"A normal man, as he should be, surprises them. They're used to seeing 'men' at gay parades."
--Vladimir Markin in response to outcry at Russian hooligan violence in Marseille .
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Dear Readers,

I’ve fallen behind on the Dispatch for the last few weeks. I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to develop and promote the podcast, among other things. That meant the newsletter took a back seat. The most difficult part is that I kept collecting articles the whole time. Now as I go through the list there’s just too much to cover. Plus, a lot happened in June—the Russian hooligan violence in Marseille and the hysteria about the “Little Green Fan,” the personnel shuffling and firings in the FSB’s Economic Security Service, the DNC-Russia-Guccifer 2.0 hack story, яркий Trump, Fareed Zakaria’s softball interview with Putin, the Yarovaya Laws, Nikita Belykh’s arrest, Brexit and many other smaller, yet important stories—and it’s all too much to deal with in one newsletter.

So while this edition is long, it is hardly comprehensive. There are many topics I would have liked to comment on but just couldn’t.

Brexit: Russian win or something bigger?

A fine example of how Russophobia substitutes for dealing with the true crisis in front of you. Such is the quality of our "analysis" of Russia.
It’s hard to say at this early stage which reactions to Brexit are pure hysteria or legitimate soothsaying about its lasting consequences.

But what does it mean for Russia?

I’m reticent to frame Brexit as a “win” for Putin or ponder whether it portends possible sour grapes for Russia. But one thing is clear, Brexit allows for the strengthening of one of the tenets of Russian foreign policy: The Kremlin would much rather deal with states individually rather than as a unified bloc. And even better deal with individual diplomats and leaders rather with bureaucratic structures. Or as they say in Russian “po-chelovеcheski.” Alexander Baunov made this salient point:

[It] would be wrong to think that the Russian leadership wants the EU to shatter into small pieces. Rather, they want to see straight-line arrangements, analogous to the power vertical the Kremlin has at home, that make clear with whom they can negotiate and solve problems. The person at the top of this vertical should be a serious, respected interlocutor no less than Margaret Thatcher or Charles de Gaulle. They would much rather deal only with Angela Merkel or Francois Hollande and not with the EU, with its complicated structures in Brussels.

This desire to deal with people rather than bureaucracy is at the heart of Putin’s concept of the world. Putin’s world is made up, or should be made up, of sovereign states. There are only a few truly sovereign states: Russia, the United States, Germany, China, Britain, maybe France, Iran and India. But that’s it. These states should govern international relations between themselves. Lesser states—the bulk of the EU and post-Soviet states—are mere spectators in the great game. They shouldn’t have any influence over the process, and the EU allows for that. From Putin’s perspective, why should Poland, or god forbid, the Baltics, have any say over European policy toward Russia? Such minor states, or rather colonies, exist for sovereign states to exercise their will over. Brexit is about the return of sovereignty as a principle of geopolitical dealings embodied by the head of state. Brexit is one big step in that direction.


Nikita Belykh, governor of Kirov and former leader of the defunct liberal Union of Right Forces, was arrested on Friday in a Moscow restaurant for allegedly taking a bribe of 150,000 Euros. It was a sting operation where Investigative Committee and FSB agents marked the crisp, neatly wrapped bills in ultraviolet dye. They burst in as soon as Belykh fondled the cash, pulled out an ultraviolet light, and showed him and the world the dye on his hands. The police claim that the 150,000 was the final payout of a total kickback of 400,000 Euros. The money came from two companies: Novovyatsk Ski Factory (NLK) and Forestry Management Company (LUK). The silovik-connected Life News was waiting at Lerfotovo detention center to get its ekskluiziv of Belykh’s perp walk.

