Wednesday, October 22, 2014


The Power Vertical

Ksenia And Vladimir

Ksenia Sobchak appears in a Moscow court on May 18.
Ksenia Sobchak appears in a Moscow court on May 18.
History often rhymes in very odd ways.
 
On June 12, 1999, Anatoly Sobchak returned home after 1 1/2 years in self-imposed exile in Paris.
 
The former St. Petersburg mayor, and principal author of the Russian Constitution, left the country in November 1997 in the midst of a corruption investigation that he and his allies insisted was -- and according to most impartial accounts appeared to be -- politically motivated.
 
Sobchak's return from exile coincided with the meteoric rise of his former deputy and close political ally, Vladimir Putin. A year earlier, Putin became director of the Federal Security Service (FSB). A few months before Sobchak's homecoming, his friend and former deputy was named secretary of the Security Council. Two months later, Putin would be named prime minister, serving for just several months before succeeding Boris Yeltsin as president.
 
The conventional wisdom at the time was that Sobchak, who died in February 2000, was able to safely return to Russia because he enjoyed the ascendant Putin's protection.
 
As a reporter in St. Petersburg at the time, I covered Sobchak's flamboyant and emotional arrival at the city's Pulkovo Airport. One of the enduring memories I have of that day was of Sobchak's 17-year-old daughter Ksenia impatiently pulling on his arm in a vain attempt to get her famously talkative father to stop engaging journalists and get in the car already.
 
Fast forward to June 12, 2012, exactly 13 years later.
 
That impatient 17-year-old girl is now a confident 30-year-old who has seamlessly transformed herself from a socialite reality-show star into one of Russia's most visible social activists. And she is being questioned by agents from the Investigative Committee over her opposition political activities.  A day earlier, her apartment was searched by Investigative Committee agents, who confiscated large sums of cash.
 
Due to her family's ties to Putin, it was always assumed that, unlike other opposition figures -- but like her father -- Ksenia Sobchak enjoyed a degree of protection. Now everybody is reassessing that assumption.
 
Writing in the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" last week, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky suggested it was Sobchak -- and not Aleksei Navalny, Ilya Yashin, or Sergei Udaltsov, whose flats were also searched -- who was the operation's real target:

The only person whom Putin truly punished, rather than hyped, on June 11 was Ksenia Sobchak. But it wasn't political. It was personal. In practice (and in theory) Putin doesn't really know the other protest leaders and therefore has no grounds for taking offense against them. But it appears that the president believes he has grounds for taking offense against Ksenia Sobchak.
 
And today, Putin upped the ante against his old friend's daughter (and make no mistake, none of this would be happening without Putin giving the green light).
 
A June 18 article in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia" quoted anonymous law enforcement sources as saying that Sobchak could be prosecuted for tax evasion over the estimated 1 million euros and $500,000 in cash agents seized from her apartment during last week's raid.

The report quoted unidentified Interior Ministry officials as saying that Sobchak's 2011 tax declaration reported 6.7 million rubles ($210,000) in income. Her 2010 declaration, according to the daily, reported 4.53 million rubles.
 
The authorities are clearly trying to drive a wedge between Sobchak and the rest of the opposition by stirring up resentment of her wealth. And there is some evidence it is working. On June 15, Ilya Ponomaryov, an opposition State Duma deputy from the center-left A Just Russia, asked her to distance herself from the protest movement.

Sobchak, however, is showing no signs of lowering her profile. Writing on her Twitter feed, Sobchak responded to the allegations. "For many years my tax returns have reported not less than $1 million in income," she wrote in one tweet, calling the report "lies and slander designed to provoke me."

In another, she wrote that after consulting her lawyer, Henry Reznik, she has decided to sue "Izvestia" over the article.
 
And in an article published later in the day on June 18 on "Komsomolskaya pravda's" website, she reiterated that she has paid taxes on all her income. She also noted that the smears against her were reminiscent of those against her father in the 1990s.

Sobchak also attacked the Kremlin's apparent strategy against her at its core:
 
The case about 'Sobchak's millions' is just another way of stirring up hatred in our country, which already has so much of it. Stories about big money always stir up jealousy and negativity. And stirring up class hatred in order to discredit a protester is irresponsible...After what happened in 1917, inciting class hatred is no joke in this country. It's like putting matches in the hands of a child. Please smear me in some other way. For the sake of peace in our country, I promise to give you a lot of other reasons.
 
Ksenia Sobchak has again passed into new territory. In the months after the disputed State Duma elections in December, she turned herself into a serious political player with the opposition -- albeit one who everybody assumed enjoyed protected status. Now she will need to play that role without a "krysha."

