Tag Archives: Putin

Jailed Putin critic Alexei Navalny has spinal hernias, losing sensation in hands, lawyer says

A lawyer for imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who has complained of serious back and leg pain in custody, says prison doctors have determined his client is suffering from two spinal hernias.

Vadim Kobzev told the Interfax news agency on Wednesday that Navalny also has a spinal protrusion and is beginning to lose sensation in his hands.

Navalny went on a hunger strike last week to protest what he called poor medical care in his Russian prison. On Tuesday, the leader of the Navalny-backed Alliance of Doctors union was detained by police after trying to get into the prison to talk to doctors.

Navalny, 44, is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest domestic opponent. He was arrested in January upon returning to Moscow from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusation. Still, labs in Germany and elsewhere in Europe confirmed that Navalny was poisoned with the Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent.

A Russian court ordered Navalny in February to serve 2½ years in prison for violating the terms of his probation, including when he was convalescing in Germany, from a 2014 embezzlement conviction. Navalny has rejected the conviction as fabricated, and the European Court of Human Rights found it “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable.”

Police officers guard an entrance of the prison colony IK-2, east of Moscow on April 6. Doctors from the Navalny-backed Alliance of Doctors union announced they were going to the prison on Tuesday to demand the opposition leader gets qualified medical help from independent doctors after he complained about pain in his leg and back. (Pavel Golovkin/The Associated Press)

Authorities transferred Navalny last month from a Moscow jail to the IK-2 penal colony in the Vladimir region, 85 kilometres east of the Russian capital. The facility in the town of Pokrov stands out among Russian penitentiaries for its especially strict inmate routines, which include standing at attention for hours.

Within weeks of being imprisoned, Navalny said he developed severe back and leg pains and was effectively deprived of sleep because a guard checks on him hourly at night. He went on a hunger strike on March 31, demanding access to proper medication and a visit from his doctor.

Concern about tuberculosis, COVID-19

Human rights group Amnesty International said Wednesday that Navalny is incarcerated in conditions that amount to torture and may slowly be killing him.

Russia’s state penitentiary service has said that Navalny is receiving all the medical help he needs.

Another Navalny lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, said a neurologist consulted by Navalny’s organization determined the treatment prescribed in the prison was ineffective.

Navalny sits in a Moscow court as his lawyer Olga Mikhailova, left, reads documents in this photo from July 24, 2019. Mikhailova provided an update this week on her client’s health problems. (Dmitry Serebryakov/The Associated Press)

In an Instagram post Monday, Navalny said three of the 15 people he is housed with have been diagnosed with tuberculosis, a contagious disease that spreads through the air. He said he had a strong cough and a fever with a temperature of 38.1 C.

On Monday, the state penitentiary service said Navalny had been in the prison’s sanitary unit after a checkup found him having “signs of a respiratory illness, including a high fever.”

Mikhailova said Wednesday that Navalny’s fever had lowered, but he is still coughing and is weak from the hunger strike. She said he has tested negative for COVID-19 twice. 

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CBC | World News

Rehabilitation of Russia’s coronavirus vaccine a soft-power win for Vladimir Putin

At first dismissed and ridiculed by Western countries, Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has not only been rehabilitated; it’s emerging as a powerful tool of influence abroad for President Vladimir Putin.

“I think they possibly couldn’t be feeling more smug and delighted about the way things are going,” said Judy Twigg, a professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., and an expert on the politics of global health.

“The Kremlin is having a whole lot of problems in other areas right now but this is one unvarnished, unmitigated win they can point to right now.”

The vaccine, named after the first satellite sent into space almost 70 years ago, was meant to evoke historic images of Russian glory. Instead, initial claims of Sputnik V’s effectiveness were met with deep skepticism after Russia authorized its widespread use before completing all phases of its clinical trials.

However, a key turning point came last week with the validation of Sputnik V’s Phase 3 trials by the Lancet medical journal.

(CBC News)

It confirmed the vaccine is safe and effective. While the journal noted Sputnik V’s development faced criticism for “an absence of transparency” and “corner cutting,” it said the vaccine maker, Moscow’s Gamaleya National Centre of Epidemiology and Microbiology, had, in fact, demonstrated solid scientific principles.

At about $ 10 US each for the two-shot dose, the vaccine is roughly half the price of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and it can be stored at –2 C whereas the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require much-colder temperatures.   

Global market

Since the Lancet article, more good news announcements about the vaccine have followed, with Russian TV showing pallets of boxes filled with vaccine vials being fork-lifted into the bellies of Aeroflot aircraft, ready for delivery to countries across South America, the Middle East and Central Asia. 

Russia’s government reports that up to 30 countries have either already purchased the vaccine or have expressed an interest in doing so.   

People wait to receive doses of Sputnik V on the basket ball court at the River Plate stadium, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last week. (Maryam Kamyab/Reuters)

Even the once-unlikely notion of selling the vaccine to countries in Europe suddenly seems to be within reach.

On Tuesday, the regulatory body for the 27 members of the European Union announced Russia had made a formal submission for approval of Sputnik V and that the review process could begin shortly.  

Hungary, which ran its own trials of Sputnik V, is so far the only EU country to announce plans to use it.

Other member states, however, say they continue to have reservations about the political motivations behind Russia’s vaccine hype.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte tweeted that she saw no good news in Russia’s vaccine breakthrough.

“They say, Sputnik V is good but Putin doesn’t care to use it as a cure for the Russian people — he offers it to the world as another hybrid weapon to divide and rule.”

Neither Canada nor the United States has expressed an interest in taking a closer look at the Russian vaccine, and it doesn’t appear likely they will.

Sara Goudarzi, a nurse from the Imam Khomeini Hospital, flashes a victory sign as she receives a Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in a staged event in Tehran Tuesday. Iran is one of about 30 countries that Russia says are using or have expressed interest in its vaccine. (Vahid Salemi/The Associated Press)

Diplomatic dilemma

Twigg says for Russia’s adversaries, the choice of whether to use Sputnik or not presents an ethical dilemma.

“You don’t want to give Vladimir Putin, in these circumstances, a political win,” she said. “On the other hand, you need vaccines for your people. In fact, you needed [them] yesterday.”

That conundrum was on display last Friday during a visit to Moscow by the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.

With the Kremlin facing widespread criticism for its imprisonment of Putin-foe Alexey Navalny and the subsequent mass arrests of thousands of protestors who came out in support of the opposition leader, Borrell’s words of criticism for Putin were overshadowed by his comments praising Sputnik and his hope it would be made widely available to the world.

Borrell’s visit was widely slammed as a diplomatic blunder that allowed Putin to shift the focus away from Russia’s authoritarian crackdown on dissent and dodge the issue of Navlany’s fate.

A Russian medical worker, right, administers a shot of Sputnik V in Moscow. (Pavel Golovkin/The Associated Press)

The question of whether or not to use Sputnik V is especially acute for Russia’s closest neighbour, Ukraine, which is one of the poorest nations in Europe and has yet to launch a mass vaccination campaign. 

