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Update No: 373  (26/02/12)

As resistance against Prime Minister Putin grows in the lead-up to the March 4 presidential elections that he will almost certainly win, the West is growing increasingly frustrated by Moscow's resistance to action against the regimes in Syria and Iran and with other failures to agree.

Mass civil unrest in Russia is mounting as the country hurtles towards presidential polls that Putin is steamrolling his way through. On February 4, two protests were held in Moscow; one calling for Putin to resign, the other showing the Prime Minister their support. Moscow police say nearly 140,000 people attended the pro-Putin rally at Poklonnaya Gora and an estimated 80,000-100,000 anti-Putin protesters rallied in Bolotnaya Square.

While the pro-regime rally may have been larger, it appears that many of them were paid to show up or forced to attend by their employers and trade unions. United Russia, which organised the rally, has denied those claims. Natalya Burtseva, a spokesperson for the party's Moscow branch, said: "We didn't force anyone to come; we didn't make any such arrangements, either orally or in writing. The one thing we did, of course, was invite people to the rally, and those who wanted to came. All the rest is rumour and speculation."

But numerous participants have come forward to say that they were offered cash to attend or had no choice but to go. Russia's Public Chamber, a governmental oversight group, says it registered close to 200 complaints from schoolteachers who said they were forced to attend the pro-Putin rally. Complaints came from other public sectors as well. Yelena, an employee with the MosEnergo energy firm, claims she and her co-workers were urged to go by their bosses.

"They put up an announcement telling us that it was necessary to appear on a certain date, at a certain time and place, where a gathering was being organised," she said. "So we came, and they registered us. Then we got on a bus and they took us there."

The exploitation of public sector workers for political rallies used to occur during the Soviet era, when trade unions had an obligation to send staff to public gatherings. The trend is familiar and some workers who refused to comply have been punished. Yelena Travina, the director of a children's education centre, said that she and other mid-level education administrators were told by their trade union that they were expected to attend the February 4 rally and that those who couldn't should "have their refusal registered" with the head of the education department. When Travina told her boss that she thought the request was politically motivated she was asked to resign.

All public sector workers are potentially in the same boat and, as discontent with Putin mounts, there is a possibility that they may gather enough strength to present a real challenge to the Prime Minister and his cohorts. The anti-Kremlin protests gripping Russia are mostly attended by the young, Internet-savvy, urban middle class whose living standards rose dramatically under Putin's rule and who are now pushing for greater political rights. But joining them are also protest veterans who remember hoping for democracy when the Soviet Union collapsed. Together their anger could grow into a forcible challenge.

The Kremlin is not helping itself by refusing to open up the March 4 election. Five men – Prime Minister Vladimir Putin; A ‘’Just Russia” candidate Sergei Mironov; Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov; Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovksy; and billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov – are competing in polls. None of the other four pose a legitimate threat to Putin and all candidates that do have been barred from standing, the most recent being liberal opposition politician Grigory Yavlinsky. On February 8, the Russian Supreme Court upheld a Central Election Commission decision to keep Yavlinsky out of the election because they said that too many of the signatures that he submitted in support of his candidacy were photocopies and therefore invalid. Yavlinsky's lawyers argued that the law does not forbid candidates from submitting photocopies of signature sheets and that Yavlinsky did so because he was given just one month to gather 2 million signatures from across Russia, the largest country in the world.

As well as maintaining an iron grip on the range of candidates, Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have failed to engage with people's concerns, talking only loosely of gentle reforms (see New Nations, Russia, February).

And while dissent gathers momentum in Russia's main towns and cities; militants in the North Caucasus are becoming more confident that Putin's days might be numbered and are changing their tactics. At the beginning of February, Doku Umarov, the leader of Islamist rebels in Russia's North Caucasus, ordered fighters under his command to halt attacks on Russia's civilian population, saying that ordinary people no longer support Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Probably in an effort to demonise the fighters in the Caucasus and rally around a common enemy, Medvedev then ordered Russia's top security service to “detect and curb provocations" by extremists.

"It is quite possible that the criminal insurgency in the North Caucasus could become more active during the [presidential] election campaign," Medvedev said. "I demand, therefore, that you increase the effectiveness of your efforts in this area during that period."

