Category Archives: SARS-CoV2 Pandemic

Out of Sight – What’s happening in Russia? – Part III

Russia is not a linear country. The modernization took place in forced stages. And the tsarist background has never been completely erased. This means that the smartest minds hardly know how to adapt to the situation.

(Dimitrij Volčič, Italian politician and journalist)

Welcome back to Russia, my friends

In this last article (the usual “last” is related to the issue) we will look at some other recent events concerning the Russian Federation and what is happening inside it and which, due to other events, has passed on the sly.

In the two previous articles we have analyzed the events related to the SARS-CoV2 Pandemic, and how this has openly highlighted the economic and institutional weaknesses of Russia built by Vladimir Putin: in fact, what is most noticeable if you look at the general media, is the sudden disappearance of Russia (except for the question concerning the elusive Sputnik V vaccine), which until recently was concentrated on a broad global propaganda operation, the main purpose of which was, and still is , to reconstruct the role of Russia as a great power, and therefore as an alternative point of reference to the United States and Europe, but also to China, at least in terms of “image”.

Yes, the image of Russia. This may seem strange to you, at first glance, but I can assure you that the main problem in the head of the Russian elites is precisely this: what an image of themselves Russia shows, and it is applicable in every field and every event that has involved the post-sovietic period. The topic is quite long and complex, so for now I ask you to keep this concept in mind, further explanations will be the subject of specific treatment. If we want, we could take up the famous quote from “The Art of War”:

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”

(Sun Tzu, The Art of War)

Here, the Russian government thinks more or less in these terms, replacing “weak” with “well-disposed”. If we look at the latest events through this lens, everything should appear much clearer. I said that Russia has disappeared from the media, but this is only partially correct: on the one hand, barring sensational events, the West is also focused on how to deal with the Pandemic, and it is natural (at least according to the media logic) that everything else goes into the background, but it is equally true that the Russian leaders quickly took advantage of the situation to “disappear” and regulate internal issues away from prying eyes. Even at times when, in a “normal” situation (think just a couple of years ago), we would have had a pounding wave of propaganda about Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh, Iran, US elections, etc.

And instead nothing, or almost.

To give you another very recent example, you can read the excellent article by Professor Vladislav Inozemtsev, published by the Institute of Modern Russia. It deals with a complex issue, namely that of the recently begun reform of the “Development Institutions”, but, aside from the economic-administrative question, even Professor Inozemtsev can only conclude with the idea that the whole process is substantially a big facade maneuver, aimed much more at settling accounts within the Russian power groups and at “redistributing” the management of the country’s economic flows among them, than at implementing a serious economic reform project, to facing a post-pandemic future.

Exactly as happened for the Management of the Pandemic and the apparent concession of autonomy to the Regions (which in the meantime has degenerated into an increasingly clear discontent, with mass protests especially in the Trans-Uralic regions), here too we are faced with a marketing operation: we want to sell a “reform” that will cancel a series of useless and unproductive state entities, but which in reality serves to redistribute roles, powers and political and economic influence.

As has already happened (think of Vladimir Putin himself, or his eternal second Dimitry Mevdeved) to deal with the umpteenth reform package is a political figure apparently jumped out of nowhere: the new Prime Minister Mikhail Vladimirovič Mišustin. A man who has moved within the Russian administration since the Yeltsin period (in August 1998 his first appointment, that of deputy director of the State Tax Service) and who now suddenly finds himself in the center of the scene, with soaring popularity skyrocketing (thanks above all to the provision of numerous subsidies to economies particularly affected by the pandemic), second only to that of President Putin.

He, as mentioned, will have to deal with this umpteenth attempt at “reorganization” which has very little to do with economy: it is no coincidence that, a character who remained for decades in the background, began to treat his image in an almost maniacal way, and to suddenly see a “circle” of loyalists born around him, of which all obviously belong those characters involved in the restructuring of these para-state apparatuses: when the economy flounders, cuts are necessary (even if, as mentioned, only on the facade) and everyone looks for their own safe place on a lifeboat that gets more and more crowded.

It is no coincidence that, alongside him in this enterprise, there is Dmitriy Cherhyshenko, the “media manager” who owes his fame to the creation of the aggressive advertising of the MMM Company, which, for those who don’t know, was a gigantic “Ponzi Scheme” created during the economic reform of the Yeltsin Era, which reduced thousands of savers to misery, deceived by the promise of easy earnings and decidedly unable to understand what they were doing (it was the early 90s, russians had just left the Soviet system). A warranty.

