Monday, December 31, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Estonia Becoming a Real Life Version of Aksyonov’s ‘Island of Crimea’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 31 – Estonia for someone “who writes in Russia appears to be the ideal country as an alternative place for living,” according to a Russian writer, and it is increasingly a haven for those being persecuted by the Russian regime, transforming that Baltic state into “the main √©migr√© direction” of 2012.

            Writing on the portal, Oleg Kashin, notes that over the last twelve months, three prominent Russian activists have fled to Estonia: Savva Terentyev, who said in a blog post he would life to “burn” corrupt cops, Anataya Rybachenko, who has been threatened with jail for her role in last December’s Moscow protests, and Suren Gazaryan, an ecologist who has campaigned against the destruction of the environment in the North Caucasus (

            If Kashin is right, they and others like them appear to be taking advantage of a country much like the one Vasily Aksyonov described in “The Island of Crimea,” one in which Russians could live without the consequences of the communist regime, a possibly Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves has alluded to ( ).

            This new emigration is attracting ever more international attention. On Friday, France 24 featured a program on about Russia’s “new political refugees” in Estonia.  It describes what drove each of these Russian citizens to flee and how they are doing in the country that has given them asylum (

            Asked by French journalists when they might be able to return home, Gazaryan said that “practically, maybe if Puin dies or suddenly shows his mercy and our charges are dropped in the first case.” Unfortunately, he continued, “both things are equally unlikely” and he believes he will be “out of Russia for a long time.”

            But Rybachenko is somewhat more optimistic: “Time is on our side: this regime is getting older and more decrepit.  I will certainly outlive it.”

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Needs to Restore Russian Empire, Not the USSR, Leontyev Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 31 – Mikhail Leontyev, a leading Moscow television commentator and someone whose ideas, while flamboyantly expressed, reflect the views of many Russians, says he personally is “a convinced anti-Soviet” but is convinced that Russia must take steps to rebuild the Russian Empire within borders similar to but not the same as those of the USSR.

            Leontyev’s attitudes on this point – and the specifics are both more intriguing and more disturbing for Russia’s neighbors, Russia’s competitors, and Russia itself, than is his overall point – came in an interview he gave to Elena Krivyakin in the studios of KP-TV last week (

            US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent statement that Moscow wants to restore the Soviet Union, Leontyev says, reflects American fears of the rise of a rival power.  “But American diplomacy recently, especially in such hysterical Macfaul-Clinton forms, very much helps us” by stripping away “political correctness.”

            What the American diplomats are saying is simply a new version of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s observation that “with Ukraine Russia will always be a power, but without Ukraine, it won’t be.”  Leontyev suggests that that alone should be enough to show Russians what they need to do because “we need Russia as a power, and they do not.”

            According to Leontyev, Russia has the capacity to do so because it “is a state” while the countries around it like Ukraine are not. Like them, he continues, Russia has “oligarchic clans but they are forced somehow to position themselves relative to the state.” But in Ukraine, “there is no state except a coalition of semi-criminal clans, neither in a geopolitical nor in an ideological nor in a moral sense.”

            Asked about Western Ukraine, Leontyev says that the Western oblasts “which never were Russia” and whose inclusion within Russia “was a mistake,” something that as a tsarist official warned “could destroy Russia, should either be russified or allowed to go their own separate way. Ukraine can simply be split apart as it is reintegrated with Russia.

            According to Leontyev, “all post-Soviet elites” are interested in integration, and everyone should recognize that this integration like all other examples in history will “not begin with economics” but rather “with a military-political union.”  Even the EU would never have existed without NATO as “a roof over its head.”

            At present and inevitably, Leontyev continues, “the national elites of the post-Soviet countries position themselves only relative to Russia and against Russia; otherwise their existence would be senseless. This is the foundation of their identity.” But in dealing with those opposed to Moscow, Russia must “appeal to [these] peoples over the heads of the leaders.”

            All of these peoples “must understand that the idea of a European choice for Ukraine, for Georgia or for Azerbaijan is simply funny.  There is no such choice!  Europe is closed off and more than that is disintegrating from within.  There no one is waiting for anyone else.”

            And Russians need to understand that they need such an empire not only to recover their status as a world power but to ensure that they are protected from threats emanating from further abroad. As one Soviet diplomat put it, Leontyev recalls, “It is better to struggle with fundamentalism near Jelalabad than near Ashkhabad.”

