The Media’s Russia Obsession?

trumputin

Let’s talk about the media’s so-called Russia obsession for a few minutes.

What is meant by this is that the mainstream press have devoted tons of coverage to the substantial allegations that the Kremlin mounted a massive operation, mostly via social media, to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election and, further, that the campaign of the candidate who won the election actively colluded with the Kremlin, among other things, in order to discredit the candidate’s main opponent in the election. The press has also focused a lot on Robert Mueller’s special investigation of these allegations.

Is all of this press coverage sterling? No. Does the press get the story wrong sometimes? Yes.

But this has always been the case with the nominally free press in nominally democratic societies ever since the free press emerged in the eighteenth century in a few countries groping their way towards democracy. It always been biased, prone to mistakes, and otherwise wildly imperfect. And yet it has always been subject to intense scrutiny, at least in my lifetime—and the really infantile desire on the part of certain social and political forces that it be perfect—that is, perfectly biased and ventriloquizing only their viewpoints—although these same forces are rarely so critical of either themselves or other important social institutions.

In this case, the social and political forces that routinely complain about the media’s so-called Russia obsession seem to mean, in fact, that the mainstream press and the press in general should simply stop covering what is surely the story of the century: allegations that the world’s largest country massively intervened in a presidential election in the world’s most powerful country, and that the man who won the election and members of his campaign and transition team were in close contact with agents of the world’s largest country during the campaign and transition.

What kind of press would we have if they completely ignored this story?

We would have a press much like the press in the world’s largest country, which routinely ignores or severely undercovers really big stories—such as the country’s involvement in putting down a popular revolution in a third country whose people have never down anything bad to the people of the world’s largest country—or which engages in outright Goebbels-like propaganda nearly every day, leaving the really important stories to opposition liberal newspapers and online media outlets that are read and accessed by a tiny fraction of the country’s populace.

Finally, the mainstream media have not been obsessed with Russia itself, but with the alleged actions of the Kremlin, Russian secret services, and Russian internet trolls in connection with the 2016 US presidential election. Period.

There is a another Russia, populated by 143 million people, that had nothing whatsoever to do with the story of the century. They did nothing to skew the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election and, in the main, their lives, aspirations, and actions are roundly ignored by the so-called mainstream media in the west and Russia itself. They are roundly ignored by the so-called alternative media, too, for the simple reason that much of the alternative media in the west operate under the delusion that Putin is an “anti-imperialist.” By definitions, Russians who oppose his sagacious rule must be “puppets of the west.”

If all of this weren’t the case, I would have expected that one or more of these “Russia-obsessed” or “anti-Russian-obsessed” newspapers, magazines, TV channels or websites would have picked up and covered, for example, the shocking story of the Penza-Petersburg “terrorism” case aka the Network case, in which eleven young anarchists and antifascists have been accused of involvement in a “terrorist community” dubbed “the Network.”

Most of the accused men have told the same grisly tale of being abducted by FSB-KGB field agents, who took them to remote areas in minivans or to the basements of their headquarters and tortured them for hours, using tasers and bare electrical wires, and severe beatings, attempting to force them to memorize the “confessions” they would later make (or, in some cases, refuse to make) to FSB investigators, who would then petition the courts to send them to remand prisons, where all of them are still imprisoned to this day.

The allegations of torture have been confirmed by Russian civil rights activists and defense attorneys who spoke with some of the men soon after their arrests and, in a few cases, they were also confirmed by physicians who examined the men when their wounds were still fresh.

In any case, a small but growing group of very determined people, including the men’s parents, friends, reporters, human rights activists, and concerned citizens, have been working as hard as they can over the last year to bring the case to the attention of the wider Russian public, force prosecutors to investigate the allegations of torture by FSB officers, and otherwise prove that, as seems to be the case, the FSB conjured the entire tale of the “terrorist community” from whole cloth and then handpicked a dozen or so completely innocent young men to be the fallguys, trying to torture and pummel them into admitting their “guilt” although they were guilty of no crime at all.

You would think the “Russia-obsessed” corporate media would jump on a story like this, but except for one article in the New Yorker, the western corporate media have utterly ignored the story of the Network “terrorists,” despite the efforts of actual alternative media like openDemocracyRussia (oDR) and my own blog, the Russian Reader, to write about it any chance we can and translate Russian coverage of the case, as published in such as liberal, leftist and civil rights media outlets as Mediazona, OVD Info, and Novaya Gazeta.

