The Façade of Fiscal Federalism in Russia

Since the early days of privatization, political conflicts between Moscow and Russia’s other regions have helped determine the contours of the country’s political space. Tax revenue centralization is one such outcome of this constant tension. For instance, the percentage of levied funds which are allocated directly to federal subjects fell from 65% in 1999 to 30% today. With these resources gone, unstructured transfers from the capital to the regions have become an important component of regional budgets, as well as a powerful instrument to reward loyalty.


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The Reddit War

On April 14, Reddit user nadiahamilton logged onto the Syrian Civil War subreddit to submit the following post:

4:02 am syrian time, damascus, I’m hearing some seriously loud and strong blasts. Is it happening already?”

A bit later, she added an update: “EDIT: somoene in barzeh just confirmed they’re attacking that area.”

The responses by the rest of the community varied wildly. User syrus5 added soberly that his family had also been awoken by the sounds of airstrikes. NewHendrix wondered whether the OP (original poster) and their family had survived the attack unscathed. Upholding the subreddit’s mission statement of “critical and substantive on-topic discussion,” DONUTof_noFLAVOR compiled a quick collection of press releases and livestreams of the raid. As the rest of the world soon learned, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration had just ordered retaliatory strikes in response to a recent chemical attack, targeting the Barzeh research center in regime-held Damascus. Other Redditors soon swarmed the thread to put in their two cents, mostly either denouncing American imperialism or calling for a diplomatic solution. As was typical for the community, it was easy to discern Syrian users from the rest: While Europeans and Americans were caught in the heat of the moment, those with deeper ties to the region postponed political judgments to discuss the facts.


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‘Roma’ and ‘The Favourite’: The Impact Citizens can have on Political Life

It’s normal not to feel in control. Despite how much we’re told that we’re able to steer our lives, it’s hard to dispute that some of the crucial facts of our existence are mostly determined away from our grasp. This may well be the truth cementing the very foundation of cinema. Stories, in their most common form, put one or multiple characters in front a challenge they need to overcome to achieve a desire. However they react, whether they manage to prevail or whatever they end up becoming in the process, the engine of traditional plots is the protagonist’s attempt to assert control over their life. For better or worse, a sense of agency is imbued into the hero, and by extension, into the viewer. Politics lend itself particularly well to being a narrative hurdle. Those who have attended any kind of political event, or participated even in the most menial party activities, will know that by its very nature, politics is a theater of contrasts and friction. Crucially, what matters is how individuals cope with the unholy entanglement of collective action, ideology and personal interest blocking the path towards their objectives, regardless of their motives.


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Hostages of Mythology

Gregory Carleton’s “Russia: The Story of War” masterfully dissects the fiction of Russia as a country under siege — despite perpetuating its myth.

Sitting on the train connecting Moscow to Minsk, roughly halfway through, travellers will notice a stop called Vyazma. It’s a town of roughly 60.000 inhabitants sprinkled with orthodox churches, a branch of the University of Smolensk and a couple of youth associations. It’s also honoured with the title of “City of Military Glory”, a designation reserved for cities that suffered greatly during the Second World War — or better, Great Patriotic War. And for good reasons: approximately 80.000 people were killed in a nearby concentration camp, and after the war only 716 survivors remained.

Vyazma’s past isn’t unique in this regard. One of the most estranging perceptions Western Europeans have about Russia is the ubiquity of war in the country’s public space; while citizens from the rest of Europe are familiar with marmoreal, dismissive monuments to the fallen, cities like Vyazma proudly tout eternal flames. Similarly, in countries like France or Italy, “civic education” means learning how society and government are organized; in Russia, it involves teaching first aid to girls and a pre-draft exercises for boys. “Our” schools train how to evacuate in case of fire; “theirs” how to wear gas masks in less than 30 seconds. Russian scouts shoot with AK-47s, while Europeans sell cookies for charities. The political implication is straight-forward: Russia has been in arms for so long that war has become the only language it will ever understand.

Given these perceptions it’s surprising how little historiography exists on a seemingly omnipresent aspect of Russian culture. Russia: The Story of War (Belknap Press) is the most recent — and prominent — academic work dealing with the topic. Beyond the strengths and weaknesses of the book itself, author Gregory Carleton has a substantial advantage as an academic: he’s not a historian of war. Despite how paradoxical it may seem, observing war as an immense tragedy rather than a science (or even a political phenomenon) allows for an original and unique understanding of its repercussions.

