Tag Archives: Vladimir Putin

WEDNESDAY APRIL 29, 2020

11:00 – 12:00 EST / 17:00 – 18:00 CET

LIVE WEBCAST – AMERICA: PUTIN’S OLIGARCHS’ PLAYGROUND

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America has become a safe harbor for incredibly wealthy men who made billions from their post-Soviet homelands. For some, the U.S. offered a fresh start to those seeking to leave behind bad reputations, political risks or legal problems in their home countries. For others, it was a society that allowed them to safely park their assets all while continuing to indulge the leaders they sought to escape.

Enter the twenty-first century and the posse of Putin’s oligarchs: Deripaska, Malofeev, Blavatnik, Vekselberg, Yakunin, and Prigozhin with their sacks of money, their blandishments, and, when necessary, their legal threats.

These are men used to making their own rules – including rule No. 1: Don’t call them oligarchs. They come from their own closed societies to bask in the freedom offered in the U.S. But, in their own ways, they insist on tweaks to our society to suit their needs and habits. If their dark pasts or motives are challenged by journalists, threats to investigators and reporters often follow. To launder their reputations, they have been buying up experts and think-tanks, and even bribing politicians. This is a story of powerful men using seemingly unlimited resources to purchase their own version of the American dream – with a distinctly Soviet-style twist.

Please join Free Russia Foundation at 11:00 EST / 17:00 CET on April 29, 2020 for the report launch “Kill the Messenger: How Russian and Post-Soviet Oligarchs Undermine the First Amendment” and a discussion of how Putin’s oligarchs are working to reshape American society by corrupting its values and institutions, and what can be done to curtail their brutish ways

With
The report’s author
Casey Michel
Investigative Reporter

Moderated by
Michael Weiss
Director for Special Investigations
Free Russia Foundation

Followed by
Q&A with the audience

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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.

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.

Local Elites

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.

Translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The ongoing decline in global oil prices is very bad news for Putin’s regime which depends on oil and gas revenues for about 40% of its federal budget.

This “black swan” comes in a flock— it coincides with the global coronavirus pandemic, the introduction of new US sanctions targeting the Russian energy sector; and on the domestic front, exacerbated by an extremely unpopular move by Putin to rewrite the Constitution with the sole goal of remaining in power for life.

We put together a matrix with scenarios for Russia under various energy market assumptions. Below, we have put together a matrix with scenarios for Russia and various energy market assumptions.

This is an excerpt from a Free Russia Foundation study Russian Scenarios 2030, that also includes chapters on:

· Elites’ Cohesion and Coup D’état
· Military Confrontation
· Russia as a Proxy Superpower of China
· Decentralization
· Local Military Conflicts
· Two Positive Scenarios
· The Sanctions Scenario
· State Crony Capitalism
· Russia and China in 2030
· De-escalation
· Succession after Putin’s Unexpected Death

Download PDF

On January 15, Vladimir Putin surprised domestic and international audiences by announcing plans for significant reforms to the Russian constitution. Rather than settling the debate over Russia’s political development after 2024, the proposed reforms fueled widespread speculation.We asked Dr. Ben Noble, lecturer in Russian Politics at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, about what the reforms might mean for Russia’s future.

You and Samuel Greene have suggested that the lack of a clear road map for succession provided by the proposed constitutional reforms is part of Putin’s plan to keep himself from becoming a lame duck. Is uncertainty a byproduct of the Kremlin’s strategy or is it, in fact, a crucial part of the Kremlin’s strategy?

Sowing confusion and uncertainty is definitely not the singular strategy. Putin is creating options for what he might do in 2024, while not explicitly stating that these are the possible pathways going forward. He is also trying to stay uncommitted to any one pathway. Uncertainty remains while options are kept open.

Is this a strategy that the Kremlin has chosen willingly or has it adopted this strategy out of necessity? A new Carnegie Moscow/Levada report shows that while 59% of Russian surveyed want “decisive comprehensive change”, 39% cannot name a single politician with a road map for change. It seems as though while public approval of the government and Putin is falling, the political system has prevented the emergence of credible alternatives to Putin. What consequences does this dynamic have for Russia’s political future? 

Has the Kremlin adopted this strategy out of necessity? Yes. It can’t do otherwise. If Putin were to say that he was going to step down from the presidency in 2024, he would become a lame duck. In that case, we would have a really unstable and possibly uncontrollable situation with strategic uncertainty among elites becoming an existential problem for Putin. There could be a scramble to find a successor and to take over the offices of government in a way that does not fit Putin’s particular managerial style – and could put his own security at risk. In that sense, the Kremlin does not have complete control of the situation and has been backed into the place it now finds itself.

Doesn’t the current absence of a clear successor mean that Putin is in a weak position? Isn’t he risking sparking elite infighting that might fracture the system?

There has always been intra-elite conflict. It is almost the modus operandi of Putin’s system, which allows for rudimentary checks and balances to work while Putin remains on top. And I’m not saying that Putin is never going to make clear what will happen next. If, for argument’s sake, he decided to remain president after 2024, the election would have to be called and there would be lead-in time for everyone to prepare. A more likely scenario is that Putin heads up a beefed-up State Council. Elites will gain more certainty when the federal constitutional law specifying the form and function of the State Council is created. At that point, elites might begin to maneuver in a way that is more disciplined. But the Kremlin will make sure to release information about the transition on its terms, which means that it will continue to control the level of uncertainty.

So, you’re not buying into the rumors that they will bring up the timing of the Duma and presidential elections within the next year and a half to establish a successor?

It’s always possible, but it would be incredibly difficult. Let’s take the State Duma elections. The date of the 2016 elections was moved up from December to September. What’s forgotten is that, when these changes were made, Federation Council senators raised this as an issue in the Constitutional Court. And the Court said that moving the date of the elections is not unconstitutional as long as it’s moved by a small amount of time and that these types of changes are not going to happen all the time. In other words, it’s an exceptional situation. If the Kremlin wanted to move the Duma election up to September 2020, that would be deeply problematic in so far as it goes against what the Constitutional Court has already said. Of course, the Kremlin could come up with a way to make sure that the Constitutional Court didn’t get in the way. And that could be one of the reasons for the inclusion of the increased powers of the President for getting rid of Constitutional Court judges included in Putin’s constitutional reform bill. In other words, this might be one way to put pressure on the judiciary, possibly with a view to a situation where the Kremlin would like to move the timing of the parliamentary elections. That’s a point that Nikolai Petrov has made a couple of times: he thinks that the references to the president being able to get rid of Constitutional Court judges might not remain in the bill in its second reading because it’s just being used as a way to exert pressure on the judicial branch while the constitutional reforms are being considered.

Debates raged just a few months ago about whether the Kremlin would get rid of party list proportional representation (PR) in favor of single-member districts (SMD) for elections to the State Duma in order to help United Russia secure a majority. But that doesn’t seem like a compatible strategy with any plan to move up the elections because it would mean those changes need to be made even faster.

In classic Kremlin style, they are thinking of multiple options simultaneously. So it’s perfectly normal for us to hear rumors about elections moving up at the same time as news about United Russia using regional and city dumas as test cases to see what would happen if they got rid of the party list entirely or altered the split in the number of seats filled through party list PR and SMD races. This has been discussed recently regarding the Novosibirsk and Lipetsk city dumas, where United Russia is trying to convince systemic opposition deputies to vote for these changes. Understandably, systemic opposition deputies are hesitant to adopt a system that would give United Russia even more seats. At the moment, the Kremlin is stepping back and thinking of multiple options. They are waiting to see how United Russia does on the 13th of September in regional elections in order to help prepare for federal-level elections.

Is there an outside chance that these constitutional reforms will be treated as a term limit reset and Putin will stay on as president by arguing that the old term limits no longer apply to him?

I’m going to be quite bullish in saying that that’s not going to happen. Pavel Krasheninnikov, in his capacity as the co-chair of the constitutional working group and chairman of the lead committee dealing with Putin’s bill in the State Duma, was asked if a reset was possible and he said that this was not being considered. In so far as Yaroslav Nilov, an LDPR deputy and protégé of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, was allowed to ask this question publicly of Krasheninnikov during the reform bill’s first reading on the State Duma floor, and Krasheninnikov was able to provide a firm answer, I think we can be confident that the message has gone out from the Kremlin that a constitutional term limit reset for the presidency will not happen.

It seemed, when they were first announced by Putin, that the reforms could reshape the political system by significantly weakening the office of the president, which was taken as a positive sign for Russia’s political future. But when the written draft came out, it became clear that the reforms would have much less impact on the existing balance of power. What do the reforms really mean for Russia’s super-presidential system?

On balance, the reforms create a stronger presidency. Granted, the presidency will be limited to two terms. But these are six-year terms, so the next president could be in power for twelve years. By focusing on eliminating a possible third or fourth term for the president, we can lose perspective about how long twelve years is, especially given the potential new powers granted to the president with regard to judges. This is not something that is being commented on much because the conventional wisdom is that all judges in Russia are coopted anyway. Telephone justice means that the Kremlin can make its preferences known whenever it wants in key cases. But these new changes would have a chilling effect on the behavior of Constitutional Court judges as well as judges on the Supreme Court, appellate courts, and cassation courts. The fact that we haven’t seen a huge outcry from the judicial community about this makes me think that these changes simply formalize the existing state of affairs.

But I also think that we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for our initial optimism following Putin’s speech. Putin said that these would be “drastic changes” that would empower a responsible State Duma and prime minister. We were right to read significance into those words because they are words that Putin doesn’t usually say.

Vladimir Putin in Moscow, 01.18.2014 г. Photo: Pavlo Bednyakov/UNIAN

Putin even had an off-the-cuff moment with the audience where he said that they needed to prepare for all the new responsibility that they would get along with their new powers.

Exactly. Part of it could have been strategic to make sure that the announcement made a big splash. He talked about drastic changes that will deliver a real transfer of power across the branches of government. But then the bill is far less drastic. We are right to feel like hopes were dashed.

It’s also important to note that many of the changes that have been proposed seem to be created for a possible future where we don’t see unity of purpose across the executive and the legislature – that is, when the ‘party of power’ does not have a majority in the State Duma. Take, for example, the proposed “super veto”, where the president will be able to send bills to the Constitutional Court to assess their constitutionality after the president’s initial veto on a bill has been overridden by the State Duma and the Federation Council. This seems to be a mechanism designed to future-proof the constitution to the benefit of the presidency in a situation where the legislature is not controlled by the executive. It’s difficult for us to picture the world that the drafter or drafters of the reforms might be imagining. But this goes back to my previous point that the Kremlin is creating multiple pathways allowing for executive maneuverability in different scenarios.

In a similar vein, Tatiana Stanovaya made a convincing argument that the proposed changes build dispute-resolution mechanisms into the system in order to deal with a possible scenario where the president and legislature or prime minister disagree.

Her broader point about Putin already knowing his successor is a refreshingly clear answer to the question everyone is interested in, but I think no one is really in a position to make that claim with confidence right now. With regard to dispute-resolution mechanisms, lots of disputes are resolved now in the absence of an institutional framework. But I do agree that these reforms are a way of giving the system flexibility in the future in case there is a disagreement across branches of government.

The proposed constitutional changes have so far failed to spark meaningful opposition. Navalny has come out against efforts to defend the constitution and other oppositionists have also largely demurred from staging protests against the reforms. Why is this?

The clearest answer is that Putin promised lots of things that the opposition cannot come out against, like indexing pensions, ensuring the minimum wage remains above subsistence level, increased maternity capital funding, and free hot meals for primary school children. The proposals in the bulk of the speech are things that the majority of Russians would like. That means it’s difficult for the opposition to come out and focus on technical details related to changes to the constitution. The Kremlin played it well to combine all of this together and rely on the knowledge that political reforms are of secondary importance to most people who are primarily interested in their living standards.

So, it seems as though there’s not a natural base of support for protest against the reforms among the public. But it is striking that the opposition is not even trying to organize something. Navalny wasn’t passive on the issue, he came out strongly against any initiative to organize protest. Does he see protests against the constitutional reforms as a losing bet?

I think so. It could also be that they are keeping their powder dry and waiting for a moment when Putin does have to make clear what he will do next. And at that stage, the opposition might use as a framing device something that has been successful in the past: the idea that Putin remaining at the head of the country will prevent much-needed change in Russia. At the moment, that is a difficult message to sell with all the other positive changes announced and without a crystal-clear answer from Putin about what he will do in 2024.

Police at banned massive anti-corruption rally in Moscow. 03.16.2017. Photo: UNIAN

When he was appointed, Mikhail Mishustin was described as a capable technocrat based on his almost ten years of service as the head of the Federal Tax Service. But this week, we’ve gotten a better picture of Mishustin’s background, including his long-established connections to many regime insiders and his savvy ability to navigate political networks. Is he a placeholder PM or could he be a potential successor?

We could debate until the cows come home whether he is a possible successor. He certainly is one of a group of people who could be a successor but this line of thought leads to a guessing game. And that’s not very helpful at the moment.

What is going to be interesting is to see how Mishustin’s cabinet operates in practice. One of the first messages out was that Mishustin is the first prime minister to put his own team together: a younger team forming a homogenous cabinet that has relatively similar policy preferences. But now it seems like something more subtle is going on. There is a system developing with checks and balances that suggests how conflicts might be resolved when they arise. And this is in line with what we learned from the Moscow Times article about Mishustin: he sets up systems and ensures that they run smoothly. For me, it’s going to be interesting to see how policy debates play out with this new team. Under Medvedev, we saw a number of policy conflicts rage for years. Under Mishustin, there may be less policy conflict. I should be able to analyze this possibility with my research on the Duma. If government legislation is passed quicker and with fewer amendments, that would suggest that Mishustin’s cabinet is more harmonious, given my broader argument that lots of what happens in the Duma is driven by intra-executive dynamics.

But there is also a huge question mark about how the relationship between Mishustin and Vyacheslav Volodin will develop. Volodin might not take kindly to Mishustin’s political star rising. I’m going to be looking at policy conflicts between ministries and how the government tries to manage its relationship with Volodin. Under Medvedev, Volodin got really close to openly attacking the prime minister. Volodin is a very ambitious person and criticizing the government allowed him to firm up his base of power and increase his reputation as an important political player. It will be interesting to see what Volodin’s language is like regarding Mishustin and government ministers.

Does this also depend on what role Mishustin decides to play? Medvedev was willing to take a lot of the blame for government inefficiencies and problems with United Russia. I think we don’t know yet if Mishustin is willing to play that kind of role.

I agree. We need to wait. We don’t yet know how Mishustin will handle relationships or how he will act now that he has to operate in the open. He now has new responsibilities in a new environment. At the Federal Tax Service, he could be the technocrat’s technocrat and be positively covered by the Financial Times. Now that he is in a much more public position that has traditionally been used as a whipping boy by the Kremlin and other political actors, it will be fascinating to see how he will react.

In your research on nondemocratic legislatures, you’ve argued against the theory that authoritarian parliaments exist to simply to formalize executive decisions, suggesting instead that nondemocratic legislatures can and do alter legislation. We’re seeing now that the list of constitutional reforms has ballooned to over 100 items and the length of the bill may increase by 50%. Are these additions the result of attempts at policy-making by legislators?  

The most important point to make here is that the Kremlin is not going to lose control of this bill. With other executive bills, there is sometimes a loss of control because the government is a collective actor. So loss of control just means, in practice, a new compromise – some people may be pissed off but some people might have gained something. Putin’s constitutional reform bill is not typical legislation. The Kremlin will maintain control of the working group and agenda setting.

Despite predictions that the text of the bill will increase by 50%, I don’t think we will see a huge conceptual shift from what was included in the bill submitted by Putin. Part of that is technical in that bills aren’t allowed to change conceptually between first and second reading. A more important reason is that if the bill changed radically, Putin would appear weak because his initial suggestions were not authoritative.

I suspect that a lot of these new proposals are being made to score political points. Just Russia is proposing to enshrine the pre-reform pension ages of 55 and 60 for women and men in the constitution. That’s not going to be included. Orthodoxy as a state religion – that’s going nowhere. But we will get much clearer language about the role of the State Duma and how it is involved in appointing and dismissing members of the executive. It makes sense to spell this out more clearly because it was unclear in the original reform bill.

There are additions to Putin’s original reforms that have gained consensus in the working group in the form of changes to the constitution’s preamble. They relate to Russia’s unique cultural heritage, support for fighting efforts to falsify history about Russia’s victor status in the Great Patriotic War, and a reference to Russia’s mature civil society. Andrey Klishas, a co-chair of the constitutional working group, also wanted to add something recognizing family values and saying that a family is formed by a man and a woman. But this seems not to have gained traction.

I also think that the avalanche of amendments will be cited as the reason for delaying the second reading of the bill in the State Duma to late February or early March. However, I think that the actual reason for the delay is the logistical problems that have emerged from trying to include a nation-wide vote in the process. Vague answers by Volodin and Putin to media inquiries about how the vote will happen suggest that there’s not a strategy yet for this.

What is the problem with holding a nation-wide vote? We know from the Crimea example, that the Kremlin can stage a referendum pretty quickly.

The reality of organizing a nation-wide vote and fitting it into the existing timetable and legal process is a headache. There’s a big timing issue for one. In the procedure outlined for passing a law introducing amendments to the constitution, there is no mention of a nation-wide vote. Instead, there is a requirement that at least two thirds of regional assemblies need to approve the initiative before it comes into force, in addition to other requirements. So, Putin can sign the bill and then wait for the assemblies to approve but how do you integrate a nation-wide vote into that procedure?

To be clear: there is no technical need for a nation-wide referendum or vote? The Kremlin has committed itself to a vote as a way to gain legitimacy for the constitutional reforms?

Insofar as the proposed reforms do not relate to chapters 1, 2, and 9 of the constitution, a referendum is not required. A nation-wide vote was proposed, I suspect, for the veneer of legitimacy that the Kremlin thought it would provide. Of course, the Kremlin could engineer a vote result by using administrative resources. But right now, the Kremlin is doing its best to try and make this whole process seem legitimate and democratic.

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.

On May 5, 2018, New York became a parade ground for two diasporas commemorating a distinct source of ethnic pride. Cinco de Mayo commanded the larger following that day, if only because of the kitsch bacchanalia every bar and restaurant in the five boroughs makes of a holiday meant to mark the Mexican army’s defeat of French empire. But the smaller gathering was distinguished by an unusual spectacle: an aircraft emblazoned with an enormous orange-and-black ribbon overflying the Statue of Liberty. Down below, some two thousand Russian-Americans, some in World War II-era uniforms, solemnly marched downtown along the Hudson, many of them carrying photos of relatives who’d fought Nazism decades earlier. It was four days before Victory Day, the official Russian state holiday celebrating the Soviet Union’s triumph over Hitler.

The marchers in Manhattan were doing their part early to honor the Immortal Regiment, the name bestowed by Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Administration in 2012 on deceased Russian veterans who are said to live forever so long as their heirs remember them. Yet this mass act of necromantic remembrance had an unmistakable political overtone.

The Immortal Regiment parade was organized by a pro-Kremlin youth group ensconced in St. Nicholas Church, the headquarters of Russian Orthodoxy in New York. Ever since Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the orange-and-black Ribbon of St. George that buzzed Lady Liberty has become an omnipresent symbol of revanchist and nationalist Russian sentiment.

For the Kremlin, this civic gathering, similar versions of which were held across the United States, from Philadelphia to San Francisco, “represented a significant projection of power to America,” according to Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, authors of The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia’s Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad.  It also represented a little-noticed high point for one of  Putin’s long-held foreign policies, one that is really an extension of domestic policy: the de facto enlistment of all ethnic Russians, wherever they are born or reside, as citizens of the Russian Federation, whether they like it or not. “Russia’s ‘compatriots’ policy reflects Putin’s past as a KGB intelligence officer,”  Soldatov, a Moscow-based expert on the Russian security services, explained to me, citing a KGB manual on this very subject published by The Daily Beast in 2018. “He was trained to see every ethnic Russian living either inside or outside the Soviet Union as one of two things: an asset to be recruited or a threat to be eliminated.”

There are plenty of tales of eliminations — or attempted eliminations — in Soldatov’s book. The Compatriots opens with a reconstruction of the poisoning of my colleague Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Washington Post columnist and outspoken critic of Putin. Kara-Murza nearly died by poisoning not once, but twice, while traveling through Russia. The substance that nearly killed him has never been publicly identified. I say “publicly” because the U.S. government apparently has reached a conclusion as to the toxin used.  Soldatov and Borogan quote an unnamed FBI agent who, in December 2017, informed Kara-Murza that the Bureau was preparing to hand the chiefs of the three main Russian intelligence services a report suggesting “that there was an attempted murder of a Russian citizen on Russian territory for political reasons.”

The chiefs arrived in Washington, D.C. a month later, a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, to meet with their American counterparts. Soldatov and Borogan are skeptical the report was ever even brought up, much less passed along. The timing might not have been judged to be quite right, what with a new U.S. administration headed by a president whose avowed wish was to “get along” with Russia. But the timing could hardly have been better, either.

In February 2018, Sergei Skripal, a defector from the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, would be found unconscious, along with his daughter, on a park bench in Salisbury, England, both victims of a near-lethal poisoning by the Russian-made nerve agent Novichok. Two operatives from the GRU, the apparatus Skripal once served, would later be identified as the culprits and sanctioned by the European Union, as a host of Western democracies responded to this act of state terrorism by expelling more spies stationed in Russian embassies than at any point since the end of the Cold War.

So much for the eliminations. As to the “recruitments,” Soldatov and Borogan wisely follow the money, the messaging, and the ties to the Russian security services.

In July 2018, Soldatov drove up the driveway to a sprawling mansion in the Rublyovka suburb of Moscow. He was there to interview Alexander Lebedev, the former KGB officer turned oligarch and media magnate who had just returned from celebrating his wedding anniversary — in occupied Crimea.

Lebedev is a colorful figure, even by Russian oligarch standards. He was arrested, interrogated, and ultimately convicted by Russian authorities in 2011 after knocking out a fellow guest on a live television broadcast. Sentenced to 130 hours of community service, the billionaire ex-KGB man and bon vivant was exhibited on Russian state media sweeping the Moscow streets. It was a housebreaking, write Soldatov and Borogan; a signal from the top that ”you might be a former high-ranking KGB officer and an oligarch with newspapers from Moscow to London, but don’t forget you are totally at the mercy of the Kremlin.”

