The RuNet Delusion

“If an authoritarian regime can crumble under the pressure of a Facebook group, whether its members are protesting online or in the streets, it’s not much of an authoritarian regime. The real effects of digital activism would thus most likely be felt only in the long term rather than immediately.”

This is what Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion, said about the Internet’s power to topple regimes. Subtitled “The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” Morozov’s book focuses on the challenges facing states confronting digital threats and the Web’s unfortunate empowerment of fringe groups that sometimes spills into the real world as hatred and violence. This he presents as the untold story of online activism — the overlooked “dark side.” The good sibling to this nastiness is the more familiar story of Twitter-organization, flash mobs, and color revolutions. The Net Delusion is a useful counterweight to the loads of fluff that’s written about the democratizing wizardry of digital social networks. But there are reasons to wonder whether or not Morozov is only inflating popular delusions about the Web by overlooking the regular ineffectiveness of online mobilization. (For instance, the word “ineffective” only appears six times in the entire book, and always in the context of government attempts to control the Internet.) Continue reading ‘The RuNet Delusion’ »

AGT Exclusive: Interview with the Author of Politrash_ru

Over the weekend, in the aftermath of Unity Day and the Russkii Marsh, yours truly interviewed the author behind one of LiveJournal’s most popular anonymous blogs. According to Yandex, “Politrash_ru” ranks as the 111st most read blog on LiveJournal, just ten places lower than Ilya Yashin and 115 places above Vladimir Milov. When Navalny publicly addressed his recent emails leak, he linked directly to Politrash’s attacks on him as an example of what he is up against. Politrash’s first post on the Navalny-Belkovsky email scandal was for a time the most-visited post on all of LiveJournal. Continue reading ‘AGT Exclusive: Interview with the Author of Politrash_ru’ »

The Big Navalny

Last week, a slew of Aleksei Navalny’s personal emails leaked onto the Web. The emails were originally available at but that site is now dead. For those of you with moral qualms about reading over this man’s private correspondence, it’s worth noting that Navalny himself has invited the public to have a look:

To read or not to read? […] Just go get it and read it. You have my permission. Better you read [the original] yourself than the interpretations of these gangs of bloggers, who post nothing but nonsense that all misses the mark. Continue reading ‘The Big Navalny’ »

The Nationalists Are Coming

Over the weekend, Bolotnaia Square hosted the latest gathering of ‘Khvatit kormit’ Kavkaz!’ (Enough feeding the Caucasus!), a Russian nationalist movement that first emerged last April. Saturday’s rally was attended by none other than Aleksei Navalny, who also took the stage and delivered a short speech. Navalny was visibly disappointed with the attendance, which was reportedly somewhere between three- and six-hundred people. This event came just two days after the public learned that Navalny would be joining the organizational committee of another nationalist organization, the ‘Russian March,’ which takes place annually on Unity Day in November. (The photograph above was taken by yours truly, at the site of the 2008 ‘Russian March.’) Olesia Gerasimenko broke the ‘Russian March’ story on in an article highlighting how awkward and embarrassing Navalny’s nationalism is becoming for supporters of his anti-corruption work. Continue reading ‘The Nationalists Are Coming’ »

The FSB’s Wikileak? Gleb Vlasov vs Oleg Feoktistov

Last month, someone writing under the pseudonym Gleb Vlasov created a LiveJournal account and posted a single article with several revelations and accusations against FSB General Oleg Feoktistov.

Feoktistov, First Deputy Head of the FSB’s 9th Division, the Internal Security Directorate (or ‘USB’), earned his current position (according to Vlasov) by leading the 2007-2008 investigation of Aleksandr Bul’bov, the FSKN general who was arrested after wiretapping FSB agents in connection with the Tri Kita scandal. Feoktistov’s new role in Division 9 didn’t offer a significant pay raise, but it did better position him to collect bribes, Vlasov claims, allowing access to the police branch with zero oversight, but jurisdiction across all law enforcement.

The winner: the FSB's USB.

