Novaya Gazeta
This Moscow-based newspaper is known for its unsparing coverage of Russian political and economic powers and its investigative reports. Six Novaya Gazeta journalists, including Yury Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya and Anastasia Baburova, have been murdered since 2001, in connection with their investigations.
Geopolitics
Alastair Gill

Navalny v. Putin: A Point Of No Return For Russia?

The attempted assassination and subsequent arrest of Alexei Navalny, and accusations of state corruption, have sparked a new protest movement in Russia that may force Vladimir Putin to consider the 'Belarus option.'

-Analysis-

After a week of high drama, the political situation in Russia is moving into a new, more radical phase. The Jan. 17 arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who had just landed in Moscow after recovering in Germany from a poisoning attack, came as Navalny released a viral YouTube video that exposed a vast palace President Vladimir Putin allegedly built for himself on $1.35 billion of kickbacks. The protests that followed were Russia's most widespread since the 1990s.

While Moscow was the focus, the demonstrations were notable for being national in scale, with people openly defying government warnings and taking to the streets by the thousands in 110 cities. From Vladivostok in the far east to Kaliningrad in the west, crowds chanted, "We are the power here," "Freedom to Navalny" and "Down with the tsar!" In the Siberian city of Yakutsk, protesters braved temperatures of -50 C.

Writing in Russia's leading liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the publication's political editor Kirill Martynov lauded what he sees as a movement in which Muscovites and those from regional cities finally have a common interest.

"When Moscow stirs, the regions usually remain indifferent, and vice versa — but not now," he wrote, arguing that people had made their voice heard not only for Navalny's freedom, but "because they see no other way of achieving justice in a country in which there are no courts and no elections."

The Kremlin insists that Washington was behind the demonstrations, and that most of the protesters were minors manipulated into participating by organizers via social media. State media echoed the government's claims and reported the behavior of police as "polite," despite widespread video footage of officers beating protesters with batons and violently detaining them, and in one case in St. Petersburg even kicking a middle-aged passer-by in the stomach as she asked why a protester was being arrested.

Navalny had called on Russians to go out onto the streets after being sentenced to 30 days of pre-trial custody on Jan. 18 in a court hearing held at a police station that the anti-corruption crusader declared illegal. In the wake of Navalny's recovery from a poisoning which investigative journalists say was carried out by the Russian secret services using a nerve agent, the authorities have changed tack by reopening a previous fraud case against him, alleging that he violated the terms of his parole. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2017 that the case was arbitrary and unlawful.

Lawyer and activist Lyubov Sobol, one of Navalny's key allies, announced on Tuesday that more protests were being planned for this weekend, despite the arrest of almost 4,000 participants in Saturday's protests. The authorities are hitting back: On Wednesday, police raided Sobol's apartment, detaining her for 48 hours after carrying out a search. Raids were also conducted in Navalny's apartment and the studios of his anti-corruption foundation.

Novaya Gazeta"s Martynov warned that the standoff may be reaching a point of no return. "Society no longer has anywhere to retreat since the poisoning of Navalny. The siloviki security structures also have nowhere to retreat, having already convinced themselves of the effectiveness of their ‘tough scenario." Beyond lies only The Hague."

If Navalny really was a nobody, why detain supporters who had gathered to welcome him home?

For years, Putin has sought to portray Navalny as a non-entity, refusing to use his name and describing his rival as an "unknown blogger." The Kremlin's clumsy response to the opposition leader's return from abroad publicly demonstrated the exact opposite: If Navalny really was a nobody, then why detain supporters who had gathered at Vnukovo airport to welcome him home? Why divert his plane to another airport and then arrest him at passport control, live in front of TV cameras?

His poisoning and subsequent return to Russia in defiance of threats to jail him have not only confirmed Navalny as Putin's most vocal critic, but also as a political figure of notable courage and global standing. He has seized the initiative, forcing the Kremlin into a series of strategic blunders that have only heightened a growing sense of public outrage among many Russians over widespread government corruption, lawlessness, declining living standards and a flatlining economy hit hard by Covid-19.

