All posts by natyliesb

Navalny Protests to Resume Later in the Year; Recent Opinion Polls Show No Significant Increase in Dissatisfaction Among Russians, Putin Retains 64% Approval Rating

Monument to Soviet Workers Moscow.Edited
Monument to the Soviet Worker, Moscow. Photo by Natylie Baldwin, Oct. 2015

An associate of Navalny has announced that further protests will be postponed until the runup to the Duma elections in the summer. According to an RT report:

Lithuania-based Leonid Volkov, once the anti-corruption campaigner’s chief of staff, has been one of the leading organizers of the demonstrations held in a number of cities throughout the country over the past fortnight. However, in a video posted to the Navalny Live YouTube channel on Thursday evening, he said there would not be a repeat of the marches this week.

It is suspected that this move was decided in the midst of smaller protests on the second weekend and no meaningful response to a call for protests in the middle of last week after Navalny’s sentencing.

Meanwhile polling has been released by the Levada Center indicating that, despite many western pundits’ insistence – yet again – that the Putin government is in deep trouble because of a western-beloved rabble-rouser who barely breaks double-digits of popularity, Putin maintains a healthy 64% approval rating:

New research, conducted by the Levada Center – a polling company registered as a foreign agent over receiving Western funding in the past – found that 64 percent of the 1,600 people surveyed backed Putin’s performance, down from 65 percent in the last poll, conducted in November.

Around a third said they didn’t approve of his activities, and only two percent didn’t express an opinion. The president’s support was strongest among those aged 55 and older, but a majority in every age group viewed his time in office as favorable thus far, including 51 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds.

Levada’s polling results were discussed last week by Russia expert Paul Robinson. With respect to Putin’s approval ratings, he said the following:

If there is any reason for Putin to be concerned it is that his approval rating is lower among younger people than older ones. Whereas 73% of people aged 55 or over approve of him, only 51% of those aged 18 to 24 do so. But then again, 51% is still a majority. It would clearly be wrong to say that Russian youth have firmly turned their backs on their president. Overall, therefore, while one can say that Putin has lost ground since the big bump in support he got after the annexation of Crimea, he’s still in a reasonably strong position.

Robinson noted that prime minister Mikhail Mishustin has an approval rating of 58%. After a year on the job, his approval rating is not only respectable but has risen. He then points out the numbers when it comes to questions Russians were asked about their overall satisfaction:

One’s general attitude to life is another. Perhaps Russia support their rulers while quietly growing more and more unhappy with the general state of things. This third chart, which is again based on surveys in January, suggests otherwise, at least in general terms.

Evaluation of the current situation in the country

The black line in the chart shows the percentage of people who think that the country is moving in the right direction, and the blue line the percentage who think the opposite. What it indicates is that despite the troublesome economic situation, Russians generally have a positive outlook, with 49% currently thinking that things are improving, and 40% thinking that they are getting worse.

While there is not a wide disparity in numbers of those who are optimistic and those who are pessimistic, these results don’t seem to support western pundits excited proclamations that the Putin “regime” is taking a serious beating from Navalny’s activities.

The Putin government does seem to be aware that there is dissatisfaction among Russians about the economic stagnation they have been enduring or several years. Ben Aris, a journalist who has been covering Russia fairly since the 1990’s, recently reported that there has been a major meeting to revamp the National Projects infrastructure and investment program, spearheaded by Mishustin and with some of the same people who helped Putin with his economic plan in the first years of his presidency, including Alexei Kudrin and German Gref, among others:

Teams have been set up to deal with the specifics, including: New Social Contract, Client-Oriented State, Aggressive Infrastructure Development, New High-Tech Economy, and National Innovation System, which correspond to five of the 12 tasks in the national projects. A working group headed by a specialised vice-premier is responsible for each segment.

A few details have leaked out from the meeting. The National Innovation System team is headed by Gref, as well as the co-founder of IBS IT Services, Russia’s answer to Germany’s SAP, Sergey Matsotsky and Alexander Galitsky, founder of Almaz Capital Partners, a leading Russian investment fund.

Boris Kovalchuk, the CEO of state-owned power company Inter RAO and the son of Yuri Kovalchuk, co-owner of Rossiya Bank, have been named the top experts for the New High-Tech Economy project, The Bell reports.

The Bell reports that the plan’s documents are full of ideas from the tech sector. The kick-off meeting is called “kick-off” (as a borrowed word from English) in brackets. Mishustin was appointed Prime Minister after transforming the tax service by, among other things, overseeing a hugely successful overhaul of the IT system. Clearly Putin is hoping Mishustin can do for the whole government what he has already done for the tax service.The national projects themselves have been repackaged, renamed and broken into components.

The Bell reports that the three most interesting blocks include: The “New Social Contract”, which envisages the introduction of a universal family allowance – not for everyone, but only for the “needy”, who will have to be identified according to the “know your client” principle. Direct payments and provision of food for the poor should become the components of the new social contract. The materials do not say anything about aid to other categories of citizens in the context of the new social contract.

