Thursday, October 02, 2014


The Power Vertical

Mironov Plays Musical Chairs

Sergei Mironov addressing the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly on May 18.
Sergei Mironov addressing the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly on May 18.
Sergei Mironov lost his job as speaker of the Federation Council today when the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly voted 42-5 to remove him as one of the city's representatives to the upper chamber.

His sacking was sparked by a series of critical public comments he made about the ruling United Russia party. He also drew fire for saying that his party, A Just Russia, would not support Putin's return to the presidency in 2012 if he is nominated by United Russia.

So this means that Mironov is finished and will just fade away into the political wilderness, right? Well, not exactly.

After the vote, Mironov said he would take a seat in the State Duma, which he is entitled to do because he led the party list of A Just Russia in the December 2007 parliamentary elections:

I will assume the mandate of State Duma lawmaker -- I have a legal right to do so -- and in the near future I will speak from the State Duma rostrum. So, gentlemen of the United Russia party, you are celebrating too early that you have deprived me of a podium.

The Mironov case is one of the stranger twists in what is shaping up to be another lively election season.

A longtime loyal ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Mironov held his speakership for the past 10 years. He founded A Just Russia in 2007 with the Putin's blessing as a pro-Kremlin center-left party, a move widely seen as part of a strategy to co-opt discontent on the left and establish an obedient domesticated opposition.

But in then, he started acting -- and the operative word here is "acting" -- sort of like an actual opposition figure. In October 2009, A Just Russia joined the Communists and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats, two other "opposition" parties tolerated by the Kremlin, in a walkout from the State Duma to protest falsification in local elections that month (in which United Russia won an overwhelming majority of seats).

Throughout 2010 and into this year, MIronov became increasingly critical of United Russia. He even criticized the government's 2010 budget, sparking the first calls for him to step down.

Mironov says he and his party are gearing up for the December 2011 State Duma elections.

"If somebody assumed that I am leaving the [A Just Russia] party - they are wrong - it is a simple reshuffling of forces ahead of the decisive battle that we are facing in December," he said in remarks reported by RIA-Novosti.

In his press conference today, Medvedev curiously interrupted the proceedings to announce Mironov's sacking (which he reportedly read on his iPad). Asked later by journalists to comment, Medvedev said it would benefit both United Russia and A Just Russia.

"Many countries take decades to develop their parliaments and this is what we are doing," Medvedev said.

The remark appears curious devoid of context. But in context, it makes perfect sense.

Back in 2009, Mironov supported a plan, floated by Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov and hotly opposed by United Russia, to establish a tightly controlled multi-party system similar to the ones that existed in some Soviet satellites like Communist-era Czechoslovakia and East Germany.

State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, a leading member of United Russia, vocally fought the idea -- which would reduce the party's clout -- and it seemed to lose traction.

But given the events of the past week or so, it might just be poised to make a comeback.

Billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov's decision to head up the Kremlin-friendly center-right "opposition" party Right Cause could -- possibly -- turn them into a player and get them into the next Duma.

Mironov's expulsion could -- conceivably -- boost his stature as an outsider fighting the system (as contrived as that is) among disaffected voters on the left. This would boost A Just Russia's chances to make it back into the Duma in December without the taint of being a Kremlin lackey.

If both A Just Russia and Right Cause make it into parliament they will provide a convenient left and right flank to a still-dominant United Russia (with the Communists and the Liberal Democrats occupying the left and right extremes). And then -- voila! -- Surkov's tightly controlled fake multiparty system is a reality.

And then everybody joins Putin's new All-Russian National Front and lives happily ever after!

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: United Russia,Sergei Mironov,A Just Russia,2011 State Duma elections

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MORNING NEWS ROUNDUP FOR OCTOBER 2, 2014

Good morning. Here are a few items from RFE/RL's News Desk:

MERKEL URGES PUTIN TO PRESS SEPARATISTS IN UKRAINE

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Russia has a duty to exert influence on pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Merkel made the remark during a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on October 1.

According to a German government spokesman, the two leaders expressed concerned that violence was still being used in Ukraine every day.

Merkel said the border between Ukraine and Russia needed to be monitored and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation had a big role to play in that. 

She said Germany would continue to support the OSCE mission in Ukraine, adding it could play an important role in planned local elections in the regions around Donetsk and Luhansk. 

Earlier, NATO's new Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the cease-fire in Ukraine offers an opportunity but Russia still has the power to destabilize the country.

