Friday, October 31, 2014


The Power Vertical

The 'Cold War' In The Kremlin

A gun salute is held outside the Kremlin during President Vladimir Putin's inauguration ceremony on May 7.
A gun salute is held outside the Kremlin during President Vladimir Putin's inauguration ceremony on May 7.
One front in the struggle for Russia was visible in Moscow last weekend as tens of thousands of protesters marched through the capital carrying balloons and placards as thousands of riot police armed with batons and assault weapons looked on.
 
The ratio of police to protesters, longtime Russia-watcher Mark Galeotti wrote on his blog "In Moscow's Shadows," was "distinctly higher than in other, recent protests" and appears to be indicative of "a nervous Kremlin."
 
But it's more than just the ongoing clash with opposition forces that is making the ruling elite jittery these days. What is truly causing sleepless nights is the "second front," the one where Russia's future will likely be decided -- the elite's war with itself.
 
And with reports of an impending government shake-up and of deep, enduring, and hardening splits in the Kremlin administration, signals abound that this longstanding intra-elite "cold war" could go hot at any time.
 
One aspect of this intramural struggle is simply a naked battle for power and a clash of political ambitions. Another is a heated debate over which tactics -- sticks or carrots -- would best tame the Russian Street and keep the current elite safely in power.
 
But part of the schism is also ideological, with part of the elite believing that increased pluralism -- albeit managed -- is necessary in a rapidly changing society and another faction seeking to revive the tough authoritarianism that marked President Vladimir Putin's first stint in the Kremlin.
 
For the time being, those seeking to turn the clock back to 2007 appear to be winning. A series of tough laws cracking down on dissent have been passed. Dissidents like Pussy Riot and defectors like Gennady Gudkov are being dealt with. And the tepid reforms Dmitry Medvedev ushered in during his presidency are being rolled back.
 
But what is also becoming clear is the model of governance Putin constructed over the past decade, in which he controlled the elite by playing the role of the indispensible arbiter of its warring clans, has -- to say the least -- lost its effectiveness.

"It is this model of statecraft that has now entered a crisis...[Putin's] system of rule, if the not the system itself, shows sign of exhaustion," Richard Sakwa, a professor of Russian politics at the University of Kent, wrote in Opendemocracy.net.
 
"Putin's return has destabilized the system that he so assiduously created, although in formal terms matters continue much as before."
 
The Artist And The Bureaucrat
 
One focal point of the struggle within the elite is the fierce rivalry between Putin's former chief ideologist and political manager, Vladislav Surkov, and the man who succeeded him, Vyacheslav Volodin.
 
In the most recent edition of the Power Vertical podcast, my co-host Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service astutely noted that Surkov approached the job like an "artist" while Volodin behaves more like a "post-Soviet bureaucrat."
 
In practice this means that Surkov's approach to the regime's opponents was to charm, cajole, hoodwink, and -- wherever possible -- to co-opt them. Volodin's is to run them over and whack them over the head with a baseball bat.
 
Surkov also stayed very tuned in to prevailing social forces and understood that as Russian society became more complex, differentiated, and affluent, the political system needed to create outlets to accommodate the emerging pluralism. Failure to do so would lead to political unrest of the sort we are seeing now.
 
He reportedly was pushing for Medvedev to remain president for a second term to complete his program of political and economic modernization, with Putin of course remaining firmly in control behind the scenes.
 
Surkov was also pushing for a form of "managed pluralism" in the State Duma, with United Russia sharing power with a broader constellation of obedient and housebroken "opposition" parties.
 
With the announcement a year ago that Putin was returning to the presidency and Medvedev would become prime minister, it, of course, became clear that Surkov had lost that argument. Months later, after the December 2011 parliamentary elections, he also lost his Kremlin job and was ultimately replaced by his archrival, Volodin.
 
Down but not out, Surkov ended up as chief of staff of Medvedev's government. He's no longer running the political show, but he still has numerous loyalists in the Kremlin (despite Volodin's efforts to purge them), in the media, and throughout the bureaucracy. 
 
The conventional wisdom is that he is gathering his forces, biding his time, and waiting for Volodin's strategy to fail
 
"Slava has taken a break, but this game is not over. They are waiting for the [Kremlin] staff's chosen strategy to lead it into an impasse," an unidentified Kremlin official told Gazeta.ru.

Shareholders And Managers
 
Surkov was one of the key architects of Putin's authoritarian system and his push for greater pluralism was driven by pragmatism more than by principle.
 
As I have blogged in the past, the upper echelons of the Russian elite are largely comprised of shareholders who control resources and are collecting rents from the system, and managers who owe their position in the elite to their specific technical skills.

Surkov and former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin are managers. And as specialists, respectively, in political and economic management they understood the system had to change, modernize, and become more pluralistic. Their goal was not democracy, but rather to preserve the system by reforming it.
 