Yet for all this official turbulence, Lebedev hasn’t exactly gone rogue. He has routinely chastised Western governments for instituting sanctions on Russia for its invasion and destabilization of Ukraine. In conversation with Soldatov, he also dismissed the idea of a viable Russian opposition to Putin, of which Lebedev nonetheless considers himself a part, and derided Kara-Murza’s poisonings as an unproven conspiracy theory. Then he allowed this remark about how his various news holdings navigate an overweening Russian state: “Where it’s needed they criticize Russia, and where it’s needed, say, on Syria, we support the Russian position.”

Two of these holdings are in fact prominent British newspapers, The Evening Standard, a free daily now edited by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne; and The Independent, a left-of-center tabloid with a notoriously eccentric comment section, particularly when it comes to the Middle East.

Lebedev and his socialite son and business partner, Evgeny, have lately come under scrutiny in the UK for two reasons. The first is their well-photographed coziness to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who attends parties hosted by the Lebedevs at home and abroad, including one lavish affair in London the day after his blow-out election victory last month. The second is the existence of a 50-page British intelligence dossier on Russian interference in the British political system, a report Downing Street has refused to de-classify, as Johnson waves off allegations that oligarchs such as Alexander Lebedev might be wielding undue influence over his government.

Closer to these shores, Soldatov and Borogan train their investigative attention on the American-born billionaire Boris Jordan, the scion of an exiled aristocratic dynasty responsible for financing and supporting the pro-czarist White Army during the Russian Civil War. Today, Jordan is gemutlich with the powers that be in Moscow and has done very well for himself in New York. He is currently the chairman of Curaleaf, the world’s largest legal marijuana seller, as well as the patron of the eponymous Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia at New York University. In recent public appearances, he, too, has railed against sanctions on Russian officials and institutions over Ukraine.

Like a number of ethnic Russians born and raised in the West, Jordan moved to his ancestral home after the collapse of the Soviet Union to reap the benefits of a fledging democracy and market economy. He amassed a fortune through savvy investments and excellent contacts. Renaissance Capital, the investment bank Jordan cofounded, enlisted two Russian foreign intelligence officers for executive positions. One of them, Yuri Sagaidak, had been expelled from London in the late 1980s for attempting to recruit a member of the British parliament.

Jordan was later tapped by Putin as CEO of the popular NTV television channel upon its hostile takeover by the state. NTV’s crime was reporting honestly and critically on the Kremlin, and Jordan dutifully oversaw its transformation into a pro-government mouthpiece. One of the casualties of that transformation was Kara-Murza’s father, a veteran reporter who died earlier this year.

Although Jordan at one point fell out of favor with the Kremlin, he is back in its good graces now owing to his successful stateside facilitation of the reconciliation of the two churches of Russian Orthodoxy. The “White Church” was established by émigrés, such as Jordan’s father, who fled Lenin’s regime after the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917. It came to represent more than a mere spiritual alternative to the grim totalitarianism constructed by the new rulers of the metropole, but also a way-station for the preservation of Russian culture, literature, and art.

The “Red Church,” meanwhile, emerged under communist rule in Moscow and gained in significance after Josef Stalin, himself a drop-out from the priesthood, realized how an ancient faith could be instrumentalized to advance a secular nationalism. The White Church had always been hostile to whoever was in charge back home, whereas the Red Church had consistently been little more than the black cowl of the Russian government. Indeed, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Church even counted more than a few former KGB officers in its ranks, including its current head, Patriarch Kirill.

“Jordan helped Putin achieve his most ambitious goal in dealing with the Russians abroad,” Soldatov told me. “He brought under Moscow’s control the Russian Orthodox Church in exile, the one seen by many as a symbol of the spiritual Russia uncorrupted by KGB control. He secured it by investing his money and his personal prestige as a Russian aristocrat.”

That investment, too, has paid off for Jordan, as those Immortal Regiment marches across America in 2018 demonstrated. As for the corruption of KGB control, that the wealthy American heir of a storied White Russian family would do the bidding of Russia’s first KGB-czar might be counted yet another satisfying realization of Putin’s compatriots policy.

“You don’t drag me into criticizing Putin!” Jordan told the authors of this timely and important new book.

Photo credit: UNIAN.

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

Translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

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 possible grounds.

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 Self-Government. 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 (“siloviki”). 

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 decade.  


Free Russia Foundation supports a protest letter to CFR over a tainted donation from a Kremlin-connected oligarch Len Blavatnik

Continue reading Free Russia Foundation supports a protest letter to CFR over a tainted donation from a Kremlin-connected oligarch Len Blavatnik

On March 27, 2019, in Magas, Ingushetia, clashes occurred between participants of a protest rally and The National Guard (RosGvardiya) and police officers after they tried to disperse the rally. 10 police and RosGvardiya officers reportedly received various injuries. The Investigative Committee opened a criminal case on the use of violence against law enforcement officers.

Continue reading The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of the Protestors in Magas

According to the current Constitution, Vladimir Putin cannot run in the 2024 Russian presidential election. The norm limiting a person to two consecutive presidential terms first appeared in the 1991 reviewed Constitution of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), was then guaranteed by the 1993 Constitution1, and was observed during the next two presidential tenures – Yeltsin’s (from 1991 to 2000) and Putin’s first one (from 2000 to 2008). Later, during Medvedev’s presidency (from 2008 to 2012), the presidential term was extended to six years. Thus, Putin’s second tenure will span 12 years and expire in 2024. What will happen next?

Putin’s reelection in 2012 was marred by a tense atmosphere of mass protests provoked by wide-scale fraud during the 2011 parliamentary election and societal discontent about the prospect of Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin. These demonstrations along with the 2014 revolution in Ukraine have largely defined the evolution of the Putin regime in the 2010s. By 2018 the next presidential election in 2018, the Russian authoritarian regime looked much more consolidated. According to official estimates, Putin received 77 percent of the vote on 67.5 percent turnout, which accounted for more than half of all registered voters (51.8 percent). This was exactly the goal set by the presidential administration before the election. This result was supposed to provide Putin with a kind of ultra-legitimacy: he had not simply been elected head of state in accordance with the current Constitution and legislation–the impressiveness of his victory and its plebiscitary character allowed him to claim a legitimacy rivaling the constitutional one.

On March 19 of this year, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had led Kazakhstan for 30 years (since the Soviet times), announced his resignation. He later named Parliament Speaker Kassym-Jomart Tokayev candidate for presidency from the ruling party. The election will be held on June 9, and there is little doubt about its outcome. Nazarbayev himself will remain head of the National Security Council as well as leader of the ruling Nur Otan party for life, thus retaining much of his political power and resources.

In democratic systems, the transfer of power is subject to a strict procedure that is modified in extreme cases only; property rights on the whole are protected by the law; and voters are the ones who decide who will head the executive branch or will be included in the executive coalition. In non-democratic electoral systems, the procedure, property rights, and even voting results are to a far greater degree affected by arbitrary decisions of the head of the executive branch. Consequently, the irremovability of government and the preservation of power in the hands of the same executive coalition become the regime’s key objective. This objective largely defines the logic of the regime’s evolution, its tactical and personnel decisions. As a rule, the irremovability of government is achieved through manipulating the will of the voters. However, there are times when the executive coalition faces a greater challenge: the death (or incapacitation) of the coalition’s leader, or constitutional restraints not allowing them to remain in office any longer. Such situations serve as crash-tests of sorts for non-democratic systems. Whether the system can or cannot handle such a challenge reveals the true weight and importance of its institutions, the actual balance of power within society and the elites, and the fundamental characteristics of this polity and the basic restrictions that it imposes.

In the first part of this work we intend to examine the cases of non-democratic transfer of power in the post-Soviet space, while in the second part we will discuss in detail the mechanisms of the emerging transition in Kazakhstan and possible scenarios of a similar transition in Russia.

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:

Nataliya Arno

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.

Neil Barnett

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.

Rumena Filipova

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.

Vasily Gatov

Mr. Gatov is a media researcher, journalist, analyst and media investment expert.He is the former head of RIA Novosti MediaLab (2011 – 2013).

 Jacub Janda

Mr. Janda is the Executive Director and member of the executive board of the European Values Think Tank headquartered in Prague, Czech Republic.

John Lough

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

Anton Shekhovtsov 

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.

Maria Snegovaya

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).

Martin Vladimirov

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. 

Michael Weiss

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.

Ilya Zaslavskiy

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.

 

For Press enquiries, please contact: Natalia.Arno@4freerussia.org

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

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

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

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

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

ABSTRACT

Recently, the Russian regions have attracted a lot of experts’ attention. In light of stagnating economy, public dissatisfaction with the federal policies has become particularly pronounced in the regions (which tend to be poorer than Moscow), as demonstrated by Kremlin’s failures to elect several of its candidates to the positions of regional governors in 2018.

Will the Kremlin’s failures at the regional level continue this year? To answer this question, we carry out a qualitative and quantitative analysis of factors that have contributed to victories by the pro-Kremlin candidates in gubernatorial elections that took place in 2012-2018.

The regression analysis based on the data regarding these elections shows that the percentage of the vote gained by the pro-Kremlin candidates positively correlates with a higher turnout (which can point to a higher possibility of election fraud) and the support for Vladimir Putin in the most recent presidential election. The key finding of our analysis is the correlation between the dynamics of real disposable incomes and the voting for the pro-Kremlin candidates, which hasn’t been earlier registered by similar studies. As social and economic situation in Russia continues to deteriorate, this correlation can be expected to become increasingly stronger.

The results of our analysis suggest that the population’s declining real incomes can lead to a substantial increase in electoral risks facing the Kremlin at the regional level.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Vladimir Kozlov is a specialist in economic geography and analyst of electoral processes. Graduated from the Lomonosov Moscow State University’s Department of Geography (1977); holds a Ph.D. (kandidatskaya degree) in Economics and Social Geography (1991). In 1977-2016, worked at Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geography; from 1995 to 2016, in the Mercator Group. In 1995 through 2008, Kozlov collaborated with the Russian Central Election Committee (CEC) on visualization of the federal elections’ results and production of the series of publications titled “Electoral Statistics” on the federal and regional elections. In 2001-2008, he was a member of the editorial board of the CEC’s Journal on Elections. Contributed numerous articles on elections in the media. In 2008-2016, worked on the Mercator Group’s projects (titled “Russia in Numbers” and “The World in Numbers”) at the Russia-24 television network.

Maria Snegovaya is a fellow at the Center for International Studies and Security at the University of Maryland, as well as at Free Russia Foundation and the Center for European Policy Analysis. Holds a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University and a Ph.D. (kandidatskaya degree) in economics from the Higher School of Economics. Specialist in comparative politics, international relations, and statistics. Key areas of research interest: erosion of democratic institutions, spreading of the populist and ultra-right parties in Europe, as well as in Russia’s domestic and foreign policy. Author of multiple articles published by peer-review journals; contributor to numerous media outlets, including the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, the New Republic. Her work was cited by the New York Times, the Economist, Bloomberg and the Telegraph. Snegovaya regularly speaks at the U.S. universities and think tanks, including the Kennan Institute, the Atlantic Council, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her work is listed in the course readings at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Science-Po), Syracuse University, UCLA, and the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.

On March 26, 2019, the global foreign policy wonk community was abuzz with the news of the resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev from his long-held post as Kazakhstan’s president. The non-democratic transition of power that this resignation has set in motion in Kazakhstan is an event of enormous political significance for the entire post-Soviet space. This is not only due to Kazakhstan’s growing geopolitical importance in the region, but also because the issue of succession is critical to the “personalist” authoritarian regimes that make up the largest and most influential group among former Soviet states. Transition of power is a fundamental challenge to such regimes and it determines the logic of their subsequent evolution in many ways.

Post-Soviet Cult of Personality Regimes

As far as non-democratic governments are concerned, personalist-type regimes are the most common and most effective among them today. Several regional subtypes of personalist regimes can be distinguished: African, Latin American, Arab (where a systemic crisis occurred in the early 2010s) and the post-Soviet.

Within the post-Soviet space, there are seven countries with full-fledged personalist authoritarian regimes: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Russia. Kazakhstan stands out as the most successful not only among them, but also among all personalist regimes globally. This is why the succession mechanism currently being instituted by Nursultan Nazarbayev is significant regardless of whether it succeeds or fails.

Of course, it is important to acknowledge that the transition of power in Kazakhstan has not been completed, and as of this moment its mechanisms are unclear.  It is not certain who will inherit the power and in which proportions. It is not clear whether Kazakhstan’s Acting President Tokayev will run in the presidential elections a year from now, or whether it will be Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga, who has claimed the Senate Chair post previously held by Tokayev. In that sense, what is unfolding in Kazakhstan now is the acme of the Nazarbaev personalism— the only certain thing is that he is the real decision-maker behind the process of transition of power and he alone has the capacity to determine who gets the power and how much.

Henry Hale’s Patronal Politics theory describes post-Soviet personalist regimes as hierarchical pyramids of patronage networks with an authoritarian leader at its helm. Unlike African regimes, post-Soviet personalist regimes are much more institutionalized and much less “voluntary”. They are based on complex systems of formal and informal institutions, agreements and traditions.

A key political mechanism of a post-Soviet personalist regime lies in the fact that, while it features a mature legal system, the norms of that system may or may not be enforced. There are no independent institutions able to enforce these norms. Instead, it is the regime’s leader and his patronage vertical who fulfil the enforcement function.  The leader, who controls the administrative system and the system of application of norms, is the informal de facto guarantor of key transactions and rights which are not guaranteed by formal law.

The Successor Dilemma

In practice, this means that the power of an authoritarian leader is accumulated in the process of the making of deals endowing specific actors or elite groups with rights to administer certain official functions or material resources from which they then collect rent. The continuous functioning of such a process is precisely what constitutes the regime leader’s power. This, in turn, shapes the essence of the succession dilemma of a personalist regime: the power of an incumbent leader is sustained as long as the guarantees that he offers are reliable; at the same time, the power of a new leader is a function of his ability to question previous deals and to renegotiate them.

The transitions of power which have already taken place offer ample material for understanding the issues accompanying transition processes within personalist regimes. The successor model is unable to solve its main dilemma. It is assumed that the successor will accept the responsibility of honoring a certain portion of the preexisting deals. However, as was clearly observed during the transition of power from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin, it is difficult to draw a clear line between the secured and non-secured deals. The uncertainty as to where that line lies becomes a political problem in itself  and a destabilizing factor. The rise of a new leader is proportionate to the rise of his clientele, which must supersede in their capabilities the clientele of the previous leader.

This was roughly the underlying logic of the Yukos case, whose political outcome was not only the redistribution of Russia’s main oil assets to benefit the new clientele, but an outright departure of Putin from the umbrella of the Yeltsin “family” and a wholesale renegotiation of the system of guarantees and agreements. In the aftermath of the Yukos case, even those elite groups whose rights and positions were much better protected than Khodorkovsky’s (who never belonged to the immediate circle of Yeltsin and “the family”), found themselves in a radically new situation and precipitously lost their prior influence.

Events in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan developed along the same lines: new leaders who inherited systems of personalist rule enacted decisive changes at critical nodes and reoriented the systems around themselves. For the most part, they renegotiated the preexisting systems of agreements.

In contrast to this scenario, in the “tandem” scheme (the temporary shift of formal power from Putin to Medvedev between 2008-2011) no changes took place because the new leader didn’t have the ability to renegotiate deals guaranteed by the previous ruler. At the same time, the tandem experience demonstrated that a new ruler, however impotent in reality, is assumed to have access to at least some of the arsenal of informal power and as such forms his own clientele, a shadow court of sorts, which begins to accumulate power with the intent of shifting into an offensive. The power of a leader or a contending camp is determined by the proportion of elites that will turn to them with their grievances, to seek guarantees or a defense.

The unique characteristic of the post-Soviet variety of personalist authoritarianism is precisely the combination of formal and informal mechanisms of power. They function as of communicating vessels and thereby shape the internal dynamics of such regimes.

Today, it is clear that at the core of the power transition in Kazakhstan lies the family-constitutional troika consisting of Nursultan Nazarbayev as the national leader (elbasy), Tokayev as a formal, but as of now not-yet-elected president, and Dariga Nazarbayeva as the Speaker of the Senate (i.e., according to the Constitution, second in line to the presidency). However, the future factual division of power within this “orchestra” is unknown. It is possible that even the members of this troika are not certain about it either. Tokayev may turn out to be a cover or façade for a transition of power within the family; or he could be the real deal, balancing and checking the family influence.

Sovereignty and Security: Doctrinal Legitimacy

Formal institutional aspects of the transition, about which so little is known, merit a thorough consideration.  These institutional aspects reflect important trends within the evolution of contemporary authoritarian regimes— first and foremost, their propensity toward ideologization, i.e., the quest to identify specific state/regime values as the foundation for their long-term legitimacy. This aspect of the transition in Kazakhstan has direct implications for Russia.

As has already been announced, Nazarbayev, having left the presidential office, kept his posts as the National Security Council and the Leader of the “Ruling Party”. Let’s examine the first post. The institutional side of the Kazakhstan transition is clarified by two laws: the National Security Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the National Security Council Law.

The National Security Council Law endows the founding president of the Republic (elbasy) with the right to head this agency indefinitely and describes the powers of the Chair. These powers are quite broad, though not without limitations.  For example, the members of the Council are picked by the President, but with the approval of the Chair. Therefore, the actual influence of the President and the Chair respectively in this process is determined by the informal weight of each and can change over time.  Among the Council’s functions is consideration of candidates for top positions at national and local executive branch agencies under the direct purview of the President. The rulings of the Council and its Chair on candidates are binding and subject to strict adherence by State agencies, organizations and functionaries (Chapter 2, Article 6, Paragraph 6).

The National Security Law is a true marvel worthy of having been authored by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and not by mere Kazakhstan visionaries. The law postulates a so-called “broad understanding of security” in the interest of defending national sovereignty—a concept that encompasses literally everything. The law in detail enumerates threats to the national security in all spheres and the responsibilities of various agencies in countering them. Just as in the speeches by the Russian President, the notion of national security in the Kazakhstan law balloons into a value universe of sorts, which counterbalances and limits other value systems, specifically, democracy and human rights. National Security is something to be defended, including from the citizens themselves; it is something definitely above the rights of an individual or rights of groups of people. Ideological manipulation of security threats and the concepts of security and protection of sovereignty forms the popular foundation used to circumscribe universal application of values of democracy and human rights.

The two laws offer us an idea on the institutional structure of the transition of power in Kazakhstan and the ideology supporting it. The Security Council and its Chair are akin to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard: something that is above the will of the people and having its own doctrinal legitimacy. Therefore, a president — elected by the people and tasked to fulfill the will of the people who elected him — is at the same time limited by the framework of the security doctrine and sovereignty, and also by the organs ensuring compliance with this doctrinal understanding of security and sovereignty.

Beyond Russia and Kazakhstan, and in fact throughout the majority of countries worldwide, security and sovereignty are increasingly set forth as values offered to citizens in exchange for circumscribing their rights, their freedom, and frequently their prosperity. Such an ideological trend not only changes the balance and hierarchy of universal values within civil societies, or serves as a means of further legitimization of authoritarian regimes in the mass consciousness, but also facilitates the deepening of the existing authoritarian regimes.  And therein lies the global challenge to open society.

The Transition of Power in Kazakhstan and the Constitutional Shift in Russia

For Russia, where according to the Constitution Vladimir Putin is not able to run for another term in 2024, the Kazakhstan experience has a limited implication. The limitations arise from a number of factors. First and foremost is the age difference between the two leaders. Putin is 12 years younger than his colleague, which implies yet another presidential cadence (two 6-year terms). The 79-year-old Nazarbayev is genuinely concerned with preparations of wrapping up his political career. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, does not intend to end his political career in the next decade. This creates a much wider spectrum of possibilities for Putin.

Another difference is in the positions the two presidents occupy within the political history of their respective countries. Nazarbayev is an authoritarian success story. It is not only due to the fact that Nazarbayev is the actual founder of the Kazakhstan statehood, while Putin is a Russian usurper trying to redefine it. Nazarbayev is a unique example of successful implementation of the Gorbachev Modernization Centrism policy. This is a fascinating story which makes us look at Gorbachev himself in a slightly different light (though this is a separate topic). Putin, however, is an eccentric radical attempting to revise the history of the previous 20 years, the reality that frames his counter-modernization policies.

Putin’s radicalism is tied to two key circumstances. First of all, it is tied to the marginal and borderline nature of “Putin’s group” within the context of the traditional Russian elites. Such tightly-knit marginal elite groups frequently find success in taking over power and sidelining their opponents, but this requires levers (leverages) for ideological and political radicalization. Putin’s self-radicalizing, anti-Western stance of 2010 is precisely that type of such a leverage.

The second radicalization factor is the protracted economic stagnation experienced by Russia during the past 10 years. Average GDP growth rates between 2009-2018 stood at 0.9%. Around 2000, the legitimacy of Putin’s rule in many ways hinged upon the high economic growth tempo and high tempos of income growth. Putin’s popularity translated into a rapid expansion of his personal clientele who claimed resources and revenue sources. As growth weakened around 2010, these conquests faced serious risks. This forced Putin’s coalition to seek new foundations for its legitimacy after Putin’s return to his presidential seat in 2012. However, the economic fundamentals during that period remained quite weak. Average GDP growth was stuck at 1% and the real income levels of citizens shrunk by 1.3% per year.

In Kazakhstan, the economic dynamism of the early 2000s also slowed by the second decade of the century. However, the average growth rates remained at 4% per year, and individual income continued to grow at 2% per year. These indicators, coupled with the much higher level of legitimacy that Nazarbayev enjoyed as the Founding President of the state, have preserved his ability to sustain a careful authoritarian modernization. This contrasts with Putin, who must rely upon much more radical policies in order to overcome the constitutional limitations that he is facing.

Top Russia experts in the U.S. and Europe understand that Putin’s regime has no center of planning. Everything operates on the basis of “personal bids.”

Russian forces deploy to Africa, not because of some strategic need (although there is, just like everywhere else), but because a certain individual has come to Putin, pitched a concrete vision (“project”), and has started the implementation of the project. That person, in turn, possesses the required cadres, he has the impetus and so he states an urgent need for such a project.

This is exactly how it worked out with Alexei Kudrin, current Chairman of the Accounts Chamber and former Minister of Finance. Without question, the lack of transparency of state corporations is a big problem in Russia. And leading up to elections, Kudrin had nagged Putin for a long time about the need to bring the state corporations affairs in order. So, Putin appointed him to the Accounts Chamber. (“Your idea, you execute. You have the resources already.”)

