While 2020 gave us unprecedented challenges, it created transformative changes in the way we work and communicate. The hours of Zoom calls seemingly brought us all closer together as we got a glimpse into each other’s makeshift home offices along with interruption by kids and the family pets. Remote work also made us appreciate human interactions, in-person events and trips much more!
As 2020 comes to an end, we want to especially thank our supporters who continued to believe in our mission and the value of our hard work, and we hope the coming year brings all of us progress and growth for democracy throughout the world. We’d also like to thank our partners and staff in the U.S. and abroad, and we know how hard everyone has worked under difficult world changes to achieve so many of our objectives this year.
We send our best wishes to all who have stayed in the fight for democratic reforms and for the values of basic human rights. We look forward to a new year with the hope of many positive changes to come.
– Natalia Arno and the Free Russia Foundation team.
On December 11, 2020, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Fatou Bensouda, issued a statement on the preliminary examination of the situation in Ukraine by the ICC Office of the Prosecutor.
According to the findings of the examination, the situation in Ukraine meets the statutory criteria to launch an investigation. The preliminary examination of the situation in Ukraine was opened on 24 April 2014.
Specifically, and without prejudice to any other crimes which may be identified during the course of an investigation, Office of the Prosecutor has concluded that there is a reasonable basis at this time to believe that a broad range of conduct constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity within the jurisdiction of the Court have been committed in the context of the situation in Ukraine.
These findings will be spelled out in more detail in the annual Report on Preliminary Examination Activities issued by the Office and include three broad clusters of victimization:
1. crimes committed in the context of the conduct of hostilities;
2. crimes committed during detentions;
3. crimes committed in Crimea.
These crimes, committed by the different parties to the conflict, were sufficiently grave to warrant investigation by Office of the Prosecutor, both in quantitative and qualitative terms.
Having examined the information available, the Prosecutor concluded that the competent authorities in Ukraine and/or in the Russian Federation are either inactive in relation to the alleged perpetrators, or do not have access to them.
The next step will be to request authorization from the Judges of the Pre-Trial Chamber of the Court to open investigations.
The Prosecutor urges the international community, including the governments of Ukraine and Russia, to cooperate. This will determine how justice will be served both on domestic and the international level.
We remind you that on September 21, 2020, Free Russia Foundation sent a special Communication to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (the Hague, the Netherlands) asking to bring Crimean and Russian authorities to justice for international crimes committed during the Russian occupation of Crimea.
Comment by Scott Martin (Global Rights Compliance LLP):
As Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda reaches the end of her tenure as Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, she announced yesterday that a reasonable basis existed to believe that a broad range of conduct constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed in relation to the situation in Ukraine. One of the most consequential preliminary examinations in the court’s short history, the Prosecutor will now request authorization from the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber to open a full investigation into the situation.
Anticipating that the Prosecutor’s request will be granted, the ICC Prosecutor’s office will be investigating the second group of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Russian Federation (the situation in Georgia being the other). This would make Russia the only country in the world facing two separate investigations at the ICC for crimes under its jurisdiction.
In this exclusive and groundbreaking report, Free Russia Foundation has translated and published five documents from the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.
The documents, obtained and analyzed by Free Russia Foundation’s Director of Special Investigations Michael Weiss, details the GRU’s modern psychological warfare program and are dated from within the last decade. The documents include the memoir of a former colonel in the Soviet Unions’s Special Propaganda Directorate who explains how psychological and information operations were conducted at the tail-end of the Cold War, and then adapted for the post-Soviet era. The documents also include the organization of psychological warfare, down to the military unit, as well as the theory and practice of working over targets in the West.
In this September 2020 analysis, Free Russia Foundation’s Fellow Alexander Morozov chronicles the unraveling of the political crisis in Belarus unleashed by Lukashenka’s illegal efforts to hold on to power despite a broad national demand for change.
Morozov describes the growth of the Belarus protest movement and traces the emergence and evolution of the Coordinating Council, its strategy, key positions and figures.
The report then delineates the positions of important stakeholders, the response of the European Union, and of various national European governments; and the U.S.
Morozov dedicates a special focus to the role of Russia in the crisis in Belarus; discussing how the protracted standoff between Lukashenka and Putin had shaped the 2020 Belarusian presidential elections and how the Kremlin’s regional objectives are framing Lukashenko’s emerging options and choices.
Morozov offers a near-term forecast and policy options for democratic countries and international organizations for resolving the political crisis in Belarus.
The second issue of The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly continues investigating the malign influence of Putin’s Russia in the areas of the economy, media, religion, civil society, politics, and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following his essay on the Russian coronavirus-related aid to Italy published in the first issue of this journal, Dr. Anton Shekhovtsov looks at the developments around the Russian aid to Serbia. He argues that Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić used the pandemic to attack the EU in order to advance his own domestic agenda and praised China for being the only friend of Serbia as it agreed to deliver aid to fight COVID-19. Moscow joined Belgrade in its anti-EU and pro-Beijing propaganda, but failed to follow up quickly with its own medical, financial, and expert assistance to “the brotherly Serbian people,” and, consequently, was unsuccessful to benefit directly from the situation in the country.
In the second and final part of his essay on Austrian-Russian business relations, Dr. Martin Malek focuses on their political framework conditions, as well as side effects and consequences over the past two decades. The author writes that, due to the increasing dependence of Austria and the EU on energy source supplies from Russia, Austrian politicians and managers find it difficult to find critical words about Russia’s domestic, foreign, security, and foreign trade policies. There is a belief among Viennese politicians and businessmen that Russia is “too important” as a power—and especially as a supplier of energy resources—so relations must not be “spoiled” under any circumstances.
Sergiu Tofilat and Victor Parlicov explore how Putin’s Russia uses gas supplies to wield malign influence in Moldova. They argue that, by exercising its monopolistic position as a natural anti-dumping gas supplier to Moldova and by loyalizing corrupt political elites from Chișinău, Russian energy giant Gazprom serves as the main instrument of financing the Russian foreign policy agenda in Moldova. The authors assert that consolidation of Moldova’s energy security by diversification of energy supply options and integration into European energy markets is not only vital for countering Russian malign influence in Moldova, but also key to solving the Transnistrian conflict, which affects regional security.
In her essay on the French editions of Russian international media, Anastasia Kirilenko discusses the question of how these media manage to impose themselves in the media landscape of France. She demonstrates that Russian media in France polarize the French society by advancing racist narratives, undermine trust towards the ruling elites by supporting anti-establishment movements, and discourage critics of the Kremlin’s politics by filing lawsuits against them. Ironically, however, the journalistic community defends RT France and Sputnik in the name of the freedom of speech.
Georgy Chizhov exposes the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP) as one of the most effective instruments and mechanisms of Moscow’s malign influence on Ukrainian society. He argues that the UOC MP is an organization dependent on the Russian Orthodox Church on all ideological and political matters, and supports in its followers the identity of “the united people” (with Russians), a negative attitude toward democratic values, and a cautious perception of their own Ukrainian state.
Alexandra Yatsyk’s chapter focuses on the Russian government’s agents of influence in Estonia after 2014. She identifies three clusters of agents of Russian influence. The first group is represented by the Russian state institutions and Estonian entities supported by the Russian government. The second group consists of local activists who harshly criticize Estonia as allegedly systematically violating the very principles of liberal democracy. The third group incorporates those local agents who spread pro-Russian and anti-Estonian messages via mass media.
In her turn, Alisa Volkova analyzes a variety of methods used by Russian-affiliated forces to influence public opinion and politics in North Macedonia. The author asserts that Russia attempts – sometimes successfully – to penetrate the country’s economy and politics spreading its malign way of doing business, but the volume of resources, people involved, and lack of significant economic interest show that this Balkan country does not seem to be a priority for Russia for maintaining its influence.
Melissa Hooper explores how Moscow can indirectly spread malign influence in Europe by looking at the developments in Poland. She argues that Russian influence schemes in Poland are generally weak and ineffective because of the long tradition of Polish skepticism towards Russia. However, the Law and Justice government has borrowed laws, methods, and messaging from the Kremlin. In particular, the government waged war on meritocracy in ministries, the military, and the judiciary; routed critics from institutions such as free media and civil society; fanned the flames of conspiracy theories; and increased polarization and tensions in the country.
The Memorial Human Rights Center recognized Ivan Lyubshin, a resident of Kaluga, as a political prisoner. The criminal case against him should be closed, he should be immediately released, and his allegations of torture should be objectively investigated.
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.
Despite of the obvious political motivation of the criminal charges against Airat, on August 24, 2020, the Central District Military Court sentenced Airat Dilmukhametov to 9 years in a strict regime colony. He was found guilty on four counts: public calls for separatism, public justification of terrorism, public calls for extremism and its financing.Continue reading The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of Airat Dilmukhametov→
We are deeply concerned with information recently distributed by the well-respected authoritative source Center “Dossier.” According to “Dossier,” the Kremlin is using Russian political expert Sergey Mikheev and consulting company “Politsecrets” to manipulate Georgian society, distribute disinformation and anti-democratic narratives, undermine Georgia’s Western aspirations, and interfere in free and fair elections in Georgia scheduled for October 2020.
In accordance with international guidelines defining the term, Memorial Human Rights Center recognized Alexander Gabyshev, a shaman from a Siberian region of Yakutia, as a political prisoner. Deprivation of liberty was applied to him solely because of his political and religious beliefs, as well as a non-violent exercise of freedom of movement, expression, peaceful assembly, conscience, and religion. We urge for the immediate and unconditional release of Gabyshev and his full rehabilitation with redress. Continue reading The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of Alexander Gabyshev→
The coronavirus pandemic has continued to have an effect on numerous aspects of our lives. A large number of NGOs have also been affected by it. A significant number of processes have gone online – seminars, conferences and presentations have been cancelled, postponed, or reformatted taking into account the new realities. A number of NGOs were practically forced to cease their work; others, on the contrary, successfully learned or developed new technological approaches and continued their activity in new formats.
Many NGOs are successfully overcoming technical difficulties and the pause in travel. Some of them are beginning to work with new topics – for example, human rights under pandemic conditions or the NGO’s digital transition. Changes in approaches to strategy, planning and communications are being discussed actively. All this has yet to be comprehended in detail, so this study is intended to provide a preliminary overview of the current state and possible topics for future research.
More than 100 NGO representatives were interviewed in the process of this research both through surveys (a survey with 27 questions and more than 100 options for answers), as well as through interviews of leaders and representatives of NGOs (10 questions in each). More than 50 publications were monitored devoted to the problems NGOs faced in the pandemic. Thus, the methods of monitoring, survey and expert interviews were used. NGOs from Germany, Czech Republic, Lithuania, the USA, Russia (more than 30%), Ukraine and Kazakhstan took part in the research.
In accordance with international guidelines defining the term, Memorial Human Rights Center considers Aleksandr Atamanov, a resident of Pyatigorsk, a political prisoner. Aleksandr was charged with recruiting people into the Ukrainian Right Sector and possessing drugs. The guilt of Aleksandr Atamanov has not been proved and key pieces of evidence in the case were fabricated. Aleksand repeatedly said that violence was used against him in pre-trial custody and threats were made against his relatives. Continue reading The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of Aleksandr Atamanov→
The Crimean Tatars are a Muslim ethnic minority indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula. They have been among the most vocal critics of the Russian occupation of Crimea, and as a result, the Russian authorities have relentlessly persecuted them.
On Thursday, May 21, 2020, at 16:00 (Kyiv time) / 9:00 AM (Washington, DC) an international online forum will be held with the participation of human rights activists and scholars from Kyiv, Simferopol, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and Washington DC.
Forum participants will talk about the Kremlin’s implementation of hybrid deportation of Crimean Tatars and public activists on the peninsula, for which a whole system of political repression has been launched. The issue of defining the criteria for the status of a “political prisoner” will be raised and lists will be formed. The participants of the online forum will also announce the work on the introduction of new international sanctions against Russian officials who are directly involved in the organization of political persecution. Human rights activists will spread the awareness of the global petition to the UN, the Council of Europe, the European Union, and the OSCE to save the lives of thousands of illegally detained in Russia, the Russian-occupied Crimea, and part of the Donbas from the threat of COVID-19 infection in prisons. The petition can be signed by following the link.
● Oleksandra Matviychuk, Chairwoman of the Center for Civil Liberties NGO (Kyiv);
● Sergey Davidis, Head of the Political Prisoners Support Program, Member of the Council at the Memorial Human Rights Center (Moscow);
● Natalia Arno, President and Founder of the Free Russia Foundation (Washington);
● Ilya Nuzov, Head of the Eastern Europe-Central Asia Desk at the International Federation for Human Rights (Paris);
● Lilia Hemedzhy, a lawyer of the Crimean Solidarity initiative (Simferopol);
● Wilfried Jilge, a historian of Eastern-Central Europe and Ukraine (Berlin);
● Simon Papuashvili, Programme Director of the International Partnership for Human Rights (Brussels).
Event languages: Ukrainian and Russian.
The international online forum will be held on the second anniversary of the arrest of Server Mustafayev, coordinators of the Crimean Solidarity, which has united the relatives of political prisoners and activists in the occupied Crimea. According to his colleagues, he was the engine that drove the association. Since May 2018, Server has been held behind bars.
The event is organized by the global campaign #PrisonersVoise (formerly #SaveOlegSentsov) as part of the Week of Solidarity with the Crimean Tatars “Common Pain. Common History.” Informational support was provided by the PR agency KRASNI.
Memorial Human Rights Center recognized Oleg Dmitriev, Oleg Ivanov, and Sergei Ozerov, supporters of a group called Artpodgotovka, convicted of preparing a terrorist act in the center of Moscow on November 5, 2017, as political prisoners.
Gennady Kravtsov is a radio engineer who was sentenced to six years in prison in a maximum-security colony on charges of committing a crime under Article 275 of the Russian Criminal Code (‘High Treason’). He has been in custody since May 27, 2014. Memorial Human Rights Center has recognized Gennady Kravtsov as a political prisoner because the actions he was accused of never took place and his right to a fair trial was violated. Continue reading The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of Gennady Kravtsov→
Interview with Denis Sokolov conducted by Lidia Mikhalchenko.
On April 20, 2020, a spontaneous protest took place in North Ossetia. Official statements by the government described them as violation of public order aimed to subvert the quarantine measures. Is this an accurate description?
– Well, the protest was not so spontaneous in reality. Vladimir Cheldiev, an opera singer usually residing in St. Petersburg, published a call to the residents of Vladikavkaz to gather and protest quarantine.
Vadim has recently returned to Ossetia to tend to family matters and over the past few months has emerged as the face of protests in Ossetia. Two days prior to the protest, he was detained on charges of either “willingly spreading false information on the coronavirus”, or for “exerting physical violence against law enforcement representatives.” (Cheldiev is now facing charges under part 1 of article 381 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, use of mild violence against a government representative).
Vadim Cheldiev rose to fame in 2018, in the aftermath of a fire at the Elektrotsink (Электроцинк) factory. Using his social media accounts, he issued calls to close the factory, started conducted negotiations with the Region’s Head Bitarov, criticized local officials as being “anti-people” and vented about global consipracies.
Vadim Cheldiev’s videos resonate with a widespread folk mythology that all evils (from environmental degradation, loss of respect for elders, dishonorable conduct by women) stem from departure from the original “Indo-European” traditions. Cheldiev’s accounts in Telegram and Instagram have tens of thousands of subscribers and readers. Cheldiev has an incredible charisma. During protests, one of the demands voiced by the crowds was Cheldiev’s release from detention.
This activist and defender of traditional values believes that there is no pandemic; that Covid-19 is a conspiracy concocted to enslave simple people; that the Russian government has turned the country into a colony for the West.
What’s different about the Ossetian protests is that here, out of the blue, a deeply traditional ethnos, whose worldviews and believes have been long overlooked and dismissed by officials, experts and journalists – started a riot. This is an ethnos living in a harsh reality, full of inconvenient and even outlawed beliefs: extremism, conspiracy theories, inciting hate toward other social and ethnic groups, condoning Stalinism, hatred of the elites. Of note, Russian riot police from OMON, Rossgvardiya, FSB operatives and many other officials live in the same exact world. If you pose a question on fears of having a microchip implanted during vaccination, the percentage of affirmative responses among the protesters and among those dispersing the protest, both on the streets and by issuing decrees from cushy offices, would be about the same.
The coronavirus quarantine measures and the accompanying administrative chaos have achieved something that opposition politicians and civil activists had failed to achieve 20 years ago, – they have awakened and mobilized the people. Of course, this didn’t happen overnight. The incomes have been falling for several years straight; the quality of governance has been declining for several decades; regional officials, local businesses and even criminal networks have degraded. All of these factors have contributed to the shrinking opportunities for social advancement for ambitious youth.
Financial flows and oil exports, that have previously supported the system, have collapsed. Cab drivers, small business owners, their employees, all those who had been living hand-to-mouth, are now left without any means to support themselves. All of this is happening against the backdrop of two restaurants that continued their operation even during quarantine, and both, not surprisingly, belong to the head of the Republic.
The Vladikavkaz protest is a protest against the elite and against modernization (as modernization in the minds of the people aims to advance the elites’ interests). This is an uprising not only against the region’s head Vyacheslav Bitarov, but also against the current system as a whole.
This protest cannot be stopped by arrests (according to the official statistics, 69 people have been detained at the April 20, 2020 protest), puny handouts (159 families have reportedly received cash aid the day after the protest). Such half-measures only further enrage the people. It is possible, however, that rescinding the quarantine measures would temporarily dampen the wave of dissatisfaction.
The police, Rossgvardiya and the Cossacks that can be successfully unleashed against “foreign agents” and “unhappy urban dwellers” are not effective against a people’s uprising. One of the Rossgvardiya divisions from the Krasnodar Kray outright refused to dispatch units for the dispersal of the Ossetia protest; and after their shifts ended, the Vladikavkaz OMON had to be transported from the protest square to the barracks and not their homes, out of fear that they might join the protesters.
Are any influential political leaders directing the protests or emerging from them?
– There were no influential political leaders among the protesters in Vladikavkaz. Of course, there are many politicians who overtly or secretly oppose Bitarov inside the Republic’s parliament, and at various municipal government offices, and among Ossetia’s representatives in the Russian State Duma and in the Federation Council. Most regional influencers and opinion-leaders are also in opposition to the head of the Republic. However, this protest is against all elites. So, the political intrigue is focused on discrediting potential candidates that may vie for the post of the head of the region whenever it becomes vacant. Ossetian legislators in Moscow have taken a huge political hit for their vote for (or not voting against) the initiative to move the Victory Day parade to September 3, which is not only the end of the World War II but is also the day of mourning for the Beslan tragedy victims. However, all of these political games have lost their relevance for the time being. If the protest continues to grow, someone may attempt to reign it in, but that’s a different topic for discussion.
Is it fair to say that small businesses have taken the biggest hit from the quarantine?
