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. 

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. 

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. 

Neil Buckley

Georgia’s first parliament session on Sunday since the shock election victory of Bidzina Ivanishvili was a slightly sour affair. But three weeks into the country’s latest democratic experiment, the worst fears of western capitals have not been realised – though a worrying clash may loom over Georgia’s central bank governor. 

Neil Buckley

Amid the somewhat rancorous debate over whether it was right to award the Nobel peace price to the European Union, it is worth bearing in mind the view of those countries still aspiring to join.

Vesna Pusic, foreign minister of Croatia – which, provided all 27 EU members ratify its entry agreement, should become the 28th next July – tells a story of why, for all its flaws and current economic crisis, the Union still matters a lot in the Balkans.

Take five generations of women in her family: her great grandmother, grandmother, mother, herself, and her 26-year-old daughter.

“All of them were born in the same city. And the ones who died, died also in the same city. However, none of us will have been born and died in the same state,” says Ms Pusic. 

Neil Buckley

Ukrainian opposition activists clash with riot police on July 4. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/GettyImages

Ukrainian opposition activists clash with riot police on July 4. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/GettyImages

Barely had supporters’ chants at the Euro 2012 final in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium on Sunday died out, before politics as usual returned to Ukraine. Tuesday night and Wednesday morning have seen violent clashes between riot police and demonstrators protesting against a law that would upgrade the role of the Russian language in the former Soviet state.

The law was rammed through parliament in a second reading at short notice on Tuesday, after being similarly rammed through a first reading a month ago – just before Euro 2012. It now needs only to be signed by president Viktor Yanukovich to take effect. 

Neil Buckley

Hillary Clinton and Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics on June 28 (Ilmars Znotins/AFP/GettyImages)

Hillary Clinton and Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics on June 28 (Ilmars Znotins / AFP/ GettyImages)

Visiting Latvia on Thursday, Hillary Clinton praised the Baltic state for taking “very difficult” austerity measures that would ensure a “stable, prosperous future”.

The US secretary of state is not the only high-profile figure praising Latvia’s economic record.

Christine Lagarde, the IMF managing director, dropped in this month and proclaimed its austerity programme an “inspiration” for heavily-indebted eurozone countries.

Latvia and its Baltic neighbours Estonia and Lithuania suffered the world’s steepest economic contractions in 2009 amid swingeing austerity measures. But now they find themselves in the frontline of the debate over austerity versus growth as the best way to tackle the eurozone’s debt problems. 

Neil Buckley

In Russia, the music of Viktor Tsoi, a rock star who died young in 1990, is being played again. That is not just testament to how good it was, writes the FT’s Neil Buckley. With Russians once again protesting on the streets demanding greater democracy, the Tsoi resurgence highlights that history is, in part, repeating itself. 

Neil Buckley

Why has Russia blocked tougher sanctions against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad at the United Nations, laying itself open to accusations that it is propping up a dictator and thwarting efforts to stop the violence in Syria?

Communication is often not Moscow’s strong point. But Alexei Pushkov, the smooth chairman of the Russian Duma’s foreign affairs committee, gave a lengthy and combative answer to that question at a London briefing this week. 

Neil Buckley

Police officers detain an opposition activist during a banned anti-Kremlin protest in St.Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, May 31. AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky

Police detain an opposition activist during a banned anti-Kremlin protest on May 31. AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky

Soviet-watchers called it “whataboutism”. This was the Communist-era tactic of deflecting foreign criticism of, say, human rights abuses, by pointing, often disingenuously, at something allegedly similar in the critic’s own country: “Ah, but what about…?”

As several former Soviet republics drift back towards authoritarian ways, whataboutism is making a comeback. For a Briton, it is difficult to talk to Ukrainian officials about the questionable seven-year jailing of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko without getting a lecture on the prison terms meted out to several British MPs for expenses fraud.

Now, it seems, Dmitry Peskov, the wily press secretary of Russian president Vladimir Putin, has succumbed.