July 3, 2008
Graft remains a serious problem in the Russian Federation
Corruption et al. Medvedev mused that some provision should be made for transferring assets held by civil servants into trusts and said a first draft of a national plan for combating corruption has appeared. A presidential aide suggested that "independent directors" might replace state officials in some state-owned companies. Of course if that turns out to be a way of letting former members of Putin's administration keep these lucrative positions... I can understand why you would want to place government officials in these important companies (remember Gazprom under Yeltsin?) but the problem then becomes: where do their interests now lie?
Balance in government. A Levada poll shows a probably important change in political reality. For years opinion polls have ranked the president distinctly higher than the PM or government. This was so even in the Yeltsin era (although all at very low levels in the latter years). What this poll shows is that Putin's presence has pulled the government rating up: in the 40s through most of his presidency, it is now in the 60s. At the same time his public approval rating remains in the 80s and Medvedev's is in the 70s. If this trend holds -- and why shouldn't it? -- Russia's political structure will be much better balanced than it has been. Further evidence, to my mind, of my fifth hypothesis.
A female Russian soldier
Russian Military Reforms. I have been hearing rumors of something happening in the defense apparatus. What has surfaced is that the Defense Minister said that Russian armed forces would be reduced to one million personnel by 2013. The original target had been 2016 but, "We suggested doing it faster...". Then a 1st Deputy Defense Minister made the observation that training methods were still rooted in the big land war training of the 1960s and 1970s despite "the experience of the two anti-terrorist campaigns in the North Caucasus and the coalition forces in Afghanistan".
Yesterday the Public Chamber published a report about corruption in the Armed Forces: "Businessmen in epaulets" was a memorable expression from this document. Maybe the rumors of disagreements current a couple of months ago have something to them.
(For more on the sorry state of the Russian military, see this Russia Blog excerpt from an article recently published in Germany's Der Spiegel magazine).
Taxing Foreign NGOs. Putin has cut the number of international organizations that can avoid Russian taxes from 101 to 12. This will no doubt be played as another crackdown on NGOs but a little time on Google suggests that at least one of the entities (IFAW) does not appear to have a Russian branch, although it has many other national branches. Maybe it should set up a proper local Russian branch. In short, this may have more to do with Russia treating such things as other countries do rather than allowing them to browse Russia for cash.
Yavlinskiy Steps Down. At the recent Yabloko conference, Grigoriy Yavlinskiy announced he was retiring as leader of the party: his nominee, Sergey Mitrokhin was duly elected. I can't help but think that his adamant refusal to ally with anyone else has produced Yabloko's decline and helped create the reality that today's "liberal" "opposition" (how many sneer quotes can I get away with?) is little more than a stunt for foreign TV. The head of the St Petersburg branch, who has been critical of Yavlinskiy's leadership, welcomed the change, saying he expected Mitrokhin to work towards a unification of this potential political grouping.
Khodorkovsky - Eligible for Parole?. I have long wondered whether Medvedev might signal a new look by letting, one way or the other, Khodorkovsky out of jail, given that the Yukos prosecution marked such a turn in Western conventional opinion about Russia. On the one hand, Khodorkovskiy's lawyers have said they have advised him to apply for parole; on the other, new charges against him are been mentioned. We'll see. It's an issue receiving some debate.
Romanov Imperial Family. A spokesman for the Prosecutor General's Office has confirmed that the bodies of Crown Prince Aleksey and Grand Princess Maria have been identified. So all the remains of the Romanovs have now been found.
Improving Russian Demographics. The latest statistics for January-April show continued improvement at each end, although the population is still shrinking: the decline was 96,000 this year compared with 148,100 for the same period last year. Births were said to be 547,100 (488,700 last year).
Belarus. Medvedev and Lukashenka met; the communiquÃ© spoke of cooperation "on the principles of a market economy". So no more Russian-subsidized cheap natural gas. On the other hand, Venezuela will lend Belarus $500 million U.S. dollars to help Minsk pay the bills.
Caucasian Rumors of Wars. Bombs go off and around Abkhazia: Sukhumi blames Tbilisi, Tbilisi blames Abkhazian criminals. Sukhumi says Tbilisi has begun UAV flights over the disputed territory again; Tbilisi denies it. On the 1st of July Sukhumi sealed the border with Georgia. Former NATO Secretary General and current EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has recommended direct dialogue between the two sides.
Patrick Armstrong received a PhD from Kings College, University of London, England in 1976 and retired in 2008 after 30 years as an analyst for the Canadian government. 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.