Thursday, April 24, 2014


Fake News And Real Clan Warfare

You're (not) fired! What was behind the strange fake reports of Vladimir Yakunin's sacking?

It spread around the Internet like wildfire. Vladimir Yakunin -- the head of Russian railways, a confidant of President Vladimir Putin, and one of the most powerful men in the country -- had been fired. It was all there in black and white on an official government press release.

The news was picked up late on June 19 by all the major Russian news agencies: ITAR-TASS, Interfax, RIA-Novosti. The Russian "Twittersphere" started blinking red.

This. Was. Huge.

And then, it wasn't. Russian Railways and the government quickly denied the reports. RIA-Novosti did some belated due diligence and determined -- and reported -- that the press release came from an IP address that didn't match the government's. Further digging revealed that the bogus press release was actually disseminated from a server in the Irkutsk Oblast.

Russian Railways spokesman Aleksandr Pirkov called the incident a "provocation" and a "cybercrime," adding "we still don't know who did this."

But this being Russia, we can be pretty confident that this wasn't just some random Siberian hacker playing a practical joke on the media. No, something is clearly afoot and somebody is clearly out to get Yakunin.

The case of the counterfeit press release appears to point to turbulence among the various clans that make up Putin's power elite as they realign and jockey for position amid political uncertainty. And the current tussle doesn't necessarily break down along traditional siloviki-technocrat lines.

The fake reports of the railway chief's dismissal came just days after photographs of what was purported to be his ornate mansion in the Moscow suburbs appeared on the Internet.

And they come just a few months after a think tank associated with Yakunin issued a controversial report claiming that the December 2011 State Duma elections were flagrantly falsified. Yakunin quickly distanced himself from that report, criticized its author, and claimed it had been unlawfully published. 

In the aftermath, Russian media speculated that Yakunin may in fact have been on the verge of being sacked and that he talked Putin out of it. He was reportedly meeting with Putin as the initial reports of his sacking appeared. 

Political analyst Aleksandr Morozov told that Yakunin may have become a victim of bureaucratic warfare between Putin's team and that of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

But in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Gleb Cherkasov, deputy editor in chief of the "Kommersant" daily, maintained that this is highly unlikely given the Medvedev team's weakness.

"Medvedev's people are so much weaker than Putin's circle," he said. "You can't even talk about any kind of resistance from them." 

Cherkasov, I believe, is correct. Yakunin is a powerful figure who has been by Putin's side for a long time. A serious attack on him would come not from Medvedev's circle of technocrats, but only from among the siloviki, the security service veterans close to Putin.

And as political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky points out in a recent article, the Kremlin clans -- and particularly the siloviki groupings -- have undergone a significant realignment since Putin's return to the Kremlin last year. 

Most significantly, the siloviki have split into three distinct groups: one centered around Sergei Ivanov, the Kremlin chief of staff; one tied to Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin; and one connected to Yakunin, which Pribylovsky calls the "Orthodox Chekists" due to their close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church and promotion of "traditional values."

Ivanov's group -- including Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin, and Sergei Chemezov, head of the state corporation Russian Technologies -- was instrumental in getting Anatoly Serdyukov sacked as defense minister last year.

Recently, they have been actively seeking to get Medvedev sacked as prime minister and replaced with Ivanov -- which would turn him into Putin's de facto heir apparent. 

Sechin, who previously backed efforts to undermine Medvedev, has since withdrawn his support.

"Sechin is wary of Ivanov's power ambitions and cannot abide his ally Rogozin," Pribylovsky wrote.

"It seems that Sechin is [also] not too happy with the strengthened position of Bastrykin, another new ally of Ivanov's, whose Investigative Committee has become the Kremlin's chief tool of repression, having sidelined the FSB, headed by Sechin's friend Aleksandr Bortnikov, which has always been amenable to his requests."

Yakunin and his group have not really figured in this struggle so far. But citing anonymous Kremlin sources, reported that "one of the main benefactors" of Yakunin's demise would be Ivanov's ally Chemezov -- although the report does not indicate why this would be the case. 

