Thursday, October 23, 2014


The Power Vertical

Defining Democracy Down

Medvedev offers up his own recipe for democracy at a forum in Yaroslavl on September 10.
Medvedev offers up his own recipe for democracy at a forum in Yaroslavl on September 10.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev today unveiled his “five standards of democracy,” offering an interesting glimpse into the mind-set of the so-called liberal lawyer who has been hailed as a step away from Putinist authoritarianism.


Without further ado, the official definition of democracy from the liberal wing of the Kremlin is:

 

(1) The legal realization of humanitarian values and ideals, giving these values the practical force of law.

(2) The ability of the state to ensure and support a high standard of technological development.

(3) The ability of the state to defend its citizens from encroachment on the part of criminal societies.

(4) A high level of culture, education, means of communication and exchange of information in the country.

(5) The conviction of the citizenry that they live in a democratic state.


Speaking at a forum in Yaroslavl today, Medvedev also said: “I know the lapses in our system, but I categorically disagree with those who assert that Russia is not a democracy. Russia is a democracy. We are at the beginning of our path and there is something for us to work on, but we are free.”


The Putin-Medvedev chief ideologue, deputy presidential administration head Vladislav Surkov, offered his own almost Confucian elaboration of this vision: “Russia has a democracy of the quality that it has. One person has a good car and another has one that breaks down – but it is still a car. Under the constitution, we are a sovereign state. And that is sovereign democracy.”


Russia’s leaders have long insisted that the country must follow “its own path” to democracy. But now they seem to be trying to craft a new definition the democracy to which this path leads, one that conspicuously misses out on terms generally associated with democracy, such as fair elections, accountability, freedom of information.


(Some Putin-sympathetic bloggers out there have ventured forth the idea that Russia is a “plebiscitary regime,” and I hope they elaborate on this notion, since I find it unconvincing so far. I imagine they don’t have in mind the shorthand definition as a state in which a president is elected but then can do pretty much whatever he or she wants.)


But let’s look more closely at Medvedev’s standards. The first thing that strikes me is that two of the five standards begin with “the ability of the state.” The penchant of Russia’s ruling elite for state-oriented political thinking seems to be in evidence here.


The inclusion of “a high standard of technological development” here, I would argue, is both a red herring (primitive societies can be democratic and nothing about having an iPhone or a nuclear reactor ensures democratic governance) and a case of putting the cart before the horse. Medvedev himself seems a little confused on this point because elsewhere in his Yaroslavl speech (as of this posting, the transcript of his speech has not appeared on the Kremlin website -- here is a link to the transcripts page itself), he acknowledged that only free people can modernize (saying immediately following that political change in Russia must come slowly).


The point about protection from criminal societies begs the crucial question (especially crucial in the context of Russian/Soviet history) of what prevents the state itself from becoming a “criminal society,” in the total absence of transparency, accountability, oversight, and popular legitimacy.


Interestingly, Medvedev’s points 2, 3, and 4 could be perfectly well used to define the Soviet Union (with the caveat above about the state becoming the criminal society). In fact, a Soviet-sympathetic analyst could easily make the case that the Soviet Union fit all five of Medvedev’s standards and thus qualifies as an ideal “Russian” democracy. It would only take a little fudging on the first point and, concerning the last, a reliance on official opinion polls and attendance at May Day parades to gauge public opinion instead of listening to kitchen conversations or counting Brezhnev jokes.


Medevedev’s first point is highly problematic in Russia, since he himself has decried the country’s systemic legal nihilism, as has Putin. In the Russian context, in the context of the absence of checks and balances and accountability mechanisms (not that they are merely absent, but that they were actively rooted out over the decade of Putin’s rule), it simply does not matter what values are enshrined in the laws. Any values enshrined in laws that are ignored or are selectively applied are overshadowed by the values enshrined in ignoring or selectively applying them.


I wrote recently about Medvedev’s proposed police-law reform, making exactly this point. The problem is not the law, and it is disingenuous and intellectually dishonest to pretend that it is. For example, police brutality is rampant in Russia. The new bill has a provision against the unjustified use of force by police. But the current law on the police also has such a point. In fact, the notorious “pearl ensign” who was caught on tape “bashing a protester in the face with his baton” (to paraphrase Prime Minister Putin’s charming phrase) in St. Petersburg has been charged with exactly this crime. The point is that this law, seemingly, wasn’t in force in Petersburg last month. It has never been in force in Moscow, and who knows if it will be in force anywhere next month? (Since there are elections next month, my guess is that it won’t.)


As for Medvedev’s last point, it is also meaningless in the state-controlled information vacuum that hangs over virtually all of Russia. People who live in democracies know that they live in democracies and will say so. People who don’t live in democracies can be made (through state-controlled media, through tireless propaganda, through sophistic redefinitions of what democracy is) to think that they do. Or they can be intimidated or bribed into saying that they think they do, which is close enough. When Medvedev gives up his total control of national television (his NTV, for instance, has scheduled a much-hyped hatchet job on Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who is drifting out of favor) and allows open, democratic political competition, then we will be able to assess the convictions of the citizenry.


