The Real Russia. Today. Russia's most popular mayor, spotting voter fraud in Moscow, and the money behind the Internet and textbooks crackdown
Thursday, February 14, 2019
This day in history (15 years ago): More than two dozen people, including eight children, died when the roof of the Transvaal water park in southern Moscow collapsed on this day in 2004. Almost 200 people were injured in the tragedy. A new water park opened on the same site in April 2013.
- How an indigenous, female opposition candidate became Russia’s most popular mayor
- Volunteers sifted through tens of thousands of hours of footage to spot election fraud near Moscow. Here’s what they found.
- Communist Party deputies respond to Russia’s proposed ban on insulting the government by proposing a ban on insulting voters
- Columnist Maxim Trudolyubov thinks Internet isolation is largely a scramble for budget allocations
- Columnist Ivan Davydov says optimism about Russia's repressive laws is misguided
- Putin proposes new law to punish crime bosses
- Columnist Boris Gorozovsky says the school textbook crackdown is about money as well as politics
- Meduza's roundup of top news reported at TJournal, Novaya Gazeta, and The Bell
On September 9, 2018, the eastern Siberian city of Yakutsk was the only regional capital in Russia to elect an opposition mayoral candidate. Forty-eight-year-old Sardana Avksentieva defeated Alexander Savvinov of the nationally dominant United Russia party to become the first woman ever to lead the city. After taking office, Avksentieva launched a campaign to implement what she says is her “popular mandate”: cutting spending on City Hall, firing shady officials and contractors, and selling off the luxury cars registered to the mayor’s office. As a result, Avksentieva has already gained national prominence, and her popularity online even has the Kremlin’s political strategists interested. Meduza’s special correspondent Taisia Bekbulatova visited Yakutsk to learn more about Avksentieva’s surprising victory and what awaits her as the city’s mayor.
Read the full report here: “How an indigenous, female opposition candidate became Russia’s most popular mayor”
In the months since Russia’s nationwide gubernatorial elections on September 9, 2018, Moscow Oblast has emerged as one of the regions with the most widespread record of election fraud. As early as December, news emerged of massive “carousels,” or systems by which voters circulate among precincts and vote multiple times in each, in the city of Balashikha on Moscow’s outskirts. Carousels require the cooperation of election officials, and the violations in Balashikha led to multiple investigations and resignations. To find the “carousel riders,” election observers used recordings from surveillance cameras posted in voting sites. Meduza reports on what might be an even more notable instance of mass corruption near Moscow on Election Day. Observers in the city of Roshal told Meduza that official turnout figures there far exceeded the turnout they observed on camera not just in one but in all eight of the city’s precincts.
As a bill that would fine Russian citizens for insulting state symbols, agencies, and officials continues to make its way through Russia’s State Duma, a faction of the country’s Communist Party has responded by proposing fines for government officials who insult their voters.
Deputy Sergei Kazanov, one of the project’s co-authors, said fines of 10,000 – 30,000 rubles (about $150 – $450) would make for an appropriate punishment in such cases. He added that repeated offenses or particularly rude comments could merit a three-year ban on participating in government service.
At the time of Kazanov’s announcement, his proposed bill was not yet listed on the website of Russia’s State Duma.
As the world’s tech pundits labor to coin a term that describes a Russified Chinese Great Firewall, not everyone is convinced that the latest “Internet sovereignty” legislation now working its way through the State Duma means an end to Russia’s presence on the World Wide Web. In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Maxim Trudolyubov says contemporary cyber-defense initiatives like the Internet isolation bill are designed primarily to sustain and profit individual actors, some private and others public, such as Roskomnadzor, the FSB, and the Communications Ministry, which enlist lawmakers to draft legislation that wins them more state resources.
Trudolyubov says the new Internet isolation bill is largely a play for federal money allocated in 2017 to “information security” under a government plan for Russia’s “digital economy.” The surge in online censorship and state control, Trudolyubov argues, is first and foremost a competition between “political entrepreneurs.” He believes that the Russian Internet lacks the homegrown alternatives to Western services and overall market size that enable China’s sovereign Internet, where major international investors can still earn big money.
Trudolyubov says there is a cultural component that sustains Russia’s relatively open Internet, as well. Russians use the Internet in the context of past Soviet censorship, when mass-communication devices like radios were widespread as proof of economic progress, but the information and entertainment carried by those contraptions were often unappealing. Citing anthropologist Alexey Yurchak, Trudolyubov says this discrepancy undermined the USSR and helped collapse the country. Russians today don’t welcome Internet isolation, Trudolyubov argues, but neither are they turning outward for the information and content missing at home. The public and private actors “leeching on these new prohibitions and restrictions” are interfering with this “inward search for answers,” not battling foreign influences.
When the State Duma adopts draconian legislation in its first reading, there’s usually a chorus of optimists who expect lawmakers to confer with their constituents and various experts, who will hopefully convince the deputies to water down the bill’s most repressive elements. In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Ivan Davydov says this isn’t what actually happens, pointing to recently announced amendments that would substantially raise the proposed fines on bills designed to outlaw “Internet fake news” and “online insults against state officials.”
Davydov says enforcement of the repressive laws enacted in Russia over the past decade hasn’t conformed to alarmists’ expectations or legislators’ promises. The reason, he argues, is that Russian laws are not intended to be enforced universally: “They’re not for everyone.” In fact, Davydov says, the country’s authorities start to worry when police officers start treating certain laws as though they were universal, arresting and prosecuting random citizens for actions that were only criminalized in the first place so the state could target “especially annoying activists.”
According to Davydov, Russia’s three biggest Internet laws on the horizon — “fake news,” “insults,” and “isolation” — will all be adopted in hardliner language, but the actual enforcement will be selective and (naturally) shaped in large part by corruption.
