It’s Official

It’s official: the British political establishment, Benjamin Netanyahu, Jay-Z, “Moscow” Mitch McConnell, and Greyhound totally suck.

But you knew that, right?

thevoima

The Brexit process has already claimed victims: communities such as Scunthorpe, which are suffering job losses and hardship due to Brexit-related industrial closures; migrant workers from EU countries who find their lives thrown into uncertainty and themselves and their families vilified. Their anger is more than justified. But, in addition to this, the Brexit process has produced a gloom, a feeling of powerlessness, of fear, of uncertainty, that is obviously affecting millions of people. I think this feeling is the product of an illusion that our enemies are powerful enough to decide our fate above our heads. It’s another version of the illusions of power that have engendered fear, obedience and subservience to elites for centuries. It’s an illusion, because they, too, are tormented by crisis. It makes them more ruthless, it throws up the zealots – but it doesn’t necessarily make them stronger. We – social movements, communities, workplace organisations, movements about climate change – can find, and are finding, ways to challenge these enemies. (The FcK Boris demonstration when the new government took office was a reminder of this.) This is not a plea for false hope. It’s a suggestion that we evaluate our enemies’ strengths and weaknesses carefully. And be prepared for surprises.
—Gabriel Levy, “Zealots and Ditherers,” People and Nature, 15 August 2019

Tlaib and Omar aren’t the first critics of Israel penalized by the 2017 law, but they are the most prominent. The law targets those who “actively, consistently and continuously” promote boycotts of Israel. It applies to those who hold senior-level positions in pro-boycott organizations, are key activists in the boycott movements, or are prominent public figures (members of Congress, for instance) who support a boycott. More than 20 groups have been blacklisted, including the Nobel Peace Prize–winning American Friends Services Committee. One notable case was the banning of Lara Alqasem, an American college student of Palestinian descent who received a visa to study human rights at Hebrew University but was ordered deported and detained for two weeks on suspicion of being a boycott supporter. Her deportation was later overturned.
—Joshua Keating, “Israel Banned Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar Because They’re Anti-Trump, Not Anti-Israel,” Slate, 15 August 2019

In Mazur’s photo, Jay-Z’s right arm is pointed like an arrow. Goodell looks in the same direction, as does everyone else in the frame. It’s irresistible that way. What is Jay talking about, and why is everyone so rapt? Here’s a Brooklyn-born kid who made good, raised himself up from the projects, became one of the most recognizable names in pop music, and can now claim status as a self-made billionaire. It’s the kind of story you want to believe in. But then you stare a beat longer, holding your gaze, and the mirage begins to wither.

Illusion works both ways: It’s as much about who is in the photo as who isn’t. You ask yourself, Where is Kaepernick or Reid, the two players who sparked the protest? Why are other players who’ve since scrutinized the league, especially those who comprise the Players Coalition, absent from the meeting? That’s the danger in illusion, especially one cast by the NFL. Even though one might see through its hollow spectacle, there’s little to be done to break its spell. Jay-Z commands attention and everyone looks on, ghostly captivated. His arm stretches into an unknowable future. There are those who will follow, and others, who will rightly wonder: Is this the right direction?
—Jason Parham, “Depth of Field: Where Is Jay-Z Taking the NFL?” Wired, 15 August 2019

In January, as the Senate debated whether to permit the Trump administration to lift sanctions on Russia’s largest aluminum producer, two men with millions of dollars riding on the outcome met for dinner at a restaurant in Zurich.

On one side of the table sat the head of sales for Rusal, the Russian aluminum producer that would benefit most immediately from a favorable Senate vote. The U.S. government had imposed sanctions on Rusal as part of a campaign to punish Russia for “malign activity around the globe,” including attempts to sway the 2016 presidential election.

On the other side sat Craig Bouchard, an American entrepreneur who had gained favor with officials in Kentucky, the home state of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Bouchard was trying to build the first new aluminum-rolling mill in the United States in nearly four decades, in a corner of northeastern Kentucky ravaged by job losses and the opioid epidemic — a project that stood to benefit enormously if Rusal were able to get involved.

The men did not discuss the Senate debate that night at dinner, Bouchard said in an interview, describing it as an amicable introductory chat.

But the timing of their meeting shows how much a major venture in McConnell’s home state had riding on the Democratic-backed effort in January to keep sanctions in place.

By the next day, McConnell had successfully blocked the bill, despite the defection of 11 Republicans.

Within weeks, the U.S. government had formally lifted sanctions on Rusal, citing a deal with the company that reduced the ownership interest of its Kremlin-linked founder, Oleg Deripaska. And three months later, Rusal announced plans for an extraordinary partnership with Bouchard’s company, providing $200 million in capital to buy a 40 percent stake in the new aluminum plant in Ashland, Ky. — a project Gov. Matt Bevin (R) boasted was “as significant as any economic deal ever made in the history of Kentucky.”

