This site is our response to everyone who has ever asked us what Russia is like, and for anyone who might have never wondered, but should have. It’s an attempt to put into words Russia as we see it; our go at explaining that big old riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, that in fact, never went away. It’s about understanding the views, opinions and psyche of a nation that hits our headlines daily, without many of us ever really knowing why. And ultimately, it’s about providing a picture of Russia, as seen first-hand by two people, who think that although the journey they’re on to try and understand this country might never end, the process itself is worth sharing.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Sparkling Socialism

Ickily sweet, bubbly and dirt cheap, no Russian celebration would be complete without the obligatory bottle (or two) of Shampanskoe, Russia’s answer to the rather more famous and – dare I say it, more palatable – French Champagne. There are many, many different varieties available in Russia today, but, beyond a shadow of a doubt the most popular is Sovetskoe Shampanskoe, available in various degrees of cloying sweetness – Brut, Semi-Dry, Semi-Sweet and Sweet – all at less than three pounds a pop. The product’s black and gold label is so ubiquitous that I assumed it had been around for years, however it was actually only in 2004 that it became a registered trademark. Nevertheless, the story of its creation is a good one, reaching back to beyond the 1917 revolution and stretching on right up to today.

Champagne (which, due to EU licensing laws that restrict the application of this title to products made in France’s Champagne region, we should technically call 'sparkling wine') first appeared in Russia during the eighteenth century. It wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century, however, that production really took off. Prince Galitsyn, a Belarusian aristocrat, garnered international acclaim when his version of the fizzy drink, produced on the shores of the Black Sea in Abrau-Dyurso, won the Grand Prix de Champagne at the Paris World Fair in 1900, beating off stiff competition from the French Champagne region itself. Russian-produced Champagne, Russkoe Shampanskoe, quickly became a symbol of prestige and the high life – an example of how Russia could produce luxury products on a par with France, whose culture and way of life were so esteemed by the Tsarist court.

Then the Russian Revolution arrived, aiming to sweep away the injustices and excesses of Tsarist luxury and, along with it, champagne, which was clearly somewhat lacking in proletarian credentials. For the first ten years or so of the Soviet period, a puritanical aesthetic reigned as party loyalists attempted to purge the country of Tsarist era inequality. At a time when Communist Party officials dressed in grey overalls and stark leather coats and simply wearing a snazzy jacket was enough to incur the title ‘bourgeois’, which would likely lead to swift deportation or worse, it looked like this could be the end for Russkoe Shampanskoe.

But then something remarkable happened during the 1930s. In 1934, just one year after the Ukrainian famine during which approximately five million people starved to death, Stalin announced that the time had come to bring cultural and material prosperity to USSR. In an infamous speech, in which he claimed, ‘life has become more jolly!’, Stalin spelt out the new guidelines for Russian socialist society. No longer would people live by the principles of self-sacrifice and abstinence; the time had come to celebrate the gains of socialism. If capitalist societies could provide for their citizens, then surely the Soviet Union, with its vastly superior system of production and distribution, could too. Moreover, in contrast to their capitalist counterparts, luxury goods would be available to all citizens, not just a privileged few. And what better way to toast this new life style than with a glass of Soviet-produced Champagne, the ultimate symbol of the high life?

And so the party apparatchiks turned their attentions to the mass production of Sovetskoe Champanskoe. Under the watchful eye of the Minister of Trade, Anastas Mikoyan, Prince Galitsyn’s former employees were put to task creating a widely available Soviet variation of champagne, which they achieved by altering the fermentation technique so that champagne was made in small reservoirs rather than bottles. In 1937 the first bottle of mass-produced champagne popped off the conveyor belt – now everyone could enjoy the (achingly) sweet taste of champagne.

