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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 1792
Punk band discovers the high price of political protest;
Kremlin jitters over Chinese influence in the Far East
Edited by Amanda Pitrof
August 15, 2012
The costs for the Kremlin’s steadfast support for the Assad regime are beginning to pile up. The Daily Beast reports that Saudi tycoon Mubarak Swaikat recently cancelled multimillion-dollar contracts with Russian gas and oil companies, citing his support for “our brothers in Syria,” while a group of Saudi businessmen boycotted meetings with a delegation of big Russian business companies. Relations are no better with Qatar, where Russian ambassador Titorenko was beaten by Qatari officials. Though some analysts suggest that the Kremlin’s determination to back the Assad regime is an attempt to protect a multibillion-dollar arms buyer, others contend that Russian officials seek to avoid a repeat of Libya, where they were left supporting the losing side.
The Russian Defense Ministry again finds itself denying reports of its Syrian plans after three Russian news agencies quoted a “Russian military source” saying that three naval ships and as many as 360 marines are en route to the Syrian port of Tartus, Reuters reports. Defense Ministry officials insisted the ships, already stationed in the Mediterranean, are not headed to Syria, but that they could if they remain at sea longer than expected. Moscow earlier said that, if necessary, it would send troops to Syria to protect the personnel and equipment at the naval facility at Tartus. A Syrian official separately told reporters that Damascus requested a loan from Russia to alleviate the effects of international sanctions.
A verdict is expected in the case against several members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot before the end of the summer. The women’s lawyers have lodged several complaints that the women are being deprived of sleep and food, Reuters reports, but have been largely ignored and even ridiculed by the prosecution. The trial has produced sharp criticism from the opposition, who claim that the women’s arrests are part of a crackdown on dissenters. “This trial will define the development of the country as a whole,” said one of the defense lawyers. “Either we move toward ‘Orthodox sharia law’ or remain in a situation of ‘velvet authoritarianism.” The three women could face several years in jail if convicted of hooliganism.
A self-appointed “emir” of Tatarstan claimed responsibility for the “operation” in which assassination attempts were made, unsuccessfully, on mufti Ildusa Fayzova, and successfully on his deputy mufti Waliullah Yakupova. The man, Rais Mingaleev, made the announcement in a video posted to the internet, in which he also pledged his allegiance to Doku Umarov, the rebel leader in the North Caucasus. Seven others have been arrested, reports FreePress, while two men are still wanted and dozens more are under suspicion, prompting protests in Kazan “against illegal mass arrests of Muslims.” Rais Suleimanov, head of the Volga Regional Center, noted that Migaleev’s declaration of war on the Tatars loyal to the traditional school of Islam marks a serious escalation of the Wahhabi threat in Tatarstan.
Russian officials staved off concerns by announcing that there is no plan to ban grain exports, despite a devastating drought. Projections for this year’s wheat harvest are a mere 40.5 million tons, even lower than the 2010 total when Russia sustained its worst drought in 50 years. That year, reports the International Business Times, exports were banned and bread prices quickly rose across the world, hitting politically unstable markets in North Africa and the Middle East the hardest. “We don’t need to take any measures now—I mean measures to intervene on the market and regulate export,” said Russia’s deputy prime minister. “There are no grounds to ban export.”
Reuters reports Moscow’s concerns over China’s growing presence in its Far East prompted the Defense Ministry to announce plans to send two nuclear submarines to join the Pacific Fleet. Days later, Prime Minister Medvedev commented that it was important for Russia “not to allow negative manifestations...including the formation of enclaves made up of foreign citizens.” Though the Kremlin is typically reticent on this topic, the prime minister added that “Not many people live there, unfortunately, and the task of protecting our Far Eastern territories from excessive expansion by bordering states remains in place.” Russia has already moved to counter China’s presence in the region by increasing military presence in the region, and through programs that moved 400 families from former Soviet republics to the area.