A spokesman for McConnell said the majority leader did not know that Bouchard had hopes of a deal with Rusal at the time McConnell led the Senate effort to end the sanctions, citing the recommendation of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

McConnell “was not aware of any potential Russian investor before the vote,” spokesman David Popp said.

Bouchard said no one from his company, Braidy Industries, told anyone in the U.S. government that lifting sanctions could help advance the project. Rusal’s parent company, EN+, said in a statement that the Kentucky project played no role in the company’s vigorous lobbying campaign to persuade U.S. officials to do away with sanctions.

But critics said the timing is disturbing.

“It is shocking how blatantly transactional this arrangement looks,” said Michael McFaul, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration and now teaches at Stanford University.

Democratic senators have called for a government review of the deal, prompting a Rusal executive in Moscow last week to threaten to pull out of the investment.
—Tom Hamburger and Rosalind S. Helderman, “How a McConnell-Backed Effort to Lift Russian Sanctions Boosted a Kentucky Project,” Washington Post, 14 August 2019

Throughout the country, people rely on Greyhound to get to work, visit family, or to simply travel freely. But Greyhound has been letting Border Patrol board its buses to question and arrest passengers without a warrant or any suspicion of wrongdoing. The company is throwing its loyal customers under the bus.

For more than a year, we’ve been urging Greyhound to stop letting Border Patrol board its buses, but the company is refusing to issue a policy protecting its customers. So now we’re taking our fight to the next level.

Greyhound is owned by FirstGroup plc, a multi-national transport group based in the UK, whose own Code of Ethics and Corporate Responsibility contradicts what its subsidiary has been doing to passengers.

“We are committed to recognising human rights on a global basis. We have a zero-tolerance approach to any violations within our company or by business partners.”

Greyhound’s complicity in the Trump deportation machine is a clear violation of the human rights values that FirstGroup professes to uphold. We must raise our voices: Sign the petition to demand that FirstGroup direct Greyhound to comply with its code of ethics. Greyhound must stop throwing customers under the bus.
—ACLU: Buses Are No Place for Border Patrol

Image courtesy of The Voima

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Inland Empire: Life in Russia Without Visa and Mastercard

buyerThis woman is happy she doesn’t live in Russia, where Visa and Mastercard may soon be banned. Courtesy of Fluencia

Inland Empire: How Will Russians Live Without Visa and Mastercard?
Sergei Khestanov
Republic
July 12, 2019

The new attack by Russian lawmakers on the international payment systems Visa and Mastercard may come to a head, successfully or unsuccessfully, this summer. For the law bill’s sponsors success would mean the near-total financial isolation of Russians from the rest of the world. All that would remain would be to adopt restrictions on foreign currency.

Going Our Own Way
There had long been talk of the need to talk of a completely autonomous domestic payments system, but the events of 2014 and, especially, the imposition of sanctions visibly accelerated the process.

In fact, in the spring of 2014, MPs in the Russian State Duma drafted amendments to the law “On the National Payment System” that would have forced Mastercard and Visa, which had been obliged to observe the sanctions against a number of Russian banks, to deposit amounts of money equal to their two-day turnover in special accounts at the Russian Central Bank. Visa said it would stop doing business in Russia. Negotiations with the Russian government and Central Bank followed this announcement. The draft law was considerably softened. The amount of the obligatory deposit was removed from the bill, and it was decided that international payment systems would operate in Russia through specially established local subsidiaries.

After Mir bank cards were launched, they were quite unpopular among Russians for a long time. Russians preferred time-tested foreign bank cards. Besides, initially there were purely technical problems with Mir that caused their cards to be rejected, but after the Russian Central Bank issued stern warnings, banks updated the software of their ATMs and payment terminals, more or less solving the glitches.

Another problem is that Russian cards are nearly useless abroad since they are accepted almost nowhere. However, given the small percentage of Russians who travel abroad, this is not such a huge problem.

The breakthrough in promoting the domestic cards came in 2018. On July 1, 2018, the electronic wage payments of all state-sector workers were transferred by law to Russian bank cards. By January 1, 2019, they had taken a big bite out of the share of the Russian market controlled by their famous competitors. According to the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service, during the period from January 1, 2018, to January 1, 2019, the share of actively used Visa cards among the Russian populace fell from 45% to 39.5%, while Mastercard’s share fell from 42% to 36%. The reduction in the international payment systems’ share of the Russian market happened as Mir doubled its share of active card users, which rose from 12.5% to 24.5%.

This is not surprising. The traditional Russian principle of pushing certain things, ironically dubbed the “voluntary compulsory” method, is rather effective. Outcomes are achieved quickly, making such methods of promotion quite popular. We should say, in all fairness, that this happens not only in Russia.

Such aggressiveness has a price, however. Compulsory promotion of goods and services reduces competition, since the advantages of using a particular service or buying a certain product derive from the market’s absence. Over time, products and services pushed in this way lag behind their absent competitors in terms of their quality.

