Mark H. Teeter: Turn on the News

tumblr_m58pus9vFN1qz9qooo1_500Marilyn Monroe doing a spit-take.

And Now the News, With Somebody You Weren’t Expecting
Mark H. Teeter
Moscow TV Tonite
April 7, 2019

The accepted wisdom among high-dome media analysts here in Russia has been that Muscovites who checked on-the-hour radio news either tuned in Ekho Moskvy or Kommersant FM for actual news, in larger and smaller doses, respectively, plus commentary from sources who were relevant and informed or were supposed to be.

Or they got earfuls of untruths, half-truths or misrepresentations of the news from just about everywhere else on the dial, along with pseudo-commentary from various professional spokes-liars (presidential, ministerial, etc.) or professional dim bulbs (Russian MPs, selected idiots on the street, somebody’s cousin Vanya).

Whether or not you accept this accepted wisdom, there has been an interesting recent development you should note: an intriguing Third Way that you may have missed (as I did until recently) has opened up here in the New Muscovite ether for listeners keen on locally sourced radio news coverage. Its creators have given their project’s genre the highfalutin name Avtorskie Novosti, that is, Auteur News, by analogy with avtorskoe kino or auteur cinema.

You might, however, dub the genre The News from Somebody Noteworthy Who Doesn’t Do Radio News for a Living and Might Offer an Interesting Take on Today’s Edition of It.

Auteur News was the brainchild of the modest-sized NSN (Natsionalnaya Sluzhba Novostei), which described the project, as I discovered on its website, in alluring terms.

Auteur News from NSN is a radio program broadcast simultaneously by three stations (Nashe Radio, Rock FM, Radio Jazz) with a daily audience of 1.5 million people in Moscow and four million in Russia. The presenters of Auteur News are well known to listeners, as they are among the most famous people in the country. Currently, 200 contributors are involved in the project.

That thumbnail sketch should pique the interest of listeners numbed by Ekho’s necessary but wearisome good accounts of bad news and the embarrassing agitprop elsewhere on the dial: “President Vladimir Putin today signed another new law to make life better and happier.”

Question No. 1 in the minds of potential listeners would likely be, “Wait, just who are the Auteur 200?” And they would be right to ask. Nikita Mikhalkov is certainly a famous person, for example, but many people would feel more confident getting their news and commentary from a bag of doorknobs.

But let’s start with the glass half full: a brief retelling of how I came across Auteur News.

The wife and I often put on Radio Jazz quietly as background music to dinner, when the grandson, who hates jazz, isn’t joining us.

We were listening to it with one ear, as usual, when the news came on at 8:00 p.m. one recent evening.

Imagine my surprise when a measured female voice from the seemingly politics-free jazz station launched into a four-point litany of items-plus-commentary that seemed like something you’d call Real News with Real Attitude.

The Ministry of Finance, Radio Jazz told us, had “refused to provide the Russian Academy of Sciences funding for international scholarly and scientific cooperation,” which would result in Russia “finding itself in the backwaters of science again, the fruits of which we already know from the Soviet period.”

A repeat of that would be, the voice continued, a “very sad” prospect.

Hmm! My one-ear listening quickly ratcheted up to one-and-a-half-ear listening.

Radio Jazz continued on a more upbeat note.

“Kirill Serebrennikov’s ballet Nureyev was named Ballet of the Year by the jury of the professional music award BraVo,” with the presentation taking place at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.

This wouldn’t seem a particularly newsworthy story: the ballet had won a sizable basket of international awards since its premiere in 2017. Ah, but then you recalled the scandals surrounding the production here, including the arrest of the director, and the overall public attitude toward things artistic identified with “non-traditional orientations.”

But the announcement of the award was not the end of the item, as the presenter continued.

“I had the good fortune to see the ballet Nureyev It really is a wonderful ballet, striking from many points of view. And considering that Kirill Serebrennikov, in fact, staged the ballet by long distance, so to speak, the outcome is little short of a miracle. It is sad our national know-how is linked to creative events in ways that are not positive. But I would like to congratulate Serebrennikov on this well-deserved award. May he have the strength to overcome all his trials.”

Wow, just wow. It dawned on me what I was hearing was not only not The News in Putinese. It was news-plus-opinion that would make many Putinistas angry and hostile. I was beginning to wonder whether black sedans and a police van were heading toward Radio Jazz that very minute.

Next, Radio Jazz reported that an ominous institution called the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia, which sounds even more ominous in Russian (Federalnaya Sluzhba Ispolneniya Nakazanii, or Federal Service for the Enforcement of Punishments) now “want[ed] to oblige its employees to apologize to prisoners in cases where their rights and freedoms have been violated.” As in, “Sorry for the rubber hoses and the knuckle sandwich there, Petrov, we didn’t mean to, y’know, violate your rights and freedoms and stuff.”

As absurd as it sounded to me, it sounded even worse to the Radio Jazz news commentator.

“What a Kafkaesque reality! We will torture people, but then apologize to them. I don’t really understand how these things go together. Lately, I’ve been seeing various features of the old utopian Soviet mindset in a great number of legislative acts. You get the feeling lawmakers don’t understand what is happening in reality at all and create an attractive little mockup of it for themselves, to placate their consciences. As in, ‘Go right ahead, citizens, demand an apology from your jailers for beating and torturing you.'”

