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The Real Russia. Today. Trump Miss Universe, Dmitry tells all (or nothing), and Kremlinologists' ‘guesswork game’

Source: Meduza

Friday, March 29, 2019

This day in history: 120 years ago, on March 29, 1899, the Georgian-Russian general and politician Lavrentiy Beria was born in the village of Merkheuli, in modern-day Abkhazia. Beria was the longest-lived and most influential of Stalin's secret police chiefs. When Beria was executed in 1953, he pleaded on his knees for mercy before collapsing to the floor and crying.
  • Russian singer who worked with Trump team on Miss Universe and Trump Tower Moscow speaks out about Mueller investigation
  • Dmitry Medvedev tells all (or nothing): The prime minister’s #VKLive broadcast in three summarized quotes
  • Russia’s censorship agency demands that VPN services comply with its list of blocked websites
  • Ingush police battalion disbanded after its members refuse to disperse protesters
  • More than 20 Russian universities choose to award bonus points in admissions to members of patriotic youth movement
  • Convicted neo-Nazi goes free after Russian government partially decriminalizes ‘inciting hate and enmity’
  • Journalist Andrey Sinitsyn summarizes the ‘guesswork game’ that surrounds the continuing crackdown of prominent figures

The musician and entrepreneur 👄

When the musician and entrepreneur Emin Agalarov first read about the conclusions of the so-called Mueller probe, he was pleasantly unsurprised. “We were very glad, of course,” Agalarov told the Russian-language investigative outlet The Bell. But, he added, “we always knew that would be the result. I mean, I was the one who organized that fantastical meeting [with attorney Natalya Veselnitskaya], and I know what it was all really like.”

Agalarov, who runs the multi-industry Crocus Group along with his father, Araz, did not comment on his relationship with the Trump family while Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Donald Trump’s Russian connections was ongoing in the United States. However, with the probe’s conclusions already on paper, the singer gave an interview to The Bell. In his conversation with journalist Anastasia Stognei, the younger Agalarov discussed the Miss Universe competition that first brought him into contact with Donald Trump, Veselnitskaya’s alleged offer to provide compromising information about Hillary Clinton, and the planned American tour that almost made the musician himself an official witness for Mueller’s team.

“Let’s find the most beautiful girl in the United States”

Agalarov told The Bell that he had just finished recording an album in New York when he first heard about the Miss Universe competition. In a 2012 meeting with his manager, the publicist Rob Goldstone, the singer asked where he might find “the most beautiful girl in the United States” to act in one of his music videos. Goldstone mentioned Miss Universe, and before long, Agalarov discovered that the same name he associated with the skyscrapers sprouting around him was in charge of the beauty pageant as well.

After visiting the Miss America competition in Las Vegas in June of 2013, the Agalarovs hosted Miss Universe in November of that same year. The pair had recently opened a new Moscow mega-venue, Crocus City Hall, and hoped to attract partnerships and investment as a result of the partnership. While Agalarov said the result was ultimately a $2 million loss, Trump’s 2013 visit to the Russian capital became an explosive point of interest in the timeline of his relationship with the Russian government.

“Naturally, when he got to Russia, Trump asked whether Putin would be there, whether we invited him,” Emin Agalarov told The Bell. “We said, of course, that we did.” As a competition with a large global audience, Agalarov reasoned, Miss Universe merited the attention of Putin himself. However, in the two days during which the singer said he accompanied Trump around the city, Putin ultimately spent his time meeting with the king of Jordan. “If I’m not mistaken,” Agalarov explained, “my father passed an invitation along to Putin through his press secretary, and either he or someone else from the presidential administration said the president would have liked to come but couldn’t.” The singer said he did organize a “meet and greet” for Trump with employees of the state-owned Sberbank but that “no business came out of it” in the end. He called American media speculation about a near-run-in between Trump and Putin in 2013 “some kind of conspiracy theory” and said the Steele dossier describing Trump’s Moscow visit was “a piece of total absurdity with no foundation underneath.”

