Just A Man & His Will to Survive: Medvedev the Fighter?

Taking aim?

On September 8th, Russia’s two most prominent Dimas (President Medvedev and Representative to NATO Rogozin) both delivered speeches in Yaroslavl at the Global Policy Forum. The theme of the conference was “The Modern State in the Age of Social Diversity.” Rogozin elected to take part in a talk dedicated to “Global Security and Local Conflicts.” When he took the floor, however, he dedicated his remarks to “the nationalities question in Europe and Russia,” declaring the failure of multiculturalism and “pseudo-tolerance.” When Medvedev addressed the Forum’s Plenary Session (hours after Rogozin spoke), the President delivered a long and forceful defense of diversity, blaming poverty for ethnic and religious tensions (echoing Mikhail Prokhorov’s recent statements), and criticizing those in Russia who would exploit nationality divisions.

Commenting on the fact that Medvedev did not (a) announce whether or not he would run for reelection in 2012, or (b) set aside his speech to discuss transport security in the wake of recent plane crashes, Ellen Barry of the New York Times criticized the President for “going ahead with his script, a 30-minute discourse on the state’s approach to diversity.” Ms. Barry’s point is not irrational. Every time Medvedev steps into public to speak and does not address the 2012 question, he appears more indecisive and unlikely to return to the Kremlin. Since Medvedev’s bungled press conference in May, when he built up journalists’ expectations about a reelection revelation and then didn’t deliver, the foreign press has lost all patience with Russia’s commander and chief. “By the time he took his seat, the implication seemed clear,” Barry writes, “Mr. Medvedev was not prepared to fight for his job.”

While Russia’s third president could very well turn out to be a one-termer, the evidence in Yaroslavl hardly implies that he’s not fighting for his job. A gaping omission in Barry’s September 11th article is any mention of Rogozin’s speech, which–placed next to Medvedev’s–represents a clear polemic between civic patriotism (Medvedev) and ethnic nationalism (Rogozin). Continue reading ‘Just A Man & His Will to Survive: Medvedev the Fighter?’ »

Mikhail Prokhorov’s Truth

[Прочитать статью на русском языке здесь.]

Roughly eleven years ago, as Boris Yeltsin departed the Kremlin and Russia’s love affair with American culture turned sour, film director Aleksei Balabanov released a sequel to his 1997 hit “Brother.” Capturing the changing mood of the era, “Brother II” took place primarily in the United States, where the hero, Danila Bagrov (played by Sergei Bodrov), battled Ukrainian mobsters, black gangsters, and corrupt businessmen. Near the end of the film, Danila confronts the villain, an American tycoon named Mr. Menis, whom he tells about Russian truth and strength, loosely quoting Aleksandr Nevsky’s famous words “God is not in strength, but in truth”:

Now tell me, American, what is strength? Is it really in money? Well, my brother says it’s in money. You’ve got a lot of money. And so what? I happen to think that strength is in truth, and he who has truth on his side is stronger. So you cheated someone and got a bunch of money. So what — did you become stronger? No, you didn’t. That’s because the truth isn’t on your side. Now the person you cheated — he has truth on his side, which means he’s the stronger one.”

Who's stronger?

In a strange twist, Russia’s third-richest man, Mikhail Prokhorov, recently adopted Danila’s tough talk in a new advertising campaign, “Strength is in the Truth,” designed to boost his publicity in the lead up to parliamentary elections this December. Conveniently removing any talk about money (which might remind struggling Russians that Prokhorov is worth more than twenty billion dollars), the pre-election campaign is being conducted through a technically apolitical project called “Made-in-Russia,” cofounded with Russian GQ magazine editor Ksenia Sokolova. The reason for the smoke and mirrors is ostensibly that Russian election law forbids open campaigning before the President officially calls for elections later this month. (That said, Prokhorov’s political party, Pravoe Delo, has yet to finalize its platform, so the reappropriation of movie taglines is probably near to the best he can do, for now.) Continue reading ‘Mikhail Prokhorov’s Truth’ »

Tactical Democracy

On July 13, 2011, Aleksei Navalny shared a link to an interesting “Instruction Manual” on “Tactical Democracy” by Mikhail Zhivov, a Volgograd IT specialist who recently started a LiveJournal blog. Zhivov has just a handful of LJ ‘friends’ and even fewer followers on Twitter. Even Navalny didn’t bother to follow him.

Navalny's endorsement?

And yet, despite this obscurity, Russia’s ‘top blogger-activist’ tweeted these “instructions” to his more-than-sixty-thousand fans.

