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The Week In Russia: Trouble In The Near Abroad And An 'Obscene Masquerade'


Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers in tribute to the victims of a fire at a shopping center in Kemerovo, a disaster that appears to have dented his poularity.

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Vladimir Putin saw his ratings drop in the wake of a landslide election, and watched as the longtime leader of a country in Russia's close orbit was pushed from power by street protests.

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

What Goes Up...

President Vladimir Putin won a fourth term by landslide on March 18, with the official count giving him nearly 76.7 percent of the vote. But just over a month later, less than half of the population is confident he can handle the country's most pressing problems, according to a survey by state pollster VTsIOM.

From a 2018 record of 55.3 percent, the proportion of Russians who trust Putin "to resolve important national issues" fell to 47.1 percent by April 22, VTsIOM said -- a drop of more than 8 percent.

The ratings of other politicians remained relatively static while Putin's fell. The decline may have been inevitable, given the pumping-up Putin got in state media ahead of the election -- as well as indications that he may have received as many as 10 million fake votes. And it is natural that Putin's rating would fall following the fire that killed 60 people at a Siberian shopping mall one week after the election.

Is Vladimir Putin's magic gone for good?
Is Vladimir Putin's magic gone for good?

But VTsIOM's weekly polls show that the percentage points have continued to fall away since then. It's a dose of reality for Putin -- a sign that he may struggle to recover the magic of times past in a new term that starts on May 7.

Where he might find that magic is far from clear.

In his annual address to parliament on March 1, Putin said Russia needed a "breakthrough" that would bolster the economy and improve living standards. He was generous with the word "breakthrough," uttering it 11 times in that speech alone, but was miserly on the issue of how to go about it.

Recent reports point to one simple tactic: spending.

Six-Year Plan

According to Bloomberg, Putin is planning to increase spending on health care, education, and infrastructure by about 10 trillion rubles ($160 billion) over the next six years -- conveniently, the length of his upcoming term.

It would be the biggest boost in state spending since 2012, the last time he was elected president.

But where will the money come from?

Aside from military spending cuts, that's not yet clear, but some of the potential sources might not cause many Russians to cheer.

Protesters block a road to a controversial garbage dump near the town of Volokolamsk.
Protesters block a road to a controversial garbage dump near the town of Volokolamsk.

According to Bloomberg, the government is considering a 4 percent sales tax -- something unheard of in Russia. There has also been talk of raising Russia's flat income-tax rate from 13 percent to 15 percent, an idea that Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said meant "nothing terrible" because "if the additional 2 percent is spent on health care, for example, then it will definitely be a good thing."

But in a country where Putin's first prime minister was known as "Misha 2 percent" -- the size of the customary kickback detractors claimed he had taken on contracts as finance minister -- it may not be not that simple.

"The additional 2 percent might be redirected to health care in a taxpayers' democracy," says Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "But in authoritarian regimes, that extra income is highly likely to be turned into extra spending on something else, such as buying the electorate's loyalty with social payouts at the right time and place, or new kinds of missiles with truly amazing capabilities."

The Kemerovo shopping-mall fire and raw popular anger over fumes from a garbage dump in the Moscow region town of Volokolamsk "stripped any value from the seemingly enormous figures of support for Vladimir Putin recorded at the election," Kolesnikov writes in an article titled Permanent Stagnation: Putin's Invisible Fourth-Term Agenda.

Describing what he called "dismally low expectations for his fourth term," Kolesnikov says there's not much behind Putin's calls for a breakthrough but "some mystical logic."

"If Putin didn't resolve to undertake structural reforms in better times, he's certainly not going to do so now," Kolesnikov writes.

'Obscene Masquerade'

Putin has often looked abroad for a boost to his image at home, particularly in his current term.

One piece of the concerted campaign to bolster his fourth-term mandate by getting out the vote was a change in the date of the election to March 18, the day the treaty that Moscow claims made Crimea part of Russia was signed four years earlier.

But while the repercussions of the takeover on Russia's relations with the West are still being felt in the form of successive sanctions, the thrill has worn off for some at home and in Crimea.

Crimea has not seen a tourist boom since being seized by Russia in 2014.
Crimea has not seen a tourist boom since being seized by Russia in 2014.

The same goes for Moscow's muscular intervention on President Bashar al-Assad's side in the war in Syria. When it started in September 2015, it was accompanied by dramatic televised footage of air strikes that seemed aimed to herald Russia's return to center stage in the Middle East and beyond.

Russia is still in the global spotlight in Syria, but lately the glare has made it look particularly unbecoming to much of the world. In the wake of what Western countries say was a government gas attack that killed dozens of civilians outside Damascus on April 7, Russia has been struggling to absolve its ally Assad of blame.

Elaborate efforts to convince Russians and the rest of the world that the attack was faked have included the use by state TV of footage from the set of a Syrian movie filmed in 2016.

As Russia prepared to bring Syrian witnesses it claims were filmed in "staged videos" to a meeting at Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on April 26, Britain denounced it as a stunt and France called it an "obscene masquerade."

Syrian director Humam Husari (right) films a scene in a rebel-held district in the Damascus suburbs in September 2016.
Syrian director Humam Husari (right) films a scene in a rebel-held district in the Damascus suburbs in September 2016.

Such things may have little effect on public opinion in Russia, but they will do nothing to dispel the dismay that has been building in the West over Russian actions abroad since the seizure of Crimea in 2014.

Closer to home, meanwhile, Russia is closely watching the unfolding drama in Armenia, whose Moscow-friendly leader stepped down as prime minister in the face of street protests on April 23.

Serzh Sarkisian had been prime minister for only a few days -- but before that he was president for a decade. His sin in the eyes of his foes was a variant on the one committed by Putin in 2008, when he morphed from president to prime minister to stay in power despite term limits.

Trouble In The Near Abroad

Along with Belarus and maybe a couple other ex-Soviet states, Armenia is the closest thing Russia has to an ally: The small South Caucasus country hosts a big Russian military base and is a member of Russian-dominated trade and security groupings.

After repeating for days that the standoff is an internal matter, Russia waded in deeper this week, hosting Armenia's acting foreign minister and deputy prime minister for talks in Moscow on April 26.

The good news for the Kremlin: "Armenia's geopolitical fundamentals [are] unlikely to change," Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert and senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, wrote on Twitter. "Armenia needs [its] Russian alliance."

While there is not an anti-Russian element to the protests in Armenia, Moscow has no love for "people power."
While there is not an anti-Russian element to the protests in Armenia, Moscow has no love for "people power."

Beyond that, though, there may be little for the Kremlin to cheer.

For one thing, while the persistent demonstrations are "not a protest against Russia per se," de Waal wrote, they are "certainly [a protest] against Russian economic monopolies" in one of the poorer former Soviet republics.

And regardless of who comes out on top in Yerevan in the end, the upheaval has already produced one result that observers say cannot fail to unnerve the Kremlin: the resignation of a national leader under pressure from protesters in the streets.

That means there is also a lesson in it for the Kremlin about street protests -- one that may not bode well for the freedom of assembly, or for critics of Putin, over the next six years.

"Armenia [is] a classic case of a society so unfree public was alienated and angry, but free enough to let them protest," de Waal wrote on Twitter. "Not Russia."

About

Some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward, by RFE/RL's News Editor Steve Gutterman.

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