Thursday, October 23, 2014


The Power Vertical

Putinism In Winter

Is Russia's "decider-in-chief" losing his grip on the system he created?
Is Russia's "decider-in-chief" losing his grip on the system he created?
Somebody is out to get Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Or somebody is setting up Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. Or both. Or neither.
 
But regardless, something pretty weird appears to be going on.
 
A slick feature-length video appeared online last week attacking Medvedev for selling out Russia's interests in the Middle East during his presidency by implicitly backing NATO's air campaign against Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. And he did do that, the video claims, against the express wishes of Vladimir Putin.

The film, which runs more than an hour and features top Russian military figures, popped up on what appeared to be Rogozin's YouTube page. Rogozin has staunchly denied having anything to do with it -- or even having a YouTube page.

So was this yet another in a long string of attacks on Medvedev? It bears a striking resemblance to another online video that appeared last summer attacking him for his alleged indecisiveness during Russia's August 2008 war with Georgia.

Or was it an elaborate provocation to discredit Rogozin, a bombastic nationalist and divisive figure whose star has been rising of late? There are certainly many who would like to knock him down a peg and President Putin is known to disdain his lieutenants airing dirty laundry in public.
 
Who knows? But the video's appearance is symptomatic of a trend that runs deeper than the immediate question of whodunit. It is illustrative of the ongoing intrigue, mayhem, and public shenanigans that have gripped the upper echelons of the elite -- a tendency that is, to some degree, reminiscent of the twilight of former President Boris Yeltsin's rule.
 
It was just this tendency that Putin made a priority of stifling during his first stint in the Kremlin, when he established the "power vertical" and reasserted the authority and prestige of the Russian state.
 
The return of such 1990s-style mischief and disarray, of which last week's mysterious anti-Medvedev video is just one example, points to an erosion of this authority.
 
The Deep State And The Fake State
 
In the past several months, the State Duma has taken up legislation on everything from combating blasphemy, to banning foreign words from the Russian language, to barring dual citizens from federal television channels, to prohibiting so-called homosexual propaganda.
 
Meanwhile, long-delayed reforms of the creaking social welfare and education systems, overhauls the Kremlin claims it wants, have gone nowhere.
 
According to a recent poll by the independent Levada Center, the Duma's approval rating is just 36 percent.

Medvedev's government hasn't fared much better. Since it took office in May there have been constant rumors of its imminent firing. Putin constantly berates the cabinet. The Duma regularly ignores its bills.

Likewise, as political analyst Leonid Bershidsky noted in a recent commentary for Bloomberg, the government isn't bothering to enforce many of the new laws the Duma has passed, leading to some angry exchanges on the floor of parliament.

"In the current state of suspended animation the executive branch resembles a mammoth embedded in ice: You can examine it but cannot see any movement," political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky recently told the daily "Nezavisismaya gazeta."

Medvedev himself has become something of a punch line and a punching bag. There have been not-so-subtle jokes on television about not being able to remember the prime minister's name as well as persistent barbs from former ministers like Aleksei Kudrin, German Gref, and Anatoly Chubais.
 
The degradation of Russia's formal institutions is an outgrowth of how the country has been governed for the past decade.
 
Under Putin, the Cabinet of Ministers, the Duma, and the courts have largely been elaborate window dressing, a form of kabuki theater where stage-managed political set pieces were played out for public consumption. The important decisions were made by an informal super elite of about a few dozen people -- a cabal of political, security, and business insiders with Putin serving as its front man and decider-in-chief.
 
Kremlin-watchers have given this group of shadow rulers different labels, such as the Collective Putin and Putin's Politburo. I prefer to call it Russia's Deep State. By whatever name, it is a central feature of Putinism.

For the Putin elite to rule this way it needs to preserve the illusion that the formal institutions are effectively fulfilling their constitutional functions. In this sense, the Deep State needs the fake state to look real -- or at least plausible. And it doesn't anymore.
 
The Mask Comes Off
 
For Putinism to work effectively, not only does the fake state need to look real, but the Deep State needs to remain deep.
 
And this ceased to be the case on September 24, 2011 when Putin and Medvedev announced their fateful "castling move" -- with Putin replacing Medvedev in the Kremlin and Medvedev taking over the prime minister's post from Putin.

Once that happened, once the mask came off, the degradation of Russia's formal institutions -- from the rigged elections to the puppet Duma and the technical government -- was only a matter of time.
 
"The Deep State worked when everyone was aware that it existed...but it was willing to operate behind a carapace, a facade of politicians," longtime Kremlin-watcher and New York University professor Mark Galeotti, one of my co-hosts on the Power Vertical podcast, says.

"Putin made the presence of the Deep State so clear. He rubbed it in Russians' noses, and that was a big mistake."
 
In addition to exposing the facade, the castling of September 2011 led to a crisis within the Deep State itself -- with the elite's technocratic wing favoring a thaw to accommodate a changing society and the "siloviki" wing advocating a crackdown on dissent.

