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The Week In Russia: Passport Politics In The Donbas, A Power Play In Vladivostok

Ukrainian President-elect Voldymyr Zelenskiy (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Let the entire former Soviet Union look at us and see that anything is possible,” Zelenskiy said after his election.

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While withholding congratulations on an electoral landslide that sent powerful signals to the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin greets his soon-to-be Ukrainian counterpart with a provocative decree that could put Russian passports in the hands of hundreds of thousands of people in the Donbas. In Asia, meanwhile, Putin seeks to raise Russia’s profile by hosting North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

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

Playing The President

A meme on the Russian social network Odnoklassniki summed up one of the messages sent to Moscow by Ukraine’s presidential election in curt style: It showed a smiling President Vladimir Putin telling a prominent Russian comic actor: “Don’t even think about it!”

The meaning was clear after a politically inexperienced comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, crushed incumbent Petro Poroshenko in a presidential runoff, winning nearly three-quarters of the vote and dealing an indirect but unmistakable blow to entrenched leaders across the former Soviet Union.

The meme was worth a laugh in part because the comedian pictured, Mikhail Galustyan, looks vaguely like Zelenskiy – or at least both have dark hair and the faces, somehow, of funnymen. But the humor dug a little deeper because, in some of his most memorable roles, Galustyan has played characters of a different sort than Zelenskiy’s schoolteacher who happens into the presidency in the Ukrainian sitcom Servant Of The People.

For example, in the 2006-11 comedy sketch show Nasha Rasha (a sardonic misspelling of saying "Our Russia" in Russian), Galustyan’s characters included an explosively angry, sadistic, pink-track-suited soccer coach whose name translates as GasMeat Omsk, a dumpster-diving bum, and the slightly less dimwitted half of a dimwitted pair of outlandishly buffoonish migrant workers.

The unspoken message there: Once you (or an established leader) have lost the people’s trust, all bets are off. Almost anyone could potentially unseat you. While the TV comic’s victory in Ukraine seems like the starkest example, there may be similar lessons as close to the Kremlin as Armenia, where opposition lawmaker Nikol Pashinian strode into the prime minister’s post after leading street protests last spring, and as far away as the United States, where Donald Trump -- a real estate magnate who had never held office -- was elected president in 2016.

'Anything Is Possible'

As Zelenskiy put it minutes after voting ended and exit polls pointed to a landslide win in the April 21 runoff: “Let the entire former Soviet Union look at us and see that anything is possible.”

Zelenskiy was presumably referring not only to his own stunning rise but also to the election itself, whose raucous, competitive feel drew comparisons with Russia’s no-contest contests.

“For Russia, the importance of Ukraine’s election isn’t so much who won, it’s how they won: in a free, fair, competitive vote in which the incumbent lost & conceded power,” BBC Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg tweeted about 24 hours after polls closed and Poroshenko conceded defeat based on exit poll results. “In the last couple of days I’ve heard several Russians say they’d like an election like that in their country.”

Putin, who said last year that he does not have a smartphone and in 2017 that he rarely looks at social media, may not spend much time on Odnoklassniki -- though who knows, really? But it seems highly unlikely that the joke would be lost on him if he did see it.

At nearly 76.7 percent, Putin’s official result in the March 2018 election was a bit better than Zelenskiy’s 73.2 percent in Ukraine.

By The Numbers

But polls since then have shown a sharp decrease in public trust in Putin: When asked by state-funded pollster VTsIOM to name Russian politicians they would trust to resolve “important matters of state,” just under 33 percent of respondents in results published on April 14 named Putin – down from more than 48 percent a year ago and close to the lowest level since 2006.

By at least one measure, Josef Stalin seems to be faring better than Putin in the minds of Russians: A total of 70 percent said that the Soviet dictator played a positive role in "the life of our country," according to results released by independent pollster Levada Center on April 16.

Polling agencies do not appear to have asked exactly the same question about Putin, but a Levada survey released this month found that 66 percent approved of Putin’s conduct as president – down from 82 percent a year ago and 89 percent in June 2015. In January 2000, Putin’s first month as president after he was handed the job by Boris Yeltsin, the figure was 84 percent.

Loss of trust is a potential problem for Putin on the road to 2024, when his current term is due to end and the current Russian Constitution bars him from seeking another.

All of his apparent options for keeping a hand on the helm – such as by changing the constitution to stay on or by anointing a successor and stepping into a less formal but influential “national leader” role – would seem to require a sizable reserve of popular trust.

'Father Of The Nation'

While there are differences -- including Poroshenko’s substantially shorter political history and the fact that he was running in an actual election, not trying to get around one – the Ukrainian incumbent’s effort to win another five years in power by casting himself as a responsible parent and reliable protector failed spectacularly.

The 53-year-old president “was going for a father-of-the-nation image,” but Zelenskiy “beat him by ridiculing the paternalistic ambition, desacralizing Poroshenko’s office and mocking his gravitas,” Bloomberg Opinion columnist Leonid Bershidsky wrote in an article published the day after the runoff

Still, while Zelenskiy and Porosehenko are vastly different, there’s one spot where their Venn-diagram circles overlap a little bit: Zelenskiy’s show and his fledgling political party are called Servant Of The People, while Putin with some frequency uses a similar phrase to describe himself: “Your humble servant.”

Bershidsky suggested that Zelenskiy may come closer to fitting the description.

The rule of the soon-to-be president, who for the moment has no presence in parliament and who crowdsourced questions about the composition of the cabinet and other matters of state during the campaign, is likely to be a “direct democracy experiment,” Bershidsky wrote, with Zelenskiy turning straight to the populace for support.

