Monday, October 20, 2014


The Power Vertical

Why The Kremlin Is Losing

Protesters gather with balloons and placards during an anti-Putin demonstration in Moscow on February 4.
Protesters gather with balloons and placards during an anti-Putin demonstration in Moscow on February 4.
Remember when something called "the Family" dominated Russian politics and Boris Berezovsky looked invincible?

It wasn't that long ago. Just over a decade back.
 
In late 1999, I was having dinner in a Moscow restaurant with some colleagues and we noticed Berezovsky and some hangers-on a few tables away.
 
One colleague gestured to the uber-oligarch's entourage, which was flanked by the usual phalanx of bodyguards, and said: "Wouldn't you love to just approach him and ask: 'Boris Abramovich, what exact scheme are you working on right now?'"
 
It was conventional wisdom at the time that Berezovsky was the master of Russia's political universe. As the informal leader of the so-called "Family," the shadowy collection of tycoons, cronies, and bureaucrats surrounding the ailing President Boris Yeltsin, he had the Kremlin wired and was orchestrating the rise of Vladimir Putin -- who the media called "the Family's candidate." We assumed Berezovsky would keep Putin on a tight leash, too.

We, of course, were dead wrong.

As the new millennium approached, Berezovsky and "the Family" may have looked omnipotent, but the tectonic plates supporting the political order were shifting. A new political era was on the way -- and "the Family" was on the way out (although some of its members, Roman Abramovich for example, found a place in the new order).

Inflection points like the one at the end of the 1990s can sneak up on you and there is often an analytical bias in favor of expecting the status quo to continue indefinitely. One of the tricks for Russia watchers is to know when the paradigm is about to shift, when the meta-narrative is truly changing.
 
Are we at such an inflection point again? I don't know for sure, of course, but I do suspect we are approaching one.
 
Putin still has the full weight of the Russian state at his disposal. He can use obedient courts to imprison his opponents and deploy administrative methods to rig elections. His cronies control the traditional media, the energy sector, and much of the country's heavy industry.
 
But regimes like Putin's don't survive on repression alone. To be stable and successful, they also need, for lack of a better term, soft power.
 
And on this score, 100 days into Putin's third term, it has become clear that the Kremlin has lost much of its mojo on this score. Team Putin isn't controlling the national conversation anymore. They've lost the support -- and even the passive acquiescence -- of important segments of the population. They are bickering among themselves and deeply divided. And a savvy new generation of opposition figures is on the rise.
 
Swindlers, Thieves, And Foreign Agents
 
There was a time when Putin could say something -- Мочить в сортире, or "wipe 'em out in the latrine," for example -- and it would be repeated endlessly and become part of the political lexicon.
 
It was entertaining for much of the public and burnished the president's pop culture image as an action-hero tough guy. But more importantly, Putin's colorful use of the Russian language helped establish a powerful national narrative: Russia has a strong, cool, and decisive leader and is rising up from its knees; Putin's opponents are feckless and doomed; the troubled '90s are over; we won't be pushed around anymore.
 
Putin's Kremlin once excelled at this kind of thing. They don't anymore. The narratives they try to push -- like blaming mass demonstrations on foreign agitators -- appear worn and dated, and Putin's scatological slang just isn't that funny anymore.
 
Now it is the opposition that is succeeding in getting its one-liners into the country's collective consciousness. With message discipline and tech-savvy that would make a political consultant proud, anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny has managed to turn phrases like партия жуликов и воров (Party of Swindlers and Thieves) and Иностранный агент Бастрыкин (Foreign Agent Bastrykin) into powerful cultural markers.
 
This may seem trivial, but it's not. It is helping to establish a new counternarrative that the current ruling elite is corrupt and incompetent -- and have overstayed its welcome. According to the Levada Center, some 42 percent of Russians now agree with the statement that United Russia is a "party of swindlers and thieves."
 
We Exist
 
For an opposition narrative to take hold, it needs a receptive audience. Does anybody remember the chants of "We Need Another Russia!" from anti-Kremlin rallies, attended by a dozen or so brave souls, back in 2006 or 2007? I didn't think so.
 
In those days, most people didn't want another Russia. Most were fine with the one they had and it was easier for the Kremlin to marginalize, trivialize, and ridicule its opponents. It's not so easy today.
 
Never mind the tens of thousands who can be counted on to regularly show up at opposition protests in Moscow. The broader public opinion poll numbers tell an even starker story.
 
Putin's raw approval rating is somewhere between the mid-50s and low 60s, depending on the poll. But as political analyst Kirill Rogov pointed out in a much-discussed article last month, it isn't as solid as it appears at first glance. 
 
"This would be an excellent result for the president of any democratic country, but it is unacceptable for a ‘tsar’ – an unassailable and all-powerful leader with an unshakeable mandate. Putin has, in effect, lost his mandate," Rogov wrote.

According to the Levada Center data that Rogov cites, Putin's hardcore supporters number between 15-20 percent, while his soft and conditional support is between 40-45 percent. But most of these people, the data show, do not want him to rule in the same manner he did between 2000-08. These soft-core supporters want another Putin, and they aren't getting one -- which means they can flip to the other side at any time.
 
Putin's hard-core opponents, meanwhile, number about 15 percent, while another 15-20 percent "share the anti-Putin mood to some extent."
 
One of the most powerful slogans to emerge over the past eight months actually wasn't produced by Navalny. I'm not sure where it came from, but It showed up on numerous placards at protests and was part of the refrain in one of Pussy Riot's (pre-Christ the Savior Cathedral) performances.
 
