Friday, December 2, 2016

Putin May Launch a Charm Offensive by Taking Cosmetic Steps to Avoid Real Reform, Kashin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – Both to keep his domestic opposition off balance and to take advantages in changes at the top of Western countries, Vladimir Putin may soon launch a charm offensive, using what some call a “putting lipstick on a pig” strategy in which he will make small cosmetic adjustments that promise more but do so to avoid making any major changes.

            In a commentary for Radio Liberty, Russian journalist Oleg Kashin says that it is rumored that in the Kremlin, there is a safe in which there is an envelope containing the regime’s last “trump card” to be used when things appear so bad that there is no other obvious way out. On that envelope is written “in large red letters, ‘Liberalization’” (

                Inside that envelope, he says, there is “a plan,” one “precise, long and clever” so that when it begins to be implemented “not everyone will immediately take note” of what is actually going on and may even be fooled by it. Kashin says that a senior official who helped prepare this plan has shared with him some of its features.

            Among its features, he says, are the following: the dismissal of the notorious culture minister and the disbanding of the Military History Society “for lack of funds,” the dispatch of Putin’s biker buddy back to his biker base, a sudden decision not to introduce Orthodox culture lessons into the schools, and the imprisonment of someone for having killed Boris Nemtsov.

            Other steps include: allowing the movie Mathilda to be widely shown, a new television program to which opposition figures will be invited, a softening of limits on foreign adoptions, dropping charges against Aleksey Ulyukayev, and Putin during a visit to the Butovka polygon saying that he is against the full rehabilitation of Stalin.

            Such a strategy he suggests “will not immediately but very quickly change the atmosphere in society.” There will be fewer alarmist commentaries and more predictions of further liberalization. And one sign of this will be that each such act by the Kremlin will be presented as “a signal” of Putin’s intentions.

            The presidential elections will pass quietly whenever Putin decides to hold them, and many in the West will decide that now is the time to cooperate with the Kremlin leader because he has turned the corner and will only do more good things if the West will only show some support.

            But that will only demonstrate, Kashin continues, that once again both have been deceived because “the main secret” of the Putin regime is its ability “to change everything while changing nothing.” That happened under the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev “and after Bolotnoye and after Crimea and certainly will be realized once again.”

            “To say ‘the worse the better’ is considered unseemly, but the reverse, ‘the better the worse’ in fact adequately describes Russia’s prospects which risk consisting of a cosmetic liberalization with the preservation of the most awful elements of the state.” “Insurance” against this consists of the most repellant people around Putin and the coming to their senses of others.

            The latter are the more reliable, of course, especially if they quickly recognize that this charm offensive is “entirely a deception and that it is directed at the strengthening of the powers that be” rather than anything else. In that, Kashin says, is its true essence: “it is not liberalization but rather a provocation.”

            Eliminating biker buddies or obscurantist culture ministers won’t fundamentally change the system. Instead, such steps will take the pressure off the regime to change significantly, he concludes, ending with the warning: “fear liberalization” when it is clearly being carried out on behave of “honest, in the sense of open, reaction and authoritarianism.”

West Must Look Beyond ‘Symptoms’ and Deal with the ‘Disease’ Putin Represents, Borovoy Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – Recently, at long last, European and American governments are beginning to respond to and work to counter Russian propaganda, Konstantin Borovoy says; but in doing so, they are addressing “a symptom” of the much larger and more dangerous “disease” that Vladimir Putin and his regime represent.

            “No Congress and no European parliament is in a position to spend” the billions that would now be required to counter Russian propaganda, the Russian opposition leader says; but even if a great deal of money were to be found for that, it could easily become an excuse not to address the underlying problem (

            “There are several problems which today agitate humanity and the West. Among them are Crimea, the East of Ukraine, Syria, and increased Russian espionage activity in Europe and the US,” Borovoy says.  All of these are manifestations of one problem which is called ‘Putin’s Russia.’”

            That means the West must focus on “the Putin problem,” the Russian politician and commentator continues. Doing anything else, however well, is only treating symptoms; and “treating symptoms is useless. One must cure the disease.”

                Those who say that “’we are in a period of Cold War’” are deceiving themselves, he says. What is “cold” about what Putin is doing in Ukraine or Syria? And Putin’s use of information war has proven very effective precisely because he sees it as part of a real war rather than as a substitute for that as do many in the West.

