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Thursday 19 October 2017

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The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

A transcript of today's Daily Vertical can be found here.

Your daily roundup


Ksenia Sobchak's announcement that she will run for president next year is dominating the conversation among Russia watchers today.

On today's Daily Vertical, I give my initial take, arguing that even if Sobchak's candidacy is a Kremlin-sanctioned ploy to create the appearance of a legitimate election, it also carries big risks as well.

I also don't rule out that Sobchak is probably playing her own game, even if she did cut a deal with the regime.

A few thoughts and data points jump out at me so far.

First, by framing her candidacy as a vote "against all" -- an option that was actually on the Russian ballot in the 1990s but was removed during Vladimir Putin's rule -- Sobchak is lowering the threshold for claiming a moral victory. She's, of course, not going to win and she knows it. But Russian elections are about the ritual, the optics, and the story. In her initial campaign video on her website (featured below), Sobchak makes a fairly compelling case for why this matters.

Second, by clearly saying that she would drop out of the race if Aleksei Navalny were allowed on the ballot (see video featured below), Sobchak is sending a pretty clear message that she does not want to be used as a foil against the opposition leader and anticorruption activist, who has been barred from running by the Kremlin.

Third, the dynamic between Navalny and Sobchak going forward will be fascinating -- and very telling -- to watch. If they act in tandem -- Sobchak on the inside and Navalny on the outside -- they could create a powerful force that could -- while not threatening Putin's reelection, which is a foregone conclusion -- severely damage the Kremlin's narrative and undermine the regime's legitimacy. If they operate at cross purposes, they will play right into the Kremlin's hands.

Next year's presidential election was already promising to be like nothing we've seen in the long Putin era. The rising discontent in society, the rise of a generation yearning for new political "products," and Navalny's unauthorized campaign from the sidelines already assured this. Sobchak's entry into the show makes it even more so.

Of course, Putin is going to "win" and the result is preordained. But this election is also about setting the stage for Russia beyond 2018.


Ksenia Sobchak, the Russian socialite, TV personality, opposition activist, and daughter of a former St. Petersburg mayor, says she will run in Russia’s presidential election in March, a challenge to President Vladimir Putin, who is widely expected to run for reelection.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions insisted he answered truthfully when he earlier said that he had no contacts with "anyone connected to the Russian government" about the 2016 U.S. presidential election, although he acknowledged he had meetings with the Russian ambassador at the time.

Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft says it has signed a production-sharing agreement with Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region worth up to $400 million.

Ukraine's parliament is set to consider changes to the immunity of lawmakers and the electoral law amid demands from protesters camped in front of the legislature to clamp down on corruption.

Five people were killed after a car plowed into a crowd of pedestrians in Kharkiv, Ukraine's Interior Ministry said in a statement that cited traffic-safety violations rather than an extremist plot or terrorist link.


Enter Candidate Sobchak

Former reality TV star and opposition pundit Ksenia Sobchak announces she will run for president on Dozhd-TV.

But adds that she would withdraw her candidacy if Aleksei Navalny were allowed on the ballot.

And launches her campaign website, on which she explains that by casting a ballot for her, voters can demonstrate their dissatisfaction with all the other candidates.

Meduza looks at the factors influencing Sobchak's decision and who will comprise her campaign team.

Opposition journalist Oleg Kashin gives his take on Sobchak in looks at suspicions that Sobchak cut a deal with the Kremlin.

And Mark Galeotti of the Institute of International Relations in Prague weighs in with a video commentary on what Sobchak's candidacy means.

Party Lines

Aleksei Gorbachev has a piece in Nezavisimaya Gazeta arguing that the Kremlin is in the process of reviving and rejuvenating the party A Just Russia as part of a renewed effort to establish a managed two-party system

The Czech Front

Coda has a piece on efforts to combat Russian disinformation in the Czech Republic's parliamentary elections.

Chatham House Report On Ukraine

Chatham House has released a new report: The Struggle For Ukraine.

Another Azerbaijani Journalist In Peril -- This Time In Ukraine

Eurasianet looks at the plight of opposition Azerbaijani journalist Fikret Huseynli, who is facing extradition from Ukraine.

Russia's Lost Economic Chance

Sergei Aleksashenko, a former deputy Russian finance minister and deputy Central Bank head, has an op-ed in The Moscow Times on why Russia was unable to transform the Soviet economy.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

A transcript of today's Daily Vertical can be found here.

