Note: I want to thank all those of you who sent me notes about my health. I am gradually recovering and hope to resume my normal reporting cycle soon. Below are some “fortochki” for this week that I hope will be useful. Paul Goble
BACK TO THE USSR? Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s assumption of the position of premier of the union state of Russia and Belarus this week struck many Russians and some in the West as an indication that he is positioning himself to head a partially revived Soviet empire (babr.ru/?pt=news&event=v1&IDE=45878). Speculation about such a trend, welcome in some quarters and disturbing in others, has been fueled by statements at United Russia’s conference this week suggesting that at least some members of that group see themselves as the successor to the CPSU (forum.msk.ru/material/news/483750.html). But two other statements this past week suggest that any move back to the empire won’t succeed. On the one hand, Yuliya Latynina pointed out that Moscow is increasingly behaving like the Mongolians rather than the British at the end of empire, behaving in ways that will continue to drive people away rather than attract them (www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2008/37/01.html). And on the other hand, even the supposedly compliant Belarusian elite may not be all that ready to go along: Minsk’s ambassador in Baku, for one, pointed out that Moscow bears responsibility for keeping the Karabakh dispute from being resolved, a position far from the party line (http://www.day.az/news/politics/119247.html).
‘PUTIN’ THROWN ON THE SCRAPHEAP OF HISTORY IN THE URALS. A person or persons unknown at Urals State University has thrown into the trash the official and formerly required pictures of former Russian president and current prime minister Vladimir Putin, but because there are no cameras monitoring the hallways there, officials expressed only slight hope that they would be able to bring the guilty to justice (www.nr2.ru/ekb/hearings/179684.html).
NORTH CAUCASUS LIKELY A PERMANENT PROBLEM, GENERAL SAYS. In an indication that President Dmitry Medvedev may be willing to tolerate a somewhat more honest assessment of just how explosive the situation in the North Caucasus remains that his predecessor Vladimir Putin ever was, a senior general suggested in the military newspaper, “Krasnaya zvezda” that instability there beyond any doubt will continue well into the future (www.redstar.ru/2008/05/20_05/2_01.html and grani.ru/Politics/Russia/m.137026.html). At the same time, Moscow human rights leaders pointed out that the situation there remains extraordinarily dangerous for journalists, something the Russian authorities have done little to correct and one that allows Moscow considerable control over just how much information outsiders have about what is going on (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1218197.html). Additional details about where the state of media freedom in Russia’s regions can be found at news.sarbc.ru/main/2008/05/27/80154.html.
MOSCOW, INGUSHETIA COURTS TRY NEW TACT TO CLOSE INGUSHETIYA.RU. Courts in the Russian capital and in Ingushetia itself have ordered providers not to carry Ingushetiya.ru, an independent news portal that has long been threat to Moscow’s man on the scene, Ingushetiya President Murat Zyazikov (www.ingushetiya.ru/news/14320.html and www.ingushetiya.ru/news/14375.html). While the site’s owner plans to ignore the decision while appealing it, this effort to go after providers through the courts to close down opposition websites is both unprecedented and, especially in isolated areas like the North Caucasus or Central Asia, a matter of great concern (www.lenta.ru/news/2008/05/27/ingushetiya/).
MOSCOW CUTS HARDSHIP PAY TO ITS SOLDIERS IN TAJIKISTAN. At a time when Tajikistan faces famine and when its government is attempting to take control of part of neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Moscow has slashed the hardship pay supplement it had been giving to its military contingent there, a step that has sparked anger among the troops and may reduce their reliability should they be needed to maintain order (www.ferghana.ru/article.php?id=5723). That is all the more likely, officials told Ferghana.ru, because the Russian soldiers now compare themselves with the well-compensated French units nearby.
LUBYANKA RESTAURANT SERVES MORE THAN JUST FOOD. A restaurant in the headquarters of the FSB not only is closely linked to Vladimir Putin, Nikolai Patrushev and their relatives, possibly serving as a source of corrupt funding for all of them, but it has used as a channel for the covert distribution of funds to loyal religious leaders like Patriarch Aleksii II and Supreme Mufti Talgat Tajuddin and probably others as well, according to a new study of corruption in Russia’s security agencies (www.flb.ru/info/43793.html).
FOR SAMARA SECURITY ORGANS, IT’S BEEN GROUNDHOG DAY FOR 130 YEARS. A new book intended to boost the reputation of Russian security officials in Samara may have just the opposite effect: It shows that for the last 130 years, Russian Imperial, then Soviet and now Russian security agencies there have identified the same enemies – pan-Islamists and Turkic nationalists – but always found that those behind real crimes in that region have no connection with either (www.islam.ru/rus/2008-05-23/#21381).