And since that time, the Kremlin's efforts to put the old system back together again have only exacerbated the crisis.
 
The Fading Putin Majority
 
For much of the past decade, Putinism was based on more than repression. And the continued rule of a few dozen insiders was propped up by more than a facade of hollow state institutions.
 
Putinism at its high point was also based on a broad consensus, a social contract, an unwritten compact between the elite and the governed. The Kremlin provided stability and ensured rising living standards, and in exchange the population gave its loyalty.
 
It worked well after the chaos and deprivation of the 1990s. But it also had an expiration date.
 
"Last winter's crisis exposed the disintegration of the pro-Putin majority, a kind of pro-authoritarian consensus that had become established in the first half of the 2000s," political analyst Kirill Rogov wrote recently in the newspaper "Novaya gazeta."
 
"It became obvious that the old paradigm is coming apart at the seams, that it does not suit the most advanced and dynamic strata of the population, and in the context of falling economic growth rates it is, moreover, losing the support of ordinary people and of the regions."
 
The Kremlin's reaction to this, Rogov argues, has been to build "a new, much more conservative, Putin majority" on the ashes of the old.
 
"In order to shape such a majority it was necessary to convince [the Kremlin's] ideological competitors that they are marginal and to convince ordinary people that they don't need these groups," Rogov wrote.
 
"It was necessary to exploit issues that, on the one hand, arouse and outrage the advanced community, but which, on the other hand, are alien and incomprehensible to ordinary people."
 
Thus the antigay legislation. Thus the fealty to the Orthodox Church and the battle against blasphemy. Thus the xenophobic measures, like prohibiting Americans from adopting Russian orphans and the attempts to purge the Russian language of foreign words.
 
But the plan isn't working. "This strategy turned out to be a trap for the Kremlin. A conservative majority simply is not emerging, and the hysteria goes on and on," Rogov wrote.
 
And as a result, the country's institutions look increasingly absurd and the formal state looks increasingly fake. And with much of the elite uncomfortable with the strategy to begin with, the Kremlin's efforts are leading to even more intractable divisions and clan intrigue inside the Deep State.

Which brings us back to that mysterious Medvedev video that appeared online last week and what it appears to signify.
 
In the late 1990s, as the ruling elite fractured and the Yeltsin regime entered its crisis phase, the public airing of "kompromat," or compromising material, among warring factions, became increasingly commonplace.
 
One of the most memorable was a video clip that aired on state television in March 1999, that purported to show "a person resembling" the prosecutor-general at the time, Yury Skuratov, cavorting with a prostitute.
 
At the time, the phrase "Человек, который похож на Скуратова" ("a person resembling Skuratov") entered the political lexicon as a catchphrase, a punch line, and a symbol of the authorities' bankruptcy.
 
We're not there yet, or course. But we seem to be headed in that direction.
 
-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Vladimir Putin,Russian politics,Russia's Deep State,Power Vertical,Putinism

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Oleg Hanson from: Norway
February 05, 2013 22:18
According to media reports, promotion of new people, such as Assistant to the President Evgeny Shkolov, is one of the elements of the new Putin’s model of governance unusable without the participation of Putin himself. Creating a large number of parallel structures and crossing of powers is necessary to ensure “that all of them are in the clinch, and then the Supreme arbiter makes decisions”. Thus, even in the case of a crisis scenario, the authority has several competing reserve platforms.

Source: Kommersant, August 21, 2012 http://rumafia.com/person.php?id=1950

by: Jack from: US
February 06, 2013 00:22
so Brian Whitmore - should I wait drinking my hot tea before Putinism and Russia finally and imminently collapse?
Which one goes first? I'm getting impatient - RFE/RL has been predicting Russia's collapse every day for the last 20 years, it's kind of getting boring..
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
February 06, 2013 19:27
You are right, Jack: the RFE/RL and other Western media specialize in predicting the "last days" of those they do not like: they have been predicting the "death" of Fidel for the last 50 years, the "demise" and then "death" of Chávez for the last 15 years, the "removal" of Ahmadinejad (and, as a matter of fact, of the entire Iranian leadership) for the last 8 years, they have also been predicting the "collapse" of the DPRK for the last 20 years, and, of course, the "last days" of Bashar al-Assad for the last 2 years.
So, Putin and Russia are no exceptions here and no wonder: given that quite a few members of the EU and NATO are stuck in a recession for the last almost 5 years already, given the fact fact that they have lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have gotten kicked out of Egypt and have not achieved anything in Syria (and I am not even mentioning their "achievements" in Lybia - just look at what the "free Lybians" are doing in Benghazi and In Amenas these days!) - can these cheap propaganda outlets do anything other than distract the attention of the readership from all of the above by promising the end of Vladimir Putin and his "regime"?
In Response