Of course, whilst in theory champagne was now available to everyone, things in the Soviet Union rarely occurred as they were officially described. Throughout the Soviet period a two-tier system existed, whereby those with connections could enjoy access to goods, whilst the majority went without. Certainly, champagne did not immediately appear on your average Russian’s table. Nevertheless, the widespread availability of champagne had a certain propagandistic appeal – Look! We give our citizens the best of everything – meaning that the authorities did their best to make sure everyone could experience it. Indeed, following victory in WWII, Stalin decreed that the people of Russia should celebrate with a glass of Sovetskoe, and by-and-large, they did. And so from herein, from 1937 right up to collapse in the 1991, champanskoe remained predominately available. Bizarrely, as queues built up for arguably more essential items (bread, potatoes, milk), champagne continued to be produced.

When the Soviet Union fell, Sovetskoe Champanskoe remained the generic label for any sparkling wine produced in Russia and a prerequisite for any wedding. In 2004 the name was bought by a state owned company and to this day if you ask for a glass of Shampanskoe, any barman will know exactly what it is you have in mind.

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The Year of the Bear?

Photo: Sergei Maximishin
As he stepped into office exactly one year ago, few could have guessed the events that were in store with Dmitri Medvedev at the helm of Russia’s leadership. Many speculated about the possible changes within Russia and in her relations with others under a new, possibly liberal leader. Attentions were soon directed to the practicalities of the Putin-Medvedev tandem; who would take the leading role and was political conflict or instability in store? One year on and a question mark still hangs over many important questions. This week Russian Newsweek evaluated the power dynamic that has defined Medvedev’s first year in office.

Political commentators had a field day with Medvedev’s various antics a few weeks ago; first he was pardoning political prisoners, next he was giving an interview to the oppositionist “Novaia Gazeta”, then meeting with human rights defenders or liberal economic research centres. Overall it was certain comments made to Novaia Gazeta that got some fired up the most [read extracts from the interview on this blog here], with Medvedev declaring “I made this decision – and everyone else has to carry it out.” Did this mean that the young President had stepped out from under Putin’s shadow, defying his former master and the man he owes much of his career to, in order to take firm control of the country?

According to Russian Newsweek, things are not quite so clear cut. The above comments are indeed representative of Medvedev’s attitude towards state employees in general; they should simply come to work and do the tasks that are assigned to them, a far cry from the personal relationships favoured by Putin during his time as President. However, as a consequence many point out that Medvedev has failed thus far to surround himself with a close personal team such as that which Putin successfully created for himself whilst in power and retains to this day.

And these are just some of the reasons that Newsweek sees as indicating that Putin is making a comeback. As he was sworn into office, Medvedev started off promisingly, redoubling efforts to combat corruption and reform the judicial system. Yet any illusion of this “soft style” of rule being around to stay quickly faded with the August war in Georgia and the Ukrainian gas crisis. It was at this point that Medvedev slowly started to fade into the background and, as Newsweek points out, as the amendment to the constitution extending the presidential term was pushed through parliament it all became increasingly clear – Putin was back pulling the strings, and he was around to stay.

A quick look at the areas of competency of Prime Minister Putin; the country’s financial resources and key foreign policy decisions in Putin’s hands as well as control over aid to Russia’s regions and industry and the power to push forward initiatives such as that to amend the constitution, all begs us to ask the question: what is it that the President does? According to Newsweek’s enquiries, the truth of the matter all lies in initiatives.

Indeed much of the political manoeuvring in Russia of late has been on Medvedev’s initiative. Whether such initiatives have lived long enough to bear fruit however, is another matter. It was Medvedev who prompted the initiative of replacing numerous regional governors and mayors who have been rusting in their official positions for a good part of the past 20 years, yet only one of those on the list of those up for the chop was finally let go. Similarly, the anti-corruption package of measures proposed by the President was not passed through parliament until it had been severely modified. Medvedev’s power is thus limited to proposing reforms; with many of those executing his decisions reporting directly to the Prime Minister, the scope for the President’s orders to be carried out as he intends is restricted.

Moreover, in foreign policy Medvedev has his hands tied, Dmitri Trenin from the Russian Carnegie Centre told Newsweek. In order for him to make a decision, he has to go over the head of the Prime Minister, something that he is loathe to do given the potential conflicts, not to say embarrassments that could arise from such uncoordinated political assertiveness.