“We were planning to build 14 towers. Why not name one of them after Trump?”

After the 2013 Miss Universe contest, the Agalarovs made contact with Trump’s businesses to discuss the possibility of building a Trump Tower in Moscow. “My father was always against it, but I was for it,” the musician said. He explained that the Trump brand was not yet big enough in Russia to attract as much attention as it would today. Nonetheless, he thought to himself, “We were planning to build 14 towers. Why not name one of them after Trump?”

Agalarov said he and his father signed two documents with Trump Organization representatives in 2015: a letter of intent that the singer said had no legal authority as well as a non-disclosure agreement. The relevant negotiations disintegrated over time and did not include Trump himself, Agalarov added. “When Trump started running for president, they stopped altogether. It was only post facto that we found out they were also talking about building a Trump Tower with other developers,” he said.

“I think political questions of some kind really could have been discussed”

By 2016, the U.S. presidential campaign was in full swing, but the relationship between the Agalarovs and the Trump conglomerate was not yet over. When Araz Agalarov asked his son to arrange a meeting with someone within the Trump team, Emin did not see anything strange in the request. He delegated the task to Rob Goldstone, and Russian attorney Natalya Veselnitskaya ultimately met with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his campaign manager Paul Manafort in Trump Tower. Agalarov said that when he asked Goldstone about the meeting after the fact, his former manager told him, “This is the most ridiculous meeting I have ever attended.”

Ridiculous or not, Agalarov said, he soon forgot about the meeting. If it would have seemed important, he claimed, he would have handled it himself rather than delegating its organization to Goldstone. Now, he says that Goldstone said Veselnitskaya had offered the Trump campaign dirt on Hillary Clinton and her team just to hook Trump’s aides into unrelated political discussions. “I think political questions of some kind really could have been discussed during that meeting. That lady, the lawyer, she had plans that weren’t just about the Magnitsky list, as I understand it.” When news of the meeting blew up in the American media, the Russian singer said, he stopped discussing his communications with the Trump team with anyone, including his father, on the advice of their attorneys.

At first, Agalarov said, he was open to cooperating with Robert Mueller’s team as the latter investigated the possibility of collusion between Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian government. “I have nothing to hide,” the musician claimed. He said he planned a U.S. tour and booked concert venues in five American cities with the intention of meeting with Mueller’s team in the process. However, Agalarov said he discovered shortly before he was due to depart for the States that he would be permitted to testify only once Mueller issued a subpoena, at which point the singer would be obligated to remain in the U.S. until the investigation concluded. Agalarov told The Bell he decided to take a financial hit and cancel his tour. “I would have had to cancel half my life, I have four kids,” he explained. The musician added that tickets for the concerts he had planned sold successfully and that he hoped to make up for the monetary loss of canceling t by going on tour in the U.S. this coming fall. When asked whether he plans to renew his contacts with the Trump family as well, Agalarov responded, “I don’t think so.”

Garrulous Dmitry 📺

Yekaterina Shtukina / Press Service of the Government of the Russian Federation / TASS / Vida Press

On March 29, Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev took part in a live interview on the social media platform VKontakte as part of the network’s #VKLive program. While Medvedev spoke positively of social media as a platform for two-way communication with the public, his own openness about current events was limited.

On the case against American investment manager Michael Calvey: I don’t have any precise information about the case. The truth will be established in court.

On the case against former Presidential Envoy Viktor Ishaev: It’s difficult for me to comment. Law enforcement agencies, investigators, and the courts will figure it out.

On the case against former Open Government Minister Mikhail Abyzov: I know nothing about Abyzov’s commercial activity. The only way to solve the conflict now is through a formal investigation.

