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Archive for the ‘Injustice of Russia’ Category

‘We’re expendable’: Russian doctors face hostility, mistrust

May 21, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — There are no daily public displays of gratitude for Russian doctors and nurses during the coronavirus crisis like there are in the West. Instead of applause, they face mistrust, low pay and even open hostility.

Residents near the National Medical Research Center for Endocrinology, a Moscow hospital now treating virus patients, complained when they saw medical workers walking out of the building in full protective gear, fearing the workers would spread contagion.

“Maybe once the disease knocks on the door of every family, then the attitude to medics will change,” said Dr. Alexander Gadzyra, a surgeon who works exhausting shifts. The outbreak has put enormous pressure on Russia’s medical community. While state media hails some of them as heroes, doctors and nurses interviewed by The Associated Press say they are fighting both the virus and a system that fails to support them.

They have decried shortages of protective equipment, and many say they have been threatened with dismissal or even prosecution for going public with their complaints. Some have quit and a few are suspected to have killed themselves.

Government officials insist the shortages are isolated and not widespread. Antipathy toward the medical profession is widespread in Russia, said social anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova, who studies social media posts peddling virus conspiracy theories. More than 100 theories she studied say doctors diagnose COVID-19 cases so they can get more money; others say they help the government cover up the outbreak.

“It’s a crisis of trust that the epidemic underscored,” she said. “I haven’t seen this attitude anywhere else.” Trust in government institutions has always been low in Russia, according to opinion polls, and most of its hospitals are state-run.

Russia is struggling in the pandemic, with over 300,000 infections and 2,972 deaths. The government has disputed critics who have questioned the relatively low number of fatalities. Official statements and news reports in more than 70 Russian regions show that at least 9,479 medical workers have been infected with the virus in the past month, and more than 70 have died. Health care workers believe the death toll to be much higher and they have compiled a list of more than 250.

Dr. Irina Vaskyanina said at least 40 workers are infected at a hospital in Reutov, outside Moscow, where she headed a department handling blood transfusions. She also said insults and threats from superiors became common after she complained about working conditions to her bosses, to law enforcement and even to President Vladimir Putin.

“I handed in my notice,” Vaskyanina said. “They’re not letting me do my job. I love my job and I want to keep doing it, but I can’t go on like this.” She said 13 of her 14 colleagues have also quit. Dr. Tatyana Revva, an intensive care specialist in the town of Kalach-on-Don, was summoned by police for questioning and slapped with disciplinary action after recording a video about equipment shortages. The hospital’s head reported her to a prosecutor for “spreading false information” — an offense punishable by fines of up to $25,000 or a prison term.

“I am one reprimand away from being fired,” Revva told AP. Dr. Oleg Kumeiko, head of Revva’s hospital, rejected the claims. He told the AP there were no shortages of protective equipment in the hospital, and said he had no intention of firing Revva. Disciplinary action against her was justified, he said, and “had nothing to do with her public activity.”

“I don’t understand why they treat us like we’re expendable,” said Nina Rogova, a nurse in the Vladimir region 200 kilometers (120 miles) east of Moscow. She is recovering from the virus after getting it at work and she says she is being threatened with dismissal after she told local media about a lack of protective gear.

Doctors in the southern region of Chechnya who complained about equipment shortages later had to retract their statements as a “mistake” and apologize on TV. The predominantly Muslim region’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has a reputation for stifling dissent, and he has demanded they be fired.

Adding to the frustration is pay. Health workers say they haven’t gotten bonuses the government promised them for working with coronavirus patients. In early April, Putin personally promised generous bonuses to monthly salaries — about $1,100 for doctors, $680 for nurses and paramedics, and $340 for orderlies.

A month later, social media was filled with photos of pay slips reflecting bonuses from 10 to 100 times smaller than promised. Dr. Yevgeniya Bogatyryova, a Moscow-area paramedic, told AP the April bonuses varied from $2 to $120. “They’re calculating the time ambulance doctors spend with a coronavirus patient and pay by the hour, apparently,” Bogatyryova said.

