Russia’s Reality. The Conversation with Vladimir Milov

Oct 29 2015

“Relatively good, to bad, to worse” – That’s how the relationship between the United States and Russia was described at the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative event, A Conversation with Vladimir Milov.

Vladimir Milov, chairman of the Democratic Choice party in Russia, was welcomed by the Hudson Institute and Free Russia Foundation Monday afternoon to speak on matters of corruption and what lies ahead for Russia.

Milov worked in the Russian government in the 1990s and early 2000s and now represents the Institute for Energy Policy, a Moscow-based think tank. Corruption has changed in Russia since he was working for the Kremlin. In the 1990s, business and bureaucracy worked separately as two distinct entities. Private enterprise would often buy out government workers for favors in those days, but the two entities stayed relatively separate. Milov described the separation as a “firewall”.

Today, government bureaucracy and business are closely tied together. Yeltsin’s government was criticized, deservedly, for doling out favors to private interests, but today’s government, dead set on state investment, has failed to produce substantial growth in the Russian economy for quite some time. The investments that come into the country often do not stimulate the economy, rather, they enrich President Putin and his political allies. Many projects implemented by the Kremlin have been inefficient and provided little benefit to the Russian people, as has come up every so often as reported by the Russian business daily Vedomosti.

It is no question that the Russian government exercises extensive control over the state media. While some will point to President Putin’s sky-high approval rating as a broad mandate, Milov argued that that approval rating does not show the complexity of the stable but uncertain situation in Russia today. It’s true many ordinary Russians think quite highly of Putin himself, but the system he presides over still manages to invoke contempt among many of the Russian people. Russia today is a vertically oriented country-the system is exclusive and often prevents social mobility for the general populace. While the oligarchs do not have the same blatant influence they may have had under Yeltsin, they still control large portions of the government or government-subsidized industries.

It wasn’t that long ago that Russians were standing shoulder to shoulder in large anti-Putin demonstrations across the country in 2011 and 2012. Back then, Putin’s approval rating was stuck in the 40s.

“Then he injected a drug”, Milov explained. The drug being nationalism, a fervor that swept across Russia in 2014 as Crimea was annexed and the crusade against the “Fascist Kiev Junta” was on.

history_repeats_screengrab

That fervor is still visible on TV today, but cracks may be starting to appear. Despite TV news continuing on about Ukraine, Syria, and the faults of the United States, the people of Russia are starting to slowly turn towards other priorities closer to home. Living standards are fading while the economy is starting to sink. Putin’s approval rating remains high but the authorities in general are still perceived negatively.

Elections, particularly regional elections, are still tightly controlled in Russia, but that doesn’t mean Russia’s elections are a forgone victory for United Russia. In the cities, for instance, members of the ruling party are slowly falling out of favor with the people, who are fatigued by this highly monopolized system. The patriotic fervor of regaining Crimea and fighting fascists in the Donbas are losing momentum.

In the past the Russian government has always been willing to propose plans to fix whatever issues are bothering the Russian people. That’s been a constant, regardless of whether the plan was effective or not. These days, however, the main refrain from the government has been to wait. Wait, things will stabilize and return to normal, and be patient, because it may take a few years.

“Public opinion still matters in Russia”

This is not to say that Russia will see millions of protestors packed into Red Square in the near future calling for Putin to step down a la Maidan. The overall system in Russia is strong, and is unlikely to yield a popular uprising similar to Ukraine’s recent revolution. Milov attributed that to a more conservative and passive attitude among Russians when compared to Ukrainians. He did, however, expect some change, perhaps somewhat along the lines of what has happened recently in Turkey. For reference, Turkey has been under the control of Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the right-wing Islamist Justice and Development Party, and his rule, like Putin’s, has been criticized for creeping authoritarianism. However, Turkey’s most recent election saw the Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, lose its parliamentary majority and go to the coalition negotiation table with the secular opposition, the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) which came in second. While their party did not win the election, Turkish people who supported the CHP and other opposition parties seemed to come out of the election relieved that the system of checks and balances in Turkey was still alive and functioning. Milov stressed that this could be a turbulent and difficult time in Russia, but that the ultimate result could be a more democratic, less stagnant, and cleanly governed country.

Could things go the other way?

“Of course, and that’s in Putin’s interests!” Milov said. But evidence seems to point to the contrary. Irkutsk recently went through a political split away from United Russia as did Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city. Milov seemed to believe that low turnout may be a goal of the authorities. If Russians went out to vote in large numbers, they could, especially in the cities, present a large problem for the Kremlin.

