Russia This Week is a weekly review by the MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project, covering the latest Russia-related news and analysis from media in Russia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe.
Photo Of The Week
In The News:
- Reactions To Putin’s Annual News Conference
- Russia-Afghanistan Relations
- Russia In Syria
- Incirlik Base
- Russia-Iran Relations
- Russia-EU Relations
- News in Brief: INF Treaty; Russia-France Relations; Defense
Putin's Annual News Conference
On December 19, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at the annual news conference. The news conference was broadcast live by Rossiya-1, Rossiya-24, Channel One, NTV television channels, as well as radio stations Mayak, Vesti FM and Radio Rossii.
Putin Agrees To Alter Russia's Constitution
Yelena Glushakova: “Yelena Glushakova, RIA Novosti.
“Since you mentioned that you are a lawyer, the first part of my question relates to legal matters, Mr President. My question will be on the Constitution. In your opinion, could it be that the time has come to amend the Constitution? These questions surface every now and then, and have recently been discussed. If the time has come, what part could be changed? Are you satisfied with the amendments that were introduced ten years ago to change some articles in our Constitution?
“The second part of my question is about politics, and relates to the political system our country has. Within a few days, it will be 20 years since you came to the helm. Is there a need, in your opinion, to make changes, like maybe reassigning powers between the parliament, the government or even the president?
“And my final question, if you allow me. Do we have competition in Russian politics, in your opinion?
Vladimir Putin: “Regarding the Constitution, this is a live tool that has to keep up with the evolution of society. However, it is my belief that we do not have to change the Constitution, I mean adopt a new one, especially since it sets forth some fundamental principles that we have yet to fully achieve. This refers to its first chapter. I believe this part to be sacrosanct.
“All the other provisions can be amended in one way or another. I am aware of the ongoing debates on this subject; I see them and hear them. I understand the logic behind what others propose. This is related to possibly expanding the powers of parliament and changing to some extent the powers of the president and the government. But all this has to be well prepared, result from a meaningful debate within society, and be carried out with extreme caution.
“Regarding the past amendments, as far as I know, they were related to the number of terms. What could be done in this respect? We could take out the mention of ‘consecutive’ terms. We have this provision, and yours truly served for two consecutive terms, then left this office and had the constitutional right to once again become president, because this did not interfere with the ‘two consecutive terms’ limit. Some political observers and civil society activists have voiced misgivings over this provision. We can probably remove it.
“There are some other questions, but they are more about preferences rather than necessity.
“I can once again mention the powers of parliament. I do understand political parties, especially those represented in parliament, that believe that we have reached a level in the development of parliamentarism in Russia when parliament could take on additional functions and assume greater responsibility. All we need is to give this idea serious thought.
“As for competition in politics, 54 parties are registered in Russia, and four of them I believe are about to be dissolved. Still, 50 parties is a good number, and 12 of them operate at the federal level. I believe that this meets the standard for political competition.”
WADA – Putin: As For WADA And Its Decisions, I Believe That They Are Not Only Unjust, But Also Defy Common Sense And Are Illegal
Putin: "… As for WADA and its decisions, I believe that they are not only unjust, but also defy common sense and are illegal. Why? Because as far as doping is concerned, decisions have already been taken against Russian athletes who had to compete in a neutral status at the previous Olympics. Now it is happening all over again. There has never been anything of this kind in any of the world’s legal systems or in human history, and I hope nothing of this kind ever happens again. This is my first point.
“Second, any sanctions must target specific, individual breaches. If someone was caught doing something illegal, sanctions are natural and fair. But if an overwhelming majority of Russian athletes are clean, how can they be sanctioned for someone else’s actions?
“We have very young female athletes competing in figure skating, they are practically little girls. What do they have to do with doping? Nothing whatsoever. But they can do quadruple jumps, which so far no one can, or almost no one can do in women’s figure skating. This is how they make sure that these girls are kept off the ice. Can this be done? Yes, it can. But what for? Will this help international sports in any way? I do not think so.