Everyone knows how public opinion is manipulated in Russia. I have no doubt that if the ruling elite suddenly decided to make former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov the next president, he would be the most popular (or second most popular) politician in Russia within a month. We already saw that happen when the unknown Viktor Zubkov was made prime minister in 2007. When he said in September 2007 that he might run for president in 2008, many people took that as a sign that he would be Putin’s successor and he instantly became the most popular politician in the country, after Putin himself. (In the 1996 presidential election, Boris Yeltsin in the space of a few months went from having a popularity rating of about 6 percent to being reelected.)


Russia does not have a democracy. And I think President Medvedev knows this. The fact that he pretends otherwise and contorts his thinking so much in order to resist the reform the country needs and deserves should, to my mind, be enough to convince anyone of the paucity of his so-called liberal credentials.


-- Robert Coalson

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: John G from: T&T
September 10, 2010 17:53

It is interesting how RFERL which praises yeltsin as a democratic figure concedes how he manipulated elections in1996.In any case ,it is unfair to label russia as an undemocratic regime ;rather it is a hybrid regime of an authoritarian state with demnocratic features .Democracy is defined as the rule of the many and what the author seems to forget is that Putin and medvedev are very popular;it is true that TV is under state control but at the same time a substatial amount of the populace does have access to free information :the internet and radio.The author should also remember that people can criticize putin without getting arrested or killed .What the author should also remember is that western countries were not wholly democratic .In there was slavery and mistreatment of the indians,democracy is a process that takes place in each country and it is wrong for people like the authors to impose his version of democracy on Russia that is something that the citizens of that country should define for themselves.
In Response

by: Robert Coalson from: Prague
September 13, 2010 09:16
John G -- Thank you for your comment. This isn't the place to go into an assessment of Yeltsin, except to say that by the 1996 election, he was a very sick and badly manipulated person. Although he did much to improve democratic institutions in Russia (institutions that Putin spent a decade destroying), he did not build a democracy in Russia. Elections, however, were far more competitive in the 1990s and the pro-Kremlin parties that Yeltsin tried to establish never became neo-CPSUs like United Russia has become.

You say that "democracy is defined as the rule of the many," which may indeed be one of the definitions of democracy. It certainly sounds a lot closer to my understanding of democracy than any of the five standards that Medvedev cites, which is the topic of my blog post. This post is precisely about the definition of democracy and whether the current rulers of Russia can ever build a democracy if they insist on the definitions they are using.

I do not "forget" that Putin and Medvedev are popular. I deny that they are popular in any meaningful sense of the word. Politicians can only be genuinely "popular" or "unpopular" in an environment of political competition and openness. Polls showed that Stalin, Turkmenistan's Niyazov, Uzbekistan's Karimov, etc. were/are all "popular" in their countries. What does this really mean?

You say that people can "criticize Putin without getting arrested or killed." This is a low standard of governance, indeed, and one which Russia consistently fails to meet. Critics of Putin's government are regularly jailed and harassed and, yes, even killed. It doesn't happen on a Stalin-like level, to be sure. But it happens. A lot.
In Response

by: John G from: T&T
September 13, 2010 22:59
This is a place to discuss Yeltsin's legacy seeing that media outlets like RFERL criticize Putin for the supposed democratic rollback when this really started under yeltsin.It was Gorbachev not Yeltsin who bought democracy to Russia.Dont forget that he was the one who bombed his own parliament ripping up the constitution in the process ,he also wrote the authoritarian constitution that Putin and Medvedev use,introduced manipulated and rigged elections in which the state used the media and administrative resources as well as fraud to get yeltsin re-elected(in his memoirs he admits how he even considered postponing elections indefinitely and banning the Communist party).He also did much to discredit this wonderul thing in the eyes of the majority of his citizenship so any discussion of Russia's democratic rollback must start with Yeltsin.
Secondly ,a lot of russians use the internet and have access to radio so there is some level of openess .You also forget that the majority of liberal pro western parties are generally very unpopular. (explain how the Communists are a bit popular even though they do not possess the same advantages of Putin)In addition,you musgt remember that the leaders you mentioned terrorize their citizens which is something that putin does not do.In other words ,putin is genuinely popular amongst his citizens.Surely that counts as a modicum of democracy.Another thing you mention that putin's critics get killed but you do not have any proof of his involvement and you omit that under Yeltsin's rule a lot of journalists and critics were also killed .Have you ever heard of Dmitri Khokolov,Vladislav listeyev and Galina Starovoitova ?Why is it that we hear of the journalists and critics who got killed in the Putin era but never of those in the Yeltsin era? In conclusion, a modicum of democracy does exist in Russia but like Medvedev says it will take years decades and maybe even centuries before this becomes the real thing

by: meg stringer from: Washington D.C
September 10, 2010 22:12
Excellent commentary on an absurd situation. This story should be getting full court press coverage-- everywhere except Russia that is.

