Tuesday, October 21, 2014


The Power Vertical

The Legitimacy Crisis

President Dmitry Medvedev (back) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wave to delegates at the United Russia congress on November 27.
President Dmitry Medvedev (back) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wave to delegates at the United Russia congress on November 27.
So the coronation has begun in earnest.

Amid deafening chants and thunderous applause, United Russia this weekend formally -- and unanimously -- nominated Vladimir Putin for a third term as president. The once-and-future national leader was, of course, in rare form, taunting the opposition, warning the West against trying to influence the elections, and announcing some populist initiatives.

But as several commentators have pointed out, this time the bluster carried a whiff of desperation. The ruling party's numbers are clearly falling precipitously, as are the tandem's -- albeit less so. Civil society is waking up from its long slumber and the opposition is getting increasingly surly.

That said, the Kremlin has more than sufficient resources -- administrative and otherwise -- to assure a victory for United Russia in the December 4 State Duma elections and for Putin in the presidential vote in March. (For anybody interested, "Vedomosti" had a fascinating piece recently about the mechanics of fixing elections in Russia.)

But then what? True, the authorities will have secured the formal legal basis to keep Putin and the current elite in power at least through 2018 -- if not 2024. But will they truly have a mandate?

An recent editorial in Gazeta.ru says no:  

There is no unanimity regarding Putin's return to the throne in any audience other than one of specially selected zombies from United Russia. And the decline in United Russia's approval rating following the announcement of the shuffle at part one of the congress on September 24 and the drain of capital from the country, which accelerated after this, and the business of the booing at the Olympic Stadium are vivid confirmation of the citizenry's weariness with the new old regime.

Moreover, in the coming year, Russia's rulers will need to make some very unpopular moves -- most notably, reforming the country's social services, pension fund, and health-care system. Money will need to be found to upgrade Russia's creaking infrastructure. A way to diversify the economy away from its perilous dependence on commodities will need to be found.

Tough decisions will need to be made, but, as Gazeta.ru points out, there is thus far no indication that Putin or anybody else is ready to talk to the electorate about these things:

It is indicative that although the regional leaders and pro-power politicians evaluated Putin's speech at the congress as a program speech, not a single fresh idea was heard in it. General talk about justice, promises to raise taxes on the wealthy and ease the tax burden for small business (the regime has for 10 years done the exact opposite), and empty propaganda cliches as far as the traditional charge against some foreign states of attempts to influence the outcome of elections in the Russian Federation. The problem is that even these abstract promises are being made by a politician who has been ruling the country for more than 10 years now, has practically wiped out any opposition, and, in addition, spent his first two presidential terms under uniquely favorable conditions for Russia of the constant growth of the world prices of energy sources. Putin's speech not at the congress but shortly before it--at the final full sitting of the outgoing Duma--sounded particularly amusing in this respect. This speech contained two main propositions: first, United Russia handled the crisis splendidly, second, a new crisis, which none but the present regime can handle, is impending. The second proposition is directly refuted by the first.

The one person who was willing to talk about the difficult choices facing Russia's rulers, former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, is now out of government.

So while the Kremlin tends to use elections as a legitimizing ritual, this time around elections -- regardless of the results -- are unlikely to provide the authorities with the legitimacy to govern effectively in the current economic and political climate.

In an insightful piece in Gazeta.ru last week, Grigory Golosov, a professor at the European University in St. Petersburg, asks a useful question. Where Russia's current rulers derive their legitimacy to govern?

What is the prevailing form of legitimacy in today's Russia?  It certainly is not electoral legitimacy, of course.  In the first place, the majority of citizens do not believe the elections are fair.  In the second place, even the ones who do believe elections are fair do not regard elections as the actual way people rise to the top.  This is confirmed by every public opinion poll.  The decade of the current regime is to blame for this, of course, but so is the extremely unsuccessful 'democratic' experiment of the 1990s.  In particular, Russian citizens remember one incident in 1996, when a politician with a 3-percent rating stayed in office after the election.  To hell with these elections, the citizens concluded.

So, if it's not elections, what then is the source of Putin's legitimacy?

