BMB Russia: Weekly Columns #7

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

  • May 2d: Russian media reveal the identity of Russia’s most popular political blogger.
  • April 11th: Russians aren’t too keen on a new legislation banning “direspect” of authorities.
  • April 4th: PwC ranks Russia’s most “creative” cities.
  • March 28th: Protests are once again rocking the region of Ingushetia.
  • March 21st: The spring’s gubernatorial reshuffle started this week with the resignation of the Chelyabinsk region governor, Boris Dubrovsky.
  • March 14th: The Kremlin is looking to fire from two to six governors in the coming weeks.

May 2d

You probably know that Alexei Navalny initially gathered a huge following by blogging about corruption issues. These days however, Russia’s most popular political blogger is an anonymous account called “Stalingulag,”which publishes short texts about Russian politics, often critical of the authorities, and is currently followed by more than a million people on Twitter and more than 300,000 people on Telegram.

The account has gained mainstream attention at the end of April, following unconfirmed reports that the police had searched a flat owned by the parents of the account’s alleged author. In July 2018, Russian outlet RBC claimed to have identified the channel’s author as Alexander Gorbunov, a 27 years old invalid man from the Caucasus republic of Dagestan. “Stalingulag” has denied the connection and, in late March, Alexander Gorbunov created a Telegram account which he claimed was the first social media account he had ever owned.

The searches at the flat of Gorbunov’s parents, which haven’t yet been officially confirmed (“Stalingulag” first wrote about it, and Gorbunov’s mother later described the search to the Dozhd web TV channel) were allegedly made on suspicions of “phone terrorism,” i.e calling fake bomb threats.

There’s too much that is still unconfirmed about this story to confidently say that this is another case of Kremlin pressure against a popular RuNet figure, but the interest it has gathered in the country is already noteworthy. “Stalingulag” received tacit support from Telegram itself in the form of a blue check “verified” mark, something that only a handful of accounts have received before.

In the media, state TV channel Rossiya 24 even covered the story in a 5 minutes report: “Stalingulag’s rhetoric is well-known: everything in Russia is bad” the host said. The report ended with the claim, made in late March by a former member of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) now living in Moscow, that “Stalingulag” was financed and controlled by Ukraine’s security services.

April 11th

Let’s look at a few polls this week. First, a survey by the Levada Center found that 64% of Russians believe that a new legislation banning “disrespecting” the authorities was made to prevent criticism of the Kremlin, and 53% disapproved of the legislation. 41% of respondents hadn’t heard anything about the new law however, while 55% of respondents approved the part of the legislation introducing fines for the spread of “fake news.” According to Levada Center sociologist Denis Volkov, that is because the law on fake news is seen as a necessary defense against the growing “flow of information,” while the legislation on disrespecting the authorities is understood as an attempt by politicians to shield themselves from criticism.

Surveys conducted by Rosstat and the Central Bank finds the consumer confidence index has remained virtually unchanged in the first quarter of 2019 compare to the last quarter of 2018. Using data from the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, Kommersant points out that Russians are mostly using “passive” strategies to adapt to the lowering incomes: 81% of respondents are saving money, 39% are spending their savings, 30% take loans, 8% sell real estate. 50% of respondents said they were unable to pay for education and medical services. A poll by Rosstat also reported that 51% of Russians engage in self-medication, with a third of respondents saying they did not trust the work of medical institutions.

April 4th

PwC and the Calvert 22 foundation published the latest issue of their “Index of Creative Capital,” a ranking of Russian cities based on the strength of their “creative economy.” And while Moscow and Saint Petersburg tend to top most of the charts, the report also highlights areas outside of the two capitals with real (and often overlooked) dynamism: the Tatarstan capital of Kazan is ranked 5th, 2d and 3rd in (respectively) the ranking of cities with the highest numbers of creative companies, the ranking of cities with the highest numbers of creative infrastructures (such as technological parks) and cities with the overall highest index of creative capital. Other cities with good rankings include Ekaterinburg, Tyumen, Kaliningrad and even Ulyanovsk, a city only known for being the birthplace of Lenin.

Russian daily Kommersant discusses a report published by the “Peterburgskaya Politika” think-tank naming 20 potential successors to Russian Communist Party (KPRF) leader Gennady Zyuganov, only 13 of which are currently members of the party’s Central Committee. The head of the think-tank said the publication of the report wasn’t linked to Zyuganov’s upcoming 75th birthday but notes that there has never been in Soviet history a general secretary older than 76. Sources quoted by Kommersant do not expect any changes in the party at least before the next congress in 2021, and maybe not before the 30th anniversary of the KPRF in 2023.

