Tag Archives: Alexei Navalny

The events of the past few days have clearly demonstrated that Putin and his regime perceive Russia’s youth, especially its most active and politicized members, as the biggest enemy.

The Kremlin’s attacks on Aleksei Navalny and his movement, attacks on the Internet, attacks on the student-ran magazine DOXA, attacks on education, targeted repressions throughout Russia — all of them in one way or another target youth, more than any other group.

This comes as no surprise. After all, young people are most active online, they are the backbone of Navalny’s movement, they take part in protest rallies, attend all kinds of lectures and discussions, create and consume independent media, travel abroad, and participate in volunteer and crowdfunding projects. Moreover, they share the same information space as their peers around the world — they listen to the same music, play the same video games, follow the same fashion trends, watch the same shows, and generally view the world through the same lense as young people in Western Europe and North America.

Certainly, in each demographic group of Russia’s population there are people who subscribe to Western values; conversely, there are young people in Russia who support Putin. But young Russians generally lead lives and are steeped in values that make them organic opponents of the conservative, backward-looking, retrograde, and xenophobic Putin establishment.

Putin has focused his wrath on Aleksei Navalny precisely because by 44, Navalny has managed to find an approach that appealed to Russian citizens 10, 20, and even 30 years his junior. In contrast, Putin, who has no plans to step down any time in the foreseeable future, simply does not have the creativity, tools, or even desire to reach younger generations of Russians. This makes perfect sense — Vladimir Putin’s electorate base is the older generation, and he is concentrating his efforts on pleasing them, pandering to them, and manipulating their emotions — the most prominent of which is a nostalgia for the days of the Soviet Union.

Had Putin come to power democratically, had he actually faced serious criticism from opponents, and had he gotten used to fighting for every electoral vote, perhaps he would make at least a cursory attempt at appealing to younger voters. But Putin is a product of the KGB and the bureaucratic apparatus. He has never taken part in any free elections, and therefore has no intentions of trying to win over any naysayers.

Outside observers need to keep in mind that when Putin speaks about the Russian people or on their behalf, he is only referring to those who support him. He views anyone who does not support him as a traitor, who should, and in fact must be denied any political standing or representation.

Last week’s story of repressions against the editorial board of a student magazine DOXA is very telling. DOXA gained prominence among the general public in 2019, against the backdrop of protests in response to the Kremlin’s refusal to allow opposition candidates to run for the Moscow City Duma. College students from various Moscow universities took part in the protests, and DOXA threw its support behind them. The publication and its editorial office have been watched by security agencies since then, and by 2021, the surveillance was in full force, culminating in a series of searches, interrogations, and an investigation, resulting in DOXA employees placed under house arrest and officially banned from engaging in any journalistic activity.

It would be absurd to claim that DOXA had any real ability to influence the political situation in Russia or any significant groups of the population. After all, this is a specialized publication for students, graduates, and professors from Moscow’s most prestigious universities. But it is for this exact reason that the magazine has been so closely watched, and reprisals against the editorial staff have been so over-the-top, despite the outpour of support from professors, students, journalists, and members of the creative intelligentsia. The politicization of young people in Moscow is extremely concerning to the Russian authorities. Widespread street protests in the capital have been a nightmare for Putin for years. That is why any approval of protests, taking part in them, or calling on others to join them, particularly among youth, are punished with an increasing severity.

The persecution of DOXA sends a clear and powerful message to all you people in — if the authorities are not afraid to carry out public reprisals against youth in Moscow — in the plain view of the domestic and international public — then no one else can expect any mercy or indulgence, either. Like many other activists in today’s Russia, DOXA’s editorial board is accused of inciting people to take part in unsanctioned rallies expressing solidarity with Aleksei Navalny last January. The video that landed the students in court is entitled They Cannot Defeat the Youth. It was released following Navalny’s arrest, and contains the following words:

“Universities, colleges, and schools intimidate students, threatening them with expulsion or other sanctions. We demand an end to the destruction of education, which our generation has yet to rebuild. The authorities have declared a war on youth, but we are the youth. And we are sure to win.”

The mere mention of schoolchildren in the video has been taken by the authorities as pretext to file the same charges against DOXA’s editorial board as those filed against the head of Navalny’s headquarters, Leonid Volkov — i.e. involving minors in unlawful activities. This includes participation in banned protest rallies.

The video’s description of what is happening in Russia is, in fact, spot on — Putin has, indeed, declared war on youth, and his regime is spending most of its efforts on repressing and intimidating young Russian citizens, effectively subordinating the entire education system to the security apparatus, and preserving the current regime at any cost — robbing entire generations of Russian citizens of their future, condemning them to either leave their own country, or live isolated and in fear of the world.

