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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.

Free Russia Foundation recently hosted Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, two investigative journalists from Russia who specialize in security services and internet surveillance, and sat down to talk about control over the internet in Russia, and whether independent media and civil society can prosper in an environment of growing censorship.


You have written a book about electronic surveillance in Soviet times and in modern Russia, and during the internet era. How widespread is government surveillance of the public today?

Andrei: Surveillance carried out by the Russian security services has not ever been intended for monitoring the entire population. The idea of using surveillance, the very fact of its existence, is to intimidate the public. Surveillance is only employed on people who the Kremlin perceives as dangerous – political activists, journalists, experts, people who express an independent opinion. These people may indeed be under surveillance and materials intercepted by the security services can then be used as kompromat. We’ve seen this in the case of Boris Nemtsov, Alexei Navalny and many others. But the very fact that they are being watched becomes public and later people who have no connection to the opposition or political movements will feel limited in expressing their opinion, including on the internet. As in the old days over the phone, now people are afraid to express their opinions online.

Irina: We can say that, in technical terms, the Russian security services have fallen behind, relatively speaking, compared with their American counterparts, for example. They do not have the technical capability to intercept everyone simultaneously and store this data. But since the Russian security services are not bound by oversight, the possibilities of using intercepted information for their own purposes, including that which is obtained illegally, are unlimited. Therefore, people know that if they are under surveillance – their communications are being intercepted and they are being watched – it means that some kind of repression will follow. It’s not like how the NSA gathers information on you and puts the data on hold until they might need it. In Russia, if you’re in the sights of the security services, it is very bad.

So, the SORM system* is not pervasive?

Andrei: No, we don’t have mass surveillance.

Irina: Although, they would love to have it.

Andrei: They are currently trying to create it, for example by forcing all Internet providers and operators to store data so that security services can have access to it. But there are problems with that since the country is so large that data is not stored in one place, but in different regions. It is not technically possible to analyze the whole country’s data at the same time. Therefore, they rely on targeted surveillance of people identified as potential troublemakers. But it does not work in reverse order, like how American intelligence agencies can analyze data and identify people who speak on a particular topic and then create a circle of suspects.

The Russian authorities have been successful in suppressing independent media, including through online censorship. Strict regulation of bloggers has been introduced, and the regulator Roskomnadzor can close down any online platforms on the basis of extremism and so on. But at the same time there are websites like Meduza, Alexei Navalny’s website, YouTube channel and social media available. The authorities have not been very successfully in blocking the messenger service Telegram. How do you see the Kremlin’s struggle to establish censorship of independent media and the readers’ efforts to bypass it?

Andrei: The Kremlin is bad enough in inventing ways to restrict access to information. But in general it’s very difficult to close access to opposition resources by technical means – readers can use VPN, proxies and still get access to what they want to read or see. The problem lies in the fact that for the majority of people – who do not actively seek out alternative information – the Kremlin creates technical difficulties around accessing that information. A good example of this is what happened to Telegram. People who really want to use Telegram use VPN. But a large number of people who used Telegram, but were not motivated to make a special effort to keep using it, they have left Telegram. According to some findings, up to 70% of the Telegram audience left after the service was officially restricted.

Irina: The internet is too big a challenge for the Kremlin, because it is not traditional media, where you can simply control the media owner or repress the editor in chief. This cannot be done with the internet because it is an environment where information is shared instantly and it is very difficult to control. If something happens, some kind of crisis, and people begin to share information, then it is difficult to control 1,000 users at once; it is almost impossible. The tragic college shooting in Kerch is an example of this. At first, the authorities as always began to promote a narrative that a gas explosion had occurred and that was the cause of the deaths. But the authorities did not even have time to react, as videos from the scene began to appear and it quickly became clear there was no gas explosion. The Kremlin could not stop the flow of information. This gives reason for optimism.

But if we talk about the ability of independent media to operate online, to what extent is it possible? The majority of independent initiatives seem to be based abroad.

Andrei: It’s not just that. The fact is that if you want to establish an independent media platform, you must have independent sources of funding. We now have an increase in investigative journalism. We see a lot of projects, small projects, that do very important work and they really do great investigations on very important topics. But their audiences are very small, or if they are large and considered a threat to the Kremlin, advertisers will not go to them. If you do not receive advertising revenue, what is your alternative? Subscriptions? Subscribing involves identifying users and people fear that they can be identified via the surveillance system and it can be used against them. Therefore, the problem here is not technical; it lies outside the internet. We simply cannot find a business model that would allow us to create truly independent media. So far, we Russian journalists have learned to create media outlets that provide an alternative point of view, but we have not invented models for truly independent media.

What is your prediction about whether civil society will gain strength or somehow change the situation in Russia, particularly in the context of the internet?

Irina: Russian civil society, unlike political parties, is strengthening every day. In addition to the huge number of people participating in the Navalny movement – which is not yet a political party but rather a broad movement of resistance to the Kremlin and the current government – there are a lot of volunteer movements. We have not seen volunteer movements in Russia before; this is new and the movements are coordinated via the internet. There are people helping in many areas, like organizations that help prisoners, women in trouble, disabled people, and so on. All this is civil society activity and if they didn’t have the opportunity to coordinate through the internet, there would be nothing at all. The Kremlin does not like this civic activity, but it cannot do much because it is made up of masses of people. It’s not hundreds or thousands anymore – it’s already in the tens of thousands of people.

Andrei: One of the ways the Kremlin can control the situation is to convince people that they should not engage in political and social activities. The Kremlin has always created the perception that if you have problems with the state, then you will be absolutely alone. There will be a huge Leviathan state that will simply crush you. And that indeed was the case for many years in Russia. If you were an ordinary activist – not a famous journalist or writer – and you had problems with the state, then the state would most likely crush you. What is changing now – and this is thanks to the internet – is that civil society has removed this stigma from so many topics and has created a sense of support. If a person now finds himself or herself in a difficult situation, for example by being detained by the police, there are organizations like OVD-info and dozens of others that will help you. If a person goes to prison – it is no longer as scary as it was 10 years ago because the person will not be left on their own. Even if a person does not have money for a good lawyer, there are already organizations that will find one and help him. And this is something new. It removes the stigma from so many topics, it’s not so scary anymore. It’s still scary, but not so terrible and not so final. And it does not necessarily give confidence in the future, but at least some kind of hope.

Irina: Internet spreads hope.

So despite targeted surveillance as well as self-censorship, the Russian authorities still cannot control the internet as they would like to and that gives hope for some change in terms of strengthening civil society.

Andrei: Yes, the changes are already underway.
Irina: Absolutely.
Andrei: As Irina said, civil society is growing and this cannot be stopped.
Irina: If it were a totalitarian regime, they could stop it. But an authoritarian one cannot. The regime in Russia, thank God, is not totalitarian.

*SORM – Soviet and Russian electronic surveillance system (Sistema Operativno-Rozysknikh Meropriyatiy, or System of Operative Search Measures). Russian legislation requires all of Russia’s internet service and phone providers to install a device in their lines, a black box that connects the lines to the Federal Security Services, the FSB. The FSB is then able to intercept and store communication and data.

 

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”

Valeria Jegisman of Free Russia Foundation recently sat down with Yevgeniya Chirikova, a Russian environmental activist who currently lives in Estonia, to talk about civil society and activism in Russia – whether it can develop in an oppressive environment and its efforts are noticed in the West.

 

When the West looks at Russia, it seems that it often sees Putin and the regime, and fewer people think about civil society and activism in Russia. Does Russian activism exist?

Yes, it does and it has been growing and developing very rapidly for the last 10 years. I understand why there is such an attitude because for a very long time — in Soviet times and for a long time during the Putin regime — there was no activism like there is now. In my opinion, the rapid growth of activism began around 2010. Of course, some manifestations of activism existed before – Russia is a big country – but activism did not have a massive influence and it was not the norm. For a long time, the notion of an activist was generally negative. The perception was that an activist is not someone who is completely mentally normal — that if a person participates in activism without an order from his superiors, then there is clearly something wrong with this person. This is such a heavy legacy of the Soviet regime. So, starting from the forest fires of 2010, when people realized that they were on their own against nature because the authorities were not going to solve their problems, they began to organize themselves and solve problems independently. This gained good public coverage and in terms of timing coincided with our movement in protecting the Khimki forest.  At the time we managed to gather a large rally on Pushkin Square in Moscow – there were 5,000 people protesting. That was a lot; there hadn’t been any rallies like that in over 10 years. Later on, we managed to gather 100,000 people in support of fair elections, but in 2010 that would have been nonsense. We managed to achieve an incredible thing in the history of Russia: then-president Dmitry Medvedev said he would suspend the building of the Moscow-Saint Petersburg highway through the Khimki forest which we opposed.

I believe that activism is very young in Russia. You can see the descriptions of various forms of activism on our website, activatica.org. We created this website to support activists and we also have a database on Russian activism. There is a map there that traces various activist efforts and there are already thousands of points, where each point represents a particular undertaking. So yes, activism exists in Russia.

Why do you think activism persists despite the growing repressions and do you think it will continue to grow or not in the current political environment?

It will definitely keep growing. Putin and his regime will lose money because of the sanctions and the sanctions will continue because Putin will not give up his militarist policy. But Putin is used to living well, to buying off foreign politicians, to spending money on a repressive apparatus, on a propaganda machine and his own luxurious lifestyle. So he will need money and will extract it from people, who are basically the “new oil”. New unjust laws and decisions will be adopted, such as the Platon electronic toll road system — essentially double taxation for trucks — which provoked a powerful movement of truck drivers against the system throughout Russia and even in a region like Dagestan, which has always voted for Putin. The whole of Dagestan took to the streets against this system. Activism seemed to arise where it had not existed at all. Right now Putin’s pension reform has generated strong protests, which have taken place in 70 Russian cities despite the fact that participating can be dangerous.

I think repressions will intensify, but also as the political and economic situation worsens the number of protests will increase and the more severe the repressions are, the more brutal the protests will be.

Do you think people will overcome the fear of taking to the streets?

But they will not have any other options. It is not about overcoming something; people will be put in situations like the aforementioned truckers who just understood that they won’t earn any money and if they don’t come out to the streets, nothing will change. And they were able to achieve some change. So people will come out because of hopelessness. The Russian authorities do not leave any scope for normal, legal, peaceful problem solving – you cannot go to court, you cannot write a letter to anyone, because that will not solve your problem. By getting rid of the ways of peaceful and legal resolution, the Russian authorities end up forcing people to the street. As with the pension reform, for example, the authorities rejected a proposal from the Communist Party to hold a referendum, arguing that people are not educated enough to understand the matter. Essentially, people are capable of working until they’re 65 but they aren’t capable of understanding the question on raising the retirement age.

Do you think the authorities will make any concessions?

Of course they will, but it will depend on the strength of the protests. The more people protest, the fewer opportunities the authorities have for implementing tough measures. The government is in the process of acquiring this horrible new equipment for suppressing popular uprisings called “stena”.  And this is happening in the context of the pension reform protests; at a time when people are demanding political change. But the more people are out there, the less likely it is that the authorities will use severe methods to suppress protests.

The government runs into trouble when it makes decisions that affect a broad group of people – like the pension reform. The protests against raising the retirement age will inevitably lead to concessions. Even now, these relatively small protests have led to Putin already reducing the retirement age for women. The more the protests continue to grow, the more concessions will be made. Our authorities have a very good sixth sense and understand they can be taken out of power at one moment and they are afraid of that. But any concessions will be proportional to the efforts of the civil society.

Is it possible that the pension reforms have had such a negative effect on people that even if concessions are made, a lot of people have got a taste of activism and this could potentially lead to political change in the future?

Of course, because when a person becomes an activist, when they begin to take to the streets, they take on a different view of the state. They will begin to experience police lawlessness and they will begin to really understand what propaganda is. When a person becomes an activist, they watch TV in a different way after that, they begin to see the real picture of the Russian reality, it changes them. This does not mean that everyone will immediately become active oppositionists like Alexei Navalny, but it will definitively change their mind.

How does your website help activists?

First of all, we offer media support, including through social networks. When we first started this activity, there was very little information about activism available. Now, thank God, other projects such as ours are emerging as well and we welcome it. We are happy that this topic has become extremely popular and we feel we can be useful in supporting activists and spreading information about their activities. Sometimes spreading information is a matter of physical survival for an activist — that’s in my own biography. There were several cases when timely journalistic investigation about who has beaten up the activists helped stop the beatings and saved their lives.

The psychotherapeutic factor is important, too. It is very difficult to be an activist in Russia – everyone says at best you are crazy, an outcast and an accomplice of the United States. But when you open our website and see the map that tracks activism, you’ll see that all of Russia is actually engaged in this and you feel different. And of course, the role of our website is to unite activists so they can do joint campaigns and support each other.

Returning to the first question: If the Western world, looking at Russia, mainly sees Putin and the regime, how can it be shown that Russia – it is also an evolving civil society? How could this message be conveyed?

It is a very good question and I don’t have a clear answer. But I try to do just that, speaking at different venues about activism in Russia, and I usually surprise people. I recently spoke at the US Congress – everything I said seemed like news there. I talked about campaigns that are already 2-3 years old and I saw that it was a surprise to hear about that.

But it is actually more difficult with Europe – after the conflict with Ukraine, Europe has become more active in its purchasing of oil and gas from Putin’s regime. Germany is buying twice the amount and Nord Stream 2, led by Putin and former German Chancellor Schröder, is under way. So, the West consists of different people. For the West that makes decisions, at least in Europe, it may not even be very profitable for there to be another Russia – the Russia that exists today is very convenient as you can buy oil and gas for cheap. Of course, if something changes in Russia and another, democratic government comes to power, the first thing they will do is stop the current model for supplying gas. In Russia, 30% of people are without gas, and instead use coal for heating, which leads to catastrophic environmental consequences. Of course, Germany will cease to receive its cheap gas and Holland will not receive its cheap oil, and many will be upset. Whoever launders the money will also be upset. Take the scandal at the Estonian branch of Danske Bank, which has laundered a huge amount of Russian money. Someone gained incredible profits and this someone will be very upset if everything changes in Russia. So the West is not all about being good and it simply may not really want to see civil society flourish in Russia.

There are two trends here – there is this wonderful sale of hydrocarbons, which not only did not stop but actually increased after the annexation of the Crimea and the war against Ukraine. The West has not stopped communicating with Putin and has actually strengthened Putin’s regime with hydrocarbon money. On the other hand, at exactly the same moment as the annexation of the Crimea, when the “law on foreign agents” was adopted in Russia, the West and Western donors stopped helping civil society due to fear of these laws. Thus, the nascent Russian civil society was left without support. And it is a good question: how can we change this situation? We need to combine our efforts somehow and I am very glad that Free Russia Foundation has also become engaged with issues of activism.  It seems to me that it is necessary to organize more conferences and events through joint efforts.

I would also note that I have more events in the States than in Europe, which is very disappointing because Europe is closer to us and it could share experience and knowledge. But even in America it is becoming more difficult, especially after Trump was elected. I sense the donors have problems with helping Russia. It feels like the help they try to provide is being blocked, whereas the interactions with Putin’s regime seem to continue.

The interview took place on 20 September 2018 in Tallinn, Estonia. Photo credit: wtaq.com

This text is also available in Russian.

At Free Russia Foundation, we have identified the trend where various religious institutions, and especially the Russian Orthodox Church, have become a more prominent instrument of the Putin Regime domestically and globally. To examine this trend, we have initiated a research series focused on the role of religion in Russian politics. In this piece, you will find a reflection of what the gift of autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church means to Russia and Ukraine written by Igor Knyazev, bishop at the Karelskaya Evangelical Lutheran Church.

The passionate turmoil surrounding the gift of Tomos of autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church does not subside calmly. Dozens and hundreds of experts discuss the intricacies of the intrigue of the church clerical administrators as well as the casuistry of the canon law. Behind the backdrop of all of this discussion, one cannot see the life and aspirations of the ordinary folks – those believers and parishioners, in whose name, and on whose behalf all of the loud statements are being made, and for whose rights the hierarchs and the politicians are fighting.

However, the most important things in this conflict of interests, after all these are the interests, feelings, situations of these very ordinary folks  – the believers, in this convoluted and intricate process of inter-church clerical struggle. While attempting to sort this situation out, I have discovered a great deal of new things for myself, took a look at it as though it was happening through the eyes of some ordinary believer. Over, and above it all, my personal experience has also played a significant part in my interest in this topic – I have departed from the Orthodox Church, as a result of my personal conflict between the faith and my personal point of view and beliefs. Many years ago, back in 1998, I was making a very difficult decision for myself: to stay within the fold of the church, which was proclaiming the slogans that are harming democracy for the people of Russia, the inadmissibility of a liberal political system, the harmfulness of the human rights and freedoms? Shall I stay and not give a flying fig about my point of view, after I would have decided that the faith is more precious to me? Or shall I depart the fold of the church?

To leave the church, to which I came as a young boy in 1977, the church that at that time was persecuted, trampled by each and every single one, the church nobody cared about, and the church that now has itself became a persecutor, after some twenty plus years. I have opted for the departure. I decided that my convictions and points of view, the values, the ideals are just as important as the faith was. I have become a Lutheran and even rose up to the episcopal rank. Nonetheless, all of what I have lived through then, twenty years ago is just as vividly alive in my soul and in my memories. Everything that I have gone through, every feeling I have experienced, as it seems to me, did help me to understand what the believers of the Ukrainian church are feeling in the present situation, and to mull it over in my mind for a while, reflecting on what it can result in for them.

Competitive environment

Before we transgress, or as it would be more accurate to say descend down to the level of individual understanding and the attitude of a person who is a believer to what is going on, let us briefly denote the state of the religious world in Ukraine with the dotted line, as well as those factors that are affecting the behavior of one of the main participants in the confrontation – the ROC MP.

As of today, the religious space of Ukraine includes five major church institutions: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Apostolic Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian Greek – Catholic Church, and the structures of the Roman Catholic Church as well. One can hypothetically make another addition, and administer in another subject number six, namely a large Protestant community, which does not have a single unified center, nevertheless, it is visible in the religious domain of Ukraine, and it has some serious influence on what is happening in the country. All of these church clerical institutions have a regional distribution factor, and they are not evenly represented across the whole territory of the country (traditionally, the East of the country has the majority of parishioners of the UOC-MP, in the center of the country there are parishioners of the UOC-MP  located, and the UOC – KP is approximately equally divided, in the West the parishes of the UOC-MP are smaller, moreover the Greek Catholics have a strong influence over there, etc.).

This situation creates quite a market similar to (hypothetically) the competitive environment, where there is not a single one – part present that would have a firm and overwhelming monopoly. No one can dominate solo, without having to unite with the others, no one can suppress his opponents simply on his own. In other words, all of the subjects are forced to take into account the strengths and the influence the other players and have to build their activities while keeping an eye on the potential opposition, represented by their competitors. Of course, this is very good for a religious situation in which the course of real competition for the believers makes the church work as efficiently and as actively as it is only possible in its preaching work, its social projects, and precludes the churches from such phenomena as the presence of the unchallenged power of hierarchs, despotism, and a high volume of church corruption.

It is also necessary to point out the fact that the general religious devoutness of the Ukrainian population runs very high, (it is also much superior to that level of the Russian population) that was present in here even during the Soviet period, and which also has experienced a strong influx of the believers, who are leading a church-going and strictly observant life according to the church portamentos after the collapse of the communist system. The presence of the priests representing all of the faiths and all the jurisdictions at the Ukrainian Maidan serves as an example of this equilibrium and a competitive religious environment.

That is why, for instance, the phenomena of the church clerical life that have no relevance for the believers in Russia, due to the lack of any available leverages of influence on the situation, and since they have always been traditionally perceived by them as “the games played up at the top, where the bosses will sort it out between each other, and so on and so forth,” in Ukraine have fundamental and important meanings for the believers, and they are taking place with their active participation ( because believers can influence the situations, right up to the point where they can “vote with their feet” ). A great deal of influence on the activation of these processes and the attitude of believers to the church was played by the Ukrainian Maidans, as well as by the full-fledged avid political life, where yet again due to the existing political competition in place, the citizens are taking an active part in it. This activation has come into being in the course and during the process of making a choice of the future  pathway for the future national development, the path “towards the West,” or “towards the East,” the passage to Europe into democracy and market economy, or the choice towards the Russian authoritarian model of the state and its state – monopolistic model of economy.

This choice has consisted of both – the choice proper and the orientation of the church clerical models. Therefore, one has to say that the political and religious landscape of Ukraine is a very mobile space environment, where the processes of movement, consolidation, and the confrontation of several large entities at  the same very time sans dead, frozen forms (as it is for example, in Russia) are constantly going on.

It is also important  to note that in Russia if for instance all of the decisions of its political and public administration have been transferred to the federal level (to be more exact, all power is concentrated in the hands of one person – the President), and the decision on the replacement of the light bulbs in the entrance lobby, as well as the declaration of a war are the prerogatives of the federal government, then in Ukraine with its competitive environment a significant part of the public and political decisions is being made within the institutions of either direct, or participatory democracy. This explains the fact that Ukrainians perceive the questions of the church structure as the issues, which have a direct connection to each and every one of them and thus require their personal participation in the quest for the solutions.

The fight surrounding the provision of Tomos has been going on for a long-term, and the fact that the outcome of this confrontation would determine the fate of the ROC MP, in its turn, gives an especially so fierce tone to the Church clerical – administrative confrontation created in Ukraine. The final outcome of this struggle will seriously first and foremost have an effect on the position of the Russian Orthodox Church within Russia proper, its relevance and the need for it among the Russian authorities. After all, if the outcome of this struggle is bad for Russia, then the pass way to the most unpredictable processes in the religious space will be opened within it. And the very fact that there are various scenarios in existence for the potential outcome of this struggle, the variety is undermining its position of a clerical monopoly within Russia, and seriously reduces its authority and influence in the external relations of the church. Since the very foundation, it relies upon as well as the main condition for its present existence in Russia is in its position of a monopoly, which is backed up and provided by the state. Therefore, in this case, the ROC MP is not just fighting not for Ukraine per se, but as a matter of fact, it is fighting for its own future in Russia.

The conflict between the faith and the convictions

Now, switching from the overview of the situation, let us try to comprehend what do the believers, the parishioners, and the church hierarchy representatives are feeling? Let us make an effort to sort out what creates the conflict between the faith and the convictions and what are the consequences for the man?

It is obvious that the result of such a conflict is a serious personal and social subdivision for an individual within himself as well as within the social medium in which he exists.