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Vladimir Putin,Russian opposition,Ksenia Sobchak,Anatoly Sobchak

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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
June 18, 2012 21:58
How many battalions of OMON forces does this socialite command? Exactly. The writing is on the wall; pack your bags while you still can. I suspect that most Russians would applaud if she were sent to prison.

by: Frank
June 19, 2012 00:27
Boola, boola.

The Russian government is screwed up for making bratty and politically insignificant individuals appear more important than they actually are.

by: George from: USA
June 19, 2012 08:25
So typical of Russian "Justice/Law", from the time of the Czars, the Soviet, right on into the regime of Putin.
Russia is synonymous with Corruption.
What rule of law? Those in power make it up as they go, use it as a tool for their power and gain of wealth, nothing has changed in 200+ years.
In Response

by: Frank
June 19, 2012 13:17
She really appears persecuted George.

Plenty of "corruption" elsewhere, inclusive of the prevailing RFE/RL spin.


by: Eugenio from: Vienna
June 19, 2012 11:00
In other news on VLADIMIR: while Ksenia is filing suits, Vladimir seems to have put together a support group that will help him overcome this most serious challenge to date to his power. Here is the picture of Vladimir and his support team: http://economia.elpais.com/economia/2012/06/19/actualidad/1340091617_531677.html

by: nirvichara from: Irving, TX
June 19, 2012 12:54
Kesenia Sobchak belongs to this type of loud, ignorant, arrogant and repulsive people who irritates everyone with their outrageous aggressive stupidity. My guess that if he jailed for a while nobody in Russia would miss her, but aggressive but weak and whiny anti-putin opposition will try to use it against Putin , of course. Don't think it will work, though

by: Mark from: Victoria
June 19, 2012 14:06
Hopefully while all this lawsuit talk is flying around, somebody will think to sue Belkovsky, who in a moment of high comedy, is elevated here to the status of "political analyst". When was the last time he was right about anything? I notice The Economist was forced to print a retraction after being threatened with a lawsuit by Gunvor for repeating Belkovsky's nonsense that Vladimir Putin is a "ghost majority shareholder" in the company, and you can be sure that if they had any proof, they would have brought it forward. They obviously have not.

http://www.economist.com/node/14140737?story_id=14140737


I invite anyone who seriously believes a committed modernist and plugged-in socialite like Sobchak keeps her savings in her flat because she does not trust Russian banks to give their head a good shake. In these days of online money transfers and internet financial management, Sobchak could keep the bulk of her funds in Israel or Barbados or Switzerland; anywhere she chose. It certainly bodes well for Russia's future that one of its hippest opposition icons believes the solution to Russian banking uncertainty is to keep your money in your mattress. How progressive! I can imagine what the federal tax plan is going to look like in an opposition government.

by: Jack from: US
June 19, 2012 14:32
who is Sobchak, what is Sobchak? Why is that person worth even usually less than worthless RFE/RL commentary? It seems the real objective of US propaganda is to denigrade the great leader Putin to the level of some sobchak
In Response

by: Matvei from: USA
June 20, 2012 09:44
Great Leader Putin??? Did you use that language back in the days of Brezhnev, too, Jack, you Putin shill?

by: john from: canada
June 19, 2012 21:06
Russian income taxes are so low, why would anybody even bother trying to avoid paying them?

However, pro-Putin media had great fun showing her closets, clothes, and money-piles. And noting of course that she shares the apartment with fellow activist and journalist Ilya Yashin - so he does have some stake in Sobchak's issues.

Smear job of course, but similar to rather mild Putinist harassment of US ambassador Michael McFaul, and not as bad (yet) as the incarceration of Pussy Riot mothers, the extreme harassment of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, nor the homicide of Sergei Magnitsky.

But if Putin really doesn't like you...Ksenia might be an exile abroad if she can escape his clutches...




by: La Russophobe from: USA
June 21, 2012 09:54
This report is rather bizarre in failing to even mention the main issue regarding the obscene pile of cash in Sobchak's apartment, which is not whether she paid taxes on it but what the hell it was doing there. Her claim that she "doesn't trust banks" simply does not pass the smell test. If this were a Kremlin figure, the "opposition" would now be screaming about payoffs of supporters, but for some reason this issue is to be ignored where Sobchak is concerned? Normal people don't keep over one million dollars in cash in their apartment (leaving aside the stupidity of doing so in a one of the most corrupt nations on the planet), and nobody has confronted Sobchak with the hard questions about this. It's simply ludicrous to suggest that she could be viewed as being a serious leadership figure, and let's not forget that her father was the mentor of Putin and one of the most corrupt figures in Russian history. Sobchak is analagous to Paris Hilton -- that is, if Hilton's father were Bernie Madoff.

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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