Election postmortem

Mar 22 2018

In the wake of the presidential elections in Russia, experts in Washington came together this week at the Atlantic Council and the Kennan Institute to discuss what the future may hold. While observers largely expect further stagnation, confrontation with the West and increasing authoritarianism, some believe Russia’s civil society may take people by surprise.

Views on the “elections”

All of the presidential candidates running in Russia’s elections understood exactly what kind of game they were playing – “Putin fighting with no one but himself,” said Lilia Shevtsova of Chatham House, speaking at the Atlantic Council on Monday.

With eight names on the ballot, said Vladimir Kara-Murza of Open Russia, “in reality, there was still the one.” “It is not difficult to win an election when your opponents are not actually on the ballot,” he said, referring to slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny, who was banned from participating in the election.

While the true opposition candidates were kept away from the election, the alternatives offered to voters on the ballot could not be taken seriously, said Ekaterina Schulmann of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, speaking at the Kennan Institute on Tuesday.

Experts have widely said that voting fraud, such as ballot-stuffing and multiple voting, were commonplace in Russia’s elections, even if there were fewer reported irregularities than in previous years. However, as political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin noted, the tactics have changed, with less of a focus on the ballot box and more on the manipulation of people, which is very similar to Soviet methods.

There has been a “mobilization” of regional leaders and employers, said Schulmann, referring to pressure put on employees at both state and private companies as well as students to vote. This “dependent electorate” helped boost turnout, which was more of a concern for the Kremlin than the outcome of the election, added Schulmann.

Alexander Vershbow of the Atlantic Council said that although there is some genuine support of Putin, it remains “shallow” and this election wasn’t a “very impressive performance” in light of the absence of the competition, ridicule of other candidates and coercion to boost turnout.

A new level of dictatorship

Experts speaking at the Atlantic Council and the Kennan Institute this week agreed there haven’t been democratic elections in Russia since 2004, when Putin was re-elected for his second presidential term. The Kremlin has increasingly gained control over the country’s regional powers since then, said Oreshkin, with the regions beginning to compete for Putin’s favoritism. Oreshkin characterized the regions where local elites are highly supportive of Putin as “electoral sultanates,” with 19 such regions in this election, although in the USSR power was even more absolute. “What we have now,” said Oreshkin, “is USSR in miniature”. Looking ahead, the regime will continue using Soviet methods, including a confrontation with the West, he said.

Sergey Parkhomenko of the Kennan Institute described a process of “vote harvesting”. After delivering strong results for Putin, the authorities start to believe in their cause, reinforcing their enthusiasm, said Parkhomenko. “This enthusiasm,” he said, “will become an important factor for Russia after the elections […] The tightening grip that we expect from the Russian regime is to some extent rooted in this strange psychological feeling.”

Political analyst Kirill Rogov said Putin’s official election result of almost 77% is something new for Russia and reflects the degree to which authoritarianism has developed. Rogov said the Kremlin has reached “mature authoritarianism,” where institutions have become so entrenched that the role of a particular leader is secondary. Rogov said that one should look beyond the idea of Putin’s widespread popularity. “It is not about the popularity of one person – it is an institutional issue,” said Rogov.

From left to right: Matthew Rojanksy, the Director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute; Ekaterina Schulmann, Senior Lecturer (associate professor) at the School of Public Policy of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA); Kirill Rogov, Political Analyst, Liberal Mission Foundation; Dmitry Oreshkin, political analyst and political geographer; Sergey Parkhomenko, George F. Kennan Expert.

The current political system depends much less on one person than it appears, said Schulmann. “The personalization of the regime, as it seems to me, is highly overestimated,” she said, adding that during the Medvedev’s time as president, there were no major changes to the “political machine”.

Kara-Murza said dictators are known for producing strong elections results, with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu garnering 89 percent and 98 percent of the votes in elections. However, these numbers neither reflect the reality nor really help the dictators themselves, Kara-Murza said. The Kremlin appears to be terrified of mass protests on the one hand, and on the other hand they ironically leave their citizens no other choice but to take to the streets, he said.

What next?

