Monday, March 2, 2015

Is the Russian Orthodox Church Out to Provoke Russia’s Buddhists?


Paul Goble

 

            Staunton, March 2 – The Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, having offended many Russian liberals by its obscurantism and slavish subordination to the Kremlin and having angered many of Russia’s Muslims by its backing for missionary work among them, now appears set to offend a group it had hitherto largely ignored: Russia’s Buddhists.

 

            This is no trivial matter: On the one hand, there are more than almost a million members of traditionally Muslim nationalities inside the Russian Federation – the Kalmyks, the Tuvans, and the Buryats – all of which have close ties to the Dalai Lama and the larger Buddhist world.

 

            And on the other, Buddhists despite their reputation for pacifism can when under pressure engage in violence in defense of their faith and their populations, as events in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and most recently Thailand have shown. Even within Russia, there have been cases of extreme Buddhist militancy as under the leadership of Baron Ungern during the civil war.

 

            For these reasons, the Russian Orthodox Church has generally shied away from doing anything that might provoke the Buddhists and the Buddhist nationalities, carefully treating Buddhism as one of the country’s “four traditional faiths’ and holding itself aloof from the Russian government’s opposition to the Dalai Lama.

 

            But now that appears to be changing, and the consequences of this change could be far more serious than their authors appreciate.

 

            Last week, Russian Orthodox Archbishop Justinian of Elista and Kalmykia proposed making the Kalmyk Republic “one of the centers for the study of the missionary activity … of Kirill and Methodius,” even though the traditionally Buddhist Kalmyks form 57 percent of its population and ethnic Russians 30 percent (foma.ru/kalmyikiya-stanet-tsentrom-izucheniya-naslediya-svyatyih-kirilla-mefodiya.html).

 

            The archbishop made his proposal at conference about the missionary work of Kirill and Methodius in the ninth century, a meeting that was held in the Kalmyk capital and timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Elista bishopric.

 

            He said that the Khazar kaganate had had its capital in what is now Kalmykia and thus it is entirely appropriate to speak “about the special responsibility … of the region for preserving memory about the works of Sts. Kirill and Methodius among peoples populating these lands in those times.”

 

            Following the churchman’s speech, the conference adopted a resolution which declared that “recognition of the links of contemporary Kalmykia with Sts. Kirill and Methodius will serve as a powerful stimulus for the spiritual and moral rebirth of the Elista bishopric, make possible the strengthening of cooperation between the traditional religions of the region … and promote inter-regional cooperation in the southern borderlands of the country.”

 

            But it is likely that Justinian’s proposal will have exactly the opposite effect, exacerbating relations between the republic’s Buddhist majority and its Orthodox minority especially given Moscow’s continuing opposition to the links of Russia’s Buddhists to the Dalai Lama and increasing Buddhist activism not only in Kalmykia but in Tuva and Buryatia as well.

 

           

Rural Latvia Emptying Out, Presenting Riga with Another Security Challenge


Paul Goble

 

            Staunton, March 3 – Low birthrates and the flight of young people to work elsewhere in Europe are driving down both the urban and rural population of the Republic of Latvia, with its total now roughly equivalent to where it was a century ago and with European experts predicting a further decline of 20 percent within five years.

 

            Latvia is not an exception in the region, but three aspects of this demographic decline are especially worrisome: the rural part of the country is emptying out with 84 villages having ceased to exist in the last year alone, many of those headed West are ethnic Russians who do not like Riga’s language policies, and the decline is already affecting economic growth.

 

            While some Latvians may welcome the departure of ethnic Russians who were moved into that Baltic republic in large numbers during the Soviet occupation, none of them can be happy about the consequences of the other two, especially in the current international environment (dni.ru/society/2015/3/2/296497.html).

 

            In many countries, young people are leaving rural areas for the cities, but in Latvia, demographers say, many of the young – and especially young Russian speakers – are heading not for Riga, whose population is falling, or other urban areas within the country but to other countries in the EU, something citizens and non-citizens alike can do without visas.

