TODAY: Popular social network banned; Memorial fights foreign agent label in court; Alyokhina refused parole; Bolotnaya protesters’ apartments raided; no recession, but insufficient growth; Lebedev witnesses admit they were pressured; business students want Gazprom jobs.
Vkontakte, a popular social network with over 210 million users, has been banned from distributing content across Russia, thought to be in connection with the forum’s use by opposition leaders to organise protests. Rights group Memorial is in court today to fight state prosecutors who want it to register as a ‘foreign agent’. Memorial head, Alexander Cherkasov, said, ‘We’re not sitting and waiting. We’re staging a counter-attack. They’re taking us back to the ideas of the (Soviet) past. It’s a sign of madness.’ This piece discusses some reasons for the Kremlin’s crackdown on long-respected pollster, the Levada Center: ‘Why is it so hard for authoritarian leaders to accurately discern public opinion and act accordingly?’ Jailed Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina, now on hunger strike, has had her parole request denied. The case against Bolotnaya Square activists is ongoing; two Left Front activists had their apartments raided, and one was taken in for questioning in connection with the protest last year. Armed police have searched the offices of a company working on developing sports facilities for the Sochi Olympics. Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov says the country will avoid recession this year, despite ‘insufficient’ growth. Russia’s poor economic growth situation is seen by many as a political problem, requiring ‘the protection of property rights, an effective and independent judiciary and fair competition’; and Vladimir Putin is incorrect to blame a slack cabinet, says Bloomberg. But Putin has always had ‘an eye out for betrayal’, according to his early biographer. ‘He suffers from an inability to trust people.’
TODAY: Amnesty highlights Russia’s rights failures; Pussy Riot member on hunger strike; witness called by Navalny prosecutors backs his innocence; Rosbank CEO dismissed, assets seized; Council of Europe to expand in Russia; Putin centralising control.
Amnesty International’s country-by-country annual human rights report for this year remarks that Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency has curbed freedom of assembly and created ‘broadly weakened dissent’, adding Pussy Riot members and Bolotnaya Square protesters to its list of prisoners of conscience. The criminal case against the twelve opposition activists accused of participating in ‘mass riots’ at the Bolotnaya rally last May has been sent to court. Jailed Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina has gone on hunger strike in protest against a court decision to bar her from her own parole hearing, and banner her lawyers from further representing her. ‘Let the troika sitting here – the judge, the prosecutor and the colony employee – decide my fate.’ Paul McCartney is the latest celebrity to throw his weight behind Alyokhina’s case, in a handwritten letter to the Kremlin urging hers and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s release. Kirov region governor Nikita Belykh was summoned by state prosecutors as a witness in the trial against anti-corruption blogger and opposition figure Alexei Navalny; according to his testimony (video), Navalny is not guilty and that the charges against him are ‘dubious’. But Navalny maintains certainty that he will be convicted for political reasons nonetheless; and this extensive report on politicised court cases and the justice system notes that, according to current statistics, less than 1% of all verdicts issued in Russian courts are ‘not guilty’.
TODAY: Lavrov warns Azerbaijan over Eurovision sleight; Medvedev wants better weapons; Lebedev expects guilty verdict; Politkovskaya case returns to court; expelled Firestone was Magnitsky advocate; VTB offering; foreign banking in the spotlight; progress made on blasphemy bill.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov weighed in on the topic of the Eurovision Song Contest during a meeting with his Azerbaijani counterpart, where he called Azerbaijan’s failure to award any points to Dina Garipova’s entry an ‘outrageous incident’, and threatened that it ‘will not go unanswered’. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev insists that he does not mind being referred to as ‘Dimon’, the diminutive nickname given to him by web users. ‘This is how I was called in my childhood. It’s all trifle.’ Medvedev is calling for Russia to start providing its military with superior weapons to those of their Western counterparts. The case against tycoon Alexander Lebedev is falling apart after most of the prosecution’s witnesses failed to attend a court hearing, but Lebedev says he is expecting a guilty verdict from the ‘trumped up, fabricated’ trial nonetheless. A new case against five men suspected of involvement in the 2006 murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya has been sent to court. It has been revealed that Thomas Firestone, the former U.S. Justice Department official who was declared ‘persona non grata’ and barred entry to Russia earlier this month, once worked for a law firm that investigated white collar corruption and bribery, and that Firestone was a vocal advocate for the release of Sergei Magnitsky back in 2009.
