Tuesday, October 21, 2014


The Power Vertical

Judge Veklich's Rebellion

Opposition figure Garry Kasparov being detained by police on August 17.
Opposition figure Garry Kasparov being detained by police on August 17.
The authorities couldn't have scripted it better. The first high-profile test of a new law imposing stiff fines for unsanctioned public gatherings would involve none other than Garry Kasparov.
 
The former world chess champion turned opposition figure was detained outside a Moscow courthouse on August 17, the last day of the trial of three members of the feminist punk rock collective Pussy Riot. Kasparov said he was just speaking to journalists. Police said he was chanting "Down with the police state," "Russia without Putin," and other antigovernment slogans.
 
So they caught a pretty big fish. And few doubted, given Russia's servile courts, that Kasparov would be given a show trial. And few doubted that the show trial would result in a fine of up to $1,000 in accordance with the new law.
 
Enter Judge Yekaterina Veklich.
 
In the August 24 Power Vertical podcast, my co-host Kirill Kobrin, managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian Service, said the following:
 
We can't say all Russian bureaucrats are corrupt, spoiled thieves. There are a lot of honest people who support the idea of a strong state and their attitude to all these tricks [is that] they are getting disgusted. Any honest bureaucrat, or a local police officer or judge, what do they think of this process? It's just shameful. Don't forget about the moral element in this.
 
Timely words indeed. Hours later, Veklich found Kasparov not guilty.
 
“The facts recorded in the police report do not correspond to reality,” she said in acquitting him.

Kasparov is now seeking to have the police who detained him brought up on criminal charges. 
 
In preparing his defense, Kasparov gathered photographic and video evidence of the run-up to his detention to prove he wasn't shouting antigovernment slogans as police had alleged. He also used time stamps on photographs of his arrest to show that it took place more than an hour before the time listed in the police report -- bolstering his case that the police report was fabricated.
 
Moreover, journalists interviewing Kasparov when he was detained (including RFE/RL's Danila Galperovich) testified in his defense.
 
But none of that would have mattered if Veklich had acted according to the expected script. If she had not decided to issue her ruling based on the facts, rather than the political needs of the Kremlin.
 
As I have blogged here and the Russian media has covered extensively, there has long been a deep division in the elite between those who want to govern like it's 2007 and those who see a need to move on -- albeit slowly -- towards a more pluralistic approach. Most of this -- conflicts between shareholders and managers and between siloviki and technocrats -- has focused on the upper echelons.
 
Just last week, Gazeta.ru had a piece on a schism inside the Kremlin administration over the crackdown that followed Vladimir Putin's return to power. "Not everyone likes the harsh suppression of opposition and crude propaganda," the author, Yekaterina Vinokurova, wrote.
 
And the longer this split at the top persists, the more likely it will be reflected throughout the bureaucracy, in the law-enforcement community, and yes, in the courts.
 
"Those in Russian state bodies have a choice," Kobrin said during the podcast.
 
I suspect we will be seeing more and more officials like Judge Veklich surprising us in the future.
 
-- Brian Whitmore
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Mark from: Victoria
August 28, 2012 00:11
I don't mean to rain on your parade, but in what way is Garry Kasparov a "big fish"? If you meant a fish stood a better chance of getting elected in virtually any political contest in which Kasparov was a candidate, you're right. Otherwise, not so much. Kasparov has yet to break the electoral threshold, and usually withdraws, saying government obstruction prevents him getting a fair crack at winning.

Yes, Kasparov's victory in court was surprising, and will rightly cast doubt on police evidence in future, which is all to the good as the standard of proof will rise. If the preponderance of your Russia analysis is correct, Judge Veklich has maybe 48 hours to get out of the country before Putin's goons come and break down her door, jail her on trumped-up charges and eventually announce she died of an undiagnosed illness while in prison. Let's see if that happens, as it is bound to do considering Putin brooks no challenges to his authority, and he really wanted Garry Kasparov sent down the river for a long stretch. Or at least fined $1000.00.

