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The Week In Russia: North Of Korea

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Russia saw further fallout from its bid to block Telegram, and data obtained by RFE/RL showed that Russian applications for U.S. asylum have soared during President Vladimir Putin's current term.

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

Attract Or Repel

Russian protest signs can be clever, and a banner at a kind of parody May Day rally in Novosibirsk was no exception. It read simply: "North of Korea."

The Cyrillic wording looks much like "North Korea," but the implication here was different: The banner suggested that Russia is even more like North Korea than North Korea itself -- an isolated country whose people live under oppression perhaps unmatched in the world today.

"North of Korea"?
"North of Korea"?

That's an exaggeration, of course, but it's an image that Putin -- who starts a new six-year term on May 7 after nearly two decades in power as president or prime minister -- would hardly welcome.

Particularly in his current term, the Kremlin has sought to cast Putin's Russia as a moral beacon in a world cast adrift -- an attractive alternative to what it portrays as a Western world in the corrupting thrall of the United States.

Signs like the "North of Korea" banner paint a different picture. So do persistent protests over the government's bid to block Telegram, the messaging app headed by an entrepreneur who fled the country under pressure in 2014 and, at age 33, is a kind of poster boy for Kremlin critics who say Moscow punishes creativity instead of nurturing it.

So, too, do statistics showing that more Russians sought asylum in the United States last year than at any time since 1994 -- perhaps the height of what Putin portrays as the terrible '90s -- and that the number has more than tripled since he returned to the presidency in 2012.

RFE/RL obtained the 2017 statistics under a Freedom Of Information Act request filed with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

People wait in line to get their visas at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
People wait in line to get their visas at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Seeking Asylum

The specific motives of the asylum-seekers were not revealed, but applicants must demonstrate "persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution" in their home country "on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion."

Another statistic that puts Putin's tenure in perspective: The acquittal rate in Russian courts in 2016 was 0.36 percent -- far lower than the 10.3 percent recorded in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) under Stalin in 1937.

Meanwhile, in a sign that moves to control dissent may face popular challenges during Putin's fourth term, protests over the ban on Telegram persisted two weeks after the media regulator ordered providers to block access to the messaging app.

So did the state's struggles to implement the ban, prompting reactions that ranged from laughter or derision to anger and frustration over the obstacles it has thrown up for Russian businesses.

The government dealt with the latest paper-airplane protest by playing it down, with state television giving it little coverage. As for the U.S. asylum statistics, Putin's spokesman sought to cast doubt on them without actually denying their accuracy.

The Kremlin "does not know how reliable" the statistics are, Dmitry Peskov said, warning that one must be careful with all figures, given what he said was "a sea of false information."

Putin can point to other figures as a display of his popularity: His official tally in the March 18 election was nearly 77 percent -- more than 56 million votes.

Empty Streets

But in a sign of potential insecurity -- an indication that the Kremlin does not want the presence of protesters or the absence of avid supporters to mar the inauguration-day optics -- state media reports said he may not ride to Kremlin along Moscow's main streets on Monday.

Sources in the news reports gave complex reasons, but the true motive may be a desire to avoid the impression of a gulf between Putin and the people. That was how many saw it in 2012, when streets were blocked and protesters were arrested as Putin's convoy sailed down deserted main arteries and bustled him into the Kremlin to be sworn in for his current term after a stint as prime minister.

An isolated Putin driving through Moscow's empty streets is not an image the Kremlin wants to see.
An isolated Putin driving through Moscow's empty streets is not an image the Kremlin wants to see.

Intended or not, the "North of Korea" banner might also be seen as a statement on Russia's current place on the world stage.

North Korea is in the spotlight because of signs that the standoff over its missile launches and nuclear-weapons program could end -- or at least be eased -- after years of geopolitical deadlock and months of rising tension and talk of war.

The leaders of North and South Korea met for the first time in a decade on April 27, and U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to meet with the North's Kim Jong Un within weeks -- the first such summit ever. There's even talk that a Nobel Peace Prize could be in it for Trump, if things go well.

Russia -- a neighbor of North Korea and a participant in past six-party talks aimed to rein in Pyongyang -- has frequently suggested the United States and North Korea hold the key to a resolution. Moscow has hailed the recent steps as promising signs.

'No Reversals'

But the prospect of a U.S.-engineered resolution is a double-edged sword for the Kremlin, because it could sideline the Kremlin as a key player in one of the longest-lasting global standoffs. Under Putin, Russia has sought to make itself indispensable when it comes to major global issues -- either as part of the solution or, if that's not possible, as part of the problem.

It does not like to be neither.

Elsewhere in the world, Russia got both good news and bad news this past week.

In Syria, rebels agreed to a Russian-brokered deal to abandon one of their last enclaves, near the city of Homs -- a development that bolsters Moscow's ally, President Bashar al-Assad, and strengthens his position ahead of any potential talks on a political transition. So, part of the solution for Assad, part of the problem for his opponents and the West.

Moscow may have breathed a sigh of relief when Armenian protest leader Nikol Pashinian, who seems poised to become prime minister on May 8, vowed there will be "no geopolitical reversals" if he comes to power. Translation: The country most closely aligned with Russia in the strategic South Caucasus will not turn its back on Moscow following the ouster of a long-ruling leader who brought Yerevan into the Eurasian Economic Union -- Putin's answer to the EU.

But in a sign that Western solidarity has increased since a former Russian double agent and his daughter were poisoned in an attack London has blamed on Putin's government, British lawmakers approved an amendment that echoes the U.S. Magnitsky Act -- named after a Russian whistle-blower who died in a Moscow jail in 2009. Like the U.S. law, it would enable Britain to impose sanctions on people in Russia and elsewhere who are deemed to have committed severe human rights violations.

And at his swearing in as U.S. secretary of state on May 2, former CIA chief Mike Pompeo said that Washington had "imposed real consequences on Russia for its acts of aggression."

'Up To Putin'

Senior Russian officials have repeatedly declared that they want warmer ties with the United States, but have suggested that Washington is to blame for the severely strained current state of relations. They have given few indications -- if any -- that Moscow is ready to make any concessions, asserting that the ball is in the U.S. court.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited NATO headquarters in a sign of Western solidarity.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited NATO headquarters in a sign of Western solidarity.

A day after his confirmation as the top U.S. diplomat, Pompeo said the opposite while attending a NATO meeting in Brussels -- a trip that was another sign of Western solidarity.

"We would love nothing more than to have them rejoin...the democratic world and behave in ways they are not doing today," Pompeo said. "The choice is really up to Vladimir Putin and the Russians."

Warning that Russia threatens allies and partners "both militarily...and through an aggressive campaign to undermine Western institutions," he argued that "NATO is more indispensable than ever" and pressed the U.S. case for higher defense spending.

After a surge in military spending fed a drive by Putin to modernize weapons and assert Russian authority abroad -- in part by launching air strikes and stepping up ground operations on President Bashar al-Assad's side in Syria -- Moscow is moving in the opposite direction.

Russian defense spending dropped for the first time in nearly two decades in 2017, an annual report by the think tank SIPRI said, falling by 20 percent in real terms even as the country emerged from a two-year recession prompted by an oil-price plunge and worsened by Western sanctions.

With Putin promising to improve living standards in his new term and searching for ways to make it happen, military outlays are expected to remain flat over the next three years or even decline, SIPRI senior researcher Siemon Wezeman told Reuters.

"Very clearly that has a direct impact on procurement and on operations," he said.

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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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