Neil Buckley

Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Getty)

As Mikhail Khodorkovsky enters a fourth day of freedom in Berlin after his stunning release from a remote prison colony last Friday, some conclusions can now start to be drawn. All suggest it is premature to get too excited about the implications of the liberation of Russia’s most famous political prisoner.

First, though it may be true – as Mr Khodorkovsky claims – that no formal conditions were attached to his pardon by president Vladimir Putin, the former Yukos oil company chief is in de facto exile. He says he will not return to Russia while a $500m legal claim related to his first conviction on fraud and tax evasion charges in 2005 still hangs over him. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled this claim illegal. But unless Russia’s supreme court strikes it out, Mr Khodorkovsky fears it could be used, at the very least, to prevent him from leaving Russia again if he did go back. Read more

Neil Buckley

The manoeuvre was vintage Putin. After answering journalists’ questions for four hours and five minutes in an annual press conference – which had already included a question about Mikhail Khodorkovsky – the Russian president chose to slip the main news into a casual comment to a group of journalists afterwards. Russia’s most famous political prisoner, and arguably one of the most famous in the world, will be pardoned after ten years in jail “in the shortest time”.

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Neil Buckley

Alexei Navalny, opposition leader and blogger, who came second in Moscow's mayoral election (Reuters)

Little by little, more air is set to be let into Russia’s tightly managed democracy. Opposition members from outside Kremlin-approved parties ­– the so-called non-system opposition ­– will be allowed to compete in, and even win, local-level elections. The recent polls in Moscow and Yekaterinburg were the start.

Those are conclusions that can be drawn from four days of discussions last week among invited Russian and foreign experts at the annual Valdai Club conference, and off-record meetings with some very senior Russian officials. They provided some grounds to hope that the worst of the clampdown that followed the demonstrations of winter 2011-2012 may be over. Having established some ground rules, the Kremlin seems to be elaborating a new approach to the oppositionRead more

Neil Buckley

After a testing two years for Vladimir Putin that saw the first serious protests against his rule, Russia’s president was back to his relaxed, confident and sometimes acerbic self at an annual meeting with academics and journalists on Thursday.

Though avoiding triumphalism, Mr Putin seemed to bask in his diplomatic success over the plan for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons. He also appeared to believe the sting had been drawn out of the demonstrations that followed parliamentary elections in December 2011 and his own decision to return for a third term as president. Read more

Neil Buckley

Alexei Navalny (Getty)

After a decade in which most elections have been little more than puppet shows with the Kremlin holding the strings, real politics may just be starting a comeback in Russia. Sunday sees elections for mayor of Moscow and some other big cities, plus several regional governors and local legislatures. For the first time in years, at least some candidates from outside the Kremlin-controlled arena of politics are being allowed to take part.

It is significant that the governors’ elections are taking place at all. Russian president Vladimir Putin abolished regional governors’ elections (and those for Moscow and St Petersburg mayor) after the Beslan tragedy in 2004. They were reinstated in the face of public protests over alleged vote-rigging in the 2011 parliamentary elections – albeit with an effective Kremlin veto on candidates.

Gennady Gudkov (Getty)

But the authorities have allowed Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption blogger and closest thing the protests have to a leader, to stand in Moscow. Navalny was even released from jail, hours after being sentenced to five years on dubious embezzlement charges, pending the result of an appeal, apparently to allow him to stand.Another prominent figure in the protests, Gennady Gudkov – who was expelled from the Russian parliament – is standing for governor of the Moscow region, the area around the capital. And Yevgeny Roizman, an opposition anti-drugs activist, is a candidate for mayor of Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-biggest city. Read more

Neil Buckley

A mourner holds a picture of Sergei Magnitsky AP

The farcical conviction of the deceased lawyer Sergei Magnitsky on tax evasion charges will only increase the pressure on European countries to follow the US lead and adopt a “Magnitsky list” of banned Russian officials involved with the case.