Law enforcement and judicial system will be reformed to improve confidence and the business climate. One of Russia’s biggest problems holding back faster economic growth is the fact that entrepreneurs don’t trust the courts and property rights remain weak. The upshot is that successful business people are very reluctant to invest and take a defensive position to protect existing businesses rather than taking expansionist positions to grow their businesses. This attitude acts as a brake on growth and once a business gets to the size where it is providing the owner a good living it stops growing.

Putin urged in 2019 to approach judicial and law enforcement reforms “carefully, without revolutions and without waving a sword.” The Bell speculates that these reforms remain very sensitive and a deep root and branch reform is not on the cards.

Another goal in the new look national projects programme is to reduce the state’s share in the economy and at the same time to use the potential of state-owned companies to “accelerate digital development” in an effort to make Russia welcoming for start-ups from all over the Former Soviet Union (FSU).

Read the full article here.

Lev Golinkin: How many western monuments honor fascists, Nazis and murderers of Jews? You’ll be shocked.

SBandera.jpg
Stepan Bandera, Leader of the Ukrainian OUN, terrorist and Nazi collaborator

By Lev Golinkin, The Forward, 1/26/21

The most curious thing about last year’s protests that toppled statues of slavers and colonizers is that the monuments of Holocaust perpetrators didn’t even make headlines.

Yet a Forward investigation reveals there are hundreds of statues and monuments in the United States and around the world to people who abetted or took part in the murder of Jews and others during the Holocaust.

The Nazi collaborators of Central and Eastern Europe weren’t as fastidious at keeping records as their Third Reich allies, which makes it difficult to arrive at a precise number of their victims. As a rough estimate, the Nazi collaborators honored with monuments on U.S. soil represent governments, death squads and paramilitaries that murdered a half million Jews, Poles and Bosnians.

Real the full article here.

Why Navalny’s Recycled Allegations About “Putin’s Palace” Deserve Skepticism

At the time of Alexei Navalny’s arrest upon his return to Russia a couple of weeks ago, he had a video released accusing Putin of having an ostentatious palace in the Black Sea region that was funded with taxpayer money. This is actually a claim recycled from ten years ago from a Russian businessman named Sergei Kolesnikov after he moved to Estonia. The claim was not substantiated at the time and it does not appear to be substantiated now.

Navalny’s flashy and tricked out video includes mock ups of the “palace” based on the floorplans as well as photoshopped images of Putin swimming in the humongous indoor pool.

A Russian-American writer Katya Kazbek who is based in NY has written a thread on Twitter that delves into an analysis of the floorplan in Navalny’s video.  Working with a real estate specialist, she has come to the conclusion that the building in question is likely designed as a luxury resort and not a personal palace of any kind. 

Also, a group of Russian journalists reportedly found the location of the “palace” in question and found only the shell of a building.  According to a report at RT:

Now, however, the very existence of its gilded corridors and plush carpets has been called into question, after a film crew from the Moscow-based Mash news channel paid a visit to the property in Gelendzhik. On Friday, the reporters released their footage on the Telegram messaging service.

Having gained unprecedented access to the site, the journalists weren’t greeted by butlers or security guards, but by “an entrance without a gate,” they said. Instead of a luxurious coastal home, the channel’s editor-in-chief, Maxim Iksanov, described it as “a big pile of concrete.”

….Mash says it gained access with the help of a construction supervisor who has been overseeing work at the site for years. The existence of the house, on Russia’s sunny Black Sea coast, has been known about since 2012, when UK state broadcaster BBC News claimed it could be Putin’s summer bolthole.

At the time, the Kremlin said the allegations were not based on reality, and spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated the denial in response to Navalny’s investigation earlier this month. “I can say straight away that this is a broken record. Many years ago, we had previously explained that Putin does not have any palaces in Gelendzhik,” he said.

Moon of Alabama has an in-depth write up which also reveals the Navalny claims to be suspicious:

Besides that obvious nonsense one has to ask why it would take Putin so long to build a ‘palace’. Kolesnikov said the project started in 2005. Sochi was prepared for the Olympics in just six years. The bridges to Crimea were built within five years of its liberation and the Constantine Palace in St. Petersburg, which Putin in 2001 ordered to rebuild, was re-opened in 2003. It is the Russian president’s official summer residence but also open to the public. When Putin says something should be build it will be build on time and not take sixteen years to end up as an empty concrete shell.

As for the ‘palace’ Navalny describes. It seems to have always been a hotel project. It had run into financial trouble. It several times changed ownership and its construction was at times stopped for years. The Russian construction mogul Arkady Rotenberg now claims to be the current owner of the ‘palace’…

Read the full article here.