Moscow, Bolotnaya Square, May 6, 2015: A single-person picket is held by the Russian journalist Alexander Ryklin who holds a poster that reads: “At this place, on May 6, 2012, police attacked a peaceful demonstration.” The picket lasted only a few moments, as Ryklin was immediately detained by the police. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In all this, the only thing that seems to have concrete implications is the implementation of an increasingly restrictive legislation regarding the right of assembly, guaranteed de jure by article 31 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation but de facto severely limited by a huge machine bureaucratic, which poses a legislative barrier at both federal and local levels. For years now this has been the way that the Russian authorities have had to block any type of demonstration: a small error in filling out the myriad of paperwork required, officially for the “safety of citizens”, is enough to be denied a constitutionally sanctioned right. In chronological order, the latest proposal presented to the Duma by the Russia Unity party is to request bank information from those organizing demonstrations, which are feared “financed by people hostile to the country, such as George Soros or Hillary Clinton”.

Obviously inaccurate or incomplete information (or perhaps simply not available, as in the case of flash mobs or spontaneous demonstrations) will lead to the cancellation of the manivestation, or its brutal dispersion by the riot squads. The perfect combination of propaganda and limitation of the legal space for protest, as authorities find more ways to limit when, where, and how people can voice their demands. 

In conclusion, we could say that this was yet another period of missed opportunities to seriously reform the Russian Federation, whose government instead preferred to consolidate its position, take the opportunity to eliminate some “ballast” and settle the accounts within the different factions, still kept in balance by the figure of the President. It is my opinion that this attempt to disappear from the spotlight will soon show its dangerous consequences in the not too distant future.

Thank you for reading this series of writings, as usual, for any questions or clarifications, do not hesitate to contact me.

Nay, come, let’s go together.

Out of Sight: What’s happening in Russia? – Part II

“Russia is not corrupt. Corruption is what happens in all countries when businessmen offer officials large bribes for favors. Today’s Russia is unique. The businessmen, the politicians, and the bureaucrats are the same people. They have privatized the country’s wealth and taken control of its financial flows.”

(Andrei Pionkovsky, Another Look Into Putin’s Soul)

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin after delivering the annual address to the Federal Assembly of the RF

Welcome Back my friends,

Last week we talked about the internal situation of the Russian Federation, and about some of the problems that are putting the upper echelons in serious difficulty, first of all, the way in which the Central Government is dealing with the Covid-19 Pandemic in the country, delegating all responsibility to the governors of the Oblasts, without however increasing the resources at their disposal, nor by granting them again the freedom of action that in recent years have been progressively reduced. The worst thing is that this maneuver was devised intentionally, with the intention of “unloading” the discontent from the shoulders of Vladimir Putin’s administration, but, as we will see, not everything is going as planned.

In addition to this, the economic crisis turned out to be much more serious than expected. From the earliest years in power, Vladimir Putin and his entourage have tried to use the proceeds from Russia’s massive oil resources to fix the serious economic problems caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent catastrophic “reforms” of the Yeltsin Administration. The success that this strategy initially achieved proved counterproductive in the long run: the idea of transforming Russia into a Petro-state modeled on some Arab countries has exposed the country to continuous crises, creating a much more fragile economic system than what does not appear from the outside. With the arrival of the pandemic and the slowdown in global industrial activity, the demand for energy supplies and raw materials has also decreased, leaving, as we have seen in the previous article, many Russian Oblasts with empty coffers to face an emergency situation.

Although the situation is at least problematic, even relying on official data provided by the Ministry of Health, the President and the Council of State did not miss the opportunity to do what they do best: Propaganda and further Centralization of Power.

As laboratories and pharmaceutical companies around the world worked tirelessly to find a vaccine or more effective cures against Covid, August 11 of this year, instead of announcing the usual “Doomsday Machine” or other sorts of military progresses, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was in possession and has registered the first vaccine against Coronavirus, baptized, to remember the “old days”, with the evocative name of Sputnik V. How could the Russian government miss such an opportunity, in its long string of desperate attempts to appear “on par” with Western countries? Kirill Dmitriev, the head of of Russia’s Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), responsible for financing vaccine research, called this a Sputnik Moment, in he’s own words: “Americans were surprised when they heard Sputnik’s beeping. It’s the same with this vaccine. Russia will have got there first. “

Despite the effectiveness of the alleged vaccine had yet to be proven (and to this day little is known, except that on November 23 the daily infections in Russia broke all previous records, certainly not a good sign), Dmitriev has also stated that twenty countries were ready to buy a billion doses of Sputnik V: a great way not only get a substantial financial windfall from an (eventually) successful cure, but it would also gain international respect as a scientific center and frustrate the US and the European countries, in a sort of re-edition of the space race, designed to feed the memory of a past that in Russia over the years it has taken the form of a “factor of national cohesion”, obviously in its revised and corrected version (but this is a separate story).

