Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Third Wave of Pandemic Likely to Hit Russia in Six to Eight Weeks, ‘Deutsche Welle’ Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 11 – In both the first and second waves, Russia lagged behind EU countries by six to eight weeks, Deutsche Welle reports. Consequently, it is entirely likely that the surge in coronavirus cases European countries are experiencing now will hit Russia with approximately the same lag time (dw.com/ru/rossii-ne-izbezhat-tretej-volny-koronavirusa/a-57149074).

            Russia could avoid that, the German broadcaster says, by taking tough measures involving wearing masks, maintaining social distance and encouraging isolation. But such measures are not only unpopular but have negative economic consequences and so are unlikely to be adopted there.

            The World Health Organization concurs that Russia is at heightened risk because of the spread of new strains of the virus (regnum.ru/news/3239668.html). These assessments come as the New York Times says Russia has already suffered 300,000 covid deaths

(nytimes.com/2021/04/10/world/europe/covid-russia-death.html).

            The Russian authorities reported registering 8702 new cases of infection and 337 new deaths from coronavirus over the last 24 hours as the pandemic continued to ebb and, in a few places, increase over the same period (t.me/COVID2019_official/2757 and

regnum.ru/news/society/3233862.html).

            On the vaccination front, the EU has rejected Sputnik-5 because other options are available and despite Russian suggestions that all should be deployed against the pandemic (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=6072A3E202CA6  and ng.ru/editorial/2021-04-11/2_8125_editorial.html).

            Also today, Russia’s Federal Medical-Biological Agency reported that it has received a patent for a new medicine to promote resistance and help cure covid. The medication is radically different in that it is delivered through the nose or via inhalation rather than via shots (kp.ru/daily/27263.5/4396384/).

Yabloko has Put Itself on Track to Suffer Another Defeat, Shaburov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 10 – The Yabloko Party held a conference last week, and normally, that would hardly be worth noting, Aleksey Shaburov says. But because the Duma campaign is ahead, the decisions the meeting took both on the structure of the party and its campaign strategy matter and are extremely worrisome because they put the party on the path to another defeat.

            According to the Yekaterinburg commentator who edits the Politsovet portal, Yabloko, focused on maintaining Grigory Yavlinsky’s control over the group and on getting enough votes to continue to receive financing rather than acting in ways that might attract more voters to its banner (politsovet.ru/69944-yabloko-pokatilos-k-novomu-porazheniyu.html).

            The party meeting took steps to strengthen internal discipline and thus prevent any regional grouping from challenging Yavlinsky and his team. But what that means is that the party has effectively closed of the rise of a new generation of leaders and the larger number of voters they might attract.

            But of potentially greater and more negative impact were the conference’s decision on election strategy. Instead of trying to come up with slogans to attract more voters and win seats in the Duma, the party committed itself not to negotiating with others about the assignment of districts, thus limiting its chance of winning by conceding other districts to other parties.

            It said it might consider doing so after candidates were named, Shaburov continues; but in fact, this means that there won’t be any division of single-member districts among opposition groups because it is far harder to pull a candidate than not to nominate one in the first place. Thus, both Yabloko and other liberal parties will suffer.

            In addition, the conference declared that Yabloko was giving priority to party list voting rather than to single-member districts, a decision that is “almost political suicide” given that it will find it far harder to get five percent of the vote overall than it would have needed to win particular single-member constituencies.

            Yabloko is clearly counting on a general rise in protest attitudes across the country, but such a rise would have to be enormous given Yabloko’s choices to allow it to retain the voters it now has and gain nearly two million more to reach the five-percent threshold, the Politsovet editor says.

            What appears to be behind Yabloko’s decisions is a desire to win not five percent and enter parliament but three percent and thus continue to receive government funding. It is most likely this that the leaders of the party have decided should be Yabloko’s real task in the upcoming elections.

            And that raises the biggest question of all, Shaburov says. “Why should Russian voters care about that?”

Russia in the Midst of Worst Demographic Decline Since World War II, Zhelenin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 10 – The horrific increase in mortality rates among Russians, only part of which is the product of the coronavirus pandemic, pushed Russia in 2020 into the worst demographic decline since World War II and figures for the first months of this year suggest that that decline is continuing, Aleksandr Zhelenin says.