Kafka and sarcasm are surely justified in passing along this news item, I agree, but it was still hard to believe my ears. At this point, I was experiencing a flashback impulse to close the kitchen door and huddle around the radio so the neighbors wouldn’t hear us listening to illegal “foreign voices”!

The final item Radio Jazz offered its evening listeners to ponder was a question about as philosophical as a news broadcast gets: How happy are you?

First, the context.

“Finland is the happiest country in the world,” Radio Jazz told us by way of summing up the annual World Happiness Report. “This ranking of global happiness takes into account GDP per capita, life expectancy, charitable contributions, social support, the level of freedom and the level of corruption in terms of their impact on residents ‘vital decisions.’”

Well, Miss Radio Jazz News gave the neighboring Finns plenty of credit.

“Frankly speaking, I am ready to agree right off with this award, because in Finland they do a huge number of social projects. The Finnish people try to be at the center of their own culture. For example, if a festival takes place in a large city in this country, the residents of the surrounding villages are brought there free of charge by bus so  they can be involved in culture. I won’t even mention many other important laws related to social status, support for the population, and so on. In sum, we should follow the path of Finland, and not, say, North Korea.”

The last time I heard a Russian newsreader say, “Let’s not be North Korea” was, let’s see here, carry the two, ah, that’s right: never. Which was why I almost lost a mouthful of after-dinner decaf doing a Danny Thomas spit-take over the kitchen table as the news ended. A little went up my nose, but it was still worth it.

After the shock wore off, a little laptop skating yielded some background on the presenter and commentator of that evening’s edition of Auteur News: “Irina Prokhorova, editor-in-chief of the publishing house New Literary Review, specially edited what she thought were the top stories of the day for NSN.”

All I could say was, Nice job, Irina, and here’s hoping you get another turn at Auteur News before unpleasant men in ill-fitting suits are sent to chat with you at your place of work.

A further bit of web surfing still did not yield what I wanted most: a list of the Auteur 200 and a schedule of their appearances for, say, the upcoming month. But I did dig up a little more background.

I discovered that Auteur News had been on the air for nearly five years, and over 200 presenters had contributed, including politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, politican and TV presenter Pyotr Tolstoy, football star Ruslan Nigmatullin, actor Sergey Bezrukov, rock musician Andrei Makarevich, writer Sergey Lukyanenko and other Russian celebrities.

This was clearly a very hit-and-miss kind of thing, I could tell. You can imagine setting a long jump record with a sudden vault across the kitchen to turn the radio off before “Auteur News with Vladimir Zhirinovsky” (or Pyotr Tolstoy) abused your eardrums, but if such leaps of faith were what it took to get the likes of Makarevich, long implicitly banned from state-controlled media as an “enemy of the people,” back in the public arena, then maybe it was worth it, I figured.

Yes, perhaps sharing the airwaves with the loud and confused was not too great a price to pay for getting a great unheard voice of reason heard again.

And that, it has long been assumed here, is the same devil’s bargain by which the majority Gazprom-owned Ekho Moskvy stays on the air: lowbrow types and state shills get air time so real news and sane views can reach millions who would otherwise have to scan the dial for “foreign voices” or, more likely, give up the dial altogether and simply glue their eyes and ears to social media.

Which doesn’t sound so bad at first blush, until you recall that social media were instrumental in blessing our brave new millennium with President Donald Trump, who has in turn introduced us to a new and apparently effective form of zombie-generating, masses-manipulating monologue that substitutes for press releases, news conferences, and indeed governance itself: the Auteur Tweet.

Yikes.

In any case, I was still bothered by one thing: how a longtime listener to Radio Jazz could have remained blissfully unaware of Auteur News for the first five years of its existence. Were the presenters less outspoken before? Or did my long-suffering ears simply click automatically to OFF for any radio news that happened to reach them from a station other than Ekho or Kommersant? Possibly both, but one more net search yielded a more likely answer.

This time, I turned up NSN’s original announcement of Auteur News, dated November 7, 2012, which noted the program would air only on weekdays, and only twice daily, at 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. If you were merely a one-ear listener, and your dinner usually ended before eight, it obviously took a bracing shot of Irina Prokhorova to get your attention.

This last search also produced a much better picture of the fabled Auteur 200, as the original announcement named names that were big time; indeed, almost all of them, as the list ran to some 178 people (if my count was correct). And the Big Picture spectrum is a broad one: there are plenty of presenters an educated listener would definitely like to hear an earful from. Beyond Makarevich, the list included director Serebrennikov himself, historian and journalist Nikoai Svanidze, progressive politician Irina Khakamada, saxophone legend Igor Butman, political scientist Nikolai Zlobin, filmmaker Alexei Uchitel, theater director Konstantin Raikin, satirist Mikhail Kononenko, producer and composer Stas Namin, national elections commissioner Ella Pamfilova, and a bunch more.

That said, there are just as many (probably more, actually) who would make the same listener wish he had taken his high-school long jump practice more seriously. Beyond Zhirinovsky and Tolstoy, you find motorcycle gang leader Khirurg (The Surgeon), the “pranksters” Vovan and Leksus, dim Duma stalwarts such as . . . but why list the losers here, have a look for yourself.

And relax. While there are definitely some wildcard types, including several rock musicians who use a single name (ask your grandson), you won’t find Director Doorknobs on the list. At least not yet.

