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The Power Vertical

Tuesday 28 March 2017

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The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

A transcript of today's Daily Vertical can be found here.

The Morning Vertical, March 28, 2017

  • Brian Whitmore

Your daily roundup.

ON MY MIND

It's too early to tell, but the post-post-Crimea era may have begun in Russia.

As Denis Volkov of the Levada Center notes in a piece featured below, Vladimir Putin's regime was suffering a legitimacy crisis between 2009 and 2013, a crisis that fueled the mass street protests of 2011-12 and led to Aleksei Navalny's meteoric rise as an opposition leader.

And then came what Volkov calls "the Crimea reset" and the patriotic fervor that followed, which rejuvenated the regime.

Volkov's piece was written last September, but it is highly relevant today. He concludes, "the more strain that is required from the power elite, and the more resources it has to accumulate during the process of preparing society for the 2018 election, the more rapid and less tractable the decline in the legitimacy of Putin’s regime will be thereafter."

And this weekend's protests seem to indicate that the Kremlin is going to expend a lot more resources than it had hoped.

As I note in today's Daily Vertical, regimes like Putin's are sustained by a collective hallucination of omnipotence, invulnerability, and inevitability. And they get in trouble when the collective hallucination ends.

This weekend's protest weren't the end of the hallucination. But they may have been the beginning of the end.

IN THE NEWS

A Russian court has ordered opposition leader and anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny to be jailed for 15 days for disobeying police, one day after he was arrested near the site of a demonstration in central Moscow.

The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee has confirmed that Jared Kushner, son-in-law and a top adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, will testify voluntarily in connection with its probe of alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Russian truck drivers have begun a new series of protests against a state road tax that they say is onerous and ineffective.

World chess has been roiled by an apparent palace intrigue after the game's governing body announced the resignation of its controversial longtime leader, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a former Russian governor who rejected the announcement and suggested he was the target of an American plot.

Georgian nationals with biometric passports will be able to travel to most European Union member states without visas as of March 28.

Three days after he went missing ahead of a large antigovernment rally, Belarusian opposition leader Mikalay Statkevich has been released from what he said was a KGB jail and returned home.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has signed into law controversial amendments to the country's anticorruption legislation requiring representatives of nongovernmental organizations to file assets declarations.

LATEST POWER VERTICAL BLOG

In my latest Power Vertical blog post, I give five reasons why Sunday's protests in Russia were different and why this is important.

WHAT I'M READING

More On Russia's Protests

There is no shortage of commentary on nationwide protests in Russia on March 26. Here's a sampling:

In The Atlantic, Julia Ioffe explains the significance of this past weekend's protest.

Leonid Ragozin has a piece in Bloomberg looking at Navalny's campaign operation in Siberia and what it tells us about his longshot bid to unseat Putin.

On his blog, Sam Greene explains why the race for Russia's presidency just began in earnest.

In his column for Bloomberg, political commentator Leonid Bershidsky explains why Putin should fear the young generation.

Joshua Yaffa has a piece in The New Yorker on what the March 26 protests mean for Putin.

In The Daily Beast, Anna Nemtsova looks at the role the young generation played in the protests.

Mark Galeotti of the Institute of International Relations in Prague has a piece in BNEIntellinews on why rising anger about corruption poses the biggest threat to Putin's regime

In a September 2016 piece for Intersection magazine that is highly relevant today, Denis Volkov of the Levada Center looks at the possibility for sustained mass protests in the "post-Crimea" environment.

And in Republic.ru, Vladimir Gelman, a professor at the European University of St. Petersburg, looks ahead to how the authorities are likely to respond.

A New Era In Belarus?

Maryna Rakhlei of the German Marshall Fund has a piece in EUObserver, "Lukashenka: End Of An Era," that looks at Belarus after the crackdown.

And in Euractiv, Igor Merheim-Eyre of the University of Kent argues that now is not the time to isolate Belarus.

The Battle Over Ukraine's History

Ian Bateson has a piece in the World Policy Journal on the battle over Ukraine's past.

When Vladimir Met Marine

In an op-ed for The Moscow Times, foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov explains why Putin broke with established protocol and met with French National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

How Russia Beat Turkey

Aaron Stein, a resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, has a piece on The Atlantic Council's website on how Russia got the best of Turkey in Syria.

Why These Protests Were Different

  • Brian Whitmore
It's different this time. Young protesters in St. Petersburg.

It's different this time. Young protesters in St. Petersburg.

