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Russia: The Week In Review

People commemorate the victims of the March 25 fire in a shopping mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo in Moscow's Pushkin Square on March 27.
People commemorate the victims of the March 25 fire in a shopping mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo in Moscow's Pushkin Square on March 27.

For a country whose president is cast by the Kremlin as a guarantor of stability, the days since Vladimir Putin's reelection have been a rough ride.

At home, a fire at a Siberian shopping mall one week after the March 18 election killed 64 people, most of them children -- including some trapped in a locked movie theater as desperate parents tried to reach them.

Abroad, Putin faced the growing and remarkably unified ire of Western countries that blame his government for the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter with a highly potent chemical substance in the quiet English city of Salisbury -- an attack the United States, Britain, France, and Germany called "the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War."

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

Jockeying For Position

Analysts have long forecast that Putin's reelection would spark battles among rival factions in the ruling elite because the six-year Kremlin stint that starts in May could be his last, due to term limits. But they may not have expected the infighting to start so fast.

On March 31, billionaire businessman Ziyavudin Magomedov was arrested on suspicion of embezzling more than $35 million. A co-owner of the Summa investment group, Magomedov is seen as an ally of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and a rival of Igor Sechin, the CEO of state oil giant Rosneft and a longtime Putin confidant. His arrest has deepened speculation about whether Putin will keep Medvedev in place and played into predictions of cutthroat competition for power and assets in the coming years. Few Russians are likely to be convinced by the Kremlin's suggestion that there was no political motive in Magomedov's arrest.

Fire And Fury

For critics of Putin, the high death toll in the fire that swept through the Zimnyaya Vishnya (Winter Cherry) mall in Kemerovo one week after his landslide election win laid bare just exactly what he has failed to do over nearly two decades as president or prime minister: rein in the corruption and negligence that spawns shoddy construction, corner-cutting, and lax adherence to safety and security measures.

It also underscored what critics say is -- despite an official result that gave him nearly 77 percent of the vote -- Putin's growing distance from the people he governs. Putin said nothing in public about the fire until he traveled two days later to Kemerovo, where he laid flowers at a memorial and visited with hospitalized survivors, but avoided a crowd of thousands of people who were demonstrating in a central square and calling for the removal of the regional governor.

A Dinosaur Exits -- And Returns

Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev did resign, announcing his exit on April 1 in what he and the Kremlin said was his own decision but was widely seen as an order from Putin. Some Russia-watchers saw his exit as a rare Russian victory for people power: a 73-year-old who had been governor since 1997 and long seemed untouchable leaving his post days after a crowd called for just that, expressing anger over what residents saw as his callousness toward families torn apart by the tragedy.

But at least two developments have undermined that impression. For one thing, the deputy who was named acting governor, Sergei Tsivilyov, had suggested that a man who lost his wife, three daughters, and sister in the fire was engaging in self-promotion. Secondly, Tuleyev was handed a seat on the regional legislature two days after his resignation -- and unconfirmed reports said that he would later be elected as its leader.

Democracy Denied?

In a direct blow to the power of the people, meanwhile, the legislature of the Sverdlovsk region voted on April 3 to scrap the direct election of the mayor of Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth-largest city. Still, the deadly fire in Kemerovo and the large demonstration that followed have raised questions about whether Putin might face a new wave of rallies during his upcoming term -- and how he would handle such a challenge.

This question has been compounded by a series of protests over garbage dumps in the region that rings Moscow, particularly a landfill in the town Volokolamsk whose noxious fumes residents say sickened dozens of children in March. Angry residents pelted the regional governor with snowballs and confronted officials in the street on March 21, and protests continued through April 1.

Putin was elected to his current term after weathering large opposition protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg over election fraud and dismay at his decision to return to the presidency in 2012 following a stint as prime minister. The recent demonstrations in places like Kemerovo and Volokolamsk suggest that if Putin does face major public unrest in the next few years, it may be over issues like public safety, security, and quality of life -- which he vowed to improve in a March 1 address to the nation -- rather than politics.

A Step Too Far?

Analysts predicted ahead of the election that Putin will do little to relax his grip on the Russian political system in his upcoming term, arguing that he wants as much control as possible as he decides how to retain influence after 2024. In a move that may have reflected that desire, the state media-oversight agency asked a court on April 6 to block the messaging app Telegram in Russia.

Kremlin-watchers also said Putin was unlikely to change his foreign-policy course much, keeping a voluble public confrontation with the West in the spotlight to maintain a high profile on the world stage and score points among Russians while drawing their attention away from problems at home. "People here love what he is doing abroad and unless the costs of this policy of trolling the West become really biting for average Russians, he has no incentive to reverse course," Moscow-based foreign-policy analyst Vladimir Frolov said in late February. "He just needs to be careful not to overplay his hand." Since Frolov spoke, officials and commentators in the West contend that Putin has done just that.

The nerve-agent poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury on March 4, which Britain and other countries blame on Russia, has taken the showdown to a new level. Already dealing with escalating sanctions over actions including interference in Ukraine and alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Russia is now facing the wrath from Western countries that are incensed over the poisoning and, in a rare show of unity, have expelled more than 150 of its diplomats.

Poison And Power

Even as Western diplomats left Russia in droves after Moscow retaliated to the expulsions in kind, Putin faced the prospect of potential new U.S. sanctions against some of the closest members of his circle.

It is not clear, however, whether the increasing pressure will push Putin to make any major changes in policy, or in his attitude toward the United States, NATO, and the European Union. While Russia risks potentially damaging isolation, the persistent high tension with the West serves at least one purpose for Putin: thrusting Russia to center stage in global affairs -- albeit as a villain in the eyes of many. It allows Putin to portray Russia as a power in the Cold War mode, facing off against the United States -- or in this case, against what Russian officials like to call the "Anglo-Saxon" nations -- in a struggle between equals.

Russian officials have seemingly tried to play up the Cold War imagery, with Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) chief Sergei Naryshkin accusing the West on April 4 of throwing up a new Iron Curtain and warning against a "second Cuban Missile Crisis." For Putin, a big prize would be a full-fledged meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, particularly if it is held in the White House.

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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.

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