The Real Russia. Today. Next steps for Ukraine's president-elect, a Russian senator explains the drawbacks to civil rights, and the ethical mess of censoring anti-Putin graffiti
Monday, April 22, 2019
This day in history: 120 years ago today, on April 22, 1899, Vladimir Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg. The author of “Lolita” and other acclaimed novels, Nabokov died in Switzerland at the age of 78 in 1977.
- Nearly three in four voters just made Volodymyr Zelenskiy the next president of Ukraine. So what’s next?
- The view from headquarters: How Zelenskiy’s and Poroshenko’s teams reacted on election night
- RTVI digital director Ilya Klishin calls Russian TV coverage of Ukraine's election an ‘amazing media-optical illusion’
- Vedomosti editorial says a ‘clown’ but not a comedian could make waves in Russian politics
- Columnist Oleg Kashin says Putin should seize Zelenskiy's victory and bury Lenin, once and for all
- Senator argues that civil rights actually restrict freedom
- How anti-Putin graffiti triggered the first enforcement of Russia's new ban on insulting the government online — and the ethical mess that followed
- Human rights legal analyst Damir Gainutdinov says defamation cases are leading to the commercialization of Russia's Internet censorship
- Writer Dmitry Bykov, now conscious after coma, greets followers on social media
Since declaring independence in 1991, Ukraine has elected six presidents. This weekend, voters chose their most recent leader: actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Once taking office, he will have to figure out how to cooperate with Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, where he has neither a majority nor his own faction. His team is reportedly considering the dissolution of the parliament, but this would be very difficult, and disagreements about the Rada could damage Zelenskiy’s early popularity.
Read Meduza's report here: “Nearly three in four voters just made Volodymyr Zelenskiy the next president of Ukraine. So what’s next?”
On April 21, several days before the official results of Ukraine’s presidential election are set to be announced, incumbent Petro Poroshenko admitted defeat and congratulated his rival, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, on his victory. Now, the outgoing president is promising to build a powerful opposition for his successor while Zelenskiy’s supporters are divvying up cabinet posts to which they do not yet have a right. Meduza special correspondent Ilya Zhegulev reported from both campaigns’ headquarters on election day.
Read Meduza's report here: “The view from headquarters: How Zelenskiy’s and Poroshenko’s teams reacted on election night”
Opinions about Ukraine's election
In an op-ed for Vedomosti, columnist and RTVI digital director Ilya Klishin says the serious debate waged by supporters of Poroshenko and Zelenskiy inside Russia demonstrates how desperate Russians are for competitive elections. Klishin points out that the Russian state media has reported regularly and in great depth on Ukrainian internal matters ever since the Euromaidan Revolution. The euphoria that accompanied the early coverage, he says, had lost its fervor, until this year’s presidential race.
Among Moscow’s “creative class,” Klishin says, the Ukrainian election represented a more heated version of Russians’ debates over the U.S. presidential race, Brexit, and the Catalan independence referendum. Klishin calls this phenomenon an “amazing media-optical illusion,” where millions of people in one nation essentially role play the democratic contests occurring in freer foreign countries. Klishin guesses that the Russian state provides news coverage and encourages these squabbles as “psychological compensation” for a society starved for real democracy.
In an editorial for Vedomosti, staff writers Pavel Aptekar, Vladimir Ruvinsky, and Maria Zheleznova say Zelenskiy’s election in Ukraine is a “lesson” Russian society and the Russian authorities will need to learn, despite the distance that’s emerged between the two countries. On the one hand, the editorial says, the Kremlin had confronted the reverberations of Ukrainian democracy before, countering protest momentum in Russia that followed the Orange Revolution in 2005 and the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014.
Until now, gubernatorial upsets have been the “glass ceiling” for anti-establishment candidates in Russia, says Vedomosti, pointing to gubernatorial upsets last fall, when voters rejected several of the Kremlin’s appointees and elected rival politicians who didn’t even campaign in earnest. Vedomosti says Zelenskiy’s victory doesn’t change Russia’s political system, but it does “psychologically” raise the “bar of what’s possible” in voters’ minds.
Ukraine’s experience, nevertheless, doesn’t indicate how the global anti-establishment trend might manifest in Russia, Vedomosti argues. Zelenskiy relied heavily on his comedic talents and the popularity he drew from his career on television. In Russia, the last television star to run for president — Ksenia Sobchak — was widely unpopular. While Vedomosti says political satire is the only weapon against state propaganda (hence Zelenskiy’s strength), the newspaper says Russian voters might prefer a “sincere” and “trusting” political dialogue. TV is also far more censored in Russia, making it unlikely that a comedian will be the one to sweep out in the incumbents.