This story is still pretty fluid and opaque, but more will undoubtedly become clear as the drama surrounding Yakunin and the splits among the siloviki unfold.

"This shows the instability at the very top of the power structure," Cherkasov told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "Such things happen when the system is shaking. It is shaking not due to pressure from the outside, but rather, because of trouble on the inside. Too many interests are intertwined around the Russian authorities and the authorities are doing a poor job of managing them."

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on June 21 when I will discuss the issues raised in this blog post with co-hosts Mark Galeotti of New York University and Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Tags:siloviki, Kremlin clans, Vladimir Yakunin

Navalny's Game

Aleksei Navalny was front and center at the June 12 opposition rally in Moscow.

Aleksei Navalny may be on the ropes, but at the same time he’s also on something of a roll.

The on-the-ropes part was in full display in Kirov on June 18 when Judge Sergei Blinov flat-out refused to allow Navalny to call any defense witnesses in his embezzlement trial. Blinov’s move only underscored the widespread belief that the criminal case against the anticorruption blogger is completely fabricated and politically motivated. 

But the same day as Blinov’s decision, Navalny also scored a key victory when the Opposition Coordinating Council voted to support him as its single candidate in Moscow’s September 8 mayoral election.

The Coordinating Council’s decision is significant. As maligned as the council has been of late for its infighting and ineffectualness, it is still  the one opposition grouping that enjoys any popular mandate to speak of.

And its endorsement came on the heels of what has been a pretty remarkable string of news cycles for Navalny.

It started with opposition protests in Moscow on the June 12 Russia Day holiday, where he was front and center as the adoring crowd chanted, "Navalny is our mayor!"

A day later, rumors swirled in Moscow that Navalny’s arrest was imminent, forcing the authorities to release a statement insisting that this wasn’t the case.

The next day, June 14, the Party of Peoples’ Freedom (Parnas) formally nominated Navalny as its candidate for Moscow mayor. The move frees him from the need to gather 70,000 signatures from supporters to register as a candidate. He still needs to pass the so-called municipal-filter requirement and gather the signatures of 110 Moscow district council members. 

Three days after the Parnas nomination, on June 17, Navalny stole the show during his trial in Kirov, taking the stand to defiantly and eloquently pick apart the case against him, denouncing charges that he conspired to steal 16 million rubles' ($500,000) worth of timber from a state-owned company as "absurd" and discrepant from "the actual circumstances of the case."

WATCH it here starting at the 1:09 mark:

The juxtaposition of Navalny’s ongoing show trial in Kirov and the Moscow mayoral election is one of the key ongoing narratives in Russian politics.

The intertwined stories -- if Navalny is convicted, even if he is given a suspended sentence, he will be barred from the ballot -- illustrate both the Kremlin’s methods of dealing with its foes and the asymmetrical tactics that the sharper minds in the opposition are using to fight back.

"Navalny has this ability to take what seem to be negative situations and turn them into massive PR positives," longtime Kremlin-watcher Mark Galeotti of New York University said on the most recent Power Vertical Podcast

Barring an epic political miracle, Navalny won't be elected Moscow’s mayor in September regardless of how many endorsements he picks up from opposition groups of various stripes.

And despite how articulately he picks apart the charges against him on the stand,  the odds are still good that he will be convicted in Kirov if the Kremlin wants him to be.

But Navalny is nevertheless skillfully raising the price of the Kremlin's campaign against him. Given the events of the past week, a conviction in Kirov will now look even more shamelessly political.

He has also put the authorities in a difficult position in the Moscow mayor's race.

“If he is in the race he gets to talk to people he hasn't been able to talk to until now. He doesn't expect to win, but by being in the race he is a part of conversations that weren't there before. And they are conversations he is ready for," Galeotti said on last week’s podcast.

And keeping him off the ballot in Moscow gives the impression that the Kremlin is afraid of him.

Which, according to political commentator Vladislav Inozemtsev, it is.

"Free elections are not something the regime needs, and serious figures will therefore not be given access even to a simulation of such elections," Inozemtsev wrote recently in "Moskovsky komsomolets."