Belykh doesn’t deny taking the money but claims that it was investment for construction projects in the Kirov region. Perhaps par of his "black cash" so many governors keep to fund special projects and elections. He did mention on his Facebook page that he planned to meet with investors among his many engagements in Moscow. But taking the “investment” in cash? In a Moscow restaurant? Along with a $400 bottle of Chateau Lynch Bages? That doesn’t sound fishy. Not fishy at all.
Investigative Committee humor. SK Spokesman Vladimir Markin, "A bribe doesn't smell . . .but sometimes it glows!"

Investigative Details

This story is evolving. Here’s what’s known so far:

Sources have revealed to Interfax that Albert Laritskii, the former head (and who pled guilty to embezzlement in March) and the current owner Yurii Zudkhaimer, of Novovyatsk fingered Belykh to the police. Zudkhaimer personally participated in the sting and was responsible for handing Belykh the cash as the police looked on. Interfax’s source also says that there’s no evidence to support Belykh’s version.

Life News reports that Zudkhaimer paid the bribe to secure a state contract from Belykh to prevent him company from going bankrupt.

Belykh gave an interview to Moskovskii komsomolets. Beside talking about losing weight, living off of bread and water, finishing his dissertation on gulag labor, and catching up on some reading, he vowed to prove his innocence.

He's also announced he's on a hunger strike.

Kommersant reports that Belykh’s colleagues heard rumors something was up weeks ago.

"According to several Kommersant sources, there were rumors that "something bad was going to happen to Belykh” about two weeks ago. One source told Kommersant, the office of Mikhail Babich, the presidential envoy in the Volga Federal District, "received an order" to find candidates [for governor] in reserve personnel."

The report also added the following:

"Vyacheslav Timchenko, a member of the Federation Council, said that the situation seemed to be "a set up" because "a regional head always doesn’t just have opponents but also enemies who want to destroy him."
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Sakhalin Governor Aleksandr Khoroshavin
Komi Governor Bandi Gaizer 

Three is the Magic Number

Belykh is the last “liberal” governor in Russia and his arrest marks the third governor busted in the last several months. He is perhaps the last vestige of the Medvedev "Thaw."

In September 2015, Komi governor Bandi Gaizer was popped for alleged fraud and running a criminal organization. His clan was also cleaned out: high officials in the Komi Republic administration, influential businessmen, and ex-Komi Senator Evgenii Samoilov were all arrested.

In January 2016, Sakhalin governor Aleksandr Khoroshavin was busted for allegedly taking a $5.6 million kickback. The fact the cops found around a million rubles in cash in multiple currencies and a small treasure chest of jewels didn’t help his case.
Like most maneuverings in elite politics in Russia everything is done for a reason. So what does all mean?

This seems to be the nagging question.

It’s hard to say. On the one hand, I’m willing to accept Belykh is corrupt. Corruption is the carrot and stick of Putinism, and I doubt a governor could have survived this long without being sucked into the system. I also can’t discount the politics of this. In this sense, I agree with Alexander Osovtsov who wrote on his Facebook page:

"If Belykh is a thief and bribe-taker, it’s not because he’s a former liberal but because he’s a governor. If Belykh was framed, it’s not because he’s a governor but because he’s a former liberal."

A new 1937?

Invoking 1937 is a fan favorite of the Russian liberal camp. Remember when Boris Nemtsov’s murder was a sign of a new 1937? The specter of a 1937 redux is either a sign of its deep trauma or perverse desire among the liberal camp. In a column in, Oleg Kashin again raised the specter of “new 1937.” He writes:

"To speak seriously about a new 1937 in contemporary Russia has long been seen as indecent and immoral. But the repression of the governors does reproduce the logic of 1937. We don't have closer historical analogies. The victims are not the opposition and saboteurs, but quite normal heads of regions."

Actually, there is a closer historical analogy and one devoid of bloodletting: Andropov’s rooting out high level corruption under Brezhnev in the late 1970s. Andropov’s aggressive anti-corruption campaign led to the fall of many obkom secretaries, most famously the hollowing out the entire Uzbek upper party structure involved in defrauding the Soviet Central Bank of 3 billion rubles between 1976 and 1983. The arrests of Uzbek Party officials involved in the “Cotton Scandal” numbered in the hundreds. Sure this “purge” was a political operation to weaken Brezhnev, but it also targeted some pretty high-level corruption.

