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The Week In Russia: Unity Or Terror? Putin Seeks 'Political Stability' In Moscow And Bishkek

The Russian president emerged in Moscow without his Kyrgyz counterpart but with a canary-eating cat's expression and a piece of advice for all 6-million-plus people in Kyrgyzstan.
The Russian president emerged in Moscow without his Kyrgyz counterpart but with a canary-eating cat's expression and a piece of advice for all 6-million-plus people in Kyrgyzstan.

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"The country needs political stability, and all the people must unite around the current president and help him develop the state." That was Russian President Vladimir Putin's message for Kyrgyzstan -- but he may have had Moscow in mind, too.

In the Russian capital, Kremlin foes were detained -- one while out for a jog, another while sitting on a sofa -- ahead of a fresh protest over a local election that is galvanizing the opposition and giving the government a headache.

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

Take Me To Moscow

A former leader, once mighty but now out of power and under pressure, bolts for Russia and is taken in, getting a warmish welcome from President Vladimir Putin's government -- but one that is tinged with a touch of disdain and an unspoken message: You were too weak to stand strong.

It's happened a few times since Putin came to power nearly 20 years ago, including twice now with leaders of Kyrgyzstan. In 2005, Askar Akaev was sent packing by protesters and fled almost immediately to Moscow, where he lives to this day.

The opposition politician who replaced Akaev, Kurmanbek Bakiev, was in turn pushed from power five years later -- this time with a deadlier outcome as dozens were killed when police clashed with protesters -- and fled the Central Asian country, ending up in Belarus.

And now Almazbek Atambaev, who stepped down as scheduled in 2017 but then clashed vocally with the successor he steered into office and is now facing criminal abuse-of-office charges -- turned up on July 24 at the Russian air base in Kyrgyzstan after weeks holed up at his compound outside Bishkek and was whisked away to Moscow in a private jet of murky ownership.

Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (right) and Vladimir Putin in Moscow in 2017
Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (right) and Vladimir Putin in Moscow in 2017

Hours later, he met at the Kremlin with Putin. The Russian president emerged without Atambaev -- as to stand at his side might suggest equality -- but with a canary-eating cat's expression and a piece of advice for all 6-million-plus people in Kyrgyzstan, a nation that shares no border with Russia but hosts the Kant air base and is part of Moscow-dominated security and trade alliances.

"The country needs political stability, and all the people must unite around the current president and help him develop the state," Putin said.

Wait, what?

If such counsel sounds familiar, that could be because it's pretty much what Putin has said several times about his own country, though his suggestion is that Russia is already stable -- thanks to him.

A recent example came at the end of Putin's annual State Of The Nation speech in February -- the first of a new six-year term that could be his last.

No Broken Eggs, No Omelette?

"Naturally, we will only be able to achieve our goals by pooling our efforts, together in a united society," he said, then concluded that "it is these things – a unified society…and a common confidence in our authorities -- that play the main role in achieving success. And we will achieve this success by any means necessary."

By wrapping up with what to some ears wounded like a warning worthy of a Bond villain, Putin seemed to suggest that any dissent threatens to upend that stability and is thus destructive, not constructive, despite the perennial assertion that Russia is a democracy.

For Kyrgyzstan, Putin's counsel seemed to send the following message: Support the current president, but don't prosecute the former president.

In the long term, that probably applies to Russia, too: Analysts say that one of Putin's basic goals --perhaps a "program minimum" -- is to avoid the kind of upheaval that would potentially put him on the wrong side of the law in his own country, so that a common slogan on posters at anti-Kremlin street protests -- Putin is a thief -- never makes it into a courtroom.

Shorter-term, the message for domestic consumption is also clear, and plays into an outburst of protests over what Kremlin opponents say is an egregious and absurdly transparent campaign to keep real independent candidates -- as opposed to fake ones -- off the ballots in Moscow city council elections and other votes across the country in September.

Despite its local nature, the showdown over the Moscow City Duma vote is -- like other local protests -- shaping up as a showdown between the Russian state and society, or at least a portion of it.

