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Volume 72, Number 9 (February 24-March 1, 2020)
FEATURED NEWS STORIES
Can Putin, Erdogan Fix Idlib Crisis?
THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION
Putin Signals Changes to Presidential Powers Should Take Effect Immediately After Vote on Constitution Click here to read more
Putin Calls Violent Dispersals of Unauthorized Rallies Legitimate
United Russia May Merge With All-Russia People’s Front Ahead of 2021 State Duma Elections
Inozemtsev: Russia Needs to Fundamentally Reassess Its Approach to Population Decline
Sova Report Finds FSB Handling More Cases Related to Extremist Remarks
Soldatov: Meeting of Christian Orthodox Churches Initiated by Moscow Patriarch Flops
OTHER POST-SOVIET STATES
Five Opposition Political Forces Agree to Nominate Single Presidential Candidate
Lukashenko Claims Oil Differences With Russia Worked Out, Warns Against Integration Coercion
Major State-Run Manufacturers Could Be Privatized, Likely Brought by Russian Companies
Arbatova: Brexit Will Test Whether EU Institutions Can Win Back People’s Trust
FM Lavrov Addresses Russia’s Relations With NATO, Ukraine
Russian Envoy: Despite Some Issues, UN Remains Relevant 75 Years Since Its Inception
Covid‑19 Pandemic Strains Ties Between Erstwhile Allies Moscow, Beijing
Rudkevich: Kremlin Seeks to Sow Discord in US Presidential Campaign
Author: Svetlana Bocharova and Yelena Mukhametshina
Test Drive for the Amendments
By Svetlana Bocharova and Yelena Mukhametshina. Vedomosti, Feb. 27, 2020, p. 2. Complete text:
[Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s Wednesday [Feb. 26] meeting with members of the constitutional amendment working group was markedly different from the previous one. On Feb. 13, as members of the group made their suggestions, the president would give them preliminary assessments: “I fully agree,” “the lawyers should mull this one,” or “this one doesn’t seem worth it to me.” This time, the leaders of the working subgroups spoke first, and Putin roundly approved all their amendments.
In particular, the Constitution will now say that “children are the most important asset” of Russia, and the government protects traditional family values, including “marriage as a union between a man and a woman.” The Constitutional Court will be able to permit Russia to disregard decisions of not just interstate agencies but also foreign courts and arbitration tribunals, and steps and calls to cede [Russian] territory will be prohibited. Finally, several earlier proposed amendments to the preamble will be partially considered in other articles, where, for example, references will be made to opposing the falsification of history and to the Russian language as “the language of a state-forming nationality.”
The only high-profile speaker the president said no to was Senator Andrei Klishas. [The senator] said that since the amendments change the powers of the president elected in 2018, they should come into force after the next presidential election. Putin objected. He said that this was why he had proposed a nationwide vote: so that the people would approve the amendments and they would take effect immediately after the votes are tallied, if the people do in fact approve them.
The working group talked a lot about the procedure for implementing the various amendments. Pavel Krasheninnikov, chairman of the State Duma committee on legislation, explained to reporters after the meeting: “The various government agencies are not getting a makeover all at the same time. Therefore, we discussed whether the new responsibilities of the president should take effect after the [next] presidential election, and a number of regulations devoted to the parliament [should wait until] after the [next] parliamentary elections.” The deputy also said that Putin agreed to hold a nationwide vote on April 22: This date was chosen because it falls between Easter, which ends the Great Lent for Russia’s Christian Orthodox (April 19), and the beginning of Ramadan for Muslims (April 24). The second reading of the amendments in the Duma is scheduled for March 10, and the third will most likely take place the next day, Krasheninnikov added.
One member of the working group attributed Putin’s desire to enact the changes immediately to the fact that the amendments were the president’s own initiative, so he has decided to try them out for himself. But we should not expect any fundamental changes, especially not an overhaul of the newly appointed cabinet, the source said.
The president could begin to implement the amendments by expanding his [quota of nominees] in the Federation Council, suggests political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko. A government overhaul and early Duma elections are also likely, the source said: “But as I understand it, a final decision has not been made yet. Although several of my politician acquaintances are acting as if the elections will be early.”