No, Russia is not on the verge of a revolution. But this weekend's protests were markedly different from past anti-Kremlin demonstrations in important ways. And that should make Vladimir Putin's regime very nervous.

Revolution is not in the air. The regime is not about to fall. Aleksei Navalny is not about to storm the Kremlin. And 2017 is certainly not the new 1917.

But this weekend's protests, which drew tens of thousands to the streets across scores of Russian cities, were nevertheless markedly different than anti-Kremlin demonstrations in the past.

And they were different in ways that should make Vladimir Putin's Kremlin regime very nervous.

Here are my five takeaways about what was new about the March 26 protests, which took place exactly 17 years after Putin was first elected president.

1. Rebellion In The Hinterlands

In the past, Russian protests have been confined largely to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and a few other large cities.

As a result, Vladimir Putin and his surrogates were able to claim -- not without merit -- that opposition to his rule was confined to a few privileged and spoiled malcontents among urban elites.

The "real" Russians in the provinces, on the other hand, still loved their leader. After the protests of 2011-2012, the Kremlin played this class-warfare trick masterfully.

But this weekend's demonstrations were truly national, taking place in an estimated 82 cities and towns across Russia.

If this provincial dissent continues to grow, it could be a deeply ominous sign for the Putin regime.

2. The Kids Are Alright

Marching down Moscow's central Tverskaya Ulitsa, a group of teenagers chanted "While you were stealing money, we were growing up!"

One of the most striking things about this weekend's demonstrations was the presence of so many people in their teens and twenties.

In one widely watched video, Gleb Tokmakov, a fifth grader in Tomsk, articulately and patiently explained to a crowd of adults why Russia needed systemic political reform and decried how politicized the nation's schools have become.

"If you refuse to doodle in support of the authorities, they might fail you," he said.

Another featured a 17-year-old in Perm explaining the connection between official corruption and declining living standards.

This is a generation that didn't live through the Soviet collapse or the deprivation of the 1990s. The only Russia they know is Putin's Russia.

This is the Putin generation. It also represents Russia's future.

And if the Kremlin is losing them, it doesn't bode well.

A young demonstrator is arrested by Russian riot police during an opposition rally in central Moscow on March 26.

A young demonstrator is arrested by Russian riot police during an opposition rally in central Moscow on March 26.

3. The Refrigerator's Revenge

Here's a quote that should send chills through the regime: "We do not want Syria, we want roads in Irkutsk."

For the past three years, the Kremlin has relied on military adventures in Ukraine and Syria, the illusion that Russia had become a superpower again, and a steady diet of patriotic propaganda on state media to bolster the regime's legitimacy.

And it worked. Even as the economy sank due to lower oil prices and Western sanctions, the television managed to trump the refrigerator in the battle for Russians' hearts and minds.

But these protests, which were sparked by a video produced by Aleksei Navalny exposing the corruption of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, seem to be an indication that the proverbial refrigerator is fighting back.

Russians, it appears, are not immune to the antiestablishment wave that has been sweeping the West in recent years.

And, as living standards fall, the issue of corruption has taken on a broad and deep resonance -- especially when people begin to connect it to their declining quality of life.

In good economic times, Russians are willing to put up with a kleptocratic elite. In bad economic times, not so much.

Past Russian protests were aimed primarily at political change. This one was driven by pocketbook issues.

And when people are protesting over pocketbook issues, they tend to be more persistent, more determined, and less fearful than those demonstrating for abstract political principles.

4. We Don't Need Your Permission To Protest!

When the opposition wanted to hold demonstrations in late 2011 and early 2012, they negotiated with the authorities.

When they were told they could not demonstrate in the center of Moscow, they settled for less prime locations.

But when Navalny called this weekend's protests, he insisted on holding them in the center of Moscow and refused to consider alternatives.

And, although the protests in some cities did receive official permission, by defying the authorities in the capital in such a way, Navalny appears to have set an important precedent.

If Russians get the idea that they can take to the streets without getting permission first, this could turn out to be a significant precedent indeed.

5. We Don't Need No Leaders!

Navalny was arrested almost the minute he showed up at the demonstration in Moscow.

"Hey, I'm OK," he tweeted soon thereafter to his 1.84 million followers, adding that he was in a police station discussing his video accusing Medvedev of corruption. "Continue our peaceful walk. The weather is nice."

Navalny later tweeted: "Thank you all for your support but we don't need to change the agenda. Today we are discussing (and condemning) corruption, not my detention. So they detained me. It's no big deal."

