Thursday, October 23, 2014


The Power Vertical

The Medvedev Legacy

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at a meeting with students in the journalism faculty of Moscow's State University on January 25
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at a meeting with students in the journalism faculty of Moscow's State University on January 25
After being largely -- and conspicuously -- absent from the news for weeks, Dmitry Medvedev spoke today at Moscow State University.
 
The Russian president touted recent proposals to reform the electoral system, saying "these [old] rules are not working." He reassured students that "nobody is imposing" censorship in Russia, adding that this would be "impossible in the modern world."
 
And he insisted that his political career wasn't over. "I've never said that I will not run for office again. I will remind you that I'm only 46 and this is not an old enough age to give up any future political battles," Medvedev said.
 
I don't think anybody believed him. In fact, I wonder if anybody outside the hall he spoke in was even paying attention.
 
Since Medvedev announced on September 24 that he would not seek another term as president, it has been easy to dismiss him as a political lightweight, a placeholder who kept the Kremlin warm for Vladimir Putin's return and is now destined to become little more than a historical footnote.
 
But depending upon how the current political crisis is resolved, Medvedev's little presidency-with-an-asterisk could actually turn out to be quite consequential for Russia.
 
This is true less because of anything he accomplished in office than because of the role he played, how he played it, and the way the ruling class and broader public reacted to his time in office.
 
Despite his weakness -- or perhaps because of it -- Medvedev unleashed political forces in the elite and in society that are now reaching critical mass. Whether this was intentional or inadvertent is largely irrelevant -- it happened and Russia is a changed country as a result.
 
According to most conventional wisdom, Putin chose Medvedev as his temporary successor back in 2008 because he was a weak and pliant figure.

He didn't hail from the siloviki clan of tough security-service veterans. He lacked the charisma and bureaucratic muscle to build a team and forge a political identity independent of Putin. There was little risk of him getting any bright ideas about staying in the Kremlin any longer than his patron wanted him there.
 
Could Putin have been so sure about Sergei Ivanov -- the other possible successor in 2008 -- their long friendship and shared KGB past notwithstanding? I doubt it.
 
Medvedev remained loyal to Putin, and there was never any doubt about who was really in charge.
 
But in forming the tandem and turning Medvedev into his political alter ego, Putin unintentionally created a vessel for the hopes and aspirations of the technocratic wing of the ruling elite -- which had been playing second fiddle to the siloviki clan of security-service veterans for nearly a decade.
 
The technocrats clearly believed that the time for political reform had come -- and appeared to see in Medvedev a vehicle for realizing it. They wanted Perestroika 2.0 and over the course of his presidency they became increasingly vocal about it.
 
Splits began appearing shortly after Medvedev was inaugurated. 
 
Medvedev advisers Igor Yurgens and Arkady Dvorkovich, Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky, and former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin began calling for political reform. Siloviki like Igor Sechin and Sergei Ivanov, meanwhile, lobbied for the continuation of the status quo.

This schism became increasingly manifest throughout Medvedev's presidency. 
 
Moreover, Medvedev's softer style (his Twitter account, his love for Deep Purple) and his rhetoric about modernization and reform -- event though it wasn't followed up by any real action -- set expectations in society, especially among the urban middle class, that change was coming. As the professional class became accustomed to the more benevolent optics of the Medvedev presidency, it became more wedded to the idea of reform -- and more allergic to a return of Putinism.
 
With the blogger president sitting in the Kremlin with his iPad, the Internet came of age as a political tool in Russia. Independent online media outlets like Dozhd TV were born and blogging platforms like LiveJournal blossomed and thrived.
 
Protest actions became more brazen and more creative, with groups like the art collective Voina making waves with a series of offbeat demonstrations.
 
Society was changing and it was obvious to anybody paying attention.
 
The catalyst that sparked the regime's current legitimacy crisis, of course, was the United Russia congress on September 24, when it was announced that Medvedev would step aside and Putin would return to the Kremlin. 
 
Rather than rally around the decision, the elite became more bitterly divided -- and society became more restless.
 
And the tandem suddenly lost its mojo.
 
Medvedev looked weak and irrelevant. Putin, who liked to style himself as a strong leader in the tradition of tsarist-era Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin or Soviet leader Yury Andropov, suddenly was being compared to the doddering Leonid Brezhnev. Suddenly, he was being booed at sporting events.
 
By the time the parliamentary elections rolled around in December, the stage was set for a revolt.
 
Nobody knows how the current political crisis will play itself out, and those who claim to know are fooling themselves. But the seeds of the dramatic developments we are now seeing were planted during Medvedev's presidency.
 
This is his legacy, even though he is unlikely to be its beneficiary.
 
