Monday, January 23, 2017

Are Russia’s Closed Discussion Clubs Becoming ‘Hybrid’ Think Tanks or Something More?



Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 23 – Russia lacks the tradition of think tanks found in many Western capitals, but the rise of closed discussion clubs where Russian officials, businessmen and experts can meet to share ideas, test trial balloons and network may give Moscow a “hybrid” form of the Western practice, according to Olesya Gersaimenko.

            But because of the specific features of Russian political life, these closed clubs, the “Kommersant-Vlast” journalist says, may play an even larger role in defining the future in the event of any dramatic change at the top of the country’s power pyramid or even help to promote such changes (kommersant.ru/doc/3195648).

            Gerasimenko begins her long and detailed article with the observation that even as official and street politics in Russia have quieted down, “ever more non-public intellectual clubs, discussion circles and closed seminars ‘for those connect’ are appearing.

            Some of these have been formed by people who graduated from the same institution such as MGIMO and then went to work in various sectors. Others have been put together to discuss and promote specific ideas such as Russian national rebirth. And still others serve as an updated version of the circles of 19th century Russia and the kitchen conversations of Soviet times.

            The Higher School of Economics is the basis for one, and the Skolkovo Business School for another, she writes, noting that their organizers insist that “this is no shadow government or general conspiracy, but it is an informal means of seeking solutions. That is what such clubs are for.”

            Most try to meet once a month, although some lack the money to rent halls that often and others pass into and out of existence too quickly to keep to any schedule.  Some are tightly drawn from one ideological part of the political spectrum, but others are proud of being open to almost everyone so that members can expand their contacts.

            The groups mostly operate off the record and closed to outsiders, not only because they view themselves as “the brains” of society, something that could offend the mass public, but also because their members want to operate “below the radar screen” of those in power lest participation hurt their careers. Consequently information about them is sometimes hard to get.

            A few of these groups have assumed a higher and more public profile such as the Izborsky Cllub or the Stolypin Club, and while it would be wrong to call them “the Decembrists of the 21st century,” it may be appropriate to see them as an updated version of groups under Louis XVIII or kitchen discussions from the Soviet past.

            Many who are interested in politics turn to these closed circles because they do not want to take part in regular political parties. The former are safer and yet provide satisfaction by linking people of like mind together and allowing them to speak with one another more or less openly and without fear.

            But at the same time, Russia’s future politicians may emerge from these clubs when the time is right – that happened when Medvedev became president, some of their leaders say – and these groups may be where those who have been ousted from politics at least for a time may choose to meet with others. That too, Garasimenko says, has happened as well.

Trump is ‘an Existential Enemy of the Baltic Countries,’ Russian Portal Says



Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 23 – According to a Russian portal directed at Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, US President Donald Trump is “an existential enemy of the Baltic countries,” a conclusion that may not be true but that clearly matters to the extent that it informs Moscow’s approach to the three NATO countries in the coming months.

            In a lead article today, the editors of the Rubaltic portal argue that the American leader has shown that he doesn’t need the Baltic countries as “an anti-Russian ‘buffer zone’ in Europe” and that he “does not intend to support America’s allies in the Baltic region” (rubaltic.ru/article/politika-i-obshchestvo/23012017-inauguratsionnaya-rech-trampa/).

            The Rubaltic editors say that all this is clear from a close reading of Trump’s inaugural address, a speech that shows Trump not only does not see the Baltic countries as they see themselves but is the political opposite of what the leaders of those countries have hoped for and worked for since 1991.

            Trump’s statement that the US “does not want to impose our way of life on anyone” represents his rejection of “American global dominance and its messianic course of spreading the liberal values of democracy and human rights throughout the world from South America to Georgia and Ukraine.”

            Moreover, the American president’s words show that “realism, pragmatism and national interests are the theoretical foundations” of his approach and that his focus abroad, indeed the only one he mentioned in his speech, is the fight against Islamist terrorism not for anything or anyone else.

His speech thus is “a mortal threat for the colossal infrastructure which has been created over the last several decades for securing American global domination,” for those who  have promoted “’color revolutions’” and the rights of “feminists, environmental activists, human rights activists, supporters of LGBT rights, vegans and so on.”

Among those who are going to suffer most from Trump’s rise “are Baltic politicians and other American satellites in Europe who have guaranteed the political domination of the US in the Old World,” RuBaltic says.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have made their foreign policy a derivative of the foreign policy of the United States … They have given the best years of their lives to America, but  this … can’t promise that America will come to the aid of the Baltic countries in the case of Russian aggression.”

But Trump is an opponent of other ideas that now predominate in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius as well, the portal’s editors say. He is in favor of re-industrialization rather than the creation of a post-modern information society of the kind that the Baltic governments have favored in their effort to do away with “’Soviet monster’” factories up to now.