– Yes, it is fair to say so. Small business is the source of sustenance for many in Ossetia. Small private cattle farms, vegetable gardens, orchards; and in urban areas – hair salons, markets, shops, restaurants, coffee shops. Protection racket income from these small businesses also supported criminal groups and the law enforcement. So those two groups are now in total alignment with the people.
Here, we have a situation where supposedly everything was shut down to fight the virus. At the same time, the restaurants owned by President Bitarov continue to operate.
Those with access to the administrative resource, levers, connections, take as much as they can without thinking twice. Federal chains such as “Pyatyorochka” or “Magnit” continue to operate; federal home goods stores remain open. Such businesses, by the way, are also perceived as part of the elite conspiracy against the people.
Why has Ossetia spawned so many coronavirus-deniers and corona-skeptics?
– The opera singer Cheldiev, whom we have discussed earlier, uncovered a story about a woman who died in a hospital from causes not related to the pandemic. The hospital administrators attempted to falsify the cause of death, even offered a bribe to the family of the deceased for their silence. Region’s doctors and health care workers are severely underpaid, the entire system is very corrupt, and in this situation they anticipated a direct benefit: 50,000 roubles for working with a coronavirus patient for the nurse, double that sum for the doctor, and there have been several nurses and doctors who have been handling the patient. But it’s a small city, so the ruse was debunked.
But that’s not all. The Kremlin propaganda can say what it wants on Russia Today. It can discuss how Russia is better than Europe and America in addressing the coronavirus; it can send formidable anti-virus dispatches to Italy and Serbia; it can sound outrage about the mass graves in Brooklyn; it can show the nightmare of the pandemic in the United Kingdom. But none of this would turn Russia into a developed country. None of this would restore the health care system that has been destroyed. Virus is a great fact-checker. The Russian government is unable to control the pandemic in our country or the number of victims neither organizationally, nor technologically. It is more likely to exacerbate the situation with sawing panic, or banning planned surgeries and providing health care to non-coronavirus patiens.
Russia is oftentimes favorably compared to Italy where there is a great proportion of recorded deaths. But in Italy, an average life expectancy is 85 years, and the average age of those perished from the virus is 82. In Russia, an average life expectancy is 72, so the majority of the Russian citizens die even before becoming a risk group for the virus at the age of 65-70.
North Ossetia, by the way, has the lowest life expectancy in the Northern Caucasus- 75 years. Therefore, Russia as a whole, and North Ossetia specifically, lack a real social infrastructure to impose strict quarantine measures. This is in contrast to the developed countries, where hundreds of millions of socially active citizens find themselves in the prime risk category. In Ossetia, sustaining a household economy is a much more acute of a problem than an abstract risk to die from pneumonia with lethality rate of 0.22%, if one goes by the estimates from the Bonn University. So, corona-skepticism fits within the anti-elite and even anti-Western narratives in Ossetia. And this can quickly spread throughout other regions of Russia.
How would you interpret the demand of Vladikavkaz protesters to appoint a new temporary government headed by Vitaly Kaloev? (Kaloev is an architect, a deputy in the Vladikavkaz Council of Representatives. He came to fame in 2004, when he murdered a swiss air controller whom he thought responsible for the plane crash that killed his wife and two children.)
– Again, this is consistent with the anti-elite nature of this movement. Kaloev is perceived as a people’s person. This is also consistent with the anti-Western and anti-modernization tendency of the protest. Kaloev has punished those responsible for the death of his loved once in accordance with the tradition, while breaking the laws of a European country and then had to serve a prison term for it. In the spirit of ethnic traditions, he did the right thing, prioritizing vendetta over the law. So, in essence, he purveys the spirit of the riot even better than Vadim Cheldiev.
Kaloev himself did not support this demand. Was he pressured by someone?
– I don’t want to speculate on his motives, you should ask him personally. But he is more of a symbol of the anti-elite movement and not a bureaucrat. He belongs to the streets and not at an office.
What specific initiatives of the federal government evoked such a explosive response from the people?
– The Russian government response to the pandemic has been inadequate and inconsistent. By default, they tried to emulate European initiatives. However, in Europe, the government provides support to people who lose their jobs. Russia, currently, is suffering severe financial losses due to the drop in energy prices and an unfortunate attempt by Igor Sechin to play poker with the Saudis. While I think it is too early to proclaim the end of the Putin’s era, it is definitely the beginning of the end. This is the end of the time when Putin was extolled as national leader, when he functioned as an effective arbiter for competing elite clans and groups, when he was in charge of doling out and distributing the oil rent, the times when power and money contributed to his charisma. All of that is over, along with the oil revenues and the love of the people. He is a scared and confused 67-year old, disconnected from reality retired colonel, who is in fact in the main group for dying from Covid-19.
The fact that this truth has become so exposed, is not so much a mistake, but an insurmountable challenge for the Kremlin. The people stopped seeing the great leader in Putin; now they see a helpless crook. People, of course, knew all of this before, but their optics were different. All of this “unitarian federation” is crumbling down, the regions are forced to improvise, without direction, funding or experience. And this time it’s impossible to simply throw money at the problem, since there is no money left.
Putin announced that he has granted discretion to governors in addressing the threat of the pandemic, since, according to him, everyone knows better what is going on in their own regions.
– This crisis has exposed just how rotten and insolvent is the Russian power vertical. Previously, there was an illusion of a powerful state. But the inside is rotten through and through. The pandemic is a tough test for the regime. Similar to a war that demonstrates what is the potential of a military force, this pandemic shows the potential of the Russian state. Of course, this is not a problem just for Russia; other weak states throughout the post-Soviet space are going through the same challenge.
So, Russia is in the midst of a constitutional crisis, an oil crisis and now the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a triple hit.
– Yes, this has amounted to the perfect storm. Even somehow the federal government could come up with money for social relief, they would not be able to get to the people. This is because the entire bureaucracy understands that the material wealth of the state is depleted, and they would pillage and syphon off whatever comes their way. The situation would be similar to that during the collapse of the Soviet Union, when funds are disbursed, but “the soil does not hit the bottom of the pit”- it is stolen mid-fall. We can anticipate that officials will start stealing all they can, without any limitations. Together with those who are supposed to catch them.
Ossetia has more monuments to Stalin than other regions. It is a region with many supporters of communism. It is not rare to see the red Soviet flag or seal on houses or as car stickers. Is there a possibility that the protesters would espouse this ideology?
– I think it will remain as it is now. It will be a hodgepodge of traditionalism, communism, anticommunism, anti-globalism, Stalinism and anti-Stalinism, because severe hardship is experienced by people of many different worldviews. And those worldviews are not so important. Again, I would like to stress that this is an anti-elite protest in its essence. The mythology behind is secondary. The people don’t trust local authorities and the current state system. Entrepreneurs whose revenues used to be supported by good relationships with government officials, have lost them. They are aggressively crowded out by large players and chain retail, including by taking away the land. This is a situation similar to what has happened in Kislovodsk. Three thousand cab drivers have been quarantined, and two hundred of “insiders” continue to drive, with a special dispensation from the regional administration. And the situation is the same in almost all of the Russian regions.
Do you anticipate that the Ossetian protest will grow? What is your prognosis?
– I don’t think that it will grow, but it won’t die out either. Protest sentiments will grow. People’s incomes have been taken away, government showed their ineptitude. Other regions also feature protest sentiments. Local authorities are not in a position to rescind the quarantine, they are not so brave. However, we should anticipate the weakening of the quarantine measures, otherwise there will be an explosion.
Is there a protest potential in Chechnya?
– Absolutely, there is; but it has not manifested yet. The head of Chechnya Kadyrov has its own military and several hundreds of people embedded throughout various divisions of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. His people understand fully well why he is holding his position, and anyone from Kadyrov’s inner circle can be easily arrested. The Chechen leadership has a very fine infrastructure which controls financial flows through support network created by Kadyrov Sr. This not a state structure, but a criminal one. It controls the money flows, state institutes and public figures.
What we have ahead of us are huge budget losses. This summer, tens of thousands of Chechens living in Europe come to Chechnya for traditional vacations, but this time, they won’t bring their usual remittances. Kadyrov is also in a more precarious position in Moscow, where he is involved in a skirmish brewing against the backdrop of the “perfect storm”.
So you think all those who have been forced to publicly apologize under Kadyrov would go to the streets with new messages and attitudes?
– Those who had to apologize would probably be more radical. This would not be tomorrow but can happen at any time. And I don’t think a mass protest in Chechnya will be peaceful.
In Dagestan, using quarantine violation as an excuse, authorities have detained an activist and broke his nose, which was even video recorded. Why has this abuse not caused any protests?
– The political and civil society field has been “mopped up”. The people are not prepared to defend activists, activists are not perceived as “of the people”. It is very unfortunate. If, in the near future, a mass protest takes place in Dagestan or another Russian region, it will not be one similar to the peaceful marches through the Bolotnaya or Sakharov Squares, it will look more like the April 20 protest in Vladikavkaz. It will not be about democratic values, but about revenge and about redistribution, sadly.
Events in Vladikavkaz can be described as mass unrest. What would you call other similar events throughout the Caucasus?
– In Russia, by and large, there are no riots, there are only civil and corporate peaceful protests. In the North Caucasus, each of such events has a regional flavor. Street rallies in Ingushetia, protests in Dagestan, Cherkessian marches, congress in Ossetia.
Ingushetia used to have a group of civil activists, all of whom were detained; the leaders were put in prison with long terms, with the exceptions who has managed to immigrate. Such people are not under the control of the government, and the government does not understand how to interact with them. They express their civic positions.
Protests in Kabardino-Balkaria and Ossetia are very archaic, they include historic myths, the agenda is different there. At the same time, in Kabardino-Balkaria a year ago we didn’t see the same level of anti-elitism that we observe in Ossetia today. Traditionalism serves different purposes.
What options does the Russian government have for solving this problem?
– I don’t think the government has any options. It has deprived itself of a maneuver space. The bureaucracy has degenerated to the point where it’s not able to solve any political problems. Moscow can try to end quarantine very quickly. This may give the government some time. The transformation of the Russian political system is unavoidable, but Putin and his circles decided to fortify their grip on power by force, so they don’t have anywhere to retreat. They won’t give up without a fight. The big question is what would come out of this storm.
How can the civil society provide support?
– With solidarity. For example, the activists in St. Petersburg and Moscow should not view so negatively the differences between them and civil activists from the Caucuses. Maybe it makes sense, by using Caucasus as a case study to perform some self-assessment, — what’s going on in our own regions, what key agendas and interests are behind the leaders and people in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Now is a good time for such evaluation. And, of coutse, some of the civil society activists should be prepared to transform into politicians.
What can the West do to help activists in Russia?
– Perhaps by supporting the “new urbanites”, which are now present not only in cities but also in rural areas due to social media and access to smartphones and internet connection. This is a fairly new social group. It has already brought to power Nikola Pashinyan in Armenia and continues to support him through very challenging circumstances. They were also a critical part of the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity.
The Summer 2019 protests in Moscow have scared and paralyzed the government. “New urbanites” value independence from corporations and the corporate state, they want to be in charge of their own lives, they already are a part of the globalized world, they don’t want to work in the government, because they don’t see any politics, just a very depressing bureaucracy.
The new urbanites are at the same time the commissioner and the executor of constructive societal changes. They are the main lever which can organize the deeply post-Soviet ethnos with all of their phobias and conspiracy theories, into a modern state. No Putin with his technocrats and bureaucrats can do such a thing.
In 2018-2019, the Ingush people have demonstrate quite well the creative potential of youth incorporated into the modern globalized world. There, civil society activists managed to transform into an alternative political elite.
I recommend we pay close attention to these people. They have not gone through the enlightenment programs of the 90’s and 00’s, they were just born then, and they are have only recently become adults. But they don’t want to remain in the passenger seat, they want to steer. They are not content with repeating the lives of their parents. We have to find new ways to work with this new cohort, as well as for the new circumstances that we are finding ourselves.
International aid in response to natural and manmade emergencies is a well-established practice. It demonstrates good will and solidarity, and helps victims overcome hardships. However, it can also be used to flaunt power, wealth and advanced technologies for political purposes.
Aid provided by Russia internationally, frequently amounts to nothing more than a demonstration of power, with materiel being of little practical use to the recipient. What is worse, the Russian government sends help to other countries without regard for the desperate need of its own people. This is, sadly, the case with the current Russian international coronavirus aid initiatives. In the past few weeks, Russia has dispatched and promoted its aid to the US, Italy, Serbia and other countries, as tragedy unravels throughout its own regions whose medical infrastructure is clearly not ready to effectively fight with the virus Covid-19.
On April 3 and 4, 2020, Russia sent eleven planes with 87 military officers including military medical personnel, special equipment and military transport for disinfection to Serbia from to confront the spread of the virus Covid-19. The value of aid delivered to a country with about 7 million inhabitants was just below to what Russia sent weeks prior to Italy, a country with 60 million people. With this help, Russia sent a strong message on how important Serbia was. With a message posted on his twitter account, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic profusely thanked Putin for the help: “Very good conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Confirmed friendship, and significant help will arrive in Serbia. Thank you, Vladimir Putin and the Russian people!”
The contents of the dispatch were the same as those shipped to Italy. “It seems to me to be the same package that it was for Italy, and it requires our full gratitude to Russia because it shows how much they care about Serbia when it is not easy for them either”, Vucic said. Russian effort backfired when public reports emerged that help sent to Italy was not really useful, with its equipment designed for chemical attacks and not viral outbreaks. One can presume that the delivery to Serbia also turned out to be more of a symbolic act.
Russia is not the only country taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic for political purposes. China has also been very public with its relief efforts, sending help internationally. On March 21, 2020, for example, a Chinese medical team arrived in Serbia to join the fight against the virus. They brought six medical professionals, ventilators, medical masks, test kits and other medical supplies. China has also provided financial support to Serbia for building test labs and other medical facilities. Two labs, – one in Belgrade and one in Nis, are expected to be ready by mid-April.
For the Serbian government, Russian and Chinese help is useful both, economically and politically. Dimitar Bechev, Director of the European Policy Institute, feels that the Serbian government is leveraging Russian and Chinese attention to advance its own standing within the EU. Alarmed by the prospect of Serbia falling under the influence of these authoritarian regimes, the EU may feel the urge to prioritize Serbia in exchange for its loyalty to the “European family”.
Indeed, in the aftermath of the March coronavirus aid dispatch from China, the European Union announced a 93 million euros worth of support to Serbia. Even after this announcement, President Vucic continued his negotiations with Emanuel Macron for additional help from France.
Located midway from Asia to Europe, Serbia is strategic locale for both Russia and China. By becoming a part of the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, Serbia has secured over $4 billion in direct investments from China and another $5 billion through loans and infrastructure projects. Serbia and China have also moved to deepen their security cooperation and have agreed on a technological partnership with a Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.
Russian influence is historically strong in Serbia. Russia dominates the Serbian energy sector and seeks tirelessly to strengthen its position in the region even more. 80% of natural gas and 70% of crude oil imported to Serbia comes from Russia. Gazprom owns 56.15% of NIS, the largest oil and gas company in Serbia. One of the legs of the TurkStream pipeline is planned to go through Serbian territory.
Sustaining political support among Serbian authorities is of critical importance to the Kremlin, which sees it as a zero-sum game. Seeking to preserve this support, the Kremlin attempts to retard and derail the Serbian integration into the EU and minimize the NATO influence on the country. Russia works to deepen its bilateral military relations through joint training and military sales to the Serbian Army; it is aggressive in its support for pro-Russian politicians and disinformation campaigns. Media outlets financed by pro-Kremlin forces spreads narratives advancing the Russian government agenda and undermining trust in the European Union and support of its values.
For the time being, Serbia shrewdly takes full advantage of this international contest for influence by accepting benefits from all three sides – Russia, China and the EU – and by praising Putin, preparing for joining the EU and letting Chinese investments flow in.
Alexey Kozlov is a veteran of the non-profit sector with over 25 years of experience focused on civil society, human rights and democratic development projects. He has been involved in establishing and developing NGOs in Russia, Lithuania and Germany. In Russia he worked at the Moscow Helsinki Group; participated in creation and coordinating the work of the Russia-EU Civil Society Forum, coordinated an international network of over 20 organizations from throughout the EU, Ukraine and Belarus. In this article, he shares his preliminary insight and some forecasts, based on an informal survey of ways NGOs in his sector have responded to the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.
Quarantine measures and other limitations imposed or suggested to various degrees all around the globe have pushed NGOs to adjust their modes of operations. The forced adjustments, however, are likely to be sustained even after the quarantine is lifted.
For some NGOs who had regularly used teleworking and online meeting tools prior to the pandemic, the transition has been fairly seamless. For others, whose work mainly consisted of public events, partner facility visits, workshops and lectures – the pandemic turned out to be if not a catastrophe, then a serious challenge structurally, financially, as well as in tactical and strategic senses.
What are some of the key shifts that will characterize the NGO sector post-Coronavirus?
Notionally, we can divide most NGOs into three groups:
NGOs with preexisting experience of doing the majority of their work remotely (with over 50% of its work meetings done by teleconference and other online tools, as well as relying on webinars for most of their outreach). This group is the smallest of all three. Out of the 50 partner organizations surveyed, only 2 belong to this group.
NGOs with limited previous experience working remotely, but those who did so ad hoc, not in a systematic manner; however, this group has a general idea of how to organize and conduct this type of work.
NGOs with no previous experience of telework.
Clearly, it is the NGOs from the second and third group that are facing the steepest learning curves and now have to quickly make a number of important calls on approaches, tools, their ability to work effectively in the new mode, as well as about the readiness of their workforce to transition to telework.
Employees and volunteers who are able to teach teleworking tools, offer technology troubleshooting assistance will take the spotlight and be high demand. For all NGOs the transition to working remotely has become a great stress-test of the quality of their IT support and computer literacy.
Trends with the Staying Potential:
Higher proportion of employees and volunteers who mostly work remotely
Even after the quarantine measures are lifted, we should expect that a higher proportion of employees will continue to work remotely either some of the time or full-time. These are the employees and volunteers whose effectiveness has increased due to ability to telework, who find telework more convenient, but had been simply too afraid to try it before. Of course, there is still a risk that the work ethics, effectiveness and productivity of employees will decrease; the motivation of volunteers will drop; and organizational team cohesion will be affected negatively. Telework introduces new challenges related to the process of assuring quality of work and other management functions. The coronavirus pandemic has offered an opportunity to test a new format, and for many it has been a reassuring experience that has dispelled the worst fears.
Ability to Optimize Organizational Budgets through Cuts to Office and Travel Expenses
If all employees, or a larger portion of them, chose to continue working remotely after the pandemic, many organizations will be able to reduce their needs for physical office space. They would have an opportunity to lower their expenses related to renting office space, electrical and utility bills, cleaning and maintenance costs. We are also likely to see a decline in the number of in-person meetings, both internal to organizations as well as among organizational partners, again allowing NGOs to optimize their business trip budgets and cut travel expenses.
