CORRUPTION. A poll this week suggests the size of the problem. About three-quarters of the respondents believe the corruption level in Russia to be “high” or “very high” and that there has been no improvement in the last year or only an insignificant amount. The only encouraging thing from Medvedev’s perspective is that 15% believe corruption in the federal government is high down from 20% in 2006. (The cynic would suggest that the decrease may be more a result of publicity than reality). The most corrupt elements were named by respondents as: traffic police (33%), local government (28%), police in general (26%), society on the whole (23%), medical sphere (16%), education sector (15%), federal government (15%) and judicial branch (15%), big business (13%), military commandant offices (8%), show business (6%), the armed forces (5%), the trade sector (4%), the media (3%), political parties (3%), and parliament (3%). A comprehensive list indeed.
WAR AFTERMATH. Sarkozy and Medvedev worked out a settlement. Sarkozy said he brought a letter “from President Saakashvili with [Georgia’s] commitment to not using force against Abkhazia and South Ossetia”. An EU observer force of at least 200 will patrol the “security zones” in Georgia proper and Russia will withdraw its forces from there (the pullout from western Georgia is already underway). The EU, Medvedev reported, has said that it will “assist in resolving the conflict, including by launching international mechanisms to maintain security around South Ossetia and Abkhazia”. Yesterday Medvedev signed treaties with South Ossetia and Abkhazia that will allow Russian troops to be based there: “We will not allow any new military adventure”, and there are plans to build a gas pipeline from Russia into South Ossetia. The peace settlements of the early 1990s are, of course, dead. Meanwhile Saakashvili continues to make ever wilder accusations: the most outrageous being that the Russians destroyed Tskhinvali. As to his current excuse that the Russians moved first, see JRL2008/170/21. Two accounts of the war: Georgian and Russian; they both provide indications, as I thought, that the Georgians were stopped by the Ossetians and, when the Russian got there, fled.
KHODORKOVSKIY. Lost in last month’s news was the fact that the local court rejected his request for parole.
ECONOMY ETC. Inflation seems to be coming down in the second half of the year as the government hoped: RosStat reports that the cost of the basic food basket declined 3.7% in Aug from Jul and, more recently, that inflation has been 10% since the beginning of the year. The Central Bank, however, expects the year-end rate to be 12%. But the financial crisis is hitting Russia hard with big losses on its stock exchanges; the government remains publicly confident and has just made large short-term loans to some banks. So, all bets are off.
ARCTIC. Turn up the hyperventilation index to eleven.
CARIBBEAN ADVENTURES. Russia will send some naval units, including the Petr Velikiy, to exercise with the Venezuelan Navy. A couple of long-range bombers visited recently. No doubt designed to irritate Washington. But all I can say is: does Moscow really think that Venezuela, Nicaragua and Belarus are very useful allies?
CAUCASIAN RUMOURS OF WARS. In the last two weeks, there have been several fights with “illegal armed groups”, as Moscow calls them, in Dagestan and Ingushetia. The situation is not getting quieter – especially in Ingushetia where the ill fruits of Putin’s decision to push Ruslan Aushev out of the presidency are being harvested.
OPPOSITION IN GEORGIA. Immediately upon the ending of martial law in Georgia on the 4th, the opposition began demanding Saakashvili’ departure. An open letter called for the launch of a public debate; Nino Burjanadze, and many in the opposition, refused to sign his “Charter of Georgian Politicians”; Kakha Kukava said the United Opposition will demand early elections: “We will not allow Saakashvili to continue living in a virtual world and people in a bitter reality”. Former Defence Minister Okruashvili, confirmed as a political refugee in France last week, confirmed there were long-standing invasion plans; said Saakashvili’s “days are numbered”; his party demanded Saakashvili’s immediate resignation as did several others. Even though the news media in Georgia is completely under the control of the government, this level of dissatisfaction cannot be hidden. (Something that got little coverage in the West was the shutdown of Georgia’s last independent TV station in November: last broadcast in Georgian, Russia Today coverage, interview with US manager). I do not see Saakashvili going willingly and the question will likely turn on whether his security apparatus will be as loyal to him as it was a year ago.
© Patrick Armstrong, Ottawa, Canada