Wednesday, October 22, 2014


The Power Vertical

Why Navalny Is Winning

Vladimir Putin submerging into the depths in a submarine. Aleksei Navalny being greeted by an adoring crowd as he triumphantly returned to Moscow.

Something old, something new.

The two images bookended what was a remarkable -- and highly consequential -- week in Russia. As the Navalny saga was unfolding -- from his conviction and detention, to the street protests that followed and his subsequent release and arrival at Moscow's Yaroslavl railway station -- Putin was largely invisible, save for one of his tired old macho photo-ops.

And even with that, someone in the Kremlin clearly forgot to think through the optics. "The long descent begins," one Twitter user wrote, in reference to a photo of Putin's submarine stunt. 

Optics are, indeed, important and Navalny clearly won last week's image war.

Inevitable comparisons have already been made between the heroe's welcome he received in Moscow on July 20 to that of Andrei Sakharov when he arrived at the very same train station in December 1986. And some have compared Navalny's fiery comments to supporters with Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin's famous speech upon returning from exile at Finland Station in Petrograd in April 1917.

Navalny, of course, isn't Sakharov -- and he certainly isn't Lenin. But 2013 is beginning to have the feel of a time, like the early 20th century or the late 1980s and early 90s, when the tectonic plates of Russian politics are shifting. And Navalny is quickly assuming the role of the figure in tune with the new zeitgeist who is able to ride the turbulent wave to a new political epoch.

Checkers, Chess, And Pumpkins

In an interview with the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" just days before his conviction, Navalny said that if he wins the Moscow mayorship, "Putin's regime will turn into a pumpkin."

And he is right. There is no office in Russia save the presidency with so much power and independence as mayor of the capital. Which is why the authorities will never allow Navalny -- or any opposition figure for that matter -- to come close to winning it.

Indeed, as soon as Navalny was released on July 19, after less than a day in jail, the theories of a dark Kremlin conspiracy appeared. The authorities needed him in the September 8 Moscow mayoral election. Otherwise, Kremlin-backed incumbent Sergei Sobyanin's inevitable victory would appear illegitimate. As soon as Navalny has fulfilled this purpose, they'll imprison him again.

This is probably true, but it misses the point about what is going on right now. Navalny is playing chess and the Kremlin, it appears, is playing checkers -- and playing quite poorly at that.

Despite the rhetoric in his fledgling election campaign, Navalny knows he has little chance of winning the Moscow mayorship. But Navalny's long game is not about winning an election inside the confines of the Putin system. It is to erode, wear down, and ultimately replace that system by patiently and efficiently chipping away at the monolith -- attacking its weak points, building up his street cred, and expanding his base of support in the process.

The events of the past week advanced that goal considerably. The Kremlin has just given him the aura of a martyr, and he only had to spend one night in a holding cell to get it.

And the opportunity Navalny has now to openly campaign in Moscow -- which means rallies that will no doubt draw big crowds and television appearances that will boost his name recognition -- will advance it further still, even in defeat.

Navalny's July 19 release, after being convicted the previous day on what are widely seen as trumped-up embezzlement charges, marked the second time in just over a week that he was taken into custody and then set free to make a made-for-YouTube speech. 

Several prominent Russian lawyers have noted that the prosecutor's decision to take a reverse step and free such a high-profile prisoner pending appeal was unprecedented.

And if Navalny performs reasonably well in the Moscow election and expands his base of support, it will be harder still -- and costlier still -- for the authorities to incarcerate him yet again.

'We Are Citizens!'

One of the most poignant moments of Navalny's speech upon arrival in Moscow wasn't even spoken by Navalny. It came from the crowd in response to him.

"You have destroyed the main privilege that the Kremlin has claimed -- its alleged right to arrest anyone in court and cause that person to disappear," Navalny said as he thanked his supporters for taking to the streets after his sentencing.

"It's because of you that we were released the next day. Thank you! We are a huge mighty force and I am glad that we are realizing this and I am glad to be one with you."