Selection Processes Transition Online
Many NGOs had moved the bulk of their selection processes online prior to the pandemic. This includes interviews of prospective employees, fellows, training workshop participants. However, there has been a deep-seated distrust of virtual interviews and a perception that they do not offer the same ability to evaluate a candidate thoroughly.
Today, there is simply no other option. Even final interviews now are taking place remotely. It is likely that having tried it once, many managers will appreciate the convenience of teleconference interview and will be more trusting of this method moving forward. This, in turn, will allow to shorten the decision-making cycle for HR purposes, since a remote interview is much easier to set up than an in-person meeting. Moreover, interviews conducted remotely significantly cut costs. Of course, further research is required to determine the impact on the quality of decisions, and some in-person meetings on sensitive and critically important issues will be reinstated. Nevertheless, the proportion of interviews done remotely will undoubtedly increase for the long-term.
Better Regional Representation and Improved Participation for Activists from Rural and Remote Areas
As the telecommuting becomes more prevalent, activists’ ability to make a contribution or participate in important NGO processes will increase. Candidates from rural and remote areas who are unable or unwilling to relocate will see a palpable improvement in their options for employment or participating in term-projects. For the budget-sensitive NGO sector that rarely pays for relocation expenses, this is an especially poignant shift. Clearly, this does not apply to all NGOs, and there are exceptions.
Growth in Importance of IT Support to Key NGO Functions
The development of IT support, its reliability and quality, will grow in importance for most NGOs. It is already possible to state with confidence that many NGOs will not be able to execute this transition independently, and we will see an increase in demand for outsourced support for digital transformation of non-profits. Likewise, the demand for expertise in digital transformation for NGOs will also grow.
Growing Importance of Social Media and Online Branding
Most NGOs had been aware of the importance of their online positioning, branding and engagement throughout various social media platforms. In the post-pandemic world, 100% of organizations who work with external audiences will understand that a placeholder website is simply insufficient. It is likely that we will also see growth in the importance of online presence and engagement by NGO heads, leadership and project managers.
Educational Projects and Training Moves Online
Within a year, a significant portion of training processes and educational programs will move online. The quarantine has already severely restricted in-person gatherings and forced institutions to aggressively pursue development of platforms and programs for distance education. It is likely that online schools will outgrow their current marginal status and emerge as a new prominent vector within the NGO sector.
Emergence of New Remote Communication Systems and Methods, Remote Teambuilding
In the pre-Coronavirus world, colleagues connected over lunch, coffee, networked at events, attended exhibits and presentations. Organizations held regular teambuilding exercises and socials. Now is the time to review many of these activities. In the near term, we are likely to witness the emergence of innovative, original approaches to organizing interaction among employees. NGO leaders will have to get very creative. Today, we already see the proliferation of channels in Telegram, groups in WhatsApp, Facebook – to gather colleagues, volunteers, and provide them with socialization platforms. Zoom meetings evolve into Zoom parties. Everyone is forced to learn and adopt new digital tools.
There are some obvious steps that NGOs can take now to mitigate the organizational risks posed by the pandemic and its aftermath:
Evaluate the shift in its processes and activities to an online mode. Which ones have transitioned successfully, and which have floundered, and why?
Assess losses – financial, reputational, operational. Which losses are related to an inability to transition to remote and online operations?
Assess work tools and instruments (new ones, as well as those used pre-pandemic). Identify gaps in functions and unmet requirements. Come up with a list of possible solutions.
Prepare for a comprehensive restructuring of online assets.
Prepare a plan for work after the end of the quarantine regime.
The poll was commissioned by the German Eastern Business Association (Ostausschuss – Osteuropaverein der Deutschen Wirtschaft, OAOEV)
OAOEV is a fairly new NGO that promotes German business in “Eastern” countries – from Russian to China. It was founded in 2018 through the partnership of the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations (Eastern Committee) and the Eastern Europe Business Association of Germany.
In December 2019, several OAOEV members met with Vladimir Putin. Following the meeting, OAOEV published a press release.
The press contact for the Nord Strom 2 Survey listed on the OAOEV website is Andreas Metz. Metz is described by Politico Europe as “member of Berlin-based lobbying group Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, which supports the pipeline Nord Stream 2.”
Mr. Mehren has been on the record lobbying for Nord Stream 2 for a few years now. For example, he is a co-author of a 2018 disinformation piece about Nord Stream 2 in a US outlet.
Given the above connections of the oligarchs to the Kremlin and conflicted interests of the Wintershall Dea shareholders and top leadership, it is reasonable not to be believe in the independent nature or objectivity of this research poll.
Who Executed the Polls?
The Nord Stream 2 survey was executed by an infamous commercial polling agency Forsa Politik- und Sozialforschung AG, which had been accused of data manipulations in several of its past projects. In 2009, for example, the firm was involved in a scandal concerning a methodologically flawed survey whose cooked results claimed disapproval of the 2007 railroad operators’ strike and approval of privatization of the railway. It was uncovered that the biased study had been secretly funded by Deutsche Bahn.
Forsa’s Nord Stream 2 poll is based on a phone interview of 1,006 Germans and purports them to reflect the attitudes of the entire German population.
While neither the full Nord Stream 2 survey data nor its methodology have been made public, the Wintershall Dea website features the most extensive write-up of the Forsa Nord Stream 2 survey.
The Wintershall Dea website highlights the interpretation of data according to which the majority of German people do not see the U.S. as a reliable partner and juxtapose it to Putin’s Russia. Its title is “Forsa: less and less confidence in the U.S.”
The survey’s other published findings also reinforce the anti-US and pro-Russian narrative through claims such as:
Only 10% of Germans regard the United States as a reliable energy supplier. That puts the U.S. behind the Middle East (with 14% of German citizens having confidence in the Middle East as a reliable energy supplier);
Over half (55%) of German citizens want closer economic ties with Russia;
More than three quarters (77%) of respondents say that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline construction should continue despite US opposition.
What Are the Prospects for Nord Stream 2?
With just a hundred miles of seabed pipeline construction remaining, the work on the Nord Stream 2 project was abruptly halted by US sanctions introduced in December 2019. The sanctions threaten to blacklist any foreign companies collaborating on the construction of the pipeline. This caused all foreign partners to pull-out from the construction and left Russia with no foreign vessels willing to complete the pipe-laying, according to analysis by Benjamin L. Schmitt published by the Jamestown Foundation.
Neither the sanctions, the Coronavirus Pandemic nor the perturbations on the global energy market seem to have any affect, as Putin vowed to finish the pipeline no later than the first quarter of 2021. Such a timeline, however, seems overly optimistic, for two reasons.
Firstly, Russia needs to receive a permit from Denmark to deploy in its territorial waters. Such a permit (given Denmark’s appreciation for the true nature and purpose of Nord Stream 2) is far from certain, and even if granted, may be issued with a significant delay. The Danish Energy Agency (DEA) had spent two and a half years evaluating Gazprom proposals before finally granting permission to build the pipeline in its waters in October 2019.
In February 2020, the Danish Energy Agency said it began negotiations with Nord Stream 2 AG regarding the unfinished Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, but the involvement of any specific new vessels has not yet been discussed.
Secondly, Russia currently has no vessels equipped to carry on the construction. According to a European energy expert and Jamestown Foundation Senior Fellow Margarita Assenova, Russia has two ships it may potentially use to complete the project: Akademik Chersky and Fortuna.
Akademik Chersky, a vessel owned by a Moscow-based construction firm with a loan from Gazprombank, set sail from Russia’s Far East toward the Suez Port in Egypt in March 2020 and after several peculiar route diversions headed to Las Palmas in early April. It possesses dynamic positioning stipulated by Danish authorities. Chersky, however, requires a technology upgrade to be able to lay pipes. An upgrade can potentially be performed in two to three months. It would then take additional time for Akademik Chersky to reach the Baltic, said Assenova.
Fortuna, located in the Baltic Sea, does not have dynamic positioning. As explained by a CEPA report, “dynamic positioning is a computer-controlled system that automatically maintains the vessel’s position and heading, without the need to use anchors to maintain its course in deep waters. Avoiding anchors in the Baltic Sea is a key environmental and security requirement of Danish authorities for drilling platforms, research ships, and cable-laying and pipe-laying vessels.” Gazprom has floated an idea of attaching a tugboat with dynamic positioning to Fortuna, as reported in the Russian media.
Even if either of these schemes is successful, the vessels would still have to be insured, and its insurers would fall under the US sanctions. Russia has been developing its own instruments for insuring vessels under the new sanctions regime, according to Mikhail Korchemkin from East European Gas Analysis group.
What are the Objectives of this PR Campaign?
With its publicity campaign, Wintershall Dea has attempted to improve the political and social dynamics in Europe to facilitate the quickest completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline so badly wanted by the Kremlin.
While revenues from gas exports are not essential for the Russian federal budget, the sector has become the primary instrument of expropriating state resources and channeling them into the accounts of Putin’s’ cronies. As such it is one of the key factors to the ability of Putin to remain in power.
Putin’s regime simply cannot afford to lose its market share to a highly competitive US LNG. Gas price manipulation has proved an effective strategy for Gazprom in the past decade. By completing Nord Stream 2, Gazprom is hoping to brainwash European consumers in its ability to sustain high volumes of affordable gas supply for the long term while in reality Russian gas has always come with the political strings attached, bringing corruption and subversion of democratic institutions.
With this PR campaign, the Kremlin attempts to shift the focus away from its track-record of price manipulation and to the commercial aspects of this partnership with the EU, as well as convince the society that the Nord Stream 2 is a purely commercial project and not a political weapon of the Kremlin.
A special report by the EEAS on Coronavirus Disinformation offers a thorough analysis of tactics, strategies and vectors of effort by Kremlin-controlled media on the issue of Coronavirus. During the past three months, the agency has documented over 110 instances of disinformation (i.e. excluding reposts and secondary materials citing them). Such a significant volume suggests that the Kremlin has a strategy and a plan on how to use the pandemic to advance its political agenda in Europe.
How is this strategy manifested and executed in Germany? And who are the prime targets for the Kremlin-controlled media in Germany?
In Germany, there are in essence two main target audiences – the German-speakers and the Russian-speakers. A great volume of German-language materials is generated by outfits such as RT Deutschland и Sputnik DE. Their level of activity is so massive (for RT Deutschland, for example, – up to 10 new videos per day and for Sputnik DE up to 30 published stories per day) that the German law enforcement now has several formal efforts dedicated to addressing their challenge. In March 24, 2020, the Federal Criminal Police and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution announced the start of programs to monitor fake news materials “whose spread may pose a threat to the societal order and security.”
Organic audiences (in German Top-100 in social nets) cultivated by RT and Sputnik as part of Russian campaigns to interfere in the EU in 2019 and German Parliamentary elections in 2017, today are used to spread the coronavirus disinformation throughout the German society. For the most part, they are people with far-right political orientations, those who support populist leaders, harbor anti-American sentiments and embrace conspiracy theories of various sorts. Many of them have voted for the AfD party. This is not surprising, given that RT served as a de-facto party channel during the 2017 Bundestag elections campaign – it provided AfD candidates unrestricted publicity with an opportunity to discuss any issue, while completely ignoring all other parties and candidates.
Germany’s Russian-speaking community, of course, is also an important audience for the Kremlin propaganda outlets. According to various statistics, Germany is home to between 3-5 mln Russian-speakers:
– About 3 mln arrived through the repatriation programs for Soviet Germans; – About 300,000— are refugees of Jewish ethnic origins; – About 300,000 ethnic Ukrainians; – According to the official information published by the Russian Embassy in Germany — 500,000 remain citizens of the Russian Federation; – Additionally, citizens from various former Soviet republics such as Moldova, Latvia, etc.
This amounts to a sizeable audience for whom Russian is the primary language used at home, as well as the main language for receiving important information and the news.
In addition to the Russian-language media outlets, the Kremlin aggressively employs social media platforms to shape opinion among the Russian-speaking audience in Germany. The Russian Odnoklassniki (translates as “classmates”) has at least 2.6 mln accounts based from Germany; an online group “Russian Germans for AfD” has over 20,000 members; and the pro-AfD and pro-Putin group “Russian Germany” has more than 60,000 members.
Four narratives dominate within the continuous barrage of coronavirus-related disinformation and manipulation advanced by the Kremlin-controlled media in Germany:
1. Lack of unity in Europe and the absence of collective support and plan dealing with the coronavirus among the EU states.
In a weekly program Vesti Nedeli (which has about 5.7 mln viewers) broadcast by Russia’s First Channel on March 22, 2020, Dmitry Kiselev is speculating on the geostrategic ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic:
“The Schengen Area regime was the first one to collapse. Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Poland and Lithuania have reinstated control of their national borders. That means that the Schengen Area with the freedom of movement between its 26 members states no longer exists. Those are just the first few steps in the direction of giving up the spoils of civilization in favor of reinstating sovereign nation-states. In fact, this is the crash of the European Idea and transition to a new political culture with a different value system.
All the lip-service to solidarity, collective assistance, shared values, human rights and humanism, has gone with the wind the moment when Italy, who lost more people to coronavirus than China, asked the EU for help, and was rebuffed. Italy requested personal protection items and medical equipment, specifically lung ventilators. In response, Germany and France curbed their exports of medical masks.”
One would be hard-pressed to find “analysis” with a comparable concentration of lies. Firstly, the Schengen agreements include clauses governing possible limitations and temporary moratoriums on travel, as well as governing the travel of non-EU citizens. Secondly, the European Commission urgently appropriated 50 million euros to help Italy. Finally, France and Germany limited their national exports of medical masks due to their domestic deficits.
Alexander Nosovich commented in his March 13, 2020 editorial published by RuBaltic.Ru: “The Coronavirus response has demonstrated that the European Union does not exist in the minds of Europeans. When it is time to act, the Union ceases to exists as a political reality.”
Turns out, the impetus was the March 20, 2020 letter penned by the Bundestag AfD member Ulrich Oehme (infamous for his pro-Russian stance and his travel to the occupied Crimea) and his Italian colleague, ultra-right populist from the Lega Nord party Paolo Grimoldi (who founded a “Friends of Putin” Caucus in the Italian Parliament) addressed to Roman Babayan (a Moscow City Duma Deputy and an anchorman of the NTV show “Your Own Truth”) and to Leonid Slutskiy (Chair of the Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, PACE delegate, member of the Russian right-wing Liberal-Democratic Partyparty, and named on the international list of sanctions adopted by the US, EU and Canada for his official legislative role in the Russian annexation of Crimea).
Babayan read the letter during a live broadcast of his show, which received wide coverage throughout the Russian media. For the Russian audience, a spectacle was played out where a teary plea from the Europeans was met with an immediate and gracious response from Russia. It’s important to acknowledge that this narrative may be aimed more at the Russian domestic audience, as opposed to the Russian diaspora in Europe, though it permeates both.
2. Germany moves to rescind sanctions against Russia due to the pandemic.
Calls by three marginal Bundestag Members – Robby Schlund, AfD (who became famous for his effort to open an AfD office in Russia), Anton Friesen, AfD, and Alexander Noy, Left – are presented by the Kremlin media as the onset of a serious discussion to end sanctions against Russia. It has been peddled most actively by RIA News and Izvestia (and then reprinted by dozens of less prominent outlets such as regnum.ru, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, gazeta.ru and among the German-language outlets, such as Sputnik, RT and Junge Welt who also touted that the tiny German Communist Party called to end sanctions against Cuba, Venezuela and Russia. It is important to clarify that such statements and calls are made by individual members of the Bundestag and fractions several times a day and do not amount to a formal legislative discussion or movement.
Against this backdrop, a significant reactivation of the Nord Stream 2 lobbying efforts have taken place. The pretext of this campaign was the publication of survey results prepared by Forsa, a leading German market research and opinion poll agency, and dealing with German attitudes on energy policy issues. Rossiyskaya Gazeta, whose editorial focus usually echoes the sentiments inside the Kremlin, immediately reported on the study: “Against the difficult economic situation related to coronavirus, the support for construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has grown. Three quarters of respondents (77%) support the most expedient completion of the Russian-European project, despite the limitations announced by the United States.”
3. German lack of preparedness for the Coronavirus pandemic and shortage of doctors.
One would assume that the Kremlin propaganda machine would not waste time on spreading lies that are easily factchecked and quickly dismissed as disinformation. Nevertheless, an entire program on Vesti FM on February 29, 2020, did exactly that. Other peddled themes include the so-called “negative pandemic scenario” projecting that 50 million Germans will inevitably become infected and 1 million will die, which at this point is a mere hypothesis. Some Russian outlets such as Nezavisimaya Gazeta engage in despicable speculation on the circumstances of the suicide of a German state minister with headlines such as “The German Hysteria”. Again, here, it is the Russian domestic audience that may have been the primary target, though the Russian-language audiences in Europe have been also been affected.
While most Kremlin-controlled media outlets have advanced the narrative of the German panic, Alexander Rahr, the darling of the Russian propaganda and an expert on all possible issues, offered an extensive commentary: “ It is improper to say that one does not feel the panic here.”
4. Refugees and Quarantine.
Russian disinformation outlets have been pushing a narrative that refugees in Europe violate quarantine. Komsomolskaya Pravda has hired an AfD activist Eugen Schmidt who has churned out several reports supporting this theme. Such narratives target Russian audiences with anti-migrant and racists views.
An anti-migrant publication germania.one is also advancing a similar line. On the other hand, Sputnik DE is vocal in its criticism of the failure of the German government to sustain safety and enforce quarantine measures inside refugee camps and asylum-seekers’ housing.
What are some of the preliminary conclusions and observations that could be made from the review of the fake, half-truth and misleading materials?
It is clear that the Kremlin-controlled outlets seek to sow uncertainty, fear of the future and distrust among the German population toward its government. At the same time, materials aired and published frequently contradict each other. RT Deutschland, for example, is criticizing the German government for harsh restrictions, while Sputnik DE is criticizing it for lack of preparedness and inability to enforce quarantine. However, this is precisely the mechanism used by the Kremlin to execute its strategy of sowing uncertainty and even panic. Once the environment is right, it aims to push for the removal of sanctions under the pretext of helping the German economy recover. To shift attention away from its own fake news, RT Deutschland is claiming that prominent Western outlets such as Tagesspiegel , FAZ, AFP и DW are spreading fake news against RT Deutschland.
Despite all of these efforts by the Kremlin-controlled media, the rating of the ruling coalition continues to grow, and the majority of Germans approve of measures taken by state and federal governments. According to a recent poll conducted by ARD-Deutschlandtrend (02.04.2020), 72% are satisfied with the crisis management measures adopted by the government in response to coronavirus pandemic. Likewise, the support is strong for the overall performance of the ruling coalition of parties (government): 63% are satisfied with its work (which is a 28% from a similar poll 02.03.2020)
Azat Miftakhov, a graduate student at the engineering mathematics faculty at Moscow State University and a supporter of anarchist views, is under investigation on two counts. He has been charged under Article 213, Section 2, of the Russian Criminal Code (‘Hooliganism by a group of people by prior agreement,’ for which the penalty is up to seven years of prison) and is a suspect of an offence under Article 223.1, Section 1, of the Russian Criminal Code (‘Illegal preparation of explosive substances and explosive devices,’ for which the penalty is up to six years of prison). Continue reading The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of Azat Miftakhov→
At the present time, the political life of Russia’s regions is all but destroyed. There are no organizational or financial resources for it and such a state of affairs is the result of a deliberate strategy to destroy democracy in Russia which has been implemented throughout the last 20 years.