Putin's claim to be uniquely effective has always been the main source of the legitimacy of his regime.  This claim has become less convincing in the last year or two, of course.  Things kept moving along smoothly for a while, but then they suddenly stopped, and this is difficult to ignore.

The term 'unique effectiveness,' however, presupposes not only the ability to handle problems, but also the assumption that someone else would handle them less successfully than the current regime.  That claim has not been refuted yet.  The majority of our citizens believe there is no alternative because they do not see any alternatives.

And the only alternative people have to compare the current elite is the erratic presidency of Boris Yeltsin and the chaotic 1990s. And as Golosov points out, the regime has made the narrative that Putin and his team rescued Russia from this modern "time of troubles" -- when the Kremlin was the plaything of scheming oligarchs who pillaged Russia's wealth -- part of its legitimizing myth:

The Russian regime also has ideological legitimacy.  It is far from totalitarian, of course.  It has no binding ideology, but it does not need one.  It does, however, have a set of theses the media constantly communicate to citizens:  Russia is getting up off its knees, Putin is a tough guy and that is why Russia is respected, Putin will stand up for the people of Russia, and so forth.  This is a moderate form of imperial nationalism, which strikes a chord in the hearts of our fellow countrymen, we must admit.  This is especially true in view of the fact that the opposition leaders, as Putin himself once pointed out, only want power and money and are hanging around foreign embassies like jackals.  Putin is protecting our national hydrocarbon resources from Western predators, is selling them at a good price, and is using the money from these sales to raise pensions.  Two sources of the regime's legitimacy are combined at this point, forming a fairly convincing pattern.

But what will happen to this veneer of "unique effectiveness" when the Kremlin is faced with the budget crunch Kudrin says will come next year and lacks the popular mandate to address it? Running against the bad old '90s, the oligarchs, and the chaos worked fine for the past decade. But for many Russians, particularly the younger generation, the wild Yeltsin years are a distant -- and fading -- memory.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Vladimir Putin,United Russia,2011 State Duma elections,2012 presidential election

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Comments
     
by: Jack from: Hibbing, MN
November 29, 2011 16:29
This reminds me of a nice legitimacy piece you all did a few years back: http://www.rferl.org/content/Managing_The_Kremlins_Legitimacy_Problem/1198064.html
In Response

by: Marko from: USA
November 30, 2011 12:40
As I would expect from RFE, an anti-Putin piece, but a fairly reasoned one (unlike some of the other more propaganda-like stuff one reads here at times). I think that a Putin return to the Presidency is still the best alternative at this point-- as long as he can make progress and quit after one term. He has done a lot of good for Russia, but the limitations in the system that he created have become more apparent since 2008. As is admitted above, however, there are no attractive alternatives to his return.
In Response

by: Jack from: Hibbing, MN
December 01, 2011 10:26
The old "there are no attractive alternatives" line is pretty tired, Marko. Of course, Russia is a closed political system where everything is managed, the media are controlled, elections are nothing but political theater and all legitimate avenues for expressing alternative political programs are closed. So, of course, there are no attractive alternatives. This isn't an accident or a misfortune or a shortcoming on Russia's part. It is the design of any authoritarian system and one of the biggest arguments that Putinism is a fundamental failure. And 12 more years of Putinism is only going to increase that failure.

by: Paleo from: England
December 01, 2011 09:21
Why doesn't Putin be honest and declare himself Autocrat of All the Russias? It's not as though he doesn't act like one...
In Response

by: Marko from: USA
December 01, 2011 12:25
OK Jack, enlighten me. As I see it, there are three main alternatives to the current regime. Nationalists who would set off a plethora of ethnic wars within Russia, communists who are passe and out of touch with 21st-century realities, and liberals who are in the pay of foreign governments and almost destroyed the country in their last go round in power (and who have no other plan but to repeat that failure). Great alternatives there-- sheesh... Besides , one can also look at the world currently and determine that Putin's system (for all its flaws) works better than many. Who is in better shape now-- the West with its unsustainable debts, "tails we win heads the taxpayers lose" out of control financial elites and dysfunctional politics? India with its chaos, caste system, and starving underclass. China, with its inflexible, truly authoritarian system (Russia is far freer hybrid)? Globalization has produced a troubled world...it is all about finding that narrow path to negotiate the difficulties. Simple, one size fits all approaches do not work in such circumstances-- read the stuff this morning on Egypt's elections and learn.
In Response

