Wed, 23 Sep 2020

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Coffee has won Russia's hot-drink Cold War, outpouring tea for the first time in a major shift in traditional values. President Vladimir Putin says the country needs to do better at high-tech to preserve its status as a "separate civilization," while an expert calls it a "declining power" that must be watched warily by the West. And Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is hospitalized as COVID-19 marches on.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Tea Leaves?

When Russians try to forecast the future based on scant information at hand, they read the coffee grounds, not the tea leaves. Aside from that, though, tea has taken precedence over coffee in Russia. Until now.

In "the land of the samovar," as Bloomberg called it, the unthinkable has happened: Coffee overtook tea in 2019, according to an industry association that, judging by its name, ought to know. RusTeaCoffee said that Russians drank 180,000 metric tons of whole bean, ground, instant, and coffee mixes, while tea consumption dropped to under 140,000 metric tons, falling behind after the rivals were poured at equal measure - 160,000 metric tons - for two years running.

Unthinkable, that is, unless you think back -- to the options on offer in the decades during which tea reigned supreme in the Soviet era. No Starbucks, no Kofe Khaus, no Kofemania or Kofein, no mocha lattes in a cup with your name - or an approximation thereof - scrawled on the side.

Tea - sometimes in colorfully labeled cubes that declared it Georgian or Indian -- was easier to come by and, arguably, harder to ruin. The attraction of a cup of coffee and a cigarette is diminished when it's unclear whether the former contains real coffee and the latter tobacco.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev drink tea during breakfast at the state residence in Sochi in 2015.

"Since the communist era, Russians have preferred tea, while coffee was considered an elite drink," Bloomberg quoted RusTeaCoffee chief Ramaz Chanturiya as saying on May 14. "Over the last decades, coffee has been growing and finally won, led by the younger generation's consumption outside of the home."

In the past decade alone - the third decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union - coffee consumption nearly doubled, state-run TASS cited the association as saying.

In addition to countless coffee chains in a country that once had only a handful of spots like Shokoladnitsa near the statue of Lenin at the start of Lenin Avenue on Moscow's October Square, coffee is of course available at mini-marts, supermarkets, and hypermarkets nationwide.

In 2018, 11 years after opening its first Russian branch, U.S.-based Starbucks opened Russia's first coffee drive-thru, the English-language Moscow Times reported, in a "sleepy suburb" that is perhaps a little less sleepy now.

Then And Now

With baristas and all the rest, Russia is in some ways far more like the Soviet Union's Cold War foes than it was nearly 30 years ago - or even 20, or 10.

But in remarks broadcast on state TV on May 17, President Vladimir Putin suggested Russia has some catching up to do in at least one department: high-technology.

Putin often couches expressions of concern in bravado or hides acquiescence behind a show of defiance.

In this case, his argument was that Russia risks losing what he asserted is its status as a distinct civilization if it lags behind the West and the rest. To be less like them, in other words, we need to be more like them - or at least do what they do, as well or better.

"Russia is not just a country, it's really a separate civilization," Putin said. "If we want to preserve this civilization, we should focus on high-level technology and its future development.

"These new technologies have appeared and they will change the world -- they're already changing it," he said in remarks that were recorded in September.

The Moscow Times pointed out that they were aired "days after Putin chaired a meeting on genetic technology where the CEO of state oil giant Rosneft" - close Putin ally Igor Sechin - "asked for a tax exemption for its investments in the field."

American political scientist Joseph Nye, a champion of "interdependence" in international affairs, suggested that Russia's shortcomings in high-technology are among the reasons that the United States should watch Moscow closely.

Risky Russia?

Nye, whose influence helped shape Western thought in the latter stages of the Cold War, also downplayed the notion that Europe might be eager to significantly boost ties to Russia or China at the expense of transatlantic relations.

Russia is a 'declining state' due to factors such as a diminished workforce and its failure 'to adapt its economy to a modern-technology economy as opposed to an energy-based economy,' Nye, a former dean at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service in an interview on May 11.

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