It was simply: "We Exist."
 
A powerful constituency for change does, indeed, exist now. It grew out of the increasingly confident middle class that emerged during Putin's rule. It is powered and networked by increased Internet penetration and the explosion of social networks. And it's not going away anytime soon.
 
The Next Generation
 
Yeah, but there isn't any real alternative to Putin and his team. The opposition is a hodgepodge of nationalists, leftists, and liberals and has no viable leaders.
 
These are common refrains, repeated by Kremlin-friendly spinmeisters since mass antigovernment demonstrations broke out in December.
 
And there is a degree of truth to this. At each period of change in recent Russian history, there has been a leader-in-waiting ready to take charge.
 
As the Soviet Union imploded, it was, of course, Yeltsin. And as Yeltsin's chaotic, turbulent, and corruption-tainted presidency wound down, there was the anointed successor Putin, whose style of rule reminded no one of Yeltsin.
 
Now there is...nobody.
 
But the flaw with this line of thinking is the assumption that just because change is in the air, the regime's fall is imminent. I don't think it is.
 
What I think is happening is that Team Putin has lost the initiative and lost it decisively. They have no rationale for their continued rule other than, well, they want their rule to continue. They could still be in power for awhile. But the hyperconfident Kremlin we saw during Putin's first two terms is a thing of the past.
 
And meanwhile, the opposition -- that hodgepodge of liberals, leftists, and nationalists -- is gearing up for a long endgame.
 
In the autumn, they will hold online primaries to choose a 45-member council that will be tasked with making key decisions, like which candidates will run in local elections, which initiatives to support, and when to hold demonstrations.

"The problem of the opposition's legitimacy needs to be decided through elections, [especially] if we are going to accuse the authorities of lacking legitimacy," Navalny said in a video explaining the primaries on his blog this week. 
 
WATCH THE VIDEO HERE:

 

The primaries won't quite produce a shadow government. But they'll be a start.
 
The Deep State Deep-Sixed?
 
When the history of this period is written, one date will likely loom large as the beginning of the end for the current ruling elite: September 24, 2011.
 
That was the day when it was announced at the United Russia congress that Putin would return to the presidency and Dmitry Medvedev would become prime minister.
 
It was also the day when what I like to call Russia's "deep state," a permanent super-elite that rules outside the confines of constitutional law, came to the surface -- and in the process lost a large degree of its legitimacy.
 
As New York University's Mark Galeotti pointed out in an earlier edition of "The Power Vertical Podcast," for a deep state to work, "it has to remain deep."

In other words, everyone knows it is there but everyone pretends that it's not.
 
As Mark explained, Putin made the mistake of "dragging the deep state into public view" -- a move that broke the spell, inflamed public opinion, and created crippling divisions within the elite itself.
 
"The deep state worked when everyone was aware that it existed...but it was willing to operate behind a carapace, a facade of politicians," he said. "Putin made the presence of the deep state so clear. He rubbed it in Russians' noses, and that was a big mistake."
 
-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Vladimir Putin,Aleksei Navalny,Russian opposition

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Americanuck from: Toronto
August 14, 2012 21:32
This is an excellent analysis. But I do wonder how the Putin regime can ever fall if there is no replacement for it. At the moment, the opposition consists of social movements, NGOs, and individuals. What's missing is a political party or coalition of parties that can actually formulate a coherent platform and present itself as an alternative to Tsar Vladimir and PZhiV.
In Response

by: Marko from: USA
August 15, 2012 11:30
Putin has been in power for a while; baggage inevitably accumulates and the bold reformer is transformed into a cautious and conflicted manager. But does that mean that he is on his way out-- no. To be fair Brian, you don't predict a collapse here. I think he serves out his term and retires. The economy is still chugging along, the security forces completely back him, the so-called "opposition" is itself divided, deeply unpopular and advocates discredited and "worn out" ideas. Communism and Americanization both failed disastrously-- producing a dizzying social, economic, military, and political collapse. Putinism has produced progress on the whole, not perfection mind you, but progress. Why trade partial success for inevitable and complete failure. Not logical. Russia's uninspiring political scene is also reflected elsewhere in the world-- including here in the US. We have a choice between Obama's failed ideas and a retread of those of President Bush (which got us into our current problems in the first place). Western Europe, even China and India now look to have uninspiring and uncertain political climates as well.
In Response

by: George Eccles
August 24, 2012 15:03
No chance of a replacement, surely? As my new novel 'The Oligarch: A Thriller' clearly demonstrates, the Russian President is strenghtening his hold over the country rather than losing it. http://www.theoligarchthriller.com

by: Marsha from: Russia
August 14, 2012 21:41
http://moscowtelegraph.com/news_gudavadze_berezovsky_012209_engl.htm

by: David Edick Jr from: San Diego, CA
August 15, 2012 05:03
Sharp analysis, Brian. Nice work. Thanks.

by: Mark from: Victoria
August 15, 2012 05:57
Memories......light the corners of my mind..........Mmmmm....Misty water-coloured memories......of when the corporate-raider oligarchs ran Russia....

A "savvy new generation of opposition figures is on the rise"? Where? To date, they have kept themselves well-hidden, which doesn't bode well for those supposedly seeking a leadership role.

"They've lost the support -- and even the passive acquiescence -- of important segments of the population."

Really? What gives you that idea? A drop in polled support month-over-month? Come on. If the presidential election were re-run next week, are you suggesting someone other than Putin would win? No? What, then, is supposed to be inferred from this supposed loss of support of important segments of the population? If the answer is that Putin would win, easily, the loss of support you imply is ipso facto neither important nor real.

