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The Real Russia. Today. Lukashenko’s long arm
Monday, December 6, 2021
- International: Russia extradites Belarusians, (opinion) Andrey Kortunov says war is unlikely, (opinion) Angela Stent says the U.S. could try to replace Minsk II, (opinion) Gideon Rachman says it’s democracy that really scares Putin, and Omicron arrives in Russia
- Law and order: Yuri Khovansky’s letter from jail, Saratov’s very bad detective, Tor is evil, and a journalist loses in court and get a $4,000 bill
- The media: (opinion) Andrey Pertsev says the Kiriyenkos’ control over VK signals a new era, The Bell explains why Usmanov ditched VK, RTVI fires an outspoken correspondent, a new website registry is coming, and Navalny’s palace investigation tops Russian YouTube in 2021
- Society: real estate marketplace will ditch overt racism, Viktor Bout’s cat pics come to Moscow, and Russians reject dark humor
👮 Russia extradites Belarusians wanted at home for protests (5-min read)
Since August 2020, Russia has detained at least 20 Belarusian nationals facing persecution in their home country amid Alexander Lukashenko’s opposition crackdown, says a new report from BBC News Russian. What’s more, many of these detainees have been extradited to Belarus — either in response to official requests from Minsk or for allegedly violating Russian immigration laws. In other cases, Russian law enforcement agencies have expelled Belarusian nationals without going through the courts. Meduza summarizes the Russian BBC’s investigation here.
Andrey Kortunov says “logic, common sense, and an analysis of past events” suggests that the Kremlin has no intention of fighting a major war with Ukraine. If Putin planned such a conflict, the public likely wouldn’t know about it until it was already underway. In other words, the troop buildup at the Ukrainian border must be meant to signal (1) to Kyiv that any effort by President Zelensky to attempt a military solution in the Donbas (perhaps to rescue his sinking popularity) would end like Saakashvili’s failed attack on South Ossetia in 2008, not Ilham Aliyev’s victory last year in Nagorno-Karabakh; and (2) to the West that Russia is disappointed in compliance with the Minsk II agreement and seriously concerned about Ukraine’s de facto military assimilation with NATO countries.
Russia’s demands for Western guarantees of halted NATO expansion and the start of negotiations on a new, inclusive European defense system would require unrealistic revisions of the status quo within the military bloc and within Ukraine’s political system. Kortunov says the Russian foreign policy elite cannot ignore these “obvious political realities,” which necessitates finding compromises. To make progress here, Moscow must find ways to “reduce the incentives” that currently drive Kyiv to seek NATO membership so eagerly and motivate NATO decisionmakers to expand eastward. In the short-term, a series of parallel unilateral actions will be what it takes to de-escalate the situation at Russia’s border with Ukraine.
🕊️ (Opinion) Angela Stent says rethinking and replacing Minsk II with U.S. as full participant could satisfy Moscow and Kyiv alike (she says the new format could “invite the participation of international peacekeepers and institute a clearer agreement on the sequencing of Russian and Ukrainian de-escalation,” but it would take time)
🗳️ (Opinion) Gideon Rachman says Putin’s ‘fury’ about Ukraine has more to do with democracy than NATO encroachment (he points to Central Asia’s drift toward China, which he says hasn’t worried Moscow, at least to the same extent)
🦠 Russia confirms first cases of Omicron COVID-19 variant (both patients were recently in South Africa)
Law and order
⚖️ An open letter from jailed blogger Yuri Khovansky (5-min read)
Blogger Yuri Khovansky, currently in pre-trial detention on charges of justifying terrorism, penned an open letter from jail, where he has been since June. In the text, Khovansky says investigators threatened him with serious prison time when he refused a plea bargain. Officers also allegedly promised “problems” for his girlfriend, Maria Nelyubova (who spoke about this before). Khovansky says the authorities suggested that they would plant drugs on her. Meduza is publishing a translation of Khovansky’s letter.
⚖️ Saratov court sentences investigator to 5.5 years in prison for knowingly prosecuting innocent man (he forged evidence against the man after his half-brother impersonated him in a drug bust, setting in motion a case that the detective refused to halt)
🧅 State Duma committee official says Russia blocked Tor browser because it’s ‘an absolute evil’ (Lawmaker Anton Gorelkin acknowledges that some people claim to use Tor to circumvent censorship and browse the Web freely, but he insists that its main purpose is to enable access to the Darkweb, mainly to buy illegal drugs. Russia started blocking the Tor browser on December 2, 2021.)