-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Dmitry Medvedev,Russian elite,Russian society

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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: La Russophobe from: USA
January 25, 2012 19:25
"Nobody knows how the current political crisis will play itself out, and those who claim to know are fooling themselves. But the seeds of the dramatic developments we are now seeing were planted during Medvedev's presidency."

You contradict yourself, and hence indicate you yourself are fooling yourself, contrary to your own advice. There are no "dramatic developments" as yet, absolutely nothing has happened, just a little milling around in Moscow. By your own standard, maybe nothing dramatic ever will happen. Maybe Putin will easily win reelection just as he would have a year ago. Maybe he will remain president for the rest of his life. Maybe he will continue his crackdown on civil society, and maybe nobody will lift a finger to oppose him. Maybe the planned February protest will not show any signficant increase in size, and maybe nobody will step forward who is prepared to fight for inclusion on the March ballot. Maybe Russians will stand mute as they did in time of Stalin, indeed as they did when Putin was handed power by Yeltsin, who had bombed their parliament.
In Response

by: Asehpe from: Netherlands
January 27, 2012 20:06
And maybe they won't. You're making just as many assumptions here as you accuse Mr Whitmore of making.

You're expressing your opinion, he's expressing his. Time will tell.

by: John from: Canada
January 25, 2012 21:11
Maybe if Medvedev had followed-up on his promise to stop Khimki forest from being decimated, he might have reduced Evgenia Chrikova's interest in political activism?

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
January 26, 2012 01:44
I would argue that all of the positive/liberal changes you ascribe to Medvedev had their origins (or at least the blessing) of Putin. Believe it or not, Putin probably understands that Russia needs to modernize and reform its political system.
In Response

by: Mamuka
January 26, 2012 11:06
Yes Putin understands that Russia needs to modernize. But he doesnt want it to spiral out of control like happened for Gorbachev. Which is why he is against any real political reform.
In Response

by: Mamuka
January 30, 2012 16:07
Article on BBC Russian today:

Путин обещает экономические реформы без политических

http://www.bbc.co.uk/russian/business/2012/01/120130_putin_economy_view.shtml

So they agree with me! takoi ja molodets

by: shay from: usa
January 26, 2012 20:04
Ray - Putin couldn't care less about the modernization of Russia, unless of course it is necessary for his own personal survival. And I don't just mean his political survival, I mean his physical survival. Putin knows that if he is removed from power his many enemies will begin encircling him with designs on his imprisonment, the desire for payback is inevitable. Putin's options for a life in exile are few, perhaps Belarus, or even Venezuela if he prefers sunnier climes, but if either do offer him sanctuary these dictators risk putting their own survival in jeopardy. Putin knows that technology and the internet have sewn the seeds for his eventual downfall, and he will hold on for as long as he can, because he will not contemplate the alternative. The Soviet Union collapsed because the USA raised the stakes in the arms race, the USSR could not compete on a technological basis with the American war machine, a lesson that has not gone unnoticed by Putin. He may very well avoid sitting televised debates and steal the upcoming March election, but the writing is on the wall and it is only a matter of time before shots are fired and blood is spilt as Putin decides to stamp out the rising dissent and reassert—through violence—his deadly grip on political power.
In Response

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
January 28, 2012 03:00
Maybe you are right, and Putin is 100% scheming scoundrel, only concerned with his personal welfare, and has used/abused his power over the past decade to create a brittle dictatorship. I certainly don’t want to be known as a ‘Putin defender,’ but unfortunately, the Russian people still have yet to learn that as citizens of their formidable country, the state ought to derive its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. Might be apocryphal, but I once heard that Putin is more democratic than 70% of the Russian population.

Again, I’ve never met Putin, and I know that the modern media can distort the truth of a person, but from what I’ve read and seen, I don’t think Putin is quite as evil as you suggest. The Putin of 2012 is different from that of 1999, and the point I was trying to make is that the positive changes begun under Medvedev would have likely never occurred without Putin’s consent. (I would not worry about Putin’s retirement location. In our world today, he could easily buy the most lavish townhouse in any of the ‘established democracies.')

You shouldn’t measure Russians with your American eyeballs. Most Russians I know prefer corrupt stability over chaotic democracy.