Putin’s main opposition in Russia today is not the handful of dissidents or political activists who have stood in the streets for decades. It is the vast majority of the Russian youth that is on the rise. The leaders of the opposition today are whoever the youth hold in such regard. For this reason, anyone who is willing and able to support resistance to Putin’s regime would do well to focus their efforts on the younger segments audience. Sooner or later, the youth will inevitably win. And even a mighty dictator such as Vladimir Putin can escape the passage of time and death.

April 8, 2021

We, the undersigned, are shocked and troubled by the most recent news of Alexei Navalny’s condition in prison. 

Russia’s leading opposition figure is reported to suffer severe back pain with losing sensitivity in parts of his legs. It is no more than six months since he survived a vicious poisoning attack with a nerve agent that has long-term crippling effects on his health. In prison, he is systematically denied any medical treatment. On top, prison guards wake him up every hour at night, a practice amounting to torture by sleep deprivation according to his lawyers. This is why medical experts called on the Russian authorities to allow Mr. Navalny’s treatment and why he himself now resorted to a hunger strike. Let’s not forget: Mr. Navalny’s incarceration itself is a travesty of justice – he was formally sent to prison for not checking in with Russian authorities on a fabricated case (as confirmed by European Court of Human Rights) when he was recuperating in Germany from poisoning and subsequent coma.

Russian authorities with its secret services tried to kill Alexei Navalny last August, they may now be attempting the same, in a slower, even more cynical way. 

Europe has offered Alexei Navalny a place to recover from the attempt at his life. Specialized labs in Germany, France and Sweden confirmed the assassination attempt used Novichok, an internationally banned chemical weapon. Angela Merkel personally met Mr Navalny in hospital and many other Western leaders expressed their solidarity after the poisoning attack. We need to intervene again. 

We urge Russia to immediately allow medical treatment of Alexei Navalny and release him from prison. We call on the EU Council as well as EU member states’ leaders to reach out to Russian authorities to request the immediate release of Alexei Navalny, which was mandated by European Court of Human Rights’ decision in February 2021. In addition, we demand the EU Council task EU ambassador to Russia to conduct, together partners from the UK, Canada and the US, a visit of the prison facility and meet Alexei Navalny. It is critical now that Alexei Navalny’s fate became the symbol of injustice many thousands face because of increasing brutality of Russian regime against its own citizens. 

In December 2020, the EU launched its Global Human Rights Sanction Regime modelled on so-called Magnitsky Act. This law has been inspired by one Sergei Magnitsky, a brave Russian lawyer who was tortured to death in prison in 2009 – he was systematically denied treatment when he developed a serious medical condition. We still can act now in case of Alexei Navalny so we avoid commemorating later.

