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The Real Russia. Today. Synergy University, undesirable meddlesome NGOs, and Putin's daughter's fantastic luck

Source: Meduza

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

This day in history. On October 23, 2002, 40 to 50 armed Chechens took more than 900 hostages at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow during a performance of “Nord-Ost,” ultimately ending with the deaths of as many as 174 people. Read Meduza's photo report on the tragedy from last year.
  • A dubious school in Moscow is expanding its empire with a little help from some big connections
  • State Duma lawmakers draft legislation to ban foreign NGOs that meddle in Russian elections
  • Human rights movement files police report against Russian reactionary group infamous for harassing oppositionists
  • Putin's alleged daughter reportedly lands a new investment project with the mining company Nornickel
  • Putin just handed over even more of Sochi's Olympic infrastructure to a center co-founded by the man suspected of hiding his ‘billions’
  • Russia's military to spend half a billion rubles on software to monitor cadets online
  • Bolton talks to Putin in Moscow about withdrawing from the INF Treaty, while setting the next Trump-Putin summit in Paris
  • American military officials say they're pressuring Russian bad actors against further election meddling
  • Switzerland’s top court lifts reporting restrictions on reasons for Roman Abramovich’s failed bid for residency
  • A $200-billion Russian money-laundering scandal is exposed

Synergize your mind! 🎓

On October 22, the website Proekt published an investigative report detailing corruption at “Synergy University,” describing executives’ shady ties to prominent Russian businessmen and state officials. The “university” (whose students, it turns out, overwhelmingly study remotely under less than rigorous conditions) has apparently bankrolled several noteworthy public projects recently, including a large conference in Moscow with the motivational speaker Tony Robbins, and the critically panned film “Temporary Difficulties” (which encourages the belief that cerebral palsy can be overcome by sheer willpower). Synergy’s managing director also accompanied Russian Senator Alexander Torshin to the National Prayer Breakfast in the United States in February 2017, alongside Maria Butina, who’s now charged with illegal foreign agent activity.

Over the past several years, Proekt’s investigation shows, the university’s leaders have held government jobs and worked with the state, building ties to influential state officials like LDPR founder Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Kremlin youth organizer Vasily Yakemenko, Putin advisers Vladislav Surkov and Sergey Kiriyenko, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, former Children’s Rights Commissioner Pavel Astakhov, and others. Multiple Russian professional athletes have also turned to Synergy for easy diplomas, as well.

Unloved and undesired organizations 💔

State Duma lawmakers have drafted new legislation that would allow the federal government to outlaw any foreign NGOs that allegedly meddle in Russian elections. Co-authored by deputies from all parties in the legislature, the new law would define election interference as any actions that “create obstacles” to nominating or electing candidates or voting in referenda. The legislation would allow federal officials to designate these organizations as “undesirable,” making their work illegal in Russia.

Since 2015, the Attorney General’s Office has been empowered to ban organizations that supposedly threaten Russia’s “constitutional order.” Russian citizens who continue working for these banned groups risk criminal penalties. Currently, Russia has designated 15 “undesirable organizations,” including the National Endowment for Democracy, the Open Society Foundation, the Open Russia Civic Movement, and the German Marshall Fund.

Reporting the police goons 🚨

Lev Ponomarev, who heads the “For Human Rights” movement, says he’s filed a police report against the reactionary right-wing group “SERB,” following its repeated efforts to disrupt his movement's work. Most recently, SERB members raided Ponomarev’s office in Moscow on August 22, chanting accusations that his team promotes extremism instead of humanitarianism. Ponomarev says he wants to meet with police to discuss these “unacceptable actions.”

SERB activist Igor Brumel, meanwhile, says he would like a seat at the table when Ponomarev has his meeting, arguing that “For Human Rights” is actually a front for a “destructive, extremist movement” that tries to “inflate all kinds of scandals.” Brumel also says SERB will continue to harass human rights activists, so long as the group’s leaders believe it’s necessary.

SERB is known for its brazen attacks on members of Russia’s anti-Kremlin opposition. A SERB activist is suspected of spraying antiseptic in the eyes of politician Alexey Navalny in 2017. The group has also repeatedly ripped down memorial plaques in Moscow dedicated to slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and defaced controversial works of art in Moscow and St. Petersburg galleries.

In November 2017, a former SERB activist told Dozhd television that the Russian Interior Ministry’s Anti-Extremism Unit previously supervised the group, coordinating its actions and determining how much violence it should inflict on oppositionists.

