Mid-Week News Roundup

Well, the news coming out of Russia just does not stop these days, and between school, work, and other obligations, it’s impossible to cover each issue in the detail it deserves. In any case, here is a roundup of the major news concerning Russia over the last week or two:

  • Buttongate – this has already been sufficiently dealt with elsewhere. Still, I would simply add that, for a country that constantly derides Russia’s crude and ineffective media/PR strategies, this was an embarassing failure. As we now know, the ‘Reset’ button presented by Sec. Clinton to FM Lavrov said peregruzka instead of perezagruzka. A quick linguistic explanation – gruz is the Russian word for ‘load’ or ‘cargo’. Pere- is the Russian prefix for [among other things] ‘re-‘ or, in this case, ‘over-‘. Thus, the word comes out as ‘overload’. Za– is, roughly, the prefix that expresses duplication and zagruzka means charge (i.e., add to the load), while perezagruzka, of course, is to reload, or recharge. Furthermore, gruzit’ – the verbal form of gruz – has a slang usage meaning ‘to lecture’. So, in this sense peregruzka could refer to a lecture that just goes on and on way too long. Add to the linguistic slipup the context of the situation – recent U.S. attitudes towards Russia consider it to be a burden and policy consists of lectures – and you get absolute hilarity. Still, it’s not that funny coming from a crew that promised competence and professionalism. It was probably a stupid idea to begin with, but getting wrong your own stupid idea sends the message that the State Department treats such an important meeting the same as that high school presentation you throw together in 15 minutes during lunch. Just embarrassing. And, it was caught on video
  • Cutting Iran Off – Moving on to areas where we haven’t looked like complete amateurs, Russia is reportedly not going to sell the S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Iran. This is after Pres. Medvedev told Spanish media earlier that he would not ‘trade’ Iran for ballistic missile defense (BMD). In reality, Russia was already digging its heels in on selling the C-300 to Iran last month, during the Iranian Defense Minister’s visit. Still, if this for real, then it certainly bodes well for US-Russian relations, as it suggests we can get back to working together and making deals based on mutual interests and tradeoffs. The Obama Administration should be careful to run up the victory flag on this one though – it would unnecessarily irritate the Russians and might cause them to reconsider.
  • New Nuke Negotiations – Also, in US-Russian relations news, the Clinton-Lavrov duo announced that a successor to the START Treaty (expiring in December) will be negotiated this year. Medvedev has said that such a treaty should include limitations not only on the number, size, etc. of warheads, but also on delivery vehicles. Read analysis on the Russian positions here. Rumors concerning Pres. Obama’s plans indicate that he is interested in seeking dramatic cuts in warheads.
  • Mixed Bag for the Russian Economy – The Russian economy – particularly the financial situation – has continued to stabilize, as Russia’s foreign reserves have stopped declining at such an alarming rate. Also, even though Russia will need to tap its reserve funds to cover budget shortfalls this year, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin says that they have enough reserves to last two years. Still, the downturn has definitely spread to the ‘real’ economy, as dramatic declines in exports and industrial output result in layoffs at many industrial firms. Kudrin also said that Russia will reach the ‘peak’ of the crisis at the end of 2009 or beginning of 2010, and that it will take ‘at least’ three years for the country to recover.
  • Open Season on Scapegoats – it was bound to happen sooner or later. When it comes to unnecessarily public and irrationally targeted retribution against mid-level bureaucrats, Russia truly excels (though China takes the silver). It is a glorious Russian tradition, whenever the kolkhozniki start to get restless, to lower the pressure by finding some previously faceless schmuck to blame. Even in the face of discontent that, comparatively speaking, is toothless, the paranoid and out of touch folks in the Kremlin will not fail to resort to this ancient Russian tradition (and maybe settle some scores in the process – yay!). Everyone over the last two years was talking about the divisions in the Russian elite at the top/federal level, and more recently about a purported rift between Putin and Medvedev. While those two may not be BFFs, they clearly know that an open conflict could have disasterous consequences for the country and them personally. What many observers forget – i.e., what journalists who never leave Moscow don’t know – is that center-peripherary conflict has been a defining feature of the Russian Empire, Soviet Union, and Russian Federation. And this isn’t just with regards to Muslim or majority-minority republics. Even the oblasti have their own ‘minigarchs’ and political bosses, not to mention more organized crime groups than Moscow. Before Putin, many, if not most, of the RF’s territories sort of did what they wanted, without paying federal taxes, and even adopting constitutions that directly conflicted with the RF constitution. Putin changed all this, albeit in a strongarmed and undemocractic way. Most signifcantly, after the 2004 terrorist attack in Beslan, the Duma eliminated the direct election of regional governors and instead provided for presidential appointments. Up until now, most of the governors that were elected prior to the reform have kept their jobs, but we all knew this day would come. Yes, Russian media outlets are reporting that many governors are under threat of losing their positions this year (see the grades here).
  • Dima Deals Deadly Blows to Corruption – I almost forgot. This week, Pres. Medvedev also signed into law an order designed to fight corruption and graft among civil servants. This order is more form than substance, and essentially urges the adoption of measures to make the government more efficient, and is not explicitly aimed at corruption. This should not be confused with Medvedev’s comprehensive anticorruption law – ‘On Anti-Corruption Measures‘ – which was signed into law at the end of December. In fact, this week Medvedev met with the Anti-Corruption Council, where he said, “The federal and regional authorities have approved relevant plans of action, a system for monitoring these activities has started to function, and the legal framework created by our labours has already begun to show signs of life.” He also announced a “draft federal law on anti-corruption expert assessment of legislative initiatives,” which will assist in the interpretation and implementation of the law. While it is still early to judge the impact of these efforts, I think it is clear that Medvedev takes the corruption issue much more seriously than Putin did. I will try to write a more expansive post on Medvedev’s anti-corruption strategy in the future.
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