            Many people thought at the time that this observation was silly, “but where is Ashkhabad now? Now, we will be struggling with fundamentalism near Orenburg, near Kazan and near Rostov.”  By retreating, “we inevitably will surrender them to the enemy and this means we will retreat further from other positions.”
            But perhaps Leontyev’s most interesting if inflammatory comments concern Georgia and Moscow’s ability to draw it into a new relationship with Moscow. According to the commentator, “Georgia in fact cannot exist without Russia, outside of Russia or in any place not under Russia.”

            How is NATO going to guarantee the unity of Georgia including Abkhazia, South Osetia, Adjaria and Javakhetia … unity in a country where Osetins, Abkhazes, Azerbaijanis, Armenian, and Adjars live in compact communities?  There is no way!  Georgia interests NATO as a place des armes either against Russia or against Iran.”  Otherwise, it has no need for it or for other post-Soviet states.

            When his interviewer says she finds it difficult to believe that Georgia could ever reunite with Russia, Leontyev makes the following declaration: “The leadership of Georgia has been shifted to Boris Ivanishvili who grew up in Russia, is connected with Russia and who can do nothing without Russia”

            “Power in Russia was shifted by a democratic means among other reasons because the American masters allowed Ivanishvili to win and prohibited Saakashvili from putting physical pressure on him.  Because the Americans wanted to have an agreement with Russia. By the way, about NATO.”

            “The United States,” Leontyev continues, “wants to remain a powerful power in the world. And for this it has to cast off excessive, unnecessary and second-order obligations.  Georgia already is not a first-order task; this is a subject for agreement with Russia. Ivanishvili is a compromise. Not among Georgians but between America and Russia.”

            And the same logic, the Moscow commentator suggests, applies even to the Baltic countries, despite their membership in NATO and the EU.

            Given the problems in the world economy, Russians need “a Big Russia,” one with sufficient purchasing power and industrial production to “guarantee [its] autonomous development.” He adds that “at a minimum [Russians] need Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus and that it would not be a bad thing to draw in the Central Asian republics.”

            “Integration,” according to Leontyev, “is a question of our common physical survival. But we must guarantee it because we are the historical Russia.” Those who speak about “a small comfortable democratic national state” do not understand what is at stake. And they do not realize that “such a Russia will never exist.”

            That is because “in the process of forming” such a state, “Russia itself would destroy itself as a nation, as a state, as an historical sybject, as a culture.  The idea of the nation state is failing everywhere.” But “happily,” Leontyev concludes, “the future belongs to Empires … organic multi-cultural societies like Russia and the United States.”

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Window on Eurasia: If Kremlin Closes ‘Zvezda Povolzhya,’ Publisher Says He’ll Open Another Paper

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 30 – Russian officials have told Rashit Akhmetov, the publisher of the independent newspaper “Zvezda Povolzhya” that he must stop publishing “extremist” articles or face the closure of that paper. But Akhmetov has told RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service that if his paper is closed, he will simply open another one.

            In his interview, Akhmetov said that the article Moscow didn’t like was published several months ago, and it is strange that it took “so long” for officials to take notice of it.  The whole is “murky,” and it appears that “a certain directive” must have come down from Moscow above to move against the independent paper (

“If the officials issue another warning” to him, the publisher said, “they can simply close ‘Zvezda Povolzhya’ down. If that happens, however, I will launch another publication to be called ‘Tatarskaya Pravda’ or ‘Tatarskaya Svoboda.’ We have a lot of readers; perhaps we can move completely online” – the paper is already available on the web at   

Akhmetov acknowledged that the articles he has published are justified because “many problems remain unnoticed these days; they are just not discussed in the official media.  In such a situation, it is very important to provide a venue for all views on any particular problem” rather than seek to impose a single line.

Despite what the Kremlin appears to believe, the Tatarstan publisher continued, “failure to discuss such problems could lead to inter-ethnic conflicts.”  Thus, the goal of “Zvezda Povolzhya” is “to provide space for all viewpoints – Tatars, Russian nationalists, communists, liberals, pro-government types – all can express their views on our pages.”

“That is the essence of a free press,” Akhmetov said, and “we are not going to back down.”

Unfortunately, he continued, recent events show that there is “a fear of criticism,” and he noted that pressure on him “coincide with attacks on the Tatarstan law calling for a transition to the Latin script.”  In fact, Akhmedov said, this is no “coincidence.”  As dissatisfaction among the population grows, Moscow tries to “silence it with such primitive measures.”

            Akhmedov expanded on his argument in a leading article in “Zvezda Povolzhya” on Friday. Entitling it “A Foretaste,” the publisher argued that Vladimir Putin’s plan to suppress the non-Russian republics puts the Russian Federation on a most dangerous course, one that could lead to the end of the country (

            At his recent press conference, Putin responded to a question from Tatarstan journalist Dina Gazaliyeva about the possibility of “liquidating” the republics. (“Of course, both the question and the response were prepared in advance,” Akhmetov notes.) And Putin’s response shows how “the algorithm of gubernizatia” has been defined.

