Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Russian Soldiers Said Injuring Themselves to Avoid Being Sent to Ukraine

Paul Goble


            Staunton, November 25 – Some draftees in the Russian army are inflicting injuries on themselves in order to avoid being sent to the fighting in southeastern Ukraine, an indication of their fears about what might happen to them there and of growing opposition to the Kremlin’s aggression, according to Elena Vasilyeva.


            Vasilyeva, a Russian human rights activist who has spent the last two months in Ukraine gathering data on Russian losses there, provided only anecdotal evidence for this, and consequently, there is no way to know just how widespread this extreme form of resistance to the Russian command extends (ife.pravda.com.ua/person/2014/11/24/184538/).


            But her report deserves attention for two reasons. On the one hand, her work in identifying what happened to Russian soldiers in Ukraine has brought her into contact with large numbers of relatives of these soldiers, including many who were sent there had it not been for her efforts would not have any information about whether they died or wounded.


            And on the other, as she told her interviewer, November is an especially difficult time for commanders because one cycle of draftees is going home and another has not yet been trained sufficiently to be dispatched to combat. Because of that, some commanders have been trying to force older draftees to sign up as professionals so that they can be used in this way.


            That has already sparked resistance – see “Russian Draftees Refuse Military’s Plans to Send Them to Fight in Ukraine” (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2014/11/window-on-eurasia-russian-draftees.html) – and at least some of those who face such demands may have chosen the extreme course of injuring themselves rather than being forced to fight.


            The government-controlled media in the Russian Federation has not reported any of this resistance, something that will lead Moscow’s supporters and apologists to conclude that Vasiliyeva’s reports are necessarily untrue. But such official efforts have not prevented some information from coming out and reaching a larger audience.


            As the Russian war in Ukraine continues, that trend will only continue as will both the combat losses Vasiliyeva has pointed to before and this kind of self-inflicted wounding.  And as information about these things spread, more Russians will come to oppose the Kremlin’s war adding to the 50 percent who already do.

Window on Eurasia: Putin’s Russia is a Country Without a Present or Future, Only a Past, Shtepa Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, November 25 – The unwillingness of Russians to make a sharp break with the Soviet past and accept that Russia today is “a new independent state” and the efforts of Vladimir Putin and his regime to present Russia as a country with a single unbroken history has left Russia without a present or a future but only a past, according to Vadim Shtepa.


            Unlike in Germany in 1945 or Russia itself in 1917, the Russian regionalist argues, there is no willingness among most Russians to accept the idea that they now live in “another Russia,” one radically dissimilar from its predecessor and indeed “a new independent state” like the other former Soviet republics (spektr.delfi.lv/novosti/drugaya-rossiya.d?id=45261408).


            That helps to explain why Russia remains mired in its past and also why it has gone to war in Ukraine, but it also suggests that if Russians do not accept that they live in a truly new country and a federation „Russia may soon not exist at all, with the ‘third Rome’ repeated the fate of the ‘first,’” however eternal both Russians and Romans thought their empires to be.


            When the USSR collapsed in December 1991, „another country” appeared on teh map of the world. People in the West continued to call it „Russia” just as they had called the Soviet Union, but „it was understood there that this was already ‘another Russia’ which both in its borders and ideology was different from the USSR.”


            Inside the country, Shtepa continues, „this difference was still more obvious.” But they should have been recognized, celebrated and deepened because „this historic shift should have been no less deep than that in Germany from the Third Reich to the Federal Republic,” even if people there and elsewhere called both „Germany.”


            Unfortunately, in Russia, „this transition was carried out not as a historical and worldview revolution but as a conformist consensus. The former party leaders, having thrown off their old ideology, quickly found a place for themselves in the new state system. There was no lustration,” because Boris Yeltsin did not want to „rock the boat.”


            „As a result,” Shtepa says, „the bureaucratic nomenklatura easily preserved itself, only having to exchange the red party cards of the CPSU for the blue plastic cards of ‘United Russia.’”  But their worldview and administrative approaches did not change. And now they are ready to reclaim publicly what they never gave up in practice.