The campaign to save the Network boys scored a minor victory the other day during a meeting of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, when several members of the council brought up the case and a similar case no less shocking, the New Greatness case, and forced President Putin to talk about them.

A KGB-FSB officer to the core, Putin pretended not to have heard of the cases, which both pivot on allegations of extreme entrapment, torture, and fabrication by other KGB-FSB officers.

Putin hemmed and hawed, lied and prevaricated, feigned that he couldn’t believe what he was hearing, etc., but he did promise to look into the cases and get to the bottom of them.

It’s entirely possible he won’t do that, but it’s just as possible he will make the cases quietly go away to avoid embarrasment.

Who knows.

What I do know, though, is that western mainstream and alternative media, all of them “obsessed” with Putin (but not Russia) in their own way, have shown no interest in this story and thousands of other similar and dissimilar but no less fascinating stories from the real Russia inhabited by most Russians.

There was a slight uptick in their interest in grassroots Russia during the 2011–2012 fair elections protests, but since that movement was roundly defeated, western press coverage has been firmly refocused on the beloved hated figure of the supreme leader, thus once again denying nearly all the other 143 million Russians of agency, their own opinions, and their own lives.

If you’re interested in the Network case and related stories, please check out the coverage on oDR and the Russian Reader. Outside of Russia, practically speaking, there has been no coverage of the case anywhere else, and most things you read on international anarchist and antifascist websites are reprints of the stories we have translated and published.

So, let’s put this canard about the media’s Russia obsession to rest, okay? It’s deeply offensive to ordinary smart Russians, whose numbers are much greater than you would be led to think by the mostly lazy coverage of the country in the western press, and just as offensive to the handful of non-Russians who care deeply about what goes on here. {TRR}

P.S. You can support the Network suspects and their families concretely by donating to a solidarity campaign organized by comrades in London on their behalf. Your support will help to offset their legal costs, organizing humanitarian support for the arrested and offering support to their relatives. The resources gathered have so far been distributed according to the financial circumstances of the respective families and the needs of the arrested. Further financial support is being distributed according to the choices made by those arrested throughout the investigation.

Cartoon courtesy of JA and Union Thugs 

Are Russians Eating Well?

DSCN1832A fruits and vegetables stall at the famous Hay Market (Sennoy rynok) in downtown Petersburg, September 29, 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

Eating Their Fill: Russia’s Food Security in the Wake of Crimea
Have Russians Eaten Better After the Government Moved to Defend Them from Western Food? 
Yevgeny Karasyuk
Republic
December 6, 2018

Soon after the embargo that was imposed four years ago in response to the stance of western countries on Crimea, analysts warned Russia itself would primarily suffer from food anti-sanctions.

“We won’t heighten the Russian Federation’s food security at all. In fact, we will reduce it,” Natalya Volchkova, a professor at the New Economic School, said at the time.

Of course, the criticism of the experts was ignored. No one in government questioned the policy of forced import substitution. Most Russians even imagined it was a rare instance when the government made a good decision. Only a few years ago, 71% of the populace [sic] spoke in favor of limiting imports.*

Time has passed, and the experts to whom no one listened have compiled figures showing where the policy has taken the country. A recent report, authored by a group of researchers from RANEPA, provides an analysis of its consequences.

Import substitution in the food sector was an obsession and, at the same time, a source of pride for ex-agriculture minister Alexander Tkachov. His replacement, Dmitry Patrushev, son of the Russian Security Council’s secretary and a none-too-successful state banker, has changed little in the government’s take on the situation. The new minister is certain Russia has reached a level of self-sufficiency above 90% in terms of basic food staples. Thus, Alexei Gordeyev, deputy prime minister for agriculture and an ex-agriculture minister himself, is convinced Russia has successfully carried out import substitution.

Food imports actually did slump sharply—by 46%—from 2013 to 2016. Although an unbiased analysis if how Russian producers succeeded in turning the tables and quickly saturating the market with their own products would point to the ruble’s sudden devaluation, rendering foreign imports uncompetitive, as had already happened in recent history, rather than to the success of the anti-sanctions.

Whatever the cause of Russia’s newfound food independence, however, it has not lead to food security. Citing the international standard, the authors of RANEPA’s report define food security as “the physical and economic availability of safe nourishment, sufficient for an active, fulfilling life.” In other words, there really are more domestically grown and produced food items in Russia nowadays, but the bulk of the populace has less and less access to them.

