A NOTE ON FILLING THE PAGE. Today is the 490th Thursday that I have done a Sitrep. I have always been able to fill a page, some days more easily than others. This is the hardest I’ve worked to do so. For some years, we have been living with the “Russian Question”. One day, it, like the “Eastern Question” or the “German Question”, will pass and there won’t be enough happening to warrant weekly Sitreps. While that day is not here, we are, perhaps, closer to the desired end when Russia ceases to be a “Question” (with, FAR less bloodshed than the other two were settled, by the way, and far less than predicted by anyone). A “normal” Russia: one with which other countries may have trade disputes or strategic disagreements but will be confident that they can be settled “inside the box”. It’s a mixture of perception and reality: the latter changing much faster than the former.

TOURISM. A result of the growing prosperity of the Putin years has been a steady increase in tourism by Russians. 15 years ago the fear was millions of refugees; ten years ago thousands of criminals; the reality has become ordinary Russians on holiday. I have noticed this for some time but last year in the Mediterranean was interested to see that there are enough of them to justify guidebooks in Russian everywhere and we often had a Russian couple beside us in a cafe. This piece discusses the phenomenon. To my mind, the relative absence of such pieces in the MSM (although see JRL/2008/116/2) is a product of the meme that Russia is locked down by Putin and his Chekist minions. But, as Stalin understood, to really lock a country down, you can’t let people out and you can’t let people in. Perception and reality again.

POLITKOVSKAYA CASE. The Investigation Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office has announced that it has “finalised” the investigation into her murder. Murder charges have been brought against three Chechens and the police officer, earlier rumoured to have been the “spotter” for the killers, has been charged with abuse of office and extortion. The editor of the paper for which she worked, which has been doing its own investigation, questioned how “finalised” the investigation was. While it was “on the right track”, he reiterated that there were more people involved than the three shooters. As was evident the moment the prosecution’s case was outlined, the murder was not something ordered by the Kremlin, as so many in Western media outlets rushed to assume. As I thought from the beginning, it appears that she ran across some piece of information a “biznesman” didn’t want known.

KLEBNIKOV CASE. This is also the likely explanation in the murder of Paul Klebnikov some years ago – certainly it is the heart of the prosecution case. The Presidium of the Supreme Court just ruled that the decision to return the case to the Prosecutor and suspend the trial was lawful. The Prosecutor General’s Office believes that he was murdered at the order of a Chechen “biznesman” (now apparently dead himself) who didn’t like what Klebnikov said about him in a book. But the prosecutors have been unable to produce either killers or witnesses as is not unusual in mob hits.

TNK-BP. I have no idea what is going on and it appears that there is no clear opinion elsewhere either. Some see it as another Kremlin-inspired takeover while others believe it is an internal dispute.

YOU JUST CAN’T KEEP UP ANYMORE! The newspaper that published the false report that Putin was going to divorce has announced that it will resume publication; on the other hand, the eXile is stopping. While the latter’s closing will be – is being – spun as pressure from the centre, so was the former’s. Apparently the eXile was no longer making money for its backers. Newspapers are dying all over the world.

NORTH CAUCASUS. Quite a number of evidently coordinated small scale attacks across the North Caucasus on and around Russia Day. In Dagestan, a bomb in Makhachkala killed one, the authorities were after a group near the Chechnya border, and a bomb was defused near Khasavyurt. In Chechnya there was an attack on a village in the mountains and a couple of attacks elsewhere and in the Ingush Republic an attack on a police post. Nothing like the scale of a few years ago but a reminder that the jihadists are still there, as they are elsewhere around the world.

CAUCASIAN RUMOURS OF WARS. There was an explosion yesterday on the railway line in Abkhazia on which the Russian railway troops are working. Tbilisi denies any involvement. There are, however, a number of Georgian militia groups in Western Georgia that are not necessarily under Tbilisi’s control. Meanwhile accusations and claims continue from all parties.