The emphasis on the amendments’ entry into force adds further significance to the vote and its legitimizing role, believes Dmitry Badovsky, head of the Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies: “The people, as the source of authority, are the ones who make it possible to enact amendments regarding a new system of government, and they renew the mandates of both the president and parliament. And it would be strange if the law ‘On issues of organizing public authority’ would essentially take effect only after the next parliamentary and presidential elections.” That would also create difficulties from a political and organizational standpoint, the expert comments: “There would ostensibly be new powers, but they could not be used. At the same time, it is important for the system to gain practical experience implementing the new regulations and powers in order to understand how they work, how well they ensure the stability of the system, the balance of power and centers of influence, and whether any other refinements are needed.”
One reason why Putin wants the amendments to take effect immediately is because he is the one who proposed all this, says Carnegie Moscow Center expert Andrei Kolesnikov: “He apparently wants to put the infrastructure for the [power] transition in place in advance. A framework is in place, and we must abide by it. The only interesting aspect is the State Council and who will be its head, which is not yet clear.” Maybe this [immediate timeline] is also because the amendments are intended to rally public opinion behind Putin, although the effect will be short-lived, the expert believes: “He wants the pressure in the political pipes to be constant. The dialogue with Klishas was probably staged so that the president could show his determination for rapid changes in the system.” Kolesnikov does not see the point in early elections: “The  parliamentary elections are soon; it’s better to prepare for them properly when making such a PR move before the next wave of opposition. And there’s no point in a presidential election; Putin will simply work as president with enormous powers.”
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Author: Vladislav Inozemtsev
How the Covid-19 Epidemic Will Impact the Economy
By Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Center for Postindustrial Studies. RBC Daily, Feb. 10, 2020, p. 6. Condensed text:
The world is feverishly watching the growing Covid 19 epidemic in China, which has infected more than 30,000 people in a month and spread to dozens of countries. The panic over this little-known disease is hardly surprising. However, predictions that the illness will cause basically a new Great Depression so far do not look convincing. . . .
On one hand, people have learned to respond to epidemics much quicker than before. While the flu vaccine was created 20 years after the  Spanish flu epidemic, a SARS vaccine was developed 21 months [after the emergence of that disease]. The transformation of health care into one of the biggest sectors of the modern economy has made it possible to greatly reduce epidemic mortality rates.
On the other hand, the speed and scale of reaction to outbreaks is becoming an economic problem. In 1968, [the flu pandemic] killed more than a million peple, yet it had practically no effect on global economic growth, which amounted to 6.3% that year (4.8% in the US), nor on international trade, whose volume grew by more than 6%. Today, a fatality rate of fewer than 1,000 has cardinally affected markets: Chinese stock market indices have dropped by almost 7.5% since the beginning of 2020; since Jan. 1, oil prices have fallen by 20%, while copper prices have fallen by 12% and iron ore – by more than 10%. The quarantine that was introduced in Wuhan and several other cities has affected at least 45 million people, becoming the largest such measure in history. Regions around the world are cutting back on buying Chinese goods, while countries are closing their borders to Chinese nationals and those who have recently been to China. The epidemic’s economic damage to China alone is already estimated at about $60 billion.
And yet, in my opinion, the global economic consequences of the epidemic will be fairly moderate. Here’s why:
Indeed, China may pay a high price to defeat the virus: Given that its economy will be paralyzed for at least a month, growth rates will be below 5% – i.e., 1.5% to 1.7% less than expected (in 2003 [during the SARS epidemic], losses were estimated at 1% to 1.3% of Chinese gross domestic product). This is a fairly serious blow to the global economy as well, simply because China’s share in it [since 2003] has increased from 8.2% to 19.2% (in purchasing power parity). Moreover, in the mid-2000s, the world economy showed more dynamic growth than today. From 2002 to 2007, China accounted for between 8% and 20% of global growth, but in 2019, that figure reached 39%. Obviously, the growing epidemic will leave its mark. However, even if economic growth rates fall by 1%, that is not a catastrophe – on the contrary, it could have some benefits.