"Mikhail Prokhorov, with his financial and organizational potential and serious program, and Aleksei Navalny, with his noisy support, albeit without basic organizational structures, are deemed nearly equally dangerous."

Getting Prokhorov out of the picture was easy and painless. The billionaire oligarch simply has too much to lose by annoying the authorities. A clear message from the Kremlin to back off from his mayoral ambitions was, apparently, sufficient.

Getting Navalny out of the picture will also be easy -- simply make sure the Kirov court delivers the guilty verdict everybody expects. But with Navalny’s ever-rising profile, this is not going to be painless. And with each passing day, it looks like it will become more and more costly.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Aleksei Navalny

Audio Podcast: Who Won Russia Day?

Vladimir Putin addresses the Popular Front. Aleksei Navalny takes to the street. And Mikhail Prokorov takes a pass.

Both supporters and opponents of President Vladimir Putin mobilized their forces on the Russia Day national holiday this week.

One front gathered in Moscow’s ornate Manezh, just across from the Kremlin. In a tightly choreographed affair, they chanted "Russia! Russia!" and "Putin! Putin!" Another took to the streets, marching through the center of the capital chanting "Russia without Putin."

This week's edition of the Power Vertical podcast takes a look at Putin’s All-Russian Popular Front, which held its founding congress on June 12, and the 10,000-strong opposition protest that took place the same day. How did these dueling attempts by the regime and the opposition to respectively re-legitimize themselves before a weary public fare?

Joining me are co-hosts Mark Galeotti of New York University, Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL’s Russian Service, and Sean Guillory or the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies. 

Also on the podcast, we discuss oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov’s decision not to run for Moscow mayor -- and anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny’s struggle to enter that race.


The Power Vertical Podcast: Who Won Russia Day?
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Showdown In The City (UPDATED)

He's back! Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 11.06.2013 10:48

So much for a sleepy political summer.

Irina Yarovaya, a State Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party, took aim at billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov over the weekend, saying it would be illegal for him to contest Moscow's mayoral election unless he divested all his foreign assets. Putting those assets in a blind trust, as Prokhorov is reportedly planning to do would not suffice, Yarovaya added.

The comments drew a bitingly sarcastic response from Tatiana Kosobokova, spokeswoman for Prokhorov’s Civic Platform party.

"We are grateful to United Russia for the attention they are paying to Mikhail Prokhorov and possible candidates for mayor from Civic Platform. This attention is probably due to the fact that United Russia doesn't have a candidate of their own.... We sympathize with them," Kosobokova said, noting that acting Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has declined to be United Russia's candidate in the election despite being among the party's leaders.

Ouch! Let the games begin! And it gets even better.

Prokhorov, it appears, spent some quality time with Yury Luzhkov this past weekend. The two have long been close and Prokhorov cryptically told reporters that they discussed "plans for the summer, hopefully common plans."

After that, reports surfaced on June 10 that the former Moscow mayor might play a prominent role in a potential Prokhorov campaign. The head of the party's Moscow branch, Mikhail Vyshegorodtsev, told that Luzhkov might even head his campaign staff.

Prokhorov, of course, has not even officially declared his candidacy for the September 8 election, although an announcement is expected this week.

Luzhkov, who is still popular in Moscow, particularly among older voters, was coy when asked about his "private meeting" with Prokhorov. The ex-mayor claimed that he and his old friend did not discuss the elections at all. He declined to answer whether he intended to support any candidate or even run himself.

"I don't intend to make any comments about that. That will come later," Luzhkov said

In the past, Luzhkov has said he planned to participate in the elections "only as a voter."

Something is clearly up, and whatever it is should become clearer on June 13 when the Civic Platform announces its candidate.

But an open alliance between Prokhorov and Luzhkov could clearly be a game changer.

"This would be a serious threat to the dominant campaign scenario in Moscow. Prokhorov and Luzhkov are figures that could consolidate different parts of the electorate," political analyst Dmitry Orlov, a leading member of United Russia, told

Indeed, the mayor and the oligarch could be dangerous to the authorities on a number of levels.