But a “clown” could still break through, Vedomosti says. In Russian elections, the only candidates allowed on the ballot are “sparring partners” and “decorative rivals” meant to create the illusion of representation. Even these frauds, however, can win upset victories, as last fall’s gubernatorial races demonstrated. Surprises are possible, Vedomosti says, when candidates discover the strength and courage needed to compete for real. (This somewhat contradicts the editorial’s earlier observation that opposition candidates last year won their races almost unintentionally.)
In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Oleg Kashin says Vladimir Lenin’s 150th birthday next year presents the perfect opportunity to bury the Bolshevik leader once and for all. Kashin highlights the round, pretty number, and argues that Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s presidential victory marks the end of Ukraine’s 2014 moment and its decommunization program that “delayed Russia’s long-overdue final escape” from Lenin by briefly resuscitating his personality cult.
Kashin says Lenin is a poor fit for contemporary Russia’s official national myth. As a revolutionary, Lenin is inimical to the modern state’s interests, and even post-Soviet “revolutionaries” in 1991 flirted only cautiously with the history of the country’s post-Tsarist democrats. The Yeltsin administration’s brief post-Soviet search for a “historical compromise” somewhere in Russia’s Tsarist past ended with the decision to keep the USSR’s foundational myth: victory in WWII. Moscow pursued this, despite the many “side effects,” like partly legitimizing Stalin and the Soviet system. These developments have made Joseph Stalin, not Vladimir Lenin, the country's enduring personality cult. In other words, the Putin administration doesn’t have to worry about a “formal overthrow” of Lenin, because history has already mostly abandoned the old Bolshevik.
If that’s not enough incentive for the Kremlin, the authorities should realize that (1) removing Lenin from the mausoleum and sticking him in the dirt would distract the public from whatever social activism is underway at the time, and (2) Putin risks missing his chance at a major historical achievement, the longer he waits to bury Lenin, and eventually the opportunity will pass to someone else.
Slavery is freedom? ⛓️
Notoriously conservative Russian Senator Elena Mizulina has offered her latest defense of the federal prohibitions adopted by the State Duma in recent years. Speaking at an Internet security forum, Mizulina argued that freedom is actually restricted by civil rights. The senator then explained that rights “are when you can act, but only according to the way it’s written in the law.” “The more rights you have, the less freedom,” she concluded.
For several days in April, Russia’s federal censor, Roskomnadzor, blocked two of the most popular local media outlets in Yaroslavl: Yarcube and 76.ru. Both outlets’ editors had refused to comply with the agency’s unofficial request to delete a news story describing a police search for unknown individuals who painted the words “Putin is a fag” on the front of the region’s Internal Affairs Ministry building. The journalists believe that they were a kind of test case for Russia’s new law penalizing “disrespect toward the government,” which took effect less than one month ago. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev learned that the government agencies who blocked Yarcube and 76.ru made up their own wording to justify their demands as legal requests and that the editors-in-chief who rejected those requests thought at first that the entire thing was an April Fool’s prank.
In an op-ed for Republic, human rights legal analyst Damir Gainutdinov warns that the system Russia uses to block websites is growing from a tool of Internet censorship into an “instrument of unfair competition.” Gainutdinov says the vagueness of Russian legislation on defamation has created a cottage industry of lawyers who pursue cases based on commercial interests, winning injunctive measures from courts in cases where website administrators and journalists aren’t even notified about the charges until after the judge reaches a decision. In several recent cases, moreover, defendants weren't contacted by the federal censor, Roskomnadzor, until it was too late to appeal the injunction.
Gainutdinov cites three recent examples of political censorship expanding into commercial disputes: (1) Oleg Deripaska suing several media outlets in February 2018 for publishing summaries of an investigative report by Alexey Navalny about a potential bribe offered to Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Prikhodko; (2) in March 2019, Rustem Magdeev temporarily won an injunction against Pravo.ru in a Kazan court over the translation of an article that appeared in The Times about “an acrimonious spiral of legal claim and counterclaim” between Magdeev and two other businessmen; and (3) early this month, Roskomnadzor blocked roughly 1,000 hyperlinks to different Internet resources mentioning VTB Bank, the bank’s president, Andrey Kostin, and TV news anchor Nailya Asker-Zade. Gainutdinov points out that Roskomnadzor sometimes ordered websites to delete content, even when those specific outlets weren't named in court rulings.
The writer and journalist Dmitry Bykov posted on his Facebook and Instagram accounts to thank the doctors who have treated him in the past week as well as the friends and fans who have supported him. “I hope to get back in the game as soon as possible. Thank you! Great things await us—don’t doubt it for a second!” Bykov wrote. Bykov was placed into a medically induced coma after being hospitalized on April 16 in Ufa. Three days later, he was flown to Moscow before regaining consciousness on April 21.