“Caloric Value of the Russian Diet.” The blue line indicates caloric value, while the dotted line indicates the recommended daily caloric intake per family member in kilocalories. The light purple area indicates the number of Russians who suffer from obesity, in thousands of persons, while the shaded dark purple area indicates the number of Russia who suffer from anemia, also in thousands of peoples. Source: Rosstat and RANEPA. Courtesy of Republic

Last year, Russia was ranked forty-first in the Global Food Security Index, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, meaning that it ranked lower than it had in 2013, when it ranked fortieth. This was due, among other things, to insufficient funding of research and a reduction in the variety of food products.

According to official statistics, food accounts for approximately 35% of expenses in Russian household budgets, which is a high proportion when compared with the OECD countries, among which even the highest percentages, achieved by Poland and Mexico, fall short of 25%. Independent evaluation of spending on food, however, claim that the proportion of Russian family budgets spent on food is actually over fifty percent. Given the almost continuous drop in the real incomes of Russians, the selection of products has declined in quality and abundance. On average, Russian households continue to skimp on everything they can do without, as confirmed by the compilers of the Coffee and Milk Index, as published by Romir, a Russian marketing research company. (The index tracks sales of chocolate, coffee, milk, and bottled water.) RANEPA’s researchers noted the discrepancy between the excess fat in the food and bread Russians eat and the low number of calories in their diets.

By closing the borders to imports and showering the domestic agro-industrial complex with generous state subsidies—1.2 trillion rubles [approx. 15.9 billion euros] in the past six years from the federal budget alone—the regime has persuaded itself it has been filling the nation’s bellies and improving its health. Its expectations were exaggerated, however. Oversaturated with cheap carbohydrates, the standard fare eaten by many Russians remains unbalanced and low on energy. “This is borne out by widespread anemia among the populace as a whole and children in particular,” RANEPA’s researchers write. The number of Russians who suffer from obesity has grown for the same reason.

Obviously, these problems cannot be written off as temporary glitches in demand in the domestic food market, whose revival has been unanimously trumpeted by former agriculture ministers and the current agriculture minister. Rather, they are the natural consequence of systemic problems with the natural resources economy that shoulders the burden of the Kremlin’s geopolitical capers. The average Russian family often simply cannot afford a plentiful variety of healthy, high-quality food.

The authors of RANEPA’s report have emphasized this.

“Neglecting this fact can lead to a distorted picture of the state of food security,” they write.

However, there is still very little chance the alarming conclusions of the experts will be heard this time around, forcing the government to make adjustments to its food policy.

* How did they do that? Was a nationwide referendum held? The author, of course, is referring to a so-called public opinion poll in which, at best, a thousand or two “ordinary” Russians were asked loaded questions, to which they gave the “right” answers. {TRR}

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Russians Spend 30% of Their Budgets on Food
Georgy Tadtayev
RBC
December 17, 2018

Russians spend nearly a third of their household budgets on food. Russia lags behind Montenegro, Latvia, and Turkey in this sense. Russians spend less than seven percent of their budgets on culture and leisure.

According to RIA Rating, as reported by RIA Novosti, Russians spent 31.2% of their household budgets on food in 2017.

The estimate of the percentage of their household budgets people in forty European countries, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey spend on food was based on information from the IMF and national statistics agencies. Russia ended up in the bottom ten of the ranking, ranking 31st. Its nearest neighbors were Montenegro (29.7%) and Latvia (31.7%).

Ukrainians spend the greatest portion of their household budgets on food: 50.9%. People in Kazakhstan (46%, 39th place) and Moldova (43.4%, 38th place) also spend more than 40% of their budgets on food.

Western European countries topped the rating. Luxembourg came in first place. Residents of the duchy spend a mere 8.7% of their money on food. Close behind Luxembourg were Great Britain (10%) and the Netherlands (10.6%).

The agency also ranked countries according to percentages of income spent on alcohol and cigarettes. Residents of three Balkan countries—Romania (8.2%), Bulgaria (5.1%), and Serbia (4.7%)—spend the most on bad habits. Luxembourg (1.3%), Moldova (1.5%), and Cyprus (1.6%) spend the least on alcohol and cigarettes. Russia ranked 24th: Russians spend 3% of their househould budgets on bad habits.