More than 110,000 people signed an online petition demanding the government keep its promise. Dozens of paramedics protested in the Nizhny Novgorod region 400 kilometers (240 miles) east of Moscow, and scores more from Siberia to southern Russia made videos demanding the bonuses.

“Whoever we ask in our management, our superiors, they say, ‘Putin promised you (bonuses), so Putin should pay you,’” Natalia Salomatova, an orderly at a hospital in the Siberian city of Chita, told the AP. April bonuses for her colleagues ranged from the equivalent of 41 cents to $6.86. Salomatova herself didn’t receive any.

Only after Putin went on TV twice last week and angrily demanded that officials pay what was promised did medical workers in some regions start getting the payments. “Makes you wonder: Who should we protect the medics from, the infection or the administrators?” said Arkhipova, the social anthropologist.

Russia’s Health Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Reports of health care workers resigning are surfacing. Over 300 quit in the western Kaliningrad region two weeks ago, dozens of paramedics reportedly resigned in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk in May and 40 workers gave notice at a hospital in the Vladimir region.

That could further cripple Russia’s health care system, already impaired by a widely criticized reform that closed half of its 10,000 hospitals in 20 years, with thousands of layoffs. In December, Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova called the reform “horrible” and said it significantly affected the quality and the accessibility of health care.

“Now we’re facing the threat of a complete destruction of the medical community,” said Semyon Galperin, head of the Doctors Defense League rights group.

Irina Trofimova in Chita, Russia, contributed.

Russia aims to prosecute destruction of war monuments abroad

April 08, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s defense minister called on law enforcement officials Wednesday to consider filing criminal charges against representatives of other countries where World War II memorials commemorating the actions of the Soviet Union are demolished.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made the appeal to the head of the Investigative Committee, Russia’s top criminal investigation body. Russia takes offense at any criticism of the Soviet role in the war. The Soviet Union had the most casualties, but its occupation of territory resulted in decades of Moscow-backed Communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

The issue is especially sensitive this year as Russia prepares to mark the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany on May 9. In his communique to Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee, Shoigu cited last week’s dismantling of a statue of Soviet general Ivan Konev in Prague.

”There has been an increase in attempts by officials of certain foreign states to falsify the historical truth about the decisive contribution of the Soviet Union to the defeat of the fascist invaders during the Second World War and the Great Patriotic War,” Shoigu said, according to his ministry.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday signed a law that made damaging such memorials a criminal offense punishable by up to five years in prison.

Putin approves law that could keep him in power until 2036

March 14, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law on constitutional changes that could keep him in power for another 16 years, a step that must still be approved in a nationwide vote. Putin signed the measure on Saturday, the Kremlin said, three days after it sailed through the Russian parliament with only one vote against. It must be approved by the country’s Constitutional Court and in a referendum set for April 22.

Under current law, Putin would not be able to run for president again in 2024 because of term limits, but the new measure would reset his term count, allowing him to run for two more six-year terms. He has been in power since 2000.

Other constitutional changes further strengthen the presidency and emphasize the priority of Russian law over international norms — a provision reflecting the Kremlin’s irritation with the European Court of Human Rights and other international bodies that have often issued verdicts against Russia.

The changes also outlaw same-sex marriage and mention “a belief in God” as one of Russia’s traditional values.

Russian lawmaker suggests scrapping presidential term limits

March 10, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to have flown in space and a lawmaker with Russia’s ruling party, proposed Tuesday to scrap presidential term limits in order to allow Russia President Vladimir Putin to run for re-election in 2024. The move prompted Putin to rush to the parliament, where he is expected to weigh in on the proposal.

Tereshkova came forward with the idea at a parliamentary session, during the second reading of constitutional amendments Putin introduced to the parliament in January. The sweeping reform is widely seen as part of an effort by Putin, who has has to step down in 2024 after having served the two consecutive terms that the country’s constitution currently allows, to stay in power.

“The very existence of an opportunity for the current president (to get re-elected), given his major gravitas, would be a stabilizing factor for our society,” Tereshkova told the Kremlin-controlled State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, on Tuesday.

Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin announced a 90-minute break in the session to ponder the proposal and said Putin will come to the Duma himself to weigh in on the proposal. “The amendment Tereshkova has come forward with requires consulting with the current president,” Volodin said.

