Thursday, October 23, 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

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