“Public opinion still matters in Russia”, Milov explained. “Even the Kremlin wants to have the people content, and if they lose support, concessions can and very well may happen, such as in 2005 when pensioners’ benefits were monetized!”

Even the anti-American nationalist rhetoric will lose its luster if Russian standard of living continues to decline.

The subject of the murder of opposition activist Boris Nemtsov came up as well in the conversation. Milov, without hesitation, said he was under the impression that the Kremlin had arranged the assassination, stressing his knowledge of the way things worked in the Kremlin and a letter he send to the FSB rife with questions that he claimed point the finger at the state, but he also shed light on a division among liberal Russians-many of them believe that it is completely plausible that Mr. Nemtsov was simply killed by some Chechen thugs.

It didn’t take long after that for the subject to turn to one of Chechnya’s most (in)famous, Razman Kadyrov. Milov remained skeptical that Kadyrov was behind Nemtsov’s slaughter, since Mr. Kadyrov stood to lose from that type of stunt, as Kadyrov has fallen out of favor with many of Putin’s allies despite being close to Putin himself.

These types of tragedies and the search for justice, however, don’t seem to be the path to take for democratic change to happen in Russia. “If you talk to people about this kind of thing they tune out and ignore you. People want problems to be solved, and if you talk about that, people come to your side. People don’t want to talk about the murders and the bombings.”

Milov also stressed that even a period of turbulence leading to stronger democracy as suggested before would not immediately turn Russia into a western European republic.  “When you speak about change, people think about Western types of democracy, forget it. We’re looking towards a more imperfect system but a better system, one where more voices need to be heard? More openness, competitiveness, we don’t need to western standards yet, get more competitiveness first!”

Russia’s stagnant and precarious position today will be called into question sooner or later

When asked what he’d do about the state media monopoly from the United States, Milov’s proposed first steps of action were simple-don’t let these moguls and oligarchs invest in the west.

It’s going to take a long time. It’s going to be turbulent and likely met with substantial skepticism and opposition. It may present problems for Russia’s neighboring governments. And it may not be in 2016 when the Duma elections are held or even in 2018 when Russians go back to the polls to elect a president for the next six years. And perhaps most importantly, despite the romanticizing of Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution, it probably won’t happen with crowds jamming Red Square for months upon months. But Russia’s stagnant and precarious position today will be called into question sooner or later. It’s up to the people to figure out how to steer the country to strength in democracy, economic diversity, and clean governance.

by Kyle Menyhert

Vladimir Milov, chairman of the Democratic Choice party in Russia, was welcomed by the Hudson Institute and Free Russia Foundation Monday afternoon to speak on matters of corruption and what lies ahead for Russia.

Milov worked in the Russian government in the 1990s and early 2000s and now represents the Institute for Energy Policy, a Moscow-based think tank. Corruption has changed in Russia since he was working for the Kremlin. In the 1990s, business and bureaucracy worked separately as two distinct entities. Private enterprise would often buy out government workers for favors in those days, but the two entities stayed relatively separate. Milov described the separation as a “firewall”.

Today, government bureaucracy and business are closely tied together. Yeltsin’s government was criticized, deservedly, for doling out favors to private interests, but today’s government, dead set on state investment, has failed to produce substantial growth in the Russian economy for quite some time. The investments that come into the country often do not stimulate the economy, rather, they enrich President Putin and his political allies. Many projects implemented by the Kremlin have been inefficient and provided little benefit to the Russian people, as has come up every so often as reported by the Russian business daily Vedomosti.

It is no question that the Russian government exercises extensive control over the state media. While some will point to President Putin’s sky-high approval rating as a broad mandate, Milov argued that that approval rating does not show the complexity of the stable but uncertain situation in Russia today. It’s true many ordinary Russians think quite highly of Putin himself, but the system he presides over still manages to invoke contempt among many of the Russian people. Russia today is a vertically oriented country-the system is exclusive and often prevents social mobility for the general populace. While the oligarchs do not have the same blatant influence they may have had under Yeltsin, they still control large portions of the government or government-subsidized industries.

It wasn’t that long ago that Russians were standing shoulder to shoulder in large anti-Putin demonstrations across the country in 2011 and 2012. Back then, Putin’s approval rating was stuck in the 40s.

“Then he injected a drug”, Milov explained. The drug being nationalism, a fervor that swept across Russia in 2014 as Crimea was annexed and the crusade against the “Fascist Kiev Junta” was on.

history_repeats_screengrab

That fervor is still visible on TV today, but cracks may be starting to appear. Despite TV news continuing on about Ukraine, Syria, and the faults of the United States, the people of Russia are starting to slowly turn towards other priorities closer to home. Living standards are fading while the economy is starting to sink. Putin’s approval rating remains high but the authorities in general are still perceived negatively.