Marek HILSER, Senator, Czech Republic

Andrius KUBILIUS, MEP, EPP, Lithuania

Lukas WAGENKNECHT, Senator, Czech Republic

Žygimantas PAVILIONIS, MP, Lithuania

Miroslav BALATKA, Senator, Czech Republic

André GATTOLIN, Senator, France

Mikulas BEK, Senator, Czech Republic 

Nicolae ŞTEFĂNUȚĂ, MEP, Renew, Romania

David SMOLJAK, Senator, Czech Republic 

Petras AUŠTREVIČIUS, MEP, Renew, Lithuania

Tomas FIALA, Senator, Czech Republic 

Liudas MAŽYLIS, MEP, EPP Lithuania

Zdenek NYTRA, Senator, Czech Republic 

Dace MELBĀRDE, MEP, ECR, Latvia

Jan SOBOTKA, Senator, Czech Republic 

Matas MALDEIKIS, MP, Lithuania

Jiri RUZICKA, Senator, Czech Republic 

Bernard GUETTA, MEP, Renew, France

Jaromira VITKOVA, Senator, Czech Republic 

Rasa JUKNEVIČIENĖ, MEP, EPP, Lithuania

Petr OREL, Senator, Czech Republic 

Tomasz FRANKOWSKI, MEP, EPP, Poland 

Miroslava NEMCOVA, Senator, Czech Republic

Hermann TERTSCH, MEP, ECR, Spain

Premysl RABAS, Senator, Czech Republic 

Aušra MALDEIKIENĖ, MEP, EPP, Lithuania

Ladislav KOS, Senator, Czech Republic 

Attila ARA-KOVÁCS, MEP, S&D, Hungary

Sarka JELINKOVA, Senator, Czech Republic

Erik MARQUARDT, MEP, Greens, Germany

Pavel FISCHER, Senator, Czech Republic

Pernille WEISS, MEP, EPP, Denmark

Helena LANGSADLOVA, MP, Czech Republic

Roberts ZĪLE, MEP, ECR, Latvia

Jan LIPAVSKY, MP, Czech Republic

Klemen GROŠELJ, MEP, Renew, Slovenia

Pavel ZACEK, MP, Czech Republic

Riho TERRAS, MEP, EPP, Estonia

Ondrej BENESIK, MP, Czech Republic 

Miriam LEXMANN, MEP, EPP, Slovakia

Frantisek KOPRIVA, MP, Czech Republic 

Sandra KALNIETE, MEP, EPP, Latvia

Petr GAZDIK, MP, Czech Republic 

Jerzy BUZEK, MEP, EPP, Poland

Tomas MARTINEK, MP, Czech Republic 

Janina OCHOJSKA, MEP, EPP, Poland

Jan BARTOSEK, MP, Czech Republic

Eugen TOMAC, MEP, EPP, Romania

Jan FARSKY, MP, Czech Republic

Ivan ŠTEFANEC, MEP, EPP, Slovakia

Roman SKLENAK, MP, Czech Republic

Krzysztof HETMAN, MEP, EPP, Poland

Frantisek VACHA, MP, Czech Republic

Ivars IJABS, MEP, Renew, Latvia

Marek VYBORNY, MP, Czech Republic

Franc BOGOVIČ, MEP, EPP, Slovenia

Zbynek STANJURA, MP, Czech Republic

Radvilė MORKŪNAITĖ-MIKULĖNIENĖ, MP, Lithuania

Petr FIALA, MP, Czech Republic

Raphaël GLUCKSMANN, MEP, S&D, France

Vít RAKUSAN, MP, Czech Republic

Juozas OLEKAS, MEP, S&D, Lithuania

Jaroslav VYMAZAL, MP, Czech Republic

Assita KANKO, MEP, ECR, Belgium

Adela SIPOVA, Senator, Czech Republic

Radosław SIKORSKI, MEP, EPP, Poland

Róża THUN UND HOHENSTEIN, MEP, EPP, Poland

Javier NART, MEP, Renew, Spain

Andrzej HALICKI, MEP, EPP, Poland

Alexander ALEXANDROV YORDANOV, MEP, EPP, Bulgaria

Ondřej KOVAŘÍK, MEP, Renew, Czech Republic

Andreas SCHIEDER, MEP, S&D, Austria

Leopoldo LÓPEZ GIL, MEP, EPP, Spain

Sergey LAGODINSKY, MEP, Greens, Germany

Antonio LÓPEZ-ISTÚRIZ WHITE, MEP, EPP, Spain

Marketa GREGOROVA, MEP, Greens, Czech Republic

Lolita ČIGĀNE, MP, Latvia

Marko MIHKELSON, MP, Estonia

Renata CHMELOVA, Czech Republic

Bogdan KLICH, Senator, Republic of Poland

How the Kremlin Undermines Western Solidarity with the Russian Opposition Using the Left.

Imagine a scenario where two policemen catch a known rapist-killer. As they are about to handcuff him, he says: “I just saw a guy around the corner who jaywalked two days ago putting three cars at risk of crashing. Perhaps you could arrest him”. The policemen forget the task at hand and start discussing whether they should go after the jaywalker. As the discussion heats up, they forget about the rapist-killer, who simply walks away.

In political warfare, the trick used by the rapist-killer in this scenario is called “reflexive control”. It involves conveying particular information to an adversary in order to induce that adversary to voluntarily make a specific decision to their own detriment. Most often, reflexive control is about confusing an adversary, clouding his thinking and making a wrong decision.

The two policemen in our story lose track of a critical and time-sensitive priority—arresting and neutralizing a grave offender. Not veering off into a discussion about whether the jaywalker was real or imagined, whether he deserved to be arrested or not.

The current attacks against Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny alleging his nationalistic leanings bear all the traditional markings of a reflexive control operation initiated by the Kremlin. Their goal is to undermine the legitimacy of Navalny in the eyes of the West and paralyze action in his support.

I am unable to shake off a strong feeling of a déjà vu with tragic events that took place seven years ago. As the Kremlin unleashed its invasion of Ukraine, it has successfully crowded the Western media space with anti-Ukrainian narratives in order to undermine Western support for Ukraine. The leitmotif of this campaign portrayed the Maidan revolution as an ultranationalist putsch that resulted in the rise of an ultranationalist government.

In February-March 2014, as the Russian green men establish a blockade of Ukrainian military bases in Crimea and occupy administrative buildings; and as Russia annexes Crimea, in gross violation of  a number of international treaties,—a significant bulk of the Western media discourse is evaluating whether the Maidan revolution was instigated by ultranationalists.

The Kremlin’s ultimate goal was not to convince the West that Kyiv was run by a fascist junta. Rather, it sought to distract Western attention from Moscow’s criminal actions and to shift the focus of Western decision-makers to an entirely different issue, whose importance and time-sensitivity was disproportionately low compared to the Kremlin’s gross violation of international norms and post-war order. Putin has successfully executed a  reflexive control operation as part of a 4D approach to managing the aggression against Ukraine internationally: dismiss, distort, distract, dismay. Dismiss the fact of occupation of Crimea by Russian troops, distort the general picture of the situation in Ukraine with the use of disinformation, distract Western attention from the Kremlins activities by launching accusations elsewhere, and dismay Western audiences by scaring them with Russia’s unpredictable behaviour.