by: Camel Anaturk from: Kurdistan
February 07, 2013 09:40
Of course Jack the Joke is always right,my Vienna darling,even when he is wrong,because he is a molodets!!! He is right as the biggest all-time Ukrainian Soviet Drunkard-Nikita Ser gay e witch Khrushtchev who on getting himself punch drunk in 1959 proudly declared in public:`We shall beat America very soon,by 1980 we shall start living in a Communist society and the Capitalist system will be at the junkyard of History and dont pour it in my glass but just gimme da bottle!!!` It all happenned,ya all know and now we are expecting North Korea and Cuba to join the USSR-CeCeCePe in communist heaven and Jack and Eugenia to become humans,not soviet humans but just humans.Thats gonna happen very very soon,ya know-it will take just a coupla millenia of evolution!!!

by: Anonymous
February 06, 2013 00:36
Old, Soviet-style Kremlinology. "Kremlin", "Regime", "bankrupcy", "hysteria". Or even Soviet-style propaganda.

Come on! We are in the era of Twitter and Ipad, and all this stuff is just boring.

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
February 06, 2013 14:41
Nice post and agree that the ice which has encased the Putin system for the past decade appears to be cracking. The anti-Medvedev video you refer to has all the hallmarks of a Rogozin production, but given the Byzantine nature of Kremlin politics, impossible to tell who ordered this video-hit. I wonder, however, whether all this high-level chicanery really makes any difference to the average Russian. Is he comforted or enraged when he/she watches the evening news and sees Tsar Vladimir berating his minister boyars for not providing hot water or rapidly clearing the snow from the clogged city streets? And if he/she is enraged, so what? There’s still plenty of bread and vodka and the country is not at war. The ice may soon break with some high-level personnel changes, but the Russian river will continue to flow.

p.s. you might be interested in this talk later this morning: http://www.brookings.edu/research/books/2012/mrputin


by: Ben
February 07, 2013 19:40
Dodgy reporters lives by the minute,the History of the country has the different measures.The Russian Stolypin`s contemporary communists remembered "Stolypin` ties"- jargon term of gallows -his repression methods.Today Russians evaluate his efforts to brink capitalism to the Russian country.Ex-proletarian and ex- kolkhosnik`s Russia hate the private property and Eltsin`s-Putin`s privatisation that is permanently promoted and grows in terms of money.We`ll evaluate Putin-"Pinochet"- heritage after the years.

The Power Vertical Feed

In this space, I will regularly comment on events in Russia, repost content and tweets I find interesting and informative, and shamelessly promote myself (and others, whose work I like). The traditional Power Vertical Blog remains for larger and more developed items. The Podcast, of course, will continue to appear every Friday. I hope you find the new Power Vertical Feed to be a useful resource and welcome your feedback. More

11:12 October 22, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

08:27 October 22, 2014

MORNING NEWS ROUNDUP

Some items from RFE/RL's News Desk:

RUSSIA-UKRAINE GAS DEAL REPORTEDLY CLOSER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It didn't provide further details.

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

PROSECUTORS TARGET EKHO MOSKVY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PUTIN, POROSHENKO DISCUSS CEASEFIRE AND GAS SUPPLIES

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

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

It didn't provide further details.

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

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

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

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

RUSSIAN INVESTIGATORS SAY 'CRIMINAL NEGLIGENCE' BEHIND TOTAL AIR CRASH

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

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

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

The snow plough driver has already been detained.

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

Total is one of the top foreign investors in Russia.

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

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

 

16:08 October 17, 2014

NEW POWER VERTICAL BLOG

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

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

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

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

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

You can read it all here.

AND A NEW POWER VERTICAL PODCAST COMING SOON

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

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

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

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

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

 

13:25 October 17, 2014

AFTERNOON NEWS ROUNDUP

Some items from RFE/RL's News Desk:

RUSSIA-WEST RIFT PERSIST AFTER DIFFICULT UKRAINE CRISIS TALKS

By RFE/RL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GEORGIAN PM SAYS NO PROGRESS NORMALIZING RELATIONS WITH MOSCOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RUSSIA DETAINS TWO JOURNALISTS OVER WORKSHOP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18:00 October 16, 2014

EVENING NEWS ROUNDUP

Some items from RFE/RL's Newes Desk:

PUTIN WARNS EUROPE OF GAS CRISIS THIS WINTER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By RFE/RL

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

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

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

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

PUTIN VOWS TO SUPPORT SERBS ON KOSOVO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That may not always be evident to the naked eye.

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

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

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

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

RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR AGAINST 'PUTIN PUB' IN BISHKEK

By RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

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

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

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

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

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

(With reporting by "Vecherny Bishkek")

17:35 October 16, 2014

UKRAINE CALLS ON ITS CITIZENS TO DITCH VKONTAKTE

VIa slon.ru:

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

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

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

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

 

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or