Russia’s new generation of democratic forces

May 15 2018

Free Russia Foundation recently hosted in Washington a delegation of pro-democracy municipal officials and activists from Russia. The delegates, representing various local government and political movements in Russia, participated in a series of panel discussions focusing on the recent success of the Russian opposition at the local level – and hopes for changing the political landscape and building bridges with the West.

Free Russia Foundation organized the panel discussions jointly with the Henry Jackson Foundation on May 4 and with the Atlantic Council on May 7. The following is a selection of key take-outs from the events:

Natalia Arno, president of Free Russia Foundation, said that alternative leaders are beginning to emerge in Russia. In September 2017, there was a breakthrough in Moscow’s municipal elections, in which pro-democracy candidates won over 200 seats, becoming the second largest political power in the Russian capital. This focus on local politics is a new strategy of the democratic movement in Russia, said Arno. With over 200,000 municipal seats across the country, local government could be the key to a democratic future in Russia. “The new generation of Russia’s democratic politicians has the vision, the long-term strategy and the determination to continue its fight to make Russia free, democratic and prosperous,” said Arno.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation and vice-chairman of Open Russia, said that in authoritarian states local government is often the only place for “real political life,” where candidates have a close relationship with citizens.  At this level, as Kara-Murza said, “official state propaganda loses some of its dominance” and municipal elections reveal the real public opinion, a potential “precursor” for significant political change.

Local government can also play a significant role in national or even international importance, said Kara-Murza. As one example, he cited Washington, D.C., City Council’s recent decision to rename a street in front of the Russian Embassy after Boris Nemtsov, after a similar initiative stalled in the U.S. Congress. The D.C. initiative was carried out under the leadership of Phil Mendelson, who was also a special guest at the Free Russia Foundation event.

Julia Galiamina, a municipal deputy of Moscow’s Timiryazevsky District, said, “The democratization of Russia is only possible from the bottom up because democratizing forces at the top has proven to lead back to the authoritarian regime.” As the success of the 2017 local elections has shown, there are resources and potential at the local level and democratic forces need not move up, but horizontally, to spread democracy and to embrace civil society. During the last seven years, Galiamina said, there has been a rise in grassroots initiatives and civic activity, with people becoming more concerned about various local issues and starting to stand up for their rights. By embracing civic activism, people are moving toward new democratic ideas and democratic leaders should support these movements. The strategy, said Galiamina, should be to help people to become citizens, citizens to become civil activists, and civil activists to become local public office holders. Yet there is also the problem of a low level of trust towards authorities and a fear of politicization, said Galiamina. “One of our goals is to revive trust in politics and democratization,” she said.

Natalia Shavshukova, an organizer of the School of Local Governance and a former municipal deputy of the Levoberezhny District in Moscow, said that democracy cannot be forced on Russia – rather, it is a process and its values need to be advocated. Since democratic forces are excluded from the federal level and often from the regional level, the local level has become the main stage of democratic governance in today’s Russia. Yet there are also opportunities, as the success in last year’s municipal elections in Moscow has shown. “We should go further to replicate the success of Moscow’s city elections in other parts of Russia,” said Shavshukova, adding that the recent success owes itself to collaboration between different democratic groups, mainly new and unofficial ones.

Supporting protests is important since it builds solidarity and civil society, but if a rapid political change were to occur, there could be an issue with professional qualifications. The School of Local Governance provides training to local activists and members of liberal parties and movements, with more than 500 alumni across Russia, including 149 candidates who won seats in the Moscow elections last year, said Shavshukova. Looking at the big picture, there are 200,000 seats in local municipalities throughout Russia, with an additional 4,000 regional deputies and 450 State Duma deputies. But there is a lack of qualified candidates at the moment, said Shavshukova.

Vladislav Naganov is a municipal deputy in Khimki District Council, Moscow Oblast, who has largely built his campaign on the legacy of Evgenia Chirikova – a prominent environmental activist. Naganov said it is extremely important to build the political base and voter support for municipal deputies, which may pave the way for success at the regional and federal level. The network of supporters can grow through various local initiatives, including homeowner associations and environmental campaigns – the latter has enjoyed strong support in the Moscow region, said Naganov. Support can also be found among those who oppose the Moscow Oblast governor’s plans to centralize power in the region by transforming municipals districts into urban jurisdictions, which have appointed leaders as opposed to elected ones.

