RUSSIA REDUX

Next year elections will take place for Russia’s President. Vladimir Putin. who has been in power, either as President or Prime Minister, since 2000 has consistently consolidated his power since then, both in terms of quashing domestic opposition and asserting Russia’s presence on the global stage. In 2017, Putin’s power seems fairly unassailable. If proving that Russia is a superpower which cannot be ignored, as opposed to a great power in decline as many observed it to be in the post-Soviet era, the Kremlin has managed, through both soft and hard power, both covert and clandestine tactics, to makes its mark on the global order. 

It continues to use conventional military methods to exert its power among neighbouring states, with ongoing support (though heavily denied) of the ‘independent’ republics of Donbass and Luhansk in Ukraine and its maintenance of Crimea. Meanwhile it stretches its tentacles further afield through not only conventional information-based means (its state run media takes no prisoners), but also through the now infamous use of hacking. 

Its greatest prize so far is its interference in the US presidential elections. Although President Trump’s victory does not seem to have ushered in an improvement in ties between Moscow and Washington, as sanctions remain in place, Russia’s status as a power to be reckoned with, is undeniable.

In March next year Russians will head to the polls again to choose their President. Thus far, Vladimir Putin has been reticent about whether he will enter the “race”, purposefully avoiding the question (along with that of whether he has chosen a successor) at his annual televised Q+A phone in on June 15. Speculation is nonetheless rife. There seems no reason (at this point) to believe he will not run - and no reason at this time, to imagine that he could not secure a firm victory through both genuine popular support and the machinery, often called ‘administrative resources’- he has in place, to ensure that he gets the result he wants; (as Stalin is alleged to have said: ‘It doesn’t matter who votes, what matters is who counts the votes’).

Who, however, would stand against him? Alexei Navalny for one. The man who attempted in 2013 to become mayor of Moscow (winning quite a remarkable 27% of the vote behind the eventual winner, Sergei Sobyanin), pledged some time ago that he intended to run in the election. Except that now he won’t be able to stand. As recently as Friday 23d June, the country’s Central Election Commission said that, “Navalny cannot run for the presidency because of his criminal conviction.” This was for unconvincing charges which in the west would be understood as him being ‘fitted up’. Because his party is not ‘registered’, he would anyway have been required to stand as an ‘independent’, always given that he could raise the 300,000 electoral signatures required for nomination - and it is easily imagined how such a quantity could be ‘seeded’ by the establishment, to ensure sufficient fakes to quash any result unacceptable to them. Thus, the value of ‘administrative resources’ in Russian politics.

Navalny is unremitting in his attempts to expose corruption among the political elite. This year he has specifically taken aim at Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev - whom he accused, in a video exposé, of receiving a $70 million mansion as a kickback from one of Russia’s richest men, Alisher Usmanov. These accusations resonated strongly with the Russian public. “Everyone already thought Medvedev was pathetic and pointless,” Navalny has commented, “but it turns out he’s pathetic, pointless and a billionaire.” Back on March 26, 60,000 people marched in Moscow in protest against the Medvedev scandal and dozens of towns across Russia saw similar swells of anger. The Kremlin has not ignored the situation. Alisher Usmanov has sued Navalny for defamation and a video created by the Kremlin in which they compared the campaigner to Hitler, has been shown in universities. Since Navalny’s access to media is limited, he principally uses the internet (a medium which Putin openly disdains), as a way of diffusing his message, and does so with great efficiency. His video about Medvedev has been seen by nearly 20 million people. The Kremlin’s smear campaigns are just one way of counteracting this force.

Beyond attempting to blacken his name through disinformation, there are more conventional methods of dealing with Kremlin foes. The threat of imprisonment constantly lingers over Navalny (and his family - in a vengeful judgement, his brother was sentenced to three and a half years in prison). He is the victim of frequent verbal and physical attacks: he has been hospitalized this year after being pelted with green ink for the second time by unknown assailants, on his campaign trail. He was arrested before even reaching the anti-corruption rally he organised on June 12. More than 1000 protesters were detained at the rally, which was held on ‘Russia day’, a public holiday which tends to galvanize strong national feeling. Unusually the authorities had given Navalny permission to hold a rally slightly further away than his original proposition, but nonetheless he called upon protesters to crash the official celebrations. Some Russia-watchers observe Navalny, perplexed. The authorities are somewhat more permissive with the campaigner than they have been with other provocateurs. “How can he be doing what he’s doing and still be alive,” wondered one member of the political elite, in an interview with ‘the Guardian’? “He must have a powerful backer.” Some speculate that Putin is more permissive with Navalny as this year he has targeted Medvedev so heavily, and as long as someone else is a lightning rod for discontent, then Putin is insulated against criticism. The President, Navalny admits, remains popular largely because of his muscular foreign policy. In the meantime Putin accuses Navalny of being an agent of the West. 

