Sunday, January 31, 2021

Video Facial Recognition Technology Used to Make Arrests after January 23 Navalny Protest

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 30 – Russian officials used the growing network of video cameras in public places and improvements in facial recognition technology to identify participants in the January 23 Navalny protests and then arrest them, confirming some of the worst fears of rights activists about how the Kremlin will use this technology, Kristina Foltynova says.

            The IdelReal journalist reports that because Moscow has invested so much in these cameras and this technology, it now ranks third among the countries of the world in this sector. Moscow has justified this by pointing to the pandemic and crime fighting, but many believe these efforts are all about suppressing dissent (idelreal.org/a/31076237.html).

            According to one survey at the end of last year, Russia now has more than 13 million video cameras in public places, far behind the 200 million in China and 50 million in the US but a figure that means in per capita terms, it ranks third in the world behind only those two countries (tdaily.ru/news/2020/12/25/telecomdaily-rossiyskiy-rynok-ovn-budet-rasti-na-23-ezhegodno).

            The Russian authorities have not published data on the number of cameras in all the cities of the country, but it is known that in Moscow, as of 2019, there were already 193,000 cameras and in St. Petersburg, 55,000, figures that allow them to rank 29th and 37th respectively among the major cities of the world.

            Russia is letting contracts for more of them, including for cameras that will survey some 43,000 schools across the country and more of public spaces in cities like Nizhny Novgorod. In addition, the interior ministry is heavily invested in the development of facial recognition technology which will allow the authorities to identify individuals.

            Russians are divided on these programs. According to a Levada Center poll, 47 percent believe that such devices will help fight crime and can aid in fighting pandemics like the current one. But 42 percent oppose this program, seeing the cameras a violation of their personal freedom (levada.ru/2020/08/20/videonablyudenie-v-publichnyh-mestah/).

            Human rights organizations are even more opposed because, as they point out, the installation of video cameras in public spaces and the use of facial recognition technology is taking place without any legal framework, thereby opening the way for abuse and even more intrusive actions against the population.

 

Areas of Use of Non-Russian Languages Contracting, Zorin Acknowledges

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 30 – Speaking in Kazan at the ceremonial opening of Tatarstan’s Year of Native Languages, Vladimir Zorin, former Russian Federation nationalities minister and currently a senior member of the country’s Social Chamber, said that “we cannot deny that the are of use of native languages of large and small peoples is contracting.”

            That trend is continuing despite efforts by the Russian government to defend these languages, he added, a claim that many in his audience would dispute given Moscow’s assault on the earlier requirement that all children in the non-Russian republics study and thus become familiar with the titular languages there (business-gazeta.ru/article/497431).

            Also addressing the meeting was Farid Mukhametshin, head of Tatarstan’s State Council and a leading advocate of the use of Tatar and other non-Russian languages. He noted that today in his republic, there are 871 schools where Russian is the language of instruction and 657 where Tatar is that.

            In addition, there are 132 schools with portions of the curriculum in other languages, including 88 with a Chuvash segment, 24 with an Udmurt, 16 with a Mari, three with a Mordvin, and one with Hebrew section.  There are also 22 Sunday schools which offer instruction in the language and culture of 19 other nationalities.

Global Warming Forcing Russia to Stop Using Ice Roads in the North Before Substitutes are Available

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 30 – Global warming means that Russia is being forced to stop using many of the ice roads it has long relied upon to move cargo and people north and south during the long winter months, but it has not yet been able to build bridges and alternative roadways that could substitute for their loss, Igor Panayev says.

            The costs of building these are enormous and the regions in the north don’t have the money given the other tasks they face, the director of the Arkhangelsk Road Building Agency says (iarex.ru/articles/79490.html). What he doesn’t say, but what is critical is that without ice roads or an alternative, many construction projects in the North cannot be carried out.

            There is simply no way for Moscow to move the equipment and supplies to distant sites in the North either to maintain or expand its exploitation of the natural resources to be found there or build the facilities needed to support the Northern Sea Route and the projection of Russian power into the Arctic possible.

            Ships can carry some of the materials needed for facilities right on the coastline in places where harbors are to be found, but in many cases, there are no such harbors and without ice roads or some substitute, the projects will have to be suspended, putting a serious crimp into the Russian government’s much-ballyhooed plans.

            If Panayev is not prepared to address those problems in the interview he gave to Regnum commentator Vladimir Stanulevich, he is more than prepared to explain many of the other problems involving road construction in the north. Roads and fools are Russia’s two greatest problems, it is sometimes said, and “roads in the Russian north are a misfortune squared.”

            Among the problems Panayev points out are these: a history of building highways that focus only on the oblast centers and not of connecting one oblast with another, the inability to afford building hard surface all-weather roads in large parts of the North, and business privatization which has taken many of the roads that do exist out of public use. 

            In some parts of the North, including Arkhangelsk, there are only the first links to other regions being built, most roads are unpaved and often impassable much of the year, and large percentages of the roads are for the use of companies who built them rather than for the use of the population as a whole.

            The cost of building roads in the North is three or more times what it is in the south, not only because the substrate for the roads must go down far deeper given problems with the melting of the permafrost and the far larger number of rivers large and small which most be built for roads to be useful, Panayev says.

            What is needed, the Arkhangelsk official says, is for Moscow to ensure that road projects regional as well as federal are 100 percent funded. At present, the government comes close in the case of federal highways: 87 percent of projects involving them are fully funded. But for regional roads, the figure is only “about 40 percent,” far too little to meet planned goals. 

Circassians Denounce Putin’s Palace, Praise Navalny’s Exposure of It in Open Letter

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 30 – Non-Russians are often criticized for focusing on their own ethnic issues and not participating in broader political movements involving the all-Russian opposition. But in a happy exception, Circassians from the North Caucasus and the diaspora have sent an open letter to Aleksey Navalny denouncing “the Putin palace” the Russian activist has exposed.