The first boundary of this subdivision is located inside the person himself, hypothetically, it could be drawn as follows: I believe in God and I love my church, but it stands on the opposite side of the war that came to my country, it blesses those who are fighting against me, it proclaims the slogans of nationalistic and imperial hegemony against the neighboring state. I can make attempts to hide behind words or statements about the fact that: “The Church is above this, that the Lord does not have anything to do with it,” etc., however, I do realize that it will not help me. And as a matter of fact, God does not have anything to do with it, nonetheless, the church is not only a spiritual incremental part, but it is a materialistic terrestrial institution, which is guided in its decisions by both – political and national interests. Thus, I must either agree with the position of my church that my country, the citizen and the patriot of which I am is not  a real wholesome country, but it is rather some sort of political ersatz that has no right to exist, and therefore I either have to leave the fold of the church or to influence it in such a fashion that it would change its position. As a rule, there are a lot of caring people in the church among its regular and active parishioners, to whom all of these questions are not at all just some shallow phrases, these are the people, who are looking for answers, they are emphatic and not indifferent, these are the ones who create the entire atmosphere in the church. And it is because of their involvement in the church life and due to their active position on the issue that it becomes the conflict between the faith and personal convictions, and it is extremely difficult for them.

The second line of separation is happening already in the close inner circle of the believer, namely it is occurring primarily within his family, his relatives, and close friends. In there, the conflict of generations sets in to play its own role (the youth is being more radical and is not inclined to make any compromise, it does not accept the viewpoints of the elders, which consist of the following – “one has to endure sufferings, and perhaps only afterward make some kind of decisions.” Young people cannot withstand waiting, and they are not used to the anticipation, they make their choice today and that is why the conflict between the parents and their children on the issue of “their” and the “occupational” churches becomes a dividing borderline between the different generations of the same family, among the families, who had opted for different political choices (and, in this case, the church choice as well).

The third boundary line is in the subdivision running among the residents of different regions of the country (West vs. East), between various political groups (hypothetically the subdivision between the “pro – Russian,” and the “patriotic” citizens).

All of these three boundaries of subdivisions run within the society, creating multiple points of tension, interfering, and frequently tearing down and blocking the process of a civil formation of a nation.

Will these subdivisions be overcome, and, if so to what extent if any, will the Ambassador of Tomos get the autocephaly? In what way can this confrontation result for an ordinary believer? Let us make an effort to figure this out by examining two completely opposite versions of the development of events, which in my personal viewpoint, contain a significantly different probability.

“The Kremlin’s arguments”

Thus, let us examine the first version, which is being written a great deal about in Russia, or to be more correct, that one written about from the “pro-Kremlin” positions  – namely, the gifting of Tomos leads to a sharp political stimulation of activity among the population, the struggle for the temples commences, clashes and physical confrontation among the parties begin,  and a large-scale civic conflict flares up in the country. How very likely is this scenario to happen? I think that this probability is close to a zero point. There are several reasons for that. The first and the major one is the fact that for more than a quarter of a century Ukraine has existed in the conditions of its independence and sovereignty. This is the time frame sufficient enough for its citizens to have perceived themselves as one nation and to have learned how to resolve the internal contradictions without inflicting harm upon their country. By the way, the fiasco of the ideas of the “Russian world” and the failure of expectations for a mass exodus of the subjects of Ukraine from its federal union in the years of 2014 – 2015 are the most vivid confirmations of this theory. As of today, Ukraine is a nation in which the people who comprise it consider Ukraine to be their own country, treat it with responsibly, and they do not allow internal contradictions to rise up to the level of the national confrontation, and to threaten the sovereignty and the integrity of their country.

That is why there is no “devotion” and “love” to one patriarchy or the other in a place that could cause a deep crisis or a split within the nation. The expectations that in the wake of the euphoria stemming from the victory in getting the gift of Tomos the radical political sentiments will prevail, and that there will be the agenda with the theme of fighting with representatives of the ROC MP thrown in the midst of it. It also lives on only in the Russian – speaking propaganda space proper. No one sees any reason to do this inside Ukraine, and nobody witnesses such threats. In addition, the fact that the unification and the mutual integration of all the churches will continue to go on for a long period of time also serves as an insurance against such a potential development of the events. This a very complicated process and it will take years. All of this time will become the time of looking for compromises on the issues of distribution of administrative posts within the clergy and the distribution of the property. And, competitive political and clerical environment constitutes a sufficient enough insurance against any manifestations of any kind of dictatorial aspirations, or against the absolutization of clerical authority.

Compromise 

Let us take into our consideration the second version, which, in my point of view seems to be the most plausible scenario for the future development of the events: the gift of Tomos would become the initiation of the process of building up a single unified Ukrainian Local Orthodox Church. Throughout the duration of this process, within some 3 – 4 years some mutual integration and unification of the clerical structures will take place, and, a compromise will be reached on the figure of the church’s leader (and possibly, given the chances he has Patriarch Filaret will become the Head of the Local Orthodox Church of Ukraine, so the factual figure of the next key leader will become relevant).

The hierarchs of the UOC – MP in Ukraine do realize that the possibility of their influencing the situation and implementing their goals and interests in real life for them will be opened only through the venue of their participation in the process. In other words, if you wish to have another figure in the place of the Patriarch, then in order for this to be a possibility for you, at the very least you would need to become a part of this church. That is why a significant portion of them will transfer rather quickly and on good terms into the structures of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

At the very same time, most probably some part of the UOC – MP will refuse to become a part of the unified Orthodox Church and will continue to exist in the structural form of the metropolitan area of the Russian Orthodox Church on the territory of Ukraine with its parishes, mainly in the East of the country. It is unlikely that this will become a significant enough factor for the aggravation of the situation and for any civil confrontation. And, on top of it all, having taken into consideration the political choice of Ukraine, as well as its confident way chosen towards the West, this clerical metropolis would not be able to exercise any kind of influence over the Ukrainian processes in the future. One can also make an assumption with a high degree of a certain probability that the changes in the legislation that will follow the acquisition of Tomos might strip the structure of the UOC – MP (ROC MP) in Ukraine of its traditional name. During such periods of transition, as a rule, the legal constructions cancel out the emergencies of two various religious entities with the same shared name, or a duplicated one. That is why, it most likely that the status of the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church” will be assimilated by a new unified Ukrainian church, and the structures of the Moscow Patriarchate, which have retained their presence on the territory of Ukraine, would receive the name of a “Metropolitan Church in Ukraine, etc.”. To a certain degree, the stabilizing factor in these processes would be the substantial presence of the Catholics, the Greek Catholics, as well as a large Protestant community in place.

While making conclusions, we can state that it is most likely that the end of the struggle for autocephaly will become the beginning of a new civil and religious state creation for Ukraine. The integration and unification of  the clerical structures would eliminate the divides among the communities, and, it would also provide an individual with an opportunity of being both: a religious believer, a faithful son of his Church, as well as a patriot, without raising a conflict in his inner self and within his social circle.

This will serve as a factor bringing the society closer together and consolidating it in order to increase the level of matureness of the civic nation. Putting an end to this struggle will affect favorably the content of the work of the clerical institutions, and their agenda as well.

The church would need to create a new content for its work after the victory, and of course during the state of euphoria, that would follow next (in this instance, a very brief one)  by moving from the fight for choosing the pathway to the ordinary church services, which are having to do with the social and soul guardianship care work. In other words, the most important beginnings are yet to come after the victory, and the main thing will commence – the work that the Church is called upon. And, it is this work that opens up a completely new space for the competition over the believers. The joy of victory will subside quickly, and it would be necessary to provide the answers to the society having to do with the issues of bad, or in general, non – existent social guarantees, the fight against corruption and the theft, for the social justice. The dragged – out struggle blocks the factual relevance of all these issues, but after the victory is achieved and after obtaining of Tomos, a short triumph will be invisible against the backdrop of the church’s submerging into the daily agenda of its clerical services in the country, which is pegged by a bunch of economic and social problems. At the end of the day, the completion of this process along with the creation of a single unified Ukrainian Local Orthodox Church would have the most positive and salutiferous effect, first and foremost, upon the lives of the ordinary religious believers, parishioners and the members of the communities, who thus far as of today still do belong to different jurisdictions.

Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned by Russian forces in 2014, is on the verge of death. More than one hundred days ago, he began a hunger strike to demand that Russian President Vladimir Putin free sixty-four Ukrainian political prisoners being held in Russia.  Since then, Sentsov has lost almost 70 pounds and suffered cardiac complications. In early August, he confided to his lawyer that “the end was near” and this week he told his cousin that his limbs are going numb. Unless the international community takes urgent action, his uncompromising commitment to freedom will soon kill him.

Policy makers and human rights activists face an all-too-common decision: Do we raise our voices loudly and in unison now, when it can potentially spare one life, or honor yet another opponent of tyranny with a street name following his death? We’ve got enough streets named after dead democrats and courageous freedom fighters. Let’s make an uproar now if only to say we shed a light on those unfairly held in Russia’s modern gulag.

Sentsov’s trouble began soon after Russia illegally annexed Crimea. He was arrested on May 10, 2014, by Russian FSB security forces for peacefully protesting the illegal Russian takeover of Crimea. From his home in the Crimean city of Simferopol, he was jailed and held incommunicado for three weeks. During this time, prison authorities physically abused him, including by suffocation, and threatened him with torture, rape, and murder in an attempt to get him to “confess” to terrorism.  The Russian authorities proceeded to strip him of his Ukrainian citizenship—a blatant violation of international law—and tried him in a military tribunal in Moscow as a Russian citizen. Despite a lack of evidence—including from the main witness against him who retracted his testimony after admitting it had been made under torture—Sentsov was convicted of terrorism and sentenced to twenty years in prison.

​Sentsov’s case is far from unique. Convicting political opponents on manufactured charges and bogus evidence is one of the hallmarks of Putin’s regime, and there are more than 183 political opponents currently imprisoned in Russia. In an attempt to wear them down, they are regularly subjected to torture; inhumane transport, including month-long transits in cramped trains with little access to water and sanitation; and imprisonment in “gulag-like” prison colonies.

​So far, Putin has managed to repress dissent, and Sentsov’s ongoing struggle is an attempt to change this. Sentsov hopes to force Putin to answer for the numerous Ukrainian activists he has imprisoned. Selflessly, Sentsov has not even demanded his own release; rather, he will only end the hunger strike if all other Ukrainian political prisoners are released, and he is willing to obtain his own freedom through death should Putin choose to ignore his demands.

​Unfortunately, Putin appears ready to let Sentsov die. Perhaps Sentsov’s case is a matter of pride. As a Ukrainian prisoner from Crimea, releasing Sentsov to the Ukrainian authorities might undermine Russia’s claim over Crimea. Or perhaps Putin simply wants to show the world that nothing, not even the death of an innocent man, can make him change.

Whatever the case, we must not let Putin have his way. It is time for the international community to stand in solidarity with all of Russia’s political prisoners and take concerted actions to hold Putin accountable. Sentsov’s life depends on it. If we don’t, it’s a defeat for those who believe in human rights and a victory to those who traffic in tyranny.

As an urgent first step, if Sentsov is to be saved, the world must unequivocally call for his immediate release.  As Sentsov’s situation has grown increasingly precarious, a handful of organizations and world leaders, including Amnesty International and French President Emmanuel Macron, have already done so. But to get Putin to listen, we need the United States and other countries and organizations that value democracy and human rights to prioritize Sentsov’s case.

Second, Russia must face serious and tangible consequences. Putin has repeatedly demonstrated that he does not act out of compassion or shame, so we must force him to do what is right. The United States should lead the charge by using all the tools in its arsenal—including significantly expanding sanctions—to force Putin to meet our demands for freedom.

Finally, we must not lose sight of what is at stake. Sentsov may be fighting to free Ukrainian political prisoners specifically, but this fight transcends national boundaries. It is a timeless and universal fight for freedom and justice—the very values that our society is built on. Sentsov has not weeks, but fleeting days left.  And if he dies, so does a part of our humanity.

This article originally appeared on the Atlantic Council’s website

The main photo: Barbed wire and placards with images of Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov are seen after a rally demanding the release of Sentsov, who was jailed on terrorism charges and is currently on hunger strike in Russian jail, in front of the Russian embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine August 21, 2018. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko/File Photo

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.

A devastating, complacency-shattering interview with Ilya Zaslavskiy, one of the world’s leading experts on Moscow’s overt and covert designs on the West.


This article originally appeared in
The Times of Israel

 

WASHINGTON, United States — Despite the global headlines about Russian meddling in foreign elections, Israeli experts have thus far expressed little concern that it could happen here.

At Tel Aviv University’s CyberWeek cybersecurity conference in June, for instance, Israeli officials made light of the impact of fake news and foreign influence campaigns on Israeli society. Fake news is a “nuisance,” Eviatar Matania, head of the National Cyber Bureau in the Prime Minister’s Office, told a panel at the conference, not a major threat. Other speakers said they had seen no signs of Russian influence campaigns targeting Israel.

But the recent release by researchers at Clemenson University of three million Russian troll tweets created by Russia’s Internet Research Agency between 2012 and 2018 paints a different picture.

Reporters from Israel’s Channel 10 News found that tens of thousands of the tweets dealt with Israel and the region and some were written in Hebrew, indicating they were indeed targeting Israelis and people who care about Israel.

Ilya Zaslavskiy, a Washington, DC-based expert on Russia and head of research at the Free Russia Foundation — a nonprofit led by Russians abroad that says it “seeks to be a voice for those who can’t speak under the repression of the current Russian leadership” — told The Times of Israel that he would be extremely surprised if Russia weren’t carrying out covert influence campaigns in Israel.

“We now know for a fact that Russia has been interfering on a massive scale in US, German and UK elections and referendums,” said Zaslavskiy, who is also a member of the advisory board at the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative and an academy associate at Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) think tank.

“We know that they intervened in the Catalonia referendum as well as a referendum on Ukraine in Holland. They continue to interfere in the US midterms and they have been meddling in all sorts of local elections in Eastern Europe. and the post-Soviet space,” he said. “So why wouldn’t they interfere in Israeli elections when Israel is so important to their strategic interests?”

Asked why Israel is of interest to Russia, Zaslavskiy, who is Jewish and immigrated to the United States from Russia as a young adult, said that “Israel is of strategic importance to the Kremlin  — because Israel is actually one of the forces that could contain Russia, could prevent some of the abuses that Russians are carrying out.”

He cited, for instance, developments in Syria. “Israel is not a great friend of Assad, but now the Israeli government has sort of accepted that Russians uphold him and have got a foothold in Syria,” he said. Asked how things could have been different, Zaslavskiy replied “Israel could have been more vocal and critical about Russia’s role in Syria.”

More generally, “you could have expelled some of the Russian oligarchs, you could have prevented some of the money laundering,” he said. “You could actually impose some sanctions on Russia and limit their influence in your country.”

Why hadn’t that happened? During a deeply disconcerting interview in the US capital Zaslavskiy offered some insights. And as the conversation developed, he moved rapidly beyond election meddling to a wider, nightmare vision of an ascendant Russia, with Western democracies weakened and outflanked. Regarding Israel specifically, he described covert, Russian-led processes already unfolding that he believes are undermining the rule of law and democracy itself, and set out specific measures that he believes must urgently be taken if the decline is to be halted and contained.

An existential danger

Zaslavskiy believes that both Israel and the West face an existential danger from Russia unless the problem of covert and overt Russian influence is fully acknowledged and decisive measures are taken to combat it. He says most of the West fails to grasp the gravity of the threat, which includes not just efforts to meddle in elections but the exporting of corruption and criminality from post-Soviet countries to the West, thereby undermining democracy itself.

In a recent report for the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative entitled “How Non-State Actors Export Kleptocratic Norms to the West,” Zaslavskiy argues that the West did not in fact win the Cold War and that its norms and values, like democracy and the rule of law, are very much in peril.

“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,” he writes. “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.”

In reality, Zaslavskiy goes on, “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.”

The new norms being exported to the West, which he dubs neo-Gulag norms, include the idea that those in power are the only real and rightful decision-makers and that the rest are ultimately “prison dust.”

Another such norm, he writes, is that “everything and everyone is for sale, or at least susceptible to manipulation or some form of control.” And finally, the Russian ruling elite believes that “individual human life does not matter anywhere, unless it is someone from their inner circle or equally as powerful as they are.”

The Times of Israel sat down with Zaslavskiy at a cafe in Washington, DC, to discuss the connections between Putin, Israel, organized crime, election meddling and the decline of democracy in the West.

The Times of Israel: There has been a lot of talk about Russian influence campaigns and Russian interference in elections. What aspect of this threat do you think people in the West are failing to grasp?

Ilya Zaslavskiy: They are failing to grasp two main things. First they think that the corruption, criminality and anti-democratic developments that happen in a place like Russia have very little to do with their own life or their own country. That’s the first delusion.

Today, everything is so much more integrated. When criminal groups supported by security services are allowed to do things in their own country, they immediately export their practices and values to the West, to safe havens where they can actually not only keep their money but can continue their activities.

The second thing people fail to realize is that, unlike during the Cold War, there are open channels of business that these kleptocrats can exploit to export their norms and practices legally.

You see a lot of money from kleptocratic countries pouring into the West and paying for lawyers, lobbyists, PR people, even journalists, as well as former security people and security companies. In Soviet times this was not possible. Today, a Russian kleptocrat can continue his criminal activities in the West in broad daylight, without being prosecuted and hardly being covered by the press.

How might this be happening in Israel, and how might Israelis not be aware of it?

There are many oligarchs of Jewish background from the post-Soviet space, from Russia, Kazakhstan and the Caucasus, who earned their money in a very dirty way in the 1990s and 2000s, and now they’ve moved to Israel.

Some have Israeli citizenship and operate abroad and some operate in Israel. It’s not only that they have a luxurious lifestyle, throw fancy parties and buy amazing real estate. That’s another delusion in the West. Many Westerners believe that oligarchs bring their dirty money to their new country but merely as consumers.

In fact, they start to invest in assets — in strategic assets, in politics and in newspapers.

The vast majority of oligarchs can be hired on an ad-hoc basis by the Russian state or Kazakh state, and can be exploited for political purposes by this kleptocratic state.

I recently co-authored a report — “How to Select Russian Oligarchs for New Sanctions?” — that explains why and under what criteria the US government should add oligarchs like the Alfa Group oligarchs to sanctions.

There are very powerful figures with lots of money, lobbyists and PR support in Israel. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu shows up at events with some of them.

Let’s say you have an oligarch who is close to Putin. What would they be doing in Israel? Why should Israelis care?

They can do multiple things. First, they can normalize Kremlin narratives about Israeli interests.

For example, the way they present Russia’s place in the Syrian conflict, in relations with enemies of Israel like Iran, or concerning the Soviet diaspora in Israel.

I’m sure they help promote Kremlin propaganda about the Second World War and Russia’s [ostensibly] almost exclusive role defeating the Nazis. And they peddle the Jewish veterans’ theme with the orange and black St. George ribbon. It’s a ribbon that commemorates the Soviet victory over Nazism that has come to be associated with Russian propaganda against Ukraine and against the West — how the West never really stood up to the Nazis, for example. These are not just historical narratives; they are very useful for today’s politics.

But the other thing oligarchs can do in Israel is to co-opt the elite, under the guise of cultural and charity events. They can throw fancy parties with caviar and beautiful women and invite politicians. They have held these receptions around Western capitals. I have followed some of these in London, as well as here in Washington.

Why would a Russian oligarch own a newspaper or TV station?

They may have financial interests and hope to make money but for many of them it is not done for commercial purposes. The reason is to support politicians through the media, and that allows you to get a foothold in the government. You do nice things for the government and then they do nice things for you in return. You establish a relationship and it’s a long-term thing.

It’s all very interconnected. The payback is not immediate but it’s a very solid investment.

Let’s say a Russian oligarch moves to Israel and starts investing in all kinds of businesses and giving money to charity. Why not just assume he’s retired?

No one from that world of state security or organized crime is off the hook because the Russian state has too much compromising material on them, as well as incentives. Also, if you don’t comply you can be eliminated. There is now a book on how Putin most likely ordered killings of dozens of people inside Russia and outside Russia who did not comply with his interests, including from his own security services or organized crime.

For example, he first used polonium not on Alexander Litvinenko but most likely on Roman Tsepov, who was part of the organized crime group in St. Petersburg in the 1990s that allegedly worked closely with Putin during his rise to power. It’s easier for anyone to comply. There are many oligarchs abroad that he uses on an ad-hoc basis. It’s switch on, switch off. It’s not too demanding or too crazy, and it’s actually acceptable to most of these people.

What’s the connection between the Russian state and organized crime?

In Soviet times there were three worlds that were distinct — with separate, even contradictory, goals. There was the Communist Party, the security services and organized crime. Organized crime was more or less antagonistic to the Soviet regime.

Under Putin these three worlds collided and fused and learned from each other. Security services now oversee the businesses of organized criminal groups. Organized criminal groups carry out the political building and conduct operations for the Kremlin. The ideology of the Communist Party was thrown down the drain but the cynical and pragmatic practices, like co-opting the far right, co-opting the far left, co-opting Christianity or Judaism, remained.

You co-opt whoever is important to you in any given country. You can even contradict yourself in different countries but just divide and rule through all these channels — through ideology, through organized criminal groups, through corruption. Organized crime and its networks have become part of the Kremlin’s political instruments abroad, including in Israel.

If there were a Georgian or Russian oligarch who wanted to open hundreds of call centers throughout Israel and scam people abroad out of money, is that something that co-opting the elite would allow them to do?

Yes. But compared to corruption in Russia which involves billions for a single road or pipeline, binary options and forex are a relatively small-scale fraud. Russia as a state is also involved in hacking and dodgy cryptocurrencies; we now know that for a fact from Robert Mueller’s investigation. Russia as a state, especially its security services and associated oligarchs, are involved in all sorts of dodgy things, including in the digital realm.

Someone like Putin would not follow specific criminal activities like binary options, but he sits at the top of a pyramid and there might be levies that make their way from an Israel-based criminal enterprise all the way to the top.

Why would a Georgian or Russian criminal decide to put call centers in Israel of all places?

For a variety of reasons. Corrupt Russian money penetrates any vulnerable spot in the world. The criminality has not just penetrated Israel. It’s in Europe, in Asia, the Middle East and the US.

Why do there seem to be many Jewish oligarchs?

It’s a very useful topic to anti-Semitic circles and it’s not true. Maybe in the late 80s and 90s indeed there were a lot, perhaps too many, visible Jewish oligarchs because of the legacy of the Soviet era and tsarism. Jews had been marginalized and pushed into the black market. They traditionally had math skills, due to the way they were raised, and they helped each other, as does any minority network; ethnic minorities tend to help each other.

Under Putin, I think it’s a specific propaganda tool to expose Jewish oligarchs much more than the rest of the oligarchs. “Oligarch” is actually no longer a useful term in my view, because it suggests that they still have some power. They lost all their power to Putin. Their only currency today is loyalty, it’s not dollars.

Whatever dollars they have in their accounts can be taken away from them at a snap. Yes, they can store their money offshore but they can’t stop working for the Kremlin. Most of them still own too much in Russia and there are too many hooks and levers on them.

