Saturday, October 25, 2014


Audio Podcast: Autocrat Man

Is the "collective Putin" becoming less collective?

It's been called a "sovereign democracy," a "managed democracy" and an oligarchy.

But with Vladimir Putin's decision to annex Crimea and the nationalistic fervor and hunt for traitors that followed, an increasing number of Kremlin-watchers now say Russia becoming something simpler and cruder: a good old-fashioned autocracy.

It has long been assumed that Putin was the front man and decider-in-chief for an informal collective leadership -- the "collecticve Putin," if you will.

But with Western sanctions poised to hit key members of Putin's inner sanctum hard, and reports that much of the elite was dismayed by the annexation of Crimea, it increasingly looks like Putin is turning into an autocratic ruler who is no longer restrained by his court.

Is the collective Putin becoming less collective? And if so, what are the implications?

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss this issue. Joining me are Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas," Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of "Sean's Russia Blog," and RFE/RL correspondent Merkhat Sharipzhan.

Also on the podcast, Kirill, Sean, Merkhat and I discuss the new "pan-Russism" -- the Kremlin's efforts to use ethnic Russians abroad as a political weapon.

Enjoy...
 
Power Vertical Podcast -- March 28, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- March 28, 2014i
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Power Vertical podcast, Vladimir Putin, pan-Slavism, Autoctracy, Collective Putin


Podcast: Tactical Victory. Strategic Defeat?

Has Vladimir Putin set events in motion he won't be able to control?

Russian state television called it historic and a pivotal event, and in many ways it was.

Russia's annexation of Crimea, which was formalized this week, was the first such territorial seizure in Europe since World War II. It also sent a signal that the Kremlin no longer intended to play by the rules that have governed international affairs for decades.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin's speech may also turn out to be pivotal and historic in ways the Kremlin leader did not intend. In resetting Russia's domestic political agenda with a wave of anti-Western nationalism, he may have also unleashed forces he may not be able to control.

The past week will certainly go down in Russian history as a watershed. But the question looms, how?

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss the ongoing domestic fallout of the Crimean annexation in Russia.

Joining me are Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of "Sean's Russia Blog," and Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at The New School and author of the recently published book "The Lost Khrushchev: A Family Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind."

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- March 21, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- March 21, 2014i
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

The Pros And Cons Of Propaganda

Propaganda works. But only for awhile.

Propaganda works. Or at least it's working for the time being.

In concluding his speech to a joint session of parliament this week, Vladimir Putin claimed that 92 percent of Russians favored the annexation of Crimea.

The number was inflated, but not by much, according to Lev Gudkov, director of the independent Levada Center, Russia's most respected pollster. In a recent interview with Gazeta.ru, Gudkov said his data show that nearly 80 percent of Russians consider Crimea to be part of Russia.

In recent weeks, Westerners have looked on with derision at the over-the-top and clearly inaccurate way the Russian state-controlled media have depicted events in Ukraine: a coup by neo-Nazis that has unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism and reprisals against Russian-speakers, sparking a humanitarian crisis and a surge of refugees escaping the chaos.

Who would believe this stuff, right? I mean, the facts on the ground so obviously run counter to the distorted and outright false picture Kremlin spin masters have so carefully painted.

Well, apparently somebody does.

According to Gudkov, between November 2013, when mass demonstrations in Kyiv started, until late February, when President Viktor Yanukovych was deposed, a clear majority of Russians thought what was happening in Ukraine was an internal affair and Russia should not interfere.

Now, in addition to the 79 percent who view Crimea as part of Russia, some 58 percent favor the deployment of Russian troops

"The campaign that began in the last week of February -- which was unusual in its intensity and aggressive tone -- has drastically changed the public mood," Gudkov said. "The propaganda has stunned people. The public is now in an agitated state with all of their imperial complexes awakened."

So game over, right? Putin's got his mojo back and he's got his people behind him. It's 2007 all over again.

Well, not so fast. The propaganda may be working wonders for the Kremlin now. But according to Gudkov, it will likely prove ephemeral -- and eventually cause a backlash. "After a while, the effect will wear off and a pensive state will set in," he said.

And after the pensiveness, comes the backlash. And the reason for this, Gudkov said, can be found in the very nature of propaganda itself. "Propaganda's effectiveness is directly linked to the subject. It is very difficult to convince people that the authorities consist of competent and decent people.  But it is easy to convince them that Americans torture adopted Russian children because this cannot be verified," he said. 

"Basically, propaganda destroys alternative understanding. It may not quite convince people, but it imposes on them the cynical view that everyone is a bastard, politics is a squabble between interest groups, and nobody should be believed."

And it is here, he added, that the Kremlin may end up being a victim of its own success.

"The Kremlin spin doctors and manipulators do not understand that after a while this will turn against the Russian authorities themselves because imposing such a view of social processes in a country dominated by a paternalist state mind-set cannot but lead to increasingly negative attitudes toward the authorities themselves" he said. 

"This should end with clear analogies or the association of the current Russian authorities with the Yanukovych regime."

Gudkov is not alone in predicting that what looks like a stunning victory for Team Putin will soon turn into an albatross.

