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The Real Russia. Today. Alexey Chepa's love-hate relationship with the West, Navalny's ‘Smart Vote’ problems, and Russians' enduring Soviet nostalgia

Meduza

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

This day in history. On December 19, 2016, Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov was assassinated while speaking at an art gallery exhibition in Ankara. The gunman, 22-year-old off-duty Turkish policeman Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, shouted, “We die in Aleppo, you die here,” before he was killed by Turkish security forces.
  • One of the Russian parliament’s most outspoken critics of the West has a fancy London restaurant in his son’s name and a Miami apartment in his niece’s name
  • Moscow court formally blocks Alexey Navalny's online project to defeat United Russia in regional elections
  • Lobbying expert Sergei Kostiaev compares ‘Smart Vote’ to strategic crossover voting in U.S.
  • Disgruntled driver attacks ‘Ekho Moskvy’ deputy chief editor, putting a gun to his head
  • Russian deputy foreign minister talks at length about Washington’s impending withdrawal from the INF Treaty
  • 52 seconds of video filmed on Moscow's Tverskaya Street in May 1896 surfaces on YouTube
  • New polls shows that 66 percent of Russians now say they regret the collapse of the USSR
  • Masha Gessen unpacks cybersecurity report on Russian trolls’ political meddling in America

Oh, say can you see 💰

Alexey Chepa used to run a business in Africa and owned the Russky Mir television station. Today he serves as a deputy in Russia’s State Duma, where he’s a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and is an outspoken critic of Great Britain and the United States. Chepa owned a restaurant in London after joining the State Duma. He later transferred it to his son, and signed another business in England over to his daughter. Chepa used to own an apartment in Miami. Now it’s owned by his niece, whose companies went bankrupt thanks to a lawsuit by Chepa’s bank. Then the bank itself went belly up.

Read Meduza's investigative report: “One of the Russian parliament’s most outspoken critics of the West has a fancy London restaurant in his son’s name and a Miami apartment in his niece’s name”

Too smart for its own good ⚖️

Moscow Tagansky District Court judge Olga Sinelnikova has ruled against Alexey Navalny’s “Smart Vote” website, siding with Roskomnadzor and finding that Smart Vote violates Russia’s regulations on personal data storage. The information of people who register with the website is processed through the service Google Analytics, which is based in the United States. Sinelnikova ruled that this data legally needs to be stored on servers in Russia, and determined that Smart Vote prompts users to share their bank account information to purchase merchandise without disclosing how it handles the information.

Sinelnikova blocked not only the 2019.vote website, but also its mirror websites. The portal itself has been inaccessible to most Internet users in Russia since December 7, when Sinelnikova approved a preliminary block as an interim measure.

In court on December 19, Navalny's representatives acknowledged that Smart Vote might have initially violated Russia's privacy requirements, but argued that the website now features a transparent data-collection agreement and statement of terms.

  • In late November, 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.

🗳️ Kostiaev explains what Navalny is up against, trying to utilize American voting strategies

In an op-ed for Republic, interest group and lobbying expert Sergei Kostiaev compares Alexey Navalny’s “Smart Vote” initiative to strategic crossover voting in U.S. elections (typically primaries), highlighting the obstacles and advantages to importing American voting tactics. Citing literature by Seok-ju Cho and Insun Kang in the “Journal of Theoretical Politics,” Kostiaev identifies two types of crossover voting: hedging (voting for the moderate candidate of the opposite party) and raiding (voting for the extreme candidate of the opposite party), and he adds a third type called “compromise” (voting for the moderate candidate of your own party who doesn’t actually share many of your political views).

Kostiaev lists two reasons that “blindly copying American strategic voting” in Russia is pointless: (1) United Russia’s primaries are fixed (though the Kremlin has in fact managed to mobilize “raiding” within opposition parties’ primaries), and (2) the Kremlin regularly restricts strong candidates’ access to the ballot box or simply cancels elections. He points to Primorye’s recent gubernatorial race (read more about that here) as an example of (ultimately failed) strategic voting à la russe, where support for the “technical candidate” from the Communist Party amounted to hedging.

Despite these challenges, Kostiaev believes there are three factors working in Navalny’s favor: (1) he has an impressive national network capable of mobilizing lots of people, as demonstrated in his 2013 Moscow mayoral campaign and 2017 presidential campaign; (2) the “Smart Vote” project is a nationwide initiative that could overcome the regional and planning obstacles that have stymied strategic voting in the U.S.; and (3) protest sentiment in Russia is rising thanks to economic stagnation and pension reform, and Navalny could capitalize on it. In order to do this, however, Kostiaev says Navalny must invest in a large number of sociological studies to identify the strongest challengers in every race, and manage to convince a large number of voters to work in concert.

Hey, I'm walking here 🤬

Someone grabbed Ekho Moskvy deputy chief editor Sergey Buntman and put a gun to his head, after the journalist caught his coat on the bumper of the man’s parked car. The incident took place on the evening of December 18, outside the “Shinok” restaurant near the Ulitsa 1905 Goda subway station in Moscow, where friends celebrated Ekho Moskvy chief editor Alexey Venediktov’s birthday.

According to a Facebook post by Buntman’s wife, Lidiya Skryabina, an unidentified passerby intervened and saved him by chasing away the attacker. Skryabina also shared a photograph of the attacker’s car, which the website Open Media says is registered to Mikhail Gusman, the deputy CEO of the news agency TASS.

  • On October 23, 2017, a mentally ill man forced his way into the Ekho Moskvy radio studio and stabbed deputy chief editor Tatyana Felgenhauer in the neck. She survived the attack, and returned to work in early November.

Fun on Twitter

🚀 Ryabkov big INF treaty interview

In an interview with Kommersant’s Elena Chernenko, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov talks at length about Washington’s impending withdrawal from the INF Treaty. PIR Center nuclear expert Andrey Baklitskiy wrote a spirited 18-tweet summary of the exchange on December 18, detailing Ryabkov’s fervent denial that Russia has failed to comply with the terms of the agreement. Read his tweet storm here.

🎥 Moscow in 1896

What was Moscow like 121 years ago? Thanks to the Guy Jones Time Machine project, you can now hop on YouTube and witness 52 seconds of life on Tverskaya Street in May 1896. The footage, slowed down to a natural rate with sound added for ambiance, was recorded by Charles Moisson of the Lumière company. Photographer Rustem Agadamov tweeted a link to the video on December 18, though the footage appeared online three months earlier. Watch it here.

Those were the days 🕰️

Nostalgia for the Soviet Union is spiking again in Russia today. According to new polling by the independent Levada Center, 66 percent of Russians now say they regret the collapse of the USSR — the highest number in almost 14 years. Levada’s data shows that Russians’ nostalgia for the Soviet era peaked in December 2000, when 75 percent of the country said they missed the USSR.

Totalitarian noise 📣

In an op-ed for The New Yorker, columnist Masha Gessen unpacks the “New Knowledge” cybersecurity company’s report on Russian trolls’ political meddling (one of two studies commissioned by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee), arguing that the authors “isolate certain comprehensible messages” in what was essentially “cacophony” with “no political import at all.” Gessen argues that this is the nature of Russian propaganda, which she calls “a direct descendant of totalitarian Soviet propaganda.” (Gessen’s most recent book is titled “The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.”) “In fact, the purpose of totalitarian propaganda is to take away your ability to perceive reality,” she explains. “Totalitarian propaganda is overwhelming and inconsistent.” Americans fail to grasp this, according to Gessen, who says people in the U.S. falsely assume that propaganda always serves “clear, actionable objectives.”

Yours, Meduza