Nonetheless, Ukraine, which has had close to 1.3 million cases of coronavirus and more than 25,000 deaths, has passed a law banning Sputnik V because the idea of using a Russian-made vaccine is so politically toxic domestically. 

The only regions of Ukraine that will use the Russian vaccine are those controlled by pro-Russia separatist forces around the eastern city of Donetsk, where a shipment of 100,000 doses of Sputnik V arrived recently.

“I’d like to remind everybody who might have forgotten this, there has been a war [with Russia] for almost seven years already,” Ukraine’s health minister, Maxym Stephanov, told CBC News in an interview, referencing the ongoing conflict with Russia in Eastern Ukraine.

“The Russian Federation didn’t bring death … to the territories of those countries [considering using Sputnik V].”

Ukraine’s health minister, Maxym Stephanov, shown at a forum in Kiev on Monday, said it would be unpalatable for Ukraine to use Sputnik V given the toll that the years-long conflict with Russia in Eastern Ukraine has had on the country. (CBC News)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced this week that his country would start receiving the first deliveries of a potential eight million doses through the World Health Organization’s COVAX program later this month, as well as vaccines purchased from the United Kingdom and China.

Ambulances parked at a Kiev hospital. Ukraine has recorded over 1.2 million coronavirus cases with 23,000 deaths but its leaders said they won’t be using Russia’s vaccine. (CBC News)

Russia-friendly media outlets have launched a barrage of coverage, including dozens of newspaper and TV reports, targeting Ukrainian audiences, much of it aimed at denigrating Western-made coronavirus vaccines and attempting to leverage Ukraine’s lack of vaccines as a means of turning the population against Zelensky’s pro-Western government.

In response, Ukraine’s president revoked the licenses of three pro-Russia TV channels in the country, claiming the move was necessary in “the name of national security.”

“I think if Sputnik V was the world’s only vaccine, I still wouldn’t buy it,” IT worker Leonid Koloda told a CBC crew in Kiev,  reflecting a skepticism common outside the separatist regions of the country.

Few options for some countries

Elsewhere, however, geopolitics are either less of a factor or simply outweighed by the lack of vaccine alternatives.

Russia shipped 10,000 doses of Sputnik V to the Palestinian Territories this week, allowing a mass-vaccination campaign to begin for the 4.5 million residents of the West Bank and Gaza.

Doctors and staff at Istishari Arab Hospital in Ramallah were among the first to get jabbed.

Staff at the Istishari Arab Hospital in Ramallah get their first look at Sputnik V. Palestinian officials said they are happy to have the vaccine so they can begin mass vaccinations in Gaza and the West Bank. (CBC News)

“I’m very happy we have it,” anesthesiologist Samir Nasrallah told CBC News as he rolled up his sleeve.

“Russian [vaccine] factories are good, and when they do something, it will work.”

Senior Palestinian health officials told CBC they are deeply appreciative.

“We don’t care about political issues. We have to protect our population against this pandemic and this virus,” said Dr. Ali Abed Rabbo, director of preventative health for the Palestinian Authority.

Hesitancy at home

One of the ironies of Sputnik V’s new-found international success is that people outside of Russia may be more convinced of its efficacy than those at home.

The Levada Centre, an independent polling and research organization, reported earlier this month that only 38 per cent of Russians are ready to get vaccinated, with many saying they either fear side-effects or don’t trust the Russian vaccine maker or just won’t take any vaccine.

Maria Anikina, left, and a friend eat ice cream after receiving their second dose of the Sputnik V vaccine at a pop-up vaccination site at Moscow’s GUM luxury shopping mall. Not all Russians are as eager to get the vaccine. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

In an effort to overcome the vaccine hesitancy, pop-up vaccination clinics have been established at many sites around the capital, Moscow, and getting a jab is easy, free and usually involves just a short wait.

One of the most popular is at the GUM luxury shopping mall on Red Square, where Maria Anikina and a friend got their second dose on Tuesday.

She told CBC her friends who live in Vancouver are jealous, and they can’t believe it’s so easy to get vaccinated in Russia.

“They would also like to get the vaccine,  but as I understand, it’s not time yet for them in Canada.”

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CBC | World News

Putin critic Alexei Navalny to return to Russia amid threat of arrest

Leading Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny plans to fly home to Russia on Sunday after recovering in Germany from his poisoning in August with a nerve agent.

Navalny announced Wednesday that he would return, despite Russian authorities’ threats to put him behind bars again. He is expected to fly from Berlin to Moscow. On Thursday, Russia’s prison service said that he faces immediate arrest once he returns.

Navalny, who has blamed his poisoning on the Kremlin, charged that Russian President Vladimir Putin was now trying to deter him from coming home with new legal motions. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied a role in the opposition leader’s poisoning.

At the end of December, the Federal Penitentiary Service, or FSIN, warned Navalny that he faced time in prison if he fails to immediately report to its office in line with the terms of a suspended sentence and probation he received for a 2014 conviction on charges of embezzlement and money laundering that he rejected as politically motivated. The European Court for Human Rights had ruled that his conviction was unlawful.

The FSIN said Thursday it issued an arrest warrant for Navalny after he failed to report to its office. The prison service, which has asked a Moscow court to turn Navalny’s 3 ½-year suspended sentence into a real one, said it’s “obliged to take all the necessary action to detain Navalny pending the court’s ruling.”

Navalny fell into a coma while aboard a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on Aug. 20. He was transferred from a hospital in Siberia to a Berlin hospital two days later.

Labs in Germany, France and Sweden, and tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he was exposed to a Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent.

Russian authorities insisted that the doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia before he was airlifted to Germany found no traces of poison and have challenged German officials to provide proof of his poisoning. They refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, citing a lack of evidence that Navalny was poisoned.

Last month, Navalny released the recording of a phone call he said he made to a man he described as an alleged member of a group of officers of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, who purportedly poisoned him in August and then tried to cover it up. The FSB dismissed the recording as fake.

WATCH | Navalny poisoning ignored by Russian state TV:

Russia Channel 1 political host Mikhail Akincheko explains why Russian state TV is ignoring the poisoning of Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny. 0:51

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CBC | World News

Following Putin and state media’s lead, many Russians dismissive of Navalny poisoning case

After several days of silence, perhaps the only surprising thing about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials Thursday that his secret police played a role in poisoning a political opponent was that he punctuated his comments with an uncomfortable-sounding chuckle.

“Who needs him?” Putin said of political foe Alexei Navalny during a news conference, laughing as he dismissed news reports that members of Russia’s federal security service, the FSB, specializing in nerve agents, followed Navalny during a trip to Siberia in August, where he was poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok and nearly died.

“If someone had wanted to poison him, they would have finished him off,” said Putin, returning to the well-worn Kremlin talking point that Russia’s secret services are too good to make such clumsy mistakes.

Putin denigrated Navalny as a nobody striving for political legitimacy, even providing a mocking imitation of his rival.

“Pay attention — it means I am a person of the same calibre [as Putin],” he said.

While the revelations about the FSB’s activities, published earlier this week by several Western news outlets, have enthralled many in the West, the Navalny case has long been largely ignored by the Russian media — and so, perhaps not surprisingly, by many Russians as well.