In terms of electoral math and coalition building, it could add pensioners and state employees to Prokhorov’s natural base of young urban entrepreneurs. Luzhkov, moreover, still carries considerable clout with much of the city's elite.

And in terms of pushing back against padding the vote through administrative resources, well, Luzhkov arguably wrote the textbook on that practice while mayor -- and presumably would have invaluable insight into countermeasures.

The only thing I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around is the fact that both Prokhorov and Luzhkov are willing to directly challenge the Kremlin.

The authorities have a mountain of "kompromat" on Luzhkov and his wife, Yelena Baturina, and would no doubt use it if they feared losing control of the capital.

And Prokhorov has a history of being very cautious when it comes to open confrontation with the powers that be.

But Yarovaya's comments suggest that the authorities are indeed worried about Prokhorov's candidacy. And the news of Luzhkov entering the mix explains why.

As I blogged last week, holding this election in September, rather than in 2015 when Sobyanin’s term was due to end, was a risky move by the authorities. 

According to conventional wisdom, the Kremlin's calculation is that it is better to hold elections now, while Sobyanin is still relatively popular.

But as Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies noted on last week’s Power Vertical Podcast, that speaks volumes about the authorities’ state of mind.

"The fact that they don't know what Sobyanin's state will be in two years suggests that they are very uneasy about the future. They perceive popular discontent in the broadest sense as a potential force that could cause trouble for them in the future," Guillory said.

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE: This post has been updated with Luzhkov's comments and other fresh information since being published on June 10.

Podcast: Thermidor In The Kremlin, Funk On The Street

The "Russian street" is in a deep funk, with the opposition divided and disheartened. Reformists in the elite are on the ropes, outgunned and outmaneuvered by siloviki and statists determined to maintain the status quo.

Emigration is on the rise and the crackdown on dissent continues apace with no signs of it abating.

When mass protests broke out a year-and-a-half ago, it appeared Russia was on the cusp of a major transformation. But now it looks like that was all an illusion.

In the latest edition of "The Power Vertical Podcast," I discuss Russia’s deepening Thermidor with co-host Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of "Sean’s Russia Blog."

Also joining us for his debut appearance on the podcast is Kevin Rothrock, project editor for RuNet Echo at Global Voices and author of the Russian affairs blog "A Good Treaty."

In this week's podcast, Sean, Kevin, and I also discuss the intrigue and maneuvering surrounding the upcoming mayoral election in Moscow.


The Power Vertical Podcast: Thermidor In The Kremlin, Funk On The Street
The Power Vertical Podcast: Thermidor In The Kremlin, Funk On The Streeti
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Tags:Russian politics, Power Vertical podcast, Moscow mayoral elections

In Moscow Election, The Fix Is In -- Or Is It?

Vladimir Putin (left) and Sergei Sobyanin

It's pretty obvious why Sergei Sobyanin announced today that he will resign as Moscow mayor and run in a snap election in September. What isn’t so clear is whether the gambit will pay off.

Appointed in 2010 by then-President Dmitry Medvedev and rubber-stamped by the Moscow City Duma, Sobyanin could have remained in office until 2015. Likewise, the Kremlin could have easily rolled back its plans to reintroduce direct popular mayoral elections in the capital and reappointed him. 

But the Kremlin has clearly decided that, given the volatile political situation, Sobyanin needed a degree of popular legitimacy. Moreover, Sobyanin is popular among Muscovites and President Vladimir Putin trusts him to remain loyal.

"Political control of the situation in the capital is a priority for the Kremlin. And in terms of efficiency, it is logical for the presidential administration to support empowering the mayor," political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya wrote in

And holding elections in September rather than in two years gives potentially strong opponents like billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov and anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny -- both of whom have expressed interest in running -- little time to prepare.

Moreover, Prokhorov, who has extensive foreign assets, would be hard pressed to repatriate them in time to be in compliance with new legislation restricting officials from such holdings. And as Stanovaya notes, "experience has shown that Prokhorov is not interested in a serious confrontation with the authorities" and would probably choose not to run anything but a symbolic "face-saving" campaign.

