Vladimir Putin at a regional security summit in Tajikistan in September
It emerged this month that Tajikistan’s authorities had forcibly shaved the beards of almost 13,000 men last year as part of their grim struggle to stamp out militant Islam. But the big problem for Tajikistan and the rest of Central Asia in 2016 will not be beards. If the predictions of various western and Russian specialists are accurate, it will be the contribution of Russia’s economic troubles to religious radicalisation in the region. Read more
Protesters pour into the Moldovan parliament
Take a moment to consider the events that unfolded on Wednesday inside the parliament building in Chisinau, capital of Moldova, a small, deprived, appallingly governed nation of 3.5m people.
All eyes were on Pavel Filip, a former sweets factory manager who was about to be appointed as Moldova’s sixth prime minister in less than a year. “We’re forming a last-chance government for Moldova,” he told legislators, in remarks that carried only a touch of exaggeration.
What happened next? First, Mr Filip won the parliamentary vote. Then a gang of protesters forced their way into the chamber and started a brawl. One political party leader had blood dripping down his face.
Meanwhile, outside parliament, several thousand demonstrators were chanting anti-establishment slogans on the street. They were still there on Thursday. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
In 2015, a sense of unease and foreboding seemed to settle on all the world’s major power centres. From Beijing to Washington, Berlin to Brasília, Moscow to Tokyo — governments, media and citizens were jumpy and embattled.
By Gideon Rachman
I have a nightmare vision for the year 2017: President Trump, President Le Pen, President Putin.
Like most nightmares, this one probably won’t come true. But the very fact that Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen are running strongly for the American and French presidencies says something disturbing about the health of liberal democracy in the west. In confusing and scary times, voters seem tempted to turn to “strong” nationalistic leaders — western versions of Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Can world powers make common cause against Isis?
France has been courting US and Russian support for a war on Isis in the wake of the Paris terror attacks. But while Russia and Turkey, a Nato member, claim to be fighting the same foe, they themselves saw armed combat this week when Turkey shot down a Russian jet on its border with Syria. Mark Vandevelde asks Gideon Rachman and Geoff Dyer whether world powers are capable of making common cause against Isis.
A protest in front of the parliament building in Moldova's capital, Chisinau
After President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, some feverish western politicians and commentators started to detect the Kremlin’s malign hand manipulating every event large and small across Russia’s former Soviet neighbourhood.
They drew particular attention to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, whose political classes contain vocal, westernised lobbies that rarely waste a chance to point their US and European interlocutors in an anti-Russian direction.
Yet the reality is not so black and white. Since the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991, it never has been. In important respects, the political, economic and social ills that afflict these states are home-grown. You can blame the Russians for a lot, but not for everything. Read more
If Vladimir Putin is looking for a way out of his estrangement from the west over the Ukraine crisis, he sometimes has an odd way of showing it.
Two days after Russia’s president met his US counterpart Barack Obama at the UN Security Council last month and called for an international coalition to fight Islamist terrorism, Russia gave the US just one hour’s notice that it would launch air strikes in Syria. It delivered the message via a Russian general who turned up on the doorstep of the US embassy in Baghdad.
Addressing the annual Valdai Club conference on Thursday, Mr Putin reiterated his appeal for co-operation in Syria – but only after running through a typical litany of complaints about US policy and behaviour.
Yet this was a different Mr Putin from the sour figure who, at the same meeting with foreign journalists and academics a year ago, delivered arguably his bitterest anti-US diatribe since his combative “Munich speech” of 2007.
By shifting the military theatre from Ukraine to Syria – however big a gamble Russia’s military intervention there may be – Mr Putin seemed to feel he had seized the initiative. His acid wit and self-assurance were back. Read more
Russia raises its profile in the Middle East
Russia has moved fighter jets, tanks and troops into a base in Syria, meanwhile Vladimir Putin, Russian president, is gearing up to make a major speech at the United Nations. What are the Russians up to? Gideon Rachman discusses this question with Neil Buckley and Geoff Dyer.