The so-called “second wave” turned out to be even more exemplary regarding the dysfunctionality of a system that tries to make every event a foothold for propaganda: as mentioned in the previous article, the (intentional) lack of room for maneuver for the Oblasts has transformed the response to the emergency into a cacophony of discordant measures, mutual accusations and generalized discontent. The regional administrations were completely taken aback, lacking, in addition to the aforementioned fiscal autonomy, of “transparent” numbers on which to base the response to the emergency. As some analyzes show, the number of deaths from the first wave is likely underestimated by five times.

Vladimir Putin has clearly stated that he does not want to implement restrictive measures or stronger lockdowns, precisely to avoid problems of “too visible” reactions within the population, and the governors have basically obeyed him, and, in this regard, one would wonder if the numbers sent to the Central Government are true and how they are treated by it.

Moving on to the centralization of power, just before the August announcement, a Constitutional Referendum was held in the Russian Federation, already scheduled for the beginning of the year, to submit to the population the approval of some amendments to the Constitution. As in the case of the health emergency, the constitutional reform project is little more than a “painting” of a facade of a building that does not substantially change inside, or worsens further. A typical expedient of the so-called “Illiberal Democracies”: the people are given what they want but in the manner decided a priori by the government. Given the recent protests of recent years, which demanded greater participation, what better way to be open and democratic than a National Referendum (In Russian “всенародное голосование”, that can be translated as “nationwide voting”)? Obviously by putting everything in such a way that the vote can be easily directed towards the desired result (for example by including rules on the minimum wage or on the indexation of pensions among the amendments).

The results of the Russian constitutional vote in 2020. In Green, the Oblast in which the Constitutional Emendaments were approved by the majority (the majority of “No” in red, was in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug and tied to territorial issues, more than opposition to reforms)

Legally, the Referendum was not even necessary for this type of constitutional amendment. The approval for the Constitutional Reforms reached around 75%, but as previously mentioned, it was not difficult to imagine, since in essence everything was little more than a giant pantomime from the beginning.

The things that most interested the enstablishment of the Russian Federation were to definitively overrule the rule that imposes a limited number of Presidential mandates (the rule that last time was circumvented by the Putin-Medvedev Tandem in the years 2012-2020), the regularization of Council of State, a body that should officially assist the President but which in fact over the years has become the only true center of power of the Federation, although not legally regulated in this sense, and finally introduce the prohibition of “alienation of Russian territories” (criminal liability for call against “territorial integrity” was introduced in the Criminal Code in 2014) and “unified system of power” from municipal leaders to the president.

To better explain how this is not just my opinion, I propose the thought of two experts on the subject:

Elena Lykyanova, lawyer, professor of constitutional and administrative law at the Higher School of Economics said in an interview with the Meduza website: “It’s a real  threat to the constitutional order. There is no expansion of the real powers of the Duma and the Council of Federation… as all of this is a word game: confirmation, appointment, etc. The president can dismiss any judge or prosecutor, so none of these [amendments] work. There will be no truly responsible government. [It] can appoint someone, but the next day the president can remove them, claiming lack of confidence. The same applies to the prime minister. The Duma approves [him], but it’s the president who appoints. Again, it’s a word game. The parliament is not gaining more control, nor is the government getting more responsibilities. All of this is a strengthening of the ‘vertical of power.’ It is the construction of a unified, non-democratic, non-federative vertical—without separation of powers and an independent judiciary, but with impairment of citizens’ rights“.

Or Victor Sheinis, co-author of the current Constitution, chief research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (Russian Academy of Sciences), deputy of Russia’s First and Second State Duma, member of the Yabloko party’s political committee, that, in his interview whit the Nezavisimaya Gazeta, states that: “The majority of amendments to the Constitution have to do with the procedure for forming Russia’s government bodies and their powers—primarily those of the president. The 1993 Constitution is often called “superpresidential.” As I have repeatedly pointed out before, it suffers due to the excessive powers vested in the president (which can be explained by the political situation in the early 1990s). <…> The current draft law is said to envision a redistribution of powers between the president and the prime minister. It is not so. At best, only the procedures and the way they are spelled out have changed. <…> The government, which in one part is directly managed by the president and in another part [indirectly by him] through the prime minister, remains as it was—the president’s cabinet. Also unchanged is the procedure [of its formation]: the government resigns after the elections, and reports to the president, not to the Federal Assembly. And the president can dismiss the government at his own discretion. The terms of dissolving the Duma also remain the same”.

