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The Real Russia. Today. Cutbacks erase jobs and childcare in remote Russian towns, a 10th grader's student union battle, and the post-Putin path to democracy


Tuesday, December 4, 2018

This day in history. On December 4, 2010, a commercial plane skidded off the runway following an emergency landing at Domodedovo International Airport in Moscow, injuring 92 people and killing two (including a Constitutional Court judge and Gadzhimurad Magomedov, the brother of then Dagestani President Magomedsalam Magomedov).
  • Cutbacks to Russia's social spending are erasing jobs and childcare in remote towns
  • 10th grader in St. Petersburg talks about his uphill battle to form a student union
  • PE teacher in Khabarovsk says wearing pro-Navalny buttons is the same as promoting Nazism
  • Federal lawmakers adopt legislation banning websites that incite minors to self-harm or any criminal activity
  • Kommersant lays out four reasons why Moscow is unlikely to respond to a U.S. ultimatum on the INF Treaty
  • Irina Yuzbekova reviews the latest weapons acquired by Russia’s National Guard
  • Polling shows that United Russia’s disapproval rating is now almost as high as its approval rating
  • Dmitry Travin maps out Russia's post-Putin path to democracy
  • Maria Zheleznova says Russians have become too accustomed to making personal sacrifices for Moscow’s foreign policies

Social spending papercuts ✂️

Anna Vlasova and Governor Artur Parfenchikov meet in person in Suoeki, November 21, 2018

On November 20, the website 7x7 published online correspondence between Anna Vlasova, a woman living in the town of Suoeki, and Artur Parfenchikov, the governor of the Republic of Karelia. Vlasova wrote to her governor to complain that her town has no kindergarten, explaining that she has no one to care for her children, while she’s at work. Parfenchikov's response was harsh: he told the woman to “work something out with the grandmothers” or “hire a nanny, like everyone does.” When these messages found their way to Russia's news media, the governor rushed to Suoeki to meet Vlasova in person and “solve the problem.” Vlasova’s situation isn’t unusual, however. Thanks to the “optimization” initiative underway in Karelia and other regions across the country, officials are shutting down kindergartens, schools, and hospital wards, and laying off staff. In a special report for Meduza, Petrozavodsk Govorit correspondent Georgy Chentemirov takes a closer look at the fallout from these budget cuts.

The problem in Suoeki goes beyond daycare: because of bad roads and poor snow plowing, the bus that takes the local kids to school (almost 19 miles away) sometimes never shows up, and parents who bus their children out of town often have to navigate their way to bus stops before dawn.

The “aggressive phase” of social-spending cutbacks began in earnest in 2018, when the federal government raised the minimum pay for many state employees, and local governments responded by reducing work hours and laying off staff. “Optimization” hit not only kindergartens but also higher education, like Suoyarvi’s Technology and Entrepreneurship College, where students were told mid-semester that they could continue their learning in Petrozavodsk, three hours away. (As a result, Suoyarvi teens have been marooned in the town with nothing to do.)

Governor Parfenchikov told Meduza that the government doesn’t have the resources to build and sustain a kindergarten in every small town, but he does think the Republic of Karelia should aspire to a better transportation infrastructure (like Finland's) that would allow children in remote settlements to reach more populated areas.

Maternity ward closures have also strained the lives of new families in Karelia. Expectant mothers in Pitkyaranta now have to drive almost 44 miles to the nearest ward, or they can make the 125-mile trek to Petrozavodsk. Meduza spoke to one woman who says it took her eight and a half hours to get to the hospital, because of road-work delays.

Many of the reductions and demotions followed President Putin’s “May Orders,” which raised the pay for various social workers. To keep spending under control, however, local governments simply started demoting people (for example, reassigning nurses en masse to work as cleaners and janitors), reducing work hours, or laying them off outright. Local officials determine these cutbacks, apparently under pressure from Russia’s Finance Ministry, a public servant in Karelia’s Loukhsky District told Meduza. (The Finance Ministry denies issuing any such demands.)