“Among other things, as I already said at the news conference in Paris, this decision by WADA runs counter to the Olympic Charter. A national team cannot and should not compete under a neutral flag when there are no claims against its Olympic Committee. This is what the Charter says. If WADA does not have any claims against the Russian Olympic Committee at this time, this means that the national team can compete under the Russian flag. Go after specific people, and of course we will be there to assist you in these efforts. We are doing everything to make our sport clean.
“By the way, RUSADA was created in close contact with our WADA colleagues. We even selected its executive team based on their recommendations. I think that everything I said suggests that this decision was politically tainted, as sad as it sounds.”
Ideology – Putin: In Today’s Democratic Society There Can Be Only One Ideology: Patriotism In A Broad, Positive Sense Of The Word
Maria Nagibina: “Hello, Mr President. Maria Nagibina, Ministry of Ideas TV channel.
“I have a question for you that follows up on the topic of the Soviet Union.
“Millions of people suffered from Gorbachev’s illegal actions in 1991. So here is the question: how about looking at what happened in 1991 from a legal perspective? This could make resolving questions regarding territorial integrity, including with Belarus, easier.
“I also have a second question. Last year you talked about the Constitution of the Russian Federation and its Article 13, paragraph 2, which bans ideology. You said that this should be a matter of public debate. As we all know, there is a massive drive by community activists across the country to collect signatures, and 200,000 have already been collected and handed over to the Federation Council, State Duma and other government institutions. Do you think that this question was sufficiently debated by Russian society?”
Vladimir Putin: “Regarding a legal assessment of what Gorbachev or anyone else did, I do not know. I do not understand how this relates to territorial integrity. We have resolved all the questions we had, and all the documents are signed. I do not quite understand what a legal evaluation of these actions has to do with it. This is my first point.
“Second, regarding the Constitution and what it says on ideology, I have already said that the Soviet Constitution had a very pronounced ideological component, and the only ideology that guided it was the ideology of the Communist Party. It is clear however what came out of it, as I have already said. Among other things, it served as one of the triggers that led a unified state to break down. Without a party, it started to crumble, and the country followed.
“However, I believe that in today’s democratic society there can be only one ideology: patriotism in a broad, positive sense of the word. It should not be driven by politics, but rather designed to strengthen the inner foundations of the Russian state.”
The Most Positive And The Most Negative Moments In Putin’s Life As President
Alexander Gamov: “[Komsomolskaya Pravda website, radio and newspaper] Here is my question. Someone already mentioned here that you became Acting President on December 31, 1999, and spent two decades on the post of President. I do not think there will be a separate news conference dedicated to this.”
Vladimir Putin: “No, you are mistaken; I was Prime Minister for four years.”
Alexander Gamov: “Prior to that, on August 9.”
Vladimir Putin: “No, why? You left out the period when I headed the Government.”
Alexander Gamov: “Do you want to subtract this period?”
Vladimir Putin: “The head of state and the head of government are different positions and different responsibilities.”
Alexander Gamov: “I meant that 20 years ago you were appointed Acting President.”
Vladimir Putin: “And?”
Alexander Gamov: “Can you share with us the most positive and the most negative moments in your life as President? This is my first question.
“The second question is that sooner or later, we will have to come up with a so-called power transition formula. Could you make us part of it, so that we do not run into a surprise?”
Vladimir Putin: “You could be one of the candidates. Of course. Why not?”
Alexander Gamov: “Who can it be, in your opinion? How can all this happen? You are unlikely to want to change the Constitution, and we do not want to let you go.
“My last question is that you mentioned the notion of a historical figure. Can Vladimir Putin already be called a historical figure?
Vladimir Putin: “It is up to the next generations to give an answer to that question. I do not think that we, contemporaries, especially I personally, should be answering this question. In the future, the people will evaluate what has been done for the country, and maybe something has not been done. I think that public opinion is the best measure here. It will give the evaluation in the future.
“With regard to the most outstanding and difficult events, I already mentioned them: the most difficult are the major terrorist attacks in Beslan (I will never forget that) and Dubrovka.