Despite the fact that various regions of Russia have their own nuances and special features, on the whole, the situation is the same everywhere: the head of the region and the heads of the major municipalities are approved, and de facto appointed by the presidential administration, and all the rest of the regional leadership is appointed and approved by the governor. Those who disagree with this state of affairs are forced out of official politics.
On the whole, it should be acknowledged that after the presidential elections of 2018, political life in the regions was completely sterilized; so in that sense, there is only a point in discussing the reasons which led to this state of affairs and to think about the prospects for Russia to get back on track to democracy and federalism. Obviously, without radical changes in the leadership of Russia, the situation will not change, and as long as the laws, and most importantly, the president of Russia remains unchanged, any sort of revival of regional politics cannot be expected.
Democracy and Federalism in Russia
Democracy and federalism in Russia turned out to be powerless before the onslaught of autocracy in the early 2000s, because they had no real support either in the government itself or among citizens – and such a state of affairs had been programmed by the creators of the political system of Yeltsin’s Russia.
Even those government agencies which were formed directly by citizens had no real autonomy from the higher levels of government, primarily at the federal level, because the president was able to rid himself of inconvenient regional leaders and the regional leaders were able to oppress the municipalities. Naturally, in such circumstances the level of citizens’ trust in municipal and regional government was rather low, so the Kremlin was not afraid that some mayor or governor would be bold enough to argue with it, that they relied on the real support of the people, rather than on fixed elections. The local elites wasted so much effort on fighting among themselves that they were gladly ready to agree to the federal center’s terms, just to get rid of their rivals. In the end, a tactical alliance with the federal center became a trap; once they fell into it, local elites lost their political agency. This is what Putin exploited when he set about sterilizing regional politics completely.
The current state of affairs and its incorporation into the renewed text of the Russian constitution is the result of a constant and consistent attack on democracy and federalism. This has been under way for the entire 20 years of Putin’s rule, but as has been noted, it began much earlier. Essentially, the system created by Yeltsin in 1993-1996 had to guarantee the president that even if he had a minority in parliament and his personal rating was low, and if members of the opposition come to power in a number of regions and major cities, he could still remain in power and successfully block all the efforts of his critics.
Precisely within the framework of this concept, the prospects for local and regional self-government were in fact destroyed. Since all real powers were concentrated in the president, and all the other branches of government (parliament, the courts, the regions, and local self-government) were intentionally weakened, the deliberate course of the new President Putin enabled him to destroy both federalism and democracy in several years, without encountering any real resistance.
The Attack on Self-Government
Thus, as has already been said, the constitution of 1993 was written not so much to create a firm foundation for democracy and federalism in Russia, but rather to serve the interests of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Its authors were motivated by fear of a communist revanche, which they expected “from below.”
Obviously, local elites fully shared that fear of Yeltsin’s entourage, or rather exploited it for solving their own tactical problems. The presence in Russia in the 1990s of the so-called “red belt,” that is, the regions where the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) traditionally garnered many votes, forced the Yeltsin team to search for any allies for themselves who were prepared not to allow a victory of the CPRF and in exchange for that, forgive them any abuses.
Thus, emerged the phenomenon of “electoral reservoirs,” that is, regions guaranteed to show a high turn-out at all elections with high indicators for the party of power and its candidates. Essentially, a number of local leaders simply changed their loyalty for financial bonuses and impunity. This is exactly what defined the nature of interrelations between the federal center and the regions. Therefore, when Putin took the line of restricting the real powers of local bodies of government, the elites of the regions were already rather isolated from the citizens and did not have high authority among them which would have enabled them to rely on the support of voters in opposition to the Kremlin’s policy – if they even had such a wish at all.
Nevertheless, under Yeltsin, political life in the regions was preserved – among other reasons because the Kremlin played on the contradictions of the local elites, in each case wishing to find a counterweight to an ambitious governor through the head of a regional center or in some other way. Taking into account that Yeltsin’s ratings were extremely low all through the second half of the 1990s, the Kremlin was forced to reconcile itself to a certain level of political freedom in the regions, in the wealthiest of which quite interesting political systems had been formed and operated relatively successfully. For example, in Sverdlovsk Region there was a bicameral regional parliament where the upper house was elected every two years through elections in the districts, and the lower house by party lists; in fact the main fight was usually among the regional parties, whereas the federal party did not have significant influence. But all of this was possible because Sverdlovsk Region was relatively wealthy, which enabled numerous regional industrial groups to exist, which were interested in political representation among other things.
This is why we must not forget that Alexei Kudrin’s tax reform finally put to death the prospects for political life in the regions, the result of which led to the total financial dependency of the regions on the center and made struggling for power in their regions pointless; if the center distributes cash and everything comes from the center, then it is quite logical that a person appointed from the center is at the head of the region.
The local elites accepted the rules of the game and instead of resistance to the changing viceroys, tried to cooperate with each new governor because any other strategy is fraught with serious problems and losses.
We cannot overlook the quality of the local elites as well; in the absolute majority of cases, already by the mid-1990s, power in the regions had wound up in the hands of the Soviet nomenklatura. On the one hand, it preferred the administrative-command methods of leadership and leaned toward the necessity of taking part in honest and competitive elections, but that is why it was prepared to obtain powers from the leadership and not the public. On the other hand, it turned out to be involved in corrupt schemes which enabled the federal government to control any local leader by the kompromat [compromising material] compiled on him. In many cases, it was these people who kept power in their hands all through the 1990s and 2000s, until the Putin administration gradually, but methodically, got rid of them.
The situation in Sverdlovsk Region was illustrative, where Arkady Chernetsky, mayor of the regional center, remained in his post from 1992-2010, but Eduard Rossel, governor of Sverdlovsk Region, had in one way or another headed the region from 1991-2009 (with a break from 1993-1995). Both of them came out of the Soviet nomenklatura, and despite the undoubted political talents and readiness for participation in competitive politics, both were drawn to authoritarian methods and were not ashamed of using manipulative techniques in the elections.
All the years they were in their posts, these politicians and their teams waged an unceasing war, but in the end both of them gave up their power, not by losing elections, but by subordinating themselves to order. Now both of these rivals represent Sverdlovsk Region in the Federation Council without any real weight in regional politics.
It is noteworthy that even after the departure of Chernetsky from the post of head of Ekaterinburg, his team resisted pressure from the regional government for several years, which created a certain space of political struggle and even enabled the non-system politician Evgeny Royzman to win the elections to head of Ekaterinburg (by that time, this position had already become symbolic). But this resistance had purely economic reasons and in no way presupposed criticism of the federal government and its policy. On the eve of the 2018 presidential elections, the city team finally capitulated, and with that, politics in the region ended. In May 2018, Evgeny Royzman was forced to give up his powers as head of Ekaterinburg prematurely, and the city charter no longer stipulated new direct elections. Despite the specific nature of the situation in Ekaterinburg and Sverdlovsk Region, in the end even there, the Kremlin achieved its aims – as in all other regions of Russia, rich and poor, national republics and ordinary regions and territories.
What Is to Be Done?
What can and should be done, so that democracy is returned to Russia and cannot be so simply overthrown? As was said at the very outset, without changes at the federal level, we should not expect a flourishing of politics in the regions. But it is important not to repeat the mistakes of the past and not create the prerequisites so that democracy and federalism in Russia could be overthrown some time again.
First, it is necessary to have the constitutional transfer of the maximum number of political, legal, and financial powers to the level of local self-government. Even the regional level of government must be not be as influential as the municipalities. Essentially, the regional administrations must be involved only in the creation and maintenance of the general infrastructure and coordination of the efforts of local communities. It is much harder to take control of thousands of municipalities with great powers, elected by direct elections, than several dozen regional governments. This is exactly why the municipalities must become the foundation of democracy and the guarantor of the separation of powers in Russia, or otherwise everything will rapidly return to the current state of affairs.
Secondly, the restrictions on the creation of regional parties must be removed. Taking into account the dimensions of Russia, it is more logical to prohibit federal parties as such, motivating regional parties to form blocs at the federal level around common program lines and interests. Federal politics must be made in the regions and municipalities and not the opposite.
Third, the incorporation of a parliamentary system of governance at all levels of government – from the federal to the municipal – seems correct, that is, in both the regions and in the major cities, executive power must be in the hands of the head of government elected by the parliament. This will enable the destruction of the prerequisites for a revanche of Putinism several years after the departure of Vladimir Putin from politics, because it will destroy even the theoretical possibility of subordinating one level of government to another through personal agreements or blackmail. On the whole, all of Russia’s history teaches us that any opportunity to concentrate power in the hands of one person rather quickly leads to authoritarianism and a lack of change in government – and not only at the level of the head of state.
Fourth, any attempts to return Russia to the path of democracy and federalism are unthinkable without lustration not only at the federal but also at the regional and even municipal level. The main reason why the democratic endeavors of the 1990s were so easily overthrown was the fact that in the early 1990s, real power in Russia was left in the hands of descendants of the Soviet nomenklatura. Taking into account by whom and how the regional and municipal bodies of governments were formed in recent years, keeping these people in politics will inevitably lead to a revanche in a very short time. There are quite enough new people for politics at all levels in Russia, but for them to get involved and not lose at the very first elections to the re-painted Putin nomenklatura, the latter must be lawfully excluded from the process. Otherwise, everything will come full circle in this new, reimagined future.
As the number of cases of COVID-19, also known informally as coronavirus, grows in the United States, local, state and federal government officials are scrambling to contain the spread of the disease and “flatten the curve,” an expression that roughly means to reduce the outbreak of COVID-19 cases to a more manageable rate.
While millions of Americans have been ordered to stay home, employees deemed “essential” such as grocery store clerks plow on; tired but perseverant. Unemployment claims have skyrocketed in the last few weeks, shattering records from previous economic downturns, and many industries have been shuttered due to the need for social distancing.
With all the dispiriting news, an underreported story has been how private industry has geared up to manufacture and distribute essential products to fight the spread of the virus. Working often in cooperation with federal and state agencies, many companies have put the American people ahead of their own profit margin and pitched in as they had during other times of national emergency.
According to Fox News, tech giant Apple is donating 10 million masks to American health care workers. The Dallas Morning News reports that Neiman Marcus, a department store chain, and Joann, the craft store chain, is also diverting resources to sew health care workers’ gowns, masks, and scrubs. Forbes reports Major League Baseball has partnered with Fanatics, the company that makes the jerseys the players wear, to do the same with the baseball season currently on hold. According to the Wall Street Journal, Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts managed to enlist the help of the New England Patriots’ team plane in securing millions of masks to be shipped from China. Brooks Brothers is also producing masks and gowns in their factories, and Crocs is donating shoes to healthcare workers.
Private sector firms are contributing more than just supplies and raw materials, though. According to Forbes, a biotech firm based out of Massachusetts called Moderna has managed to launch clinical trials for a possible COVID-19 vaccine. Forbes goes on to report that antiviral treatments are being tested by Gilead Sciences while the Food and Drug Administration has approved recently developed testing methods. American automobile companies are also manufacturing ventilators to assist COVID-19 treatment. While the work of health care professionals is far from done, steps are being made to contain the disease.
President Trump openly speculated about a possible reopening of businesses on Easter Sunday (April 12th), but with cases of COVID-19 continuing to spread at an alarming rate, the president has since backtracked and called for social distancing protocols to extend at least until April 30, with the Surgeon General speculating that those guidelines could be extended further. Many states have ordered residents to stay at home, with the only exceptions being to buy essential items and to exercise.
While the fight to contain COVID-19 is far from over in the United States, Europe, and Asia, it is heartening to know that significant resources in both the public and private sector are being mobilized to provide reinforcements to the exhausted medical professionals on the front lines of this pandemic. There will be lessons to learn after COVID-19 is contained and eventually cured, and it will be prudent for both public and private sectors to proactively prepare for the possibility of another disease with similar effects. There’s even the possibility of COVID-19 returning as the weather cools down in autumn and winter, a threat that must be taken seriously. Today, both private and public sectors are making significant sacrifices, and that should be a sign that people can use this shared experience toward greater unity and cooperation.
Today’s expert literature on the Kremlin’s subversive activities in Europe is often confusing in terms of the concepts and definitions used by authors in their reports and analyses. This paper aims to remedy this shortcoming by providing a comprehensive theoretical framework for analyzing the malign influence of Putin’s Russia in Europe in the most efficient way.
We define malign influence in Europe as a specific type of influence that directly or indirectly subverts and undermines European values and democratic institutions. We also put the concept of malign influence in the context of political warfare in order to delineate the meaning of such influence: it does not belong to the areas of cooperation between nations in times of peace.
The paper highlights major areas in which actors of Putin’s Russia exercise malign influence, identify main categories of Russian operators and their European facilitators that conduct or help conduct the Kremlin’s political warfare against the West, and, finally, describes vulnerabilities of European states to malign influence of Putin’s Russia.
Maxim Smyshlyaev, a resident of the city of Rostov-on-Don of left persuasions. At the time of his arrest, he worked at a McDonald’s outlet and studied extramurally at the Institute of History and International Relations of the Southern Federal University. He was sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment in a strict-regime penal colony under Part 3 of Article 205.1 (‘Complicity in the preparation of a terrorist act’) of the Russian Criminal Code for having allegedly aided Artur Panov, a minor holding the citizenship of Ukraine, in the preparation of a terrorist act that did not take place. Smyshlyaev has been held in custody since April 22, 2016. The Memorial Human Rights Center recognizes Maxim Smyshlyaev as political prisoner. Continue reading The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of Maxim Smyshlyaev→
The Memorial Human Rights Center has recognized a Russian citizen Vladimir Domnin as a political prisoner. He was accused of having fought in Donbass region on Ukrainian side. We believe that Vladimir was in the war zone for a short time, but did not directly participate in war actions and does not pose danger to the society. Continue reading The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of Vladimir Domnin→
In early March 2020, OPEC has failed to reach a deal with Russia who refused to reduce its oil production in response to the plummeting demand due to the global coronavirus epidemic. “We are confident that Russia will resume its cooperation,” said OPEC’s Secretary General Mohammed Barkindo to a Russian news agency Interfax. According to the latest forecast by the International Energy Agency, 2020 will see a significant drop in global demand for oil, for the first time since 2009.
During the March 6, 2020 negotiations, OPEC members proposed to not only extend the current quota on oil productions through the end of the year, but also suggested to further reduce daily outputs by 1.5 mln barrels. Russia, however, was willing to extend the current quotes only through the end of the second quarter of 2020, and refused to further reduce production (a measure that is seen by OPEC as necessary for sustaining the current level of global oil process).
OPEC+ has sought to stabilize global oil prices since 2017. The OPEC failure to reach a deal means that, starting with April 1, 2020, there will be no limitations on oil production. Following Russia’s rejection of a new deal limiting oil production, Saudi Arabia announced its intention to increase output in April. The reaction of global markets to the prospect of a new energy price war was instantaneous: within a few seconds from the morning opening on March 9, 2020, Brent oil prices fell 30%, its biggest drop since 1991. Russian national currency – ruble – was immediately affected – its exchange with euro exceeded the 86 to 1, and with the US dollar – 75 to 1 rate.
“At this point there are no factors that would limit the drop in oil prices. Under an optimistic scenario, they may stabilize at $30 per barrel, after which the markets may start recovery,” believes Nikolai Ivanov from the Energy and Finance Institute (Moscow, Russia). However, according to a recent Goldman Sachs projection cited by the CNN, due to perturbations on the global oil market the price can go down as low as $20 per barrel.
The deficit in the Russian federal budget that would result from the drop in oil prices can be compensated by the National Wealth Fund, announced the Russian Ministry of Finance statement on its website (as quoted by a Russian news agency RIA News). The Ministry projects that even under a pessimistic scenario with prices at $25 per barrel, the Fund will last for six years.
In his statement to a Russian news agency TASS, Energy Minister Aleksandr Novak said that the prospect of oil production increase in April will be determined by ROSNEFT’s plans. Following the failure to reach a deal with OPEC, Russian State Corporation ROSNEFT (currently under sanctions by the US and EU) began planning to increase its oil output, according to Bloomberg reports citing insider sources.
“I doubt that Russian officials, who are now in the midst of a constitutional reform and government restructuring, meant to intentionally harm the Russian economy and weaken the national currency,” says Nikolai Ivanov. Ivanov believes that Russia was forced to break off its negotiations with OPEC. “On the one hand what happened was a manifestation of domestic political intrigues in Saudi Arabia; on the other hand, one can detect the U.S. influence,” said the expert. “The US Secretary of Energy Mike Pompeo flew to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia right before the OPEC break down. The young and very capable Crown Prince bin Salman had just averted a coup in his country and arrested several key government figures. He had conducted an IPO round for Saudi Aramco and no longer had any motivation to sustain oil prices.” For Russia, on the other hand, new production quotas would mean a reduction of half a million of barrels per day. “Unlike Saudi Arabia, Russia, due to its geological characteristics cannot quickly reduce the production of oil and then ramp back up,” believes Nikolai Ivanov. “For Russia, with its high share of “old” oil deposits, which actually already require intensification of extraction rates, it is impossible to increase production after a forced decrease.”
“This decision could have only been made by Vladimir Putin personally,” asserts Mikhail Korchemkin, Director of the East European Gas Analysis consultancy. He recalls Gazprom’s unfortunate experience from the 2009 crisis. As gas prices in Europe plummeted, the Russian President decided to keep the contract prices high despite a shrinking market share. “I would imagine, today, Putin is applying this past experience to the oil market. In 2009, he learned that a reduction in exports leads to a loss,” suggests Korchemkin. “However, shortly thereafter Gazprom came to its senses, lowered prices, increased its market share,” recalls Korchemkin. Aleksandr Baunov from the Moscow Carnegie Center agrees with this assessment. Baunov believes that a shrinking market and its restructuring are the two major factors. “The rest is just an afterthought: the prices first started dropping, and then the government recalled that it was bad for the shale industry,” he suggested. Korchemkin also notes that the US shale oil production has lived through two major price shocks of 2009 and 2015, each deeper than the current one so far.
“Russian leadership still does not understand the US shale mining industry,” – says Ivanov. The expert is confident that this sector cannot be shut down by external shakeups. “Production volume can be varied. Profits are realized even under modest volumes of extraction,” he explains. According to Ivanov, the US may even decide to increase output despite lower global prices as certain costs can go down through such periods. “The United States has such a diversity of producers – at the major, medium and smaller size levels. They can diversify their investments. The advantage of shale production is that it’s very dynamic, and one can adjust approach to oil extraction based on demands of the market,” concludes the expert.