July 12, 2020: Thousands protest in support of the arrested governor Sergey Furgal in Khabarovsk. Photo: Youtube.

The question of the management of the Pandemic and that of the Centralization of Power were then combined in September, the month in which, on the 13th, the governorial elections were held in 18 regions and those for the Legislative Assemblies in another 11. Despite the “routinary” character that this type of voting has (as mentioned, in fact the regional bodies have little or no autonomy) this time the mood was different precisely because of the aforementioned reasons.

In past years, the strategy adopted by the Kremlin in these cases was a combination of factors given by the demotivation of the electorate, the abuse of electoral laws, the co-optation of the notorious “system opposition” and finally administrative barriers that created an insurmountable bureaucratic obstruction to independent candidates or candidates not linked to “United Russia”, the only party that has the means and facilities available to overcome this “wall”.

This time the victory, usually simpler, saw an unprecedented fact, at least as regards the Putin Era: a clearer confrontation, with widespread spontaneous protests, regarding the problems of centralization of power, especially by the regions of the Far East, which consider themselves increasingly neglected and, in this juncture, literally abandoned by Moscow: Alexey Navalny was shooting a series of documentaries on regional governments in the Siberian area, prior to his poisoning by the nerve agent known as Novičok, which forced him to repair in Germany, the only episode that had any media coverage in the West.

In all this, the same figure of President Vladimir Putin, until a few years ago practically merged with the image of Russia itself, the bogey of the West, is increasingly secluded, despite maintaining substantially the same power, is probably committed to holding up in balance the different groups of power that in situations like this begin to bite each other to maintain their influence within an increasingly restricted circle of individuals.

But this will be the subject of the last part of this excursus on events of the last year, overshadowed by the global problems in which we are all involved, or simply by issues that take priority in the newspapers, such as the American Elections. I hope that now some of my statements on topics discussed previously will be clearer, such as the Crisis in Belarus or the Nagorno-Karabakh War, when I stated that the Russian Federation had other problems, more pressing than those of Minsk or of the Artsakh and that he would have avoided direct involvement in the events as much as possible, as in fact it was.

I hope you have found the topic clearer, as well as interesting. Thanks for reading these lines and see you next week.

Out of Sight: What’s happening in Russia? – Part I

When we think we lead, we are most led.

Lord Byron, The Two Foscari (1821)

The former president Boris Yeltsin at Putin’s inauguration, 2000
Photo by GETTY

Welcome back to UnpredictablePast,

Last week we dealt with the US elections, looking specifically at the “Personalization” of politics and what happens when institutions are progressively de-legitimized. In the past elections, at the center of the debate was the question of Russian influence on the public debate and the links that the Republican candidate, later elected, Donald J. Triump, had with Moscow. In these elections the problem seems to have somehow disappeared, just as the shadow of Moscow seems to have dissolved from the Media debate, and for this reason I think it is right to try to reconstruct, at least in part, what is happening in Russia and why.

First of all, obviously, the global SARS-Cov2 pandemic takes all the front pages, but the problem is not all there: ust like other countries, Russia is hit by this global threat, but this time it seems to have taken the hit more than others.

Until shortly before the virus appeared in Wuhan, it almost seemed to be in a “new” Cold War climate: psychological warfare that sought to undermine the foundations of the Western States, the replacement of the US in the Middle East as a new hegemonic power together with Iran (even Nethanyau had inaugurated more “relaxed” relations with the Kremlin) and the invasion of Crimea, they seemed to have rebuilt a bipolarity in the global geopolitical framework. Russia was “resurrected” and ready to regain its place among the world powers.

Or at least that was the tenor of the public debate.

As usual, in all this there was a part of truth and another “inflated” by TV, Newspapers and Websites, unable to make accurate analyzes and less sensationalist headlines, which the Kremlin did not mind at all, quite the contrary. We will talk more about this topic in the near future, for now let’s focus on recent past events in the background for the reasons mentioned above.

First of all, as we said, how much has Russia actually been affected by the epidemic?

Certainly much more than what it shows. Since the beginning of the crisis, in the eyes of those of us who have been observing the country for some time, something very strange has happened: the Central Government has in fact seemed to “loosen” its grip on federal institutions, giving them free rein to manage the emergency. For those unfamiliar with Russian politics, this is not very strange, those who are slightly more into these matters know that the clash between the Institutions of the Oblast (the Federal States of Russia) and the central ones has been going on since the time of Boris Yeltsin: Russia is a vast and multicultural country, and many of its regions have a strong sense of community and autonomy, embodied by the Regional Governors, the only “thorn in the side” left in a system of power that over the years has become increasingly centralized in figure of the President and his “plenipotentiaries”.

