FREEDOM OF OPINION. We hear a great deal about how Russia’s media is not free, but because the discussion is usually only about the “old media” and not about the “new media”, a distorted picture is given about citizen access to information. Which is the really important thing. But the “old media” is dying everywhere for a variety of reasons. A recent poll (JRL/2009/21) gives some numbers on Russian access to the Internet: daily use is claimed by 22% of the population; naturally Moscow (49%) and St Petersburg (40%) are the highest. This site suggests Russian “Internet penetration” is about half the European average and about one-third of the North American average. But the main point is that the Internet is free – there is no government control and once you’re on it, you’re on it, whether you’re in Ottawa or Omsk. So assessments of Russians’ access to different opinions ought to take into account the fact that about a third of Russians say they use the Net at least once a week and that number is, of course, growing all the time and more wide-spread among young than old.

PR. The Presidential Administration head Sergey Naryshkin will head up a commission to improve Russia’s international image. In his copious spare time. The piling of new duties on a few key players is rather Putinesque and not particularly effective.

FOR YOUR DELECTATION. Volcano in the Kuriles from the ISS.

CAUCASIAN RUMOURS OF WARS. Another two weeks of bombs, assassinations and counter moves culminating in the attempted assassination of the President of Ingushetia. There’s no doubt in my mind that one of Putin’s biggest mistakes in the region was replacing Ruslan Aushev.

THE GREAT RUSSIAN MILITARY BUILDUP. The plan to build aircraft carriers has been dropped. Meanwhile this year the Russian Armed Forces added 10 tanks and 20 fighters to its roster. And 12 UAVs bought from Israel.

CSTO. The CSTO agreed to form a joint rapid reaction force involving troops from Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Before we have the usual comments, there are two things to bear in mind. First, this was tried before in the 1990s and nothing much came of it and second, the threat in that part of the world is from jihadism which is supposed to be a major role for NATO.

DAIRY WARS. These appear to be over; I have no idea what was going on; here’s some speculation and summary of theories. Certainly, if Moscow was trying to bully Minsk, it doesn’t seem to have succeeded.

DEMOGRAPHICS. A reminder that not just Russia has a demographic problem: the population of Ukraine has dropped from 52 million in 1990 to 46 million. Population loss is a widespread post-communist phenomenon.

HISTORY. Latvia is reported to have suspended its commission calculating the cost of the Soviet occupation; saving money was the reason given.

MANAS. Washington and Bishkek have come to an agreement on the use of the base. Bishkek had three principal concerns: the money, the possibility of the base’s use in US operations other than Afghanistan and alleged crimes. The rent has tripled and there is about $100 million for other things; the base is now supposed to be only for “the transport of non-military goods of a commercial nature”. As to extraterritorial issues, nothing has been said. So, it appears that Bishkek has got most of what it wanted. Medvedev approves.

EU REPORT ON SOUTH OSSETIA WAR. Der Spiegel has a piece purporting to be based on leaks from the uncompleted EU report on South Ossetia war, It will not give any comfort to Tbilisi; especially to Saakashvili’s (postwar) claim that Russian forces entered South Ossetia before Georgian forces did. Meanwhile Russia’s CGS has said the number of troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia will be reduced. Further indications of a disconnect between the EU and Washington on views of Georgia as is the PACE report below.

GEORGIA. Open violence began on the 15th in front of the Interior Ministry. The police claim they were trying to arrest some people and the protesters fought back. Perhaps, but reporters were beaten and so was an identified member of Georgia’s Public Defender’s office. Readers are invited to scroll through this site to see other actions by the authorities of intimidation, kompromat at al. My guess is that it will get more violent, not least of all because of the way the protesters feel that they are being ignored by the West. Although PACE has noticed “the growing number of attacks by unknown assailants on opposition activists and peaceful demonstrators”.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see


