Stanislava Novgorodtseva: Portraits of Angry Muscovites

“The Regime Has No Feedback from the Populace”: What Are People Saying Who Support the Candidates Barred from the Moscow City Duma Elections?
Photographer Stanislava Novgorodtseva took photos of angry Muscovites, trying to find out what it was they wanted
July 27, 2019

3a28b76117eb6539c85008b98b8c8159Viktor, 21, student and programmer. “Ideally, I would like to see all the candidates who were illegally barred put on the ballot and the Moscow City Duma dissolved, respectively. That would make sense to all of us.”

mikhailMikhail, 23, web developer. “I came here to support Ilya Yashin, a candidate in Borough No. 45, which includes the Krasnoselsky and Meshchansky Districts. He is currently detained by the police. My big hope is that at least one election in this country is legitimate.”

vadimVadim, 61, retired doctor. “I wanted to hear the barred candidates speak and support them, and defend our rights, which have been violated. A criminal offense has been committed and we must get to the bottom of it.”

ilyaIlya, 21, artist. “First of all, I would like to stop the lawlessness directed at the populace, the continuing poverty, arrests, and prison sentences. We need to see justice done and hold fair elections so the so-called government stops pushing us around. Because a country is not a bunch of people but a nation.”

klaraKlara, 75, retired engineer and metallurgist. “We came specially to defend our candidate, Yulia Galyamina. She is a decent person, she lectures at two universities. What were the police’s grounds for searching her home? A huge number of people have supported her, but she has been barred from running.”

marinaMarina, 56, psychology lecturer. “We basically cannot change anything at the moment. We are merely showing them we exist because it is impossible to change anything now. But everything will change after a while. When they see we are here, they take us into account.”

Yulia, 42, chief accountant. “I am here to get the candidates who met the legal requirements onto the ballot. We want to see an end to the manipulations, violations, and planting of drugs on people. We just want the laws to be obeyed. I want to be able to go to court and defend my rights.”

Andrei, 43, technical consultant. “It is the only thing left to us: we cannot do anything else. If we stay at home and ‘strike,’ we could die and no one would care. People have to take to the streets around the world. Otherwise, if you are not seen you are not heard. The prosecutor’s offices, courts, and police do not do their jobs. All the state agencies send formal replies or do not respond at all when you complain to them.”

Vera, 56, oil geologist. “We have a problem with infill construction, but our candidate, Elena Rusakova, has been barred from running. We are absolutely certain the signatures [on the petitions supporting Rusakov’s candidacy], are genuine: we signed them ourselves and helped her collect them. We have come to voice our protest.”

Natalya, 62, manager. “We lived in a nice green neighborhood. I was apolitical, but suddenly we were surrounded by construction sites, fences, sidewalks, and paving stones. They have been expropriating green spaces and cutting down trees. Candidates willing to fight against this are barred from holding political office. My mom is 94 years old. She survived the Siege of Leningrad. She does not leave the house anymore, but she told me I definitely had to come to this rally. Otherwise, she said, my children would live in a police state.”

Alexander, 44, activist: “I filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights because my building has slated for [Moscow Mayor Sobyanin’s massive residential building] renovation. That is one of the reasons I came. But Sobyanin and his stooges in the Moscow City Duma are bad guys not only because of the renovation program. They have been robbing and disfiguring the city. We came out to show the authorities what we think, although we have been accused of wanting violent regime change. This is not true.”

Anatoly, 48, programmer: “I came to the rally as part of a social experiment. I am not much interested in showdowns over who gets on the city council. I have more grudges against the current regime than everyone else here combined, but people are fighting for cosmetic changes. Even if [independent] candidates get on the ballot, I don’t believe improvements will follow. The regime has no feedback from the populace, but I don’t think protest rallies can solve the problem.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Putin’s Spectacles of Strength and Security at Home and Abroad

op31-Russia-in-SyriaRamped-up attacks in northwestern Syria by Damascus and its ally Russia have claimed the lives of hundreds since late April. Photo courtesy of AFP and the National

At home and abroad, Russia is using chaos to create spectacles of strength and security
Faisal Al Yafai
The National
July 30, 2019

In two incidents, in the space of one week, the Kremlin has twice sought confrontation where none was needed.