            “The Putin palace,” the letter notes, “is located on Cape Idokubas on the shore of the Black Sea not far from Gelendzhik, on the motherland of the Circassians. It, just like the Olympic objects in Sochi, was erected on the territorial of the Caucasus reserve” (justicefornorthcaucasus.info/?p=1251682941 and doshdu.com/cherkesskie-aktivisty-zajavili-chto-dvorec-putina-byl-postroen-nezakonno/).

            “Both projects are clear examples of corruption, and we declare this in the name of a significant part of the people who suffered enormous misfortunate when they were deported in 1864 from these very lands” where today, the Kremlin has been building illegal structures. We praise Navalny for bringing this to the attention of the world.

            The letter says that the signatories like all Circassians and their supporters respect the Russian activist for his courage, given the illegal repressive measures, including a direct attack on his life, and that they are thrilled that his film exposing Putin’s “palace” has been seen more than 90 million times on YouTube.

            Putin and his cronies, of course, have denied that the palace is his, but his regime has established a no-fly zone around it as it would for a Russian presidential facility, The Kremlin explains this action as required to keep NATO airplanes from threatening it.

            For the record, the author of these lines is proud to be a signatory of this letter, a document that reflects the feelings of millions of Circassians and their supporters and their desire to work with rather than be kept apart from the all-Russian protest movement that Navalny is playing such a key role in promoting.

 

Poles of Lithuania Fear Their Number to Decline Further in Upcoming Census

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 30 – Zbigniew Balcewicz, the former editor of Vilnius’ Polish language newspaper Kurier WileĊ„ski, says that he fears new rules to be used in the upcoming Lithuanian census will exaggerate the further decline in the number and share of Poles living there, a concern some Russian outlets are raising as well.

            In 1989, at the time of the last Soviet census, there were 257,994 Poles recorded as living in the Lithuanian SSR. As of 2019, Vilnius said that their number had fallen by more than 100,000 to 156,463, Balcewicz writes and Russia’s Rex news agency picks up (kurierwilenski.lt/2021/01/29/gdzie-sie-podzialo-sto-tysiecy-polakow/ and iarex.ru/news/79475.html).

            The total population of Lithuania fell over this period by 23.97 percent as a result of emigration and aging, but that of the Polish community there fell by 39.36 percent or almost twice as much. In short, the former editor says, Lithuania has become “more Lithuanian” than at any point in its post-war history.

            Balcewicz doesn’t deny the general trend of a decline in the number of Poles in  Lithuania, but he is worried that new procedures that will be employed in the national census later this year will undercount Poles more than others and thus reduce their influence and ability to attract the attention of the country as a whole.

            The Lithuanian government has announced that it will rely on registration documents rather than direct interviews in many cases so as to save money, but according to the Polish editor, that opens the way to a serious problem for minorities because many of these documents do not have any indication of nationality.

            After 1991, Lithuania first excluded the nationality line in passports and then restored it, but today, it is possible to have it included only via “a special procedure, the Lithuanian Pole says. As a result, those conducting the census will have to decide who is a Lithuanian and who is a Pole, and they may do so in ways that work against his community.

            That a Russian news agency has picked up on this already suggests that at least some in Moscow hope to make it an issue, either to blacken Lithuania’s reputation in some places or win some grudging support from Poland with which Russia has long been locked in a contentious relationship. 

           

Russian Population Falls by 510,000 in 2020 and Not Just Because of Pandemic

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 30 – Rosstat reports that the population of the Russian Federation fell by an estimated 510,000, the largest number in many years and one that some are inclined to blame entirely on the pandemic. But demographer Vladimir Kozlov says that excess deaths in 2020 compared to a year earlier explain less than half of this figure.

            Based on the state statistical agency’s report through November the total number of excess deaths last year exceeded 220,000, the Higher School of Economics scholar says. “how many of these died directly from covid is not the main issue” in his opinion (dw.com/ru/naselenie-rf-za-god-sokratilos-na-polmilliona-v-chem-prichiny/a-56385435).

            The entire “complex situation” is far more important: “During a pandemic people die not only directly from the virus but also from the overloading of the healthcare system and other factors.” But other developments have been at work as well, including the outflow of migrant workers who have not returned and the aging of the population.

            Important too is the aging of the Russian population. On the one hand, as that figure increases, more people will die; and on the other, the share of women in prime child-bearing age cohorts declines and with that decline there is a fall in the number of newborns. For the first 11 months of 2020, there were approximately 60,000 fewer than a year earlier, Kozlov says.

            Government programs have limited this decline, he continues; but “it would be much more effective to support the birth of third children” in families rather than give money to all who have any. Studies show that decisions to have a second or third child are driven far more often by economic factors than other things.

            As the pandemic has exacerbated Russia’s economic crisis, many people are deciding not to have children or to put off doing so because of uncertainties about the future. Until some of those concerns are alleviated, the number of births may fall still further, despite what the authorities are doing.

            Asked about the impact of the annexation of Crimea, Kozlov points out that it gave the Russian Federation a one-time increase in population but that the basic demographic parameters of the Ukrainian peninsula are roughly the same as those in the Russian Federation as a whole and thus will not affect the general trends.

            The Moscow demographer concludes that “the number of the population will continue to decline if we do not sharply change migration rules and do not begin to attract a greater number of people from other countries.” Doing so is the only way to boost the population given the current trends within the indigenous Russian population.

Russia to Supply Massive Quantities of Its Coronavirus Vaccine to Iran

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 30 – The Iranian embassy in Moscow says that the Russian government will be delivering three batches of its Sputnik-5 coronavirus vaccine to Iran, on February 4th, 18th and 28th, perhaps the largest Russian export program yet to any foreign country (en.irna.ir/news/84203845/Iranian-health-official-announces-approval-of-Sputnik-vaccines).

