The Safe Internet League

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Miracles of OSINT
Telegram
August 12, 2019

“Senator” Andrei Klimov’s attack on YouTube—he claimed the video hosting service had been used to provide protesters on Sakharov Avenue with far-out guns and tell them to storm the Kremlin—might not have been mere psychosis on the part of yet another Russian elder in high places.

Through his so-called Interdisciplinary Institute for Regional Studies, Klimov is an official partner of Russian Orthodox businessman Konstantin Malofeyev, founder of the Safe Internet League.

Klimov’s institute and Malofeyev’s think thank Katehon are co-founders of Eurasian Dialogue.

“Today we have arrived at the law ‘On the Sovereign Internet’ in Russia precisely because the United States did not let us take part in regulating [the internet]. We have been forced to incur financial losses in order to create a parallel, mobilizing Runet,” Malofeyev has said, for example.

But Malofeyev, who fancies flashy, expensive suits with handkerchiefs sticking out of the pockets, is also not just obsessed with conservatism for nothing. He is close to former communication minister Igor Shchegolev, who has always been regarded as the FSB’s voice regarding internet regulation.

No wonder Roskomnadzor immediately launched an inquiry into whether Klimov’s cyberpunk dreams were true.

Image courtesy of Cropas. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Safe Internet League to attend China’s Internet Security Conference
Safe Internet League
August 15, 2016

[The] Internet Security Conference, due to open on August 16, 2016, in Beijing, China, is set to welcome head of [the] Safe Internet League Denis Davydov as one of its keynote speakers.

[The] ISC is one of the largest and most representative Asian-Pacific industry conferences on cybersecurity. First held in 2013 by the Cybersecurity Association of China and the 360 Internet Security Centre, the event enjoys the support of the nation’s Cyberspace Administration, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and Ministry of Public Security. The 2016 conference will discuss [the] trends and prospects of the international cybersecurity industry. Expected to attend the event are more than 30 000 specialists from all over the globe and 150 representatives of cybersecurity firms. Delivering keynote speeches will be John McAfee, founder of the company behind McAfee AntiVirus and a 2016 US presidential candidate; Wu Hequan, member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering; Zhou Hongyi, founder of Qihoo 360, the world’s largest antivirus company; John Davis, vice president of the network security solutions company Palo Alto Networks (USA); and Chu Chengyun, Director of Cyber Security Strategy at Microsoft (USA), and others.

“It is a great honor to be representing Russia at an event of such importance. The international community is currently in search of a new model of Internet governance, one based on a civilized approach, transparency, respect for and preservation of the sovereignty of nation-states, and the inadmissibility of unilateral control by any single country (which is, in fact, [has] continu[ed] to be the case). I am sure the Beijing meeting [will] help us make progress on this issue,” Mr. Davydov said prior to the conference.

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I Am Ingush

elizaveta_alexandrova-zorinaElizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina. Courtesy of Ponedelnik

I Am Ingush
Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina
Radio Svoboda
September 24, 2019

In Russia, there is a political crackdown in full swing that almost no one talks about—not because it is happening somewhere other than Moscow, but because it is happening in the North Caucasus. Popular protests in Ingushetia forced Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the head of the republic to resign, triggered a wave of criminal prosecutions, and still have the republic agitated. In the rest of Russia, people say it is a Caucasian affair, something in which they should avoid getting involved. And yet many Ingush believe the events in Magas in spring 2019 were the starting point for all the recent protest campaigns, from Shiyes to Moscow. At the very least, the protests in Ingushetia were the largest in Russia since the fair elections rallies on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue in 2011–2012.

The arrests and prosecution of protesters in Moscow have been dubbed a “new” Bolotnaya Square case. Russian and international journalists alike have written a great deal about the case, and each of the defendants has been lavished with attention by human rights defenders. There are long queues of people waiting to take turns in solo pickets, and flash mobs are held in solidarity with Konstantin Kotov. Actors have rallied around Pavel Ustinov, while teachers produced an appeal in support of Yegor Zhukov. The clergy, the Union of Cinematographers, and PEN Moscow have sent official letters on behalf of the defendants, while Stephen Fry, Herta Müller, and a whole host of foreign politicians and cultural figures signed an open letter. Only Mediazona and OVD Info have been covering the events in Ingushetia, however, while the only aspect of the protests there and the fallout from them that has been discussed on the Runet is the fact that certain Ingush police officers went over to the protesters and have subsequently been criminally prosecuted for their actions.