“And the most striking, the most significant ones… We have been talking a lot about the need to raise the real incomes of the population, however, we have not completely solved the issue of poverty. I think we had the lowest level in 2014 – 11.3 percent of the total population, of the country’s citizens.
“The number has grown a little since then; the figures are not so noticeable but there are real people behind them. So this is the most important issue we have to resolve.
“But overall, I want to say that in general if we look at what the country was like back in the early 2000s and what it is now – these are almost two different countries. I am not even talking about security issues.
“Truth be told, we must call things by their names: until 2006 there were combat hostilities – combat! – in the Caucasus with the use of tanks, aircraft and other heavy equipment. Do you understand? This is why I reacted so emotionally to the question at the meeting with human rights activists when a famous film director – whom I love and respect a lot – said, why do we not rewrite everything from the start.
“You remember what I answered. We rewrote everything once in 1917, and we probably remember the lyrics – ‘We will destroy this world of violence down to the foundations, and then we will build our new world, he who was nothing will become everything.’ And at present we are trying to identify the names of those who believed this, at the Butovo range and other sites of mass shootings. This is a very dangerous road.
“That is why we now have internal stability and confidence that the country will keep progressing in this stable manner. This is probably the main thing. The economy has changed radically. Yes, we do have many unresolved issues in the economy, very many, and the key one is increasing labour productivity and on this base increasing the economic growth rate.
“Yet this is incomparable to what we had. We now have one of the lowest foreign debts in the world. And how much was it then? Inflation stands at 3.25. In the 1990s, it was 200 to 300 percent. Can you imagine? We have forgotten what it was like. This is a totally different economy.
“This foundation will let us resolve issues of ensuring our security. Take the Armed Forces, what have they become now? And let us recall the public sentiment when officers had their caps swept off in public transport. Have we forgotten that too? But this is what we had, and quite recently too.
“And then it turned out that the state cannot be without the armed forces. And I believe we are all proud of the level of our Armed Forces. They have become one of the world’s most hi-tech forces.
“All this combined, in my view, is not my achievement alone but our common achievement. Because what the Russian people and other peoples of the Russian Federation went through from the 1990s to early 2000s can be called a feat in itself.”
(Kremlin.ru, December 19, 2019; read the full transcript)
Reactions To Putin's Annual News Conference
Putin Supports Initiative To Change Russia’s Constitution
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move to support changes to the country’s Constitution turned out to be one of the unexpected results of his annual news conference on December 19, Vedomosti writes.
Putin highlighted the importance of maintaining Article 1 of the Constitution, which defines the foundations of the constitutional order. He added, however, that all other things in the Constitution were subject to change: in particular, the words "in a row" could be removed from the article concerning the number of presidential terms.
"What might be done in relation to these presidential terms is to cancel the reservation ‘in a row’ [in the Russian Constitution concerning the presidential terms of office — TASS]," Putin told the news conference. "We have two terms in a row. Yours truly spent two terms in office first and then stepped down. It was my constitutional right to take the president’s seat again, because it was not two terms in a row," he added.
Experts interviewed by the newspaper have different views on the president’s statement.
It hints at the possibility that Dmitry Medvedev could be nominated for president in 2024, political scientist Grigory Golosov pointed out. However, Putin will hardly be willing to serve as prime minister under President Medvedev like he did in 2008-2012 because "he seems to get tired of this kind of work," the expert noted. At the same time, in his words, "it would be possible to do what Kazakhstan did, giving special powers to the Security Council and making Putin its chief." Golosov has no doubt that the current concentration of power can easily ensure decisions that would allow Putin to remain in power. "It is an important question how it will be done and I think that the presidential administration is already considering ways to do it in the least shocking way," the expert said.
Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Research Director Dmitry Badovsky said he is confident that the institutions of power won’t see a radical redesign.
However, the president has made a landmark move to give the green light to discussions on constitutional changes, Civil Society Development Fund’s Chairman of the Board Konstantin Kostin emphasized. "We are yet to see if a public debate leads to any result as it will depend on the debate’s participants and moderators. The Kazakh option will probably be discussed. As an experienced politician, Putin seeks to extend the range of possible moves in a political game of chess," the expert explained.
