In this week’s roundup, New Times profiles Ksenia Sobchak, who announced her presidential bid this week; Kirill Rogov argues that Sobchak’s campaign is concocted by the Kremlin to split support for Alexei Navalny; Vedomosti discusses the Kremlin’s latest media strategy for fostering positivity; Yakov Mirkin explains what saved the Russian economy and the risks facing it today; Elena Milashina details the plight of the first openly gay victim of persecution in Chechnya, Mikhail Lapunov. If you are interested in receiving this weekly roundup in your mailbox every Friday, let us know at info@imrussia.org.

 

This week, TV Rain host Ksenia Sobchak announced her presidential bid for the 2018 elections. Her campaign is viewed by some experts as the Kremlin's project and a "spoiler" against Alexei Navalny's efforts to prove that Putin's future victory is illegitimate. Photo: Sergei Fadeichev / TASS.

 

  1. New Times: Sobchak's New Show: Dom-2018

  • Journalist Olga Proskurnina profiles Ksenia Sobchak, the 35-year-old TV host and daughter of the first St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who is due to announce her presidential bid in the 2018 elections [Editor’s note: Sobchak confirmed she will run for president on October 18.]
  • Aside from her father, Sobchak is perhaps best known for her role on the longest running reality TV show in history, “Dom 2,” which she began working on in 2004.
  • She also was first listed as a celebrity in Russian Forbes in 2007 (which estimated her annual income at $1 million, and even began a youth movement in 2006, although she claimed it had no political purpose.
  • Sobchak's involvement in politics dates back to the 2011-2012 mass protests in Moscow, where her participation in the rally led to her removal from contracts with national television stations. In March 2012, an investigation began on the suspicion that Sobchak had financed the riots, but the case never reached court, and money seized by investigators was returned to her, allegedly on Putin's order.  
  • One of the Russian pollsters, Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), states that by the summer of 2012, Sobchak had become the most recognized “opposition leader.” For the past five years, her political capital has been supported by TV Rain, one of the few independent networks in Russia, where she hosts a talk show, Sobchak Live.
  • One expert cited by the article notes that Sobchak may be interested in the fame and media attention that comes with running for president, plus her participation would add much-needed levity to the 2018 elections and allow for an assessment of how protests influence the elections.
  • Sobchak's nomination has also noticeably alarmed Alexei Navalny, who urged Sobchak on his YouTube channel not to participate in the "disgusting Kremlin game titled, ‘We'll attract a liberal laughing stock to distract attention.’” Sobchak retorted that “to push away our own allies as soon as the prospect of political competition looms is wrong.”
  • A former high-ranking official of the Presidential Administration told New Times that Sobchak’s nomination could be useful, making the elections more lively and raising voter interest. Besides, it’s an absolutely safe bet for the Kremlin.

New Times, Новое шоу Собчак “Дом-2018”, Ольга Проскурина, 16 октября 2017 г.

 

  1. Echo Moskvy: Dom-3: Sobchak, Navalny, Putin

  • Political scientist Kirill Rogov comments on the launch of Ksenia Sobchak’s presidential campaign, noting that she is a very talented, creative person, but her only political capital is her connection to Putin.
  • Despite her being the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, who introduced Vladimir Putin to his political career, Rogov argues that Ksenia is essentially the product of the Putin era with its “unprincipled consumerism, growing nepotism and sweeping enrichment of the new oil elites that accepted the new rules of the game.”
  • Sobchak’s part in the 2018 presidential campaign is to play the spoiler role. But she is not to “spoil” Putin’s plan—she is to compete with Alexei Navalny for his electorate.
  • Navalny’s goal is to pressure the Kremlin so much that his inevitable ban from running becomes the central issue of the political agenda, thus undermining and delegitimizing Putin’s future victory.
  • Sobchak’s goal is to run on a platform similar to that of Navalny’s (opposing the manipulation and arbitrary administration of law), albeit a softer one, and thus show that opposition activity in Russia is possible.
  • Rogov contends that the Sobchak project could be called “opposition light.” Like Navalny, she will try to engage in as much “media hype” as possible, but her campaign will not be brutal. Her protests will feature a creative atmosphere, attracting various celebrities.
  • Through Sobchak, the Kremlin will try to split Navalny’s youth vote; she can easily compete with him in the few independent media outlets that still like Navalny (TV Rain and Echo Moskvy) and on social media platforms.
  • Rogov concludes that Sobchak’s campaign is a bright and smart idea introduced by Sergei Kiriyenko’s team [Editor’s note: Kiriyenko is deputy head of the Presidential Administration and curator of Russia’s domestic politics.]
  • He also points to one potential soft spot of the Sobchak project that he calls “the Medvedev effect”—that is when a strong agenda articulated by a weak candidate overpowers the latter, in which case certain surprises should be anticipated.