Alexei Navalny seen taking part in a rally in Moscow back in February. He is convinced Putin was complicit in his near-fatal poisoning in August. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

Navalny was airlifted to a hospital in Berlin shortly after he was poisoned on Aug. 20, and has remained in that country even as his crusade against Putin has continued.

A lawyer by training, Navalny is one of the very few political figures in Russia who has directly challenged Putin’s authority and risked his own life and security by organizing mass protests. Yet, while his investigations into corruption involving senior members of Putin’s inner circle have been viewed tens of millions times on YouTube, he remains a polarizing figure.

Many Russians appear to believe Putin’s claim that Navalny works for foreign intelligence agencies, and even some Western-leaning liberals see him as a divisive figure who has failed to create a strong anti-Putin coalition.

Bellingcat investigation

The new revelations in the Navalny case come via a detailed investigation led by the international journalism collective Bellingcat.

Its investigative team says the findings were procured from data that can easily be purchased on the black market, including cellphone records and passenger flight logs.

The findings include evidence suggesting Russia’s secret police have used a special unit to trail Navalny since 2017, following him to 37 different locations around Russia. Bellingcat alleges it tracked the cellphone usage of several members of the team and those records put them with Navalny at the time he was poisoned in Siberia.

The journalists even released photos of the men, as well as their aliases and work and home addresses. A CNN reporter knocked on the apartment door of one of the men, but he quickly shut it after she introduced herself.

Bellingcat also alleges the men reported to a senior officer who was once associated with the Novichok nerve agent program, and that the chain of command led straight to Putin himself.

At Thursday’s news conference, Putin didn’t deny that Russian agents could be tracked by their cellphones, or that they may have had reason to keep an eye on Navalny.

“Don’t we know that [foreign intelligence agencies] track geo-location? Our intelligence services fully understand that and know it,” said Putin, as he repeated his claim that Navalny himself must be an agent of the U.S.

“It’s not an investigation — it is the legalization of data from the U.S special services,” Putin said.

Paramedics load a stretcher into an ambulance that reportedly transported Navalny to a Berlin hospital after he’d been poisoned. (Christian Mang/Reuters)

Putin’s constant refusal to discuss Navalny has seen him resort to using different descriptors rather than simply saying Navalny’s name.

On Thursday, Navalny was the “Berlin clinic patient.”

Russian disinterest

While the allegations about the FSB’s activities have been widely reported outside of Russia, within the country itself, it’s an entirely different story.

Until Putin’s comments Thursday, state TV programs ignored the story. Even the social media feeds of many of the Kremlin’s usual critics have been quiet on the topic.

In this photo from Feb. 24, 2014, police detain Navalny outside a courthouse in Moscow. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

At the news conference in Moscow, the CBC approached several prominent Russian journalists to ask why.

“I think Western media just pays too much attention to this person,” said host Mikhail Akinchenko of Channel One,  borrowing Putin’s technique of not referring to Navalny by name. 

“He’s not so interesting for our news agenda as for you, maybe because he’s not [such a] significant person for us.”

WATCH | State TV journalist explains lack of coverage of Navalny case: 

Russia Channel 1 political host Mikhail Akincheko explains why Russian state TV is ignoring the poisoning of Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny. 0:51

And what of the evidence that suggests the FSB may have tried to kill Navalny?

“Only that person who does not know the real situation in Russia,” would take the poison allegations seriously, Akinchenko said.

“It can’t happen in real life.”

The CBC travelled to the town of Zvenigorod, west of Moscow, to talk to people about the Navalny poisoning case. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Navalny and his supporters have been arrested repeatedly by Russian police for organizing anti-Putin protests. He’s also been physically attacked and had corrosive green paint thrown in his face.

A video Navalny posted this week, in which he directly accused Putin of being complicit in his attempted murder, had already been viewed more than 10 million times by the time the Russian president addressed the news conference.

Nonetheless, there’s also persuasive evidence that the Kremlin’s efforts to marginalize Navalny and minimize his political impact have been effective.

A survey conducted in late October by respected independent pollster the Levada Center suggests 55 per cent of Russian respondents said they don’t believe Navalny was poisoned.

Of the one third who said they believe he had been poisoned, only a third of those said they believe the Russian state was behind it.

Public skepticism

In the days after Bellingcat’s revelations were released but before Putin spoke about them, the CBC visited the community of Zvenigorod, a town of about 15,000 people located 70 kilometres west of Moscow.

Former railway worker Alexy Provorovsky, 39, stopped to talk on his way out of church but, like many people, was reluctant to discuss the Navalny story directly.

“I don’t really want to say anything about this,” he said. “[People] are only thinking about their families and their close ones now. They only think about themselves, just to survive.”

Elena Pomina, 30, said she was only vaguely aware of the Navalny case and what might have happened to him.

“I’m not for or against him. It’s not really my business,” she said.

Younger Russians who spoke with the CBC were generally more aware of the details and more sympathetic toward Navalny.

WATCH | Putin laughs off accusations of Kremlin-controlled hit against Navalny:

Russian President Vladimir Putin laughed off damning new allegations that a Kremlin-controlled hit squad uses nerve agents to eliminate opponents, including Alexei Navalny. 1:59

Daria Generalova, an 18-year-old artist who works in a gift shop in the town, said the government’s comments that Navalny might not have been poisoned aren’t credible.

“It can’t be that a person who is healthy like this, and quite young still, that he just suddenly falls so ill,” she said.

“It’s awful. It’s even frightening, actually.”

Levada pollster Denis Volkov told a forum earlier this week that support for Putin is strongest among the older generation that still gets their news from state TV sources, while younger people who rely on the internet are far more likely to favour Kremlin outsiders, such as Navalny.

After Putin’s news conference, Navalny was sounding pleased with how his week had gone.

“Of course they can’t open a criminal case now, because this would be a criminal case against Putin,” he told host Lyubov Sobol, one of his supporters, who was broadcasting on Navalny’s YouTube channel.

“And Putin, who is the king of lies, who can lie about anything no problem, even he in this situation can’t deny that there were FSB agents that followed me.”

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CBC | World News

Russian voters agree to let Putin seek 2 more terms

Russian voters approved changes to the constitution that will allow President Vladimir Putin to potentially hold power until 2036, but the weeklong plebiscite that concluded Wednesday was tarnished by widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities.

With three-fourths of all precincts counted, 77.6 per cent voted for the constitutional amendments, according to election officials.

For the first time in Russia, polls were kept open for a week to bolster turnout without increasing crowds casting ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic — a provision that Kremlin critics denounced as an extra tool to manipulate the outcome.

A massive propaganda campaign and the opposition’s failure to mount a co-ordinated challenge helped Putin get the result he wanted, but the plebiscite could end up eroding his position because of the unconventional methods used to boost participation and the dubious legal basis for the balloting.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shows his passport to a member of an election commission on Wednesday as he arrives to take part in voting at a polling station in Moscow. (Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin pool photo via The Associated Press)

The amendments that would allow Putin to run for two more six-year terms, in 2024 and 2030, are part of a package of constitutional changes that also outlaw same-sex marriage, mention “a belief in God as a core value” and emphasize the primacy of Russian law over international norms.