Political managers like Surkov understood that the fledgling middle class would rebel in the face of continued authoritarian rule. And economic stewards like Kudrin understood that economic modernization required a degree of political liberalization.
 
Shareholders like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin and Putin cronies Gennady Timchenko and Yury Kovalchuk, on the other hand, opposed opening the system up because they feared that any change would threaten their continued access to rents, their position in the elite, and -- possibly -- their freedom.
 
The shareholders won this argument, which engulfed the elite during the latter stages of the Medvedev presidency, and their victory was evident at the September 24, 2011, United Russia congress when Putin's return to the Kremlin was announced.
 
But their victory has turned out to be pyrrhic. The rebellion Surkov and other political managers like former Kremlin spinmeister Gleb Pavlovsky expected has come to pass. And with Putin's return, economic modernization appears to be off the agenda, which could have dire consequences as it leaves Russia dangerously dependent on commodities exports.
 
And now, Pavlovsky says, they are in a bind. "They have no follow-up step," he told Gazeta.ru. "They cannot endlessly adopt ever-new emergency laws and they cannot suppress all liberal media."
 
Siloviki And Civiliki
 
Meanwhile, it is quickly becoming conventional wisdom that a government shake-up is coming this fall and that Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika will be one of the top officials to lose his job.
 
The leading candidate to replace Chaika, according to a recent report in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," is Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak. But a second name being floated is Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov, who is Medvedev's old law-school classmate -- an association that many officials believe will ultimately disqualify him.
 
"Konovalov's position is weaker because he is perceived by many people as a member of Medvedev's team," an unidentified Kremlin source told the daily.
 
Konovalov was the most high-profile of the so-called "civiliki," or officials with backgrounds in civil law, that Medvedev either appointed or promoted during his presidency. Many of them studied or taught alongside him at the law faculty of St. Petersburg State University in the 1990s.
 
Other high-level figures include Konstantin Chuichenko, who heads the Kremlin's Central Control Directorate; Nikolai Vinnichenko, the presidential envoy to the Urals Federal District; Deputy Prosecutor-General Nikolai Gutsan; and Moscow Arbitration Court Chairwoman Valeria Adamova.
 
During his presidency, Medvedev was using the civiliki as a counterweight to the siloviki, the security-service veterans like Sechin and Sergei Ivanov who surround Putin.
 
As Medvedev's star faded after Putin's return to the Kremlin, the civiliki's influence of course faded. But they are still present throughout the bureaucracy.
 
"Real fragmentation is taking place by age because Medvedev rejuvenated the system of administration," prominent Moscow-based sociologist and expert on the Russian elite Olga Kryshtanovskaya told "Nezavisimaya gazeta."
 
"The more conservative older part of the elite was irritated by this and moved toward Putin. And those who were younger moved toward Medvedev in hopes of a quick career if Medvedev remained for a second term."
 
They are also ideologically inclined toward greater pluralism. "Many observers are convinced that these leaders are giving financial support to the opposition," Kryshtanovskaya said
 
The Decider
 
And what about the man in the middle of it all?
 
Writing in Opendemocracy.net, Kent University's Richard Sakwa notes that while on one hand "Putin is back," on the other "the country and the political system have evolved."
 
A continued "tightening of the screws would cause the system to lose " whatever remains of the inner resources of dynamism and renewal" and "play into the hands of those many voices now predicting the decline and fall of the regime," he writes.
 
Sakwa argues, however, that there is still time to change course. "The third Putin term may yet see a new synthesis emerge. A positive reinvention of Russian political order requires an act of unprecedented leadership and political imagination," he writes.
 
Color me skeptical on that, at least for the time being.
 
In a recent interview with Gazeta.ru, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky succinctly contextualized the hard-line Kremlin attitude that has prevailed since Putin's third term began in May.
 
"This is a series of measures aimed at bringing reality into line with Vladimir Putin's psychological state," Belkovsky said.
 
"Putin wants everything around him to be stable. He is also hurt and offended that he is being accused of all sorts of crimes and that the opposition does not appreciate the concessions he made on things like the election of mayors and governors and easing the rules on party registration."
 
If real political change comes at this point, it will likely be despite Putin, not because of him. it will result from a combination of pressure from the Russian Street and the resolution of the "cold war" within the elite in favor of those advocating greater pluralism.
 
-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Russian politics,Russian opposition,Russian elite

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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Mark from: Victoria
September 21, 2012 18:03
My, yes; Stanislav Belkovsky. I was just wondering the other day where that adorable little fatboy had gone - and when he might pop up, having reinvented himself yet again. Now he's back to being a political analyst. The supermarket must have let him go.