In the course of the last ten years, in particular, the Executive Power has worked to ensure that the Governors of the Oblast remain with a margin of autonomy as narrow as possible, mindful of the experience of Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and his entourage made sure that these institutions were as closely linked as possible to Moscow, both by installing governors who were “favorable” to them (see “Puppets”) and by limiting the possibility of implementing autonomous policies, under the pretext, much felt among the population, of not compromise the territorial integrity of the country.

But in this case, the choice made by Vladimir Putin is not a concession or a truce, but rather a subtle and cunning way of offloading the burdensome responsibilities of dealing with the situation on someone else. The Regions have not obtained any “real power”, especially in the economic field (everything remains firmly in the hands of the State Council and the “special envoys” of the Kremlin), but only the responsibility of “managing” (not governing) situation, as they did before: making sure that order is maintained, ruffling the local potentates, and getting everyone to vote right. When someone wants to take an initiative, especially in the economic field, they must first wait for it to be approved by the Central Government.

The Pandemic revealed the weaknesses of Russia (and in my opinion, of the other “Illiberal Democracies”): a central government absolutely unprepared to manage the situation and, to put it mildly, very lacking in transparency, it has only one way to maintain some degree of consensus: find a scapegoat. And in this case in Moscow they hope to be able to use it, in the future, to increase their influence even more. To make you understand how serious the economic situation is, think that even before the pandemic, the National Credit Rating Agency estimated that at low oil prices 62 of the 83 regions would deplete their reserves this year.

Especially regions that rely on the export of oil and other commodities face up to 560 billion rubles ($ 7.5 billion) in lost corporate and mineral extraction tax revenues, while federal transfers to replenish their budgets barely reach 200 billion rubles ($ 2.7 billion). In 2019, by comparison, transfers from the Federal Government amounted to 2.6 trillion rubles ($ 34.7 billion), counting on projected regional revenue (excluding Moscow Oblast) of 9.6 trillion rubles ($ 128 billion) in 2020.

Vladimir putin confronts Regional Governments in a videoconference. Photo: kremlin.ru.

The Governors will therefore have only the concrete possibility of maneuvering with the money they will have in hand, while they will have to bear the “responsibility” for any discontent. For example, regional institutions can block movements within their borders, but not prohibit movements between them (those who attempted have their requests immediately rejected, even a “risk” area such as Chechnya) Despite having the highest infection rate, the citizens of Moscow can continue to move around the other Oblasts, fueling the clash between the city’s Mayor Sergey Sobyanin and the other governors, only some of whom have managed to impose limited measures quarantine for those coming from infected areas. As if that were not enough, regional governments do not have the possibility to secure areas considered economically strategic by the federal government (the case of an outbreak in a hostel that housed IKEA workers in Leningrad Oblast) or which belong to whom, like Gennady Timchenko’s Novatek, it is closer than they are to the President.

Only a few governors, those belonging to the “system” opposition (that is, linked to the Kremlin, but not belonging to the majority party, “United Russia”) have dared to publicly complain about the limited means available to public health or to use of masks. In a country where trust in institutions has always been very low, this continuous rebound of responsibility and inaction (on one side or the other) or contradictory measures have enormously increased the general confusion and mistrust. While on the one hand more restrictions and adequate measures are called for, others, in particular the men most linked to Putin (like the Governors of Tula and Yaroslavl Regions, who where President’s former bodiguards), the restrictive measures were limited to “recommendations” to avoid riots.

The diversity of treatment has rekindled many of those centrifugal thrusts that seemed to have been dampened over the past few years. In recent months it has become clear, even to less astute or politically committed citizens, that there is a clear difference in treatment and even more stringent room for maneuver, depending on whether or not one is “organic” within the entire system of power.

In a country that has so far been held together by the strong figure of the President, it is not easy to imagine how those who are now suddenly seeying that power so distant, or unprepared to handle the situation, can feel while people die near them. The construction of a system of such wide consensus, centered on a very specific figure and with peculiar characteristics, finds itself disoriented and in disarray when this “image” fails. And those who should act more concretely cannot do it, even if they want to, as they are now reduced to a figurehead of true power, who intends to preserve themselves by offering citizens other heads when they ask for them. Or at least that’s what they hope in the Kremlin rooms.

In the next part we will see how all this is already having concrete effects at the local level, and will help explain to you why the role of Russia, apparently launched (by the media) towards a new golden age, has suffered such a strong setback.

Thanks for reading these few lines, see you next week with the second part.