Thus, RuBaltic says, “Donald Trump is an existential enemy of the post-Soviet Baltic region,” an attitude that reflects not a difference of opinion about this or that policy but rather a fundamental divide in world views.

In this situation, all the Baltic elites can do is to pray that Trump doesn’t remain in office for long or is blocked in the realization of his intentions.  But for the moment, they have to come to terms with the fact that as of now he is “the boss,” and they will have to behave like all serfs do in the presence of the master.


‘Russians Need an Identity Permitting Them to Exist Happily without an Empire,’ Russian Historians Say



Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 23 – The Free Historical Society and the Committee on Civic Initiatives have released a 53-page report entitled “What Kind of Past Does Russia Need for Its Future” which argues that in recent times, arguments about history in Russia have become a surrogate for and even more important than political debates.

            Znak journalist Dmitry Kolezev summarizes its findings with a list of what he describes as the 22 most important propositions the liberal historians offer (znak.com/2017-01-23/doklad_liberalnyh_istorikov_kakoe_proshloe_nuzhno_buduchemu_rossii_glavnye_tezisy; his article contains a link to the full report which is available via Dropbox.)

            Below are the reports key conclusions:

·         “The language of history in Russia has become the only language of the present.”  As a result, “history in Russia is more than history;” it is the only way Russians can now discuss their present and future.

·         “Beginning in 2011, Russia turned from having an image of the future into having a cult of the past,” a shift that recalls “the re-animation of the Soviet theme in the 1930s.”

·         “Many historical issues in Russia remain unresolved.” Indeed, “the past of the country remains a place of civil war and there is no end in sight to this civil war.”

·         “The treatment of any historical events as invariably ‘great’ is a kind of political manipulation” because it leads Russians to believe that their millennium-long history is more important than “the economic successes of the country, a normal life without war, and the well-being of Russians.”

·         “The USSR in the eyes of its residents was ‘the chief country of the world.’” And that attitude has resurfaced among Russians. In the early 1990s, Russians talked about “’the Russia which we lost.’” Now, they talk about “’the USSR which we lost.”

·         “At the same time, in the USSR itself, world history at least nominally was treated as a movement toward freedom and against enslavement,” something that contributed to “the militarization of history” which survives to this day.

·         “In present-day ‘official history,’ the theme of the struggle for freedom is minimized. Heroes of uprisings are labelled rebels or misguided liberals.” And the official version of the past seeks to remove from the biographies of those identified as positive any evidence of conflicts with the powers that be.

·         “The history of the Russian powers that be is treated as one of their infallibility and good actions.” The state is treated as something “holy.”

·         “Everything connected with modernization has receded into the background. The main heroes have become conservatives and reactionaries.”

·         “The history of Russia’s relationships with the external world is being rewritten,” to stress Russia’s separateness from Europe and to create “a model of false patriotism.”

·         Official history now requires that there be only one interpretation of the past and that the mythologization of that past is not only appropriate but must be defended against those who question it.

·         “Dissidents and those who think differently have been excluded from the official discourse.”

·         “Fear about the growing crisis and images of the collapse of the regime have given birth to an intensive rethinking of history by officials.”  A major aspect of this is the treatment of all crises as the result of conspiracies especially launched from or connected with foreigners.

·         “In sum, the political regime and the archaic-authoritarian technologies of administration of the country are legitimated by the past.”

·         “Official Stalinization has not occurred,” but over the last decade, the powers have destroyed what had been the consensus about Stalin’s repressions and thus “the immune system of the majority of the nation” to their return. Znak publishes the section of the report on this subject for those who do not have access to Dropbox (znak.com/2017-01-23/palachi_i_zhertvy_kak_stalinskie_repressii_prodolzhayut_vliyat_na_rossiyan).

·         The regime’s ideology has reduced victory in World War II to a black and white pattern one in which no questions about its complexities are tolerated.

·         This “simplified cult of victory is ‘a means of legitimization of the present-day authoritarian regime.”

·         “National history is understood exclusively as the history of the state” and never as the history of the people or of their struggles for freedom.

·         This official history is being used to return the identity of Russians to “its former matrix: hypercenralization, the monarchical character of supreme power and the rightlessnesss of the broad popular masses which is compensated by growing imperial ambitions.”

·         “The absence of the empire” just now is temporary because ever more writers close to the Kremlin insist that “the existence of the Russian state outside of an imperial matrix is included.”  That prevents Russians from acquiring “an identity and a political structure which allows them to successfully and happily exist after the empire and without an empire.”

·         “Imperial history is the history of wars,” and its elevation into a national value means that “the peaceful future of the country is unthinkable” unless that reading of the past changes.

·         “An honest, free and responsible attitude toward the past is a guarantee that the future of th country can be chosen freely.”