RUSSIAN FEDERATION WEEKLY SITREP 20091022

ELECTION FRAUD. There are objective and perfectly understandable reasons for United Russia to win most elections in Russia. The population supports its leaders and, consequently, extends that support to their pedestal. In fact, Levada’s most recent numbers show United Russia with more than one and a half times as much support as all the others combined. The losers always charge vote fraud but usually it ends there. This time, the three losers, LDPR, KPRF and Just Russia actually walked out of the Duma in protest (all have now returned); there have been some small protests, the Communists are demanding the resignation of the Head of the CEC and says it will be holding rallies today. So this one has better legs (and supporting detail) than the pro-forma protests of earlier times. We will see what happens. Again, however, I stress that a consideration of polling numbers over time shows that United Russia is bound to win; cheating only determines the scale of that win (so, indeed, why do it at all?) Medvedev once murmured something about reducing the 7% threshold. I believe 7% is too high for Russia’s conditions (unless, of course, its purpose is to produce enormous United Russia majorities across the country) and it would be better to go back to the old 5% threshold. But there is no “correct” number and there is great variation across the world.

IRAN. Negotiations between Russia, the USA, France and Iran in Vienna have produced a draft agreement according to which Iran will export uranium to Russia for enrichment; it will then go to France for final processing for use in the Iranian reactor. But, Tehran is baulking at France’s involvement, or perhaps not, or maybe there’s more going on. I also notice that the Russian defence industry is warning that Russia will lose “billions” if the S-300 sale is dropped. They wouldn’t be saying this if they didn’t fear that it might be. Things are developing.

CUSTOMS UNION. We are told that the long-announced, and long-delayed, Customs Union between Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus will launch on 1 January.

STATE OWNERSHIP. Another strong hint from Medvedev that the state will sell off some of its holdings.

GLONASS. It is said that the 18 satellites necessary for full coverage of Russia are operating but there seems to be a problem with the next 6 necessary for world-wide coverage. A launch of 3 was again delayed.

ECONOMY. It is reported that GDP grew 0.6% quarter-on-quarter; this would be the first growth in more than a year. Overall, it declined 9.4% year-on-year.

RUSSIA-EU. Russia and the EU have begun negotiating a new partnership and cooperation agreement. The last agreement expired in 2007 but was automatically extended.

PRESS FREEDOM. Reporters Without Borders in its latest report puts Russia at 153rd in press freedom. I don’t take this organisation very seriously: one of its biggest concerns is deaths of reporters and it’s clear that it uses different standards for Russia: almost any reporter who dies is counted. And Georgia has improved 39 places!

GAS. Yerevan and Gazprom are negotiating new gas prices. Unnoticed by most of the Kommentariat, which obsesses on the notion that Moscow uses gas prices as a weapon against its “enemies”, Armenia, generally considered “friendly” to Moscow, has also had its price put up. Until March 2009 it paid US$110 tcm (then a common price for Moscow’s former USSR customers); it had a price rise to US$154 tcm from April 2009 to March 2010; the price was then expected to rise to US$200 tcm. But, with the fall of energy prices, Yerevan is hoping to sign for US$180. It is Moscow’s long-repeated aim to get them all up to European prices. None of them is yet and to that extent, Moscow/Gazprom continues to subsidise its neighbours.

UKRAINE. On Monday the Presidential election campaign officially opened in Ukraine. Preliminary indications suggest a very dirty campaign is coming. Current polls show Yanukovych well out in front at about 25%, Tymoshenko about ten points behind and Yatsenyuk about 5 points behind her. President Yushchenko is well at the bottom. Tymoshenko has hired Obama’s strategists. What an interesting end to the “Orange Revolution” it would be if Yanukovych, reviled by the Kommentariat as “Moscow’s stooge” were elected. But four years of the NATO obsession has exacerbated Ukraine’s divisions and taken attention away from its true problems.

GEORGIA. A train carrying fuel was bombed in Svanetia. I may be reading too much into this but the Svans are another of Georgia’s restive minorities and Tbilisi has still not caught Emzar Kvitsiani. Something to watch.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/)