Cast your memory back, back to when Stanislav Belkovsky was whipping western media sources into a feeding frenzy with his titillating tales of Kremlin Konfidential insider confessions - such as that Vladimir Putin was easily the richest man in Europe, having appropriated billions and inserted himself as ghost majority shareholder in state oil companies. According to Belkovsky - and breathlessly relayed by serial chowderhead Luke Harding in The Guardian - Putin personally controlled at least 75% of Gunvor through a sweetheart deal with his pal, Gennady Timchenko.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/dec/21/russia.topstories3

But then, something went wrong. The Economist wrote a saucy piece entitled, "Grease My Palm", in which they drew a number of conclusions based on Belkovsky's figures. Gennady Timchenko threatened to sue. And The Economist retracted everything. You know they would never have done that if they had any evidence at all which would support their claims.

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

Later, in a bizarre display of meandering nutjobbery, Belkovsky angrily cut his ties with the opposition, describing them as "lying, swinish and insincere"

http://politrash-ru.livejournal.com/90934.html

and, incredibly, offering his services to Vladimir Putin in exchange for his pardon. He even claimed to have a canister of napalm and a grenade launcher at his dacha, which he would use in Putin's service if called upon.

Yeah. I'd be taking him seriously. What? No, sorry; I was laughing at something else.
In Response

by: chung
September 21, 2012 21:19
yes, yes, long character attacks on a minor element in a long essay -- are you still pretending not to be a Kremlin flack?
In Response

by: Sergio from: The Netherlands
September 23, 2012 20:59
Mark, you realize that nothing of what you said means that Belkovsky's opinion on the current situation is wrong, don't you?

He may be right, he may be wrong. Just like my Russian father-in-law also may be right or wrong. Only time will tell.

It's interesting to think that, rather than discussing the analysis, people think it easier to attack the person who is making them. Shouldn't assertions, arguments, claims, etc. stand or fall by themselves, regardless of who is making them?
In Response

by: Mark from: Victoria
September 24, 2012 19:06
Why, yes; that's true. Belkovsky could be right on a yes/no question as easily as flipping a coin could result in a correct answer. What I am trying to show is that anyone who pays Belkovsky for political analysis is wasting their money, as his facts in the past have been demonstrably fabricated and he shifts his loyalties according to his perception of what is best for himself - then tailors his narrative to fit his perceptions.

But as far as anyone being solicited for an opinion and their chances of being right, I guess what you say is true; they could be correct, and their background as a fraud or a liar might not impact their opinion at all - might I say, that's a very refreshing attitude. If you asked Nick Leeson for advice on investing, what you got could be an extremely accurate opinion, even though his trading practices did cause the collapse of Barings Bank. You'd think they'd have seen that coming, considering he was unable to get a broker's license in the UK because of fraud on his application, but maybe they just thought everyone deserves a chance at a fresh start, as you do.

So I suppose when Belkovsky proffers opinions on the political situation that he could only have gotten directly from Vladimir Putin or one of his closest confidantes ("Putin is hurt and offended..."), the fact that he previously claimed to have deep-cover Kremlin inside sources who fed him details of Putin's Billions and it all turned out to be nonsense likely should not be part of the decision-making process.
In Response

by: Sergio from: The Netherlands
September 25, 2012 04:10
Well, sure. I see you don't like Belkovsky, and you think he has a good chance of being wrong. OK. So be it. Not that most analysts and pundits pretty much anywhere fare much better -- I usually don't hold my breath to see if their predictions turn out to be true...

by: Ben
September 21, 2012 18:26
In the body of the Russian "kasha" where si-viliki-loviki bother with each other and changes,by the author opinion are connected with the age we can wait for alterations when some of these viki will die out.

by: david neuman from: ojai, california
September 21, 2012 18:52
"Pay no attention to that anti-ballistic missile shield behind the silver curtain, Dorothy."
If you listed a dozen more psychological theories about what animates Putin and The Russian elite, but still did not describe Bush's withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, you would be just as wide of the mark.

"Russia threatens preemptive strike over planned US missile shield(May 3, 2012)"

"Russia to build 100-ton ICBM to penetrate US missile defenses. (Dec 21, 2011)"

The arms race is back. What do you think about that? With Americans still falling through the safety net, are we now going to spend money we don't have on new weapon systems in Europe. With budget deficits of over a trillion dollars per annum, including $400 billion just for interest on the national debt, who will fund this American Folly? The Fed?

The First Cold War ended by "beggar thy neighbor." The second one will end with "beggar thy neighbor's currency."

