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 opposition.
♦ Ireland’s head of state says the EU must drop its “hegemonic” economic model and reform the ECB, or risk social upheaval and a loss of popular legitimacy.
♦ The Great Tax Race series turns to Ireland, looking at how Ireland has remained attached to aggressive tax policies that favour businesses even as ordinary people have struggled to get by. (If you’re trying to get your head around how all of this even works, watch this handy explainer from Matt Steinglass)
♦ Richard McGregor thinks President Obama needs to circumvent Congress if he wants to get his agenda moving.
♦ Western clothing companies are scrambling to address public concerns over working conditions in Bangladesh – the Walt Disney Company ordered an end to the production of branded merchandise in the country before Rana Plaza collapsed. John Gapper today makes the argument against western companies withdrawing: “Despite everything, the industry provides better-paid jobs than the alternative – working on rural farms – and has helped to emancipate women.”
♦ Despite violence and corruption, Afghan entrepreneurs are still making opportunities for themselves.
♦ The Kremlin is putting pressure on VKontakte, a Russian Facebook clone, pushing CEO Pavel Durov to leave the country.
♦ Slate is publishing a series of excerpts from the memoirs of Mohamedou Oul Slahi who was a prisoner at Guantánamo for nearly 11 years.
♦ Mafia historian goes underground into the bunkers of the Ndrangheta, Europe’s biggest cocaine traffickers and Italy’s most powerful organised crime group.
Boris Berezovsky in August 2012 (Getty)
Police have found “no evidence” so far that anyone else was involved in the death of exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, but are retaining “an open mind”, according to one of the detectives working on the case. It’s hardly surprising that questions remain. While one friend told the FT: “In the last few months, he was very depressed, very low. He felt beset by all the issues that surrounded him”, another – Nikolai Glushkov, a fellow Russian exile – told the Guardian’s Luke Harding: “I will never believe in the natural death of Boris Berezovsky.” It may be a while before any certainty is reached [update: police said late on Monday that a postmortem found the cause of death was “consistent with hanging”] – but in the meantime, it’s worth reading up on the life of a man whose influence over his homeland will be felt for a long time to come.
- Owen Matthews recalls his first meeting with Berezovsky in 1998, at the “luxurious Logovaz Club, a restored prerevolutionary mansion in central Moscow”. In a piece full of pithy assessments (“Yeltsin may have made Russia free, but it was Berezovsky who made it for sale”; “Berezovsky was Dr. Frankenstein, whose monster was a poker-faced little KGB officer”), Matthews paints a vivid picture of the mathmetician-turned-kingmaker whose love of power contributed to his undoing.
- Writing for the FT, Ben Judah contrasts the Berezovsky of old – “they called him ‘the comet’, because he burnt so bright and talked so fast” – with the “insecure, self-doubting and anguished man” of recent months.
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.
Allegations of election rigging are nothing new in Russia. But a new study of ballot box fraud has provoked strident denunciations from Kremlin circles – because it has emerged from a corner of the regime least expected.
The study was prepared by a little-known thinktank called the Centre for Analysis of Problems and Public Governance, which concludes that accounting for electoral fraud, the opposition Communist Party should have won the 2011 Duma elections with 30 per cent of the vote, rather than the Kremlin-backed United Russia. UR officially took 49 per cent, but the study says it should have got 22 per cent, according to versions of the report leaked to the press.
The study also concluded that Vladimir Putin would have still won the presidential poll in March, but with 52 per cent rather than 65 percent of the vote.
These conclusions, questioning the legitimacy of the ruling party, and the mandate of Mr Putin, would probably have been stomached had they been raised by an opposition group.
But it turns out the Centre is connected to the solid core of the Kremlin. It’s a right-wing thinktank associated with a branch of Putin’s circle known as the “Orthodox Chekisti” for their links to the Orthodox church and their professional backgrounds in the Soviet era security services (“Chekist” in Russian is slang for spy). The Centre’s scientific director is Vladimir Yakunin, chief of Russia’s state railway monopoly, who owns a country house in the same compound as Putin on Lake Komsomolskoe near St Petersburg.
Russians plus planes plus duty-free alcohol can be a dangerous mix (Getty)
Over the past year, the Kremlin has launched a relative successful crackdown on Russian alcohol consumption, restricting the hours when booze can be sold, raising prices and finally deciding to classify beer as an alcoholic beverage (rather than a soft drink).
Now, the government is stepping up to solve another, and perhaps bigger, alcohol-related problem: how do you stop airline passengers from becoming belligerently drunk in an enclosed space?
Over the past few weeks, two new videos have emerged confirming what most Moscow jetsetters could have told you already. Russians plus airplanes plus duty-free alcohol can – on occasion – be a horrible combination.
Take, for instance, the case of Vyacheslav Ismailov, a 28-year-old businessman from Podolsk, a sleepy Moscow suburb.
For human rights workers in Russia, living with death threats can be an everyday reality.
One has to be prudent, assigning some the category of “prank” while taking others more seriously.
On Thursday, Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch, one of the most prominent activists in Moscow, decided that the nine text messages she had received from an anonymous sender between Sept 28-30 fell into the latter category.
The author threatened her life and that of her unborn child, knew her unlisted address and had details about her private life known only to her and her close friends.
An opposition activist during a protest on May 31. AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky
Vladimir Putin’s popularity ratings are likely to be causing a bit of concern in Russia’s ruling circles, as a March election bump in his approval scores appears to be evaporating – and the president’s rating has fallen back to territory seen early in the last decade.
On Thursday, the Public Opinion Foundation, a respected polling agency that works for the Kremlin, published figures showing the number of Russians answering “Do you trust Vladimir Putin?” with ‘Yes’ stood at 48 per cent at the end of May, down from 55 per cent March when he won re-election with 63 per cent of the vote.