Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Armenian Events Leave Moscow with Hobson’s Choice of What to Lose, Russian Analyst Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 22 – In the wake of Nikol Pashinyan’s meeting with Putin in Sochi and his declaration that Yerevan will not change from its Moscow-centered foreign policy, many in the Russian capital are “moderately optimistic” about the future of Russian interests in the southern Caucasus, Aleksey Fenenko says.

            But they shouldn’t be because there are compelling reasons to think that Armenia’s drift away from Russia will not only continue but intensify, the Moscow State University specialist on international relations says, and that this will force the Kremlin into a Hobson’s choice over what it will have to sacrifice (

            If it backs Yerevan, it will lose much of what it has gained in recent years with Baku and Ankara; but if it doesn’t, the Russian Federation will have to watch as yet another former Soviet republic moves from the Russian camp into the Western one, something that Moscow may have fewer levers to prevent than it currently believes.

            “Over the course of the last decade,” Fenenko says, “Armenia’s pro-Western course has constantly intensified.” It has signed agreements with NATO even though it is in the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty, and it has signed an accord with the EU even though it is a part of the Eurasian Economic Community.

            According to Fenenko, “American and European NGOs freely operate in Armenia.” The government of Serzh Sargsyan couldn’t stop this, and “now Sargsyan has been overthrown by a primarily pro-Western opposition,” consisting of “an entire generation of young and not so young politicians educated on American and European grants.”

            “This stratum has exploited the growth of alienation from Russia in Armenian society,” an alienation that intensified after Moscow made clear in 2016 that it would be a guarantor of the security of Armenia but not of Nagorno-Karabakh. That added to the social tensions in Armenian society.

            “In a well-known sense,” the Moscow analyst says, “Sargsyan repeated the fate of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze who also attempted to balance between Russia and the West, raised up a pro-Western elite and as a result was overthrown by it.” As in Georgia, the successor regime will be more pro-Western than its “balancing” predecessor.

                The new regime in Yerevan isn’t about to break with Russia anytime soon, but there are three “crises” on the horizon in which its “gradual distancing” from Moscow are likely to be manifest, Fenenko continues.  First, Armenia’s cozying up to the EU creates serious problems for the tariff borders of the Eurasian Economic Community, problems that can easily spread.

                Second, Pashinyan’s tougher position on Karabakh puts Moscow in a difficult position especially if the US and France, the other co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, decide to move in his direction in order to weaken Russian influence in the region.  If Russia backs Yerevan, it will lose its positions in Baku and Ankara; if it doesn’t, it will lose in Armenia and the region.

            And third, Yerevan’s involvement with NATO calls into question its participation in the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty, not only by making Armenia’s future role in that less clear but by providing a model others could follow in moving away from the Russian Federation.

            Thus, Fenenko concludes, “Russia risks finding itself in a politically difficult situation. Support for the new pro-Western government in Yerevan will undercut all the positive results of dialogue with Azerbaijan and Turkey.” But failing to support Yerevan will lead Armenia to move even further in a pro-Western direction.

            The Russian government consequently is in the position of a chess player who must decide which piece to sacrifice because he and it is in a position where regardless of what the opponent does, he and it will lose one of them and perhaps even be on the way to being checkmated.

            Few in the Russian capital want to think about this possibility for the Caucasus now, Fenenko suggests; but ever more are going to have to because of what Moscow has done up to now and how Armenia has reacted and decided to  move forward.

30 Years Ago This Week an Ethnic Russian Region Rose Against Moscow and Forced It to Back Down

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 22 – “Thirty years ago, from May 21 to May 28, 1988, Soviet Sakhalin stood in the squares and called the authorities to account for the impoverished condition of the people,” Regnum’s Olga Demidenko writes. Protests spread across the region, and Moscow was forced to fire the region’s obkom secretary, “an unheard of event in the Soviet Union.”

            She picks up ( on the memoirs of those day that have been assembled by a regional news agency, KrabikMedia ( and not insignificantly posts her article under the rubric “politics” rather than “history,” an indication of the way the 1988 events echo today. 

            Until 1985, heavy government subsidies meant that the people of Sakhalin lived far better than many of their counterparts elsewhere in the USSR, people there recall; but then came Mikhail Gorbachev and everything “began to change” and “not for the better” – the shelves of stores emptied and by May 1988, “Sakhalin was in fact at the brink of hunger.” 

            To be sure, no one died; but only because they could go into the forests or to the rivers and sea and find food for themselves.  People had to stand in long lines, and they were offended by the fact that the communist party elite continued to live well and to do nothing, even as their own lives deteriorated. 

            Vera Boltunova, described by Demidenko as “a real participant of the Sakhalin Spring of 1988, a member of the CPSU, a happy mother of three children, and an employee of the regional gas and oil prospecting trust, says that everything began when the appeals of Moscow and the actions of local officials diverged.

            Moscow was talking all the time about glasnost and perestroika and about the need to select “real leaders, “she says; “but local party bosses demanded that people vote for the only candidate they put forward. The opinion of rank and file communists wasn’t considered or taken into consideration.”

            Sakhalin residents were angry but the trigger for the protests, Boltunova and others recall, was the visit to the region of a central television journalist who invited people to come and talk about their problems and “unexpectedly” said that the first secretary of the CPSU Oblast Committee had been accused of “exceeding his authority.”

