Marrying the Mob

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On Facebook, I regularly push stories about Syria and, especially, Russia’s criminally disastrous involvement there. Unfortunately, it has had no visible effect on any of my Russian Facebook friends with one exception.

I should thank Allah for that many “converts.”

In international politics, marriages of convenience among dictators and wannabe dictators always lead to mayhem and unintended fallout for the innocent bystanders in their immediate vicinity.

Let us pretend, for the sake of argument, that Trump and his campaign really did not collude with Putin and other Russian government officials to sway the 2016 US presidential election.

Even if that were the case, Trump’s overweening admiration for Putin’s style of bad governance has still had catastrophic effects on the country he is supposed to be leading

For someone like me who is all too familiar with the bag of tricks known, maybe somewhat inaccurately, as Putinism, it has been obvious Trump wants to steer the US in a quasi-Putinist direction.

While the republic, its states, and the other branches of government can mount a mighty resistance by virtue of the power vested in them, Trump can still cause lots of damage as an “imperial” president, even if he is booted out of the White House two years from now.

Likewise, Russians can imagine there is a far cry between living in a country whose cities are besieged and bombed by the country’s dictator, and what Putin has been doing in Syria. What he has been doing, they might imagine, mostly stays in Syria, except for Russian servicemen killed in action there, whose names and numbers are kept secret from the Russian public.

In reality, it is clear that the Kremlin’s neo-imperialist turn in Ukraine, Syria, etc., has made the regime far more belligerent to dissidents, outliers, weirdos, “extremists,” and “terrorists” at home.

Over the last five years, more and more Russians have fallen prey to their homegrown police and security services either for what amount to thought crimes (e.g., reposting an anti-Putinist meme on the social network VK or organizing nonexistent “terrorist communities”) or what the Russian constitution does not recognize as a crime at all, such as practicing one’s religion (e.g., Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses do)

Putin has adopted an Assadist mindset, therefore. He, his cronies, and the ever-expanding Russian security services, whose mission is making the paranoia of their superiors come true by meeting quotas of harassed, interrogated, arrested, tortured, jailed and convicted “extremists” per quarter, have come to imagine the only way to avoid the mess in which Assad found himself is to hammer anyone in Russia who sticks their necks out too far, whether intentionally or not, that everyone else will get the clue dissent and even plain difference come with a heavy price tag and reduce theirs to an invisible minimum.

Things were not exactly peachy during the first years of the Putin regime, but they became a hell of a lot worse after the Kremlin invaded Ukraine and went flying off to Syria to save Assad’s bacon from the fire of popular revolution.

As long as Russia remains entrenched in those places, there can be no question of progress on the home front, especially when the vast majority of Russians pretend very hard not to know anything about Syria and their country’s involvement there, and have grown accustomed to the Ukrainian muddle, meaning they mostly avoid thinking about what has really been happening in Eastern Ukraine, too. {TRR}

Thanks to the fabulous Sheen Gleeson for the first link. Photo by the Russian Reader

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Sergei Shelin: Isolationism Has Corrupted Russia

vhuo87jzsh8j2vtaThe label from a bottle of Port Wine 777. Courtesy of Collectionerus

Isolationism Has Corrupted Russia
The Sukhoi Superjet 100’s crash shows what happens when a country isolates itself from the world while trying to keep up with the 21st century’s Joneses 
Sergei Shelin
Rosbalt
May 7, 2019

Only Murmansk Region announced an official day of mourning for the people who perished at Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport on May 5. There was little expectation a national day of morning would be announced, since the protocol for such things, adopted by the country’s leaders for their own convenience, do not stipulate a national day of mourning after disasters of this magnitude. It is thus neither a matter of heartlessness nor the upcoming Victory Day holiday.

The Sukhoi Superjet 100s have not been grounded, however. True, the authorities are currently pushing the hypothesis the crash was caused by pilot error. This is a more intelligible and attractive explanation than the hypothesis that was cooked up just the other day as a diversion, the one about how some passengers, allegedly, prevented other passengers from escaping because they were trying to get their luggage out of the burning plane. Nothing has yet been proven, however, although hardly anyone would argue with the fact that the first passenger jet designed and built in Russia since the Soviet Union’s collapse has been a failure.

The Super Jet was produced long before the current falling out with the west. Its designers made generous use of imported parts, hoping the plane would sell like hotcakes abroad. Today, the few foreign airlines whom Sukhoi managed to persuade to purchase the planes, for example, the Mexicans, complain about the Super Jet’s unreliability, design flaws, and delays in procuring spare parts. It would seem they are looking for a good excuse to stop flying the planes.