            Indeed, if the rates registered since the start of this year continue, Russia will stand to suffer one million more deaths than births, a figure that there is little or no chance the return of migrant workers will compensate for and that could further accelerate the decline as it will produce a smaller cohort of potential mothers (rosbalt.ru/blogs/2021/04/10/1896549.html).

            In February 2021, the Rosbalt commentator says, deaths outnumbered births by 70,500, more than twice the figure of the corresponding month a year earlier when the gap was 34,700. The January 2021 figure was even worse: an excess of 113,200 deaths over births, more than 2.5 times the January 2020 figure of 45,300.

            “If the population of Russia continues to contract at these rates,” Zhelenin says, “then the results for 2021 may set a sad record: It is not excluded that this figure could exceed one million people.” That is far more than was the case in the 1990s, and the most since World War II.

            Of course, at that time no one could call the losses of the war “’natural,’” the commentator says. And that makes the current peacetime losses even more disturbing. The government wants to blame the pandemic for all of them, but in fact, while the coronavirus had an impact, it was to highlight the shortcomings of the medical system as reformed by Putin.

            “The main cause of such a dramatic decrease in the population of Russia [in 2020] became sharply rising mortality.” Fertility declined as well but by a far smaller amount. In 2020, Rosstat says, 2,124,000 Russians died, 324,000 more than the year before and only slightly fewer than the 2,129,000 in 1993.

            Obviously, the coronavirus played a role but more indirectly than directly. The excess deaths Russia suffered because of its impact in fact were “the result of all the preceding policy of the leadership in the system of healthcare, which ever more has acquired a purely decorative aspect” given Putin’s cutbacks carried out in the name of “optimization.”

            And therefore, when thinking about what is going one, it is important not to blame everything on the pandemic as the Kremlin does, Zhelenin says. “Covid only highlighted what our medical care has been converted into,” a system which gives positive results on paper or the computer screen but a demographic catastrophe in real life.

Turkmenistan Dictator Faces Problems in Transferring Power to His Son, Aytakov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 10 – Personalist dictatorships always face problems in transferring power from one individual to another because such transitions are the occasions which various factions in the elite see as perhaps their best opportunity to increase their position as well as the time of greatest risk that they will lose what they already have.

            That this is the case in Russia has been much discussed, but even in a far more totalitarian dictatorship than Vladimir Putin’s, it is a problem. In Turkmenistan, there is no question that the current dictator, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow, wants to hand over power to his son, Serdar; but there are two very open questions, Serdar Aytakov says.

            First of all, how soon does the father want to do this and how much lead time does even his system require so that all the arrangements guaranteeing that the transition will occur? And second, will the father be able to ensure that his desire will be carried out after he passes from the scene? (ng.ru/dipkurer/2021-04-11/11_8125_prince.html).

            Aytakov, perhaps Moscow’s leading academic specialist on Turkmenistan, says that it appears Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow is starting early because he is still in good health and has no plans to leave office anytime soon but adds that despite everything he is doing, key figures in the Turkmenistan elite are likely to oppose Serdar’s elevation at any point.

            Everyone in Turkmenistan is aware that the last transition did not go smoothly but resulted in bloodletting as Berdymukhamedow senior moved to take and then consolidate power, the Moscow analyst says. The current dictator clearly hopes to prevent something similar, with all the unpredictability that such an outcome might entail.

            To that end, he has changed a series of laws in the country so that he and his son will have even greater bureaucratic freedom and control and he has installed his son in a variety of increasingly important positions not only in the executive but in the legislative branch and in the regions to give him experience.

            Because the dictator controls all the organs of government, the changes in the legal code have gone smoothly. But problems have arisen in some of the positions he has put Serdar in. Most critically, the current ruler installed his son as head of the Akhal velayat, the central region which has particular importance because it is the base of the tribe of which he is a member.