According to Robert Tummel, a portfolio manager at Tortoise Capital Advisors, currently the impact of coronavirus on global oil demand is uncertain. Estimates for 2020 for global oil demand reduction range from 600,000 to 1.3 mln barrels per a day. “Global oil supply could increase by 500,000 to 1 mln barrels per a day, based on how much Saudi Arabia increases production. And that will result in an oversupply on global oil market between 1.1 and 2.3 mln barrels per a day,” predicts Tummel. According to his estimates, the market is going to oversupplied by 1% to 2%. “We think that the US oil producers are most likely to accelerate the capital discipline, and they’d already began doing one to two years ago. The US production is likely decline if low oil prices persist,” says Robert Tummel.
On March 5, 2020, a Russian-controlled court in Ukraine’s Crimea sentenced Sergei Filatov, a Jehovah’s Witness from Dzhankoy, a town in the north of occupied Crimea, to six year in prison for organizing activities of an extremist organization, which, according to an investigation, consisted of “holding meetings, religious speeches, as well as promoting religious ideas.” Continue reading The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of Sergei Filatov→
In January 2020, Vladimir Putin closed the books on the political development of the Russian Federation not only for 2019 but also for the next 15 years. He set forth a series of amendments to the Constitution and made a change in the Cabinet of Ministers.
What is the rationale behind V. Putin’s doing? There are numerous interpretations and speculations on the motives. However, one should take a cue from the fact that between 2003 to 2019 V. Putin has created such a system of governing Russia, which he, as well as by the wider circles of civil and government law enforcement and security bureaucracy, considered to be totally adequate for the post-Soviet development of the Russian Federation. Putin has brought forward 11 amendments, which provide additional clarification detailed to fix to the individual central nodes of that governing system, which is providing so-called “stability.”
It is an anti-republican, highly centralized, system of power with a wide array of mandated authority powers given to the president. In this system the representative authority agencies are acting in a pattern of “consulting bodies,” an addendum to the executive branch. The political representation of a party stipulates a high level of qualifications in order to cut off the opposition from being nominated to the Parliament, and those parties, that are represented in the Parliament create a “coalition” of some sort. The governors in this system are designated official appointees from the center. All in all, the system is in compliance with its inter national obligations. Nonetheless, it refuses to implement the decisions of international bodies in some instances when they deviate drastically from the political goals of the Kremlin.
Olexander Shumkov, a Ukrainian citizen from the city of Kherson who was serving in the Ukrainian armed forces at the time of his kidnapping, was kidnapped at the border between Ukraine and Russia in August 2017. After that he was relocated to Russia and charged with committing a crime under Article 282.2, Section 2 of the Russian Criminal Code (taking part in activities of an extremist organization) on the grounds that, allegedly, he is a member of Right Sector, an organization banned in Russia. On December 4, 2018 Olexander Shumkov was convicted to 4 years of prison by a judge Victor Ruhmakov of Sevsky regional court in Branskaya oblast. Continue reading The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of Olexander Shumkov→
2020 is promising to be the year of high importance and big decisions for Georgia. The country will have to decide whether it wants to move forward with its pro- democratic aspirations and incorporate into the Western society or continue growing weaker with no ability to stand against the Russian interests in the country.
The U.S. and EU support and special attention are critical to ensure free and transparent elections, especially if the government reneges on its promise of proportional system and moves to conduct the 2020 elections under the existing mixed electoral system. Attention of the international community and Georgia’s strategic partners, especially when it comes to monitoring of the election process, will help support fair elections, and empower Georgia to stand firm for its pro-western choice and reemerge as a regional leader in reforms and democratic development.
• The Gavrilov Night
• The Political Context
• The Kremlin’s campaigns in Georgia 2019 – 2020
• Development of the Anaklia Port
Egor Kuroptev is a Director of Free Russia Foundation’s office on South Caucasus, media manager and political expert from Russia based in Tbilisi, Georgia since 2012. He started his career at the Echo of Moscow. From 2017 he holds the position of director for media project: “Information in Russian VS Soft Power of the Kremlin”. For three years he has been producing a famous talk-show “Border Zone,” where he discusses regional conflicts, foreign policy of Russia as well as NATO and EU politics on the post-Soviet space.
In the third year of Perestroika, in 1988, the intelligence branch of the KGB was deep in a crisis – the headquarters in Yasenevo woods a few miles southwest of Moscow found the officers at KGB rezidenturas in Western countries increasingly reluctant to approach foreigners. They effectively turned off the aggressive recruiting mode the Soviet intelligence was once so famous.
In the United States, Soviet intelligence scored some spectacular successes in penetration, namely Aldrich Ames at CIA and Robert Hannssen at FBI, but the recruited Americans were the walk-ins – i.e. they themselves initiated the contact with Soviet spies, they were not approached by the Russians.
The Soviet Union was losing the Cold War and that certainly contributed to the confusion in KGB intelligence stations all over the world, but most importantly, the officers themselves didn’t want to risk their postings in the West. Being kicked out of a Western country if caught red-handed was not a particularly attractive idea at time when all kinds of shortages back home were already palpable.
Finally, the big shots at Yasenevo came up with a solution. It was a bold and witty idea, and the translated Analytical overview was part of it. Yasenevo suggested to exploit the natural advantages the KGB still enjoyed back home.
In addition to its espionage abroad, the KGB was always busy collecting “intelligence from the territory,” a euphemism for recruiting foreign nationals in the Soviet Union, with an eye to subsequently running them as agents in their home countries. This system worked because the Soviet Union, as a police state, had an opportunity to watch literally every foreign national in the country. Each regional KGB department had what was called a First Section in charge of recruiting foreigners.
This activity was coordinated by the Directorate RT (Razvedka s Territorii: intelligence from territory) of the First Chief Directorate in Yasenevo.
The problem was that no so many foreigners wanted to come the Soviet Union. Now that was changing, thanks to Gorbachev, who was busy opening up the country.
But the Soviet Union was still a totalitarian state, meaning that there was no media, a trade union, or a nascent private enterprise (not to mention a government agency) in position to say no to the KGB if approached and asked to plant a spy in the organization under disguise.
These spies planted by the KGB were known as DR officers, Destvuyushego Rezerva: of the active reserve. The term had a long history; it was used since the 1920s.
The KGB’s “Tradecraft in Intelligence Work from Cover Organizations on Soviet Territory,” an analytical overview presented here for the first time in both its original Russian and in English translation, suggested boosting the activities of the Directorate RT as a way to compensate the passivity of hibernated intelligence stations abroad.
The beauty of the report was that it suggested combining two things, already at KGB disposal – the capabilities of planting KGB spies in almost any Soviet organization; and the activities of the Directorate RT in approaching foreigners now coming in big numbers to the Soviet Union.
The Directorate RT was thus encouraged to plant more spies in Soviet organizations with an eye to recruiting foreigners in the Soviet Union.
The report even suggested to send officers of the Directorate RT abroad to run its assets, and not to handle them to the intelligence stations in respective countries, probably acknowledging the reluctance of the intelligence stations to taking risks.
The Soviet regime was facing its collapse, but the KGB intelligence branch once again proved its resourcefulness and ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
Andrei Soldatov, The coathor of “The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia’s Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad”
Vladimir Milov explains why Russian president started constitutional reforms well before 2024 elections.
On Wednesday, Vladimir Putin did a rather unusual thing. Three years before the formal end of his presidential term, without any obvious motivating circumstances (the situation in the country is complicated, but it is no worse and no better than in recent months), he simultaneously announced the unprecedented restructuring of the power mechanism, and the resignation of the Medvedev government, which, it would seem, has already received an informal status of an eternal supplement to Putin’s presidency. It is important to understand what really happened and why.
First, let’s talk about the announced constitutional changes and the reform of the country’s governance system. We have to acknowledge the failure of theories that predicted power transit, the emergence of some influential successor, or exotic options of transferring power through integration with Belarus (which did not imply that Putin’s dominance would be unconditionally preserved, since Alexander Lukashenko is very popular in Russia, maybe even more than Putin himself). Those who were right (including the author of this article) envisaged that Putin wouldn’t leave, as current control over political institutions allows for any type of constitutional redrawing. The latter is the most probable move to preserve Putin’s actual power. This is the easiest and safest way for the Russian leader, compared to options such as appointing a successor or integrating with Lukashenko. As we can see, this scenario was actually applied.
Putin has every reason not to trust any successor candidates. The current situation is different from 2008 when he transferred formal leverage at the peak of economic success and his popularity. First, Putin understands better than others that the Russian establishment is tired of him, do not trust him, is aware of his negative role as the main deterrent to Russia’s advancement and will try to dump this legacy at the earliest opportunity. Our state officials, for all their negative role in Russia’s present situation, however, have not signed to sit forever in a swamp and would appreciate some kind of movement towards progress. Secondly, Russia can’t get out of the crisis paradigm, and the future is threatened with new risks and shocks. No one is waiting for a quiet progressive development – in this situation, letting go of the reins and experimenting with successors is definitely not typical for Putin. He would prefer to implement control personally, as he used to. And, thirdly, there are no signs of Putin’s desire to give up power, no matter what political scientists and commentators say – these are fantasies and groundless speculations.
A mistake made by commentators in the analysis of Putin’s proposed constitutional changes is an attempt to give them a concrete shape through their own interpretations. In fact, there is nothing definite there. The design voiced by Putin simply says: “I want to have room for maneuver, and I will decide everything myself.” The State Council is to be created with no clear power; the State Duma is to be endowed with expanded authority to influence the formation of the government. But Wednesday’s message to the Federal Assembly does not clarify how exactly this system will look.
One thing is clear: Putin wants to create a new system of checks and balances in order to prevent the loss of his own influence. He sends a clear signal: “I will form this system myself, and I will still think how. And this system will be approved by a completely controlled group of film directors and figure skating champions – in the way I say when I decide.”
The key difference between the system proposed by Putin and the current one is that this system eliminates the “president-prime minister” dichotomy. In Russia, many mistakenly look at the Prime Minister as the person responsible for the “national economy.” This is not the case: the head of government is a constitutional post, it is an analogue to the vice president who automatically assumes the presidency if something happens to the first person (for example, he was forgotten at the cottage in Foros without any connection with the outside world). It is not surprising that in such a design the prime minister is a natural reason of nightmares for the power-hungry president: if someone wants to initiate a palace coup, then he will first try to gain over the prime minister, and then the national leader catches a light form of flu – and here he is, the new acting president. That is why Putin has been holding the absolutely unprofessional Medvedev for so many years. He did not care about Medvedev’s professional qualities, the main thing was that in 2008-2012 he passed a loyalty test, unlike anyone else from Putin’s circle.
Constitutional changes, instead of this simple dichotomy, create a more complex system with more players and more opportunities for behind-the-scenes management. You are no longer dependent on the particular candidate for the prime minister. It is worth underlining once again that nothing has been decided yet, the specific configuration will be discussed, but Putin’s statement is obvious: “I am creating a new system of checks and balances in order to stay in power, I will determine this system and control it.” This is what we now know for sure. All the rest is still unknown, and there’s no sense to discuss them. It remains to be seen.
The next question: why now? It is clear that the adoption of amendments to the Constitution takes time. Yet there is another three years until the end of Putin’s term, and he is used to keeping all secrets behind seven seals until the last moment. His secrecy has its own logic: when you designate your decision too early, you expose it for criticism, and people get tired quickly from specific configurations. When you throw out a new construction three months before the election (as with Putin-2000, Medvedev-2008 or Putin’s return-2011), your rivals are taken by surprise, and Putin’s political strategists, on the contrary, have every chance to take temporary advantage and secure the desired result, while voters still believe you and the scheme is not “rotten.”
A certain answer to this question can be detected by the sudden change of prime minister (which, as many sources in the executive branch confirm, even the members of the government themselves did not suspect). Now there is no point in changing Medvedev – the elections to the State Duma are still a long way off. Given the short memory of voters, the effect of this decision will quickly disappear and will not live up to the Duma’s election campaign. There is no disastrous economic situation either. It is bad, but no worse and no better than it was yesterday or will be tomorrow. A change in the cabinet would make sense if Putin had appointed a decisive prime minister for new reforms, who would change the situation, but the new candidate for the post of head of the cabinet, Mikhail Mishustin, is certainly not the one (more on that below).
What is the meaning of such a decisive action on several fronts at once and so early? By way of exclusion, we come to the only possible explanation—Putin panicked when he saw some new “closed” sociological data, which showed how bad his situation was. And then he decided to hastily give out all the preparations he had: to dismiss Medvedev and promise a new package of social measures for 450 billion rubles, and also to announce constitutional amendments in advance so that if people don’t like them, there was time to cancel them under the pretext that unreasonable artists and ice skaters gave the wrong advice. Frankly, I see no other rational explanation for the fountain of radical measures announced three years before the 2024 election. There is not a trace left of the calm, prudent and expectant Putin of past years; He throws all his cards onto the table at once.
The information background of the previous weeks created by the Kremlin political strategists in preparation for the Duma elections also speaks in favor of the theory of panicking authorities. Everything looks frivolous and resembles real panic: from the decision to create a “party of tanks” (non-political parties of let’s say beer lovers in Russia have never worked) to the rumors about the creation of Shnurov’s and Dudy’s parties without the consent of Shnurov and Dudy themselves. We are waiting for the emissaries to Kim Kardashian with a generous multi-million dollar contract for obtaining Russian citizenship, real estate in Saransk, and proposals to lead the party in the State Duma-2021 elections. What else can you expect from panicking Kremlin technologists who feel that the country is slipping away from their hands and they have nothing but stale ideas from the 90s in their heads?
Paradoxically, another indirect piece of evidence of Putin’s panic is the candidacy of the new prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin. What is this man known for? Only one thing: as the head of the tax service, with his iron hand he put the dying economy through the wringer and still constantly boasted of the rapid increase in the tax burden on Russian entrepreneurs and citizens. This looked particularly outrageous in relation to self-employed people. Mishustin just a few weeks ago reported that they had managed to collect taxes of about 3 thousand rubles per person in 2019, presenting it as a huge achievement of the service entrusted to him.
Mikhail Mishustin has been working in the government since the late 90s and is well known in this area. He does not have any skills in terms of growth and development, he is a typical tax controller who really knows how to knock the last out of taxpayers in the form of a levy in favor of the state. This is his only strong professional quality. The fact that Putin nominated such a person for the post of prime minister gives us a clear understanding of the psychological state of the Russian leader. Putin feels insecure, anticipates economic difficulties and possible collapse of his own system. He wants to rely on a person who will provide him with cash in his accounts at any cost – including at the cost of further destruction of the Russian economy. Judging by his message to the Federal Assembly, Putin doesn’t care about the economy, because he still looks at the solution to the problem of low incomes of Russians exclusively through the prism of a fragmented distribution of “gifts” to certain groups of the population. Putin clearly isn’t interested in returning to the topic of full-fledged economic growth and development.
In this regard, Mishustin’s appointment looks like hiding under a fiscal “mommy,” who will protect Putin in difficult times. Сommentators argued over the possible candidates to replace Medvedev as prime minister. It could have been either the decisive statesman like Glazyev or Rogozin, who closes the borders, “invests in industry,” and the statist-chavezist economic model would flourish under him, as it has not blossomed anywhere in the world; or liberal Kudrin who would lure investors with sweet speeches and a reformist appearance without real denationalization of the economy. These were emotionally strong options that gave hope to different groups in society. What hope can be inspired by the appointment of the obedient robotic fiscal inspector, who became famous only for squeezing more from the economy into the treasury than it could give? No, this appointment is not about elections, growth or the future. This appointment is about Putin’s personal confidence that everything will not fail, although it is very likely. Mishustin’s appointment is an event from the field of psychology, but not economics or political technologies.
In any case, everything that happened on Wednesday is rather good news. Putin could come up with something that would really preserve the Russian dictatorship for decades, renew its image, and eliminate at least the most obvious contradictions. Instead, we have 1984, not in the Orwellian sense, but in the sense of the Secretary General of the CPSU Central Committee, Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko, during whose term the last parliamentary elections in the USSR took place, where the CPSU received uncontested 99% of the vote. The key here is not “99%” and not “uncontested”, but “last”. Putin clearly does not understand this. Well, probably, he doesn’t need it – it’s time already. The historical era is coming to an end. The new prime fiscal inspector will finally finish it off. As Gleb Zheglov put it in the film ‘The meeting place cannot be changed‘ “Then so be it.”
This article was originally published in Russian on The Insider
Earlier this week new charges have been brought by Russian authorities against four leaders of the Ingush protest movement. A criminal case opened on December 27, 2019 implicated that eight activists and community organizers created and operated an extremist group against the republic’s authorities. In the near future, it’s expected that the others will be charged too.
In his speech before the elite of the Russian ruling class earlier this week, Vladimir Putin announced a new constitutional reform, which, in essence, amounts to adopting a new fundamental law. The Kremlin is proposing a new “social contract” to the Russian people that will replace the “Crimean consensus” – new and restored social benefits in exchange for cementing within the Constitution the monopoly of the current ruling class over the country’s governance.
A new “social contract” is a necessity for Putin’s regime. When he first came to power, at the time of the second war in Chechnya and fairly regular and massive terrorist acts in Central Russia, including in Moscow, he proposed a similar deal to the Russian people – exchange of some political liberties for security. Having imposed “order”, Vladimir Putin continued to expand his powers at the expense of other governing institutions, destroying the constitutional order of Russia. Then a second contract was put forward – a promise of satiety and stability in exchange for the remnants of political liberties. This contract was a much tougher sell and resulted in mass protests of 2011-2012. And in 2014, the Kremlin came up with yet another offer: forfeit of even more liberties for the restored sense of Russian greatness through the war on Ukraine and forceful annexation of Crimea.
We have now entered the final stage in this process. The population, seriously impoverished as a result of the prolonged economic decline, which began even before Crimea and was aggravated by international sanctions, is offered an ambitious program of support for the poorest of its members in exchange for a new Constitution, which will enable Vladimir Putin to stay in power after 2024, when he can no longer, under current law, be re-elected another time to the post of the president of Russia.
Is This Really a New Constitution?
In his address to the Federal Assembly, Vladimir Putin said that his plan does not envision adoption of a new Constitution. A legal analysis of proposed amendments, however, suggest that it amounts to a fundamental change in Russia’s State system.
His first proposal is self-isolation of Russia from international law — an idea floated by the Russian ruling class for quite a while. This would enable Putin’s regime not to observe international obligations when they contradict Russian legislation. This is a reference to the abolition or amendment of Part 4 of Article 15 of the Constitution, which mentions the primacy of international obligations and agreements assumed by the Russian Federation over its domestic legislation. This change would allow Russia to selectively not comply with decisions of such organizations as the Council of Europe or the European Court of Human Rights and essentially make pointless Russia’s participation in these institutions under the new Constitution.
