Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.
The previous issue is here, and see also our Russia This Week story The Guild War â How Should Journalists Treat Russian State Propagandists? and special features âManaged Springâ: How Moscow Parted Easily with the âNovorossiyaâ Leaders, Putin âThe Imperialistâ A Runner-Up For Timeâs âPerson of the Yearâ and It’s Not Just Oil and Sanctions Killing Russia’s Economy, It’s Putin.
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“The economic outlook has deteriorated significantly since mid-2014 following sharp falls in the oil price and the ruble, coupled with a steep rise in interest rates,” Fitch [Ratings] said in the statement. “Plunging oil prices have exposed the close link between growth and oil.”
The downgrade by Fitch puts it in line with the nation’s assessment by Standard & Poor’s, which cut Russia to BBB- in April. Authorities have responded to the currency crisis with emergency moves that included the biggest interest-rate increase since 1998, a 1 trillion-ruble ($17 billion) bank recapitalization plan and measures to force exporters to convert more of their foreign revenue into rubles.
Crude oil declined steeply today:
And the ruble has had another bad day. It started the day trading at 59.82 for a single US dollar, but is down to 61.93 to a dollar.
— James Miller
Exiled Russian businessman and former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky responded to a threat against him by Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov issued today. Khodorkovsky had made a call for solidarity with the journalists of Charlie Hebdo slain by terrorists January 7, and has now responded to Kadyrov’s threat with a statement on Open Russia, a web site he has created to promote his opposition work. The Interpreter has provided a translation of an excerpt:
Yesterday in the CNN story I saw horrible scenes from Paris. Terrorists armed with machine guns were literally shooting unarmed people straight out, and cold-bloodedly finishing off the wounded.
I instantly reacted to this brutal and senseless retaliation against journalists, calling for the solidarity of the media of the whole world. I wanted to show that the terrorists will not achieve their barbarian purposes, that the answer to such an event can be only solidarity and defense of freedom of speech.
In reply to my statement, propagandists from the Kremlin unleashed a campaign in which they falsely tried to portray my refusal to walk on the leash of murderers as disrespect for Muslims.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic declared me a personal enemy and expressed hope that “volunteers” would be find for retaliation against me.
I heard and took into account the threat of a loyal supporter of Vladimir Putin. This threat does not differ in any way from yesterday’s terrorist act in Paris in its aim: its purpose is to intimidate, to deprive me of a voice, to stop speech.
But I said yesterday and I will repeat it again today: we cannot be intimidated. We will firmly stand for free speech — the basic value of modern society. I am convinced that the absolute majority of Muslims also understand this position and support it.
Khodorkovsky said the Kremlin’s propagandists were “siccing fanatics on me in vain.” He believes that Muslims of good will would also sympathize with those killed and view his call as a sign of solidarity and a refusal to submit to terror. Among those killed in Paris was a Muslim policeman.
“Terrorists can threaten, they can even take away life. But they can’t deprive society of a voice,” he said.
(Note: The Interpreter is a project of the Institute for Modern Russia which is funded by Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.)
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The United States has recently announced that they are closing 15 military bases in Europe — a cost-saving measure which has been controversial in light of Russia’s recent revanchist aggression.
The changes, including new construction at some bases, were expected to cost $1.4 billion but result in savings of $500 million a year once fully implemented.
Several facilities in Germany would be closed, but overall U.S. troop numbers there were expected to rise a few hundred. Some 500 U.S. personnel would be withdrawn from Lajes Field in the Azores, reducing U.S. troop numbers in Portugal. About 300 troops would be shifted from Germany to Italy.
Assistant Defense Secretary Derek Chollet said the changes in half a dozen European countries would reduce support infrastructure but would not affect the U.S. military’s operational capacity in the region.
The Pentagon has justified some of these responses by noting that weapons systems in Europe will be upgraded. For instance, while troops will be reduced in the UK by 2020, the US will be deploying two squadrons of the advanced F-35 Lighting II joint strike fighter. Foreign Policy reports:
That will add up to a net reduction of about 2,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel in Britain. The moves are part of a broader Pentagon plan to close 15 military bases across Europe, which could save about $500 million per year. Currently, more than 74,000 Americans are stationed and working for the U.S. military overseas.
The shift is part of the $985 million “European Reassurance Initiative,” the Obama administration’s effort to bolster European militaries in the wake of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in March.
But, as FP points out, the F-35 is a deeply-flawed design and has been significantly delayed and will likely not be operational until 2017 at the earliest. Now, the F-35 is a key part of the NATO deterrence plan.
Overall, defense spending by NATO nations in Europe had been decreasing for a long time. Now, after Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, that policy is stirring up controversy.
— James Miller
Following Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov’s public condemnation of Ekho Moskvy head Aleksey Venediktov, the radio station chief has announced that he considers Kadyrov’s message a threat and is contacting law enforcement.
Venediktov wrote on his blog (translated by The Interpreter):
1. I am treating Ramzan Kadyrov’s threat fully seriously and therefore intend to contact Russian law enforcement bodies shortly.
2. I categorically reject Ramzan Kadyrov’s accusations that Ekho Moskvy radio is anti-Islam. I believe that such statements are slanderous in nature and damaging to Ekho’s business reputation.
3. We live in a secular state and abide by the constitution of the Russian Federation and Russian laws.
4. The editorial policy of Ekho Moskvy is balanced, professional and equidistant from the interests of differing groups, political parties and faiths. This is what it is, and it will remain so, regardless of various kinds of pressure and threats.
— Pierre Vaux
Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, accused Aleksey Venediktov of turning his radio station and web site into an “anti-Islamic megaphone,” the independent TV Rain reported today January 9.
