The Real Russia. Today. Protests against pension reform, a scheme to keep Putin around after 2024, and a new ‘RussiaGate’ twist

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

  • Alexey Navalny will mobilize opponents of pension reform on July 1
  • Russia's biggest trade union vows to protest a higher retirement age
  • Meduza explores one scheme the Kremlin could use to keep Putin in power after 2024
  • The Bell says an oligarch caught up in the “RussiaGate” investigation has invested half a billion dollars in U.S. biotech
  • A sportscaster's incidental mention of Alexey Navalny becomes a World Cup political meme
  • Despite a new public appeal from entertainers, the Kremlin has no plans to pardon Oleg Sentsov
  • Officials will reportedly delay the lowering of Russia's threshold on duty-free online purchases

Pension pandemonium

✊ Navalny wants in

The opposition politician Alexey Navalny has announced plans to stage protests in 20 cities on July 1 against the government’s proposal to raise Russia's retirement age. Navalny will not attempt to hold demonstrations in Moscow, St. Petersburg, or the other major cities hosting FIFA World Cup games between now and mid-July, where the government has suspended public assembly rights during the soccer tournament. Navalny has named 17 of the cities where his activists have filed permit requests: Belgorod, Biysk, Izhevsk, Krasnodar, Krasnoyarsk, Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Lipetsk, Murmansk, Novokuznetsk, Novosibirsk, Orenburg, Pskov, Stavropol, Tver, Tomsk, Khabarovsk, and Yaroslavl. Addressing his supporters, Navalny called the government’s plans to raise Russia’s pension age “a true crime” and “the robbery of tens of millions of people.”

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced planned reforms to Russia’s pension system that would start raising the retirement age gradually next year, growing from 55 to 63 for women and from 60 to 65 for men. Meduza wrote about this proposal here and the reaction from the Kremlin and Russia’s labor unions here.

On June 15, the newspaper Vedomosti reported that sources in the Kremlin say the Putin administration is monitoring reactions to the proposed pension reforms very carefully, and is even exploring options to mitigate the changes, fearing mass protests. So far, Vladimir Putin has emphatically distanced himself from the discussion about pension reform. When asked about Putin’s role in the current initiative, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his cabinet are responsible for the policy's development, claiming that Putin isn’t participating in the process at all.

📢 Hear organized labor's mighty roar

The Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FNPR), Russia’s largest labor union, is calling for protests, marches, and pickets against the government’s plans to raise the retirement age. In a letter, FNPR chairman Mikhail Shmakov stressed that all demonstrations should be carried out within the strict confines of Russia’s laws on public assemblies. Shmakov is also urging regional labor union leaders to meet with governors to convey organized labor’s opposition to the proposed pension reforms.

Russia’s second-largest union, the Confederation of Labor, launched a petition on against the pension reforms, attracting more than a million signatures in just three days. (At the time of this writing, the petition had more than 1.9 million signatures.) The text argues that the authorities can address the pension system’s deficits by cracking down on “informal employment,” without raising the retirement age.

A similar petition appeared on the Russian government’s “Public Initiative” online portal, where it quickly attracted the 100,000 signatures necessary for consideration by a government “expert group.” That review board can either submit the petition’s demands to lawmakers for legislative consideration or — more likely — it will simply ignore them.

How Putin could stay in power after 2024 👴

Several Russian news outlets have reported that Alexander Kharichev could take over as head of the State Council’s operations office. Kharichev is considered a close associate of Sergey Kiriyenko, who oversees the Kremlin’s domestic policy. Kiriyenko’s authority has grown in the Putin administration since he orchestrated the president’s successful re-election this March, and some experts now believe that he has been tasked with preparing options to keep Putin in power after 2024, when the president's current term expires. The State Council could play an important role in this scheme, if Putin were to take charge of the group and make it Russia’s most powerful government agency. Meduza reviews what the State Council is and how these rumors about its future got started.

Another oligarch's Trump ties endanger his millions invested in the U.S. 💸

The newsletter The Bell says it’s learned that Dmitry Rybolovlev, the former owner of the Russian fertilizer company “Uralkali” and a potential suspect in Robert Mueller’s investigation, has invested more than half a billion dollars in American biotech and medtech startups over the past several years. Rybolovlev is reportedly the main investor in the $1.5-billion American private equity and venture capital firm “Apple Tree Partners.”