Tereshkova’s proposal contradicts what Putin said earlier about the possibility of remaining president — he rejected the idea of scrapping term limits just last week, saying it’s important to guarantee government rotation in Russia in the future.

“Why don’t I want to scrap limits? It’s not that I fear myself: I’m not going to lose my mind, it’s not about me,” Putin said Friday during a meeting with workers and activists in Ivanovo, a city northeast of Moscow famous for its textile industries.

“Stability, calm development of the country may be more important now, but later when the country becomes more confident and gets richer it will definitely be necessary to ensure government rotation.”

Putin backs amendment allowing him to remain in power

March 10, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday backed a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow him to seek re-election after his current term ends in 2024, ending uncertainty about his future.

A lawmaker who is revered in Russia as the first woman to fly in space proposed either scrapping Russia’s two-term limit for presidents or resetting the clock so Putin’s four terms wouldn’t count. Putin and the Kremlin-controlled State Duma quickly endorsed the proposal put forward by former Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova.

Kremlin critics denounced the move as cynical manipulation and called for protests. Lawmakers also passed a sweeping set of constitutional changes Putin proposed in January that Kremlin foes saw as intended to keep him in power.

In a speech to lawmakers Tuesday, Putin spoke against scrapping presidential term limits altogether but backed the idea that if the constitution is revised, the two-term limit only would apply from 2024 on. The president’s current six-year term expires in 2024.

A vote on the constitutional amendments is scheduled for next month. Putin, 67, has been in power for more than 20 years and is Russia’s longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. After serving two presidential terms in 2000-2008, he shifted to the Russian prime minister’s office while protege Dmitry Medvedev served as a placeholder president.

After the length of a presidential term was extended to six years under Medvedev, Putin reclaimed the presidency in 2012 and won another term in 2018. Observers had speculated that Putin could use the constitutional amendments he unveiled in January to scrap term limits; move into the prime minister’s seat with strengthened powers; or continue calling the shots as the head of the State Council.

However, it wasn’t clear until Tuesday how Putin would try to achieve that goal. The Russian leader finally revealed his cards after Tereshkova, a legendary figure widely revered for her pioneering 1963 space flight, offered her ideas.

“I propose to either lift the presidential term limit or add a clause that after the revised constitution enters force, the incumbent president, just like any other citizen, has the right to seek the presidency,” she said to a raucous applause.

After Tereshkova spoke, Putin quickly came to parliament to address lawmakers. He said he was aware of public calls for him to stay on as president and emphasized that Russia needs stability above all.

“The president is a guarantor of security of our state, its internal stability and evolutionary development,” Putin said. “We have had enough revolutions.” However, he said that since the constitution is a long-term document, scrapping the term limit wasn’t a good idea.

Then he dropped the bombshell, saying he positively viewed Tereshkova’s alternate proposal to restart the term count when the revamped constitution enters force. “As for the proposal to lift restrictions for any person, any citizen, including the incumbent president, to allow running in future elections … this option is possible,” Putin said.

He added that the Constitutional Court would need to judge if the move would be legal, although the court’s assent is all but guaranteed. Putin’s statement came as lawmakers were considering the amendments in a crucial second reading when changes in the document are made.

The Kremlin-controlled lower house, the State Duma, quickly endorsed the proposed amendments by a 382-0 vote with 44 abstentions. A vote on a third reading will be a quick formality. A nationwide vote on the proposed amendments is set for April 22.

Russia’s leading opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, mocked the proposed change. “Putin has been in power for 20 years, and yet he is going to run for the first time,” Navalny tweeted. A group of opposition activists called for a protest rally in Moscow on March 21, saying in a statement, “The country where the government doesn’t change for 20 years has no future,. they said in a statement.

Putin’s approval ratings have remained high despite a recent drop amid Russia’s economic troubles and stagnant living standards. It’s unclear if the fragmented and disorganized Russian opposition can mount a serious challenge to the Kremlin.

The ruble’s sharp drop this week, caused by a steep fall in global oil prices in the wake of the collapse of OPEC’s agreement with Russia to control crude output, could herald deeper economic problems and hurt Putin’s popularity.

