Thursday, December 31, 2020

Pandemic has Made Things Harder for Russian People but Easier for Russian Government, ‘Kommersant’ Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 30 – There is near universal recognition that the pandemic and its consequences have made almost everything for ordinary Russians more difficult, Kommersant political editor Dmitry Kamyshev says; but there is as yet little recognition that it has made life far easier for the powers that be (kommersant.ru/doc/4637012).

            On the one hand, he argues, the pandemic has given the authorities virtually unlimited ability to introduce restrictions because they can always blame the pandemic for them. And on the other, if problems do arise in the execution of what the regime wants to do, it can also hold the pandemic responsible.  And regularly it does, without facing many challenges.

            Moscow today registered 26,513 new cases of infection and 599 new deaths; officials also said that there are right now more than a million people who have the coronavirus infection and pneumonia; and, in one piece of good news, they added that the number of people recovering from the virus for the first time this month exceeds the number being infected (t.me/COVID2019_official/2285, regnum.ru/news/3154654.html and  echo.msk.ru/news/2766324-echo.html).

            On the vaccine front, Moscow has stepped up pressure on Russians to be vaccinated, warning them against drinking after they get it, and suggesting that their chances for survival if they are hospitalized with the virus are only about 50-50 (echo.msk.ru/blog/partofair/2766256-echo/, ura.news/news/1052465574 and republic.ru/posts/99011).

            Moscow officials said they have already produced about two million doses of the vaccine and reported that they have received the first batch of Sputnik-5 medicine from South Korea (regnum.ru/news/3155100.html and asiarussia.ru/news/26316/).

            Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin’s decision to allow more categories of people to get the vaccine has sparked criticism and debate with many concerned that instead of ensuring that those who need the medication most get it, the powers that be are simply looking to boost the total number (regnum.ru/news/3155393.html).

            After imposing draconian restrictions on restaurants and bars and reporting a radical increase in the number of coronavirus infections and deaths, St. Petersburg Governor Aleksandr Beglov tried to regain some support by announcing that he was easing the restrictions for the holidays (regnum.ru/news/3154770.html, regnum.ru/news/3154764.html, regnum.ru/news/3155256.html and regnum.ru/news/3154388.html).

            And Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said that the government would spend approximately 100 billion rubles (1.5 billion US dollars) on its vaccination effort through next year (regnum.ru/news/3154731.html).

            On the economic front, officials reported that the departure of immigrants because of the pandemic had cost the Russian construction industry some 1.5 million employees (nazaccent.ru/content/34822-marat-husnullin-iz-rossii-iz-za-pandemii.html). And reflecting Russia’s own food problems, Moscow has asked Beijing to lift restrictions on sale of fish to Russia (regnum.ru/news/3154442.html).

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

·         Fear of contracting the coronavirus has reduced the readiness of Russians to take part in protests, experts say (kommersant.ru/doc/4636991).

·         More reports are coming which show that those who die in hospitals may be classified as having died from the coronavirus or from something else depending on what morgue workers feel like rather than as a result of a medical diagnosis (zona.media/article/2020/12/22/vtoraya-volna).

·         A leading Russian epidemiologist says that as bad as the coronavirus pandemic has been, even more horrific diseases with an even greater reach are entirely possible (rosbalt.ru/moscow/2020/12/30/1880519.html).

Syunik Officials Want Local Armenians to Be Armed – and Other Danger Signs in South Caucasus

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 29 – Armenian officials in Syunik Oblast, the portion of Armenia between Azerbaijan proper and Azerbaijan’s autonomous republic across which transit is to be opened for all per the November 10 declaration say that the situation is so tense that they would like to arm the population.

            Such an action would be designed to discourage any Azerbaijani move in this location, a move that Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan would lead Russia to intervene on Russia’s side (kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/358070/ and kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/358099/). But an armed population would increase the danger of violence and provocations that could threaten the current cease fire.

            Just how real such a threat arming the population could present  was on view today on the Goris-Kapan highway when the vice mayor of Goris, Menua Ovsepyan, called on people already blocking that throughway to arm themselves in order to resist any Azerbaijan encroachments (kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/358149/).

            Meanwhile, there were three other developments, one in Stepanakert, one in Baku and one in Yerevan, that also point to trouble ahead. According to a Moscow commentator, Vitaly Balasanyan, head of the self-proclaimed Artsakh Republic’s security council, said in an interview that he was giving orders to the civilian authorities there (svpressa.ru/politic/article/286033/).

            In addition, Balasanyan said he has imposed restrictions on alcohol consumption that will apply to Russian peacekeepers as well as Armenians in his much-reduced territory. He said he has established working relations with the peacekeepers on an equal basis; and some in Moscow speculate the latter will soon hand out Russian passports to those who want them.

            But perhaps most concerning is this: Balasanyan recently visited Yerevan where he worked with the Armenian military’s general staff and defense minister but did not meet Pashinyan or other civilian leaders. That suggests the Armenian military may be pursuing its own line in the conflict, something that could lead to misunderstandings, provocations or worse.

            In Baku, a group of opposition politicians and political analysts sharply criticized the actions of the Russian peacekeepers in the Qarabagh region and demanded that their services be dispensed with or at least restricted (doshdu.com/azerbajdzhanskie-politiki-trebuet-sokratit-chislo-rossijskih-mirotvorcev-v-nkr/).