On Tuesday last week, Russia’s fighter jets violated South Korean airspace for several minutes, resulting in a major diplomatic incident as Korean jets fired more than 300 warning shots.

Then, over the weekend in Moscow, thousands of protesters gathered for the second week in a row, sparked by a crude and unnecessary attempt by the municipality to bar independent candidates from the city’s council elections.

Police responded forcefully to the protests, arresting thousands, including Russia’s most high-profile opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, who was imprisoned before being taken to hospital for exposure to an unidentified chemical.

Both situations could have been avoided. Neither were accidents, either. The Kremlin is actively creating confrontations at home and abroad, hoping to find a role in solving the chaos it is sowing.

This was especially clear in the protests.

The spark for the demonstrations came from an unlikely source: a decision by the country’s electoral commission to not allow a series of independent opposition candidates to stand in September’s Moscow city elections. Independent registrations for the elections require several thousand signatures, a usually insurmountable obstacle. But, when two dozen opposition candidates managed it, the electoral commission simply refused to register them.

These elections, it should be noted, are not for the city’s mayoralty, an important position. Instead, they are for seats on the city council, a much smaller prize.

But, even on something that barely matters, the Kremlin is determined to show its power, and show it in a way that demonstrates overt and public contempt for the election process. It is that sense, that Russia’s government is willing to publicly violate the rules, which pushed so many to protest.

That desire to flex the country’s muscles was also on show last week.

In a murky incident, Russian planes flew without warning through airspace where Seoul requires foreign aircraft to provide air identification, and then further violated the country’s air space. South Korean jets tracked the military aircraft and a volley of warning shots were fired.

On the surface, it seems bizarre to provoke South Korea, a country with which Russia has maintained good relations. However, the East China Sea is heavily contested. It was only last month, after all, that Russian and US warships almost collided in the waters below where the incident took place.

Under Vladimir Putin’s two decades of leadership, the role of the Russian state has shrunk. Although he often harks back to the glory days of the Soviet Union, in fact, the Russian state today does substantially less for citizens than its predecessor. Most housing is owned by private companies and landlords.* The idea that the state would provide the “flat, car and dacha” of Soviet lore is long gone.

Instead, Mr. Putin offers security and spectacle. He creates an idea of a world in turmoil, which only his government is able to defend ordinary Russians from, and offers visible displays of the protection he provides.

The intervention in Syria amply demonstrates this. First, the necessity of intervention, of Russia’s forces fighting beyond their country’s borders to stop a threat to the homeland. Second, the spectacle of a train full of tanks and guns looted from the Syrian battlefield touring the length and breadth of Russia, often accompanied by Soviet war songs.

There is no room for subtlety, either. The train departed from Moscow on a military holiday and returned on May 8, Victory Day in Russia, which commemorates the end of the Soviet war against Nazi Germany.

Mr. Putin behaves similarly on a personal level. On the same day as the street protests in Moscow, he was filmed descending in a two-man submarine to the bottom of the Gulf of Finland. In doing so, he projected himself as a strongman politician, able to control the unstable forces of the world by pure brawn and daring.

The Putin state needs these spectacles and this chaos, whether on Russia’s streets or beyond them. They demonstrate to a watching world a Russia that is more than a regional power, one that is a global player, able to cause global incidents from Salisbury through Syria, and on to South Korea. They also demonstrate to the Russian public that only the state can keep them safe.

With a weakened economy, poor relations with the West, and a war in Syria that drags on without end, the Kremlin is setting up clashes to create a place for itself at home and abroad.

Yet there is a danger in manufacturing conflicts because they can easily escalate out of hand. Even small skirmishes have the potential to expand unpredictably.