“Our only chance is to continue our hard work and to prepare for unexpected victories if the opportunity emerges,” said Naganov.

 by Valeria Jegisman

Free Russia Foundation organized the panel discussions jointly with the Henry Jackson Foundation on May 4 and with the Atlantic Council on May 7. The following is a selection of key take-outs from the events:

Natalia Arno, president of Free Russia Foundation, said that alternative leaders are beginning to emerge in Russia. In September 2017, there was a breakthrough in Moscow’s municipal elections, in which pro-democracy candidates won over 200 seats, becoming the second largest political power in the Russian capital. This focus on local politics is a new strategy of the democratic movement in Russia, said Arno. With over 200,000 municipal seats across the country, local government could be the key to a democratic future in Russia. “The new generation of Russia’s democratic politicians has the vision, the long-term strategy and the determination to continue its fight to make Russia free, democratic and prosperous,” said Arno.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation and vice-chairman of Open Russia, said that in authoritarian states local government is often the only place for “real political life,” where candidates have a close relationship with citizens.  At this level, as Kara-Murza said, “official state propaganda loses some of its dominance” and municipal elections reveal the real public opinion, a potential “precursor” for significant political change.

Local government can also play a significant role in national or even international importance, said Kara-Murza. As one example, he cited Washington, D.C., City Council’s recent decision to rename a street in front of the Russian Embassy after Boris Nemtsov, after a similar initiative stalled in the U.S. Congress. The D.C. initiative was carried out under the leadership of Phil Mendelson, who was also a special guest at the Free Russia Foundation event.

Julia Galiamina, a municipal deputy of Moscow’s Timiryazevsky District, said, “The democratization of Russia is only possible from the bottom up because democratizing forces at the top has proven to lead back to the authoritarian regime.” As the success of the 2017 local elections has shown, there are resources and potential at the local level and democratic forces need not move up, but horizontally, to spread democracy and to embrace civil society. During the last seven years, Galiamina said, there has been a rise in grassroots initiatives and civic activity, with people becoming more concerned about various local issues and starting to stand up for their rights. By embracing civic activism, people are moving toward new democratic ideas and democratic leaders should support these movements. The strategy, said Galiamina, should be to help people to become citizens, citizens to become civil activists, and civil activists to become local public office holders. Yet there is also the problem of a low level of trust towards authorities and a fear of politicization, said Galiamina. “One of our goals is to revive trust in politics and democratization,” she said.

Natalia Shavshukova, an organizer of the School of Local Governance and a former municipal deputy of the Levoberezhny District in Moscow, said that democracy cannot be forced on Russia – rather, it is a process and its values need to be advocated. Since democratic forces are excluded from the federal level and often from the regional level, the local level has become the main stage of democratic governance in today’s Russia. Yet there are also opportunities, as the success in last year’s municipal elections in Moscow has shown. “We should go further to replicate the success of Moscow’s city elections in other parts of Russia,” said Shavshukova, adding that the recent success owes itself to collaboration between different democratic groups, mainly new and unofficial ones.

Supporting protests is important since it builds solidarity and civil society, but if a rapid political change were to occur, there could be an issue with professional qualifications. The School of Local Governance provides training to local activists and members of liberal parties and movements, with more than 500 alumni across Russia, including 149 candidates who won seats in the Moscow elections last year, said Shavshukova. Looking at the big picture, there are 200,000 seats in local municipalities throughout Russia, with an additional 4,000 regional deputies and 450 State Duma deputies. But there is a lack of qualified candidates at the moment, said Shavshukova.

Vladislav Naganov is a municipal deputy in Khimki District Council, Moscow Oblast, who has largely built his campaign on the legacy of Evgenia Chirikova – a prominent environmental activist. Naganov said it is extremely important to build the political base and voter support for municipal deputies, which may pave the way for success at the regional and federal level. The network of supporters can grow through various local initiatives, including homeowner associations and environmental campaigns – the latter has enjoyed strong support in the Moscow region, said Naganov. Support can also be found among those who oppose the Moscow Oblast governor’s plans to centralize power in the region by transforming municipals districts into urban jurisdictions, which have appointed leaders as opposed to elected ones.

“Our only chance is to continue our hard work and to prepare for unexpected victories if the opportunity emerges,” said Naganov.

 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.