RULE-OF-LAW. At the St Petersburg Legal Forum Medvedev said: “Over these last years we have made progress in putting in place the foundations on which we can build a rule-of-law state in our country.” I think that’s a fair statement: he’s essentially saying that the beginning has been begun and not pretending that what’s been done is enough or that the job is finished. Police reform, legal changes, dismissals, some trials; that’s not nothing. I find that too much comment on Russia is absolutist: either a reform is 100% successful right now or it’s 100% failure. But, in the real world, it’s all incremental and one should look for small progress. It’s there.

POLICE REFORM. Medvedev has signed a decree establishing advisory panels at regional police headquarters. They are to “coordinate issues of public importance concerning the interests of peoples, federal and regional bodies of state power, local self-governments, and public associations”. That’s quite a lot he’s done in this area. Its effectiveness will be revealed in the next few years but again, it’s not nothing.

CORRUPTION. A military trial has charged a commissioning officer of selling rations and substituting dog food. The whistleblower who broke the story (YouTube again) was dismissed earlier. The base in Vladivostok was also found to have illegal immigrants doing construction work. More and more stories of wide-spread corruption in the Armed Forces are coming out. I wonder if a police-style sieving process will come there.

PEOPLE POWER. Civil society is pretty weak in Russia for obvious historical reasons but I am always watching for shoots to appear and here is a small one. A group of women have formed an organisation in Ulan-Ude to improve social problems in the region.

BLUE LIGHTS. But a bigger sign of success for a grass-roots protest is that Just Russia has proposed legislation to limit blue lights to cars that carry the President, the PM or emergency services vehicles. There are said to be about 1000 cars in Moscow with the official right to carry them and make everyone else get out of the way. (It does appear, however, that the do-it-yourself blue lights so common for plutocrats and hoods in the 1990s have been somewhat reduced). If Just Russia gets the law through – and it will be a popular one and hard for the other parties to object to – several ends will have been served. First the protesters will have been vindicated and we will have a law that truly came from the bottom up (the first ever in Russian history?). Second, Just Russia will have established a bit of space between it and United Russia which will be something for the Duma elections and a tiny step towards pluralism. If United Russia uses its majority to bury the proposal that will have an effect in the elections too. Very interesting to watch this play out.

KHODORKOVSKIY. The Moscow City Court heard the appeal and upheld the second conviction of Khodorkovskiy and Lebedev but cut their sentence by a year. They will now be out in 2016. It also closed a criminal case against them on the grounds that the term of the case had expired. So, just the tiniest mercy. Amnesty International has declared them “prisoners of conscience”.

PRIVATISATION. Putin has approved the sale of 7.58% of Sberbank’s share capital; at the end the government would own 50% plus one share. It is planned that a number of government holdings will be sold.

G8 BILATS. Medvedev and Obama said nice things about each other (and Doku Umarov was added to a US program that offers a reward for information about his whereabouts – it has taken official Washington a very long time to understand what’s going on in the North Caucasus). Sarkozy said the two had agreed that a contract for the Mistral will be signed in 15 days (2 built in France, 2 in Russia) and “we should treat Russia as a friendly state and involve it in our deliberations ​​about creating an extensive space of security and prosperity”.

GEORGIA. Protests against Saakashvili have begun again, led by Burjanadze. I notice signs in English, which weren’t common in earlier protests: clearly an appeal to the outside world. We see the usual problems of disunity: Okruashvili was supposed to return to Georgia but didn’t and the numbers are not large. Standard reactions from the regime: a film purporting to show some of the protesters planning violence (why always videos?) and Saakashvili says it’s all the hand of Moscow. The protests were broken up by riot police today with some complaints of excessive force. The protesters set up defences and fought back. The planned military parade went ahead. Will the protesters succeed this time? Probably not, but one day they will: the long-term prospects for Georgia are not encouraging; see this Chatham House paper by an experienced observer.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see

Putin’s Popular Front

Note February 2016. These were done for the Russia Profile Weekly Experts’ Panel which I cannot find on the Net now. Many were picked up by other sources and I have given links where I can find them.

JRL/2011/ 91/16

Believing that Ockham’s Razor is the most powerful analytical principle ever articulated, I would try first to understand Putin’s popular front idea by assessing the reasons he gave before trying to fit it into more elaborate schema.