Your daily roundup.


Aleksei Navalny has spent a lot of time in Russian courts over the past several years.

There was his trial for embezzlement in the Kirovles case back in 2013. There was his trial for fraud and money laundering in the Yves Rocher case in 2014. And there've been all those hearings over the years for participating in unauthorized protests.

But there is only one court that is not controlled by the Kremlin that has ever issued a ruling in any case involving Navalny -- the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

And it has done so in three separate cases.

In November 2016, the ECHR ruled that Navalny's conviction for embezzlement in the Kirovles case violated his rights and those of his co-defendant, Pyotr Ofitserov.

In February 2017, the European Court ruled that Navalny's conviction for participating in an unauthorized protest in 2012 was unlawful.

And this week, the ECHR ruled that Navalny and his brother Oleg were unfairly convicted of financial crimes in the so-called Yves Rocher case (see news story featured below).

Vladimir Putin has, of course, signed legislation effectively permitting Russia to ignore ECHR rulings it doesn't like -- which is a violation of Moscow's treaty obligations toward (and membership requirements for) the Council of Europe.

Russian courts have devised some convoluted work-arounds. After the ECHR's decision on Navalny's embezzlement conviction in the Kirovles case, the Russian Supreme Court followed suit and appeared to comply by overturning the verdict and ordering a new trial.

But in the new trial, the court issued the exact same ruling -- practically word-for-word -- as the overturned verdict. It was a clear and unambiguous snub of the ECHR ruling.

But despite all this, the ECHR's rulings remain a scathing indictment of Russian criminal justice.


Russia's top antiextremism police officer says the parents of minors who attend rallies held without government permission -- and possibly their teachers, too -- should be liable for punishment under the law.

A U.S. judge has dismissed a defamation lawsuit brought against the Associated Press by aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny and his brother Oleg were unfairly convicted of financial crimes at trial in the so-called Yves Rocher case in 2014.

A Moscow court has extended the house arrest for renowned theater director Kirill Serebrennikov, whose detention on fraud charges stunned the Russian artistic world and elicited support internationally.

Ukraine's military says that two of its soldiers were killed and four were wounded amid multiple cease-fire violations by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine on October 17.

Protesters calling for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to enact anticorruption reforms or step down scuffled with police in front of Ukraine’s parliament at a rally organized by firebrand politician Mikheil Saakashvili and other opposition leaders.


Exporting Kleptocracy

Ilya Zaslavskiy has a report out for The Hudson Institute: How Non-State Actors Export Kleptocratic Norms To The West.

Online Book - A Successful Failure: Russia After Crime(a)

Intersection magazine has released a new online book, A Successful Failure: Russia After Crime(a), which is available here in PDF format.

My Bodyguard

In his column for, opposition journalist Oleg Kashin argues that recent talk about former Putin bodyguard and current Tula Governor Aleksei Dyumin becoming president is a sign of the times.

Social Conservatives On The Defensive?

In Vedomosti, political analyst Dmitry Travin argues that socially conservative Russian politicians like Natalya Poklonskaya and Vitaly Milonov are suddenly finding themselves on the defensive.

War And Governance In The Donbas

In a commentary for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Mark Galeotti of the Institute of International Relations in Prague argues that the war in the Donbas will be won by the force of example, not the force of arms.

The Purge Of The Governors

In an op-ed for The Moscow Times, Natalya Zubarevich, a professor at Moscow State University and a regional program director at the Independent Institute for Social Policy, takes a closer look at Putin's purge of regional governors.

What Will Putin Say?

In Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Aleksei Gorbachev previews Putin's speech later this week to the Valdai Discussion Forum.

What Is Holding Ukraine Back?

On The Atlantic Council's website, Olena Tregub, a millennium fellow at the Atlantic Council and secretary-general of the Independent Defense Anti-Corruption Committee, looks at what is really holding Ukraine back.

Russia And The West Through Ukrainian Eyes

Steven Pifer, a former U.S. State Department official and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, has a piece on the Council of American Ambassadors website on how Ukraine views Russia and the West.

Trolling Timeline

Mother Jones has produced a timeline of revelations about how Russia used social media to disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The Hybrid Counter-War

Reid Standish has a piece in Foreign Policy on how Russia's neighbors are responding to Putin's hybrid-war tactics.

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About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or