Voters could not cast ballots on the individual amendments, only on the entire group.

Nationwide turnout was reported at 65 per cent of the electorate.

Kremlin critics and independent election observers questioned the turnout figures.

Claims that turnout was artificially boosted

“We look at neighbouring regions, and anomalies are obvious — there are regions where the turnout is artificially [boosted], there are regions where it is more or less real,” Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of the independent election monitoring group Golos, told The Associated Press.

Putin voted at a Moscow polling station, dutifully showing his passport to the election worker. His face was uncovered, unlike most of the other voters who were offered free masks at the entrance.

A woman holds a poster reading ‘July 1. Boycott of Putin’s amendments,’ protesting on Palace Square in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Wednesday. (Dmitri Lovetsky/The Associated Press)

The vote completes a convoluted saga that began in January, when Putin first proposed constitutional changes including broadening the powers of parliament and redistributing authority among the branches of government. Those proposals stoked speculation he might seek to become parliamentary speaker or chair of the State Council when his presidential term ends in 2024.

His intentions became clear only hours before a vote in parliament, when legislator Valentina Tereshkova, a Soviet-era cosmonaut who was the first woman in space in 1963, proposed letting him run two more times. The proposed changes were quickly passed by the Kremlin-controlled legislature.

The 67-year-old Putin, who has been in power for more than two decades — longer than any other Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin — said he would decide later whether to run again. He argued that resetting the term count was necessary to keep his lieutenants focused on their work instead of “darting their eyes in search for possible successors.”

Protesters in Berlin, many of them expatriate Russians, demonstrate in front of the Russian Embassy against the proposed introduction of more than 200 amendments to Russia’s constitution, including elements that would allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to serve two more terms in office. (Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

Analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin political consultant, said Putin’s push to hold the vote despite the fact that Russia has thousands of new coronavirus infections each day reflected his potential vulnerabilities.

“Putin lacks confidence in his inner circle and he’s worried about the future,” Pavlovsky said. “He wants an irrefutable proof of public support.”

Even though the parliament’s approval was enough to make it law, the 67-year-old Russian president put his constitutional plan to voters to showcase his broad support and add a democratic veneer to the changes. But then the coronavirus pandemic engulfed Russia, forcing him to postpone the April 22 plebiscite.

Law enforcement officers block protesters in St. Petersburg on Wednesday during an opposition rally against amendments to Russia’s constitution on the last day of a week-long nationwide vote on constitutional reforms. (Anton Vaganov/Reuters)

The delay made Putin’s campaign blitz lose momentum and left his constitutional reform plan hanging as the damage from the virus mounted and public discontent grew. Plummeting incomes and rising unemployment during the outbreak have dented his approval ratings, which sank to 59 per cent, the lowest level since he came to power, according to the Levada Center, Russia’s top independent pollster.

Moscow-based political analyst Ekaterina Schulmann said the Kremlin had faced a difficult dilemma: Holding the vote sooner would have brought accusations of jeopardizing public health for political ends, while delaying it raised the risks of defeat. “Holding it in the autumn would have been too risky,” she said.

In Moscow, several activists briefly lay on Red Square, forming the number “2036” with their bodies in protest before police stopped them. Some others in Moscow and St. Petersburg staged one-person pickets and police didn’t intervene.

Several hundred opposition supporters later rallied in central Moscow to protest the changes, defying a ban on public gatherings imposed for the coronavirus outbreak. Police didn’t intervene and even handed masks to the participants.

Authorities mounted a sweeping effort to persuade teachers, doctors, workers at public sector enterprises and others who are paid by the state to cast ballots. Reports surfaced from across the vast country of managers coercing people to vote.

Voters were bused from eastern Ukraine

The Kremlin has used other tactics to boost turnout and support for the amendments. Prizes ranging from gift certificates to cars and apartments were offered as an encouragement, voters with Russian passports from eastern Ukraine were bused across the border to vote, and two regions with large numbers of voters — Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod — allowed electronic balloting.

In Moscow, some journalists and activists said they were able to cast their ballots both online and in person in a bid to show the lack of safeguards against manipulations.

Kremlin critics and independent monitors pointed out that the relentless pressure on voters coupled with new opportunities for manipulations from a week of early voting when ballot boxes stood unattended at night eroded the standards of voting to a striking new low.

In addition to that, the early voting sanctioned by election officials but not reflected in law further eroded the ballot’s validity.

More than 200 proposed amendments

Many criticized the Kremlin for lumping more than 200 proposed amendments together in one package without giving voters a chance to differentiate among them.

“I voted against the new amendments to the constitution because it all looks like a circus,” said Yelena Zorkina, 45, after voting in St. Petersburg. “How can people vote for the whole thing if they agree with some amendments but disagree with the others?”

A police officer detains a man during an opposition protest against the constitutional amendments on Wednesday in Palace Square in central St. Petersburg. (Anton Vaganov/Reuters)

Putin supporters were not discouraged by being unable to vote separately on the proposed changes. Taisia Fyodorova, a 69-year-old retiree in St. Petersburg, said she voted yes “because I trust our government and the president.”

In a frantic effort to get the vote, polling station workers set up ballot boxes in courtyards and playgrounds, on tree stumps and even in car trunks — unlikely settings derided on social media that made it impossible to ensure a clean vote.

Monitors complain of hidden paperwork

In Moscow, there were reports of unusually high numbers of at-home voters, with hundreds visited by election workers in a matter of hours, along with multiple complaints from monitors that paperwork documenting the turnout was being concealed from them.

At the same time, monitoring the vote became more challenging due to hygiene requirements and more arcane rules for election observers.

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CBC | World News

Putin allies accuse Canada of interfering with Russia’s gay marriage vote

Prominent Russians with close ties to the Putin government are accusing Canada of interfering in that country’s constitutional vote on gay marriage by opposing a ban.

Russians have been voting for the past week on a series of constitutional amendments, the most significant of which would effectively allow President Vladimir Putin to continue in the job for the rest of his life.

Another of the amendments includes a stipulation that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. Opponents claim other changes on the table will cement deeply conservative ideology into the constitution and set Russia back centuries.

‘Less inclusive’

Five Western nations issued a joint statement on Pride Month 2020, including Canada, the United States, Australia,  New Zealand and the U.K.

The statement calls on Russia’s government “to adhere to its stated commitment to protecting the rights of all citizens, including the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community.”

In a video posted to Facebook by a Russian LGBTQ group, Canada’s ambassador to Russia also addressed the constitutional amendment that’s on the table. Alison LeClaire suggested a “yes” vote would lead to a “less inclusive” situation for members of the nations’ LGBTQ community.

WATCH | Canada’s ambassador to Russia addresses gay marriage:

“In Russia, this situation [over gay rights] is compounded by an increase in violence and intimidation of the community by local authorities and other actors … and proposals for constitutional amendments that if adopted would lead to an increasingly less inclusive national legal framework,” she said.

On Monday, one of Russia’s most influential talk shows on state television, 60 Minutes, played the video and ripped into LeClaire accusing her — and Canada’s government — of political interference.