There is no distinction between public and private property in Russia. Everything is owned in one way or another by the Kremlin. So the money that they give as donations, very often they are asked to give the donation. And they have no choice but to give it.

Actually, the Russian state tries to present some of these oligarchs as if they are no longer with the regime, as if they are now in the West. It’s all very misleading. I could count actual Russian oligarchs who are completely removed from the Russian state with one hand.

What about Leonid Nevzlin?

Well, Nevzlin is one of the exceptions. He was ousted from Russia. Mikhail Khodorkovsky too.

I don’t like the term oligarch. I prefer the term handlers, operatives, maybe agents, rich agents. Many of them are actually front men for the money that they ostensibly have. It’s not actually considered fully their money. I’m sure they’re representing some of the Kremlin money, just under the guise of it being their money.

Just to return to your question about the Jewish oligarchs. Currently there are many rich and powerful security people around Putin. They are mostly Russian or a variety of nationalities, but they are secretive and very well protected. Some of the federal ministers as well. Most of the Russian Duma and government are millionaires. They’re just officials but they have the lifestyle of a mini-oligarch.

Should we feel sorry for the oligarchs? It sounds like they can’t escape their gilded cages.

Well some of them managed to escape and these are very exceptional, but obviously at a very high cost to themselves.

There are actually many whistleblowers and refugees from the Russian regime, some of them reformed, some of them not. London has a lot of people like that. Some of them managed to take out some money while others didn’t. They lost a lot, some involuntarily because they fell out of the system. Only few deserve any kind of empathy. Otherwise it’s a very complicated and dark world.

Why do oligarchs give so much money to Jewish and Israeli charities, especially religious ones?

It’s co-option and soft power, and they may be even be using these charities to give political donations.

For themselves, it’s reputation-laundering and legitimacy. It also allows them to advance narratives that are useful to the Kremlin — like about World War II.

For instance, this whole debate about Ukraine. Russia tries to say the current government is a Nazi government, and how all of western Ukraine and their parties are anti-Semitic, how the West opened a second front in World War II at too late a stage and did not help Russia. The Kremlin can co-opt Jews to promote these narratives.

And then there are the May 9th celebrations [V-Day, commemorating the surrender of the Nazis in 1945] by Russia around the world, including in Israel on a large scale now.

Funding Jewish charities also gives them access to people. If you have a high-level event at the Metropolitan Museum or the Museum of Jewish History, you get access to politicians so you can co-opt them. If you look at the list of art galleries, museums, and all sorts of Jewish organizations, in New York, Europe and Israel that are associated with Putin’s oligarchs, you will be absolutely amazed and stunned. MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum, operas, Carnegie Hall, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tate Gallery. The list is endless.

Half of the major Jewish events that I see here in Washington, the fancy ones where you can co-opt elites, are co-sponsored by Russian oligarchs.

I’m sure that Russian oligarchs have managed to co-opt many politicians in Israel.

Look at [the rise in Russia of] Chabad. People in Chabad say, “We are just promoting the Jewish legacy. At least there is no anti-Semitism under Putin.” They find all sorts of excuses [to be supportive of Putin]. Before Putin, Chabad was a marginal group, at least in the former Soviet Union.

What is the Russian ruling class’s goal in Israel?

To create an environment — a political environment and economic environment — where it’s too difficult for Israel to resist some of the strategic interests of the Kremlin in the region. Not to oppose Russia’s interests.

But they’re also interested in subverting democracy. A strategic goal for the next few years is to subvert democracy in the West. In some ways they have already succeeded, and the appetite comes with food, as they say. So once they subvert democracy, the goal is to advance more corruption, more vested interests and then just turn the whole West into a corrupt world.

Why do they want to turn the West into a corrupt world?

Because then you can engage in what Russians love, which is realpolitik. Whoever is strong gets his own zone of influence and no one else can interfere. Russia would like to divide the world into zones of interest.

Look at what they did with influencing the American elections and possibly Brexit.

By the time of the 2016 elections in the United States, Russians already had all sorts of Putin understanders and supporters in the press, in the lobbying groups, in business circles, in chambers of commerce, among politicians, even in Congress. They have all these people who are associated with Russia through attending events at the Russian Embassy, going to conferences in Russia and Europe, sitting on boards of Russian companies or galleries associated with Russian money. It’s all done through open channels.

They also influence think tanks and their debates and narratives about Russia. There are several think tanks in Washington, for example, which are completely subverted by Russians and that put forward narratives useful to the Kremlin about everything — from Ukraine, to Israel, to corruption — and that acts as a force against an independent press, independent thinking, because you can pollute the whole policymaking and debating environment.

Why does Putin want to destroy democracy? Because it competes with his patronage system?

Yes. If I had to judge, I think it’s just his enormous lust for power and he’s a control freak. He just can’t get enough. But maybe, some people suggest that his circle pressures him. I would imagine they pressure each other and it’s a constant game of power, so he has to stay afloat and show benefits.

You’ve said you think journalists are not writing enough about Putin and his oligarchs?

I see it as a huge problem that the Western press is just incapable of covering many of these topics. The press has been marginalized by the internet, so it’s a global trend. Newspapers have lower budgets, they struggle more for advertising, there is much more private and partisan ownership of media outlets. These are all global trends but they influence coverage on Russia also.

Even high-level, big outlets like The New York Times and Guardian face extremely aggressive, litigious teams of lawyers and lobbyists of these oligarchs who have infinite pockets and can afford long legal fights.

Many newspapers don’t have proper foreign country correspondents. If they do, they have to write quick articles, like one per week without delving into difficult topics. Then there is a vicious cycle where complicated cases about Russia are not covered in the West and so there is no interest about them. And since there is no interest there is no coverage.

Very often I found that I wasn’t able to put important topics out there just because it was too complicated for the journalist to write. Not even because of libel issues or because of time constraints. He or she would say, “My editor will not take it through because it’s too complicated. It delves too much into Russian detail.”

Most amazingly, most major media outlets do not have a full-time Russian translator and researcher who can fully devote his or her time to the most basic background research for the few investigative journalists that these outlets struggle to support.

What will happen to Israel if it does nothing about the corrupt kleptocratic influence you describe?

The first stage is that you lose transparency, democracy and good governance. Israel is already losing that. There is no longer separation of powers. There is prevalence of the executive. There is organized crime and no one takes action against it. The police do nothing. This is the first step.

Israel may give up many of its positions in Syria very soon. I can’t exclude that.

What definitely will happen if we continue on the current trajectory is that the entire West will turn into some kind of Hong Kong. where superficially it is democracy. It has some kind of elections, it looks capitalist and there is modern technology, but in reality a corrupt, non-democratic government actually runs it.

For the average person what does that mean? That you’re either a criminal or you’re poor?

Exactly, if you don’t become part of the corrupt network, you’re much worse off. You’ll be on the sidelines, as happens now in post-Soviet states. There will be growing income inequality, shady deals, no social mobility and all these problems that are associated with semi-corrupt authoritarian states.

There may still be some semblance of democracy. The press will do fewer and fewer investigations and more entertainment and brainwashing. It will be much more partisan — so the only differences of opinion you can get is from vested interests, not from independent and objective civil society.

What can be done?

It’s a very harsh, difficult choice. The first step is acknowledgement of what is going on, followed by investigations and revelations of all these things.

I am not even sure what can trigger such acknowledgement and exposure. Even the meddling in US elections has not triggered the United States enough, although at least something is happening.

After this acknowledgement happens, you need a very robust policy of containment. There is no other choice.

Some money flows have to be stopped; some people have to be kicked out of your country, or even stripped of their Western citizenship. There must be much stricter anti-money laundering and due diligence of companies, and auditors should hire Russian or Georgian or Chinese translators to look into the background of people trying to buy assets in the West.

Security services have to have a major say in any strategic purchase related to security, defense or the national interest.

And then obviously there should be more funds for independent investigative reporters. I am friends with an organization called the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). They tell me that to train one proper investigative journalist and to keep him safe and to keep him protected from libel suits, you have to have a budget of about $300,000 a year, maybe $400,000.

When societies start investing in investigative journalism like that, that’s when the job will be done. And it can’t be one investigative journalist. You have to have dozens.

If your readers care about Israel, about keeping it democratic, there should definitely be some civil society efforts, some donations, some Kickstarters. Ultimately people should understand that this will hit them back in terms of their own welfare and their access to democratic institutions, but ultimately even economically.

It could happen in very unexpected ways. Your child could end up in a war with Syria, or some conflict instigated by Russia somewhere in the world. In a way this is a repetition of the 1930s. No one thought that events in Nazi Germany would have any repercussions for the United States. But then the country ended up fighting the Germans when it was too late.

Could this covert Russian influence constitute a factor in a future Israeli war?

What people in general in the West should understand is that the West and NATO are now becoming a minority force in the world; the power of the United States is declining. These large authoritarian states are taking over if not the world then at least Eurasia, countries like China and Malaysia that are not going to become democratic any time soon. The richer they get, the more authoritarian and the more aggressive and expansionist they become.

Democratic countries are becoming like an oasis in the desert. A better metaphor is that the West is like a small clean lake, or relatively clean lake, in the middle of a swamp. And the floodgates have been opened. It’s not like the small lake will clean up the swamp. It’s the other way around. So unless you close the doors and put some filters in place, you will be taken over as a swamp as well.

It won’t be easy. Consumption in the West will have to be scaled back from those money flows from Eurasia. Some industries will have to suffer, especially those that benefit from gas and oil contracts, as well as lobbyists, PR people, lawyers, all offshore accountants and real estate people. They will have to suffer; they will not make as much money.

But the society as a whole will benefit and be able to hold on to its values, like due diligence and good governance.

In terms of Israel specifically, if this does not happen, then I think the NATO alliance will be marginalized and might have to be involved in conflicts it doesn’t want. And then Israel will be much more on its own against its foes, and might not receive as much American help as it might hope to in such circumstances.

So all this has direct security implications for Israel as a society, and Israel as a state, unfortunately.

The main photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Moscow on September 22, 2015. (Kremlin.ru)

A devastating, complacency-shattering interview with Ilya Zaslavskiy, one of the world’s leading experts on Moscow’s overt and covert designs on the West.


This article originally appeared in
The Times of Israel

WASHINGTON, United States — Despite the global headlines about Russian meddling in foreign elections, Israeli experts have thus far expressed little concern that it could happen here.

At Tel Aviv University’s CyberWeek cybersecurity conference in June, for instance, Israeli officials made light of the impact of fake news and foreign influence campaigns on Israeli society. Fake news is a “nuisance,” Eviatar Matania, head of the National Cyber Bureau in the Prime Minister’s Office, told a panel at the conference, not a major threat. Other speakers said they had seen no signs of Russian influence campaigns targeting Israel.

But the recent release by researchers at Clemenson University of three million Russian troll tweets created by Russia’s Internet Research Agency between 2012 and 2018 paints a different picture.

Reporters from Israel’s Channel 10 News found that tens of thousands of the tweets dealt with Israel and the region and some were written in Hebrew, indicating they were indeed targeting Israelis and people who care about Israel.

Ilya Zaslavskiy, a Washington, DC-based expert on Russia and head of research at the Free Russia Foundation — a nonprofit led by Russians abroad that says it “seeks to be a voice for those who can’t speak under the repression of the current Russian leadership” — told The Times of Israel that he would be extremely surprised if Russia weren’t carrying out covert influence campaigns in Israel.

“We now know for a fact that Russia has been interfering on a massive scale in US, German and UK elections and referendums,” said Zaslavskiy, who is also a member of the advisory board at the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative and an academy associate at Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) think tank.

“We know that they intervened in the Catalonia referendum as well as a referendum on Ukraine in Holland. They continue to interfere in the US midterms and they have been meddling in all sorts of local elections in Eastern Europe. and the post-Soviet space,” he said. “So why wouldn’t they interfere in Israeli elections when Israel is so important to their strategic interests?”

Asked why Israel is of interest to Russia, Zaslavskiy, who is Jewish and immigrated to the United States from Russia as a young adult, said that “Israel is of strategic importance to the Kremlin  — because Israel is actually one of the forces that could contain Russia, could prevent some of the abuses that Russians are carrying out.”

He cited, for instance, developments in Syria. “Israel is not a great friend of Assad, but now the Israeli government has sort of accepted that Russians uphold him and have got a foothold in Syria,” he said. Asked how things could have been different, Zaslavskiy replied “Israel could have been more vocal and critical about Russia’s role in Syria.”

This December 11, 2017 photo shows Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Syrian President Bashar Assad watching troops march at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

More generally, “you could have expelled some of the Russian oligarchs, you could have prevented some of the money laundering,” he said. “You could actually impose some sanctions on Russia and limit their influence in your country.”

Why hadn’t that happened? During a deeply disconcerting interview in the US capital Zaslavskiy offered some insights. And as the conversation developed, he moved rapidly beyond election meddling to a wider, nightmare vision of an ascendant Russia, with Western democracies weakened and outflanked. Regarding Israel specifically, he described covert, Russian-led processes already unfolding that he believes are undermining the rule of law and democracy itself, and set out specific measures that he believes must urgently be taken if the decline is to be halted and contained.

An existential danger

Zaslavskiy believes that both Israel and the West face an existential danger from Russia unless the problem of covert and overt Russian influence is fully acknowledged and decisive measures are taken to combat it. He says most of the West fails to grasp the gravity of the threat, which includes not just efforts to meddle in elections but the exporting of corruption and criminality from post-Soviet countries to the West, thereby undermining democracy itself.

In a recent report for the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative entitled “How Non-State Actors Export Kleptocratic Norms to the West,” Zaslavskiy argues that the West did not in fact win the Cold War and that its norms and values, like democracy and the rule of law, are very much in peril.

“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,” he writes. “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.”

The West has largely failed to export its democratic norms and is instead witnessing an increasingly coordinated assault on its own value system

In reality, Zaslavskiy goes on, “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.”

The new norms being exported to the West, which he dubs neo-Gulag norms, include the idea that those in power are the only real and rightful decision-makers and that the rest are ultimately “prison dust.”

Another such norm, he writes, is that “everything and everyone is for sale, or at least susceptible to manipulation or some form of control.” And finally, the Russian ruling elite believes that “individual human life does not matter anywhere, unless it is someone from their inner circle or equally as powerful as they are.”

The Times of Israel sat down with Zaslavskiy at a cafe in Washington, DC, to discuss the connections between Putin, Israel, organized crime, election meddling and the decline of democracy in the West.

The Times of Israel: There has been a lot of talk about Russian influence campaigns and Russian interference in elections. What aspect of this threat do you think people in the West are failing to grasp?

Ilya Zaslavskiy: They are failing to grasp two main things. First they think that the corruption, criminality and anti-democratic developments that happen in a place like Russia have very little to do with their own life or their own country. That’s the first delusion.

Today, everything is so much more integrated. When criminal groups supported by security services are allowed to do things in their own country, they immediately export their practices and values to the West, to safe havens where they can actually not only keep their money but can continue their activities.

There are many oligarchs of Jewish background from the post-Soviet space, from Russia, Kazakhstan and the Caucasus, who earned their money in a very dirty way in the 1990s and 2000s, and now they’ve moved to Israel

The second thing people fail to realize is that, unlike during the Cold War, there are open channels of business that these kleptocrats can exploit to export their norms and practices legally.

You see a lot of money from kleptocratic countries pouring into the West and paying for lawyers, lobbyists, PR people, even journalists, as well as former security people and security companies. In Soviet times this was not possible. Today, a Russian kleptocrat can continue his criminal activities in the West in broad daylight, without being prosecuted and hardly being covered by the press.

How might this be happening in Israel, and how might Israelis not be aware of it?

There are many oligarchs of Jewish background from the post-Soviet space, from Russia, Kazakhstan and the Caucasus, who earned their money in a very dirty way in the 1990s and 2000s, and now they’ve moved to Israel.

Some have Israeli citizenship and operate abroad and some operate in Israel. It’s not only that they have a luxurious lifestyle, throw fancy parties and buy amazing real estate. That’s another delusion in the West. Many Westerners believe that oligarchs bring their dirty money to their new country but merely as consumers.

In fact, they start to invest in assets — in strategic assets, in politics and in newspapers.

The vast majority of oligarchs can be hired on an ad-hoc basis by the Russian state or Kazakh state, and can be exploited for political purposes by this kleptocratic state.

I recently co-authored a report — “How to Select Russian Oligarchs for New Sanctions?” — that explains why and under what criteria the US government should add oligarchs like the Alfa Group oligarchs to sanctions.

There are very powerful figures with lots of money, lobbyists and PR support in Israel. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu shows up at events with some of them.

Let’s say you have an oligarch who is close to Putin. What would they be doing in Israel? Why should Israelis care?

They can do multiple things. First, they can normalize Kremlin narratives about Israeli interests.

For example, the way they present Russia’s place in the Syrian conflict, in relations with enemies of Israel like Iran, or concerning the Soviet diaspora in Israel.

I’m sure they help promote Kremlin propaganda about the Second World War and Russia’s [ostensibly] almost exclusive role defeating the Nazis. And they peddle the Jewish veterans’ theme with the orange and black St. George ribbon. It’s a ribbon that commemorates the Soviet victory over Nazism that has come to be associated with Russian propaganda against Ukraine and against the West — how the West never really stood up to the Nazis, for example. These are not just historical narratives; they are very useful for today’s politics.

But the other thing oligarchs can do in Israel is to co-opt the elite, under the guise of cultural and charity events. They can throw fancy parties with caviar and beautiful women and invite politicians. They have held these receptions around Western capitals. I have followed some of these in London, as well as here in Washington.

Above and photo at top: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, on May 9, 2018. Both men are wearing the orange and black St. George ribbon (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Why would a Russian oligarch own a newspaper or TV station?

They may have financial interests and hope to make money but for many of them it is not done for commercial purposes. The reason is to support politicians through the media, and that allows you to get a foothold in the government. You do nice things for the government and then they do nice things for you in return. You establish a relationship and it’s a long-term thing.

It’s all very interconnected. The payback is not immediate but it’s a very solid investment.

Let’s say a Russian oligarch moves to Israel and starts investing in all kinds of businesses and giving money to charity. Why not just assume he’s retired?

No one from that world of state security or organized crime is off the hook because the Russian state has too much compromising material on them, as well as incentives. Also, if you don’t comply you can be eliminated. There is now a book on how Putin most likely ordered killings of dozens of people inside Russia and outside Russia who did not comply with his interests, including from his own security services or organized crime.

A file photo taken on September 14, 2004, shows Alexander Litvinenko (L), a former Russian intelligence agent, speaking at a press conference in London. (AFP PHOTO / MARTIN HAYHOW)

For example, he first used polonium not on Alexander Litvinenko but most likely on Roman Tsepov, who was part of the organized crime group in St. Petersburg in the 1990s that allegedly worked closely with Putin during his rise to power. It’s easier for anyone to comply. There are many oligarchs abroad that he uses on an ad-hoc basis. It’s switch on, switch off. It’s not too demanding or too crazy, and it’s actually acceptable to most of these people.

What’s the connection between the Russian state and organized crime?

In Soviet times there were three worlds that were distinct — with separate, even contradictory, goals. There was the Communist Party, the security services and organized crime. Organized crime was more or less antagonistic to the Soviet regime.

Organized crime and its networks have become part of the Kremlin’s political instruments abroad, including in Israel

Under Putin these three worlds collided and fused and learned from each other. Security services now oversee the businesses of organized criminal groups. Organized criminal groups carry out the political building and conduct operations for the Kremlin. The ideology of the Communist Party was thrown down the drain but the cynical and pragmatic practices, like co-opting the far right, co-opting the far left, co-opting Christianity or Judaism, remained.

You co-opt whoever is important to you in any given country. You can even contradict yourself in different countries but just divide and rule through all these channels — through ideology, through organized criminal groups, through corruption. Organized crime and its networks have become part of the Kremlin’s political instruments abroad, including in Israel.

If there were a Georgian or Russian oligarch who wanted to open hundreds of call centers throughout Israel and scam people abroad out of money, is that something that co-opting the elite would allow them to do?

Yes. But compared to corruption in Russia which involves billions for a single road or pipeline, binary options and forex are a relatively small-scale fraud. Russia as a state is also involved in hacking and dodgy cryptocurrencies; we now know that for a fact from Robert Mueller’s investigation. Russia as a state, especially its security services and associated oligarchs, are involved in all sorts of dodgy things, including in the digital realm.

Someone like Putin would not follow specific criminal activities like binary options, but he sits at the top of a pyramid and there might be levies that make their way from an Israel-based criminal enterprise all the way to the top.

Why would a Georgian or Russian criminal decide to put call centers in Israel of all places?

For a variety of reasons. Corrupt Russian money penetrates any vulnerable spot in the world. The criminality has not just penetrated Israel. It’s in Europe, in Asia, the Middle East and the US.

Why do there seem to be many Jewish oligarchs?

It’s a very useful topic to anti-Semitic circles and it’s not true. Maybe in the late 80s and 90s indeed there were a lot, perhaps too many, visible Jewish oligarchs because of the legacy of the Soviet era and tsarism. Jews had been marginalized and pushed into the black market. They traditionally had math skills, due to the way they were raised, and they helped each other, as does any minority network; ethnic minorities tend to help each other.

Under Putin, I think it’s a specific propaganda tool to expose Jewish oligarchs much more than the rest of the oligarchs. “Oligarch” is actually no longer a useful term in my view, because it suggests that they still have some power. They lost all their power to Putin. Their only currency today is loyalty, it’s not dollars.

Half of the major Jewish events that I see here in Washington, the fancy ones where you can co-opt elites, are co-sponsored by Russian oligarchs

Whatever dollars they have in their accounts can be taken away from them at a snap. Yes, they can store their money offshore but they can’t stop working for the Kremlin. Most of them still own too much in Russia and there are too many hooks and levers on them.

There is no distinction between public and private property in Russia. Everything is owned in one way or another by the Kremlin. So the money that they give as donations, very often they are asked to give the donation. And they have no choice but to give it.

Actually, the Russian state tries to present some of these oligarchs as if they are no longer with the regime, as if they are now in the West. It’s all very misleading. I could count actual Russian oligarchs who are completely removed from the Russian state with one hand.

What about Leonid Nevzlin?

Well, Nevzlin is one of the exceptions. He was ousted from Russia. Mikhail Khodorkovsky too.

I don’t like the term oligarch. I prefer the term handlers, operatives, maybe agents, rich agents. Many of them are actually front men for the money that they ostensibly have. It’s not actually considered fully their money. I’m sure they’re representing some of the Kremlin money, just under the guise of it being their money.

Just to return to your question about the Jewish oligarchs. Currently there are many rich and powerful security people around Putin. They are mostly Russian or a variety of nationalities, but they are secretive and very well protected. Some of the federal ministers as well. Most of the Russian Duma and government are millionaires. They’re just officials but they have the lifestyle of a mini-oligarch.

Should we feel sorry for the oligarchs? It sounds like they can’t escape their gilded cages.

