20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s roundup, Tatiana Stanovaya reviews the recent Macron-Putin meeting; Maksim Artemyev analyzes last week’s incident when a nine-year old boy was detained by police for reciting Shakespeare; Alexander Rubtsov addresses the Russian authorities’ attempts to distance themselves from the repressive initiatives coming from below; Anton Tabakh points to the negative trend in the Russian economy; and Vladimir Frolov speculates on the future of the U.S. sanctions policy against Russia. If you are interested in receiving this weekly roundup in your mailbox every Friday, let us know at info@imrussia.org.


Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron at the press conference following their first meeting in Versailles. Photo: Panoramic via Zuma Press / TASS. 


Carnegie.ru: New Ambitions. What Macron Is Creating on the Moscow Front

  • Author: political commentator Tatiana Stanovaya.
  • Stanovaya analyzes the recent meeting between Russia’s Vladimir Putin and newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron, arguing that the latter used this opportunity to present himself as a new geopolitical leader of Western Europe.
  • Moscow’s goals are simple: the Kremlin needs a pragmatic French president who can do business with Russia and quietly negotiate geopolitical issues.  
  • Putin’s more immediate objective was to profile Macron and win him over with a “charm offensive,” while at the same time send a signal to the rest of the Western world that it is possible and necessary to maintain dialogue with Russia.
  • By inviting Putin to Versailles, Macron showed that instead of choosing between pragmatism and values, he will incorporate both into his policies and thus gain more flexibility.
  • The three priorities of Macron’s foreign policy are: Africa, Middle East and Europe. And since he wants progress on Syria, he will need Russia.
  • But if Macron manages to develop his own “Syria project” and get Germany onboard, he will become Moscow’s direct competitor in the country.
  • Still, Putin’s meeting with Macron yielded two pieces of good news for the Kremlin: the restoration of the “strategic economic dialogue” and the sidelining of the human rights issue.
  • Stanovaya concludes that the bilateral relationship is still in the making, but Macron has five years ahead of him that “can change history.”

Carnegie.ru, Новые амбиции. Что строит Макрон на московском направлении, 30 мая 2017 г.


Forbes.ru: The Children of the Arbat, 30 Years On. How Shakespeare Divided Society.

  • Author: journalist Maksim Artemyev.
  • On May 26, a nine-year-old boy declaiming Shakespeare was detained by the police on Moscow’s central street, Arbat. The incident caused a stir in the city’s liberal circles and led to a discussion of child-begging and the state’s right to involve itself in family matters.
  • Artemyev proposes that this incident highlights the deep mistrust and division within Russian society and illustrates the increasingly black-and-white nature of the public debates in Russia.
  • On the one hand, there is total public mistrust for law enforcement, counterweighed on the other by  mistrust for any sort of civil activity or citizen journalism.
  • Artemyev notes that public mistrust for the law enforcement agencies dates back to the Soviet era. Still, the relationship between the public and the police is complicated: though disliked for their lawlessness, police are often seen as “our guys”; they can be reasoned with and even held to account.
  • The author points out that the rule of law should be apolitical, and that the police should not be caught up in the struggle between regime and opposition.
  • Another salient point in this story is the people’s relationship with technology. Any incident, however insignificant, can now be captured, posted online, manipulated and spinned.
  • The same video of a boy being removed from the street by the police can be interpreted variously: as evidence of police heavy-handedness, or of one woman’s meddling in police business (a reference to certain details of the story).

Forbes.ru, Дети Арбата – тридцать лет спустя. Как Шекспир расколол общество, Максим Артемьев, 29 мая 2017 г.


