MEDVEDEV. Faithful readers will know that, for some years, I have been saying that Putin over centralised power; perhaps understandably, given his fears in 2000 that Russia could altogether collapse. I believe that his concentration of all decisions in the offices next to his strangles initiative (in this connection I am amused to see some in the Rightosphere picking up on his warning that the Soviet experience shows the folly of state control). I expected that his successor would have to take steps to change course. That is what I believe Medvedev is doing: witness his discussion with Novaya Gazeta, his re-activation of the human rights group, his remarks on the “information society”, his “fireside chats”, his list of leading personnel and others. It would be quite wrong, I believe, to search here for disagreements with Putin – they are a team and have been for some time and there is every sign that they are cooperating in their division of labour.

POLITKOVSKAYA TRIAL. The jury acquitted all defendants today. So where does this leave us? Another in a long series of bungled prosecutions.

UNEMPLOYMENT. RosStat announced that unemployment in January, using ILO methodology, was 6.1 million or 8.1% of “the economically active population”, up 5.2% from December. 1.7 million of these are officially registered and 1.4 million are receiving benefits.

OIL FOR CHINA. Yesterday Moscow and Beijing signed an agreement by which Russia will supply oil for 20 years in return for a loan.

LNG. Yesterday Russia’s first LNG plant was officially opened in Sakhalin. Capacity is said to be 9.6 million tonnes a year and most of it has already been sold to Japan, South Korea and the USA. Gazprom owns half plus one share and Royal Dutch Shell, Mitsui and Mitsubishi most of the rest.

POLICE. Levada has completed a poll on how Russians feel about the police. I was rather surprised that as many as 9% expressed “complete trust” and 46% were “inclined to trust”. That’s a lot higher than I would have guessed considering how poorly the police do in polls on corruption.

SLEDGEHAMMERS AND NUTS. The Piotr Velikiy, which is a very large ship, passing by, detained some pirates off Somalia. But other Russian ships are cooperating with EU’s ATALANTA operation.

MANAS. Today the Kyrgyz Republic parliament voted 78-1 to close the base. Perhaps Washington could have upped its offer, but it didn’t seem to try very hard and is apparently looking at Uzbekistan. I’ll bet Tashkent drives a harder bargain than Bishkek ever would have.

TRANSIT. A train carrying supplies to US forces in Afghanistan left Riga today to pass through Russia.

CAUCASIAN RUMOURS OF WARS. The slow background of violence continues in Ingushetia with a shootout last week and a car bomb this. The change of governor does not seem to have made any difference.

GENEVA TALKS. Yesterday the participants in the talks on South Ossetia and Abkhazia agreed to a modest set of provisions designed to reduce violence. A start. Tbilisi still seems, under present management unwillingly to solemnly declare that it won’t try another war. As Burjanadze observed on Tuesday, the August attack gives much ammunition to those who consider Georgia to be Georgia as “an unstable and unpredictable state”. Meanwhile a Georgian general has joined the opposition and Alasania, who is emerging as one of it principal leaders, laid out his program.

GAS WARS – UKRAINE. Some polls: 1) a majority of Ukrainians find the gas deal acceptable; 2) 70% think President Yushchenko should quit right now; 3) 54% blame him for the gas crisis and 44% blame Tymoshenko. Not a happy place: those “coloured revolutions”, based on fantasy narratives and raising unrealistic expectations, were disasters. And no one speaks of the “Tulip Revolution” any more.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see

Debunking the Latest Rumour: Manas Airbase

Note Feb 2016: I think this was a contribution to a section in ROPV that never quite took off.

Manas Airbase.

ISSUE. In 2001 the USA leased part of the Manas airfield in the Kyrgyz Republic to support US and Allied operations in Afghanistan. This month, President Bakiyev announced that he would seek to close the base. The Kyrgyz Republic Parliament will discuss the issue on 19 February.