And what happened with Anna Vlasova and Artur Parfenchikov? After the media caught wind of his insensitivity, the governor hurried to Suoeki and put a plan in motion to open a daycare center by March 2019, and Vlasova will even get a tutoring position there. Meeting with locals to announce the initiative, Parfenchikov said he isn’t a wizard and joked that they “need to bring the men” to the town, implying that a baby boom would be enough to reopen the kindergarten.

Bread and roses

On December 3, an activist in the “Pedagogue” inter-regional education trade union named Andrey Demidov wrote on Facebook that a 10th grader in St. Petersburg is trying to form a student union at his high school. When the school learned about the boy's plans, administrators allegedly threatened to expel him and alert the police. The young man’s name is Leonid Shaidurov, and Meduza spoke to him, to find out more about what he hopes to accomplish with a student union.

On December 4, Russia’s Education Ministry issued a statement comparing Shaidurov’s organizing efforts to “building a barricade.” “The ministry always supports student initiatives in all aspects of educational activities, when they are creative, rather than destructive,” the agency said, arguing that standardized testing (one of Shaidurov’s bugaboos) makes universities accessible to high school students in different regions across Russia.

Read Shaidurov explain his uphill battle to form a student union here.

Navalny vs. The Classroom, continued 🏫

The next installment in Russia’s “anti-Navalny outbursts from teachers” is here. Shared on YouTube by Navalny’s local headquarters with a delightful holiday soundtrack, the latest candid recording comes from a high school in Khabarovsk, where PE teacher Nadezhda Matveyeva tells a that wearing a Navalny 2018 presidential campaign button to school is “tantamount to propagating Hitler’s concentration camps.”

Last month, columnist Oleg Kashin wrote about “classroom flashmobs” as a trend in Russia’s new media, arguing that the “genre” exposes Russian news reporting to certain “manipulations.” (Read Meduza’s summary here.) Whatever the merits to Kashin’s skepticism, however, video and audio recordings from classrooms across Russia over the past two years have exposed a serious political divide between the generations.

Yarovaya strikes again 💻

The State Duma has adopted the third and final reading of another law drafted by Deputy Speaker Irina Yarovaya that will impose new restrictions on the Internet. Yarovaya’s latest gift to cyberspace will empower Russian law enforcement agencies to block online resources that incite minors to self-harm or any criminal activity. The legislation will allow the authorities to block websites immediately, without any grace period during which online administrators can remove flagged content to avoid being blocked.

In 2017, following a public scare prompted by a Novaya Gazeta report, Russia imposed stiffer penalties on online “suicide groups,” making it an aggravated felony to incite underage Internet users to self-harm.

This October, the website Coda Story published an article by Elizaveta Nesterova about these groups and Novaya Gazeta’s reckless reporting that led to the draconian legislation. Read Meduza’s summary here.

An American ultimatum 🚀

On December 4, the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that the White House will give the Kremlin a final two months to bring Russia back into compliance with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or else it will withdraw from the agreement. The ultimatum is designed to shift blame for the treaty’s collapse to Moscow, while setting the stage for a condemnation of Russia’s noncompliance that unites the North Atlantic alliance. According to a report in the newspaper Kommersant, the Kremlin is extremely unlikely to budge on the missile issue for several reasons: (1) Moscow doesn’t respond to ultimatums on principle; (2) two months isn’t enough time to resolve the issue; (3) Russia also accuses the U.S. of violating the INF Treaty; and (4) the political will and trust necessary to address this issue simply doesn’t exist today.

In late October, Meduza took a close look at the INF Treaty and answered the questions that you're too afraid to ask about this agreement. Read our report here.

Where do they get those wonderful toys? 🚨

In a special report for the website Coda, Irina Yuzbekova reviews government procurement orders to catalog the latest weapons acquired by Russia’s National Guard. The agency’s newest tools include 34 “Whisper” nonlethal acoustic systems for 62 million rubles ($934,350). This device works at a distance of roughly 30 feet, producing sounds up to 120 decibels (similar to the noise of a jet engine). The Whisper can generate 30-second sound blasts at 15-second intervals for almost 50 minutes on one battery charge in subfreezing temperatures. The National Guard also spent 65.2 million rubles ($982,240) on “Gazelle” police vans equipped with laser emitters that can stun whole crowds of people.