by: Mark
September 11, 2010 10:08
"... but we are free.” - meaning himself and Putin!




by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
September 11, 2010 17:04
Good article and thanks for the analysis of Russia’s latest Potemkin village. Could there be a lesson for the toiling masses in the U.S? Maybe Medvedev and Putin are ahead of the information power-curve, and have discovered that if you blanket your plugged-in population with images, assurances, and promises that life is getting better, that a good percentage will actually agree. Believe it or not, there are politicians and voters in this country who suffer from a similar form of schizophrenia. They repeat all the familiar democratic mantras, but are mostly concerned with their own welfare. Regardless of labels, the rich appear to be growing ever more powerful, while the poor expand in number, despair, and ignorance.
In Response

by: Anonymous from: USA
September 11, 2010 21:57
Ray-
The promises that life is getting better was a tactic used by GWB. We all know today that Bush lied about the state of the economy just like he lied about WMD in Iraq. The rich will only get so wealthy, the wealthiest Americans are already getting nervous about their image in a country that is rapidly getting poorer. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet wanted to convince the USA's billionaires to give back more to society, but I remain highly sceptical. It is more likely the rich will use their money to escape to another part of the world while the rest of the country suffers.

by: jme0598
September 11, 2010 18:04
What I am curious about is exactly what the author regards as a "perfect" democracy? USA perhaps, where USA Government's standard policy of how they treat other countries which is one of oppressing their foreign neighbors and dictation on how those countries get to be in direct violation of the very basis for all law in USA, a statement as part of Declaration of Independence "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." If Thomas Jefferson, when he wrote "all men" had only meant "all men who are citizens of USA and screw the rest", he would have specified as such but he didn't because at the heart of what all US law, including Constitution is based on, is this statement which requires US not only treat its own citizens with decency in respect, it is required to do so for everyone else in the world, and in turn, the universe. So I am presuming to mean the author is stating that USA is much better at democracy than Russia, yes?

Medvedev himself admitted that Russia is far from perfect and that he envisions Russia becoming a model for democracy at some point in future, once changes have been made that need to be made to turn Russia into Russia's version of it. So as for author's criticisms of Russia's purported lack of democracy, what part of this don't we already know?
In Response

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
September 12, 2010 12:31
Good points. I actually listened to Medvedev’s remarks
http://russia.ru/video/diskurs_10953/
and suggest others watch to fill out Mr. Coalson’s analysis. Just a couple of comments. As jme0598 points out, Medvedev provides some important perspective, reminding his audience repeatedly that Russia is a novice at democracy, having suffered through more authoritarian forms of government for the past thousand years (they are celebrating the 1,000 year anniversary of Yaroslav). As a backdrop to describing some of Russia’s democratic weaknesses, Medvedev repeatedly (and rightly so) takes pot shots at the U.S. practice of democracy, particularly with its non-democratic neighbors. While he does not use as strong language (i.e. hungry wolf) as Putin did in 2007, he makes clear that the U.S. has often used its democratic credentials to clobber those (i.e. Iraq) who might interfere with the American way of life.
In Response

by: Robert Coalson from: Prague
September 13, 2010 09:07
Thanks for writing, Ray. Please read my response to jme0598. I don't think that it is relevant to spend much time discussing that fact that Medvedev "admits" Russia has an "imperfect democracy," since my argument is that Russia is not a democracy at all and, if the ruling elite is building a "democracy" based on the five standards Medvedev outlines, it will never be a democracy, because those five standards have nothing to do with democracy. As the title of my piece states, it is about the definition of democracy. I think you'd agree that if Russia's leaders say they are building a democracy, we need to take a close look at what they think a democracy is. My argument is that their definition of democracy is not democracy at all. It may be good or it may be bad, but what is the point of calling it a democracy?

As for comparisons to the U.S., I don't make any. The Power Vertical is a blog about Russia and I study Russia. I'm sure there are many people out there writing actively about the shortcomings of democracy in the U.S. and I'm glad of that.
In Response

by: Robert Coalson from: Prague
September 13, 2010 09:01
jme0598 -- Thanks for your comments. You seem to miss the point of the piece, however. I don't write anything about democracy in the United States. The Power Vertical is a blog about Russia. If you want to read about the U.S. and, particularly about U.S. foreign policy, I'd recommend this blog: http://www.chris-floyd.com/

What this piece is about is how Russia's leadership defines the word "democracy," and whether that definition is valid. Ironically, if you look at Medvedev's five standards of democracy, you'd have to agree that the United States *is* a model democracy, since Medvedev says nothing about points that you raise such as how a country treats its neighbors or the rest of the world.

My argument is that Russia does not have a democracy by any standard definition, which is why the country's leaders spend so much effort coming up with new definitions. My argument further is that even if Medvedev succeeds in building a state that perfectly matches all five of his standards of democracy, the country would not have a democracy. I acknowledge that Russia has made progress in all but the first of Medvedev's five standards (the first one is far, far from being realized) -- but these facts do not make Russia a democracy or more democratic.