In Response

by: William from: Aragon
September 24, 2012 23:01
David, you ask "who will fund this American Folly?" China. While the US administration bailed out private banks for $1.5 trillion dollars, China spent the same building high-speed rail links between its major cities. While the US engaged in wars of adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan for 10 years with no real outcome, China continued to build its economy unabated. While the administration dreams of global domination, her competitors stengthen. It is time she woke up.

by: Alex from: LA
September 22, 2012 00:33
I watched Russian news and they showed this so called thousands of people was not more than thousands, and organizers said the momentum is lost, Putin is game over. RFE/RL or US always demonizes actions of countries it wants resources out of, stop this BS propaganda please it makes us, USA look bad.
In Response

by: concerned citizen from: somewhere
September 22, 2012 10:06
Right on Alex, US ruling elite/policy makers would love nothing more than see the old enemy, Russia, capitulate and break up along ethnic and religious lines. In eyes of US, Russia has always been the biggest long term threat, and with emasculation and fragmentation of it, nothing would stand in the way of complete US geopolitical hegemony. Its comical how the ruling elite in US continue to hide behind a thin Vail of democracy when videos are streaming on youtube showing violent suppression of peaceful street protests, police brutality, blatant widespread voter fraud in recent republican nomination, increasing gap between poor and rich, continued expansion of wars of aggression overseas, torture, arrest without warrants and indefinite detention of their citizens and here they are chastising Russia/Iran/China on daily basis...Their entire political system is based on bribery of those in charge by interest groups and lobbyist with principles and morals up for the highest bidder, with a propaganda machine hard at work brain washing and passivising the masses. They are rapidly losing their legitimacy and the land of the free is becoming nothing but a long expired dream....
In Response

by: William from: Aragon
September 24, 2012 22:55
Well said, not to mention that US citizens will shortly get to vote for the Repulocrat duopoly again, with no real other choice - two faces of the same coin. The "establishment" that runs the country wonders why it is loosing influence across the globe.
In Response

by: Ben
September 22, 2012 12:08
chung! You are right,but sometimes they act stright. So called "Anonimous" resently declared here that he knows personally the names of the Russian "SVR agents".That is the old tradition of the Western opinion enfluence by Kremlin.RFE sponsors.
In Response

by: Sergio from: The Netherlands
September 23, 2012 21:03
How's that? The thousands were only thousands? Maybe you meant to say something else?

That the media have some sort of "bias" (or political orientation, or whatever you want to call it) stands to reason. The Russian news you watched were also biased, and I'm sure they chose shots that would make the protesters look less important than they were (just as RFERL tends to make them moore important than they are).

If you're smart, you'll watch BOTH news sources, knowing in what direction they tend to exaggerate, then you'll do the math, and end up with some idea of what may really be going on.

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

09:54

50 RUBLES TO THE DOLLAR?!?

Writing in Slon, Yakov Mirkin, chairman of the Department of International Capital Markets at the Russian Academy of Sciences Insititute of World Economy and International Relations, argued that the ruble could easily sink to 50 to the dollar.

The reasons? 

1) The ruble is overvalued anyway;

2) The dollar is rising against major currencies and this upward cycle is likely to continue;

3) Oil prices are falling;

4) A combination of Western sanctions and diversification of energy supplies

5) Capital flight from Russia continues apace.

And in light of Mirkin's argument, it is worth noting that he has consistently been arguing that the ruble is overvalued. Here he is speaking back in August 2013:

09:41

UKRAINIAN HOSPITALITY

Russian journalist Ivan Sukhov writing in "The Moscow Times" on working in Ukraine:

"Russian journalists encounter no personal aggression while working in Ukraine. Only the rare local politician refuses to speak to Russian reporters.

And in place of perfectly understandable aggression, Russian journalists encounter only gentle Ukrainian hospitality along with a sizable share of condescending sympathy.

It is as if they want to tell us, 'We will stay here, where we have taken the responsibility for our future into our own hands, whereas you will fly home to Russia's stifling political atmosphere, to a country that futilely reconsiders the outcome of the Cold War and the people are caught up in a mass euphoria over the bloodshed in the Donbass.'"

Read it all here.

08:56

MORNING NEWS ROUNDUP

From RFE/RL's News Desk:

RUSSIA, UKRAINE SIGN EU-BROKERED GAS DEAL

By RFE/RL

Moscow and Kyiv have signed a landmark agreement that will guarantee Russian gas deliveries to Ukraine throughout the winter despite tense relations over the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

The EU-brokered deal, which extends until March 2015, was signed at a ceremony in Brussels by the energy ministers of the two countries, Aleksandr Novak and Yuriy Prodan, and European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger.

Outgoing EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who oversaw the signing, hailed the agreement, saying, "There is now no reason for people in Europe to stay cold this winter."

The hard-fought deal followed months-long EU-mediated negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv amid a long and bitter dispute over payments.

The agreement was reached after two days of marathon talks that had stalled before dawn on October 30 when Russia demanded that the EU first agree with Ukraine how to pay Kyiv's outstanding bills and finance gas deliveries through to March.

Oettinger said that under the accord, Ukraine will pay Russia $1.45 billion in gas arrears within "days" for Moscow to resume gas deliveries.