Striking examples of diminishing quality in a market in which competition was restricted were the Soviet automobile and electronics industries. The latter lagged behind the world especially disastrously. Remember the old joke, “Soviet handheld calculators are the biggest handheld calculators in the worlds”?

Rejecting the Outside World
But degradation as a consequence of pushing goods and services through non-market methods is only half the trouble. It is much more dangerous to ban and expel foreign products and services from the domestic market. The new regulations described in the draft law “On the National Payment System” could force international payment systems out of Russia since they would be unable to comply with the regulations. Once they leave, Russian bank cards would not be accepted for payment abroad, and cards issued by foreign banks would not be valid in Russia.

Mir cardholders who never travel abroad would not even notice this nastiness. Everyone else would soon voluntarily be forced to join them. Give the Russian state’s high and growing share in the Russian economy, the regulations would not provoke fatal disaffection with the leadership.

Russia’s policy of self-isolation was adopted long ago, and a large segment of the populace has no real objections to it, while people who use their bank cards within Russia mostly do not care what system processes their transactions. What matters is that everything works fine and does not cost too much. Mir’s reliability is now on a par with the international payment system, and so are its rates. Besides, if push came to shove, the Russian Central Bank and the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service could force it to reduce its rates.

There are no rational reasons for establishing a homegrown system when the duopoly of Visa and Mastercard serve the Russian market just fine. China’s UnionPay and Japan’s JBC have been processed by certain Russian banks, but they have never played a significant role. You cannot make money in a highly competitive, mature market, long dominated by world leaders like Visa and Mastercard, unless you employ non-market methods of competition. The market simply does not need new players.

The reason for the persistent promotion of Mir card is not commercial. It is an insurance policy of sorts, one that will have claims made on it if real, harsh Iranian-style sanctions are imposed on Russia. If you regarded this scenario as a serious possibility you would have cause to establish a national system, especially because Chinese banks (on whom great hopes were placed in 2014) have essentially supported US sanctions. In these circumstances, it is better to have a stunted system in terms of its international access than to witness a sudden collapse of cashless payments if harsh sanctions are imposed.

However, this non-competitive idea immediately inspires people who are willing to make money by destroying their competitors.

If regulations pushing the international payment systems out of the Russian market were adopted, it would deprive Russians of the ability to pay for things abroad without cash, and the logical next step of banning or restricting the export of foreign currency from the country would be easy as pie. Simultaneously, Russians would find it much harder to purchase foreign goods in foreign online shops, something that would be incredibly difficult without access to international payment systems.

A side effect of the ban would be the promotion of Russian-registered joint ventures for selling Chinese goods to Russians.  This would have a positive effect on the receipt of VAT from these purchases. VAT matters since VAT revenues constitute up to a third of Russian federal revenues, making them comparable to Russia’s export revenues.

The natural consequence of depriving Russians of access to foreign online shops would be a rise in prices. At first, the government would profit slightly because VAT revenues would grow—until people stopped buying things.

The policy of isolating the Russian economy from the world economy in terms of Russian nationals being unable to spend money outside Russia has been reasserted, and yet another step on the long road of restrictions and bans may soon be taken. The tendency towards restrictions on foreign currency has once again been confirmed. We might recall the recent discussion about restricting unqualified investors from opening foreign currency accounts.

The hope remains, of course, that, as in 2014, the international payment systems would reach an agreement with the Russian government, Russian MPs would be reined in, and cardholders would not feel the pain. Unlike 2014, however, the Russian Central Bank has supported the bill.

Sergei Khestanov is a macroeconomics adviser to the director of Open Broker and associate professor of financial markets and financial engineering at RANEPA. Translated by the Russian Reader

Alexander Morozov: The Price Russia Has Paid for Crimea

krym nashGraffiti and counter-graffiti on the parapet of a bridge over the River Spree in downtown Berlin, March 8, 2019. By changing a single letter in the spelling of “Crimea,” “Polina, Lera, German, Roma, Arina, and Vlad” reasserted that “Crimea is ours,” i.e., it belongs to Україна (“Ukraine” in Ukrainian, not Russian), on January 28, 2019. Photo by the Russian Reader

The Price Russia Has Paid for Crimea
Alexander Morozov
New Times
March 11, 2019

The five years that have followed the events of 2014, regardless of whether you refer to those events as annexation, the Russian spring, a Putinist coup, reunification, a homecoming, an historic choice and so on, have emerged as a whole set of consequences powerful in terms of determining history, having a lasting influence, and shaping Russia as a whole, that is, impacting Russian domestic politics, the Russian economy, and the self-awareness of large segments of the Russian populace. These consequences have generated “another Russia,” a country different from the one that existed in reality and people’s minds throughout the previous stages of its post-Soviet progress.