Zhivov lays out what might be called an ‘actionable plan’ to fulfill ‘Navalny’s option’ of oppositionist electoral strategy for the December elections: voting for any party other than United Russia. The article at first recommends that activists should avoid rallying behind any individual liberal figures, as it opens the movement to ad hominem debates and distracting scandals. In a lapse of short-term memory, however, Zhivov then transitions seamlessly to explaining how best to defend Navalny from pro-Kremlin attacks. He links to a separate LJ post by another blogger, who has compiled a list of (a) typical criticisms of Navalny (such as the accusations that he’s a CIA spy, or a Kremlin agent, or a nationalist, and so on), and (b) a list of recommended responses to those criticisms. (One expects that, before retweeting the piece, Navalny himself took at peek at this second LJ post — which curiously means that he directed his audience to list of the ten most comment assaults on his character and political motives.) Continue reading ‘Tactical Democracy’ »

A House Divided: the Russian Opposition & the 2011 Elections

As chatter among observers of Russian politics reaches a crescendo on the ‘Putin or Medvedev’ presidential question, another tournament quickly approaches. On December 4, 2011, the 450 seats in Russia’s parliament are up for grabs in national elections. Now that the Justice Ministry has rejected the official registration of the liberal party PARNAS, Russia’s democratic opposition faces a familiar crisis: what should its supporters do on election day?

Navalny's Option

While it remains unclear who among the dissidents enjoys the greatest support, the opposition’s loudest voices and biggest personalities are now in a full-scale war of ideas over what must be done come December. Roughly two weeks ago, on July 15, Grani.ru compiled a very useful list of comments by noteworthy public figures on this very subject. I have read each of the larger stories from which those excerpts were taken, and compiled my own collection of summaries. I’ve eliminated some superfluous characters, and I’ve organized the list by supporters, in order to avoid the confusion of Grani.ru’s original text, which combined supporters and opponents in the same categories.

I hope this will be of use to readers trying to understand the current direction of the opposition’s internal debate on electoral tactics. Continue reading ‘A House Divided: the Russian Opposition & the 2011 Elections’ »

The Night They Dined in Hell: Russia After Sagra

Last September, the rock group Leningrad released a controversial song about the much debated Khimki Forest. The music video featured a violent medley of famous cartoon characters fighting a grand battle royale.

Russians at war?

The recent skirmish in the town of Sagra was far more serious and deadly than Leningrad’s comic parody, but it too has inspired a both clownish and disconcerting contest among the familiar faces of Russian politics. What started as a small clash that killed one man has ballooned into a scandal that has activists and politicians scrambling to capitalize on issues that many central authorities refuse to address.

To prepare the reader for this story’s convolution, it’s useful to know the main characters in advance:

The Local Level

  • Sagra’s ethnic Russian inhabitants, who frightened off an invading horde of
  • 50-60 ethnic Azeris, based in Ekaterinburg, with criminal ties to
  • Sergei ‘the Gypsy’ Krasnoperov, likely a drug dealing scumbag who disrupted the law-obiding serenity of Sagra, by moving there.

The Regional Level

  • Evgeny Roizman and his group “A City Without Narcotics”
  • Mikhail V’iugin of URA.ru news

The National Level

  • Aleksandr Torshin
  • Vladimir Zhirinovsky
  • Aleksei Navalny
  • Sverdlovsk’s KPRF (regional) committee, speaking on behalf of the party as a whole
  • The Federal Investigative Committee (aka the ‘SK’)
  • United Russia

Popular backlash to the Sagra incident, not unlike the Kushchevskaia and Manezh tragedies last year, reveals a dangerous vacuum in Russian politics. Lacking coherent answers to questions about ‘nationality,’ social decay, and corruption (indeed, in many cases, refusing to even discuss these problems in any specific context), United Russia and its men throughout the government hasten their own growing irrelevance by ceding the debate to nationalists bent on arming Russians to the teeth and liberals set on declaring a state of anarchy. Continue reading ‘The Night They Dined in Hell: Russia After Sagra’ »

“And to What Purpose Could Dead Souls Be Put?” PARNAS vs the Justice Ministry

On June 22, 2011, Russia’s Justice Ministry rejected the opposition’s latest attempt to register an official political party. The People’s Freedom Party “For Russia without Lawlessness and Corruption,” otherwise known as PARNAS, was officially turned away for a small handful of reasons.

PARNAS ends before it begins.

The most discussed issue has been the presence of “dead souls” on PARNAS’ member list. The Justice Ministry reports that its investigation revealed forty ineligible individuals on that list: two people in prison, four minors, thirteen deceased, and 21 people who denied being PARNAS members at all. Another 39 people were apparently registered in regions where they aren’t residents. PARNAS claims to have 46,148 members in total. It’s unclear whether or not the government was working from a sample study (and thus parlayed these findings into an indictment against the larger 46 thousand number). Either way, PARNAS leaders have unsurprisingly ridiculed the idea of rejecting their application because of just forty souls.

