to Moscow by the Belarusian nation in the streets is a betrayal of those goals.

            It may in fact be the only way that they can be achieved, at least as long as Putin is in power in Moscow.

Putin’s Goals for Boosting Life Expectancy Unlikely to Be Met in Far North, Demographers Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 17 – Vladimir Putin’s call to boost life expectancy in Russia to 80 years by 2030 may be achieved in Moscow and a few better off regions, but in the northern reaches of the country, it will be almost impossible, according to Timur Fattakhov and Anastasiya Pyankova, demographers at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.

            In a new article, “Reserves of Growth of Life Expectancies in the Northern Regions of Russia,” they describe the enormous obstacles that would have to be overcome for the Putin goals to be achieved there (Profilakticheskaya meditsina 23: 2 (2020): 89-96 at iq.hse.ru/news/399549079.html, summarized at publications.hse.ru/articles/376061321).

            Not only would officials have to lower mortality from heart attacks, traumas, and murders among the local population, the two Moscow experts say, they would have to significantly reduce alcohol consumption and convince the people to take greater care of their health. 

            Fattakhov and Pyankova say in particular that “in order to bring life expectancies in the North close to those in the better off megalopolises,” the population must be provided with more accessible health care, greater technology, more and better medical personnel, and improved transportation so that people in distant areas can reach hospitals when they need to.

            Life expectancies in the Russian north are 71.4, almost the same as for Russia as a whole where the figure is 72 but far behind Moscow where people can already expect to live to 78.  That means that men in the North on average live 7.9 years fewer than male Muscovites and women in the North live 4.1 years fewer than their counterparts in the capital.

            In percentage terms, people in the North made enormous strides between 2003 and 2016, but the demographers caution that “from a low level, it is always easier to achieve increases than from a higher one.” At the same time, there was real progress in reducing accidents and traumas and lowering alcohol consumption.

            During that period and even now, the ages at which such changes can make a difference are for men in prime working age groups and for women over 65. That is because in the North in particular, the population has not succeeded in ending the impact of infectious diseases on the population.

            According to the two Moscow demographers, much of what remains to be done requires massive social investment and a concerted effort to change life styles, such as alcohol consumption which leads to accidents, suicides, and other deaths, and to make medical care more rather than less accessible.

            Per capita costs of health care are inevitably higher in the North given the low density of the population and the difficulty people there face in traveling to doctors or hospitals.  If Moscow evaluates medical care costs there as it does for the rest of the country, the North will never catch up in terms of life expectancy because premature deaths will remain high.

                Fattakhov and Pyankova do not address Putin’s health care optimization program directly, a program that has led to the closing of numerous medical points in the North as well as other rural parts of the country. But their analysis supports the conclusion that Putin’s policy on that makes the achievement of his life expectancy goals impossible, at least in the North.

               

Russian Regime Exploiting Pandemic to Limit Protests of All Kinds, New Report Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 17 – As soon as the pandemic began, the Russian authorities recognized that they could use it to limit the possibilities of Russians to take part in protests and immediately introduced restrictions in 71 regions, the independent rights group OVD-Info says in a new 3600-word report (ovdinfo.org/reports/svoboda-sobraniy-na-fone-pandemii#2).

            Moreover, the powers that be used the occasion to effectively eliminate the divisions that had existed in Russian legislation between various kinds of public assembly thus allowing the authorities to employ at their discretion punishments intended for one kind of protest against any and all others, Denis Shedov, one of the report’s authors says.

            And while these restrictions supposedly were related to the pandemic, only in 15 of the 71 regions did officials include in their orders provisions that would call for these limits to be lifted when the pandemic ends, thus opening the way for them to retain such controls indefinitely.

            Even when other pandemic-related restrictions like going to restaurants or museums are lifted, these limitations have rarely been at least for any political activity directed against the authorities. For example, in Moscow, one can go back to restaurants but can’t take part in individual picketing if the authorities choose to apply the restrictive order rather than the law.

            Rights activists say that the situation has deteriorated in recent months as officials recognize that they can invoke the pandemic to justify almost any restrictions they want to impose (vtimes.io/news/pandemia-protiv-svobody).

As Coronavirus Numbers Rise, Russians Fear More Restrictions, Forced Vaccination

 Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 17 – As the uptick in the number of coronavirus cases and deaths continues, ever more Russians fear that the government is about to introduce more restrictions and require vaccinations, an attitude that has prompted officials to deny that they have plans to do either.