Well some of them managed to escape and these are very exceptional, but obviously at a very high cost to themselves.

There are actually many whistleblowers and refugees from the Russian regime, some of them reformed, some of them not. London has a lot of people like that. Some of them managed to take out some money while others didn’t. They lost a lot, some involuntarily because they fell out of the system. Only few deserve any kind of empathy. Otherwise it’s a very complicated and dark world.

Why do oligarchs give so much money to Jewish and Israeli charities, especially religious ones?

It’s co-option and soft power, and they may be even be using these charities to give political donations.

For themselves, it’s reputation-laundering and legitimacy. It also allows them to advance narratives that are useful to the Kremlin — like about World War II.

If you look at the list of art galleries, museums, and all sorts of Jewish organizations, in New York, Europe and Israel that are associated with Putin’s oligarchs, you will be absolutely amazed

For instance, this whole debate about Ukraine. Russia tries to say the current government is a Nazi government, and how all of western Ukraine and their parties are anti-Semitic, how the West opened a second front in World War II at too late a stage and did not help Russia. The Kremlin can co-opt Jews to promote these narratives.

And then there are the May 9th celebrations [V-Day, commemorating the surrender of the Nazis in 1945] by Russia around the world, including in Israel on a large scale now.

Victory in Europe Parade – Haifa -2018

Funding Jewish charities also gives them access to people. If you have a high-level event at the Metropolitan Museum or the Museum of Jewish History, you get access to politicians so you can co-opt them. If you look at the list of art galleries, museums, and all sorts of Jewish organizations, in New York, Europe and Israel that are associated with Putin’s oligarchs, you will be absolutely amazed and stunned. MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum, operas, Carnegie Hall, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tate Gallery. The list is endless.

Half of the major Jewish events that I see here in Washington, the fancy ones where you can co-opt elites, are co-sponsored by Russian oligarchs.

I’m sure that Russian oligarchs have managed to co-opt many politicians in Israel.

Look at [the rise in Russia of] Chabad. People in Chabad say, “We are just promoting the Jewish legacy. At least there is no anti-Semitism under Putin.” They find all sorts of excuses [to be supportive of Putin]. Before Putin, Chabad was a marginal group, at least in the former Soviet Union.

Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman seen with Russian-Israeli World War II veterans, as they take part in the Veterans Day parade in honor of the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany, at the Knesset. May 8, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

What is the Russian ruling class’s goal in Israel?

To create an environment — a political environment and economic environment — where it’s too difficult for Israel to resist some of the strategic interests of the Kremlin in the region. Not to oppose Russia’s interests.

But they’re also interested in subverting democracy. A strategic goal for the next few years is to subvert democracy in the West. In some ways they have already succeeded, and the appetite comes with food, as they say. So once they subvert democracy, the goal is to advance more corruption, more vested interests and then just turn the whole West into a corrupt world.

Why do they want to turn the West into a corrupt world?

Because then you can engage in what Russians love, which is realpolitik. Whoever is strong gets his own zone of influence and no one else can interfere. Russia would like to divide the world into zones of interest.

Look at what they did with influencing the American elections and possibly Brexit.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (L) and US President Donald Trump talk as they attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017. (AFP/Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev)

By the time of the 2016 elections in the United States, Russians already had all sorts of Putin understanders and supporters in the press, in the lobbying groups, in business circles, in chambers of commerce, among politicians, even in Congress. They have all these people who are associated with Russia through attending events at the Russian Embassy, going to conferences in Russia and Europe, sitting on boards of Russian companies or galleries associated with Russian money. It’s all done through open channels.

There are several think tanks in Washington which are completely subverted by Russians and that put forward narratives useful to the Kremlin about everything — from Ukraine, to Israel, to corruption. That acts as a force against an independent press, independent thinking, because you can pollute the whole policymaking and debating environment

They also influence think tanks and their debates and narratives about Russia. There are several think tanks in Washington, for example, which are completely subverted by Russians and that put forward narratives useful to the Kremlin about everything — from Ukraine, to Israel, to corruption — and that acts as a force against an independent press, independent thinking, because you can pollute the whole policymaking and debating environment.

Why does Putin want to destroy democracy? Because it competes with his patronage system?

Yes. If I had to judge, I think it’s just his enormous lust for power and he’s a control freak. He just can’t get enough. But maybe, some people suggest that his circle pressures him. I would imagine they pressure each other and it’s a constant game of power, so he has to stay afloat and show benefits.

You’ve said you think journalists are not writing enough about Putin and his oligarchs?

I see it as a huge problem that the Western press is just incapable of covering many of these topics. The press has been marginalized by the internet, so it’s a global trend. Newspapers have lower budgets, they struggle more for advertising, there is much more private and partisan ownership of media outlets. These are all global trends but they influence coverage on Russia also.

Even high-level, big outlets like The New York Times and Guardian face extremely aggressive, litigious teams of lawyers and lobbyists of these oligarchs who have infinite pockets and can afford long legal fights.

Many newspapers don’t have proper foreign country correspondents. If they do, they have to write quick articles, like one per week without delving into difficult topics. Then there is a vicious cycle where complicated cases about Russia are not covered in the West and so there is no interest about them. And since there is no interest there is no coverage.

The first stage is that you lose transparency, democracy and good governance. Israel is already losing that

Very often I found that I wasn’t able to put important topics out there just because it was too complicated for the journalist to write. Not even because of libel issues or because of time constraints. He or she would say, “My editor will not take it through because it’s too complicated. It delves too much into Russian detail.”

Most amazingly, most major media outlets do not have a full-time Russian translator and researcher who can fully devote his or her time to the most basic background research for the few investigative journalists that these outlets struggle to support.

What will happen to Israel if it does nothing about the corrupt kleptocratic influence you describe?

The first stage is that you lose transparency, democracy and good governance. Israel is already losing that. There is no longer separation of powers. There is prevalence of the executive. There is organized crime and no one takes action against it. The police do nothing. This is the first step.

Israel may give up many of its positions in Syria very soon. I can’t exclude that.

What definitely will happen if we continue on the current trajectory is that the entire West will turn into some kind of Hong Kong. where superficially it is democracy. It has some kind of elections, it looks capitalist and there is modern technology, but in reality a corrupt, non-democratic government actually runs it.

For the average person what does that mean? That you’re either a criminal or you’re poor?

Exactly, if you don’t become part of the corrupt network, you’re much worse off. You’ll be on the sidelines, as happens now in post-Soviet states. There will be growing income inequality, shady deals, no social mobility and all these problems that are associated with semi-corrupt authoritarian states.

There may still be some semblance of democracy. The press will do fewer and fewer investigations and more entertainment and brainwashing. It will be much more partisan — so the only differences of opinion you can get is from vested interests, not from independent and objective civil society.

What can be done?

It’s a very harsh, difficult choice. The first step is acknowledgement of what is going on, followed by investigations and revelations of all these things.

I am not even sure what can trigger such acknowledgement and exposure. Even the meddling in US elections has not triggered the United States enough, although at least something is happening.

After this acknowledgement happens, you need a very robust policy of containment. There is no other choice.

People walking near Red Square in Moscow, Russia. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Some money flows have to be stopped; some people have to be kicked out of your country, or even stripped of their Western citizenship. There must be much stricter anti-money laundering and due diligence of companies, and auditors should hire Russian or Georgian or Chinese translators to look into the background of people trying to buy assets in the West.

Security services have to have a major say in any strategic purchase related to security, defense or the national interest.

And then obviously there should be more funds for independent investigative reporters. I am friends with an organization called the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). They tell me that to train one proper investigative journalist and to keep him safe and to keep him protected from libel suits, you have to have a budget of about $300,000 a year, maybe $400,000.

If your readers care about Israel, about keeping it democratic, there should definitely be some civil society efforts

When societies start investing in investigative journalism like that, that’s when the job will be done. And it can’t be one investigative journalist. You have to have dozens.

If your readers care about Israel, about keeping it democratic, there should definitely be some civil society efforts, some donations, some Kickstarters. Ultimately people should understand that this will hit them back in terms of their own welfare and their access to democratic institutions, but ultimately even economically.

It could happen in very unexpected ways. Your child could end up in a war with Syria, or some conflict instigated by Russia somewhere in the world. In a way this is a repetition of the 1930s. No one thought that events in Nazi Germany would have any repercussions for the United States. But then the country ended up fighting the Germans when it was too late.

Could this covert Russian influence constitute a factor in a future Israeli war?

The West is like a small clean lake, or relatively clean lake, in the middle of a swamp. And the floodgates have been opened

What people in general in the West should understand is that the West and NATO are now becoming a minority force in the world; the power of the United States is declining. These large authoritarian states are taking over if not the world then at least Eurasia, countries like China and Malaysia that are not going to become democratic any time soon. The richer they get, the more authoritarian and the more aggressive and expansionist they become.

Democratic countries are becoming like an oasis in the desert. A better metaphor is that the West is like a small clean lake, or relatively clean lake, in the middle of a swamp. And the floodgates have been opened. It’s not like the small lake will clean up the swamp. It’s the other way around. So unless you close the doors and put some filters in place, you will be taken over as a swamp as well.

It won’t be easy. Consumption in the West will have to be scaled back from those money flows from Eurasia. Some industries will have to suffer, especially those that benefit from gas and oil contracts, as well as lobbyists, PR people, lawyers, all offshore accountants and real estate people. They will have to suffer; they will not make as much money.

But the society as a whole will benefit and be able to hold on to its values, like due diligence and good governance.

In terms of Israel specifically, if this does not happen, then I think the NATO alliance will be marginalized and might have to be involved in conflicts it doesn’t want. And then Israel will be much more on its own against its foes, and might not receive as much American help as it might hope to in such circumstances.

So all this has direct security implications for Israel as a society, and Israel as a state, unfortunately.

The main photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Moscow on September 22, 2015. (Kremlin.ru)

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.

Does Siberian separatism exist?

There is no Siberian separatism yet. And this is the main problem of Siberia. While speaking of Siberian separatism, people mostly mean the “special rights” of Siberia, unfortunately. There is no ethnic community, horizontal links between regions are weak, there’s lack of civil society institutions – all this could not make a good ground for regional separatism. The idea that Moscow is draining all the Siberian resources, leaving little of them locally is probably the only one point that unites the Siberians. After a brief upswing of regional activity in the 1990s, while the “Siberian Agreement” Association and the Ural Republic of Eduard Rossel were created, today’s regional elites are focused on the President’s administration, rather than on the interests of Siberians.

Continue reading All power to the bears!

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.

On 14 June this year, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that, in particular, demanded: “that the Russian authorities immediately and unconditionally release Oleg Sentsov and all other illegally detained Ukrainian citizens in Russia and on the Crimean Peninsula”.

Oleg Sentsov is a Ukrainian filmmaker who lived in Crimea. He stayed there after Russia had annexed the Crimean Peninsula; shortly after the annexation, Sentsov was arrested, forcibly “granted” a Russian citizenship, falsely charged with terrorist activities and sentenced to 20 years.

On 14 May 2018, Sentsov went on an indefinite hunger strike demanding to release all Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia and Crimea – there are more than 70 of them. Sentsov is dying right now.

Out of 627 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), 485 voted for the resolution, 76 voted against, and 66 abstained. Here is a full list of MEPs voted against the resolution on political prisoners in Russia and Crimea. It is hardly a coincidence that almost all the MEPs listed here represent the pro-Putin “red-brown alliance”.

 

NAME PARTY IDEOLOGY GROUP
 

Bulgaria

Georgi PIRINSKI Bulgarian Socialist Party Centre-left S&D
 

Czech Republic

Kateřina KONEČNÁ Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy Far-left GUE-NGL
 

Cyprus

Neoklis SYLIKIOTIS Progressive Party of Working People Far-left GUE-NGL
 

France

Marie-Christine ARNAUTU Front national Far-right ENF
Nicolas BAY Front national Far-right ENF
Joëlle BERGERON Independent [Front national] Far-right EFDD
Dominique BILDE Front national Far-right ENF
Marie-Christine BOUTONNET Front national Far-right ENF
Steeve BRIOIS Front national Far-right ENF
Aymeric CHAUPRADE Les Français Libres [Front national] Far-right EFDD
Jacques COLOMBIER Front national Far-right ENF
Mireille D’ORNANO Les Patriotes [Front national] Far-right EFDD
Sylvie GODDYN Front national Far-right ENF
Bruno GOLLNISCH Front national Far-right NI
Jean-François JALKH Front national Far-right ENF
France JAMET Front national Far-right ENF
Patrick LE HYARIC Front de Gauche Far-left GUE-NGL
Gilles LEBRETON Front national Far-right ENF
Dominique MARTIN Front national Far-right ENF
Bernard MONOT Front national Far-right ENF
Sophie MONTEL Les Patriotes [Front national] Far-right EFDD
Joëlle MÉLIN Front national Far-right ENF
Younous OMARJEE L’union pour les Outremer Far-left GUE-NGL
Jean-Luc SCHAFFHAUSER Rassemblement bleu Marine Far-right ENF
Mylène TROSZCZYNSKI Front national Far-right ENF
Marie-Christine VERGIAT Front de Gauche Far-left GUE-NGL
Marie-Pierre VIEU Front de Gauche Far-left GUE-NGL
 

Germany

Stefan ECK Independent [Partei Mensch Umwelt Tierschutz] Far-left GUE-NGL
Cornelia ERNST Die Linke Far-left GUE-NGL
Sabine LÖSING Die Linke Far-left GUE-NGL
Jörg MEUTHEN Alternative für Deutschland Far-right EFDD
Martina MICHELS Die Linke Far-left GUE-NGL
Martin SCHIRDEWAN Die Linke Far-left GUE-NGL
Helmut SCHOLZ Die Linke Far-left GUE-NGL
Gabriele ZIMMER Die Linke Far-left GUE-NGL
 

Greece

Nikolaos CHOUNTIS Popular Unity [Syriza] Far-left GUE-NGL
Georgios EPITIDEIOS Golden Dawn Far-right NI
Lampros FOUNTOULIS Golden Dawn Far-right NI
Stelios KOULOGLOU Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) Far-left GUE-NGL
Kostadinka KUNEVA Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) Far-left GUE-NGL
Konstantinos PAPADAKIS Communist Party of Greece Far-left NI
Dimitrios PAPADIMOULIS Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) Far-left GUE-NGL
Sofia SAKORAFA Independent [Syriza] Far-left GUE-NGL
Eleftherios SYNADINOS Independent [Golden Dawn] Far-right NI
Sotirios ZARIANOPOULOS Communist Party of Greece Far-left NI
 

Ireland

Luke Ming FLANAGAN Independent Far-left GUE-NGL
 

Italy

Mara BIZZOTTO Lega Nord Far-right ENF
Mario BORGHEZIO Lega Nord Far-right ENF
Angelo CIOCCA Lega Nord Far-right ENF
Eleonora FORENZA Lista Tsipras-L’Altra Europa Far-left GUE-NGL
Danilo Oscar LANCINI Lega Nord Far-right ENF
Curzio MALTESE Lista Tsipras-L’Altra Europa Far-left GUE-NGL
Giancarlo SCOTTA’ Lega Nord Far-right ENF
Barbara SPINELLI Independent [Lista Tsipras-L’Altra Europa] Far-left GUE-NGL
Marco ZANNI Independent [Movimento 5 Stelle] Far-right ENF
 

Latvia

Andrejs MAMIKINS “Saskaņa” sociāldemokrātiskā partija Centre-left S&D
 

Netherlands

Marcel de GRAAFF Partij voor de Vrijheid Far-right ENF
André ELISSEN Partij voor de Vrijheid Far-right ENF
Olaf STUGER Partij voor de Vrijheid Far-right ENF
Auke ZIJLSTRA Partij voor de Vrijheid Far-right ENF
 

Portugal

João FERREIRA Partido Comunista Português Far-left GUE-NGL
António MARINHO E PINTO Partido Democrático Republicano Centre-right ALDE/ADLE
Marisa MATIAS Bloco de Esquerda Far-left GUE-NGL
João PIMENTA LOPES Partido Comunista Português Far-left GUE-NGL
Miguel VIEGAS Partido Comunista Português Far-left GUE-NGL
 

Spain

Xabier BENITO ZILUAGA PODEMOS Far-left GUE-NGL
Javier COUSO PERMUY Izquierda Unida Far-left GUE-NGL
Tania GONZÁLEZ PEÑAS PODEMOS Far-left GUE-NGL
Paloma LÓPEZ BERMEJO Izquierda Unida Far-left GUE-NGL
Maria Lidia SENRA RODRÍGUEZ Alternativa galega de esquerda en Europa Far-left GUE-NGL
Lola SÁNCHEZ CALDENTEY PODEMOS Far-left GUE-NGL
Estefanía TORRES MARTÍNEZ PODEMOS Far-left GUE-NGL
Miguel URBÁN CRESPO PODEMOS Far-left GUE-NGL
 

United Kingdom

Janice ATKINSON Independent [UKIP] Far-right ENF
James CARVER UKIP Far-right EFDD
Steven WOOLFE Independent [UKIP] Far-right NI

This post first appeared at Tango Noir site.

Valeria Jegisman of Free Russia Foundation sat down with Roman Badanin, editor in chief of Dozhd (TV Rain), one of the few independent news outlets in Russia to talk about the media situation in the country and the role of Western support.

How do you assess the media situation in Russia today, and what are your predictions for the future?

The situation is both deplorable and promising. There is no need to explain why it is deplorable – many good media outlets have been ruined, a lot of journalists have lost the opportunity for professional fulfillment, the vast majority of existing media is under state control to one degree or another, and so on. What is much more important is why I, nevertheless, see the situation as being promising. The thing is that while the Russian authorities were preoccupied with their attack on the media, the world did not stand still but moved forward both with new technologies and new approaches to media. And this gives us a lot of opportunities. Here is what I mean: there was something called Samizdat in the USSR where many thousands of people across the country reproduced censored materials at their own peril. Today, there is again something like Samizdat and no one, except the Russian state itself, is to blame for this. About 10 years ago, there were a lot of large media players in Russia – oligarch media, large state media, and subsidiaries of large foreign media. Today, some of these large media have disappeared, some of them have been banned, some have been kicked out of the country. But they have one thing in common: they have lost a monopoly on the Russian audience, especially the young.

Instead, a considerable number continue to appear as a whole cohort of young media and quasi-media that resembles Samizdat. Many of these media are not registered or are registered abroad. Moreover, many of them are generally anonymous, such as Telegram channels, which have taken on the role of media. Or bloggers – they are not registered either, yet they are also engaged in media delivery, sometimes delivering news or even more complex content. One can make a million criticisms about them, yes, but this is the reality of today. And all these projects are small, so they do not need a large management.

Another distinguishing feature of these media, in addition to being small and not following all the previous conventions, is that they are often specialized in the subject matter. They are also experimenting with new business models, such as using native advertising, crowdfunding or non-profits. That’s why I am very hopeful about all of this. Instead of the big unwieldy giants with whom the Russian authorities have been waging war in recent years, suddenly and unnoticeably, perhaps for the authorities themselves, a great number of new promising teams have appeared. Of course, for such a large country as Russia, this is not enough and there should be more of these media. And there is a need to spread regionally, which is the most difficult part, yet all of these developments make me look to the future with hope.

The audience to which independent media reaches out to is quite small in Russia. Is it possible that independent media could play a role in changing the status quo, or will it remain a niche for a certain group of people?

I do not like to ask myself such big global questions. Let’s look at the facts and I will give the following example. Last September, there was a story that at the Mayak plant in Chelyabinsk Oblast, allegedly, there was a leak of radioactive ruthenium and the radioactive cloud traveled over the whole of Russia, and no one knew about this. You ask me, as a journalist, if writing about this cloud could become a driver for some sort of changes? I just write about it because it’s important. If it provokes some public response, some mass movement, then it is good – this is one measure of the success of journalistic work. But I’m not a politician or an activist, I am a journalist and the main thing for me is simply to tell people that this is happening.

What are your thoughts on the new generation of journalists and journalism education in Russia? There are new journalists who want to work for Rain TV and others who want to work for national channels.

It’s hard for me to speak about the quality of education since I myself did not study with a faculty of journalists. But then again, there are mixed feelings of pessimism and optimism. Regarding the pessimistic views, there are more than 1,000 new journalists graduating each year in Russia – more precise numbers can be found in my column on this topic in Republic – and they all must go somewhere to work. The majority, of course, go to VGTRK [the National State Television and Radio Company] – the largest employer in the media market in the country.  They are hardly guilty because of this and are going there just with the thought of earning money and knowing that they will not be fired.

The other thing is that the Russian media market didn’t develop during those ten years in the 1990s before the crackdown happened. People just do not really understand what journalism or a journalist’s ethical code is. Many of them just land on this conveyor belt and do not have time to think about what they are really doing. This is a big problem because many of these people think that they do real journalism. Even worse – their friends, counterparts, PR professionals and the audience start thinking in a similar manner. I am more pessimistic here, but the optimistic side is that there are still a lot of people, especially young ones, who are eager to do something real, especially in the big cities. They have the enthusiasm and the courage, to be honest journalists – it is a brave thing to be an honest journalist in Russia today – but since the media market hasn’t properly developed, they have no experience, no basic skills, and no ethical journalistic standards.

What do you think the West, in the context of the current relations between the West and Russia, could do to help independent media in Russia?

There is a growing trend all over the world to support independent media projects with non-profit funding. These media projects specialize in socially important topics; however, they can’t get by just on readership traffic – it is another type of journalism. Every society needs an independent and investigative media. America came to fully understand this after Donald Trump became president. For example, three years ago there were fewer than 100 of these types of media outlets in America, and now there are around 300. I wrote about this in more detail on Medium [an online publishing platform] at Stanford University. And where is the Russian reality in all of this?  In Russia, the trend is quite the opposite.

I understand that with Putin in Russia and the legislation not allowing certain things, that everyone is afraid to invest money in Russian media. This is understandable, but here is what is not acceptable:  Russia is the world’s largest country with a nuclear bomb, a population of 140 million, a bunch of tanks, two open conflicts, and a million unresolved internal problems that, if they play out, could fundamentally affect stability in the world. Despite all this, I see a declining trend towards Russia, as supporting freedom of speech here in the US has become more important. Yet I think that what the West can do is to continue to support independent media in the most transparent and clear way, and to stop being afraid of the million tricks that the Russian authorities come up with to force the West to abandon these investments.

But can this Western support be detrimental to the people and organizations in the current situation?

Yes, it can, but it’s a matter of choice. There is always a choice – either you do it, or you do not. Therefore, this support should be as transparent as possible. Supporting these 300 successfully working media organizations is based on transparent and clear mechanisms. Every reasonable person understands that these media projects receive donor support due to the importance of their work and no one complains about this. If everything is done in a transparent way, reasonable people will not question Russian journalists who could receive donor funding in the same way. The Russian authorities, if they want to do something with them, well, they can do it anyway.