Vedomosti: The Boss Will Sue You

  • Author: Alexander Rubtsov, head of the Center for Philosophical Study of Ideological Processes (Russian Academy of Sciences).
  • Rubtsov discusses the recent searches at the Gogol Center and the Russian authorities’ attempts to distance themselves from the increasingly repressive measures.
  • It is noteworthy that those who sanctioned and conducted the search were designated as “fools” by Putin himself.
  • The Gogol Center affair has elicited alarm among ordinary Russian citizens, since people have no way of knowing who may be the subject of the next search or police intimidation.
  • The search, as so many other similar incidents before, has split society. Moreover, it has split both the liberal and the pro-Kremlin camps.
  • Rubtsov quotes the pro-Kremlin former State Duma deputy Alexander Khinstein, who tweeted in response to the liberals’ indignation: “So, the search at the Gogol Center is bad, while the search at the Ministry of Culture is good?” (referring to the March 2016 events during which a deputy minister was arrested on charges of embezzlement).
  • Rubtsov notes that this incident highlights the issues of the Russian dissent and the authorities’ attitude toward the public. It seems that at the top level the authorities have mastered the art of evading responsibility, while at the lower levels the aggressive and repressive initiatives are growing.
  • The current regime in Russia, argues Rubtsov, is an inverted mixture of the two models, totalitarianism and authoritarianism. In this model the highly personalized vertical power distances itself formally from visible repression and, more importantly, leaves no paper trail linking it to such repression.
  • No top-down incentives are unnecessary, because absolute impunity for the lower-level repressive initiatives is sufficient enough. No repressive initiative has ever been condemned or punished by the Kremlin. This type of selective authoritarian “liberalism” consciously cultivates a bottom-up totalitarianism.
  • The top authorities are thus building up their own alibi. As the country slides into systemic repression, they are reaching out for an opportunity to distance themselves without causing harm to the lower-level initiatives by writing them off as put forward by some “fools.”

Ведомости, Барин вас засудит, Александр Рубцов, 28 мая 2017 г.


Vedomosti: The Refrigerator Index

  • Author: economist Anton Tabakh.
  • Tabakh analyzes the recent positive news coming from Russia’s official economic agencies and weighs them against the recent outlook by Vnesheconombank (VEB), which highlighted a disturbing trend.
  • According to VEB, disposable incomes of Russian households dropped by 7.6 percent—to the level of spring 2009, the lowest point of the financial crisis. The trend is also confirmed by declining consumer activity.
  • Private consumption in Russia pushed the economy forward in the early 2000s and during the 2008-2009 crisis, but recently consumption stopped growing.
  • The efficacy of public investments is questionable, the reason being, according to Tabakh, the policies of the Central Bank (rigid fiscal policy) and the Finance Ministry (restrictive budgetary policy).
  • Over the last two years the Central Bank managed to bring down the inflation rate from 15 percent to almost 4 percent. But the price of this achievement is a very high key rate.
  • The Finance Ministry’s budgetary policy also pursued austerity and lower inflation, but under the current conditions this approach has run its course.
  • Tabakh argues that all the main targets of the three-year long anti-crisis policies have been achieved, despite some external shocks (dramatic oil prices decrease, sanctions, etc.). Therefore, it would be unfortunate if the fiscal authorities were to continue battling the old, vanquished enemy, instead of focusing on strategic issues facing the Russian economy today.
  • If official economic achievements are not visible in the fridge, Tabakh says, their real value closes on zero.

Ведомости, Индекс холодильника, Антон Табах, 1 июня 2017 г.


Republic: The New Threat. How Moscow Can Escape the Widening Scope of U.S. Sanctions 

  • Author: Vladimir Frolov, expert in international affairs.
  • Although the G7 leaders’ communiqué holds Russia directly responsible for the conflict in Ukraine in accordance with the Minsk agreements (which Russia continues to refute), this is nothing new.
  • Still, the Taormina summit clearly demonstrated that the Kremlin’s attempts to present the Ukraine war as an “internal Ukrainian affair” have failed, and Russia will be viewed as a party to the conflict, especially with regard to security issues.
  • Frolov argues that if the West agrees that Moscow is in breach of its side of the Minsk accords, the sanctions policy will be toughened.
  • Despite Donald Trump’s earlier claims that the U.S. sanctions imposed on Russian in December 2016 for alleged interference in the American elections could be lifted, it has recently become clear that the White House has no intention of doing so.
  • In the light of the ongoing Russia investigation that now includes the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner as “a person of interest,” Trump’s options to reach “a deal with Russia” have been significantly narrowed down.
  • What should be even more disturbing for Moscow is the bipartisan “comprehensive Russia sanctions” bill sponsored by Sen. Ben Cardin and Sen. John McCain, which, if passed, could have devastating effects on the Russian economy (e.g. sanctions may be extended up to 10 years).
  • The Trump administration managed to hold the bill off as it is trying to negotiate a deal with Moscow on the Syria conflict, but if progress on the latter is not achieved, the bill will be pushed forward.
  • Yet another bill recently introduced by Sen. Cardin proposes measures against Russian influence in Europe and Eurasia.
  • Frolov concludes that Putin has a short window of opportunity to come up with new ideas and solutions regarding the implementation of the Minsk agreements and to discuss them at his meetings with Macron and Trump.
  • But to do so the Kremlin needs a lot of political power and a clear understanding of the impendent risks, which it is not evident it has.

Republic, Новая угроза. Как Москве избежать расширения американских санкций, Владимир Фролов, 29 мая 2017 г.