            That is not the position of the Azerbaijani government, but it is a sign that already now many Azerbaijanis are angry about the Russian presence and see it as a threat to the interests of their nation. Such people are likely to monitor what the peacekeepers do and highlight anything they believe helps Armenia or hurts Azerbaijan, thus keeping tensions high.

            But perhaps the most worrisome development of all came from Yerevan, where the foreign ministry said that it would not start the process of demarcating the Armenian-Azerbaijani border until after the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries and the formation of a joint commission (kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/358149/).

            The foreign ministry said that the lines now being drawn are not borders but rather designations of the presence of forces. It issued that statement after people in Syunik protested what they felt were concessions by the Armenian side on the ever-sensitive border issue. At the very least, this keeps the border question open for some time.

            But the Yerevan statement may have another consequence: if Armenia is not prepared to recognize borders until after diplomatic relations are established between the two countries, that means it is not yet prepared, in contrast to Azerbaijan, to agree now to any recognition of the 1991 borders which Baku, Moscow and the international community have insisted on.

            And by linking this issue to mutual recognition, the Armenian authorities have made that necessary step forward far more difficult as Baku would not want to exchange diplomats if doing so meant that it was open to a future discussion of the borders. 

             

Moscow’s Moves against Orthodox Church Dissidents Seen Backfiring

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 29 – In the past, the combined efforts of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian government to suppress dissent within the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church have generally been effective, but two new cases suggest that the situation is changing and that repression will only increase the attention and support such people have.

            There is as yet no indication that either secular or religious leaders in the Russian capital recognize this danger. Instead, it appears that they believe that crackdowns of the kind that have worked against religious in the past and secular groups on the present continue to be the most effective way to stamp out dissent.

            Two cases, one involving Abbot Sergiy and a second involving Archdeacon Andrey Kurayev, suggest that Russia may be at a turning point as far as controlling the statements and actions of religious leaders who do not agree with the Kremlin or the Patriarchate and who have enormous popular support for their positions.

            The arrest of Abbot Sergiy and his expulsion from church facilities he had occupied was nominally a state action about property but in fact represented a combined church-state move against someone who challenged the patriarch, Nakanune commentator Yevgeny Chernyshov says, adding that that controversy has not been exhausted and is “the most dangerous” (nakanune.ru/articles/116634/).

            Sergiy has raised “a number of important questions” that are agitating many in the church, and using government power against him only ensures that they will grow in intensity and require an answer from the Patriarchate sooner or later, the writer says. Others go further and say the Kremlin by its actions is transforming the abbot into a new Avvakum (rusk.ru/newsdata.php?idar=88692).

            Should that prove to be the case, Moscow will suffer in two ways. On the one hand, the Russian state will be implicated in provoking a new schism in the church, something that will cost it authority; and on the other, the ROC MP will become even more divided between conservatives and liberals with little hope that the two will find any common ground.

            Meanwhile, in another case involving a church dissident, a Patriarchal court has recommended that Andrey Kurayev be stripped of his status as an archdeacon, a recommendation that Patriarch Kirill will have little choice but to confirm lest he disown the church hierarchy.

            But instead of being intimidated, Kurayev who remained a deacon in order to have more freedom to speak out says that for him, the freedom to express what his conscience dictates is more important than any church rank and that he has no intention of repenting of his words or ending his criticism of the ROC MP (rusk.ru/newsdata.php?idar=88696).

            That likely means that every time Kurayev does speak out, he will do so as someone the Patriarchate has sought to punish, a fact that will limit his influence among some but likely ensure that it will be all the greater among many others – the unwitting consequences of another unnecessary authoritarian move by Moscow religious and civil. 

Pandemic and Economic Crisis Changing Russians from Observers to Citizens But Leaving Them Divided, Levinson Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 29 – Because of the pandemic and the associated economic crisis, many Russians are being forced by circumstances to shift from being passive observers to taking more demanding positions as citizens, a change that could outlast either of the problems that generated it, according to Aleksey Levinson.

            The two crises, the Levada Center sociologist says surveys and focus group discussions show, have confronted Russians with very specific and personal challenges. Almost all of them have experienced or know someone who has experienced one or the other. Consequently, these issues have become personal (vtimes.io/2020/12/29/glas-naroda-chem-poradoval-2020-god-a2278).

            And unlike many issues which remain more nebulous or apparently beyond the capacity of individuals to change, Russians today when dealing with these two problems have often concluded that they have no choice but to address them directly in order to save themselves and their families.

            As one might expect, different groups of Russians are reacting differently. Better off Russians living in the largest cities feel that healthcare has come through for them even if they may feel the economic crisis more severely, while those in other cities who are less well-off may be more concerned about problems with medical care because their insurance is less good.

            These differences in reaction also reflect, Levinson says, the only contradictory and even disorienting comments of officials. “Bosses at various levels accustomed to be more worried about the reaction of those above them than those below them sometimes lie and sometimes tell the truth.”