He said Russia will then "immediately" lower Ukraine's gas price by 100 dollars to around $385 per 1,000 cubic meters.

Kyiv will subsequently have access to Russian gas deliveries in exchange for pre-payment, according to Oettinger. He said Ukraine also agreed to settle another $1.65 billion in arrears by the end of the year.

The deal is expected to include EU funding to help Ukraine pay off its debts to Russia's state-owned gas giant Gazprom.

Oettinger said, "we can guarantee a security of supply over the winter," not only for Ukraine but also for the EU nations closest to the region.

He added that the deal "is perhaps the first glimmer of a relaxation" between Ukraine and Russia.

Ukraine's Prodan said the "decisions taken today will provide energy security for Ukraine and the EU."

Moscow cut off gas deliveries to Ukraine in mid-June, citing a $5.3-billion debt and demanding that Ukraine settle its outstanding bills and pay up front for any future deliveries.

The dispute occurred amid Russia's conflict with Ukraine and Western sanctions imposed on Moscow for its annexation of Crimea in March and its subseqent military and political support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

With Ukraine relying on Russia for around 50 percent of its gas, the onset of winter made the need for a deal more urgent.

Russia also provides about one-third of the European Union's gas, about half of which is pumped via Ukraine.

The EU was seeking to avoid a repeat of 2006 and 2009 when Russia halted supplies to Ukraine, disrupting deliveries to Europe during two very cold winters.

But Russia's Novak said after the signing that Moscow will remain a "reliable supplier" of energy to Europe and the deal struck with Ukraine will ensure stable gas deliveries over the winter.

In reaction to the deal, the French and German leaders said in a joint statement that the EU will "fully play its role" to implement the gas deal.

Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel said they had spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko earlier October 30, and all four "have welcomed the conclusion of negotiations on the delivery of Russian gas to Ukraine, achieved thanks to the mediation of the European Union."

(Based on live broadcast, with additional reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP)

AIR ARMENIA BLAMES RUSSIA FOR FLIGHT SUSPENSIONS

By RFE/RL’s Armenian Service

YEREVAN -- Air Armenia, a passengar and cargo airline based in Yerevan, has suspended all passenger flights until at least December 20 over financial difficulties that the firm is blaming on Russia.

Air Armenia says it is unable continue regular passenger services because of a “panic” among investors and customers over a statement by Russia's federal air navigation service.

Russia's Rosaeronavigatsia announced on September 11 that it would ban Air Armenia from operating flights to Russian cities unless the company paid its outstanding debts by September 21.

Air Armenia said ihe statement damaged its business reputation and that, as a result, its fleet was reduced to one aircraft.

Other than Russian cities, the airline had been flying to Paris, Frankfurt, and Athens.

Air Armenia was founded as a cargo airline in 2003 and began operating commercial passenger flights in 2013 after the bankruptcy of Armavia.

COURT ORDERS NATIONALIZATION OF OLIGARCH'S BASHNEFT SHARES

A Moscow court has ordered the nationalization of a stake in an oil company owned by a detained tycoon.

The Moscow Arbitration Court ruled on October 30 the stake in Bashneft held by billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov's holding company Sistema would be returned to the state.

Prosecutors claimed the stake was illegally privatized by officials in Russia's Bashkortostan region.

The court said new claims could be filed after the worth of Sistema's stake in Bashneft was ascertained.

Yevtushenkov was arrested last month on charges of money laundering related to the acquisition of Bashneft.

His arrested sparked speculation that Russia's largest oil company, state-run Rosneft, would acquire Sistema's Bashneft shares.

Yevtushenkov is one of Russia's richest businessmen, with assets estimated to be worth some $9 billion.

(Based on reporting by AFP, rapsinews.ru, and Interfax)

LATVIA-BASED RUSSIAN NEWS PORTAL BLOCKED IN KAZAKHSTAN

By RFE/RL's Kazakh Service

An online Russian news portal based in Latvia has been blocked in Kazakhstan over an article described by Astana as "inflicting ethnic discord."

Kazakhstan's Ministry of Investments and Development said on October 30 that the Meduza.io website published an article "propagating ethnic discord and threatening the territorial integrity" of Kazakhstan.

The article about ethnic Russians living in Kazakhstan's eastern city of Ust-Kamenogorsk (aka Oskemen) is titled: "Ust-Kamenogorsk People's Republic. Are Locals Ready For Polite Green Men?"

‘Green Men’ refers to the deployment in foreign countries of Russian military forces wearing unmarked green uniforms – as Russia has done in the past in regions of Georgia and Ukraine.

The ministry also has filed a lawsuit against Meduza.io in connection with the article.

It says the website will remain blocked in Kazakhstan until a local court rules in the case.