The Kremlin’s crackdown on human rights agencies and political organisations with foreign funding shows no signs of slowing. Particularly chilling today was the news that the Levada Center is under investigation and may be forced to register as a ‘foreign agent‘. This is a surprise: the center’s main activity is to conduct monthly, nationwide polls. This could be described as a political activity in that it conveys the Russian public’s views on political matters, but it does seem a stretch, given that the Center does not have any specific political agenda and that its foreign funding is less than 3% of its total budget. Furthermore, it does not advertise itself as a defender of human rights. What the Levada Center has done, however, is publish a number of poll results indicating dwindling support for President Vladimir Putin in recent months, which may be more to the point. The truth hurts. But at least, when you’re Vladimir Putin, you can snuff it out.
TODAY: Levada Centre may close over demands to label as a ‘foreign agent’; Kremlin accuses E.U. of ideology-based criticism; Skolkovo investigations politically motivated? Economic growth bleak, Kudrin says United Russia to blame; Razvozzhayev ‘kidnap’ will not be investigated; Syria, oligarch ‘tax’, Eurovision.
Independent pollster the Levada Centre, which conducts public surveys, has warned that it may have to close down in response to government insistence that it label itself a ‘foreign agent’, with the group’s director adding that the call ‘undermin[es] our credibility and reputation’. The group’s foreign grants reportedly amount to no more than 3% of its total funding, but prosecutors have ruled that, because its polls influence public opinion, its work ‘does not constitute research but political activity’ (its latest poll reveals an increase in the number of Russians using the Internet). Vladimir Ryzhkov writes that the Kremlin’s goal ‘is to completely block foreign funding of all NGOs and to shut down those that resist the ban’. According to Human Rights Watch, over 50 groups have now been targeted. In response to the latest barrage of criticism, issued in response to the ‘foreign agent’ law and new measures against homosexuality, the Foreign Ministry suggested that the European Union refrain from ‘ideology-based’ remarks. Many people working closely with the Skolkovo business center, including former Kremlin chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, believe that recent Investigative Committee corruption cases against the project are politically motivated. Skolkovo’s president, billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, is being questioned by the Investigative Committee in connection with embezzlement accusations made in relation to a research salary paid to State Duma Deputy Ilya Ponomaryov.
TODAY: St. Petersburg’s gay rights supporters outnumbered by Orthodox protesters; E.U. appeals to Russia over human rights; U.S. condemns Russian missile shipment to Syria; alleged spy Fogle leaves Russia; Supreme Court to hear Khodorkovsky appeal; Navalny’s father summoned; Synertech arrest; Gazprom’s crisis; robocops.
A sanctioned gay rally held in St. Petersburg on Friday lasting just 15 minutes was attacked by skinheads with smoke bombs, with Orthodox Christian activists reportedly outnumbering gay protesters two-to-one. A further rally planned to be held in Moscow this week has been denied permission by the authorities. ‘Every year, they find a reason to reject it.’ A Levada Center Poll conducted to mark the International Day Against Homophobia found that almost half of Russians think homosexuals should have diminished rights, 38% believe that gay people should receive medical treatment, and 13% think they should be prosecuted. The European Union is appealing to Russia not to adopt a nationwide law banning ‘gay propaganda’, part of a wider critique of the country’s human rights record, following a meeting with Russian officials in Brussels. America’s top military officer condemned an ‘ill-timed’ Russian shipment of defence missiles to Syria, warning that it ‘will embolden the regime’. Israel also expressed alarm over the news. Russia has expelled former U.S. Embassy official Thomas Firestone, possibly for turning down an invitation to spy for the intelligence services. The Federal Security Service has revealed the identity of the C.I.A.’s station chief in Moscow, a breach of protocol likely to cause anger in Washington. Alleged C.I.A. spy Ryan Fogle (the story has been profiled in The Independent) has left Russia, having been ordered to do so.
From former Amb. John Campbell at the Council on Foreign Relations:
The incessant violence is starting to impact the Nigerian economy. While Lagos hustles along without regard to the bloodshed in other parts of the country, economic activity has dipped, as in Kano, Nigeria’s second largest city. Enterprises with exposure in northern Nigeria are seeing profits shrink. Cross-border trade between northern Nigeria and its neighbors is also down.