An infinite number of such projects is floated, but they don’t get the green light (by Putin) for a variety of reasons. Glazyev may have his eyes set on a siege of Kiev, for example, but he has already mangled the Novorossiya Project and the perception is that he is not up to the task. So none of the Ukraine-focused pitches get any traction currently.

Let’s take yet another example— development of the Far East. Many concept papers regarding that have been drafted, but Putin simply does not have a heavy-hitter who can be appointed to this task. That’s why the development of the Far East is not taking place.

Those who have been studying Russia for a while understand all of this. But moving to a slightly wider circle of Russia watchers, it becomes a challenge to explain this mode of operations. They are inclined to believe that “in the citadel,” or “in the dark corridors of the Kremlin,” some sort of a center exists that is dedicated to planning and directing all of these activities— elections interference, bullying of neighbors, executing premeditated provocations.

They believe all of these activities are organized according to some sort of a hierarchy, similarly to the way it is done in the West (i.e., until the Bundestag directs the German chief of intelligence to prepare a report, nothing is done). They don’t understand that in the Russian Federation, the process is the reverse— a “chief of intelligence” comes to Putin with a project pitch (for example, extort something, squash some large corporation, or ruin a bank). In 80% of such cases, a bank will be consumed, while in the other 20% it escapes with one leg bitten off, and then is very happy to be hopping around on just three legs. This makes Putin’s Russia not so much a classical top-down hierarchy, but a very pitch-oriented environment.

I get asked a lot why Sergey Kiriyenko, First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration, is not working on this thing or that, following some imaginary logic relating to the presumed operational dynamics of the political system. The answer is— he is working only on those things that he has pitched, namely, “Camp Sirius.” If Kiriyenko does not make any other specific project pitches (for which he and his circles then bear responsibility), then Putin does not give a damn.

Everyone is asking right now: Where are the signs of the Kremlin’s interference in the Ukrainian elections? Again, such a question is based on the faulty assumption that the Kremlin sets objectives, that it employs analysts, and that it oversees a political apparatus that articulates projects. None of those exist in reality. The Kremlin as it exists today is simply a building with gargoyles on its façade that chomp down on whatever they can reach (but of course, with the approval of Putin, that is, after a successful pitch). If none of these gargoyles pitched a project – e.g., “how to take a big meaty bite out of the Ukrainian elections” — then all they do is quietly, or not so quietly, bark at these specific elections.   Yes, such barking resonates in a depressing daily howl on the Russian federal TV channels. But that howl still does amount to “a project” until it has a responsible author. That is how it works in Russia today.

And this reality is just so difficult to explain to people, who think that if the Roskosmos Chief announces that he will fly to the Moon, then the Kremlin must have a “Moon Colonization Project.” No, they don’t. It’s just idle chitchat at this point.

Of course, the Russian media holds speculative discussions on an unlimited array of future contingency issues. Everything that a deranged imagination can envision: the return of the islands, annexation of Belarus, an alliance with China. But in reality, all that Russia has is an alliance with Venezuela. Why? Because it was a project personally pitched by Igor Sechin and he now has skin in this game.

Abstract:

The Kremlin uses NGOs to achieve its goals both inside and outside Russia. Domestically, pro-Kremlin NGOs help shore up support for the government and suggest the presence of an active third sector. In the international realm, they are a key part of the Kremlin’s kleptocracy network, as they lure in foreign actors and fund local partners. Furthermore, pro-Kremlin NGOs manipulate open societies in order to promote the Kremlin’s views, stir divisions and distract international communities from more pressing issues.

Regardless of their primary goals, pro-Kremlin NGOs take resources away from independent NGOs, marginalize discussions of human rights, and erode democratic norms, serving as a key tool for disseminating the Kremlin propaganda and disinformation.

About the author:

Olga Shorina, a co-founder of Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom and a Free Russia Foundation fellow.

She worked with Boris Nemtsov, as a first as a press-secretary of Solidarity movement (2009-2012) and then as an executive director of PARNAS party (2012-2015). Took part in preparing Nemtsov’s independent research report on corruption in Russia, the Sochi Olympics, and the last one «Putin.War» which he planned to publish and which was finished by his colleagues.

Tomorrow, on October 24th, the State Duma will be considering a proposed draft of the federal budget for the years of 2019-2021 in its first reading. One cannot be calling that document anything else but short of sensational, and Vladimir Milov, a leading Russian political and economic analyst, explains why. We have just recently heard about the “absolute lack of any other alternatives” but raising the taxes and increasing the retirement age. However, now the Putin’s government has found trillions of surplus cash in the excess revenues. And that impressive stash will be given away into a piggy-bank for Putin’s cronies.

Continue reading A piggy bank of $6 trillion for Putin’s cronies to “salt the stash away”

How Democratic Societies Can Fight and Win Against Authoritarian Hybrid Onslaught.

Putin’s Russia is waging populace-centric hybrid warfare against democratic societies. As such, effective counter-measures to this type of warfare must prominently involve civilian population highly versed in civil resistance strategies and tactics. Key attributes of successful civil resistance that, in the past, made societies resilient and mobilized against authoritarian regimes are now indispensable for design and effective deployment of defensive and offensive strategies against the Kremlin’s efforts to bring down democracies.

Informed by the dynamics of civil resistance and practice of nonviolent movements and campaigns national non-military strategies to counter the Russian hybrid onslaught must comprise of both defensive and offensive strategies, including:

  • societal mobilization against disinformation to counter lies and identify truth;
  • unified and mobilized grassroots groups;
  • building infrastructure for civil engagement;
  • educating population on civil resistance actions;
  • reaching out and extending solidarity to the society of the aggressor state;
  • utilizing domestic and international state and intergovernmental structures to establish and enhance readiness in civil resistance policy, planning and deployment;
  • bringing many more nonviolent actors and actions to bear on the attacking regime.

Developing and deploying these strategies are seen as an important step 
in countering both domestic and externally-driven authoritarian onslaughts
 on democratic societies. The study concludes with general and specific recommendations to different international, state, media and civic actors on the actions to integrate and augment civil resistance capabilities and practices. It finally lists a number of benchmarks that can be used to measure the level of national preparedness, readiness and capacity development to effectively deploy civil resistance defensive and offensive strategies against hybrid threats and attacks.

Vladimir Putin’s regime has arguably surpassed the Soviet Union in its artful employment of propaganda. One of the most widespread myths that the regime energetically pedals is that there is “no life” – or any viable political options – after Putin. This line is fed both to domestic and foreign audiences in different but overlapping forms.

Continue reading Constitution and Economy after Putin. A Roadmap for a new Russia

To governments and legislators of democratic countries, to democracy promotion and human rights organizations, to all democracy-minded people, journalists, and public opinion leaders.

Is the world listening?  Does the name Oleg Sentsov cross the consciousness of global leaders every morning they wake up?  It should. There is a very urgent task for all of us right now – to save Oleg Sentsov from death in a remote Siberian prison.

Oleg Sentsov, who was arrested and jailed for merely opposing Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014 while making a documentary, has been on a hunger strike since May 14. Not a hunger strike to compel a brutal regime to free him, but the selfless act of demanding the release of 64 other Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russian jail cells.

Sentsov is a manifestation of our conscience. And Putin’s repressive machine is methodically killing our conscience at the moment. To save Sentsov is to save the others.  Will the world challenge Vladimir Putin, the petty dictator less and less bound by a moral compass, or will Sentsov be another name we celebrate posthumously like a Soviet dissident Anatoly Marchenko?

Since Sentsov began his hunger strike on May 14, many of us have been counting the days of it: Day 1, Day 23, Day 57, Day 107 today… But his health has become so dire that now the countdown goes to minutes, not days.

So, all leaders of the free world, all governments, all legislators, all democracy agencies and human rights organizations, all media outlets, all democracy-minded people worldwide should come together and put Sentsov life as priority Number One, above all other things on their agendas, until he’s released. We will all regret we didn’t do enough to save him if he dies.

It’s Sentsov’s deliberate decision to end his unfreedom with death in order to force the release the other Ukrainian hostages of the Kremlin. It seems like Putin has made his deliberate decision, too — to let Sentsov die as a signal to the world that his regime is unshakable and can care less about a human life.

It appears the Sentsov case is too personal for Putin, some sort of vendetta with those who oppose to him; or perhaps Putin doesn’t have a say here because the Sentsov case was initiated by the FSB and is under its close supervision. Maybe the allegedly all-powerful dictator doesn’t dare to interfere in FSB’s business.

Like Marchenko, Sentsov is determined to give meaning to his own death. Are we ready to lose him though? What else can be more valuable for us, democracy-minded people, than a person’s life?!

So many people in the world have requested, begged, and demanded the Kremlin set Sentsov free. The Kremlin is mercilessly deaf to all statements and pleas to free Sentsov. The international community does a lot in trying to save Sentsov, but it’s still not enough. Are our voices to release Sentsov too scattered and not convincing enough? Are we sending raindrops instead of unifying into the tsunami against the Kremlin?

Last Friday, Vladimir Kara-Murza, twice poisoned in Russia himself, held the second ceremony of opening a new Boris Nemtsov square in memory of his friend, a slain Russian opposition leader. The first unveiling of Nemtsov Plaza took part in Washington, DC and last week it happened in Vilnius. Do we really want to have a reason to push governments of Western countries to start opening Sentsov plazas? Do we want to start advocating for a Sentsov sanction list? Shouldn’t we prefer to have Sentsov alive?!

Let’s all unite our efforts and act right now and act every moment. I urge the U.S and other democracies to try all methods with the Kremlin — both carrots and sticks, but with all means to save Sentsov. Threaten to impose more sanctions, but NOW when Sentsov is still alive. Or promise not to impose some. It can all be re-evaluated later. If Putin wants to exchange him for somebody – start discussing it NOW when Sentsov is still alive. Nothing is more important and urgent right now than Sentsov’s life.  I hope I’ll meet him one day to thank him for his fortitude.

Russian pension reform aimed at sharply raising the retirement age has all the chances to become a long-anticipated political “black swan” for Vladimir Putin’s government – a mistake that may not necessarily lead to immediate political problems for Putin, but would definitely deliver one of the strongest blows to his grip on power in years. The media has already picked up the decline in Putin’s approval ratings to pre-Crimea annexation levels, and there’s a good reason for it. There was hardly any major element of governmental policy in the past couple of decades that was met with such overwhelming rejection (and “approval” nearing the statistical margin of error, if any) by the society as the proposed “pension reform.”

A recent opinion pollby the Levada Center (dated July 5th, 2018) illustrates explicit rejection of Government-suggested pension reform by Russians—only 7-8% view raising retirement age totally positively or somewhat positively, whereas 89-90% view it somewhat negatively or strongly negatively, with “strongly” negative responses clearly prevailing (70-73%). (The fluctuation in percentage points is explained by the fact that two different questions were asked: one about raising retirement age for men from 60 to 65 and one about raising it for women from 55 to 63. Similar figures are shown by another pollster, FOM (dated June 29th): 80% of the respondents reject raising retirement age, whereas only 6% approve.

Russian opposition is currently actively working the political grassroots in the Russian region, and was behind recent sizable protests in provincial Russian cities. Our interaction with ordinary Russians in Moscow and in the region, suggests that people view the proposed retirement age raise not simply as just another economic reform, but instead as a breach of one of the few available major social guarantees. This guarantee remained untouched for decades, from Stalin’s era through very difficult reforms of 1980s and 1990s. Frankly speaking, there are very few solid social guarantees available to ordinary Russians from the government, and pension is arguably the most fundamental one. Many people build their living strategies after 40 on “holding out until retirement age,” as demand for elderly workers in Russia is quite limited. Vedomosti cites a recent study by the Higher School of Economics which shows that the salaries of Russians peak, on average, at age 45, after which begin to severely decline (by 15-20% compared to peak). This is a stark contrast to developed Western countries with higher retirement ages, where peak salaries are observedbeyond 45 and 59 years. Russian hiring ads traditionally include provisions like “inquiries from candidates aged above 40/45 are not considered.”

The age group which falls under the provisions of current “pension reform” – for whom retirement will be delayed beyond 60 years for men and 55 for women – fall under very high risk of ending up unemployed or forced to take extremely low-wage jobs. Analysts at Raiffeisenbank have calculated that about 660,000 Russians per year will be affected by a raised retirement age, of whom 200,000 risk ending up unemployed – that’s 5% of the total current numberof unemployed Russians.

Yet another problem is poor health of Russians: according to already cited a Levada poll on July 5th—58% of Russians stop working after reaching retirement age due to poor health. According to many independent experts, the majority of Russians around pension age have chronic diseases which complicate their competitiveness in the labor market and their ability to continue to work. See, for instance, Tatiana Maleva and Oksana Sinyavskaya: “Raising retirement age: pro et contra”. The poor health of elderly Russians also devalues the government’s promises of “higher pensions after 65”. Since many peoples’ health sharply deteriorates after 65, they basically have no time to enjoy their retirement and instead begin to fight for physical survival. The Russian government is aiming to take away these relatively smooth first five years of pension

In this regard, raising retirement age as proposed by the Russian Government puts tens of millions of Russians in the risk zone for the upcoming decade, potentially driving unemployment higher and creating millions of “new poor” people who will not be in demand by the labor market and will have a very difficult time living through to reach the new, raised retirement age.

This perspective is completely understood by the Russians in the risk zone. According to our surveys, about one fifth of the attendees of protest gatherings against raising the retirement age in provincial Russian cities in the past weeks were completely new people who have never attended opposition rallies before. These people have very strong feelings about what they believe to be dishonesty and betrayal by the authorities:

  1. There was not a word about such swift raising of retirement age during the “presidential elections” campaign. In fact, Putin and many top ruling party officials have categorically rejected such a perspective many times on record in the previous years;
  2. As said above, the current retirement age was one of the very few solid social guarantees by the government surviving decades of changing policies, and people truly believed in it and built their basic living strategies upon it;
  3. Unlike other countries where retirement age has been raised before, there was never an open debate in society about it—instead, the government recently switched on its full-throttle propaganda machine spreading ridiculous and poorly crafted messages that “working longer is great and everyone will just be happier.” This clearly heightens the negative reception of the reform. Instead, critical voices are suppressed. This atmosphere does not help build trust to suggested measures, to say the least;
  4. Aggressive governmental propaganda is so out of touch with reality: nice looking TV hosts in designer clothes discussing how nice it is to work after 60, whereas the bitter reality for many Russians at that age is poor health, enormous medical costs, and the total inability to find a job.

Also, it’s worth noting that the pro-reform message is extremely weak in terms of its argument. The comparison with other countries simply doesn’t work due to poorer health and quality of life in Russia. Talk about the “inevitability” of raising the retirement age due to pension fund deficits hardly sells itself on the background of fresh news about record surplus of the federal budget, which is expected to hit over 1 trillion rubles this year due to rising oil prices.  According to Minfin, the government’s National Wealth Fund reached $77.1 billion on July 1st. That amount alone is sufficient to close down the debate on raising retirement age for at least a decade.

So, our feedback from the Russian region tells us that this time it’s serious. Relations between the public and Vladimir Putin’s government are broken. Yes, Putin always has the option of interfering and softening the proposed scale of raising retirement age, but it seems unlikely that he will completely cancel the reform after decades of discussion. Key political decisions to proceed with the raise have already been taken, and any such softening gestures will not be able to restore the trust of those people who lost it after the pension reform was announced in June.

Of course, the retirement age factor alone can’t radically transform the Russian political landscape. Russian society in many ways is traditionally driven by inertia and adaptation rather than revolt, as people have very limited historic experience of democratic governance. Many Russians believe that their lone voice can’t make a difference, but postponing the retirement age – a blatant breach of an important provision of informal social contract – will definitely be one of the game changers that will ultimately contribute to ruining trust in Vladimir Putin and his system. It is already becoming one.

Valeria Jegisman of Free Russia Foundation recently sat down with Denis Sokolov, an expert on security and the North Caucasus, to talk about Russia’s current power structure, its link to criminal networks, the danger it poses, and the need for the West to work with Russia’s regional leaders in order to tackle these challenges.


The “market of violence” is spreading internationally

“In principle, we can say that the Russian government today is a political elite consisting of the post-Soviet bureaucracy, intelligence officers and criminals. Together they form a political class that governs the Russian state, in which criminal networks are built in, and their activities go far beyond Russia,” says Sokolov.

Over the years, the security services, which have risen to a position of power, have incorporated these criminal actors into the system. This differs from pure organized crime in that, in addition to direct violence, there is also the violence that is facilitated by authorities – the judicial system, law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies and administrative bodies.

In the 2000s, adding to income generated from illicit activities, the ruling powers introduced economic institutions into the system, providing revenues from energy sources, natural resources and infrastructure enterprises. “They receive most of it legally, through dividends from public companies such as Rusal, Rosneft, Gazprom,” says Sokolov.

As the system has become entrenched, its threat to the international community has grown due to the emergence of political interests within this mafia. There may be economic motivations, but when it comes to control in the Middle East or Ukraine, political interests clearly prevail, says Sokolov. And the “mixed ontology” of the system – fragments of the state, organized crime and the security services – have manifested in the hybrid tools used by the Russian political elite: unleashing wars in local conflicts, informal armed groups, outright bandits, agents networks, criminal money, co-opting Western politicians, propaganda and disinformation.

The North Caucasus plays a significant role in the spreading of this “market of violence,” says Sokolov, having significant influence within Russia and spreading beyond borders as well. One of the most powerful criminal groups is that led by Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, with its private army and FSB backing. It represents an inseparable mix of criminals, intelligence officers and jihadists, with a network operating in Georgia, Ukraine, Turkey, Syria and Europe. According to various sources, up to 7,000 combatants who took part in the war in Syria came from Russia, primarily from the North Caucasus. Of these, according to various studies, about 2,500 primarily came from the North Caucasus, 500 people have gone to war from Chechnya, and 2,000 second-generation of emigrants after the Chechen wars have traveled through Istanbul from Europe. Those who survived have later gone to Turkey and Ukraine, says Sokolov.


Losing control

The question that arises is whether Putin maintains control over this spreading network. “I think that his control is constantly diminishing,” says Sokolov.

Over the last five years, Russia’s involvement in various conflicts and the use of hybrid tactics has led to a transfer of decision-making from the top to the bottom, says Sokolov. The situation is complicated by the various competing interests, which range from entrepreneurial activity to economic and political motives.

“This is a mosaic, which has not been described in detail – I have not seen publications describe this mosaic in detail, but it would be useful to understand how it is organized,” says Sokolov, adding that if Putin himself is no longer in control, it would be useful to know who is. “It’s a matter of security,” says Sokolov.

And in the case of Kadyrov, with his private army and transnational networks of gangsters and agents, the Chechen strongman sometimes acts on direct orders from Moscow, but other times makes decisions independently, at his own risk.

In a way, the North Caucasus represents Moscow’s declining influence, says Sokolov. There are fewer people who represent Moscow, and generally speaking fewer Russians as well. In the eastern and western Caucasus, Islam and alternative ideologies of independent statehood are developing. In some regions, conflicts in the criminal world are no longer resolved through gangster methods, but through sharia. For now, it is more convenient for Kadyrov to maintain the status quo, rather than to embrace separatism, but when Moscow runs out of money, Sokolov asks, how will it remain in control?

The network as a whole is fueled by and kept together by revenues from natural resources, and Moscow can more or less hold on to its authority as long as there is enough money, says Sokolov.


Growing risk of conflict and violence

There is a growing danger of conflict and violence within and outside of Russia, due to rising tensions between Moscow and Russia’s regional powers, says Sokolov.

The parallel process of a generational shift is underway among the ruling elite, says Sokolov, and to maintain control Moscow has appointed bureaucrats and siloviki to replace regional heavyweights. However, the new appointees are not integrated into the regional powers, says Sokolov, forcing them to rely on the FSB to assert their power.

“Thus, the chief of the regional FSB becomes a ‘warlord’ of a vast territory,” says Sokolov, “and I think that regional politics will see the development of competition with these warlords. They will try to strengthen their positions and deprive the centralized powers of the opportunity to change the composition at the regional level of the FSB.”

On the other hand, these FSB officers are driven mainly by economic interests while the regional elites – local politicians, regional business owners and criminal actors – will try to protect their own economic interests. Yet in order to protect these interests, Sokolov says, they must rely on ethnic, religious or regional groups. This is the case in the North Caucasus, he says, where there are many such groups, which can easily be mobilized. Raising the role of these regional identities may lead to the emergence of a process of de-colonization.

Moreover, in the absence of fair political processes, the only option for regional elites in this conflict is to resort to violence – all types of violence, says Sokolov.

“There is a risk that the whole network will fight among themselves and compete for favoritism with the centralized powers, as we saw in the Caucasus,” says Sokolov, adding that such conflicts could take place in many other regions, including outside of Russia.

If at some point, the situation gets out of control to the extent that the global community imposes tougher sanctions against the major companies that generate financing for the network, it can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, this would help decrease violence outside of Russia, since there will be less money to finance external military initiatives, says Sokolov. But on the other hand, cutting off funding could increase criminalization within Russia even more. Revenues from natural resources would still find their way into the system – in ever more disintegrated and illicit ways – creating more players and making this “market of violence” more competitive. “We need to be prepared that it doesn’t all turn into Iraq,” says Sokolov.


The role of the West

To avoid the worst, the West should build closer ties with Russia’s regional elites, says Sokolov. To some extent, this work is already underway, mainly between business communities, yet more should be done.

“It is clear that at the political level, there is no such work going on today. There are no legislative or administrative mechanisms for this, and there is no motivation to develop these mechanisms due to the risks involved,” says Sokolov.

“It is, of course, a challenge,” says Sokolov, “yet there is a need to at least develop policies toward working with the regional and industry elites in Russia, and to at least understand who these people are.” In addition to the business communities, this cooperation could also include regional political, community, ethnic and religious leaders, says Sokolov.

But is it possible to have such cooperation within Russia? “There is a clear need for discussions in the regions today about how to organize life inside the regions, how to arrange the rules of the game within the regions. Because everyone understands that the system in its current state does not have a future. It will not be able to exist for long and it is impossible to develop in this system. There is a definitely a demand for change,” says Sokolov.

In the spring of 2014 in Crimea, Russian federal security service arrested Ukrainian citizen Oleg Sentsov due to suspicion of terrorism.