"We are citizens!" came a single -- and clearly audible -- voice from the crowd.

WATCH: Navalny's arrival in Moscow after his release (in Russian):
Алексея Навального встречают на Ярославском вокзалеi
X
July 20, 2013
Сотни сторонников встречали Алексея Навального и Петра Офицерова на Ярославском вокзале в Москве. Навальный обратился к собравшимся с короткой речью, поблагодарил их за поддержку и сказал, что он оказался на свободе только потому, что после приговора люди вышли на улицы.

Which gets to the heart of why Navalny is winning his long battle with a Kremlin that doesn't quite know what to do with him.

"Navalny showed Russians how not to be afraid," Julia Iofe wrote in a recent article in "The New Republic."

Estimates varied on how many people took to the streets of Moscow (as well as other cities) on the night of July 18-19 in support of Navalny. Police said 2,500 came out in the capital, the opposition said 10,000, and journalists more or less split the difference and said 5,000.

In fact, it was a hard crowd to count because it so diffuse, fanning out around the center of Moscow -- and even up the walls and onto the ledge of the State Duma. 

But the point wasn't the numbers. It was the intensity and the bravery of people who were willing to take to the streets for an unsanctioned protest amid a heavy police presence in full expectation of a crackdown -- albeit one that didn't materialize.

Navalny has indeed shown Russians how not to be afraid.

This was also on display on the morning of July 20, when police, in a lame attempt to clear the crowd from Yaroslavl Station, warned of a bomb threat. "Ooh, a bomb. We're really frightened," one man mockingly told a police officer

Navalny, of course, probably wasn't freed due to pressure from the streets. As Gazeta.ru recently pointed out, deep splits in the elite over how to handle him -- and the ongoing political crisis -- go a long way toward explaining the Kremlin's vacillation.

But optics do matter. And as my co-host Mark Galeotti of New York University pointed out in the most recent "Power Vertical Podcast," Navalny can now claim that it was because of the power of the "Russian street" that he was set free. And just as importantly, his growing cadre of supporters believe this to be the case.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Aleksei Navalny

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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
July 22, 2013 20:51
Nice post, and perhaps the Russian political ice is beginning to crack. However, the notion that one person, no matter how capable, is going to transform lead Russia into a ‘new political epoch’ might be a bit of wishful thinking. In a fairy-tale world, the righteous and noble Prince Navalny would remove the evil King Putin and everyone would live happily after. I hope I’m wrong, but I see this particular story ending on a more tragic note.

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
July 22, 2013 21:07
It is all staged, like "Baron Munhauzen" himself wrote scenario,
Remind the Western World about Sakharov, to be good donkey
And move alone with Russia's play of "Russia will change, I-O",
You got again wig of democracy - like donkey with a monkey.

It never ends for condemned "strana rabov strana skotov",
Russia - a straw of hey before a nose of Western donkey.
Russian themselves need not even that, reminded to bow
Before dictator Lenin and Red Terror master Dzerzhinsky,
With military putting Putin into some military hardware bot.

Why Navalny said Putin regime would turn into a pumpkin,
If elected? Modern Russia, usurping Superpower weapons
Of former USSR is not a pumpkin, it is what Putin's witches
Or orders placed on Navalny made him appear confronting.

Not chess game, if he elected he must consider such reality
Of two Superpowers, but fighting for democracy and legality
Against Russian aggression and breeding in invaded lands.
Let Russia return everything, pay for its crimes and put end
To expand of Empire of Russ-Pruss, annulling other nations.