Do you expect that Russia will continue to spread disinformation?  How is it possible to fight disinformation both in the West and within Russia? Do you think the Western approach to countering disinformation is the right one?

I won’t go into the political aspect of this. But yes, I expect that Russia will continue its disinformation tactics. If a manager tries some method which seems to work well and doesn’t cost much, then you, like a smart manager, should probably continue with this technique and develop it further.  In order to combat disinformation, we must, first of all, invest in and support independent, high-quality journalism and related projects.

Roman Badanin, editor in chief of Dozhd (TV Rain). He is currently a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, focusing on the development of independent media in Russia.

On May 4th, Oleg Sentsov, the film director, announced a limitless hunger strike with the demand to release all Ukrainian political prisoners from Russian prisons (64 people total). On May 31st, Ukrainian activist OlexanderKolchenko announced the hunger strike with a demand to release film director Oleg Sentsov. VolodymyrBalukh, OlexanderShumkov, Stanislav Zimovets also went on hunger strike.

On June 2nd, acts of solidarity both with Sentsov and the political prisoners in Russia with the demands to release them took place in more than 70 cities in Europe, Asia, America and Australia. Updated information on these acts of solidarity can be found  here.

All these events have made the issue of political prisoners in modern Russia relevant again.

Who are political prisoners? The definition by the “Memorial” Human Rights Center, which is deeply involved with this issue, is: “Political prisoners are the two categories of people who are subject to criminal prosecution (on a politically motivated basis).

The first group is those oppressed solely for the practice of their civil rights, and for being of a particular nationality, religion or another group, for their beliefs and views (also known as prisoners of conscience, according to Amnesty International).

The second group is those persecuted due to significant violations of the law, selectively, or according to the political motivation of the authorities.

An extensive definition can be found in the Guide to the Definition of a Political Prisoner issue  (In Russan).

According to “Memorial”, there are more than 50 political prisoners in Russian prisons today, more than 100 people persecuted for their religious convictions and more than 70 people with clear signs of politically motivated cases. Here you can find the  Sentsov’s case analysis on the “Memorial” website  (In Russian).

The “Bolotnaya Square case” became the first large politically motivated case in modern Russia. The “political prisoners” term returned in current journalistic and activist vocabulary due to this case. The absolute evidence of falsification of the case, inhumane treatment conditions, and the feeling of belonging in every sense of the word (a lot of people participated in the “white-striped protests” and many of them were on Bolotnaya Square on May 12, 2012) provoked a lot of outrage. This led to a protest and a solidarity campaign, both quite effective and noticeable, being brought to life. It is important to note that many of those affected by the “Bolotnaya Square case” are former political prisoners now engaged in human rights activities and provide assistance to political prisoners and those persecuted for political reasons.

Ivan Nepomnyashiy, ex-political prisoner:

“It was very important for us to know, – during the trial and after the verdict – that there are many people who consider the case and the sentence to be absurd and fabricated, and that they appealed to the authorities to recognize this and to make us free. And this is the minimum we can do now for Oleg Sentsov, OlexanderKolchenko and many others who are unfairly detained in Russian prisons.”

The ongoing issue has another important aspect: five people went on a hunger strike. The management of Sentsov’s penal colony has already declared that they are ready to use forced feeding and infusions. The hunger strike is one of the extreme measures available for those in prison. It is easy to remember the hunger strike of Anatoly Marchenko, the Soviet dissident, and the tragedy at the end of it. The hunger strike of Vasily Aleksanyan, one of the “Yukos’ case” political prisoners was not successful either. It is still unclear whether the Russian government is ready to react to such actions. But one point is obvious – this situation is very dangerous for the life of political prisoners.

Sergey Sharov-Delaunay, human rights defender:

“The authorities are not going to drop back, for sure. The only way to force it is to make the intense pressure on this power rise from the inside, and from the outside, all over the world. For the outside pressure, which is really important for Ukrainian authorities, as well, it is necessary for us to support the demands of Oleg Sentsov. This is the starting point for everything. Without it, this demand will never become actual or satisfied.“

That is the reason that urgent and regular acts of solidarity are becoming more important than ever. Join the  #SaveSentsov campaign!

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.

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.

On Saturday, March 10th, at Kiev’s Free Russia House, Anton Shekhovtsov presented his book “Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir.” The book is the first to study the critical trend of the growing connection between the Kremlin and Western far-right activists, publicists, ideologists and politicians in considerable detail. An in-depth discussion with Mr. Shekhovtsov was held after his presentation.

 


About the book

It is impossible to analyze the Kremlin’s relations with nationalist and far-right European activists and political parties today if we do not first examine the roots of this partnership, which started to form in the 1990s. In turn, that cannot fully be understood without returning to the Cold War and events that preceded it in the 1920s and 1930s.

Just after World War I, National Bolshevism, a movement of far-left nationalists who rejected the Treaty of Versailles, appeared on the scene in Weimar Germany. This movement was greeted with some flirtatious interest by the Soviet Comintern, still in its infancy.  German National Bolshevism defined the western powers of France, Britain, and Belgium as enemies. German National Bolsheviks, with their young proletarian movement, became associated with the USSR to a certain extent. However, after the consolidation of Nazi Germany in 1933, this movement lost its momentum. National Bolsheviks and the left-wing faction of the Nazi Party were destroyed by Hitler’s SA during the Night of the Long Knives.

A few years after the Second World War, neutralist far-right milieu (former representatives of the Nazi SS and Hitlerjugend) existed in West Germany, hoping to keep West Germany neutral and non-aligned. These policies, once again, lined up with the interests of the Soviet Union. According to some reports, until 1955, when West Germany became a member of NATO, the Soviet Union financed far-right groups in the West with more money than their socialist counterparts in East. During the Cold War, that money quickly dried up as agency activity became more expedient.

Shekhovtsov’s book goes on to examine the connections in the1990’s between Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Aleksandr Dugin, Sergei Baburin and Sergei Glazyev. In the chaos of the 1990s, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of Russia’s far-right nationalist LDPR first attempted to create an international far-right force. Between 2000 and 2004, Putin’s first term, a number of conferences related to Zhirinovsky’s ambitions were held, but the Kremlin was largely uninterested. That period could be described as a honeymoon between Putin and the West. Everyone praised Russia, ignored human rights, and believed that perhaps giving Putin a little more time would lead to democratization.

In 2003, while getting ready for the “First People’s Patriotic Congress”, where Zhirinovsky’s far-right allies in France and Belgium were guests, Vladimir Volfovich wrote that the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia holds “patriotic views”, and the European “patriotic forces” are increasingly close to power. Their rise to power would turn out to be politically expedient for the Kremlin.

The next attempt to consolidate power was a more institutionalized form of cooperation between allies of the Kremlin and the far-right during controversial election monitoring in 2005. Then the media cooperated in 2008-2009, after the war with Georgia. A third wave, since 2011, has been crashing ever since as direct representatives of the Putin regime began to cooperate openly with such political forces as “National Front” (“Front National”) in France, the “Freedom Party” of Austria (“FreiheitlicheParteiÖsterreichs”), the Italian “Northern League” (“Lega Nord”), the Bulgarian “Attack” (“Атака”), among others. Today, agreements between “United Russia” (“ЕдинаяРоссия”, hereinafter “UR”) and Austria’s “Freedom Party” in 2016 and Italy’s “Northern League” in 2017 represent direct cooperation at high levels within both countries’ governments.

Today, the Austrian “Freedom Party” is the junior partner in the Austrian government coalition, and the “North League” recently stormed to its best performance in Italy’s recent election. People who maintain clearly pro-Kremlin stances are moving closer to power in Europe.

 

Does the Kremlin place the stake only on potential winners and why the far right needs Russia?

The Kremlin’s desire to cooperate with the Austrian “Freedom Party” was formally signed in 2016, as Austria went to the polls to elect a new president. For the first time since the Second World War, no representative of the main conservative (Austrian People’s Party) and socialist (Socialist Party of Austria) parties made it to the runoff round of Austria’s presidential election. A couple of weeks before the second round, far-right candidate Norbert Hofer was invited to Moscow to sign agreements with United Russia. United Russia seemed to get the ball rolling only when the far right looked within reach of victory…but then they narrowly lost the presidential election. By contrast, the agreement with the “Northern League” which sought to institutionalize cooperation since 2014, did not get signed until 2017. Ironically, the original agreement sought to create an agreement at a time when polls showed no significant support for the nationalist Lega Nord party.

Support for the Kremlin is not universal among European far-right parties, but for some of them, cooperation with the Kremlin legitimizes their cause. Extreme right-wing ideologies were marginalized after the Second World War, and while many realize they cannot fully break the liberal-democratic consensus in the West, they still preach a release from the endless marginal circle. Therefore, they claim: “We are in favor of Putin’s Russia, which has the same ideology as us, and at the same time, is a global actor”. They surreptitiously promote the rhetorical narrative to legitimize themselves through an indirect reference to the Kremlin.

 

Does the far right continue to strengthen its position in Europe now?

The growth of support can be traced throughout Europe, with the exception of Portugal and Spain. But it is important to understand that many far-right groups have become more moderate since the 2000s. Many have moved closer to the center-right because they understand they will not come to power with fringe ideals. In political science, there is a classic case when the fascist party became conservative in Italy when the “Italian social movement” (“MovimentoSocialeItaliano”), a party with roots in Mussolini’s fascist Italy, managed to rebrand in the 1990s and join forces with Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party.

In Norway, the “Progress Party” (“Fremskrittspartiet”), considered far-right in the early 2000s, has moved to the center and now it’s a national-liberal party. In Hungary, there was a unique situation when the parties reversed roles. Since 2015, “Jobbik” (“JobbikMagyarországértMozgalom”) deliberately decided to move closer to the center and effectively switched spots with “Fidesz” (“Fidesz – Magyar PolgáriSzövetség”). Fidesz later began to borrow slogans from “Jobbik.” According to the “Political Capital” think tank’s analysis, 10 different proposals from “Jobbik” were realized by “Fidesz”. ”Jobbik” couldn’t implement these proposals while in opposition. Now “Jobbik” has moved towards the center-right insofar as it supports the Central European University and defends George Soros, while “Fidesz”, being the far right party now, wants to close the university and demonizes Soros completely.

In other words, the support of the far right in Europe is growing not only due to the refugee crisis since 2015 and the weakening of mainstream forces but also due to the face that the far-right is becoming more moderate, so they can be acknowledged as legitimate participants of the political process by many people.

 

Legitimation of Putin’s regime via the far-right Europeans

The Putin regime has a constant legitimization problem. According to the UN’s voting results regarding the occupation of Crimea in 2014, no Asian, African and South American countries voted against. For Russia, it is important to show not only that Asians and Africans support it, but the “real Europeans” as well. They need to bring these Europeans to Crimea to let them wax poetic on TV about how wonderful life is on the peninsula.

In addition, this resource can be used to legitimize elections.

When it comes to Russia’s population, political elites and a vast majority of the television media are anti-Western and anti-American, but the ordinary people don’t always subscribe to this mentality. Russian society considers itself a part of European civilization, so they subconsciously want to be accepted by “white Europeans.”

Even though Putin’s Russia has totally anti-fascist rhetoric, it sometimes ties itself in knots trying to legitimize itself with European approval. When Luc Michel, an old-school Belgian marginal skinhead from the 1980s was brought to Crimea’s referendum in March 2014, he was introduced to the media as “head of the OSCE observation mission”, a complete fabrication. In fact, the OSCE refused to send a mission to the illegitimate referendum.

You can see the full version (in Russian) of the discussion in video.

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.

“No human rights violations have been observed in Crimea”, — announced the group Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD) political party members who visited Crimea in early February, 2018.

The nine-person delegation was composed of State Diet (Landtag) representatives and city council members, such as Evgeny Schmidt from the “Russian Germans for AfD” fraction; as well as Christian Blex, Nick Vogel, and Helmut Seifen, — all three from the North Rhine-Westphalia parliament.

The German parliamentarians had been invited to Crimea by the obscure organization called the Regional German Ethnic and Cultural Autonomy of the Republic of Crimea. Its Chair Yuri Gempe confirmed that the Autonomy covered part of the expenses associated with the trip. Incidentally, Mr. Gempe happens to serve on the Crimean State Council as representative of the Putin’s United Russia party.

This trip has set off an outpour of indignation from various German federal government officials, outraged the leadership of the AfD party itself and drove a wedge among its various chapters. While the Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia AfD factions have supported the visit, several local AfD chapters refused to endorse it. The Berlin AfD attempted to publicly distance itself from the controversial visit by stressing via its social media accounts that the trip was private in nature and the delegation members hadn’t received the mandate “from neither the faction nor from the party”.

“I am critical of this visit” – stated George Pazderski, the head of the Berlin AfD in his interview to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He felt that this initiative by his colleagues was dangerous in that it could “shut the doors to other east European countries”. He also speculated that the parliamentarians who visited Crimea may have been simply “used” by someone.

Notably, the visit has been covered extensively in the Russian media. Russian newspapers and TV channels have described in rich detail the astonishment of German guests who, contrary to their pre-trip expectations, observed modern well-designed highways instead of beat-down roads.

In their coverage, Russian outlets conveniently leave out certain details. For example, “not every segment clarifies that these were local officials representing State Diets (Landtag)”, —notes a reporter from Deutschlandfunk. “Instead, they are introduced simply as “German parliamentarians”. Such nuance is critical. The politicians who spent a week in Crimea and returned to Germany on February 9, are members of local parliaments from three states: North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Württemberg, and Berlin. They are not part of the AfD’s leadership and do not play a significant role in decision-making at the federal level. For example, one of them, Roger Beckamp, merely chairs an AfD chapter at the City Council of Cologne.

This was not the first trip by AfD representatives to Crimea. The April 2016 visit by an EU Parliamentarian and AfD member Marcus Pretzell to the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by the Russian Federation turned out just as scandalous when it was uncovered that it was sponsored by a Russian foundation. This became evident from the disclosure documents filed by the German politician at the insistence of the Ethics Commission of the European Parliament.

The Prosecutor’s Office of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (which is a part of Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine) has opened a criminal investigation against the German citizens who visited the peninsula. The announcement has been published on the website of Prosecutor’s Office.

The case was initiated under Article 332-1 Part 1 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine (“Violation of the entry regulations to the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine”). The Prosecutor’s Office stated, that “on February 3, 2018, a group of citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany arrived in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea in disregard of the order of entry to the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine. The above-mentioned citizens planned to use this visit to meet with representatives of the Russian occupation authorities to discuss cooperation with the German side”.

This, however, is not the end of the story of the odious adventures of AfD reps. Some of them (Christian Blex, for example) followed up with a trip to Syria, which also triggered a negative reaction, including from the ruling party of Christian Democrats (CDU).

On Tuesday, March 6, 2018, Michael Brand who represents the CDU/CSU parliamentary faction issued a statement denouncing the trip to Syria by a number of MPs from the AfD party. He declared that “meeting with criminal cliques” while “dictator al-Assad uses bombs and chemical weapons” is “just awful.” AfD members of parliament “did not shy away even from meeting the ruthless mufti” who, according to Brand, “called for suicide attacks in Europe and personally signed thousands of death warrants”.

Why would members of German local parliaments so actively pursue foreign affairs activities while conducting them “privately”? The AfD delegates insist that the latter trip was self-paid, which contradicts the Russian official story. Such activity is outside of their jurisdiction level and is not sanctioned by their party or even local chapters.  Clearly, courting scandal and the attention of the media is one of the key political tactics of the AfD. The Russian media omits from its coverage the AfD’s far-right populism, asks no inconvenient questions and portraits it as a viable political force in Germany.

We should, therefore, not be surprised to discover AfD representatives serving as so-called “independent” observers during the Russian presidential elections. Exactly what they will “observe” is hardly a mystery either.

The Russian government is planning a large “international” conference in Crimea this April.  The invitations have been already issued to the left-wingers as well as to AfD members. We will just have to wait and see whether the AfD participation will once again take the form of “personal visits”, or the party leadership would finally stop this homegrown diplomacy.

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.

As The Insider found out, money made by Russian businessmen with gang affiliations and Kremlin connections in Russian ports are still being laundered in Monaco and Liechtenstein – after being exposed in corruption scandals, the old “laundries” simply changed their company names and management. The money in question belongs to the Tambovskaya gang and criminal bosses Ilya Traber and Sergei Vasilyev – those in control of Petersburg Oil Terminal, which transships oil products of Kirishi Oil Refinery overseas. Our sources claim that both have the president’s special trust and have been welcome guests at his birthday parties. Meanwhile, straw men in Monaco and Liechtenstein keep up fruitful cooperation with companies owned by Putin’s friends, including Gennady Timchenko and Vladimir Yakunin. Even such influential organizations as the Bank of New York are known to have been part of the money laundering schemes. Loud corruption scandals were just a minor nuisance for those in the spotlight: Traber was put on the Interpol’s wanted list after Spain accused him of participation in an organized crime group (in spite of multiple protests lodged to the Spanish authorities by the Russian Prosecutor General), while Sergei Vasilyev keeps visiting European states with an Italian visa, according to our source.


The search for Putin’s money in Monaco

On February 12, 1999, the Monegasque police received a radiogram from the National Central Bureau of Interpol, Russia. The Russians requested assistance in regards to a criminal case of money laundering, asking to identify two Monaco-based telephone numbers. As it turned out, the numbers belonged to a company called Sotrama, and the police decided to take a closer look into the company’s de-facto owners.

On May 19, 2000, the government of Monaco passed Resolution 00-62, barring entry into the principality to Dmitry Skigin, de-facto managing director of Sotrama. According to the Monegasque police, Dmitry Skigin, co-owner of Petersburg Oil Terminal and OBIP, retained close contact with Ilya Traber, who is known for his affiliation with the Tambovskaya gang.

Traber and Skigin have indeed worked in close cooperation: Skigin used to control Petersburg Oil Terminal (PNT), while Ilya Traber headed it in 1996 (the current head of PNT is Dmitry Skigin’s son, Mikhail Skigin, whereas its formal ownership is distributed among several Cypriot offshore companies). Moreover, Ilya Traber sometimes paid Dmitry Skigin personal visits at his place of residence at the French Riviera, which was documented by the Monegasque police on February 4, 2000 (the police reports on the inspection of Sotrama are at our disposal). The police drew up a number of reports on the alleged affiliation of Sotrama with “organized crime groups from the CIS countries.” In the meantime, French media shed light on Ilya Traber’s luxurious villa at the French Riviera.

Ilya Traber

In 2002, Crown Prince Albert (the current Prince of Monaco) hired Robert Eringer, an American journalist, who undertook to investigate the activities of foreign organized crime groups in the country. His official capacity remains unclear; according to Eringer’s own words, he was head of the  Monegasque intelligence, whereas Prince Albert denied the very existence of such a service in the principality and claimed that Eringer had been looking into the “rumors” he caught wind of “at his own discretion.” Either way, there are documents confirming that Eringer received regular wages from the Prince’s palace, while the documents and evidence he released are noteworthy, with the information being backed by a number of other sources.

Eringer stated that he had been studying the Sotrama oil-trading company since 2005, driven by his suspicion that the company acted in the interests of both the organized crime groups and Vladimir Putin personally.

Generally, money laundering through export of natural resources is not unheard of: time and again, Russian gangs try to get hold of legitimate European enterprises to play on the difference between domestic and export prices or launder money through actual or fake shipments during multiple resale transactions. For instance, such was the case of the Izmailovskaya organized crime group (with Oleg Deripaska and Iskander Makhmudov as suspects, the case was transferred to Russia for investigation in 2011 and eventually closed in Spain in 2016). A Swiss intelligence report mentions that crime boss Semion Mogilevich was involved in the Russian natural gas export, while gangster Zakhariy Kalashov (also known as Shakro Molodoy – “Young Shakro”) acted on behalf of Lukoil in Spain, to be subsequently convicted both in Spain and in Russia.

In the course of the investigation, a source (whose real name Eringer does not reveal) contacted the journalist:

“MARTHA informed me that Sotrama had declared a monthly income of 100,000 euros to the Monegasque tax authorities, which barely covers its salary fund and operational expenses, yielding a small profit. Meanwhile, the oil-trading company actually laundered „millions upon millions“ euros a month for its controlling company, Horizon. MARTHA attended a party in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat [The Insider’s note: Skigin’s place of residence on the French Riviera], where Sotrama’s CEO proposed a toast to the Russian president, saying: ‘None of this would be possible if it hadn’t been for Putin.'”

The search of information on Sotrama became easier after Dmitry Skigin’s death in Nice in 2003, when his widow hired Spanish lawyer Pablo Sebastian to prove her entitlement to the property her deceased husband had left behind in a number of countries.

In an interview to Novaya Gazeta in 2011, the lawyer described the situation as follows: “Sotrama, Horizon International Trading, and a wide range of other companies are nominally managed by two attorneys, Graham Smith and Markus Hasler. They operate out of Ruggell, Liechtenstein, acting on behalf of very influential individuals. As to their identities, your guess is as good as mine.”

In the Monegasque police reports Eringer refers to, Sotrama is just a link in the chain of legal entities suspected of money laundering for the Tambovskaya gang under the cover of oil trading. The company was registered in 1972 under the name of Aermar and was re-registered in December 1990, according to the Trade and Industry Register of Monaco. Apparently, St. Petersburg mob acquired other previously existing companies around the same time as well.

Offshore companies of Petersburg Oil Terminal

The company’s de-facto financial activities took place in Liechtenstein. Sotrama’s managing company, Caravel Establishment, represented by Italian national Michele Tecchia (up to 2016), was registered at 105A Industriestrasse, Ruggell, Lichtenstein, and did not cease to operate until July 12, 2017. The same address (except for the “building A” part) is the location of its subsidiary, Horizon International Trading, which was founded in Liechtenstein in 1992 and is still operating. What is more, the company is listed among the current partners of Petersburg Oil Terminal. The official head of the company is none other than Markus Hasler (more on Hasler’s connection with Vladimir Yakunin and Gennady Timchenko below).

“The actual control over Horizon International Trading and Caravel Establishment belongs to father and son, Eduard and Dmitry Skigin,” says the Monegasque police report. “These individuals, in their turn, act on behalf of Ilya Traber.” The geography of this group’s activities included Italy and Nice. Thus, according to Nice policemen, Ilya Traber ran a company named SARL Horizon [The Insider’s note: the entity was listed in the trade register of Nice from 1994 to 2009]. Moreover, the Monegasque police have discovered that Skigin managed Petersburg Oil Terminal and OBIP (Association of Banks Investing in the Port, CJSC) on behalf of Traber.

The Monegasque police report states that «Sotrama manages Petroruss, Petrovision, and United Jet Service Company Establishment from Liechtenstein.» The first two of these companies are registered at the same address in Liechtenstein, while the latter is registered at a different location in the same country: 52 Аuring, 9490 Vaduz, which coincides with that of the Nasdor company (Liechtenstein), an entity that used to hold 50 percent of OBIP shares. Apart from that, Nasdor was the primary shareholder at the Sea Port of St. Petersburg, along with the Mayor’s Office, prior to the sale of the port to Vladimir Lisin in 2004.