Putin's official popularity rating, 60%, while still relatively high compared to other world leaders, is at its lowest since 2012. The Kremlin has attempted to dismiss the video investigation into the opulent Black Sea palace, but it has racked up well over 90 million views, inflicting serious damage on the public's perception of him.

Over the last 20 years, Putin has built his reputation on a strongman approach that sees any sign of weakness as unforgivable. Navalny's direct challenge therefore puts the Russian leader in a difficult position. If the Kremlin wants to avoid appearing weak, it has little option but to double down, which is likely only to deepen social and economic instability and radicalize the opposition, further ratcheting up tension.

Analysts agree that another tightening of the screws is the likeliest response, though Russian media have cautioned against excessively harsh measures against protesters. Even the staunchly pro-Kremlin tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets, while dismissive of Navalny, concluded that an overly heavy-handed response would be "a dead-end path."

He has become a powerful totem for the protest movement.

Indeed, faced with what is an existential challenge, the Kremlin may finally opt to abandon all pretense of democracy in order to keep hold of power, regardless of the costs in the global arena – Russia has shown time and again that it cares little about international censure. Commentators have been speculating for months that the authorities will stake their survival on a "Belarusian scenario" if things get too far out of hand.

Putin will have been keenly observing events across the border in Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko has managed to cling to power despite months of protests after rigging presidential elections in his favor last August. Lukashenko has responded to discontent by closing borders, arresting his political rivals or forcing them into exile, launching an extensive campaign of repression and torture, and cutting dissenters off from state support.

With parliamentary elections due in September, some analysts have questioned Navalny's decision to return now, arguing that he was too hasty: He should have waited until the summer, the logic goes, in order to ensure a febrile political climate ahead of the elections. By returning now to certain imprisonment, the opposition leader risks losing touch with events that he now has limited power to influence.

Yet, in some sense it makes little difference whether Navalny is in a cell or at large – he has already achieved his aim: publicly humiliating Putin, undermining his legitimacy, and sparking a new wave of protests. And by voluntarily taking on the role of a prisoner of conscience, he has become a powerful totem for the protest movement.

Some liberals may be tempted to view Navalny as some kind of latter-day Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel. Still, the real significance of the new movement is that it has stirred millions of more conservative Russians: They might not be especially keen on Navalny himself, but they will never see Putin the same way again.

Geopolitics

Coronavirus ~ Global Brief: Alone With God, Face Mask Holdup, Born With It

For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on the coronavirus global pandemic. The rapid and insidious path of COVID-19 across the planet teaches us in a whole new way how small the world has become. Our network of multilingual journalists are busy finding out what's being reported locally — everywhere — to provide as clear a picture as possible of what it means for all of us at home, around the world.

PLACE OF WORSHIP, HOTBED OF CONTAGION

The fear rippling through local communities around the world is finding little solace in places of worship. Regular prayer services — not to mention weddings and other special ceremonies — have largely been called off as the virus spreads into new countries and among different faiths. In South Korea, where there are recent, positive signs of containing an initial major outbreak, authorities have been working to keep churches shut and congregants home. Still, 74 new cases have just been reported in a church cluster outbreak near Seoul. Meanwhile, in another hard-hit country, Iran, hard-line Shiia faithfuls pushed their way into the courtyards of two major shrines that had just closed over fears of the new coronavirus.

For those looking to gather together to pray, an increasing number of churches, mosques and synagogues are offering online services. For Catholics, with Easter celebrations approaching, people are preparing to do what they can. In the central Italian town of San Giustino, a local priest did not let the shutting down of all churches keep him from celebrating mass. As reported by the Umbria-based news site Tutto Oggi, Don Fillippo held mass from high in the town's bell tower, broadcasting the service on Facebook Live. Online, up high and praying that the Lord can hear.​

LATEST

• European Union prepares for full border closures as France, Spain, Israel and several U.S. localities impose local shutdowns to limit COVID-19 spread.​

• Even as global markets rebound, the Philippines become the first country to close its stock exchange indefinitely. Meanwhile economies around the world brace for recession.​