Last week, Russian education officials rejected a high-school economics textbook written by Igor Lipsits after an expert review determined that the text lacked sufficient “patriotism” and praise for the salubrious effects of “important substitution.” In an op-ed for The Insider, columnist Boris Gorozovsky says this has as much to do with the government’s conservative turn as it does with money and the country’s increasingly monopolized publishing industry.
The education holding company and book publisher “Prosveshcheniye,” which currently controls 40 percent of Russia’s educational market, is poised to grow its control to 85 percent, says Gorozovsky. (Lipsits’s textbook is not a Prosveshcheniye product.) The company belonged to the oligarch Arkady Rotenberg until the summer of 2017, when he came under U.S. sanctions and sold the business to an offshore. Over the past five years, the Russian government has cut the list of approved school textbooks from roughly 3,000 to 863. The most recent cuts affected just 11 percent of Prosveshcheniye’s textbooks, while knocking out 51–62 percent of the textbooks published by the company’s main competitors.
Gorozovsky says Prosveshcheniye also owes its “symbiosis” with the state to the fact that Vladimir Uzun, the head of the company, is also on the board of trustees for the Russian Education Academy, whose experts evaluate textbooks for the Education Ministry. According to Gorozovsky, the scholars on the academy’s expert review boards are “incompetent, ignorant” bureaucrats who got the job for their loyalty to the siloviki, Russia’s conservative security community. When it comes to the origins of today’s “patriotic education” in Russia, Gorozovsky believes the siloviki accelerated an indoctrination program introduced during the Medvedev era, when schools started emphasizing “moral” and “patriotic” approaches to core curricula.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has proposed an addition to the country’s criminal codex that would penalize “occupying a high rank in the criminal hierarchy.” The proposal prescribes a prison sentence of 8–15 years.
The clarifying note that accompanied Putin’s bill, which has been submitted for consideration to the State Duma, stated that Russian criminal authorities can currently avoid responsibility for their actions “thanks to their position.” “At the same time, current law does not place criminal responsibility on these figures for the fact of their leadership in the criminal hierarchy alone,” the president’s note explained.
Putin also proposed criminalizing participation in the meetings of a criminal organization and tightening current law on organizing or participating in a criminal society. Pavel Krasheninnikov, the chairperson of the Duma’s Legislation Committee, told Interfax the new bill could be approved as soon as next month.
Top stories from Russia’s news media
- 📰 The media project Baza now has its own mobile app, a couple of months after launching on social media with reports about terrorists’ alleged involvement in the Magnitogorsk apartment explosion. Baza’s four founders left their positions at Mash and Life last fall to begin work on the startup, and TJournal chief editor Nikita Likhachev points out that Baza mimics many of these outlets’ key services, especially the “LifeCorr” system by which Life buys content from readers and freelancers. Baza cofounder Nikita Mogutin told TJournal that the project avoided all outside funding for its startup costs. Asked how Baza plans to make any money, Mogutin talked about creating “special projects” and “viral content” for “brands,” as well as “exclusive information.” The project also plans to use “augmented-reality storytelling” in place of long-form journalism.
- 🚜 Grain exports account for nearly 70 percent of Russia’s $25-billion agricultural export business, which is why competition among state actors for the industry’s spoils has become so fierce. This is especially true since last year’s arrest of the Magomedov brothers and the scramble for United Grain Company (OZK), which they controlled through Summa Group. Novaya Gazeta’s Andrey Sukhotin says the battle for OZK is mainly between VTB Bank and Russia’s Agriculture Ministry (specifically, Rosselkhozbank). This week, hundreds of FSB agents joined Federal Tax Service officials in 13 regions across Russia for inspections of multiple major agricultural holding companies. According to Sukhotin, financial-sector law-enforcement agencies have started targeting grain exporters that receive state subsidies and tax exemptions. Until recently, local elites in the industry had enjoyed the protection of Rosselkhoznadzor and Rospotrebnadzor, as well as a common understanding with tax inspectors.
- 👮 An 18-year-old pro-Navalny activist in Kaliningrad named Ivan Luzin is the first in the country to be tried for a new misdemeanor offense: recruiting minors to a public demonstration. In what amounts to a test case for а law passed last December, a judge will decide if Luzin acted illegally when he photographed two “underage” activists posing with anti-torture banners at Victory Square. According to the lawyer advising Luzin, prosecutors have no case if the two girls refuse to testify. (He is also being charged, however, with attending an unpermitted rally.)
- 🚧 Roughly 300 people in Moscow’s Ramenki District turned out for a permitted protest on February 13 against the “infill” construction of a high-rise residential building, as well as a forged petition supposedly in their names endorsing the development project. The demonstration included speeches from several opposition municipal deputies and former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov. Since December, Ramenki locals have used their own cars to block the arrival of construction equipment needed to build another highrise in the area. Multiple times, residents and security guards have come to blows. The locals have maintained a 24-hour watch around the site’s perimeter.
- 💰 The Bell has identified a man who might have helped the Arashukov family flip real estate in St. Petersburg. Based on footage shared on YouTube by Russian federal investigators, The Bell was able to locate one of the apartments raided in connection with the homicide case against Senator Rauf Arashukov, finding that it’s likely owned by a man named Gennady Sidorov. Over the past two decades, Sidorov has concluded 80 real-estate agreements in the city for homes with an estimated value of roughly 500 million rubles ($7.5 million). The senator’s father, Raul Arashukov, faces separate criminal charges for embezzling more than 30 billion rubles ($449.7 million) in gas in the North Caucasus. Sources told the magazine RBC that the Arashukovs took the money they made on stolen gas and invested it in real estate and gold.