Elections, particularly regional elections, are still tightly controlled in Russia, but that doesn’t mean Russia’s elections are a forgone victory for United Russia. In the cities, for instance, members of the ruling party are slowly falling out of favor with the people, who are fatigued by this highly monopolized system. The patriotic fervor of regaining Crimea and fighting fascists in the Donbas are losing momentum.

In the past the Russian government has always been willing to propose plans to fix whatever issues are bothering the Russian people. That’s been a constant, regardless of whether the plan was effective or not. These days, however, the main refrain from the government has been to wait. Wait, things will stabilize and return to normal, and be patient, because it may take a few years.

“Public opinion still matters in Russia”

This is not to say that Russia will see millions of protestors packed into Red Square in the near future calling for Putin to step down a la Maidan. The overall system in Russia is strong, and is unlikely to yield a popular uprising similar to Ukraine’s recent revolution. Milov attributed that to a more conservative and passive attitude among Russians when compared to Ukrainians. He did, however, expect some change, perhaps somewhat along the lines of what has happened recently in Turkey. For reference, Turkey has been under the control of Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the right-wing Islamist Justice and Development Party, and his rule, like Putin’s, has been criticized for creeping authoritarianism. However, Turkey’s most recent election saw the Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, lose its parliamentary majority and go to the coalition negotiation table with the secular opposition, the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) which came in second. While their party did not win the election, Turkish people who supported the CHP and other opposition parties seemed to come out of the election relieved that the system of checks and balances in Turkey was still alive and functioning. Milov stressed that this could be a turbulent and difficult time in Russia, but that the ultimate result could be a more democratic, less stagnant, and cleanly governed country.

Could things go the other way?

“Of course, and that’s in Putin’s interests!” Milov said. But evidence seems to point to the contrary. Irkutsk recently went through a political split away from United Russia as did Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city. Milov seemed to believe that low turnout may be a goal of the authorities. If Russians went out to vote in large numbers, they could, especially in the cities, present a large problem for the Kremlin.

“Public opinion still matters in Russia”, Milov explained. “Even the Kremlin wants to have the people content, and if they lose support, concessions can and very well may happen, such as in 2005 when pensioners’ benefits were monetized!”

Even the anti-American nationalist rhetoric will lose its luster if Russian standard of living continues to decline.

The subject of the murder of opposition activist Boris Nemtsov came up as well in the conversation. Milov, without hesitation, said he was under the impression that the Kremlin had arranged the assassination, stressing his knowledge of the way things worked in the Kremlin and a letter he send to the FSB rife with questions that he claimed point the finger at the state, but he also shed light on a division among liberal Russians-many of them believe that it is completely plausible that Mr. Nemtsov was simply killed by some Chechen thugs.

It didn’t take long after that for the subject to turn to one of Chechnya’s most (in)famous, Razman Kadyrov. Milov remained skeptical that Kadyrov was behind Nemtsov’s slaughter, since Mr. Kadyrov stood to lose from that type of stunt, as Kadyrov has fallen out of favor with many of Putin’s allies despite being close to Putin himself.

These types of tragedies and the search for justice, however, don’t seem to be the path to take for democratic change to happen in Russia. “If you talk to people about this kind of thing they tune out and ignore you. People want problems to be solved, and if you talk about that, people come to your side. People don’t want to talk about the murders and the bombings.”

Milov also stressed that even a period of turbulence leading to stronger democracy as suggested before would not immediately turn Russia into a western European republic.  “When you speak about change, people think about Western types of democracy, forget it. We’re looking towards a more imperfect system but a better system, one where more voices need to be heard? More openness, competitiveness, we don’t need to western standards yet, get more competitiveness first!”

Russia’s stagnant and precarious position today will be called into question sooner or later

When asked what he’d do about the state media monopoly from the United States, Milov’s proposed first steps of action were simple-don’t let these moguls and oligarchs invest in the west.

It’s going to take a long time. It’s going to be turbulent and likely met with substantial skepticism and opposition. It may present problems for Russia’s neighboring governments. And it may not be in 2016 when the Duma elections are held or even in 2018 when Russians go back to the polls to elect a president for the next six years. And perhaps most importantly, despite the romanticizing of Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution, it probably won’t happen with crowds jamming Red Square for months upon months. But Russia’s stagnant and precarious position today will be called into question sooner or later. It’s up to the people to figure out how to steer the country to strength in democracy, economic diversity, and clean governance.

by Kyle Menyhert

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.