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Putin's Empty State-of-the-Nation Speech

Vladimir Putin’s first state-of-the-nation address since his formal “return” to the Kremlin disappointed both his critics and his loyalists; the former had little to scorn, the latter, little to trumpet. It was a 90-minute speech about nothing, likely forgotten by most of those in the audience as soon as Putin finished reading the script. No central theme, no new ideas, no specific proposals—instead, general words about “patriotism”; vague promises to improve the social, economic, and housing conditions of state employees; meaningless statements about the need to reduce corruption among government officials; customary insinuations that the opposition is “receiving money from abroad”; and pledges not to accept “[political] standards forced on us from the outside.”

Principle over Realpolitik: US to Approve Russia Rights Bill

On December 20, 1974, as the US Congress, over the vehement objections of President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, passed the historic Jackson-Vanik amendment limiting trade with the USSR over its lack of the freedom to emigrate, Soviet political prisoner camps were in almost open jubilation. The United States has established a vital precedent: for the first time, economic relations with a country were linked to its human rights record.

Sergei Shoigu: Putin's Heir Apparent?

Vladimir Putin’s decision to appoint Moscow regional governor and former emergencies minister Sergei Shoigu as the new minister of defense has sent waves of speculation that Shoigu is being positioned to take over as Putin’s successor in the Kremlin—much as Putin himself was picked as President Yeltsin’s heir apparent in 1999.

Putin's Anticipated 'Sharp Turn'

The last few weeks have not been too successful for Vladimir Putin’s public image. In October, Reuters reported that the Russian president has serious health problems, which forced him to cancel a number of foreign trips. Around the same time, a poll by the Levada Center showed that only 34 percent of Russians want Putin to remain in power for another term. Perhaps for both reasons, the Kremlin decided to cancel Putin’s “direct line with the people”—the traditional television question-and-answer session that he has held every year for the past decade.

Fearing Upheaval, Putin Backers Urge an Exit Strategy

To an uninitiated observer, the Russian opposition might appear on the decline. A concerted Kremlin-led crackdown—which includes not only new laws curbing civic freedoms, but also criminal prosecutions of opposition activists and, more recently, Stalinist-style kidnappings and torture—as well as the reduced turnout at Moscow’s protest rallies (compared to the height of last December) could indeed give that impression.

But the impression would be false. And the most farsighted among the regime’s own supporters are trying their best to urge Vladimir Putin to prepare an exit strategy before it is too late.

Opposition Leaders Elected, Putin Cracks Down

Over the weekend Russia’s opposition held a primary election to pick 45 members of its newly established Coordinating Council, a collective leadership for the anti-Putin protest movement that sprang into national politics last December as tens of thousands of people went to the streets to protest a fraudulent parliamentary poll and demand democratic reforms. The Kremlin tried its best to sabotage the vote: the Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against its organizers, while a coordinated cyber attack disabled the online polling platforms for almost the entire first day of voting. Russia’s current leaders, it seems, are opposed to competitive elections even when they do not threaten them directly—as a matter of principle.

A Russian Election Without Voters

The best assessment of Russia’s October 14th local elections was undoubtedly made by political analyst Alexander Kynev: commenting on United Russia’s “victory,” he observed that “the authorities formally receive a high percentage [of support], but there are almost no real people behind it. It is the rating of a void.”

Putin’s Defenders: Still Disconnected from Reality

Russia’s minister of culture, Vladimir Medinsky, is a self-styled historian who recently acquired a much-criticized and allegedly plagiarized Ph.D. in the discipline and has penned numerous publications on the political history of Russia. His knowledge of the basics, however, does not appear to be strong. In a recent blog post that instantly became an internet sensation, the minister called Vladimir Putin “the first Russian ruler since Nicholas [II] Romanov who came to power 100 percent legally … who preserves power 100 percent legally … the first [leader] in Russia’s history [to have come to power] in an honest universal-suffrage election.”

Regrettably, not one of the three parts of this statement is true.

The Council of Europe's Russia Failure

The autumn session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, currently under way in Strasbourg, has been hit by a scandal involving the Russian delegation: the speaker of the State Duma, Sergei Naryshkin, who had been invited to address the Assembly and had initially agreed, abruptly cancelled his trip, complaining that his “strategic proposals are unlikely to be heard by Parliamentary Assembly leaders and by Russophobe [sic] delegations.” (The speaker’s “strategic proposals” were aimed at “the serious problems with the development of parliamentarism in Europe.”) The Assembly’s president, French center-right legislator Jean-Claude Mignon, expressed “disappointment” at Naryshkin’s decision, reminding his Russian counterpart that “it takes two to hold a dialogue.”

Putin Critics Slam ‘Ludicrous Reset’ as US Silences Radio Liberty

For the nearly sixty years that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcast its programs in Russian, successive Kremlin governments—with the sole exception of that of Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s only democratically elected president—have sought to silence its voice. Soviet leaders attempted to jam its signals and infiltrate its Munich headquarters with KGB operatives. Vladimir Putin, soon after coming to power, rescinded President Yeltsin’s decree granting Radio Liberty the right to operate a Moscow bureau. Last year, then President Dmitri Medvedev signed a law (which takes full effect this November) prohibiting foreign entities from owning radio stations in Russia.

Rallying Pressure on Putin

“We should thank this regime—without it, such different political forces would never have come together,” declared poet Dmitri Bykov as he addressed an estimated 50,000 protesters in downtown Moscow. “We should thank them for the fact that our country now has a civil society.” Like all opposition rallies since December, last Saturday’s protest brought together people of all political persuasions—liberals and socialists, nationalists and antifascists, ecologists and conservatives—united in a common rejection of the corruption, authoritarianism, and lawlessness of Vladimir Putin’s regime. As before, protesters were mostly young (according to a Levada Center survey, 71 percent were under the age of 44), mostly university-educated (53 percent), and mostly financially comfortable (61 percent).

Kremlin Attempts ‘Soft’ Control of Elections

This week, the host of analysts and commentators discussing the US presidential campaign were joined by a newcomer. “No elections are organized worse than the American ones, and they don’t want to improve them,” lamented Vladimir Churov, the chairman of Russia’s central electoral commission, who oversaw recent parliamentary and presidential elections in which, according to independent monitors, up to 14 million and 8 million votes (respectively) were “stolen” in the Kremlin’s favor. Russia’s opposition calls Churov a falsifier. At the Duma election, then President Dmitri Medvedev, always a diplomat, called Churov a “magician.” If this is what Churov means by “organizing” elections, America should consider itself complimented.

Ratings, Protests, and Elections: Russia Opens 2012–2013 Political Season

Following the traditional summer lull, Russia is entering a new political season. According to recent polls by the independent Levada Center, 42 percent of Russians express their support for the protesters who have been coming to the streets since December to demand free elections and democratic reforms. Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin’s favorability rating has fallen from 80 percent in 2008 to 48 percent today. The coming weeks will offer Russian citizens an opportunity to express their discontent both on the streets and (however imperfectly) at the ballot box.

Khimki vs. Kremlin: Russia’s Opposition Prepares New Challenge

Long before tens of thousands of Russians went to the streets in late 2011 to protest against Vladimir Putin’s rule and demand free elections, the Khimki Forest, a 2,500-acre natural reserve in the northern suburbs of Moscow, became a rallying point for Kremlin opponents. Since 2007, environmental activists, independent journalists, and civil society leaders have been protesting the government’s decision to destroy part of the forest (the only major source of vegetation to the north of the capital) to make way for a high-speed toll road connecting Moscow with St. Petersburg. The board of the company that received the contract to build the highway included a representative of billionaire Arkady Rotenberg, Putin’s longtime friend and former judo partner. According to a 2010 poll by the Levada Center, 76 percent of Khimki residents supported the protesters.

Putin's Hundred Days

This week marked the first 100 days of Vladimir Putin’s “new” presidency, and, although in his case the measure is more than dubious (as of August 9th, Putin has ruled Russia, as either premier or president, for 13 continuous years), it is an opportune milestone to gauge the direction of his policies. The “hundred days” brought few surprises. The principal purpose of Putin’s administration, it appears, has been revenge for the humiliation of last December, when, following a 100,000-strong pro-democracy rally in central Moscow, the Kremlin was forced—for the first time during Putin’s rule—to give concessions to the opposition by reinstating direct gubernatorial elections, registering opposition parties, and easing hurdles for presidential candidates.

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