“It looks like this crisis situation has made Putin drop his mask and do something he had originally planned, and to do it quickly,” Abbas Gallyamov, an independent political analyst said. In a speech to lawmakers, Putin vowed that the new coronavirus and plummeting oil prices would not destabilize Russia.

“Our economy will keep getting stronger and the key industries will become more powerful and competitive,” he said.

Putin engineers shake-up that could keep him in power longer

January 16, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin engineered a surprise shake-up of Russia’s leadership Wednesday, proposing changes to the constitution that could keep him in power well past the end of his term in 2024.

Hours after he made the proposals, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev resigned and Putin named the little-known head of Russia’s tax service to replace him. Putin kept his longtime ally Medvedev in the Kremlin’s leadership structure by appointing him to the newly created post of deputy head of the presidential Security Council. But the duties and influence of that position are unclear.

The shakeup sent shock waves through Russia’s political elites who were left pondering what Putin’s intentions were and speculating about future Cabinet appointments. Putin’s proposed constitutional reforms, announced in a state of the nation address, indicated he was working to carve out a new governing position for himself after his term ends, although the suggested changes don’t immediately specify what path he will take to stay in charge.

The 67-year-old former KGB operative, who has led Russia for more than 20 years, often keeps his intentions secret until the very last moment. Alexei Navalny, the most prominent Russian opposition leader, tweeted that Putin’s speech clearly signaled his desire to continue calling the shots even after his presidential term ends.

“The only goal of Putin and his regime is to stay in charge for life, having the entire country as his personal asset and seizing its riches for himself and his friends,” Navalny said. Independent analyst Masha Lipman told The Associated Press: “The goal is for the system to remain stable and for Putin to retain his grip on power and to remain what he has been throughout these 20 years — the most important politician in the country, the ultimate decision-maker, the uncontested unchallenged leader of no alternative.”

The Kremlin said Tax Service chief Mikhail Mishustin was nominated to replace Medvedev, who has been prime minister for nearly eight years. Approval by the Duma on Thursday is virtually certain. Mishustin has no political experience, indicating he will dutifully carry out the Kremlin’s wishes as head of the Cabinet.

He is credited with modernizing Russia’s tax system. Analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Putin adviser, told the Interfax news agency that Mishustin is “a splendid bureaucrat, in the best sense of the word.”

The move is the third time in the Putin era that major leadership changes have come suddenly from the top. Putin came to power in the first one, when he became acting president after Boris Yeltsin’s surprise resignation on New Year’s Eve 1999.

In 2007, as his second term neared its end, he anointed Medvedev to succeed him. Medvedev then said Putin should be prime minister — moves that critics decried as an imposed job-swap without input from the electorate. Medvedev was president in 2008-12, but Putin, as premier, appeared to be effectively in charge.

Under Medvedev, the constitution was amended to lengthen the president’s term from four years to six, although it limits the leader to two consecutive terms. In televised comments Wednesday, Medvedev said he needed to resign in light of Putin’s proposed changes in government.

Putin suggested amending the constitution again to allow lawmakers to name prime ministers and Cabinet members. The president currently holds the authority to make those appointments. “It will increase the role of parliament and parliamentary parties, powers and independence of the prime minister and all Cabinet members,” Putin told an audience of top officials and lawmakers.

At the same time, Putin argued that Russia would not remain stable if it were governed under a parliamentary system. The president should retain the right to dismiss the prime minister and Cabinet ministers, to name top defense and security officials, and to be in charge of the Russian military and law enforcement agencies, he said.

Putin emphasized that the constitutional changes must be put to a nationwide vote. Putin has been in power longer than any other Russian or Soviet leader since Josef Stalin, who led from 1924 until his death in 1953. Under the current law, Putin must step down in 2024 after his term ends.

Observers speculated that Putin might try to stay in charge by shifting into the prime minister’s seat again after increasing the powers of parliament and the Cabinet and trimming presidential authority.

Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said Putin’s speech made it clear he was pondering the move to premiership. “Putin is advancing the idea of keeping his authority as a more powerful and influential prime minister while the presidency will become more decorative,” Oreshkin said.

