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PostPosted: Wed Jan 17, 2018 12:28 pm 
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Navalny: Putin seeks to be 'emperor for life'
by Ekaterina ANISIMOVA, Marina LAPENKOVA, Germain MOYON
17 January 2018

MOSCOW (AFP) - The Kremlin's top critic Alexei Navalny has slammed Russia's March presidential election, in which he is barred from running, as a sham meant to "re-appoint" Vladimir Putin on his way to becoming "emperor for life".

With two months to go before Russians vote in polls that are all but guaranteed to hand Putin a historic fourth term, the 41-year-old opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner spoke to AFP Tuesday in his campaign headquarters. "This is not an election and my role will consist of explaining to people that this procedure, which they call an election, in fact is only held to re-appoint Putin," he said. "We will prove this and convince people that it's impossible to recognise either these polls or this regime."

Navalny last year mounted a national campaign, meeting thousands of people in cities across Russia, but in December the Central Election Commission said he could not take part due to a controversial embezzlement conviction which the opposition leader says is fabricated. He is now ready to channel the force of his campaign team into persuading Russians to boycott the polls, calling his first major protest of this year on January 28. "Putin wants to be emperor for life. His entourage, people who became billionaires and the world's richest individuals, they want the same thing," he said, vouching to continue his "political fight."

Navalny's rise to the top of Russia's opposition in recent years has seen him tone down his previous nationalist rhetoric. Focussing on corruption, he mounted two major protests last year which drew tens of thousands of participants across Russia and resulted in hundreds of arrests. Ignored by most media, notably government-controlled television, Navalny has been highly visible online. A video he posted about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's alleged secret wealth has received 25 million views since March.

Despite constant pressure from the authorities, Navalny has built a considerable support base, and many of his campaigners are young people. In 2017 he had three stints in jail and his supporters are also frequently arrested and attacked.

Putin "fears me and he fears the people I represent," Navalny said. "I created the biggest political movement in Russia's recent history with over 200,000 volunteers." These volunteers, spread through offices in most Russian regions, will now be organised to support a "voters' strike", he said. "We are not going to vote, we are seeking to convince everyone that they should not vote, and we will monitor the election to prevent the authorities from falsifying turnout," including in the Caucasus region, known for publishing dubious figures of over 90 percent.

Putin's popularity has hovered above 80 percent since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, according to several pollsters. Among his rivals on the ballot are Communist candidate Pavel Grudinin, the longtime leader of the Liberal-Democratic party Vladimir Zhirinovsky and liberal candidates Ksenia Sobchak and Grigory Yavlinsky. None of them are currently polling at more than eight percent.

A successful election will see the 65-year-old Putin return to the Kremlin for another six-year term. That would extend his rule until 2024, making him the country's longest serving leader since dictator Joseph Stalin.

Navalny said Putin's popularity was artificially high in a non-competitive atmosphere. "These ratings only exist in conditions where (authorities) don't let certain candidates participate and only allow people they have personally picked," he said. He accused Putin of having "turned Russia into an authoritarian state" with instability manifesting itself in acts of terror and falling quality of life while he "made corruption the core of his rule." "Corruption made our country -- a country very rich with oil -- poor!" he said. "We are fighting for our country, our future," he said.

A father of two, he added that he understands the risks to him and his family but does not let that stop him. "I know what actions the Kremlin is capable of," he said, mentioning the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in 2015. "Of course I am, as a normal person, worried about the safety of my family."

Source: AFP

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PostPosted: Wed Jan 17, 2018 4:52 pm 
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Office of rights group in Russia's North Caucasus torched
By NATALIYA VASILYEVA
17 January 2018

MOSCOW (AP) -- Masked attackers on Wednesday torched the office of the prominent Russian rights group Memorial in the region of Ingushetia, the latest escalation of tensions between the activists and officials in the North Caucasus.

The arson attack that Memorial said happened in the early hours came a week after the chief of the group's branch in neighboring Chechnya was detained on suspicion of drug possession. The man's arrest has been widely regarded as a payoff by Chechen authorities for Memorial's work exposing rampant rights abuses in the region that saw two separatist wars in the 1990s.