Destroying Eurasianism
Early Putinism was drive by the integration of so-called Eurasia, i.e., the former Soviet republics. Nursultan Nazarbayev, president for life of Kazakhstan, was the man behind political Eurasianism, as we know. During the Yeltsin administration, Moscow was indifferent to the concept. Later, however, the idea that Russia was Eurasia’s leader was made basic Kremlin doctrine.

Moscow’s actions in this respect were alternately gentle and crude, but generally its policies were seen as rational, as attuned to the region’s economic growth and security.

The Crimean adventure completely gutted the Eurasianist policy. It managed to frighten such stalwarts of Eurasian integration as Belarus and Kazakhstan. At the same time, it put paid to notions of “Slavic unity” and inevitably provoked an assault on the so-called canonical geographical domain of the Russian Orthodox Church.

As long as the logbook contained only one point, the war with Georgia, we could say it had been an extravagance. But the occupation of Crimea was the second point, which could be joined in a straight line with the first.  The Kremlin abandoned its policy of cultural and economic expansion, pursuing instead a police of aggression, bullying, and crude displays of superiority.

Not a single neighboring country has recognized Crimea’s accession to the Russian Federation. Consequently, Russia has symbolically transitioned from Eurasia to solitude. Putin abandoned Eurasia, going over its head to engage in various unilateral actions in the far abroad. Although Russian university lecturers habitually still rattle on about Eurasianism, the occupation of Crimea has meant that Kremlin, like Zarathustra, has climbed to the top of an imaginary mountain peak, whence it transmits its rhetorical messages, addressed to the void.

Warring with the West
The occupation of Crimea has meant that, since 2014, the perpetual cold war with the west has taken on a more heated, hysterical tone than under the communists in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. During one of his last interviews, in 2014, the late former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, an imperialist politician if there ever was one, said, “Television has been laying it on thick. The propaganda [on Russian TV] suggests we are preparing the populace for war.”

Before the occupation of Crimea, between 2007 and 2014, the period following Putin’s Munich speech, the Kremlin made numerous demands on the west, reacted harshly to any criticism of its polices and actions by international institutions, and sometimes made rather abrupt diplomatic moves. But the word “rivalry” still described all these things. The occupation of Crimea shifted relations with the west into another stage of aggregation known as hybrid war.

The term is quite obviously inaccurate, like any other term containing the adjective “hybrid.” But the key word in the phrase is “war.” It does not matter whether we believe the Kremlin has been conducting a well-conceived and well-coordinated war based more on the power of networks and the internet than brute force or whether we think the degree of coordination has been exaggerated. All observers have argued that the numerous discrete incidents paint a picture of a networked war against liberal democracy, the preparatory stages of a major war to redraw the world’s geopolitical spheres of influence or an attempt to provoke the United States. The occupation of Crimea put Moscow’s relations with the west on a different conflictual footing.

Transparency
The occupation of Crimea has made everything the Kremlin does automatically malicious, so that between 2014 and 2019 the notion of what the Russian presence means has changed completely. Nowadays, everyone looks for Russian fingerprints everywhere. This means that, as in the recent Troika Dialog money laundering scandal, very old deals and transactions are reviewed as well. Russia’s communications with the rest of the world have come under a spotlight, they have been run through an x-ray machine. Things previously regarded as dubious but acceptable have suddenly gone toxic. The Kremlin has gone from being a partner, albeit a problematic one, to a keeper of rat holes and catacombs. Foreign intelligence agencies, financial monitoring bodies, and reporters are now busy, as they once were with the Islamic presence in Europe, segregating what used to be considered the harmless Russian presence as something automatically toxic. However, the hot zone, meaning the people and entities found to have connections with the Kremlin and its malignant plans, has been expanding continuously for the last five years. Clearly, this investigatory work has not reached the midway point. The exposure of the Kremlin will continue for a long time to come.

Sanctions and Consolidating the Elite
The main outcome of international sanctions has been that the truly powerful segment of the Putinist elite has been professionally recounted. Before Crimea was occupied, people also had notions of who was a member of Putin’s inner circle, and they traced the orbits of his clients. But these speculations were a matter for experts and were thus open to debate. Everything has now fallen into place, which is quite important symbolically. The key personal positions of the players who vigorously went on the hybrid warpath are not just represented in political consultant Yevgeny Minchenko’s periodic “Politburo” reports or some murky media rating of the “100 Most Influential Politicians in Russia,” in which actual stakeholders are confused with officials who have no access to real resources. All of them have now been posted on the world’s bulletin board.

The sanctions have also caused the Russian elite to consolidate. Putin’s dependence on the elite has increased, and the so-called collective Putin has stopped being a metaphor, becoming a specific list of people. Of course, Russia’s history is not predetermined: history consists of twists and turns. But the actual collective Putin’s moves are predetermined, of course. The occupation of Crimea made it impossible for it to change course. At each new fork in the road, the collective Putin must turn towards further escalation, while Putin himself can no longer pull the emergency brake.