There was, for example, no guarantee that the South Korean incident would have ended peacefully. One miscalculation by either side in the skies above the Korean Peninsula, and there could have been serious consequences.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Mr. Navalny has been taken ill and his doctors believe he could have been poisoned. What started as a minor attempt to exclude candidates from a meaningless election has escalated first into the biggest street protests the Russian capital had seen in years, and the world watching to see whether an opposition politician had been brazenly poisoned in custody.

That is the problem with chaos: once unleashed, it is difficult for anyone, even the Russian state, to bring under control.

* This is the only false note in an otherwise powerful, impeccable analysis. Given the extraordinarily high number of Russians who own their own flats and dachas, legacies of the post-perestroika giveaway privatization of the country’s housing stock and the late-Soviet period, respectively, it seems dubious to claim, as Mr. Yafai does here, that landlords and private companies own most of the housing in Russia. Maybe this would prove true if we looked carefully at ownership statistics, but I am nearly certain Mr. Yafai has not done that. // TRR

________________________________________________

UN reports 400,000 Syrians displaced since Idlib offensive started in April
Deutsche Welle
July 26, 2019

The UN says there has been a “dramatic escalation” in violence since Syrian forces started an operation to retake Idlib province. Human rights chief Michelle Bachelet regretted “international indifference.”

More than 400,000 people have been displaced in northwestern Syria since the start of a government offensive to retake the region in late April, the United Nations said Friday.

David Swanson from the UN’s humanitarian coordination office (OCHA) said more than 2,700 people have died during the “dramatic escalation” in violence in Idlib province.

Russia has been helping government forces loyal to President Bashar Assad with airstrikes, despite an international truce.

UN reports persistent pattern against civilians

UN Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet criticized “international indifference” at the number of civilians dying in attacks on schools, hospitals, and other civilian targets.

“These are civilian objects, and it seems highly unlikely, given the persistent pattern of such attacks, that they are all being hit by accident,” she said.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had registered 39 attacks on health facilities and at least 50 attacks on schools. More than 740 civilians have been killed in those strikes, it added.

Intentional attacks are war crimes

“Intentional attacks against civilians are war crimes, and those who have ordered them or carried them out are criminally responsible for their actions,” Bachelet said.

Forces loyal to Assad have retaken around two-thirds of Syria’s territory.

The country’s civil war has claimed the lives of more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it began in 2011.

Hell in a Handbasket

532280048_hell20in20a20handbasket

Leonid Volkov
Facebook
July 30, 2019

Everything has gone to hell in a handbasket.

I cannot recall such a concentration of news.

In the last thirty minutes:

  • The authorities disqualified Sergei Tsukasov in Moscow’s 14th Borough. He won the primaries held there by local activists, collected the necessary number of signatures, and was registered to run as a candidate, apparently because he is not well known to the general public and the mayor’s office did not regard him as dangerous. But after he took part in protest rallies along with the candidates who were barred from running, he was disqualified for the dash he put instead of the phrase “I do not have” in his foreign real estate declaration after a sham candidate filed a complaint against him.
  • On the other hand, the Moscow City Elections Commission, as if it were having a laugh, recommended putting Sergei Mitrokhin back on the ballot in the 43rd Borough, despite the fact we caught red-handed the factory that had been forging signatures for prospective candidates, including Mitrokhin.
  • Mikhail Svetov was detained by police right in the Moscow mayor’s office. He had gone there to negotiate (!) a permit for the August 3 protest rally. The crazed crooks in the mayor’s office invited Svetov to the negotiations themselves, and then they helped detain the libertarian themselves, an inconceivable crime against lawfulness anywhere at any time.

Events are unfolding at incredible speed.

Something big is going to happen.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

gudkov-tweet.jpgScreenshot of the tweet that got ex-MP Dmitry Gudkov thirty (!) days in jail: “Facebook killed the link to the meeting with Moscow City Duma candidates this Sunday: over 3,000 people had signed up overnight. I’m confident a missing link cannot prevent us from gathering all the same: 2:00 p.m., July 14, Novopushkinsky Square.”

⚡️Tverskoi District Court sentenced Dmitry Gudkov to thirty (30) days in jail for a tweet about the July 14 meet-the-candidates protest event. He was again convicted (under Article 20.2.8 of the Administrative Offenses Code) as the organizer of an “unauthorized” event.