            Thus, on occasion, these officials will understate the nature of the threat lest Moscow be angered and, on others, overstate it to show how important they are and how much support they need. “As a result,” the sociologist says, “mass consciousness has turned out to be disoriented.”

            Another divide that has opened is between parents of school-age children and everyone else. The former in the main and especially women don’t want schools closed while most of the latter favor that step as a way of fighting and defeating the pandemic so that economic consequences will be less severe.

            Lockdowns and the inability to travel abroad have also divided people. But in the case of the latter, both those who had to give up plans to go abroad and those who had no such plans felt that domestic tourism was no substitute because Russian venues could not compete in quality with foreign ones or give them the sense of escape that the former did.

            One important indication of the way in which the pandemic and the economic crisis have changed Russians is provided by polls about the constitutional amendments. Last June, Russians were overwhelmingly supportive of them, but now they are divided nearly equally between those who call them “extremely negative” and those who support them.

            According to the sociologist, Russians felt positive about only two things this year: the retirement of Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister and the departure of Antaoly Chubais as head of Rosnano. Many Russians had long wanted these two to leave the scene. This year, 2020, they got their wish.

 

Ingush Seven Case ‘Largest Act of Political Persecution’ in Russia Today, Moscow Rights Activists Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 29 – At a meeting in the office of the Moscow Helsinki Group yesterday, prominent Russian human rights activists and lawyers for the Ingush Seven denounced their trial as “absurd” and the height of illegality both because no crimes were committed and because the legal system has ignored its own rules.

            Sergey Davidis, head of the political prisoner program at Memorial, pointed out that this case was “the very largest politically motivated persecution connected with a single specific event” (fortanga.org/2020/12/apogej-absurda-advokaty-i-pravozashhitniki-o-dele-uchastnikov-ingushskogo-protesta/, fortanga.org/2020/12/pravozashhitniki-nazvali-ingushskoe-delo-samym-krupnym-politicheskim-presledovaniem-v-rossii/  and kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/358101/).

            “Neither the Bolotnoye nor the Moscow cases were as large,” the human rights activist said. As a result, “this is the very largest attack on freedom of assembly, organizations and even the sovereignty of the people.” Other speakers, including Lev Ponomaryev, agreed and provided additional details.

            Davidis explained that Memorial had not declared all of the 48 Ingush accused in this case political prisoners not because they do not show signs of being so but only because his organization lacked the resources to be able to go into the details of each particular case of official abuse against them.

            The next session of the Ingush Seven trial is scheduled to take place in Kislovodsk on January 12, after the New Year’s holiday concludes, Meanwhile, all seven remain in detention.

            Meanwhile, there were three other important developments today on the legal front in Ingushetia. First, the Ingush Supreme Court left unchanged the conviction of Rashid Maysigov, the Fortanga journalist on whom drugs were planted. His lawyers announced immediate plans to appeal to the Russian Supreme Court (fortanga.org/2020/12/prigovor-rashidu-majsigovu-ostavlen-v-sile/).

            Second, the widow of Magomed Doliyev who died as a result of torture filed a formal complaint about the early release of the interior ministry officer, Timur Khamkhoyev, was had been found guilty of abuse of his position in the Doliyev case (fortanga.org/2020/12/podana-zhaloba-na-dosrochnoe-osvobozhdenie-timura-hamhoeva/).

            And third, two Ingush teips demanded that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov provide evidence for his charges of terrorism in a recent case and release the bodies of those his forces killed in suppressing it (doshdu.com/ingushskie-tejpy-potrebovali-ot-kadyrova-dokazatelstva-viny-ubityh-v-groznom-bratev/ and kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/358158/).

Kaliningraders Recalling Russian Role in World War I

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 29 – Kaliningrad Oblast, which in 1914 was Germany’s East Prussia, is “the only region in Russia” where a century ago the battles of World War I flared when the Russian army invaded in order to force Berlin to shift forces from the Western Front and thus, in the view of most historians, saved France from defeat.

            And thus it is perhaps not surprising that Kaliningrad is the only place in Russia today where that conflict is recalled and where the graves of Russian soldiers from that conflict are honored and looked after, Andrey Vypolzov of Sovershenno Sekretno says (sovsekretno.ru/articles/mogila-neizvestnogo-russe/).

            Few Russians elsewhere know much about World War I or the Russian achievements in East Prussia, in part because of Soviet ideology which invariably described the conflict as “an imperialist war” and focused on tsarist plans to seize the straits and in part because World War I is so long ago and has been eclipsed by the Great Fatherland War as Russians call World War II.

             It is a matter of some bitterness that Russians elsewhere have forgotten the Russian soldiers who fought there and that the graves of those which have been preserved were kept by German officials in the interwar period. At that time, Vypolzov says, the graves of “Unbekannte Russen” were treated with as much respect as named German ones.

            Occasionally other evidence of the Russian presence in the German region during World War I has surfaced, the Sovershenno Sekretno writer continues. A few years ago, a brick was found with the inscription, “Here worked many Russians. 1916” which recalls the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers who were captured.

            In Soviet times, neither those who died fighting nor those who were forced to work as prisoners of war were recalled by Russia. But Germans continued to look after their graves; and in the 1990s, a German military mission restored some of the cemeteries in what had been East Prussia.

