Opinions

BE INFORMED


Subscribe for the latest
updates of Free Russia


Russian State Duma Election

Assessment of the Election Results

Russia’s State Duma elections have been declared valid and the Central Election Commission (CEC) has shared the final results. Seats in the State Duma are now distributed as follows:

  • United Russia – 324 seats
  • Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) – 57 seats
  • A Just Russia—For Truth – 27 seats
  • Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR)– 21 seats
  • New People – 13 seats
  • Self-nominated – 5 seats
  • Growth Party – 1 seat
  • Rodina – 1 seat
  • Civic Platform – 1 seat

Compared with the 2016 elections, United Russia lost 19 seats, the CPRF gained 15 seats, and A Just Russia gained 4 seats. Meanwhile, the LDPR lost 18 seats, New People, which did not exist in 2016, gained 13 seats, self-nominated candidates gained four seats, and the Growth Party, which did not have any seats in the Duma in 2016 gained one seat, while Rodina and Civic Platform continued to hold onto one seat each, which was no change from 2016.

United Russia has managed to retain its so-called “constitutional majority” in the Duma, making it possible to initiate the process of changing the Russian Constitution by voting as a single block (constitutional changes require at least a two-thirds vote in the State Duma, after which amendments are approved by the Federation Council before they are ratified by the legislative assemblies of the regions). The United Russia party faction has enough deputies that it does not need to find allies from among other factions in order to hold such a vote. Thusly, during its previous session, the constitutional amendment adopted on July 1, 2020 was then confirmed by the State Duma because the United Russia faction already had enough votes to do this on its own. 

From the opposition’s perspective, however, the playing field looks drastically different compared to 2016. Then, the CPRF and populist-nationalist LDPR received roughly the same number of votes (about 13% each), while the center-left A Just Russia had just 6.2%. However, approval for United Russia suddenly plummeted in 2018 following a pension reform, just as support for the CPRF began to spike. From 2019 to 2021, the authorities launched an open, public attack on the CPRF, with about 40 Communist deputies in the regions having been subjected to criminal or administrative prosecution.

There has not much “communist” left about the CPRF, and today, it is simply an ordinary left-wing party that tries to benefit from a significant historical brand recognition. In the face of a de-facto ban on registering any new political parties in Russia without the Kremlin’s stamp of approval, the CPRF has found itself without any real political rivals as Russia’s only “left-wing party”. In fact, large numbers of active left-leaning voters have now become CPRF members and activists. Today’s CPRF has no qualms with the notion of private property, advocates for expanding the powers of parliaments at all levels, and supports the protection of political competition, expanding civil rights protections, and frequently supports civic initiatives (the Stop Shies movement in Arkhangelsk Oblast was one striking example of this, as was the Party’s “Statement 45” against political repression in Moscow following the 2019 Moscow City Duma elections).

As a parliamentary party, the CPRF has the advantage of registering candidates without having to gather signatures, which is why many local opposition activists, human rights activists, and others are most often nominated through the CPRF. This privilege extends to registering candidates for elections at all levels. Russia’s electoral system has two options:  candidates are nominated by parties and “self-nomination.” Self-nomination is quite challenging as it involves verification of each voter signature submitted in support of a candidate, making it possible for the authorities to arbitrarily dismiss signatures as invalid.

This is why, CPRF’s privilege draws a lot of supporters who have sensibly concluded that they have no other avenues for registering for elections. For example, after Oleg Mikhailov was elected to the Russian State Duma on September 19, 2021 from a single-mandate district in Komi, according to the CPRF list in the Komi State Council, his seat was given to Libertarian V. Vorobyov, who the CPRF had previously nominated on its list, along with other local activists (Vorobyov was the first Libertarian in Russia to become a regional deputy).  

The Kremlin’s intensifying crack down on the CPRF has only strengthened the protest electorate’s rallying around the Party, and it has emerged as the leader in the opposition field. Elimination of former presidential candidate Pavel Grudinin from the CPRF’s list for the State Duma was one notable example of this. Grudinin was the Party’s de-facto second in command, and a one-time presidential candidate for the CPRF. He finished second in the elections, and enjoys wide popularity among voters. Gennady Zyuganov has been the Party’s permanent leader since 1994. Grudinin was accused of allegedly failing to close an offshore account in Belize in 2018, though the CPRF has claimed that all of the “evidence” of this is forged, and even presented the original documents itself. Moreover, the circumstances were no different when Grudinin was allowed to register as a presidential candidate in 2018.

According to official data, the CPRF received 18.93% of the vote in 2021 (57 seats—48 of which are from the electoral lists, and 9 from the districts). In protest regions, it received a similar number of votes to United Russia, winning in Yakutia, Khabarovsk Krai, Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Mari El Republic, and in many major cities (Vladivostok, Omsk, Syktyvkar, South Sakhalin, etc.). In 2016, United Russia won every region.

The LDPR has gone through a sudden decline, which is related to the fact that the party failed to defend its member —a highly popular governor of Khabarovsk Krai, Sergei Furgal, who was arrested in July 2020 over a conflict with Presidential Plenipotentiary Envoy Yuri Trutnev. The Far East has always been the LDPR’s electoral base.

Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who turned 75 last spring, is now quite elderly and has long stopped traveling to the regions. During the debates, he was forced to make feeble excuses for handing over Furgal. From 2000 to 2021, the LDPR’s number two was Zhirinovsky’s publicity-shy son, Igor Lebedev (Zhirinovsky was the vice speaker of the State Duma, while his son was the faction leader), though in practice,  Lebedev has led the party for some time. Lebedev did not even run in the 2021 elections, and the LDPR is now openly discussing new leadership. As a result, the party lost nearly half of its previous votes, receiving just 7.55% (21 seats—19 from the party list, and just two from the regions), and even its strong single mandate candidates appear to be underperforming.

Prior to the elections, A Just Russia had merged with two ultra nationalist parties—Gennady Semigin’s Patriots of Russia and Zakhar Prilepin’s For Truth. This drove some moderate supporters away (to the New People party in particular). At the same time, the party organized a wide-ranging publicity campaign that tackled mainstream social and community issues, while staying away from ultra-patriotist narratives. In the end, despite United Russia’s falling approval rating, A Just Russia’s share of the votes barely grew at all—7.46% compared to 6.22% (27 seats, 19 from the party list and 8 from the regions).

In addition to the CPRF’s sudden growth among the opposition, the LDPR’s decline, and A Just Russia’s stagnation, one more important election result is a new party entering parliament for the first time in 17 years. The New People party was created by Alexei Nechaev, the head of Faberlic cosmetics company, in early 2020. The authorities allowed the emergence of this new moderately liberal party with the goal of giving opposition-minded urban educated voters at least some opportunity for political representation. Charismatic former mayor of Yakutsk Sardana Avksenteva, who was forced to resign in January 2021, became the second candidate on the New People list. Most of the other candidates on the party list were not particularly well-known (the party even had to resort to YouTube-based campaigns for recruitment).

In the summer of 2020, New People launched a massive campaign in the regions—newspapers, billboards, LED boards, etc. As the campaigning period came to a close, New People was among the top three parties that received the most mentions on television, and those mentions were always positive (whereas all mentions of the CPRF were negative). As a result, New People obtained 5.32% of the votes and 13 seats from the party list. In regions with high levels of election fraud (as detailed below), it barely received any votes, compared to 8%-10% in protest regions. Now, for the first time since the early 2000s, parliament has a fifth party, which is politically more right-wing than United Russia (since 2003, all of Russia’s opposition has actually been to the left of United Russia).

Campaigns in majoritarian districts played out completely differently from those of 2016. The 2016 election was a rigged match, with just a thin veneer of competition, and the ruling party handing a few districts to the systemic opposition—out of 225 districts, in 19, United Russia did not even bother to nominate candidates. When all was said and done, United Russia won 203 districts (in other words, its candidates only lost in three precincts). This time, the districts were not divided up. Initially, United Russia only vacated five districts, with three more following later. Essentially, the districts were not won by the opposition, but by administrative self-nominated candidates. United Russia still won 198 districts, meaning that its candidates lost in 19 districts, rather than just three. In all of the districts where the opposition parties did win, they faced tough battles. The opposition only lost 20 districts due to fraud.

Thus, the campaigns in 2016 and 2021 were quite different.

The coronavirus pandemic and its repercussions were a constant theme throughout the campaign. Under the pretext of “public health measures,” the Russian authorities banned all public opposition rallies, no matter how small, while still allowing several massive rallies organized by the governing party.

In May 2020, on sanitary and epidemiological grounds, the Russian Central Election Commission was granted permission to hold elections over the course of three days, rather than just one. This made the task of election monitoring significantly more complicated and created greater opportunities to create an environment conducive to pressure and direct fraud (the 2021 elections took place over three days, on September 17, 18, and 19). At the same time, the pandemic led to a deterioration in social and economic conditions, small and medium businesses failed in the face of restrictions, while frustration, depression, and a sense of hopelessness grew among Russia’s citizens, which unsurprisingly soured voters on the governing party and drove many to exercise a protest vote. Russia’s largest official polling agency VTsIOM publicly acknowledged the growth in social pessimism in the spring of 2020[1]:

The data above are from VTsIOM-SPUTNIK surveys—VTsIOM’s daily nationwide telephone survey.

The 2021 elections are also notable because they took place in the wake of the 2020 constitutional reform, which granted the Russian President even more powers than before (especially when it comes to his influence on the judicial system), which greatly complicated the task of protecting citizens’ rights abroad (an attempt to shift from the priority of international law in human rights). The reform also introduced many new prohibitions on electoral rights into the Constitution, whereas they had previously only been contained in laws.

The combination plunging approval for the government and an updated Constitution that has opened the door to new opportunities for repression has led to an unprecedented level of government pressure on civil society and opposition organizations and politicians, even by Russian election standards. The pressure campaign was triggered by authorities’ nervousness and uncertainty over election results. Targeted pressure campaigns are nothing new in Russia, but this time, things were far more widespread, with victims numbering in the thousands. In 2021, a “victim” is not necessarily just a citizen deprived of his or her right to run for office, but also often someone who was actually arrested or forced to emigrate.

Against the backdrop of the pandemic and new restrictions, on May 23, 2020, law number 153-FZ was adopted, depriving citizens who have been sentenced to imprisonment for medium-gravity crimes (under Article 50 of the Russian Criminal Code) from being elected for a five-year period after their criminal record has been dismissed or expunged. This has affected many people convicted of medium-gravity crimes, including those that carry suspended sentence, whether they were sentenced for crimes against individuals or “political” crimes (such as “public dissemination of knowingly false information,” “repeated violations of regulations on organizing rallies,” “calls for separatism,” “extremism,” or “use of violence against representatives of the authorities”). Vast numbers of people have found themselves charged with white-collar crimes such as fraud, misappropriation of funds, or embezzlement, in addition to drug offenses.

Following the arrest of Alexei Navalny on January 17, 2021 immediately upon his return to Russia and the protests that broke out in response, nearly all regional divisions of Navalny supporters’ organizations (the nonprofit FBK, or Anti-Corruption Foundation, and the Navalny headquarters) were violently crushed—some Navalny allies fled the country, while others were arrested. On April 16, 2021, it was reported that the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office had filed a suit to recognize the FBK, Navalny headquarters, and the Foundation for the Protection of Citizens’ Rights (FZPG; another group associated with the FBK since 2019) recognized as extremist organizations. The Prosecutor’s Office stated that “the actual goals of their activities are to create the conditions for altering the foundations of the constitutional order, including by way of a ‘color revolution’ scenario”[2]. On June 9, 2021, the courts ordered them all liquidated. Following a protest in support of Alexei Navalny in January and February 2021 alone, 17,600 individuals were arrested in 125 cities[3]. Over 9,000 administrative charges were filed, and 90 criminal cases were opened. Nearly 1,800 individuals are still behind bars following the April 21 protest[4]

On May 27, 2021, it was reported that the Open Russia organization would be shuttering all of its activities and closing its branches in the regions. Executive director Andrei Pivovarov announced that the decision was made in order to protect supporters from criminal prosecution. “All members of [Open Russia] have been expelled from the organization and their membership has been canceled, in order to avoid any possible harassment. We do not need any new fines or criminal charges, and we want to protect our supporters,”[5] he stated. The police have linked Open Russia with the British organization Open Russia Civic Movement founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an organization that the authorities had previously deemed “undesirable” and liquidated in 2019. Andrei Pivovarov himself was removed from a flight to Warsaw from St. Petersburg on the evening of May 31 and taken to Krasnodar, where he was arrested and charged with cooperating with an undesirable organization (Article 284.1 of the Russian Criminal Code).

At the same time the case against the FBK, Law 157-FZ was hastily passed (the entire procedure took just a month from the time of filing, in violation of the Duma’s own laws and regulations) on June 4, 2021, denying Russian citizens of their right to be elected if they have been involved with a social, religious, or other organization that the court has ordered liquidated or shut down after recognizing that organization as extremist or terrorist in nature. Organization founders, managers, and the heads of regional or other divisions and their deputies who held one of these positions in the three years prior to the date on which the court ruling entered into force may not be elected for a five-year period. “Ordinary” participants, members, or employees of that organization or other individuals involved in its activities beginning up to one year prior to the entry into force of the court ruling to liquidate the organization or ban its activities are deprived of their right to be elected for a three-year period following the entry into force of that court ruling. The law specifies that any expressions of support via statements, including those made online or via other means (including donations or other assistance) may be considered as involvement with the organization. Contrary to common legal standards, this law has retroactive force, meaning that it punishes people for activities that, at the time they were committed, were not illegal. Vague wording (about statements of support online or  providing any type of assistance) opens the door wide for any authorities seeking to use it arbitrarily against any opposition-minded citizens.

It is impossible to calculate the exact number of Russian citizens who are now deprived of their right to be elected. According to rough estimates by the Golos association, no less than nine million Russian citizens, or about 8% of the total electorate, are currently prohibited from running for office (and the real number is likely far higher). Law 157-FZ’s entry into force and the recognition of Navalny’s organizations as “extremist” means that hundreds of thousands more politically active citizens’ rights are also being trampled on[6]

Thus, the Russian government is attempting to quash and subdue citizens’ protest activities as much as possible. However, in no way does the fear of becoming a victim of repressions negate Russians’ growing dissatisfaction with their worsening quality of life and lack of opportunities for a dignified and secure future. Citizens are afraid, but so are candidates and political parties (especially the “systemic” parties represented in the State Duma). Therefore, they are very careful when expressing any criticism, always while observing many unwritten “limits,” and ritually distance themselves from Alexei Navalny and his supporters. Examples of this behavior are the CPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov and the founder of nominally liberal party Yabloko, Grigory Yavlinskiy.

Officially, the Kremlin managed to retain control over the electoral system, control voting in the regions largely viewed as its “electoral sultanates” (regions rife with electoral fraud), hold onto its constitutional majority in parliament, bring political parties loyal to the Kremlin into the Duma, and cut the non-systemic opposition out of the electoral process altogether. Voter fraud also made it possible to weaken systemic opposition in the Duma, notably the CPRF.

The Russian government’s successes and failures

We can view the latest elections as a success for Putin’s regime. The Kremlin has achieved the following goals:

– United Russia retained its constitutional majority in the Duma;

– No mass protests broke out following the election results;  

– The electronic voting system made it possible to falsify votes in Moscow (the region most prone to protesting the Kremlin);

– Smart Voting failed to win in a large number of constituencies, with disappointing results, even in Russia’s traditional protest regions;

– The authorities managed to supress the voter turnout, especially in major cities;

– For the first time in an election, media resources blocked both systemic (CPRF) and non-systemic politicians (Alexei Navalny supporters), under direct pressure from the Kremlin. For the first time, international corporations like Google and Apple took part in blocking Smart Voting by blocking Smart Voting media resources just three days prior to the elections.

Nonetheless, not everything was quite so rosy for the authorities, who did see some setbacks during these elections.

– A big number of politicians, experts, and ordinary citizens are now challenging the reliability of electronic voting;

– Against the backdrop of plummeting real support for United Russia and lower voter turnout than in 2011, more votes had to be falsified compared to 2011 and 2016. Thus, there is some “environmental resistance” limiting just how many votes can be falsified;

– The potential for protest in the regions of the Far East, Siberia, and Northwest Russia (see table below) has not gone anywhere;

– The potential for voter fraud did not expand with the institution of a three-day voting period (the authorities extended the voting period from one to three days, from September 17-19, 2021, citing measures to fight the pandemic). Initially, many members of the opposition feared that the change would increase opportunity for fraud, though in practice, the list of regions in Russia where votes were counted honestly or relatively honestly did not actually change much at all, nor did the total volume of fraud overall). The reason for their fears was that the new, three-day voting period introduced a procedure in which ballots are stored for one or two days, during which time they can easily be replaced or destroyed. In practice, however, this was not widespread;

– Voting abroad was a complete disaster as far as the Kremlin was concerned—Smart Voting candidates won in nearly every embassy. The Kremlin’s saving grace was the fact that voting abroad represented only 0.38% of the votes cast;

– The Kremlin did not manage to obtain any clear recognition of the elections from the international community.

The opposition’s successes/failures

Assessing the elections from the opposition’s perspective is most logical when we divide the opposition into systemic (political parties and politicians  registered for elections) and non-systemic—in these elections, mostly supporters of Alexei Navalny, and more broadly, Smart Voting.

For the systemic opposition, these elections were a success:

– The CPRF, A Just Russia, and New People increased their number of seats in the Duma;

– Candidates from these parties were not subjected to any significant reprisals at the hands of the Kremlin;

– The CPRF actually strengthened its position as Russia’s main opposition party, including through an attempt at holding a public demonstration in Moscow against voter fraud;

– New People entered the Duma on its first election.

The following can be considered as failures:

– The LDPR led a very confusing campaign, losing nearly half of its seats in the Duma;

– Support for Yabloko has plummeted. Many strong Yabloko candidates were barred from running in the State Duma elections at all;

– The CPRF was unable to shield former presidential candidate Pavel Grudinin from being barred from running, and it was unable to collect enough funds for its electoral fund, nor was it able to register a number of strong regional supporters as candidates.

The non-systemic opposition executed the Smart Voting strategy, which aimed to throw support behind constituencies’ second-strongest candidate after United Russia. It is difficult to assess whether the campaign was successful or not, though it did achieve the following:

– Voting at Russian Embassies abroad went almost entirely according to Smart Voting recommendations (this comes as no surprise, as polling at the embassies was randomly assigned to majority districts, and as a result, voters at embassies were voting on candidates from regions on which they had almost no information, while Smart Voting made up for the lack of information on these options);

– In Moscow (in nine of 15 single-mandate constituencies), the Smart Voting candidate won at nearly every polling station, and the authorities were forced to completely falsify electronic voting data in order to ensure the victory of candidates with the Kremlin’s stamp of approval; 

– A similar situation played out in six of eight districts in St. Petersburg;

– 15 Smart Voting candidates were sent to the Duma, with 169 more in second place. That is more mandates than the New People party, which took just 13 seats.

One downside of Smart Voting was that many voters preferred not to vote for the candidate recommended by Smart Voting, but for other parties or candidates altogether.

For example, in Irkutsk Oblast (considered by experts from the Golos voter rights movement to be a region with an honest vote count), in all four constituencies, Smart Voting recommended voting for candidates from the CPRF. However, study of the voting results shows that while United Russia candidates lost votes in all four constituencies, the additional votes did not go to the CPRF, but to candidates from other parties. New People obtained 9.99% of the vote in Irkutsk Oblast, meaning that people preferred the strategy of voting for the candidate of their choice. In fact, Smart Voting recommendations had the greatest effect in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the embassies. In the other territories, it is difficult to determine where Smart Voting worked, and where voters simply voted for their preferred candidate. We can also consider the “bet on YouTube” strategy employed by the non-systemic opposition a failure. The fact that major global corporations blocked Smart Voting websites highlights the inherent vulnerabilities of using this method to share information.

Criticism of the campaign and elections overall

Russia’s September 19 State Duma Elections cannot be considered free nor fair.

Below are some of the main criticisms of the campaign:

  • Current legislation has deprived more than nine million Russian citizens of their ability to participate in elections. We did not even see this level of oppression in the USSR under Stalin;
  • The candidate registration system makes it impossible to register via self-nomination. The procedure for gathering signatures has been neutered by a signature verification system (in all 225 constituencies throughout Russia, only 11 people were registered in the State Duma via signature in 2021). Russia has created a multilevel system for screening electoral candidates;  
  • Campaign fundraising is extremely difficult, and the candidates raised minimal amounts for their campaigns in this election. There are a variety of complicated reasons for this, including the fact that this is now the seventh year of an economic crisis that has hit small and medium businesses, which are the main source of opposition support, the hardest. There have also been direct campaigns of intimidation and new laws threatening reprisals for providing financial support for any banned organizations and anyone who the authorities recognize as a member). However, the main obstacle to campaign fundraising is the fact that Russia’s entire economy is controlled by the state, and state-owned companies only finance campaigns when the Kremlin directly orders them to do so, if they provide any funds at all. Private companies are afraid to finance any political campaigns because doing so places them at risk of audits or harassment at the hands of government agencies. There is no shortage of cases in Russia in which companies that provided support for opposition campaigns simply folded altogether. The most recent example is Pavel Grudinin’s company, which collapsed following the 2018 presidential elections;
  • Prohibitive media laws in Russia hamstring any election coverage—hardly anyone can even write about the elections or candidates once the campaigns have been announced;
  • The 2021 State Duma elections were the first in Russian history to take place with almost no international observers at all;
  • For over two decades now, the vote counting system has been falsified with data from “electoral sultanates,” or territories where voting results are entirely fraudulent;
  • The Remote Electronic Voting systems created for these elections allow three processes that make fair voting fundamentally impossible—voting under someone else’s account, voting under supervision or transferring one’s password from the system to a third party and directly falsifying voting results. All three violations were widespread during these elections;
  • There is no system for protesting elections, either at individual polling places, or generally at the Russian Central Election Commission. For example, the CEC has written about violations during the voting in St. Petersburg several times, but no legal decision canceling the election results in full or in part was ever made. Similarly, independent experts’ discovery of vulnerabilities in the Remote Electronic Voting system did not lead to any results being vacated, either.

Political and geographical features of the election results

As noted above, according to official data, United Russia won the State Duma elections held on September 17-19, 2021, taking 49.82% of the votes, giving it 126 out of 225 spots on the party lists. In the majority part of the State Duma, it won 198 out of 225 seats (the Duma operates with a relative majority or first-past-the-post system). As a result of this total victory in the majority, United Russia’s total number of seats is now 324, a constitutional majority. Nonetheless, it lost seats compared to 2016, when it won 54.2% of the vote from the party lists, and a total of 343 seats. Throughout the campaign, United Russia’s approval rating remained low, and even according to official polling service VTsIOM, fluctuated around 27-28%[7].

That discrepancy is possible due to differences in the political and electoral-geographical situation in the Russian regions, which exhibit extremely strong variations in electoral behavior. There is one group of regions with its core in several national regions of the North Caucasus and Volga region with rigid, authoritarian political rule, where the authorities always announce incredibly high turnout (often 80-90%) and equally high percentages of votes for the ruling party. According to independent electoral experts and the opposition alike, in reality, turnout in these regions is not much different from that of other areas of the country, and voter fraud is rampant.

Several other regions that saw widespread electoral deviations (Kuzbass, Yamalo-Nenets Okrug, and others) are also added to this group. Experts refer to these regions as “electoral anomalies” or “electoral sultanates”. They have always shown high results for Russia’s ruling party, and those figures only grew in the 2000s as turnout dropped in more politically competitive areas.

Since 2016, State Duma elections were moved from December to September, which, as in previous regional elections, created additional problems with the mobilization of independent voters. As a result, the September 18, 2016 State Duma elections saw the highest differentiation among the Russian regions in voter turnout since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Voter turnout by region

RegionTook part in elections (turnout)
201120162021
Republic of Adygea 65.9%53.9%68.21%
Altai Republic63.6%45.1%46.19%
Republic of Bashkortostan79.3%69.8%72.79%
Republic of Buryatia56.9%40.5%44.97%
Republic of Dagestan91.1%88.1%84.52%
Republic of Ingushetia86.4%81.4%83.68%
Kabardino-Balkar Republic98.4%90.1%85.78%
Republic of Kalmykia63.2%57.5%50.12%
Karachay-Cherkessia Republic93.2%93.3%89.36%
Republic of Karelia50.3%39.6%37.64%
Komi Republic72.6%40.8%39.47%
Republic of Crimea —49.1%49.75%
Mari El Republic71.3%53.4%46.11%
Republic of Mordovia94.2%83.0%65.11%
Republic of Sakha (Yakutia)60,1%48.1%50.24%
Republic of North Ossetia- Alania85.8%85.6%86.61%
Republic of Tatarstan79.5%78.8%78.92%
Tuva Republic86.1%90.1%83.28%
Udmurt Republic56.6%44.5%47.45%
Republic of Khakassia56.2%39.4%37.54%
Chechen Republic99.5%94.9%94.42%
Chuvash Republic61.7%59.4%57.14%
Altai Krai52.5%40.8%40.95%
Zabaykalsky Krai53.6%38.9%39.35%
Kamchatka Krai53.6%39.5%42.37%
Krasnodar Krai72.6%51.2%65.41%
Krasnoyarsk Krai49.7%36.7%42.15%
Perm Krai48.1%35.2%39.01%
Primorsky Krai48.7%37.4%42.58%
Stavropol Krai50.9%42.1%67.11%
Khabarovsk Krai53.2%36.9%44.31%
Amur Oblast54.0%42.5%41.65%
Arkhangelsk Oblast50.0%36.6%41.58%
Astrakhan Oblast56.0%37.0%46%
Belgorod Oblast75.5%62.2%59.07%
Bryansk Oblast59.9%55.1%68.65%
Vladimir Oblast48.9%38.4%37.89%
Volgograd Oblast52.0%42.2%64.97%
Vologda Oblast56.3%40.9%45.53%
Voronezh Oblast64.3%53.8%53.86%
Ivanovo Oblast53.2%38.5%38.26%
Irkutsk Oblast47.1%34.7%36.99%
Kaliningrad Oblast54.6%44.1%46.15%
Kaluga Oblast57.6%43.1%44.18%
Kemerovo Oblast69.4%86.8%73.48%
Kirov Oblast54.0%41.9%45.04%
Kostroma Oblast57.3%39.4%39.54%
Kurgan Oblast56.5%41.8%48.28%
Kursk Oblast54.7%47.0%47.01%
Leningrad Oblast51.5%44.1%44.27%
Lipetsk Oblast56.9%52.6%52.72%
Magadan Oblast52.6%40.6%43.7%
Moscow Oblast51.0%38.2%45.35%
Murmansk Oblast51.9%39.7%43.84%
Nizhny Novgorod Oblast58.9%44.5%48.47%
Novgorod Oblast56.6%39.9%41.12%
Novosibirsk Oblast56.8%34.9%37.73%
Omsk Oblast55.7%38.7%41.38%
Orenburg Oblast51.2%41.7%45.86%
Orel Oblast64.7%53.6%49.99%
Penza Oblast64.9%60.6%57.52%
Pskov Oblast52.9%42.1%44.81%
Rostov Oblast59.3%48.2%48.8%
Ryazan Oblast52.7%43.3%48.03%
Samara Oblast53.0%52.9%46.77%
Saratov Oblast67.3%64.5%55.71%
Sakhalin Oblast49.1%37.1%39.94%
Sverdlovsk Oblast51.2%41.5%48.47%
Smolensk Oblast49.6%40.4%41.87%
Tambov Oblast68.3%49.3%58.87%
Tver Oblast53.5%41.6%42.46%
Tomsk Oblast50.5%33.9%41.47%
Tula Oblast72.8%45.6%53.17%
Tyumen Oblast76.2%81.1%61.54%
Ulyanovsk Oblast60.4%52.4%45.88%
Chelyabinsk Oblast59.7%44.4%46.54%
Yaroslavl Oblast55.9%37.8%43.4%
Moscow61.7%35.3%50.12%
St. Petersburg55.2%32.7%37.61%
Sevastopol47.0%49.27%
Jewish Autonomous Oblast52.1%39.6%63.13%
Nenets Autonomous Okrug56.1%44.8%42.61%
Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug54.9%39.3%46.62%
Chukotka Autonomous Okrug79.1%64.5%61.29%
Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug82.2%74.4%67.41%
Russian Federation60.2%47.9%51.72%

In Russia, there is no unified scale for defining the list of so-called “anomalous” regions (areas of widespread, systematic voter fraud, known as “electoral sultanates” by Dmitry Oreshkin).

Here, we can distinguish two approaches. Electoral statistics researcher Sergey Shpilkin used a mathematical modeling system for analysis (distribution graphs by voter turnout at polling places and the number of voters at specific polling stations) in 2011 and then 2016 to divide all of the regions (with the exception of Chukotka Autonomous Region, due to insufficient data) by voting distribution curves and the share of “anomalous” voting into several groups. The first group (which he refers to as “totally fabricated”) includes 15 regions, where there were practically no clusters of polling stations with low turnout and results for United Russia. It includes the Republics of Bashkortostan, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Mordovia, North Ossetia- Alania, Tatarstan, Tuva, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, Chechnya, and Bryansk, Kemerovo, Saratov, Tyumen Oblasts, and Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug. According to Shpilkin, the total share of “anomalous votes” in these regions was 7.5 million.

The second group (which Shpilkin refers to as “falsified”) was made up of nine regions, in which the share of “anomalous” votes exceeded 10% of the registered number of voters. It includes the Republics of Adygea, Kalmykia, Chuvashia, Belgorod, Voronezh, Lipetsk, Penza, Rostov, and Tambov Oblasts. The total share of “anomalous” votes in these regions numbers over 1.6 million.

Shpilkin classified the remaining regions (60) as “relatively clean” and “clean,” with 3% of the registered voters as the dividing line between the two groups (of which there are equal numbers). It is worth noting that Shpilkin’s method is effective for detecting anomalies associated with higher voter turnout (“stuffing the ballot box,” organized votes under pressure, and other forms of manipulation). The same methods may not detect manipulation associated with “transferring” votes from one party to another.

The second approach was described in the book How Russia Voted in 2016 by Alexandr Kynev and Arkady Lyubarev for the Civil Initiatives Committee (CIC) [Комитет гражданских инициатив], and divides regions into three groups based on voter turnout. The first group includes regions with a turnout below 54%, and includes most regions (65). The second, intermediate group includes regions with a turnout of 55% to 65% (regions with increased turnout), and includes seven regions (Kalmykia, Chuvashia, Belgorod, Bryansk, Penza, Saratov Oblasts, and Chukotka Autonomous Okrug). The third group, with turnout above 69% (regions with very high turnout) includes 13 regions—the Republics of Bashkortostan, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, Mordovia, north Ossetia, Tatarstan, Tuva, Chechnya, Kemerovo, and Tyumen Oblasts, as well as Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug.

            That division for the CIC was similar to Sergei Shpilkin’s classification based on distribution curves. Shpilkin included all 13 regions with very high turnout in the first group, as well as Bryansk and Saratov Oblasts, which were included in the group with increased turnout by the CIC book. Shpilkin included four regions with increased turnout and five regions with turnout below 54% in the second group.

It is also noticeable that regions with high voter turnout also demonstrated strong support for United Russia. Average turnout in the first group is 41.7%, and an average of 46.7% of these voters voted for United Russia. In the second group, turnout is 61.0%, and support for United Russia stands at 61.9%. In the third group, the average turnout is 81.3%, with 75.9% of voters supporting United Russia. Regions in the third group, which makes up just 12.8% of Russia’s voters, represented 21.8% of the votes overall and 30.6% of the votes for United Russia.

It is also important to note that the electoral situation in the regions is fluid. There are some regions that have been part of the “anomalous” category for 20 years, but there are others that have been part of and then left this group. For example, under Governor Nikolay Kolesov from Tatarstan in 2007-2008, Amur Oblast’s indicators were anomalous, before then returning to normal distribution following Kolesov’s ouster. Under Vyacheslav Gayzer, the Komi Republic became anomalous, though it returned to the category of protest and “electorally normal” regions following the arrest of Gayzer and several other high-level leaders in Komi (including the former chair of the Komi Republic Electoral Commission, Yelena Shabarshina). Under Governor Vladimir Gruzdev, Tula Oblast also joined the group of anomalous regions.

Many regions have their own internal anomalous zones (for example, Ussuriisk in Primorsk and Primorsky Krais, or Oleninsky Municipal District (now municipal okrug) in Tver Oblast, etc.).

However, it appears incorrect to classify regions as anomalous solely based on high turnouts (a turnout of 57-60% is above the national average, though it cannot be considered anomalous). For example, historically, the rural areas of Chuvashia and Belgorod Oblasts have always shown high turnout, though in the region as a whole, that does not go hand in hand with an abnormal percentage of votes for one party. Therefore, we cannot consider Chuvashia as an abnormal region (only 50.9% voted for United Russia in 2016), as is the case in Belgorod (54.7% in 2016). At the same time, in 2016, United Russia results were anomalous in Krasnodar Krai (59.3%), Voronezh Oblast (58.7% with a turnout of 53.8%), Rostov Oblast (58.8%), and Tyumen Oblast (58.4%).

Thus, 58-60% support for United Russia can be considered the “cutoff threshold” for anomalous and semi-anomalous regions in 2016. The Nizhny Novgorod Oblast indicators are close to these figures (58.2% in 2016, with obvious fraud in three districts of Nizhny Novgorod), despite the fact that there is no large-scale falsification of voter turnout numbers (turnout was just 44.5% in 2016).

As a result, 24 regions can be classified as “anomalous” or “semi-anomalous”, given the extremely high official turnout figures and similarly high percentages of votes for one party in 2016. These regions are home to about 30 million voters, or 27.4% of Russia’s registered voters, though given the high turnout numbers, in 2016, they made up 38.04% of all ballots cast, and 49.3% of all votes for United Russia. As a rule, there is simply no way to increase turnout in these regions. Accordingly, any increase in turnout in the protest regions or areas that are simply strongly independent (large cities, most regions of the Urals, Siberia, the Far East, and the Russian North) should reduce the share of “anomalous” regions in the overall results, and with it, the number of votes for United Russia. In fact, the way everything played out during the 2021 campaign was related to one thing—the authorities’ desire to demoralize and discourage protest voters, inspiring a feeling that voting was a hopeless endeavor, and minimizing turnout as much as possible in protest regions. Though turnout in protest regions did slightly increase (total turnout grew from 47.88% to 51.72% in Russia), at the same time, United Russia’s final victory in 2021 hinged on voter fraud in “electoral sultanates”. The 2016 campaign was very quiet, without any major events (then, United Russia enjoyed a rather high approval rating, and the authorities reduced voter turnout in protest regions simply by holding a very boring, uneventful campaign).

Anomalous and semi-anomalous regions during the 2016 elections

 Registered voters at the time of polls closingTook part in elections (turnout)Votes for United Russia
Adygea339,685183,133108,778
Bashkortostan3,040,8452,121,9931,195,246
Dagestan 1,653,8071,457,0441,294,629
Ingushetia 219,176178,084129,222
Kabardino-Balkar Republic 536,867483,776375,942
Kalmykia 211,637121,70685,923
Karachay-Cherkessia Republic 306,375285,859233,498
Crimea 1,493,965734,230534,362
Mordovia 628,822522,021440,108
North Ossetia 528,993453,029303,794
Tatarstan 2,886,2952,273,0701,939,563
Tuva 156,983141,482116,372
Chechnya 695,573660,249635,729
Krasnodar Krai 3,989,1782,041,5291,208,327
Bryansk Oblast 1,015,760560,169357,780
Voronezh Oblast1,873,592999,509586,142
Kemerovo Oblast 2,032,9851,764,7031,363,181
Penza Oblast 1,097,837665,571427,283
Rostov Oblast 3,256,1861,567,627921,087
Saratov Oblast 1,940,5011,249,759850,392
Tambov Oblast 856,499421,964267,730
Tyumen Oblast 1,080,797876,921511,529
Chukotka Oblast 29,72519,17011,266
Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Oblast 355,145264,144177,214
TOTAL30,227,22820,046,74214,075,097
Share of Russian Federation27.46%38.04%49.34%
Russian Federation110,061,20052,700,99228,527,828

It is clear that for 2021, the following regions should be excluded from the so-called “anomalous zones”: Kalmykia (widespread protest voting in a context of conflict between regional head Batu Khasikov and local elites, with a drop in turnout from 57% to 50%), Crimea (turnout was lower than the national average at 49.75%, with a drop in votes for United Russia from 72.8% to 63.33%), Chukotka Autonomous Oblast (a drop in support for United Russia, to 46.7%, which cannot be considered an anomalous result, and Rostov Oblast (even taking into account electronic voting from Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, turnout was only 48.8%, below the national average), and Voronezh Oblast (turnout remained at 53.8%, which is only higher than the national average for 2021).

It is also clear that in 2021, Stavropol Krai once again joined the category of anomalous zones (there was an abnormal spike in turnout, from 42% to 67%), as did Volgograd Oblast (turnout grew from 42% to 65%), and for the first time, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (turnout grew from 39.6% to 63%, alongside an increase in votes for United Russia, from 45% to 56%).

In all, 22 regions make up the list of most anomalous regions for 2021. Though they are home to 25.12% of Russia’s registered voters (26.4 million), they represent 34.3% of the votes cast, and 47% of the votes for United Russia.

If we add Crimea and Voronezh Oblast to this list, that share grows to 28.18%, 37.33%, and 50.70%, respectively. Thus, the overall share of anomalous and semi-anomalous regions, the number of voters, and number of votes for United Russia has remained more or less stable.

Anomalous and semi-anomalous regions in the 2016 elections

 Registered voters at the time of polls closing  Took part in elections (turnout)Votes for United Russia
Adygea341,943233,246154,491
Bashkortostan3,008,2582,189,8231,458,777
Dagestan1,699,6091,436,5441,164,969
Ingushetia234,660196,372167,239
Kabardino-Balkar Republic539,787463,053366,099
Karachay-Cherkessia Republic301,151269,109215,309
Mordovia590,906384,760253,523
North Ossetia520,743451,010320,410
Tatarstan2,941,5382,321,4271,833,035
Tuva197,564164,526140,090
Chechnya775,256731,968703,613
Krasnodar Krai4,320,2542,826,0451,720,921
Stavropol Krai1,889,6961,268,308783,327
Bryansk Oblast964,117661,820425,333
Volgograd Oblast1,807,4061,174,357685,705
Kemerovo Oblast1,939,4471,425,1221,003,578
Penza Oblast1,036,556596,244335,032
Saratov Oblast1,865,5401,039,249618,244
Tambov Oblast817,686481,413273,771
Tyumen Oblast1,136,676699,502358,631
Jewish Autonomous Oblast125,34779,13544,623
Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Oblast376,862254,054174,561
Total27,431,0021,934,708713,201,281
Share of Russian Federation25.12%34.26%47.04%
Russian Federation109,204,66256,484,68528.064,200

If we use Sergey Shpilkin’s calculations, the distribution of votes for parties by turnout, according to the proportional system and distribution of polling stations in coordinates, the turnout for 2021’s elections is rather ordinary for Russian elections, and in general does not greatly differ from the distributions seen in, say 2011 and 2016. Moreover, the distribution of the “main core” of polling stations by turnout (about 38%) coincides with that of 2016, and by votes for United Russia (about 32%), coincides with that of 2011. Shpilkin’s calculation gives (based on available, incomplete data) about 13.7 million fraudulent votes for United Russia. Subtracting these presumably “enhanced” votes gives us a corrected result of 33% for United Russia, which is well in line with the “cometary nucleus” in Shpilkin’s graphs (31%). In a beautiful coincidence, the number of real votes for United Russia is the same (based on available data, about 13.7 million, and roughly 14 million adjusted for unaccounted polling stations). According to Shpilkin, this is the lowest level of real support on a proportional system that United Russia has ever seen. The share of questionable votes making up United Russia’s results—50%—is also a record (in 2011, this figure was about 45%, and in 2016, about 43%). By Shpilkin’s estimates, without this factor, United Russia would have received about 33% of the votes, rather than 50%, with the CPRF receiving 25% rather than 19%, and LDPR and A Just Russia—For Truth receiving 10% rather than 7.5%, and New People receiving 7% rather than just over 5%. Other parties would not have had any hope of reaching the 5% threshold[8].

In addition to the “electoral sultanates,” an experiment in online voting (Remote Electronic Voting, REV) also boosted turnout and fraud in favor of United Russia. A special law was adopted for REV, and the Central Election Commission established a list of seven regions participating in the experiment—Moscow, Sevastopol, Kursk, Murmansk, Nizhny Novgorod, Rostov, and Yaroslavl Oblasts. In order to take part in REV, voters needed to submit an electronic application between August 2 and September 13. It is impossible to establish who voted via REV and how they voted, as well as whether the official results correspond to the real ones, according to the opposition.

Officially, citizens chose to take part in REV by submitting an application via an electronic public service system. However, there have been multiple reports of the employees of government agency employees and various corporations being coerced into taking part in REV. There was a raffle for online voting participants in Moscow, who stood to win prizes, including a one-bedroom apartment in Moscow, cars, and even 10,000; 25,000; 50,000, and 100,000 prize points, which can be spent on charity, purchases at cafes and restaurants, buying goods, furniture, groceries, and medicine.  The first drawing took place on September 18, and winners were chosen by a random number generator. The last prize drawing among Moscow’s electronic voters was held on September 20, from 9:00 to 10:00 am live on the Moskva 24 television station.

When citizens registered with the REV system, they were excluded from the voter lists at polling stations and voted using their registration data on the portal at vybory.gov.ru. This experiment was carried out in Sevastopol, Kursk, Nizhny Novgorod, Murmansk, Rostov, and Yaroslavl Oblasts (Moscow voted on its own platform at https://elec.mos.ru/). In the case of Rostov Oblast, residents of unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic who were granted Russian citizenship through a streamlined process were able to complete a simplified voter registration, through an email address alone, rather than through a mobile phone number registered in the Russian Federation. Additionally, there were other differences in Moscow’s REV, for example, the option for deferred voting, through which voters had 24 hours to change their selection (the last vote was counted). Moscow’s leaders explained that this option was introduced to avoid voting under duress, for example, if someone voted for the first time under pressure from their employer, they would be able to later change their vote from home.

In relative terms, Russia’s voter turnout increased from 47.9% to 51.72% between 2016 and 2021, and from 52,700,992 to 56,484,685 (or by 3,683,693) in real terms. A total of 2,530,839 voters voted via REV, which represents 67% of the growth  in turnout. REV’s contribution is clearly proven by Moscow, which represented 76.8% of REV voters, and where turnout jumped from 35.3% in 2016 to 50.12% in 2021. REV led to the fact that before REV results were introduced to the State Automated System “Vybory”, opposition candidates were ahead in nine Moscow districts, only for all 15 candidates supported by Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin to win after REV results were introduced. At the same time, REV results in Moscow were only published 12 hours after the polls had closed, once the authorities knew exactly how many “missing” votes their preferred candidates would need in order to ensure a win. The REV system, which was nearly devoid of any public monitoring, drew harsh criticism, and members of the opposition and the general public claimed that it permitted electoral fraud.

On September 23, members of the Moscow precincts and territorial election commissions, along with election observers, called for a cancellation of Moscow’s REV results. They sent an open letter to Alexei Venediktov, the head of the Moscow public headquarters for election observation, stating that the electronic voting system “is a tool for fraud,” and listing reasons why REV should not be accepted. These reasons included:

– Repeatedly, voters arrived at polling stations, only to be surprised to learn that they were registered for REV, though they had never registered themselves;

– There were technical failures that resulted in interruptions to even the scanty levels of REV observation that were provided; 

– Approximately 300,000 voters changed their votes in REV[9].

REV results by region

 Kursk OblastMurmansk OblastNizhny Novgorod OblastRostov Oblast (no exact data on voting from DPR/LPR)Yaroslavl OblastMoscowSevastopol
Total regional turnout424,788 (47%)257,491 (43.83%)1,246,472 (48.47%)1,659,674 (48.8%)436,834 (43.4%)3,903,133 (50.12%)166,555 (49.27%)
Regional turnout without REV377,834 (41.8%)211,496 (36%)1,130,397 (44%)1,381,816 (40.63%)355,088 (35.28%)1,959,543 (25.16%)  147,934 (43.46%)
REV46,95445,995116,075277,85881.7461,943,59018,621
United Russia REV162,522 (43%)73,177 (34.6%)570,812 (50.5%)668,699 (48.4%)97,407 (27.43%)573,823 (29.3%)83,256 (56.3%)
United Russia with REV21,843 (46.52%)18,789 (40.85%)50,003 (43.08%)186,052 (66.96%)31,855 (38.97%)847,592 (43.6%)10,016 (53.79%)

With regard to key changes in Russia’s electoral geography, for the first time since the 2000s, United Russia lost in four regions, and ended up in second place (Yakutia, Khabarovsk Krai, Nenets Autonomous Oblast, and Mari El). In 12 more regions, the CPRF took second place after United Russia, by a small margin (Altai Republic, Komi, Khakassia, Altai Krai, Primorsky Krai, Amur Oblast, Ivanovo Oblast, Irkutsk Oblast, Kostroma Oblast, Sakhalin Oblast, Ulyanovsk Oblast, Yaroslavl Oblast). It is clear that these regions are dominated by Siberia, the Far East, and North, where the CPRF has decisively supplanted the LDPR as the “number two” party.

United Russia’s worst results were in Khabarovsk Krai (24.51%), Nenets Autonomous Oblast (29.06%), Komi Republic (29.44%), Kirov Oblast (29.54%), and Yaroslavl Oblast (29.72%). In all five regions, its result was below 30%.

In 37 regions, United Russia received between 30-40% (the Altay Republic, Kalmykia, Mari El, Yakutia, Udmurtia, Khakassia, Chuvashia; the Altay Krai, Zabaikalsky Krai, Kamchatsky Krai, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Permsky Krai, Primorsky Krai; Amurskaya, Arkhangelsk, Vladimir, Vologod, Ivanovskaya, Irkutsk, Kaluzhskaya, Kostromskaya, Kurganskaya, Murmansk, Novgorod, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Orenburg, Orlovskaya, Sakhalinskaya, Sverdlovskaya, Smolenskaya, Tverskaya, Tomskaya, Ulyanovskaya, Chelyabinskaya Oblasts; Moscow and St. Petersburg). This is the largest group of regions— almost half the country.

United Russia’s best results were in Chechnya (96.13%), Tuva (85.34%), Dagestan (81.2%), Karachay-Cherkessia (80.06%), Kabardino-Balkaria (79.2%), Tatarstan (78.7%), North Ossetia (71.12%), Kemerovo Oblast (70.75%), Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Oblast (68.92%), Bashkortostan (66.7%), Adygea (66.45%), Mordovia (66%), Bryansk Oblast (64.32%), Crimea (63.33%), Stavropol Krai (61.83%) and Krasnodar Krai (60.98%). Thus, in 16 regions, it received over 60% of the votes. In 13 more regions, it received from 50% to 60% (Krasnodar Krai, Belgorod, Volgograd, Voronezh, Magadan, Penza, Rostov, Saratov, Tambov, Tula, Tyumen Oblast, Sevastopol, Jewish Autonomous Oblast). In 14 regions, United Russia received from 40% to 50%.

RegionUnited RussiaCPRFA Just RussiaLDPRNew People
Adygea Republic66.45%14.57%3.94%6.54%2.78%
Altai Republic38.5%30.09%8.85%7.85%4.92%
Bashkortostan Republic66.7%14.74%2.62%8.67%2.79%
Republic of Buryatia  42.63%26.75%3.56%5.74%11.22%
Republic of Dagestan81.2%6.2%5.56%2.49%0.79%
Republic of Ingushetia85.18%3.65%5.13%1.77%0.6%
Kabardino-Balkaria Republic79.2%16.69%2.9%0.35%0.07%
Kalmykia Republic39.52%25.97%5.86%3.44%12.23%
Karachay-Cherkessia Republic80.06%13.02%2.01%1.88%0.33%
Republic of Karelia31.69%16.01%11.73%9.77%7%
Komi Republic29.44%26.88%8.33%11.96%9.57%
Republic of Crimea63.33%9.15%5.93%7.75%3.96%
Mari El Republic33.43%36.3%6.48%7.94%6.15%
Mordovia Republic66%12.99%4.3%7.75%2.99%
Sakha Republic (Yakutia)33.22%35.15%8.19%5.14%9.87%
Republic of North Ossetia—Alania71.12%11.49%10.54%1.43%0.56%
Republic of Tatarstan78.71%9.6%2.68%2.8%1.01%
Republic of Tuva85.34%4.2%2.99%1.82%2.28%
Udmurt Republic35.63%25.31%9.19%9.64%7.37%
Republic of Khakassia33.36%29.85%6.58%8.02%9.85%
Republic of Chechnya96.13%0.75%0.93%0.11%0.24%
Republic of Chuvashia37.18%22.51%14.91%6.78%5.71%
Altai Krai33.67%30.54%9.85%9.09%6.09%
Zabaykalsky Krai38.66%19.99%8.34%12.15%9.36%
Kamchatka Krai34.76%23.87%6.92%11.66%8.75%
Krasnodar Krai60.98%15.5%6.34%5.6%4.67%
Krasnoyarsk Krai34.64%22.87%6.14%13.68%7.84%
Perm Krai33.69%22.75%10.8%9.85%8.64%
Primorsky Krai37.42%28.24%6.19%7.71%5.59%
Stavropol Krai61.83%14.92%9.3%4.79%2.63%
Khabarovsk Krai24.51%26.51%6.46%16.18%7.72%
Amur Oblast34.32%26.51%5.54%14.17%7.04%
Arkhangelsk Oblast32.21%18.7%11.17%12.92%9.68%
Astrakhan Oblast48.1%17.84%12.2%5.34%5.68%
Belgorod Oblast51.65%18.67%6.88%7.23%5.51%
Bryansk Oblast64.32%13.7%4.97%8.6%2.33%
Vladimir Oblast37.64%25.95%7.78%9.42%7.31%
Volgograd Oblast58.43%14.77%5.77%11.12%3.01%
Vologda Oblast34.31%21.7%10.34%12.46%7.55%
Voronezh Oblast55.9%19.51%5.21%6.06%5.07%
Ivanovo Oblast36.24%28.02%7.63%9.38%5.9%
Irkutsk Oblast35.53%27.81%6.67%8.58%9.81%
Kaliningrad Oblast40.99%20.18%8.96%9.59%6.17%
Kaluzhskaya Oblast36.33%22.03%10.81%9.44%8.18%
Kemerovo Oblast70.75%9.35%5.69%6.24%1.85%
Kirov Oblast29.54%18.27%18.44%12.8%8.18%
Kostroma Oblast30.26%28.47%11.42%9.93%8.5%
Kurgan Oblast36.07%23.43%10.51%11.78%6.61%
Kursk Oblast43.48%19.89%8.04%10.67%6.82%
Leningrad Oblast43.1%18.41%9.75%8.34%6.59%
Lipetsk Oblast48.65%21.15%5.96%7.76%4.39%
Magadan Oblast50.08%20.67%4.91%8.95%5.23%
Moscow Oblast45.68%20.65%7.19%7.47%5.16%
Murmansk Oblast35.81%17.81%11.21%11.06%8.56%
Nizhny Novgorod Oblast49.95%19.2%8.55%7.14%5.18%
Novgorod Oblast32.51%21.33%14.37%9.24%7.63%
Novosibirsk Oblast35.25%25.86%6.94%9.61%8.71%
Omsk Oblast32.9%31.19%8.26%7.22%7.62%
Orenburg Oblast38.36%26.16%7.58%9.44%6.03%
Oryol Oblast38.83%21.86%10.16%8.8%5.99%
Penza Oblast56.21%17.24%6.09%7.5%4.89%
Pskov Oblast40.07%21.52%9.05%8.64%6.23%
Rostov Oblast51.59%20.19%6.42%6.97%5.17%
Ryazan Oblast47.79%19.99%8.22%6.79%5.65%
Samara Oblast44.3%23.29%6.32%7.45%5.63%
Saratov Oblast59.84%20.74%4.1%5.15%2.85%
Sakhalin Oblast35.73%28.63%5.2%8.89%9.07%
Sverdlovsk Oblast34.69%21.3%12.85%8.58%8.24%
Smolensk Oblast39.94%22.81%7.58%11.25%5.97%
Tambov Oblast56.92%15%4.72%4.87%2.45%
Tver Oblast35.4%23.04%9.97%9.88%6.61%
Tomsk Oblast32.7%22.43%8.52%12.06%9.36%
Tula Oblast52.88%16.85%7.49%6.61%5.44%
Tyumen Oblast51.33%13.5%10.24%11.53%4.48%
Ulyanovsk Oblast39.03%33.14%5%7.4%5.36%
Chelyabinsk Oblast34.31%19.68%17.25%7.83%8.3%
Yaroslavl Oblast29.72%22.74%19.2%8.97%7.86%
Moscow36.97%22.67%7.35%7.08%7.09%
St. Petersburg35.07%17.98%10.81%6.22%7.55%
Sevastopol56.45%12.62%7.55%8.57%5.3%
Jewish Autonomous Republic56.39%18.74%5.36%8.19%3.32%
Nenets Autonomous Okrug29.06%31.98%7.97%11%6.48%
Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug42.3%17.73%5.78%12.38%6.39%
Chukotka Autonomous Okrug46.71%12.49%6.26%15.16%4.95%
Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug68.92%7.16%4.04%13.49%1.2%

CONCLUSION

Despite United Russia’s continued official dominance, the 2016 and 2021 electoral campaigns differed significantly, with major changes manifested in the political landscape and dynamics. 

The 2021 campaign was much tougher and competitive both on party lists and majoritarian districts. There is greater political differentiation among the regions, growing polarization in protest regions, and a sharp spike in opposition and dominance among the legal opposition from one party—the CPRF. We can expect that the authorities’ struggle with the CPRF will become one of the main flashpoints of Russian politics in the near future.

Against a backdrop of growing protest, for the first time since the 2000s, the authorities were forced to allow a fifth party, New People, into parliament, though that party’s political future and likely role remains to be seen.


[1] VTsIOM’s social well-being indexes. https://wciom.ru/ratings/indeksy-socialnogo-samochuvstvija

[2] Прокуратура потребовала признать ФБК и штабы Навального экстремистским [Prosecutor demands FBK and Navalny headquarters be recognized as extremist]. April 16, 2021. https://www.rbc.ru/politics/16/04/2021/6079b2bf9a794761d4e7fa83

[3]Российские власти сообщили о более чем 17 тысячах задержанных на зимних акциях 2021 года [ Russian authorities announce the arrest of over 17,000 during the winter 2021 protests]. June 11, 2021. https://ovdinfo.org/news/2021/06/11/rossiyskie-vlasti-soobshchili-o-bolee-chem-17-tysyachah-zaderzhannyh-na-zimnih

[4] Последствия акций протеста из-за заключения Навального. Хроника, часть 2. [Results of the protest over Navalny’s arrest. Chronicle, Part 2]. April 22, 2021 https://ovdinfo.org/news/2021/06/11/rossiyskie-vlasti-soobshchili-o-bolee-chem-17-tysyachah-zaderzhannyh-na-zimnih

[5] Dyuryagina, K. «Открытая Россия» объявила о самоликвидации [Open Russia announces its self-liquidation]. May 27, 2021. https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4828390?from=hotnews

[6] «Новые лишенцы»: за что граждан России массово поражают в праве быть избранными на выборах в 2021 году. 22.06.2021. https://www.golosinfo.org/articles/145272

[7] https://wciom.ru/ratings/reiting-politicheskikh-partii/

[8] Шпилькин С. От обнуления — к удвоению. // Новая газета. № 106 от 22 сентября 2021.
https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2021/09/21/ot-obnuleniia-k-udvoeniiu

[9] REV results: monitoring is impossible. https://roskomsvoboda.org/post/electronic-voting-2021/

Russia post-elections

As the dust settles after the September elections into the State Duma, several important factors define the outlook for 2024, when Putin will likely seek to extend his Presidential tenure for another term— and, if in case of success, stay in power indefinitely.

Firstly, popular support for the current regime in Russia is at its historic low. Electoral mathematician Sergey Shpilkin, who has analyzed Russian elections for more than a decade and developed an effective methodology for extracting real electoral results filtering out fraud, estimates that the ruling party United Russia received 31-33% of the votes[1]. This is consistent with other sources of data (including the opinion polls by WCIOM, FOM, Levada Center) that peg the support for the ruling party at around 30%.

Mr. Shpilkin’s analysis demonstrates that the ‘Constitutional majority’ in the Duma now claimed by the United Russia has been achieved through massive fraud at the level unseen before.  He does so by comparing the relatively reliable voting protocols from polling stations monitored by independent observers (which normally see the turnout at around 30-40% and vote for ‘United Russia’ at 30% or only slightly higher) to the outlandish protocols from the rest of almost 97,000 Russian polling stations, which did not have substantive observation efforts.

Even Putin himself is no longer capable of breaking through the 30% support ceiling. A recent Levada Center poll pegs him at exactly that level of support, if one considers respondents who gave him positive marks[2]. Where does the rest of the 60% supporters come from? That’s people who have more neutral views of him, but simply see no alternative, or are afraid of radical changes as such. This type of approval hardly evokes confidence. 

The September Duma elections have uncovered the legitimacy crisis befallen the Russian Government — unprecedented since Putin’s rise to power in 2000. Even thoroughly brainwashed by the state propaganda, Russians do not believe in the fairness of the Duma elections. According to the October 2021 Levada Center poll, public opinion is split on fairness of the September elections, with only 14% of Russians considering them “definitely free and fair”, against 24% who view the elections as “definitely unfree and unfair”.[3]

When it comes to the prospect of extending Putin’s Presidential tenure beyond 2024, one thing is clear— he doesn’t have the required majority support. The October Levada Center poll records only 47% of support of people who want to see him in power beyond 2024, with 42% opposed.[4]

Among Russians aged 40 and younger, and among the people who get their daily news from the Internet (as opposed to television), there’s a prominent majority opposed to the extension of Putin’s rule. This trend will only get worse for Putin: polling data on Russians’ media consumption shows that the share of TV as the main source of information has been steadily declining, the role of Internet growing), and the gap is closing.[5]

Given the evolving demographics and media landscape, Putin will likely face much steeper political challenges in 2024 compared to today.

The second important factor is grounded in the state of Russian economy. There are no reasons to expect any improvements in the social and economic situation in Russia, which is the major source of public discontent with Putin and his ruling party. Consider the draft federal budget for 2022-2024 recently submitted by the Russian Government to the State Duma: it doesn’t envisage growth of Russians’ real incomes in 2022-2024 higher than 2-2,5% per year. However, even this is likely an overly optimistic projection with the inflation likely to spoil the Government’s rosy 4% forecast.  In the past few years, a higher-than-expected inflation was the key factor dragging real incomes into negative territory.

Putin’s new budget is not focused on growth. Its assumption that GDP growth will reach steady 3% in 2022-2024 is not realistic, given the fact that there are no growth factors seen on the horizon. Capital is fleeing Russia, foreign direct investment is in decline, sanctions are still on, structural reforms are not even on the agenda, tax burden is high, government-sponsored investments in ‘national projects’ aren’t working.

Russian opposition spares no effort in broadcasting its key message to the Russian people: continued Putin’s rule means long years of stagnation, isolation, confrontation with the civilized world.

Increasingly, polling data shows that, although still generally skeptical of the West, Russians are tired of confrontation and living in the ‘besieged fortress’ mode and prefer normalization of relations with developed countries.[6] August 2021 poll by Levada reflects that the number of Russians agreeing that the country is in international isolation has reached a historic high stands at 57%, with 57% of respondents saying that they consider the West to be either ‘friend’ (13%) or ‘ally’ (44%) – while only 34% view the West as ‘adversary’ (29%) or ‘enemy’ (5%).[7]

This data suggests that ‘wartime mobilization’ as an instrument for boosting Putin’s popularity is becoming more problematic and a new international confrontation will most likely do Putin more harm than good domestically.

Putin is heading toward a very difficult path to 2024— with popularity already low, and no visible factors to boost it and the legitimacy crisis only deepening. However, Putin clearly remains undeterred. The brutal repressions of 2021 and a dramatic boost in spending on security and police forces (+17,4% overall, +12,5% on National Guard in 2022 as opposed to 2021) in the draft federal budget for 2022-2024 give away Putin’s plans. He will continue to aggress, oppress and imprison people, but will not tolerate their free will to change Russia’s leadership and the country political course.

However, Russians have also lost their illusions about Putin— as manifested in Putin’s inability to boost ‘United Russia’s approval ratings during the election campaign, despite of intense personal involvement in the campaign unseen since the 2007 Duma elections. Putin had personally chosen and announced the top 5 figures on the ‘United Russia’ electoral party list, he had allocated a payment of 10,000 rubles (approximately $140)— to the Russian pensioners.  None of that worked to improve the ruling party’s approval ratings. Putin’s magic has worn off.

The opposition is focused on increasing domestic pressure on Putin in the coming months and years. Putin’s plan to banish Alexey Navalny’s network hasn’t worked.  Having suffered significant setbacks, Navalny’s team still continues to operate and broadcast from abroad, thanks to the support of democratic governments which have provided the ability to relocate for many of the Russian opposition activists facing persecution. After withstanding the initial blow, the opposition was able to gradually recover, increase its broadcasting and mobilization capacity, and put a serious test for Putin during the Duma elections. Despite nominally having reached ‘constitutional majority’ in the new Duma, ‘United Russia’ candidates struggled in most districts challenged by the Navalny Smart Voting candidates, and the fight across most of the country was equally challenging. Moscow and St. Petersburg were unequivocally lost by the ruling party, with the situation “corrected” through fraudulent electronic voting system in Moscow and complete rewriting of protocols in St. Petersburg. Next time around, if popular mobilization grows even a little, even massive fraud would not save Putin from electoral loss.

Naturally, Putin and his circle are not too happy about the Duma election results. They have been raging— punishing Russian civil society with a new wave of repressions, criminal investigations, prison sentences, labeling more NGOs and individuals as ‘foreign agents’ and ‘undesired organizations’. As Putin’s support continues to slide, more repression should be expected.  Russia is heading toward a stormy showdown, as happened many times in our history, when an obsolete dictatorship refused to listen to a growing popular demand for change.

However, the resistance is not subsiding, as many brave Russians are fed up with Putin’s mafia and his dead-end political course and are committed to keep fighting for freedom. There have been no major post-election street protests— simply because people want to regroup and understand the futility attacking the brutal repressive machine head-on. But the anger has not disappeared, and Russians will show it when time and circumstances permit.  We will work tirelessly to make that happen— and the clock is ticking for Mr. Putin.


[1] https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2021/09/21/shpilkin-edinaia-rossiia-poluchila-14-mln-anomalnykh-golosov-bez-falsifikatsii-partiia-vlasti-nabiraet-31-33-news

[2] https://www.levada.ru/2021/10/11/vladimir-putin-10/

[3] https://www.levada.ru/2021/10/06/kak-rossiyane-otsenivayut-itogi-vyborov/

[4] https://www.levada.ru/2021/10/11/vladimir-putin-10/

[5] https://www.levada.ru/2021/08/05/rossijskij-medialandshaft-2021/

[6] https://ru.euronews.com/2020/02/18/russia-polls-west

[7] https://www.levada.ru/2021/09/08/mezhdunarodnye-otnosheniya-avgust-2021/

Russia’s growing political repressions

Over the last several months, harassment of Russia’s political opposition has intensified, with legislative elections as a clear cause. Many people have erroneously believed that once the elections were over, the repressions would ease, if not entirely disappear.

Since the elections ended, there has been little reason for optimism in this regard—the Putin regime has continued repressions against its opponents and critics, including against members of political movements that have usually been spared in the past—most notably, members of the Communist Party.

Why is that the case, and what does the future hold? First of all, the Duma elections played an important role, particularly in the way the campaign unfolded and its final results. Putin’s United Russia was far less popular than the Kremlin would have liked, and covering that up required flagrant election fraud on the part of the authorities.

From the Kremlin’s point of view, these elections highlighted at least three groups of citizens that pose a threat to the regime. First of all, there are Putin’s radical critics and opponents, who harnessed the Duma elections to create stress on the entire electoral system—most of all Alexei Navalny’s team and its active supporters in Russia. The “smart voting” tactic strengthened the Duma parties’ electorate via protest votes, influenced election results, and in many cases, forced the authorities into a Catch-22 between admitting defeat or engaging in shameless election fraud. 

Secondly, there is the independent media, along with influential bloggers and all kinds of civic activists and NGOs that highlighted violations throughout the run-up to the elections and during the vote itself. They published and discussed negative information about the governing party and its candidates and disputed the official election results. The regime views them all as a threat.

Finally, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) proved a danger to the regime, not as an independent force on its own, but as a tool of the radical opposition. Despite the best efforts of some Party leadership, not least of all Gennady Zyuganov, to distance itself from smart voting and discourage protest voters from voting for the Communists, there were some Party members who welcomed support from Russia’s liberal-minded opposition, and in fact stood in solidarity with Putin’s radical critics. Moreover, after the election results were announced, dissatisfied Communists and their supporters attempted to hold street protests, something entirely unacceptable to the Kremlin. 

Thus, Russia’s legislative election results have underscored at least three areas for the authorities to focus their repressive tactics—persecuting the Navalny team and its most active supporters in Russia while also creating difficulties for their work carried out from abroad, continuing harassment of the independent media and NGOs, including targeting the platforms they use to operate, and pressuring mainstream parties, especially the CPRF.

But beyond the latest elections, there is a good reason for continued political repression in Russia—the 2024 presidential elections. The groundwork already began last year, when constitutional amendments made it possible for Putin to hold onto power. Putin’s entire regime hinges on a credible, indisputable electoral victory. This is in contrast to the State Duma, which is unlikely to hold much influence in Russian politics today, regardless of how its elections turned out. The events in Belarus have made it clear that even after 30 years of dictatorship, people are still willing to head out into the streets and engage in widespread protests, forcing the international community to refuse to recognize elections. Such a development would be a nightmare for Putin, which is why by the time presidential elections roll around, we can expect growing repression campaigns against anyone who poses a threat or a potential threat to the Kremlin, for any reason. Continued attacks against the CPRF look all but certain. One way or another, before Russians head out to vote, the Party will have to be neutralized, whether as a political force of its own, or a potential tool for the marginalized opposition.

The CPRF’s main danger to the authorities is not as an opposition party willing to call people out to the streets. Rather, through the authorities’ own actions, it has become the only political, legal, systemic, and parliamentary alternative. In other words, the CPRF candidate will be Putin’s main opponent in 2024, and in addition to the CPRF’s usual base, it will also receive all or most of Russia’s protest votes. Considering Putin’s plummeting popularity and Russians’  growing fatigue with their perennial leader, this is a real problem.

Of course, the Kremlin has a myriad of ways to “correct” the election results and ensure Putin’s victory. After all, the Duma elections ended with United Russia declared the victor and the authorities ignoring any questions and protests from the opposition. But Putin is not United Russia, and he does not want his own victory to be tainted with scandals and accusations, or for Western politicians to even consider refusing to recognize the election results.

The only way to ensure the appearance of an irrefutable victory is by preventing any candidates capable of taking a significant number of votes from running in the first place. For the reasons listed above, Putin does not want a CPRF candidate to run—that will mean having to steal votes, which will open the door to scandals and overshadow his victory. By 2024, Putin will have to drive the CPRF to the point of ceasing to exist at all, or refusing to nominate a presidential candidate.

Eliminating the CPRF would not be a difficult endeavor, and in fact, work in that direction is already underway with repressions against Party activists and deputies. The authorities have already honed their skills in this technique with Navalny’s team—first, they begin persecuting individual Party members by filing administrative or criminal charges against them, and later ban the entire organization for being “extremist”. Though the Kremlin might have previously feared that these kinds of events might spark millions of protesters to take to the streets, September’s Communist rallies surely allayed those worries—in its current state, the CPRF is in no condition to attract as many supporters to protests as Navalny’s team.

However, doing away with the CPRF is too radical a step, and besides, there are other methods for dealing with the electoral threat, namely by pressuring CPRF activists and deputies and threatening to eliminate the Party in order to coerce the CPRF into making the decisions Putin needs—expelling the most active Kremlin critics from the Party and denying them mandates, reaffirming loyalty to Putin by supporting some unpopular government social measures, and finally, refusing to nominate a presidential candidate. Alternatively, the authorities might intimidate the CPRF into merging with another mainstream party (for years, there have been discussions of uniting with A Just Russia—For Truth), thereby denying it the ability to stand in elections as its own political entity, as it falls under complete control by the Kremlin and refuses to run a candidate at all.

As we can see, no matter what shape it takes, pressure on the CPRF will require repressions against Party activists and members, in order to ensure that by the time the presidential campaign begins, there is no one left in any Russian government body or any legally-operating political organization, who would be willing to run against Vladimir Putin and call for voters to oppose him and his preordained electoral victory.

But in addition to all of those rational reasons, there is one more motivation for continued repressions in Russia, which may be even more important. In his 20 years of rule, Putin has built up an extensive web of political repressions at every level of Russian society, both in Moscow and the regions. Thousands of members of law enforcement, the FSB, prosecutors, and the Investigative Committee conduct surveillance on real, potential, and even imaginary enemies of the regime. Each day, these people go to work and need to be busy with something. It is difficult to imagine any scenario in which they would all report to their superiors that there is no one left to fight off, and thus find themselves jobless.

The very presence of such an apparatus is the main driver of repression in any undemocratic regime. Its employees have an interest in ensuring that their superiors do not put an end to that repression. Quite on the contrary, they want to see it expand. Thus, a vicious cycle begins—the country’s top brass insists on increasing repressions, because it receives information from various law enforcement agencies that confirm its worst fears, while the law enforcement agencies expand their control and even fabricate more information in order to convince their leadership to continue and increase that repression.

It is clear that in the coming years, political repression will rise in Russia. It is unlikely to be widespread to the point of affecting millions of citizens, but political activists run the risk of persecution, regardless of their actual political views. Increasing numbers of random citizens will also find themselves persecuted, due to the simple fact that in many regions, any real political opposition has already been obliterated.

If international pressure does not force Putin to put an end to his attack on civil liberties in Russia, the West can expect an increased flow of Russian emigrants, both those who fear reprisals from the regime, and those who have already fallen victim to it.

The New People: A Hollow Multiparty Façade

The New People party has entered Russia’s State Duma, evoking many questions from outside observers, the first of which is very basic—does the sudden emergence and successful showing of New People demonstrate that it is possible to create new political parties for successful participation in elections?

The answer is simple: yes, in Russia, one can form any political party and it can take part in any elections, but under one condition: the party must be formed with the agreement of the Presidential Administration; all of its leaders and sponsors must get the blessing from the Kremlin to participate in elections; and the party itself must never, ever criticize Vladimir Putin personally, and must also refrain from criticizing the status quo as well as authorities’ decisions, which the authorities themselves would prefer to avoid discussing, anyway.

New People is such a party. Its founder, Alexei Nechaev, has no political experience, and from his interviews, we can glean that even now, he still does not have any political views. By all appearances, politics is simply a business that opens up doors to a new level of wealth and influence for Nechaev, who spent years building a major cosmetics brand.

Obviously, if the Kremlin had even an inkling that Nechaev’s sudden political ambitions posed any danger at all, they would have never allowed him to register the party in the first place, let alone run in elections. Let us not forget that Alexei Navalny and his supporters submitted documentation to register their party over ten times, only for the authorities to deny their request each time with a different, often contemptuous excuse. Alexei Nechaev faced no such challenges—his party was formed on March 1, 2020, and at no point since then has it faced any difficulties. By September 2021, it was already in the Duma.

It is important to keep in mind that the Russian authorities control the participation in politics by the wealthy with an iron fist. In the view of Vladimir Putin and his entourage, money is the most important factor in politics, rather than ideas. Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s misadventures are largely related to the fact that he was a very rich man with political ambitions, which is something that threatened Putin, who believed then, as he still does, that money can buy anyone and anything—and therefore seize power, too. Alexei Nechaev is also a rich man, but the fact that he was allowed to pursue his own political ambitions means that Putin views him as no real danger at all. 

The second question is also fairly obvious—why did the Kremlin need another party at all, especially with seats in the Duma? There are many possible explanations. First, for some time now, the current political system has been not able to respond to the society’s needs, and many voters are frustrated with the established parties. Therefore, it is only natural for the Kremlin’s political puppet-masters to constantly be on the outlook for opportunities for the controlled adjustment of the party system.

Secondly, when the Kremlin has unceremoniously sidelined an entire segment of society attached to liberal, democratic, and pro-Western values from politics, it has left fertile ground for radical critics of the regime to surge in popularity. This is why the Kremlin is always looking for a way to concoct a party that would draw protest votes away from this sector of society, while also remaining malleable and toothless.

Thirdly, Putin believes it is important to maintain the façade of a multiparty democracy in Russia, and here, New People is a good trump card to throw at any critics of the Russian government. Time and again, the peddlers of the Kremlin propaganda will point toward Nechaev’s party as “proof” that anyone in Russia can form a party, take part in elections, and even join parliament—meaning that Putin’s most ardent critics have only their inability to prepare the necessary documentation for party registration and their own lack of popularity to blame for their failures here. It would be no surprise if Alexei Nechaev goes on to tour Western countries, describing his political experience and insisting that Russian democracy is flourishing, and no one is precluded from political participation.

The third main question related to the party concerns the election itself. Can we consider New People’s campaign successful, and does that explain its entry into the Duma? On the one hand, New People certainly have siphoned off some of the protest votes that might have otherwise gone to the Communist Party, thus greatly helping United Russia. On the other hand, New People’s election results look bluntly artificial, especially in a context of manipulation and fraud.

The way the Russian election system is designed, whether a party teetering just on the threshold of five percent enters parliament hinges entirely on what the Kremlin wants, politically. Obviously, if the Kremlin does not want the party in parliament, there are many ways to “correct” the final vote tally so that the party receives just 4.99 rather than an even five percent, and no one will ever be able to prove that there had been enough votes to enter the Duma. If the Kremlin decides it does want the party in parliament, it will get slightly more than five percent, even if the real figure was lower.

In September’s elections, New People received 5.33 percent of the vote, which, given all of the above, looks less like an electoral victory and more like the conscious desire of someone inside the Kremlin to introduce this specific party into the Duma. When we consider that from its very beginnings, New People has been linked to the First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Kirienko, it becomes plausible that the order to ensure Nechaev’s party a place in the Duma might have come directly from him.

There is also an anecdotal account of how New People managed to worm its way into the Duma. According to this hypothesis, the initial plan was not for it to enter parliament at all, but to rather draw away a portion of the protest vote and receive state funding as a result of the election, and the right to nominate candidates in all future elections. However, with the Kremlin consumed with fighting Alexei Navalny’s “smart voting” during the final weeks of the campaign, plans were changed.

The fight against smart voting took on several different forms. The authorities worked to discredit the very idea of technical protest voting, both in the constituencies and on the party lists. Given that local and regional elections are coming up, and the presidential elections will be held in 2024, the Kremlin had a large stake in convincing the widest cross-section of voters that smart voting organizers are mistaken in their predictions, and therefore should not be listened to, now or in the future.

When it came to party lists, Navalny’s team suggested voting not for United Russia, but for one of the three parliamentary parties, as nonparliamentary parties had no chance of entering the Duma, and therefore voting for them would actually help United Russia. Kremlin propaganda torpedoed this idea in several directions: they talked about how amoral it was to vote for the Communists, and how the right thing to do was either to not vote at all, or vote for Yabloko or New People. While Yabloko worked in its traditional niche, attempting in vain to garner support from its former voters; New People was able to consistently position itself as a party headed to the Duma, and therefore, a good option for a protest vote. Shortly before the elections, pro-government polling agencies, which publish party approval ratings, began talking about the possibility of New People making it into the Duma. At the same time, however, other surveys were not showing any sudden spike in New People’s popularity, and smart voting organizers insisted that voting for the party was not a particularly good strategy.

Thus, New People’s entry into the Duma hit at smart voting from two sides and helped discredit the strategy for any future elections. On the one hand, it now serves as a constant reminder that Navalny’s team misjudged the situation in the fall of 2021 and failed to include New People, which is now a parliamentary party, in its recommendations. On the other hand, the authorities can insist that New People has won thanks to its own campaign, despite the Navalny team’s campaigning, thereby illustrating the propagandist idea that smart voting recommendations have no real impact on anything.

Why does Putin even need a multiparty system? Putin may be attempting to recreate the East German political system, which he saw at close range during his service in Dresden. Unlike the USSR, East Germany officially had a multiparty system, and several parties in parliament, though, in practice, it was a totalitarian regime supported by a colossal repressive apparatus. This system may appear much more effective to Putin than the straightforward Soviet model of a one-party system, which looked the most unappealing to Western observers.

Introducing New People—a hastily-formed party without any coherent ideology or electorate—into the Duma may mark the beginning of a reset of Russia’s entire party system, in which the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, both holdovers Putin inherited from the previous political cycle, are removed from the game; and United Russia attempts to partner with several artificially-created parties devoid of any ideology or electorate, but with just enough votes to get into the Duma with a boost from manipulation and fraud. The West should not recognize this as competitive elections, as multiparty Duma serves as a window dressing for Putin’s dictatorship, underpinned by his all-powerful, uncontrolled security apparatus.

Non-recognition of the results of Russia’s legislative elections is the last remaining lever over Putin

The results of Russia’s September legislative elections are not only important in and of themselves, they provide a preview of how Vladimir Putin intends to govern and secure his own victory in the 2024 presidential elections. Now that the campaign is over, the elections have been officially deemed “conclusive and valid,” and the new Duma has been formed, there can be no more doubts about the direction in which Russia is moving. The Kremlin’s goal is clear: the ability to declare victory in any situation, regardless of how the people actually vote.

During the latest elections, the Kremlin deployed a wide arsenal of traditional and new methods of fraud and manipulation. Traditional methods have involved measures, including preventing any viable independent candidates from running, manipulating voter lists, mobilization of administrative resource, ballot box stuffing, and falsifying the vote tally.

New methods have included remote electronic voting in areas that have long been a thorn in the authorities’ side, such as Moscow. An opaque electronic voting process controlled by intelligence agencies has enabled the Kremlin to announce the victory of approved candidates, simultaneously making it impossible to challenge the elections or their results.

Last month, the authorities combined both methods, and­­­­—at least according to the official published results—they have succeeded. Nevertheless, the old primitive methods of electoral fraud have left behind a trail of scandalous evidence making it obvious that the victory of pro-Kremlin candidates was unfair and was only made possible due to the introduction of electronic voting data. In Moscow and some other regions, opposition-minded citizens have even managed to defeat government candidates at the polls. This had been unheard of in Russia for a very long time and is in itself a rather compelling evidence that Putin’s authority is no longer as popular as his propaganda claims.

Therefore, in order for United Russia to make its targets, the Kremlin assaulted Moscow with an “electoral atomic bomb”—electronic voting “data” was used to rewrite the numbers  at every polling station, ensuring victory for all candidates advanced by the government.

As it turns out, without the boost provided by electronic voting, Putin’s candidates are no longer competitive. At the same time, the targeted use of electronic voting begs the question: why is it that people vote differently at polling stations, while those who vote online seem to pick whomever the authorities want?

The state propaganda response boils down to the claim that the opposition urged people to vote at polling stations, while those who support the government actively registered for online voting. Let us briefly consider this claim, determine whether it is even possible, and what exactly electronic voting means in Russia.

Electronic voting has several mechanisms of depriving citizens of their own political choices.  It is in essence a process through which citizens actually lose control over their votes and have no influence over which candidate or party they end up voting for. Moreover, citizens are unable to verify the results of their own votes or even prove that any fraud took place.

One such mechanism is the required pre-registration for the electronic voting. Given that the entire procedure is organized by the state, citizens cannot be assured in confidentiality of the process and are thusly dissuaded from later voting for “wrong” candidates. The average Russian is deeply convinced that since the entire system was created by the state, his or her vote will be disclosed to the authorities. Even if that is not actually the case, that belief is wide-spread and is actively promoted by those who benefit from it the most—the authorities. Considering that the Kremlin and local leaders were very overt and unceremonious strong-arming citizens into registering with the electronic voting system, any shred of doubt was gone—one would have to be extremely naïve to believe that the authorities would not take advantage of the opportunity to find out how people voted and punish anyone who did not vote as they were asked to.

Many Russians whose salaries come from the government budget (which includes teachers, healthcare workers, etc) participated in electronic voting at the behest of their superiors, turning them into Putin’s electoral asset. Without being coerced into registering with the electronic voting system, these people would have either not registered online, or would have not voted at all, like the majority of the population.

The second mechanism is the voting itself. Even if we were to assume that a citizen still voted differently from the instructions of authorities, there is no way to tell whether such a vote would actually be counted for the candidate he or she supported. Moreover, the possibility of “re-voting,” in which voting results can be corrected by alleging that people changed their minds, raises many questions.

Also problematic was the final vote count. It gave a strong impression of crude rewriting of the vote numbers to bring the results at the polling stations in line with authorities’ wishes by adding the necessary votes to preferred candidates.

Within such a system, authorities can claim victory in any elections —simply by announcing that the majority of those registered are government supporters and “correcting” any voting results at the polls in their favor, as we saw happen in Moscow.

Despite all of the grave violations and red flags raised by Russia’s legislative elections, officials are jubilant with Putin himself calling electronic voting a progress that cannot be stopped and should therefore be introduced throughout Russia and expanded in scope.

Electronic voting saves local and regional authorities a lot of trouble—no matter how people vote at the polling stations, the winner is always known in advance, though Putin is scarcely concerned with the matters of local administrations.

For Vladimir Putin, preparing for presidential elections is the ultimate task, as his entire system of power hinges on the overwhelming majority of voters voting for him in the first round of elections, and then interpreting that majority as a mandate for autocratic rule.

As the latest legislative elections have shown, even with strict control over which candidates are actually allowed to run, there is still a real challenge posed by Alexei Navalny’s “smart voting,” —when everyone who disagrees with Putin’s policies consolidates their votes around one of the registered candidates, no matter how toothless and nonviable.

Of course, the authorities can simply use traditional methods of fraud to avoid the danger of protest votes, though the costs of administrative mobilization throughout Russia and the thousands of incidents of fraud cast a negative shadow over the elections.

Putin’s popularity is waning, and people are getting tired of him, a tide that can hardly be turned around. At the same time, it is vital for Putin to demonstrate a fair and unconditional victory. If this trend continues, the scale of fraud during the 2024 presidential elections might render a devastating blow to the entire system. This is where electronic voting comes into the fore. As we have already noted, this type of voting, as it is practiced in Russia, allows the authorities to add tens of millions of votes for Putin with a push of a button, and to “correct” the results from polling stations. This is what underpins the optimism of Putin and his entourage when it comes to electronic voting, and their grandiose plans to introduce it throughout Russian territory.

Ideally, Putin would like to build an electronic system in Russia in which the authorities are able to formally win elections at every level, without the nuisance of real people’s opinions, and fraud takes place behind the scenes, rather than in plain sight. Naturally, achieving that requires continued repression of independent media and any government critics, but the Kremlin seems to have bet on rolling out electronic voting, which Putin and his inner circle plan on leveraging in order to continually reappoint themselves indefinitely, without any surprises at the polls. 

What are some options to reverse this trend? It is clear that demanding an end to electronic voting and its results, under the threat of refusing to recognize the election results is the only viable tactic. We can hardly expect the Kremlin to meet those demands, in which case the West should refuse to recognize the authority of Russia’s new parliament and its deputies. Practically speaking, this is unlikely to complicate dialogue with the Russian authorities, given that the Russian Parliament has long been denied any real political weight, and simply reflects Putin’s position. However, that decision might at least force Putin to consider that if he deploys the same manipulative technology during the presidential elections, the West might refuse to recognize those result, too, thereby relegating him to the same pariah status as the likes of Lukashenko and Maduro.

Despite Putin’s constant insistence that the opinion of Western democracies are of little concern to him and the Kremlin, the reality is that Putin needs the West to accept him as Russia’s leader—after all, the alternative will lead to his own entourage questioning his legitimacy.

The West’s refusal to recognize Russia’s legislative elections might be its last bargaining chip over Putin, who is preparing to eliminate even the theoretical possibility of losing elections.

The West Must Refuse to Recognize the Russian Duma Elections

Despite the Kremlin’s claim of victory, Putin’s regime is in a weak position in the run-up to the to the 2024 presidential elections.

The Russian parliamentary elections of September 17-19 took place amid a sweeping Kremlin crackdown on the political opposition, independent media and civil society.

The Kremlin sidelined the Navalny network by labeling it extremist, while many other organizations and individuals have been designated as “foreign agents”. Many prominent opposition politicians were not allowed on the ballot, with some arrested and others forced to leave the country. For example, prominent politician Lev Shlosberg of the liberal “Yabloko” party and Anton Furgal, the son of jailed governor Sergey Furgal, have been barred from seeking election. Andrei Pivovarov, former executive director of the opposition “Open Russia” movement, who was previously included in Yabloko’s party list, has been jailed, and Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition politician and former lawmaker from “A Just Russia” party (from which he was expelled) has left Russia after being detained for allegedly not paying his debts. Not to mention the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny himself.  The opposition figures who did make it on the ballot faced pressure and intimidation.