In point of fact, Ingushetia’s version of the Bolotnaya Square case is quite as massive as the real thing. Criminal charges have been filed against thirty-three people, most of whom have been in remand prison for many months. Another forty people are under investigation. The investigators reportedly have an extended list of 150 people they would like to charge: Ingushetia is a small place, and it is hard to keep such things secret for long. We should also add to this catalog a reporter who covered the protests. Apparently, the police planted heroin on him and then tortured him to try and force him to testify.

Before the arrests kicked off, 317 people were convicted under the administrative law on “unauthorized” protest rallies and fined between 10,000 and 20,000 rubles [approx. 150 to 300 dollars]. That is a lot of money for people in Ingushetia, where a quarter of the able-bodied population earns less than 10,000 rubles a month.

Around a hundred grassroots activists have been harassed—police have searched their homes, interrogated them, and detained them—and some have lost their jobs. Even the new law about “fake” news has been employed: Murad Daskiyev, an Ingush elder, was fined for the fact that, in his appeal to Ingush lawmakers, he wrote about the possible elimination of the republic due to another redrawing of its borders with neighboring republics, despite the fact the many people there actually do see the constant “pruning” of Ingushetia as just that: an attempt to get rid of Ingushetia.

Ingush activists told me it was strange I had come. They said no one in Moscow was interested in what was happening in Ingushetia. As they put it, people in Moscow think the “wogs” were trying to divvy something up, but the conflict does not concern them. In their coverage of the protests in Magas, national Russian media managed to shift the emphasis from anger at the authorities to the supposedly ethnic conflict between Chechens and Ingush. This can not just be put down to the skill of the propagandists.

In August, during the so-called indefinite picket—which began as a way to support demands to release the imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, but later encompassed the Crimean Tatars, historian Yuri Dmitriev, the New Greatness case, the Network case, and the Moscow case—I stood holding a placard decrying the crackdown in Ingushetia. A poster calling for a one-to-one prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine usually elicited a positive reaction from passersby, while a placard that read “No to the war with Ukraine!” generated lots of arguments. When they saw me holding up placards about the Crimean Tatars and the Ukrainian sailors, people were sometimes ready to attack. But the placard about Ingushetia could just as well have been invisible. Only once did some policemen lazily inquire about what was happening in Ingushetia because they didn’t know. And one passerby, a woman, asked her husband what was written on my placard.

“Something about Ingushetia,” he replied.

“Oh, Ingushetia,” she said.

On the contrary, people in Ingushetia follow the news from Moscow closely. They post articles and photographs on social media and discuss the arrests of protesters. I was constantly asked about what was happening in Moscow and what would happen to the protesters arrested there on criminal charges. I was ashamed of the fact I was surprised by their attention to the Moscow case.

In Moscow, you strike up the most pleasant acquaintances in paddy wagons and police stations during protest rallies because the most interesting, best-educated, and most concerned people end up there. It’s the same way in Ingushetia: the republic’s finest people are behind bars and on the lists of police investigators.

Six people, whom the authorities have identified as “leaders” of the protests, have been charged under an article of the Russian criminal code that stipulates a maximum sentence of ten years in prison for “organizing violence that threatens the life or health of public officials in the performance of their duties.” Since they have no criminal records, they could be sentenced to a “mere” five or six years in prison.

Barakh Chemurziyev worked for ten years in the department of economics at the University of Economics and Finance in St. Petersburg. He researched corruption and embezzlement of government funds by officials in the Yevkurov administration. Chair of the Ingush branch of the Red Cross, Musa Masalgov has devoted thirty years of his life to charity work. Malsag Uzhakhov, 67, is chair of the Council of Teips of the Ingush People, while Ahmed Barakhoyev, 65, is an Ingush elder and member of the Ingush National Unity Committee. Ismail Nalgiyev, a blogger and grassroots activists, held solo pickets in solidarity with his arrested countrymen, later joining their ranks himself. Zarifa Sautiyeva is a researcher and deputy director of Memorial, a museum complex dealing with the deportation of the Ingush in 1944.

Another activist, Akhmet Pogorov, former head of the Ingushetia Interior Ministry and anti-corruption researcher, is on the federal wanted list. In their last video, posted on YouTube, he and Chemurziyev outlined one of the corruption schemes used by the Yevkurov administration. A month later, they found themselves among the “organizers of the riots.”

When people post the names of the protesters arrested in Moscow, they express outrage over the fact that an actor, a “harmless” programmer, and a 26-year-old man with kids could have been singled out by the authorities. When journalists are targeted, they call it an attack on free speech. But is no one outraged by the arrest of a museum curator? Of two old, sick men who could die in remand prison? (Barakhoyev and Masalgov’s chronic illnesses have worsened since they were arrested and jailed.) Is a deliberate crackdown on public figures and civic activists not an attack on political freedoms?

