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

Lukashenka’s Ryanair Hijacking Proves Human Rights is a Global Security Issue

May 24 2021

The forced diversion and landing in Minsk of a May 23, 2021 Ryanair flight en route from Greece to Lithuania, and the subsequent arrest of dissident Roman Protasevich who was aboard the flight, by the illegitimate Lukashenka regime pose an overt political and military challenge to Europe, NATO and the broad global community.  NATO members must respond forcefully by demanding (1) the immediate release of Protasevich and other political prisoners in Belarus, and (2) a prompt transition to a government that represents the will of the people of Belarus. 

The West’s passivity in the face of massive, continuous and growing oppression of the Belarusian people since summer 2020 has emboldened Lukashenka to commit what some European leaders have appropriately termed an act of “state terrorism.”

The West has shown a manifest disposition to appease Putin’s regime —Lukashenka’s sole security guarantor. It has made inappropriate overtures for a Putin-Biden summit and waived  Nord Stream 2 sanctions mandated by Congress. These actions and signals have come against the backdrop of the 2020 Russian constitutional coup, the assassination attempt against Navalny and his subsequent imprisonment on patently bogus charges, the arrests of close to 13,000 Russian activists, and the outlawing of all opposition movements and activities. All this has led Putin and Lukashenka to conclude that they eliminate their political opponents with impunity.  

Today’s state-ordered hijacking of an international passenger airplane—employing intelligence agents aboard the flight,  and accomplished via an advanced fighter-interceptor—to apprehend an exiled activist, underscores that violation of human rights is not only a domestic issue, but a matter of international safety and security.  Western governments unwilling to stand up for the victims of Putin’s and Lukashenka’s regimes are inviting future crimes against their own citizens. 

Absent a meaningful and swift response, the escalation of violence and intensity of international crimes committed  by Lukashenka’s and Putin’s regime will continue, destabilizing the world and discrediting the Western democratic institutions. 

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS – THE KREMLIN’S INFLUENCE QUARTERLY

May 20 2021

The Free Russia Foundation invites submissions to The Kremlin’s 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 Kremlin’s 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 Kremlin’s 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.

Criminal operations by Russia’s GRU worldwide: expert discussion

May 06 2021

Please join Free Russia Foundation for an expert brief and discussion on latest criminal operations conducted by Russia’s GRU worldwide with:

  • Christo Grozev, Bellingcat— the legendary investigator who uncovered the Kremlin’s involvement, perpetrators and timeline of Navalny’s assassination attempt. 
  • Jakub Janda, Director of the European Values Think Tank (the Czech Republic) where he researches Russia’s hostile influence operations in the West
  • Michael Weiss, Director of Special Investigations at Free Russia Foundation where he leads the Lubyanka Files project, which consists of translating and curating KGB training manuals still used in modern Russia for the purposes of educating Vladimir Putin’s spies.

The event will take place on Tuesday, May 11 from 11 am to 12:30pm New York Time (17:00 in Brussels) and include an extensive Q&A with the audience moderated by Ilya Zaslavskiy, Senior Fellow at Free Russia Foundation and head of Underminers.info, a research project on post-Soviet kleptocracy

The event will be broadcast live at: https://www.facebook.com/events/223365735790798/

  • The discussion will cover Russia’s most recent and ongoing covert violent operations, direct political interference, oligarchic penetration with money and influence; 
  • GRU’s structure and approach to conducting operations in Europe
  • Trends and forecasts on how data availability will impact both, the Kremlin’s operations and their investigation by governments and activists; 
  • EU and national European government response and facilitation of operations on their soil; 
  • Recommendations for effective counter to the security and political threats posed by Russian security services. 

YouTube Against Navalny’s Smart Voting

May 06 2021

On May 6, 2020, at least five YouTube channels belonging to key Russian opposition leaders and platforms received notifications from YouTube that some of their content had been removed due to its being qualified as “spam, deceptive practices and scams”. 

They included: 

Ilya Yashin (343k YouTube subscribers)

Vladimir Milov (218k YouTube subscribers) 

Leonid Volkov (117k YouTube subscribers)

Novaya Gazeta (277k YouTube Subscribers) 

Sota Vision (248k YouTube Subscribers)

Most likely, there are other Russian pro-democracy channels that have received similar notifications at the same time, and we are putting together the list of all affected by this censorship campaign. 

The identical letters received from YouTube by the five account holders stated:

“Our team has reviewed your content, and, unfortunately, we think it violates our spam, deceptive practices and scams policy. We’ve removed the following content from YouTube:

URL: https://votesmart.appspot.com/

YouTube has removed urls from descriptions of videos posted on these accounts that linked to Alexey Navalny’s Smart Voting website (votesmart.appspot.com).

By doing this, and to our great shock and disbelief, YouTube has acted to enforce the Kremlin’s policies by qualifying Alexey Navalny’s Smart Voting system and its website as “spam, deceptive practices and scams”. 

This action has not only technically disrupted communication for the Russian civil society which is now under a deadly siege by Putin’s regime, but it has rendered a serious and lasting damage to its reputation and legitimacy of Smart Voting approach. 

In reality, Smart Voting system is not a spam, scam or a “deceptive practice”, but instead it’s a fully legitimate system of choosing and supporting candidates in Russian elections who have a chance of winning against the ruling “United Russia” party candidates. There’s absolutely nothing illegal, deceptive or fraudulent about the Smart Voting or any materials on its website.

We don’t know the reasons behind such YouTube actions, but they are an unacceptable suppression of a constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the Russian people and help the Kremlin’s suppression of civil rights and freedoms by banning the Smart Voting system and not allowing free political competition with the ruling “United Russia” party. 

This is an extremely dangerous precedent in an environment where opposition activities in Russia are being literally outlawed;  key opposition figures are jailed, exiled, arrested and attacked with criminal investigations; independent election campaigning is prohibited; and social media networks remain among the very few channels still available to the Russian opposition to communicate with the ordinary Russians.

We demand a  swift and decisive action on this matter from the international community, to make sure that YouTube corrects its stance toward Russian opposition channels, and ensures that such suppression of peaceful, legal  pro-democracy voices does not happen again. 

FRF Lauds New US Sanctions Targeting the Kremlin’s Perpetrators in Crimea, Calls for Their Expansion

Apr 15 2021

On April 15, 2021,  President Biden signed new sanctions against a number of officials and agents of the Russian Federation in connection with malign international activities conducted by the Russian government.

The list of individuals sanctioned by the new law includes Leonid Mikhalyuk, director of the Federal Security Service in the Russian-occupied Crimea.

A report issued by Free Russia Foundation, Media Initiative for Human Rights and Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union in December 202, identified 16 officials from Russian law enforcement and security agencies as well as the judiciary operating on the territory of the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula currently occupied by the Russian Federation. These individuals have been either directly involved or have overseen political persecution of three prominent Crimean human rights defenders – Emir-Usein Kuku, Sever Mustafayev and Emil Kurbedinov.

Leonid Mikhailiuk is one of these officials. He has been directly involved and directed the repressive campaign in the occupied Crimea, including persecution of innocent people on terrorism charges and massive illegal searches. The persecution of Server Mustafayev was conducted under his supervision. As the head of the FSB branch in Crimea, he is in charge of its operation and all operatives working on politically motivated cases are his subordinates. 

Within the extremely centralized system of the Russian security services, Mikhailiuk is clearly at the top rank of organized political persecution and human rights violations.

Free Russia Foundation welcomes the new sanctions and hopes that all other individuals identified in the report will also be held accountable.