Russian artist sets the Security Service’s entrance on fire
Yesterday night, a Russian activist Peter Pavlensky set fire to the entrance to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters in Lubyanka, Moscow.
Yesterday night, a Russian activist Peter Pavlensky set fire to the entrance to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters in Lubyanka, Moscow.
Immediately after the action, he and the journalists observing the performance were arrested.
As of right now, the journalists have been released, but Peter Pavlensky is still detained at the police station. His preliminary accusation is disorderly conduct.
Here is how Peter explained the meaning of his action: “The burning door of Lubyanka is a gauntlet that the society throws down in the face of a terrorist threat. The Federal Security Service (FSB) has been acting by the method of endless terror and continues holding the power over 146 000 000 people. Fear turns free people into a sticky mass of disparate bodies. The threat of an inevitable reprisal impends over anyone within the range of reach of a video surveillance device, audio tapping device, and border passport control. Military tribunals annihilate any expression of free will.
But terrorism can only exist out of an animal instinct of fear. A human is forced to go against this instinct by an unconditional protective reflex. This is a reflex of fighting for one’s own life. And life is worth starting to fight for.”
The University of Oxford, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious universities, is under fire for accepting a donation of £75 million ($115 million) from Len Blavatnik to build new facilities for the Blavatnik School of Government. More
It is also criticized for holding a joint business award with Alfa Bank in 2007-2011. Access Alfa Renova (AAR) consortium played a role in a Kremlin-sponsored harassment campaign against British Petroleum in Russia. This group of Russian billionaires included Len Blavatnik, the richest man in Britain, born in the USSR but now an American citizen.
The Guardian reports that in 2008 and 2009 dozens of British and western managers were “forced out of Russia”-as told by a letter by members of the Russian opposition- in a bitter dispute between BP and a group of powerful Russian billionaires. The billionaires, including Blavatnik, were joint partners with BP in TNK-BP, once Russia’s third-biggest oil company, a dispute that Oxford admits it didn’t investigate, despite a spokesman for the university claiming “Oxford University has a thorough and robust scrutiny process in place with regard to philanthropic giving. The Committee to Review Donations conducts appropriate due diligence based on publicly available information. The University is confident in this process and in its outcomes.”
In a letter to the Guardian, 21 academics, activists and dissidents have claimed that Blavatnik is a member of a consortium that “has long been accused of being behind a campaign of state-sponsored harassment against BP”, as part of which “Vladimir Putin’s FSB intelligence agency fabricated a case against two Oxford graduates”.
The letter in response to the controversy penned to The Guardian scathingly criticizes the university, claiming that Oxford must “stop selling its reputation and prestige to Putin’s associates”, while also calling on the university to set in motion comprehensive reform in regards to transparency and procedure with regards to foreign donations.
The letter has many prominent dissidents’ signatures on it from both past and present. Pavel Litvinov, who openly protested the USSR’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and was sent into five years’ exile for it is one of them, as well as Vladimir Bukovsky, a dissident who has spoken in great detail about the KGB’s psychiatric treatment against supposed enemies of the state. Vladimir Milov, who leads Russia’s Democratic Choice party and a friend to the late Boris Nemtsov, and the letter’s organizer, Ilya Zaslavskiy. Mr. Zaslavskiy, an expert of Free Russia Foundation, graduated from Oxford, ran Moscow’s Oxford alumni association, and has worked for TNK-BP.
The letter says that until a proper investigation is done politicians and other public figures who have endorsed the Blavatnik school should withdraw support. It also urges the university to carry out urgent “transparency and procedural reforms” with regard to foreign donations.
Demand a vigorous public debate about grants and awards that involves students, alumni, tutors, NGOs, political dissidents and the media –SIGN THE PETITION!
It’s true that Oxford’s faux pas won’t lead to dozens upon dozens of Oxford graduates going into the real world defending the Kremlin’s actions against the Russian people, and it’s silly to think the School of Government will be some kind of indoctrination centre reminiscent of the Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean ideological crusades, even if it does have an oligarch’s name attached to it. However, in principle, this decision is rife with hypocrisy. Oxford is one of the world’s best universities and for centuries has been a place for people of all ages and backgrounds to gain new perspectives on the world around them. Academic freedom is vitally important to any stable society and educational institutions must adhere to strict guidelines to uphold that freedom. If Oxford, already in hot water for its decision to accept the donation and for speaking in vague platitudes when confronted on its reasoning, is to stay the course and ignore popular discontent with its decision, it will, whether purposefully or not, reflect values that run contrary to what it as an educational institution is supposed to stand for, namely, secretive and perhaps even corrupt bureaucratic practices. It looks even worse when the school receiving this donation is a school of government, offering education in a public policy setting centered on the critical thinking necessary to be effective in the field.