It seems therefore, that whilst Medvedev wants to assert himself, he wants to refrain from placing himself in direct opposition to Putin. As Newsweek reported last summer, in order to do so, Medvedev has been concentrating on areas that are further removed from Putin’s general domain, such as the judicial system. Accordingly, Medvedev’s reforms of the judiciary are part of his attempts to tease the courts out from under the influence of the siloviki [note: Russian politicians still in power often with a security services background] and in particular, the siloviki surrounding Putin. Moreover, sources close to Newsweek indicate that in creating an ever-increasing amount of Presidential Councils on various matters, Medvedev is conveniently avoiding the issue of having to pass his decisions past Putin. The Foreign Office, which, as do these Councils, reports directly to the President is similarly out of the Prime Minister’s reach.

Thus to some extent Medvedev’s attempts at scratching back some influence are beginning to pay off, albeit with some areas of confusion; the old rules are still in place whilst new ones are already in full swing which had lead to a degree of unpredictability in the system as a whole. Whilst the Putin and Medvedev tandem was previously careful to avoid any signs of contradiction between the two camps, having let their guard down conflicts are becoming increasingly apparent.

Yet Newsweek points out that despite the contradictions and difficulties, the Putin-Medevedev duumvirate seems to be in no danger of collapse. In fact, the situation seems to suit everyone. Putin is happy as he holds the reigns. Medvedev is happy as he gets some respite from the responsibilities of being President whilst still retaining all the privileges that come with such a post. If the situation does not change significantly, then despite Medvedev’s increasing confidence, he will still be prepared to step aside to allow Putin to become President again in 2012.

You can read the original article upon which this is based here.

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Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Not So Happy Birthday, Comrade Lenin

Bringing you grave news from the Eastern Blog. On this notable day, the birthday of the late-lamented Vladimir Il’yich Lenin, the Russian blogosphere has been alight with rumours that this year, the Communist leader, safely tucked up in the Mausoleum as he is, will not enjoy a change of clothes, due to the economic crisis.

Under usual circumstances, Lenin’s clothes are changed every 3 – 4 years, to keep the old boy fresh. However, one report sensationally revealed that the last time Lenin’s clothes were changed was in 2003. High time for some new ones then, but alas the funds just won’t stretch to it. Another paper reported that, Yuri Denisov-Nikol’skii, vice director of the scientific-institute of medicine and plants, the organisation that maintains the mausoleum, had said:

'the government has not given a single kopeck to the organisation since 1992. Since then, [upkeep of Lenin’s body] has been funded by the fund of the Mausoleum… under such financial conditions, what kind of change of clothes can we expect?’

And yet, when questioned on the matter, Denisov-Nikol’skii had no memory whatsoever of making such a comment. Then, when, the sleuths at Sun-style tabloid, ‘Komsomolskaya Pravda’ investigated further, they were informed that Lenin’s clothes were changed approximately every ten years, when the embalming oils had to be reapplied. Lenin’s niece was not impressed by the furore:

‘Lenin’s clothes not to be changed because of the crisis? My goodness, what utter nonsense! I have visited his body several times and everything is in order… why is everyone always having a go at Vladimir Il’yich?’

Why all the fuss then? Is this a conspiracy on the part of disgruntled communists to disgrace the government? Another Lenin-based prank, a la blowing up his statue in St Petersburg? Or simply a way to grab some attention on Lenin’s birthday? We wouldn’t want to forget him now.

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Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Stalinists vs. the Truth

Photo: Danil Golovin
Last week an article by Igor Chubais, academic and estranged brother of Anatolii Chubais, (prominent businessman and politician known for being the chief orchestrator of the economic “shock therapy” privatisation of the 1990s), was published in Nezavisimaia Gazeta, in which he expressed his opinion on the recent controversy surrounding proposals made by government minister Sergei Shoigu to bring in a law that, much like laws banning holocaust denial, would make denying the victory of the Soviet Union in the Second World War a punishable offence.

