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No time to rest: Why Putin can’t afford to retire now?

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Though the official campaign for the 2018 Russian presidential election has not yet started, many experts say that current president Vladimir Putin has started his campaign. For example, last August Russia’s federal channels showed Putin shirtless on his vacation in Siberia spearfishing for nearly two hours.

This was probably intended to show voters and international audiences that the president is still in his best shape and any rumors about his health issues are untrue. Later, on September 1, 2017, Putin delivered a speech to students across the country with the slogan “The future of Russia.” And at the end of the month, the Kremlin stated that Putin will not attend the U.N. General Assembly due to his busy schedule. On the day of the General Assembly, Putin visited the Yandex Company (the Russian equivalent of Google), had a government meeting with the business class, and attended a music concert – nothing out of ordinary.

Putin is on a tight schedule, traveling across the country, but still has not officially announced if he is running in the next presidential election. But, one may ask: Does Putin really have any choice at this point?  Can he retire and leave the country to the next generation of leaders? Or he is the prisoner of his own system and must maintain leadership in order to protect that system and himself? While there is evidence to support either claim, the second option seems more convincing.

Domestic Challenges

The present domestic and international situation reveals why Putin will run in the 2018 presidential election.  Russia’s economy is not at its best and social unrest seems to be growing. The recent antigovernment/anti-corruption demonstrations in March and June proved that. As the one who created the situation, Putin cannot afford to lose control over it. The general dissatisfaction with the Kremlin is far more extensive than we saw with the recent protests. However, the Russian government is pressuring its citizens to avoid protesting. The Kremlin has launched a disinformation campaign on the federal channels to discourage protestors and hide demonstrations.

In Russia, any minor protest can quickly became a major one like Bolotnaya Square in 2012, where protesters clashed with police. The Kremlin is well aware of the danger. Now, more than ever, the Kremlin must keep a tight control over the antigovernment protesters. Tactics include strong disinformation campaigns to dissuade antigovernment protests; infiltration of messaging apps like Telegram; forcing phone operators to disclose personal communications and location data; and intimidation of opposition leaders, bloggers, and anyone else with the ability to organize against the government. In this circumstances Putin has to stay in power because he is the only one who has a majority of the population who still sees him as the only leader to run the country which is able to outshine the rest of the anti-government mood of country.

Friends and Oligarchs

 The U.S. sanctions have also affected Putin’s friends and members of his oligarchy. Many of them enjoy unlimited government contracts and freedom to travel and own property in the West. Sanctions would weaken the economy and tighten government spending, neither of which would be good for them. Clashes between the elites are becoming more intense. The trial of the former finance minister Uliucaev proves that. In these circumstances, any loosening of control from Putin can lead to a major disruption. While the scenario is unlikely, it is still widely discussed among experts in Russia.

Sanctions/Syria/Ukraine

In the international arena, Putin has three main areas where he needs to maintain at least the illusion of control: Ukraine, Syria, and US/EU Sanctions.

Officially, Putin decided to go to Syria in order to defeat ISIS, but his actions show the move was more an attempt to keep Bashar al Assad in power. At this point, Putin is Bashar’s main ally and Syria is Russia’s only military base outside the country. As the events in Syria develop quickly, Putin is the only one who can guarantee Bashar’s future. If Putin remains president for the next 6 years, he can ensure that the Bashar al Assad continues to rely on him. But back home as the Russian presence in Syria is using millions of dollars from education, medicine, and social services, not many possible future candidates would be willing to continue such a high spending to keep Bashar al Assad in power.

Putin’s presidency is also linked to issues with Ukraine. While most presidential candidates avoid discussing Crimea and the option of returning the area to Ukraine, the Donbass situation is a bit different.  A Kremlin without Putin can’t guarantee that Donbass will receive the same support from Russia. And with the United States’ recent approval of military aid to Ukraine, Putin is growing anxious. His re-election is the only way to keep the situation under his control.