I'm simply calling on Medvedev to be honest and to say that the structure that he envisions for Russia is not a democracy at all and to admit that Russia, for all of its strengths and weaknesses, is not a democracy.
In Response

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
September 13, 2010 11:52
Mr. Coalson, Yes. You are correct about the nature of democracy in Russia today. It is a sham, lacking the essence of genuine electoral competition. Putin has mostly dismantled any of the imperfect structures created in the 1990s, and there is simply no legitimate forum where opposing voices can be heard. That being said, what would you do if you were in Pres. Medvedev's shoes? "Dear guests, thank you for coming to our Yaroslavl conference. Yes, we are a criminal regime, holding power not by the consent of the governed, but by fear, intimidation and wealth. This system will help to not only guarantee a certain amount of stability in this country (especially compared to the 'democratic' projects in Iraq and Afghanistan), but will also deliver a healthy return on your investments." Would the U.S. and other representatives gasp in horror and depart? Would such honesty help or hinder Russia's path toward normalcy? And while I know that this is a blog about Russia's form of governance, it does feel just a tad hypocritical that it is funded by the U.S paragon of democracy. Anyway, keep up the good work.

by: rb from: usa
September 13, 2010 04:18
Interesting article.

I use to believe in Governments that I thought were democracies, but, after seeing what has happened in the USA, (what was the last free country), under Obama democracy has no meaning.

As long as there is power to be had, money to be taken, there are truly no free people, true freedom belongs to those in Government as well as their friends and special interest groups, the rest of us live in an illusion of freedom.

In some ways Russia is less restrictive than the USA now. Russia biggest problem is corruption. Not Democracy.
In Response

by: Anonymous from: T&T
September 27, 2010 01:29
Russia's best problem is not corruption by itself, Russia's problem is its corrupt government. A government which Poutine, Abramovich, Czhechin and other international criminals like them champions.

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

11:12 October 22, 2014

THE BEGINNING OF THE END OF RUSSIA'S 'GAS WEAPON'

In less than a week, on October 27, Lithuania is scheduled to open its first Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) import terminal at the port of Klaipeda. The terminal, which will begin receiving deliveries in early 2015, is a significant step toward changing the energy equation in Lithuania, the Baltic states, and ultimately in Europe as a whole.

Initially, Lithuania plans to buy enough LNG to cover about a quarter of its domestic needs. But once the terminal is operating at full capacity, and once Lithuania's pipelines to Latvia are upgraded, it will be able to supply 90 percent of the three Baltic states' natural gas demand.

Oh, and by the way, Lithuania's current supply contract with Gazprom expires at the end of next year.

And this is just one of the ways the gas game is changing. Poland is also building a LNG import terminal, which is scheduled to go online in mid-2015.

And as energy analyst  Wenyuan Qiu writes in "The Moscow Times" today, a steep rise in U.S. production has made it "functionally independent of offshore suppliers." As a result, "the closure of the U.S. LNG import market is forcing producers in the Middle East and Africa to look for customers elsewhere" leading to "downward pressure on prices" in Europe.

"Russia will remain an important European energy provider because its gas is relatively economic. But Russia's ability to leverage this resource as an instrument of foreign policy is diminishing," Qiu writes.

 

08:27 October 22, 2014

MORNING NEWS ROUNDUP

Some items from RFE/RL's News Desk:

RUSSIA-UKRAINE GAS DEAL REPORTEDLY CLOSER

European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger has announced substantial progress was reached in October 21 talks between representatives of Ukraine and Russia on gas supplies, but a final deal has yet to be agreed.

A summit held in Milan October 17 had produced hopes for a breakthrough, after Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko met Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and said they had reached a preliminary agreement on a gas price until March 31.

Oettinger said as part of tentative deals, Ukraine planned to purchase some 4 billion cubic meters of gas from Russia before the end of this year.

Oettinger also said Ukraine would pay $1.4 billion of its debt to Russia for gas supplies already received before the end of October and another $1.6 billion by the end of this year.

The head of Russia's delegation to the talks, Energy Minister Aleksandr Novak, said the price of gas for Ukraine would be $385 per 1,000 cubic meters, much lower than the $485 that Russia's state-controlled Gazprom was demanding just weeks ago.

However, the price, which was first announced by Poroshenko following his meeting with Putin on October 17, is still higher than the average of some $350 that Gazprom charges EU companies

Novak said that price would be in force from October 2014 until late March 2015 -- provided Ukraine pays in advance.

However, Novak added the EU should take responsibility for guaranteeing Ukraine pay its $5.3-billion debt for gas to Russia before the end of 2014.

Kyiv has asked the EU for an additional loan of $2.6 billion, but a spokesman stressed on October 21 that the request was not made in connection with the ongoing gas talks.