As suggested by the subtitle, the book analyses the story of war, or more precisely the narrative of a besieged country that was built on Russia’s military vicissitudes. To this aim, Carleton’s work runs on two tracks: at the core we have a sardonic recounting of the country’s history, from the Kievan Rus’ up until the annexation of Crimea; parallelly, he unravels how tsars, patriarchs and secretary-generals rationalized victory and defeat for the purpose of social control. As the recounting unfolds chronologically, he details the emergence of Russia’s war mythology battle by battle, focusing on the feudal-religious origins in the first third of the book and then moving to the immense hagiography of the Second World War. For every epoch, the author shuttles between the political state of affairs and its illustrious narrators: anonymous renaissance chroniclers, Dostoevsky, anonymous chroniclers from the Defence Ministry, as well as modern authors such as Soviet director Sergey Bondarchuk or Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich.

To do so, he strikes a careful balance between wider political context and the myth of the single wars, between observing society through the lenses of conflict and avoiding transforming the Russian people in formulaic characters of a wartime drama. In other words, Carleton tries to solve the same tension he remarks in the literature of Tolstoy, Russia’s greatest war writer: How does one write about the “Great History” without neglecting the plight of its victims? Be it under imperial, soviet or federal guises, Russian autocrats have always pushed a narrative of exceptionalism to justify their policies: “this self-image operates as a shield against accusations of belligerence, assuages anxieties and fears, accentuates the country’s prestige and, when needed, promotes national insularity as a virtuous destiny”. Wars are framed both as the apocalyptic defence of the Orthodox faith and the ultimate destiny of Russia as the saviour of humanity. As in 1812 and 1941, it’s the country’s call to protect the world from the evil of the next megalomaniac: however, the West will never recognize this millennial struggle and will always turn a blind eye to the fact that if it wasn’t for the Eurasian colossus, the world would’ve fallen under the rule of European monsters such as Napoleon and Hitler. The West’s lack of gratitude is integral part of Russia’s war myth, as it both confirms its role as a noble outcast and reinforces its worst expectations.

Writing about this exceptionalism, one runs the serious risk of reinforcing the notion that Russia isn’t a normal (read: Western) country — as acknowledged by the author himself. Nevertheless, The Story of War still suffers by putting emphasis on this apartness of Russia, even unfairly. So, while the role of the orthodox faith is undeniably particular to the Russian case, the same can’t be said about the historiographic tradition of alleviating defeats by framing them as acts of heroic valour. Similarly, the trauma of the Mongolian domination over the Rus (“The Yoke”), is often used as a cheap explanation for the Russian obsession with honour and political humiliation; but while Carleton goes to great lengths to dissect its paradoxical role in modern politics, he does little to push back against its use in the euroatlantic sphere. In the same way the Internet associates every sickness with cancer, pundits like to link Russian politics to its “tartar roots”.

What truly lacks in an otherwise great work is a comparative approach, which would have undermined Moscow’s propaganda by pointing out how much of the country’s grim history is shared by the rest of Europe, from the fratricidal wars to periods of anarchy such as the catastrophic “Times of Troubles” and the 30 Years War.

But it’s hard to blame the The Story of War. Foreign observers are caught in a vicious cycle: as they write about a country exceptional enough to earn their attention, they become potential vectors for superficial justifications. Another recent example would be Charles Clover’s excellent book Black Wind White Snow, which in the process of ridiculing pan-Eurasian ideology ended up giving to the movement far more importance than it politically has. This tendency can be only countered by field work and distrust for the deceiving power of abstraction. Explorations like those of Carleton and Clover are too often caught in intellectual reveries in which the human element is mostly inconsistent. The mundane, personal dimensions are largely neglected in favour of the grand narrative tracked by the authors.

A counterexample can be found in connoisseur of “mobsters, cops and spooks” Mark Galeotti, who delivers books that are certainly drier than the philosophical adventures by Clover or Carleton, but that draw strength from a fabric of personal stories. In his latest work on the Russian mob, The Vory, Galeotti equates the long battle between legality and crime to the paths taken by countries such as Italy. He strikes a note of useful self-evidence: endemic criminality and corruption have plenty equivalent abroad, and the reader should beware of who is benefitting from the myths espoused by public opinion.