Writing in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Aleksei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center says Putin has changed the game both in his relations with the elite and with society -- and dangers loom on both fronts.

"The president has to know that even in the ruling class many people are 'perplexed' by his Crimean action, and this is contributing to irritation with the leader," Malashenko writes.

He'll still be president for a very long time. But he’ll no longer have a iron-clad rear. As an ex-security service officer, he surely has to sense this. And keeping nationalist intensity at its height for any length of time is very difficult. People will soon be distracted by things like inflation and other issues from which their attention has been temporarily averted."

And how will Putin react when this happens?

In a recent interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta," political analyst Nikolai Petrov had a chilling prognosis. "There will follow a surge in Putin’s popularity and a consolidation of the legitimacy of the regime. But this surge will be very brief," Petrov said.

"When the price is clarified, we will see that people are not prepared to pay it. Not prepared to take part in a war, not prepared to live under the stiff sanctions of the West, and so forth. And Putin’s task will be in this short time to organize repressive mechanisms. In order, when the public enthusiasm subsides, to preserve the system of control of the country.”

With the ongoing crackdown on independent media -- most recently the television channel Dozhd, which has already been pulled off cable networks, lost its lease -- those repressive mechanisms appear to be already moving into place.

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to listen to the "Power Vertical Podcast" on March 21 when I will discuss the issues raised in this post with co-hosts Sean Guillory and Nina Khrushcheva.

Tags:propaganda, Vladimir Putin, Lev Gudkov


Audio Podcast: Springtime For Putin

A woman in Simferopol walks past a mural depicting Russian president Vladimir Putin giving a hand to Ukranians.

Vladimir Putin's inner circle is shrinking; the Kremlin's crackdown on dissent and independent media is intensifying; and Russia's economy is bracing for a shock with unpredictable consequences.

The ongoing crisis in Crimea is changing -- perhaps fundamentally -- Russia's domestic political arrangements. In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we look at how.

Joining me are Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows;" and Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas."

Enjoy...
Power Vertical Podcast -- March 14, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- March 14, 2014i
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Through The Crimean Prism: Five Things We've Learned About Russia

Changing the game. Vladimir Putin chairing a meeting with Russia's Security Council on March 13.

Every time Vladimir Putin opens his mouth, the goalposts seem to move.

After speaking with the Kremlin leader by telephone this week, Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev said Putin told him that Ukraine's 1991 independence referendum -- and therefore the subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union -- was "not really legal." 

The Russian president's comment, which spread like wildfire on social media, could not be independently confirmed. But given that Putin has called the Soviet breakup the "greatest tragedy of the 20th century," it certainly seemed plausible.

And it served as as the latest reminder that with the Crimean crisis, we have entered into a new phase of the post-Soviet and post-Cold War period.

"Russia resorted to military force because it wanted to signal a game change," Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Sofia-based Center for Liberal Strategies wrote in "Foreign Affairs." 

The most immediate manifestation of this is in Russia's relations with the West and with its former-Soviet neighbors. But Putin has also initiated a clear game change at home, which is visible in how he makes decisions, the constituencies he appeals to, how he views the Russian economy, and how the Kremlin deals with dissent. 

The Incredible Shrinking 'Collective Putin'

It has gone by different names, from "the collective Putin" to "Putin's Politburo." But Kremlin-watchers have long argued that Russia is governed by an informal clique, a collective leadership of about a dozen key figures -- with Putin as the front man and decider-in-chief. 

Veterans of the security services have always had the strongest voice in this inner sanctum,but they did not monopolize it. They were countered by a group of technocrats seeking to integrate Russia into the global economy -- until now, that is.

The way the decision to intervene in Crimea was made seems to suggests that the "collective Putin" is getting smaller and smaller -- and is entirely made up of of KGB veterans.

Putin, it appears, has made his choice. The battle between the siloviki and the technocrats is over -- and the siloviki have won.

"The decision to invade Crimea, the officials and analysts said, was made not by the national security council but in secret among a smaller and shrinking circle of Mr. Putin’s closest and most trusted aides," according to a recent report in "The New York Times."

"The group excluded senior officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the cadre of comparatively liberal advisers who might have foreseen the economic impact and potential consequences of American and European sanctions."

According to the report, the group included Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, and FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov -- all of whom served with Putin in the KGB in the 1970s and 1980s. Other reports suggested that Russian Railways head Vladimir Yakunin, a close Putin confidant widely rumored to have KGB ties, was also present.

The Best Laid Plans

In all likelihood, Putin has been preparing for something like the Crimea intervention for some time.

Less than a year after he returned to the Kremlin in May 2012, he initiated a campaign to force officials who hold assets abroad to repatriate them. The campaign to "nationalize" the elite was presented as an effort to make Russia less vulnerable to Western pressure. 

The respected political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko said at the time that Putin was seeking to make sure officials were "completely independent of foreign countries and fully accountable to the president." 

And with the threat of economic sanctions now looming, those that didn't heed Putin's warnings are probably having regrets.

In a recent post on Facebook, Valery Solovei, a professor at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, said based on conversations he's had with insiders, the handful of officials with Putin when he made the decision to intervene in Crimea don't hold foreign assets.