Navalny’s “smart voting” campaign —a strategy aimed to oust the candidates from the ruling party, United Russia, by tactically casting votes in favor of candidates from other parties —offered hope for change. It encountered major setbacks when the Big Tech succumbed to the Putin regime’s pressure, with companies like Google and Apple removing “smart voting” apps from their online stores on the first day of the elections. Russia’s Yandex removed Navalny’s voting website from its search engine and the messaging app Telegram blocked chat bots used by Navalny’s team to promote “smart voting”.

The opposition had hoped to break United Russia’s two-thirds majority threshold in parliament to establish a meaningful independent faction. However, according to the official announcement of the Russian Central Election Committee, United Russia still managed to secure 324 seats (down from 334 seats in 2016) out of 450. The ruling party received 49.8 % of the votes cast for party lists, giving United Russia 126 out of 225 deputy mandates and 198 out of 225 seats distributed through single-mandate districts.

This outcome, however, does not reflect the declining level of support for the United Russia party – which, according to independent pollster the Levada Center, saw historically low ratings at 30% prior to the elections – but is the product of large-scale falsification. In addition to standard tactics like pressuring state employees to vote for the ruling party and ballot-stuffing at polling stations, in this election, electronic voting, especially in Moscow, has been alleged to have been manipulated to secure the win for United Russia candidates. In Moscow, electronic voting results have been reversed in many electoral districts where “smart voting” candidates were previously winning. The Insider investigative outfit estimates that the result was changed in at least 8 out of 15 districts.

When the polls opened, there were few independent election observers and no international observers from the OSCE – the Kremlin had demanded that observation efforts be minimized due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The US State Department issued a statement saying that the Duma elections “took place under conditions not conducive to free and fair proceeding”. The EU has issued a statement by its High Representative Josep Borrell, noting that it is “deeply concerned over the continuous pattern of shrinking space for the opposition, civil society and independent voices across Russia”. Neither the US nor the EU recognize the elections for the Russian parliament conducted “on sovereign Ukrainian territory”.

“The EU needs to be ready not to recognize Duma elections as legitimate,” said Andrius Kubilius, a member of the European Parliament (EP) from Lithuania, during an online discussion “Russian Dialogues: 2021 Legislative ‘Elections’” that he hosted on September 23. The Lithuanian MEP, who serves as a standing rapporteur on Russia and chair of an informal platform of the EP called the Friends of European Russia Forum, emphasized that the elections should be qualified with the prefix “so-called”.

Vladimir Milov, a Russian opposition politician associated with Alexei Navalny’s team who took part in the discussion, said that the outcome of the elections was disappointing for the opposition.

“We hoped that in many races opposition candidates would be able to beat United Russia,” he said. He added that the opposition had sought to bring down United Russia’s parliamentary presence to below 40% and to defeat the governors of the ruling party. “This hasn’t happened,” he said.

Nevertheless, the large popular support for the “smart voting” campaign made the protest movement in these elections very visible. Russians are “fed up with the system, with Putin and his government” and the opposition still managed to mobilize people despite the crackdown, said Milov.

“We can deliver further significant blows to Putin’s system,” he added.

Milov said that United Russia’s result of less than 50% by proportional party lists – despite the fraud – shows that the regime has lost its “organic support”. The election can be seen as a failed “referendum” on Putin, who was actively involved in United Russia’s campaign, notably announcing one-off cash payments to Russia’s pensioners and military service personnel to boost the party’s popularity.

Milov cited numbers from an independent election analyst Sergey Shpilkin, who estimated that approximately half of the 27 million votes claimed by United Russia were fraudulent. Without these fraudulent votes, the ruling party’s support would have been around 30%, corresponding to fewer than 200 seats in the Russian Parliament – far below the constitutional majority.

This does not put the Kremlin and Putin in a strong position ahead of the 2024 presidential elections – and they know it – said Milov.

Russian opposition politician and former Vice President of Free Russia Foundation Vladimir Kara-Murza said that the last democratic election in Russia was the parliamentary election of December 1999.

He noted that according to the independent vote-monitoring organization Golos, there are 9 million people in Russia who are precluded from running in elections for various reasons. “In 1927, there were approximately 3 million of them in USSR,” Kara-Murza added.

The current absence of protests and the silence of the Russian public is “deceiving and temporary,” said Kara-Murza, and the situation may explode in 2024, when “Putin, no doubt, will attempt to extend his presidential mandate”. 

“When governments cannot be changed at the ballot box, they are sooner or later changed by the street,” he said. “And this is where the current regime is leading us, as for the past 20-plus years now, the Kremlin has done everything to dismantle and destroy all opportunity for Russian citizens to be able to change the government at the ballot box”.

Russian journalist and political commentator Konstantin Eggert agreed that 2024 will test the regime. This is especially likely if Putin decides to stay on and the Russian political elite will have to decide whether they “really want to stick with him.” The divide may grow between the people at the very top and those in lower power echelons, he added.

In the meantime, the opposition has to re-think its strategy on how to challenge the Kremlin, said Eggert, who himself supports a tactic of boycotting all elections rather than trying to break the system by participating in them.

“You don’t play cards with the mafia. Essentially, if we say that these people are illegitimate, we have to show they are illegitimate by not voting,” he said. “It is a so-called election. It is a so-called president. It is a so-called constitution and, frankly speaking, these are so-called political parties that took part in this farce,” said Eggert. Approved parties are a “department of the presidential administration under different labels,” he said.

Can the EU ‘clean house’ of the Kremlin’s malign influence?

On September 16, 2021,  the European Parliament (EP) issued recommendations for EU institutions on managing relations with Russia. The document backed by 70% of MEPs calls on the EU to revise its current policy toward Moscow. The new approach will introduce stronger deterrence measures against the Kremlin’s aggression, while also laying the groundwork for cooperation with a future democratic Russia.

While the EP asserts the commitment to “engagement and selective dialogue” with Moscow when necessary, it also names the Putin regime “a stagnating authoritarian kleptocracy” which is “threatening peace and security in Europe”. The MEPs acknowledge that the EU should do more to counter the Kremlin’s malign influence within its own borders, including among the European political and business elite.

The MEPs call for “unity among the EU member states” as the “best policy to deter Russia from carrying out destabilizing and subversive actions in Europe,” with Brussels being the “only capital where key decisions about EU-Russia relations are taken”.

MEPs also recommend that the EU builds its capacity to stop flows of dirty money from Russia and to expose the hidden financial assets of the Russian regime’s autocrats and corrupt oligarchs.

Better transparency of the Russian elite’s deposits and spending in the EU would help prevent Russian funding of EU political parties, movements and campaigns as well as investments in strategic infrastructure and bodies, threatening the co-optation of top-level EU decision-makers, the policy document says.

The “Direction of EU-Russia Political Relations” initiative ­– has been led by Andrius Kubilius, a MEP from Lithuania who serves as a standing rapporteur on Russia and chair of an informal platform of the EP called the Friends of European Russia Forum.

On the eve of the EP vote on the recommendations, Kubilius and the Friends of European Russia Forum hosted an online discussion on the findings of a report, “Export of Russian Corruption”, which focuses on the Kremlin’s network of influence in Western Europe.

“It [the report] shows how much we need to do back home here inside the European Union in order to clean our house, because only with our cleaned house we can help Russian democrats to achieve what they want to achieve – to transform their country into democracy against opposition from the Kremlin,” Kubilius said in his opening remarks.

The reach of Putin’s network in Western Europe is “shocking”, said Vladimir Milov, the author of the report, an energy expert and a Russian opposition politician associated with Alexei Navalny’s team.

“We know a lot about Putin’s allies in countries like Hungary and Victor Orban. But it is important to look how deep and comprehensive and wide Putin’s network of influence is in the big founding members of the European Union,” he said at the presentation.

Milov emphasized that the information in the report is publicly available, but the analysis clearly shows the extensive scale and systemic efforts of the Kremlin to influence Europe, especially by way of “financial penetration” into Western European politics.

Milov said the report was, in part, inspired by the news this summer that the former French prime minister Francois Fillon – who as a candidate of the 2017 French presidential elections openly supported many Kremlin views and advocated for lifting sanctions – had been named to the board of Russian state oil company Zarubezhneft.

This is yet another appointment of this kind, adding to the list with such notable examples as former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder taking a position as chairman of the supervisory board of Russia’s largest oil company, Rosneft (which is on the EU and US sanctions list), as well as Nord Stream AG and Nord Stream-2 AG. In another instance, Dominique Strauss Kahn, French political figure and former managing director of the IMF, serves as a member of the supervisory board of the Russian Direct Investment Fund and of Rosneft-owned VBRR bank.

Milov sees such cases of former European officials sitting on the boards of Russian state companies and other organizations in exchange for a taking pro-Kremlin stance and advocating to soften Western policies toward Moscow  as outright “bribes” that should be regulated by some form of code of conduct in the EU.


Serving on supervisory boards not only brings lucrative financial bonuses, but also represents a “rubber stamp” mechanism for major decision-making in these companies. Around 90% of the board meetings of Russian-state companies, such as Rosneft and Russian Railways, occur in absentia, says Milov, and the decisions implemented by the boards have already made by the Russian State.

“If this is not a bribe, I don’t know what is,” said Milov.

Regarding Kremlin influence in Europe, he added, Moscow doesn’t only focus on far-right and far-left political parties, as is often believed to be the case, but also attempts to influence the mainstream parties and significant political figures with more sway. Francois Fillon may have become a marginalized figure in French politics after the corruption scandal, but he had been a prominent politician up until that point and he still maintains a certain influence within Les Republicains party, said Milov.

The Kremlin is eager to “buy people” on the far-left, the far-right and “whoever”, said Leonid Volkov, chief of staff to Alexei Navalny.

“He [Putin] is doing it for the purpose of creating instability in Europe and he needs it to sell it on the domestic market,” said Volkov, adding that his successes validate the message that “liberal democracy has failed, Europe is not working”.

And the Kremlin has money to pay for this, says Volkov. In 2014, the French far-right party “National Front”, led by Marie Le-Pen, took Russian loans worth €9 million. This may be a significant amount of money for many, but it is a “petty cash” for the Kremlin, Navalny’s chief of staff said.

If you are friendly toward Russia, you are  rewarded even if you do not have a lot of influence in your country, said Anton Shekhovtsov, director of the Centre for Democratic Integrity in Europe and a senior fellow at Free Russia Foundation. Shekhovtsov offered the example of former foreign Austrian minister Karin Kneissl who kept friendly ties with Moscow (and who also danced with Vladimir Putin at her wedding back in 2018) thusly earning  a seat on the board of directors of Rosneft. But she is not an influential figure in Austrian politics.

Shekhovtsov adds that the latitude of the Kremlin’s networks of influence across various groups in the EU stems from the variety of actors within the Kremlin’s orbit who work on building their own network of influence while competing for the Kremlin’s resources and awards. Intelligence services try to influence criminal networks, while figures like Konstantin Malofeev, the Russian businessman, prefer to work with conservative organizations, and Russian strategist Aleksandr Dugin works with the far right.

“Every actor has his own approach,” said Shekhovtsov.

Whereas Milov’s report investigates the Kremlin’s networks in France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Finland;  Central and Eastern Europe have been fighting Russian malign influence for years. For example, as pointed out during the discussion by Veronika Kratka Spalkova, an analyst at the Prague-based European Values Center for Security Policy, in the Czech Republic, the Kremlin has been able to influence the far-left Communist party, the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy, and also the Czech president, who does a “perfect job for Russia by destabilizing the country”.

Last spring, after Czech officials linked the 2014 explosions of ammunition depots in Vrbetice to Russian security services, president Milos Zeman, openly undermined the Czech intelligence by casting doubt over Russia’s involvement, said Spalkova.

Rasa Jukneviciene, another MEP from Lithuania, recalled that in 2004, on the eve of Lithuania becoming a member of NATO and the EU, the country’s then-president Rolandas Paksas was impeached for connections to the Kremlin. The Lithuanian president had granted citizenship and access to the presidential administration to a Lithuanian-Russian businessman, allegedly linked to the Russian mafia and security services. The businessman donated large amounts of money to Paksas’s election campaign.

Milov’s paper identifies various EU political figures that belong to Putin’s network of influence, including five former heads of government of major Western European nations – France, Germany, Austria and Finland ­– and several former ministers, who currently serve on boards of top Russian companies and are well-paid. The Kremlin recruits through NGOs, various “dialogue associations,” and the business community, the report says.

Commenting on Milov’s findings, Bernard Guetta, a MEP from France, said that the overall picture and the extent of the Kremlin’s influence that the report draws is “frighting” but that, indeed, most of the facts presented are already known.

So, the question is – if all this is old news, why hasn’t the European Union “cleaned its own house”? This is the mandate behind the “Direction of EU-Russia political relations” initiative which has just passed at the European Parliament with significant majority of 494 votes. Another 103 MPs voted against the document and 72 were absent.

Russian State Duma election campaign analysis: The final countdown

Just a few days remain before the Russian State Duma elections.

Early voting has already begun in remote polling stations and abroad. The ballots have been printed. This analysis assesses the situation as the campaign approaches the finish line.

The General Environment

The elections take place during a period of dramatic intensification of oppression and curtailing of the rights and liberties of Russian citizens.  Over the course of the campaign, several dozen media outlets, private citizens and NGOs have been designated as “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations,” and their activities have been either considerably reduced or completely shut down.

Dozens of political activists have been pushed into exile. Dozens have been handed sentences that disenfranchises them in election rights

For the first time, there will be no international observation effort from OSCE.

Approximately nine million people have been disenfranchised in their election rights. 

Dozens of activists and regional politicians have been purged from electoral lists due to their association with Navalny’s movement.

Russia saw the largest disbursement of “helicopter money” in memory. Approximately 65 million people have received money from the government, and for the first time in Russian history, over 60% of adult residents in Russia received social support payments. In total, there are 104 million voters in Russia. For comparison, the “maternity capital” payments made to families for having a second or third child, which previously had been the largest state welfare program, had been extended to 10 million people, maximum. This is a direct violation of the election law prohibiting bribing of voters.

For all intents and purposes, the US and EU have lifted international sanctions on Russia’s state entities as they relate to the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The completion of the Nord Stream 2 construction has been purposefully timed and heavily promoted.

The introduction of the second round of sanctions punishing Russia’s use of chemical weapons against Navalny has not taken place. According to the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Chemical Weapons, initial sanctions should be imposed immediately once the Organization for the Prohibition on Chemical Weapons confirms that these weapons have been used, with a second round following six months later. Joe Biden has not introduced the second round of sanctions.

There has been a clear attempt at suppressing votes during these elections. Neither the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) nor the media are encouraging people to go out and vote. Political parties have barely even spent any money campaigning since the start of the electoral season— a couple of rubles per voter over the course of the entire campaign.

Electronic voting has been introduced, making it possible to control how people vote— providing a way to monitor the process and the outcome. For example, in Moscow, government employees are forced to register for electronic voting, and on election day, they are to come to work and press a button in the presence of their supervisors. This violates the confidentiality clause of the election law. Out of 7.7 million voters in Moscow, over 1.3 million have registered for electronic voting.

The CEC has basically eliminated video monitoring of polling stations, restricting access to just a small group of individuals. Rather than simply streaming the video openly online, the CEC has introduced a multi-step online access procedure available only to a small, previously registered group of people.

Between the 2016 and 2021, over 600,000 Russian passports have been issued throughout unrecognized territories such Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Crimea, and the Donbass. Remote electronic voting and streamlined voting procedures have been made available for the new Russian citizens in the Donbass.

Absolutely all platforms associated with Alexei Navalny’s “Smart Voting” have been blocked in Russia, including the movement’s website and apps. The courts have ordered Google and Yandex to stop processing searches for the term “Smart Voting”. Yandex has already stopped turning up links for this search.

For the entirety of the election campaign as well as the entire year leading up to the elections, there has been a ban on all public mass events under the guise of fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. Public events for Putin’s United Russia party, however, have been exempt from this restriction.

Polling data helps to further substantiate the general impression of the situation leading up to the election:

United Russia, the main pro-government party, is entering the elections at its 15-year lowest ratings.  At the beginning of the campaign, in June 2021, approval for United Russia was to around 30% (in 2016, this figure vacillated between 42%-44% according to various polling services as the election campaign season began). Throughout nearly the entire campaign, approval for United Russia has steadily declined, hitting 27% and then rebounding to about 30% only after the unprecedented handout of “helicopter money” to nearly 45 million Russian citizens (announced on August 22, though the payments were actually disbursed on September 1). The approval for the main opposition party—the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) has grown slightly, from 13% to 17%. The CPRF and its candidates in single-mandate districts are actively campaigning, and this is reflected in its growing approval. The other two parliamentary parties, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and A Just Russia (SR) have not seen any change to their approval since the beginning of the campaign, at 11% and 7%, respectively.

The opinion polls do not answer the main question—whether we will see a repeat of the phenomenon known as the “Navalny 2013 effect,” when, one week prior to the Moscow mayoral elections, polling services predicted that Alexei Navalny would receive 13-14% of the vote, but he ended up taking  27%. Pollsters later chalked this up to the super-mobilization of Navalny supporters during the final week of the campaign. According to Russian legislation, candidates cannot be removed from ballots within the last five days before the election, and the polls were not able to predict that level of mobilzation.

Will the same happen in the Duma Elections in 2021? Remember, in April 2021, one polling service estimated the approval for a hypothetical “Navalny party” at 10%. Political scientist Grigoriy Golosov and mathematician Sergei Shpilkin have conducted analysis and concluded that Smart Voting—the “hypothetical Navalny party’s” main project—in 2020 endowed candidates in cities like St. Petersburg with an additional 7% of votes.

Smart Voting has Emerged as the main unknown factor in these elections.

The balance of forces in this electoral campaign is such that “those in power have money, administrative resources, and the means to disenfranchise voters, but do not have more than 30% approval; while the opposition languishes in jail or has been forced into exile, has been deprived of tools for voter mobilization, and still commands over 40%-42% of  Russian voters”. The 40%-42% represents combined approval for a hypothetical Navalny party + CPRF + LDPR + SR.

At the same time, in single-ticket districts, United Russia is ubiquitous, while the opposition is fragmented, with the most charismatic candidates sidelined from running or removed from electoral lists during the campaign process, including in the case of well-known politicians such as Yuneman, Furgal, and Shlossberg. In reality, the opposition candidates are campaigning in about one-third of the single-mandate districts, whereas in the others, they simply do not have enough money to campaign.

Assessment of the remaining candidates and real level of competition on party lists and in single-mandate districts

All parties that were able to legally register for the elections without collecting signatures have registered with party lists. There are 14 registered parties in all. Just before elections were announced, PARNAS (Boris Nemtsov’s party) had been suspended from registering for six months, preventing it from taking part in the State Duma elections. There was no explanation for this, and everything was arranged by the Russian Ministry of Justice.

The Kremlin’s strategy was to prevent the most media-savvy and popular candidates from being included into party lists—such as the CPRF’s Platoshkin and Bondarenko, both of whom have their own media resources and hundreds of thousands of followers on social media and YouTube. 

Parliamentary parties were banned from including or nominating charismatic politicians such as Anton Furgal (the son of jailed Khabarovsk governor Sergei Furgal) or Evgeniy Yumashev (the mayor of Bodaybo district in Irkutsk, and the only politician in Russia to have passed the so-called “municipal filter,” that is, the votes of 5% of all deputies in his region) in single-ticket districts.

Even among parties running in the elections, the number of candidates has significantly dropped—the list of CPRF candidates has shrunk by 46 people, and the LDPR by 96, with SR by 31. However, the number of candidates removed from the elections has grown and now stands at 321, with 15 more who may end up being disqualified based on CEC complaints (due to their ownership of foreign assets).

It is important to note that the registered parties have raised very little for the election campaigns. The reason is that there are no private sponsors in Russia, and collecting money from abroad is overtly prohibited.  Systemic parties are either incapable of collecting small sums of money or banned from doing so.

Overall, by September 2, registered parties had collected about RUB 2.4 bln, which amounts to RUB 23 or 31 US cents per each voter. At this level of spending, any active campaigning or real competition between the parties simply is not possible.

The parties’ main task is to break the 5% threshold in order to get into the Duma. Throughout the campaign, not a single party from outside the Duma has been able to come close to 5%, according to polling data. New People, Pensioners for Social Justice Party , and Yabloko have come the closest to reaching 5%. Polls indicate that each of these parties may be able to receive between 2% to 4% of the electoral votes.

The situation is even more interesting in the single-mandate districts. There, similarly to party lists, there are not many charismatic candidates, and several candidates have already been removed from the ballots. At the same time, in about 20 out of 225 districts, United Russia has either not nominated a candidate, or has nominated a candidate who is not campaigning at all. In about half of all districts, opposition candidates have not managed to collect more than RUB 1-2 million for the election campaign, which is not nearly enough to conduct a real campaign (most districts in Russia have between 400,000-500,000 voters). It is important to note that nearly all candidates in single-mandate districts have been nominated by the parties. The number of registered self-nominated candidates in 2021 fell to a record low of just 11 individuals (five years ago, there were twice as many). For the most part, these candidates are either spoiler candidates or share the same last name as opposition candidates. However, about 60-80 districts are in cities of more than a million people, such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, and also in protest-Practically, in each of these districts, the opposition has a strong chance to claim victory, either due to an extensive track record of protest voting, or due to a large support base for Smart Voting initiative.

This means that out of 225 single-mandate districts, the opposition may score up to 100. Such forecast can be viewed as both justified and reasonable, and the situation in such district as highly-competitive independently of the roster of registered candidates.

Assessing the Prospects of the Smart Voting Initiative

Despite the Russian government’s attempts to shut it down, the Smart Voting initiative  remains active. Navalny Live YouTube channel continues to release videos, and mailings continue targeting the network of supporters. The website and app are up and running.

On average, each Smart Voting video is viewed by 300,000-400,000 people.  The number of mailing subscribers is not disclosed, but it is clearly over 1 mln people.  

Despite the fact that Smart Voting has not significantly expanded its platforms, its impact has grown manifold. This is due to the fact that as the United Russia approval ratings have plummeted, the vote gap between candidates has shrunk.

As a hypothetical example, let’s consider that, in 2016, with an average rating for United Russia candidates at 42%-44%, and for CPRF candidates at 15%-17%, no initiative similar to Smart Voting, with its 7%-10% boost, would have been able to ensure to shrink the gap to guarantee a victory by a CPRF candidate.

In 2021, with a 27-30% rating for a United Party candidate, and a 15-17% rating for a hypothetical second candidate— 10% would be enough for the Smart Voting initiative would be enough to secure victory in one-fourths of races. One-fourth of 225 districts translates to 50-60 districts. In Moscow, St. Petersburg and cities with million-plus populations, Smart Voting candidates are likely to score victory in most of the races.

Therefore, it is possible to say, that the majority of opposition parties’ candidates who will have claimed victory in September, will do so exclusively due to the Smart Voting initiative. This is not lost on the candidates themselves, who are currently very active in trying to persuade the administrators of Smart Voting to support their campaigns.

The outlook for election observation

Over the past five, a slew of amendments has been adopted into the Russian electorate law, severely restricting the ability to observe elections. New requirements have been introduced for early registration of observers with the Territorial Election Commission (TEC) and Precinct Election Commission (PEC). Independent organizations who had coordinated election observations have been designated as foreign agents. OSCE observers, for the first time in 30 years, have been denied access.

Nevertheless, according to regional coordinators from the Golos movement, citizen electoral observation initiatives have generally endured. None of the interviewed experts could offer an estimate of the number of polling centers that will be closed to independent monitoring, with responses ranging between 35,000-50,000 out of 96,000 districts. Only one thing is sure—despite the deterioration of the general situation with electoral observation, most polling stations will be closed to independent observation organized by the opposition and independent observation efforts. How much space there will be to contest the registered election violations is not yet clear.  

General Outlook for the Elections

In assessing possible election outcomes, we need to highlight several key uncertainties:

  1. How accurately do opinion polls have captured the voters’ attitude? Has it managed to capture the situation accurately, or there may be another black swan event similar to the Navalny-2013 Surprise?
  2. How determined is the Russian government to violate its own rules and unleash violence in the few days remaining before the elections?
  3. What would be the turn-out in Russia’s largest cities?
  4. Will there will be expansion of the election fraud geography (at this moment about 28% of Russian citizens live in regions of outright election falsification)?

Based on the available polling data, it can be concluded that in voting on party lists, United Russia will receive fewer than 50% of the votes, even considering the areas where elections are entirely rigged.

In single-mandate districts, the opposition stands to take between 50 to 100 mandates.

Thus, the overall outcome of the elections is likely to be the following: United Russia will retain its majority in the State Duma but will have to face a prominent and stable opposition faction. Thanks to single-mandate district voting, for the first time in 15 years, the Duma will feature a large number of true opposition legislators (currently, only three deputies out of 225 were elected in the single-mandate districts on their own without any support from the Kremlin).  This offers hope that the Duma will once again become a “place for debate” (one former State Duma speaker opined that the Duma is not a place for debate, and this policy governed the chamber for the past 15 years). In other words, public opposition may return to the State Duma.

The makeup of the deputies core will change, becoming younger, with 30%-50% made up of new deputies, who have not previously been elected to the State Duma. This is important, because the Kremlin has been unwavering in its policy of ensuring most deputies’ indefinite tenure, especially when it comes to systemic opposition deputies such as Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky. It is likely that during this term, the State Duma will see a shakeup of most parties’ leadership as party leaders get older and pass away.

There is some reason for optimism when it comes to the September 19 elections. Most Russian political analysts forecast that the opposition will take between 20 to 40 seats in the Duma. In the best-case scenario, the opposition may take as many as 100 seats in single-mandate districts.

The reason for such optimism is the demographic shift currently underway in Russia, as the largest generation of Russians, the Baby Boomers, or people born between 1951 and 1964, begin to pass away. This generation is the most strong supporter of the incumbent government. However, it. Is also the generation who has borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Russia, the level of mortality attributed to COVID now stands at 1 mln people (both from high mortality rates from COVID itself, or from conditions that went untreated during the pandemic).

Russia is also being reshaped by urbanization.  The population of villages and small towns is shrinking, while the population of large cities is growing. Small towns and villages are the concentration of the voter base for the current regime.

Gerrymandering is another important factor. Nearly in all large Russian cities, borders between districts have been spliced, with support from the authorities in small cities compensating for large cities’ protest vote potential (the percent of voters who support the opposition). Traditionally, there are more of them cities than in small towns, and the larger the city, the more votes it has. But once approval ratings for the ruling party and opposition began to even out in the cities, protest cities began funneling their votes into the majority of single-mandate districts nationwide.

Let’s take a look at the Irkutsk region, and the city of Irkutsk. Until 2011, the Irkutsk region included four districts that elected deputies to the State Duma, including one district on the outskirts of Irkutsk, and three constituencies consisting of small cities and villages. For the 2011 elections, the government redrew the districts’ boundaries, and cut Irkutsk itself into three equal portions, each of which was incorporated into various single-mandate districts. This effectively neutralized the protest potential of the Irkutsk voters by diluting it with rural voters in the elections of 2011 and 2016.

However, after the passage of the pension reform, United Russia’s approval rating dropped to the point that even small towns were no longer capable of giving it the edge it needed in elections. One of the most important promises that United Russia and Putin himself made was to not raise the retirement age. The reform was a direct default on that promise and deception of voters.

Now we have a situation where protest vote from Irkutsk feeds not one, but three election districts.

No analysis of this development is available as of now, and yet it clearly greatly improves the outlook for the opposition.

Recommendations:

Considering the conduct of the elections, the international community should consider the following:

  1. Declare the elections —held in violation of rights and freedoms of Russian citizens —as illegitimate and their results as invalid
  2. To not admit or host elected deputies in international government agencies and parliaments
  3. Be prepared to an emergence and quick unraveling of a political crisis in Russia connected to the refusal of the majority of population to accept the announced outcome of the election
  4. Provide support to the opposition and to Russia’s political prisoners; demand their immediate and unconditional release

To abstain from signing agreements with the Russian government even when it is seeking a compromise with the West. Demand the Duma to be disbanded and demand a conduct of a free election where all opposition forces are allowed to run.

Nord Stream 2 – Entrenching Putin’s Economic and Political Corruption

Nord Stream 2 – Entrenching Putin’s Economic and Political Corruption

The traumatic exit of the US military from Kabul has removed covers from an elephant in the room that most western policy makers had an inkling about for a long while. Rabid corruption in Afghanistan has made all wishful thinking about democratic transition in this country futile from the outset. It is something that western policy-makers should have started speaking about openly and loudly years ago, not now.

We should be prepared to face a similar revelation and rude awakening with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline—an utterly corrupt gas export project doggedly pushed through by the Kremlin—as soon as it becomes operational.

This brief aims to highlight in concrete and unequivocal ways in which Nord Stream 2 has already spurred grave economic and political corruption in Russia and Europe and will undoubtedly continue to do so on an even grander scale once the project is operational. This is something that, as with Afghanistan’s corruption, is already intuitively understood in most circles in Washington D.C. and Brussels but continues to be swept under the rug in pursuit of “normal” relations with the Kremlin and allies in Germany.

NS2 Grand Corruption

Critical analysis of corruption surrounding Gazprom its Nord Stream 2 has been met with vicious pushback from Russia even targeting its most loyal commentators. In May 2018, analysts from Sberbank CIB, Alex Fak and Anna Kotelnikova, published research on the Russian oil and gas industry. The head of Sberbank, German Gref, fired Fak for the research and apologized to Gennady Timchenko and Arkady Rotenberg – Putin`s cronies named as beneficiaries of the Gazprom pipeline construction strategy by the report.[i] The main points from the Sberbank CIB research were the following:

A. Gazprom`s investment program can best be understood as a way to employ the company`s entrenched contractors at the expense of shareholders. The three major projects that will eat up half of the capex in the next five years – Power of Siberia, Nord Stream 2 and Turkish Stream – are deeply value-destructive.

B. It is commonly believed that the Russian government has been forcing Gazprom to construct the major routes to bypass Ukraine —Turkish Stream and Nord Stream 2. Because they reach no new markets, these routes entail no marginal revenue whatsoever. Whatever benefit they derive comes from savings on transit costs, but their main rationale is a geopolitical one – to bypass the existing Ukrainian system.

NS1 and NS2 – Entrenched Corrupt Networks and Methods

Arkady and Boris Rotenberg and Gennady Timchenko

Corruption stories surrounding Nord Stream 1 and 2, Gazprom, and Putin’s inner circle demonstrate that the more money the Kremlin gets, the greater is the retreat of democracy in Russia and in Europe.  To better understand value destruction rendered by Gazrpom, the US public should be informed that both Nord Stream 1 and 2 have been implemented at a direct loss to the Russian budget, taxpayers and the environment, and the damage will continue to grow.

Putin’s insiders Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, along with Gennady Timchenko, are the main beneficiaries of Nord Stream 1 in Russia. Between 2003 and 2006, firms of the Rotenberg brothers functioned as artificial intermediaries in the sale of the trunk pipeline from the Chelyabinsk pipeline plant to Gazprom. In 2007, they opened the Nord Stream Pipeline Project company, which became the main intermediary for the re-sale of pipelines for Nord Stream 1, bringing around $1bn of profit between 2008 and 2012. Eventually, Russia’s Anti-Monopoly Agency acted against this scheme, but only after the construction and money transfer for Nord Stream 1 had been finished.[ii] Essentially, this means that Rotenberg brothers got away with the funds, and the Anti-Monopoly Agency late interference was just for show. Sberbank CIB report mentions Rotenberg-controlled company StroyGazMontazh (STM) as a key beneficiary of Nord Stream 2 construction process.[iii]

Gennady Timchenko, Putin’s partner and friend from early 1990s, gained control over StroyTransGas (STG) and StroyTransNefteGaz (STNG) at deflated price from Gazprom in 2007-13, as did Rotenberg brothers when they bought STM from the monopoly in 2008 which experts Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov considered evidence of corruption.[iv] These three companies then received lucrative contracts to complete onshore work for Nord Stream 1[v] and 2[vi] and pipeline work for connection with future distribution network of Nord Stream 1 and 2 in Czech Republic. STG and STNG were also cited by Sberbank CIB report along with STM as benefiting from Nord Stream 2 contracts while Gazprom tried to hide some of their involvement with the project.[vii]

Timchenko also has acquired multiple other assets previously owned by Gazprom[viii] through his stake in Bank Rossiya, Novatek and other entities closely associated with Putin’s inner circle (see more on this in the section on Kirill Shamalov). According to Nemtsov and Milov, these cronies of Putin and firms that they control gained billions of dollars from these insider deals with Gazprom.[ix]

Timchenko and the Rotenberg brothers, sanctioned by the US Treasury for their involvement in Russia’s war against Ukraine,[x] continue to benefit heavily from Gazprom’s murky schemes in the production and transportation of gas, including for Nord Stream 1 and 2 and associated $35 billion expansion of onshore gas pipeline network all the way from Yamal Peninsula to the Baltic Sea,[xi] even though they have been more careful to cover up their insider relations with offshore Nord Stream 2 development.

Aslan Gagiyev, Gennadiy Petrov and Igor Yusufov

Between 2008-2016, top Russian officials (including the head of the Moscow Nord Stream 1 office) and mafia bosses, bought and controlled Nordic Yards, a shipbuilding dock in Angela Merkel’s electoral district in East Pomerania, where they ran money-laundering and other corruption schemes.[xii] One of the shadow co-owners, Aslan Gagiyev, was extradited by Austrian court to Moscow in 2018[xiii] and is now being tried in Russia for over 60 murders, including related to the Yards, while the other mafia boss, Gennadiy Petrov, is a top fugitive from Spanish courts[xiv] residing in total safety in his own luxury palace in St. Petersburg with the protection from Russian government.

As western audits and police reports later showed, Igor Yusufov was involved in this criminal scheme as a shadowy partner and was one of the key officials who had control over the asset and money laundering around it. Yusufov is an insider of Putin’s circle who was previously minister of energy (2001-04), the president’s special envoy for international energy cooperation, and a Gazprom board member. He and his son Vitaly Yusufov, the then head of the Nord Stream 1 office in Moscow, hid their involvement with the asset until 2009 and later denied any corruption or criminal links with gangsters.

Alexey Miller

Alexey Miller, sanctioned by US Treasury for involvement in worldwide malign activity,[xv] has been implicated in various corruption stories long before he became CEO of Gazprom, including in the corrupt incident involving the port of St. Petersburg in late 1990s.[xvi] In 2001 and soon after becoming CEO, Miller carried out his first major aggressive corporate raiding campaign when Gazprom, at the instigation of Putin, gained control over the privately-owned petrochemical company Sibur. In the following years, Gazprom, using similar “administrative leverage” (i.e. the backing of Putin’s security services, law enforcement and courts), gained control over many gas industry assets: Vostokgazprom, Zapsibgazprom, Nortgaz, and many others, often at prices much lower than the market price. Miller was instrumental in passing control stakes in SOGAZ and other multiple subsidiaries under control of Putin’s cronies in Bank Rossiya.

Since 2005 the minority shareholders of Yukos have filed multiple lawsuits against Miller and Gazprom for illegally nationalizing parts of the company. In recent years, the Court of Arbitration of The Hague satisfied some of these claims, and as a result Gazprom announced the threat of seizure of its assets.

Kirill Shamalov

There have been numerous cases where Miller allowed Gazprom to buy and sell assets at a great financial loss to the company, including Gazprom Neftekhim Salavat (GNS), Transinvestgaz, Sibneft, and many others.[xvii] The most notorious story of enriching Putin’s insiders with such price manipulation and controversial loans has been the gradual transfer of a stake of over 20% in Sibur to Putin’s son-in-law, Kirill Shamalov, through another Putin crony, Gennady Timchenko (mentioned above). In 2018 Kirill Shamalov was sanctioned by US Treasury for involvement in worldwide malign activity.[xviii]

Shamalov, his father, as well as Timchenko, have been Putin’s closest associates, and they have received numerous lucrative assets and contracts from Gazprom and other state companies in Russia and are beneficiaries of some of the projects surrounding the expansion of the Russian gas system for Nord Stream 1 and 2.

Gazprom

If one looks at Gazprom’s Board of Directors or Management, it requires considerable effort to find a single top manager who is not implicated in any major corruption scandal:

1. Viktor Zubkov, Chairman of the Board: Zubkov has been partner of Vladimir Putin’s criminal schemes ever since their joint work in the mayor’s office in St. Petersburg in 1990s. Zubkov’s son-in-law Anatoliy Serdyukov has been dismissed from the position of defense minister due to overwhelming corruption cases in his ministry while Zubkov was prime minister of Russia. Spanish prosecutor’s office when dealing with the Russian mafia case in Spain, has called Zubkov mediator for Russian criminal bosses.[xix]

2. Andrey Akimov, Board member: in 2003 through his control of Gazprombank he created the Centrex group of companies, which engaged in controversial gas sales in Europe. In 2005 the European Commission noted that managers of Centrex had inappropriate close business relations with the Gazprom management.[xx] After the Panama Papers were leaked, Swiss authorities banned Gazprombank from attracting new clients for its money-laundering operations, including with Putin’s friend and cello player Sergey Roldugin.[xxi] In Cyprus, Akimov managed to extract 2 million euros from Laiki bank just 9 days before the authorities froze the bankrupt bank.[xxii]

In 2018 Akimov was sanctioned by US Treasury for involvement in worldwide malign activity.[xxiii]

3. Denis Manturov, Board Member: one of the conspicuously wealthy Russian ministers was observed practicing insider contracts during his previous role as director of a helicopter plant.[xxiv] He has also been described as a protégé of Putin’s friend Sergey Chemezov, CEO of Rostec Corporation, and involved in many controversial businesses in the defense sector.

4. Dmitry Patrushev, former Board Member: Son of Putin’s close KGB associate Nikolay Patrushev, Dmitry was appointed to manage Rosselkhozbank, a key state agricultural bank.[xxv] Under his leadership the bank lost several billion dollars, including in deals with partners of his father, but the bank was compensated at the expense of the Russian budget.[xxvi]

5. Mikhail Putin, Management Committee Member: Vladimir Putin’s cousin came to Gazprom through nepotism.[xxvii] For many years he was a key figure in SOGAZ, an insurance company run by Putin’s confidants which has benefited from multiple insider deals.

6. Kirill Seleznev, former Management Committee Member: Seleznev worked for Miller in St. Petersburg’s port where a lot of corruption scandals took place. He oversaw insider deals on condensate trade between Kazakhstan and Gazprom that benefited unnecessary intermediaries with $4 billion.[xxviii] He was also seen as the main insider in corrupt transactions around Gazenergoprombank.[xxix] In 2019 Seleznev stepped down from Gazprom soon after the arrests of his advisor Raul Arashukov and his son, corrupt senator, Rauf Arashukov who were accused of being involved in the murky gas trade in the Russian Caucasus. Seleznev remains closely involved with Russian gas distribution and export projects run by Kremlin insiders.

Gazprom, NS2 and the Environment

Green policy and environmental concerns seem to be now at the forefront of western policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic, especially in Germany and the US, this is why it is imperative to emphasize that Nord Stream 2 has brought about multiple corruption problems related to climate change and natural environment on top of massive economic and political corruption. Activity of Nord Stream 2 AG and its patron Gazprom has a devastating impact on greenhouse emissions, Baltic Sea nature, and indigenous people.[xxx]

Despite two decades of futile promises from the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and Gazprom to tackle the problem of gas flaring, Russian monopoly has been among top world emitters of methane, according to the World Bank data. Latest report shows that Russia tops the list of global gas flaring countries in 2020, contributing to 15 percent of global gas flaring, while Gazprom’s highly advertised new region of production in Yamal that is supposed to feed Nord Stream 2 has seen consistent rise in flaring.[xxxi]

Flaring is not simply an issue of negligence but a deliberate corrupt choice, as Gazprom’s wasteful and predatory but lucrative monopoly policy is based on denying third party access to domestic and export pipelines to more efficient gas producers. Gazprom’s poor maintenance of pipelines and associated high methane leaks are equally corrupt and inefficient.

On the territory of Russia, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline passes through the high-value natural area called Kurgalsky Nature Reserve which has now become a place of environmental catastrophe because of Gazprom.[xxxii] Evgeniya Chirikova, an environmental activist from Russia, conducted a special survey of violations that Nord Stream 2 has inflicted on the Kurgalsky reserve. According to her research and interviews with individuals from multiple environmental NGOs, the chosen pipeline route is extremely destructive for nature and violates several domestic and international laws.

Important information about the significance of the Kurgalsky Nature Reserve is hidden in Environmental Impact Assessment reports of Nord Stream 2 AG, also known as Espoo (Espoo reports document potential transboundary impacts of the project on nature). The regime of the Kurgalsky reserve is not reflected in the Espoo materials and other materials justifying the choice of the pipeline route. The Espoo materials are in violation of multiple laws and regulations, both domestic and international, such as Article 4 of the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (the Espoo Convention) and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. The Espoo materials present unreliable data about the choice of the route with respect to conservation of marine mammals and birds.

The Nord Stream 2 AG company’s website has several statements that can safely be called false or misleading. In the section about Nord Stream 2 in Kurgalsky reserve the site states, “Nord Stream 2 will be implemented in accordance with Russian and international legislation.” This statement is a lie, since the Nord Stream 2 project violates several international conventions: the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, and the Helsinki Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area. Additionally, construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is in violation of the Russian Federal Laws “On Wildlife” and “On Specially Protected Natural Territories”.[xxxiii] 

Greenpeace Austria has received secret minutes of meetings between Russian government members and representatives of Nord Stream 2 AG and Gazprom from a former high-ranking official of the Russian Ministry of the Environment, which discussed the changes in environmental legislation or the boundaries of Kurgalsky Nature Reserve for the implementation of the Nord Stream 2 project.[xxxiv]

Gazprom also manipulated public hearings, which are supposed to be an integral part of any genuine due process but were carried out fraudulently by Gazprom. Contrary to what the Nord Stream 2 AG and local officials argue, residents that attended public meetings did not express support for the Nord Stream 2 project.[xxxv]

Some residents in the Kurgalsky region identify themselves as indigenous people: Izhora, Ingermanlanders, and Vod. According to the ILO 169 (The Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 is an International Labour Organization Convention, also known as ILO-convention 169) standards, these people fall under the protection of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). As these people were not properly informed, nor consulted with, FPIC was not implemented. Residents of 18 villages of Kingiseppsky district in the Leningrad region addressed the President of Russia. In their public letter they asked to stop construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and spare the Kurgalsky reserve but to no avail.

The bottom line from all these pieces of evidence is that Gazprom and Nord Stream 2 AG are not shy to manipulate and forge environmental documents, fizzle out rule of environmental laws and regulations and tramp over key international agreements related to the protection of nature.

Price of Inaction

International and Russian media and activists —among them the late Boris Nemtsov and current opposition leaders Alexey Navalny and Vladimir Milov —have uncovered numerous other corruption schemes .[xxxvi] These include illegal expropriation of Gazprom’s assets and cashflows by Putin’s insiders, construction of palaces and acquisition of luxury property by Gazprom associates, influence operations in the West by Nord Stream 1 and 2 and other Gazprom-controlled entities.

Despite the substantial evidence publicized by these investigations, Western policymakers and corporations refuse to fully appreciate the grave implications of corruption that has accompanied the construction of Nord Stream 1 and Gazprom’s and is now clearly linked to Nord Stream 2. Here is a list of the most common schemes used by Gazprom, which is far from exhaustive, but could be likely transplanted further in European jurisdictions:

  • Opaque procurement processes and employment of unnecessary expensive intermediaries
  • Using connections with organized criminal groups and money laundering in Europe to advance deals and acquire distressed assets
  • Manipulating regional and country markets and energy pricing, insisting on bilateral opaque deals that circumvent western sanctions and EU regulations on market transparency and competition
  • Spreading malign propaganda against renewable energy and climate change policies, forging or manipulating documentation on environmental protection
  • Coopting senior politicians and corporate figures/entities in Gazprom’s network in Europe through excessive salaries and other incentives

Gazprom’s corruption, including through its operations via Nord Stream 1 and 2 and other export channels in Europe, have shown a consistent track record of poor governance and outright criminality. A careful observer of Gazprom’s activity in Europe over the last two decades will have to come to the conclusion that the monopoly’s unabetted operations through Nord Stream 2 will bring even more of Kremlin-supported corruption into Europe, destroying democratic societies and institutions.

U.S. and EU Responses

Most European policy-makers are now aware of the problems posed by Gazprom’s opaque methods and inquiries into Gazprom’s corrupt strategy have been made at highest ranks of the EU. In 2011, an antitrust investigation against Gazprom was initiated in eight EU countries. In 2015, the European Commission filed charges and denounced Gazprom for the illegal partitioning of EU markets, denying third-party access to gas pipelines, and unlawful pricing, all of which aimed at politically and economically strangling Central and Eastern European countries.

In 2018, Gazprom, however, made a deal with the EU on the outcome of the investigation without incurring hefty fines by promising a reformed approach.[xxxvii] Thusly, Gazprom’s past corrupt behavior was swept under the rug for political reasons, namely, to appease the Kremlin. Many EU members still saw the deal as too lenient on Gazprom.

Since then, the U.S. and EU have placed Gazprom, Gazprombank and multiple other affiliate companies on sanctions lists that are supposed to limit their ability to raise long-term capital in the West and gain access to new advanced technology for upstream production. Even though Gazprom and its subsidiaries lost access to some of the traditional loan mechanisms from international banks, they are still receiving lucrative hard currency cashflows from gas exports and are free to use European bond markets. Just this year, Gazprombank has raised billions of dollars in U.S. dollar issue Eurobonds, including from U.S. investors who found ongoing sanctions against Nord Stream 2 toothless.[xxxviii] Gazprom has abandoned some of its more technically advanced offshore projects (mainly because of the downturn in global energy prices and the general economic downturn, not so much due to U.S. sanctions) but had no trouble getting all necessary technology for its ongoing projects, including for Nord Stream 2.

The U.S. Treasury has slowly sanctioned some but not all vessels (for some only prohibited US companies to cooperate with them)[xxxix] that help Gazprom complete Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but stopped short of sanctioning all shipping companies and port infrastructure entities (Russian and western) involved in the final stages of the project. U.S. administration also has kept key waivers that allow Nord Stream 2 AG to complete the pipeline.[xl]

Individual sanctions targeting key Gazprom figures have restricted their travel to the West (reportedly, this is the case with Timchenko, Rotenberg brothers and few other figures). However, it is well known, that these and other sanctioned oligarchs have regularly circumvented western sanctions by transferring their assets to relatives and other non-sanctioned insiders, forcing the U.S. Treasury to play a protracted and reactive cat-and-mouse game of chasing newly evolving circumvention schemes.[xli] Just recently, a bi-partisan Congressional investigation has uncovered that Rotenberg family successfully used largely unregulated U.S. art industry to circumvent sanctions.[xlii]

Given the ways Gazprom and its proxies brazenly use corruption and circumvent sanctions, the US Congress must act to:

  • Sanction all relevant Kremlin-connected oligarchs under existing mechanisms, such as Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and Global Magnitsky Act (GMA)
  • Enact full weight of mandatory sanctions as prescribed by the Congress under Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act (PEESA) and Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Clarification Act (PEESCA), such removing waivers for Nord Stream 2 AG and its CEO Mattias Warnig[xliii]

[i] https://www.vedomosti.ru/finance/articles/2018/05/24/770650-uvolennii-analitik-cib-kritiku-grefa

[ii] https://www.4freerussia.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Corruption-Pipeline-web.pdf p.7

[iii] https://www.vedomosti.ru/economics/articles/2018/05/23/770451-uvolen-posle-obzora-pro-gazprom

[iv] https://www.putin-itogi.ru/putin-corruption-an-independent-white-paper/

[v] http://www.stg.ru/ru/press-centr/dokumentyi-foto-i-videomaterialyi/foto/nord-stream.html

[vi] https://www.interfax.ru/business/625840

[vii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZMmFI7hqcF4

[viii] https://www.4freerussia.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2018/05/Putin2018_US_web.pdf p.43

[ix] https://www.putin-itogi.ru/putin-corruption-an-independent-white-paper

[x] https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl23331.aspx

[xi] https://rethinkthedeal.4freerussia.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2019/10/Brochure-A4-Germany-EN-Web.pdf pp. 20-21

[xii] https://www.4freerussia.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2019/06/MisruleOfLaw-Web.pdf pp. 23-26

[xiii] https://www.occrp.org/en/28-ccwatch/cc-watch-indepth/8539-the-brotherhood-of-killers-and-cops

[xiv] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/11/russian-mob-mallorca-spain/545504/

[xv] https://home.treasury.gov/news/featured-stories/treasury-designates-russian-oligarchs-officials-and-entities-in-response-to-worldwide-malign-activity

[xvi] https://www.underminers.info/publications/2018/7/15/profile-alexey-miller; https://www.4freerussia.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Corruption-Pipeline-web.pdf pp. 5-6

[xvii] https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/russia-capitalism-shamalov; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/25/putins-alleged-son-in-law-in-top-10-list-of-russian-state-contract-winners

[xviii] https://home.treasury.gov/news/featured-stories/treasury-designates-russian-oligarchs-officials-and-entities-in-response-to-worldwide-malign-activity

[xix] https://newtimes.ru/articles/detail/148113/

[xx] https://www.forbes.ru/forbes/issue/2015-04/283037-bankir-pod-prikrytiem

[xxi] https://www.finma.ch/en/news/2018/02/20180201-mm-gazprombank-schweiz/; https://krug.novayagazeta.ru/12-zoloto-partituri

[xxii] https://www.gazeta.ru/business/2013/04/03/5242401.shtml

[xxiii] https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm0338

[xxiv] https://www.svoboda.org/a/27850315.html

[xxv] https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/05/18/76515-patrusheva-otpravili-na-kartoshku

[xxvi] https://sobesednik.ru/politika/20180213-molodoj-da-blatnoj-ili-novyj-dvoryanin-dmitrij-patrushev

[xxvii] https://www.bbc.com/russian/features-49019951

[xxviii] https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2016/03/02/67629-kondensat-milliardov

[xxix] https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2016/02/28/67588-171-gazprom-187-sbyvaet-mechty

[xxx] https://rethinkthedeal.4freerussia.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2019/09/RethinkTheDeal-EN.pdf pp.4-11

[xxxi] https://thedocs.worldbank.org/en/doc/1f7221545bf1b7c89b850dd85cb409b0-0400072021/original/WB-GGFR-Report-Design-05a.pdf

[xxxii] https://ccb.se/savekurgalskiy

[xxxiii] https://media.greenpeace.org/archive/Illegal-Construction-of-Nord-Stream-2-Pipeline-in-Russia—Clipreel-27MZIFJJJNB8T.html; https://www.greenpeace.org/international/story/11830/gazprom-wants-to-build-a-gas-pipeline-through-a-unique-nature-reserve/

[xxxiv] https://democratic-europe.eu/2019/12/28/hypocrisy-and-double-standards-of-the-nord-stream-2-project/; https://docplayer.org/48370135-Geheimakte-nord-stream-2.html

[xxxv] https://www.ccb.se/Evidence2017/NS2/Protokol_Espoo_public_Kingisepp.pdf

[xxxvi] https://www.putin-itogi.ru/putin-corruption-an-independent-white-paper/; https://www.putin-itogi.ru/kommunalnye-tarify-putin-i-gazprom/; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KejGTmnev18; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZMmFI7hqcF4; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ox2w5-sFkN4

[xxxvii] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-eu-gazprom-antitrust/eu-ends-antitrust-case-against-gazprom-without-fines-idUSKCN1IP1IV

[xxxviii] https://www.reuters.com/article/gazprom-eurobond/update-3-investors-buy-2-bln-in-gazprom-eurobond-shrugging-off-nord-stream-2-sanctions-idUSL1N2JV0OA

[xxxix] https://www.argusmedia.com/en/news/2217764-us-details-sanctions-against-nord-stream-2-ships

[xl] https://www.reuters.com/world/us-issues-nord-stream-2-related-sanctions-russians-blinken-2021-08-20/

[xli] https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl0314.aspx

[xlii] https://www.politico.com/news/2020/07/29/probe-russian-oligarchs-evade-art-sanctions-386154

[xliii] https://www.ukrweekly.com/uwwp/in-letter-to-blinken-house-foreign-affairs-committee-urges-immediate-removal-of-nord-stream-2-sanctions-waivers/

Putin is Buying Up Votes

With less than a month left before Russia’s State Duma elections, President Vladimir Putin has begun campaigning for his United Russia party, offering both political and material support.

It is obvious that the ruling party is far less popular than Putin himself, and it seems that in the final stretch of the campaign, the Kremlin’s political managers finally realized that without Vladimir Putin, their approval ratings leave a lot to be desired, and something urgent has to be done.

Putin has been unequivocal that United Russia is his party. He has participated in a meeting with party candidates and keynoted the party convention. Putin has formally endorsed leaders of the party list, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. This suggests that the data regularly circulated by pro-government sources greatly exaggerates the popularity of both Ministers Shoigu and Lavrov. On their own, the two of them do not evoke any enthusiasm among voters.

Putin’s financial backing for the United Russia’s campaign has been unprecedented. Twice in the same week, he offered public guarantees of cash payments to Russian citizens—first at the meeting with United Russia candidates, and again— at the party convention. During the first speech, details of a timeline for these payments were sketchy, and one could easily infer that they would probably take place after the election and conditioned on positive outcome. At the United Russia party convention, however, Putin made an explicit promise to make the payments, regardless of the election results. It is entirely possible that between the first and second speeches, research confirmed that Russian citizens were skeptical that they would actually receive these promised cash payments that appeared to hinge on election results. In any case, in Putin’s second speech, he was much clearer and far more generous.

Putin’s plans to hand out money before these elections first were floated last year, when, just before a vote on amendments to the constitution, certain groups of citizens suddenly received cash benefits. Officially, they were compensation for losses incurred during the pandemic. In practice, though, everyone understood that these payments were connected to the votes Putin needed for eliminating presidential term limits.

The upcoming State Duma elections have confirmed what everyone had already guessed. During his speech at the Federal Assembly on April 21 of this year, Putin announced payments for families with children – up to RUB 10,000 (around $125) per child. Officially, the payments were tied to the beginning of school year, which in Russia always starts on September 1. The three-day vote for State Duma deputies ends on September 19, making it difficult to deny the real reason for the payments. Putin then highlighted that people should not expect their payments immediately, in August, but rather on the eve of the elections. This naturally led to a public outcry and accusations that he was attempting to bribe voters.

Probably by some point last spring, Kremlin strategists had realized that the payments would be sufficient to improve the electorate’s mood just prior to the elections. But given that in August, Putin again promised new, large-scale payments, the effects of earlier announcements on the voters’ attitudes had fallen short of expectations.

Another, more likely possibility is that as of August 2021, United Russia’s approval ratings are so low, that drastic measures had to be taken. We can’t ignore the fact that the money that are expected to be disbursed immediately before the elections are going to two groups of citizens traditionally considered as Putin’s voting base.  Putin has promised RUB 10,000 to Russian pensioners. The fact that additional measures are required to keep pensioners’ loyalty is easy to interpret as evidence that Putin’s popularity and that of his party are falling, even among this traditional stronghold. Of course, none of this comes as any surprise in a context of rising prices for groceries and home utilities, as pensioners tend to be the first to feel the effects of those changes. Of course, a one-time payment may not be sufficient change society’s mood – after all, prices continue to climb, and pensioners still believe that the state could pay them more if it wanted to, but only does so rarely, and right before elections.

Even more remarkable was the announcement that all law enforcement officers would also be receiving payments. Initially, the payments were only supposed to be for military personnel, but in the end, anyone in uniform, whether military or police, including cadets, was promised RUB 15,000. On one hand, this looks like a bit of encouragement to the regime’s guards before the protests that are likely to break out after the elections. On the other hand, paying the military, looks like an attempt at mitigating dissatisfaction among the ranks. It is now known that a significant percent of several military units actually voted against constitutional amendments last year. There is another possible major motivation – Russia has many law enforcement officers, and Putin simply found a way to distribute money to the widest circle of people he could prior to the elections.

According to various estimates, one way or another, the payments will be distributed to up to half of the Russian electorate, which would make it the most wide-spread, brazen attempt at buying votes for a ruling party through direct cash payments from the state budget. While we will only be able to evaluate the success of this effort after the publication of election results, it is already safe to assume that distributing money is sure to have an effect. Some people already feel they are now obliged to vote for Putin’s party. The cash payments are also laying the groundwork for something else—should the election results be absurdly in favor of United Russia despite its low approval ratings, it would be easily for the Kremlin to explain its sudden spike in popularity – after all, people have just received money!

Attempting to improve the ruling party’s popularity before elections through widespread, direct cash payments to tens of millions of voters is a relatively new phenomenon in Russia. Not so long ago, people assumed that Putin was so popular that his support alone was enough to ensure any United Russia candidate’s victory. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, it seemed that Putin was going to ride the “Crimean consensus” wave until the end of his political career, guaranteeing his party’s victory every time he brought up his 2014 geopolitical feats.

Seven years later, we can see that neither Putin nor his party can count on his personal popularity. The Russian authorities do not offer messages or platforms capable of inspiring Russian voters to come out and support them. Even when the political field has been cleared out of all critics and set up to be ripe for voter fraud and election rigging, Putin is not feeling so confident anymore. Even in the face of an election devoid of competitors, he still has to pay people to vote for his party.

What is happening in Russia right now should put an end to any claims of Putin’s overwhelming popularity among Russian citizens (and even more so, to those of Sergei Shoigu and Sergei Lavrov). It should also dispel any expectations of Putin’s ability to offer a vision for mobilizing and uniting the nation. The only thing that Putin can give Russia’s impoverished population is a one-time pittance of a payment from the state budget, right before elections. To those dissatisfied with his regime, he has long offered a choice between silence and repression.

In 2021, Putin’s regime relies on buying votes, voter fraud and election rigging, and threats to anyone who doesn’t agree with all of this. When it comes to any ideas, personal popularity, or Russian voters rallying around Putin, the train has long since left the station.

General overview of the situation in 15 Moscow electoral districts ahead of the elections to the State Duma

The 2021 elections to the State Duma will be held according to a mixed system. 225 deputies will be elected from party lists, and 225 will be elected in the districts. The 2016 elections occurred under a similar system when candidates from the United Russia party, with strong administrative support, won 98.5% of the districts (203 mandates were received in 206 constituencies where United Russia members participated). In 2016, United Russia representatives won 100% of the mandates (13 out of 13) in Moscow.

The government seeks to hold controlled elections. In these conditions, the chances of representatives of the systemic opposition (the Communist Party of Russian Federation (CPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Just Russia (Fair Russia), and Yabloko) are minimized, and non-systemic opposition isn’t allowed to participate in the elections—they are denied registration. Nevertheless, the Smart Voting (SV) strategy proposed by Alexei Navalny[1] turned out to be very effective. Its strategy is to encourage Navalny’s supporters to vote for the main rivals of the government, concentrating votes on one candidate. In the context of one-round el­ections where the ruling party, United Russia, has a rating of less than 50%,[2] this strategy can lead to success.

During the regional elections between 2018-2020, many United Russia candidates were not elected to various posts. As a rule, Smart Voting recommends supporting representatives of the systemic opposition. In 2021, SV will be tested for the first time in federal elections, but its influence may be insignificant due to political repressions and the departure of a number of Navalny’s supporters abroad. It is also likely that any resources associated with Navalny will be blocked. At the same time, SV supports candidates even against their will. This was the case in the 2019 Moscow City Duma elections, and in 2021, Yabloko founder Grigory Yavlinsky urged Navalny’s supporters not to vote for his party.[3]

United Russia has nominated candidates in 11 districts who will be the absolute favorites in the elections. The remaining four districts are expected to be distributed as follows:

  • Leningradskiy election district (No. 198): victory is expected for the representative of Just Russia, Galina Khovanskaya;
  • In the Medvedkovskiy election district (No. 200) and the Preobrazhenskiy election district (No. 205), three candidates are supposed to fight for the mandate: a the CPRF candidate, a Yabloko candidate, and a self-nominated candidate;
  • Central election district (No. 208): United Russia at the last moment did not nominate a candidate. This is the most oppositional Moscow district with many recognizable people running for it. A difficult struggle between four or five candidates is expected. At the same time, the self-nominated candidate, Oleg Leonov, has the support of the administration.

Electoral districts 196-198, 200, 205, 208, and 210 are the most interesting due to the good ratings of opposition, and the lack of United Russia or strong alternative. All other electoral districts are expected to be won by administrative candidates.[4]

Electoral District 196 – Babushkinskiy

NamePartyDate of birthJob title, field, or organizationPlace of birthLocation
Bazhenov Timofey TimofeyevichUnited Russia25.01.1976TV channel, NTVMoscowMoscow
Burkova Zinaida IvanovnaIndependent26.01.1957EmergencyKazSSRMoscow
Vikhareva Elvira VladimirovnaParty of Growth8.06.1990BusinessmanIrkutskMoscow
Ivanova Elena IvanovnaCivic Platform16.04.1970Civil PlatformMoscow OblastMoscow Oblast
Kramorova Larisa NikolaevnaIndependent06.06.1973HomemakerKemerovo OblastMoscow
Kryukov Alexey SergeevichLDPR9.06.1987KAS GroupMoscowMoscow
Malinkovich Sergey AlexandrovichCommunists of Russia27.05.1975Communists of RussiaLeningradSt. Petersburg
Mironova Viktoria AlexeandrovnaRussian Party of Freedom and Justice (RPSS)1.08.1981Newspaper, Rodnaya Losinka  MoscowMoscow
Rashkin Valeriy FedorovichCPRF14.03.1955State Duma deputyKaliningrad Oblast  Saratov
Rvachev Alexey SergeevichNew People21.01.1992Education programs support company, KapitanyVoronezhVoronezh
Strelnikova Elena NikolaevnaGreen Alternative28.07.1962BusinesswomanMoscowMoscow
Tarasov Anton Alexandrovich  Russian Ecological Party (The  Greens)14.11.1984BusinessmanMoscowMoscow
Tikhomolov Vladimir FedorovichIndependent14.06.1949RetiredUzbekSSRMoscow
Fedorov Georgiy VladimirovichJust Russia7.05.1973National regional socio-economic development fund; member of the Public CouncilMoscowMoscow
Yankov Kirill VadimovichYabloko17.12.1962Russian Academy of SciencesRostov-on-DonMoscow Oblast

Districts: Bogorodskoe, Sokolniki, Alexeevskiy, Babushkinskiy, Butyrskiy, Losinoostrovskiy, Marfino, Maryina Roscha, Ostankinskiy, Rostokino, Sviblovo, Yaroslavskiy

Timofey Bazhenov, United Russia, is an administrative candidate. He has administrative support and some recognition. Bazhenov is a TV presenter who has hosted a number of television programs since the 1990s. In 2016, he announced his desire to participate in the elections to the State Duma from the Chelyabinsk Oblast, but later withdrew his candidacy. He has no other campaigning experience, and his social media profiles, except for Instagram, have not been actively used since 2018. His Instagram account has 2.6 million subscribers, and he has Facebook and VKontakte accounts, though previously they weren’t publicly active. There is a fairly expensive website (https://bazhenovteam.ru/), which provides an overview of the initiatives of “Bazhenov’s team.” Bazhenov’s platform focuses on local issues: improvement projects and working with small requests. A standard methodology for an administrative candidate is used: previously agreed upon improvement projects are implemented for a quick response to requests from residents. The collection of signatures for regional initiatives is actively used.

Valeriy Rashkin, Communist Party of the Russian Federation, is Bazhenov’s main competitor and an acting deputy of the State Duma. A native of the Saratov region, Rashkin has a standard biography for a communist candidate: works in production, and since 1988, he has worked for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union/Communist Party of the Russian Federation. Rashkin supported Navalny,[5] is known to be an active participant in the protests, and is considered to be internal opposition to the federal leaders of the CPRF. He participated in elections to the State Duma six times and was elected as a deputy five times. However, he won in the district only once—in 1999 in the Saratov region—all other successful cases were the election from the list. As in 2016, Rashkin is in a passing place in the list of the CPRF, so  it is likely that he will not conduct an active campaign in the district.

Kirill Yankov, Yabloko, is an active member of the party since the 1990s. Previously, Yankov did not work in this district and worked in the Moscow region. His success depends on the degree of his activity. At the moment, he looks like a formal “office” candidate.

Elvira Vikhareva, Party of Growth, will most likely try to appeal to liberal voters, though she has practically no recognition. She previously worked with Gudkov.[6] In 2017, she unsuccessfully participated in the elections of municipal deputies in the Altufievskiy district. She has a YouTube channel with 18 thousand subscribers but most likely does not have the resources to conduct an active campaign. She will likely spoil Yankov’s chances.

Georgiy Fedorov, Just Russia, has been involved in politics since 2000. His biggest success was winning 14% in the elections to the Moscow City Duma in 2019. He has a pre-election website, and he is active on social networks. Fedorov leads an active campaign and goes to competitors’ meetings. He does not support Putin and claims to be a socialist. Fedorov has the potential to be ruin Rashkin’s chances.

Alexey Kryukov, Liberal Democratic Party, is a young candidate (34 years old). He is the LDPR coordinator for the Bibirevo district, though he is practically unknown in the district. Kryukov has participated in seven elections at various levels,  losing every time. His best result was 10% of the Moscow City Duma elections in 2019.

Sergey Malinkovich of Communists of Russia and Anton Tarasov of The Greens will focus their campaigns on criticizing the CPRF and Rashkin. Both are former members of the CPRF, and their task is to take votes from Rashkin. Sergey Malinkovich took part in 48 (!) elections at various levels and was twice elected as a municipal deputy in St. Petersburg. Anton Tarasov was a municipal deputy in the Aeroport district. After leaving the CPRF, he has acted as a spoiler for candidates from this party several times.

Alexey Rvachev, New People, is unknown and inactive. His situation is similar to that of Elena Ivanova of Civic Platform and Elena Strelnikova of Green Alternative.

Victoria Mironova, RPSS, is a municipal deputy of the Losinoostrovskiy district. She is not well-recognized but may receive a small number of votes of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.

Independent candidate Vladimir Tikhomolov is not campaigning and is unlikely to be able to collect signatures. Registration is possible only with administrative support.

Zinaida Burkova is a “spare” administrative candidate who is unlikely to receive registration in the elections.

Prediction: the victory of Timofey Bazhenov, with Veleriy Rashkin in second place as a result of losing a small number of the votes due to spoilers. Much will depend on the degree of Rashkin’s activity and the performance of the Smart Voting strategy. The situation is difficult for the opposition.

Electoral District 197 – Kuntsevskiy

NamePartyDate of birthJob title, field, or organizationPlace of birthLocation
Balmont Boris AlexandrovichNew people19.08.1975BusinessmanMoscowMoscow
Glek Igor VladimirovichThe Greens7.11.1961Vice-president of the Moscow chess Federation, district deputy of Troparevo-Nikulino districtMoscowMoscow
Goncharov Kirill AlexeevichYabloko29.02.1992YablokoMoscowMoscow
Gorshkova Vladislava GennadievnaGreen Alternative8.01.1981Unemployed, Krylatskoe district deputyMoscowMoscow
Lobanov Mikhail SergeevichCPRF24.02.1984Lomonosov Moscow State UniversityArkhangelskMoscow
Menshikov Mikhail VasilievichParty of Growth26.10.1958Retired, Dorogomilovo district deputyMoscowMoscow
Mitina Daria AlexandrovnaCommunists of Russia14.08.1973Innovations development instituteMoscowMoscow
Popov Evgeniy GeorgievichUnited Russia11.09.1978TV channel, Rossiya  VladivostokMoscow
Potapenko Dmitriy ValerievichRPSS30.03.1970EN+ GroupMoscowMoscow
Ramenskiy Pavel OlegovichLDPR18.05.1988Medical center № 2MoscowMoscow
Romanov Alexandr VasilievichIndependent18.03.1956UnemployedMoscowMoscow
Sobolev Alexey AnatolievichRodina30.10.1977BusinessmanMoscowMoscow
Tarnavskiy Alexandr GeorgievichJust Russia20.04.1960Charity foundation, Care and MercyUkrSSRMoscow
Shaaban Shaaban Khafed Ahmed AliIndependent15.03.1952UnemployedJordanMoscow

Districts: Dorogomilovo, Krylatskoe, Kuntsevo, Mozhayskiy, Prospekt Vernadskogo, Ramenki, Filevskiy park, Fili-Davydkovo

Evgeniy Popov, United Russia, is an administrative candidate. Popov is a well-known TV presenter who conducts propaganda programs. His most popular TV program is the talk show, “60 Minutes” with his wife Svetlana Skabeeva. Despite not having participated in an election before, he is recognizable among the pro-government electorate, and he has a significant number of votes from the elderly electorate. According to social media, he is conducting an active election campaign, but he does not have widespread reach on the Internet. He created his own volunteer organization for the elections, which consists of United Russia members and paid activists. Popov was nominated in a difficult district for the authorities and where the percentage of votes for the opposition is high. At the same time, it is a huge irritant for the opponents of the current government. This is evidenced by a telephone survey of the Gosdumetr project, which found that out of the 25% of voters who do know Popov, only 31% are ready to vote for him.[7]

Mikhail Lobanov, CPRF, is an associate professor of mechanics and mathematics at Lomonosov Moscow State University. He’s an active oppositionist. Lobanov has participated in many protests and is one of the founders of the Initiative Group of Moscow State University,[8] which is quite famous among activists. In general, he is not known outside of the narrow activist circle. Support for Lobanov from the CPRF is expected to be minimal, because Lobanov is not a member of CPRF and supports Alexei Navalny. He does not have serious resources, but it is possible that he will receive votes as a result of Smart Voting. If that is the case, he will be able to unite the supporters of the Communist Party and the liberal opposition. Lobanov has no personal recognition; according to Gosdumetr, only 7% of voters know him and only 25% of them are ready to vote for him. At the start of the campaign, his rating corresponded to the level of support for the Communist Party.

Igor Glek, The Greens, is a well-known chess player and municipal deputy of the Troparevo-Nikulino Moscow district. He has some recognition and is respected in his profession. He received more than 1,500 votes in the 2017 elections. In 2019, he ran on behalf of Just Russia for deputy of the Moscow City Duma in 38th district. He received second place after United Russia, losing by 6,500 votes. He got first place in the districts of Prospect Vernadskiy and Troparevo-Nikulino—he had an almost three-fold advantage over United Russia—and the other three districts he lost in are not included in the current district. To a large extent, his success was  the result of Smart voting support, for which he will compete again.

Another contender for the support of Smart Voting is Kirill Goncharov of Yabloko, the deputy chairman of the Moscow branch of the party and member of the Bureau. In 2019, he was not permitted to participate in the elections to the Moscow City Duma. He has some recognition and is very active. There are real activists who are ready to help his campaign. He has participated in elections of various levels four times, was not registered twice, and lost twice. His main success was receiving 24% of the vote in the Moscow City Duma elections in 2014. According to Gosdumetr, he is the most recognizable candidate from the opposition—10% of voters know about him, and  27% of them are ready to support him.

Dmitriy Potapenko, RPSS, is a well-known Russian entrepreneur and presenter on the radio show, “Echo of Moscow.” He often criticizes the authorities’ business policy. Potapenko is expected to receive many of the opposition votes of Lobanov, Glek, and Goncharov.

Pavel Ramenskiy, Liberal Democratic Party, is unknown and was not previously seen in the political sphere. He is unlikely to be actively campaigning. He is expected to receive the votes of the LDPR, though its rating in Moscow is insignificant. Ramenskiy’s recognition according to Gosdumetr is minimal— he is known by 3% of voters, of whom only 6% support him, a critically small figure characteristic of most candidates from the LDPR. Most likely, the party’s rating will play a key role.

Boris Balmont, New People, is unknown. Unlike Ramensky, his party does not have a noticeable rating. He is engaged in local activities and is trying to appeal to young voters.

Mikhail Menshikov of the Party of Growth and Vladislav Gorshkov of Green Alternative are municipal deputies. They do not possess great resources or recognition. Most likely, they will work to receive a small share of the votes from their districts, Dorogomilovo and Krylatskiy.

Alexandr Tarnavskiy, Just Russia, is a prominent Moscow lawyer and a regular elections participant. From 2001-2005, he was a deputy of the Moscow City Duma. He has a low level of recognition. He has been a member of Just Russia since its inception. According to Gosdumetr, 7% of voters know Tarnavskiy, and 8% of them are ready to support him.

Alexey Sobolev, Rodina, is practically invisible. According to his social media profiles, he is not running them. He is known by 5% of voters according to Gosdumetr polls, and  23% of them will vote for him.

Independent candidates Shaaban Shaaban and Alexandr Romanov do not have the resources to collect signatures or register.

Daria Mitina, Communists of Russia, is a former State Duma deputy from the CPRF. After leaving the party, she has mainly engaged in criticism of former party members. She is a spoiler for Mikhail Lobanov—the main goal of her campaign is to take away votes from him.

Prediction: Evgeniy Popov of United Russia will win. The opposition will succeed in imposing a struggle in the district if Smart Voting manages to consolidate votes for one candidate (Lobanov, Glek, Goncharov, or Potapenko). Because of the intense competition among the opposition in this district, it will be extremely difficult to do this. Popov’s strongest competitor is Lobanov, given the rating of the Communist Party.

Electoral District 198 – Leningradskiy

NamePartyDate of birthJob title, field, or organizationPlace of birthLocation
Andrianova Zoya AlexeevnaGreens19.03.1974Businesswoman, Begovoy district deputyMoscowMoscow
Arkhangelskiy Vyacheslav VladimirovichIndependent20.05.1969Inkom Severo-ZapadMoscowMoscow
Aspektnaya Larisa GennadievnaIndependent09.04.1964BusinesswomanNovosibirsk OblastMoscow
Balabutkin Alexey AlexeyevichCommunists of Russia31.07.1979Grushenskaya AcademiaMoscowMoscow
Brukhanova Anastasia AndreevnaIndependent, Schukino district deputy01.09.1993Urban Projects Foundation of Maxim Katz and Ilia VarlamovMoscowMoscow
Vlasov Vasiliy MaximovichLDPR27.06.1995State Duma deputyMoscowNovgorodOblast
Goluenko Alisa VladimirovnaGreen Alternative30.10.1995Student, Khoroshevskiy district deputyMoscowMoscow
Zvyagintsev Petr SemenovichCPRF18.01.1948Economics Institute of the Russian Academy of SciencesKursk OblastMoscow
Ivanov Maxim SergeevichROS7.08.1975Education center, GridinMoscowMoscow
Kataev Viktor FilippovichRPSS7.05.1989RPSS, Molzhaninovskiy district deputyKazSSRMoscow
Litvinovich Marina AlexeyevnaYabloko19.09.1974Newspaper Nash SeverMoscowMoscow
Melnikov Alexey VladimirovichIndependent06.08.1991BusinessmanRostov OblastMoscow
Tarbaev Sangadzhi AndreevichNew People15.04.1982TV union, AMiKKalmykia ASSRMoscow
Khovanskaya Galina PetrovnaJust Russia23.08.1943State Duma deputyMoscowMoscow

Districts: Aeroport, Begovoy, Beskudnikovskiy, Vostochnoe Degunino, Dmitrovskiy, Zapadnoe Degunino, Koptevo, Savelovskiy, Sokol, Timiryazevskiy, Khoroshevskiy

Galina Khovanskaya, Just Russia, is an administrative, pro-government candidate. Traditionally, United Russia does not nominate candidates in two or three districts in order to give the systemic opposition an opportunity to get into the Duma without defeating United Russia, itself. Khovanskaya is a current deputy of the State Duma. In 1989, she was a member of Democratic Choice (Boris Yeltsin’s movement), then she was a member of Yabloko. From 1993-2003, she was a deputy of the Moscow City Duma, since 2003, a deputy of the State Duma. In 2007, she left Yabloko and later became a member of Just Russia.[9] She deals with housing and communal services problems, and votes the same way on most key issues as United Russia. In 2016, she was elected in 198th Electoral District with 31% of the vote, while opposition leader Yulia Galyamina got second place. Khovanskaya is highly recognizable. According to a telephone survey by Gosdumetr, 57% of voters know her, about 60% of whom are ready to vote for her.

Marina Litvinovich, Yabloko is one of Khovanskaya’s two main competitors. She is a well-known political strategist and journalist and has great support from opposition activists. Previously, she worked with Khakamada and helped Other Russia, Civic Platform, and Ksenia Sobchak. Litvinovich has never run for deputy. An important factor in her election is the support of Yulia Galyamina who previously gained 14% in this district. It is likely that she (not Anastasia Brukhanova) will receive the support of Alexei Navalny’s Smart Voting since members of Navalny’s team do not support the representatives of Katz team. Despite being less active than Brukhanova, Litvinovich is the second most popular candidate after Khovanskaya at the start of the campaign. According to a telephone survey by Gosdumetr, Litvinovich is known to 17% of residents, 63% of whom are ready to support her.

Independent candidate Anastasia Brukhanova is another notable candidate who may gain a significant percentage of the vote. In order to register for an election, it is necessary to collect a certain number of signatures; without enough signatures,  it is possible to be refused registration. However, from the point of view of the authorities, her participation in the elections together with Litvinovich is preferable, since both will claim the votes of those with liberal values. Brukhanova is a municipal deputy of the Shchukino district, and a representative of the Urban Projects Foundation by Maxim Katz and Ilya Varlamov. Her campaign is accompanied by successful fundraising and very high levels of activity. Despite this, the recognition of Brukhanova is less than that of Litvinovich. According to Gosdumetr, Brukhanova is known only to 15% of voters, 48% of whom are ready to support her. Aa significant part of the remaining 52% are expected to vote for Litvinovich.

Petr Zvyagintsev, CPRF, is active at the local level but is unknown to the general public. Previously, he was a municipal deputy in Vostochnoe Degunino. In 2019, he ran in the district for deputy of the Moscow City Duma and was supported by Smart Voting. He lost by only 139 votes. He does not have large resource and  is not conducting an active campaign. The brand of the Communist Party will allow him to collect a significant number of votes from its supporters, but Alexey Balabutkin, the representative of the spoiler party, Communists of Russia, will take some of them. Despite the fact that Zvyagintsev has been working in the district for more than 30 years, only 11% of voters know him according to Gosdemetr, and only 49% of them are ready to support him.

Alexey Balabutkin, Communists of Russia, is a spoiler for Zvyagintsev of the CPRF. Balabutkin’s goal is to confuse voters who wants to support a representative of the CPRF. Previously, Balabutkin was a member of CPRF, but has participated in a number of elections on behalf of the Communists of Russia. He never received more than 4% of the vote. He is practically unknown, and only the electorate of CPRF knows him, which sharply condemns the spoilers of the candidates from the Communists of Russia. This is the reason for the results of the polls by Gosdumetr, which found that his recognition by voters is 4%, of which only 22% are ready to vote for him.

Vasiliy Vlasov, LDPR, is the youngest active deputy of the State Duma. He is known for eccentric words and support of Vladimir Zhirinovsky. In 2017, he ran for deputies in this district, got 3rd place (after Khovanskaya and Galyamina), and received 11% of the votes. He has no motivation to actively participate in the 2021 campaign, since he is in one of the leading places in the general part of the LDPR list. Despite mentions in the media, according to Gosdumetr, only 6% of voters know him, of whom a critically small proportion of people (14%) are ready to support him.

Maxim Ivanov, the Russian National Union (ROS), has not been seen in any social and political activities. He did not appear in the polls of Gosdumetr.

Viktor Kataev, RPSS, is a municipal deputy in the Molzhaninovskiy district, where the opposition has a majority. He was closely associated with the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, has some recognition in this area. However, it should be taken into account that Molzhaninovskiy is the smallest district in Moscow in terms of population. He cannot count on a significant number of votes. According to “Gosdumetr”, 3% of voters know him, of whom 18% will support him.

Sangadzhi Tarbaev, New People, is a showman. Most likely, he will take over a small number of the youth electorate votes. There is no great recognition, but there is an active campaign in social networks.

Alisa Goluenko, Green Alternative, is an opposition municipal deputy of the Khoroshevskiy district. She was active in 2017 and may campaign organizing meetings with voters. Goluenko does not have large resources. She is a functionary of the “Green Alternative”, previously ran for “Yabloko” and “Just Russia”. The degree of publicity according to “Gosdumetr” is within the statistical error: 3% know her, 11% of them are ready to vote (the lowest result in the district).

Zoya Andrianova, The Greens, is a deputy of the Begovoy district from Yabloko. She does not have many resources and is not well-known to voters. 4% know her, 19% of whom will support her in the elections.

Independent candidates Alexey Melnikov, Alexandr Arkhangelskiy, and Larisa Aspektnaya are little known, despite, for example, Melnikov’s statements about the active collection of signatures. They may be backup administrative candidates, but most likely will not be registered. Arkhangelskiy is associated with United Russia, and Melnikov is supported by the Moscow Aviation Institute and maintains a video blog.

Prediction: the victory of Galina Khovanskaya with a result of 30-40%. It is possible that her two main rivals, Brukhanova and Litvinovich, will together gain a comparable number of votes or even be able to get ahead of her together. However, the opposition’s victory is only possible if resources are combined, which is extremely unlikely.

Electoral District 200 – Medvedkovskiy

NamePartyDate of birthJob title, field, or organizationPlace of birthLocation
Anisimkova Polina NikolaevnaThe Greens6.05.2000Proekt-NMoscowMoscow
Arbuzov Andrey AlexandrovichCivil Platform11.12.1966RetiredMoscow OblastMoscow Oblast
Babushkin Andrey VladimirovichYabloko28.01.1964Civil Rights Committee, Otradnoe district deputyMoscow OblastMoscow
Velmakin Mikhail VadimovichGreen Alternative26.02.1982Laboratory of Complex Sociologic ResearchMoscowMoscow
Zagrebnoy Yuri LeontievichJust Russia23.02.1959Editor of “Mossovet” mediaVolgograd OblastMoscow
Zapotylok Evgeniy VasilievichNew People11.05.1983Formula AdvertMoscowMoscow
Orlov Mikhail ViktorovichCommunists of Russia16.05.1994Master MediaMoscowMoscow
Parfenov Denis AndreevichCPRF22.09.1987State Duma deputyMoscowMoscow
Pevtsov Dmitriy AnatolievichIndependent08.07.1963Theatre “Lenkom of Mark Zakharov”MoscowMoscow
Stepkin Evgeniy ValerievichLDPR4.08.1989UnemployedBelgorod OblastMoscow

Districts: Altufievskiy, Bibirevo, Lianosovo, Otradnoe, Severnoe Medvedkovo, Severniy, Yuzhnoe Medvedkovo

This district has a small number of candidates. There is no candidate from United Russia.

Independent candidate Dmitry Pevtsov is one of the most famous candidates in Moscow. He has administrative support and is a supporter of the current government. He directly calls himself a “Putin fan.” Pevtsov is a very famous actor and is especially well-known to people over 30 years old. He collected signatures for registration, and an active campaign is underway with the full support of local authorities. His status as a self-nominated candidate is due to the fact that the representative of United Russia had not run for office earlier in the district. According to Gosdumetr, he is known by 42% of voters, 26% of whom are ready to vote for him.

Denis Parfenov, CPRF, is a current deputy of the State Duma, elected in this district. In 2016, he received the lowest share of votes among all the winners—less than 20%. Key advantages for Parfenov are the absence of administrative pressure in the district and the presence of a large voter base. Parfenov will conduct an active campaign with good chances of success. According to Gosdumetr, 23% of voters know him and 31% of them will support him. Support from Smart Voting will significantly increase his chances of success.

Andrey Babushkin, Yabloko, is a current municipal deputy from the Otradnoye district and constantly participates in elections at various levels in this district. He was only elected as a municipal deputy and enjoys confidence among local activists, but he is not so well-known at the city level. As a member of Yabloko, Babushkin is an opponent of any alliances with other organizations. He may be able to get part of the protest electorate, but it is likely he will yield to Denis Parfenov.

Yuri Zagrebnoy, Just Russia, is a journalist and was a deputy of the Moscow City Duma in the 90s. Later, he took part in municipal and city elections, though he never won. Zagrebnov has connections with the Moscow Mayor’s office and is not an oppositionist. Despite his great experience, he is almost unknown to voters in the district. According to Gosdumetr, 3% of voters are familiar with Zagrebnov, but just a quarter of them are ready to vote for him.

Evgeniy Stepkin, LDPR. is a little-known candidate. The big problem for Stepkin will be his status as unemployed in the bulletin. Previously, he ran for the Moscow City Duma where he received 6% of votes in the district. Most likely, his rating in a passive campaign will be lower than that of LDPR, but it should be kept in mind that in 2016, the representative of LDPR managed to take second place in the district—the best result for LDPR in its history. Stepkin is recognizable for only 2% of voters, 10% of whom will vote for him.

Mikhail Velmakin, Green Alternative, is an experienced municipal opposition politician who has been a deputy in the Otradnoye district several times. He does not have the necessary resources for victory and is familiar only to a group of activists of the district.

Evgeniy Zapotylok, New People, is a candidate who will try to receive a small number of votes from young voters. He is focusing his resources on running an online campaign. The voters do not know him, and his rating is minimal.

Mikhail Orlov, Communists of Russia, is a spoiler candidate for Denis Parfenov and is capable of taking 2-4% of the vote. He constantly participates in campaigns at various levels. By the age of 27, he had run more than 20 times, never winning. Orlov will not conduct an active campaign and does not live in Moscow.

