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The Real Russia. Today. Why Russia tortures, no Putinism without Putin, and the Olive Stone ploy

Source: Meduza

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

This day in history: 79 years ago, U.S. Secretary of State Sumner Welles condemned the June 1940 occupation by the USSR of the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and refused to recognize their annexation as Soviet Republics.
  • A leading advocate for Russian prisoners explains why the Gulag system lives on and what she’s doing about it
  • Opinion: Dmitry Travin thinks Putinism won't survive without Putin, Oleg Kashin says the Oliver Stone transcript is a ploy, and Andrey Pertsev faults Kremlin meddling for Moscow's botched City Duma race
  • News briefs: A murdered LGBTQ rights activist, children killed in campground fire, two new legislative initiatives, and some submarine fire developments

Devout torturers 👮

Olga Romanova directs a nonprofit called Rus’ Sidyashchaya (“Rus’ Imprisoned”) that provides aid to Russian prisoners and their families. Nonetheless, she hasn’t lived in Russia for two full years: in the summer of 2017, she moved abroad after law enforcement officials had her organization’s office searched. Around the same time, reports emerged that Anatoly Rudy, the deputy director of Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service, had reported Romanova for embezzlement. He claimed that she had stolen funds allocated to her by the World Bank to run financial literacy seminars in the Russian prison system. The legal team for Rus’ Imprisoned successfully argued in an arbitration court that they had used the money to run even more seminars than they had initially planned, but the case against Romanova is still open. Meduza special correspondent Sasha Sulim spoke with Romanova about her legal situation, reforming Russia’s prison system, and why that system is still built directly on the framework of the Gulag.

Read our summary of this interview here.

Opinion and analysis

Putin's autocracy will eat itself without Putin

Is Russia doomed to a “self-replicating autocracy,” even without Vladimir Putin in the picture? In a new article for Republic, economist Dmitry Travin acknowledges that many energetic but impatient opposition activists give into pessimism about the country’s future, but he believes there’s too little “autocratic institutionalization” today to preserve Russia’s Putinist autocracy. Travin argues that the current rules of the game” are intentionally vague and informal, and therefore open to the interpretation of various influential groups, because this confusion maintains Putin’s indispensability as the system’s mediator. Without Putin playing this arbiter’s role, Travin says, clan conflicts will prevent the regime from sustaining itself as an autocracy, and elites will need to negotiate a new clearer set of rules secured in institutions.

Travin expects competition for Putin’s position to come from three different directions: (1) figures who enlist the support of a Yeltsin-style “Family” that happens to control the state when Putin exits; (2) figures who utilize the state’s means of manipulating the masses and then approve the selection of a new “Family”; and (3) figures who either recruit rivals to their coalition or at least neutralize others capable of backing rival candidates.

The loss of Putin as an arbiter of Russia’s informal “rules of the game” will also upend the system used to suppress political activism from businesses, Travin says. Currently, entrepreneurs and corporations know what’s off limits, and they know that funding opposition groups risks police raids, but the post-Putin competition among Russia’s elites will blur these lines. Businesses will be ready as ever to embrace conformism, but the nature of conformism itself will become unclear without Putin. Business people will respond by funding anyone who appears sufficiently dangerous, intensifying the country’s political battle by flooding the fight with additional resources. Travin thinks this will include the coalition of celebrities and journalists that currently supports Putin.

Travin acknowledges that countries sometimes descend into civil war, when the “contradictions” that emerge after the loss of an autocrat is strong enough. He says Russia’s contradictions today aren’t so bad, however, and the elites are already working to “adjust” Putinism. Russia’s own historical trauma means they’ll be capable of compromise, despite different visions for the future, Travin says, speculating that the post-Putin conditions will be favorable for avoiding the extremes of either civil war or self-replicating autocracy.

🤪 The Oliver Stone transcript is insanity

Columnist Oleg Kashin thinks the transcript of Putin’s conversation with American conspiratologist and filmmaker Oliver Stone is “the craziest text ever published on the Kremlin’s website.” In a new article for Republic, Kashin wonders, not entirely facetiously, if a staffer decided to sabotage the site for fun by casting the president in what reads like an “absurdist play.” Kashin thinks the exchange is so bizarre and embarrassing that it actually undermines Stone’s new “Revealing Ukraine” movie. Kashin also speculates that Putin may have published the interview transcript, deliberately portraying himself as a senile old ruler, in order to test the reactions of Russia’s political elites, hoping to gauge the true loyalty of the various “clans.”

🗳️ Kremlin meddling botched Moscow's City Duma race

In a new article for the Carnegie Moscow Center, journalist and Meduza correspondent Andrey Pertsev says Moscow City Hall and the Kremlin are largely to blame for botching the capital’s upcoming City Duma elections, which have become a major source of political instability. Pertsev says the two biggest reasons for the ongoing problems are (1) rising nationwide protest sentiment, and (2) Kremlin first deputy chief of staff Sergey Kiriyenko’s pressure on the Sobyanin administration to move Deputy Mayor Anastasia Rakova from politics (where she successfully managed Moscow’s elections in 2015 and 2018) to social policy. Rakova was moved, Pertsev says, because she showed too much autonomy and didn’t play ball with the Kremlin’s political strategists, refusing to let them run Sobyanin’s re-election campaign. 

Rakova was replaced with Natalia Sergunina, who previously handled economic matters. Sergunina and her subordinate, Moscow Trade and Services head Alexey Nemeryuk (another novice when it comes to managing elections), are the officials responsible for September’s City Duma contests. Pertsev says Sergunina wanted to use this fall’s elections to refresh the deputies in Moscow’s City Duma by bringing in several “moderate oppositionists” (like Nyuta Federmesser) to serve two aims: (1) “pseudo-oppositionists” would create the illusion that the legislature is listening to constituents, helping the mayor’s office track its “mistakes”; and (2) Sergunina wanted to flush out Rakova’s people.

This plan didn’t work out, however, when “moderate oppositionists” largely refused to collaborate.

Until its actions provoked large-scale protests, Moscow City Hall was fairly “laid back” in its approach to the September elections, Pertsev says, explaining that officials never expected independent candidates to crack the barrier to entry: roughly 5,000-6,000 signatures in each electoral district. (For context, in the last City Duma elections, winning candidates got roughly 10,000-15,000 votes, meaning that the signatures requirement means candidates need to generate significant popular support, before they’re even guaranteed a spot on the ballot. While there are several opposition municipal deputies, these figures are typically unknown in the larger City Duma contests.)

But Sergunina and the Kremlin didn’t count on the rising protest mood, or the fact that the city now has a handful of prominent oppositionists with either municipal deputy credibility or past political offices, giving unhappy voters a “guidepost” for casting protest votes. Moscow City Hall, meanwhile, has failed to create a “single brand” for its candidates that compares to the “My City” primaries initiative five years ago. 

When it finally became clear how unfavorable City Hall’s position is in Moscow’s upcoming elections, the mayor’s office and the Kremlin did what comes naturally and simply used fraudulent means to bar the race’s independent candidates. Pertsev says this decision was based more on principles than practicality, given that the City Duma is largely powerless, though the authorities are also keen to avoid giving a popular oppositionist any path to national elected office. Unfortunately for the regime, this turned the elections into a “symbolic event,” Pertsev says. While the Kremlin is often prepared to make concessions on “social issues,” compromise is out of the question when it comes to politics.

In other words, the Power Vertical’s inflexibility has turned a routine set of elections into a political problem that could lead to a large unpermitted protest outside City Hall or mass voting for any candidate not backed by the mayor’s office.

News briefs

Yours, Meduza

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