Experts: Russia unlikely to free itself of authoritarianism in near term

Feb 06 2018

Last Thursday (Feb. 1), the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think-tank, held a panel discussion on The Direction of Russian Politics and the Putin Factor as a part of its series on domestic Russian affairs.

The discussion explored Russia’s system of political power, the personal role of Putin and future scenarios. Looking ahead at the years to come, experts did not expect major changes in Russian politics, with some predicting harsher times for the Russian opposition.

The panel of experts included:

Dr. Yevgenia Albats, a Russian journalist and political scientist, editor-in-chief of The New Times

Andrei Kozyrev, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Russian Federation

Dr. Eugene Rumer, Senior Fellow and Director, Russia and Eurasia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, Distinguished Fellow, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council

In her assessment of Russia’s political transformation since Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, Dr. Albats found that there has been a transition from “personalistic authoritarianism” to the corporatism seen in Benito Mussolini’s Italy and Francisco Franco’s Spain.

Eight years after Putin first became president, the number of key administrative positions held by the cadres from the KGB, the GRU and the military – known as the siloviki – had increased to 67%, according to Ms. Albats. By 2015, Russian government institutions had been completely overtaken by them, forming a clan with a shared background and beliefs on domestic and foreign politics.

Albats said that never before had the “political police” been completely in charge as it is now, having previously answered to the Communist Party or Tsarist power. As such, Putin has become a hostage of the system that he has helped create, but “a willing hostage” who is fully aware of his situation and will remain “a face of this corporation” for some time, said Albats.

Ms. Albats finds that corporatist authoritarianism is more predictable and stable than personalistic regimes, as it is more consolidated and governed by shared rules. In this regard, she said it is “difficult to expect positive change in Russia”.

Ms. Albats also noted a new phenomenon that has developed in Russia – “hereditary capitalism,” referring to the children of the powerful. This “new Russian nomenklatura” have taken leading positions at financial institutions, state entities, and governmental agencies. Many of these people were educated in the West and while they may not have fully adopted Western democratic values, they “may bring some change and possibilities of democratic development” in the future, said Albats. In this regard, there is a parallel with the “children of nomenklatura” of the Soviet era, who was a “sort of vehicle in opening the country”.

Mr. Kozyrev noted that authoritarianism can be traced back hundreds of years in Russian history and has become a “vicious circle”. The current regime’s domestic and foreign policies – including its “military adventures” in Syria and Ukraine – are “contrary to the national interest of Russia,” said Mr. Kozyrev. “The interest of the regime is to steal in Russia and to spend in the West”, while keeping Russia under control through propaganda, said Mr. Kozyrev. To combat this, Western governments should focus on seizing the regime’s illegitimate foreign assets, he said.

In Dr. Rumer’s view, Russian authority is more of a clan-based system than a corporatist one. Although the Kremlin is the dominant force, the system still contains different clans and interest groups that originated in the 1990s. The rivalry between these clans has been visible in uncertain periods, such as the end of Putin’s second term as president in 2007-2008. Mr. Rumer doesn’t foresee any major changes in the next six years – as he believes the system will be able to deal with uncertainty, domestic challenges and discontent – but the situation may change after 2024.

Ambassador Vershbow agreed that the regime has become more corporatist than a dictatorship with a “single strongman calling all the shots.” Still, he doesn’t see Putin being dictated by the “corporation” as “they need him as the dispenser of illicit wealth.” But it is not certain whether there would be “cohesion” among the “members of the corporation” if Putin were to go.

Mr. Vershbow said the regime has been relatively successful in marginalizing the opposition without resorting to excessive force.

“They are being careful not to make Navalny into a martyr,” said Mr. Vershbow. “But I fear if he is successful with the boycott and deprives Putin of his 70 percent turnout and 70 percent approval in the so-called elections, harsher measures could come, remembering the assassination of Boris Nemtsov has to have been signed off at senior levels of the regime”.