Shoigu’s suggestions created quite a controversy in the Russian press, with many observers seeing an attempt to eternalise the “victories” of Stalin, who is highly credited for leading the Soviet Union to victory in the Second World War. Chubais, among others, sees something more than this however. In his opinion, the law in question is not, as it may seem at first, a means of glorifying Stalin, but rather a way of preventing the revelation of the “truth”. This truth can be found in the recently published memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev, which disclose that amongst the Soviet political elite it was a well-discussed fact that had the USA not joined the war effort when they did, the Soviet Union would never have stood up to the German onslaught and would most certainly have lost the war.

The Soviet Union, despite its massive army, was pitifully prepared and led, consequently losing almost 27 million citizens (nearly 14% of the population) during the course of the war (compare this with approximately one million lost by the UK and France combined), most of which need never have perished. In considering the needless losses on the Russian side it suddenly becomes much more difficult to speak of victory and makes the war look significantly more like a national disaster.

This, according to Chubais, also makes Stalin one very ineffective leader. And ineffective leaders in Russia still abound to this day. The law banning denial of the national victory therefore has a much more contemporary significance. At the same time as Russia is witnessing the rebirth of the cult of Stalin due to media manipulation and new school textbooks presenting Stalin in a more positive light, the country is also witnessing the rebirth and re-emergence of an ineffective neo-Stalinist leadership. The law is therefore not just about glorifying Stalin, but about legitimising Russia’s ruling elite of today.

As a direct result of today’s ineffective leadership, Chubais notes that Russia’s main problems are now:
  • Not low birth-rate (it is in fact higher than in the West), but rather an
    excessively high death-rate and the gradual extinction of the Russian nation
    (and that’s without even mentioning the 4 500 000 homeless);
  • Not a global economic crisis, but rather an economy that is incapable of
    developing as it is suffocated by bureaucracy and corruption;
  • Censorship, insufficient research in social sciences and decomposition of
    the education system;
  • An unbelievably low quality of life in the richest country in the
  • An oppressive atmosphere of apathy and amorality sown by television;
  • A counterproductive foreign policy that has left the country with neither
    friends nor allies.

And here Chubais again quotes Khrushchev in his memoirs; “Stalinists are today painting Stalin as a genius and a great leader, and this is most dangerous. They are, intentionally or unintentionally, not only covering up the crimes which have been committed, but also opening up the future to the use of the very same methods used by Stalin himself.” Put in today’s context, the only way to break out of this vicious cycle of ineffective leadership and to put Russia on the right track for the future is for the Russian ruling elite to publicly condemn Stalin and thereby enable a distancing of the methods of leadership that are continuing to create needless losses in Russia to this day.

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Sunday, 19 April 2009

Portraying Petersburg

Photo: Boris Smelov, "Spirit of the Neva"
The Hermitage Museum is currently hosting a retrospective exhibition of the works of Boris Smelov, the quintessential Petersburg photographer. The exposition comprises more than 90 black and white photographs that together make up a sort of love song to Petersburg and how it appeared in the final quarter of the twentieth century. Boris Smelov was born in Leningrad in 1951 and lived there until his death in 1998, by which point it had of course become Petersburg, forever documenting this ever-changing, yet strangely constant city. He is accredited as one of, if not the most, important Russian photographers and his influence can be seen in the works of other more contemporary artists. The Hermitage Website him thus:

He was a living classic who evoked veneration from all who were somewhat connected to the art of ‘photography’. Critics and professional photographers unanimously acknowledged Boris Smelov as one of the best European masters of photography. The image of St.Petersburg that he created is not only high quality photographs but, undoubtedly, the most eloquent utterance ever said about that city at the end of the last century, the utterance that can be equal to Brodsky’s poetry in its significance.

Here are some of my favourite photos from the exhibition:


Silver Boy

Fontanka in Winter


Fan of Sour

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From Russia... with Love?

Photo: Evgenii Karmaev. "To the finest and most charming girl ever, with wishes of happiness."
Vlast’ magazine’s question of the week “Does the world love Russians?” gave rise to an interesting array of opinions from respondents. Here’s what some of them had to say:

Dmitri Rogozin, Russian Ambassador to NATO
By my observations the world loves Russians less than Soviets. Even back then, the word “Soviet” was met with more sympathy in the West than the word “Russian”. Ballet – Soviet, cinema – also Soviet. Rather than creating optimism that the meeting will be productive, “Russian” sets off the warning signs in the minds of Europeans and Americans.