            Russian officials today reported that they have registered 19.032 new cases of infection and 512 new deaths from the coronavirus. Both figures are down from recent highs, but despite that overall progress, there are many places in the Russian Federation where the pandemic continues at high levels (t.me/COVID2019_official/2419  and regnum.ru/news/society/3176513.html).

            The situation has eased particularly in St. Petersburg, with fewer coronavirus beds in hospitals now occupied and officials planning to follow Moscow in opening up the city to more normal operations (regnum.ru/news/3177735.html and snob.ru/news/vlasti-sankt-peterburga-vsled-za-moskvoj-razreshili-zavedeniyam-obshepita-rabotat-po-nocham/).

            But officials in the northern capital complain that they have received only enough vaccine doses to immunize one to two percent of the population and express concern that as a result, a new wave of infections may return at any time. They are especially angry because they have set up the facilities to administer the vaccine (regnum.ru/news/3177760.html).

            Across the North Caucasus, all the non-Russian republics except Daghestan, the largest, are reporting that conditions have stabilized (capost.media/news/obshchestvo/v-skfo-tolko-dagestan-ne-zayavil-o-stabilizatsii-situatsii-s-koronavirusom/). Meanwhile, Moscow has ordered that all higher educational institutions return to face-to-face classwork by February 7 (tass.ru/obschestvo/10575537).

            The health ministry has allocated 66 million rubles (one million US dollars) to the Gamaley Center which developed the Saturn-5 vaccine to come up with two new medications to prevent the infection (ura.news/news/1052469403). But in the face of so much optimism, some doctors are worried that the future in Russia may not remain as bright as it now appears (svpressa.ru/society/article/288544/).

Kazakhstan Becoming Not Just More Kazakh but More Muslim, Mustafayev Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 29 – Kazakhstan is becoming not just more Kazakh but more Muslim, Nurtay Mustafayev says, a radical shift from Soviet times when close to 100 percent of them declared they were atheists and a development that will certainly change both domestic political arrangements and Kazakhstan’s relationship with Central Asia and the Muslim world.

            Perhaps most dramatically, Islam has become an important component for Kazakh identity just as Orthodoxy has for the country’s ethnic Russians, the historian continues. At present, 98.3 percent of Kazakhs say they are Muslims while 91.6 percent of ethnic Russians there say they are Christians (qmonitor.kz/society/710).

            It is likely, Mustafayev continues, that “the majority of ‘believers’ in Kazakhstan in fact are so only nominally.” They identify with whatever the religion of their national group is. But experts say that the share of real believers is now in the range of 20 to 25 percent, that is, “from one fifth to one quarter of the population.”

            “The overwhelming majority of real and nominal believers” among the Kazakhs, he continues, consist of “Sunni Muslims of the Khanafi rite.” And their numbers are increasing despite the suggestions of some that the turn to religion has faded and that people in the republic are increasingly returning to atheism.

            One indication of that is the growing number of mosques. If in 2017, there were 3600 religious facilities for all faiths, last year, that number had risen to 3796. Of these, the number of mosques had grown from 2550 to 2664, while the number of Orthodox churches had risen only by six, from 294 to 300.

            “Formally,” Mustafayev says, “Kazakhstan will remain a secular state, but at the same time one that assumes an ever greater Muslim face.” How far things go depend on the success of the regime’s social and political projects. If they are crowned with success, this process will be slower; if they fail, many Muslim Kazakhs will be ready to turn to more radical measures.

            “Today, there are only four theocratic states – the Vatican, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he continues, “but in fact there are many more such countries” and still more where the Muslim beliefs of the population and the rulers affect laws and policies. Kazakhstan is unlikely to adopt shariat law, but it is likely to take ideas from it.

            How many and how much this will affect the domestic situation and foreign relations of the country depends less on Muslims and more on the state as an effective delivery system of progress. If the state fails, many Muslim Kazakhs may be ready to turn away from democracy and secularism; but if it succeeds, few of them will have any interest in doing so.

 

Kremlin has Promoted and Relies On ‘Russian Groupthink,’ Sharafutdinova Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 29 – Since the protest wave of 2011-2012, the Kremlin has promoted both traditional values and “emotion-driven collective identity” in order to mobilize the population behind it because when news events are “framed with reference to national identity, people tend to form judgments on the basis of perceived threats, Gulnaz Sharafutdinova says.

            The widely published Tatar scholar who now teaches at King’s College, London, says that as long as issues are presented in that way, people are inclined to “defend and even glorify in-group members and leaders” and dismiss out of hand any reports that challenge that narrative (ridl.io/ru/gruppovoe-myshlenie-po-russki/).

            In a new book, The Red Mirror: Putin’s Leadership and Russia’s Insecure Identity (Oxford, 2020), Sharafutdinova argues that over the last decade, the Kremlin has successfully articulated “a shared collective perspective and thus built social consensus by tapping into powerful group emotions of shame and humiliation” to form a common “groupthink.”

            Those feelings arose in the 1990s following the collapse of the USSR; and the Putin regime has completed its narrative by promoting the idea that World War II showed that Russians can rise to and overcome any challenge, including “’the chosen trauma’” of the first post-Soviet decade.

            This campaign, the London-based Tatar scholar says, has allowed for the reinvention of group ties and the reassertion of group purpose and has “overturned humiliation” and allowed for the rise of a new “pride and patriotism” which holds that Putin is “’a group savoir.’” Rejecting this comfortable position is not something most Russians yet want to do.

