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The Real Russia. Today. Dinner with Lukashenko, plus Vladimir Milov is sick of the pessimists, and Russia’s intelligentsia has thoughts (and feelings) about Twitter banning Trump

Source: Meduza

Monday, January 11, 2021

  • Lukashenko on his friendship with Putin, Western sanctions, and the Belarusian opposition
  • Opinion and analysis: Milov has had it to here with the pessimists, Vishnevsky says the authorities’ crackdown is a sign of weakness, and the chattering classes debate Trump’s Twitter ban and free speech
  • News briefs: Yakutsk’s mayor resigns, the UK’s COVID strain arrives, a successful protest outside Arkhangelsk, trilateral talks in Moscow, and a missing Chechen teen

Feature stories

🤝 ‘We need to be closer to Russia’ (750 words)

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka) has but one friend in the world and, in his own words, that person is Vladimir Putin. Or so he told host Nailya Asker-Zade in a lengthy interview for her program on the state-owned Russian television channel Rossiya-1. Rather than your typical sit-down interview, Asker-Zade’s hour-long segment on Lukashenko included a ride in his Mercedes, a tour of his residence, a trip to a hockey rink, and dinner with the Belarusian president and his youngest son. Here’s what Lukashenko had to say.

Opinion and analysis (summaries by Meduza)

Shut up, pessimists! (240 words)

Vladimir Milov, politician and economist — The Insider

With the 30th anniversary of the USSR’s collapse due at the end of the year, Russia’s modern-day oppositionists ought to consider how much stronger they are against the Putin regime than their Soviet counterparts were against the Communist Party. Until it fell, the USSR seemed indestructible, and this was an era when democratic activists couldn’t rely on mass media outlets like YouTube and other social networks. Back then, the opposition wasn’t a “chorus of pessimists,” and it didn’t bother with “perfectionism.”

The political fight against Vladimir Putin is entering a “decisive phase” now: only the opposition has the capacity to mobilize tens of thousands of people for protests, the Internet has destroyed the Kremlin’s media monopoly, the “Smart Vote” strategic voting initiative can defeat United Russia at the polls in this fall’s State Duma elections, and Alexey Navalny is now one of Russia’s five most-popular politicians and he’s the only one on this list whose rating is rising [note to readers: Levada Center polling in mid-November 2020 ranked Navalny seventh among Russia’s most-trusted politicians with a score that rose and fell between two percent and four percent over the course of 2020].

The Kremlin’s growing authoritarianism and increasingly desperate efforts against the opposition (embodied in new repressive laws and assassination attempts against Navalny) demonstrate the regime’s weakness and panic — not its strength. Entertaining pessimism (especially from pundits living abroad, like fellow The Insider columnist Vladislav Inozemtsev) is wrong and “dangerous.”

🏰 A fortress besieged from within (135 words)

Boris Vishnevsky, columnist and St. Petersburg city councilman — Novaya Gazeta

The Russian authorities’ everlasting paranoia revolves around the concept that the nation is a “besieged fortress,” but the Kremlin’s guns have turned inward lately, as the Putin administration increasingly views the Russian people as its main threat. While the political opposition presents no clear and present danger to the regime, the Kremlin’s rush to adopt new repressive laws and insulate itself against competitive politics has revealed its Achilles heel: a primal fear of change. In this sense, the government’s successful constitutional plebiscite was actually a defeat, and the authorities’ efforts to protect themselves (for example, by expanding presidential immunity) won’t survive future institutional changes. Tomorrow’s reformers will ditch the Kremlin’s legislative innovations and hold the old regime’s officials accountable. Future Russians should endeavor also to avoid building their next political system around a single leader.

Banning the Donald 🐦 (700 words)

Twitter’s decision on Friday, January 9, to suspend Donald Trump’s account permanently “due to the risk of further incitement of violence” sparked debates across the world about the freedom of speech. In Russia, where the state intervenes heavily in the mass media and regularly censors online content, many liberal figures allied against the Kremlin found themselves at odds over Trump’s Twitter ban. Meduza summarizes the arguments of a handful of prominent Russian public individuals about the decision and the storming of the U.S. Capitol building on January 6:

Alexey Navalny, politician and anti-corruption activist: Banning Trump is an “emotional” and “unacceptable” act of censorship that mirrors how dictators justify denying television and election access to oppositionists. To avoid enabling a global crackdown on free speech, Twitter should empower a special commission to determine suspensions. This group’s work should be transparent, the public should know its members’ names and how they vote, and how to appeal suspensions. (Several of Navalny’s associates, such as Anti-Corruption Foundation director Ivan Zhdanov and chief of staff Leonid Volkov, similarly argued that Twitter was doing “more harm than good” by censoring Trump. This view wasn’t unanimous within the Navalny camp, however. Lyubov Sobol and Vladimir Milov both argued that Twitter upheld democratic principles by acting independently against a powerful, dangerous figure.)