Oleg is a film director. During the period of the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, he was an auto Maidan activist, carrying food and supplies to the Crimean military units blocked by Russian troops.

In August of 2015, he was sentenced for 20 years in prison. Oleg did not admit to his guilt; he stated that he was tortured to make him plead guilty. Court sessions had a lot of legislation infringements. Materials within the criminal case contain signs of falsification.

Oleg is recognized as a political prisoner by Memorial (the most respectful Human Rights NGO in Russia). Apart from him, there are 71 more Ukrainian citizens in Russian prisons arrested on political motives. Oleg says there are about 64 Ukrainians; data may vary, and one of the lists of Ukrainian citizens held in Russia as political prisoners is presented by OVDinfo – a Russian human rights organization.

On the 14th of May 2018, Oleg went on hunger strike with the demand for the release of all Russian political prisoners of which are Ukrainian citizens.

Stanislav Zimovets (a Russian citizen and Russian political prisoner, arrested during the anti-Putin demonstration on the 26th of March 2017), Alexander Shumakov (a Ukrainian citizen and Russian political prisoner), Alexander Kolchenko (a Ukrainian citizen and Russian political prisoner, treated by the Russian court as an accomplice of Oleg Sentsov), Stanislav Klih (a Ukrainian citizen and Russian political prisoner) also went on a hunger strike in support of Oleg’s demand. Moreover, a Ukrainian citizen and Russian political prisoner in Crimea Vladimir Baluh has been on a hunger strike for 2.5 months, against the illegal verdict.

The only person in Russia who is capable of meeting Oleg’s demand is Putin.  Until the demand is met, those gone on hunger strike will continue and will die eventually.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Well-Armed Gentlemen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why Bandits Need Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Contract to Occupy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article first appeared in Russian at the Republic site

Whatever Natalie Portman’s own reasons were for turning down the so-called “Jewish Nobel” awarded by the Genesis Prize Foundation, she did the right thing. The Genesis Foundation now wants to give a second award, this one for lifetime achievement, to US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg should also decline the honor. The prize is sponsored by Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven, and German Khan, partners in the powerful Russian Alfa Group consortium. Alfa-Bank, a company in the consortium’s portfolio and Russia’s largest private bank, is under FBI investigation for what is widely presumed to be interference in the US presidential elections due to an unusual volume of communication between Alfa’s internet servers and those of the Trump campaign.

Accepting the Genesis Prize could place Justice Ginsburg in a direct conflict of interest in the event that the US Supreme Court considers Russia’s meddling in US elections. According to Western media reports, Blavatnik and Vekselberg, two oligarchs closely interlinked with Alfa, are likely under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. Recently their company Rusal, and Vekselberg personally, were sanctioned. Alfa figures heavily in the dossier of the British intelligence officer Chris Steel and Khan’s son-in-law, a Dutch lawyer, was the first man convicted under Mueller’s investigation for lying to the FBI.

As an activist fighting the influence of Kremlin-controlled oligarchs in Western countries together with many other anti-Putin activists, this is not the first time I have urged leading western institutions to wake up to Alfa-Bank’s undermining of democratic values. For example, many people signed our public letter to Oxford University, where, in a truly Kafkaesque joke, Alfa sponsored a joint business award with Oxford’s Said Business School and Blavatnik opened a School of Government in his name at Oxford. I care deeply about democracy in the West and in Israel in particular. Benjamin Netanyahu and some members of his government are dangerously neutral on the global mischief wrought by Russian oligarchs. In fact, Israel’s prime minister is currently the subject of corruption investigations involving Len Blavatnik (for now as a witness), who has close business links to the Kremlin and Alfa Bank.

My family is Jewish and we don’t see much difference between the Gestapo and the various secret police agencies like the KGB and its current-day successor FSB that have propped up the Soviet regime and now Russia. Shortly after the Nazis entered the city of Dnepropetrovsk, they murdered tens of thousands of Jews, including my great grandmother Dora. She was married to a non-Jewish Russian who was subsequently employed by the Nazis in their passport bureau. After the Red Army came in, he then continued in the same job, a fact that illustrates how the NKVD, precursor to the KGB, often used the same cadre as Germans.

Dora’s brother Khanya was a Zionist who was kicked out of Ukraine in the 1920s and who took part in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. My grandmother Inna lost touch with him as Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaigns made contact dangerous. Her tutor in medical sciences was one of the professors tortured under the so-called Doctors’ Plot in 1952-3.

On the other side of the family, my grandfather Alexander, an employee in the Soviet ministry of economy, was framed by NKVD as an Italian spy in 1939. My parents suffered anti-Semitism in the USSR and had many friends whom the KGB refused exit from the country. We finally left Russia for the US through a family reunification program. However, in the mid-2000s I went back in the naive hope of creating positive change in Moscow, where I ended up working at TNK-BP, an oil company co-owned by the Alfa investment group.

In 2008-9, the FSB, with active help from the private security services of TNK, directly controlled by German Khan and Mikhail Fridman, falsely accused my brother and me of being spies. The Kremlin and its oligarchs used us as one of the pretexts to oust 150 Western managers of the company and seize full control of the company, which they successfully did. TNK-BP’s tenacious CEO, Robert Dudley, refused to leave the country and was poisoned in the TNK offices by unknown assailants, and other westerners were harassed in various ways.

It was never proven that the oligarchs were behind the poisoning, but they certainly benefited from BP’s demise. They took control and sold the company in a shady, overpriced offshore deal – the biggest in Russian corporate history – personally micro-managed by Putin. These very oligarchs now award “Jewish Nobel” prizes and teach corporate governance in the West while advocating on behalf of Putin’s regime.

Justice Ginsburg and other US Jewish celebrities lured by Alfa’s prizes should examine the myriad ways these oligarchs are connected to the Kremlin and its FSB apparatus, and how severely they undermine the interests of the West and Israel. Alfa entities illegally traded oil with Saddam Hussein through an abused UN program and gave loans to Russia’s Atomstroyexport nuclear power exporter to build a nuclear plant in Iran. Until recently, they also gave loans to Russian military plant Uralvagonzavod, whose arms were used against Ukraine. Just two years ago Alfa-controlled Vimpelcom was caught giving bribes to Gulnara Karimova in an $800 million case prosecuted by US and Dutch authorities. Then Fridman’s lawyer was arrested in Spain on suspicion of further telecom fraud. German Khan has been cited by a UK judge as having used intimidation tactics against a TNK employee, while the US embassy and a former insider have alleged that oligarchs sent oil via Gunvor, a company of Putin’s crony, the billionaire Gennady Timchenko, who is now under Western sanctions.

In 1992, as Trade Minister, Petr Aven personally shielded Putin from a criminal investigation when he was caught with illegal trade involving the St. Petersburg mayor’s office. In 1993, as relayed by the esteemed, late social scientist, Karen Dawisha, in her book “Putin’s Kleptocracy,” Kroll Associates’ report to Boris Yeltsin “recounted widespread instances of ‘bribery of officials, blackmail, and the illegal transfer of currency resources to foreign banks.’” The Kroll report identified Minister Petr Aven as one of the officials.

Oligarchs have been employing lobbyists in the West and sponsoring many academic and cultural institutions, like Oxford University or the Genesis Foundation, to present themselves as “private” businessmen “independent” of Kremlin. But until recently, Alfa’s key entity employed the son-in-law of Russia’s foreign affairs minister Sergey Lavrov and Putin’s elder daughter, while in Europe they employ the son of the ex-director of the notorious GDR’s Stasi secret service.

Alfa’s lobbyist Richard Burt, who is also a lobbyist for Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom, was most likely involved in making the connection between oligarchs and Natan Sharansky, who chairs the Genesis prize selection committee. Aven continues to sit on the board of the Kremlin’s thinktank, RIAC, together with key Putin’s men.

Investigations into Alfa’s role in Russia’s meddling in US elections may prove that they are innocent on that account but there is already no doubt that these oligarchs are closely linked with Putin and FSB. This is why my family is against their participation in the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial. I urge US celebrities to do their due diligence before dealing with Alfa oligarchs and call upon them to make the ethical choice.

Many people and under various circumstances have developed serious hunches about Vladimir Putin’s shady financial ties to the St. Petersburg mafia and the symbiotic relationship with law enforcement agencies. This information was first publicized in 2005 by an American journalist Robert Eringer, whose investigation of a Monaco-based mafia network led him to a princely palace rumored to belong to a powerful Russian. In response, a massive smear campaign was unraveled against Eringer, painting him an alcoholic and a madman gathering rumors.

Then, in 2000, there was Jürgen Roth, a journalist from Germany, who obtained documents from the German BND – Federal Intelligence Service establishing Putin’s involvement in money laundering, even featuring Putin’s personal signature. Unbeknownst to the public, Kurt Spitzer, an Austrian special prosecutor who investigated the resulting criminal case became the target of numerous hate websites. When Jürgen Roth died last year, obituaries dubbed his work “controversial”, not only displaying an outrageous lack of sensitivity for his family’s grief but clearly pushing a specific political agenda.

A Spanish prosecutor José Grinda, who collected testimonies on ways St. Petersburg gangsters laundered not only money but also their image in Europe with the support of Russia’s top leadership, was declared a pedophile by the media and social networks. According to the ongoing investigation, this defamation attack was funded by Putin’s friend in St. Petersburg’s mayor’s office.

Though from different countries, professions, and walks of life, these people are alike in their commitment to integrity and justice even when it is their safety and life are at stake. A towering presence among them was Karen Dawisha.

Karen’s research became the decisive contribution to our understanding of Putin’s crimes and the nature of his regime. It irreversibly took the discussion outside the realm of hunches and insinuations and into the worlds of widely acknowledged facts. Getting this done was a herculean task not only intellectually and through investigative means, but politically. English publishers had refused to print her submissions, despite the book’s meticulously referencing previously available publications in the Russian press and documents.

Karen’s book “Putin’s Kleptocracy” was finally printed in the United States, just in time for the new “unexpected” aggression that Putin unraveled against Ukraine. In a documentary based on this book, Karen explained that initially, she had no prejudice against Putin. Like many scholars of Russia, she had believed that the country was steadily moving toward democracy, even if with some hiccups. At one point, she even posed for a photo together with Putin. However, a scrupulous examination of evidence allowed her to conclude that Putin and his friends had been stealing from the very beginning.

Studying the Russian kleptocracy requires an uncommon amount of courage, clarity and moral fortitude. An excuse we often hear from those who shy away or even condone Putin is that Russia is dealing with many challenges, and the corruption is the only one point on the list. The point they are missing is that most of Russia’s worst problems are the consequences of kleptocracy.  Another popular theme is that Putin doing the best he can controlling the Russian gangsters while not himself being the mastermind of corruption. Karen Dawisha’s book refutes these platitudes once and for all. It takes the drama and glamour out of the story and presents it in their plain vulgarity: the bribes, corporation raids and seizures, trusts tucked away in Lichtenstein, intimidation of Western law enforcement. All of that began in 1990 and all this continues to this day.

The book by Karen Dawisha sent shockwaves through Washington. The information blockade had been finally breached. And yet, the truth has still not triumphed. To most of my journalist friends the proposition of the kleptocracy of Putin and his friends, as well as their connection with the mafia, seem so monstrous and improbable, that they do not even try to check it.

Indeed, Putin’s real biography and his professional CV, as discerned bit by bit from documents, his statements and eyewitness accounts, read like scripts of a gangster comedy. Just consider his decree to create a municipal casino, purportedly to benefit low-income citizens, but in reality, to be run by the St. Petersburg and Japanese mafias.

Investigating Putin kills

“Criminal groups and KGB were concerned about gaining control over the money of the CPSU. Those who tried to prevent it, like Galina Starovoitova, were killed”, – says Spanish the prosecutor Jose Grinda. Part of the money of the CPSU – and this is only officially – ended up at the private bank “Rossiya” – the bank of Putin’s friends, which two reputed mafia boss as shareholders.

Alexander Litvinenko, whose case became famous when he was poisoned by Russian intelligence services, claimed that Putin was involved in drug trafficking and that he had reliable documents on this matter. Much less attention was paid to a Russian parliamentarian Yuri Shutov, who suddenly died in a Russian prison, compiled file on Putin and his “board” of St. Petersburg security officers, documenting schemes such as illegal privatization of hotels. In her book, Karen Dawisha revisited the forgotten case of Shutov. For this, his family and friends would be forever grateful, as they hope that the full dossier will be published one day.

Karen Dawisha was a pioneer. She was an objective researcher whose findings and narratives were not motivated by political agenda or political struggle, — an argument that the Kremlin frequently uses to discredit similar efforts by democracy activists and human rights defenders.

Some Russians believe that the West has many powerful tools to deal with Putin, for instance, arresting his bank accounts the moment it finds doing so expedient. Those familiar with the Rule of Law based societies understand that it is not the case. A state governed by law, in the short term, seems at a disadvantage when dealing with a rogue regime. Just consider the legal nuances involved in closing bank accounts in Monaco and Liechtenstein, as compared to a business registered in Delaware. Or, for a more complicated case, take a Delaware company who owns a firm in Panama with an account in Switzerland and buys land in Mallorca for a friend of Putin. How can the Washington Obcom shut it down?

Of course, the role of the Western governments and its commitment to freedom is very important. Taking a jab at inconsistencies, Russian TV channel announces that Angela Merkel expels Russian diplomats in response to Skripal’s poisoning with one hand while approving the construction of the “Nord Stream 2” with another hand. That is a very salient point.

The President of France has been recently the target of hacking attacks by a GRU contractor. A capo controls everything— as it typical for the mafia, so the owner of the company turns out to be a neighbor of Putin’s summerhouse friends, and he bought his apartment from the Tambov mafia boss (a criminal process of which was held in Madrid). And despite it all, the “hacked” Emmanuel Macron is now heading to the St. Petersburg Economic Forum to improve relations with Putin.

Still, we do have many reasons to remain optimistic. A couple of days ago, Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the Russia Today propaganda channel called an ambulance for her sick child and was surprised that medics that arrived looked impoverished. In a rare gleam of humanity, she suddenly felt ashamed of her own wealth.

I do not know when the patience of all Russians will end. But I do believe that people like Karen Dawisha could get through to even the Simonyans of the Putin’s regime. Not all of Putin’s “Joe Blows” understand for whom they work. Let them scold the independent journalists and writers and read furtively— what else they wrote about our mafia government? “The truth does not need to be told loudly,” said Robert Eringer explaining to me why his blog created such an uproar. And Karen was able to do the impossible: tell the truth loudly, and for that, I will be forever grateful to her. We will remember.

Valeria Jegisman of Free Russia Foundation, sat down with Alexandr Morozov during his recent visit to Washington, D.C., to talk about Russia’s political system and future, the impact of sanctions against its elite, and the changes taking place in Russian society.

 

Beyond 2024

“Putin is not going to change the constitution [to get rid of term limits],” says Morozov, while also ruling out the creation of a Chinese-style state council that would allow Vladimir Putin to rule for life as its head. It is more likely that Putin will find a successor, he says, a young and loyal bureaucrat – not someone from the old guard. “Whatever position Putin is in, he will remain the real shareholder of this political system,” says Morozov, adding that whoever becomes Putin’s successor will lack any political independence.

During the intermediate period of 2008-2012, when power was temporarily handed over to Dmitry Medvedev, there were hopes he would offer an independent alternative. But post-2014 Russia is very different, says Morozov. The annexation of Crimea and growing tension with the West has led to a strong mobilization of the Russian society, and Putin’s successor will face resistance to any kind of change from the entire establishment. “Therefore, Putin has a simple scheme ahead of him – in 2024 he can transfer power to someone else, and then later return,” Morozov says.

Yet Russia is no longer dependent on a particular leader such as Putin, says Morozov, as society has fully accepted the underlying system of governance. Russia’s political system has deteriorated into a form of Eurasian autocracy, says Morozov, something is seen in Central Asia and Azerbaijan. This system can go on in perpetuity since any change in the system would require completely remaking many fundamental issues.

Any attempt to reform the system from within is perceived as subversive by society itself, which has come to terms with various constraints, says Morozov. “This is not the Kremlin pressuring society, as it was before 2014 when the Kremlin was manipulating various social groups to hold them in subjection. This is no longer a problem for the Kremlin – the submission of society is completely voluntarily.”


The West is no longer a model

Russian society no longer sees the West as its political, social or cultural model, as it did 20 years ago. “It has not become an enemy of the Russian people in the full sense of the word,” says Morozov, “but it has crumbled in their minds.” Many ordinary Russians have been to Western countries and they have come to believe that the Western way of life is just one model – not a superior one – while Russia and other non-Western countries have their own models. And similar to Erdogan’s Turkey, those who disagree can leave, and the rest of society will carry on.

The new system is not simply the result of a post-Crimean mobilization. Putin has been successful during his previous terms and during the recent election in providing a comfortable social contract to the main societal groups. For example, in Putin’s annual state-of-the-nation address on March 1, it was clear to millions of people employed in the infrastructure and construction industries that a vote for Putin would bring good employment opportunities and incomes for them and their families in the coming years. The same goes for the military and defense industry, where millions of people work, and the agricultural sector, which expects growth as a result of sanctions and import substitutes. Meanwhile, the elderly are given pension increases, the younger generation is given the opportunity to get involved in urban development, and young bureaucrats are given career prospects in public service. The dissatisfactions and tensions among different societal groups – inherent to any society – have therefore been successfully managed by the Kremlin through these various promises.

Whether there are enough resources to fulfill the election promises is another question, but society has taken the offer.


The younger generation and the Russian opposition – any hope for change?

The younger generations, who grew up not knowing any other leader than Putin (and nominally Dmitry Medvedev), are very patriotic and it appears they would rather have a “young Putin” than a new political system. There is no evidence or data from social research that shows that the new generation wants to radically reform the political and social system, says Morozov. By voting for Ksenia Sobchak, they are just voting for someone younger, yet essentially still a representative of the same system. And many probably see a “younger Putin” in Alexei Navalny, too.

“Young people expect that they will be co-opted, that the politics will be inclusive of them, and that Putin’s establishment will give them a chance in life,” says Morozov. He notes that many people in their thirties and forties hold key positions in government, and those in their twenties expect to have career opportunities. Putin’s bureaucrats are undergoing a rapid rejuvenation, says Morozov, and this is very different from Brezhnev’s era when regional and federal officials were all in their sixties and seventies.

Meanwhile, the Russian opposition is often accused of not being able to reach an agreement among themselves, says Morozov. He finds that the main problem is that the ideas of liberal values that originated in the 1990s have exhausted themselves, and not only in Russia. Across Europe, for example, the leaders of Velvet Revolutions are in the minority, says Morozov.

An additional challenge for the Russian opposition is competing with the promises Putin makes to society and coming up with an alternative to Putinism. This is something Alexei Kudrin and his Center for Strategic Research have been working on: trying to convince some of Putin’s bureaucrats that even minor changes could achieve some kind of development towards democracy and freedom. Yet the anti-Putin movement in Russia is very small and “can only fight for self-preservation,” says Morozov. The Putin opposition in Russia and abroad must come up with new ideas for a transition – it is no longer enough to say we propose a European model of development, says Morozov. “For example, there has to be changed in the military, which employs 4 million people. If they say they want to change, then something can significant happen.”


Sanctions on the mafia state

Morozov says sanctions are important, as they have a clear goal: the West wants Putin to end his interventionism abroad and his propaganda. However, sanctions have little impact on internal politics. They do not seem to have worked on ordinary people, who are convinced that Russia is on the defensive against the West. The Kremlin’s propaganda has worked well; it has persuaded all levels of Russian society, including the well-educated, that if the West imposes sanctions, it is an act of economic war against Russia and Russian companies.

There is no reason to expect that this will split the elites, says Morozov. In the last ten years, there has been a transformation within the so-called “oligarchat”. Those who oppose Putin have left Russia, and those who have stayed are deeply co-opted in the system. “They have made their choice,” says Morozov, “they must carry their fate to the end with Putin.”

Putin’s Russia is essentially a mafia state, says Morozov. It is organized in a similar way, with Putin’s underlings enjoying relative freedom, so long as they don’t challenge the leader. This does not necessarily mean that Putin is always aware of or agrees with all the activities of the various factions, but he is their guardian. If Putin had clearly stated that he would investigate one incident or another and that the perpetrators would be punished, there might not be such a big problem, says Morozov. But Putin defends everyone connected to Putinism.

This became especially clear after the shooting down of the Malaysian Boeing in 2014, and since Crimea, there seems to have been other groups that have carried out “uncoordinated” actions. Morozov says, “Putin believes that the West is waging a war against him, and Russia is certainly in a weaker position militarily and economically.” This is the basis, in Putin’s mind, for legitimizing the activities of those who are part of his system, even when he does not approve of their actions. According to Morozov, Putin and the Security Council of Russia frankly believe the Boeing was shot down accidentally, that Skripal’s poisoning is a provocation against the Kremlin, and that the recent chemical attack in Syria did not happen and is being used as a pretext by the West to intervene in Syria.


What else could the West do?

Firstly, says Morozov, the West could ramp up sanctions, so Russia would focus on its internal affairs and development instead of malign activities abroad. Sanctions should also be imposed on companies – and there are around 20 of them – that are involved in recruiting mercenaries in Russia for activities in Ukraine and Syria. Furthermore, sanctions should be brought against journalists who actively generate Kremlin propaganda on Russian state TV and against organizations which co-opt Western politicians to advocate the Kremlin’s views. The latter leaves the impression in Russia that the West shares the Kremlin’s views, thus strengthening propagandistic messages.

It is also important to support groups of Russian intellectuals who might provide the answer to Russia’s future. There is also a need for closer monitoring of human rights abuses in Russia, perhaps through the creation of new institution, since Russia’s nuclear capability and UN membership means it should be under greater scrutiny and pressure.

The times are changing and so is Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Back in 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Putin was inebriated with the unexpected astounding success of his Crimean operation and gutless response of the West. He had never expected that his action in Ukraine, which was intended to keep this country in the Moscow’s orbit of corrupt regimes, would trigger such a great wave of nationalistic exaltation in Russia which would turn him into a semi-mythical figure, a hero who came to restore Russian national might and glory.  Even the liberal opposition and imprisoned leftist leaders unanimously joined the ecstatic crowd praising the Putin’s action.  Never in the long history of his reign, Putin could feel so close to claiming the title of Russian Messiah.

However, with the Ukrainian gamble, the Russian President has opened a can of worms.  The nationalistic paranoia lifted the lid and any hint of stepping back in front of a foreign enemy would provoke a charge of high treason and accusations of being a fake Messiah.