            What the Kremlin has done in the last decade is “not a new strategy,” Sharafutdinova continues. “Soviet collective identity had long relied on a sense of Soviet exceptionalism and a carefully cultivated image of the external enemy.” For many Russians, especially of the older generations, this was another reason for the success of Putin’s approach.

            As she points out, “such persistent political leads to the formation of a specific type of ‘groupthink’ that is not rational.” It is not based on facts but rather on the way in which these facts are framed by Kremlin-controlled media. As a result, as long as the frame remains, the facts that Russians accept or pay attention to can be controlled as well.

            As powerful as this approach is, it is not now “universally accepted and supported” in Russia. (And it is not absent from other political systems as well, the scholar says.) “A major fault line is along generations and both their own memories – many are too young to remember the 1990s let alone the Soviet period – and new media which the state doesn’t control.

            As a result, the Kremlin’s success in promoting groupthink, she suggests, is declining; but it is still sufficiently strong to ensure that most Russians respond to queries the way the powers that be would like them to rather than on the basis of an open and honest consideration of the facts.

 

 

Crackdown after Navalny Protests Hitting Activists in Regions Harder than Moscow

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 29 – According to ODV-Info, approximately 2500 of the 4,000 demonstrators Russian police detained during and after the January 23rd Navalny protests were in the city of Moscow, but the impact of these arrests on anti-Kremlin activists may in fact be greater outside the capital than in because the numbers of activists there is so much smaller.

            Moreover, officials in many regions typically operate below the radar screens of opposition publications in Moscow and thus can do things that such coverage in the capital largely precludes, including making lists of opposition figures and going after them even after the demonstrations ease.

            And that may prove to be one of the most serious consequences of the widely noted growth of protest activity in the regions and republics (iarex.ru/articles/79476.html), a more serious crackdown against the emerging civil society in those places than even the repressive moves the regime is making in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

            The most well-documented of such regional crackdowns is in the Komi Republic, which has been roiled by protests in the past. There officials came up with a list of 100 activists, including journalists, and used the Navalny protest as the occasion to detain them (novayagazeta.ru/news/2021/01/28/167457-politsiya, 7x7-journal.ru/articles/2021/01/28/spisok-iz-100-kak-v-respublike-komi-zaderzhivayut-i-sudyat-aktivistov-za-uchastie-v-mitingah-23-yanvarya and thebarentsobserver.com/en/democracy-and-media/2021/01/police-squads-are-hunting-down-anti-putin-protesters-north-russian).

            But it is unlikely that the Komi situation is unique. Instead, it is more probably the harbinger of a new trend, an effort to root out anti-Kremlin activists far from Moscow where they are still relatively few in number but already able to attract people to the streets. This is a danger that those who focus on Moscow alone must not forget.   

 

‘Russian Parties’ in Estonia and Latvia have ‘Lost the Support of Ethnic Russians,' Nosovich Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 29 – The political parties ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia have long identified as “theirs” have lost the support of this community, polls show, because party leaders are now trying to be accepted as part of the political systems in those countries rather than serve as challengers to it, Aleksandr Nosovich says.

            The pro-Moscow Baltic commentator argues that “Latvian and Estonian Russians are massively disappointed in ‘their’ political parties which are sacrificing the defense of their interests … in an attempt to become part of the nationalistic Russophobic regimes of the Baltic countries (rubaltic.ru/article/politika-i-obshchestvo/20210129-russkie-partii-pribaltiki-poteryali-podderzhku-russkikh/).

            According to a new poll in Estonia, only 43 percent of Estonia’s Russians now support the Center Party, down from 60 percent a year ago, 70 percent from the year before that, and 80 percent not much earlier (rus.err.ee/1608088714/podderzhka-centristov-sredi-russkojazychnyh-izbiratelej-upala-do-rekordno-nizkogo-urovnja).\

            This shift is “good news for the political system of Estonia,” Nosovich says, “but bad news for the Center Party which earlier was considered as having a monopoly on the ethnic Russian electoral field,” a position it acquired because Tallinn succeeded in suppressing other, more explicitly “Russian” parties.

            Ethnic Russians as a result felt they had no choice but to turn to the Center Party, but that party has pocketed their support and pursued its own goals, which all too often, Nosovich says, have resulted in the sacrifice of Russian interests. Now Russians are turning away from that party but do not have any other party they can count on.

            Something similar is happening in Latvia with the Harmony Party and for equally the same reasons, Nosovich continues. The ethnic Russians turned to it as the only party that could support their interests, but the party, recognizing they had nowhere else to go, often sacrificed these interests in the pursuit of its own.

            The ethnic Russians of Latvia have been deserting the Harmony Party as a result, but for the time being, they have nowhere to go and thus stand outside the Latvian political system, the Russian analyst argues. The only way these parties in Estonia and Latvia can recover is to represent the interests of local Russians more clearly. Otherwise, they will continue to fade.

            Nosovich does not discuss what this fading means for these countries. On the one hand, it could lead ever more of the local Russian community to identify with other parties who represent some if not all of their concerns. Or on the other, it could mean that there may soon be attempts, perhaps backed by Moscow, to create new “Russian” parties that could mobilize these communities.

            In the first case, these countries will have passed a major test in integrating the Russians; in the second, it means that there may be a new time of testing for them, even though the percentage of ethnic Russians in both countries continues to decline

Russian ‘Peacekeepers’ in Qarabagh a Victory for Baku and a Loss for Moscow, Ukrainian Diplomat Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 29 – The conventional wisdom is that Moscow’s insertion of its peacekeepers into Qarabagh in the wake of the Armenian-Azerbaijani fighting last fall represents an unqualified victory for Russia and a defeat that might have been avoided by Azerbaijan. But in fact, Aleksandr Samarsky says, just the reverse is the case.

