NATO. NATO’s courtship of Russia proceeds: now, according to the Secretary General, Russia is a “partner of strategic importance”. An earlier meeting between Russia’s CGS and SACEUR seems to have passed off productively. So maybe, although inevitably it will be concealed in NATO’s wooden language, the Lisbon summit may produce a breakthrough in relations – long overdue but welcome nonetheless. I could understand if Moscow, after 15 years of abuse and no longer the suppliant, were cool to NATO’s overtures. But for the good of us all I hope it rises to the occasion.
GAS WARS. Now that the zero-sum emotions are draining out of the gas price question, negotiations are quietly proceeding. Ukraine, which is in dire economic straits (the EU has just granted it a loan – after billions from the IMF), probably can’t pay the price previously agreed to (indeed one can wonder whether that’s where the loans have gone). So somewhat of a reduction appears to have been negotiated and a working group has been set up. In the meantime Moscow and Warsaw have quietly made an agreement. As another indication of the “Third Turn”, the EU Energy Commissioner proposed that Russian experts participate in developing the new European energy strategy. Amazing what you can do when you take geopolitical fantasies out of business discussions. The customers need the gas, Russia needs the customers: each has the upper hand, so to speak.
PROTESTS. The “31” protest on Triumfalnaya Sq attracted 800 or so people and passed off without incident. Except from Limonov, that strange ally of people who call themselves democrats, who, naturally, tried to make trouble. (Report) (Film) On the other hand, a small unsanctioned rally at the Japanese Embassy was broken up. The Duma passed amendments to the law which would have restricted protests. Medvedev vetoed them. And pretty forthrightly too: the amendments placed unwarranted restrictions on the right to protest. (Text in Russian here). Clearly the authorities have stopped worrying about peaceful protests (after all, a “coloured revolution” imported from outside is utterly inconceivable now; however unrealistically, I believe the authorities feared that one might be attempted back when they were the fashionable thing). And it’s a victory for the protesters and now we’ll see if there is actually anything there. But they should cut loose from Limonov and his NatBols.
RATINGS. A recent Levada poll puts approval ratings of Medvedev and Putin nearly even at 76% and 77% respectively. This will fire up the Putin vs Medvedev for next president industry. Not Putin I say. Another poll shows a good level of satisfaction and optimism in the population. Which is, of course, directly connected to the first poll. It’s not all that complicated: you don’t need huffing and puffing “that the country is living through a fresh round of repressions reminiscent of Soviet times” to explain the Duumvirate’s high support.
KASHIN. A newspaper reporter was severely beaten up on Saturday reawakening concerns about reporters’ safety. Medvedev ordered the Prosecutor General and Interior Minister to closely supervise the investigation. Most violence to reporters in Russia is because they run foul of biznessmen; this will no doubt be the same.
CORRUPTION. Investigators have sent the case against Sergey Storchak, a former deputy finance minister accused of embezzlement, to the Prosecutor General for a decision on whether to go to trial. Meanwhile, Konstantin Chuichenko, the head of the presidential financial oversight administration, says that corruption costs about 2.9% of GDP every year. This estimate is much lower than many that we have seen (often absurdly high, I think) but I gather that he’s talking mainly about kickbacks on state procurements. He proposes a monitoring board to reduce the problem.
AFGHANISTAN DRUG RAID. Last month Russian and US agents cooperated in a raid on a heroin factory in Afghanistan. President Karzai was reported to have been seriously offended because the raid was a surprise to him. However Medvedev spoke to him a few days later and apparently the issue has been resolved. Poppy cultivation is a major concern for Moscow because so much of the heroin winds up in Russia.
GEORGIA. The Iranian Foreign Minister visited Georgia on the 3rd and 4th. Highlights of the trip were agreements on visa-free travel between the two and the opening of an Iranian consulate in Batumi which is a significant port and the terminus of an oil pipeline. This ought to make even Saakashvili’s flacks in the USA, who tend to be suspicious of Tehran, give pause. I wonder if Saakashvili has decided he wants a new sponsor, given that the West wasn’t much help in his war in Ossetia.
© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/)