Agents of H.A.R.V.A.R.D.

Chapayevsk. Photo courtesy of Yevgeny Bochkaryov/Kommersant
Chapayevsk. Photo courtesy of Yevgeny Bochkaryov/Kommersant

Harvard Agents Association
The Justice Ministry Has Fined an NGO for Medical Research
Alexander Chernykh
Kommersant
December 21, 2016

The Chapayevsk Medical Workers Association, an NGO in the Samara Region, has appealed the Justice Ministry’s decision identifying it as a “foreign agent.” The organization was cited for grants it has been receiving from Harvard for over twelve years to study the health of people who live in enivornmental disaster areas. The Justice Ministry additionally cited the work of its doctors in preventing HIV as “contrary to Russian national interests.” The association is on the verge of closure, despite the unprecedented support it has received from town officials, physicians, and the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The Chapayevsk Medical Workers Association was established in 1999.

“Chapayevsk produced pesticides for many years, which led to increased levels of dioxins,” says Oleg Sergeyev, head of the association and a Ph.D. in medicine. “Increased mortality was recorded in the town. The local hospitals were not coping due to a lack of funds and equipment. So the town’s doctors united into an NGO to try and solve the problem.”

Located 45 kilometers from Samara, the town, whose population is 73,000, was founded in 1909 as a settlement built round an explosives factory. In 1926, a chemical weapons factory went into operation, later converted into a fertilizer plant. In 1999, the State Ecology Committee declared the town an “environmental emergency area.” Chapayevsk received a total of 1.742 billion rubles in federal subsidies, and its status as an environmental emergency area was rescinded in 2005. In 2008, the mayor of Chapayevsk officially proposed resettling the city.

In 2003, the association launched a long-term research study, entitled “Dioxins, Pubertal Growth, and the Development of Boys,” in cooperation with the Harvard School of Public Health and the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“With the consent of their parents, we selected 516 boys between the ages of eight and nine, and have been carefully tracking their health every year since then. Now they are young men between the ages of 19 and 22,” says Oleg Sergeyev. “We have seen how the dioxins and pesticides have impacted the growth, development, and especially the reproductive health of the men.”

The researched has been funded by the National Institutes of Health in the US. In 2003, the NIH made a long-term research grant to the project, and in 2010, it extended the grant for another six years.

“During this period, we received 65.2 million rubles,” says Mr. Sergeyev. “34.2 million was spent on the salaries of seventeen staff members, 21.4 million rubles, on equipment and supplies, and 9.6 million rubles, on social benefit payments.”

The association’s second focus has been HIV prevention.

“In the late 1990s, Chapayevsk ranked third in the region in the spread of HIV,” says Mr. Sergeyev. “This was due to injecting drug use. The drugs were easily accessible here.”

Physicans hit the streets to engage in harm reduction work, which has involved them in meeting with drug users, handing out brochures and free condoms, persuading people to get tested for HIV, collecting used syringes, and supplying clean syringes. Harm reduction programs in Chapayevsky have covered around 800 people annually (a little over one percent of the population). According to doctors, this is around a third of the town’s injecting drug users.

In 2014, the Justice Ministry’s regional office audited the association twice, concluding the NGO was not engaged in political activity. In October 2016, these very same officials changed their opinion and demanded the association be added to the list of “foreign agents.” The Justice Ministry’s Samara office failed to respond promptly to our request for information, but Kommersant has obtained a copy of the audit report. Officials deemed it a violation that Oleg Sergeyev sits on the Samara Regional Duma’s NGO Council and has been involved in the hearings of two committees, on physical education and healthy lifestyles, and on providing social services to the populace. In 2013, one commission recommended that regional MPs ban cigarette ads at public transport stops and in shops. In 2015, it recommended that regional MPs add the phrase “citizens are responsible for maintaining their own health” to the law “On Basic Public Healthcare.” The auditors construed this as “political activity financed by foreigners.”