• China and U.S. continue war of words over origins of the outbreak, with President Trump calling it "the Chinese virus."​

• Tom Hanks and wife released from the hospital in Australia after contracting the virus. Other new cases include British actor Idris Elba.​

NUMBER DU JOUR

NEWBORN STAT: The UK identified its first baby born with COVID-19, Saturday in a north London hospital, reports The Guardian. The child's mother arrived at the hospital several days before giving birth with a suspected pneumonia. With her results for coronavirus coming through after the birth, the mother also tested positive.​​

FACE MASK SHORTAGE I - SOUTH KOREAN THEFT: Surgical masks were a thing in South Korea long before it became one of the countries hardest hit by coronavirus. Face masks were already prevalent during pollution peaks and at the first signs of a cold or seasonal flu. Even K-pop music idols endorse mask brands, while kids' models feature cute anime characters. So it's not surprising that when the country got hit by COVID-19, stocks immediately ran out. A quota was put in place to monitor purchases, limiting residents to only two masks a week and only upon presentation of their ID card. But with these new restrictions came a new crime. According to The Korean Times, police have registered an increasing number of identity theft cases, reported by residents who were unable to buy their masks because their resident identification number had been stolen and used elsewhere as a sesame for face protection.​

METRO SÃO PAULO São Paulo, Brazil — March 17, 2020

FACE MASK SHORTAGE II - CZECH DIY: A shortage of face masks in the Czech Republic —even for medical staff, social workers and food vendors – has prompted a crafty response: the mobilization of thousands of people to sew simple cotton masks at their homes, reports leading Czech news site Novinky. Since its launch on Sunday, more than 21,000 people joined the Facebook group "Česko šije roušky" ("Czech sews face masks') to exchange tips on homemade face protection. Amateur tailors now use the platform to sell or donate their products to those in need. With much of the country on lockdown since Saturday, the Government added sewing supply stores to the short list of commerces that can stay open, as only those wearing a face mask are now allowed to take public transport.​

FACE MASK SHORTAGE III - UKRAINIAN HOLD UP: Even with just a handful of reported cases so far in Ukraine, criminals are preparing for the spread: five people were arrested this week, suspected of trying to rob 100,000 surgical masks at gunpoint in Kiev.

BRING OUT THE BIG GUNS: Americans are preparing to fight the virus by stocking up on food, toilet paper, and ... guns. The Los Angeles Times reports an enormous uptick in ammunition sales around the U.S. as a direct response to the COVID-19 crisis, with an increase in first-time buyers. Reports show that many of the initial customers were Asian-Americans who feared the disease would cause a racist backlash. Gun control organizations are nervous that the combination of people — especially children — quarantined with firearms increases the likelihood of accidents. According to one gunslinger interviewed by the L.A. Times, "There's no sports games on (T.V.)… so I guess people want to shoot."​

PUTIN PLAYING POLITICS? With only 11 known cases in Russia, a columnist at independent daily Novaya Gazeta argued that President Vladimir Putin's ban on gatherings of over 5,000 people is just a ploy to limit anti-government protests. Emergencies can be a gift in disguise for authoritarian regimes, he writes, and the virus has come at an opportune time for the Russian president, who is currently seeking to make constitutional changes that would allow him to remain in power for 16 more years — a controversial move that could provoke unrest. How will citizens content this major power grab if they're afraid to leave their house?

COVIDICTIONARY

A DIGITAL DISEASE: Customers are (rightly) forgoing in-person banking to reduce the possibility of contamination. Some banks, like South Africa"s Nedbank, are using the opportunity to speed up their digital transformation. The Africa Report announced that the bank, who already planned to keep 75% of its sales online, now plans to accelerate the standardization of all digital platforms to help social distancing. It is an impressive objective for a company that suffers from an unreliable supply of electricity, but a bold decision to make progress out of a seemingly regressive situation.​

PHARMA BREAKTHROUGH? The combination of two anti-HIV drugs was proven to be useful in the treatment of three elderly patients suffering from COVID-19 in India, providing insight on possible life-saving measures against the novel disease. According to an article published in the Economic Times, the Additional Chief Secretary of Medical and Health, Rohit Kumar Singh, announced three out of the four patients in the state of Rajasthan have now been declared "coronavirus-free." The doctors decided to try this combination of drugs because "the structure of coronavirus is similar to that of HIV to some extent." The first two patients who tested positive for the virus were an Italian couple, one of whom has been discharged from the hospital and moved into quarantine. The other, along with an 85-year old man from Jaipur, have recovered from the disease but still remain in the ICU.