INTERPRETATION: Many in the West saw Bakiyev as a puppet and the whole thing orchestrated in Moscow so as to embarrass President Obama. “Bakiyev Pleases Moscow” (Jamestown Foundation) “Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has been trying to reclaim the influence it once had in the former Central Asian Soviet republics, so Russian pressure on Kyrgyzstan is not unexpected.” (BBC) “”I think that the principal motivation is to reassert Russian influence and get visible U.S. presence out of former Soviet republics,” said retired Adm. William J. Fallon” (Huffington Post) “Russia Offers Kind Words, but Its Fist Is Clenched” (NYT). Most of these accounts mention Bakiyev’s objections but seem to regard them as just a cover for Russian machinations

COMMENT. But Bakiyev has long been tired with the relationship with Washington. “The president said he had repeatedly suggested that the US side should review the airbase agreement and raise the leasing fee for the airbase, but the suggestion was ignored. He added that the base closure was also caused by violations of law by US military personnel, including the killing of a Kyrgyz national by a US soldier in December 2006.

But there are other reasons why the issue has become a significant irritant.

  • The possibility that US forces might use the base to attack Iran or gather intelligence on China: support of the effort in Afghanistan is one thing, being draw into these issues is quite another.
  • The lack of the “trickle-down” benefits that, perhaps naively, were expected.
  • Concerns over the initial, possibly corrupt, agreement with the former President of the Kyrgyz Republic.
  • Growing scepticism about the effectiveness and length of the Afghanistan operation.
  • But, probably most important, the conviction that Washington regards the Kyrgyz Republic as a third-rate country to be taken for granted and fobbed off with indifference, patronising promises and extra-territorial arrogance. Media treatments that assume Bakiyev is Moscow’s puppet will not help this impression.

CONCLUSION: To regard Bakiyev’s decision (which may yet be reversed) as something dreamed up in Moscow is to grossly oversimplify the issue and make the common error of assuming that Moscow is the only actor.

FURTHER READING: John CK Daly: “The Manas Disillusionment”.

Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: For Real or for Show?

The first thing that should be kept in mind is that in the present duumvirate, Medvedev and Putin are not rivals. They are members of the same team and have worked together for years. Thus, the most logical beginning, rather than looking for disagreements, is to attempt to see how they work in a complementary fashion.

When Putin became president all indicators in Russia were negative (as a reminder see “Russia is Finished” from the Atlantic Monthly of 2001). His early speeches show that he was seriously concerned that Russia might literally fall apart. I believe that he had four aims when he began: to reverse Russia’s economic decline; to halt fissiparous tendencies; to improve Russia’s standing in the world, to institute what he called “rule of law” but what might better be termed “rule of rules”. He can – and has – claimed real progress in the first three but has admitted to little success in the fourth. Indeed he once said that corruption had been his greatest failure. His style of governance was very centralising, not surprisingly given his fears about breakup. It can be argued that all this worked reasonably well for most of his eight years.

Medvedev became president in a less desperate time (although the unexpected international financial crisis has taken some of the shine off the economy). Although he worked with Putin in the bad years, he presumably is not so concerned with the possibility of sudden collapse. He can, therefore, be more relaxed.

Another difference is that during Putin’s time (and Yeltsin’s for that matter) prime ministers were, with the notable exception of Yevgeniy Primakov, creatures of the president. All decisions came to the president’s desk (something Putin once publically complained about) and others obeyed (or, quite often, ignored) presidential orders. Under the present duumvirate, Russia now has a prime minister of real status. This permits a different division of labour. We indeed see Putin working at the “first minister” details and Medvedev discussing the larger “presidential” policy issues. This is not the only possible division of labour but it appears to be how this one is shaping up. Indeed, for one of the few times in its history, Russia has a degree of pluralism of power. This could lead to trouble, as dual power has before, but so far the two are cooperating. The common assumption that Putin still rules Russia is too facile: there can be no question that he could have amended the constitution and been elected for a third term. The astute analyst must seek to understand why he chose the course that he did.

Medvedev has his sphere and Putin has his. It is clear that Medvedev’s sphere is “rule of law”, in the widest sense, and encouraging the modernisation of Russia (witness his recent remarks on “the information society”). It is also probable that he seeks to loosen some of the centralisation (over-centralisation to my mind) of the Putin period. This should not be seen as disagreement with Putin, neither should it be seen as tension between the two, but rather what is appropriate for Russia’s circumstances today.