The EU has so far offered Kyiv loans totalling more than $2 billion.

Russia cut off gas deliveries tro Ukraine in mid-June, citing the $5.3-billion debt. However, Gazprom has not halted supplies transiting Ukraine en route to EU member states.

But Novak again ruled out Gazprom's agreeing to let EU states re-export its gas to Ukraine.

Oettinger announced another meeting would be held in Brussels on October 29.

Separately, the Kremlin said Putin and Poroshenko discussed Russian gas supplies to Ukraine among other issues during a telephone conversation October 21.

It didn't provide further details.

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

PROSECUTORS TARGET EKHO MOSKVY

The independent Russian radio station "Ekho Moskvy" said it has been informed of an unscheduled inspection by the prosecutor's office.

The station's deputy chief editor Sergei Buntman said on October 21, "We received a document dated from yesterday (October 20) that said the main directorate of the Emergency Situation's Ministry" had requested the prosecutor's office to conduct an inspection of the radio station.

Buntman said according to the document, the inspection would start on October 22 and last for 20 working days.

"Taking into consideration days off, that means almost a month," Buntman said, and he added that the inspection should not affect the activities of the station.

Buntman said, "Of course questions arise about why this decision is taken so suddenly."

"Echo Moskvy" posted a copy of the document the radio station received that indicated the inspection was meant to determine if the station was in compliance with fire safety laws.

(Based on reporting by "Ekho Moskvy" and Interfax)

PUTIN, POROSHENKO DISCUSS CEASEFIRE AND GAS SUPPLIES

The Kremlin said the Russian and Ukrainian presidents stressed the importance of supporting the peace process in Ukraine and observing the ceasefire the country's south-east during a phone conversation on October 21.

President Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko also discussed Russian gas supplies to Ukraine after a tentative agreement reached in Milan last week on the basic terms of future supplies, the statement said.

It didn't provide further details.

Russia raised the price it charges Kyiv for natural gas after Ukraine's pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February, then halted gas supplies to Ukraine in June when Kyiv failed to pay the higher price.

Some progress was reportedly made toward resolving the issue of Russian gas supplies to Ukraine during last week's talks in Milan.

Poroshenko said a preliminary agreement had been reached on a price of $385 per 1,000 cubic meters until the end of March -- $100 less than Russia had originally demanded.

(Based on reporting by Reuters, TASS, and kremlin.ru)

RUSSIAN INVESTIGATORS SAY 'CRIMINAL NEGLIGENCE' BEHIND TOTAL AIR CRASH

Russian investigators say the air crash that has killed the chief executive of French oil giant Total was caused “criminal negligence” by airport officials.

Christophe de Margerie and three French crew members died when his corporate jet collided with a snow-removal machine at Moscow's Vnukovo Airport late on October 20.

The Investigative Committee warned that several senior airport officials would be suspended, adding that investigators will assess the "actions and non-action" of management.

The snow plough driver has already been detained.

Investigators have said the man was drunk at the time of the accident, which his lawyer denied.

Total is one of the top foreign investors in Russia.

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin "highly esteemed" Margerie's business qualities and his "consistent devotion" to developing bilateral Russia-French relations.

(Based on reporting by AFP, Interfax, and TASS)

 

16:08 October 17, 2014

NEW POWER VERTICAL BLOG

I just posted a new piece on the Power Vertical blog: Putin's Class of 2014.

The iPhone-toting hipsters hanging out in their trendy downtown Moscow office are just the high-profile part of the Kremlin's new youth strategy.

Founded in November 2013, the youth group Set -- which means "Network" in Russian -- has organized patriotic fashion shows and film festivals, created an alphabet for schoolchildren that highlights the regime's accomplishments, and painted murals in seven cities on October 7 to mark Russian President Vladimir Putin's 62nd birthday....

But the rise of Set is just one side of the story. The other aspect of the Kremlin's youth strategy is stealthier -- and much more consequential.

Over the past 18 months, Putin has been quietly bringing a new cadre of officials to Moscow, reshaping the rank-and-file bureaucracy in his own image.

You can read it all here.

AND A NEW POWER VERTICAL PODCAST COMING SOON

We're in post-production for the new Power Vertical Podcast: Ukraine's Loyal Russians

A country divided between a Ukrainian-speaking west and a Russian-speaking east. An irreconcilable schism forged in history and set in stone. Lviv vs. Luhansk; Orange vs. Blue.

It's long been a truism that Ukraine was hopelessly split. It's a truism repeated endlessly by the Kremlin's propaganda machine -- and one used by Vladimir Putin to justify his Novorossiya project.

But it's a truism that the majority of Ukraine's ethnic Russians -- in cities like Odesa and Mariupol in the south to Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhia in the east to Kharkiv in the north  -- are proving false. Most of Ukraine's ethnic Russians, it turns out, are loyal Ukrainian citizens.

Joining me are Andreas Umland, a professor of Russian and Ukrainian history at Kyiv Mohyla University and Natalya Churikova, Senior Editor of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. It's in post-production now and will be up soon.