Which is a reminder that, while Auteur News is a real find, without an updated contributor list and a schedule for it, you’ll need to be wary.

Irina Prokhorova was a great way to start, but the next presenter you hear might well focus on Putinista bikers running amok in Crimea.

Be prepared to leap.

Mark H. Teeter, a former opinion page editor and media columnist for the Moscow Times and the Moscow News, is the editor of Moscow TV Tonite on Facebook. His original article was lightly edited to conform with TRR’s nonexistent style guide. My thanks to Mr. Teeter for letting him reprint his article here.

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Leviathan

DSCN4214“Precinct Election Commission for Polling Station No. 2218.” This is the innocent-looking sign the leviathan that has strangled democracy, including free elections, in Russia puts out to signal its presence. It achieves victory over earnest voters and honest election observers, some of whom valiantly serve on such commissions, by killing them with a hundred thousand cuts. Writ large, the flagrant tricks and shady practices used by neighborhood and local election officials add up to national elections that are rigged from top to bottom. Although this trickery has been well documented by independent observers, Russian reporters, and researchers, the sheer weight of it somehow has never made an impression on western journalists, who continue to write as if Putin’s popularity were a scientifically proven fact instead of carefully crafted mixture of massive coercion and hoodwinking. Photo by the Russian Reader

Central Election Commission Does Not Accredit 4,500 Presidential Election Observers Affiliated with Navalny 
Mediazona
March 7, 2018

The Russian Central Election Commission (CEC) has refused to accredit 4,500 presidential election observers affiliated with the news website Leviathan, created by Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. Navalny has written about the incident on his Telegram channel.

“We were suddenly told today that [Leviathan] had been shut down by the court, and the CEC would not accredit it. Earlier we have received accreditation for 4,500 observers affiliated with Leviathan. Now they are left without accreditation. Even [Vladimir] Churov [the previous CEC chair, replaced in 2016 by Ella Pamfilova] didn’t do such things,” wrote Navalny.

In addition, the CEC has refused accrediate observers affiliated with the online publication Molniya (“Lightning”), which sponsors election observers from the Golos Movement for the Defense of Voters’ Rights.

Golos co-chair Grigory Melkonyants confirmed to Mediazona there were problems with accrediting election observers registered by Molniya. He said that 850 people who had signed contracts with Molniya in October 2017 were at issue.

Molniya submitted accreditation applications to the CEC two weeks ago. The CEC informed them that it had sent them a written reply by post. Melkonyants said that in the the past the CEC would always simply invite Golos to come to its offices and pick up the accreditation papers. Now, on the contrary, the commission’s decision is unknown: they would have to wait for the letter to arrive. Melkonyants believes this testifies to the likelihood the Molniya observers will have their accreditation requests rejected.

However, he noted it was still possible to register as an observer affiliated with a particular candidate, and Golos was now working on this.

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

“We Have a Surrogate Democracy”: An Interview with Yekaterina Schulmann

Yekaterina Schulmann. Photo courtesy of Andrei Stekachov and The Village

Political Scientist Yekaterina Schulmann on Why You Should Vote
Anya Chesova and Natasha Fedorenko
The Village
September 16, 2016

This Sunday, September 18, the country will vote for a new State Duma, the seventh since the fall of the Soviet Union. The peculiarity of this vote is that it will take place under a mixed electoral system for the first time since 2003. 225 MPs will be elected to five-year tears from party lists, while the other 225 MPs will be elected from single-mandate districts. Several days before the elections, The Village met with Yekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist and senior lecturer at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA). We talked with her about why you should vote if United Russia is going to win in any case, as well as about the changes in store for the Russian political system in the coming years.


The Upcoming Elections

The Village: On Sunday, the country will hold the first elections to the State Duma since 2011. The social climate in the city and the country as a whole has changed completely since that time. Protests erupted in 2011, and the people who protested on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue believed they could impact the political situation. Nowadays, few people have held on to such hopes. What should we expect from the upcoming elections? And why should we bother with them?

Yekaterina Schulmann: Everything happening now with the State Duma election is a consequence of the 2011–2012 protests, including changes in the laws, the introduction of the mixed system, the return of single-mandate MPs, the lowering of the threshold for parties to be seated in the Duma from seven to five percent, and the increased number of parties on the ballot. These are the political reforms outlined by then-president Dmitry Medvedev as a response to the events of December 2011. Later, we got a new head of state, but it was already impossible to take back these promises. The entire political reality we observe now has grown to one degree or another out of the 2011–2012 protest campaign, whether as rejection, reaction or consequence. It is the most important thing to happen in the Russian political arena in recent years.