The Chechen strongman, notorious for his authoritarian rule and fearsome threats, made the claim on Instagram, his favorite form of address.
The Interpreter has translated an excerpt:
After the Paris events our domestic liberals are indignant, trying to ingratiate themselves to their Western patrons. Thus, the head of Ekho Moskvy radio, Aleksey Venediktov, conducted a poll on the topic of whether cartoons of the Prophet should be drawn
The very posing of the question is of a provocative nature. This is an effort to offend the Muslims of Russia and the whole world, incite enmity between peoples, and sow chaos and disorder. If someone, exploiting the situation, throws stones at Ekho, this is immediately ascribed to Muslims. The Muslims of Russia have already long seen that Venediktov is turning Ekho Moskvy into the main anti-Islam megaphone. This is not hard to be convinced of, after listening to or reading the materials from any day.
We hope that these problems will not remain without the attention and inquiry of the authorities. Otherwise the Muslims of Russia, who are not indifferent to the fate of their Fatherland, will not endlessly tolerate the antics of Venediktov and company.
Yesterday, Venediktov posted on Instagram and Twitter a picture of himself and his staff wearing the “Je Suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) t-shirts that a number of journalists around the world have adopted in solidarity with their slain colleagues at Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
Venediktov re-tweeted another Twitter user’s tweet of the text of Kadyrov’s threat.
Translation: Kadyrov is threatening Venediktov?
Venediktov replied calmly to the threat, and concerns of readers:
@aavst Aleksey Alekseyevich, with the perseverance worthy of a better cause, you continue to grab by the balls things and people that you shouldn’t.
@Orenbrooklyn: You shouldn’t be so afraid.
While some independent Russian publications refrained from publishing
the cartoons, Venediktov opted to publish a number of the controversial
covers of the French magazine which poked fun at Christian, Jewish, and
Muslim leaders alike.
Exiled businessman and former political prisoner Mikhail
Khodorkovsky called on all publications to publish the cartoons, and
himself was threatened by Kadyrov yesterday.
(Note: The Interpreter is a publication of the Institute for
Modern Russia, which is funded by Pavel Khodorkovsky, the son of Mikhail
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Yesterday, January 8, Konstantin Romodanovsky, the head of Russia’s Federal Migration Service (FMS), announced that more than one million foreigners would be barred entry to Russia for ten years for exceeding their legal residence periods.
Speaking to the Interfax news agency, Romodanovsky said that the amendments to Russia’s immigration legislation would come into effect on January 10.
The Interpreter translates:
“Our information system indicates that there are now almost 3 million foreign citizens on the territory of the Russian Federation who are far exceeding their legal stay of 90 days,” said Romodanovsky.
“These gentlemen have not deigned to contact the FMS. They believe that they can stay here, relaxed and unpunished, and, most likely, to make an income,” he said. “However the FMS information system knows them by name. The overriding majority of them are citizens of CIS countries.”
According to him, more than 734 thousand foreigners are in Russia with violations of more than 270 days but less than 360. “Another 1,028,062 foreign citizens have [spent] more than 360 days [of illegal time in Russia],” said the head of the FMS.
“From January 10, 2015, new legal provisions will come into force, allowing for just such a differentiation in defining degrees of violation,” stressed Romodanovsky. “For exceeding residency periods, taking into account established criteria, there will be an alternative punishment.”
The head of the FMS said that those who exceeded their stay by 120 days will be automatically barred entry for 3 years, those who exceed by 270 days will be barred entry for 5 years. “Illegal residence for more than 360 days – the barrier will be down for 10 years,” he added.
“For those, who exceed the term of their stay by 120 days but leave before 270 days are over, and this category is made up of 1,196,619 foreigners, the information system allows the possibility of a review of the decision, however proceeding solely on humanitarian grounds,” said the head of the FMS.
— Pierre Vaux
The Daily Telegraph reported today that President Vladimir Putin had a mansion in Spain in which he had planted vineyards.
“The president will have 25 vines planted in terraces surrounding his ten-bedroom mansion,” said a sub-headline.
“Wine will be stored in French oak barrels in specially acclimatised cellars which cost around £750,000 to install,” said another.
The tabloid story had a great deal of detail:
Vladimir Putin’s grand home is on the exclusive La Zagaleta estate in
the Malaga province of Benahavis (pictured) and boasts a private helipad
and garage capable of housing more than 22 vehicles. He has planted the
top Burgos-based Bodega ‘Pingus’, with single vintage bottles of the
wine costing in excess of £750
Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for the presidential administration, denied that Putin had any villa in Spain, RBC.ru reported (translation by The Interpreter):
“No, it’s not true. This is an unoriginal joke…It has no basis in reality,” Dmitry Peskov said in an interview with radio station Ekho Moskvy in answer to a question as to whether Russian President Vladimir Putin had acquired a villa on the Andalusian shore of Spain. Replying to the question as to why British journalists could have published an article that had no basis in reality, Peskov said, “Apparently in order to discredit themselves as a solid publication, a kind of self-flagellation.”
One of the funnier moments of President Vladimir Putin’s year-end press-conference in December 2014 was when he denied there could be a “palace coup” in Russia.
“We have no palaces,” he quipped.
Opposition leader Alexey Navalny immediately tweeted a picture of a large dacha complex built by Sergei Kolesnikov, a businessman with close ties to Putin, near the village of Praskoveevka in Gelendzhik, Krasnodar Krai.
Translation: Putin: Don’t worry, we don’t have any palaces. The Anti-Corruption Fund’s air service claims others.
The complex, which is reportedly valued at $350 million, has been dubbed “Putin’s Palace.”
Tracking the lavish homes of Russia’s top officials has been one of the main activities of Navalny’s fund.