One Good Turn Deserves Another

Media Identify Prigozhin Firms as Developers of Judicial Quarter in Petersburg
According to Kommersant, Firms Affiliated with Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin and Concord Management and Consulting Are Project Subcontractors
Grigory Dubov
RBC
December 26, 2018

755458040463897Judicial district construction site in Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Stanislav Zaburdayev/TASS and RBC

Firms affiliated with businessman and restaurateur Yevgeny Prigozhin will build the judicial quarter in Petersburg, a project costing 35.7 billion rubles [approx. 455 million euros] that will include residential buildings for the Russian Supreme Court and Boris Eifman’s Dance Palace, report sources quoted by Kommersant newspaper familiar with the project, which has been designed by the Russian Presidential Property Management Department and construction industry insiders.

The sources say the subcontractor was selected in the summer of 2018 without tendering. The newspaper’s sources claim firms affiliated with Prigozhin have launched the process of awarding commercial tenders and have been requesting bids from major construction companies for the construction of individual buildings without advance payment. One of the Prigozhin-affiliated companies engaged in sending out bid and tender requests is Lizena, a firm founded in 2014.

In 2016, the Russian Presidential Property Management Department pledged it would build two office buildings for the Supreme Court and Judicial Department, the Dance Palance, and four residential buildings containing a total of 600 apartments within four years in Petersburg. Construction was supposed to have begun in 2017, and the opening of the facility was scheduled for 2020. In May 2017, the Presidential Property Management Department declared the project top secret and obliged future contractors to maintain secrecy.

judicial quarterThe future judicial quarter in Petersburg is currently a giant sandbox. Photo courtesy of Alexander Koryakov/Kommersant

Construction was not begun, however. In September 2018, the Presidential Property Management Department acknowledged the deadlines it had set would be missed. As Kommersant wrote, the department failed to spend the 22.3 billion rubles allocated on the project. The funds were reallocated for 2021, when completion of construction has been planned. As transpired in December, an advance payment in the amount of more then 9.2 billion rubles was postponed from 2018 to 2021; no advances are envisaged in 2019 and 2020. As of December 1, according to the Federal Targeted Investment Program, builders in Petersburg had started to dig foundation pits for the residential complex. There was no information about the Supreme Court’s residence and the Dance Palace.

In March, the US Department of Justice imposed sanctions against Prigozhin and his companies Concord Management and Consulting, and Concord Catering. In February, Prigozhin and twelve other Russian nationals, as well as a number of legal entities, were indicted for interfering in the 2016 US elections. Included in the indictment was Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency, which was abolished [sic] in 2016. RBC’s sources identified the IRA as the “troll factory” that, according to the US Department of Justice, had tried to influence US voters since 2014. President Putin called the charges made against Prigozhin by US officials “laughable.”

prigozhinYevgeny Prigozhin. Photo courtesy of Mikhail Metzel/TASS and RBC

A number of media outlets have also identified Prigozhin as “Putin’s chef.”

At his press conference on December 20, Putin said, “All my chefs are officers of the Federal Protection Service (FSO). All of them are military men. I have no other chefs.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

The Media’s Russia Obsession?

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Let’s talk about the media’s so-called Russia obsession for a few minutes.

What is meant by this is that the mainstream press have devoted tons of coverage to the substantial allegations that the Kremlin mounted a massive operation, mostly via social media, to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election and, further, that the campaign of the candidate who won the election actively colluded with the Kremlin, among other things, in order to discredit the candidate’s main opponent in the election. The press has also focused a lot on Robert Mueller’s special investigation of these allegations.

Is all of this press coverage sterling? No. Does the press get the story wrong sometimes? Yes.

But this has always been the case with the nominally free press in nominally democratic societies ever since the free press emerged in the eighteenth century in a few countries groping their way towards democracy. It always been biased, prone to mistakes, and otherwise wildly imperfect. And yet it has always been subject to intense scrutiny, at least in my lifetime—and the really infantile desire on the part of certain social and political forces that it be perfect—that is, perfectly biased and ventriloquizing only their viewpoints—although these same forces are rarely so critical of either themselves or other important social institutions.

In this case, the social and political forces that routinely complain about the media’s so-called Russia obsession seem to mean, in fact, that the mainstream press and the press in general should simply stop covering what is surely the story of the century: allegations that the world’s largest country massively intervened in a presidential election in the world’s most powerful country, and that the man who won the election and members of his campaign and transition team were in close contact with agents of the world’s largest country during the campaign and transition.

What kind of press would we have if they completely ignored this story?

We would have a press much like the press in the world’s largest country, which routinely ignores or severely undercovers really big stories—such as the country’s involvement in putting down a popular revolution in a third country whose people have never down anything bad to the people of the world’s largest country—or which engages in outright Goebbels-like propaganda nearly every day, leaving the really important stories to opposition liberal newspapers and online media outlets that are read and accessed by a tiny fraction of the country’s populace.

Finally, the mainstream media have not been obsessed with Russia itself, but with the alleged actions of the Kremlin, Russian secret services, and Russian internet trolls in connection with the 2016 US presidential election. Period.