The association’s work in preventing HIV has also not escaped the auditors’ attention. The Justice Ministry dubbed the needle exchange and the distribution of condoms by physicians the “inculcation of practices contrary to Russian national interests.” In the wake of the audit, the officials asked the court to rule the association a “foreign agent.” The court granted the request, additionally fining the NGO 300,000 rubles and Oleg Sergeyev 50,000 rubles for not registering themselves voluntarily.

“I don’t know where to get the money,” says Mr. Sergeyev.

According to him, no grantmaking organization permits the payment of fines out funds allocated for scientific research.

“It’s a matter of scientific reputation,” say Mr. Sergeyev. “If they had labeled us an ‘organization receiving foreign funding,’ then for God’s sake we would have enrolled ourselves in such a registry. But we have been accused of working for another country, although we have always acted in the interests of our town.”

The organization filed an appeal last week. As candidates for “foreign agent” status, the physicians have received unprecedented support from researchers at the Institute of Genetics and the Institute of Forecasting of the Russian Academy of Sciences, as well as from the town’s chief narcologist.

Chapayevsk’s Mayor Dmitry Blynsky also wrote an official letter to the Justice Ministry. (He resigned in November 2016, but signed the letter while still in office.) According to Blynsky, the NGO’s collaboration with Harvard “has been of great benefit to the town.”

“The medical and lab equipment that has been procured has been used to treat the populace of Chapayevsk. In view of Chapayevsk’s subsidized budget, another important aspect of attracting foreign financing has been the creation of jobs for medical professionals,” wrote Blynsky.

According to the ex-mayor, the outcomes of the NGO’s long-term research studies have been used to develop public programs for the town’s social and environmental rehabilitation.

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

Living Levada Loca

Komar & Melamid, Russia's Most Wanted Painting, 1995. Image courtesy of Dia Art Foundation
Komar & Melamid, Russia’s Most Wanted Painting, 1995. Image courtesy of Dia Art Foundation

The Picture Is Going to Get Prettier
Greg Yudin
Vedomosti
September 6, 2016

The latest attack on the Levada Center (this past Monday, the organization was labeled a “foreign agent”) provoked a justified outcry from people in various parts of the ideological spectrum, from the center’s friends competitors, and opponents. The formal basis of the attack was the insane law that punishes people and organizations for something that should be rewarded. If Russia wants to be strong in academic research, then here were researchers who collaborated with serious foreign partners. (The University of Wisconsin, with whom the Levada Center had been working, has traditionally been a powerhouse in sociology.) Worse, the law construes “political activity” as something unsavory right at a time when Russia really needs to awaken an interest in politics, and any NGO willing to study the dynamics of political life in Russia deserves all the encouragement it can get.

The Russian Ministry of Justice can paralyze the operations of one of the country’s three major public opinion polling factories one and half weeks before national and regional parliamentary elections on September 18. In this case, the elections will be held with a newly configured polling industry, which has not changed for a long time. Putting our emotions aside, however, the assault on the Levada Center seems unexpected. For the past decade, the organization has objectively worked to maintain the current regime’s legitimacy.

The public opinion research field, a field once populated by many players, was purged by the Kremlin ten years ago, leaving only three companies standing. Two of them, FOM (Public Opinion Foundation) and VTsIOM (Russian Public Opinion Research Center) are substantially affiliated with the Kremlin, since they are wholly dependent on the commissions they regularly receive from the presidential administration and other government agencies. The Levada Center, on the contrary, has been financed independently of the Kremlin, and the liberal views of its senior staff have put the company almost in political opposition to the current regime. Yet the outcomes of the Levada Center’s polls have rarely diverged from the data published by its colleagues and competitors. The numbers adduced by all three pollsters have usually generated a sense of broad or overwhelming support for everything the authorities do, however aggressive and irrational it sometimes might appear.