Mark Episkopos: The Truth Behind Russia’s Navalny Protests

Navalny Protests in Russia

By Mark Episkopos, The National Interest, 1/25/21

Throngs of protesters took to the streets last Saturday in what the Russian authorities have called “unsanctioned” demonstrations. Nominally, the actions were aimed at protesting the recent arrest of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. But as the day unfolded, the demonstrations took on the form of a generic anti-government protest. The police were dispatched to disperse the crowds, resulting in a slew of violent clashes. There were reportedly 3,500 arrests in total; of the 1,373 arrested in Moscow, over 700 were released over the weekend. Attendance tallies remain somewhat contested. Early reports noted as many as 40,000 protesters had gathered in Moscow alone, but more recent estimates have seen that number revised down to around 15,000 in the capital and thousands more in major Russian cities including St. Petersburg and Vladivostok.

Although far from trivial in scale, the protests sparked by Navalny’s detention appear not to have attracted nearly as many participants as the 50,000-strong anti-government protests of 2019. This deflated attendance is perhaps at least partly the result of preemptive measures taken by Russian authorities. In the days leading up to the demonstrations, Russian officials told students—and their parents—that participation in Saturday’s protests will be recorded and reported to their schools; university students were issued similar warnings.

There is little question that the protests, and the measures taken by Russian police to quell them, have been a thorn in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side. The demonstrations would have been a political liability at any time, but especially in the run-up to Russia’s September parliamentary elections. Not only Navalny’s supporters but potentially any Kremlin opponent can now claim to have been the victim of a repressive regime that criminalizes dissent.

Even so, Washington’s policy approach must incorporate a series of long-overdue truths about the Kremlin and the state of the Russian opposition. First, it is grossly premature to view the Saturday protests as a popular referendum on the Kremlin. There is no compelling evidence that a significant portion, let alone anywhere near a majority, of Russians support the violent overthrow of the Putin government. According to the most recent polling data, President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating sits steadily in the mid-60 percent range. 

Real full article here.

A Closer Look at Russia’s Constitutional Amendments and Supporting Legislation

Vladimir Putin as he is about to give a speech to the Federal Assembly, January 2020.

In January of 2020, Putin gave his annual Address to the Federal Assembly, announcing that amendments would be made to the Russian constitution.  Those amendments have now been written up and passed.  Recent legislation supporting their implementation as well as clarifying how a transition of power will work has also been passed.  Now we can start to get a better picture of what these amendments will mean for Russia’s legal and political system and compare how these changes actually square with what Putin said in his speech. 

Legal History and the Balance between the Executive and Legislative Branches

First, it is important to note the contextual background of law in Russia and the differences as well as similarities compared to what many westerners are used to.   Until the post-Soviet era, there was not a long tradition of Russians being viewed as citizens with individual rights but they were instead granted some degree of social protections and stability in exchange for obedience to authoritarian rule.  There was the concept of group rights and duties in the tsarist era up until the 1860’s and then dependent rights in the Soviet era.  As Jane Henderson, a retired lecturer at the School of Law at Kings College London and author of The Russian Constitution:  A Contextual Analysis, told me in an email exchange: 

“[G]roup rights in this context are rights (and duties) for people because they are members of a particular group, not rights for the group as a single entity. There was little tradition of rights for individuals as individuals…. [In] Soviet times, the theory was dependent rights: that individuals were given rights [primarily social and economic] in return for the duties they performed to the state – made explicit for example in the 1977 USSR Constitution Article 59.”

Indeed no constitution had existed at all in Russia until 1906 – a result of the Russian Revolution of 1905 – and that was effectively revoked in 1917. However, Alexander II – a reformist tsar who outlawed serfdom in 1861 – instituted several legal reforms, including the right to trial by jury with independent judges overseeing cases.  These rights existed in Russia from 1864 until 1917, making Russia unique in that its judicial system was more democratic while the rest of its governmental institutions remained autocratic.  As Professor Bill Bowring, an expert on Russian law at the School of Law at Birbeck College at the University of London, has pointed out, these legal rights only formally came into being in many other European countries at around the same time:  “Russia has, like all its European neighbors, a long and complex relationship with human rights – and with the rule of law and judicial independence, which are its essential underpinning.”

The current constitution of 1993 came about as a result of the dramatic showdown between then-president Boris Yeltsin and the parliament.  Yeltsin had dissolved parliament after members of the legislature refused to continue to allow him to rule by decree and wanted to roll back the many harmful economic policies he had implemented during this period.  They had also threatened to impeach Yeltsin for abuse of power.  Yeltsin ultimately ordered a military attack on the parliament building, leading to hundreds of casualties.  He then suspended the existing constitution. 

