Putin to begin fourth term amid Russian crackdown on opposition

Opposition supporters shout slogans during an anti-Putin rally called by opposition leader Alexei Navalny on May 5 in Moscow, two days ahead of Vladimir Putin's inauguration for a fourth Kremlin term. (AFP)
Updated 07 May 2018

Putin to begin fourth term amid Russian crackdown on opposition

  • The Russian president used his last term to annex Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and launch a military campaign in Syria on the side of Bashar Assad the following year
  • With the crackdown on the opposition the Kremlin wanted to show it would brook no dissent under Putin’s new term

MOSCOW: Vladimir Putin will on Monday be inaugurated for his fourth Kremlin term under the shadow of hugely strained ties with the West and a crackdown on the opposition.
Putin, who has ruled Russia for 18 years, will begin his next stint as leader two days after nearly 1,600 protesters including opposition leader Alexei Navalny were detained during nationwide rallies against him, with the EU condemning “police brutality and mass arrests.”
The Russian president used his last term to annex Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and launch a military campaign in Syria on the side of Bashar Assad the following year and has promised to improve living standards at home during his next term.
But he has remained silent on the issue of his succession — despite this being an inevitable concern as the constitution bars him from running again when his fourth term ends in 2024.
Putin has struggled to revive an economy that crashed after Moscow was hit with Western sanctions over its annexation of Crimea in 2014, followed by a fall in global oil prices in 2016.
Despite this, his victory in the March election was never in question and the prospect of an inauguration in the Kremlin’s gilded Andreyevsky hall has generated little excitement.
This year Putin’s minders are reportedly planning a fairly low-key inauguration ceremony that will not include a lavish Kremlin reception in an apparent effort to eschew any bad publicity.
In 2012, Putin’s black cortege raced through the deserted Moscow streets on its way to his third Kremlin inauguration, in what many saw as a major faux pas.
This time Putin is only expected to meet volunteers who took part in his election campaign.
Protest leader Navalny, who was barred from challenging Putin in the March election, had called on Russians to stage a day of rallies across the country on Saturday under the catchy slogan “Not our Tsar.”
In a new development that shocked many, police in Moscow were helped by pro-Putin activists dressed as Cossacks, a paramilitary class who served as tsarist cavalrymen in imperial Russia.
Amnesty International said its representatives saw the “Cossacks” pummel protesters with whips and fists as police looked on.
Tatyana Stanovaya, a Paris-based analyst for the Center of Political Technologies in Moscow, said that with the crackdown on the opposition the Kremlin wanted to show it would brook no dissent under Putin’s new term.
“The Kremlin wants to draw a red line which cannot be crossed,” Stanovaya said.
Observers expressed fears that the detentions could lead to a new wave of criminal cases after similar rallies in 2012 against Putin’s return to the Kremlin from the post of prime minister led to a huge crackdown on the protest movement.
Criminal charges were brought against around 30 demonstrators and many of them were sentenced to prison terms of between 2.5 years and 4.5 years.
A major crackdown on dissent ensued, with authorities introducing a raft of measures to bolster control over the Internet.
In a sign this trend would continue into Putin’s fourth term, last month the state telecoms watchdog tried to block popular messaging app Telegram and said Facebook could be next.
Political analysts said that Moscow’s attitude toward the West — which has only hardened over the crises in Ukraine and Syria, as well as accusations of spy poisoning in the UK and election meddling in the US — was also unlikely to change under Putin 4.0.
“For Putin any concession is a sign of weakness, so there shouldn’t be any expectation of a change in foreign policy,” said Konstantin Kalachev, the head of the Political Expert Group think tank in Moscow.
“Also, foreign policies are one of the main foundations of his support within the country. Putin needs to guarantee national unity, and for this he needs an enemy.”
But Independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said the president’s approach to the international community would have to shift over the next term.
“Russia hasn’t been so isolated since the Soviet war in Afghanistan,” he said, referring to the 1979-1989 conflict.
“Now his task isn’t to bring any new lands to Russia, but to force the world to consider Russia’s interests and accept its previous conquests.”
Reports that Alexei Kudrin — a liberal former finance minister who is respected abroad — could return to the Kremlin in a reshuffle, suggest the president could be seeking a less confrontational approach.
Oreshkin said Putin would stay on for the full term to carry out this task but Kalachev suggested the president could leave the Kremlin before he serves out the six years.
“He will stay in power, but not necessarily in the presidency,” he said.
“For Putin to write his place in history, he needs to pick the right moment to go. Serving another six years is a road to nowhere. He will leave in a way that takes everyone by surprise.”


