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The Real Russia. Today. Putin raises the retirement age, Trudolyubov on the broken social contract, and Poltavchenko's ouster

Source: Meduza

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

This day in history. On the afternoon of October 3, 1993, Moscow police failed to control a demonstration near the parliament building, and the political impasse of Russia's constitutional crisis developed into open armed conflict.
  • Putin raises Russia's retirement age
  • Columnist Maxim Trudolyubov says pension reform breaks Russia's social contract balance
  • The Kremlin proposes a partial decriminalization of ‘extremist speech,’ but it's not all good news
  • Putin calls Sergey Skripal a ‘scumbag’ and a ‘traitor to his homeland’
  • Columnist Oleg Kashin warns that Russians who are helping to unmask the Salisbury suspects have chosen the ‘wrong side’
  • RT chief editor grants interview to independent television station
  • Putin fires St. Petersburg's long-time governor
  • Experts weigh in on Poltavchenko's ouster

Putin raises Russia's retirement age 🧓

President Vladimir Putin has signed controversial legislation raising the country's retirement age. Just hours earlier, Russia's Federation Council approved the bill, raising the pension age from 55 to 60 for women, and from 60 to 65 for men. One hundred and forty-nine senators voted in favor of the bill, just five voted against it, and three senators abstained. Vladimir Putin had recently endorsed the unpopular initiative in a national television broadcast.

Since the government announced plans to raise the retirement age, Russians have expressed less support for President Putin and especially the ruling political party, United Russia, and thousands of opponents have staged protests across the country. United Russia’s leadership believes its poor showing in certain regional elections earlier this fall was a direct result of the party’s support for pension reform.

In mid-September, a poll by the independent Levada center showed that 85 percent of the country opposes raising the retirement age to 65 for men, and just 11 percent of Russians support the policy. Slightly more Russians (88 percent) oppose raising the retirement age to 60 for women, and just 9 percent support the policy. At the same time, the percentage of Russians who said they would join any street protests in their area against pension reform dropped 53 percent to 35 percent.

⚖️ Trudolyubov on Russians' informal social contract

In a new op-ed for Republic, columnist Maxim Trudolyubov argues that Russia’s pension reform is a part of the government’s broader efforts to rewrite the country’s social contract. Trudolyubov says Russians currently think of the state as an informal “resource” available to the people as their unspoken due. The federal government is now trying to impose new rigidly legalistic rules, however, where the state becomes an “institution” that does not deal on the sidelines with citizens. While officials say the reforms are part of moving Russia closer to a European society built on laws, they continue to treat the state as a resource, embezzling money, funding vanity projects, and so on. Trudolyubov says the Russian government’s message to the electorate is simple: “You’re not going to know anything about us, but we’re going to know everything about you.”

The Kremlin wants to roll back some of its “hate speech” ban 📣

The Putin administration has submitted draft legislation to the State Duma that would amend Russia’s controversial Criminal Code 282, which makes “hate speech” and “extremist speech” a crime. The statute is commonly used to open felony cases against Internet users.

The Kremlin’s proposal would make first-offense violations of Code 282 a misdemeanor, and felony penalties would only take effect if an individual commits an “extremist” crime twice within a period of 12 months. The maximum misdemeanor penalties for Code 282 violations would be a fine as high as 20,000 rubles (about $300), up to 100 hours of community service, or 15 days in jail.

Extremist crimes by organized groups, with the use or threat of violence, or by a person through their “official position” would still be treated as felonies, even as a first offense.

Pavel Krasheninnikov, the chairman of the State Duma's State Construction and Legislation Committee, told the television station Dozhd that federal officials plan to reclassify the relevant extremism cases already on file, once Putin's Code 282 amendments are adopted.

  • In recent years, Russian courts have increasingly handed out misdemeanor and felony convictions to Internet users for “liking,” reposting, and commenting on social media. According to the Russian Interior Ministry, police opened 762 extremism cases in the first half of 2018, and 1,521 cases in all of 2017.
  • Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council previously drafted legislation that would have completely decriminalized “extremist speech” where there’s no credible threat of violence. Mail.ru, meanwhile, has advocated a general amnesty for everyone convicted of “illegal reposts,” and its subsidiary Vkontakte recently started allowing users to hide their profiles from strangers, including Russian law enforcement agencies.

How did the Kremlin come to realize its own mistake? Read the Criminal Code 282 timeline here.

👮‍♂️ What’s getting rolled back?

Putin’s amendments would introduce a new misdemeanor statute, making first-time extremism offenses punishable by fines as high as 20,000 rubles (about $300), up to 100 hours of community service, or 15 days in jail. Felony penalties would take effect if an individual commits an “extremist” crime twice within a period of 12 months. These reforms would only apply to “light hate speech,” however, and first-time offenders would still face felony charges under aggravated circumstances (if their actions were carried out by organized groups, with the use or threat of violence, or by a person through their “official position”).