In Moscow, the slogan “Stop feeding the Caucasus!” has been popular. The Ingush told me it would be great if people called for an end to feeding the elites in the Caucasus. They added I should be sure to write that the protests in Magas were not only about land but also about official lawlessness and corruption in the republic. In Moscow, the ostensible trigger for the protests was the disqualification of independent candidates who wanted to stand in elections to the Moscow City Duma, but people actually protested corruption and the endless reign of the current regime. Similarly, in Ingushetia, outrage over the transfer of land to Chechnya mushroomed into an anti-corruption movement.

Corruption in Ingushetia starts at the very top. Everyone knows there that the federal authorities take a five to ten percent kickback from subsidies to the region. The looting continues when the money trickles down to the local authorities. And there is rampant bribery everywhere: people pay bribes to get good marks on school exams, medical care, and jobs.

Here is a typical story, one of hundreds. In 2013, the largest flour mill in Russia was built in Karabulak with five billion rubles from Rosselkhozbank, money referred to as “private investments.” A portrait of Putin was draped on the building, a grand opening was held, and press releases were sent to the national media. The mill was supposed to employ 1,500 people, but since it opened, the mill has only employed security guards. So there the mill stands, a monument to corruption in Russia. A grain farmer I know complained he had to take his crop straight from the field to the distilleries, where he sold it for seven or so rubles a bushel since there was no place to store and process it.

Ingushetia has the highest unemployment rate in Russia, and finding work there is not only difficult but also expensive. They say a posting in the Emergencies Ministry costs 350,000 rubles [approx. 5,000 euros], while a nurse’s job runs you around 50,000 rubles. 64,000 people were on the books as employees of state enterprises, when in fact they did not work for them and did not even know they worked for them. Besides, the population of Ingushetia is only around half a million people.

Ingushetia is one of the five poorest regions in Russia. It suffers from poverty and ruin, lawless security forces and high officials who pilfer the budget with impunity. It was no wonder protesters chanted slogans against corruption, against Yevkurov and his administration, from the outset of the protests. Nor was it any wonder Yevkurov practically issued an order in public when he said the protesters should be put in prison.

One of Yevkurov’s ministers, now an adviser to the new head of the republic, who celebrated the Eid in a most unexpected way—with vodka and women in the courtyard of his own hotel—explained to me why people protested.

“They’re a bunch of crooks who were paid.”

“Who paid them?”

“The west, maybe?” Who else pays people in Russia to protest? Who doesn’t like the fact that Putin has made Russia strong? So they’re the ones who pay.”

Ingushetia is like Moscow, only worse. Yevkurov ordered a crackdown on the protesters because he was sick and tired of anti-corruption slogans and accusations he had looted Ingushetia. And then there is the Kremlin, which sends a signal to the entire country that any opposition movement will face a brutal crackdown. Consequently, thirty-three people await their sentences. And sentenced they will be, not least because, for some inexplicable reason, the Russian public, opposition activists, and foreign correspondents could not care less about them.

All anyone does nowadays is talk about the defendants in the Moscow case, throwing in a few other political prisoners for good measure. People say they did nothing wrong, that the charges against them are trumped-up, that the authorities ordered law enforcement to put them away. But what about the Ingush case? Is it not a frame-up? Did the accused do something wrong?

You often hear that people only defend their own kind: journalists defend other journalists, actors intercede on the behalf of other actors, lecturers at the Higher School of Economics show their solidarity with a student at the Higher School of Economics. The authorities threatened to frame Ingush journalist Rashid Maysigov on drug charges, and then they did it. They also tortured him with electrical shocks to force him to testify. I have not seen a single newspaper with the front-page headline “I Am/We Are Rashid Maysigov.” When it came to Maysigov, journalistic solidarity broke down for some reason. Nor will the folks who adorn their social media account profile pictures with slogans like “I Am Yegor Zhukov,” “I Am Ivan Golunov”  or “I Am Konstantin Kotov” ever write “I Am Zafira Sautiyeva” or “I Am Musa Masalgov.” What is wrong with Sautiyeva and Masalgov? Are they the wrong sort of people? Are they from the wrong ethnic group?

I like the slogan used by the solo picketers outside the presidential administration building in Moscow; “I Am/We Are the Whole Country.” I like the fact that the placards are inscribed with the names of people who are being persecuted right now for protesting peacefully or literally for no reason at all. But the names Sautiyeva, Masalgov, Barakhoyev, Uzhakhov, Nalgiyev, Chemurziyev, Pogorov, Maysigov, Katsiyev, Pliyev, Dzeytov, Dugiyev, Myakiyev, Gagiyev, Vishegurov, Bapkhoyev, Badiyev, Oziyev, Ozdoyev, Oskanov, Dzyazikov, Tomov, Azhigov, Muzhakhoyev, Khamkhoyev, and Aushev are not on these placards.