The woman who has it all 💰

Katerina Tikhonova, supposedly Vladimir Putin’s younger daughter, is reportedly in business with the mining company Nornickel. According to a new report by the BBC’s Russian-language service, the National Intellectual Development Foundation (where Tikhonova works as director) joined a joint investment project with Nornickel in late September, becoming co-founders of the “Innovative Engineering Center,” an independent nonprofit organization. The website The Bell previously estimated that the costs of this venture are 1.05 billion rubles (more than $16 million). Both Nornickel and the National Intellectual Development Foundation have refused to comment on the rumors.

Executives at the Innovative Engineering Center have said the organization’s goal is to become a leading integrator of process engineering across Russia. According to The Bell, Tikhonova’s foundation wants to create a “belt” of 1,000 high-tech companies around the country’s top technical universities.

Nornickel’s sudden willingness to spare some cash for Tikhonova’s initiative follows a rejected proposal by Kremlin adviser Andrey Belousov, who suggested in August that Russia’s metallurgical and chemical companies could pay an additional 513 billion rubles ($7.8 billion) in taxes. In the end, instead of facing new taxes on windfall revenues, the industry was presented with a list from the government suggesting new investment projects.

Some more love for Rodulgin 🤝

Vladimir Putin has reportedly ordered the creation of a new science and technology innovation center in Sochi, at the Olympic Park and on territory controlled by the “Sirius” educational center — a facility for gifted children, the “Sirius” center was created in 2014 by the “Talent and Success” Foundation, whose founders include close cellist, businessman, and close Putin ally Sergey Roldugin. Journalists who investigated the “Panama Papers” say Roldugin has billions of dollars hidden in offshore bank accounts, which he is supposedly “holding” for Putin. A spokesperson for “Sirius” told the magazine RBC that the new center will occupy nearly 100 acres, featuring a vocational school, a kindergarten, a swimming pool, a concert hall, and a university — all converted from the media center built for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The remodeling work, funded by Russia’s Education Ministry, is supposed to be finished by 2021. The exact cost of the construction project is still unknown, but it’s believed to be more than 2 billion rubles ($30.5 million).

“Sirius” already controls the second largest stadium in Sochi — the Shayba Arena — and soon it will receive the Adler Arena Skating Center, as well. The education center has been allocated these facilities to stage athletic competitions for students and the public.

The new science and technology center is reportedly a copy of Moscow State University’s “technological valley,” which is being developed by a foundation led by Katerina Tikhonova, who’s believed to be Vladimir Putin’s younger daughter.

Loose lips embarrass ships 🤫

The Russian Defense Ministry has announced a procurement contract worth 485 million rubles ($7.4 million) to supply the military with equipment enabling it to monitor cadets’ online activities. According to public documents, the government plans to acquire licenses for computer software, including an extension of its existing license for “InfoWatch Traffic and Device Monitor.”

According to the (Dubai-based) developers of this software, InfoWatch protects businesses from “reputational risks caused by leaks,” prevents the “retrieval of confidential data,” and “collects evidence for incidents investigations.”

Read it elsewhere 📰

🚀 INoughF

“Despite a flurry of rhetoric from Washington in recent days, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton told reporters in Moscow on Tuesday that the U.S. has not yet provided Russia with official notification that it intends to withdraw from a historic Cold War nuclear arms treaty, but promised that such a move would be coming ‘in due course,’” reports Matthew Bodner for The LA Times. Read the story here.

👻 Trying to spook Russia against more “information warfare”

“The U.S. Cyber Command is targeting individual Russian operatives to try to deter them from spreading disinformation to interfere in elections, telling them that American operatives have identified them and are tracking their work,” says The New York Times. “Senior defense officials said they were not directly threatening the operatives. Still, former officials said anyone singled out would know,” says the story. Read it here.

⚖️ Roman Abrapublicsafetythreat

“Switzerland’s top court lifted reporting restrictions on the reasons for Roman Abramovich’s failed bid for residency in the Alpine nation, rejecting the Russian billionaire’s claims that disclosure would damage his reputation. The Supreme Court judges cited concerns raised by Swiss police that Abramovich was ‘suspected of money laundering’ and had ‘presumed contacts with criminal organizations,’” according to a report by Bloomberg. Read it here.'

🏦 A $200-billion Russian money-laundering scandal, exposed

“Danske Bank last month announced that more than $230 billion had flowed from Russia and other former Soviet states through its tiny branch in Estonia. A large part of this was probably illicit money, the bank has said,” according to a new report by The Wall Street Journal. “The revelations have ignited soul-searching in Europe about the cost incurred by some of its banks to survive the global financial crisis, especially how they welcomed flows of thinly monitored money from countries with weak rule of law.” Read the full story here.

Yours, Meduza