Oleg Orlov, chief of Memorial's North Caucasus research, told the Associated Press he believes the attack is linked to the crackdown on the activists' work in Chechnya. "I have no other theories: the only place we have tense relations with in the region is Chechnya," Orlov said by the phone from the Ingush capital, Nazran. Orlov said Memorial, which also investigates rights abuse in Ingushetia, does not encounter hostility from authorities there like it does in Chechnya. Ingushetia's leader, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, earlier on Wednesday met with Orlov and other activists and assured them of his support in conducting a fair probe, Orlov said.

Repression against government critics and rights advocates has often spilled over from Chechnya to neighboring Ingushetia, where Chechen operatives have been known to have a free hand. A long-time Memorial activist in Chechnya, Natalya Estemirova, was kidnapped in 2010, and her body was found in Ingushetia. In 2016, a group of journalists traveling to Chechnya was attacked near the border between the two regions. Neither incident has been solved.

The attack on Memorial's office in Nazran came a week after Oyub Titiyev, chief of the group's branch in Chechnya, was arrested for drug possession. Police said marijuana was found in the car of the 60-year old activist after he was stopped by police. Memorial has described Titiyev's arrest as an attempt to muffle a rare critic of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday denied suggestions of a possible link between the crackdown on Memorial in Chechnya and Wednesday's arson attack in Ingushetia, saying the two incidents happened in two different regions.

Memorial has been a source for reports of enforced disappearances, torture and collective punishment perpetrated in Chechnya under Kadyrov. Local authorities have dismissed Memorial as an enemy, paid for by the West to smear the local government. Orlov said he and some other Moscow-based activists have been staying in Ingushetia since late last week, traveling to Chechnya every day to work on the Titiyev case. Orlov said Memorial's car had been consistently followed and stopped by the police in Chechnya.

Source: AP

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PostPosted: Wed Jan 17, 2018 4:56 pm 
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Russia pollster stops publishing opinion poll results ahead of election
16 January 2018

MOSCOW (AP) -- Russia's main independent polling agency has stopped publishing results of opinion polls on the upcoming presidential election, fearing legal repercussions.

Levada Center was listed as a foreign agent in 2016 under a new law aimed at curbing alleged foreign influence on public life in Russia. Authorities insist that the law does not aim to target critics of the Kremlin. Levada is not a foreign company, but Russian authorities are able to list it as a foreign agent because it has received foreign funding.

Levada's director, Lev Gudkov, told the Russian daily Vedomosti on Tuesday that the agency is carrying out election polling but will not publish results during the campaign because it fears that this could be viewed as election meddling and could lead to a motion to close down the pollster. Russians go to polls on March 18 to vote for their president. Incumbent Vladimir Putin is expected to win by a landslide.

Results of Levada's polls have not differed dramatically from those by the two main state-owned polling agencies in terms of support for Putin and the ruling party. But recent polls did show a difference regarding the turnout for the upcoming vote. With his key rival, Alexei Navalny, barred from running, Putin is facing candidates who only nominally oppose him. That raised fears of a lower turnout at the election, which would be a major embarrassment for the Kremlin.

Commenting on the pollster's announcement, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday it was "unfortunate" that Levada will not be able to publish its polls but said it was a matter of following the law.

Source: AP

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 11, 2018 8:36 pm 
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Russian pension reform hits vulnerable age group of over-50s
By NATALIYA VASILYEVA
7 September 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — When 52-year old accountant Marina Grigoryeva was laid off this year, she figured that at least she would be eligible for a state pension in three years’ time. But measures announced by President Vladimir Putin last week mean that Grigoryeva, who has been looking for a job for over six months, will have to wait eight years instead.

A planned hike in the retirement age yanks away the safety net for millions of Russians in their 50s, core Putin supporters who struggle to hold down a job, let alone find a new one, and have come to rely on pensions as a meagre but secure source of income at a time of economic uncertainty.

“You can’t get by on the benefits at all,” said Grigoryeva, who has worked for the Moscow City Telephone Network for nearly 30 years. She is entitled to 5,000 rubles ($73) a month in unemployment benefits, which is half what the government says is the minimum subsistence level. And it’s only a tenth of the average salary in Moscow, where she lives.