(Tass.com, December 20, 2019)
Boris Kagarlitzky Director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements, stated: "In the immediate term, more than one constitutional amendment surely awaits. However speaking of the history of "two consecutive terms", it seems comic. Vladimir Putin suggests removing that place in the constitution after he has already used it. Well, from that we can draw the conclusion that Putin does not intend to be our president between the years 2030 and 2042."
(Rosbalt.ru, December 19, 2019)
Kommersant believes that the constitutional changes proposed by Putin will shift power from the president to parliament and then Putin will be able to assume the other post "guaranteeing him control over events, for example, as head of the ruling party, the security council or the government. The deputy director of the Center of Political Techniques, Alexei Makarkin: "The president is leaving but not very far. He announced changes not on the personal level, but on the constitutional level."
Konstantine Kostin said that Putin was inviting society to a broad discussion. "Till now only individual politicians discussed the topic. Now it is open on the highest level," Kostin said.
Political scientist Yekaterina Kurbangaliyeva thinks that Putin is keeping his options open. "The reverse effect cannot be ruled out when the discussion will trigger a return wave of support.
(Kommersant.ru, December 19, 2019)
Anna Fedorova, the vice president of the Open Democracy Fund, said: "In the president's words I see the motive of having a maximally balanced and stable political system. I think that the main frame through which the head of state sees everything"
(Vz.ru, December 19, 2019)
Nikolai Patrushev the secretary of the Security Council took part in a six-sided consultation devoted to the Afghan problem. Also attending were secretaries and advisers from India, Afghanistan, Iran, China and Pakistan.
(Aif.ru, December 17, 2019)
Russia In Syria
Russia will invest in the next four years 500 million dollars in modernizing the Syrian port of Tartus. This was divulged by deputy PM Yuri Borisov during a working visit to Syria "The Russian side intends to organize work on the old port of Tartus and build a new commercial port." Additionally a new Mediterranean- Persian Gulf railway.
(Rbc.ru, December 17, 2019)
Borisov and Bashar Assad also discussed the country's oil deposits. "Yes oil questions were discussed. The situation beyond the Euphrates is improving. I think that gradually all the subsurfaces of the Syrian Arab Republic will belong to the government and the situation will stabilize."
(Ria.ru, December 17, 2019)
The threat by Erdogan to close down the Incirlik base has drawn attention in Russia. The media outlet Mk.ru asked experts what the US and NATO would lose if the base was closed.
Ruslan Pukhov a member of the Defense Ministry's Public Council. It works to Moscow's benefit as the conflict may further estrange Turkey from the US and its faithful allies in NATO and if it does not draw him closer to us then it creates a broader field for maneuver in relations with Turkey. "Erdogan is dissatisfied with the way the US treats Turkey and will continue the game of exchanging blows and raising the stakes. And this is good for us. Additionally Pukhov believes that the public dressing down that the US did to its NATO ally, should be most instructive for other countries, who attempted in their foreign policy to wager on an alliance with Washington."
"It is most strange to observe, the extent to which the US harshly treats a country that gave it so much and so faithfully served it, beginning from the time that it sent its own contingent to Korea and deployed American nuclear rockets targeted at the USSR on its territory. Turkey was a faithful ally, a faithful servant of the US for the space of decades. Despite this the Americans continue to humiliate them publicly. Even now when it has become clear that the coup against Erdogan was to a large extent inspired by the Islamic activist Gulen who is hiding in the US. That is the Americans display the amazing 'elegance of an elephant in a china shop'. This should be a lesson for all those countries including those in the post-Soviet space, who attempt to befriend the Americans. It is clear that Washington has no real allies, for it there are only vassals who they exploit and then tossed out with the garbage. In this sense, this story should serve as a serious lesson for all political elites, who to some degree or another attempt to orient themselves towards Washington, such as for example, Kazakhstan."