© Patrick Armstrong, Ottawa, Canada


MEDVEDEV SPEECH. In his speech opening the St Petersburg International Economic Forum Medvedev said he wants to turn Moscow into a “powerful global financial centre”; well, to do so would require a substantial reduction of corruption, criminality and opacity. He spoke of liberalising the gas market and reducing taxes on the oil sector. He also spoke of helping to overcome the food crisis (but how? more wheat?). He took some shots at the USA’s financial policies and mused about how the UN or something could do it better. For the rest he tried to present a picture of a Russia, prosperous (1st DPM Igor Shuvalov next day said Russia would become the 6th largest economy by the end of the year) and an important and responsible participant in the world’s economy.

HUBRIS. That’s what it sounds like to me. Putin, yesterday: “Our country has asserted itself as a major economic player, it formulates principal items for global agendas. Russia is one of what one calls the chief newsmakers of the modern world.” My sarcastic response would be: only as an energy exporter; not very successfully; bad news. But seriously, while the contrast with ten years ago is striking and in Russia’s favour, it is not truly a big player, it has not had much luck with its interests (see NATO expansion, for example) and news coverage is all “energy weapon”, “journalist murders”, “aggression” and the like. I think the ruling class overestimates the strength of Russia’s position. That is a problem.

HUMAN RIGHTS. Some developments under the new regime. On the 10th Medvedev had a meeting with the Human Rights Commissioner Vladimir Lukin and that day signed two laws affecting the Commissioner’s position and the rights of prison inmates. In each case the theme seems to be to bring the Public Chamber and NGOs into the process. Lukin was quoted as cautiously approving the new laws. We shall see what difference they make. The Public Chamber is potentially an important force in Russia but it is still finding its feet.

AT LONG LAST. People who have suffered the Heisenbergian car trip to Sheremetyevo will be happy to know that a high speed rail link between the centre of town and the airport opened yesterday.

BUDGET SURPLUS. The federal budget surplus is reported to be about US$50 billion so far this year. What a change from the 1990s when enormous wage arrears were the main feature of federal finances. Now the problem is one of success: what to do with all the money without firing up inflation. Maybe it’s time to cut taxes: an increase in the threshold for the mineral extraction tax is in the works but individuals can usually spend their own money more wisely than governments can.

FRENCH CULTURE. There is an outbreak of cars being set on fire in Moscow: about 35 so far.

CHECHNYA. A Russian general has just stated that there are no plans to disband the East and West battalions in Chechnya. Which still leave a lot of questions unanswered. But, because Chechen conscripts are placed in these units Groznyy probably wants to keep them (and they are rather brutally effective).

SOCHI OLYMPICS. The decision to award the 2014 Winter Olympic Games to Sochi has repercussions. Quite apart from the (potentially eye-poppingly corrupt) process of building the millions and millions of dollars worth of facilities there, there are the Abkhazia implications. Sukhumi will want a piece of the action. The Russian companies involved will want to cut their costs by importing what they can from Abkhazia. This is likely the principal incentive to get the railway operating. An optimist would think that Tbilisi and Sukhumi will now have an opportunity to cooperate but I suspect that Sukhumi, remembering its sack in 1992 (quoting a Western scholar: “The campaign of looting, rape, torture and murder mounted by the Mkhedrioni in the region did much to poison relations between Mingrelia and the rest of Georgia… Georgian forces behaved similarly upon their entry into Abkhazia in the summer of 1992”). will not be interested. And Saakashvili’s record here and in South Ossetia does not inspire confidence. It’s probably too late. But the exigencies of the enormous construction effort in Sochi will likely make tensions worse. (Link to a rational and informed piece on Abkhazia: there’s a lot of baggage in this place and I can’t shake the fear that most Western officials haven’t a clue).

ABKHAZIA. Confirming my suspicion that Moscow’s principal motive in Abkhazia is fear of another war, Foreign Minister Lavrov said the other day that the Russian peacekeeping force had been increased not for “preparing any intervention” but “to prevent the possible use of force by our Georgian colleagues”. However, Medvedev and Saakashvili have had their first contact and maybe they can establish a better personal relationship.