The Justice Ministry also claims illegalities in PARNAS’ Charter. Citing Article 24.5 of Federal Law 95, “On Political Parties,” the Ministry argued that the charter doesn’t rotate leaders of executive bodies or leaders of regional branches. As it turns out, Articles 26.2 and 34.2 do appear to mandate the rotation of these bodies’ leaders. Why the Justice Ministry thought it could argue otherwise remains a mystery. (One needs only to read the unambiguous text of the Charter to know that there’s no violation of FZ-95.)

Continue reading ‘“And to What Purpose Could Dead Souls Be Put?” PARNAS vs the Justice Ministry’ »

Should Five Percent Appear Too Small: Medvedev & Russia’s Social Insurance Tax

On March 30, 2011, President Medvedev gave a speech in Magnitogorsk, where he announced a series of executive orders aimed at improving Russia’s miserable, “bad, very bad” investment climate. In an apparent effort to reach out to business interests, Medvedev declared that social insurance payroll taxes (strakhovye vznosy) were too high, and he ordered the government to work out a tax reduction plan, due on his desk by June 1, 2011. That deadline came and went, as officials brushed off Medvedev’s directive and loosely advised a return to the subject perhaps in a year. Vladimir Putin dragged his feet and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin openly criticized as fiscally irresponsible the idea of lowering the social tax (the main revenue source supporting Russia’s pensions system). Commentators speculated that this was a standoff, between either Putin and Medvedev or between Medvedev and cabinet members like Kudrin. As talk turned to tax cuts favoring just small businesses, many wondered if the President would backtrack on his effort to reduce taxes for all and settle instead for reductions affecting only some employers. (In his March speech, he never singled out different-sized businesses.)

Springing up everywhere.

On June 8th, Presidential Aide Arkady Dvorkovich told the press that the government would spend two weeks debating two possible tax cut ideas: one plan in which reductions would be made only for medium and small businesses, and another plan that would lower payroll taxes for everyone, marginally more so for small businesses. Dvorkovich signaled that the Administration preferred the first option (given the greater priority of alleviating smaller entrepreneurs), but added, “If such a business-friendly scheme cannot be reached, then we are left with only the second option. There simply won’t be another way.” On June 14, 2011, Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Shatalov revealed to the media that the first tax cut plan had “no chance” of becoming a reality, as dividing taxes into three tiers would be “technologically” unfeasible. Continue reading ‘Should Five Percent Appear Too Small: Medvedev & Russia’s Social Insurance Tax’ »

The Plot Against Nikita Mikhalkov: Migalki, Privilege, & Revolution

Anyone remotely familiar with Russian cinema has probably heard of Nikita Mikhalkov, an Oscar-winning film director, the son of an illustrious artist family, and a notorious asshole. It was just a few years after the end of the USSR, when Mikhalkov won his Academy Award for the 1994 film ‘Burnt by the Sun.’ That movie — a sharp critique of Stalinism — was an international success, the profits from which Mikhalkov dumped into his next epic, ‘The Barber of Siberia’ (1998). Three-hours-long, with a budget of 35 million dollars, ‘The Barber’ earned a lousy 2.6 million bucks. Adding insult to injury, it ended up being screened out of competition at the 1999 Cannes film festival. More than a decade later, Mikhalkov tried to reclaim his glory-days by releasing two sequels to ‘Burnt by the Sun’. The first installment, ‘Exodus,’ cost 40 million dollars, but earned just 7.5 million. The second release, ‘Citadel,’ cost 34 million, and earned a paltry 1.5 million at the box-office. In total, the two-part sequel lost a whopping 65 million dollars.

The RuNet responds: "A Great Film About Me Again."

Mikhalkov’s obsession with himself and with all things ‘epic’ has helped make him one of the most mocked and reviled personalities on the RuNet. In March of 2010, ultra-popular blogger Artemii Lebedev (LJ user Tema) posted a series of photoshopped advertisement mockups, poking fun at ‘Exodus’s stupid-looking movie poster (which prominently featured Mikhalkov holding a machine gun under the tagline “A Great Film about the Great War”). Within a few hours, more than 200 ‘fotozhaby’ appeared in the comments section, prompting rumors that Mikhalkov was contemplating a lawsuit against Lebedev. (From what I can tell, that never ended up happening.)

More recently, the other thorn in Mikhalkov’s side has been his migalka: the blue siren atop elite vehicles that lets drivers circumvent traffic laws.

Continue reading ‘The Plot Against Nikita Mikhalkov: Migalki, Privilege, & Revolution’ »