Are you certain you are the whole country? Have you forgotten anyone?

Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina is a Moscow writer and journalist. Thanks to Jenya Kulakova for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Death to Traitors!

536635Visitors to the Dnieper Line Military History Festival in Shipunovo, Altai Territory, interacting with a “German soldier,” August 24, 2019. Photo courtesy of Altapress

“Traitor to the Motherland” Mock-Executed at Military History Festival in Altai Territory
News.ru.com
August 26, 2019

On August 24, the Dnieper Line Military History Festival was held in the village of Shipunovo in the Altai Territory. Its main event was a reconstruction of the Battle of the Dnieper in 1943. Clubs from the Altai Territory, Berdsk, Krasnoyarsk,  Novosibirsk, Omsk, Tomsk, and Tyumen took part in the reenactment.

One hundred thirty people took part in the staged battle, thirty of them playing German soldiers. According to the scenario, a group of German invaders was burning part of a Ukrainian farmstead that had been helping pro-Soviet guerrillas right when a detachment of Red Army soldiers arrived at the farm.

Festivalgoers were also treated to a mock “execution of a traitor to the Motherland.” His sentence was read aloud by a “Red Army officer” on stage and carried out, despite promises by the “traitor” to redeem himself and his pleas not to shoot “one of your own.”

The military history festival in Shipunovo was held for the second time. Organizers estimated 9,000 people attended the event, writes Altapress.

Festivalgoers enjoyed an exhibition of vintage military equipment as well as musical performances and reenactments. Altapress noted visitors were especially keen to have their pictures taken with the reenactors dressed in Wehrmacht uniforms and asked them to say something in German.

In May, Novaya Gazeta wrote that 157,593 people were sentenced to death by Soviet military tribunals and executed during the Second World war. This number is the equivalent of approximately fifteen Red Army divisions, but it does not take into account people executed on the orders of regular courts and the NKVD’s Special Councils, as well as extrajudicial executions by SMERSH.

Among the “traitors to the Motherland” who were executed, according to Novaya Gazeta, were Red Army servicemen who spoke approvingly to their comrades of the German Messerschmitt fighter plane, gossiped about news that had arrived from nearby battalions or picked up German propaganda leaflets and put them in their pockets to use latter as rolling paper for homemade cigarettes.

During the Second World War, British military tribunals sentenced 40 British servicemen to death, while the French executed 102 of their soldiers, and the Americans, 146, added Novaya Gazeta. Between September 1, 1939, and September 1, 1944, 7,810 people were executed on the orders of German military tribunals.

In December 2018, after an air-rifle shooting competition, schoolchildren in Yekaterinburg were given the chance to shoot at a photograph of retired US Army General Robert Scales, whom the event’s organizers had identified as an “enemy of the Russian people.”*

A few months earlier, Russian National Guardsmen and members of the Cossack Watch movement held a “patriot” quest outside of Yekaterinburg. One part of the event was a reenactment of the September 2004 Beslan school siege.  Cossack Watch later claimed  it had actually been a “staged special forces operation to free hostages,” and that “idle, unscrupulous people on the internet” had dubbed it a staging of the Beslan tragedy.

* “On 10 March 2015, Robert Scales told in an interview with Lou Dobbs Tonight at Fox News about the War in Donbass: ‘The only way the United States can have any effect in this region and turn the tide is to start killing Russians—killing so many Russians that even Putin’s media can’t hide the fact that Russians are returning to the motherland in body bags”. The Moscow Times wrote that the context of his statement suggested that his words were rhetoric, rather than a call to arms. [] On 12 March 2015, Investigative Committee of Russia launched a criminal case, describing Scales’ words as a call to the U.S. political and military leadership and the American citizens to ‘conduct military operations on the Ukrainian territory and to kill Russian citizens, as well as Russian-speaking people.’ The case was launched under the article of Russia’s Criminal Code that prohibits ‘public calls to unleash an aggressive warfare, made with the use of media outlets.’ If arrested and convicted by a Russian court, Scales could theoretically be faced up to five years in prison.”

Source: Wikipedia. I hope I do not need to point out to readers that the slightly off-kilter language of this passage suggests strongly who might have written it. TRR

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

Sandarmokh: Rewriting History with Shovels

content_IMG_9455“Alternative” excavations at Sandarmokh. Photo by Irina Tumakova. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

Sifting through History: The “Alternative” Excavations at Sandarmokh Are Meant to Shift the Public’s Attention from Great Terror Victims to WWII Casualties
Pavel Aptekar
Vedomosti
August 20, 2019

The ongoing excavations by the Russian Military History Society (RVIO) at the Sandarmokh site in [Russian] Karelia, where political prisoners were shot during the Great Terror, reflects the desire of Russian officials to switch the public’s attention to the Second World War.