In the case of Alexey Navalny, the Kremlin’s method is similar.

Over the years, Navalny has published a series of shocking investigations into the mind-boggling corruption of Russian kleptocratic elites. The investigations were highly damaging to Putin’s reputation. Navalny continued his investigative work despite the intimidation by criminal cases fabricated by the Kremlin against him.

Switching its approach, the Kremlin decided to kill Navalny with a Novichok nerve agent, in violation of the national law, all democratic norms, and the international Chemical Weapons Convention.

Miraculously, Navalny survived the assassination attempt and returned home from Germany, where doctors treated him after the poisoning. Upon his arrival to Russia, he was immediately arrested and jailed.

The European Parliament has responded by adopting two resolutions related to Navalny, one strongly condemning his attempted assassination, the other calling for his immediate and unconditional release. In October 2020, while Navalny was still recovering from the poisoning in Germany, the EU introduced sanctions against top Russian officials and a number of entities involved in his assassination attempt.

Moscow’s 4D approach to eroding the European solidarity on the Navalny case has been the following: dismiss accusations of poisoning the leading opposition figure, distort the circumstances surrounding Navalny’s poisoning by suggesting multiple theories of his sickness, distract European attention from Navalny’s attempted assassination sanctioned by the Kremlin, and dismay European politicians by expelling diplomats for supporting the jailed opposition activist.

The “mechanics” of the “distract” element consist of a reflexive control operation involving three phases. First, the Kremlin conveys the narrative (“Navalny is a nationalist”) privately to its agents of influence and publicly via state-controlled media (such as RT) setting up the agenda. Second, Russian “leftists” reproduce the sanctioned narrative in Western national and international left-wing media. Third, the narrative “travels” to more moderate, centrist media space and becomes part of the mainstream discussion, which is Moscow’s main goal of the “distract” element. By “laundering” this reflexive control operation through Russian “leftists”, the Kremlin partially removes traces of its influence in “Navalny’s nationalism” debates among Western left-wing commentators and activists.

Unsurprisingly, Russian mediators between the Kremlin and the Western left feature the very same personalities who advanced Moscow’s anti-Ukrainian campaign.

One egregious specimen is Alexey Sakhnin, a member of the Russian organisation “Left Front”. Introduced to Western left-wing audiences as an opponent to Putin, Sakhnin has been continuously involved in the Kremlin’s information war against Ukraine since 2014, as well as in several operations aimed at smearing and discrediting European experts and politicians critical of Putin’s regime. While living “in exile” in Sweden in 2012-2019, Sakhnin was busy packing Sweden’s Left Party and Green Party with pro-Kremlin narratives packaged as genuine left-wing analysis of international relations. Upon his return to Russia, he became a regular commentator for the Russian once leading financial newspaper Vedomosti: shortly before Sakhnin started writing for it, Vedomosti had been sold to businessmen loyal to the Kremlin who needed new authors after the newspaper’s senior staff departed in protest to the loss of editorial independence. Today, as part of the Kremlin’s reflexive control operation against Navalny, Sakhnin is targeting left-wing circles not only in Sweden, but also in Norway and internationally. While it may be Sakhnin’s and other Russian “left-wing” contacts’ objective to convince Western left-wing activists and commentators of Navalny’s nationalist political sentiments, it is only an intermediate and not even necessary objective for the Kremlin. With its reflexive control operation against Navalny, Moscow’s ultimate goal is to elevate an irrelevant debate into prominence, undermine Western solidarity with the Russian opposition and let the murderous kleptocratic regime get away with the very real crimes infinitely worse than Navalny’s presumed nationalism.

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

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

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

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

The 2017 protests across Russia surprised many observers both inside and outside the country—no one quite expected to see so many young people, including high school students, taking to the streets to express dissatisfaction with the current political leadership.

For years, young Russians were criticized for political apathy, conformism, and proneness to trade freedoms and rights for careers and consumerism. Last year, as a new crop of Russian voters came of age in time for Vladimir Putin’s re-election for his fourth presidential term, numerous media outlets across the globe called them the “Putin generation.” Still, the 2017 protest sentiment that seeped into 2018 was a crucial political phenomenon: this series of protests highlighted the complexity and diversity of the Russian youth—the social group that over the last years has been misunderstood or overlooked by both the Kremlin and independent observers. This fact puts young people at the center of political discussions with regards to Russia’s future and raises a plethora of critical questions. What is actually going with the young Russians? What are their values, attitudes, beliefs, and how are they shaped? Are these youngsters, in fact, disinterested in politics and loyal to the regime, as has been pointed out so many times before, or have they become aware of the regime’s flaws and begun to look for opportunities to overcome them?