Meanwhile, after such a promising beginning dubbed the “Russian Spring,” a chain of misfortunes and failures followed.  The majority of ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine remained loyal to their country and rejected Putin’s siren songs of the “Russian World.”  As a result, the ambitious project of “Novorossiya,” which implied the territorial grab of a half of Ukraine all the way from Kharkiv to Odessa, shrunk to a puny sliver of land in the east of Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists. No less misfortunate was Putin’s venture in Syria, which was supposed to distract national attention from the failure in Ukraine.  After declaring three times victory and withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria, Mr. Putin had to face the music of the Deir ez-Zor debacle, were more than three hundred of Russian fighters were killed in February by the U.S. artillery and aircraft (by the way, if confirmed this number exceeds all the Soviet losses in clashes with Americans during the entire Cold war.)  Finally, the hated Anglo-Saxons began to threaten Kremlin with a seizure of multiple assets in the West, which belong to Putin’s close friends and relatives:  only in the U.S., these assets’ combined value exceeds $1 trillion. Closeness to Putin becomes toxic for Russian elites.  Their bitter disappointment with Putin echoes with the deep discontent of Russian nationalists, who volunteered in great numbers to fight in Ukraine and now feel betrayed.  Their spokesman, Russian fascist philosopher Alexander Dugin ceased praising Putin and reversed his position on the President.

Russia-watchers have noticed, that whenever Putin feels he is in trouble, he tends to disappear for a long time.  This happened when Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was killed, and the pattern was repeated after the Deir ez-Zor disaster when Putin “got cold” and was absent for two weeks (officially, he got sick for the first time in 18 years of his presidency.)

He came back with a new agenda for the rest of his presidency for life.  Until recently, the Putin we knew was trying hard to reach a deal with the West, a sort of a new version of Yalta.  After being kicked out from G-8, Putin’s active meddling in Syria, North Korea and elsewhere had only one message to the Western leaders: you need Russia (and me personally) to tackle  these problems, bring me back to the club of world leaders as an equal partner and recognize my absolute dominance over the zone of my exclusive interests ( at least in Ukraine and the rest of the post-Soviet space)  It seems that now he has abandoned this futile hope and moved to the “Russia as a sieged fortress” scenario.

Now he wants a confrontation with the West, from this day on he is willing to crank up the level of risk and is much more dangerous than he used to be.  This agenda will help him to unite the «elites» around himself and keep the power for life.

But what resources besides unique Russian spirituality can he use to confront the NATO alliance, which is many times stronger than Russia economically, militarily, and technologically?

Actually, Putin has a Wunderwaffe, and he has displayed it in a number of interviews earlier this month.  Of course, we are not talking about ridiculous videos he showed in his address to the Federal Assembly.  Putin’s wonder weapon is his nuclear blackmail, his willingness and readiness to strike first, his complete disregard of the value of human lives, both Western and Russian ones, which he has repeatedly shown before.

Lately, he has incessantly and with gusto repeated with graphic detail depiction of him personally launching a nuclear attack against the West.

His blatantly defiant poisoning of a fugitive Russian spy with a chemical weapon was the first step in his special operation to prolong his presidential term through the rest of his life.  He has deliberately left plenty of evidence to state urbi et orbi: I, Vladimir the Terrible, did it!

By doing this Putin killed two birds with one stone: the level of confrontation with the West went sky-high, while the world starts to believe that he really is a monster ready to use the weapons of mass destruction.

To whom and why did Russian President Vladimir Putin address in his impressively aggressive Federal Assembly speech delivered on March 1st? As usual, the pundits disagree. Domestic policy experts say it was clearly a pre-electoral address, designed to communicate to voters the image of Russia as a strong superpower ahead of the March 18th presidential election. Foreign policy experts argue that Putin’s address was to get the attention of the United States and, more broadly, the West, as relations between Moscow and Washington deteriorate.

It is possible, however, that Putin had both in mind. First, his message clearly targets a domestic audience. Putin built his entire presidential campaign in this electoral round — if one can speak of it at all — around the slogan “Strong president, strong Russia.” Moreover, Putin’s emphasis on defense and a military buildup as evident from his pre-electoral trips, such as his visit to the Ufa Engine Industrial Association, which assembles long-range bombers as well as motors for military helicopters. These appearances underscore Putin’s effort to restore Russia’s superpower status and shape foreign policy during his upcoming fourth term as president. So, it only makes sense that the Federal Address — intentionally postponed from December to March, closer to the election itself — contained elements of aggressive anti-Western rhetoric and muscle-flexing. The election’s symbolic meaning is further driven home by holding it on March 18th, the fourth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, rather than on March 11th, as required by law.

It is not surprising that Putin’s domestic agenda fuels his aggressive foreign policy. Political analysts have long stated that in 2014, the Kremlin had to mobilize unprecedented resources to generate public support for the Ukraine conflict to levels seen during the 2008 Georgia war. In 2014, most state TV channels switched to almost nonstop 24-hour coverage designed to make Russians believe they were under siege.  Having to resort to extreme propaganda to get Russians to rally around their flag suggests that support for the regime’s policies is running out. That means the Kremlin will have to spend more and more resources to maintain the same levels of approval — and Putin’s Federal Assembly address is proof of that.

Second, constant references to Western betrayal and video footage of Russia’s updated weaponry is a response to Russia’s recent foreign policy failures and scandals. These include the U.S. attack on Russian mercenaries in Syria, the embarrassing doping scandal that nullified Russia’s achievements in 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and continued throughout this year’s winter games in PyeongChang. Moreover, Moscow has failed to stop the West from renewing existing anti-Kremlin sanctions or passing new ones, further driving the discontent of Russian elites. The Kremlin sees all this as a demonstration of anti-Russia plots by the West. Note that some pro-Kremlin commentators have even tried to portray the recent Argentine cocaine scandal as a U.S. conspiracy against Russia. In many ways, Putin’s aggressive anti-Western rhetoric looked like a delayed response to those foreign policy failures, rather like fist-waving after losing a fight. This is not the first time the Kremlin resorts to aggressive, threatening rhetoric in retaliation for what it sees as a Western plot against Russia; in 2014, Moscow portrayed its war with Ukraine as revenge for the U.S. attempts to implement a color revolution in that country. Similarly, the recent Gazprom decision to terminate gas contracts with Ukraine also came as retaliation to its loss of an arbitrage dispute to Naftogaz.

An important but often forgotten foreign constituency of interest to the Kremlin is a set of nations — including China, Iran, India, and Vietnam — that Russia sees as allies in building up a coalition to challenge “U.S. global hegemony.” Those countries also typically buy Russian arms — and could have been potential targets of the weapons Putin advertised in his speech.

Lastly, by portraying Russia as a rogue state the Kremlin aims to split the international system into two camps of soft- and hardliners, by fostering a divide in Western unity. The idea is that the soft-liners, scared by the threats and the aggressive rhetoric, are more likely to negotiate with Russia and lift the sanctions.

In short, Putin’s address appears to have targeted several groups, yet the Kremlin’s overall goal remains the same: to retain power for as long as possible and, apparently, at almost any price.

This article first appeared at the CEPA site.

In my article published the day before New Year’s Eve I posited that Russian diplomacy would devote all its efforts to convince their “US partners” to keep Putin and his personal financial guard out of the “Kremlin Report.” As the fateful January 29th deadline kept drawing mercilessly closer, the Kremlinites desperately had to find some kind of dramatic blackmail. And at the eleventh hour, a troika of Russia’s top security officials arrived in DC.

By then, the “Kremlin Report” had already been finalized by the agencies that drafted it and was ready to go to the Congress. As prescribed by August 2nd, 2017, Act, the Report included a list of individuals closest to Putin who were most intimately involved in his military and financial crimes.

On January 29th (when the Act-prescribed 180 days to draft the “Kremlin Report” expired), DC spent the day in anticipation. However, it was only learned the next morning that the report had in fact been presented at the stroke of midnight. The delay was apparently due to significant last-minute changes introduced at a very high government level. You will recall that the  Section 241 of the Act (concerning individual sanctions) required that the executive branch list the individuals close to Putin and involved in his crimes, as well as detail each such individual’s financial information, including net worth, sources of income, corruption schemes, property held by their family members, and include a comprehensive list of all such assets held in the US jurisdiction. The crucial last-minute change was the following: this detailed financial information was classified, hidden from the public eye in a special secret section of the Report.

While the “Kremlin Report” was being drafted, the very credible US institution, the National Bureau of Economic Research, estimated that private Russian assets in the US total around 1 Trillion Dollars (more precisely, between 0.8 and 1.3 Trillion). This number is mind-boggling. Even the most merciless critics of Putin’s regime had no idea the robbery was so large-scale. The Act required that this Russian Trillion is broken down in detail: How much belongs to Abramovich, how much to, say, Mordashov and to the various frontmen who hold Putin’s personal assets.

This now classified document numbers hundreds of pages and is potentially devastating to the Russian Kleptocracy for two reasons. First: Yes, it’s no secret in Russia that its rulers steal but that’s just general knowledge whereas detailed information about the hundreds of billions of dollars stolen from Russia by its rulers will have a great political impact, with consequences that are hard to predict. This is not even the robbery of the century – it’s the robbery of the millennium, unprecedented in world history. Never in the history of human conflict have so many been robbed of so much by so few.

The second reason the Report is devastating to the Russian Kleptocracy concerns the consequences of the Report for the Russian Trillion’s beneficiaries. When the classified portion of the Report is disclosed, its contents will easily enable the judicial authorities (with no new sanctions or other political decisions) to charge those named in the Report with money laundering, freeze their assets, confiscate these assets, and ultimately return the stolen goods to the victims of these crimes, the Russian people. In fact, the British government is already doing this, requiring Russian mega‑conmen (starting with RF First Deputy Prime Minister Shuvalov) to explain the source of their wealth. There is no way Russian leaders could have made this type of money legally during non-work hours.

And that’s exactly what the Russian elite has been fearing, which is why panic, and hysteria reigned on all Russian political TV shows on January 29th. During one broadcast, for example, a prominent public servant exclaimed: “Trump betrayed us! Now we have to reveal all the dirty laundry we have on him.” Intrigued, the host  asked: “Oh, we got dirty laundry on him?”- to which the politician exclaimed: “Sure we do!”

Compared to the day prior, the atmosphere on the same TV screens on January 30th was night and day, and we heard joyful exclamations “Trumpie is ours again!”, while Putin spent the day sounding off on how Russia must keep constructively working with the US (first and foremost, naturally, in the joint fight against Islamic terrorism).

For the umpteenth time, Putin passionately recited the story with the Tsarnayevs brothers, saying Moscow warned the US about the Tsarnayevs in 2011 but was ignored, and in 2013 the Boston Marathon bombing took place. Why does Putin permanently bring up the Tsarnaev story? The answer is simple: this is a criminal returning to the scene of the crime. In retelling the story over and over, Putin deliberately leaves out a key linking element.

Yes, it’s true that Moscow warned the US – twice – that the Tsarnayevs were dangerous Islamic extremists and potential terrorists. However, Moscow furnished no evidence that would enable the US authorities to prosecute the Tsarnayevs.

Still, after being alerted by Moscow, the FBI questioned Tsarnaev the elder – twice. Nevertheless, in 2012, Tsarnaev (now fully aware that the Russian authorities have declared him a dangerous Islamist extremist) traveled to Moscow. No, he didn’t find some secret trail to smuggle himself into Russia: He traveled quite openly, using his own passport, boarding a Delta flight to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. He could only go to Russia if he had no doubt he’d be totally safe there (and why wouldn’t he be – after all, he was going to see his friends and mentors). Naturally, upon arrival, he was met by competent Russian authorities, under whose watchful eye he remained over the next six months or so while traveling in the Caucasus region and meeting with Islamist underground activists. Those activists were done away with, yet Tsarnayev remained safe and unharmed, returning to Moscow and, with his mentors’ blessing, boarding another Delta flight to the US, to meet his fate. The Boston bomber was loaded.

The story continues. In 2013 a group of US senators came to Moscow to investigate Tsarnaev’s Russian ties. After initially being given the run-around and told that Tsarnaev had never been to Russia, the senators then fell for a hoax when the Russians used a stool pigeon who promised to provide intel on Tsarnayev. What followed was an on-camera arrest of a US diplomat, quite theatrically orchestrated by the Russians. Thereafter Ambassador McFaul came to rescue the diplomat from the FSB, whereupon the Americans asked no more questions about Tsarnaev.

There is a great deal of direct, indirect and psychological evidence that, in 2012, Tsarnayev the elder spent six months in Russia getting ready for his 2013 mission in the US. Until and unless the Americans find the courage to face the truth about their Russian “partners,” those “partners” will keep on pulling the wool over the Americans’ eyes under the guise “fighting Islam terrorists together” – just like they did at a very high level on the eve of the “Kremlin Report” deadline.

Three war criminals (I call them that based on the aftermath of their ongoing actions in Ukraine and Syria) – Naryshkin, Bortnikov, and Korobov – unexpectedly arrived in the US, unhindered by the fact that two of them are named on the sanctions lists. While in the US, these three men met with their US colleagues, including CIA Director Pompeo. As seen from an interview with Director Pompeo and a handful of Russian and US publications, this trio used the same old tried-and-true blackmail methods Russia has been using throughout the five years following the Boston marathon bombing.

These three “nice guys” came to warn the American people of grave danger: After wrapping up the military campaigns in Iraq and Syria, hundreds, or even thousands, of Islamic terrorists of Russian and post-Soviet origin will be traveling to other countries and might end up in the US. Now wait a minute: the Kremlinites sent hundreds of terrorists to the Middle East from Russia, then proudly reported that all these terrorists have been wiped out ten times over by their glorious aerospace forces.  But now it turns out that apparently thousands of these terrorists are still out there, and if not for the resplendent Naryshkin, Bortnikov, and Korobov warning the US about this and taking themselves the necessary measures, these terrorists would be flooding the US, blowing up American cities. So, of course, you have to work with these great guys who have taken the time to warn their partners of a looming threat.

Putin’s entire crew of agents of influence in DC – the various simes, rojanskys, kissingers and grahams – are once again belting out in unison the mantra they have learned by heart: “We need the Russians, we need the Russians! We have to work with the Russians or we’ll get blown up in our own cities. And in order to make sure the Russians cooperate with us, we must forget about petty little disagreements on Ukraine and other issues. And we should forever abandon the idea of sanctions against Russia’s political leadership.”

The Kremlin has already used this cheap con dozens of times worldwide, and now the Americans fell for it once again. This time, one of the Boston Marathon bombing masterminds took part in the con in an especially callous way. It’s no accident that, whenever he brings up the Tsarnayevs, Putin says: “Bortnikov and I,” “I assigned this task to Bortnikov…” And now this Bortnikov-the Bostonian has come to the US to teach the Americans, and Bortnikov’s class is not on how to make cabbage soup, but on how to make American cities safe. For a true chekist (and Comrade Bortnikov recently told us he’s proud of each of the hundred years of this criminal organization’s (the KGB/FSB)) history, it’s just as much fun to pull the wool over the CIA head’s eyes as it is to shoot enemies of the people using Felix Edmundovich [Dzerzhinsky’s] Mauser. The degree of the Americans’ failure to understand who Mr. Putin and who Mr. Bortnikov are baffles the mind.

On January 31, I took part, I took part in the Atlantic Council seminar where the late-night metamorphosis of the “Kremlin Report” was discussed. At the seminar, I, like other speakers, ascribed the “Kremlin Report’s” overnight transformation to the Russian Troika’s DC visit. While discussing the January 30th reaction by Moscow, (which included yet another one of Putin’s diatribes on the Tsarnayevs), I did a little experiment: I asked members of the audience to raise their hands if they knew that Putin’s canonical account (of Russia warning the US about the Tsarnaevs) is incomplete because it leaves out the fact that Tsarnaev the elder spent six months in Russia in 2012 under total control of the FSB, and returned to the US unscathed and free from the FSB’s grasp. Not a single hand went up in the audience. Seminar participants honestly knew nothing about this and asked me lots of questions after the seminar. It’s worth mentioning that these weren’t just random people off the street – these 100 or so attendees were longtime experts in the security field or US-Russian relations. I was dumbfounded by how deep and pervasive the conspiracy of silence regarding the circumstances of the Boston marathon bombing run.

This silence on the subject is due to reasons of US domestic policy. The predominantly liberal US media vehemently flail Trump on a daily basis for displaying even a hint of flavor to the Putin regime. Yet the unspoken rule of political sparring doesn’t allow the media to bring up the Boston Marathon bombing’s Putinesque roots, because if the media were to do so, these fiery Democrats would have to admit that it was the Obama administration that deliberately hushed up the truth behind the Boston Marathon Bombing, the most devastating terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11.

One would think that by raising the Boston Marathon bombing issue, Trump could easily call the Democrats hypocrites and once and for all smite their accusations against him concerning his mysterious Putinophilia. However, this brutal alpha male’s puzzling timidity toward his Russian counterpart is not fake, it’s real.

And so, the American political class finds itself in a two-party trap of its own making and is forced to tamely chew the cud force-fed to it by the Kremlin called “our common interests in fighting Islam terror.”  On the night of January 29th, the Kremlin Special Troika and President Trump jointly halted (albeit hopefully not for long) the “Kremlin Report’s” devastating informational and financial blow. It’s worth noting that this blow would not be aimed at Russia, its target would be the criminal Russian Kleptocracy that’s been robbing and destroying Russia for a quarter century.

The stakes couldn’t be any higher right now: either the hundreds of classified pages of the Report are disclosed in the paramount interests of the Russian and American people, or else the US voluntarily becomes a long-term hostage of the Kremlin Kleptocracy.

In order to break free from the trap of “cooperating with Russia in the fight against Islamist terrorism,” the US Congress should undertake a real investigation into all the circumstances of the Boston Marathon Bombing and into the Kremlin’s ongoing efforts of supplying ISIS with militants from Russia and other former Soviet countries.

I would strongly recommend the Congressmen start by reading СNN National Security Analyst Michael Weiss’s brilliant article Russia’s Double Game with Islamic Terror. Published back in October 2013, the article was not heeded by the Obama administration and is yet to be read and heeded by the Trump administration. This is so perhaps due to the fact that, as far as I know, Michael Weiss is the only American asking very obvious questions, hard as they may be for those defending “cooperating with Russia.” Weiss asks:

But how did Tamerlan manage to arrive at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in January 2012, then proceed to Dagestan, after the FSB was obviously aware of his purported plans to join “bandit underground groups?”

How did Tamerlan get from Makhachkala to Moscow, then board a plane back to New York, if he was wanted for questioning by the Russian security services?

For any observer in Russia irrespective of his political sympathies, these questions are rhetorical, and the answer to both is the same.

To help the Congressmen with their investigation at least four people can shed valuable light on the subject. One is former Secretary of State John Kerry (who in 2013 accompanied a delegation of congressmen to Russia); another is former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul; the third one is the US diplomat and intelligence officer Ryan Fogle, who was arrested while trying to get information on Tamerlan  Tsarnaev’s sojourn in Russia, and, finally, there’s the younger Tsarnaev brother, who may well talk as the prospects of the electric chair are looming.

On the 7th of December, Vladimir Putin announced that he would run for a new presidential term in March 2018. So far, he has not presented a programme or agenda for his fourth presidential term, which is expected to last from 2018 until 2024, and it is very unlikely that he will do it in the nearest future. However, particular developments in Russia in December can give us a glimpse into what we can expect from Putin’s Russia 4.0.

When Putin announced his decision to run for the presidency again, Russian elite groups probably sighed with relief. Some Russia experts use the expression “The Kremlin has many towers” to refer to the fact that Putin’s regime is not a coherent whole, but a conglomerate of different elite groups – each with their own interests and agendas – that compete for resources and often seek to undermine their opponents from other elite groups. Putin, in this system, plays the role of a moderator of the competition and an ultimate arbiter of the conflicts between the elite groups.

This role makes Putin unique: he has built this system himself and for himself, which means that his potential departure from the referee’s tower, i.e. not running for, and winning, the presidency in March 2018, would dramatically destabilize the system and bring about its collapse. One may say that the elite groups need Putin’s presidency more than he does, but Putin needs it too, because he has not yet found a person who would succeed him and give him a security guarantee – similar to the guarantees that Putin granted to President Boris Yeltsin when he handed the reins of power over to Putin in 2000. Moreover, if Putin found such a person, no-one would be sure that he (or, very unlikely, she) could be accepted by the different elite groups as a moderator of their conflicts. Indeed, a person who can potentially succeed Putin can only come from one of the elite groups, but this would elevate that one group, afflict the others and, again, upset the balance of the entire system.

Yet even now one can observe that Putin’s system is already being destabilized. The troublemaker is Igor Sechin, the US-sanctioned CEO of the Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft, the leader of one of the most conservative elite groups and perhaps the closest associate of Putin – Sechin has also served under Putin in his various positions since 1994. In 2016, Sechin initiated – with the help from the Federal Security Service – an allegedly anti-corruption case against now former Minister for Economic Development of Russia Alexei Ulyukaev who, as Sechin stated, tried to extort a bribe from him. In December, Ulyukaev was sentenced to eight years in a prison colony. Having initiated the case against Ulyukaev, Sechin broke the unspoken rule of the competition between the Russian elite groups: to keep conflicts between them out of the public eye. Ulyukaev’s widely publicised case is, in fact, not about him: compared to Sechin, he is a minor figure. Rather, the case demonstrates that Sechin has made a very bold and insolent move to humiliate and damage the antagonistic elite group to which Ulyukaev belonged, namely the pragmatist and economically liberal circle around Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. And this means that Sechin’s ultraconservative elite group has gained the upper hand in Putin’s system and, thus, disrupted the balance within it.

There are other several indications that Putin’s system during his fourth term will become even more conservative and reactionary, but also even more anti-Western than it was before. Putin has been officially nominated a presidential candidate on the 26th of December at an exhibition titled “Russia – my history” organized by Russian Orthodox Bishop Tikhon. The latter is considered to be a spiritual advisor to Putin and is an unofficial leader of the monarchist and extreme conservative circle within the Russian Orthodox Church. The choice of place for the official nomination has a symbolic meaning too: many Russian historians argue that Tikhon’s exhibition, while full of factual mistakes, praises conservatism and authoritarianism, as well as showing that all attempts to democratize Russia are Western plots and naturally alien to the Russian people.