In August, RVIO employees and a Defense Ministry search battalion resumed digging at Sandarmokh. Karelian Culture Minister Alexei Lesonen said the objective was to “separate artifacts having to do with different layers of history and different circumstances.”

It is a matter of words matching deeds. In 1997, local historian Yuri Dmitriev discovered the mass graves of people shot by the NKVD in 1937–1938. Thanks to Dmitriev’s efforts, Sandarmokh became a symbol of the Great Terror.

International Memorial Society board member Sergei Krivenko puts a number on it: archival documents have confirmed that over 6,100 people were shot and buried at Sandarmokh during the Great Terror.

In keeping with the Kremlin’s policy of “inculcating pride in the past,” the authorities have attempted, in recent years, to diminish Sandarmokh’s status as a memorial site. The authorities have tried to discredit Dmitriev and, by his extension, his work by charging him in a notorious “pedophilia” case [in which two men have already been convicted and sentenced, including Sergei Koltyrin, former director of the Medvezhyegorsk Museum and an ally of Dmitriev’s]. They have claimed Memorial’s figures for the number of victims are inflated. They have pushed an alternate account that the Finnish Army shot and buried Soviet POWS at Sandarmokh between 1941 and 1944.

The RVIO’s August–September 2018 expedition turned up the remains of five people. Historian Sergei Verigin said they corroborated the hypothesis about Soviet POWS because the executed people had not been stripped before they were shot and foreign-made shell casings were found next to them. This proves nothing, however. The NKVD used foreign-made weapons when it executed its prisoners [22,000 Polish officers and members of the Polish intelligentsia] at Katyn, nor have the RVIO established when exactly the people whose remains they found were killed.

The Karelian Culture Ministry has asked the RVIO to keep digging. Officials there are convinced that “speculation about events in Sandarmokh […] reinforces in the public’s mind a baseless sense of guilt towards the alleged [Great Terror] victims […] becoming a consolidating factor for anti-government forces in Russia.”

The RVIO did not respond to our request to comment on the claim that the people shot and buried at Sandarmokh were “alleged victims.” They keep digging In early August, the remains of five more people were found.

Memorial has demanded an end to the excavations, fearing the mass graves will be disturbed. Archaeologists have also sounded a warning because the traces of dwelling sites used by prehistoric people have been found at Sandarmokh as well and they could be damaged.

The problem, however, is not that artifacts could get mixed up. The problem is there is no comparison between the maximum possible number of Soviet POWs executed and buried at Sandarmokh, as estimated by the Karelian Culture Ministry, and the confirmed numbers of victims of Stalin’s terror campaign who are buried there: 500 versus over 6,100.

The digs at Sandarmokh are a clumsy attempt by Russian officials to alter the meaning of the memorial site and rewrite the past with shovels. More importantly, officials want to juggle the numbers of victims and thus gaslight the Russian public.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Without Fathers, a video made by Anna Artemieva and Gleb Limansky, and published by Novaya Gazeta on August 7, 2017. The annotation reads, “The orphans of Sandarmokh remember their executed relatives. Historian Yuri Dmitriev did not attend memorial day ceremonies there for the first time in twenty years. He is on trial, charged with ‘manufacturing child pornography.'” 

More and More Russians

hongkong.jpgAccording to organizers, at least 1.7 million people attended a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong today, August 18, 2019. Photo courtesy of HKFP

More and more Russians seem to be breaking free of the old habit of trying to guess the party line. Increasingly, they just do what they deem important, and the authorities deal with the consequences. We are all much more used to the reverse relationship, which is why Russia’s new situation is hard to grasp. People in Russia are only now learning to peer into themselves, not into their television sets, searching for clues to what will happen next.

This does not mean that the Kremlin has suddenly become more transparent or less authoritarian. It only means that Russian society has started to realize that it may, in fact, be an originator of political and societal change, not just on the receiving end.

For how long this new situation—or an impression of it—will last is unclear. The Kremlin is at war and wants everyone in Russia to be at war too. Russians seem to be drifting away from this belligerence. The question is whose pull, the Kremlin’s or Russian society’s, is stronger. I am afraid the Kremlin’s is stronger but will be happy to be mistaken.
—Maxim Trudolyubov, “Ask Not What Will the Kremlin Do Next,” The Russia File, 16 August 2019

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What does the phrase “more and more Russians” mean, in the essay quoted above? How does Maxim Trudolyubov know they are doing anything at all, much more “breaking free of the old habit of trying to guess the party line” and doing “what they deem important” (whatever that means)?