‘She will burn in hell’

“She will burn in hell,” said an irate Pyotr Tolstoy, a deputy speaker and member of the Putin-friendly United Russia party in Russia’s parliament during the show.

He then launched into a personal attack on LeClaire.

“This woman, the ambassador of Canada, is a typical representative of this type of single, middle aged ‘dame’ who are activists for the promotion of LGBTQ agendas in Europe, in America, in Canada, and now here,” Tolstoy said.

The Canadian Embassy in Moscow posted a photo on Twitter that shows diplomatic staff and diplomats standing outside the building beneath a pride flag. (Twitter/Canadian Embassy Moscow)

Igor Korotchenko, chief editor of National Defence, another well-connected Kremlin publication, suggested LeClaire needs to be punished and perhaps removed from her post.

“At the very minimum, this ambassador should be called in by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and she should be officially and decisively be issued a protest of meddling in the internal affairs of Russia,” he said on the show.

Yvgeny Popov, the host, nodded in agreement.

“When the ambassador of Canada in the middle of our vote on the constitution — where we will decide if we are for or against, but we will decide — she is telling us how to vote, how are we supposed to react?” he said.

Another panellist, Valery Fadeev, who’s a member of Russia’s Presidential Council on Human Rights, echoed the sentiment.

“Of course, what the ambassador is showing is a provocation and meddling in internal affairs,” he said.

Julia Potekhina and Karina Kuznetsova from Saint Petersburg. (Alexei Sergeev/CBC)

The U.S. ambassador to Russia also released a video statement on Pride Month, but only LeClaire’s video made mention of the upcoming constitutional vote.

CBC News asked Global Affairs Canada for a response to the outburst on Russian TV and the slurs aimed at the ambassador, but its statement did not directly address the issue.

“Every year, Canadian missions across the globe fly the flag and offer words of support to LGBTQ2 communities during Pride,” Global Affairs said.

Since 2014, Canada’s embassy staff in Moscow have adopted a low profile as the bilateral relationship entered a deep chill following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its ongoing support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

A notable exception has been on the issue of gay rights, where Canada has been more forceful on LGTBQ issues, including opposing a 2013 Russian law that banned gay “propaganda.”

In 2017, Canada also accepted dozens of gay men from the Russian republic of Chechnya as refugees, many of whom had been tortured and driven from their homes.

Attitudes evolving

Gay and lesbian activists in Russia say on one hand, Russian attitudes toward homosexuality are evolving. But since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, the political environment has deteriorated.

“We will return not just to Soviet times, this will take us back even further,” said Karina Kuznetsova, who lives with her partner Julia Potetkehina in a flat in Saint Petersburg, said of the proposed constitutional amendments. The couple runs a LGBTQ -themed café called Rainbow.

“This will take us back to the 16th century how I see it, with these types of amendments, because we will have just one person in charge — like a tsar.” 

The Rainbow Cafe in Saint Petersburg, which is run by Karina Kuznetsova and her partner Julia Potetkehina. (Alexey Sergeev/CBC)

Kuznetsova told CBC News that Putin’s government has tried to whip up hostility toward gay lifestyles, especially as economic conditions in the country deteriorated.

Now, she says, “we are blamed for everything.” 

“We need fresh blood, fresh ideas, fresh thinking … but we have just gotten stuck now and we are going further and further down,” she said.

‘Traditional values’

In a poll on LGBTQ attitudes in Russia, released in April 2019 by the independent Levada Center, a polling and research organization, said there had been noticeable improvements in attitudes toward gay people. Almost half of those surveyed suggesting they deserved the same rights as other citizens. 

However, in another more recent poll that involved personal interviews with more than 1,600 Russians this May, Levada reported roughly one in five Russians believe LGBTQ people should be “eliminated.” 

The longer Putin has served as president, the closer he has tried to align himself with Russia’s Orthodox church and, along with that, promote so-called “traditional values.”

“As far as ‘parent number one’ and ‘parent number two’ goes, I’ve already spoken publicly about this and I’ll repeat it again: As long as I’m president this will not happen. There will be dad and mum,” Putin said in February after announcing the constitutional amendments.

A resident wearing a face mask against to protect against coronavirus casts a ballot into a mobile ballot box during a seven-day nationwide vote on constitutional reforms, as members of an electoral commission visit a remote settlement in the region of Yakutia in eastern Siberia, Russia, on June 25. (Andrey Sorokin/Reuters)

The constitutional proposals also include clauses that emphasize differences between Russia and liberal democratic Western nations — including banning anyone who has ever held residence in another country from running for the presidency.

The move would prevent most Russian “liberals,” many of whom have studied or lived in Europe or North America, from challenging Putin.

No progress

Prominent author and government critic Dmitry Glukovsky penned a scathing rebuttal to the constitutional vote — and changing the terms of Putin’s presidency — in the opposition paper Novaya Gazeta.

“Once you are in power, you want to stay in power,” Glukvosky told CBC News in an interview.

“You can’t actually move your country forward because you are someone who is supposed to ‘conserve’ the situation, not find solutions — not reform, not progress, because they are all sources of danger to stability.

“You value stability overall — of which you are the main beneficiary.” 

There’s little evidence that Putin’s proposed changes have stirred up much excitement with voters, who have until Wednesday to cast ballots.

The Kremlin-supported “yes” side has even resorted to free giveaways with offers of money, cars and apartments to get people motivated to vote.

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Russia’s coronavirus count under scrutiny as Putin government denies hiding cases

As country after country in Europe reported dramatic growth in COVID-19 cases and moved to systematically shut down communities and economies, Russia had been a striking outlier — until now.

As late as Sunday, professional soccer games were still being played in front of thousands of people. Orthodox parishioners were lining up to kiss church icons without wiping them down. And on Russian state television, pundits were full of their usual effusive praise for how the administration of President Vladimir Putin has been handling the outbreak.

“In Russia, things are not like they are in Europe,” said Dmitry Kiselyov, whose pro-Kremlin monologues on his show Vesti Nedeli (News of the Week) have landed him on the sanctions list for both Canada and the European Union. 

“Things are going along in their normal way,” he said as he pushed the Kremlin narrative that the virus has been inflicted on Russia by foreigners but the country is successfully fighting back.

“It’s big, scrupulous work,” he said, “but the results are clear.”

Dr. Anastasia Vasileyeva, head of a trade union for Russian medical practioners, says no one really knows how many cases of coronavirus there are in the country. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Within 48 hours, however, Russians suddenly seem less confident.  

Effective Wednesday, all of the country’s vast borders will be closed to foreigners, bringing the country into line with places such as the European Union. Moscow has banned all outdoor events and limited indoor gatherings to fewer than 50 people and older Russians have been told to remain inside.    

Schools are now shut, attractions such as Lenin’s tomb and the Bolshoi Theatre are closed and the government has announced a sizable bailout package for businesses at risk.   

Authorities say even with their early successes at holding off the virus outside Russian territory, cases are rising and more needs to be done. 

Officially, Russia has just 114 confirmed coronavirus cases and no confirmed deaths.  

