Russia: Unrest in the Periphery - And at Home

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Russia's periphery is once again rife with unrest and dissatisfaction, but the Russian government tried to keep stability at home by reporting to the State Duma on its progress in 2008. This past Monday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin spoke before the full parliamentary session. Putin assured the deputies that "Russia will overcome the crisis," and characterized an anti-crisis program recently given to Duma for discussion as "the light at the end of the tunnel." Regarding the scope of growing difficulties in the country and the need to invest in numerous social programs, Putin assured the parliamentarians that "Many out there are simply jealous of Russia! I know what I am talking about!", hinting that the situation in other countries is more dire.

However, just a few days after Putin's address to the Parliament and his assurances that the government is handling the crisis, nearly 300 officer reservists held a protest on Saturday, April 11 in Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East region. The officers, belonging to the "Union of Officers of Vladivostok", protested against the recently launched military reforms. Demonstrators asked to repeal the Government's plan for the implementation of military reform, which, in their view, means "the deprivation of the defense capacity of the country through the dismissal and breach of the social guarantees of servicemen." Participants were asking for the salary and pension increase of military personnel to the level of civil servants, to provide apartments to the discharged officers in places of their own choosing, to pay the debt owed to military retirees, as well as to raise pensions to widows of dead officers. This action took place under the banner "People and army are one! Save the army - save Russia!", with participation from the Communist Party and local citizen's organizations. Last October, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdykov announced plans for major reform in the Russian military, and his actions immediately started running into serious opposition from the military's rank and file.

On April 10, Moldovan authorities reported that they have captured the main organizer of mass anti-government protests that swept the capital Chisinau this past week. The Prosecutor General's office announced that they have in custody Mr. N. Iordan, a Romanian citizen. When authorities searched him, they discovered in his possession maps of Chisinau, photos of administrative buildings and several bottles with "flammable liquids." Mass riots and clashes with police took place in Chisinau on April 7th, 2009 during the opposition protests, whose members were dissatisfied with the results of the April 5 parliamentary elections. The demonstrators stormed the parliament building and the Administration of the President of Moldova, and smashed, looted and set fire to the buildings. Shortly after the riots subsided, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin, leader of the governing Communist Party, said that neighboring Romania was to blame for the unrest. The Ambassador of Romania was quickly expelled from Chisinau. On April 9, the Moldovan Parliament deputies stated that the leadership of the country has evidence that Romanian citizens have participated in the "pogroms," and could be seen on the security videos. The government did not specify how it was able to find out the nationality of rioting persons just by looking at their faces. Meanwhile, Bucharest officially rejected Moldovan claims and stated that it had nothing to do with recent mass protests.

Russian government has so far supported President Voronin's rule in Moldova, as a "guarantor" of sorts against the West's advancing interest in Eastern Europe. Certain Russian commentators are calling for a sobering look at such a political entanglement. Sergey Kolerov, Chief Editor of the "Regnum" Information Agency, argues that when it comes to the question of getting rid of Voronin and Communists in Moldova , Russia and the West are in fact "situational allies": "The problem is that this matter is taking place without the participation of Russia, and since Moscow refuses to intervene in the current situation, it therefore cannot utilize the results of what is taking place in Chisinau. ... There is no doubt that once the opposition leaders take control of the situation in the country, they will then forget about so-called "unity" with their patrons in Romania."[ In late 1980s and early 1990s' Moldova experienced unrest and civil war after the majority of the people called for an actual union with neighboring Romania. A pro-Russian area called Transdniester Republic broke off from Moldova and remains an independent entity to this day.] Kolerov further argues: "The authorities in Russia should remember that by supporting Voronin - the "guarantor of democracy," who uses the Moldovan Constitution as he pleases - Moscow is in fact acting against the will of the overwhelming majority of the citizens of Moldova. If people follow through with the portrait of Voronin - which was thrown out of the windows of government buildings - by tossing the living Voronin out the window, the calls for "cleaning the asphalt of Chisinau with Russian blood" will ring again, just as in the early 1990's. If this is a reflection of public opinion in Moldavia, then this should not surprise Moscow - Russian diplomacy (but not Russia and its citizens!) deserves such an attitude."

Picking up where Moldovan actions left off, mass anti-government protest is taking place in Georgia's capital Tbilisi. "We will do everything to disrupt the work schedule of President[Saakashvili] and his entourage," - promised Levan Gachechiladze, the opposition leader. Gachechiladze was of the opinion that similar actions may soon begin across Georgia. On April 9, the leading opposition parties of Georgia began to protest, demanding the resignation of President Mikhail Saakashvili. Some carried slogans that said: "We will not disperse till the usurper will retire!" and "Misha, don't bite out neckties!"(in reference to this infamous video of stressed-out Saakashvili during last August's armed conflict with Russia.) Others openly shouted "We are so tired of Misha! Why do Americans love him so much?" The protesters gave the president till 4:00pm on April 10 to comply with their demands. Saakashvili did not accept the ultimatum, and expressed his willingness to "dialogue with the opposition", while confirming that he did not intend to leave his post before the expiration of his official duties.

Opponents of the president blame him for drawing Georgia into armed conflict with Russia last August, as well as the for the loss of break-away provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The April 9 rally drew, according to various sources, anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 people, and was peaceful. The participants have dispersed by Thursday evening. Next day, on April 10, a crowd of approximately 20,000-25,000 people gathered in the center of Tbilisi, to continue the protest. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev earlier remarked that he refused to talk to President Saakashvili, and will start dialogue with his eventual replacement.

The echoes of the Russian-Georgian war last year are still felt in Moscow. This time, the Russian Military has recognized one successful item fielded by the Georgians - their use of Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles against advanced Russian army. On April 7, 2009, "Kommersant" newspaper reported that Russia will purchase 3 types of Israeli UAV's to the tune of $50 million, with half the amount already been transferred to the supplier. The selection of foreign UAV's is explained by the fact that Russian developers have not been able to offer Moscow a competitive alternative. Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin explained this decision at the April 10 press conference - Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles will be used to develop principles for the application of such technology, and not for actual military combat. At the same time, Russian military intends to boost the development of domestically-produced unmanned aerial systems. In late February 2009, a senior source in the Defense Ministry announced that by early summer of this year, Russia should develop a new unmanned aerial vehicle for tactical intelligence purposes.

Yevgeny Bendersky is the Senior Strategic Advisor for International Operations at Jenkins Hill International, LLC and a RealClearWorld contributor.
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