Navalny’s brand of politics does not necessarily reassure Western observers of a positive political force awakening in Russia politics. He is unashamedly nationalistic - and has even compared migrants to cockroaches. It is however precisely in this way that he might be able to harness broader support (apparently 58% of Moscow’s landlords stipulate that tenants must be of Slavic origins, giving some idea of how racist even the metropolis is). At the moment Navalny has a certain momentum in the capital because there is widespread anger about plans to demolish great swathes of 1960’s housing stock, in what many view to be a crooked deal with property developers. Indeed at the June 12th protest, many were bearing placards that concerned this issue- rather than broader anti-corruption concerns. 

Across the country, this year has seen a re-awakening of anger among truck drivers regarding the Platon tax, a toll system which caused fury when first introduced in 2015. Amidst all of this, the economy is ailing as a result of the ongoing sanctions, and politicians are finding it hard to reassure the population. Medvedev perhaps offers the best example of the ineptitude of the authorities when it comes to this matter. In Crimea last year, he infamously told a pensioner, when quizzed about how little her pension was, “there’s no money left, but stay strong, I wish you all the best!”

One of the problems with assessing Russia, is that the presence of the “systemic opposition” represented by ‘A Just Russia’, the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, serves to hinder any accusations that the Duma is itself, just a body in place to rubber stamp Putin’s decisions. These parties are not considered to pose a credible opposition to the Putin-loyal ‘United Russia’, as on any substantive matter they agree with the majority. As was recently demonstrated in an interview with Vladimir Putin by American film director Oliver Stone, the mere existence of opposition parties is, to his mind, sufficient evidence of a pluralistic democracy existing in Russia. Putin commented: “can I ask you how many parties are represented in the US Congress? If my memory serves me correctly, just two. You understand that no one concludes from that there is less democracy in the United States than in Russia—because in Russia there are four parties in the parliament, whereas there are only two in the United States.” Those who overstep the mark, such as Dmitry Gudkov from the Yabloko party (who had the temerity to visit the US; protest against Putin’s re-election in 2012 and vote against the annexation of Crimea), are quickly stripped of their power. 

Beyond this, the external opposition parties count among them Parnas; and Navalny’s Progress Party; but they both face difficulties. Any political party needs to be registered by the Justice Ministry, and whilst Parnas is, the Progress Party is not, and looks unlikely to be granted official status. Parnas was dealt a cruel blow when one of its founders, one of the leading opposition voices in Russia, Boris Nemtsov, internationally known and respected who would have been a plausible candidate for the presidency, was murdered in 2015. (Five Chechen men are on trial for his murder which took place within sight of the Kremlin. They all confessed but now appear to have withdrawn their confessions. The trial has clarified nothing. A verdict is due very soon). 

Lacking cohesion since then, Parnas has been assailed by a number of scandals that have only furthered its fragmentation. Last year, state television broadcast a documentary in which one of its other leaders, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, was seen having a sexual encounter with an opposition activist; both of them were also caught on camera criticizing other members of the opposition movement. The suspicion is that he was filmed by security forces in collusion with state run television. This caused a fissure within Parnas, as another leader, Ilya Yashin, accused ‘the activist’ with whom Kasyanov was filmed, Natalia Pelevina, of being a Kremlin stooge. Parnas has also found it difficult to cooperate with the Progress Party since the scandal broke.

On the economic front, what is certain is that as long as there are sanctions against Russia and oil continues to remain at a low price, the economy will not rebound. A production agreement with OPEC to stabilise prices, means the price of oil may recover and the IMF projects that the Russian economy will grow this year by 1.5%. With this, and its extensive information apparatus to spin any potential problems away (or blame on other parties) the Kremlin has, at the moment the means with which to contain any threats to its vested interests. 