Finally, the reasons behind the collapse of the USSR are manifold. Increased defense expenditures by the US may have played a role, and alas, might serve as the primal fault in wrecking this republic.
In Response

by: shay from: usa
January 30, 2012 19:26
I disagree, I believe Putin to be a supremely evil individual, one who's restraint has been determined by more powerful forces in the West where Putin and his cronies sell Russia's extracted wealth and stash their ill-gotten gains. The only reason Putin hasn't slaughtered 500,000 civilians is because its consequence in this globalized era is that the West would be forced to remove him. But have you overlooked the tens of thousands of innocent civilians who were slaughtered in the second Chechen war, which materialized as a vanity project in order to propel Putin into the presidency on the back of his tough-guy persona? And what about the unresolved murder of 300 Moscow citizens in their bombed high rise apartments in 1999 which advanced the appetite for war, and the Ryazan cover-up which pointed the finger of guilt at Putin's FSB? What do you know of the occupants of Dagestani and Inghusetian refugee camps? What about the captives at the Moscow theatre or the school in Beslan who were needlessly sacrificed to Putin's brute force when he refused to allow impartial negotiations to continue The KGB mindset has always been that the lives of individual citizens are expendable for the greater good of the Kremlin elite, and is not such a mindset in itself evil? What about the murder of Putin's critics, namely Politkovskaya, Litvinenko, Markelov and Estemirova to name but a few, and the elimination of Sergei Magnitsky because his stand against corruption posed a threat to the foundations and corrupt methods behind Putin's Power Vertical? I do not agree that Putin can retreat to a mansion somewhere in the democratic west, because he will ultimately be held accountable by his legitimate successors when democracy does arrive in Russia. Sometimes I suspect that Putin's apologists in the west are more inspired by Russia's low corporate tax rates and by the prospect of acquiring/laundering the Siloviki's ill-gotten gains.
In Response

by: Anonymous from: USA
January 31, 2012 18:03
Shay, you forgot to mention the Kursk submarine disaster. Putin could only have been directly involved in such a catastrophe, because a rescue could have saved the lives of those trapped Russian sailors, and somebody in the Kremlin decided it was better to let them die than for him to face accountability or humiliation. There is also the forest fires that singed the outskirts of Moscow a few years ago, largely because Putin cut the number of forest ranger in Russia, and there was no one to fight the fires that raged on for weeks. Ray makes some sensible statements, especially this one:

"Increased defense expenditures by the US may have played a role, and alas, might serve as the primal fault in wrecking this republic."

but I have to agree with you regarding Putin. He is extremely evil, and left unchecked could make the world a very unpleasant place.

by: Vachtang from: Moscow
January 28, 2012 03:38
Of course very funny to see this farce
When Medvedev has publicly stated that he was dummy president.
Тhey are so arrogant, that do not even consider it necessary to conceal it.

Of course, anyone would agree to be president of Russia, even a dummy, even Mr. Whitmore, what to write various articles on different characters would have stood behind the podium and read a paper written by Putin.
People is vane,everything is sold everything can be bought, everything has its price...Yes?..Mr.Whitmore??

All these actions of Putin show that he does not care for people
The question is, when it was transformed into a person that considers people for trash and spits on these contemptible fellows.

With regard to the Medvedev legacy
What about the Yeltsin legacy?
Сrazy drunk abolished the electoral system in Russia, drunk 24 hours a day, Yeltsin drunk in a state of drunkenness, dancing and reeling in the Kremlin.

Рeople say, "Yeltsin?"" Alcoholic who drank from morning till night"

Рeople will say: "Remember Medvedev? '." Of course, remember! ". "This is the one that played the Chinese idol"

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
January 30, 2012 23:08
Shay, Again, you might be right, and Putin is the devil incarnate, and the list of crimes you mention might have been masterminded by this evil ruler to secure his hold on power. The evidence that I’ve examined and my understanding of how this sorry world operates suggest otherwise. Each of the incidents you ascribe to Putin’s nefarious nature has a deep and complex history, not quite suitable to a blog post. I’m not an expert, but I have studied most of these ‘crimes,’ and while Putin may have played some part, he alone was not responsible. Pinning all the blame on him is both handy and false.

When you refer to the all powerful ‘west,’ and its ability to remove wicked rulers, who exactly are you referring to? From a Russian perspective, there are thousands of dead, innocent Iraqis, victims of an ‘evil’ western ruler (who, unfortunately, will never be put on trial for starting a war under false pretenses). You hold a much more optimistic view of western leadership than the average Russian. Don’t want to burst any of your bubbles, but would suggest you follow just where the ill-gotten gains from Russia are flowing. Just like in Russia, the rot goes to the very top. Corruption, whether in a leather jacket or three-piece suit, is a universal phenomenon.
In Response

by: shay from: usa
January 31, 2012 15:36
Ray - Two points:
1. I never said Putin alone was responsible, indeed he represents many Nomenklatura special interests (though not the welfare of his people). But I do say that he was the main beneficiary of these killings.
2. If Putin slaughtered as many civilians as he'd like to, the world would move for full embargo of Russia on sales of oil and gas. That would put an end to his autocratic farce.

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