Online primaries will be held to more sharply define and consolidate the opposition. Look for a big surge in midnight-oil purchases by the Kremlin this fall, I'm sure they will be burning a lot of it as they worry about how to meet this powerful new threat. You know what will happen? Pretty much an electronic version of Sakharov Prospekt, where Navalny threatened to take the Kremlin if it didn't stop lying, Kudrin was booed and Prokhorov elected not to speak. Euphoria, but absolutely no coherent plan at all. If the opposition had a plan, it might actually be a threat. In the absence of one, all it can do is shout "Putin is a crook", and spin visions of a strong independent liberal Russia that somehow will not rely on energy revenues, since that is Putin's chief stupidity.

You keep alluding to a "powerful constituency for change" that "isn't going away anytime soon". Where? According to most western press sources, the elite - presumably the prime movers of this constituency for change - are fleeing Russia at a horrifying rate. How can this be, if the constituency for change is always growing and is not going away? Is the "nascent middle class" - the ones who elected Putin - replacing the elite as the constituency for change? I'm afraid I need convincing. Are the elite being replaced as the elite by the nascent middle class? Who in their right mind would depose a leader who achieved that?

Rather than this supposed groundswell not going away soon, it is already gone and is unlikely to resume without the emergence of an electrifying, unifying opposition leader. So far, the horizon looks pretty empty.
In Response

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
August 15, 2012 13:12
Nice comment and thanks for balancing Brian’s perhaps misplaced hope for change. However, I share some of Brian’s sense that the internal political situation is becoming pregnant with an understanding that the system needs repair. Advances in technology and social media have weakened the power-vertical. Every time there is another disaster, the Kremlin team tries to self-manage the situation and dampen down sparks of social protest. What happens if they can no longer put out the fires, stop the floods, release the hostages, etc…? At some point, the average Russian might simply get fed up with the lies, hypocrisy and corruption, and demand a greater voice in running the country.
In Response

by: Mark from: Victoria
August 15, 2012 17:44
Ray, if ordinary people could run the country, they'd be doing it. Ordinary people are too busy making a living to attend endless meetings on municipal codes, highway repairs and construction proposals. Ordinary people elect representatives to perform those tasks for them. The system under which they do that is referred to as a democracy as defined by popular democracy advocate Karl Popper if it is not a dictatorship or a tyranny, if the people are able to control their leaders and oust them without a revolution. Is Russia a dictatorship, do you think? An election was just held, in which Putin could have been driven from power if that were the people's choice. It manifestly was not; even the staunchest anti-Putin sources grudgingly admit that the most optimistic levels (meaning the highest) of vote fraud accused would not have kept Putin from the presidency. Western sources focus on vote fraud because that is one of the electoral tactics whose use is quite rare in the west. Voter suppression is something else again, and there are plenty of examples of western dodges to disenfranchise groups that predictably vote a certain way. Every government uses dirty tricks to stay in power for as long as the law allows.

There's no disputing the system needs repair - if it's not perfect, it needs constant adjustment to get it as close to the ideal as is practical. And I wouldn't say Brian's hope for change is misplaced; I think we all hope for change. It seems clear from much of what you can read here, though, that this blog simply wants Putin gone and a liberal in his place. As the old saw goes, that's change - but is it progress? Change for the sake of change is simply rearranging the deck chairs on the TITANIC. The aim of change should be the betterment of the citizens' lives and the improvement of the infrastructure that serves them, for their benefit and not that of outside interests focued on regime change as a strategic goal.

You might think that lies, hypocrisy and corruption are exclusive to Russia. Au contraire, mon frere. There is more than enough of each in pretty much any government you care to name. However, the list of countries that are the focus of western complaint and social engineering is pretty short.

The idea that the average citizen wants to run the country is a popular myth. Running the country is an enormous responsibility, and ordinary citizens have little objection to that job being done on their behalf provided it is run the way they imagine they would do it if they had the time and the education. Everybody thinks the country could be run a little better for their personal benefit, so that they received higher pay, more vacation time and lots of diverting entertainment that is to their personal taste. But most everybody is willing to forego a little of that personal benefit if it is apparent the country is moving in the right direction and the nation as a whole benefits.

Is that the case in Russia, do you think? Is the average citizen's life judged on those benchmarks getting better, or worse? Believe me, if Russians were getting less pay every year and having to work harder and longer for it, you'd hear about it in excruciating detail. In fact, Russian living standards, broadly applied, have risen steadily. You can tell they have, because the focus of complaint is "Putin is too reliant on energy revenues!!!" instead of "Putin is cheatring the people and they make less now than they did in 2000!!"

What do you suppose Mikhail Prokhorov or Aleksey Navalny or Boris Nemtsov would use to fund his plans and projects for Russia if he were leader tomorrow? The stuffed-toy market? Sexy calendars of Russian girls? Of course not - any liberal leader of Russia would rely heavily on energy revenues to prop up the budget.
In Response

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
August 15, 2012 19:29
Again, a lot of good comments and thanks for your thoughts. I don’t claim to be an expert, and agree, Russians alone should decide which form of government is best for their country. I think Brian’s point was that at least some Russian people may not be satisfied with the status quo, but instead of allowing them to voice their complaints, the Putin government has now resorted to greater repression. Besides the folks at RFE, there are some smart Russians who believe that repressing just concerns and basic rights could, in the long-term, have tragic consequences.