In order to prevent any other center of political power from having the ability to confront or challenge the president again, Yeltsin engineered the design of a constitution that provided for a parliament that would be little more than a rubber stamp for the president’s prerogatives.  In Putin’s January speech announcing that there would be constitutional changes, he suggested that the parliament would be granted more authority.  However, upon closer inspection, the changes relating to the balance between the executive and legislative branches of government as they have now been finalized are barely perceptible.  As Henderson explains:

“[T]he idea of the President having direct oversight over certain key federal ministries (such as those dealing with defence, state security, internal affairs, justice, foreign affairs, emergency situations) was enshrined from the very beginning in article 32 of the 1997 Federal Constitutional Law on the Government.*  This oversight is now specified at constitutional level in Article 83 (e-1)…. The State Duma [the lower chamber of parliament] now does have the power of approving ministers, except those in the key ministries just mentioned.  Previously the Duma only had a hand in consenting to the Government Chairman (Prime Minister), under the original version of Article 103(1)(a). Now it also has power over approval of the Government Chairman’s suggestions as to who should be the deputy chairman and the federal ministers (again, apart from those in the key federal ministries). However, it is not clear the extent to which the Duma will review individual ministers, or whether it will merely be put in the position of approving the government as a whole.” [emphasis mine]

Putin did emphasize as the constitutional amendments were being drawn up that Russia – due to its size and complex composition of different cultures and faiths – would have to be governed as a presidential republic and not a parliamentary republic:

“I think that Russia, with its vast territory, with many faiths, with a large number of nations, peoples, nationalities living in the country – you can’t even count, someone says 160, someone 190, you know, needs strong presidential power.”

He reiterated this idea in a speech at the Valdai conference in October. 

The Judiciary

There were also amendments relating to the judicial branch of government.  Since 2000, Putin has overseen the expansion of rights for those accused of crimes as well as introducing more organization within the everyday functioning of the system.  Examples of the former include the rights of habeas corpus and trial by jury, and increased rights to exculpatory evidence.  After certain reforms made by Putin to the criminal code, acquittal rates in bench trials (only heard by a judge) doubled and acquittal rates in jury trials tripled, contributing to a 40 percent drop in the overall  incarceration rate and a 95 percent drop in the juvenile incarceration rate since 2001. 

He also introduced the role of bailiffs and Justices of the Peace (JP’s), improving the efficiency of the justice system.  JP’s are required to be over the age of 25, have a law degree, and pass an exam and a strict security clearance.  They are formally appointed by either regional governors or regional legislative bodies.  It has been established that JP’s demonstrate independence – in other words, they base their decisions on the written law – in the vast majority of cases before them.  Exceptions involve the very small percentage of cases that are politically sensitive, particularly to the Kremlin.  In these instances the JP’s will often go along with power as a matter of being socialized into the system rather than being overtly told to do so. 

Henderson acknowledges that the professionalization of the Russian legal system seems to have improved in recent years, adding:

“[T]here is now a credible group of human rights lawyers, that is lawyers whose profession is to defend human rights cases. This would have been unthinkable, I believe, in earlier eras. I also think particularly younger people – and especially educated young people – will take a different view to those in charge who are of an age which in other circumstances would mean they would be drawing their old-age pension.”

But whether the constitutional amendments that involve changes to the judiciary will support the continued progressive evolution of the legal system or hamstring it is debatable. 

In addition to the hierarchy of courts in which actual cases involving specific parties are litigated – similar to the US hierarchy with a Supreme Court at the top – many European countries have a court that is separate and apart which has the sole objective of reviewing legislation for constitutionality.  That court in Russia is known as the Constitutional Court.  The recent amendments have granted the Constitutional Court the ability to review proposed legislation, not just legislation that has already been passed, for compatibility with the country’s constitution.

While this sounds potentially positive on the surface – being able to get guidance on whether a bill would be considered constitutional before passing it – Henderson sees this as a way for the president to also have an expanded veto power.  Whereas the president did not previously have a veto right if legislation involved a federal constitutional law that was passed with a sufficient number of votes in the parliament, he can now refuse to sign and refer it to the Constitutional Court for review.  Whether the president’s refusal to sign sticks will depend on whether the judges on the Constitutional Court agree that there are constitutional problems with the legislation. 

Judicial independence becomes important in determining whether this process will be an honest review or just a fancy two-step for a president who wants to manipulate the process and sidestep the parliament. 

This brings us to the amendment that now grants the president the right to remove judges via a request to the Federation Council.  Since the parliament currently is – by design, as discussed above – a fairly weak institution relative to the president, the likelihood that the Federation Council will go against a president’s request to remove a judge is low.  As Henderson explains:  “It must be said that as with other judges, removal from the Supreme Court or [Constitutional Court] can only be “for cause,” but this can include vague formulations, such as “bringing the judiciary into disrepute” so might be easily manipulated.”

Another amendment has to do with the Russian constitution trumping international legal decisions.  There are variations around the world as to whether a country has a monist or dualist approach toward international law.  Monist states enforce international laws and treaties as soon as that state signs on.  Dualist states require a process by which an international treaty or law is incorporated into that state’s legal system before it takes force, such as a legislative vote of ratification.  Some countries have a combination of the two.  For example, in the United States, some international laws can be applied directly by the courts and others cannot. 