Mikhail Margelov, Chairman of the Federation Council Committee on International Affairs
It all depends on how we behave ourselves abroad. If we behave like Europeans, then they love and respect us; if we behave like newly enriched natives of a third world country, then they look down their noses at us. In the early 90s a friend of mine, on holiday in Thailand, asked some businessmen about their impressions of Russia. They replied “The Absolut was always cold, but we never set foot outside.” With such behaviour we deserve neither love nor respect.

Pavel Bure, Ice-hockey player
We are not loved, but we are respected and that’s the main thing. Russia is a strong country, everyone respects our opinion. The Americans are now intending to reset US-Russia relations - they understand that it’s long since been time to get working positively together. We will deal with the financial crisis quicker if we work together.

Georgii Boos, Governor of Kalingrad Region, Russia
Normal people all over the world love Russians, and politicians and businessmen respect us. Russia is a strong country; we are the West’s competitors and that’s why they don’t let our businesses onto their markets.

Ralif Safin, Federation Council Minister
The world both loves us and fears us. They started to fear us after the fall of the Soviet Union. When we turned up in the West we were uncivilised and rude; we thought we were so great, but were incapable of saying hello politely; couldn’t speak any foreign languages; never opened doors for women… They still fear us now because they know what kind of revolutions we start. But they love us all the same for our big hearts and souls.

Efim Malitikov, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Committee of the Commonwealth of Independent States for Spreading Knowledge and Adult Education; General Consultant to the UN
I don’t think they love us, but exploit us - for Russians are very talented and support the economies of leading countries. They don’t love us because God gave us the ability to adapt to anything. In Britain and in America our emigrants have high-level positions in the economic sphere and this makes them jealous. Moreover, our country is big and powerful, with massive natural resources. Many would like to be in our position. They don’t love us because Russians can go to war or to work not for money but for ideas.

Leonid Zamiatin, Soviet Ambassador to the United Kingdom 1986 – 1992
What do we need to be loved for? We need to be respected. They didn’t love the Soviet Union; they were afraid of it due to its massive nuclear capabilities. In the 1990s we sold that all away in return for metallurgy. But we need to do everything possible so that our opinions are respected, not so that we get showered with compliments. We should clearly lay out Russia’s stance on the issues of creating a world currency and taking cooperative action against terrorism and drugs from Afghanistan. We need to clearly specify where our interests lie.

Marina Bukalova, Managing Director, Airline Company Sky Express
The world is wary of Russians because in the minds of people in the West, a Russian is still someone in a fur hat and paralytic drunk. They don’t love us because Russians are unpredictable, impulsive, brave and a lot more talented than others. No-one likes a competitor. This is compounded by the fact that Russians don’t know themselves, and people are scared of the unknown.

Lilia Chekhover, First Secretary; Embassy of Israel in Russia
In Israel Russians are very much loved. We have a lot of immigrants from Russia and the USSR and strong cultural links. We highly value works by Tolstoi, Pushkin, Lermontov. We remember how much the USSR did for the formation of the Israeli state.

Anzori Aksent’ev, Businessman
What love can you talk about when even our closest brothers – Georgia and the Ukraine have turned away from us? He who is loved is not left alone. The West doesn’t love us because it sees us as competitors. The East traditionally respects us. Of course sometimes they don’t like us for unsubstantiated reasons - the US has been refusing to grant me a visa for years, accusing me of god-knows-what. It’s the same for any Russian citizen. The 22,000 warheads our country is armed with however can only be a cause for respect.

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Friday, 17 April 2009

Democracy has been, is, and will continue to be.