No, I don’t think the country is run by a ‘dictatorship,’ though I suspect that important political decisions are made by a small group of people around Putin. I also agree that Russians are quite like any other people, in what they want from life, their goals and their dreams. I do think, however, that the civil-contract in Russia has been damaged, and that for good reason, some Russians believe that their elected/appointed representatives use their office to line their wallets. No citizen enjoys paying taxes or performing other civil duties, but most are willing to do their share as long as the schools are decent, the water safe to drink, the garbage collected, roads are safe etc….

You are right, the quality of life for many Russians has improved greatly over the past decade, but I sense that many Russians believe that their elected/appointed representatives are not doing enough to strengthen the country’s social fabric (i.e. schools, roads, environment, medical etc…). This has led some to protest, and when that same quasi-corrupt government suppresses this protest, well, sooner or later, you will reach what Brian calls an ‘inflection point.’ Are we there? Who knows, and my point was simply the new tools available that will allow more Russians to perhaps coalesce and demand greater accountability from their politicians.

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
August 15, 2012 06:07
Once again congratulations to the author of this "brillaint" section: just as on most occasions, the article is so uninteresting that no one cared to comment on it (I know, there are a couple of guys who are still trying to "digest" the content :-))). I am really concerned of the economic well-being of the author once budgetary cuts (that are becoming a brandmark of any advanced market economy) arrive to the offices of RFE/RL a couple of months from now :-)).
In Response

by: Jack from: US
August 15, 2012 14:23
I fully understand your concern, Eugenio, and I am worried, too. If budgetary cuts spell the end of RFE/RL, then we will have to vent our frustrations elsewhere, or, God forbid, we might actually need to find full-time jobs.
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
August 16, 2012 07:43
Konstantin, reminding the nation of Beavus and Butthead of the fact that they are getting militarily defeated on all the fronts, getting kicked out of one country after the other (Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Serbia etc etc etc) AND of the fact that the US and their NATO allies are going bankrupt while this kind of web-sites try to look for some imaginary problems elsewhere IS a full-time job: what do you think I got the money for to go on vacation on the Black Sea, while you were rotting in front of your computer screan ? :-))) Cheers from Vienna!
In Response

by: Jack from: US
August 16, 2012 14:08
If that's your job, then you might need to get a life. Besides, very few Americans read this website. You're preaching to the choir, vato. If the reason behind your anger is that your advances were rejected by a US soldier, then don't feel too bad. I am sure you found true love on your gay cruise in the Black Sea. Cheers from Los Angeles. :))))
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
August 30, 2012 11:10
Eugenio, lying again!
I write only under my own name!
Are you one of those that organized murder of my mother,
7/7/2012, using your part-relatives, German nazis from CIA,
so you would lie about me and non-Russian nations,
while I wouldn't be able to reply to you?
Trying to be another lying Russian "hero", Kadochnikov?

by: Mark from: Victoria
August 16, 2012 04:42
Bravo for standing firm, Ray, and you are right - the roads and the transportation systems and the little conveniences that make life easier do need improvement. However, I don't see a great deal of what is popularly referred to as "repression" or "crackdowns" when protesters are disobeying the law. Demonstrations require permission, just like in every other civilized country. The vast majority of them have been approved so long as the demonstrators stay within the law, but a fairly recent one turned violent and some policemen were hurt. The demonstration turned violent when some demonstrators led by well-known opposition figures attempted to break through a police cordon and lead an unsanctioned march on the Kremlin. Surely you agree the government is not obligated to let people break the law just because they feel strongly about something, especially when they constitute less than 1% of the population. Demonstrator Alexandra Dukhanina was filmed apparently taking what turned out to be a chunk of asphalt from a bag she carried, looking around - for a target? - and throwing it. That she apparently brought it with her suggests premeditation. At least one young man was filmed dressed as a woman, and some suggest he did so in order to make his arrest appear more brutal for the cameras (he was arrested).

People who attempted to set up tents had them torn down by police. For one thing, you can't camp in the streets; it's against the law, and most would agree reasonably so. For another, the government recognized it quickly as the beginnings of establishing a tent city like the one at Maidan Square in Kiev during the Orange Revolution. There's a certain pattern to these events, the following of a playbook. The government would be foolish to let it happen, for the people's good as much as their own - the Orange Revolution was a disaster for Ukraine from every way you look at it, ushering in two terms of the worst government Ukraine has experienced as an independent nation.

The United States has laws that regulate public assembly and protest marches. If they are disobeyed, should those who disobey be allowed to break the law because they are passionate about their cause, and so that the government will not be accused of repression? Of course not.

Russia needs to improve infrastructure and transport; I think the government recognizes that. That's partly why anyone who can raise a complaint and collect a certain number of signatures has the right to have the complaint debated in the Duma. I can't think of any progressive country that allows such a right.
In Response

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
August 16, 2012 14:16
From what I have read and experienced, Russians tend to have a more jaundiced view toward the concept of ‘law.’ While I consider laws as protective tools against the arbitrary power of the state, many Russians have a different understanding, and regard the law and their legal system as just so many weapons in the hands of the elite. In this type of understanding, ‘following the law’ will usually only bring delay, grief or added expense.

Who threw the first punch in the May 2012 demonstrations in Moscow? Impossible to tell, but history suggests that Russian security forces have been known to provoke violence to justify a greater crackdown. I would not be surprised to discover that some of the protestors were on the police payroll.

The concern of the Putin entourage in preventing an Orange Revolution may have less to do with maintaining public order than with a gnawing sense that their political legitimacy is partially based upon fear, deception, and coercion.

