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The Week In Russia: 'The Reality Has Changed'

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: The newly assertive role of Turkey in the South Caucasus is a daunting factor in a region that the Kremlin clearly still considers Russia’s backyard.

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President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin faces a widening array of challenges, from Khabarovsk to the South Caucasus, Belarus, and Berlin. Aleksei Navalny vows to return to Russia, protests in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk continue well into their third month, and a modern-day investigator of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's crimes gets an "atrocious" new sentence. New COVID-19 cases surge above 9,000 a day and visitors to Putin reportedly must be isolated for two weeks before meeting with him.

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

The Latest Challenge

Less than halfway through a term that was supposed to be his last but may not be, Putin is confronted with problems that do not seem existential but could have substantial consequences in the coming years. These challenges have cropped up on Russia’s fringes, beyond its borders, and at its heart -- the capital, Moscow -- where a surge in coronavirus cases has resulted in new or renewed lockdown measures and an extended school holiday.

The newest challenge, perhaps, stems from one of the oldest conflicts in the region: the bitter dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory in Azerbaijan that has been controlled by ethnic Armenian forces backed by Yerevan since a Russia-brokered cease-fire in 1994 halted a war that killed some 30,000 people and displaced about 1 million more.

Fighting has flared repeatedly since then, and the deadliest hostilities in years erupted in late September, reportedly killing nearly 200 people so far and adding to global security concerns at a time when much attention is trained on the coronavirus pandemic, the imminent U.S. election, and other matters.

For Moscow, which has substantial influence on both of the rival former Soviet republics but holds more clout with Armenia, where it maintains a big military base, the newly assertive role of Turkey -- a supporter of Baku – is a daunting factor in a region that the Kremlin clearly still considers Russia’s backyard.

Hold On Tight

The South Caucasus is just one region. But pulling the camera back opens up a vista on a vast area in which Russia’s grip is being loosened on several sides, with China gaining purchase in Central Asia and ties with Kyiv potentially irreparably damaged by Moscow’s takeover of Crimea and its role in the war in the Donbas, where separatists it backs hold two regional capitals.

Between Ukraine and the Baltic states -- which long since joined NATO and the European Union -- lies Belarus. There, the main event is the showdown between long-ruling authoritarian Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his opponents -- with millions of Belarusian behind them – who say he stole the August 9 presidential election and want him out after 26 years in power.

But a gripping important subtext is Russia’s struggle to keep Belarus in its orbit -- and potentially strengthen its hold by taking advantage of Lukashenka’s diminished standing among his own compatriots and the Western governments he has long played off against the Kremlin to maintain his own power and keep Moscow at bay.

Putin has so far supported Lukashenka. And while he has done so with a wink at times, seemingly hinting that his backing could vanish in an instant if the stars aligned, analysts say he risks alienating the populace of a country in which an overwhelming majority want warm, close ties with Russia -- but don’t want a merger or dominance by Moscow.

Another growing challenge for Putin is currently centered to the west of Belarus, in Berlin, where Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny is recovering after a severe illness that German officials -- as well as labs in two other countries and some of the Russian scientists who helped develop the series of nerve agents known as Novichok -- say was caused by Novichok.

Navalny has been one of Putin’s most prominent foes -- his nemesis, in effect -- since late in 2011, when he helped lead a series of large street protests that erupted when Russians hoping for change suffered a double blow: Putin announced he would seek to return to the presidency after a four-year stint as prime minister, and parliamentary elections that were marred by evidence of widespread fraud in favor of the dominant, Kremlin-controlled United Russia party.

Navalny’s poisoning dramatically increased the stakes in his struggle against Putin, whose already shaky standing in the West has been hit hard by suspicions that the Russian state was behind it. Navalny raised them further when he put the blame squarely on Putin in an interview published by Der Spiegel on October 1.

“I assert that Putin was behind the crime, and I have no other explanation for what happened,” Navalny said.

'The Patient'

Putin and his allies responded with a tool they frequently turn to when targeting political opponents real or perceived – the assertion that he is a Western stooge or spy.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who now frequently refers to Navalny as “the Berlin patient” amid a long-standing reluctance by Putin and others in the Kremlin to utter his name, said on October 1 that “there is…information” indicating that Western intelligence agencies are “working with” the “patient.”

“I can even say definitely -- specialists of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency are working with him currently," Peskov added. Navalny rejected the claim and threatened a lawsuit.

Aleksei Navalny and his wife, Yulia, in Germany
Aleksei Navalny and his wife, Yulia, in Germany

In the Der Spiegel interview, Navalny repeated his vow to return to Russia and take up his previous activities -- opposing Putin by means including elections, street protests, and investigations aimed at exposing corruption among the ruling elite.

“Not going back would mean that Putin has won and achieved his goal…. I would not give Putin the gift of not returning to Russia,” he said.

Navalny also seemed to troll Putin, almost, when he lavished Germans with gratitude and praise in the interview -- his first since the poisoning on August 20.