            Petr Tretyakov’s crime?  “He had given his own daughter an apartment out of line.”  Boltunova says that a party boss would do that was no surprise but that a Soviet journalist would talk about it and suggest that others do as well very much was. Then, obkom officials made things worse: they expelled the journalist from Sakhalin.

            That was too much under the circumstances. On May 21, small groups of people began to assemble in front of the local theater.  And at the invitation of several people in the crowd, they began to share their grievances which went far beyond the heavy-handedness of the obkom secretary.

            There was no extremism in this, and some of the protesters, led by bulldozer operator Sergey Mikhail kept order. After a few hours, they elected “an initiative group” and it undertook to organize similar groups in workplaces and in neighborhoods.  The idea that the people could take things into their own hands spread like wildfire.

            By May 28, thousands of people from around the oblast flooded into Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to take part in a mass meeting whose slogans were: “Give us perestroika!” “Down with privileges” and “Raise the militance of party organizations!” And participants said bluntly: “if the authorities don’t understand how the simple people live, how can they run things?”

            “None of those knew then that an enormous country, the USSR, had only three years left or that ahead of the Sakhalin residents and everyone else of the rest of the Far East could look forward to a real hell, which has passed into history under the name of ‘the wild 1990s,’” Demidenko says.

            “As Regnum has reported,” she continues, “the incomes of citizens of today’s Russia have been falling for the last four years. The government of the new-old prime minister Dmitry Medvedev is talking seriously about raising the retirement age.” Many say that will create “a nightmare for the country.”

            And this tragedy of the people is occurring when the new bosses are living well and amassing enormous wealth that they claim they have “’honestly earned’” but that most believe they have stolen from the people, the Regnum journalist says. As for Sakhalin, conditions are again bleak.
            The island’s residents “today just as 30 years ago, are complaining about collapsing housing, about how new construction quickly collapses because it isn’t being built up to standards, about shabby hospitals, the lack of places in schools, and a whole range of other misfortunes.

            It is thus an open question, Demidenko implies, if and when they will act as their parents did 30 years ago. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Moscow’s Opposition of Integration of Ethnic Russians in Other Countries Costing It Influence, Kazarin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 22 – At a time when it is attempting to Russianize and even Russify non-Russians living within the Russian Federation, Moscow is doing what it can to block the integration of ethnic Russians living in other countries, thereby costing itself influence and leading to more ethnic re-identification among them than anyone expected, Pavel Kazarin says.

            The Russian journalist and commentator points out that “any diaspora is always a form of soft power for the maternal state, a force which is integrated into the new motherland and thus can aspire to the role of ‘ambassador’ for the old one.” That’s been true for Ukrainians in Canada, Armenians in France and Jews throughout the world (

            “But nothing similar has occurred among ‘Russians abroad,” Kazarin continues. “They haven’t become trend setters. They haven’t created a strategy for the future. They haven’t been able to become lobbyists even of their own interests.” And this has been the case, he says, “for one simple reason:” Moscow views them only as irredenta.

            For Moscow, the millions of ethnic Russians in the former Soviet republics are to remain as they were so that they can become “a pretext for ‘reunification’ in the framework of a single common state. And for a quarter of a century, the Kremlin has done everything in order to preserve this lever of influence.”

            Moscow has done what it can to block “the integration of ethnic Russians into the political nations of those countries in which they are fated to live. The very idea that Russians could live according to interests not of Moscow but of their new capitals is viewed as treason” in the Russian capital.

            According to Kazarin, “the Kremlin never needed the adaptation of ethnic Russians. On the contrary, it needed the maximum amount of isolation of ethnic Russians so that it could from time to time speculate about the defense of these ‘persecuted and oppressed’ people.” It opposed the idea of “Russians for Ukraine” insisting that they be Russians for Russia even in Ukraine.

            From Moscow’s perspective, ethnic Russians in these republics should remain unchanged from Soviet times, should be informed only by nostalgia for the past, and should represent a kind of “museum exponent” rather than living and breathing human beings.”

            As a result of this Moscow attitude, Kazarin says, “no Russian parties not focused on the Kremlin have appeared in the Kremlin.” Those who have tried to organize them have been denounced as “a fifth column.”  And all of this reflects the fact that Moscow “isn’t interested” in the Russians but only in itself.

            In Ukraine’s Donbass, for example, the interests of ethnic Russians are “secondary relative to the interests of the Russian leadership. Moscow fights not for them but by means of them: citizens for the empire. And not in any single case the reverse.” But Russians recognize this and that has had consequences Moscow can’t possibly want.

            “Moscow was certain that the Ukrainian east and south would fall into its embrace, that the Russian language is sufficient for its bearer to be an agent of ‘the Russian world.’ But it has turned out that all this is not the case,” Kazarin says.

            “As a result of the invasion of Ukraine, something happened which Moscow has always feared: Ethnic Russians began to integrate into Ukraine – as a result of an independent choice which they have made between their own motherland and their new one. And in this new situation, the Kremlin can’t count on them.”

            Their new identity is replacing their old one, the commentator says; and in the next census, the number of people identifying as ethnic Russians is likely to decline far more than anyone now expects.