Wednesday, November 26, 2014


The Power Vertical

Putin Presses The Reset Button

The old unwritten contract under which officials were allowed to line their pockets to their heart's content and bend the rules with abandon in exchange for unswerving loyalty to Vladimir Putin is being renegotiated.
The old unwritten contract under which officials were allowed to line their pockets to their heart's content and bend the rules with abandon in exchange for unswerving loyalty to Vladimir Putin is being renegotiated.
Vladimir Pekhtin did not go down easily. He needed a little push.
 
Amid the scandal that erupted when bloggers exposed Pekhtin's undeclared real estate holdings in Miami, he huddled late into the night with top Kremlin officials. The next morning, Pekhtin announced his resignation from the State Duma, where he had chaired the Ethics Committee.

Pekhtin's departure from the lower house on February 20 was quickly followed by the resignations of two more lawmakers with undeclared property issues, Anatoly Lomakin and Vasily Tolstopyatov.

 And last week's resignations, it seems, were just the beginning.
 
At least six more legislators could also be on their way out soon, according to Russian media reports. And Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko told reporters this week that the resignation virus could soon infect the upper house as well.

 It's tempting to dismiss all this as mere window dressing, a lame attempt by the Kremlin to pretend to care about corruption amid rising public discontent. And while that is certainly part of what is happening, something deeper than just a Potemkin purge also appears to be going on.
 
"This is, in fact, part of the development of a new strategy and a complete reset," Olga Kryshtanovskaya, an expert on the Russian elite, told Gazeta.ru recently.
 
"A certain section of the elite is in a state of obvious confusion. People do not understand what is happening. They doubt whether they can exist within this system. Some are leaving. Some are being dismissed," she said.
 
Speculation is rife in the Russian media that something big is indeed afoot, with the possibilities ranging from a general purging of the ruling United Russia party's ranks to the dismissal of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's government to early Duma elections and a wholesale overhaul of the current party system.
 
"The formation of a new political reality has begun," political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya wrote in Politcom.ru.

The Kremlin appears to have concluded that given the current climate in the country, with animosity toward the elite rising, the prevailing political status quo is no longer sustainable and needs to be shaken up.
 
The old unwritten contract under which officials were allowed to line their pockets to their heart's content and bend the rules with abandon in exchange for unswerving loyalty to Vladimir Putin is being renegotiated.
 
The protests in the winter of 2011-12, she added, spooked Putin's inner circle and exposed them to "new political risks" that needed to be neutralized.
 
"In the second half of last year, the Kremlin started to realize that in the new political reality the reputational risks emanating from unscrupulous officials could lead to destabilization and become a threat to the 'national leader' and the institutions he relies upon," Stanovaya wrote.
 
So we had the anticorruption drive late last year that cost Anatoly Serdyukov his job as defense minister; the new legislation forbidding certain classes of officials from holding foreign assets; the drive to strip Duma deputies of their immunity from prosecution; and, of course, the latest wave of resignations from parliament.
 
The move to compel the elite to repatriate their assets also has a national security component as Moscow takes an increasingly anti-Western line.
 
As political analyst Kirill Rogov wrote in "Novaya gazeta" this week, the fact that so many Russian officials hold foreign assets gave the West "a degree of influence" over the elite that Putin would prefer to eliminate.

The current noise about foreign assets and the high-profile resignations, however, appear to be just a warm-up for bigger moves in the coming months that could move beyond parliament.
 
Political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko, whose think tank's "Politburo 2.0" reports on the Russian elite have become must-reads for Kremlin watchers, is predicting a revamp of Russia's ruling coalition in the near future.
 
According to Minchenko Consulting's latest report, Putin is choosing from a number of options as he attempts to revitalize and restore balance to the ruling elite.
 
The softest option would involve a government reshuffle that keeps Medvedev as prime minister, but with strong and staunch Putin loyalists being installed as his deputies -- thereby further emasculating an already weak premier.

More radical options include firing Medvedev's government wholesale and replacing him with either a weak functionary or a strong figure -- like Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin or Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu -- who would be seen as an eventual successor to Putin.
 