It may be disingenuous to compare protests in the US with those in Russia. While the US is no paragon of virtue, the steel-boot and truncheon have much greater utility in Russia.

BTW, have you ever lived in Russia, visited a police station or one of their prisons? Theory is well and good, but reality can be a tad more sobering.
In Response

by: Mark from: Victoria
August 17, 2012 05:11
You say, Ray, that your views are based on what you have read and experienced. Have you spent much time in Russia, yourself? Been part of a demonstration in Moscow? No? Yet you seem perfectly prepared to believe the police pay protesters - opposition leaders, at that - to start something so they have an excuse to crack down. Why? Because "that's what history suggests". And where did you get that history? You probably read it.

But I'll bet that, presented with the story about how Navalny, with great ceremony and lots of press, discovered a bug in his office...it would never occur to you that Navalny put it there himself, or had it put there, to make himself look important, feared by the Kremlin. Why? Because Navalny is one of the good guys, and the good guys would never do that. Never mind that Navalny's emails are regularly hacked by those who disagree with him, his phone conversations recorded, and that snooping is now completely wireless. Even 15 years ago you could stand across the street and hear everything said in Navalny's office with a good parabolic mike. But no; the FSB must have bugged Navalny's office with 1970's technology, a clumsy electronic bug the size of your little fingernail. You could probably put everything in the Library of Congress on there.

Yes, crowd policing is generally a good deal more violent in Russia than in the USA. Starting a business is harder. The standard of living is lower. Public transport is mostly terrible in comparison. I've never been arrested in Russia, so I've never been in a police station or in a prison in Russia, although I hear the latter are terrible and see no reason to imagine they're not. Forced to choose between the two, I'd live in the USA.

None of that means it's a dungheap filled with mindless savages. It's filled with people who are fiercely proud of their country, and who become bitter and cynical when all they get is constant abuse and derision. Especially considering Russia is certainly far less corrupt, rotten and contemptuous of human rights than Saudi Arabia, which for some reason is a valued ally of the USA and rarely criticized, even gently. Russia is criticized and mocked, all day long, day in and day out, and virtually none of it is constructive - like, "You guys are doing this all wrong. We had that problem, and here's what we did; try it, and if you have trouble, call me. I'll help you". No, it's more like "You suck. Be like us".

I lived in the Russian Far East for about half a year, a month at a time spread over 5 years. My wife is Russian, from the Far East, near Vladivostok. I'd be more likely to believe her than I would a western newspaper or blog. Particularly considering she's never lied to me, and newspapers lie all the time. And joke about it afterward.

The Power Vertical Feed

In this space, I will regularly comment on events in Russia, repost content and tweets I find interesting and informative, and shamelessly promote myself (and others, whose work I like). The traditional Power Vertical Blog remains for larger and more developed items. The Podcast, of course, will continue to appear every Friday. I hope you find the new Power Vertical Feed to be a useful resource and welcome your feedback. More

16:08 October 17, 2014

NEW POWER VERTICAL BLOG

I just posted a new piece on the Power Vertical blog: Putin's Class of 2014.

The iPhone-toting hipsters hanging out in their trendy downtown Moscow office are just the high-profile part of the Kremlin's new youth strategy.

Founded in November 2013, the youth group Set -- which means "Network" in Russian -- has organized patriotic fashion shows and film festivals, created an alphabet for schoolchildren that highlights the regime's accomplishments, and painted murals in seven cities on October 7 to mark Russian President Vladimir Putin's 62nd birthday....

But the rise of Set is just one side of the story. The other aspect of the Kremlin's youth strategy is stealthier -- and much more consequential.

Over the past 18 months, Putin has been quietly bringing a new cadre of officials to Moscow, reshaping the rank-and-file bureaucracy in his own image.

You can read it all here.

AND A NEW POWER VERTICAL PODCAST COMING SOON

We're in post-production for the new Power Vertical Podcast: Ukraine's Loyal Russians

A country divided between a Ukrainian-speaking west and a Russian-speaking east. An irreconcilable schism forged in history and set in stone. Lviv vs. Luhansk; Orange vs. Blue.

It's long been a truism that Ukraine was hopelessly split. It's a truism repeated endlessly by the Kremlin's propaganda machine -- and one used by Vladimir Putin to justify his Novorossiya project.

But it's a truism that the majority of Ukraine's ethnic Russians -- in cities like Odesa and Mariupol in the south to Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhia in the east to Kharkiv in the north  -- are proving false. Most of Ukraine's ethnic Russians, it turns out, are loyal Ukrainian citizens.

Joining me are Andreas Umland, a professor of Russian and Ukrainian history at Kyiv Mohyla University and Natalya Churikova, Senior Editor of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. It's in post-production now and will be up soon.

 

13:25 October 17, 2014

AFTERNOON NEWS ROUNDUP

Some items from RFE/RL's News Desk:

RUSSIA-WEST RIFT PERSIST AFTER DIFFICULT UKRAINE CRISIS TALKS

By RFE/RL

Italy's prime minister said he was "really positive" about the prospects for a solution to the Ukraine conflict after a meeting attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and European leaders, but the Kremlin suggested deep rifts remained after the "difficult" talks and accused Western officials of inflexibility.

"In general, I am really positive after this meeting," Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said after the talks over breakfast during a Europe-Asia summit that was overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine, where deadly fighting persists in the east despite a cease-fire between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Putin, in the spotlight and under pressure from the West to do more to bring peace to Ukraine, said the meeting -- attended by Putin and Poroshenko as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and outgoing EU leaders Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso -- was "good, positive".