Alternatively, Judge Veklich could lead a political revolt of all honest bureacrats, based on this "schism" you keep bringing up, and overthrow the government.

Somehow lost in the shuffle and the throwing of confetti is the fact that the justice system worked just as it is supposed to, and if it continues to do so a few police officers will be looking for new jobs by the end of the week. Which of course will be a victory against Putin, who didn't want that to happen.
In Response

by: Sergio from: The Netherlands
August 29, 2012 03:59
Kasparov is simply a famous person, since his chess years. This makes him automatically a big fish. If Pugacheva or Mikhalkov suddenly joined the anti-Putin opposition, they would also be 'big fish' by virtue of their fame.

I don't expect your mega-thug-scenario to come true, as Putin is already under pressure because of the Pussy Riot case. But keep your eyes open during the next few years. I would not be surprised if this judge met the fate of other Russian opposition members (despite the fact that this judge isn't one). Be honest: if she disappears or is jailed at some point in the next few years, will you be surprised?

Yes, the justice system in this case worked just as it was supposed to. If only that happened more frequently -- say, more than 1 in 10 -- when opposition activists are involved, there would be no need for confetti. It would simply be a normal state of affairs.

Who knows? Maybe this will happen in Russia's future. Weirder things have happened.
In Response

by: Mark from: Victoria
August 29, 2012 20:59
I could see that, if Kasparov had been arrested for bungling the Sicilian Defense or some related chess crime, but his arrest was related to his activities as an oppsition political figure, to which his fame as a chess player has no more relevance than if he were William G. Wepfer - a famous person in his own circles, as the inventor of the gas barbecue.

In point of fact Kasparov was arrested for nothing, since he was found not guilty, but I'm sure you see what I mean - I object to the characterization of Kasparov as a "big fish" in politics just because he was a great chess player. That doesn't help him command a political audience, and I'll bet not even all the competition-level chess players in Russia would vote for him. Similarly, opposition figures always wail that they were cheated if they make a poor showing. They are either unable to acknowledge they are just not that popular, or genuinely don't see it. Boris Nemtsov is a great example, losing the election for mayor of his home town of Sochi, and claiming it was because he did not get equal access to airtime and advertising media to market his candidacy. As I mentioned, he is from Sochi, and he had recently finished up a stint as Deputy Prime Minister of the entire Russian Federation. It's hard to imagine there was anyone in Sochi who did not know him.

Similarly, Kasparov's complaint that he was unable to rent a hall to hold his nominating convention is a weak appeal for pity. What are we to make of somebody who can't surmount that kind of obstacle, yet who proposes to lead the nation? Is he never going to have to confront a problem more difficult that that? Use your head, man: rent the hall through a third party. Rent the convention facilities of a major hotel chain. Hold it in a barn, for God's sake - the law says you have to have a verified 500 delegates in support, it doesn't specify the type of building. If he couldn't reason his way through that one, how would he deal with a credit crisis? Runaway inflation? Border disputes? Do I have to think of everything?

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
August 28, 2012 13:49
It's really sad to look at Kasparov: he was such a good chess player back in the 1980s. And now he needed to get into "politics" in order to make a clown of himself by biting (or not - after all, who cares?) some policemen on the street. He could have opened a chess academy instead and do something useful for the others (and for himself, of course).
In Response

by: Sergio from: The Netherlands
August 29, 2012 04:08
He still is, as far as I know, as good a chess player as he was in the 1980s. As Thérèse said in her comment, if you think Kasparov makes himself a clown in politics while being denied the right to hold public meetings or protest marches and having no access to the media (who, under P's authority, mechanically place him in the worst light possible), then pretty much every great Russian in history, from Lenin on, started out as a clown.