The same obvious tone permeates the writings of Russian political experts and opposers of the regime: Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan’s account of digital censorship in Red Web, Arkady Ostrovsky’s history of mass media The Invention of Russia and Mikhail Zygar’s All the Kremlin’s Men all assume that Russia isn’t an exceptional country — and that a pivot to liberal democracy is possible. What they all have in common is a deep interest in the human experience, not exclusively the narrative that has been built around it. These are stories of street politics, of banal personal greed that forms the backbone of social engagement. If to them political myths are a tool of oppression to be ignored, foreign experts are fascinated by myths as such; what makes them interesting is not nature as tools of power, but rather their literary construction. Unlike their Russian colleagues, they struggle to build a competing account from which readers can take inspiration.

This is not to say that admirable The Story of War is a work lacking empathy. In fact, it’s when relying on the first-hand experiences of soldiers and civilians that it truly shines: the atrocities of the siege of Sevastopol, the senseless carnage of Red Army offensives and the systematic oppression of veterans returning home are horrendously vivid. Beyond manifestations of sympathy or the pretension of comprehension, he forces the reader to follow the logic that has lead generations to bear tyranny, mostly out of exhaustion. There’s an emotional but linear progression that connects the heroic resistance of Soviet troops at Brest fortress in 1941 to the occupation of Crimea. According to philosopher Sarah Ahmed, collective pain is the most efficient tool to forge a sentiment of togetherness because it creates a clear demarcation between the body politics and the foreign object injuring it.[2] As the USSR before it, the multicultural Russian Federation has rallied around its wartime history to ignore the dangerous intestine forces that could lead to its corrosion. The book’s returning theme of anarchy through civil war is a masterful reminder of how this type of conflict is portrayed in the country’s official history: not primarily as the dramatic decay of social order, but as the foolish exposure of Russia’s soft underbelly to its preying enemies. The frictions, caprices and confrontations that may eventually spark civil unrest are to be ignored — the danger from abroad is too dangerous. And here is where I think Carleton both excels and fails: throughout the book he leads the reader trough the butchery of history, forcing the reader to feel why the concept of a “nation under siege” is so effective. However, he does so from a perspective of exceptionalism, positing that this incredible suffering is what makes the country ultimately abnormal. The result is that The Story of War entertains both the best and the worst notions on Russia: it eviscerates its “civic religion” of war, but by opting for a purely impartial observation, it comes near to “flatten[ing] conceptual horizons and drive meaningful discussion into the ground[3]. Putting the myth under the magnifying glass doesn’t discard it by revealing its imperfections: it swells it to the point of intellectual ubiquity. It encourages the reader to empathize with an image of the Russian people rather than the real, historic suffering of the imperial subjects. The complex social, cultural and political network that shapes history is deprived of agency in favour of a simulacrum, one that we fully know being purely rhetorical, but which is nevertheless king.

From a European perspective, the immersion into this war myth can easily encourage to look at the immense neighbour as a black mirror, where the greatest flaws and aberrations of our societies materialize. As written by (the rabid nationalist) Dostoevsky, “[Us Russians] have become one of their proverbs[4]. To accuse The Story of Russia of this would probably be as unjust as blaming a book on mythology to not care about the plight of ancient Greek slaves. But then again, dwellers of the Oracle of Delphi don’t have access to the world’s largest nuclear stockpile. And with relations this strained, the last thing we need is the temptation to accept this estrangement. This book is certainly a good starting point to better understand the rhetoric of Russian nationalism — but beware. The Kremlin is already doing much to culturally amputate its country from the rest of the world: do we really need to give them a hand?


[1] His previous work was Sexual revolution in Bolshevik Russia. Pittsburgh : University of Pittsburgh Press, c2005.

[2] Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004. 10

[3] Russia: The Story of War, p. 254

[4] Fyodor Dostoevsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh, vol. 25 (Leningrad: Nauka, 1983), 49, 22.

 

The United Nations in Mali: A New Approach to Peacekeeping?

Impartiality has been one of the guiding principles of United Nations peacekeeping since the organization’s inception. This principle has been applied from the first deployment of blue helmets between Egyptian and Israeli troops in 1956, after the Suez Crisis. This operation supported the role of the UN as a facilitator of inter-state settlements. As a passive enabler of local political initiatives, the objective of UN peacekeeping operations was to minimize frictions during and following peace negotiations.