It’s a remarkably small number for a country of 149 million people that shares land borders with 14 other countries, including a 4,200-kilometre boundary with China, where the coronavirus outbreak started.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government at the Kremlin in Moscow on Wednesday. (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/Reuters)

By comparison, tiny Iceland has twice the official number of cases as Russia.   

Japan, with roughly the same population as Russia, has almost 10 times as many.

Even the president of Belarus, often seen as Russia’s closest neighbour, has questioned the low numbers, suggesting that Russia is “ablaze” with coronavirus.

Senior Russian officials, including Putin, the country’s prime minister and the mayor of Moscow, all insist the Russian figures are accurate.

The official TASS news agency quoted Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova as suggesting the situation was a result of “restrictive and prohibitive measures” adopted by Russia, including an early closure of the border with China and other restrictions on people entering Russia from Asia.

But several doctors and health-care workers contacted by CBC News believe the real caseload is far higher and that Russia could be hiding hundreds of coronavirus deaths by labelling them as something else.  

An employee wearing a protective mask cleans and disinfects a subway train as part of measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Moscow on Monday. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

“I think they don’t want to tell the truth,” said Dr. Anastasia Vasiliyeva, an ophthalmologist who heads the Doctor’s Alliance, a recently formed countrywide union for medical practitioners. 

“I think we have thousands of coronavirus [cases] in Russia but no one really knows how much.”

The Russian business publication RBC reported this week that Russia’s official statistics agency, Rosstat, confirmed incidents of “community acquired pneumonia” increased by 37 per cent in Russia from January 2019 to January 2020.

That translates into an increase of close to 2,000 cases.   

Some patients who contract coronavirus can develop severe pneumonia and other respiratory problems.

“That’s why they call coronavirus, ‘pneumonia,’ ” Vasiliyeva told CBC News. 

One family doctor who’s been in practice for more than a decade in Moscow told CBC News their clinic has seen a number of patients recently who likely had coronavirus, but doctors did not report them to federal health authorities because they were concerned about the conditions inside the quarantine sites where they would be sent. 

Major tourist attractions in Moscow, such as Lenin’s tomb, are closed. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

“I have dealt with patients with mild symptoms that I am convinced have coronavirus but I have not reported them to the hotline as I refuse to see them be put in isolation in God knows what kind of conditions along with other patients,” said the doctor.   

CBC News has agreed not to identify this person as doing so could result in severe recriminations by Russian authorities.

The doctor also said many coronavirus cases go unreported because physicians don’t want to see their offices shut down and quarantined by Russian authorities. 

“That would mean no salary and no revenues for them and their families. This is Russia and this is the reality.”

Russian health authorities report more than 100,000 people have been tested for the coronavirus, mostly through Russian-developed test kits.

“Its high accuracy was confirmed in China,” Kiselyov, the Kremlin TV pundit, said on his talk show of the tests.

No workers at Moscow’s coronavirus ‘hotline’ call centre were wearing masks when CBC News visited and many were sitting within two metres of each other. (Chris Brown/CBC)

But Vasiliyeva, with the medical union, said doctors from across the country are calling her and saying both the testing and the results are unreliable.

“They don’t really know if the tests work,” she told CBC News, noting that some doctors have told her they have waited days to get test results returned but never received them.

“They send them and they don’t get the information back.”

Vasiliyeva said until recently the Moscow area had three infectious disease hospitals to treat patients, but at the time of the coronavirus outbreak in January, there was just one in operation.

Health authorities are rushing to build a second facility for infectious diseases in the city’s southwest but its opening date is unclear.

Vasileyva said she is not affiliated with any political organization and claims to “like” Putin. However, she rents office space from his nemesis, anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, who she acknowledges has been supportive of the doctors union.

While Navalny has not said much about the coronavirus situation in Russia, other prominent Russians have been vocal.

An aerial view Monday shows a construction site where a new hospital is being built for treating patients infected with coronavirus outside Moscow. (Denis Voronin/Agency of city news ‘Moskva’/Reuters)

The Moscow Times reports Oleg Deripaska, one of Russia’s richest men, suggested that Russians are ignoring prudent public health advice.

In a post on his social media page, he wrote that if Russia doesn’t move quickly to prevent the virus’s spread, the consequences could be “more serious than the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.”

Other commentators have drawn parallels between the former Soviet Union’s initial efforts to downplay and minimize the impact of the 1986 Chornobyl disaster with the Putin administration’s handling of coronavirus now.

Putin himself, the central figure in Russian political life for more than two decades, has been absent from much of the discussion around the coronavirus, although on Tuesday he attempted to dispel what he called “dangerous rumours.”

“The situation, as a whole, is under control,” said Putin.

“We managed to contain the massive — and I want to emphasize the massive — penetration and spread of the disease in Russia.”

While Russia has taken decisive steps in the past 48 hours — such as closing its borders to international travellers — restaurants, bars and shopping malls all remain open, though perhaps not for long. The heavily used Moscow Metro transit system, which moves more than 9.4 million passengers a day, continues to function, though it is notably less busy.

And while there has been some public messaging about the need for “social distancing,” it has been far less noticeable than in Europe or Canada.

Indeed, CBC News visited Moscow’s recently opened coronavirus call centre where several hundred workers sat in close proximity to each other answering phones and talking to supervisors.

One worker said most people calling were not anxious or panicky and instead wanted answers to basic questions such as what are the symptoms of the virus.

But Vasileyva said the call centre is indicative of many of the problems with Russia’s response to the crisis, as she believes it’s only a matter of time before the coronavirus strikes the centre itself.

“If one person comes in there with the virus, everybody will have the coronavirus.”

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‘I’m honoured’: Putin fetes professor for decade role as honorary consul in St. John’s

The ornate halls of Moscow’s Kremlin have hardly been a welcoming place for Canadian delegations of late, which is what makes John Durrant’s visit there this week especially remarkable.

On Russia’s Day of National Unity on Monday, one of its most significant holidays, Durrant, a Russian literature professor from St. John’s, was the guest of honour at the head table in the grand Georgievsky Hall, seated right beside President Vladimir Putin.

“Who would have thought I’d be here? It’s the highest moment,” he told CBC News in an interview at the Kremlin, shortly after Putin bestowed upon him the Order of Friendship, one of Russia’s highest civilian awards.

“What can I say? I’m honoured.”

Putin speaks at the Kremlin ceremony on Russia’s Day of National Unity on Nov. 4. (Kremlin.ru)

A ‘thank you’ for decade of work

Durrant was given the award primarily for his decade of work serving as Russia’s honorary consul in St. John’s, a position that he said involved everything from helping stranded Russian sailors to hockey players and escorting official Russian delegations around Newfoundland and Labrador.

It’s common for foreign nations to appoint non-diplomatic representatives in cities where they don’t have an embassy to help with consular matters. Durrant said he believes the Russian government initially asked him to take on the role because it was familiar with his work as a translator and as a Russian language expert.

As part of a “thank you” speech to Putin and the dignitaries, Durrant promised to work tirelessly to “establish understanding between our people.”