Fortress Russia

Taken together, all of this suggests that Putin is on the verge of sacrificing the economic gains of the past decade on the altar of imperial expansion.

The sidelining of the technocrats and the fact that the Kremlin felt it necessary to compel the political elite to repatriate its assets suggests that Russia is retrenching on its longstanding policy of integrating into the global economy.

Citing unidentified officials, Bloomberg reports that Moscow is "bracing for sanctions resembling those applied to Iran after what they see as the inevitable annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region." One official said a sanction war with the West "could wipe out 10 years of achievements in financial and monetary policy." Another said it "could erase as much as a third of the ruble’s value." 

Bloomberg also cited Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, as saying Putin met senior officials in Sochi on March 12 to discuss Russia's options in a "difficult global environment."

Russia's main stock market, the MICEX, has had its worst week since 2011 and on March 13 closed 24 percent below its January 2013 high. Likewise, the ruble has lost nearly 10 percent of its value this year.

Putin, Krastev wrote in "Foreign Affairs," is apparently ready to abandon all thoughts of Russia being a European nation in good standing -- far better for it to be a civilization of its own -- and has proved willing to sacrifice his country’s economic interests to achieve his goals."

Tightening The Screws

And as Russia stops to even pretend that it cares what the West thinks -- or does -- it appears that the opposition is in for a rough ride.

From the closure of independent websites like Grani.ru, Kasparov.ru, and "Yezhednevny zhurnal" to the firing of Galina Timchenko as editor of Lenta.ru, it is clear that the crackdown that began when Putin returned to the Kremlin is intensifying. And it is intensifying concomitant with the escalation of the crisis in Ukraine.

"As Vladimir Putin sends troops into Crimea and hints at following up on this cruel gambit with further moves into eastern Ukraine, he is, step by step, turning back the clock on information," David Remnick wrote in "The New Yorker" magazine. "It is a move of self-protection."

This week's rollback of independent media was preceded by a series of moves earlier in the year that now appear part of clear pattern.

On January 24, the popular social networking site VKontakte came under Kremlin control when Pavel Durov, its founder and CEO, was pressured into selling his remaining shares to Ivan Tavrin, a partner of pro-Putin oligarch Alisher Usmanov. 

Late January, the opposition-leaning television Dozhd TV came under fire for posting a controversial poll about the Leningrad blockade during World War II. In early February, Dozhd's main satellite and cable providers announced -- one after another -- that they would stop carrying the channel, effectively barring it from the airwaves. 

And on February 28, a Moscow court placed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny under house arrest, barring him from speaking to the media and using the Internet.

Nationalist Love

Suddenly, the nationalists love Putin again.

When the Kremlin leader lost the support of Russia's urban middle class in 2011-12, he began appealing to the the working and urban classes with populist appeals.

There was just one problem with this strategy. The country's nationalist electorate, a key part of this demographic, had turned against him. Indeed, angered by an influx of migrant workers, many had become enamored of Putin's nemesis, Navalny. 

In addition to the predictable chants of "Russia for Russians," "Stop feeding the Caucasus" and various antimigrant diatribes at this year's Russian March, there were plenty of calls for the end of Putin's "Chekist regime."

But with Putin flexing Russia's imperial muscles with his incursion into Crimea, all seems to be forgiven.

"The most radical members of the nationalist subculture are rushing before our eyes to become ardent 'Putinists' and are eager to swear allegiance to the current government, which only recently they opposed because of the 'import of Tajiks,'" commentator Aleksei Roshchin wrote in Politcom.ru

This week, for example, Aleksandr Prokhanov, editor in chief of the nationalist newspaper "Zavtra," penned a commentary singing Putin's praises in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia." 

"Western pressure on Russia will be enormous," Prokhanov wrote. "But the response will be society's spiritual mobilization and consolidation around their leader -- Putin. He has qualities unsurpassed in world politics. In the image of a spiritual leader, Putin has said 'Russia --  this is your fate.' And now we see how the fates of Russia and its president have merged."

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to listen to the Power Vertical Podcast on March 14, when I will discuss the issues raised in this post with co-hosts Mark Galeotti and Kirill Kobrin.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Power Vertical blog, crimea, Vladimir Putin, Russian politics


Audio Podcast: The Crimean Game Changer

Three cities. One crisis.

We've been here before.

In the conflicts in Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- as well as in Moldova's separatist Transdniester region -- in the early 1990s. We were here dramatically, in Russia's August 2008 war with Georgia.

And here we are again today in Crimea. And soon, we may find ourselves in the same place yet again -- in Ukraine's Russophone East.

In the past, these conflicts resulted in Moscow's de facto control of another state's territory.

The stakes are higher this time. But do we have any reason to believe the outcome will be any different?

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we look at the effects of the ongoing crisis in Crimea, both domestically in Russia and internationally.

Joining me is Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows"; and Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas." 

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- March 7, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- March 7, 2014i
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

Tags:Crimean crisis, Russia-Ukraine relations, Vladimir Putin


The Crimean War Redux

An armed man in military uniform, believed to be Russian, stands outside Ukraine's naval headquarters in Sevastopol. Inside, Ukrainian troops guard the base.