In terms of the future, Vershbow predicts further clashes with the West, regardless of whether Putin is in power or a successor, since “the leaders of this corporation believe in their own propaganda.”

By Valeria Jegisman

The discussion explored Russia’s system of political power, the personal role of Putin and future scenarios. Looking ahead at the years to come, experts did not expect major changes in Russian politics, with some predicting harsher times for the Russian opposition.

The panel of experts included:

Dr. Yevgenia Albats, a Russian journalist and political scientist, editor-in-chief of The New Times

Andrei Kozyrev, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Russian Federation

Dr. Eugene Rumer, Senior Fellow and Director, Russia and Eurasia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, Distinguished Fellow, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council

In her assessment of Russia’s political transformation since Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, Dr. Albats found that there has been a transition from “personalistic authoritarianism” to the corporatism seen in Benito Mussolini’s Italy and Francisco Franco’s Spain.

Eight years after Putin first became president, the number of key administrative positions held by the cadres from the KGB, the GRU and the military – known as the siloviki – had increased to 67%, according to Ms. Albats. By 2015, Russian government institutions had been completely overtaken by them, forming a clan with a shared background and beliefs on domestic and foreign politics.

Albats said that never before had the “political police” been completely in charge as it is now, having previously answered to the Communist Party or Tsarist power. As such, Putin has become a hostage of the system that he has helped create, but “a willing hostage” who is fully aware of his situation and will remain “a face of this corporation” for some time, said Albats.

Ms. Albats finds that corporatist authoritarianism is more predictable and stable than personalistic regimes, as it is more consolidated and governed by shared rules. In this regard, she said it is “difficult to expect positive change in Russia”.

Ms. Albats also noted a new phenomenon that has developed in Russia – “hereditary capitalism,” referring to the children of the powerful. This “new Russian nomenklatura” have taken leading positions at financial institutions, state entities, and governmental agencies. Many of these people were educated in the West and while they may not have fully adopted Western democratic values, they “may bring some change and possibilities of democratic development” in the future, said Albats. In this regard, there is a parallel with the “children of nomenklatura” of the Soviet era, who was a “sort of vehicle in opening the country”.

Mr. Kozyrev noted that authoritarianism can be traced back hundreds of years in Russian history and has become a “vicious circle”. The current regime’s domestic and foreign policies – including its “military adventures” in Syria and Ukraine – are “contrary to the national interest of Russia,” said Mr. Kozyrev. “The interest of the regime is to steal in Russia and to spend in the West”, while keeping Russia under control through propaganda, said Mr. Kozyrev. To combat this, Western governments should focus on seizing the regime’s illegitimate foreign assets, he said.

In Dr. Rumer’s view, Russian authority is more of a clan-based system than a corporatist one. Although the Kremlin is the dominant force, the system still contains different clans and interest groups that originated in the 1990s. The rivalry between these clans has been visible in uncertain periods, such as the end of Putin’s second term as president in 2007-2008. Mr. Rumer doesn’t foresee any major changes in the next six years – as he believes the system will be able to deal with uncertainty, domestic challenges and discontent – but the situation may change after 2024.

Ambassador Vershbow agreed that the regime has become more corporatist than a dictatorship with a “single strongman calling all the shots.” Still, he doesn’t see Putin being dictated by the “corporation” as “they need him as the dispenser of illicit wealth.” But it is not certain whether there would be “cohesion” among the “members of the corporation” if Putin were to go.

Mr. Vershbow said the regime has been relatively successful in marginalizing the opposition without resorting to excessive force.

“They are being careful not to make Navalny into a martyr,” said Mr. Vershbow. “But I fear if he is successful with the boycott and deprives Putin of his 70 percent turnout and 70 percent approval in the so-called elections, harsher measures could come, remembering the assassination of Boris Nemtsov has to have been signed off at senior levels of the regime”.

In terms of the future, Vershbow predicts further clashes with the West, regardless of whether Putin is in power or a successor, since “the leaders of this corporation believe in their own propaganda.”

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.