(With reporting by Interfax)

KYRGYZ WILL NEED PASSPORTS TO ENTER RUSSIA

By RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

Kyrgyzstan's State Registration Ministry says that as of January 1, 2015, Kyrgyz citizens will no longer be able to enter the Russian Federation using their national identification documents.

Since 2007, Kyrgyz labor migrants have been travelling between the two countries with internal identification documents. Now they will have to obtain travel passports.

The regulation, announced on October 29, will affect hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz labor migrants who work in Russia and periodically travel between the two countries.

Moscow announced earlier this year that it wants to tighten by 2015 the regulations for entering Russia by nationals of former Soviet republics that are not members of the Russia-led Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Union.

In May, Kyrgyzstan signed a road map under which it is to join the Customs Union, which currently comprises Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, by the end of 2014.  

NATO REPORTS UNUSUAL RUSSIAN WARPLANE ACTIVITY AROUND EUROPE

NATO said on October 29 that it tracked and intercepted four groups of Russian warplanes “conducting significant military manoeuvers” in international airspace close to the borders of the European Union during the previous 24 hours.

NATO’s SHAPE military headquarters in Mons, Belgium said: “These sizeable Russian flights represent an unusual level of air activity over European airspace.”

It said the planes included strategic bombers, fighters, and tanker aircraft.

They were detected over the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Black Sea on October 28 and 29.

Russian bombers flew south all the way to international airspace west of Portugal and Spain.

Norwegian, British, Portuguese, German, Danish, and Turkish fighters were scrambled to intercept and identify the Russian planes.

Planes from the non-NATO nations of Finland and Sweden also responded.

Since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, tensions between NATO and Russia have risen to the highest level since the Cold War.

(Based on reporting by AP and AFP)

18:33 October 29, 2014

EVENING NEWS ROUNDUP

From RFE/RL's News Desk:

KREMLIN MOVES TO QUASH PUTIN HEALTH RUMORS

Vladimir Putin's spokesman said on October 29 that the Russian president is in good health, seeking to quash rumors of an illness.

Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow that "everything is okay" with Putin's health, Russian news agencies Interfax and TASS reported.

"They will wait in vain. May their tongues wither," Peskov said of those who claim Putin is ill.

Peskov spoke after a spate of Russian media reports referring to an October 24 column in the tabloid "New York Post" whose author, Richard Johnson, cited unidentified sources as saying Putin had pancreatic cancer.

Putin and the Kremlin have strongly discouraged reporting about the 62-year-old president's private life.

(Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)

ROSNEFT THREATENS TO SUE NEWSPAPER OVER SANCTIONS REPORT

Russia's largest oil company, Rosneft, is threatening to sue the Russian daily "Kommersant" for a report alleging Rosneft sent President Vladimir Putin proposals for countersanctions against Western companies and individuals.

"Kommersant" reported on October 29 that state-run Rosneft's proposals include limiting cooperation aboard the International Space Station, prohibiting burial of U.S. and EU nuclear waste in Russia, and possible confiscation of property in Russia owned by Western countries or their citizens.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, denied there were any Rosneft proposals for sanctions, but presidential aide Andrei Belousov and Economy Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev seemed to contradict this.

State-run TASS reported Peskov said reports Rosneft had sent such proposals were untrue.

Peskov said decisions on imposing sanctions were made "in line with the relevant departments, and taken on the level of the government and president."

A different TASS report quoted Belousov as saying, "We are closely studying Rosneft's proposals."

Belousov went on to say, "I would say the radicalism of the proposals for now exceeds the current level of tensions."

The Interfax news agency quoted Ulyukayev as saying the proposals were a "very complex document" and adding, "I don’t think it is grounds for making any decisions."

The "Kommersant" report said "Russian government officials" had provided information about the alleged proposals.

A statement from Rosneft said the company was "deeply shocked" by the "Kommersant" article and might sue the newspaper.

Western governments have imposed several rounds of sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The sanctions target key Russian industries and individuals close to Putin, including Rosneft and its head, Igor Sechin, who is a former Kremlin deputy chief of staff.

The sanctions have hurt Rosneft, which has already requested additional funding from the Russian government to make up for losses incurred due to sanctions.

British oil company BP reported on October 28 that its income from its operations with Rosneft dropped from $808 million in the third quarter of 2013 to $110 million in the same period this year.

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

WHITE HOUSE DETECTS SUSPICIOUS CYBER ACTIVITY, REPORT BLAMES RUSSIA

The White House says it has taken measures to counter suspicious activity detected on its unclassified computer network.

A White House official would not say who might have been responsible for the activity on what was described as an unclassified computer network used by employees of the Executive Office of the President.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the authorities had taken "immediate measures to evaluate and mitigate the activity."

In a report on October 28, the "Washington Post" cited sources as saying hackers believed to be working for the Russian government breached the unclassified computer network in recent weeks.

The White House has declined to comment on the "Washington Post" report.