Putin’s two reasons were: “First, the State Duma elections will be held soon… And it is very important how the parliament will be formed. Second. Frankly speaking, United Russia, our leading political force, needs an influx of new ideas, proposals and people in these circumstances”. (Note “and people”)

The first reason ties into his speech in April: “If United Russia wants to be competitive in the political struggle with other public organisations and political parties it should create a competitive atmosphere within its own ranks” and “The six hundred candidates listed on the ballots should be up for review and discussion with all voters in the regions and municipalities, not just their respective party members”. The popular front speech is a follow-on to that speech.

The second reason – related to the first – is his concern that United Russia is stagnating. “New ideas” has been a concern of his for some time; for example, in 2008 he stated that “The goal of our party is to generate new ideas and projects and control their implementation. We need to understand public opinion and people’s needs.” He has evidently decided that United Russia, from its own resources, has not met that goal.

And it’s not surprising that United Russia is no wellspring of creativity: its membership is drawn from those who want to be close to power and profit from that closeness. They wait to be told what “new ideas” they should support; it is not in the nature of power-seekers to propose new ideas: what if the Boss doesn’t like them? But, for better or for worse, it is Russia’s “leading political force” and the Team must work with it. Therefore, Ockham’s Razor would suggest that the popular front is Putin’s latest attempt to bring a level of creativity into United Russia.

Russia’s politics are stagnating: United Russia is what it is; no “new ideas” will come from either the Communists or Zhirinovskiy; Just Russia is a fading earlier attempt by the Centre to force creative tension; the liberals refuse to unite. This political reality will endure for some time.

It does not seem very likely that Putin’s popular front will attract much creativity: now that the Boss has given them a new box to check, they will simulate creativity. Bureaucracies the world over are skilled at adjusting their behaviour to pretend to give the Boss what he wants.

Ultimately the “influx of new ideas” must come from the bottom and that brings us to the infant state of Russia’s civil society. Both Medvedev and Putin have spoken of this lack: Putin in his 2000 Federal Assembly Address: “Many of our failures are rooted in the fact that civil society is underdeveloped” and, eleven years later, Medvedev: “I think that bigger involvement on the part of civil society in discussing sensitive issues will do our country good. We have deeply rooted totalitarian traditions, and it will take time”.

It will indeed take time, and a healthy civil society will not appear by fiat from the top. Until it appears and strengthens Russia is stuck with its present political landscape.


MEDVEDEV PRESS CONFERENCE. Medvedev gave a large press conference yesterday. He said he would announce “soon” whether he will run again. The inquiry into Sergey Magnitskiy will be concluded “soon”. He several times stressed that no one should stay in power forever (in the context of saying he had replaced half the regional leaders) and that people who do so come to “a rather bad end”. Russia’s political system is still being adjusted (“a forming democracy “) and that it was possible that Federation Council members (and governors) might be directly elected (not, apparently, “soon”). He understood that “local authorities try to varnish everything” when he comes to visit, but said that he also got information from blogs etc which “cut right to the truth”. Relations with NATO were “not that bad” but he reemphasised that Moscow had to be sure that “these strike potentials will not be directed at us”. (Many of course see this and similar statements as threats; they aren’t, they’re conditional warnings: if Russia feels it is threatened – which it doesn’t today – it will take counter steps. A perfectly understandable position and one that any country would take). But, once again, sometimes the level of detail was preposterous. I have noticed this many times in his and Putin’s Q&A sessions: a version of “my roof is leaking Mr President, will you repair it?”. The third question was about parking in Moscow. Medvedev answered the question in some detail but I believe he would have been wiser to say: ask the Mayor, that’s not my job. The Boss – even if there are two of them – cannot do everything.

KHODORKOVSKIY. The relevant court has postponed the hearing of the appeal of Khodorkovskiy and Lebedev against their second sentencing until next week: the reason given that more time was needed to study “the large volume of complaints about the sentencing”. Meanwhile the defendants have asked the Russian Investigative Committee to open a criminal case against the judge who sentenced them in December. At his press conference Medvedev said that the release of the two posed no threat to society. The Khodorkovskiy case did a great deal of damage to Russia’s reputation in the outside world and I and others wondered what Medvedev would do about it. Perhaps the second verdict will be overturned and the two will be released when they finish their first terms.

NAVALNIY. More pressure on this anti-corruption campaigner – the logo on his website (showing a double-headed eagle with a saw in each claw) mocks the state symbol. This, combined with the other story, begins to look like an organised campaign to shut him down. He will have offended many powerful people.

