Ilya Yashin: Life in a Russian Jail

yashinIlya Yashin. Photo courtesy of his Facebook page

Ilya Yashin Rearrested After Three Stints in Jail
Radio Svoboda
August 18, 2019

Opposition politician Ilya Yashin was rearrested on Sunday after he left the special detention center in Moscow where he had been jailed for an administrative offense. He posted a video of his arrest on his Twitter account.

In the video, a police officer tells Yashin he has been detained “for encouraging [people to attend] ‘unauthorized’ protest rallies on July 18 and 19.” Apparently, he meant the gatherings on Trubnaya Square in support of the independent candidates attempting to stand in the September 8 elections to the Moscow City Duma. Unlike the protest rallies on July 27 and August 3, the July 18 and 19 rallies were not dispersed by police.

Over the last month, Yashin has been jailed three times after being charged and convicted of various administrative offenses having to do with “unauthorized” grassroots rallies. He had been in jail since July 29.

One of the unregistered candidates in the Moscow City Duma elections, Yashin took part in a series of protest rallies against the Moscow City Elections Commission’s refusal to put independent candidates on the ballot and encouraged people to attend the protests.

Earlier, Konstantin Yankauskas and Yulia Galyamina, also unregistered independent candidates for the Moscow City Duma, were similarly detained immediately after leaving jail and sentenced to new terms in police custody. A court had also ordered Ivan Zhdanov’s rearrest, but when he left the special detention center, no police escort was waiting for him. Consequently, he went home.

Ilya Yashin
Facebook

August 17, 2019

The police brass is quite unhappy. How did it happen I was jailed and locked in a cell but things I wrote were posted on social media and I was quoted in the media? The brass does not get that you can send a text to the outside world with a lawyer. The brass imagines it is surrounded by treachery and betrayal.

What if there were supporters of the opposition in the police? Maybe they were providing me with access to the internet? After my letter to [Russian Central Elections Commission Chair] Ella Pamfilova was published, clearly paranoid new rules were issued at the special detention center.

The fact is that prisoners have the right to use their own telephones fifteen minutes a day. They cannot be used to access the internet or send texts, only to make calls. Until recently, the wardens were not very strict about enforcing this rule. But now there were new orders.

In order for me to make a call, the special detention center’s warden personally escorts me every day from my cell to his office, where he keeps my telephone locked in a safe, separate from all the other phones. He sits down at his desk, hands me the phone, and sets his stopwatch to fifteen minutes: the rules are strictly followed. Simultaneously, the duty officer stands opposite me brandishing a video recorder on his chest. I am thus able to convey my greetings to the Interior Ministry’s head office in Moscow.

I wave to the camera and say, “Hey, boss!” like [Yuri] Shevchuk [in the 1992 DDT song “Motherland”].

The boss smiles.

The Detention Center
They say you are curious about how things are organized here in jail. It’s really interesting, huh? Let me tell you about it.

The cell where I have lived for the past three weeks is seven meters by four meters large. There are three cots lined up in a row, a small wooden table, and a bench. There are double bars on the window.

The bathroom—a washbasin and a hole in the floor used as a toilet—is in the corner. When Nemtsov was jailed for the first time, he offered the warden to pay for making conditions in the jail more humane and, at least, install toilets.

“It won’t work, Boris Yefimovich,” the warden replied. “The leadership values things like corruption.”

The most disgusting thing is that the bathroom is not at all shielded from the living space. Prisoners usually hang a sheet around it to fence off the space.

Meals are served in the cafeteria, where prisoners who have agreed to work in the kitchen hand out food in plastic containers. In return, they get informal perks such as more telephone time and more frequent showers.

There is an exercise yard in the special detention center, a small space fenced off with concrete slabs and decorated with barbed wire. It is covered from above by bars.

And, of course, all the rooms are equipped with video cameras. Your every move is broadcast to monitors in the duty room. A prisoner’s entire everyday life is a reality show.

Conditions
Between seven and eight in the morning, the metal door wakes you up with an unpleasant creak. The duty officer comes into the cell and orders you to get up. The inmates trudge to the cafeteria, where they get their rations of porridge.

Accompanied by his entourage, the warden inspects ten cells or so. This is the morning inspection, during which personal belongings are searched. Then groups of prisoners are taken to make phone calls and exercise in the yard, which lasts for no more than an hour a day.

Lunch is followed by free time, dinner, and lights out. During the day, you are allowed to read, write, and listen to the radio. TV sets are not allowed in the cells, unlike remand prisons for people charged with criminal offenses. Backgammon and checkers are available to the inmates, however.