And Navalny remains tied up fighting fraud charges, widely viewed as politically motivated, in Kirov Oblast.

So at first glance, a Sobyanin "resignation" (and it’s not really a resignation because he will probably remain in office as "acting mayor") looks like a clever move. But then again, at the time so did the so-called "castling" of September 2011 when Putin and Medvedev pulled their job switcheroo -- inflaming public opinion and giving birth to the protest movement.

Similarly, the Kremlin's current strategy also carries serious risks.

The election in the capital will most likely be scheduled for September 8, the same day voters in the surrounding Moscow Oblast will go to the polls to choose a governor.

Former State Duma Deputy Gennady Gudkov, who says he plans to run for governor, said the Opposition Coordinating Council could nominate Navalny as its candidate for mayor. Such a unified opposition "ticket" could galvanize disaffected voters and prove to be a major headache for the authorities.

Moreover, it would make a guilty verdict in Navalny’s trial, or any additional legal action against Gudkov, look brazenly political.

And it's not as if the authorities can just rely on traditional "administrative methods" to get the result they want.

"In the new Russia, after December 2011, there is a new criteria for evaluating elections -- their honesty. The Kremlin will need to pay attention to this social demand that there be honesty and transparency of the campaign and in the vote count," Stanovaya wrote.  

This is especially true in Moscow, which has the highest concentration of opposition-minded voters and who have become increasingly vigilant and creative in policing electoral abuses.

Of course there will be shenanigans, there always are. But the old tricks won’t work the way they once did.

And finally there are the parallels with the "castling" -- the sense that the authorities are playing loose and fancy with the rules, transparently moving the goalposts, and playing the voters for fools.

This has long been the default setting for the Kremlin. But Muscovites in particular are growing tired of this kind of virtual politics -- and their frustration could become manifest again in September.

Of course the Kremlin can pull this all off, and probably will. They can convict Navalny, which would bar him from the race. They can send a message to Prokhorov to stand down. They can get Sobyanin his popular mandate in the opposition-infested capital.

But like with the castling, it could also come at great cost.

-- Brian Whitmore

Audio Podcast: Russia’s Political Futures Market

Plotting a future with and without Vladimir Putin. Clockwise from top left: Igor Sechin, Aleksei Chesnakov, Sergei Shoigu, Dmitry Rogozin, Sergei Mironov, and Mikhail Prokhorov

An interesting new species has appeared on the Russian landscape since mass opposition to the system broke out a year and a half ago -- the political entrepreneur. These longtime insiders have been calculating and scrambling to secure a safe landing regardless of how the ongoing political crisis is resolved.

Some are doing so out of cynicism. Some are acting on principle. Most out of some combination of the two.

But playing Russia’s political futures market -- simultaneously preparing for life with and without Vladimir Putin -- is a tricky and perilous game.

In the latest edition of "The Power Vertical Podcast" I discuss Russia’s political entrepreneurs with co-hosts Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s security services at New York University, and Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL’s Russian Service.

The Power Vertical Podcast: Russia’s Political Futures Market
The Power Vertical Podcast: Russia’s Political Futures Marketi
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Power Vertical podcast

With Or Without Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister in Sochi on May 14.

Everybody seems to be doing it. Or at least a lot of people are.

Some are doing it in the open and some in stealth. For some it's premeditated and for some it's just instinct. But one way or another, whether they realize it or not, they're all doing it.

From Aleksei Kudrin to Aleksei Chesnakov; from Mikhail Prokhorov to Sergei Mironov; from Vladislav Surkov to the siloviki; much of the Russian elite seems to be angling to make itself viable in a future when Vladimir Putin is no longer the undisputed master of the Kremlin.

"We see a lot of these survivalist tactics," New York University professor and longtime Kremlin-watcher Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services, said on last week's Power Vertical Podcast.