The flip side of these failures has been the attempt to force Russian airlines to operate the plane, especially Aeroflot. What would grounding the plane mean now? It would be tantamount to bringing the entire undertaking to a close. Clearly, the Russian state’s ambitions and collective self-interest have coalesced to oppose this decision. The Super Jets are still flying, and we can only hope everything will work out for the best.

Such semi-Russian, semi-foreign collaborations are feasible and normal if the general contractor is not having a spat with the outside world, and airlines are free to choose which airplanes they fly. This was not quite the case from the get-go, but when Russia’s quarrel with the west gained momentum, all the worst aspects of the venture elbowed their way to the fore, turning into a self-sustaining process.

The deeper Russia sinks into isolation, the worse the links in all business chains function, while state protectionism constantly increases for anything that resembles import substitution or at least apes it. The number of failures and breakdowns in all parts of Russian society, some of them involving fatalities, sometimes without them, thank God, inevitably grows.

What is the difference between yesteryear’s Soviet isolationism and the current Russian isolationism? The former was preprogrammed to generate victims and hardship. They were merely part of the system. We need not talk about Stalin’s horrors. Even during its final decades, the Soviet Union was still typified by universal poverty, quite strong societal discipline, and the ruling class’s relative modesty. This state of affairs was maintained by a ragtag ideology and a still palpable fear of the state machine. Isolation was vouchsafed, of course, by the Soviet Union’s lagging behind the outside world. But it did not weigh heavy on every aspect of life and all at the same time. People moved into Khrushchev-era blocks of flats, regarding them as the last word in modern housing. They drank 777 brand “port wine,” having no clue how real Portuguese port tasted.

On the other hand, the Soviet military-industrial complex competed successfully with the rest of the world, at least until the early 1980s. Even though it was a byproduct of military aviation, Soviet civil aviation was quite impressive. The country’s professional communities, including the period’s passenger airline pilots, maintained a strict work ethic longer than Soviet society at large. Crashes were not so rare, however. But they were usually covered up not only due to totalitarianism but also because the information revolution had not yet happened.

The Soviet regime seemed invincible almost to the bitter end. Current attempts to resurrect it, despite their impressive magnitude, are laughable.

Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union.  It does not have the stamina to compete in arms races and so forth with the outside world. It has even less will to self-denial, both among the elites and the grassroots. People have been adapting to the plans of the authorities to lock them up in a besieged fortress forever, but their life hacks are completely different from what they were in the last century.

Many Russians who have the right skills, experience, and education have been leaving abroad to work. By the way, their ranks have included hundreds if not thousands of the country’s best commercial pilots. Several millions of people, each of them capable of doing something well, have emigrated from Russia during Putin’s twenty-year reign.

Meanwhile, the majority of Russians, who have stayed in Russia, have tried to make themselves as comfy as they can in their import-substitution society, hoping either for special perks or state welfare, or perks and welfare all at once.

Since isolation has kicked in, independent business, already frail, has almost gone extinct. But the bureaucratized “state-minded” capitalists who took over the entire business field have nothing in common with the dexterous captains of Soviet management. As they get filthy rich through import substitution, today’s Russian magnates would never think of depriving themselves of the outside world’s blessings. They do not pretend to be farsighted. Simple minded, they loudly demand that the isolationist feast go on, becoming more creative as it proceeds. From time to time, the peculiarity of their exclamations spices up the sad circumstances, but not much.

Many people laughed at Viktor Linnik, president of Russian agribusiness giant Miratorg, and the National Meat Association when they called on the government to ban individuals from bringing small amounts of sanctioned European produce back to Russia. They were especially amused when Linnik said, “Jamon should be eaten in Spain, while Parmesan cheese should be eaten in France.”

The most striking thing about what Linnik said was not his confusion about Parmesan cheese’s national provenance, but the ease with which one could continue his line of though by saying, for example, that Russian bread should be eaten in Russia and, consequently, it was time to stop exporting grain, one of the few export sectors in which Russia has been blossoming. Would you tell me only a crazy blowhard would suggest such a thing? I doubt you would. Many things that had seemed impossible have already happened during the current orgy of import substitution, which consists of equal portions of greed and persecution mania.

Russia’s newfangled twenty-first-century isolationism not only vouchsafes the country will lag behind others. It is a species of intellectual, moral and professional corruption. It means no lessons can be learned from accidents and disasters. It means decadence, decay, and collapse are fobbed off as a decent, normal life.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Nastiness Is a Warm Gun: The Kremlin’s Cowboys

bd1bf37b99A Miratorg worker tending calves. Courtesy of Readovka

Business Russian Style, or, What is Miratorg, and What Do You Eat with It?
Dmitry Zhuravsky
Readovka
April 30, 2019

How Did a Company Importing Meat from Brazil End Up Getting Most of Russia’s Agricultural Subsidies? 
Miratorg’s own website identifies it as the largest agribusiness investor in Russia. The company is owned the Linnik twins, Viktor and Alexander. Viktor serves as the company’s president. It was Viktor Linnik who, last week, proposed tightening controls on the luggage of people entering Russia and increasing penalties for the illegal import of meat-based products. Today, he encouraged Russians to stop thinking about Parmesan cheese and start thinking more about the country’s growth. To rub it in, he dubbed everyone disgruntled with such proposals “blowhards.”