💰 St. Petersburg court orders Holod Media journalist and local news outlet to pay damages to former RGGU lecturer for reports describing students’ allegations of sexual harassment and abuse (Sofia Volyanova was ordered to pay more than $4,000 for her November 2020 investigation into Alexander Kobrinsky)
👑 (Opinion) Vladimir Kiriyenko’s appointment at VK signals a new era in the Kremlin’s control of the mass media
Andrey Pertsev says the Putin administration used to keep the sons of prominent officials in separate fields, avoiding direct subordination to their fathers, but the new CEO of VK is “essentially directly subordinate” to Sergey Kiriyenko, who oversees the Kremlin’s domestic policy agenda. Though Kiriyenko’s predecessor at VK, Boris Dobrodeyev, is also the son of an influential official (VGTRK director Oleg Dobrodeyev), Pertsev says there wasn’t direct subordination.
Not everything about last week’s VK sale is new, however. As the state has expanded its control over online resources, a pattern has emerged wherein “supervisor” businessmen with close Kremlin ties but some level of independence and who earned their wealth in the 1990s decide to transfer their media assets to a state corporation or another entrepreneur with even stronger connections to the administration. Pertsev says this has happened with Alexander Mamut’s news websites (now owned by Sberbank) and with RBC (now owned by Grigory Berezkin). When assets change hands and move closer to the Kremlin, the “level of nonfreedom” escalates and various taboos (“red lines” and “solid double traffic lines”) emerge. When businessmen “supervise” something like a publishing house or an online platform, their concepts of freedom and nonfreedom might fall out of alignment with the Kremlin’s thinking, making scandals possible. That becomes much less likely when guessing the Kremlin’s thinking is as easy as telephoning Dad.
💰 The Bell: Usmanov sold VK to Sogaz and Gazprombank under some pressure but mostly because it didn’t earn enough money
Technically speaking, the new ownership structure at Vkontakte’s parent company is a diarchy with management powers split between Gazprom-Media and Sogaz, though most sources told The Bell that they believe Sogaz will be the real managing partner here. One source says it was Sogaz board chairman and co-owner Anton Ustinov who introduced Vladimir Kiriyenko, VK’s new CEO, to the company’s senior executives. The dual arrangement reportedly serves two purposes: (1) it raises the number of potential investors VK can attract, and (2) it avoids potential U.S sanctions, evading applications of the U.S. Treasury’s so-called “50-percent rule.”
The Bell also points out that Usmanov’s single-digit economic interest in VK was always significantly smaller than his controlling voting interest, and the business itself (a “suitcase without a handle,” quipped one source) earned far less money than Usmanov’s other assets like Metalloinvest ($139 million vs. $1.34 billion in 2020). Additionally, as Vkontakte gradually “degraded” and started losing market share to foreign social networks, the Kremlin became anxious, and the company became a headache for Usmanov. Before settling on Sogaz and Gazprom, Usmanov reportedly tried to partner up with Sberbank, but those negotiations collapsed, not unlike Sberbank’s failed purchase of a major stake in Yandex in 2018.
What’s the main takeaway, according to The Bell? “For the first time in the Russian Internet market’s history, a genuinely powerful player controlled completely by the state has emerged.”
📺 RTVI fires NYC correspondent Anastasia Chumakova after she criticized network’s interview with Federal Emergency Management Agency acting head (She publicly condemned colleague Tina Kandelaki’s December 2 interview with Alexander Chupriyan, conducted shortly after the deadly Listvyazhnaya mine disaster, as a puff piece. Chumakova similarly criticized Kandelaki’s recent interview with United Russia senior official Andrey Turchak.)
🧮 Starting next year, new law will require Russian websites averaging 1,000 or more daily visitors to register with federal censor and install special tracking software (the new registry will include both websites and mobile apps, including news media, blogs, corporate websites, online stores, and aggregators)
🏰 With almost 120 million views, ‘Putin’s palace’ investigation by Alexey Navalny was Russia’s most-watched YouTube video in 2021 (it was the only political video to break the top ten)
⚖️ Russia’s leading online real estate marketplace institutes equality rules barring racial/ethnic preferences in listings (proprietors registered with the CIAN Group have until February 1 to remove “Slavs only” notices and the like)
🐱 Exhibition of prison paintings by Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout opens in Moscow (he’s serving 25 years in the U.S., but his drawings of cats and Soviet film scenes have made it home safely)
🎭 Survey by state pollsters shows massive rejection of dark humor and jokes about ethnicity, religion, and Soviet history (just five percent of respondents told WCIOM that chernyi yumor is acceptable)
🗳️ Tomorrow in history: 18 years ago tomorrow, on December 7, 2003, roughly 60 million Russians elected their fourth State Duma. Newcomer United Russia snagged 223 seats with 38 percent of the vote, putting it on a path to becoming the nation’s “party of power.”
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