Digging its heels in on the world stage as well as at home, the Kremlin is refusing to allow Western countries to take action against the regimes in Syria and Iran. In early February, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad assured Russian officials that he will hold a constitutional referendum in an attempt to end the bloodshed in Syria, which has killed an estimated 6,000-7,000 people since it began last year. A few days later, on February 10, the Russian Duma passed a resolution calling for the UN Security Council not to take sides in Syria and declaring that Russia opposes any military interference in any country without the sanction of the Security Council. Adding a sting in the tail, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that because of al-Assad's assurance of a referendum, the Syrian opposition now "bears full responsibility" for ending the violence there, which given its multi-faceted character is no help towards a solution.

Ryabkov added that Western states that push the Syrian opposition into what he called "uncompromising measures" were "accomplices" in inflaming the crisis, before asserting that Russia would not allow a repetition of the kind of events that ousted Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and would block any United Nations Security Council resolution allowing foreign military intervention in Syria. Looking at the dangerously chaotic state of Libya today, under its revolutionary victors, that position is at least understandable.

His words came one week after Russia and China vetoed a UN bid to impose sanctions on Iran and to try to end the violence in Syria, making it clear that Moscow couldn't be swayed. That veto upset Syria's neighbours as much as it did the West, and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah (who has ‘dogs in this fight’), sharply criticised the move, saying that world's confidence in the United Nations had been shaken. Indeed, it seems that the UN is rapidly becoming a redundant force given that motions can't be passed without the say-so of Russia and China, as has long been the case with the USA. None of these three powers cares too much when the UN takes the flak.

Russia's aggressive rhetoric may be a bid to present a show of strength at home ahead of the Presidential elections by inflaming old cold war passions. Whether that’s the case or not, Putin’s muscle-flexing is damaging relations with the West and the US in particular. Just before vetoing a UN resolution on Iran and Syria, Putin accused the United States and NATO of aiming an antimissile system being deployed in Eastern Europe at Russia.

Two years ago, NATO invited Russia to cooperate in creating a "security roof that protects us all". Putin has always responded frostily to that idea and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has repeatedly tried to assure him that the US-created antimissile system is intended to protect the West against attacks from rogue states such as Iran. The Prime Minister either doesn’t believe her or doesn’t want to believe her, but the stakes are always going to be high where ICBMs and intercept missiles are concerned.

On the "Cold Politics" (Kholodnaya Politika) television on February 2, Putin said that the missile shield can cover "territory to the Urals [Mountains], the places where our ground nuclear forces are based,” adding that "today there is no threat from Iran or North Korea" and NATO is not offering any guarantees, written or otherwise, that the system is not targeting Russia.

The problem for both Russia and the US is that the existing parity in nuclear weapons can be completely negated if one side has the means to pre-empt the other. It is also manifestly true that “today there is no threat from Iran or North Korea.”

On the television programme, Putin said that the US was the only country in history to have used nuclear weapons, and that they used them against Japan – which didn’t have any themselves – in 1945.

"What should we do, just black this out from our memory?" Putin asked. "We will always respond to threats that appear along our borders."

Putin went on to play down the threat from Iran and North Korea by saying that Russia is the only country besides the United States with ground, sea, and air nuclear forces and that he doubts the sincerity of Russia's "partners in the UN Security Council" after they produced spurious ‘evidence’ of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and then invaded the country.

"It seems to me our partners don't want allies, they want vassals," Putin said. They want to rule" but, "Russia doesn't work that way," he concluded.

His remarks were quickly echoed by other ministers and on February 6, Anatoly Antonov, Russia's lead negotiator with NATO on the planned Western European missile-defense system, said that discussions with the US on the subject had reached "a dead end".

Antonov, who is Deputy Defence Minister, criticised Western proposals on missile defence as "vague", adding that Russian participation in a European missile-defence system "is not even up for discussion."

Going even further, he said that the missile-defence system in Europe presented the greatest threat to Russia’s security and that Moscow might even pull out of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed with Washington in 2010.

For now, the US hasn’t risen to the fly and may be biding its time until Russia’s domestic political situation calms down, before re-thinking its policy towards the nation. But it’s uncertain for how long the Kremlin will continue along this line. Putin’s inevitable re-election in March looks set to stir up more unrest in Russia, not calm it down, and using the world stage to claw back domestic popularity could have devastating consequences. Reluctant to take military action in Syria without a UN mandate after receiving heavy criticism for the war in Iraq, and the intervention in Libya, leave aside their domestic opposition to new wars, Europe and the US have their hands tied. Each day, it becomes more obvious that Syria’s problems must be settled by Syrians, on which we report separately in SYRIA.

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