We should point out right off the bat that the fact Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s wife’s maiden name is Linnik is only a funny coincidence, one which the Linnik twins have never tired of mentioning when they are interviewed by journalists.

The facts back this up. Blood relatives of the Russian state’s second most important person could not have established a giant agribusiness company that keeps all its accounts and founding capital outside Russia.

One hundred percent of Miratorg’s shares are owned by Cypriot offshore companies: 99.99% by Agromir, Ltd. (despite its Russian acronym, the company is registered in Nicosia), and 0.01% by Saudeid Enterprises, Ltd. (also registered in Nicosia).

Nevertheless, Miratorg is on the Russian federal list of so-called backbone companies and, since 2015, due to Russia’s self-imposed ban on meat and produce imports, it has been dubbed a strategic company. These regalia allow the Cypriot-based company to obtain loans from Vnesheconombank at discounted rates, which means it borrows part of its operating capital by drawing on the future pensions of Russians. (We published a detailed analysis of this scheme in a previous article.) It also means Miratorg can apply to the government for subsidies to pay back these selfsame loans.

A Success Story
Considering Viktor Linnik’s current circumstances, Miratorg’s origins appear laughable. The company was initially established to import meat from Holland and Brazil to Russia. To make the job easier, two years after the company was founded, in 1997, Miratorg opened a subsidiary in the Kaliningrad Sea Fishing Port, through which it imported meat to mainland Russia. Miratorg did business this way for nearly ten years. In 2005, it purchased a stake in two BelgoFrance-owned pig farms in Belgorod Region. The import company was transformed into a full-fledged agribusiness.

Kaliningrad Sea Fishing Port. Courtesy of Readovka

Miratorg went on to co-found a farm in Kaliningrad Region. A little later, it moved into Bryansk Region, which has become the company’s second home.

It was also in 2005 Miratorg was chosen to be involved in the National Priority Projects, a program for growing “human capital,” announced by Vladimir Putin on September 5, 2005. Until Dmitry Medvedev was elected president, the program, which included promoting the agricultural sector as one of its priorities, was overseen by the current Russian prime minister. Since 2008, when Medvedev was inaugurated president, the agricultural growth program has had its own line item in the federal budget.

Current Realities
Miratorg is currently Russia’s largest meat producer. According to Kontr.Focus.ru, an online service for assisting in doing due diligence on potential clients and business partners, Miratorg, Ltd., has founded thirty-six subsidiaries in eight regions of Russia. In 2017, the company produced 415,000 tons of pork, 114,000 tons of poultry, and 82,000 tons of beef.

Russia’s regions regard Miratorg as a valuable investor whom nearly any governor would be glad to welcome into his neighborhood. According to Miratorg’s website, the company has made a total of 200 billion rubles in investments. The advent of an agricultural market player of this caliber in a region means a guaranteed inflow of money from the federal budget in the form of subsidies from the government’s agricultural sector growth program and  Miratorg’s own investments.

On paper, Miratorg is a real find for regions heavily dependent on federal government subsidies. Aside from the federal agricultural subsidies it brings with it, Miratorg contributes to regional budgets through the land it leases. Its farms provide jobs while they are being builty and after they are brought on line. In addition, it pays taxes in the regions. The company is not a burden but a blessing, or so it would seem.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Miratorg President Viktor Linnik. Courtesy of Readovka

Taking advantage of its status, Miratorg moves confidently around Russia. In the regions, it has become accustomed to acting suddenly and brazenly. The company often receives land under indefinite gratuitous bailments by order of the federal government, whose decrees are personally signed by Prime Minister Medvedev.

Miratorg usually acts in full compliance with the law, although the effects of how it does business trip up regional governments. After three years, the land it leases free of charge is transferred from regional ownership to Miratorg’s ownership.

Last summer, the Bryansk Commercial Court adjudicated a conflict between the Bryansk Meat Company (Miratorg’s local subsidiary) and the Bryansk Regional Government. Miratorg tried to prove that members of a district council had violated the law by refusing to sell them land they had been leasing. According to law, a company that has leased agricultural land for three years has the right to purchase it and continuing farming it. Only two conditions must be met for the deal to go through: the relevant regulatory authorities must have no objections, and the land must be used for its original purpose.