The last time Russia and the West clashed over Crimea, one of Vladimir Putin's heroes, Tsar Nicholas I, was in power. And it didn't end well.

If past is prologue, Putin should be more than a little nervous about the adventure he is now launching.

The 1853-56 Crimean War, which Russia ostensibly launched to protect the rights of Orthodox Christians on the Black Sea peninsula (sound familiar?), ended with its military soundly routed by an alliance of Great Britain, France, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire.

In the aftermath, Russia was temporarily barred from having warships on the Black Sea. It lost the territories of Moldavia and Wallachia. And it was in so much debt that it was forced to sell Alaska -- to the United States -- for a song.

Losing the Crimean War, while humiliating, also led Russia to launch a wave of reforms under Nicholas I's successor, Tsar Aleksandr II, including the abolition of serfdom, judicial reform, and a new system of local self-government.

History, of course, doesn't repeat itself. It doesn't even always rhyme. And a direct military conflict with the West is, to put it mildly, highly unlikely. (And a new wave of reform, even more so.)

But with the ruble tumbling to record lows and Russian shares falling, Putin's decision to flex Moscow's military muscle on the Black Sea peninsula, and implicitly threaten to invade the rest of Ukraine, has already proven costly. The MICEX fell by 11.3 percent, wiping nearly $60 billion off the value of Russian companies in a day and the Russian Central Bank spent $10 billion of its reserves to prop up the currency.

And it will get costlier still. In Prague two government ministers said this week, for example, that Russia's Atomstroieksport should not be allowed to bid for a $10 billion contract to expand the Czech Republic's main nuclear power plant. And although the Czech prime minister later walked back the comments, the issue of Russia's participation in the tender will become increasingly contentious.

We should expect more of this kind of thing, which will disrupt Moscow's carefully orchestrated business strategy in Eastern Europe, as the crisis drags on.

Putin appears to be counting on a scenario similar to its August 2008 war with Georgia, which caused Western protests and hand wringing -- but little resistance and no real consequences for Russia -- and ended with Moscow firmly in control of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"Yet a war in Ukraine would be potentially catastrophic for Russia and Putin, in a way that invading Georgia could never have been," Bloomberg's Marc Champion wrote in a commentary on March 1.

"If Putin decides on a real military intervention in Ukraine, he will be gambling everything he has."

Champion notes that "in terms of Western response, Putin cannot be as sanguine as he was in 2008" adding that "NATO member Poland cares deeply about its neighbor Ukraine, and even Germany would find a Russian onslaught in Ukraine too close for comfort."

Additionally, he adds, Russia today does not enjoy the advantages it had in 2008, when oil prices were climbing and the Russian economy was growing.

And while snatching Crimea from Ukraine will prove costly for Russia in ways that securing Abkhazia and South Ossetia was not, a full-fledged invasion of the rest of Ukraine could prove to be a catastrophic and bloody quagmire.

"If Russian troops really delve into the Ukraine, I think Putin will not remain in power for more than one year," political commentator Mikhail Yampolsky wrote in Colta.ru

"It is difficult to imagine that Ukrainians will simply lay down their arms and bow humbly under the boots of Russian 'peacekeepers,' especially if Russian troops try to penetrate beyond the Crimea," Yampolsky wrote.

"Recently we witnessed the Berkut troops trying to clear the Maidan. The center of Kyiv was like hell and this was a battle between civil society activists and police loyal to the president. Now, imagine in place of the Berkut are Russian paratroopers -- occupiers -- and fighting alongside the locals, Ukrainian soldiers with guns."

In a post on his Facebook page, Valery Solovei, a professor at the prestigious Moscow State Institution for International Relations, wrote that he had spoken to well-informed insiders and concluded that the situation was "very serious and even tragic." 

Solovei wrote that Putin made the decision to intervene in Crimea with the support of a small group of five or six senior officials who have no assets in the West; that the Kremlin is counting on a weak Western response; and that if this turns out to be correct, Russia will move to annex eastern Ukraine in the coming weeks.

He adds that there is opposition to the decision within the elite, but officials are afraid to speak out. "These officials don't dare to oppose Putin. They almost superstitiously believe in his good fortune," he wrote.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service,  suggested that Putin has simply taken leave of his senses. 

"The poor guy's brain isn't working," political commentator Stanislav Belkovsky told RFE/RL's Russian Service.

"It is a typical case of schizophrenia, what is happening now. It is a medical case, and when this happens, it is impossible to say what a person will do five minutes from now. It is simply unpredictable. It would be irresponsible to try. Such a person needs a strong sedative and isolation from society."

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE: This post has been updated.

Tags:Power Vertical blog, crimea, Crimean War, Vladimir Putin


Podcast: Russia's Two-Front War To Contain The Maidan

Russia's two fronts: Containing the contagion and reversing a stinging geopolitical setback

What do a court placing Aleksei Navalny under house arrest, the mounting unrest in Crimea, the roundup of opposition protesters in Moscow, and Russian military exercises near Ukraine's border all have in common? 