A Missed Opportunity

But Putin is motivated by more than just high political stakes. Any analysis has to account for personal motivations, too.  Arguably, Putin’s greatest incentive to run again is his ambition to make himself the center of Russian history for years to come. From 1999 to 2009, Russia witnessed a great economic raise. From the poverty of the late 1990s, Russia’s economy improved dramatically in the first decade of 2000. Average income more than doubled. Russians started to travel more and could afford to vacation abroad, state companies like Gazprom became globalized, and Putin’s poll numbers reached new heights. Other politicians might see this as the ideal scenario in which to retire, cementing their image as the president that reformed the economy and improved people’s lives. But, after being prime-minister for 4 years, he decided to run again in the 2012 presidential election.

The 2014 winter Olympic Games in Sochi helped Putin and Russia to improve the nation’s image globally.  But immediately after the games, the Ukrainian crisis began and Putin started to act based on emotion rather than strategy. This led to a series of mistakes such as intervening in Ukraine, supporting the separatist movements in Donbass, and the annexation of Crimea. These actions ruined his image abroad again. Sanctions increased and gas prices lowered, shifting Russia’s economy back on to how it was in the early 2000s. This worsened his image domestically, too.

With such severe damage to his reputation, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Putin to regain his positive image as a reformer. And in such circumstances, it will be equally difficult to get Russia’s economy back to where it was in 2013. If Putin leaves office now, the blame for the country’s economic collapse, the failing war in Ukraine, and growing spending in Syria’s war will be placed squarely on his shoulders. He must stay to defend his creations, both the Russia’s political path and his own image.

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Meet Mikhail Mishustin, Russia’s new Prime Minister

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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Plucked from obscurity and little known in wide national political scene, the Head of the Federal Tax Service, Mikhail Mishustin, to become the new Prime Minister was a complete surprise, but not the first time in Russia’s politics. President Vladimir Putin was pulled upto the top political field, in a similar way, by Boris Yeltsin. In August 1999, Putin was appointed one of three First Deputy Prime Ministers, and later on, was appointed acting Prime Minister of the Government of the Russian Federation by Yeltsin.

Yeltsin announced that he wanted to see Putin as his successor. Readily, Putin agreed to run for the presidency and later approved by State Duma with 233 votes in favor (vs. 84 against, 17 abstained), while a simple majority of 226 was required, making him Russia’s fifth PM in fewer than eighteen months.

On his appointment, few expected Putin, virtually unknown to the general public, to last any longer than his predecessors. He was initially regarded as a Yeltsin loyalist, like other prime ministers of Boris Yeltsin, Putin did not choose ministers himself, his cabinet was determined by the presidential administration.

Now, with a new chapter opening, Mikhail Mishustin eventually replaces Dmitry Medvedev who served as Prime Minister until mid-January 2020. Putin and Medvedev worked together and even switched positions between President and Prime Minister. This switch was termed by many in the media as “Rokirovka”, the Russian term for the chess move “casting” and later Medvedev said he himself would be ready to perform “practical work in the government” with under Putin.

On January 15, in his address to the Federal Assembly, Putin explicitly explained: “Our society is clearly calling for change. People want development, where they live and work, that is, in cities, districts, villages and all across the nation. The pace of change must be expedited every year and produce tangible results in attaining worthy living standards that would be clearly perceived by the people. And, I repeat, they must be actively involved in this process.”

Meeting with the Cabinet thereafter, Putin said: “For my part, I also want to thank you for everything that has been done so far in our joint work. I am satisfied with the results of your work. Of course, not everything was accomplished, but things never work out in full.” He thanked the government and added that Medvedev served as President and for almost eight years now he has been the Prime Minister, which is probably the longest stint in this post in Russia’s recent history.

Further, Putin held a separate working meeting with Head of the Federal Taxation Service Mikhail Mishustin and proposed him to take the post of Prime Minister. Having received his consent, the President submitted the candidacy of Mikhail Mishustin for consideration to the State Duma.

On January 16, the State Duma (lower house) endorsed Mishustin, as the new Prime Minister of the Russian Federation. As many as 383 lawmakers supported Putin’s choice, none were against, and 41 parliamentarians abstained. “Colleagues, the decision has been taken. We have given consent to the appointment of Mishustin Mikhail Vladimirovich as Prime Minister by the president of the Russian Federation,” Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said, summing up the results of the vote.