Praise from the enemy is worth twice as much, especially if it is voiced publicly. Vladimir Putin has confessed on several occasions that polls mean a lot to them, and when the Levada Center records public support for him, this is proof the support is undeniable. Look, even our opponents are forced to admit the people are behind us, the regime’s supporters say time and again. These same people sincerely believe research results depend on who pays for the research.

Research studies, however, are much more complicated, and the results of Levada Center’s polls have had nothing to do with the political stance of its executives. Instead, they are stipulated by the way polls are conducted. In daily life, Russians show little interest in politics, so if you deluge them with a wave of news reports about some issue of little importance to them, such as relations with Turkey, and then ask them the next day whether we should be afraid of Turkey, they will respond in good faith based on the information they got the day before. With few exceptions, the Levada Center has humbly tackled the political agenda set by television, and asked the same questions as the other pollsters, questions focused on this agenda, predictably garnering nearly the same outcomes as the other pollsters. However, the center’s alleged oppositional status made the answers more important for the authorities and, at the same time, indirectly increased the credibility of the other companies. The depressive antidemocratic discourse about the stupid, aggressive common people with which the middle classes have been spooking each other nationwide has largely been the product of the Levada Center’s poll numbers, even if the outcome was unintentional.

You need a good reason to shoot the goose that has been laying golden eggs. What compelled the authorities to break off a piece of the rigging propping up its legitimacy? I should explain right off the bat how the Levada Center does actually differ from the other two major Russian pollsters. The difference has nothing to do with honesty or professionalism. The myth that one group of sociologists does honest work, while the two others fake the numbers is not even worth discussing seriously, and yet they all get the same results.

What matters much more is the fact that the Levada Center does not get commissions from the Kremlin. The Kremlin cannot tell it what questions to ask and what results to make public. We should not forget the poll results reported in the Russian media are only the poll results the client has allowed them to publish. The client can impose a temporary or permanent veto on publication of the results. The media’s picture of public opinion thus passes through two powerful filters nowadays. First, the client imposes on the polling organizations the subjects for which he is willing to pay, and then he decides what information he would like to make available to the public. The Kremlin can easily ban publishing results that shatter the image of monolithic public support for its decisions, and it has often done this.  It has no such power over the Levada Center, although in recent times it has not needed it, since the company has not produced polling data that would put the Kremlin in a vulnerable position.

Polling data has been long the main fodder from which Russians shape their notions about the balance of power at election time and decide how to vote. The numbers act like a tranquilizer, persuading voters not to waste time and energy by getting involved in elections whose outcome is clear in any case. Simultaneously, they send a signal up and down the power vertical about how much “slack” needs to be made up at the local voting precincts. The main thing is not diverge to too radically from the polls. If the Kremlin has had to break with this way of doing things on the eve of the elections, it means the independent player had become too dangerous. The mirror reflected something that forced the Kremlin to throw a stone at it.

If the Levada Center is forced to suspend operations, the credibility of poll numbers will drop, and the client will increase pressure on the remaining players. We will have to treat the polling numbers we see before and after the elections with a bigger grain of salt. If before, the public was shown only the pretty half of the picture, while the ugly was hidden from it, now it will see even less of the picture.

Greg Yudin is a research fellow and lecturer at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Translated by the Russian Reader

In No Mood for Songs and Dialogues (OVD Info)

In No Mood for Songs and Dialogues
OVD Info
July 2, 2016

Hello. We continue to raise money for the work of our monitoring group. Watch the following video, in which Artyom Loskutov, co-founder of the annual Monstrations, talks about what champs we are.

You can donate money to us by heading to this page.

Last week, Moscow courts left two suspects in the Bolotnaya Square case, Dmitry Buchenkov and Maxim Panfilov, in police custody, along with Petersburg architect Sergei Akhmetov, accused of tearing epaulettes from a policeman’s uniform during a gathering in support of Alexei Navalny and Pyotr Ofitserov. Curiously, police investigators have been unable to produce convincing evidence that Buchenkov and Akhmetov were actually at the scene of the crimes of which they have been accused.