The Kremlin has found a role for Putin as a “defender of the fatherland,” said Shevtsova, but it has created a conflict between Putin’s agenda and the system. This system is largely dependent on Western finance, resources and technology, and the system also consists of the cronies in the West and “Londongrad”. “Putin has started to undermine the key principles of the current Russian state and the system’s survival,” said Shevtsova. “I would say that President Putin will be presiding over his last chapter”.

Putin also cannot change this system, said Anders Åslund of the Atlantic Council, because the system, with $1 trillion of private money hidden offshore, supports him and those “lower down in the bread line” will stop supporting him if he tries to change it.

Rogov said that the assets owned by political and business elites close to Putin are not secured by anything but Putin’s power. However, Putin himself and his elite are also facing a generational shift, which further complicates the transition dilemma for Putin. Rogov ruled out the idea of a successor for Putin since “even a hand-picked successor such as Medvedev proved to be a difficult model because it provoked polarization among elites and society.”

It is also questionable whether the public’s acceptance of Putin’s role as “defender of the homeland” will prove sustainable, as the polls show a majority of people would like to see Russia as an economic power first and as a military power second, said Shevtsova. She said there are signs that society is fatigued with the regime and that a “regime without an idea, vision and mission cannot exist for a long time.”

Vershbow said that Putin’s policies will continue to exploit nationalism, at least in the short-term, which is still perceived as a “winning strategy,” based on the perception that Russia is a “besieged fortress” under attack by Western enemies. But, he said, people are becoming more “cautious” about the costs of this policy approach. “The Russian people may buy this in the short term, but I am not sure they are comfortable with this going forward,” said Vershbow. Although economic stagnation could also create public discontent, he doesn’t believe society will “boil to a degree of making changes.”

Kara-Murza and Shevtsova said Russia’s civil society should not be underestimated in their ability to respond to the current regime, although Shevtsova said that “people are demoralized in general after so many years of this zombie propaganda.” She expects political change could happen when the older generation of politicians retires and the Kremlin tries to “fill the vacuum”. A lot depends on the ability of civil society and the new Russian opposition to create resistance, she said.

Kara-Murza noted there are a lot of people, including the young generation, who reject the current regime. “Even if we forget about abuses and corruption, there are those who are tired of the same face on TV […] Don’t underestimate civil society,” he said, pointing to the protests of 2011. Russian history shows that changes may happen rapidly, said Kara-Murza.

By Valeria Jegisman

Views on the “elections”

All of the presidential candidates running in Russia’s elections understood exactly what kind of game they were playing – “Putin fighting with no one but himself,” said Lilia Shevtsova of Chatham House, speaking at the Atlantic Council on Monday.

With eight names on the ballot, said Vladimir Kara-Murza of Open Russia, “in reality, there was still the one.” “It is not difficult to win an election when your opponents are not actually on the ballot,” he said, referring to slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny, who was banned from participating in the election.

While the true opposition candidates were kept away from the election, the alternatives offered to voters on the ballot could not be taken seriously, said Ekaterina Schulmann of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, speaking at the Kennan Institute on Tuesday.

Experts have widely said that voting fraud, such as ballot-stuffing and multiple voting, were commonplace in Russia’s elections, even if there were fewer reported irregularities than in previous years. However, as political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin noted, the tactics have changed, with less of a focus on the ballot box and more on the manipulation of people, which is very similar to Soviet methods.

There has been a “mobilization” of regional leaders and employers, said Schulmann, referring to pressure put on employees at both state and private companies as well as students to vote. This “dependent electorate” helped boost turnout, which was more of a concern for the Kremlin than the outcome of the election, added Schulmann.

Alexander Vershbow of the Atlantic Council said that although there is some genuine support of Putin, it remains “shallow” and this election wasn’t a “very impressive performance” in light of the absence of the competition, ridicule of other candidates and coercion to boost turnout.

