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Putin’s Team is United: Talk of a Purge is Wrong

As the Russian government weathers a period of unpopularity caused by the recession, there is talk that Putin is about to purge his cabinet, but this is almost certainly wrong.

Alexander Mercouris

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An article has recently appeared in The Huffington Post which discusses rumours of an imminent purge of liberals from Russia’s government.

According to this view Russia’s President Putin is coming under increasing pressure from hardliners within Russia’s political elite to carry out a thorough purge of Atlanticists and liberals within the government.

The hardliners are also supposedly demanding a thorough overhaul of economic policy.  They want Putin to jettison the current liberal oriented free-market policy in favour of an economic mobilisation of the country to withstand the challenge of the West.  The details are sketchy but undoubtedly what is being talked about involves the reintroduction of capital controls and of forms of central planning that go far beyond what Russia has now.

The first point to make about this article in The Huffington Post is that it essentially repeats something that was said a month ago in an article by The Saker published by the Unz Review and on his own website.  The similarity is in fact so great that I find it impossible to put it down to mere coincidence.  There are clearly rumours circulating and both The Saker and the historian Stephen Cohen (the main source for The Huffington Post article) are picking up on them. 

What however are the prospects of a purge of liberals happening in Russia?

The short answer I am sure is none. 

The Saker and the Huffington Post are both right to say that the Russian government headed by Dmitry Medvedev is coming under fierce criticism in Russia, with strongly expressed demands by many people for a radical change of direction. 

They are also both right to say that Putin is not the target of this criticism and that his popularity is unaffected.  Those who criticise the government are not challenging Putin.  Rather they want him – as they think – to be himself by sacking the liberals in his government.

It is also the case that in discussion programmes on Russian television criticisms of the government are being increasingly and fiercely made and that some of these criticisms are being taken up by officials like Bastrykhin, the tough-minded head of Russia’s elite crime-busting agency, the Investigative Committee.

None of this however in my opinion points to a purge being in the works.  It is a fallacy that the media in Russia is tightly controlled and that no unauthorised criticism of the government is allowed on it.  On the contrary the media in Russia – including the television media – is full of debate and criticism, not just of the government but of virtually everything in Russia. 

Russia nowadays has an active and diverse public opinion which is no longer afraid to express itself, and it is a mistake to make assumptions about what is happening inside the Kremlin from the things it says.

I have to say that I get no impression that Putin is thinking of sacking the government or any of the senior officials who are currently being criticised.  On the contrary he repeatedly goes out of his way to signal his support for them.  He did so for example at some length during his recent television marathon.  Moreover his meetings with his officials as reported by his website give every impression of being supportive and cordial.

As for the conduct of the officials themselves, I get no impression from the behaviour of people like Medvedev, Ulyukaev, Siluanov or Nabiullina that they feel themselves to be under pressure or that they consider themselves to be at serious risk of losing their jobs.

There is no reason to think Putin disagrees with the current direction of economic policy.  That can be summarised as an overriding emphasis on inflation reduction (with the aim being to bring inflation down to 4% next year), strict budget discipline and work to improve the business climate, all done in order to foster an increase in the economy’s investment rate. 

All this goes along with a willingness to embrace planning in industrial policy, for example in the aircraft building industry.

I would add that I have seen and heard nothing that suggests the officials and ministers who are being criticised are disloyal to Putin or oppose his foreign or defence policies.  Not one of them has so much as hinted at disagreement with policy towards Crimea, Ukraine or Syria. 

The supposed tension within the government over the size of the military budget looks to me to be overstated and may be a myth. As I have said before claims Kudrin resigned from the Finance Ministry over this issue are wrong.  Claims of disagreement over the size of the military budget are anyway based on the theory Russia is experiencing a budget crisis.  That is simply wrong, just as claims Russia was facing a credit crunch were.

The one major area of disagreement between Putin and his ministers has in the past been over pension policy. 

There is little doubt the government wants to see the pension age raised.  Putin has until recently resisted that idea.  However some months ago he finally signalled that he had come round to it.  It is unlikely to happen before the Presidential election of 2018.

For the rest, Putin has consistently ruled out capital controls, price controls or proposals to raise income tax thresholds, and he undoubtedly supported the decision taken in 2014 to float the rouble.