I don't think Kasparov will become politically important. But this is not the only measure of "clown"ness. For the latter, look at Zhirinovsky, and what he says.

by: Thérèse Obrecht Hodler from: Berne
August 28, 2012 19:29
Appalling comments, sorry to say. How do you think Russia will ever change if citizens (like Kasparov) open a chess academy and just try to make loads of money instead of going into politics? He makes a clown of himself? This is the kind of statement Putin probably loves to make to his pals. Have you ever imagined what it is like to be a candidate without ever appearing on TV or without even being able to hold a meeting, be in Moscow or the provinces. He will never be elected president, good or him, but he might get shot some day by a lunatic for trying to make his country a decent place to live. Why did Magnitsky feel the need to uncover a big corruption scheme? Why does Navalny go on protesting with the risk of being put behind bars for years? Why did Politkovskaya write about Chechnya when nobody was interested to read that stuff (is what many Russians - and probably you too - said after her death). Thanks judge Veklich for being brave, but maybe your phone had broken down before the judgment, so no chance for the telefonnoe pravo.
In Response

by: Andrew from: Auckland
August 29, 2012 04:49
Well said Therese, you make good points.

Unfortunately Mark and Eugenio often make such appalling comments.

BTW Mark, if you think the Russian justice system "worked just as it is supposed to", a better example is the imprisonment of the wife of an activist for 8 years for "drug possession" despite eye witnesses (who had passed lie detector tests) stating they had seen the police planting the drugs (a not uncommon occurrence in Russia). THAT is the system working the way it was intended by Putin.
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
August 29, 2012 05:00
Thérèse, who told you that "Russia needs to change"? When one looks at a number of European states going bankrupt, while Russia is growing at the rate of more than 4 % per year, one gets the impression that a number of EU member states need to change and not anyone else.
You are saying: "trying to make his country a decent place to live". This is a comment that some ignorant "individual" from the US would make: sitting in his/her bankrupt Detroit, having no idea abour the world and thinking that s/he needs to tell others how to live. Did you, Thérèse, by any chance graduate from the Condoleezza Rice School of Politics?
All your "retorical" questions starting with "why" are very easy to answer: Magnitsky, Navalny, Politkovskaya and Pussy Riot do what they do for one sole reason - they are (were) paid by the US Embassy in Moscow and related structures to try to somehow destabilize Russia. But you know, people there are not as stupid as you would wish them to be: they know that the nation of Beavuses and Buttheads and their lakeys are the major enemy of the humankind.
And they also know that the US and EU are going bankrupt and this is the major reason why they so desperately try to somehow destabilize others. But - the example of Syria is vividly showing every day - the US/EU/NATO losers are that inept that they can not even get rid of Bashar, let alone presenting any kind of serious challenge to Putin.
Cheers from Vienna, Thérèse!
In Response

by: Alex from: USA
August 30, 2012 17:03
I usually try to ignore comments by Mark and Eugenio since they are such reliably anti-Western trolls on this site, but Eugenio's latest claim that the Russian opposition is paid by the US Embassy is just beyond the pale in its stupidity and falseness. The Russian opposition does what it does because they love Russia and hate what Putin is doing to their country, and I could not agree with them more.

Eugenio, you are a pathetic far-left extremist, apparently jobless since you leave your poison pen comments every day - either that or YOU are paid by the Russian Embassy in Vienna to troll for them.

You and your ideology are on the ash heap of history, you've lost and America won, and if you can't accept that, that's not our problem. Stop your disgusting and pointless America-hatred and go learn some English, your comments are full of basic grammar errors and misspellings... not surprising, considering the basic errors in your ideology and worldview.

Keep rocking, Brian, don't let leftist idiots like E. get you down.

by: Vakhtang from: Moscow
August 30, 2012 00:39
All of this suggests that Mr.Whitmore. does not understand Russian judicial system.

The situation today is... that in such cases the judge did not make their own decisions this was a direct order of the Moscow City Court, more precisely the order of Egorova-Chairman of the Moscow City Court,more precisely Putin's order...