In his address, Putin said the constitution must also specify the authority of the State Council consisting of regional governors and top federal officials. Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Moscow Center said it appears as if Putin might try to continue pulling the strings as head of the council and could even shift into a new position before his term ends.

Other possible options include a merger with neighboring Belarus that would create a new position of the head of a new unified state — a prospect that has been rejected by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Political analyst Kirill Rogov said that Putin intends to stay in charge while redistributing powers between various branches of government. “Such a model resembling the Chinese one would allow Putin to stay at the helm indefinitely while encouraging rivalry between potential successors,” Rogov observed.

In 2017, Chinese leader Xi Jinping had term limits abolished, which would effectively keep him in power for life. Putin appears to favor more intricate ways of staying in charge than abolishing term limits.

Although Putin continued calling the shots during Medvedev’s presidency, he wasn’t totally happy with all of his ally’s actions. He was particularly critical of Medvedev’s decision to give the green light to the Western air campaign in Libya in 2011 that led to the ouster and killing of long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Medvedev’s decision to step down and let Putin return to the presidency also sparked massive protests in Moscow in 2011-2012 in a major challenge to the Kremlin. Some of Putin’s associates suspected Medvedev’s aides of encouraging the protests.

In his speech, Putin emphasized the need to amend the constitution to give it a clear priority over international law. “The requirements of international law and treaties and decisions of international organs can only be valid on the territory of Russia as long as they don’t restrict human rights and freedoms and don’t contradict the constitution,” he said.

He also said that the constitution must be tweaked to say that top government officials aren’t allowed to have foreign citizenship or residence permits. Also in the speech, Putin vowed to encourage Russia’s population growth by offering additional subsidies to families that have children.

He said that Russia would remain open for cooperation with all countries while maintaining a strong defense capability to fend off potential threats. “For the first time in history, we aren’t trying to catch up with anyone,” Putin said. “On the contrary, other leading nations are yet to develop the weapons that Russia already has.”

Associated Press writers Jim Heintz and Kostya Manenkov in Moscow contributed.

Russian officers again detain opposition leader Navalny

December 26, 2019

MOSCOW (AP) — Security officers in Moscow have again detained Alexei Navalny, the most prominent foe of President Vladimir Putin and the governing United Russia party. Navalny has been jailed repeatedly in recent years for organizing or participating in unsanctioned protests. His Foundation for Fighting Corruption organization has produced reports alleging corruption by top figures including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Navalny was detained when officers forced their way into his organization’s office Thursday, according to his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh. Lyubov Sobol, an attorney with Navalny’s foundation said the officers were from the federal court bailiffs’ service and that they claimed to be searching for evidence connected to a case against the foundation’s director, Ivan Zhdanov.

A criminal case was opened against Zhdanov in August for failing to follow an order to remove a video version of a report claiming corruption by Medvedev.

Putin’s, Xi’s ruler-for-life moves pose challenges to West

January 17, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping have established themselves as the world’s most powerful authoritarian leaders in decades. Now it looks like they want to hang on to those roles indefinitely.

Putin’s sudden announcement this week of constitutional changes that could allow him to extend control way beyond the end of his term in 2024 echoes Xi’s move in 2018 to eliminate constitutional term limits on the head of state.

That could give them many more years at the helm of two major powers that are frequently at odds with Washington and the West over issues ranging from economic espionage and foreign policy to democracy and human rights.

Both moves reflect their forceful personalities and determination to restore their countries to their former glory after years of perceived humiliation by the West. They also mesh with a trend of strong-man rulers taking power from Hungary and Brazil to the Philippines.

Russia and China are on another level though when it comes to influencing international events — China through its economic might and rising military, Russia through its willingness to insert itself into conflicts such as the Syrian one and to try to influence overseas elections through misinformation or make mischief through cyber attacks.

Putin “believes that Russia is more powerful today than it has been since the end of the Cold War, including in places such as the Middle East,” said Ramon Pacheco Pardo of the Department of European & International Studies at King’s College London. “Thus, it is a good time to remain in power and use this power.”