(Based on reporting by TASS and Reuters)

MOSCOW LINKS SUSPENSION OF STUDENT EXCHANGES TO GAY U.S. COUPLE

Russia's child-protection ombudsman has linked Moscow's decision to suspend participation in the Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX)  to a gay American couple that established guardianship over a Russian high school student who was in the United States for the program.

Pavel Astakhov said on Twitter (https://twitter.com/RFdeti) on October 1 that Washington had violated its obligation to return Russian students to their country when  "a Russian teen stayed behind in the United States."

Astakohov said a homosexual couple established illegal "guardianship" over the boy.

But the U.S. administrator of the program says the events described by Astakhov occurred after the child had completed the exchange program and that the student's host family was not a same-sex couple as Russian officials have implied.

U.S. Ambassador John Tefft expressed regret over Russia's decision to withdraw from next year's FLEX program.

(With reporting by TASS and Interfax)

NATO'S NEW CHIEF SAYS RUSSIA STILL ABLE TO DESTABILIZE UKRAINE

NATO's new Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said that the cease-fire in Ukraine "offers an opportunity" but says Russia still has the power to destabilize the country. 

Stoltenberg, speaking on October 1 in Brussels at his first news conference as NATO leader, said Russia must comply with international law and demonstrate it is respecting its international obligations.

He said: "We see violations of the cease-fire" in Ukraine.

But the new NATO chief said he saw no contradiction between aspiring for a constructive relationship with Russia and being in favor of a strong NATO.

Stoltenberg, a former two-term Norwegian Prime Minister, is NATO's 13th secretary-general in the trans-Atlantic organization's 65-year existence.

He replaced Danish former Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. 

(With additional reporting by Reuters and AP)

LAVROV SEES CHANCE TO RESUME TALKS WITH NORTH KOREA

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after meeting in Moscow with North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong on October 1 that he sees a possibility for six-party talks to resume on Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

But Lavrov said the resumption of the talks "will take a certain amount of time – not immediately."

He said the main conditions are "to achieve from all sides a calm, balanced approach" and to avoid "any abrupt steps that would only polarize positions."

North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and the United States began talks in 2003 with the aim of ridding the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons.

But Pyongyang withdrew in 2009 and indicated it would not abide by a 2005 pledge to abandon its nuclear programs.

Ri, who is on a 10-day visit to Russia, said a "long tradition of relations" between Moscow and Pyongyang is "bonded with blood."

(Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)

And this, via Reuters:

RUSSIA GAS DUEL DEEPENS WITH SLOVAKIA SUPPLY CUT

By Michael Kahn and Jan Lopatka

PRAGUE, Oct 1 (Reuters) - The cat and mouse game between Europe and Russia on gas intensified on Wednesday with Slovakia saying its supply from Russia was down by a half and its prime minister calling the move part of a political fight.

Since September, Russia's state-controlled Gazprom has sent less-than-requested deliveries to Poland, Slovakia, Austria and Hungary - after the European Union began sending gas to Ukraine - in a clear warning from Moscow ahead of the winter heating season which officially starts today, when the industry switches to higher pricing.

The 50 percent cut reported by Slovakia, a major transit point for Russian gas exports to Europe, was by far the deepest yet, and Prime Minister Robert Fico said he would call a crisis meeting of his government if the problems persisted.

Fico, who normally has warm relations with Russia and has criticised EU sanctions against it, said he saw political factors behind the cuts.

"The Russian side talks about technical problems, about the necessity of filling up storage for the winter season," Fico said. "I have used this expression and I will use it again: gas has become a tool in a political fight."

There was no immediate comment from Russian gas exporter Gazprom

Slovakia's western neighbour the Czech Republic became the latest former Soviet-bloc nation to experience reductions. RWE Czech Republic, its main gas importer, said it saw unspecified reductions on several days over the past week, although the flow seemed normal on Wednesday.

It was unlikely there will be any impact for now on consumers of gas in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or the countries further West that receive it via there, because gas storage reservoirs throughout Europe are close to full.

As well as shipping Russian gas west, Slovakia also sends it east into Ukraine. That has irked Russia, which switched off gas deliveries to Ukraine to persuade Kiev to pay its arrears.

"Nobody should be surprised by what Russia does. They want to keep pressure on Ukraine... at the start of the heating season," said Michael LaBelle, a gas expert at the Central European University in Budapest.

Central European spot gas markets rose to over 25 euros ($31.52) per megawatt-hours (MWh), their highest levels since the Ukraine crisis broke out in February/March.

Russia is Europe's biggest supplier of natural gas, meeting almost a third of annual demand and in return, Gazprom receives around $80 billion in annual revenues from its European customers, making up the majority of its income.