Yet the biggest impact of the Magnitsky affair may come not from any official response by western governments, but precisely where it now hurts Russia and its leadership most – in investment. Read more

Neil Buckley

(AP)

An audience with Vladislav Surkov, “grey cardinal” of the Kremlin and architect of Vladimir Putin’s “managed” democracy, is a rare thing. But little did those who saw him speak at the London School of Economics last Wednesday realise it would be his last public appearance as Russia’s deputy premier. A week later, he is gone.

His LSE comments may even have played a part in his departure. In particular, Surkov criticised Russia’s investigative committee, the powerful FBI-style agency headed by a Putin classmate that is increasingly becoming a law unto itself. He said the committee was wrong to sling mud about alleged corruption at Skolkovo, Russia’s answer to Silicon Valley that is premier Dmitry Medvedev’s pet project – and for which Surkov has been responsible for the past year.

That move was already a demotion after he appeared just a little too sympathetic to the middle-class Muscovites protesting over alleged vote-rigging in the December 2011 parliamentary election – ironically, the very system Surkov created. As Kremlin deputy chief of staff for a decade, he had been the puppet-master who pulled the strings of the parties and individuals permitted to perform in the political theatre he had created. Read more

Neil Buckley

Dmitry Medvedev and foreign journalists on Wednesday 20 March 2013
For a man who suffered the indignity of having to stand down after one term as president of Russia to make way for the return of Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev appears comfortable in his own skin.

Meeting the Financial Times and representatives of six other European newspapers this week, Russia’s prime minister seemed relaxed, sometimes jocular – in spite of the pressures many political observers believe he is under. Compared with the somewhat tense and nervous figure the FT first interviewed just after his election as president in 2008, he seems comfortable with the trappings of power – even if they are now diminished from what they were.

Today, a conservative or hardline faction in the Kremlin, emboldened by Putin’s return to the presidency, is seen as jostling to replace the more liberal Medvedev with its own premier. Putin, too, is thought ready to jettison Medvedev as a scapegoat in the event of a crisis such as an economic slowdown – and Russia’s economy has got off to a weak start this year.

For now, the premier remains in the same Gorky-9 compound he occupied as president, in which Boris Yeltsin spent his second presidential term, just off the chic Rublyovskoye Shosse 15km beyond Moscow’s outer ring road. Read more

Neil Buckley

Photo by Getty

Senior Ukrainian officials insist they are still intent on closer integration with the European Union. So why do they make it so difficult for Europe to embrace it?

Friday’s announcement that jailed former premier Yulia Tymoshenko is now a formal suspect in ordering the 1996 contract killing of a Ukrainian lawmaker threatens further worsening of relations between Kiev and the west. Though prosecutors said last year they were investigating her involvement in the killing, which she categorically denies, the latest move is clearly an escalation.

That is a surprise — especially since the EU is currently debating whether to soften its stance on Ms Tymoshenko’s 2011 conviction on abuse of office charges, widely seen as politically motivated. Her imprisonment is the main reason why a far-reaching EU trade and political cooperation deal with Kiev — the biggest Brussels has ever negotiated with a third party — remains unsigned, though the text is agreed. Read more

Neil Buckley

Georgia's former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili arrives for questioning at an Interior Ministry building on December 7 (IRAKLI GEDENIDZE/AFP/Getty Images)

Former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili arrives for questioning on December 7 (IRAKLI GEDENIDZE/AFP/Getty)

A spate of arrests and investigations of members of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s party since the October election victory of billionaire premier Bidzina Ivanishvili is causing a headache for western officials over how to respond.

On the face of it, the legal campaign seems to follow the typical winner-take-all logic of elections in post-Soviet states. It looks similar to how Mr Saakashvili’s government treated former associates of his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze. It also looks rather like the Ukrainian authorities’ pursuit under president Viktor Yanukovich of former premier Yulia Tymoshenko and her allies. Read more