Those who say that Kasparov "small fish" and Putin too busy with "great deeds", to spend time on such trifles are agents of the KGB or lie.
Putin is vindictive and mean-spirited man who does not miss a single detail вut at the same time, he wants everyone to believe in the opposite and that the courts that he controls not only suppress but can acquit...court decision on Kasparov - part of the game of Putin that such as Mr.Whitmore wrote naive articles about "objective" russian judges-)))..

So Mr.Whitmore!!.. when you see that in the room a woman enters in a gown.. you need to know-Yegorovа called her on the order of Putin-make the "right" decision...

by: Mark from: Victoria
August 31, 2012 17:29
"The Russian opposition does what it does because they love Russia and hate what Putin is doing to their country, and I could not agree with them more."

Is that a fact? Well, how Russian is Kasparov, really? He's a U.S. citizen, born in Azerbaijan to an Armenian mother and a Russian father, who died when he was only 7 years old. He is the recipient of the "Keeper of the Flame" award from the United States think tank Center for Security Policy (CSP), for his contributions to " the defence of the United States and American values around the world". In 2006 he and fellow dissident Mikhail Kasyanov lobbied to have Russia excluded from the G8 Summit, which was held in St Petersburg. Mmmmm....awkward. When he announced his intention to run for the Russian presidency in 2007, he traveled straightaway to the United States to appear on a variety of American talk-show platforms. Who was he trying to convince? Russians? All of his posturing is directed at a foreign audience.

Tell me that would fly, if the circumstances were reversed, in a country where a good quarter of the electorate is still suspicious that their own president is a closet Muslim who was born in Kenya. Uh huh. Imagine Green Party candidate Cheri Honkala - who probably polls about as much of the vote, proportionally speaking, in the USA as Kasparov does in Russia and who has been arrested many more times than Kasparov for civil disobedience - spent significant amounts of her adult life in Russia, had received the Order of the Red Banner from a Russian policy group for her service in the promotion of Russian security, and had lobbied to have the United States excluded from an international summit which was to take place in New York. Imagine she traveled to Russia to promote herself - in Russian - as a U.S. presidential candidate. Further imagine yourself trying to sell the view in the USA that she just loved America and was only trying to make it a better place, because the U.S. government was doing terrible things to it.

And expecting people to take you seriously.

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

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.

 

17:25 October 16, 2014

TARGET: VEDOMOSTI

According to a report in Bloomberg, Kremlin-connected oligarchs are plotting to take over "Vedomosti," one of Russia's few remaining independent newspapers -- one that has been a pathbreaker in the field of economic journalism and data-driven investigative reporting.

Businessmen close to President Vladimir Putin are preparing to acquire Vedomosti, the largest Russian newspaper outside the Kremlin’s control, three people familiar with the matter said.

Putin signed a law yesterday capping foreign holdings in media at 20 percent, meaning the owners of the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, co-founders of the newspaper, must cut or sell their 33 percent stakes by the end of 2016. The third owner, Sanoma Oyj (SAA1V), is in talks to sell its Russian assets.

Under a plan backed by the presidential administration, an intermediary may be used to acquire all three stakes to make the deal more palatable politically before a group loyal to Putin buys the whole newspaper, the people said, asking not to be identified because the information is private. The eventual owner will probably be either Gazprom-Media, an affiliate of the state-run gas exporter, or companies linked to longtime Putin ally Yury Kovalchuk, they said.

“The Kremlin sees Vedomosti’s shareholders as foreign governments,” the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Tatiana Lysova, said in an interview. “The WSJ equals the U.S. and the FT the U.K. They want a Russian owner so they have someone to call.”

Read the whole piece here.

 

11:17 October 16, 2014

CRIMEA'S LGBT COMMUNITY FLEES IN FEAR

Simon Shuster has a dispatch in Time Magazine about the plight of the gay and lesbian community in Crimea after the Russian annexation.