            Samarsky, who represented Ukraine in the OSCE mission in Qarabagh in 1997-1998 and again from 2004 to 2006 and later was Kyiv’s ambassador to Iran between 2010 and 2014, says that not only did Baku win and Moscow lose but that Moscow also has suffered a loss in its relations with Armenia and must now bear new burdens because of its peacekeeper.

            “The overwhelming majority of experts considers that as a result of the war, the balance in Azerbaijani-Russian relations shifted in favor of the Russian Federation,” the Ukrainian diplomat says. “At first glance,” there is some reason for doing so; “but in fact,” the notion that this was “an unqualified diplomatic victory for Russia and a defeat for Azerbaijan is mistaken.”

            As the winner in the war, “Baku in principle has significantly reduced its dependence on external influence by any international mediator in such talks, including Moscow, which has traditionally taken part in them,” Samarsky says.

            Moreover, the appearance of Russian peacekeepers changes little because “a large part of the territory populated by Armenians which now is under a Russian protectorate was not controlled by Baku earlier. There isn’t that big a difference as to who controls an occupied territory if it isn’t you.”

            And the notion that Moscow has suddenly acquired the ability to engage in provocations is overstated. There were Russian agents in Qarabagh before; and if Moscow wants to provoke something, it has had and retains enough levers to do so. But it really hasn’t acquired a large new capacity, Samarsky continues.

            In fact, and leading to a very different conclusion about the impact of Russian peacekeepers, “Baku received a definite benefit from the deployment of ‘peacekeepers’ of the Russian Federation in Qarabagh.” Indeed, at least one analyst, Farkhad Ibragaimov, says that Baku asked for them even before Moscow offered them.

            Had Azerbaijan retaken all of Qarabagh, it would have faced serious problems as far as its international image is concerned; and it would have had to administer a large and hostile population for which it would have had sold responsibility and would have had to train large numbers of officials to handle.

            Now, Baku has avoided those problems “at least for the medium term,” and thus can enjoy its victory without those costs.

            “Another positive moment for Azerbaijan is that in the package with ‘the peacekeepers,’ it was able to obtain additional preferences connected with the unblocking of transportation links connected the western districts of Azerbaijan with Nakhichevan,” Samarsky says. The peacekeepers were a price worth paying for that.

            “And so,” he argues, “Baku’s initiative about the introduction of Russian peacekeepers, the result of which is the formation in Qarabagh of a Russian protectorate really has brought Azerbaijan obvious benefits.”

            And if Moscow did not achieve a victory over Baku in the settlement process, it lost ground both during the conflict and after with Armenia, the Ukrainian diplomat continues. Moscow had to try three times to get a ceasefire, thus highlighting its weakness in the region, and while Armenian dependence on Russia has increased, Armenians are increasingly angry at what they see as Russia’s failure or even betrayal.

            Armenia is to be sure a Russian vassal, but “the status of being a vassal does not mean automatic friendly and positive attitudes by the vassal to the suzerain More than that, it lays specific obligations on the suzerain relative to his vassal. Moscow has failed in that, and Armenians, a historically obsessed people, aren’t going to forget.

            What that means is this, Samarsky says. “The long-term prospects for the development of Armenian-Russian relations are not so positive for the Russian Federation as they may seem today. And the situation may change sharply if Ankara is able to make Yerevan such attractive proposals that it simply won’t be able to refuse them.”

            Moreover, and this is not a negligible factor, the diplomat continues, putting peacekeepers in Qarabagh not only makes Russia more dependent on Azerbaijan for the supply route it needs but also imposes real costs, finance and image. The money costs may seem small but they add up, and the image of a protectorate is not an unalloyed good.

            “Thus,” Samarsky concludes, “as we see, the results of the Russian  pseudo-peacemaking look sufficiently contradictory even from the point of view of the defense and advancement with their help of its interests in bilateral relations with the sides of the Qarabagh conflict. Moscow has not been able to achieve here any essential advantages.

            And that in turn means that no one should be talking “about any ‘effective management of resolving conflicts’” in this case.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Russia Ever More Likely to Face Another 1917 rather than a Second 1991, Pastukhov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 29 – Because the Putin regime has now dug in so deeply in opposition to the challenge Aleksey Navalny and his protesters pose, Vladimir Pastukhov says, there are ever fewer chances Russia will evolve as it did in 1989-1991, with the regime making some compromises with the people, and ever more that it will develop as in 1917, when it didn’t.

            The reason for that conclusion, the London-based Russian analyst says, lies not just with the regime by with Aleksey Navalny and his followers. He has shown himself willing to die for his cause, something that puts the Kremlin in a most difficult position; and his followers are from a generation that has known no one except Putin (echo.msk.ru/programs/tuz/2780274-echo/).

            Navalny has taken a position few expected him to, and it is, of course, the case that if something happens to him, then “the movement in its current form will suffer a mortal blow.” But at the same time, the radicalism of his followers will continue; and that likelihood may be the reason the regime has acted with relative restraint so far.

            This generational dimension of the protest is critical, Pastukhov continues, because as the late Teodor Shanin said, “there is nowhere in the world where politics so depends on generational shifts as in Russia.” And Navalny has served as a kind of midwife to bring a new generation into politics.

            He is more a symbol than a leader, someone who can serve as a figure around which people angry at Putin for many reasons can come together. They can come out into the streets” because “they know where they have to go,” “the clearest and deepest sign of the maturation of a revolutionary situation.”

            “What does it mean that there is no leader” of this new movement? Pastukhov asks rhetorically. “There is an individual who has planned a self-sacrificial and very risky step.” But he hasn’t formed the kind of team that can act without him except under circumstances when the population and especially the rising generation are ready to move in any event.

            In this circumstance, the analyst continues, there is one striking difference from most cases. Navalny always presents himself not as “a representative of the Russian opposition but as “the only real Russian opposition.”  That is a heavy burden to assume but it is also why he attracts so many.