            It is surprising but also symbolic that „there were no attempts in the 1990s in ‘new Russia’ to create any fundamentally new state symbols.”  Instead, the rulers simply reached back and restored many from the imperial era, and they adopted the same approach when they came to draft the Federation Treaty in 1992, employing tsarist and Soviet methods rather than new ones.


            (This is „a sad irony of history,” Shtepa says, because only a year or so before the end of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin and his team regularly counter-posed „’sovereign Russia’” to „the Kremlin ‘center,’” something they stopped doing as of December 1991.)


            „The ‘new Russia’” of 1991 „borrowed practically all of its symbols from the pre-revolutionary empire,” and that „symbolic failure” was accompanied by another failure: „the return of endless Caucasian colonial wars” that the tsarist regime had fought and that the „new” Russia has had to fight again.


            But that „symbolic” failure was paralleled by an even greater one, Moscow’s efforts to present Russian history as a single unbroken stream with now fundamental breaks, a failure that both can be explained and reinforces „a total distrust in the present” and opposition to anything that somehow separates it from some „’glorious past.’”


            The absurdity and dangers of all this for Russia become obvious if one imagines how anyone would react if „present-day Italians suddenly began to conceive themselves as the literal descendants of the Roman Empire” or if Germans „suddenly were to recognize the fuehrer as ‘an effective manager’ despite certain excesses.”


            Post-Soviet Russia’s unwillingness and inability to escape from such historical nonsense was very much on public view at the time of the opening of the Sochi Olympics. Instead of doing what all other hosts of such competitions have done and present an image of the country now, the Russian organizers offered the image of a country including Kitezh, a nobility ball, and the construction of communism all mixed together.


              And „if one reads sites like ‘Russian Idea’ where numerous influential experts are published, one frequently has the impression that the authors are living in the 19th century. They still think in the categories of opposing other empires, cite Dostoyevsky and Danilevsky, and talk about „’the limitrophe’” in the Baltics.


            Without exception, Shtepa writes, such authors consider themselves conservatives, but the problem is this: they don’t know what to conserve because they are unwilling to make choices. And their unwillingness to do so has already cost Russia its present and may eventually cost it its future as well.


Window on Eurasia: Russian Environmentalist Continues to Fight for Ecology and Human Rights from Behind Bars

Paul Goble


            Staunton, November 25 – Yevgeny Vitishko, who is currently serving a three-year sentence in the Russian camps for exposing Moscow’s destruction of the environment around Sochi in the run-up to the Olympics, has continued his fight by releasing a new on-line book about the lives of prisoners and the fate of Russia’s much-despoiled environment.


            Vitishko’s book, entitled “Jail Soup: Sketches in the Style of Solzhenitsyn Made by an Ecologicla and Political Prisoner in Tambov Colony No. 2” (in Russian and with numerous illustrations), is available online at chaskor.ru/article/tyuremnaya_kasha_36996.


            The book demonstrates, Bellona journalist Liya Vandysheva says, that Vitishko is holding up well and that he has not ceased to be concerned about environmental issues even though he has attracted attention in recent months for speaking out on behalf of the rights of prisoners (bellona.ru/articles_ru/articles_2014/book_vitishko).


            Prior to his arrest and conviction on trumped up charges, Vitishko had been the moving spirit of the Ecological Watch on the North Caucasus and had succeeded in exposing the ways in which Moscow officials had run roughshod over even Russian environmental legislation in their pursuit of personal profit and well-being.


            He began serving his three-year sentence in February 2014 and has become a spokesman for prisoners in his and other nearby camps.  But Yevgenya Chirikova, a rights activist, has insisted that Vitishko remains focused on environmental issues, something his book provides additional confirmation of (hro.org/node/20129).


          Environmental activists around the world continue to seek his release, with petitions to the Russian government (activatica.org/blogs/view/id/317/title/sbor-podpisey-za-osvobozhdenie-jekouznika-jekologa-evgeniya-vitishko) and demonstrations in cities in Russia and other countries (ewnc.org/node/14950).


          But at the same time, the Russian authorities have continued to arrest Vitishko’s colleagues and succeeded in having one republic supreme court order the liquidation of his Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus (yuga.ru/news/351598/).


            One can only hope that Vitishko’s moving new book will simultaneously inspire his supporters to even greater activism and shame the Russian government into releasing a man whose only “crime” was to call for Russian officials to live up to the laws of their country and protect the environment for future generations.