For the gay community in Crimea, the most worrying piece of legislation was the Russian ban on “homosexual propaganda,” which Putin signed in 2012. Although the law is billed as an effort to protect Russian children from learning about “non-traditional sexual relationships,” its critics say the law encourages homophobia, signaling to Russians that gays are somehow inferior and should not be allowed to insist on their equality in public.

Since March, the new leaders of Crimea have embraced these principles with gusto. 

Read it all here.

11:12 October 16, 2014

MORNING NEWS ROUNDUP

Some items from RFE/RL's News Desk:

CRIMEA'S MOSCOW-BACKED LEADER ADMITS SOME TATARS MISSING

Crimea’s Moscow-backed leader Sergei Aksyonov has admitted that four Crimean Tatars are missing on the annexed peninsula.

Aksyonov said on October 16 that the missing Crimean Tatars had not been abducted, adding that some of them "had fought in Syria."

Aksyonov's statement comes amid media reports saying that several Crimean Tatars disappeared in recent days, some of them allegedly kidnapped by unknown men in military uniform.

At least three Crimean Tatar men have been found dead since Moscow's annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine in March.

Pressure on Crimean Tatars, the Turkic-speaking Muslim minority group that largely opposed the annexation, has increased in recent weeks.

In mid-September, Russian authorities seized the Crimean Tatar assembly, the Mejlis, and searched homes of leading members of the Tatar community.

(Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)

IN PERM, RUSSIA TRIES MEMBER OF BANNED ISLAMIC GROUP

Six suspected members of a banned Islamic movement went on trial in the Russian city of Perm on October 16.

Local authorities say the defendants are members of an organization called Nurcular. The seventh member of the group has received a suspended one-year term in June.

In May last year several alleged members of Nurcular were arrested in Perm, near the Ural mountains east of Moscow; St. Petersburg; and the southern city of Rostov-on-Don.

Nurcular was founded by Turkish Islamic cleric Said Nursi, who died in 1960.

It has been banned in Russia since 2008.

Authorities say it propagates the idea of creating an Islamic state on lands where indigenous peoples speak Turkic languages.

(Based on reporting by rapsinews.ru and Interfax)

RUSSIA TO SPEND RECORD AMOUNT ON DEFENSE IN 2015

Russia will allot some 3.3 trillion rubles (about $80 billion) from the state budget for defense spending in 2015, according to the chairman of the defense committee in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.

Vladimir Komoyedov told Russian news agency Interfax on October 16 defense spending for next year would be some $20 billion more than this year, but he added that his committee foresees slight reductions in spending for 2016 and 2017.

Komoyedov said the amount to be spent on defense in 2015 was some 4.2% of Russia's GDP.

Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said on October 7 that Russia's defense spending plans needed to be "more realistic" in light of international sanctions imposed on Russia over its actions in Ukraine.

A three-year draft budget reportedly calls for a 5.3 percent cut in defence spending in 2016, the first reduction since 1998.

(Based on reporting by Interfax and FT)

PUTIN PRAISES SERBIA, LAMBASTES WEST AHEAD OF BELGRADE VISIT

By RFE/RL

Russian President Vladimir Putin has praised Moscow's "Serbian friends" and lashed out at the West in remarks published ahead of a state visit to Belgrade on October 16.

Criticizing sanctions the United States and European Union have imposed on Moscow over its actions in Ukraine, Putin told the Serbian daily "Politika" that isolating Russia was an "absurd, illusory goal" and that attempts to do so could severely damage 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 is to attend Serbia's first military parade in some 30 years as Belgrade marks the anniversary of its liberation from the Nazis in 1944, a celebration Serbia moved forward four days to accommodate Putin's schedule.

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

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 did not mention the United States, but a speech in May in which President Barack Obama said he believes in "American exceptionalism" raised hackles in Russia.

The Belgrade visit is likely to shower Putin with positive attention before he faces Western leaders angry over Russia's role in the Ukraine crisis at an October 16-17 Europe-Asia summit in Milan.

Soviet Army troops helped Yugoslav partisans liberate Belgrade and Serbian officials have welcomed Putin's decision to attend the parade.