For big crowds, there’s also the 28-ton self-moving “Wall,” manufactured by Kalashnikov. (You can watch a promotional video for this behemoth here.) Russia’s National Guard bought 10 of these things. For smaller crowds, there are “Rock” taser shields: police shields with electrified outer shells for shocking unruly members of the public. The National Guard bought roughly 100. (Watch a promotional video for the “Rock” here.)

Yuzbekova also found a decidedly lethal item on the National Guard’s ledger: 200 “Bumblebee” rocket-propelled flamethrowers, like the kind used when storming the Beslan school seized by terrorists in September 2004. The government spent 14.3 million rubles ($215,390) on these single-use, 25-pound weapons in 2017. A year earlier, Russia’s Interior Ministry bought 120 identical flamethrowers for more than 7.4 million rubles ($111,480). These weapons can hit targets more than half a mile away, destroying 860 square feet at a time.

Read Irina Yuzbekova’s report here (in Russian) at Coda.

Split on United Russia 💔

A new poll by the Levada Center shows that United Russia’s disapproval rating is now almost as high as its approval rating: 44 percent to 47 percent. Sixty-five percent of Putin supporters still give the ruling political party a positive score, while 83 percent of the president’s opponents disapprove of United Russia. Evgeny Revenko, the deputy secretary of the party’s General Council, told the newspaper Vedomosti that he believes United Russia has already weathered the worst of its popularity decline. He blames the party’s recent gubernatorial losses in Khabarovsk, Vladimir, Khakasia, and Primorye on the fact that voters in these regions were more interested in “personality battles” than party affiliation. In September, General Council Secretary Andrey Turchak attributed the party’s electoral failings to pension reforms and weak campaigning.

Opinion and analysis 💡

🗳️ Dmitry Travin maps out Russia's post-Putin path to democracy

In an op-ed for Republic, summarizing his presentation at the November 2018 “Russia Versus Putin” conference in Prague, European University at St. Petersburg Modernization Studies Center chair Dmitry Travin lays out his vision for Russia’s democratization after Putin. Travin’s main argument is that Putin’s exit will likely trigger a split within Russia’s elite, paving the way to democratization. Elite schisms, he says, are often the engine for national political change, and the increasingly fragile unity enjoyed under Putinism has made many “Putinists” keen to change course.

Travin says democratization could falter, however, in two ways: if the coming elite conflict becomes irreconcilable, it might lead to a civil war, whereas Russia would get another autocracy, if one side wins too quickly.

Travin describes three “post-Putin scenarios”: (1) a fight for the presidency, where security leaders will try to promote their successor through a backroom deal, and political opponents must turn to “relatively free elections” to counterbalance this effort; (2) a fight for “choosing Russia’s course,” where the next leader will have to mediate between “isolationists” and “cosmopolitans”; and (3) a fight for the form of government, where a new generation of politicians (especially within the Communist Party) starts to demand real parliamentary power, necessitating coalition building.

In all of these cases, Travin anticipates an important role for “the non-systemic opposition, influential journalists, and popular figures,” as warring elite factions will need the help of prominent influencers with reputations for independence, he says. In other words, the opposition should be prepared to make tough moral decisions about cooperating with different elites, aware that the side with less public support can only win by falling back on the support of Russia’s military. Travin warns that this could mean temporary alliances with some unsavory types, because more sympathetic characters might actually seek to prolong and entrench Russia’s police state in order to crack down on corruption.

🛃 Maria Zheleznova says Russians demand too little of their leaders

In an editorial for Vedomosti, Maria Zheleznova says Russians have become too accustomed to making personal sacrifices for Moscow’s foreign policies, arguing that her compatriots have forgotten how to tell their government when the costs are too high. Zheleznova’s text responds specifically to Ukraine’s travel ban on most Russian men, and generally to the various sanctions and shows of force from the West over the past five years. Russians’ only tangible rewards in all this adventurism, Zheleznova says, is “the right to feel like big bad guys.”

Yours, Meduza