US official warns Taliban attacks could derail Afghan peace

Updated 20 October 2020

US official warns Taliban attacks could derail Afghan peace

  • Khalilzad urges militant group to honor ‘historic opportunity’ and end decades of war

KABUL: The US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation warned on Monday that increasing attacks by the Taliban could undermine the historic peace deal signed between Washington and the militant group in February.

Zalmay Khalilzad also said the strikes could derail the ongoing intra-Afghan talks in Doha, Qatar, that look to end the protracted conflict in the country.

“Continued high levels of violence can threaten the peace process and the agreement, and the core understanding that there is no military solution. Violence today remains distressingly high in spite of the recent reaffirmation of the need for a substantial reduction,” he said in tweets on Monday.

Since last week, the Taliban have unleashed a series of attacks in parts of Afghanistan, particularly in the southern Helmand province, where more than 35,000 people have been displaced over recent days, Afghan officials told Arab News.

In response, US forces in the country launched several airstrikes on Taliban positions, which the insurgent group described as a breach of the February accord on Sunday.

Responding to the Taliban’s accusations, Khalilzad said they were “unfounded charges of violations and inflammatory rhetoric,” and “do not advance peace.”

Washington also accused the Taliban of breaking the historic agreement, which, among other things, looks to finalize a complete withdrawal of US-led troops from the country.

Khalilzad said the airstrikes were conducted to support Afghan troops as part of Washington’s commitment to defend them, if necessary.

He added that the Taliban attacks in Helmand, including some in the provincial capital that targeted Afghan security forces, led to a recent meeting in Doha where both sides agreed to “decrease attacks and strikes.” And while levels of violence in Helmand have fallen, it “remains high” across the country, the Afghan-born diplomat added.

Some Afghan observers said the motive behind Taliban attacks was to gain an “upper hand” in negotiations.

However, Khalilzad warned of the risks involved in using this strategy.

“The belief that says violence must escalate to win concessions at the negotiations table is risky. Such an approach can undermine the peace process and repeats past miscalculation by Afghan leaders,” he said, urging all sides to honor the “historic opportunity for peace, which must not be missed.”

Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told Arab News on Monday that the group had “no comment” on Khalilzad’s statements and that US forces had “violated the Doha agreement in various forms by carrying out excessive airstrikes.”

Mujahid added that he had “no information” on the state of attacks in Helmand province.

However, Omar Zwak, a spokesman for Helmand’s governor, told Arab News that “fighting subsided in various parts of Helmand” over the past two days.

Meanwhile, an anonymous senior official in President Ashraf Ghani’s government praised Khalilzad for “beginning to get realistic” and “breaking silence over repeated Taliban attacks.”

Another figure, Kabul-based lawmaker Fawzia Zaki, said: “The government and Afghan people, in general, insisted on enforcement of a cease-fire or a drastic reduction of violence before the beginning of the intra-Afghan dialogue.”

For it to be effective, Khalilzad and Washington “need to exert growing pressure to make them listen to the righteous demands of ours,” Zaki added.

However, experts have warned of the “growing impatience” of both sides.

Shafiq Haqpal, an analyst, told Arab News: “Khalilzad’s comments clearly show that Washington is becoming impatient with Taliban attacks and the lack of progress in the talks.”

He said that US President Donald Trump is “hoping to see a breakthrough soon,” so that he can “portray it as a success of his administration for his re-election campaign.

“But that is not happening. Maybe Washington has realized that won’t happen, so they are beginning to come out and warn the Taliban against the consequences of their attacks,” Haqpal added.