 

13:25 October 17, 2014

AFTERNOON NEWS ROUNDUP

Some items from RFE/RL's News Desk:

RUSSIA-WEST RIFT PERSIST AFTER DIFFICULT UKRAINE CRISIS TALKS

By RFE/RL

Italy's prime minister said he was "really positive" about the prospects for a solution to the Ukraine conflict after a meeting attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and European leaders, but the Kremlin suggested deep rifts remained after the "difficult" talks and accused Western officials of inflexibility.

"In general, I am really positive after this meeting," Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said after the talks over breakfast during a Europe-Asia summit that was overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine, where deadly fighting persists in the east despite a cease-fire between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Putin, in the spotlight and under pressure from the West to do more to bring peace to Ukraine, said the meeting -- attended by Putin and Poroshenko as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and outgoing EU leaders Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso -- was "good, positive".

But his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, gave a grimmer account.

"The talks are indeed difficult, full of misunderstandings, disagreements, but they are nevertheless ongoing, an exchange of opinion is in progress," Peskov told reporters.

He said some participants displayed "a complete lack of desire to take an objective approach" to the Ukraine crisis, which Russia blames on the European Union, the United States, and the pro-Western government that gained power in Ukraine after the ouster of a president sympathetic to Russia, Viktor Yanukovych, In February.

Kyiv, NATO, and Western governments say Russia has supported the rebels with troops, weaponry, and propaganda after illegally annexing the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine in March.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 3,660 combatants and civilians since April and driven Moscow's ties with the West to post-Cold War lows, prompting punitive sanctions against Moscow and a Russian ban on many foods from the EU, its biggest trading partner for years.

The breakfast-table talks came hours after lengthy Putin-Merkel meeting that stretched past midnight and failed to resolve what the Kremlin said were "serious differences of opinion about the genesis of the internal Ukrainian conflict as well as about the causes of what is happening there now."

Western leaders have rejected Russia's denials of involvement and said Moscow must see to it that a cease-fire and steps toward peace agreed on September 5 in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, are implemented.

"It is obviously above all Russia's task to make clear that the Minsk plan is adhered to," Merkel told reporters on October 16. "Unfortunately, there are still a lot of shortcomings but it will be important to look for a dialogue here."

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Putin assured the other leaders at the breakfast that Russia does not want a divided Ukraine or a frozen crisis.

Kremlin critics say Russia has supported the cease-fire and plans for peace because the September 5 agreement followed rebel gains that left the separatists in control over large portions of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions, giving Moscow a lever to influence its France-sized neighbor and keep it destabilized - and out of NATO - for years to come.

Putin and Poroshenko were to meet with Merkel and Hollande later on October 17.

Putin, who basked in attention at a military parade in mostly Slavic, Orthodox Christian Serbia on October 16, set the stage for tense talks in Milan by warning in Belgrade that a dispute with Kyiv over natural gas could jeopardize Russian supplies to Europe via transit nation Ukraine this winter.

He said Europe faces "major transit risks" to gas supplies from Russia.

Blaming Kyiv in advance for any possible cuts in supplies to Europe, Putin said that if Ukraine siphons gas from transit pipelines to the European Union, Russia will reduce supplies in the amount of the "stolen" gas.

Russia raised the price it charges Kyiv for natural gas after Yanukovych was ousted by street protests he had touched off last November by scrapping plans for a deal tightening ties with the EU and turning toward Russia instead.

In June, Russia halted gas supplies meant for domestic consumption in Ukraine when Kyiv failed to pay the higher price.

Russia is the EU's biggest external gas supplier, providing about one-third of the gas consumed there, and previous price disputes between Moscow and Kyiv have led to supply cuts that have chilled Europeans in wintertime.

Some government officials said the Western leaders would ask Putin to explain the threat of gas supply cuts.

Merkel and Poroshenko held talks earlier on October 16, and Poroshenko said he received "a great demonstration of support for Ukraine" from the German leader.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin also met with former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, whom he referred to as Putin's "old friend."

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he spoke briefly to Putin and asked him for "maximum cooperation" over the downing of a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet in the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine in July.

More than half of the 298 people killed were Dutch citizens, and many in the West suspect the plane was shot down by the separatists with a missile system provided by Russia.

Hundreds of people have been killed since the cease-fire, with fierce fighting focusing on the devastated Donetsk international airport and shelling reported in the city of Donetsk and elsewhere almost daily.

Ukrainian military officials said three soldiers were killed and nine wounded on October 16.

NATO said it has not yet detected "significant" movements of Russian troops in a region near the border with Ukraine back to their home bases, as the Kremlin said Putin ordered last week.

A NATO spokesperson said "there is still a large and capable force sitting on the border of Ukraine, and heavy equipment still has to be pulled back [from the border]."