The 1993 Russian constitution has what many consider to be an “expansive” approach to international law.  For example, Article 15(4) states that:

“Generally recognised principles and norms of international law and international treaties of the Russian Federation shall be an integral part of its legal system. If other rules have been established by an international treaty of the Russian Federation than provided for by a law, the rules of the international treaty shall apply.”[emphasis mine]

There is also Article 17 which states that:

“The rights and freedoms of man and citizen shall be recognised and guaranteed in the Russian Federation according to generally recognised principles and norms of international law and in accordance with the present Constitution.”

This would make it seem that Russian law was to be subordinate to international law.  But Henderson points out that there is room for debate:

“[T]he question is what we mean by a law.  Is it all law of any sort that is adopted within Russia? Or is it merely federal law? Might it include Federal Constitutional Law? It certainly is not obvious that it includes the Russian Constitution….Article 15(4) is definitely still in force, and Russia is adamant that it upholds its treaty obligations. However, Article 15(4) does not expressly say that international treaty might override the Constitution.”

Russia ratified the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHRFF) in 1998 and has been an effective member of the Council of Europe since 1996, which means that Russian citizens can bring a case before the Council’s court, the European Court of Human Rights, if a question arises as to Russia’s enforcement of the rights and freedoms of the ECHRFF.  In order to bring such a case before the European court, a Russian citizen must exhaust all possible remedies in domestic courts first.  

There has been controversy in Russia over cases brought before the European court.  One case involved the shareholders of the Yukos oil company.   The shareholders of Yukos, which was dissolved by the Putin government years ago, had demanded compensation.  After getting no relief in Russian courts, the shareholders brought their case to the European court and won.  The Constitutional Court in Russia ruled in 2017 that abiding by the European court’s decision would violate the Russian constitution because the shareholders would essentially be getting compensated for having engaged in a tax avoidance scheme.

Another issue involved a total ban on prisoners in Russia being able to vote.  It is specifically stated in the Russian constitution that prisoners are denied voting rights.  This, however, contradicted the ECHRFF that Russia had ratified in 1998.  Controversy has erupted in recent years over the contradiction, with some members of the Duma requesting that the Constitutional Court rule on whether submitting to the European court’s rulings and obligations was compatible with the Russian constitution.  The Constitutional Court issued an opinion in 2015 that ECHRFF was compatible in theory with the Russian constitution, but left the door open for further review of any ruling from the European court that might arise from a specific case brought before it. 

The relevant constitutional amendment this year has expanded the power of the Constitutional Court of Russia in this regard.  According to Henderson:  “Following an appeal by one of a limited number of agencies, not only can the Court decide that it is not possible to apply the decision of an interstate agency because it contradicts the Constitution, but also it can refuse to apply such a decision on grounds of being contrary to the “foundations of public order” (whatever that might mean).”

The reference to “public order” is a new and recurring theme with the 2020 constitutional amendments as we shall see below.

The State Council and the Power of Municipal Government

Starting in October Putin submitted several bills that indicate he is setting the practical groundwork for an eventual transition of power. The first was a bill in connection with the State Council.

The State Council was created in 2000 by presidential decree and began as an advisory body to the president to coordinate different parts of government.  It was originally composed of the heads of regional government as compensation for being stripped of immunity and automatic participation in the Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament.  Putin took this step to address what he saw as the incorrigible corruption and lack of accountability of the regional governors at the time. Membership in the State Council allowed them a forum to communicate directly with the president but did not necessarily grant any power beyond that.  As reflected in the new constitutional amendments, it is now to become an official executive body. Rather than being ceremonial, it will have the power to set the direction of both domestic and foreign policy, with a likely focus on socio-economic development. 

The constitutional amendments, while granting the president the power to create the body, provided no details about how the president would go about creating the body or filling positions on it. Russian news agency TASS reported the October 14th bill submitted by Putin stipulated that the State Council will serve as an advisory body headed by the Russian president and will include the PM, the president’s chief of staff, speakers of both chambers of parliament, and the regional governors.  Representatives of local municipal government may also be included at the president’s discretion.  Furthermore, according to TASS:

In order to deal with the agenda of the council, the presidium of the State Council will be established. Its composition will be determined by the chairman. Besides, special commissions and working groups will be created in order to organize activity in specific spheres. Representatives of federal and regional government bodies, other state bodies, local governance bodies and organizations can form part of the commissions. Members of specific commissions do not have to form part of the State Council. The chairman and members of the State Council take part in its activity on a voluntary basis.

Members must also have no residency abroad, citizenship outside of Russia, or hold funds in foreign bank accounts.

According to an analysis by Chatham House, the bill submitted by Putin would allow:

“the president to achieve at least three things at once: further de-institutionalize governance structures to give him more flexibility and appointment powers; step back from day-to-day governance while still retaining control; and structure decision-making between his subordinates on national priorities across branches of power and layers of the federation.”