This report is an attempt to look inside the proverbial “black box” that Russian youth (formally defined here as the group aged 17-25 in 2019) turned out to be to many observers. The report taps into two different approaches to studying youth—the traditional generational approach and the so-called “solidarities” approach, which allows for a deeper understanding of the youth’s subcultural differences and behavior strategies. A combination of different approaches underscores the fact that diverse, sometimes opposing groups co-exist under a broad term of “Russian youth.” To address this issue and provide a more comprehensive and nuanced picture of the future generations of Russians, this report dissects the following aspects of the new phenomenon: sociological characteristics of the Russian youth and their key attitudes (as shown by various national polls); the way they differ from or match those of their counterparts in several CIS countries (particularly, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan); the Kremlin’s youth policy and the efficiency of the pro-government youth organizations within a larger context of the Putin regime’s strategy.

The analysis conducted in this report led us to several important conclusions: 1) the phenomenon of Russian youth is understudied, complex, and laced with internal cultural, subcultural, and value-based conflicts that should not be underestimated and must be researched in further detail; 2) the notions of political apathy, conformism and cynicism among Russian youth are often not rooted in reality, as many youngsters tend to mistrust existing political infrastructure and prefer to organize on a grassroots level and online to solve small, pragmatic issues (this comes as a global trend, as young people in the West also grow increasingly disappointed with traditional forms of political participation); 3) Russian youth’s access to global internet and social networks exposes them to a much more diverse and rich information space (the space that the Kremlin has not been able to fully control), which inevitably shapes a different set of attitudes and beliefs among young people compared to older generations of Russians; 4) despite early success in engaging and mobilizing the youth, the Kremlin’s youth policy has failed on crucial points of consistency and strategic vision for the future as it is largely driven by the regime’s goal of its own survival. Based on this analysis, the report also offers some recommendations for Russia experts, media and policymakers.

Going forward, the analysis conducted in this report yields cautious optimism: as younger generations of Russians will begin to take over the country’s labor market and political force, their vision of the world—shaped by digital culture and more diverse information as well as by different experiences—will diffuse current tensions and create opportunities for opening up of the country.

On May 19, 2018, in Moscow, supporters of Alexei Navalny founded a new party “Russia of the Future” (Россия будущего). Navalny himself is under an administrative arrest for a “repeat violation of the law pertaining to the organizing of a public event” which refers to his May 5, 2018, countrywide demonstration under the slogan “He is Not Our Czar”. Around 1500 demonstration participants have been arrested throughout Russia.

Around the same time, on May 21, 2018, about 15,000 Circassians joined a memorial march dedicated to those who lost their lives fighting for the independence of Circassia. This is the largest turnout since the march originated in the early 90’s. Circassians clearly are harboring historic and contemporary grievances against the Russian government.

From the video coverage of the two events, it is evident that the majority of participants of both, the Navalny demonstration, as well as those in Nalchik, have been born after the mid-80’s and grew up using social media and smartphones. Today they constitute about 30% of Russia’s working age population, and by the end of Putin’s current term will amount to about 60%. This population wants to live in a different Russia.

If they are to realize their vision of living in a different country, those fighting for democracy, those fighting for a free Circassia, and many other groups, must make deals with each other. This has to be done directly, without Kremlin intermediaries. Moreover, in order for this to happen, the new social contract must involve regional elites, — those who control the financial flows, assets, and violence within the various regions of the Russian Federation.

Regional business owners, criminal bosses and law enforcement officials— in essence, all former or still active bandits—can gain political and economic sovereignty only with the support of the population at large.  This piece is an attempt to explain three points: 1. Why the entrepreneur strongmen must be involved in modernization efforts; 2. Why they should be interested in getting involved; and 3. How this process would look in practice.

 

Well-Armed Gentlemen

Simply passing good laws is not enough for political modernization to take place. Armed elites must be compelled to observe these new laws. And up to now, this has only happened, crudely speaking, in two ways:

  1. As described by the American sociologist Charles Tilly, the modern state is created by organized crime as a way to settle military and political competition among more or less equal opponents. This has been the case in Western Europe and North America. Mature democracy, therefore, is a product of competition between stationary bandits and institutionalized organized crime through political mechanisms, including labor unions. This is a long and expensive process; the pioneers that took this approach did so due to the lack of alternatives, and, thereby, willingly or unwillingly, created a contemporary open society.
  2. As a result of the absorption of one entity by another already mature jurisdiction (including ones created by means described above), with simultaneous acceptance of rules by all social groups (including strongmen) integrating them into the democratic society. This can happen as the result of an occupation and removal of military aristocracy from power (the way it happened in Japan when it was occupied by the U.S.) or voluntarily, for example, the way it happened during the secession of the three Baltic States from the U.S.S.R. The Norms and institutions in the newly independent Baltic States were, for the most part, borrowed from the E.U. National elites; and almost all of the social groups perceivedsaid transition to denote the country’s return to its original historically ordained path. By the early 2000’s, former criminals and strongmen of the Russian-speaking Narva in Estonia had cleaned up their act and turned into law-abiding entrepreneurs and politicians. Some have even agreed to serve prison terms in order to remain within European jurisdiction.