On top of that, the school’s construction is not looked upon favorably by some directly involved in the university’s day-to-day operations. The Guardian reported that one Oxford academic, anonymously dubbed it an “architectural calamity”. He added that the university which contributed £25m towards the school had “squandered money on a frippery”. In addition, Martin Dewhirst, an Oxford graduate and former lecturer in Russian, accused the university of not carrying out adequate due diligence when it considered the prospective donation in January 2008. Dewhirst submitted two freedom of information requests asking Oxford to reveal who carried out checks on Blavatnik’s business activities inside Russia. Again, the opposition was met with artificial, vague explanation from the university, which said a donations acceptance review committee approved the donation “based on due diligence conducted by the Development Office”. The Guardian goes on to show that “In response to the freedom of information requests, the university said it did not consult Bob Dudley or anyone from BP about the donation. It said no articles were translated from Russian concerning Blavatnik’s business activities. It was unable to say how many members of the due diligence team “had a good reading knowledge of Russian”.
Ilya Zaslavskiy, the organizer of the letter opposing the donation, argues that Mr. Blavatnik “could have voted with BP against his Russian partners but in the end did not. Zaslavskiy also alleges the price was excessive and an “awful” deal for ordinary Russian taxpayers, frustratedly wondering “How is this good governance?”
Oxford has a choice to make here. It can either ignore the criticism, take the money, and continue on with a stain on its record unlikely to go away. Or it can order a more comprehensive review of the donation and its merits and continue from there. It will likely lead to some short-term embarrassment, but if the university reverses its decision it will ultimately keep its record much cleaner and likely avoid a scandal like this in the future. The latter is likely being taught to its students within its hallowed halls as the preferable alternative. Practice what you preach, or in this case, teach.
Free Russia Foundation has joined the petition to Oxford University demanding new and thorough due diligence into the activities of donors affiliated with Kremlin, based on clearly defined ethical norms and carried out by reputable, independent investigators. We urge Oxford to stop selling reputational prestige to Putin’s comrades from the Alfa Access Renova (AAR) consortium, which has a highly questionable business track.
Ten years ago, President Vladimir Putin cancelled the state celebration of the Day of October Revolution on November 7 (also known as The Day of Great October Socialist Revolution during the Soviet period). More
Many people welcomed the move; in fact it should’ve been done back in 1993. But November 7 was replaced with the state holiday of November 4, known as Unity Day. Obviously, the unification of the Russian nation was meant to take place around Putin’s personality. And it did, for a while, but nowadays Unity Day has a tendency to turn into a set of unpredictable metamorphoses.
But let’s get back to a few years ago. In spite of all the attempts to popularize new state holiday (including a documentary movie made by one of the most prestigious Russian film directors Vladimir Khotinenko), most Russians still didn’t celebrate November 4. According to state polling data, in 2009 1 in 3 Russians didn’t know which holiday the country was celebrating, 1 in 10 thought that the it was to celebrate the October Revolution, and 1 in 15 thought that November 4 was the Feast of Our Lady of Kazan.
The only ones who knew exactly what to do during all these years were nationalists. That’s why for Russian journalists, November 4 is better known as the Day of Russian March. It’s worth noting that the 2005 Russian March was the first popular nationalist rally approved by the authorities. This also marked the period of Putin’s not entirely unsuccessful flirtation with Russian nationalists.
Several years passed but for the majority of Russians, November 4 remained no more than a day off. In 2014, however, a significant change took place, as Putin might as well have been celebrating not just Unity Day, but Unity Year all year long- literally. Each day after the annexation of Crimea, Putin slowly became the Father of Nation: his administration deputy chief Vyacheslav Volodin framed this sacral status, saying, “If there is Putin, there is Russia; and without Putin, there is no Russia”.
And even though few people know exactly what the “Father of the Nation” is, it seems to be someone who is responsible for everything that happens to the nation, both triumphs and tragedies. Four days ago, after months of triumphs, a tragedy took place: a Russian airplane crashed in Egypt, killing 224 people. The airplane in question was a charter flight full of tourists who were mostly from Saint Petersburg, Putin’s home city.