News briefs

  • 📡 Roskomnadzor, the agency responsible for communications regulation and censorship in Russia, announced today that it contacted a number of VPN services to request that they subscribe to the agency’s registry of websites that are banned from distribution on Russian territory. Though Roskomnadzor has blocked VPN services before and asked Internet service providers to comply with its registry of blocked sites, this is the first time it has made the same demands of VPN providers. Read the full story here.
  • 👮 A police battalion in the Russian federal subject of Ingushetia was disbanded after its members collectively refused to force protestors to disband during a protest in the republic’s capital of Magas on March 26. Kaloy Akhilgov, the former press secretary to Ingushetia’s head of government, told reporters about the dismissal, saying 19 police officers were fired in total. Read the full story here.
  • ✊ More than 20 universities in Russia have chosen to reward their applicants for participating in Yunarmia (“Youth Army”), an explicitly patriotic youth movement sponsored by the country’s Defense Ministry. According to the Ministry, about half a million young people will be involved in the movement by early May. Read the full story here.
  • ⚖️ The neo-Nazi Dmitry Bobrov has been set free due to the Russian government’s partial decriminalization of Article 282, a law that now penalizes some cases of “inciting hate and enmity” against particular groups with fees and administrative penalties alone. Bobrov, who has led the recognized extremist groups Schultz-88 and National Socialist Initiative, went into hiding in September 2017 when he was sentenced to two years in prison. He was captured in January 2019. Read the full story here.

Sinitsyn: Abyzov's arrest is the result of the Kremlin's decentralized managerial system. Or maybe it's the Kremlin's centralized system. 👮

In an op-ed for Republic, journalist Andrey Sinitsyn summarizes the “guesswork game” that surrounds the continuing crackdown on prominent figures, focusing in part on the arrest of former Open Government Minister Mikhail Abyzov.

Is it a signal to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that his number will soon be up? Or are the security agencies (the siloviki) obliterating his “base” because Medvedev will return to the presidency in 2024 for another round as placeholder, this time in an even emptier power vacuum? Is it a message to the “system’s liberals,” like Arkady Dvorkovich and Anatoly Chubais, that they’re the country’s whipping boys again? Or maybe it’s a general anti-corruption signal from the government to state officials nationwide?

Sinitsyn approaches these questions from two different perspectives, citing political expert Alexander Morozov, who argues that the Kremlin relies on a largely decentralized managerial system, and new research by the “Liberal Mission Foundation,” which posits a more centralized command structure.

According to Morozov, Vladimir Putin relies on a “project system,” where the president is perpetually approving and rejecting different “proposals.” Once Putin gives the green light on a particular plan, Morozov says, the person or agency that cooked up the idea is responsible for seeing it through, whether it’s providing aid to Venezuela or cracking down on a specific business. The siloviki have a “whole factory of projects” currently in development, largely because they’ve learned that “control in the broadest sense” is increasingly important to the Kremlin, as the 2024 political flashpoint nears.

Morozov also describes the “popular and even scholarly thesis” that fighting among Russia’s elites has escalated as different groups scramble for the remaining pieces of a “shrinking pie.” Morozov says whole regions, social groups, oligarchs, corporations, “and even artists” compete for a share of the “administrative rents.” The siloviki used to act mostly as hired muscle in these conflicts, functioning as “instruments” and “working at a commission,” but now they’ve seized control over the fight and want the pie itself, Morozov says. In the Abyzov case, for example, the FSB is using the former minister to put pressure on his “counter-agents, partners, and protectors,” who “control financial flows and exert influence.”

Meanwhile, if you’re uncomfortable viewing Putin as a “hands-off” kind of leader, there’s always new research from the “Liberal Mission Foundation,” which characterizes “counter-elite economic repressions” as a form of selective punishment against rent-collection. According to this theory, repressions allow the authorities to “control” the amount of corruption in the country and force a degree of loyalty on different elite groups. This process also facilitates the siloviki’s domination of domestic policies and the economy, which is why the FSB’s caseload has grown threefold in the past seven years, with a quarter of all cases involving economic crimes (while only 4 percent have dealt with terrorism).

Yours, Meduza