            Today the central staff reported that Russian officials have registered 5762 new cases of infection, bringing that total to  1,085,281, and 144 more deaths, upping that toll to 19.061, both higher than they have been since July and sparking worries that the virus is on the attack (t.me/COVID2019_official/1515 and novayagazeta.ru/articles/2020/09/17/87133-korona-vozvraschaetsya-na-prestol).

            The Kremlin annou9nced it had no plans to re-impose restrictions but at the same time said that the decision to do so would be made by the governors rather than by the central government (regnum.ru/news/3066364.html and regnum.ru/news/3066719.html).

            One of their number, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin reflected the tough position they find themselves in: He took credit for the fact that 99 percent of pupils are in classrooms but called on businesses to continue distance working (regnum.ru/news/3066739.html and kommersant.ru/doc/4494202?from=main_7).

            Elsewhere, the pandemic continued to ebb and flow with new closures seemingly as common as new re-openings, even as officials declared that the epidemiological situation of the country as a whole was “stable” (regnum.ru/news/society/3064298.html and  regnum.ru/news/3066259.html).

            As far as forced vaccinations are concerned, Prime Minister Mikhail Murashko insisted they would not take place (capost.media/news/obshchestvo/minzdrav-prinuditelnoy-vaktsinatsiya-ot-koronavirusa-v-rossii-ne-budet/ and regnum.ru/news/3065779.html); but ever more experts suggested they are likely given popular resistance (newizv.ru/article/general/17-09-2020/virusolog-vaktsinu-sputnik-v-ispytyvayut-na-lyudyah-v-prinuditelnom-poryadke).  Gamaley Laboratory officials said that the attitudes of Russians toward the vaccine were irrelevant as far as public policy is concerned because the vaccine is still being tested (regnum.ru/news/3065757.html), and Vektor Laboratories said that its vaccine would not provide lifetime protection given mutations in the virus (regnum.ru/news/3066440.html).

            Meanwhile, several over-the-counter medications against the coronavirus went on sale in Russia, likely depressing interest in the vaccine (nakanune.ru/news/2020/9/17/22583938/). Also pushing down interest is the opposition of many Orthodox clergy (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2020/09/16/87124-udarnaya-doza-apokalipsisa).

            On the economic front, experts said unreported payments to workers had fallen during the pandemic because the parts of the economy where those are the most common had been the hardest hit (regnum.ru/news/3065945.html). Moscow’s effort to boost housing via lower interest rates is clashing with its cutbacks in the construction of low-price apartments (ng.ru/economics/2020-09-17/4_7967_housing.html and babr24.com/msk/?IDE=205017).

            Finance Minister Anton Siluanov reported that the Russian government expects to run deficits totaling 5.4  trillion rubles (80 billion US dollars) over the next three years because of the shadow of the economic downturn sparked by the pandemic (krizis-kopilka.ru/archives/80131).

            And in other pandemic-related developments in Russia today,

·         Prime Minister Mikhail Murashkov said that wearing masks and maintaining social distance remain the most important steps Russians can take to prevent a recurrence of the pandemic (regnum.ru/news/3066201.html).

·         A commentator has suggested that Russians, like many other nations, are now divided into two groups, those who try to be careful and those who take pride in not doing so and in showing their readiness to die (newizv.ru/comment/alina-vituhnovskaya-2/16-09-2020/o-transformatsii-cheloveka-v-kovidnuyu-epohu).

·         The expert community in Russia is pressing the government to adopt a negative income tax so that those hit hardest by the pandemic can recover (ng.ru/economics/2020-09-17/4_7967_economics1.html).

Thursday, September 17, 2020

’15 Days Detention isn’t Much’ -- Belarusians Cease to Be Afraid, Vadomatsky Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 16 – Over the last month, sociologist Andrey Vardomatsky says on the basis of focus group interviews with protesters, Belarusians have ceased to be afraid of the authorities, they do not require leaders to direct them in their protest activity, and are prepared for a long struggle.

            In short, the NOVAK laboratory researcher says, there have been “fundamental changes” in the population and the emergence of a genuine and strong “Belarusian civil society” which no longer believes it needs a strong hand to govern it (belsat.eu/ru/news/grazhdanskoe-obshhestvo-rozhdaetsya-vo-dvorah-v-chem-novizna-i-osobennost-belorusskih-protestov/).

            This new attitude of self-confidence finds its expression in the remarks of many of those surveyed that being detained by the authorities for 15 days is no longer a reason not to protest. Instead, the threat of such punishments is part of life and can even be the occasion for a redoubling of efforts, Vardomatsky says.

            And what is especially important, he continues, is that this process of the formation of an active civil society is occurring in each yard around apartment blocks and thus has become beyond the reach of the central authorities. They can no longer hope to direct or control these shifts in public attitudes.