A new level of dictatorship

Experts speaking at the Atlantic Council and the Kennan Institute this week agreed there haven’t been democratic elections in Russia since 2004, when Putin was re-elected for his second presidential term. The Kremlin has increasingly gained control over the country’s regional powers since then, said Oreshkin, with the regions beginning to compete for Putin’s favoritism. Oreshkin characterized the regions where local elites are highly supportive of Putin as “electoral sultanates,” with 19 such regions in this election, although in the USSR power was even more absolute. “What we have now,” said Oreshkin, “is USSR in miniature”. Looking ahead, the regime will continue using Soviet methods, including a confrontation with the West, he said.

Sergey Parkhomenko of the Kennan Institute described a process of “vote harvesting”. After delivering strong results for Putin, the authorities start to believe in their cause, reinforcing their enthusiasm, said Parkhomenko. “This enthusiasm,” he said, “will become an important factor for Russia after the elections […] The tightening grip that we expect from the Russian regime is to some extent rooted in this strange psychological feeling.”

Political analyst Kirill Rogov said Putin’s official election result of almost 77% is something new for Russia and reflects the degree to which authoritarianism has developed. Rogov said the Kremlin has reached “mature authoritarianism,” where institutions have become so entrenched that the role of a particular leader is secondary. Rogov said that one should look beyond the idea of Putin’s widespread popularity. “It is not about the popularity of one person – it is an institutional issue,” said Rogov.

From left to right: Matthew Rojanksy, the Director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute; Ekaterina Schulmann, Senior Lecturer (associate professor) at the School of Public Policy of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA); Kirill Rogov, Political Analyst, Liberal Mission Foundation; Dmitry Oreshkin, political analyst and political geographer; Sergey Parkhomenko, George F. Kennan Expert.

The current political system depends much less on one person than it appears, said Schulmann. “The personalization of the regime, as it seems to me, is highly overestimated,” she said, adding that during the Medvedev’s time as president, there were no major changes to the “political machine”.

Kara-Murza said dictators are known for producing strong elections results, with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu garnering 89 percent and 98 percent of the votes in elections. However, these numbers neither reflect the reality nor really help the dictators themselves, Kara-Murza said. The Kremlin appears to be terrified of mass protests on the one hand, and on the other hand they ironically leave their citizens no other choice but to take to the streets, he said.

What next?

The Kremlin has found a role for Putin as a “defender of the fatherland,” said Shevtsova, but it has created a conflict between Putin’s agenda and the system. This system is largely dependent on Western finance, resources and technology, and the system also consists of the cronies in the West and “Londongrad”. “Putin has started to undermine the key principles of the current Russian state and the system’s survival,” said Shevtsova. “I would say that President Putin will be presiding over his last chapter”.

Putin also cannot change this system, said Anders Åslund of the Atlantic Council, because the system, with $1 trillion of private money hidden offshore, supports him and those “lower down in the bread line” will stop supporting him if he tries to change it.

Rogov said that the assets owned by political and business elites close to Putin are not secured by anything but Putin’s power. However, Putin himself and his elite are also facing a generational shift, which further complicates the transition dilemma for Putin. Rogov ruled out the idea of a successor for Putin since “even a hand-picked successor such as Medvedev proved to be a difficult model because it provoked polarization among elites and society.”

It is also questionable whether the public’s acceptance of Putin’s role as “defender of the homeland” will prove sustainable, as the polls show a majority of people would like to see Russia as an economic power first and as a military power second, said Shevtsova. She said there are signs that society is fatigued with the regime and that a “regime without an idea, vision and mission cannot exist for a long time.”

Vershbow said that Putin’s policies will continue to exploit nationalism, at least in the short-term, which is still perceived as a “winning strategy,” based on the perception that Russia is a “besieged fortress” under attack by Western enemies. But, he said, people are becoming more “cautious” about the costs of this policy approach. “The Russian people may buy this in the short term, but I am not sure they are comfortable with this going forward,” said Vershbow. Although economic stagnation could also create public discontent, he doesn’t believe society will “boil to a degree of making changes.”

Kara-Murza and Shevtsova said Russia’s civil society should not be underestimated in their ability to respond to the current regime, although Shevtsova said that “people are demoralized in general after so many years of this zombie propaganda.” She expects political change could happen when the older generation of politicians retires and the Kremlin tries to “fill the vacuum”. A lot depends on the ability of civil society and the new Russian opposition to create resistance, she said.