Polina Anisimkova, The Greens, is 21 years old and one of the youngest participants in the elections.  This allows her to count on additional votes of youth voters, which will be determined with the choice at the polling station. She isn’t conducting a campaign and has no history of social and political activity.

Andrey Arbuzov, Civic Platform, does not have any established rating. The voters do not know him, and he is not campaigning.

Prediction: the main struggle will unfold between Pevtsov, Parfeonov and Babushkin. Parfenov has a chance only if he runs an active campaign that activates his entire electoral base and recevies  support from Smart Voting. Pevtsov’s victory, however, looks a little more likely. Babushkin can affect Parfenov’s chances negatively by taking a significant part of the protest votes.

Electoral District 205 – Preobrazhenskiy

NamePartyDate of birthJob title, field, or organizationPlace of birthLocation
Besdenezhnykh Ksenia AlexeevnaIndependent09.07.1997Yam! Restaurants RussiaPermMoscow
Vasserman Anatoliy AlexandrovichIndependent09.12.1952BusinessmanUkrSSRMoscow
Gladkova Yulia GenrikhovnaRPSS26.05.1966RPSSUfaMoscow Oblast
Demchenko Vyacheslav OlegovichNew People16.03.1986Federal Corporation of Business SupportLipetskMoscow
Dorman Daria IgorevnaIndependent01.01.1990UnemployedMoscow OblastMoscow
Zagordan Nadezhda LeonidovnaGreen Alternative24.03.1984Research scientific center, Informatics and Management, Izmaylovo district deputyMoscowMoscow
Isaev Evgeniy NikolaevichIndependent02.06.1983UnemployedSverdlovsk OblastSverdlovsk Oblast
Ischenko Nikita SergeevichCivil Platform26.02.1989“Arkuda”KazSSRMoscow Oblast
Koryagina Natalia GrogorievnaParty of Growth11.09.1970BusinessmanKazSSRMoscow
Kostycheva Marina AlexandrovnaRodina9.12.1989Government of Voronezh OblastGermanyMoscow
Medvedev Anton VladimirovichLDPR4.11.1985Unemployed, Izmaylovo district deputyMoscowMoscow
Obukhov Sergey PavlovichCPRF5.10.1958State Duma officeUkrSSRMoscow
Popova Alena VladimirovnaYabloko15.02.1983Civil CorpusSverdlovsk OblastMoscow
Sidorov Yaroslav SeverovichCommunists of Russia29.09.1968Communists of RussiaMoscowMoscow

Districts: Vostochnoe Izmaylovo, Golyanovo, Ivanovskoe, Izmaylovo, Metrogorodok, Vostochniy, Preobrazhenskoe, Severnoe Izmaylovo, Sokolinaya gora

There is no candidate from United Russia.

Independent candidate Anatoliy Vasserman is in this case a candidate from the government. He is known as an active participant in intellectual TV games, mainly, Svoya Igra. Vasserman acts as a supporter of the Soviet model of state development, supports Stalin,[10] and speaks out against the opposition. He represents the left-wing electorate, is loyal to the current government, and is well-known among voters. According to Gosdumetr, 66% of voters know him, and 49% of them are ready to support him. He has experience participating in elections and ran for Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) in 1994, receiving 2nd place in the district.

Alena Popova, Yabloko, is well-known among activists as  an active participant in protests, though she has a controversial reputation. Popova supports the law against domestic violence and works to develop her media presence. The voters know her poorly: according to Gosdumetr, 5% of voters know her, 60% of whom are ready to support her. With an active campaign, she could garner a lot of votes.

Anton Medvedev, LDPR , is one of the few municipal deputies in Moscow from his party and is unemployed. LDPR has a low rating. Despite this, he is well-recognized in Izmaylovo. Medvedev, according to Gosdumetr, is known by 18% of voters (second highest result after United Russia), 40% of whom are ready to support him.

Sergey Obukhov, CPRF, is an employee of the State Duma and was previously a deputy. He is the political strategist who largely determines the party’s citywide campaign. He has never won in the district and will not conduct an active campaign. Obukhov, according to Gosdumetr, is known by 13% of voters, 64% of whom support him. He risks not even getting into the top three.

Nadezhda Zagordan, Green Alternative, is a municipal deputy of the Izmaylovo district. She is active at the local level, especially in the field of improvement. She is attempting to form a team for municipal elections in 2022. She likely uses the Duma elections to expand her voter base for the future. 4% of voters know her, and 41%  of them are ready to vote for her.

Yaroslav Sidorov, Communists of Russia, is the spoiler candidate for Sergey Obukhov. He is actively participating in elections at all levels in different regions. Over the past 16 years, he has taken part in 32 campaigns, though he has never won. He will not campaign. Voters often confuse him with the Communist Party candidate. According to Gosdumetr, 4% of voters know him, and 57% of them are ready to support him.

Yulia Gladkova, RPSS, is a former representative of CPRF. In 2019, she received 36% of the vote in the elections to the Moscow City Duma and came in second place. She is actively working and will probably count on the votes of CPRF. In fact, the success of 2019 is not due to personal recognition, but to the rating of CPRF and the support of Smart Voting. According to Gosdumetr, only 4% of voters know Gladkova, and 29% of them are ready to support her.

Vyacheslav Demchenko, New People, has not previously been involved in social and political activities. He is associated with the pro-Putin movement, “ONF”. According to Gosdumetr, 3% of voters know him, 11% of whom are ready to vote for him.

Nikita Ischenko, Civic Platform, is unknown and inactive. According to Gosdumetr, 4% of voters know him, 48% of whom are ready to support him.

Natalia Koryagina, Party of Growth, is unknown and inactive. According to Gosdumetr, 3% of voters are familiar with her, 33% of whom are ready to support her.

Marina Kostycheva, Rodina, is an employee of the State Duma and the government of the Voronezh Oblast. She is a candidate without any recognition or activity. 3% of voters know her, 28% of whom support her.

Independent candidates Ksenia Bezdenezhnykh, Daria Dorman, and Evgeniy Isaev do not have the resources to collect signatures and will not be registered. Isaev is a member of United Russia who lost the primaries.

Prediction: Vasserman’s unconditional victory

Electoral District 208 – Tsentralniy

NamePartyDate of birthJob title, field, or organizationPlace of birthLocation
Balyaeva Zukhra RinatovnaIndependent2.06.1979Social worker, district deputy in MordoviaBashkiriaMoscow
Vinnitskaya Tatiana GennadievnaNew People13.01.1977Viva Russia!NovgorodMoscow
Dzhagaev Iosif RuslanovichIndependent22.09.1989Civil Initiative partyVladikavkazhomeless
Zakharov Dmitriy AlexandrovichCommunists of Russia2.07.1985UnemployedMoscowMoscow
Koshlakov-Krestovskiy Dmitriy VladimirovichLDPR24.08.1972World Civilizations InstituteMoscowMoscow
Leonov Oleg YurievichIndependent10.09.1970Missing People Search CentreMoscowMoscow
Mitrokhin Sergey SergeyevichYabloko20.05.1963Yabloko, Moscow City Duma deputyMoscowMoscow
Ostanina Nina AlexandrovnaCPRF26.12.1955State Duma officeAltay KraiMoscow
Kharaidze Ketevan GuramovnaGreen Alternative9.04.1958Tverskoy district deputyGeorgian SSRMoscow
Shevchenko Maxim LeonardovichRPSS22.02.1966Vladimirskaya Oblast Duma deputyMoscowMoscow
Shirokov Andrey VyacheslavovichParty of Pensioners3.01.1958RPSSMoscowMoscow
Yushin Anatoliy PavlovichCivil platform11.11.1974Lawyer, Presnenskiy district deputy MoscowMoscow
Yakubovich Yakov BorisovichParty of Growth4.05.1981Head of Tverskoy districtBryansk OblastMoscow
Yandiev Magomet IsaevichJust Russia29.07.1968Lomonosov Moscow State UniversityGrozniyMoscow

Districts: Arbat, Basmanniy, Zamoskvorechie, Krasnoselskiy, Meschanskiy, Presnenskiy, Taganskiy, Tverskoy, Khamovniki, Yakimanka, Lefortovo

There is no United Russia candidate in the district. It was supposed to be Karen Aperyan, but he did not submit the documents to the election commission. This is probably related to the low level of support for the ruling party in this district. In this regard, independent candidate Oleg Leonov was nominated by the authorities, but he is not officially associated with United Russia.

Independent candidate Oleg Leonov is a hidden candidate from the government who receives a lot of administrative support. He is the coordinator of Liza Alert, which searches for missing people. The organization is popular among activists, including opposition representatives. Leonov previously stated that he did not support Putin, but later participated in meetings with him.[11] Leonov is loyal to the authorities, and budget organizations helped him collect signatures. He will probably try to get opposition votes through his active campaign.

Sergey Mitrokhin, Yabloko, is a Moscow City Duma deputy and former head of the party’s Moscow branch. Mitrokhin actively participates in meetings with voters. He was elected as a deputy of the Moscow City Duma in 2019 with the support of Smart Voting. Previously, his participation in the elections in the districts in Moscow has been unsuccessful. There is a possibility that the ruling party will support Mitrokhin. The current deputy from United Russia, Nikolay Gonchar, has publicly stated that his party can support Mitrokhin.[12] Perhaps, this is done to discredit him. At the same time, Mitrokhin can also expect to receive support from Navalny’s Smart Voting.

Nina Ostanina, CPRF, is a party office worker. Previously, she was a deputy of the State Duma and carries a certain weight within the party. At the same time, the voters do not know Ostanina; a lot of resources will not be spent on an active campaign. Ostanina opposes vaccination. Her rating will likely correspond to the number of people who always vote for CPRF.

Dmitriy Zakharov, Communists of Russia, is an active participant of the elections and a spoiler of candidates from CPRF. Previously, he was a municipal deputy in the Donskoy district from Just Russia. He is mainly engaged in criticizing CPRF.

Magomet Yandiev, Just Russia is a deputy of the Moscow City Duma. He was elected because of the support of Smart Voting. Before that, he was a little-known municipal deputy. After the election, he publicly declared that he supported Putin. Yandiev currently doesn’t have much support.

Yakov Yakubovich, Party of Growth, is the current head of the Tverskoy district from Yabloko. In 2018, he was supposed to participate in the elections for the Mayor of Moscow from Yabloko, but refused to participate despite winning the primaries. Later he actively collaborated with the authorities. Outside the Tverskoy District, he is almost unknown to voters.

Dmitriy Koshlakov-Krestovsky, LDPR, was an active participant in the elections to the Moscow City Duma in 2019 where he received 20% of the vote. He was a classmate of the son of Vladimir Zhirinovskiy. In 2019, he spent a lot of money on an active campaign. He will probably be active in these elections as well and supports Putin. The rating of LDPR will not allow him to get a high rating.

Maxim Shevchenko, CPRF, is a well-known journalist and deputy of the Vladimir Oblast. In 2018, in the presidential elections, he was a confidant of Grudinin. He runs a video blog, and at the moment he is one of the leaders of RPSS. Shevchenko has a chance to gain a lot of votes with an active campaign but will likely not have a chance to win.

Ketevan Kharaidze, Green Alternative, is a municipal deputy of the Tverskoy district. She became famous after she was accused of fraud by the authorities soon after she was nominated for election. This increased her recognition, though in general, Kharaidze’s rating is insignificant.

Andrey Shirokov, Party of Pensioners, is a functionary of his political organization. He actively worked in government agencies but has no experience of winning elections. He is unknown to voters.

Tatiana Vinnitskaya, New People, has never been involved in social and political activities. She is unknown, but at the moment her headquarters is campaigning hard on social media.

Anatoliy Yushin, Civic Platform, is a municipal deputy of the Presnenskiy district. Outside of his district, most voters don’t know him.

Independent candidates Zukhra Balyaeva and Iosif Dzhagaev do not have the resources to collect signatures and will not be registered. Balyaeva is a member of United Russia and may have been considered as a reserve candidate.

Prediction: the main struggle will unfold between Leonov and Mitrokhin. The result will depend on administrative support, candidates’ activity levels, and Smart Voting.

Electoral District 210 – Chertanovskiy

NamePartyDate of birthJob title, field, or organizationPlace of birthLocation
Barmenkov Evgeniy ValerievichThe Greens26.05.1989SibtelTulaMoscow
Batashev Anatoliy GennadievichGreen Alternative  18.01.1976Information agency, Big BalashikhaVladivostokMoscow
Butkeev Vladimir AnatolievichJust Russia22.03.1954RetiredKrasnodarskiy krayMoscow
Korshunkov Vladislav SergeevichLDPR8.12.1999Western administrative division in MoscowUkraineMoscow
Krapukhin Alexey IgorevichYabloko20.03.1987APRAMoscowMoscow
Nachevskiy Mikhail VladimirovichNew People2.07.1993Plekhanov Russian University of EconomicsMoscowMoscow
Romanenko Roman YurievichUnited Russia9.08.1971State Duma deputyMoscow OblastMoscow
Smitienko Stepan BorisovichCivic Platform30.10.1984PromsvyzbankMoscowMoscow
Tarantsov Mikhail AlexandrovichCPRF13.07.1962Moscow City DumaVolgogradMoscow
Taraschanskiy Leonid AsirovichCommunists of Russia3.12.1959UnemployedMoscowMoscow
Udalov Dmitriy AlexeyevichROS29.12.1980Military serviceStavropolMoscow
Yuneman Roman AlexandrovichIndependent03.04.1995Housing AlternativeGermanyMoscow
Yaseneva Yulia KonstantinovnaParty of Growth27.12.1990Stroganov Moscow State Academy of Arts and IndustryMoscowMoscow
Yatsevskiy Artemiy AndreevichRPSS21.04.1997Logistics and engineering in construction sectorMoscowMoscow

Districts: Severnoe Butovo, Yuzhnoe Butovo, Yasenevo, Chertanovo Tsentralnoe, Chertanovo Yuzhnoe

Roman Romenko, United Russia, is a famous cosmonaut and current State Duma deputy. He promotes military-patriotic education. Until 2011, he did not participate in social and political life. Romenko is one of the least recognizable candidates from United Russia: according to Gosdumetr, 27% of the district voters know him, 49% of whom are ready to support him. The party allocates a lot of money to support him.

Independent candidate Roman Yuneman managed to collect enough signatures for registration,[13] though there is a possibility he will not be registered. The result of registration depends on how dangerous a candidate is for the authorities. Yuneman is running an active campaign with a big budget. He has the support of many activists and has nationalist views, which can alienate part of the opposition. Support from Smart Voting is possible, but earlier in the elections to the Moscow City Duma, he did not receive it when preference was given to the communist candidate. 16% of voters know Yuneman according to Gosdumetr, and 62% of them will vote for him.

Mikhail Tarantsov, CPRF, is another contender for support from Smart Voting. Previously, he was a deputy of the Volgograd oblast Duma. At the moment he is the head of the district office of the Communist Party in Severnoe Medvedkovo. He is quite active and has supporters, but most of them live in the north of Moscow and outside of the district where he is running for deputy. Tarantsov’s recognition is almost the same as that of Yuneman – 15%, 77% of whom are ready to support him (the highest percentage in Moscow). In this regard, at the start of the election campaign, Tarantsov looks like a more probable candidate for Smart Voting than Yuneman.

Leonid Taraschanskiy, Communists of Russia, is Tarantsov’s spoiler candidate. Taraschanskiy has been matched with a candidate with a similar surname in order to confuse voters. He took part in the elections to municipal deputies in Yuzhnoe Butovo and lost outright. Taraschanskiy, according to Gosdumetr, is known by 4% of voters, 62% of whom  are ready to support him, probably because most of the respondents confuse him with Tarantsov.

Alexey Krapukhin, Yabloko, works for Rusfond and is engaged in charity work. He can count on the votes of the liberal opposition, but he has no individual recognition. According to Gosdumetr, only 4% of voters know him, 28% of whom support him.

Vladimir Butkeev, Just Russia, is a former State Duma deputy and an experienced politician. For the last 15 years, he has not distinguished himself in any way. 8% of voters know him, and 43% of them are ready to support.

Vladislav Korshunkov, LDPR, is a little-known, 22-year-old candidate. He has made populist statements and has not participated in earlier elections. He is one of the youth leaders of the party but  is not ready to conduct an active campaign. Voters are unfamiliar with him: 4% know about him, and 27% of them are ready to vote for him.

Yevgeniy Barmenkov, The Greens, is known among activists in relation to the protection of Bitsevskiy Forest. He is familiar to representatives of civil society but does not have the resources to campaign actively. 4% of voters know him, and 30% of them are ready to support him.

Artemiy Yatsevsky, RPSS, is a formal candidate. He is unknown and is depicted with a cigar in campaign materials. Less than 1% of voters know him.

Anatoliy Batashev, Green Alternative, is an environmental activist in Moscow Oblast. For some time, he worked as adviser to the head of the city of Balashikha. He is not expected to be gain a significant percentage of the vote. According to Gosdumetr, 4% of voters are familiar with him, 38% of whom will vote for him.

Mikhail Nachevskiy, New People, is a new candidate. He studies digital economy. He is actively campaigning on social media, however, he has almost no rating. According to Gosdumetr, Nachevsky is known to 1% of voters, 63% of which will vote for him.

Yulia Yaseneva, Party of Growth, is a teacher at the Academy of Arts and Industry. She is an unknown candidate: 4% of voters know her, 57% of whom are ready to vote for her.

Stepan Smitienko, Civil Platform, is an economist and employee of Promsvyazbank. He has not been noticed in social and political activities, although according to his official biography, he was previously an assistant to a deputy of the State Duma. 2% of voters know him, 33% of whom  will vote for him.

Dmitriy Udalov, ROS, is a serviceman. He has nine higher education degrees, which should attract the attention of voters on the official poster. He is inactive and has almost no campaign. There is no data on his recognition.

Prediction: if Yuneman is registered, a serious struggle for the support of Smart Voting will unfold between him and Taraschanskiy. Because Romanenko at this stage does not have a high level of recognition, the opposition has a chance to win. Romanenko, in any case, remains the main contender for the deputy mandate.


[1] Smart Voting. https://votesmart.appspot.com/ (accessed August 19, 2021).

[2] WCIOM. “The Ratings of Political Parties.”  https://wciom.ru/ratings/reiting-politicheskikh-partii/ (accessed August 19, 2021).

[3] Yavlinsky interview. https://www.dw.com/ru/grigorij-javlinskij-kritichno-o-navalnom-putine-i-vyborah-v-rossii/av-58317732 (accessed August 19, 2021).

[4] Information from https://cikrf.ru/ (accessed August 19, 2021).

[5]Ilya Graschenkov. “Has Navalny divided CPRF?“ https://echo.msk.ru/blog/delober/2779230-echo/ (accessed August 19, 2021).

[6] “Party of Growth has introduced Dmitriy Gudkov ally as a State Duma candidate.” https://asafov.ru/3379 (accessed August 19, 2021).

[7] Gosdumetr results: https://www.facebook.com/miloserdov.case (accessed August 19, 2021).

[8] “For Lobanov!” https://chronicles.igmsu.org/igmsu/lobanov/ (accessed August 19, 2021).

[9] Khovanskaya Galina Petrovna. https://whoiswho.dp.ru/cart/person/591702 (accessed August 19, 2021).

[10] “Vasserman: ‘People stopped believing the negative image of Stalin.’” https://sputnik.by/20190417/Vasserman-v-negativnyy-obraz-Stalina-sozdannyy-Khruschevym-perestali-verit-1040830310.html (accessed August 19, 2021).

[11] Leonov interview. https://meduza.io/feature/2021/06/10/podderzhivayu-li-ya-vlast-navernoe-net (accessed August 19, 2021).

[12] “United Russia stays without a candidate on one of the hardest districts in Moscow.” https://www.rbc.ru/politics/09/07/2021/60e700cf9a794705c266a768 (accessed August 19, 2021).

[13] “Voters have signed twice.” https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4928938#id2092856 (accessed August 19, 2021).

Political Repressions in Russia in 2021

Administrative cases after the protests for the release of Alexei Navalny

2021 saw widespread political repressions across Russia. On January 17, 2021, opposition leader Alexei Navalny returned to Russia where he was immediately arrested at the airport on charges related to the “Yves Rocher case,” for which he had previously received a suspended sentence. Two days after his arrest, a film was released about Putin’s alleged palace in Krasnodar Krai worth $1.35 billion.[1]

On January 23, protests were held against the arrest of Navalny in 198 cities. According to the head of the regional headquarters of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, they were attended by up to 300,000 people across the country.[2] During the protests, police beat the participants, and 4,033 people were detained by the police, about 300 of whom were teenagers. Throughout the next eight days, protests were held in 121 cities and resulted in detention of 5,754 people. On the day of Navalny’s trial on February 2, police detained another 1,463 protestors, 1,188 of them in Moscow. Between January 23-February 2, more than 11,000 people were detained.

The overwhelming majority of those detained were convicted under Article 20.2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, which provides punishment for participating and organizing protests without permission. The article establishes fines (from $130 to $4,000) or arrests up to 30 days. Because there is not enough space in Moscow to accommodate such a large number of arrested people, protesters were taken to the Foreign Citizen Temporary Detention Center in the village of Sakharovo, just outside Moscow. The center held about 800 protestors at a time and was unprepared to house so many people. On the night of February 2, 200 people were brought to Sakharovo and were each processed for 20 minutes. People spent hours in cold paddy wagons without access to toilets, food, or water. Some of those arrested weren’t able to eat for 40 hours.

Conditions in Sakharov were also torture. The cells, with capacity to hold eight people, held up to 27 people at a time. The cell toilets were holes in the floor and were not partitioned off. A significant number of those arrested did not receive mattresses and were forced to sleep on the floor.

Criminal cases following the protests for Navalny’s release[3]

After the protests between January 23rd-February 2nd, 90 criminal cases were initiated. People were charged with incitement to riot (Part 3 of Article 212 of the Russian Criminal Code), involvement of teenagers in illegal actions (Part 2 of Article 151.2) and attacks on police officers (Article 318).

For blocking the roads

In several regions, criminal cases were brought against activists for blocking the roads under Part 1 of Article 267, which permits up to one year of imprisonment for those convicted. Dozens of activists have been questioned in these cases and searches have been carried out. In Moscow, the libertarian Gleb Maryasov has been charged under this criminal article. Similar criminal cases were brought against nine people in Chelyabinsk, nine in Vladivostok, and one in Izhevsk. A case under Article 267 was also opened in St. Petersburg, though no one has been accused yet.

For violating sanitary and epidemiological standarts

On January 24, the day after the first protest for Navalny’s release, a criminal case was initiated under Part 1 of Article 236, “Violation of sanitary and epidemiological standards,” which allows for up to two years in prison. The investigators insist that the rally on January 23rd endangered the lives of its participants due to the risk of spreading COVID-19. Ten Russian opposition politicians were accused: municipal deputies Dmitry Baranovsky, Lyudmila Stein, and Konstantinas Jankauskas; member of the punk rock and performance art  group Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina; leader of the independent trade union Doctors’ Alliance, Anastasia Vasilyeva; and Navalny’s associates Nikolai Lyaskin, Oleg Stepanov, Lyubov Sobol and Kira Yarmysh, as well as his brother Oleg Navalny.

On July 14th, 2021, the case against Jankauskas was dropped. At the moment, the freedom of movement for Oleg Navalny, Yarmysh and Stein is restricted; the rest of the accused are under house arrest.

A similar charge was brought against two people in Nizhny Novgorod.

For assaulting police

The most common criminal charge after the protests was for attacking government officials under Parts 1 and 2 of Article 318. The consequence of this charge can be up to 10 years in prison. Not a single case was brought against police for using unjustified violence despite the abundance of documentary evidence.

In Moscow, under this article, a case was brought against 13 people: one person was sentenced to three and a half years in prison, three were sentenced to two years in prison, one to one year in prison, and another was convicted, conditionally. The rest of the trials continue, and some of the accused remain in jail.

In St. Petersburg, nine people were accused of attacking the police: three received suspended sentences, and for the rest, the trials are ongoing.

Across other regions, 21 cases were brought against the protesters under Article 318. As of August 2021, there has not been a single acquittal. It is interesting that only ordinary participants have been charged under this article.

For acts of hooliganism

A number of protesters on January 23rd were accused of hooliganism under Article 213—this charge can result in up to seven years in prison. Protestors have been accused on video of throwing snowballs at police officers, beating other people, and damaging city infrastructure. At the moment, seven people have been charged under this article.

For incitement to mass disorder

 Nine people were accused of calling for protests on social media platforms under Article 212.3, which permits up to two years of imprisonment. Two people were sentenced to one year and six months, respectively, while the rest are under investigation. In all cases, the charges are related to publications on the platforms, VKontakte (VK) and Telegram.

For incitement to extremism

In Primorsky Krai, Penza, Kazan, Vladimir, Novosibirsk, and Tula, seven people have been accused of inciting violence under Article 280 and face up to five years in prison. All cases are related to posts on social media platforms.

For vandalism (Article 214 of the Russian Criminal Code, up to three years in prison)

Across six regions in Russia, activists have been accused of vandalism. The cases are a reaction to graffiti on walls and monuments: “Putin is a thief!” (in Tomsk), “Putin is a thief and a murderer!” (in St. Petersburg), “Putin, go away” (in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk), and “Freedom for Navalny!” (in Vladivostok). The content of the graffiti in Vologda was obscene. These cases were brought under Article 214 and can result in up to three years in prison.

For repeated violation of the rules for participation at a protest

Three people have been accused under Article 212.1 for repeated violation of the rules for participation in protests and face up to two years in prison. These cases are a consequence of protests in support of the arrested governor of Khabarovsk Krai, Sergei Furgal.

Other cases

After January 23rd, criminal cases were also brought against protestors on the charges of insulting a government official in St. Petersburg, destruction of property in Moscow, and false reporting of a terrorist attack in Belgorod. The case in Belgorod is the most absurd—the activist was accused of posting a  comment, “It’s the bomb!” under the post about the January 23 rally in support of Alexei Navalny in a closed group on a social media platform VKontakte.

Detentions on April 21st, 2021

On April 21st, a second set of protests were held in support of Alexei Navalny. His Headquarters coordinator Leonid Volkov said he would announce a protest after half a million people registered as participants on the organization’s site. After Navalny went on a hunger strike in prison, it was decided to hold the protest ahead of schedule. Rallies were held in 109 cities and resulted in the detaining of 2,096 people, almost half of whom were in St. Petersburg. There were few arrests in Moscow—only 35. Some of the detainees were arrested and held for up to 15 days.

Criminal cases against Navalny’s associates

The coordinator of Navalny’s headquarters in Primorsky Krai, Andrei Borovikov, was accused of publishing pornographic materials. He made reposted a clip of the band Rammstein performing its song, “Pussy,” on his VK page. On July 15th, he was sentenced to two years and three months in prison. This clip has been published thousands of times by other users without repercussion.

In October 2020, Pavel Zelensky, videographer of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, posted a tweet accusing the authorities of driving Nizhny Novgorod activist Irina Slavina to suicide. For this tweet, he was taken into custody on April 16th, 2021, and was charged with public appeals to extremism under Article 280.2. Zelensky is currently serving a two-year sentence prison.

Restriction of the opportunity to participate in elections

A number of candidates were rejected after applying to participate in the State Duma elections. A criminal case was brought against Moscow District Deputy Ketevan Kharaidze, and Ilya Yashin was banned from participating in the elections. A number of activists left the country fearing for their safety .

The Case of Andrei Pivovarov

Andrei Pivovarov, the chairman of the public movement Open Russia, was also subjected to repression. After the dissolution of the organization, he was removed from a Moscow-Warsaw flight and detained in June 2021. A criminal case was brought against him under Article 284.1 for participating in the activities of an undesirable organization. Pivovarov is currently in custody.

The DOXA Magazine Case

Four editors of the DOXA student magazine of the Higher School of Economics have been accused of supporting the protests in Russia. Criminal cases were brought against them under Articles 151.2 (involvement of teenagers in dangerous actions) and 298.1 (libel). All four are currently under house arrest.

The Case of Nikolai Platoshkin

On May 19th, 2021, the candidate for the State Duma from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Nikolai Platoshkin Ph.D., was sentenced to five years of suspended sentence for publicly disseminating false information about COVID-19 and calling for riots. Platoshkin, during his communication with subscribers on social media platforms, reported that Moscow hospitals weren’t able to cope with the large number of patients—he did not publish any calls for riots. The case is politically motivated, and Platoshkin is barred from participating in the State Duma elections.

The Ingush Opposition Case

In March 2019 in the capital of Ingushetia, Magas, protests were held against the ceding of part of the republic’s territory to Chechnya. During the protests, criminal cases were brought against 51 protesters. In 2021, four participants were convicted, and an investigation was initiated against two more.

In 2021, more than 100 politically motivated criminal cases were brought against protestors, and around 13 thousand people were convicted for participating in protests. The number of people who left the country cannot be counted.


[1]Alexei Navalny, “Palace for Putin. The history of the biggest bribe,” accessed August 19, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipAnwilMncI.

[2]Наталия Зотова, Оксана Чиж, и Владимир Дергачев, “’Спичка в сухой траве.’ Почему протестуют российские регионы и что будет дальше,” BBC, accessed August 19, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/russian/features-55893117.

[3]Data is taken from Memorial, accessed August 19, 2021, https://memohrc.org/ru/pzk-list.

Monitoring the Pre-Election Situation in Russia: Fourth issue

Party approval ratings

The data below has been provided by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) and the National Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM).

Not much has changed in party approval ratings, though it is noteworthy that VTsIOM has recoded the approval for Putin’s United Russia at its lowest point in years, at 27.2%. The same polling service has recorded a slight uptick in the approval for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), which is now at 16%, one of its best showings in years.

More interestingly, the combined approval for all of the parties that have been able to break the 5% barrier is higher than that for United Russia. The approval for CPRF, LDPR, and SR together is over 32%, compared to United Russia’s 27.2%. The approval for non-parliamentary parties is also at its highest point since the campaign period began in June of this year—14.2%.

Thus, we can conclude that majority of Russians who plan to vote in the upcoming elections will vote against United Russia.

Neither of Russia’s two major polling agencies gage party disapproval ratings. However, it has been done by the Social Research Foundation, which is close to the CPRF (and whose data reliability has been confirmed by a CPRF source).  The party disapproval ratings were as follows: United Russia–35%, Yabloko–24%, LDPR–20%, CPRF–15%. Disapproval ratings for other parties is below 10%.

Based on this, we can conclude the following:

  1. United Russia cannot improve its voter approval ratings before the end of elections.
  2. Yabloko cannot breach the 5% threshold.

Candidate Registration

1. United Russia’s federal candidate list was the last to be registered by the Russian Central Election Commission (CEC). This event has not been publicized on the CEC website or in any official CEC press releases. An official press statement announced that the second to last list from the New People party had been registered, and then that registration had concluded for all party lists. There was no additional statement on the number of United Russia candidates, or even what party was registered after New People. It seems that the CEC is attempting to keep the fact of the United Russia’s registration quiet, in order to avoid inciting people to head to the polls and vote against it in the elections (particularly within the context of scandals over opposition candidates being eliminated from the election).

2. Three highly-popular candidates continue challenging the refusal to register them in single-mandate districts. In Khabarovsk, Anton Furgal, the son of jailed governor Sergei Furgal, is contesting allegations of irregularities in voter signatures. The challenge is being reviewed by the Khabarovsk District Court, which is standard procedure for registration appeals in federal elections. Roman Yuneman (Moscow) and Lev Schlossberg (Yabloko) are also disputing rejection of their registration applications, which was based on ties to Alexei Navalny.

Election finance

The election financing data is available on the CEC website:

http://cikrf.ru/analog/ediny-den-golosovaniya-2021/kategorii-viborov/vibori-deputatov-gosdumi/finansirovanie-vyborov/svedeniya-o-postuplenii-sredstv-v-izbiratelnye-fondy-politicheskikh-partiy-i-raskhodovanii/

The biggest news here is that between August 5-12, four of Russia’s main parties did not deposit a single ruble into their campaign accounts!

Moreover, even the paltry sum received from sponsors prior to August 5 has not been spent. By August 12, United Russia had only spent 200 million out of its 700 million rubles; CPRF had spent 106 million out of 117 million; LDPR had spent 200 million out of 680 million; and A Just Russia had spent 115 out of 134 million.

If we divide the total amount spent by parties among Russia’s 104 million voters, that means that the four parliamentary parties have spent approximately 6 rubles (or USD 10 cents) per voter. This means that the campaigning during the early stages of the election season has been abysmal. Citizens have been exposed to no campaigning from the political parties running in the elections.

The fact that the parties have not been actively replenishing their accounts means that they have not been fundraising among their supporters, and only big business and prominent donors linked to the parties are actually providing financing. This is likely part of the plan to suppress voter turnout. Perhaps the greatest motivation to get out and vote is financial support for a party, but the parties do not need that support. The Kremlin strictly controls campaign fundraising to ensure that no one receives additional resources for campaigning or attracting new supporters.

Assessing the competition

The Golos movement has published a media monitoring report for the eighth week of the campaign. Media campaigning opens on the morning of August 20, so the report is primarily focused on news coverage of the campaign, which has not been funded by parties or candidates. The report is available on the Golos website:
https://www.golosinfo.org/articles/145391

The main takeaway from the eighth week of the campaign (August 9-15) is that the news coverage of the elections continues to grow, having reached a new peak of 288.8 minutes, though coverage of the parties and candidates made up less than 58% of that time— 166.5 minutes. Two-thirds of that coverage was dedicated to one party—United Russia. United Russia has been mentioned in the news more than all other parties combined and has received approximately twice the amount of coverage as others. 

The number of political parties represented on national television channels suddenly dropped this week. With the exception of a single report on Ren-TV about the Pensioners’ Party, TV audiences are only seeing the coverage of the “parliamentary four” and New People. Other parties were not mentioned at all.

The only party that received negative coverage during this period (approximately 35%, compared to 65% positive coverage) was, as usual, the CPRF. Other parties mentioned in the news received over 80% positive coverage. As a result, this week’s “positive rating” was the highest of the campaign.

Between August 9-15, nearly all messages related to the parties and elections in general were positive. CPRF was the stark exception to this, and approximately one-third of its coverage was negative. More specifically, that coverage, broadcast by Ren-TV, was devoted to the court case against a CPRF candidate Pavel Grudinin (party leader Gennady Zyuganov issued a statement that the CPRF would be appealing the decision).

Approximately 20% of coverage of A Just Russia—For Truth was neutral, and the rest was positive. Slightly less than 4% of the coverage of LDPR was neutral, as was about 2.5% of the coverage of United Russia. New People and the Pensioners’ Party were leading this week with a 100% positive coverage. This means that the “positive rating” has risen for the second week in a row, which is likely driven by the desire to avoid inciting protests and to ensure that citizens who are dissatisfied with the campaigns do not get extra motivation to go out and vote.

Campaign progress

During the past week, parties running in the campaign issued several statements which shed light on their electoral positions. The statements collected by the Petersburg Politics Foundation during the eighth week of the campaign include:

UNITED RUSSIA. Announced it was against mandatory vaccination for college students (Elena Shmeleva).

LDPR. Suggested auctioning off “vanity” license plates (Alexandr Sherin).

A JUST RUSSIA. Addressed Vladimir Putin and suggested firing Russia’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Alexandr Kozlov in connection to the widespread forest fires raging in Yakutia (Fedot Tumusov).

YABLOKO. In Ulan-Ude, announced nine proposals for saving Lake Baikal (Nikolai Rybakov).

NEW PEOPLE. Called for exempting businesses from taxes on profits, VAT, and insurance premiums, and instead introducing a flat tax rate of 5% (Alexei Nechaev).

GROWTH PARTY. Suggested creating a list of websites and services that cannot be blocked by the government, including YouTube, Google, Instagram, Facebook, Wikipedia, TikTok, Telegram, WhatsApp, Booking, Amazon, Twitter, Zoom, and Skype (Irina Mironova).

RUSSIAN PENSIONERS’ PARTY FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE. Held a symposium in Yaroslav to discuss ways to reduce rent (Andrei Shirokov).

RODINA. Expressed concern that the Russian language is being suppressed in Kazakhstan which is  “heading down the same dirty path as in Ukraine” (Alexei Zhuravlev).

GREENS. Proposed allowing electric and hybrid cars to use separate lanes, and to rent out new homes already equipped with electric chargers (Andrei Nagibin).

Overall, the various party initiatives are a pale imitation of what one would expect during campaign period; they do not earnestly seek to increase approval ratings or voter turnout.

“Smart Voting” Update

There have been three notable developments in the Smart Voting campaign.

  1. Alexei Navalny addressed voters on social media from his jail, urging them to join the Smart Voting campaign and explaining the reasons behind that campaign. Any statements from Navalny himself receive more views than those from Navalny’s organization FBK.
  2. FBK announced a new platform for donations. Within just a few days, the new site had approximately the same number of donors signed up as the “old” FBK site.
  3. A CPRF public opinion poll was published online (though the poll data was not published on the websites, CPRF sources confirm its authenticity) which, since April 2021, has included a column for a hypothetical “Navalny Party”. This “party” is popular with 10% of voters (the poll was conducted nationwide). Thus, we have a reliable, though indirect data on the potential numbers of Russian voters who support the Smart Voting campaign. Previously, we only had results from 2020 polls, based on mathematical analysis of local elections in St. Petersburg, which estimated Smart Voting can add a 7-9% boost in votes to certain candidates. This also leads us to conclude that the number of potential “smart voters” has grown over the last year.

Regional elections and other notable developments

Major background political events included: 1. forest fires in Yakutia, which have been finally recognized as a national disaster; 2. plane crashes—three Russian Air Force planes have crashed in the last two weeks; 3. the change of power in Afghanistan, and ensuing debates over the relationship between Russian leaders and the Taliban, which is simultaneously classified as an outlawed terrorist organization in Russia and is engaged in formal negotiations with the Russian Foreign Ministry. Additionally, the courts have begun announcing verdicts against Alexei Navalny supporters. Lyubov Sobol (who has recently left the country) and Kira Yarmish have been issued prison sentences. In the coming weeks, Alexei Vorsin and Oleg Stepanov are expected to be sentenced.

There has been a heavy media coverage of police showing up at the homes of approximately 500 Navalny supporters around the country and asking them to submit depositions against him, demanding that police investigate his alleged theft of funds donated by Russian citizens to FBK or Navalny’s headquarters.

Regional elections campaigns have not had any significant influence on the course of federal elections. One notable exception is the refusal to register Anton Furgal as a gubernatorial candidate in Khabarovsk. The younger Furgal stirs up local residents, and his running forces voters to remember what happened to his father, and think about how to vote in Khabarovsk gubernatorial elections.

Announcements for the next two weeks

Media campaigning begins on August 19.

Links to sources

https://media.fom.ru/fom-bd/d312021.pdf

https://wciom.ru/ratings/reiting-politicheskikh-partii/

https://www.golosinfo.org/articles/145391

Animal Welfare in Russia

Each summer in Czechia, café waiters put out large bowls of water so that dogs taken for a walk under the scorching sun can cool off. Dog owners in Russia, however, have to make sure that their dogs don’t try to eat anything during their walks—as it is not rare to come across poisoned meat set out as baits by dog hunters.

Russians’ relationship to man’s best friend is quite different from that in the West, where stray dogs are relatively rare, and even adopting a rescue dog from a shelter takes a considerable amount of effort. In Russia, it is easy to become a dog owner, and just as easy to abandon it.

Nonetheless, in May 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a list of instructions aimed at promoting the “a society with a responsible relationship toward animals”. Notably, he ordered records of pets and monitoring stray animals, as well as “encouraging voluntary sterilization, vaccination, and tagging of domestic pets.” The list of measures is published on the Kremlin website.

But there’s a catch—three years ago, Russia had already adopted the Federal Law “On the Responsible Treatment of Animals” (which also includes a proclamation on the “principle of humanity”). That law has not been effective.

According to official data, there are over 650,000 homeless cats and dogs in Russia. Volunteers diligently pick them up off the streets, but there are many more still looking for a home. The underlying problem seems to be lack of responsibility. Owning a pet is not just for fun and taking care of a pet means taking care of its needs, too (walks, food, the vet).

A Crime Unpunished

London resident Tanya G. recently bought a puppy for 800 British pounds, and has already received complaints from her neighbors, who did not appreciate the dog’s whining. “If we mistreat him, the neighbors might call the police. First, regular police might deal with the case, but then they would transfer it to specialized unit,” she says.

A review of laws in the United States, New Zealand, Great Britain, Czechia, and Italy all show that the states are serious about ensuring animal rights.

In Germany, those who abuse animals are subject to up to three years in prison or a fine of up to 25,000 euros, notes Takie Dela.

According to German police data, about 6,000 animal abuse crimes are committed each year.

For comparison, in 2019, Russia registered just 490 violations of laws on animal cruelty.

This is not a matter of Russians simply being much kinder to animals, but is the result of the state turning a blind eye to this type of crime.

The law “On the Responsible Treatment of Animals,” which declares that animals are “capable of experiencing emotions and physical suffering” is ineffective. Those caught violating the law are let off with a simple slap on the wrist.

Volunteer Ksenia Vasilchenko works to find homes for dogs, including abroad. She says that many dogs are sent to Finland and Germany, and before the pandemic, they were also sent to the United States, Czechia, the Netherlands, and Belgium.

In June, a dog named Snowball emigrated to Germany. He had been living in an industrial area of Russia, where some “nice guys” shot him for fun with a pellet gun. One of the pellets hit his spine, causing serious damage. His surgery and recovery cost about RUB 100,000 (~ USD 1.350).

Vasilchenko feels that the Russian law is ineffective, because it is impossible to prove the crime took place, because dogs are seen as things, and because there are no animal control officers in Russia.

Lidia Kondrashova, a communications expert for the RAI charity fund which helps stray animals, agrees. “Unfortunately,” she says, “Law 438 (On the Responsible Treatment of Animals) and Article 245 in the Criminal Code (Animal Cruelty) exist on paper, but in practice, no one is ever punished for these crimes.”

“First of all, we need to ensure that the laws are enforced, and create agencies where anyone can go and report animal cruelty,” she states.

As far as the infamous dog hunters, who leave poison on city streets, Kondrashova believes they should be criminally prosecuted.

“Today, animal cruelty is punishable with a fine of about RUB 80,000 (~ USD 1.100), corrective work, or imprisonment for up to three years,” she says. “But in practice, these sentences are very rarely handed down, and law enforcement agencies are extremely reluctant to take on animal cruelty cases, or even talk about it”.

Programs for catching, sterilizing, and vaccinating animals before releasing them back into their original environment have not been a success either (despite being mandated by the Law on Responsible Treatment of Animals).

“In practice, what we see is the dogs are caught, the government spends some money on them, and then the budget runs out, so they are just taken to the neighboring region and released into the forest, where they die of hunger, parasites, or get hit by cars,” Kondrashova explains.

Everything is God’s will

Kondrashova notes that the law also includes a provision for education, to teach people to have a humane relationship with animals, but, “as far as we can see, that change is not taking place”.

“We need to focus on educating people, and right now only some animal welfare organizations are doing that, but they don’t have a lot of resources. We need to give people at least some key information: explain why they can’t let their pets run around outside, why they need to sterilize them, take them to the vet, etc.”

“Today”, she continues, “pet owners have a lot of archaic ideas about what it means to keep a pet, which has a negative impact on animals’ quality of life and can often pose a serious danger.”

“The law on responsible treatment of animals includes provisions that pet owners must spay/neuter their pets, care for them properly, and take them to the vet when they need it,” she says.

Vasilchenko echoes that sentiment, noting that “in our country, there is no information about sterilizing pets— in Europe, you will not see any dogs that have not been neutered, unless you are at a kennel. Here, people project their own reproductive aspirations onto their dogs. “Let my dog be a mom!” they say. There is also a religious element. There was a cat running around with kittens outside of my apartment, and when I said she needed to be spayed, the old women there said, “Aren’t you Orthodox? That is a sin! Everything is God’s will!”

In Russia, there are no free sterilization programs—you can’t simply take your cat to get spayed, she laments.

Despite the fact that in large cities, dogs are tagged at state budget expense, there is no consequence for not tagging one’s dog. “There is not a single tagging database in the entire country,” Vasilchenko adds.

The role of money

Vasilchenko states that the Russian Kynological Federation (RFK) does not monitor dog breeding, and there are no breeding quotas.

“Half the kennels are torture chambers! They restrain dogs to forcefully breed (and they do it without stopping), and then they kill them,” she describes. “When you buy a purebred puppy on Avito for RUB 15,000 (~ USD 200) , you need to understand the true costs, and why the price is what it is. Mixed-breed dogs are simply thrown away— no one wants them.”

“This is about money, too: breeders sell puppies without verifying what kind of conditions they are going to live in, who the owners are,” says Vasilchenko. “Take huskies. This is a beautiful breed, but you need to know that they are really difficult to train and take care of. They require a lot of attention, patience, and an active lifestyle. Once the puppy has torn apart the entire apartment, people throw them out of the house, and that is very common.”

Vasilchenko describes how people constantly call the shelter, hoping to get rid of their pets. “A girl will call and say, ‘I want to get rid of my 8-year-old Spitz. I got him when he was still a puppy, and I don’t want him anymore. His eye has started to run,’ they see them like things.”

Far too easy

Vasilchenko believes that dogs suffer because in Russia it is too easy to get a pet.

“If you sign an official contract, put down your passport information and recognize that this is a responsibility, things would be different. But instead, people take home Fido, feed him bones, and when he dies, they go get another dog. It is far too easy to abandon a dog,” she says.

In Europe, in order to take a non-purebred dog home from the shelter, one needs to take part in an interview and pay EUR 400-450.

“Signing a contract with the shelter, which only approves you after they have seen your lease (if people rent, they need to show they have the landlord’s permission) and proof of employment. If you are not capable of paying EUR 400-450, how are you going to take the dog to the vet in Germany or Finland?”

European dog owners also have to pay for obedience training, sterilization, required insurance, and pet taxes. If a resident of Germany, for example, wants to stop paying taxes on his or her dog, they will have to explain to the authorities where the dog has gone.

Meanwhile, Russians do not want to spend money on their pets, even when it comes to their health. “Some people want to take a dog home, and when we ask what happened to the last one, they say, ‘She died. She didn’t eat for three days, then she had some swelling, and died.’ And they didn’t even think to take the dog to the vet!” says Vasilchenko, indignant.

A glimmer of hope in the city

Despite all of this, Vasilchenko believes that awareness is growing. “In large cities, it’s become fashionable to adopt a rescue dog from the shelter”

“But people still love status symbols: when we put up photos of purebred dogs, the phone will ring off the hook. But mutts are unique, they don’t look like any other dog. If I have five purebreds in front of me, I can’t tell the difference between them, but I know who the mutts are right away,” she says.

Lidia Kondrashova agrees, noting that in large cities,  such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, attitudes toward pet ownership are changing, and “more and more people are treating their pets like companion animals.”

“This is facilitated by infrastructure development—there are more parks for walking, public places where you can take your pets, more vet clinics, etc. It is easier and more convenient to take care of your pets and make sure they are comfortable,” she says. “However,” she continues, “things are not quite so rosy in the regions, where the quality of life is rather low, and people are just not very concerned with animal welfare.”

What can we do?

Vasilchenko urges limits on dog breeding and registration requirements for pets—starting with dogs— complete with passports, vaccination cards, and (preferably) free sterilization.

“We shouldn’t forget about the carrot and stick approach: if you offer free sterilization, you also need to introduce fines for neglecting dogs. If someone finds your dog abandoned, wandering around the street, you pay a RUB 20,000 (~ USD 270) fine,” she suggests.

Vasilchenko believes that better enforcement of laws on “animal cruelty, neglect, and any violence toward animals.”

“We need social education, we have to explain to people that dogs whose owners provide good care, will not attack people,” she says. “Remember, that cruelty comes from home – why is it that the weakest one in school is always bullied?”

Gradually, though, Vasilchenko believes that appropriate measures will spread to the  regions, which always lag behind central cities.

For Lidia Kondrashova, the highest priority is spaying/neutering, vaccination, tagging, stray animals; as well as introduction of strict monitoring of breeding conditions, with punishments for those that violate laws and regulations.

“That would prevent uncontrolled breeding and stray animals,” she suggests.

“All of the tamed animals (generally dogs and cats that used to be someone’s pet and cannot survive on the streets) or those who are capable of being socialized need to be taken off the streets and to shelters so that they can be around people and find new owners,” says Kondrashova. “But here, there is one major caveat—the shelters we have, as they are today, are not able to provide the animals with quality care, and finding new owners becomes the full responsibility of volunteers, who are catastrophically few in numbers.  This is why one of the biggest issues the government needs to resolve is a complete overhaul of the shelter system.”

With regard to dog obedience training, similar to what is available in Europe, for Kondrashova, “in the context of such deplorable conditions for stray animals in our country, obedience classes seem to be unattainable.”

“Responsible pet owners will talk to dog trainers and animal psychologists, they read books and watch videos about how they can better understand their pet. Unfortunately, there are still very few people like that in Russia,” she says. “Organizing responsible pet ownership classes would be a logical step for the government’s efforts at solving this dangerous problem.”

Kondrashova notes that the government has already discussed the possibility of introducing a pet tax, which already exists in the West, but “as things stand today, that would probably result in a huge number of pets being abandoned by owners who do not want to incur any additional costs.”

“We get a lot of emails telling us ‘why don’t you take care of people first, and then worry about dogs?’ Of course, the people who write such messages are not helping anyone at all,” says Vasilchenko.

In a country where some people still live in barracks, it will probably be some time before the general public adopts a humane attitude toward man’s best friend.

Monitoring the pre-election situation in Russia: Third Issue

This update should have been released three days earlier and dedicated to the final outcome of the electoral candidate registration. However, that process is still underway—the list of candidates from Putin’s United Russia party has yet to be registered, as is the case with the New People party list.

The most likely reason for this is the Central Electoral Committee’s (CEC) attempt to postpone announcements on party nominations as long as possible, as well as the fact that they have to sift through huge piles of documents on the party candidates’ assets.

Traditionally, the wealthiest candidates with the highest number of accounts and property to declare come from United Russia. This is intentional, as failure to declare assets and bank accounts can be a reason for candidates to be barred from the election, at their rivals’ request. Very wealthy candidates have lengthy lists of assets, and mistakes and omissions are easy when one is declaring so many complicated shares and securities. It is rare for Russian candidates to hide assets, as if they are discovered (and they will be), a scandal is all but certain. Scandals are the last thing anyone wants in these elections, as the authorities are trying to lower voter turnout.

Party approval ratings

Not much has changed in party approval ratings over the last few weeks. United Russia is still experiencing its lowest approval yet, at 27%, according to both of Russia’s main polling services. 

Other major parties have not seen any significant changes either:

  • The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF)- 14%, fluctuating at its highest approval rating in the past year;
  • The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR)- 11%, an average rating;
  • The Just Russia Party (SR)- 7%, its highest rating in the past year.

However, both polling services have noticed a sudden spike in the numbers of citizens who do not intend to vote in the elections or answered “I do not know”.

I do not intend to vote – increased from 15% to 17%,

“I do not know” – from 19% to 22% (FOM data)

Based on this information, we can infer the following:

1.            The approval ratings for parties running in the elections has been stable since elections were announced, without any abrupt increases over the last six weeks.

2.            Approval for the CPRF, SR, and LDPR is approximately 5% higher than that of the United Russia. In theory, this could lead to a complete shakeup of party distribution within the Duma, but given that approximately 30% of Russian citizens currently live in regions where the elections are completely rigged, this is highly unlikely to happen.

3.            VTsOM has consistently registered strong support for non-parliamentary parties (14%), but the question remains whether any one of them will receive enough votes to reach the 5% threshold. The main non-parliamentary parties that stand a chance of reaching 5% are Yabloko, New People, and the Pensioners’ Party.

4.            Neither polling agency has provided information on voter turnout. The number of people who say they plan to vote has been roughly unchanged for the past six weeks. This means that party and candidate campaigning has not driven public interest in the elections, and people are not feeling inspired by the candidates.

Candidate nomination results

The registration period for candidates in single-mandate districts has now ended. Party lists are still being registered, with neither the United Russia nor New People list yet registered. Based on the candidate registrations, we can conclude the following: 

  1. All party lists have been registered, and Yabloko party registration indicates that it will be marked on ballots as a party whose candidates include “foreign agents”.
  • Authorities have not yet applied a new law enabling them to disqualify candidates from single-mandate districts from registering for the State Duma elections if they have any ties to Alexei Navalny. However, candidates Schlossberg (Moscow district 207) and Tupitsyn (Irkutsk Oblast 96) have both announced that the CEC did receive letters from the Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation regarding their support for Navalny, which may be used as grounds for disqualifying candidates from elections.
  • Candidate Grudinin (CPRF, former candidate for the Russian Presidency) was withdrawn due to ownership of foreign bank accounts. Grudinin himself denies having these accounts, and the CEC has not received any information on whether or not they exist. 

Election financing

Information on parties’ and candidates’ electoral accounts is cojnstantly updated on the Website of CEC.

http://cikrf.ru/analog/ediny-den-golosovaniya-2021/kategorii-viborov/vibori-deputatov-gosdumi/finansirovanie-vyborov/svedeniya-o-postuplenii-sredstv-v-izbiratelnye-fondy-politicheskikh-partiy-i-raskhodovanii/

By August 5, the political parties had raised 1,710,000 rubles, broken down as follows:

  • United Russia – 700 million rubles
  • CPRF – 102 million rubles
  • SR – 80 million rubles
  • LDPR – 675 million rubles
  • Yabloko – 17.5 million rubles

700 million rubles is approximately 10 million US dollars, for 104 million voters. It is impossible to execute an electoral campaign spending just 10 US cents (or seven rubles) per voter. Campaigns do not truly start until voters feel that they are hearing about the election no matter where they go, but that requires spending about ten times more on voter outreach.

This lack of funding means that parties are barely financing their own election campaigns. Only LDPR and United Russia have engaged in any visible campaigning in the regions, and most of that involves handing out leaflets and posting street signs. 

Given that media campaigning will only be permitted after August 19, campaigning outside of mass media—on the streets, on websites, and on social media—has been practically nonexistent, and has barely changed party approval ratings during the first six weeks of the election period. The Russian law does permit campaigns anywhere outside of mass media, including street signs, special newspapers, trinkets and paraphernalia, online ads, etc. prior to August 19. None of this can be bought for such an absurdly low amount of money, and since there is no campaigning, party approval ratings have remained about where they were before the election season began. United Russia and United Russia have raised 700 million and 102 million rubles, respectively, with nothing to show for it.

Assessing the competition

The association Golos has published six weekly media monitoring reports on national television stations: https://www.golosinfo.org/articles/145375

We can conclude the following based on campaign media coverage:

During the sixth week of the campaign, 14 of the 15 parties that had nominated their list of candidates were mentioned in the media. This is the first time we have seen such diverse coverage since the beginning of the campaign. Many of the non-parliamentary parties had not been mentioned so frequently on television since the campaign began. Of the “small” parties, the most frequently mentioned were New People (21 mentions), Rodina (14 mentions), Civic Platform (13 mentions), and the Russian Ecological Party “the Greens” (12 mentions). 

Other “small” parties were mentioned less often: RPCC—five times, the Pensioners’ Party—three times, and Yabloko, the Party of Growth, and Green Alternative were each mentioned once. However, despite the growing diversity, not all participants are being included in media campaign coverage. For comparison’s sake, the most frequently mentioned parties of the week were United Russia—113 times, LDPR—34, A Just Russia – For Truth!— 27, and CPRF—23.

The Russian All-People’s Union is the only party in the pre-election race that has not been mentioned once on a national television station.

All it took for six parties to move from being completely ignored to frequent, positive coverage in the news was their participation in a minor campaign event at the initiative of United Russia, when they signed an agreement “on safe elections” in a conference room at the Russian CEC. United Russia, LDPR, Rodina, Civic Platform, New People, and the REP Greens all earned glowing coverage for their participation. Compared with the previous five weeks of the campaign, the last four parties saw their coverage nearly double.

The CPRF is still the only party on the receiving end of predominantly negative coverage. This time, the reason was its refusal to sign United Russia’s safe elections agreement.

Overall, the situation is reminiscent of the 2018 presidential elections, when Vladimir Putin was the subject of overwhelmingly positive news coverage, Pavel Grudinin was hardly ever mentioned except in negative light, and the other candidates were reduced to simply being extras in an election that everyone knew had already been rigged.

The Russian CEC has also introduced qualification requirements for anyone taking part in video election observation. Only party representatives can be observers, and only 5% of polling stations will be accessible. In other words, video election observation is all but terminated.

Campaign progress

We can assess the campaign’s progress based on candidates’ public statements. The Petersburg Politics Foundation gathered these public statements over the course of the first six weeks of the campaign season:

  • UNITED RUSSIA. Announced a bill to include military service in the Army when considering seniority for early retirement (Andrei Isayev).
  • CPRF. Suggested using the state budget to pay for prescription medications (Gennady Zyuganov).
  • LDPR. Suggested bringing back collective farm markets for enterprises, farmers, and gardeners to freely sell their products (Vladimir Zhirinovsky).
  • A Just Russia. Spoke about introducing siestas and increasing payments to Russia’s southern regions as a 20% salary increase (Dmitry Gusev). 
  • YABLOKO. Spoke about the need to build municipal shelters for stray animals in every municipal center in Russia, with a commitment to rescue, treat, and sterilize (Nikolai Rybakov).
  • NEW PEOPLE. Held a joint Port of Baikal clean up event with the Ambassador of the World Wildlife Fund, Elena Letuchaya, to remove old rubber from the marine area.
  • PARTY OF GROWTH. Suggested postponing the State Duma elections to December due to the worsening Covid-19 situation (Sergei Demin).
  • RUSSIAN PENSIONERS’ PARTY FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE. Made a statement about the need to reduce taxes for vulnerable groups of citizens by raising taxes for high earners (Andrei Shirokov).
  • RODINA. Demanded the creation of a two-speed criminal code with the introduction of significantly harsher punishments for foreign criminals (Alexei Zhuravlev).
  • GREENS. Suggested tightening wastewater standards from facilities located in the central and buffer ecological zones of the Baikal natural territory, and signing an inter-governmental cooperation agreement with Mongolia on the preservation of the Selenga river basin (Andrei Nagibin).
  • GREEN ALTERNATIVE. Stated that the agreement on safe elections will lead to a healthier nation (Ruslan Khvostov).

These initiatives are more likely to make us laugh than think seriously about the election. In neither form nor content, are they what one would expect from a political campaign during an election season.

“Smart Voting” campaign progress

The “Smart Voting” campaign organizers have sent out several mailings to supporters’ networks and monitored social media pages, including one on behalf of Alexei Navalny.

According to Leonid Volkov, following a string of decisions by the Russian authorities to block websites linked to Navalny, there was a sharp uptick in the number of “Smart Voting” app downloads from the Apple and Google Stores. It was the ninth most downloaded app from the Apple Store, and 33rd from Google. The total number of downloads was not specified.

Notable updates from the regions

Two of Russia’s most well-known single-mandate candidates – Roman Yunneman (Moscow) and Anton Furgal (Khabarovsk) have submitted their signatures to the CEC. They are both expected to be registered on August 13-14.

The head of Russia’s CEC, Ella Pamfilova, made an abrupt announcement that ballots would contain information on recent name changes for both candidates from St. Petersburg named Boris Vishnevsky, who are running against a lawmaker and Kremlin critic named none other than… Boris Vishnevsky. If this requirement is met, it will improve the prospect that the real Boris Vishnevsky to win votes. https://www.interfax.ru/russia/782102

In Pskov, there was a short-lived attempt to remove Lev Schlossberg from the elections to the Pskov Region Legislative Assembly due to his association with Alexei Navalny. Over the course of just one day, Schlossberg was simultaneously registered as a candidate for the State Duma and deprived of his right to run for the Pskov Legislative Assembly. In theory, the grounds for disqualifying Schlossberg from the regional parliament would have barred him from running in any elections for five years, but he was reinstated the next day.

Regional elections and background political events

Over the last two weeks, Alexei Navalny’s allies who had submitted documents to register as candidates in municipal elections, or had previously been registered, were barred from running in over 10 regions around Russia. Popular Saratov blogger and Communist Alexei Bondarenko was also prevented from running. Thus, we can say that not a single Navalny supporter is running in these elections.

Announcements for the next two weeks

Media campaigning begins on August 19

Links to sources:

https://fom.ru/Dominanty/14612

https://wciom.ru/ratings/reiting-politicheskikh-partii/

https://www.golosinfo.org/articles/145314?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=i-bez-togo-nebolshoy-obem-efirnogo-vrem

Monitoring the pre-election situation in Russia: Second issue

The dynamics of party ratings

Russia’s Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) and Russian Public Opinion Research Center(VTsIOM) have just released the results of recent polls.

Approval for Putin’s party — United Russia — is estimated to be near its lowest levels in months.

According to VTsIOM, United Russia’s approval rating is at 28.3%, the lowest in the last four months.

FOM is somewhat more optimistic, at 31%, but we must keep in mind that traditionally, United Russia’s approval ratings with FOM have been about 2-3% higher than VTsIOM, and this is still the lowest level of party approval seen in the last two to three months.

This consistently low approval rating may be not only due to objective factors, such as the economic crisis, the pandemic crisis, growing poverty in Russia, etc., but also caused by a policy of attempting to deliberately lower the voter turnout in September. Media monitoring demonstrates that there has been no coverage related to the elections themselves anywhere in Russia.

There have been slight fluctuations in the approval ratings for other parties in Parliament—the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and Just Russia Party (SR).

CPRF – 11-13%, around its highest approval rating in the last year

LDPR – 11% near average levels

SR – 7% stagnating following the announcement that several parties would be merging.

Cumulatively, all the non-Parliamentary parties – 7% from FOM and 13.4% from VTsIOM, with both polling services noting an increase of 1% in potential voting for non-Parliamentary parties.

The share of respondents who answered that they intend to spoil their ballots or simply not go to the polls at all has remained consistent at 2% and 15% respectively, and there have been no significant changes from last week’s results.

Thus, based on the data from both polls, we can conclude the following:

1.            Approval for Putin’s ruling party is at its lowest in years.

2.            Approval for other Parliamentary parties is stable, and only a small share of the voters who have abandoned United Russia are flocking to these parties.

3.            Approval for non-Parliamentary parties is not at a level that would allow us to conclude that any one of them is capable of receiving 5%, though VTsIOM data indicates that one or two may exceed the 3% threshold (required to qualify for receiving federal funding).

4.            There is no obvious aim to secure a high voter turnout—on the ground, the candidates’ campaigns have been very sluggish at best, combined with the fact that we are currently in the middle of vacation season, which has only added to the general sense of apathy.

The last two weeks have not registered significant change in the public perception of what constitutes the most significant issues —this has included the situation with coronavirus and natural disasters— fires, flooding, and abnormal heatwaves. Moreover, the rates at which these factors are important to Russian citizens are also converging—at 18% and 15% respectively, that is, over the last two weeks, coronavirus has become less of a concern, while climate-related disasters have suddenly spiked in terms of importance.

FOM notes a growing protest mood in Russia—the percentage of people who believe that if there were rallies or protests in their city, a lot of people would attend. Over the last two months, this figure has jumped from 19% to 26%, while the number of people who would like to take part in such rallies has grown from 16% to 21%.

Over the last two weeks of June, Russian anxiety has also continued to intensify—according to the last report, for the first time in the last six months, the number of people who believe that Russians are more anxious than they are calm has also grown to 47% compared with 46%, and that trend has only continued, with anxiety now estimated at 51%. Sociologists recorded the highest anxiety levels in the fall of 2020.

Results of candidate nominations

Over the last two weeks, registration has continued for candidates in single-mandate districts and for party lists.

The Russian Central Election Commission (CEC) has so far registered all of the party lists submitted to it. The first lists to get certified were those from Parliamentary parties—United Russia, CPRF, LDPR, and SR. There have been no changes to these party lists, with the exception of Vladimir Menshov, who was the fourth candidate on the SR list, who died, though that will not have any effect on the party list registration.

Other parties have been affected by two significant events—LDPR deregistered two regional groups in Belgorod and the Moscow region. Political scientist Sergei Shklyudov suggests a deal was made with United Russia, something that LDPR has been known to do in the past.

The Russian Party for Freedom and Justice (RPSS) has lost its second registrant from the list—Moscow City Duma deputy Yelena Shuvalova.

The Russian Party for Pensioners for Social Justice was unable to provide documents for 68 single-mandate candidates.

The Communists of Russia Party (a sham movement created by the Kremlin with a name similar to that of the CPRF to serve as a spoiler) submitted documents for single-mandate district candidates one week after submitting its list for the United Federal District. Their list included many people with the same names as well-known CPRF members.

Two days prior to elections, the PARNAS Party (whose membership used to include prominent statesman Boris Nemtsov assassinated in February 2015) received a notice from the Ministry of Justice that its activities had been suspended; this ruling has not been challenged, and no PARNAS candidates have been registered.

Results from work with voter lists

The Russian CEC has announced that e-voting will be available for Russian passport holders residing in the so-called LNR (Luhansk People’s Republic) and DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic) (the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine).

In 2019, Vladimir Putin issued a decree allowing residents in those territories to obtain Russian citizenship through an expedited procedure, and nearly 600,000 people took advantage of that chance. Experts from the Golos association note that current Russian legislation does not actually permit e-voting for these citizens. E-voting is carried out by the Gosuslugi system, which requires a Russian SNILS (equivalent to a US Social Security card) and a telephone number registered with a Russian telephone service provider (Russian cell phone service providers do not operate in the LNR or DNR). The authorities have not yet shed light on how these citizens, who now represent 0.5% of all Russian voters, will access voting or how those votes will be monitored.

Assessing the competition

Golos has begun weekly monitoring of federal television station media activity.

The overall conclusion by experts is that federal state television channels are pursuing a policy of “drying up” voter turnout—coverage of the elections, party registration, and candidates are scanty and decrease by the week.

With limited airtime, television stations are very reserved when it comes to any mention of most parties taking part in the elections, which does not give voters a real idea of those parties’ activities. Only two parties are given any substantial coverage—United Russia and New People. United Russia was the clear leader in terms of the number of mentions, airtime, and positive coverage. New People came in second for all indicators, well behind United Russia, but well ahead of the rest of the pack. In terms of the length of stories devoted to them, New People was in the lead.

During the fourth week of the campaign, when political developments were clearly gaining momentum, television stations drastically reduced the already minimal airtime dedicated to election coverage. The dearth of information on this major political event is most noticeable if we look at minutes of airtime given to the campaign. During the second week of the campaign, television stations gave the elections and parties 215 minutes of airtime, followed by 175 during the third week, and by the fourth week, coverage had dropped to just 96 minutes- less than half of the already-dismal figures seen just two weeks earlier. The parties themselves were given just 40.4 minutes of coverage, 81% of which went to United Russia.

Golos experts believe that this is part of a coordinated effort to reduce voter turnout.

How is the campaign going?

Over the past two weeks, the parties and the single-mandate candidates they have nominated received the right to open electoral accounts, but according to reports from the regions, almost none of them have begun actual campaigns.

Social media has been abuzz over an interview with Grigory Yavlinsky (the founder of the Yabloko Party, who is not running in these elections), in which Yavlinsky urged Aleksey Navalny’s supporters “ to not vote for us”. Never before in the history of Russian elections has a sitting politician called on people to not vote for the party he himself has founded.

Nearly all major public figures in Russia spoke out about the Yavlinsky interview, with the general consensus being that Yavlinsky is consciously sabotaging the single-mandate candidates nominated by his party in the elections.

The Smart Voting campaign

Over the past week, the organizers of the Smart Voting project sending out a mailing to a base of previously registered individuals, asking them to share information about Smart Voting and donate to the organizers.

The Smart Voting campaign released a video with Leonid Volkov and Ruslan Shaveddinov, which received 362,000 views on YouTube, slightly more than the initial Smart Voting video.

Reports from the regions

In Moscow, candidate Roman Yuneman, who is one of the few attempting to register through signatures, continues to collect signatures.

In St. Petersburg, there are already two people named Boris Vishnevsky registered to run against a Kremlin critic named… Boris Vishnevsky.

Regional elections and political events in the background

On September 19, 2021, Russia will hold several elections that will have a tremendous impact on the country’s political environment. Among them is the Gubernatorial elections in Khabarovsk Krai. Anton Furgal, the son of imprisoned Khabarovsk Krai Governor Sergei Furgal is collecting signatures in support of his nomination as a gubernatorial candidate in the Far East region. Next week, the signatures will be verified. It is unclear whether the younger Furgal will be able to fulfill the so-called “municipal filter” requirement- signatures from municipal deputies and members of the Khabarovsk Krai Legislative Assembly in support of his candidacy.

Announcement for the next two weeks

All candidate and party list registration procedures will conclude between July 21 and August 7, 2021.

Sources

https://media.fom.ru/fom-bd/d272021.pdf

https://wciom.ru/ratings/reiting-politicheskikh-partii/

https://www.golosinfo.org/articles/145314?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=i-bez-togo-nebolshoy-obem-efirnogo-vrem

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBMP1gGGP_M&ab_channel=%D0%9D%D0%B0%D0%B2%D0%B0%D0%BB%D1%8C%D0%BD%D1%8B%D0%B9LIVE

First Issue: https://www.4freerussia.org/monitoring-of-the-pre-election-situation-in-russia/

Amendments to the law on “undesirable organizations”. Highlights

On July 12, 2021, yet another amendment to the legislation on Undesirable NGOs entered into force in Russia. The changes mean that now anyone who works with an “undesirable” organization can be subject to administrative penalties, whether that activity took place within Russia or abroad, if the authorities deem that the organization works “directly against the interests of the Russian Federation”. Russian citizens can still be criminally prosecuted for working with such organizations inside Russia’s territory, though real life cases have shown us that the definition of “territory” has been expanded to include the Internet.

Between May and June 2021, nine organizations were added to the Registry of Undesirable NGOs. In total, the registry now includes 40 NGOs with various legal and organizational designations, mostly located in the United States and Europe.

Grounds for Declaring an Organization Undesirable

Previously, an NGO could be disgnated “undesirable” if it “posed a threat to the foundations of constitutional order, defense capabilities, or state security in the Russian Federation”. As of 2021, the law has been amended, and organizations can be designated if they:

  1. Promote or hinder the nomination of candidates, lists of candidates, the election of registered candidates, and reaching a certain result in elections.

    Thus, any informational activity related to elections may fall under this clause.
  1. Provide intermediary services (facilitate) for financial and property transactions for “activities which pose a threat to the foundations of constitutional order, defense capabilities, or state security” in the Russian Federation.

    This clause can be interpreted to include a foreign organization providing services to entities or individuals, whether or not those entities or individuals have been recognized as “undesirable organizations” or foreign agents. A certification from the FSB is sufficient to confirm that there is a threat, and there is no possibility of appealing this decision in court. According to this clause, any foreign organization that works with money or property can be recognized as undesirable, regardless of the amount of money in question or its country of origin.

Even if, based on the first clause, an organization decides to play it safe and refrains from expressing any opinions about elections or candidates, the second clause means that any foreign organization can simply be deemed undesirable, anyway.

The Consequences of Being Recognized as an Undesirable Organization

  1. NGOs designated as undesirable may not register, establish any offices within the territory of the Russian Federation, and existing divisions must cease their activities.
  2. Credit institutions and non-credit financial institutions are prohibited from carrying out any financial transactions in which one of the parties is an “undesirable NGO”. They must then provide information on refusing any such requests to the federal government agencies responsible for combating the laundering of proceeds from crime, the financing of terrorism, and the financing of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction- that is, the General Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of Justice[1].
  3.  Foreign or international NGOs are prohibited from establishing any legal entities or participating in them within the territory of the Russian Federation.[2]

Consequences of Being Designated as Undesirable, for Partner Organizations and Individuals

  1. Undesirable NGOs are prohibited from disseminating informational materials, including in the media and online, and they are also banned from producing and storing those materials with an intent to disseminate them. This can include reposting any undesirable materials, references to reports, research, and statements, including the fact that they were recognized as “undesirable”. The clause on “intent to disseminate” should be interpreted to mean “more than one copy”.
  2. Any programs (projects) for undesirable NGOs are prohibited within Russian territory. The project does not need to come directly from the NGO itself in order to fall within this category, and the word “for” shall be interpreted very broadly, for example, to include “in the interest of” or “in partnership with”. This applies in full to Russian NGOs, individual Russian citizens, and Russian commercial organizations, as well.
  3. Russian entities, Russian citizens, and stateless persons permanently residing in the Russian Federation[3] are prohibited from participating in the activities of undesirable NGOs outside the territory of the Russian Federation.
  4. According to the Federal Law “On the Procedure for Exit out of the Russian Federation and Entry into the Russian Federation”, foreign nationals and stateless persons involved in the activities of undesirable NGOs may be prohibited from entering the territory of the Russian Federation.

If a partnership between an undesirable organization and other organizations or individuals persists in any form (correspondence, joint statements, payment of membership fees, the transfer of projects from an undesirable organization to an organization without such status), the parties may be subject to sanctions.

Sanctions

ViolationTerritory of activities, nationality of the offender, statute of limitations  SentenceArticle
Participating in the activities of an “undesirable NGO”  Regardless of the territory where the activity takes place. Within the Russian Federation- unconditionally; abroad- if the activity is directed against the interests of the Russian Federation[4]   Citizens of the Russian Federation, stateless persons permanently residing in the Russian Federation[5]   Statute of limitations – 2 years  Citizens – a fine of 5,000-15,000 rubles; Officials – a fine of 20,000-50,000 rubles; Employees of electoral commission bodies – disqualification for one year; Entities – a fine of 50,000-100,000 rubles.  Article 20.33 of the Code on Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation
Violation of the prohibitions established by the “Dima Yakovlev” Law (see “Consequences of recognition”).  Regardless of the territory where the activity takes place. Within the Russian Federation- unconditionally; abroad- if the activity is directed against the interests of the Russian Federation[4]   Citizens of the Russian Federation, stateless persons permanently residing in the Russian Federation[5]   Statute of limitations – 2 years    
Participation in the activities of an “undesirable NGO”, by a person previously subjected to an administrative penalty under Article 20.33, or previously convicted under Article 284.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.  Only within the territory of the Russian Federation   Citizens of the Russian Federation, foreign citizens, stateless persons[6]   Statute of limitations – 6 yearsA fine of 300,000-500,000 rubles or income for a period of 2-3 years; Compulsory labor up to 360 hours; Forced labor up to 4 years; Imprisonment for 1-4 years.  Article 284.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, Part 1
The provision or collection of funds or the provision of financial services knowingly intended to support the activities of an “undesirable NGO” within the territory of the Russian Federation (single offense).  Only within the territory of the Russian Federation   Citizens of the Russian Federation, foreign citizens, stateless persons[6]   Statute of limitations – 6 yearsCompulsory labor up to 360 hours; Forced labor up to 4 years; Imprisonment for 1-5 years.  Article 284.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, Part 2
Organization of activities for an “undesirable NGO” within the territory of the Russian Federation (single offense).  Only within the territory of the Russian Federation   Citizens of the Russian Federation, foreign citizens, stateless persons[6]   Statute of limitations – 6 yearsCompulsory labor up to 480 hours; Forced labor up to 5 years; Imprisonment for 2-6 years.  Article 284.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, Part 3

The definition of the “territory of the Russian Federation”

It is important to remember that any activities conducted online, and the results of those activities made available to Russian Internet users may be recognized as “activities within the territory of the Russian Federation”.

At the same time, nothing published online is ephemeral, that is, even if the information was posted prior to the law’s entry into force, if it remains online after the law has taken effect, those responsible are still subject to sanctions.  

This new legislation not only restricts direct cooperation between “undesirable NGOs” and Russian entities and citizens, but also criminalizes even a single instance of assisting with the financing of such NGOs, regardless of the sum of money actually involved.


[1] Article 3.2. Federal Law of December 28, 2012 Number 272-FZ (as amended on June 28, 2021) “On measures of influence on persons involved in violations of fundamental human rights and freedoms and the rights and freedoms of citizens of the Russian Federation”.

[2] Article 3.1. Federal law of December 28, 2012 Number 272-FZ (as amended on June 28, 2021) “On measures of influence on persons involved in violations of fundamental human rights and freedoms and the rights and freedoms of citizens of the Russian Federation”.

[3] Clause 6, Federal Law of June 28, 2021 Number 230-FZ.

[4] Article 1.8 of the Code on Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation, Federal Law of June 28, 2021 Number 232-FZ, Part 3.

[5] Article 2.6 of the Code on Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation, Federal Law of June 28, 2021 Number 230-FZ.

[6] Article 33 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.

The best way to deal with Putin’s Ukraine article — ignore it

Putin’s article on “The Historical Union of Russians and Ukrainians” should not be interpreted as an attempt at stoking controversy with the Ukrainian elite, or even as a comprehensive article about Russian policy in general. This article was aimed at a very specific audience, and is entirely focused on Ukraine, which means that, just as the Kremlin has already stated, the ideas contained in it are not meant to be applied to the other former Soviet republics.

This time, Putin has gone right over the heads of the Ukrainian elite, addressing the members of Ukrainian society who are less-than thrilled with their country’s current social and economic conditions or the strategies being pursued by the current authorities, including cultural and language policies. Attempts at building Ukrainian statehood based on Ukrainian nationalist values is understandably irritating to the ethnic Russians and Russian speakers living in Ukraine, as well as a large swathe of Ukrainians living in the central and eastern regions and in Transcarpathia. How many people fall into this category, and how many of them are willing to listen to Putin is a separate question, and it is likely that he is exaggerating his own influence and potential audience in Ukraine. Nonetheless, large numbers of such people do exist.

What is Putin aiming to do with this article?

  1. To provoke Ukrainian nationalists into a response by demanding further attacks on the Russian language and the rights of those who are not fully ready to share all the values of modern Ukrainian statehood (for example, in the pantheon of heroes in Ukrainian nationalism). This increases tensions in Ukrainian society and will make it more difficult for Ukraine to become a strong, stable, democratic and European state. Putin wreaks havoc wherever he goes, and in that regard, his article does an excellent job of exactly that, by adding fuel to an already-smoldering fire.
  2. To blackmail the Ukrainian political elite with direct appeals to Ukrainians with a de facto call to fight their own government and shift toward Russia and its proxies in Ukraine. Putin makes a direct reference to Viktor Medvedchuk as the only opposition leader capable of lifting Ukraine out of its current quagmire. Speaking broadly, Medvedchuk’s problems may even be the main driving force motivating both this article and Putin’s recent activities involving Ukraine in the first place. For him, this is a very personal matter, given his ties to the Russian President. 
  3. To give Russian claims to Ukraine the veneer of a positive and coherent political program capable of uniting at least part of Ukrainian society. It is important to note that Putin never actually denies the existence of Ukraine or the Ukrainian language. He simply believes that as things stand today, Ukraine is wrong. “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possibly only in partnership with Russia,” he writes, in what may be the most important idea of the entire article. Putin sees no point in talking to the current Ukrainian elite, who he considers to be non-self-governing pawns under the thumb of the West. His ultimate goal is to orchestrate a crisis in Ukrainian statehood, and build a new, pro-Russian, anti-Western Ukraine on its ashes. At the very least, he hopes to exacerbate the turmoil and use Ukraine as an example of what awaits any country that dares stand up to Russia and befriend the West.

And what does Putin offer the sectors of Ukrainian society he is addressing?

  1. Soviet nostalgia. In Russia, the Putin regime relies on much of Russian society’s nostalgia for the USSR, and he is trying to reach people of a similar mindset in Ukraine. There are certainly many such people in Ukraine, particularly older residents in the central and eastern regions. Putin’s article, which is a retelling of a familiar interpretation of history they have known since childhood- albeit with a few adjustments- is likely to speak to them.
  2. Anti-Western pseudo-traditionalism. This is closely related to the point above, but expands on Putin’s potential audience in Ukraine, at the expense of those who do not share the values of modern Western society. There are many of them in Ukraine, and the current authorities’ unconditionally pro-Western stance is completely alien to them. They feel much more drawn to the concerns of the Orthodox Church and the issues presented in the article, as well as Putin’s statements and speeches.
  3. A partnership with Russia. Despite the fact that to both Ukraine’s political elite and its nationalists, even discussing the matter is absurd, the fact is that not all of Ukrainian society shares their anti-Russian sentiment or is particularly concerned with who owns Crimea. In essence, Putin hints that if Ukraine gives up its pro-Western policies and stops demanding the return of Crimea, Russia will be a lucrative economic partner, traditional economic ties will be reborn, and everyone’s quality of life will improve. Obviously, this is a utopian view, but against a backdrop of many Ukrainians feeling unmoored in their own country today, many of them are susceptible to believing these ideas.

Ukraine’s social and economic problems, along with the authorities’ confused ideological policies mentioned above are Putin’s main allies in Ukraine today. The fact that Russia itself does not have much to brag about in these areas is of little import to Putin’s target audience- from their perspective, the socioeconomic situation in Ukraine appears worse than that in Russia, and they are comparing their lives not with reality, but with what they hear from the ubiquitous Russian and pro-Russia propaganda that they consume.

Recommendations

  1. Minimize the controversy surrounding the article and especially the issue of whether or not Ukrainians and Russians are one people. Ukrainian society is far from monolithic, and there is indeed a part of it that might consider themselves to be one people with Russians and Belarusians. Constantly being told that this is not the case will only irritate them and drive them further into Putin’s embrace. Besides, there can be no denying of the many family and personal ties between Russians and Ukrainians. It would be more effective to respond to Putin with a different line of thinking, using the example of Austria and Germany- though they speak the same language and are, by Putin’s definition, “one people”, Austrians and Germans live in different countries without any problems, and the key to peace and prosperity is recognizing one another’s borders and sovereignty, and that a shared language and culture do not create a need for political unification, especially on the terms of the larger of the two countries.
  2. The West needs to be more persistent in demanding that the Ukrainian elite distance themselves from some of the more odious figures of Ukrainian nationalism and its ideas that make part of Ukraine’s population feel like outcasts and potential victims. This would take away one of the Kremlin’s most effective trump cards when working with some sectors of Ukrainian society.
  3. Language and cultural issues. Many Ukrainian politicians are already voicing that the Russian Federation does not own the Russian language. This may be a highly effective method of resisting the Kremlin’s aggression. Instead of rejecting Russian culture and the Russian language, Ukraine might proclaim it all to be part of its own culture, thereby strengthening loyalty to the modern Ukrainian state, not only among ethnic Russians and Russian speakers living in Ukraine, but also among its citizens who feel comfortable in both languages.

To summarize: Putin’s article is written with a specific audience in mind, and he has no interest in the opinions of Ukrainian elites- in fact, creating controversy around the article serves no purpose other than to feed into Putin’s tactics. What’s more, it solves some of his problems in Russia as well, once again dragging the debate on Ukraine onto the domestic political agenda, which, on the eve of elections, is only a benefit to Putin. For this reason, the best reaction to the article would be to ignore it, take stock of the problems he is trying to exploit, and attempt to find a way to resolve them.

Putin’s Article is a Warning to Ukraine

On July 12, 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin published “Regarding the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” The 12-page article was released in Ukrainian, English and Russian and addresses the historical roots of the East European Slavs, namely Ukrainians, and Russians. 

He devotes most of the article to key historical points, which give the impression that Ukraine and Russia were always united by politics, religion and language. In Putin’s view, the West has always sought to create a rift among the brotherly Slavic nations.

While Putin’s article may seem like just a personal address by a world leader, it reveals the mentality with which the Russian leadership has justified its invasion of former Soviet territories and annexation of Crimea. The article could also hint at the beginning of the new stage in the Russia’s war against the West, and subsequently the West.

History as a Justification of Imperialism

The problem with Putin’s article is not its use of history, but his attempt to use history to justify illegal political actions. These two things are different, despite their frequent overlaps. Many nations share histories, but that does not give one a right to invade and annex territories that previously belonged to them. This would mean that, by extension, the modern United Kingdom has a right to claim all of the United States – a territory that rebelled and gained independence in 1776. Russia is itself guilty of taking foreign territories and absorbing it, without regard for the native communities. Peter Eltsov, Associate Professor of International Security Studies at NDU commented:

History of the past is totally irrelevant. For example, what exactly is ‘native Russian land’ which Putin speaks of? He means the land which was taken from native Siberians and Finno-Ugric people? There cannot be one history. All of it is interpreted differently, and Putin chooses to interpret it by stating that Ukrainians are Russian. Not simply Ukrainians, who live in a independent state, who speak Russian.

The article puts into question not just a certain interpretation of history, but the Ukrainian identity itself because, in the past, Ukraine and Russia were “united.” And, consequently, the only acceptable way to go forward is together, under Russia’s wing. 

This is further cemented by cherry-picked claims about Ukrainian history. 

Of course the president would not be talking about Cossack rule and Bohdan Khmelnystkiy’s liberation of Kyiv, or the western province of Halychyna under King Danylo. Putin omits those facts.

Instead, he trumpets Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s 17th-century plea for Russian military assistance. Putin said: “For the people, [Ukraine’s union with Russia] meant liberation”. Such cherry-picking paints Russia as Ukraine’s savior. The conquest of Ukraine by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was an act of evil, because forced Latinization was viewed as mistreatment of the Ukrainians. The Russian conquest of Ukraine was therefore an act of liberation.

But the article omits not only the history of the 17th century, but of the 20th as well. For example, Putin can’t decide whether the Bolsheviks were good or bad. On the one hand, Putin writes:

The Bolsheviks treated the Russian people as inexhaustible material for their social experiments. They dreamt of a world revolution that would wipe out national states. That is why they were so generous in drawing borders and bestowing territorial gifts. … One fact is crystal clear: Russia was robbed, indeed.

