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The Week In Russia: Street Power, Senators, And A Setback In Space

"[A] country in a difficult position, a country on the brink of hostilities, must not allow internal political be made on the street,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said on November 17.

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The Kremlin deploys the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a propaganda weapon against its own domestic foes. The State Duma looks at legislation that could expand President Vladimir Putin’s options while narrowing the scope for his opponents and civil society. Plus, setbacks in two places where Moscow has long held influence: Moldova and outer space.

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

'Nothing Good'

One of the ways analysts said Russia hoped to profit from the Nagorno-Karabakh truce deal it brokered earlier in November -- cementing territorial gains by Azerbaijan and handing swaths of land held by Armenians for a quarter-century back to Baku’s control -- was by weakening Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, cranking up the pressure on him from compatriots dismayed by the agreement.

Pashinian is widely believed to be the object of wariness in the Kremlin because he came to power through nonviolent street protests against an entrenched leadership that had close ties to Moscow -- exactly the kind of political change that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made amply clear-- both in words and deeds over 20-plus years in power -- he is determined to avoid.

“The Russian role” in defusing the outbreak of war over Nagorno-Karabakh that began in late September “seems increasingly like an attempt to thrash Armenia for the revolution of 2018,” Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of the political consultancy R.Politik and a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Telegram. “At least, this is far from the most minor factor that determined the Russian approach.”

The Kremlin has also used the fallout from the fighting -- and the unenviable outcome for Yerevan -- as a signal to its own political opponents and a lesson to the Russian people: Beware of “color revolutions.”

It’s a lesson that Putin has tried to teach repeatedly, from his frequent criticism of the Bolshevik Revolution to his open expression of dissatisfaction with the way Pashinian came to power.

“[A] country in a difficult position, a country on the brink of hostilities, must not allow internal political decisions, including when it comes to the system of power, to be made on the street,” Putin said, in what the Kremlin described as answers to questions about the Nagorno-Karabakh deal on November 17. “Nothing good can come from this.”

A similar message has been hammered home by Russian state TV.

"There is an inevitable loss of territory following every Orange Revolution. We saw it in Georgia. We saw it in Ukraine. Now, we see it in Armenia,” political talk-show host Olga Skabeyeva said on flagship channel Rossia-1, according to BBC Monitoring journalist Francis Scarr.

That was a reference to two breakaway regions of Georgia in which Russia has maintained troops since it fought a five-day war against the forces of then-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government in 2008, and to Crimea, the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula that Russia seized control over in 2014 -- after the Maidan protest movement drove a Moscow-friendly president from power in Kyiv -- by sending in military forces and staging a referendum deemed illegitimate by most world countries.

A pro-Kremlin pundit on the show, Igor Korotchenko, called Pashinian “the Armenian Navalny” -- Aleksei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, anti-corruption crusader, and street-protest organizer who is recovering in Germany from a poisoning he blames on Putin -- and untruthfully described Pashinian as “a man who gained power through a coup.”

The intended message to Russian viewers there is clear: If you support Navalny or anyone who challenges Putin’s government through street protests, you will regret it. And if someone comes to power by means of a “color revolution” -- a term for protest-driven political change that originated with the Rose Revolution in Georgia, in which Saakashvili came to power -- they will weaken the state and leave its citizens vulnerable.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin

“A color revolution never brings benefits anywhere, in any country,” Korotchenko said, according to Scarr, while the host of a show on the other big state TV channel, Anatoly Kuzichev, told his audience that all color revolutions lead “to military defeat."

In addition to words from Putin and pundits on TV, the Russian state took other steps to sideline its opponents, real or perceived, ahead of elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, due to be held in 2021.

Legislation submitted to the Duma this week by a lawmaker from the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party would slap new restrictions on single-person pickets, one of the few remaining forms of public protest that the state allows citizens to conduct without prior permission -- a step critics said would deal yet another blow to freedom of assembly.