Sweden was the top-ranked country in terms of spending on culture and leisure: Swedes spend 18.7% of their budgets for these purposes. Moldovans spend the least on leisure and culture: 1.3%. Russia ranked 21st: Russians spend 6.9% of their money in this category.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Banned: The Kremlin’s Empire

kremlin's empire.jpegA screenshot of the section of the Russian Justice Ministry’s list of “extremist” matter containing two editions of Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov’s The Kremlin’s Empire: The Soviet Style of Colonialism. They are wedged between a video entitled “Bumblebees: Moscow Skinhead Girl,” and the lyrics to a song entitled “Wog Devils” by the group Kotovsky Barbershop, each of them posted on personal pages on the Russian social media network VK. 

Avtorkhanov’s Kremlin’s Empire Ruled Extremist
Grani.ru
December 15, 2018

Two editions of The Kremlin’s Empire: The Soviet Style of Colonialism by Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov, a Chechen émigré historian of the Soviet Union, have been placed on the list of “extremist” matter, as published on the Russian Justice Ministry’s website. The SOVA Center reported the news on Friday.

The first edition of Avtorkhanov’s book was published in the Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1988. The first Soviet edition of the book was published in Vilnius in 1990. In 2001, Moscow publisher Dika-M reprinted the book, dropping the subtitle The Soviet Style of Colonialism. The Vilnius and Moscow editions were placed on the list of “extremist” matter on December 5, registered under No. 4661 and No. 4662, respectively.

Avtorkhanov’s book was placed on the list due to a ruling made over three years ago by the Meshchansky District Court in Moscow. On the court’s old website, which is no longer updated, there is a record of ten administrative suits filed by Yevgeny Novikov, who was the Meshchansky Inter-District Prosecutor at the time. Judge Maria Kudryavtseva ruled in Novikov’s favor on September 24, 2015. The Justice Ministry and the Library of Ukrainian Literature in Moscow were third parties in each of the proceedings.

Along with Avtorkhanov’s book, the Justice Ministry also placed a number of books in Ukrainian on the list of “extremist” matter on December 5, books that had also been banned by order of the Meshchansky District Court on September 24, 2015. This could mean Avtorkhanov’s book was confiscated during one of the numerous police searches carried out at the Library of Ukrainian Literature.

Grani.ru was unable to locate the decision to ban the editions of Avtorkhanov’s book in open sources.

“Perhaps the complaint against the book had to do with Avtorkhanov’s interpretation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or the history of the Bandera movement, which the prosecutor and the court construed as dissemination of falsehoods about the Soviet Union during the war,” SOVA Center wrote in its article. “However, evidence that Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 354.1 [exoneration of Nazism – Grani.ru] may have been violated cannot serve as formal grounds for ruling an item extremist.”

In his youth, Avtorkhanov (1908–1997) was a Bolshevik Party functionary in Chechnya. He was arrested and tortured in 1937. In 1940, he was exonerated. After his acquittal was reversed, he fled from Grozny into the mountains, but was soon captured. In October 1941, he was sentenced to three years in prison. He was released in April 1942. Lavrenty Beria tasked Avtorkhanov with assassinating his childhood friend Hasan Israilov (1910–1944), who in 1940 led an armed revolt against the Soviet regime in Chechnya. Avtorkhanov secretly contacted Israilov and gave him the memorandum “A Provisional Popular Revolutionary Government of Chechnya-Ingushetia,” which he had drafted for the German government.

In the summer of 1942, during the German offensive in the Caucasus, Avtorkhanov crossed the frontline, presenting the Germans with the memorandum, and offering to a write a series of pamphlets about anti-Soviet uprisings in the region. In January 1943 he moved to Berlin, where he was involved in the North Caucasus National Committee. He lived in a displaced persons camp from 1945 to 1948, subsequently settling in Munich.

In 1949, Avtorkhanov was appointed a lecturer at the US Army Russian Institute in Garmisch and Regensburg. In 1955, US counterintelligence foiled an assassination attempt on Avtorkhanov’s life. He retired in 1979. During the 1990s, he supported Chechen independence.

Avtorkhanov’s other books include The Technology of Power (1959), The Origin of the Partocracy (1973), The Mystery of Stalin’s Death (1981), From Andropov to Gorbachev (1986), and Lenin in the Destinies of Russia (1990). The Technology of Power was widely distributed in samizdat in the Soviet Union. Reading and possessing the book was a criminal offense.