Legal entities would be subject to the same reforms, facing administrative fines as high as 500,000 rubles ($7,600).

Once adopted, the amendments should lead to fewer Criminal Code 282 felony cases. (Russia’s justice system has abused this statute more than any other in its persecution of Internet users.)

The reforms will unleash a wave of new misdemeanor cases. Administrative charges are a lot easier to bring than criminal charges, and police officers will likely take advantage of the new statutes. Currently, the two most common misdemeanor charges involving extremist offenses are based on administrative statutes against “demonstrating Nazi or extremist symbols” and “producing and distributing extremist materials.” Alexander Verkhovsky, the director of the “Sova” human rights center, told Meduza that police opened 3,500 extremism-related administrative cases in 2017. (In that same time, officers launched only 650 felony cases against crimes related to extremism.)

The reforms will create yet another statute prohibiting activities by legal entities, including mass media outlets. Russia already has a federal law and an administrative code banning media outlets from “abusing the freedom of the press” and distributing of content that justifies terrorism or “promotes a cult of violence and cruelty.” Now there will be yet another misdemeanor statute available to the police that can be enforced against any newsroom or other organization, like an NGO.

Police will turn to other felony statutes to prosecute “extremism” suspects. Russia’s Criminal Code is still packed with other statutes that can be enforced against Internet users who carelessly repost allegedly extremist content. Law enforcement could charge these individuals with offending religious sensitivities, justifying terrorism, inciting separatism, and more. Damir Gainutidnov, a lawyer at the Agora human rights group, told Meduza that Russia’s police could very well fall back on these other extremism-related felony offenses.

Putin ignored the advice of his own Presidential Human Rights Council chairman. Human rights activists and lawyers who have been monitoring the abuse of Russia’s extremism-related felony statutes proposed detailed reforms to the country’s legislation and law enforcement. The presidential council recommended decriminalizing all nonviolent forms of “extremist speech,” and advocated moving non-aggravated violations of Criminal Code 282 to Russia’s administrative code with substantial additional revisions. The Kremlin ignored most of this advice.

These mild reforms make a more meaningful revision of Russia’s anti-extremism policing unlikely, at least in the near future. Once Putin’s amendments are adopted by federal lawmakers, it will be even harder to achieve further changes when it comes to the legislation fueling Russia’s persecution of Internet users.

Scumbag Skripal 🕵️‍♂️

Speaking at the Russian Energy Week International Forum in Moscow, Vladimir Putin called former GRU officer Sergey Skripal a “scumbag” and a “traitor to his homeland,” referring to the double agent who spied for the British before being arrested for treason and later swapped with the West. In March 2018, Skripal was nearly killed in an apparent assassination attempt by Russian intelligence agents.

“As for Skripal and so on, this is just the latest spy scandal to be inflated artificially. I follow different information sources, and your colleagues are promoting the idea that Mr. Skripal is nearly some kind of human rights activist. He’s just a spy — a traitor to his homeland. Think about it: a national traitor,” Putin said, calling Skripal “just a scumbag,” and saying that he’ll welcome the end to the “informational campaign” surrounding his poisoning.

Kashin on the morality of betraying the GRU 🔍

In a new op-ed for Republic, columnist Oleg Kashin argues that Russians face a moral dilemma when assisting in the exposure of Russian intelligence agents working abroad. Kashin posits two scenarios that test Russians’ relationship with their state: (1) an undercover cop embedded in a social group, and (2) a secret agent working against foreign operatives. The first situation is modeled explicitly on the controversial criminal case against the “New Greatness” extremist movement (where undercover police officers allegedly set up several young people for felony charges), and the latter is based on the unmasking of the two Salisbury attack suspects as GRU officers.

In the former case, Kashin says, outing the cop’s true identity is unambiguously the right choice for Russian civilians, as it could keep innocents out of jail. The same isn’t true, when it comes to helping foreigners, Kashin argues.

“There are no moral grounds for siding with foreigners in the Russian state’s confrontations with other states. No state in the world is interested in protecting Russians, and Russian citizens act against their own interests by siding with another state and its intelligence agencies,” Kashin writes, implicitly criticizing journalist Sergey Kanev, who recently fled Russia, after publishing an investigative report claiming that Salisbury suspect Anatoly Chepiga received a medal for his part in bringing deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to Russia in February 2014. Kanev also supplied evidence that likely ties “Alexander Petrov,” the other Salisbury suspect, to Russia’s military intelligence.

Kashin warns that anti-Putin sentiment sometimes drives Russians to root for the Kremlin's adversaries, for example, even when it’s Ukraine’s notorious “Azov” battalion. In addition to being morally questionable, Kashin says it’s likely impractical, arguing that Moscow’s defeat abroad does not benefit ordinary Russians at home. Exposing weakness in the Russian armed forces, moreover, could prompt a new wave of militarism, defense allocations, and social-spending austerity measures. Kashin cites Russia’s struggles in the 2008 Georgian War as a catalyst for “the Russian militarism of our era.”

