The Real Russia. Today. The Kremlin's Telegram takeover, Russia's hip hop crackdown in context, and Navalny's ‘Smart Vote’ system
Wednesday, November 28, 2018
This day in history. On November 28, 1943, the “Big Three” — Joseph Stalin, FDR, and Winston Churchill — met at the Soviet embassy in Tehran to start carving up the postwar world. The talks continued until December 1, and the Yalta and Potsdam conferences were still to come.
- New investigative report explains how the Kremlin conquered Russia's Telegram channels
- They say Russia's crackdown on hip hop concerts today is like something from the USSR. Is that true?
- Russian state TV anchor's British citizenship makes his government ‘public council’ memberships illegal
- Navalny unveils new ‘Smart Vote’ project to rally voters in regional elections to whichever candidates are likeliest to defeat Russia's ruling political party
In a new investigative report for the website Proekt, journalists Mikhail Rubin and Roman Badanin explain “how the authorities turned Telegram into television” by colonizing and buying out the medium. Rubin and Badanin say Kremlin officials were initially worried about the influence of Telegram channels on Russia's political system, and in late 2016 they started leaking insider scoops to certain journalists, to see where on the network the information emerged. Instead, the Kremlin quickly discovered that the people behind these channels are generally “scam artists” capitalizing on Russia’s “information shortage” by “creating the illusion that certain informed insiders” would tell the truth behind online nicknames. Ironically, nobody more than state officials themselves wanted this to be true.
⚗️ The alchemy of Telegram channel influence
How do Telegram channels manage to fool people into believing they have inside access? Rubin and Badanin say administrators steal wantonly from newspapers, experts, and columnists, repackaging news the moment it’s published elsewhere, before most readers ever see it at its point of origin.
“The main secret behind the authorities’ success on Telegram was the channels’ unbelievable venality,” argue Rubin and Badanin. Preparations for the March 2018 presidential election fueled the Kremlin’s push into Telegram channels and justified spending several hundred million rubles. The work itself was subcontracted to former “Nashi” Kremlin youth activists, led by the group’s former spokesperson, Kristina Potupchik, who calls herself an independent contractor, has a new office near Staraya Square (near the presidential administration building), and apparently owns something called the Open New Democracy Foundation. Some of the channels under Potupchik’s supervision allegedly include Akitilop, Ortega, and Polnyi P. Her team reportedly includes the following former Nashists: Andrey Zharikov, Dmitry Kiryan, and Alexander Chernoudov. Former Kremlin official Konstantin Kostin’s Civil Society Development Foundation apparently works for the Putin administration on Telegram, as well, handling Metodichka, Minpravdy, and Davydov.Index. Former blogger and long-time Kostin colleague Stanislav Apetyan helps manage these channels, according to Proekt.
🏭 The Telegram channel industry
Rubin and Badanin say they verified their sources’ claims by contacting the administrators of several major Telegram channels, posing as content buyers. They say Nezygar offered to publish virtually anything for enough money: 1.5 Bitcoins (currently $6,300) for posts more than 100 words, and 0.008 Bitcoins ($33) per word for shorter posts. Proekt reached administrators at other channels with even more convoluted prices with elaborate posting and reposting options.
In undercover negotiations with the channel Karaulny, Rubin and Badanin discovered that administrators abide by a “stop list” that prohibits any promoted stories that negatively target any member of Russia’s Security Council or mention anything at all about senior Kremlin staff, especially First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko. The stop list generally only applies to “niche topics,” not widely reported stories, and Proekt speculates that the Telegram channels enforcing these rules are either under the control of Kremlin loyalists or their administrators have been paid to stay away from certain issues.
🥊 A home for infighting
Since Putin’s reelection, the Kremlin has apparently lost some interest in Telegram, shifting its attention more to monitoring WhatsApp and Viber for negative commentary about the government. Telegram remains a battleground, but mostly for infighting between different bureaucratic groups.
For example, Rubin and Badanin describe a meeting earlier this summer between Aram Gabrelyanov and Stepan Kovalchuk, after the former’s falling out with Yuri “Putin’s personal banker” Kovalchuk. At the meeting, Stepan reportedly seized control over Gabrelyanov’s last media asset: the Mash Telegram channel and its 450,000 subscribers.