Meanwhile, formal politics is almost entirely detached from reality. Goodluck Jonathan is widely regarded as feckless, especially in his response to the Islamist insurgency, but is still favored to win in the national elections scheduled for late next year. Nevertheless, there is more uncertainty about this election outcome than there has been at any time since the end of military rule in 1999. While Jonathan is trying to build support among the political class, his rivals are seeking to create a unified opposition party that could credibly challenge him at the polls. Sadly, both sides are resorting to traditional patronage-clientage politics without reference to the needs of the larger population.
So anxiety about the future is high. In their more pessimistic moments, some Nigerians express anxiety about whether the country in its current form will survive to election day. There is some sentiment in favor of a military takeover, but there is little evidence that the upper reaches of the military have the stomach for a return to power. While the Islamist insurgents do not offer a viable political alternative and remain divided among themselves, the threat they pose to Nigeria’s political and economic future are significant, as Jonathan’s state of emergency recognizes.
Prof. Mark Galeotti has a good one on the arrest and expulsion of alleged spy Ryan C. Fogle from Russia this past week.
The FSB, Putin’s own former service and once one of the dominant forces within the “deep state” of the inner elite, has been quiet of late. The oprichniki of Alexander Bastrykin’s Investigative Committee (SK) have been leading the charge, whether against the opposition, or corruption in the government, or even abusive child-care workers. Bastrykin—a man with few friends and fewer scruples—has staked his career on empire-building the SK and in the process has squarely parked his tanks on the FSB’s lawn. They have already struck back, leaking the story of his threatening a journalist during an infamous “walk in the woods.” Now they may well also be trying to find ways to demonstrate to the one man who counts, Vladimir Putin, that they, not the SK, are still the real guardians of Russian security.
This is not going to lead to some new cold war, nor will it derail the new security cooperation, which is so clearly in both the Russian and US interest. However, when the Kremlin begins to define itself in terms of its enemies, when it begins to invest paranoia as politics and when struggles between secret policemen begin to define the national and international agendas, then this is a depressing time to be a Russia-watcher.
TODAY: Golubkov charged with commercial bribery; Peskov says ban on foreign bank accounts has led to no resignations; rough economic times ahead, warns U.S. agency; Putin to fly to work; gay pride events organisers to appeal to Moscow court for permission to meet; corruption video seems to encourage vigilantism; Navalny says witness against him was behind corruption scheme; Rosneft Vietnam tie-up.
Vladimir Golubkov, the head of Société Générale’s Russian unit Rosbank, has been charged with commercial bribery following his arrest earlier this week and could face seven years in prison if convicted. As ‘one of its core markets’, Société Générale says it is committed to Russia in spite of the scandal. Golubkov’s former boss, Mikhail Prokhorov, is requesting his release, ‘because I think people accused of financial crimes should be released on bail, not placed under arrest’. Golubkov denies the accusations, with many saying that footage of him shown with ‘cash piled on his office desk’ may have been a set-up. A new ban on officials keeping foreign bank accounts has not led to any leadership-level resignations, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Economic growth in the first quarter progressed at likely its weakest rate since 2009. U.S. ratings agency Standard & Poor’s is warning of more harsh times ahead for Russia if the Kremlin does not do more to boost the investment climate and push for reforms. Bloomberg sees Vladimir Putin’s attitudes towards the Rusnano and Skolkovo projects as an indication that ‘Maintaining power is more important than modernizing the economy’. Putin is to begin using a helicopter to fly to work, in a bid to appease motorists angry over motorcade traffic jams.
It’s fascinating to watch the fall-out of the recent arrest and expulsion of the hapless alleged American spy Ryan C. Fogle in the Russian media, in at least the degree to which we can see just how important of an institution Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine has become. Leaving aside for a moment all the unknowable questions about Fogle’s incomprehensible story, the Foglegate incident illustrates an approach by the Kremlin to defamation media that now has a discordant resonance on social media platforms, where they hold much less control. As observed by Timothy Heritage on Reuters, “the Kremlin can manipulate state television, the main source for news for a large majority of Russians from the Baltic to the Pacific, it does not control the Internet and social media sites. Not only have the Internet and such sites been used to spread word of anti-Putin protests by liberals and middle-class voters fearing political and economic stagnation under him, Volodin’s ability to get to grips with new media is not clear.”
However the state media in Russian can never be simply discarded. It produces far too much content, employs far too many real journalists, and is not solely dedicated to the promotion of the state’s interest but also to the collection and presentation of facts about what is happening inside the country. Writing on Vedomosti, Ilya Klishin takes a closer look at the complex picture of state media in Russia today (with a hasty English translation from us).