The court dismissed all motions made by Pravozashchita Otkrytki lawyer Oksana Oparenko. She petitioned the court to let her question the police officer who examined Gudkov’s Twitter page and watch the video, shot at campaign headquarters, confirming Gudkov was not at the rally himself.

Source: Pravozashchita Otkrytki, 30 July 2019

Translated by the Russian Reader. Lead image courtesy of The Closet Liberal

 

The Damage

ovd-damage

As of 5:00 a.m., today, July 28, 2019, OVD Info reported that 1,373 people were detained at yesterday’s protest rally in Moscow in support of the independent candidates whose applications to stand in the September 8 elections to the Moscow City Duma were recently rejected on spurious grounds by the Moscow City Elections Commission, sparking a series of protest rallies and marches, including yesterday’s “unauthorized” rally.

Police violently dispersed yesterday’s protesters. Baza reported that 77 people were badly beaten, while OVD Info compiled a list of 25 people who were badly beaten.

At least 10 journalists were subjected to the use of force by the police, while at least 18 journalists were detained along with protesters.

There were at 42 minors among yesterday’s detainees.

At least 152 detainees were kept in holding at police stations overnight.

The detainees were taken to at least 70 different police precincts for processing.

The detainees were not given water or food. They were not allowed to take medicine with them if they were locked up. They were forcibly fingerprinted. They were not given access to lawyers and social defenders. They were kept in paddy wagons for a long time before being taken into precinct stations: the temperature in one paddy wagon was 40 degrees Celsius.

Source: OVD Info. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up.

 

938

ovd info-938

According to OVD Info, as of 9:00 p.m. Moscow Time today, July 27, 2019, 938 people had been detained in Moscow for taking part in an “unauthorized” grassroots protest against the disqualification of independent candidates who had registered to stand in the September 8, 2019, election to the Moscow City Duma.

Opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who called for this protest at last week’s “authorized” rally, which drew over 22,000 people, was arrested and sentenced to thirty days in jail earlier in the week. Several of the disqualified candidates and people associated with the opposition had their homes searched by police this past week as well. Several of them were also summoned for questioning to the Moscow office of the Russian Investigative Committee, which announced it had launched a criminal investigation of the opposition protests under Article 141 of the Russian Criminal Code, which criminalizes the “obstruction of voting rights or the work of electoral commissions.”

 

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

Ivan Davydov: Unimaginable

volodinVyacheslav Volodin, Dmitry Medvedev, and Vladimir Putin at a meeting of the State Council, June 26, 2019. Photo by Dmitry Astakhov. Courtesy of Sputnik, Reuters, and Republic

What Russia Cannot Imagine
Ivan Davydov
Republic
July 18, 2019

Any periodical would love to get their hands on a star author. Who even thought a few days ago that something called the Parliament Gazette was published in Russia? Yet State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin has just published an article there entitled “The Living, Evolving Constitution.” Everyone who follows politics has read it and many have ventured to summarize it. Volodin praises the Russian Constitution and its spirit while arguing certain things in it should be amended.

This is not the first time Volodin has done this. Last year marked the Constitution’s twenty-fifth birthday. The speaker hinted that it was obsolete in parts. Valery Zorkin, Chief Justice of the Russian Constitutional Court, voiced similar thoughts, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev weighed in with a programmatic article entitled “The Constitution at Twenty-Five: Balancing Freedom and Responsibility.”

The little booklet keeps them up at night. They sense it is at odds with reality. They are eager to amend it.

Renaissance Men
Medvedev wrote about the possibility of amending the Constitution. The amendments were needed in order to “update the status of the authorities.” Don’t ask me what that means: the prime minister himself would probably not be able to tell you.

Zorkin spoke of “pinpoint” amendments aimed at restoring the balance between the executive and legislative branches. Nineteen years into Putin’s reign, the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court suddenly noticed the executive branch had brought the legislative branch to heel.

Volodin’s article has the same bent.