Window on Eurasia: Russian-Ukrainian War Could Have Begun in 1991, Ikhlov Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, November 25 – The Russian-Ukrainian war now going on could have begun in 1991when the Soviet Union collapsed, and the fact that it didn’t says a great deal about the attitudes of Russian political leaders then and how much they have changed in the intervening period, according to Yevgeny Ikhlov.


            In a post on Kasparov.ru, the Moscow commentator says that when the USSR disintegrated, Russia’s “democratic movement of liberal cosmopolitans” had the upper hand over Russian “anti-communist nationalists,” which opened the way for the RSFSR and the Ukrainian SSR to “’split’ along republic borders” (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=547365D3DA9EA).


            Had the balance of forces in Russia been different, he argues, there likely would have been battled between ethnic Russian and ethnic Ukrainian groups in Crimea and the Donbas of much the same kind that took place at that time in Nagorno-Karabakh, South Osetia, Abkhazia, and Transdniestria.


            And had that been the case, “there would not have been any liberal anti-war movement in Russia because who would protest against the striving of ethnic Russians of the southeastern oblasts of the former Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to enter the Russia of Yeltsin and Gaidar?!”


            Instead, in that event, it would have been more likely that “a Ukrainian liberal anti-war movement” would have emerged, a movement like Russian ones against the war in Chechnya and with the same ideas: “stop trying to force Russians to live in the same country” because “too much blood is being spilled.”


            According to Ikhlov, “a Russian-Ukrainian war” after the end of the Soviet Union “was inevitable, either in 1991-1992 or 22-23 years later.” But had it appeared earlier, there would have emerged “a powerful liberal-nationalist pan-Russian movement” in Russia and “a pacifist-cosmopolitan movement” opposed to fighting would have emerged in Ukraine.


            And had that been the case, this “liberal-nationalist” Russian movement would have viewed with equanimity the independence of the Chechens, seeing that as a logical sorting out of the consequences of Soviet ethno-territorial arrangements that would be part of the same pattern that allowed Crimea and Novorossiya “(up to Odessa)’ to become part of Russia.


            Of course, that is not what happened, but it raises the interesting question as to why in the Russia of 1991 “the liberal cosmopolitans” dominated the “national liberals,” in contrast to what occurred in Serbia, to give just one example.  According to Ikhlov, it happened because Russians lacked “a clearly expressed national self-consciousness” and thus relied on an imperial one.


            Within that imperial self-consciousness was a liberal trend which held that “all the peoples of the former USSR” were in a similar position and that in order to avoid conflicts, “it would be simpler to break apart along existing borders.” Given that Russian liberals are “statists to the core,” he argues, they accepted this version of a Westphalian world in which the faith or in this case the ethnicity of the ruler was accepted as properly that of the people on his territory.




Window on Eurasia: Circassians, Crimean Tatars Linking Up to Oppose Moscow, Russian Commentator Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, November 25 – The Circassians and Crimean Tatars are linking up as part of a broader plan orchestrated by Turkey and the West to undermine Russian influence in the Middle East and to challenge Russian control of the North Caucasus and occupied Crimea, according to Russian commentator Vladislav Gulyevich.


            Over the two years and especially since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, Circassian and Crimean Tatar activists have been meeting in Istanbul to coordinate their activities and to lobby governments in the region for their political goals, Gulyevich says in a new article on Kavkazoved.infor (kavkazoved.info/news/2014/11/24/krymsko-tatarskie-i-velikocherkesskie-nacionalisty-hotjat-druzhit-protiv-rossii.html).


            Members of the two groups, he continues, are animated by a common opposition to Russia and a desire to find new ways to expand their influence in the wake of the occupation of Crimea in the case of the Crimean Tatars and after the Sochi Olympiad in the case of the Circassians (Cf. fondsk.ru/news/2013/06/14/cherkesskij-i-krymsko-tatarskij-voprosy-po-shodnym-geopoliticheskim-lekalam-21011.html and  fondsk.ru/news/2010/12/27/geopolitika-velikoj-cherkessii-1407.html%20-%20comments).