MIRONOV. The St Petersburg Legislative Assembly recalled Sergey Mironov from the Federation Council. He is pretty calm about it and says he will continue to be active in Just Russia and he may re-appear as a Duma Deputy: several Deputies are said to be prepared to give up their seats for him. (The logic of proportional representation is that no one votes for an actual individual). This may be a manoeuvre to show that Just Russia is not just an appendage of the Kremlin. I believe it to be a possibility that one member of The Team could run on the Just Russia ticket and another on the United Russia ticket and this may be part of such a plan.

BLUE LIGHTS. Another egregious case of their misuse: the driver for Sergey Shoygu was filmed (camera phones are ubiquitous) abusing (threatened to shoot him if he didn’t get out of his way) another driver, He was alone in the car at the time. He has been fired. I’m sure this will ignite the protesters again.

MILITARY. As a further indication that Russia’s ambitious military re-building program is not going well, several military and defence industry officials were dismissed Tuesday for poor performance in implementing the arms procurement program.

FLASH MOBS. A flash mob in Moscow in honour of this. And another one on a more serious subject. A species of civil society.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see


POPULAR FRONT. The fundamental problem with United Russia is that, being a pedestal party, its members aren’t especially interested in new ideas: they only want to stay in with the statue standing on it. Putin has complained about this before and in his latest idea to bring some life to Russia’s stodgy political system, announced on Friday at a United Russia conference the creation of a “popular front”, Set up the next day, it is supposed to harness the creativity of the population and bring forward good ideas. Blunt as ever, he gave two reasons: the Duma elections are coming (presumably this ties into his notion of something like primaries before candidates are chosen) and Frankly speaking, United Russia, our leading political force, needs an influx of new ideas, proposals and people in these circumstances”. I’m sceptical: first, this is too top-down and second, all the kratotropes in United Russia will comb the Bosses’ speeches so that they can enthusiastically agree with whatever they propose.

HERMITAGE CAPITAL. Two stories: the official Moscow story and Browder’s. Moscow said Hermitage Capital participated in a tax fiddle, Browder was a “threat to national security” and expelled him in 2005. Some officials were dismissed, some arrests were made and the case lumbers on. Browder’s story is that Russian tax officials robbed him and set him up. Browder’s story is looking better these days: Swiss authorities have just frozen the bank accounts of the tax officials that he accused. This all ties in with the death of Sergey Magnitskiy, a lawyer for Hermitage, who was arrested when he made these accusations and died in pre-trial detention in November 2009. An investigation into his death was ordered by Medvedev and is due to report soon. But that only covers Magnitskiy’s death; a part of what appears to have been a very elaborate operation. This case will be a test of how serious the anti-corruption campaign is, especially now that the Swiss authorities have brought new evidence to light. The complicated story, from Browder’s perspective, is here and this website covers events.

NAVALNIY. In something that may be related to the Hermitage Capital case, the anti-corruption campaigner Aleksey Navalniy, who runs a Wikileaks-style website (rospil), has been himself charged with fraud. He insists it is a false charge to shut him down.

POLICE REFORM. Four more senior officers apparently did not pass through the sieve.

MARKELOV AND BABUROVA MURDER. Sentencing finally: life for Tikhonov and 18 years for Khasis. Their suicide attempts are understandable.

FOREST FIRES. Now that it is the forest and peat bog fire season again (34 in Siberia so far), Shoygu, whose Ministry is responsible for fighting them, has proposed that networks of “public patrols”, with direct links to his Ministry, be created to keep watch. In the Soviet days there was an extensive network of federal forest rangers but this service was disbanded in 2007 and the responsibility downloaded to regional governments. In hindsight, obviously a mistake and it’s evident that Shoygu is trying to bring something like that back.

KHIMKI FOREST. Even though the decision has been made to route the highway through it (with vague assurances of some sort of offset) the issue is not going away. An unauthorised protest was put down with heavy-handed police tactics on Sunday.

BORDERS. One of the more naïve charges against Russia in the 90s was that it had not settled its borders with the former SSRs – the implication being that this was an indication of its desire to “restore the empire”. Naïve because it actually takes a very long time to delineate an international border in a context in which the former inter-USSR borders didn’t matter very much and many tiny details (routes of power lines or navigable channels in rivers for example) have to be laboriously negotiated. To say nothing of the expense of constructing signage, crossing points, patrols and all the rest of the infrastructure of a meaningful border. Medvedev just submitted to the Duma the treaty on the border with Azerbaijan. And it’s clear that it is still not completely delineated: the precise starting point (where Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia meet) and the Caspian appear still unsettled).