Maxim Panfilov. Courtesy of OVD Info
Maxim Panfilov. Courtesy of OVD Info

Other Criminal Prosecutions

No less predictable was the rejection of Oleg Navalny’s petition for parole, especially considering the fact that, a week before his court hearing, he received three reprimands for poor conduct at the penal colony where he has been imprisoned.

Totally unpredictable, however, was the return to Moscow of Ildar Dadin, sentenced to two and a half years in a prison colony for “repeated violations” at public protests.  Dadin had been held for over two months in a Petersburg remand prison, and it was anticipated that sooner or later he would be transferred to a penal colony. For some reason, however, this has not happened.

News came of the first criminal charges filed for “willful refusal” to obey the law on “foreign agents.” Charges were filed against Valentina Cherevatenko, chair of Women of the Don Foundation.

Valentina Cherevatenko. Courtesy of Frontline Defenders
Valentina Cherevatenko. Courtesy of Front Line Defenders

Shapi Biyakiyev, a Petersburg trucker involved in the recent nationwide protests by truckers against the new Plato toll system, was charged with using violence against a police officer.

The week would not be complete without news of more “extremism” cases. Yuri Yekishev, a support of Colonel Vladimir Kvachkov, was arrested. He has been accused of having incited hatred with a video recording. Perm resident Vladimir Luzgin was found guilty of rehabilitating Nazism and fined 200,000 rubles for reposting an article about collaboration between “communists and Nazis” during WWII. But the case of Stavropol resident Viktor Krasnov, accused of offending the feelings of religious believers, has been suspended, because the court has expressed its doubts as to the legitimacy of the forensic examination of Krasnov’s statements, taken out of context from an online discussion.

Detentions

In Hurzuf, Crimea, residents upset that a local beach had been transferred to the Artek Young Pioneers Camp were detained by police.  Meanwhile, in Moscow, tempers flared around construction of the so-called Northeast Chord highway. First, a cyclist was detained for protesting the felling of trees in Kuskovo Park, and then people opposed to the felling of trees on Krasny Kazanets Street in Veshnyaki were detained.

“Murder of 200-Year-Old Oak in Kuskovo Park,” posted July 2, 2016, by Ecowalker First

Moscow police also detained people in a hunger strike organized by the Moscow Queue Waiters [i.e., ocheredniki, people on a waiting list for affordable housing—TRR] twice in a single day outside the constituent reception offices of the ruling United Russia party. When the detainees were released from a police station after the first detention, they went back to the reception offices and were rearrested. But Makhachkala outdid everyone: around eighty believers were detained after Friday prayers outside a Salafist mosque.  Meanwhile, Dagestan public figure and parliamentary candidate Rasul Ismailov was detained in Khasavyurt.

Cellist Semyon Lashkin, detained last week while busking in Moscow, was fined 10,000 rubles for “deliberately creating a crowd and preventing pedestrian movement.”

Other Forms of Persecution

An unnamed 23-year-old resident of Salekhard was sentenced to five days in jail for posting “extremist” music, presumably songs by Krovostok and Kolovrat, on a social network.

Daniil Alexandrov, a freelance correspondent for online newspaper Meduza, was ticketed for working without accreditation in Karelia, where he gone to cover the story of the children who died on Lake Syamozero.

FSB agents raided the Mayakovsky Library in Petersburg in connection with the fact that it served as the venue for Dialogues, monthly public discussions of political topics. The project’s founder, Nikolai Solodnikov, resigned his post at the library, which will no longer host the events.

In Krasnodar, people involved in solo pickets against the policies of current Mayor Vladimir Yevlanov and in support of Communist Party MP Sergei Obukhov were assaulted, while in Kemerovo, local opposition activist Stanislav Kaliniсhenko was detained, taken to a police station, and, allegedly, beaten up by police.