Putin’s views on the vexed issue of privatisation also seem to be very similar to those of his ministers. 

He is broadly sympathetic to the idea and has shown no wish to reverse the privatisations of the 1990s.  However – to the exasperation of many in the Western investment community – he is no privatisation fanatic and clearly feels the government has a continued role to play in the direct management of key enterprises crucial to the economy.   

Though he welcomes foreign investment in Russia he is clearly determined to keep key sectors such as energy, banking, national infrastructure and key enterprises important to the defence sector under Russian control.   

He has specifically ruled out allowing Western banks from opening branches in Russia.  Whilst Western banks are welcome to work in Russia – and many of them do – their operations have to be regulated by the Russian Central Bank in just the same way as those of Russian banks are.

Similarly, though Putin supports foreign investment in Russia’s energy sector, Gazprom and Rosneft – both state-controlled – remain the dominant players with Gazprom still having a monopoly on gas exports.

There is nothing to suggest that anyone in the government disagrees with any of this.  As I have said previously, Kudrin as Finance Minister supported the project to create national champions in key branches of the economy. 

Today when privatisation is again being discussed it is being proposed – as it was in 2009 – for purely functional reasons – to fill gaps in the budget – not out of some ideological quest to privatise everything.  The government intends to keep blocking shares in all the enterprises involved, whilst Central Bank Chair Nabiullina opposes privatising Sberbank, the country’s biggest bank.

The overwhelming impression is of a united team essentially agreed on the main parameters of economic policy. 

All of them believe in an open economy where prices are decided by the market through supply and demand.  All of them believe in strict monetary and fiscal discipline.  All of them agree that some elements of industrial planning and state control should be retained and are essential at this stage of Russia’s development.

If the team is united why then the talk of a purge?

The short answer is that Russia over the last two years has been in recession.  It is entirely natural during a recession that the country’s government should come under criticism.  It happens in every country.

Though the criticism is loud and strong that does not make it politically dangerous.  There are none of the usual symptoms – mass demonstrations, sit-ins, walkouts, strikes – that point to widespread disaffection. 

The reason for that is not because the Russian people have been zombified by mass propaganda – as the Western media likes to claim – but because of the form the recession has taken. 

Strict financial discipline has paid dividends with a recession that has been relatively shallow with no significant layoffs, bankruptcies, plant closures or mortgage foreclosures. Though incomes took a heavy knock last year because of the inflation spike, employment has remained steady creating confidence that the recession is only temporary.  Importantly the two most socially sensitive sectors – food and housing – continue to boom.

There are also political factors.  The main political effect of the sanctions on Russia is that they lead to Russians blaming the recession not on Putin and the government but on the West.  That in part explains Putin’s extraordinary popularity, though his exceptional political skill, the popularity of many of his policies, and the sense of authority and sheer competence he conveys, would surely have kept him popular anyway.

The fact of Putin’s popularity makes it even less likely he is going to purge his government of people who give every impression of being loyal to him, especially when all the indications are he agrees with them.  His popularity means he is under no pressure to do so. 

With all the indications pointing to the recession being close to its end, it makes no sense for him to carry out such a purge anyway.

This whole issue of the purge is interesting because of what it says about the nature of political debate in Russia. 

It shows that when the government in Russia becomes unpopular the criticism of it that gains traction with the Russian public is that which comes from the patriotic “left” of Russia’s political spectrum rather than from its pro-Western liberal “right”.   On that spectrum Putin and his government are significantly more to the “right” than most Russians would like them to be.  The Western assumption that Putin’s “regime” is preventing Russians from pursuing their natural pro-Western liberal course could not be more wrong.

However those who look for or want a fundamental change in the Russian government’s present makeup or direction are likely to be disappointed.

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FBI recommended Michael Flynn not have lawyer present during interview, did not warn of false statement consequences

Flynn is scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 18.

Washington Examiner

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Via The Washington Examiner…


Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who arranged the bureau’s interview with then-national security adviser Michael Flynn at the White House on Jan. 24, 2017 — the interview that ultimately led to Flynn’s guilty plea on one count of making false statements — suggested Flynn not have a lawyer present at the session, according to newly-filed court documents. In addition, FBI officials, along with the two agents who interviewed Flynn, decided specifically not to warn him that there would be penalties for making false statements because the agents wanted to ensure that Flynn was “relaxed” during the session.