“In my analysis of the Constitution, I pay special mind to the lack of a needed balance in how the legislative and executive branches function. Discrete, pinpoint constitutional innovations might really be necessary in this case,” he writes.

Actually, the speaker has only one proposal: the Duma should have more levers for controlling what the government does.

“It is advisable to further elaborate the rules concerning the government’s accountability to parliament on issues raised by the State Duma, including the evaluation of the performance of specific ministers. It would also be a good thing (this is only my opinion) to further weigh the question of the State Duma’s involvement in selecting ministers in the Russian federal government,” he writes.

It is as if we have gone back to the early twentieth century, no? It was a romantic time. The public enthusiastically discussed “A Manifesto for Improving the State Administration,” published on October 17, 1905. The Constitutional Democrats (Kadets) had the upper hand in the first Duma, and Pavel Milyukov would soon take to the podium to demand an accountable government. Prince Sergei Urusov would soon make his famous speech.

“People with the educations of quartermasters and policemen and the convictions of rioters are deciding the country’s fate,” he said.

His words have lost none of their timeliness, to the woe of our poor fatherland.

No, the man at the podium is Vyacheslav Volodin, a well-educated intellectual whose mind is on a par with the pillars of the Renaissance. He wrote his dissertation about dispending feed to livestock, but his arguments about balancing the branches of government are no worse than what you would hear from a political scientist, although, of course, the irrepressible lover of bad jokes inside all of us would note the parallels between cattle and politicians.

Volodin is at the podium, so we must read between the lines. He could not care less about achieving a “higher quality of interaction and coherence in the government’s work.” The speaker has a different goal, one that is easily discerned.

The Eternal Present
Like everyone else who has spoken about possible amendments to the Constitution,  the speaker is looking to the future. He is looking towards 2024 when the regime will have to figure out how to maintain Putin’s grip on supreme power. It would be unseemly just to reelect him one more time. You do not expect any of the folks occupying important government posts to worry about decency, but the issue does indeed bother them.

Political junkies are regularly excited by rumors of transition scenarios, some of them quite intricate. People in the know, citing anonymous but terribly reliable sources, suddenly claim that a State Council will be established.

They must have seen Ilya Repin’s famous monumental painting, which made an impression on them.

800px-Ilya_Repin_-_Ceremonial_Sitting_of_the_State_Council_on_7_May_1901_Marking_the_Centenary_of_its_Foundation_-_Google_Art_ProjectIlya Repin, Ceremonial Sitting of the State Council on 7 May 1901 Marking the Centenary of its Foundation, 1903. Oil on canvas, 4.4 m by 8.77 m. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Or they let slip that Russia and Belarus will finally be totally unified.

But the State Council—not the meaningless, powerless State Council that has convened since 2000, but a genuine, proper State Council that would replace all other executive authorities—still convenes only in Repin’s painting, while the would-be tsar of Belarus his own plans and his own heir. He even took him on a pilgrimage to Valaam to show him off to our would-be tsar and thus quash any funny ideas in the latter’s head.

And then Bloomberg, a source at we cannot sneeze, writes that the Kremlin is planning large-scale electoral reforms. Supposedly, in the 2021 parliamentary elections, 75% of MPs will be elected not via party lists but in single-mandate constituencies. United Russia’s candidates will run as independents. (We have heard this before.) The regime will have total control of parliament. (As if it does not have it now.). Putin will again lead the ruling party and be appointed the prime minister. The powers of the presidency will be curtailed. It will not matter who is elected to this clownish post because Russia will be run by the prime minister.

We have been through this before. There was no need to amend the Consitution. The regime did as it liked anyway.

Rumors spread by an international news agency are one thing, but rumors backed by a programmatic article written by the Speaker of the Duma are another. The picture comes into focus. The regime has come up with a plan, apparently. We can thus say with some accuracy what the future holds for us.

The future will be the same as the present, despite certain formal shakeups that have no bearing on the real lives of ordinary Russians and leave the regime’s domestic and foreign policies intact. The regime will undergo fundamental changes, as it were, but the same people will be in power.