In the fall of 2017, meanwhile, writer Eduard Bagirov and pro-Kremlin pundit Marina Yudenich reportedly convinced Rosneft to get involved in Telegram and buy the channel Karaulny for 10 million rubles ($149,000). After this sale, the channel stopped reporting anything negative about the company, and started attacking Rosneft’s enemies when the company’s profits were threatened. For example, when Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak suggested price controls on oil, Karaulny started reposting attacks on Kozak.
So who’s behind Nezygar, the channel that got the Kremlin interested in Telegram? This summer and fall, Khakassia Governor Viktor Zimin’s reelection team traced Nezygar to someone named Vladislav Klyushin, who attended their meetings as a specialist from the Defense Ministry. It turns out that Klyushin also owns the company “M 13,” which developed the “Katyusha” media-monitoring system used by the Defense Ministry and presidential administration. M 13 is also trying to replace its older competitor, “Medialogia.” First Deputy Chief of Staff Alexey Gromov reportedly promotes M 13 products within the government and has indicated in meetings that he has placed information in Nezygar.
“I used to love 80s rock, and I’m having constant deja vu from what’s happening now. It’s all come full circle: again it’s executive committees and bans… It’s a lot like the 70s and 80s,” Miron Fyodorov (better known as the rapper “Oxxxymiron”) said on November 26 from the stage at “Glavclub” during a concert in support of Dmitry Kuznetsov, the rapper “Husky,” who spent several days behind bars in Krasnodar, where he defied police and performed for fans atop a parked car. Fyodorov was channeling the frustration felt by many Russian fans of rap and hip hop, among whom it’s become increasingly common to compare today’s banned and disrupted concerts to the crackdown in the early 1980s on underground Soviet rock music. For example, the Federal Security Service’s alleged “blacklist” of contemporary musicians recalls similar lists drawn up by the Soviet police. To find out how close today’s environment really comes to the music scene 35 years ago, Meduza spoke to two musicians whose concerts were broken up by the police in the early 1980s: Vasily Shumov, frontman for the band “Center,” and Evgeny Khavtan, frontman for “Bravo.”
- Read the interviews here: “Meduza speaks to two Soviet rock musicians about KGB blacklists”
On November 22, Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation revealed that Rossiya-1 television anchor Sergey Brilev has had British citizenship since at least 2001. A few days later, Brilev verified this information, insisting that he’s violated no laws, saying, “An employee at a federal state unitary enterprise isn’t a state official [...] and I have no access to classified information.” In fact, Brilev’s second citizenship means he broke the law twice by illegally joining two public councils, first at Russia’s Interior Ministry and then at Russia’s Defense Ministry.
Between 2011 and 2013, Brilev was a member of the Interior Ministry’s first Public Council, despite the fact that the Kremlin issued an executive order in 2011 directly banning persons with foreign citizenship from joining this group.
In 2016, Brilev became (and remains to this day) a member of the Russian Defense Ministry’s Public Council. Another presidential order subjects membership in federal ministries’ public councils to the same rules that apply to Russia’s Civic Chamber, where dual citizens have been banned since 2013. The first to notice Brilev’s illegal membership in the Defense Ministry’s Public Council were Internet users in the Vkontakte community “Political Views.”
It’s unclear how Brilev managed to join these two public councils, despite presidential orders that should have prevented his membership. The TV anchor and spokespeople for both groups have been unavailable to comment on the issue.
Meduza managed to reach Igor Butman, another member of the Defense Ministry’s Public Council. A jazz saxophonist, Butman has both Russian and U.S. citizenship. He says he was unaware of the ban on dual citizens. “They never asked. Maybe they didn’t pay any attention to this. I’ve never concealed my [dual] citizenship. If necessary, I’ll have to leave the Public Council to avoid breaking the law,” the musician said.
On November 28, Russian anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexey Navalny unveiled his latest project to undermine the Kremlin’s control over the Russian government. The new initiative, “Smart Vote,” will offer voting instructions in regional elections to maximize the odds of defeating the country’s ruling political party, United Russia. The project will be active for next year's gubernatorial race in St. Petersburg and Moscow's City Duma election.
Smart Vote is based on the fact that United Russia candidates often win elections with just 30-35 percent of the votes in a particular race, while the majority of votes are scattered among candidates. Adapting the strategy he popularized in 2011, Navalny is now asking United Russia’s opponents to rally around whichever other candidate has the best chance of winning. Navalny’s team says it will identify this candidate in every race.
“Understandably, there will always be debate on this issue, but our analysis will be honest and objective, and we’ll explain our selections, so most voters agree,” Navalny said in a video announcing the project.