The new information, drawn from McCabe’s account of events plus the FBI agents’ writeup of the interview — the so-called 302 report — is contained in a sentencing memo filed Tuesday by Flynn’s defense team.

Citing McCabe’s account, the sentencing memo says that shortly after noon on Jan. 24 — the fourth day of the new Trump administration — McCabe called Flynn on a secure phone in Flynn’s West Wing office. The two men discussed business briefly and then McCabe said that he “felt that we needed to have two of our agents sit down” with Flynn to discuss Flynn’s talks with Russian officials during the presidential transition.

McCabe, by his own account, urged Flynn to talk to the agents alone, without a lawyer present. “I explained that I thought the quickest way to get this done was to have a conversation between [Flynn] and the agents only,” McCabe wrote. “I further stated that if LTG Flynn wished to include anyone else in the meeting, like the White House counsel for instance, that I would need to involve the Department of Justice. [Flynn] stated that this would not be necessary and agreed to meet with the agents without any additional participants.”

Within two hours, the agents were in Flynn’s office. According to the 302 report quoted in the Flynn sentencing document, the agents said Flynn was “relaxed and jocular” and offered the agents “a little tour” of his part of the White House.

“The agents did not provide Gen. Flynn with a warning of the penalties for making a false statement under 18 U.S.C. 1001 before, during, or after the interview,” the Flynn memo says. According to the 302, before the interview, McCabe and other FBI officials “decided the agents would not warn Flynn that it was a crime to lie during an FBI interview because they wanted Flynn to be relaxed, and they were concerned that giving the warnings might adversely affect the rapport.”

The agents had, of course, seen transcripts of Flynn’s wiretapped conversations with Russian then-ambassador Sergey Kislyak. “Before the interview, FBI officials had also decided that if ‘Flynn said he did not remember something they knew he said, they would use the exact words Flynn used … to try to refresh his recollection. If Flynn still would not confirm what he said … they would not confront him or talk him through it,'” the Flynn memo says, citing the FBI 302.

“One of the agents reported that Gen. Flynn was ‘unguarded’ during the interview and ‘clearly saw the FBI agents as allies,'” the Flynn memo says, again citing the 302.

Later in the memo, Flynn’s lawyers argue that the FBI treated Flynn differently from two other Trump-Russia figures who have pleaded guilty to and been sentenced for making false statements. One of them, Alexander Van der Zwaan, “was represented by counsel during the interview; he was interviewed at a time when there was a publicly disclosed, full-bore investigation regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election; and he was given a warning that it is a federal crime to lie during the interview,” according to the memo. The other, George Papadopoulos, “was specifically notified of the seriousness of the investigation…was warned that lying to investigators was a ‘federal offense’…had time to reflect on his answers…and met with the FBI the following month for a further set of interviews, accompanied by his counsel, and did not correct his false statements.”

The message of the sentencing memo is clear: Flynn, his lawyers suggest, was surprised, rushed, not warned of the context or seriousness of the questioning, and discouraged from having a lawyer present.

That is all the sentencing document contains about the interview itself. In a footnote, Flynn’s lawyers noted that the government did not object to the quotations from the FBI 302 report.

In one striking detail, footnotes in the Flynn memo say the 302 report cited was dated Aug. 22, 2017 — nearly seven months after the Flynn interview. It is not clear why the report would be written so long after the interview itself.

The brief excerpts from the 302 used in the Flynn defense memo will likely spur more requests from Congress to see the original FBI documents. Both House and Senate investigating committees have demanded that the Justice Department allow them to see the Flynn 302, but have so far been refused.

In the memo, Flynn’s lawyers say that he made a “serious error in judgment” in the interview. Citing Flynn’s distinguished 30-plus year record of service in the U.S. Army, they ask the judge to go along with special counsel Robert Mueller’s recommendation that Flynn be spared any time in prison.

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Macron offers crumbs to protestors in bid to save his globalist agenda (Video)

The Duran Quick Take: Episode 36.

Alex Christoforou

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The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris take a quick look at French President Macron’s pathetic display of leadership as he offers protestors little in the way of concessions while at the same time promising to crack down hard on any and all citizens who resort to violence.