            In the future, this growth of local cooperation is going to become “the prototype of local self-administration.” But now, it means that the failure of the protesters to achieve a breakthrough is not leading to apathy but to a recommitment to protest as long as it takes to oust Lukashenka and change Belarus forever.

Riga City Council Election Marks ‘Beginning of the End’ of Ethnic Voting in Latvia, Bergmane Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 16 – The results of the August 29 city council elections in Riga suggest “the beginning of the end” of ethnic voting in Latvia, with historically “Latvian” and “Russian” parties promoting other issues and ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians voting less on the basis of their ethnicity than ever before, Una Bergmane says.

            The London-based Latvian scholar says this has shaken “the political landscape of the Latvian capital.” More than that, it has called into question Moscow’s continuing efforts to use ethnic Russians to promote its interests even when they conflict with the interests of the country in which these people live (fpri.org/article/2020/09/riga-a-new-beginning/).

            For the last 11 years, Harmony, a party that has presented itself as an advocate for Rusian speakers, has controlled the city council in Riga, reflecting the fact that most large cities in Latvia have Russian-speaking majorities. And Moscow has celebrated this arrangement as the basis for change at the all-Latvian level and more broadly.

            The rise of non-ethnically based parties like Development/For, Progressives and New Unity reflects a decline in ethnic political polarization in Riga and greater willingness among Latvians, Russian speakers and not, to support left of center views that had been anathema because of their assumed links to Sovietism.

            This combination means that the Riga elections may “indeed be the beginning of the end of ethnic voting there,” a development that if it continues will move Latvian politics away from ethnic divisions and open the way for broader left-of-center political coalitions.

            One characteristic of the August vote, however, calls that into question. Participation at 40.58 percent, “is a harsh reminder that a significant number of the city’s inhabitants feel disengaged from city politics,” Bergmane says. Indeed, she adds, they may represent the disillusionment of many Russian speakers.

            But the decline in participation may also reflect simple fatigue given the controversies the city council has been mired in during recent years. And one can only welcome the fact that “there was no large-scale mobilization driven by ethnic sentiments on either side” and that new non-ethnic forces are going to dominate politics there.  

           

Reactions of Russians to Belarusian Protests Led Moscow to Poison Navalny, Pastukhov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 16 – The Russian government has suggested it had no interest in killing Aleksey Navalny because the opposition leader currently garners only two percent support in public opinion polls; but, Vladimir Pastukhov argues, that ignores the fears many in the Kremlin have that Russians are being inspired by events in Belarus.

            Up to now, including in 2014 regarding Ukraine, the London-based Russian analyst says, sympathy for the Maidan did not extend much beyond the customary “political watershed between liberals and patriots.” Now, with Belarus, Russian sympathies for the Belarusian protesters are much more widespread (mbk-news.appspot.com/sences/belorusskaya/).

            The Kremlin is very worried about that, and its actions reflect its fears, Paatukhov argues. “Russia is a country serious split into two ideological ‘occupation zones,’ the liberal and the patriotic, whose residents rarely leave the place of their political dislocation.” Between them is “a broad neutral area” whose residents rarely take sides at least in public. 

            In reaction to developments in Belarus, the first two took entirely predictable positions. But what is intriguing and significant is that members of the neutral zone between them started to take positions as well, saying things they may well have felt for a long time but feeling that they must express themselves.

            Such occasions are rare, Pastukhov says; and when they do occur, the Kremlin takes notice because such rare comments by those in the normally silent middle are among the only ways that the Kremlin can actually find out what is going on in “the terra incognita” of “’the deep elites’” who normally keep quiet and thus are assumed to be in the Kremlin’s corner.

            “But when the protests suddenly began in Belarus, these people who had silently followed the abuses of Russian siloviki in Moscow a year ago, began to express themselves” openly because for these people, “when they say ‘Belarus,’ they mean Russia,” and when “they speak the name of Lukashenka aloud, they are saying to themselves ‘Putin.’”

            In response to such statements and they appeared on television and in the central media, the Kremlin had to do something to change the focus. What it did was to poison Navalny; and in response, “the interest of ‘the deep elites’ to the events in Belarus rapidly declined to nothing.” That solved the Kremlin’s problems at least for a time.

            The deep elites were driven back into their horrified silence, and the window of opportunity that their comments had appeared to open between August 10 and August 20 ended. That was enough for the Kremlin to take this action, and Pastukhov suggests that it was this concern rather than any fear of Navalny himself that explains what took place.