The statements made by Vyacheslav Volodin, the president’s deputy chief of staff, on the need to hold honest elections, Vladimir Churov’s replacement by Ella Pamfilova as head of the Central Electoral Commission, the departure of someone more important than Churov from the CEC, deputy chair Leonid Ivlev, and the vigorous sacking of chairs of regional electoral commissions are all consequences of the protests. If they had not taken place, nothing would have changed. We would still have the same proportional voting system, the same seven-percent threshold, the same old Churov or Churov 2.0. Continue reading ““We Have a Surrogate Democracy”: An Interview with Yekaterina Schulmann”

Ivan Ovsyannikov: A Wake-Up Call for the Regime

“United Russia. No. 4 [on the ballot]. We hear people. We can get it done.” Photo courtesy of Surkovian Propaganda

Ivan Ovsyannikov
A Wake-Up Call for the Regime
Anticapitalist.ru
September 19, 2016

The most inappropriate reaction to these so-called elections is disenchantment with their outcome. Was anyone really enchanted by them? I can understand the pessimism of moderate liberals, for whom the procedure of voting is democracy’s alpha and omega, but a “constitutional change of power” is the ultimate political daydream. Even smart liberals must realize the Duma is not a parliament, and Russia is not a republic. What, then, are we to make of elections to a body that does not form the cabinet, cannot impeach the president, and, most important, gave up any pretensions to power long ago? What is demonstrated by so-called elections to a body in whose necessity over forty percent of respondents have doubts, according to opinion polls? What does it mean when people vote for parties that in their vast majority are flimflam organizations imitating political pluralism?

Nothing sounded more out of tune in the opposition’s rhetoric of recent months than the campaign slogans of liberals, hoping to cross the five-percent threshold, about effecting a “change of power” by dropping a ballot into a ballot box. Perhaps the statement made by Ella Pamfilova, chair of the Russian Central Electoral Commission, that she was “really, really sorry” not a single non-parliamentary party made it into the Duma, reflects not only her own opinion but also that of her bosses. A few rebellious voices would not have harmed a body one of its former speakers infamously dubbed “not a place for discussion.” They would have made the bureaucracy’s imitation of democracy slightly more believable.

But let us get back to the question of what these so-called elections show us. Maybe, at least, they are a cross section of public opinion, a sincere manifestation of confidence in the regime or, as the opposition is fond of claiming, an index of the populace’s “zombification”? No, they are none of these things, and that, perhaps, is the most troubling news for the ruling elite.

If, after several years of severe economic crisis, and amidst a record-low turnout, a party headed by an unpopular prime minister garners even more votes than it did in 2011, it means that elections to the Duma have finally shed their remaining links with any known social reality. It would be more soothing for the Kremlin if the votes had been divvied up more evenly among the four pro-regime parties. That would have been a sign of confidence in the political system. If Russians had sought an alternative within the current system by voting for the Communists or any other pro-Kremlin party that would have told us that faith in the Putin regime is indeed strong.

But people who vote for United Russia in 2016 are not voting for the government’s policies, the annexation of Crimea or even Putin. They vote not because they expect the elections will change things for the better, and not because they are blinded by propaganda or are especially fond of government officials. They fear a change for the worse and take part in a pre-programmed ritual, thus hoping to prevent the collapse of their usual lives. In its own way, this choice is rational, although it smacks of pessimism and conservatism. People are clinging with all their might to a crumbling stability. But what will happen when there is nothing more to cling to?

Turnout to Duma Elections by Year
1993 – 54%
1995 – 64%
1999 – 61%
2003 – 55.7%
2007– 59%
2011– 60%
2016 – 48%

 

Some of the voters who did not go to the polls could have been guided by similar motives. It would be wrong to interpret high absenteeism unambiguously as passive protest. The majority realizes nothing actually depends on Duma elections. Superstitiously, involuntarily or habitually, some partake in this ritual exorcism of hardship and troubles. Others fail to partake in the ritual out of laziness, apathy or contempt. Only an indoctrinated minority literally believes in the campaign slogans.

So the only information the powers that be and we can extract from the election results is that the country is not in the midst of a revolution, and the supplies of public apathy on which the system depends have not run out yet. But as a tool of political leverage, a reflection of the confidence the masses have in the ruling class, and even as a means of studying public opinion, the Duma elections have shown their uselessness. Like routine vote rigging, their outcome is an indication of Putinism’s degradation as a political system rather than its stability.

socresist_knsnjnkbt84-jpg-ecfbe02aa410465c66e5c5c5f251a5e3Ivan Ovsyannikov is a writer, union activist, member of the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD), and editor of Trade Union Navigator (Profsoiuznyi navigator), the newspaper of the Interregional Trade Union Workers Association (MPRA). Translated by the Russian Reader. Previously published on LeftEast

Ilya Budraitskis: Putrefaction as the Laboratory of Life (The 2016 Elections)

Nikolai Yaroshenko, Life Is Everywhere, 1888. Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Nikolai Yaroshenko, Life Is Everywhere, 1888. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The 2016 Elections: Putrefaction as the Laboratory of Life
Ilya Budraitskis
OpenLeft
April 29, 2016

How do the upcoming Duma elections threaten the regime?

Today, it would seem that the upcoming September elections to the State Duma are a cause of growing concern only in the Kremlin. While polls continue to record a low level of public interest in the event, and the tiny number of parties allowed to run in the election wanly prepares to fulfill their usual roles, the president and his entourage are increasingly talking about possible threats.

The rationale of radicalization
At a recent meeting with activists of the Russian People’s Front, Putin noted that external enemies would preparing ever more provocations to coincide “with elections to the State Duma, and then with the presidential election. It’s a one hundred percent certainty, a safe bet, as they say.”

Regardless of their real value, the upcoming elections have been turning right before our eyes into a point of tension on which the state’s repressive apparatus has focused. Beginning with the establishment of the National Guard, the process has been mounting. Each security agency has now inaugurated its own advertising season, designed not only to remind the president and public of its existence but also to show off its unique capabilities, inaccessible to other competing agencies, for combating potential threats.

Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika has uncovered a plot by the Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector, while in his programmatic article, Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin essentially suggested canceling the elections since holding them could prove too dangerous. He made a direct appeal to stop “playing at pseudo-democracy” and provide a “tough, appropriate, and balanced response” to the country’s enemies “in light of the upcoming elections and the possible risks presented by the stepping up of efforts by destabilizing political forces.” With the appointment of Tatyana Moskalkova, even the previously neutral office of the human rights ombudsman has, apparently, been turned into yet another bastion of the fight against conspiracies.

This nervousness is certainly due to the fact that the growing economic and social crisis has had no visible political fallout for the time being. There have been no mass spontaneous revolts or sectoral strikes, although there has been an overall uptick in isolated labor disputes.  The political realm has long ago been securely purged of any uncontrollable opposition, while the president’s personal rating has remained phenomenally high. Nothing, it would seem, portends serious grounds for political destabilization this autumn. The absence, however, of real threats itself has become a threat to the internal stability of the state apparatus.

Where does the threat lie? In recent times, it has become obvious that decision-making at all levels and whatever the occasion has been subjected to a rationale of radicalization. Its principle can be described roughly as follows: no new decision can be less radical than the previous decision. Bureaucratic loyalty is measured only by the level of severity. MPs must propose more sweeping laws against latent traitors. Law enforcement agencies must expose more and more conspiracies, while the courts must hand down rulings that are harsher than the harshest proposals made by the security officials and MPs. Permanently mounting radicalism enables officials to increase budgets, expand powers, and prove their reliability, while any manifestation of moderation or leniency can cost them their careers. This radicalization, whose causes are rooted in the political psychology of the Russian elite (which suffers from an almost animal fear of uncontrollability), has set off an extremely dangerous bureaucratic momentum. Its main problem is the inability to stop. It is not only unclear where the bottom is, but who is ultimately interested in reaching that bottom and leaving it at that.

All this generates a strange situation vis-à-vis the elections, which have generally functioned primarily as a political balancing mechanism for the Putinist system, and even now function in this way. Elections have always been a reminder—not to voters, but to the elite itself—that varying opinions within a clearly defined framework have not only been possible but have also been encouraged. This reminder has been important not out of faithfulness to an abstract principle, but as confirmation that political bodies (first of all, the presidential administration) have had the monopoly on deciding domestic policy, not a military or police junta.

Fixing the broken mechanism?
For the Kremlin, the upcoming elections are overshadowed by the political trauma of 2011, when the smoothly functioning system of managed democracy suffered a serious breakdown. The current chief political strategist Vyacheslav Volodin has more or less consistently focused on making sure the failure of five years ago is not repeated. Volodin’s mission is to fix the broken mechanism with political methods, not by force.

It is worth remembering that, for the greater part of the Putin era, parliamentary and presidential elections were parts of a single political cycle, in which the same scenario was played out. The triumphal success of the ruling United Russia party was supposed to precede and ensure the even more resounding success of Vladimir Putin. In December 2011, however, the cycle’s unity backfired against the Kremlin’s plans. The interval between elections enabled the protest movement to maintain its grassroots energy for several months.

The political rationale of Putin’s third term is now aimed not only at technically but also at conceptually disrupting this cycle. Amidst a sharp drop in confidence in the government, the Kremlin decided last summer to move parliamentary elections up from December 2017 to September 2016, and, on the contrary, postpone the presidential election from March 2017 to March 2018. The point of the maneuver is obvious. The presidential and parliamentary elections must now represent not two parts of the same script but two completely different scripts. In the first script, a limited number of parties, which make up the symphony of the Crimean consensus, will criticize the government and each other, thus competing for the sympathies of the dissatisfied populace. In the second script, the natural patriotic instinct of voters should leave no doubt as to the need to support Putin unconditionally.

The new ideological content was embodied by Volodin’s famous statement: “There is no Russia today if there is no Putin.” This personification virtually means that, as a symbolic father, Putin transcends everyday politics. You can be a liberal or a nationalist, a proponent of greater intervention in the economy or a fan of the free market. You can choose not to like the government or government officials. But the nexus Putin-Crimea-Russia is beyond any doubt. Those who fundamentally disagree with it are simply removed from the Russian political spectrum and branded “national traitors.”

In keeping with this rationale, responsibility for the sharp drop in living standards and the consequences of the neoliberal “anti-crisis” measures has been borne by ministers, MPs, and governors, by anyone except the president. Even now, when the propaganda effect of the “reunification” of Crimea has obviously begun to fade, the president’s personal rating remains high. Thus, according to the latest opinion polls, 81% of respondents trust Putin, while 41% do not trust Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and 47% do not trust his government overall.

Within the new-model Crimean consensus, United Russia will no longer play the role of the backbone it played in the noughties. Untethered from the non-partisan figure of the president, it will take on the burden of unpopularity borne by its formal leader, Dmitry Medvedev, and his government. The mixed electoral system will enable candidates from local “parties of power” in single-member districts to dissociate themselves from United Russia, presenting themselves as “non-partisan Putinists” criticizing the soulless federal authorities. Volodin’s scheme involves loosening United Russia’s grip on power and slightly increasing the value of the pseudo-opposition as represented by the Communist Party and A Just Russia.

