The Real Russia. Today. Kozhemyako's victory in Primorye, jail time for child protest recruiters, and Internet isolation for cash
Tuesday, December 18, 2018
This day in history. On December 18, 1892, “The Nutcracker” ballet, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a score by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, was performed for the first time ever at the Imperial Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg.
- How the Kremlin took back Primorye's gubernatorial election
- Russian lawmakers pass draft legislation that could jail people for 30 days if they invite minors to unpermitted protests
- Putin joins the Defense Ministry National Center for State Defense Management’s annual review
- Russia’s Defense Ministry issues fresh denial that former GRU chief Igor Sergun died in Lebanon
- Ivan Begtin says Russian Internet isolationists are in it for the cash, and fear is their weapon
- Stanislav Shakirov says Russia couldn't pull off China's Internet regulation, even if it tried
On December 16, Russia’s Primorsky Krai held another gubernatorial election. This was the third vote in the past four months: officials threw out the last results due to mass falsification in favor of United Russia’s candidate, then acting Governor Andrey Tarasenko, who was promptly replaced with Oleg Kozhemyako. Incidentally, that's who won Monday’s election, receiving a healthy 60 percent of the vote. Communist Party candidate Andrey Ishchenko, who narrowly lost to Tarasenko in September, wasn’t allowed to participate this time. In a report for Meduza, special correspondent Ilya Zhegulev traveled to Vladivostok and learned how Kozhemyako cruised to victory with the help of political strategists from Moscow and financial investments from the federal government.
Kozhemyako denies that the ballot registration process was manipulated to keep viable competitors out of the race. He argued that the opposition simply lacks constructive ideas. A source in Kozhemyako’s campaign told Meduza that the acting governor actually hoped to face Ishchenko in the election, seeking a “clean contest” to wash away Tarasenko's September fiasco.
With this in mind, United Russia deputies contributed 58 endorsements to Ishchenko to help him pass the “municipal filter” (a statutory provision requiring candidates to enlist the support of a certain number of municipal deputies, in order to compete in an election). It wasn’t enough, however. Ischenko needed 140 signatures, he got 147, but election officials invalidated 13, ruling that 11 of the signatures came from deputies who had already endorsed other candidates and two were from people who weren’t actually municipal deputies. According to Vyacheslav Belyakov, a local political strategist who advised Kozhemyako’s campaign, Ishchenko waited too long to submit his registration paperwork, getting disqualified intentionally, in order to avoid another race while saving face.
Ishchenko had good reason to want out of gubernatorial politics: when political strategists from Moscow showed up to help Kozhemyako’s campaign, news segments about “defrauded co-investors” started appearing on TV (read more about these activists here). The broadcasts featured protesters who accused Ishchenko, whose small construction firm owns two apartment buildings, of disrupting a third housing project and using his status as a regional legislator to pressure their landlords into selling him the property.
Kozhemyako might have faced another viable opponent in Vitaly Verkeenko, the recently retired mayor of Vladivostok, who spent nearly a year in office building a solid political reputation. In late October, Verkeenko wrote a Facebook post about the gubernatorial race with oppositionist overtones, but instead of promoting his own candidacy, he named local Federal Security Service head Igor Struchkov as a worthy candidate. In the end, Verkeenko chose to return to his car business, which incidentally relies on close cooperation with regional officials. (Apparently, he decided not to tempt fate.)
So what did Kozhemyako do to win? His campaign spent a lot of money on the election, especially on the mass media, ranging from ads in the traditional news media to promoted content on Telegram channels and Facebook. The campaign disrupted temniki (set guidelines for news coverage) to orchestrate positive content about Kozhemyako and negative content about Ishchenko, and even paid some outlets to “block” reports containing any information (good or bad) about Vitaly Verkeenko. Kozhemyako reportedly funded this entire operation with his own money, relying on the $430 million his family made over the summer, when it sold its local fishing business.
Kozhemyako also leveraged his ties to the Kremlin, wielding Moscow’s sizable resources in the two months he spent as acting governor, earmarking new spending programs across the region in an apparently successful effort to convince voters that he alone is their lifeline to federal subsidies. He announced billions of rubles in state funding for healthcare, housing, dam construction, and flood control, and he hijacked Ishchenko’s initiative to grant special benefits to roughly 80,000 senior citizens. A few days before the election, President Putin even signed a law moving the capital of Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District from Khabarovsk to Primorye’s capital in Vladivostok.
Before the voting on December 17, every single nominally opposition candidate in the race declined to use the independent election observers the “Golos” movement made available for free. LDPR candidate Andrey Andreichenko told Golos and Meduza that his campaign already had more than enough volunteers and didn’t need outside help. On election day, however, Meduza visited several polling stations where there were no LDPR observers whatsoever. At least one Golos observer who cooperated with Kozhemyako’s campaign says he witnessed “carousel voting” orchestrated by someone he later saw paying Kozhemyako’s observers in cash.