In other words, all these Liechtenstein-based companies connected to Sotrama and registered at the same couple of addresses – “mailbox” companies, as they are dubbed in Europe – indeed formed a network (see the scheme below) and were managed by the same group of individuals, including Dmitry Skigin’s heir, Mikhail, with one of the companies currently listed as an official partner of Petersburg Oil Terminal, which still trades in oil products manufactured at the Kirishi Oil Refinery.

Tambovskaya gang’s money

Dmitry Skigin’s surviving divorced spouse was not the only contender for his inheritance. In 2014, Maxim Freidzon, Skigin’s former business associate, filed a lawsuit to the American court against such companies as Gazprom, Lukoil, Gazprom Neft, and Gazprom-Aero under the U. S. Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Freidzon claimed that he and Skigin had co-founded a company named Sovex, which engaged in jet fuel deliveries; 34 percent of its shares belonged to Horizon International Trading, represented by Graham Smith. Horizon International Trading, in its turn, was acquired by the aforementioned Sotrama. In 1997, crime boss Sergei Vasilyev, who answered to Vladimir Kumarin (head of the Tambovskaya gang), “ordered Traber to withdraw Sovex’ incorporation documents and corporate stamps” and to alter the list of founders. According to Freidzon, the incorporation documents were falsified, and the Tambovskaya crime group gained control over the company. Today, equal parts of its shares belong to Lukoil and Gazprom – two of the companies sued by Freidzon in the USA.

“Vasilyev and Kumarin used Sovex not only for tax evasion purposes but also for the laundering of their ‘dirty’ money through Horizon International in Liechtenstein and the Bank of New York. The scheme was realized by Graham Smith and Dmitry Skigin,” says Freidzon in his claim.

Alexei Miller, a former official of Vladimir Putin’s Committee for External Relations, was in charge of direct “investments in the port” through Liechtenstein. In 1998–1999, he occupied the position of director for development and investment in the Sea Port of St. Petersburg at OBIP CJSC.

“Alexei Miller, director for development at OBIP, worked in close contact with Graham Smith. After the main adversary of OBIP was assassinated [The Insider’s note: Mikhail Manevich], the company secured a contract with the city administration for the control over the Sea Port of St. Petersburg (Traber and Skigin’s enterprise),” according to Maxim Frteidzon’s claim in the American court.

In 2015, the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of New York rejected the lawsuit because neither the plaintiff nor the defendant were U. S. citizens (Graham Smith is a citizen of Liechtenstein, while Freidzon holds citizenship in Israel and Russia); the plaintiff also failed to prove any other connection of his claim to the USA. In particular, according to the ruling of the Southern District Court, the claim that the money was laundered through the Bank of New York was not sufficient grounds for a RICO indictment because it was a consequence of alleged corruption and racketeering in Russia. However, as Fabio Leonardi, an American lawyer with an expert knowledge of the RICO Act, pointed out to The Insider, RICO lawsuits are often filed without the purpose of winning, simply to “leave a record” in the U. S. judicial system and attract the attention of the media.

Ilya Traber’s organized crime connections

The credibility of Freidzon’s claim is confirmed by a number of other records. The Sovex company mentioned in a Spanish criminal case #321/2006 against Gennady Petrov’s gang (covered in detail by The Insider). Thus, according to the case materials, on June 22, 2004, QUICK AIR JET CHARTER GMBH invoiced Sovex for a charter flight from St. Petersburg to Palma de Mallorca for 22,500 euros. At the time, the company was co-owned by Lukoil and Gazprom in equal shares. However, the invoice was settled by a different company, Vesper Finance Corporation. The corporation wired 5 million euros to yet another defendant of the criminal case, lawyer Juan Untoria Agustín, who invested the amount in Spain on behalf of Gennady Petrov. In addition, Vesper Finance Corporation served as an intermediary for the transfer of 600,000 euros, wired from Switzerland by Pavel Kudryashov of the Tambovsko-Malyshevskaya gang. In other words, for some reason, a charter flight invoice to Sovex was settled by a different company with connections to the Tambovsko-Malyshevskaya gang, which was reflected in the criminal case.

Ilya Traber, who was mentioned in the Monegasque police files and Freidzon’s claim, resided in Switzerland for a long time, litigating against the Bilan magazine, which had tried to include him in the list of the wealthiest local residents of Russian origin. In Russia, Traber owns an entire business empire, which has been covered in detail in a recent documentary by the Dozhd independent channel. He co-owns some of the assets with Putin’s friends. It seems unlikely that such an influential businessman should have any criminal connections, all the more so because he consistently sues any media that make insinuations to that effect.

However, Ilya Traber is also a defendant in Spanish case #321/2006, which landed his name on an international wanted list. The recordings of Petrov’s phone calls obtained by The Insider have been divided into several categories, and conversations with Traber are classified as “related to illegal activities.” On September 21, 2007, Petrov called his Greek lawyer (he had obtained a Greek passport, like Traber) to discuss the necessity of erasing certain data from the country’s digital database because the individual he had commissioned for the task had cheated on both Petrov and Traber. At 10:57 a.m. on September 23, 2007, Petrov makes a personal call to Traber and informs him of “the lawyers and the consul’s” visit scheduled for September 25. Petrov refers to a certain Aguis who needs to be punished through his “system,” and then, if the problem is not resolved, so much the worse for him. Ilya undertakes to go to Greece and speak to this man to get him to meet Petrov, asking whether he should “take a hard line” in his persuasion.

There are some other notable calls too. In July 2007, Traber mentioned to Petrov that he wanted to get in touch with Vladislav Reznik (State Duma Deputy Vladislav Reznik is also a defendant in the Spanish case against Petrov’s gang, as we have previously revealed)On October 1, 2007, Petrov called his accomplice Leonid Khristoforov and said he was going to meet Traber that day. In the same conversation, he mentioned “the evidence they have against Vasilyev.” On April 18, 2008, Petrov complained to Traber that he had not been able to get through to Ilya for as long as two days, to which Traber replied that he had been in Paris, and the French “wiretap everyone,” looking for enemies.

 

Petrov explains that “the Vasilyev brothers are very powerful and have a lot of connections; we have to be careful around them because, as soon as they take interest in a certain business, there is no getting away from them”

 

The recording made on August 16, 2007, is a conversation with a certain Eduard Averbakh, who calls to complain about “the problems Igor has at his shop because of the Vasilyev brothers,” to which Petrov explains that “the Vasiliyev brothers [The Insider’s note: Sergei, Boris, and Alexander] are very powerful and have a lot of connections; we have to be careful around them because, as soon as they take interest in a certain business, there is no getting away from them.” Petrov offers to speak to them, also revealing that the eldest (Sergei) is a crime boss who even participated in a shoot-out with “a neighbor.” Apparently, the neighbor in question is Petrov’s former neighbor in the apartment block at 35 Tavricheskaya Street (St. Petersburg), who was accused of Sergei Vasilyev’s attempted murder in the fall of 2005. The crime boss survived but was badly wounded.

At 3:25 p.m. on August 26, 2007, Petrov notifies Leonid Khristoforov, referring to an Igor [The Insider’s note: most likely, Igor Sobolevsky, future deputy of Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee, and part of Petrov’s contact network, according to the investigation], that Kumarin has been apprehended “at the czar’s order.” The investigation believes that “the czar” in these conversations is a codified reference to Vladimir Putin. What is more, in an exchange from December 11, 2007, Petrov and an Andrei “Behemoth” Nikonov refer to Vladimir Putin as “our guy.”

The international order for Traber’s arrest signed by Spanish judge Jose de la Mata states that Traber “is integrated in an organized crime group which has been actively operating in Spain since 1996.” Furthermore, as The Insider learned, a pre-investigation check was carried out a few years ago in Switzerland, at Traber’s place of permanent residence (the man had already acquired Greek citizenship by then). However, the case was not initiated. As the Swiss prosecutor general stated to The Insider, Ilya Traber is not currently being prosecuted in the country.

Whitewashing: Sotrama changes its name, address, and CEO

While Traber was dealing with his predicaments in Greece, Spain, and Switzerland, an Italian-language Internet blog was launched in 2015 with a seeming purpose of filling the Web with positive references to managers of Sotrama and Horizon – Michele Tecchia, Graham Alan Smith, and Mikhail Skigin (who do not have any formal connection, by the way). This method is called SERM – short for “search engine reputation management.” The blog was continuously updated from May to September 2015. A new post was added every other day, with topics varying from Russian ballet and Alfred Hitchcock’s works to biological diversity and the economy of Monaco. According to these inane publications, “one of Monaco’s residents is Italian national Michele Tecchia, who has chosen the Principality as his operational base – a confident professional who takes a particularly strict approach to situations that arise suspicions of Russian mafia’s involvement,” and “the Principality is home to such celebrities as Michele Tecchia.” Another post says the following: “The Principality of Monaco and dance have an ancient history of reciprocated love. The most accomplished art has always been the ‘queen’ of the city state, which has been chosen as a place of residence or a tourist destination by such experts in arts and business as Michele Tecchia and Graham Alan Smith.” Mikhail Skigin is also mentioned, for instance: “The city-state, appreciated by affluent people and international entrepreneurs, such as Michele Tecchia and Mikhail Skigin, ranks high on the list of perfect holiday destinations.”

However, in September 2015, the updates of the weird blog on “celebrities” from Sotrama stopped for no apparent reason.

The current location of “celebrity” Michele Tecchia is unknown: according to The Insider‘s correspondent, his former Monegasque residence has been torn down and construction is underway; apart from that, Tecchia has a New York address, and in January 2017, he made an appearance at a horserace in Madrid.

Michele Tecchia at a horserace, 2017 (second on the right) 

The outcome of the SERM campaign aimed at the whitewashing of Michele Tecchia, Mikhail Skigin, and Graham Smith remains unclear, but in 2016, Sotrama decided to change its name and CEO.

In November 2016, it was renamed to CINPIT (pronounced as “senpit” in French, which is similar to “St. Pete’s,” short for St. Petersburg). According to the abstract from the register obtained by The Insider at the Chamber of Economic Development of Monaco, the new administration of the company consisted of Russian national Vladimir Belkovsky (a native of St. Petersburg) and Swiss citizen Ueli Ambauen. Both indicated their Swiss addresses, with Belkovsky permanently residing in Abtwil.

It looks like Sotrama has been doing some reputation cleansing in Russian as well. The search for publications mentioning its exact address in Monaco leads to a 2015 “political detective novel” titled “The Chase for Putin’s Gold.” Its author, former Pravda correspondent Vladimir Bolshakov, published books like “Zionism at the Service of Anticommunism” in Soviet times and has now switched to mass-production of trashy pro-Putin fiction that aims to undermine the Russian fifth column. In “The Chase for Putin’s Gold,” a certain American intelligence agent is looking for “Putin’s fortune” to dismantle the Russian statehood, but fails to find Sotrama’s office in Monaco because the indicated address is a large business center with thousands of companies, and the phone does not answer.

How Skype prevented them from covering their tracks

In June 2017, The Insider‘s correspondent rendered a personal visit to the office of CINPIT (former Sotrama) in Monaco (at 7 rue du Gabian, bloc C). The company occupies offices 20 and 21 on the fifth floor; one of the offices did not answer the door, and in the other one, there were only two female Russian employees. The employees corrected the correspondent’s pronunciation (“Not Michel, Michele Tecchia!”) but refused to offer any assistance, saying they could not provide Tecchia’s email or fax even for an official media inquiry. The only thing they gave away is that one of them had been Michele Tecchia’s personal assistant.

Incidentally, we also found out that the current managing director, Vladimir Belkovsky, is an acquaintance of Mikhail Skigin’s. On August 26, 2017, Mikhail Skigin’s Skype account was hit by a virus that created a group conversation with all of his contacts. The Insider‘s correspondent received a link to this conversation. The group featured Mikhail Skigin’s family members, business partners (including names of Russian business lobbyists in Switzerland), German pro-Kremlin political scientist Alexander Rahr, who had become the senior advisor to the president of Wintershall A (Gazprom’s Nord Stream partner), Roman Belousov (more about him below), and Vladimir Belkovsky. In Russia, Skigin’s acquaintance Vladimir Belkovsky founded a company called Nefteorgsintez, which is now in the process of dissolution. The company’s statutory activities are “Rendering of oil and gas extraction services.”

 

Skigin: “I did nothing but optimize taxes”

Previously, Mikhail Skigin denied any connection to his father’s business or the Sotrama company, and neither was he listed among the shareholders. However, in his interview to The Insider, he unexpectedly admitted that he had owned the company but had sold it by then. He explained cooperation with Hasler and Graham Smith by his intention to “optimize taxes.” At the same time, he denied his involvement in any money laundering schemes: “I make movies and run a few projects for children, but no one is interested in those, because they have nothing to do with corruption.” In reply to the question about the connection between Traber and Vasilyev, Skigin countered: “The authenticity of the Monegasque reports on the Internet is yet to be verified; I have only gotten down to it recently and I have outlined my course of action, but it is too early to talk specifics. Money laundering allegations are nonsense. There is a different person there now – a number of other people. Essentially, it is not so easy to start a new company in Monaco; my father bought a company that had already existed, and it was later sold to Vladimir (Belkovsky). Had the company been involved in any illicit activities, it would have been shut down long ago. I met Vladimir Belkovsky in St. Gallen, where I resumed the university course I had abandoned in 2003 because of my father’s death. A few years ago, I had enough time to go back and complete my studies. St. Gallen is a small town with few Russian residents, so I got to know Vladimir Belkovsky, who lived and worked there, and he expressed his interest in the Monegasque business. It appeared that he would spare me the trouble by moving to Monaco and taking charge of the company, but your call shows that I was wrong.”

Mikhail Skigin

Speaking to The Insider, Belkovsky offered a similar interpretation: “Naturally, I’m aware of the fact that the company was mentioned in Monegasque police reports as a money laundering enterprise. Having decided to acquire it, I discussed it with Mikhail; I found a number of references on the Internet. It goes without saying that I did my best to verify all the facts, but I didn’t find any evidence to back the allegations, which was enough to alleviate my concerns at the time. Frankly speaking, I brought up the rumors at the moment of the purchase and got a much better price because of them. This could have been the key factor for me. But now that you’re asking, I wonder if I dismissed my concerns too early.”

Belkovsky specified that he had owned the company since last year. “Former Sotrama and current CINPIT, the company seemed to be a valuable asset because starting a new business in Monaco is a very complex procedure, even though Monaco is not a business jurisdiction. The company offers a range of services in supply chain management: selects suppliers and logistic services, monitors the suppliers’ performance, and manages shipments that involve multiple transport modes. Its monthly turnover fluctuates around a couple hundred thousand euros. I have a fairly good knowledge of multimodal petrochemical logistics. This field encompasses everything related to commodities that have to cover long distances between their production site and the end consumer, with shipping that includes several transport modes and rigid requirements to every stage, be it a railway tank, a truck, or a tank vessel – full compliance must be ensured.”

It is amazing how a company with a turnover of several hundred thousand euros and such large-scale projects seems to survive with a headcount of just two full-time employees. All the more baffling is the fact that at least one of the “logistics enterprise” employees has retained her position since the times of Sotrama (which had nothing to do with logistics).  Belkovsky clarified that he was “in the process of hiring around a dozen of new employees,” but “it’s tremendously hard to find professionals in Monaco,” and “he’s interviewed yet another applicant today.”

Notably, there are hardly any traces of the CINPIT global logistics enterprise. There is no corporate website or logistic services advertisement. It also remains unclear what kind of cargo the company ships.

More importantly still, CINPIT – not Sotrama – is currently specified as the headquarters of Horizon International Trading AG, a company that was registered by Markus Hasler and Graham Smith in Panama in 2002. It would appear that CINPIT is not a new company, after all; it is a renamed company that has retained its connections to Skigin and the rest of the network.

“New people, old operations” – this is how Robert Eringer interpreted the emergence of CINPIT in place of Sotrama to The Insider.

“Celebrities from Monaco” share business with Yakunin and Timchenko

We can judge the level of connections enjoyed by the management of CINPIT (Sotrama) and Horizon International Trading by the fact that the managing directors ended up beneficiaries of three high-profile and notorious Russian projects – two ports and a toll road.

Markus Hasler’s name is also listed among the affiliates of the Ust-Luga Port on the Baltic Sea, where the Liechtensteinian attorney had been a member of the board of directors up to 2015. The authorities started mentioning the construction of a port in Ust-Luga as early as in the 1990s. At different times, the port and its oil loading terminal were overseen by Vladimir Yakunin’s people through Investport Holding Establishment (Liechtenstein) and by Gennady Timchenko. The construction of terminals was met by letters of protests by EU officials to Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin and a deputy inquiry in Bundestag in 2012. The lawmakers were concerned by low environmental standards of the construction site and the collapse of facilities which resulted in the damage to the protected area of the Baltic Sea. Valery Izraylit, head of the Ust-Luga port, was arrested in 2016 and placed into custody till December 27, 2017. He is charged with embezzlement of 1.5 billion rubles.

Vladimir Yakunin and Gennady Timchenko

In the meantime, Markus Hasler and Graham Smith suddenly took an active interest in road construction in St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg administration intends to spend 8 billion rubles on the construction of toll roads, to which end they concluded a contract in 2017 with a company unknown in Russia, in spite of its self-explanatory name – Sankt-Peterburgskaya Platnaya Doroga OJSC (“St. Petersburg Toll Road”). The Platnaya Doroga enterprise was founded by a Cypriot company, Tollway Limited, co-owned in equal shares by Russian national Roman Belousov (who is also the CEO of Platnaya Doroga) and Magalo Investments (Panama), headed by the Liechtensteinian attorneys Markus Hasler and Graham Smith.

In June 2009, Markus Hasler signed an agreement on the lease of his Italian villa in the Monte Argentario peninsula, indicating his address in Liechtenstein as Raben Anstalt, 26 Industriestrasse, Ruggell. The Insider has obtained a copy of the agreement. According to the document, the tenant is Czech lobbyist Marek Dalík, who was sentenced to five years in prison by the Prague Municipal Court in 2016 for receiving a payoff while overseeing armored personnel vehicle shipments for the Czech Army.

St. Petersburg gangsters take over Sakhalin: Allegations of illegal port takeover

Not long ago, a group of investors from St. Petersburg, headed by Skigin Jr., made their way to Sakhalin to take over the Poronaysk Port – which did not go smoothly.

In June 2015, Alexei Fert, who introduced himself as the new director, was denied access to his office by the port security guards. Presenting himself to the media as the chairman of the board of directors of the port, Roman Belousov declared that the former top management had to be replaced with Alexei Fert due to their “low efficiency, a lack of financial results, permanent losses, ongoing conflicts with all contractors, and a lack of development prospects for the port.”

Effectively, a network of companies based in Cyprus and the British Isles gained control over the port because of an outstanding debt, which had been “in fact created by these companies,” according to  its former owners. The person behind the scheme is none other than Mikhail Skigin. This information was disclosed to RBC by Mikhail Belov, head of the legal team of Petersburg Oil Terminal and one of the new Poronaysk Port investors. “Mikhail Skigin makes a lot of investments in Russia, and the port is one of his projects. I wouldn’t call it the most successful one,” Mikhail Belov said to RBC. Alexander Radomsky, the Mayor of Poronaysk, was happy that the takeover of the port by the new investors in 2015 “did not involve any shooting.”

Sergei Vasilyev, head of Tambovskaya gang: How to manage a port with a primary school education

As Maxim Freidzon revealed in his interview to The Insider, in March 2015, “Mikhail Skigin acted as a legal representative of his ‘big brothers’ – Ilya Traber and Sergei Vasilyev.” Here is what another acquaintance of Vasilyev’s mentioned to The Insider in confidence:

“Vasilyev would sometimes say in a very heartfelt manner: ‘The head of the department in the port (The Sea Port of St. Petersburg) has a doctor’s degree in Economics. He comes up to me with a paper, saying, ‘Sergei Vasilievich, this subparagraph needs amendment.’ I look at this paper with my three classes of primary school – and I can’t understand s***. So I look at him, knit my brow, make a clever face and say, ‘You know, this matter requires careful consideration.’ I met Freidzon with Skigin because they spent all their time with Vasilyev. Whenever Skigin came to St. Petersburg from Monaco, he did not leave Sergei’s side (at a luxury suite in Belmond Grand Hotel Europe), and Freidzon sometimes trailed along. When Vasilyev was shot [The Insider’s note: former leader of the Tambovskaya gang, Vladimir Kumarin, was later convicted for his assassination attempt], Traber and I visited him at the hospital.

Besides, according to Vasilyev’s acquaintance, the crime boss has lately called Freidzon “a fool who would not last long.” Maxim Freidzon has reported being threatened on Facebook; his claim in the American court also contains information about anonymous calls with threats.

During his work in Monaco, Robert Eringer learned that Sergei Vasilyev, co-owner of Petersburg Oil Terminal, traveled to Monaco with Michele Tecchia from Italy by helicopter to avoid French immigration officers:

“MARTHA contacted me with urgent news: Sergei Vasilyev, a Russian national who, as we suspected, was connected to the Horizon company, Petersburg Oil Terminal, and Sotrama, had arrived in Monaco to meet Sotrama’s COO, Michele Tecchia. Vasilyev had opted for an intriguing mode of transport: he was brought from Italy to Monaco by a private helicopter. It was a trick to avoid the French immigration control posts. Vasilyev is affiliated with the Tambovskaya organized crime group in St. Petersburg. Apparently, he had a Bentley waiting for him in a garage in Monaco; they say he was also looking for an opening in the port to moor a yacht he had intended to buy here.”

Gennady Timchenko and the Bank of New York

Ilya Traber and Sergei Vasilyev are not Skigin’s only high-profile criminal connections. Thus, the Sovex company (and by proxy its co-owner, Horizon International Trading) acquired jet fuel from the Kirishi Oil Refinery, where Gennady Timchenko, Putin’s long-time personal acquaintance, supervised export matters since 1987 and throughout the 1990s. Petersburg Oil Terminal was connected to the refinery by a pipeline, which transported oil for export.

As a reminder, while investigating Sotrama’s activities, the Monegasque police obtained certain information on Gennady Timchenko from the French intelligence on July 4, 2005. However, the police report at our disposal does not make the nature of this information clear.

Yet another company name that can clarify the situation is Petrotrade, where Timchenko’s associate was involved. Robert Eringer mentioned this company in his blog as yet another Monegasque firm engaged in the embezzlement of oil export revenue “in Putin’s interests.”