President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree appointing Mikhail Mishustin as the country’s Prime Minister. “In accordance with Article 83(a) of the Russian Constitution, Mikhail Vladimirovich Mishustin is appointed as Russia’s Prime Minister,” says the decree published on the Kremlin’s website. The decree comes into force on the day of its signing.

Mikhail Mishustin was born on March 3, 1966 in Moscow to a father of Russian-Jewish origin and a mother of Russian origin. He completed postgraduate studies in 1992. He is married and has three sons. His interest is in sport, playing ice hockey. He is a member of the supervisory board of HC CSKA Moscow.

In 2003, he defended a thesis, headlined “Mechanism of state fiscal management in Russia” and received a PhD in economics. In 2010, he received a doctoral degree in economics at the Academy of National Economy under the Government of the Russian Federation (currently Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration).

Since graduation, he has worked in several enterprises. In February 2009, he joined the personnel reserve of the President of Russia. In 2010, Mikhail Mishustin was appointed as the Head of the Federal Tax Service (FTS). From 2011-2018, he was a member of the Presidential Council for Financial Market Development.

During this period, the tax service was criticized for its overly strict approach to business, and Mishustin rejected this accusation, citing a significant reduction in the number of inspections. So, with the arrival of Mishustin in 2010, the Federal tax service changed its approach to the organization of control events, focusing on analytical work.

As a result, the number of on-site tax audits has sharply decreased, while their efficiency has increased. If earlier every tenth taxpayer was checked, in 2018, the tax authorities checked only one small business company out of 4,000. The number of inspections of large and medium-sized businesses has also decreased significantly.

“This candidacy comes absolutely unexpectedly, but that does not mean he is a figure who brings about repulsion. Perhaps even the contrary. Not all fiscal heads are likeable and agreeable. In my view, Mishustin is largely seen by the public as agreeable,” Federation Council Deputy Speaker Ilyas Umakhanov told Interfax News Agency.

“This is yet more proof that our president relies on professionals at this difficult, critical moment when the country needs a qualitative leap, primarily in the economic sphere. This is down to new technology, digitalization; this is precisely where Mishustin made a mark as the Russian tax chief. He has huge experience under his belt, which has been embedded into the system,” added Umakhanov.

First Deputy Head of the Federation Council Committee for the Budget and Financial Markets Sergei Ryabukhin, for his part, described Mishustin as a very successful public administrator. “A top professional, a very big statesman and individual who has achieved great successes within the system of public administration in the tax and financial sphere. I think his is a good candidacy,” according to Ryabukhin.

According to experts, the surprise shake-up could have been triggered by launching a reset of the Russian political system and the upcoming power shift. Political Analyst Konstantin Kalachev believes that Putin’s decision to pick Mishustin as the new premier is related to his political neutrality, and he is also known in the business and corporate community. However, the new head of the government is unlikely to become Putin’s successor.

All officials interviewed by Vedomosti have described the choice as a surprise but a good one. Taxation is the only sector that has demonstrated a breakthrough in Russia’s state administration. The Russian Tax Service is one of the best in the world in terms of collecting taxes and developing technologies, an official linked to the financial system said. Mishustin is well-known in the government as a good administrator and his service was a lifesaver during the crisis, according to several media reports.

Mishustin is tasked with fulfilling Putin’s economic program, namely the National Projects to the tune of 26 trillion rubles ($424 billion) up to 2024. The program’s slow implementation and weak economic growth were among the reasons Medvedev’s government came under fire, the paper says. Mishustin’s major achievement is turning the tax-collecting agency into a service tool, said Partner at Taxology Alexei Artyukh.

He reformed the administration of major taxpayers and businesses can coordinate deals in advance in exchange for the Federal Tax Service’s access to companies’ accounting systems. If these approaches are extended to other services, this would result in huge progress, Alexei Artyukh said.

Kommersant, a local Russian newspaper, reported that Russia would remain as a strong presidential republic, and all the upcoming changes are linked to the the upcoming presidential election in 2024. Unreservedly, Mishustin stated during a plenary session of the State Duma that Russia has sufficient funds to achieve all goals set by President Vladimir Putin. Implementation of all the social obligations the president enumerated in his State of the Nation Address would require $64.8 billion.

