Below are a few news items from the last week about developments in the post-Soviet space that have been overshadowed by the Georgian events but that merit attention.
ECONOMIC CRISIS SPREADS ACROSS RUSSIA … Although the Russian government has done what it could to deny or at least hide the impact of the global economic crisis on Russia, many Russians, especially those living in regions far from Moscow, are suffering and telling pollsters that they are convinced the Moscow elite is using the crisis to evade responsibility for its actions in other sectors (forum.msk.ru/material/region/542935.html#). Some regions are suffering far more than others, and a Moscow institute has now published a map of the competitiveness of regions which shows just how varied they currently are, with energy exporters in real trouble and those involved in other kinds of economic activity less so at least for the moment (www.irpex.ru/fl/).
… AS PRIESTS TELL PARISHIONERS TO IGNORE MOSCOW’S UPBEAT COVERAGE
One measure of just how serious things have become is that a number of Russian Orthodox priests, who traditionally defer to the government especially during times of crisis, are now telling their congregations to ignore the upbeat coverage offered by Moscow’s electronic media and “prepare for worse to come” (www.nr2.ru/moskow/202648.html).
ICELAND TURNS TO IMF, NOT RUSSIA, FOR AID. Reykjavik will receive six billion U.S. dollars in assistance from the International Monetary Fund for its troubled economy and not massive aid from Moscow as both Russian and western media reported last week. As a result, there is no chance that the economic crisis will push Iceland to shift sides in the geopolitical competition between the West and Russia (korrespondent.net/business/economics/621723). Russian government officials, including deputy finance minister Dmitry Pankin, denied that Russia ever discussed aid with Reykjavik, but some observers say that Russian oligarchs were quite involved, an indication of the increasing disorder at the top of the Russian economic-political heap (www.anticompromat.ru/putin/island_nt1.html).
RUSSIA’S REAL DEFENSE SPENDING NOT RISING AS FAST AS SUGGESTED. Many in Russia and the West were struck by the Russian government’s announcement that it would spend 100 billion rubles (four billion U.S. dollars) more on defense next year than on this, but a Russian analysis suggests that this increase is less than meets the eye. Much of the increase reflects inflation and the costs of building new bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia rather than on any new strategic programs (www.sobkorr.ru/news/48FC41358511F.html).
RUSSIAN CORRUPTION UP, PRESS FREEDOM DOWN. Transparency International says that corruption in Russia is higher now than at any time since Vladimir Putin became president (newsland.ru/News/Detail/id/310345/cat/44/). And Reporters sans Frontiers says that Russia now ranks 141st among the countries of the world in terms of media freedom, significantly down from the early years of this decade and just ahead of the state of media freedom in Ethiopia (babr.ru/?pt=news&event=v1&IDE=48232).
VOLGA RIVER IS DYING, EXPERTS SAY. The Volga River, which provides drinking water for four out of every ten Russians and symbolizes the country for many, is dying, experts say, the result of too many dams (eight), uncontrolled dumping of industrial wastes into its ever slower flow, and inadequate efforts at water purification. As a result, the river is not longer a real river; it is “a mutant,” with all the terrible consequences that entails for the Russian people as a whole (www.runewsweek.ru/country/25533/).
MEDVEDEV PUTS NEW MAN IN CHARGE OF NEW BODY FOR RELATIONS WITH CIS, COMPATRIOTS. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has named Farit Mukhametshin, a 61-year-old Tatar who currently serves as Moscow’s ambassador to Uzbekistan to organize and then head the new Federal Agency for the Affairs of the CIS, Compatriots and International Humanitarian Assistance that will bring together a wide variety of government programs. His selection was surprising as many people, including Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, reportedly wanted the position (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1044453&NodesID=5).
MOSCOW PLANS RUSSIAN INSTITUTES IN ISRAEL, ITALY, TURKEY, GREECE. The Academy of Sciences, Moscow State University, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society have created a new Russian Historical Institute to coordinate research abroad on Russian topics and announced plans to open branches in Jerusalem, Venice, Istanbul, and Athens. The organizers said that their model was the Russian Archeological Institute in Constantinople which functioned from 1894 to 1914 and the Imperial Orthodox Palestinian Society which has operated for more than a century (www.patriarchia.ru/db/text/477631.html).