A strong possibility, according to the report, would be to hold early Duma elections and follow that up with a government shake-up. And the authors do not rule out the possibility that Putin would allow United Russia to either lose the elections or have a weaker-than-expected showing. He could also use that as a pretext to fire Medvedev.
 
The situation is fluid and there are a lot of balls in the air at the moment, so it is difficult to handicap how this will all shake out in the end. But it does appear that the current status quo is about to be overhauled.
 
-- Brian Whitmore
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Robert from: Prague
February 28, 2013 08:16
What would be the point of early Duma elections? Wouldn't another wave of falsified elections just invigorate the currently tired protest movement?
In Response

by: Brian Whitmore from: Prague
February 28, 2013 15:17
No. The logic is that United Russia would 'lose' the elections, siphoning off social discontent while the Kremlin maintains its working majority in Duma through the smaller pseudo-opposition (but really pro-Kremlin) parties that Volodin has already established. Also gives VVP an excuse to sack DAM. Read the Minchenko Report: http://www.minchenko.ru/netcat_files/File/Politburo_full.pdf
In Response

by: La Russophobe from: USA
February 28, 2013 17:53
A strong argument has been made that it just doesn't matter, this is much ado about nothing, an attempt to lure suckers into taking their eyes off the ball. Here is that argument:

http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/the-question-isnt-who-will-lead-russia/476150.html

Executive summary: Who cares, when Putin will rule by some means until the end of his life, just like Brezhnev.

by: Ben
February 28, 2013 09:38
"The situation is fluid" - hold on to hand-rails!

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
February 28, 2013 14:11
Of course, a big change is coming to Russia - the same way it does at least once a week over the last ten years, if one believes RFE/RL publications. Sen. McCain can already start packing up his suitcases and start preparing his opening speach for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics :-))

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

19:16 November 21, 2014

POWER VERTICAL PODCAST: A YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we use the one-year anniversary of the Euromaidan uprising to look at how it changed both Ukraine and Russia. My guests are Sean Guillory and Alexander Motyl.

09:14 November 21, 2014
09:11 November 21, 2014

AND AS TENSIONS RISE IN THE BALTICS...

09:09 November 21, 2014

MORNING NEWS ROUNDUP

From RFE/RL's News Desk:

UKRAINE MARKS START OF EUROMAIDAN PROTESTS WITH NEW HOLIDAY
By RFE/RL
Ukrainians are marking a new national holiday on November 21 -- the anniversary of the start of Kyiv’s Euromaidan protests that led to the ouster of the country’s former pro-Kremlin regime.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed decree on November 13 that declared the holiday for annual “Day of Dignity and Freedom” celebrations.
The protests began with a few hundred people who met spontaneously on a vast square in central Kyiv of November 21, 2013 – disappointed by then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of a landmark deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.
After that first night, as the protests quickly swelled to tens of thousands of demonstrators, brutal police efforts to disperse the crowds with batons and teargas backfired.
As the crowds got bigger, the protesters began to call for Yanukovych’s ouster – which came in February 2014 after more than 100 people were killed in clashes with police that failed to end the demonstrations.

