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Thursday, December 08, 2022

Normal life in Moscow 6 months after “Special Operations”

MOSCOW (AP) — At Moscow’s Ismailovsky souvenir market, you can buy mugs and T-shirts pointing to the deployment of Russian forces in Ukraine … from 2014, when the Crimean peninsula was annexed. There is nothing that points to a “special military operation” that began six months ago.

There are some clear signs in the capital that Russia is in the grip of Europe’s worst conflict since World War II. The letter “Z”, which previously symbolized the operation as it appears on Russian military vehicles, is now conspicuous by its absence.

There are hardly any loose posters at the bus stop with the face of a soldier or with the expression “Glory to the Heroes of Russia”. The posters do not give any clue as to what the soldiers are doing and where.

People’s silence, or state of denial, about the ongoing “operation” in Ukraine is striking in a country where military exploitation is part of the social fabric. The annexation of Crimea sparked immediate memories and images of President Vladimir Putin as “the gentlest man”, a nod to the widespread portrayal of Russian soldiers as Gentiles. Victory Day over Nazi Germany is a special holiday for Russians.

A former Lamborghini dealership on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, one of Moscow’s main thoroughfares, still displays a Victory Day banner despite the hall being dark. Lamborghini left Russia along with hundreds of foreign companies that moved or suspended operations after the Ukraine raid.

Empty businesses, in the dark, in the shopping centers where fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s and Starbucks used to operate, are the most obvious signs of conflict. The departure of these firms was a psychological blow to Muscovites, who had become accustomed to the benefits of consumer culture.

“At first, we were very disappointed,” admitted Yegor Driganov. “But other businesses have sprung up instead.”

The premises where McDonald’s and Starbucks operated were acquired by Russian merchants, who in a short time opened almost exact copies.

“Everything remains the same,” said Polina Polishchuk, Driganov’s partner, commenting on the mood of the people.

Officials say Russia may replace abandoned businesses, but many Russians privately express doubts.

A study by the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent pollster, indicated that 81% of Russians believe the country will be able to replace foreign food businesses with domestic alternatives, while only 41% believe That the local factories would be able to replace the local ones. Foreign electronic goods and barely a third believe domestic production of cars can offset the suspension of imports.

Sanctions prohibit the arrival of auto parts. Government figures say vehicle production in May fell 97% from the same month in 2021. Putin recently acknowledged that shipyards are also feeling the shortage of parts.

The panic in Russia eased somewhat after the announcement of Western sanctions and the departure of foreign firms. The ruble, which had lost half its value against the dollar after the sanctions, has not only recovered but is still strong today. While this is good for national pride, it is a heavy burden for sectors dependent on exports, whose products are now more expensive.

And the economic prospects of Russia among cross-statistics are not very clear. There is very little unemployment, contrary to what many have predicted. But GDP fell 4% in the second quarter of the year and is projected to fall 8% for the year. Inflation is also expected to remain at 15 per cent.

“It is clear that things will not be as they were before,” Elvira Nabiullina, the head of the Russian central bank, told an international economic forum in St Petersburg. “External conditions have changed for a long time, if not forever.”

As much as they see the economic turmoil, people are not worried.

Mikhail Sukhorukov, a souvenir seller in Izmailovsky, plays down forecasts of doom, even though he can no longer rely on foreign tourists, who were the mainstay of his business. “They are circles, like waves,” he said. He said he would rather be optimistic than “go to the cemetery”.

“In Moscow, you lead a normal life as people try to maintain normalcy and relative psychological peace,” said Nikolai Petrov of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House. “Russia is constantly heading towards a stagnant road and people prefer not to think about it and live their lives.”

Petrov also pointed out that Muscovites are “under the influence of summer (northern), people who do not see what is happening in the world and create their own reality, focusing on their families, holidays and all that. Huh.”

Barred from visiting foreign destinations, Russians are exploring foreign domestic destinations, such as Sakhalin Island, 6,300 kilometers (3,900 mi) from Moscow, where tourism is reported to have increased by 25%. Also of great interest is the beaches of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.

Despite the fact that little is said on the street about what is happening in Ukraine, radio and television are full of news. State television’s main news program, Vesti Nedeli, recently devoted nearly an hour to the military operation, showing the Russian army highly effective, equipped with the most modern weapons.

About 60% of Russians depend on state television for information. However, many consider it unreliable. A Levada study from this month indicated that 65% of Russians do not believe some or all of what they see in the state media about Ukraine.

“There are too many sources” of alternatives to state television, Driganov said, along the river.

However, to access many of these sources, you must have a VPN or virtual private network. The government has banned or blocked many foreign news outlets, harassing domestic ones, often forcing them to shut down, and banning the use of Facebook and Twitter.

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Dasha Litvinova contributed from Tallinn, Estonia.

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