These analysts point out that the State Council became particularly active around the National Projects program in 2018, an infrastructure development project critical to Putin’s plan to increase living standards and quality of life in Russia. Due to the pandemic, the National Project’s goals have been moderated.

The Chatham House analysts have a negative take on the changes which they see as potentially usurping the power of local mayors and officials.

Henderson agrees that there are concerns in this area as the State Council bill is the first piece of post-amendment legislation that includes the term “unified system of public power.” This term was mentioned in Putin’s January speech in relation to creating a system of closer cooperation between the state (legally consisting of central and regional authorities) and local municipal governments that would ostensibly prove more equitable to Russian citizens. The need cited for this included disparities among the municipalities in opportunities and implementation of social rights.  It is a new concept that was incorporated into Chapter 8 of the Russian constitution via the 2020 amendments.  Chapter 8 of the constitution involves the power of local government and the recent amendments added language as Article 132(3), stating: “bodies of local self-government and bodies of state authority are included in a unified system of public authority in the Russian Federation and conduct interaction for the most effective solution of tasks in the interests of the population living on the respective territory.”

As pointed out by Elizabeth Teague in her article “Russia’s Constitutional Reforms of 2020,“ this is inconsistent with another part of the Russian constitution:  “This appears directly to contradict Article 12 of Chapter 1 of the constitution, which reads, ‘Local self-government shall be independent within the limits of its authority. The bodies of local self-government shall not be part of the system of bodies of state authority.’”

It is believed that a likely consequence of this amendment will be the continued watering down of local authority, with the Kremlin now having the power to determine the staffing of local governments that were supposed to enjoy some autonomy.  Considering that Putin stated in his January speech the intent of, “expanding the authority of local government,” this doesn’t bode well.

As for the State Council in particular, what exactly the body will do and how is still somewhat vague and it will remain to be seen how things unfold.   On December 21st, the State Council’s secretary, Igor Levitin, who is also an aide to Putin, said that the Council “in its new format” will better facilitate action among all governing bodies:

“The constitutional amendments introduce a new legal category: the public power… In order to ensure a coordinated operation of all bodies of power, to take their opinion into account during decision-making, special authority is needed. This authority exactly is laid out in the […] law on the State Council….Before the law was adopted, the State Council was a venue for establishment of productive work of the government and the regions…Now, the area of influence is extended. Now, we will build relations between all bodies of public power.”

Similarly, there has been concern raised about the amendment to Article 67 of the constitution that would allow for the designation of “federal territories” which could allow the central government to directly take over and govern large areas of the country with any number of justifications since the wording of the amendment is vague.  This power could conceivably be used to move Russia from a federal system to a unitary system of government. 

Senators for Life

On October 31st, Putin submitted another bill regarding the role of members of the Federation Council, in which the Russian president would have the ability to appoint senators for life and for ex-presidents to apply for such a senatorial seat. According to TASS:

The bill says that senators – representatives of the Russian Federation – are appointed for six years or for life by presidential decrees. The head of state can appoint no more than seven lifetime senators. The appointment of senators is a presidential prerogative, but not a duty, so the president can use it at any time….


The requirements for former presidents are envisaged in a separate clause. A Russian president, who has ended their tenure after a presidential term has expired or in advance, will acquire the status of a senator since the moment of sending an application, with all the required documents attached, to the Federation Council.

Additionally, senators must be over the age of 30, have no residency abroad or citizenship outside of Russia, and have an “impeccable reputation.”  An updated draft of the bill has removed a previous requirement that the outgoing president apply within three months to sit in the Federation Council.  They can now apply at any time.

RT reported additional details on the makeup of the Federation Council pursuant to Putin’s proposed bill:

According to the draft law, “On the procedure for forming the Federation Council,” the body will include two representatives from each of the country’s 85 regions (one [each] from the legislative and executive authorities), a former president of Russia after leaving his post, and no more than 30 representatives chosen by him or her, with up to seven appointed for life.

This obviously provides Putin with another option for political influence after leaving the presidency. 

Immunity for the Departing President

Also in his package of bills, Putin proposed the granting of immunity to all former presidents, including for any crimes allegedly committed before taking office. RT reported on the final bill signed on December 22nd:

“In practice, it means that Putin can’t be taken to court for criminal or administrative offences after leaving the Kremlin. The same rules will apply to Dmitry Medvedev, who held the position from 2008-2012, and all future office holders. The new set-up was included in constitutional amendments, approved by a public vote in June, that made significant changes to Russia’s system of governance.

The bill stretches the previous presidential immunity system back to before the person concerned took office. They will also be excused from arrest or searches as well as questioning by police or investigators. Previously, these protections only covered actions, carried out during the time in office or investigations of actions, connected to presidential duties.”