They are each part of the Kremlin's reaction to last week's Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine.

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we look at Russia's two-front war against the Maidan. The objectives: contain the contagion at home and reverse a stinging geoploitical setback abroad.

Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti -- a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows" -- and guest Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of "Sean's Russia Blog."

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- February 28, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- February 28, 2014i
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Power Vertical podcast, Euromaidan, Russian opposition, Aleksei Navalny, crimea


A Specter Is Haunting Russia

A protester holds a placard that reads "Maidan" outside a courthouse in Moscow on February 24.

A crowd chants "Maidan! Maidan!" before riot police move in, arresting scores of demonstrators. Three people stand behind a makeshift barricade of burning tires waving Ukrainian flags and banging sticks against metal shields.

A redux of violence in Kyiv? Not quite. Both of these scenes took place in Russia.

The first was in Moscow today, where hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside a courthouse where defendants in the so-called "Bolotnaya case" were being sentenced for their roles in anti-Kremlin protests that turned violent in May 2012.

In addition to the Maidan chants, the crowd also shouted in Ukrainian "Bandu het" (Out with the gang!) and hurled insults at riot police, calling them by their Ukrainian name, "Berkut."

Among those detained were opposition leader and anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny as well as Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina.

The second scene happened in St. Petersburg a day earlier, on February 23, and was the work of performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky, who earned international headlines in November for nailing his scrotum to Red Square to protest Russia's "police state."

A specter is haunting Russia -- the specter of Ukraine's Euromaidan.

The stunning and dizzying fall of Viktor Yanukovych's regime -- which the hapless Ukrainian ruler tried to model on Vladimir Putin's kleptocratic and authoritarian power vertical -- is inspiring Russia's opposition.

Pavel Durov, the iconoclastic founder of the popular social-networking site VKontakte, helped a pro-Maidan video called "Fear is not Real" to go viral by republishing it on his page (a big h/t to Kevin Rothrock at Global Voices for flagging this.)

WATCH IT HERE: ​
 
In a February 22 post on his Facebook page titled "Lessons of the Maidan," opposition figure Boris Nemtsov wrote that the conditions that led to Yanukovych's fall are all present in Russia. 

"The only difference is that Putin has more money and the Russian people are more patient. But their patience is not infinite," Nemtsov wrote.

"Will the Kremlin learn the lessons of the Maidan? Will they lie and steal less? Will they give citizens their freedom back? I doubt it very much. They will lie even more. They will seize and cling to power more. Place your bets on repression. Then comes the inevitable Russian Maidan."

Whether or not the inevitable Russian Maidan is on the way, Nemtsov is right to place his bets on repression, intimidation, and petty harassment in the near term.

Police detained more than 300 people on February 24, some outside Moscow's Zamoskvoretsky Court and some who were attempting to enter Manezh Square near the Kremlin for a rally in support of the Bolotnaya defendants (seven of whom received sentences ranging from 30 months to four years). 

And wearing the wrong colors, even by accident, can get you in trouble in Moscow.

Yegor Maksimov, a journalist with Dozhd TV, tweeted that he saw a man detained by the police for wearing a hat with the blue-and-yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag. 

"Idiocy! A man in a blue-and-yellow hat, WHICH HAD NEW YORK INSCRIBED ON IT, has been detained," he wrote, adding that the police said to the man: "So you support Kyiv, do you? Come with us."

Tweets and social-network posts supportive of Ukraine's Euromaidan are also increasingly attracting the authorities' attention.

Yulia Archipova, a student at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, found this out the hard way. Russian TV and radio journalist Vladimir Solovyov used an entire program to deride her and other students for pro-Maidan posts.

As Kevin Rothrock wrote at Global Voices, Archipova, who holds a Russian passport, was "vilified (in absentia) for being a homosexual-loving Ukrainian citizen."

They used to say that when Moscow sneezes, Kyiv catches a cold. We'll soon see if this logic works in reverse. The Russian opposition seems emboldened by the Maidan and a spooked Kremlin is tightening the screws to prevent the revolutionary virus from spreading north.

As I've blogged in the past, the protest movements in Ukraine and Russia have been energized by the coming of age of a post-Soviet generation in both countries that yearns for a different kind of politics.

The difference is in Ukraine -- where the security services are less embedded in politics, the system is more pluralistic, and civil society is more developed -- people were willing to remain on the streets in large numbers even in the face of brutal police tactics and live ammunition. The more the authorities cracked down, the more emboldened and persistent the demonstrators became. The Ukrainian street simply wore the regime down.

The Russian street has not shown this kind of stamina and resolve. At least not yet.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Russian opposition, Euromaidan, Bolotnaya case


Audio Podcast: When Russians Talk About Ukraine

A Tale of two cities? Kyiv in flames; Bolotnaya defendants in the dock

The Russian state-controlled media has described the unrest in various alarming ways: A coup attempt by extremists and neo-Nazis; a Western-backed insurrection; and a nefarious attempt to dismember Ukraine, just to name a few.

For its part, the Russian opposition, while disturbed by the violence in Kyiv, is raptly watching events in Ukraine with a mixture of envy and respect.