More recently, Russia gave Serbia moral support by angrily criticizing the NATO bombing of the rump Yugoslavia in 1999 and backed Belgrade's  opposition to independence for mostly ethnic Albanian Kosovo, which has been recognized by the United States but not by Moscow and has been unable to get a seat at the United Nations.

The two mostly Slavic nations are linked by the Orthodox Christian faith and Russia has championed the rights of Serbs in ethnically mixed Bosnia.

"We have joint roots, language, faith, customs and culture," Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic told Russian television before the visit. "In all wars we were always on the same side."

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.

Putin is due to meet with Nikolic and Prime Minister Aleksandr Vucic for talks on military cooperation and economic ties, including Serbia's participation in Russia's South Stream gas pipeline project, which the EU has suspended in member states.

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

In the "Politika" interview, Putin promoted the South Stream project, saying its implementation would bring Serbia more than 2 million euros in new investment and "substantially strengthen the country's energy security."

"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."

Putin said the volume of trade between Russia and Serbia had risen by 15 percent last year, to nearly $2 billion, and that he expects it to reach that mark this year.

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.

Vucic pointed out that within the EU there are five countries that have not recognized the independence of Serbia's former republic of Kosovo.

However, he told reporters last week that "Putin will hear that Serbia is on the European path. We have other relations we are developing with the Russian Federation, but the 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 the Russian leader's visit, shops around Belgrade have been selling T-shirts with Putin's face printed on them.

People around the city pointed to the long friendship between Serbs and Russians as reason to welcome Russia's leader.

Belgrade resident Vukan Baricanin, a retired economist, welcomed Putin's visit.

"Nothing better could happen to us. Putin is a famous personality. He turned a country that was on the verge of bankruptcy into a world power."

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

Construction engineer Predrag Markovic saw it as natural that Putin would attend a celebration marking the liberation of Belgrade.

"We wouldn't mind if other leaders came too, but I think that Russia and the former Soviet Union were the most important in the liberation of Belgrade."

Slobodan Knezevic said Putin's attendance at the anniversary was appropriate.

"It is really a good that they invited the Russians and Putin. Serbia should thank them for many things. They were always helping us, but it doesn’t mean that we have to stand only by their side. But it is great that they invited them."

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

NATO COMMANDER SEES NO 'MAJOR' RUSSIAN WITHDRAWAL NEAR UKRAINE

NATO's top military commander says the alliance has not seen "major movement" so far of Russian troops from a region bordering eastern Ukraine.

On October 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered about 17,600 Russian troops to return to their bases after what Moscow described as training drills in the southern Rostov region.

U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, told AP news agency on October 15, “Now we will watch to see if there is delivery on the promise."

NATO has refuted previous Russian claims of troop withdrawals from the regions bordering eastern Ukraine, where separatists have been battling government troops since April.

Moscow has consistently denied Ukrainian and Western allegations that it has deployed Russian troops and heavy military equipment in eastern Ukraine to support pro-Russian separatists there.

(Based on reporting by AP and Reuters)

NAVALNY ASSOCIATE'S HOUSE ARREST EXTENDED

By RFE/RL's Russian Service

The house arrest of an associate of outspoken Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny has been extended.

A court in Moscow ruled on October 15 that Konstantin Yankauskas's house arrest must be prolonged until December 10.

Yankauskas was placed under house arrest on June 11.  The previous term was to expire on October 17.

Yankauskas and two other Navalny associates, Nikolai Lyaskin and Vladimir Ashurkov, are accused of election-law violations and fraud related to  funding of Navalny's campaign for Moscow mayor last year.

Yankauskas calls the case politically motivated.

Navalny and his brother Oleg have been accused of stealing and laundering $756,500 from the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher.

Navalny, a leader of anti-government protests in 2011-2012, is also serving a five-year suspended sentence on a $500,000 theft conviction.

He calls all the cases against him politically motivated.

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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