by: Anonymous from: USA
December 01, 2011 22:42
Yes, the West has unsustainable debts, but Russia's debts are only just beginning. Russian debt is expected to increase dramatically by 2015. Firing Kudrin was the worst mistake the Kremlin could have made because he was one of the few pushing Putin to avoid unsustainable debts. Russia also cannot guarantee foreign investments will be safe in the country and it is having trouble diversifying away from commodities. I'm supposed to believe this is a better system of government? No way! Russia continues to bleed people and capital to other parts of the world.
In Response

by: Jack from: Hibbing, MN
December 02, 2011 09:54
OK, Marko, I'll enlighten you. There are no "main alternatives" to Putin in Russia. The nationalist/communist/liberal pseudo-choice that you outline is a script written by the Kremlin to give the appearance of unattractive choices. Of course, you know that. If Putin allowed an open political system and fair elections, real alternative programs would emerge. Russians are perfectly capable of forming rational parties and promoting sensible politicians, as they showed in the only relatively free elections they have ever had, both following the 1905 revolution and in the late 1980s, early 1990s. Saying that Putin or nationalism or communism is the best thing that Russia can produce is simply a demonstration of gross contempt for Russia. Saying that Russia must choose only between authoritarianism and chaos, to my mind, is a sign of someone who really hates Russia. Keep trying, Marko.
In Response

by: Mark from: Victoria
December 04, 2011 23:50
Sing it loud, Marko. When Russia gets as expert at rigging elections as the political operatives in the United States - the world's model democracy - are, let me know. One of them - Allen Raymond, well-known for having masterminded the phone-jamming scheme that took out the Democrats' phone lines on election day in 2002 - even wrote a book about it. "How to Rig an Election: Confessions of a Republican Operative". Hmmmm.. not a lot of grey area there.

http://www.amazon.com/How-Rig-Election-Confessions-Republican/dp/1416552227

It would seem to me that the GOP in America would have suffered from a "Legitimacy Crisis", but apparently not; they're still campaigning, and their candidate-designate appears to think he's qualified to lead the country despite his business experience in the private sector having consisted of buying companies, breaking them up and selling them off, putting Americans out of work. He seems to believe he has the legitimacy to govern, and God knows he's paid enough from his personal fortune for his crack at the presidency, not to mention campaigned for 6 years.

I give Gazeta.ru full marks for their deafness to irony; "General talk about justice, promises to raise taxes on the wealthy and ease the tax burden for small business (the regime has for 10 years done the exact opposite)..." What audience is that complaint destined to move? Certainly not the United States, where income inequality between rich and poor has ballooned since the mid-1980's and now stands at an all-time high.

http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/13/even-more-gilded/

Gazeta.ru is owned by Alisher Usmanov. Alisher Usmanov is the 18th-richest man in Russia, and 35th-richest in the world. This is his modest country place in England.

http://virtualglobetrotting.com/map/john-paul-getty-sutton-place-uk-estate/

England must be bigger than I remember, if they can afford to sell 300 acres of it to Usmanov. Anyway, just between you and me, I find arguments from Usmanov's newspaper that Russia is going easy on the rich while putting the screws to the little guy kind of comical.

And now, Putin has no new ideas. Well, I suppose there's something to that. Well, Europe and the west are full of leaders who had all kinds of new ideas. You might want to try their formula. Doesn't seem to be working for them very well, but you never know.
In Response

by: Myself from: The world
December 02, 2011 13:09
Whats the differance between David Cameren
& Putin?
Both are loaded, Both can invade anywhere in particular.
I guess you could claim the same of both sides
The world isn't free
Russia is no more demcratic then the Uk
both have their ways of bending the rules
to suit themseleves.
The world would be a safer place if
Russia & the Uk were allies in it together
WoW well people can only dream.
David Cameren will probly ruin the Uk.
The mistake the The Conservite party made in Uk
made was giving up it's industry & selling it off in the 1980's
for a more profitable commerse banking system
which looked great in the 80's but now the commese banking system has come to a stop
things don't look great for the Uk in debt of
994 billion hitting the Trillion mark next year.
In Response

by: foma from: moscow
December 02, 2011 21:27
I suppose much of the backlash could have been avoided if Medvedev had held on to power. What anyways was the "logic" behind Putin's return to the Presidency? The Tandem was a very stable system and gave the regime and air of legitimacy. Now it's been compromised. Suffice it to say that the next six years don't look promising…