 

            This hollowing out of rural areas has serious consequences for Latvia’s security situation. On the one hand, the departure of ethnic Russians from rural areas might seem to make the country’s defense easier, but it could also lead Moscow to conclude that if it is going to move into Latgale, it will need to do so quickly or there will be no one left in whose name it can act.

 

            And on the other, countries which consist of a single large city or a few urban areas surrounded by mostly vacant rural land present an entirely different set of challenges for military and security planners, especially given that the departure of people often leads to a deterioration in roads and other forms of infrastructure as well.

Moscow’s Hopes for Northern Sea Route May Be On Hold for Decades, Russian Analyst Says


Paul Goble

 

            Staunton, March 2 – The collapse of shipping on the Northern Sea Route last year reflects  not only Western sanctions but also Russian actions and inactions and suggests that “the Northern Sea Route may be frozen for a long time to come -- even in an era of global warming” which might otherwise be expected to open it further, according to Tatyana Khrulyeva.

 

            In 2014, the Rosbalt analyst writes, shipping over the route in which Moscow has placed so much hope as part of its geopolitical strategy declined by 80 percent. Most analysts blamed Western sanctions and the collapse of Western cooperation with Russian oil and gas companies and of Western investment in the region more generally.

 

            But while those undoubtedly played a role and will continue to do so, Khrulyeva says, many of the problems Moscow now faces are of its own making, including but its assertion of sovereignty over the region which raises questions about the legal regime of shipping there and its failure to develop infrastructure since 1990 (rosbalt.ru/business/2015/03/01/1372205.html).

 

            Global warming had led many in Moscow to predict that Russian expectations for the Northern Sea Route would soon be realized, she continues, not only because it would make the passage easier and thus more attractive for as a shorter shipping route between Asia and Europe but also because it would open up the region for the exploitation of its natural resources.

 

            The last year appeared to dash these hopes: the tonnage of freight shipped across the route fell by 80 percent from 2013.  Moscow’s first reaction was to view this as an indication that the route was “one of the first hostages of the current economic crisis, with declining oil prices making the Suez route cheaper and sanctions making Western firms less interested in cooperating with Russian firms or investing in the region.

 

            The international economic crisis certainly played a role, but Khrulyeva points out, there have been significant changes in the domestic Russian marketplace and there are underlying problems some caused by Moscow’s specific actions and alternatively some caused by its failure in the past and inability now to invest in the development of the route.

 

            The decline in shipping in 2014 reflected two important domestic developments, she says: the failure of transport companies to agree with natural resource developers on the price of shipping and the shift in business from the Vitino port on the Kola Peninsula to the Ust-Luga port near St. Petersburg.

 

            However, she argues, a far greater role in the decline was played by the failure of the Russian authorities and business to modernize infrastructure. “With the exception of Murmansk and partially Dudinsk,” none of the ports in the region have been modernized since 1990. And only Murmansk can currently handle ships of more than 30,000 tons.

 

            Those are far from the only problems with infrastructure, however. As a result of the absence of financing even during the “fat” years, navigation and search-and-rescue facilities along the route are near collapse. And for similar reasons, there simply aren’t enough people being trained to operate these or the ships themselves.

 

            The authorities can’t agree on a price structure for handling the accompanying of ships, and they have not taken the necessary steps to ensure that the route can handle contain shipping, which is now, except for certain kinds of bulk cargo, the most important form of such transport, Khrulyeva says.

 

            One place where Moscow has acted is creating real problems for the Southern Sea Route. The Kremlin’s constant suggestion that Russian sovereignty extends to the pole has raised questions among foreign companies about what legal regime they would be operating on. Amending the constitution to end the supremacy of international law will only make that worse.

 

            Meanwhile, the rest of the world isn’t standing idle. There are now plans to create a second channel for the Suez Canal by 2023, and that will further reduce interest in what Moscow had hoped would be a major lever for projecting its geo-economic and geo-political interests in Asia and Europe.

 

 

Nemtsov Feared Revolutions But What He Sought is Revolutionary


Paul Goble

 

            Staunton, March 2 – Boris Nemtsov “was afraid of becoming a victim of a revolution” whose results he feared could lead to an even more horrific situation in Russia but as a result, Moscow commentator Boris Sokolov argues, he “became a victim of the dictatorship because a revolution didn’t happen.”