NORTH CAUCASUS. Medvedev visited Makhachkala, Dagestan yesterday for a Security Council meeting and stated that “Overall, 308 crimes of a terrorist nature have been committed so far in the North Caucasus in 2009”. His solution was a combination of security activity and amelioration of “root causes” among which he named “low living standards, high unemployment and massive, horrifyingly widespread corruption”. A plan was apparently evolved at the meeting: we shall see. The question is: to what extent are the attacks on police and officials (8 in the last week!) a product of desperation and a habit of killing after all the warfare there; “normal” (in the Russian context) “bizness” disputes; or the operations of jihadists? Whatever the cause may be, and it’s likely a combination, the situation is growing slowly worse. It is a very explosive place: quick roundup at JRL/2009/109/12. Another reason, by the way, to try and keep a rein on Saakashvili’s military ambitions: the last time Georgia tried forcibly to incorporate the unwilling people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, fighters from the North Caucasus, seeking the re-creation of their “Mountaineer Republic”, fought there. They brought their fight home and, especially, to Chechnya. Chechnya attracted a professional jihadist named Khattab who was instrumental in causing the second war. Moscow does not want a repeat performance.

PIKALYOVO. The transcript of Putin’s meeting in the town is worth reading as an illustration of many of Russia’s problems “in the weeds”: a Soviet-era unified plant complex was broken up in the privatisations; maybe there was some ripping off; as the sole employer, it had large responsibilities for the town’s social welfare system; the world economy reduced demand for its products; the workers exhausted normal channels and only got attention after blocking the highway; the issue required the personal intervention of A Boss. It is also an example of Putin’s style and authority. By the way, he did not call Deripaska a “cockroach” as has been sloppily reported (see the end of the transcript). This is not the first time Putin has been wilfully misquoted – see, for example “greatest geopolitical catastrophewhich is endlessly recycled to prove his evil.

RUSSIA INC. Putin reported that foreign investment totalled US$12 billion in the first quarter, down 30% on the previous year. The federal budget deficit so far this year is US$16.3 billion or nearly 4% of GDP. International reserves are up to nearly US$410 billion.

CHECHNYA. Kadyrov says Doku Umarov, the current “Amir of the Caucasus Emirate”, has been seriously wounded, possibly killed. But this has been said before and we await confirmation.

GAS WARS. After all Moscow’s huffing and puffing, Naftohaz paid Gazprom in full for May’s gas deliveries.

HISTORY. A film discusses the Lenin statues still standing in Kiev. Some think they should be removed (totalitarian reminders have no place in a democracy) others that they should stay (part of our history). A reminder that the issue is not just a Russian one and still attracts passions all over the post-Soviet space.

MANAS. Perhaps the US-led coalition will get Manas airbase back: Afghan President Karzai sent President Bakiyev a letter requesting an extension to the lease. Bakiyev had numerous grievances about the previous deal that will have to be met but signs from Bishkek seem promising. But Bishkek appears to have two principal issues: the fee and the worry that the base may be used for other things than supply to Afghanistan.

BELARUS. The Russian consumer rights organisation has banned almost all dairy products from Belarus; its story is that producers failed to comply with new legislation.

GEORGIA. In a speech attempting to explain why so many of his former allies were calling for his resignation, Saakashvili essentially said they were all corrupt; at other times he has accused them of being Moscow’s stooges. Meanwhile his former Ambassador to Moscow and his former Foreign Minister appealed to the West to pay more and better attention to Georgia and the actual nature of Saakashvili’s rule. Yesterday one of the opposition leaders, Levan Gachechiladze, and Saakashvili met. According to the former, “I could not see in him even a bit of sign that he is ready for changes. So I think and I firmly believe that our struggle should continue and become more radical”. About 20,000 marched in Tbilisi yesterday to commemorate 2 months of protests. As the stalemate grows, violence is becoming more possible (there were some explosions today in Zugdidi). Quiet repression is reported in the background: the sort of things, indeed, that would be headlines were they said to be happening in Russia).