            Local people have learned about two mass graves in which are interred 500 Russian soldiers, and the local university has launched an investigation in the archives to try to identify as many of the lost as possible. Local activists are supporting them and have even erected memorial stones where possible.

            Perhaps most notably, these activists have organized annual meetings of the descendants of Russian soldiers of World War I.  And as a result, ever more people in Kaliningrad if not yet Russia as a whole are learning about the thousands of Russian soldiers who died fighting and the 2.5 million Russian soldiers who were captive.

            The story of their captivity remains largely a blank spot in the history of Russia, Vypolzov says. A rare exception was a book published by Moscow during World War II to highlight German cruelty. That book contains some important details and is available online at militera.lib.ru/docs/da/o_nemetskih_zverstvah/index.html. But far more needs to be done.

            The people of Kaliningrad are taking the lead in promoting such attention, research and restoration of the Russian graves in their region. 

 

Russian Muslims Urged to Focus on Turkic Elements of the History of Their Faith

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 29 – When communism fell and the USSR disintegrated, many in the region and the West hoped that Turkey would play a key role in the revival of Islam across the former Soviet space lest Iran and its more radical form of Islam raced ahead and filled that ideological vacuum.

            Turkish Islam was generally viewed as closest to what Russian call “traditional Islam” and thus more acceptable, except for trends within it like Gulenism, whose educational institutions in many places were closed for supposedly exporting radicalism to the post-Soviet states.

            Now, Russian experts are promoting the idea that Muslims in Russia and particularly academic specialists on them should again focus more attention on the Turkic elements of Islam in Russia, an intriguing argument that could help Ankara to expand its soft power in Russia given its growing influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

            At a conference in Kazan December 22-26 on “Islam in a Multi-Cultural World,” Russian Muslim leaders and university specialists on Islam in Russia focused on the interrelationships of Islam in Russia and the Turkic Muslim world and called for an expansion in the study of Turkish in order to better understand their faith (kpfu.ru/imoiv/islam-v-multikulturnom-mire-400298.html).

            Apollinariya Avrutina, head of the Center for the Study of Contemporary Turkey and Russian-Turkish Relations at St. Petersburg State University, said that Turkic elements are a key element of Islam in Russia and that Russian specialists on Islam should learn Turkic languages and not rely on Arabic alone.

            Vitaly Naumkin of the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies agreed and said that the rising generation of specialists on Islam in Russia includes many who are devoting more attention to Turkic elements and especially to the history of Tatar Muslim modernism in the 19th century. 

            And Vasily Kuznetsov, also of the Moscow Institute, said that many of the current problems with Islam have arisen because of its Arabic focus and that the study of Turkish and Turkic languages and sources can help to correct that. Indeed, he added, there has been much progress in this direction over the last decade.

            Among the issues which are being informed by this attention to Turkic elements in Islam, Kuzentsov continued, are “problems of civilizational identity, the place of religion in social and political life, the relationship of private and general interests, the problems of gender and gender relations, and the problems of rethinking the colonial experience.”

 

Debate Breaks Out on How Much Pandemic Behind New Excess Deaths in Russia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 29 – Russian officials are increasingly inclined to blame all of Russia’s problems this year on the coronavirus, including the share of excess births, with most of them saying that the pandemic is responsible for 90 percent or more of the record excess deaths this past year (svpressa.ru/society/article/286012/).

            But medical experts put the coronavirus share at a far lower percentage, arguing that other causes including inadequate medical care, decreased exercise, and increased consumption of alcohol are to blame (meduza.io/news/2020/12/29/vlasti-moskvy-obosnovali-koronavirusom-97-izbytochnyh-smertey-v-noyabre-nakanune-rosstat-govoril-lish-o-43-v-masshtabah-vsey-strany  and rusmonitor.com/anatolij-nesmiyan-realnaya-prichina-sverhsmertnosti-v-totalnom-razvale-zdravoohraneniya.html).

            The Russian authorities registered 27,002 new cases of infection and 562 new deaths from the coronavirus over the past 24 hours (t.me/COVID2019_official/2279). But future data may be affected by a decision to change the way in which medical workers will count infections (idelreal.org/a/31024773.html).

            And in another move, perhaps reflecting problems Russia is having in getting people to accept vaccination, the health ministry said it would stop releasing data on the numbers of people receiving the shots (echo.msk.ru/news/2765934-echo.html). But reports from across the country show that the pandemic continues to rage (regnum.ru/news/society/3148450.html).

            Because of the sensitivity of school closings, Russian officials are doing everything they can to keep the numbers low – now about two percent as far as entire schools are concerned – primarily by extending holidays and keeping some classes open even as most are closed (regnum.ru/news/3153577.html and regnum.ru/news/3154272.html).

            Russians continue to resist restrictions, with officials saying 10 percent of bars and restaurants in the capital ignoring rule and police having handed out 99,000 citations to individuals for violations (regnum.ru/news/3153843.html and echo.msk.ru/news/2765836-echo.html). In Nizhny Tagil, people protested government plan to privatize ambulance service (nakanune.ru/articles/116633/).