 

            Four years ago, Sokolov recalls, Nemtsov told an interviewer that “there are three possible scenarios of a revolution in Russia.” The most probable would be a nationalist one, involving pogroms of ethnic minorities. The next most probable would be a socialist or communist one, the result of declines in the standard of living and increase in corruption.

 

            And “finally, in third place, in terms of probability,” the opposition leader who was murdered in the shadow of the Kremlin said, there could be “a liberal revolution, called from by the absence of freedom and democracy.” But regardless of the one that will occur, Nemtsov suggested, there will be bloodshed (grani.ru/opinion/sokolov/m.238611.html).

 

            But regardless of which one occurs, the late opposition figure said, “Putin bears 100 percent responsibility” for the likelihood that a revolution will happen.  As a result, Nemtsov continued, he personally is no supporter of revolutions because “there will be many victims,” adding “I could be one of them.”

 

            Such views – Nemtsov wanted a revolutionary transformation of Russia without a revolution – simultaneously explains why he had so much support among many liberal Russians and non-Russians and why he was such a threat to the Kremlin leader.  Indeed, Sokolov says, it helps to explain why Putin wanted him out of the way.

 

             The pro-Kremlin media have been working overtime to come up with various suggested versions to “distract attention” from the fact that Putin and his regime are “the most likely” to have ordered this murder, the Moscow commentator says, noting that each new invention is “more absurd” than the one before it.

 

            In fact, Sokolov says, there are only two “real versions of the murder.” The first is that “the murder of Boris Nemtsov was exactly the same kind of state crime as the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko and the order for it could be given only by the first person of the state” – that is by Putin.

 

            And the second is that “the opposition leader was killed by some radical supporters of the ‘Anti-Maidan’” organization Putin and his regime itself set up to block public protests in Russia and thus to ensure Putin’s continued rule. But this is highly improbable because of where the murder was carried out, right under the Kremlin walls.

 

            Thus everything we know points to Putin as the man responsible, Sokolov says. The Kremlin leader had two obvious reasons for wanting Nemtsov dead. On the one hand, “of all the politicians on the liberal wing of the non-systemic opposition, only [he] could gather mass demonstrations,” something Putin clearly fears.

 

            And on the other, the Kremlin leader knew that Nemtsov was getting ready to publish a report proving that the Russian military is fighting in the Donbas, something that calls into question Putin’s line.  “Either of these causes would have been sufficient” for Putin decide to have Nemtsov killed.

 

            Both the skills of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine and the propensity of many journalists east and west to confuse balance with objectivity and to refuse to draw any conclusion about Putin’s involvement in the absence of “a smoking gun” likely means that no one will be able to prove this to everyone’s satisfaction. Putin is certainly counting on that.

 

            But having killed Nemtsov, Putin has not killed his message, as the demonstrations in Moscow, St. Petersburg, throughout Russia and the world yesterday show.  And if one can overlook the media debates about how many or how few people marched, it is worth noting what they were marching for.

 

            As another commentator pointed out, Nemtsov’s ideas were truly revolutionary even if he did not want a revolution. What he did want was the elimination of the all-powerful presidency in Russia and the introduction of a government responsible to the parliament, an end to imperial unitarism and aggression and the rise of real federalism in its place, and an end to government control of the media (kotsubinsky.livejournal.com/454817.html).

 

            Obviously, each person will take from Nemtsov’s statements what he or she wants. But two trends are already obvious. The first is that outside of ethnic Russian areas, democrats and nationalists have found a reason to march together just as they did in 1989-1991 (irekle.org/news/i1991.html).

 

And the second is that the Russian people themselves care coming up with their own slogans on the basis of his legacy.  The march in Moscow yesterday featured not the manufactured slogans of pro-Kremlin demonstrations but the expressions of the people themselves (gordonua.com/publications/Nemcov-eto-lyubov-Putin-eto-voyna-Samye-yarkie-lozungi-traurnogo-shestviya-v-Moskve-69169.html).