Georgia is a telling example of a policy reversal, after the political defeat of Mikheil Saakashvili, exposing the social mechanics of such a transition. During his time in power, Saakashvili succeeded in consolidating parts of the Georgian elite around the idea of importing good institutions and integrating into the European Union. He even managed to temporarily usurp the monopoly on violence, sidelining organized criminal networks. However, to Moscow’s satisfaction, his successor Bidzina Ivanishvili managed — with the help of the revanchist old political and criminal elites with ties to Russian organized criminal networks, the Georgian clergy; and by using the institution of elections, capitalizing on his opponents’ crude mistakes as well as on the post-Soviet infantilism of certain civil activists — to freeze Georgian reforms and push the Saakashvili team out of Georgian politics.

At this point, Ukrainian reforms also look like forced concessions by the Petro Poroshenko Administration to civil activists and business associations in wartime and under pressure from Europe and the U.S. Criminals networked with Russian organized crime as well as law enforcement officials remained in the camp of the corrupt bureaucracy.

In Russia, the rut is even deeper, yet there are practically no real forces outside of the ruling class similar.For example; to the networks of entrepreneurs in Ukraine, the only functioning political mechanism in Russia is the FSB, whose regional directorates control investigations, law enforcement agencies, courts, criminals, bureaucrats (including governors sitting atop financial flows), and large business enterprises. Its structure and culture is similar to organized crime which has taken control of the state, society, and even international businesses.

Therefore, paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, conditions of political modernization are equal to the conditions of change in rules of behavior of well-armed gentlemen in this society.

A question follows: why would the armed gentlemen accept such a change?

 

Why Bandits Need Democracy

This “Chekist Order” that has subjugated courts, the police and organized crime in Russia is a completely new state, no longer the U.S.S.R, nor a criminal post-Soviet Russia.  It’s a police state in which the monopoly on violence, in fact, is delegated by the FSB regional directorate heads. With the threat of criminal investigations, they keep a firm grip on everyone, from governors to owners of gas stations. When direct physical violence is required to deal with activists, they turn to the Department of Countering Extremism and when violence is needed to deal with public figures, even with representatives of the law enforcement bureaucracy, they turn to private paramilitary forces.

Neither business owners nor criminals like this arrangement. As an entrepreneur from Dagestan put it, “when in Moscow even the smallest commercial entities started increasingly to employ people who introduced themselves as former officers of the KGB, FSK, FSB, GRU, and others, or who were even on active duty, it has become clear that capitalism would not be taking hold. Instead, there would be banditry served under different sources (in law, outside of the law), but not capitalism. There is no point in trying to think in economic terms.”

Russia’s regional business is hemorrhaging. In the early 2000s, carbons, ferrous and non-ferrous metals, lumber and fertilizers were taken away from the regions. In the decade after that, the manufacturing of vodka, local electric power networks, and gas pipes were taken. As we speak, the regions are losing control over chain retail, agricultural production.  New tariffs are being levied on long-haul truck drivers, and ideas are floated on taxing the self-employed.  My friend who owns a small chain of stores used a metaphor to describe the situation: “it is as if your bloodstream was open with a small cut. The blood flows, and you are slowly growing weaker and weaker. There are fewer resources and no means to fight back.”

As small and medium-size business is degraded, the income of the corrupt system itself at regional levels is dropping as well. The only remaining source of profit is government contracts. But Moscow meddles with a heavy hand even there. More or less powerful governors and mayors that cannot be controlled from Moscow are imprisoned and their replacements are sent from the capital — young bureaucrats trained by the Kremlin’s Personnel Reserve Program or former law enforcement agents. This is a result of a generational change within Putin’s circles, which has entered the indefinite stage of the political golden years.

All of this is part of Putin’s attempt to raise the stakes by taking the Russian world hostage and securing his rule indefinitely.  He is walking on thin ice, however, and the current regional policy is more dangerous for the regime than even a moderate drop in oil prices or protests against toxic landfills.

Owners and beneficiaries of liquid assets in Russia’s regions— electrical power companies, retail, natural resources and agricultural complexes— are losing assets as well as the ability to pass property on to their heirs. They either run, like Akhmed Bilalov and Yevgeny Chichvarkin; or sell their assets, like Sergey Galitsky, vodka manufacturers and intensive garden owners from Kabardino-Balkaria, and owners of private oil service companies from Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Region; or they are already in detention or prison, like Vyacheslav Derev and the Magomedov brothers; or they have just been released from prison like Magomed Kaitov.