If its organizers are to be believed, a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong was attended by 1.7 million people today, August 18. According to Worldometers, Hong Kong’s population, as of today, was almost 7.5 million people, meaning that nearly 23% of Hong Kong’s residents marched today in support of the city’s autonomy and democratic rights.

In Moscow, “up to 60,000 people” attended an “authorized” pro-democracy rally on August 10. It was, apparently, the biggest opposition rally in Russia since the fair election protests of 2011–2012.

World Population Review estimates Moscow’s population as slightly over 12 million people.

If the figures for the August 10 rally and Moscow’s population are to be credited, then, 0.005% of the city’s populace came out for an “authorized” rally—meaning an event where they had much less reason to fear a police crackdown than at the “unauthorized” rallies at which riot police and Russian National Guardsmen detained thousands of protests over the last month or so.

When you are trying to get your collective point across to an authoritarian government, the numbers do matter, just as they matter in non-authoritarian countries.

As I have argued in many different ways many different times, the Russian opposition, especially its self-declared leaders in Moscow, is woefully bad at two things: mobilizing ordinary pro-democratic Russians to make their numbers know to the regime, and meaningfully allying itself with the grassroots pro-democracy movement beyond Moscow.

In fact, at the very same time as a tiny minority of brave, smart Muscovites have been doing battle with the Moscow City Elections Commission and the security forces to defend their constitutional right to vote and run for office, an even tinier and, perhaps, braver minority of Petersburgers have been fighting to get a small slate of independent candidates onto the ballot for elections to the city’s municipal district councils, chronically underfunded entities with almost no power to do anything more than making cosmetic improvements to the neighborhoods they represent. Just as in Moscow, the would-be candidates themselves have been harassed, beaten, and arrested, along with some of their supporters.

Typically, when the Petersburg pro-democratic opposition held an authorized rally on August 3, only two thousand people showed up. Sadly and hilariously, Deutsche Welle described it as an “event in support of candidates not allowed to run in the elections to the Moscow City Duma.” In reality, Petersburgers rallied in support of their own beleaguered opposition candidates, in solidarity with Muscovites, and against the upcoming pro forma election of acting Governor Alexander Beglov, the Kremlin’s third satrap in the city, on September 8.

But the real story was too complicated for Deutsche Welle. It was, apparently, too gnarly for the vast majority of Petersburgers as well. World Population Review estimates Petersburg’s population as nearly 5.5 million. (I suspect it is actually much higher than this, but that is another conversation.) So, proportionately, even fewer people in Russia’s “cultural capital” are worried about their rapidly vanishing constitutionally guaranteed rights than their comrades in Moscow and their Chinese frenemies in Hong Kong: 0.0003%, to be exact.

In the face of these real numbers, which he signally fails to mention, Trudolyubov cites public opinion polls, notoriously unreliable indicators in a highly manipulated authoritarian society like Russia, and his own vague “impressions.”

He also makes an assertion that is debatable and a promise he probably has no intention of keeping, to wit:

“Russian society is turning into a much more active player in Russia’s public life. Importantly, it is not limited to the political protests that have been taking place in Moscow for the past several weeks. The protests are just the most visible part of the change. There is exciting new art, there is a new wave of independent journalism, there is an entire universe of YouTube and other social media channels that are completely free of both pro-Kremlin and strictly oppositional politics (all of those trends deserve a special take, which we will provide).”

I will have been reporting on these “other Russias,” as I have dubbed them, for twelve years come this October. I know them as well any “outsider” can know them. I will keep writing about them and translating dispatches from these other Russias as long as I am able.

Despite my interest in the other Russias and Russians, however, and my endless admiration for the sheer courage, tenacity, and intelligence of many of the real-life heroines and heroes who have made appearances on this website over the years, I knew the fair elections movement of 2011–2012 was a non-starter almost as soon as it kicked off, even though it was a nationwide grassroots movement, unlike the 2019 fair elections movement, which has been practically limited to Moscow.

I knew that for two reasons. First, the numbers of anti-Putinists showing their faces in public at protest rallies, “authorized” and “unauthorized,” were also minuscule as percentages of the general populace. Second, the “movement” was managed lackadaisically, with huge gaps between “authorized” rallies.

In Moscow, at least, there does seem to be a greater sense of urgency and intensity this time around, but the numbers of people showing up for rallies have been halved. Paradoxically, however, those people have been more willing to face police crackdowns, but I am not sure this is necessarily a good thing, politically and strategically.