The Bryansk Meat Company had complied with these terms, but local councilors had not signed off on the deal. Originally, they had agree to lease the land to the investor. Later, Miratorg’s subsidiary decided to trick the council and buy the land. Consequently, the local council was not paid the rent promised to it and did not profit from Miratorg’s presence in the district.

Instead of a lease, the local council was offered a one-time payment, which is transferred to the council’s accounts when the investor buys the land. Bryansk Meat Company’s farm occupies thirteen parcels of land totaling 7,398,700 square meters. Under the terms of the sale of the parcels to Miratorg, the average assessed value of one square meter of land is a mere 1.6 rubles. It is a great deal for Miratorg, but not for Bryansk Region.

We found reports of similar law suits ongoing between Miratorg and local governments in other regions of Russia.

Nastiness Is a Warm Gun
Since 2009, Miratorg has also confidently been colonizing Kursk Region. Its investments there began with the Pristen District, but currently the company operates in thirteen districts in the region. Its facilities in Kursk Region include the Pristen Pig Farm, Blagodatnoye Agricultural Enterprise, Renaissance Farm, Fatezh Lamb, and Miratorg Kursk, Ltd. According to Miratorg’s figures, it invested 17 billion rubles on its agribusiness facilities in Kursk Region between 2009 and 2017. In the Pristen District, it built two pig-breeding facilities with three sites each, while in the Oboyan District it built two pedigree breeding units.

Currently, Miratorg is building what will be Europe’s largest refrigerated slaughterhouse with a capacity to process 4.5 million head of hogs or 400,000 tons of meat in slaughter weight. Miratorg has also been building seven pig farms in two other districts in the region.

3fe1ac38af.jpgA billboard showing Miratorg’s assets in Kursk Region. Courtesy of Readovka

Why has Miratorg invested so much in Kursk Region? For the same reason it has invested heavily in Smolensk, Bryansk, Kaluga, Kaliningrad, and other regions in Russia. The Russian federal budget supports domestic industrial agricultural enterprises with subsidies. Some of the federal government’s assistance is earmarked for the largest players in agribusiness, the strategic, “backbone” companies we mentioned earlier. Some of the assistance is filtered through regional government budgets, where it is meant to boost small companies and support local producers. When Miratorg sets up a subsidiary in a region, it automatically grabs the lion’s share of federal subsidies for itself.

In Russia, there are no limits on the subsidies a particular agricultural holding company can receive. By using the subsidiaries it has established in the regions, a national agribusiness company can qualify for regional subsidies. For example, in 2016, the Bryansk Meat Company was awarded 98% of all subsidies earmarked in the federal budget for promoting agriculture in Bryansk Region.

At the same time, Miratorg has been officially designated as a strategic, “backbone” enterprise. Accordingly, the company and its subsidiaries also receive subsidies for pursuing particular projects. Since 2014, Vnesheconombank has lent Miratorg $871.5 million to expand meat production. Thanks to sleights of hand such as this on, in 2016, Bryansk Meat Company left not only farms in Bryansk high and dry in terms of financing but also farmers nationwide by hogging 90% of all subsidies earmarked for agriculture. The total amount of subsidized loans was 33.6 billion rubles, and this financing was obtained by a single Miratorg subsidiary for a single year.

The company has been feeding off this program since it was founded in 2005. Miratorg has received hundred of billions of rubles in subsidies over this period.

The more subsidiaries it gets, the more lines of credit Miratorg can receive. The story  of its rise to the top bears a strong resemblance to the way Yevgeny Prigozhin built his school cafeteria catering monopoly in Moscow. There is one signal difference, however: whereas Concord Catering’s contract implies that Prigozhin’s food production facility does the work for which it was contracted and pays back its debts out of the profit generated by the facility, some of Miratorg’s loan agreements contain an interesting loophole. It can fulfill its obligations to Vnesheconombank one of two ways, either the way Concord Catering does it, by paying back its debts out of its profits, or by selling off its founding shares in its subsidiaries to pay off its loans. Meaning, hypothetically, Miratorg can rid itself of some of its subsidiaries.

Where Do Miratorg’s Profits Go?
Considering the billions in government subsidies it receives annually, Miratorg and its owners do not even have to run a good business to live high on the hog. According to open sources, Miratorg’s profits shrunk fivefold in 2016, amounting to a mere five billion rubles, despite the fact the company received several tens of billions of rubles in subsidies from the Russian federal government.

