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What do the #Moscow protests mean for #MayorSobyanin?



These are trying times for Russian president Vladimir Putin. After years of grimly bearing the reports of economic stagnation and political repression, the people of Russia have taken to the streets by the thousands. While the scale of the ongoing demonstrations is still smaller than during the last bout of popular anger in 2011/2012, they are widely seen as a showdown over the fate of Russia after Putin steps down in 2024.

But for the man some have tipped to be Putin’s successor, the fall-out from the recent demonstrations could be even more seismic. Sergei Sobyanin has spent nearly 40 years climbing Russia’s political ladder, with barely a ripple in the international press. Now, as Moscow’s mayor, he finds himself at the center of an international storm, and the next few weeks will be crucial.

Since he joined the Young Communist League in the early 1980s, Sobyanin has proved himself a highly skilled operator, able to ride the current of Russian politics without being sucked into the maelstroms it whips up. He’s been close to Putin ever since 2000, when he helped him remove a prosecutor-general right at the start of his presidency. Putin and his ally Dmitry Medvedev rewarded Sobyanin by naming him chief of staff and then deputy prime minister, but the Moscow mayoralty was the juiciest prize of all.

In Russia, control of the capital has long been a stepping stone to national power. Nikita Khrushchev ran the Moscow branch of the Communist Party, the forerunner of today’s mayoralty, before being elected general secretary of the entire Soviet Union; Boris Yeltsin took the same path to become the Russian Federation’s inaugural president. Moscow’s previous mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, aspired to the presidency himself before eventually being ousted by the Kremlin, but many believe that Sobyanin has a better shot, given his ability to position himself on both sides of the political divide.

Since being appointed mayor in 2010, Sobyanin has negotiated a careful course that has oftentimes been at odds with the desires of the Kremlin. He’s spent trillions of rubles building a cleaner, greener Moscow, with a vastly improved transport system and myriad parks and cafes for young, liberal thinkers to discuss their ideas.

This middle-ground approach has proved successful. Surveys released in May 2018 show that only 11% of Muscovites have a negative view of Sobyanin. Many admire him for allowing opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny to contest the mayoral elections of 2013, and then appoint pro-democracy newspaperman Konstantin Remchukov to run his own campaign. By the standards of Russia’s ‘managed democracy’, in which dissent is only tolerated if it is weak and ineffective, Sobyanin’s concession was very much a high water-mark. It’s no wonder then that Sobyanin’s more liberal credentials have earned him the support of private Russian companies such as Lukoil or Sistema.

In the corridors of power, however, they remember the fact that Navalny nearly forced Sobyanin to a second round, a development which apparently earned a rebuke from the Kremlin. Sobyanin has strived to defend his position, but many among Russia’s siloviki, the power-brokers who have Putin’s ear, are unconvinced. Critics such as Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Russian parliament and a potential rival for the presidency, believe him to be a dangerous maverick who might take a more liberal path than what the establishment would tolerate.

These suspicions have only been fuelled by the recent Moscow protests. The decision to prevent dozens of opposition candidates from standing in Moscow’s city council elections, which triggered the two days of demonstrations, may have been taken by the Kremlin, but it was prompted by a desire to crack down hard on liberal parties.

Now, parts of the establishment are blaming Sobyanin for allowing the unrest to fester. As if that weren’t enough, the mayor responded to the first day of protests by suggesting that protesters be allowed to hold authorized demonstrations - a far cry from the brutal response Putin and his advisors eventually meted out.

Make or break

As the fallout continues, things could go one of two ways for Sobyanin. On the one hand, it appears that Putin is about to face the most trying period of his presidency. His approval ratings were already plummeting before the recent demonstrations, and the discontent is unlikely to be quelled by his heavy-handed response. If Putin were to stand aside, Sobyanin’s attempts to find a conciliatory route through the recent unrest may enable him to pitch himself as a more moderate, progressive alternative that could normalize relations with the West.

On the other hand, Sobyanin’s rivals have been emboldened by his recent travails. According to media reports, Volodin has been particularly vehement, blaming the mayor for the recent protests. The siloviki, meanwhile, have been whispering on social media that Sobyanin might be. After years of grumbling about Sobyanin’s cautious embrace of liberalism, Putin’s other would-be successors now have the perfect chance to stick the knife in.

With the reports of fresh demonstrations, Sobyanin faces a career-defining choice. His balancing act so far and good reputation has positioned him as the only working candidate for Russia post-2024 for many Kremlin opponents. His career, and Russia’s future direction, may hang on the decision the Moscow mayor makes in the coming days.