            Kremlin press spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he still could not say whether Vladimir Putin’s eventual vaccination will be filmed for showing on television (regnum.ru/news/3153920.html). But other officials said that foreign vaccines would be available to Russians early next year (regnum.ru/news/3153717.html and forbes.ru/tehnologii/417593-klinika-v-skolkovo-planiruet-privezti-v-rossiyu-inostrannye-vakciny-ot).

            Officials also announced that starting in January, they will be issuing “vaccination passports” to all who get the vaccine, yet another way to try to get more people to take the shots in a country where a majority of people say they don’t want to (regnum.ru/news/3153943.html). Another way to boost figures is to have more groups allowed to be vaccinated sooner (regnum.ru/news/3154256.html).

            After promising last week that vaccinations would continue throughout the New Year’s holidays, today Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin said the program which has already inoculated 50,000 Muscovites would be suspended on December 31 and January 1 (regnum.ru/news/3154259.html and regnum.ru/news/3154306.html).

            On the economic front, the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service and the Gaydar Institute reported that Moscow’s arm sales abroad declined by 17 percent during the pandemic (krizis-kopilka.ru/archives/82874).

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

·         A government investigation found that 20 percent of Russian medical labs were in violation of procedures and therefore often giving incorrect results (regnum.ru/news/3154129.html).

·         Online retailers are seeking the right to sell alcoholic beverages online arguing that this will prevent the spread of the coronavirus by limiting lines at alcohol stores (echo.msk.ru/news/2765932-echo.html).

·         Eighty-eight percent of Russians say the last year was harder than the previous one, the Levada Center reported, making 2020 the worst year for Russians since 1991 (echo.msk.ru/news/2765926-echo.html).

 

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Putin’s Liquidation of Local Self-Administration Reinforces Centralization of Russian System, Kazantsev and Rumyantseva Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 28 – Vladimir Putin’s decision to integrate local self-administration into his power vertical and replace elected mayors with appointed city managers further undermines democracy in Russia and further centralizes the political system, according to Kirill Kazantsev and Aleksandra Rumyantseva.

            The two political scientists say that “as a result of the amendments to the Constitution, local self-administration in Russia ceased two be independent. Now it is included in ‘the single system of public power’ subordinate to the president (cpur.ru/new-research/r_local_government_from_election_to_appointment/).

            In fact, Kazantsev and Rumyantseva point out, this simply formalized and extended what had already been taking place; and they also note that in this case, the Kremlin acted on what it said was “international experience,” primarily that of the United States where there has been a shift from elected mayors to city managers.

            Other countries have taken this step in order to improve efficiency and prevent local political machines from dominating city governments, but in Russia, the two say, the liquidation of elections “not only at the municipal but at other levels of power,” such as the regions, eliminate any such positive contribution.

            Instead, it has reduced the importance of local governments and meant that Russians have to look elsewhere and especially to Moscow for solutions to their problems, thus providing a political basis for the centralization that the current Kremlin leader has pursued since coming to power in 2000.

            The two political scientists draw in particular five other conclusions related to this: First, they say, the regions have been the big beneficiaries because the cities can’t become the breeding grounds for challengers to them. Second, the spending of municipalities has declined so that they simply are doing less than they were.

            Third, the involvement of municipalities in economic activities has significantly declined. Fourth, budgets at the municipal levels have been cut, reinforcing all of these trends. And fifth, and most worrisome of all, there is no evidence that this shift has led to an improvement in the quality or efficiency of city governance.

 

Moscow Again Wants to Play Latgal Card, This Time against NATO in Eastern Latvia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 28 – Since Latvia regained its de facto independence in 1991, Moscow has regularly sought to exploit a regional group in that Baltic country, the Latgals, who are Roman Catholic in religion and speak a dialect of the national language but who in fact are politically loyal to Riga.

            Russia has done so not only because of these differences but because the region’s urban center is dominated by ethnic Russians and because the region, located next to Russia, has more links to its eastern neighbor (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2012/12/window-on-eurasia-latgalia-catalonia-on.html, windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2017/05/latgals-want-their-place-in-sun-but-in.html and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2016/02/moscows-real-interest-in-latgals-to.html).

            At various times, Moscow has promoted the idea that Latgalia should be detached from Latvia and united with Russia, that it should be recognized as a distinct nation and thus mean that ethnic Latvians could be portrayed as a minority in their own country, and that Russia should be permitted to play a larger role there in order to have leverage against the Latvian government.

            Now, in an indication of the decline in Moscow’s ability to cause trouble in these ways but in its continuing willingness to try to exploit cultural differences in its neighbors, Moscow is hoping to play on NIMBY attitudes among the Latgals concerning an expanded military base there slated to be used by NATO forces.

            In an article for the Russian portal, Rhythm of Eurasia, commentator Roman Baburin says that Latgals are “categorically” opposed to this project but that the Riga government is ignoring their complaints (ritmeurasia.org/news--2020-12-28--zhiteli-latgalii-ne-hotjat-voennogo-poligona-pod-daugavpilsom-no-ih-ne-slyshat-52569).

            The Latvian defense ministry several years ago established a training center on 10 hectares of land. Since then, it has expanded the facility to 2063 hectares, an expansion that means there is more activity there, including flights in and out, and local people are unhappy about that, concerned not only about being disturbed but about the impact of the base on tourism, Baburin says.