In the hierarchy of the Russian police, the job of identifying corrupt cops falls to the MVD’s DSB (its Internal Affairs division), which works alongside the FSB’s Division M. Feoktistov’s USB oversees Division M, but nobody oversees Feoktistov’s USB.

When he got to the FSB-USB, Feoktistov grew close to Andrei Khorev, First Deputy Head of the MVD’s DEB (the Economic Security Department). (Vlasov claims that Rostekhnologiia’s Sergei Abutidze made the introduction.) In the DEB, Khorev was involved in extortion on a massive scale, receiving kickbacks from “bankers, customs officials, smugglers, construction companies,” and so on. Vlasov claims that Khorev was soon sending Feoktistov roughly five-hundred thousand dollars in protection money every week. Continue reading ‘The FSB’s Wikileak? Gleb Vlasov vs Oleg Feoktistov’ »

How Did So Many Kremlinologists Get It Wrong?

Are Russia-watchers guilty of over-thinking or over-hoping?

Sam Greene claims to have been the “last analyst left in Moscow who actually thought that Dmitri Medvedev would stay on as president of Russia,” but this is hyperbole. Analysts as talented as Stanislav Belkovsky, Igor Yurgens, and Gleb Pavlovsky (to name just a few) were also in Greene’s boat. The comes-as-no-surprise and told-you-so tone of the majority of post-September-24th reportage betrays a deeper curiosity that so many observers actually got it wrong.

How did this happen? Continue reading ‘How Did So Many Kremlinologists Get It Wrong?’ »

Exit Kudrin

In light of Aleksei Kudrin’s departure from the Ministry of Finance yesterday, I’m posting this follow-up to my initial thoughts about Russia after Putin’s return.

What's so funny?

Before Medvedev spit hellfire and brimstone at Kudrin on Monday, Igor Shuvalov seemed convinced that Russia’s long-time Finance Minister would be migrating from the ‘government’ to the ‘Kremlin,’ just as soon as the 2012 presidential elections were finished. (Incidentally, Shuvalov has now been saddled with overseeing Russia’s financial system, so perhaps he was speaking out of an anticipated need for help.)

After everything that happened yesterday, we’re left to wonder: did the timetable simply move up, allowing Kudrin to take a brief vacation before Putin appoints him to head the Central Bank, or has Russia’s ex-Minister of Finance permanently severed his ties with the establishment? Many analysts seem to agree that Kudrin doesn’t intend to join the opposition (though dissidents like Boris Nemtsov are suddenly saying nice things about him).

Kudrin’s public letter today, where he further explained his exit, was a fairly restrained follow-up to his initial criticism of Medvedev’s poor financial discipline (which, by the way, directly implicates Putin, who is the obvious ‘decider’ when it comes to defense and social spending, as well as taxes). The only snag was the bit where he described Pravoe Delo as an “artificial project that discredits liberal-democratic ideas.” An anonymous source in the Kremlin quickly fired back that, for all its artificiality, Kudrin seriously considered leading Pravoe Delo, and that his new reevaluation of the party is just sour grapes. Continue reading ‘Exit Kudrin’ »

No Time for Obituaries: Putin’s Return in 2012

The eternal, hotly-debated question about whether or not Vladimir Putin will return to the Kremlin was answered yesterday in the affirmative. None other than Dmitri Medvedev made the announcement, minutes before Putin returned to the stage at the United Russia party convention to deliver what was essentially an early victory speech.

Back to familiar shores.

There is much to lament in this development, but I’ll cast aside any personal disappointment and focus instead on what I view to be the greatest dangers now facing Russian politics observers and analysts. The inescapable conclusion today is that supporters of a second consecutive term for Dmitri Medvedev have suffered a major defeat. Whether we brand them ‘reformers,’ ‘ciliviki,’ or ‘liberals,’ this loose group among Russia’s political actors has lost the politician it hoped to ride for the next six years.

To better understand the nature of these ‘reformers,’ it’s worth remembering one of the funnier anecdotes about the current president: ‘Medvedev’s Party most certainly exists, but it’s unclear whether or not Medvedev himself is a member.’ Yesterday, we all learned that he is not.  Continue reading ‘No Time for Obituaries: Putin’s Return in 2012’ »