Thanks to EZ for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Let’s Give In to Russian Blackmail

nod-constitution day-1“The Russian Constitution: The Basic Law or Legal Sabotage?” Front page of a newspaper handed out on the streets of Petersburg by memberx of NOD (National Liberation Movement) on December 12, 2018, celebrated as Constitution Day in Russia. This article argues that Russia’s current constitution, adopted in 1993, was drafted by CIA agents working under the cover of USAID. Their goal, allegedly, was to colonize Russia by subjugating its sovereignty to international law.

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Don’t Let Russia Leave the Council of Europe
Yuri Dzhibladze and Konstantin Baranov
oDR
December 13, 2018

Those who wish to punish the Kremlin for its aggressive actions in Ukraine and elsewhere are missing the target: it is not the Russian government, but the Russian public who will suffer if the country leaves the Council of Europe.

After the Kerch Strait incident, proponents of pushing Russia out of the Council of Europe seem to have got additional justification for their position in a discussion that rages in the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). In fact, the potential costs of this departure appear to be too high and far-reaching—not only for the Russian society, but for the whole of Europe.

More than four years since its delegation has been deprived of voting and participation rights in the PACE, Russia is now a step away from leaving the Council of Europe – either at its own initiative or as a result of expulsion for non-payment of its membership fees. In recent months, the situation has reached a deadlock due to an uncompromising position of both the Russian authorities and their critics in the PACE.

Those who wish to punish the Kremlin for its aggressive actions in Ukraine and elsewhere miss the target: it is not the Russian government, but the Russian public who would suffer the most should the country leave the Council of Europe. Since 1996, when Russia joined the organisation, for millions living in the country (including nationals of other states), the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has been an ultimate hope for justice, which they cannot find in Russia. In this period, almost 2,500 judgements have been delivered to Russia. In 2017 alone, the state paid over 14.5 million euros as just satisfaction to victims. The judgments have had a significant positive impact on Russian laws and judicial practice, despite their implementation being far from ideal and counting to roughly one-third of cases. Should Russia depart from the Council of Europe, the scope of human rights problems in the country will grow exponentially, including a threat of speedy reinstatement of the death penalty.

The potential consequences would go far beyond the deterioration of the internal situation. This move would not resolve the issue of the annexed Crimea or put an end to the armed conflict in Donbass. On the contrary, expelling the violating country would demonstrate the weakness of the European system of protection of human rights and the rule of law in dealing with such gross violations.

What is more, Russia’s withdrawal would definitely worsen conditions of citizens of Ukraine and other countries who are held in Russian prisons and face unfair trials, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. It would also result in a denial of the protection of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to inhabitants of Russia-controlled Crimea. It would eliminate effective guarantees from deportation for refugees and asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Finally, the practice of expulsion of a member state might trigger other countries to leave the Council and deter Belarus from returning to a special observer’s status at the PACE.

Politicians should assume full responsibility for making the choice that may define Europe’s future and work towards a solution that would preserve the common European legal framework and space for critical dialogue aimed at promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law on the entire territory of Europe, including Russia.

We do not demand to “give in to blackmailing.” Lifting all restrictions on the Russian delegation in the PACE would be indeed unprincipled. However, finding a reasonable solution, in our view, would be a courageous decision to take responsibility and to advance the core values of the organisation by allowing the critical dialogue to continue. Amending the PACE rules of procedure – restricting national delegations’ rights only within the Assembly itself and not depriving them of the voting rights in elections of non-PACE mandates—including ECtHR judges, Commissioner for Human Rights and Secretary General—appears such a legally sound and reasonable solution.

Threats by Russian officials to leave the Council of Europe are not just a bluff to raise the bargaining stakes. There are many influential people in the Russian political establishment in favour of isolationist policies who actually want the country to withdraw. If a reasonable solution is not found before next spring, Russia’s authorities will not wait for the official discussion of its potential expulsion at the Committee of Ministers in June 2019 and will announce the withdrawal from the Council before.

It should be clear to everyone: Russia’s departure from the Council of Europe would not stop human rights violations and halt the authoritarian backslide in our country, or prevent the Kremlin’s aggressive behaviour in the international arena. Instead, it would put an end to a difficult struggle of Russian civil society to make Russia an important part of Europe on the basis of shared norms and values of democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights. It will turn a large territory in Europe into a legal “grey zone” for decades to come.

The authors represent a group of Russian human rights defenders who recently issued a Memorandum on the crisis in relations between the Council of Europe and the Russian Federation.

About the authors

Yuri Dzhibladze is a founder and president of Moscow-based Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights and advocacy coordinator at the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. He has worked on human rights, democracy, and international organisations since the late 1980s.