 

Among the most striking and resonant were the following:

 

    • Nemtsov is Love; Putin is War.
    • We Will Not Forget; we will not forgive.
    • Russism kills.
    • Heroes do not die.
    • I am Boris. I am Nemtsov.
    • Fear for one’s children and grandchildren is stronger than the fear of one’s own death.
    • Struggle.
    • I am not afraid.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Putin’s Russia Now ‘One Large KGB Special Op,’ Golovakha Says


Paul Goble

 

            Staunton, March 1 – Russia’s problem is not Vladimir Putin but rather that “the special services have begun to rule that country and to transform it “into one large special service and its activities into one large special operation,” something even Stalin never permitted, according to Yevgeny Golovakha, deputy head of the Kyiv Institute of Sociology.

 

            This is just one of the conclusions the scholar offers in the course of a wide-ranging interview published today on the occasion of the first anniversary of Putin’s acknowledgement of the use of Russian forces inside Ukraine about conditions in Ukraine and in the Russian Federation (news.liga.net/interview/politics/5198471-golovakha_u_vlasti_zakonchilos_vremya_na_eksperimenty_i_oshibki.htm).

 

            According to Golovakha, the last year in Ukraine’s history is most similar to the period of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic after 1917. Then too, Ukrainians wanted “dignity and independence but got a tragedy. Now is also a tragedy,” but whether it will be an “optimistic”one as some say or not depends on whether Ukrainian leaders can learn from their mistakes.

 

            They do not have much time, he argues, because “if in past years, we could allow ourselves to experiment, now there is no such possibility.”

 

            That does not mean that Ukraine is about to disappear from the map of the world as some fear. “Ukraine will continue in some form.” But the question is “in what borders, with what kind of a government and in what form? Putin’s goal is to marginalize it, and such “a marginalization of Ukraine is the worst prospect.”

 

            The last year has led to a rise in civic activism and volunteerism, and it has “not led to a final disappointment” or to a situation in which there would be a mass rejection of the ideals of the Maidan.  One can only be glad about those things, even if they are in many ways the product of war which inevitably consolidates a society.

 

            But at the same time, he continues, Ukrainians are “at the edge of nervous exhaustion,” and the level of optimism about the future has fallen significantly since last summer: Polls show it down by 20 percent, the sociologist says. And both the deepening economic crisis and the shortcomings of the government are only making that worse.

 

            Golovakha said that when he learned that the Ukrainian revolution was “a revolution of dignity,” he immediately observed that “dignity costs people very dearly.” Those who insisted on it in tsarist and Soviet times, paid heavily for doing so. And one must recognize that people cannot live on dignity alone; they need other things are to survive.

 

            The Ukrainian government since the Maidan “unfortunately” has not been more open than was its predecessor, Golovakha continues. “There is no normal conversation with its this level, with us even today things are absolutely Soviet as far as the closure of the state is concerned.

 

            The sociologist says that he understands how difficult it is for leaders raised in the Soviet past or even the post-Soviet period to change their ways of doing business, but what is a particular matter of concern, he suggests, is that many of the new people who have entered the government have assimilated these earlier values rather than introducing new ones.

 

            But the situation in Russia is much worse. “There is nothing new in the state system of present-day Russia. It is entirely a throwback to the Soviet model,” with its imperial schemes, symbolism, mass psychology, and the like, he says. That has allowed Russia to maintain order, but it requires enemies and “absolutely contradicts” the European path Ukraine has chosen.

 

            Russia always was and always will be “imperialist and chauvinist,” Golovakha says, regardless of who is in office. The only question is how many resources it has to devote to those goals. When it is rich, “it will continue expansion … when it is poor and weak, it will gather its forces and not try to change borders.”

 

            The murder of Boris Nemtsov, he suggests, was one of a series of “ritual murders on symbolic dates. If you recall, Anna Politkovskaya was killed on ‘Putin’s birthday.’ I suggest,” Golovakha continues, “that the murder of Nemtsov on the eve of an anti-war march was no coincidence.”

 

            As to the possibility that Russia will disintegrate into several republics, the Kyiv sociologist says, the threat exists, although it is far from clear whether Ukrainians would benefit from it and Ukrainians should be skeptical about anyone who suggests this or any other outcome is “’inevitable.’”  Such predictions should not be taken seriously.