Since then, the global shift from interstate conflicts to civil wars has required a conceptual change in how impartiality is conceived, raising questions regarding the concrete meaning of impartiality, how to implement it, and whether it’s a desirable feature of UN peacekeeping. The progressive broadening of mission mandates has moved peacekeeping away from simple force interposition onto multidimensional missions, merging military policing with political initiatives such as demobilization and reintegration of former combatants.


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Russkiy Business: Russia’s “Franchise” Diplomacy

At the end of October, Verona hosted the 11th Eurasian Economic Forum, which was one of 2018’s most anticipated business conferences.

The importance of the forum is evident if we consider the participation of VIPs such as Rosneft’s CEO Igor Sechin. His presence has attracted most of the spotlight, mainly because of the recent difficulties encountered by joint ventures between Rosneft and Italian energy company ENI. However, this gathering is not just a photo opportunity and a chance to discuss formal economic cooperation. Events such as the Eurasian Economic Forum are part of a broader strategy which focuses on building personal networks between Russia-oriented entrepreneurs.  These ties are fundamental in compensating for Moscow’s inability to create a positive business environment and attract foreign capital organically. Moreover, these events also aim at filling the gaps in Russia’s wider business diplomacy, which is restrained by the country’s slow progress on market reform.


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Evgeniya Chirikova, Russia’s Constant Gardener

“It’s important that the Russians understand that resistance is possible”.  A conversation with Evgeniya Chirikova, one of Russia’s most prominent environmental activists.

Evgeniya Chirikova’s days are, for the lack of a better word, normal. She wakes up in the early morning, sends her children to school, and reads the news before starting to work. Her job mainly consists in shaking hands, Skype calls and answering emails. Later, she edits vlogs commenting recent news. In the afternoon, she has tea with her family, while their dog tries to snatch whatever falls from the table. Finally, the parents help the kids with their homework and tending the garden. But this routine doesn’t do justice to Mrs. Chirikova’s life, which is all but unremarkable. Formerly a small business owner, she currently lives in exile in Estonia, where she fled following increasing intimidation by the Russian authorities. In 2007, she jump-started a protest against the destruction of Khimki forest, close to her home in the Moscow suburbs. Initially, she and her neighbors just pleaded to the local government to save the forest by modifying the path of the upcoming Moscow-Saint Petersburg highway, but as the corruption behind said project became evident, it quickly snowballed into something bigger. “The fact is that after public criticism of Putin’s policy, our movement fell into the blacklists and the media stopped writing about our activities. After another attack on our [environmental] camp by bandits who were hired by local authorities, we realized how important it is to have media support; so we decided to organize our own media“. With the help of some friends and some coding magic, activatica.org was born.


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A Movie about Berlusconi, Through the Eyes of a Young Italian

Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro is a biopic about a character that never existed.

When my parents first met, in 1992, politics was very difficult topic to avoid, especially in Milan. The city had become the epicenter of the biggest political scandal of the century when the unearthing of a minor investigation had led to discovering an immense network of favors and gifts compromising most of the country’s political and economic leadership. You would’ve been hard pressed to find someone whose employer hadn’t been summoned to court. My parents worked for a gargantuan industrial conglomerate, and unsurprisingly their cubicles were regularly raided by the financial police. I grew up hearing the stories of old socialist politicians trying to hide the grease money in the bookshop where I bought most of my childhood’s books, of how the collapse of the old order had happened almost overnight.


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Voice, and Loyalty: Leveraging Migrant Communities

Diaspora communities represent a unique tool to leverage host countries and compromise domestic security, but also a powerful opportunity for democracies to strengthen liberal groups opposing rising and established dictatorships.

Two years have passed since the refugee wave that took European politics by storm. Since then, much of the continent’s leadership has settled on a strategy aimed at managing the incoming migration flow abroad while trying to contain the mounting pressure at home. The public discourse is dominated by two opposing camps: on one side, re-surging ethno nationalist movements argue against the dangers of multicultural society, which is often painted as a driver of security risks and terrorism; on the other, progressive parties that try to balance their sense of humanitarian obligation with the temptation to pander to the masses with equally xenophobic campaigns.


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