Novorossiya
Through the post-Soviet period, Moscow relied on the basic notion that there were two Ukraines, left-bank Ukraine and right-bank Ukraine. It was simply regarded as a fact that, in particular, gave rise to various “cultural” and “humanitarian” undertakings, for example, the long involvement in Crimea of ex-Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov and his people.

The occupation of Crimea, however, produced a monstrous historical about-face. In order to pull off its seizure of Crimea, the Kremlin had to support the so-called Novorossiya campaign to divide Ukraine, which has now gone down in Eastern European history. There is no argument that would make these events look any less inglorious than the partition of Poland and the occupation of the Baltic countries. Whatever history holds in story for Crimea, the Kremlin’s outright malevolence towards a neighboring people in the twenty-first century has been recorded in big black letters. The Novorossiya campaign has meant that all elements of the Kremlin’s earlier policies towards Ukraine have inevitably been reexamined. In the light of latter events, they now appear to be only parts of a plan to invade Ukraine.

Intellectual Perversion
Crimea is the poison that for five years has been continuously injected in small doses into the entire system of education and culture in Russia, as well as the mundane ways the country argues about its national identity. The media constantly have to devise, spread, and discuss on talk shows different fallacious grounds for occupying Crimea. This lie has had to be incorporated into school textbooks, movie plots, the system of legal training for civil servants, and all the pores and crevices of public space.

Russian society cannot live with the thought it unjustly annexed part of another country, and it has an even harder time admitting that it has been complicit in the attempt to partition Ukraine.

It has thus been necessary to engage in nonstop production of the rhetorical glue that kept the textbook The History of the Soviet Communist Party from falling to shreds during the late-Soviet period, i.e., the solid, ornate lie that was meant to show the rightness of the party line despite the endless mistakes and violence.

This intellectual perversion itself turns into a huge machine that latter cannot be extracted from the state apparatus without damaging the entire system. The lie machine and the state come to be equated, meaning Crimea has been inflating like a bubble inside the system. It cannot be localized. Every day it dispatches cancer cells in all directions within the tissue of state and society.

What is next? The five post-Crimean years have been much to short a historic period to make generalizations. It is clear, however, that if Putin had not seized Crimea and then organized the Novorossiya campaign, it is scary to imagine the wonderful chances he and his gang of stakeholders would have had at increasing their influence unchecked in a world encumbered by Trumpism and a Europe weakened by Brexit. But now Putinism is not merely a cowboy, but a horse rustler.

Therefore, international crises and growing uncertainty do not work in favor of the Putinists, although they do fool themselves when it comes to uncertainty, trying every which way to manufacture it themselves. The Putin gang will never try and play nice again. Any way you slice it, Russia will ultimately have to show the world another gang, because the current gang has proven incapable of accommodating itself to Russia’s long-term place in the world.

Thanks to Sergey Abashin and Alexander Etkind for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

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

Are Russians Eating Well?

DSCN1832A fruits and vegetables stall at the famous Hay Market (Sennoy rynok) in downtown Petersburg, September 29, 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

Eating Their Fill: Russia’s Food Security in the Wake of Crimea
Have Russians Eaten Better After the Government Moved to Defend Them from Western Food? 
Yevgeny Karasyuk
Republic
December 6, 2018

Soon after the embargo that was imposed four years ago in response to the stance of western countries on Crimea, analysts warned Russia itself would primarily suffer from food anti-sanctions.

“We won’t heighten the Russian Federation’s food security at all. In fact, we will reduce it,” Natalya Volchkova, a professor at the New Economic School, said at the time.

Of course, the criticism of the experts was ignored. No one in government questioned the policy of forced import substitution. Most Russians even imagined it was a rare instance when the government made a good decision. Only a few years ago, 71% of the populace [sic] spoke in favor of limiting imports.*

Time has passed, and the experts to whom no one listened have compiled figures showing where the policy has taken the country. A recent report, authored by a group of researchers from RANEPA, provides an analysis of its consequences.

Import substitution in the food sector was an obsession and, at the same time, a source of pride for ex-agriculture minister Alexander Tkachov. His replacement, Dmitry Patrushev, son of the Russian Security Council’s secretary and a none-too-successful state banker, has changed little in the government’s take on the situation. The new minister is certain Russia has reached a level of self-sufficiency above 90% in terms of basic food staples. Thus, Alexei Gordeyev, deputy prime minister for agriculture and an ex-agriculture minister himself, is convinced Russia has successfully carried out import substitution.

Food imports actually did slump sharply—by 46%—from 2013 to 2016. Although an unbiased analysis if how Russian producers succeeded in turning the tables and quickly saturating the market with their own products would point to the ruble’s sudden devaluation, rendering foreign imports uncompetitive, as had already happened in recent history, rather than to the success of the anti-sanctions.