The catastrophe took place on Saturday, but “the Father” didn’t appear before the Nation until Monday. Putin didn’t give a national address, but instead expressed his deepest condolences on the spot before a meeting with the Transport Minister.
Apparently, Putin didn’t think it was worth interrupting his weekend for, or perhaps he simply didn’t want to. But the motive behind his decision doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the president wasn’t there. And for perhaps the first time ever, Russians have at last achieved real unity, the people’s unity; without any fake “Father of Nation”.
This has happened before: when Muscovites sheltered each other in their homes during the smog in 2010 and the authorities did almost nothing; when up to 200 000 people poured into the streets to protest against Putin’s return; when Russians raised millions for those who suffered in the terrible 2012 Krymsk floods; when Russians raise money for cancer sufferers every day because the government doesn’t provide the medication – it happens. It happened, unexpectedly, less than a month ago when the state-owned First TV Channel began a fundraising campaign to provide firewood for the elderly. Most intellectuals have called the fact that so many elderly people live in poverty a source of shame for oil – and gas-rich Russia. Democratic Choice party activist Stanislav Yakovlev fairly said he viewed “cautious attempts at peaceful, humanitarian, nonviolent nation-building as a civil unification through a noble cause”. The current sorry state of Russian nation – building, Yakovlev said, is the idea that “we look after our own”. This works when you either protect or fight someone; there is no other option. Only two weeks before the plane crash in Egypt, Yakovlev remarked that it was lucky that there hadn’t been a repeat of the Krymsk floods.
The plane crash in Egypt could easily become a second Krymsk; only this time it’s happening not during the prosperous years of high oil prices, but in a time when Russia is in the middle of two wars and an economic recession.
Putin has clearly demonstrated that he is not able to consolidate the nation under the noble cause of nonviolent nation-building. But would “the union over military agenda” be able to survive when even Russian nationalists, many of whom are former good friends of Putin but who have since been arrested or imprisoned, protested today against dictatorship, political repressions and even war in Ukraine?
by Karina Orlova
“Relatively good, to bad, to worse” – That’s how the relationship between the United States and Russia was described at the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative event, A Conversation with Vladimir Milov. More
Vladimir Milov, chairman of the Democratic Choice party in Russia, was welcomed by the Hudson Institute and Free Russia Foundation Monday afternoon to speak on matters of corruption and what lies ahead for Russia.
Milov worked in the Russian government in the 1990s and early 2000s and now represents the Institute for Energy Policy, a Moscow-based think tank. Corruption has changed in Russia since he was working for the Kremlin. In the 1990s, business and bureaucracy worked separately as two distinct entities. Private enterprise would often buy out government workers for favors in those days, but the two entities stayed relatively separate. Milov described the separation as a “firewall”.
Today, government bureaucracy and business are closely tied together. Yeltsin’s government was criticized, deservedly, for doling out favors to private interests, but today’s government, dead set on state investment, has failed to produce substantial growth in the Russian economy for quite some time. The investments that come into the country often do not stimulate the economy, rather, they enrich President Putin and his political allies. Many projects implemented by the Kremlin have been inefficient and provided little benefit to the Russian people, as has come up every so often as reported by the Russian business daily Vedomosti.
It is no question that the Russian government exercises extensive control over the state media. While some will point to President Putin’s sky-high approval rating as a broad mandate, Milov argued that that approval rating does not show the complexity of the stable but uncertain situation in Russia today. It’s true many ordinary Russians think quite highly of Putin himself, but the system he presides over still manages to invoke contempt among many of the Russian people. Russia today is a vertically oriented country-the system is exclusive and often prevents social mobility for the general populace. While the oligarchs do not have the same blatant influence they may have had under Yeltsin, they still control large portions of the government or government-subsidized industries.
It wasn’t that long ago that Russians were standing shoulder to shoulder in large anti-Putin demonstrations across the country in 2011 and 2012. Back then, Putin’s approval rating was stuck in the 40s.
“Then he injected a drug”, Milov explained. The drug being nationalism, a fervor that swept across Russia in 2014 as Crimea was annexed and the crusade against the “Fascist Kiev Junta” was on.
That fervor is still visible on TV today, but cracks may be starting to appear. Despite TV news continuing on about Ukraine, Syria, and the faults of the United States, the people of Russia are starting to slowly turn towards other priorities closer to home. Living standards are fading while the economy is starting to sink. Putin’s approval rating remains high but the authorities in general are still perceived negatively.