Opposition activist Stanislav Kalinichenko after his alleged beating by police in Kemerovo. Courtesy of his blog
Opposition activist Stanislav Kalinichenko after his alleged beating by police in Kemerovo. Courtesy of his blog

Karelian village council member Vladimir Zavarkin, sentenced to a fine for calling for a referendum to decide whether the republic should secede from Russia, was stripped of his mandate.

Read

Two plus two does not always make four: how Russian courts calculate prison terms in criminal cases and jail terms in administrative cases.

Translated by the Russian Reader

The Closing of the Russian Mind: Four Snapshots

Here are four reasons why, despite my affection for Kirill Medvedev’s work, I found his recent appeal to the “intelligentsia,” the “youth,” and all other Russians of good will a little odd. He should be honest enough to know he is appealing to what is, increasingly, thin air. Fifteen years of Putinism have decimated “public discourse” and intellectual life in Russia, and now it seems the regime wants to finish the once-mighty Russian mind off once and for all.

Which is not to say that the pro-Putin “euphoria” described in the first two snapshots is not a stage-managed affair to a huge degree, as obliquely suggested by the fourth snapshot.

1.
According to a survey published this week by the respected independent pollster Levada Centre, 82% of Russians believe MH17 was brought down by either a Ukrainian army fighter plane or missile. Just 3% thought the insurgents were to blame. Given these kind of figures, the prospect of Putin facing a backlash of public anger over suspected weapons supplies to separatist gunmen is virtually zero. Ironically, Putin probably faces more danger from Russians disappointed by his failure to provide more assistance to the rebels. “Many people feel cheated by his refusal to use military force [in east Ukraine],” Alexander Dugin, an ultranationalist thinker whose ideas are reported to have influenced recent Kremlin policy, told me recently.

Western officials may be hoping economic sanctions will force Russians to rethink their support for Putin, but in reality such measures will achieve little more than an entrenchment of a growing fortress mentality. State media’s routine and increasingly vitriolic attacks on the west’s “decadent” morals mean Russians are likely to accept any economic and social hardships brought about by US and European sanctions. Tellingly, in another Levada Centre poll this week, 61% of Russians said they were unconcerned by the threat of sanctions, while 58% were similarly unfazed by the looming possibility of political isolation over the Kremlin’s stance on Ukraine.

These head-in-the-sand attitudes are bolstered by what the director of Levada Centre, Lev Gudkov, calls a “patriotic and chauvinistic euphoria”rooted in the almost bloodless annexation of Crimea in March, which was popular among Russians across the political spectrum. It’s alsoworth noting that many “ordinary” Russians are uninterested in politics and have only scant knowledge of the issues at hand.

source: The Guardian

2.
MOSCOW, July 31 (RIA Novosti) – Life satisfaction and social optimism indices in Russia skyrocketed, reaching all-time highs despite political challenges according to polls conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM).

“Within the last three months, indices of social well-being have shown unprecedented growth, stabilizing at extremely high levels. In June the satisfaction index reached its all-time high of 79 points and the indices of financial self-assessment and social optimism, now at 76 and 77 points respectively, have also risen and stabilized at new highs,” says the poll.

The economic sanctions imposed by the US and EU over the crisis in Ukraine seem to have little effect on Russians. According to the polls, Russians are now far less concerned with the future of their country than they were last year.

The number of Russians who have not ruled out the possibility of a war with neighboring countries is now 23 percent of the population, up from just 10 percent last year. However, the number of those concerned about a Western military threat has held steady at 13 percent for the past eight years.