Whatever the cause of Russia’s newfound food independence, however, it has not lead to food security. Citing the international standard, the authors of RANEPA’s report define food security as “the physical and economic availability of safe nourishment, sufficient for an active, fulfilling life.” In other words, there really are more domestically grown and produced food items in Russia nowadays, but the bulk of the populace has less and less access to them.

“Caloric Value of the Russian Diet.” The blue line indicates caloric value, while the dotted line indicates the recommended daily caloric intake per family member in kilocalories. The light purple area indicates the number of Russians who suffer from obesity, in thousands of persons, while the shaded dark purple area indicates the number of Russia who suffer from anemia, also in thousands of peoples. Source: Rosstat and RANEPA. Courtesy of Republic

Last year, Russia was ranked forty-first in the Global Food Security Index, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, meaning that it ranked lower than it had in 2013, when it ranked fortieth. This was due, among other things, to insufficient funding of research and a reduction in the variety of food products.

According to official statistics, food accounts for approximately 35% of expenses in Russian household budgets, which is a high proportion when compared with the OECD countries, among which even the highest percentages, achieved by Poland and Mexico, fall short of 25%. Independent evaluation of spending on food, however, claim that the proportion of Russian family budgets spent on food is actually over fifty percent. Given the almost continuous drop in the real incomes of Russians, the selection of products has declined in quality and abundance. On average, Russian households continue to skimp on everything they can do without, as confirmed by the compilers of the Coffee and Milk Index, as published by Romir, a Russian marketing research company. (The index tracks sales of chocolate, coffee, milk, and bottled water.) RANEPA’s researchers noted the discrepancy between the excess fat in the food and bread Russians eat and the low number of calories in their diets.

By closing the borders to imports and showering the domestic agro-industrial complex with generous state subsidies—1.2 trillion rubles [approx. 15.9 billion euros] in the past six years from the federal budget alone—the regime has persuaded itself it has been filling the nation’s bellies and improving its health. Its expectations were exaggerated, however. Oversaturated with cheap carbohydrates, the standard fare eaten by many Russians remains unbalanced and low on energy. “This is borne out by widespread anemia among the populace as a whole and children in particular,” RANEPA’s researchers write. The number of Russians who suffer from obesity has grown for the same reason.

Obviously, these problems cannot be written off as temporary glitches in demand in the domestic food market, whose revival has been unanimously trumpeted by former agriculture ministers and the current agriculture minister. Rather, they are the natural consequence of systemic problems with the natural resources economy that shoulders the burden of the Kremlin’s geopolitical capers. The average Russian family often simply cannot afford a plentiful variety of healthy, high-quality food.

The authors of RANEPA’s report have emphasized this.

“Neglecting this fact can lead to a distorted picture of the state of food security,” they write.

However, there is still very little chance the alarming conclusions of the experts will be heard this time around, forcing the government to make adjustments to its food policy.

* How did they do that? Was a nationwide referendum held? The author, of course, is referring to a so-called public opinion poll in which, at best, a thousand or two “ordinary” Russians were asked loaded questions, to which they gave the “right” answers. {TRR}

__________________________________

Russians Spend 30% of Their Budgets on Food
Georgy Tadtayev
RBC
December 17, 2018

Russians spend nearly a third of their household budgets on food. Russia lags behind Montenegro, Latvia, and Turkey in this sense. Russians spend less than seven percent of their budgets on culture and leisure.

According to RIA Rating, as reported by RIA Novosti, Russians spent 31.2% of their household budgets on food in 2017.

The estimate of the percentage of their household budgets people in forty European countries, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey spend on food was based on information from the IMF and national statistics agencies. Russia ended up in the bottom ten of the ranking, ranking 31st. Its nearest neighbors were Montenegro (29.7%) and Latvia (31.7%).

Ukrainians spend the greatest portion of their household budgets on food: 50.9%. People in Kazakhstan (46%, 39th place) and Moldova (43.4%, 38th place) also spend more than 40% of their budgets on food.

Western European countries topped the rating. Luxembourg came in first place. Residents of the duchy spend a mere 8.7% of their money on food. Close behind Luxembourg were Great Britain (10%) and the Netherlands (10.6%).

The agency also ranked countries according to percentages of income spent on alcohol and cigarettes. Residents of three Balkan countries—Romania (8.2%), Bulgaria (5.1%), and Serbia (4.7%)—spend the most on bad habits. Luxembourg (1.3%), Moldova (1.5%), and Cyprus (1.6%) spend the least on alcohol and cigarettes. Russia ranked 24th: Russians spend 3% of their househould budgets on bad habits.

