Thursday, March 23, 2017

Kremlin’s Strategy of Permitted Protests at Risk of Collapse, Shelin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 23 – The Kremlin’s strategy of allowing people to demonstrate on behalf of almost anything as long as they get permission from the authorities in advance because the regime has no intention of listening to the people who take part in them is no longer working in the way Vladimir Putin planned, according to Sergey Shelin.

            The Rosbalt commentator says that for the first few years after the large protests in 2011-2012 each side was prepared to play its role, but now those going into the streets over issues like the return of St. Isaac’s to the Moscow Patriarchate are no longer willing to take part in such staged events (

            On the one hand, they are increasingly chafing at Moscow’s rules about where, when and how they can demonstrate, Shelin says; and on the other – and this poses a more serious challenge to the regime – they are no longer willing to have their demands ignored by the powers that be.

            Until recently, the authorities were quite prepared to look on any protests for which they had given approval as just another form of public action as in those on state holidays. And they were even willing to “find a place” in the system for Internet petitions calling for this or that action.

            Both the regime and the protesters were satisfied by this. Citizens could register their unhappiness in a largely risk free way, and the powers that be could present themselves as tolerant of democratic principles and advertise themselves as committed to the right of people to assemble and protest.

            “A formula of mutual saving face was developed: we will not punish you for any demands, even radical ones,” the authorities said, “on condition that you submit them in a form we set and with an understanding that we will decide what to do with them subsequently.”

            According to Shelin, “for several years, this worked.” But in the last year it has begun to fall apart first in the case of the long-haul truckers who having had their demands ignored responded in “a non-traditional way.” Instead of going off and drinking coffee, “they began to make demands.” Some were arrested but “after the strike the tariffs were lowered.”

            “This was a lesson for all,” the Rosbalt commentator says.

            On the one hand, it became clear that there were some kinds of protest that the authorities simply wouldn’t permit. But on the other, it came to be recognized in Russian society that protesters had a chance to win out if the authorities were divided or if the protesters showed that they were ready to continue and that “social struggle is not a ritual,” but something real.

            “The inviolable unity of the power machine in most cases is an illusion,” Shelin says. The St. Isaac’s case is one of those; that of the leadership of the Academy of Sciences is yet another.  And because the opponents of a particular course have remained united in both cases, there is a chance that one or the other will win through.

            Consequently, protests are no longer the ritual they once were. People taking part in them expect to be listened to. And they won’t be put off by orders that they shift where they demonstrate or not demonstrate at all, even and perhaps especially in the case of opposition political figures like Aleksey Navalny who wants to prove he isn’t a regime “puppet.”

            Clearly, Shelin concludes, “the authorities are approaching a decision pont: either they can learn to take the attitudes of people into consideration or they can dispense with any ceremony and use force against all who oppose them on anything.” That is a big “fork in the road” that the officials helped to create with their strategy of permitted protests.

Putin Finds a Way to Limit Impact of Sanctions on His Friends – and Hence of Those Sanctions on His Policies

Paul Goble
Staunton, March 23 – Western countries imposed sanctions on Russia following Vladimir Putin’s violation of international law in annexing Ukraine’s Crimea and creating an anti-Kyiv insurgency in the Donbass on the assumption that such sanctions would impose costs high enough to force the Kremlin to change course.

To the extent that some of the sanctions affected the Russian population as a whole, however, the logic behind them was faulty. Any suffering of the Russians a whole would have much less impact on the authoritarian Putin regime than it would have in a democracy; and indeed, given the Kremlin’s control of the media, that suffering could be blamed on the West.

That meant the most effective sanctions would be those that hit Putin’s circle. If they suffered enough, either by not being able to travel or by not being able to engage in their pursuit of wealth, their attitudes could potentially have a powerful impact on Putin’s decision. Indeed, again at least in principle, it could force Putin to conform to international law.

But now Putin has found a way to limit the impact of the latter kind of sanctions even as he has lied about and ignored the impact of others: he has pushed through a measure in the Russian parliament that will mean that those suffering personal sanctions from the West will not have to pay Russian taxes while those sanctions are in place.

In a more open political system, such blatant taking care of friends could in itself impose a high political cost. But the Putin regime is presenting this as a simple matter of justice in which Moscow is simply helping out those the West wants to punish. (For a discussion of this measure, see

This latest Putin move does not mean that sanctions should be ended. Instead, it means that they must be extended to hurt Putin and his entourage more directly. That will require both that the West decide to go after the wealth these Russians have sent abroad and other measures like cutting Russia off from the SWIFT financial settlements system.