Elections, particularly regional elections, are still tightly controlled in Russia, but that doesn’t mean Russia’s elections are a forgone victory for United Russia. In the cities, for instance, members of the ruling party are slowly falling out of favor with the people, who are fatigued by this highly monopolized system. The patriotic fervor of regaining Crimea and fighting fascists in the Donbas are losing momentum.
In the past the Russian government has always been willing to propose plans to fix whatever issues are bothering the Russian people. That’s been a constant, regardless of whether the plan was effective or not. These days, however, the main refrain from the government has been to wait. Wait, things will stabilize and return to normal, and be patient, because it may take a few years.
“Public opinion still matters in Russia”
This is not to say that Russia will see millions of protestors packed into Red Square in the near future calling for Putin to step down a la Maidan. The overall system in Russia is strong, and is unlikely to yield a popular uprising similar to Ukraine’s recent revolution. Milov attributed that to a more conservative and passive attitude among Russians when compared to Ukrainians. He did, however, expect some change, perhaps somewhat along the lines of what has happened recently in Turkey. For reference, Turkey has been under the control of Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the right-wing Islamist Justice and Development Party, and his rule, like Putin’s, has been criticized for creeping authoritarianism. However, Turkey’s most recent election saw the Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, lose its parliamentary majority and go to the coalition negotiation table with the secular opposition, the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) which came in second. While their party did not win the election, Turkish people who supported the CHP and other opposition parties seemed to come out of the election relieved that the system of checks and balances in Turkey was still alive and functioning. Milov stressed that this could be a turbulent and difficult time in Russia, but that the ultimate result could be a more democratic, less stagnant, and cleanly governed country.
Could things go the other way?
“Of course, and that’s in Putin’s interests!” Milov said. But evidence seems to point to the contrary. Irkutsk recently went through a political split away from United Russia as did Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city. Milov seemed to believe that low turnout may be a goal of the authorities. If Russians went out to vote in large numbers, they could, especially in the cities, present a large problem for the Kremlin.
“Public opinion still matters in Russia”, Milov explained. “Even the Kremlin wants to have the people content, and if they lose support, concessions can and very well may happen, such as in 2005 when pensioners’ benefits were monetized!”
Even the anti-American nationalist rhetoric will lose its luster if Russian standard of living continues to decline.
The subject of the murder of opposition activist Boris Nemtsov came up as well in the conversation. Milov, without hesitation, said he was under the impression that the Kremlin had arranged the assassination, stressing his knowledge of the way things worked in the Kremlin and a letter he send to the FSB rife with questions that he claimed point the finger at the state, but he also shed light on a division among liberal Russians-many of them believe that it is completely plausible that Mr. Nemtsov was simply killed by some Chechen thugs.
It didn’t take long after that for the subject to turn to one of Chechnya’s most (in)famous, Razman Kadyrov. Milov remained skeptical that Kadyrov was behind Nemtsov’s slaughter, since Mr. Kadyrov stood to lose from that type of stunt, as Kadyrov has fallen out of favor with many of Putin’s allies despite being close to Putin himself.
These types of tragedies and the search for justice, however, don’t seem to be the path to take for democratic change to happen in Russia. “If you talk to people about this kind of thing they tune out and ignore you. People want problems to be solved, and if you talk about that, people come to your side. People don’t want to talk about the murders and the bombings.”
Milov also stressed that even a period of turbulence leading to stronger democracy as suggested before would not immediately turn Russia into a western European republic. “When you speak about change, people think about Western types of democracy, forget it. We’re looking towards a more imperfect system but a better system, one where more voices need to be heard? More openness, competitiveness, we don’t need to western standards yet, get more competitiveness first!”
Russia’s stagnant and precarious position today will be called into question sooner or later
When asked what he’d do about the state media monopoly from the United States, Milov’s proposed first steps of action were simple-don’t let these moguls and oligarchs invest in the west.
It’s going to take a long time. It’s going to be turbulent and likely met with substantial skepticism and opposition. It may present problems for Russia’s neighboring governments. And it may not be in 2016 when the Duma elections are held or even in 2018 when Russians go back to the polls to elect a president for the next six years. And perhaps most importantly, despite the romanticizing of Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution, it probably won’t happen with crowds jamming Red Square for months upon months. But Russia’s stagnant and precarious position today will be called into question sooner or later. It’s up to the people to figure out how to steer the country to strength in democracy, economic diversity, and clean governance.
by Kyle Menyhert
Twenty-five years have passed since the internet began uniting the world in a single network. We began to live in an era of information and communication. For those of us who were born and grew up with the net, it was a fantastic opportunity to communicate with each other, to get instant access to any information or knowledge, to live in a free world without borders. More
Today’s world is becoming something we used to read about in science fiction- a fully-fledged cyberspace.