Soccer politics ⚽

On June 17, the Russian national soccer team’s former head coach, Leonid Slutsky (not to be confused with the State Duma deputy), made headlines in the independent media for being perhaps the first person to mention anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny’s name on Pervyi Kanal network television outside a negative context. During a FIFA World Cup game between Germany and Mexico, Slutsky had some fun with the phrase “high-pressure soccer” (which uses an adjective identical to Navalny’s surname), wondering aloud if Navalny plays soccer. “That would be interesting to see,” Slutsky remarked.

The next day, Slutsky and Viktor Gusev announced a game between Tunisia and England. This time, nobody mentioned Navalny, but it wasn’t long before jokesters on Twitter began supplying their own fictional Slutsky observations, recasting his commentary as biting social criticisms about political prisoners, the pension age, and more. Thus a meme was born.

Read the tweets here: “A sportscaster's incidental mention of Alexey Navalny becomes a World Cup political meme”

No light at the end of Sentsov's tunnel 🍽

The radio station Ekho Moskvy has published an appeal to Vladimir Putin on its website signed by a dozen prominent entertainers, including the actress Chulpan Khamatova, the directors Andrey Zvyagintsev and Yuri Norshtein, the TV presenters Vladimir Pozner and Ksenia Sobchak, and the head of Roskino, Ekaterina Mtsituridze. The cultural figures are asking the president to pardon Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who’s been on a hunger strike since May 14. “Dear Mr. Putin! A man is dying. We don’t think his guilt is so great that he should have been given 20 years. He’s sincere and true in his convictions, and his indefinite hunger strike demonstrates this. It’s now necessary to show mercy in order to spare a man’s life,” the letter says.

Oleg Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks in Crimea. There has been an international campaign to lobby for his release. Read Meduza’s summary of why his case matters here. Sentsov is hunger striking for the release of Russia’s “Ukrainian political prisoners.” During his live call-in show in early June, Vladimir Putin said he isn’t currently considering exchanging Sentsov for Vyshinsky. The president argued that Sentsov was convicted of plotting terrorist attacks, while Vyshinsky was arrested in Ukraine last month for his actions as a journalist. “You can’t compare these things,” Putin said.

On June 19, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin has “repeatedly stated his view” on Sentsov, explaining that public outcry “cannot influence a court ruling that’s taken effect.” Repeating a line uttered many times about Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the president’s press secretary also stressed that Sentsov would need to ask for a pardon himself.

On June 15, Russia’s human rights commissioner reported that Sentsov had gained almost four and a half pounds since announcing his hunger strike.

Rising fees

🛂 Documents don't come cheap

Lawmakers in the State Duma have adopted the third and final reading of legislation that will raise the cost of getting new driver’s licenses and foreign-travel passports. Currently priced at 2,000 rubles ($31) and 3,500 rubles ($55), respectively, the new fees will rise to 3,000 rubles ($47) and 5,000 rubles ($78).

📦 Subprime delivery

In Russia today, you can buy up to 1,000 euros ($1,154) or as much as 31 kilograms (68 pounds) in a month from foreign online stores without paying a special tax of 30 percent (not to exceed four euros per kilogram, or $2.10 per pound). According to the newspaper Kommersant, officials in the finance and communications ministries are working out reforms that would postpone lowering the duty threshold to 500 euros ($577) a month until January 1, 2019, and lower it further to 100 euros ($115) for each parcel, without any monthly restrictions, starting on July 1, 2019. Kommersant’s source did not reveal what the new tax rates would be. A federal official told the newspaper that these reforms are only one of several options now under discussion.

On June 18, Finance Ministry tax and customs policy head Alexey Sazanov official reportedly said the threshold on duty-free online purchases would fall to 500 euros a month as soon as July 1, 2018, though an unnamed ministry representative later clarified that this is still under debate. According to Vedomosti, Russia’s Federal Customs Service also wants the duty-free threshold lowered, advocating a 20-percent tax on all purchases from foreign online stores.

Yours, Meduza