You also have the right to see your loved ones. It does not matter, though, how many days you have been sentenced to jail. Whether you are in for five days or thirty days, you get only one visit and it lasts no more than an hour. So, I have been luckier than Navalny and [VladimirMilov, whom the court immediately sentenced to thirty days in jail. I have been sentenced to ten days at a time, and each new sentence comes with another family visit. Not bad, right?

On Sundays, the prisoners take showers. You wonder why this happens so infrequently? No one will tell you why. It is the way things are. One of the guys asked a police officer whether the special detention center had a separate shower for staff.

“Of course,” the sergeant said, surprised. “We are on duty for three days straight. You think we are going to go home dirty after our shifts? Are we not human beings or what?”

What about us? Are we not human beings?

Daily Life
When you are admitted to the special detention center, they confiscate all the “extras,” including your shoelaces, belt, and chains. The idea is that these items could be dangerous to you and your cellmates.

Care packages containing food, cigarettes, books, and newspapers are allowed. But the guards give food items a good shakedown. Candy must be removed from wrappers, while fruit and bread are poked with a knife. What are they looking for? A nail file that you will use to make your escape? It’s a mystery. Packages of sliced meat and cheese are opened.

The way they inspect newspapers and magazines is the funniest thing. If the duty officer notices any marks and underlining, he refuses to let the periodical through.

“The brass thinks encrypted messages can be sent this way,” said an officer, shrugging.

I thought was he was joking, but I was wrong.

Experienced inmates know how to make tea in the cells and share their skills with the newbies. They use big five-liter mineral water bottles. During trips to the cafeteria, they hand them over to the chow servers, who fill them with boiling water. The bottles shrink but they generally retain their shape. Back in the cells, the bottles are wrapped in blankets and stuffed in plastic bags. You end up with a homemade thermos that keeps the water piping hot for a fairly long time.

***

Oleg Stepanov, the coordinator of Navalny’s Moscow campaign headquarters, lies in the cot next to mine reading the autobiographies of early twentieth-century Russian revolutionaries.

He laughs.

“Listen to this,” he says, reading an excerpt aloud.

“I immediately liked the prison. Everything there was businesslike, as befitted the capital. We were led to our cell. The comrade marching next to me was merry as if he were going to a welcome occasion. He elbowed me and wondered whether we would be put in the same cell.  We were put in a common cell with two fellow Socialist Revolutionaries we knew. It resembled a student party more than a prison. There were books, notebooks in which we recorded our thoughts, slices of sausage laid out on a wooden table, mugs of tea, laughter, jokes, discussions, and games of chess.”

Nemtsov was right. In Russia, you have to live a long time for something to happen.

Thanks to Yevgenia Litvinova for posting the second text. Translated by the Russian Reader

Russian Opposition Hit with New Wave of Searches and Arrests

Russian Opposition Hit with New Wave of Searches and Arrests
Yelena Mukhametshina
Vedomosti
July 25, 2019

On Wednesday evening, Moscow’s Simonovsky District Court jailed politician Alexei Navalny for thirty days for calling on Muscovites to go to the mayor’s office this weekend to protest irregularities in the upcoming elections to the Moscow City Duma. Law enforcement agencies simultaneously launched a dragnet against the Russian opposition. Investigators searched the homes of ex-MP Dmitry Gudkov, his colleague Alexander Solovyov, Ivan Zhdanov, director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), and municipal council member Nikolai Balandin.

The search in Gudkov’s home lasted around two hours. Investigators confiscated the politician’s computers, smartphone, and all portable electronic storage devices. Gudkov’s press secretary Alexei Obukhov said the search warrant mentioned the confiscation of all computer discs [sic] in connection with the protest rallies and pickets outside the Moscow City Elections Commission on July 14, 15, and 18. Identified as a witness in a criminal investigation, Gudkov was given a summons to an interrogation at the Main Investigative Department of the Investigative Committee’s Moscow office on Thursday morning. Navalny’s colleague Leonid Volkov reported that, after his home was searched, Zhdanov was taken immediately to the Main Investigative Department.

gudkovPolice searching Dmitry Gudkov’s apartment. Courtesy of Dmitry Gudkov’s Telegram channel and Vedomosti

FBK lawyer Lyubov Sobol, municipal district council member Yulia Galyamina, and ex-MP Gennady Gudkov have also been summoned to interrogations on Thursday morning.

“Would that they went after criminals this way. They are just scumbags!” Gudkov, Sr., wrote in an emotional post on his Twitter page after receiving a phone call from an Investigative Committee investigator.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Main Investigative Committee reported it had launched a criminal investigation into the protest rally that was held outside the Moscow City Elections Commission on July 14 by opposition candidates to the Moscow City Duma under Article 141 of the Russian Criminal Code, which criminalizes the “obstruction of voting rights or the work of electoral commissions.” In July 2019,  the Main Investigative Office writes, members of a particular movement organized illegal and unauthorized rallies and pickets outside the Moscow City Elections Commission in order to exert pressure on members of the election commissions and obstruct their work. People who attended the rallies threatened election commissions members with violence, the Main Investigative Offices reports. It did not specify which part of Article 141, in its view, had been violated. It could choose to indict people under Article 141.2, which carries a maximum punishment of five years in prison.