Despite the invention of the internet, those linked with military companies and the state, likely sponsors and potential beneficiaries, have continued to lag behind progress, and the net, even despite its global growth, still belonged to the inventors. In effect, the main conflict of interests lies in the freedom of transmission and distribution of information: some (i.e. the state), think that information needs to be controlled, others (i.e. the inventors), understand that the net is built in such a way that renders total technical control impossible.
Years of existence in a communal space has not only changed our habits, but it has also opened up possibilities. The speed of the spread of messages, such as the news, is astonishing. The speed of the organization of events, where the number of those ‘attending’ doubles every hour, clearly demonstrates this process. We have started to communicate personally more: the number of horizontal links that are represented online today through our devices have been increased significantly since last 20 years.
Web 2.0 and social networks present a great opportunity for some (i.e. us). For others, the net has become a threat. If we remove the typical set of cyber-crimes, then freedom of access to information and freedom of communication will remain a major threat.
How this works in Russia: the government department RosKomnnadzor, independently or at the request of other government departments, adds sites to the register of banned websites: a list of sites which all internet providers are obliged to block. RosKomnnadzor itself rarely really blocks sites. And if you want to get on any of the sites on this register, then it is likely you will see the message: “This resource is blocked by the state authorities”. However it’s possible you won’t see it and the site will work. Immediately you will see links to applications which will rid you of the message and any restrictions on the network. RosKomnnadzor is a department which, on its own behalf or at the request of others, goes through the net and seeks to delete or change information which it believes violates legislation.
This is usually the case when it comes to suicide (in Russia this is a difficult topic due to a large increase in suicide rates) and drugs (for some reason the Federal Drug Control Service focusses its energies on marijuana on the internet, and not on the street). But the most striking and, unfortunately, now the most numerous are political blocks and bans: from song lyrics to political figures’ last words in court (Alexei Navalny’s speech at one of his trials was blocked at the request of the Prosecutor General).
The main mistake of the conservative-minded state representatives is thinking that all of this somehow helps. These tasks designed to control don’t solve the problem, because the environment changes in such a way that this control becomes meaningless. These laws are simply all harmful: investment is becoming less appealing, the market is becoming impoverished, the population is getting angry, and alternative means of communication are growing.
Today in Russia there are two internets: one that the government wants to build itself, and another, ours- a shared internet. The attempt to control the net in such an original way honestly seemed a worthy but pointless task. The net is constructed in such a way that it is technically impossible to control anything.
A couple of years ago I wondered about the possibility of blocking Facebook or Wikipedia or some other infrastructural resource. And all these years, in spite of all the madness of the legislative and executive authorities, I still reply: no, it isn’t possible. Because at today’s usage levels, there is scope everywhere. Such a block causes irreparable damage to its creators. For users, the potential is there but technically it goes unnoticed. As discussed above, blocks are merely a formality.
Facebook, Wikipedia, and Twitter are all in the top 50 most popular sites in Russia. Not only is Alexei Navalny on Facebook, but Dmitry Medvedev is too. Not only does Charas have a Wikipedia entry, but the giant panda Mei Xiang does too. It’s not just Anonymous International who have a Twitter account (which internet users with a Russian IP address can’t see), but also the press secretary of the Investigative Committee, Vladimir Markin. The media, government departments, as well as small and large businesses are on all these services.
Today Facebook or Twitter is not only a way to post a funny picture, but also a way of communicating. Lots of people use Facebook Messenger for work, and many use Wikipedia for their studies, and so on and so forth. When any of these services goes down, everything stops: life, work, studies.
And do you really believe that people in the government are that crazy (of course, after the annexation of Crimea and the adoption of all these brutal laws everything is believable – but we are in the internet)?
The era of social networks is giving way to the era of real-time chats. We are beginning to communicate right here and right now, to come together in big or small groups, to communicate anonymously and safely with each other. Thanks to FireChat – we can do this even without the net. This is further confirmation that the internet has proved its right to freedom.
by Anton Merkurov