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A Fresh Kremlin Idea: Putin Seeks to Label NGO's as ‘Foreign Agents’

Faced with tangible threats to his rule—manifested by a record level of public mistrust (according to a June poll by the Levada Center, disapproval of the president stands at 44 percent; up from 27 percent two years ago) and an organized protest movement that shows no signs of subsiding—Vladimir Putin is taking a familiar route: crackdown. Following the recent passage of a law that set fines for “violations” at public rallies at 300,000 rubles ($9,000; ten times Russia’s average monthly salary), the Kremlin has come up with a new initiative. On Friday, the State Duma overwhelmingly passed the first reading of a bill, proposed by Putin’s United Russia party, which would officially label Russian NGOs that receive funding from abroad as “foreign agents.”

Magnitsky Human Rights Sanctions Advance in Senate, Russia's Thugs on Notice

Although it has never been difficult to distinguish between genuine opponents of Vladimir Putin’s regime and the bogus “opposition” tasked with imitating political pluralism, some episodes have been especially indicative. One watershed was the 2008 Georgia war, when many supposed opposition leaders supported Putin’s actions and even urged him to be more aggressive (among the few Russian politicians who spoke out against the invasion was Mikhail Kasyanov).

Russia’s Democrats Unite to Form Anti-Putin Party

Few episodes better illustrate the impact of the recent protest wave on Russia’s political environment than the fate of the People’s Freedom Party. In June 2011, the opposition force established and led by Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov, and Vladimir Ryzhkov was denied registration and barred from elections on the pretext of 79 “irregularities” on the list its 46,148 members. One year later, at its national convention in Moscow, the party gained official status, finally becoming eligible for the ballot on all levels.

Thousands March in Moscow as Putin’s 1937-Style Raids Fail to Halt Protests

On Monday morning, armed police broke into the Moscow apartments of several opposition leaders, civic activists, and media personalities who were among the organizers of the anti-Putin protests that swept through Russia since last December’s rigged parliamentary elections. Investigators spent hours plowing through the personal belongings of Alexei Navalny, Sergei Udaltsov, Ilya Yashin, Ksenia Sobchak, and other opposition figures, confiscating their computers, phones, flash drives, printed materials, clothes—even family photographs and children’s cartoons. The parents of some pro-democracy campaigners also had their houses searched. Police detained a number of activists and surrounded the offices of RosPil, an anticorruption watchdog run by Navalny.

Magnitsky Bill Clears First Hurdle in US Congress

On Thursday morning, by a unanimous voice vote, the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs approved a bill that offers a rare example of congressional bipartisanship. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, cosponsored by leading Republicans and Democrats in both houses of Congress, deals with an issue that the current and previous administrations were too timid (or too calculating) to address seriously: human rights violations in Russia. The bill drew the Kremlin’s attention as no other US congressional initiative has in years—perhaps not since the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which linked US-Soviet trade to the freedom of emigration. Hours after his inauguration on May 7th, Russia’s reinstated president, Vladimir Putin, signed a decree tasking his diplomats with “preventing the introduction of unilateral extraterritorial sanctions by the United States of America against Russian legal entities and individuals”—a thinly veiled reference to the Magnitsky Act.

Change in Moscow Could Prompt Change in Russia

Muscovites have traditionally had an outsize influence on Russian politics. Be it the Soviet legislative elections of 1989, the resistance to the Communist coup attempt in 1991, or the mass anti-Putin protests of 2011 and 2012—what happens in the capital has significant consequences around the country. In its voting behavior, Moscow has long been the Kremlin’s headache. In March 1989, opposition leader Boris Yeltsin made a spectacular political comeback with his 89-percent victory here over the Communist candidate. In the parliamentary vote of 1999, then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Unity party (now known as United Russia) won a humiliating 7 percent in Moscow, losing heavily to the opposition center-left Fatherland bloc. Both in 2000 and in 2012—even according to the official results—an overall majority of Muscovites voted against Putin in presidential elections.

Putin’s New Cabinet Offers More of the Same

After an unprecedented two-week delay following the inauguration, Vladimir Putin has announced the composition of Russia’s new government. The appointments brought few surprises. Sergei Lavrov, the veteran of Putin’s “don’t-meddle-in-our-affairs” diplomacy, keeps his job as foreign minister. Former furniture salesman Anatoly Serdyukov stays on as minister of defense. Nationalist firebrand Dmitri Rogozin, who recently wrote that Putin’s defeat, desired by “Madame Albright who wants to rule the riches of Siberia,” will mean “the loss of independence for our country,” continues as deputy premier. Igor Shuvalov, accused of conflicts of interest involving multimillion-dollar share deals, becomes the sole first deputy to Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev.

Showdown Looms as Kremlin Moves to Curb Protests

Democratic states have different ways of forming their governments: from parliamentary coalition deals to presidential nominations. They do, however, have one feature in common: appointments to the executive are, as a general rule, known to the public. On Tuesday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev handed President Vladimir Putin the list of his Cabinet nominees. Not a single name on that list was announced. According to the official transcript of the meeting, Medvedev had decided that naming the new ministers would “ignite excessive interest.” For now, the only source of information on the future makeup of the government are anonymous leaks—such as the one in Kommersant newspaper, suggesting that the odious Vladislav Surkov, sacrificed by the Kremlin at the height of the anti-Putin protests in December, will make a comeback as the new government chief of staff.

Mass Protests at Putin Inauguration

As Vladimir Putin’s armored motorcade traveled the short distance from the Government House to the Kremlin on May 7th, downtown Moscow looked postapocalyptic, like something from a Hollywood movie. The city was deserted: not only the immediate route of the motorcade, but also the neighboring streets, central squares, and nearby metro stations were sealed off to the public. Residents along the route were forbidden to leave their apartments. Some 20,000 police and interior ministry forces occupied Moscow to protect the president-“elect” from his voters.

Restored Elections Spell New Trouble for Kremlin

The abolition of gubernatorial elections by Vladimir Putin in 2004 was widely seen as the final act in dismantling Russia’s short-lived democratic system. Their restoration in 2012 must be viewed as the most important achievement of the “Snow Revolution”—a series of pro-democracy protests that swept the country between December and March. In September 2009, President Dmitri Medvedev promised that direct elections for regional governors will not return “in a hundred years.” In May 2011, he shortened the time span to “10 or 15 years.” On December 22, 2011—twelve days after the first 100,000-strong anti-government rally in Moscow—Medvedev announced the reinstatement of elections. The law, signed this Wednesday, will take effect on June 1st. Any gubernatorial vacancies occurring after that will have to be filled via the October 14th vote.

With Time Almost Up, Medvedev Issues First Political Pardon

After being criticized for attending a February meeting with President Dmitri Medvedev, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov responded that if just one political prisoner was freed as a result of their conversation, he would consider his decision justified. At that meeting, Nemtsov handed Medvedev a list of 37 political prisoners whose release—along with free elections and the registration of opposition parties—was demanded at the mass opposition rallies that have swept Russia since December.

Russia’s ‘Public’ TV, Putin-Style

As the Kremlin reluctantly implements reform measures promised in response to December’s pro-democracy protests, it tries its hardest to limit them with various conditions. The new law on political parties that gives legal status to opposition groups has been signed—but electoral coalitions are prohibited, so that the anti-Putin vote may be split between dozens of parties. Direct elections for regional governors will be reinstated—but candidates will have to secure the support of local legislators (which, outside of the big cities, almost invariably means Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party and its satellites) before they can face the voters. 

Russia's Life and Death Election Standoff

As of the time of this publication, Oleg Shein, a Russian opposition leader and the likely winner of the recent mayoral election in Astrakhan, is entering the 28th day of a hunger strike. According to press reports, he has lost 10 kilos (22 pounds) and is suffering from rapid heartbeat; his skin is the color of a parchment. “He does not have much time,” warned Elizaveta Glinka, a doctor and philanthropist who visited Shein in Astrakhan. “He may die in the next few days—if not from exhaustion, then from a heart attack.” Several activists who are on a hunger strike with Shein are in a similar condition. “Everyone decides for himself,” Shein blogged earlier this week. “The highest value for me is the freedom of my country.”

Locking Down Loyalty in Putin's Russia

As time runs out on the Kremlin’s power to appoint regional governors—the reinstatement of direct elections was a key concession won by pro-democracy protesters in December—the regime is rushing to install its last loyalists. The law on gubernatorial elections is expected to be signed in early May. Reneging on the promise is no longer an option; as political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko suggests, “If the introduction of elections is postponed, 100,000 [people] will once again be on Sakharov Avenue”—the site of the largest anti-Putin protest in December. Despite opposition demands for a moratorium on appointments, the Kremlin is moving to fill the vacancies before new rules come into force.

Local Elections Could Reshape Russia

After a decade of authoritarian stagnation, three months of pro-democracy protests brought politics back to Russia. Nowhere is this seen more vividly than in the municipalities, which have become an arena of vigorous competition. Although administrative pressure and fraud continue to mark Russian elections, a resurgent civil society and serious monitoring efforts by independent groups have offered at least a measure of counterbalance. The results are evident.

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