Nevertheless, Miratorg is the main supplier of meat for huge fast food chains such as McDonalds and Burger King. It has also launched its own cafes and supermarket chain. Miratorg’s profits, which are incomparable to the subsidies paid to the company, end up not in Russian bank accounts, but in offshore accounts in Cyprus.

d79d3fe745.jpgA  Miratorg supermarket, newly opened somewhere in Russia. Courtesy of Readovka

Miratorg’s operations do not resemble an attempt to promote Russian agriculture, but rather a scheme for spiriting federal money out of the country. Given Miratorg is the industry leader in terms of land assets and government support, it should also have come to monopolize supermarket shelves. Its status as a strategic enterprise and the subsidies it receives simply oblige it to aspire to this end. The government’s plan was to have Miratorg replace all the imported meat banned from supermarkets with domestically produced meat.

Instead, Miratorg annually receives several hundreds of billions in subsidies allocated by the government to support the country’s agriculture. Miratorg spends the money to purchase land, which it uses, along with shares from its regional subsidiaries, as collateral to obtain more loans.

Ultimately, instead of building a successful business and resurrecting Russian domestic agriculture according to the government’s plan, Miratorg merely filches money from the federal budget. As long as it keeps feeding the “Cypriot butchers,” real hardworking Russian farmers will have to get by without substantial assistance. Eventually, the whirligig of subsidies could lead to the complete collapse of Russian agriculture as such.

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

The Syrian Breakthrough

kuzminNikolai Kuzmin during his solo picket outside the exhibition The Syrian Breakthrough, in Pskov. His placard reads, “Spend budget money on our own schools and hospitals, not on someone else’s war.” Photo by Lyudmila Savitskaya. Courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Yabloko Activist Detained in Pskov at “Syrian Breakthrough” Exhibition
Lyudmila Savitskaya
Radio Svoboda
April 26, 2019

In Pskov, police have detained local Yabloko Party activist Nikolai Kuzmin, who held a solo picket outside an exhibition of military equipment entitled The Syrian Breakthrough. Kuzmin stood behind servicemen queued at the city’s train station to see the exhibition.

He held a placard that read, “Spend budget money on our own schools and hospitals, not on someone else’s war.”

Commenting on his actions, Kuzmin claimed over 25,000 schools had been closed in Russia over the past twenty years. The activist argued that, outside Moscow and Petersburg, it was nearly impossible to get an ambulance, and half of the men in Pskov Region did not live to retirement age.

“As in a dystopia, however, instead of being productive and saving the lives of Russians, we have raised war into a cult that we worship. Lacking reasons to feel proud, we are administered daily injections of patriotism. But patriotism does not mean fighting wars in someone else’s countries. It means building things in your own country and having a critical attitude toward the mania for military victory,” Kuzmin added.

Kuzmin’s picket lasted around ten minutes. During this time, members of the pro-regime organization Team 2018 managed to have their picture taken with him. Kuzmin was then surrounded by military police who asked him to leave. Kuzmin responded by asking them to identify themselves [as required by Russian laws regulating the police] and explain their grounds for wanting to remove him from a public event.

The military policemen were unable to fulfill Kuzmin’s request, so Sergei Surin, head of the Interior Ministry Directorate for Pskov [i.e., the local police chief] came to their aid. He personally detained Kuzmin while repeatedly refusing to explain the grounds for the arrest to Kuzmin and comment on it to reporters who were present.

Lev Schlosberg, leader of the Yabloko Party in Pskov, demanded Kuzmin’s immediate release and the removal from Pskov of The Syrian Breakthrough, which he dubbed a “propaganda scrap heap.”

“Russia must cease military operations in Syria, while government funds should be spent on peaceful goals that further the interests of Russia’s citizens,” Schlosberg said.

In February 2019, the Russian Defense Ministry launched a train containing weapons seized, it claimed, by Russian servicemen during combat in Syria. The train departed Moscow on an itinerary of sixty cities and towns. When it reaches Vladivostok, the train will head back to Moscow. It is scheduled to arrive there on the eve of Victory Day, May 9.

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

De-Escalation

idlibSmoke rises after an airstrike hits a city center in Syria’s northwestern Idlib Province on March 13, 2019. Photo by Ahmet Rehhal. Courtesy of Anadolu Agency and the Middle East Monitor

Commander of Russian Airborne Forces Lands in Syria: Andrei Serdyukov Takes Charge of Russian Forces in Republic 
Ivan Safronov
Kommersant
April 12, 2019

Kommersant has learned that Lieutenant General Andrei Serdyukov, commander of Russian Airborne Forces, has taken charge of Russian troops in Syria. He replaces Lieutenant General Sergei Surovikin, commander-in-chief of Russian Aerospace Forces, who commanded the Russian military in the republic the last several months.

As we have learned, Serdyukov’s priority will be coordinating joint patrols by Russian military police and Turkish servicemen in the Idlib de-escalation zone, in which over 35,000 insurgents are amassed and over thirty facilities containing chemicals [sic] are located.