Эхо Москвы, Дом-3: Собчак, Навальный, Путин, Кирилл Рогов, 19 октября 2017 г.

 

  1. Vedomosti: We Will Be “More Better Dressed” Again

  • Vedomosti columnists Pavel Antekar and Andrei Sinitsyn discuss the Kremlin’s latest media strategy for fostering positivity: a “news” program called “Life Is Getting Better.”  
  • As part of this program, First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Sergei Kiriyenko instructed representatives from federal and regional authorities to boost news coverage that illustrates the improvement of life in Russia—in particular, programs that support agriculture, small business, and the appearance of new jobs.
  • This tactic is not new. “Good news factories” have been successfully operating in different regions for several years now, and it is likely that expenditures will continue to be made for PR.
  • Citing Marshall McLuhan, the authors write that in a democratic society, “real news is bad news.” The function of good news is to advertise and balance perception. Similarly, McLuhan characterizes the Soviet press as having been a total industrial advertisement.
  • According to data from FOM, in August 2015, 53 percent of respondents believed that the mass media does not completely illuminate the economic situation. In August 2017, these figures rose to 65 percent.
  • While FOM analyst Grigory Kertman believes that the new Kremlin policy could affect the mass mentality if “good news” is conveyed subtly and cleverly, this is unlikely to happen in the near future.
  • Like the meme “We have become more better dressed” that emerged after an infamous 2011 interview with “Sveta from Ivanovo,” the authorities’ attempts to create a positive image for themselves in the media are considered propagandistic and inept.

Ведомости, Мы снова станем «более лучше одеваться», Павел Аптекарь, Алексей Синицын, 16 октября 2017 г.

 

  1. Republic: The Diagnosis after Three Years of Crisis, or Why the Russian Economy Survived 

  • At the turn of 2014-2015, it was uncertain as to whether the Russian economy would emerge standing. Yakov Mirkin, the head of International Capital Markets Department Institute of World Economy and International Relations, lists seven reasons to explain what saved the Russian economy and seven major risks to its future.
    • Growth in the global economy.
    • The rise in prices for raw materials and the continued demand for Russian raw materials.
    • Dynamics of the dollar/euro exchange rate—the dollar has become weaker to the euro, which always increases world prices for raw materials. In turn, this has restrained the weakening of the ruble and inflation within Russia.
    • Trade relations with the EU have proved to be strong—Russian oil and gas exports continue to go to the West, cars continue to be imported to Russia, and even the U.S. share in Russia’s foreign trade will increase this year. What Russia does not buy in the West, it will get in the East.
    • The devaluation of the ruble in 2014, while painful, was useful for the economy—it decreased the gigantic gap between the real and nominal effective ruble exchange rates, helped commodity companies remain profitable, and created an economic barrier to the export of capital from Russia.
    • The “crutch economy”: The state created artificially normal market conditions, including loan availability, low loan interest, tax cuts, and direct investments from the budget. However, these are only props created at the expense of the budget.
    • The “shadow economy,” which has grown since 2014 in reaction to economic crisis.
  • Mirkin argues that any new shock to the economy could ruin it, especially since there is nothing more volatile than world prices for raw materials, exchange rates, and the whims of non-resident investors. The main risks to the future of the Russian economy are:
    • Remaining a predominantly commodity economy.
    • High military expenditures.
    • Nationalization, superconcentration, and the tightening of administrative pressure.
    • Archaic view of life that does not value technological development.
    • The financial risk associated with banks and with the system of carry trades.
    • External issues: the destabilization of raw materials prices, the strengthening of the dollar, external geopolitical shocks.
    • Long term technological risks, due to the sanctions.