There is a another Russia, populated by 143 million people, that had nothing whatsoever to do with the story of the century. They did nothing to skew the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election and, in the main, their lives, aspirations, and actions are roundly ignored by the so-called mainstream media in the west and Russia itself. They are roundly ignored by the so-called alternative media, too, for the simple reason that much of the alternative media in the west operate under the delusion that Putin is an “anti-imperialist.” By definitions, Russians who oppose his sagacious rule must be “puppets of the west.”

If all of this weren’t the case, I would have expected that one or more of these “Russia-obsessed” or “anti-Russian-obsessed” newspapers, magazines, TV channels or websites would have picked up and covered, for example, the shocking story of the Penza-Petersburg “terrorism” case aka the Network case, in which eleven young anarchists and antifascists have been accused of involvement in a “terrorist community” dubbed “the Network.”

Most of the accused men have told the same grisly tale of being abducted by FSB-KGB field agents, who took them to remote areas in minivans or to the basements of their headquarters and tortured them for hours, using tasers and bare electrical wires, and severe beatings, attempting to force them to memorize the “confessions” they would later make (or, in some cases, refuse to make) to FSB investigators, who would then petition the courts to send them to remand prisons, where all of them are still imprisoned to this day.

The allegations of torture have been confirmed by Russian civil rights activists and defense attorneys who spoke with some of the men soon after their arrests and, in a few cases, they were also confirmed by physicians who examined the men when their wounds were still fresh.

In any case, a small but growing group of very determined people, including the men’s parents, friends, reporters, human rights activists, and concerned citizens, have been working as hard as they can over the last year to bring the case to the attention of the wider Russian public, force prosecutors to investigate the allegations of torture by FSB officers, and otherwise prove that, as seems to be the case, the FSB conjured the entire tale of the “terrorist community” from whole cloth and then handpicked a dozen or so completely innocent young men to be the fallguys, trying to torture and pummel them into admitting their “guilt” although they were guilty of no crime at all.

You would think the “Russia-obsessed” corporate media would jump on a story like this, but except for one article in the New Yorker, the western corporate media have utterly ignored the story of the Network “terrorists,” despite the efforts of actual alternative media like openDemocracyRussia (oDR) and my own blog, the Russian Reader, to write about it any chance we can and translate Russian coverage of the case, as published in such as liberal, leftist and civil rights media outlets as Mediazona, OVD Info, and Novaya Gazeta.

The campaign to save the Network boys scored a minor victory the other day during a meeting of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, when several members of the council brought up the case and a similar case no less shocking, the New Greatness case, and forced President Putin to talk about them.

A KGB-FSB officer to the core, Putin pretended not to have heard of the cases, which both pivot on allegations of extreme entrapment, torture, and fabrication by other KGB-FSB officers.

Putin hemmed and hawed, lied and prevaricated, feigned that he couldn’t believe what he was hearing, etc., but he did promise to look into the cases and get to the bottom of them.

It’s entirely possible he won’t do that, but it’s just as possible he will make the cases quietly go away to avoid embarrasment.

Who knows.

What I do know, though, is that western mainstream and alternative media, all of them “obsessed” with Putin (but not Russia) in their own way, have shown no interest in this story and thousands of other similar and dissimilar but no less fascinating stories from the real Russia inhabited by most Russians.

There was a slight uptick in their interest in grassroots Russia during the 2011–2012 fair elections protests, but since that movement was roundly defeated, western press coverage has been firmly refocused on the beloved hated figure of the supreme leader, thus once again denying nearly all the other 143 million Russians of agency, their own opinions, and their own lives.

If you’re interested in the Network case and related stories, please check out the coverage on oDR and the Russian Reader. Outside of Russia, practically speaking, there has been no coverage of the case anywhere else, and most things you read on international anarchist and antifascist websites are reprints of the stories we have translated and published.

So, let’s put this canard about the media’s Russia obsession to rest, okay? It’s deeply offensive to ordinary smart Russians, whose numbers are much greater than you would be led to think by the mostly lazy coverage of the country in the western press, and just as offensive to the handful of non-Russians who care deeply about what goes on here. {TRR}

P.S. You can support the Network suspects and their families concretely by donating to a solidarity campaign organized by comrades in London on their behalf. Your support will help to offset their legal costs, organizing humanitarian support for the arrested and offering support to their relatives. The resources gathered have so far been distributed according to the financial circumstances of the respective families and the needs of the arrested. Further financial support is being distributed according to the choices made by those arrested throughout the investigation.

Cartoon courtesy of JA and Union Thugs 

A Colossus with Feet of Clay

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It looks scary, but it’s only a computer-generated image.

“The tumultuous poll in Catalonia left more than 800 injured and pretty much everybody with mixed emotions which offers a perfect opportunity for Russia. Russia has no particular interest in Catalonian independence but Russian media were actively promoting the narrative about Spanish authoritarianism and Russian hackers helped the organizers keep their websites up. Russian interest lies in shifting the narrative around Crimea, keeping the EU busy with other topics than Russian aggression, and mainly in dividing Europe as well as undermining Europe’s democracy and institutions.”

This was written by the European Values Think-Thank, which operates out of Prague and runs a useful program called Kremlin Watch.