A recent opinion poll shows Putin’s approval ratings crashed this summer following the announcement of the pension reform, while an increasing number of Russians say they are ready to take to the streets to protest it. The president even made a televised address to the nation to explain the need for a higher retirement age and announce some concessions.

Putin had initially tried to keep a distance from the politically sensitive proposal. It was announced instead by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in June — on the day the World Cup kicked off in Russia. The plan was initially to raise the pension age by eight years to 63 for women and five years to 65 for men by 2023, though the increase for women was eventually trimmed to five years.

The reform is Putin’s most unpopular move in more than a decade. A recent survey by the Levada pollster shows that 53 percent of Russians are ready to protest against the amendments and that 77 percent would vote against them at a referendum. The surveys were held in July and August, with a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points. The outrage stems in part from the fact that life expectancy in Russia lags that in Europe or the United States, with the proposed pension age for men just two years below the life expectancy of 67. It is also due to the fact that Russians over 50 are finding it increasingly difficult to keep a job or find a new one.

For the public finances, the hike in the retirement age was long overdue. As the workforce shrinks, the government spends more on pensions every year, earmarking 3.3 trillion rubles ($48 billion) in 2018, even more than on defense.

Yevgeny Gontmakher, who served as a top adviser to Medvedev when he was president, says the proposed changes are a “big mistake” because they will sideline lower income Russians who rely on state pension as an important source of income. “This is big for millions of Russian families,” he told the Associated Press. “All of a sudden these people will have lost nearly half of their (expected pension) incomes.”

In his televised address, Putin warned that without such a move, the pension system “would crack and eventually collapse.” He offered assurances that the state will take care of the over-50s, including a vague promise of jobs, and wrapped up his speech with: “I’m asking you to be understanding of this.” The reform and Putin’s address became fodder for jokes and Internet memes. One shows a thug demanding money from a passer-by, who screams “But that’s a robbery!” To which the robber goes: “I’m asking you to be understanding of this.”

Putin proposed amendments to soften the reform, including benefits like free public transport for some and early retirement for law enforcement officers, a move that Gontmakher says will undermine the goal of saving money.

55-year old Pavel Pershin, who registered as unemployed for the first time this year, says he would not be thinking of retiring if the job prospects for someone his age were not so grim. Jobs in the private sector, where Pershin earlier worked for over 25 years ago in an airplane engine factory, are drying up in an economy battered by Western sanctions and a weaker ruble. “If the economy was growing well, then yes, raise the pension age all you want,” he says. “I’d love to be able to pay (taxes) if I was able to find decent work, but I don’t want to go and work as a janitor or a moving man.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian labor market has favored workers in their 30s and early 40s, with incomes and job opportunities declining rapidly for people in their 50s, says Marina Kolosnitsyna, economics professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Many highly-skilled professionals with university degrees who lose their jobs in their 50s end up working as street cleaners or janitors, says Kolosnitsyna.

Russians, meanwhile, are growing weary as the economy sags. A poll by the Levada pollster released Thursday showed that 48 percent of Russians are worried of losing their job, up 15 points from a year earlier. The unemployment rate is at a record low below 5 percent, but that statistic does not count people who do not both to register for unemployment benefits, which are meager. And employment does not guarantee a good life, either: about 5 million Russians have jobs that pay less than the subsistence level of about $150 a month.

The political opposition to Putin is hoping to capitalize on the unpopular policy. Opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny has announced nationwide protests in dozens of cities on Sunday, though he will be unable to attend because a Moscow court has sent him to prison for a month.

Accountant Grigoryeva recalls being “speechless” when the retirement change was announced, which in her mind shows that the Kremlin was advocating “policies completely against the interests of the people.” She has never been to a rally but now is entertaining the idea of taking to the streets. She says she would love to keep working as long as she can but the question looms for many Russians who are simply too ill to work in their early 60s: “Those who have no energy left... How are they going to survive?”

Francesca Ebel contributed to this report.
Source: AP

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