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see


THE DUUMVIRATE. A thoughtful piece by Igor Yurgens discusses the political power situation. “It is very unusual that there are two very respected and influential people who are friendly and share a single ideology, but occupy two different, powerful positions. For the first time, our country literally reflects our coat of arms, with the two-headed eagle. Some people get confused, especially political experts. In business, there is more common sense, though.” I have come to believe that Putin’s decision to become PM was a step towards political pluralism and that he and Medvedev operate as heads of a team (and have done so for some years). I agree that many political commentators are confused. One of the bigger problems in Russia coverage is what I call neo-Kremlinology: the assumption that Russia only has a dozen or so actors and the story is their interaction and (presumed) power struggles. For my money, this is usually wrong-headed and a waste of time. I have also been struck for some years how differently businessmen see things, probably because they spend so much time away from the hothouse atmosphere in Moscow. The duumvirate is a peculiar situation, quite new to Russia and uncommon elsewhere: it deserves careful thought and observation rather than the Procrustean approach. Yurgens also points out that it is misleading to focus on the principals: “there is no duumvirate, there is a collective of people who have decided to deal with this situation as a team”.

CORRUPTION. Another small step: the Interior Minister has announced that police will be wearing name badges by the end of the year. Permanently attached to their uniforms, it is said.

PIKALYOVO. This town has lost all its employers and residents have been protesting. Putin visited today, ordered wage arrears to be paid immediately and promised to re-start production is the owners could not agree. Good, I suppose, but is this really in his job description?

CARS. A Russian (GAZ)-Canadian (Magna) consortium has bought a controlling interest in Opel, General Motor’s European arm. GAZ says it can begin production of Opel cars in 9 months. Meanwhile Nissan has officially opened its plant in St Petersburg. There is a large market for cars in Russia.

TUSK GIVES THE GAME AWAY. Interfax carries an interview with Donald Tusk, the Polish PM, in which he speaks of the need for US missiles there. Readers may recall that the ostensible reason for them had to do with Iran. But Tusk says nothing about Iran: “We need to strengthen our defense, especially that against missiles… We would like to see that NATO does not only confine itself to words about solidarity, but we would like to see that this can be tangible in case of a strike” Strike from where if not Russia?

GAS AND UKRAINE. Putin gave a rather pessimistic assessment of Ukraine’s ability to buy the gas to keep the system operating and that it was “unlikely” that Gazprom would pay 5-7 years in advance for transit payments (it has already paid one year in advance) and that the EU appeared “unable” to lend it the money. Gazprom’s CEO said there was “no possibility” of a cut-off under the present agreement. But Naftohaz has to pay somebody something and the next payment for May’s domestic consumption and gas to fill reservoirs is due 7 June. The Europeans will be sending a commission to Moscow and Kiev to assess the potentially dangerous situation. Meanwhile the political struggle continues with Tymoshenko and Yanukovych now in coalition talks.

GEORGIA. As Saakashvili stonewalls, the opposition is re-considering its tactics although protest demonstrations continue in Tbilisi. There do not appear to have been many protests elsewhere – the government’s total control of the news media means that its standing is higher in the countryside. Most of the opposition parties have signed a “Charter of Commitments” pledging themselves to support democracy and a “balanced” foreign policy of “Closer ties with our western partners and strengthening of course towards EU and NATO. Normalization of relations with Russia based on Georgia state interests and launch of new stage of relations with Russia based on mutual respect”. I recommend Nino Burjanadze’s piece Support Georgia not Saakashvili”. It is encouraging to find some coverage of the other point of view in the Western media (especially the USA’s). She is the other of the two survivors of the “Rose Revolution” triumvirate and to be taken seriously. (I am amused to see that The Economist’s view does not convince many readers).

MOLDOVA. After the latest election the ruling Communist Party fell one short of being able to name the new President. Two of their candidates have been rejected: parliament faces dissolution and a new election.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see