“It involves a lot of different duties,” he said, of the honorary consul position. Over the years he said he has helped the families of Russian fishermen who have died and dealt with the crews of various Russian ships that have stopped in St. John’s.

Durrant, who speaks six languages, has also facilitated trips for hundreds of Memorial University students over the years to Russia as part of their language studies.

As for his hour-long one-on-one with Putin, he said they first talked about hockey to “break the ice, so to speak.”

And Durrant said the pair also chatted about dogs.

Putin’s pet

“When he learned that I was from St. John’s he spoke about dogs — because of Labradors — and I think his favourite pet was a Labrador named Konni.”

Putin, right, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel look at his dog Konni before their talks at the presidential residence near the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, on Jan. 21, 2007. In an hour-long one-on-one, Durrant said he and Putin also talked about dogs. (Reuters)

Indeed, Konni, a female black lab, was a fixture at Putin’s side for the first 15 years of his rule in Russia and often accompanied the Russian leader to international conferences. Russian state media frequently showed photos of the pair together, in part to help portray Putin in a friendly, softer light.

Konni died in 2015.

I find President Putin to be a very attentive conversationalist​​​​​​.– John Durrant

“I find President Putin to be a very attentive conversationalist,” said Durrant, who studied Russian at Lomonosov State University in Moscow, in what was then the U.S.S.R. 

Beyond that though, Durrant was reluctant to give away much about his conversation with Russia’s president,  suggesting it may be “breaking protocol” to do so.

Nor would he reveal how political things got. 

Canada, Russia should be ‘close neighbours’

Durrant said he’s a strong believer in engaging with Russia, to “develop trust through positive and effective collaboration.”

“I profoundly believe that because of so many basic similarities — too many to list — Canada and Russia should be very close neighbours and loyal friends,” Durrant later wrote in an email to CBC News.

Durrant speaks with CBC News in the Kremlin’s Gold Room after the ceremony. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

The official policy of successive Canadian governments has been more or less the diametric opposite.

Since 2014, Canada has frozen most high-level governmental contacts with Russia in response to Putin’s annexation of Crimea and its role in fuelling the war in Eastern Ukraine.

Both Liberal and Conservative governments have sanctioned scores of Russian companies and individuals linked to the conflict, as well as in response to the poisonings of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in London last year and Russia’s alleged role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which killed 300 people.

For its part, Russia has banned a number of senior Canadian officials with ties to Ukraine, including Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.

Strong condemnation

In an emailed statement, Freeland’s spokesperson Adam Austin stated: “Attempts by Russia to destabilize the rules-based international order and the multilateral institutions that underpin it require firm and strong condemnation and concrete action by all countries that believe in a stable and prosperous world.”

Durrant said he doesn’t see those measures as being effective.

“If you look at the Russian reactions to sanctions, I think it only means — as they say in Russian — ‘If you hit the nail, it just sticks even harder.'”

Putin smiles as he takes part in a friendly ice hockey match in the Bolshoi Ice Palace near Sochi on Jan. 4, 2014. Durrant said he and the Russian president first talked about hockey to ‘break the ice, so to speak.’ (Reuters)

However, Canada’s hardline approach to dealing with the Kremlin has been widely praised by Russian human rights activists, including Vladimir Kara-Murza, who told CBC News in an interview Oct. 30 that Western governments must constantly put pressure on Russia over its treatment of those who oppose the regime.

Kara-Murza claims there are 314 political prisoners in Russia at the moment — more than in the 1970s under the Soviet Union.

Durrant said while he accepts there are serious “points of contention” he tries to stay focused on his role helping individual Russians when they’re in Canada.

Other Canadians to receive the Order of Friendship included former prime minister Jean Chrétien and former governor general Adrienne Clarkson. Chrétien received his award in 2014 just prior to the deep freeze in relations.

Happier times

Durrant said he takes heart from experiences, such as when the Russian tall ship, Kruzenstern, last visited St. John’s before the sanctions.

“At the end of the evening, the Russian [crew members] returned to the ship, each with a Canadian officer’s hat, and on the way back in the bus, they sang their favourite Russian song, which expresses love for Russia, adding Canada-Russia to the lyrics,” he recalled.

“Russia has an entirely different set of chromosomes — cultural chromosomes — than countries in the West. It’s a matter of working out the differences.”

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Mass protests over local elections rattle the Kremlin, but an alternative to Putin is still elusive

After Russia’s most contentious election in years, the ruling party of President Vladimir Putin appears to have suffered significant losses on Moscow’s city council and the wounds from the fight may signal continued trouble ahead.

No official vote counts have been released but early returns suggest the United Russia party may have been reduced to a minority on the 45 seat council. An official tally is expected later today.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in a succession of weekend protests over what they saw as rigged municipal elections after dozens of independent candidates were told they wouldn’t be allowed to challenge for seats.

Russian police and security services arrested more than 2,000 people and repeatedly raided the offices of opposition figures in one of the largest crackdowns of Putin’s 19-year tenure. 

Even though most liberal-leaning candidates were not allowed to participate, a number of right wing parties as well as Russia’s Communists did take part, and it appears their candidates may have benefited from the anti-government vote.

“Society itself is very frustrated,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a non-resident scholar at Moscow’s Carnegie Centre. 

We don’t have [political] campaigns — the effort of the Kremlin to move forward new ideas is dead– Tatiana Stanovaya, Carnegie Centre

“I think the Kremlin has underestimated the risk coming from the opposition and the protests,” said Stanovaya, who also heads R.Politik, a Paris-based think-tank that studies Russian society.

After almost 20 years with Vladmir Putin at the top of Russia’s government, political stagnation has set in, she says. The protests are a clear indication of the appetite for change.

‘Political life is unhealthy’

Independent public opinion polls suggest Putin’s popularity has sagged as incomes have fallen and the government has made significant cuts to seniors’ pensions.

“We don’t have [political] campaigns — the effort of the Kremlin to move forward new ideas is dead. Society doesn’t know what is good, what is wrong. Political life is unhealthy.”

While municipals councils in Moscow and other Russian cities have very little power, a loss at any level was simply untenable for those at the top of Russia’s power pyramid, says political analyst Maria Lipman.

Watch: Tens of thousands gather for Moscow protests

Demonstrators demand free city-wide elections in spite of a government crackdown, CBC’s Chris Brown reports. 1:52

“Competition has to be eradicated on every level,” she told CBC News. “This regime rules by a political monopoly.” 

What’s especially notable, she says, was how fast the protest movement took shape once candidates began getting disqualified.

“Many people took it personally,” she said, noting that the rules requiring thousands of signatures for challengers to make it onto the ballot amounted to an insurmountable task.

Huge protests, harsh reactions

Just as significant as the size and tenacity of the protests was the harsh reaction of authorities.

Protester Kirill Zhukov ended up with three years in jail for tweaking a policeman’s visor. Computer programmer Konstantin Kotov was sent to a hard labour prison camp for four years for breaking a repressive law that prohibits people from taking part in multiple street demonstrations.

And prosecutors tried to strip two couples of their parental rights for bringing their toddlers to the anti-government rallies.

Stanovaya says she fears such heavy-handed tactics are bound to become more commonplace.