Konstantin Baranov is member of the Coordinating Council and international advocacy coordinator at the Youth Human Rights Movement, an international NGO enjoying participatory status with the Council of Europe. He is an expert on the protection of civil society space and fundamental freedoms in Russia and the post-Soviet area.

NB. This article was originally published by oDR under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence

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When will Russia stop behaving like the enemy of Western Europe?
Dima Vorobiev, I worked for Soviet propaganda
Quora
Answered Feb 18

Russia is not the enemy of the Western Europe. The disruptive policy of President Putin is aimed at (1) weakening the political and military dominance of the US in Europe and/or (2) full or partial acceptance by the West of the following list of Russia’s political objectives:

  • Recognition of Crimea as Russian territory
  • Total freeze on expansion of NATO. No membership for Sweden, Finland, Ukraine or Georgia.
  • No NATO bases in the Baltics, Poland, Czech republic and Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. Removal of the American anti-ballistic bases in Central Europe.
  • Finlandization of Georgia, Ukraine and guarantees of such arrangement for Belarus, in case it gets a pro-Western government in the future.
  • Guarantees of unhindered land connection through Lithuania between the Russian heartland and the exclave of Kaliningrad. The unhindered transit through the Suwalki gap would be very useful for Russia as a gauge of the level of determination on the part of NATO in the case of a swift escalation in tensions.
  • Recognition of Russia’s right to permanent military presence in the Mediterranean (through bases in Syria and possibly in Libya or other places)
  • Repeal of all sanctions against Russian oligarchs, their companies and sectoral interests.

If the West won’t agree to such a new global security arrangement, the current confrontation will continue, with variations only in the level of tensions. Because of the technological gap, the Russian military-industrial complex will increasingly depend on China for high-tech components for our weapons systems. Russian economy will also be more and more streamlined to accommodate the needs of Chinese manufacturing.

This stalemate can continue for many years, unless one of the following happens:

  1. Unexpected massive deterioration of economy in Russia.
  2. Low-probability, high-impact catastrophe in the US or Europe that makes the West seek help from Russia
  3. Power shift in Russia with full revision of national policy. (Highly unlikely with President Putin still in power).

Squandering Its Way to Superpowerdom

“Squandering”: Did the US Secretary of State Grasp the Russian Approach to Budget Spending?
The Kremlin Accused the State Department of Tactlessness and Unprofessionalism, Yet Pompeo’s Remarks Were on the Mark
Yevgeny Karasyuk
Republic
December 13, 2018

padrino.jpgVenezuelan Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino gives his thumb up as he sits on the cockpit of a Russian Tupolev Tu-160 strategic long-range heavy supersonic bomber after it landed at Maiquetia International Airport, north of Caracas, on December 10, 2018. Courtesy of Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

Russian’s decision to send strategic bombers on a junket to an airport near Caracas elicited a curious reaction from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who publicly expressed his pity for Russian taxpapers, whose money the Kremlin, habitually disregarding the costs, has been spending on its geopolitical moves.

“The Russian and Venezuelan people should see this for what it is: two corrupt governments squandering public funds, and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer,” Pompeo wrote.

The Russian Foreign Ministry responded by calling Pompeo’s statement “utterly unprofessional” and even “villainous.” Pompeo’s remarks, which the Kremlin, in turn, dubbed “inappropriate” and “undiplomatic,” were apparently really lacking in nuance: the hardships of Russians, fortunately, cannot yet be compared with the suffering of Venezuelans. But, hand on heart, was Pompeo so wrong when he talked about the losses to the Russian federal budget and lack of oversight?

Russian society has an extremely vague notion about how much the Kremlin’s expansionism has ultimately cost the country. According to calculations made by IHS Jane’s at the outset of Russia’s operations in Syria in autumn 2015, Russia could have been spending as much as $4 million a day. Later, the Yabloko Democratic Party, which is not seated in the Russian parliament, estimated the Kremlin had spent a total of 108–140 billion rubles [between $1.6 and $2.1 billion] on Syria. A more accurate assessment would be difficult to make. Experts doubt that anyone, including the Finance Ministry, keeps tabs on such expenditures. Thus, nobody knows the real cost of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, argues the Gaidar Institute’s Military Economics Laboratory.