In my opinion (and I apologize in advance for sounding so insensitive), the Covid 19 virus emerged at the best possible time in terms of the economy. The global economic boom that started in summer 2009 has already been the longest in history. Stock markets tried to adjust in late 2018, but optimism persevered. Speculators’ unbridled expectations in the last few months are increasingly cause for concern. In light of this, the slowdown of the Chinese and global economies caused by the pandemic could be beneficial if it forces investors to see the relatively random nature [of the decline]. In other words, the significant decline in economic growth for the first and second quarters of 2020 that’s inevitable in this situation will not be considered the start of a cyclical recession. Instead of starting mass sell-offs and reevaluations of strategic plans, businesses may regroup and view the events as a temporary setback instead of the start of a long-term decline. The economies of several developed countries (including France and Italy) were already in recession in the fourth quarter of 2019 and continue their steady decline. But the inevitable positive growth dynamic in the second half of 2020 after a successful fight against the epidemic could bring back growth. In other words, the Covid 19 virus, which so far lacks a vaccine, could itself become a sort of inoculation for the global economy, preventing it from overheating competely and catching an even more dangerous “infection.”
Author: Fyodor Krasheninnikov
The Futility of Putin's Potsdam
By Fyodor Krasheninnikov. The New Times, Feb. 4, 2020, https://newtimes.ru/articles/detail/190556/. Complete text:
[Russian President] Vladimir Putin has recently on several occasions talked about holding a summit of the five victorious powers of 1945 to discuss the most pressing issues of our day [see, for example, Vol. 72, No. 5, pp. 14‑15 – Trans.]. Kremlin propagandists are touting the idea as a gamechanger, and perhaps Putin himself is under the impression that the other leaders of the [World War II victor] states will like it as much as he does. Moreover, he has already declared the 75th anniversary of the [World War II] victory the main event of 2020. According to that reasoning, it would be rather quaint and even sort of logical to reconvene the Potsdam conference. But would that be worthwhile? Do the five founding countries of the UN play the same role in the world today that they did in 1945?
The P5 not what they once were.
The plain truth is that, in 2020, special rights for the five victorious powers in World War II look rather out of touch with the modern world. And to be perfectly frank, this turns the UN they founded and the Security Council they lead into forums of endless talk and no action, so new formats must constantly be come up with.
It is easy to see that since 1945, all five victorious powers – well, except perhaps the US (with some major caveats!) – have changed quite a bit.
The USSR disintegrated in 1991, capping the collapse of the pro-Soviet bloc of European countries. No matter how many toasts and pledges of continuity and allegiance to a nonexistent country may whirl about our nation, Russia is still a far cry from the USSR in terms of its global political, military and economic clout, and it’s definitely not the USSR of 1945.
China is also completely different from what it was in 1945 and [when it] joined the UN Security Council. When World War II ended and the UN was formed, the government of the Republic of China, headed by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, was the only recognized government of China. Even after the victory of Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communists in the civil war, the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and the withdrawal of the remnants of the army and government of the Republic of China to the island of Taiwan, it was the Republic of China that was represented on the UN Security Council until 1971.
It was only after the normalization of relations between the US and China, and clearly in defiance of the USSR, that Beijing received a vote in the UN Security Council. Do we even have to mention that it is rather inappropriate to compare China’s economic and political might in 1945 to the current state of affairs?
France in 1945 was still a huge colonial empire possessing a good chunk of Africa, Indochina and several other territories. France was numbered among the victorious countries in 1945 largely because some French colonies did not recognize the Vichy government and had become a center for consolidating the anti-Hitler forces. In 1945, colonies were still commonplace, and European France was far from the whole of France; so in Yalta and Potsdam, it represented not only the European metropolis but also a good part of the rest of the world that had no political voice.
The same goes for Great Britain, except the contrast is even greater. While France is still a very large and influential European state that besides its own weight, to a certain extent represents the European Union on the UN Security Council, the Great Britain of 2020 is not at all like the British Empire of 1945.
In 1945, the British prime minister represented not only his native island but also half the world – including India, Pakistan, Canada, Australia and Africa – whereas today, [British Prime Minister] Boris Johnson does not have nearly as much influence on the countries of the British Commonwealth of Nations. And Queen Elizabeth is hardly the person with whom to discuss the fate of the world, which is what Putin dreams of. And in any event, Queen Elizabeth cannot represent India, even though she is the daughter of the last Indian emperor.