Several high-ranking military and diplomatic sources told Kommersant about Serdyukov’s appointment. They said he had taken up his new duties on April 10, replacing Suvorikin who, according to our sources, would again focus on his immediate responsibilities (commanding Russian Aerospace Forces) after returning from his latest Syrian deployment.

Yesterday, the Russian Defense Ministry refrained from official comments on the shuffle.

Our sources explained Suvorikin had spent over a year in total commanding Russian forces in Syria, longer than any of the other high-ranking officers who have occupied the post. While the Syrian campaign was underway, he was promoted from the post of commander of the Eastern Military District to the post of commander-in-chief of Russian Aerospace Forces (see our November 1, 2017, issue), but even after his promotion, he was rotated in and out of Syria to command not only the Russian air force but also regular combat troops and special ops units.

In keeping with the practice of rotating senior command personnel, Serdyukov could have been sent to Syria as early as September 2017. (Our sources said his combat experience in Chechnya and the operation to annex Crimea were significant advantages.) However, shortly before this was to take place, Serdyukov’s official vehicle, while returning from exercises in Murmansk Region, brushed against a car in the oncoming lane at full speed. Serdykov’s car flipped over several times and slid into a ditch. In hospital, he was diagnosed with head and back injuries, including a closed vertebrae fracture.

The general underwent a long convalescence during which there was no question of deploying him to a combat zone. Ultimately, Lieutenant General Alexander Zhuravlov, current commander of the Western Military District, was dispatched to Syria instead.

Serdyukov has now been deployed to Syria to perform a specific mission, said one of our sources. He will focus on accelerating the Russian-Turkish agreement to organize joint patrols in the demilitarized and deescalation zones in Idlib Province. Ankara and Moscow reached the agreement in 2018. They had originally planned to launch joint patrols of Russian military policemen and Turkish servicemen on October 15. However, as one of our sources noted, the Turkish side took responsibility for withdrawing insurgents and heavy weapons from the Idlib de-escalation zone into the demilitarized zone. The plans were thwarted, however. Due to an intensification of attacks by insurgents (especially those controlled by the Al-Nusra Front, an organization banned in the Russian Federation [sic]), the joint patrols did not begin on schedule, while insurgents remained in the demilitarized zone along with their heavy weapons.

The highest level of military diplomacy was put into motion to remedy the situation. Thus, in February 2019, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar signed a supplementary memorandum outlining the actions to be taken by Russian and Turkish troops during their joint patrols. According to our sources, on March 8, Turkish troops began patrolling the demilitarized zone as situated between the Turkish observation posts at Barkum, Tel Tukan, and Surman. As of March 17, their patrols were extended to areas west of Aleppo and north of Hama and the mountains of Latakia. As of yesterday, according to our sources, a coordinated patrol by joint convoys of Russian and Turkish servicemen should have begun patrolling the contact line between the warring parties in the area between the Turkish posts at Barkum and Surman.

If these maneuvers are deemed successful, the two countries will commence joint patrols in the northeastern part of the de-escalation zone after April 20.

“We are counting on being able to launch coordinated patrols in the form of joint convoys inside the demilitarized zone in May,” our source in the Russian army added.

He said the de-escalation zone was divided into parts: into a withdrawal zone 3,300 kilometers square in area, containing 511 towns and villages, and over two million people, and a demilitarized zone as such. According to our source, the demilitarized zone had an area of 3,100 square kilometers and a total of 341 towns and villages, with an approximate population of 1,690,000 people.

Our source said the situation was exacerbated by several factors simultaneously. Aside from civilians in Idlib Province, there were over 35,000 armed insurgents. There were around 8,900 militants on the western front, and almost 15,000 on the southern front. They regularly carried out raids. The last raid took place in the wee hours of April 10, when the militants shelled the towns of Tall Al-Maktal (Idlib Province), Safsafa (Latakia Province), and Hamdaniya (Hama Province).

However, according to the Russian military, the Idlib de-escalation zone contains over thirty sites where chemicals are stored [sic]. Serdyukov would also have to try and solve this problem in cooperation with the Turkish military command, our source added. He specified that an invasion of Idlib by Russian ground forces was out of the question.

Translated by the Russian Reader

______________________________________

The Takeaway

Why would I translate and publish this dry-as-dust article from Kommersant about the new commander of Russian forces in Syria and how he will be handling joint patrols with the Turks in the Idlib demilitarized zone?

1. Whenever the Russian press has anything to say about Russia’s decisive, murderous adventure in Syria, it says it in this utterly depersonalized way, as if the real subject were an upcoming corporate merger.