But his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, gave a grimmer account.

"The talks are indeed difficult, full of misunderstandings, disagreements, but they are nevertheless ongoing, an exchange of opinion is in progress," Peskov told reporters.

He said some participants displayed "a complete lack of desire to take an objective approach" to the Ukraine crisis, which Russia blames on the European Union, the United States, and the pro-Western government that gained power in Ukraine after the ouster of a president sympathetic to Russia, Viktor Yanukovych, In February.

Kyiv, NATO, and Western governments say Russia has supported the rebels with troops, weaponry, and propaganda after illegally annexing the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine in March.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 3,660 combatants and civilians since April and driven Moscow's ties with the West to post-Cold War lows, prompting punitive sanctions against Moscow and a Russian ban on many foods from the EU, its biggest trading partner for years.

The breakfast-table talks came hours after lengthy Putin-Merkel meeting that stretched past midnight and failed to resolve what the Kremlin said were "serious differences of opinion about the genesis of the internal Ukrainian conflict as well as about the causes of what is happening there now."

Western leaders have rejected Russia's denials of involvement and said Moscow must see to it that a cease-fire and steps toward peace agreed on September 5 in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, are implemented.

"It is obviously above all Russia's task to make clear that the Minsk plan is adhered to," Merkel told reporters on October 16. "Unfortunately, there are still a lot of shortcomings but it will be important to look for a dialogue here."

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Putin assured the other leaders at the breakfast that Russia does not want a divided Ukraine or a frozen crisis.

Kremlin critics say Russia has supported the cease-fire and plans for peace because the September 5 agreement followed rebel gains that left the separatists in control over large portions of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions, giving Moscow a lever to influence its France-sized neighbor and keep it destabilized - and out of NATO - for years to come.

Putin and Poroshenko were to meet with Merkel and Hollande later on October 17.

Putin, who basked in attention at a military parade in mostly Slavic, Orthodox Christian Serbia on October 16, set the stage for tense talks in Milan by warning in Belgrade that a dispute with Kyiv over natural gas could jeopardize Russian supplies to Europe via transit nation Ukraine this winter.

He said Europe faces "major transit risks" to gas supplies from Russia.

Blaming Kyiv in advance for any possible cuts in supplies to Europe, Putin said that if Ukraine siphons gas from transit pipelines to the European Union, Russia will reduce supplies in the amount of the "stolen" gas.

Russia raised the price it charges Kyiv for natural gas after Yanukovych was ousted by street protests he had touched off last November by scrapping plans for a deal tightening ties with the EU and turning toward Russia instead.

In June, Russia halted gas supplies meant for domestic consumption in Ukraine when Kyiv failed to pay the higher price.

Russia is the EU's biggest external gas supplier, providing about one-third of the gas consumed there, and previous price disputes between Moscow and Kyiv have led to supply cuts that have chilled Europeans in wintertime.

Some government officials said the Western leaders would ask Putin to explain the threat of gas supply cuts.

Merkel and Poroshenko held talks earlier on October 16, and Poroshenko said he received "a great demonstration of support for Ukraine" from the German leader.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin also met with former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, whom he referred to as Putin's "old friend."

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he spoke briefly to Putin and asked him for "maximum cooperation" over the downing of a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet in the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine in July.

More than half of the 298 people killed were Dutch citizens, and many in the West suspect the plane was shot down by the separatists with a missile system provided by Russia.

Hundreds of people have been killed since the cease-fire, with fierce fighting focusing on the devastated Donetsk international airport and shelling reported in the city of Donetsk and elsewhere almost daily.

Ukrainian military officials said three soldiers were killed and nine wounded on October 16.

NATO said it has not yet detected "significant" movements of Russian troops in a region near the border with Ukraine back to their home bases, as the Kremlin said Putin ordered last week.

A NATO spokesperson said "there is still a large and capable force sitting on the border of Ukraine, and heavy equipment still has to be pulled back [from the border]."

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

GEORGIAN PM SAYS NO PROGRESS NORMALIZING RELATIONS WITH MOSCOW

Georgian Prime Minister Irakly Garibashvili says attempts by Tbilisi to normalize political relations with Russia have thus far been unsuccessful.

Garibashvili said in Tbilisi on October 16 that the Georgian government had done "all it could" to improve bilateral relations with Moscow has only achieved progress in the economic sector.

The premier's Georgian Dream party took power two years ago pledging to engage with Moscow.

Garibashvili made his comments one day after Russia announced it would sign an "alliance and integration" treaty with the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia.

The treaty would create a "common defense infrastructure" between Abkhazia and Russia while forming joint law-enforcement structures and a more integrated economic space.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili issued an "emergency statement" on the treaty on October 15.

Moscow recognized Abkhazia as an independent state after a brief war between Russia and Georgia in 2008.

(Based on reporting by Interfax, AFP, and TASS)

RUSSIA DETAINS TWO JOURNALISTS OVER WORKSHOP

Russian officials temporarily detained and then banned two American journalists from conducting an investigative-journalism workshop in St. Petersburg.

The men were found by a court on October 16 of violating Russian visa regulations and released after several hours.

Randy Covington, a professor at the University of South Carolina, and Joe Bergantino of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting were detained by immigration authorities while conducting the first of a two-day workshop for 14 Russian journalists.

St. Petersburg's branch of the Federal Migration Service said the men's activities "did not correspond" to the purpose of their trip to Russia.

Officials said they could no longer teach the workshop but were free to leave Russia as scheduled.

