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Russia-NATO Council led to no results, both sides are to strengthen military presence in Eastern Europe: The first NATO-Russia Council since the events in Crimea and the beginning of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine was predictably perceived to have brought no results. The sides have strikingly different visions regarding the developments in Ukraine and have demonstrated no willingness to reconcile them, analysts report. Although the return to business as usual is not on the agenda, both parties, as well as outside observers, are concerned about the risk of an accidental war. The growing suspicion between Russia and NATO and failing ‘hot lines’ between the militaries might result in incidents – like the shooting down of the Russian fighter jet by Turkey – igniting into full-scale confrontation. Not only did the lacklustre attempt to find a common language fail, but the routine verbal spats were further exacerbated by a decision to strengthen Russia’s military presence alongside its western and southern borders (three new divisions are to be deployed) to counter NATO’s envisioned military build-up in central and eastern Europe.
“Democratic coalition” falls apart months before elections: The pre-election Democratic Coalition led by the People’s Freedom Party (PARNAS) collapsed, failing to reach an agreement on the leadership position, procedures on primaries, and campaign financing. Besides PARNAS, the Coalition included several opposition groups: the Democratic Choice Party, Alexei Navalny’s unregistered Party of Progress, the December 5 Party, and the Libertarian party. With the goal to improve the probability of the ‘non-systemic’ opposition winning seats in the September 2016 Parliamentary elections, the members agreed to elect candidates in the primaries who would later run on a joint list under the PARNAS banner. A compromise on the exact procedures was, however, never reached. The disagreements were further magnified by a film broadcast by a popular state-affiliated TV station NTV, which discredited Mikhail Kasyanov – the former Minister of Finance and Prime Minister and now PARNAS’s leader – who was initially guaranteed the first spot on the party list. Although it was of dubious quality and allegedly state-sanctioned, the film purported to show Kasyanov having an affair with an opposition activist and lambasting his deputy Ilya Yashin and other members of the Coalition. Even though he was urged to sacrifice his guaranteed leadership position and thus minimize damage to the public reputation of the Coalition, Kasyanov was not ready to compromise. The schism in the Coalition fuelled by individual ambitions may doom the prospects of its former members in getting elected. The other opposition force – the Yabloko Party – is, however, expected to benefit from the situation. Ready to provide support to independent candidates, Yabloko could improve its position by welcoming the popular individuals from the collapsed coalition. It is also likely to attract voters who would otherwise support the coalition.
Kremlin prepares for (re-)elections and seeks to boost public support: According to the March poll by Levada Centre, the approval ratings of Putin and the government are sliding down. A total of 39% (versus 28% the previous year) believe that the state is not fulfilling its duties towards society. On another measure, 50% (against 60% in 2014 and 57% in 2015) hold the opinion that their country is moving in the right direction. The number of individuals perceiving stagnation and increasing chaos in the country doubled (14% and 16% correspondingly). With the rally-‘round-the-flag effect spawn by the Crimean and Syrian campaigns gradually wearing off, the perception of the economic crisis is becoming more acute, experts explain. Putin’s individual approval ratings still remain high, with 65% (versus 57% last year) of respondents supporting his new presidential term. Public discontent is instead being shouldered by the government and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, whose approval ratings have continuously fallen since 2012 (now 48% and 53% respectively). The campaign preparations for the elections are nevertheless being taken seriously. Putin has openly expressed his support to the United Russia party, the ‘stabilizing element of Russian society’, which is officially chaired by Medvedev. For the first time in four years, Putin is expected to participate in the party’s convention in June. The recently introduced changes to the election law forbid the use of an image of a person who is not directly participating in the elections. The public demonstration of support by the ‘founder’ and ‘moral leader’ might, however, becrucial for the Party to withstand the loss of popularity among the general population and alleviate the negative effects of the economic crisis. To boost its recognition and counter the rise of popular opposition candidates in one-mandate constituencies, the ruling party is recruiting Russian celebrities and journalists.
Kudrin returned to government; Zolotov joined Security Council; power struggles continue: Former Minister of Finance Alexei Kudrin returned to government, taking the positions of the chairman of the Council of Trustees of the Center for Strategic Research and deputy head of Economic Council under the President of Russia. He is also expected to write a new economic strategy for Russia that might also be used during the 2018 Presidential elections. Although the Kremlin acknowledges that reform may be necessary to get out of the crisis, the most painful measures are unlikely to beimplemented before the 2018 elections. The return of Kudrin to the government is seen by many as a positive step. Yet, this appointment will not necessarily lead to any significant reform. First, Kudrin will only be responsible for proposingreforms, but their implementation might once again encounter difficulties. Second, the Kremlin desire for reform might be very limited. Asked whether the government wanted reforms for ‘stability or development’, Kudrin admitted that he did not receive a clear answer. Third, analysts express skepticism about the real potential impact of Kudrin on the Russian economy. Kudrin excelled when oil prices were high but did not manage to implement deep structural reforms. (For more background on Kudrin’s appointment and his potential impact, see our December edition). Personnel reshuffling also continued in other departments. Head of the brand-new National Guard Viktor Zolotov replaced Boris Gryzlov in the Russian Security Council. The replacement is in line with the elevation of Zolotov’s position but is not seen as the downshifting of Gryzlov, who is now tasked with foreign policy assignments rather than domestic issues. Gryzlov is to continue to serve as Russia’s representative in the Contact Group on Ukraine and to maintain direct access to Putin. The recent administrative reorganization and the general perception of the need for reform is likely to have resulted in Medvedev’s initiative to increase the efficiency of the government. The Prime Minister proposed introducing a KPI system that would evaluate the work of ministries and be supervised by the President. Although Putin approved of the proposal, analysts are pessimistic about the prospects of the initiative in achieving its stated goals. The plan is seen as yet another sign of intensified internal power struggle. The reform zeitgeist is likely pushing Medvedev to claim the mantle of the reform agenda, thereby sidelining the official reformists German Gref and Alexei Kudrin.