Finally, one should reflect on the fact that Russia has had two presidents in a row who were greatly affected by Anatoliy Sobchak. There should be less obsession, to my mind, with Putin’s KGB background and more consideration of the “Sobchak factor”.


ECONOMY. Last month the Finance Minister gave the prognosis: growth likely “close to zero”; budgetary revenues down, Reserve Fund (now US$215 billion) will be needed (that’s what it’s there for). RosStat says last year’s GDP grew 5.6%, down from 8.1% in 2007.

POPULARITY. There has been a great deal of flapdoodle about the declining popularity of the Duumvirate. Here are Levada’s latest numbers: Medvedev 75%, Putin 83%, government 58%. By contrast, Obama is in the 40s.

NOVAYA GAZETA. This newspaper has had another reporter murdered. Medvedev met with the editor and Gorbachev (a co-owner); he expressed his “deepest sorrow and compassion” and defended the right of the paper to criticise the authorities: “Thank God the newspaper exists”. Report by editor here.

HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL. Medvedev has revived a human rights advisory council and met with Chair Ella Pamfilova. Members include representatives from Memorial, Soldiers’ Mothers and Helsinki Group.

THE MIGHTY RUSSIAN ARMS BUILDUP. The operation in South Ossetia betrayed many deficiencies in the Armed Forces (JRL/2008/229/35). To fill some of them, it was announced last month that they would receive 3 (3!) UAVs over the next three years. Meanwhile it was reported that 70% of MiG-29s were too old to operate.

MUNICH CONFERENCE. US VP Biden made some openings and Moscow has generally responded with equal openness. But, all I can say was that Biden’s remarks were unimaginative. They were things that Moscow can do to help Washington and did not address the two principal irritants of endless NATO expansion and the missile bases in Europe. However, it’s early days yet and this is a welcome start. Merkel and Sarkozy also showed themselves more open. Can we see the “Saakashvili effect” slowly working its way through minds?

TRANSIT. Moscow and Astana will allow transit of non-lethal supplies for US troops in Afghanistan.

CFE. The Ambassador to NATO said Moscow would lift its embargo on the CFE Treaty if new NATO members ratified it. He claimed this was a well-known position but I don’t think I’ve heard it before.

CHECHNYA. The representative of the “Chechen Republic-Ichkeria”, Akhmed Zakayev, who actually represents neither many Chechens nor the jihadists still operating there, has said he is open for dialogue with Chechnya’s government and president. I doubt Groznyy is interested in “dialogue” but the amnesty offer remains open. It’s over.

GAS WARS, BELARUS. On Tuesday Lukashenka said there were no plans for Belarus to use the Russian ruble. While there is nothing new in this position – the currency question has been blocking the so-called Union State for at least a decade: Moscow doesn’t want to pay the “sticker price” for Belarus’s economy and Minsk doesn’t want to become a province – when Belarus’s gas contract comes up for renewal and the price goes up I’ll bet the Kommentariat (again) twists this into Moscow punishing Minsk.

MANAS. Kyrgyz Republic President Bakiyev in Moscow secured some economic benefits and, while there, said that he would not renew the US lease on the Manas airbase. Naturally many connected the two. And, while there may be some connection, Bakiyev’s reasons should be heard: he said that Bishkek had repeatedly asked Washington for more rent “but the suggestion was ignored” and referred to the killing of a civilian by a US serviceman – “violations of law by U.S. military personnel”. But it’s always easier to write about big bad Putin than do a little research. The base has become quite a contentious issue in the Kyrgyz Republic.

GAS WARS, UKRAINE. Gazprom gave some numbers: in 2009 it expects to sell Ukraine US$9.5 billion worth of gas and pay about US$2.3 billion for transit. President Yushchenko’s spokesman says that Kiev will not revoke the gas agreement (although he is quoted as saying it was a threat to Ukraine’s independence). On the other hand, PM Tymoshenko continues to blame him for the problem in the first place. Meanwhile it is reported that Kiev is seeking a loan from Moscow.

AND ANOTHER DESERTION. On Tuesday Georgia’s former Ambassador to the OSCE announced that he was joining the opposition: “I cannot continue working under the leadership of a president and a government I do not believe in. Soon all of Saakashvili’s supporters will be in the US State Department.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see