            They have complained in open letters, online polls, and in some local government bodies, arguing that their opinions should be considered before Riga makes decisions that affect their lives so directly. But the Latvian government has ignored them, the Russian commentator says, effectively throwing their complaints “into the trash can.”

            There is little or no evidence that the objections of the Latgals are more than those of the “not in my back yard” type or that they want Latvia to limit its integration into NATO. But Moscow is playing up their objections in the hopes that it may be able to suggest both and thus continue to play in what it hopes are “the troubled waters” of its Western neighbor.

 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Kalmyks on Deportation Anniversary Using Native Language Less and Increasingly Identifying as Oirots but Retaining National Dignity

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 28 – Seventy-seven years ago today, Stalin began the deportation of the Buddhist Kalmyks from the North Caucasus to Siberia and the Far East, an action in which more than 50 percent of those exiled died and which involved the complete suppression of Kalmyk statehood and the Kalmyk language.

            As republic head Yury Zaytsev said today, the Kalmyk people suffered “irreparable harm” as a result, but they retained their dignity and worked hard as special settlers in defense plants during and after World War II. And they were eventually able to return to a revived republic (nazaccent.ru/content/34804-den-pamyati-zhertv-deportacii-kalmyckogo-naroda.html).

            But they have been less successful in reviving their language, becoming one of the many non-Russian nations who speak Russian but identify as non-Russians, a pattern that calls into question Vladimir Putin’s assumption that language change will inevitably lead to identity change (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2016/10/kalmyks-using-their-language-less-but.html).

            The Kalmyks have been undergoing an identity change as well, however. Many Kalmyks now say that they are not Kalmyks, a term the Russian conquerors imposed on them but Oirots, a Mongol term that links them with the Buddhist peoples of Inner Asia and one Moscow discourages the use of.

            One Oirot activist is Vladimir Dovdanov, who lives in the Kalmyk Republic capital of Elista. Speaking at the recent meeting of the Free Russia Forum, he insisted that he is an Oirot and not a Kalmyk. There is no such people as ‘the Kalmyks,’” he says. There are only Oirots and the Oirot language (idelreal.org/a/31022524.html).

            Both the nation  and the language are under increasing pressure from Moscow and the republic authorities are not doing much to slow this process. As a result, many who call themselves Kalmyks consider themselves “second-class people” as far as Russians are concerned. Those who identify as Oirots have no such inferiority complex.

            Kalmyks have always been aware of their Oirot roots, but the effort to promote a change in self-designation goes back to a series of comic books first put on sale four years ago. These carefully researched comics in the intervening period have promoted this identity shift (riakalm.ru/news/daynews/3022-segodnya-v-prodazhu-postupil-pervyj-kalmytskij-komiks-syumsn-volya-sudby and nazaccent.ru/content/21329-pervyj-kalmyckij-komiks-postupil-v-prodazhu.html).

            Officials in Kalmykia have generally been pleased, but many Russian ones may rue the appearance of such materials. Comic books not only allow the discussion of alternative futures and alternative pasts but help form the worldviews of the young who read them.  And Kalmyk history is full of events that an Oirat warrior might find himself arrayed in conflicts with Russia,

            The name “Oirat” is Mongol and refers to “the forest peoples” in the westernmost part of the Mongol Horde. They settled on the western bank of the Volga, but their relations with Russia were fraught with violence:  Catherine the Great tried to have them exterminated, and after they revolted in 1926, 1930, and 1942-43, Stalin deported them.

            Of particular interest in this regard is the history of Kalmyk and Mongol efforts at rapprochement. The Kalmyks were part of the pan-Mongol movement in the early 20th century, and Mongol leaders tried to convince the Soviet government to allow the Kalmyks to resettle in Mongolia at the time of the famine in the early 1920s.

Putin has Personally Sanctioned ‘Dozens’ of Liquidations, 'SVR General' Telegram Channel Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 28 – The poisoning of opposition leader Aleksey Navalny has raised questions about the Kremlin’s role in it, about whether Vladimir Putin is personally involved and about just how many liquidations the powers that be in Putin’s Russia have carried out and why, the SVR General telegram channel says.

            No one should think that such attacks occur on other than Putin’s order or that there have been only a handful. In fact, the channel says, there have been “dozens, including officers of the special services and the Federal Protective Service” (t.me/generalsvr/188 reposted by rusmonitor.com/po-prikazu-putina-mogli-byt-ubity-desyatki-lyudej-v-t-ch-sotrudnikov-speczsluzhb-i-fso-istochnik.html).

            Putin is obsessed with his own security, and those around him feed his paranoia by coming up with “myths about ‘traitors in the organs’ which ‘enemies’ are using to undermine him,” the channel says. Most often, such murders are disguised and then reported as suicides. In every case, “SVR General” says, Putin “PERSONALLY sanctions these actions in advance.”

            Russky monitor, in reposting this item, gives as an example of this pattern, the reported suicide of a Federal Protective Service officer a month ago (rusmonitor.com/sotrudnik-fso-pokonchil-s-soboj-pryamo-v-kremle.html). Neither the SVR General telegram channel nor Russian monitor provides more examples.