            Looking forward, Pastukhov says he “thinks that the protest will develop according to the formula – one step back, two steps forward.” Will leaders emerge who can serve as “professional revolutionaries” in a situation which is as yet only pre-revolutionary? Navalny hasn’t produced them but his willingness to sacrifice himself for the cause may make that possible.

            He is behaving like a new revolutionary and going for broke. The question is how long can the tension that now exists be sustained. That is key, but Navalny’s impact on the situation suggests that it will continue and grow far more than many now expect, Pastukhov suggests, especially as he has shown a fine sense of what the population wants.

            His film about Putin’s palace was a brilliant stroke. Its role is already “colossal,” and there are likely to be more such events in the future.

Pandemic Easing in Russia But Unlikely by Amount Officials Claim, ‘Novaya Gazeta’ Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 29 – The coronavirus pandemic in Russia has eased in recent weeks, Novaya gazeta says, but given that Russian behavior hasn’t changed and that less than one percent of the population has been vaccinated, it is unlikely that it has fallen by “more than 20 percent” as the government claims (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2021/01/29/88962-vsem-opershtabam-pristupit-k-snizheniyu).

            The authorities are not releasing enough data region-by-region to allow analysts to make any conclusion other than that what information does exist suggests that the recently reported decline has more to do with officials wanting to cater to the population which is tired of the restrictions and to boost the economy by claiming greater progress has been made than in reality.

            “All publicly available data show,” the paper’s journalists say, “that infections really are falling, but how significant this decline is and how long it will last is unknown.” It is possible that the pandemic is nearing its end, they conclude; but it is also possible that the recent decline may be soon be reversed.

            Reports from the regions suggest that in many places the pandemic continues in almost as full force as ever, although in others, there has been improvement (regnum.ru/news/society/3176513.html). Moscow reported registering 19,238 new cases of infection and 534 new deaths over the past 24 hours (novayagazeta.ru/news/2021/01/29/167482-v-rossii-vyyavili-19-238-novyh-sluchaev-zarazheniya-covid-19).

            One place where officials have eased restrictions significantly is St. Petersburg, which has lifted many that it imposed last month and now rivals Moscow in re-openings (novayagazeta.ru/news/2021/01/29/167495-vlasti-peterburga-razreshili-kafe-rabotat-kruglosutochno-i-uvelichili-maksimalnuyu-zapolnyaemost-zalov-v-kinoteatrah-do-50).

            But at the other extreme are mining and drilling sites that workers cycle through for various periods. They have proved to be places where the coronavirus appears to spread especially widely, according to new studies (ng.ru/economics/2021-01-28/4_8069_economics1.html).

            On the vaccination front, more than one million Russians have now received their shots (novayagazeta.ru/news/2021/01/29/167500-chislo-privityh-ot-koronavirusa-rossiyan-prevysilo-million-chelovek), and VTsIOM reports that 57 percent of Russians favor universal vaccination (vedomosti.ru/society/articles/2021/01/28/855862-vaktsinatsiyu-covid).

            That may go up when a single-shot vaccine becomes available next month, although before it does, some may put off getting two shots when they are confident that eventually one will do the job (regnum.ru/news/3177269.html). Meanwhile, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin has assured residents that fewer than one percent who have been infected become infected again (regnum.ru/news/3177433.html).

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

·         The Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Tatarstan has requested producers of coronavirus vaccines to document that they Islamic food sanitation norms (regnum.ru/news/3177396.html).

·         The number of deaths from the pandemic in Rostov-na-Donu have overwhelmed the capacity of the crematoria there (regnum.ru/news/3177108.html).

·         Some Russian doctors are reporting that people diagnosed with schizophrenia are three times as likely to die if infected with the coronavirus than those not so diagnosed (https://regnum.ru/news/3176545.html).

Iran Seeks to Expand Its Position in South Caucasus in Wake of Qarabagh War

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 28 – Moscow is not the only government that views the outcome of the Qarabagh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan as providing it with an opportunity to expand its influence in the South Caucasus. Tehran does to, and it has launched a major diplomatic effort both in the region and in Moscow to achieve that end.

            Tehran sees itself as a major beneficiary because the unblocking of north-south transportation links will allow it to expand trade with the region and beyond and because its own expansion at least for the time being is based on cooperation with rather than opposition to Moscow, given that both are at odds with much of the international community.

            Iran’s efforts to build on the outcome of the conflict with Moscow have been highlighted by a visit to the Russian capital by Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign ministry, who made clear that his country wants to work with Russia to expand economic ties in the region and improve its geopolitical position there (kommersant.ru/doc/4662503).

            For both Russia and Iran, that clearly means freezing out Western influence and also limiting the expansion of Turkey’s role in Azerbaijan.  For Iran, it also means securing Russian support for avoiding the growth of new tensions between Tehran and the West over its nuclear program.

            Polina Vasilenko of Russia’s International Affairs Council says that what is going on reflects Tehran’s decision to focus primarily on regional security rather than broader issues and to look northward through the Caucasus to Russia and not just southward and westward in the Middle East.

            Before arriving in Moscow, the Iranian foreign minister had been in Baku. After leaving the Russian capital, he went to Yerevan, and he is then expected to visit both Georgia and Turkey, completing a tour of the countries most directly involved in the new geopolitics of the south Caucasus.

            According to Kommersant journalists Marianna Belenkaya and Kirill Krivosheyev, “the main theme of this trip is the discussion of projects of regional cooperation after the conclusion of the agreement about the ceasefire in Qarabagh” and the limiting of the expansion of Turkish influence, something Armenia, Russia and Iran all oppose.