And as the Ukrainian crisis climaxed this week, many Russians' attention quickly shifted from the Winter Olympics in Sochi to the showdown on the streets of the Ukrainian capital.

So what are Russians talking about when they talk about Ukraine?

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss what lessons the authorities, society, and the opposition are absorbing from the Euromaidan uprising. Joining me are co-hosts Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas," and Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows."

Also on the podcast, Kirill, Mark, and I discuss Russia's so-called Bolotnaya case, which wound up this week with guilty verdicts for eight anti-Kremlin protesters and the trial of Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov, which has just commenced.

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- February 21, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- February 21, 2014i
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Power Vertical podcast, Euromaidan, Russian politics, Russian opposition, Bolotnaya case, Sergei Udaltsov


Audio Podcast: The Comeback Kid

Putin's Olympic kitsch

Suddenly, Vladimir Putin seems to be having the time of his life.

He is visibly relishing the Sochi Olympics, which -- at least in the eyes of the Russian public -- are coming off much better than expected. There has also been a noticeable, and predictable, backlash against foreign criticism in the run-up to the games.

And, oh, by the way, Putin's approval ratings are steadily and clearly rising.

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss the Putin "resurrection." Is it real? Is it an illusion? Is it a trend?  Or is it a blip?

Joining me are Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas"; Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School and author of the forthcoming book "The Lost Khrushchev: A Family Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind”; and Kevin Rothrock, project editor for RuNet Echo at Global Voices, author of the blog "A Good Treaty."

Also on the podcast, Kirill, Nina, Kevin, and I discuss the economic storm clouds appearing on Russia's horizon that have suddenly gotten Putin's attention.

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- 14 February, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- February 14, 2014i
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X


Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Power Vertical podcast, Vladimir Putin, Russian politics, Sochi Olympics


Podcast: The Sochi Syndrome

Sochi 2014, a metaphor for Russia

They're finally here!

After years of anticipation, the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi are finally underway.

What do the the seven years of preparations for the Sochi Olympics illustrate about Russia? And how will things develop once Vladimir Putin's big party is over?

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss Sochi as a metaphor for Russia.

Joining me is co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows.

Also on the podcast, Mark and I discuss recent efforts by the Kremlin to rein in social networks and new media -- including the recent moves against Dozhd TV.

Enjoy...
Power Vertical Podcast -- February 7, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- February 7, 2014i
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Power Vertical podcast, Sochi Olympics, Russian politics, Russia corruption


The Kremlin Plays Whac-A-Mole

A woman attends a protest in Russia against Internet censorship, with a sign over her mouth reading "censorship."

Russia's nationalists are going anarchist. Or at least some of them are, sort of.

Take the movement "Russia Will Liberate Itself" or RONS, for example. The group's website features some of the normal expected nationalist staples: support for Orthodox Christian values, opposition to multiculturalism, revival of Russian culture, etc.

But they also declare themselves to be "opponents of the current regime" and call for its overthrow. And their site offers a series of highly technical -- albeit surprisingly readable -- primers that would please the hearts of many self-respecting liberals, libertarians, and, yes, anarchists.

There's a helpful little manual on "how to access blocked Internet sites," for example. And there's a list of dos and don'ts in case anyone suspects the FSB is tapping their phone. 

RONS is yet another example of how the Kremlin has lost control of the nationalist groups they once manipulated and used so effectively. But it also illustrates something else: despite the Kremlin's best efforts, and all the tools at its disposal, it will be increasingly difficult for the regime to regain complete control of Russia's information space.

"The Russian authorities are putting ever more pressure on the Internet in the hopes of imposing Kremlin control on the last relatively free segment of the Russian media," Paul Goble wrote on his blog "Window on Eurasia," which flagged RONS efforts in a recent post. 

"But their efforts are being countered by those most affected who are offering what they describe as 'very easy' workarounds so that those who want to visit banned sites can.

From the de facto takeover of the popular VKontakte, to new legislation making it even easier for the authorities to block websites they find distasteful, to the recent assault on Dozhd TV, the Kremlin is clearly trying to rein in new media and reassert control over the narrative.

The apparently imminent removal of the iconoclastic Pavel Durov as CEO of VKontakte has been widely interpreted as the endgame of a long campaign to gain control of a popular social-networking site that has been frequently used to organize opposition protests. (When the authorities told Durov to block VKontakte pages operated by anti-Kremlin activists in late 2011, he responded by tweeting a photo of a dog sticking its tongue out.) 

Cable- and satellite-television providers' decision to drop Dozhd TV after it aired a controversial poll on the Leningrad blockade looks like an obvious attempt to effectively shut down a key alternative media outlet.

And legislation signed by President Vladimir Putin in December enables prosecutors to block websites advocating "extremism" -- without a court order. Putin also signed a law criminalizing online calls for separatism. And another proposal seeks to allow for sites that publish incorrect information about banks to be blocked without a court hearing. In an editorial, Gazeta.ru quipped that the word "devaluation" could soon be forbidden.

"The goal is to erect a huge media wall to protect the authorities and isolate Russia from the free world," Yulia Latynina wrote recently in "The Moscow Times." "They are building that wall slowly but steadily."  