On the other hand, this President has countless times expressed his outrage at Ukraine for ‘forgetting its past’ and ‘being ungrateful’ by banning the Communist Party and communist symbols.

That’s why Stalin’s repressions and the Holodomor are completely omitted. The mass graves don’t help Putin’s case.

For Putin, the ultimate “perversion” is the wrongdoings of Western Europe. He writes: 

Step by step, Ukraine was dragged into a dangerous geopolitical game aimed at turning Ukraine into a barrier between Europe and Russia, a springboard against Russia … we are facing the creation of a climate of fear in Ukrainian society … Along with that we are witnessing not just complete dependence but direct external control, including the supervision of the Ukrainian authorities, security services and armed forces by foreign advisers, military ”development“ of the territory of Ukraine and deployment of NATO infrastructure.

If Putin wants to talk history, he should consult Lev Tolstoy. In 1905, in the wake of the Russo-Japanese war, Tolstoy said:

What will happen to Russia? Russia? What is Russia? Where is its beginning or its end? Poland? The Baltic Provinces? The Caucasus with all its nationalities? The Kazan Tartars? Ferghana Province? All these are not only not Russia, but all these are foreign nationalities desirous of being freed from the combination which is called Russia. The circumstance that these nationalities are regarded as parts of Russia is an accidental and temporary one, conditioned in the past by a whole series of historical events, principally acts of violence, injustice, and cruelty, whilst in the present this combination is maintained only by the power which spreads over these nationalities.

If one of Russia’s greatest writers and thinkers could question the validity of Russian imperialism, we can see that the president of today’s Russia is in fact no liberator. Putin instead rambles on and on that not only is Ukraine ungrateful for Russia’s sacrifice, but actively participates in an “anti-Russia” plan of action along with its Western sponsors.

One last interesting note, is regarding the origins of the supposed ‘Anti-Russia’ plan. The earliest use of this term dates back to a 2010 article by Stoletiye.ru titled “Georgia will be saved by South African farmers”, in which the author accuses the then Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili of trying to realize this plan into action. The term was then revived by a Volodymir Marchenko, a Ukrainian politician and a member of the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine, who spoke of himself as a man “fighting for the unity of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.”

However, the source of this term is likely Lev Vershinin. Vershinin, who currently resides in Spain, has been critical of the current and previous government of Ukraine. He supported the “Russian Spring”, and regularly makes posts on his LiveJournal blog under the nickname Putinik1. Vershinin was the first person to reference Poland as the pioneer of the “Anti Russia” plan back in 2012. Putin’s article also traces Poland as the initiator of this idea:

At the same time, the idea of Ukrainian people as a nation separate from the Russians started to form and gain ground among the Polish elite and a part of the Malorussian intelligentsia. Since there was no historical basis – and could not have been any, conclusions were substantiated by all sorts of concoctions, which went as far as to claim that the Ukrainians are the true Slavs and the Russians, the Muscovites, are not. Such ”hypotheses“ became increasingly used for political purposes as a tool of rivalry between European states.

What this means is that Putin’s imperialist ideas are not backed by his own thought, but are also fueled by many controversial figures and agencies which have great interest in portraying Ukraine and its people as a collective whose origins lay in being a chess piece of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.

The Geopolitical meaning of the article

“Kiev does not need Donbas,” Putin declared, “because, to begin with, the inhabitants of these regions will never accept the order that the West has and is trying to impose its will by force, blockades and threats. And secondly, [cooperation with Moscow] contradicts the entire logic of the anti-Russia project.”

Putin himself views the conflict in Ukraine not simply as a sovereign state choosing its own path, but as a country whose government and people have different ideas as to the path forward. Putin does not support his claim with evidence that “for many people in Ukraine, the anti Russia project is unacceptable.” Opinion polls show that the majority of the Ukrainian population supports joining the EU, and nearly 48% support joining NATO.

That’s why the article is really a warning from Russia about Russia’s interest in Ukrainian internal political affairs. Putin is saying that Russia will never cooperate with a country whose government is bent on thwarting the will of the citizens of Ukraine — whom he believes to be fundamentally pro-Russian. The decision by the Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu to include Putin’s address as part of military-political curriculum should be enough evidence to demonstrate that this proclamation isn’t simply an intimate article dedicated to the Ukrainian people.

Maria Snegovaya, a Russian political analyst from the George Washington University, writes: 

“The West must be aware of the aggressive nature of the Putin regime, as well as the fact that no search for a compromise will satisfy Putin because of his worldview. It is clear from the article that Putin sees the current geopolitical situation in a completely different way from Western leaders, and does not recognize the borders of Ukraine. This means possible future attempts at escalation, and the continuation of various hybrid or non-hybrid attempts to influence and limit Ukraine’s sovereignty. It is necessary to prepare for a tougher policy of containing the Kremlin, as well as for a more active integration of Ukraine into Western institutions (including NATO, the EU). This is the only thing that can provide Ukraine with some kind of protection.”

The notion that Vladimir Putin holds any sympathy for Ukraine is a lie. No love can explain the downing of the flight MH17 with 293 people on board, or the more than 13,000 dead Ukrainian soldiers, many of whom were Russian speakers themselves. As Ralf Fuchs writes: “[Putin] is full of contempt for contemporary Ukraine. His article is a cold threat: Ukraine belongs in the Russian orbit. It does not have the freedom to choose its alliances.”

Ukraine’s territorial integrity and independence does not need history’s justification, especially from hundreds of years ago. Russia accepted Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, as confirmed by the Budapest Memorandum, which Russia signed.

Russia wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants free rein to bring instability to its neighbors while demanding a seat at the table of Ukraine’s future. Western leaders cannot approach the conflict through the usual diplomatic discourse, but instead should be cautious and recognize that they are dealing with a figure from Russia’s Imperial tradition.

The West Should Announce Non-Recognition of Duma Elections Now

Refusing to recognize the State Duma elections and their results as an effective means of
pressuring the Putin regime.

Time and again, the Putin regime has flaunted its indifference, if not outright contempt, for any statements on democracy and human rights in Russia from any Western politician or international organization. Rather than taking the regime’s declarations at face value, we should interpret them as attempts at discouraging Western criticism of Putin’s dictatorship and domestic policies, or from any harsh reactions to harassment and intimidation of the opposition or blatantly rigged elections.

The Kremlin’s greatest hope is that American and European politicians become convinced that nothing they do or say will affect the Russian regime, and they simply wash their hands of the matter altogether. This is also precisely why we should not, under any circumstances, ease international pressure on the Putin regime. In fact, the international community currently has a unique opportunity to demonstrate its steadfast resolve in opposing authoritarianism in Russia, while putting Putin in a very uncomfortable political position.

In September, Russia will hold elections for the State Duma, its legislative body. It is already clear that these elections will be the freest and fairest in post-Soviet Russian history. We must also keep in mind that the crudest methods for manipulating votes during the election and then while tallying results cannot compare to the most effective technology there is for falsifying election results- simply refusing to allow members of the real opposition to take part. Through intensified repression, intimidation, criminal charges, and even attempts at physically removing Putin’s opponents from the country, the Kremlin has managed to create a situation in which members of the opposition not only have no hopes of winning, but cannot even run for office.

The only option left for Russia’s opposition-minded citizens is Aleksey Navalny’s “smart voting” strategy. However, the best that this strategy can hope to achieve is to create stress on the system Putin created, in which the Duma ends up with a mixed bag of deputies rather than the regime’s pre-anointed winners. There is no guarantee that they would be any improvement on those to whom the regime had promised victory on a silver platter, but it might provoke the Kremlin into some sort of reaction with unpredictable consequences that might drive the regime into turmoil.

But all of this is a domestic Russian issue, and the West’s position is of no significance. So- what can the West do?

The answer lies in the statements made by high-level leadership within Russia. When speaking to students at Far Eastern University in Vladivostok, Russian Foreign Minister and a leader of the United Russia Party, Sergei Lavrov, stated, “We can predict that on the eve of the upcoming State Duma elections, there will be new attempts at undermining and destabilizing the situation, and provoking some kind of protests, which are likely to be violent, as the West is wont to do. They will likely follow up with a campaign aimed at not recognizing the results of our elections. We are already aware of their plans… I want to be clear- this plot hatched by the West will not be come to fruition… anyone who organizes provocations against us of any kind will come to regret it”.

Setting aside for a moment the ritual accusations that the West is instigating protests in Russia, and violent ones at that, and threats to any potential “provocateurs,” if we examine this statement more closely, it becomes much more interesting when we pick out the part on refusing to recognize the Russian election results. By even bringing it up, Lavrov has inadvertently revealed what the Kremlin secretly fears. After all, the authorities already know how to deal with protests within Russia- there is no doubt that any demonstrations in the street will be brutally crushed. But- what do they do if the West simply refuses to accept the results of the Duma elections? The Kremlin simply does not know. It hopes that this does not happen, and that after it has falsified elections from start to finish, Western capitals continue to receive “parliamentary delegations” comprised entirely of compliant former Kremlin officials and retired members of law enforcement.

This leads us to ask a very reasonable question- why does the Putin regime even care about whether or not the West recognizes State Duma elections? North Korea also has elections every now and then, but no one there seems to care about the international community’s response. For 70 years, the Soviet authorities held fraudulent elections that were heavily criticized by the West, but no one even batted an eye.

Contrary to popular belief in many circles, the West’s acceptance of election results is extremely important to Vladimir Putin and the entire apparatus he has built. What’s more, Putin’s rule has been based on the West’s accepting election results from the very beginning, when he was presented to the Russian public and international community as Boris Yeltsin’s hand-picked successor, and Yeltsin’s inner circle then orchestrated his 2000 presidential election victory- which was disputed by no one, either in Russia or abroad.

If Putin wanted to cancel all elections and was sure he could get away with it, he would have done so a long time ago. It is difficult to say what he really wants, but it is clear that he cannot simply do away with elections. Why not? Because without elections, there is absolutely nothing underpinning his power and authority. The tsars inherited their power, fully in line with Russian laws and international standards at the time. The Soviet authorities ran a dictatorship all those years, but legitimized it through an ideology that was allegedly in the best interest of the majority of USSR citizens.

Putin is not a legitimate monarch, and if he were to declare himself emperor in the 21st century, he would be viewed not so much as on the same level as the tsars, but as a laughingstock, both within Russia and abroad. His regime also has no particular ideology justifying his kleptocracy’s authority.

Prior to Putin’s mandate, Russia was not a dictatorship. Under his rule, however, it has gradually become just that. Putin cannot act like a leader in North Korea who inherited his authority from the previous dictator in an already-established dictatorship. In fact, Putin himself constantly reminds us that his rise to power and continued rule are both fully in line with Russian legislation. In order to gain the right to remain in power, in 2020, Putin had to rewrite the constitution, burying the clauses allowing him to continue his mandate among many others, most of which are meaningless or openly demagogic.

Elections are in fact the only thing sustaining Putin’s authority, and even if the significance of the entire process was forgotten and distorted long ago, it is the cornerstone of the entirety of his personal power. But there is an important nuance here- for Putin, it is not enough to hold elections and ensure his own victory and that of his party. He also needs them to be accepted by the West, in order to later argue with Western politicians in a language they understand- “If you recognize the Russian election results, even with reservations, you have to accept everything that the leaders elected by Russian citizens do, along with the leaders themselves!”

For this reason, refusing to recognize the results of the State Duma elections might be an important source of pressure on Putin and the Russian regime, while also creating a very stressful situation for the Kremlin as a whole. If the West follows through with this, Vladimir Putin will have to seriously consider how to respond if the 2024 presidential elections lead to a similar reaction. His crystal ball may be right next door in Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko was swiftly ostracized after the international community refused to accept his electoral victory claims, and is only hanging onto power thanks to Putin’s own support. In a similar situation, who could Putin turn to? Russia’s commercial and political elite are much more powerful and influential than those in Belarus, and they are unlikely to remain loyal to Putin if his authority is delegitimized.

The West’s refusal to recognize the results of September’s parliamentary elections or the new State Duma may become a decisive factor in changing Russia’s political landscape. The threat of delegitimizing the parliament, and then a Russian President who was elected against a backdrop of terror might even force some factions of Russia’s administrative, law enforcement, or commercial elite, if not Putin himself, to make crucial steps toward steering the country back to a normal path of development and shedding the dictatorship that has driven the entire Russian government to a dead end of illegitimacy and isolation.

Monitoring of the Pre-Election Situation in Russia: First Issue

The First Edition, July 7, 2021

Abbreviations:

FOM – Fond Obschestvenovo Mneniya – Public Opinion Foundation
VTsIOM – Vserossiyskiy Tsentr Izucheniya Obshesvenovo Mneniya – Russian Public Opinion Research Center
CPRF – The Communist Party of the Russian Federation
SR – Spravedlivaya Rossiya – The Just Russia Party
LDPR – the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia
FSIN – Federalnaya Sluzhba Ispolneniya Nakazanii – Federal Penitentiary Service
PA – the Presidential Administration
CEC – the Central Election Commission

DYNAMICS OF PARTY RATINGS

Over the past week, FOM was the only one of Russia’s big three sociological services (which includes VTsIOM, FOM, and Levada) to have released new studies.

The most notable recorded data is the rating of the United Russia party which fell to 29% for the first time in four months. 28% is the lowest party rating recorded by the polls within the past year, so one can assert with confidence that the United Russia rating is fluctuating around its lowest values ​​in the entire history of the polls. This data should be considered within the context of the United Russia’s party convention, the announcement of the federal list, and the announcement of the regional lists of candidates approved by the convention.

All other parliamentary parties— CPRF, LDPR, SR—have seen their ratings increase

  • CPRF grew by 13% —around its highest ratings for the year;
  • LDPR grew by 11%, wavering near its average ratings;
  • JR grew by 8%, against the backdrop of numerous newsworthy announcements surrounding the party;
  • Cumulatively, the ratings of all non-parliamentary parties grew by 7%.

The share of respondents who said that they plan to spoil their ballot or not go to the polls at all has grown to 2% and 15%, respectively

The latest poll by VTsIOM from June 27, 2021, shows similar ratings of parliamentary parties, but shows an even higher percentage of votes for non-parliamentary parties – 13%.

Thus, the following conclusion can be drawn from the data of opinion polls:

  1. The rating of the ruling party is nearing its all-time lows.
  2. The ratings of other parliamentary parties are stable and have not absorbed the support of voters lost by the United Russia.
  3. The ratings of non-parliamentary parties are at levels ​​insufficient for concluding that even one of them would be able to gain 5%. However, according to VTsIOM, one or two such parties can pass the 3% barrier required to receive federal funding.
  4. There is no trend toward a high voter turnout, rather, the overwhelming political news of the last week (broad coverage of pre-election party conventions by the mass media) reflect the growing apathy among voters.

Russians perceive that the most important events of the last week were not political events, but events concerning the coronavirus pandemic and natural disasters— fires, floods and extraordinary heat waves. The events concerning the coronavirus pandemic are about three times more important to Russians (23%) than natural disasters (8%). For comparison, the meeting between Putin and Biden was deemed important only for 4% of Russians.

Over the second part of June, the anxiety among Russians has sharply spiked. For the first time in the past six months, the number of those who feels that the overall mood is more anxious than calm has increased – 47% versus 46% respectively. The highest level of anxiety was recorder by sociologists in the fall of 2020.

The political developments of recent weeks did not cause a sharp change in the attitude of Russians toward the State Duma elections. Large-scale party conventions did not produce any sensations that could dramatically change the ratings of the parties.

The list of United Russia ended up boring and predictable, consisting of candidates who personally do not intend to become deputies, the federal platform is completely made up of those who tow the party line.

According to Russian political scientist Alexander Kynev, the announcement of the United Russia’s main five candidates did not result in additional mobilization of new party supporters. The party has removed the unpopular Dmitry Medvedev from its list, but added Sergei Shoigu and Sergei Lavrov, whose ability to mobilize new supporters has already been exhausted. Dr. Dmitry Protsenko does not have a broad national recognition either and is not able to attract new supporters.

The Yabloko party convention is an event that has caused a passionate discourse online. The public has expressed strong opinions about the nominated candidates and those left off the lists. However, the soonest we will be able to see whether the party’s ratings have changed — is within a week’s time, and only via indirect indicators— none of the sociologists measure Yabloko’s rating separately.

Consistent with other moves, the party has released its regional electoral lists. They feature a couple of regional heavyweights, a local physician and a renowned cultural figure. Such lists do not help mobilize additional supporters. Moreover, the reaction to doctors as candidates has been uneven, to put it mildly, especially given the great criticism from the public toward the state medical system, which has shown unable to cope with yet another wave of the coronavirus infections. The national vaccination program has failed— vaccines are now in short supply, and one of the two Russian vaccines has now proven ineffective.

There is a notable relationship between the individual vaccination decision and political behavior.  Putin’s government has practically refused to introduce a full-fledged lockdown, shifting the introduction of quarantine measures to regional governors. As a result, there was a profound confusion and inconsistency with quarantine measures and mandatory vaccinations. Some regions introduced strict lockdowns but did not compensate small businesses and citizens for the economic loss that resulted from them. Some regions and municipalities took minimal measure, such as introducing operations restrictions for retail— restaurants and shopping centers. Others, through various approaches, attempted to increase vaccination rates among citizens.

There is a robust discussion on the legality of compulsory vaccination as well as the government refusal to import foreign vaccines to Russia, and the non-recognition of foreign vaccination certificates.

These issues have, most likely, also contributed to the drop in the rating of the ruling party, since the policy of the Russian government in relation to measures to combat the Coronavirus pandemic has been inconsistent. The government has consistently shifted the responsibility to regions who lack the resources for implementation of full-fledged quarantine measures. At the same time, in June 2021, as result of the third wave of the Coronavirus, hospital wards were close to 100% occupancy in Russia, and planned medical care for the population was practically suspended.

It is safe to assume that anti-COVID measures will continue affecting the rating of United Russia leading to the elections, especially with the third wave of the virus forecast to end in September-October 2021.

Candidate Nominations

The key development from early July 2021 is that all politicians who had a direct connection with Navalny’s foundation or Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s entities have dropped out, or were forcefully removed from the race:

  • Alexey Vorsin, Khabarovsk— refusal due to failure to reach an agreement with Yabloko
  • Oleg Stepanov, Moscow— not included in the Yabloko list, refusal to open an electoral account
  • Alexey Pivovarov, St. Petersburg— nominated by Yabloko in Krasnodar, FSIN actively opposes the collection of electoral documents.

It can be assumed, that, given the timing of the registration of candidates, the position of election commissions and courts, these candidates will not be registered.

Analysis of the candidates lists from parliamentary parties shows that a significant part of young and charismatic candidates from the CPRF and LDPR will not participate in the elections —for example, Bondarenko in Saratov and Lyubenkov in Bratsk.

The average profile of a candidate from parliamentary parties is a passive party functionary, taking cues from the Presidential Administration, one who does not engage in constituent work unless specifically funded by the party to do so.

The Competitive Field

Considering that government officials currently refuse to register candidates from the “non-systemic opposition”, the elections landscape will be dominated by lackluster officially-sanctioned politicians with slack agenda and avoidance of any criticism targeting the president, government officials, deputies and each other.

It can be expected that fringe parties will run active campaigns only in large Russian cities, where different support groups exist for niche interests. One should also expect that a certain number of active civic groups, in order to achieve their own goals, will try to increase the turnout of voters in the elections.

Systemic participants will operate within the framework of their respective agreements with the Presidential Administration. For example, in Irkutsk, a KPRF party deputy Mikhail Shchapov will face off an exceptionally weak rival representing the United Russia in his district —as part of an agreement with PA made a year ago during the election of the governor of the Irkutsk Oblast.

Campaign Progress

Last week’s party conventions and the filing of election registration applications to the Central Election Committee by candidates— are the defining events of the election season. In fact, prior to registration, an electoral campaign is not maintained in single-ballot districts; an informal tally of party lists is publicized by the news media.

Smart Voting Campaign

Over the past week, the Smart Voting campaign organizers have mailed out appeals to the addresses of those who had registered to vote urging them to spread the information about Smart Voting initiative and donate to its candidates. However, the Russian social media during this period was dominated by the discussion of the Smart Voting as it related to the publication of Yabloko and CPRF candidates lists. The main discussion themes included the prospect of voting for Stalinists and the changing view of Yabloko as it refused to include certain political activists into its list of candidates.

Voting Procedures

Last week, it was announced that e-voting procedures will not be consistent throughout the nation. In six regions, the e-voting will be conducted according to algorithms developed by the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation, implemented through the State Service system. In Moscow, it will be a system based on the algorithms of the Moscow City Hall. This directly contradicts the current legislation in terms of ensuring standardization of methods for counting votes and maintaining the voter list. As of now, there is no data on popular reaction to this violation.

Notable Regional Activities

  • In Moscow, candidate Roman Yunemann continues to collect signatures— one of the few who is attempting to register through signatures.
  • A double-ganger of Boris Vishnevsky has been put up for election in St. Petersburg.
  • In the Irkutsk Oblast, Evgeniy Yumashev has not been nominated by a single party( last year, during the gubernatorial elections he was the only one the in the nation to have passed the municipal barrier).
  • In Ingushetia, Ayup Gagiev represents Yabloko. He is an active participant in protests against changes to the republic’s borders.

Regional Elections and Their Political Context

On September 19, 2021, several elections will take place in Russia, which will affect the situation in the country.

Election of the governor of the Khabarovsk Krai: Formally, the Khabarovsk Krai is the most contested region in Russia— its governor Furgal and most of the deputies of the Legislative Assembly of the region are represented by LDPR and were elected as a result of a protest vote. After the arrest of Furgal, it was in Khabarovsk that the most massive political demonstrations took place in the country, which is notable— especially since the police was sent to disperse them only once.

The main intrigue of these elections will be who will support Smart Voting and how. Current acting Governor Degtyarev is also a member of LDPR.

United Russia did not nominate a candidate for these elections.

Supplementary elections for the Moscow City Duma in two districts: The well-known opposition politician Ilya Yashin, who was accused by the election commission of extremist activities, was disqualified from these elections. This is the first time a charge under the new legislation was applied. The legislation disqualifies candidates accused of extremism and “undesired” activities. Notably, Yashin has been removed precisely by the decision of the Election Commission, there are no court decisions restricting his rights, and no criminal charges were brought against him.

Elections for the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg: The main intrigue of the election in the country’s second largest city, centers on determining which of the independent candidates will be able to register. Irina Fatyanova, the former head of Navalny’s headquarters in St. Petersburg, is participating in the elections, and unlike Yashin, has been given the opportunity to collect signatures for her nomination.

Other elections: On September 19, 2021, elections will be held to fill governors posts in 12 Russian regions. These are the Republics of Dagestan, Ossetia, Karachay-Cherkessia, Chechnya, Tyva and Mordovia. The oblasts of Belgorod, Penza, Ulyanovsk, Tula and Tver regions and the aforementioned Khabarovsk Territory will also cast their votes.

Additionally, legislative bodies will be elected in 39 regions of Russia and for the first time in Russia the Council of the Federal Territory of Sirius will be elected.

Upcoming Announcements

Between July 7 and 14, we will see the registration of all party lists by the Central Election Commission of Russia.

Sources

Public Opinion Foundation. “Dominants. Opinion Field. 25th Edition – Results of Weekly All-Russian Polls by FOM.” Public Opinion Foundation, 1 July 2021, fom.ru/Dominanty/14602. 

Russian Public Opinion Research Center. “Rating of Political Parties.” VTsIOM, June-July 2021.

Second issue: https://www.4freerussia.org/monitoring-the-pre-election-situation-in-russia-second-edition/

Assault on Georgia’s Pride. Western democracy Faces off with Russia’s countryside

It was shocking for Western friends of Georgia, and supporters of Georgia’s bid for membership at NATO and the EU, to learn that an angry mob in Tbilisi stormed LGBTQ activists’ centers, attacking journalists and tourists. Yet, as we saw on July 5, 2021, this is precisely the reality on the ground in the Georgian capital.

On the day when Georgian LGBTQ community planned to hold its Dignity March, groups of angry men, including thousands of far-right radicals and priests, violently attacked people on the streets. Among the 55 people injured, there were journalists, activists and tourists. Earlier, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili called the Dignity March “inappropriate,” saying it is “unreasonable” to hold the demonstration in a public place that could lead to “civil confrontation.” NGO representatives evaluated statement made by Garibashvili as incitement to hatred. Organizers of the Dignity March, not willing to endanger participants, canceled the event. This, unfortunately, did not quell the homophobic violence of the right-wing mob.

This attack fits within the global trend of resurgent homophobia. Indeed, there are many countries where LGBTQ-organized events are met with violent opposition and hatred. There are some countries where you can’t even talk about the existence of LGBTQ persons. But the fact that Georgia has been vying for invitations from both the EU and NATO for years accords the homophobia in this South Caucasus post-Soviet country a very different context. A country is not ready for a NATO or EU membership if it fails to defend fundamental principles of the democratic community: the protection of human rights.

Without doubt, respect for human rights and the dignity of others is an area where Georgia is in desperate need of development. A significant part of Georgia’s population does not accept LGBTQ peoples’ right to exist authentically; and believes, more broadly, that Western democracy is a threat to Georgia’s traditions and values. Foreign propaganda and disinformation campaigns support and mobilize such views targeting the less educated and more radical segments of the population. These groups see that LGBTQ events present a threat to their religion, a narrative greatly strongly supported by the Church.

There are also less aggressive and non-violent groups who oppose LGBTQ rights due to their view that heterosexual orientation is at the center of the Caucasian masculine identity. In attacking LGBTQ rights, these groups often invoke the importance of Caucasus tradition.

What factors have made homophobia so defining to Georgian identity and in which way is Georgian homophobia different from other non-democratic countries? Why should NATO and the EU make special accommodation for an aspiring member where a significant part of population do not respect another part, even to the point of violence and terrorism?

Let us start with examining the key participants of last week’s attack, both internal and external. Evidence is emerging that many of those who took part in the July 5 assaults in Tbilisi were called to the streets by pro-Kremlin organizations and their allies in the Georgian Patriarchy, which is well-known for its close ties to Moscow. For example, one of the organizers of the violent mob is the founder of the new political party “Eri”, Mr. Levan Vasadze, who has emerged as one of the public faces of the anti-LGBTQ rally. Vasadze is a Georgian Orthodox Church-affiliated entrepreneur who made millions in Moscow. Since 1995, Vasadze has been conducting business in Russia. He is a close friend of Mr. Alexander Dugin who is a well-known supporter of Vladimir Putin, and a Russian political analyst and strategist known for his fascist views. Vasadze made his fortune working for Russian companies such as AFK Sistema and Rosno. AFK Sistema is a Russian conglomerate owned by an oligarch. It seems that the Kremlin deploys Vasadze to Georgia to execute special influence campaigns promoting radicalization and chaos. Within the last two years, Vasadze has initiated several violent protest rallies in Georgia. His efforts are always targeted against the West.

Most recently, Levan Vasadze was sent to Georgia after the failure of another Kremlin-backed Georgian political party Alliance of Patriots. The party was created in 2012. In 2016, it managed to garner 5% of vote in an election and the party’s chairperson became a vice-speaker of Georgian parliament. From its very first day Alliance of Patriots have engaged in vicious and continuous attacks on the West and democracy. In Georgian politics, the group is the purveyor of the Kremlin’s agenda. According to files distributed by the Dossier Center in August 2020, Alliance of Patriots was under the direct control of the Russian Presidential Administration and received large sums of money from Moscow during the elections of 2020. After the scandalous revelations, the party failed to get the percentage of votes required to enter the parliament (only 2%). This failure of the Kremlin’s malign influence operators in Georgia resulted in the need to create and grow a new movement, capable of securing at least 5% of votes during elections. Enter Vasadze.

The recent EU-mandated agreement between the Georgian ruling-party and opposition, and the increased involvement of NATO member Turkey in Georgia and South Caucasus, together with the recent successful attempt of the U.S. to become more engaged in the region by moderating a peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has pushed the Kremlin to become more aggressive in its campaigns throughout the South Caucasus. The “charismatic and eccentric knight in shining armor” Levan Vasadze was dispatched to promote chaos and instability in Georgia, attack Western values, undermine Georgian society and, in this way, demonstrate to the West that Georgia is not a reliable partner.

Moscow’s long-term goal here is clear: ensuring that Georgia will never be invited into the EU or NATO. The Kremlin sees the issue of LGBTQ rights as the perfect way to make the West distance itself from Georgia, because defending human rights (LGBTQ rights) is often seen as a litmus test for Western democracies.

Any investigation into Russia’s malign campaigns must be based on proper analysis of the target country, its society and vulnerabilities. So-called protection of traditions and religion are the two fundamental narratives promoted by the Kremlin’s propaganda and disinformation in Georgia and other post-Soviet countries. Throughout the post-Soviet space, the Kremlin backs Church clergy, journalists, NGOs and other operators, who help manipulate the less-educated segments of the population and make them believe that their way of life is threatened by the West. Common arguments include the narrative that LGBTQ events “will make them all ‘gays’,” “promote LGBTQ ideology among their children,” and “undermine their traditions, history and the memory of their grandfathers and grandmothers.” These narratives are being advanced during church sermons, protest rallies, by live broadcasts of Moscow-backed media outlets, etc. Kremlin-controlled opinion makers and bots promote these narratives on social media networks, leading to further incitement of hatred.

The Kremlin is also using Vasadze to counter Turkish expansion and to preserve the Kremlin’s regional influence. As soon as Vasadze returned to Georgia, he financed massive protest rallies targeting the newly improved Georgia-Turkey relations. Pro-Kremllin media outlets, both in Georgia and Russia, actively covered these rallies to promote hatred against Turkey in Georgia. Their goal was to alienate Georgia from Turkey, one of the rising powers in the South Caucasus in the aftermath of the Second Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Another organizer behind the July 5 attacks on LGBTQ activists is the radical group Georgian March. This group was established in 2016, when several right-wing activists visited Moscow in an attempt to solicit money for a new political party. At the time, the Kremlin supported two parties in Georgia and they did not see the need for a third one, so they declined to support new party. As a result, Gia Korkotashvili, Sandro Bregadze and their allies established the movement Georgian March to promote chaos and initiate aggressive anti-Western campaigns. Yet, it’s important to note, that their closest ally is Mr. Dmitry Lortkipanidze, who officially heads the Primakov Georgian-Russian Public Centre funded by Russian MFA through the Gorchakov fund.

The third Kremlin-aligned power that is promoting hatred and aggression against the LGBTQ community is the Georgian Patriarchy. The Patriarchy is a huge organization financed by the State. Each year, the government provides the church with new funds and lands. The Church is very popular in Georgia. Resultantly, the Georgian government uses the Church to secure votes during elections. Similarly, the Church uses the government to get more funds and grow its power. The current leadership of the Patriarchy has direct historical, business and political ties with Moscow. During its services, the Church supports pro-Kremlin or anti-Western politicians, laments “the threat from the West” and attacks liberal or democratic values.

Therefore, denying Georgian membership to NATO and the EU due to human rights violations against the LGBTQ community is not as straightforward as it might seem. Each participant of the attacks has done so at the instigation by Russian-backed politicians, groups and institutions.

This does not mean that there is no problem with homophobia in Georgia, and it is certainly true that some parts of Georgian society do not accept LGBTQ people. But what this analysis does reveal is that much of the incitement to hatred, and aggression has been artificially manufactured by the Russian presidential administration with the intent of alienating Georgia from the West, to Moscow’s strategic benefit. The Kremlin sees a vulnerable issue and chooses to promote radicalization and chaos.

Sadly, the Georgian government does not have effective tools to prevent or counter Russia’s influence campaigns targeted against its people. Over the past nine years, Georgia’s vulnerability has only grown, while the Kremlin’s attacks have increased in intensity, overtness, funding and scale.

In public statements, The Georgian government, including the ruling party Georgian Dream and its founding oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, has continued to assert their commitment to joining NATO and the EU. IN public statements, they admit that Russia is their biggest threat and that Moscow’s occupation of Georgia’s territories is unwanted and illegal.

However, in reality, the Georgian government has never taken concrete steps to counter the Kremlin’s influence, and in some cases it has actually helped Russia to achieve its goals . Among some of the most unfortunate recent examples is the case of the U.S.-backed deep-sea port Anaklia, a project, financed by U.S. companies, which was shut down by the current government. But there are countless others, such as the non-response policy towards the creeping Russian annexation of Georgian territory or inviting a Russian state Duma delegation to Georgian parliament. The will of the Georgian government to push back against Moscow’s influence is weak at best, and completely non-existent at worst.

The events of June 20, 2019 when the Georgian government ordered police to violently disperse a spontaneous anti-Kremlin rally offers some context on government capabilities to deal with mobs. Gas and rubber bullets were used by the police. Hundreds of people were injured, and several protestors even lost their eyes. Yet, on July 5, when pro-Russian radicals attacked 55 journalists, activists, and tourists. Eventually, eight people were detained. Radicals openly threatened organizers of the Dignity March, their allies and supporters for weeks. Organizers wrote letters to the Georgian police, asking to ensure their security. However, supposedly they still “were not ready” to defend their citizens.

Unfortunately, the EU- and U.S.-backed agreement signed between the government and opposition has not resulted in a long-term de-radicalization. The agreement stipulates that if the ruling party does not obtain at least 43% of votes in the upcoming local elections in 2021, snap elections will be announced automatically. For those in government, failure in these upcoming elections may result not only in the loss of power, but also prison terms in some cases. This incentivizes them to try anything possible (including bribes, usage of administrative resources, etc.) to get the needed result and stay in power. The personal risks of not succeeding in the elections for those in government are too high.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that the government decided not to alienate their core electorate and supporters by dispersing the anti-LGBTQ mob, encouraging them instead. That is why, on July 5, we all heard from the news broadcasts how the Georgian Prime Minister —the closest ally of oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili and one of the major peddlers of Chinese economic influence in Georgia—Irakli Gharibashvili opined that the Dignity March is “inappropriate” and “should not be held.”

To sum it up, the July 5 attacks on Georgia’s LGBTQ community, and the attacks resultant impacts on the country’s path towards the Western community, is the result of joint efforts implemented by the Kremlin, the Georgian Patriarchy and the Georgian government. The only way to increase the security of the Georgian people and support country’s development is to build a resilient society, better protected against propaganda and manipulations, both domestic and foreign. It is impossible to help Georgia move forward, when government-affiliated people are deciding who to work with and which programs to schedule without the proper tools to combat disinformation. To do that, serious efforts must be made to develop prevention and response mechanisms to counter malign interference and propaganda campaigns. These must include large-scale educational programs and media campaigns, providing unbiased information to most vulnerable audiences; as well as establishing early-response mechanisms.

Beyond archaic: Putin’s obsolete “strategy” of national insecurity for Russia

On July 2nd, Putin signed an updated version of the “National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation.” However, updated is only a technical term, merely characterizing the fact that the strategy is formally revised every six years (with the previous document adopted in 2015). By any other merit, the “strategy” is nothing less than completely outdated and offers a glimpse of a weird salad of conspiracies, prejudices and medieval worldviews that thrive in the minds of the Kremlin rulers.

Make no mistake, international attention to this document is hardly worth its actual practical importance, or lack thereof. Such “strategies” is a specific genre of the Russian bureaucracy – the purpose is to show themselves that “yes, we do have a plan” (to address the key challenges and issues Russia is confronting). But in the real world, these thick “strategic white papers” usually end up quickly forgotten and sidelined by tactical issues of the day. So was the fate of the “national security strategy” adopted in 2015 (and before that – in 2009), which had zero relevance over practical Russian policies and, inevitably, the current version will end up in the same historic trash dump.

What is interesting though, is that the document opens the door into the Kremlin’s strategic thinking, and allows a bit more understanding of how Putin and the top decision makers truly view the world. The National Security Council (NSC), which was responsible for preparing it, arguably became the top influential Russian authority presiding over decision-making both on domestic and international politics in the recent period. The meetings of the Permanent Members of the NSC happen in a weekly format, and it is there where key decisions on new domestic repressions and foreign policy adventures are being made. The NSC Permanent Members council includes 13 top officials in the country and can be easily considered a modern-day Politburo. Nikolay Patrushev, secretary of the NSC, has become Putin’s top policy adviser on strategic issues and a mouthpiece of the Kremlin’s worldview.

So, obviously, the main “strategic” document coming out of the NSC is somewhat interesting because it comes directly from the top folks defining the Kremlin’s strategy with the exact purpose to publicly outline one. And, demagoguery aside, it offers very important – and often scary – insight into the mindset of the current Russian rulers.

First and foremost, the document outlines multiple problems and challenges for Russia, but strikingly avoids any analysis of what went wrong in the past 20 years of Vladimir Putin’s rule. That’s a big contrast with any normal strategic policy concept paper – particularly the one which is re-adopted and adjusted every 5-6 years. Usually, such documents begin with a cross-check of which previous goals were achieved since the last adopted strategy, which were not, and why. That helps provide an understanding of the shortcomings and correct the mistakes.

Not in the case of Vladimir Putin – who, obviously, never makes any mistakes. This has become one of the most unquestioned narratives of Russian officials of late – be it speeches by Vladimir Putin, articles by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, or any other official documents. To these leaders ensconced in the Kremlin, they are always right. If something is wrong, it’s only someone else’s fault. The same is the case with the NSC strategy: you read it and wonder – wait, but extraordinary leader Putin is more than twenty years in power, and we still have to fight poverty (paragraph 32)? There’s still high crime (paragraph 42)? Still mounting social and economic problems (paragraph 45), etc., etc.? How could this be? Whatever happened to the $4.2 trillion that we received in revenues from exports of oil, gas and petroleum products from 2000-2021? What happened to that money? Some countries have managed to achieve a much better standard of living, security and prosperity with far, far less.

But no, $4.2 trillion in revenue is not mentioned in this “strategy” at all – almost as if it never arrived. Instead, the document puts forward the concept of “conservation of population” (paragraphs 28-33) as the key priority – like we, Russians, are an endangered species. The concept of “conservation of the population” goes back to the ideas of conservative writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn – who had many questionable ideas about Russia and its future, but that “conservation” theme was promoted when Russia was really in dire straits at the time of the collapse of communism and the beginning of difficult reforms.

However, that was three decades ago, and Russia has enjoyed more than 20 years of Putin’s governance genius and a $4.2 trillion paycheck – so why is “conservation” still so hot on the agenda? What predators dare to endanger that vulnerable species? In early 2000s, Putin’s speeches and strategic documents were all about development and positive prospects – life was good, the worst was over, we were rapidly integrating into the world, and his administration had launched many reforms to solve the remaining problems. There was much more optimism and forward thinking in the Russian government’s rhetoric back then. But now we’re in 2021, and the key task seems to be “conserving the population” on the background of poverty, crime, various social, economic and environmental problems, among others. What happened?

The strategy gives a straightforward hint: it is predatory, hostile foreign powers that can’t hold back the multiple crises of a liberal system, yet are still hungry for destabilizing others and , therefore, are to blame for everything. There is no mention of Chinese ballistic missiles at our borders or a North Korean projectile falling in the sea a short distance from the Russian city of Nakhodka. Of course these are not mentioned as security threats because we’re all friends, you know? It is the West, with its immoral decaying liberal values, that is the biggest threat – using the Russian “objective social-economic difficulties,” in the phraseology of paragraph 44 that the West is launching an information war against young, unstable Russian minds only but to destroy and conquer our proud sovereign state. Objective difficulties? after $4 trillion in oil export windfall? This isn’t a strategy written by serious people other than to shift blame from their own incompetence. Perhaps it’s better to ask, where’s the money, Putin?.

The treatment of “sovereignty” question by the Kremlin’s thinkers is also very interesting. In the official Russian rhetoric of the recent period the issue of “sovereignty” is always central. But in reality, the Kremlin has a very special, medieval view on sovereignty; more like a sultan’s right to do what he will once he’s in the monarchic chair. The Russian Constitution and Criminal Code both envisage a very different concept of sovereignty – as the right of the Russian people to freely choose their rulers through democratic procedures. Anyone who interferes with that right (i.e. kills opposition leaders or jails them, prevents freedom of speech, free assembly, bans candidates with opposition views from running in elections) is seen as a criminal, subject for up to 20 years in prison (article 278 of the Russian Criminal Code “Illegal seizure of power”).

The Kremlin nominally repeats that Constitutional definition of sovereignty as a “power of the people” in paragraph 28 of the “national security strategy” – but otherwise, throughout the document, treats the Russian people as stupid, unable to solve their own problems, prone to degrading foreign influence, and therefore subject to guardianship and “conservation efforts” by the Big Brother state, which reserves the right to dictate every aspects of peoples’ life, from access to information to culture and moral values.

To drive attention away from that clear aim at total control over society, NSC thinkers portray the modern-day reality not as a postwar and post-communist democratic rules-based order challenged by autocrats and dictatorships for their selfish purposes, but as a medieval dog-eat-dog world, where people need a strong Big Brother guardian to be “conserved.” Without such protections, the Russian people will be wiped away by a shockwave of “Western liberal values” – obviously the utmost threat in the history of mankind. How Western nations achieved the outstanding living standards for their citizens that Russians can only dream of remains an open question. 

The medieval reference is also interesting. On one hand, Russian leadership is blaming the West for a return of the medieval “might is right” principle into international relations – as directly said in one of the Patrushev’s speeches right before the adoption of the “national security strategy”. On the other hand, they seem to be fascinated both with “traditional and historic values” – which can’t be translated other than medieval, particularly when contraposed against “Western liberal values” – as well as with the concept of making Russia a “strong power” (“сильная держава”) at any cost, central to the “national security strategy.”

The “strong power” concept brings us to the “Back to the Concert of Nations” trope, put forward earlier by Vyacheslav Nikonov, a powerful foreign policy thinker under Putin, and the grandson of ex-Stalin’s foreign minister Molotov, Ribbentrop’s counterpart in the infamous Soviet-Nazi pact of 1939. Nikonov argues that the Twenty First Century style “concert of nations,”  when strong powers have decided the world’s fate on a transactional basis without any liberal rules-based order getting in the way – is a much better alternative to the world where strong democratic powers keep asking Russia about its constant violations of human rights and international law. Make no mistake: that dream of return to pre-democratic world order is what is hidden behind a “strong power” paradigm. Putin wants a stake at the roundtable of global powers and is ready to sacrifice a lot for it.

Generally, reading through all these descriptions of Russia as a “besieged fortress surrounded by enemies” and “chaotic world undermined by Western liberal powers” can’t help but make you sick. Twenty years ago, when Putin just came to power, he talked about democracy, integrating Russia into the world, enjoying the benefits of globalization and international division of labor but you won’t find these words in this “security concept” now. Foreign investment? Forget it, we put an emphasis on “internal potential” in the North-Korean juche style (paragraph 65). Threats, enemies, an unstable world rattled by the Western powers, traditional values, total mobilization, endangered population in need of “conservation” – makes one think you’re reading a Warcraft game scenario, not a description of a Twenty-First Century world.

All this is beyond archaic. It doesn’t reflect the current global realities even to a smallest bit. If only the humanity wasn’t held back by greedy dictatorships who would go to great lengths to oppress, disrupt, obstruct, and corrupt in order to preserve their power, the world – and Russia – would have been a totally different place by now. Needless to say, none of Putin’s archaic views reflect the aspirations of Russians – not only those who took to the streets in recent months to protest against Putin’s oppression, but more generally: according to recent Levada Center opinion poll, there’s a clear majority of Russians aged 40 or younger who simply don’t want to see Putin in power beyond 2024. They want modernity and global integration, not isolation and backwardness. More and more people feel how obsolete Putin and his system are, and what a source of insecurity the Kremlin’s policies have become for Russia. They understand that Putin’s “security strategy” in reality is all about preserving and “conserving” himself and his grip on power, and has nothing to do with the interests of the country.

Listen, Putin and Patrushev – I, Vladimir Milov, am one of the Russian people, and I don’t need any “conservation” efforts from you. You are as good at “conserving” as a poacher with a gun looking to hunt down an endangered animal and to sell its horn to China for a bargain price. I, among many forward-looking and truly patriotic Russians, need you gone for good – the faster, the better. You have wasted all the chances that the history have given you – and, instead of development, have thrown Russia into endless economic stagnation and decline, rampant corruption, vassal dependency on China, and international isolation. We are paying this price for your limitless hunger for power and stolen billions – and that is the one and only threat that stands in the way between Russia and prosperity. You bring insecurity to Russia – and double down on it with your medieval, dog-eat-dog worldviews. The Twenty First Century has no place for backward so-called leaders like you. Be gone – that’s the least you can do to make Russia secure, once and for all.

The main culprits of the Environmental Crises of Russia’s Far East

The profound and longstanding negligence which characterize Moscow’s attitude toward the Far East as Russia’s extractive colony and periphery is most clearly manifested in environmental disasters continuously ravishing the region.

In the past two centuries, the Far East has figured in the designs of the Russian government only in its role as a military outpost and a geostrategic junction. Indeed, almost all significant projects implemented in the Far East have been of a military or paramilitary nature, conducted at the expense of the needs of the local population and the region’s socio-economic development.       

During the Soviet era, when the Far East functioned as a military fortress, the economy of the region became heavily dependent on housing the Pacific Fleet and the economic activity generated by the Far Eastern Military District.[1]

While very little thought was given to the environmental situation at that time, without a doubt, environmental disasters plagued the region even then.

The most infamous of these incidents was the August 1985 radioactive pollution disaster involving the nuclear-powered submarine K-431 of the Pacific Fleet. This accident occurred at the Chazhma Bay naval facility in Primorsky Krai. A violation of tech protocols during a planned refueling of the two submarine reactors’ resulted in a spontaneous uranium fission reaction leading to a thermal explosion. This was followed by a fire resulting in the release of powerful radioactive dust and steam emissions. The disaster claimed the lives of ten naval personnel, and hundreds of people were harmed by the radiation.[2]

The water and the surrounding territory were contaminated with dangerous, long-lasting radiation. The incident, just one example of the incompetence of the Soviet Navy, was kept secret until the collapse of the Soviet Union. In total, there were ten known accidents that involved Soviet nuclear submarines.[3]

A similarly devastating military activity in the Russian Far East, was a routine planned disposal of radioactive waste by the Pacific Fleet into the Sea of Japan which continued until the mid-90s. The catastrophic effects of this radioactive discharge are still felt to this day.

The Russian government went to great lengths to cover up these military-caused environmental disasters. Military journalist Grigory Pasko, who published investigations about this and other environmental incidents stemming from the operation of the Pacific Fleet, was convicted of treason in the late 90s. He was the first and, for many years, the only Russian journalist convicted for disclosing state secrets.[4]

After the release of Pasko’s film High-Risk Zone depicting a Russian tanker dumping radioactive waste in the Sea of Japan, the Japanese government allocated money to sponsor the construction of a liquid radioactive waste disposal plant in Russia.[5] 

More recently, another major environmental disaster took place on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the autumn of 2020. In early October, the public learned of the mass death of sea creatures off the coast of Kamchatka Krai near the Avacha Bay’s beaches. Thousands of dead marine animals and invertebrates washed up on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. Further, surfers reported eye pain and skin irritation after contact with the water.

Although the Russian Academy of Sciences has issued a public statement asserting that the cause of the environmental disaster in Kamchatka was a blooming of algae, the government decision to create the Center for the Study of the World Ocean in Kamchatka in 2021 points to severe human-made environmental threats to the entire region.[6]

The environmental disaster that occurred in Kamchatka likely resulted from the uncontrolled activities of the military on the peninsula. The most likely pollutants include rocket fuel, disposal of toxic chemicals in the sea, and other pollutants from Navy ships, or nuclear submarines. Indeed, containers with rocket fuel were stored just over 6 miles away from the contamination area, holding up to several hundred tons of toxic rocket fuel.[7]

This helps to demonstrate Kamchatka, like the entire Far East, is treated as one large military base. The military controls the area, and their activities are unregulated when it comes to the environment and the local population, often leading to disaster.

However, Russian militarization is not the only cause of environmental crisis in the region. Another serious problem in Russia’s Far East is the cross-border pollution of the Amur River by industrial production located in Northeast China. An example of this can be seen in 2005 when a large amount of a toxic fuel benzene flowed from the Amur’s Chinese tributary, the Songhua River, into the Russian Amur after explosions at a petrochemical plant in China’s Jilin province. It is important to note that Benzene is a potent carcinogen that is toxic to humans even in small quantities.[8]

The authorities of the Chinese province where the pollution originated attempted to conceal the catastrophic effect of toxic emissions spilled into the Songhua River from both Moscow and Beijing.

By the end of 2005, this pollution threatened the water supply of Khabarovsk and other cities and towns in the lower reaches of the Amur River. It also severely damaged the overall quality of the Amur’s water resources.

Another man-made accident with severe cross-border environmental consequences occurred in the Amur River basin (on China’s territory) in March 2020, fifteen      years later. Emergency disposal of waste from Heilongjian province molybdenum mine, owned by Yichun Luming Mining Co., Ltd. resulted in the contamination of the Yijimi River. 2.53 million cubic meters of tailings started a cross-border reaction as the waste flowed from the Yijimi River into the Hulan River, which in turn flowed into the Songhua River – China’s largest tributary of the Amur River.

The mine waste products contained, in addition to the molybdenum, various heavy metals, petroleum products, and chemicals used in the molybdenum mining process, many of which are toxic to humans.[9]     

China has to undertake significant mitigation activities to prevent further pollution of the Amur basin.

Deterioration of the Amur basin habitat has increased dramatically since the mid-1990s, due to both natural and man-made factors including repeated pollution of the water, abnormally low water levels in the early 2000s, the catastrophic floods of 2013 and 2019, industrial accidents in China, a significant rise of water level in the lake Khanka, accelerated soil erosion, degradation of riparian ecosystems, reducing fish stocks and many other processes and phenomena.

Industrial accidents, along with regular man-made pollution pose a dire threat to the water supply for the population of the Amur region, both in Chinese and Russian territory and in. It spans close to 1300 km and affects the vast water areas in the Amur Liman and the Sakhalin Gulf. The water quality studies conducted by the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences indicate that heavy metals and organochlorine compounds, which are particularly dangerous for the Amur river water ecosystems, mainly come from China.[10] 

This is not merely a problem of the past. Indeed, the year 2020 was marked by a number of severe environmental emergencies in Russia’s Far East, most notable among these were disasters in the Amur basin and Kamchatka, oil spills from the Okha—Komsomolsk-on-Amur main oil pipeline, catastrophic forest fires, etc.

Forest fires in Russia often provide a cover for illegal logging operations. Among all Russian regions, the illegal logging problem is most acute in the Far East. Specifically, it is the worst in Primorsky Krai.                

At the beginning of 2019, Yandex revealed the smuggling and exportation to China of valuable wood. 15 thousand cubic meters and 691.5 million rubles’ worth of Mongolian oak and Manchurian ash sawn timber had been exported to China.[11]

It should be pointed out that the real volume of logged wood products in the Far East is twice as large as the officially permitted amount. This is likely a result of low domestic demand for lumber products and growing interest from Asian countries, shifting the orientation of the Far East’s forest sector toward export. Indeed, up to 95% of the lumber logged in the region is exported.      

A related issue is illegal timber trafficking and export with valuable wood varieties (oak, beech, ash, cedar). According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), half a million cubic meters of oak and ash are illegally logged in the Far East every year. Simultaneously, in the Primorsky and Khabarovsk Krai, the volume of illegal timber has been, on average, twice as high as permitted amount for decades.

Before 2000, the bulk of illegal timber entered the market due to unauthorized and undocumented logging. Today, the primary source of such wood is unsupervised logging (over-cutting) under the cover of an official license.

A significant part of rare wood appears on the market due to forest fires organized by “shadow” lumberjacks.[12]

The fires of recent years have pointed to the likely involvement of “shadow” lumberjacks in illegal activities.

“There are several possible options. The first one is that ‘shadow’ lumberjacks cover up the traces of illegal logging starting a fire; that is, it is not the forests that are burning, but what is left of them. The second option is that the interested parties deliberately set fire to the forests, while the tree trunks are almost not damaged. They need it to get a contract for the sanitary felling of ‘burned’ trees at a lower price, but in reality, they export the undamaged wood to China at the same price.”

Today, the logging industry in the Far East is under the near-complete control of Chinese corporations. They buy wood, oversee the logging, and perform quality control before sending it to the PRC. It is impossible to sell timber to China without intermediaries. The sale of round logs is the most profitable, even considering the dealers’ share. Hence, Chinese businesses have no incentive to develop deep processing of wood in Russia. Furthermore, China is not interested in buying processed products since border provinces have an abundance of enterprises to process round logs imported from Russia.[13]      

This has led experts to assert that Chinese business directly or indirectly controls Russian forest and wood processing enterprises.[14]      

However, the profit from the export of treated wood and raw timber to China is almost entirely received by large Moscow businesses represented by Russian billionaires. The residents of the eastern regions, left without forests, are increasingly at risk of catastrophic fires and floods and, what’s more, given no compensation for the destruction of their lands.

Among the owners of logging companies are the top Russian billionaires. Roman Abramovich, Alexander Abramov, and Alexander Frolov control RFP, the largest timber holding in the Far East; these billionaires own 58% of the company while the Russian-Chinese Investment Fund own the other 42% of the RFP Group. To these corporations and billionaires, the Far East is a raw materials colony.[15]

In recent years, environmental issues have led to many mass protest movements   in Russia. Indeed, environmental crises emerged as the driving force of demonstrations starting in 2018when the stubborn resistance to constructing the ‘Shies’ landfill in the Arkhangelsk region drew a wide response. The month-long confrontation, accompanied by attacks from security forces and retaliatory actions by activists, ended with the closure of the disputed facility.

Similarly in 2019, 482 environmental and city protection protests were reported in the Russian Federation (most associated with the protection of parks and squares). This is double the corresponding figure of environmental protests from 2018.[16]   

Dissatisfaction with the state of environmental protection and quality of air and water is the second reason for engaging in opposition activity by Russians, after the infringement of political and civil rights.

The COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily made it impossible to hold protests, including environmental ones. However, with the weakening of the quarantine measures, the fight for a better environment has returned to the top of many activists’ agenda.

New hot spots have appeared in Bashkortostan and Kuzbass, where residents’ interests clashed with the plans of mining companies. Both conflicts have followed the ‘Shies’ pattern: the deployment of construction workers, the appearance of a protest camp, the mobilization of local and visiting volunteers, physical confrontation, and a detente when the head of the region comes up with a compromise between activists and the corporation. 

The decisive factor in Bashkortostan (Kushtau) was the willingness of the protesters for violent clashes.

In Kuzbass (Cheremza), there were not many protesters, and the confrontation was less acute. Still, protests united residents of many cities and villages who have their own issues with mining companies. 

It is possible that the escalation of the conflict in Kushtau led the local or federal authorities to eliminate that potentially dangerous hotbed of discontent in Kuzbass. The authorities’ responsiveness may also be explained by fears that environmental protests will escalate into internal unrest.

Local and national movements are emerging throughout Russia as local  populations are forced to defend their land from large companies. Locals often perceive these companies as greedy newcomers supported by Moscow.[17]      

The fact that the Kremlin is afraid of such trends is confirmed by the recent increasing penalties for separatist appeals. However, the policy of removing environmental barriers to business increases the potential for new hot spots to appear in the near future.[18]

Given the accumulated environmental problems in Russia’s Far East and the extremely high level of dissatisfaction with Moscow’s openly colonial and predatory policy, confirmed by the month-long protests in Khabarovsk, mass protests over environmental issues and anti-Moscow sentiments in the region are likely to escalate soon.


[1] Yuri Moskalenko, Why does the Far East need the Vostochny cosmodrome?, Novaya Gazeta, April 27, 2016, https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2016/04/27/68407-zachem-dalnemu-vostoku-kosmodrom-vostochnyy.

[2]Alexander Khrolenko, Secrets of the radiation accident in the Chazhma Bay, RIA Novosti, August 10, 2017, https://ria.ru/20170810/1500109220.html.

[3] Kyle Mizokami, In 1985, a Russian nuclear submarine exploded in an accident (radiation is still present). And its consequences are still felt, InoSMI, July 12, 2016, https://inosmi.ru/social/20161207/238353490.html.

[4] Maria Litvinova, I told you, and I did the right thing.” Russian journalist Grigory Pasko, who served time for treason, told Kommersant why he does not admit his guilt, Kommersant, September 7, 2020, https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4407980.

[5] The journalist publicized military secrets now he faces 20 years in prison, Kommersant, January 2, 1999, https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/211529.

[6] The RAS said that the cause of the ecological catastrophe in Kamchatka was algal bloom, Tass, December 18, 2020, https://tass.ru/obschestvo/10294213; The Center for the Study of the World Ocean will be created in Kamchatka in 2021 with the participation of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Tass, December 29, 2020, https://nauka.tass.ru/nauka/10382603.

[7] Nikolay Nelyubin,“This is definitely not oil. We need to look deeper. ” Scientist – about the disaster in Kamchatka, Fontanka, October 5, 2020, https://www.fontanka.ru/2020/10/05/69493179/.

[8] Irina Petrakova, Amur waves are poisoned, Bellona, November 24, 2005, https://bellona.ru/2005/11/24/amurskie-volny-otravleny/.

[9] A chemical slick approaches Amur after an accident at a mine in China, DVHAB, April 9, 2020, https://www.dvnovosti.ru/khab/2020/04/09/112956/.

[10] Alexey Makhinov, Cupid needs help, Far Eastern Scientist, December 12, 2019, http://debri-dv.com/article/23681/amur_nuzhdaetsya_v_pomoshchi.

[11] Daria Voznesenskaya, Fires provide cover for illegal logging in Siberia and the Far East, Novye Izvestia, September 9, 2020, https://newizv.ru/news/economy/09-09-2020/pozhary-sluzhat-prikrytiem-dlya-nezakonnyh-vyrubok-lesov-v-sibiri-i-na-dalnem-vostoke.

[12] Elena Berezina, Do you hear, they are chopping:The real volume of harvesting of valuable species of trees is twice the permitted, Rossiyskaya gazeta, September 5, 2017, https://rg.ru/2017/09/05/reg-dfo/eksportnye-poshliny-na-dalnevostochnyj-krugliak-mogut-podniat-v-2017-godu.html.

[13] Ivan Zuenko, Investment battles in the Far East. What’s happening with Chinese and other investments in the region, Carnegie Moscow Center, March, 13, 2020, https://carnegie.ru/commentary/81181.

[14] Stanislav Kuvaldin, Is China destroying the Russian taiga… Continuation of the cycle “What’s going on in the Russian forest”, Snob Media, August 6, 2019, https://snob.ru/entry/180933/.

[15] RFP is the largest timber industry holding in the Far East, RFP Group, https://www.rfpgroup.ru/holding; Krestova Darina Sergeevna, Who owns large forestry enterprises in Russia: what do the extracts from the Unified State Register of Legal Entities say?, Moneymaker Factory Magazine, June 8, 2019, https://moneymakerfactory.ru/spravochnik/lesopromyishlennyie-predpriyatiya-rossii.

[16] How do they protest Russians Monitoring results protest activity in the fourth quarter of 2019, Center for Social and Labor Rights, http://trudprava.ru/images/content/Monitoring_4_Quart_2019.pdf.

[17] This is the land of our ancestors – they stand and look at us Anti-garbage protests at the Shies station led to the rise of nationalists in the Komi Republic. They are unhappy with the “colonial policy”, Meduza, December 12, 2019, https://meduza.io/feature/2019/12/12/eto-zemlya-nashih-predkov-oni-stoyat-i-smotryat-na-nas; Andrey Kolesnikov, Politicization, regionalization, shiesization, vedomosti, April 10, 2019, https://www.vedomosti.ru/opinion/columns/2019/04/10/798740-politizatsiya-regionalizatsiya-shiesizatsiya

[18] Ivan Alexandrov, Russia: will the authorities’ eco-policy lead to an increase in the number of protests?, Eurasianet, August 31, 2020, https://russian.eurasianet.org/%D1%80%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%81%D0%B8%D1%8F-%D0%BF%D1%80%D0%B8%D0%B2%D0%B5%D0%B4%D0%B5%D1%82-%D0%BB%D0%B8-%D1%8D%D0%BA%D0%BE%D0%BF%D0%BE%D0%BB%D0%B8%D1%82%D0%B8%D0%BA%D0%B0-%D0%B2%D0%BB%D0%B0%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B5%D0%B9-%D0%BA-%D1%80%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%82%D1%83-%D1%87%D0%B8%D1%81%D0%BB%D0%B0-%D0%BF%D1%80%D0%BE%D1%82%D0%B5%D1%81%D1%82%D0%BE%D0%B2.

Chinese Influence on the Economy of Russia’s Far East

Over the past several decades, the economy of the Russian Far East has become increasingly oriented toward serving China.

In March 2021, Vladimir Putin approved a new large-scale project for the Russian Railways to build hundreds of kilometers of rail tracks for exporting coal from Yakutia to China. The project will cost 700 billion rubles (around $9.5 billion) and additional money is needed to provide a power supply to the Tynda-Komsomolsk section of the railway and to develop the ports of the Vanino-Sovgavansky junction. Further, in April 2021, Russian Railways started the 340 km construction of second rail tracks on the Ulak-Fevralsk section of the Baikal-Amur Mainline. The Ulak station gives access to export markets for coal from the Elginsky Coal Mine in Yakutia.

Amur Oblast is crucial for China. Besides coal mining, the Amur region holds the Power of Siberia gas pipeline and the Eastern Siberia -Pacific Ocean (ESPO) oil pipeline, both of which run to China. The Amur region also houses the Zeiskaya, Bureyskaya, and Nizhne-Bureyskaya hydroelectric power plants which provide electricity both to the Amur region and the adjacent territories in China. Finally, another strategically important infrastructure project to Beijing is the Amur Blagoveshchensk-Heihe road bridge. In the future, Russia plans to build a railway bridge in the same direction. The governor of the Amur Oblast, Vasily Orlov, is actively promoting this project as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative that will primarily serve China’s interests.

The influence exerted by China on the economy of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast and Primorsky Krai is also notable. The agricultural sector of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast is almost entirely focused on producing soybeans for China. The railway bridge across the Amur Tongjiang-Nizhneleninskoye in the oblast allows for efficient export of this lucrative crop. Similarly, in the Primorsky Krai, the seaports, the agricultural sector, the logging industry, and the fishing industry are critical for the PRC.

China seeks to control the extraction and export of natural resources in the region. This can be seen prominently in the Far East’s logging industry, a sector that is under complete control of Chinese businesses. Chinese companies buy wood, primitively saw it, and control the wood quality before sending it to the PRC. The sales of round timber are the most profitable even with the intermediaries’ share, so China has no incentives to develop deep wood processing in Russia. In addition, China is not interested in purchasing processed products since it has plenty of timber processing plants in the border provinces.

The infrastructure of the Far East

The construction of a road bridge across the Amur River between Russia and China in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast is almost complete. Around six million tons of cargo are expected to pass through the bridge annually, and the flow of passengers should be approximately 3 million people per year. The length of the bridge is a little over a kilometer, and the total length of the crossing is 20 km (6 km of roads in China and 14 km of roads in Russia). The cost of the project is about 18.8 billion rubles ($256.6 million). Instead of budget funds, a concession model was used to finance the project. This provides for the construction and operation of the bridge on a commercial basis during the first 20-year billing period of the bridge’s existence. After a three-year construction period an enterprise will be permitted to collect tolls on the bridge for the first sixteen years of operation.

In Amur Oblast, Blagoveshchensk is the only regional center in Russia located on the Chinese border. The Amur River separates Blagoveshchensk and the Chinese city of Heihe. The construction of the first cross-border road bridge in the Blagoveshchensk region was completed in December 2019. Now, Russia and China are considering constructing a railway bridge in the same direction. The decision on this will be made after evaluating the economic efficiency of the road bridge. Overall, the construction of these bridge crossings will tie the transport infrastructure of the Russian Far East to China. However, China will be the one to benefit from these projects primarily.

A similarly asymmetric interaction between Russia and China can be seen in how China stands to receive economic benefits from the Power of Siberia gas pipeline and the ESPO oil pipeline for many years to come. The agreement on the oil export which established this relationship was signed in 2009. In exchange for $15 billion and $10 billion loans from the China Development Bank for Rosneft and Transneft respectively, the Russian state-owned companies pledged to supply China with 15 million tons of oil annually through the ESPO from 2011 to 2030.

Moreover, Rosneft and Transneft have provided the Chinese company CNPC with a discount of $1.5 per barrel causing Rosneft to lose about $3 billion. Therefore, it was clear from the start that China was dictating the terms under which these pipelines would operate.

As for the gas export to China, the experts say that the Power of Siberia will not pay off for its Russian creators until 2030. According to RusEnergy’s calculations, the total costs of the Power of Siberia, including the development of fields, the construction of pipelines and gas processing plants in wild taiga, the crossing near the Amur River, etc., will amount to about $100 billion. This will be almost double Gazprom’s $55 billion cost estimate. When it comes to natural gas, China is a unique consumer – it is not a “monopoly” but rather a “monopsony,” meaning that the PRC as the sole buyer in the market sets its own terms.

The Power of Siberia, which is about three thousand kilometers in length, transports gas from the Irkutsk and Yakutsk gas production centers to Russian consumers in the Far East and, crucially, to China. The parties determined the terms of the partnership in an intergovernmental agreement in October 2014, and the gas supplies started flowing in December 2019. Russia is the second biggest gas supplier to China after Turkmenistan. Gas exports to China via this pipeline in 2020 amounted to 4.1 billion cubic meters. In 2021, the supplies are expected to double. The planned level of supplies for the Power of Siberia is 38 billion cubic meters per year. Still, China and Russia are discussing the possibility of increasing the maximum supply volume by another 6 billion cubic meters.

In the first quarter of 2020, the price for a thousand cubic meters was $202. In January 2021, the price fell significantly and is now below $120. Of all pipeline gas suppliers, Russia exports gas to China at the lowest price. In comparison, in January 2021, Turkmenistan received $187 per thousand cubic meters for its gas, Kazakhstan for $162, Uzbekistan for $151, and Myanmar for $352.

Additionally, the Amur Gas Processing Plant (GPP) is one of Gazprom’s most significant infrastructure projects in the Russian Far East. This plant will process multicomponent natural gas from the Yakutsk and Irkutsk gas production centers supplied through the Power of Siberia gas pipeline. Valuable components extracted during processing will become raw materials for enterprises in the gas, chemical, and other industries. The capacity of the plant will be 42 billion cubic meters of gas per year. The GPP will also include the world’s largest helium production venue, producing up to 60 million cubic meters per year. In addition to natural gas and helium, the plant’s commercial products will include ethane, propane, butane, and pentane-hexane fraction. The plant will consist of six processing lines, and the launch of the first two is scheduled for 2021. Gazprom will be gradually introducing the rest of the lines in the next four years. Thus, the plant will start working at its total capacity by the end of 2025.

In 2020, Russian company SIBUR and Chinese company Sinopec signed an agreement on creating a joint venture on the Amur Gas and Chemical Complex (AGCC). It is one of the world’s largest plants producing base polymers with a total capacity of 2.7 million tons per year. Russian’s share in the deal will be 60%, and Chinese will be 40%. The construction of the complex will be synchronized with Gazprom’s Amur GPP, so that both reach full capacity by 2025. The supply of ethane and liquefied hydrocarbon gas from Amur GPP will provide the AGCC with raw materials for further processing into high-value-added products. Due to the geographic location of the complex, the AGCC’s products will be focused primarily on the PRC market, the largest consumer of polymers in the world. The budget of the Amur Gas Chemical Complex is estimated at $10-11 billion.

Timeline: Export of electricity to China

1992 A 110 kV transmission line “Blagoveshchensk-Heihe,” connecting the power systems of Russia and China, was built. Electricity exports to China began at 30-160 million kWh per year.

2005  A long-term cooperation agreement was signed between the Unified Energy Systems (UES) of Russia and the State Grid Corporation of China.

2007  Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao signed a joint declaration “Supporting Major Energy Projects.” This document outlined Russian-Chinese energy cooperation’s fundamental principles and approaches.

2009 Russian Eastern Energy Company (EEC) and the State Grid Corporation of China signed a contract to supply China with electricity via the existing 220 kV Blagoveshchenskaya-Aigun and 110 kV Blagoveshchensk-Heihe transmission lines. The total volume of annual electricity supplies that year amounted to 854 million kWh.

2011 Russian company EEC built a 500-kV power transmission line, “Amurskaya-Heihe,” which connected the Amur Region of Russia and the north-eastern regions of the PRC with an interstate ultrahigh voltage power transmission line. The project made it possible to significantly increase the export of electricity to China, which amounted to 1.24 billion kWh that year.

2012 A 25-year contract was signed to supply China with electricity in a total volume of 100 billion kWh. In June, the State Electric Grid Corporation of China and Inter RAO signed a memorandum on expanding electric power cooperation. Electricity exports to China in 2012 amounted to 2.63 billion kWh.

2013 An agreement to expand Russian-Chinese electricity cooperation was signed. The document envisages the complex projects for the development of coal resources in the Russian regions of the Far East, the construction of large thermal power plants, and ultra-high voltage power lines to increase the volume of electricity supplies to China. Electricity exports in 2013 amounted to 3.495 billion kWh.

Ou Xiaoming, the representative of the Russian branch of the State Grid Corporation of China, said at the Russian Energy Week international forum that in the future, the volume of electricity imports from Russia to China would not change.

Chinese investments in the economy of the Russian Far East

The Russian Central Bank (CB) publishes official statistics on foreign investments in Russia. According to the CB, the presence of Chinese capital in the economy of the Far East is surprisingly negligible. As of July 2019, China’s share in the total accumulated foreign investment in the region was only 0.8% ($530 million). For reference, Cyprus’s investments in the Far East amounted to $4.1 billion.

The specifics of the CB’s calculations explain this seeming absence of Chinese investment. The CB does not take small business investments and informal business activity into account. In addition, the Central Bank’s data does not trace the investors in offshore schemes, which account for up to 95% of foreign investments in the Far East region. As a result, many Chinese enterprises appear in the official data as Russian or, for example, Bahamian.

However, the data of the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East tell a very different story. According to the Ministry, at the end of 2019, China’s share in the total volume of foreign direct investment in the region was 63% (45 projects worth $2.6 billion). In 2017, the investments were $4 billion.

 This large difference can perhaps be explained by the fact that the Ministry simply summed up the announced project estimates without investigating how much money actually got into the region. In other words, it is impossible to know precisely how significant the Chinese investment in the Far East of Russia actually is. Yet, it can be claimed with some certainty that the real numbers are higher than the official ones but less than those publicly announced by Chinese and Russian officials.

Agriculture, forestry, and construction are the three pillars of Chinese capital in the Far East. Small and medium-sized Chinese companies in the Far East have extensive experience doing business and supporting informal relations with their Russian counterpart s. Many Russian and Chinese entrepreneurs are family friends who send their children to study with each other. As a result, a solid foundation for cross-border investment has been formed.

Chinese migration

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia, for the first half of 2019, one in every ten foreigners coming to Russia were Chinese citizens. During this time, 863, 000 Chinese citizens were registered for migration, which was 30% more than in the first half of 2018.

The informational and analytical agency “East of Russia” analyzed the Ministry of Internal Affairs data and discovered that there are more Chinese people among the foreign employees who got work quotas than those from other nations. Indeed, the Ministry of Labor issued more than half of all quotas for this region to Chinese citizens, but the actual numbers are relatively modest – 27.8 thousand people. Overall, at the end of the first half of 2019, 39.8 thousand Chinese had a valid work permit in Russia. These documents are usually valid for a few months.

Russians’ attitudes towards the Chinese migration is generally negative. According to the Levada Center poll published in September 2019, more than half of Russians (53%) favored limiting Chinese migration. 28% of those surveyed were ready to let Chinese people in the Russian Federation only temporarily, and 25% were in favor of a complete ban on the arrival of Chinese citizens in the country. Only 19% of the respondents were ready to see immigrants from China among the residents of Russia.

The main risk of the Chinese migration in the Far East is that the number of Chinese people permanently living in the region can increase due to their shared border of the Amur River. This could happen quickly with the construction of two bridges across the Amur in the Amur Oblast and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. Most importantly, the Chinese (both who live in the Russian Far East and those who live in the border provinces of China) consider the Russian Far East to be historically Chinese land.

Yuri Moskalenko

Sanctions Needed for Duma Deputies Legislating Repression

A group of deputies from the Russian State Duma, members of the notorious “Commission to Investigate Outside Interference,” established by the Federation Council, has presented a package of new bills for consideration in Parliament. The bills’ objective is to limit rights and harness the Russian criminal justice system to persecute members of the opposition, thereby building a foundation for yet another cycle of repressions against Putin’s adversaries.
The first bill toughens criminal penalties for participating in or leading foreign nongovernmental organizations deemed undesirable by Russia. It proposes sentences of one to four years of imprisonment for participating in these organizations’ activities, and from two to six years for leading them. The bill’s authors have also sought to include punishments for working with “undesirable” organizations for the Russian citizens abroad. Upon returning to Russia, they might face criminal punishment. If adopted, this bill would also significantly increase the definition of “undesirable” organizations to include any foreign or international NGOs acting as intermediaries for monetary transactions on behalf of the organizations already deemed “undesirable” in Russia.

On May 4, the same group of deputies presented another bill. It would ban anyone who ever worked, donated, or was in any way involved with an extremist organization (the text from the State Duma uses the word “consulting”.) Given the practices of Russian courts, this definition would likely be interpreted as broadly as possible against anyone charged. The most outrageous fact is that the bill would violate the Russian Constitution and apply to anyone who ever donated money to Aleksei Navalny’s activities even before they were declared “extremist.” Navalny’s team has already calculated that this ban would affect over 200,000 people who sent donations to one of Navalny’s organizations at some point in time.

Given that any organization, particularly the opposition ones, can be declared undesirable or extremist in Russia, the motive behind these bills is clear. In anticipation of State Duma election campaigns, the Russian government seeks legal means to ban anyone inconvenient for the Kremlin from taking part in politics for years to come.

Unfortunately, there is no doubt that these bills will be adopted either in their current form or even in a more severe form. The bills most likely come from President Putin’s inner circle, and the deputies are fulfilling his wishes, like the obedient servants they are. They are not trying to hide that they are criminalizing the fight against Putin’s dictatorship. It is time to acknowledge the involvement in adopting these laws harmful and destructing. Even though many of those who participated in crimes against freedom and democracy in Russia are already subject to Western sanctions, it is important to understand that most of those crimes would not have been possible without the laws that intensify repressions against the opposition.

State Duma’s deputies are guilty of the latest attempts to entrench Putin’s dictatorship. However, when discussing sanctions against Russian oligarchs, officials, security officers, and departments, the matter of sanctions against members of Putin’s parliament is never raised. It is possible that Western parliamentarians still view them as colleagues who were elected by the Russian people, but their politics have nothing in common with Western values.

Additionally, in recent years, the Presidential Administration approved future candidates for State Duma. This applies not only to political parties allowed to be elected but also to elections in single-mandate districts. To ensure the approved candidates’ victories in their constituencies, no effort or administrative resource is spared, and “dangerous” candidates are either removed from elections or not allowed to take part in them at all. Since the deputies are prechosen, it explains the overrepresentation of former officials and members of law enforcement. Nothing could be further from democracy and transparent elections. It is not possible to respect these individuals or consider them legal representatives reflecting the will of the Russian people. The State Duma and the Federation Council represent and carry out the will of one man – Vladimir Putin. Each new law has one objective: to deny Russian citizens the ability to change the state of affairs in the country.

Russia’s parliament comprised of the State Duma and the Federation Council is the most important component of Putin’s dictatorial machinery. Neither the State Duma’s nor the Federation Council’s members are officially elected by citizens’ vote, yet they are responsible for everything happening in Russia. It is hardly possible to consider it a parliament when Andrei Lugovoi, a person accused of poisoning Aleksandr Litvinenko, is a State Duma member (all criminal charges against Lugovoi have been removed). It will not come as a surprise if following the fall State Duma elections, a whole new faction of saboteurs and poisoners will take office and start adopting new destructive laws.

Putin’s parliamentarians are silencing Russian people’s voices. There is hope that Western sanctions might force them to reconsider their actions. Those behind the most shocking and repressive laws, and those who voted for their approval, deserve the most severe sanctions.

Sanction Putin, not Russia

The new round of sanctions against Russia’s authorities naturally begs the question: will they simply backfire, rallying Russia’s citizens around Putin and worsening the already-negative perception of the West? The answer depends on how tangible and bold those sanctions actually are. It also depends on how they are presented to Russian society – not only through state propaganda, but from the West as well, which has various means of conveying its own opinion to Russia’s population.

The key to understanding the true feelings of Russian society and its potential reactions to new sanctions might be found in Putin’s recent address to the Federal Assembly and his nearly simultaneous statements about de-escalating tensions on the Ukrainian border. It is important to not lose sight of the fact that since the early 2010s, Putin has not made a single effort to satisfy Russians who identify with the opposition. He prefers ignoring or intimidating anyone who expresses dissatisfaction with his politics. That is why he first and foremost addresses his base, and focuses on smoothing over his relationship with them and them alone.

The very fact that most of Putin’s address was dedicated to the social problems Russia face and promises to provide all kinds of payments and benefits, whereas the traditional threats to the West and foreign policy and ideology in general were a distant second and presented in a far more peaceful tone speaks volumes about the radical shifts taking place, not only in Putin’s head, but in Russian society as a whole.

First of all, the issue of confrontation with the West, the situation in Ukraine, and international policy are not interesting to Putin’s target audience, and may even annoy them. By all accounts, the night before his address, Putin received reliable information that Russian citizens do not want war on any scale. Not only that, they are so strongly and clearly against the idea, that they can no longer be ignored.

Secondly, Putin’s electorate is poor and does not enjoy a high quality of life. They are becoming increasingly disgruntled. Thus, Putin found himself forced to focus on promises for social assistance for the people, specifically some form of direct payments. He has now tied his own political prospects to his regime’s ability to satisfy growing social obligations in a context of increasing problems on the Russian economy.

Russian domestic politics have now been reduced to the most primitive formula: on the eve of the elections, Putin gives his electorate additional money from the budget, thereby buying their votes and general loyalty. He simply does not have any inspirational slogans or ideology to mobilize society.

As a result, international sanctions designed to hit at the Russian economy and state revenues will also strike a blow to the Putin regime. The minute he is unable to fulfill all of his obligations to the citizens, violence will be the only means left for him to hold onto power. But this time, things will be different – Putin will not just be fighting against the political opposition, but rather the vast swathes of society on which he has relied for the past two decades.

There is no doubt that Putin and his propaganda will attempt to blame the West for all of the trouble, but that approach is already starting to raise some eyebrows.

To begin with, the very idea that the West is capable of inflicting serious damage on the Russian economy through sanctions has broken down some of the peoples’ trust in Putin: it means he is not quite as all-powerful as he claims, and his reassurances that Russia is a strong, independent economy with no fear of any sanctions is nothing more than a lie. What’s more, the people will inevitably start to demand a normalization of relations with the West. Sociologists have already begun to note this phenomenon – if the sanctions are such a burden for Russia to bear, isn’t it time to start seeking paths toward reconciliation with the rest of the world? The ultimate goal of confrontation is inexplicable given that Russian society is decidedly not willing to engage in any wars. 

It is important to note that the West has not yet pulled the lever that the Russian opposition has been offering it for many years – large-scale personal sanctions against Putin’s inner circle – Russia’s richest and most influential families, including that of the Russian President himself.

Striking such a blow to the main beneficiaries of the current Russian regime would resolve several issues at once. It would force oligarchs under sanctions to consider decisive steps aimed at removing Putin – if only to save their own capital and international businesses. It would also make it very difficult for Putin’s propaganda to leverage the sanctions to consolidate the electorate. Paradoxically, those who most support the capitalist economy are the same people who oppose Putin, as he relies on poor, embittered people with nostalgia for the USSR, who believe that capitalism and capitalists are evil. Harsh sanctions against the billionaires in Putin’s entourage will arouse nothing but Schadenfreude among these sectors of society, and any appeals for sympathy from the authorities will likely not go down well among those who are mainly concerned with simple survival. The effect will in fact be quite the opposite, once they begin to wonder why the authorities are suddenly so concerned about the very richest, while seemingly unbothered by the problems of the very poorest.

It is important to note that “sanctions against Russia” is a very unfortunate turn of phrase, which is often heard in official statements. This is a gift for Putin’s propaganda machine, and feeds fears about “Russophobia” in the West. In the context of today’s Russia, it would make more sense to talk about “sanctions against Putin,” or “sanctions against the Putin regime,” focusing on the fact that the West, its leaders, and people have nothing against Russia or its citizens, and that a free, democratic Russia and its people would be accepted as friends, partners, and allies. That kind of a shift in focus would make it easier to disseminate the idea in the widest sectors of the population and the administrative and economic elite that Putin is Russia’s problem, and denying him power is the quickest, and in fact the only path toward normalizing all areas of life in Russia.

When Putin Talks Climate

Speaking at a climate summit of the world leaders organized by the United States, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, for the first time in history, discussed environmental challenges the way leaders of the developed world discuss the issue. Not only did he recognize the need for urgent action to reduce emissions, but he also vocalized a number of concrete steps to be taken by Russia and called for broad international cooperation. However, taking his statements as a cause for celebration would premature, as they will not result in a major shift in policy.

In order to understand the meaning of Vladimir Putin’s message, one needs to take a close look at the energy policies and energy strategy currently governing Russia’s approach to the issue. The statements made by the Russian president are clearly aimed at two goals. The first goal is to convince the global community that Russia is not an irresponsible polluter unconcerned about the climate crisis, but one of the global leaders in combatting climate change. The second one is attracting foreign investments into climate-beneficial projects in Russia by pretending to be genuinely interested in joining the efforts of the global community to address environmental challenges.

Vladimir Putin began his speech at the summit by restating the line long used by the Russian diplomats at the UN climate talks: Russia’s emissions have declined since 1990 from 3.1 billion to 1.6 billion tons of CO2 equivalent due to Russia’s efforts in “restructuring” its industry and its energy sector.

In reality, the drop in emissions did not happen as a result of the concerted efforts by the Russian authorities, but because of the breakup of the Soviet Union, when one country with its many polluters has split into many.

More important than the validity of historic claims, however, is what Russia intends to do to reduce emissions moving forward. According to the Presidential Decree No. 666 signed in November 2020, Russia’s greenhouse gas emissions are in fact expected to rise by almost 40% by 2030 (VTimes; in Russian). Putin might as well have said at the summit: those tons of carbon dioxide that you won’t be emitting, Russia will gladly emit for you.

Today, about 60% of Russia’s energy needs is satisfied by natural gas, 16% by coal, around 13% by oil, 8% by nuclear energy, and 3% by large hydropower (VTimes; in Russian). When the Russian president says at the global climate summit that 45% of Russia’s energy is produced from low-carbon energy sources, he apparently means not the entire energy sector, but only that generating electricity. But Russia is a northern country. A considerable portion of the energy it produces and consumed is thermal energy and not electricity.

Adopted in 2020, Russia’s Energy Strategy 2035 is unambiguous about the development priorities it lays out for the next decade and a half. At a time when the global community is undertaking sweeping measures to cut its use of fossil fuels and reach carbon neutrality, Russia is planning to ramp up fossil fuel production. In the next 15 years, according to the Strategy’s rather optimistic scenario, coalmining is set to increase by about 50% and gas-drilling — by almost 40%, while oil production is expected to remain at today’s levels.

For all its booming development around the globe, renewable energy, plays a negligible role in Russia. In 2020, its share in Russia’s energy mix was about 1%, and no serious steps to stimulate its growth are envisaged in government plans. Energy efficiency, which could become one of the major areas of climate work, is all but ignored in the Energy Strategy. Today, Russia uses twice as much energy per unit of GDP as the global average, and three times as much as in the European Union.

No efforts are planned by Russia in the foreseeable future to phase out fossil fuels – on the contrary, production and exports are only set to rise. How, then, is Russia planning to curb its emissions?

In his statements at the climate summit, Vladimir Putin spoke about how Russia’s forests absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide – another point stressed repeatedly by Russia’s representatives at the UN climate talks, much like the position that this absorbing capacity is underestimated by the West. In essence, rather than reducing actual emissions, the proposal Russia routinely makes at the climate conferences boils down to simply changing calculation methods to evaluate its forests’ carbon-absorption capacity. However, there is a problem with that approach: as the UN data shows, the capacity of Russian forests to absorb carbon emissions is rapidly depleting due to aging, fires, deforestation, and other factors (VTimes; in Russian). The most pessimistic forecasts anticipate that by mid-century, carbon dioxide absorption by Russian forests will shrink from 700 million tons in СО2 equivalent per year to a mere 100 million. In other words, Russia cannot hide behind its forests anymore.

The Russian president proposes to increase international cooperation to combat climate change and, speaking of climate solutions, mentions specifically carbon-capture technology, nuclear energy, and hydrogen production. Therefore, when Vladimir Putin speaks of providing incentives for foreign investors willing to participate in climate projects in Russia, the audience is led to assume that he speaks of projects in these areas and not just climate projects in general. Such an assumption is erroneous, unfortunately.