Meanwhile France’s economy is set for a deep recession as French output and production grinds to a halt.

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Via Zerohedge


As if Brussels didn’t have its hands full already with Italy and the UK, the European Union will soon be forced to rationalize why one of its favorite core members is allowed to pursue populist measures to blow out its budget deficit to ease domestic unrest while another is threatened with fines potentially amounting to billions of euros.

When blaming Russia failed to quell the widespread anger elicited by his policies, French President Emmanuel Macron tried to appease the increasingly violent “yellow vests” protesters who have sacked his capital city by offering massive tax cuts that could blow the French budget out beyond the 3% budget threshold outlined in the bloc’s fiscal rules.

Given the concessions recently offered by Italy’s populists, Macron’s couldn’t have picked a worse time to challenge the bloc’s fiscal conventions. As Bloomberg pointed out, these rules will almost certainly set the Continent’s second largest economy on a collision course with Brussels. To be clear, Macron’s offered cuts come with a price tag of about €11 billion according to Les Echos, and will leave the country with a budget gap of 3.5% of GDP in 2019, with one government official said the deficit may be higher than 3.6%.

By comparison, Italy’s initial projections put its deficit target at 2.4%, a number which Europe has repeatedly refused to consider.

Macron’s promises of fiscal stimulus – which come on top of his government’s decision to delay the planned gas-tax hikes that helped inspire the protests – were part of a broader ‘mea culpa’ offered by Macron in a speech Monday night, where he also planned to hike France’s minimum wage.

Of course, when Brussels inevitably objects, perhaps Macron could just show them this video of French police tossing a wheelchair-bound protester to the ground.

Already, the Italians are complaining.  Speaking on Tuesday, Italian cabinet undersecretary Giancarlo Giorgetti said Italy hasn’t breached the EU deficit limit. “I repeat that from the Italian government there is a reasonable approach, if there is one also from the EU a solution will be found.”

“France has several times breached the 3% deficit. Italy hasn’t done it. They are different situations. There are many indicators to assess.”

Still, as one Guardian columnist pointed out in an op-ed published Tuesday morning, the fact that the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) organizers managed to pressure Macron to cave and grant concessions after just 4 weeks of protests will only embolden them to push for even more radical demands: The collapse of the government of the supremely unpopular Macron.

Then again, with Brussels now facing certain accusations of hypocrisy, the fact that Macron was pressured into the exact same populist measures for which Italy has been slammed, the French fiasco raises the odds that Rome can pass any deficit measure it wants with the EU now forced to quietly look away even as it jawbones all the way from the bank (i.e., the German taxpayers).

“Macron’s spending will encourage Salvini and Di Maio,” said Giovanni Orsina, head of the School of Government at Rome’s Luiss-Guido Carli University. “Macron was supposed to be the spearhead of pro-European forces, if he himself is forced to challenge EU rules, Salvini and Di Maio will jump on that to push their contention that those rules are wrong.”

While we look forward to how Brussels will square this circle, markets are less excited.

Exhausted from lurching from one extreme to another following conflicting headlines, traders are already asking if “France is the new Italy.” The reason: the French OAT curve has bear steepened this morning with 10Y yields rising as much as ~6bp, with the Bund/OAT spread reaching the widest since May 2017 and the French presidential election. Though well below the peaks of last year, further widening would push the gap into levels reserved for heightened political risk.

As Bloomberg macro analyst Michael Read notes this morning, it’s hard to see a specific near-term trigger blowing out the Bund/OAT spread but the trend looks likely to slowly drift higher.

While Macron has to fight on both domestic and European fronts, he’ll need to keep peace at home to stay on top. Remember that we saw the 10Y spread widen to ~80bps around the May ’17 elections as concerns of a move toward the political fringe played out in the markets, and the French President’s popularity ratings already look far from rosy.

And just like that France may have solved the Italian crisis.

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Watch: Democrat Chuck Schumer shows his East Coast elitism on live TV

Amazing moment in which the President exhibits “transparency in government” and shows the world who the Democrat leaders really are.

Seraphim Hanisch

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One of the reasons Donald Trump was elected to the Presidency was because of his pugnacious, “in your face” character he presented – and promised TO present – against Democrat policy decisions and “stupid government” in general.