Scottish government comment on efforts to stay in Erasmus



Minsters have welcomed the support of around 150 MEPs who have asked the European Commission to explore how Scotland could continue to take part in the popular Erasmus exchange programme. The move comes a week after Further and Higher Education Minister Richard Lochhead held productive talks with Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Commissioner Mariya Gabriel to explore the idea. Until last year, over 2,000 Scottish students, staff and learners took part in the scheme annually, with Scotland attracting proportionally more Erasmus participants from across Europe - and sending more in the other direction - than any other country in the UK.

Lochhead said: “Losing Erasmus is huge blow for the thousands of Scottish students, community groups and adult learners - from all demographic backgrounds - who can no longer live, study or work in Europe.“It also closes the door for people to come to Scotland on Erasmus to experience our country and culture and it is heartening to see that loss of opportunity recognised by the 145 MEPs from across Europe who want Scotland’s place in Erasmus to continue. I am grateful to Terry Reintke and other MEPs for their efforts and thank them for extending the hand of friendship and solidarity to Scotland’s young people. I sincerely hope we can succeed.

“I have already had a virtual meeting with Commissioner Gabriel. We agreed that withdrawing from Erasmus is highly regrettable and we will continue to explore with the EU how to maximize Scotland’s continued engagement with the programme. I have also spoken with my Welsh Government counterpart and agreed to keep in close contact.”

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Leaders agree on new ‘dark red’ zones for high-risk COVID areas



At a special meeting of European heads of government, to discuss the rise of infection rates across Europe and the emergence of new, more contagious variants, leaders agreed that the situation warranted the utmost caution and agreed on a new category of ‘dark red zone’ for high-risk areas.

The new category would indicate that the virus was circulating at a very high level. People traveling from dark red areas could be required to do a test before departure, as well as to undergo quarantine after arrival. Non-essential travel in or out of these areas would be strongly discouraged.

The EU has underlined that it is anxious to keep the single market functioning especially concerning the movement of essential workers and goods, von der Leyen described this as of the “utmost importance”. 

The approval of vaccinations and the start of roll-out is encouraging but it is understood that further vigilance is needed. Some states which are more dependent on tourism called for the use of vaccination certificates as a way to open up travel. The leaders debated the use a common approach and agreed that the vaccination document should be seen as a medical document, rather than a travel document - at this stage. Von der Leyen said: “We will discuss the suitability of a common approach to certification.”

Member states agreed to a Council recommendation setting a common framework for the use of rapid antigen tests and the mutual recognition of COVID-19 test results across the EU. The mutual recognition of test results for SARS-CoV2 infection carried by certified health bodies should help facilitate cross-border movement and cross-border contact tracing.

The common list of appropriate COVID-19 rapid antigen tests should be flexible enough for addition, or removal, of those tests whose efficacy is impacted by COVID-19 mutations.

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Lagarde calls for swift ratification of Next Generation EU



Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank, shared the conclusions of the monthly Euro Governing Council. The Council has decided to reconfirm its “very accommodative” monetary policy stance. Lagarde said that the renewed surge in COVID had disrupted economic activity, particularly for services. 

Lagarde underlined the importance of the Next Generation EU package and stressed that it should become operational without delay. She called on member states to ratify it as quickly as possible.  

The interest rate on the main refinancing operations and the interest rates on the marginal lending facility and the deposit facility will remain unchanged at 0.00%, 0.25% and -0.50% respectively. The Governing Council expects the key ECB interest rates to remain at their present or lower levels.

The Governing Council will continue the purchases under the pandemic emergency purchase programme (PEPP) with a total envelope of €1,850 billion. The Governing Council will conduct net asset purchases under the PEPP until at least the end of March 2022 and, in any case, until it judges that the coronavirus crisis phase is over. It will also continue to reinvest the principal payments from maturing securities purchased under the PEPP until at least the end of 2023. In any case, the future roll-off of the PEPP portfolio will be managed to avoid interference with the appropriate monetary policy stance.

Third, net purchases under the asset purchase programme (APP) will continue at a monthly pace of €20 billion. The Governing Council continues to expect monthly net asset purchases under the APP to run for as long as necessary to reinforce the accommodative impact of its policy rates, and to end shortly before it starts raising the key ECB interest rates.

The Governing Council also intends to continue reinvesting, in full, the principal payments from maturing securities purchased under the APP for an extended period of time past the date when it starts raising the key ECB interest rates, and in any case for as long as necessary to maintain favourable liquidity conditions and an ample degree of monetary accommodation.

Finally, the Governing Council will continue to provide ample liquidity through its refinancing operations. In particular, the third series of targeted longer-term refinancing operations (TLTRO III) remains an attractive source of funding for banks, supporting bank lending to firms and households.

The Governing Council continues to stand ready to adjust all of its instruments, as appropriate, to ensure that inflation moves towards its aim in a sustained manner, in line with its commitment to symmetry.

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