TERM LIMITS. The Duma has approved the Constitutional amendments on term increases for itself and the President. When two-thirds of the regional legislatures approve (and not much doubt that they will) the new rules will take effect at the next election cycle. A reminder, for those who are still obsessed with the idea that Putin wants to be President forever, of how easy it would have been for Putin to have abolished or modified Art 81.3 had he wanted to.
POLITKOVSKAYA TRIAL. After much back and forth, the trial re-opened yesterday. The prosecution’s attempt to remove the judge has failed and the trial is open now to reporters and they are reporting.
DEMOGRAPHICS. More signs of an improvement: RosStat says the Russian population decreased by 116,600 to 141.9 million in the first 9 months of the year; last year’s equivalent decrease being 199,900. Births are up to 1.27 million from 1.18 million. Deaths are up slightly to 1.57 million from 1.56 million. Too early to make long-term conclusions, but the various programs are evidently having an effect. Not unconnected with the death rate is the Interior Minister’s statement that Russia has the highest rate of traffic accident mortality in Europe.
CORRUPTION. An Interior Ministry official tells us that, so far this year, police in Russia have committed over 60,000 violations and more than 3000 crimes. Public surveys typically rank police near the top of corrupt institutions.
UNITED RUSSIA CONGRESS. The ruling party held its annual meeting last week. Putin’s address concentrated on the financial crisis and his confidence that Russia would weather it. (For what it’s worth, the Finance Minister says banks’ liquidity has improved and they are lending more to the real sector). Putin also spoke of the social programs designed to reduce poverty and improve mortality numbers. These seem to be his current priorities.
SUBMARINE ACCIDENT. A sailor from the SSN Nerpa has been charged with negligence in connection with the fatal accident on the 8th.
UKRAINIAN ARMS SUPPLIES. Georgia received a lot of offensive weapons from Ukraine and the issue is causing a slow-burning scandal there. A summary of the situation can be found at JRL/2008/213/29. Certainly, it is hard to imagine how Georgia could have paid for what it received (or from the Czech Republic where, to my knowledge, there has been silence). So who did?
GEORGIA. On the 23rd Saakashvili claimed that shots were fired at him and Polish President Kaczynski near the border with South Ossetia. This report was picked up by a few Western news outlets but seems to have been generally treated with the derision it deserved and it is now reported that the Polish security forces are calling it a “Georgian provocation”. He has lost his credibility: the Civil Georgia report of the incident is remarkable for its lightly veiled disbelief. Meanwhile, Nino Burjanadze seems to be playing a careful game; keeping away from street demonstrations, she has created a new opposition party and described its immediate program: “We must get elections held and a new democratic leadership brought to power in a constitutional way”. Saakashvili has said he will not run again: do we see the shape of a palace coup developing? The Georgia parliamentary commission on the war is starting to run out of control. The testimony of the Georgian Ambassador to Russia has been especially devastating to Saakashvili’s version of events and his claims of endless Russian hostility. He stated there was a plan to attack Abkhazia in May that was called off (in late July Moscow sent some aircraft over Georgia that it thought, wrongly as it turned out, “dampened the zeal of hotheads in Tbilisi”). He also reported that “our leadership was saying that they had US support to carry out the military operation”. Personally, while I do not believe that Washington actually approved the invasion, I do regard it as culpable for not recognising what sort of person Saakashvili really is: in dealing with “hotheads” or “volatile” people, diplomatic language is rarely blunt enough. Tbilisi certainly thought it had Washington’s approval and it is understandable that it would: the training, the courtship, the rhetorical support. And all those weapons that flowed in while Washington said nothing.
© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (See http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/)