(With reporting by Reuters, AP, TASS, Interfax, and AFP)

GEORGIAN PM SAYS NO PROGRESS NORMALIZING RELATIONS WITH MOSCOW

Georgian Prime Minister Irakly Garibashvili says attempts by Tbilisi to normalize political relations with Russia have thus far been unsuccessful.

Garibashvili said in Tbilisi on October 16 that the Georgian government had done "all it could" to improve bilateral relations with Moscow has only achieved progress in the economic sector.

The premier's Georgian Dream party took power two years ago pledging to engage with Moscow.

Garibashvili made his comments one day after Russia announced it would sign an "alliance and integration" treaty with the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia.

The treaty would create a "common defense infrastructure" between Abkhazia and Russia while forming joint law-enforcement structures and a more integrated economic space.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili issued an "emergency statement" on the treaty on October 15.

Moscow recognized Abkhazia as an independent state after a brief war between Russia and Georgia in 2008.

(Based on reporting by Interfax, AFP, and TASS)

RUSSIA DETAINS TWO JOURNALISTS OVER WORKSHOP

Russian officials temporarily detained and then banned two American journalists from conducting an investigative-journalism workshop in St. Petersburg.

The men were found by a court on October 16 of violating Russian visa regulations and released after several hours.

Randy Covington, a professor at the University of South Carolina, and Joe Bergantino of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting were detained by immigration authorities while conducting the first of a two-day workshop for 14 Russian journalists.

St. Petersburg's branch of the Federal Migration Service said the men's activities "did not correspond" to the purpose of their trip to Russia.

Officials said they could no longer teach the workshop but were free to leave Russia as scheduled.

The New England Center for Investigative Journalism said the men had tourist visas and had already held a workshop in Moscow.

(Based on reporting by AP and "The Boston Globe")

18:00 October 16, 2014

EVENING NEWS ROUNDUP

Some items from RFE/RL's Newes Desk:

PUTIN WARNS EUROPE OF GAS CRISIS THIS WINTER

President Vladimir Putin has warned that Europe faces "major transit risks" to natural gas supplies from Russia this winter.

Putin told reporters in Belgrade on October 16 that if Ukraine siphons off natural gas without permission from transit pipelines to the European Union, Russia “will consecutively reduce the stolen volume at the cost of supplies."

Putin made the remarks ahead of talks in Milan on October 16 and 17 with EU leaders and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Russia raised the price it charges Kyiv for natural gas after Ukraine's pro-Russia Preident Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February, then halted gas supplies to Ukraine in June when Kyiv failed to pay the higher price.

The price standoff is the third between Moscow and Kyiv since 2006.

Russia is the EU's biggest gas supplier, providing about a third of the gas consumed there.

(Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP)

U.S. HELSINKI COMMITTEE DECRIES RUSSIAN ATTEMPT TO CLOSE MEMORIAL RIGHTS GROUP

By RFE/RL

The U.S. Helsinki Commission says Russia’s attempt to liquidate Memorial, the country's oldest and best-known human rights organization, is “an obvious attempt to silence the voice of its own conscience.”

“It is very troubling that an organization founded by [Soviet dissident] Andrei Sakharov to address the crimes of the Stalinist era now has become the target of a new wave of repression,” the commission’s chairman, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, said in an October 16 statement.

Russia's Justice Ministry on October 10 appealed to the country’s Supreme Court to close Memorial, which comprises more than 50 bodies nationwide. The reasons for the request were not made public.

Created in the 1980s by Soviet-era dissidents, Memorial has served as a tireless rights watchdog and important source of Soviet-era records for a quarter century.

PUTIN VOWS TO SUPPORT SERBS ON KOSOVO

Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged continued support for Serbia on the divisive issue of Kosovo during a state visit that mixed meetings with officials with attendance at a military parade.

Putin is the guest of honor at Serbia's first military parade in some 30 years as Belgrade marks the anniversary of its liberation from the Nazis by partisans and Soviet Army troops in 1944, a celebration Serbia moved forward four days to accommodate Putin's schedule.

The visit highlights Serbia's delicate balance between the European Union, which it is seeking to join, and relations with Russia that are rooted in history and religion but encompass economic and geopolitical interests.

Russia angrily criticized the NATO bombing of the rump Yugoslavia in 1999 and has backed Belgrade's opposition to independence for mostly ethnic Albanian Kosovo, defying the United States and preventing Kosovo from getting a seat at the United Nations.

Putin promised Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic that Russia would stand firm over Kosovo, saying the Kremlin's stance was "a position of principle that is not to be subjected to any adjustments."

"We supported Serbia in the past and we intend to continue supporting it in the future. In Russia friendship is not an object of trade-offs," Putin said.

Nikolic said Serbia "sees in Russia a great ally and a partner and Serbia won't compromise its morals with any kind of bad behavior towards Russia."