The Kremlin’s misuse and revision of history, the legitimization of openly authoritarian practices and increasing obsession with “Western conspiracy” has also manifested in a recent interview of Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the Federal Security Service – another powerful elite group within Putin’s system. In this interview, Bortnikov justified Stalin’s political mass repressions by the need to fight against “foreign agents”, and in Bortnikov’s opinion, the fight against the “fifth column” in Russia needs to continue, because “the destruction of Russia is still idée fixe for some” in the West.

The rise of the extreme conservative elite groups destabilizes Putin’s system, and this destabilization limits the flexibility of the regime – a flexibility that has so far been the main advantage of the system both domestically and internationally. Now, it seems, that Russia 4.0 will mobilize the society for the support of the regime around three ideas only: the country’s historical grandeur, its non-compatibility with democracy and Western conspiracy. Against the background of Russia’s continuous economic and social decline, this means that Putin’s regime will become even more oppressive at home and more aggressive in foreign relations.

This article first first appeared in German in Wiener Zeitung.

General consideration

The entire North Korean “rocket-nuclear scientific &production system” consists of the following elements (according to the data which I managed to assemble from many sources):

– Several thousand units of modern Chinese metal-processing equipment (machine tools etc., are mostly obtained through “underground channels”, generally, without Beijing’s knowledge).

– Serving these machines are the mechanics that have basic qualification (very poorly paid, half-starved) as well as several hundred researchers, engineers, and technologists, also of average quality and poorly paid.

– Some amount of gas-diffusion centrifuges for the production of enriched uranium (but, evidently, not weapons-grade plutonium, which is necessary to manufacture a compact “light” warhead).

This “scientific-production system” appeared to be PHYSICALLY INCAPABLE of creating independently even a “perfect” Musudan (Hwasong-10) ballistic missile with a combat range of 4000 kilometers (2500 miles). Seven Musudan launches failed out of eight total, according to the information available. Let’s take a look – North Korea has been engaged in Musudan development (reverse engineering of the Soviet R-27 missile) for 27 years, starting in 1989. And all it has to show for it is such a bleak outcome, which by itself provides a perfect estimation of North Korean “rocket-nuclear scientific & production system” with real (very low) capabilities!

In 2017, North Korea successfully tested Hwasong-12, Hwasong-14, and Hwasong-15 ballistic missiles with higher capabilities than Hwasong-10. And I have no doubts that these three missiles are built from spare parts and even blocks received from “outer space.” Specifically, where did they come from?

Definitely, they did not come from China. The “divorce process” between China and North Korea continued for many more years and was over by the end of 2016. China is very tired of North Korea’s tricks and, for sure, has nothing in common with Pyongyang adventurism.

Could the source be Ukraine? August 15 -17, 2017, directly after publishing the “notorious article” in New York Times on August 14, Ukrainian leaders and space-missile expert proposed to the West to inspect the Ukrainian plants and design bureaus in any possible way, so no suspicion would remain regarding the alleged “ties” between Kiev and Pyongyang.

Could the technology have come from Iran? Iran would have given these technologies to North Korea, however, Iran itself has nothing beyond ballistic missiles with a combat range between 2500 km to 3000 km. By the way, they have been developed with the use of North Korean and Russian technology.

Maybe, North Korea merely stole the key technologies for the new ballistic missiles? Indeed, during the last 20 years, North Korea managed to steal a lot for the purpose of Musudan missile development. Still, in practical terms, these thefts did not advance this project. And it would be silly to consider these thefts a serious factor in the framework of new missiles development projects.

The unavoidable conclusion is as follows: Russia, the only major ally of Pyongyang in “outer world”, providing systematic, persistent and comprehensive assistance to North Korea in the framework of the development of Hwasong-12, Hwasong-14, and Hwasong-15 missiles. And this became the decisive factor.

Let’s consider the entire situation in “digital way”. Let’s take “technological difficulty” related to the development of a “perfect Musudan” missile as 100. Then it appears that North Korea’s “missile scientific and production system” completed somewhat 90% of required work and, consequently, was capable, by 2017, of accomplishing projects with “technological difficulty (later TD) of ~90.

Hwasong-12 has a combat range of 5000 km, 25% greater than Hwasong-10 (Musudan), so its TD can be estimated as ~125.

Hwasong-14 has a more sophisticated engine in its first stage (instead of one-stage Hwasong-10 and Hwasong-12) and a second stage, namely, Hwasong-13 missile. Above all, Hwasong-12 has a combat range of 10,000 km. And it is possible to estimate Hwasong-14 TD as at least 300.

Finally, Hwasong-15 is more sophisticated than the Hwasong-14 missile, has two engines inside its first stage and its combat range is as great as 15,000 km. So, it is possible to estimate Hwasong-14 TD as at least 500.

Eventually, it is necessary to recognize that “foreign side” (namely, Russian side) accomplished at least 80% of necessary work in Hwasong-15 R&D and production. That’s it.

 

Estimations of three renowned experts on August 11-14

Let’s start with a quote from a statement by a top-rank German missile scientist Dr. Robert Scmucker on August 9, for Deutsche Welle (German Wave) channel. (www.dw.com/de/robert-schmucker-nordkorea-baut-allein-keine-raketen/a-40027158, 08.09.17) (“Who provided Hwasong-14 technology for North Korea?”  Interview with Mikhail Bushuyev; translation from German, abbreviated):

“The vast majority (of North Korean missiles) are old Russian rockets that have a specific (Russian/Soviet) technology. The new rockets (North Korean) that have been launched in the past twelve to 14 months have completely new technology. But we see engines that are clearly Russian engines. The connection to Russia is not only about the early Russian missiles, but also about the current ones, at least for the engines. North Korea has presented seven different rockets in the past 14 months. How is that possible? The effort for seven different rockets requires seven different project teams, manufacturing equipment for the different caliber rockets, different materials, fuels, materials, and sizes. There is an infinite number of tools, machines, and regulations needed. It’s a huge hassle to do it all in parallel and then succeed at the first shot. Nobody has done that yet unless the rocket came from somewhere else…”

In short, all the technologies for Hwasong-12, Hwasong-15 and several more new “North Korean” missiles are from Russia, and the necessary funding for their R&D and production is from Russia as well. I and Dr.Schnucker came to the same conclusion.

Then came the article in “Bulletin of atomic scientists” published by Dr.Schnucker, his colleague and employee of “Schmucker Technologie Co.” Marcus Shiller and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Professor Emeritus Theodore Postol. All three (and probably Dr.Shiller also) are ‘superstars’ in both missile and nuclear technologies.

“The newest Russian rocket motor we have identified in North Korean arsenal, derived from the RD-250/251 and used in (Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 missiles, is not from Russian) Makeyev Design Bureau, but from an entirely different major rocket motor manufacturer, NPO Energomash, which supported the OKB-456 Design Bureau in the Soviet Union. This rocket motor was associated with rocket and space launch vehicles produced in Ukraine. The presence of RD-250/251 rocket components in a new North Korean rocket raises new and potentially ominous questions…”

Finally, on August 14, Dr.Michael Elleman published his report on new North Korean ballistic missiles for London based IISS (International Institute for Strategic Studies). The report claimed that for sure Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 used engines RD-250/251 or their close modifications, which North Korea obtained from Russia or Ukraine.

So, based only on these three very important publications, it was possible to conclude that Pyongyang got missile engines and other key technologies (blocks) for Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 from Russia (with 90% probability) or from Ukraine (with 10% probability) and from nowhere else. So, let’s forget about the “independent development” of these missiles.

However, after energetic rebuke by Ukraine leaders and experts after the publication of the notorious article in New York Times on August 14, the probability of “Ukraine source” fell to somewhat 1%, while the probability of “Russian source” increased to ~99%. Simultaneously it became understandable that the publishing of a New York Times article was…sophisticated Moscow provocation (its authors should answer several unpleasant questions).  And expert Elleman himself had to give up his claim regarding “Ukrainian track in recent North Korean missile achievements”.

The nature and, partly, mechanism of this provocation is revealed in the article “ Ukraine Provide Rocket Engines to North Korea For Its Nuclear Missile Program?”  By Nolan Peterson.

 

Latest developments

On November 29 North Korea successfully launched its newest missile Hwasong-15. Almost instantly, Michael Elleman published his new comment. The essence of this comment is as follows: “No doubts, major technologies and blocks of Hwasong-15 came from abroad. And this missile is extremely dangerous for USA.”

A little bit later, in December 2017, the New York Times published a new big article on North Korean missiles: “North Korean Leader’s Heroes: His Rocket Scientists”. The authors of this article had nothing to do with two authors of notorious publication on August 14, 2017. The most remarkable here was the quote of Professor Postol statement:

“North Korea had this fantastic record (in 2017) for flying rockets the first time and having them succeed. We think it’s because they had rocket motors and their designs that were basically Russian designs, and they had the expertise of Russian engineers who knew how to solve the problems.”

That’s enough, I think. If one was to use these two last publications as a basis, only one possible conclusion is left: Moscow provided everything, including money, for the success of Hwasong-12, Hwassong-14, and Hwasong-15 missiles.

But maybe even these statements and facts are not entirely convincing? Then look at all these North Korea supporting statements and actions of Vladimir Putin and his close retinue (for example, speaker of “Russian Senate” Valentina Matvienko) during the second half of 2017.

 

Recommendations  

On October 25, 2017, a commission of Josh Gottheimer and Francis Rooney started working in U.S. House of Representatives. The goal of this Commission is to find “the foreign sources” of North Korean “missile-nuclear achievements”.

According to the author’s humble opinion, the Commission should ASAP get an inquiry from three experts mentioned above: Robert Schmucker, Michael Elleman, and Theodore Postol. The author himself is eager to make a statement before the Commission.

And it is necessary to do it swiftly, before February 2, 2018, when Congress intends to initiate the package of new, very strict financial sanctions against Putin and his oligarchs. It is probable that Moscow and Pyongyang are preparing a new very dangerous provocation.

The deeper Russia plunges into its current morass of economic, social, and political problems, the more sophisticated is its art of manipulating Western minds with esoteric ploys. It conveys the message that “without us, you cannot address the challenges you face” while at the same time creating or enhancing these very same challenges itself for its own corrupt interests.

It was back in 2013 that the Kremlin’s propaganda and its agents of influence first used the mantra “you’d better be good and cooperate with us, or else terrorists will continue to attack you” when the Tsarnaev brothers fashioned crude explosive devices out of pressure cookers to bomb the Boston marathon.  American prosecutors, journalists, and politicians haven’t bothered to probe for the truth about the Tsarnaevs.  In fact, “The Boston bomber was armed a long time ago.” Before he committed his act of terrorism, the elder Tsarnaev in 2012 spent eight months in Russia, all the while closely monitored by the FSB.  Although the Russian security agency in its correspondence with their U.S. counterparts assessed this young Chechen as an Islamist, Tsarnaev traveled to Russia via Moscow’s main airport, Sheremetyevo, without being held up.  He would never have done so without being sure he could travel there safely. Most likely he was visiting his friends and handlers, who would eventually send him back to the U.S. for his meeting with destiny.

The Boston tragedy has opened a new chapter in the history of the Kremlin’s psychophysical impact on the Western establishment and society. Instead of sporadic ad hoc active measures, Kremlin operators have developed and activated an emotionally loaded concept of systemic zombification of the West.

Post-Boston, and following every major terrorist attack in the U.S., France, Germany, and Great Britain, Moscow has sent the message “You either cooperate with us, or terrorist bombings will continue on the streets of your cities.”

The notorious Russian propagandist Sergei Markov spelled out just what Moscow means by  “cooperation”: “The conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine should be immediately halted. The gang that came to power in Kiev should be replaced with a technocratic government, the Ukrainian Constitution should be amended, and the neo-Nazis should be removed.  The dictatorship in Kiev is one of the main obstacles for the joint U.S.-EU-Russia’s fight against terrorism.”

After the terrorist massacre in Paris, Russian Ambassador to the E.U. Vladimir Chizhov complained that “unfortunately, one terrorist attack in Paris might not suffice to give European leaders the correct consciousness and strategic vision”, and even Russian Prime-Minister Medvedev clearly stated that the terrorist attacks in the EU and the rest of the world are occurring because the West is trying to isolate Russia.

What the Kremlin is offering the West is protection against future terrorist attacks – but with a caveat.  It is an open secret that Moscow has a network of agents among jihadis and has a certain influence on their leadership.  This network is made up by people recruited by the KGB back when the Soviet Union supported “national liberation movements,” as well as by former Iraqi military officers trained in the USSR (who became the backbone of ISIS), and by a new generation of warriors from the Northern Caucasus and other regions of Russia willing to die for Allah.  The FSB provided the latter group Russian passports and helped them reach the Middle East.

This caveated “cooperation” touted by the Kremlin, in essence, amounts to a new “Yalta” agreement:  recognition of delineated spheres of influence and of Moscow’s exclusive rights over former Soviet republics. The West is to be intimidated, cajoled, and corrupted to the point that it ceases support for breakaway republics (such as Georgia and Ukraine) and escorts them back into the zone of the Russian kleptocracy’s privileged interests.

These are the goals of the hybrid World War Four declared by President Putin against the West and his stated terms of surrender.  To come to power, Putin went to the extent of blowing up apartment buildings in Moscow and other Russian cities in 1999.  To convey to Americans the urgency of this “cooperation” with the Kremlin, Putin and his FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov dispatched the elder Tsarnaev brother back to the U.S.

The Obama’s administration was aware of the Boston terrorist attack’s circumstances but refused to face the truth since it was too frightening and implied very serious consequences.

The next Kremlin’s operation pursued the goal of bringing to the White House the candidate willing to repeat incessantly: “We need Russians to fight Islamic terrorism together.” The resounding success of this operation turned into a disastrous failure for the Kremlin. Its masterminds failed to understand the U.S. political system and its multilayered system of checks and balances.  It was a Pyrrhic victory: any hint of pandering to Russia by the new administration met a fierce resistance of the American establishment.

Congress almost unanimously endorsed “An Act to Counter Aggression by the Governments of Iran, the Russian Federation, and North Korea,” and on August 2, President Trump reluctantly signed it.  Essentially, this legislation outlawed the entire Russian leadership as a criminal group and froze all its loot pillaged in Russia that had been stashed in the U.S.  FinCEN was tasked with identifying all assets of the Russian ruling elite in the U.S., starting with Putin. Once these results are presented to the public, the Anti-Money Laundering and Proceeds of Crimes Acts will be applied to these assets and their owners. If and when this occurs, it will radically transform U.S. relations with the Putin kleptocracy.

It seemed like a breakthrough in the World Hybrid War: no new “Yalta” is looming on the horizon, while the noose of sanctions, which implies among other things the forfeiture of “Putin’s Trillion,” is tightening on the neck of the Kremlin kleptocracy.  To change the dynamics of the game Putin, played his newest card: his Excellency, Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the United States of America, Four Star General Anatoly IvanovichAntonov (who was included on the sanction lists of EU, Ukraine, and Canada for Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.)

Ambassador Antonov was sent to crank up the level of political blackmail.  His task is to coerce his new country of residence to “Yalta” and to dissuade it from touching Kremlin slush funds. Apparently, he will not fall back on the old tsarnaevesque boogeymen of terrorists with IEDs. His argument will be the threat of nuclear apocalypse in the U.S.

In his remarks to the World Affairs Council in San-Francisco on November 29, and at Stanford University December 1, the Russian Ambassador touted Moscow’s influence on the North Korean leadership, asserting repeatedly that without Russia’s assistance, the U.S. won’t be able to protect itself against the North Korean nuclear threat.

“Russia is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and the world’s second-largest nuclear power. We are ready to offer our assistance in negotiations with the DPRK, as we too are concerned about the growing nuclear potential of North Korea. Likewise, we can help the United States in its fight against ISIS, and in regulating Iran’s nuclear program.”

There is no question, but that Moscow has a great deal of influence on Pyongyang. President Putin tirelessly lobbied for the North Korean nuclear missile program on the world stage: “they would rather eat grass then give up their program.” With each new leap of the North Korean missile/nuclear progress, experts have ever diminishing doubts about Russia’s crucial role in this Pyongyang’s astonishing progress.

The new Kremlin operation is an improved rerun of the Cuban Missile Crisis scenario. Unlike 55 years ago, Russia is today in a much better situation, since it bears no responsibility for its latest ‘nuclear offshore,’ but it is offering the U.S. its magnanimous assistance – for a price, of course.  Back in 1962, JFK declared any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against… the United States [will require] a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

At that time, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev did not have the chutzpah to respond in the manner of, “We are ready to offer you our assistance in negotiations with Cuba, as we too are concerned about the growing Cuban nuclear potential.”

Last week Putin lavishly praised President Trump’s achievements in his first year in office. Trump immediately called him back to express his gratitude.  Putin aptly used the opportunity to repeat the offer of Russia’s potential contribution to solving the North Korean nuclear crisis, which his ambassador had already delivered in California.  As a former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper succinctly stated: “Putin is a great case officer, and he knows how to handle an asset and that’s what he’s doing with the President.”

General picture of the “North Korean crisis

In 2016 and, especially since the beginning of 2017, our world has become much more unstable. One of the most destabilizing factors has been a sharp increase in the nuclear-missile potential of North Korea (DPRK). More precisely, the following has happened:

  • The number of nuclear devices (warheads) at the disposal of the “Juche regime” increased from 6-8 units in January 2015 to 8-10 units in January 2016, and to 10-20 units in January 2017 (according to the very authoritative SIPRI – Stockholm International Peace Research Institute). Still, by August 2017, this estimate has grown “by a single leap forward” to 40-60 units (according to the Defense Intelligence Agency and other structures in the U.S. intelligence community). This fact was first reported on August 8 by The Washington Post, known by its reliable sources. In general, the power of these devices does not exceed 10-15 kilotons of TNT (roughly the size of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima).
  • At least one nuclear weapon at the disposal of North Korean leaders reached a power of about 150 kilotons and its parameters corresponds to that of a hydrogen bomb. The test of this bomb on September 3, 2017 had very broad resonance in the world and especially in the USA. It is highly possible that by the end of September 2017 the “Juche” regime had several more nuclear weapons of the similar power.
  • For several decades (at least since 1989), the DPRK has been developing an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) called Hwasong-10 with a radius of approximately 4,000 km, based largely on technology obtained from the USSR. A number of Hwasong-10 tests in April 2016 – February 2017 were mostly unsuccessful and demonstrated very limited technological capabilities of the DPRK in this area.
  • All of a sudden, the situation changed dramatically. In May 2017, DPRK successfully tested an IRBM Hwasong-12 with a radius of approximately 5,000 km, capable of reaching the island of Guam and Alaska. Two more successful tests of Hwasong-12 – namely unprecedented brazen “flights over Japan” – took place on August 29 and September 15, 2017. Moreover, quite tellingly, until April 2017 no one in the world, outside of the DPRK, had a slightest idea of Hwasong-12 existence.
  • Furthermore, in July of 2017 the DPRK successfully tested the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Hwasong-14 with a radius of at least 10,000 km twice. This missile can cover almost the entire continental part of the United States. Again, until July 2017 no one outside the DPRK knew anything about the missile.

Using mathematical terminology,  the North Korean nuclear-missile sector experienced  an exponential growth in 2017. Using biblical terms, one can recall Beast-of-the-Sea from Apocalypse. This Beast-of-the-Sea would suddenly appear at the time of the universal catastrophe and take control over the dying world.

We can see four such Beasts-of-the-Sea almost instantly emerging out of nowhere: the triple increase in the number of nuclear devices in the DPRK’s storage facilities during eight months of this year; the arrival and successful testing of North Korean “hydrogen” bomb; three successful Hwasong-12 IRBM tests, and twice successfully tested Hwasong-14 ICBM. That’s some black magic!

I became seriously engaged in the study of this “magic” in mid-August 2017 – after reading an interview of a prominent German missile designer Robert Schmucker with online “Deutsche Welle” newspaper on August 9 2017 about the “fat Russian trail” in the North Korean nuclear-missile program. In particular, Professor Schmuker noted, that Pyongyang has used a fundamentally new technology in recent missile tests. He indicated that the DPRK would have to utilize giant resources for new missiles development from scratch.

As an engineer creating missiles through his entire career, Dr. Robert Schmucker noted that the designer needs a certain number of missile prototypes to be launched and their trajectories to be measured; conclusions to be made based on these launches, errors corrected, ballistic tables compiled, etc. Without numerous unsuccessful tests, a successful launch of a missile is impossible.   We have not seen anything of this, the prominent missile expert stressed. And he believes that it is impossible to conceal such works, since “North Korea is under constant surveillance”.

“The costs for these projects would have to be enormous, you would need seven project teams, several factories to produce the missiles of different diameters, they’d need various materials, fuel, etc. Developing these projects concurrently and, at the same time, making sure practically all the launches, including the first ones, are successful? This is impossible for anybody; the only plausible explanation: these missiles came from outside,” – the expert concluded.

Where did the engines come from? 

Since August 2017, Russian state media has been “helpfully” offering various versions that would explain “clear and simple” the North Korean nuclear-missile “miracles”:

  • DPRK received the production technologies for RD-250 missile engines and similar engines from Ukraine, from the Yuzhmash plant and Yuzhnoye design bureau, where the RD-250 engines have been produced for several decades, until 2001. “Just the modifications of the RD-250 have been used in the North Korean Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 missiles!”
  • The DPRK received a significant part of the new nuclear-missile technologies from China.
  • North Korea has independently mastered new nuclear missile technology. “They’ve tried for so many years, and finally they succeeded!”
  • Iran has rendered very substantial assistance to the DPRK in the development of nuclear- missile technology.

Elleman, the author of the IISS report cited in The New York Times story, later took to Twitter to walk back the quote attributed to him in The New York Times in which he said the engines more likely came from Ukraine than Russia. “Let me be clear about DPRK’s source of ICBM engine: Yuzhnoye is one of several possible sources, there are other potentials in Russia,” Elleman wrote on Twitter. “I don’t believe Ukr gov’t condoned or knew, if the engines were sourced in Ukr. To the contrary, Ukr arrested North Koreans in 2012!” Elleman wrote on Twitter.

Of course, all this does withstand any criticism, especially the fabrications about the possible complicity of Ukraine.  However, on August 14, 2017 The New York Times published an article by Michael Elman, an expert at the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS). The article claimed that most likely North Korean agents purchased several RD-250 missile engines, as well as technologies for manufacturing these and similar engines” on the black market” during the “troubled times” of 2014-2015 in Ukraine.  At the same time, Elman did not rule out that North Korea could buy RD-250 engines and corresponding technologies in Russia in Ukraine, also on the black market. Elman ruled out any direct participation of the government of Ukraine as well as the government of Russia.