by: Babeouf from: Ireland
July 22, 2013 21:52
No Navalny can't win elections in Russia because he has no political base there. And almost nobody bothered to demonstrate (140,000,000 approx population of Russia) and that doesn't matter because ' the point wasn't the numbers.'. No what matters is that the Tooth Fairy has guaranteed it will all turn out for the best. Here is an alternative analysis. He was released so he could loose the election for Mayor of Moscow in spectacular style. And having discredited the whole idea of opposition by his inept performance he will then be locked up for four or five years.
In Response

by: Jack from: US
July 23, 2013 13:54
you have to agree, being locked up for four-five years in Russian jail is not as bad as being burned alive by US government in Waco, TX for daring to oppose the same government

by: Jack from: US
July 23, 2013 13:50
still waiting for "Brian Whitmore" to tell everyone when will finally evil "Putin regime" collapse... waiting and waiting .. while US government keeps winning and winning, in Afghanistan (like it won in Iraq), in Syria, in Egypt..
In Response

by: Anonymous
July 24, 2013 13:08
Still waiting for "Jack" to tell us when he will stop repeating the same things and actually show evidence of some critical thought... I won't hold my breath though.

Of course you don't like what he says. And indeed he's too much of an optimist for your taste. (And in some sense, even for mine -- I think the future of Russia is more likely to be darker than Mr Whitmore thinks.) But that you complain about him having an opinion and expressing it... that is indeed funny. Especially since the exact same comment (with reversed polarity) so wonderfully describes your own beliefs!... Ah, if only people looked in mirrors before condemning the appearance of others...

by: La Russophobe from: USA
July 23, 2013 18:17
"But the point wasn't the numbers. It was the intensity and the bravery of people who were willing to take to the streets for an unsanctioned protest amid a heavy police presence in full expectation of a crackdown -- albeit one that didn't materialize. Navalny has indeed shown Russians how not to be afraid."

This simply isn't true. Navalny invited over 50,000 to go to the streets on Facebook and 47,000 of them (no way was there more than 3,000 on the street) WERE afraid and did not show up.

It's pretty hard to see how a man who is going to spend five years in jail for a crime he did not commit is "winning" when he has such a pathetic level of popular support even in his own home town. And let's not forget that there are THREE more sets of charges coming at Navlany, which could keep him in prison as long as Khodorkovsky or longer.

I certainly agree with you that IF Navlany gets over 15% of the vote the Kremlin will have miscalculated and created a Frankenstein. But WHEN he gets less than half that, the Kremlin will have destroyed Navalny's political credibility and legitimized both the Sobyanin administration and the Navalny prosecution all at one shot.

Navalny is not winning, that is wishful thinking and cheerleading of the same kind we saw when Navalny's street demonstrations began. Some thought they would grow, but they shrank and disappeared. No political change of any kind was achieved.

The Kremlin is winning. And imagining otherwise only helps the Kremlin.
In Response

by: Asehpe from: the Netherlands
July 24, 2013 13:12
Well, I guess we'll have to wait and see WHEN the 'when' becomes now and stops being written in all caps. At that moment perhaps we'll see if you're right or wrong.

You say this about Brian, but then again, you are also a foreign analyst opining on Russia. If you happened to be wrong, you wouldn't be the first foreign analyst to be wrong about Russia...

Let's wait and see. And then we'll talk.
In Response

by: La Russophobe from: USA
July 26, 2013 21:50
No. I said, loud and clear and often, from the beginning, that the street protests were an illusion, would change nothing and would disappear. I was proved right, and those like Julia Ioffe who said otherwise were proved wrong. Where was your "talk" then?

You are nothing but hot air and moving goal posts. The longer we wait to see who Navalny really is, the stronger Putin becomes and the weaker the opposition.

by: Anonymous
July 24, 2013 16:48
Can we PLEASE get past the Western wet dream about Navalny (I mean seriously, Brian is SHOCKED that his wife is an intelligent woman. Newsflash, most men marry their equals and wouldn't you be far more surprised if Navalny, especially given his longstanding political ambitions, chose to spend his life and have children with a moron. Can the wives of the 4 podcasters not also form a sentence? Do they not also share your interests?), but I digress.