RUSSIANS NOW PAY MORE BRIBES TO DOCTORS AND TEACHERS THAN TO TRAFFIC POLICE. According to a new study, Russians pay more bribes to doctors in order to get good treatment and to teachers in order to get into educational establishments or obtain good grades or even degrees than they do to the traffic police (www.kp.ru/daily/24102/329088/print/). Neither medical nor professional workers are unique, of course. Another investigation found that just as throughout Russian history, officials in many ministries and regions couldn’t and don’t live on their salaries alone (www.sobkorr.ru/news/483D09E815AF1.html). But bribes to educators are different than bribes to others: they often mean that young people acquire credentials without gaining knowledge and skills, a pattern that can be fatal for societies where it is widespread. Unfortunately, for many in the rising generation of the Russian Federation – a group some call “Generation Pu” – paying bribes is not a moral issue: it is just a way in which those who know what they want can get it (www.runewsweek.ru/theme/?tid=166).
FORMER MVD CHIEF SAYS MIGRANTS COST RUSSIA 8 BILLION US EVERY YEAR. Former interior minister Anatoly Kulikov said this week that migrants cost Russia upwards of eight billion U.S. dollars every year, adding more fuel to the flames of migrantophobia in that country (www.rian.ru/society/20080529/108780224.html). Providing documentation about just one aspect of this unfortunate set of Russian public attitudes is an extensive study of Russian responses to Chinese immigration reported in the current demographic publication of the Academy of Sciences, “Demoscope Weekly” (demoscope.ru/weekly/2008/0333/tema01.php).
GERMAN FILM ON SOVIET ADVANCE IN EAST PRUSSIA ANGERS KALINIGRADERS. A new film about the relentless advance of the Red Army through what is now Russia’s non-contiguous Kaliningrad oblast has outraged Russian viewers there because it portrays Soviet soldiers as vicious “Mongoloid” barbarians who raped and killed their way west in 1944-45 (www.ng.ru/regions/2008-05-27/1_kenigsberg.html?mthree=4).
RUSSIA PREPARES TO EXPAND INTO THE ARCTIC. Even as Russian representatives pledged in Greenland this week to cooperate with other powers in the development of the Arctic, Moscow stepped up its efforts to launch a fleet of underwater vessels to allow Russian firms to drill for oil and gas far from that country’s shores in areas other countries have staked out as theirs (www.barentsobserver.com/gazprom-to-build-underwater-drilling-vessels.4486692-16149.html). That follows an agreement by the two Russian majors, Gazprom and Rossneft to divide up the Russian Arctic rather than compete over it (www.izvestia.ru/news/news175727), But these developments, together with Moscow’s much-delayed effort to build a floating nuclear power station for the North and its failure to meet nuclear cleanup deadlines in the Barents Sea, are generating new environmental concerns in Russia, Scandinavia, and Europe. (See, in particular, the reports at www.rian.ru/economy/20080527/108535543.html and www.bellona.org/articles/articles_2008/masterplan_meeting.)
INTERFAX TREATS ISLAM, RUSSIAN ORTHODOXY VERY DIFFERENTLY. More than four out of five of stories that Interfax carries about Islam are negative, according to a new study, while almost all those the Russian news agency carries about the Russian Orthodox Church are positive (www.islam.ru/rus/2008-05-27/), a pattern that has long infuriated many Muslims and contributed to more positive coverage of Orthodoxy by other outlets than might otherwise be the case. An example of the latter is the way in which the news outlet boosted a somewhat problematic report suggesting that Russians are in fact far more Orthodox in practice than any other study has found (www.interfax-religion.ru/?act=news&div=24643).
NO PAPER AIRPLANES THIS MATTHIAS RUST ANNIVERSARY. On the 21st anniversary of Matthias Rust’s daring flight into the Soviet Union and landing on Red Square – an event that both allowed Mikhail Gorbachev to move against the Soviet security agencies and revealed fatal flaws in that system – those commemorating the event promised not to fly paper airplanes lest such an action offend today’s Russian security agencies (www.anticompromat.ru/, May 28). Both the 1987 event and the 2008 demonstration, of course, took place on Border Guards Day, and this year, officials announced that there will soon be no draftees in the border guards, that the professionals will have to know at least one foreign language, and that Moscow plans to upgrade its borders with Kazakhstan, Ukraine and the Baltic states by 2011.