            Activists in the two movements are counting on support from what they say are the six to eight million Circassians and four to six million Crimean Tatars living in Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East, Gulyevich says. And they can be counted on to “intensify their anti-Russian propaganda” against not only governments there but in their homelands.


            Turkey and behind it the West more generally is interested in supporting each of these movements and in their unity as well because these backers believe that this combination of Circassian and Crimean Tatar “nationalist discourse” can “undermine the existing status quo” and promote “an anti-Russian vision of the future of the Black Sea and Caspian region.”


            The conflict in Ukraine, like the conflicts in the North Caucasus, is going to last a long time, and this project of the West is based on that assumption.  Turkey and the West hope that in the future what today appear to be only marginal movements will be the basis of transforming the geopolitics of the region.


            According to Gulyevich, Russia should expect to see “the unification of the Crimean Tatar and ‘Greater Circassian’ nationalists in the international arena,” with the two groups “coordinating their efforts, seeking to attract attention, expanding their activities in the information sphere, and reinforcing one another with their ‘national-liberation’ theses.”


            These two “projects,” although they are typically viewed as completely separate, in fact represent complementary actions on Russia’s flanks in the Black Sea and Caspian region. Both are intended “not only to deprive Russia of a way out to the Caucasus section of the Black Sea littoral but to undermine the stability of the southern borders of the European part of Russia and weaken its position” there.


            Gulyevich’s language is both hyperbolic and infected by the conspiratorial visions which inform so much of current Russian commentary, but he is correct that the Circassians and the Crimean Tatars are finding common ground and that that mutual discovery is helping them to expand their reach and influence particularly in Turkey and the Middle East.


            Their combined effort and Moscow’s attempts to disrupt it thus deserve the closest scrutiny and monitoring because as Gulyevich says what appears to be something relatively marginal now may become vastly important in the not too distant future.






Monday, November 24, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Failures of Russian Law Enforcement Leading More Russians to Want to Carry Guns

Paul Goble


            Staunton, November 24 – Russians increasingly want to have the right to carry guns for the same reason many people in the United States say they do – their conviction that police are not willing or able to defend them and their belief that they must therefore be in a position to defend themselves.


            And it is that sense about the nature of Russian officialdom rather than the calls of some for the right to bear arms that should disturb those who care about the future of the country and lead them demand that the government live by and enforce laws, according to Yaroslav Belousov, a political scientist who was arrested in the Bolotnoye affair.


            In an article on the APN.ru portal today, Belousov says that the decision of the Russian government to allow citizens to have weapons for self-defense was largely a cosmetic one. It did not represent “a full-scale legalization of the right to bear arms,” but it has as similar decisions in other countries sparked a debate about that (apn.ru/publications/article32701.htm).


            People in the United States and other Western countries are familiar with the debate between those who see the right to bear arms as a fundamental right and those who argue that there should be severe limitations on the ability of citizens to have weapons that they might use in unfortunate ways.


            Russia has more police per capita than any other country, 634 for every 100,000 residents. But in the view of Russian citizens, this force is something they view with suspicion, particularly as far as its commitment to enforcing laws and protecting the citizens from those who violate them.


            Ever more Russians, Belousov suggests, “are beginning to see in the state structures not guarantors of sovereignty” and the protection of their rights and freedoms but instead “competitors of the criminal groups who play by rules dictated by the shadow milieu” in which both operate.


            That is an extremely “unwelcome” and even dangerous development, one that is reflected in the growing conviction among Russians that they need guns to defend themselves: “If the police cannot defend me,” such people argue, “then I must do it myself.”


            Given all the conflicts which divide Russian society, ethnic, class, and so on, and the fact that these have “only temporarily been eclipsed by foreign policy issues,” the danger is that some who get weapons for personal protection will use them for other purposes in the names of defending their rights.


            Thus, allowing the citizenry to own guns could open a Pandora’s box of problems, Belousov suggests, and he argues that Russians must come to see that “the root of the problem is in the backwardness of state structures,” their extraordinary centralization, and their inability to protect citizens and their rights.


            “Our citizens are losing hope that their desires in the near term will be realized in the near term.” As a result, more and more of them are trying to find a quick fix, including demanding “the legalization of all civil weaponry.”  The only way to prevent a disaster, Belousov suggests, is for the opposition to press for better law enforcement.