Ivan Kurilla, historian: Allegations that Twitter violated the First Amendment are misguided because the U.S. Constitution only bars state censorship. American culture, however, has long endured other means of restricting free speech, like the recent phenomena of “cancel culture” and “extreme political correctness.” Expression today has become tricky because social-media monopolies now control the very “infrastructure of free speech.” Russians struggle with debates in the U.S. about free speech because the “American variety of public opinion” is alien to them.

Dmitry Travin, economist: Most Russians view democracy as “the rule of democrats,” treating these people like ascended human beings who adhere to a higher moral code. When democrats do something undemocratic, the sky falls and “the USA dies.” According to the typical American’s understanding of democracy, however, people everywhere are the same lowdown, egoistic creatures as anyone and the “rules of the game” operate thanks to checks and balances, not “the honesty of the players.” Politicians in a democracy will get away with whatever they can, just like autocrats. That’s why many Americans don’t consider it an assault on the nation when Trump’s adversaries attack his “personal freedoms.”

Greg Yudin, sociologist: Nothing happened when Trump’s supporters entered the Capitol building on January 6; it was a democratic protest, not a riot, and the police responded “beautifully,” avoiding a further escalation of violence. The liberal media succumbs to partisan warfare when it argues that Black Lives Matter protesters were treated differently. Protests are supposed to be disruptive by design. The U.S. democratic system suffered no real damage in the storming of the Capitol building. The bloodshed that did occur has more to do with America’s out-of-control gun ownership than anything.

Kirill Martynov, columnist: Twitter defended democracy by banning an acting president who challenges legal realities and incites his followers to violence. Libertarians who view Twitter as a public good won’t like it when the state takes over social media and starts banning illegal content using taxpayers’ money. 

Boris Vishnevsky, columnist and St. Petersburg city councilman: Enough arguing about free speech in the United States! Whatever the significance of Trump’s Twitter ban, the situation in America is far better than in Russia, where news outlets can freely criticize the president, governors aren’t arrested on phony murder charges, and political adversaries aren’t poisoned. If Russians could redirect the energy they exhibit in debates about Twitter suspensions to achieving reforms at home, what a world it would be. 

Olga Slobodskaya, leading member of the former Leningrad Rock Club (reposted by blogger Rustem Adagamov): The First Amendment only prohibits state censorship. Twitter was responding to Trump’s incitement in Washington, a staff letter signed by 350 colleagues, and a history of violent conspiracy theorists mobilizing through online social networks. Meanwhile, the Kremlin pursues laws that allow the government to ban Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook for everyone, but it doesn’t trigger the same outrage among Russians. 

Other news in brief

  • 🗳️ Nothing lasts forever. (300 words.) Mayor Sardana Avksentieva from the eastern Siberian city of Yakutsk is stepping down ahead of schedule “for health reasons.” Avksentieva was elected mayor in 2018, defeating United Russia’s candidate. Last July, she voted against Russia’s new constitutional amendments.
  • 🦠 Joining the party. (170 words.) Russia has confirmed its first case of the new, more infectious coronavirus strain that was first seen in the United Kingdom at the end of 2020.
  • Mission accomplished. (290 words.) Activists outside Arkhangelsk have called off their long-running protest against the construction of a landfill, after acknowledging that the work site’s demolition is now “irreversible.”
  • 🕊️ Another brokered agreement. (170 words.) During trilateral talks in Moscow on Monday, the leaders of Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan adopted a joint statement focusing on plans for unblocking economic and transport links.
  • 🕵️‍♂️ Some outside help for a missing teen. (170 words.) Detectives outside Krasnodar are investigating the reported kidnapping of Salman Tepsurkayev, the teenager who moderates a Chechen opposition Telegram channel and was last seen in footage circulated online showing him being tortured and humiliated. Chechen officials have declined to investigate his disappearance.
🖋️ Tomorrow in history: 108 years ago tomorrow, on January 12, 1913, signing his name on a manifesto titled “Marxism and the National Question,” Joseph Jughashvili first used the pseudonym “Stalin.” The name stuck.

Yours, Meduza

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