BIDEN TO MEET UKRAINIAN LEADERS, ANNOUNCE NONLETHAL U.S. AID
By RFE/RL
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was expected to announce an increase in nonlethal U.S. military assistance to Ukraine on November 21 as he meets in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
The talks come on the first anniversary of the start of the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv that toppled Ukraine's former pro-Kremlin regime.
As Biden arrived in Kyiv on the evening of November 20, U.S. officials told reporters that he will announce the delivery of Humvee transport vehicles that are now in the Pentagon’s inventory of excess supplies.
They said Biden also would announce the delivery of previously promised radar units that can detect the location of enemy mortars.
The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not specify a dollar value for the assistance. 
Russia on November 20 warned the United States not to supply weapons to Ukrainian forces.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich cautioned against "a major change in policy of the (U.S.) administration in regard to the conflict" in Ukraine. 
He was commenting on remarks by U.S. President Barack Obama's choice to fill the number two spot at the State Department, Anthony Blinken, who told a congressional hearing on November 19 that lethal assistance "remains on the table. It's something that we're looking at."
The U.S. State Department's Director of Press Relations Jeffrey Rathke on November 20 told reporters that "our position on lethal aid hasn't changed. Nothing is off the table and we continue to believe there's no military solution."
He added, "But, in light of Russia's actions as the nominee mentioned [on November 19] in his testimony, as he indicated, this is something that we should be looking at."
The aid expected to be announced by Biden on November 20 falls short of what the Ukrainian president requested during a visit to Washington in September when he appealed for lethal aid - a request echoed by some U.S. lawmakers in response to what NATO allies say is Russia's movement of tanks and troops into eastern Ukraine.
In September, Washington promised Ukraine $53 million in aid for military gear that includes the mortar detection units, body armor, binoculars, small boats, and other nonlethal equipment for Ukrainian security forces and border guards in the east.
The United States and its European allies have imposed several rounds of economic sanctions on Russia for its seizure of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine.
(With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, and TASS)

RUSSIAN OLYMPIAN CHARGED WITH SPOUSAL ABUSE IN UNITED STATES
Russian Olympian hockey player Slava Voynov – who plays with the Los Angeles Kings NHL hockey team – has been charged with felony domestic violence against his wife.
Voynov faces one felony count of spouse abuse with a maximum penalty of nine years in prison. If convicted, he also could be deported.
Prosecutors say Voynov “caused his wife to suffer injuries to her eyebrow, check, and neck” during an argument at their home in October.
Voynov has been suspended from the NHL since his arrest early on October 20 at a California hospital where he took his wife for treatment.
Voynov’s attorney, Craig Renetzky, says his client didn’t hit his wife.
Renetzky blames the charges on a misunderstanding between police and Voynov’s wife, who speaks very little English.
Voynov – who played on Russia’s team at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics -- faces arraignment on December 1.
(Based on reporting by AP and Reuters)

NATO: RUSSIAN ACTIVITY IN BALTICS POSES RISK
NATO says Russia's growing military presence in the skies above the Baltic region is unjustified and poses a risk to civil aviation.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Tallinn on November 20 that the aircraft regularly fail to file flight plans or communicate with air controllers and also fly with their transponders off.
Speaking at the Amari air base, he said alliance fighters have intercepted planes more than 100 times in the Baltic region alone so far this year, a threefold increase over 2013. 
He did not say how many of the intercepted aircraft were Russian.
Stoltenberg also said that, overall, NATO aircraft have conducted 400 intercepts to protect the airspace of its European alliance members in 2014 -- an increase of 50 percent over last year.
(Based on reporting by AP and AFP)

 

16:55 November 19, 2014

MORE ON THE SOURCES OF RUSSIAN ANTI-AMERICANISM

Konstantin Eggert has a commentary in "Kommersant" on Russia's anti-Americanism. He opens like this:

"Sometimes I have this feeling that there are only two countries in the world - Russia and the United States. Of course, there is Ukraine, but it either to join us or the Americas. Russian politicians and state television are constantly in search of the 'American hand' in all spheres of our life. In Soviet times, the United States was formally considered to be our number one military and ideological enemy. But even then it didn't occupy such a large space in the minds of the political leadership and citizens. And the paradox is that, on one hand, officials and the media regularly talk about the decline of America as a great power, and on the other declare it to be the source of all evil in the world. This contradiction does not seem to disturb anybody."

And closes like this:

We still have not been able to use the opportunity that we were given with the collapse of the communist regime - to arrange our lives based on liberty and civic virtue. And today, we, as a people, want to go back to the starting point, to beat everyone. And the Soviet Union, with its absence of sausage and freedom, again suddenly seems sweet and dear. But it won't happen. I will put it banally: you can't go into the same river twice.