Like Trudolyubov, I am happy to be mistaken. Unlike Trudolyubov, I have no sense that Russian society has become a bigger player than it was seven years ago. There was also a lot of new art, independent journalism, and social media savvy on the margins then as now.

The sad truth is that, unlike countries and territories populated by people of color, such as Hong Kong and Puerto Rico, Russia gets way more credit for every tiny gesture towards democracy, autonomy, and independence made by its supposedly “white” people, even though Russian society punches way below its weight when it comes to every possible measure of official and popular support for democracy, minorities, civil and human rights, progressive environmental policies, engaged art, cutting-edge education, grassroots-driven urban planning, you name it.

What Russia does have a lot of is flag twirlers who have ensconced themselves in plum jobs at western news outlets and think thanks, places where, correspondingly, you will not find a lot of people of color and people from the formerly colonized parts of the world. So, even though the Kremlin has made xenophobia, anti-Americanism, rampant homophobia, Islamophobic, anti-westernism, anti-liberalism, Russian Orthodox obscurantism, and aggressive covert and overt interventions into the affairs of other countries planks in its unwritten ideological platform, and Russia’s opposition has said almost nothing about any of it, much less organized protests against, say, the Kremlin’s criminal military involvement in the brutal ongoing murder of Syria’s pro-democracy movement, the so-called west, at least as represented by places like the Kennan Institute and media organizations like the BBC, has way more time and sympathy for all things Russian than it has for anything happening in countries and places dominated by people of color.

It would be strange of me, of all people, to argue for less interest in grassroots politics and culture in Russia, but a genuine curiosity should also involve being able to tell the fibbers and crypto-nationalists from the truth-tellers and democrats. // TRR

Thanks to the fabulous Mark Teeter for the heads-up. I am nearly certain he would have a different take on Trudolyubov’s essay, but in my Facebook newsfeed it ended up cheek by jowl with an article about today’s truly massive protests in Hong Kong.

Inland Empire: Life in Russia Without Visa and Mastercard

buyerThis woman is happy she doesn’t live in Russia, where Visa and Mastercard may soon be banned. Courtesy of Fluencia

Inland Empire: How Will Russians Live Without Visa and Mastercard?
Sergei Khestanov
Republic
July 12, 2019

The new attack by Russian lawmakers on the international payment systems Visa and Mastercard may come to a head, successfully or unsuccessfully, this summer. For the law bill’s sponsors success would mean the near-total financial isolation of Russians from the rest of the world. All that would remain would be to adopt restrictions on foreign currency.

Going Our Own Way
There had long been talk of the need to talk of a completely autonomous domestic payments system, but the events of 2014 and, especially, the imposition of sanctions visibly accelerated the process.

In fact, in the spring of 2014, MPs in the Russian State Duma drafted amendments to the law “On the National Payment System” that would have forced Mastercard and Visa, which had been obliged to observe the sanctions against a number of Russian banks, to deposit amounts of money equal to their two-day turnover in special accounts at the Russian Central Bank. Visa said it would stop doing business in Russia. Negotiations with the Russian government and Central Bank followed this announcement. The draft law was considerably softened. The amount of the obligatory deposit was removed from the bill, and it was decided that international payment systems would operate in Russia through specially established local subsidiaries.

After Mir bank cards were launched, they were quite unpopular among Russians for a long time. Russians preferred time-tested foreign bank cards. Besides, initially there were purely technical problems with Mir that caused their cards to be rejected, but after the Russian Central Bank issued stern warnings, banks updated the software of their ATMs and payment terminals, more or less solving the glitches.

Another problem is that Russian cards are nearly useless abroad since they are accepted almost nowhere. However, given the small percentage of Russians who travel abroad, this is not such a huge problem.

The breakthrough in promoting the domestic cards came in 2018. On July 1, 2018, the electronic wage payments of all state-sector workers were transferred by law to Russian bank cards. By January 1, 2019, they had taken a big bite out of the share of the Russian market controlled by their famous competitors. According to the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service, during the period from January 1, 2018, to January 1, 2019, the share of actively used Visa cards among the Russian populace fell from 45% to 39.5%, while Mastercard’s share fell from 42% to 36%. The reduction in the international payment systems’ share of the Russian market happened as Mir doubled its share of active card users, which rose from 12.5% to 24.5%.

This is not surprising. The traditional Russian principle of pushing certain things, ironically dubbed the “voluntary compulsory” method, is rather effective. Outcomes are achieved quickly, making such methods of promotion quite popular. We should say, in all fairness, that this happens not only in Russia.