Whether they understand it or not, the only way for regional elites and large businesses not only to preserve their assets but to survive and keep something to pass down to their children is by taking down the political system. This process can notionally be divided into two phases.

The first phase— decentralization. Large land-owners in Southern Russia could easily strike a deal with rural communities; organized crime can do the same with mayors, governors and labor unions. They need each other’s support. Regional politicians and civil activists would not survive without the protection of the well-armed gentlemen. This was a lesson learned long ago in the North Caucasus due to the traditional importance of familial and communal ties. But other regions, little by little, will come to the same realization.

The Second Phase entails the transfer of functions of safeguarding persons, private property, contract, civil liberties and transparent elections to independent judiciary and law enforcement institutions. Today, due to advances in communications technology, a wholesale direct import of institutions is possible. The only political issue to resolve is what choices to make from an array of good institutions. Open and just courts, the protection of property and civil liberties, are not policy issues but prominent features of contemporary society, akin to a smartphone connected to the internet.

Russian Guard soldiers in riot gear or Cossacks with whips may personify state authority only for the older generations, but Young Russians see them as a zoo with extinct specimens, and demonstrations as a dangerous safari. Modernization of the Russian mind has already taken place. What is needed to be available on the market, are institutions such as property registries, contract enforcement systems, good educational and health care systems, and financial services. It is not necessary for each village to invent its own iPhone.

If this does not happen, regional elites and corporations will be forced to flee, the way the Baltic Republics once fled from Russia’s atavistic tentacles and to a modern jurisdiction. They, along with the FSB generals keeping tabs on them, will either run or vanish into obscurity.

 

Contract to Occupy

Putin’s Administration has been forced to replace seasoned regional politicians with the boy scouts from the Personnel Reserve Program and former bodyguards in order to create a safe environment for their own heirs. However, these local powerhouses are supported by desperate people with nothing to lose, or with youth with their own political aspirations. They are also supported by local mafia bosses whose assets are being expropriated; by former mayors and municipal heads kicked out from their posts and unable to find a spot in Putin’s United Russia party; and by bankrupt entrepreneurs. In fact, there is a handful of other protest movements that could be mobilized with ease.

The well-armed gentlemen, business owners, and opposition movement leaders already possess a full spectrum competence in order to take over control of any regional assets and entities— from municipalities and agricultural production facilities to aluminum plants and oil processing companies. De Soto’s contract for the takeover of political, industrial assets and infrastructure would work well as the action plan for economic decentralization and secure the monopoly on violence.

In the Kabardino-Balkar Republic, for example, it can happen in the following manner.  Let’s suppose there are several million acres of land formerly a part of a collective state farm and now leased for 49 years to an entrepreneur with connections within the local government. With government funds, this entrepreneur has built intensive gardens on this land and leased those too poor local farmers to operate. The local community is unhappy they have lost the collective land. The landowning entrepreneur faces a real threat of a raid takeover by federal law enforcement agents— they initiate criminal investigations against him, attempt to impound his property, and their ransoms demands keep growing.

One way for this entrepreneur to liberate himself from the direct pressure of the strongmen would be, together with civil activists, to organize mass demonstrations, and with the pressure from the local population to take the land out of the jurisdiction of the Republic. For example, the land can be turned into a shared ownership property and a collective venture could be created. In such a scenario, of course, the large landowner would have to make deals with the local community. But there he is likely to have relatives, he would have enough money for such negotiations, he is known by local farmers, and his small security detail would turn into the core of a national movement.

There are real-life examples of municipalities in Dagestan receiving compensation for land flooded for hydroelectric power station reservoirs as the result of the municipal leader airing the issue with the local community. In this case, neither strongmen nor the mafia dons were willing to go against several thousand angry men and women.

In theory, RUSAL’s aluminum plants and northern oil companies from Western Siberia are not that different from collective farms. The young bureaucrats from the Personnel Reserve Program would have a hard time dealing with the armed men if they all of a sudden side with labor unions or with those protesting new landfills. Several such scenarios playing out throughout Russia would amount to a de-facto decentralization.

It is, therefore, precisely regional criminal networks and associated entrepreneurs and protest movement leaders that hold the potential to launch a decentralization process. The paradox here is that the only measure available to Moscow in such a scenario would serve to facilitate the takedown of the police state.

Trillions of rubles that Putin has promised to support infrastructure and social services, such as healthcare, education, and construction, will, no doubt, be expropriated (i.e. stolen). Regional actors would either transfer these funds offshore or use them for re-privatization of assets into their own private property. The balance of forces will inevitably shift.