There is a prescient term with established international usage to characterize the technologies mentioned by Putin, and that term is “false solutions.” Nuclear generation, for instance, is too expensive and too time-consuming to establish to efficiently bring down emissions, and, furthermore, it entails risks of nuclear proliferation and large-scale accidents.

The real reason Vladimir Putin is promoting nuclear energy is that reactor export projects are used to increase his political influence in other countries. The loans issued by Russia and backed by the Russian budget for the construction of nuclear power plants abroad amount to about $100 billion, yet no investors unaffiliated with the Russian government are willing to participate in these projects (Vedomosti; in Russian).

Within Russia itself, however, nuclear energy development plans are rather modest: fewer reactors are currently expected to be built than are needed to replace the old units scheduled for decommissioning in the coming 10 years. (Heinrich Böll Stiftung; in German).

Russia has designed a floating nuclear power plant that it plans to export to other countries, which means a rather significant nuclear proliferation risk due to the high level of enrichment of the fuel used. Taking into account the extremely underwhelming potential for emissions reduction that nuclear technology can offer, are we prepared to accept the risk of proliferation of nuclear materials all over the planet?

Hydrogen production is a promising direction – but only if this is green hydrogen, that is hydrogen produced using renewable energy. What Russia has in view is producing hydrogen primarily for the purpose of exporting to Europe – and doing so by using fossil fuels (gas) and nuclear energy. The export potential of such very ungreen hydrogen is quite dubious, since, in contrast to Russia, the rest of the world intends to stop using fossil fuels.

And as for carbon capture, the technology behind the idea is nowhere near as developed or effective as it needs to be to help avert the worst consequences of climate change in the foreseeable future. There are indications that it may be possible to trap some of the emitted carbon dioxide, but no clarity exists as to whether it could be stored for long periods of time with no risk of leakage. And let’s not forget, that carbon capture is deemed a false solution precisely because, while diverting attention from the pressing energy transition needs, it lulls one into a hopeful expectation of continuing to burn fossil fuels for as long as the fuels are there to burn.

As one evaluates all the points made by the Russian president in his speech at the summit, the following troubling picture emerges:

  • In the next 10 to 15 years, Russia will ratchet up its production and exports of fossil fuels, increasing global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Russia is somewhat open to technologies that may help it put a green sheen on its policies while concealing its contribution to the growing emissions.
  • No development of technologies that could lead to real emissions reductions – those in the fields of renewable energy or energy efficiency – are likely.
  • And if one sets aside Vladimir Putin’s climate rhetoric and takes a hard look at the real situation at hand, it becomes very clear that Russia’s climate action is only possible to the extent that it is dictated by Moscow’s export considerations. Within the country, the dirtiest sources of energy will still be in use, while the export shipping routes will carry what will be in demand abroad.

The only real way to decrease Russia’s contribution to the global climate burden, therefore, is to stop importing any fossil fuels Russia has to offer.

Putin’s War on Russia’s Youth

The events of the past few days have clearly demonstrated that Putin and his regime perceive Russia’s youth, especially its most active and politicized members, as the biggest enemy.

The Kremlin’s attacks on Aleksei Navalny and his movement, attacks on the Internet, attacks on the student-ran magazine DOXA, attacks on education, targeted repressions throughout Russia — all of them in one way or another target youth, more than any other group.

This comes as no surprise. After all, young people are most active online, they are the backbone of Navalny’s movement, they take part in protest rallies, attend all kinds of lectures and discussions, create and consume independent media, travel abroad, and participate in volunteer and crowdfunding projects. Moreover, they share the same information space as their peers around the world — they listen to the same music, play the same video games, follow the same fashion trends, watch the same shows, and generally view the world through the same lense as young people in Western Europe and North America.

Certainly, in each demographic group of Russia’s population there are people who subscribe to Western values; conversely, there are young people in Russia who support Putin. But young Russians generally lead lives and are steeped in values that make them organic opponents of the conservative, backward-looking, retrograde, and xenophobic Putin establishment.

Putin has focused his wrath on Aleksei Navalny precisely because by 44, Navalny has managed to find an approach that appealed to Russian citizens 10, 20, and even 30 years his junior. In contrast, Putin, who has no plans to step down any time in the foreseeable future, simply does not have the creativity, tools, or even desire to reach younger generations of Russians. This makes perfect sense — Vladimir Putin’s electorate base is the older generation, and he is concentrating his efforts on pleasing them, pandering to them, and manipulating their emotions — the most prominent of which is a nostalgia for the days of the Soviet Union.

Had Putin come to power democratically, had he actually faced serious criticism from opponents, and had he gotten used to fighting for every electoral vote, perhaps he would make at least a cursory attempt at appealing to younger voters. But Putin is a product of the KGB and the bureaucratic apparatus. He has never taken part in any free elections, and therefore has no intentions of trying to win over any naysayers.

Outside observers need to keep in mind that when Putin speaks about the Russian people or on their behalf, he is only referring to those who support him. He views anyone who does not support him as a traitor, who should, and in fact must be denied any political standing or representation.

Last week’s story of repressions against the editorial board of a student magazine DOXA is very telling. DOXA gained prominence among the general public in 2019, against the backdrop of protests in response to the Kremlin’s refusal to allow opposition candidates to run for the Moscow City Duma. College students from various Moscow universities took part in the protests, and DOXA threw its support behind them. The publication and its editorial office have been watched by security agencies since then, and by 2021, the surveillance was in full force, culminating in a series of searches, interrogations, and an investigation, resulting in DOXA employees placed under house arrest and officially banned from engaging in any journalistic activity.

It would be absurd to claim that DOXA had any real ability to influence the political situation in Russia or any significant groups of the population. After all, this is a specialized publication for students, graduates, and professors from Moscow’s most prestigious universities. But it is for this exact reason that the magazine has been so closely watched, and reprisals against the editorial staff have been so over-the-top, despite the outpour of support from professors, students, journalists, and members of the creative intelligentsia. The politicization of young people in Moscow is extremely concerning to the Russian authorities. Widespread street protests in the capital have been a nightmare for Putin for years. That is why any approval of protests, taking part in them, or calling on others to join them, particularly among youth, are punished with an increasing severity.

The persecution of DOXA sends a clear and powerful message to all you people in — if the authorities are not afraid to carry out public reprisals against youth in Moscow — in the plain view of the domestic and international public — then no one else can expect any mercy or indulgence, either. Like many other activists in today’s Russia, DOXA’s editorial board is accused of inciting people to take part in unsanctioned rallies expressing solidarity with Aleksei Navalny last January. The video that landed the students in court is entitled They Cannot Defeat the Youth. It was released following Navalny’s arrest, and contains the following words:

“Universities, colleges, and schools intimidate students, threatening them with expulsion or other sanctions. We demand an end to the destruction of education, which our generation has yet to rebuild. The authorities have declared a war on youth, but we are the youth. And we are sure to win.”

The mere mention of schoolchildren in the video has been taken by the authorities as pretext to file the same charges against DOXA’s editorial board as those filed against the head of Navalny’s headquarters, Leonid Volkov — i.e. involving minors in unlawful activities. This includes participation in banned protest rallies.

The video’s description of what is happening in Russia is, in fact, spot on — Putin has, indeed, declared war on youth, and his regime is spending most of its efforts on repressing and intimidating young Russian citizens, effectively subordinating the entire education system to the security apparatus, and preserving the current regime at any cost — robbing entire generations of Russian citizens of their future, condemning them to either leave their own country, or live isolated and in fear of the world.

Putin’s main opposition in Russia today is not the handful of dissidents or political activists who have stood in the streets for decades. It is the vast majority of the Russian youth that is on the rise. The leaders of the opposition today are whoever the youth hold in such regard. For this reason, anyone who is willing and able to support resistance to Putin’s regime would do well to focus their efforts on the younger segments audience. Sooner or later, the youth will inevitably win. And even a mighty dictator such as Vladimir Putin can escape the passage of time and death.

What Putin Wants from Ukraine

Things are heating up on the Ukrainian border right now. To the casual observer, it might look like a repeat of what we saw in 2014. In fact, what we are seeing in 2021 is the exact opposite of 2014, and something far more sinister is afoot.

2014’s attack on Ukraine was a rude awakening for everyone — for Ukraine itself, for Russian society, and for the West. Putin managed to leverage the element of surprise and achieve victory in Crimea. In Donbass, things were not so easy — in part because Ukraine had begun to resist and had time to repel attacks of the Russian-backed separatists.

In 2021, the landscape has turned upside down. Today, no one questions whether Putin is capable of aggression. That reputation for treacherous opportunism has become his trump card in geopolitical games. By all accounts, Putin is convinced that the West will blink first and make concessions, no matter what. This belief lies beneath his increasingly aggressive rhetoric and conspicuous concentration of troops along the Ukrainian border.

While military hostilities could break out at any moment, starting a war is not Putin’s real goal. War, after all, is unpredictable. The Crimean adventure was a success for Putin precisely because it was quick, bloodless, and victorious. If his next war becomes protracted and bloody, Putin will face serious problems with his own nuclear electorate, as well as his elites who would never forgive him for the defeat, and possibly would go even further and attempt to oust him in retribution.

Putin’s goal is not to start a conflict. Instead, he aims to achieve his goals by scaring the Western elites with the very prospect of war. In an extraordinary situation, no doubt, he would be prepared to fight, but only with Ukraine, and only with guarantees that Ukraine would receive no meaningful assistance from the outside. Putin can afford only victory, and he will shy away from any hostilities if failure is in the realm of possibilities.

So, what does Putin really want from Ukraine? Let’s start with the basics: due to a variety of circumstances, Crimea, annexed by Russia, is suffering from water shortages. Prior to the occupation, mainland Ukraine supplied the peninsula with water. In part, Putin’s current theatrics may be aimed at forcing Ukraine to resume supplying Crimea with water. This could easily be “sold” to the Western public as a humanitarian mandate without forcing Putin to renegotiate any key issues. Naturally, to the Russian audiences, it would be presented as a major victory for Putin, and to a large extent, it would be — the water issue would have been resolved, and Ukraine would have made concessions, including indirect recognition of the new Crimean status.

The water issue is just one part of the larger problem. Putin does not need Ukraine as much as he needs to legalize the annexation of Crimea. There are two ways for him to do this. First, he could strongarm the West to start suggesting to Ukraine that it better accept Crimea as part of Russia. Alternatively, he could try to pressure the Ukrainian government directly to recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea, which would immediately render any Western sanctions moot.

Despite the fact that Russia has dedicated considerable efforts on shaping the public opinion in Western countries, it is Ukraine that the Kremlin views as the weak link — and rightly so. In its current state, the Ukrainian government is unwilling to recognize Crimea as part of Russia, just as it is unwilling to acquiesce to being within the Russian sphere of influence. This means that Russia would need to bring down the current Ukrainian government, and then negotiate with its new authorities on more favorable terms. In this sense, the Kremlin may view the threat of war, and military operations in particular, as a pragmatic attempt to resolve this matter.

But in addition to these goals, there is another, far more sinister and far-reaching goal behind the current escalations. Putin wants the West, and specifically the United States, to recognize him not only as an equal player on the world stage, but also as that free to do whatever he pleases both within Russia and any countries that he considers within its sphere of influence.

In Putin’s dream world, the West would not only stop asking him uncomfortable questions about his repressions on the political opposition or the state of human rights inside Russia but would also actively muzzle his critics around the world, so as not to provoke the dangerous tyrant in the Kremlin who is ready for war at any moment. He clearly views Ukraine and other countries bordering Russia, particularly those that were once republics of the former USSR, as those belonging to Russia’s zone of influence, where no change of government should take place without the approval of the Kremlin. That is why his antics are not just about Ukraine. Unfortunately for Ukraine, it has been used as a convenient testing ground for Putin’s techniques for pressuring the West and intimidating Western political elites with his audacity and willingness to trample on all principles of contemporary international politics.

All of this aside, we can’t lose sight of the fact that Putin’s main goal has always been holding onto power in Russia. People’s lives, the future of entire countries and nations, including that of Russia itself, only concern him in the context of achieving that goal. Just as annexing Crimea in 2014 helped Putin rebrand his regime domestically, becoming significantly more brutal, current situation with Ukraine is likely to lead to similar outcome — Putin’s regime in Russia will become more ruthless, punishing anyone who dares resist him.

For this reason, as tensions rise along the Ukrainian border, the level of police terror is also growing inside Russia. The leader of the Russian opposition, Alexey Navalny, is being held illegally in prison with the treatment amounting to torture, and all critics of the regime are subjected to brutal reprisals. The Kremlin propaganda portraits anyone dissatisfied with the Putin regime as a Western agent, and the authorities have proposed prosecuting them “under wartime laws”.

Putin’s adventurism abroad may indeed lead to war in the near future. Even if we dodge a bullet this time, Western elites need to understand that as long as Putin is Russia’s leader, global tensions will continue to grow, and any concessions made to him will be interpreted as proof that he has chosen the right strategy.

Putin’s Courts: the Methodical Destruction of the State’s Most Important Institution

On April 7, well-known Russian opposition politician and Council chairman, Ilya Yashin, a deputy of the Krasnoselsky municipal district, received an electronic notification that a court sentenced him to a fine of approximately 15,000 rubles for taking part in a municipal deputy congress that was later broken up by the authorities. Neither the fact that the congress was broken up nor the fine itself were any surprise in today’s Russia. What is surprising is that Yashin’s trial had been set for the day after, April 8.

Several media outlets picked up the strange notice after Yashin published it on social media. However, on April 8, this did nothing to stop the judge from issuing the same sentence, which had audaciously been sent a day earlier. This was no shock to anyone, least of all Ilya Yashin. Shocking would have been if the judge’s sentence had differed from the one Yashin was notified of in advance. This is how things work in Putin’s court system: After widespread protests, the courts systematically issue the same verdicts and sentences. This is clear proof of what everyone already knows – the courts are biased, and decisions are made in advance of any actual proceedings.

A great deal of criticism has been lodged against Russian courts, but this issue is too serious to simply look away. As a player on the global economy and world stage, the Russian Federation demands that the rest of the world recognize its courts’ decisions. That is to say, an individual who has been convicted of a crime by a Russian court should be recognized as a criminal by the entire world.

To many, this is already misleading. For example, what does it actually mean if someone has been convicted in a Russian court of political extremism or even terrorism? Does it mean that he aided and abetted or actually carried out a criminal act? That he actually killed or was planning on killing peaceful citizens and law enforcement officers? That he held criminal opinions? And if all sentences for these types of convictions are in fact politicized, does it mean that there are no terrorists in Russia?

Problems like these will only grow more complicated. The more politicized court decisions are, and the more examples we have of the courts’ hand in political repression, the less trust there will be in any rulings or sentences from Russian courts. It’s not difficult to imagine where this will lead in the foreseeable future.

There are already many complaints about Russian courts, whether criminal or economic – and in many cases, they are less-than-impartial in these matters. But when it comes to politics, the Russian justice system is irrefutably an instrument of punitive power, with no regard at all for the presumption of innocence or the supposedly adversarial nature of any proceeding.

As in the Soviet Union, political cases are not necessarily tried in political courts. The Russian authorities are in a campaign to paint any critics as common criminals, as if their legal troubles stemmed from their own criminal activities. For this reason, a political trial in today’s Russia is any trial in which the defendant is a political or civil activist, journalist, publisher, politician, or even just a passerby accused by the authorities of taking part in some kind of political activism. The charges themselves in these cases are of little importance, as is any evidence, or lack thereof. For example, historian Yuri Dmitriev, who was researching mass executions in Karelia under Stalin, was charged with pedophilia.

For some time now, the most important evidence in Putin’s courts is the opinion of an expert witness brought on by the investigation or a certificate issued by the intelligence services. In Stalin’s day, investigators would torture their victims in order to extract a confession. Putin’s courts need no such formalities, as they unconditionally trust whatever the investigator has to say, as well as any statements made by experts involved in the case, no matter how biased or unsubstantiated.

All of Alexey Navalny’s court proceedings are the most shameless example of what Putin has done to the Russian court system. Navalny has been tried for stealing timber, commercial fraud, insulting a war veteran, and violating the terms of a suspended sentence. And yet, to any casual observer, it is obvious that in each case the judges were not only biased, but openly working in the interest of the authorities, as part of Vladimir Putin’s punitive system.

Alexey Navalny and Ilya Yashin are no ordinary Russian citizens. But their lot is in no way extraordinary. Because of the publicity that surrounds them, it is easy for anyone to closely follow the workings of the Russian justice system through their cases. Many lesser-known political activists and ordinary citizens have also been tried and convicted for trumped-up charges as they fall victim to Putin’s punitive machine in retaliation for hasty posts on social media. However, as many human rights defenders say, in cases that have nothing to do with politics, the courts nearly always take the side of the investigator. Again, this is no surprise. This is not an issue affecting individual judges, but the system as a whole.

What has happened to Russia’s courts is a feature, not a bug in Putin’s dictatorship. Under Putin’s leadership, Russia’s justice system has been methodically twisted to the point of becoming a targeted instrument of political oppression and justification for any decision made at the very top.

In order to ensure that anyone who is deemed inconvenient is guaranteed the ruling and sentence that best serves the authorities’ needs, officially, all Russian citizens have the right to a fair trial. After all, there can be no court system in which some cases are decided fairly and others are not.

When Russia returns to the democratic path of development, its new leadership will have to put in herculean efforts in order to overhaul the entire justice system. We want to believe that the errors of Boris Yeltsin and his team will not be repeated, and that any judges who have taken part in the system of repression will be dismissed and answer for their crimes. Thousands of cases will have to be reviewed, sentences will need to be overturned, and the very notion of the judiciary’s makeup will need to be reformed. It will take years to return any sense of authority to Russia’s courts in the eyes of Russian citizens and the international community.

In the meantime, it is important to remember that right now, Russian courts and Russian judges are just one more part of Putin’s machine. The judiciary as an institution as it is known in the civilized world has been destroyed in the Russian Federation, and any verdicts or sentences should be seriously questioned in Russia, and especially beyond its borders.

Photo: Kremlin.ru
Western Leaders Need to Take Tougher Stand Against Putin’s Modern Day “Fascism”

In 2021, Alexei Navalny, the main opponent of the unchanging head of state Vladimir Putin, is being tortured and unlawfully held in prison in Russia, a nuclear state and member of the UN Security Council, aspiring to the role of a center of modern civilization and world politics. Moreover, Alexei Navalny found himself in jail following the Russian secret services’ failed attempt to poison him with a banned chemical weapon. Although this may sound like dystopian fiction, a scenario of a Bond movie or a dark comic, this is not a make-believe story – this is reality.

Many people living in Russia or closely following the events there cannot understand why Western countries have been so lenient towards Vladimir Putin all these years. After all, Putin has been in power for over 20 years now, and Alexei Navalny is not the first opponent of the Putin regime who has been subject to persecution for his views. Vladimir Putin has the blood of Boris Nemtsov on his hands, as well as of many other men and women who tried to oppose him at different times and for different reasons, not to mention the victims of his foreign policy adventures from Georgia to Crimea, from Syria to the Central African Republic. How many more political assassinations will be carried out before the Western political elite finally realizes what Russia has become under Putin and what regime he has built in the country?

Stronger language could become a big step toward fully grasping the nightmare that Russia is facing. Calling the Putin regime authoritarian or hybrid plays into Putin’s hands. Of course, researchers and politicians who grew up in free societies find these words strong enough. However, they all make the Putin regime look more decent than it actually is and allow the Russian government to avoid unpleasant questions and tough sanctions for years.

Time has come to call a spade a spade: the regime built by Putin in Russia can and should be called fascism. In this case, the term “fascism” would not be a label used for publicity purposes but a statement of fact. Suffice it to recall Umberto Eco’s “Eternal Fascism” essay to realize that the system built by Putin fully meets the criteria described by the author.

Particularly cynical is the behavior of fans of the Putin regime, who like to talk about fascism while attacking their opponents and critics in and outside of Russia. Meanwhile, they consciously juggle with concepts equating fascism with Nazism. This wordplay is not coincidental.

In the modern world, Nazism has become the synonym of absolute evil – and for very good reason. Mass culture has reduced its well-known external attributes to comics-like straightforwardness: antisemitism, racism, uniforms, swastika, a leader in a military jacket making speeches, and death camps. This allows Putin’s propagandists to claim that today’s Russia is not a fascist state since it does not display any of those characteristics.

The Putin regime is in fact not a Nazi one. Indeed, it officially denounces racism and antisemitism. However, even though free of theatrics and straightforwardness of the 1920s and 1930s, the political regime in today’s Russia is a form of modern fascism that inherited the most gruesome traits of its 20th century counterpart. Putin does not have any “death camps,” but the number of people subject to different forms of criminal and administrative sanctions for their political activities in Russia is growing and their treatment is getting increasingly harsh. The case of Alexei Navalny, who was not just thrown in jail but is being systematically tortured there through sleep deprivation and denial of medical care, proves this point.

Beside political terror, Putin is no stranger to the use of political assassinations as a means of intimidating enemies of the regime and taking revenge on people he dislikes in Russia and all over the world. It is the Putin regime’s reliance on physical elimination of its opponents, the criminalization of any opposition and protest activities, and the stigmatization of pro-Western, pro-democracy, and liberal thinkers that give reason to believe that we’re dealing with a modern version of fascism.

Russia has been transformed into a fascist police state the unchangeable leader of which maintains his power through repression, violence, and endless persecution of all those disobedient and opposed to his rule. Human rights are being trampled upon and violated whenever it suits the regime, and citizens have no means of making sure their rights are respected. Constitutional guarantees of respect for human rights and freedoms have become a fantastic notion, and the judicial system serves as an appendix to the punitive one. Russian courts fine and send to prison political opponents of the current government just as readily and ruthlessly as they jail Jehovah’s Witnesses which proves yet again that the Putin regime does not persecute real or even potential extremists but anyone whom it dislikes – sometimes completely irrationally.

There is no reason to believe that a few polite reprimands and symbolic acts will put an end to Putin’s interfering in conflicts all over the world and sending assassins to deal with his enemies and critics of his regime. Such instances will probably increase in number since in the context of the country’s deteriorating domestic problems the regime’s real or alleged successes in its confrontation with the West, and particularly with the United States, remain virtually the only trump cards used for propaganda purposes and to satisfy the ambitions of Putin who still believes himself to be the most influential politician of modern times.

Putin has long ceased to be Russia’s domestic concern – he bids defiance to the entire world order. Moreover, the existence of the Putin regime and the West’s permissive attitude toward it serve as a bad example for the multitude of smaller autocracies and dictatorships from Myanmar to Venezuela. If Putin can disregard the international law, wage wars against neighboring countries, send his assassins all over the world, and keep his critics in prison, why cannot other regimes do the same? This is why the fight with Putin and his regime is very important not just for Russia but for the entire world, and Western leaders should be more confident both in their opinion of Putin and his system and in measures aimed at containing the current Russian regime.

It is in fact absolutely unimportant what US and European politicians publicly call Putin and his regime. It is, however, important for them to admit it at least to themselves that they are dealing with an established fascist regime and his creator and leader.

Photo: Kremlin.ru

Save Navalny, Stop Putin!

On March 31, it was reported that Aleksei Navalny, who is currently imprisoned in a penal colony, began a hunger strike to protest prison officials’ abuse and the refusal to provide him with critical medical care. No one goes on a hunger strike unless they truly have nothing left to lose and no other means to fight for their rights.

The news should alarm anyone concerned about the fate of Navalny or, for that matter, Russia’s fate. If Putin’s government is prepared to go to such drastic lengths to silence Navalny, it is frightening to imagine what it is prepared to do in terms of its domestic and foreign policy.

We can’t lose sight of the fact that Aleksei Navalny’s life is now solely in the hands of one man — Vladimir Putin. The Russian President himself is Navalny’s judge, jailer and executioner. Anyone who claims otherwise has a poor grasp of how the Russian regime is structured, or is simply lying.

Without a direct order from Putin himself, or at least his approval, the FSB would not have spent years stalking members of the opposition, much less have made such a high-profile attempt on the life of Putin’s most prominent critic.

Putin himself has admitted that he gave personal authorization for Navalny to be flown to Germany for medical treatment. It is crystal clear that Putin was also behind Navalny’s outrageous arrest upon his inspirationally courageous return to Russia in January.

The actions of the Russian authorities, and that of Putin himself, in the aftermath of their failed attempt to kill Navalny, drive home the ugly reality that the Kremlin’s sole regret is that Navalny did not die on the spot after they poisoned him. Should we be surprised that those directly responsible for this crime and those who took part in the cover-up are now even more emboldened?

Despite the demands of the European Court of Human Rights for Navalny’s immediate release, he continues to be held in a penal colony in the city of Pokrov in Vladimir Oblast, where investigators, police officers, judges, and prison staff merely follow orders from the very top. Navalny is trapped in a penal colony with no medical assistance worthy of the term, where he is subjected to continuous abuse, not against the wishes of Putin or unbeknownst to him but rather because this is exactly what Putin wants.

No one is surprised to hear that no-holds-barred repression has been unleashed against the Russian opposition. But Navalny’s case is exceptional. There are not many Russians whose name is regularly raised in conversations with Putin by world leaders.  And in Russia, there is certainly no other person whose plight brings out hundreds of thousands to the streets in a show of support – while risking their own freedom, health, and well-being. This is what sets Aleksei Navalny apart from so many Soviet-era dissidents, contemporary opposition figures and fearless investigative journalists, whose persecution and even murder never prompted sustained reverberations within Russia, let alone abroad.

While the Russian authorities persecute Navalny, they are also terrified of him. They are trying to destroy him, not as an individual or even as the leader of a handful of dissidents, but as the founder and leader of a powerful opposition movement that Putin has every reason to dread.

The authorities are clearly petrified. Otherwise, they would have no reason to continue intensifying their crackdown on Navalny’s associates and allies, or the thousands of ordinary citizens who took part in the protests they organized. Not a day goes by without someone being sentenced for taking part in January’s nationwide demonstrations of solidarity with Navalny. The closer we get to new protests, the more arrests and politically-motivated persecution we will see.

This is why it comes as no shock to learn that nearly all of Navalny’s inner circle in Russia find themselves under house arrest or in formal detention. Some whose actions offer no grounds for formal prosecution are nonetheless made targets of despicable attacks. The elderly parents of Leonid Volkov, who heads Navalny’s network headquarters, had their apartment searched. Just a few days ago, the 66-year-old father of the FBK Director Ivan Zhdanov was thrown into a pretrial detention center for far-fetched reasons. It is hard to say whether the Kremlin has any specific plan in mind vis-à-vis Ivan Zhdanov, or whether its actions are driven by pure revenge or Stalinesque terror. In either case, the Russian government’s actions evoke only the most profound alarm and sensation of disgust. It goes without saying that confinement of an elderly and not particularly healthy man to a Russian jail cell with four beds for five people is torture by any definition.  Moreover, and this surely accounts for such action, the son will suffer anguish – psychological torture – in knowing that his father is suffering and he is powerless to do anything to help. 

History has shown that regimes that terrorize their own citizens and critics are prone to start wars of aggression against other nations. The events of 2014 made it clear that Putin’s regime is already there. Since then, Russia’s domestic situation has become more dire, while the terror against critics of the regime has grown more brazen and cruel.

Right now, Navalny and his protest movement in Russia urgently need a demonstration of international solidarity, not only for the sake of noble ideals like freedom, democracy and justice, but to protect global security, as well. The international community has stood by passively for too long, allowing Putin to go too far, both domestically and abroad. Backing down even more or stopping at toothless statements of concern will only make things worse. Without meaningful external pressure, Putin will never stop his aggression. To him, each concession, each instance of eyes delicately averted, each failure to back words with deeds is a new victory, proof that he is untouchable, has chosen the right path, and may act with impunity.

The fight for Aleksei Navalny’s freedom, against political repression, and for free elections in Russia is much more than a moral imperative for honest people everywhere. It is the fundamental duty of all responsible democratic politicians.

Paying a heavy price with his own suffering and the unmistakable threat to his life, Aleksei Navalny is unmasking for all to witness the extent of the Putin regime’s depravity, cruelty, and crimes. Over the last 20 years, thousands of Russian citizens have suffered for their beliefs, and their numbers are growing. Do they need to number in the millions, with Russia’s aggression concurrently spilling out in all directions before the civilized world finally grasps the true scale of the problem and delivers an appropriate response?

The Arrest of One Governor and the True Worth of Putin’s Ratings

According to official Central Election Commission data, in September 2020, Ivan Belozertsev, member of the United Russia party nominated by Putin, won an amazing 78.8 percent of the vote in the first round of the gubernatorial election in Penza Oblast.   The results of the election were certified despite the fact that many pro-opposition observers voiced their skepticism about their veracity. Belozertsev occupied the gubernatorial chair until he was arrested in March 2021 on bribe-taking charges and dismissed by the president’s decree.

Despite Belozertsev’s recent electoral triumph and seeming resulting popularity, not one rally in support of the governor has been held. Moreover, no one has even tried to organize one. 

Of course, it’s possible one could say that Belozertsev’s voters were completely disappointed in him after learning about the charges. This version, however, is rather questionable.  Russian citizens have no trust in the law enforcement services, and there is overwhelming evidence to support this. For instance, the authorities’ official charges against Navalny did not convince his supporters that they were rallying around a criminal.  There is an even more powerful example: the arrest and dismissal of Khabarovsk region’s governor Sergei Furgal provoked months-long protests across the region despite the fact that he was being accused of committing different crimes. 

So why didn’t the residents of the Khabarovsk region believe the charges against Sergei Furgal and instead rallied and fought for him, while residents of the Penza region behaved the exact opposite?  Also, if they suspected Belozertsev of dishonesty, why did they actively vote for him only six months earlier?

The answer is simple. Sergei Furgal is a rare exception to the rule according to which the entire Russian system of government operates. He won as an opposition candidate in a tough struggle against a candidate who was supported by Putin and the entire federal government.   This means that all the votes he received had been casted consciously. 

Belozertsev’s case is rather typical for today’s Russia though.  A former member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and ex-military, Belozertsev went into politics under Putin when elections lost their competitive character.  Someone so uncharismatic and with such a mediocre background could not obviously be elected to any key position even in the 1990s. However, in Putin’s Russia, it’s not about candidates like by voters who win elections but about those preferred by the authorities. The reason Ivan Belozertsev won his most recent election is not because he had the support of almost 80 percent of his region’s population but that his candidature had been approved by the presidential administration.  As a result, he faced no real competition while all administrative resource mechanisms, including mobilization, manipulation, and sheer fraud worked in his favor. This was officially admitted, even though implicitly. Right after the governor’s arrest, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation initiated a case about election fraud at one of the polling places where Belozertsev had allegedly won 85 percent of the vote.

The population’s complete indifference with regard to governors’ dismissals despite the seemingly high support during elections is quite natural for Putin’s regime.  Thus, former governor of Russia’s Komi Republic Vyacheslav Gaizer was arrested on bribery charges in September 2015, just one year after having received 78.97 percent of the vote thanks to the support of President Putin and the United Russia party.  No rallies in his support were held in the Komi Republic following his arrest. In April 2017, Aleksandr Solovyov, the head of Russia’s Udmurtia Region, who had allegedly won the sensational 84.85 percent of the vote in the 2014 gubernatorial election, was removed from office and arrested which, again, did not provoke any support rallies or waves of public outrage across Udmurtia. 

All this makes one doubt that the results of gubernatorial elections in Russia reflect the real sentiment of voters, and, naturally, makes one question the population’s support of the current Russian authorities’ policy based on official election results. The cases of Belozertsev, Solovyov, and Gaizer should be brought to mind every time there is talk about Vladimir Putin’s high approval rating, the population’s incredibly strong support of him or his new electoral victories. One should ask oneself whether these numbers actually mean anything and whether those millions of alleged supporters are willing to do anything for their leaders.  

The political system built by Putin is not based on the population’s true support but rather on police violence, administrative resource and propaganda-enforced polling and voting results, the authenticity of which is more than questionable.  In many respects, Putin copied the Soviet political system that had for many years appeared to be solid and supported by the majority of the population.   However, when the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991, no one anywhere went out in the streets in its support. Millions of Communist party members, law enforcement operatives, state servants, and employees of the budget sector not only just passively watched the regime crumble but often welcomed the collapse themselves.    

The arrest of Penza governor Ivan Belozertsev has once again demonstrated that in today’s Russia the percentage of the vote received by pro-regime candidates in the elections that they themselves hold has nothing to do with these people’s actual popularity. There is no reason to think that Vladimir Putin’s official approval rating or his election results are any more authentic than the former Penza governor’s questionable electoral achievements. 

Even though this may seem incredible today, a day may very well come when Vladimir Putin’s removal from office will not provoke any indignation of the Russian population and his popularity will prove to be nothing but a propaganda myth and a result of election fraud and vote rigging on all levels.

Repression as the Essence of Putin’s Domestic Policy

For the past few years, the Russians have been living in an atmosphere of growing political repression. The more things soured for Putin domestically and internationally, the larger the scale of repression grew.

While individual opposition activists have been targeted by this repression for years, its full scale became apparent only in 2021, when winter street protests in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny were met with the simultaneous detention of over ten thousand people throughout Russia.  Over 90 criminal cases were initiated, and thousands of administrative penalties imposed as a result of these protests. Even though months have passed since the January protests, their participants are still having their homes searched, summoned for questioning by the police, and arrested.

The Kremlin widely publicizes these acts of repression in order to intimidate the population. The rationale behind this publicity must be kept in mind while evaluating the mass character and the scale of future protests in Russia. The number of Russians who are unhappy about the current developments in the country is much bigger than the number of protest participants. However, not every Russian is prepared to risk freedom, health, and wellbeing for the sake of expressing their political stance toward the regime, and they cannot be blamed for that.

One should not mistakenly assume that repression is the government’s reaction to protests. Political repression began to escalate last year — approximately 12 to 18 months before the start of the election campaign to the State Duma. The January 2021 protests came as a result of the government’s repressive policy brought into sharp focus by the attempt on the life of Alexei Navalny who, following his return from life-saving medical attention in Germany, was arrested, quickly tried and sent to prison.

The purpose of the government’s efforts is quite obvious: to make it impossible for the most active and widely-known critics of the regime to participate in the upcoming elections due to criminal cases, forced immigration or fear. Unfortunately, in some cases, the regime’s pressure has proven too intense which resulted in tragedies. This was the case when, unable to face further harassment, Nizhny Novgorod journalist and activist Irina Slavina died after setting herself on fire in front of the local branch of the Interior Ministry, a day after her apartment had yet again been searched by the police.

Alexei Navalny’s poisoning or, more specifically, the timing of this assassination attempt can also be explained by the election calendar. Even though Navalny has, for a long time, been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side, it was his open preparations for the upcoming election that moved the government to take drastic action. It is worth remembering that Boris Nemtsov was killed 18 months before the 2016 election to the State Duma for an obvious reason: had he lived to see it, opposition forces could have run a well-organized campaign and would have probably made it into the Parliament. Hence, the conclusion here is that the murder of Boris Nemtsov, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, and many other similar government acts of repression were not by chance but an integral part of the Putin team’s consistent approach aimed at physically eliminating its opponents in the lead up to important elections.

It would seem that Putin should have no reason to be concerned about the elections since it is the government itself that administers them, and the Russian voting system has long been notorious for its lack of fairness and transparency. Even fraud, however, has its limits.

Both Vladimir Putin’s popularity and the United Russia party’s approval rating have been in a steady decline. Between a fourth and a third of the population remains entirely loyal to Putin: those are the beneficiaries of the regime, the siloviki, state servants, employees of state- and oligarch-owned companies, members of their families, and a considerable number of retirees and representatives of older generations.

This category is flanked by the so-called conformist part of Russian society. Russian conformists support the government per se – not specifically Putin or his regime. However, these people are socially disengaged, and in order to secure their active support in elections, the government has to make a considerable effort to mobilize them through bribery or intimidation.

Another third of the population, which includes young city residents, entrepreneurs, and educated critical thinkers of all ages, is already either opposed to or disapproves of Putin and his regime.

While over-simplified, the matrix described above offers a general sense as to why Putin needs repression and why this approach will keep on gathering steam.

First of all, Putin needs to demoralize and intimidate his critics and opponents the best he can, as well as all Russians who are speaking out against his policies and against him personally. This is why, before any major election, the government turns up its pressure on this segment of the population in order to minimize the role of protest votes.

Second, political assassinations, perpetual harassment of dissatisfied people by state-owned media, street violence, administrative measures and criminal sanctions are meant to make these people look like outcasts in the eyes of the rest of the public. Average citizens need daily proof that, even if they do not like what is happening around them, it is better to remain silent and tough it out. Otherwise, they too will face searches, trials, prison sentences, unemployment, and poverty. Moreover, the repressive machine occasionally devours random people, which can also be considered part of the government’s deliberate policy. Thus, it is hinted to the Russian citizens that even if they just happen to be seen around protesters as bystanders, or if they are suspected of empathizing with them, it still would be enough to ruin their lives — so it is better to stay away from all of this and avoid any opposition-related subjects even online.

Third, repression against the opposition remains virtually the only proof of strength and determination that the government is able to demonstrate to its supporters. By the same token, it serves to underscore to adversaries outside Russia that Putin has infinite resolve, unlimited capabilities, and a categorical refusal to be bound by international law.

It is hard to imagine what measures Putin could now embrace in order to restore his popularity among all segments of the Russian population. Moreover, time is obviously working against him: while the public’s fatigue with Putin’s rule is growing exponentially, the government faces growing economic, social and infrastructure problems that have been further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Putin and his closest circle are quite aware that they have neither any attractive mobilizing ideology to offer to the population nor any resources to further bribe it. The only thing they do have is a thriving, well-financed and disciplined repressive machine that will carry out any orders from the top. So, there can be little mystery about why the Putin regime employs repression with conspicuously increasing zeal and on an ever-growing scale. Unfortunately, one must anticipate a further strengthening of this trend since Putin lacks legitimacy with growing segments of the population and lacks any other reliable means of retaining his hold on power.

More West in Georgia now

Before I start describing Georgia as a country and a reform leader in its region – Georgia is, after all, a country recognized for its success on its path toward inclusion in the Euro- and Euro-Atlantic family – I would like to pose to readers of this material the question whether you personally believe that Georgia is an important country for the West or not?

More specifically, I invite you to consider whether you believe that the West needs a strong, secure and reliable partner in the post-Soviet space, a nation which seeks democratic development and closer ties with both the EU and the NATO? Whether Georgia may affect a successful transition from a post-Soviet country to a full-fledged democracy?  Whether the West is ready to invest more to achieve this goal?

If your answer is yes to those questions, my next question is what strategy your country has adopted towards Georgia and the South Caucasus region, which is now filled with Russian military forces and other tools the Kremlin uses to put pressure on countries and societies

Russian soldiers are illegally deployed in Georgia (in occupied regions of Abkhazia and so-called South Ossetia), Armenia (Russian military base) and Azerbaijan (so-called peacekeeping mission, initiated in the aftermath of the Karabakh war).

If everyone who says “Yes” to Georgia will address the question I just asked, Georgia would have far greater prospects to become in the near term the “strong, pro-democratic” ally the West seeks in the region.  Such status will enable the country to further promote cooperation with the European and European-Atlantic structures regionally.

So yes, Georgia is a regional reform leader even now, when Georgia’s democratic development is under great threat in the aftermath of the June 2020 protests and the October 2020 parliamentary elections. In Georgia, 80% of those surveyed choose integration with the EU, and 74%  membership in NATO (according to NDI polls published in Jan 2021). This support is strong and consistent notwithstanding domestic political challenges and controversies, the Kremlin’s malign influence and propaganda campaigns, and Russian threats targeting Georgia’s Western aspirations. Yes, the Georgian people are fearful of the Kremlin and consider Putin’s Russia to be a main threat; moreover, 41% of surveyed Georgians believe that Russian military forces are stronger than the U.S. (according to NDI polls in 2018). However, Georgia is still the main non-NATO contributor to the Resolute Support NATO mission in Afghanistan. NATO and EU flags are placed in any cabinet in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi.

Because the people of Georgia choose the West.
The question is does the West choose the people of Georgia?

Does the West really want to see Georgia as a democracy and a part of the European and Euro-Atlantic family? Is the West really interested in development of the Anaklia deep-sea port, which may not only become a frontier hub for logistics, financial and industrial activities at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, but a port where U.S. and NATO ships may operate if required? Does the West see the increase of the Kremlin’s military and political influence in the South Caucasus region as a problem?

If we give a positive answer to all those questions, the approach of the West towards Georgia and the South Caucasus region changes significantly. The South Caucasus region is going through a very difficult period, prompted by the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War of 2020 and exacerbated by domestic political crises in Georgia and Armenia and the COVID-19 pandemic. The Kremlin is actively using this period to put more pressure on regional countries. Its role in the Karabakh conflict and its aftermath significantly diminished the role of the West.

In 2021, regional communities are not discussing whether to choose between Putin’s Russia or democracy. They discuss whether Russia and Turkey will implement their regional strategies jointly or compete for influence in the Region. Neither of these scenarios promises anything good for the South Caucasus. Regional communities do not discuss NATO membership at all, since Vladimir Putin has effectively blocked NATO membership for Georgia — such membership now nothing more than a dimming light at the end of a never-ending tunnel.

When the Kremlin uses any crisis to undermine neighboring countries by increasing its military and political pressure, the West must approach the same situation by promoting its positive role and the benefits of democracy, and thereby spurring visibly successful cases by investing more time and resources in the post-Soviet space. This will contribute to regional security and stability and promote a Western approach to development in Russia and other countries.

Yes, Georgia is best positioned of the countries in the post-Soviet space to transition successfully from a post-Soviet system to democracy. It is not big, its institutions are partly reformed, it is not greatly affected by corruption, and it experiences relatively fewer conflicts between various interest groups. Aggressive dictators do not rule it. So in parallel with the required increase of support to Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, a successful story in Georgia can be written right away. To achieve this goal, the Western approach towards Georgia should be changed from “facilitation and assistance” to “patronage,” targeted explicitly to help Georgia advance its democracy and join the European and Euro-Atlantic structures.

The best reason to initiate this format now is the Georgian government’s recently announced plan to join the EU in 2024. Considering the chaotic developments in Georgia, which we have observed for a few years already, this plan’s success is far from a given. To achieve this goal, the new patronage format should be adopted. This will require new EU and U.S. strategies towards Georgia, based on the proposed approach and taking fully into account Georgian internal factors, as well as the post-Karabakh war situation on the ground.

The U.S. and EU should appoint Special Representatives on Georgia as a first symbolic and practical step toward re-booting Georgian democracy.  Such emissaries, working closely with the Georgian people, must address each challenge the country is facing to achieve long-term sustainable success, which may bring Georgia closer to eligibility for admission to the EU and to the NATO.  These special representatives, with a fresh view on situation and a mandate from their governments, should suggest new strategies, offer reforms, ensure the proper monitoring and evaluation of results achieved on the ground, control the funds, provided by the U.S. and EU taxpayers to Georgia, and suggest more efficient ways to speed up Georgia’s integration in Western institutions. Together with the Georgian people, they should insist upon the fulfillment of all requirements needed to re-boot and further boost Georgian democracy. This format should be supported by weekly and monthly dialog platforms between Georgian, US and EU communities. It should also be supported by redirecting or investing more funds in the civil society sector and regional projects. Such investments should not go through the government,  but should be provided directly to different NGOs and expert groups all around the country, which will work on development of a knowledge- and value-based society resistant to manipulation and propaganda.
 
Georgian society already provides the mandate to the West for such measures, as evidenced by annual public opinion polling showing that the majority of surveyed Georgians choose NATO and the EU.


Georgians want to live in a democratic country, they want more association with the West, and they want freedom and transparency. 64% of surveyed Georgians support the placement of a U.S. military base in Georgia (according to Edison Research, Oct 2020). Any increase of positive engagement from the U.S. and EU sides will be very welcome. If any Georgian government is not ready to work harder together with the Western friends, the partners should inform the society about it immediately, so that the people may address this issue during elections. Free and fair elections should be safeguarded uncompromisingly by cooperation between a unified Georgian society and Western friends of Georgia.

Such patronage will require increased investment from the West, but it will result in long-term success for Georgia and its people; it will help to promote democracy regionally and demonstrate that the West is ready to play a significant positive role in the post-Soviet space, whereas Russia and Turkey are seeking for further expansion.  The key issue is permanent attention to Georgia’s development on behalf of appointed representatives and their teams until the moment when all major spheres are reformed and rule of law is ensured.

Georgia today finds itself at a crossroads between the path of Western democratic development and its Soviet and post-Soviet elites. But I would like to ask readers of this material, whether you personally believe that Georgia is an important country for the West or not?

Photo by Adem AY on Unsplash
Putin and the Internet: The War Is Only Beginning

In order to ensure his dominance in the media space on the eve of a new electoral cycle, Putin is willing to use any means including the blocking in Russia of the world’s major social media, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Despite the fact that it will be extremely hard to carry this out, and that the regime itself will likely suffer the most negative impact of such decisions, their potential costs do not scare the Kremlin nearly as much as the continuously growing influence of social media on Russia’s political life.   

Trojan Horse of the West

For Putin, the Internet is the embodiment of not just everything Western but especially of everything American. He has repeatedly called the Internet a “CIA project.” As a matter of fact, this thesis is key to understanding Putin’s entire policy with regard to the Internet. 

In his eyes, the global Internet system is above all enemy technology that brings nothing but trouble to either Russia or to him personally.  

It is possible that this perception of the Internet explains the current Russian government’s shameful penchant for hacking attacks on the United States and Western countries. If the Internet is a “CIA project,” then cyber attacks are nothing but an attempt at fighting the enemy with its own weapons. Moreover, these are not even attacks but rather self-defense actions because, in the Kremlin’s logic, the attack on Russia is perpetrated by the West through the means of a global communication network under its control. 

Thus, in Putin’s eyes, the Internet is a Trojan horse that the West uses to control the world, Russia, and, in practical terms, to deprive Putin himself of power.  

Everything He Hates

Beside the Internet’s questionable origins and de facto control, Putin also sees it as the hub of all things contradicting his political experience and his understanding of politics in general. First of all, at the time when Putin came of age, became a politician, and, most importantly, came to power in Russia, the Internet played no role in social life. 

For an insignificant KGB officer in the 1980s and 1990s, a career in politics, his anointing as Russia’s president and his retention and consolidation of power – all of this was only possible in the context of minimal visibility and transparency of political decision-making along with the dominant role of traditional media under the Kremlin’s increasingly tough control since the Yeltsin times. 

And suddenly, the Internet gave back to Russian citizens all the things that Putin had been so laboriously taking away from them: free information exchange, the possibility of discussion, and opportunities to work together and raise funds to achieve goals, all of this while avoiding the government’s control and restrictions.    

It is important to mention that the Internet became a political factor only after the emergence of social media that facilitated the exchange of information between people to the fullest degree while providing everyone not just with access to any information but also with opportunities to share it.

The first wave of the Russian government’s interest toward the Internet was prompted by the Arab Spring. After the Russian street protests of 2011 and 2012, the Kremlin became firmly convinced that the Internet was becoming a factor supportive of political struggle. 

Two Russias

Putin and his close circle confuse cause and effect: they believe that Russian citizens do not turn of their own volition to the Internet to express their discontent with current developments in their country because they basically have no other options available, but rather that the West uses the CIA-made Internet and US social media companies to “muddy the waters” in an effort to change the regime. This is why any measures aimed at restricting Internet access and the activity of major social media companies in Russia – even imposing a total ban on them – should not come as a surprise. In his efforts to retain his hold on power, Putin does not deem any measures excessive or superfluous. 

These are not the only reasons why the Russian authorities are concerned with the Internet. Today, the attitude toward the Internet represents the main divide in Russian society. Putin’s core electorate and people who continue to be deeply influenced by state propaganda are primarily older generations of Russians who either do not use the Internet at all or use it to a limited extent as a supplement to more traditional forms of acquiring information – television, radio, printed media, or, in other words, state-controlled resources that broadcast state propaganda.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who have thoroughly familiarized themselves with the Internet and are able to utilize effectively its potential as a resource. These are primarily younger generations of Russians. Despite demographic problems, Putin is growing increasingly concerned with Russia’s youth because he is not as popular among young people as he is among older generations. Meanwhile, he has no means of reaching young people.   Attempts at spreading state propaganda online have not proved very successful:  key topics of propaganda – nostalgia for the Soviet Union, hatred for the West, and endless celebrations to mark Russia’s victory in WWII – are met by younger Russians with neither interest nor understanding.

Fight over the Internet

Putin’s critics have a diametrically opposite attitude toward and relationship with the Internet: having no access to nationwide media, they are popular and active online and on social networks.  

For instance, Alexei Navalny owes his career and popularity to the Internet that has become his political pulpit, his media resource, a means to raise money to finance his activity, and has helped form the movement of his supporters. It is quite logical that, having authorized reprisals against his main opponent on the eve of a new electoral cycle, Putin is prepared to eliminate the possibility of anyone emulating Navalny’s path.  

The fight over the Internet is becoming a fight for survival of Putin’s regime. The threat to block major social media companies in Russia and the imposition of stiff fines to put pressure on them represent regime attempts to blackmail them into submissiveness and cooperation.  In this way, the Kremlin aims to assert full control over their activities in Russia and to oblige them to help Putin fight against any political opposition.  

The attack on Twitter is a test, the opening shot of a big war. It is obvious that, being the source of uncensored information including about the Russian President and the methods he and his close circle are using to govern Russia, YouTube has become Putin’s main concern. Although even the Russian President has not dared thus far to pick an outright fight with Google, he is certainly getting ready for it.

Hopefully, social media giants will not give in to blackmail and turn into obedient instruments of the Russian government’s repressive policies. Together with American society, they should realize that the Internet today is the field of battle between freedom and its antithesis, between authoritarianism and democracy, and not just in Russia.

The West Must Not Sacrifice Human Rights for ‘Strategic Interests’ in its Relationship with Russia

It is a popular misconception that human rights and foreign policy do not coexist. As has been proven time and again by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, such a vision can have dangerous consequences.

In “Reality Check #4: Focus on interests, not on human rights with Russia,” the authors, Emma Ashford and Mathew Burrows, note that while then-US President Jimmy Carter had initially pledged to put human rights at the top of his agenda in relations with the USSR, he scaled back his promise for pragmatic reasons. The authors imply that this was a good, rational move. It wasn’t.

A close look at history reveals that what followed was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the downing of a South Korean civilian aircraft in 1983, and one of the darkest periods in the US-Soviet relationship in the early 1980s. The US-Soviet relationship improved under Mikhail Gorbachev when human rights were put back on the menu.

While it is hard to say definitively that the West’s firm stance on human rights was the key issue that “caused the Soviet collapse,” it certainly added strong tailwinds to the positive changes that were taking place at the time.

Historical lessons

In the early 2000s, when Russia cracked down on democratic freedoms and shifted toward one-party rule, the West responded with concern, but little action. The West viewed Russia as a key global partner on “strategic” issues. As long as Russia had a transactional relationship with the West, its bad behavior would be overlooked in favor of “strategic” considerations. How the Russian government treated its domestic political opponents was not a concern. This was a terrible mistake; one that should never be repeated.

The West’s weak response emboldened Putin. He realized he could get away with disregarding the rule of law. What flowed from this realization was Russia’s attempt to expand its territory by attacking Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.

Russia’s actions may have come as a surprise to the West, but not to those of us in Russia who realized early (and wasted no time warning our Western friends) that once Putin completes his authoritarian consolidation at home he will inevitably seek to export it abroad. Sure enough, after reinstating Russia as a dominant force in the post-Soviet space, Putin went on to meddle in Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Africa, the list goes on.

A couple of lessons can be drawn from recent history.

First, human rights violations and domestic political crackdowns are early warning signs that a regime has no regard for the rule of law. If not contained, the regime will inevitably seek to export this lawlessness into foreign relations because it is confident that it can get away with such behavior as long as the West’s strategic interests are being met.

It is wrong for “rational strategic thinkers” in the West to expect that Putin will push back when shown a stick and behave when offered a carrot. Such a belief grossly underestimates him. Putin is a wily strategist who knows the West’s weaknesses all too well.

It is only a matter of time before someone in Washington will ask why there is a need to defend Ukraine or Estonia or even Europe against Russia. They may say: “Let’s focus on our ‘strategic interests’ and just withdraw and leave European affairs to the Russians!” Unfortunately, such ideas are not fantastical. They have increasingly been voiced in the US policy debate in recent years.

Putin is patiently waiting for more “rational strategists” to appear on the Western political scene who would be willing to forego human rights, or even allies, for the sake of achieving strategic interests.

The second lesson is that there is enough evidence that Putin has no regard for any rules. He breaches them at will. Putin’s strategy is to outwit the West’s attempts to bring Russia back into the rules-based space, and to erode this effort through attempts to reinstate transactional politics.

Ashford and Burrows wrongly suggest that Russia can be a “reliable” transactional partner on “strategic” issues even if it breaches the rule of law elsewhere. How can anyone seriously suggest that the United States enter into a new “strategic” agreement with Putin that runs the risk of being breached? When was the last time Russia honored its international commitments? To encourage “resets” would give Russia a free pass to continue to disregard the rules-based order.

Reality check

Ashford and Burrows lightly dwell on false narratives. Take, for example, their assertion that Western sanctions on Russia are not working because they haven’t brought about a policy change. This is a popular misconception in the West. There is a need for a fair and objective review of what the sanctions have (and have not) achieved. But two points are worth noting.

First, sanctions require patience and continuity. Second, sectoral sanctions have virtually cut off Russia’s corporate sector from borrowing in the West; major Western players have withdrawn from key projects, which has contributed to a lack of meaningful economic growth in Russia since 2014; and the economic situation is a key factor in Putin’s plunging popularity and his current domestic political troubles. In the upcoming Duma elections in September 2021, for example, the ruling party faces the prospect of losing a majority for the first time since 2003.

Ashford and Burrows write: “democratization in Russia would not necessarily be good for US foreign policy interests.” This echoes talking points often used by Russian government-backed celebrities who turn up on TV before an election declaring “political change is scary because fascists would come, and things will be worse.” This mantra, usually crafted by the Kremlin, resonates with a lot of Russians who fear change.

Ashford and Burrows go on to say: “Alexei Navalny… is an open nationalist who is widely known to agree with Putin on many foreign policy questions; he backed the Russian seizure of Crimea and has made racist and Islamophobic remarks.” In fact, Navalny condemned the annexation of Crimea; he merely said that it will be politically difficult to return Crimea to Ukraine for reasons that were beyond his control. As for the claim that Navalny has made racist and Islamophobic remarks, his comments on immigration policies are often misinterpreted.

While the prospect of democratization of Russia remains an open question, human rights must not be ignored. Ashford and Burrows wrongly suggest policymakers “resist further sanctions” on Russia and shift focus away from human rights. US sanctions are, in fact, a response to Russia’s violations of the rules-based order. Reconsidering sanctions for “strategic” considerations will only embolden Putin to further expand his sphere of influence at the expense of the West.

Navalny, “Nationalism”, and Never-Ending Reflexive Control

How the Kremlin Undermines Western Solidarity with the Russian Opposition Using the Left.

Imagine a scenario where two policemen catch a known rapist-killer. As they are about to handcuff him, he says: “I just saw a guy around the corner who jaywalked two days ago putting three cars at risk of crashing. Perhaps you could arrest him”. The policemen forget the task at hand and start discussing whether they should go after the jaywalker. As the discussion heats up, they forget about the rapist-killer, who simply walks away.

In political warfare, the trick used by the rapist-killer in this scenario is called “reflexive control”. It involves conveying particular information to an adversary in order to induce that adversary to voluntarily make a specific decision to their own detriment. Most often, reflexive control is about confusing an adversary, clouding his thinking and making a wrong decision.

The two policemen in our story lose track of a critical and time-sensitive priority—arresting and neutralizing a grave offender. Not veering off into a discussion about whether the jaywalker was real or imagined, whether he deserved to be arrested or not.

The current attacks against Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny alleging his nationalistic leanings bear all the traditional markings of a reflexive control operation initiated by the Kremlin. Their goal is to undermine the legitimacy of Navalny in the eyes of the West and paralyze action in his support.

I am unable to shake off a strong feeling of a déjà vu with tragic events that took place seven years ago. As the Kremlin unleashed its invasion of Ukraine, it has successfully crowded the Western media space with anti-Ukrainian narratives in order to undermine Western support for Ukraine. The leitmotif of this campaign portrayed the Maidan revolution as an ultranationalist putsch that resulted in the rise of an ultranationalist government.

In February-March 2014, as the Russian green men establish a blockade of Ukrainian military bases in Crimea and occupy administrative buildings; and as Russia annexes Crimea, in gross violation of  a number of international treaties,—a significant bulk of the Western media discourse is evaluating whether the Maidan revolution was instigated by ultranationalists.

The Kremlin’s ultimate goal was not to convince the West that Kyiv was run by a fascist junta. Rather, it sought to distract Western attention from Moscow’s criminal actions and to shift the focus of Western decision-makers to an entirely different issue, whose importance and time-sensitivity was disproportionately low compared to the Kremlin’s gross violation of international norms and post-war order. Putin has successfully executed a  reflexive control operation as part of a 4D approach to managing the aggression against Ukraine internationally: dismiss, distort, distract, dismay. Dismiss the fact of occupation of Crimea by Russian troops, distort the general picture of the situation in Ukraine with the use of disinformation, distract Western attention from the Kremlins activities by launching accusations elsewhere, and dismay Western audiences by scaring them with Russia’s unpredictable behaviour.

In the case of Alexey Navalny, the Kremlin’s method is similar.

Over the years, Navalny has published a series of shocking investigations into the mind-boggling corruption of Russian kleptocratic elites. The investigations were highly damaging to Putin’s reputation. Navalny continued his investigative work despite the intimidation by criminal cases fabricated by the Kremlin against him.

Switching its approach, the Kremlin decided to kill Navalny with a Novichok nerve agent, in violation of the national law, all democratic norms, and the international Chemical Weapons Convention.

Miraculously, Navalny survived the assassination attempt and returned home from Germany, where doctors treated him after the poisoning. Upon his arrival to Russia, he was immediately arrested and jailed.

The European Parliament has responded by adopting two resolutions related to Navalny, one strongly condemning his attempted assassination, the other calling for his immediate and unconditional release. In October 2020, while Navalny was still recovering from the poisoning in Germany, the EU introduced sanctions against top Russian officials and a number of entities involved in his assassination attempt.

Moscow’s 4D approach to eroding the European solidarity on the Navalny case has been the following: dismiss accusations of poisoning the leading opposition figure, distort the circumstances surrounding Navalny’s poisoning by suggesting multiple theories of his sickness, distract European attention from Navalny’s attempted assassination sanctioned by the Kremlin, and dismay European politicians by expelling diplomats for supporting the jailed opposition activist.

The “mechanics” of the “distract” element consist of a reflexive control operation involving three phases. First, the Kremlin conveys the narrative (“Navalny is a nationalist”) privately to its agents of influence and publicly via state-controlled media (such as RT) setting up the agenda. Second, Russian “leftists” reproduce the sanctioned narrative in Western national and international left-wing media. Third, the narrative “travels” to more moderate, centrist media space and becomes part of the mainstream discussion, which is Moscow’s main goal of the “distract” element. By “laundering” this reflexive control operation through Russian “leftists”, the Kremlin partially removes traces of its influence in “Navalny’s nationalism” debates among Western left-wing commentators and activists.

Unsurprisingly, Russian mediators between the Kremlin and the Western left feature the very same personalities who advanced Moscow’s anti-Ukrainian campaign.

One egregious specimen is Alexey Sakhnin, a member of the Russian organisation “Left Front”. Introduced to Western left-wing audiences as an opponent to Putin, Sakhnin has been continuously involved in the Kremlin’s information war against Ukraine since 2014, as well as in several operations aimed at smearing and discrediting European experts and politicians critical of Putin’s regime. While living “in exile” in Sweden in 2012-2019, Sakhnin was busy packing Sweden’s Left Party and Green Party with pro-Kremlin narratives packaged as genuine left-wing analysis of international relations. Upon his return to Russia, he became a regular commentator for the Russian once leading financial newspaper Vedomosti: shortly before Sakhnin started writing for it, Vedomosti had been sold to businessmen loyal to the Kremlin who needed new authors after the newspaper’s senior staff departed in protest to the loss of editorial independence. Today, as part of the Kremlin’s reflexive control operation against Navalny, Sakhnin is targeting left-wing circles not only in Sweden, but also in Norway and internationally. While it may be Sakhnin’s and other Russian “left-wing” contacts’ objective to convince Western left-wing activists and commentators of Navalny’s nationalist political sentiments, it is only an intermediate and not even necessary objective for the Kremlin. With its reflexive control operation against Navalny, Moscow’s ultimate goal is to elevate an irrelevant debate into prominence, undermine Western solidarity with the Russian opposition and let the murderous kleptocratic regime get away with the very real crimes infinitely worse than Navalny’s presumed nationalism.

You Don’t Have to Be Recruited to Work for Russian Intelligence

A classified KGB training manual on “confidential contacts” explores the gray area between informant and agent.

This essay originally appeared in Newlines Magazine. The KGB training manual it refers to was translated into English by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick.

It may be the world’s second oldest profession but unlike prostitution it’s still woefully misunderstood. Is it because espionage is equal parts science and artistry — and therefore too marbled a discipline — that it usually requires years of study and practice to even begin to comprehend? Or is it because literature and popular culture have given us the enticing but mythologized image of the windswept figure in the homburg and trench coat crossing a bridge to meet his legended contact, or chalking the coded signal on a designated lamppost to indicate the dead drop has been made. Perhaps this kind of thing does happen, but 99% of intelligence work is still tedium and repetition, “like taking out the trash,” as one former spook once put it. And, contrary to the self-aggrandizing memoirists and their adaptive screenwriters, there are always rules, especially those governing the blurred lines of human interaction. Those rules were never more codified than by Soviet theoreticians of spycraft, whose job it was to train the agents of History.

Consider the following (fictional) case study.

Lucy McGrath is a political correspondent with a midlevel online news website. As part of her job, Lucy meets with all sorts: administration insiders who talk to her on deep background, representatives and senators from both parties, their legislative staffers, as well as a host of foreign diplomats whose job it is to relay the latest Beltway scuttlebutt and press clippings back to their capitals. Over the past six months, Lucy has developed a two-martini relationship with one such foreign diplomat, Viktor Sudoplatov.

Viktor’s business card describes him as the Head of the Economic Section at the Russian Embassy. He is witty, charming, and a lot of fun to talk to, a set of characteristics he’s spent years honing as an officer of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. In the past, Viktor has given Lucy what she believes were incredibly shrewd insights into the details of everything from the START treaty to Russia’s military interventions in Syria and Libya. On one lazy Thursday afternoon, over an uncharacteristic third martini at the Tabard Inn, Lucy felt comfortable enough to dispense information rather than receive it. She shared with Viktor the draft of the story she was about to file on the sexual improprieties of a high-level cabinet official. The story is airtight, backed up by a host of on-the-record comments, and will inevitably lead to the official’s resignation. And while her editor certainly wouldn’t take too kindly to Lucy’s ethical slip, she’s hardly doing anything illegal. Moreover, the sex pest in the White House is especially hawkish on Russia and Lucy is genuinely worried that America and its former Cold War adversary are sleepwalking into “World War III” (an impression subtly encouraged by Viktor over the last six months). In her mind, divulging her newspaper’s as-yet-unpublished scoop is actually in the interest of advancing world peace and fostering bilateral comity. Or maybe that’s the vermouth talking. Viktor reassures Lucy she’s a tribute to her profession and country upon scanning the jaw-dropping revelations on her iPhone.

Lucy is what’s known in parlance of Russian intelligence as a “confidential contact.” She’s not quite an agent, but she’s no longer a mere civilian. What she doesn’t realize is that she’s been vetted and cultivated for this special category of accomplice for far longer than she’s known Viktor, who, in both his official and unofficial capacities, gets to know American journalists because they’re walking storehouses of useful information and they know other people who might prove even more valuable to him. Lucy didn’t receive any special training as an asset of a foreign government, nor will she, provided she remains a reporter. She might have even convinced herself that her interlocutor is “only” a representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, a delusion Viktor will continue to abet by his failure to ever come clean about who and what he really is.

In 1977, the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, published 220 copies of a training manual devoted to confidential contacts — how to target them, how to run them, and how they differ from full-blown agents of Moscow. Written by Colonel V.M. Maksimov, the manual was released in the original Russian along with an English translation for the first time by the Free Russia Foundation as part of their ongoing Lubyanka Files project.

English translation of the Confidential Contacts manual. Download PDF

The original Confidential Contacts (Доверительные связи) manual in Russian. Download PDF

Confidential contacts can be virtually anyone: politicians, diplomats, scientists, businessmen, engineers, and reporters like Lucy. They have no classified intelligence or state secrets to pass on, and sometimes the safest way of engaging them is in plain sight, under the guise of their everyday work: What’s so unusual or eyebrow-raising about a journalist meeting with an embassy official in a public place?

Occasionally, the confidential contact may be solicited to perform “active measures,” or try to influence or inveigle their own governments or societies into doing Moscow’s bidding. It is here that the line between unwitting informant and agent becomes blurred. Thus, we learn from Maksimov that there was once a member of parliament in a liberal democracy who “spoke out for developing friendly relations with the Soviet Union and resolutely rejected the foreign policy line of the new government of his country.” “Deputy,” as the MP was code-named in the manual, was asked by the KGB rezidentura to instigate the resignation of his government, which had taken on an anti-Soviet foreign policy. Deputy raised “an inquiry in parliament using points prompted by us, and (raised) the issue of no confidence. Deputy went through the necessary preparation for the intended event, bringing over to his side several undecided members of parliament, and correctly determining the most advantageous moment to raise the inquiry. As a result, the government received a vote of no confidence and was forced to step down. Normal relations were reestablished with Deputy’s country of citizenship.”

Under these circumstances, Deputy has become something more than a relay of useful information; he’s become an agent of influence, albeit one almost certainly not informed by his handlers that they’re actually KGB officers. This is the crucial, abiding difference between a confidential contact and agent: The latter is always eventually made aware of his true role. Deputy is acting (or so he thinks) out of conviction and self-interest, even if both have been massaged by a friendly “representative” of a foreign government to which he’s already sympathetic.

By dint of their access to privileged information, confidential contacts can be elevated to agents, particularly if they advance in their careers to the extent that the information they are privy to is guarded by national security laws.

Consider two paths Lucy might take. Path one: Burnt out and fed up with journalism, she decides to parlay her vast contacts in the U.S. government into a U.S. government job, one requiring security clearance. Viktor might decide to target her for full recruitment. She’d be given training in the rules of tradecraft — the art of clandestinity — and she’d likely even be assigned a new handler, someone she hasn’t spent months being spotted by friends and colleagues in the company of since her new role is bound to draw the unwanted scrutiny of domestic counterintelligence.

Path two: Lucy might stay in her reporting job but in the course of better getting to know Viktor, introduce him to Josh Heller, a low-level enforcement officer at the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the U.S. Treasury Department. Owing to the unending headache of American sanctions on Russian officials and institutions, having such a person in one’s pocket has been deemed a high priority by Moscow Center and so Viktor might determine that Josh is ripe for recruitment and has all the personality traits that make him susceptible to it. In that scenario, Lucy as confidential contact has now graduated into becoming an unwitting (or half-witting) talent spotter or recruiter-agent for the SVR, even if she’s still technically designated by that service a confidential contact. Here’s the manual:

“(O)ne of the foreign KGB rezidenturas was cultivating ‘Vir’ and ‘Gek,’ two officers of a political party’s headquarters staff, to establish confidential contacts with them. Vir, however, soon went to work for a government agency whose employees do not have the right to meet with foreign representatives. Under these conditions, materials on Vir were reviewed and the decision was made to deepen the relations with him for the purpose of his recruitment, since meetings with Vir at a confidential level had become impossible. Meanwhile, contact by the party figure Gek with a Soviet representative could not be viewed as a violation of the law, and information coming from him did not go beyond internal party problems. Therefore, work with him at the level of confidential relations quite ensured both the security of the collaboration and addressing information tasks.”

For Gek, politics wasn’t even a factor, meaning he needn’t have even a flickering interest in socialism to become or stay a confidential contact, whereas Vir, as part of his development and recruitment as an agent, will have been worked over with Marxist-Leninist indoctrination. Because confidential contacts were more a grab-bag assortment of Soviet intelligence assets during the Cold War, it follows that there were very many more of them than there were proper agents, who required far more investment and resources to manufacture and maintain. Some confidential contacts, in fact, were committed anti-Communists whose motives aligned tactically or strategically with those of the Soviet Union:

“For example, a KGB rezidentura enlisted ‘Lan,’ a major political figure who advocated anti-communist positions in confidential collaboration on an ideological and political basis. His enlistment in collaboration was facilitated by the circumstance that in relations between his country and a neighboring country, the Soviet Union supported Lan’s country, whereas the Americans defended the interests of the other country. An intelligence officer persuaded Lan that by passing on information to us about the position of the government of his country, about the content of negotiations with the Americans, about their plans and intentions, he would be acting in keeping with his own political views.

“Lan began confidential collaboration with the intelligence officer and continued it after the settlement of the conflict on the basis of his remaining lack of trust in U.S. policy regarding his homeland, and understanding that the Soviet Union not only did not threaten its independence, but in accordance with its foreign policy principles, advocated support of this independence. Even so, Lan did not change his bourgeois views and openly told the intelligence agent of his disagreement with the ideas of socialism. Under these conditions, the intelligence officer did not try to change Lan’s worldview, avoided arguments about ideological issues, but continued to reinforce his anti-American positions, which had served as the basis for confidential collaboration.”

Like all the KGB training manuals in the Lubyanka Files series, Colonel Maksimov’s 44-year-old text is still in curricular use at the FSB (Russia’s successor to the KGB) and SVR Academies in Moscow, meaning the theory it articulates continues to guide Russian intelligence officers well into the 21st century. One of the merits of reading how Moscow defines confidential contacts and distinguishes them from controlled agents is that it demystifies the foggy landscape in which recent debates about Russian human intelligence has taken place.

Over the last five years, Americans have been bombarded with news stories, opinion pieces, and broadcast pundit lectures about this important subject: how professional operatives or billionaire oligarchs connived to sway the country’s political and social trajectories, not least by seconding a colorful assortment of chancers, grifters, and useful idiots associated with the Trump campaign and then the Trump presidency to do their dirty work. Stories have varied between the rigorously investigated and well-documented and the crudely sensationalized and inevitably underwhelming. The latter genre has no doubt contributed to the almost palpable sense of national anticlimax that attended the publication and Talmudic exegesis of the Mueller Report, itself no serious exercise in counterintelligence but an attempt to uncover criminal conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Le Carré and Ludlum fans will have searched in vain through that doorstop document for the microfiche, dead drop, and bug. But they’ll have also missed the point.

One doesn’t have to be Alger Hiss or Robert Hanssen to have a dangerous liaison with a man or woman from Moscow Center. And there is an entire category of Westerner upon whom that Center has relied for decades to provide credible and valuable information, the provision of which depends only on moral resolve and discretion. The confidential contact takes relatively few risks, can never be brought to book for his actions (only for lying about them after the fact to the authorities), and may not even know or allow themself to believe they’ve been seduced into dancing with the devil.

The (Geo-)Political Aspects of Austrian-Russian Business Relations, Part II

The first part of this article is available here.
This article is a part of the first issue of the Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly.

You can also download this piece as a PDF.

5. Austria’s Role in the Nabucco and South Stream Pipeline Projects

The Nabucco pipeline was the EU’s flagship project with regard to the energy resources of the Central Asia and Caucasus Region. It could have brought gas from the Georgian-Turkish and/or Iraqi-Turkish border, respectively, to the gas hub in Baumgarten without passing through Russia. OMV was the head company of this project; the other partners were the Bulgarian Energy Holding, Turkey’s Botas, Germany’s RWE, Hungary’s FGSZ (a 100 percent subsidiary of the oil and gas group MOL), and Romania’s Transgaz. As initially assumed, Nabucco would cost an estimated EUR 8 billion, a figure revised to EUR 12–15billion. The 3,300-kilometer-long pipeline should have gone into operation in 2013 and reach a capacity of 31 billion cubic meters of gas (10 percent of EU-27 gas imports in 2005) by 2020. But especially since the fall of 2011, prospects for Nabucco appeared to be dwindling due to several reasons. Thus, the amount of non-Russian gas needed to fill Nabucco did not materialize; so several alternative projects, with a reduced Nabucco West pipeline among them, were under consideration.

Moscow did not want Nabucco to be built from the very beginning and did its best to derail it. An important initiative in this context was the South Stream pipeline, intended to transport gas from the Central Asian and Caucasus region. This pipeline, with a capacity of 63 billion cubic metres of gas per year, is proposed to run from southern Russia under the Black Sea to Bulgaria, then bifurcate to cross several other countries for Italy and Austria.

Russia’s opposition to Nabucco was, of course, well known throughout the entire EU. Austrian Federal Chancellor Werner Faymann (Social Democratic Party) assured then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in November 2009 in Moscow that Nabucco is not directed against Russia.

Moscow wanted to involve Austria in South Stream at all costs, and Vienna did not take long to be persuaded. In April 2010, an Austrian-Russian intergovernmental agreement and a Gazprom-OMV cooperation agreement to bring Austria into the project were signed. Putin made it clear in Vienna it would be “realized no matter what.”[1] At the occasion of Austria’s accession to South Stream, Russian news agency RIA Novosti highlighted a “big victory for Russia and a major blow to Nabucco”[2]—which, again, left no doubt that South Stream was, above all, planned as a “Nabucco-stopper.” On 21 February 2011, Gazprom’s CEO Aleksey Miller announced in Moscow that his company and OMV had officially registered a joint venture to build and operate the Austrian section of South Stream. Its planned Austrian route practically duplicated Nabucco’s (and therefore the EU’s) envisaged route, from Hungary to the Nabucco terminal at Baumgarten.

The main supply planned for Nabucco was to be Shah Deniz natural gas field in the South Caspian Sea, off the coast of Azerbaijan. But after the Shah Deniz consortium took the decision to prefer the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline over Nabucco for its exports, the Nabucco plan was finally aborted in June 2013.

South Stream was expected to cement Gazprom’s influence over south eastern European gas deliveries. EU member-states Bulgaria and Greece are heavily dependent on Russian supplies. In 2014 the European Commission challenged South Stream on the basis of the EU’s Third Energy Package (according to this legislation, adopted in 2009, a gas company cannot own a pipeline that supplies its gas) and threatened legal action against Bulgaria. This led to the cancellation of South Stream. The Commission accused South Stream of violating EU law regarding the access of competitors to the pipeline. After the cancellation, Gazprom quickly unveiled an alternative route. The new pipeline, called TurkStream, was designed to deliver 33.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas—half of which is intended for the Turkish market while the other half is slated for the Balkans and further to Central Europe. The new Russian pipeline through the Black Sea to Turkey was inaugurated on 8 January 2020 at a lavish ceremony in Istanbul. Austria’s Baumgarten gas hub could be a key European transit point for Russian gas that flows through the TurkStream pipeline to Turkey (circumventing Ukraine) and on to the EU. Before TurkStream gas can end up in the continent, however, Gazprom will have to build a pipeline that connects this pipeline to the EU network.

6. RosUkrEnergo, Firtash, Mogilevich, and Raiffeisen

In 2004, the Centragas Holding AG, registered in Vienna and controlled by the pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash, teamed up with Gazprom to establish Swiss-registered RosUkrEnergo, or RUE, to exclusively import Central Asian gas to Ukraine. Firtash and Gazprom roughly split the ownership of RUE. Firtash’s share was held in trust for some time by the Austrian Raiffeisen Investment AG, or RIAG (a subsidiary of Raiffeisen Zentralbank). Given that Gazprom was then and still is controlled by the Russian Government, observers speculated that Firtash had cultivated strong ties to Putin’s inner circle in order to make RUE operational.

RUE then bought billions of dollars’ worth of cheap natural gas mainly from Turkmenistan, mixed it with expensive gas from Russia and resold it at significantly marked-up prices inside Ukraine. Critics, however, pointed out there was no purely economic reason to use the services of an intermediary in the gas trade between the former Soviet republics. It soon became clear that RUE was nothing more than a shell to siphon off profits. And the press started to speculate about ties of alleged gangster boss Semion Mogilevich to RUE. In April 2006, Raiffeisen International CEO Herbert Stepic “strictly” denied that “we came close to organized crime.” According to him, there was no “proximity [of Raiffeisen] to Mr. Mogilevich.” At this occasion, Stepic, however, declined to say for whom RIAG held its share in RUE. But he insisted that all relevant authorities in the Ukraine and Russia would know who was behind it.[3]

Raiffeisen had RUE checked by Kroll Inc., a renowned US consulting firm with good links to the intelligence community. The bank had been certified that the business relationship was unobjectionable. But finally, Raiffeisen severed all ties with RUE. As to the “relevant authorities” in Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchinov, head of the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, was convinced that RUE was indirectly controlled by Mogilevich. Ukraine’s then Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (a gas-business insider in her own rights) said after 2006 repeatedly that she had “documented proof that some powerful criminal structures are behind RUE company.”[4] In 2009, Ukraine and Russia agreed to stop using intermediaries, referring to RUE, which was liquitated between 2014 and 2016.

The contacts between Firtash and Mogilevich were discussed for a while in some Austrian and international media outlets. According to a cable from the US Embassy in Kyiv on 10 December 2008, Firtash admitted at a meeting with Ambassador Bill Taylor, which had taken place shortly before, that he had “ties” with Mogilevich, but they were “not close.”[5] Later Firtash denied having said this and assured that he had been “misunderstood.” Be that as it may, in 2010, Ukraine elected pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych president. Firtash was one of the main Ukrainian oligarchs who had financed Yanukovych’s campaign, which was also supported by the notorious US lobbyist and political consultant Paul Manafort.

In 2013, Firtash was charged by the US Justice Department with having overseen a criminal enterprise which paid millions in bribes to both state and central government agencies in India in order to obtain mining licenses. He was arrested by Austrian police in Vienna weeks after Yanukovych had fled Kyiv on 22 February 2014. Firtash’s contacts in the Kremlin must have been excellent because the bail of EUR 125 million, which was due for his release, came from Russia: it was within a few days (!) paid by Russian billionaire Vasily Anisimov.Therefore, it was not really surprising that Firtash remained pro-Russian also in view of Putin’s war against his homeland Ukraine.

Firtash is still in Vienna after six years and fighting against his extradition to the United States—with the assistance of a “cohort of attorneys, PR consultants and lobbyists on both sides of the Atlantic.”[6] The best-known jurist working for Firtash is Dieter Böhmdorfer (2000–2004 Austria’s Minister of Justice, nominated by the Freedom Party, of which he was not a member).

7. Former Austrian Top Politicians and Managers at the Service of Russia

On 14 February 2005 then German Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (Social Democratic Party) received Oleg Deripaska for a dinner with German and Russian entrepreneurs, although the German Foreign Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND) had expressly warned against the Russian oligarch. An official of the German Federal Chancellery noted: “According to BND reports there are indications of [Deripaska’s] links with organized crime that go beyond the ‘normal level of dubious business methods’ for top representatives of the Russian economy.”[7] In 2007 Deripaska, who at times was Russia’s richest person and is noted for his close ties with Putin, acquired a large stake in Vienna-based Strabag, one of the largest construction companies in Europe. Its then boss Hans Peter Haselsteiner responded very emotionally to the question about Deripaska’s—benevolently formulated—controversial reputation: “Europeans and Americans have no reason whatsoever to point the finger [at Russia]: Russia has completely redistributed its national wealth in less than twenty years, without bloodshed. America has needed three generations of lawlessness and a great civil war for this; Europe has needed two revolutions and two world wars.” And addressed to the then US vice president (who wasn’t actually up for discussion at all), Haselsteiner declared: “I’d rather do business with Oleg Deripaska than with Dick Cheney,”[8] who, however, has not been known to have wanted to cooperate with Haselsteiner. Haselsteiner’s position regarding Putin’s Russia was also, and especially, fuelled by his desire to do profitable business there. Strabag then built the Olympic Village and the airport for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, among many other things in Russia. According to figures from 1 January 2019, 25.9 percent of Strabag was owned by Cyprus-registered Rasperia Trading, which belongs to the Deripaska-controlled diversified industrial group Basic Element.

The Chairman of Strabag’s Supervisory Board is Austria’s former (2007–2008) Federal Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer (Social Democratic Party), who had no experience in the construction business prior to this appointment in 2010. Another interesting member of this Supervisory Board is (since June 2018; he will leave in 2020) the Russian national Oleg Kotkov, a Soviet and Russian military officer-turned-banker. He graduated from two Soviet Military Academies. From 2003 to 2007, he was Military Adviser at the Permanent Mission of Russia’s Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, in Vienna. From 2016 to 2018, he was adviser to the Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Russian PJSC Asian-Pacific Bank.

Haselsteiner was a MP for the Liberal Forum from 1994 to 1998 and financed it afterwards, as well as the liberal party NEOS, which is represented in the National Council since 2013. The ideology of these parties was and is respectively very far away from Putin’s or Deripaska’s. Nevertheless, Haselsteiner declared to “admire” Putin, whom he has met several times. Haselsteiner’s willingness to converge on opinions that he considered to be widespread in Russia was reflected, among other things, in his statement about a “Jewish network” among Russian oligarchs in which he “did not want to interfere.”[9] Such statements, which were largely ignored in Austria, can hardly be read otherwise than by the intention to “fish for compliments” in Putin’s Russia. In Austria, at least publicly nobody noticed that Haselsteiner and then Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, regardless of the enmity between them (Haselsteiner believes that for Strache he represents an “enemy image”[10]), share the same—largely favorable—opinion about Putin’s rule.

In interviews Haselsteiner considered it a serious mistake that the EU had “allowed” NATO’s “rapid eastward expansion.” Instead, an attempt should have been made to bring Russia into the EU. “Putin could have been won over. That would have made Europe great.” But all this, Haselsteiner believed, had been thwarted by “the Americans and NATO,” and “the Europeans” had followed suit “in their naivety.” For the United States, there were two very bad scenarios: “A united Europe including Russia” and a functioning euro.[11] Haselsteiner thus disclosed a complete ignorance of even the basic concepts of Russian foreign and integration policy, distorted the facts (for example, EU and NATO are completely different organizations, so one cannot prevent the enlargement of the other; and post-Soviet Russia has at no time shown any interest in joining the EU, which would be completely unrealistic anyway due to the size of the country), and propagated conspiracy theories. But at least, one learned from such interviews what Haselsteiner “geopolitically dreamed” of—namely a “united Europe together with Russia,” which is opposed to the US. And coincidence or not, this is also one of the most important goals of Putin’s foreign and military policy.

Only exceptionally did Haselsteiner express somewhat more sceptical views about Russia: “I very much regret that the Putin regime is moving further and further away from the rule of law [. . .] and leaves us no choice but to impose sanctions.” But “nevertheless Russia remains an important European nation and a promising market for the construction industry.” Haselsteiner continued that this is in his interest and has “nothing to do with Russian efforts to strengthen the [political] right in Europe, destabilize Europe and denigrate the EU.” This was, according to Haselsteiner, reprehensible despite the economic interests.[12] And he, of course, maintained his cooperation with Deripaska.

Siegfried Wolf is one of the most internationally renowned Austrian managers. For him, Deripaska is an “upright, obliging and good entrepreneur.”[13] Wolf had introduced Deripaska to Strabag in Vienna. And at Deripaska’s request, Wolf became a member of Strabag’s Supervisory Board in 2007 and remained there until 2015. Also in 2007, Deripaska joined Magna International Inc. of the Austrian-Canadian industrialist Frank Stronach (who met Putin personally and gave him the highest praises), but already the following year—officially due to the financial crisis—he had to sell his share (20 percent of the stocks with 43 percent of the voting rights) to those banks that had previously helped him to handle the 1.5 billion dollar deal. In 2010 Wolf moved from Magna to the industrial conglomerate Russian Machines (which belongs to Basic Element): He became Chairman of the Board of Directors there (where he remained until 2018) and had to cooperate with Colonel General Valery Pechionkin, (in Soviet times he was a staff member of the Soviet Committee for State Security, or KGB, and from 1997 to 2000 Deputy Director of the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB), who in 2018 became Basic Element’s CEO. Wolf is also chairman of the Supervisory Boards of GAZ, located in Nizhny Novgorod and part of Basic Element, and of Vienna-based Sberbank Europe AG, a European subsidiary of Sberbank.

In interviews Wolf always defends Putin against any criticism. Thus, Wolf said that human rights violations occur not only in Russia, but “also in other countries.” Russia, according to him, needs a “strong leadership.” And: “I can only report positively what I have experienced with Mr. Putin.” Wolf declared at the beginning of 2014 that in Russia “a more liberal society will emerge in the next few years” (in reality, exactly the opposite happened, M.M.). According to Wolf, Europe needs a “very, very close relationship with Russia.”[14] Needless to say, he is massively opposed to EU sanctions against Russia.

Wolfgang Schuessel, from 1995 to 2007 was head of the People’s Party, during and after his tenure as Austrian Federal Chancellor (2000–2007), repeatedly praised Putin. In June 2019 Schuessel (who occasionally devoted his spare time to Russian icon painting) joined the eleven-member Board of Directors of Russian Lukoil, one of the largest publicly traded, vertically integrated oil and gas companies in the world. In 2018, Schuessel became one of nine members of the Board of Directors of the largest mobile operator in Russia and the other post-Soviet republics, Mobile TeleSystems, or MTS, with 110 million clients; it belongs to the Russian conglomerate AFK Sistema,headed by CPSU-member-turned-billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov. At the end of May 2019, however, it became known that Schuessel would lose this mandate: His name was missing from the list of candidates for reappointment. On it, however, there was another well-known person: Valentin Yumashev, who from 1997 to 1998 (under President Boris Yeltsin) was Head of the Presidential Executive Office.[15] He and his wife were granted Austrian citizenship in 2009, which was what the Magna Group had stood up for.