            Consequently, while the report is consistent with what is known about Putin and his highly centralized and authoritarian manner of decision making and rule, it is not backed up by the kind of evidence that would be needed to prove that it is accurate. Unfortunately, in cases of this kind, such evidence by its very nature is quite difficult to obtain. 

 

Tatarstan Digs In to Keep Position of Republic Presidency

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 28 – Since 1991, Tatarstan has had a president; and it has insisted on that even though since 2010, Moscow has called for the elimination of that title for heads of federal subjects and its replacement with the term “head,” Moscow agreed the current Tatarstan president could retain the title until the end of his term (bbc.com/russian/features-40904692).

            Now, the State Council of Tatarstan is engaged in rewriting the republic constitution in order to bring it into line with the amended Russian Federation one. But the council’s speaker, Farid Mukhametshin, says the right of a federal subject to call its senior official president was not done away with by the changes (kommersant.ru/doc/4636481).

            Because there was no discussion about this title during the federal amendment discussions, he continues, there is no reason for Kazan to make any change “We will not initiate this process ourselves,” an indication that if Moscow really wants to force matters, it will have to deploy significant political pressure in the coming days.

            He adds that Tatarstan plans to continue to call its legislature the State Council. The body with that name in Russia is “constitutional and not an organ of state power. We will thus not change the name of our Government Council in connection with this similarly named constitutional organ.”

            All other republics which had presidents as recently as 2010 have dropped that title and now refer to them as heads. But saving the term has become a point of pride and even honor for Tatars who view it as a symbol of their special role in the federal system (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/07/tatarstan-state-council-wont-do-away.html).

            Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the Petersburg Politics Foundation, says that Kazan’s success in resisting Moscow’s demands reflects lobbying by the republic head Rustam Minnikhanov with Vladimir Putin personally and that as a result, Moscow is unlikely to challenge Kazan on this point as long as Minnikhanov is around.

            In the course of defending the title of president and the State Council name, Mukhametshin  said that Tatarstan will go along with liquidating its constitutional court but that it will take steps to replace it by forming a constitutional council within the parliament,” thus obeying the letter but not the spirit of Russian law.

Fate of Armed Formations in Qarabagh Most Important Immediate Issue for All Sides, Felgengauer Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 28 – Ever more people are becoming aware that the November 10 declaration ending the latest round of the Qarabagh fighting left many questions unanswered. But most have focused on issues like the fate of Armenian forces, the formation of civilian rule in formerly occupied territories or the final status of Qarabagh.

            Independent Moscow military analyst Pavel Felgengauer argues that among the many issues that must be addressed, one that now needs to be discussed and resolved is the fate of Armenian armed units in Qarabagh as well as heavily armed Armenians in the population there (vestikavkaza.ru/news/pavel-felgengauer-nado-resit-cto-delat-s-vooruzennymi-ludmi-v-karabahe.html).

                In comments to Vestnik Kavkaza, he points out that “the trilateral Declaration signed on November 9 was very short since it was agreed to quickly and therefore it already requires being made more specific and concrete. In particular, it does not outline the fate of Armenian armed forces on that part of Qarabagh which was not freed in the course of battles.”

            The declaration was quite specific in stating that the Armed Forces of Armenia in Agdam, Kelbadzhar, and Lachin districts were to be withdrawn at a definite point, there was no similar specificity about the others. But they continue to exist under the ‘president,’ ‘parliament, and ‘defense force’ of the as before unrecognized regime” that has existed in this area for some time.

            “Now, the sides must decide what to do with the armed people on this space. As they themselves say, these are volunteers, armed citizens of Armenia and an armed local population. Significant warms the Armenians had remain in Qarabagh, and one is talking not just about Kalashnikovs but about heavy arms, military infrastructure, and staffs.”

            “What is to be done with all this?” Felgengauer asks rhetorically.

            “Russian peacekeepers, which stand as a cordon around these people fulfill exclusively observational functions. The trilateral declaration does not give them a mandate to use their weapons or the possibility: the size of their continent is small and lacks heavy weaponry” that would be required.

            These forces “act exclusively as peacekeepers in correspondence with the provisions of the Article Five of the UN Charter. They can only conduct monitoring, and negotiate with those who do not want to leave or surrender their arms – and then make reports,” Felgengauer continues.

             “In essence, all that has happened is the establishment of a ceasefire regime along a new contact line between Armenian and Azerbaijani military forces in Qarabagh,” the Russian military analyst says. That must change. And changing it will require serious negotiations rather than the assumption that the November declaration solves everything.

            Moreover, until it is, the threat of violations of the ceasefire will hang over the region, not small violations but potentially some large enough to restart widespread fighting.

There are No ‘Covid Dissidents’ Left in Russian Government, Golikova Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 28 – Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova says that when the pandemic started, there were many “covid skeptics” in the Russian government but now they have been converted to fighting the coronavirus (regnum.ru/news/3153103.html). But there remain many such people in the Russian population.

According to a new Levada Center poll, 58 percent of Russians say they do not plan to get the vaccines even if they should be free (https://echo.msk.ru/news/2765290-echo.html). And at least some are waiting until Vladimir Putin receives the shots before deciding they are safe enough to take (newsru.com/blog/28dec2020/sputnik_60.html).

