20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s roundup, Ivan Pavlov explains the latest media law in Russia that would force foreign media to register as “foreign agents’’; Damir Gainutdinov shares the findings of Agora’s report titled “A Hundred Russian Whistleblowers”; Grigory Yavlinsky makes the case that in the long term, anti-Russian sanctions are a critical concern for the country; The Bell details Economic Minister Maxim Oreshkin’s plan to reform his office and set up a new standard for other state agencies; Sergei Guriev writes that Russia needs to establish transitional institutions first if it wants to move beyond its “dependency path.”


RT America has registered as a foreign agent with the U.S. Department of Justice. Photo: Jaap Arriens, NurPhoto via ZUMA Press / TASS


  1. RBC: Asymmetrical Response: What the Law on Registering Media as Foreign Agents Will Bring About

  • On November 15, the lower house of the Duma hastily approved a new media law that would force foreign media to register as “foreign agents.” Ivan Pavlov, the director of an NGO called “Team 29” that works to increase the Russian government’s transparency, explains its possible ramifications, pointing to cracks in the legislation.
  • The law stipulates that foreign media or any organization that “can be recognized as a foreign agent” must report their activities, incomes, and expenditures to the Ministry of Justice each quarter, as well as add the “foreign agent” label to their publications.
  • As with the 2012 law on foreign-funded NGOs in Russia (which lawmakers claimed was a response to a similar law in the U.S.), Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin identified this media law as revenge for the recent forced registration of the Kremlin-funded network RT in the U.S. as a foreign agent.
  • But the U.S. and Russian laws are very different. Unlike in the U.S., there is no question in Russia as to whether the media is engaged in political activity and propaganda.
  • The U.S. law also applies exclusively to representatives of foreign governments and parties in order to regulate the lobbying activities of foreign organizations. Moreover, the U.S. law can only ask organizations already registered in the U.S. to register as foreign agents—the Russian media law entails that Russia must find media registered abroad and see who funds it.
  • For an NGO in Russia to be classified as a “foreign agent,” it merely needs to receive foreign funding and be involved in “political activities”—a vague definition that includes anything from social media posts to carrying out polls.
  • The Russian media law takes a step further than the law on NGOs, allowing the authorities to block the websites of “undesirable organizations*,” but many questions remain.
    • The media is designed much more differently and is harder to control than an organization. It is also likely that content distributors not registered as media are not yet threatened.
    • Because the law concerns foreign media, it is unclear whether the media should they be judged under Russian law or under the law of the country where they are registered.
    • The law refers both to legal entities and to “foreign structures that are not legal entities,” suggesting that websites and blogs that are unregistered may be at risk.
    • Based on the wording of the bill, Russian media registered abroad, like RT, may also be subject to the law (though a member of the Duma noted separately that the law will not apply to Russian media).
    • The law establishes that any media that distributes content in Russia is under question, but this includes any media with a website that people inside Russia can access.
  • It is not yet clear what will happen to those who refuse to register, though some members of the Duma have suggested sanctions or even amending the Criminal Code to allow for up to two years’ imprisonment.
  • As Pavlov concludes, the real consequences of the law will be seen once it is implemented.

РБК, Асимметричный ответ: чем обернется закон о СМИ — иностранных агентах, Иван Павлов, 15 ноября 2017 г.

* Disclaimer: The Institute of Modern Russia was designated as an “undesirable organization” by the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office on April 29, 2017.


  1. Republic: Russian Whistleblowers: from Litvinenko to Rodchenkov.

  • Damir Gainutdinov, a legal analyst at the international human rights organization Agora, shares the findings of his team’s report (in Russian), titled “A Hundred Russian Whistleblowers,” since 1995.
  • He explains who these whistleblowers are, what they have achieved in Russia, and what they have risked in doing so. The key premise is that the current history of denunciations in Russia is just the beginning—there will be more whistleblowers each year.
  • Russian lacks an adequate translation for the English term “whistleblower”—some media outlets still say “informants” and “snitches.” In addition to their negative connotations, these terms typically describe dependent actors with self-serving motives.
  • Gainutdinov clarifies that the Agora report lists people and organizations that disclosed information that they had received from official, labor, contractual, or other formal relations with an organization or government body.
  • Famous names on the list include FSB employee Alexander Litvinenko, Moscow City Court judge Olga Kudeshkina, lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, policeman Aleksei Dymovsky, and former director of the Moscow-based Anti-Doping Center Grigory Rodchenkov.
  • But more than 90 percent of the names will be remembered by few, even though they tried to bring about change on the local level.
  • Only in one case out of 100 (that of Alexander Shestun) did the government defend the whistleblower. In all others, the accused were dismissed from their jobs, sent to psychiatric wards, forced into exile, died under strange circumstances, committed suicide, or were sentenced to various punishments. These consequences fell not only on the whistleblowers themselves, but also on their bosses.
  • The Russian authorities continue to expand the range of data classified as secret and to prohibit officials, military personnel, and the police from communicating with journalists, promoting the idea that disclosing relevant information to society is the activity of crooks.
  • But in most cases, concludes Gainutdinov, unreasonable restrictions produce the opposite effect. With the economic crisis, people who seek justice see no other way than to appeal directly to society, and today the majority has access to the Internet via their mobile devices. The story of whistleblowers in Russia has only just begun. 

Republic, Русские разоблачители: от Литвиненко до Родченкова, Дамир Гайнутдинов, 13 ноября 2017 г.