 

            Regarding leadership, he says, there is no question that Putin is a leader. But he has done little more than rely on “prejudices, stereotypes and xenophobia.” That almost always works, has given him an enormous popularity rating and the chance to do whatever he likes as far as the Russian people are concerned.

 

            As for Poroshenko, Golovakha says, he is “a transitional leader” in “a transitional time.”  So far, he has pursued a policy of “maneuvering without definite successes and without an explanation of his motives and goals.” Given the challenges, one can understand why, but to be successful, he will have to move beyond such a tactical approach.

 

 

 

Putin’s Russia between the Reichstag Fire and the Kirov Murder

Paul Goble

 

            Staunton, March 1 – No one can disagree with Yuliya Latynina that with the murder of Boris Nemtsov, Russia has entered a new era, one in which the political opponents of the regime are killed or intimidated by that possibility and one about which it is critically important that all recognize that reality (echo.msk.ru/programs/code/1501598-echo/).

 

            Not surprisingly, in the wake of this horrific political execution, commentators are employing analogies as a means to try to understand what has taken place and to be in a position to predict what may happen next.  At present, they have offered three pairs of analogies about the nature and implications of Nemtsov’s murder (news.liga.net/news/incident/5198508-podzhog_reykhstaga_pervye_mneniya_o_posledstviyakh_ubiystva_nemtsova.htm).

 

            One of these involves analogies with the Reichstag fire by which Adolf Hitler overturned the remnants of Weimar democracy and moved to establish the Nazi dictatorship and with the murder of Sergey Kirov, an action Stalin sponsored and then exploited to launch his Great Terror in the USSR.

 

            A second concerns those between a political leader prepared to use what Russians often refer to as “big blood” to get his way and those who argue that he like other dictators can achieve his goals by making use of more carefully targeted and media-generated to induce fear and intimidate his own population and others as well.

 

            And a third concerns analogies between a situation in which this action is part of a carefully controlled effort by Putin to impose his new order on the people of the Russian Federation and one in which he has created a monster over which he may not have absolute control and which in fact may overpower him.

 

            All of these pairs are suggestive, and each provides useful insights that may help to shape an adequate picture of what Putin is about.  But at the same time, their very multiplicity is an indication that the current situation, while it bears similarities to these past events, is not identical to any of them and that the future may thus be quite different than any of these suggest.

 

            That commentators should have reached for analogies with the Reichstag fire and the Kirov murder is hardly surprising. Both events are well known, and both opened the way to state terrorism and the rise of Hitler and Stalin to supreme and unchallenged power. Given Putin’s obvious agenda, each is suggestive, but the two are not the same.

 

            The analogy with the Reichstag fire would suggest that Putin is ready to move immediately against all of his opponents and to unleash murderous violence against anyone who disagrees with him. That with the Kirov murder, in contrast, would suggest that he is still consolidating his dictatorship and will exploit Nemtsov’s death to further that process.

 

            A similar difference is to be found in the second set of analogies, between one with a dictator ready to use “big blood” to impose his will and one who believes that he can achieve as much and with less collateral damage to his own goals by carefully targeting his opponents and then using the media to intimidate far more (echo.msk.ru/blog/ilya_ponomarev/1502660-echo/).

 

            Those who argue that Putin is ready to employ widespread violence to get his way may be right. His blowing up of the apartment buildings in Moscow, his war against the Chechens, and his use of force in Ukraine shows he has little regard for human life be it that of Russians or anyone else.

 

But the other part of this pair, one that suggests he will continue to use the carefully targeted repression he has used up to now, is at least possible. Alexander Herzen once described Nicholas I as “Genghiz Khan plus the telegraph.” Putin who understands the power of media may be called “Stalin plus television.”   

 

Given his skillful use of the media, the Kremlin leader may well have concluded that he doesn’t need to use mass violence. Instead, he can induce fear and intimidate people at home and abroad by carefully calibrated actions, dosed out in such a way that he gets the benefits of repression but suffers little or none of the opprobrium or blowback.