That governing style would “pose challenges both for Westerners hoping the country will remain on a path toward NATO and European Union membership and for Putin allies hoping Ukraine will slip back into the Russian fold,” he wrote. “Neither group is likely to have reliable interlocutors in Zelenskiy’s Ukraine. Both will have to go directly to the Ukrainian people by any means they can find.”

Putin did this right away. He went, at least, directly to the Ukrainian people living in “certain districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts -- not-so-shorthand for the parts of the Donbas held by Russia-backed separatists – with a decree offering them a fast track to Russian citizenship.

'Spirit And Aims'

While Putin’s ruling apparatus had set the stage for the citizenship decree by passing related legislation months ago, it still came as a surprise to many (that is, to me) – not least because Russian officials had suggested that they would take a wait-and-see approach to Zelenskiy.

Putin has pointedly refrained from congratulating Zelenskiy on his promotion from TV president to real one, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying that the Kremlin will judge him “by his actions.” And Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said a day after the runoff that while Russia had no “illusions” that Zelenskiy would sharply shift Kyiv’s stated positions on Russia, the election created “chances for improving cooperation with our country.”

Then Moscow took what looked like to a big step to torpedo those hopes.

The citizenship decree, issued less than 72 hours after polls closed, was “yet another confirmation of Russia's true role as an aggressor state that is waging a war against Ukraine,” Zelenskiy said. The U.S. State Department called it a “highly provocative action” that intensified Russia’s “assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty [and] territorial integrity.”

And Germany and France -- the European guarantors of the 2015 Minsk II accord -- said Putin's decree "goes against the spirit and aims" of the Minsk process, which seeks to establish a stable cease-fire and a political settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has killed some 13,000 people since April 2014.

In the face of the fast and firmly worded criticism from Kyiv and the West, Putin defended the decree by claiming it echoed policies in European Union member states like Romania and Hungary that grant citizenship to "their own ethnic kin living outside their borders."

"How are Russians living in Ukraine worse than Romanians...or Hungarians? Or Ukrainians who live there but feel an unbreakable link with Russia" because of family ties or "other considerations," Putin said. "I see nothing unusual here."


The decree, however, makes no reference to ethnicity, background, or self-identification. Its wording suggests that anyone living in the separatist-held parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions – both of which border Russia -- can apply.

Meanwhile, Vladislav Surkov, the longtime Putin aide who handles Kremlin policy on the Donbas conflict and has written voluminous, fawning articles on Russia’s future, reached into his frequently unusual lexicon to describe those targeted for fast-track access to Russian passports.

Moscow was carrying out its duty to Russian-speaking and “Russian-thinking” people in the Donbas, he said – echoing the talk of a “Russian world” that circulated at an earlier stage in the war, when there were fears that Russia and the separatists would push westward in a bid to take over a huge swath of Ukraine reaching to Russian-controlled Crimea or the Moldovan border.

In addition to throwing up a big new barrier to the implementation of the Minsk deal, Putin’s decree appeared to put the warmer ties that the Kremlin says it wants with Kyiv even further out of reach.

A day after he signed it, the Ukrainian parliament passed legislation that its authors say will “secure” the use of Ukrainian as the official state language, drawing a sharply critical response from Russia.

'More Hell, Please'

The Guardian quoted an adviser to Surkov as saying that Putin held off on issuing the decree earlier to avoid letting “Poroshenko and the country’s radicals” use it during the campaign.

But some observers suspected other Kremlin calculations were involved.

“The measure is timed as if the Kremlin wanted to help Poroshenko’s team to push through the divisive language law, which will provide Russia with further arguments to protect its ethnic kin in Ukraine,” author Leonid Ragozin wrote on Twitter. “Больше ада, as they say in Russia -- more hell please.”

“What’s advantageous to the Kremlin is that it can [portray] itself as a force protecting the existing delicate texture of society, while the nationalists are promoting a radical cultural revolution that will upend it and create cultural barriers which previously didn’t exist,” Ragozin wrote.

A Piece Of The Action

Putin’s defense of the decree came in comments on April 25 in Vladivostok, where he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for the first time.

The meeting put Russia into a more prominent place in the diplomacy over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program – the subject of two summits in the past year between Kim and Trump, both of which ended without agreements from Pyongyang to scrap it.

There was also no visible breakthrough at the Putin-Kim summit – a result that Russian state media had prepared for in advance by saying that no agreements or joint statements were expected.

Putin, whose country has been involved in six-party talks over North Korea’s nuclear program and has backed sanctions in the UN Security Council but whose clout with Pyongyang pales in comparison to China’s, suggested that security guarantees from the United States alone – if given -- would not be enough to get Kim to shut down the North’s nuclear program.

“I’m deeply convinced that…it won’t be possible to get by without international guarantees,” Putin told reporters after his talks with Kim.

Translation: Pull up a chair for Russia, please.

Back To Budapest

Putin added that the security guarantees would have to be legally binding and that disputes among nations, over Pyongyang’s nuclear program or anything else, must be “regulated by international law instead of the rule of force” – a principle his own country is widely accused of violating with the takeover of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

“It's funny (well, to a certain extent) to see Putin talking about security guarantees and international law,” Pavel Podvig, director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project, a Moscow-based NGO focusing on Russia’s nuclear arsenal, wrote on Twitter.

“It didn't quite work that way with Ukraine and the Budapest Memorandum,” he wrote, referring to the 1994 pact in which Russia, the United States, and Britain offered Ukraine security guarantees in exchange for its surrender of Soviet-era nuclear weapons.

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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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