It might be reasonable to grant some protection to ex-presidents from politically-motivated legal vendettas, but this bill appears to extend the immunity to activities of the ex-president prior to holding presidential office, which seems excessive and hard to justify.  Moreover, the process for lifting immunity, which is allowed for treason or other very serious crimes, is complicated.  As Henderson comments, “It’s quite a tortuous process which must be completed within three months from the original accusation in the State Duma. Whether it would ever be successful is another question.”

Conclusion

Many of the points reflected in the constitutional amendments this year had already been laid out in federal legislation in some fashion in recent years.  The amendments formally codified them into the Russian constitution.  In doing so, the complex and contradictory nature of some of the modifications has been made more obvious for those who take the time to study them. 

What matters most, of course, is what Russians think of these changes. With a 68% turnout in the plebiscite this summer, 78% voted in favor of the amendments.  In 2019, popular opinion in Russia was the highest it had been since 2003 in support of amending the constitution.  Putin was likely aware of the public’s receptivity to such a move.

It must be acknowledged, however, that there are troubling incongruities in how Putin characterized these changes in his January speech and what they actually look like.  This should give one pause, not due to whether such changes will get the approval of critics in the west or not (this shouldn’t be a primary concern to Russians), but whether these changes will actually hold back the progress Putin seemed to be articulating in his January speech, which implied a recognition that Russian society had reached a sufficient level of stability and maturity to begin taking the next steps toward a less rigid and more participatory system.

*Federal Constitutional Laws are a special type of federal law to cover areas specifically mentioned in the Constitution with more detail; they must be passed by a majority of the parliament and signed by the president.

Andrew Bacevich: America’s Defining Problem In 2021 Isn’t China: It’s America

By Andrew Bacevich, The American Conservative, 1/4/21 Excerpt:

…Post-Cold War expectations of a unipolar international order cultivated by the U.S. policy elite have assumed that the universal embrace of democratic liberalism is an inevitability. This is what being “on the right side of history”—a hallucinatory incantation that pervades contemporary American political speech—signifies.

To the extent that China demonstrates the feasibility of creating a stable, prosperous, and flourishing society while flouting liberal democratic precepts, then claims that history has a single right side become untenable. “If universal democratization is not the ultimate endpoint of history,” Hanania pointedly asks, “how can the American role in the world be justified?”

The answer is that it can’t.

The real danger for American elites, then, “is not that the U.S. may become less able to accomplish geopolitical objectives,” although failures on that score, especially since 9/11, are legion. Instead, the danger is that the American people—the ones whose sons and daughters wage war pursuant to geopolitical flights of fancy concocted in Washington—might themselves “begin to question the logic of U.S. global hegemony.”

For elites, then, the ultimate danger is that ordinary citizens might cease to defer. Should the American people embrace an alternative conception of history’s purpose, one not keyed to the pursuit of militarized global primacy, then the authority of national security elites will crumble. With that, hitherto hidden possibilities just might present themselves…

Read full article here.

Kevin Gosztola: British Judge Keeps Julian Assange In Prison, Despite Denying Extradition Two Days Ago

By Kevin Gosztola, 1/6/20

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange speaks from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy where he sought asylum following an extradition request from Sweden in 2012, on February 5, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

A British district judge denied bail for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange after a hearing in which the prosecution argued he had helped NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden “flee justice” and would abscond if released from the Belmarsh high-security prison.

“As far as Mr. Assange is concerned, this case has not been won,” Baraitser declared. She said the United States government “must be allowed to challenge [her] decision.”

Baraitser referred to the lengthy history of the case and how he “jumped bail” and entered the Ecuador Embassy to obtain asylum in 2012.

She went on to highlight the “huge support networks” he still has “should he again choose to go to ground,” and Baraitser agreed with the prosecution that WikiLeaks’ assistance of Snowden made Assange a flight risk.

Assange has been confined at Belmarsh since he was arrested and expelled from the Ecuador embassy in April 2019. All along, Judge Vanessa Baraitser agreed with prosecutors that he was a flight risk.

“Mr. Assange’s past conduct shows the lengths he is prepared to go to avoid extradition proceedings. If I released him today, he would not return to face these extradition proceedings,” Baraitser declared during a hearing in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was initially intensifying worldwide.

In her ruling on bail, despite evidence of a recent outbreak at Belmarsh, the judge maintained that the facility was properly caring for prisoners and Assange would be safe.

Real full article here.

1978: Muhammed Ali Talks About His Trip to the Soviet Union

Muhammed Ali in Russia, 1978

Description: Soviet Autobiographies with William Mandel on KPFA radio: recounts Muhammed Ali interview about his experience in Russia in 1978. Mandel reads from an interview with Ali about his trip to Russia in which he discusses his impressions of everyday Russians and other Soviets, their freedom to worship, his meeting with Brezhnev, prejudice, comparisons to the U.S. and more. Approximately first 15 minutes of the audio show. Shout out to Our Hidden History on Twitter for bringing this to my attention.

https://t.co/l2rUWzIHHz?amp=1

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: How Biden Can Achieve a First in Arms Control: A Verifiable Nuclear Warhead Freeze

By James E. Doyle, 12/15/20, The Bulletin

In October, the Wall Street Journal reported that the United States and Russia were nearing an arms control agreement that would freeze the number of nuclear warheads on each side and extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for a year.