“This is the only instrument they have [left],” she said, referring to the Putin administration.

“They are not ready to build dialogue with liberals or the progressive class, so the only instrument they have is the security services.”

A leaderless movement

While various disqualified candidates took turns leading the calls to take to the streets, none had a national profile or the backing of a political party. Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, spent much of the summer in jail after initially calling for people to take to the streets. By summer’s end, he had split with other activists by advocating for strategic voting rather than street demonstrations.

“This is a leaderless movement. It is driven by moral or emotional motives and they don’t need leaders,” said Lipman.

The problem of the protest leaders is that they want Putin to go away, but they have no alternative– Alexei Mukhin, Centre for Political Information

“[The opposition] rises on a crest from this political outrage that the government is unjust, the government is corrupt, the government is unfair … and then it subsides, and what is left is civic activism.”

Initially, the demonstrators focused their anger on Russia’s electoral commission but, by the end of August, the protests had become a much broader proxy for general discontent over government corruption, a stagnant economy and perceived Kremlin indifference.

What is the alternative to Putin?

However, the inability to put forward a clear alternative to Putin is also likely the opposition’s big weakness, say other observers.

“The problem of the protest leaders is that they want Putin to go away, but they have no alternative,” said Alexei Mukhin, director general of the Centre for Political Information, a Moscow-based think-tank.

“They need this,” he adds, if the protest movement is to mount a significant challenge to the Kremlin establishment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin casts his ballot at a polling station during a city council election in Moscow on Sunday. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The next round of significant elections are for the Duma or Russian parliament in about 18 months time.

The extent to which Kremlin opponents will be able to sustain their outrage until then is uncertain.

Russia has seen similar large street demonstrations before, notably after Putin returned to power in the 2012 elections, but opponents were unable to maintain the momentum.

“People know how to organize around a cause when they see one, but there is no permanent political force left behind —not in terms of a political movement or a party or structures, or even political demands,” says Lipman.

Still, Tatiana Stanovaya says the current discontent in Russian society right now is “flammable” and she doubts it will take much of a spark to ignite things again.

“I think the next campaign will be rather challenging for the Kremlin.”

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Ukraine’s new comedian president gets hopeful welcome at home, chill from Putin

The landslide win of Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian with no political experience, as Ukraine’s next president has upended politics in the strategically important nation.   

It has also given the chess players in Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko Park plenty of new political moves to speculate about.

“I don’t see anything bad in this. I see only good,” said Vladimir Schkurko, 67, who worked for Ukraine’s nuclear power agency — including at the infamous Chernobyl plant — until his retirement.

He spent part of Monday talking politics over non-stop games of speed chess on a warm spring day in the park.

Schkurko said he actually voted for incumbent Petro Poroshenko, because with “Russia squeezing territory from all sides” he wanted an experienced leader.

But he likes Zelenskiy, and with the economy under-performing and corruption deeply entrenched in the government, he thinks Ukrainians are ready to a take a risk on a political unknown.

“He’s young. He hasn’t completely opened up, but I see positive things here.”

New Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy reacts following the announcement of the first exit poll in a presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Kyiv Sunday. (REUTERS)

Alona Zahvetina, an 18-year-old who supported Zelenskiy, said the TV comic doesn’t have the “dirtiness” of other politicians.

“He’s from the poor region. He’s a simple guy. He brought a good mood to the people. So he’ll do in power what simple people want, not the oligarchs.”

With the support of more than 73 per cent of voters — more even than what the fictitious president he plays in a Ukrainian TV show got — Zelenskiy faces enormous expectations to change the way politics is done in Ukraine.

His predecessor,  Petro Poroshenko is part owner of a candy empire and one of Ukraine’s richest people. Throughout the campaign, he was bedeviled by accusations of bribery and corruption.  

Outside Ukraine, however, European and North American leaders saw Poroshenko as a competent manager and especially as someone who could stand up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Petro Poroshenko, who lost win in the second round of election, speaks to his supporters at a rally in Kiev (Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters)

“We know very little of Zelenskiy’s governing or diplomatic style,” says Michael Bociurkiw, a Canada-based Ukraine analyst who travelled to Kiev to observe the election.

“I think many voters felt deep down they voted for the TV Zelenskiy rather than for the real-life Zelenskiy — believing that he will govern based on the best interests of the Ukrainian people.”

Zelenskiy’s victory speech Sunday evening was short and devoid of any significant content. He has yet to hold a formal post-election news conference and never released a platform during the campaign. He spent Monday,  his first full day as president-elect, away from the media meeting with advisers, according to a spokesperson.

The few policy statements he made over the past few weeks suggest he plans to create opportunities for direct democracy, such as referendums, and to stiffen penalties for officials caught stealing.

“[I promise] it will be a stripping off immunity of lawmakers, judges, president. It will be a law on impeachment, a law on lustration [purges] of lawmakers,” he told the crowd at the giant soccer stadium debate with Poroshenko Friday night. 

Vancouver Island-based Ukraine watcher Michael Bociurkiw at Zelenskiy headquarters Sunday night. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

One of the first indications of how he will govern will be his approach to Russia.

While many world leaders — including Canada’s Justin Trudeau — called to congratulate Zelenskiy on his victory, Russia’s Vladimir Putin notably did not.

“It is too early to talk about President Putin congratulating Mr. Zelenskiy or about possible co-operation,” said a Kremlin spokesman. “It will be possible to tell only after particular actions.”

Analyst Bociurkiw explained: “It’s vintage Putin. Hold the cards close to your chest and keep your opponent off balance.”

Much of the world blames Russia for supporting separatist fighters and fueling the war in the breakaway regions of Donbas and Lugansk in Eastern Ukraine. The conflict has resulted in more than 11,000 deaths over the past five years.

Russia is also holding 24 Ukrainian sailors, captured when their three navy vessels attempted to sail from the Black Sea to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov. Many Western nations imposed additional political and economic sanctions on Russia over the incident.

Lloyd Axworthy, head of the Canadian election monitoring delegation, is interviewed by media after release of the delegation’s report in Kiev Monday. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

During the campaign,  Zelenskiy said his first order of business as president will be to get the sailors released.

“Zelenskiy emerges on the scene at a time when Putin could very well be in a deal-making mood — wanting to exit the costly adventure in the Donbas in exchange for the easing or removal of painful economic sanctions,”  said Bociurkiw.

Balancing act

But it will be a difficult balancing act for the political rookie.

“If he goes too easy on Putin, he’ll quickly be branded as a traitor or hypocrite. If he stands up to Putin, he’ll be vindicated and be seen as a hero.”

Regardless, it appears few will question Zelenski’s mandate or that the vote which propelled him into power was genuine and legitimate.

Canada had more than 160 election monitors in the country overseeing the voting process. On Monday, the head of the delegation, former Liberal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy, delivered a fairly positive report on what they saw.

“The headline is that democracy is working in Ukraine,” he told CBC News in an interview in Kyiv.

“When you think about it, holding an election of 30 million people in a country that has … a war going on, a neighbour that is interfering and trying to undermine society … [that is] conducted in a way that was open … is admirable.”

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