On the other hand Erdogan's conduct should also serve as a lesson for Moscow. "We must understand that Turkey is a difficult partner, with all the benefit we get from its disagreements with the US we must be prepared for any sharp turns in Ankara's policy towards Russia. If due to this reason or another it will be convenient for Erdogan, the he will precisely as with Washington behave towards us."
(Mk.ru, December 16, 2019)
The Russian newspaper Kommersant interviewed Iranian ambassador to Moscow Mehdi Sanai.
In the interview, Sanai said that the rapprochement between Russia and Iran is not a consequence of the growing confrontation between Russia and the West. Yet, the Iranian ambassador stressed that the deterioration of the relations between Russia and the West played its role in improving the dialogue between Russia and Iran.
Sanai also stressed that Iran has demonstrated that it is the most reliable Russian ally in the Middle East. He then added that Russia and Iran share the same view of how the world order should be shaped.
(Kommersant.ru, December 19, 2019)
- Iran has a legitimate right to respond reciprocally to US violations of UN Security Council Resolution 2231 adopted in support of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear program, Russia's Permanent Representative to the UN Vasily Nebenzya said at the UN Security Council session. (Tass.com, December 20, 2019; read the full article)
Lavrov: Russia Has Always Been And Will Remain An Integral Part Of Europe Geographically, Historically And Culturally
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov wrote for Rossiyskaya Gazeta an article, titled “Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s article Neighbours in Europe. Russia-EU: Thirty Years of Relations”, discussing Russia-EU relations. Lavrov wrote:
“Thirty years ago, on December 18, 1989, Brussels hosted the signing of the Agreement on Trade and Commercial and Economic Cooperation between the USSR and the European communities. This date became the point of departure for official relations between Russia as the successor state of the USSR and the European Union.
“Symbolically, the Agreement was signed slightly over a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event that came down in history as a landmark signifying the end of the Cold War, a period, when the continent was divided into two opposing ideological blocs. The founders of the Russia-EU partnership knew that it would be impossible to erase the centuries-old divides on the continent unless a broad framework for cooperation was created in Europe. Both sides intended to make it mutually beneficial, long-term, and resistant to economic and political fluctuations…
“Regrettably, many people in the West looked at the prospects of a common European future exclusively from the viewpoint of ‘winners’ in the Cold War. The principles of equal cooperation have given way to the illusion that Euro-Atlantic security can only be based on NATO, and that Europe can only be associated with the European Union, with everything else as nothing more than the concentric circles around these ‘centers of legitimacy.’
“The practical aspects of our relations with Brussels included instances of increasing priority given to the EU’s supranational norms and attempts to apply them retroactively to all other countries. We were urged to accept off-the-shelf decisions made in the EU, which ruled out any discussion or respect for Russia’s interests. In other words, we were invited to join the mainstream and follow the lead, as well as to accept the interpretation of ‘common values,’ many of which contradict the traditions of the European civilization based on Christianity.
“Our Brussels partners preferred to keep silent about the fact that their concept of four common spaces was based on the understanding that any attempts to force our neighbors to choose between Russia and the EU would be dangerous and counterproductive. Well before 2014, an alarming sign in the Russia-EU relations was the launch of the Eastern Partnership initiative, which was aimed, as it turned out later, at creating a distance between Russia and its closest neighbors connected by centuries-old ties. We are still feeling the negative impact of this egocentric policy.
“In short, the EU was not prepared to have equal relations with Russia. In the Brussels vocabulary, Europe equaled the European Union, as if there is only one ‘real’ Europe (the EU member states), and all the other countries must work hard to earn the ‘high title’ of Europeans. They are creating artificial dividing line on the continent and distorting both geography and history. A glaring example of that is the numerous EU resolutions that equate the Nazis who sought to exterminate European nations with the Soviet soldiers who saved these nations from annihilation.