            The father directed the son to build a new urban center, Akhal City, and the son proceeded to try. But in the course of beginning that “grandiose project,” Aytakov says, Serdar ran roughshod over local people, demolishing houses and other places owned or at least controlled by those in the Akhal Tekintsy tribe.

            Tribal elders not only resisted what he was doing but protested to Serdar’s father, and the current dictator transferred him to a position in the central government specially created for the son. But precisely because the elders felt they had the right and power to protest then means that they may feel they have the same when it comes to Serdar as successor.

            On paper, Serdar now has control of enough institutions to be able to ensure that he will be the successor, but, Aytakov continues, “there remains one unresolved question: the loyalty of the elites, the higher bureaucracy and the siloviki bloc.”  Those things are now open, especially given the Akhal City fiasco.

            Consequently, the Moscow specialist says, that even in this most tightly controlled dictatorship, “there are no guarantees that this transit will occur in Serdar Berdymukhamedow’s favor.” Others both within the political establishment and among the tribal leaders may decide that they should try to prevent that lest they lose out in the future.

Tajik Leader Says Dushanbe Will Never Trade Away Vorukh Exclave

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 10 – Tajikistan President Emomali Rakhmon says that he will never trade away the Vorukh enclave as part of a border deal with Kyrgyzstan. That region, with its 30,000 people, has always been part of  Tajikistan and always will, he said after flying into Vorukh (asiaplustj.info/ru/news/tajikistan/politics/20210409/emomali-rahmon-vopros-obmena-voruha-nikogda-ne-obsuzhdalsya and ru.sputnik.kg/politics/20210409/1052060357/emomali-rakhmon-anklav-vorukh-status-zayavlenie.html).

            Rakhmon’s visit and statement mean that there is little chance for a border deal between the two countries (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2021/04/vorukh-likely-rock-on-which-kyrgyz.html), not only because Vorukh has become a symbol of sovereignty for Tajikistan but because how it is treated sets a precedent.

            There are currently two other Tajik exclaves inside Kyrgyzstan in addition to Vorukh, but Kayragach and Sarvak are much smaller, but it has long been assumed that whatever deal the two sides reach regarding Vorukh will be applied to them as well (tj.sputniknews.ru/20210410/tajikistan-voruh-kyrgyzstan-1034264735.html).

            Rakhmon’s hard line strongly suggests that no deal is likely anytime soon, and that in turn means that Kyrgyzstan’s new government will not be able to delimit and demarcate all of its borders as it had hoped and that criminal and radical elements will continue to use the lack of any accord to move goods and people across the borders.

            It also means that more violence between the border guards and people of the two countries is likely, something that could trigger a wider war but at the very least will mean that there won’t be any new era of stability in this section of Central Asia and that outside powers like Russia and China will be confronted with some difficult security choices.

            Given that Russia still has a dominant position in Kyrgyzstan and China an increasingly powerful one in Tajikistan, it is even possible that the Vorukh conflict will affect relations between Moscow and Beijing, yet another case where something apparently so small may grow into something very much larger.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Kremlin Behaving toward Ukraine Now the Way It Did toward Georgia Before 2008 Invasion, Portnikov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 10 – Moscow’s propaganda campaign against Ukraine and its dislocation of troops near the Ukrainian border echo the propaganda it deployed against the Republic of Georgia and the troops it moved up to the Georgian border before invading that country in 2008, Vitaly Portnikov says.

            Because Moscow invaded Ukraine seven years ago in a hybrid fashion, the Ukrainian analyst says, most people are comparing what happened in advance of Moscow’s moves then with what it is doing now. But a far more instructive comparison is provided by what Moscow did in Georgia in 2008 (radiosvoboda.org/a/ukrayina-i-diyi-ta-zayavy-kremlia/31196590.html).

            Vladimir Putin and his representatives constantly accuse Ukraine of being aggressive and unpredictable and of preparing to invade the Donbas. Viewed from Kyiv, these claims look like Russian paranoia. Not only have Ukrainian leaders denied what Moscow is accusing them of, but Ukraine has not made any preparations, unlike Russia which has beefed up its forces.