Such aggressiveness has a price, however. Compulsory promotion of goods and services reduces competition, since the advantages of using a particular service or buying a certain product derive from the market’s absence. Over time, products and services pushed in this way lag behind their absent competitors in terms of their quality.

Striking examples of diminishing quality in a market in which competition was restricted were the Soviet automobile and electronics industries. The latter lagged behind the world especially disastrously. Remember the old joke, “Soviet handheld calculators are the biggest handheld calculators in the worlds”?

Rejecting the Outside World
But degradation as a consequence of pushing goods and services through non-market methods is only half the trouble. It is much more dangerous to ban and expel foreign products and services from the domestic market. The new regulations described in the draft law “On the National Payment System” could force international payment systems out of Russia since they would be unable to comply with the regulations. Once they leave, Russian bank cards would not be accepted for payment abroad, and cards issued by foreign banks would not be valid in Russia.

Mir cardholders who never travel abroad would not even notice this nastiness. Everyone else would soon voluntarily be forced to join them. Give the Russian state’s high and growing share in the Russian economy, the regulations would not provoke fatal disaffection with the leadership.

Russia’s policy of self-isolation was adopted long ago, and a large segment of the populace has no real objections to it, while people who use their bank cards within Russia mostly do not care what system processes their transactions. What matters is that everything works fine and does not cost too much. Mir’s reliability is now on a par with the international payment system, and so are its rates. Besides, if push came to shove, the Russian Central Bank and the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service could force it to reduce its rates.

There are no rational reasons for establishing a homegrown system when the duopoly of Visa and Mastercard serve the Russian market just fine. China’s UnionPay and Japan’s JBC have been processed by certain Russian banks, but they have never played a significant role. You cannot make money in a highly competitive, mature market, long dominated by world leaders like Visa and Mastercard, unless you employ non-market methods of competition. The market simply does not need new players.

The reason for the persistent promotion of Mir card is not commercial. It is an insurance policy of sorts, one that will have claims made on it if real, harsh Iranian-style sanctions are imposed on Russia. If you regarded this scenario as a serious possibility you would have cause to establish a national system, especially because Chinese banks (on whom great hopes were placed in 2014) have essentially supported US sanctions. In these circumstances, it is better to have a stunted system in terms of its international access than to witness a sudden collapse of cashless payments if harsh sanctions are imposed.

However, this non-competitive idea immediately inspires people who are willing to make money by destroying their competitors.

If regulations pushing the international payment systems out of the Russian market were adopted, it would deprive Russians of the ability to pay for things abroad without cash, and the logical next step of banning or restricting the export of foreign currency from the country would be easy as pie. Simultaneously, Russians would find it much harder to purchase foreign goods in foreign online shops, something that would be incredibly difficult without access to international payment systems.

A side effect of the ban would be the promotion of Russian-registered joint ventures for selling Chinese goods to Russians.  This would have a positive effect on the receipt of VAT from these purchases. VAT matters since VAT revenues constitute up to a third of Russian federal revenues, making them comparable to Russia’s export revenues.

The natural consequence of depriving Russians of access to foreign online shops would be a rise in prices. At first, the government would profit slightly because VAT revenues would grow—until people stopped buying things.

The policy of isolating the Russian economy from the world economy in terms of Russian nationals being unable to spend money outside Russia has been reasserted, and yet another step on the long road of restrictions and bans may soon be taken. The tendency towards restrictions on foreign currency has once again been confirmed. We might recall the recent discussion about restricting unqualified investors from opening foreign currency accounts.

The hope remains, of course, that, as in 2014, the international payment systems would reach an agreement with the Russian government, Russian MPs would be reined in, and cardholders would not feel the pain. Unlike 2014, however, the Russian Central Bank has supported the bill.

Sergei Khestanov is a macroeconomics adviser to the director of Open Broker and associate professor of financial markets and financial engineering at RANEPA. Translated by the Russian Reader

Drive Like Jehu

Wonders of OSINT
June 17, 2019

Penza Region Governor Ivan Belozertsev has claimed CIA agents were behind a deadly brawl between Roma and ethnic Russians in a town with the beautiful name of Chemodanovka (“Suitcaseville”).

photo_2019-06-17_12-57-54

This is the state-owned Mercedes, equipped with a flashing light, in which Russian patriot Belozertsev travels around his native land. Someone writing on a forum for motorists described his driving style.

“Yesterday, a Mercedes with a flashing light (license plate P 058 PP58) passed me on the Tambov Highway. He definitely could not care less about obeying the traffic signs.”

What do you expect? When US intelligence agents are all around, you have to drive like Jehu to shake their tail.

Photo courtesy of Wonders of OSINT. Translated by the Russian Reader