The real story here isn't Navalny, although he does expose some interesting cracks in the elite, it's Sobyanin. Sobyanin is the one who, by insisting on Navalny's inclusion is pushing for an (exceedingly rare) fair fight. Sobyanin is the one who wants a clean election so he can have a true mandate. He's in essence looking for the legitimacy that Putin lost in 2012. He will be one of the only, if not the only, Russian politician who can claim a true mandate from the people, giving him real power/legitimacy outside of Putin and his system (although he certainly has it inside the system too. That's how he got to be mayor in the first place after all.) Now I wonder what he plans to do with that power.... He's fought too hard to make this election real not to have some serious plans for it.

THAT is the story here, especially given that Russian leaders, Lenin being the big exception, overwhelmingly come from WITHIN the system, not the outside. If you were an elite casting about for an alternative to Putin, whose time has clearly past, a trusted, known pair of hands such as Sobyanin's (bearing in mind that popular consent on some level is necessary for continuing to rob the people blind) who has shown popular likeability and electability would look very attractive as the next in line...

BTW, András Tóth-Czifra also does an excellent job making this point here. http://www.noyardstick.com/?author=1 If the goal is to forecast the next leader of Russia, it makes far more sense to focus on people who have a legitimate shot at the job, vs. the no-hopers don't you think?
In Response

by: Brian Whitmore from: Prague
July 25, 2013 06:58
Dear "Anonymous" (interesting that somebody so opinionated is afraid to post them under his/her real name),
Nobody on the July 19 podcast -- not me, not Mark, not Kirill, not Sean -- was "shocked," as you put it, about the intelligence Ms. Navalnaya exhibited in her interview on Dozhd TV in April or the poise she showed outside the courtroom on July 18. We were simply noting that if he were incarcerated she would probably assume a higher public profile -- and the only interview with her any of us has seen indicates that she is more than capable of doing so. That's all. And none of us was "shocked" by this. Quite the contrary. So please don't distort our words to fit whatever agenda you may have.
Second, "the goal" of this blog/podcast is not to "forecast the next leader of Russia." If that is what you are interested in, I would suggest you look elsewhere. The goal is to understand the dynamics of Russian politics -- both inside the elite and in the broader society. If you don't think Navalny is relevant to that (regardless of what you may think of him), then we haven't been observing the same Russia for the past several years.
Respectfully,
Brian Whitmore

by: Kyle from: Champaign, IL
July 26, 2013 17:57
I certainly understand the popular press's being charmed with Navalny. He is a young, brash, and outspoken Russian citizen who, as opposed to many other critics of Russia, has decided to stay within the country (well, at this point obviously less of a conscious decision...) and challenge the Putin regime from within. And there is no doubt that his story and rhetoric are inspiring and serve as a rallying point around which those already critical of the regime, but previously unwilling to do anything about it, may mobilize. This serves an important function in of itself.

However, huge questions remain about what Navalny is in fact all about. To begin with, outside of serving as a powerful symbol of resistance to the regime, is there any reason to believe that Navalny would be a positive addition to Russia's governing elite? He has almost no experience with institutionalized politics, and the experience that he has had has been within a regime in which these institutions are either or both tarnished and ignored.

Additionally, and as Mr. Whitmore and the more popular Western media organizations (NY Times, etc.) have largely failed to mention, the political following Navalny has gathered is not necessarily a group of the most liberal-minded folks. Instead, many of Navalny's followers are fairly hard-core Russian nationalists who, at the least, support policies discriminating against Central Asian migrants, and at worst participate in violence against members of these groups. Let us just be clear that his charismatic rhetoric was not honed through calls for liberal democracy--it was not until fairly recently that this came about.

Last note: does anybody else remember a relatively young, brash, and outspoken Russian man who rose from relative anonymity to popular acclaim in the last decade and a half? Two in the last 25 years if you can remember back that far. Just a thought--maybe we should stop trying to convince ourselves that "It will be different this time..."

by: Ben
August 02, 2013 12:46
Anonymous.Sobyanin`s independensy and bravery are dubious,because Navalny`s liberation after the trial is in Kremlin`s competence.

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

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

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.

 

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.

 

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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