Artwork: Konstantin Latyshev: "Russia. Elections 2008. Kommunyaki Socialistovich Revengerov vs. Efesbee Kaygeebeeovich Spyov
Earlier this week President Medvedev gave his first interview to a Russian newspaper - his publication of choice seemed to be a significant one. He spoke fairly extensively with Dmitri Muratov, editor of Novaia Gazeta – one of the few papers in Russia to maintain a staunchly critical stance towards the Kremlin and an inquisitive nose for sensitive stories. Novaia Gazeta might not have a massive distribution in Russia, an interview might not change the world and the responses given by Medvedev may not have departed from the general rhetoric, but for the optimistic amongst us, pushing aside the plethora of potential ulterior motives, the very fact that Novaia Gazeta was granted this interview signals perhaps a start towards a more conciliatory era in relations between the state and the press.

I’ve picked out a few bits of the interview that I found the most interesting. You can read the full text (in Russian) here:


On the upcoming elections in Sochi – destination Winter Olympics 2012.

Muratov: Don’t you think perhaps it would be best to just cancel the elections in Sochi, rather than stage them? It would be less cynical to do so. Lebedev who was running for Mayor has been forced to step out of the race by the courts, whilst Nemtsov (also running) has been denied the chance to run his election campaign.

Medvedev: I don’t yet know who has been removed from the race or how, but I do know however, that at this moment in time there is a fully rigorous political battle going on in Sochi, and it is a good thing that there are representatives of various political groups taking part. In my opinion, the problem with many municipal elections is that they are too uniform – people don’t have anyone to choose from and find them dull.

On the social contract and presidential Council on civil society and human rights which took place on April 15th.

Muratov: Am I right in thinking that civil society is today more important to you than a society of government officials?

Medvedev: You know - civil society is something that we still haven’t entirely learned how to comprehend properly in Russia […]. But gradually we are beginning to understand that civil society is an integral social institution of any state. It is a feed-back institution; organisations of people who do not have a post in government or in the civil service, but who actively participate in the life of the country. […] I’d like to point out: such relations [between state and civil society] are never simple for any government. This is because civil society and representatives of human-rights organisations have many bones to pick with the state and the government. They want to ask a lot of questions; and one doesn’t always want to have to answer them. And this is precisely why such an exchange should be of an official nature - this is the aim of the Council. I am expecting that the discussion will be most interesting. Obviously, it will be tough. But this is precisely why it is important.

On the new law requiring civil servants and members of the government to declare their income.

Muratov: It has not really been made clear who it is that will be checking these declarations for their authenticity. It seems that over the past few days in Russia a powerful community of “impoverished” husbands with very affluent wives has appeared…

Medvedev: You know, the task of controlling the bureaucracy and government officials is one of the fundamental tasks of any state. We started doing this quite a long time ago and I can’t really say that we have had much success. Although if you were to compare with the situation in the 1990s and the situation today, I most definitely think that there has been an improvement. […] In my opinion, the main problem today is not the lack of normative acts on control, but lack of rigorous implementation of these acts. This is, of course, where the difficulty lies - because bureaucrats are never very satisfied when they are obliged to control themselves. However, these procedures must be followed despite the fact that no-one likes controlling themselves, no-one likes confining themselves within strict frameworks; they must be followed because this is what distinguishes a civilised society from an uncivilised one – a civilised society doesn’t like it, but it has learnt to do so all the same.


Muratov: Have you personally felt a negative reaction from bureaucrats? Or have they been understanding over your decision to enforce the publication of their declaration of income?

Medvedev: Well, you know, the post of president frees one of having to hear the negative reaction of bureaucrats. I made this decision – and everyone else has to carry it out.

On the independency of the judiciary and the Khordokovskii affair.

Muratov: I’d like to ask you about the second YUKOS trial. Did you find its outcome predictable? The outcome of the first trial, for anyone who took an interest in it, was, alas, rather predictable. Someone wrote in to me and said: perhaps in the beginning Medvedev is just going to ring up the courts, including that involved in the YUKOs trial and say “you’re independent, you’re independent, let me remind you, you’re independent, you’re independent, you’re independent! "And that will be a manual kick-start for the restoration of the judiciary system.