And it will require something else: Western governments which support sanctions and which have the ability to broadcast into the Russian Federation need to step up their efforts to communicate the way that Putin is protecting his friends but not the Russian people by his actions.

Western governments have always maintained the Russian people are not the enemy and that their problems are with the Putin regime. Now is the time to demonstrate that not only by further actions against the Russian plutocracy but also by communicating to the Russian people that it is their own government and not the West that is responsible for the problems they face.

Moscow’s ‘Export of Instability’ to Belarus Shows ‘Post-Soviet Era is Over,’ Tsarik Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 23 – Moscow’s decision, already taken, to “export instability” to Belarus shows that “the post-Soviet era is over,” that the Kremlin is prepared to play for the highest stakes across the entire former Soviet space, and that “the post-Soviet era is over,” according to Yury Tsarik.

            The Minsk analyst at the Minsk Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Research posted this argument not in Belarus or in a Western outlet but rather on the Azeri Today portal, an indication of just how sensitive the issues he is discussing are not only for Belarus but for the entire post-Soviet space (

            Tsarik begins by observing that Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s declaration last week that he has no intention of ending cooperation with Russia in the military sphere because of differences elsewhere represents “the local continuation of the foreign policy course” Minsk has adopted since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis.

            “The essence of this course,” the Minsk analyst says, “consists of playing the role of ‘a restraining ally’ with Russia” by simultaneously remaining “a completely loyal participant” in Moscow-led integration measures “and “not supporting the aggressive intentions and plans of Moscow.”

            That “gave Minsk a strategic advantage” by allowing Lukashenka to avoid being attacked in Moscow for disloyalty while continuing to find some support in the West for standing up to the Kremlin.  But Moscow has now figured this out and has decided that it is time to bring Lukashenka and his regime to heel.

            “Moscow’s goal is the transformation of Belarus into ‘a gray zone,’ a territory of instability, a source of risks and threats for neighboring countries … and at the same time a military-strategic place des armes for the Russian Federation in its conflicts with the European Union and NATO.”

            The Kremlin has two possible ways to achieve that: It could potentially get agreement from the current Belarusian regime to do what Moscow wants, or it could “destabilize Belarus and implement control of its territory by hybrid means.”  Lukashenka has signaled that the first isn’t going to happen, and so Moscow is now working toward the second, Tsarik says.

            It is doing so by weakening the Belarusian economy, launching propaganda attacks on Minsk, and tightening control of the border between the two countries, the Belarusian analyst says, in addition to other measures which so far have been mostly held in reserve. The only real constraint on Moscow is that it doesn’t want to appear to be behind the worsening of ties.

            If Lukashenka behaves relatively well, Moscow will ramp up the pressure “slowly.” If he doesn’t, Moscow will do so “quickly.”  But the important point is this, Tsarik say: “the path back to the normalization of relations” between Minsk and Moscow “no longer exists. Many in Minsk are still suffering illusions about that.

            Evidence of that sad fact, the Minsk analyst continues, is the effort of some in the Belarusian capital to talk about divisions within the Russian elite, seeking to play one group off against another.  That worked in 2010 to Lukashenka’s advantage, but it will have disastrous consequences now.

            Indeed, he says, “the use of it  today, after the formation in Russia of ‘the Crimean consensus’ is the crudest possible mistake.”  Minsk looks like it is trying to undermine the unity of Russian society and that is only intensifying “the anti-Belarusian consensus among the Russian establishment.”

            “At the same time, it is not bringing any positive results either inside Belarus or in the international arena. Rather just the reverse because for the international community it is creating an impression that Minsk is only trading for better conditions within Moscow’s sphere of influence and not struggling for real independence and sovereignty.”

            At one level, of course, none of Lukashenka’s statements matters. “All the strategic decisions regarding Belarus have already been taken in Moscow” and there is nothing that will change those decisions.  The only thing Minsk can try to do is to maintain as much of its sovereignty and independence as possible while it develops its economy.

            “Belarus,” Tsarik says, “can count only on its own forces, on its ability to modernize the economy, diversity its foreign ties, build new coalitions, unions and partnerships, secure agreement in society and internal stability, and defend its borders, territorial integrity and constitutional order.”

            If Minsk is able to do all this, then “a new window of opportunity for the construction of a new type of relationship with the Russian Federation on a genuinely equal civilized basis will arise in the future.”  And that will be a bellwether “for all other countries of the post-Soviet space” because “the post-Soviet era has come to an end.”