It should be noted that the article proposed for amendment is part of the so called “protected” part of the fundamental law. In order to rewrite it, it is necessary, under the Constitution, to convene a new Constitutional Assembly. At a minimum, a referendum must be held. Vladimir Putin was clear that he does not intend to do either. Instead, with a Presidential Decree, he has formed a “working group” (not stipulated under any current laws) whose task it is to amend the fundamental law. He has indicated, however, that Russian citizens are to approve his proposals by some kind of universal vote.
It is highly unlikely that proposals will be rejected, since the majority of the Russian population does not understand that it is Russia’s international obligations that most reliably protect many of their rights, including social rights, given the tendencies of the authoritarian regime. In time, most likely such understanding may develop, but it may happen too late —after the amendment of the Constitution. Therefore, the international community must actively seek to explain this now, while such discussions are underway in Russia. Another point to be explained is that such a ballot would have no legal force; and neither would the follow-on amendments introduced through parliament, as they clearly violate the Constitution.
Understandably, the Kremlin is apprehensive about convening a Constitutional assembly, since the laws governing this procedure have not been updated since 1993. There may be an uproar, and most importantly, a delay. On the other hand, a referendum requires a set of rather precise formulations, which would tie Putin’s hands for the real re-writing of the Constitution. Putin is clearly counting on securing a wholesale consent from the people, and not a detailed, article-by-article approval process. Moreover, a national referendum cannot be combined with Federal Parliamentary or Presidential Elections which is exactly what the Kremlin intends to do.
Putin’s decision to disregard overt requirements of the Constitution is nothing new. Since his very first days in power, he has been consistent in eroding Russian Constitutional government institutions and creating parallel institutions and procedures. Some of the early attacks included establishment of federal districts and the institution of presidential representatives, not prescribed in the Constitution. The Russian State today even features law-enforcement bodies that exist outside the Constitutional framework – such as Rosgvardiya (the National Guard). Rosgvariya is controlled by the Presidential Administration, whose powers are described by the fundamental law as “the president forms his administration”.
The Problem of 2024
In addition to rejecting the primacy of International Law, Putin has proposed to strip the remnants of the autonomy of judges at the highest courts. At the president’s demand, the docile executive authority of the upper chamber of parliament, the Federation Council (the president can even appoint some of the senators) will, under the new Constitution, dismiss judges from the Supreme and Constitutional Courts (“in connection with a loss of confidence” by the head of government.
Putin has also proposed to renounce compliance with the European Charter on Local Self-Governance, ratified by Russia; and to make municipalities part of government authority, absorbing them as structural sub-divisions of regional state administrations. One of the possible goals of this initiative is to exclude independent political candidates from running in and winning municipal elections.
Likewise, the proposed amendment of the Article on Presidential Elections (which introduces a 25-year limit on candidates and forbids candidates with residences in foreign countries) politically neutralizes powerful opposition figures currently in exile.
Putin has also proposed to remove from the text of the fundamental law the stipulation that prohibits the president from running for elections to this post more than twice “in a row”. Putin himself has already used this clause, having essentially served five terms (four as president and one as prime minister), but he wants to preclude his potential successors from taking advantage of it.
The plan will certainly result in a major re-distribution of powers. The State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russians parliament is now in the process of approving the candidate for prime minister nominated by the president. The Duma also forms the cabinet of ministers, with the exception for the so-called “presidential quota”: the heads of the law-enforcement agencies and
possibly the head of the Foreign Ministry. The new Constitution requires the Duma to do so in consultation with the Federal Assembly, and not appoint them without any discussions as now.
Finally, Putin’s proposal legitimizes a government agency (that already exists parallel to the Constitutional realm) – the State Council. Russia’s governors serve at the State Council and are appointed on a rotation basis. It is not clear what the new State Council would look like, how would it be staffed and by whom, and most importantly, what would be its powers. We can be certain, however, that Vladimir Putin has already thought through those details.
Judging from the people whom the president of Russia has appointed to the “working group” to amend the Constitution, the group is a mere formality. There are practically no lawyers among the members of the group; these are extras in a political show. The real draft for Constitutional reform, has most likely already been written by the presidential administration.
One can speculate on the various motives behind the constitutional amendments. It appears that Putin intends to leave the post but remain in power in some other role. He may choose to run the country from his position at the Security Council (to which he has transferred as his deputy the ex-prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, who had resigned after the publication of the address). Although it is more likely that he will head a reformed State Council which will likely be assigned some sort of extraordinary powers under the new Constitution. This is an attempt to formulate something like a system of checks and balances which would guarantee Putin, even in the event he leaves the post of the president, the possibility of running the country.
The international community has very few instruments to block this path of Russia’s self-isolation. Bringing the country into international alliances would not have any effect on the internal situation in Russia. Mobilization of the currently apolitical majority of the population dissatisfied over monopolization of power within the country is the biggest hope for stopping these encroachments. It is for this reason that Vladimir Putin, before rolling out his constitutional reform, has offered a long list of new social perks and benefits, including hot meals for school kids subsidized by the federal budget. He is clearly counting that as result, some positive meme like a “Putin breakfast” (or lunch) would be established. But for now, this is a direct trade where the right of the current ruling class to extend its tenture by at least a decade is bought with a hot meal.
On January 15, 2020, President Vladimir Putin delivered his 16th Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation.
In his annual address to the lower and upper legislative chamber, Putin announced plans with potentially profound ramifications for the future of Russia’s government. Buried among the usual platitudes of socio-economic situation and calls to accelerate the development of all spheres of public life, was a disclosure of a plan that amounts to a major constitutional reform. The address, for the most part, used a very formal language and was rather stingy on the specifics of that plan. One can only guess how and when these plans divulged by Putin would actually manifest in reality—in the past, his public directives have undergone significant changes during implementation.
One concrete, major and immediate outcome of this plan is the resignation of the
long-serving Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev along with the entire government.
Following the announcement, Medvedev
put out a statement: “…it’s obvious that we, as the government…should provide
the president of our country with the opportunity to make all the decisions
necessary for this. And in these conditions, I believe that it would be right…”
for the government to resign.
Will there be a referendum?
Vladimir Putin has proposed to amend the Russian
Constitution through a mechanism of “citizens’ vote.” It is noteworthy that he was
careful to avoid using the term “referendum.” The last referendum in the
Russian Federation was held in 1993 and since then, the legislation governing
the plebiscite procedure has changed dramatically but has never been applied.
Moreover, presidential initiatives in Russia do not necessarily require confirmation
by a popular vote. It cannot be ruled out that presidential lawyers would be
able to create a legal implementation roadmap avoiding a referendum altogether.
In her comments to the media following the
address, the Chairman of the Russian Central Election Commission Ella Pamfilova
said a referendum is unlikely, and hinted that another format would likely be used
to approve the proposed amendments.
What this really means: The abolition of the
principle of primacy of International Law, the abolition of the independence of
local self-government, the abolition of the principle of independence of the judiciary.
The most monumental and unambiguous element
of the constitutional reform proposed by Putin is the abolition of the
principle of the primacy of International Law (Article 15 of the Constitution).
This measure represents the development and final consolidation of the position
of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, which was formulated in 2015 and subsequently received
its legal confirmation.
The proposed obviating of the principle of
independence of judges is the direct subversion of the core tenets of the 1993
Constitution. Until now, there have been no formal legal levers of direct and
immediate pressure on judges (although, of course, in no way could the Supreme
Court of the Russian Federation be considered independent). With the proposed
reforms, the highest judges can be dismissed from their posts on the widest
If implemented, this plan would certainly result
in a significant deterioration of the already deplorable situation of human
rights in the Russian Federation. Russia would cease to be a legal state even
in the most lax definition of the term.
Another proposal sounded by Putin that would also
directly affect the everyday life of Russian citizens is to establish the
principles of a “unified system of public authority” and effective interaction
between state and municipal bodies. Exactly how this system of principles will
look in practice is still unclear, but it is strongly hinting at the abolition
of the principle of independence of municipal self-government and the violation
of the basic provisions of the European Charter of Local
Moreover, if the principle of primacy of International Law is abolished, it would
not even be necessary to denounce any international legal acts— those would simply
become non-applicable or selectively applicable. Putin most likely will create a
quasi-legal structure to enable local governments in one form or another to be
included in the state power system and incorporated into the power “vertical”.
Considering that the State Council, the body
which currently consists largely of governors, will occupy a central place in
the newly-declared structure of power, it is not difficult to imagine that at
the regional level the power system will also become more centralized, possibly
at the expense of municipalities.
The New Vertical
It’s very likely that the power transit scenario announced by Putin today, one way or another, will be fashioned after the transit of power launched in 2019 in Kazakhstan, one of the most successful personality-centered regimes oft the post-Soviet domain.
In his 2019 report “A New Prince: An Undemocratic Transit of Power in the Post-Soviet Space” political analyst Kirill Rogov analyzed the Kazakh transit as follows: “Nazarbayev is ‘splitting’ the presidential power. But unlike other well-known scenarios, he is splitting it not in two (the President and the Prime Minister), but three (the President, the Security Council President, and the Prime Minister) or even four components. The powers of the Senate headed by Nazarbayev’s daughter, for example, include the nomination of the Chairperson of the National Bank, the Prosecutor General, the Chair and Judges of the Supreme Court, and also the Chair of the National Security Committee. Such a design provides him with nearly full control of the state. It looks quite reliable as long as Nazarbayev remains legally capable.”
However, it is important to note that the
stated plan regarding the transit of power in Russia will most likely go
through the State Council and not the Security Council. Therefore, it is the
civilian political elite of the United Russia party and state governors that
would constitute its initial supporters base and not security officials
Moreover, the shift of the center of gravity to the new Council, the structure of which has not yet been determined (as opposed to a fully-fledged and staffed Security Council) suggests that a variety of loyal players interested in participating in this transit can make a bid to do so (of course, pending a personal approval by Putin himself).
Finally, Putin’s new plan preserves the
United Russia as the key pillar of his power. Since for the past few years it
has maintained a relatively low profile and even avoided flashing its brand in
regional elections so not to lose votes), we are likely to witness a great
mobilization of its Duma delegates and the entire party apparatus. This, in turn, will reinvigorate the cadres
dynamics within the Russian government, offering new and rapid opportunities
for career advancement all the way up to the top position unseen in the recent
Petr Parpulov was born in 1955. A resident of the city of Sochi. From the 1980s to his detention in 2014, he worked as an air traffic control officer at the airport in Sochi although he had already reached pensionable age. He was sentenced to 12 years in a strict-regime penal colony under Article 275 (‘High treason’) of the Russian Criminal Code for divulging unidentified classified information that was nonetheless published in the newspaper ‘Krasnaya Zvezda’ (‘Red Star’) and therefore available to the general public. Parpulov has been in custody since March 4, 2014. Continue reading The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of Petr Parpulov→
In 2019, Russia regained its status in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. This event caused many fears and sowed the seeds of doubt in the minds of observers and analysts. The team of the Free Russia Foundation reviewed the development of this challenging situation.
A criminal case of violence against government officials and the riots in Moscow, which allegedly occurred on July 27, 2019 during the largest “unsanctioned” protest rally, was opened on July 30. More than 20 people were accused during this investigation.
On December 11, Free Russia House held a discussion, “Kremlin hostages: Victories, difficulties, new challenges” as part of the 4th human rights non-conference organized in Kyiv. The discussion was joined by Ilya Novikov, a lawyer to a number of Ukrainian political prisoners, and Igor Kotelyanets, head of the Association of Relatives of Political Prisoners.
Participants discussed multiple aspects of further tactics for the public campaign dedicated to the release of Ukrainian political prisoners still kept behind bars after the big exchange that happened in September. Special attention was drawn to the Normandy format meeting held in Paris on December 9, attended by Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin.
Igor Kotelyanets plays a leading role in the informal association of the relatives of Ukrainian citizens persecuted in Russia and Crimea on political grounds. He is a cousin of one of the political prisoners who was lucky to be released during the autumn big exchange. He also cooperates closely with the Ukrainian government, speaks on international political platforms, and actively lobbies for legal amendments to Ukrainian laws related to the political persecution of Ukrainians in Russia. According to various estimates, there are from 90 to 114 Ukrainian political prisoners on the lists of human rights organizations and the Office of the Ukrainian Ombudsman for Human Rights. As well as many others, Igor was attentively following the news after the Normandy meeting, as he knew that agreements on the new exchange were already in place.
At the Normandy meeting it was announced that an agreement had been reached on the exchange of “all for all.” Even though this wording sounds very promising, in fact it brings a lot of uncertainty as everyone understands it in a different manner. Several hours later, at a briefing by Vladimir Zelensky with the Ukrainian media, it finally became clear that the “all for all” format actually implied war hostages in the Donbass region, leaving political prisoners out of the equation. “I have no doubt that Zelensky passed the complete lists, including both prisoners of war and political prisoners. Therefore, we can probably conclude that it was Russia who did not agree to the exchange of truly ‘all to all.’ The release of political prisoners in the Crimea and the Russian Federation will, apparently, be the subject of discussion at the further Normandy meetings,” Igor Kotelyanets concludes sadly.
Ilya Novikov, the lawyers of Nadia Savchenko, Ukrainian sailors brutally detained in the Azov sea and other Ukrainian prisoners, believe that the situation will not change before the end of the year, even though there were rumors after September that a second wave of prisoners’ release would have been launched before 2020. “Putin,” says Novikov, “understands this ‘exchange fund’ as a tool for strengthening his position in the negotiations. And here arises the following logical question. Notwithstanding the monumental effort Ukraine makes to free its citizens from Russian prisons, is it even possible that the country can achieve results on its own without external help or Western assistance in the person of Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron or even Trump is an indispensable prerequisite?”
An illustrative case in this regard happened a couple of years ago and involved Norway. On December 5, 2017, a Norwegian citizen, Frode Berg, was arrested in Moscow on suspicion of espionage and Novikov was hired to represent him before the court. From the very beginning it was clear that Berg would be convicted, as no single case of free pardon happened in Russia under this article since 2000. Thus, from the very first day, the Norwegian government, for which it was the first shocking case of such a nature, took this matter as seriously as possible. The Lithuanian side was involved in the process, as Norway did not have its own “exchange fund”. Lithuania gave Russia two Russian agents, and in return received two Lithuanian citizens and Mr. Berg. In order to make this exchange possible, Lithuania had to amend the legislation on the pardon procedure. Russia attempted to force Americans, through the Norwegians, to organize the release of Viсtor Bout. His return is idée fixe for Russia, but the Americans uncompromisingly responded, “It’s out of option.”
In the end, the trigger for the release of Mr. Berg was an accidental combination of circumstances which was helpful only against the background of long preliminary preparations by Norway and Lithuania. On October 24, 2019, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov arrived in the hometown of Mr. Berg – Kirkenes – on the occasion of the 75th anniversary from the date of the liberation of northern Norway by Soviet troops from the Nazis. The celebration was attended, among others, by the King of Norway. Appropriate location, together with the presence of high-ranking state officials and public pressure, preceded by long negotiations and legislative changes, lead to the successful release of Frode Berg.
Apart from minor disagreements in the Barents Sea regarding fisheries, Norway does not have any other serious conflicts with Russia. The Berg case was nothing compared to the Ukrainian situation. But even against this background, the release of one person required two years of hard work, involvement of a third party and changes in the legislation, and yet the result was uncertain until the very end. The only dubious advantage for Ukraine in comparison with Norway is that Ukraine has a considerable “exchange fund.” But for Russia, Russian citizens have no value.
There were only two persons important to the Putin administration – Vyshinsky and Tsemakh. Negotiations on the September exchange got off the ground when the question about Vyshinsky was finally raised. Before that moment, the situation dragged on for the previous three years without any progress.
2019 has been another incredibly eventful year for all of us at Free Russia Foundation, with more critically important programs and interesting projects, new and invaluable team members, new offices, more in-depth research and vital cutting-edge reports, more partners, supporters and publicity, and more ambitious ideas.
The Memorial Human Rights Center, in accordance with international guidelines, recognizes the antifascists Maksim Ivankin, Vasily Kuksov, Mikhail Kulkov, Dmitry Pchelintsev, Arman Sagynbayev, Andrei Chernov, Ilya Shakursky, and Igor Shishkin as political prisoners. We demand their immediate release and that all charges against them for alleged involvement in a terrorist group be dropped.
Memorial Human Rights Center (HRC) included a well-known Russian opposition activist Mark Galperin in the list of political prisoners for the second time. Previously, Memorial Human Rights Center recognized Galperin as a political prisoner in 2018 when he was under a house arrest on charges for extremism.
“… in no circumstances shall a State be entitled to be called a democracy unless it does, in fact as well as in law, guarantee to its citizens liberty of thought, assembly and expression, as well as the right to form a political opposition.”
This is one of the declarations of the Resolution adopted at the end of the Congress of Europe held in The Hague in 1948 that laid the foundations of a unified Europe and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms which is the very core of the Council of Europe’s purpose. Then, as now, it raised expectations.
First of all, what do we expect from the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights, and its Conventions? Are they just tools to facilitate “communication and dialogue”? Just another reason to meet and talk?
Or do they provide the framework for human rights principles and guidelines that every signatory state should comply with to adequately serve and protect its citizens?
What do we expect from the signatories when it comes to their level of compliance? We expect them to show tangible effort to fix what is broken when shortcomings or violations have been identified, right?
What do we expect the Council to do when faced with a continued refusal to address such problems? Also, how should the values stipulated in the treaties be upheld and prevented from being hollowed out by the signatories’ turning a blind eye to treaty violations?
We expect each other to respect the existing principles, rules, and guidelines, and hold each other in check by promoting the engagement of governments and civil society in demanding that club members comply with resolutions and court rulings. Does impunity fit in here? Not really.
Russia threatened to leave the club. But let’s face it: It actually wants to stay in. It just tries to intimidate the rest of the club to be let off the hook. Feeling sought-after, it demands immunity by dictating conditions of its membership, and successfully at that.
This brings us to Russia’s contribution to the club as its largest member. Its track record leaves much to be desired, and its lack of commitment calls into question the argument for having Russia in the club.
After all, why would it want to be a member if it intentionally disregards it, and why would the rest of the club want Russia to be part of it?
Many argue that if Russia is in the club, it will be forced to play by the club rules. That is with Russia in, Russian citizens will have the protection of the ECHR, and the channels of dialogue will remain open. If Russia showed true commitment and sincere willingness to change for the better supported by clear signs of improvement, one could accept a slow pace.
The Kremlin’s trick however is to time and again sell the illusion that it will really abide by the rules if the community lets it off the hook just one more time. The reality though is that it never delivers on this promise. It simply uses the same trick over and over again after invading and occupying territories of its close neighbours; interfering in British, American, Georgian or Dutch election campaigns; refusing to be held accountable for the downing of a civilian airliner, targeted assassinations in European states, or human rights abuses at home against opposition or dissidents.
Despite countless resolutions, dialogue efforts, and punitive measures Russia shows no signs of improving its behavior or willing to acknowledge its wrongdoings when it is caught in the act. Despite its club membership, Russia is in reverse gear.
So much for the argument that Russia will play by the rules once it is part of the club.
It just goes to show that an inclusive, cooperative, and civilized approach with Russia does not work.