Sweden was the top-ranked country in terms of spending on culture and leisure: Swedes spend 18.7% of their budgets for these purposes. Moldovans spend the least on leisure and culture: 1.3%. Russia ranked 21st: Russians spend 6.9% of their money in this category.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Let’s Give In to Russian Blackmail

nod-constitution day-1“The Russian Constitution: The Basic Law or Legal Sabotage?” Front page of a newspaper handed out on the streets of Petersburg by memberx of NOD (National Liberation Movement) on December 12, 2018, celebrated as Constitution Day in Russia. This article argues that Russia’s current constitution, adopted in 1993, was drafted by CIA agents working under the cover of USAID. Their goal, allegedly, was to colonize Russia by subjugating its sovereignty to international law.

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Don’t Let Russia Leave the Council of Europe
Yuri Dzhibladze and Konstantin Baranov
oDR
December 13, 2018

Those who wish to punish the Kremlin for its aggressive actions in Ukraine and elsewhere are missing the target: it is not the Russian government, but the Russian public who will suffer if the country leaves the Council of Europe.

After the Kerch Strait incident, proponents of pushing Russia out of the Council of Europe seem to have got additional justification for their position in a discussion that rages in the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). In fact, the potential costs of this departure appear to be too high and far-reaching—not only for the Russian society, but for the whole of Europe.

More than four years since its delegation has been deprived of voting and participation rights in the PACE, Russia is now a step away from leaving the Council of Europe – either at its own initiative or as a result of expulsion for non-payment of its membership fees. In recent months, the situation has reached a deadlock due to an uncompromising position of both the Russian authorities and their critics in the PACE.

Those who wish to punish the Kremlin for its aggressive actions in Ukraine and elsewhere miss the target: it is not the Russian government, but the Russian public who would suffer the most should the country leave the Council of Europe. Since 1996, when Russia joined the organisation, for millions living in the country (including nationals of other states), the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has been an ultimate hope for justice, which they cannot find in Russia. In this period, almost 2,500 judgements have been delivered to Russia. In 2017 alone, the state paid over 14.5 million euros as just satisfaction to victims. The judgments have had a significant positive impact on Russian laws and judicial practice, despite their implementation being far from ideal and counting to roughly one-third of cases. Should Russia depart from the Council of Europe, the scope of human rights problems in the country will grow exponentially, including a threat of speedy reinstatement of the death penalty.

The potential consequences would go far beyond the deterioration of the internal situation. This move would not resolve the issue of the annexed Crimea or put an end to the armed conflict in Donbass. On the contrary, expelling the violating country would demonstrate the weakness of the European system of protection of human rights and the rule of law in dealing with such gross violations.

What is more, Russia’s withdrawal would definitely worsen conditions of citizens of Ukraine and other countries who are held in Russian prisons and face unfair trials, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. It would also result in a denial of the protection of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to inhabitants of Russia-controlled Crimea. It would eliminate effective guarantees from deportation for refugees and asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Finally, the practice of expulsion of a member state might trigger other countries to leave the Council and deter Belarus from returning to a special observer’s status at the PACE.

Politicians should assume full responsibility for making the choice that may define Europe’s future and work towards a solution that would preserve the common European legal framework and space for critical dialogue aimed at promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law on the entire territory of Europe, including Russia.

We do not demand to “give in to blackmailing.” Lifting all restrictions on the Russian delegation in the PACE would be indeed unprincipled. However, finding a reasonable solution, in our view, would be a courageous decision to take responsibility and to advance the core values of the organisation by allowing the critical dialogue to continue. Amending the PACE rules of procedure – restricting national delegations’ rights only within the Assembly itself and not depriving them of the voting rights in elections of non-PACE mandates—including ECtHR judges, Commissioner for Human Rights and Secretary General—appears such a legally sound and reasonable solution.

Threats by Russian officials to leave the Council of Europe are not just a bluff to raise the bargaining stakes. There are many influential people in the Russian political establishment in favour of isolationist policies who actually want the country to withdraw. If a reasonable solution is not found before next spring, Russia’s authorities will not wait for the official discussion of its potential expulsion at the Committee of Ministers in June 2019 and will announce the withdrawal from the Council before.

It should be clear to everyone: Russia’s departure from the Council of Europe would not stop human rights violations and halt the authoritarian backslide in our country, or prevent the Kremlin’s aggressive behaviour in the international arena. Instead, it would put an end to a difficult struggle of Russian civil society to make Russia an important part of Europe on the basis of shared norms and values of democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights. It will turn a large territory in Europe into a legal “grey zone” for decades to come.

The authors represent a group of Russian human rights defenders who recently issued a Memorandum on the crisis in relations between the Council of Europe and the Russian Federation.

About the authors

Yuri Dzhibladze is a founder and president of Moscow-based Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights and advocacy coordinator at the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. He has worked on human rights, democracy, and international organisations since the late 1980s.

Konstantin Baranov is member of the Coordinating Council and international advocacy coordinator at the Youth Human Rights Movement, an international NGO enjoying participatory status with the Council of Europe. He is an expert on the protection of civil society space and fundamental freedoms in Russia and the post-Soviet area.

