20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s roundup, New Times discusses what the new bill forcing Western-funded outlets to register as “foreign agents” implies in reality; Oleg Demidov details why Russia offered to develop a separate Internet for the BRICS countries and how this could cause the fragmentation of the World Wide Web; Boris Kolonitsky talks about memory politics and what unites Russian people today; Oleg Kharkordin poses the question of whether Russia has a republican future; Aleksei Makarin continues the debate on how Russia can achieve economic and political development via transitional institutions.


On November 25, Vladimir Putin signed a new media law allowing Russia to register international media outlets as foreign agents. The measure is seen as a quid pro quo move to the U.S. demand made to a Kremlin-funded RT. Above Putin is pictured with RT's editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev / TASS.


  1. New Times: “Foreign Agents—Now a Sign of Quality”

  • Journalists Olga Proskurnina and Elena Teslova discuss what media outlets should expect now that Putin has signed a new bill forcing Western-funded outlets to register as “foreign agents.”
  • The bill implicates Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the TV channel Current Time, and various projects of the U.S. Information Agency’s Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). Failure to register with the Russian Ministry of Justice as “foreign agents” and mark their publications with the same label will result in fines or closure.
  • Sources from the Duma told New Times that the bill, signed off by Putin, was created hastily as retaliation to the accusation of RT being a foreign agent in the U.S.
  • Still, the bill does not provide clarity on measures of responsibility or methods of coercion—it is unclear what the Russian government can threaten in light of violations, or how the procedure for blocking websites will look if a media outlet refuses to cooperate.
  • To better determine the potential effect(s) of the media law, New Times spoke with representatives from media organizations, as well as NGOs that were labeled “foreign agents” after the 2012 law on foreign-funded NGOs was passed.
  • Aleksei Simonov, the president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, claims that “foreign agent” status minimized his foundation’s opportunities—people refuse to associate with a “foreign agent.”
  • Alexander Cherkasov, a board member of Memorial, says that his story is more bureaucratic than repressive—that is, if you don’t count the regular raids the NGO is subjected to. Refusing to include the label of “foreign agent” on its materials, the organization dealt with numerous court cases and fines until it received a “black mark” in September. Risking closure, the board decided that their survival and operation were more important, and began including the “foreign agent” label.
  • A senior employee from Radio Liberty said that the bill was particularly worrying for local journalists. The source added that on the legal plane, the bill is quite different from its U.S. counterpart because in the U.S. both the laws and courts function.
  • A source from Marsho Radio, the North Caucasus service of RFE/RL, which has faced bans in the past, said that in the information age, circumventing blocks is not difficult. But the severity of these crackdowns is not going to abate: “This is the benefit of American democracy, which is helping us Russians to talk about the deplorable state of affairs in Russia,” the source concluded.

New Times, «Иностранный агент — теперь как знак качества», Ольга Проскурина, Елена Теслова, 27 ноября 2017 г.


  1. RBC: Sovereign Utopia. Why Russia Proposes to Create a “BRICS Internet”

  • Oleg Demidov, an expert on cybersecurity, details why Russia’s Security Council tasked the Ministry of Communications and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with developing a separate Internet for the BRICS countries, and how this could mark the beginning of real fragmentation of the World Wide Web.
  • The proposed system would essentially duplicate domain name root servers for the BRICS, independent of ICANN, IANA, and VeriSign control, which maintain the Internet’s ability to operate stably and securely.
  • In general, duplicated root servers are used to backup and reduce the burden on the 13 main root servers in the global DNS (Domain Name Servers). While many aspects of the proposed system remain unclear, it seems like it would simply enhance the stability of the global DNS.
  • It’s possible, however, that the proposal confused the terminology—it could be that Russia seeks to create an autonomous backup infrastructure for top-level—not root-level—servers that support the individual domain zones of the BRICS.
  • A third possibility is that Russia can’t reconfigure the existing model of the global Internet infrastructure, so it is seeking to build its own, “alternative” DNS root system for the BRICS, independent of the global one.
  • Demidov also notes that Russian policies on the Internet are being developed by people without expertise—while the Security Council has criticized the U.S. government’s control over Internet operations in the past, this plan contradicts its own position against sovereign control over the Internet. The globally distributed infrastructure of the Internet cannot be reorganized to serve only the tasks of national sovereignty and security.
  • Russia is the first nation to get close to fragmenting the Internet. Supporters of digital sovereignty like China and Iran—even North Korea—have not considered creating an alternative root. Other BRICS partners like India are actively investing in the global DNS.  
  • From the point of view of cyber threats, the Russian initiative is a perfect example of an attempt to fix something that isn’t broken. The global DNS has functioned surprisingly smoothly in face of a sharp and unprecedented increase in global cyber attacks. IT problems in Russia this year were not related to attacks on the national DNS segment.
  • In conclusion, Demidov writes that Russia will have to choose between greater integration of the Russian economy in the global digital market, whose unity is based on common infrastructure and shared standards, or digital self-isolation, which would hinder development for years to come.

РБК, Суверенная утопия: зачем Россия предлагает БРИКС создать «свой» интернет, Олег Демидов, 29 ноября 2017 г.