Although the report proved to be incorrect in its conclusion that Russia and the United States were about to reach their first nuclear arms control agreement in more than a decade, the simple fact that the United States and Russia were formally negotiating an extension to New START was grounds for optimism. What was most remarkable was that the sides were discussing a verifiable freeze on the total number of nuclear warheads in their arsenals. This has never been done before. In fact, neither side has ever told the other how many nuclear warheads it possesses.

Nuclear arms control agreements up to now have only directly limited the nuclear warhead delivery vehicles (land-based missiles, submarine-based missiles, and aircraft) and not the warheads themselves. New START, for example, limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads deployed by each side to 1,550 and the number of deployed delivery vehicles to 700. It entered into force in February 2011 and will expire in February 2021 unless both sides agree to extend its duration by up to five years. New START does not, however, cover thousands of non-deployed or non-strategic nuclear warheads on both sides. That is, a warhead is considered a warhead under the treaty only if it is deployed—even though each side has thousands that are not deployed.

October was a long time ago. Since then, negotiations led by the Trump administration have collapsed, and Joe Biden has become the president-elect. All indicators suggest he intends to extend New START without any new conditions.

But that does not rule out the possibility of an agreement to freeze or reduce warheads in follow-on talks. If such an agreement were reached—one that allowed both sides to know their total nuclear warhead inventories, and to verify a cap or reduction to those inventories—it would be a political, technical, and diplomatic achievement unprecedented in the history of nuclear arms control.

The incoming Biden administration is likely to pursue a world with fewer nuclear weapons and perhaps sketch the first steps on a road to zero. Verifying warhead inventories and their eventual dismantlement is essential to this objective. Overcoming the political and technical challenges of warhead arms control is a daunting task that will require expanded and sustained effort.

Fortunately, scientists and strategic planners in several nations possessing nuclear weapons have been investigating the practical requirements of nuclear warhead arms control for more than 25 years, and much progress has been made. Several candidate technologies and procedural approaches for verifying the storage and dismantlement of nuclear warheads exist. However, these potential solutions need further technical development to be successfully used in the context of a future international treaty. To make nuclear warhead arms control a reality, President-elect Biden’s national security team will need to launch a strategic verification initiative and coordinate the cooperation of the US interagency community and key international partners.

The challenges of warhead arms control. It remains profoundly in the security interests of the United States, Russia, and the rest of the world to aggressively develop a safe and reliable means to verify a potential nuclear weapons freeze and additional reductions to global nuclear arsenals. First, because of their immense destructiveness, the effects of nuclear weapons cannot be limited to the nations that use them in a potential conflict. The use of even a handful of nuclear weapons would cause worldwide human suffering. The risk of nuclear war remains unacceptably high and has been joined by a nexus of global threats, such as pandemics, climate change, and terrorism, against which nuclear weapons provide no defense.

Second, the United States and Russia, as members of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, are obligated along with all nations possessing nuclear weapons (except India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea, who are not party to the treaty) to work toward the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

Third, 50 nations have already declared their willingness to make the possession of nuclear weapons illegal under international law. They did so by ratifying the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty will enter into force in January 2021. None of the states possessing nuclear weapons has joined the treaty. However, as more countries join on and become bound by its terms, the more powerful their argument will be that their millions of citizens are being unjustifiably endangered by the tiny minority of states that claim the right to possess and use nuclear weapons.

Thankfully, the number of nuclear warheads in the world has declined significantly since the Cold War, down from a peak of approximately 70,300 in 1986 to an estimated 13,410 in early 2020. Nearly all of these reductions in nuclear warheads have been unverified—they were declared to have taken place by the countries that built them, but never confirmed by any international authority.

There is reasonable confidence that the Russian reductions have indeed taken place because US officials have been able, by means of national intelligence, arms control inspections, and other cooperative agreements, to verify the dismantlement of thousands of missiles, submarines, and bomber aircraft that once carried the larger arsenals of warheads. The outside world has also been able to observe with satellite and other imagery the movement of highly secure convoys of trains and trucks taking surplus nuclear warheads to national storage sites and dismantlement factories. Additionally, Russia sold the United States hundreds of tons of highly enriched uranium that came from retired and dismantled nuclear warheads. Finally, these same intelligence capabilities enable US officials to see that Russia has not added to its stockpile of fissile materials for the construction of new warheads.

But there is still a good deal of uncertainty regarding Russia’s total inventory of nuclear warheads and whether it plans to manufacture more. Nor are US officials sure how many nuclear warheads are possessed by China, India, France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Israel, or North Korea—and these countries, in turn, cannot independently verify the United States’ declarations of its warhead inventories.

Continue reading here.