Medvedev: I can tell you now, that any manual kick-start is very costly and I’m not just talking about the courts system here. It is simply necessary to strive towards a state machine that works in a rational way automatically. [As for the YUKOs trial] perhaps the outcome of one or another trial someone found predictable. This is the freedom and the luckiness of a person who does not have state obligations.
However, whilst for everyone else, it’s a personal matter, it would be illegal for the president to find a court’s decision predictable. It would be a sign that the law has been broken. For civil servants and for the president there is not and should not be any inkling whatsoever of predictability of the outcome of any trial, and this includes the YUKOs trial.

On the regional authorities… and rumours

Muratov: In the city of Maiskii in Kabardino-Balkaria a rumour was doing the rounds that President Medvedev was soon coming to visit, since Medvedev’s grandmother lives somewhere in the region. And what did the local authorities do when they couldn’t find the said grandmother? Just in case, they re-laid all the roads in Maiskii; cleared out tonnes of rubbish; paved the main square; put up streetlamps; everyone was happy. Why don’t we spread rumours that Medvedev’s, Surkov’s or some other government ministers’ grandmothers live in various towns throughout Russia and perhaps the fear would make more local authorities come to their senses.

Medvedev: That’s quite a good technique… I can see what’s happened here. Once, in Maiskii, if I’m not mistaken, my grandfather worked as regional party secretary. This was 60 years ago however, but perhaps that’s where they’ve got it from.

On democracy in Russia.

Muratov: Today you’ve spoken about the elections, about control over bureaucrats, about the internet. Does this mean that President Medvedev is planning to rehabilitate democracy in Russia?

Medvedev: You know, I think that democracy in its own right is in no need for any kind of rehabilitation. Democracy is a historical notion and at the same time a wholly supranational one. Therefore democracy is not in need of rehabilitation anywhere. It’s another matter that for many of our citizens the very difficult political and, more importantly, economic upheavals of the 1990s at some point fused with the arrival of the first fundamental democratic institutes in our country. For these citizens these times were extremely difficult and this made a scar on their understanding of democracy. But this is just through personal experience, rather than their understanding of democratic institutions as a whole. Therefore I do not believe that we need to rehabilitate democracy. Democracy has been, is, and will continue to be.

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Monday, 13 April 2009

Interesting Spheres

Photo: Lyalya Kuznetsova
Russia’s relations with ex-Soviet states are a mire of opposing and common interests and contradictory feelings. In case the war in Georgia last summer and this winter’s gas crisis had begun to fade into the distant past, riots in Moldova last week yet again brought such relations to centre stage. A small, poor country nestled between Romania and the Ukraine, Moldova retains close ties to Russia, who has troops participating in peacekeeping operations in Moldova’s separatist region of Transdniestria and guarding weaponry left over from the Soviet period. Its authorities, as in many countries of the former Soviet Union, have a hot-cold relationship with Moscow; torn between a rapprochement with Russia or with the West. In varying degrees, these countries have on one hand the tempting promise of NATO or EU membership and the benefits that greater cooperation with the West will bring, but which might, in return force them to face a few home truths on the democracy front, endangering the very survival of their political elites. One the other, there is the legitimising embrace of Moscow, with whom their common past is a source of contradictory feelings, but is common all the same and who, as the stronger, wealthier partner in the relationship can offer the support, without criticism, that many of these regimes require.

The article below was published last Friday in Nezavisimaia Gazeta.
Quick note: CIS = Commonwealth of Independent States, a looser regional organisation formed on the back of the Soviet Union and of which Moldova is a member. Georgia declared its withdrewal from the organisation following last year's war. Ukraine, despite being one of the three founding countries (the others being Russia and Belarus) has never actually ratified the organisation's Charter (Turkmenistan is currently in the same legal situation). The other members are all the former Soviet Republics apart from the three Baltic states.

The CIS is not Russia’s sphere of influence.
Stanislav Minin, Nezavisimaia Gazeta

Last Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, gave interviews with “Voice of Russia”, “RIA News Agency” and “Russia Today”. Speaking about the fresh start with relations with the US, he said; “It goes without saying that one of the subjects that is being discussed is that of the post-Soviet space. This is an issue that requires that we conduct our activities transparently in this region; that we have no hidden agendas and, whilst defending our interests, we must take into account the legal interests of everyone else involved, in particular the states of the region.”