It so happens that Oleg Kashin has written about citizen-state relations in Russia before. As Conflict Intelligence Team researcher Kirill Mikhailov pointed out on Twitter, Kashin wrote an article in August 2015 that argues roughly the opposite of what he said in his new Republic piece. “Let the Russian Federation be ashamed of the Russian Federation,” Kashin said more than two years ago. “It’s not us, and it has nothing to do with us. It’s not our state, and it’s hostile to any Russian person anywhere. Treat it like ISIS.”

RT chief editor grants interview to independent television station 📺

RT chief editor Margarita Simonyan sat down with Dozhd television this week to discuss her life. In the 12-minute clip, she talked about escaping three rape attempts as a younger woman, how Oleg Kashin lives in a “Facebook echo bubble,” how she vacations domestically and always among simple folks, and more. Asked if she considers her recent interview with the Salisbury suspects to be a success, she pivoted to humble-bragging about the declassified January 2017 U.S. intelligence annex, which mentions her name 27 times. (She knows the number by heart.) Simonyan doesn't name her attempted rapists, but she says they were (1) an “influential politician” in Krasnodar when she was eighteen, (2) the spokesman for one of the leaders of Russia's republics, and (3) Russian soldiers stationed in Tajikistan. She says she's regularly approached by fans in the street who worship her patriotic service to Russia, while the few people who criticize her just happen to be the rich snobs. The “real people” love her.

Simonyan says RT's audience has grown “by a third” over the past two years, as Western states “fight against RT.” Here are the RT headlines that appear over Simonyan's shoulder, during the interview: “ULTRA-RICH,” “Targeting U.S. poor for military service,” “Growing up in the war on terror,” “Unwarranted iPhone search,” and “Know your rights.”

Putin fires Poltavchenko 🔥

Vladimir Putin has fired long-time St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko and offered his job to a similarly mustachioed gentleman named Alexander Beglov, who currently serves as the presidential envoy to Russia’s Central Federal District. Poltavchenko, meanwhile, has been invited to chair the United Shipbuilding Corporation’s executive board. He has served as St. Petersburg's governor since August 2011.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that Putin asked Beglov to serve as St. Petersburg’s acting governor until the next elections in September 2019. It remains unclear, however, if Beglov is expected to run for office in that race. (Beglov actually served as St. Petersburg’s acting governor for several months in 2003, after Vladimir Yakovlev left office, before Valentina Matviyenko arrived.)

Commenting on his pivot to the shipbuilding industry, Poltavchenko told the news website Fontanka, “God willing, I'll be working for the good of the nation.”

🎙️ Experts weigh in on Poltavchenko's ouster

A former KGB agent and the head of St. Petersburg’s tax police, Poltavchenko took over for Valentina Matviyenko in August 2011.

So why has Putin fired him now? Political scientist Alexander Kynev says the Kremlin needs time to prepare his replacement for the next gubernatorial election in September 2019. Inserting Beglov a year in advance gives him a year’s worth of visibility and gubernatorial authority. A better question is why Putin waited so long, given Poltavchenko’s many critics. Kynev says a post as important as St. Petersburg governor requires careful consideration, and the president needed to find a suitable “mediator” capable of balancing the regional elite. Political scientist Konstantin Kalachev says Poltavchenko enjoyed neither popularity nor dislike in St. Petersburg, but his progressive critics will likely be disappointed by Beglov.

But what kind of governor was Poltavchenko? Economics Professor Dmitry Travin describes the outgoing governor as a nonentity whose lack of personality sets him apart from his high-flying predecessors. Political consultant Valentin Bianki agrees: Poltavchenko never sought publicity, never got it, and will therefore fade from the minds of the few constituents who ever learned his name. Andrey Kolyadin, a former presidential envoy and former vice president at the United Shipbuilding Corporation, says Poltavchenko failed to manage the elite infighting in St. Petersburg, but now he can count on a relatively cushy job rubbing elbows with investors and federal ministers.

What can we expect from Alexander Beglov? Kommersant reporter Andrey Pertsev says Beglov is Putin’s perfect utility man, capable of serving in nearly any role. Rumors have circulated for years about him taking over as regional head in Moscow or St. Petersburg, though Beglov is not himself overly self-promoting and eager for higher office. Konstantin Kalachev says Beglov’s appointment shows the Kremlin’s short bench, as the authorities need a younger, fresher face than a 62-year-old bureaucrat. Kalachev says Beglov is likely only a figurehead, but his moderate background and temperament make him a suitable placeholder for now. According to Andrey Kolyadin, Beglov is reliably Russian Orthodox Christian, but he’s not as “excessively” devout as Poltavchenko. Alexander Kynev warns that the Kremlin chose Beglov while thinking exclusively about balancing tensions within the St. Petersburg elite, without enough consideration for his potentially weak electoral appeal in a year.

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