Then again, who are we to question the political skill of Putin & Co. of whom the Tandem was their brainchild? I'm sure they've got something up their sleeve. Whether it is capable of effectively managing the country remains to be seen. Unless, that is, people (including Putin) think that the Tandem has NOT been compromised and is still a viable political framework? I have my doubts though.
In Response

by: La Russophobe from: USA
December 04, 2011 13:18
Are you really so ignorant that you are unaware that Britain has seen power change hands between rival ideologies many times? Tony Blair was a socialist and Margaret Thatcher was a capitalist. Britain has a real court system with judges who act without regard to what the nation's ruler wants. And MANY people in other countries criticize Britain for having state-controlled media. Meanwhile, the per capital GDP of Britain is FAR higher than that of Russia, and it's people live far longer. Your comments make you look like a neo-Soviet gorilla, the same type we laughed at before the USSR collapsed, repeating propaganda lines fed to him by his government like an ignorant animal rather than thinking on his own. Is that really who you are?

by: Mark from: Victoria
December 06, 2011 03:57
"But what will happen to this veneer of "unique effectiveness" when the Kremlin is faced with the budget crunch Kudrin says will come next year and lacks the popular mandate to address it?"

Kudrin, Kudrin, Kudrin. Kudrin the amazing psychic, whose every word - now that he's on the outs with the Kremlin - takes on the significance of prophesy. You mean the Kudrin who dug in his heels and said throwing more money into benefits and salaries would wreck the economy? That Kudrin? Oddly enough, he thought throwing money at benefits was a great idea in 2005, when it was his idea.

http://www.rferl.org/content/article/1143423.html

The Kudrin that Zyuganov - now a darling of western interests himself as he looks like the most solid opposition to Putin - demanded be fired back in 2008 for his supposed poor response to the financial crisis? That Kudrin?

http://www.rferl.org/content/Putin_Dismisses_Call_To_Fire_Finance_Minister/1328445.html

I'll make you a friendly wager, Brian - a drink of choice from the loser to the winner, to be decided by agreement - that there will not be any "budget crunch" for Russia next year. With oil already up over $100.00 a barrel again, the U.S. recovery beginning to pick up steam in spite of Republican obstructionism, the crisis with Iran (world's third-biggest producer, if I remember correctly) ratcheting up daily and the unsustainability of Saudi Arabia's unilateral pumping increases, I feel pretty good that there's still growth for Russia in energy revenues. What do you say; are you in?

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

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.

 

17:25 October 16, 2014

TARGET: VEDOMOSTI

According to a report in Bloomberg, Kremlin-connected oligarchs are plotting to take over "Vedomosti," one of Russia's few remaining independent newspapers -- one that has been a pathbreaker in the field of economic journalism and data-driven investigative reporting.

Businessmen close to President Vladimir Putin are preparing to acquire Vedomosti, the largest Russian newspaper outside the Kremlin’s control, three people familiar with the matter said.

Putin signed a law yesterday capping foreign holdings in media at 20 percent, meaning the owners of the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, co-founders of the newspaper, must cut or sell their 33 percent stakes by the end of 2016. The third owner, Sanoma Oyj (SAA1V), is in talks to sell its Russian assets.

Under a plan backed by the presidential administration, an intermediary may be used to acquire all three stakes to make the deal more palatable politically before a group loyal to Putin buys the whole newspaper, the people said, asking not to be identified because the information is private. The eventual owner will probably be either Gazprom-Media, an affiliate of the state-run gas exporter, or companies linked to longtime Putin ally Yury Kovalchuk, they said.

“The Kremlin sees Vedomosti’s shareholders as foreign governments,” the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Tatiana Lysova, said in an interview. “The WSJ equals the U.S. and the FT the U.K. They want a Russian owner so they have someone to call.”