            Restricting the activity of propaganda outlets, as many are suggesting, “isn’t useless and can be even effective” – but only on condition that there is a complete understanding that “Russia Today, Sputin and all kinds of lobbying groups are not manifestations of ideological clashes but instruments for the conduct of military activities on the territory of an opponent.”

            Such an understanding, Borovoy says, “has not yet come to the West, and representatives of these media (in essence, they are murderers)” use the freedoms of the West against the West on a regular basis. But eventually as in Ukraine and in Syria, this “’ideological” battle becomes a “physical and armed” one.

            “The West’s recognition of the danger of these processes is occurring very slowly,” he points out.  But its people and its leaders must recognize that for Putin, information war is war and not something else, and they must be prepared to act on that understanding rather than remain in denial until it is too late.

Moscow’s Latest Project for a ‘Muslim Patriarchate’ Set to Fail

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – Moscow’s latest effort to create a single administrative structure for Russia’s growing Muslim population will fail and fail for the same reasons earlier ones did: the absence of Islamic sanction for Russian Muslim spiritual directorates (MSDs), the ambitions of various Muslim leaders, and Moscow’s interest in continuing to play its divide and rule game.

            Many Russian officials, overwhelmed by the complexity of the Muslim community within Russia and the existence of more than 80 MSDs supposedly in charge of its parts, have called for the creation of a single MSD over the Russian umma, a project some see as leading to the formation of a single Muslim “patriarchate” on the model of the Russian Orthodox Church.

            The latest of these efforts has surfaced this past week, and it has attracted a great deal of media attention as, in the works of “Moskovsky komsomolets” “a new federal muftiate” ( But whatever aspirations its leaders or their government backers have, it is unlikely to become that.

            On Wednesday, Albir Krganov, the mufti of Moscow, the Central Region and Chuvashia and until three years ago an associate of the Central MSD in Ufa, announced the creation of a Spiritual Assembly of Muslims of Russia, a name that recalls the first MSD in Russia, the Orenburg Mohammaden Assembly ( and

            “The current situation of the umma, to put it mildly,” he declared, “leaves much to be desired.” The muftiates are fighting among themselves and competing in their attempts to get money from foreign “’sponsors.’” That in turn has led to splits and confusion among the faithful over which fetwas to follow.

            Krganov said his organization already had the support of “dozens” of regional ones and was interested in promoting discussion rather than the suppression of this or that MSD.  The Assembly will be directed in the first instance, he concluded, at countering “pseudo-religious extremism and terrorism.”

            It is not clear how much real support Krganov has.  An earlier effort to create a new centralized MSD under his direction failed.  In 2010, he created the Russian Association for Islamic Agreement (All-Russian Muftiate), but it failed to take off and in March of this year it was disbanded.
            Prior to this week, there were four MSDs in Russia with aspirations to dominate the Russian umma either directly or through the other 78 regional MSDs: the MSD of the Muslims of Russia in Moscow, the Central MSD in Ufa, the Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus, and the MSD of the Republic of Tatarstan.

            Russian officials have long been unhappy with this diversity of centers of religious authority. Earlier this year, Igor Barinov, head of the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs, called for uniting them because their existence gives “additional opportunities for extremist ideas to penetrate the umma” (

            In his commentary on this latest move, Andrey Melnikov, editor of “NG-Religii,” is skeptical that the Russian authorities will get there way and manage to reduce even slightly the number of MSDs with which any government has to deal or even find an effective new ally in the war on extremism in this latest effort (

            The reasons for that are three-fold. First, the MSDs, a joint government-religious project under tsars, communists and now the Russian Federation, have no basis in Islamic law and practice. Any group of Muslim communities at least now is free to form a new one, and all Muslim parishes have the right to go their own way and even have no ties to an MSD at all.

            Second, the leaders of the four largest MSDs which do have all-Russian aspirations are doubly divided. On the one hand, their leaders have a long history of distrust in one another and regularly work at cross purposes. And on the other, they more than any single MSD could do reflect the diversity of Islam in Russia.

            And third, while some officials might like “a Muslim patriarchate,” many are likely to be frightened of such an institution. Were it to be created, it would likely be more difficult to manage than the current situation in which Moscow can play one group against another and thus weaken both.

            Moreover, if Moscow did manage to create a single MSD, the most likely outcome would be a refusal by many parishes and individual Muslims to have anything to do with it, something that would lead to more not less independence and diversity within Russian Islam and even promote the rise of an updated version of the underground Islam of Soviet times.