This is not to say the arrest of three governors constitutes a revving up of a wider anti-corruption campaign against the administrative elite. But it’s also a far cry from “a new 1937.”

Nevertheless, some are convinced “no one can feel safe.” 

Center and Periphery Converge

My first instinct was to think Belykh’s arrest was connected to local elite conflicts. Belykh, after all, is an outsider, and despite running Kirov for the last 7 years well, good governance rarely mollifies the cut-throat factionalism of regional elite politics. As Rostislav Turovskii said to Novaya gazeta:

"Of course, Belykh was a kind of black sheep in the governor's office. He didn’t join United Russia out of principle. A significant part of the local elite didn’t accept Belykh as the head of the region. He was considered a temporary figure, and they thought that he would leave sooner or later. Now they are waiting for the upcoming elections. This is the most interesting part of the story. We can assume that the local elites may try to bring the government and business back under their control. The big unknown concerning the head of the region hasn’t been decided. Will it be a new Varangian [that is someone parachuted from outside—Sean] or someone local."

However, Turovskii adds:

"This is a traditional signal from the Moscow to the governors connected with the call for targeted budget spending and to disassociate themselves from corruption. All the victims were known and Khoroshavin and Gaiser became known victims to everyone. Belykh becomes the third significant figure on this list. Moscow is annoyed that regional corruption persists. . . It can be said that [Belykh] was an easy target, not because he’s totally corrupt, but because he’s not in the mainstream of the regional elite and close to United Russia and the Kremlin. By this alone, deciding on Belykh was relatively easy. It does not destroy inter-elite relations or damage the interests of large groups influential at the federal level."

Pre-Election Fever

Finally, Belykh arrest can be seen in the context of the upcoming parliamentary elections. As Vedomosti stated in an editorial:
"The TV pictures are more important because the subsequent administration of justice is not so colorful and quickly disappears from the news . . .
Strictly speaking, until a verdict neither Khoroshavin, or Gaiser or Urlashov
[Yaroslav mayor arrested for embezzlement who has been sitting in pre-trial detention for two years—Sean] nor Belykh is guilty in any way. But this isn’t very important: the court of public opinion has already occurred and the desired effects have been achieved. What effects can we expect from Belykh’s arrest? . . .
The new arrest of a governor for an alleged bribe also fits perfectly into the Kremlin’s line on the fight against corruption. Particularly important is that this fight take place at the beginning of the big electoral cycle when the Kremlin is trying to restart its agenda.
Taken individually, these motives [the editorial lists local elite conflict, upcoming elections, and strike against a “liberal”], probably would not have led to handing over Belykh, but they coincided. Despite his regularity, Belykh was "no one’s" governor, a vestige of Medvedev’s liberalization, and this made him an easy target in the big anti-corruption campaign show."

Campaign Financing Russian-Style

Money in politics is a hot button issue in the United States. But what about Russia? Does Russia’s elite fund political parties? Who do they fund if they do?

According to RBC, Russian political parties get the majority of their funding from the state. Since 2015, a party gets 110 rubles per voter. But parties also receive donations from businesses and private individuals. The sums are chump change by American standards, but they are there. Unsurprisingly, United Russia leads in donations while the Communist Party is dead last. According to electoral filings, the Party of Power received 5 billion rubles (about $77 million). However, donations from companies have fallen. In 2014, 375 companies filled ER’s coffers with 1.3 billion rubles. This dropped to 936 million in 2015.