Read the whole piece here.

 

11:17 October 16, 2014

CRIMEA'S LGBT COMMUNITY FLEES IN FEAR

Simon Shuster has a dispatch in Time Magazine about the plight of the gay and lesbian community in Crimea after the Russian annexation.

For the gay community in Crimea, the most worrying piece of legislation was the Russian ban on “homosexual propaganda,” which Putin signed in 2012. Although the law is billed as an effort to protect Russian children from learning about “non-traditional sexual relationships,” its critics say the law encourages homophobia, signaling to Russians that gays are somehow inferior and should not be allowed to insist on their equality in public.

Since March, the new leaders of Crimea have embraced these principles with gusto. 

Read it all here.

11:12 October 16, 2014

MORNING NEWS ROUNDUP

Some items from RFE/RL's News Desk:

CRIMEA'S MOSCOW-BACKED LEADER ADMITS SOME TATARS MISSING

Crimea’s Moscow-backed leader Sergei Aksyonov has admitted that four Crimean Tatars are missing on the annexed peninsula.

Aksyonov said on October 16 that the missing Crimean Tatars had not been abducted, adding that some of them "had fought in Syria."

Aksyonov's statement comes amid media reports saying that several Crimean Tatars disappeared in recent days, some of them allegedly kidnapped by unknown men in military uniform.

At least three Crimean Tatar men have been found dead since Moscow's annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine in March.

Pressure on Crimean Tatars, the Turkic-speaking Muslim minority group that largely opposed the annexation, has increased in recent weeks.

In mid-September, Russian authorities seized the Crimean Tatar assembly, the Mejlis, and searched homes of leading members of the Tatar community.

(Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)

IN PERM, RUSSIA TRIES MEMBER OF BANNED ISLAMIC GROUP

Six suspected members of a banned Islamic movement went on trial in the Russian city of Perm on October 16.

Local authorities say the defendants are members of an organization called Nurcular. The seventh member of the group has received a suspended one-year term in June.

In May last year several alleged members of Nurcular were arrested in Perm, near the Ural mountains east of Moscow; St. Petersburg; and the southern city of Rostov-on-Don.

Nurcular was founded by Turkish Islamic cleric Said Nursi, who died in 1960.

It has been banned in Russia since 2008.

Authorities say it propagates the idea of creating an Islamic state on lands where indigenous peoples speak Turkic languages.

(Based on reporting by rapsinews.ru and Interfax)

RUSSIA TO SPEND RECORD AMOUNT ON DEFENSE IN 2015

Russia will allot some 3.3 trillion rubles (about $80 billion) from the state budget for defense spending in 2015, according to the chairman of the defense committee in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.

Vladimir Komoyedov told Russian news agency Interfax on October 16 defense spending for next year would be some $20 billion more than this year, but he added that his committee foresees slight reductions in spending for 2016 and 2017.

Komoyedov said the amount to be spent on defense in 2015 was some 4.2% of Russia's GDP.

Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said on October 7 that Russia's defense spending plans needed to be "more realistic" in light of international sanctions imposed on Russia over its actions in Ukraine.

A three-year draft budget reportedly calls for a 5.3 percent cut in defence spending in 2016, the first reduction since 1998.

(Based on reporting by Interfax and FT)

PUTIN PRAISES SERBIA, LAMBASTES WEST AHEAD OF BELGRADE VISIT

By RFE/RL

Russian President Vladimir Putin has praised Moscow's "Serbian friends" and lashed out at the West in remarks published ahead of a state visit to Belgrade on October 16.

Criticizing sanctions the United States and European Union have imposed on Moscow over its actions in Ukraine, Putin told the Serbian daily "Politika" that isolating Russia was an "absurd, illusory goal" and that attempts to do so could severely damage 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 is to attend Serbia's first military parade in some 30 years as Belgrade marks the anniversary of its liberation from the Nazis in 1944, a celebration Serbia moved forward four days to accommodate Putin's schedule.

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

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 did not mention the United States, but a speech in May in which President Barack Obama said he believes in "American exceptionalism" raised hackles in Russia.