It is worth noting that the very existence of a bureaucratic mega-party previously played a stabilizing role by dampening intra-elite conflicts. Now they will inevitably come out into the open, including in the shape of inter-party struggles. Of course, the presidential administration counts on being able to effectively ensure compliance with the clear rules of this competition, but there are no guarantees. The managed multi-party system with the “father of the nation” towering over it consummates the new architecture of the Putin regime as a personalistic regime, and becomes more and more vulnerable.

In the new reality of the crisis, Putin’s depoliticization also facilitates a more intensive “natural selection” among bureaucrats at all levels by culling those who have not mastered the art of maintaining the conservative sympathies of the populace while simultaneously implementing what amount to aggressively anti-social policies. The September campaign is supposed to go off without a hitch, culminating in a predictable outcome. Having given a human face to the Central Elections Commission, which was seriously discredited by the previous leadership, Ella Pamfilova is meant to increase this manageability and predictability. It turns out that the upcoming elections are the primary pressure test of the new, post-Bolotnaya Square design of managed democracy. The future of Vyacheslav Volodin and his team, as well as Putin’s willingness to trust them with the extremely important 2018 presidential campaign, probably depends on how smoothly they come off.

From the foregoing it is clear that the objective of reestablishing the rules of managed democracy is directly at odds with the above-mentioned rationale of radicalization, whose standard-bearers are the competing law enforcement agencies. Their individual success in the internal struggle is vouchsafed by the failure of the political scenario, which would give rise to the need for a vigorous intervention by force. After all, the National Guard’s value would be incomparably increased if it put down real riots instead of sham riots, and Bastrykin’s loyalty would all the dearer if, instead of the endless absurdity of the Bolotnaya Square Case, he would uncover real extremists. To scare someone seriously, the ghosts have to take on flesh and blood.

Life is everywhere
Marx said that putrefaction is the laboratory of life. Now we see how Putinist capitalism has embarked on a process of gradual self-destruction. The upcoming elections provide a clear picture of how this has been facilitated by two opposing rationales, the political rationale (Volodin and the presidential administration) and the law enforcement rationale. Thus, the first rationale, in order to generate the necessary momentum and expand the range of opinions, must respond to social discontent by providing United Russia’s managed opponents with greater freedom to criticize. Restoring the internal political balance will inevitably lead to the fact that topics related to the crisis and the government’s anti-social policies will become the centerpiece of the entire election campaign. On the other hand, the security forces will destabilize the situation outside parliament. Together, they will do much more to undermine an already-flawed system than the long-term, deliberate efforts of any western intelligence agency.

Of course, Russian leftists should in no way count on events following an automatic course. But it is absolutely necessary to take into account the conflicts of interest within the elite and understand their decisive influence on the shape of the upcoming elections. These elections have nothing to do with the real struggle for power or traditional parliamentarianism in any shape or form. But they are directly related to the internal decomposition of an authoritarian, anti-labor, and anti-social regime. So our policy vis-à-vis these elections should be flexible and remote from all general conclusions. That means we can and should support certain leftist candidates in single-member districts. We must use all the opportunities provided by the leftist, socialist critique of the Medvedev government’s so-called anti-crisis policies. We must be ready to go to the polls. Or we must be ready to reject them, taking to the streets when the time comes.

Ilya Budraitskis is a writer, researcher, and editor at OpenLeft. Translated by the Russian Reader

 

Yevgeny Vitishko: Freedom or Death

Freedom or Death
Yevgeny Titov
December 12, 2015
Novaya Gazeta

The condition of environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko, who is on a hunger strike, is critical.

Yevgeny Vitiskho has been on hunger strike for seventeen days in Penal Settlement No. 2 in the Tambov Region’s Kirsanov District. His kidneys hurt and he is suffering from dizziness and low blood pressure. And yet the wardens have not exempted him from hard physical labor. Several hours before he was to be paroled, the prosecutor’s office changed its position, and so the environmentalist launched his protest.

Yevgeny Vitishko. Photo courtesy of Amnesty International
Yevgeny Vitishko. Photo courtesy of Amnesty International

Vitishko was supposed to be released on November 21. The Kirsanov District Court had decided to mitigate his punishment by changing imprisonment to limited freedom. Vitishko was supposed to go home and register with the police. The breakthrough in the case came after Mikhail Fedotov, chair of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Russia’s human rights ombudsman Ella Pamfilova had communicated personally to President Putin about Vitishko’s imprisonment.

At the court hearing, a spokesman for the penal settlement where Vitishko has been serving his sentence, and the district prosecutor’s office petitioned the court for the environmentalist’s release. But right before the scheduled release, on the evening of November 20, the very same prosecutor’s office sent the court an appeal asking it to overturn its decision. The alleged reason for the appeal was that prosecutors were unclear as to where Vitishko had to register, in his hometown of Tuapse or in Slavyansk-on-Kuban, where he has not lived for almost twenty years. The court will examine this appeal on December 22.

Kuban environmentalists Yevgeny Vitiskho and Suren Gazaryan were sentenced to three years of probation under Article 167 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code (“destruction of other people’s property”). Tuapse District Court Judge Galina Avdzhi ruled the men were guilty of ruining the fence around an elite residence in the village of Bzhid on the Black Sea coast. The fence illegally enclosed a considerable section of public forest, but when the environmentalists filed a complaint with law enforcement authorities, the authorities pointedly ignored the violations.

