One of the most discussed developments of the last few weeks in Russia was the faceoff between Russia and Ukraine that occurred on November 25 in the Kerch Strait. While experts try to put this incident in the current political context, its long-term implications are unclear. Meanwhile, the Russian Economic Ministry released its outlook predicting, optimistically, that the economy will grow by 1.7 times by 2036. Finally, on the social front, the authorities are cracking down on popular musicians, with the arrest of a rapper called Husky garnering wide public attention as the bans on self-expression increase.

 

Vladimir Putin addresses the audience at Russia Calling!, the VTB Capital investment forum. Photo: en.kremlin.org.

 

  1. What Happened in the Kerch Strait

The story: On Sunday, November 25, a clash occurred between Russia and Ukraine in the Kerch Strait. Russia detained and towed three Ukrainian ships with 24 sailors on board to Kerch in Crimea, justifying the action by claiming the Ukrainian ships had illegally crossed the Russian border. The FSB reported three injuries.

What happened next:

  • Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a parliament-supported decree, establishing martial law in the regions bordering Russia and Transnistria, as well as the coast of the Black Sea and the Azov Sea starting November 28 and lasting 30days. Poroshenko argued that imposing martial law was nota declaration of war, but enacted solely for defense purposes. [Vedomosti]
  • On Monday November 26, Ukrainian activists threw smoke bombs at the Russian embassy in Kiev and others rallied in protest in other Ukrainian cities. [Bell]
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to the incident on November 28, calling it a provocation organized by Poroshenko to increase his chances in Ukraine’s presidential elections, set to take place on March 31, 2019 (he currently has a 10 percent approval rating). The Russian Foreign Ministry called it an “invasion of Russian waters.”
  • Putin labeled the incident a boundary dispute, contrasting it to the larger-scale nature of the Crimean annexation and even the ongoing conflict in the Donbass, thereby viewing what happened in the Kerch Strait as a manifestation of troubles internal to Ukraine. [Vedomosti]
  • Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, called the incident an attack of “undeniable Russian military aggression” that expanded the front of the conflict in the Donbass to the Black and Azov Seas. Ukraine also pointed to an agreement struck with Russia that guarantees free navigation in both the Kerch strait and the Azov Sea. [Kommersant]
  • Both Moscow and Kiev requested an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, and the Security Service of Ukraine opened a criminal case. Ukraine has NATO’s support, which reiterated Poroshenko’s call for Russia to immediately free the Ukrainian ships. European countries, including Poland and Germany, threw support behind increasing EU sanctions pressure on Russia. [RBC, Bell

What it means:

  • According to Ukrainian law, electoral campaigns begin three months before the vote, but cannot occur under martial law. Current circumstances may effectively postpone the March elections, which could give Poroshenko an advantage—Andrei Suschentsov of MGIMO posits that Poroshenko will use the crisis as a pre-election campaign.
  • Vladimir Paniotto of the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, writes that it’s unclear what effect martial law would have on Poroshenko’s low rating.
  • Far from the high expectations of the first post-Maidan presidential elections five years ago, the Ukrainian political space is marred with (dis)information warfare and distrust in Poroshenko’s administration. But it’s possible the Kerch Strait incident will shift perceptions, much like they did in Russia—between the Georgian War and 2013, Putin’s ratings fell 30 percent, only to return to much higher 2008-comparable levels after the Crimean annexation.
  • Alexander Gushchin of the Russian Council on Foreign Relations sees the Kerch Strait incident as a deliberate action by Ukraine, noting that in the past Ukrainian ships have successfully passed through Russian waters after properly notifying the Russian authorities.
  • But Volodymyr Fesenko of the Penta Center for Applied Political Studies believes that this escalation was going to happen sooner or later, given the intensifying military-political tensions in the Azov Sea since the spring. [Vedomosti]
  • As for the consequences, journalist Vladimir Solovyov at Kommersant predicts that though Russia technically won in the Kerch Strait faceoff by capturing the three Ukrainian ships, Ukraine will now play victim while Russia is labeled as an aggressor, likely winning new sanctions. [Carnegie.ru]

 

  1. Russia’s Bright Economic Future? 

The rundown: This week, Vladimir Putin used the annual VTB Forum, Russia Calling!—an international investment conference—to blow off steam about geopolitical tensions while praising Russia’s economic developments. The Russian Ministry of Economic Development also released optimistic predictions for the next 18 years, while presidential aide Andrei Belousov proposed a skeptical plan to implement new national projects with private investment.