The protests out the Moscow City Elections Commission were sparked when district election commissions found flaws, allegedly, in the signature sheets of people intending to run as independent candidates in the September 8 elections to the Moscow City Duma. The flawed signature sheets, allegedly, disqualified them as candidates, and the local election commissions refused to register them. Among the disqualified candidates were municipal district council members Ilya Yashin, Konstantin Yankauksas, Anastasia Bryukhanova, Galyamina, and Dmitry Gudkov; Navalny’s colleagues Sobol and Zhdanov; and Yabloko Party members Elena Rusakova, Kirill Goncharov, and Sergei Mitrokhin.

All last week, the opposition kept up its protests, which had not been vetted by the mayor’s office, on Trubnaya Square. On Saturday, an estimated 22,500 people attended an authorized protest rally on Sakharov Avenue. During the rally, Navalny told the crowd that if all the independent candidates were not registered in the coming week, people should go to the mayor’s office on July 27.

On Wednesday afternoon, opposition politicians told Vedomosti they were prepared to rally outside the mayor’s office on Saturday.

“The criminal investigation is obviously an attempt to intimidate us. We want to run in the elections, but they refuse to put us on the ballot. Now they say they have launched a criminal investigation. We will keep defending our rights,” said Yashin.

Galyamina also believes the authorities are trying to intimidate the opposition.

“On July 14, [Moscow City Elections Commission chair Valentin] Gorbunov was at his dacha, and the commission was closed for business. It is unclear whose work we could have obstructed,” she said.

Gorbunov told Vedomosti that he was not at the commission’s offices on July 14, but that during election campaigns the commission’s working groups and members work weekends as well.

“Time is short and we have to wind things up,” he said.

Gorbunov learned about the criminal investigation from the press. He had no idea who had filed the complaint.

“I believe people need to act within the law. [Central Elections Commission chair Ella] Pamfilova said that rallies were not a form of political campaigning, that people had to work within the bounds of the law. I can only say that the rally outside the Moscow City Elections Commission was not authorized, but it is up to law enforcement agencies to comment on criminal liability for what happened,” he said.

However, on July 14, Gorbunov had told Vedomosti the commission was closed on Sundays.

“They [the opposition] might as well have gone to some factory that was closed on Sunday,” he said then.

The criminal investigation is probably meant by the security forces as a way to intimidate protesters, argues a person close to the mayor’s office. This source said it was clear police would detain people who attempted to attend an unauthorized rally on July 27.

According to court statistics, people have been charged and convicted of violating Article 141 extremely rarely. In the last ten years, the most “fruitful” years were 2009 and 2011, when fifteen and eleven people, respectively, were charged and convicted of violating the article.

In 2009, six people were indicted under Article 141 due to numerous abuses in the mayoral election in Derbent. In 2011, Andrei Ruchkin, head of the Engels District in Saratov Region, was charged under Article 141.3 for meddling with the work of the local election commission. In 2018, members of the Yabloko Party in Pskov were charged under Article 141 for encouraging voters to spoil their ballots in the gubernatorial election, but the charges were dropped for lack of evidence.

Criminal Code Article 141 is peculiar it is mainly employees of the executive branch who obstruct the exercise of voting rights and the work of election commissions, but they are almost never charged with violating the law, explains Andrei Buzin, co-chair of Golos, a Russian NGO that defends voting rights and monitors elections.

“It was not considered kosher to file criminal charges, and so several years ago a similar article was inserted into the Administrative Violations Code. Several election observers were charged under this law,” he said.

Buzin argues that the situation has been turned upside down.

“The protesters were defending voting rights, so it would truer to say that it has been the election commissions that have been obstructing citizens,” he said.

“There is almost no case law for Article 141. It is hard to say who could be charged with violating the law. We have had no experience with it,” said Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group. “There was an incident in the Moscow Region. Candidates were assaulted, but we were not able to get criminal charges filed.”

Now the article was being used to punish political “crimes,” he argued.

“It is a variation of the Bolotnaya Square case of 2012, only somewhat lighter. The defendants in that case were charged with rioting,” he said.

Chikov added that we should probably expect more arrests in the wake of the searches.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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.

_________________________________

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 Ekaterina Schulman

Ekaterina Schulman. Photo courtesy of Andrei Stekachov and The Village

Political Scientist Ekaterina Schulman 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 Ekaterina Schulman, 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?

Ekaterina Schulman: 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 Ekaterina Schulman”

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