Republic, Диагноз после трех лет кризиса, или Почему российская экономика выжила, Яков Миркин, 17 октября 2017 г.

 

  1. Novaya Gazeta: New Exposé of Gross Human Rights Violations in Chechnya

  • Elena Milashina, the editor of the special projects department at Novaya Gazeta, reveals the latest piece of her investigation into gross human rights violations in Chechnya, and details the plight of the first openly gay victim of persecution, Mikhail Lapunov.
  • In April, Milashina published an article titled “Honor Killing” on the mass persecution of homosexuals in Chechnya. Throughout the investigation process, Novaya Gazeta worked with the Russian LGBT Network, an NGO, which has a hotline for victims and has evacuated more than 100 people suffering from persecution in Chechnya and Russia.
  • The victims turned to the paper for help, and Milashina and her team urged these survivors to meet with journalists safely and anonymously.
  • The paper took a risk in publishing the story, but these Chechens risked something much greater: their lives. Under the Ramzan Kadyrov regime, homosexuality is viewed as shameful; therefore, the decision was made to cleanse the population of homosexuality.
  • In publishing the article in April, Novaya Gazeta hoped to force the federal government to deny immunity granted to the Chechen authorities and to label it as an accomplice in a violation of human rights that is unprecedented even for Russia.
  • In April, the team sent a request to the Investigative Committee of Russia and its head, Alexander Bastrykin, to launch an investigation, and when that did not work, wrote directly to General Prosecutor Yuri Chaika. In May, Moscow’s Basmanny Court refused to consider Novaya Gazeta's complaint or recognize the lack of action on the part of Bastrykin.
  • On April 19, however, a pre-investigation inspection was sanctioned on the extrajudicial mass killings in Chechnya for the first time in 10 years of Kadyrov’s reign. But no real political will was shown as to improving the human rights situation in Chechnya, only the imitation of it. A criminal case was never launched.
  • The state exploited the weakest point of the story—the anonymity of the victims—but the journalistic accuracy still made them nervous. In a meeting with Putin, Kadyrov himself mentioned the name of a person who, according to Novaya Gazeta, had been detained for being a homosexual.
  • Human Rights Commissioner Tatiana Moskalkova went from accusing journalists of “provocation,” “speculation,” and “false denunciation” to pointing to the ineffectiveness of investigating such crimes in Chechnya and the need to create an interdepartmental investigative group in federal law enforcement agencies. She also raised the need to grant victims effective state protection.
  • Novaya Gazeta also wanted to reveal that the Chechen victims were killed without trial or investigation. The team gave Moskalkova the names of these victims—not only gay men, but also people charged with terrorism without any evidence—and the human rights commissioner became a negotiator.
  • Through Moskalkova, Novaya Gazeta was able to talk to the government, which was otherwise closed off. On April 24, the team also initiated a meeting between Moskalkova and two victims.
  • While Novaya Gazeta’s investigation was developing, there was a constant lack of live victims ready to testify. Finally, on August 29, Milashina’s team told the state about Maxim Lapunov, a small business owner who had lived in Chechnya for two years before being detained by Chechen security officials on March 16 and tortured for almost two weeks in a cellar, presumably at the Criminal Investigation Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs—a so-called “secret prison” in Chechnya. He was beaten because he had "spoiled" Chechnya with his homosexuality.  
  • He called the Russian LGBT Network’s hotline in early May and did not back down from a fight, even when he was told that he would have to return to Chechnya for trial and meet his tormentors face to face. For three months, the "Committee against Torture" conducted a public inquiry into Lapunov’s detention. Human rights defenders visited several regions of the country, including Chechnya, interviewing witnesses and obtaining evidence.
  • Milashina believes that Lapunov will not be the first to file a report with the Investigative Committee, and that other victims who left Russia for asylum countries will join him as the case continues to raise awareness internationally.
  • The state has no more trump cards on this story—the only argument Milashina foresees is that officials will claim that Russian gays, like Chechen gays, do not exist.

Новая газета, «Максим первый, но не единственный, кто осмелится подать заявление в СК», Елена Милашина, 16 октября 2017 г.

 

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