NY Dispatches: Pompeo in Belarus

Last week US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Minsk amidst an ongoing dispute between Belarus and Russia over the price of oil following the “tax maneuver”, a revamp of Russia’s system of taxing oil extraction and exports, which Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko says will leave his country significantly worse off. Pompeo’s visit, while significant, was more a carefully choreographed political spectacle than anything else. Belarus’s way out of dependence on Russian oil will require take more time and determination.  Nevertheless, the Belarusian president certainly has plans and may have discovered something important about the conditions, in which he has to implement them.

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NY Dispatches: What we know and what we don’t

The past two weeks have seen seemingly transformative political developments happen at a breathtaking speed in Russia. Vladimir Putin proposed a series of constitutional reforms. In a little more than a week those reforms were spelled out in a draft law and adopted, in the first reading, by the State Duma. Dmitry Medvedev’s government resigned and was replaced by Mikhail Mishustin’s cabinet. Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika was dismissed and replaced by Igor Krasnov, a high-ranking official of the Investigative Committee. On Saturday the announcement of Vladislav Surkov, a flamboyant political technologist, erstwhile curator of domestic politics and overseer of frozen conflicts in Russia’s neighborhood that he was withdrawing from public service, came almost as a sign that Surkov didn’t want to miss out on all the action. With so much happening it might appear as if we now had a better picture of what the following years will bring in Russian politics. Actually, the changes have brought at least as many ‘knowns’ as they did ‘unknowns’.

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Putin’s endgame

Vladimir Putin unveiled a set of sweeping constitutional amendments, Dmitry Medvedev’s government resigned, Russia’s new prime minister is a little-known tax official and Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov is “temporarily incapacitated”. And all of this happened within a couple of hours. It’s not surprising that Russia-watchers’ heads are spinning. There is indeed a lot to unpack, but the most consequential part of Putin’s proposals might not be what everyone seems to be focusing on.

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NY Dispatches: 2020 – plans and reality

According to an old adage, a political analyst is a person who is able to give a coherent prediction of what is going to happen in six months’ time, and also able to explain coherently, in six months’ time, why that prediction failed. But let’s not be cruel to political analysts. Or not only to them, says this political analyst. Other social scientist forecasters also make mistakes – especially when they are pressured by politicians, are trying to give predictions for several years ahead, or when they are asked to set ambitious targets. Or all three at the same time. Sometimes therefore it makes sense to take a step back and ask if the predictions have come true.

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United they stand

The ruling United Russia’s congress in November seemed to confirm that Russia’s leaders intend to rely on the party in the early 2020s as Vladimir Putin’s fourth presidential term draws to an end. This was significant because recent years have seen constant speculations about the coming demise of the increasingly unpopular ruling party or a “party system reform” by political technologists in the Kremlin. Now the talk is about a reform of the electoral system to make United Russia’s position more stable. But in this case too the status quo is the safest bet. Here is why.

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NY Dispatches: the issue of waste management

On Sunday thousands protested in Kotlas, a town of only 60 thousand in Russia’s Northern Arkhangelsk oblast against a landfill near the Shies station between Arkhangelsk and the Komi Republic, which is planned to absorb 46 million tons of waste from Moscow and the Moscow Region in the next twenty years. A smaller protest took place in Syktyvkar, the Komi capital. These were only the latest in a series of protests in several Russian regions triggered by an issue that has, to many, come to represent the problems with the Russian state more than anything.

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Alexander the Reluctant

Belarus’s parliamentary election last week got barely any attention, even though the vote was a rehearsal for next year’s presidential election, in which Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, will run for a sixth term. This coming election may tell scores not only about Belarus and its relationship with Russia, but also about Russia itself.

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