The residence has been linked to Alexander Tkachyov, former governor of Krasnodar Territory and current federal minister of agriculture. Before the Sochi Olympics, Suren Gazaryan was forced to flee to Estonia, where he received political asylum, while Yevgeny Vitishko’s probation sentence was changed to imprisonment.

Why Such Hatred? (The Death of Umarali Nazarov)

Откуда такая ненависть?
Why Such Hatred?
Nina Petlyanova
October 22, 2015
Novaya Gazeta Saint Petersburg

The parents of a dead five-month-old child from Tajikistan do not understand

When a Tajik family was in the process of being expelled from Petersburg, their baby son was taken from its mother. Umarali Nazarov (born May 20, 2015) spent almost five hours at a police station [on October 13, 2015]. He was in the hands of strangers, and deprived of food and warm clothes. No one was allowed to dress or feed the baby. He screamed and cried. The baby was then taken to hospital, where he died the same night. The causes of death are still unknown. The Investigative Committee opened a criminal case only a week later.

Federal Migration Service (FMS) employees, police officers, and doctors are suspected of “negligent homicide owing to the improper discharge by a person of his professional duties.” However, neither the boy’s parents nor members of the Petersburg Tajik diaspora believe the guilty parties will be found and punished. Moreover, Umar’s father and mother, Rustam Nazarov and Zarina Yunusova, are themselves currently under suspicion. Police have carried out searches at the flat where they live. The authorities are now attempting to prosecute the couple for allegedly failing to discharge the duties of bringing up a minor.”

Federal Children’s Ombudsman Pavel Astakhov, Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko, and the Tajikistan Embassy in Russia have promised to monitor the investigation.

FMS officers raided the flat rented by the Nazarovs at Lermontov Prospect, 5, at around ten in the morning on October 13. The head of the family, Mehriniso Nazarova, the mother of five children (ranging in age from seven to twenty-seven), had already accompanied her youngest son, a first former, to school and had gone to work: she washes dishes at a café near the house. Nazarova’s 17-year-old son Daler and 21-year-old daughter-in-law Zarina were at the flat with Umar. Zarina’s husband, 25-year-old Rustam Nazarov, works at a construction site and was also not nearby when the FMS paid its visit.

Zarina Yunusova

Zarina does not speak Russian at all. Her account of what happened is translated by her mother-in-law.

“Three unknown men burst into the flat. They grabbed Daler, Zarina, and the baby. Although Daler is a minor,” Mehriniso adds, “and they had no right to touch him. They were all taken to a police station. They were not even allowed to dress Umar: he was taken as he was, in a blue woolen unitard. They didn’t even let them put a hat on him.”

“Around 10:30 a.m., I got a call from Daler,” continues Nazarova. “He said they were at Police Precinct No. 1. I hurried there, grabbing a bottle of milk formula for the baby at home on the way there. I was at the police station around twelve. I went up to the on-duty window, and they kicked me out into the hall. I could hear Umar screaming. The child was screaming and crying the whole time at the precinct. I begged and pleaded to feed him. The formula was still warm. An on-duty officer took the bottle from me and put it in the window. I was crying and saying, “He is tiny and hungry.’ ‘I could care less,’ the policeman replied. There was a young woman there, a senior lieutenant: I begged her. No one fed the child.  They mocked and laughed at me: ‘We don’t understand you; we need a translator.’ They called me a wog [chernozhopaya] and said, ‘Wogs have no rights.'”

Around 2:30 p.m., according to Nazarova, an ambulance arrived at the police station, and the police handed the baby over to medics.

“I was scared,” says Nazarova. “I asked the doctors what was a happening with my baby. Had he fallen ill? He had never been ill. Just the day before, he had been healthy. I begged them to hand over my boy or take me along! But two women in white jackets pushed me away, got into the vehicle, and drove away.”

“Come tomorrow”
Zarina and Daler were delivered to court around 3 p.m. They were tried by 9 p.m. Each was fined 5,000 rubles and ordered to leave Russia in fifteen days.

As soon as they left the court, the Nazarovs rushed to the police station to find out where the child was. They were told he was at Tsimbalin Children’s Hospital and to pick him up the next day. The parents did not accept this and said they were coming right away.

“It’s already late, they won’t let you in,” the police objected.

The Nazarovs called the hospital and were told the same thing: “Come tomorrow.”

Rustam Nazarova and Zarina Yunusova

“Around 8 a.m., Mom took my youngest brother, a first former, to school,” says Rustam Nazarov. “We called a taxi to go to the hospital and pick up Umar. But right then we got a telephone call: ‘You need not come: your son has died.'”

The family was at the hospital within half an hour. But they were too late: the baby had already been transported to the morgue. Nazarov went there. At the morgue, however, he was not shown the child. Nazarov began going to the morgue every day.  It was only on the fourth day, after the autopsy, that he was able to take a look at his son.

“I didn’t even recognize him,” admits Nazarov.

Routine and lawful
As the FMS Petersburg and Leningrad Region Office explained to Novaya Gazeta, the raid had been routine. At the request of the district administration, several addresses were checked that day.  District officials had informed the FMS about the Nazarovs. The illegal immigrants were living, allegedly, in a resettled house with no water or electricity.