Moscow halted gas flows to Ukraine three times in the past decade, in 2006, 2009 and since June this year, although this year gas for the EU via Ukraine has so far continued to flow.

Opening up gas flows eastward was part of the EU's response to Gazprom's decision to cut supplies to Kiev in June. Slovakia, Poland and Hungary can also send gas to Ukraine but so far deliveries have not been without incident.

Poland temporarily stopped deliveries to Ukraine last month after Warsaw said it was getting less gas from Russia than requested. Hungary stopped eastward supplies last week in order to fill its own storage tanks ahead of winter.

Slovakia, with the largest EU capacity to Ukraine, had maintained deliveries.

Analysts agree the moves are a warning to Europe that Russia is ready to retaliate should Brussels impose further sanctions on Moscow over its intervention in Ukraine.

"It (the Russian export reductions) could actually be in the end quite harmless. But the fact that they did not tell anyone in advance, (shows) that nobody should trust any explanation he or she gets, and that in itself is damning," Czech energy security ambassador Vaclav Bartuska told Reuters this week.

He added it would be foolish to expect gas to flow as usual through Ukraine this winter.

DEAL?

Traders have, however, pointed out that Russia's recent reductions to Europe, at least before the latest cuts to Slovakia, were within contractual allowances and came during times that EU gas storage tanks are well filled.

Gas Infrastructure Europe data show that the EU's gas storage sites are filled to an average of over 90 percent, compared to just 68 percent this time last year.

"Most of the EU has its gas tanks filled to the rims, so they don't need more gas at the moment, while Gazprom needs to still fill its domestic reserves ahead of the Russian winter, so I'm not surprised by its flow reductions to the EU, which were all within contractual allowances," one EU utility trader said.

While gas deliveries to Germany, Gazprom's biggest customer, should continue through the Nord Stream pipeline which bypasses Ukraine, the outlook is far less certain for central and southeastern European nations which receive most or all of their imports from Russia and via Ukraine.

To deal with a potential shortfall this winter, the European Union has prepared emergency plans and has also sought a compromise to safeguard winter supplies in a potential deal that would guarantee Kiev at least 5 billion cubic metres of Russian gas for the next six months if Ukraine made pre-payments.

The Russian energy ministry said on Wednesday that there would be not further gas talks with Ukraine and the European Commission this week. (1 US dollar = 0.7933 euro) (Additional reporting by Vera Eckert in Berlin; Writing by Henning Gloystein and Christian Lowe; Editing by William Hardy)

 

WHY COMPROMISE IN UKRAINE MIGHT BE IMPOSSIBLE

The always insightful -- and often provocative -- Alexander Motyl has a piece up at Huffington Post suggesting the Western and Russian positions on Ukraine are irreconcilable.

"Should the West therefore try to understand Russian perceptions even if it knows that they are completely wrong? Obviously, understanding Russian delusions can help the West and Ukraine craft a better response to Putin's expansionism. But it makes little sense to say that the West and Ukraine should try to accommodate these delusions in their search for peace in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea.

Should the democratic world have accommodated Hitler's perceptions of Jews? Or of Germany's need for Lebensraum? Or of the innate superiority of the Aryan race? The questions are rhetorical, but they are exactly the ones we should be asking about Russian perceptions.

The implications for policy are clear. Finding a compromise under such conditions may be impossible. And agreeing to disagree may be the best one can possibly achieve. Russia currently controls the Crimea and one third of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. Let it continue to do so. The West has imposed sanctions on the Russian economy and supports Ukraine. Let it also continue to do so. Finally, Ukraine has adopted a defensive position and appears intent on preventing further Russian incursions into its territory. It, too, should continue to do so.

There is no practical solution to the Russo-Ukrainian war. The most one can hope for is to "freeze" it and thereby transform hot war into cold war between Russia and Ukraine and between Russia and the West. That cold war will continue as long as Putin remains in power and continues to promote his delusional views of the world." 

Read the whole piece here.

Semyon Guzman, a prominent Ukrainian psychiatrist, says Vladimir Putin hasn't gone crazy -- he's just evil.

"Many really consider that he suffers from definite psychological illnesses,” Guzman wrote in a September 30 article (a big h/t to thei ndispensable Paul Goble for flagging this).  

"This is only a convenient explanation in the existing situation. Unfortunately, it is not correct.”

Putin's character traits, "ike those of a murderer, thief or other good for nothing, are not psychiatric phenomena but rather objects of the subjects of moral philosophy.” Guzman wrote. He added that Putin was "absolutely responsible" for his actions.

Karen Dawisha, who appeared on the Power Vertical Podcast back in April, dscusses her new book "Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia"

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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