The budget’s fading transparency has been a trend in recent years. In 2016, secret and top-secret allocations accounted for 22% of total federal budget expenditures, a record for the entire post-Soviet period, and much higher than secret allocations in comparable countries, according to RANEPA’s March 2015 report on the Russian economy.

Quite naturally, this state of affairs has not improved the quality of the state’s financial decisions. In terms of effective state spending, Russia ranked nineteenth in a new rating of twenty-five countries, compiled by the Higher School of Economics using data from the World Bank and OECD. Since they are not priorities for the current regime, problems with child mortality and life expectancy were among the reasons Russia ranked so low in the survey: the government spends more on the army than on healthcare—4.3% of GDP versus 3.8% of GDP, respectively. In these circumstances, the chances the Kremlin’s strategic projects in the Middle East and Africa (e.g., the Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mozambique) will be decently funded are always much greater than the national healthcare project, which stipulated increased government spending on cancer treatment. The government nixed the plan over summer.

Since it remains largely Soviet in spirit, Russia’s foreign policy has been categorically blind to history’s lessons. The Soviet Union’s exorbitant geopolitical ambitions and support for fringe regimes around the world left the country with a legacy of mostly toxic multi-billion-dollar debts. The process of writing them off has been disguised as a form of international charity or, speaking diplomatically, official development assistance (ODA). According to RANEPA, writing off the debts of developing countries accounted for 35% of all such “international aid” last year or $425 million. It has been the Russian government’s usual way of doing business. Previously, the Russian government wrote off the debts of Nicaragua ($6.3 billion), Iraq ($21.5 billion), North Korea ($10.9 billion), Syria ($9.8 billion), Afghanistan ($11 billion), and Cuba ($29 billion), among other countries. Venezuela risks joining this sad list. Over the past twelve years, Russia has invested a total of $17 billion in the country.

Russia’s Expenditures on Official Development Assistance (Excluding Humanitarian Aid), 2005–2017, in Millions of Dollars. Sources: OECD, Russian Finance Ministry. Courtesy of Republic

Since it was paid for by the Russian federal budget, which has been running a deficit for the last seven years, Russian officials probably did not see the transatlantic flight of its strategic bombers as too expensive. On the contrary, they saw it as a flashy display of Russia’s military prowess and proof of its influence in the region. However, the government of Nicolás Maduro signed off on the stunt. Subject to growing pressure from creditors and an angry, desperate population, it lives day by day. In all likelihood, it will soon collapse, leaving behind a mountain of unpaid bills and unfulfilled obligations to its allies. If this is the case, can we evaluate the Russian government’s action better than the tactless Mike Pompeo did? Probably not.

Translated by the Russian Reader

House of Cards

mir-sberbankA disembodied hand proudly holding a Sberbank-issued Mir card. Photo courtesy of PressTV

Central Bank Preparing for Cutoff of Some Banks from International Payment Systems
Regulator Asks Small Banks to Have Backup Intermediary Able to Service Their Cards
Anna Yeryomina
Vedomosti
December 6, 2018

The Russian Central Bank has asked small banks to find a backup partner that would be able to service their bank cards. This would be an asset if their current intermediary banks were cut off from international payment systems.

The Central Bank is concerned with the continuity of card transactions in banks that work with payment systems indirectly, that is, via an intermediary bank. The regulating authority has advised these indirect clients of payment systems to contract with another bank, besides their primary intermediary bank, that could supply them with access to card payment systems. Five bankers confirmed to us they had received the memorandum.

The memorandum also says the contract should provide for a test exchange of information when integrating with the new intermediary banks. It also states payment systems should draft an action plan and recommend it to their participating banks.

The major intermediary banks are Payment Center Credit Union, Uralsib, VTB Bank, Rosbank, and Promsvyazbank.

A Central Bank spokesperson stressed the memorandum was only advisory, but it was based on international recommendations for risk management in payment systems. The need for banks to contract with backup intermediary banks is not so obvious. According to several of its recipients, in early autumn the Central Bank had sent banks a letter urging them to draft plans to ensure the continuity of payments, but it had not recommended any specific measures.

Switching intermediary banks is a time-consuming, expensive process that takes between three to six months, notes Maya Glotova, director of Kartstandart, a processing center that partners with Payment Center Credit Union. The most high-profile case occurred in 2013 after Master Bank’s license was revoked. As Glotova recalls, Master Bank had functioned as an intermediary bank in payment systems and provided payment processing services. Small banks had to halt their operations for several weeks, and several of them had to leave the payments business. Glotova estimates it would cost a single bank more than $100,000 to switch intermediary banks in the three payment systems.