Read the whole thing here (in Russian, with audio)

15:53 November 19, 2014

UNDERSTANDING THE INFORMATION WAR

MIchael Weiss, editor-in-chief of The Interpreter magazine, appearing on Hromadske TV to talk about Russia's information war.

Michael and Peter Pomarantsev recently co-authored an excellent report "The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture, and Money." Both also appeared recently on The Power Vertical Podcast to discuss the report.

15:42 November 19, 2014

WHY IS PUTIN PICKING A FIGHT WITH THE U.S.?

Oleg Kosyrev has a snarky and clever blog post on the subject up on the Ekho Moskvy website. 

1) The United States is the ideal opponent. "It is big and strong and your self-esteem increases when you fight somebody really influential."

2) The United States is not fighting with Russia. "They aren't really interested. They have enough of their own problems and dreams. It's nice to fight somebody who is not fighting you."

3) It is a substitute for the authorities' inability to benefit Russians. "How convenient. Who is to blame for rising food and gas prices? The U.S.A.. Who is to blame for the fact that Russian has political prisoners? The U.S.A. Who is to blame for people demonstrating on the streets? The U.S.A. Who is to blame for the fact that independent international courts denounce the Russian court system? The U.S.A. You can even blame the U.S. for the fact that the light doesn't work in the entrance to your apartment building."

Read it all (in Russian) here.

15:23 November 19, 2014

UKRAINE SAYS MHI7 SHOT DOWN BY RUSSIAN CREW

14:47 November 19, 2014

AFTERNOON NEWS ROUNDUP: THE SEQUEL

From RFE/RL's News Desk:

KYIV, WEST SAY RUSSIA CANNOT BAR UKRAINE FROM NATO

Ukraine says it will not tolerate pressure from any other country over whether or not it seeks to join NATO.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebyynis spoke made the remark to reporters in Kyiv on November 19, after the BBC quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying in an interview that Moscow wants "a 100 percent guarantee that no-one would think about Ukraine joining NATO."

Hitting back with a reference to Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, Perebyynis said Kyiv would like guarantees that Moscow will not interfere in Ukraine's internal affairs, send in troops, or annex Ukrainian territories. 

The U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, told journalists on November 19 that any decision on seeking to join NATO could be made only by the Ukrainian people, not by Russia, Europe, ar the United States.

The Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk, made a similar statement on November 19.

(Based on reporting by UNIAN and Interfax)

PUTIN TELLS U.S. ENVOY TIES MUST BE BASED ON EQUALITY

President Vladimir Putin says that Russia is ready for cooperation with the United States as long as Washington treats Moscow as an equal, respect its interests, and refrains from interfering in its affairs.

Putin spoke November 19 at a Kremlin ceremony during which he received the credentials of foreign envoys including John Tefft, the new U.S. Ambassador to Moscow.

Putin said, "We are ready for practical cooperation with our American partners in various fields, based on the principles of respect for each other's interests, equal rights and non-interference in internal matters." 

The remark echoed a formula Putin set out in a foreign policy decree at the start of his third term in 2012.

Tefft, 64, is a career diplomat who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Georgia and Lithuania. 

His posting starts at a time when ties are badly strained over the Ukraine crisis. 

Tefft replaces Michael McFaul, who was ambassador from January 2012 until February 2014. 

(Based on reporting by Reuters and TASS)

RUSSIA SAYS 2010 NUCLEAR ARMS PACT STILL IN RUSSIA'S INTERESTS

By RFE/RL

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has signaled that a landmark nuclear arms treaty with the United States is not in jeopardy despite severe tension over Ukraine.

Speaking to Russian lawmakers on November 19, Lavrov said the 2010 New START treaty "meets our basic strategic interests and, on condition of its observance by the United States, we are interested in its full implementation."

The treaty, one of the main products of President Barack Obama's first-term "reset" of ties with Russia, requires Russia and the United States to have their long-range nuclear arsenals under specific ceilings by 2018.

But Lavrov said the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, which President Vladimir Putin suspended in 2007, is "dead" for Moscow. 

NATO has refused to ratify a revised version of the CFE treaty without a full withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova and Georgia.

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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