The culprits and accidental victims of 1945.
The senselessness of talking about the fate of the world without involving a country like India in the discussion brings us very close to the key problem of Putin’s geopolitical reenactment.
Many large and even great powers of our day either did not exist as distinct political entities in 1945 or were not perceived as great. So it was possible to seek to establish a new world order back then in their absence, without raising their ire or creating problems by ignoring them.
Take, for instance, Brazil: Why is such a huge country in 2020 not a great power and not on the UN Security Council? Perhaps because that would have seemed like a strange idea in 1945. But is that a reason to ignore it in 2020? Or take Indonesia, with its population of almost 300 million. Why is it not a great power? Maybe because back in 1945 it was a Dutch colony, and it never occurred to anyone to invite it to participate in establishing a world order.
By the way, more than 200 million people currently live in Nigeria alone. Is that not a reason to invite it to discuss the fate of the world, even if Nigeria didn’t even exist in 1945 and was not directly involved in fighting Hitler?
India, Brazil, Canada, Nigeria, Indonesia and Australia were not part of the privileged circle in 1945 because of the Eurocentric colonial world order back then. But in 2020, getting together to talk about the fate of the world without them would be kind of rude and even insulting not only to the hundreds of millions of people living in those countries, but to the idea of the equality of people and countries that has been repeatedly proclaimed in recent years.
For obvious reasons, Germany and Japan were excluded from the club of great powers in 1945. The wounds were very fresh; the war in Europe had just ended with the occupation and partition of Germany, and by the time the UN was created, Japan had also capitulated and become occupied. Seventy-five years have passed since then, so why should Germany and Japan in their modern incarnations and with their current impact on world politics and economics be ignored? Germany in its present form was created in 1949 and assumed its final form in 1990, but why should Germany still be punished for the war that Hitler unleashed? How long should modern Japan be held responsible for the crimes of its long-gone rulers? A century, a millennium?
The dead end of geopolitical reenactments.
You can build a replica of the Reichstag near Moscow and storm it again and again, each time reveling in the same euphoria of victory felt long ago, but it wouldn’t be as easy to reenact the international political situation circa 1945, if only because doing so offers no practical benefit to the other participants: They wouldn’t get a single vote from their electorates for participating in Putin’s historical reenactments.
There are plenty of negotiation platforms in the modern world, and the fact that Putin is not getting invited to many important [international] meetings given the events of recent years doesn’t mean that without him there is nothing to talk about and problems can’t be resolved.
But the main thing is that all these formats like the Group of Seven and Group of 20 emerged because it was no longer possible to reach a decision on some things in the narrow circle of 1945 victors and then force the rest of the world to abide by that decision.
Putin’s idea is plain and simple: to use the trappings of Yalta and Potsdam to stage a comeback to major-league world politics – at least symbolically and in the eyes of his voters. But no matter how the stage might be set in Moscow, the world is living in 2020, and not everyone believes that the 1945-era rules of the game are still valid. The very idea of declaring the division of the world agreed upon in Yalta and Potsdam in 1945 as the pinnacle of the development of international relations, their endpoint and “gold standard,” nullifies the entire postwar development of humanity and represents a desire to replace [a real discussion of] the pressing problems of our time with a historical reenactment festival.
World War II was not the pinnacle of human history, as some would like to think, but the sad outcome of the preceding phase of development of international relations that had emphasized military rivalry and territorial expansion. That phase was painfully overcome, leaving for humankind the memory of the crimes that were committed and a lesson for the future: to avoid by all means any wars that would lead to a conference of victors.
Author: Mikhail Shevchuk
Drummed Up Amendments: The President Can't Oppose His Own Reflection
By Mikhail Shevchuk. Republic.ru, Feb. 17, 2020, https://republic.ru/posts/95928. Condensed text:
The date of the nationwide vote on the constitutional amendments has been set. (By a strange whim, it will be April 22, Vladimir Lenin’s birthday – a weekday that the government is even prepared to designate a day off). An appropriations resolution has been issued. (Spending [on the vote] will be no less than on a presidential election – i.e., 14 billion rubles, maybe more.) But what exactly citizens will be voting on is still unclear.
