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The Week In Russia: The Lonely Lessons Of A Secret Swearing-In

Alyaksandr Lukashenka salutes during his inauguration ceremony in Minsk on September 23, more than a month after a much-disputed presidential vote that according to official figures he won by a landslide.

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Alyaksandr Lukashenka's rushed, hushed-up inauguration ceremony in Belarus may evoke memories for Vladimir Putin, and contain a warning about the future as Russia hurtles toward 2024. Also, a COVID-19 surge, Kremlin contortions over the poisoning of Aleksei Navalny, and a UN speech "rehearsing the defense of a nation in decline."

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Surprise Inauguration

Lukashenka often takes things a step or two further than Vladimir Putin. The Russian president, for example, once famously called the Soviet breakup the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century --- or, by an alternative translation, one of the greatest. Asked during a reelection campaign in 2018 what historical event he would like to change, Putin immediately responded: "The collapse of the Soviet Union."

For his part, Lukashenka used more forceful language when this reporter interviewed him for Reuters in 2010: "Only an idiot would not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union," he said -- though he then added that an American also might not regret it.

Ten years later, Lukashenka's inauguration ceremony was certainly striking: It was held virtually unannounced, known about by only a few people until after he had been sworn in – and reportedly known to some of the few who attended only moments before that, after they had been told to dress up, met at a designated Minsk location, and been bused to the venue for the swearing-in ceremony that, in the eyes of the state, started the former Soviet-farm chief's sixth term in office.

The reason for the secrecy, of course, was the bitter dispute over the August 9 election, which Lukashenka claims to have won with 80 percent of the vote but opponents -- and large numbers of Belarusians who have defied a brutal crackdown and taken to the streets for near-daily protests calling for his departure -- contend was rigged from beginning to end.

After the ceremony, Belarusian police and security forces cracked down harder on protesters as Western countries and institutions made it clear that they -- like the citizens who have called him a "usurper" since the election -- no longer recognize Lukashenka as president of Belarus.

For Putin, the nightmare of nonrecognition has not occurred, and there has been nothing secret about his inauguration ceremonies -- they have come like clockwork on May 7 of 2000, 2004, 2012, and 2018.

But the events in Minsk on September 23 may have held something familiar for Putin, who rode to his 2012 Kremlin swearing-in down main Moscow streets that were virtually empty because police had cordoned them off to keep protesters away. The ceremony came hours after hundreds of people had been arrested in and around Bolotnaya Square, the epicenter of a wave of protests by Russians eager for change and dismayed by his decision to return to the presidency after stepping down to the prime minister's post for four years to avoid violating constitutional term limits.

Legitimacy Issues

That dismay could grow much deeper if Putin takes the straightest path that he has cut himself for retaining power after his current term ends in 2024: seeking another one.

The constitutional amendment he pushed through this year to create that option has already sapped his legitimacy in the eyes of many inside and outside Russia; to exercise it would be to risk losing further damage to his image and his legacy at home and abroad.

That's still almost four years down the road, though. At the moment, as a result of the poisoning of one of his fiercest critics, Aleksei Navalny, Putin faces a substantial image problem in the West -- and so far he has done little or nothing to make it go away.

With German authorities citing labs in three countries as finding that Navalny was poisoned with a toxin from the Novichok group of nerve agents, leading experts to conclude that the chances that the Russian state was involved are high, the Kremlin has declined to provide what might be taken in Brussels and Washington as a serious explanation.

Instead, as was the case in the poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain in 2018 and other apparent or alleged attacks that Western governments have blamed on Moscow, critics say that Russian officials, Kremlin-aligned pundits, and state media outlets have come forward with a sometimes contradictory mix of denials, non-denial denials, and outlandish theories without evidence to back them.

One of those came from Putin, according to Le Monde. Citing unnamed sources, the French newspaper reported that, in a phone call on September 14, Putin had suggested that Navalny could have poisoned himself, speaking "with contempt" about the opposition politician and "considering him a…troublemaker who had simulated diseases in the past" -- a remark steeped in Soviet-style disdain for alleged shirkers.

'I Cooked Up Novichok In The Kitchen'

The Le Monde report provoked a lively response from Navalny -- "I cooked up Novichok in the kitchen" and "quietly sipped it from a flask on the plane," he joked on Instagram -- whose recovery is partial for now but raises the prospect that he may continue to challenge the Kremlin as before -- and the question of whether and when he will return to Russia.

The authorities are not making it easy for him -- court officers have put a freeze on his Moscow apartment in connection with a defamation lawsuit that was lodged -- and, not surprisingly, won -- by a businessman with close ties to Putin, meaning that he and his family can technically still go there but cannot sell the property, give it away, or use it to borrow money against a loan.

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (file photo)
Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (file photo)

Another phenomenon that has affected the Kremlin's image at home and abroad has been its response to the coronavirus pandemic, which Putin appeared to initially hope would essentially bypass his country, delivering a minimal blow.

That did not happen, and with the country's official tally at more than 1.1 million cases and nearly 20,000 deaths -- a figure that remains in question -- Russia has also been unable to avoid a recent spike that has hit Eastern Europe and other regions.

COVID Comeback

New cases nationwide have crept back up above 7,000 per day, and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin urged seniors and the chronically ill to restrict their movements, staying at home as much as possible and refraining from going to work or visiting relatives who live separately.

Putin's reported remarks to Macron about Navalny, which the Kremlin did not quite deny -- overshadowed his address to the UN General Assembly, which included mention of the COVID-19 vaccine that Russia registered, becoming the first country to do so but drawing controversy because it did not first conduct wide-scale "Phase III" testing.

Vladimir Putin addresses the UN General Assembly via a video-link on September 22.
Vladimir Putin addresses the UN General Assembly via a video-link on September 22.

Amid mounting Western criticism and calls for punishing Moscow for Navalny's poisoning and for its support for Lukashenka, Putin indicated that the need for cooperation against the coronavirus was an argument against "illegitimate sanctions."

Calling for collaboration on a number of global challenges, Putin seemed to strike a business-as-usual tone and accentuate what he suggested was the need for Russia to maintain the clout it commands thanks to its status as one of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council.

In the address, Putin was "pretending that he was not considered a problem rather than a partner by many nations of the world," Russia analyst Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the Moral United Services Institute in Britain, wrote in The Moscow Times.

"Who knows how far he is consciously aware of it," Galeotti wrote, but "while presenting Russia as a world leader in everything from vaccine research to controlling cyberweapons, Putin was actually rehearsing the defense of a nation in decline."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

About This Newsletter

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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