Deformation of Values
Yes, Russian citizens can go to the ECHR, but if the Russian authorities overturn or simply do not implement its decisions, how are Russian citizens protected by the European Convention on Human Rights? They are still at the mercy of the Kremlin’s whims.
By now, we should have realized that it is an illusion to think that the current Russian political establishment – first and foremost, the Kremlin – will ever play by the rules.
The Kremlin respects neither its club co-members nor the conditions and obligations of its membership. It disrespects its own citizens as well whenever it feels like it. This means that if the Council of Europe refuses to confront Russia’s chronic attitude, it will itself suffer from a deformation of values.
Moreover, the Kremlin has proven that it can simply overturn sanctions by threatening to leave the club, thus rendering this punitive measure useless. After all, if it worked once, why wouldn’t it again?
Unless, of course, the club members agree that it has been enough and begin to truly defend what they value: the clubhouse, and what is being protected by its roof. For that, they need to agree not to allow one bully to bring down the entire club. By submitting to the Kremlin’s blackmail, they set the clubhouse on fire from the inside. Can we prevent it from burning down to the ground? Yes, we can. It’s not too late. But we have to act.
We need to live up to the expectations we have set ourselves. We need to follow the existing criteria, values and norms. We need to hold each member to account by demanding to fix violations and to demonstrate tangible progress. And we certainly must not succumb to blackmail over membership.
We cannot tolerate the bully’s victim-blaming techniques. We cannot let cynicism and moral nihilism win, thus allowing impunity to become the norm.
In conclusion, civil society and European governments should put more pressure on Russia to make it comply with the conventions it voluntarily signed.
If takes punitive measures, such as disciplinary sanctions, then so be it. And they should not be lifted until the perpetrator takes steps to resolve the issue that resulted in these sanctions. Compliance is not negotiable. Otherwise, the value of the rules-based order will erode, undermining its very foundations.
If Russia wishes to remain a member it has to accept the existing club rules and the consequences for violating them. Ultimately, we should not be afraid to let a member go if he basically refuses to cooperate.
The European consensus on an EU Magnitsky law that was reached earlier this week shows that a long term commitment of civil society, politicians, and governments to pushing for measures against human rights violators and impunity ultimately pays off. There is no escape. And this is the message that all involved actors should continue to convey. There is no escape from justice.
Today we will talk about different aspects of Nord Stream-2.
About political aspects of the deal, like bypassing transit countries like Ukraine and Belarus and the fact that despite it being a 100 percent Gazprom venture, Nord Stream-2 is registered in Switzerland, which is not an EU country.
About security aspects of the deal, like the Russian navy patrolling in the Baltic Sea to protect their pipelines – in plural because in fact there will be about four of them when they are completed.
About economic aspects of the deal like the loss of three billion dollars in transit fees per year for Ukraine, but also about the enormous maintenance costs of underwater pipelines.
About environmental aspects of the deal like disturbing the seabed which is full of mines, chemical waste and munitions from WW II but also disturbing nature on the surface like bird and marine life.
About land-based alternatives of the deal which are still very much possible and probably a lot cheaper as well.
Will we talk about ethical aspects of the deal as well? About the people at the helm? The former chancellor of Germany who was still chancellor when the deal was in the making in 2005, about the managing director who worked for the secret services in East Germany and the rumors about his past, about the former Prime Minister from Finland who worked as an advisor for Nord Stream and the rumors about his past.
We should probably begin with the history of the Dutch-Russian business relationship.
I, myself, was born in Zaandam, a town 20 km north of Amsterdam. In the late 17th century, it was situated quite conveniently opposite the Golden Age Amsterdam and was well known for its ship building activities. Tsar Peter the Great happened to be very interested in ship building. In Izmailovo, at the time a nice estate of the Tsar’s family to the east of Moscow, with a wooden palace and a large pond, Peter got to know a Dutchman called Carsten Brandt. Carsten Brandt first came to Russia under Tsar Aleksey to help him build small boats, the so-called botiki. Peter asked him to build a sailing boat, and together they sailed on the Izmailovo pond and later on bigger lakes like the Pleshcheyevo lake near Pereslavl Zalesski to the north of Moscow.
In 1697, Peter came to Zaandam, incognito, to learn the craft of ship building from a Dutch carpenter. People recognized him though, and he had to move to Amsterdam where he worked in a shipyard. Today, the monument to Peter the Great on the main square of Zaandam and the small wooden house, where he apparently lived, are among the most popular tourist attractions in my hometown.
In mid – 17th century, there were Dutchmen living in Moscow, in the quarter that lodged all foreigners, the so-called Nemetskaya Sloboda, and since then the Dutch have not stopped to do business with Russia that was exciting and profitable for both Russian Tsars and small and medium-sized enterprises.
In the 18th century for example, the famous Ruslui (“Russia people”), who were traders and manufacturers from a small town of Vriezenveen in the east of the Netherlands, were successful in business in St Petersburg and owned a shop in the Gostiny Dvor on the Nevski Prospekt. Some of them managed to become official purveyors to the tsar’s court, especially with cigars and table linen. They also sold cocoa, coffee, tea, and flowers of course. The Netherlands Reformed Church on Nevski 20 still reminds us of this Dutch page in the history of St. Petersburg.
In the 19th century, the relationship between the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Russian Empire became extremely close. Our Kingdom had a Russian-born queen. The daughter of Tsar Pavel, Anna Pavlovna, granddaughter of Catherine the Great, married our William, the heir to the Dutch throne. She lived in a modest palace, nothing like the huge palaces of St. Petersburg.
We have gotten to the 20th century. The Anglo-Dutch company Shell was one of the first ones to enter the oilfields in Azerbaijan, the world’s largest oilfields in the early 20th century. Together with the Nobel Brothers, they built the oil transport infrastructure that still provides the basis for today’s oil transportation in the Caucasus. They controlled 75 percent of the oil production. Baku was the world’s largest and busiest port with a huge fleet of oil tankers. The Baku-Tbilisi-Batumi railway was built as well as the world’s longest oil pipeline of almost 900 km between Baku and Batumi. The Baku oilfields were of extreme strategic importance during the WWII. Nazi Germany got its oil from Russia, especially during the period from 1939 to 1941 when the Nazi military needed an enormous amount of oil. In 1941, Hitler decided to attack his strategic partner, the Soviet Union, and the Nazi army’s first and foremost goal was to reach Baku to ensure a steady oil supply. We all know how this ended. And we also know how it ended for Shell and the Nobel Brothers. They lost all their assets when the Bolsheviks entered Baku in 1920 and nationalized the oil industry.
Then came 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union. All big western companies were very eager to enter the Russian market and of course Shell was as well. And Shell liked to do it big so why not take huge shares in new projects? Thus, it became involved in the Sakhalin 2 Oil and Gas Project. Today, it is heavily involved in North Stream 2, a 100 percent offshoot of Gazprom, a Russian company with headquarters in Switzerland, doing business with and in the European Union. Shell is not a shareholder but it provides 10 percent of the financing, just like other major EU players.
Let’s make a trip to Sakhalin. Sakhalin, the largest island of the Russian Federation to the north of Japan, was first put on the map by a Dutchman. Martin de Vries sailed in 1643 from Batavia in the Dutch East Indies to the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin to draw a new map of that exciting part of the world. The first Russians arrived in the 18th century, and the Japanese controlled the southern part of the island. In the late 19th century, Sakhalin became notorious as a “prison island.” The most famous man who visited the island was probably the writer Anton Chekhov, who wrote about the misery of the inmates and their families in 1890.
Apart from the Japanese who refused to sign the takeover by the Soviets, no one seemed interested in the island after the war. On Japanese maps the island is still marked as No Man’s Land. In 1983, Sakhalin appeared on the news again when a South Korean airliner was shot down by mistake by Soviet air defense forces. The Soviets first tried to deny that it had happened, and then claimed that this had been a spy mission. The flight data recordings were finally released ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This tragedy that has almost been forgotten was nevertheless one of the tensest moments of the Cold War. Also, this story reminded me a little of MH17.
The development of the Sakhalin-2 Oil and Gas Project began in the late 80s. In 1991, the Russian state, two Texan oil companies, and Japan’s Mitsui founded a consortium. Shell joined one year later and became the majority shareholder with 55%. The Texan companies sold their shares. Everything went well, and a huge project was launched involving a small town for expat workers, an LNG plant, and a lot of infrastructure.
But then Russia had a new president, and things started to change. Gazprom appeared on the horizon and it advanced quickly. It all happened during the period from 2003 to 2005 when the private oil company Yukos tried to merge with Sibneft, and then suddenly everything changed. Major lawsuit threats were followed by the arrest of Khodorkovski. Yukosneftegas was indirectly taken over by Russia’s largest oil company Rosneft.
Abramovich felt obligated to sell Sibneft to Gazprom for 13 billion dollars. It was then that Gazprom and Rosneft conquered the oil and gas industry in Russia.
However, there was still Sakhalin II owned by the Anglo-Dutch company Shell and two minority Japanese shareholders.
A “useful idiot” was quickly found. The Sakhalin-2 project had a negative impact on the environment. An organization called the Sakhalin Environmental Watch brought up all kind of complaints and claims. The first complaints were about the construction of the LNG plant and the disappearance of pedestrian lanes which made it dangerous for school-age children to use the roads. These were followed by the complaints about the noise produced by heavy vehicles. Moreover, the Dutch who were carrying out the drilling were accused of having caused a decline in freshwater fish populations. Also, it turned out that the population of whales was endangered as well.
Normally, major oil companies or governments of oil-rich counties do not bother with such complaints. Moreover, Shell had had its share of accusations in the past of working with the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 70s and corrupt officials in Nigeria as well as polluting the environment. Consequently, Shell might have seen this as the inevitable side-effect associated with taking risks.
However, having been thrown out of Baku in 1920, they did not quite expect to be thrown out of the new modern post-communist Russia as well. Well they were wrong. In 2006, the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources began showing support for Sakhalin environmentalists. What followed was a threat of a lawsuit by Russia’s government environmental protection agency Rosprirodnadzor. The lawsuit sought 50 billion dollars in damages.
The entire Sakhalin -2 project was worth only about 22 billion dollars.
But of course there was a solution. Shell and its Japanese partners could sell half of their shares to a company called …Gazprom. For how much? For 7.5 billion dollars.
Rosneft has also tried to get some money ($1.5 billion) out of the American companies that were involved in the Sakhalin-1 project. Thus, Rosneft accused Exxon Mobil of extracting some crude oil from the concession area under its control. Eventually, the dispute was settled out of court in 2018.
It is also worth mentioning that Sechin plans to build his own LNG plant on Sakhalin in order to keep up with the Yamal plant of Mikhelson/Novatek and that of Gazprom on Sakhalin.
Meanwhile Shell remains a shareholder in Sakhalin-2, with its stake having been cut by half from 55 to 27.5 percent.
What has become of the “useful idiot,” the Sakhalin Environment Watch?
Well it got a taste of its own medicine when in 2015 Leonardo di Caprio’s Wildlife foundation wanted to give it a grant of 159.000 dollars for its activities in wildlife care on Sakhalin.
The Russian government however made it clear that the Sakhalin Environment Watch had to stop its activities and close down its office in Russia or else be labeled as a “foreign agent.” Having chosen to refuse the grant, the organization keeps fighting for the beautiful wildlife of Sakhalin.
Today, on December 6, courts in Moscow sentenced 7 activists and participants of the summer protests against the denial of opposition candidates to run in the Moscow City parliament’s election. A few dozens of people have been charged in mass-rioting or police assault in connection with the Moscow protests.
We are presenting a summary of the most complete list of people prosecuted for their involvement in the Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami organization (hereinafter referred to as HT) in Russia and the annexed Crimea. Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami organization was recognized in Russia as a terrorist organization and banned on this basis.
Watch the full version of the “Misrule of Law: How the Kremlin Uses Western Institutions to Undermine the West” report presentation in Kyiv, Ukraine. Speaker: Michael Weiss, the Director of Special Investigations at Free Russia Foundation and co-author of the report.
Watch the full version of the "Misrule of Law: How the Kremlin Uses Western Institutions to Undermine the West" report presentation in Kyiv, Ukraine. Speaker: Michael Weiss, the Director of Special Investigations at Free Russia Foundation and co-author of the report.The report is available by link: https://bit.ly/34uYJ9WСмотрите полное видео презентации доклада «ВЕРХОВЕНСТВО ПРАВА? Как Кремль использует западные институты для влияния на Запад» – широкомасштабного обзора организованных усилий Кремля и его инсайдеров с целью использования правовых систем и институтов в западных обществах против этих обществ и в своих интересах. Спикер – директор специальных расследований Фонда Свободная Россия, со-автор доклада.Доклад доступен только на английском языке: https://bit.ly/34uYJ9W
The Crimean Tatars are “a Muslim ethnic minority indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula.” They have been among the most vocal critics of the Russian occupation of Crimea, and as a result, the Russian authorities have “relentlessly persecuted” them.
Today, we’d like to remind people who respect human rights once again about The Kremlin’s political prisoners. The very fact people are imprisoned in today’s Russia for their political and religious beliefs shouldn’t be tolerated by the world.
There is a bittersweet development we believe is important to write about today. Yesterday, Konstantin Kotov, 34, imprisoned under the “Moscow case,” married a 19-year-old suspected extremist, Anna Pavlikova, at Moscow’s infamous Matrosskaya Tishina jail.
Eduard Malyshevsky and Nikita Chirtsov were the last to be detained in the Moscow Case. They have been charged under Article 318, Section 1, of the Russian Criminal Code (‘Using force against a public official without endangering life or health’).
On Thursday, September 12, 2019, a prosecutor asked the court to sentence Pavel Ustinov to six years in jail. According to investigators, the man was an active participant in an unauthorized rally in central Moscow on August 3, 2019. While under arrest, Ustinov resisted a National Guard officer causing the officer to suffer a dislocated shoulder. The defendant pleads not guilty. Continue reading The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of Pavel Ustinov→
On June 28, 2019, Free Russia Foundation hosted a conference Finding Practical and Principal Approaches to Countering the Kremlin’s Influence Campaigns While Upholding Sanctity of Free Speech at the Hague, Netherlands. Continue reading Is Propaganda Protected Free Speech?→
Ten opposition-minded residents of Moscow and Moscow region have been charged with creating an extremist group, ‘New Greatness,’ (Novoe Velichie) in December 2017, allegedly for the purposes of the violent overthrow of the government and constitutional order of Russia (Article 282.1 of the Russian Criminal Code). Continue reading The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of New Greatness→
On November 5, 2017, Yan Sidorov and Vladislav Mordasov attempted to hold a protest demanding the resignation of the regional government. In preparation, they had made two posters and about 30 flyers and purchased a megaphone. However, soon before they began protesting, they were arrested. They were subsequently charged with attempting to organize and participate in mass riots – punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment – and have been detained ever since.Continue reading The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Cases of Yan Sidorov and Vladislav Mordasov→
Svyatoslav Bobyshev is a professor and scientist at the D. F. Ustinov Baltic State Technical University (Voenmekh). He was arrested in March 2010 and charged with treason (Criminal Code Article 275) for allegedly selling information about the Bulava missile system to China during an academic collaboration with a Chinese polytechnic institute.
Yuri Dmitriev was born on January 28th, 1956 and lives in the city of Petrozavodsk. He is a historian, investigator and researcher of the burial places of victims of political repression, the chairman of the Karelian branch of the Russian civil rights society “Memorial,” and a member of the Commission for Restoring the Rights of Rehabilitated Victims of Political Repressions under the Government of the Republic of Karelia.
The Free Russia Foundation is a non-profit pro-democracy organization striving for a free Russia. We seek and support positive changes in our home country. We are ‘desirable’ among those who value democracy and human rights and, for that, we know we are in good company with 15 other honorable organizations. Continue reading Free Russia Foundation’s statement→
“What is the cost of lies?” asks Valery Legasov, the Soviet nuclear physicist at the heart of the hit HBO series ‘Chernobyl’. “It’s not that we will mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.” That warning is both remarkably familiar and disturbingly apt in an age dominated by fake news and alternative facts, especially because the famed Soviet obfuscation machine has found new life under Vladimir Putin’s watch in contemporary Russia, write Natalia Arno and Vladimir Kara-Murza.
Dutch prosecutors have announced charges against four pro Kremlin separatist commanders for shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, which resulted in the death of the plane’s 298 passengers. Rather than offer an apology to the families of the 298 people who died in the crash, the Kremlin propaganda machine has opted for obfuscation and disinformation, blaming the Ukrainian government — which didn’t control the territory from where the missile was fired — and the C.I.A., saying Putin’s plane was the intended target of the American intelligence agency. These lies may not have fooled anyone in the Netherlands, but given the near-total state monopoly on the media in Russia, many people there seemed to have taken the Kremlin’s story at face value.
On Friday, June 28th, a group of policymakers, prominent journalists, international legal scholars and free speech advocates will come together in The Hague for a public conference designed to find effective responses to the Putin regime’s unprecedented assault on truth and free public debate. Far from being redundant, the question of whether propaganda is protected speech is central to the policy debate over Kremlin disinformation. The key irony is that illiberal regimes like Putin’s are able to exploit the very freedoms they deny their own citizens to wage information warfare in the West. Free speech is an essential liberty and also a gaping vulnerability. How can we reconcile the two?
Free speech: Essential, yet not absolute
First, it is important to note the divergent approaches Russia and many Western democracies have taken to controlling the flow of information. While Western democracies seem to have only just recently begun to grapple with the policy implications of massive foreign disinformation campaigns and the perceived collapse of truth, reason and facts in public debate, Russians have spent the better part of a century living in a ‘post-truth’ world.
A current example can be found in the Chernobyl series. Rather than tell people living near Chernobyl that the plant was spreading radioactive contaminants into the air, Soviet leaders instead urged children to go outside for May Day festivities and didn’t evacuate the nearest town of Pripyat for 36 hours. Nor did then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev warn neighboring countries that a dangerous cloud of poisonous gas was headed their way, out of fear of looking weak to domestic adversaries. Putin and his coterie of oligarchs fit within this long, insidious tradition of post-truth politics.
As our friend, the late Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, described the regime’s propaganda in one of his final interviews: “[Putin] programmed my countrymen to hate strangers. He persuaded them that we need to rebuild the former Soviet order, and that the position of Russia in the world depends entirely on how much the world is afraid of us… they operate in accordance with the simple principles of Joseph Goebbels. Play on the emotions; the bigger the lie, the better; lies should be repeated many times. This propaganda is directed to the simple men; there is no room for any questions, nuances. Unfortunately, it works.”
In the West, democracies have clung to the capitalist model of a ‘free marketplace of ideas.’ As US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously argued in a 1919 dissent: “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”
Vladimir Putin, however, believes in a healthy dose of state intervention to sway perceptions of reality his way. State-run NTV is dutifully producing its own series on Chernobyl, with CIA agents responsible for the meltdown of the reactor while heroic apparatchiks fight to save lives rather than running to avoid exposure to radiation. The Kremlin’s view of what happened at Chernobyl will be artfully produced and pit “good” Soviets against “evil” Americans. It will likely be one the most trumpeted TV shows in Russia this year.