The Belgrade visit is likely to shower Putin with positive attention before he faces Western leaders angry over Russia's role in the Ukraine crisis at an October 16-17 Europe-Asia summit in Milan.

Soviet Army troops helped Yugoslav partisans liberate Belgrade and Serbian officials have welcomed Putin's decision to attend the parade.

More recently, Russia gave Serbia moral support by angrily criticizing the NATO bombing of the rump Yugoslavia in 1999 and backed Belgrade's  opposition to independence for mostly ethnic Albanian Kosovo, which has been recognized by the United States but not by Moscow and has been unable to get a seat at the United Nations.

The two mostly Slavic nations are linked by the Orthodox Christian faith and Russia has championed the rights of Serbs in ethnically mixed Bosnia.

"We have joint roots, language, faith, customs and culture," Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic told Russian television before the visit. "In all wars we were always on the same side."

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.

Putin is due to meet with Nikolic and Prime Minister Aleksandr Vucic for talks on military cooperation and economic ties, including Serbia's participation in Russia's South Stream gas pipeline project, which the EU has suspended in member states.

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

In the "Politika" interview, Putin promoted the South Stream project, saying its implementation would bring Serbia more than 2 million euros in new investment and "substantially strengthen the country's energy security."

"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."

Putin said the volume of trade between Russia and Serbia had risen by 15 percent last year, to nearly $2 billion, and that he expects it to reach that mark this year.

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.

Vucic pointed out that within the EU there are five countries that have not recognized the independence of Serbia's former republic of Kosovo.

However, he told reporters last week that "Putin will hear that Serbia is on the European path. We have other relations we are developing with the Russian Federation, but the 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 the Russian leader's visit, shops around Belgrade have been selling T-shirts with Putin's face printed on them.

People around the city pointed to the long friendship between Serbs and Russians as reason to welcome Russia's leader.

Belgrade resident Vukan Baricanin, a retired economist, welcomed Putin's visit.

"Nothing better could happen to us. Putin is a famous personality. He turned a country that was on the verge of bankruptcy into a world power."

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

Construction engineer Predrag Markovic saw it as natural that Putin would attend a celebration marking the liberation of Belgrade.

"We wouldn't mind if other leaders came too, but I think that Russia and the former Soviet Union were the most important in the liberation of Belgrade."

Slobodan Knezevic said Putin's attendance at the anniversary was appropriate.

"It is really a good that they invited the Russians and Putin. Serbia should thank them for many things. They were always helping us, but it doesn’t mean that we have to stand only by their side. But it is great that they invited them."

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

NATO COMMANDER SEES NO 'MAJOR' RUSSIAN WITHDRAWAL NEAR UKRAINE

NATO's top military commander says the alliance has not seen "major movement" so far of Russian troops from a region bordering eastern Ukraine.

On October 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered about 17,600 Russian troops to return to their bases after what Moscow described as training drills in the southern Rostov region.

U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, told AP news agency on October 15, “Now we will watch to see if there is delivery on the promise."

NATO has refuted previous Russian claims of troop withdrawals from the regions bordering eastern Ukraine, where separatists have been battling government troops since April.

Moscow has consistently denied Ukrainian and Western allegations that it has deployed Russian troops and heavy military equipment in eastern Ukraine to support pro-Russian separatists there.

(Based on reporting by AP and Reuters)

NAVALNY ASSOCIATE'S HOUSE ARREST EXTENDED

By RFE/RL's Russian Service

The house arrest of an associate of outspoken Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny has been extended.

A court in Moscow ruled on October 15 that Konstantin Yankauskas's house arrest must be prolonged until December 10.

Yankauskas was placed under house arrest on June 11.  The previous term was to expire on October 17.

Yankauskas and two other Navalny associates, Nikolai Lyaskin and Vladimir Ashurkov, are accused of election-law violations and fraud related to  funding of Navalny's campaign for Moscow mayor last year.

Yankauskas calls the case politically motivated.

Navalny and his brother Oleg have been accused of stealing and laundering $756,500 from the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher.

Navalny, a leader of anti-government protests in 2011-2012, is also serving a five-year suspended sentence on a $500,000 theft conviction.

He calls all the cases against him politically motivated.

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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