What future lies in store for us? No future at all, a future as dull as the eyes of Russia’s leader.

The Ruling Dynasty’s Motto
On the one hand, all of this stuff is interesting, as it were. You feel like Sherlock Holmes, perusing a boring article with a magnifying glass and figuring out what it has to do with keeping Putin in power. You imagine how the Russian state machine will function after it undergoes a minor facelift. The prime minister will control both the parliament and the government while the president visits summer camps and publishes articles in small-circulation newspapers about what the world will be like in a hundred years. Medvedev would be great for the job, and this would solve the problem of finding another heir.

On the other hand, haven’t we been through this already?

The takeaway message is that none of these schemes accounts for regime change. Our powers that be can draw whatever blueprints they like showing one set of cogs engaging another set of cogs, setting into motion our mighty state, which churns smoke like the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and terrifies the rest of the world with its smell if not its military might.

What they cannot imagine is completely different people at the helm. This is what cannot be imagined in Russia at all.

Neither Volodin, his ghostwriters, and his commentators can entertain the thought power could change hands. Political power in modern Russia has nothing to do with procedures and institutions. You can dream up whatever procedures you like and mold institutions by the bucketful from dung and twigs. Political power in today’s Russia is about people, the small group of people, whose names we all know, led by Vladimir Putin.

Any imitation of change is permissible so long as it makes real change impossible.  This is the perfect way of summing up Volodin’s article and political reforms in Russia, although “reforms” should be encased in quotation marks, which are the most important signifiers in Russian political discourse.

“Changing to prevent change” would be an excellent motto for the current ruling dynasty, a dynasty consisting of one man whom he and his entourage inexplicably imagine is immortal.

Moscow as a Mirror
Even yesterday’s loyal supporters see clearly what pass this dynasty has brought us to. They have no plans of winding up their act and exiting the stage.

What comes to mind is the slightly over-discussed topic, in recent days, of the upcoming elections to the Moscow City Duma. Moscow mirrors what happens all over Russia, and it is not a funhouse mirror. In recent days, authorities in the capital have flagrantly and impudently barred independent candidates from running in the elections. They have not attempted to hide the forgeries and falsifications they have used when “verifying” the signatures of voters on the petitions submitted by the candidates.

The independent candidates are young people who can sometimes seem too radical and sometimes seem a bit ridiculous, for idealists always seem a bit ridiculous. Oddly, however, they are open to dialogue. They are keen to accomplish something real in politics and bring about gradual changes in public life.

I wanted to write “perestroika” instead of “changes,” but the word has too much baggage, so the heck with it.

The people who run Moscow, just like the people who run Russia, cannot get their heads around a simple truth. The country’s only real defense, its only chance at survival (and this applies to everyone, including the political bosses) are these slightly ridiculous idealists, who are willing to pull up their sleeves, work, and talk to people. They could try and clean up all the messes the people who run things have made.

But the powers that be toss them out of legal politics like naughty puppies in a sneering show of force that demonstrates they do not understand that destroying room for legal politics is a road to ruin. They do not realize that in this serial’s next episode it will not be ridiculous idealists who take to the streets, playing volleyball at “unauthorized” protest rallies and waiting for the green light to cross the street during banned protest marches, but starved pragmatists whose program will consist of smashing windows and crushing skulls.

All of the tricky plans for keeping Putin in power will come to naught. There will be no Putin, and there will be no power. Maybe there will be an endless remake of the Donetsk People’s Republic, but there is no certainty even that much will happen.

However, by way of toning things down a bit and leaving my readers with a smile on their face, I will close by quoting from Medvedev’s article about the Russian Constitution, which I mentioned earlier.

“While recognizing and protecting human rights, the Russian Constitution limits the claims made on the defense of these rights by not recognizing as rights those that are at odds with Russian society’s traditional values. The idea of human rights is thus given a new interpretation in relation to other constitutions, marking out a particular, original, nonstandard approach to the way human rights are regarded.”

Now, what are you going to do about that?

Translated by Thomas Campbell