March 28th

Protests are once again rocking the region of Ingushetia and its capital, Magas, months after a decision to transfer territory currently belonging to Ingushetia to Chechnya lead to the first confrontations. Locals are now fighting against a new bill that would lift the requirement to conduct a referendum in order to change the borders of the Republic. The protest was authorized, but local police and National Guard troops later tried to disperse the few thousands protesters who had gathered in the centre of the local capital. Protesters eventually agreed to leave the central square, with the Kavkaz Uzel outlet reporting that authorities might authorize a new protest in the next few days.

Ingushetia is starting to emerge not as a flashpoint of crisis but as a lingering issue, with no sign that Chechnya’s Kadyrov is ready to back down. While local authorities have authorized limited protests, the head of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, said the protesters’ demands were “groundless” and accused them of spreading “deliberate disinformation.”

Speaking of protests, 12 Russian regions have legislation on protests that do not comply with federal law, the NGO Ovd-Info reported. In these regions, the human rights organisation found, local authorities voted legislation allowing them to prosecute single picket demonstrations, even though federal law says regions can tighten protests-related regulations only in the case of mass events such as marches, rallies or large-scale demonstrations. Regions with such laws include Kaliningrad, Kaluga, Orenburg, Sakhalin, Tver, the Kamchatka and Primorsky Territories, the Nenets Autonomous and Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrugs, as well as Adygeya, Buryatia and Karelia.

March 21st

The spring’s gubernatorial reshuffle started this week with the resignation of the Chelyabinsk region governor, Boris Dubrovsky, and of the head of the Kalmykia region. The governors of the Murmansk oblast, Marina Kovtun, and of the Orenburg region, Yury Berg, followed suit today. According to sources quoted by RBC, Alexander Berdnikov in the Altai region could be next. Dubrovsky had been appointed governor in 2014 and his term was due to end next September. He could have run again but strong negative ratings lead to fear of a second round in the September election which, according to political analyst Nikolai Mironov, decided the Kremlin to choose a new regional head.

In the Yakutsk region, the alleged rape of a local by a Kirgiz migrant lead to spontaneous anti-migrants protests which authorities are taking very seriously, Kommersant reports. Deputy Prosecutor General Igor Tkachev arrived on Wednesday to discuss “interethnic relations” while Yakutsk’s governor took the protesters’ side, saying the issue was one of “illegal immigration” and “crime.” The head of the local Kyrgyz diaspora claims migrants have stopped going to work for fear of being attacked. The situation is obviously very tense, with rumours of 3 migrants from Central Asia having been killed in recent days denied by the local branch of the Interior Ministry.

Pavel Grudinin, last year’s presidential candidate for the Communist party, could soon be given a deputy mandate in the State Duma. Grudinin lost his own deputy seat in February following reports claiming he owned an undeclared offshore company. He could now be handed over the mandate of Zhores Alferov, another communist deputy who died on March 1st. The move would insure Grudinin’s political survival, but can also be interpreted as a small act of defiance from a Communist Party willing to reinstate one of his own despite pressure from authorities.

March 14th

The Kremlin is looking to fire from two to six governors in the coming weeks, anonymous sources in the presidential administration told the Russian media “Proekt.” Among those most likely to go are the governors of the Murmansk region and the Altai republic. Rumours about the departure of Marina Kovtun, who leads the Murmansk oblast since 2012, have picked up before almost every wave of gubernatorial reshuffle in the last two years, and should therefore be taken with a grain of salt. A new wave of firings is nevertheless likely, and it will be interesting to see the profile of the new governors in the light of a recent report that “technocrats” have generally failed to boost the regions’ stability.

In both political and regional news, Vladimir Putin will likely travel to Crimea to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the peninsula’s “reunification” to Russia, RBC reports. This will be the first time Putin goes to Crimea for the anniversary since 2015. The visit, on March 18th, will also come a mere two weeks before the first round of the presidential election in Ukraine: in this context, it would not be surprising to see Moscow using the occasion to pit Russia’s stability against Ukraine’s political uncertainty.

According to Kommersant sources, “Orthodox oligarch” and political entrepreneur Konstantin Malofeev could soon co-lead a new political structure formed on the basis of a union between the “Fair Russia” party (23 seats in the Duma) and “patriotic parties,” including the currently mostly-dormant “Rodina” (Motherland) organization. Interestingly enough, back in October 2018, a report by the consulting firm of political technologist Evgeny Minchenko advocated for “the re-launch of the “Fair Russia” party in a new capacity – as an anti-establishment project.” According to Kommersant, Minchenko is now the main figure behind Malofeev’s project.

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