The New England Center for Investigative Journalism said the men had tourist visas and had already held a workshop in Moscow.

(Based on reporting by AP and "The Boston Globe")

18:00 October 16, 2014

EVENING NEWS ROUNDUP

Some items from RFE/RL's Newes Desk:

PUTIN WARNS EUROPE OF GAS CRISIS THIS WINTER

President Vladimir Putin has warned that Europe faces "major transit risks" to natural gas supplies from Russia this winter.

Putin told reporters in Belgrade on October 16 that if Ukraine siphons off natural gas without permission from transit pipelines to the European Union, Russia “will consecutively reduce the stolen volume at the cost of supplies."

Putin made the remarks ahead of talks in Milan on October 16 and 17 with EU leaders and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Russia raised the price it charges Kyiv for natural gas after Ukraine's pro-Russia Preident Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February, then halted gas supplies to Ukraine in June when Kyiv failed to pay the higher price.

The price standoff is the third between Moscow and Kyiv since 2006.

Russia is the EU's biggest gas supplier, providing about a third of the gas consumed there.

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

U.S. HELSINKI COMMITTEE DECRIES RUSSIAN ATTEMPT TO CLOSE MEMORIAL RIGHTS GROUP

By RFE/RL

The U.S. Helsinki Commission says Russia’s attempt to liquidate Memorial, the country's oldest and best-known human rights organization, is “an obvious attempt to silence the voice of its own conscience.”

“It is very troubling that an organization founded by [Soviet dissident] Andrei Sakharov to address the crimes of the Stalinist era now has become the target of a new wave of repression,” the commission’s chairman, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, said in an October 16 statement.

Russia's Justice Ministry on October 10 appealed to the country’s Supreme Court to close Memorial, which comprises more than 50 bodies nationwide. The reasons for the request were not made public.

Created in the 1980s by Soviet-era dissidents, Memorial has served as a tireless rights watchdog and important source of Soviet-era records for a quarter century.

PUTIN VOWS TO SUPPORT SERBS ON KOSOVO

Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged continued support for Serbia on the divisive issue of Kosovo during a state visit that mixed meetings with officials with attendance at a military parade.

Putin is the guest of honor at Serbia's first military parade in some 30 years as Belgrade marks the anniversary of its liberation from the Nazis by partisans and Soviet Army troops in 1944, a celebration Serbia moved forward four days to accommodate Putin's schedule.

The visit highlights Serbia's delicate balance between the European Union, which it is seeking to join, and relations with Russia that are rooted in history and religion but encompass economic and geopolitical interests.

Russia angrily criticized the NATO bombing of the rump Yugoslavia in 1999 and has backed Belgrade's opposition to independence for mostly ethnic Albanian Kosovo, defying the United States and preventing Kosovo from getting a seat at the United Nations.

Putin promised Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic that Russia would stand firm over Kosovo, saying the Kremlin's stance was "a position of principle that is not to be subjected to any adjustments."

"We supported Serbia in the past and we intend to continue supporting it in the future. In Russia friendship is not an object of trade-offs," Putin said.

Nikolic said Serbia "sees in Russia a great ally and a partner and Serbia won't compromise its morals with any kind of bad behavior towards Russia."

Despite Serbia's desire to become a member of the European Union, ties between Belgrade and Moscow have become stronger since the EU started imposing sanctions on Russia for the Kremlin's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Criticizing sanctions the United States and European Union have imposed on Moscow over its actions in Ukraine in an interview on the eve of his visit, Putin told the Serbian daily "Politika" that isolating Russia was an "absurd, illusory goal" and attempts to do so would hurt Europe's economy.

In a pointed reminder of Russia's nuclear might, Putin said: "We hope our partners will realize the futility of attempts to blackmail Russia and remember what consequences discord between major nuclear powers could bring for strategic stability."

Putin used the visit to promote South Stream, a Russian gas pipeline project that that the EU has suspended in member states.

Serbia has recently indicated it will not start building South Stream. Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said last week "it makes no sense" to start without an agreement on the pipeline's legality between the EU and Moscow.

"It is necessary to unblock the situation with South Stream," Putin said. "I am convinced that this project will make a palpable contribution to Europe's overall energy security. Everyone wins from this: Both Russia and European consumers, including Serbia."

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

Serbia has recently indicated it will not start building South Stream. Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said last week "it makes no sense" to start without an agreement on the pipeline's legality between the EU and Moscow.Serbia has recently indicated it will not start building South Stream.

Putin told "Politika" the pipeline project would bring Serbia more than 2 million euros in new investment and "substantially strengthen the country's energy security."

Putin's warm Serbian welcome may contrast with greeting he faces hours later at an October 16-17 Europe-Asia summit in Milan, where he will meet Western leaders angry over Russia's role in the Ukraine crisis.

NATO says Russian has sent troops and weapons to help pro-Russian separatists fighting government forces in a conflict that has killed more than 3,660 people in eastern Ukraine since April, including 298 passengers and crew abroad a Malaysian jet shot down there in July.

Putin said the importance of the liberation anniversary events could not be overestimated.

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

In a veiled swipe at the United States, he said "it is important today that people in various countries, on various continents remember what terrible consequences certainty in one's own exceptionalism can bring."

Putin said he hopes for peace in Ukraine but suggested Ukrainians whose protests toppled a president sympathetic to Moscow in February presented a Nazi-like threat.

"Unfortunately the vaccine against the Nazi virus ... is losing its potency in some European states.," he told "Politika," adding: "particular concern on this score is prompted by the situation in Ukraine, where there was an anticonstitutional coup d'etat in February whose driving forces were nationalists and other radical groups."

