Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS The atmosphere seems to have improved in recent weeks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Washington offered "confidence-building measures" which will apparently allow the Russians to inspect, in some manner not specified, American missile defense installations in Europe to assure Moscow that the system will not be directed against Russia. Bush and Putin are to meet next week in the Russian resort of Sochi after the NATO meeting and we will no doubt learn more then.
Russian highway patrolmen, police and customs officers were viewed as the most corrupt officials by Russians who responded to a Levada Center public opinion poll
CORRUPTION IN RUSSIA A poll on corruption came out last week. 55% of respondents thought it could never be eradicated; 46% thought it had increased in the last couple of years and 31% found no change. As to the worst agencies, 52% named the highway patrol, 45% customs and police officers; 23% courts and prosecutors. 27% admitted they had given bribes to officials and another 28% hadn't paid a bribe but felt like they were expected to do so. The only bright spot in this picture was that the federal government was seen as less corrupt (named by 10%) than local governments (named by 16%). This is reflected in a Yuri Levada Center public opinion poll which agreed that Putin had not succeeded in reducing corruption or crime.
What stands out here is what Ombudsman Lukin said last week: law enforcement agencies are the worst offenders in Russia. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say: the most visible. Big-time corruption is not, after all, what the ordinary Ivan is going to run across. If corruption is President Medvedev's big theme, he has his work cut out for him. Meanwhile, the First Deputy Minister for consumer market and services of Moscow Oblast has been arrested for taking bribes.
TNK-BP The company has withdrawn over 100 BP employees saying it has had difficulties getting their visas renewed; Moscow's story is that many came in on business visas rather than work visas. Meanwhile the Interior Ministry says it is investigating "large-scale tax evasion" involving Sidanco, a company absorbed into TNK-BP in 2005. Another TNK-BP unit, Slavneft (which is co-owned by Gazprom) is also facing a tax-evasion probe.
ST. PETERSBURG Maksim Reznik was released from custody on Friday and the European Union University will continue to stay in business. Telephone justice on the part of St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko (a former classmate and friend of Putin's)? Or was it telephone justice in the first place? A problem in Russia is that there are so many regulations lying around that anyone can be busted at any time - quite legally, as it were. Russian President Dimitry Medvedev has just suggested that oversight organisations should stay away from small businesses unless they have a court order. And this brings up the issue of corruption in the law enforcement agencies.
PUTINOLOGY Putin's latest announcement is that he sees no need to redistribute powers between the Russian Prime Minister and President. Certainly, the transition from Putin to Medvedev has passed very smoothly. There was, it should be recalled, a great deal of speculation both inside and outside Russia that the transition could prove dangerous ("Chekist wars" sticks in the memory).
GORBACHEV THE BELIEVER - OR PERHAPS NOT Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has stated that, while he respects religious believers, he is personally an atheist.
CAUCASIAN RUMORS OF WAR While the main threat -- a jihadist centre based on Chechnya -- has been eliminated, there are still jihadists and other gunmen launching sporadic attacks on security forces and civilians in the northern Caucasus. In the last week there was a battle in Urus-Martan Rayon in Chechnya, an attack on a police post in North Ossetia, the chairman of Dagestan State Television and Radio was murdered and three jihadists were killed in Dagestan. These are, of course not necessarily connected with global jihadism or each other, but are a grim reminder that there of a constant low level of violence.
GAZPROM/UKRAINE GAS WARS Ukrainian President Yushchenko has ordered the government to hold talks with Gazprom with the aim of setting up a long-term contract for gas supply and transit fees. He said that Ukraine owed about U.S. $2 billion for deliveries this year and that the government had failed to clarify how it intended to repay the debt. Meanwhile (dÃ©ja vu all over again) Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has been quoted as saying that machinations are under way to "discredit" and "ruin" the ruling liberal coalition. I guess the annual gas crisis will be with us for some cycles yet.
POLTAVA Moscow has said it would like to have some kind of joint celebration with Kyev next year on the 300th anniversary of the battle. Another piece of history Moscow and Kyev no doubt disagree on.
INDEPENDENT MINI-STATES The Duma seems to have produced a rather incoherent resolution on South Ossetia, Abkhazia and the Transdnestr Republic. It reaffirmed the general Moscow line that the existing international rule set should not be tampered with and affirmed its respect for the territorial integrity of Georgia and Moldova. But it argued that the three had "far greater grounds" for independence than Kosovo (there's a point there but no one in the West knows or cares) and seems to recommend some sort of closer ties. So something for everyone adding up to not much. Of course the Duma's opinion doesn't matter very much on this.
RUSSIAN-GEORGIAN RELATIONS. Air service has resumed now that Tblisi has agreed to pay debts owed to Moscow.
Patrick Armstrong received a PhD from Kings College, University of London, England in 1976 and began working for the Canadian government as a defence scientist in 1977. He was Political Counsellor for the Canadian Embassy in Moscow from 1993 to 1996. He has been a frequent speaker at the Wilton Park conferences in the UK.