One of the reasons President Donald Trump is reviled is because of his pugnacious, “in your face” character he presented – and promised TO present – in the American political scene.

In other words, there are two reactions to the same characteristic. On Tuesday, the President did something that probably cheered and delighted a great many Americans who witnessed this.

The Democrats have been unanimous in taking any chance to roast the President, or to call for his impeachment, or to incite violence against him. But Tuesday was President Trump’s turn. He invited the two Democrat leaders, presumptive incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and then, he turned the cameras on:

As Tucker Carlson notes, the body language from Schumer was fury. The old (something)-eating grin covered up humiliation, embarrassment and probably no small amount of fear, as this whole incident was filmed and broadcast openly and transparently to the American public. Nancy Pelosi was similarly agitated, and she expressed it later after this humiliation on camera, saying, “It’s like a manhood thing for him… As if manhood could ever be associated with him.”

She didn’t stop there. According to a report from the New York Daily News, the Queen Bee took the rhetoric a step below even her sense of dignity:

Pelosi stressed she made clear to Trump there isn’t enough support in Congress for a wall and speculated the President is refusing to back down because he’s scared to run away with his tail between his legs.

“I was trying to be the mom. I can’t explain it to you. It was so wild,” Pelosi said of the Oval Office meet, which was also attended by Vice President Pence and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). “It goes to show you: you get into a tinkle contest with a skunk, you get tinkle all over you.”

This represented the first salvo in a major spin-job for the ultra-liberal San Francisco Democrat. The rhetoric spun by Mrs. Pelosi and Chuck Schumer was desperate as they tried to deflect their humiliation and place it back on the President:

With reporters still present, Trump boasted during the Oval meeting he would be “proud” to shutdown the government if Congress doesn’t earmark cash for his wall before a Dec. 21 spending deadline.

Pelosi told Democrats that Trump’s boisterousness will be beneficial for them.

“The fact is we did get him to say, to fully own that the shutdown was his,” Pelosi said. “That was an accomplishment.”

The press tried to characterize this as a “Trump Tantrum”, saying things like this lede:

While “discussing” a budgetary agreement for the government, President Donald Trump crossed his arms and declared: “we will shut down the government if there is no wall.”

While the Democrats and the mainstream media in the US are sure to largely buy these interpretations of the event, the fact that this matter was televised live shows that the matter was entirely different, and this will be discomfiting to all but those Democrats and Trump-dislikers that will not look at reality.

There appears to be a twofold accomplishment for the President in this confrontation:

  1. The President revealed to his support base the real nature of the conversation with the Democrat leadership, because anyone watching this broadcast (and later, video clip) saw it unedited with their own eyes. They witnessed the pettiness of both Democrats and they witnessed a President completely comfortable and confident about the situation.
  2. President Trump probably made many of his supporters cheer with the commitment to shut down the government if he doesn’t get his border wall funding. This cheering is for both the strength shown about getting the wall finished and the promise to shut the government down, and further, Mr. Trump’s assertion that he would be “proud” to shut the government down, taking complete ownership willingly, reflects a sentiment that many of his supporters share.

The usual pattern is for the media, Democrats and even some Republicans to create a “scare” narrative about government shutdowns, about how doing this is a sure-fire path to chaos and suffering for the United States.

But the educated understanding of how shutdowns work reveals something completely different. Vital services never close. However, National Parks can close partly or completely, and some non-essential government agencies are shuttered. While this is an inconvenience for the employees furloughed during the shutdown, they eventually are re-compensated for the time lost, and are likely to receive help during the shutdown period if they need it. The impact on the nation is minimal, aside from the fact that the government stops spending money at the same frenetic pace as usual.

President Trump’s expression of willingness to do this action and his singling out of the Dem leadership gives the Democrats a real problem. Now the entire country sees their nature. As President Trump is a populist, this visceral display of Democrat opposition and pettiness will make at least some impact on the population, even that group of people who are not Trump fans.

The media reaction and that of the Democrats here show, amazingly, that after three years-plus of Donald Trump being a thorn in their side, they still do not understand how he works, and they also cannot match it against their expected “norms” of establishment behavior.

This may be a brilliant masterstroke, and it also may be followed up by more. The President relishes head-to-head conflict. The reactions of these congress members showed who they really are.

Let the games begin.

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