In comments to RFE/RL's Balkan Service, Vucic pointed to the complications his country is facing as it balances its foreign policy between the EU and Russia.

"We are not part of the EU and nobody asked us about sanctions against Russia so why should we have to accept them now?" Vucic asked.

Vucic said Serbia respects what EU stands for and what EU membership offers but rejects Brussels' recent habit of telling Belgrade about changes it must make to be admitted.

However, he told reporters last week that Serbia's "strategic goal is not in question – Serbia is on the EU path."

That may not always be evident to the naked eye.

In anticipation of Putin's visit, shops around Belgrade have been selling T-shirts with Putin's face printed on them.

"Nothing better could happen to us," Belgrade resident Vukan Baricanin, a retired economist, said of Putin's visit. "Putin is a famous personality. He turned a country that was on the verge of bankruptcy into a world power."

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

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

RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR AGAINST 'PUTIN PUB' IN BISHKEK

By RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

Russian Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Andrei Krutko, has protested the new "Putin Pub" restaurant in Bishkek.

Krutko said late October 15 that naming "a dubious drinking site" after "our president" is "unethical" and therefore he asked Bishkek authorities to remove the commercial banners and billboards advertising the pub.

Krutko added that he would do everything possible "either to shut down the place or to make it change its name."

Last month, Bishkek authorities removed all billboards and banners in the city that advertised the "Putin Pub."  

The billboards carried a black screen with white and black silhouetted portrait of the Russian President Vladimir Putin in a circle with the name of the restaurant -- "Putin Pub," below.  

(With reporting by "Vecherny Bishkek")

17:35 October 16, 2014

UKRAINE CALLS ON ITS CITIZENS TO DITCH VKONTAKTE

VIa slon.ru:

Ukraine's Security Service has urged Ukrainians not to use Russian social networks.

Markiian Lubkovsky, an adviser to the Interior Minister told the television channel "112 Ukraine" that the site "VKontakte" is an "element of pressure and influence." 

"We urge all Ukrainians, all of our citizens to be careful not to use these networks, because they are now part of the information war against Ukraine," he said.

Read it all here. And a big h/t to Kevin Rothrock for flagging.

 

17:25 October 16, 2014

TARGET: VEDOMOSTI

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

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

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

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

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

Read the whole piece here.

 

11:17 October 16, 2014

CRIMEA'S LGBT COMMUNITY FLEES IN FEAR

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

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

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

Read it all here.

11:12 October 16, 2014

MORNING NEWS ROUNDUP

Some items from RFE/RL's News Desk:

CRIMEA'S MOSCOW-BACKED LEADER ADMITS SOME TATARS MISSING

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)

IN PERM, RUSSIA TRIES MEMBER OF BANNED ISLAMIC GROUP

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

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

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

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

It has been banned in Russia since 2008.

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

(Based on reporting by rapsinews.ru and Interfax)

RUSSIA TO SPEND RECORD AMOUNT ON DEFENSE IN 2015

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

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

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

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

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

(Based on reporting by Interfax and FT)

PUTIN PRAISES SERBIA, LAMBASTES WEST AHEAD OF BELGRADE VISIT

By RFE/RL

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

Criticizing sanctions the United States and European Union have imposed on Moscow over its actions in Ukraine, Putin told the Serbian daily "Politika" that isolating Russia was an "absurd, illusory goal" and that attempts to do so could severely damage Europe's economy.

In a pointed reminder of Russia's nuclear might, Putin said: "We hope our partners will realize the futility of attempts to blackmail Russia and remember what consequences discord between major nuclear powers could bring for strategic stability."

Putin is to attend Serbia's first military parade in some 30 years as Belgrade marks the anniversary of its liberation from the Nazis in 1944, a celebration Serbia moved forward four days to accommodate Putin's schedule.

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

In a veiled swipe at the United States, he said "it is important today that people in various countries, on various continents remember what terrible consequences certainty in one's own exceptionalism can bring."

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

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

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

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

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

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

Despite Serbia's desire to become a member of the European Union, ties between Belgrade and Moscow have become stronger since the EU started imposing sanctions on Russia for the Kremlin's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

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

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

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

"It is necessary to unblock the situation with South Stream," Putin said. "I am convinced that this project will make a palpable contribution to Europe's overall energy security. Everyone wins from this: Both Russia and European consumers, including Serbia."

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

In comments to RFE/RL's Balkan Service, Vucic pointed to the complications his country is facing as it balances its foreign policy between the EU and Russia.

"We are not part of the EU and nobody asked us about sanctions against Russia so why should we have to accept them now?" Vucic asked.

Vucic said Serbia respects what EU stands for and what EU membership offers but rejects Brussels' recent habit of telling Belgrade about changes it must make to be admitted.

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

However, he told reporters last week that "Putin will hear that Serbia is on the European path. We have other relations we are developing with the Russian Federation, but the strategic goal is not in question – Serbia is on the EU path."

That may not always be evident to the naked eye.

In anticipation of the Russian leader's visit, shops around Belgrade have been selling T-shirts with Putin's face printed on them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NATO COMMANDER SEES NO 'MAJOR' RUSSIAN WITHDRAWAL NEAR UKRAINE

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

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

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

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

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

(Based on reporting by AP and Reuters)

NAVALNY ASSOCIATE'S HOUSE ARREST EXTENDED

By RFE/RL's Russian Service

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

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

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

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

Yankauskas calls the case politically motivated.

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

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

He calls all the cases against him politically motivated.

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or