Kara-Murza noted there are a lot of people, including the young generation, who reject the current regime. “Even if we forget about abuses and corruption, there are those who are tired of the same face on TV […] Don’t underestimate civil society,” he said, pointing to the protests of 2011. Russian history shows that changes may happen rapidly, said Kara-Murza.

By Valeria Jegisman

Call for Submissions – The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly vol. 3

Oct 26 2020

The Free Russia Foundation invites submissions to The Kremlins Influence Quarterly, a journal that explores and analyzes manifestations of the malign influence of Putin’s Russia in Europe.

We understand malign influence in the European context as a specific type of influence that directly or indirectly subverts and undermines European values and democratic institutions. We follow the Treaty on European Union in understanding European values that are the following: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Democratic institutions are guardians of European values, and among them we highlight representative political parties; free and fair elections; an impartial justice system; free, independent and pluralistic media; and civil society.

Your contribution to The Kremlins Influence Quarterly would focus on one European country from the EU, Eastern Partnership or Western Balkans, and on one particular area where you want to explore Russian malign influence: politics, diplomacy, military domain, business, media, civil society, academia, religion, crime, or law.

Each chapter in The Kremlins Influence Quarterly should be around 5 thousand words including footnotes. The Free Russia Foundation offers an honorarium for contributions accepted for publication in the journal.

If you are interested in submitting a chapter, please send us a brief description of your chapter and its title (250 words) to the following e-mail address: info@4freerussia.org. Please put The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly as a subject line of your message.

Free Russia Foundation’s Press Release on Submission of Article 15 Communication to the International Criminal Court

Oct 06 2020

On 21 September 2020, the Free Russia Foundation submitted a Communication to the International Criminal Court Prosecutor’s Office (in The Hague, Netherlands) seeking accountability for Crimean and Russian authorities concerning international crimes perpetrated during Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea. The Communication was prepared in cooperation with Global Rights Compliance and Center for Civil Liberties and is based on a focused inquiry conducted over the past year. In our inquiry, we documented crimes as part of a systematic, planned attack by the Russian state against civilians and groups in Crimea in order to discourage them from opposing the illegal occupation of Crimea and to force their departure from the peninsula. Crimes against civilians included unlawful arrests, beatings, torture, enforced disappearances, and other inhumane acts causing severe mental and/or physical pain. In particular, the crimes targeted the Crimean Tatars, a native ethnic group who had only recently returned to their homeland, having previously been forcefully and brutally displaced by the Soviet Union in 1944.

One of the principal coercive acts was the illegal detention and concomitant violence before, during, and after the imprisonment of political prisoners. Most of those detained were arrested by Russian and Crimean authorities on terrorism charges, but it was their legal, pro-Ukrainian advocacy that led to their imprisonment. In addition, trials of those arbitrarily detained were conducted in wholesale disregard of their fair trial rights. For example, some of those illegally imprisoned were denied a speedy trial, access to independent lawyers, and the opportunity to defend themselves against their arrest in a courtroom.

In order to force those illegally detained to confess to crimes they did not commit, Russian and Crimean authorities also perpetrated acts of torture and cruel or degrading treatment, the levying of additional charges against them, even more inhumane prison conditions, denial of communications with their families and threats made against them, enforced disappearances, and even, in at least one case, a mock execution.

Other inhumane acts include “punitive psychiatry” and the denial of adequate prison conditions, including the following: (i) feeding people inedible food or, at times, no food at all; (ii) facing severe overcrowding in prisons; (iii) denial of regular water supply; (iv) threats of assault against them by prison cellmates; and (v) adding pork to food – prohibited for observant Muslims. Further, medical attention was systematically inadequate or denied for many individuals.

Concerning acts of torture, it was perpetrated by different Russian authorities, including the FSB. Allegations include the use of electric shocks in an effort to get an accused to confess. One was beaten in the head, kidneys, arms and legs with an iron pipe. With another, fingers were broken. Still another endured spinal bruises and having a plastic bag placed over his head to the point of unconsciousness. Further, threats of sexual violence against a detained man were made. Murder as well. Hands were broken, teeth were knocked out in still another.