Russia, with the largest territory in the world, has a wide natural resource base, including major deposits of timber, petroleum, natural gas, coal, ores and other mineral resources that can be used to support the expected economic development and raise the overall living standards of the population.

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INCORVUZ-XXI: Past, Present and Future

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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In the Soviet days, many foreign countries especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America trained their professional and specialists in the Soviet Union. It contributed to human resource development for these countries. According to information made available, the higher educational institutions of Russia and the former USSR trained over 700,000 foreign specialists (excluding graduates of military educational institutions).

The creation of associations of foreign graduates began in the second half of the 1960s, when the first national associations were formed in Sri Lanka (1966) and Nepal (1967). In the 70s, this process accelerated, associations were established in Lebanon, Mongolia, Ghana, Morocco, Finland and other countries.

Currently, national associations of graduates exist in nearly 70 countries, including the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), for example in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia and Kazakhstan), so also in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The need to coordinate the activities of graduate associations, therefore started in the late 1980s and was realized as a result of the creation in 1989 of the International Corporation of Graduates of Soviet Educational Institutions, simply referred to as Incorvuz. Decree of the Council of Ministers of the USSR No. 483 of May 17, 1990. The regulation on the Corporation’s activities in the USSR was approved and its status as an international non-governmental organization was consolidated.

Incorvuz Corporation laid the foundations for interaction with national associations of graduates and developed the main forms of work. In February 2001, in accordance with the Law of the Russian Federation “On Non-Profit Organizations”, the non-profit partnership “International Coordinating Council of Graduates of Educational Institutions (INCORVUZ-XXI)” was established instead of Incorvuz Corporation.

Currently, the partnership includes national associations of graduates from 38 countries of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America. Chairman – Academician Kostomarov V.G., Deputy Chairman – Ex-Deputy Minister of Education of the PRC Liu Limin. The leadership of the Council since 2015 includes the Alumni Associations of Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, the Arab Republic of Egypt, Jordan, China, Lebanon, Poland and Ethiopia.

INCORVUZ-XXI, in official consultative relations with UNESCO, has special consultative status of the UN Economic and Social Council, it cooperates and has contractual relations with international, foreign and Russian state and public bodies.

Over the years, the key focus has been the examination of documents on education, academic degrees and advanced training courses received by foreign citizens in universities of the Russian Federation and the issuance on their basis of relevant certificates of international recognition in accordance with the provisions of the UNESCO Conventions.

INCORVUZ-XXI regularly organizes and holds cross exhibitions of higher education in Hubei Province (China), in Moscow (2014) and exhibitions of Russian universities in Wuhan (China) in 2015. It participated in the unveiling of a monument to A.S. Pushkin, the famous Russian poet, in the city of Agadir (Morocco) in 2015, participated in organizing and conducting regional meetings of graduates in Ulan Bator and Amman (2016), the Forum of People’s Diplomacy in Belgorod (2016).

The global movement of foreign graduates of Russian universities is expanding due to new participants. In recent years, members of the organization have become national associations of graduates of Algeria, Israel, Uganda, Belgorod State University Alumni Club. The number of individual partners participating in the INCORVUZ-XXI Alumni World League Program is growing. Events dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the Nepal Alumni Association (Mitra Kunj) were held in a festive atmosphere.

Despite its achievements, there are challenges that face the organization. As always, the planning and implementation of new projects are strictly limited by the financial capabilities of an organization that exists on the basis of self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, national associations of graduates in all regions of the world are experiencing an increasing shortage of personnel, because a new generation of graduates prefers virtual communication, which in turn leads to a loss of continuity in work and damages the activities of public organizations.

The strategic vision for organization’s further development, among others, is the Partnership Board hopes for success in the ambitious task of creating an African Regional Union of National Alumni Associations. The problem has remained very relevant for many years, because previous attempts to organize and hold such a forum, first in the Congo and then in Ethiopia, have remained unrealized. INCORVUZ-XXI would very much like to see as many representatives of the African region, as possible, among the participants in various on-going projects, so also Soviet and Russian graduates in regions of Asia and Latin America.

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Will Russia become the brother in arms with Iran?