Nevertheless, an argument like theirs should be backed up with lots of facts and quotations, not just rolled out as a bald-faced assertion we must either accept or reject.

Russian trolls can, in fact, troll and dispatch bots on any subject they like. It doesn’t necessarily mean, however, their actions will have a decisive effect on every conflict in which they intervene.

True, in the body of the newsletter, there is this follow-up on the story.

“Referendum in Catalonia: The Crimean spring has moved to the Pyrenees… Not.

“Despite Dmytry [sic] Peskov’s statements that the Catalonian referendum is an internal Spanish matter, Russia would not want to miss a chance to bring its alternative point of view on the Catalonian referendum or extend a helping hacking hand to the referendum organizers either. Spanish media have been on high alert. El País blatantly stated that Russian news networks are using Catalonia to destabilize Europe. These accusations have been thoroughly investigated by the Atlantic Council’s DFR Lab, focusing on the role of Sputnik and RT. Russian media spread stories about a violent and repressive Spanish government and warn that a civil war is imminent as the EU passively stands by. Russian creativity is legendary and the media managed to find similarities with the situation in Crimea and Kurdistan.

“According to the Russian press, independent Catalonia might recognize Crimea as part of Russia. The benefits of doing so are not very clear, Russia might in exchange push Nicaragua to recognize Catalonia? “This does not mean that Russia wants Catalonia to be independent at any cost. What it fundamentally seeks is to create division, in order to slowly undermine Europe’s democracy and institutions,” says Brett Schaffer, an analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund. And we can only agree with that.”

There are only three hyperlinks in the entire passage, no other references, and one of the links reiterates the article in El País. It is not enough to convince even a true believer in Russian troll farms like me.

Why not?

Because just the other day I read the following article, published on the excellent Russian charity and investigative reporting website Takie Dela, about the huge numbers of dilapidated residential buildings in Barnaul, capital of Altai Territory. The article details the considerable inconveniences and humiliations faced by the tenants, who are more or less stuck in their flats until the mayor’s office does something, although it is clear to the residents that the mayor’s office would rather the buildings all collapsed, killing the tenants in the wreckage.

Degradation of postwar-built housing stock is a severe problem not just in Barnaul, but all over Russia, a problem the central government (since under Putin 3.0 there is no such thing as local government anymore) has been doing a really bad job of solving.

I could make a list of a hundred other problems plaguing “mighty” Russia right now that the government has pointedly failed to address, because its priorities have been elsewhere (e.g., Crimea and Syria).

Russia is a colossus with incredibly fragile clay feet.

This means three things. First, its active measures operationd involving trolls and bots intervening in the affairs of other countries is one way Russia can assert itself as a supah powah (but not a super power) on the cheap, without spending a lot of money.

Second, since it is doing this on the cheap, the “global vision” guiding its creepy efforts is likewise fragmented, impatient, contradictory, and severely misinformed at times. The Kremlin just wants to make trouble somehow.

Finally, it hasn’t been conclusively proven these operations have been decisive factors in altering the outcome of any election, referendum or conflict.

It’s an invidious comparison, of course, but I hgve been blogging for nearly ten years, and during that time over half a million viewers have read my posts. Does that mean I have been a decisive factor in Russian politics or how the west views Russia? As much as I would like to say, yes, I have been, I cannot say that. I would be happy if I have changed a few people’s minds now and then and, especially, if I have showed them aspects of the Russian grassroots they had never heard of before.

The Internet Research Agency or whatever the Russian trolling and botting campaign now calls itself, has a lot more resources at its disposal for winning hearts and minds, but it is not operating in a vacuum.

Instead, it is operating in an incredibly dense media environment where domestic media outlets, of different political stripes and shapes, will be more persuasive to Catalonians and Spaniards, say, than Russian goofballs smacking away at keyboards wherever the IRA has been hiding out lately and posting dipshit memes and one-liners in comment threads, because the Spanish and Catalonia domestic media understand the issues, speak the languages fluently, and do not speak them with accents.

Do you really imagine that all Catalonians, Spaniards, Americans, Germans, Belgians, etc., are so gullible and incapable of critical thought they cannot tell the difference between a sound reportage or analysis, written by a real local reporter or op-ed columnist, and a pile of crap whipped up by a Russian working the late shift at IRA and loopy as a kite on energy drinks?

Trolling and botting as a way of regaining supah powah status is, in fact, a “weapon of the weak,” but not in the sense James Scott meant the phrase. We should deal with the weapon as such, instead of worrying its mere presence is decisive and disruptive everywhere it rears its puny, feeble head.

To argue otherwise is to imagine that Spanish national cops could not have beaten independence-minded Catalonians over the head, although it was probably not such a smart move, or those same Catalonians were not capable of holding their perhaps illegal referendum without being hypnotized by outside Russian agitators.

Let the Russian trolls pretend they are really shaking up the world with their teenage pranks. In the meantime, competent technicians and hackers should devise a technical solution that would deal a knockout punch to the Russian IRA.

That would be more efficient and make for less panic mongering, which, alas, is not in short supply these days. TRR

Image courtesy of i.imgur.com