Geopolitics
Alastair Gill

End Of Perestroika? Russia’s Media Reacts To Putin’s ‘Reset’

MOSCOW — After months of speculation, it appears that Vladimir Putin has finally settled on a strategy that will allow him to retain power beyond 2024. Ever since he announced plans to make a raft of amendments to the country's constitution back in mid-January, discussion had been rife over what exactly the Russian president — barred from running for a third consecutive term — was planning. Was he intending to retire? Was he eyeing a supervisory role in the State Council? Was he plotting a merger with Belarus? In the end, it appears he has opted to start all over again from scratch.

On March 10, during a session of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, cosmonaut-turned-politician Valentina Tereshkova suggested that a new, altered constitution could be the basis for "resetting" the clock on presidential term limits. Putin responded that in principle he agreed, as long as the Constitutional Court gave its approval. Within an hour the amendment had been approved by the Duma. The amendments go to a "public vote" on April 22, the result of which is likely to be a forgone conclusion, as is any ruling by the Constitutional Court. The proposal paves the way for Putin to run again in 2024 if he so chooses, meaning that in theory he could remain president until 2036.

Facing such a momentous political development, how did Russia's state-run and independent media react?

Novaya Gazeta

The Kremlin's special operation on the constitution has entered the home straight. With the help of an amendment suggested by a cosmonaut-lawmaker, all the terms served by the current president will be annulled, so that Putin can remain in power for at least another 16 years. The president, of course, is in complete accord In this situation the country and its people have turned out to be hostages to an adventure organized by people exposed by circumstances to enormous power, but unaware of the adequate responsibility for this power.

New, altered constitution could be the basis for "resetting" the clock on presidential term limits.

These people are guided by fleeting political motives, chief among which is the retention of power and the willful adjustment of the state to their corporate goals and highly dubious ideas about the historical and philosophical essence of Russia, as well as its place and role in the world. These poor excuses for rulers are simply unable to appreciate the nature and scale of the consequences of their actions. With the help of unconstitutional amendments, Putin is attempting to solve his main problem — the transfer of power.

Kommersant

Recall that Vladimir Putin himself — and the representatives of the working group on preparing the constitutional amendments — let us understand on several occasions that constitutional reform did not mean "resetting" the terms of the sitting president, as if he would be running for the first time at the next elections. Putin announced that he had not suggested the amendments in order to extend his powers. Among the recommended amendments is a norm limiting the number of presidential terms to two (without the qualification "consecutive"), and until now the majority of experts were in agreement that this was about imposing restrictions on the future head of state, who was supposed to be elected in 2024.

The Moscow Times (Eng.)

What is happening is unprecedented in Russian history. The head of state is openly announcing that he is prepared to find a way of staying in the presidential post even after the timeframe set by the law has expired — and that he plans to stay for a long time. Moreover, he is doing that just as expectations that he would depart sooner had become quite intense.

Putin evidently made the decision based on various considerations. He is known to think of the presidential job with reverence, as something akin to an unexpected gift from God. After all, he was elevated to the post while still basically an unremarkable bureaucrat, and then made a success of it.

Komsomolskaya Pravda

The mood is almost that of the Crimean euphoria of six years ago. Today we have won a great victory, even if it is an invisible one for a people convinced that this is the way everything should be.

There was already – I'm convinced of this – some kind of court plan to organize some election or other, to persuade Putin to retire to the State Council, to the village council, to wherever, to become the Queen of England, an ayatollah, Pensioner Number One, whoever, as long as things could quickly begin to change. A transition, a transfer – no matter what these never-ending political analysts called it, there was a single idea and a single aim: make peace with the world outside. That is – to surrender.