"It is unacceptable to present [CIS countries] with the ultimatum “either you’re with us or against us,” added Lavrov, “to do so would be to start off a struggle for spheres of influence, which is what no-one wants and which people sometimes try to attribute to Russia’s foreign policy. Spheres of influence are not our policy; our policy is that of relations based on equal rights and mutual benefits with whoever is prepared to engage in this with us.”

The language used by diplomats is very guarded and formal - the real ideas are essentially camouflaged behind the words. The language of the state press however, is somewhat more open. In reality, the discourse used by the Russian state press divides the world into the “spheres of influence” that minister Lavrov claims to be so unacceptable. The political elites of CIS countries are divided into “pro-Russian” and “anti-Russian”, otherwise known as “pro-Western”. Such language reeks of foreign policy games and does not leave any place for economic pragmatism nor for those very same “mutually-beneficial relationships”, which Lavrov himself claims to want.

Today, “The Independent” published a piece on the recent protests in Moldova. The correspondent suggests that the events in Moldova are playing into the hands of Russia. Russia is interested in having Moldova distance itself from the EU and the West and in return for it doing so it is offering the Chisinau authorities an “advantageous” solution to their problems in Transdniestria. Needless to say, such proposals are based on guesswork – the correspondent’s own interpretation and speculation on matters; a third-party evaluation of the situation. But he grasps the nature of Russia’s “mutually beneficial relations” with countries of the CIS perfectly; such relations are merely an exchange of services between political elites. We’ll give you your Transdniestria – and you get tough with the West. We’ll give you money – and you close that American military base [Note: In February this year the President of Kyrgyzstan demanded the closure of the American military base on its territory].

Relations based on equal rights and mutual benefits with “whoever is prepared to engage with us” are a marvellous thing. The only thing is – how can we know who is “prepared to engage with us” and who isn’t? Let’s say that state X (any state taken at random) wants to have strong trade and economic links with Russia. At the same time the said state very much wants to gain EU membership, or join NATO. Is such a state prepared for “mutually beneficial relations” with Russia? In my opinion, there should be no reason why wanting both of these things should be contradictory. However, the Russian ruling elite tends to think otherwise.

Does the US play its political games in the CIS? Does it defend its interests in the region? Yes. But the language that the US uses whilst doing so differs from ours. It differs only slightly, it would seem, but it’s the tiny differences that make it. The American elites divide political programmes in the post-Soviet space into “democratic” and “undemocratic”. Russia divides them into “pro-Russian” and “anti-Russian”. There’s no difference, you might say - “undemocratic” is as good as “anti-American”. However the essence of the difference is in the word itself, in the form, as opposed to the content. By saying “antidemocratic” instead of “anti-American”, you are appealing to the rules of the game in the world today, which, whether you like it or not, have become based on democracy. You are appealing against the violation of these rules. By saying “anti-Russian”, you automatically narrow the group of sympathisers. It is a label, intended for the internal consumer. Charges of “undemocratic” behaviour are intended for foreign consumers and are a far more profitable strategy.

There’s nothing meaningless or shameful in Russia’s struggle for influence and interests in the post-Soviet space. But, it would be much better if in this battle our interests were preponderantly economic, rather than political or historical. And it would be much better if, whilst defending these interests, we used a language that was globally acceptable, rather than inward-looking.

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Thursday, 2 April 2009

Russia - Atlantis Diplomacy

Photo: Sergey Gorshkov, Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Who says Russians don’t have a sense of humour? In honour of April Fool’s day, the serious folk over at VTsIOM (The All Russian Public Opinion Research Centre) commissioned a poll to discover residents’ opinions towards proposed diplomatic relations between Russia and Atlantis. 40% of respondents realised it was a joke, but 21% answered that, although they hadn’t heard of the plans, they approved of them nevertheless and another 28% hadn’t heard of them and would not support them. A further 9% stated that they had heard of them and did indeed approve. I wonder how the good citizens of Atlantis are relating to all this?
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