            During his stop in Baku, the Iranian foreign ministry signed a memorandum of understanding about the delivery of natural gas from Turkey to Nakhichevan; but despite that accord, he has made clear that Tehran wants to maintain close ties with Armenia as well, Vasilenko says.

            According to Farkhad Mammadov, a member of Russia’s Valdai Club, “Iran is positioning itself as ‘the gate for Baku and Yerevan’ to the Persian and Oman gulfs.” Azerbaijan welcomes this because Tehran has always supported the principle of territorial integrity in the South Caucasus.

            But Armenian experts like Aleksandr Iskandaryan, the director of the Yerevan Institute of the Caucasus, are less sure that Iran can make inroads there, not only because of its links to Azerbaijan but also because, even or perhaps especially in the new post-war circumstances, Iran has less to offer Armenia than it might appear.

            “Some of the transport routes in the region have more a political than an economic significance,” the Yerevan expert says. “In particular, the railway through Nakhichevan, which could connect Armenia and Iran raises too many questions in order for anyone to evaluate its prospects at present.”

Putin Calls on World to Act Just the Opposite of How He Does at Home, Shtepa Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 28 – In his online address to the Davos Conference, Vladimir Putin said that growing inequality of incomes and wealth among and within countries is generating ethnic and religious strife. What was striking in his remarks is that his recipe for the world and his policies at home are completely at odds.

            Internationally, the Kremlin leader called for the rejection of any common model or single center of power; but at home, as regionalist writer Vadim Shtepa points out, Putin continues to push centralization and homogeneity (nazaccent.ru/content/34995-putin-imushestvennoe-neravenstvo-porozhdaet-nacionalnuyu-i.html and region.expert/multi/).

            There is no question, the editor of the Tallinn-based Region.Expert portal says, that growing economic inequality can exacerbate ethnic and religious feelings; but “you can’t teach the world ‘multi-polarity’ if in your own country you are destroying it.” And that is exactly the goal Putin has been pursuing over the course of his 20 years in power.

            Indeed, it is obvious that the Kremlin leader does not have “the moral right to call for the rest of the world to become ‘multi-polar’ and diverse” given that “in his own country, he has built a harsh centralized ‘vertical’” one that exacerbates income differentiation among regions because it does not allow them to develop on their own.

            Not only does Moscow take almost all the taxes collected and then hands back a small portion of them at its own discretion, but it works hard to ensure that regions and republics within the Russian Federation will not be able to develop relations with each other and the outside world that would benefit them.

            Thirty years ago, cultural specialist Mikhail Epshteyn called attention to this underlying conflict in an essay that Region.Expert recently reposted (region.expert/o-rossiyah/). In it, he asked, “Can Estonia deal with a Baltic-Black Sea-Pacific Ocean Russia given its current size?” That would be like something out of Gulliver’s encounters with the pygmies.

            But Estonia would clearly be able to deal with the smaller Russias embodied in Pskov and St. Petersburg; and both sides would benefit, one by gaining new markets and the other by acquiring new models.  But Moscow under Putin continues to do everything it can to block such ties and such exchanges.

            “The entire foreign policy of Russia is defined in the Moscow foreign ministry alone,” Shtepa says. “And yet, the individual who has established in his own country absolute centralism now  is teaching the rest of the world about ‘multiplicity.’ He clearly doesn’t understand that his declarations sound funny” to any who know what he has been doing at home.

Putin System is ‘Latin American Fascism with an Aging “Caudillo,”’ Milin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 28 – A consensus has emerged among opposition analysts in Russia and some observers in the West that the regime Vladimir Putin has put in place is a fascist one. But fascism is a category that includes a relatively wide range of authoritarian and lawless regimes.

            Few equate Putinism with Hitlerism. More do so with Mussolini’s original fascist state. But Moscow commentator Dmitry Milin argues that the Putin system as theory and practic is perhaps best described  as “fascism of the Latin American type with an aging caudillo” (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=60126B0738036).

            He offers six features of the Putin regime to justify that comparison:

1.      Putin’s Russia like Latin American states of that kind has “’death squadrons,’” which engage in extra-judicial murders on orders from the dictator.

2.      The government’s security police, the FSB in Russia’s case, is a criminal organization that has grown into a monster that is not under control and threatens the citizens of Russia.

3.      Like such Latin American states, “Russia is a country of absolute illegality” which seeks to give itself the image of a law-based state by adopting “an enormous number of laws which de facto suspend the actions of the Constitution.”

4.      Again like its counterparts in South America, Russia now is a fascist dictatorship of those who steal from the public trough and are so corrupt that they will kill for the right to continue to be able to get money this way.

5.      When the state runs out of one source of income, it looks to others, including the population which it will exploit in order to meet the demands of its officials and siloviki for ever more money.

6.      And like its Latin American counterparts, the Putin regime does not have any other means to retain power besides repression and “for repression, it will use any, even the most outrageous notions, like ‘violations of sanitary-epidemiological norms,’” to impose them.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Russian Opposition has Three Important Homework Tasks, Luzin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 28 – The Russian opposition is celebrating how many people came into the streets in support of Aleksey Navalny last Saturday, but those events and the upcoming Duma elections highlight the fact that if the opposition is to be successful, it must do more homework on three important issues, Pavel Luzin says.

            The Perm political scientist says that the first task of the opposition is to come up with a clear and understandable program that will draw people to it and to recognize that it must act politically rather than emotionally in that regard. Last Saturday’s protests were in the wrong as far as that is concerned (region.expert/russia21/).

On the one hand, they allowed a population tired of the pandemic to let off steam rather than promoted a clearly defined program. And on the other, Luzin notes, they took place in the wrong locations. The protests should not have been in the main squares but in front of the government buildings whose denizens opposition leaders want to challenge.

Coming up with such a program is not easy, but it is a piece of homework the opposition cannot ignore if it wants to be successful in the Duma elections.