Trials were largely held behind closed doors for illegitimate reasons, and many of the witnesses were secret not only to the public but also to the Accused. Further, credible allegations exist that, at times, there were FSB or other agents in the room, silently instructing witnesses what to say and how the judges should rule. This adds credence to words, according to the Kyiv Post, heard by Arsen Dzhepparov from a senior FSB lieutenant who stated “I will prove by all possible – and impossible – means that [an Accused is] guilty – even if he isn’t guilty”.

Concerning the crime of persecution, nearly all of these deprivations of fundamental rights were carried out with discriminatory intent. Specifically, these groups were targeted due to their political view – namely, by peacefully opposing the illegal occupation of their country. Some were targeted on ethnic grounds or religious grounds on the basis of their Crimean Tatar background.

War crimes, another group of crimes punished at the ICC, were also perpetrated in addition to or in the alternative to the crimes against humanity. This includes the crime of torture, outrages against personal dignity, unlawful confinement, wilfully depriving protected persons of the rights of a fair and regular trial, and the transfer of the occupying power of parts of its population into the territory it occupies or the deportation of all or parts of the population of the occupied territory within or outside this territory.

All these crimes had the ultimate objective of the criminal enterprise – the removal of pro-Ukrainian elements out of Crimea and the annexation of Crimea into the Russian Federation without opposition, including the installation of pro-Russian elements, which include the emigration of more than 70,000 Russians, the illegal imposition of Russian law in the occupied territory, forcing Russian nationality on many Crimeans, and the appropriation of public property.

Ultimately, we hope that all the information gathered by the ICC in the context of its preliminary investigation will lead the ICC to investigate mid- to high-level Russian and Crimean officials on this basis. The international community expects responsible global leadership that follows the rule of law and expects it – no matter the situation – to be respected, especially from a state that is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. When this fails to happen, the international community must demand accountability. We hope that an investigation can be opened and responsible officials of the Russian Federation will be investigated. After an investigation that conforms to international best practices, responsible persons should be charged with the systematic perpetration of international crimes.

Novichok Use Implicates Putin’s Government in Navalny’s Poisoning

Sep 02 2020

Today, the German government has announced that Russian pro-democracy leader Alexey Navalny was poisoned by Novichok. Novichok is a deadly nerve agent developed by the Soviet government chemical weapons program and used on several occasions by the Russian government to kill its critics in the recent years.

To restate the obvious, Novichok is a poison that can only be accessed with the authority of the Kremlin. Therefore, today’s announcement by German officials  directly implicates the Kremlin and Putin in the high-profile assassination attempt on Navalny.

The choice of Novichok was not just a means  to silence Mr. Navalny, but a loud, brazen and menacing message sent by Putin to the world: dare to criticize me, and you may lose your life.

The announcement by the German government of its intent to formally notify the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (‘OPCW’) of the use of Novichok against Navalny is a meek bureaucratic half-measure that fails to acknowledge the extraordinary threat to human life posed by Putin’s regime everywhere. Taken together with Angela Merkel’s promise earlier this week to help Putin finish his Nord Stream 2 pipeline despite an international outcry amounts to condoning the poisoning and normalizing it into a new modus operandi where Putin’s murders go unpunished. Free Russia Foundation urges the leaders of the EU, its Member States and the U.S. Government to take an urgent and drastic action to punish the perpetrators of this heinous crime not only to serve justice, but to establish a powerful deterrent against new attacks by Putin’s regime globally.

Free Russia Foundation Statement on Kremlin’s Interference in Elections in Georgia

Aug 26 2020

We are deeply concerned with information recently distributed by the well-respected authoritative source Center “Dossier.” According to “Dossier,” the Kremlin is using Russian political expert Sergey Mikheev and consulting company “Politsecrets” to manipulate Georgian society, distribute disinformation and anti-democratic narratives, undermine Georgia’s Western aspirations, and interfere in free and fair elections in Georgia scheduled for October 2020.

More

Free Russia Foundation Calls for Investigation into Alexey Navalny’s Poisoning

Aug 20 2020

Free Russia Foundation is gravely concerned about the life and safety of Alexey Navalny. More