Rustam Nazarov looks out the window of the ostensibly resettled house at Lermontov Prospect, 5

Novaya Gazeta‘s correspondents spent half a day in the two-room flat the Nazarovs rent for 25,000 rubles [approx. 360 euros] a month. The place has water and electricity, and is so warm that all the vent panes in the windows are opened. We saw offices on the first floor of the building, and quite habitable flats on the upper floors.

“The citizen of Tajikistan discovered at Lermonotov, 5, could not explain her relationship to the child, so he was also taken to the police station,” Darya Kazankova, press secretary for the FMS Petersburg and Leningrad Region Office told Novaya Gazeta. “However, FMS staff do not work with minors and children, so we handed both [Daler and Umar] over to juvenile affairs inspectors and subsequently dealt only with Yunusova.”

Kazankova insists the FMS officers had an interpreter with them. Zarina did not notice any interpreter.

Zarina Yunusova’s papers are really not in order. The young woman arrived in Petersburg from Tajikistan little over a year ago to be treated for infertility. The treatments were successful. The long-awaited Umar was born on May 20, Rustam’s birthday. It was a gift for both the mom and the dad.

Rustam Nazarov shows a picture of his son on his mobile phone

“According to the law on immigrants [Federal Law No. 115, July 25, 2002], foreign citizens can stay temporarily in Russia without a visa for no longer than ninety days [if they are from countries whose citizens do not require a visa to enter the Russia — RR],” explained Tajik diaspora lawyer Uktam Akhmedov in an interview with Novaya Gazeta. Akhmedov is now defending the Nazarov family in all legal proceedings. “But when the ninety days ran out and legally she should have gone back to Tajikistan, Zarina was pregnant. The doctors did not recommend traveling. Besides, pregnancy is a reasonable excuse for staying. We are going to challenge the court’s decision to expel her,” said Akhmedov.

Rustam and Zarina looking at pictures of their son

The case will not be solved soon
The five-month-old child’s death has shocked the Petersburg Tajik diaspora.

“Every day since October 14, between fifty and eighty people have gathered outside Police Precinct No. 1,” Uktam Akhmedov told Novaya Gazeta. “The most massive grassroots gathering happened on October 17 at the Tajikistan Consulate in Petersburg. Around a hundred people came. They demanded justice and punishment for the perpetrators. People were very agitated. We could hardly contain their emotions.”

Assistant Consul Manouchehr Hamzayev came out to address the protesters. He asked them not to engage in provocations and promised to keep them updated.

Umar’s grandmother Mehriniso Nazarova meets workers from the Tajikistan Embassy in Russia

On October 18, the Tajik diaspora sent official appeals to Russian Human Rights Ombudsman Ella Pamfilova and Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko.

On October 19, Pavel Astakhov reacted to the incident in the Northern Capital. Besides a surprised entry on Twitter (“A five-month-old baby has died suddenly”), he asked the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor General’s Office to “conduct a thorough investigation of the actions of the FMS and police.”

On October 20, the Petersburg Office of the Investigative Committe’s Central Investigation Department opened a criminal case under Article 109.2 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code (“Negligent homicide owing to the improper discharge by a person of his professional duties”).

“According to the preliminary investigaton, the boy died in the early hours of October 14 from an acute respiratory viral infection,” the Central Investigation Department informed Novaya Gazeta. “But the forensic examination will ultimately establish the cause of death.”

Doctors at Tsimbalin Children’s Hospital, where the city prosecutor’s city has been carrying out an inspection since October 20, declined to comment. According to Novaya Gazeta‘s sources, doctors have explained to investigators that the child had many diagnoses [sic], and in addition, he had been born prematurely.

The parents do not deny this. Umar had been born in the thirty-fourth week with a weight of 2,2000 grams. But he had been steadily growing and gaining weight. By five months he had weighed about eight kilos. The Nazarovs likewise claim the child had regular visits from the district nurse, and had been examined by doctors at a clinic. They had not referred Umar to any specialists: no serious ailments had been detected.

Looking for a bomb in a cradle
On October 21, the day after the criminal case was opened, the Interior Ministry’s Petersburg and Leningrad Region Office took countermeasures.

“Police officers are conducting a preliminary investigation concerning the deceased boy’s parents, in whose actions there is evidence of a crime as stipulated by Article 156 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code (“Failure to discharge the duties of bringing up a minor”),” the regional office of the Investigative Committee’s Central Investigation Department informed Novaya Gazeta.

“Now they come here and do searches nearly every day,” the Nazarov brothers tell us. “Two times they came with dogs. Why? Are they looking for a bomb in the cradle?”

“Why such hatred? Why such hatred?” Rustam repeats like a mantra and waits for a response.

Zarina says nothing and cries.

Mehriniso Nazarova next to her grandson Umar’s cradle

Mehriniso is not crying. She is sobbing over the cradle, which Rustam built for his son and which she just cannot bear to remove from the room.

“This city has now taken a second boy from me.”

The Nazarovs have lived in Petersburg for fifteen years. In 2004, persons unknown armed with knives attacked Mehriniso’s 12-year-old-son near their house. He died from stab wounds to the chest and neck. The child’s murder remains unsolved to this day.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos by Elena Lukyanova

See also: “Tajikistanis Hold Gathering Outside Consulate in Petersburg over Death of Detained Immigrants’ Son,” Rosbalt, October 17, 2015 (in Russian)