MISTRAL. Confirming some speculation, a Russian defence industry spokesman says that the negotiations are stuck on the issue of technology transfer.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see


ALARUMS PAST. In November, accepting an award, the well-known Russian media personality Leonid Parfyonov gave a speech excoriating the state of the news media in Russia: a culture in which reporters were a species of “state official” ever attentive to their “boss’s bosses”; one in which everyone understood there were stories that “that can be broadcast on television and those that cannot”. This attracted some attention together with mentions of reporters killed or harmed in Putin’s time. While there is no doubt a good deal of truth in what he said, charges of control or bias in what is and is not broadcast are not unknown elsewhere. He also intimated that Russian TV was being dumbed down. Well that’s hardly unique to Russia either. In my opinion, anybody who depends on the MSM in any country for his news is missing a lot and the New Media is winning everywhere. And in Russia, you can read criticisms similar to Parfyonov’s translated from foreign media on the Net if you want to. But the point is that, whatever mixture of truth and exaggeration there may have been in his observations, it seems that nothing has happened to him. He lives and thrives.

CORRUPTION. Two Moscow Oblast prosecutors suspected of protecting underground casinos have been put on the federal wanted list. This follows dismissals of several other senior officials on charges of having protected the illegal casinos. Three police officers were sentenced to prison terms for stealing substantial amounts of money from travellers at one of Moscow’s airports. Investigators have requested a warrant for the arrest of the former Bank of Moscow President. Medvedev has signed a law which greatly increases penalties in corruption cases. I haven’t the statistics, but it seems to me there are more and more cases involving higher-ups. Although, as I’ve said before, I don’t think the campaign will really bite until someone in an office near Medvedev’s or Putin’s is arrested.

THE HOLIDAY FORMERLY KNOWN AS MAY DAY. Since 1992 re-named Spring and Labour Day, saw lots of parades in Moscow that passed off quietly. The numbers were indicative, if not of actual support, then of organisational ability. United Russia got out 25K, KPRF 4.5K; Just Russia 3K; LDPR 0.7K and the liberal opposition 0.25K.

MISTRAL. Something has gone wrong with the negotiations. The former Russian negotiating team was dismissed – one man for “internal reasons” the other for re-appointment – and a new team is to be appointed. But the deal may fall through: Ruslan Puhkov thoroughly discusses the issue and possible obstacles to agreement here.

OPEN SKIES. A Canadian team is beginning flights over Russia. To tell the truth, I’d forgotten all about this. But, I suppose, since the demise of the CFE Treaty, it has it uses in strengthening transparency.

MARKELOV MURDER. A jury found the two defendants guilty “and not deserving leniency”. They were members of a super-nationalist group, Russkiy Obraz and Markelov seems to have been their target and Baburova just an unfortunate witness. Sentencing is expected shortly.

EMERGENCIES MINISTRY. Long-time readers will know that I admire this organisation and its leader Sergey Shoygu. It seems to be one of the most effective state structures in the country. It recently showed off some of its new kit for fighting fires. More evidence that Russia Inc’s energy money is not being wasted.

MANOEUVRINGS. Sergey Mironov, speaker of the Federation Council, may be recalled by the St Petersburg legislature. He was head of Just Russia until recently. He has been critical of St Petersburg and its Governor and there are likely enough votes there to unseat him. More grist for the speculation mill. Is this a move to make him and Just Russia more plausible as an opposition? As part of a move to run two Team candidates for president? Or St Petersburg wants its representative to say nice things and not that it’s very corrupt?

MISSILE DEFENCE. The commander of the Space Forces has outlined Moscow’s proposals for a future European missile defence network. They are the familiar ideas of sectors (with Russia’s “shield” covering Eastern Europe and the Black, Barents and Baltic Seas) and a joint data processing and command centre.

INTERNET. Medvedev met with “internet community representatives” last week to open a discussion about regulation. As a lawyer, he was most concerned about copyright. There was no hint of government control.

JIHADISM. It is reported that the leader of foreign jihadists in the North Caucasus was killed in Chechnya yesterday.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see