RUSSIAN DISTRICT COURT AGAIN REFUSES TO REHABILITATE KATYN VICTIMS. The same district court that earlier refused to consider whether the Polish officers executed by Stalin and then was ordered by an appellate court to do just that has now held a hearing and again rejected the relief those who brought the case sought. The court did not give its reasons, but it did note that prosecutors had assembled more than 183 volumes of testimony, of which 116 contain “secret” materials about the case (www.gzt.ru/politics/2008/10/24/170041.html).
STALIN NOW ON ICONS, KOLCHAK SOON TO BE ON MOSCOW MAPS? Some Russian Orthodox icon painters are now putting the image of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin on their products (www.rusk.ru/newsdata.php?idar=179276). And at the same time, some groups are seeking to have a Moscow street named for White Russian leaders Admiral Kolchak and General Kappel (www.rusk.ru/newsdata.php?idar=179267).
PUTIN’S ‘NEOCONS’ PUSH ‘SOCIAL CONSERVATIVISM.’ An article in Italy’s “Panorama” magazine identifies Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov, Eurasianist Aleksandr Dugin, and commentator Vitaly Tretyakov as Vladimir Putin’s “neocons,” advisors who it says – and some Russian writers agree – seek to impose a new “social conservatism” on the next generation (evrazia.info/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=4116&PHPSESSID=33215ef9a06d191fe3aabffba846128a and www.nr2.ru/policy/202302.html).
MOSCOW’S REP IN PARIS INSISTS SHE WAS ‘NEVER A STALINIST.’ Historian Natalya Narochnitskaya, who heads the Russian institute in Paris intended to challenge Europeans on human rights questions and is the author of “What Remains from Our Victory?” about World War II, says that she was “never a Stalinist” but sees the Soviet leader as having played an important role in defeating Hitler and thus worthy of continued admiration whatever else he did (www.rusk.ru/newsdata.php?idar=179059). Meanwhile, a Muslim woman has responded to Narochnitskaya’s earlier essay, “A Letter to Muslim Friend,” by pointing out how many historical mistakes the Russian historian and activist has made there and elsewhere (www.islamcom.ru/material.php?id=687 and www.pravoslavie.ru/jurnal/051220214749.htm).
PUTIN’S VISIT TO GROZNY MOSQUE UPSETS SOME CHECHENS. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s visit to the new mosque in Grozny has infuriated some Chechens who remember what he said about and did to Chechens in 1999 and thereafter (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1231561.html). But Chechens who feel that way did get one form of revenge: Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov has decided to name a street in his capital after Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov, one of the most anti-Soviet and anti-Russian writers about the nationality question in the North Caucasus (www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=17368 and chechenasso.ru/index.html?&show_news=633).
JAMAAT SHARIAT SITE IN DAGHESTAN GETTING MORE VISITS THAN REPUBLIC GOVERNMENT ONES. The Jamaat Shariat website in Daghestan marked its 18th month of activity by pointing out that it has had 1.5 million visits over that period, far more than the official sites of the Daghestani government (www.jamaatshariat.com/content/view/889/34/). That report helps explain why the Russian military has set up an internet intelligence section (www.interfax.ru/news.asp?id=41336).
RUSSIANS UNCOMFORTABLE AT HUNGARIAN RECEPTION IN MEMORY OF 1956 EVENTS. Russian officials who attended a reception at the Hungarian consulate general in St. Petersburg on the 52nd anniversary of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 appeared uncomfortable, Ingria.info reported, while those Russians who had served time in the GULAG for opposing that Moscow action and others were entirely comfortable, the site said (www.ingria.info/?lenta&news_action=show_news&news_id=4192).
MOSCOW’S SOLUTION TO FALL TIME CHANGE: SLOW TRAINS SO THEY ARRIVE ‘ON TIME.’ The Russian government has come up with a novel solution to the scheduling problems that seasonal time changes invariably involve: It has ordered long distance trains to slow down so that they will arrive in Moscow at the precise time they are scheduled, even though that is in fact one hour later than they should have entered the stations of the Russian capital (www.annews.ru/news/detail.php?ID=170583).