The Russian media eagerly picked up the “Ukrainian component” of the article in The New York Times, while the “Russian component” has been completely ignored.

And in Ukraine? Representatives of the Yuzhmash plant stated: “Missiles and military-use missile systems have not been produced and are not being produced at Yuzhmash since Ukrainian independence”.  Top leaders of Ukraine and its military experts categorically rejected Michael Elman’s conclusions. Through Yelchenko, Ukrainian envoy to the UN, they suggested that United Nations and US top leadership should conduct a thorough investigation of the problem, namely, whether Ukraine has anything to do with the new North Korean missile technologies and whether there has been any missile technology leakage from Ukraine.

FOR THE REFERENCE: engines RD-250, the modifications of which are used in Hwasong-10, Hwasong-12, Hwasong-14 missiles, have been developed by Energomash Group in Khimki, near Moscow, but their manufacturing had been transferred to Yuzhmash plant in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine back during Soviet times. There they have been used for installation in Satan R-36 ICBMs until 1991. After that, until 2001, these engines have been manufactured in Ukraine for usage in Russian Cyclone space missile carriers.  At this time in Ukraine, all RD-250 engines have been accounted for.  And in Russia, according to Ukrainian experts, there are up to 20 Cyclone missile carriers and up to 80 RD-250 engines, as well as proper documentation and expertise. Obviously, in the case of an international investigation experts will have to investigate just these engines.

Already by the end of August, the United States representative in the UN Nikki Haley and senior US State Department officials stated firmly: “Ukraine has a very good track record in the prevention of leakage of missile technologies and other dangerous technologies”. They also said that NY Times article and similar allegations against Ukraine are baseless and will not affect the US decision to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons in any way. This was brief and clear.

So, perhaps, was it China helping the DPRK?  It is ridiculous. China is absolutely not interested in strengthening of its eastern neighbor and, at least since 1992, has not supplied the DPRK with any weapons.  By the way, as of September 2017, relations between the DPRK and China have fallen very low, while relations between the DPRK and Russia were growing rapidly.

What about independent research &development of DPRK itself? Or perhaps Iranian help? North Korea is too weak, economically and technologically, for the “Great Leap Forward” in several directions at once in the nuclear missile sphere described above. And even Iran could help the DPRK in a very insignificant way.

So, who is to blame? Here is a statement by Siemon Wezeman, an expert of authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), on August 18, 2017 at the UN, which can become the key: “In the supply of missile technology to the DPRK, are involved either Ukraine or Russia.” The former is unlikely, primarily, because Ukraine has no common border with North Korea. A rocket engine is not a needle in a haystack; even disassembled, it is difficult to move across a border unnoticed. With modern monitoring systems, it is hard to believe such transit could occur quietly. Even if it happened, Ukrainian leaders would not demand a public investigation of the case.

Based on the above, Ukraine, which is watched closely, should be taken off the “radar screen”. Then only Russia remains? We have to admit that this is the case.

The Soviet Union had always actively assisted North Korea in the upgrading of its military machine.  Russia “inherited” this support.  In 2014 (according to other sources, in 2012), Putin wrote off 90% of the North Korean debt to Russia, which was about $11 billion. Moreover, when in 2017 China stopped its energy exports – oil and petroleum products – to North Korea, Russia immediately replaced China.

Russia supported North Korea’s nuclear program technologically: since 2015, North Korean specialists have been working at Russian nuclear research facilities. Now in 2017, Russia is providing significantly more serious support to the missile program of North Korea.

In May of 2017, at the very moment when Pyongyang initiated series of successful missile tests (Hwasong-12, Hwasong-14) and was going to test its “hydrogen bomb”, and while the whole world was cutting off their last ties with DPRK, Russia opened a new sea lane between Russian port of Vladivostok and Korean port of Najin (Rajin).  Najin is located about 50 km (appr. 30 miles) southwest of Russian-North Korean border and 120 km (about 75 miles) southwest of Vladivostok. And Najin is quite close to Kusong, the main North Korean missile range. Mon Gyong Bong ship, owned by Russian company registered in North Korea, continuously makes voyages between Vladivostok and Kusun port and, apparently, services Pyongyang missile launches.

Why would Putin involve himself in this new gamble? This is a subject for a separate article.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gorgeous fall colors in Washington, DC. The perfect season for tourists. Including businesspeople. This fall, a new and growing class of tourists is roaming the DC streets: Russian billionaires.

All of these Russian billionaires can easily recite the now-famous Section 241 of “An Act to Counter aggression by the Governments of Iran, the Russian Federation, and North Korea.” In unison, these tourists confide that they certainly opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea from the very start. And then they ever so delicately inquire, um, to whom (and where) they can offer a very substantial reward to make sure their names stay out of the US Treasury’s report to the Congress on assets of “senior political figures, oligarchs and parastatal entities in the Russian Federation, as determined by their closeness to the Russian regime.”

The Act adopted by the US Congress almost unanimously and signed by President Trump, kicking and screaming, on August 2, 2017, is a machine already operating, and it is now unstoppable. It is set to freeze around $1 Trillion ($1,000,000,000,000 per National Bureau of Economic Research valuation) of criminal “Russian assets.” The report is due on February 2, 2018. Under the Congress’ watchful eye, the US Treasury is hard at work putting it together, including compiling a comprehensive list of the owners and beneficiaries of these Trillion Russian Dollars in America, as well as “identifying indices of corruption with respect to those individuals.” Trying to halt or somehow interfere with this process in today’s US political climate would be suicide for any American politician, including Trump.

Political Washington is a city of leaks, and unofficial lists of corrupt individuals are no secret. The August 2, 2017 Act essentially criminalizes the entire Russian leadership that uses the United States to hoard the treasures it looted in Russia. The list truly reads like a “Who is Who” of Russian Kleptocracy, and includes Russia’s top officials (after all, how can you steal a whole Trillion without the assistance and involvement of top brass)?

A conscientious American police officer who confiscates a stolen wallet from a criminal certainly has to return the wallet to its rightful owner. In our case, the rightful owners are the Russian state and the Russian people. But what do you do if the criminal (the Russian leadership) is the rightful owner’s plenipotentiary representative? It is a legal conundrum to be sure, but I see a way out.

Step one: The US Congress publishes the detailed report it receives from the US Treasury regarding the Russian Trillion’s owners and beneficiaries – this way the report will become accessible to the Russian public and the world.

Step two: The US government announces that it’s ready to transmit, without delay, all the frozen assets to the Russian Federation on just one basic precautionary condition: The RF must adopt a law committing itself to full lifetime lustration of all the officials who embezzled these funds.

Many readers will certainly recall that, initially, the EU and US sanctions were introduced in order to stop Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. These readers will thus insist that returning the Prodigal Trillion to Russia should be postponed until Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored. But for now, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to send some of these funds to the victim of this aggression as pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages.

These arguments make sense, but such an approach seems wrong to me, both politically and psychologically.

Embezzling from Russia and Aggression against Ukraine are two distinctly different crimes, although they were committed by essentially the same individuals (through no coincidence, but through a distinct pattern of behavior).

Here is what yours truly said about this  on the fatal day of March 1st, 2014:

The criminal venture of the Kremlin Kleptocrats who see the February 2014 crime-fighting revolution in Ukraine as a threat to their lifetime power, can be stopped if EU countries, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and the US adopt a very simple measure: Heeding their own laws, these nations’ governments can identify and freeze Russian Federation’s highest officials and their business partners’ assets held at Western financial institutions.

Those guilty of unleashing the war on Ukraine will be publicly exposed as criminals who launder the colossal funds obtained through robbing the Russian people and other ethnicities residing in the RF.

To many, including those living in Russia, this measure will reveal the true motives of the Kremlin’s adamant refusal to accept the Ukrainian revolution that overthrew the power of the Kremlin Kleptocracy’s clone – the Yanukovich crew.

“We can’t foresee how our word will echo through the ages…” My word finally did echo three and a half years later in the clear language of Section 241. I will, therefore, allow myself to make a couple more modest recommendations.

The stolen goods must be returned to the owner with no preliminary political conditions. Just one technical condition has to be set in stone: making sure the money doesn’t go back to the gangsters who stole it.

New Russian leadership, now free from the white-collar criminals who turned out to be war criminals as well, will be able to (on its own, without outside financial or political pressure) resolve the existential issue of Russia’s relationship with Ukraine, including serious brotherly financial support for Ukraine in overcoming the consequences of Putin’s aggression. Especially now that funds will be available for this noble mission. And a great many people (including most of those living in Crimea) will recall with absolute sincerity that they were definitely against the annexation of Crimea from the get-go.

US-Russian relations will radically change as well. Russian citizens will certainly appreciate the US justice’s decisive role in returning to Russia the immense assets stolen from Russia – the assets that were the product of several generations’ labor, deprivations, suffering, and heroism.

With Ksenia Sobchak entering the race, and Alexey Navalny continuing his campaign trail though Russian regions, the presidential elections have finally become topic number one within Russian media and social networks. Nevertheless, one of the most important questions of this campaign is still unanswered: when Vladimir Putin will officially bid for his fourth term and how his new political platform will look like? We discussed this question with Russian political analyst Aleksandr Morozov.

Where is the Putin’s political platform going and what can we expect from his upcoming campaign?

In short, Putin does not need any program at all, this is the first and most important point. He is simply passing to the fourth term automatically, even if he does not offer anything to the public. Even if he does not offer anything to the ruling groups, he will pass to the fourth term without any problems and will stay in the position until the very end, in other words for 6 more years.

However, there is a bigger discussion which is independent of the electoral situation. Can the Kremlin formulate a long-term strategy for itself, regardless of the elections? Where is it all leading to in terms of the relations with the West and public expectations?

It is a bigger problem as everyone feels that the agenda that Putin has been implementing for the last 15 years is already fulfilled. He has built the country he wanted.

In my opinion, Putin will be concentrating exclusively on the following 3 tasks in relation to his fourth term:

1. To create conditions for the young generation.

To live somehow in the country, develop themselves and be in demand as people who have income and can be more or less secure in the future due to money, mortgage and status. It is an important issue as the current situation is unsteady.

2. To ensure the same feeling for the pensioners.

It is a very important moment as well. During the entire Putin’s rule, large numbers of people went to the public sector, law enforcement bodies and army counting on a long guaranteed life after some short periods of 10, 15 or 20 years in service. Putin cannot give up on these people. Because if he does so, he will be left, figuratively speaking, in the position of Gorbachev who forgot about people, and everything depreciated in the result of inflation or a monetary reform. This is, of course, a terrible thing that frightens the Kremlin and will frighten forever, so Putin has nothing to do but support these people.

3. Continue endless reforms implemented by the government.

It refers to the bank sphere, postal and railway reforms, etc.

Literally, the same situation was during the late Soviet period when the party, on the one hand, was trying to find some reforms which could remind the economic modernization, on the other hand, it was the young generation and the pensioners who they mostly were worried about.

This is the very essence of Putin’s program. What will be offered inside of it is probably still to be decided.

It is interesting that they decided to shift the target of their external policy, which has been built on the image of Putin as a military leader during his third term. Many are wondering how his fourth term will look like. Do you know what the next Putin would be like?

No, and this is the right question. All previous Putins had a very clear image. The latest, the Putin of the third term, had an image of the so-called sovereignty restorer. It is a fundamental idea which absorbed the entire nation: “ We are, Russia, will change our position in the external world, they will start respecting us, we have a new understanding of the global politics and our place in it”. Putin, of course, was the driver of this idea.

The fourth Putin has no image and it will not be created during the campaign. Neither Kirienko nor other political analysts or technologists will be able to create it. Because everything else is already completed. The vertical was restored during the first term, planning and building of a new economic modernization were done during the second term, and sovereignty was a topic of the fourth term.

I agree with the analysts who claim that Putin is entering his last term simply in the state of emptiness and senility, the late Brezhnev situation.

Within the experts’ community, there is a belief that this is the last Putin. Do you have such a feeling and where does it come from?

It is a difficult moment. Yes, on the one hand, we have such a feeling. Everyone feels that the horizon ends with the fourth Putin’s term. But the problem is that Putinism will not die after him. Putin is finite but Putinism may be not. This is the point.

After all, the Soviet Union collapsed in a result of a large number of circumstances and various personal stances. Such a combination is not always repeated in history. Nobody can say what will be the way out of Putin and how long Putinism will last after he leaves the stage.

I would say that in Russian society there is an element of nervousness and a sense that everything is somewhat vague. No one feels the precariousness of life, but everyone feels the uncertainty and great riskiness of the Kremlin’s political game.

Some people like it, many support it. Others feel that this game affects their lives and can undermine them. They worry about children and their own future. But even though they are worried, they are still ready to move further from Putin to the next phase.

And, ultimately, the future transition from Putin to the next form will be perceived as the leave of Pinochet, or as a transition from Franco. It’s not a matter of one day. This is a question of a slow transition, when, for example, the Francoans are still playing a big role and the other vision of society is slowly rising, and the balance between the old Francoists and the forces will not be immediately reorganized.

2017 was quite a successful year for the European project. Far-right parties did not win in key countries such as France and Germany. Or, rather, the consolidation of the far-right did not take place in the countries where we thought or feared it would happen.

In the Netherlands, the last minute surge by the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy ensured that the far-right Freedom Party would not become the largest party in the Dutch House of Representatives. In France, Marine Le Pen was soundly defeated in the presidential elections and her National Front won only 8 seats in the National Assembly.

However, the far-right party Alternative for Germany received 12.6% of the vote in the September elections, enough for 96 seats in the Bundestag and third place overall. Their presence in the parliament may have brought Germany closer to her European counterparts where the far-right also have representations in their parliaments. If AFD propagates right-wing populism instead of neo-Nazism or fascism, that ideology has a right to be represented in the Bundestag as it is supported by a substantial part of a population as a form of opposition to the talking points of liberal democracy so widely-spread nowadays. It is good for liberal democracy as it returns the discussion on emigration, cultural and national identities into a more civilized framework.

Today Europe is in the situation of duality, where the dialogue between the two poles of power will determine the future of the European Union. The first pole is represented by France and Germany, especially after the victory of Emmanuel Macron and his recent speech where he outlined approximate plans for future much-needed reform of the EU.

The second pole is the Visegrád Group and in particular Poland and Hungary, with the Czech Republic and Slovakia catching up. This block is formed around non-liberal trends, which are predominant in these states. Even though today these movements are concentrated in Hungary and Poland, similar trends appear to be growing stronger in the Czech Republic.

In my opinion, the dialogue between these two poles will largely determine the future of the European Union. Europe’s near future will likely be centered around the debate of Macron’s plan. This plan will be strengthened by Germany’s position after the creation of the Jamaica Coalition (CDU, FDP, The Greens). Currently, Germany is still in a transitional state and is not taking part in the discussion so far, but will most likely join after the rebooting of Merkel’s government.

As for the influence of the Kremlin, the main allies of the Putin regime in Germany are the Social Democrats, who had and still have much more influence than the “Alternative for Germany”. The latter is by far the most pro-Russian party, but in terms of its importance, it is very much inferior to the Social Democrats, in particular, in the business sphere. Among the Social Democrats, there are lobbyists of big businesses and large industrial groups in Germany who, guided by postmodern Realpolitik sentiments, would like to return to the relations they used to have before with Russia and the Putin regime.

Despite a lot of doubt, there’s still an optimistic air to be found around the development of the European Union. There’s a good possibility that when put to the test, the far-right’s arguments and plans will crumble as they fail to deliver real results. Marine Le Pen should not be dismissed yet, but on the other hand, the National Front is at a chaotic crossroads following their dual defeat at the ballot box. Perhaps the National Front is doomed to split into a more moderate and a more radical wing. The Kremlin, of course, will continue to influence or will try to influence the processes that take place in the European Union, not only through the far-right but also through business structures through Putin’s and his closest associates’ personal connections with leading or significant politicians of the European Union. The paradigm of attempts to influence will persist.

Kremlin has acted and will act based on a variety of national contexts. If the Putin regime gets to cooperate with mainstream players or more influential players, then Russia will not resort to any particularly destructive actions. If these Putin’s friends disappear or lose their influence, it is likely that the regime will again turn to cooperation with the far-right. It will always depend on the specific national context.

For example, speaking of the parties Jobbik or Fidesz in Hungary (the latter is in power, the former is the in the opposition to the latter), Russia, as far as I know, does not support Jobbik, although it was quite pro-Russian and, probably, stays the most pro-Russian party. But Russia does not support Jobbik for the simple reason that there is Fidesz, with which Russia is pleased to work. And since Jobbik is in the opposition to Fidesz, then it would be somewhat inconvenient for Russia to support the opposition to its friends. Similar situations happened in many countries, including France in 2012, when Marine Le Pen was eager to cooperate with Russia, to meet and communicate with Putin. But Putin initially placed its stake on Nicolas Sarkozy or François Hollande. It did not work out when Hollande became President and the only thing left was to start cooperation with the National Front. In other words, specific context is important for Putin’s Russia: with whom to work, through whom to influence, and if not influence, then, perhaps, engage in some kind of subversive actions.

 

This paper is a continuation of publications on the Kremlin’s subversive activity in Europe prepared by Free Russia Foundation. The first paper, The Kremlin’s Gas Games in Europe, published jointly with the Atlantic Council, looked at Gazprom’s overall current tactics in Europe, including its pipeline plans, energy propaganda, and other policies.

Continue reading Corruption Pipeline: The Threat of Nord Stream 2 to EU Security and Democracy

As of today, there are just two real political projects that are available for the Russian Muslims that they can choose in between. They are: al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the “Islamic State” (IS – a terrorist organization banned in Russia), and Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic and major general of the Russian police, who, as of late has been positioning himself more and more so as an advocate of Islam in Russia and around the world. As of today, there is nobody else there who is capable of competing with them for Islamic youth residing in urban and rural areas. The youth, which is on its quest for radical and simple ways of its personal self-fulfillment.

Nonetheless, and however paradoxically as they may appear, these two extreme figures are similar, both as far as their content is concerned, and aesthetically so as well. They both terrify the world with their brutality and the marching of the cut-throat assassins clad in black, they both have state agencies at their disposal, and they both enjoy an enormous amount of support outside the boundaries of the territories that are under their control. They both ascended to the leadership positions throughout the course of civil wars bloodbaths. They both have managed successfully to establish their control over quite substantial fiscal flows.

The IS prisons where the security services hold, torture and execute those dissidents who oppose them on the territories of the self-proclaimed caliphate were nicknamed in a joking manner by the Russian jihadists as: “department number six,” using the analogy with the Ministry of Internal Affairs subdivision, which is in charge of countering extremism and terrorism, and which has a notoriously infamous reputation for kidnapping people, and using torture against its detainees.

Only al-Baghdadi, who is 46 years of age has been already losing his caliphate, meanwhile, the 40-year-old Ramzan Kadyrov is quite possibly getting a new lease of life, his second wind both as a politician and a religious leader. The mass rally on September 4th that took place in the city of Grozny in support of the Myanmar Muslims, which was attended by representatives of various interpretations of Islam from different other regions – it simply is Ramzan Kadyrov’s report to the general public on the work of consolidating Muslims around himself, that has been performed during the last two or three years.

Cleanup of the alternatives

The polarization of the active part of the Islamic community has always been the result of the internal policy of Russia, whether it was done consciously or not, it is not up to me to be the judge of that. The criminalization of Islamic dissidents had begun in Dagestan in 1998 when the law on the prohibition of Wahhabism was approved. Later on, in the early 2000’s, several educational projects and amnesty attempts for Caliphate followers, which refuted violence ended up with the arrests of their movement participants and in forcing their members to go underground, along with the repressions against the clerical curators.

Such Islamic party movements as the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Tablighi-Jamaat, and Takfir-Waal-Hijra, which renounce the armed jihad version, were legally banned in Russia. In the mid-2000’s the attempts of the Islamic activists and intellectuals to come to an agreement with the Administration Office of the President in order to create an Islamic youth movement similar to those pro-Kremlin ones like “Ours/Our own” (“Nashi”) did not find support of the Kremlin’s political technical strategists. And the announcement of Doku Umarov’s, in which he had proclaimed the creation of the Emirate of the Caucasus (banned in Russia) and the shift of some part of the most radical activists towards joining the movement under his banners, those attempts were totally discredited.

The initiatives of Russian “converts” (those, who have converted to Islam from the Orthodoxy) organizations that are somewhat similar to the National Organization of Russian Muslims (NORM) got suppressed with equally vigorous severity, and their leaders and members were forced to emigrate outside of Russia.

The last attempt of the Muslims practicing Caliphate beliefs for peaceful co-existence with the governmental authorities were undertaken in Dagestan under the presidency of Magomedsalam Magomedov. With the support of the Administration of the President, they established an association of Islamic scholars and preachers – “Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama’a.” Now, most of its members have either emigrated or have been accused of supporting of the IS and sometimes those accusations were not without some legitimate merit. Small Caliphate communities continue to exist legally in the Nogai villages of the Stavropol Region, and in Ingushetia. However, in general, the cleaning up of the peaceful Islamic field has been accomplished.

The reprisals against dissidents who think differently have always been particularly brutal, in the Chechen Republic, and as far as the freedom of conscience is concerned, in the state headed by Kadyrov it was abolished in an absolutely medieval fashion: in 2016 a “spiritual and moral passportization” of the Muslims varying in age from 16 to 35 year old was launched – the document was monitored and signed by the people who bear responsibilities for the young person – the neighborhood police inspector, the head of the Teip (the Nakh family clan structure), and the head of the Wird (religious brotherhood). The most typical characteristic of the Chechen fight against dissidents is that its main criterion has always been, and it still remains either the loyal allegiance towards Ramzan Kadyrov’s or the absence of such.

Controlled underground movement

After the chaos of the Chechen wars, national movements and the turbulent re-Islamization of the 1990’s by approximately the mid-2000’s regional elites in the North Caucasus have learned how to resort to the utilization of the armed religious conflicts in their political and economic interests. From 2007 on (the announcement of the “Caucasus Emirate”) up until August 2012 (the murder of Sheikh Said Afandi Chirkeisky in Dagestan), that militant scheme was titled as the fight against international terrorism.