And the rally continued without Navalny's presence.

This showed that, although the protests were Navalny's initiative, the authorities couldn't stop them by decapitating them.

And as a result, this turned out to be a protest of, for, and by ordinary people.

So these protests were indeed different than anything we've seen in Russia in recent memory.

But one thing that was the same was the regime's response: mass arrests, repression, and criminal cases.

There is little doubt that the Russian authorities can weather this tempest.

The Putin regime will certainly dig into its old bag of tricks to beat back this challenge.

But from the Kremlin, Russia must look like an entirely different country today.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

The Morning Vertical, March 27, 2017

  • Brian Whitmore

Your daily roundup

ON MY MIND

One weekend. Two countries. Two nationwide protests. And two crackdowns.

This weekend's demonstrations in Russia and Belarus illustrate that autocratic countries are not immune to the antiestablishment wave that has swept the democratic West in recent years.

And the heavy-handed tactics used by Vladimir Putin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka illustrate that their respective regimes take the threat of a popular uprising seriously.

Moscow and Minsk both understand that these protests are different from past demonstrations because they are driven not by politics but by economics: declining living standards in Belarus and corruption in Russia.

And when people are protesting over pocketbook issues, they tend to be more persistent, more determined, and less fearful than those demonstrating for abstract political principles.

So both regimes will continue to crack down. But protests like these will continue nonetheless.

2017 is shaping up to be a year of showdowns in both Russia and Belarus.

IN THE NEWS

Anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny has been taken to a Moscow court one day after the anticorruption activist was detained by police along with hundreds of other demonstrators at protests held in dozens of Russian cities.

Belarusian opposition leader Mikalay Statkevich, who was missing for three days, is at home.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani is beginning a two-day visit to Russia today. He is scheduled to meet with President Vladimir Putin tomorrow.

OPEC, and several nonmember oil producers including Russia, met in Kuwait and said they have agreed to review whether an agreement to cut supplies should be extended by six months.

Emergency officials said two trains collided in the central Russian region of Bashkortostan, killing at least three people.

Ukraine's Defense Ministry said a military helicopter crashed in the eastern Donbas region, killing five people aboard.

Official results in Bulgaria have given the pro-Western party of former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov victory in national parliamentary elections, and the pro-Russia Socialists have conceded defeat.

LATEST POWER VERTICAL PODCAST

In case you missed it, this week's Power Vertical Podcast, Follow The Money, took a deep dive into the new report on Russian money laundering by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

NEW POWER VERTICAL BRIEFING

And this week's Power Vertical Briefing looks at the fallout from this weekend's protests in Russia and Belarus.

WHAT I'M READING

The Woman In The Photo

Meduza tells the story of the well-dressed woman in the iconic photo from Sunday's protest. It turns out she was just walking home from McDonald's with her mother when police grabbed her.

The Kids On The Street

In Republic.ru, Dmitry Travin looks at how young people are changing the face of Russian protests.

Dreams Of Empire

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin also has an op-ed in The Guardian in which he argues that "Putin’s desire for a new Russian empire won’t stop with Ukraine."

The House That Putin Built

In an op-ed for The Guardian, Dmitry Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, writes that "Russia is the house that Putin built -- and he'll never abandon it."

"By co-opting the masses against the elite, the president has shaped a country to echo his values and grievances. And now he’s working to secure his legacy," Trenin writes.

The Pivot From Europe

In Intersection magazine, Anton Barbashin looks at Russia's pivot away from Europe, which is turning it into "a resource appendage of China."

The Case For A Cyber National Guard

In Real Clear Defense, Daniel Goure, a vice president of the Lexington Institute, argues for the establishment of a Cyber National Guard.

Photos And Lessons From The Belarusian Street

BelarusFeed has a photo essay on this weekend's protests and crackdown in Belarus.

And Euromaidan Press offers five takeaways from the Belarusian protests.

An Assassination And A Message

In his column for Bloomberg, political commentator Leonid Bershidsky writes that the assassination of former State Duma Deputy Denis Voronenkov "sends a chilling message."

The Literary Lenin

Tariq Ali, author of the forthcoming book The Dilemmas Of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution writes in The Guardian that the Bolshevik leader's love of literature helped shape the Russian revolution.

The Literary Surkov

It appears that Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov is about to publish a new book (under his preferred pen name, Natan Dubovitsky), describing how Putin is forced from power in 2024.

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About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on 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

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