Intermediary banks had little to say about the memorandum. A spokesperson at Promsvyazbank promised to follow the Central Bank’s recommendations, while a spokesperson at VTB Bank said their own intermediary program had worked well.

Several bankers believe the Central Bank is hedging not only against the collapse of intermediary banks but also potential sanctions, which are fraught with the possibility that intermediary banks would be cut off from Visa and Mastercard, as occurred in 2014 and 2015. The United States has been drafting a new set of sanctions that could affect major banks. Payments within Russia would not be affected: these transactions are processed by the National Payment Card System (NSPK). Russian bank cards, however, would not function abroad. (A spokesperson for NSPK, which operates the Mir payment system, said they had not received the Central Bank’s memorandum.)

VTB Bank had drafted a plan to counter sanctions, its president, Andrei Kostin, told the TV channel Rossiya 24 in October.

“We have been mapping out with both the government and the Central Bank how to avoid the consequences, especially for individuals and companies. I think we can overcome them. I don’t think the sanctions will be wholesale and directed against the entire financial sector,” Kostin said.

Translated by the Russian Reader

We Wouldn’t Mind If You Died of AIDS

nutter

HIV Prevention Organization in Altai Territory Closes Due to Inability to Pay Court Fine
Takie Dela
December 4, 2018

Choice (Vybor), a non-profit HIV service organization, has been forced to close its office in Biysk, Altai Territory, due to its inability to pay a court-imposed fine, reports Kommersant. The NGO had been found guilty of refusing to acknowledge it was a “foreign agent.”

The Altai Territorial Court upheld the ruling of the Biysk City Court, which had fined Choice 150,000 rubles [approx. €2,000] for failing to recognize itself as a “foreign agent” and voluntarily place itself on the registry of “foreign agents.”

According to Maxim Olenichev, a lawyer from Attorneys for Equal Rights who represented Choice in court, on November 30, the organization was forced to close its office and cancel its HIV prevention programs in the region, including programs for intravenous drug users and other risk groups.

“HIV-service NGOS have access to ‘closed’ groups of people who are unwilling to turn to state institutions for help,” Olenichev said in an interview with reporters. “Attacking such NGOS reflects a policy of ‘traditional values,’ a policy focused on criminalizing the actions of people who do not comply with these values or ignore them. By using the law on ‘foreign agents’ to destroy NGOs, the state promotes the growth of HIV-infected people, although by joining forces with NGOs the state could halt the epidemic’s growth.”

The court ruled that several of Choice’s campaigns, during which the NGO handed out HIV express tests (41 people tested positive — TD), over 100,000 clean syringes, and 20,000 condoms for free, were “political” in nature. Choice employees noted they worked with the primary vulnerable groups as defined by the Russian state, using the same methods as specified in the official rules for HIV prevention. The court chose to ignore these arguments.

The court also agreed with the Russian Justice Ministry’s claim that Choice had received foreign funding in 2014 and 2016. Choice received 147,000 rubles from ESVERO, a non-profit partnership, and 272,000 rubles from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

Olenichev pointed out that ESVERO had been implementing a project of the Global Fund for Fighting AIDs, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which receives funding from the Russian government, in thirty-four Russian regions. The NGO was thus using grants to put the money back into the Russian economy. As for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which sponsored Choice with funding in rubles, Olenichev claimed there was no evidence in the case file that the organization was foreign. Nevertheless, the court refused to reverse the fine.

According to the latest data from the Russian Health Ministry, in 2017, 53.5% of new cases of HIV infection were caused by sexual intercourse, while 43.6% of new infections were caused by the use of intravenous drugs. According to official statistics, the number of HIV-infected people in Russia is 998,525. Eighty-one percent of them know they are infected.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized Russia as leading Europe in new cases of HIV infections at 71.1 cases per every 100,000 people. The virus is primarily transmitted through heterosexual sex (59%) and intravenous drug use (30%). The Russian Health Ministry has called these figures “extremely inaccurate.”

In late October, the Saratov Regional Organization of Chronic Diabetes Sufferers announced its closure: a court had also fined it 300,000 rubles for violating the law on “foreign agents.” The expert employed by the prosecutor’s office to audit the organization concluded it had “shape[d] preconditions for discrediting the authorities” and “report[ed] about the region’s so-called sore points to [its] foreign partners.”

Thanks to Alexander Feldberg for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader