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.

Medvedev's Democratic 'Advisers'

Although they no longer fool anyone, the Kremlin still likes to maintain a few “liberal” decorations. During the four-year puppet presidency of Dmitri Medvedev (himself a decoration of the highest order), the grand-sounding but powerless Presidential Human Rights Council was filled with reputable civil society leaders, such as Lyudmila Alekseeva, Elena Panfilova, and Dmitri Oreshkin. Following Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency, more than a dozen council members have resigned—though some, including Alekseeva, later returned.

US House Leaders Prepare Gift to Putin?

Two days before leaving for the August recess, the leaders of the US House of Representatives announced that the two interconnected Russia bills—the extension of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) and the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which proposes to sanction Russian human rights violators by denying them US visas and freezing their US assets—will not be considered on the floor until September and, most likely, until the lame-duck session after the November election.

Russia’s Opposition Challenges Putin on Syria

A recent piece in the New Republic, titled “In Russia, Even Putin’s Critics Are OK With His Syria Policy,” raised an important question of whether Moscow’s obstructionist stance with regard to sanctions on Assad is truly a Russian policy, or just that of Vladimir Putin’s undemocratic regime. The title of the article suggests the former—although no actual representatives of the Russian opposition are quoted.

After Targeting Protesters and NGOs, Russia Extends Crackdown on Dissent into Parliament

Following the heavily manipulated elections in 2003, in which pro-democracy parties lost nearly all of their seats, Russia’s Parliament, already largely loyal to the Kremlin since 2000, finally ceased to be an independent body. Then Speaker Boris Gryzlov famously declared it “not a place for discussions.” Unanimity was cemented with the removal of the last independent deputies in 2007: not only dissenting legislative initiatives, but even dissenting voices were no longer tolerated. In the last (and perhaps the most fraudulent) elections in December 2011, genuine opponents of Vladimir Putin were not even allowed on the ballot—which explains why the nominally “opposition” parties in the current Duma are backing key Kremlin initiatives (such as the recent law directed against NGOs).

Kremlin Retaliates for Magnitsky Bill—against Russians

When top Kremlin officials promised “retaliatory measures” in response to the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, a US congressional initiative that proposes to sanction corrupt Russian bureaucrats and human rights violators, it was clear they were not talking about banning US senators from keeping retirement savings in Russian banks. As many expected, retaliation was directed against Vladimir Putin’s critics inside Russia. Last month, police conducted early-morning raids and searches at the homes of leading opposition figures, including Boris Nemtsov, a vocal supporter of the Magnitsky Act. A new law on public rallies hastily passed by the Duma set fines for “violations” at 300,000 rubles ($9,000; ten times Russia’s average monthly salary).

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.


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