BALANCE. A Levada poll shows a probably important change in political reality. For years opinion polls have ranked the president distinctly higher than the PM or government. This was so even in the Yeltsin era (although all at very low levels in the latter years). What this poll shows is that Putin’s presence has pulled the government rating up: in the 40s through most of his presidency, it is now in the 60s. At the same time his rating remains in the 80s and Medvedev’s is in the 70s. If this trend holds – and why shouldn’t it? – Russia’s political structure will be much better balanced than it has been. Further evidence, to my mind, of my fifth hypothesis.
CORRUPTION ET AL. Medvedev mused that some provision should be made for transferring assets held by civil servants into trusts and said a first draft of a national plan for combating corruption has appeared. A presidential aide suggested that “independent directors” might replace state officials in some state-owned companies. Of course if that turns out to be a way of letting former members of Putin’s administration keep these lucrative positions… I can understand why you would want to place government officials in these important companies (remember Gazprom under Yeltsin?) but the problem then becomes: where do their interests now lie?
MILITARY. I have been hearing rumours of something happening in the defence apparatus. What has surfaced is that the Defence Minister said the Forces would be reduced to one million by 2013: The original target had been 2016 but “We suggested doing it faster…”. Then a 1st Deputy Defence Minister made the observation that training methods were still rooted in the 1960s and 1970s despite “the experience of the two anti-terrorist campaigns in the North Caucasus and the coalition forces in Afghanistan”. Yesterday the Public Chamber published a report about corruption in the Armed Forces: “Businessmen in epaulets” was a memorable expression. Maybe the rumours of disagreements current a couple of months ago have something to them.
TEMPS ET MOEURS. “2008 Nashi Summer Camp To Focus on Business Training Program” (JRL/2008/125/7).
TAXES AND FOREIGN NGOS. Putin has cut the number of international organisations that can avoid Russian taxes from 101 to 12. This will no doubt be played as another crackdown but a little time on Google suggests that at least one of the entities (IFAW) does not appear to have a Russian branch, although it has many other national branches. Maybe it should set up a proper local Russian branch. In short, this may have more to do with Russia treating such things as other countries do rather than allowing them to browse Russia for cash.
YAVLINSKIY. At the recent Yabloko conference, Grigoriy Yavlinskiy announced he was retiring as leader: his nominee, Sergey Mitrokhin was duly elected. I can’t help thinking that his adamant refusal to ally with anyone else has produced Yabloko’s decline and helped create the reality that today’s “liberal” “opposition” (how many sneer quotes can I get away with?) is little more than a stunt for foreign TV. The head of the St Petersburg branch, who has been critical of Yavlinskiy’s leadership, welcomed the change, saying he expected Mitrokhin to work towards a unification of this potential political grouping.
KHODORKOVSKIY. I have long wondered whether Medvedev might signal a new look by letting, one way or the other, Khodorkovskiy out of jail, given that the Yukos prosecution marked such a turn in Western conventional opinion about Russia. On the one hand, Khodorkovskiy’s lawyers have said they have advised him to apply for parole; on the other, new charges against him are been mentioned. We’ll see. It’s an issue receiving some debate.
IMPERIAL FAMILY. A spokesman for the Prosecutor General’s Office has confirmed that the bodies of Crown Prince Aleksey and Grand Princess Maria have been identified. So all the remains have now been found.
DEMOGRAPHICS. The latest statistics for January-April show continued improvement at each end, although the population is still shrinking: the decline was 96,000 this year compared with 148,100 for the same period last year. Births were said to be 547,100 (488,700 last year).
BELARUS. Medvedev and Lukashenka met; the communiqué spoke of cooperation “on the principles of a market economy”. So no cheap gas. On the other hand, Venezuela will lend Belarus US$500 million to help pay the bills.
CAUCASIAN RUMOURS OF WARS. Bombs in and around Abkhazia: Sukhumi blames Tbilisi, Tbilisi blames Abkhazian criminals. Sukhumi says Tbilisi has begun UAV flights again; Tbilisi denies it. On the 1st Sukhumi sealed the border with Georgia. Javier Solana recommended direct dialogue between the two.
© Patrick Armstrong, Ottawa, Canada