The Russian authorities registered 27,287 new cases of infection and 487 deaths over the last 24 hours (t.me/COVID2019_official/2273). But new monthly Rosstat mortality numbers again raised questions about the accuracy of these figures, forcing officials to insist Moscow was counting and reporting every case (rosstat.gov.ru/folder/313/document/110097 and

regnum.ru/news/3153099.html).

            One worrisome indication that the pandemic is getting worse is that the numbers of Russians who have been declared cured of the disease recently have been falling, raising concerns about more infectious strains and problems with the Russian healthcare system (ura.news/news/1052465217).

            After Putin indicated he favored having December 31 be a day off from work, all the regions fell in line, with North Ossetia bringing up the rear (novayagazeta.ru/news/2020/12/28/166796-31). Moscow also extended its suspension of flights to the UK until January 12 (regnum.ru/news/3153118.html).

            On the vaccine front, St. Petersburg announced it will be ready for mass vaccinations as of December 31 (regnum.ru/news/3153165.html). But Moscow Oblast announced that it would suspend its vaccination program January 1 to 7 (meduza.io/news/2020/12/28/v-podmoskovie-s-1-po-7-yanvarya-priostanovyat-vaktsinatsiyu-protiv-koronavirusa).

            Regarding the economic crisis, Boris Titov, presidential plenipotentiary for the defense of the rights of entrepreneurs, told Putin that a large number of Russian businessmen were facing enormous difficulties in coping with the economic consequences of the pandemic (regnum.ru/news/3152887.html).

            A Bank of Russia report that the pandemic had done the Russian economy a favor by “cleansing” it of firms in difficulty (regnum.ru/news/3152536.html) sparked anger and ridicule from experts who said such a position was heartless and absurd (regnum.ru/news/3152441.html). Another report suggested fewer than half of Russians who want to save are now able to do so (krizis-kopilka.ru/archives/82851).

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

·         Many Russians say they will play a guessing game New Year’s Eve as to when the pandemic will end. They will also debate whether to drink with pros and cons reflecting how soon they think they will be able to get the vaccine (echo.msk.ru/news/2765120-echo.html and nakanune.ru/articles/116592/).

·         The Russian Constitutional Court ruled today that regions had the right to impose restrictions on the population as a defense against the pandemic (echo.msk.ru/news/2765298-echo.html).

·         And educational officials said that the pandemic had not caused Russians to reduce their demand for access to higher education (echo.msk.ru/news/2765148-echo.html).

Kremlin Likely to Seek Destruction of Dissidents in 2021 and to Succeed, Inozemtsev Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 27 – The powers that be in Russia have achieved a remarkable number of victories in 2020, Vladislav Inozemtsev says. They have eliminated the formal limits on their time in office, they have restricted the rights of Russians, they have maintained their own savings, and they haven’t encountered protests from the population.

            In the coming year, the Russian economist and commentator says, they are likely to take the next step and seek to destroy the dissidents, confident that moves against them just like the Soviet regime’s actions in the 1970s, will not lead to demonstrations. And they are likely to succeed, he argues (theins.ru/opinions/inozemtsev/238025).

            There are several reasons for that most unfortunate conclusion, Inozemtsev says. First of all, “’the dissidents’ and ‘the powers’ are two polar and on the whole marginal social groups. The third, many times exceeding their size are ordinary people who are occupied above all with their own survival.”

            “This part of society rarely gets involved in political struggles,” a reality that the powers that be in Moscow see “much more clearly” than do Russia’s dissidents. The latter have fallen into the trap of believing their own propaganda on YouTube and other Internet channels rather than considering the people around them.

            Given this, Inozemtsev says, the Kremlin with at least the passive support of the population plans to move against the dissidents far more radically in 2021 than it has so far and seek to the maximum extent possible to “root out all possible manifestations of dissidence” in the Russian Federation.

            In the coming year, he continues, there is thus likely to be a serious fight between the dissidents and the powers that be and this fight is almost certain to end with the victory of the latter and importantly the defeat of the former and all its hopes for the displacement or radical change of the Putin regime.

            “Russian politics is entering 2021 on a direct line from 1993 and to expect here either a ‘left’ or ‘right’ turn is at the very least na├»ve. Dissidents are being driven out not only from the powers that be but in large measure from the country as well.” The attitudes of young people remain open, but they are unlikely to be determinative in this fight “not for life but to the death.”

            Those tied to the regime have nowhere to retreat and those in society are unlikely to provide the kind of support the dissidents would need to survive let alone win. For major positive changes to happen, either there would have to be a deeper split in the elites or greater popular support for change than is now the case.

            The looming wave of new repressive measures is unlikely to change that as is the nature of the economic crisis. Empty stores may unite people, “but empty pockets divide them” with those whose pockets are least full arraigned not against the system but against those who have only a little more than they do.

            “Six years ago,” Inozemtsev concludes, he “wrote that economic stagnation and political problems will not be able to destroy the regime and that it will be replaced only when those in possession of Russia do not continue to derive benefits from that. Unfortunately, our country is too rich to expect any such end in the near future.”