            In reality, Portnikov continues, what Moscow is showing is not paranoia but cold calculation. It is behaving exactly as it did before the start of the Russian-Georgian war in 2008. Then, South Ossetia shelled Georgian territory and Russian “peacekeepers” did nothing to stop it. Instead, Moscow blamed Tbilisi for causing the problem – exactly as Moscow is doing now in Ukraine.

            “And therefore, when Russian forces appeared first on the territory of self-proclaimed South Ossetia and then in Georgia proper, few were surprised not only in Russia but in the world.” Western leaders had been “psychologically prepared” by the Kremlin’s attacks on the Georgian leadership.

            Repeating the same approach in Ukraine gives Moscow three advantages: It allows the Russian government to block negotiations and blame that action on Kyiv. It destabilizes conditions in Ukraine. And “in the event of the start of a real war, it can always explain that by the aggressive actions of Ukraine, about which the Kremlin had warned.”

            To be sure, few believe what the Kremlin is saying. But even Western recognition of the possibility of a new war opens the way for something else the Kremlin wants: Western efforts to negotiate with Putin directly. “They will demand from him that he remove his forces, and he will demand from them that they make Zelensky ‘reasonable.’”

            “And then if a war starts,” Portnikov concludes, “the Kremlin will blame the West” for encouraging Ukraine in its aggressiveness toward Russia and failing to pay attention to Russian warnings, again just as happened in Georgia in 2008.

Russian Diaspora in US Organizes to Stop Putin Dictatorship

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 10 – As the Putin regime has increased repression, Russians in the United States have formed a new organization to stop the Putin dictatorship in Russia and promote a democratic Russia. It organizes protests at Russian diplomatic facilities, sends letters of support to political prisoners at home, and identifies property Putin allies have bought in the US.

            Like most organizations these days, its activists are linked together by a Facebook page, in this case facebook.com/4demrussiaus; but Radio Liberty journalist Dmitry Volchek spoke to activists in Washington, New York and San Francisco who described how the new Russian “Protest America” group is working against Putin (svoboda.org/a/31195474.html).

            The new American group arose, Dmitry Valuyev in Washington, Aleks Zaprozhtsev, and Mariya Boyarkina say, when people around the world were protesting in support of Aleksey Navalny on January 23. There were demonstrations in many American cities not just the three the activists represent.

            According to Valuyev, “all Russian-speaking America responded to this act of illegality” by Putin against Navalny. “In our union, there are people with great political experience. There are people who have been living here for a long time, 20 or even 25 years, and there are those who came recently.”

            We are united not only in our support of Navalny, he says, but also by a desire to see Russia flourish. Many Russians who are in the US now left their homeland precisely because Putin has made both that and the possibility of criticizing it while remaining at home ever more problematic. The Kremlin may stop us in Russia, but it can’t when we live abroad, he says.

            Boyarkina echoes his words and says the group is now hoping to unite the Russian-language diaspora throughout the entire world. As a first step, it is working on an interactive map for its Facebook page showing where protests occur and providing information about other actions.

            Zaporozhtsev says that he believes Russian demonstrations in the US have an impact not only on American attitudes but on Russian actions. After his friend Ildar Dadin was arrested in Russia, Russians in New York protested and his friend was released. And every demonstration attracts the attention and support of Americans.

            “In New York,” he continues, at times of protests, “Americans constantly approach us and say ‘Thank you. We are with you. We know who Putin is.”

            There are of course pro-Putin groups financed by Moscow who present the other side and whose members Protest America seeks both to expose and to cause them to change their minds. Sometimes they disrupt anti-Putin protests but that seldom works to their advantage, Zaporozhtsev continues.

            “In our staff,” Boyarkina adds, “there is an ‘Agents’ project. We collect information about pro-Putin groups in every American city in order to focus attention on them. If they conduct some action, we must counter them.” The staff also works hard to gather information on the property pro-Putin officials have purchased in the US to expose what is going on.

            The group also seeks “to convince the US Administration that sanctions against the Putin regime should be broadened,” with ever more of them applied to the corrupt officials near the Kremlin. That is necessary, the staffers say, because Putin and his regime threaten not only Russia but the entire world.