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