BMB Russia: Weekly Columns #6

Fabrice Deprez is a weekly columnist on Russian politics for BMB Russia. Following are the columns published in BMB Russia’s daily newsletter from the end of January 2019 to early March. Issues discussed in this period include:

  • March 7th: the upcoming election of Saint Petersburg’s governor is attracting a lot of attention.
  • February 28th: Polling data shows that Russians are afraid.
  • February 14th: The bill on the creation of a “sovereign Russian internet” is surrounded with uncertainty.
  • February 7th: Patriarch Kirill celebrated the tenth anniversary of his enthronement as head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
  • January 31st: a wave of fake bomb alerts raises questions.
  • January 24th: An investigation provides some fascinating insights into the way information is managed in Russia

March 7th

The election of Saint Petersburg’s governor will only be held next September, but the alleged involvement of one Yevgeny Prigozhin (of Wagner fame) in the campaign attracted a lot of attention. Now however, Prigozhin might be out of the northern capital.

According to an investigation published by Dozhd in late January, “Putin’s chef” (as he is now known in Russian and Western media) sent a team of spin doctors to Saint Petersburg in order to take control of the campaign of Alexander Beglov, the appointed acting governor since October 2018.

A report by Novaya Gazeta now claims the Kremlin has decided to replace Prigozhin’s team with “heavy artillery:” on February 26th, Andrey Yarin, the head of the presidential administration’s domestic policy department, arrived in Saint Petersburg and will reportedly take charge of Beglov’s campaign. Though, according to sources quoted by Novaya Gazeta, Prighozin’s people never really managed to get their foot in the door: uninterested but keen to avoid getting into a conflict with Prigozhin, Beglov’s team reportedly decided to give them a few mundane tasks – such as conducting polls – as a distraction. In late January, state pollster VTsIOM arrived in Saint Petersburg to ask locals if they would be supportive of a Beglov candidacy.

Beyond raising additional doubts about Prigozhin’s quickly earned reputation as a massively influential figure in Russian politics, Novaya Gazeta’s article also shows that, after the debacle in the Primorsky region, the Kremlin is not taking any chances in Saint Petersburg. Beglov remains little-known and generally unpopular, making the September election one of the riskier one. In a context of falling trust ratings, 6 months might not be too many to ensure Beglov wins… or to find someone who can.

February 28th

In an op-ed for Vedomosti, Andrey Kolesnikov looked at polling data gathered by the Levada Center which all point towards the same trend: in 2018, Russians have become more afraid. Fear of a world war jumped 17 points in a year, to 57%; fear of stronger authoritarian policies rose 19 points in the same period and reached 36% in 2018; fear of lawlessness soared from 29% in 2017 to 51% in 2018; fear of attack by criminals increased 10%, to 39%, in 2018.

Such figures are significant (2018 numbers don’t seem to have been published yet, 2017 data can be found here) but for many Russians, the answer still lays in the State: another record figure is the number of people (88%) who believe a great State is “very important,” while the percentage of Russians who feel a “strong hand” is always necessary jumped from 40% in 2017 to 58% in 2018.

It’s too early to say whether these numbers are a fluke or a reflection of a deeper trend, maybe the spread of “besieged fortress” attitudes from the political leadership to society. According to Kolesnikov, such figures show that the Russian leadership has “overdone it” when it comes to selling threats to the Russian people, and in fact encouraged widespread distrust of the state and of people themselves.

Five years exactly after the annexation of Crimea, this data is yet another indication that the “Crimean consensus,” this period characterized by bombastic and outwardly expressions of national pride, is well over. But it’s also a good reminder that we still do not know how this brief era will affect Russian national consciousness on the long term, and what will come next.

February 14th

The bill on the creation of a “sovereign Russian internet,” which critics describe as the Kremlin’s latest attempt to increase its control on the Runet and make it easier to censor content, is surrounded with uncertainty. An incredible amount of uncertainty in fact, given that it has just been adopted by Russia’s parliament in its first reading. What exactly the bill will do, how much will it cost, can the Kremlin even “isolate” the Russian internet from the rest of the world… there are, so far, much more questions than answers.

Despite the Duma’s (mostly deserved) reputation as a rubber stamp parliament, bills often change considerably between the first and the final reading. The opposition that the project has sparked among business groups, civil society and even some officials (such as Kudrin’s Audit Chamber) is unlikely to fundamentally change it. But there seems to have been a growing realization that the bills’ provisions are confusing and might in some case simply be impossible to achieve. This may lead to some changes in the next version of the bill though, overall, we’re likely to see a continuation of the trend where the Kremlin expects technology to catch up with its intentions.