Nobody is going to offer another world, just as they didn't offer one in 1991, and since then things have gotten worse and far more complicated. And there was already a feeling that a collective Gorbachev was at the door, that just a little more and they'd have us, then we'd be faced with collapse. And then Tereshkova stood up to speak.

Perestroika is cancelled. Life goes on. Thank God.

Geopolitics
Alastair Gill

Putin's Chess Match With Russia's Constitution As Pawn

A sudden rash of constitutional changes, and the government's subsequent resignation, looks to be a maneuver for Putin to hold on to power indefinitely.

-Analysis-

MOSCOW — It was arguably the most dramatic day in Russian politics since the late 1990s: a bolt from the blue that even senior government officials didn't see coming. On Wednesday, January 15 the country's political landscape was turned upside-down by a double bombshell.

First, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced proposals for sweeping changes to the country's constitution in his annual state-of-the-nation address to both chambers of parliament, outlining "serious changes to the political system" that would nominally be subject to a public referendum.

Then, just hours later, the entire government resigned, led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the man whose political career has been closely interlinked with that of Putin since the early 2000s. "In this context, it's clear that we, as the government of the Russian Federation, should provide the president of our country the opportunity to take all the necessary decisions," said Medvedev, announcing his resignation.

To further confuse matters, Putin swiftly appointed the head of the Federal Tax Service Mikhail Mishustin to replace Medvedev, a step which was subsequently approved by the lower house of parliament, the State Duma. A political lightweight and a name that was familiar to few until Wednesday, Mishustin was a far from obvious choice for the post.

It was a trademark move by the Russian leader, who over the course of 20 years in power has made a habit of catching observers off-guard with unexpected reforms and sudden changes of course. The developments left analysts and journalists scrambling to explain what this all meant in the context of Russia's political structure – and more pointedly, in terms of Putin's future.

Weaker president, stronger parliament

The package of proposed amendments to the constitution would – on paper – see Russia moving towards becoming a parliamentary republic, with power shifting away from the presidency towards parliament. The State Duma, the lower house of parliament, would acquire greater powers to appoint the prime minister and cabinet. Under the current system, the president is responsible for appointing the prime minister, with the Duma then approving the decision.

Although Putin said that the proposed constitutional changes would need to be approved by Russians in a public referendum, Yelena Pamfilova, the head of Russia's Central Election Commission, suggested that a vote may not be necessary. There are "other forms of discussion" available to implement the constitutional changes, she told the Interfax news agency.

Navalny: To remain sole leader for life — this is the sole aim of Putin and his regime.

Sources for Russia's leading business daily Kommersant appeared to back this up, arguing that the amendments could be made to the constitution as early as the spring as part of a more simplified procedure. A working group tasked with overseeing preparations for the reforms has already been set up.

Senior Kremlin officials quickly issued statements praising what they described as necessary reforms. Valentina Matvienko, speaker for the Federation Council, Russia's upper chamber of parliament, told journalists that the president had "made a very bold decision in transferring part of his powers to parliament. This tells society that we have a genuinely stable political system."

Others, however, saw the announcement as a clear signal that 69-year-old Putin is laying the groundwork for his departure from the presidency, with an eye on retaining power in some other form, possibly through the creation of a new role. Alexei Navalny, the leader of Russia's opposition, mocked "dolts' who believed Putin would leave the political scene after his current term: "To remain sole leader for life, having made the whole country his own, and appropriated its wealth for himself and his friends — this is the sole aim of Putin and his regime," he wrote on Twitter.