According to Eringer, in 1999, the Polish law enforcement sent an inquiry to Monaco about Petrotrade in the course of their investigation of a money laundering case involving its subsidiary, BMG Petrotrade-Poland. The parent company, Petrotrade, was controlled by a former co-owner of the Bank of New York, Bruce Rappaport, an Israeli of Russian descent, who was accused of money laundering for Russian organized crime groups in 1999 in a claim lodged with the District Court for the Southern District of New York by other shareholders (the result of the trial was that the BoNY paid a 38-million-dollar fine in 2005). Rappaport was barred from entering Monaco for six months in 2001. In the 2000s, Petrotrade’s Swiss subsidiary was managed by Rappaport’s children, Irit and Noga, according to the publicly accessible Commercial Register of Switzerland.

Petrotrade SAM (Monaco) used to run a subsidiary in Geneva. In the period from 1994 to 1996, one of its managers was Swedish national Torbjörn Törnqvist, co-owner and subsequently sole proprietor of Gunvor (after Gennady Timchenko lost his share because of the sanctions).

According to Maxim Freidzon, Dmitry Skigin met Russian emigrant Natasha Gurfinkel Kagalovsky, vice president of the Bank of New York who was responsible for its operations in Eastern Europe, in 1992 in New York. Freidzon claims he saw them together with his own eyes. In Soviet times, Gurfinkel was in charge of cooperation with Vnesheconombank (“Bank of Foreign Economic Activity”) of the USSR. Freidzon says Dmitry Skigin assisted Gurfinkel in the registration of new companies in Liechtenstein through Graham Smith with the purpose of using them as recipients for money previously laundered through the BoNY. Three individuals, Russian emigrants Lucy Edwards, Peter Berlin, and Alexei Volkov, were charged with crimes related to an illicit transfer of 7 billion dollars through the BoNY, while Gurfinkel resigned in the heat of the scandal. According to a Swiss counterintelligence report of 2007, the money was laundered through the BoNY at the behest of Grigory Luchansky’s structures and Russian intelligence agencies; at the same time, neither the report nor the corresponding criminal case mentions Skigin or Horizon International Trading.

The abstract from the register obtained by The Insider states that the current managers of Petrotrade are Englishman John Randall and Swiss national Yarom Ophir. In the 1990s, John Randall co-managed the Geneva subsidiary of Petrotrade with Torbjörn Törnqvist. 

Putin’s 4 percent

According to Freidzon’s claim in the American court, Sovex, with Horizon International Trading acting as an intermediary, participated in the laundering of the Tambovskaya gang’s money through the Bank of New York. The laundered funds were partly reinvested in OBIP and Petersburg Oil Terminal. Over the period from 2007 to 2011, the turnover of Sovex reached 1.26 billion dollars, with the income of 131 mln dollars. Maxim Freidzon accused Putin of holding 4 percent of Sovex shares, which was the condition of the company’s registration and operation in St. Petersburg. In 2012, the exact same share of the company belonged to Traber’s people – Alexander Ulanov and Viktor Korytov, Putin’s ex-colleague from the KGB. Freidzon pointed this out in an interview to Radio Svoboda, whereupon a Democratic Party YABLOKO deputy directed an inquiry to the Prosecutor General of Russia. However, the publication was taken down after a while. Prior to the release of their interview with Freidzon in the Panorama series under the title Putin’s Secret Riches (2016), BBC made a similar inquiry to Vladimir Putin, asking whether the president was willing to comment on his participation in Sovex, a company involved in money laundering, but no reply followed.

In a 2011 interview to Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Peskov stated that “Putin has never had anything to do either with the Sotrama company or with the establishment of oil trading companies elsewhere.” At the same time, when asked whether Putin knew Dmitry Skigin and Ilya Traber, Peskov said that “they once worked on an oil terminal construction project in St. Petersburg in close contact with St. Petersburg Mayor’s Office.”

Putin may have contacted Ilya Traber outside the Mayor’s Office as well: Traber’s former bodyguard, Sergei Kosyrev, said in a YouTube video that he saw Putin in 1991 in Traber’s office at an antiquity shop in Lavrova Street (currently, Furshtatskaya Street) – and the office had a number of unofficial uses as well.

Notably, such companies as Sovex and its co-owner, Horizon International Trading, would not be able to operate without the contracts signed by Vladimir Putin himself. On May 17, 1996, Vladimir Putin signed Directive 488-R on the lease of the Pulkovo Bulk Fuel Installations to Sovex CJSC. Sovex enjoyed a monopoly on aircraft fueling in the Pulkovo Airport up to 2013.

 

De-facto co-owners of Petersburg Oil Terminal, Ilya Traber, and Sergei Vasilyev, have attended Putin’s birthday parties and received a warm welcome there. No other crime bosses have been honored this way

 

According to two of our sources, de-facto co-owners of Petersburg Oil Terminal, Ilya Traber, and Sergei Vasilyev, have attended Putin’s birthday parties. They visited at least two such parties, in 2004 and 2016, and received a warm welcome there. No other crime bosses have been honored this way: thus, Petrov was not even there, according to a source who witnessed the entire celebration.

Today, Ilya Traber is on an international wanted list, where Spain put him in 2016, states investigative prosecutor José Grinda of the Special Public Prosecutor’s Office against Corruption and Organized Crime. In the meantime, Russian prosecutors have tried making direct reports about “the violation of Traber’s rights,” taking on the role of Traber’s defense attorneys, whereupon the Spanish side lodged a formal protest.

Speaking of Sergei Vasilyev, his acquaintance disclosed to The Insider that the crime boss continues visiting Europe with an Italian visa.

As for Prince Albert II of Monaco, he failed to see “any hint of a lead” in Eringer’s report on the network of companies in Monaco and Liechtenstein connected to the Tambovskaya gang and Putin at the same time. However, His Highness joined Vladimir Putin on a trip to Tuva in 2007, participated in the Olympic Torch Relay in Sochi in 2014, and finally honored Vladimir Putin with the highest Monegasque award – the Order of Saint-Charles.

This article has first appeared in Russian at The Insider’s site.

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.

By giving your vote to Sobchak, you are voting for Putin, by casting your vote for Grudinin, you are voting for Putin, by giving your vote to Yavlinsky, you are voting for Putin, even when you are destroying the voting ballot itself you are still voting for Putin, and by not voting at all – you still are voting for Putin as well. This is the current tone of discussions about the upcoming elections that are taking place at this moment in various social networks. It is apparent to all folks that even getting through to the second round is not possible, as well as the fact that the forthcoming elections themselves are not proper elections, but rather a night hockey league game, access to participate in which is only granted to either the players of the sitting President’s team, or to those ones who are overtly powerless.

In other words, let us speak honestly: there are no elections going on, however, even those people who do realize that there are none are continuing to design their political strategy around these nonexistent elections. Even AlekseiNavalny by his declaration of an “electoral strike,” is still operating within by the rules of the game that have been imposed on him – by placing the focus of his attention on the presidential elections exclusively, although with perhaps some negativity.

It is quite apparent that the framework of the boycott of governing group that was suggested by Navalny is not facing any legal consequences whatsoever since God only knows for how many years on end now there has not even been a threshold of attendance established. Thus, the produced effect of this campaign even if it would have happened to unravel vividly (and that possibility in itself is causing quite a few doubts, but we shall dwell on that later), it still would only occur so in the Public Relations realm. Navalny will be able to re-assign each and every lazy cookie pusher, who prefers to sip beer on his couch to going to the voting stations to cast his vote as his own follower. And, one would think in principle that comrade Kirienko (First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office – edit., Free Russia) would have found himself in some sort of a predicament, and, perhaps, would not be able to hold on to his position since he would have failed to secure the guaranteed sacred formula ratio of 70-70.

As far as Putin’s presidential term is concerned it has nothing that presents any threat to it whatsoever in this scenario: he has not been kept in his position due to the fact that he was not perceived as an Akela of his kind because he has not missed his target prey thus far, but rather because he is convenient for everyone with the said formula ratio of 70-70, or with the formula ratio of 60-60. The PR effect at its best would have lasted for a couple of weeks if even that long, and as a result once again the most advanced forces in the country would have gotten a feeling of being stuck somewhere in the blind alley. That is due to the fact that Navalny’s team does not have any contingency plan on what to do next after the strike.

One can ram his head against the locked gates, so craftily built by Putin, repeatedly and to no avail, one can feed the bees in the bonnet of his administration (in here I am referring to the wishful thinking of having a high rate attendance turnout), but instead of storming a wall that could not be taken down one can try to shake down the very foundation that it is standing upon. And there are three keystones that are at the base of the foundation of this authoritarian regime fortress:

1) The passive behavior of the citizens and their reluctance to assume the responsibility for the governance of their own lives and their own country;

2) The lack of a substantial number of political leaders available, the independent political actors in the multi-million country that is spreading throughout thousands of kilometers of land;

3) The lack of fundamental trust in politicians.

That is exactly where that rooted point is located, the one from which the very vertical power system of governance stems from, the one that Vladimir Putin sits on like a throne as if it were the tree of the world, and where nobody else is allowed to approach anywhere nearby, not even the charismatic Aleksei Navalny.

The idea of not taking part in elections not only does not resolve the fundamental problems of our society, but it even aggravates them in some parts. Everyone who canvassed door to door during the election campaign knows that the major foes of the opposition candidates are not supporters of United Russia party, but those very citizens who do not have any faith in the elections. A long time ago we came up with the answer for them. In certain instances, we even manage to sway their position. However, yet one more call for declaring a boycott will only re-assure them in the rightfulness of their original point of view that was held by them all along: nothing depends on us.

Well, it is not quite possible to create a truly captivating and persuasive campaign that would be based on a negative agenda: people have grown weary of fighting ghosts on a non-stop basis. Those people who are active all around are feeling terribly antsy to start creating. I witness that in every conversation when I communicate with both public officials and common activists.

In the meantime, there are approximately 30 elections that are being held every month across the country in Russia. In other words, (if we do not take into consideration the fact that they only happen on Sundays) there is one election per every day happening at the average rate. There are deputies of local councils, heads of village councils, and heads of municipal districts, and so on and so forth, that are being voted for in elections. Tens of thousands of people run for these positions every year. Who are these people? Are there any opposition representatives in their midst?

Regrettably so, in most instances, this is not the case. Lev Shlosberg was the only one who succeeded in organizing the work of his team in the Pskov region in such a fashion that hundreds of the members of the opposition are taking part in it there, and dozens of them win in the local elections. As far as the other localities go, well, in there the corrupt “United Russia” corrupt red tape officials come to power. Those are even duller and bleaker in their character than Vladimir Vladimirovich.

And it is exactly these people who are weaving the fundamental fabric of every single day injustice and the lack of freedom that everyone is confronted with. It is exactly these people who are performing those most governmental functions that are vitally close to every single person. And, therefore they are the most important governing power functions. It is exactly them whose governance is based not on the rule of law, or common sense, and the needs of the citizens, but it is rather based on the point of view and the needs of that very vertical power of authoritarianism, which they carry on their well-nurtured shoulders. It is exactly them, who build the atmosphere of hopelessness and instigate a passive mode that is so advantageous to those who sit at the very top of this vertical power system of governance.

What kind of actions could have Navalny undertaken? (Forgive me to give him any piece of advice, I am just pointing at some different kinds of options to him in here). To speak: friends, let us stop worrying about this Mr. Putin as if he were some kind of a unique piece of rare beautiful artistry. Let us take a look around, let us transform ourselves from the volunteers into politicians, and let us go and cease power where ever we can do so, go there where they would not be able to block us with their heavy artillery, simply because there is not going to be nearly enough of said heavy artillery in their procession to stop us all. Let us stop glaring up at the palaces and turn our eyes to the shacks.

That is because only through some personal communications, through everyday assistance, through common actions the trust is being built. It is only by coming out victorious that one can gain the experience of winning. It is only by gaining governing practical experience (and Ilya Yashin is a bright testament to it) that one can learn how to govern. And it is not just one single leader but rather tens of thousands of them, who would be able to drag passive millions out of their swamp. And it is through this way only that one can shake the foundations of the vertical power system of governance in such a fashion that it would simply tumble down. And it is exactly then when the time will come when you will not have to take it down either by a storm or to boycott it. All you would have to do is simply to ignore it.

There is such a parable: a seller of the fighting cocks is singing high praises to his commodities at the market, claiming that his cocks are fighting to their deaths.

“I would rather that you sold me some better cocks than these ones,” – the buyer says to the seller – “You know, sell me the kind of cocks that would fight until they win.”

And what shall one do during these presidential elections? – Well, everything and anything, really. That is all because there are no decisions that are being made during them.

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.

 

The phenomenon of modern political emigration from Russia is still causing some doubts, but most likely so as of now just in the details of it. The flow of those who are leaving the authoritarian country is increasing, a lot of people leave due to the direct, or indirect threats and persecution. Germany is attractive to quite a lot of political emigrants (if not the majority of them). The strongest economy of the European Union, and the developed civil society along with the most voluminous Russian – speaking community make this choice well – grounded. In this article are going to examine the reasons and specific characteristics of the political emigration to Germany.

The “Swamp Case” has become a trigger for the newest wave of political emigration from Russia. It exactly after that case had been initiated that the activists, who might have been persecuted began to leave the country, and some of them did get persecuted for some mythical participation in the mass riots, or for organizing them. More than 600 people were detained right on the spot while they were demonstrating on the very same day when the rally took place, some of those later have become defendants in that criminal case. There were searches and cross – interrogations that were conducted in more than 10 cities among 300 activists. There are more than 30 guilty verdicts that were carried out by the court in the case. The case has not been closed yet – there are court hearings and active investigations still going on in full swing. Photos of more than 80 people, who are considered to be perpetrators involved in that case were published on the website of the Investigative Committee. More than 30 people have received international protection in the EU countries.

The events of the year of 2014 in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine have increased both the number of emigrants, and the number of persecution cases. Included among those cases are also the ones based on the absurd, the so-called “separatist activities incriminating article,” in accordance with which any single doubt about the legality of the occupation of the Crimea is considered to be a criminal offense. The law on “foreign agents” and on “undesirable organizations”, as well as the pressure, in general, that was applied towards the NGO sector has increased the number of causes based on which the state can persecute anybody, having, therefore, increased the number of potential and real emigrants from Russia as well.

The political crisis of the year 2014 has led to an economic crisis in Russia, which in its turn resulted in a growth of the numbers of political and economic emigrants. This is the part of the medium and small scale business that has already been strongly dissatisfied with the political situation in the country as it was, and the impossibility to conduct a more or less normal business practices that have shaped their final decision to leave Russia. In accordance with some preliminary data in the year of 2016 more than a million people left the Russian Federation.

For a more profound in-depth comprehension of the problem we hereby offer to characterize political emigrants by certain typology categories.

The first type is comprised of political refugees, in other words, they are the citizens of the Russian Federation, who for one reason or another (that we shall analyze separately) have asked for the international protection in Germany, and they are now either in the process of their application case still being considered, or they have already since received a positive approval response.

The second type is comprised out of factual political emigrants. They have grounds to be afraid of staying further on in the Russian Federation (these might be direct or indirect threats), but they do not perceive their situation hard enough, or they do not believe that the situation warrants for them to make a request to obtain the international protection grant. That is why their official reason for staying in Germany is not seeking political asylum grant, but to work or to study, for instance.

The third type is made of atmospheric emigrants, in other words they are the citizens of the Russian Federation, who due to the specific nature of their professional occupation or their points of view, can no longer stay in the authoritarian regime environment, and prefer to leave Russia in order to continue their business activities in Germany. 

Refugees

  1. The refugees from the republics of the North Caucasus of Russia (predominantly from Chechnya and Dagestan) – this group is not the theme of this article and it calls for a separate research.
  2. LGBT refugees – their percentage is higher here than it is in the other countries because German authorities have found the law on the so-called “Propaganda of homosexuality” to be a discriminatory one.
  3. Political asylees proper – political and public activists, who have had politically instigated criminal cases initiated against them, and who have received life threats and threats to their health and wellbeing in conjunction with their public and political activities, and who quite possibly might have been attacked.

There is a particularly peculiar feature of the situation in Germany: Russian citizens from the Northern Caucasus file several thousand applications for asylum per year, in certain instances up to 10 thousand. Some of the applications from certain groups of refugees make hundreds of cases, and perhaps by the year of 2017, they might even rise up to a thousand. In other words, a particular stereotypical picture is being created about the citizens of Russia, who are seeking asylum in Germany. Also, it is difficult to talk about special attention being paid to political cases (politically motivated criminal cases, etc.), since from an official point of view all of the applicants from Russia make up for one single group.

One should also provide a clarification in regards to the system of considering and granting international protection status (asylum) in Germany.

There is no further subdivision into humanitarian and political refugees, in Germany. All of the cases are processed together. Every case is being considered on an individual ad hoc basis. There are no set up timeframes within which the application for asylum ought to be processed, that is why some people are waiting for the decision on their claims for years.

As a type of a decision on his case an asylum seeker may be granted a full asylum status or a minor asylum status. A minor asylum status is issued for a certain period of time, for example for one year or two, with the possibility of getting an extension on it and it does not provide all the levels of the international protection that a full refugee status does. While submitting an application for an asylum, one cannot make a request for a minor asylum status, this decision is taken solemnly by the granting institution. Minor asylum status is being granted in those cases, where the asylum status is being sought by the representatives of a group that is being discriminated against, or for instance when humanitarian refugees ask for shelter. In other words, the threat for this group to which they belong does exist, but it is not aimed at any concrete individuals in particular.

There have been some positive changes underway in the legislation on refugees in Germany in the last three years. As of now, asylum seekers can move across the entire territory of Germany without the special permit, and they also can receive a work permit within 3 months upon the submission of the application for one.

The LGBT refugees

Minor asylum status has been granted to some LGBT refugees from Russia, who had not been directly persecuted, and did not participate in any activities to defend the rights of the LGBT community.

We know about more than 100 cases of asylum requests that were filed by the LGBT refugees from Russia in the Federal Republic of Germany. The majority of such applications get a positive response. Therefore, one may already speak about the creation of a Russian-speaking LGBT community in Germany.

Dmitry Chunosov (LGBT activist): “In Germany, at first you are mandated to reside in a camp. After we filed the application for asylum, they gave us a ticket to go to Friedland. That is in Lower Saxony, right in the center of Germany, one of the oldest refugee camps, that was opened in 1945. A month later we received a transfer to Luneburg, where we have been living up until now. And one month later we passed the interview, and in 18 more months, we have gotten our status of the refugees. “

Regretfully so, homophobia in the refugee camps still continues to be one of the crucial problems for the LGBT refugees. In the year of 2015 there were more than 60 incidents of attacks and threats that were reported.

The political Refugee

Their number in Germany has been on a fast rise ever after the year of 2014 – the occupation of the Crimea, and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. At the present moment, we have the knowledge of more than two hundred cases that were filed with the request to provide international protection due to the politically motivated persecution in Russia. Among the major reasons for the persecution, there are the initiation of a criminal prosecution case or a threat of a criminal prosecution. A smaller portion of the cases is compiled from asylum grant requests that are not based on the investigation of the life threats and health and wellbeing threats of the asylum seeker. In the majority of cases, applicants from Russia receive positive responses.

The main problems for the asylum seekers in Germany are: the long waiting period to get a decision on the case, the absence of a possibility for free (or accessible) ways to learn German language, and the problem of getting a job while in the waiting process looking forward to getting the decision to be made on their case.

A more global issue for the political emigration from Russia (for those numbers of public activists and reporters) is their factual falling out of the loop due to the absence from the public life in Russia, which is equated to the prevailing victory of the law-enforcement agencies at power, since it was their objective from the get-go to put an end to a certain activity of a definite person. Many people continue to keep working on their old projects, however, that work, as usual, becomes less systematic and with the lack of the financial support, it quickly ceases to exist.

Political emigrants from Russia

Those political emigrants who have not requested asylum status for themselves because of one reason or another are placed in very different situations. And at the very same time, it happens so that in the majority of the cases it is not in their own best interest to go back to Russia. Their number is much grander in its magnitude than that one of the refugees, in other words, we are speaking about thousands of them. They depend on their migration status and their level of economic independence. In other words, some of them do not have any problems, maybe the only issue for them is the learning of the German language. Meanwhile, there are some other people facing the need to renew their residence permit on a regular basis, and having to prove that they are economically viable, which is causing them stress and apathy.

That is why a role of crucial importance is played by the initiatives of the primary consultation assistance, as well as the possibility to continue working (in the very least within the framework of some internship arrangements) in some familiar socially significant fields. To have an opportunity to use the workplace with the Internet access and social interactions in one’s professional environment may be very important at the initial stages, especially for those ones who left in a hurry. 

The “atmospheric” emigrants

A great deal of them represents the so-called “middle class,” which did not have time enough to mature into some powerful and influential part of the Russian society, and is forced now to find solutions for the issues of their economic future in other countries and to do so on their own.

The majority of them are mainly scientists, people representing creative fields and high-tech occupations, along with some representatives of small and medium – scaled businesses, who have managed to save up and accumulate a small amount of capital. They do not seek asylum, but rather they leave the country to commence a new life in a healthy, competitive environment. And at the very same time, most of them do not forget about Russia and put their best efforts into exploring all the venues available to them in order to keep informed about what is going on there.

Alexey – an entrepreneur: “I had a business in Moscow, we developed Internet projects and various online solutions for business. In the beginning of 2012, I started thinking about opening an account in Lithuania and about transferring some part of the cash proceeds through it for a rainy day, so to speak. After the referendum in the Crimea, I decided that the time has come to get ready for the move. I researched the conditions of doing business in Germany, Lithuania and a couple of other countries, and I picked Germany. By that time, I had accumulated a sufficient amount of money to open my own company over there and I moved, taking several of the managers along with me. The remaining part of the company is working in the remote locale regime, so I did not have to rebuild the team all over again. In Berlin we began to expand into Europe, in here everything is so much easier to do and to resolve the problems. Quite frequently the officials themselves help us out, and tell us about the best way of doing things.”

In general, modern political emigration from Russia has become a prominent phenomenon in Germany. Structurally so, it is still at the stage of its evolving development, but as far as its numbers are concerned it quite possibly is the biggest one in Europe after Ukraine. It is exactly Germany that might become some kind of a reserve center for a new, democratic Russia, preserving, and possibly perhaps even empowering the potential of the scientists, journalists, environmentalists, human rights advocates and many other people, who were forced to leave Russia but have plans to go back there.

More than 2.25 million people turned out for Sunday’s referendum across Catalonia, a region in the northeast of Spain. The regional government said 90% of voters were in favor of a split from Madrid. But the turnout was low – around 42% of the voter roll. Catalan authorities blamed the figure on the crackdown on the vote initiated by the national government. Almost 900 people were injured, during clashes with Spanish police forces.

Another bloody battle provoked by the referendum happened in Russian and Ukrainian social media where a massive number of opinion makers, bloggers and regular users tried to interpret actions in Spain through the prism of a three-year old trauma –  a so-called “referendum” in Crimea.

