MEMORIAL RAID. On the 4th, in their customary heavy-handed and secretive way, police raided the St Petersburg offices of Memorial and took some documents. As usual, there are many more theories than facts: this blog entry summarises the various theories. The official line is that the raid was conducted pursuant to hate-crime laws (a notoriously broad category that can justify almost anything in Russia and elsewhere), although it seems improbable that Memorial is connected to an anti-Semitic film. Like so much else in Russia, the few known facts will be used as a peg on which to hang one’s pet theory.
DEMOS. The authorised nationalist march on the 12th attracted a few hundred people and passed off without incident. Other Russia, typically refusing the sites it was offered, tried to hold its protest at Triumfalnaya Square (which has to be one of Moscow’s busiest intersections) but few showed up.
PEOPLE POWER. There were, however, real demonstrations on Sunday. A number (thousands say some, a negligible number say police) in several cities in the Far East protested the large tax increase on imported cars that is due to come into effect next month. Many people east of Baykal drive second-hand cars from Japan (with right-side driver’s position, which adds a certain frisson to traffic conditions).
JURY TRIALS. On the 12th the Duma passed amendments to the Criminal Code eliminating jury trials for cases involving crimes like terrorism, treason, sabotage; the Federation Council passed it yesterday. Such cases will be heard by a panel of three judges. The stated reason is that, because so many of these sorts of crimes occur in the North Caucasus and there is such a network of family and clan there, objective juries cannot be found and, when found, jurors are easily threatened.
RUSSIA INC. The government’s official line remains optimistic: Russia will make it through. Moody’s has reduced Russia’s rating from “positive” to “stable” (Baa) and Standard and Poors to BBB in the wake of a drop in the ruble’s value and the fall in oil prices. According to the Finance Ministry, the federal budget surplus was about 6.3% of GDP in the 1st 11 months of the year. Meanwhile, RosStat reports that industrial production declined 8.7% this year compared with last. An official stated that foreign reserves were US$435.4 billion last week: down nearly $150 billion since the crisis began. He was hopeful that reserves will stay above $300 billion. We shall see: certainly the world-wide crisis has not yet bottomed.
CORRUPTION. Some fairly high-profile arrests lately. A criminal case on abuse of office has been opened against the former Russian Pension Fund head, the Investigative Committee arrested a Moscow deputy prosecutor for soliciting a bribe and today an aide to the Ground Forces Commander was arrested for taking a bribe. However, the Duma has delayed, by a year, the date of coming into force for Medvedev’s package of bills; Medvedev is said to be very angry.
GEORGIA. US Senator John Kerry, visiting Georgia, was told by opposition members that Saakashvili was a threat to Georgia and the world, Matthew Bryza (can we call him Tbilisi’s man in Washington?) was told by another leader that the opposition would attempt to force early elections and hoped the next US administration would “respect the choice of the Georgian people”. Zurab Noghaideli (PM Feb 2005-Nov 2007) stated that Saakashvili was incapable of governing Georgia: “The time of children playing in the sandbox is over in Georgia”. There must be more Saakashvili-era ministers in opposition today than in his cabinet. And, the rumour is that Georgia’s Ambassador to the UN is about to declare his opposition.
GAS WARS. Negotiations between Gazprom and Naftohaz continue without resolution despite the framework agreement between PMs Tymoshenko and Putin of October; the present contract expires in January. In the meantime, it is reported that local gas suppliers in Ukraine are beginning to cut off customers for non-payment. President Yushchenko just announced that Ukraine had paid US$800 million with another $200 million coming soon. This will still leave a debt of about one billion.
CAUCASIAN RUMOURS OF WARS. I have been noticing an increase in jihadist attacks in the North Caucasus over the past summer: Gordon Hahn’s essay on new tactics (JRL/2008/22740) puts this into context.
© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (See http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/)