Despite much speculation that one of President Trump’s first measures would be to lift the sanctions against Russia, ties between the two sides have in fact deteriorated. This week Washington confirmed the extant sanctions against Russia (the EU has already done the same). Russia has responded by stating it will consider retaliatory measures and a high level diplomatic meeting has been scotched. One of the Kremlin’s particular bugbears is the US‘ recent statement that sanctions were to do with ‘the Russian position in Ukraine’ (in other words, that Russia is on the territory of Eastern Ukraine). Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov took umbrage at this, asserting: "We have repeatedly said Russia is not present on the territory of Donbass.” Additionally, this week apparently a NATO fighter jet buzzed a Russian plane carrying Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in what Russia has lambasted as “another provocation”. 

Attention remains fixed upon the question of President Donald Trump’s links to Russia and whether Russian hacking had anything to do with the outcome of the presidential elections last November. Whilst the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency, along with Jeh Johnson, who served as secretary of homeland security under President Barack Obama, have all assessed that Putin ordered officials to interfere in the US election, apparently Donald Trump remain unconvinced as to whether this is the case (or if it is, his team are attempting to blame it on the Obama administration). Whilst President Putin has repeatedly denied any official involvement in interfering in the election, he admitted in comments to the media at the St Petersburg Economic Forum that rogue “patriots” in Russia may have been responsible for hacking the Democrats. Comparing hackers to “artists” he suggested, “if they are patriotic, they contribute in a way they think is right, to fight against those who say bad things about Russia.” Putin maintains that the hacking allegations are part of a refusal by Democrats in the US to acknowledge that they lost the election. 

The situation in Ukraine remains difficult, particularly in the self-proclaimed independent Republics of Luhansk and Donbass, whose leaders are believed to be backed by Moscow. Despite the ceasefire agreement set out by the ‘Normandy Four’ states (Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine), reports suggest that it is consistently violated. The fighting has intensified recently and despite the fact that heavy weaponry was meant to have been withdrawn in accordance with the agreement, a spate of incidents at the start of the year indicated that this was not the case. Recently even OCSE monitors have apparently been targeted by the Russian - backed forces, in an apparent attempt to stop these neutral representatives of the international community, from viewing the disquieting events in the region. Things are more positive from the point of view of the rest of the country; Ukraine has now been granted visa- free travel to the European Union. President Petro Poroshenko took the moment as an opportunity to flout the Kremlin, lauding it as a "final break" with the "Russian Empire.” He has also made it clear that Ukraine’s membership of NATO is, for him, a top priority. Poroshenko’s confidence has also been boosted by a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump at the Oval Office, in which they discussed the peace plans. According to the official statement from the White House, discussion focused on “seeking a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Ukraine and to facilitate Crimea’s return to Ukraine.” Although the meeting is likely to further complicate ties between Russia and the U.S., it should be noted that, according to Reuters, Trump did not mention Russia during the “drop-in” meeting. 

The future for the two rebel-held provinces of eastern Ukraine remains particularly worrisome. They are gravely afflicted by the war. Some observers have suggested, with good reason, that Russia never intended to re-absorb the eastern provinces, but would have an interest in seeing them slide into the kind of ‘frozen conflict’ that afflicts the region of Transnistria, a self-declared republic, unchallenged as the illicit arms supplier to the 3d world, a sliver of territory positioned between Moldova and Ukraine, which has been locked in as such a state since 1992. Transnistria’s “independence” is protected by Russian troops and the semi-state is in many ways a sort of throwback to all things Soviet. The Kremlin’s interest in a ‘frozen conflict’ is that it can intervene as and when it wishes and prevent the region from cultivating ties to the West. A similar situation to this in Ukraine’s east could occur if there is no real political volition to withdraw troops. It currently is, and could continue to be, a pawn in a much broader geopolitical game.

With regards to Russia’s domestic scene, the politicking will only intensify as the elections draw closer. We have seen how the Kremlin responded to Navalny’s challenge – it seems to have now prevented him from running entirely. But whether that will push forward any other opposition figure to be a candidate, remains to be seen. Certainly, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Vladimir Putin is genuinely popular and particularly so in the light of the recent Ukraine conflict. He has enjoyed an approval rating above 80 percent for more than three years. But whether he seeks to run unopposed, in the wake of the Nemtsov murder and disqualification of Navalny, seems doubtful. That would hardly reflect glory on him, given his State security background, so a suitably anodyne candidate may yet emerge, but not likely on present form, to be one to make substantial ripples. 

Sara Bielecki