To get a bold and comprehensive look into the phenomena of referenda, including manipulation and disinformation possibilities related to it, Free Russia Foundation asked Michael Arno for his expert opinion on direct democracy and referenda campaigns.

An election can be a clarifying event.  So too can the suppression of an election.

Over the weekend, more than two million Catalans, greater than 40 percent of those eligible, voted in a referendum on independence from Spain. To which Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared, “There was no independence referendum in Catalonia today.”

Spanish authorities shut down referendum websites and sent hordes of national police into the region to seize ballots and forcibly prevent people from voting. News reports are full of those police using rubber bullets on crowds, smashing their way into polling places and roughing up people.  Nearly a thousand citizens of Catalonia were injured in various clashes

While the referendum result was a lopsided 90 percent opting for independence, previous polling shows Catalans split on the question. Perhaps the suppression worked best with those opposed to separation from Spain, who seem to have stayed home.

Earlier last week, Iraqi Kurds also held a referendum in which voters overwhelmingly favored separation — in this case from Iraq and for the formation of their own wholly independent nation. And, likewise, others, including the United States, tried to block the vote. Thankfully, not by force.  However, Turkey and Iran oppose an independent Kurdistan because they fear it will embolden demands by their own Kurdish populations for greater autonomy.

Referenda for independence has long been seen as the perfect demonstration of democratic will or as a lawless action by terrorists wishing to destroy a great nation.  How one falls on those views is strictly in the eye of the beholder.

 

Pavel Elizarov, political activist, eyewitness of the referendum in Catalonia:

“The day of the referendum that I observed in Barcelona gave me a lot to think about.  The brutal action of the Spanish police was not surprising – thousands of them were deployed there for the likely purpose of blocking the vote. There is no reason in questioning the accuracy and honesty of the ballot counting. The most impressive thing about this referendum was an ability of Catalans to organize voting and counting based on effective grassroots organization. The significant role in this was played by the technical strategy: for example, the possibility of voting at any polling station was mentioned only during the beginning of the voting.

From another side, the final numbers predictably show a lack of unity within Catalans: the referendum became a roll call for independence supporters. Two million final votes “in favor” of separation out of 7.5 million total population of Catalans is roughly equal to the number of votes for the ruling coalition in recent parliamentary elections. Such a number will force the leaders of the republic to keep counting the other opinion in following steps.”

 

Almost 26 years ago, Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union by forcing a referendum vote by gathering more than 800,000 signatures.  On December 1, 1991, 92% of Ukrainian voters opted for independence, thereby all but crushing what remained of the Soviet Union.  The next day, the U.S. and hundreds of other countries recognized Ukraine as an independent state.  Yet six weeks later, a similar independence referendum was held in South Ossetia and a year earlier a vote was held in Abkhazia for a return to the Soviet Union from Georgia.  Nearly 99% of the votes (Georgians boycotted the referendum vote) were cast for leaving Georgia, but the U.N. and most other countries refused to recognize the vote.

It’s been impossible over the years to remove geopolitics and sometimes ancient territorial claims from independence referenda.  Once an independence vote succeeds, it has a domino effect on other regions making similar claims.  China abhors the recognition of an independent state out of fear Tibet will find a way to stage a similar vote.  The United Kingdom wants to stay united and that means keeping Scotland in the fold with even the thinnest of connections remaining.  Spain will be concerned that the Catalans will encourage the Basques and Romania will worry that the western part of the country would rather unify with Hungary to say nothing of the recent seizure of Crimea by Russia and the desire China holds for Taiwan and a great deal of the South China Sea.

Democracy can be a wonderful thing because it’s a full expression of the will of the people, but it can also have its consequences.  When there’s an attempt to block democracy, as in the case of Catalan, Spain will be left with two bad choices:  allow the vote to count and recognize Catalan’s independence, or refuse to accept the voters and hold the Catalans in Spain against their will.  It remains to be seen how this will play out and how it will affect others with similar claims to independence.

As part of my work for Free Russia Foundation, I am carrying out research on two projects. The first one is devoted to influencing that Gazprom and its pipeline projects have in the EU. The second is an ongoing project called Underminers which focuses on agents of post-Soviet corruption in the West and will be fully launched in the fall. Between May and July this year we presented some of the findings from these two projects in Washington and in six European capitals. We got some insightful feedback and would like to share it here.

On May 24, our report paper The Kremlin’s Gas Games in Europe: Implications for Policy Makers was presented at the U.S. Senate, where Senator Jeanne Shaheen formulated her long standing opposition to the pipeline due to its security implications for the European Union and transatlantic relations. A few days later Kremlin-controlled media outlet Life.Ru commented on our event with deceitful propaganda, saying that “Russian opposition lobbies new sanctions against Gazprom” and that the real reason for that is the greed of US LNG companies that simply want to replace Russian gas in Europe. Incidentally, just a few days ago this outlet was reportedly defunded by Kremlin which shows that lies do not sell forever.

Meanwhile, about the same time, Trump administration signed long awaited legislation to fight corruption and gross human rights violators around the world called Global Magnitsky Act. However, we at FRF remain skeptical about actual political will within the executive to use this instrument wholeheartedly against post-Soviet kleptocracies, although we remain hopeful that the Congress will not reduce its pressure in this policy area.

In Europe, we started in Sofia where we held two presentations at The Centre for the Study of Democracy of which the paper on Gazprom was the most publicly discussed. Bulgaria is heavily influenced by Russian energy companies and Gazprom’s proposal to extend Turkish Stream into the country remains one of the most contentious issues in the region. Our colleagues from CSD suggested that Gazprom’s pipeline projects by-passing Ukraine represent a financial and security threat to Bulgaria itself, not only to Ukraine, and that corruption of Russian energy companies has a pervasive negative impact on democratic institutions and domestic politics. However, there was a lot of discussion about the need for a wider and more coherent European and US response to Kremlin’s aggression. There is a strong pro-Putin faction among Bulgarian policy-makers that has been continuously supported by Moscow with money, propaganda and other destructive means, including through what CSD calls Russian amplifiers, i.e. Kremlin-connected kleptocratic operatives in Bulgaria.

Our next stop was in London at Chatham House and The Henry Jackson Society. The first meeting was under Chatham House rules, so without giving any concrete affiliation, I can say that there was a number of Gazprom’s European partners who advocated in favor of Nord Stream 2, claiming that it is strictly a commercial project financially lucrative to Europe, that its construction might give impetus to Eastern Europe to reform its gas networks after transit payments from Russia stop and that Ukraine has been “a basket case for 25 years.” We offered our counter arguments, claiming that Nord Stream 2 as previously Nord Stream 1 and expansion of pipelines within Russia for the South Stream had been highly corrupt and benefited Putin’s cronies, that such corruption at the expense of taxpayers would not be confined to Russia alone and is being already exported to Europe, that Ukraine has proven to be a more reliable partner despite Kremlin’s provocations in 2006 and 2009, especially in the last three years and that security implications of Kremlin’s gas plans are much wider than just bypassing Ukraine.

Discussion of post-Soviet underminers of democracy in London had to be timid because of the outdated libel laws of the country that really favor oligarchs, not free press and critically minded researchers, but the turnout at the event was impressive. I was personally surprised to see a former master of a major Oxford college who previously approved donations to the University from Russian kleptocrats but now seemed to have changed his views on this subject. The need to distinguish between corruption and corrosive practices and other key takeaways from the event was brilliantly summarized here.

At our next event in Warsaw jointly held with Za Wolna Rosja association and Buziness Alert we primarily focused on political and security threats of Gazprom to Central and Eastern Europe and EU laws, principles and institutions. Ernest Wyciszkiewicz, Director of the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding, rightfully pointed out that German policymakers, when not talking to the press, treat Gazprom’s pipeline projects as political and so should each country in the EU without any pretense that this is only about economics and commercial gain. Interestingly, Belarussian TV station (not controlled by Minsk) covered the event in detail, showing that this Russian-speaking Belarusian diaspora also understands the problem and does not want Belarus to end up at the mercy of Gazprom and its partners in Berlin if Germany became the main receiving hub for Russian gas in Europe.

We then had a closed session organized by https://www.martenscentre.eu with EU parliamentarians from the ruling EPP coalition in Strasbourg (covered only by Latvian media as one of the organizers was from Latvia), where there was almost a total unity on understanding threats from Kremlin-led pipeline projects and corruption for European aspirations of transparency, governance and energy competition and diversification. However, one deputy said that EU is a hopeless place where we won’t be able to overcome the influence of lobbyists and politicians paid by Kremlin and that FRF should concentrate its efforts of changing attitudes in Washington, D.C., a stance that shows how bleak the EU picture is for some policymakers. Notably, as if to prove his point, we subsequently learned that this event was somehow crashed by representatives of Gazprom lobbyists and Russian diplomats who quietly recorded our discussion.

However, the most complicated event was in Berlin at the German Council on Foreign Relations where I had to face two panelists in favor of Nord Stream 2 and an audience which was heavily attended by Gazprom’s representatives, partners and supporters. We had to discuss some of the same points as proposed by energy companies at the Chatham House few days before, while Kirsten Westphal from Berlin fund of science and politics (SWP) offered a very narrow gas supply/demand view of Western European security and both panelists and representatives of energy companies questioned my “allegations” of widespread corruption in Gazprom and its export to Germany and Europe. This took place despite me citing concrete and multiple undisputable investigations carried out both by western and Russian independent media outlets.

Even more shocking was a remark of one of the organizers of the event to me that “your position against Gazprom was too American and this is why your actual points were not properly appreciated by the audience.” While I definitely spoke as a representative of the Free Russia Foundation and an expert on gas with a background in both Russia and the U.S., I think the commentator was actually right and the anti-American sentiment and ways how Moscow skillfully exploits it are indeed highly present in Germany nowadays. Luckily later that day we met with a group of Russian-speaking activists residing in Berlin that are not duped by Kremlin propaganda and appreciates the need to counter kleptocratic export to the EU.

Our last stop was in Kyiv where we did not have to explain these obvious things about the corruption of Gazprom and Kremlin’s subversive propaganda in Europe. The most prominent event was at Ukrainian Crisis Center together with local think tanks and Deputy Minister of Energy Natalia Boyko. While experts had different views on the actual prospects of Gazprom pipelines intended to by-pass Ukraine, all seemed to agree that Kyiv should remain proactive and its response should be focused on domestic reforms: liberalization of its own gas sector, strict abiding by existing international contracts and being a reliable partner keen to be integrated into European gas regulatory and business norms. TV and radio interviews showed that there is genuinely free journalism now in Ukraine capable of asking critical questions about our expert abilities, EU and US adherence to democracy and joint security, pervasive power of trans-border corruption and stumbling blocks in Ukrainian politics.

Notably, very similar topics – such as US and EU ability to counter post-Soviet kleptocracy – were raised at the Helsinki Commission upon our return to Washington, D.C. I have been raising the issue of influence of Kremlin-controlled oligarchs on the US for years, including lately on Trump’s administration, and was pleasantly surprised that this topic got attention and brought large audience to the event (see here) and comments from top-level experts like Dan Fried, a former top State Department official on sanctions policy.

Finally, the topic of corruption of Gazprom and Kremlin-connected oligarchs in the energy sector also got a brilliant coverage for a Russian-speaking audience, as an expert of the Free Russian Foundation, Vladimir Milov, who is a former deputy minister of energy, is now part of the main opposition movement in Russia led by Aleksei Navalny. Milov runs his own YouTube show in Moscow and his program on economy called Where Is the Money? is part of NavalnyLive YouTube program and has hundreds of thousands of views. For those of you who understand Russian here is an hour-long program from early August where we freely discuss all main Kremlin state energy companies and infrastructure projects and how they influence the whole region with their pervasive corruption.

We continue active research and exposure of post-Soviet corruption. The Free Russian Foundation is going to issue a special report on Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the fall, while the project Underminers will see a major boost for its launch scheduled for the end of September. Mark your calendars, as on October 11, 2017 Kleptocracy Initiative of the Hudson Institute will present our research paper on How Non-State Actors Export Kleptocratic Norms to the West (exact time and announcements will be provided closer to the event). This study seeks to provide some theoretical basis and key concepts for the very practical ideas of the Underminers project which we hope will educate about the export of corrosive practices from Eurasia and we welcome your interest and participation in this discussion and research.

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.

 

A talk about spiritual values – a convenient propagandistic instrument, which allows masking social policy failures.

Continue reading Spirituality and reality: why traditional values do not rescue Russia.

Six years ago, ’the multipolarity’ of the opposition pushed the government to make concessions. Today, however, protests are monopolized and the chance of achieving any concessions is minimal.

Continue reading From Hope to Despair: what is the difference between the 2011 and 2017 protests?

Many young people came to the protest rallies all around Russia on June 12. There is an increasingly urgent need to understand: what is it that the “Putin Generation” (those who are now 17-20 years old) are protesting against?  What kind of country would they like to live in, what kind of future would they like to have?  And how many are there who want change?

Continue reading The Generation of Tolerance and Independence

In January President Trump exchanged some harsh words with Australian Prime Minister Turnbull. He was very frustrated, having inherited from Obama the agreement to resettle 1,500 refugees from the Nauru and Papua islands in the US.

Continue reading Turning a blind eye can lead to new tragedies

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

Last week, the Insider, a Russian independent online media outlet, published an investigation on how Russian intelligence agencies were involved in hacking the mailbox of the French President Emmanuel Macron. Free Russia Foundation has translated this story into English.

Continue reading Roshka and Russian Hackers. The GRU broke into French President’s mail box

March 26, 2017 became the day of the most massive protest rallies since the protest wave of 2011-201 2 in Russia. According to some characteristics, the protests on March 26 did not have precedents over the past decades.

Continue reading A new crackdown in Russia: the aftermath of March 26 protests

Earlier this month the White House sent a letter to Congress pledging a commitment to the “robust and thorough enforcement” of the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act (GMA).

Continue reading Trump’s Pledge To Enforce the Global Magnitsky Act – A Skeptical View

Yesterday, Russian-speaking Facebook users discussed the recent speech of the new Russian representative to the U.N. Security Council.

Continue reading Insult without an answer: how the West failed to understand the Kremlin

Alexander Morozov, a Russian political analyst, discusses the current developments in the Russian opposition’s camp.

Continue reading The Game Hit the Dam

In the context of recent all-Russia protests we have decided to take a deeper look on what is happening in Russian regions and what kind of local agenda produces conflicts within local elites, and between citizens and the authorities.

Continue reading Kremlin has simply no time for Russian regions

The poem and song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” became a rallying cry for social injustice in America in the 1970s. It weaved its way through many cultural eras around the world and found its way to the streets of Russia on Sunday, March 26.

Continue reading Why Sunday’s Massive Protests Will Change Russia

Recently the image of Russia in the world has been very depressing. Russian Federation is perceived globally as aggressive and not very intelligent. And, actually, it’s not very intelligent to conduct two wars at the same time under the conditions of growing economic crisis. As a result of almost 20 years under Putin, Russia is rapidly becoming an outcast.

Continue reading Yevgenia Chirikova: Our task is to help grassroots movements in Russia

Last month, thousands of people held rallies and vigils in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities across Russia to mark the second anniversary of the murder of Boris Nemtsov, the former deputy prime minister and leader of the country’s pro-democracy opposition who was gunned down near the Kremlin on Feb. 27, 2015.

Continue reading How to make sure the Kremlin remembers Boris Nemtsov

U.S. media has recently thrown a lot of light on subversion operations of Russian officials in the US.  But even today, after waves of revelations of Moscow’s state-led hacking and other meddling, the focus is mainly on the ambassador Sergey Kislyak himself but not his vast and elaborate networks in Washington, D.C. involving top oligarchs and propagandists from Russia and sways of select American business, lobbying, academic and think tank top shots in the capital and beyond.

Continue reading Kislyak’s spider web of networks of oligarchs and Putin’s apologists in the U.S.

Last week Vladimir Putin went to pay an official visit to Hungary, where he meet Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, one of the European leaders most loyal to the Kremlin.

Continue reading A suitcase full of cash from the Solntsevo Mafia: does Putin have a compromat on the Hungarian leader?

Russia is known as a country with a high level of domestic violence. There are no official statics available, while the Crisis Centers for Women and other organizations concerned with this issue face serious challenges, when they try to collect data on crimes and violence.

Continue reading Russian faux family values: Domestic violence decriminalized in Russia

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

State Duma, the Russian Parliament have just adopted Russian federal budget for 2017. No cuts for funding propaganda was made, of course.

Continue reading Stop funding RT: Better ways to spend the budget money

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

A short overview of results, causes, and consequences of Russian elections by Russian liberal politician Leonid Gozman.

Continue reading Russian Elections: Results, Causes, and Consequences

We are witnessing a juicy sequel of the story with Untied Russia altering a voting district to get the number of votes that would otherwise be insufficient to win a victory among only Russian voters. This is being done by assigning the voters from Transnistria to single-mandate electoral districts in Russia.

Continue reading Is the leader of the United Russia Party afraid of being elected in Russia?

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

Experts and officials constantly discuss the upcoming depletion of Russian state reserves. However, it is not very clear that reserves –fiscal or some other resources, will deplete soon.

Continue reading Sergey Aleksashenko: will Russia’s reserves deplete by the elections of 2018?

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

The history of love and hate within the triangle Russia-Poland-Ukraine was always difficult to untangle even for Russians, Ukrainians, and Poles, let alone for uninitiated Western bystanders.

Continue reading Russia-Poland-Ukraine triangle and the Volyn tragedy

The failed military coup in Turkey, regardless of who actually orchestrated it, will likely have dramatic consequences for the Turkish Republic and its people.

Continue reading Turkey’s Failed Coup: A practical analysis

On June 22 Russia commemorates 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany attack against the Soviet Union in 1941. For every American killed in the World War 2 there were 70 Soviets dead.

Continue reading June 22: debates over the WWII history

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?

Russia expert Dr. Mark Galeotti published an article last Wednesday in which he seeks to calm down a Western foreign policy community anxious over the challenges that Russia poses to Western security through so-called “hybrid warfare.”

Continue reading Playing Smart With Russia’s Dangers to NATO

Victory Day means millions of people’s stories carefully told from generation to generation. There used to be those happy days when the Kremlin didn’t need this holiday for its pseudo-patriotic frenzy, and real heroes were marching along central streets of various cities and towns tearfully greeted by young Russians.

Continue reading “We cannot do it again”

The last time I tried to bring my daughter to see the Victory Day celebration was four years ago. It was hell.

Continue reading “We Can Do It Again”. Turning Victory Day Into Its Opposite

Until a few years ago most Russian opposition members had strongly believed that exposing corruption schemes is a way to consolidate people with different views making them realize the existing power structures need to be reformed.  Ostap Bender*, a fictional con man, said: “theft is a sin.” The revelations made public by Alexey Navalny caused quite a stir to show how right he was.

Continue reading Corruption A La Russe

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

A section of Russian analysts view the political potential for protests in Russia in the near future with scepticism: in the conditions of an economic crisis, Russians- adapting to the crisis – prefer to occupy themselves with vegetable gardens rather than with demonstrations.

Continue reading Economic Crisis and The Protests

This month Russia’s legislative body, the Duma, introduced a draft law that would further strangle the work of Russian NGOs. The Duma wants to broaden the definition of “political activity” that can cause an NGO to be deemed a “foreign agent” to include receiving funds or property from almost any source, making it easier for the government to shut them down.

Continue reading Russia’s Bad Example

“Remember when they convicted X?”
“No, I was already doing time in Magadan.”
“Wasn’t Y there at the same time? We met at a pretrial before they sent me to Yakutia.”
“Almost – we missed each other by a few weeks, but he was in a cell with Z…”

Continue reading Selective Solidarity

The Kremlin employed an ancient and underused instrument of Russian soft power in February when Kirill, Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, conducted an 11-day, four-country tour of Cuba, where he had an unprecedented meeting with Pope Francis, Paraguay, Chile and Antarctica.

Continue reading The Patriarch’s Grand Tour

The brazen murder and its subsequent investigation demonstrate the nature and fragility of the Russian political regime.

Continue reading The Assassination of Boris Nemtsov – One Year Later

Right after Putin’s third term, and especially after the Maidan revolution in Ukraine followed by the Russian annexation of Crimea and the subsequent military conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the Russian authorities dramatically increased the anti-opposition campaign.

Continue reading Russian Refugees in Ukraine: The Broken Hopes

Between the beginning of the 2000’s and the middle of the 2010’s, domestic politics (its ideological underpinning) in the Russian Federation centered around the fight against local terrorists and modernization.

Continue reading Terrorism against modernization

On Sunday night, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader and close ally of Vladimir Putin, posted a short video on his Instagram. The video featured Mikhail Kasyanov, the former Prime Minister of Russia and Chairman of the Parnas political party, together with Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Vice Chairman of Parnas.

Continue reading Kadyrov’s threats escalate

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

In 2015, Crimea realized it did not become a special region for Russia. Now it is time to reflect on the changes in peninsula’s economy, tourism, human rights situation and its relations with mainland Ukraine.

Continue reading Farewell to sacredness. What 2015 brought to Crimea

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

It’s a tradition to sum up the results of a year before the New Year celebration. For us, at Free Russia Foundation, it’s been a very eventful and challenging year – the startup year for our organization.

Continue reading The year we started our journey for a Free Russia

Exactly three years ago, the Russian parliament passed a law that forbids Americans from adopting children from Russia.

Continue reading How one law can deprive a little girl of a family: the anti-orphan law, 3 years after

“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 three Democratic candidates for President of the United States had another chance over the weekend to lay out their plans for US-Russia relations.

Continue reading Democrats divided on US-Russia cooperation in Syria

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?

Today, on the 1st of December, Russia’s State Duma passed a law on the priority of the Constitutional Court’s decisions over those made by international institutions, particularly by the European Court of Human Rights (EHCR), at its first reading.

Continue reading Dmitry Gudkov: Russia gets isolated from international law

On Saturday night, the Democratic Party hosted its second presidential debate. Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats have fielded a small amount of candidates. Five candidates took the stage at the first debate; three were present at the second.  Continue reading Democrats mull options for the future of the U.S.-Russia relationship over Syria

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

Two more debates between the Republican Party’s presidential debates have taken place since attention shifted from Ukraine to Syria. Continue reading Republican candidates reiterate their approaches to Russia

On Saturday, November the 7th, once the biggest holiday in the Soviet Union with the possible exception of Victory Day, the blue and gold Ukrainian flag was everywhere, fluttering in the shadow of Union Station, Washington D.C.’s main train station. Continue reading Genocidal Doublethink: The Kremlin and the Holodomor

In recent years, the world is more and more perplexed at what is happening in Russia.  The Russian parliament is adopting more ridiculous, absurd and sometimes inhumane laws. The government introduces the so-called “anti-sanctions” law that hits the average Russian the hardest, not the Western partners, as the Russian leadership declared while adopting them.

Continue reading Abnormality of Russian values

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