They may be. But that wall is bound to have many cracks in it, tunnels under it, and backdoors around it.

Dozhd TV may be on the ropes. But the channel's success has proven that there is a growing market for independent media that will sooner or later be filled -- one way or another.

The Kremlin may finally have gotten rid of Durov and gotten VKontakte under control. But this should provide an excellent expansion opportunity for Facebook -- or a startup opportunity for Russia's next Internet guru. 

And as RONS illustrates, young tech-savvy Russians -- regardless of their ideological bent -- are adept at finding workarounds when the authorities seek to block troublesome websites.

The Kremlin is late to the new media party. The regime has long focused its attention on corralling and controlling traditional media while ignoring the growing communities and outlets springing up online. And now, with Internet penetration at 59 percent, they are forced to play Whac-A-Mole

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Russian Internet, Dozhd TV, VKontakte

The Power Vertical Feed

In this space, I will regularly comment on events in Russia, repost content and tweets I find interesting and informative, and shamelessly promote myself (and others, whose work I like). The traditional Power Vertical Blog remains for larger and more developed items. The Podcast, of course, will continue to appear every Friday. I hope you find the new Power Vertical Feed to be a useful resource and welcome your feedback. More

17:49 October 24, 2014

EVENING NEWS ROUNDUP

From RFE/RL's News Desk:

PUTIN ACCUSES UNITED STATES OF 'UNILATERAL DIKTAT'

Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of escalating conflicts around the world by imposing what he called a "unilateral diktat."

Putin made the remarks in a combative speech to political experts at the Valdai International Discussion Club, in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Putin said the United States has been "fighting against the results of its own policy" in Iraq, Libya and Syria.

He said risks of serious conflicts involving major countries have risen, as well as risks of arms treaties being violated.

He also dismissed international sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine as a "mistake," saying they aimed at pushing Russia into isolation and would end up "hurting everyone."

We did not start this," he added, referring to rising tensions between Russia and the West.

(Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, Interfax, TASS)

MERKEL URGES PUTIN TO SOLVE UKRAINIAN GAS DISPUTE

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged Russian President Vladimir Putin in a telephone call to push for a quick resolution of the ongoing gas dispute with Ukraine as winter looms.

The call by Merkel to Putin on October 24 comes as representatives of the EU, Russia, and Ukraine are due to meet again next week in EU brokered talks aimed at solving the gas dispute between Kyiv and Moscow.

Merkel also underlined that upcoming elections in areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists must respect Ukrainian national law.

Pro-Russian insurgent leaders are boycotting a parliamentary snap poll on October 26 in Ukraine and are holding their own election in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions, home to nearly three million people, on the same day instead.

(Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters)

UNHCR SAYS MORE THAN 800,000 DISPLACED IN UKRAINE CONFLICT

By RFE/RL

The United Nations says the conflict in Ukraine has forced more than 800,000 people from their homes.

Around 95 percent of displaced people come from eastern Ukraine, where government troops have been battling pro-Russian separatists.

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, told a briefing in Geneva that an estimated 430,000 people were currently displaced within Ukraine -- 170,000 more than at the start of September.

It said at least 387,000 other people have asked for refugee status, temporary asylum, or other forms of residency permits in Russia.

Another 6,600 have applied for asylum in the European Union and 581 in Belarus.

The agency said it was "racing to help some of the most vulnerable displaced people" as winter approaches.

It also said the number of displaced people is expected to rise further due to ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine.

THREE ALLEGED MILITANTS KILLED IN NORTH CAUCASUS

Three alleged militants have been killed by security forces in Russia's volatile North Caucasus region.

Russia's National Antiterrorism Committee says that two suspects were killed in the village of Charoda in Daghestan on October 24 after they refused to leave an apartment and opened fire at police and security troops.

One police officer was wounded.

Also on October 24, police in another North Caucasus region, Kabardino-Balkaria, killed a suspected militant after he refused to identify himself, threw a grenade towards police, and opened fire with a pistol.

A police officer was wounded in that incident.

Violence is common in Russia's North Caucasus region, which includes the restive republics of Daghestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, and Chechnya.

Islamic militants and criminal groups routinely target Russian military personnel and local officials.

(Based on reporting by Interfax and TASS)

MOSCOW LAWYER IN HIGH PROFILE ORGANIZED CRIME CASE KILLED

A lawyer, who represented an alleged victim of the notorious Orekhovo criminal group in Moscow, has been assassinated.

Police in the Russian capital say that Vitaly Moiseyev and his wife were found dead with gunshot wounds in a car near Moscow on October 24.

Moiseyev was representing Sergei Zhurba, an alleged victim of the Orekhovo gang and a key witness in a case against one of the gang's leaders Dmitry Belkin.

Belkin was sentenced to life in prison on October 23 for multiple murders and extortion.

Last month, another of Zhurba's lawyers, Tatyana Akimtseva (eds: a woman), was shot dead by unknown individuals.

The Orekhovo group was one of the most powerful crime gangs of the Moscow region and in Russia in the 1990s. Its members are believed to be responsible for dozens of murders.

(Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)

17:27 October 24, 2014

LITTLE GREES VOTERS, ANYONE?

17:26 October 24, 2014

SPY VS. SPY

17:00 October 24, 2014
08:29 October 24, 2014

MORNING NEWS ROUNDUP

From RFE/RL's News Desk:

UKRAINIAN PM WARNS OF RUSSIAN DESTABILIZATION OF ELECTIONS

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is warning that Russia could attempt to disrupt Ukraine's parliamentary elections scheduled for October 26.

Yatsenyuk told a meeting of top security officials and election monitors on October 23 that "It is absolutely clear that attempts to destabilize the situation will continue and will be provoked by Russia."

Yatsenyuk said "we are in a state of Russian aggression and we have before us one more challenge -- to hold parliamentary elections."

The prime minister said Ukraine needs the "full mobilization of the entire law-enforcement system to prevent violations of the election process and attempts at terrorist acts during the elections."

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said authorities have ordered some 82,000 policemen on duty for election day.

He said 4,000 members of a special reaction force would be among those maintaining order during polling hours and would be concentrated in "those precincts where there is a risk of some terrorist acts or aggressive actions by some...candidates."

The warning by Yatsenyuk comes on the heels of three violent attacks on parliamentary candidates in the past week.

The latest, against Volodymyr Borysenko, a member of Yatsenyuk's People's Front Party, occurred on October 20 when Borysenko was shot at and had an explosive thrown at him.

He allegedly survived the attack only because he was wearing body armor due to numerous death threats he had recently received.

Elections to the Verkhovna Rada, the parliament, will be held despite continued fighting in the eastern part of the country between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Voting will not take place in 14 districts of eastern Ukraine currently under the control of the separatists.

Those separatist-held areas -- in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions -- are planning on holding their own elections in November.

Additionally, Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in March means the loss of 12 seats from the 450-seat parliament.

Polls show President Petro Poroshenko's party leading with some 30 percent of respondents saying they would cast their vote for the Petro Poroshenko Bloc.

It that percentage holds on election day it would mean Poroshenko's bloc would have to form a coalition government, likely with nationalist groups who oppose conducting peace talks over fighting in the east.

(Based on reporting by Reuters and Interfax)

RUSSIA DENIES ESTONIAN AIRSPACE VIOLATIONS

By RFE/RL

Moscow has denied claims of an incursion by a Russian military plane into Estonia's airspace.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman told Interfax news agency on October 23 that the Ilyushin-20 took off from Khrabrovo airfield in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on October 21.

The spokesman said the reconnaissance plane flew "over neutral waters of the Baltic Sea" while on a training flight.

On October 22, Estonia’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador in Tallinn, Yury Merzlakov, after the Estonian military said the Russian plane had entered its air space.

In a statement, NATO said the Ilyushin-20 was first intercepted by Danish jets when it approached Denmark, before flying toward non-NATO member Sweden.

Intercepted by Swedish planes, the alliance said the Ilyushin entered Estonian airspace for “less than one minute” and was escorted out by Portuguese jets.

NATO has stepped up its Baltic air patrols and Moscow has been accused of several recent border violations in the region amid heightened tensions between Russia and the West over the Ukraine conflict.

Last month, Estonia accused Russia of abducting one of its police officers on the border.

Russia claims Eston Kohver was seized inside Russia on September 5, while Estonian officials say he was captured at gunpoint in Estonia near the border and taken to Russia.

The European Union and United States have called for the immediate release of the Estonian security official, who is facing espionage charges in Russia.

Meanwhile, the Swedish Navy has been searching for a suspected submarine sighted six days ago some 50 kilometers from the capital, Stockholm, although it said on October 22 it was pulling back some of its ships.

Swedish officials have not linked any particular country to the suspected intrusion and Moscow has denied involvement.

(With reporting by Interfax, TASS, and the BBC)

RUSSIAN COURT POSTPONES RULING ON OIL FIRM BASHNEFT

A Moscow court postponed to next week a ruling on a move to take control of Bashneft, an oil company from tycoon Vladimir Yevtushenkov.

The judge said on October 23 that the next hearing will take place on October 30 after the prosecution requested more time to prepare its case.

Prosecutors filed the suit in September to regain state ownership of Bashneft, citing alleged violations in the privatization and subsequent sale of the company to AFK Sistema investment group.

Yevtushenkov, the main shareholder of the conglomerate, is under house arrest on suspicion of money laundering during the firm's acquisition in 2009.

Yevtushenkov, 66, was arrested on September 16.

He is ranked Russia's 15th richest man by U.S. magazine Forbes, with an estimated fortune of $9 billion.

(Based on reporting by Reuters and TASS)

11:11 October 23, 2014

THERE IS NO RUSSIA WITHOUT PUTIN?

According to a report in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia," deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin told a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi that Western politicians "do not understand the essence of Russia."

"Volodin stated the key thesis about the current state of our country: As long as there is Putin there is Russia. If there is no Putin, there is no Russia," Konstantin Kostin, head of the Foundation for the Development of Civil Society, told "Izvestia."

Latest Podcasts

About This Blog

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or