The leader of the Social Democratic Party Christian Kern, during his short tenure as Austrian Federal Chancellor (2016–2017), made himself popular in the Kremlin by polemicizing against the EU’s Russia sanctions, for example, at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in 2017. Kern has been CEO of the Austrian Federal Railroads from 2010 to 2016. In this position, he spoke out in favor of a broad-gauge (1,520 mm) railroad project to Vienna initiated by Russia. In July 2019 Kern joined the Board of Directors of the state company Russian Railroads, where he currently is the only foreigner. One of Austria’s best-known political journalists, Hans Rauscher, commented on this, referring to Putin’s military campaign against Ukraine: “This is not a good time for a former Austrian Chancellor and Social Democrat to become a lobbyist for Russian interests.”[16] But such statements, of course, did not change anything about Kern’s financially rewarding commitment in Russia.

Austrian banks have always been strongly committed to Russia. As of 2014, Raiffeisen Bank International and Bank Austria[17] alone had EUR 36 billion in loans in Russia. Raiffeisen remained strongly represented on the Russian market even as many other Western banks have pulled back due to the impact of EU sanctions and assertiveness of Russian state-owned competitors. Deripaska’s companies had been Raiffeisen clients in Moscow for many years before he and the (1994–2012) Advocate General of the Austrian Raiffeisen Association (in German: Generalanwalt des Österreichischen Raiffeisenverbandes; an important position in the Austrian banking landscape) Christian Konrad met personally; Haselsteiner had introduced them to each other. In 2007 Konrad said: “I have no fear of contact with Russians: Raiffeisen is active in many business areas in Russia. [. . .] Deripaska has my respect. As far as I know so far, he is an incredibly direct and straightforward guy, acting in an understandable way with comprehensible reactions.”[18]

Stepic, who met Putin personally and was head of the Austrian-Russian Friendship Society from 2001 to 2003, resigned as head of Raiffeisen Bank International in 2013 and then acted as Senior Adviser to the Board of the bank. He continued to give interviews in which he (as before) made no secret of his political views mixed with conspiracy theories. For example, in June 2014 (i.e., shortly after the Russian annexation of Crimea and the start of the fighting in Donbass) said that he would “continue to defend Putin,” because “the media coverage of the conflict [in Ukraine] was totally one-sided, the formation of opinion is determined by New York and London.” The EU had wanted to conclude an Association Agreement with Ukraine “quickly,” “without talking to the Russians” (as when Russia “talks” to Ukraine before concluding any agreements, including with the EU). Stepic also justified the Russian military intervention against Ukraine with a US antimissile system in the Czech Republic and Poland (which, however , had less than nothing to do with the Russian war against Ukraine). Under “Yushchenko and Tymoshenko” a “pigsty” (Saustall) had ruled in Ukraine, but “successor Yanukovych had stabilized the country.” At least Stepic confessed that Yanukovych, at the same time, had “stolen everything so that nothing remained.” And for Stepic, the annexation of Crimea could be explained by the fact that “the West has annexed Ukraine” (!) “Russia’s goal was not to get NATO to its borders. This is the main concern.” And Putin is “light years ahead of the EU in implementing his plans—quite simply because he can decide for himself.” The EU, as Stepic supported Haselsteiner’s views, should have “moved closer to Russia”—because “the US never liked the EU as a structure.” One does not need to speculate about the main reason for such opinions, as Stepic spoke out: According to him, over the past two decades Russia had been the market where the most money could be made worldwide.[19]

8. Austria and the EU Sanctions Against Russia

The Austrian Economic Chamber constantly lamented the impact of the EU sanctions on the business of its members in Russia, although it was and is limited.[20] And the homepage of the Austrian Embassy in Moscow literally states: “Austrian-Russian trade has developed extremely dynamically in recent years.”[21] Therefore, EU sanctions do not stand in the way of this “dynamic.”

The head of the Economic Chamber from 2000 to 2018, Christoph Leitl (People’s Party), always gave Putin a very warm welcome in Vienna. Leitl, since 2009 a knight of the Russian Order of Friendship, from the very beginning opposed the EU sanctions against Russia (the Austrian public was not really interested in the fact that he was involved in two companies in Russia that produce insulation materials). And Christoph Matznetter, Deputy Head of the Economic Chamber (2005–2007 and since 2009), Deputy Head of the Austrian-Russian Friendship Society and long-standing Member of the National Council, has made it repeatedly clear that he, as well as a “broad majority” in his Social Democratic Party, wants to see the sanctions terminated[22]—as wants the EU-skeptical Freedom Party both in the opposition and, between December 2017 and May 2019, in the government.[23] Notwithstanding this, Freedom Party-nominated Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl during her tenure always agreed to the six-monthly extension of EU sanctions against Russia.

According to statistics from the National Bank (Austria’s central bank), Russian direct investments in Austria have increased two and a half times since 2013 to around EUR 25 billion in 2018, which made Russia the second-largest investor in Austria. This gave some observers reason to suspect that the EU sanctions were being circumvented via Austria: “Given Russia’s limited corporate footprint and the lack of tangible projects that would necessitate these investments, it appears Austria is used mostly as a hub or throughput for Russian investments across Europe and as a point of repatriation of capital from Russian subsidiaries in Europe.”[24]

In May 2019, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen noted that Austria is participating in the sanctions against Russia as a loyal member of the EU—“regardless of what the Austrian position really is.”[25] Translated into plain language, this means that “in reality,” “Austria” is against the sanctions. And Leitl in his capacity (since 2017) as president of Eurochambres (the Association of European Chambers of Commerce and Industry, representing over 20 million companies) went on to demand an abolition of the EU sanctions. According to him, they “had no use whatsoever.” Russia is “a partner with whom Europeans should engage in dialogue on economic, political, cultural and sporting issues.”[26]

9. Conclusions and Outlook

Austrian politicians and managers find it difficult to say “no” to Russian officials and/or to find critical words about its domestic, foreign, security, and foreign trade policy. Austrian media outlets have paid some attention to increasing authoritarianism and the huge corruption under Putin, but Viennese politicians and businessmen rarely raise this issue. Instead, it is a widespread argument that Russia is “too important” as a power—and especially as a supplier of energy resources—so relations must not be “spoiled” under any circumstances.

There are no significant political forces in Austria which could be labelled as “anti-Russian” by Moscow-based politicians and/or media. Truly, nobody in Austria’s political elite wants to “argue” with Moscow. The governments in Vienna and Moscow like to emphasize that they are “very close” in most of the issues of international politics, that there are very few (if any) differences between them, that their relations are “trouble-free,” “cordial” etc. It is therefore not surprising that representatives of most parties and important interest groups (as the Economic Chamber) have been calling for the lifting of EU sanctions against Russia practically from the day they were imposed.

Natural gas and oil are “nonrenewable” resources which are imported into the EU and to Austria to a considerable extent from conflict regions and/or undemocratic states (such as Russia). There is no resistance whatsoever in Austria’s politics, media, and public against the fact that OMV portrays an increasing dependence of Austria and the EU on energy source supplies from Russia as a “guarantee of supply security.” Russia does not grant a “stable and secure gas supply” for Austria and the EU, but just the opposite: Moscow, especially since 1999 when Putin rose to power, has on several occasions demonstrated its capabilities and willingness to use gas and oil supply as a political leverage and a “geopolitical weapon” in order to subdue and/or punish “disloyal” states. It is irresponsible in the sense of a sustainable energy policy to make oneself dependent on the whims of the Kremlin.

If one wanted to give a very brief forecast on Austrian-Russian relations, it is totally obvious that there will be no change in the conditions described—regardless of the composition of the Austrian Government. The opposition hardly offers any alternatives with respect to the policy towards Russia, as all the major political forces in Austria have so-called Putin understanders (Putin-Versteher) among their ranks. And what all Austrian parties and special interest groups have in common is a total lack of understanding for the functional mechanisms of Russian domestic, security, foreign, and economic policy.


[1] “Putin Hails Russia’s Gas Reserves as Austria Joins South Stream Project,” Sputnik, April 24, 2010, https://sptnkne.ws/3BcY.

[2] Andrei Fedyashin, “Vladimir Putin Goes to the Land of Strauss and Schnitzel,” Sputnik, April 23, 2010, https://sptnkne.ws/pacK.

[3] Christine Zeiner, “Raiffeisen steigt aus russischer Gasfirma aus [Raiffeisen Withdraws from Russian Gas Company],” Wiener Zeitung, April 25, 2006, https://www.wienerzeitung.at/archiv/117286-Raiffeisen-steigt-aus-russischer-Gasfirma-aus.html.

[4] Luke Harding, “WikiLeaks Cables Link Russian Mafia Boss to EU Gas Supplies,” Guardian (US edition), December 1, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/dec/01/wikileaks-cables-russian-mafia-gas.

[5] “Ukraine: Firtash Makes His Case to the USG,” WikiLeaks, December 10, 2008, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08KYIV2414_a.html.

[6] Stefan Melichar, Michael Nikbakhsh, and Christoph Zotter, “All the President’s Men,” Profil, no. 43 (2019): 35.

[7] “Schröder empfing 2005 dubiose Gäste aus Russland [Schröder Received Dubious Guests from Russia in 2005],” Spiegel Online, May 4, 2015, https://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/vorab/schroeder-empfing-2005-dubiose-gaeste-aus-russland-a-967403.html.

[8] Renate Graber, “Die russische Wende [The Russian Turnaround],” Der Standard, June 4, 2007, https://derstandard.at/2857801/Die-russische-Wende.

[9] Christa Zöchling, “Ein Freigeist als Milliardär [A Free-Spirited Billionaire],” Profil, no. 8, (2008): 27.

[10] Renate Gruber, “Da lachen ja die Hühner, Herr Hofer” [“That’s a Good Laugh, Mr. Hofer”] [interview with Hans Peter Haselsteiner]. Der Standard, June 29–30, 2019, 23.

[11] “Haselsteiner: Russland in der EU ‘hätte Europa groß gemacht’ [Haselsteiner: Russia in the EU ‘would have made Europe great’] [interview],” Die Presse, September 20, 2017, https://www.diepresse.com/5288922/haselsteiner-russland-in-der-eu-hatte-europa-gross-gemacht.

[12] “Haselsteiner will sich Auftragsvergabe bei Westbahn anschauen [Haselsteiner Wants to Take a Look at Contract Awards for Westbahn],” Die Presse, May 20, 2019, https://www.diepresse.com/5631337/haselsteiner-will-sich-auftragsvergabe-bei-westbahn-anschauen.

[13] Jakob Zirm, “Siegfried Wolf wechselt von Magna zu Oleg Deripaska [Siegfried Wolf Moves from Magna to Oleg Deripaska],” Die Presse, September 14, 2010, 15.

[14] Miriam Koch and Andreas Lampl, “Putin ist der richtige Mann” [Putin’s the man] [interview with Siegfried Wolf],” Format, no. 5, (2014): 22–25.

[15] Yumashev’s daughter from his first marriage, Polina, in 2001 had married (and in 2018 divorced) Deripaska.

[16] Hans Rauscher, “Neuer Job für Kern: Russian Connection. Es sind bereits etliche ehemalige Top-Politiker in Putins Reich engagiert [New Job for Kern: Russian Connection. Several Former Top Politicians are Already Employed in Putin’s empire],” Der Standard, May 1, 2019, https://www.derstandard.at/story/2000102353840/neuer-job-fuer-kern-russian-connection?fbclid=IwAR3eeZ4VLlmX3-h87hpnMKPAZftnO0NOr3A2FGpdV1lETGjxCM2r7NbQ5X0.

[17] The headquarters of UniCredit Bank Austria AG (which is its full name) is located in Vienna, but it has not been “Austrian” for a long time, as it is almost entirely owned by the UniCredit Group based in Milan, Italy.

[18] “Deripaska ist ein gerader Bursche [Deripaska is a straight guy] [interview with Christian Konrad],” Der Standard, June 4, 2007, https://www.derstandard.at/story/2859447/deripaska-ist-ein-gerader-bursche.

[19] Martina Salomon, “Stepic: ‘Putin ist EU um Lichtjahre voraus’ [Stepic: ‘Putin is light years ahead of the EU’] [interview],” Kurier, December 6, 2014, https://kurier.at/wirtschaft/stepic-putin-ist-eu-um-lichtjahre-voraus/70.074.860.

[20] Cf. Otmar Lahodynsky, “Schwein gehabt [Had Good Luck],” Profil, no. 12, pp. 56-60.

[21] Österreichische Botschaft Moskau, Wirtschaftsbeziehungen zwischen Österreich und Russland [Austrian Embassy Moscow, Economic relations between Austria and Russia], https://www.bmeia.gv.at/oeb-moskau/bilaterale-beziehungen/russische-foederation/wirtschaft/ (accessed 30 May 2020).

[22] “The Winner is: Zar Wladimir [The Winner is: Czar Vladimir],” Trend, no. 46 (2016): 21.

[23] Cf. “Strache fordert Ende von Russland-Sanktionen [Strache demands end to Russia sanctions],” Die Presse, June 2, 2018, https://diepresse.com/home/ausland/aussenpolitik/5439865/Strache-fordert-Ende-von-RusslandSanktionen.

[24] Heather A. Conley et al., The Kremlin Playbook II. The Enablers, Center for Strategic & International Studies, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 50, https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/190327_Conley_KPII_interior_v3_WEB.pdf (accessed 30 May 2020).

[25] Jutta Sommerbauer, “Van der Bellens und Österreichs ‘wirkliche’ Russland-Position [Van der Bellen and Austria’s ‘real’ position on Russia],” Die Presse, May 15, 2019, 4.

[26] Christoph B. Schiltz, “Europäische Wirtschaft ruft zur Abschaffung von Sanktionen auf,” Die Welt, December 9, 2019, https://www.welt.de/politik/ausland/article204148482/Europaeische-Wirtschaft-ruft-zur-Abschaffung-von-Sanktionen-auf.html?fbclid=IwAR0cMRb_u5mEhqAsdqNihEliLnzmfQLaSKl9KR4jl65L9SjS3_XN8Ub8Pvo.

Russian Gas and the Financing of Separatism in Moldova

This article is a part of the first issue of the Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly.

You can also download this piece as a PDF.

Introduction

Over the last 200 years, the main part of the territory that today constitutes the Republic of Moldova switched sovereignties six times between the Russian Empire, the USSR, the Ottoman Empire, and Romania, which explains why Russia treats it as a less loyal territory, compared to Ukraine or Belarus. With the last change in 1991, the Republic of Moldova proclaimed its independence and, on March 2, 1992, gained official recognition by the UN, in the borders of the former Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, including the Transnistrian region, inhabited by a more pro-Russian population as compared to the rest of the country. On the day of official recognition of the Republic of Moldova within UN, a military conflict sprang in the Transnistrian region, initially involving police forces and civilians and later the regular army. The Russian Army stationed in Transnistria (the former Soviet 14th Guards Army) supported the Transnistrian side, first unofficially then officially, which determined the outcome of the war. The war ended by a cease-fire agreement signed between Presidents of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Moldova—Boris Yeltsyn and Mircea Snegur, reconfirming the direct involvement of Russia in the Transnistrian conflict.[1]

Since 1991, the goal of Russian policy towards Moldova was to prevent Moldova from fleeing the Russian sphere of influence, and especially to maintain the Russian military base in Tiraspol and prevent Moldova’s adherence to NATO. Transnistrian authorities served as proxies for Russia in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives, Russia’s control over Transnistria being juridically recognized by the European Court for Human Rights.[2] However, maintaining the “statehood” of Transnistria required major financial support, and the energy sector played a crucial role in Russia’s financing of separatism in the Republic of Moldova.

During Soviet times, the energy infrastructure was constructed in such a way that the energy system in the former Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic was dependent on critical infrastructure placed in the Transnistrian region:

  • the largest power plant—Moldovan State Regional Power Station (aka Kuchurgan Power Station, also known under the Russian acronym MGRES), with total installed capacity over 2.5 GW
  • six out of seven interconnection points between Moldova and Ukraine on high-voltage (330 kV) lines, four of these lines being tied up in a transformer substation on the territory of MGRES
  • four out of five entry points on gas transmission pipelines of regional importance, including all three entry points on the Trans-Balkan pipeline system
  • the main gas compressor station on the Trans-Balkan pipeline system between Ukraine and Bulgaria, located near Tiraspol (the administrative center of Transnistrian region)

Thus, by 1992, the energy security of the Republic of Moldova almost entirely depended on Russia and its proxy regime in the Transnistrian region. Less than 10 percent of the country’s needs could be covered by electricity generation located outside the Transnistrian region. Import of electricity from Ukraine could not avoid high-voltage lines and transformation stations located in the breakaway region. Moreover, even the limited amount of generation controlled by constitutional authorities was mainly based on natural gas as fuel, while Gazprom was the only gas supplier and physical continuity of gas supply depended on infrastructural elements located in the Transnistrian region.

Since then, Russia has taken advantage of its energy leverage in relation to Moldova several times, generating crises, some of them politically reasoned[CD1] . Thus, electricity supply to the main part of Moldova was limited or even halted in 1998,[3] 2004,[4] and 2005,[5] while natural gas supply was interrupted in 2000.[6]

How Gazprom took control of Moldovas gas infrastructure

The gas price has long been used by Russia as a political tool in promoting its foreign policy in the countries largely dependent on Russian gas. The former Soviet countries are particularly vulnerable due to poverty, corruption, and weak regulation of the energy market. The Kremlin administration exploited these weaknesses to gain control of gas supply systems via Gazprom, as it happened in countries like Moldova (1995), Armenia (1997), and Belarus (2007), and only partly succeeded in other countries.[7] The energy sector has always been a copious source of illegal enrichment for corrupt politicians. In the case of Moldova, during 1994–1998 [CD2] the gas supply complex was twice exposed to hostile takeovers. Following a series of actions such as artificial debt swelling and undervaluation of assets, undertaken in conspiracy with Moldovan government officials, Gazprom gained control over companies that owned critical gas transmission and distribution infrastructure.

The trans-Balkan pipeline that crosses Ukraine and Moldova (including the breakaway Transnistrian region) has been used by Gazprom to supply about 20–25 bcm of gas annually to Balkan countries. The gas transit was one of—if not the only—negotiating tools for Moldova in relation to Gazprom. However, the corruptibility and lack of vision of Moldovan political elites allowed the Russian holding to acquire, at derisory prices, the majority stake in Moldova’s gas transmission system (1995) and distribution pipelines (1998) via debt-to-equity swaps. Prior to the acquisition, Gazprom had used its dominant position as a sole gas supplier to impose discriminatory conditions on the Moldovan side, thus artificially increasing the gas debt, as thoroughly analyzed in our 2007 research.[8] Beginning in 1994, Gazprom increased the gas price for Moldova from USD 38.5 to USD 80 for one thousand cubic meters. During that period, Gazprom supplied gas on the European market at an average price of USD 72.8,[9] although the share of transportation costs in the final price for EU countries was higher than for Moldova. At the same time, Gazprom supplied gas to the neighbouring Ukraine at a price of USD 50, which remained unchanged until 2005[10] for political reasons, aimed at retaining Ukraine in Russia’s sphere of influence. Besides the abusive price increase for Moldova, Gazprom requested advanced payments and imposed a fine of 0.35 percent per day on the amounts due (equivalent to 127.8 percent per annum in hard currency), which was seventeen times more than for other countries of the former USSR. Moldova’s debt was further increased by the fact that the Transnistrian separatist region stopped paying for gas consumption after the 1992 Transnistrian conflict, when the separatists were backed by the Russian [CD3] 14th Guards Army. Consequently, in 1994 alone, Moldova’s gas debt increased from USD 22 million to USD 291 million, including USD 100 million in fines and USD 91 million of debt from the separatist region. Moldova was under threat to remain without [CD4] gas supply due to the immense debt. In order to avoid this, in 1995 the government agreed to cede in favor of Gazprom a 50 percent+1 share of the newly formed company Gazsnabtranzit, in whose capital the transportation pipelines were transmitted. The transaction was made both with deviations from the legal norm and to the detriment of the public interest, and as a result Moldova was prejudiced with over USD 416 million for the benefit of the Russian concern.[11]

The government of Moldova admitted similar abuses in 1998 at the founding of JSC [CD5] Moldovagaz, in which Gazprom received a 50 percent share.[12] The equity of the newly created enterprise was determined on the basis of the so-called preliminary estimate of both transmission and distribution pipelines. In 1999, the assets of the gas complex were to be revalued in order to rectify the ownership quotas in the share capital of Moldovagaz, with the corresponding correction of the gas debt. However, this provision has not been executed by the government. The share capital and the gas liabilities remained the same. These and other frauds were investigated in 2000–2001 by the Moldovan Court of Accounts (Supreme Audit Institution in Moldova) at the request of the Parliament. However, following Parliamentary elections on February 25, 2001, the pro-Russian Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM) took over power,[13] and already in March 2001 the team leader of auditing team, Mr. Tudor Șoitu, was ordered to finalize the investigation ahead of schedule.[14] Despite the report containing pertinent proofs of frauds committed by high-level government officials and management of gas companies in favor of Gazprom, it has not been heard in the Parliament. Moreover, Mr. Șoitu was placed under accusation by the Prosecutor’s office and fired from the Court of Accounts. The data and confirmative documents that constituted the base for the report were partially published later, within policy papers produced by IDIS “Viitorul” think tank in 2007,[15] 2017[16] and in Watchdog.md in 2019.[17]

Gas debt and the financing of separatism

The supply of Russian gas to both Moldova and the self-proclaimed Transnistria has been carried out under contracts signed by Gazprom with entities registered in Moldova and officially recognized (initially it was Gazsnabtranzit, afterwards—Moldovagaz). Under such a contractual scheme, the gas debt of the separatist region is accumulated by the Moldovan side.[18] This was possible due to the fact that Transnistria’s gas infrastructure was included in the capital of the Moldovan gas supplier under the pretext of paying the gas debt. Thus, Gazprom supplies gas to Moldovagaz, while the latter supplies gas to Moldovan consumers and to Tiraspol-Transgaz from Transnistria. De jure Tiraspol-Transgaz is a subsidiary of Moldovagaz, but de facto its assets were nationalized by the separatist authorities.[19] Currently the outstanding amount owed by Moldovagaz to Gazprom at the end of 2019 totalled USD 7860.6 million[20] (including USD 1201.2 million to its subsidiary Factoring-Finans).[21]

Tiraspol-Transgaz resells the gas at subsidized tariffs to local Transnistrian households and enterprises, including to MGRES (Молдавская ГРЭС) power plant that supplies Moldova with electricity. The obtained revenue is accumulated on the so-called special gas account and is transferred directly to the separatist budget as loans from Tiraspol-Transgaz. Between 2007 and 2016, the separatist region received a USD 6 billion “gas subsidy,” out of which USD 1.3 billion was converted into budgetary funds. In this way the self-proclaimed Transnistrian authorities covered 35.3 percent of the total budgetary expenditures for the respective ten-year period.[22] The amount of “gas subsidy” generously provided by Gazprom is equivalent to 48 percent of the self-proclaimed Transnistria’s GDP for that period. These findings point out that the unconstitutional regime in Tiraspol would not be sustainable without the permanent support of the Russian Federation. Given the subsidized tariffs, many people in Transnistria are unwilling to rejoin Moldova because they would have to pay more for gas consumption.[23]

The largest gas consumer in Transnistria is MGRES power plant (generation capacity of 2520 MW), controlled by Russian energy holding Inter RAO UES. MGRES generates electricity from gas provided by Tiraspol-Transgaz and supplies 80 percent of Moldova’s electricity consumption. Using Moldova’s dependence on Russian gas, including for electricity generation, the Russian Federation has imposed a contractual scheme whereby Moldovan consumers are forced to finance separatism in their own country by purchasing energy from MGRES located in Transnistria and accumulating gas debts.

Although Gazprom mentions in all its financial reports that Transnistria does not pay for gas consumption and it leads to the increase of Moldova’s gas debt, gas supply to the region still continues.[24] From an economic point of view, the supply of gas without recovery of value is in fact a subsidy. In other words, Gazprom’s activity in Moldova does not have an economic purpose, because it would never recover the gas debt from Moldovagaz, whose assets are below 20 percent of the total gas debt. In fact, Gazprom and senior Moldovan officials compel Moldovagaz to legalize the financing of the unconstitutional regime in Transnistria by supplying gas “on credit” and passing the debt to Moldovagaz. Moreover, according to contract provisions, Moldovagaz cannot interrupt the gas supply to the Transnistrian region without the written agreement of Gazprom.[25] It is probably the only case in history when legalization services of financing the separatism are not paid, but are provided in exchange for debt accumulation.

Even if Gazprom takes over all Moldovagaz assets to recover the debt, we estimate their value at almost USD 1.4 billion, which is under 20 percent of total gas debt.[26] Therefore Gazprom’s activity in Moldova has nothing in common with genuine economic interests, but rather serves as a tool to promote the strategic agenda of the Kremlin administration in Moldova. This geopolitical agenda can be summarized as follows: strengthening Russian influence in Moldova by financing separatism and maintaining the role of mediator of the Transnistrian conflict in its own interest.

Russiangas subsidyconverted into benefits for Russian businesses

Since the 1990s, consumers in the Transnistrian region have benefited from heavily subsidized gas prices. The main beneficiaries were the large industrial enterprises—MGRES and the Moldovan metallurgical plant, also known under its Russian acronym MMZ. These companies consume a lot of energy and gas, and have been, or continue to be, controlled by Russian capital. Subsidized gas and energy tariffs provided them with significant competitive advantages compared to other companies in the region. At the same time, they exported the production at market prices, collecting strong currency. Respectively, the subsidies obtained by these factories through Russian gas were converted into real income.

The MGRES power plant is 100 percent owned by the Russian concern Inter RAO UES. As mentioned, the power plant is the main consumer of gas in the separatist region, using it as a basic source for electricity production.[27] MGRES benefited from a subsidized tariff that covered between 28 percent and 68 percent of the real cost of gas. Based on the financial reports of Inter RAO UES, during 2008–2015, the Russian investors obtained a profit of USD 291.8 million only through MGRES.[28]

The separatist authorities have established subsidized tariffs for the MMZ metallurgical plant as well, through secret decisions. In the period 2005–2015 MMZ was part of the MetalloInvest holding controlled by the Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov. The plant paid only 11.5 percent of the real gas price and was sometimes generally exempt from paying for gas. In the period 2007–2015, the plant reported sales of over USD 2.3 billion according to the data published by the so-called central bank of Transnistria. However, the real market prices for metallurgical production in Ukraine were 65–85 percent higher. We assume that this margin is explained by the fact that MMZ sold its production through traders affiliated to the MetalloInvest group, where the group accumulated most of its profits. Based on this assumption, we estimated that in the period 2007–2015, the profit related to MMZ production, accumulated by MetalloInvest traders, amounted to over USD 1.5 billion.

The so-called gas subsidy and respectively the subsidized electricity price in self-proclaimed Transnistria continue to be exploited by Russian cryptocurrency businesses as well. Igor Chaika, the son of the Russian ex-Prosecutor General, not only expressed openly his interest to invest in mining farms in Transnistria,[29] but also his organization Delovaya Rossiya (Business Russia) helped the separatist government to develop the legislation on blockchain technology.[30] At least a part of the mining equipment was supplied through Moldovan customs. In December 2018 the separatist authorities announced their plans to increase the output capacity of MGRES power plant by 100 MW by suppying energy to the mining farms.[31]

Cryptocurrency and Russian subversive operations overseas

Cryptocurrency has been used by Russian hackers for various cyber attacks in recent years as a part of the “hybrid warfare,” following the rise of the political tension between Russia and Western countries after the annexation of Crimea. Cryptocurrency transactions are difficult to trace and this fact allowed the perpetrators to hide their identity and the source of funds, in order to circumvent the sanctions or the Know-Your-Client (KYC) procedures applied by commercial banks. The GRU-linked hackers used cryptocurrency to attack the German parliament in 2015,[32] and the US Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2016.[33] Cryptocurrency-funded cyber operations also targeted FIFA, WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), and the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2016.[34]

Hard-to-trace cryptocurrency became a common tool in Russian subversive operations. In October 2017 Russian president Vladimir Putin even issued five presidential orders on the legal framework for digital currencies and mining.[35] Shortly after that, a spike in cryptocurrency mining activities has been observed in several pro-Russian breakaway regions. Besides Transnistria, the mining of virtual currency has also expanded to Donbass[36] and Abkhazia,[37] with the aim of creating a virtual trading platform in Crimea and providing services to the unrecognized pro-Russian territories.[38] Moreover, acccording to Ukraine’s Deputy Prosecutor General Anatoliy Matios, cryptocurrency mined in Ukraine has been used to buy military equipment, weapons, and ammunition for the separatist groups fighting in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.[39] Given that, the trace of the cryptocurrency mined in the pro-Russian breakaway regions becomes necessary to prevent and expose the subversive operations conducted by the Kremlin in its attempt to achieve political goals in other countries.

Russian gas “subsidy” stimulating corruption of Moldovan political elites

Although Moldova was ruled by parties of different geopolitical orientations, since its incorporation in 1998, Moldovagaz remained a dangerous territory for control bodies. Throughout this period, Gazprom along with Moldovan decision-makers tolerated and even facilitated fraudulent schemes in the energy sector to the detriment of the national interests of Moldova.[40] At the same time, investigations of alleged fraud in the gas sector turned against their initiators and none of them finalized with proper prosecution of decision makers from Moldovagaz or Moldovan officials. Moreover, despite catastrophic dynamics in Moldovagaz’s financial situation, two of its top officials were decorated with the Glory of Work presidential award: Mr. Alexandr Gusev, President of the Administration Council (2012)[41] and Mr. Iacov Cazacu, Vice President of the Administration Council (2017).[42] This suggests that some of the illicit proceeds from these schemes were used to bribe Moldovan politicians. Thus, each of the parties pursues its own interest: Moldovan political decision-makers aim for personal enrichment from corruption schemes, while Gazprom executes the Kremlin’s agenda on financing separatism and increasing Moldova’s dependence on the Russian Federation.

As mentioned above, the Court of Accounts’ attempt to verify the activity of Moldovagaz in 2001 resulted in an open criminal investigation against the head of the audit team, Tudor Soitu.[43] However, the situation did not change even after the so-called pro-European coalition came to power in 2009. In 2012, the National Energy Regulation Authority (ANRE) issued four inspection reports on procurement irregularities at Moldovagaz’s subsidiary. Frauds worth MDL 243 million (approximately USD 20 million at that time) were found in the purchase of goods at prices that exceeded 3–4 times the market price. This time the control ended with the assasination attempt on one of ANRE directors[44] just two weeks after the first inspection report was issued. Despite its odiousity—the explosion of a grenade under the car of a senior official, appointed by Parliament—this assassination attempt remains uninvestigated until present.

In 2014, following a conspiracy between Moldovan oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc and self-proclaimed Transnistrian President Yevgheny Shevchuk, the electricity produced by MGRES (owned by Russian Inter RAO UES) was supplied to Moldova through an intermediary company, Energokapital. The electricity was supplied at the same price as previously, while the internal gas tariffs for electricity generation in self-proclaimed Transnistria were decreased by 15 percent.[45] The illicit margin was syphoned off via Energokapital, whose beneficiaries are hidden behind a Scottish limited partnerships.[46] An investigation conducted by the Blacksea.eu revealed that Energokapital has a complex series of off-shore owners connected to the “theft” of a billion dollars from three Moldovan banks. Undoubtedly the energy supply scheme via Energokapital was coordinated at the highest levels in Gazprom and the Russian government, given the visit of the Deputy Prime Minister Andrian Candu to Moscow in September 2014,[47] just two weeks before the incorporation of Energokapital.[48] Moreover, in 2016 civil society watchdogs publicly presented[49] copies of payment orders for transfer of dividends by Energokapital to its offshore mother company worth over USD 19 million[50] and solicited the Prosecutor’s office to verify whether these were made in compliance with anti-money laundering legislation. Instead of investigating the facts, after just 2 weeks, the Prosecutor’s office issued a press release claiming that “experts did not present any documents that would confirm the illegalities.”[51]

In March 2019 Moldova’s Prime Minister Pavel Filip secretly sent a letter to his Ukrainian counterpart, in which he called for the removal of the Transnistrian metallurgical plant MMZ from the sanctions list and the termination of the antidumping investigation against MMZ.[52] Why would the Moldovan prime minister lobby for the metallurgical plant located in the separatist region? The reason is obvious if we follow the money. MMZ is the main customer of the state-owned company Metalferos, which has a monopoly on the collection and export of scrap metal from Moldova.[53] In 2015–2019, the payments from MMZ to Metalferos amounted to at least USD 127 million, a part of which was embezzled to offshore companies directly controlled by Moldovan oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc,[54] the former leader of the Democratic Party to which Pavel Filip belongs. The Prosecutor’s office started the investigations at Metalferos only after Plahotniuc left the country.[55] In exchange for insignificant personal benefits and acting to the detriment of national interests, Moldovan political elites ensured the temporary registration of MMZ in Moldova and allowed its exports to be made through Moldovan customs[56] and the state-owned Railway company.

The large-scale corruption in the energy sector poses a real threat to economic and energy security, and even the territorial integrity of Moldova. Even today the Moldovan government continues to support the large energy-consuming enterprises in Transnistria, despite the fact that it leads to the increase of the gas debt. In March 2020 the Commission of Emergency Situations canceled the energy procurement tender and the state-owned trader Energocom signed a new agreement with MGRES power plant from Transnistria.[57]

How to take a country hostage for USD 1 billion in 27 years

As mentioned above, by the end of 2019 the total debt of Moldovagaz to Gazprom and its subsidiary Factoring Finans Ltd amounted to USD 8 billion, including about USD 7.5 billion related to gas supplied to the Transnistrian region. These figures are based on contract prices of gas, however the cost of natural gas supplied by Gazprom in the Transnistrian region via Moldovagaz is much lower than the invoiced amounts. According to Gazprom’s officials, in 2016 the average cost for natural gas extraction was around USD 20 per one thousand cubic meters, including taxes.[58] Before switching to the “European price formula” in 2006, Gazprom supplied natural gas to Ukraine at USD 50 for the same amount,[59] which included the cost of transmission services to the border.

Between 2007 and 2016, the average gas consumption in the Transnistrian region was 1.8 billion cubic meters per year. Taking into consideration the cost of transit services on Ukrainian territory, one thousand cubic meters of natural gas delivered to the Ukrainian-Moldovan border (Transnistrian segment) cost Gazprom approximately USD 65 per one thousand cubic meters. Thus, the total costs incurred by Gazprom with financing the Transnistrian separatism over twenty-seven years are slightly more than USD 3 billion. In the mean time, at least around USD 2 billion have been recovered by just two Russian corporations (Metalloinvest and Inter RAO) by benefiting from subsidized gas prices in the Transnistrian region. Thus, the bottomline costs for Russia with maintaining Transnistria as its main instrument of influence in Moldova was at most USD 1 billion—not too expensive for twenty-seven years of influence in a European country of 3 million people.

Thus, by exercising its monopolistic position as a natural anti-dumping gas supplier to Moldova and by loyalizing corrupt political elites from Chișinău, Gazprom served as the main instrument of financing the Russian foreign policy agenda in Moldova.

This malign influence can only be countered by consolidating Moldova’s energy security and eliminating dependency on critical energy infrastructure controlled by Russia via its Transnistrian proxies. However, little has been done in this respect since 1991, despite the fact that the need for diversification has been acknowledged and even included in all energy strategies. Thus, the Energy Strategy until 2010 adopted in 2000[60] mentions diversification of energy supply sources and routes five times, while the Energy Strategy till 2020 adopted in 2007[61] mentions it six times and the Energy strategy till 2030 adopted in 2013[62] refers to it nine times. De facto, despite strong political and financial support provided by the European Union and other international development partners, no major progress has been achieved until the second half of 2019!

In terms of natural gas supply diversification, the largely publicized Iași-Ungheni interconnector started in 2014 still cannot be operated at its full capacity. Moreover, even after finalization of all works around this interconnection route, its capacity (1.5 bcm per annum) won’t be sufficient to cover the winter peak consumption in Moldova even except Transnistrian region. Also, the southern part of Moldova would still remain fully dependent on the traditional natural gas supply route—the Trans-Balkan pipeline system—where the flow of gas could be disrupted by Transnistrian authorities. In the mean time, Gazprom has finalized the Turkish Stream project and is able to supply natural gas to Turkey and other Balkan countries bypassing the Ukrainian and Moldovan part of the Trans-Balkan pipeline. The breakthrough in terms of natural gas supply options for Moldova has been achieved only in the second half of 2019, and mainly due to external factors. Uncertainties around the gas transit contract through Ukraine after 2019 forced Gazprom to look for alternative scenarios for supplying gas to the Balkans. The only feasible emergency alternative was to upgrade the Trans-Balkan pipeline system to be able to operate in reverse mode, which would enable Gazprom to supply gas to Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania, and Moldova via Turkey. Thus, in just about six months, this project of strategic importance was implemented. It is worth mentioning that civil society experts signalled the strategic importance of the reverse flow on the Trans-Balkan pipeline system and its priority compared to the Iași-Ungheni interconnector since at least 2014.[63]

The implications of the Trans-Balkan reverse flow for Moldova cannot be overestimated as it also reverses the balance of power between Moldovan constitutional authorities and the Transnistrian proxies of Russia in the gas sector: presently, should Moldovagaz solicit Gazprom to supply natural gas to Moldova’s southern border (instead of the eastern, as previously) the Russian supplier would have to comply with it. In this case, if Transnistrian authorities maintain the practice of nonpayment, the supply of natural gas to the secessionist region could be physically limited or even completely interrupted at Căușeni measurement station. The main risks associated with this scenario is on the electricity side: not only would it leave Moldova without its largest source of electricity, which is MGRES fueled by natural gas, but it is also highly likely that Transnistrian authorities would respond by shutting down high-voltage (330 kV) lines that would become critical for importing electricity from Ukraine thus leaving the entire country dependent on a single high-voltage line. Therefore, the next and the last logical step on the path of eliminating the risk of energy blackmail on behalf of Russian proxies in Transnistria is securing the electricity supply by interconnecting with the Romanian electricity transmission system in an asynchronous mode.

Similar to “diversification” efforts on the gas side, construction of electricity interconnections with Romania are being long delayed. Civil society experts have already lost track of all technical and feasibility studies commissioned in the last more than ten years around interconnection options. So far, despite about 250 million euros allocated for these purposes by international partners (World Bank, European Investment Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development), including a 40 million euro grant from the European Union, construction has not even been started. The only plausible explanation is that the entire process is being sabotaged by Russian agents of influence among Moldovan decision makers.

In conclusion, consolidation of Moldova’s energy security by diversification of energy supply options and integration into European energy markets is not only vital for countering Russian malign influence in Moldova, but also key to solving the Transnistrian conflict, which affects regional security.


[1] For more details on historical background and evolution of transnistrian war see Christopher Borgen, “Thawing a Frozen Conflict: Legal Aspects of the Separatist Crisis in Moldova: A Report from the Association of the Bar of the City of New York,” Record of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, Vol. 61, 2006, pp. 13-24.

[2] “Case Ilașcu and others vs Moldova and Russia. (Application no. 48787/99)”, European Court of Human Rights (website), July 8, 2004, http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-61886.

[3] https://www.mold-street.com/?go=news&n=8275

[4] https://www.rbc.ru/politics/05/08/2004/5703b64e9a7947783a5a599c

[5] https://www.ng.ru/cis/2005-11-11/5_endoftheworld.html

[6] https://www.vedomosti.ru/newspaper/articles/2000/03/03/moldova-sdalas

[7] Gazprom profile by Steve Thomas, May 2006, PSIRU, Greenwich University, https://www.epsu.org/sites/default/files/article/files/Gazprom_profile_May.pdf.

[8] IDIS Viitorul, “The gas industry in Moldova: The burden of ignorance and the cost of errors”, 2007, https://bit.ly/37IL3L5

[9] М.М. Судо, Э.Р. Казанкова, ”Энергетические ресурсы. Нефть и природный газ. Век уходящий”, 1998

[10] Slovoidilo.ua, ”Как менялась цена российского газа для Украины на протяжении 24 лет?”, 2016, https://bit.ly/2S8lPiP

[11] IDIS Viitorul (2007), Supra note 8 at page 10

[12] IDIS Viitorul (2007), Supra note 8, §2.6

[13] http://www.e-democracy.md/elections/parliamentary/2001/

[14] https://www.watchdog.md/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Studiu-Moldovagaz-09-2019_compressed-1-1.pdf

[15] IDIS Viitorul (2007), Supra note 8

[16] IDIS Viitorul, “Energy and politics: the price for impunity in Moldova”, Apr 2017, https://bit.ly/2Nss3Yh

[17] Community Watchdog.MD, “Moldovagaz – 20 years of massive fraud under the protection of shareholders and state institutions”, Sept 2019, https://bit.ly/37M7z5P

[18] IDIS Viitorul (2017), Supra note 16 at chapter 3

[19] Order no. 723 from Oct 13, 2005, of the self-proclaimed President of Transnistria, https://bit.ly/2YgkDgO

[20] Gazprom financial report for Q4/2019 at page 83, https://www.gazprom.ru/f/posts/77/885487/gazprom-ifrs-2019-12m-ru.pdf

[21] Gazprom financial report for Q4/2005 at page 47, http://www.gazprom.ru/f/posts/91/747099/repiv_2005.doc

[22] IDIS Viitorul (2017), Supra note 16 at page 15.

[23] ECHR, case Ilascu v. Moldova and Russia, Annex: Witness Y, §261, http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-61886

[24] Gazprom financial report for Q1/2020 at page 55, https://www.gazprom.ru/f/posts/05/118974/gazprom-emitent-report-1q-2020.pdf

[25] Rise.md, (2016) „Confidential contract: Gazprom empire in Moldova”, Agreement no. 1 to the Contract of gas supply no. 1GM-07-11, §2.8, https://www.rise.md/contract-confidential-imperiul-gazprom-in-moldova/

[26] IDIS Viitorul (2017), Supra note 16, chapter 4.

[27] MGRES technical indicators for 2019, https://bit.ly/2BtiV2t

[28] IDIS Viitorul (2017) Supra note 16, §2.4.1

[29] Kommersant.ru, ”Приднестровье примайнивает инвесторов”, Feb 2018, https://bit.ly/2UYnoS0

[30] Novostipmr.com, ”Начало большого пути. […]”, Dec 2017, https://bit.ly/3didSPC

[31] Anticoruptie.md, “The cryptorepublic”, Apr 2019, https://bit.ly/2YhYjUc

[32] Netzpolitik, “Digital Attack on German Parliament”, Jun 2015, https://bit.ly/3155DT7

[33] Mueller indictment from Jul 13, 2018, https://bit.ly/2NPPpGf

[34] Indictment of the Western District of Pennsylvania, § 21 and 22, https://bit.ly/30hnE1t

[35] Kremlin press release from Oct 21, 2017, http://kremlin.ru/acts/assignments/orders/55899

[36] BBC, “”Морячок” из ДНР купил биржу криптовалют и начал охоту на сокровища Винника”, Dec 2018, https://www.bbc.com/russian/features-46444479

[37] Abkhazia signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Russian Association of Crypto Industry and Blockchain (RACIB), Bitfeed.ru, “Абхазия разрабатывает нормативную базу для регулирования майнинга”, Dec 2018, https://bit.ly/2UZ92Rl

[38] Supra note 36

[39] Politico.eu, “How Ukraine became the Wild East of cryptocurrencies”, Mar 2018, https://politi.co/3fiZEPM

[40] Community Watchdog.MD, “Moldovagaz – 20 years of massive fraud under the protection of shareholders and state institutions”, Sept 2019, https://bit.ly/37M7z5P

[41] http://lex.justice.md/index.php?action=view&view=doc&lang=1&id=344965

[42] Presidential decree 362 from Sept 03, 2017, https://www.legis.md/cautare/getResults?doc_id=100273&lang=ru

[43] ECHR, case 18835/08 Tudor Șoitu vs Moldova, http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-191880

[44] ANRE press release, Apr 2012, https://bit.ly/2YZpxOy

[45] Press release of self-proclaimed Transnistria Government, Jul 2016, http://gov-pmr.org/item/7269

[46] Blacksea.eu, Bird, M. and Cotrut, A., “Moldovan energy intermediary company linked to “billion-dollar bank theft” scandal”, Mar 2016, https://bit.ly/2NhyzAK

[47] Ministry of Economy press release, Sept 2014, https://bit.ly/2V4iQtb

[48] Energokapital incorporation agreement, Oct 2014, https://bit.ly/310nxIj

[49] https://www.ipn.md/en/economie/77740

[50] https://sergiutofilat.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/plati-energokapital.pdf

[51] http://procuratura.md/md/newslst/1211/1/6723/

[52] Rise.md, “Rescuers of the Transnistrian metallurgic plant: Filip and Poroshenko have helped Transnistria earn mmillions”, May 2019, https://bit.ly/39Whff7

[53] Newsmaker.md, “Люди бьются за металл. Кому выгодна продажа Metalferos и сколько денег там украли”, Jan 2020, https://bit.ly/3fxcZE2

[54] Zdg.md, “Дело Metalferos: Эпизод с Владимиром Плахотнюком”, Aug 2020, https://bit.ly/33sQZYv

[55] Tv8.md, “В ходе обысков на предприятии Metalferos задержано 7 человек”, Dec 2020, https://bit.ly/2Prjgqd

[56] Commission Regulation (EC) No 112/2009 at (48) and (109), https://bit.ly/39Y169i

[57] TV8.md, “Контракт на поставку энергии с Молдавской ГРЭС продлен до 30 июня”, March 2020, https://ru.tv8.md/2020/03/31/kontrakt-na-postavku-energii-s-moldavskoj-gres-prodlen-do-30-ijunya/

[58] Vedomosti.ru (2016), ”Газпром назвал текущую себестоимость добычи газа”, https://bit.ly/2BtkCgl

[59] Supra note 10

[60] https://www.legis.md/cautare/getResults?doc_id=73726&lang=ru

[61] http://lex.justice.md/viewdoc.php?action=view&view=doc&id=325108&lang=2

[62] http://lex.justice.md/ru/346670/

[63] http://www.vedomosti.md/news/viktor-parlikov-gazoprovod-yassy-ungeny-sam-po-sebe-ne-imeet


 [CD1]Another word that will also work here is motivated.

 [CD2]Number ranges are separated by an en dash. Hereafter this change will be made silently (i.e. without track changes on).

 [CD3]On p. 1 you describe this army as former Soviet. For consistency, and to avoid confusion for the reader, it helps to be consistent with terms. Please make the necessary changes so that these terms match.

 [CD4]Was Moldova already not having gas supplied (as is suggested by the word, remain)? If this is correct, leave as is.

If this is not the case, this phrase could be simplified to of losing

 [CD5]Please spell out this abbreviation (joint-stock company?) and insert the before it. E.g. …the joint-stock company…

Since it is only used once it is unnecessary to include the abbreviation in parentheses.

Russian Lawfare and other malign influence operations in Spain

This article is a part of the first issue of the Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly.

You can also download this piece as a PDF.

Introduction

Relations between Russia and Spain at the end of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries were not a priority for either of these countries. They were not completely friendly: Spain is a member of NATO and took part in the sanctions campaign against the Russian regime after the invasion of Ukraine in 2014. On the other hand, they did not become directly hostile, and their relationships could be called “favorably neutral.”[1] Spain continues to trade with Russia, and the export of clothes, olive oil, wine and some other products that have not been subject to “import substitution sanctions” is worth mentioning. Spain also imports oil from Russia. The countries continue cooperating in the military sphere: for instance, Spain recently provided its ports for Russian military ships for the needs of Russian military operations in the Middle East. In addition, tourism is developed (or was, before COVID-19 struck), and a significant number of citizens of the Russian Federation own real estate in Spain and show business activity.

Some citizens of the Russian Federation who have chosen Spain as their main place of residence are representatives of organized crime. Having settled in Spain, they have not retired at all, but, on the contrary, have developed a wide network of criminal business.

Until a certain point, Russian actors (affiliated with both the state and the underworld) did not carry out large-scale interventions in the activities of the Spanish democratic institutions. However, the onset of the crisis associated with the escalation of separatism in Catalonia provided them with an opportunity not only to interfere on the state level in Spain but also to destabilize the development of the European Union as a whole.

The malign influence of the Russian regime on the democratic and market institutions of Spain, is most clearly reflected in several areas of public life. First of all, it concerns the provision of Russian organized crime in Spain. Representatives of the Russian criminal community, deeply integrated into the power structures of the Russian regime, have resided continuously in this country since the 1990s and influence trade, launder money, and involve representatives of Spanish politicians and officials in corruption relations. To provide comfortable conditions for their “business,” the Russian criminals need to work simultaneously in two main directions.

On the one hand, they need to establish cooperation between the police and the judiciary in the criminal law sphere in Spain itself. On the other hand, they need to constantly maintain close cooperation with the power structures of the Russian Federation (for example, the head of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation is a protege of the Russian mafia in Spain). This, among other things, allows them to have a “safe airfield” in Russia and to receive the necessary official conclusions about themselves and their activities from the Russian authorities. They successfully use such judgments and certificates to prove their innocence in Spanish courts.

Since the greatest threat to the activities of the Russian mafia in Spain is the development of European integration, they put most of their effort into obstructing the democratic progress.

Overview of relations between Spain and the Russian Federation

Relations between Spain and Russia have traditionally developed in the most comfortable format for the latter. As some researchers rightly point out: “Spain drive toward closer relations with Moscow has been made within and outside the EU.”[2] For Russia since the beginning of the 2000s, the development of relations with the European Union as a supranational organization has been a great difficulty. First of all, in our opinion, this is due to the inability to understand the essence of the EU integration method, the nature and structure of relations between the organization and its members. Thus, the foundation of relations between the Russian Federation and the EU remains the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.[3] It was supposed to terminate in 2007, but instead, it has been automatically extended every year to the present. A draft of a new treaty was being prepared, but negotiations were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, bilateral relations were thriving. The Spanish government has consistently supported Russian attempts to build a new “multipolar world” and attempts to counter US “hegemony.” This was especially pronounced during the government of Jose Luis Zapatero.[4] Spain presented itself as the ‘heart of Europe’ and developed closer relations with France and Germany. In addition, Spain was more actively included in the work of the Second Pillar of the European Union. Russian-Spanish relations have developed in the field of combating the threat of terrorism, cultural cooperation, and other areas important to the Russian Federation. At the same time, Spain supported the international policy of the Russian Federation; mutual visits at the highest level were regularly made.

Like Russia, Spain still refuses to recognize the independence of Kosovo, even after the decision of the International Court of Justice[5] (among EU countries only Slovakia, Greece, Cyprus and Romania hold this position), although this has to do more with Spain’s own problem with separatism, rather than with Russian foreign policy. Support for separatism in Spain is a particularly important area of activity for Putin’s regime. Unable to do this openly, Russia acts with the help of its criminal representatives and, apparently, with the help of its special services.

It is significant that Spain, together with Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, and Portugal, was opposed to sanctions against Russia for the invasions of Russia in neighboring countries.[6] In these countries, Russia’s informal influence is very strong.

In general, Spain acted as a full-fledged partner of Russia. There are several main aspects worth discussing: the cooperation in the fight against terrorism and regional security (this was especially evident in the 2000s, after 9/11), economic cooperation, mutual investment, and cultural exchange.

Mutual trade relations developed rapidly. Spanish companies entered Russian markets, Russian companies invested in the Spanish economy and exported natural resources. Russia became the second, after Saudi Arabia, oil exporter to Spain. Russian tourism has become a significant phenomenon: by 2010, more than a million Russians visited Spain every year. In 2008, Gazprom tried to conclude a deal to acquire 20% of the Spanish energy company Respol. A major share in Repsol could increase Russia’s weight in Latin America’s energy market, where most of the company’s oil and gas production was centered.[7]

Spain only reluctantly supported EU sanctions against Russia, which had limited economic impact on Spain. Some of Spain’s food exporters were affected, but leading exports[8] were not included in Russia’s counter-sanctions.[9]

In the military sphere, Spain’s policy towards Russia is somewhat inconsistent. On the one hand, as a member of NATO and the EU, Spain is taking part in strengthening its military presence in Eastern Europe. First of all, this concerns the Baltic countries.[10] On the other hand, Spain provides Russia with the opportunity to take full advantage of its Ceuta base in the Mediterranean.

In 2016, eleven members of the European Parliament, including representatives from the Baltic states, Poland, and the Catalan politician Ramon Tremosa, filed a High-Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini request for the Ceuta naval base. In particular, they were interested in whether she knew that these naval operations were “the key to maintaining the position of the Russian army in Ukraine,” emphasizing that this could violate EU sanctions against Moscow. “The frequency with which Russian navy ships call into the port—at least 10 times a year—have turned the Spanish exclave into the main base of the Russian fleet in the western Mediterranean. The Russian army has an official base in Tartus (Syria), although its ships have also docked in Maltese and Greek ports.”[11] The supply of Russian warships brings significant revenue to the Spanish treasury, Russia systematically uses this base to refuel its vessels to date, which causes indignation among representatives of the UK and the USA.[12] The only exception was 2017, when Russia itself withdrew a request for three warships.[13]

Russian mafia in Spain

In the early 1990s, a significant number of representatives of the Russian criminal world chose Spain as their main place of residence. It would be an exaggeration to say that this was due to Spanish corruption or other objective reasons. It can be assumed that the determining factors were, on the one hand, the climate (the most influential Russian mafiosi came from cold St. Petersburg and its environs), and on the other, positive image of Spain in the Russian collective historical memory. Spain (unlike, for example, France) is associated with the image of masculinity—which is also a painful issue for the rigid hierarchy of criminal circles in Russia. At the same time, Spain is associated with Ernest Hemingway, which for the Soviet Union of the 1960s (namely, the childhood and youth of the influential representatives of the criminal world), was a cult hero and, in a certain sense, a symbol of freedom. On the whole, the most likely, reason for choosing Spain as one of the main countries where the Russian criminal world is based abroad was a combination of random factors and a generally positive image of Spain in Russia.

The most influential criminal group in Russia by the end of the 1990s was the Tambov-Malyshev organized crime group. It remains so to the present; however, its members have changed their official statuses, from bandits to business representatives and large lobbyists.

They were a part of a criminal structure that was located in Spain since 1996 and consisted of immigrants from Russia who already had a criminal record or were under a trial either in Russian Federation, US, or other EU countries. Residing in Spain, they controlled the activities of the respective criminal groups in their home country. According to the records of the preliminary investigation No. 321/06 of the Spanish Prosecutor’s Office, these activities included murders, arms trafficking, extortion (under duress), fraud, document forgery, communications, bribery, illegal transactions, smuggling, drug trafficking, crimes against the Treasury, fraudulent decapitalization of companies, beatings and threatening conditions. The profits obtained through these illegal activities were sent to Spain with the help of legal and financial consultants, who eventually became a part of the Tambov-Malyshev criminal group. As stated in the records, their “main goal in our country is to conceal illegally obtained funds by legitimizing them and integrating them into the regulated financial system by increasing the authorized capital of “companies” and inter-partner loans, financial transfers from / to offshore zones and investments in other countries, for example, to Germany.” [14]

The central figures in the investigation of the Spanish prosecutor’s office were Gennady Petrov, Alexander Malyshev, Vladislav Reznik (a member of the Russian State Duma since 1999) and dozens more. The community leaders, Petrov and Malyshev, have been directly associated with Vladimir Putin since he was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg for external affairs. The materials of the Spanish case contain retellings of wiretapping of dialogues between the participants of this criminal group. Among other things, there is a conversation between Viktor Gavrilenkov (one of the leaders of the Velikiye Luki criminal group) and a certain “Sergey,” which took place in 2007. They discuss investments in the Spanish economy, possible problems from the “blue” (FSB of the Russian Federation), especially logistics, and this phrase also slips into the conversation: “Victor says that there are several hotels in Alicante, Putin’s house is not too far from here, in Torrevieja.” The Insider conducted a special investigation into this matter and found out that, according to the memoirs of local residents, in 1994 Putin came to Torrevieja and stayed there in the La Mata area.[15] At that time, Torrevieja was the “Russian capital in Spain,” this was the place where the shootings took place, and “the money was carried in backpacks.” According to The Insider, it was in this city that the deputy mayors of St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin, Alexey Kudrin, and Mikhail Manevich (assassinated in 1997[16]), and their “partners,” through controlled companies, acquired several real estate properties. Both Russian and Spanish specialists were involved in these operations, and the then leader of the criminal community of St. Petersburg Viktor Kumarin (Barsukov) controlled the money laundering process. Subsequently, after a fierce struggle, control over most of Kumarin’s area of responsibility was seized by Petrov. Kumarin went to prison, where he remains to the present.

A lot of investigations are devoted to the analysis of the materials of the Spanish prosecutor’s office, and the activities of Petrov and his entourage. In particular, he was involved[17] in the appointment of Alexander Bastrykin as the head of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, Igor Sobolevsky as his deputy, Anatoly Serdyukov as the Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation and many other personnel decisions in the Russian Federation.[18] Spanish mafiosi constantly supported communication with partners at home.[19]

The work of the Spanish prosecutor and investigative journalists[20] from all over the world was not left without attention. In particular, in the January 2018 report from the Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States Senate , more than half of the chapter on Spain is devoted to the activities of Petrov and his colleagues.[21] The report uses the Sebastian Rotella study published in ProPublica as one of its primary sources.[22] Spanish prosecutors met with Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer. Litvinenko was to advise Spanish investigators and share information on the activities of the Russian mafia in Spain. As an officer of Russia’s intelligence services, Litvinenko specialized in working with organized crime and apparently possessed a lot of classified information regarding Russian organized crime in Spain. However, Litvinenko was killed before he could testify at a trial. As was told in an inquiry by the UK’s House of Commons the order to kill Litvinenko was “likely approved by Putin.”[23] Jose Grinda Gonzalez, Spain’s leading law enforcement expert on Russian organized crime, told ProPublica, “We had accepted the idea that the world of the Russian mafia was like that. But it’s true that the case made other people think this gentleman had told the truth because now he was dead.’’

During an investigation into the activities of the Petrov’s gang, the Spanish law enforcement authorities were able to find a large amount of evidence showing that “that they named over a dozen of them in the indictments, including the former defence minister.”[24]

Petrov was arrested in 2008 during a major operation by the Spanish authorities against Russian organized crime, which ultimately led to the pretrial indictments of 27 suspects on charges of creating a criminal community and money laundering. Among the main actors of the criminal group was Vladislav Reznik, a senior Duma member and member of Putin’s United Russia party, and the indictment alleges that he operated at ‘‘the highest levels of power in Russia on behalf of Mr. Petrov and his organization.”

Before the start of the trial, Petrov left Spain and settled in Russia. Russian authorities did not take any action to return him to Spain. Moreover, they interfered with the investigation by sending false information to Spain or using opportunities to delay the process. Thus, the consideration of the Petrov case lasted more than ten years.

Nevertheless, despite Petrov’s flight, the investigation continued in 2008. In 2009, while pursuing a lead from the case, Spanish police entered the office of a lawyer suspected of money laundering, only to see him grab a document from his desk, crumple it up, and begin to eat it.[25] The document, after being forcibly spat out, led investigators to a new group of alleged money launderers in Barcelona who have suspected ties to Kremlin-linked organized crime.[26] The efforts of the Russian mafia in Spain were aimed at creating an effective and secure money-laundering machine in Catalonia. Representatives of Russian organized crime, themselves and through the experts they hired, have for years strengthened their influence on Catalan politicians and businessmen. One important tool for this disruptive influence was the use of rivalry between regional and national law enforcement agencies.[27]

Grinda’s investigation has been so productive and informative over the years, that it garnered the attention of the FBI who reportedly directed years ago that an FBI agent was to be embedded into the Spanish investigation to obtain further information with regard to Russian organized crime and corruption.[28]

Thanks to the efforts of Jose Grinda, the investigation into the activity of the Russian criminal network in Spain entered the international level:

Criminal activities including drugs, counterfeiting, extortion, car theft, human trafficking, fraud, fake IDs, contract killing, and trafficking in jewels, art, and antiques. This was done on an international scale. Not just in Russia. Solntsevskaya[29] has also demonstrated active cooperation with other international criminal organizations, like Mexican mafias, Colombian drug cartels, Italian criminal organizations (particularly with the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta and the Neapolitan Camorra), the Japanese yakuza, and Chinese triads, among others.[30]

Then one of the most senior leaders of the Russian criminal world, Zakhariy Kalashov (“Shakro the Young”) was taken under arrest.

If the fugitives were intimidated, Rueda [a former Spanish police commander] saw little sign of it. Law-enforcement officials in Georgia told him that Oniani [Tariel Oniani—one of the leaders of the Russian criminal world] was threatening to kill Spanish investigators […] Rueda spent weeks preparing a secret operation with the help of law-enforcement officials from several nations […] in what was one of the most important convictions overseas of a gangster from the former Soviet Union. But the Spanish fight did not end there. Kalashov, considered the most dangerous inmate in the country’s prison system, bombarded courts with appeals, plotted repeatedly to escape, and did his best to corrupt any officials he could reach, investigators say. In 2012, the FBI passed along a formal warning that the mafia was prepared to spend a million dollars to bribe a Spanish official for Kalashov’s release, a confidential FBI document indicates.[31]

After several unsuccessful attempts to assassinate the prosecutor, in 2017, the representatives of the Russian criminal world started to spread a rumor about Grinda allegedly being a pedophile through a Spanish lawyer.[32] In one of the interviews Grinda quoted a Spanish saying coined by the king of the Colombian narcos Pablo Escobar, plata or plomo, which literally translates to “silver or lead”: “Do you know what I mean if I say plomo or plata? With them it is like this: either take the plata, the money, or there is civil death.”[33] Fortunately, the process on charges of pedophilia against the prosecutor was not started, but in 2017 after French police intercepted a phone call from a Georgian mafia member ordering a hit on Grinda, he started using bodyguards to protect himself and his family.[34]

Despite all the efforts of the investigation, the accused were acquitted. During the process, the name of Vladimir Putin sounded many times and his direct relationship with the accused was not in doubt.[35]

The result of the trial of the Russian mafia in court can be an example of disruptive Russian influence that destroys the institution of justice and the inevitability of punishment. A massive team of lawyers and other professionals acted with the direct support of Russian law enforcement agencies. The Spanish court was obliged to accept the findings of Russian law enforcement without criticism, a priori recognizing the conclusions of the Russian authorities as real. (Possibly this follows from the spirit of the agreement on legal assistance between Russia and Spain in 1996).[36]

As a consequence, the Spanish judges even acquitted two defendants who acknowledged themselves to be guilty of money laundering and organized crime, Mikhail Rebo and Leon (Leonid) Khazine, stating the court is allowed to do so.

Spanish investigators complained to El País that courts have been too ready to grant bail to the numerous alleged Russian mafia members they have detained. “We had gained a lot of prestige in Europe for our operations against the Russian mafias and these decisions have thrown part of that work into the dustbin.”[37]

These drawbacks of the Spanish justice system can be clearly illustrated by Petrov’s case. The Spanish judges seem to have such faith in the reports of Russian FSB that any information provided there undermines all investigation efforts. As mentioned in Transborder Corruption Archive, “the Spanish sentence pretends that Petrov was not involved in organized crime, based on two reports from the Russian FSB and several more letters from different Russian law enforcement bodies, as well as on the conviction for defamation of a Russian media outlet for linking Gennady Petrov and Ilias Traber to organized crime.”[38]

Intervention in the Catalan referendum

However, the troubles of the leaders of the Russian criminal world in Spain did not end there. They turned out to be participants in Russia’s interference in the referendum in Catalonia.

Gennady Petrov was involved in financing radical parties. It seems reasonable to assume that he did this not so much on his own initiative, but rather at the request of his partners in Moscow. And in 2013, the Catalan regional government appointed Xavier Crespo, a former mayor belonging to the Romano Codina i Maseras (CiU) party, to the post of security secretary, which controls the Catalan police.[39] The appointment was cancelled when intelligence services in Madrid provided evidence that Crespo was involved in money laundering, and in 2014 he was charged with bribery from Petrov. As it was discovered during an investigation known as Operation Clotilde, the CiU also received money laundered by Russian crime syndicates through Catalan banks and shell companies.[40]

Part of the CiU teamed up with two left-wing parties to form a coalition that held a referendum on the independence of Catalonia from Spain on October 1, 2017. The referendum has been advancing for many years on domestic political, cultural, and economic issues. Still, it also gave Moscow many opportunities to develop a result that would weaken one of the central EU states. And now there is growing evidence that the Kremlin, at least through state-owned media, has launched a large-scale disinformation campaign aimed at a referendum.

The U.S. State Department reported that Russian state news outlets, such as Sputnik, published a number of articles in the run up to the poll that highlighted alleged corruption within the Spanish government and driving an overarching anti-EU narrative in support of the secessionist movement. These Russian news agencies, as well as Russian users on Twitter, also repeatedly promoted the views of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who has taken to social media to call for Spanish authorities to respect the upcoming vote in Catalonia. Spanish newspapers have also reported that Russian bots attempted to flood social media with controversial posts in support of Catalonian independence prior to the referendum.[41]

In November 2017, the Instituto Elcano research center published a report by Mira Milosevich-Juaristi on Russia’s alleged role. They registered a 2,000% increase in Russian digital activity related to Catalonia during September that reflected another Russian attempt “to influence the internal political situation of another country, to sow confusion and to proclaim the decline of liberal democracy.”[42]

According to the report, the main goals of malign influence in Catalonia were the following:

  • Discrediting Spanish democracy and alienating Spain from its EU and NATO partners;
  • Destroying credibility of European institutions and sowing confusion;
  • Compromising the liberal order created and maintained by the US;
  • Distracting the attention of Russia’s own citizens from internal problems.

The work of Russian communications media, including RT, Sputnik, Russia Beyond the Headlines and many state TV stations, social networks (Facebook and Twitter) by trolls (online profiles created to disseminate pre-fabricated information), bots (dissemination of information by autonomic processes) and sock puppets (online profiles created with the objective of generating and transmitting false news)[43] loudly declared itself to the world and various political and expert communities have developed a large number of recommendations to combat fake news.

It is important to note that Catalonia’s gaining or not gaining independence was by and large indifferent to Russian propaganda channels. The main goal was to balance the Catalan events in the public mind with the “referendum” in Crimea and thus push Europe’s public opinion to the idea of lifting international sanctions from Russia.[44]

At the end of 2019 Spain’s High Court, the Audiencia Nacional, opened an investigation into the alleged activities of a group linked with the Russian intelligence service during the 2017 Catalan breakaway bid.[45]

The Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said that some media organizations seem obsessed with bringing back “a half-forgotten issue,” and she talked about “an anti-Russia campaign.”[46]

Apparently, not only the Russian disinformation forces and representatives of the criminal world, but also the Russian special services took part in the Catalan campaign. A Spanish court has already sentenced members of extremist groups[47] to plan various acts of violence.[48] Representatives of Russian special services, including agents of GRU Unit 29155, could take part in coordinating and supporting the activities of these organizations.

The investigations of malign Russian influence will bring more evidence. Unofficial sources increasingly point to the direct impact of Russian intelligence services in Spain. We can safely assume that Russia uses Spain as a “recreation center” and “operational space” for Russian security services. In the course of official and journalistic investigations of the murders in Britain by the representatives of the Russian authorities, it became possible to conclude that the special GRU unit 29155[49] was responsible for these acts. It is still impossible to undeniably confirm the direct connection between this unit and the Russian mafia, but new evidence gives more reasons for this. For example, an agent of the Unit 29155 “Fedorov” (Denis Sergeev) visited Catalonia just before the referendum.[50]

“While the referendum did not result in Catalonia’s independence from Spain, it showed that Spain is a growing target of the Kremlin’s malign influence operations. Spain can strengthen its resiliency by studying the experiences of and cooperating with other similarly-targeted European countries, and the U.S. government should take steps to help shore-up ongoing effort.”[51]

Extradition problems and problems of cooperation

The Spanish authorities had trouble handling thriving Russian criminal groups, the population of which was steadily growing in Spain since the 1990s when citizens of the former Soviet Union started arriving in the country, residing primarily in three areas: Costa del Sol, Valencia (including already mentioned Torrevieja), and the Catalonian coast. In his article on transnational organized crime in Spain, Carlos Resa Nestares claims that weak government and administrative institutes of Russia and general reluctance of Russian authorities to cooperate were the primary reasons why attempts to stop growth of Russian mafia influence were unsuccessful: “In many cases, the Russian mafias take advantage of the lack of co-operation of the Russian police with Spanish investigations. The collapse of governmental structures, which has decimated the police force, is one reason for this lack of co-operation. Others are the pervasive corruption which plagues the Russian police as well as their spotty training in new types of criminality.”[52]

It is obvious that it was the refusal of the Russian investigation to cooperate with the Spanish investigating authorities that later became the main official argument justifying the difficulty of investigating the activities of Russian criminal groups and officials all over the EU.

So, for example, this argument is regularly used in the Indictment of the Special Prosecutor Against Corruption and the Organized Criminality to the Court.[53]

It can be concluded with certainty: the Russian prosecutors are directly (at least passively) opposing the Spanish investigation. The case of Tariel Oniani clearly demonstrates the level of Russian cooperation. In June 2005, Oniani fled to Russia just hours before he was to be arrested in Spain, and in April 2006, despite the fact that he was wanted by the Spanish authorities, Russia granted him citizenship. Obtaining Russian citizenship is a complicated and bureaucratic procedure. However, in Oniani’s case, it went surprisingly quickly. It is doubtful that Oniani was just lucky, and Jose Grinda Gonzalez alleges that such a generous gesture from the authorities suggests “an example of Russia putting crime lords to work on behalf of its interests.” Grinda is also sure that the Russian Interior Ministry and the FSB were protecting Oniani even while he was held in prison. Later, in June 2009, following Oniani’s arrest in Russia, Spain requested his extradition for charges related to Operation Avispa. However, the Russian authorities denied this request, claiming it was his Russian citizenship that prevented extradition. As Grinda concluded, “A virtue of the Russian government is that it will always say and do the same thing: nothing.”[54]

Despite the efforts of Spanish authorities to investigate and prosecute illegal activities of Russian criminal groups and eliminate the effect of their malign influence on internal affairs, the results are still underwhelming. As stated in “Defining and Prosecuting Transborder Corruption,” “a major problem preventing European law enforcement bodies from investigating transborder corruption is the absence of agreements on legal assistance between Russia and European countries.”[55]

In conclusion, it is safe to say the Russian authorities are directly affiliated with criminal groups in Europe. With their help, they launder their incomes, provide themselves and their loved ones the opportunity to live comfortably in developed countries. In addition, as it has become clear recently, criminal groups, together with the Russian special services, are systematically working on destroying the institutions of democracy and justice. This activity so far is proceeding quite successfully and with impunity.


[1] Alexander Dunaev, “Why Spain Doesn’t Fear the ‘Russian Threat,’” Carnegie Moscow Center, March 5, 2018. https://carnegie.ru/commentary/75698

[2] Maxine David, Jackie Gower, and Hiski Haukkala, eds., National Perspectives on Russia: European Foreign Policy in the Making? (Routledge, 2013), 111.

[3] “EU–Russia partnership and cooperation agreement 1994,” Official Journal of the European Communities (November 28, 1997): L 327/3, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex:21997A1128(01)

[4] Maria Shagina, “EU Sanctions Policy Towards Post-Soviet Conflicts: Cases of Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia And Abkhazia,” Revista UNISCI / UNISCI Journal, no. 43 (Enero/January 2017); and David, Gower, and Haukkala, National Perspectives on Russia, 109.

[5] Hannah Jamar and Mary Katherine Vigness, “Applying Kosovo: Looking to Russia, China, Spain and Beyond After the International Court of Justice Opinion on Unilateral Declarations of Independence,” German Law Journal 11 no. 7-8 (August 2010): 921–922, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/german-law-journal/article/applying-kosovo-looking-to-russia-china-spain-and-beyond-after-the-international-court-of-justice-opinion-on-unilateral-declarations-of-independence/8A9AAA20549A0A2A70611F43090CCB56

[6] Shagina, “Eu Sanctions Policy”

[7] Giles Tremlett, “Gazprom seeks 20% of Spanish oil group,” Guardian (US edition), November 4, 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2008/nov/14/oil-russia-gazprom-spain-repsol

[8] “Russia’s import in 2017,” The Observatory of Economic Complexity, https://oec.world/es/profile/country/rus/#Exportaciones

[9] Dunaev, “Why Spain Doesn’t Fear ‘Russian Threat’”

[10] Aurora Mejía “Spain’s contribution to Euro-Atlantic security,” The Elcano Royal Institute, http://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/wps/portal/rielcano_en/contenido?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/elcano/elcano_es/zonas_es/defensa+y+seguridad/ari60-2017-mejia-spain-contribution-euro-atlantic-security

[11] Miguel González “Ceuta: an unofficial Russian naval ‘base’ in the Strait of Gibraltar? Right-wing groups in the US and UK criticize frequent stopovers in the Spanish exclave,” El Pais, March 28, 2016. https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2016/03/28/inenglish/1459157481_130448.html

[12]George Allison “Spain complains about British military while refuelling Russian warships,” UK Defence Journal, (June 2019), https://ukdefencejournal.org.uk/spain-complains-about-british-military-while-refuelling-russian-warships/

[13] “Russian warships: Spain says refuelling request withdrawn,” BBC News, October 26, 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37779204

[14] Fiscalia Especial Contra La Corrupción Y La Criminalidad Organizada, Protocols of the preliminary investigation No. 321/06, http://www.compromat.ru/files/51434.pdf

[15] Anastasiya Kirilenko, “Dom sen’ora Putina. Den’gi merii Peteburga otmyvalic’ v Ispanii?” The Insider, November 9, 2015, https://theins.ru/korrupciya/15823

[16] “Gangland-Style Slaying of Russian Official” New York Times By Associated Press, Aug. 19, 1997, https://www.nytimes.com/1997/08/19/world/gangland-style-slaying-of-russian-official.html

[17] Anastasiya Kirilenko, “Dom Russkoy Mafii: ‘tolik’ ‘sasha’ ‘tsar,’” The New Times November 30, 2015, https://newtimes.ru/articles/detail/104858

[18] Anastasiya Kirilenko, “Mafiya na goszakaze. Kak novye kremlevskie oligarkhi svyazany s prestupnym mirom,” The Insider, July 2, 2015, https://theins.ru/korrupciya/10407

[19] Anastasiya Kirilenko, “Primaya liniya s Tambovskoy OPG. Kak mafiya druzhit s glavoy Sk, ministrami I prochim okruzheniem Putina (proslushki),” The Insider, November 6, 2018, https://theins.ru/korrupciya/125116

[20] Sebastian Rotella, “Gangsters of the Mediterranean. The story of the Russian mob in Spain—and the detectives who spent years trying to bring them down,” The Atlantic, November 10, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/11/russian-mob-mallorca-spain/545504/

[21] “Putin’s Asymmetric Assault On Democracy In Russia And Europe: Implications For U.S. National Security,” A Minority Staff Report Prepared For The Use Of The Committee On Foreign Relations United States S. Doc. No. 115-21 (January 10, 2018), https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/FinalRR.pdf

[22] Sebastian Rotella, ‘‘A Gangster Place in the Sun: How Spain’s Fight Against the Mob revealed Russian Power Networks,’’ ProPublica, Nov. 10, 2017, https://www.propublica.org/article/fighting-russian-mafia-networks-in-spain

[23] An inquiry by the UK’s House of Commons concluded that order to kill Litvinenko was likely approved by Putin. United Kingdom House of Commons, “The Litvinenko Inquiry: Report into the Death of Alexander Litvinenko,” at 244 (March 2015), https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/493860/The-Litvinenko-Inquiry-H-C-695-web.pdf

[24] While mentioned in court documents, the officials were not actually charged.

[25] Rotella, “Gangsters of the Mediterranean;” and Rotella, ‘‘Gangster Place in the Sun”

[26] Rotella, “Gangsters of the Mediterranean;” and Rotella, ‘‘Gangster Place in the Sun”

[27] “Putin’s Asymmetric Assault On Democracy In Russia And Europe: Implications For U.S. National Security,” A Minority Staff Report Prepared For The Use Of The Committee On Foreign Relations United States S. Doc. No. 115-21 (January 10, 2018), https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/FinalRR.pdf

[28] Martin Sheil, “Is Russian Organized Crime the link between the Danske Bank money laundering scandal and the Novichok poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal?” Medium, Sep 20, 2018, https://medium.com/@sheil51/is-russian-organized-crime-the-link-between-the-danske-bank-money-laundering-scandal-and-the-cc431f1c2de6

[29] Criminal group from Moscow. Many members of this group were arrested in Spain in 2017. “Two Main Russian Mafia Groups Dismantled In Spain With Europol’s Support” Europol Press Release, September 28, 2017, https://www.europol.europa.eu/newsroom/news/two-main-russian-mafia-groups-dismantled-in-spain-europol%E2%80%99s-support

[30] Melissa Rossi “Spain’s Robert Mueller takes on the Russian mob,” Yahoo News, January 19, 2018, https://www.yahoo.com/news/spains-robert-mueller-takes-russian-mob-202248019.html

[31] Rotella, “Gangsters of the Mediterranean”

[32] Rossi “Spain’s Robert Mueller”

[33] Il Fatto Quotidiano “Mafia russa, su Fq MillenniuM l’intervista esclusiva al giudice Grinda: C’è Mosca dietro le accuse di pedofilia contro di me” June 13, 2017, https://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2017/06/13/mafia-russa-su-fq-millennium-lintervista-esclusiva-al-giudice-grinda-ce-mosca-dietro-le-accuse-di-pedofilia-contro-di-me/3655094/

[34] Rossi “Spain’s Robert Mueller”

[35] Anastasia Kirilenko, “The top man says he’ll consider it.” Vladimir Putin in wiretapped calls of Tambovskaya gang, The Insider, April 27.04.2018, https://theins.ru/uncategorized/100981?lang=en

[36] “Dogovor mezhdu Rossiyskoy Federatsiey i Korolevstvom Ispaniya ob okazanii pravovoy pomoshchi po ugolovnym delam. Moskva, 25 marta 1996 goda. Ministerstvo yustitsii RF,” https://to14.minjust.ru/ru/dogovor-mezhdu-rossiyskoy-federaciey-i-korolevstvom-ispaniya-ob-okazanii-pravovoy-pomoshchi-po

[37] González “Ceuta: unofficial Russian naval ‘base’”

[38] Transborder Corruption Archive; “Sentence, Troika criminal case, Spain,” October 19, 2018, https://tbcarchives.org/sentencia-operacion-troika/

[39] Martin Arostegui, ‘‘Officials: Russia Seeking to Exploit Catalonia Secessionist Movement,’’ VOA News, November 24, 2017, https://www.voanews.com/europe/officials-russia-seeking-exploit-catalonia-secessionist-movement

[40] Arostegui, ‘‘Officials: Russia Seeking to Exploit”

[41] Chris Sampson, “Introduction” in Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe Implications for U.S. National Security (Simon and Schuster: 2018), https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Putins-Asymmetric-Assault-on-Democracy-in-Russia-and-Europe/Chris-Sampson/9781510739888

[42] Mira Milosevich-Juaristi, “The ‘combination’: an instrument in Russia’s information war in Catalonia,” The Elcano Royal Institute, November 11, 2017, http://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/wps/portal/rielcano_en/contenido?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/elcano/elcano_in/zonas_in/defense+security/ari92-2017-milosevichjuaristi-combination-instrument-russia-information-war-catalonia

[43] Milosevich-Juaristi, “The ‘combination’”

[44] David Alandete How Russian news networks are using Catalonia to destabilize Europe. Media stories in English, Russian and German equating crisis in Spain with conflicts in Crimea and Kurdistan,” El Pais September 25, 2017, https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2017/09/25/inenglish/1506323273_063367.html

[45] Óscar López-Fonseca and Fernando J. Pérez, “Spain’s High Court opens investigation into Russian spying unit in Catalonia. Judge Manuel García-Castellón is probing whether an elite military group known as Unit 29155 carried out actions aimed at destabilizing the region during the separatist push,” El Pais, November 21, 2019, https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2019/11/21/inenglish/1574324886_989244.html

[46] María R. Sahuquillo, Russia denies interference in Catalonia or in Spain’s domestic affairs. A week after it emerged that the Spanish High Court is probing the activities of an elite military group, the Foreign Ministry is talking about an anti-Russia campaign by the media,” El Pais, November 29, 2019, https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2019/11/29/inenglish/1575016033_266352.html

[47] Rebeca Carranco and Marta Rodríguez, “Authorities in Catalonia clear protests on AP-7 freeway near Girona. Supporters of independence for the northeastern region have been trying to block the road, which links Spain with France, since Monday,” El Pais, November 13, 2019, https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2019/11/13/inenglish/1573644554_106668.html

[48] Reyes Rincón, “Prosecutors uphold prison requests for Catalan separatist leaders. Oriol Junqueras faces 25 years in jail for his involvement in the 2017 secession drive after four months of hearings that did not alter the legal teams’ positions,” El Pais, May 20, 2019, https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2019/05/30/inenglish/1559199477_834254.html

[49] Michael Schwirtz. “Top Secret Russian Unit Seeks to Destabilize Europe, Security Officials Say,” New York Times, October 8, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/08/world/europe/unit-29155-russia-gru.html

[50] López-Fonseca and Pérez, “Spain’s High Court opens investigation”

[51] “Putin’s Asymmetric Assault On Democracy In Russia And Europe: Implications For U.S. National Security,” A Minority Staff Report Prepared For The Use Of The Committee On Foreign Relations United States S. Doc. No. 115-21 (January 10, 2018), https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/FinalRR.pdf

[52] Carlos Resa Nestares. “Transnational Organized Crime in Spain: Structural Factors Explaining its Penetration,” in Global Organized Crime and International Security, ed. Emilio C. Viano, 47-62, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330288240_Transnational_Organized_Crime_in_Spain_Structural_Factors_Explaining_its_Penetration

[53] Fiscalia Especial Contra La Corrupción Y La Criminalidad Organizada, Protocols of the preliminary investigation No. 321/06, http://www.compromat.ru/files/51434.pdf

[54] Luke Harding, “WikiLeaks cables: Russian government ‘using mafia for its dirty work.’ Spanish prosecutor alleges links between Kremlin and organised crime gangs have created a ‘virtual mafia state,’” Guardian (US edition), Dec 1, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/dec/01/wikileaks-cable-spain-russian-mafia

[55] Harry Hummel and Christopher Starke, “Defining and Prosecuting Transborder Corruption,” in Failed in Action Why European Law Enforcers Are Unable to Tackle EU-Russian Transborder Corruption, EU-Russia Civil Forum. Expert Group “Fighting Transborder Corruption,” Report, 2017, 8-11, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322519997_Defining_and_Prosecuting_Transborder_Corruption

The (Geo-)Political Aspects of Austrian-Russian Business Relations, Part I

This article is a part of the first issue of the Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly.

You can also download this piece as a PDF.

1. Introduction

This article focuses on the political framework conditions, side effects and consequences of Austrian-Russian economic relations over the past two decades. The supply of natural gas and crude oil from Russia to and via Austria has a special role to play here, since it accounts for the lion’s share of Moscow’s exports; it is also relevant for other EU countries which likewise purchase Russian gas. And it is a matter of common knowledge that the production and export of energy sources are at the heart of Russia’s economy, without which the country would be negligible in global political terms, regardless of its size.

Vladimir Putin has been at war since the day he took office as Prime Minister in August 1999 (at that time in the breakaway North Caucasian Republic of Chechnya). Between 1999 and 2008 the oil price rose sharply, which Putin took advantage of in his military policy. Without or with significantly less oil and gas revenues, Putin would not have been able to finance the secret services (the backbone of his power), the modernization of his army, several de facto states in former Soviet republics (Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic in Ukraine, Transnistria in Moldova; Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia) and his wars (currently against Ukraine and in Syria) to the same extent as before, not to mention the funding of occupied Crimea peninsula, which has cost Moscow the equivalent of around USD 20 billion since 2014. Russia’s reliable oil and gas customer—Austria—also contributes to this state of affairs, but without this being the subject of any attention from the country’s politicians, press, or political scientists. Hardly anyone in Western Europe and North America cares about the undeniable fact that Putin’s world power ambitions are financed by Western oil and gas customers, not to mention that someone wants to change this.

This article cannot deal with the “export” of Russian corruption to Austria; the operations of Russian oligarchs, and the activities of the “Russian Mafia” in Austria. This has reasons of space alone and is not due to the author’s assumption that this would be insignificant in the context of Austrian-Russian (economic) relations. Thus, the Russian opposition politician Aleksey Navalny said: “Everyone [in Russia] loves Austria—especially the crooks and thieves.”[1]  Thus, the trade relations between Russia and Austria also, to a certain extent, advance Russia’s malign influence. In addition, an ideological moment was always present in the Austrian-Soviet and then Russian business relations (even if most, if not almost all, of the Austrian and probably also Soviet/Russian politicians and managers involved would strongly deny this). The political background for this is Austria’s neutrality (which has existed since 1955), the observance of which Moscow monitored “with Argus eyes” in both Soviet and post-Soviet times. And for the Austrian side, neutrality was and is a good excuse to show itself “as friendly as possible” towards Putin’s Russia. This can be demonstrated by numerous events. So, in June 2014 Austria was the first EU member country to receive Putin after the annexation of Crimea; and the politicians meeting him in Vienna seemed to be very proud of this.

