20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s roundup, Vedomosti addresses the failures of the Russian special services in the wake of St. Petersburg attack; Andrei Pertsev argues that this attack is unlikely to bridge the divide inside Russian society; The New Times speaks to political commentators on the meaning of the March 26 protests; Kirill Martynov discusses the Kremlin’s potential reaction to the protests; and RBC reports that Russian state TV may be allowed to address domestic issues. If you are interested in receiving this weekly roundup in your mailbox every Friday, let us know at info@imrussia.org.


People mourn the victims of the St. Petersburg bombing. Photo: Sergei Konkov / TASS. 


Vedomosti: The Illusion of Control

  • Vedomosti’s Opinions department comments on the St. Petersburg terrorist attack that claimed the lives of at least 11 people, leaving over 40 people injured.
  • Many large cities have been targets of terrorist attacks in recent years, but the difference with Russia is that the national special services are not publicly accountable for failing to protect civilians: investigative reports reviewing mistakes, announcing resignations or introducing operational changes are not released. The scope of their authority and sources of secret funding only expand.
  • The last time such a personnel purge took place inside the Russian special services was in 1995 following the hostage siege in Budyonnovsk hospital.
  • Another difference with Russia is that terrorist attacks prompt the government to respond with harsh political measures, such as abolishing gubernatorial elections, toughening laws on terrorism and extremism, etc. “War on terror” is also used a slogan for political campaigns.
  • At the same time, the perennial counterterrorism operations in the North Caucasus have created a whole “violence market” in the region with many actors pursuing their own interests. Even if the Russian special services claim to control this market, these actors can always invest in their own “projects.”
  • The fact that the attack on St. Petersburg happened during Vladimir Putin’s visit to the city is no coincidence—it’s a message, an attempt to impact the government.
  • The problem is that the government cannot react with harsh measures this time: the public space in Russia has been stifled to the point that no real discussion on terrorism and national security takes place. Therefore, all the Kremlin is left with are superficial, cosmetic actions, as opposed to a sorely needed, radical boost to the national security agenda.

Ведомости, Иллюзия контроля, редакционная статья, 4 апреля 2017 г.


Carnegie.ru: Why the St. Petersburg Terror Attack Won’t Unite Russian Society

  • Author: journalist Andrei Pertsev.
  • For many years, the struggle against terrorism has been a cornerstone for the Russian government and the basis of the social contract. The message from the Kremlin to society has been clear: if you want to live peacefully, keep quiet.
  • The Kremlin has always used the anti-terror consensus to pursue its interests: in 2004 local elections were cancelled in the wake of the Beslan school siege; and in 2015 it was the pretext behind Russia’s intervention in Syria, not to mention a surge of anti-extremism laws which have hindered political discussion and demonstrations ever since.
  • The opinion that Russia is terrorism-free had become conventional wisdom. The Russian government has been telling its people that Europe is attacked because its governments are weak. But the St. Petersburg atrocity suddenly evoked memories of past failings, and the list of questions for the government is long.  
  • Pertsev notes that perhaps now people will begin to reflect on the Kremlin’s supposed strengths and pose awkward questions. If attacks are possible in a city that the president is visiting that very same day, what could happen in a remote and defenseless town?
  • Why is it that during the March 26 anti-corruption protests there was a huge security presence, yet there were not enough resources to prevent a terror attack?
  • The Kremlin understands the importance of the problem, but does not know what to do about it. Putin’s visit to the scene of the explosion was spontaneous—he had not taken such action in a long time. Yet, the overall coverage of the attack in the state media channels has been restrained and simplistic.  
  • As a result, the public is expecting a further tightening of the screws. Instead of uniting the nation, the St. Petersburg tragedy may become a pretext for a witch hunt, once again showcasing the rifts within society. And all this comes just when the Kremlin is eyeing its presidential campaign.  

Carnegie.ru, Почему теракты в Петербурге не объединяют российское общество, Андрей Перцев, 4 апреля 2017 г.