Despite Serbia's desire to become a member of the European Union, ties between Belgrade and Moscow have become stronger since the EU started imposing sanctions on Russia for the Kremlin's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Criticizing sanctions the United States and European Union have imposed on Moscow over its actions in Ukraine in an interview on the eve of his visit, Putin told the Serbian daily "Politika" that isolating Russia was an "absurd, illusory goal" and attempts to do so would hurt Europe's economy.

In a pointed reminder of Russia's nuclear might, Putin said: "We hope our partners will realize the futility of attempts to blackmail Russia and remember what consequences discord between major nuclear powers could bring for strategic stability."

Putin used the visit to promote South Stream, a Russian gas pipeline project that that the EU has suspended in member states.

Serbia has recently indicated it will not start building South Stream. Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said last week "it makes no sense" to start without an agreement on the pipeline's legality between the EU and Moscow.

"It is necessary to unblock the situation with South Stream," Putin said. "I am convinced that this project will make a palpable contribution to Europe's overall energy security. Everyone wins from this: Both Russia and European consumers, including Serbia."

The European Commission released a report on candidate countries earlier this month that warned Belgrade's plans to build a portion of the pipeline and its refusal to follow the EU's lead on sanctions against Russia could jeopardize Serbia's bid for EU membership.

Serbia has recently indicated it will not start building South Stream. Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said last week "it makes no sense" to start without an agreement on the pipeline's legality between the EU and Moscow.Serbia has recently indicated it will not start building South Stream.

Putin told "Politika" the pipeline project would bring Serbia more than 2 million euros in new investment and "substantially strengthen the country's energy security."

Putin's warm Serbian welcome may contrast with greeting he faces hours later at an October 16-17 Europe-Asia summit in Milan, where he will meet Western leaders angry over Russia's role in the Ukraine crisis.

NATO says Russian has sent troops and weapons to help pro-Russian separatists fighting government forces in a conflict that has killed more than 3,660 people in eastern Ukraine since April, including 298 passengers and crew abroad a Malaysian jet shot down there in July.

Putin said the importance of the liberation anniversary events could not be overestimated.

"Seventy years ago, our peoples together crushed the criminal ideology of misanthropy that threatened civilization," he said in the interview.

In a veiled swipe at the United States, he said "it is important today that people in various countries, on various continents remember what terrible consequences certainty in one's own exceptionalism can bring."

Putin said he hopes for peace in Ukraine but suggested Ukrainians whose protests toppled a president sympathetic to Moscow in February presented a Nazi-like threat.

"Unfortunately the vaccine against the Nazi virus ... is losing its potency in some European states.," he told "Politika," adding: "particular concern on this score is prompted by the situation in Ukraine, where there was an anticonstitutional coup d'etat in February whose driving forces were nationalists and other radical groups."

In comments to RFE/RL's Balkan Service, Vucic pointed to the complications his country is facing as it balances its foreign policy between the EU and Russia.

"We are not part of the EU and nobody asked us about sanctions against Russia so why should we have to accept them now?" Vucic asked.

Vucic said Serbia respects what EU stands for and what EU membership offers but rejects Brussels' recent habit of telling Belgrade about changes it must make to be admitted.

However, he told reporters last week that Serbia's "strategic goal is not in question – Serbia is on the EU path."

That may not always be evident to the naked eye.

In anticipation of Putin's visit, shops around Belgrade have been selling T-shirts with Putin's face printed on them.

"Nothing better could happen to us," Belgrade resident Vukan Baricanin, a retired economist, said of Putin's visit. "Putin is a famous personality. He turned a country that was on the verge of bankruptcy into a world power."

But Dragan Sutanovac, Serbia’s defense minister between 2007 and 2012, denounced “a desire for idolatry in regard to Putin.”

(With reporting by TASS, Reuters, AFP, AP, and Interfax)

RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR AGAINST 'PUTIN PUB' IN BISHKEK

By RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

Russian Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Andrei Krutko, has protested the new "Putin Pub" restaurant in Bishkek.

Krutko said late October 15 that naming "a dubious drinking site" after "our president" is "unethical" and therefore he asked Bishkek authorities to remove the commercial banners and billboards advertising the pub.

Krutko added that he would do everything possible "either to shut down the place or to make it change its name."

Last month, Bishkek authorities removed all billboards and banners in the city that advertised the "Putin Pub."  

The billboards carried a black screen with white and black silhouetted portrait of the Russian President Vladimir Putin in a circle with the name of the restaurant -- "Putin Pub," below.  

(With reporting by "Vecherny Bishkek")

17:35 October 16, 2014

UKRAINE CALLS ON ITS CITIZENS TO DITCH VKONTAKTE

VIa slon.ru:

Ukraine's Security Service has urged Ukrainians not to use Russian social networks.

Markiian Lubkovsky, an adviser to the Interior Minister told the television channel "112 Ukraine" that the site "VKontakte" is an "element of pressure and influence." 

"We urge all Ukrainians, all of our citizens to be careful not to use these networks, because they are now part of the information war against Ukraine," he said.

Read it all here. And a big h/t to Kevin Rothrock for flagging.

 

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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