The VCIOM opinion poll was conducted in 2014, interviewing 1,600 respondents in 130 communities in 42 regions of Russia. Data are weighted by gender, age, education, working status and type of settlement. The polls have margins of error of no more than 3.4%.

source: RIA Novosti

3.
It’s bad news for Russian bloggers, then, that starting today, anyone who attracts more than 3,000 daily readers to his blog is considered a de facto journalist and must register. (In a largely symbolic gesture, LiveJournal has already stopped reporting blog subscribers beyond the 2,500 mark.) Registration entails turning over your personal details to the government—including, of course, your name, meaning anonymous blogging is now illegal for many. (By the way, the law applies to any blog written in Russian for Russians; a post you write from a Brooklyn cafe could face censorship from Moscow.) Bloggers will also be held liable for any alleged misinformation they publish, even in comments written by somebody else. And, insult to injury, bloggers aren’t even allowed to use profanity; a single naughty word would put them in violation of the law. Failure to comply results in a $280 to $1,400 fine as well as a ban on your blog.

The new legislation represents a rather obvious attempt by the Russian government to shut down all criticism of the Kremlin, particularly from the left. The government has already granted itself the authority to shut down any website and used this power to crush popular left-leaning news sites. With this next step, the Kremlin clearly hopes to scare the smaller fish into complying with the official party line. And Russia’s insane Internet crackdown won’t stop with blogs: Starting in 2016, all websites that store data on Russian citizens will have to move their servers to Russian soil—a blatant attempt to assert control over social networks and search engines.

source: Slate.com

orthofascists

4.
The application of [the new law on compulsory registration of NGOs receiving foreign funding as “foreign agents”] against scientific institutions, in fact, constitutes a professional ban on sociologists. Sociology that does not affect public opinion (directly or indirectly) is nonsense. Sociology that does not raise sensitive issues or suggest original answers that run counter to public opinion is intellectually bankrupt. Sociology that does not affect management decisions is as defective as governance that does not use the opportunities of independent social research. Sociology that is deprived of critical analysis of different “policies” loses connections with social science and turns into political technology. Sociology that does not succeed in the competitiveinternational research grant market is devoid of incentives for growth and is doomed to extinction.

In the modern world, any science that exists in isolation from the global context loses its ability to develop. All attempts to control global processes of scientific exchange only lead to the bureaucratization of science, the flourishing of pseudoscientific theories, and talented and open-minded scholars leaving the country. The persecution of independent researchers and research organizations puts an end to the development of a full-fledged scientific community and leads to the degradation of the humanities in Russia, which will ultimately result in a deficit of ideas and strategies for the future of our country.

The law on “foreign agents” is not the only sign of the long-standing crisis of the Russian administrative and political system. It is embedded in a series of decisions that aim to expand state control over various aspects of society and their submission to the bureaucratic logic of the “vertical” power. We can see this in the introduction of censorship and persecution of disloyal media, financial and administrative pressure on public (and especially human rights) organizations, the sterilization of historical memory (pressure on the “Memorial” and ”Perm 36”), criminal and administrative persecution for political reasons and independent (not controlled by the state) activism, dismissal of leading high school teachers for being disloyal touniversity superiors and many other cases. Self-censorship is booming in this society, for which survival has become the main motivation for its members. Overt or non-obvious subjection of one’s own activity to the goals of the “vertical” power is turning into the most effective model of behavior.

It is obvious for us that an independent social science is crucial for a society whose interests are not limited to maintaining stability and “unity” at any costs. An authoritarian state does not need reflection that a professional independent research can provide. It is satisfied with VCIOM polls and various ratings that allow the maintenance of “vertical” tension and promotion of “patriotism”. Such a regime will inevitably degrade and become obsolete, but during its heyday it manages to destroy much of what came before it and exists in spite of it.

We believe that the lack of interest towards the professional opinion of independent sociological community, which often oppose bureaucratic perspectives, points to the incompetence of the Russian administration. The pressure exerted on NGOs and non-governmental scientific centers indicates that the political administration of our country no longer needs feedback and has no interest in the actual state of affairs in Russia. This means it condemns our country to the harsh effects of unreasoned political and economic decisions.

source: Centre for Independent Social Research