 

            And that consideration helps to explain the appearance of another pair of analogies, that between those who view Putin’s regime as a tightly-integrated and controlled one and those, like Kseniya Sobchak, who argue that he has created a monster which he has at least partially lost control over (kontrakty.ua/article/85047).

 

            The difference between those perspectives on Putin has its antecedents in two novels on Stalin’s terror, Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” which presented the Stalin system as a totally controlled and Victor Serge’s “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” which suggested that the dictator started something that took on a life of its own.

 

            It is too soon to say which of these various analogies is correct. All are suggestive, but in employing them, it is critically important to keep in mind that arguments by analogy inevitably have limits because there is always more than one analogy available and because every new situation is different – at the very least because the actors in it are aware of the past.

 

First Putin Marginalizes His Critics, Then He Kills Them, and Then He Shifts the Blame


Paul Goble

 

            Staunton, March 1 – The horror and revulsion all people of good will feel about the murder of Boris Nemtsov in the shadow of the Kremlin has led many to treat this latest crime as if it were something new. In fact, the killing of Nemtsov is only the latest example of Vladimir Putin’s much-tested approach to dealing with his political enemies.

 

            That approach, as Ilya Milshtein suggests, has now become almost institutionalized. First, Putin marginalizes his enemies, then he or his allies kill them, and then he muddies the water by putting out multiple versions of what supposedly has happened, confident that few will connect the dots and hold him responsible (grani.ru/opinion/milshtein/m.238474.html).

 

            That was what happened in the case of Galina Starovoitova. That was what happened in the case of Sergey Yushchenkov. That was what happened in the case of Anna Politkovskaya. And that is what is happening in the case of Boris Nemtsov. All of them were “driven in the status of marginal figures and then killed.”

 

            But all too many people are not prepared to recognize that reality, either out of fear in the case of many in Russia itself who even now are asking “who will be next?” or out of concern in the case of some Western leaders that speaking truth about what Putin is about could provoke the Kremlin leader even more.

 

            Both groups need to follow the advice of the late Pope John Paul who told his fellow Poles that they must “not be afraid.”  Boris Nemtsov wasn’t, and neither must Russians nor Western leaders. Instead, they must recognize that they are not dealing with a normal leader but with a dangerously abnormal one.

 

            Normal politicians forget about those who cannot challenge them. The books they write and the meetings they organize or speak to can all be ignored. But Putin is not a normal politician, and he does not respond that way. Instead, he focuses on those who disagree with him, seeks to marginalize them, and then directly or indirectly removes them from the scene.

 

            Putin cracks down on such people as his enemies, and he and his minions call them exactly that, enemies, “agents of the State Department, a fifth column, and various other words which in other times would have meant execution of the camps, but in ours provoke extra-judicial violence.”

 

            All this is because the regime Putin has built in the Russian Federation is “simply unthinkable without hatred.” That is its core value, “and the entire history of Putin’s Russia is the history of capably directed hatred toward various individuals, social groups, countries and nations.”

 

            “First there were the Chechens, then the oligarchs with their television channels, later the Georgians, now the Ukrainians, Europeans, Americans, and always those who disagree,” Milshteyn says.  And when something awful happens, Putin and the Kremlin PR operation goes into overdrive to push multiple versions to obscure what is going on.

 

            Putin’s press secretary yesterday said that the killing of Nemtsov was a provocation against the Kremlin. “In fact,” Milshteyn asks, “who could have decided on such a step besides enemies and conspirators? Obama? Merkel? Navalny? It is too bad,” he continues, that “Berezovsky is dead because then it would have been convenient to blame him” as well.

 

            If Putin feels the need, those who carried out the crime may be brought to trial, but those who bear responsibility for it or even ordered it will not. (The history of such crimes testifies to that. See slon.ru/russia/politicheskie_ubiystva_v_sovremennoy_rossii-1220581.xhtml.) But there can be no doubt that “guilt for this murder lies with those in power.”

 

            Putin and his accomplices should be charged with “incitement to murder,” which is a crime under the Russian criminal code.  But he and they have learned that the use of hatred and fear not only protects them from that but brings them major political dividends – and they aren’t about to change either voluntarily.