Another thing to note is that the current version of the bill would turn Roskomnadzor, Russia’s internet watchdog, into a much more powerful agency. Roskomnadzor will be providing internet operators with the “technical means” to “counter threats to the networks” (what exactly this means is still unclear) while also handling the “Center for Monitoring and Managing Public Communication Networks,” tasked with controlling “the new matrix of Internet regulations” according to Meduza. Obviously, the agency has recovered from the embarrassment that followed last year’s chaotic blocking of Telegram. But this is a much, much bigger task that will very likely involve massive amounts of money under the watchful eyes of the country’s security services.

February 7th

On February 1, Patriarch Kirill celebrated the tenth anniversary of his enthronement as head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Kirill is, of course, more than a religious leader: in the last decade, he’s become a key Russian politician who helped shape the country’s “conservative turn” after 2012, a turn embodied in the legislation to punish “insulting religious feelings” and the prison sentence against the Pussy Riot group in 2012. Since 2009, the Russian Orthodox Church also built nearly 10,000 additional temples across the country, bringing the total number of churches in Russia to 38,000.

While the Church’s political influence grew under Kirill’s leadership, his star has markedly faded in the last few years. The Kremlin’s push for traditional values, with a focus on Orthodoxy as an integral part of Russian identity, has certainly not stopped. But it is nowadays being pursued more as a result of the system’s inertia than out of actual political will. And with the focus now clearly on material issues –from pension reform to real incomes– the space for debate about “traditional values” shrunk. Kirill’s attempts to introduce stricter abortion conditions were, for example, rebuked without much discussion.

But Kirill’s biggest failure happened in the international arena, with the creation of a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Though it’s still unclear when and why exactly the Constantinople Patriarchate decided to grant independence to a new Church in Ukraine, a major factor seems to have been Kirill’s decision not to participate in the 2016 pan-Orthodox council, the first of its kind in more than a millennium. So far, Kirill hasn’t received much public criticism for this tremendous miscalculation, but it is clear the creation of a new Church in Ukraine is leaving the Russian Church weakened.

January 31st

Russian regions have been, for five days now, going through a new wave of fake bomb alerts: in the Novgorod region, every school as well as several hospitals were closed yesterday, while alerts also caused major disruptions in at least 7 regions and most major Russian cities. In November already, several malls in Moscow had to be entirely evacuated after similar bomb threats. At the time, anonymous sources told RBC the FSB suspected the attacks, which coincided with the capture of several Ukrainian navy ships off the coast of Crimea, originated from Ukraine. And while such information should definitely be taken with a healthy grain of salt, there’s no doubts this is a serious problem for Russia’s security services, as these alerts manage to be incredibly disruptive most likely for a limited cost.

The number of Russian regions with a public debt higher than annual revenues dropped from 7 last year to 2 this year, the director of the interbudget relations department of the Finance Minister told the TASS press agency in an interview. The two regions –the republic of Mordovia and the Kostroma oblast– are notorious for being one of the most indebted in the country: in 2017, Mordovia’s debt-to-revenue ratio was a whopping 185 percent. The MinFin says regional public debt shrunk by 4.7% in 2018 and that it doesn’t expect any region will default on their debt this year. Back in December, a monitoring by RANEPA reported that 15 regions found themselves in deficit in 2018, against 30 the year before.

The debt situation in the regions remains fragile however, and it’s likely that at least part of this year’s good numbers were due to an influx of money into regional budgets prior to the presidential election. For governors, the dilemma remains the same, as the Center demands increased investment to fulfil the May Decrees while requiring fiscal responsibility.

January 24th

A deep dive by Russian media Proekt into the career of Alexey Hromov, who oversees Russian state media from the presidential administration, provides some fascinating insights into the way information is managed in Russia. Manual control remains the norm, with Hromov conveying weekly meetings of the main Russian TV channels (as well as the press services of the ministries) to give talking points and specify issues that should not be mentioned. Hromov, who has served 23 years in the presidential administration, can also order state media and press services to refrain from publishing negative stories about entire regions during special events. This was actually noted at the time of the World Cup, when the police was ordered to stop publishing news related to crime.

This would be enough to make Hromov a powerful figure but, according to Proekt, the official’s department is also tasked with putting together Putin’s daily informational bulletin. Such a role gives him significant influence over the information received not only by ordinary Russians, but by the president himself.

In the regions, the main story this week has been the feud over the decision by a Chechen court to cancel a $135 million debt owed by the region to Gazprom. The gas company immediately appealed as other regions started demanding similar treatment, a wave of discontent that triggered a quick reaction in Moscow: the General Prosecutor took Gazprom’s side and demanded a reversal of the decision. But the Kremlin’s trademark uneasiness when it comes to tensions related to Chechnya was again apparent as the president’s spokesperson talked of a “very complex situation” and said that the Kremlin didn’t have a position on the issue yet. As regions are forced to deal with shrinking subsidies, the topic of Chechnya’s privileges could pop up more often in negotiations between Moscow and governors.

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