What is also important is the relationship between these donations to ER, its candidates, and the companies that give them: the money goes to fund candidates who also manage or own the donor companies. So for example, the 24.8 million rubles donated by a Tomsk construction company lists aspiring Tomsk deputy Aleksandr Shpeter who won his ER primary to run on the single mandate ticket for local parliament. It is also not very surprising that of the top ten donating companies, half are connected to ER primary winners. The marriage of ER and capital is quite clear.

The Waning Days of the 6th Duma

In its waning days, the 6th Duma passed some pretty heinous laws concerning civil liberties. I won’t go through there here since Meduza has a nice rundown on them. The so-called “Yarovaya Laws,” named after their originator Deputy Irina Yarovaya basically expands telecommunications surveillance, stiffens punishments for “extremism” and inciting mass protest, and even hits religious proselytization. Amendments that would have allowed for the stripping of Russian citizenship were removed at the last minute. All in time for the upcoming Duma elections.
As we all know the Duma is pretty obedient. It seems fear is a pretty motivating factor. For example, Andrey Tumanov, a deputy from Just Russia admitted on Ekho Moskvy that:
“I think the majority of United Russia were also against the laws from my conversations with people. But party discipline is even more so before elections because you can find yourself scratched off the party list. So people are scared.”
Russia’s Senate passed the Yarovaya laws. They must be controversial because a whole five senators voted against them! And nine abstained!
Dmitry Peskov played coy with the media hinting that Putin might veto the laws because of the criticism coming from all corners. Putin using his veto power would be quite shocking since he almost never does that.
The 6t h Duma passed laws like a Stakhanovite shucks coal. It considered over 6000 laws and passed 1816 (383 in its last session!). Such a cascade of laws is quite overwhelming and how Russia’s feeble institutions will process and implement them is a big unknown. However, as Ekaterina Shulman notes at Vedomosti, “Upwards of 85 percent of the laws the Duma considered are not really new laws but amendments to existing ones. In our system, adopting a new law is not the end but the beginning of a conversation about the "regulation."

In my view, all this legislation is just another sign that Russian governance is mostly on paper.
Recommended Reading
The Russian Reader translates Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina’s forceful opinion “Russia in the Pit of Stability” from Moskovskii komsomolets: “In the nineties, it was only the free hand of the market that suffocated ordinary folk, but now the market will be reinforced by the strong arm of the state.”
In Novaya gazeta, Natalia Zotova has a short piece looking into the phenomenon of fake divorces among State Duma deputies as a means to hide assets. “Of the current Duma deputies there have been 102 divorces compared to only seven in the last Duma.”
Alexei Kovalev peels the layers of Russian media in his must read “Life after facts: How Russian State Media Defines Itself Through Negation” in Open Democracy. “The monolith known as “Russian propaganda” is not as invincible as we’re used to believing.”

Tom Junes’ “The Trap of Countering Russia” examines the impact of the West-Russia conflict on grassroots movements in Eastern Europe. “The ultimate trap, however, would be to persist in engaging a supposed Russian threat in the EU’s eastern European periphery by continuing to support corrupt and authoritarian governments (and their oligarch backers), thereby stifling legitimate grassroots demands and democracy.”
Ksenia Polouektova-Krimer delves into the endless recycling of Soviet WWII dead, the sacralization of the war’s memory, and the enduring trauma over Russia society. “The failure to fully confront and work through the trauma of the war dovetails with a refusal to own up to the legacy of Stalinism and the Soviet regime as a whole.”
Kevin Rothrock presents a snapshot of the reaction of Russia’s LGBT community to the Orlando massacre by way of longtime Russian LGBT activist and journalist Elena Kostyuchenko’s Facebook posts. “I don’t particularly like this word, “homophobia.” It’s abstract, but at least it roughly captures why, in the past two years, 19 of my friends have been attacked, two friends were raped, and another two were killed. And more than 20 people [I know] have been forced to leave the country. All this has happened just within my circle of friends, which isn’t all that big.”
Copyright © 2016 Sean's Russia Blog, All rights reserved.

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