© Patrick Armstrong, Ottawa, Canada


MEDVEDEV IN GERMANY. The conversation appears to have been mostly about gas pipelines but Medvedev expressed concern about the “increasing gap between Russia and the West” on security issues and reiterated his intentions to effect a “qualitative transformation” of Russia.

PUTIN INTERVIEW. When he was in France, Putin gave an interview (English summary, Russian) to Le Monde. As usual, it’s a straightforward unemotional statement of his views on present and past. It’s a “one stop shopping” trip for Putin’s view of things. The English summary above leaves out his remarks on Abkhazia where he, once again, attempted to educate a Western audience that the problem has deep roots that cannot be wished away.

LITVINENKO. Those who still accept the standard explanation might find this interview with Edward Jay Epstein interesting. From the start I have thought that Litvinenko was engaged in nuclear smuggling for his friends in Ichkeria and poisoned himself.

MONEY. As of 1 June the Reserve Fund had $129.32 billion and the National Welfare Fund $32.60 billion. Much of the first is supposed to be invested abroad which is a compelling indicator that Russia wants a quiet world.

MILITARY CHANGES. Yuriy Baluevskiy has resigned as CGS and will become Deputy Secretary to the Security Council (is it still a parking lot for retirees?); Nikolay Makarov will succeed him. There have long been rumours that Baluevskiy and Defence Minister Serdyukov have been at odds and perhaps they are true. Or maybe, it’s Medvedev putting new makeup on the Russian face. Or maybe he’s had enough.

ENERGY. Medvedev has issued a decree setting targets for improving Russia’s efficiency in using energy. Just as well if we are indeed facing another Maunder Minimum.

POLITKOVSKAYA. The Prosecutor General’s Office has announced that the preliminary investigation into her murder should be complete by the 20th. Although, as the editor of her paper observed, the case can hardly be called finished when neither the killer, nor the man who ordered it, is in custody.

ALTERNATE FUTURE. On Tuesday Grigoriy Romanov died, aged 85. At one point, he was regarded as a strong contender for the post of GenSek. I think we’d be looking at a rather different, and much worse, situation today if he had been.

CHECHNYA. Groznyy continues its tiptoe towards as much independence as it can get: an official has announced that Chechen conscripts into the Russian army this year will not serve outside Chechnya.

CAUCASIAN RUMOURS OF WARS. The International Crisis Group has issued a report on Abkhazia. Unusually for Western discussions of the issue, it is both balanced and informed and doesn’t take the conventional route of blaming Moscow alone: “It [Tbilisi] has quietly been making military preparations, particularly in western Georgia and Upper Kodori. A number of powerful advisers and structures around President Mikheil Saakashvili appear increasingly convinced a military operation in Abkhazia is feasible and necessary.” I remain convinced that Tbilisi would lose such a war and that Moscow will do what ever it has to to prevent it. There is, as the report admits, a considerable danger of spillover, just there was the last time Tbilisi decided to solve the problem by war.

ABKHAZIA RAILWAY. The railway from Russia, via Abkhazia, to Tbilisi has been closed (and decaying) since the Abkhazia-Georgia wars of the early 1990s. In February 2006 an agreement was made between the parties to re-open it. Last week Russia put about 400 railway troops in to rebuild tunnels, bridges and power supplies. Tbilisi has complained, insisting that it never gave permission. The timing of the Russian move has probably some connection with the decision to award the 2014 Winter Olympic Games to Sochi. There will be more activities like this in preparing the area and Sukhumi is certainly hoping to make some money out of all the visitors to a city which is only about 30kms from its border.

PEACEKEEPERS IN ABKHAZIA. The end of the Abkhazia-Georgia wars established a Russian-Georgian-Abkhazian peacekeeping force which has been there ever since (and very likely prevented another war). Ukraine’s Defence Minister has said that Kiev will sent troops if Tbilisi wants it to. We will see what this amounts to: presumably Moscow and Sukhumi would have to agree as well if Ukrainian troops are to be added to the force, but it could be a productive step as Kiev has no axes to grind there.


© Patrick Armstrong, Ottawa, Canada