A U.S. administration official said there were no indications that classified networks had been affected.

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

VICTIMS OF STALIN TERROR REMEMBERED IN MOSCOW CEREMONY

By RFE/RL

Activists are gathering near the former KGB headquarters to honor the memory of thousands of men and women executed by Soviet authorities during Josef Stalin's "Great Terror."

Speakers at the daylong ceremony at the Solovetsky Stone memorial on Moscow's Lubyanka Square read out aloud the names, ages, occupations, and dates of executions of some 30,000 people killed by Soviet authorities in 1937-1938.

Muscovites and others brought flowers, pictures of victims and candles to the site of the "Returning the Names" commemoration, which began at 1000 (local time; 0800 Prague time) and was to end at 1000 (local time; 0800 Prague time).

The annual ceremony is organized by Memorial, Russia's oldest and best-known human rights organization, which is under pressure from the government.

On October 10, Russia's Justice Ministry appealed to the Supreme Court to close Memorial.

Memorial has held the ceremony every year since 2006 at the site near the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, the KGB's main successor.

Ceremonies were also being held in other Russian cities.

(Based on live broadcast by october29.ru)

SEPARATISTS SHELL UKRAINIAN TROOPS

Pro-Russian separatists reportedly shelled the position of Ukrainian government troops in southeastern Ukraine on October 29, despite an almost two-month-old cease-fire agreement.

Authorities in the port city of Mariupol say military positions located near the village of Talakovka were targeted on October 29 by conventional artillery and Grad rockets that were fired from from the separatist-controlled region of Donetsk.

Casualties were reported among troops.

The cease-fire agreement signed in early September ended most fighting between the two sides -- although battles at the Donetsk airport, in Mariupol, and in villages near the city of Luhansk continue on an almost daily basis.

The UN says more than 3,700 people have been killed in six months of fighting between government forces and separatists in eastern Ukraine, with hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes.

(Based on reporting by Interfax and UNIAN)

RUSSIAN AIRLINE PLANS YEREVAN-CRIMEA FLIGHTS OVER kYIV'S OBJECTIONS

By RFE/RL's Armenian Service

The Grozny Air civil aviation company, based in the Russia's Chechnya region, is pressing ahead with plans to launch regular flights from Yerevan to Crimea, despite protests from Kyiv.

Timur Shimayev, an executive officer for Grozny Air, told RFE/RL on October 29 that the firm's inaugural flight to Crimea is scheduled for November 17.

But Ukraine's Ambassador to Armenia, Ivan Kukhta, told reporters in Yerevan on October 29 that any commercial flights between Yerevan and Crimea must first be approved by Kyiv.

Kukhta's statement came five days after a spokesman for the Armenian government’s Civil Aviation Department, Ruben Grdzelian, said that a Russian regional airline had not been allowed to launch flights between Armenia and Crimea since the Ukrainian penninsula was annexed by Russia in March.

Moscow's annexation of Crimea has been condemned as illegal by the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations General Assembly.

 

12:55 October 29, 2014

SANCTION THIS!

The Russian daily "Kommersant" reports that the state-run oil giant Rosneft is calling on President Vladimir Putin to impose new sanctions on the West. The new moves reportedly include limiting cooperation aboard the International Space Station, prohibiting burial of U.S. and EU nuclear waste in Russia, and possible confiscation of property in Russia owned by Western countries or their citizens.

12:41 October 29, 2014

AND IN THE FALLOUT DEPARTMENT...

Just a few things I've noticed this morning:

Russian-German Trade Down

German exports to Russia have dropped by more than a quarter, "The Moscow Times" reports. In August, exports from Germany to Russia were 2.3 billion euros, a 26.3 percent decrease from a year ago. Moreover, German exports to Russia fell by 16.6 percent from January-August 2014.

Russian Elite More Cohesive -- For Now

According to a report by Reuters, sanctions have had the "opposite effect to the one intended" among the elite. "Far from dividing those closest to President Vladimir Putin, they have forced the main players in the energy sector to rally behind him. This circle has by necessity become more focused, Western and Russian businessmen, diplomats and politicians said," according to the report.

Sweden Is Warming Up To NATO

Foreign Directors Bail On Russian Firms

Since the start of the year, 14 percent of foreigners serving on the boards of Russian firms have left their posts, "The Moscow Times" reports. "Western sanctions have forced some foreign directors to step down or curb their activities on the boards of publicly traded Russian companies, leaving a critical gap that few domestic candidates are equipped to fill," according to the report.

09:17 October 29, 2014

MORNING NEWS ROUNDUP

From RFE/RL's News Desk:

RUSSIA AND UKRAINE TO RESUME GAS TALKS

Russia and Ukraine are set to resume talks over a gas dispute on October 29 in Brussels.

The new round of negotiations comes after inconclusive talks October 21, when European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger announced some progress, but said a final deal has yet to be agreed.