  1. Vedomosti: The Poor Heirs of Sanctions

  • Western sanctions, the subject of jokes in Russia, may not have dealt a significant blow to the Russian economy or influenced the Kremlin’s political decisions. But economist Grigory Yavlinsky makes the case that in the long term, they are a critical concern.
  • The main goal of Russia’s current foreign policy is to demonstrate its importance and equanimity with the U.S. So instead of a hindrance, sanctions play the role of a medal of achievement of sorts.
  • The problem is that to the Russian authorities, the economy is seen exclusively as a tool to achieve “glory” for themselves and for the country in the form of victorious military adventures or the subjection of neighboring states to Russian power. In this equation, long-term losses from sanctions don’t matter. And neither do values.
  • Yavlinsky argues that Western sanctions, however, could raise serious challenges for the Russian authorities, their current ambitions and for the country and its citizens in the long run.
  • The Russian authorities are striving to become a global power, but to expand the sphere of influence, large amounts of resources and a strong economy are required to maintain a military and political presence, as well as foreign clientele.
  • To be on par with the U.S., Russia needs its economy to grow 10 times over—something the sanctions obviously impede. Unless Russia can attract outside resources—especially financial and technological ones from developed countries—Russia will simply become a big North Korea, especially considering Russia’s intention to pour funds into preserving nuclear parity with the U.S.
  • Three years ago, sanctions were a means for Western politicians to force the Kremlin to change its policies or at least to refrain from taking undesired steps. But the introduction of the new sanctions and the retention of the old show that Western politicians in favor of reconciliation or negotiations with the Kremlin are being thwarted by those who see such actions as unnecessary or even harmful.
  • As is often the case, older generations dissatisfied with their own lives and the world around them are taking young people’s future away as if in revenge, condemning them to a senseless race for half-mythical past grandeur.
  • Yavlinsky concludes that this long-term vision should determine Russia’s current foreign policy decisions—not the ability to survive under sanctions.

Ведомости, Плохое наследство санкций, Григорий Явлинский, 13 ноября 2017 г.


  1. The Bell: Moving to the Future. How Minister Oreshkin is Fashioning a Model for Public Administration

  • This November marks a year since 35-year-old Maxim Oreshkin replaced Aleksei Ulyukayev as Russia’s economic minister. Bloomberg recently called Oreshkin Putin’s “new favorite official,” reporting on the former’s plan to revamp the ministry.
  • Wielding unprecedented authority, Oreshkin confirmed to The Bell that in October Putin had approved his plan to reform the ministry and set it up as a new model to be further scaled onto other state agencies. Journalist Aleksandra Prokopenko explains Oreshkin’s plans, which, if successful, may extend to the broader bureaucratic apparatus.
  • The role of the Economic Ministry came into question in December 2016, when Andrei Belousov, a Putin aide, asked the department to reconceptualize its role and aims. Belousov suggested the department focus on macroeconomic forecasts, tax reform, informatization of all state operations, and improving the business climate.
  • Known for his non-traditional approach (for example, announcing on Facebook that his ministry is hiring), Oreshkin hopes to create a “corporate culture” within the ministry to enhance motivation, modernize the work environment, and maximize efficiency. Prokopenko points out that this experiment was exacerbated by the ministry’s personnel crisis, with more than 100 vacancies in total. The lack of deputies means fewer employees have the authority to solve operational issues.
  • Oreshkin has brought newcomers onto his team, but already has fewer than six deputies (as opposed to Ulyukayev’s 12)—the others either moved on to other posts or resigned.
  • Oreshkin sees his approach as a positive turn for the ministry. It rejects the rigid hierarchy in favor of project-based teams and proposes monetary incentives and the creation of a personnel reserve—a body of specialists able to address the government's needs as they arise.
  • In terms of the projects themselves, the ministry optimistically predicts that GDP will grow by 2.1 percent in 2018 and by 2.3 percent by 2020. But Oreshkin promises little to Russians: neither pensions nor incomes are set to return to pre-crisis levels until 2022. And though Oreshkin supports tax reform, changes are unlikely to be realized.

The Bell, Переезд в будущее. Как министр Орешкин создает эталон в госуправлении,  Александра Прокопенко, 13 ноября 2017 г.


  1. Carnegie.ru: Transitional Institutions: Operating Conditions and Risks

  • Chief economist of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development Sergei Guriev argues that in Russia the ongoing economic debates focusing on current GDP growth are largely irrelevant in terms of the country’s long term development.
  • For a start, to reduce the GDP gap between Russia and the U.S. over 25 years, Russia’s economic growth rate has to outstrip America’s by 3 percent; to equal the U.S., it has to exceed it by 6 percent.
  • Guriev notes that there are four fundamental factors that define long term economic growth: human capital, economic and political institutions, geography and culture (comprised of values, preferences and social norms).
  • These factors change slowly over time; moreover, their interaction creates development traps, such as “path dependency” or “vicious circle,” yielding negative equilibriums that are very hard to overcome. Russian economist Alexander Auzan describes Russia’s problem as “path dependency.”
  • Developing countries, if they want to transition successfully to the developed cohort, need to establish transitional institutions first. According to studies of the Chinese economy, where the term “transitional institutions” was initially introduced, some examples of such institutions include “township and village enterprises” and “dual-track liberalization,” which helped China move from a planned to a capitalist economy without collapsing in the process.
  • One of the key conditions for the proper functioning of transitional institutions is economic agents’ confidence that the government will fulfill its obligations.
  • Another condition is a political system aimed at long-term development, one that can tolerate the introduction of checks and balances. The Russian system doesn’t meet these criteria yet.
  • One of the risks of creating transitional institutions is the emergence of interest groups that will strive to preserve the status quo and stall further transition to the optimal institutions.
  • Guriev concludes that it’s crucial to start building transitional institutions as soon as possible, but one has to keep in mind that choosing the right direction for this development is equally important.

Carnegie.ru, Промежуточные институты. Каковы условия и риски их работы, Сергей Гуриев, 13 ноября 2017 г.