Second, if the opposition is to be successful electorally, it must address a group of voters that the powers that be have generally ignored, the roughly one in four Russians who between 2011 and 2019 have moved from one place in the Russian Federation to another, mostly from smaller settlements to larger ones and from east to west.

This trend, amounting to some four million people a year, is likely to accelerate once the pandemic restrictions are lifted and business activity increases. And the opposition needs to recognize because the powers that be haven’t, that such people will behave differently than longtime residents of the places to which they move.

They need to find a political voice; and the opposition, if it wants to be successful, needs to provide one to them by speaking to their specific concerns rather than just acting as if they are simply part of the communities into which they have moved. (On the numbers involved, see rosstat.gov.ru/folder/12781.)

And the third piece of homework the opposition needs to engage in, Luzin argues, is to focus on something it currently tends to ignore. The regime’s United Russia Party may dominate the scene and monopolize politics but it is not “a monolith.” Instead, it includes a wide swath of views and people.

What does that mean? It means, the Perm political scientist says, that the opposition must use intelligent voting to support those even within United Russia who are open to the positions the opposition hopes to advance rather than ignoring such people just because they are currently part of the ruling party.

If the opposition plays its cards right, he suggests, it may be able to keep them as part of the ruling party but one that the opposition forms rather than one that the Kremlin has constructed. The opposition must recognize that party membership in Russia today “plays a more symbolic than programmatic function.”

All three of these changes will require a great deal of work, and they should begin in the cities and regions where the need for a common political agenda also exists but where it is very much possible to bring into political life “those who today are not prepared for active protest.” If the opposition does its homework, it has a good chance to make progress.

Last Lenin Statue in Ukraine Falls

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 28 – The last statue of Lenin on public land in those portions of Ukraine controlled by Kyiv was demolished by unknown persons. It had stood in the village of Staryye Troyany in Odessa Oblast. Its removal brings to the end the so-called “Leninfall” that has been taking place in Ukraine since 1991.

            In 1991, there were an estimated 5500 statues of Lenin in that republic. By the end of 2013, their number had fallen to 2178. Between December 2013 and August 2015, another 778 were taken down, and thus by the end of May 2016, there were fewer than 1000 statues and busts of the founder of the Soviet state (5.ua/ru/rehyoni/v-ukrayne-snesly-poslednyi-pamiatnyk-lenynu-foto-235231.html and trtrussian.com/life/proshaj-sssr-v-ukraine-snesli-poslednij-pamyatnik-leninu-4275138).

            Now, there are none, except in Russian-occupied portions of Ukraine, including both Crimea and the Donbass. And it is perhaps symbolic that the very last one was taken down not at the order of government officials but by an unknown Ukrainian who was expressing his outrage at what Lenin and the Soviets did to his country.

            And this action, following all the others, highlights just how different Ukraine is from Russia where statues of Lenin aren’t being disturbed, monuments to Stalin and Beria are going up, and those to people who resisted the Soviet system are now at risk of being demolished by Russian court order (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2021/01/a-tale-of-three-statues-in-russia-today.html).

‘An Anti-Putin Majority has Taken Shape in Russia,’ Zhelenin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 28 – An anti-Putin majority has taken shape in the Russian population, the result of the bestial treatment of Aleksey Navalny before, during and after his time in Germany and the Kremlin’s loss of control over the sources of information Russians rely on to get their news and shape their opinions, Aleksandr Zhelenin says.

            For many Russians, the Rosbalt commentator says, Navalny is only “a trigger,” an occasion “to say ‘no’ to a leader” who has been in office too long and who plans to remain for the rest of his life. Having watched what the Kremlin has done to Navalny and its lame attempt to explain away the Putin palace they have seen on Youtube, a majority have become “conscious opponents of the current power” (rosbalt.ru/blogs/2021/01/28/1884602.html).

            “For almost 100 million people, the never-ending tale about the good tsar and the bad boyars is over,” Zhelenin says. The question now is “whether this majority will be able of recognizing his real power and begin to organize itself” and thus sweep away the various former “political projects” Putin and company have offered.

            The commentator begins by declaring that recent events show that “the Kremlin has lost its information monopoly in the struggle for the hearts and minds of citizens.” It is acting as if nothing has changed and that it can continue to lie to the Russian people. But “in fact, ‘the palaces’ are shaking.”

            Many have talked about how large and widespread Saturday’s protests were, but they would have been larger and more widespread had they not been about the specific issue of seeking Navalny’s release, Zhelenin continues. “If the occasion was more general, then more people would have come out.

            Polls show that “more than half” of Muscovites believe the country is going in the wrong direction. But almost 100 million Russians have watched the Navalny film on Youtube about Putin’s palace. And that is the clearest indication yet that “the system is breaking down. Of course, it isn’t completely destroyed, but the cracks are widening.”

                “The meetings in support of Navalny, the audience of his film, and the polls just cited speak about two most important changes which have taken place in Russia society in recent years,” Zhelenin argues. The more important is that television which the regime controls and has used “has lost its monopoly” as the force shaping Russian opinion.

            The government no longer has an information monopoly and thus “there is no Putin majority” anymore. It disappeared with the end of that monopoly. The decay of the regime’s control of the agenda has been taking place over several years. But the regime hasn’t paid attention to what that means.

            And that is what constitutes the second change: Putin acts as if he can and say whatever he wants and the Russians will swallow it now as they did earlier. But his actions like raising the pension age or closing hospitals and his feeble denials when he is caught out as with this palace no longer are accepted.

            Russians are angry and they are angry at him. They have taken to the streets in Khabarovsk and now in more than 100 other cities. As a result, Zhelenin says, Putin has to recognize that he no longer controls the majority the way he did; and that means he can no longer act in the same ways he has with impunity.