“It is a deeply flawed approach, which is not benefitting the European integration project and contradicts its initial unification and peace-building spirit. Russia has always been and will remain an integral part of Europe geographically, historically and culturally. We have a unique identity of which we are proud, but we are part of the European civilizational space. Over a period of many centuries, Russia contributed to the expansion of that space all the way to the Pacific coast. The development of our identity was influenced by advanced European ideas. Likewise, modern European culture would have been different without the process of mutual enrichment with Russia…
“The new institutional cycle in the EU history offers an opportunity to relaunch relations with Russia. At the very least, we can ponder what we mean to each other in this rapidly changing world. We hope that the EU decision-makers will opt for strategic thinking and will act in the spirit of the great European politicians, such as Charles de Gaulle and Helmut Kohl, who thought in terms of a common European home. The artificial restrictions imposed on trade to suit someone’s geopolitical interests will not settle the existing problems but will only create more obstacles and will weaken Europe’s economic positions. There is no doubt that European cultures and economies can only protect their identities and competitive ability from the onslaught of globalization by combining the relative competitive advantages of all countries and integration associations in the common Eurasian space.
“Russia-EU relations are not developing in a vacuum. A multipolar world has become a reality. New centers of financial, economic, technological and military power have emerged in the Asia Pacific Region. We are taking this crucial factor into consideration during the process of shaping our foreign policy. The new realities not only entail additional trans-border challenges but also open opportunities for getting resources for our own development where previously we did not even look. In any case, combining efforts enhances our capabilities. Amid the persisting international turbulence, it is important to ensure the rule of international law. No attempts should be made to replace it with the ‘rules-based order’ that the West has invented to promote its interests. It is only then that we will be able to assure the effectiveness of multilateral efforts.
“We see the European Union as one of the centers of the multipolar world…”
(Mid.ru, December 18, 2019)
News in Brief:
- Russia’s authorities are analyzing the reports about the Pentagon’s test of a ground-launched intermediate-range ballistic missile late last week. "We warned in advance that [during the tests of missile defense systems] they tested the elements of ground-based intermediate-range ballistic missiles," Vladimir Yermakov, Director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Department, told the paper. (Tass.com, December 16, 2019; read the full article)
- An article by the French Le Monde daily about an allegedly discovered "transshipment center of a GRU [Main Intelligence Department] special unit" in Savoy is a propaganda ruse intended to continue plugging the Russian threat myth, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a report circulated. (Tass.com, December 18, 2019; read the full article)
- TASS posts first video of Russia’s latest Borei-A nuclear-powered sub. Over the period of its operation, the Shipyard has built 132 nuclear-powered vessels or more than a half of the nuclear-powered fleet of the Soviet Union and Russia, the CEO informed. (Tass.com, December 20, 2019; read the full article)
- First video footage of Russia’s new nuclear sub. (Tass.com, December 20, 2019; watch the video)
- 60 Minutes: Russian Warship Spotted Off Florida Cause For Alarm, But US Navy in Black Sea Is Not? “Germany is afraid of submarines, as we found out, while the United States is more scared of our Viktor Leonov. It's that very reconnaissance ship that is now deployed in Florida, which caused a slight panic on American TV.” (Vesti, December 20, 2019; watch the video)
- The Baltic Fleet guard ship Yaroslav Mudry accompanied by the tanker Yelnya and the sea tug Viktor Konetsky has set off for Iran after wrapping up the Indra-2019 joint drills with India, the Fleet’s press office reported. (Tass.com, December 20, 2019; read the full article)
- The Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces - First Deputy Minister of Defense General of the Army Valery Gerasimov said at his meeting with representatives of the military diplomatic corps accredited in Russia. “Work continues on deploying US ABM systems in Europe. In the Baltic countries and Poland, in the waters of the Black and Baltic Seas, military activity is intensifying, and the intensity of NATO military exercises is increasing. Their scripts point to NATO’s targeted preparation for the deployment of its forces in a large-scale military conflict. At the same time, the Western allies are advancing the thesis of the so-called Russian military threat. Any step of Russia in the field of ensuring its military security, any planned and ongoing event to build an army and navy is presented as a threat to peace. The actions of the alliance increase tension and reduce the level of security on the Russia-NATO contact line. Reducing the risks of dangerous incidents in the military sphere should remain the most important area of dialogue between Russia on the one hand, the United States and NATO on the other.” (Mil.ru, December 18, 2091; read the full report)