How much of a challenge he and Xi are to Western models, values and multiparty democracy depends on where you sit. The China-Russian model inspires emulation among some in both smaller powers and major nations. President Donald Trump has praised both Xi and Putin, even while the U.S. battles their countries for economic and strategic dominance.

China touts its authoritarian system as providing the stability and policy continuity that has made it the world’s second-largest economy and pulled some 700 million people out of extreme poverty. Many Russians have backed Putin for standing-up to the West and improving their quality of life following the chaos after the fall of the Soviet Union.

“Political competition between different systems of governance in the world is nothing new,” said the European Union’s ambassador to China, Nicolas Chapui. “I feel that we need to feel confident on our principles, our values, our governance system.”

In both their cases, Putin and Xi reflect the tendency of authoritarian leaders to hang onto power for as long as possible and to “die with their boots on,” said David Zweig, professor emeritus of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

“Very few authoritarian leaders give up power, always convinced that only they can save the country, which also justifies and makes their hunger for power morally correct,” Zweig said. For all their similarities, Xi, Putin and the systems they run have distinct features. Xi has repeatedly cited the fall of the former Soviet Union as a cautionary tale, saying its leaders failed to firmly uphold the authority of the ruling Communist Party.

China’s ruling communists have crushed all opposition and are tightening their hold on the economy and what remains of civil society, all while projecting an exterior image of seamless unity around Xi.

Russia at least maintains some of the forms if not the functions of a multiparty democracy, even as Putin, the security services and the oligarchs who run the economy call the shots. Blunt attempts to single-handedly run the country are often met with large-scale protests — like in 2011-2012, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets following Putin’s announcement to return to the presidency for the third time and reports of mass rigging of a parliamentary election.

And while Putin managed to suppress the opposition with draconian anti-protest laws, crippling fines and arbitrary arrests, people’s growing frustration with the regime continues to spill out on the streets.

Crippling international sanctions imposed on Russia for the annexation of Crimea drove the country’s economy into a slump, and unpopular reforms like the raising of the retirement age in 2018 only added insult to injury. As a result, Russia has been regularly shaken by protests and unrest in the past two years.

Putin understands he needs to make changes, former Kremlin speechwriter turned political analyst Abbas Gallyamov told Russia’s Vedomosti newspaper. “That is why now he is trying to solve two tasks at the same time: demonstrating to the society that there is no stagnation and, on the opposite, there are reforms, and securing his own political future,” he was quoted as saying.

According to the country’s constitution, Putin will have to step down in 2024, having served two consecutive terms. But the amendments Putin proposed this week would allow him to shift to the prime minister’s seat or continue to run the country as head of the newly defined State Council, a previously consultative body that consists of regional governments and federal officials.

“All of these are potential power bases where Putin could retreat after 2024, which would allow him to preserve a delicate political balance while pulling strings from the shadows,” said Cardiff University professor of international relations Sergey Radchenko.

Putin cast his constitutional change proposals as a way to strengthen parliament and bolster democracy. Kremlin critics described the proposed changes as an attempt by Putin to secure his rule for life. However, the suggested reform was so vague and far-reaching that there was hardly any public outrage about it.

When Xi moved to remove term limits in March 2018, there was barely a murmur of dissent. The official explanation was that the office of head of state needed to align with those of the other top posts — party general secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission. Other explanations aren’t discussed and even party-backed scholars say the issue is a taboo topic.

The son of a former high communist official, Xi worked his way up through a series of increasingly important provincial positions before taking over as party head in 2012. He then began to consolidate power through a multi-pronged strategy of eliminating dissent and enforcing discipline through an anti-corruption campaign whose scale was unprecedented in recent years.

Xi’s ending of term limits was seen as an attack on former leader Deng Xiaoping’s attempts to regularize and institutionalize power following the cult of personality surrounding Mao Zedong and the political chaos of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. Xi further upended the thin precedents set in recent years by refusing to indicate a potential successor, leading to speculation he plans to continue ruling well beyond his second five-year term.