Russia cut off gas deliveries to Ukraine in mid-June, citing a $5.3-billion debt.

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

Russia on October 21 said the it would sell gas to Ukraine for $385 per 1,000 cubic meters, much lower than the $485 that Russia's state-controlled Gazprom was demanding just weeks ago.

Moscow said that price would be in force from October 2014 until late March 2015 -- but only if Ukraine pays in advance.

(Based on reporting by AFP and AP)

KYIV CONDEMNS MOSCOW'S SUPPORT FOR SEPARATIST ELECTIONS

Ukraine on October 28 condemned as “destructive and provocative” Russia’s support for elections organized by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, while the United States said a vote by separatists in eastern Ukraine would be unlawful.

The November 2 vote was scheduled by rebels in defiance of Ukrainian national elections on October 26, which were won by pro-Western parties.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on October 28 described the vote planned by rebels as "pseudo-elections," saying they "grossly contradict the spirit and letter" of international agreements reached in Minsk in September.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Moscow plans to recognize the elections that are being organized by separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned that the the vote "will be a clear violation of the commitments made by both Russia and the separatists that it backs in the Minsk agreements."

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

GAZPROM NEFT CHALLENGES EU SANCTIONS IN EUROPEAN COURT

Gazprom Neft, the oil arm of Russia's state-controlled natural gas monopoly Gazprom, said on October 28 that it has challenged European Union sanctions against the firm in the EU’s Court of Justice.

The sanctions against Gazprom Neft were imposed as part of wider restrictions against Russia over its illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The EU sanctions restrict the ability of Gazprom Neft, Russia's fourth biggest oil producer by output, to raise funds on European markets.

The United States also has imposed sanctions against Gazprom Neft in response to Russia’s role in Ukraine’s crisis.

The West says Moscow is supplying arms and troops to help pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine battle Ukrainian government forces.

Moscow denies that, despite increasing evidence to support the charges.

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

18:54 October 27, 2014

THE BIG CHILL

Sam Greene, Director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London and author of "Moscow in Movement: Power & Opposition in Putin’s Russia," has a depressing (and must-read) blog post up about his recent trip to Moscow titled: "Russia's Tomorrow, Today."

It opens like this:

The news and the invitation were waiting for me, both, when I got off the plane from London to Moscow. I saw the invitation first—from a long-time colleague, to attend a workshop on the future of Russian politics later this month at Memorial, the venerable Russian historical society and human rights organization. I saw the news two hours later: 17 days after that workshop, Russia’s High Court will hold a hearing on the government’s demand that Memorial be liquidated.

That is the condition of life in Russia these days: two hours in which an invitation takes on a funerary pallor, 17 days in which the world becomes immeasurably smaller. Rarely has the distance between today and tomorrow been so great and so fraught as it is now.

And it concludes like this:

The tomorrow whose arrival now seems inevitable is one in which the archives of Memorial and the Sakharov Center disappear, to be replaced with a single national history textbook and a single national literature textbook, so that the past may have no bearing on the future. It is one in which policy analysis disappears from the public space, along with honest reporting, so that the present may also have no bearing on the future. Tomorrow, when it arrives, will bring one sole purpose: to preserve and protect the status quo. It is a tomorrow after which there are meant to be, politically speaking, no more tomorrows at all..

What the designers of this new tomorrow may not realize, however, is that, once freed from the paralysis of a pointless today, the despair of disaffection becomes the desperation of dissent. Dissidents, pitted against a regime that can never fall, take risks that are unnecessary in a more fluid system. They speak at all costs to demonstrate that they have no voice, and they go to jail to demonstrate that they are not free. Once today becomes tomorrow, and there are no more tomorrows for which to wait, the imperative of immediate action reemerges. 

Is the Kremlin ready for an opposition that, because everything is already lost, has nothing left to lose?

Read it all here.

And a h/t to Ben Judah for flagging.

 

15:42 October 27, 2014

FROM THE YOU-CAN'T-MAKE-THIS-STUFF-UP DEPARTMENT

The Russian health and consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor has issued a dire warning: SEFIES CAUSE HEAD LICE!

No, really. I'm serious! It is actually on their official website:

"One reason for the spread of lice among teenagers, in the opinion of experts, is because selfie photographs have become more common. In these group photos, lice are transfered due to the touching of heads."

And it is causing a lot of laughs on the Twitter:

15:24 October 27, 2014

UKRAINIAN ECHOES: RUSSIA AND THE NEIGHBORS

The Russian newspaper "Novaya gazeta" has launched a new video series on its YouTube channel called Украинское эхо, or The Ukrainian Echo, that looks at Moscow's relations with former-Soviet states in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis.

The first installment, which was out on October 20, focused on Georgia:

And the latest, which went online today, looks at Kazakhstan:

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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