2. Nevertheless, the only people who ever emerge as full-blown human beings in these scanty reports are members of the Russian high military command. Notice how General Serdyukov, the new Russian commander in Syria, has been given the loving touch by Kommersant.

3. Although I would argue that Russia’s successive invasions of Ukraine and Syria have had extraordinarily bad consequences for Russians back at home, especially the working class and the political opposition, you will search high and wide for meaningful discussions of Russia’s role in Syria in Russia’s opposition press and burgeoning social media.

4. The charitable way of putting this is that Syria is a taboo subject for Russians. I’ve already written about the uncharitable way of putting this so many times I’ve lost count, but it has no visible effect on anyone.

Most Russians are convinced Syria doesn’t matter to them. In fact, Putin’s Syrian campaign has probably destroyed the last chances they had at living in a more or less prosperous, democratic country in our lifetime.

5. It’s a timely reminder that the holy blessed “anti-imperialist” martyr Julian Assange has been supporting this regime of fascist Starship Troopers for years. This is not even a secret. If you demand Assange’s release while claiming solidarity with the Syrian Revolution, I think you should have your head examined.

6. But I wouldn’t insist on it, unlike the Putin regime’s satraps, who have increasingly resorted in recent years to compulsory psychiatric hospitalization of their opponents, evoking some of the darkest pages of Soviet history. {TRR}

P.S. My comrade Dick Gregory, who has published the blog News of the Revolution in Syria since 2012, posting a total of 4,036 entries during that time, had these important corrections to make to my remarks and, especially, Kommersant‘s exercise in pro-Putin and pro-Assad propaganda.

Obviously, there are a number of untruths [in the article], from the joint patrols, which they announced a couple of weeks ago and turned out to be entirely separate patrols, through the non-existent Al Nusra Front to the nonexistent chemical weapons in Idlib.

A piece in the Syrian Observer got me thinking. I actually tweeted the portion where the Syrian opposition spokesman was saying it was important for rebel groups not to fight each other; but I began to think Russia is not trying to start an offensive in Idlib, but wants to leave enough confusion about its activities, and to massively retaliate against civilians when there is any action by the rebels, in order to protect Assad against the possibility of the rebels launching an offensive, so Assad can be kept in power despite Russia having no real plan to restabilize the regime.

Al Nusra doesn’t exist, as it was shut down in 2016 by its former leadership as part of the break with Al Qaeda, and an attempt to broaden the appeal of that brand of Islamic jihadism. So, partly the Russians are just being as lazy as many westerners by continuing to use the old name. But the Russian bombing campaign in support of Assad, always presented as combating the threat from terrorists, was initially very largely directed at specifically FSA groups (to which the US may well have given them the coordinates,, supposedly so then they wouldn’t bomb them). That’s why the surviving rebel groups in Idlib are largely Islamist, because the Russians bombed out of existence the specifically secular ones.

Buggered

rossiya This bankrupt agribusiness was called Rossiya (“Russia”). Photo courtesy of Maxim Kemmerling/Kommersant and Republic

“The Data Leaves Us at a Loss”: A Few Figures That Might Surprise the Kremlin
Yevgeny Karasyuk
Republic
April 4, 2019

“Why on shoes? Why a third? Where did they get these figures?”

Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s press secretary, responded with questions to journalists who questioned him yesterday about Rosstat’s depressing report for 2018.

According to Rosstat’s study, in which sixty thousand Russian households were surveyed, every fifth Russian skimps on fruits and vegetables. Every other Russian family cannot afford to travel anywhere when they have a week’s vacation, while every fourth family does not have enough money to invite people over to celebrate birthdays and the New Year’s holiday.

And, indeed, the report does conclude that 35% of Russians are unable to purchase each family member two pairs of seasonally appropriate footwear.

“I would be grateful to Rosstat if they clarified these figures. The data leaves us at a loss,” Peskov added.

Meanwhile, there are other figures—lots of figures—that would probably also bedevil the Kremlin if they were aired in public. Let us recall a few of them.

Nutrition
Consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor concluded that 63% of deaths in Russia were associated with bad food and poor nutrition. According to official figures, Russians spend approximately 35% of their household budgets on food, while independent researchers put that figure at over fifty percent. However, the average Russian household skimps on all purchases and tries to do without everything it can, claim the researchers behind Romir’s Coffee with Milk Index, which charts the quantities of chocolate, coffee, milk, and bottled water purchased by Russians. Researchers at RANEPA recently described the diets of Russians as unhealthy, unbalanced, and lacking in energy.

Health
According to a report by RANEPA’s Institute for Social Analysis and Forecasting, 22% of Russians who live in straitened circumstances face the stark choice of whether to buy the bare minimum of the cheapest produce or the cheapest drugs, drugs they need to survive. It is typical of Russians, not only those below the poverty line, to postpone going to the doctor, if it involves costs, noted researchers at the Institute for Health Economics at the Higher School of Economics.