Putin, a former KGB officer, first took office in 2000 and secured popularity with promises of economic stability and ending the drawn-out wars with Chechnya, Russia’s troublesome region in the North Caucasus. He, too, cemented his rule by suppressing the opposition — through enforcing stricter control over the country’s media and giving vast powers to law enforcement and the security services. He has led Russia for more than 20 years — the longest rule since Joseph Stalin.

Their public styles are different. Xi generally communicates his vision for a powerful, prosperous China in dry speeches and prepared comments, while Putin tends to be more loquacious. The Russian leader is also frequently biting in his comments about critics and the West — a task Xi leaves to underlings such as Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Moritsugu reported from Beijing.

Russian election chief defends ban on Moscow candidates

August 29, 2019

MOSCOW (AP) — The head of Russia’s election commission is standing by a decision to keep a dozen independent candidates from running for the city legislature in Moscow, but concedes after weeks of protests drew unusually large crowds, thousands of arrests and unfavorable attention that the qualification rules are outdated.

The Central Election Commission said earlier this month that 13 opposition candidates failed to gather enough valid signatures to appear on the ballot next month. Many outraged Muscovites saw the candidates’ disqualification as a sign of how determined the Kremlin was to prevent President Vladimir Putin’s opponents from gaining even lowly positions of power.

The commission’s chief, Ella Pamfilova, insisted in an interview with The Associated Press this week that there was nothing she could do to stop what blew up into a major political crisis. Pamfilova argued that domestic Russian politics are outside her competence.

“As an individual, as a citizen I really wanted to allow the widest competition possible so that everyone gets registered,” Pamfilova, who was a veteran opposition politician herself when she took the post in 2016, said. “The law that is in place — we have to stick to it to the letter, unfortunately.”

She also noted that several candidates were reinstated upon appeal and that competition for the City Duma — about five candidates per seat — is high. In Moscow, independent Duma candidates are required to submit the signatures equivalent to 3% of their districts’ voters to appear on the ballot, a prerequisite that independent election observers have said is designed to keep opposition candidates out of office.

The candidates excluded from the Sept. 8 election said they had presented the required number of signatures, but first Moscow election authorities and then Pamfilova’s commission invalidated enough due to a variety of flaws to prevent their participation.

The violations included minor clerical mistakes or erroneous personal data that was entered by election officials. Pamfilova insisted that these mistakes were serious enough for disqualification. Hundreds of voters including celebrities spoke out after their signatures were dismissed as suspected forgeries. The most vocal government opponents were not only barred from running but ended up in jail for weeks for calling for the unsanctioned protests.

A trained engineer, Pamfilova entered politics at the age of 36 when she won a seat at the Soviet Supreme Council in 1989 in what was regarded as the Soviet Union’s first free election in decades. She served as social welfare minister in Russia’s first-post Soviet government for three years, and was a vocal opponent of the federal government’s brutal military campaign in Chechnya. She made multiple trips to the region, negotiating the release of Russian troops captured by Chechen separatists.

Pamfilova’s appointment was expected to end brazen corruption in Russia’s elections. Putin had vowed to clean up election commissions that for years had ignored or directly participated in vote-rigging to favor Kremlin candidates at all levels.

Although Russian election observers initially hailed Pamfilova’s efforts to clamp down on the most blatant voter fraud, this summer’s Moscow City Duma campaign brought about questions of whether she has the power to overhaul the entire system.

Pamfilova, 65, who is proud of her democratic credentials and a track record of defending Kremlin opponents, said the commission looked into the forgery claims and reversed course on hundreds of signatures but it didn’t change the outcome for any candidates: they still had too few valid signatures.

Although standing firm on the decision to disqualify the candidates, Pamfilova said this summer’s election campaign has highlighted the flaws in the federal and local election legislation. “The good thing about what happened – it has showed that the system is outdated, that society is not going to forgive us for this,” she said, adding that her commission will come up with amendments to streamline the signature collection for candidates and cut down the number of signatures required.

When asked if candidates like Lyubov Sobol, who was on hunger strike in protest for a month, would have been on the ballot under the new, simplified rules, Pamfilova was adamant that Sobol and other candidates had made too many mistakes in their filings. She recalled her own political career — Pamfilova ran as an independent candidate for Russian president in 2000 when Putin was first elected — and said the opposition should toughen up and comply with the laws the way they are.