Austrians sometimes console themselves about the low international importance of their country by quoting Friedrich Hebbel: “This Austria is the little world in which the big one holds its rehearsal” (in German it rhymes: Dies Österreich ist eine kleine Welt, in der die große ihre Probe hält.”) When these words were spoken in 1862, Austria was territorially much larger than it was after 1918 and up to the present day: It was a major European power then and is now a small state. Russia, on the other hand, was then and is now a great power, and the character of its political system at that time was by no means dissimilar to that of Putin’s Russia today: authoritarian, with a ruler who cannot be voted out of office; very nationalistic, ambitious, and self-confident; with an (almost) powerless society; and with a political class that is also and especially concerned with self-enrichment. These are the real starting conditions for any proper analysis of Russia’s domestic, foreign, military, security, and economic policy—and therefore also for an approach to its relations with Austria in general and in the field of trade in particular.

2. Russia as Austria’s Trade Partner—an Overview

During each of his stays in Vienna, Putin visited the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, which is dominated by the Austrian People’s Party and claims to represent the interests of business and foreign trade. Putin also collects his standing ovations there. Thus, an uninformed person, watching such TV coverage, could gain the impression that Russia is the most important or at least a very significant trade partner for Austria. But what is the truth? In 2018, 35.8% of Austria’s import came from Germany; 6.4% from Italy; 5.8% from China; Switzerland and the Czech Republic each account for 4.4%; 3.8% came from the US; France, the Netherlands, Poland and Hungary each account for 2.7%; 2.2% came from Slovakia and only 2.1% from Russia. Among Austria’s top export partners are (1) Germany, (2) US, (3) Italy, (4) Switzerland; Russia with a share of 1.4% occupied only 17th position.[2] However, “such economic data show only part of the story. […] Austrian economic players dealing with Russia are more important than the aggregate trade numbers might suggest. Some key business sectors linked to Russia have ties to the state, strong corporate lobbies, or both.”[3]

Austrian imports from Russia continue to consist mainly of energy sources (oil, natural gas), followed by metals. According to the Austrian Embassy in Moscow, the largest share of exports from Austria is attributed to the manufacturing industry, especially mechanical engineering and plant construction. Approximately 500 Austrian companies are active in Russia, particularly in the wood and paper industry, mechanical and plant engineering, construction, and banking.[4]

3. Austria in the EU Context as a Customer of Russian Oil and Gas

Since 2013 (until January 2020, when the UK left) all 28 member states of the EU are net importers of energy. In 2017, 55% of the EU’s energy needs were met by net imports. Russia has maintained its position throughout the period 2007–2017 as the leading supplier to the EU of the main primary energy commodities—natural gas, crude oil, and hard coal.

The EU’s natural gas dependency reached 77.9% in 2018, up from 74.4% in 2017. In 15 member states natural gas dependency was higher than 90%. For Austria, this dependence was 91% in 2017 and 88.4% in 2018.[5] Russia’s share of EU imports of natural gas between 2007 and 2017 did not change (38.7%). The lowest level was recorded in 2010 (31.9%), the peak of 41.1% occurred in 2013. Russia was and is also the principal supplier of EU crude oil imports: Its share stood at 33.7% in 2007 and fluctuated between 34.7% (2011) and 29% (2015). In 2017, its share was 30.3%, in 2018—27.3% (for comparison: Norway—11.2%, Nigeria—8.1%, Kazakhstan—7.8%).[6] As to hard coal, in 2017 38.9% of the EU’s imports came from Russia.

The EU has known for many years that “the security of the EU’s primary energy supplies may be threatened if a high proportion of imports are concentrated among relatively few partners.”[7] However, no decisive action was taken: In 2017, almost three quarters (74.6%) of the EU-28’s imports of natural gas originated from Russia, Norway, and Algeria. The same year, close to three quarters (72.7%) of the EU-28’s hard coal imports originated from Russia, Colombia, and the United States, while imports of crude oil were less concentrated among the principal suppliers, as Russia, Norway, and Iraq accounted for roughly half (49.9%) of the EU-28’s imports.

With regards to the origins of imports in 2017–2018, Norway was the source of 30.2% of the natural gas entering the EU (intra-EU trade and entries from Switzerland both excluded), followed by Russia (20.5%), Ukraine (16.3%), and Belarus (10.3%). However, considering that most gas entering the EU from Ukraine and Belarus initially comes from Russia, the dependency on gas imports from this country is in practice much higher than on gas from Norway.[8]

As to Austria, it has long-standing links in the energy sector with Moscow. In 1968 (when the ostentatiously anti-communist Austrian People’s Party was the sole political force in power), the Vienna-based oil and gas group OMV became the first non-communist European company to conclude a natural gas supply deal with the Soviet Union. The consequences of this decision are still felt strongly today. Other Western European countries followed suit, and Austria enjoyed its role as a major hub for Soviet and, after 1991, Russian gas exports across Europe.

During his talks with Putin in November 2009, Austrian Federal Chancellor Werner Faymann (Social Democratic Party) mentioned that Austria has no nuclear power plants; Putin laughed calling this a “very good decision for Russia as well.”[9] Indeed, Austria has to buy Russian gas in the foreseeable future and, therefore, remains dependent on Moscow to a great extent.

The OMV today is 31.5% state-owned and forms the single biggest integrated petroleum company in Central Europe. It undertakes petroleum exploration and production, refining, as well as wholesale and retail sales on domestic and international levels. OMV also operates Austria’s only refinery (based in Schwechat, a suburb of Vienna) and three natural-gas-storage facilities. OMV and Russian natural gas giant Gazprom cooperate in gas production, transportation, and supplies. In June 2018, an Agreement was signed to extend until 2040 the existing contract between Gazprom Export and the OMV Gas Marketing & Trading GmbH for Russian gas supplies to Austria. In October 2018, Gazprom and OMV signed a Memorandum on Strategic Cooperation, which envisages the creation of a Joint Coordinating Committee on collaboration in the natural gas sector, both upstream and downstream, in the area of science and technology, as well as staff training. OMV called this “strengthening the partnership” with Gazprom.[10] Its CEO Rainer Seele presents any such “strengthening” as “diversification of supply” and “support to ensure security of supply”[11]—in manifest contradiction of the facts. There are even Austrian politicians, as Karlheinz Kopf (People’s Party), who stated that with OMV providing Gazprom “access to Europe,” Austria “is once again performing its role as mediator in some way.”[12] This was an example of the skill of many Austrian politicians (and managers) in presenting the business of Austrian companies and banks with Russia as an “expression of traditional Austrian neutrality.” Kopf is also Secretary General of the Economic Chamber (since 2018) and Chairman of the Parliamentary Group Austria—Russia.

In the past there have been repeated speculations about Gazprom’s entry into OMV. The Russian side has usually been evasive or, for example, claimed that “at present no talks are being held.” This, of course, leaves all options open for the future. Sometimes rumors appeared that Gazprom might try to take over OMV. Former Austrian oil industry manager Wolfgang Schollnberger, who had worked for OMV (among others), commented with “black humor” in January 2016 that this was not even necessary if Gazprom had “enough followers” on the OMV Management Board itself, the OMV Supervisory Board, the Supervisory Board of the Österreichische Bundes-und Industriebeteiligungen GmbH (ÖBIB) (which managed the state shares in several companies from 2015 to 2019 before it was transferred to the Österreichische Beteiligungs AG, or ÖBAG), or in the relevant Austrian federal ministries. From Schollnberger’s point of view, it had to be assumed that “some of these submissive people know exactly what is at stake, but others are short-sighted followers.”[13]

According to the latest yearbook of the Austrian statistics authority, only 5.6% of crude oil demand and 11.6% of gas consumption originate from domestic production. Since the closure of the Styrian lignite mining facilities in 2005, Austria’s foreign dependence on coal has been 100%. Furthermore, the yearbook states unequivocally that Austria’s dependence on foreign energy supplies is “continuously” increasing.[14]

In 2018, Gazprom delivered to Austria 12.3 billion cubic meters of gas, an increase of 34.8% against 2017 (9.1 billion cubic meters). In 2018, OMV imported a total of 8.3 million tons of crude oil to Austria, an increase of 13.5% over the previous year. Crude oil was procured from fourteen countries in very different quantities. Kazakhstan was in the lead with almost 3.1 million tons, followed by Libya with 1.9 million tons, Iran with 988,000 tons and Azerbaijan with 782,000 tons.[15] In this context, however, it usually goes unmentioned that the oil from Kazakhstan is transported viapipelines which also pass through Russian territory.

Practically all Austrian and Western European advocates and supporters of an “extended cooperation” with Gazprom in general and of the Nord Stream pipeline projects in particular justify this as an “interdependence” and “mutual intertwining”: the Kremlin would not be able to blackmail the EU with gas supplies because it is massively dependent on these revenues itself. This is, however, “pseudo-plausible”: there is no doubt that in a theoretical massive political conflict situation Moscow could “endure” much longer without these funds than many EU states could last without Russian oil and gas. Fortunately, the leaders of (most) EU states are accountable to their respective populations, which is completely absent in Putin’s case. Thus, Mikhail Korchemkin, founder and head of the Pennsylvania-based consulting firm East European Gas Analysis, said: “The Kremlin is ready to abandon revenues at any moment in order to achieve some political goals. I have no doubt that if the Kremlin doesn’t like something—the decision of some court, the actions of some German companies—then gas supplies will be immediately cut and stopped. Although normal practice suggests that one should go to an arbitration court.”[16]

It is, however, unlikely that Austria alone would become the victim of (howsoever motivated) political blackmail by Russia by refusing to supply energy sources, including natural gas; this would also affect other EU states. A historical example of such a scheme is the oil boycott against Western countries by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1973, which also affected Austria, although it had nothing to do with the Middle East conflict and was, of course, not militarily involved at all; its then Federal Chancellor (Prime Minister) Bruno Kreisky (Socialist Party)[17] was also considered very critical of Israel, but that did not “help” either.

Austria can also suffer “collateral damage,” and this has already happened. For example, in January 2006 and January 2009 Russian natural gas supplies to Austria and some other European countries were temporarily cut off because the Kremlin wanted to put political pressure on Ukraine (whose President Viktor Yushchenko, elected in 2004, was despised in Moscow). There were no supply shortages in Austria, as the country was able to draw on stored reserves. But such events should have severely damaged Moscow’s reputation as a “reliable supplier” to the EU; for some mysterious reasons, this did not happen.

But the Austrian Ministry for European and International Affairs, which usually selects its phrasing very carefully, wrote in its annual report for 2007: “Russia uses its energy policy as a mighty tool of its foreign policy.”[18] In May 2007, the Austrian Minister for Economic Affairs Martin Bartenstein (People’s Party), who also co-chaired the Austrian-Russian Joint Commission for Trade and Economic Cooperation, was aware that Putin pursued a “foreign policy” using Gazprom. Bartenstein said, “with its huge gas reserves Russia is playing back into the power poker of world politics,” but he immediately put this into perspective by claiming that “many [other] states […] also make world politics with energy.” However, Bartenstein (wo had received the Russian Order of Friendship in 2002) did not mention such “other” examples here, so that it remained open whom he meant specifically.[19] Such “whataboutism” is typical for Putin’s defenders in the West and in Austria as well: they constantly refer to different events that often have nothing at all to do with Russia under discussion and which cannot explain or justify its behavior; nevertheless, many politicians and media consumers (and even many political scientists) are impressed and influenced by this. In February 2014, Austrian banker Herbert Stepic did not even deny that Putin was making “politics” with gas supplies, but found nothing wrong with that—Putin wanted to “simply build his Great Russia.”[20] And Stepic had no intention to criticize this or ask why Austria should participate in the realization of Putin’s ambitions.

During the 2009 gas supply crisis Austrian politicians and managers rescued themselves into veritable “verbal contortions.” For example, OMV‘s then head Wolfgang Ruttenstorfer (who had been State Secretary in the Ministry of Finance for the Social Democratic Party from 1997 to 1999) declared that Russia “will continue to be a reliable supplier of natural gas after the end of the bilateral conflict with Ukraine.”[21] And of course, Austrian politicians “nobly restrained” criticism of Putin because of the supply stops. It was left to Austrian satirist Rainer Nikowitz to use a fictional interview with “Putin” to announce findings that Western European politicians, managers, and political scientists (with “Russia experts” among them) were unwilling to make public: “If I [‘Putin’] only blackmail the Ukrainians, it will take endlessly for them to give in. But if I blackmail the mollycoddled EU as well, I’ll get my way much faster.”[22]

Austria has taken some steps to prepare for a gas emergency, notably by enabling the physical reversibility of a large number of its gas pipelines with neighboring countries (Germany to Austria and Italy to Austria) in 2011. But that would be of little or no help if these countries themselves were affected by massive gas shortages.

Most of the Russian gas that serves Europe comes from the Urengoy and Bovanovenskoe reservoirs. Urengoy has been one of the world’s most productive fields for four decades, but the gas closer to its surface is running out. Gazprom has decided to hire international partners for the expensive, more complicated drilling needed to remove gas from Urengoy’s depths. Thus, on 7 June 2019, OMV signing an Amendment Agreement to a Basic Sale Agreement from 3 October 2018, with which it will acquire a quarter of the Urengoy gas field on Yamal Peninsula. The agreement for 905 million euro will give OMV 24.98% ownership of Blocks 4A and 5A at Urengoy. Gazprom will retain majority control of this gas field—50.01%.[23] This, as an Austrian daily called it, “Siberian adventure”[24] shows once again that OMV is not thinking of easing its already very close ties with Gazprom in the foreseeable future.

Gazprom’s, OMV’s and other natural gas lobbyists’ presentation of the “environmental friendliness” of burning natural gas is contradicted by practically all serious experts. They also try to create the impression that natural gas is the lesser evil compared to coal or oil, why Nord Stream 2 must be built at any costs and why the connection with Gazprom (i.e. Putin’s Kremlin) must not only be maintained, but even expanded. But all this is wrong. Although natural gas really produces comparatively few greenhouse gases when burned, leaks occur frequently in gas production plants and pipelines. Large quantities of unburned methane gas escape from these leaks. And methane is a particularly dangerous greenhouse gas: it has a much greater greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide. Ralf Sussmann from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (Germany) has proven by measurements on the Zugspitze mountain (on the German-Austrian border) that the methane concentration in the atmosphere is rising sharply and that natural gas leaks are mainly responsible for this (leaks from gas wells and pipelines, for example). If these leaks are taken into account, it is doubtful whether natural gas still has any advantage over coal.

Environmental associations used to see natural gas as a “bridging technology,” i.e. as a transitional solution on the way to a much more climate-friendly economy. However, this has changed since. The German Association for the Environment and Nature Conservation, for example, draws a clear conclusion: “Natural gas is not an answer to the climate crisis. […] It makes no sense to invest in new gas infrastructure projects that are expected to be in operation for more than half a century.”[25]

4. The Nord Stream Gas Pipelines and Austria

The entire Austrian political and business elite—including the current (since January 2020) Government under Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, consisting of the People’s Party and the Greens—promote the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. This is a Russian geopolitical project that is harmful to the energy security of the entire EU and, therefore, also of Austria. It is intended to drive a “wedge” into the EU—namely between those countries that support it (Austria, Germany, etc.) and those that reject it (Poland, Baltic States). The Kremlin hopes that this will weaken the EU as a “geopolitical competitor” for power and influence in the world. But nevertheless, OMV is expected to account for about 10% of the total cost of 9.5 billion euro (according to the operators; “project-unrelated” observers expect much more) for Nord Stream 2. Its head since 2015, when Austria was governed by a coalition of Social Democrats and People’s Party, is the German national Rainer Seele. His pro-Russian (and anti-Ukrainian) views, which appear in every interview he gives,[26] were, of course, already known then and posed no obstacle, and were possibly even a prerequisite for his appointment as OMV’s General Director. The company believes that there is a chance that a part of the natural gas that will land in the East German coastal town of Lubmin could be forwarded to the Baumgarten transmission facility on the Austrian-Slovak border. Between a quarter and a third of the export volume from Russia destined for Western Europe is handled via Baumgarten: The gas is transported from this hub via large transit pipelines to Germany, Italy, France, Slovenia, Croatia, and Hungary and via the primary distribution system to the Austrian provinces.

It is noteworthy that former (2014–2017) Austrian Finance Minister Hansjörg Schelling (a confidant of Seele) from the People’s Party is an official lobbyist for Nord Stream 2 since 2018. Matthias Warnig, who clearly enjoys Putin’s trust (which is evident from the very jobs he got in Russia),[27] was the Managing Director of the Nord Stream AG (formally in Zug, Switzerland) from 2006 to 2016 and is Chief Executive Officer of the Nord Stream 2 AG since September 2015. None of the (former and active) politicians and businessmen in Austria, Germany or other project participating countries who promote this pipeline were ever bothered by the fact that Warnig was an employee of the Ministry for State Security of the GDR.

At a meeting with Putin in Sochi in mid-May 2019, Austria’s Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen spoke out strongly in favor of Nord Stream 2. According to Van der Bellen, the gas from Siberia is significantly cheaper for European consumers than the imported liquid gas from the US. According to him, OMV “does not intend to withdraw from the ‘Nord Stream 2’ project.” Putin accepted this with visible satisfaction.[28] The EU sanctions against Russia, imposed for the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, obviously, never affected this project.

For many years, the US, EU, and Austria did nothing at all to disrupt or block Nord Stream (which became operational in November 2011) and/or Nord Stream 2. It was not until December 2019, when only about 300 kilometers were left to complete Nord Stream 2, that the US imposed sanctions on the companies involved. In Germany and Russia, there was great indignation, and in Austria (apart from OMV, of course), the tabloid press and (in its own understanding) the quality press demonstratively and loudly sided with the Russian project initiators, blasting Washington for its “unilateral action,” attempts to “sell their own expensive shale gas” to Europe.[29] On this occasion, many Austrian politicians and managers also reiterated their long-standing opinion that Nord Stream represents a “diversification of energy supply”—without explaining how this would be achieved if the supplier of natural gas, namely Russia, remains the same.

Rather unbiased analysts and observers of energy policy gave other reasons for the Kremlin’s stubbornness in sticking with Nord Stream 2. Thus, Korchemkin referred to the billion-dollar contracts for the companies of Putin-friendly oligarchs Arkadiy Rotenberg and Gennadiy Timchenko. The second main reason, according to Korchemkin, is Putin’s desire to “punish” Ukraine, which will lose transit fees (about USD 2 billion annually) because of Nord Stream 2. Indeed, long before the 2013–2014 Maidan protests in Kyiv, Putin expressly told Faymann that Nord Stream 2 will offer the possibility of “disciplining unruly transit countries” such as Ukraine.[30] Faymann did not object, although he could have asked why Austria (and other EU member countries) should assist Russia in its attempts to “discipline” other countries.

It is, of course, economically absurd to spend billions to construct pipelines on the bottom of the Baltic Sea in order to transport roughly the same amount of natural gas to Central and Eastern Europe as that which can be (and has been) pumped through Ukraine’s pipeline network (which is nevertheless in need of modernization), but Nord Stream is not about economics, but Russian geopolitics. As the vast majority of politicians, officials, and managers in Vienna, Berlin, and Brussels failed to understand this, they took nothing but wrong decisions about Nord Stream—and this will affect the EU’s energy security over the decades to come when all politicians active today will be long out of office.

Nord Stream (and especially Nord Stream 2) is also a major problem for Kyiv because Russia would become completely “independent” of the pipelines across Ukrainian territory and thus, according to some observers (for example, Andreas Umland)[31] could more easily wage a “large-scale” war (i.e. far beyond the Donbass) against Ukraine, which would undoubtedly trigger another huge wave of refugees (parallel to Syria), affecting not “only” Ukraine itself but also the EU. The responsible officials and authorities in Vienna, Berlin, and Brussels do not want to deal with such a possibility nor with information that Russian prisoners were being forced to work on Nord Stream 2 (which should at least have been checked).

To be continued in the next issue of the Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly.


[1]. Quoted after: Simone Brunner, Alexej Nawalny: “Alle lieben Österreich – Gauner und Diebe besonders.” [Aleksey Navalny: “Everyone loves Austria – especially the crooks and thieves.”] [interview]. Profil, July 25, 2019, https://www.profil.at/ausland/alexej-nawalny-kreml-kritiker-putin-10877723 (accessed March 26, 2020). Hereinafter, all translations from German and Russian are made by the author.

[2]. Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, “WKO Statistik Österreich. Österreichs Außenhandelsergebnisse. Jänner bis Dezember 2018. Endgültige Ergebnisse” [Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, “AFEC Statistics Austria. Austria’s foreign trade results. January to December 2018. Final results”]. Juli 2019, pp. 1, 10, http://wko.at/statistik/Extranet/AHstat/AH_12_2018e_Bericht.pdf (accessed 10 March 2020)

[3]. Andrew S. Weiss, “With Friends Like These: The Kremlin’s Far-Right and Populist Connections in Italy and Austria.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 27, 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/02/27/with-friends-like-these-kremlin-s-far-right-and-populist-connections-in-italy-and-austria-pub-81100?fbclid=IwAR3ydNVxJR6voQAsBvAR7quAEZEVjZdMDz4wMh3IEMxGk6MQOXfJkToiz_8 (accessed March 26, 2020).

[4]. Österreichische Botschaft Moskau, “Wirtschaftsbeziehungen zwischen Österreich und Russland“ [Austrian Embassy Moscow, “Economic relations between Austria and Russia“], https://www.bmeia.gv.at/oeb-moskau/bilaterale-beziehungen/russische-foederation/wirtschaft/ (accessed March 25, 2020).

[5]. Eurostat, “Natural gas supply statistics,” p. 4, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/pdfscache/10590.pdf (accessed March 25, 2020).

[6]. Eurostat, “EU imports of energy products – recent developments. Statistics Explained,” November 2019, p. 5, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/pdfscache/46126.pdf (accessed March 16, 2020).

[7]. Eurostat, “Energy production and imports. Statistics Explained,” June 2019, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Energy_production_and_imports#The_EU_and_its_Member_States_are_all_net_importers_of_energy (accessed March 25, 2020).

[8] Eurostat, “Natural gas supply,” p.4.

[9] Quoted after: Christian Ultsch, “Putin drängt Wien zu Beteiligung an ‘South Stream’” [“Putin urges Vienna to participate in “South Stream’”]. Die Presse, November 12, 2009, p. 7.

[10]. OMV, Annual Report 2018. “7 reasons why we‘re are excited about tomorrow,” Vienna, 2019, p. 66.

[11]. Quoted after: Günther Strobl and André Ballin, “Sibirien-Abenteuer kostet OMV 905 Millionen” [“Siberia adventure costs OMV 905 million”]. Der Standard, June 8–10, 2019, p. 28.

[12]. Raja Korinek, “OMV-Deal ist politisch interessante Lösung” [“OMV deal is politically interesting solution”] [interview with Karl-Heinz Kopf]. Die Presse, April 13, 2016, p. 16. At the time of this interview Kopf was Deputy Speaker of the National Council, which added weight to these words.

[13]. Wolfgang Schollnberger, “Sicheres Gas aus Russland? Um welchen Preis?” [“Reliable gas from Russia? At what price?”]. Die Presse, January 19, 2016, p. 22.

[14] Statistik Austria (ed.), Österreich: Zahlen, Daten, Fakten [Austrian statistics authority (ed.), Austria: figures, data, facts]. Wien 2020, p. 82.

[15] Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, “Die österreichische Mineralölindustrie 2018“ [Austrian Economic Chamber, “The Austrian Mineral Oil Industry 2018“]. July 23, 2019, https://www.wko.at/branchen/industrie/mineraloelindustrie/die-oesterreichische-mineraloelindustrie.html (accessed 11 March 2020).

[16] Dmitrii Malyshko, “Kreml v lyubuyu minutu gotov perekryt tranzit gaza v Evropu – Mikhail Korchemkin” [“The Kremlin is ready to stop gas transit to Europe at any minute – Mikhail Korchemkin”] [interview]. Apostrof, October 13, 2019, https://apostrophe.ua/article/politics/2019-10-13/kreml-v-lyubuyu-minutu-gotov-perekryit-tranzit-gaza-v-evropu—mihail-korchemkin/28415?fbclid=IwAR1CeDXrt4-HtqI7VwWQIfE7iD4QJDIrVQ6RrkhZxF_Q97GfMjxyqhWrE-8 (accessed 25 March 2020).

[17] It was re-named the Social Democratic Party in 1991.

[18] Thomas Schlesinger etc. (eds.), Außenpolitischer Bericht 2007. Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Außenpolitik [Foreign Policy Report 2007, Yearbook of Austrian Foreign Policy]. Wien 2007, p. 44.

[19] “Russische Investoren willkommen“ [“Russian investors welcome“] [interview with Martin Bartenstein]. Die Presse, May 23, 2007, p. 16.

[20] Reinhard Göweil, “Die Lösung liegt bei Russland“ [“Russia is the solution“] [interview with Herbert Stepic]. Wiener Zeitung, February 1–2, 2014, p. 5.

[21] Quoted after: Abgedreht, “Gas-Lieferung nach Österreich komplett eingestellt“ [“Turned off: Gas supply to Austria stopped completely“]. Die Presse, January 7, 2009, https://www.diepresse.com/441904/abgedreht-gas-lieferung-nach-osterreich-komplett-eingestellt (accessed 11 March 2020). Italics by the author, M.M.

[22] Rainer Nikowitz, “Gasreizung” [“Gas Irritation”]. Profil, no. 3, 2009, p. 102.

[23] OMV und Gazprom unterzeichnen “Amendment Agreement” zum “Basic Sale Agreement” betreffend den möglichen Erwerb einer 24,98% Beteiligung an den Blöcken 4A/5A der Achimov-Formation durch OMV [OMV and Gazprom sign “Amendment Agreement” to the “Basic Sale Agreement” concerning the possible acquisition by OMV of a 24.98% stake in blocks 4A/5A of the Achimov Formation]. OMV Newsroom, June 7, 2019, https://www.omv.com/de/news/190607-omv-und-gazprom-unterzeichnen-amendment-agreement (accessed March 24, 2020).

[24] Strobl and Ballin, p.28.

[25] “Erdgas ist keine Antwort auf die Klimakrise. EU muss Investitionen in fossile Energien beenden” [“Natural gas is not an answer to the climate crisis. EU must stop investment in fossil fuels”]. Bund – Friends of the Earth Germany. November 7, 2017, https://www.bund.net/service/presse/pressemitteilungen/detail/news/erdgas-ist-keine-antwort-auf-die-klimakrise-eu-muss-investitionen-in-fossile-energien-beenden/ (accessed March 25, 2020).

[26] Cf. Heike Göbel and Niklas Záboji, “Kritik von Polen und Ukrainern ist vorgeschoben,“ Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, February 18, 2019, https://www.faz.net/aktuell/wirtschaft/unternehmen/nord-stream-2-omv-chef-rainer-seele-im-gespraech-16046206.html (accessed April 10, 2020).

[27] Cf. Nordstream-Boss Matthias Warnig: “Herr Putin hat kein Handy” [“Mister Putin has no cellular phone”] [interview]. Die Presse, Februar 8, 2018, https://www.diepresse.com/5368277/nordstream-boss-matthias-warnig-herr-putin-hat-kein-handy (accessed April 10, 2020).

[28] Quoted after: Jutta Sommerbauer, “Durchs Reden sollen Österreich und Russland näher zusammenkommen,“ Die Presse, May 16, 2019, p. 5.

[29] Cf. Christian Ultsch, “Europa braucht keine US-Zwangsnachhilfe,“ [“Europe does not need US forced tutoring“] Die Presse, December 21, 2019, https://www.diepresse.com/5742444/europa-braucht-keine-us-zwangsnachhilfe (accessed April 10, 2020); “US-Sanktionen gegen Nord Stream 2 sind in Kraft,“ [“US sanctions against Nord Stream 2 are in force“]. Kronen Zeitung, December 21, 2019, https://www.krone.at/2066127 (accessed April 10, 2020).

[30] Quoted after: Christian Ultsch and Eduard Steiner, “Faymann im Kreml: Zwischen Kalaschnikow und Erdgas,“ [“Faymann in the Kremlin: Between Kalashnikov and natural gas“] Die Presse, November 10, 2009, http://diepresse.com/home/politik/aussenpolitik/520903/index.do?_vl_backlink=/home/politik/aussenpolitik/index.do (accessed March 25, 2020).

[31] “The Geopolitical Impact of Nord Stream 2.0 on European Energy Security,” (panel discussion, Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, February 26, 2020).

Russian Malign Influence Operations in Coronavirus-hit Italy

This article is a part of the first issue of the Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly.

You can also download this piece as a PDF.

Introduction

Pandemics always provided fertile soil for conspiracy theories, as facing global disasters often disempowers people and makes them susceptible to conspiratorial explanations of the sources of calamities. Global disasters are also often used by world powers to advance political objectives either domestically or vis-à-vis other nations.

In the 1980s, when AIDS started to spread across the globe and became the “the first postmodern pandemic,”[1] the Soviet Union ran a covert international campaign to convince the world that AIDS was a result of the Pentagon’s experiments aimed at creating new biological weapons.[2] At that time, while the Soviet leadership was convinced that the US was preparing a nuclear strike against the country, the Soviets realized that they could not compete with the West in the technological and military spheres. However, political warfare was a much cheaper means of competition with the West, and the Soviet Union became especially active in this particular area.

Today, observing the confrontation between Russia and the West, one can see similarities and dissimilarities with the Cold War, but one analogy with the later period of the Cold War is obvious: due to its economic weakness, Russia is unable to match Western technological advances and increasingly relies on various instruments of political warfare in order to damage the West by subverting transatlantic relations, undermining trust in the EU and NATO, and sowing discord between Western nations.

As COVID-19 spread from China to the rest of the world and became a pandemic, Moscow used the disaster to intensify its political war against the West. Despite the fact that the pandemic hit Russia too, Vladimir Putin’s regime seems to have refused an opportunity to scale down political confrontation with the West by ending aggression against Ukraine and discontinuing attempts to destabilize Europe. On the contrary, the Kremlin decided to exploit the pandemic and target European countries that suffered the most from the deadly virus. Italy became one of these countries.

From Russia with love

On March 21, 2020, Putin spoke with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte,[3] and the same day Putin ordered the Russian Ministry of Defence to form “an air grouping for a prompt delivery to Italy of help for fighting Coronavirus.”[4] The help, as the press release of the Ministry of Defence read, would consist of “eight mobile brigades of expert virologists and military medics, automobile systems for aerosol disinfection of transport and territories, as well as medical equipment.”[5]

At that time, there were over 42 thousand active cases of COVID-19 in Italy and almost 5 thousand people had died of the virus.[6] Of all European states, Italy was hit the hardest, and, already on 10 March, Maurizio Massari, Italy’s permanent representative to the EU, made an appeal for help and European solidarity.[7] According to Massari, in February Italy asked the European Commission to activate the EU Mechanism of Civil Protection “for the supply of medical equipment for individual protection”; the Commission forwarded the request to the EU Member States but by the time Massari wrote his article, no EU nation had responded to the Commission’s call.[8]

At the same time, China had responded bilaterally and on 12 March, a Chinese aircraft brought to Italy nine medical experts and unloaded “31 tons of medical supplies including intensive care unit equipment, medical protective equipment, and antiviral drugs”—they were sent by the Chinese Red Cross.[9] For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which had been accused by some Western experts, journalists and politicians, for mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak,[10] the help to Italy was clearly an attempt to shift the international focus from blame to humanitarian response.

With Putin’s offer of help, the Kremlin apparently did not want to miss out on demonstrating its seeming goodwill against the background of the allegedly selfish EU countries. In the period between 23 and 25 March, fifteen Russian aircrafts landed on the Pratica di Mare military airbase delivering military experts and special equipment.[11] At the same time, Russian Defence Ministry “made an extraordinary effort to communicate the mission”: it sent 18 press releases on the subject between 21 and 24 March.[12] On 25 March, the Russian military formed a convoy consisting of 22 military vehicles—carrying stickers saying “From Russia with love” in Russian, English, and Italian—as well as buses with military experts.[13] The convoy travelled 600 kilometers to the Orio al Serio airport in Bergamo, “where the joint Italian-Russian headquarters for the fight against coronavirus infection will be stationed.”[14]

For Russian state-controlled international media such as RT and Sputnik, Moscow’s help to Rome was the beginning of a long anti-EU campaign. With headlines saying “Italians praise Russia, deride EU after Vladimir Putin sends in coronavirus aid,”[15] or “EU left Italy ‘practically alone’ to fight coronavirus, so Rome looked for help elsewhere, incl Russia,”[16] “With united Europe MIA in its Covid-19 response, worst-hit nations turn to ‘evil’ Russia & China for help,”[17] the message was clear: the EU showed no solidarity with Italy, while Putin’s Russia demonstrated its goodwill despite the fact that Italy—along with the other EU nations—imposed economic and political sanctions on Russia. In the eyes of the Western audience, videos and pictures showing Russian military vehicles flying Russian flags and driving through Italy apparently had to project an image of Russia as a self-avowed savior of Italy and a mighty military force rushing to the rescue where NATO was feeble. And there were other Russian specialists who were in charge of promoting such an image: Russian journalists from the Zvezda TV network run by the Russian Defence Ministry who arrived in Italy together with the Russian military.[18]

The entire operation appeared to be a successful publicity coup for the Kremlin. Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio personally welcomed the Russian aid at the Pratica di Mare airbase. Italian Chief of the Defence Staff General Enzo Vecciarelli was present at the airbase too and “thanked the Russian people for lending a helping hand.”[19] Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi sent a letter to his personal friend Vladimir Putin saying that the Russian aid was “a real sacrifice made for friendship and love for Italy and the Italians,” adding that Italians would “not forget it.”[20]

The visuals were important too. Russia’s Ministry of Defence published a photo, which was later republished by dozens of media outlets across the world, in which Russian General Sergey Kikot, who led the Italian operation, showed something on the map of Italy to the representatives of the Italian military thus creating an impression that Russians had command power in a NATO member state.[21] Russian media resources also talked about ordinary Italians replacing EU flags with Russian ones and showed a video of an Italian engineer who did this while showing a piece of paper thanking Putin and Russia.[22]

However, soon after the arrival of the Russian aid, details started to emerge suggesting that the operation “From Russia with love” had much more to do with political theatrics rather than with Moscow’s philanthropy.

The darker side of Russian gifts

The logistics of the delivery of the Russian aid alone pointed to a hidden agenda of the operation: why had the aid been delivered first to the Pratica di Mare airbase and then driven 600 kilometers to the Orio al Serio airport if the Russian airplanes could have delivered the aid directly to any of the four airports around Bergamo capable of receiving Russian military cargo airplanes? There are two possible explanations for this. First, the Russian military wanted to impress the public and the media with a long convoy of over 20 military vehicles symbolically conquering a NATO member state. Moscow would not have achieved such an effect had the aid been delivered straight to the destination point. Alexander Sladkov, a Russian military journalist working for the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, called the operation “‘a humanitarian axe’ run into NATO’s chest.”[23] He also likened the Russian operation in Italy with the forced march of Russian forces to the Pristina International Airport in the aftermath of the Kosovo War in June 1999: the Russian military arrived in the airport ahead of the NATO forces and occupied it.[24] Yet another possible explanation for the apparently unreasonable 600 kilometer drive from the Pratica di Mare airbase to Bergamo is that the Russian mission to Italy was “a front for intelligence gathering,” so the trip could, indeed, be used by the Russian military to collect intelligence “at the heart of NATO.”[25] Of course, one can argue that it was cheaper for the Russian military to deliver the aid to the Pratica di Mare airbase than all the way to the Orio al Serio airport. However, the distance between the two airports is insignificant in comparison to the distance between Russia and Italy, and, furthermore, the Russian military anyway charged the Italians for the fuel and the flights of their cargo airplanes.[26]

Furthermore, Italian expert Massimiliano Di Pasquale argued—with a reference to Italian specialists—that “there was no need at all in the disinfection of the streets” in Bergamo.[27] Andrea Armaro, a former spokesperson for Italy’s Defence Ministry, also “questioned the need for Russian military medics to disinfect areas when there were already nuclear, biological and chemical military teams in Italy capable of doing the job.”[28]

According to the investigation by Italian investigative journalist Jacopo Iacoboni, high-level political sources told La Stampa that 80% of the Russian aid was either useless or of little use to Italy, as the Russian delivery mostly consisted of disinfection and sterilization equipment. The same sources argued that Putin was pursuing “geopolitical and diplomatic” interests, while Conte had to play along as he needed any help in the situation of the severe crisis.[29]

Moscow immediately and angrily responded to Iacoboni’s article. Russia’s Ambassador to Italy Sergey Razov called the Russian aid “a selfless desire to help a friendly people in trouble” and slammed the assertions made in the article as “the product of a perverse mind.”[30] The Russian Defence Ministry joined the campaign too. Its spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov called Iacoboni’s article in La Stampa an attempt “to discredit the Russian mission” and added, in awkward English:

Hiding behind the ideals of freedom of speech and pluralism of opinions, La Stampa manipulates in its materials the most low-grade Russophobic fakes of the Cold War, referring to so called certain “opinions” of anonymous “high-ranking sources. At the same time, ‘La Stampa’ does not disdain to use literally everything that the authors manage to invent on the basis of recommendations from apparently not decayed textbooks on anti-Soviet propaganda. […] As for the attitude to the real customers of the Russophobian media campaign in La Stampa, which we know—we recommend that you learn the ancient wisdom—Qui fodit foveam, incidet in eam (He that diggeth a pit, shall fall into it). And to make it clearer: Bad penny always comes back.[31]

Reacting to Konashenkov’s “ancient wisdom,” Iacoboni said: “It is a threatening and intimidating phrase […] not only towards me but also towards my newspaper. In Italy we do not let ourselves be intimidated; freedom of criticism exists here. We are not Chechnya.”[32] In their turn, the editorial board of La Stampa expressed its “outrage upon the serious attack” of the Russian Defence Ministry on the newspaper and Iacoboni.[33]

What Moscow did not realize was that its vicious attacks against Italian journalism ruined much of the positive effect of the Russian mission in Italy. In their joint notice, Italy’s Defence Ministry and Foreign Ministry declared that Italy was grateful for the Russian aid, but, at the same time, they could not “help but blame the inappropriate tone of certain expressions used by the spokesman of the Ministry of Russian Defence against some articles published the Italian press. Freedom of speech and the right to criticize are fundamental values for Italy, as well as the right to reply, both characterised by formality and substantial fairness. In this moment of global emergency, the control and analysis task of the free press is more essential than ever.”[34] Mayor of Bergamo Giorgio Gori tweeted: “Solidarity with @jacopo_iacoboni and La Stampa subjected to the intimidation from a Russian defence spokesman. We are grateful to have Russian doctors and nurses in #Bergamo who help us treat our patients, but no threat to free information is acceptable.”[35] Many other politicians and journalists expressed their solidarity with Iacoboni too.[36]

However, Russian officials and state-controlled international media continued their attack on La Stampa and Iacoboni.

Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova declared that a company registered in London was behind Iacoboni’s article in La Stampa. She did not provide either the name of the company or any other details, but vaguely noted: “When we began to study it [the article], it turned out that this is a purely commercial operation that some foreign structures attempted to stage using non-transparent methods.”[37] While it is unclear what British “commercial operation” Zakharova had in mind, a fringe Russian-language website, Foundation for Strategic Culture, ran a story that claimed that “Anglo-Saxons” were behind La Stampa’s “provocative attack” referring to the incorrect information that the newspaper was owned by Chrysler whose chairman John Elkann was from New York and CEO Michael Manley was from Britain.[38]

The Italian edition of Sputnik published an article written by now late Giulietto Chiesa, a long-time pro-Kremlin activist and associate of Russian fascist Alexander Dugin,[39] who claimed that La Stampa was a “notoriously Russophobic newspaper” (ironically, Chiesa wrote for La Stampa in 1991-2000), while Iacoboni allegedly “specialized in spreading the germs of an apparently very infectious disease of Russophobia.”[40]

Chiesa was not the only Italian “friend of Russia” who was directly or indirectly mobilised by the Russian state and non-state actors in Moscow’s attempts to generate “hype” around the Russian aid to Italy. On April 14, 2020, the Russian Defence Ministry issued a press release stating that Professor Maria Chiara Pesenti from the University of Bergamo sent a letter of appreciation to the Russian military. Pesenti, due to her specialization in Russian language and literature, is a frequent visitor of Russia, and, in November 2019, Putin awarded her with a Medal of Pushkin.[41] And already in March 2020, Italian far-right activist Gian Luigi Ferretti, who was part of the politically biased election observation mission[42] at the Russian 2018 presidential election,[43] uploaded a video on YouTube on which a recording of the Russian anthem was played from the headquarters of the Italian fascist organization CasaPound.[44] (Uninitiated viewers would, however, hardly recognize the headquarters of CasaPound and just see Italian flags and hear the Russian anthem).

Furthermore, Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported that Russian citizens were sending requests to their Italian friends and acquaintances offering €200 (approximately $217) for thank-you videos on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. The requests allegedly came from the Russian media, but no name was given. In order to earn money, Italians were supposed “to say something good” about the Russian aid offered to Italy: “better videos or texts with photos, but for videos they pay 200 euros, for text they give less.”[45] However, La Repubblica was cautious about linking these practices to the activities of the Russian state actors.

Far-right freeloading

The Russian aid to Italy offered an opportunity to a number of pro-Kremlin actors to pursue their own political and personal interests. On 23 March, Alexey Pushkov, a Russian senator who is prone to self-promotion through provocative tweets related to foreign policy, tweeted that Poland had “not let Russian aircraft carrying aid to Italy pass through its airspace.”[46] Pushkov is also one of the most cited politicians in the Russian media space, and several Russian media outlets—including various editions of Sputnik—quickly picked up Pushkov’s message that generally fed into the Kremlin’s animosity towards Poland.[47] However, Poland’s Foreign Ministry promptly refuted Pushkov’s claim, and Sputnik had to amend its reports on the issue,[48] while Pushkov deleted his tweet. Nevertheless, his claim permeated into the milieu of Italian conspiracy theorists and anti-EU activists.[49]

While Pushkov’s tweet was hardly underpinned by any other reason apart from the Russian senator’s proclivity for provocative political utterances, some other developments around the Russian aid to Italy had complex agendas behind them.

On 20 March, Ulrich Oehme, a member of the German parliament from the far-right party Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD), sent letters to two Russian contacts. One letter was addressed to the Chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs Leonid Slutsky and the other—to a member of the Moscow City Duma, Roman Babayan. The letters seem to be practically identical and, in particular, read: “Today, Mr. Paolo Grimoldi, a member of the Council of Europe from the Northern League (Lombardy), turned to us with a desperate cry for help via the WhatsApp group of European Conservatives. The situation with the hospitals in Lombardy is extremely critical. They urgently need doctors. For this reason, I ask you to see whether the Russian Federation can help people of Lombardy with doctors and ventilators. I have just talked with Mr. Grimoldi on the phone and he is excited about my idea to talk to you about help.”[50] When the media reported about Putin’s decision to provide aid to Italy, the AfD claimed that “the Russian leadership responded to a request from the Bundestag member Ulrich Oehme concerning Northern Italy severely affected by the coronavirus.”[51]

The background of the above-mentioned figures suggests that Oehme’s letters were most likely part of an elaborate influence operation.

The AfD’s foreign policy positions very often coincide with those of the Kremlin, and this far-right party is extremely critical of the EU’s sanctions imposed on Putin’s Russia. The AfD’s members often pay visits to Moscow to meet Russian officials, and, in February 2017, the AfD’s leadership discussed cross-party cooperation with a number of Russian politicians including Leonid Slutsky—one of the two Russian politicians to whom Oehme addressed his letters. Oehme himself was involved in pro-Kremlin activities. In March 2018, he illegally visited Russia-annexed Crimea where he “observed” the illegitimate Russian presidential election.[52] Furthermore, he tried to promote the interests of the Russia-controlled “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Lugansk People’s Republic” in the Council of Europe in 2019.[53]

Paolo Grimoldi’s party Northern League (Lega Nord, LN) is known for its pro-Kremlin foreign policy positions too, and signed, in March 2017, a coordination and cooperation agreement with the ruling United Russia party. Grimoldi himself contributed to the development of the relations between his party and Russian state and non-state actors. In October 2014, he announced the creation of the cross-party group, Friends of Putin, in the Italian parliament.[54] Although there is no evidence that this group eventually took off or was successful in promoting rapprochement between Italy and Russia, the Russian media widely reported on this initiative attempting to show—against the backdrop of the Western sanctions against Putin’s Russia—the alleged growth of pro-Kremlin sentiments in the West.

In his turn, Slutsky—as chairman of the parliamentary committee on international affairs—coordinated several important contacts between the European far right and Russian state actors. For example, it was Slutsky who officially invited Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far-right National Front (later renamed into National Rally) to meet Putin in March 2017, a month before the first round of the French presidential election.[55] Slutsky also supervised several politically biased international election observation missions that included many European far-right politicians.[56]

According to the German media outlet Bild, in parallel to Oehme’s efforts, the LN essentially forced a difficult choice on Conte: either accept aid from Moscow and grant Russia a publicity stunt, or reject it and suffer an outrage from the suffering Italian population.[57] From this perspective, Oehme’s letters to Russian politicians seem to be not only an attempt to advance political interests of the AfD and LN, but also an endeavour to put additional pressure on Conte.

Like Slutsky, Grimoldi and Oehme are members of the Council of Europe, and—given this fact, as well as Grimoldi’s engagement with the pro-Kremlin activities—he did not really need Oehme to be an intermediary between him and Slutsky. The involvement of Oehme can be simply explained by his desire to secure Russian favors not only for the LN, but also for the AfD—by displaying servility before Russia. Slutsky was an obvious choice as the first addressee of the letter coordinated by Grimoldi and Oehme, due to his membership in the Council of Europe and coordination of the relations between European politicians and Russian state actors. Unlike Slutsky, however, Roman Babayan has little in common with European politicians or Russian malign influence operations in Europe, but he seemed to be a good choice as a second addressee of the letter because of his connections with the Russian media. Babayan is a chief editor of the Govorit Moskva radio station and cooperates with the functionally state-controlled NTV television channel, so his task was to spread the word about Italy’s “cry for Russian help” in the media, and so he did.[58] The outcome of the operation was obvious: Oehme and Grimoldi strengthened pro-Kremlin foreign policy positions of their parties in order to seek further favors from Moscow, while contributing to the domestic pressure on Conte and consolidating the international image of Putin’s Russia as the true friend of Italian people.

Conclusion

It would be wrong to argue that the Russian aid delivered to Italy was completely useless. However, it would be equally wrong to assume that this aid was primarily driven by humanitarian considerations, because the main objective of the “From Russia with love” operation was to demonstrate to the Italian people that it was Russia, rather than the EU or NATO, that was the true friend of Italy.

The relevance of such an operation could only become possible due to the initial confusion in European capitals in the face of the unfolding crisis. As President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said in the middle of April 2020, “too many were not there on time when Italy needed a helping hand at the very beginning.”[59] Von der Leyen offered “a heartfelt apology” for the lack of European solidarity with Italy at the start of the crisis,[60] but neither her apology nor the fact that EU states eventually rendered much greater assistance to Italy than China or Russia could undo what had been done: the erosion of Italians’ trust towards the EU.

The Kremlin readily helped to erode this trust as Italy was “perceived by Moscow as the weak link in the EU.”[61] By launching its malign influence operation, Putin’s regime hoped that—by undermining Italy’s trust in the EU—the Kremlin contributed to strengthening Italy’s opposition to the EU’s sanctions policy on Russia. At the end of April 2020, Moscow decided to covertly test the efficiency of its tactics in Italy. On 27 April, Russian Ambassador Sergey Razov forwarded to Vito Rosario Petrocelli, chairman of the Italian Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, an appeal by Slutsky, and asked his addressee to inform Italian senators of its contents.[62] In his appeal, Slutsky called upon the international community—without singling out any particular nation—to support Russia’s resolution at the United Nations that would make it easier to lift sanctions imposed on Russia.[63] Razov forwarded Slutsky’s appeal in two versions: an original Russian version and a translation into Italian. Curiously, Razov specified in his cover letter that the Italian version was an unofficial translation which implies that his efforts took place behind closed doors and was yet another malign influence operation.

Russia was not the only beneficiary of its influence operations in Italy: representatives of German and Italian far-right parties, known for their pro-Kremlin foreign policy attitudes, had an opportunity to showcase their allegiance to Russia by reinforcing its self-imposed image of a well-meaning global power, and, therefore, seek support from Moscow in the future.


[1] Lars O. Kallings, “The First Postmodern Pandemic: 25 Years of HIV/ AIDS,” Journal of Internal Medicine, 263, no. 3 (2008): 218-243.

[2] Thomas Boghardt, “Operation INFEKTION: Soviet Bloc Intelligence and Its AIDS Disinformation Campaign,” Studies in Intelligence, 53, no. 4 (2009): 1-24.

[3] “Telephone Conversation with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte,” Events. President of Russia (website), March 21, 2020, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/63048.

[4] “Minoborony Rossii sozdaet aviatsionnuyu gruppirovku dlya operativnoy dostavki pomoshchi Ital’yanskoy respiblike v bor’be s koronavirusom,” Ministerstvo oborony Rossiyskoy Federatsii (website), March 22, 2020, https://function.mil.ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12283218@egNews.

[5] “Minoborony Rossii sozdaet…”.

[6] “Italy,” Worldometer (website), https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/italy/

[7] Maurizio Massari, “Italian Ambassador to the EU: Italy Needs Europe’s Help,” Politico, March 10, 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/coronavirus-italy-needs-europe-help/.

[8] Elisabeth Braw, “The EU is Abandoning Italy in its Hour of Need,” Foreign Policy, March 14, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/14/coronavirus-eu-abandoning-italy-china-aid/. Following Massari’s criticism, Germany suspended the controversial decree that had prohibited the export of masks, protective suits, etc. abroad, and declared that it would supply one million masks to Italy, see Tonia Mastrobuoni, “Coronavirus, la Germania invierà un milione di mascherine all’Italia,” La Repubblica, March 13, 2020, https://www.repubblica.it/esteri/2020/03/13/news/coronavirus_la_germania_invia_un_milione_di_mascherine_all_italia-251219227/. Later, Germany was joined by France in providing one million masks to Italy, see Michel Rose, “Europe Failing to Communicate Its Response to Coronavirus Crisis, France Says,” Reuters, March 25, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-europe-france/europe-failing-to-communicate-its-response-to-coronavirus-crisis-france-says-idUSKBN21C3DT. On the European solidarity in action see Coronavirus: “European Solidarity in Action,” European Commission, https://ec.europa.eu/info/live-work-travel-eu/health/coronavirus-response/coronavirus-european-solidarity-action_en.

[9] Braw, “EU is Abandoning Italy”; “Coronavirus, Di Maio: ‘Se sei solidale, ricevi solidarietà,’” ANSA, March 13, 2020, https://www.ansa.it/lazio/notizie/2020/03/12/coronavirus-arrivati-gli-aiuti-dalla-cina-anche-9-medici-specializzati_1a56ddbc-7bae-4f5a-8353-f0d15ba3a465.html.

[10] Paul D. Miller, “Yes, Blame China for the Virus,” Foreign Policy, March 25, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/25/blame-china-and-xi-jinping-for-coronavirus-pandemic/; David Gitter, Sandy Lu, and Brock Erdahl, “China Will Do Anything to Deflect Coronavirus Blame,” Foreign Policy, March 30, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/30/beijing-coronavirus-response-see-what-sticks-propaganda-blame-ccp-xi-jinping/.

[11] “Pyatnadtsaty Il-76 VKS RF dostavil v Italiyu sredstva dlya bor’by s koronavirusom,” Ministerstvo oborony RossiyskoyFederatsii (website), March 25, 2020, https://function.mil.ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12283692@egNews.

[12] “Coronavirus – Russische Hilfsoperation in Italien bisher vor allem PR,” Austria Presse Agentur, March 24, 2020.

[13] “Spetsialisty Minoborony Rossii pristupili k soversheniyu marsha s aviabazy VVS Italii v g. Bergamo dlya okazaniya pomoshchi v bor‘be s rasprostraneniem koronavirusnoy infektsii,” Ministerstvo oborony Rossiyskoy Federatsii(website), March 25, 2020, https://function.mil.ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12283714@egNews.

[14] “Voennye spetsialisty Minoborony Rossii pribyli na aerodrom Orio-al’-Serio v gorode Bergamo,” Ministerstvo oborony Rossiyskoy Federatsii(website), March 26, 2020, https://function.mil.ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12283835@egNews.

[15] “Watch: Italians Praise Russia, Deride EU After Vladimir Putin Sends in Coronavirus Aid,” Sputnik, March 24, 2020, https://sputniknews.com/europe/202003241078693863-watch-italians-praise-russia-deride-eu-after-vladimir-putin-sends-in-coronavirus-aid/.

[16] “EU left Italy ‘practically alone’ to fight coronavirus, so Rome looked for help elsewhere, incl Russia – ex-FM Frattini to RT,” RT, March 24, 2020, https://www.rt.com/news/483897-italy-eu-coronavirus-solidarity-russia/.

[17] Damian Wilson, “With United Europe MIA in Its Covid-19 Response, Worst-hit Nations Turn to ‘Evil’ Russia & China for Help,” RT, March 23, 2020, https://www.rt.com/op-ed/483865-europe-coronavirus-russia-china/.

[18] Konstantin Khudoleyev, “Iz Rossii s lyubov’yu: kak okhvachennaya koronavirusom Italiya vstretila rossiyskikh spetsialistov,” Zvezda, March 23, 2020, https://tvzvezda.ru/news/vstrane_i_mire/content/20203231327-JqrfK.html.

[19] “Russian Military Planes with Medics & Supplies Land in Coronavirus-hit Italy,” RT(VIDEO), March 22, 2020, https://www.rt.com/russia/483796-russian-military-coronavirus-aid-italy/.

[20] Giorgia Baroncini, “Coronavirus, Putin invia aiuti all’Italia. Il Cav: ‘Non lo dimenticheremo,’” Il Giornale, March 23, 2020, https://www.ilgiornale.it/news/politica/coronavirus-putin-invia-aiuti-allitalia-cav-non-1845152.html.

[21] “The Use of Russian Military Specialists in the Fight against the Coronavirus Pandemic Was Discussed in Rome,” Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation (website), March 24, 2020, https://eng.mil.ru/en/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12283590@egNews.

[22] It later turned out that the person was “personally fond of Russia and of President Putin” and had “done some business with Russian companies,” see “Coronavirus: What Does ‘from Russia with Love’ Really Mean?” BBC, April 3, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-52137908.

[23] Alexander Sladkov, “Kuzhugetych Zhzhet!” Sladkov + (Telegram channel), March 22, 2020, https://t.me/Sladkov_plus/1916.

[24] Sladkov, “Kuzhugetych Zhzhet!”

[25] Natalia Antelava and Jacopo Iacoboni, “The Influence Operation behind Russia’s Coronavirus Aid to Italy,” Coda, April 2, 2020, https://www.codastory.com/disinformation/soft-power/russia-coronavirus-aid-italy/.

[26] Jacopo Iacoboni and Paolo Mastrolilli, “Nella spedizione dei russi in Italia il generale che negò i gas in Siria,” La Stampa, April 16, 2020, https://www.lastampa.it/topnews/primo-piano/2020/04/16/news/nella-spedizione-dei-russi-in-italia-il-generale-che-nego-i-gas-in-siria-1.38722110.

[27] Natal’ya Kudrik, “Ital’yanskiy obozrevatel’: rossiyskaya ‘pomoshch’ – eto operatsiya propagandy,” Krym.Realii, April 4, 2020, https://ru.krymr.com/a/italianskiy-obozrevtel-rossiyskaya-pomoshch-operaciya-propagandy/30529765.html.

[28] Angela Giuffrida and Andrew Roth, “Moscow’s Motives Questioned over Coronavirus Aid Shipment to Italy,” Guardian (US edition), April 27, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/27/moscow-motives-questioned-over-coronavirus-aid-shipment-to-italy.

[29] Jacopo Iacoboni, “Coronavirus, la telefonata Conte-Putin agita il governo: ‘Più che aiuti arrivano militari russi in Italia,’” La Stampa, March 25, 2020, https://www.lastampa.it/topnews/primo-piano/2020/03/25/news/coronavirus-la-telefonata-conte-putin-agita-il-governo-piu-che-aiuti-arrivano-militari-russi-in-italia-1.38633327.

[30] “Posol v Italii otsenil soobshcheniya o ‘vystavlenii scheta’ za pomoshch,’” RIA Novosti, March 25, 2020, https://ria.ru/20200325/1569157787.html.

[31] “Statement by the Spokesman of the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation Major General Igor Konashenkov,” Facebook, April 2 2020, https://www.facebook.com/mod.mil.rus/posts/2608652339377506.

[32] Monica Rubino and Concetto Vecchio, “Russia contro il giornalista de ‘La Stampa’ Jacopo Iacoboni. Esteri e Difesa: ‘Grazie per aiuti ma rispettare libertà di stampa,’” La Repubblica, April 3, 2020, https://www.repubblica.it/politica/2020/04/03/news/iacoboni_la_stampa_russia-253020378/.

[33] “Le accuse di Mosca e la nostra risposta,” La Stampa, April 3, 2020, https://www.lastampa.it/lettere/2020/04/03/news/le-accuse-di-mosca-e-la-nostra-risposta-1.38672825.

[34] “Nota congiunta del Ministero della Difesa e del Ministero degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale,” Ministero degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale (website), April 3, 2020, https://www.esteri.it/mae/it/sala_stampa/archivionotizie/comunicati/nota-congiunta-del-ministero-della-difesa-e-del-ministero-degli-affari-esteri-e-della-cooperazione-internazionale.html.

[35] Giorgio Gori, “Solidarietà a @jacopo_iacoboni e alla Stampa per le intimidazioni ricevute da portavoce della Difesa russo,” Twitter, April 3, 2020, https://twitter.com/giorgio_gori/status/1246008841755668480.

[36] Rubino and Vecchio, “Russia contro il giornalista de ‘La Stampa’ Jacopo Iacoboni.”

[37] “UK Company behind La Stampa’s Article Claiming Russian Aid to Italy Useless – Diplomat,” TASS, April 2, 2020, https://tass.com/politics/1139323.

[38] Vladimir Malyshev, “Uchebniki po antisovetskoy propagande eshche ne sgnili”, Fond strategicheskoy kultury, April 9, 2020, https://www.fondsk.ru/news/2020/04/09/uchebniki-po-antisovetskoj-propagande-esche-ne-sgnili-50575.html.

[39] Andreas Umland, “Aleksandr Dugin’s Transformation from a Lunatic Fringe Figure into a Mainstream Political Publicist, 1980–1998: A Case Study in the Rise of Late and Post-Soviet Russian Fascism,” Journal of Eurasian Studies, 1, no. 2 (2010): 144-152.

[40] Giulietto Chiesa, “Quelli che sparano sulla Croce Rossa,” Sputnik, April 7, 2020, https://it.sputniknews.com/opinioni/202004078943748-quelli-che-sparano-sulla-croce-rossa/.

[41] “Putin v Den’ narodnogo edinstva vruchil nagrady v Kremle,” RIA Novosti, November 4, 2019, https://ria.ru/20191104/1560560522.html.

[42] Politically biased international election observation is a form of political activity performed by international actors with the aim of advancing interests of certain politicians and political forces by imitating credible election monitoring during electoral processes.

[43] See Anton Shekhovtsov, “Politically Biased International Election Observation at the 2018 Regional Elections in Russia,” European Platform for Democratic Elections, October 5, 2018, https://www.epde.org/en/documents/details/politically-biased-international-election-observation-at-the-2018-regional-elections-in-russia.html.

[44] Gian Luigi Ferretti, “25 marzo 2020: Inno russo da CasaPound a Roma”, YouTube, March 25, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIOK4gQKtxc.

[45] Fabio Tonacci, “‘200 euro se ringrazi la Russia per gli aiuti’: quello strano arruolamento su WhatsApp,” La Repubblica, April 12, 2020, https://www.repubblica.it/esteri/2020/04/12/news/russia_propaganda_a_pagamento-253794264/.

[46] Alexey Pushkov, “Pol’sha ne propustila rossiyskie samolety s pomoshch’yu dlya Italii cherez svoe vozdushnoe prostranstvo,” Twitter, March 23, 2020, http://archive.is/fdk6R.

[47] See, for example, “Russian Planes Carrying Aid to Italy Blocked from Using Poland Airspace – Russian Lawmaker,” Sputnik, March 23, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20200324003727/https://sputniknews.com/world/202003231078687190-russian-planes-carrying-aid-to-italy-blocked-from-using-poland-airspace—russian-lawmaker/.

[48] See “Poland Says Its Airspace Open for Russian Planes Carrying Aid to Italy,” Sputnik, March 23, 2020, https://sputniknews.com/world/202003231078687190-russian-planes-carrying-aid-to-italy-blocked-from-using-poland-airspace—russian-lawmaker/.

[49] “Russia Exploits Italian Coronavirus Outbreak to Expand Its Influence,” Medium, March 30, 2020, https://medium.com/dfrlab/russia-exploits-italian-coronavirus-outbreak-to-expand-its-influence-6453090d3a98.

[50] “Oehme: Europaratsmitglieder bilden Phalanx zur Bewältigung der Corona-Krise in Italien”, Fraktion der AfD im Deutschen Bundestag, March 23, 2020, https://www.afdbundestag.de/mdb-ulrich-oehme-europaratsmitglieder-bilden-phalanx-zur-bewaeltigung-der-corona-krise-in-italien/; “Deputat Bundestaga obratilsya k Rossii za pomoshch’yu okhvachennoy koronavirusom Italii,” Govorit Moskva, March 21, 2020, https://govoritmoskva.ru/news/228659/.

[51] “Oehme: Europaratsmitglieder bilden Phalanx zur Bewältigung der Corona-Krise in Italien.”

[52] See Anton Shekhovtsov, “Foreign Observation of the Illegitimate Presidential Election in Crimea in March 2018,” European Platform for Democratic Elections, April 3, 2018, https://www.epde.org/en/news/details/foreign-observation-of-the-illegitimate-presidential-election-in-crimea-in-march-2018-1375.html.

[53] “Predstaviteli ORDLO vstretilis’ v Minske s deputatom PASE,” Naviny, December 16, 2019, https://naviny.by/new/20191216/1576476063-predstaviteli-ordlo-vstretilis-v-minske-s-deputatom-pase.

[54] Anton Shekhovtsov, Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), 185-186.

[55] “France’s Le Pen, on Russia Visit, Heads to Kremlin for Exhibition,” Reuters, March 24, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-france-lepen-idUSKBN16V12E.

[56] Anton Shekhovtsov, “Politically Biased Foreign Electoral Observation at the Russian 2018 Presidential Election,” European Platform for Democratic Elections, April 16, 2018, https://www.epde.org/en/documents/details/politically-biased-foreign-electoral-observation-at-the-russian-2018-presidential-election-1423.html.

[57] Julian Röpcke, “Wie die AfD Putins Militär in Italien einschleuste,” Bild, March 26, 2020, https://www.bild.de/politik/ausland/politik-ausland/corona-krise-wie-die-afd-putins-militaer-in-italien-einschleuste-69638656.bild.html.

[58] “Deputat Bundestaga obratilsya k Rossii za pomoshch’yu okhvachennoy koronavirusom Italii.”

[59] “Speech by President Von der Leyen at the European Parliament Plenary on the EU Coordinated Action to Combat the Coronavirus Pandemic and Its Consequences,” European Commission, April 16, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/speech_20_675.

[60] “Speech by President Von der Leyen.”

[61] Luigi Sergio Germani, “The Coronavirus Pandemic and Russian Information Warfare Activities in Italy,” Centre for Democratic Integrity, April 28, 2020, https://democratic-integrity.eu/the-coronavirus-pandemic-and-russian-information-warfare-activities-in-italy/.

[62] Razov’s cover letter and Slutsky’s appeal can be found here: https://www.linkiesta.it/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Lettera-nr.1072-del-27.04.2020.pdf.

[63] The appeal appeared on several websites of Russian diplomatic institutions, see, for example: Leonid Slutsky, “An Appeal by Mr L. Slutsky, MP, to Abandon the Sanction Policy in the Face of COVID-19 Pandemia,” The Embassy of the Russian Federation in the Republic of India, April 24, 2020, https://india.mid.ru/en/press-office/news/an_appeal_by_mr_slutsky/.

Covid-19 is a Threat to Putin

Interview with Denis Sokolov conducted by Lidia Mikhalchenko.

On April 20, 2020, a spontaneous protest took place in North Ossetia. Official statements by the government described them as violation of public order aimed to subvert the quarantine measures. Is this an accurate description?

– Well, the protest was not so spontaneous in reality. Vladimir Cheldiev, an opera singer usually residing in St. Petersburg, published a call to the residents of Vladikavkaz to gather and protest quarantine.

Vadim has recently returned to Ossetia to tend to family matters and over the past few months has emerged as the face of protests in Ossetia. Two days prior to the protest, he was detained on charges of either “willingly spreading false information on the coronavirus”, or for “exerting physical violence against law enforcement representatives.” (Cheldiev is now facing charges under part 1 of article 381 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, use of mild violence against a government representative).

Vadim Cheldiev rose to fame in 2018, in the aftermath of a fire at the Elektrotsink (Электроцинк) factory. Using his social media accounts, he issued calls to close the factory, started conducted negotiations with the Region’s Head Bitarov, criticized local officials as being “anti-people” and vented about global consipracies.

Vadim Cheldiev’s videos resonate with a widespread folk mythology that all evils (from environmental degradation, loss of respect for elders, dishonorable conduct by women) stem from departure from the original “Indo-European” traditions.  Cheldiev’s accounts in Telegram and Instagram have tens of thousands of subscribers and readers. Cheldiev has an incredible charisma. During protests, one of the demands voiced by the crowds was Cheldiev’s release from detention.

This activist and defender of traditional values believes that there is no pandemic; that Covid-19 is a conspiracy concocted to enslave simple people; that the Russian government has turned the country into a colony for the West.

What’s different about the Ossetian protests is that here, out of the blue, a deeply traditional ethnos, whose worldviews and believes have been long overlooked and dismissed by officials, experts and journalists – started a riot. This is an ethnos living in a harsh reality, full of inconvenient and even outlawed beliefs: extremism, conspiracy theories, inciting hate toward other social and ethnic groups, condoning Stalinism, hatred of the elites. Of note, Russian riot police from OMON, Rossgvardiya, FSB operatives and many other officials live in the same exact world. If you pose a question on fears of having a microchip implanted during vaccination, the percentage of affirmative responses among the protesters and among those dispersing the protest, both on the streets and by issuing decrees from cushy offices, would be about the same.

The coronavirus quarantine measures and the accompanying administrative chaos have achieved something that opposition politicians and civil activists had failed to achieve 20 years ago, – they have awakened and mobilized the people.  Of course, this didn’t happen overnight. The incomes have been falling for several years straight; the quality of governance has been declining for several decades; regional officials, local businesses and even criminal networks have degraded. All of these factors have contributed to the shrinking opportunities for social advancement for ambitious youth.

Financial flows and oil exports, that have previously supported the system, have collapsed.  Cab drivers, small business owners, their employees, all those who had been living hand-to-mouth, are now left without any means to support themselves. All of this is happening against the backdrop of two restaurants that continued their operation even during quarantine, and both, not surprisingly, belong to the head of the Republic.

The Vladikavkaz protest is a protest against the elite and against modernization (as modernization in the minds of the people aims to advance the elites’ interests).  This is an uprising not only against the region’s head Vyacheslav Bitarov, but also against the current system as a whole.

This protest cannot be stopped by arrests (according to the official statistics, 69 people have been detained at the April 20, 2020 protest), puny handouts (159 families have reportedly received cash aid the day after the protest). Such half-measures only further enrage the people. It is possible, however, that rescinding the quarantine measures would temporarily dampen the wave of dissatisfaction.

The police, Rossgvardiya and the Cossacks that can be successfully unleashed against “foreign agents” and “unhappy urban dwellers” are not effective against a people’s uprising. One of the Rossgvardiya divisions from the Krasnodar Kray outright refused to dispatch units for the dispersal of the Ossetia protest; and after their shifts ended, the Vladikavkaz OMON had to be transported from the protest square to the barracks and not their homes, out of fear that they might  join the protesters.

Are any influential political leaders directing the protests or emerging from them?

– There were no influential political leaders among the protesters in Vladikavkaz. Of course, there are many politicians who overtly or secretly oppose Bitarov inside the Republic’s parliament, and at various municipal government offices, and among Ossetia’s representatives in the Russian State Duma and in the Federation Council. Most regional influencers and opinion-leaders are also in opposition to the head of the Republic. However, this protest is against all elites. So, the political intrigue is focused on discrediting potential candidates that may vie for the post of the head of the region whenever it becomes vacant. Ossetian legislators in Moscow have taken a huge political hit for their vote for (or not voting against) the initiative to move the Victory Day parade to September 3, which is not only the end of the World War II but is also the day of mourning for the Beslan tragedy victims.  However, all of these political games have lost their relevance for the time being. If the protest continues to grow, someone may attempt to reign it in, but that’s a different topic for discussion.

Is it fair to say that small businesses have taken the biggest hit from the quarantine?

– Yes, it is fair to say so. Small business is the source of sustenance for many in Ossetia. Small private cattle farms, vegetable gardens, orchards; and in urban areas – hair salons, markets, shops, restaurants, coffee shops. Protection racket income from these small businesses also supported criminal groups and the law enforcement. So those two groups are now in total alignment with the people.

Here, we have a situation where supposedly everything was shut down to fight the virus. At the same time, the restaurants owned by President Bitarov continue to operate.

Those with access to the administrative resource, levers, connections, take as much as they can without thinking twice. Federal chains such as “Pyatyorochka” or “Magnit” continue to operate; federal home goods stores remain open. Such businesses, by the way, are also perceived as part of the elite conspiracy against the people.

Why has Ossetia spawned so many coronavirus-deniers and corona-skeptics?

– The opera singer Cheldiev, whom we have discussed earlier, uncovered a story about a woman who died in a hospital from causes not related to the pandemic. The hospital administrators attempted to falsify the cause of death, even offered a bribe to the family of the deceased for their silence. Region’s doctors and health care workers are severely underpaid, the entire system is very corrupt, and in this situation they anticipated a direct benefit: 50,000 roubles for working with a coronavirus patient for the nurse, double that sum for the doctor, and there have been several nurses and doctors who have been handling the patient. But it’s a small city, so the ruse was debunked.

But that’s not all. The Kremlin propaganda can say what it wants on Russia Today. It can discuss how Russia is better than Europe and America in addressing the coronavirus; it can send formidable anti-virus dispatches to Italy and Serbia; it can sound outrage about the mass graves in Brooklyn; it can show the nightmare of the pandemic in the United Kingdom. But none of this would turn Russia into a developed country. None of this would restore the health care system that has been destroyed. Virus is a great fact-checker. The Russian government is unable to control the pandemic in our country or the number of victims neither organizationally, nor technologically. It is more likely to exacerbate the situation with sawing panic, or banning planned surgeries and providing health care to non-coronavirus patiens.

Russia is oftentimes favorably compared to Italy where there is a great proportion of recorded deaths. But in Italy, an average life expectancy is 85 years, and the average age of those perished from the virus is 82. In Russia, an average life expectancy is 72, so the majority of the Russian citizens die even before becoming a risk group for the virus at the age of 65-70.

North Ossetia, by the way, has the lowest life expectancy in the Northern Caucasus- 75 years. Therefore, Russia as a whole, and North Ossetia specifically, lack a real social infrastructure to impose strict quarantine measures. This is in contrast to the developed countries, where hundreds of millions of socially active citizens find themselves in the prime risk category. In Ossetia, sustaining a household economy is a much more acute of a problem than an abstract risk to die from pneumonia with lethality rate of 0.22%, if one goes by the estimates from the Bonn University. So, corona-skepticism fits within the anti-elite and even anti-Western narratives in Ossetia. And this can quickly spread throughout other regions of Russia.

How would you interpret the demand of Vladikavkaz protesters to appoint a new temporary government headed by Vitaly Kaloev? (Kaloev is an architect, a deputy in the Vladikavkaz Council of Representatives. He came to fame in 2004, when he murdered a swiss air controller whom he thought responsible for the plane crash that killed his wife and two children.)

– Again, this is consistent with the anti-elite nature of this movement. Kaloev is perceived as a people’s person.  This is also consistent with the anti-Western and anti-modernization tendency of the protest. Kaloev has punished those responsible for the death of his loved once in accordance with the tradition, while breaking the laws of a European country and then had to serve a prison term for it. In the spirit of ethnic traditions, he did the right thing, prioritizing vendetta over the law. So, in essence, he purveys the spirit of the riot even better than Vadim Cheldiev.

Kaloev himself did not support this demand. Was he pressured by someone?

–  I don’t want to speculate on his motives, you should ask him personally. But he is more of a symbol of the anti-elite movement and not a bureaucrat. He belongs to the streets and not at an office.

What specific initiatives of the federal government evoked such a explosive response from the people?

– The Russian government response to the pandemic has been inadequate and inconsistent.  By default, they tried to emulate European initiatives. However, in Europe, the government provides support to people who lose their jobs. Russia, currently, is suffering severe financial losses due to the drop in energy prices and an unfortunate attempt by Igor Sechin to play poker with the Saudis. While I think it is too early to proclaim the end of the Putin’s era, it is definitely the beginning of the end. This is the end of the time when Putin was extolled as national leader, when he functioned as an effective arbiter for competing elite clans and groups, when he was in charge of doling out and distributing the oil rent, the times when power and money contributed to his charisma. All of that is over, along with the oil revenues and the love of the people. He is a scared and confused 67-year old, disconnected from reality retired colonel, who is in fact in the main group for dying from Covid-19.

The fact that this truth has become so exposed, is not so much a mistake, but an insurmountable challenge for the Kremlin. The people stopped seeing the great leader in Putin; now they see a helpless crook. People, of course, knew all of this before, but their optics were different. All of this “unitarian federation” is crumbling down, the regions are forced to improvise, without direction, funding or experience. And this time it’s impossible to simply throw money at the problem, since there is no money left.

Putin announced that he has granted discretion to governors in addressing the threat of the pandemic, since, according to him, everyone knows better what is going on in their own regions.

– This crisis has exposed just how rotten and insolvent is the Russian power vertical. Previously, there was an illusion of a powerful state. But the inside is rotten through and through. The pandemic is a tough test for the regime. Similar to a war that demonstrates what is the potential of a military force, this pandemic shows the potential of the Russian state. Of course, this is not a problem just for Russia; other weak states throughout the post-Soviet space are going through the same challenge.

So, Russia is in the midst of a constitutional crisis, an oil crisis and now the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a triple hit.

– Yes, this has amounted to the perfect storm. Even somehow the federal government could come up with money for social relief, they would not be able to get to the people. This is because the entire bureaucracy understands that the material wealth of the state is depleted, and they would pillage and syphon off whatever comes their way. The situation would be similar to that during the collapse of the Soviet Union, when funds are disbursed, but “the soil does not hit the bottom of the pit”- it is stolen mid-fall. We can anticipate that officials will start stealing all they can, without any limitations. Together with those who are supposed to catch them.

Ossetia has more monuments to Stalin than other regions. It is a region with many supporters of communism. It is not rare to see the red Soviet flag or seal on houses or as car stickers. Is there a possibility that the protesters would espouse this ideology?

– I think it will remain as it is now.  It will be a hodgepodge of traditionalism, communism, anticommunism,  anti-globalism, Stalinism and anti-Stalinism, because severe hardship is experienced by people of many different worldviews. And those worldviews are not so important. Again, I would like to stress that this is an anti-elite protest in its essence. The mythology behind is secondary. The people don’t trust local authorities and the current state system. Entrepreneurs whose revenues used to be supported by good relationships with government officials, have lost them. They are aggressively crowded out by large players and chain retail, including by taking away the land. This is a situation similar to what has happened in Kislovodsk. Three thousand cab drivers have been quarantined, and two hundred of “insiders” continue to drive, with a special dispensation from the regional administration. And the situation is the same in almost all of the Russian regions.

Do you anticipate that the Ossetian protest will grow? What is your prognosis?

– I don’t think that it will grow, but it won’t die out either. Protest sentiments will grow.  People’s incomes have been taken away, government showed their ineptitude. Other regions also feature protest sentiments. Local authorities are not in a position to rescind the quarantine, they are not so brave. However, we should anticipate the weakening of the quarantine measures, otherwise there will be an explosion.

Is there a protest potential in Chechnya?

– Absolutely, there is; but it has not manifested yet. The head of Chechnya Kadyrov has its own military and several hundreds of people embedded throughout various divisions of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. His people understand fully well why he is holding his position, and anyone from Kadyrov’s inner circle can be easily arrested. The Chechen leadership has a very fine infrastructure which controls financial flows through support network created by Kadyrov Sr. This not a state structure, but a criminal one. It controls the money flows, state institutes and public figures.

What we have ahead of us are huge budget losses. This summer, tens of thousands of Chechens living in Europe come to Chechnya for traditional vacations, but this time, they won’t bring their usual remittances. Kadyrov is also in a more precarious position in Moscow, where he is involved in a skirmish brewing against the backdrop of the “perfect storm”.

So you think all those who have been forced to publicly apologize under Kadyrov would go to the streets with new messages and attitudes?

– Those who had to apologize would probably be more radical. This would not be tomorrow but can happen at any time. And I don’t think a mass protest in Chechnya will be peaceful.

In Dagestan, using quarantine violation as an excuse, authorities have detained an activist and broke his nose, which was even video recorded. Why has this abuse not caused any protests?

– The political and civil society field has been “mopped up”. The people are not prepared to defend activists, activists are not perceived as “of the people”. It is very unfortunate.  If, in the near future, a mass protest takes place in Dagestan or another Russian region, it will not be one similar to the peaceful marches through the Bolotnaya or Sakharov Squares, it will look more like the April 20 protest in Vladikavkaz. It will not be about democratic values, but about revenge and about redistribution, sadly.

Events in Vladikavkaz can be described as mass unrest. What would you call other similar events throughout the Caucasus?

– In Russia, by and large, there are no riots, there are only civil and corporate peaceful protests. In the North Caucasus, each of such events has a regional flavor. Street rallies in Ingushetia, protests in Dagestan, Cherkessian marches, congress in Ossetia.

Ingushetia used to have a group of civil activists, all of whom were detained; the leaders were put in prison with long terms, with the exceptions who has managed to immigrate. Such people are not under the control of the government, and the government does not understand how to interact with them. They express their civic positions.

Protests in Kabardino-Balkaria and Ossetia are very archaic, they include historic myths, the agenda is different there. At the same time, in Kabardino-Balkaria a year ago we didn’t see the same level of anti-elitism that we observe in Ossetia today. Traditionalism serves different purposes.

What options does the Russian government have for solving this problem?

– I don’t think the government has any options. It has deprived itself of a maneuver space. The bureaucracy has degenerated to the point where it’s not able to solve any political problems.  Moscow can try to end quarantine very quickly. This may give the government some time. The transformation of the Russian political system is unavoidable, but Putin and his circles decided to fortify their grip on power by force, so they don’t have anywhere to retreat. They won’t give up without a fight. The big question is what would come out of this storm.

How can the civil society provide support?

– With solidarity. For example, the activists in St. Petersburg and Moscow should not view so negatively the differences between them and civil activists from the Caucuses. Maybe it makes sense, by using Caucasus as a case study to perform some self-assessment, — what’s going on in our own regions, what key agendas and interests are behind the leaders and people in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Now is a good time for such evaluation. And, of coutse, some of the civil society activists should be prepared to transform into politicians.

What can the West do to help activists in Russia?

– Perhaps by supporting the “new urbanites”, which are now present not only in cities but also in rural areas due to social media and access to smartphones and internet connection. This is a fairly new social group. It has already brought to power Nikola Pashinyan in Armenia and continues to support him through very challenging circumstances. They were also a critical part of the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity.

The Summer 2019 protests in Moscow have scared and paralyzed the government. “New urbanites” value independence from corporations and the corporate state, they want to be in charge of their own lives, they already are a part of the globalized world, they don’t want to work in the government, because they don’t see any politics, just a very depressing bureaucracy.

The new urbanites are at the same time the commissioner and the executor of constructive societal changes. They are the main lever which can organize the deeply post-Soviet ethnos with all of their phobias and conspiracy theories, into a modern state. No Putin with his technocrats and bureaucrats can do such a thing.

In 2018-2019, the Ingush people have demonstrate quite well the creative potential of youth incorporated into the modern globalized world. There, civil society activists managed to transform into an alternative political elite.

I recommend we pay close attention to these people. They have not gone through the enlightenment programs of the 90’s and 00’s, they were just born then, and they are have only recently become adults. But they don’t want to remain in the passenger seat, they want to steer. They are not content with repeating the lives of their parents. We have to find new ways to work with this new cohort, as well as for the new circumstances that we are finding ourselves.

What’s Behind the Coronavirus Aid to Serbia

International aid in response to natural and manmade emergencies is a well-established practice. It demonstrates good will and solidarity, and helps victims overcome hardships. However, it can also be used to flaunt power, wealth and advanced technologies for political purposes.

Aid provided by Russia internationally, frequently amounts to nothing more than a demonstration of power, with materiel being of little practical use to the recipient. What is worse, the Russian government sends help to other countries without regard for the desperate need of its own people. This is, sadly, the case with the current Russian international coronavirus aid initiatives. In the past few weeks, Russia has dispatched and promoted its aid to the US, Italy, Serbia and other countries, as tragedy unravels throughout its own regions whose medical infrastructure is clearly not ready to effectively fight with the virus Covid-19.

On April 3 and 4, 2020, Russia sent eleven planes with 87 military officers including military medical personnel, special equipment and military transport for disinfection to  Serbia from to confront the spread of the virus Covid-19. The value of aid delivered to a country with about 7 million inhabitants was just below to what Russia sent weeks prior to Italy, a country with 60 million people. With this help, Russia sent a strong message on how important Serbia was. With a message posted on his twitter account, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic profusely thanked Putin for the help: “Very good conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Confirmed friendship, and significant help will arrive in Serbia. Thank you, Vladimir Putin and the Russian people!”

The contents of the dispatch were the same as those shipped to Italy. “It seems to me to be the same package that it was for Italy, and it requires our full gratitude to Russia because it shows how much they care about Serbia when it is not easy for them either”, Vucic said. Russian effort backfired when public reports emerged that help sent to Italy was not really useful, with its equipment designed for chemical attacks and not viral outbreaks. One can presume that the delivery to Serbia  also turned out to be more of a symbolic act.

Russia is not the only country taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic for political purposes. China has also been very public with its relief efforts, sending help internationally. On March 21, 2020, for example, a Chinese medical team arrived in Serbia to join the fight against the virus. They brought six medical professionals, ventilators, medical masks, test kits and other medical supplies. China has also provided financial support to Serbia for building test labs and other medical facilities. Two labs, – one in Belgrade and one in Nis, are expected to be ready by mid-April.

For the Serbian government, Russian and Chinese help is useful both, economically and politically. Dimitar Bechev, Director of the European Policy Institute, feels that the Serbian government is leveraging Russian and Chinese attention to advance its own standing within the EU. Alarmed by the prospect of Serbia falling under the influence of these authoritarian regimes, the EU may feel the urge to prioritize Serbia in exchange for its loyalty to the “European family”.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the March coronavirus aid dispatch from China,  the European Union announced a 93 million euros worth of support to Serbia. Even after this announcement, President Vucic continued his negotiations with Emanuel Macron for additional help from France.

Located midway from Asia to Europe, Serbia is strategic locale for both Russia and China. By becoming a part of the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, Serbia has secured over $4 billion in direct investments from China and another $5 billion through loans and infrastructure projects. Serbia and China have also moved to deepen their security cooperation and have agreed on a technological partnership with a Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.

Russian influence is historically strong in Serbia. Russia dominates the Serbian energy sector and seeks tirelessly to strengthen its position in the region even more. 80% of natural gas and 70% of crude oil imported to Serbia comes from Russia.  Gazprom owns 56.15% of NIS, the largest oil and gas company in Serbia. One of the legs of the TurkStream pipeline is planned to go through Serbian territory.

Sustaining political support among Serbian authorities is of critical importance to the Kremlin, which sees it as a zero-sum game. Seeking to preserve this support, the Kremlin attempts to retard and derail the Serbian integration into the EU and minimize the NATO influence on the country. Russia works to deepen its bilateral military relations through joint training and military sales to the Serbian Army; it is aggressive in its support for pro-Russian politicians and disinformation campaigns. Media outlets financed by pro-Kremlin forces spreads narratives advancing the Russian government agenda and undermining trust in the European Union and support of its values.

For the time being, Serbia shrewdly takes full advantage of  this international contest for influence by accepting benefits from all three sides – Russia, China and the EU – and by praising Putin, preparing for joining the EU and letting Chinese investments flow in.