Education
According to the pollsters at VTsIOM, fifty percent of Russian parents experience serious financial difficulties when getting their children ready for the first day of the school year. Over the past five years, the average sum of money Russians claim to spend getting children ready for school has increased by sixty percent, rising from 13,600 rubles to 21,100 rubles.

Housing
According to the Construction Ministry, the Russian populace’s debts for utilities and housing maintenance bills have grown by five and a half times since 2015. The ministry reported that, as of the end of last year, the total amount of this debt was 1.2 trillion rubles [approx. 16.34 billion euros]. The rates for water, electricity, gas, and other utilities and services increase rhythmically year after year, and yet the real incomes of Russians have continued to fall five years in a row.

Transportation
Forty percent of Russian car owners “try not to use their own vehicles, taking public transport instead.” Another 22% of car owners follow their lead, but do it less frequently. VTsIOM has explained the outcome of its January opinion poll by citing the concern of Russians for the environment while failing to note that the price of petrol has skyrocketed in recent years. Last year, a liter of AI-95 rose in price three times faster than inflation. The government has resorted to artificial, decidedly non-market measures to depress prices, and yet petrol in Russia is now twice as expensive as it was when the decade kicked off.

Only twelve percent of Russians believe that, when it describes the economy and the social sector, the Russian regime always or mostly tells the truth. The Levada Center has done polls on the same subject since 2010. Russian society’s confidence in what the country’s leaders and senior officials say has never been as low as it is now.

By voicing surprise at Russia’s poverty, at least on paper, the Kremlin is, apparently, determined to convince people it inhabits a parallel reality in which Russia makes one breakthrough after another, and the rank and file enjoy “stability” by way of spiting the country’s numerous enemies. Peskov seemed genuinely puzzled by Rosstat’s claim that Russian families have trouble buying shoes, but he probably had not yet read the government’s report on the increase in mortality rates in every third region of Russia. Clearly, something is wrong with the figures. In short, we expect a reaction.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Outlandish

lakhtaEven with my camera’s lens maxed out, it was not to hard for me to guess who was cleaning the glass (or whatever they were doing) high up in the air on the sides of Gazprom’s almost-finished Lakhta Center skyscraper in Petersburg. They were certainly not ethnic Russians or “people of Slavic appearance,” as they say back in the Motherland. They were almost certainly underpaid, disenfranchised and nearly universally despised migrant workers from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Lakhta, Petersburg, November 11, 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

It’s a brilliant plan. The Kremlin now wants to raid neighboring countries and steal their “Russian-speaking” populace (i.e., the non-ethnic Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, etc., who live in Central Asia) to address Russia’s “population decline.”

That is, it is done with importing swarthy Muslims by the trainload and planeload so it can make them to do all the country’s menial labor while underpaying and shaking them down at the same time. Now it just wants to destabilize and impoverish their countries even further by robbing them of five to ten million people.

In recent years, self-declared progressive Russian scholars have nearly made a cottage industry of applying postcolonial theory to post-Soviet Russia. These scholars have focused almost entirely on how the Satanic West has “colonized” their country in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

How the Russian metropole colonized and occupied other countries during the tsarist and Soviet period is of no interest to them whatsoever, nor are post-Soviet Russia’s attempts at recolonization and neo-imperialism through migrant labor, military aggression, and the creation of post-Soviet counterparts to the EU and NATO.

No, it’s all about how the big bad West has woefully mistreated the world’s largest, richest country. {TRR}

_____________________________

Kremlin Seeks Russian-Speaking Migrants to Offset Population Decline
Moscow Times
March 14, 2019

The Kremlin plans to attract up to 10 million Russian-speaking migrants in the next six years to reverse the country’s population decline, the business daily Kommersant reported on Thursday.

Russia’s population declined to 146.8 million in 2018, official data released on Thursday estimates, its first decrease in 10 years. Migration has been unable to offset natural population losses for the first time since 2008.

President Vladimir Putin has prioritized migration policy by signing a plan of action for 2019–2025 and adding migration to the remit of his constitutional rights office.

The plan involves granting citizenship to anywhere from 5 to 10 million migrants, Kommersant reported, citing unnamed sources involved in carrying out Putin’s migration policy plan.

The Kremlin lists Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Moldova and other post-Soviet states with Russian-speaking populations as so-called “donor countries” where new Russian citizens could be recruited, the paper writes.

Russia needs up to 300,000 additional people per year in order to reach net-zero population growth, Kommersant’s sources are quoted as saying.

Several bills designed to ease citizenship and immigration rules are also in the pipeline, some of which could be considered this May, Kommersant reported.