The third way

With the constitution forbidding Putin from running for president again when his current term expires in 2024, speculation has been mounting over his plans for the future ever since he was reelected in 2018. Few expect him to step back from politics completely, so the question becomes how will he try to hold onto power. Analysts had identified three key scenarios that would allow Putin to remain at the helm while preserving legitimacy, either by circumventing the limits on presidential terms or through other means

Mishustin at his confirmation hearing at the State Duma on Jan.16, 2020. Source: duma

One would have seen him repeat the "castling" move he made at the end of his second term in 2008, when he swapped roles with Dmitry Medvedev, who at the time, as he is now, was prime minister. After four years as president, Medvedev then obediently stepped aside in 2012, announcing that he would not seek another term and was backing Putin for the top job again. However, while doing this again would not require any changes to the constitution, this was widely seen as the least attractive option in view of the street protests that broke out in cities across Russia in the winter of 2011-2012 after Putin's return to power.

The "Kazakhstan option" for Putin is the creation of a new post as a means of retaining power.

Another theory was that Putin would aim to coerce Belarus into a political merger with Russia, thus creating a new vacancy as head of a unified Russian-Belarusian state. The problem with this approach was that there was widespread opposition to the idea in Belarus, not least from its strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko, who over the years has proved a master at rebuffing Kremlin overtures while leaving himself just enough room for maneuver. Lukashenko has little interest in giving up everything he has built over the last 25 years in order to become Putin's junior partner.

The third option, which after Wednesday's move seems the most likely, is that Putin will seek a constitutional change in order to secure future immunity and influence for himself, perhaps involving the creation of a new post that would allow him to retain the final say in how the country is governed. Commentators are already describing it as the "Kazakhstan option", after Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev. The Kazakh leader officially resigned as president in March 2019 after almost 30 years in power, while remaining at the head of the ruling party and maintaining his role as chairman of the country's Security Council.

Putin's annual live question-and-answer session in December 2019 had given a clue as to which way he was leaning. The Russian leader had made a passing reference to the possibility of changes to the constitution, suggesting that a clause stating that no president can serve more than two successive terms could be re-worded to exclude the word "consecutive." This hint reemerged on Wednesday as one of the proposed amendments.

Improvisation or masterplan?

The proposals themselves raise as many questions as they answer, though it's now clear that Putin seems to be leaning toward the "Kazakh" model. Besides appearing to restrict any successor to two terms, the constitutional changes would also prevent any candidate who holds foreign citizenship from occupying the post of president – which would appear to exclude Russia's most influential officials and big hitters, many of whom also hold EU passports.

These curbs would not only limit the power of the next president, but seem calculated to ensure that Putin's direct successor lacks influence and has a weak power base – as does the appointment of Mishustin as prime minister.

So even if the announcement in itself was no great surprise, the whole government falling on its sword the same day was quite unexpected. Is Medvedev suddenly yesterday's man? At least in practical terms, yes. A series of tactless public comments and a high-profile investigation by opposition leader Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation that revealed a vast collection of fraudulently acquired villas, yachts and wineries have turned Medvedev, who ironically styled himself as a crusader against corruption, into a figure of ridicule. So pulling him out of the firing line made sense.

The architect of modern Russia is not yet willing to relinquish control of the system he has built.

However, he might still have a role to play. Following Medvedev's resignation, Putin swiftly created a new position for him as deputy chairman of the Security Council, meaning that while Medvedev is being "retired" from public, he will still be on hand.

Tellingly, Putin noted in his address that he also envisaged a greater role for the State Council, an advisory body comprising the heads of Russia's federal regions, which he currently heads. It is conceivable that we might soon see the Putin-Medvedev tandem – and the ultimate source of power in Russia – shift to two new poles.

However, at this stage it is unclear to what degree the proposed changes are elements of a carefully crafted strategy: it remains possible that Putin has not yet made up his mind on the details and is merely providing himself with new options. The one thing that seems clear is that the architect of modern Russia is not yet willing to relinquish control of the system he has built.

"Vladimir Putin is probably looking at constitutional changes as a means of retaining real control over the situation in the country," wrote opposition politician Boris Vishnevsky in an op-ed for the independent Novaya Gazeta. It would "begin with, after 2024, allowing different options for his future post after that."

For Konstantin Kostin, head of the Foundation for the Development of Civil Society, Putin is implementing an adept strategy. "It's like a game of chess — he's increasing the number of possible personal moves closer to 2024," he told Kommersant. "But it's still too early to talk about a final configuration."