Punsara Amarasinghe

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The killing of Iranian leader of famous Quds force Gen.Qasem Soleimani in Bagdad seems to have made an apocalyptic move in the beginning of this new decade as some critics have already viewed this incident similar to the the assassination of Austrian crown prince Duke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo which paved the path to the First World War in 1914. Perhaps, the assumption could be an exaggeration with the balance of power in the world in early 20th century and now, but certainly the aftermath consequences of death of Soleimani could escalate severe political turmoil that might lead to a grave crisis. The deteriorating relations between Iran and the US in past months have clearly suggested that the killing of Soleimani was not entirely an abrupt situation, but a culminating act of a serious of disturbing events between the two countries. The statement issued by Iranian supreme leader vowing to revenge indicates the wounded pride of a nation, yet the it is disputable whether Iran would retaliate without concerning the strength of the US war machinery that could bring catastrophic effects to the whole country. However, it is a fact beyond doubt, Iran is a regional power with a strong war machinery which has been trained for any military encounter for years and this military and technological sophistication have made Iran a unique example from any country that the US had gone to war since the end of Second World War. But, it seems to indicate that Iran is likely to choose asymmetrical escalation through using proxies or small group attack on American targets to deter Washington.

On the other hand, the main assumption that has fascinated many armchair critics is that Russia will unconditionally assist Iran in any military campaign against the USA. This argument can be bolstered by examining the political affinity between Teheran and Moscow in the recent past. In particular, when Iran was threatened by Trump in last May, it was Moscow who made an official statement in supporting Teheran and also Russia is clearly aware of the importance of keeping Iranian regime without allowing external forces to cripple it, because Iranian stability is a paramount factor of deterring the US and its involvement in the middle east. More importantly both Moscow and Tehran have strengthened their ties for common cause of protecting Assad’s regime in Syria. Furthermore, Russia’s recent involvement in global politics from its relative passivism during Yeltsin’s era have given a signal to its ultimate ambition becoming a global player. This agenda was brought by president Putin in 2007 in his Munich speech showing his antipathy over a “unipolar” world, in other words his denial of US domination in word politics. The audacious conduct of Iran and its military mechanism as a strong state is Russia’s major knight in the Middle East that Moscow does not want to lose. In fact, it was just several days before the killing of Soleimani Iranian, Russian and Chinese naval forces conducted a joint naval exercise in Gulf of Oman. Also deceased general Soleimani was regarded by Moscow as an astute strategist who played a cardinal role in making Russian military presence when Syrian army was in a decaying stage in 2015. Russia’s air strikes finally changed the game and Soleimani made one more visit to Moscow in 2017, this reportedly was to discuss Russia’s bilateral cooperation with Sunni monarchies in Persian Gulf. This background is a good evidence to suggest the dismay of Iranian general to a major blow to Moscow as a loss of a shrewd strategic thinker who could have been further used as a proxy for Russian involvement in the middle east.

However, still it is bit of a hyperbolic assumption to think that Moscow would directly lead her armies to support Iran or encouraging such a military confrontation between the US and Iran. Regardless Moscow has been vociferous in criticising the macho gesture of Trump administration for killing Soleimani, so far it has maintained its silence of what Russia will really do about it. Unconditional military pact with Tehran seems to be a fancy idea to revive old Soviet super power status as how it protected Cuba, yet the political reality piercing Moscow is something bitter. It convinces that any military confrontation Teheran world launch against the US will be devastating blow that would simply weaken the Iranian regime and this will lead to undermine Iran’s role in supporting Assad’s regime. Furthermore, the rapport built by Moscow in the Middle East with Iranian rivals such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and even Israel can become adversaries again leading to an unmitigated disaster of Putin’s grand strategy of keeping ties with American allies in the middle east. These circumstances will create twilight scenario to assess any possible moves by Moscow. Another notable factor emerged after the death of Soleimani is the rapid increase of the oil price as the price of a barrel jumped from 2 US dollars to 69 US dollars and being one of prime oil producers this situation has created a sudden financial benefit for Russia. All in all, Russia’s next move would not definitely be a blatant military assistance to Teheran as a brother in arms. But, Russia is likely to play a key role through its diplomatic means to impede any crisis that would be detrimental to its ally Iran.

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