Some experts, like mathematician Sergey Shpilkin and electoral geography expert Alexander Kireev, have highlighted irregularities in Monday’s results, but Andrey Andreichenko was the only candidate to report any voting violations, and election officials dismissed his claims immediately.
What about Andrey Ishchenko? He now refuses to comment on gubernatorial politics, saying he’s returned completely to his construction business. When Meduza asked Ishchenko about Kozhemyako’s victory, his only response was: “They steamrolled it through.”
The State Duma has adopted the third and final reading of legislation that imposes extra penalties on people who encourage minors to attend unpermitted demonstrations. Three hundred and forty-two deputies voted for the bill, and just 42 voted against it.
“We can’t ignore the actions of those who incite our youth and our children to commit illegal acts and break the law,” said United Russia deputy Evgeny Revenko, who helped write the legislation. He argued that the law isn’t aimed at parents, and minors are still welcome to attend sanctioned demonstrations.
Communist Party deputy Alexey Kurinny, who opposed the bill, warned that it is open to “very broad interpretations” and “selective enforcement.”
Under the law, first-time offenders will face fines as high as 50,000 rubles ($750), community service, or up to 15 days in jail. Repeat offenders are at risk of 300,000-ruble ($4,490) fines, community service, or 30 days in jail.
On December 18, Vladimir Putin took part in the Defense Ministry National Center for State Defense Management’s annual review, where officials assessed the military’s activities in 2018. According to the newspaper Kommersant, the president was also presented with hardware captured from terrorists in Syria. Ahead of the event, Kommersant said Putin was expected to offer his own assessment of Russia’s military, discuss its future development, and hand out several state awards. Sources said the president would address familiar subjects, like Russia’s intervention in Syria, the expansion of NATO, America’s looming withdrawal from the INF Treaty, the army’s rearmament, and more.
Russia’s Defense Ministry has issued a fresh denial that former Military Intelligence Directorate head Igor Sergun died in 2016 on New Year’s Day in Lebanon, not at his home outside Moscow on January 3, as reported officially. The geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor was the first to circulate the rumor, which was later reported by the BBC. “The rumors, disseminated at the suggestion of the U.S. Justice Department, that [...] Sergun died on January 3, 2016, while in Lebanon are conspiracy nonsense,” the ministry said in a statement on December 18, 2018. Sergun's successor, Igor Korobov, died “after a long and serious illness” on November 22, 2018.
In an op-ed for Republic, data miner and information processing specialist Ivan Begtin says Russia’s new draft legislation to build an autonomous Internet network relies on an “economy of fear” to generate public support and state funding. Sometimes, Begtin argues, this kind of policymaking draws attention to important issues, but usually the problems are fabricated purely to generate business. In Russia, fears of an external Internet shutdown are worst among those who stand to benefit the most from the federal government’s intervention: Roskomnadzor (which would receive a whole arsenal of new tools to manage the Russian Internet’s infrastructure) and certain “select” hardware and software manufacturers (who could expect lucrative procurement contracts).
Begtin warns that the danger with manufactured fears is that they can become real fears. For example, Russia’s new Internet legislation could lead to Russia’s digital self-isolation or drive neighbors to wall off their Internet, militarizing the issue and transforming Roskomnadzor’s current bumbling into a bonafide national security threat.
In an interview with Meduza, Internet freedom activist and “Roskomsvoboda” technical director Stanislav Shakirov argues that Russia lacks the domestic investment infrastructure to develop its own tech startups the way China does. Not only are Russian Internet users accustomed to having their pick of Western online services, but Russia's domestic market isn’t big enough to sustain competition in isolation, and its unfriendly business climate remains a major hindrance.
Will Russian officials actually be able to pull off an “autonomous Internet”? Shakirov says the authors of Russia’s Internet regulations frequently draft such illiterate legislation that it’s largely unenforceable (like the law used to “ban” Telegram), and the authorities have had mixed success with policies already on the books, like SORM, the Yarovaya laws, and more. The “autonomous Internet” legislation could become more practical, however, in the amendments process.
Is Russia responding to a genuine foreign threat? No. Shakirov says there’s no precedent for one country cutting off another country’s Internet access in an act of international political pressure. There are, of course, innumerable cyber-attacks, but the solution here is the creation of secure communication networks for critical infrastructure, not a walled-off Internet that inflicts major harm on the digital economy. Russian officials in Ingushetia, meanwhile, have already demonstrated their willingness to shut down Internet access during mass demonstrations.
Would VPNs still work? If Moscow went further than the Chinese government and physically “cut the cables” to the global Internet, not even VPNs would connect Russian Internet users to the outside world. If service providers were merely limited by certain types of traffic control, however, VPNs could still work.