Alexis Tsipras and Vladimir Putin at a meeting in the Kremlin in April
We learned on Monday that Yuri Milner, the billionaire Russian entrepreneur, is to spend $100m of his own money over the next 10 years to fund a project searching for alien civilisations beyond our solar system.
According to my calculations, that is $100m more than the Russian government has offered in financial aid to Greece since the radical leftist Syriza party, often presumed to be close to Moscow, came to power in January.
During Syriza’s chaotic six months in office, the notion has cropped up time and again that Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister and party leader, would like to play a ‘Russian card’ to ward off pressure from Greece’s eurozone creditors.
There is something to this, but the picture is more subtly textured than first impressions might suggest. Let’s look below the surface and find out what’s going on. Read more
Keep an eye on Transnistria, the pro-Russian breakaway state in Moldova. On Monday, Dmitri Trenin, one of Russia’s best-known foreign policy analysts and a man with good Kremlin antennae, tweeted: “Growing concern in Moscow that Ukraine and Moldova will seek to squeeze Transnistria hard, provoking conflict with Russia.” On Tuesday, a columnist in the pro-Kremlin Izvestia newspaper warned that Russia “seriously faces the prospect of a repeat of the  situation” – when it went to war with Georgia – “this time around Transnistria”.
What sparked the tensions was a May 21 vote in Ukraine’s parliament to suspend military co-operation with Russia. That included a 1995 agreement giving Russia military transit rights across Ukraine to reach Transnistria, which borders Ukraine’s Odessa region. Read more
There are drawbacks to being a satirist from a deeply authoritarian state. Exile is a frequent consequence. But it has its advantages.
“I’m really blessed as an Iranian comedian,” Kambiz Hosseini told the audience of democrats, dissidents and defectors who gathered this week in Norway for the annual Oslo Freedom Forum (or “Davos for dissidents”). “There’s no shortage of material for me.” Read more
A useful report on EU-Russian relations was published last week by the EU committee of Britain’s House of Lords, the upper house of parliament.
The report shows how London and other EU capitals badly misjudged Russian intentions last year, before the February revolution in Kiev, President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the Kremlin’s armed intervention in eastern Ukraine. In particular, the way that the British government allowed expert knowledge and experience of Russia to waste away in the UK foreign office after the Soviet Union’s demise is indefensible. Read more
Most people have something they do to mark the end of the year: make a resolution, go to a party, tidy the attic. My annual ritual is to make a list of the five most significant events of the past year in global politics. This year is an odd one, in that it seems to me that there are only two events that stand head-and-shoulders above the others. The first is the breakdown in relations between Russia and the west, caused by the Ukraine crisis. The second is America’s return to war in the Middle East. So let’s deal with those two first and then move on to the other contenders.
Almost exactly 15 years ago, on December 29, 1999, Vladimir Putin – then Russia’s prime minister and on the verge of promotion to the presidency – published a 5,000-word “mission statement” that summed up what he saw as the enduring values of the Russian people.
With the rouble dropping like a sack of Volga valley potatoes and the increasing threat to the Putin era’s social contract – “I make you wealthier and let you travel abroad, but I stay in power indefinitely and you don’t demand political freedom” – it is worth taking another look at the so-called Millennium Message. Read more
Can Russia’s economy weather the storm?
Gideon Rachman is joined by Neil Buckley and Kathrin Hille to discuss the state of the Russian economy: how well can it weather the impact of the falling oil price and the falling rouble in addition to western sanctions? What are the likely political repercussions?
One of the most compelling of international relationships was on display in Ankara this week when Russian President Vladimir Putin visited his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The paramount leaders of Russia and Turkey dominate their countries’ politics like few other heads of state, casting long shadows on the world stage. When they appeared together at Mr Erdogan’s $600m new palace on Monday, there was the undeniable crackle of power in the air.
But commentators should beware of bracketing the two men together in too facile a fashion. Read more
The view from Toompea hill over Tallinn bay and the Old Town of Estonia’s capital is justly considered one of the glories of the Baltic region. Scarcely less memorable is a plaque on the wall of Stenbock House, the 18th-century mansion on Toompea hill which is the official seat of Estonia’s government. Read more