'Besieged Fortress'

In his remarks about what he described as the dangers of seeking political change through street protests, Putin said: “Nothing good can come from splitting society. We must consolidate society, not split it.”

But Kremlin critics have long accused Putin of doing just that, and of building increasing high walls between the governors and the governed. Lawmaker Oleg Shein of the A Just Russia party suggested that by pressing for such legislation, United Russia was putting itself in the "position of a besieged fortress, isolating itself from society's demands."

Another piece of legislation introduced this week would step up restrictions on and requirements for individuals and organizations deemed by the state to be “foreign agents.”

Amnesty International said the bill “signals a new witch hunt of civil society groups and human rights defenders standing up for justice and dignity.”

“It exposes the Russian authorities’ belief that civil society actors are destructive ‘agents of the West’ bent on destabilizing the government -- not as key allies to address challenges and seek to bring positive change,” AI Russia Researcher Natalia Prilutskaya said in a November 19 statement.

Legislation submitted to the Duma would slap new restrictions on single-person pickets, one of the few remaining forms of public protest that the state allows without prior permission.
Legislation submitted to the Duma would slap new restrictions on single-person pickets, one of the few remaining forms of public protest that the state allows without prior permission.

One man who the Russian government might see as a key ally if the country had gone in a different direction in the past two or three decades is Yury Dmitriyev, a gulag historian in the northwestern Karelia region who has sought to shed light on crimes committed by the Soviet state against its own people under dictator Josef Stalin.

Instead, Dmitriyev and his supporters say that the state sees him as an enemy, not an ally, and they claim charges that have led to years at trial and in jail are false: fabricated in reprisal for his research.

In July, Dmitriyev was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison on a child sexual-abuse charge that he and his supporters reject as politically motivated. In September, shortly before the 64-year-old was to be released due to time served, a court added almost 10 years to his sentence. And now he faces new charges that could result in additional prison time.

While the scope of action for his opponents, critics, and civil society groups that say their goal is to help Russia are narrowing, Putin’s options for the future are expanding -- at least on paper.

Several pieces of legislation that cement or set out details of the constitutional changes Putin secured in July -- including one that lets him run for reelection in 2024 and again in 2030 if he wants to -- have been making their way through Russia’s bicameral legislature, in which passage of any bill that he backs is a sure thing.

Senate And Space

One would grant him lifelong immunity from prosecution -- whether he leaves the Kremlin or not -- and make it much harder for lawmakers to strip him of that immunity.

Another would guarantee him a seat in the upper house of parliament for life, adding to an array of positions from which Putin could potentially wield power if he steps down from the presidency.

And if Putin does eventually take a seat in the upper house, a cosmetic change that is also in the works would save him from having the perhaps awkward title “member of the Federation Council” -- the upper chamber of the Federal Assembly of the Russia Federation.

Perhaps understandably, Federation Council members have always liked to call themselves senators -- though unlike U.S. senators, they are not popularly elected. Under the new legislation, that title would be official.

Putin’s future remains a matter of speculation. At the moment, his government is facing a series of geopolitical challenges posed by upheaval in several former Soviet republics -- from Kyrgyzstan to Belarus and now Moldova, where a former prime minister who advocates closer ties with the European Union defeated a vocal supporter of Putin in a presidential runoff on November 15.

That’s the post-Soviet space. And then there’s just plain space -- outer space -- where Moscow’s role seems at risk of waning as private companies teaming up with U.S. space agency NASA expand their capabilities,reducing reliance on Russian rockets for crewed missions.

On November 16, a capsule built by California-based SpaceX delivered four astronauts to the International Space Station, where they joined an American and two Russians who flew to the orbital outpost last month aboard a Russian Soyuz craft.

It was the second crewed mission to the ISS for entrepreneur Elon Musk’s company, after a test flight earlier this year that marked the first manned orbital flight from U.S. soil since NASA’s shuttle program was scrapped in 2011.

NOTE: The Week In Russia will not appear next week due to the Thanksgiving holiday. The next edition will be published on December 4.

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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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