Authorities initially refused to issue permits for opposition-led protest rallies that started in July after the commission’s decision. Riot police were deployed to the protests and on July 27 beat up and brutally detained hundreds of people who offered no resistance. In an apparent attempt to ward off more protests, authorities arrested 14 people and charged them with rioting even though the July 27 rally did not see any property damage or major violence.

Three of the detained men had collected signatures for opposition candidates. Like the others they now face up to eight years in prison if convicted. Pamfilova said she wasn’t familiar with the circumstances of the case but said she wished the three arrested activists had spoken to her beforehand to find out what was wrong with signatures they collected instead of attending the unsanctioned protest.

Pamfilova accused several candidates, including Sobol, of manipulating their supporters but conceded that the anger and frustration expressed in Moscow in the past six weeks were genuine. “People are asking for more,” she said. “It’s a young, well-off generation that grew up under Putin, and we have to be mindful of that, and we have to understand that this generation… they need find their place here, in Russia. They need social mobility.”

Sobol rejected Pamfilova’s claim in Tuesday’s interview with the AP that she had spearheaded the July protests because she could not collect enough signatures, and dismissed the Central Election Commission chief as a “talking head” toeing the Kremlin line.

Pamfilova insisted that even putting the signatures aside there was a major flaw in Sobol’s application: she did not fill in a form listing the candidate’s foreign property. Sobol told the AP that she left it blank because she has no foreign property and quoted a presidential decree to prove her point.

Sobol and her allies have called on Muscovites to come out for another protest rally on Saturday after authorities turned down the opposition’s multiple requests for an authorized gathering. “We did all we could to get the approval,” Sobol said. “They are taking away from people the right to gather peacefully, unarmed, in a protest to defend their voting rights.”

Nearly 1,400 detained in Moscow protest; largest in decade

July 28, 2019

MOSCOW (AP) — Nearly 1,400 people were detained in a violent police crackdown on an opposition protest in Moscow, a Russian monitoring group said Sunday, adding that was the largest number of detentions at a rally in the Russian capital this decade.

OVD-Info, which has monitored police arrests since 2011, said the number of the detentions from Saturday’s protest reached 1,373 by early Sunday. The overwhelming majority of people were soon released but 150 remained in custody, OVD-Info and a lawyers’ legal aid group said Sunday.

Crackdowns on the anti-government protesters began days before the rally. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny was arrested and sentenced Wednesday to 30 days in jail for calling for Saturday’s protest against election authorities who barred some opposition candidates from running in the Sept. 8 vote for Moscow city council.

Navalny was unexpectedly hospitalized Sunday with a severe allergy attack, his spokeswoman said. Kira Yarmysh said Navalny, who did not have any allergies beforehand, was taken from the Moscow jail to a hospital in the morning, arriving with severe facial swelling and red rashes. Hours later, she said Navalny was in a “satisfactory condition.”

Russian police violently dispersed thousands of people who thronged the streets of Moscow on Saturday to protest the move by election authorities. Several protesters reported broken limbs and head injuries. Police justified their response by saying that the rally was not sanctioned by authorities.

Along with the arrests of the mostly young demonstrators, several opposition activists who wanted to run for the Moscow City Duma were arrested throughout the city. Police eventually cordoned off the City Hall and dispersed protesters from the area, but thousands of demonstrators reassembled in several different locations nearby and a new round of arrests began. Russian police beat some protesters to the ground with wide truncheon swings while others tried to push the police away.

Police said the protesters numbered about 3,500 but aerial footage from several locations suggested at least 8,000 people turned out. Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition figure who was barred from running for city council office in Moscow, was detained Sunday afternoon as he delivered food to some of the Moscow protesters still in jail.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow on Sunday decried the violent crackdown as “use of disproportionate police force” and the Russian presidential human rights council said it was concerned about the police brutality.

Russian President Vladimir Putin stayed away from Moscow over the weekend. On Sunday, he led Russia’s first major naval parade in years, going aboard one of the vessels in the Navy Day parade in St. Petersburg, on the Gulf of Finland. The parade included 43 ships and submarines and 4,000 troops.

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