Sanctions against Russian companies brought about by the foreign policy adventurism of Putin’s government, as well as the Russian counter-sanctions, are destroying corporate control over finance, decreasing the value of assets, facilitating the takeover of regulatory control as offshore funds return to Russia, and making devalued assets more attractive to investors. For example, the much cheaper shares of RUSAL (РУСАЛ) and Rosneft (Роснефть) now can be bought by regional players along with the global businesses and thereby protected by both, the international law and the “bayonets” on location.

Technological progress with its global education, market, Internet and the invincible Telegram erase borders and devalue local political sovereignty. Contemporary financial and legal instruments allow almost anybody to go to the global market and a more transparent jurisdiction. Insurance companies, retirement funds, property ownership registries, educational programs and even healthcare companies now can be headquartered in any spot on the globe. The less a government meddles in redistribution of collective resources, the less cost is imposed on its population. Regions and networked communities that join the global market and global jurisdiction would lower the cost of political institutions, compared to old democracies. Old democracies, in turn, would successfully sell their jurisdiction globally.

To end on a positive note, profit can be made from the modernization of the post-Soviet space. This motivation, in practice, is much stronger than any higher humanitarian goals. The moment this huge (and still with a future potential to expand a hundredfold and by hundreds of billions of dollars) market of the gentrification of institutes and infrastructure opens up, it will be impossible for any archaic criminal regime to counter free capital.

This article first appeared in Russian at the Republic site

When one examines the rise of right-wing populism in Russia and Europe, it is curious that Russia reproduces the rhetoric seen elsewhere in Europe in a somewhat distorted manner. When one venture outside of Russia this becomes evident. No matter where you live, your country will likely consider itself completely unique. In Hungary, you will be told that there is hardly any other country similar to Hungary in the whole world. In the US the theme of “American exceptionalism” in both good ways and bad, is very evident in politics. All countries, despite their own peculiarities, react in one way or another to the same processes of economic, political and cultural globalization currently taking place in our world.

In Russia, it could be argued that Putin, not Navalny, is the main right-wing populist force in Russian politics, even though both draw support from those who feel uneasy about the processes of globalization. Putin, as well as Orban and his Fidesz party in Hungary and Kaczynski and the Law & Justice party in Poland, are, one way or another, the result of public irritation from the economic transit in these countries and dissatisfaction with the results of reforms and the desire to acquire stability, often seen as a return to the past.

Since political and economic transitions happen simultaneously in our respective countries, we similarly tend to blame democracy for our own economic problems. People simply do not separate that these countries simultaneously democratized and conducted market reforms. In people’s minds, these processes overlapped. Accordingly, the situation often results from economic problems within the population, but democracy is still the scapegoat. In Russia, democracy was destroyed, but the tightening of screws was approved by the majority.

Recall the discourse from the beginning of the 2000s, that we need a strong hand, we need to temper the chaos of sovereign democracy, and in Orban’s words – the chaos of illiberal democracy. In this sense, there is a parallel, in my opinion, between the European right-wing populists and Putin. However, Alexei Navalny joins the populism trend as well by addressing the migration issue.

It is important to clarify that the Russian system is undemocratic. It is essential because the traditional understanding of the political field as a zero-sum game, where parties compete for certain groups of target electorate, does not quite fit. Just try to distinguish the “Fair Russia” party from the “United Russia”: one is leftish, another slightly right, but in practice, they have no ideological differences.

Alexei Navalny has a lot of freedom of action. He has fertile soil, because the government parties have no real ideological platform, except for “we will elect Putin for a new term, he does everything right”. This is important to remember.

Russia has the same problem as in the rest of the world. That is, there is a crisis of globalization, there is a population group, the “second Russia” where incomes do not grow or stagnate and adaptation to the market is fraught with problems. The stagnation of the Russian economy is happening because the regime has reached the point where all the incentives for growth are destroyed, and oil prices are not high enough to give an impetus to the economy. In this situation, from the political point of view, Aleksei Navalny now faces the task of expanding his electorate, he seeks to get beyond the 10% marginal opposition. And in order to expand, he needs to talk about the problems that are relevant for a great many of people.

Navalny tries to find, as far as I understand his approach, points that would unite people around his campaign. The topic of corruption is what most Russians care about, they understand this as a problem.

Of course, Alexei and other pro-democratic politicians react to the same challenges as the European political forces. That’s why, in my opinion, he is now combining a cultural right program, in the sense that he combines the rhetoric about immigration, the nation, the construction of the Russian nation, “Russia for Russians” and “stop feeding the Caucasus” with a fairly left economic platform. This approach allows you to go beyond the narrow marginal opposition niche, as the stagnation of income worries many Russians today.

Such a combination of the national agenda with redistribution is characteristic of many Western right populist parties. Navalny and his allies are learning from successful Western politicians. In this sense, there is certainly a similarity between the Russian and European processes.