            Otherwise, it is entirely likely that at least some Russians will take the law in their own hands, with all the unpredictability and tragedies that will entail.

Window on Eurasia: Western Sanctions Hurt Russia But Saved Putin, Kashin Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, November 24 – No one can deny that Western sanctions and the declining price of oil have had a negative impact on Russia, but few recognize the other side of the coin: Western sanctions saved Vladimir Putin by allowing him the opportunity to shift blame for what has gone wrong in Russia away from himself onto the West.


            Both many in Moscow and in the West, Vasily Kashin, a Moscow analyst says, assume that Putin and his regime have no choice but to find a compromise with the West in order to end sanctions, but in fact, sanctions are working to Putin’s benefit and no compromise is likely anytime soon (vedomosti.ru/opinion/news/36360161/kak-zapad-spas-putina?full#cut).


            In “Vedomosti” today, the Moscow analyst points out that in 2013, “without any sanctions and a cold war with the West, Russia had entered a period of economic stagnation,” largely as a result of “internal problems” including structural ones that had been building “for decades.” Indeed, it appeared that Russia was heading toward a recession.


            Russia’s domestic problems at that time were compounded by the economic situation in Europe, Russia’s most important trading partner. Economies in the euro zone were also heading toward recession and that in turn meant that they would be purchasing less gas from the Russian Federation.


            Seen from this perspective, Kashin says, it is obvious that “the current economic war with the countries of the West only deepened the Russian crisis but did not give birth to it.” He argues that in fact, sanctions rank only third or fourth as a cause compared to domestic structural problems and the collapse of oil prices.


            Thus, “the economic significance [of sanctions] was secondary, but their political impact has been enormous.”


            Had there not been a Ukrainian crisis, Russia would have had to deal with all these economic problems in any event, and the Kremlin could not be certain that the demonstrations which had swept the country in 2011 would not reemerge with new force to challenge its control of the country.


            But by responding in a military way to Western support of the change in government in Ukraine, the analyst argues, Russia has been able “to solve an enormous number of problems” that it otherwise had no good answer for.


            As a result of its actions, the Russian government now “has unlimited political capital which will allow it if needed to take radical and unpopular measures in the face of the crisis. Any economic difficulties,” he says, can be blamed on the West and the idea that the West is responsible will be widely accepted.


            “The successful reunification of territory and military support for compatriots abroad has great significant for the establishment of contemporary [Russian] statehood,” Kashin says. “The extremely weak post-Soviet Russian identity was strengthened, extremely dangerous ethnic nationalism was discredited, and state nationalism has been developed.”


            These things alone won’t be enough in the long term. Other, harder changes will be required. But in the short and medium term, what Putin has done in Ukraine and how the West has responded is building a nation much in the same way that Prussia’s attack on Denmark in 1864 did for Germans.


            The Ukrainian crisis “was a gift for the Kremlin. If President Obama instead of introducing sanctions, putting tanks in the Baltic countries, and comparing Russia with the Ebola epidemic had limited himself to a display of the Ukrainian flag at the White House and the holding of an exhibit of Putin caricatures in Washington, he would have harmed the Russian leader much more than he has.”


            And consequently, “the declarations of the US and the EU about their readiness to lift sanctions in response to the good behavior of Moscow in Ukraine and their proposals to discuss conditions for this look laughable and demonstrate a lack of understanding of the situation,” Kashin suggests.


             Moscow isn’t interested either in such talks or in exacerbating the Ukrainian crisis. “It has already fulfilled its useful role.” Consequently, from the Kremlin’s perspective, “a new outbreak of military actions in the east of Ukraine and a new wave of sanctions for Russia are not dangerous but not desirable either.”


            At the same time, Moscow is interested in “freezing the conflict” and thus won’t make any “serious concessions” about the status of the breakaway republics because that would be a display of weakness and would “deprive Russian leaders of the political capital that they have won” in recent months.


            With time, the Moscow analyst suggests, the significant of Ukraine for Russia will decline. What Moscow will be concerned about is executing its turn to Asia without turning itself into an overly dependent supplier of raw materials to Beijing. For the Kremlin, that is much more important than “influence in Ukraine and the military-political situation in Eastern Europe.”