The correct, “traditional” Islam was put into an opposition to the Caliphate version, which was linked to the international terrorism. The history of mutual crimes committed against each other, including the killing of the well – acclaimed famous religious and social leaders were pushing each and every Muslim to define his choice towards either of the parties, despite the fact that the majority of believers attempted to take a stand of neutrality on the matter.

Both sides were putting demands to identify and pick his own side on every Muslim. In Dagestan, as well as in other regions of the country, there were Caliphate and Muftiyat (Muftiate) mosques. There were activists in both groups ready to join in the conflict at any given moment. The “Caucasus Emirate” was almost on the same legal page with the law enforcement agencies as a supplier of militant violence as a resource used as a resolution of commercial and political conflicts.

For example: in one of the of halal network bistros in Makhachkala city, where the visitors and the staff were predominantly of Caliphate belief some waiter refused the service to the police. Later on, the owner of the establishment fired that employee, in some part due to the pressure on behalf of the of law enforcement agencies, and in part due to the fact that the waiter simply did not wait on his customers. After that incident, threats followed from the organizations: “From the forest” and representatives of the “Caucasus Emirate” for firing a Muslim in order to appease the infidels.

After 2010 two things finally became quite apparent. The first thing was that Sufi Islam of the Clerical Spiritual Council has been losing its battle for the youth to the Caliphate version of Islam. It was exactly at that time when the Clerical Council Administration of the Muslims of Dagestan after it received a consent from Sheikh Said Afandi Chirkeisky, moved towards getting closer with the Caliphate religious trend, but two years later the Sheikh perished. The second thing that became apparent was that the “Caucasus Emirate” has been intertwined with the local elite and organized crime and that it has been transformed into a proxy organization, which is providing non-systematic violence to the political market of the region, making it non-transparent for the federal center.

In 2012, Sheikh Said Afandi was blown up by a female suicide bomber and the reconciliation of Sufis with Caliphates was ceased, a wave of repressions was launched against all non-systemic Muslims. A situation similar to that one in its structure has occurred in Tatarstan as well. There the cleansing of both the Caliphate followers and Hizb ut-Tahrir (banned in Russia), as well as the members of the Tablighi-jamaat, has reached its critical decisive phase after a former deputy mufti Valiulla Yakupov had been assassinated, after which an attempt to kill the mufti himself- Ildus Faizov was made. One has to separate Islam from the politicized distortions that are being used by the Islamists and Jihadists, including those ones from ISIS, which is banned in Russia.

At the very same time when the cleanup of the field commanders of the armed underground had commenced and the cleansing also began of those linked to prominent political bigwigs from among the local elite communities, who had their own private armies and their allies as part of the armed underground movement.

Said Amirov, the mayor of Makhachkala, was arrested and sentenced to life in prison in Dagestan, he was accused, among other charges, of having connections to the underground movement; the Director of the Republic’s Pension Fund – Saigid Murtuzaliyev was put on the wanted search list; Ibrahim Gadzhidadayev, the leader of the Gimrin armed group was murdered, and those politicians at the Republican level, who attempted to save him were arrested. Doku Umarov, Aliaskhab Kebekov, Magomed Suleimanov, who have been consequently succeeding each other as Amirs of the “Caucasus Emirate” were liquidated. Albert Nazranov, who was in charge of establishing liaisons between the political elite of the Republic and its armed underground movement was assassinated in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic. In a short period of time, all of the well respected and acclaimed leaders of the underground movement were killed.

By 2012 the “Caucasus Emirate” has been practically destroyed. In the North Caucasus, Islamic preachers and activists were pushed into Syrian war, which became a massive trend before the Olympics, and continued on ever after Al-Baghdadi announced about the creation of the caliphate creation in the summer of 2014. Ramzan Kadyrov has practically declared al-Baghdadi to be his personal enemy, especially so since according to different sources about 5,000 Chechens from Russia and Europe have joined the IS, or some of its other fronts, that are predominantly linked to Al-Qaeda (banned in Russia) and the Caucasus Emirate. Chechens who are from both IS and the Emirate are the enemies of Kadyrov.

The second generation of urban Muslims, those whose families moved from villages to cities in the 1990’s and early 2000’s gives its preference to the global projects. It does not remember regional and local problems and has no desire whatsoever to know about them. It is exactly this generation that is choosing between Kadyrov and al-Baghdadi. And, it is exactly these young Muslims, who are the target audience of the head of the Chechen Republic in his fight for the leadership position among Russian Muslims.

The second life of Ramzan

When the followers of al-Qaeda, including the leaders of the Caucasus Emirate, talk about how the IS not doing the right thing, al-Baghdadi responds by saying: the IS fighting, the IS is supporting the Sharia law on its territory, and what is it that you all are doing?

When Kadyrov’s opponents say that he is terrorizing the Chechen people more and more Muslims answer that: he is defending Muslims all over the country, as well as around the world, and that in Chechnya, which is the only republic in Russia, Sharia Law is placed above the Russian Constitution, an Islamic dress code has been established in public places. There is something that was built in post-war Chechnya, there is order set there, and it is clean. Chechen cultural autonomies across the country and the diaspora throughout Europe (and, possibly, Chechen criminal networks with similar geography) all have a certain level of support from Ramzan Kadyrov.

Kadyrov and al-Baghdadi are sharing the same target group in Russia, as well as in Turkey and Europe among those Russian migrants. In 2015 a rally named “We are not Charlie” was organized in Grozny city. Using that rally as his venue Kadyrov has annunciated himself as the ideological leader of the protest aimed against globalization and the development of Western democracies of freedom that are associated with them.

A high-publicized scandal with the persecution and murder of gay men in Chechnya in early 2017, along with the statements made by the head of the republic on the topic have enabled Kadyrov to practically implicate all those Muslims, who could not condemn his openly homophobic rhetoric along with the violence for the sake of religious reasons as the co-conspirators in the suspected murder.

Grozny city fatwa (adopted in August of 2016 by the participants of the Islamic conference held in Grozny city, declared many religious trends as sectarian ones, which also caused a scandal and criticism in the Muslim world) -it is also a dispute between al-Baghdadi and the Caliphate sheikhs, who are close with al-Qaeda, and there is a solution, although it may not be the most successful one to the most convoluted mission: how while condemning and speaking out against international terrorism, and subsequently against those Muslims, who have already embarked on the path of jihad to still secure and keep their existing loyalty, and how to gain a new one from those young Muslims, who are almost ready to follow this path.

Ramzan provides support to all Muslims in all majorly well – resonant stories in the country, as it was in the case of the Chechen women, who got insulted while being on a walk in Voronezh. He financed Iftars (a meal after sunset during the fasting period in the month of Ramadan). In Moscow, he was offering a treat in halal cafes of the capital city to all Muslims who were willing to partake in it. He is working on saving children and women from the North Caucasus – the widows and the orphans of the IS militants, who have found themselves on the territories of Iraqi and Kurdish formations after the attacks on Mosul. By doing so he becomes an ally and a partner to those children, simply common Muslims, and even to his own enemies from the “Caucasus Emirate”.

That is why the organization of a rally with a million people in attendance (according to the data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic) in Grozny city in support of the Myanmar Muslims is an absolutely logical, essentially crucial move for Kadyrov as a political and religious leader of Russian Muslims. One can say that the Chechen leader is permitted to do that. Naturally so – he is allowed to do it. However, he is positioned at the very forefront of the Russian politics, there are millions of people behind him, his popularity is increasingly growing, and as far as the decision on whether to become the leader of an Islamized social protest movement, or whether to remain a general in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, this is not even up to Kadyrov to make this decision. The choice will be made for him by the circumstances.

 This article has first appeared in Russian at the Vedomosti site.

When the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991, it was widely believed that Western-style democracy and liberal capitalism based on free elections, separation of powers and the rule of law would eventually take root in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and other regions emerging from the Cold War.

Even when ex-Communist Party leaders and representatives of Soviet security services returned to power throughout the former Soviet Union (FSU) in the late 1990s to mid-2000s, mainstream political thought never once doubted the inevitability of democracy’s march across the globe. Experts debated speed and direction, but rarely questioned the ultimate destination.

Unfortunately, recent global events have shown that the post-Cold War flow of money and values was not a one-way affair. When the floodgates opened after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the post-Soviet swamp was not swept away but instead served to muddy Western waters. In most FSU countries, democratic institutions and national economies have not become as strong and transparent as originally envisaged—in fact, the reverse trend has often been highly and sometimes tragically visible.

The truth is that the West has largely failed to export its democratic norms and is instead witnessing an increasingly coordinated assault on its own value system. This destructive import of corrupt practices and norms comes not only from post-Soviet kleptocratic regimes like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia, but also from China and other countries around the world whose ruling elites now possess far-reaching financial and political interests in the West.

Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative has just published the new report by Ilya Zaslavsky, research expert of Free Russia Foundation.

Read the full report at Kleptocracy Initiative’s site

Every single time when Russia faces upcoming elections, there are appeals being heard to boycott them. It is crucial, however, to do that in a right way.

Continue reading To hack elections. How to turn a boycott into political instrument

The “presidential election” in Russia on March 18, 2018, is not going to resolve the issue of who is going to rule Russia. This is because this question is already being addressed.  It is not being done by one hundred million voters, but by the approximately one hundred members of the Russian kleptocracy’s expanded Politburo.

To be sure, Putin’s last name is on the short list compiled by influential government officials-come-businessmen. However, for the first time during the seventeen years of his rule, he is facing some complications.

The “elite” has developed a doubt in his ability to effectively perform over the next six years the function that is the most important one for this gang – interaction with the eternally hated and adored West. The failure of Putin’s neo-imperial exploits has become the greatest foreign policy defeat of the regime and lowered the Kremlin’s relations with its Western partners, who control the foreign assets of Russia’s rulers, to the worst possible condition.

An existential threat to the most valuable facet of life for the Russian rulers has emerged – not just to their holdings in the West, but to their whole life style in the West – their children’s education, medical services, vacations, well-being of wives and concubines, long happy life, organ transplants,  and their political and biological immortality can finally be assured with the billions robbed in Russia. All of this has been thrown into doubt by a single man, who through his adventurous braggadocio has ruined the business-based mutually advantageous relations of the Russian “elite” with the West.

In Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron tormented Putin by putting him in his place and showed him how the leaders of the West will talk to the Kremlin from now on. Putin appeared weak, and as a result of the surprise, lost. It was clear that psychologically and physically he was diminished, which has only intensified the growing concerns of his entourage.

On July 7th in Hamburg, Putin went through what was possibly the most important casting session of his life. Not in front of the G20, of course, but in front of his own palace dwellers’ audience.  Putin desperately needed some kind of “victory”. It was important for him to show that he is involved in resolving critical world issues. Our dear Trump did not fail his friend Vladimir. He gave Putin his first “victory” back in Washington, where members of the cabinet discussed the format of the pending meeting – full format bilateral negotiations or an unexpected talk in the hallway next to a john.  The majority of the Secretaries gravitated towards the hallway option. Trump insisted on a 45-minute long negotiation with the participation of the Secretary of State and the Foreign Minister.

In reality, the meeting actually lasted for more than two hours. Trump started it with a meek admission. He said that to get acquainted with the global scale “fixer” Putin is a great honor for him, a modest provincial realtor. Apparently, an even greater honor for Trump was the creation of a joint counter- cyber terrorism commission together with the organizer of the hacking attacks on the USA. He called the results of the Big Two Summit with his daring ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism “tremendous”.

On that day, insane foreign policy talk shows on the Russian government’s TV channels broadcasted round-the-clock and flatteringly relished all the physiological details of the triumph of our dominant male. Propagandist talking head Vladimir Soloviev displayed a photo-shopped picture “Supplicants and Putin”.

Our faithful servant felt that he had managed to seize his fortune and had created the required impression for his colleagues, who were beginning to doubt him. Straight from Hamburg, he dashed to the Valaam Monastery to kiss an artifact that servile priests had supplied to him, which in the language of his PR people meant – our great chief has arrived at a fateful decision to ”run for office” again.However, this triumph of Putin’s would last only a few days. Once back in Washington, Trump ran into very harsh criticism of his behavior in the Putin meeting and faced new accusations of collusion with the Kremlin during the election campaign. “Why, oh why does Trump love Russia so much?” – is how Farid Zakaria titled his unprecedentedly hard-hitting column in the “Washington Post.” Its ending reflects the mood which is dominant in the American capital and which does not bode well for Trump:

“It is possible that there are benign explanations for all of this. Perhaps Trump just admires Putin as a leader.  Perhaps he has bought into the worldview of his senior adviser Stephen K. Bannon, in which Russia is not an ideological foe but a cultural friend, a white Christian country battling swarthy Muslims. But perhaps there is some other explanation for this fawning over Russia and its leader. This is the puzzle now at the heart of the Trump presidency that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will undoubtedly try to solve.” 

While Mueller is trying to unscramble this puzzle, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan announced on July 12th that a bill containing harsh sanctions against the Kremlin, which was adopted by the Senate on a vote of 97 to 2, will be presented to the House without any changes. Trump’s administration insisted on amendments in vain.  On July 25th, it was adopted by the House with a crushing majority of 417 to 3 (with additional language on North Korea). On the next day, leaders of both chambers agreed to send to the President’s desk the final text in a matter of days. The Senate did it on July 27th by a vote of 98 to 2. If Trump refuses to sign it would be for Trump a political suicide.

The domestic political victory for Putin that Trump granted him for undetermined reasons in Hamburg has turned-out to be a pyrrhic one. The simple fact that the President of the United States is not the Capo di tutt’i capi of criminal society, as is the case traditionally in Russia, and that even if his loyalty to Moscow could be achieved one way or another, it would still not be possible for Moscow to direct the American political system. This is something that does not fit into the minds in the Kremlin.

On the contrary, any step that Trump takes in Putin’s direction causes exactly the opposite reaction in Washington and immediately translates into absolutely concrete legislative actions.

Trump turned out not to be one of Putin’s assets, but a millstone around Putin’s neck. Putin is also now a millstone around Trump’s neck. This has been the actual result of the large scale special operation “Trump is ours.” The conclusion, which was arrived at on July 7th by the Kleptocracy expanded Politburo – that the Boss is still handling it – once again turned out to be premature.

As an article in the Washington Post reveals, the measures against Putin’s Russia that were discussed within the Obama administration once the scale of the Kremlin’s involvement in the US election campaign became clear. None of the sanctions, aside from the confiscation of the two vacation complexes, were implemented. However, the list is very interesting. It impacts the most sensitive pressure points of the Russia “elite.” The list includes, specifically, publication of information on and freezing of all the accounts of the Russian domestic kleptocracy, starting with that of Putin, and visa bans. Obama didn’t dare to introduce these harsh measures. Today they are key articles of unanimously adopted bipartisan legislation.

In retrospect, it is clear what a tremendous error the Kremlin made in betting on Trump.  In fact, the possibility of Mrs. Clinton’s becoming president did not carry any kind of threat to the denizens of Kremlin. Today’s fierce anti-Putin position of the Democrats is the result of the domestic political situation. In reality, it is more anti-Trump than anti-Putin. Democrats feel that Putin is the president’s most vulnerable spot and that’s where they hit him without mercy. If Mrs. Clinton had come to power, most likely some new little “resetting [perezagruzka]” would have taken place. Now, all the bridges between Putin’s people and the American establishment have been burned.

 

Keeping U.S. financial sanctions enforced for an indefinite period could slow down Russia’s efforts to rebuild its economy.

Continue reading The new old sanctions: why the U.S. Senate’s decision is so dangerous for Russia

The demonization of the Russian president as a defender of tyrants and a threat to democracy prevents us from seeing that behind Vladimir Putin’s back, another Leviathan has risen.

Continue reading Jihad Freelancers

This will be a crucial year for Ukraine’s delicately balanced democracy and sovereignty. A real danger is in the possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin will scan the new world order and think the time is right to complete his takeover of Ukraine.

Continue reading If the world blinks, Putin will seize the rest of Ukraine

Free Russia Foundation is proud to present our new report “The Kremlin’s Hybrid Aggression” authored by Ilya Yashin.

Continue reading The Kremlin’s Hybrid Aggression

Cultivating political connections with allies in Europe is a key part of Putin’s influence strategy.

Continue reading Russia’s Likely to Interfere in French and German Elections Next

Free Russia Foundation and the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies are happy to present our new joint report “The Tsar and His Business Serfs. Russian Oligarchs and SMEs Did Not Surprise Putin at the Elections.”

Continue reading The Tsar and His Business Serfs

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ohio University political science professor Karen Dawisha while walking across Washington D.C. We discussed how Western leaders should feel about sharing the same table of negotiations with Vladimir Putin.

Continue reading Putin to a Western country leader: “I’ll crush you”

In recent years, the war of ideas in Russian society is on the rise as intensively as the class warfare should have been in Soviet society while approaching the mature phase of communism. It’s no wonder then that President Putin has reignited the use of the almost forgotten phrase, “the Fifth Column.”

Continue reading The Sixth Column

The Wall Street Journal published an editorial last Thursday arguing that the recent escalation of conflict on the border of Russian-occupied Crimea is “a pretext…to pull out of peace talks,” and that these events are the latest indication of Western (particularly the Obama Administration’s) weakness in the face of Russian aggression.

Continue reading Russia’s Crimea Escalations Require a Deeper Look

Free Russia Foundation and the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies are happy to present our joint report on the sanctions and economic crisis impact on Russian population “From Disapproval to Change.”

Continue reading From Disapproval to Change

Putin’s cronies. Putin’s proxies. Putin is a Kleptocrat. These terms could have shocked us a decade ago, but thanks to recent outstanding investigations and civic initiatives, they have entered into the routine experts’ narrative.

Continue reading Why is the West so weak when it comes to the Russian mafia?

In a previous article, I tried to describe how Russian propaganda works, specifically, the weakening of critical thinking, playing emotions (such as pity, fear, and anger), the creation against this background of an image of an enemy to which internal problems are attributed, consolidation and justification of sacrifice in the face of hardships created by “an external threat”, and the artful creation of extreme situations and fear of impending disaster.

Continue reading The Sweet Poison of Propaganda

Free Russia Foundation is honored to present the report “Russia’s Bad Example” by Melissa Hooper with assistance from Grigory Frolov.

Continue reading Russia’s Bad Example

In the last Democratic presidential debate, Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked the following question: “…You famously handed Russia’s foreign minister a reset button in 2009. Since then, Russia has annexed Crimea, fomented a war in Ukraine, provided weapons that downed an airliner and launched operations…to support Assad in Syria. As president, would you hand Vladimir Putin a reset button?”

Continue reading Clinton fails to inspire confidence when asked about US-Russia relations

A recent NPR report suggested that Russia is not exclusively supporting forces loyal to Assad. During Putin’s annual conference with the press. In a speech to top military commanders, it was revealed that Russia was assisting “some factions” of the Free Syrian Army. 

Continue reading What Russia can do right in Syria

“Putinism is perhaps the first regime in history where the official ideology is deviant behaviour,” writes Russian independent journalist Arkady Babchenko, publisher of the Iskusstvo Voiny (“Art of War”) magazine.

Continue reading Infantilism as Russia’s Official Ideology

The debate schedule marches on in the United States. On Tuesday, the top nine Republican Party candidates, as well as four less popular candidates, debated each other again, this time focusing mostly on national security and on fighting terrorism.

Continue reading GOP debate: Are you qualified to deal with Vladimir Putin?

Russian authorities held another forum devoted to the so-called “Russian World.” Official media reported that the fifth “World Congress of Compatriots” was held in Moscow. The congress was heralded as “an important milestone in the consolidation of the Russian World.”

Continue reading Russian world that they sponsor

Russian President Vladimir Putin will head the Russian delegation at the 70th session of the UN General Assembly in New York. His speech is scheduled for 28 September. By the way, this is the Putin’s first speech at the UN General Assembly for 10 years.

Continue reading The UN will let the person guilty of the MH17 crash speak

This week the trial of Nadiya Savchenko has started. Free Russia Foundation has contributed to all the global efforts of #FreeSavchenko and worked a lot with her legal team. We’ve asked Mark Feygin, Savchenko’s attorney, to share his opinion regarding Savchenko’s trial and Nadiya as a very valuable person for Putin in his political bargaining on the eve of his UN speech.

Continue reading Putin’s hostage Savchenko is awaiting her fate

Three weeks ago, when it became clear that Russian military supplies were being sent to Syria, the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to the United Nations in New York could be reasonably considered a hostile attempt of Russian autocrat to challenge Western countries and claim his own power in the world.

Continue reading Syria forces Obama to talk with Putin again

Free Russia Foundation has asked Ksenia Kirillova, a Russian journalist, and contributor of the “New region” newspaper  to analyze the main characteristics of Russian general mentality and the ways Kremlin is playing with it.

Continue reading Main Features of the Russian Mentality

Vladimir Putin is coming to the General Assembly (GA) of the United Nations this month. This visit has sparked a discussion about his motives and intentions among Russian-speaking opposition figures and experts in international affairs.

Continue reading Putin’s values pose old and new existential threats to the West

At the end of September, Vladimir Putin will attend the 70th General Assembly of the U.N and has asked to make a speech. He will speak amid the possibility he will be snubbed by his peers for his authoritarian rule and the invasion of Ukraine. The fact that Putin will still go to New York means that he has a trump card and feels there are more political gains than risks for him. We asked Ilya Ponomarev, Russian MP, to give his take on the reasons of Putin’s upcoming visit to the U.N. and recent increased Russian activity in Syria.

Continue reading Manipulating the U.N. Putin’s flight to New York has to stop in Damascus

With so many presidential candidates in the U.S., there is a great deal of media attention and public discussion. There hasn’t been too much said about where the candidates stand on relations with Russia, Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian crisis, but we have asked our columnist Kyle Menyhert to take a look at their statements and say what kind of actions we should expect after 2016.

Continue reading U.S. – Russia relations after 2016: isolation, engagement or confrontation?

For nearly a week now, food products that fall under sanctions have been destroyed in Russia. Obviously, such a decision has provoked massive dissatisfaction among Russians and for the first time in the last year and a half, has shaken the government’s authority.

Continue reading Will the Burning of Food Lead to a “Conflagration” of Russia?

One of the biggest questions following the horrible murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov goes to the impact it will have on the Russian opposition. Will the tactic aimed at sowing fear among opposition politicians yield its results? Will the opposition be able to coordinate better in the new “wartime” reality? Will Russian society be more responsive to opposition ideas now? Continue reading Is Putin really that popular and what is next after Nemtsov’s murder?