            Putin said that “if the republics themselves made such a request about a decision of their own legislative organ or after the holding of a referendum, then such decisions were possible.”  But “what republic will go first in such a voluntary ‘parade of gubernizatsias’? One can only guess.”

            What one can be certain of, Akhmetov says, is that the such a drive to do away with the republics will result in a rise in inter-ethnic tensions, provoke “the growth of protest attitudes among the national movements in the republics, and then lead to the disintegration of Russia.” Given that, such a proposal cannot be understood “from the point of view of good sense.

            But “the liquidation of the republics is an idee fixe of the Moscow leadership [because] it has a paranoid fear of possible separatism.” But Putin and those around him are promoting an idea that will lead to precisely what they say they most fear and oppose.

             “Putin has said,” Akhmetov continues, “that the collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”  But that collapse, whatever Putin believes “was not an accident.” It was “an iron necessity, and Yeltsin’s contribution was that this disintegration occurred peacefully.”

            The USSR could have suffered the same fate as Yugoslavia, the Tatarstan publisher says, because “socialism as a totalitarian system over a short period drove into the underground with the help of repression all inter-ethnic and inter-religious contradictions,” and they failing re-emerged “having built up their enormous destructive potential.”

            Today, Akhmetov continues, “the slogan ‘Russia for the [ethnic] Russians is being used for the growth of patriotic attitudes and the ideological ‘cementing’ of ‘the state-forming people.’”  But given that “more than 50 percent of the country consists of mixed families … this slogan is extraordinarily dangerous for the Russian Federation.”

            “In the 21st century, Russia cannot exist except as a federation; otherwise, it will break apart as a result of the growth of internal tensions.” The slogan “Russia for the Russians” will break apart the Russian state “machine” and is “just as unrealizable and unnatural as the slogan ‘Russia for Men Only’ with a demand for resettling all women beyond [its] borders.”

Putin’s approach to the republics reflects his KGB background and the conviction that “all problems can be solved” by repression. That is what another KGB officer in power,Yuri Andropov, thought, and “many strange things in Putin’s behavior are explicable by the professional hyper-suspiciousness of KGB operatives.”

Akhmetov argues that “the special services in principle are not capable of carrying out processes of economic modernization or even more the democratization of society; the function of the special services is protection and security … They seek to minimize the risks” by choking off information and being “suspicious of everything and everything.”

They seek to keep control over everything, and thus it is obvious, Akhmetov says, that “the Brezhnev style of administration as all the same objectively for acceptable for the USSR than the Andropov style which could give birth only to short spasmatic breakthroughs and then inevitably lead to major systemic mistakes.”

Putin’s plan to “liquidate” the republics is “the result of the professional inclination of the force structures toward decisions which are simple or which appear simple. No person, no problem, Stalin said. No republics, no problems,” Putin appears to believe.  But things won’t end there either in terms of repression or disintegration.

Stalin “in his paranoia planned to resettle even the Ukrainians to Siberia. He didn’t trust them.” But one has the impression that “Stalin experienced a mystical fear of the Tatars and that was hardly accidental.” Perhaps “it means that there is in the Tatar people an internal mystical energy, which will yet show itself in the history of humanity,” Akhmetov concludes.

Akhmetov’s article has already attracted numerous posts on the “Zvezda Povolzhya” site. Two are especially suggestive.  One writer notes that “the conversion of the non-Russian peoples into ‘manure for the flowering of the Russian people,’ as Petr Stolypin put it, is a typical Russian nationality policy.”

“In the framework of a Russian state, the natural fate of the Tatars and other non-Russians peoples is to be the object of assimilation and colonial exploitation. The only salvation is to be found in the struggle for national independence; there are no other [acceptable] variants.”

A second writer recalled that Sergey Shakhray had noted that Andropov “gave the order to prepare a plan for the liquidation of the republics in the USSR.  He was concerned by the survival of the national elites. [But] in the USSR at that time, the [ethnic] Russians formed less than fifty percent of the population.”

Andropov’s plan was prepared over the course of four months, but “with the coming to power of Chernenko, it was put off.  Putin [today] is simply reviving the Andropov plan.” But it would be well for everyone to remember that “had this plan begun to be realized, the USSR would have fallen apart ten years earlier than it did.”