  • Putin has attended the VTB Forum for the last ten years, though it’s never clear to what purpose. This year, however, the Russian president used the forum as an opportunity to make his first remarks on the Kerch Strait incident. He also commented on the country’s economic developments—implemented despite difficult conditions—pointing to Russia’s efforts to lower dependence on the U.S. dollar, and claiming that in spite of the pension reform, seniors will see greater governmental compensation. [Kommersant]
  • The discussion of the economy continued with a new announcement from Belousov that 12 infrastructure projects, mainly in the realm of transportation, are ready for registration. Back in August, Belousov raised eyebrows when he suggested that Putin withdraw 500 billion rubles from metallurgical and petrochemical companies to fund national projects like these. Altogether he has listed 174 initiatives, costing 10 trillion rubles. [RBC]
  • Belousov received criticism from Alexei Kudrin, the head of the Accounts Chamber and Russia’s former finance minister: For one, it’s not clear where the bulk of the money will come from. Secondly, it risks corruption, given that the state will be supporting private business ventures. [RBC]
  • Beyond this debate, the Russian Ministry of Economic Development released optimistic projections, claiming that by 2036 the economy will grow by 1.7 times, individual incomes will increase by 1.5, and investment in fixed assets will rise by 2.2 times. The report stated that employment will also grow from 72.2 million to 75.8 million people during that time.
  • Though the government plans to significantly increase infrastructure spending, nothing is being done to facilitate investment, says Natalia Akindinova of the Higher School of Economics. Given the growth of the public sector in the economy and the simultaneous oppression of the private sector, large-scale investment projects may not yield the results expected by officials. [Vedomosti]

 

  1. Who’s Afraid of Husky? 

The story: Over the last few weeks, a number of the young Russian alternative musicians found themselves under pressure from the authorities.

  • The latest scandal involves rapper Husky (Dmitry Kuznetsov), who was arrested in Krasnodar for alleged hooliganism and violation of the public order following his concert being shut down by police. Earlier in November, his concerts were shut down in Rostov-on-Don, Tolyatti, and Samara.
  • Some observers argue that the pressure on musicians critical of the authorities will only increase.

Background

  • Since late October, a number of concerts by alternative musicians have been canceled across Russia at the request of local prosecutor’s offices.
  • In Nizhny Novgorod, the prosecutor’s office acted upon the complaint of a group of parents who saw in the lyrics harmful content for their kids, including the promotion of violence, suicide, and even cannibalism, as well as calls for antisocial and destructive behavior, and mockery of death. [Kommersant]
  • Rapper Husky, Friendzona punk group, and 19-year-old singer Monetochka (Elizaveta Gyrdymova),who earlier this year released “the best Russian pop album of their year,” according to Meduza, were all put on the stop-list.
  • Another pop duo that suddenly faced pressure is Moscow-based group IC3PEAK, whichhad recently started touring across Russia only to find their performances shut down or canceled. Some allege that their lyrics are too politically sensitive. [Meduza]

What it means:

  • Anastasia Ivanova, journalist: The authorities clearly dislike the new language of the street, but the street dislikes prohibitions. Rap is not the cause of all woes in the country, but rather their reflection. The authorities don’t understand this new music and is threatened by its openness. When Husky was acquitted after four days’ detainment, he said he would “continue to sing [his] music.” This claim was immediately made political. [Vedomosti]
  • Yuri Saprykin, columnist: This story is not just about Husky. The stop-list of 19 musicians put forward by the Nizhny Novgorod “parental initiative” (though it’s not clear who is behind this group) is essentially a list of the most popular musicians among young Russians. The conflict, however, is not political in nature—it’s the eternal intergenerational divide. On balance, all the bans create solidarity among all the loose elements of the Russian public, which could be the country’s civil society.  [New Times]

 

Other stories that mattered this week (in Russian)

  • Five Years Without Maidan”: Journalist Konstantin Skorkin discusses the last five years of Ukrainian political history and asks whether Ukraine won or lost in the 2013-2014 revolution. The crucial task for the Ukrainian society, he argues, is not only to gain freedom, but to preserve it as well. [Republic]
  • Left Turn Looking Right”: Political scientist Vladimir Pastukhov writes about the rise of the populist right forces both in Russia and in Europe. On both sides, these reactionary forces are looking into the past, but the past is different for them: Soviet state capitalism for Russia and classical industrial capitalism for Europe. [Republic]
  • Aiming at the Kremlin”: On November 28, independent candidate Salome Zurabishvili (endorsed by the ruling Georgian Dream party) won in the runoff of the presidential elections in Georgia. On the eve of the vote, journalist Ilya Azar reports on the moods in the country and the Russia theme in the election. [Novaya Gazeta]

 

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