NB. This article was originally published by oDR under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence

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When will Russia stop behaving like the enemy of Western Europe?
Dima Vorobiev, I worked for Soviet propaganda
Quora
Answered Feb 18

Russia is not the enemy of the Western Europe. The disruptive policy of President Putin is aimed at (1) weakening the political and military dominance of the US in Europe and/or (2) full or partial acceptance by the West of the following list of Russia’s political objectives:

  • Recognition of Crimea as Russian territory
  • Total freeze on expansion of NATO. No membership for Sweden, Finland, Ukraine or Georgia.
  • No NATO bases in the Baltics, Poland, Czech republic and Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. Removal of the American anti-ballistic bases in Central Europe.
  • Finlandization of Georgia, Ukraine and guarantees of such arrangement for Belarus, in case it gets a pro-Western government in the future.
  • Guarantees of unhindered land connection through Lithuania between the Russian heartland and the exclave of Kaliningrad. The unhindered transit through the Suwalki gap would be very useful for Russia as a gauge of the level of determination on the part of NATO in the case of a swift escalation in tensions.
  • Recognition of Russia’s right to permanent military presence in the Mediterranean (through bases in Syria and possibly in Libya or other places)
  • Repeal of all sanctions against Russian oligarchs, their companies and sectoral interests.

If the West won’t agree to such a new global security arrangement, the current confrontation will continue, with variations only in the level of tensions. Because of the technological gap, the Russian military-industrial complex will increasingly depend on China for high-tech components for our weapons systems. Russian economy will also be more and more streamlined to accommodate the needs of Chinese manufacturing.

This stalemate can continue for many years, unless one of the following happens:

  1. Unexpected massive deterioration of economy in Russia.
  2. Low-probability, high-impact catastrophe in the US or Europe that makes the West seek help from Russia
  3. Power shift in Russia with full revision of national policy. (Highly unlikely with President Putin still in power).

House of Cards

mir-sberbankA disembodied hand proudly holding a Sberbank-issued Mir card. Photo courtesy of PressTV

Central Bank Preparing for Cutoff of Some Banks from International Payment Systems
Regulator Asks Small Banks to Have Backup Intermediary Able to Service Their Cards
Anna Yeryomina
Vedomosti
December 6, 2018

The Russian Central Bank has asked small banks to find a backup partner that would be able to service their bank cards. This would be an asset if their current intermediary banks were cut off from international payment systems.

The Central Bank is concerned with the continuity of card transactions in banks that work with payment systems indirectly, that is, via an intermediary bank. The regulating authority has advised these indirect clients of payment systems to contract with another bank, besides their primary intermediary bank, that could supply them with access to card payment systems. Five bankers confirmed to us they had received the memorandum.

The memorandum also says the contract should provide for a test exchange of information when integrating with the new intermediary banks. It also states payment systems should draft an action plan and recommend it to their participating banks.

The major intermediary banks are Payment Center Credit Union, Uralsib, VTB Bank, Rosbank, and Promsvyazbank.

A Central Bank spokesperson stressed the memorandum was only advisory, but it was based on international recommendations for risk management in payment systems. The need for banks to contract with backup intermediary banks is not so obvious. According to several of its recipients, in early autumn the Central Bank had sent banks a letter urging them to draft plans to ensure the continuity of payments, but it had not recommended any specific measures.

Switching intermediary banks is a time-consuming, expensive process that takes between three to six months, notes Maya Glotova, director of Kartstandart, a processing center that partners with Payment Center Credit Union. The most high-profile case occurred in 2013 after Master Bank’s license was revoked. As Glotova recalls, Master Bank had functioned as an intermediary bank in payment systems and provided payment processing services. Small banks had to halt their operations for several weeks, and several of them had to leave the payments business. Glotova estimates it would cost a single bank more than $100,000 to switch intermediary banks in the three payment systems.

Intermediary banks had little to say about the memorandum. A spokesperson at Promsvyazbank promised to follow the Central Bank’s recommendations, while a spokesperson at VTB Bank said their own intermediary program had worked well.

Several bankers believe the Central Bank is hedging not only against the collapse of intermediary banks but also potential sanctions, which are fraught with the possibility that intermediary banks would be cut off from Visa and Mastercard, as occurred in 2014 and 2015. The United States has been drafting a new set of sanctions that could affect major banks. Payments within Russia would not be affected: these transactions are processed by the National Payment Card System (NSPK). Russian bank cards, however, would not function abroad. (A spokesperson for NSPK, which operates the Mir payment system, said they had not received the Central Bank’s memorandum.)

VTB Bank had drafted a plan to counter sanctions, its president, Andrei Kostin, told the TV channel Rossiya 24 in October.

“We have been mapping out with both the government and the Central Bank how to avoid the consequences, especially for individuals and companies. I think we can overcome them. I don’t think the sanctions will be wholesale and directed against the entire financial sector,” Kostin said.

Translated by the Russian Reader