Protecting the public pursuit of truth
Faced with the real-world consequences of Putin’s propaganda, Western societies are coming to understand that free speech may be an essential liberty, but it has never been absolute. Words that could create a clear and present danger for societies have routinely been prohibited. Just as falsely crying “fire” in a crowded theatre would seldom be considered protected speech because of the dangers such a lie can provoke, several European countries have already taken action against speech that incites ethnic, racial or religious hatred. Much of the Kremlin’s disinformation fits into those categories.
So how can we adapt our understanding of protected speech in light of the disinformation threats we currently face? How can an ideological opponent compete with Putin’s army of trolls, none of which are operating in good faith? A marketplace of ideas can only function where competition is protected. The key policy challenge facing today’s political leaders is how to safeguard a free marketplace of ideas against a sort of ‘information dumping’ where foreign disinformation campaigns inhibit a free and fair exchange of ideas in the public sphere. On 28 June, we hope to find ways to meet that challenge.
Natalia Arno is the President of the Free Russia Foundation in Washington, DC. Vladimir Kara-Murza is a prominent Russian democracy activist and author and chair of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom.
It’s been seven long months since a group of Ukrainian sailors was illegally captured by the Russian government. The international campaign demanding their immediate release is growing, spreading to new countries. Even in Moscow, where group protests are prosecuted, series of “one-person picketing” has been taking place in front of the Presidential Administration demanding to release the sailors or exchange “all for all” (i.e. all Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia for Russian citizens held in Ukraine).
The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea has ruled that Russia must return to Ukraine the three military vessels and 24 sailors captured in the Kerch Straight. June 25, 2019 was the deadline for complying with this ruling. In accordance with the Law of the Sea Convention, all military vessels and their personnel have immunity, they cannot be brought before court, imprisoned, and are not subject to foreign jurisdictions. However, the Kremlin has demonstratively ignored the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention adopted in 1982, as well as the ruling of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.
Instead of a quick release of the Ukrainian sailors in the immediate aftermath of Kerch Straight incident, having held them in illegal captivity for seven months, now the Kremlin has started bringing criminal charges against them. Nikolay Polozov, one of the lawyers representing the Ukrainian sailors reports that the persecution has communicated an intention to formulate final charges by July 9.
Why is the Kremlin so brazen in escalating the Kerch Straight standoff? The answer is quite clear — with the objective to establish a full unilateral control over the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea.
The Kremlin has blocked the renegotiation of fishing quotas for the Sea of Azov. The Russian FSB and the National Guard have been taking Ukrainian fishermen as prisoners. The Russian government, without any legal merit, pressures other countries for transit permits; demands that Russian maritime pilots are included in international court proceedings.
Russia’s ongoing military operation in Syria provides an additional context for these developments. Sevastopol plays a critical role in military resupply to the Mediterranean. This, in turn, is intensifying the process of militarization of the entire Crimean Peninsula.
At the same time, Russian military aircraft and maritime vessels are engaging in provocative military maneuvers far from the Russian border with an ever-increasing frequency, threatening sea lines of communication. The two most recent episodes took place in early June 2019: Russian destroyer Admiral Vinogradov conducted a threatening maneuver against a vessel from the U.S. 7th Fleet in the Philippine Sea; and a Russian SU-35 jet conducted an intercept of a U.S. Navy aircraft over the Mediterranean Sea.
In their public statements, the Kremlin officials stress their readiness to cooperate with international institutions; express readiness to comply the legal norms and compel others to do the same. However, the situation with Ukrainian military sailors, ignoring of the laws of the sea and the ruling of the Hamburg court show that Moscow is acting in such as manner as if it were bent on uprooting the entire international order established after the World War II.
This double game is not compatible with the high status accorded to Russia through its permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council.
Against this backdrop, the fight over the release of Ukrainian sailors – are important de-escalation measures, and their outcome have profound ramifications for all of the G20 members states.
Ukraine is pressing not only for the release of its sailors, but also for giving the Kerch Straight the status of international waters. In Kiev’s view, this move will mitigate the risk of further clashes.
It is high time to call a UN Security Council session to adopt a special resolution compelling Russia to comply with the ruling of the International Court. It is also critical to consider introducing limitations against the seabed infrastructure of Russian pipelines, the ports of Azov, as well as against entities who facilitate certification of foreign vessels with their subsequent registration under the Russian Federation flag and offer services to foreign operators to establish lines of communications with the closed ports of Crimea in violation of sanctions.
Article 60 of the Vienna Convention of 1969 as well as Article 51 of the U.N. Charter establish the legal basis for Ukraine to suspend or completely withdraw from the 2003 Russo-Ukrainian Agreement, establish a 24-mile adjacent zone and claim the width of its territorial waters as well as continental shelf territories. If this takes place, the Azov Sea beyond the territorial waters will become international, and the Kerch Straight, in accordance to the Part 3 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea will acquire the status of a straight used for international communications.
If Moscow moves ahead with military proceedings against Ukrainian military sailors in direct violation of international norms, all European offices of Russian Maritime Register of Shipping and Russian River Register of Shipping must be shut down; and advisory must be issued to European vessel owners, operators and insurers to avoid cooperation with the Russian Registers for purposes of maritime activities.
We must not forget that Russia has illegally ceased Ukrainian vessels Petro Godovanets, Ukraine, Centaur, Sivash, Fyodor Uryupin and is now exploiting them The UN International Maritime Organization (IMO) should not ignore these demonstrative and gross violations of the international law by Russia. These pirate tactics are incompatible with Russia’s high status at the IMO Council. Ukraine, in its turn, should consider demanding stripping Russia of this status.
International organizations in charge of enforcing maritime laws must force Russia to release Ukrainian military sailors, stop its pirating activities vis-à-vis civilian vessels and prevent further Moscow’s advances aiming to close off the Sea of Azov.
On June 4, 2020, the Orenburg Region Administration’s Commission on Pardon Issues denied pardon to former Yukos staffer Alexey Pichugin, who has been in jail since 2003. Memorial Human Rights Center has acknowledged him as a political prisoner. Pichugin is serving life in prison, and this is his third pardon denial.
The Free Russia Foundation has assembled a team of experienced writers, researchers, and journalists affiliated with different organizations, to document some of the most compelling cases of Russian meddling. However, these events are only a sample; the Putin regime is busy throughout the world, undermining the integrity of Western judicial and policymaking institutions.
This report, a tour d’horizon of Russian active measures and subversion campaigns throughout North America and Europe, demonstrates that Vladimir Putin’s attempts to infiltrate Western institutions are relentless and that there is one constant to his two decade-long engagement: he triumphs where we invite him to, and most of all where we happily act as his complacent enablers.
This is a story of how the West consistently fails to get its own house in order. The very institutions created after World War II to keep transparent markets and liberal democracies from corrosion and collapse are now playgrounds for Kremlin agents seeking to enrich themselves and further that corrosion and collapse along. More than anything, the pathologies of our own societies are on ample display in these pages as the principal reason why so many oligarchs, intelligence operatives and bribe-offering banks and energy companies have been able to thrive outside of Russia.
The Putin regime’s persistence has paid off quite well in its geo-political battle of wills with the West, whereby Russia’s military actions since 2014 have been met with lukewarm international sanctions that have failed to shift their course.
What we hope this report demonstrates is the need for Western governments to take a stronger stand and vigorously defend their values and institutions. While this may not have the same impact as ending a bloody war, refusal to give in to the Kremlin’s advances for new laws to protect its business and financial interests; putting up barriers in response to Russia’s abuse of international law enforcement entities or enforcing existing laws so that oligarchs can’t hide behind newly-created NGOs can begin to push back against Russia’s current lawless actions.
If an individual nation defends its criminal and civil court system or combats corrupt practices within its own government, this will provide much-needed resistance against the Kremlin’s aims and objectives.If, collectively, several nations decide to join forces in this effort, ample pressure will be placed on Russia’s leadership to make it play by the rules more often and respect our institutions rather than try to manipulate them.
In the pages of this report, you’ll read about these, and many more:
– a U.S. federal money-laundering case was sabotaged by a Moscow attorney turned Congressional lobbyist, who obstructed justice, set up a dubious charity in Delaware to dismantle a landmark American human rights act— all before trying to influence a U.S. presidential race;
– Russian mobsters in Spain, despite a mountain of incriminating evidence compiled over the course of a decade, all went free by, among other things, enlisting Spanish jurists to spread a malevolent defamation campaign against one of his country’s most committed counterterrorism and organized crime magistrates;
– the Kremlin directed effort to pass laws in the Belgian and French parliaments that would effectively nullify the Yukos shareholder court decisions and render them unenforceable against the Russian Federation;
– the eccentric president of a NATO and EU member-state sided against his own government in favor of a hostile foreign one, to which he’s been financially and politically connected for years.
The chart below visually summarizes some of the cases, countries, branches of power, institutions and entities in the West impacted by Russian interference:
The report’s contributing authors:
Ms. Arno is the founder and president of Free Russia Foundation, a non-partisan non-profit think tank headquartered in Washington, DC with affiliate offices in Kyiv Ukraine and Tbilisi Georgia. Prior to creating Free Russia Foundation, Ms. Arno worked for the Moscow office of the International Republican Institute where she was the Russia country director from 2008 until 2014.
Mr. Barnett is founder and CEO of Istok Associates, a London-based intelligence and investigation consultancy focused on Central & Eastern Europe and the Middle East & North Africa. Previously, he was a journalist in the same regions for 13 years and wrote for the Telegraph, the Spectator and Janes publications. He covered the war in Iraq, the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, the eastern expansion of NATO and the EU in the 2000s and Balkan organized crime.
Ms. Filipova’s primary research at the Center for the Study of Democracy is related to Russian domestic and foreign policy as well the Kremlin’s media, political and economic influence in Central and Eastern Europe. She holds an MPhil and DPhil in International Relations from the University of Oxford. She has been a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, the Polish Institute of International Affairs, and Chatham House, among others.
Mr. Gatov is a media researcher, journalist, analyst and media investment expert.He is the former head of RIA Novosti MediaLab (2011 – 2013).
Mr. Janda is the Executive Director and member of the executive board of the European Values Think Tank headquartered in Prague, Czech Republic.
Mr. Lough is Managing Director of JBKL Advisory Ltd, a strategy consulting company, and an Associate Fellow with the Russia & Eurasia Programme at Chatham House. In a private capacity, he has been providing pro bono advice to the Bitkov family as part of the campaign for their freedom since 2015. He is the co-author of the Chatham House research paper ‘Are Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Reforms Working?’ (November 2018) https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/are-ukraines-anti-corruption-reforms-working
Mr. Shekhovtsov is an external Lecturer at the University of Vienna, Associate Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, an expert at the European Platform for Democratic Elections, and General Editor of the “Explorations of the Far Right” book series at ibidem-Verlag. His main area of expertise is the European far right, relations between Russia and radical right-wing parties in the West, and illiberal tendencies in Central and Eastern Europe.
Ms. Snegovaya is a PhD candidate at Columbia University. Expert on the sources of support for the populist parties in the Eastern Europe. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The New Republic, and columnist at Russia’s “Vedomosti” business daily.
Dr. Denis Sokolov
Dr. Sokolov is a research expert on the North Caucasus for Free Russia Foundation focusing on the informal economy of the region, land disputes, and institutional foundations of military conflicts.He is a senior research fellow at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) and research director at the Center for Social and Economic Research of Regions (RAMCOM).
Mr. Vladimirov is an energy security expert specializing in natural gas and renewables markets at the European policy think tank, Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD). His work at CSD focuses on analysis of the energy security and governance risks in Europe, political risk and international security. Before joining CSD, Mr. Vladimirov worked as an oil and gas consultant at the The Oil and Gas Year, where he worked in Turkey, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia. He holds a Master’s degree from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. He has written several academic publications, multiple policy reports and is the co-author of four recent books on Russian influence including the Kremlin Playbook: Understanding Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe, Kremlin Playbook 2: The Enablers,The Russian Economic Grip on Central and Eastern Europe and A Closer Look at Russia and its Influence on the World.
Mr. Weiss is an American journalist and author of the New York TimesBestseller Isis: Inside the Army of Terror. He is a senior editor for The Daily Beast, a consulting executive editor at Coda Story, a columnist for Foreign Policyand a frequent national security analyst and contributor for CNN.
Mr. Zaslavskiyis Head of Research for the Free Russia Foundation (FRF) and Head of Underminers.info, a research project exposing kleptocrats from Eurasia in the West. Until December 2018 he was a member of the Advisory Council at the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative for which he wrote a report on “How Non-State Actors Export Kleptocratic Norms to the West”. Prior to joining FRF, he was Senior Visiting Fellow, Legatum Institute, and Bosch Fellow, Chatham House. He has written reports on Eurasian energy and kleptocracy for the Atlantic Council, Council on Foreign Relations, Martens Centre and other think tanks.
The case of Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev is a story of impunity both in Russia and in the West. This oligarch, who was connected with the Kremlin and Russian security services, got away with inflicting a major environmental catastrophe, and instead of facing any consequences, received billions of dollars from another well-connected oligarch as well as the opportunity to live on a supposedly clean slate in the West. He evidently took his corrosive business practices to his new places of residence, including Monaco, which, according to multiple reports, led to the undermining of local police and the resignation of a justice minister. The oligarch continues to enjoy connections with the Kremlin and, when necessary, safety in Moscow. Through these connections, he has effectively avoided facing any consequences for his actions vis-à-vis local law enforcement. This ongoing case is a testimony to the erosion of legal institutions in a key European location.
Dmitry Rybolovlev, former owner of the Russian potash empire Uralkali, was implicated in a major environmental catastrophe in the Perm region. Author Oliver Bullough visited the site of one of the catastrophes at Rybolovlev’s potash plants in Berezniki and noted in his latest book Money Land that the oligarch’s negligence of proper safety procedures at his salt mines led to large swaths of the city literally falling into huge sinkholes that formed above the mines (Oliver Bullough, Money Land: Why Thieves & Crooks Now Rule the World & How to Take It Back (Profile Books, 2018), pp. 219-220.) Igor Sechin, then deputy head of presidential administration, reviewed the complicated case and, despite condemning evidence, absolved Rybolovlev of responsibility for any of the damages and allowed him to safely leave the country.
Rybolovlev’s companies did not fully provide even the modest compensation he initially agreed to in 2007-2009, but he did sell his stake in Uralkali to Suleyman Kerimov, another Kremlin-connected oligarch (see a separate case about him below), at a high price and depart safely for full time residence in Switzerland and Monaco (The main source in the West on all this has been this NYT article; key Russia source). With money taken out of Russia, Rybolovlev bought mind-bogglingly high-end properties in New York and around the world, expensive art, and football club in Monaco.
Since then, Rybolovlev has been trying to present himself as an independent businessman who cut his ties with Russia and the Kremlin, however, this effort has been a failure on multiple levels. First, the story of close connections between Rybolovlev and Sechin came up at a Congressional hearing last year. Secondly, Der Spiegel wrote in November 2018 that “rumors still circulate in Western intelligence circles today that Rybolovlev bought his way out from under the multibillion-dollar cloud hanging over him”. Thirdly, while Rybolovlev mostly lived in the West, a quick Google search shows that in 2016 he negotiated with Gennadiy Timchenko’s company Stroytransgaz regarding the lease for his property in central Moscow. This proves that Rybolovlev continues to have business relations with Kremlin insiders despite his claims that he permanently moved to the West for a new life.
For considerable time this claim has been taken at a face value by Rybolovlev’s interlocutors and counterparts in the West (especially those who engaged in various lucrative relations with him). In 2017, however, Prince Albert II of Monaco and a number of other high-ranking officials broke all contact with the billionaire. According to Journal du Dimanche, Rybolovlev, who invested 300 million euros in the development of his Monaco Football club, was declared persona non grata by the authorities. In September 2017, the Monaco Prosecutor’s Office initiated a lawsuit against Rybolovlev regarding the bribery of officials and high-ranking police officers. Rybolovlev and his immediate circle have allegedly put a lot of pressure on the investigative authorities and the police of Monaco. They attempted to send the detectives off course while they were investigating the case against the Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier, who had sold about 40 paintings by famous artists to the billionaire at unreasonably inflated prices”.
At the heart of the complicated Monaco case lie claims and counterclaims about Rybolovlev’s art collection and whether or not his former art dealer, Yves Bouvier, swindled the Russian oligarch. The focus of the scandal then turned towards Rybolovlev himself, who Bouvier claimed used his political clout to coordinate attacks against the art dealer by law enforcement officials.
Monaco’s Justice Minister, Philippe Narmino, had to step down from his position because of this case, facing questions from prosecutors after it was alleged in the press that he might have received gifts from Rybolovlev while the Russian launched fraud claims against Bouvier. Bouvier and his associates presented evidence that they were illegally recorded as part of Rybolovlev’s campaign to prove that he had been defrauded by Bouvier. The dealer himself was arrested by police officers of the Monegasque security “just as he was setting foot in Monaco … This led to accusations against the Russian billionaire of having taken advantage of his relations with senior Monegasque officials, including the Minister of Justice Philippe Narmino, to arrest and charge Bouvier.”
The art dealer was arrested in February 2015 on his way to Rybolovlev’s villa. His lawyer contended that Rybolovlev and his lawyer took part in arranging the arrest. Media outlets published some of the hundreds of SMS messages leaked from the phone of Rybolovlev’s lawyer, Tetiana Bersheda, which were turned over to the investigative judge in charge of the case”. In these messages, Bersheda warns the Monegasque police of the arrival of Yves Bouvier to the Principality.
The Minister of State, head of Monaco’s government, was very reluctant and evasive with regard to the investigations into this matter and even suggested abridging them. Nevertheless, the authorities of Monaco and other countries have attempted hold the culprits accountable and some disciplinary measures were taken against the police officers involved in helping Rybolovlev. This help was allegedly provided in exchange for high-end tickets to Monaco FC and other lavish perks emanating from Rybolovlev’s circle.
On January 8th, 2019, the Monaco revision court rejected Rybolovlev’s appeal against the use of his lawyer’s mobile phone by the Monegasque justice, who continues to suspect the oligarch and his lawyer of trading in influence and corruption. Following this decision, Rybolovlev’s lawyers suggested that they might appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming breach of privacy and other misconduct on the part of the the investigators. This investigation is far from over and while it continues, the oligarch and his circle still enjoy a wide sphere of influence in the principality. On January 16th, Rybolovlev returned to Monaco with a plan to invest 55 million euros in sport infrastructure in the country, a feat that the Russian press took as “comeback” for the billionaire.
Whatever the outcome of this complicated investigation is, one thing is already clear. The Kremlin-backed conduct of the oligarch, who brought his business and legal practices from Russia to Monaco, led to the demise of a justice minister, but so far has had no real consequences either for him or his political and business interests in the West.