[Russian President] Vladimir Putin met with members of the working group that is drafting the amendments – well, the people charged with pretending to do so, depending on how much you trust the presidential administration’s sincerity – to check on what has already been accumulated in the storage bins of popular wisdom, and the result seems to have discouraged even him.
If you read the transcript [of the meeting], it looks like the participants are taking a test in which they were called one by one to the blackboard and graded on how well they have learned the lessons of the past 10 years. Those who learned them well got high marks; [their] proposals were grade-A statist and patriotic – in the Garibaldian mold of “Out, foreigner!”
Senator Svetlana Goryacheva proposed placing information policy under state control and making it abundantly clear that [this policy] should make it so that all manner of Ukrainians and Poles can no longer disparage us on our television talk shows (although, couldn’t we just stop inviting them [to those shows]?). Her colleague Aleksei Pushkov wants the Constitution to say that Russia is a victorious power. Writer Zakhar Prilepin is proposing that it enshrine Russia’s nuclear power status (“because we have considerable resources”). Actor Vladimir Mashkov wants to ban the transfer of Russian territories (like Prilepin, Mashkov is worried that once Putin is gone, some traitor will come to the Kremlin and immediately start ceding territory). Sergei Bebenin, speaker of the [Leningrad Province] Legislative Assembly, wants to enshrine the federal government’s right to have a hand in deciding the make-up of local self-government. Duma Deputy Olga Batalina is advocating protecting traditional family values.
Naturally, not a word was said about strengthening individual rights or, say, giving regions and municipalities more independence: The Kremlin has not given such lessons. . . .
At some point, even the president himself began to hint that the ideas may have to be dialed back some. We’re not in a rush, Putin said, so the second reading could be postponed a little. Not all of your proposals will make it into the Constitution, he continued. They are all very good, but still – some of them could be regulated with other laws.
And it’s not like Vladimir Putin simply threw up his hands and said: Look I’m a simple guy and will do everything, first, as the lawyers say, and second, only with citizens’ unconditional support. He is disclaiming responsibility ahead of time because he realizes the working group will now come up with something unpredictable: “It is important that citizens become authors of this law of this law by casting their votes,” he said. In one slick move, support for the imposed document is being turned into authorship.
Amending the Constitution was Putin’s idea, someone in the Kremlin will clearly weed out the proposals and the people will vote for everything that’s put in front of them, but it will be ordinary Russians and some behind-the-scenes “lawyers” who bear all responsibility. It doesn’t matter if censorship, monarchy or a holy inquisition is introduced in the country; this is what the people wanted.
But even the referendums on the collapse of the USSR and the declaration of the independence of the republics are still perceived by many not as an expression of the will of the majority, but a con. We’ve been taught for too long that in Russia, the creator of all that exists politically is the central government and no one else, so it can’t just up and hide behind a hastily concocted “popular vote.”
Putin must certainly understand what kind of Pandora’s box he’s opening. But he has now fallen into the trap of his own propaganda, and not just figuratively but literally: Everything that is now being proposed to Putin is thoughts and words that he himself has articulated at one time or another. A mirror is the best civil society an authoritarian president can have; it only reflects and doesn’t talk back.
So [Putin] practically does not dare object to the proposals, only occasionally fine-tuning the most daring ones. A person who has regularly said that if you can’t keep your promises, don’t make them and prided himself on that is now being asked to enshrine the annual indexation of all salaries, pensions and benefits at the highest, constitutional level. And now [Duma Deputy] Galina Khovanskaya is adamantly pushing to add the clarification “taking into account the size of inflation,” which, if you think about it, outdoes all the populism of the “Red Duma” of the 1990s. And Putin is over the fire; he can’t admit that he actually thought of getting by with [just] lofty rhetoric. He has to pretend that this is what he in fact wanted, and appeal to the “lawyers.”
What was conceived as a symbolic act is turning into an obligation. The makeshift propaganda prop, to the surprise of its builders, could very well become a permanent fixture. In two months, it will turn out that Russians really want to live in the TV ad they have been watching for 15 years. . . .
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