NGOs Responses to Coronavirus Pandemic Spell Lasting Changes for the Sector

Alexey Kozlov is a veteran of the non-profit sector with over 25 years of experience focused on civil society, human rights and democratic development projects. He has been involved in establishing and developing NGOs in Russia, Lithuania and Germany. In Russia he worked at the Moscow Helsinki Group; participated in creation and coordinating the work of the Russia-EU Civil Society Forum, coordinated an international network of over 20 organizations from throughout the EU, Ukraine and Belarus. In this article, he shares his preliminary insight and some forecasts, based on an informal survey of ways NGOs in his sector have responded to the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. 

Quarantine measures and other limitations imposed or suggested to various degrees all around the globe have pushed NGOs to adjust their modes of operations. The forced adjustments, however, are likely to be sustained even after the quarantine is lifted.

For some NGOs who had regularly used teleworking and online meeting tools prior to the pandemic, the transition has been fairly seamless.  For others, whose work mainly consisted of public events, partner facility visits, workshops and lectures – the pandemic turned out to be if not a catastrophe, then a serious challenge structurally, financially, as well as in tactical and strategic senses.

What are some of the key shifts that will characterize the NGO sector post-Coronavirus?

Notionally, we can divide most NGOs into three groups:

  1. NGOs with preexisting experience of doing the majority of their work remotely (with over 50% of its work meetings done by teleconference and other online tools, as well as relying on webinars for most of their outreach). This group is the smallest of all three. Out of the 50 partner organizations surveyed, only 2 belong to this group.
  2. NGOs with limited previous experience working remotely, but those who did so ad hoc, not in a systematic manner; however, this group has a general idea of how to organize and conduct this type of work.
  3. NGOs with no previous experience of telework.

Clearly, it is the NGOs from the second and third group that are facing the steepest learning curves and now have to quickly make a number of important calls on approaches, tools, their ability to work effectively in the new mode, as well as about the readiness of their workforce to transition to telework.

Employees and volunteers who are able to teach teleworking tools, offer technology troubleshooting assistance will take the spotlight and be high demand. For all NGOs the transition to working remotely has become a great stress-test of the quality of their IT support and computer literacy.

Trends with the Staying Potential:

  1. Higher proportion of employees and volunteers who mostly work remotely

Even after the quarantine measures are lifted, we should expect that a higher proportion of employees will continue to work remotely either some of the time or full-time. These are the employees and volunteers whose effectiveness has increased due to ability to telework, who find telework more convenient, but had been simply too afraid to try it before. Of course, there is still a risk that the work ethics, effectiveness and productivity of employees will decrease; the motivation of volunteers will drop; and organizational team cohesion will be affected negatively. Telework introduces new challenges related to the process of assuring quality of work and other management functions.  The coronavirus pandemic has offered an opportunity to test a new format, and for many it has been a reassuring experience that has dispelled the worst fears.

  1. Ability to Optimize Organizational Budgets through Cuts to Office and Travel Expenses

If all employees, or a larger portion of them, chose to continue working remotely after the pandemic, many organizations will be able to reduce their needs for physical office space. They would have an opportunity to lower their expenses related to renting office space, electrical and utility bills, cleaning and maintenance costs.  We are also likely to see a decline in the number of in-person meetings, both internal to organizations as well as among organizational partners, again allowing NGOs to optimize their business trip budgets and cut travel expenses.

  1. Selection Processes Transition Online

Many NGOs had moved the bulk of their selection processes online prior to the pandemic. This includes interviews of prospective employees, fellows, training workshop participants.  However, there has been a deep-seated distrust of virtual interviews and a perception that they do not offer the same ability to evaluate a candidate thoroughly.

Today, there is simply no other option. Even final interviews now are taking place remotely. It is likely that having tried it once, many managers will appreciate the convenience of teleconference interview and will be more trusting of this method moving forward. This, in turn, will allow to shorten the decision-making cycle for HR purposes, since a remote interview is much easier to set up than an in-person meeting.  Moreover, interviews conducted remotely significantly cut costs. Of course, further research is required to determine the impact on the quality of decisions, and some in-person meetings on sensitive and critically important issues will be reinstated. Nevertheless, the proportion of interviews done remotely will undoubtedly increase for the long-term.

  1. Better Regional Representation and Improved Participation for Activists from Rural and Remote Areas

As the telecommuting becomes more prevalent, activists’ ability to make a contribution or participate in important NGO processes will increase. Candidates from rural and remote areas who are unable or unwilling to relocate will see a palpable improvement in their options for employment or participating in term-projects. For the budget-sensitive NGO sector that rarely pays for relocation expenses, this is an especially poignant shift. Clearly, this does not apply to all NGOs, and there are exceptions.

  1. Growth in Importance of IT Support to Key NGO Functions

The development of IT support, its reliability and quality, will grow in importance for most NGOs. It is already possible to state with confidence that many NGOs will not be able to execute this transition independently, and we will see an increase in demand for outsourced support for digital transformation of non-profits. Likewise, the demand for expertise in digital transformation for NGOs will also grow.

  1. Growing Importance of Social Media and Online Branding

Most NGOs had been aware of the importance of their online positioning, branding and engagement throughout various social media platforms. In the post-pandemic world, 100% of organizations who work with external audiences will understand that a placeholder website is simply insufficient. It is likely that we will also see growth in the importance of online presence and engagement by NGO heads, leadership and project managers.

  1. Educational Projects and Training Moves Online

Within a year, a significant portion of training processes and educational programs will move online. The quarantine has already severely restricted in-person gatherings and forced institutions to aggressively pursue development of platforms and programs for distance education. It is likely that online schools will outgrow their current marginal status and emerge as a new prominent vector within the NGO sector.

  1. Emergence of New Remote Communication Systems and Methods, Remote Teambuilding

In the pre-Coronavirus world, colleagues connected over lunch, coffee, networked at events, attended exhibits and presentations.  Organizations held regular teambuilding exercises and socials. Now is the time to review many of these activities. In the near term, we are likely to witness the emergence of innovative, original approaches to organizing interaction among employees. NGO leaders will have to get very creative. Today, we already see the proliferation of channels in Telegram, groups in WhatsApp, Facebook – to gather colleagues, volunteers, and provide them with socialization platforms. Zoom meetings evolve into Zoom parties. Everyone is forced to learn and adopt new digital tools.

Recommendations

There are some obvious steps that NGOs can take now to mitigate the organizational risks posed by the pandemic and its aftermath:

  • Evaluate the shift in its processes and activities to an online mode. Which ones have transitioned successfully, and which have floundered, and why?
  • Assess losses – financial, reputational, operational. Which losses are related to an inability to transition to remote and online operations?
  • Assess work tools and instruments (new ones, as well as those used pre-pandemic). Identify gaps in functions and unmet requirements. Come up with a list of possible solutions.
  • Prepare for a comprehensive restructuring of online assets.
  • Prepare a plan for work after the end of the quarantine regime.
Image by Tobias Lindner from Pixabay
Who Is Behind the Renewed Effort to Push Nord Stream 2 on Europe?

The PR Campaign:

April 2020 has witnessed a conspicuous uptick of publications in Western and Russian media in support of the Nord Stream 2 project:

All of these publications reference the release of results of an opinion poll and in English.

Who Paid for the PR Campaign? 

The poll was commissioned by the German Eastern Business Association (Ostausschuss – Osteuropaverein der Deutschen Wirtschaft, OAOEV)

OAOEV is a fairly new NGO that promotes German business in “Eastern” countries – from Russian to China. It was founded in 2018 through the partnership of the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations (Eastern Committee) and the Eastern Europe Business Association of Germany.

In December 2019, several OAOEV members met with Vladimir Putin. Following the meeting, OAOEV published a press release.

The press contact for the Nord Strom 2 Survey listed on the OAOEV website is Andreas Metz. Metz is described by Politico Europe as “member of Berlin-based lobbying group Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, which supports the pipeline Nord Stream 2.”

This OAOEV survey coincided with the November 1, 2019 appointment of Mario Mehren as the new spokesperson of its Russia working group. Mehren is a member of the shareholders committee of Nord Stream 2.

Mr. Mehren is also the Chairman and CEO of the natural gas and crude oil company Wintershall Dea – one of the two German companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 project (the second is E.On). It is a joint venture of a German concern BASF (67%) and LetterOne (33%) co-owned by Russian oligarchs with strong ties to the Kremlin, – Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan.

There is overwhelming evidence suggesting that these oligarchs have close ties with the Putin’s regime and its intelligence services.

Wintershall Dea owns stakes of gas reserves in Russia and chemical factories in Germany that rely on the export of that gas.

In this role as the head of Wintershall Dea, Mario Mehren met with the CEO of Gazprom Alexei Miller numerous times:

Mr. Mehren has been on the record lobbying for Nord Stream 2 for a few years now. For example, he is a co-author of a 2018 disinformation piece about Nord Stream 2 in a US outlet.

Given the above connections of the oligarchs to the Kremlin and conflicted interests of the Wintershall Dea shareholders and top leadership, it is reasonable not to be believe in the independent nature or objectivity of this research poll.

Who Executed the Polls?

The Nord Stream 2 survey was executed by an infamous commercial polling agency Forsa Politik- und Sozialforschung AG, which had been accused of data manipulations in several of its past projects. In 2009, for example, the firm was involved in a scandal concerning a methodologically flawed survey whose cooked results claimed disapproval of the 2007 railroad operators’ strike and approval of privatization of the railway. It was uncovered that the biased study had been secretly funded by Deutsche Bahn.

Survey Claims:

Forsa’s Nord Stream 2 poll is based on a phone interview of 1,006 Germans and purports them to reflect the attitudes of the entire German population.

While neither the full Nord Stream 2 survey data nor its methodology have been made public, the Wintershall Dea website features the most extensive write-up of the Forsa Nord Stream 2 survey.

The Wintershall Dea website highlights the interpretation of data according to which the majority of German people do not see the U.S. as a reliable partner and juxtapose it to Putin’s Russia. Its title is “Forsa: less and less confidence in the U.S.

The survey’s other published findings also reinforce the anti-US and pro-Russian narrative through claims such as:

  • Only 10% of Germans regard the United States as a reliable energy supplier. That puts the U.S. behind the Middle East (with 14% of German citizens having confidence in the Middle East as a reliable energy supplier);
  • Over half (55%) of German citizens want closer economic ties with Russia;
  • More than three quarters (77%) of respondents say that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline construction should continue despite US opposition.

What Are the Prospects for Nord Stream 2?

With just a hundred miles of seabed pipeline construction remaining, the work on the Nord Stream 2 project was abruptly halted by US sanctions introduced in December 2019. The sanctions threaten to blacklist any foreign companies collaborating on the construction of the pipeline. This caused all foreign partners to pull-out from the construction and left Russia with no foreign vessels willing to complete the pipe-laying, according to analysis by Benjamin L. Schmitt published by the Jamestown Foundation.

Neither the sanctions, the Coronavirus Pandemic nor the perturbations on the global energy market seem to have any affect, as Putin vowed to finish the pipeline no later than the first quarter of 2021. Such a timeline, however, seems overly optimistic, for two reasons.

Firstly, Russia needs to receive a permit from Denmark to deploy in its territorial waters. Such a permit (given Denmark’s appreciation for the true nature and purpose of Nord Stream 2) is far from certain, and even if granted, may be issued with a significant delay. The Danish Energy Agency (DEA) had spent two and a half years evaluating Gazprom proposals before finally granting permission to build the pipeline in its waters in October 2019.

In February 2020, the Danish Energy Agency said it began negotiations with Nord Stream 2 AG regarding the unfinished Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, but the involvement of any specific new vessels has not yet been discussed.

Secondly, Russia currently has no vessels equipped to carry on the construction. According to a European energy expert and Jamestown Foundation Senior Fellow Margarita Assenova, Russia has two ships it may potentially use to complete the project: Akademik Chersky and Fortuna.

Akademik Chersky, a vessel owned by a Moscow-based construction firm with a loan from Gazprombank, set sail from Russia’s Far East toward the Suez Port in Egypt in March 2020 and after several peculiar route diversions headed to Las Palmas in early April. It possesses dynamic positioning stipulated by Danish authorities. Chersky, however, requires a technology upgrade to be able to lay pipes. An upgrade can potentially be performed in two to three months. It would then take additional time for Akademik Chersky to reach the Baltic, said Assenova.

Fortuna, located in the Baltic Sea, does not have dynamic positioning. As explained by a CEPA report, “dynamic positioning is a computer-controlled system that automatically maintains the vessel’s position and heading, without the need to use anchors to maintain its course in deep waters. Avoiding anchors in the Baltic Sea is a key environmental and security requirement of Danish authorities for drilling platforms, research ships, and cable-laying and pipe-laying vessels.” Gazprom has floated an idea of attaching a tugboat with dynamic positioning to Fortuna, as reported in the Russian media.

Even if either of these schemes is successful, the vessels would still have to be insured, and its insurers would fall under the US sanctions. Russia has been developing its own instruments for insuring vessels under the new sanctions regime, according to Mikhail Korchemkin from East European Gas Analysis group.

What are the Objectives of this PR Campaign?

With its publicity campaign, Wintershall Dea has attempted to improve the political and social dynamics in Europe to facilitate the quickest completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline so badly wanted by the Kremlin.

While revenues from gas exports are not essential for the Russian federal budget, the sector has become the primary instrument of expropriating state resources and channeling them into the accounts of Putin’s’ cronies. As such it is one of the key factors to the ability of Putin to remain in power.

Putin’s regime simply cannot afford to lose its market share to a highly competitive US LNG. Gas price manipulation has proved an effective strategy for Gazprom in the past decade. By completing Nord Stream 2, Gazprom is hoping to brainwash European consumers in its ability to sustain high volumes of affordable gas supply for the long term while in reality Russian gas has always come with the political strings attached, bringing corruption and subversion of democratic institutions.

With this PR campaign, the Kremlin attempts to shift the focus away from its track-record of price manipulation and to the commercial aspects of this partnership with the EU, as well as convince the society that the Nord Stream 2 is a purely commercial project and not a political weapon of the Kremlin.

Kremlin’s Efforts to Sow Uncertainty and Distrust in Germany Fall Short

A special report by the EEAS on Coronavirus Disinformation offers a thorough analysis of tactics, strategies and vectors of effort by  Kremlin-controlled media on the issue of Coronavirus. During the past three months, the agency has documented over 110 instances of disinformation (i.e. excluding reposts and secondary materials citing them). Such a significant volume suggests that the Kremlin has a strategy and a plan on how to use the pandemic to advance its political agenda in Europe.

How is this strategy manifested and executed in Germany? And who are the prime targets for the Kremlin-controlled media in Germany?

In Germany, there are in essence two main target audiences – the German-speakers and the Russian-speakers. A great volume of German-language materials is generated by outfits such as RT Deutschland и Sputnik DE. Their level of activity is so massive (for RT Deutschland, for example, – up to 10 new videos per day and for Sputnik DE up to 30 published stories per day) that the German law enforcement now has several formal efforts dedicated to addressing their challenge. In March 24, 2020, the Federal Criminal Police and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution announced the start of programs to monitor fake news materials “whose spread may pose a threat to the societal order and security.”

Organic audiences (in German Top-100 in social nets) cultivated by RT and Sputnik as part of Russian campaigns to interfere in the EU in 2019 and German Parliamentary elections in 2017, today are used to spread the coronavirus disinformation throughout the German society. For the most part, they are people with far-right political orientations, those who support populist leaders, harbor anti-American sentiments and embrace conspiracy theories of various sorts.  Many of them have voted for the AfD party. This is not surprising, given that RT served as a de-facto party channel during the 2017 Bundestag elections campaign – it provided AfD candidates unrestricted publicity with an opportunity to discuss any issue, while completely ignoring all other parties and candidates.

Germany’s Russian-speaking community, of course, is also an important audience for the Kremlin propaganda outlets.  According to various statistics, Germany is home to between 3-5 mln Russian-speakers:

– About 3 mln arrived through the repatriation programs for Soviet Germans;
– About 300,000— are refugees of Jewish ethnic origins;
– About 300,000 ethnic Ukrainians;
– According to the official information published by the Russian Embassy in Germany — 500,000 remain citizens of the Russian Federation;
– Additionally, citizens from various former Soviet republics such as Moldova, Latvia, etc.

This amounts to a sizeable audience for whom Russian is the primary language used at home, as well as the main language for receiving important information and the news.

In addition to the Russian-language media outlets, the Kremlin aggressively employs social media platforms to shape opinion among the Russian-speaking audience in Germany. The Russian Odnoklassniki (translates as “classmates”) has at least 2.6 mln accounts based from Germany;  an online group “Russian Germans for AfD” has over 20,000 members; and the pro-AfD and pro-Putin group “Russian Germany” has more than 60,000 members.

Four narratives dominate within the continuous barrage of coronavirus-related disinformation and manipulation advanced by the Kremlin-controlled media in Germany:

1. Lack of unity in Europe and the absence of collective support and plan dealing with the coronavirus among the EU states.

In a weekly program Vesti Nedeli (which has about 5.7 mln viewers) broadcast by Russia’s First Channel on March 22, 2020, Dmitry Kiselev is speculating on the geostrategic ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic: 

“The Schengen Area regime was the first one to collapse.  Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Poland and Lithuania have reinstated control of their national borders. That means that the Schengen Area with the freedom of movement between its 26 members states no longer exists. Those are just the first few steps in the direction of giving up the spoils of civilization in favor of reinstating sovereign nation-states. In fact, this is the crash of the European Idea and transition to a new political culture with a different value system.

All the lip-service to solidarity, collective assistance, shared values, human rights and humanism, has gone with the wind the moment when Italy, who lost more people to coronavirus than China, asked the EU for help, and was rebuffed. Italy requested personal protection items and medical equipment, specifically lung ventilators. In response, Germany and France curbed their exports of medical masks.”

One would be hard-pressed to find “analysis” with a comparable concentration of lies.  Firstly, the Schengen agreements include clauses governing possible limitations and temporary moratoriums on travel, as well as governing the travel of non-EU citizens. Secondly, the European Commission urgently appropriated 50 million euros to help Italy.  Finally, France and Germany limited their national exports of medical masks due to their domestic deficits.

Similar materials and reports surfaced on the German-language Sputnik DE on March 19, 2020 and RT Deutschland on March 30, 2020. Some outlets have gone further and proclaimed the end of the European Union.

Alexander Nosovich commented in his March 13, 2020 editorial published by RuBaltic.Ru: “The Coronavirus response has demonstrated that the European Union does not exist in the minds of Europeans. When it is time to act, the Union ceases to exists as a political reality.”

VestiFM (ВестиFM) went even further and in all seriousness discussed the inevitable exit of Italy and Germany from the EU.

The nexus between the German right populists politicians and the Russian medical envoy to Italy deserve a special mention, as it played a key role in Putin’s decision to do so.

Turns out, the impetus was the March 20, 2020 letter penned by the Bundestag AfD member Ulrich Oehme (infamous for his pro-Russian stance and his travel to the occupied Crimea) and his Italian colleague, ultra-right populist from the Lega Nord party Paolo Grimoldi (who founded a “Friends of Putin” Caucus in the Italian Parliament) addressed to Roman Babayan (a Moscow City Duma Deputy and an anchorman of the NTV show “Your Own Truth”) and to Leonid Slutskiy (Chair of the Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, PACE delegate, member of the Russian right-wing Liberal-Democratic Partyparty, and named on the international list of sanctions adopted by the US, EU and Canada for his official legislative role in the Russian annexation of Crimea).

Babayan read the letter during a live broadcast of his show, which received wide coverage throughout the Russian media. For the Russian audience, a spectacle was played out where a teary plea from the Europeans was met with an immediate and gracious response from Russia.  It’s important to acknowledge that this narrative may be aimed more at the Russian domestic audience, as opposed to the Russian diaspora in Europe, though it permeates both.

2. Germany moves to rescind sanctions against Russia due to the pandemic.

Calls by three marginal Bundestag Members – Robby Schlund, AfD (who became famous for his effort to open an AfD office in Russia), Anton Friesen, AfD, and Alexander Noy, Left – are presented by the Kremlin media as the onset of a serious discussion to end sanctions against Russia. It has been peddled most actively by RIA News and Izvestia (and then reprinted by dozens of less prominent outlets such as regnum.ru, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, gazeta.ru and among the German-language outlets, such as  Sputnik, RT and Junge Welt who also touted that the tiny German Communist Party called to end sanctions against Cuba, Venezuela and Russia. It is important to clarify that such statements and calls are made by individual members of the Bundestag and fractions several times a day and do not amount to a formal legislative discussion or movement.

Against this backdrop, a significant reactivation of the Nord Stream 2 lobbying efforts have taken place. The pretext of this campaign was the publication of survey results prepared by Forsa, a leading German market research and opinion poll agency, and dealing with German attitudes on energy policy issues. Rossiyskaya Gazeta, whose editorial focus usually echoes the sentiments inside the Kremlin, immediately reported on the study: “Against the difficult economic situation related to coronavirus, the support for construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has grown. Three quarters of respondents (77%) support the most expedient completion of the Russian-European project, despite the limitations announced by the United States.”

In Germany itself, however, this information has been ignored by prime outlets and only featured only by marginal portals covering economic beats (such as finanzen.net.)

3. German lack of preparedness for the Coronavirus pandemic and shortage of doctors.

One would assume that the Kremlin propaganda machine would not waste time on spreading lies that are easily factchecked and quickly dismissed as disinformation. Nevertheless, an entire program on Vesti FM on February 29, 2020, did exactly that. Other peddled themes include the so-called “negative pandemic scenario” projecting that 50 million Germans will inevitably become infected and 1 million will die, which at this point is a mere hypothesis. Some Russian outlets such as Nezavisimaya Gazeta engage in despicable speculation on the circumstances of the suicide of a German state minister with headlines such as “The German Hysteria”.  Again, here, it is the Russian domestic audience that may have been the primary target, though the Russian-language audiences in Europe have been also been affected.

While most Kremlin-controlled media outlets have advanced the narrative of the German panic, Alexander Rahr, the darling of the Russian propaganda and an expert on all possible issues, offered an extensive commentary: “ It is improper to say that one does not feel the panic here.”

4. Refugees and Quarantine.

Russian disinformation outlets have been pushing a narrative that refugees in Europe violate quarantine.  Komsomolskaya Pravda has hired an AfD activist  Eugen Schmidt who has churned out several reports supporting this theme. Such narratives target Russian audiences with anti-migrant and racists views.

An anti-migrant publication germania.one is also advancing a similar line. On the other hand, Sputnik DE is vocal in its criticism of the failure of the German government to sustain safety and enforce quarantine measures inside refugee camps and asylum-seekers’ housing.

What are some of the preliminary conclusions and observations that could be made from the review of the fake, half-truth and misleading materials?

It is clear that the Kremlin-controlled outlets seek to sow uncertainty, fear of the future and distrust among the German population toward its government. At the same time, materials aired and published frequently contradict each other.  RT Deutschland, for example, is criticizing the German government for harsh restrictions, while Sputnik DE is criticizing it for lack of preparedness and inability to enforce quarantine. However, this is precisely the mechanism used by the Kremlin to execute its strategy of sowing uncertainty and even panic. Once the environment is right, it aims to push for the removal of sanctions under the pretext of helping the German economy recover. To shift attention away from its own fake news, RT Deutschland is claiming  that prominent Western outlets such as Tagesspiegel , FAZ, AFP  и DW  are spreading fake news against RT Deutschland.

Despite all of these efforts by the Kremlin-controlled media, the rating of the ruling coalition continues to grow, and the majority of Germans approve of measures taken by state and federal governments. According to a recent poll conducted by ARD-Deutschlandtrend (02.04.2020), 72% are satisfied with the crisis management measures adopted by the government in response to coronavirus pandemic. Likewise, the support is strong for the overall performance of the ruling coalition of parties (government): 63% are satisfied with its work (which is a 28% from a similar poll 02.03.2020)

Politics in the Regions: The Reasons for Decline and Paths to Rebirth

At the present time, the political life of Russia’s regions is all but destroyed. There are no organizational or financial resources for it and such a state of affairs is the result of a deliberate strategy to destroy democracy in Russia which has been implemented throughout the last 20 years.

Despite the fact that various regions of Russia have their own nuances and special features, on the whole, the situation is the same everywhere: the head of the region and the heads of the major municipalities are approved, and de facto appointed by the presidential administration, and all the rest of the regional leadership is appointed and approved by the governor. Those who disagree with this state of affairs are forced out of official politics.

On the whole, it should be acknowledged that after the presidential elections of 2018, political life in the regions was completely sterilized; so in that sense, there is only a point in discussing the reasons which led to this state of affairs and to think about the prospects for Russia to get back on track to democracy and federalism. Obviously, without radical changes in the leadership of Russia, the situation will not change, and as long as the laws, and most importantly, the president of Russia remains unchanged, any sort of revival of regional politics cannot be expected.

Democracy and Federalism in Russia

Democracy and federalism in Russia turned out to be powerless before the onslaught of autocracy in the early 2000s, because they had no real support either in the government itself or among citizens – and such a state of affairs had been programmed by the creators of the political system of Yeltsin’s Russia.

Even those government agencies which were formed directly by citizens had no real autonomy from the higher levels of government, primarily at the federal level, because the president was able to rid himself of inconvenient regional leaders and the regional leaders were able to oppress the municipalities. Naturally, in such circumstances the level of citizens’ trust in municipal and regional government was rather low, so the Kremlin was not afraid that some mayor or governor would be bold enough to argue with it, that they relied on the real support of the people, rather than on fixed elections. The local elites wasted so much effort on fighting among themselves that they were gladly ready to agree to the federal center’s terms, just to get rid of their rivals. In the end, a tactical alliance with the federal center became a trap; once they fell into it, local elites lost their political agency. This is what Putin exploited when he set about sterilizing regional politics completely.

The current state of affairs and its incorporation into the renewed text of the Russian constitution is the result of a constant and consistent attack on democracy and federalism. This has been under way for the entire 20 years of Putin’s rule, but as has been noted, it began much earlier. Essentially, the system created by Yeltsin in 1993-1996 had to guarantee the president that even if he had a minority in parliament and his personal rating was low, and if members of the opposition come to power in a number of regions and major cities, he could still remain in power and successfully block all the efforts of his critics.

Precisely within the framework of this concept, the prospects for local and regional self-government were in fact destroyed. Since all real powers were concentrated in the president, and all the other branches of government (parliament, the courts, the regions, and local self-government) were intentionally weakened, the deliberate course of the new President Putin enabled him to destroy both federalism and democracy in several years, without encountering any real resistance.

The Attack on Self-Government

Thus, as has already been said, the constitution of 1993 was written not so much to create a firm foundation for democracy and federalism in Russia, but rather to serve the interests of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Its authors were motivated by fear of a communist revanche, which they expected “from below.”

Obviously, local elites fully shared that fear of Yeltsin’s entourage, or rather exploited it for solving their own tactical problems. The presence in Russia in the 1990s of the so-called “red belt,” that is, the regions where the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) traditionally garnered many votes, forced the Yeltsin team to search for any allies for themselves who were prepared not to allow a victory of the CPRF and in exchange for that, forgive them any abuses.

Thus, emerged the phenomenon of “electoral reservoirs,” that is, regions guaranteed to show a high turn-out at all elections with high indicators for the party of power and its candidates. Essentially, a number of local leaders simply changed their loyalty for financial bonuses and impunity. This is exactly what defined the nature of interrelations between the federal center and the regions. Therefore, when Putin took the line of restricting the real powers of local bodies of government, the elites of the regions were already rather isolated from the citizens and did not have high authority among them which would have enabled them to rely on the support of voters in opposition to the Kremlin’s policy – if they even had such a wish at all.

Nevertheless, under Yeltsin, political life in the regions was preserved – among other reasons because the Kremlin played on the contradictions of the local elites, in each case wishing to find a counterweight to an ambitious governor through the head of a regional center or in some other way. Taking into account that Yeltsin’s ratings were extremely low all through the second half of the 1990s, the Kremlin was forced to reconcile itself to a certain level of political freedom in the regions, in the wealthiest of which quite interesting political systems had been formed and operated relatively successfully. For example, in Sverdlovsk Region there was a bicameral regional parliament where the upper house was elected every two years through elections in the districts, and the lower house by party lists; in fact the main fight was usually among the regional parties, whereas the federal party did not have significant influence. But all of this was possible because Sverdlovsk Region was relatively wealthy, which enabled numerous regional industrial groups to exist, which were interested in political representation among other things.

This is why we must not forget that Alexei Kudrin’s tax reform finally put to death the prospects for political life in the regions, the result of which led to the total financial dependency of the regions on the center and made struggling for power in their regions pointless; if the center distributes cash and everything comes from the center, then it is quite logical that a person appointed from the center is at the head of the region.

The local elites accepted the rules of the game and instead of resistance to the changing viceroys, tried to cooperate with each new governor because any other strategy is fraught with serious problems and losses.

Local Elites

We cannot overlook the quality of the local elites as well; in the absolute majority of cases, already by the mid-1990s, power in the regions had wound up in the hands of the Soviet nomenklatura. On the one hand, it preferred the administrative-command methods of leadership and leaned toward the necessity of taking part in honest and competitive elections, but that is why it was prepared to obtain powers from the leadership and not the public. On the other hand, it turned out to be involved in corrupt schemes which enabled the federal government to control any local leader by the kompromat [compromising material] compiled on him. In many cases, it was these people who kept power in their hands all through the 1990s and 2000s, until the Putin administration gradually, but methodically, got rid of them.

The situation in Sverdlovsk Region was illustrative, where Arkady Chernetsky, mayor of the regional center, remained in his post from 1992-2010, but Eduard Rossel, governor of Sverdlovsk Region, had in one way or another headed the region from 1991-2009 (with a break from 1993-1995). Both of them came out of the Soviet nomenklatura, and despite the undoubted political talents and readiness for participation in competitive politics, both were drawn to authoritarian methods and were not ashamed of using manipulative techniques in the elections.

All the years they were in their posts, these politicians and their teams waged an unceasing war, but in the end both of them gave up their power, not by losing elections, but by subordinating themselves to order. Now both of these rivals represent Sverdlovsk Region in the Federation Council without any real weight in regional politics.

It is noteworthy that even after the departure of Chernetsky from the post of head of Ekaterinburg, his team resisted pressure from the regional government for several years, which created a certain space of political struggle and even enabled the non-system politician Evgeny Royzman to win the elections to head of Ekaterinburg (by that time, this position had already become symbolic). But this resistance had purely economic reasons and in no way presupposed criticism of the federal government and its policy. On the eve of the 2018 presidential elections, the city team finally capitulated, and with that, politics in the region ended. In May 2018, Evgeny Royzman was forced to give up his powers as head of Ekaterinburg prematurely, and the city charter no longer stipulated new direct elections. Despite the specific nature of the situation in Ekaterinburg and Sverdlovsk Region, in the end even there, the Kremlin achieved its aims – as in all other regions of Russia, rich and poor, national republics and ordinary regions and territories.

What Is to Be Done?

What can and should be done, so that democracy is returned to Russia and cannot be so simply overthrown? As was said at the very outset, without changes at the federal level, we should not expect a flourishing of politics in the regions. But it is important not to repeat the mistakes of the past and not create the prerequisites so that democracy and federalism in Russia could be overthrown some time again.

First, it is necessary to have the constitutional transfer of the maximum number of political, legal, and financial powers to the level of local self-government. Even the regional level of government must be not be as influential as the municipalities. Essentially, the regional administrations must be involved only in the creation and maintenance of the general infrastructure and coordination of the efforts of local communities. It is much harder to take control of thousands of municipalities with great powers, elected by direct elections, than several dozen regional governments. This is exactly why the municipalities must become the foundation of democracy and the guarantor of the separation of powers in Russia, or otherwise everything will rapidly return to the current state of affairs.

Secondly, the restrictions on the creation of regional parties must be removed. Taking into account the dimensions of Russia, it is more logical to prohibit federal parties as such, motivating regional parties to form blocs at the federal level around common program lines and interests. Federal politics must be made in the regions and municipalities and not the opposite.

Third, the incorporation of a parliamentary system of governance at all levels of government – from the federal to the municipal – seems correct, that is, in both the regions and in the major cities, executive power must be in the hands of the head of government elected by the parliament. This will enable the destruction of the prerequisites for a revanche of Putinism several years after the departure of Vladimir Putin from politics, because it will destroy even the theoretical possibility of subordinating one level of government to another through personal agreements or blackmail. On the whole, all of Russia’s history teaches us that any opportunity to concentrate power in the hands of one person rather quickly leads to authoritarianism and a lack of change in government – and not only at the level of the head of state.

Fourth, any attempts to return Russia to the path of democracy and federalism are unthinkable without lustration not only at the federal but also at the regional and even municipal level. The main reason why the democratic endeavors of the 1990s were so easily overthrown was the fact that in the early 1990s, real power in Russia was left in the hands of descendants of the Soviet nomenklatura. Taking into account by whom and how the regional and municipal bodies of governments were formed in recent years, keeping these people in politics will inevitably lead to a revanche in a very short time. There are quite enough new people for politics at all levels in Russia, but for them to get involved and not lose at the very first elections to the re-painted Putin nomenklatura, the latter must be lawfully excluded from the process. Otherwise, everything will come full circle in this new, reimagined future.

Translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

American Private Sector Rallies to Fight COVID-19

As the number of cases of COVID-19, also known informally as coronavirus, grows in the United States, local, state and federal government officials are scrambling to contain the spread of the disease and “flatten the curve,” an expression that roughly means to reduce the outbreak of COVID-19 cases to a more manageable rate.

While millions of Americans have been ordered to stay home, employees deemed “essential” such as grocery store clerks plow on; tired but perseverant. Unemployment claims have skyrocketed in the last few weeks, shattering records from previous economic downturns, and many industries have been shuttered due to the need for social distancing.

With all the dispiriting news, an underreported story has been how private industry has geared up to manufacture and distribute essential products to fight the spread of the virus. Working often in cooperation with federal and state agencies, many companies have put the American people ahead of their own profit margin and pitched in as they had during other times of national emergency.

According to Fox News, tech giant Apple is donating 10 million masks to American health care workers. The Dallas Morning News reports that Neiman Marcus, a department store chain, and Joann, the craft store chain, is also diverting resources to sew health care workers’ gowns, masks, and scrubs. Forbes reports Major League Baseball has partnered with Fanatics, the company that makes the jerseys the players wear, to do the same with the baseball season currently on hold. According to the Wall Street Journal, Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts managed to enlist the help of the New England Patriots’ team plane in securing millions of masks to be shipped from China. Brooks Brothers is also producing masks and gowns in their factories, and Crocs is donating shoes to healthcare workers.

Private sector firms are contributing more than just supplies and raw materials, though. According to Forbes, a biotech firm based out of Massachusetts called Moderna has managed to launch clinical trials for a possible COVID-19 vaccine. Forbes goes on to report that antiviral treatments are being tested by Gilead Sciences while the Food and Drug Administration has approved recently developed testing methods. American automobile companies are also manufacturing ventilators to assist COVID-19 treatment. While the work of health care professionals is far from done, steps are being made to contain the disease.

President Trump openly speculated about a possible reopening of businesses on Easter Sunday (April 12th), but with cases of COVID-19 continuing to spread at an alarming rate, the president has since backtracked and called for social distancing protocols to extend at least until April 30, with the Surgeon General speculating that those guidelines could be extended further. Many states have ordered residents to stay at home, with the only exceptions being to buy essential items and to exercise.

While the fight to contain COVID-19 is far from over in the United States, Europe, and Asia, it is heartening to know that significant resources in both the public and private sector are being mobilized to provide reinforcements to the exhausted medical professionals on the front lines of this pandemic. There will be lessons to learn after COVID-19 is contained and eventually cured, and it will be prudent for both public and private sectors to proactively prepare for the possibility of another disease with similar effects. There’s even the possibility of COVID-19 returning as the weather cools down in autumn and winter, a threat that must be taken seriously. Today, both private and public sectors are making significant sacrifices, and that should be a sign that people can use this shared experience toward greater unity and cooperation.

does the drop in oil prices threaten Putin’s regime?

The ongoing decline in global oil prices is very bad news for Putin’s regime which depends on oil and gas revenues for about 40% of its federal budget.

This “black swan” comes in a flock— it coincides with the global coronavirus pandemic, the introduction of new US sanctions targeting the Russian energy sector; and on the domestic front, exacerbated by an extremely unpopular move by Putin to rewrite the Constitution with the sole goal of remaining in power for life.

We put together a matrix with scenarios for Russia under various energy market assumptions. Below, we have put together a matrix with scenarios for Russia and various energy market assumptions.

This is an excerpt from a Free Russia Foundation study Russian Scenarios 2030, that also includes chapters on:

· Elites’ Cohesion and Coup D’état
· Military Confrontation
· Russia as a Proxy Superpower of China
· Decentralization
· Local Military Conflicts
· Two Positive Scenarios
· The Sanctions Scenario
· State Crony Capitalism
· Russia and China in 2030
· De-escalation
· Succession after Putin’s Unexpected Death

Download PDF

Russia vs Oil

In early March 2020, OPEC has failed to reach a deal with Russia who refused to reduce its oil production in response to the plummeting demand due to the global coronavirus epidemic. “We are confident that Russia will resume its cooperation,” said OPEC’s Secretary General Mohammed Barkindo to a Russian news agency Interfax. According to the latest forecast by the International Energy Agency, 2020 will see a significant drop in global demand for oil, for the first time since 2009.

During the March 6, 2020 negotiations, OPEC members proposed to not only extend the current quota on oil productions through the end of the year, but also suggested to further reduce daily outputs by 1.5 mln barrels. Russia, however, was willing to extend the current quotes only through the end of the second quarter of 2020, and refused to further reduce production (a measure that is seen by OPEC as necessary for sustaining the current level of global oil process).

OPEC+ has sought to stabilize global oil prices since 2017. The OPEC failure to reach a deal means that, starting with April 1, 2020, there will be no limitations on oil production. Following Russia’s rejection of a new deal limiting oil production, Saudi Arabia announced its intention to increase output in April. The reaction of global markets to the prospect of a new energy price war was instantaneous: within a few seconds from the morning opening on March 9, 2020, Brent oil prices fell 30%, its biggest drop since 1991. Russian national currency – ruble – was immediately affected – its exchange with euro exceeded the 86 to 1, and with the US dollar – 75 to 1 rate.

“At this point there are no factors that would limit the drop in oil prices. Under an optimistic scenario, they may stabilize at $30 per barrel, after which the markets may start recovery,” believes Nikolai Ivanov from the Energy and Finance Institute (Moscow, Russia). However, according to a recent Goldman Sachs projection cited by the CNN, due to perturbations on the global oil market the price can go down as low as $20 per barrel.

The deficit in the Russian federal budget that would result from the drop in oil prices can be compensated by the National Wealth Fund, announced the Russian Ministry of Finance statement on its website (as quoted by a Russian news agency RIA News). The Ministry projects that even under a pessimistic scenario with prices at $25 per barrel, the Fund will last for six years.

In his statement to a Russian news agency TASS, Energy Minister Aleksandr Novak said that the prospect of oil production increase in April will be determined by ROSNEFT’s plans. Following the failure to reach a deal with OPEC, Russian State Corporation ROSNEFT (currently under sanctions by the US and EU) began planning to increase its oil output, according to Bloomberg reports citing insider sources.

“I doubt that Russian officials, who are now in the midst of a constitutional reform and government restructuring, meant to intentionally harm the Russian economy and weaken the national currency,” says Nikolai Ivanov. Ivanov believes that Russia was forced to break off its negotiations with OPEC. “On the one hand what happened was a manifestation of domestic political intrigues in Saudi Arabia; on the other hand, one can detect the U.S. influence,” said the expert. “The US Secretary of Energy Mike Pompeo flew to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia right before the OPEC break down. The young and very capable Crown Prince bin Salman had just averted a coup in his country and arrested several key government figures. He had conducted an IPO round for Saudi Aramco and no longer had any motivation to sustain oil prices.” For Russia, on the other hand, new production quotas would mean a reduction of half a million of barrels per day. “Unlike Saudi Arabia, Russia, due to its geological characteristics cannot quickly reduce the production of oil and then ramp back up,” believes Nikolai Ivanov. “For Russia, with its high share of “old” oil deposits, which actually already require intensification of extraction rates, it is impossible to increase production after a forced decrease.”

“This decision could have only been made by Vladimir Putin personally,” asserts Mikhail Korchemkin, Director of the East European Gas Analysis consultancy. He recalls Gazprom’s unfortunate experience from the 2009 crisis. As gas prices in Europe plummeted, the Russian President decided to keep the contract prices high despite a shrinking market share. “I would imagine, today, Putin is applying this past experience to the oil market. In 2009, he learned that a reduction in exports leads to a loss,” suggests Korchemkin. “However, shortly thereafter Gazprom came to its senses, lowered prices, increased its market share,” recalls Korchemkin. Aleksandr Baunov from the Moscow Carnegie Center agrees with this assessment. Baunov believes that a shrinking market and its restructuring are the two major factors. “The rest is just an afterthought: the prices first started dropping, and then the government recalled that it was bad for the shale industry,” he suggested. Korchemkin also notes that the US shale oil production has lived through two major price shocks of 2009 and 2015, each deeper than the current one so far.

“Russian leadership still does not understand the US shale mining industry,” – says Ivanov. The expert is confident that this sector cannot be shut down by external shakeups. “Production volume can be varied. Profits are realized even under modest volumes of extraction,” he explains. According to Ivanov, the US may even decide to increase output despite lower global prices as certain costs can go down through such periods. “The United States has such a diversity of producers – at the major, medium and smaller size levels. They can diversify their investments. The advantage of shale production is that it’s very dynamic, and one can adjust approach to oil extraction based on demands of the market,” concludes the expert.

According to Robert Tummel, a portfolio manager at Tortoise Capital Advisors, currently the impact of coronavirus on global oil demand is uncertain. Estimates for 2020 for global oil demand reduction range from 600,000 to 1.3 mln barrels per a day. “Global oil supply could increase by 500,000 to 1 mln barrels per a day, based on how much Saudi Arabia increases production. And that will result in an oversupply on global oil market between 1.1 and 2.3 mln barrels per a day,” predicts Tummel. According to his estimates, the market is going to oversupplied by 1% to 2%. “We think that the US oil producers are most likely to accelerate the capital discipline, and they’d already began doing one to two years ago. The US production is likely decline if low oil prices persist,” says Robert Tummel.

Examining Russia’s constitutional reforms: An interview with Prof. Ben Noble

On January 15, Vladimir Putin surprised domestic and international audiences by announcing plans for significant reforms to the Russian constitution. Rather than settling the debate over Russia’s political development after 2024, the proposed reforms fueled widespread speculation.We asked Dr. Ben Noble, lecturer in Russian Politics at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, about what the reforms might mean for Russia’s future.

You and Samuel Greene have suggested that the lack of a clear road map for succession provided by the proposed constitutional reforms is part of Putin’s plan to keep himself from becoming a lame duck. Is uncertainty a byproduct of the Kremlin’s strategy or is it, in fact, a crucial part of the Kremlin’s strategy?

Sowing confusion and uncertainty is definitely not the singular strategy. Putin is creating options for what he might do in 2024, while not explicitly stating that these are the possible pathways going forward. He is also trying to stay uncommitted to any one pathway. Uncertainty remains while options are kept open.

Is this a strategy that the Kremlin has chosen willingly or has it adopted this strategy out of necessity? A new Carnegie Moscow/Levada report shows that while 59% of Russian surveyed want “decisive comprehensive change”, 39% cannot name a single politician with a road map for change. It seems as though while public approval of the government and Putin is falling, the political system has prevented the emergence of credible alternatives to Putin. What consequences does this dynamic have for Russia’s political future? 

Has the Kremlin adopted this strategy out of necessity? Yes. It can’t do otherwise. If Putin were to say that he was going to step down from the presidency in 2024, he would become a lame duck. In that case, we would have a really unstable and possibly uncontrollable situation with strategic uncertainty among elites becoming an existential problem for Putin. There could be a scramble to find a successor and to take over the offices of government in a way that does not fit Putin’s particular managerial style – and could put his own security at risk. In that sense, the Kremlin does not have complete control of the situation and has been backed into the place it now finds itself.

Doesn’t the current absence of a clear successor mean that Putin is in a weak position? Isn’t he risking sparking elite infighting that might fracture the system?

There has always been intra-elite conflict. It is almost the modus operandi of Putin’s system, which allows for rudimentary checks and balances to work while Putin remains on top. And I’m not saying that Putin is never going to make clear what will happen next. If, for argument’s sake, he decided to remain president after 2024, the election would have to be called and there would be lead-in time for everyone to prepare. A more likely scenario is that Putin heads up a beefed-up State Council. Elites will gain more certainty when the federal constitutional law specifying the form and function of the State Council is created. At that point, elites might begin to maneuver in a way that is more disciplined. But the Kremlin will make sure to release information about the transition on its terms, which means that it will continue to control the level of uncertainty.

So, you’re not buying into the rumors that they will bring up the timing of the Duma and presidential elections within the next year and a half to establish a successor?

It’s always possible, but it would be incredibly difficult. Let’s take the State Duma elections. The date of the 2016 elections was moved up from December to September. What’s forgotten is that, when these changes were made, Federation Council senators raised this as an issue in the Constitutional Court. And the Court said that moving the date of the elections is not unconstitutional as long as it’s moved by a small amount of time and that these types of changes are not going to happen all the time. In other words, it’s an exceptional situation. If the Kremlin wanted to move the Duma election up to September 2020, that would be deeply problematic in so far as it goes against what the Constitutional Court has already said. Of course, the Kremlin could come up with a way to make sure that the Constitutional Court didn’t get in the way. And that could be one of the reasons for the inclusion of the increased powers of the President for getting rid of Constitutional Court judges included in Putin’s constitutional reform bill. In other words, this might be one way to put pressure on the judiciary, possibly with a view to a situation where the Kremlin would like to move the timing of the parliamentary elections. That’s a point that Nikolai Petrov has made a couple of times: he thinks that the references to the president being able to get rid of Constitutional Court judges might not remain in the bill in its second reading because it’s just being used as a way to exert pressure on the judicial branch while the constitutional reforms are being considered.

Debates raged just a few months ago about whether the Kremlin would get rid of party list proportional representation (PR) in favor of single-member districts (SMD) for elections to the State Duma in order to help United Russia secure a majority. But that doesn’t seem like a compatible strategy with any plan to move up the elections because it would mean those changes need to be made even faster.

In classic Kremlin style, they are thinking of multiple options simultaneously. So it’s perfectly normal for us to hear rumors about elections moving up at the same time as news about United Russia using regional and city dumas as test cases to see what would happen if they got rid of the party list entirely or altered the split in the number of seats filled through party list PR and SMD races. This has been discussed recently regarding the Novosibirsk and Lipetsk city dumas, where United Russia is trying to convince systemic opposition deputies to vote for these changes. Understandably, systemic opposition deputies are hesitant to adopt a system that would give United Russia even more seats. At the moment, the Kremlin is stepping back and thinking of multiple options. They are waiting to see how United Russia does on the 13th of September in regional elections in order to help prepare for federal-level elections.

Is there an outside chance that these constitutional reforms will be treated as a term limit reset and Putin will stay on as president by arguing that the old term limits no longer apply to him?

I’m going to be quite bullish in saying that that’s not going to happen. Pavel Krasheninnikov, in his capacity as the co-chair of the constitutional working group and chairman of the lead committee dealing with Putin’s bill in the State Duma, was asked if a reset was possible and he said that this was not being considered. In so far as Yaroslav Nilov, an LDPR deputy and protégé of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, was allowed to ask this question publicly of Krasheninnikov during the reform bill’s first reading on the State Duma floor, and Krasheninnikov was able to provide a firm answer, I think we can be confident that the message has gone out from the Kremlin that a constitutional term limit reset for the presidency will not happen.

It seemed, when they were first announced by Putin, that the reforms could reshape the political system by significantly weakening the office of the president, which was taken as a positive sign for Russia’s political future. But when the written draft came out, it became clear that the reforms would have much less impact on the existing balance of power. What do the reforms really mean for Russia’s super-presidential system?

On balance, the reforms create a stronger presidency. Granted, the presidency will be limited to two terms. But these are six-year terms, so the next president could be in power for twelve years. By focusing on eliminating a possible third or fourth term for the president, we can lose perspective about how long twelve years is, especially given the potential new powers granted to the president with regard to judges. This is not something that is being commented on much because the conventional wisdom is that all judges in Russia are coopted anyway. Telephone justice means that the Kremlin can make its preferences known whenever it wants in key cases. But these new changes would have a chilling effect on the behavior of Constitutional Court judges as well as judges on the Supreme Court, appellate courts, and cassation courts. The fact that we haven’t seen a huge outcry from the judicial community about this makes me think that these changes simply formalize the existing state of affairs.

But I also think that we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for our initial optimism following Putin’s speech. Putin said that these would be “drastic changes” that would empower a responsible State Duma and prime minister. We were right to read significance into those words because they are words that Putin doesn’t usually say.

Vladimir Putin in Moscow, 01.18.2014 г. Photo: Pavlo Bednyakov/UNIAN

Putin even had an off-the-cuff moment with the audience where he said that they needed to prepare for all the new responsibility that they would get along with their new powers.

Exactly. Part of it could have been strategic to make sure that the announcement made a big splash. He talked about drastic changes that will deliver a real transfer of power across the branches of government. But then the bill is far less drastic. We are right to feel like hopes were dashed.

It’s also important to note that many of the changes that have been proposed seem to be created for a possible future where we don’t see unity of purpose across the executive and the legislature – that is, when the ‘party of power’ does not have a majority in the State Duma. Take, for example, the proposed “super veto”, where the president will be able to send bills to the Constitutional Court to assess their constitutionality after the president’s initial veto on a bill has been overridden by the State Duma and the Federation Council. This seems to be a mechanism designed to future-proof the constitution to the benefit of the presidency in a situation where the legislature is not controlled by the executive. It’s difficult for us to picture the world that the drafter or drafters of the reforms might be imagining. But this goes back to my previous point that the Kremlin is creating multiple pathways allowing for executive maneuverability in different scenarios.

In a similar vein, Tatiana Stanovaya made a convincing argument that the proposed changes build dispute-resolution mechanisms into the system in order to deal with a possible scenario where the president and legislature or prime minister disagree.

Her broader point about Putin already knowing his successor is a refreshingly clear answer to the question everyone is interested in, but I think no one is really in a position to make that claim with confidence right now. With regard to dispute-resolution mechanisms, lots of disputes are resolved now in the absence of an institutional framework. But I do agree that these reforms are a way of giving the system flexibility in the future in case there is a disagreement across branches of government.

The proposed constitutional changes have so far failed to spark meaningful opposition. Navalny has come out against efforts to defend the constitution and other oppositionists have also largely demurred from staging protests against the reforms. Why is this?

The clearest answer is that Putin promised lots of things that the opposition cannot come out against, like indexing pensions, ensuring the minimum wage remains above subsistence level, increased maternity capital funding, and free hot meals for primary school children. The proposals in the bulk of the speech are things that the majority of Russians would like. That means it’s difficult for the opposition to come out and focus on technical details related to changes to the constitution. The Kremlin played it well to combine all of this together and rely on the knowledge that political reforms are of secondary importance to most people who are primarily interested in their living standards.

So, it seems as though there’s not a natural base of support for protest against the reforms among the public. But it is striking that the opposition is not even trying to organize something. Navalny wasn’t passive on the issue, he came out strongly against any initiative to organize protest. Does he see protests against the constitutional reforms as a losing bet?

I think so. It could also be that they are keeping their powder dry and waiting for a moment when Putin does have to make clear what he will do next. And at that stage, the opposition might use as a framing device something that has been successful in the past: the idea that Putin remaining at the head of the country will prevent much-needed change in Russia. At the moment, that is a difficult message to sell with all the other positive changes announced and without a crystal-clear answer from Putin about what he will do in 2024.

Police at banned massive anti-corruption rally in Moscow. 03.16.2017. Photo: UNIAN

When he was appointed, Mikhail Mishustin was described as a capable technocrat based on his almost ten years of service as the head of the Federal Tax Service. But this week, we’ve gotten a better picture of Mishustin’s background, including his long-established connections to many regime insiders and his savvy ability to navigate political networks. Is he a placeholder PM or could he be a potential successor?

We could debate until the cows come home whether he is a possible successor. He certainly is one of a group of people who could be a successor but this line of thought leads to a guessing game. And that’s not very helpful at the moment.

What is going to be interesting is to see how Mishustin’s cabinet operates in practice. One of the first messages out was that Mishustin is the first prime minister to put his own team together: a younger team forming a homogenous cabinet that has relatively similar policy preferences. But now it seems like something more subtle is going on. There is a system developing with checks and balances that suggests how conflicts might be resolved when they arise. And this is in line with what we learned from the Moscow Times article about Mishustin: he sets up systems and ensures that they run smoothly. For me, it’s going to be interesting to see how policy debates play out with this new team. Under Medvedev, we saw a number of policy conflicts rage for years. Under Mishustin, there may be less policy conflict. I should be able to analyze this possibility with my research on the Duma. If government legislation is passed quicker and with fewer amendments, that would suggest that Mishustin’s cabinet is more harmonious, given my broader argument that lots of what happens in the Duma is driven by intra-executive dynamics.

But there is also a huge question mark about how the relationship between Mishustin and Vyacheslav Volodin will develop. Volodin might not take kindly to Mishustin’s political star rising. I’m going to be looking at policy conflicts between ministries and how the government tries to manage its relationship with Volodin. Under Medvedev, Volodin got really close to openly attacking the prime minister. Volodin is a very ambitious person and criticizing the government allowed him to firm up his base of power and increase his reputation as an important political player. It will be interesting to see what Volodin’s language is like regarding Mishustin and government ministers.

Does this also depend on what role Mishustin decides to play? Medvedev was willing to take a lot of the blame for government inefficiencies and problems with United Russia. I think we don’t know yet if Mishustin is willing to play that kind of role.

I agree. We need to wait. We don’t yet know how Mishustin will handle relationships or how he will act now that he has to operate in the open. He now has new responsibilities in a new environment. At the Federal Tax Service, he could be the technocrat’s technocrat and be positively covered by the Financial Times. Now that he is in a much more public position that has traditionally been used as a whipping boy by the Kremlin and other political actors, it will be fascinating to see how he will react.

In your research on nondemocratic legislatures, you’ve argued against the theory that authoritarian parliaments exist to simply to formalize executive decisions, suggesting instead that nondemocratic legislatures can and do alter legislation. We’re seeing now that the list of constitutional reforms has ballooned to over 100 items and the length of the bill may increase by 50%. Are these additions the result of attempts at policy-making by legislators?  

The most important point to make here is that the Kremlin is not going to lose control of this bill. With other executive bills, there is sometimes a loss of control because the government is a collective actor. So loss of control just means, in practice, a new compromise – some people may be pissed off but some people might have gained something. Putin’s constitutional reform bill is not typical legislation. The Kremlin will maintain control of the working group and agenda setting.

Despite predictions that the text of the bill will increase by 50%, I don’t think we will see a huge conceptual shift from what was included in the bill submitted by Putin. Part of that is technical in that bills aren’t allowed to change conceptually between first and second reading. A more important reason is that if the bill changed radically, Putin would appear weak because his initial suggestions were not authoritative.

I suspect that a lot of these new proposals are being made to score political points. Just Russia is proposing to enshrine the pre-reform pension ages of 55 and 60 for women and men in the constitution. That’s not going to be included. Orthodoxy as a state religion – that’s going nowhere. But we will get much clearer language about the role of the State Duma and how it is involved in appointing and dismissing members of the executive. It makes sense to spell this out more clearly because it was unclear in the original reform bill.

There are additions to Putin’s original reforms that have gained consensus in the working group in the form of changes to the constitution’s preamble. They relate to Russia’s unique cultural heritage, support for fighting efforts to falsify history about Russia’s victor status in the Great Patriotic War, and a reference to Russia’s mature civil society. Andrey Klishas, a co-chair of the constitutional working group, also wanted to add something recognizing family values and saying that a family is formed by a man and a woman. But this seems not to have gained traction.

I also think that the avalanche of amendments will be cited as the reason for delaying the second reading of the bill in the State Duma to late February or early March. However, I think that the actual reason for the delay is the logistical problems that have emerged from trying to include a nation-wide vote in the process. Vague answers by Volodin and Putin to media inquiries about how the vote will happen suggest that there’s not a strategy yet for this.

What is the problem with holding a nation-wide vote? We know from the Crimea example, that the Kremlin can stage a referendum pretty quickly.

The reality of organizing a nation-wide vote and fitting it into the existing timetable and legal process is a headache. There’s a big timing issue for one. In the procedure outlined for passing a law introducing amendments to the constitution, there is no mention of a nation-wide vote. Instead, there is a requirement that at least two thirds of regional assemblies need to approve the initiative before it comes into force, in addition to other requirements. So, Putin can sign the bill and then wait for the assemblies to approve but how do you integrate a nation-wide vote into that procedure?

To be clear: there is no technical need for a nation-wide referendum or vote? The Kremlin has committed itself to a vote as a way to gain legitimacy for the constitutional reforms?

Insofar as the proposed reforms do not relate to chapters 1, 2, and 9 of the constitution, a referendum is not required. A nation-wide vote was proposed, I suspect, for the veneer of legitimacy that the Kremlin thought it would provide. Of course, the Kremlin could engineer a vote result by using administrative resources. But right now, the Kremlin is doing its best to try and make this whole process seem legitimate and democratic.

“Recruitment or Elimination: The Kremlin’s Dark History of Dealing with Ethnic Russians Beyond Russia’s Borders”

On May 5, 2018, New York became a parade ground for two diasporas commemorating a distinct source of ethnic pride. Cinco de Mayo commanded the larger following that day, if only because of the kitsch bacchanalia every bar and restaurant in the five boroughs makes of a holiday meant to mark the Mexican army’s defeat of French empire. But the smaller gathering was distinguished by an unusual spectacle: an aircraft emblazoned with an enormous orange-and-black ribbon overflying the Statue of Liberty. Down below, some two thousand Russian-Americans, some in World War II-era uniforms, solemnly marched downtown along the Hudson, many of them carrying photos of relatives who’d fought Nazism decades earlier. It was four days before Victory Day, the official Russian state holiday celebrating the Soviet Union’s triumph over Hitler.

The marchers in Manhattan were doing their part early to honor the Immortal Regiment, the name bestowed by Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Administration in 2012 on deceased Russian veterans who are said to live forever so long as their heirs remember them. Yet this mass act of necromantic remembrance had an unmistakable political overtone.

The Immortal Regiment parade was organized by a pro-Kremlin youth group ensconced in St. Nicholas Church, the headquarters of Russian Orthodoxy in New York. Ever since Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the orange-and-black Ribbon of St. George that buzzed Lady Liberty has become an omnipresent symbol of revanchist and nationalist Russian sentiment.

For the Kremlin, this civic gathering, similar versions of which were held across the United States, from Philadelphia to San Francisco, “represented a significant projection of power to America,” according to Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, authors of The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia’s Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad.  It also represented a little-noticed high point for one of  Putin’s long-held foreign policies, one that is really an extension of domestic policy: the de facto enlistment of all ethnic Russians, wherever they are born or reside, as citizens of the Russian Federation, whether they like it or not. “Russia’s ‘compatriots’ policy reflects Putin’s past as a KGB intelligence officer,”  Soldatov, a Moscow-based expert on the Russian security services, explained to me, citing a KGB manual on this very subject published by The Daily Beast in 2018. “He was trained to see every ethnic Russian living either inside or outside the Soviet Union as one of two things: an asset to be recruited or a threat to be eliminated.”

There are plenty of tales of eliminations — or attempted eliminations — in Soldatov’s book. The Compatriots opens with a reconstruction of the poisoning of my colleague Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Washington Post columnist and outspoken critic of Putin. Kara-Murza nearly died by poisoning not once, but twice, while traveling through Russia. The substance that nearly killed him has never been publicly identified. I say “publicly” because the U.S. government apparently has reached a conclusion as to the toxin used.  Soldatov and Borogan quote an unnamed FBI agent who, in December 2017, informed Kara-Murza that the Bureau was preparing to hand the chiefs of the three main Russian intelligence services a report suggesting “that there was an attempted murder of a Russian citizen on Russian territory for political reasons.”

The chiefs arrived in Washington, D.C. a month later, a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, to meet with their American counterparts. Soldatov and Borogan are skeptical the report was ever even brought up, much less passed along. The timing might not have been judged to be quite right, what with a new U.S. administration headed by a president whose avowed wish was to “get along” with Russia. But the timing could hardly have been better, either.

In February 2018, Sergei Skripal, a defector from the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, would be found unconscious, along with his daughter, on a park bench in Salisbury, England, both victims of a near-lethal poisoning by the Russian-made nerve agent Novichok. Two operatives from the GRU, the apparatus Skripal once served, would later be identified as the culprits and sanctioned by the European Union, as a host of Western democracies responded to this act of state terrorism by expelling more spies stationed in Russian embassies than at any point since the end of the Cold War.

So much for the eliminations. As to the “recruitments,” Soldatov and Borogan wisely follow the money, the messaging, and the ties to the Russian security services.

In July 2018, Soldatov drove up the driveway to a sprawling mansion in the Rublyovka suburb of Moscow. He was there to interview Alexander Lebedev, the former KGB officer turned oligarch and media magnate who had just returned from celebrating his wedding anniversary — in occupied Crimea.

Lebedev is a colorful figure, even by Russian oligarch standards. He was arrested, interrogated, and ultimately convicted by Russian authorities in 2011 after knocking out a fellow guest on a live television broadcast. Sentenced to 130 hours of community service, the billionaire ex-KGB man and bon vivant was exhibited on Russian state media sweeping the Moscow streets. It was a housebreaking, write Soldatov and Borogan; a signal from the top that ”you might be a former high-ranking KGB officer and an oligarch with newspapers from Moscow to London, but don’t forget you are totally at the mercy of the Kremlin.”

Yet for all this official turbulence, Lebedev hasn’t exactly gone rogue. He has routinely chastised Western governments for instituting sanctions on Russia for its invasion and destabilization of Ukraine. In conversation with Soldatov, he also dismissed the idea of a viable Russian opposition to Putin, of which Lebedev nonetheless considers himself a part, and derided Kara-Murza’s poisonings as an unproven conspiracy theory. Then he allowed this remark about how his various news holdings navigate an overweening Russian state: “Where it’s needed they criticize Russia, and where it’s needed, say, on Syria, we support the Russian position.”

Two of these holdings are in fact prominent British newspapers, The Evening Standard, a free daily now edited by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne; and The Independent, a left-of-center tabloid with a notoriously eccentric comment section, particularly when it comes to the Middle East.

Lebedev and his socialite son and business partner, Evgeny, have lately come under scrutiny in the UK for two reasons. The first is their well-photographed coziness to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who attends parties hosted by the Lebedevs at home and abroad, including one lavish affair in London the day after his blow-out election victory last month. The second is the existence of a 50-page British intelligence dossier on Russian interference in the British political system, a report Downing Street has refused to de-classify, as Johnson waves off allegations that oligarchs such as Alexander Lebedev might be wielding undue influence over his government.

Closer to these shores, Soldatov and Borogan train their investigative attention on the American-born billionaire Boris Jordan, the scion of an exiled aristocratic dynasty responsible for financing and supporting the pro-czarist White Army during the Russian Civil War. Today, Jordan is gemutlich with the powers that be in Moscow and has done very well for himself in New York. He is currently the chairman of Curaleaf, the world’s largest legal marijuana seller, as well as the patron of the eponymous Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia at New York University. In recent public appearances, he, too, has railed against sanctions on Russian officials and institutions over Ukraine.

Like a number of ethnic Russians born and raised in the West, Jordan moved to his ancestral home after the collapse of the Soviet Union to reap the benefits of a fledging democracy and market economy. He amassed a fortune through savvy investments and excellent contacts. Renaissance Capital, the investment bank Jordan cofounded, enlisted two Russian foreign intelligence officers for executive positions. One of them, Yuri Sagaidak, had been expelled from London in the late 1980s for attempting to recruit a member of the British parliament.

Jordan was later tapped by Putin as CEO of the popular NTV television channel upon its hostile takeover by the state. NTV’s crime was reporting honestly and critically on the Kremlin, and Jordan dutifully oversaw its transformation into a pro-government mouthpiece. One of the casualties of that transformation was Kara-Murza’s father, a veteran reporter who died earlier this year.

Although Jordan at one point fell out of favor with the Kremlin, he is back in its good graces now owing to his successful stateside facilitation of the reconciliation of the two churches of Russian Orthodoxy. The “White Church” was established by émigrés, such as Jordan’s father, who fled Lenin’s regime after the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917. It came to represent more than a mere spiritual alternative to the grim totalitarianism constructed by the new rulers of the metropole, but also a way-station for the preservation of Russian culture, literature, and art.

The “Red Church,” meanwhile, emerged under communist rule in Moscow and gained in significance after Josef Stalin, himself a drop-out from the priesthood, realized how an ancient faith could be instrumentalized to advance a secular nationalism. The White Church had always been hostile to whoever was in charge back home, whereas the Red Church had consistently been little more than the black cowl of the Russian government. Indeed, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Church even counted more than a few former KGB officers in its ranks, including its current head, Patriarch Kirill.

“Jordan helped Putin achieve his most ambitious goal in dealing with the Russians abroad,” Soldatov told me. “He brought under Moscow’s control the Russian Orthodox Church in exile, the one seen by many as a symbol of the spiritual Russia uncorrupted by KGB control. He secured it by investing his money and his personal prestige as a Russian aristocrat.”

That investment, too, has paid off for Jordan, as those Immortal Regiment marches across America in 2018 demonstrated. As for the corruption of KGB control, that the wealthy American heir of a storied White Russian family would do the bidding of Russia’s first KGB-czar might be counted yet another satisfying realization of Putin’s compatriots policy.

“You don’t drag me into criticizing Putin!” Jordan told the authors of this timely and important new book.

Photo credit: UNIAN.

How the KGB Compensated for Perestroika

By Andrei Soldatov

In the third year of Perestroika, in 1988, the intelligence branch of the KGB was deep in a crisis – the headquarters in Yasenevo woods a few miles southwest of Moscow found the officers at KGB rezidenturas in Western countries increasingly reluctant to approach foreigners. They effectively turned off the aggressive recruiting mode the Soviet intelligence was once so famous.

In the United States, Soviet intelligence scored some spectacular successes in penetration, namely Aldrich Ames at CIA and Robert Hannssen at FBI, but the recruited Americans were the walk-ins – i.e. they themselves initiated the contact with Soviet spies, they were not approached by the Russians.

The Soviet Union was losing the Cold War and that certainly contributed to the confusion in KGB intelligence stations all over the world, but most importantly, the officers themselves didn’t want to risk their postings in the West. Being kicked out of a Western country if caught red-handed was not a particularly attractive idea at time when all kinds of shortages back home were already palpable.

Finally, the big shots at Yasenevo came up with a solution. It was a bold and witty idea, and the translated Analytical overview was part of it. Yasenevo suggested to exploit the natural advantages the KGB still enjoyed back home.

In addition to its espionage abroad, the KGB was always busy collecting “intelligence from the territory,” a euphemism for recruiting foreign nationals in the Soviet Union, with an eye to subsequently running them as agents in their home countries. This system worked because the Soviet Union, as a police state, had an opportunity to watch literally every foreign national in the country. Each regional KGB department had what was called a First Section in charge of recruiting foreigners.

This activity was coordinated by the Directorate RT (Razvedka s Territorii: intelligence from territory) of the First Chief Directorate in Yasenevo.

The problem was that no so many foreigners wanted to come the Soviet Union. Now that was changing, thanks to Gorbachev, who was busy opening up the country.

But the Soviet Union was still a totalitarian state, meaning that there was no media, a trade union, or a nascent private enterprise (not to mention a government agency) in position to say no to the KGB if approached and asked to plant a spy in the organization under disguise.

These spies planted by the KGB were known as DR officers, Destvuyushego Rezerva: of the active reserve. The term had a long history; it was used since the 1920s.

The KGB’s “Tradecraft in Intelligence Work from Cover Organizations on Soviet Territory,” an analytical overview presented here for the first time in both its original Russian and in English translation, suggested boosting the activities of the Directorate RT as a way to compensate the passivity of hibernated intelligence stations abroad.

Tradecraft in Intelligence Work on Soviet Territory from Cover Organizations (ENG)

Конспирация в разведывательной работе (RUS)

The beauty of the report was that it suggested combining two things, already at KGB disposal – the capabilities of planting KGB spies in almost any Soviet organization; and the activities of the Directorate RT in approaching foreigners now coming in big numbers to the Soviet Union.

The Directorate RT was thus encouraged to plant more spies in Soviet organizations with an eye to recruiting foreigners in the Soviet Union.

The report even suggested to send officers of the Directorate RT abroad to run its assets, and not to handle them to the intelligence stations in respective countries, probably acknowledging the reluctance of the intelligence stations to taking risks.

The Soviet regime was facing its collapse, but the KGB intelligence branch once again proved its resourcefulness and ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

Andrei Soldatov, The coathor of “The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia’s Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad”

Putin is Panicking

Vladimir Milov explains why Russian president started constitutional reforms well before 2024 elections.

On Wednesday, Vladimir Putin did a rather unusual thing. Three years before the formal end of his presidential term, without any obvious motivating circumstances (the situation in the country is complicated, but it is no worse and no better than in recent months), he simultaneously announced the unprecedented restructuring of the power mechanism, and the resignation of the Medvedev government, which, it would seem, has already received an informal status of an eternal supplement to Putin’s presidency. It is important to understand what really happened and why.

First, let’s talk about the announced constitutional changes and the reform of the country’s governance system. We have to acknowledge the failure of theories that predicted power transit, the emergence of some influential successor, or exotic options of transferring power through integration with Belarus (which did not imply that Putin’s dominance would be unconditionally preserved, since Alexander Lukashenko is very popular in Russia, maybe even more than Putin himself). Those who were right (including the author of this article) envisaged that Putin wouldn’t leave, as current control over political institutions allows for any type of constitutional redrawing. The latter is the most probable move to preserve Putin’s actual power. This is the easiest and safest way for the Russian leader, compared to options such as appointing a successor or integrating with Lukashenko. As we can see, this scenario was actually applied.

Putin has every reason not to trust any successor candidates. The current situation is different from 2008 when he transferred formal leverage at the peak of economic success and his popularity. First, Putin understands better than others that the Russian establishment is tired of him, do not trust him, is aware of his negative role as the main deterrent to Russia’s advancement and will try to dump this legacy at the earliest opportunity. Our state officials, for all their negative role in Russia’s present situation, however, have not signed to sit forever in a swamp and would appreciate some kind of movement towards progress. Secondly, Russia can’t get out of the crisis paradigm, and the future is threatened with new risks and shocks. No one is waiting for a quiet progressive development – in this situation, letting go of the reins and experimenting with successors is definitely not typical for Putin. He would prefer to implement control personally, as he used to. And, thirdly, there are no signs of Putin’s desire to give up power, no matter what political scientists and commentators say – these are fantasies and groundless speculations.

A mistake made by commentators in the analysis of Putin’s proposed constitutional changes is an attempt to give them a concrete shape through their own interpretations. In fact, there is nothing definite there. The design voiced by Putin simply says: “I want to have room for maneuver, and I will decide everything myself.” The State Council is to be created with no clear power; the State Duma is to be endowed with expanded authority to influence the formation of the government. But Wednesday’s message to the Federal Assembly does not clarify how exactly this system will look.

One thing is clear: Putin wants to create a new system of checks and balances in order to prevent the loss of his own influence. He sends a clear signal: “I will form this system myself, and I will still think how. And this system will be approved by a completely controlled group of film directors and figure skating champions – in the way I say when I decide.”

The key difference between the system proposed by Putin and the current one is that this system eliminates the “president-prime minister” dichotomy. In Russia, many mistakenly look at the Prime Minister as the person responsible for the “national economy.” This is not the case: the head of government is a constitutional post, it is an analogue to the vice president who automatically assumes the presidency if something happens to the first person (for example, he was forgotten at the cottage in Foros without any connection with the outside world). It is not surprising that in such a design the prime minister is a natural reason of nightmares for the power-hungry president: if someone wants to initiate a palace coup, then he will first try to gain over the prime minister, and then the national leader catches a light form of flu – and here he is, the new acting president. That is why Putin has been holding the absolutely unprofessional Medvedev for so many years. He did not care about Medvedev’s professional qualities, the main thing was that in 2008-2012 he passed a loyalty test, unlike anyone else from Putin’s circle.

Constitutional changes, instead of this simple dichotomy, create a more complex system with more players and more opportunities for behind-the-scenes management. You are no longer dependent on the particular candidate for the prime minister. It is worth underlining once again that nothing has been decided yet, the specific configuration will be discussed, but Putin’s statement is obvious: “I am creating a new system of checks and balances in order to stay in power, I will determine this system and control it.” This is what we now know for sure. All the rest is still unknown, and there’s no sense to discuss them. It remains to be seen.

The next question: why now? It is clear that the adoption of amendments to the Constitution takes time. Yet there is another three years until the end of Putin’s term, and he is used to keeping all secrets behind seven seals until the last moment. His secrecy has its own logic: when you designate your decision too early, you expose it for criticism, and people get tired quickly from specific configurations. When you throw out a new construction three months before the election (as with Putin-2000, Medvedev-2008 or Putin’s return-2011), your rivals are taken by surprise, and Putin’s political strategists, on the contrary, have every chance to take temporary advantage and secure the desired result, while voters still believe you and the scheme is not “rotten.”

A certain answer to this question can be detected by the sudden change of prime minister (which, as many sources in the executive branch confirm, even the members of the government themselves did not suspect). Now there is no point in changing Medvedev – the elections to the State Duma are still a long way off. Given the short memory of voters, the effect of this decision will quickly disappear and will not live up to the Duma’s election campaign. There is no disastrous economic situation either. It is bad, but no worse and no better than it was yesterday or will be tomorrow. A change in the cabinet would make sense if Putin had appointed a decisive prime minister for new reforms, who would change the situation, but the new candidate for the post of head of the cabinet, Mikhail Mishustin, is certainly not the one (more on that below).

What is the meaning of such a decisive action on several fronts at once and so early? By way of exclusion, we come to the only possible explanation—Putin panicked when he saw some new “closed” sociological data, which showed how bad his situation was. And then he decided to hastily give out all the preparations he had: to dismiss Medvedev and promise a new package of social measures for 450 billion rubles, and also to announce constitutional amendments in advance so that if people don’t like them, there was time to cancel them under the pretext that unreasonable artists and ice skaters gave the wrong advice. Frankly, I see no other rational explanation for the fountain of radical measures announced three years before the 2024 election. There is not a trace left of the calm, prudent and expectant Putin of past years; He throws all his cards onto the table at once.

The information background of the previous weeks created by the Kremlin political strategists in preparation for the Duma elections also speaks in favor of the theory of panicking authorities. Everything looks frivolous and resembles real panic: from the decision to create a “party of tanks” (non-political parties of let’s say beer lovers in Russia have never worked) to the rumors about the creation of Shnurov’s and Dudy’s parties without the consent of Shnurov and Dudy themselves. We are waiting for the emissaries to Kim Kardashian with a generous multi-million dollar contract for obtaining Russian citizenship, real estate in Saransk, and proposals to lead the party in the State Duma-2021 elections. What else can you expect from panicking Kremlin technologists who feel that the country is slipping away from their hands and they have nothing but stale ideas from the 90s in their heads?

Paradoxically, another indirect piece of evidence of Putin’s panic is the candidacy of the new prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin. What is this man known for? Only one thing: as the head of the tax service, with his iron hand he put the dying economy through the wringer and still constantly boasted of the rapid increase in the tax burden on Russian entrepreneurs and citizens. This looked particularly outrageous in relation to self-employed people. Mishustin just a few weeks ago reported that they had managed to collect taxes of about 3 thousand rubles per person in 2019, presenting it as a huge achievement of the service entrusted to him.

Mikhail Mishustin has been working in the government since the late 90s and is well known in this area. He does not have any skills in terms of growth and development, he is a typical tax controller who really knows how to knock the last out of taxpayers in the form of a levy in favor of the state. This is his only strong professional quality. The fact that Putin nominated such a person for the post of prime minister gives us a clear understanding of the psychological state of the Russian leader. Putin feels insecure, anticipates economic difficulties and possible collapse of his own system. He wants to rely on a person who will provide him with cash in his accounts at any cost – including at the cost of further destruction of the Russian economy. Judging by his message to the Federal Assembly, Putin doesn’t care about the economy, because he still looks at the solution to the problem of low incomes of Russians exclusively through the prism of a fragmented distribution of “gifts” to certain groups of the population. Putin clearly isn’t interested in returning to the topic of full-fledged economic growth and development.

In this regard, Mishustin’s appointment looks like hiding under a fiscal “mommy,” who will protect Putin in difficult times. Сommentators argued over the possible candidates to replace Medvedev as prime minister. It could have been either the decisive statesman like Glazyev or Rogozin, who closes the borders, “invests in industry,” and the statist-chavezist economic model would flourish under him, as it has not blossomed anywhere in the world; or liberal Kudrin who would lure investors with sweet speeches and a reformist appearance without real denationalization of the economy. These were emotionally strong options that gave hope to different groups in society. What hope can be inspired by the appointment of the obedient robotic fiscal inspector, who became famous only for squeezing more from the economy into the treasury than it could give? No, this appointment is not about elections, growth or the future. This appointment is about Putin’s personal confidence that everything will not fail, although it is very likely. Mishustin’s appointment is an event from the field of psychology, but not economics or political technologies.

In any case, everything that happened on Wednesday is rather good news. Putin could come up with something that would really preserve the Russian dictatorship for decades, renew its image, and eliminate at least the most obvious contradictions. Instead, we have 1984, not in the Orwellian sense, but in the sense of the Secretary General of the CPSU Central Committee, Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko, during whose term the last parliamentary elections in the USSR took place, where the CPSU received uncontested 99% of the vote. The key here is not “99%” and not “uncontested”, but “last”. Putin clearly does not understand this. Well, probably, he doesn’t need it – it’s time already. The historical era is coming to an end. The new prime fiscal inspector will finally finish it off. As Gleb Zheglov put it in the film ‘The meeting place cannot be changed‘ “Then so be it.”

This article was originally published in Russian on The Insider

The New Constitution of the Old President

Translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

In his speech before the elite of the Russian ruling class earlier this week, Vladimir Putin announced a new constitutional reform, which, in essence, amounts to adopting a new fundamental law. The Kremlin is proposing a new “social contract” to the Russian people that will replace the “Crimean consensus” – new and restored social benefits in exchange for cementing within the Constitution the monopoly of the current ruling class over the country’s governance.

A new “social contract” is a necessity for Putin’s regime. When he first came to power, at the time of the second war in Chechnya and fairly regular and massive terrorist acts in Central Russia, including in Moscow, he proposed a similar deal to the Russian people – exchange of some political liberties for security. Having imposed “order”, Vladimir Putin continued to expand his powers at the expense of other governing institutions, destroying the constitutional order of Russia. Then a second contract was put forward – a promise of satiety and stability in exchange for the remnants of political liberties. This contract was a much tougher sell and resulted in mass protests of 2011-2012. And in 2014, the Kremlin came up with yet another offer: forfeit of even more liberties for the restored sense of Russian greatness through the war on Ukraine and forceful annexation of Crimea.

We have now entered the final stage in this process. The population, seriously impoverished as a result of the prolonged economic decline, which began even before Crimea and was aggravated by international sanctions, is offered an ambitious program of support for the poorest of its members in exchange for a new Constitution, which will enable Vladimir Putin to stay in power after 2024, when he can no longer, under current law, be re-elected another time to the post of the president of Russia.

Is This Really a New Constitution?

In his address to the Federal Assembly, Vladimir Putin said that his plan does not envision adoption of a new Constitution. A legal analysis of proposed amendments, however, suggest that it amounts to a fundamental change in Russia’s State system.

His first proposal is self-isolation of Russia from international law — an idea floated by the Russian ruling class for quite a while. This would enable Putin’s regime not to observe international obligations when they contradict Russian legislation. This is a reference to the abolition or amendment of Part 4 of Article 15 of the Constitution, which mentions the primacy of international obligations and agreements assumed by the Russian Federation over its domestic legislation. This change would allow Russia to selectively not comply with decisions of such organizations as the Council of Europe or the European Court of Human Rights and essentially make pointless Russia’s participation in these institutions under the new Constitution.

It should be noted that the article proposed for amendment is part of the so called “protected” part of the fundamental law. In order to rewrite it, it is necessary, under the Constitution, to convene a new Constitutional Assembly. At a minimum, a referendum must be held. Vladimir Putin was clear that he does not intend to do either. Instead, with a Presidential Decree, he has formed a “working group” (not stipulated under any current laws) whose task it is to amend the fundamental law. He has indicated, however, that Russian citizens are to approve his proposals by some kind of universal vote.

It is highly unlikely that proposals will be rejected, since the majority of the Russian population does not understand that it is Russia’s international obligations that most reliably protect many of their rights, including social rights, given the tendencies of the authoritarian regime. In time, most likely such understanding may develop, but it may happen too late —after the amendment of the Constitution. Therefore, the international community must actively seek to explain this now, while such discussions are underway in Russia. Another point to be explained is that such a ballot would have no legal force; and neither would the follow-on amendments introduced through parliament, as they clearly violate the Constitution.

Understandably, the Kremlin is apprehensive about convening a Constitutional assembly, since the laws governing this procedure have not been updated since 1993. There may be an uproar, and most importantly, a delay. On the other hand, a referendum requires a set of rather precise formulations, which would tie Putin’s hands for the real re-writing of the Constitution. Putin is clearly counting on securing a wholesale consent from the people, and not a detailed, article-by-article approval process. Moreover, a national referendum cannot be combined with Federal Parliamentary or Presidential Elections which is exactly what the Kremlin intends to do.

Putin’s decision to disregard overt requirements of the Constitution is nothing new. Since his very first days in power, he has been consistent in eroding Russian Constitutional government institutions and creating parallel institutions and procedures. Some of the early attacks included establishment of federal districts and the institution of presidential representatives, not prescribed in the Constitution. The Russian State today even features law-enforcement bodies that exist outside the Constitutional framework – such as Rosgvardiya (the National Guard). Rosgvariya is controlled by the Presidential Administration, whose powers are described by the fundamental law as “the president forms his administration”.

The Problem of 2024

In addition to rejecting the primacy of International Law, Putin has proposed to strip the remnants of the autonomy of judges at the highest courts. At the president’s demand, the docile executive authority of the upper chamber of parliament, the Federation Council (the president can even appoint some of the senators) will, under the new Constitution, dismiss judges from the Supreme and Constitutional Courts (“in connection with a loss of confidence” by the head of government.

Putin has also proposed to renounce compliance with the European Charter on Local Self-Governance, ratified by Russia; and to make municipalities part of government authority, absorbing them as structural sub-divisions of regional state administrations. One of the possible goals of this initiative is to exclude independent political candidates from running in and winning municipal elections.

Likewise, the proposed amendment of the Article on Presidential Elections (which introduces a 25-year limit on candidates and forbids candidates with residences in foreign countries) politically neutralizes powerful opposition figures currently in exile.

Putin has also proposed to remove from the text of the fundamental law the stipulation that prohibits the president from running for elections to this post more than twice “in a row”. Putin himself has already used this clause, having essentially served five terms (four as president and one as prime minister), but he wants to preclude his potential successors from taking advantage of it.

The plan will certainly result in a major re-distribution of powers. The State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russians parliament is now in the process of approving the candidate for prime minister nominated by the president. The Duma also forms the cabinet of ministers, with the exception for the so-called “presidential quota”: the heads of the law-enforcement agencies and
possibly the head of the Foreign Ministry. The new Constitution requires the Duma to do so in consultation with the Federal Assembly, and not appoint them without any discussions as now.

Finally, Putin’s proposal legitimizes a government agency (that already exists parallel to the Constitutional realm) – the State Council. Russia’s governors serve at the State Council and are appointed on a rotation basis. It is not clear what the new State Council would look like, how would it be staffed and by whom, and most importantly, what would be its powers. We can be certain, however, that Vladimir Putin has already thought through those details.

Judging from the people whom the president of Russia has appointed to the “working group” to amend the Constitution, the group is a mere formality. There are practically no lawyers among the members of the group; these are extras in a political show. The real draft for Constitutional reform, has most likely already been written by the presidential administration.

One can speculate on the various motives behind the constitutional amendments. It appears that Putin intends to leave the post but remain in power in some other role. He may choose to run the country from his position at the Security Council (to which he has transferred as his deputy the ex-prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, who had resigned after the publication of the address). Although it is more likely that he will head a reformed State Council which will likely be assigned some sort of extraordinary powers under the new Constitution. This is an attempt to formulate something like a system of checks and balances which would guarantee Putin, even in the event he leaves the post of the president, the possibility of running the country.

The international community has very few instruments to block this path of Russia’s self-isolation. Bringing the country into international alliances would not have any effect on the internal situation in Russia. Mobilization of the currently apolitical majority of the population dissatisfied over monopolization of power within the country is the biggest hope for stopping these encroachments. It is for this reason that Vladimir Putin, before rolling out his constitutional reform, has offered a long list of new social perks and benefits, including hot meals for school kids subsidized by the federal budget. He is clearly count