A protest in the capital on July 20 drew more than 20,000 people, according to organizers, making it one of the biggest rallies of its kind since the wave of demonstrations unleashed by evidence of widespread fraud in the ruling party's favor in parliamentary elections and dismay at Putin's return to the Kremlin after four year as prime minister.

Opposition Leaders Address Moscow Protest
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Days ahead of a July 27 protest that he hopes will be bigger, opposition politician Aleksei Navalny was detained while heading out for a jog near his apartment building and ordered jailed for 30 days as punishment for calling on people to attend the rally, which has not received a permit from the authorities.

That means he won't make it -- a tactic the authorities have used repeatedly in the past to keep Navalny off the streets, though they have stopped short of putting him in prison long-term, possibly for fear of creating a martyr.

INFOGRAPHIC: All The Times Aleksei Navalny Has Been In Jail (CLICK TO VIEW)

Also on July 24, law enforcement officers searched the homes of several would-be candidates in the Moscow vote and summoned some for questioning, citing a criminal probe opened the same day by the Moscow branch of the Investigative Committee, which accused activists of hampering the work of the election officials.

Not Your Father's Oblomov

Late the following day, Navalny associate and would-be Moscow City Duma candidate Lyubov Sobol was carried out of the city election commission building on a couch and then briefly detained.

Couched In Defiance: Russian Activist Carried From Electoral Office Amid Crackdown
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In a column under the headline MosGorTerror – or Moscow City Terror, a play on the abbreviation of Moscow City Duma – Kirill Martynov, political editor at Novaya Gazeta, wrote that the apartment searches mean that "lawful politics in Russia is over" and "political terror"is taking its place.

"From now on, only people approved in advance will be allowed [to take part in elections]," he wrote, while those in power "will try to frighten everyone else and declare them as criminals -- that goes for both candidates and voters."

Russian opposition activist and politician Lyubov Sobol
Russian opposition activist and politician Lyubov Sobol

Journalist and commentator Yulia Laynina wrote that the clampdown shows that "in the Kremlin, the party of the siloviki has won" -- referring to hard-liners in Putin's circle who advocate further tightening the screws rather than opening the door to an increase in rights, freedoms, and political plurality in Russia.

The unrest in Moscow is becoming "a serious risk for the Kremlin," Bloomberg News quoted political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya as saying.

The long-term results of Putin's efforts to maintain stability in Russia remain unknown, as does his plan -- if any -- for maintaining power after 2024, when term limits bar him from seeking reelection.

Putin Is Running Out Of Options To Extend His Power, read the headline on a July 24 article by Bloomberg Opinion columnist Leonid Bershidsky.

As for the Russian president's stated desire for stability in Kyrgyzstan, that also seemed on shaky ground.

Test Your Meddle

Years after fleeing their countries, both Akaev and ousted former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych remain in Russia, and Bakiev is still in Belarus. In 2016, Akaev called Putin a "strong" and "exemplary" defender of Russia.

Atambaev, by contrast, was back in Kyrgyzstan a day after his Kremlin visit. And while he also praised Putin, it was far from clear that he would he would heed Putin's call to rally around his successor, Sooronbai Jeenbekov -- if indeed that was what Putin also urged in private.

After returning to Kyrgyzstan Atambaev suggested that the point at which it was possible to mend fences with his former protege had passed. Putin's call for unity behind Jeenbekov was "just the Russian president's wish," he said, warning that he would not report for questioning by police unless they returned "to legal boundaries" and that the group of supporters camped at his compound outside the Kyrgyz capital would only grow larger.

Atambaev also sought to dispel the idea that Putin was meddling in the affairs of Kyrgyzstan, contending that he was simply a "close friend" who is "very concerned about what is happening in our country."

Halfway around the world, meanwhile, if there was one thing that became clearer than ever before in the congressional testimony of former U.S. Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller, it was his conviction that, as The New York Times editorial board put it, "Russia attacked [the U.S. presidential] elections in 2016 and is intensifying its efforts today."

"It wasn't a single attempt," Mueller said in Congress. "They're doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it in the next campaign."

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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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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

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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