  1. Republic: Lack of Optimism Is Something That Unites People of Different Views and Stances 

  • Historian Boris Kolonitsky speaks with Republic on the “spirit of the times,” touching on the Bolshevik Revolution centenary, memory politics, and what unites Russian people today.  
  • Kolonitsky notes that the centenary was a missed opportunity to rationalize Russian historical and political consciousness. The only large public discussion emerged on the topic of Aleksei Uchitel’s controversial film Mathilda.
  • Kolonitsky believes that it’s not immediately clear why Putin and his circle decided not to probe discussion of the revolution. In Russia, the memory of World War II is exploitable, but not the memory of the revolution. In fact, silence from the government says that the Russian Revolution has not ended—and if the authorities don’t want to talk about it, it is still a dangerous subject.
  • However, the historian mentions that Putin indirectly expressed his position by participating in the opening of a memorial at the site of Grand Duke Sergey’s assassination and the monument to Alexander III in Crimea.
  • Conspiracies also flood our narratives of the revolution; some accounts exaggerate the significance of the special services, and others do likewise for the authorities. Kolonitsky advocates for a discussion of history from the point of view of victims, rather than leaders.
  • On the topic of nation-building, Kolonitsky notes that the Russian Orthodox Church has been lobbying its memory project quite successfully. While the future of the country depends on reconciliation between secularization and desecularization, believers and non-believers, these camps are only willing to reconcile on their own terms.
  • One of the factors that led to the 1917 revolution was that the subculture of the revolutionary underground was very developed and able to fuel political protest. But since 1993, most Russians have rejected the idea of revolution as a future prospect. This opinion unites people of all stripes and is a very important resource for the authorities (although it does not mean revolution is impossible).
  • Kolonitsky concludes that Russians today are united by a lack of optimism, which, in turn, affects attitudes to history.

Republic, «Отсутствие оптимизма – вот что объединяет людей разных взглядов и позиций», Егор Сенников, Борис Колоницкий, 24 ноября 2017 г.


  1. Republic: Does Russia Have a Republican Future?

  • The path for Russia to political freedom doesn’t necessarily lie only in fair and competitive elections and independent media, argues Oleg Kharkordin, the head of the Res Publica Сenter. The country would do well to focus on promoting equal access to local and regional decision-making bodies.
  • After the chaos of Russia’s attempt to adopt liberal reforms in the nineties, words like “democracy” and “liberal” lost their shine. But though these reforms failed, this doesn’t mean freedom is not enjoyed in some ways by Russians, or that Russia is doomed to be a country of slaves and masters. Freedom in Russia is simply illiberal.
  • Like in the West, Russian citizens are happy to hand the burden of solving political issues to parliamentarians and other officials, but over time, government bodies have become increasingly isolated from ordinary people, who have lost the motivation to go to the polls. Elections are a way to change the ruling elite, not to secure access to power.
  • Liberalism was preceded by republicanism, which states that access and participation in politics are important. Elections aren’t enough—only active channels of direct participation will guarantee political freedom for citizens.
  • Elements of republicanism have always existed in Russia, particularly in local and regional forms of government, where civic participation is beginning to promote common interests and a fairer distribution of the budget.
  • A local authority that cooperates with its residents benefits from legitimizing its work and creates real support bases for future candidates. When citizens are involved in solving complex problems, this also raises awareness that there are no simple solutions.
  • However, Kharkordin argues that instead of demanding the expansion of avenues for civic participation, citizens concentrate their demands on fair elections and problems of state-controlled media, which won’t foster a more representative democracy.
  • Still, the author proposes that republican traditions will further develop in Russia. Civic participation won’t replace elections, but it can supplement them. Republicanism gives people the chance to live freely among equals, so the introduction of its mechanisms need to be introduced and enhanced, starting on the local and regional levels.

Republic, Свобода не там. Есть ли у России республиканское будущее?, Олег Хархордин, 28 ноября 2017 г.


  1. Carnegie.ru: Transitional Institutions. How Consensus on Their Goals and Introduction Is Born

  • Political scientist Aleksei Makarin continues the debate on what Russia’s future will look like and highlights the economic and political development via transitional institutions (see Sergei Guriev’s argument).
  • Makarin argues that transitional institutions are suitable for a gradual transition to new forms of government, but only on condition that all participants reach consensus on national goals.
  • Though critics say that Russia should not copy the Western experience, reforming the country with the help of intermediate institutions seems attractive based on successful outcomes in various countries, such as the Czech Republic and China.
  • The Czech Republic established consensus among the elite after disposing of the upper bureaucratic layer, associated with the failed reforms of the Prague Spring. The government then established a plan to “Europeanize” the country with market reforms, dialogue with society, and competitive elections. Makarin argues that both Hungary and Poland should have played the same game.
  • In China after the death of Mao, the most prominent Chinese leaders promoted exercising reasonable restraint in politics and shedding Mao’s chaotic economic system in favor of a planned socialist economy. Dissenters were purged from the elite, creating a consensus that exists to this day, alongside China’s strong market economy.
  • In Russia, consensus exists in the elite, but it’s based on the rejection of revolutionary scenarios, which pose a threat to its existence. While they can feasibly establish new institutions, they’d rather maintain the status quo, lacking drive to initiate change.
  • Similarly, Russian society is not against change—as long as shots are not heard in the streets—but only a narrow portion of Russians are ready to fight for change.  
  • Most importantly, the goals directing the future of the country remain unseen. The European path is not possible—to Russians, Europe is a geopolitical opponent, and a gateway to same-sex marriage and migration problems. To Europeans, Russia is now simply a place that poses threats.
  • But Russia won’t be better off forging its own, individual path. The patriotic discourse has grown, but there is no confidence or future plans behind it. The future of oil prices and the stability of the political system are unknown—these issues must be answered before Russia knows what place it will take in the modern world.
  • In conclusion, writes Makarin, this does not mean that Russians cannot try to initiate changes on the local level—they only need to understand the limits of what is possible so as to avoid disappointment.

Carnegie.ru, Промежуточные институты. Как рождается консенсус о целях их внедрения, Алексей Макаркин, 24 ноября 2017 г.