NOTE: I would like to thank Rim Gilfanov, director of RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service, for providing me with the translation of his service’s interview with Akhmetov.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Few Russians Have Travelled Abroad, Polls Show

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 29 – Fewer than one Russian in four has ever travelled abroad and only 17 percent currently have a passport good for such visits, and that lack of contact means that their views about events abroad as well as at home continue to be defined by state-controlled mass media rather than by personal experience, according to a leading Moscow analyst.

             In an essay posted on the portal yesterday, Aleksey Makarkin, the first vice president of the Moscow Center for Political Technologies, says that “the most interesting sociological poll of 2012” was one by the Levada Center concerning visits by Russians to countries beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union (

            Given that Russians routinely say that the ability to travel abroad is one of the most important gains since Soviet times, it is striking, Makarkin says, that “83 percent of the citizens of Russia do not have a passport for foreign travel,” a number that means that “a maximum of 17 percent” are currently in a position to travel abroad now or in the immediate future.

            “But even that statistic is clearly an exaggeration,” the commentator suggests, because the Levada Center found that only about seven percent of Russians currently travel abroad for private reasons “once a year or more often, that another six percent do so every two to three years, and that “10 percent did but don’t do so now.”

            The situation regarding Russian business travel beyond the borders of the former Soviet space is “still worse,” Makarkin says, with fewer than five percent doing so once a year or more often, two percent once every two or three years, and nine percent saying that they did so earlier but do not do so now.

            Thus, the Moscow analyst says, “the overwhelming majority of Russians have not seen the West even once,” and consequently, they get what information they have about it from television where they are regularly told that it is a terrible place, a larger variant of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Or they get it from friends and relatives who have gotten it from that source.

            As a result, Makarkin continues, “it is not surprising” that whatever “positive assessments of Western countries” they have are “stereotypes which existed already in Soviet times” but that “the negative ones are typically conditioned by fresh information” from state-controlled Russian television because the majority is “almost completely isolated” from international news sources.

            And consequently, for this Russian majority, “Qadafi was not a dictator but the normal leader of a not bad and stable country whom western imperialists and their agents ‘removed.’ Milosevic was the innocent victim of the undertakings of a cruel international tribunal. And in Syria, the legitimate authorities are fighting with terrorists who are drawing support from the US, Qatar and Al Qaeda.”

            In July, 29 percent of Russians sampled by the Levada Center said they were prepared “to stand shoulder to should with Bashar Asad,” while “only 14 percent supported joining the Western sanctions against that country. 

            And what is perhaps even worse, Makarkin continues, is that this lack of real information increasingly informs what Russians think about events in their own country.  According to another Levada poll, Russians “consider the sentence handed down against Pussy Riot “insufficiently harsh.”
             Given this reliance on Russian state television news, it is no surprise that the majority of the population supports measures against “’foreign agents,’ opposition figures, and ‘slanderers,’ and also the ‘cannabalistic’ law about adoptions,” which even a few members of the government found objectionable.

            “’The simple Russian’ knows,” Makarkin continues, that Americans want to adopt Russian children either to sell their organs or mistreat them because while Russians have “spirituality,” Americans are driven entirely by “the pursuit of profit and the cult of ‘the golden calf.’”

            Such attitudes, carefully cultivated by the Kremlin, have made “the conservative mobilization begun by the authorities a year ago … a tactical success.” But no one should describe it as a strategic success.

            On the one hand, such attitudes “strengthen the peripheral character of contemporary Russia which is no longer feared (the times of the USSR have passed) but is not respected and not only in the West” but in China, on which some in Moscow have put misplaced hopes as “a strategic partner.”

            And on the other, “the ‘simple Russians’ are not so simple. Their conservatism is closely tied to the populist order of the day, to expectations of increases in pay, pensions, benefits, and the preservation of ‘Soviet’ systems of health care and education.” If those expectations are not realized, they will stop supporting the authorities.

            At present, “their support of Vladimir Putin” is based on these expectations, on the lack of clear alternatives and on “fear of chaos” should he depart.  But Russian society is tired and increasingly skeptical about the regime. And while it “doesn’t love the West and the liberals, it also cannot tolerate the corrupt bureaucrats.”

            For the time being, Makarkin says, “the social contract between it and the authorities is preserved unlike the other contract between active groups of society and the authorities which finally broke in December of last year.”  But the broader social contract could break down if prices for oil and gas fall.

            In that event, the Moscow analyst says, “the authorities would encounter more serious problems than they did a year ago.” That is because there are “already leaders with the experience of organizing mass protests.”  And while these leaders are “not ideal,” he concludes, they nonetheless will in those circumstances present a real threat.