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The Real Russia. Today. The race for Islamist partners, a game show scandal for the ages, and Kashin says Putin can save his legacy with love

Source: Meduza

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

This day in history (35 years ago): Remember Konstantin Chernenko? On this day in 1984, he was unanimously elected to serve as USSR Communist Party general secretary. Chernenko would remain in office for a whole year, dying on March 10, 1985, and paving the way for the final Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
  • Russia and the U.S. are racing to negotiate with Islamists
  • Popular Russian game show is rocked by cheating allegations
  • Creeped out by Facebook’s algorithms? Just wait until you see this new facial recognition tool released by anonymous Russian programmers.
  • Russian government begins charging young activists for including minors in protests
  • Russian legislators hope to multiply fines for posting ‘fake news’ and disrespecting the government
  • Following recent jail sentence, prominent human rights activist’s organization is blacklisted as ‘foreign agent’ for second time
  • Columnist Oleg Kashin says Putin needs to ditch his ‘ratings cult’ to save Russia and his own legacy

Neck and neck 🏁

Russian-mediated negotiations between the Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah are scheduled to conclude in Moscow today. The negotiations took place amid rumors that the White House is preparing a “deal of the century” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and may make its plan public this spring. In the last several months, Moscow and Washington have taken part in a lively contest to assert their influence in Middle Eastern conflicts, often by entering talks with parties that are widely considered extremist or terrorist groups. Meduza reports on the most important episodes of that ongoing diplomatic game.

Read the full report here: “Russia and the U.S. are racing to negotiate with Islamists”

The quiz star versus the nobody 📺

Ilya Ber, the chief editor behind the television game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” has accused “What? Where? When?” veteran contestant Alexander Drouz of trying to cheat his way to a large cash prize. In his show’s LiveJournal community, Ber wrote that Drouz contacted him ahead of taping in November 2018 and asked him for an advance copy of the questions and correct answers in exchange for a share of the 3-million-ruble ($45,630) winnings.

Read Meduza's full report: “Popular Russian game show is rocked by cheating allegations”

Jeepers creepers 👁️

On February 11, Russian Internet users discovered a website, searchface.ru, that allows anyone to search the massive social media network VKontakte using a single image. The site’s functionality was simple: after uploading a photograph that included someone’s face, users could see a list of links to VKontakte pages with photographs that may depict the same person. On February 13, after the social media network announced that it would sue SearchFace for “gross violations of [VKontakte’s] rules,” the algorithm’s creators removed profile links from the site’s search results but retained the rest of its functions.

Before that change, Meduza journalist Sultan Suleimanov tried out SearchFace’s technology by uploading a recent photo of himself to the website. He intentionally used a picture in which his face was contorted, but that did not seem to interfere with the website’s results. SearchFace was able to locate not only Suleimanov’s personal VKontakte page but also several fake accounts whose creators had uploaded photographs of him.

Read Meduza's full report here.

Leave them kids alone 👮

Russia’s State Duma approved a bill in mid-December that created administrative penalties for those charged with involving minors in unsanctioned protests and rallies. Now, 18-year-old activist Ivan Luzin has become the first protester to be charged under the new law. Luzin volunteers for the national opposition politician Alexey Navalny in the city of Kaliningrad and is also a volunteer for Russia’s Libertarian Party.

Alexander Dobralsky, Luzin’s attorney, said officials have accused the teenager of organizing a picket on February 7 that included two underage women. Dobralsky said both women were also volunteers from Navalny’s local headquarters.

If he is found guilty of an administrative violation, Luzin could face a fine of 30,000 – 50,000 rubles ($460 – $760), community service, or 15 days in jail. Under the new law, repeat violators can face fines about five times that large or twice as many days in jail.

Pay up, phonies 📰

As two State Duma bills that would penalize spreading “fake news” or disrespecting authorities online approach their second reading, some deputies are asking for the proposals’ fines to be increased by several times. TASS reported on the proposed increases and circulated a copy of the amendments supported by a group of Duma deputies.

The original bills proposed a fine of 3,000 – 5,000 rubles ($46 - $76) for ordinary citizens and 30,000 – 50,000 rubles ($460 – $760) for public figures who share “unreliable” stories online or show disrespect on the Internet for state symbols or government figures. Deputies are now hoping for fines of 30,000 – 100,000 rubles ($460 – $1,522) for private citizens who violate the bills and 60,000 – 200,000 rubles ($913 – $3,043) for public figures.

At the same time, the proposed amendments include decreased fines for those who hold legal office. Those penalties, which the bills previously set at 400,000 to one million rubles ($6,088 – $15,219), might be lowered to 200,000 – 500,000 rubles ($3,043 – $7,609) with exceptions for spreading information that leads to “mass social disorder” or other disruptions in public life. Both the bill regarding “unreliable” information and the ban on expressing overt disrespect toward the Russian government online are expected to pass in some form.

Blacklist me once, shame on you 🔍

Russian human rights icon Lev Ponomarev’s organization has been labeled a “foreign agent” for the second time after what Russian news sources called an “unplanned document check.” The nonprofit “For Human Rights” had been classified as a foreign agent in December 2014, but Russia’s Justice Ministry removed the designation a year later.

The 77-year-old activist said the Justice Ministry’s decision to reinstate the foreign agent label stemmed from his arrest on December 5 for promoting an unsanctioned rally. Ponomarev posted on social media to express support for protesters, who were demanding the release of young Russians accused of extremism. The Justice Ministry’s document check began later that month, and Ponomarev pointed out that his name was “mentioned multiple times” in a meeting between Russia’s federal human rights council and President Vladimir Putin after the human rights activist was sentenced to 25 days in jail.

Kashin says all Putin needs is love ❤️

In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Oleg Kashin says only “love” will save Russia from the Kremlin’s reckless pursuit of “total political loyalty.” Kashin says the Putin administration’s fixation on sociological polling emerged in the late 1990s among the political technologists who brought Putin to office. The president’s “ratings cult,” Kashin says, was a response to the “situational politics” in 1999, as post-Soviet liberalizers were falling prey to “nomenclatura revenge” at the hands of Soviet veterans and a society “hardened by market liberalization” and the war in Chechnya. This was the new social consensus of the late Yeltsin period, and it lifted Putin to power. Kashin paints a picture of seamless continuity, arguing that the same social groups persecuted today by the Putin regime were already doomed under Yeltsin in the late 1990s.

By “love,” Kashin means that the Kremlin needs to learn how not to panic in the face of lower popularity ratings. Putin’s team must find the courage to acknowledge that its absolutist approach has failed, he says, and understand that the pursuit of total loyalty leads to stupid legislation and repressive state policies. The president's legacy is doomed, Kashin warns, if the Putinist system stakes its existence on impossible polling targets.

Yours, Meduza