“I have never been closely associated with Germany. I don't know anyone here. I didn't know a single politician. And yet it turned out -- you see, my voice is trembling, I have become so emotional -- that German politicians and [Chancellor] Angela Merkel have taken an interest in my fate and saved my life,” Navalny said, adding: “I know it sounds a bit overblown, but Germany has become a special country for me.”

Germany has been a special country for Putin: He lived in East Germany as a KGB officer, sometimes speaks German at meetings, and has pursued close ties with Berlin, counting on Germany’s thirst for Russian energy and interest in the Russian market among its companies as counterweights to Western sanctions, criticism of his policies, and concerns about his human rights record.

Merkel has talked tough toward Russia on Navalny’s poisoning, which she has called an “attempted murder,” and visited him at the Charite hospital some time before his release in late September. Following initial efforts by Russian authorities to keep him in the country, he had been flown to Berlin two days after he fell ill on a flight to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk.

Early in September, Merkel said there were "some very serious questions that only Russia can, and must, answer"-- a reference to the fact that access to Novichok is said to be highly restricted, raising suspicions of Russian state involvement in Navalny’s poisoning as well other times it has been used, such as against former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in 2018.

'Total Survelliance'

A number of analysts have said that if Navalny was targeted by the Russian security services, it would be a major change in tactics because they are believed to have used such poisons in the past only on former members of their ranks who they see as having turned against their country -- not against political opponents.

“If someone had told me a month and a half ago that I would be poisoned with Novichok, I would have laughed at them,” Navalny told Der Spiegel. “After all, we know how Putin fights the opposition. We have 20 years of experience. You can be arrested, beaten up, sprayed with disinfectants, or shot on a bridge like Boris Nemtsov. But chemical warfare agents were considered the domain of the intelligence services.”

Asked why he would have been targeted with Novichok if that were the case, Navalny said that “the reality has changed. And something in Putin's head has changed.”

“Putin knows everything about me. I live under total surveillance. He knows that I am neither an oligarch nor a secret agent, that I'm a politician. But there have been changes: The protests against [Lukashenka] in Belarus, the protests in the Khabarovsk region against the Kremlin party. And the fact that our regional offices still exist,” he said, referring to his headquarters across Russia.

In other words, according to Navalny, Putin is more concerned by the challenges he faces, or more frightened, than he has been in the past.

'A Strange Imitation'

He cast the political battle to which he hopes to return as an epic standoff that will become increasingly dangerous as the stakes increase.

“What remains is the struggle between those who stand for freedom and those who want to drive us back into the past, into a strange Orthodox imitation of the Soviet Union, adorned with capitalism and oligarchs,” Navalny told Der Speigel. “They will use more sophisticated means against us, and we will do what we can to survive.”

Historian Yury Dmitriyev was sentenced to 13 years on child sexual-abuse charges that he denies and that supporters contend have been fabricated to punish him for his work.
Historian Yury Dmitriyev was sentenced to 13 years on child sexual-abuse charges that he denies and that supporters contend have been fabricated to punish him for his work.

The protests in the Far Eastern Russian city of Khabarovsk have persisted since July. For Putin, they may be reminders of the tests he faces at home ahead of parliamentary elections in 2021 and the end of his term in 2024, when he now has the option of seeking reelection.

The coronavirus pandemic is another challenge that just won’t go away, it seems. It has hit the economy hard, combining with other factors including the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, the poisoning of Navalny, and the turmoil in Belarus, and like many other countries, Russia has experienced a major resurgence in cases in recent weeks.

On October 2, Russia recorded more than 9,000 new COVID-19 cases for the first time in months, including more than 2,700 in Moscow.

The Russian media outlet Proyekt reported that government officials and other visitors to Putin -- who spends most of his time at a presidential residence in the upscale suburbs west of Moscow -- are required to quarantine for two weeks before meeting with him.

Gulag Historian

Meanwhile, this week brought another piece of evidence suggesting that analysts who predicted Putin’s move to let himself run for two more terms would embolden the security services still more -- and leave vulnerable Russians even more vulnerable to the whims of the state and its agents -- were right.

In a ruling a Human Rights Watch representative called “atrocious,” a historian who has helped document the Soviet government’s crimes against its own citizens had his prison sentence extended by nearly a decade, to 13 years, on child sexual-abuse charges that he denies and that supporters contend have been fabricated to punish him for his work.

Yury Dmitriyev, 64, was acquitted on initial charges in 2018, but a new trial ended in July with a guilty verdict, a prison sentence of 3 1/2 years, and the expectation that he would be out before the end of 2020 due to time served. But on September 29, a higher court ruling on appeal sided with prosecutors and handed him a new sentence of 13 years in a high-security prison.

“The circumstances surrounding the case strongly indicate that the charges against Dmitriyev were spurious and politically motivated,” Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch, wrote on September 30.

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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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