The New Times: Navalny Becomes the Only Alternative to Putin

  • The New Times spoke to three political commentators about the March 26 anti-corruption protests, asking them about the protest demographics, Navalny’s prospects, and the Kremlin’s potential response.
  • Mikhail Vinogradov, president of the Petersburg Politics Foundation:
    • In recent years there hasn’t been a “pressure valve” moment in politics; a new generation has arisen which is immune to official propaganda; “corruption” has become a byword for injustice and power abuse by the elite.  
    • Navalny can become much more dynamic and target members of the elite; he can turn himself into a symbol that all disenfranchised citizens can latch on to.  
  • Abbas Gallyamov, political scientist:
    • Young people are the least politically active group in Russian society, thus the recent protests show that interest in politics has grown substantially. Expect a high turnout in the next elections, expect a surge in protests.  
    • Navalny has achieved two goals: he has shown a rise in a new sort of politics and demonstrated that he is the sole leader of the non-systemic opposition.  
    • The government is lost and has to choose between either ignoring the protests or blaming them on U.S. meddling. The problem is that people are losing interest in foreign affairs. The logical response would be for the government to fire Medvedev and put Navalny in prison.  
  • Dmitri Oreshkin, political geographer:
    • The younger demographics of the recent protests can be explained by the Navalny factor: he has been using the right language on the right topics in the right way. Young people also sense the dead end that the country has run itself into. Finally, the elite have lost touch with reality.
    • Navalny has become the only alternative to Putin—not because of his agenda or ideals, but because of his courage. He’s the only person playing seriously, while everyone else is all talk and no action.  
    • From the government, expect nothing but bitterness, scare-tactics, and attempts to prosecute Navalny and his fellow activists.  
  • Tatiana Stanovaya, analyst at the Centre for Political Technologies:
    • The opposition gained a valuable resource by enlisting the support of young people in Russia, but it is yet unclear what kind of group it is.
    • The March 26 protests were a personal success for Navalny. However, he still faces the problem of being an “outsider” for the Kremlin and thus the threat of serious repression. Besides, the protests were not for Navalny, but rather against injustice.
    • The government likely doesn’t know what to do, therefore a chaotic reaction may ensue. The Kremlin will be looking for a “technocratic approach” and blame it all on the U.S. Watch for the reaction of the siloviki

New Times, Навальный становится единственной альтернативой Путину, Иван Давыдов, Анастасия Тороп, 3 апреля 2017 г.


Novaya Gazeta: The Country Won’t Accept the “Sit Down” Command

  • Author: political commentator and journalist Kirill Martynov.
  • Martynov argues that following the March 26 protest, the Russian authorities are trying to find a way to overcome the conflict between the elite and the public. “A dangerous argument is unraveling between the ‘hawks’ and the ‘moderates,’” notes the author.
  • Essentially, the Kremlin is pondering three scenarios:
    • 1) “zero”: the arrested protesters will be released soon, no other punitive actions will follow, and the previous status quo returns;
    • 2) “light”: some members of Alexei Navalny’s team will be prosecuted on the grounds of politically motivated hooliganism, and they may be imprisoned for up to seven years;
    • 3) “Bolotnaya-2”: random people may get charged with attempts at organizing mass riots, which means they may be sentenced to 8-15 years in prison.
  • Martynov contends that each scenario involves certain risks for the regime: the harsher the reaction to the protests, the higher the risks.
  • The siloviki believe that a crackdown may “conserve” what they view as the current stability for several years, while prosecuting the opposition will keep the law enforcement agencies employed. Thus, the “power sector” is the main beneficiary of harsh measures.
  • However, a repeat of the Bolotnaya case on a larger scale will have catastrophic consequences for the regime.
  • Some of them are: disruption of the 2018 Soccer World Cup in Russia; unpredictable public reaction (the authorities lack reliable data on the current social moods); further international isolation; failure of the “trust the president” agenda in the 2018 elections.
  • In the light of these risks and the need for self-preservation, the regime should seek compromise with the opposition, concludes Martynov.

Новая газета, Страна не примет команду “Сидеть”, Кирилл Мартынов, 1 апреля 2017 г.


RBC: The Kremlin Is Pondering Adjustments to Russian TV

  • Author: RBC correspondent Natalia Galimova.
  • RBC reports that the Kremlin is considering the option of allowing Russian state television to focus more on domestic issues. According to RBC sources in the government, people are tired of the constant war-mongering.
  • The problem, as viewed by the Kremlin, is that there is a gap between the issues that people are really concerned with (the economy, the situation in the country, their own prospects) and the current TV agenda, where the lion’s share of news is international. This discrepancy pushes people online, where they can discuss real problems.
  • However, as some political experts note, it is not clear how the Kremlin can recalibrate its propaganda machine that has been targeting “foreign enemies” for years. When this machine refocuses on domestic problems, the dangerous question of “who is to blame?” will inevitably arise.
  • Another issue is, will the current TV anchors (e.g. Vladimir Solovyov and Dmitri Kiselyov) be able change their aggressive style and “shift toward a more peaceful agenda?”
  • Some experts suggest that they will have trouble communicating the new agenda to the public, for “they are so used to getting instructions from the Kremlin that if they are told to invent something new, they will suffer from cognitive dissonance.” 

РБК, В Кремле задумались о перенастройке российского телевидения, Наталья Галимова, 5 апреля 2017 г.


Nathan Andrews helped compile this week's roundup.