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The Week In Russia: Dog Diplomacy, Kremlin Imagery, And A Curious Choice To Counter Corruption

A supporter of Vladimir Putin kisses his portrait in Belgrade during the Russian president's visit to the Serbian capital on January 17.
A supporter of Vladimir Putin kisses his portrait in Belgrade during the Russian president's visit to the Serbian capital on January 17.

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A Kremlin-connected tycoon is handed a contract to help fight corruption, while Vladimir Putin is handed a dog in Serbia and his spokesman portrays the president as a superhuman "workaholic" whose tireless labor keeps Russia running like a blast furnace. Meanwhile, a report claims far more Russians are leaving the country than official statistics suggest.

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

A Not-So-Subtle Piece Of Trolling?

Roads, pipelines, Sochi infrastructure, a bridge to Crimea -- and anti-corruption conferences.

Wait, what?

That's right: Add civil-society development and combating corruption to the list of projects that companies controlled by billionaire Arkady Rotenberg, a childhood friend and former judo sparring partner of President Vladimir Putin, is reportedly getting paid by the Russian state to conduct.

At 46 million rubles, the equivalent of less than $700,000, the size of a grant awarded to Rotenberg's company Granat to hold meetings, discussions, and conferences on these issues pales in comparison to other projects the tycoon has been involved in, from infrastructure for the Sochi Olympics in 2014 to the bridge Russia has built to Crimea after seizing the peninsula from Ukraine later that year.

It is also seemingly further from the heart of Putin, who critics say has suppressed civil society and failed to tackle corruption over nearly 20 years in power -- during which Russia's graft problem has worsened by some measures.

But the reported contract raised eyebrows because, for some Russians and Russia-watchers, Rotenberg and his brother, Boris, are almost emblematic of one of the main problems holding back Russia and keeping its wealth gap high: the cozy, allegedly corrupt ties between the state and a relatively small circle of business leaders. In the current atmosphere, it seems almost like a not-so-subtle piece of trolling.

Disputed Islands

One could also be excused for wondering whether Russia has been trolling Tokyo in recent weeks by suggesting that it could cede two disputed islands just off Hokkaido to Japan -- and then toughening its rhetoric on the issue ahead of a meeting between Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has painstakingly sought a deal over the more than six years in which they have concurrently held power, on January 22.

Vladimir Putin with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Vladivostok Eastern Economic Forum in September last year.
Vladimir Putin with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Vladivostok Eastern Economic Forum in September last year.

​After the last Putin-Abe meeting, in November, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that Moscow could hand over Shikotan and the Habomai islets -- the smaller of the four islands that Russia calls the Southern Kuriles and Japan calls the Northern Territories -- as part of the process.

He stipulated, however, that Japan must first "recognize the results of World War II" -- meaning that would have to accept Russia as the legal owner of all four islands, which the Soviet Union seized in the final days of the war. And since then, Lavrov and other officials have talked tough on the issue, accusing an enthusiastic Tokyo of getting ahead of itself and making unacceptable remarks.

As a result, a decades-o dispute that once again seemed closer to a resolution now seems -- once again -- maybe just as far.

The Russian pullback, if that's what it is, may have been pretty predictable. After all, Moscow has repeatedly dangled the prospect of a deal in front of Tokyo, but there's always a catch or three, whether stated outright or just hinted at: Recognize this, invest in that, tone down your military ties with Washington.

But the end result of the latest back-and-forth is unclear. Some observers say that Russia does want a deal that would include ceding the two smaller islands to Japan -- or should want one, at least

And the Kremlin has not ruled it out: In a wide-ranging, two-part interview with the newspaper Argumenty i Fakty, Putin's spokesman was given a chance to do just that but stopped short, saying only that the end result of "painstaking work" toward a peace treaty will "in no way violate the interest of our population."

'Blast Furnace'

But if Putin does hand over the islands, he will make every effort to somehow do it -- and to sell it -- in a way that will not undermine the image he has cultivated as the "gatherer of Russian lands."

He has already seen the wave of support that washed over him after the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 fade, even as the resultant Western ire and Western sanctions remain. So, while the windswept, sparsely populated islands don't compare with Crimea, which Putin claims is "holy land" for Russians, he will be sensitive to the potential risks of ceding them to Japan.

Speaking of Putin's image, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov applied a generous dollop of polish to it in the Argumenty i Fakty interview, which mixed hype and hagiography with remarks on policy.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov (file photo)
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov (file photo)

Peskov portrayed Putin as a hale, hardworking leader who is something of a superhuman but is also close to the Russian people -- and does not need things like Facebook or one of its Russian equivalents, Odnoklassniki, to communicate with them.

Putin, Peskov said, is a "real workaholic" who does not look forward to Fridays because running Russia is a 24/7 job.

"The administration of the country is like a blast furnace that cannot be shut down," he said, and 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. is the "height of the workday" at the Kremlin.

Don't cross Putin, though. Asked whether the president curses, Peskov would not answer but said that "like any normal man" his boss sometimes expresses "his negative opinion of a person or process…in a way that will make your blood run cold."

'Advanced Geopolitical Dog Trolling'

Not all PR for Putin is so chilling, though: On multiple platforms, state media helped him show a softer side on a trip to Serbia on January 17, when he petted a dog he was given by his hosts as part of a warm and elaborate welcome that would be unlikely in most European capitals.

However warm and fuzzy, the gift gave off a whiff of "advanced geopolitical dog trolling," as one journalist put it. According the Russian state news agency RIA, which featured the dog prominently on its Twitter feed, the breed originates in Kosovo -- the former province of Serbia that, a decade after its declaration of independence and two decades after the war that made it possible, remains at the heart of tension between Belgrade and Moscow on one side and the West on the other.

Russia has suffered several setbacks in the former Yugoslavia in the past couple years, with Montengro joining NATO in 2017 -- after the authorities claimed to have thwarted a Russian-backed coup plot aimed at keeping it out of the Western military alliance -- and Macedonia is close to resolving a dispute with Greece that has blocked it from NATO and the European Union.

Putin Arrives In Serbia For One-Day Visit
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With a highly visible church visit and a massive crowd of people coming out to see him -- some of them allegedly lured with promises of money, milk, sandwiches, and transport -- Putin is presumably happy with the optics of the visit, which included his 14th meeting with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in six years.

Heading For The Exit

After the talks, Putin delivered a predictable message on a reliable theme, blasting Kosovo's plans to transform its existing security force into a bigger, more powerful army.

But whether the visit brought the Kremlin closer to its goals in the Balkans is another matter.

"Polls have regularly shown that, while people do believe that Russia is a good friend to Serbia, not least of all over Kosovo, most Serbs do not believe that Russia is a shining example of the future they want," James Ker-Lindsay, a professor at the London School of Economics, said ahead of the visit.

Some Russians seem to feel the same way -- many more than the state statistics agency's figures suggest, according to the independent media outlet Proyekt.

Although EU members said tens of thousands of Russians received a residence permit in 2017, the Russian state statistics service suggested that the number of Russians emigrating to these countries was six times lower.

The Proyekt report said that Rosstat acknowledged its numbers may be lower than the actual figures, explaining that many Russians who emigrate do not notify the authorities.

(Click to enlarge)
(Click to enlarge)

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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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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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