"Nobody is ruling Putin out now. But the sense is that he is no longer salvageable. The gamble that was the castling has failed.... What is the point of expending political capital to get on within the Putin system, if in fact the Putin system might not last long and when he himself doesn't seem to have any great vigor or vision?"

It's a tricky game, because Putin is still very much in charge and is tightening his grip. Open disloyalty is dangerous.

But at the same time, the tectonic plates of Russian politics are are rumbling with no sign of the turbulence abating. And everybody is naturally scrambling, hedging, and tap dancing like mad to make sure they land on solid ground when all the dust finally settles.

Everybody is being forced to be a political entrepreneur in a high-stakes political futures market.

The two most obvious examples are Kudrin and Surkov. Both served the Putin system and both were instrumental in making it appear successful during his heady first stint in the Kremlin.

As finance minister, Kudrin made sure the budget was balanced and the macroeconomics stable -- even amid mind-bending corruption. His skills, along with record-high oil prices, enabled Putin to buy off a critical mass of the population with rising living standards -- and the whole elite with a license to steal.

And as the Kremlin's chief ideologist, Surkov was Putin's mythmaker-in-chief, conjuring up his vision of "sovereign democracy," with its fake parties and pseudopluralism, that gave his authoritarian rule the aura of popular legitimacy.

Both, in their own ways, are now repositioning themselves as advocates of economic modernization and political pluralism.

But they're not the only ones. Aleksei Chesnakov, resigned last week as deputy secretary of the ruling United Russia party's General Council last week, criticizing the party's democratic deficit.

"I disagree with some of United Russia's lawmaking activity, particularly with regard to media and Internet regulation," Chesnakov, a close ally of Surkov's, told the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets."

"Furthermore, the majority of draft laws are not discussed with the party and regional structures at all; there was not a full discussion."

Mikhail Rostovsky, "Moskovsky komsomolets'" chief political analyst, mocked Chesnakov's move in a recent column.

"Bravo, O Heroic Democrat Mr. Chesnakov! Finally there has appeared someone to open our eyes," Rostovsky wrote.  "And we'd never even realized that under Surkov apparently, it was all different. The authorities didn't try to excessively regulate the media and the Internet back then."

Rostovsky concludes by asking: " Why do Russian bureaucrats only acquire democratic views then they are ‘served for lunch' to other officials?"

Indeed, former Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov has flipped and flopped from the regime to the opposition and back again over the past year or so. Like Kudrin, Prokhorov has been flirting with both the Kremlin and the opposition.

Even the siloviki are not immune from playing this game. Remember the speculation that Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov was angling to be Putin's successor?

Speaking on the Power Vertical podcast, Galeotti noted that most siloviki would prefer the status quo to remain in place and be reset to, say, 2006 or 2007 -- the mythologized time of high Putinism. But if things go south, they are "positioning themselves so that they will be the kingmakers" and "make sure they are in a position to pick the next guy."

And as Sean Guillory of the Univeersity of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies noted on the same podcast, all this bobbing and weaving is a recipe for instability.

"If it is the case that people are jockeying for their post-Putin lives, it really shows how fractious and how splintered the elite is. They're not looking at the present or tomorrow. They're looking at years beyond," Guillory said.

"And what is happening while they are looking at themselves and not governing the country? The political situation is in complete stasis. The economy is going down the tubes... When the Deep State begins to look within itself and concentrates on the rivalries within it, the country is left floating on the sea and is aimless."

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical podcast on May 31, where I will discuss the issues raised on this blog with my co-hosts.

Audio Podcast: Palace Intrigue Escalates

Aleksei Kudrin (left) and Vladislav Surkov

They’re as different as night and day. One’s a cerebral economist with a talent for balancing budgets even amid mind-bending corruption. The other is a suave, flamboyant political operator whose hand was behind much of the political intrigue over the past decade.

Both were key inside players during Vladimir Putin’s first stint in the Kremlin and each played a major role in making it look successful. Both had strained relations with Putin's siloviki allies. Both, in their own way, went off the reservation.

And both Aleksei Kudrin and Vladislav Surkov were back in the news this week.

Amid mounting speculation in the Russian media that Putin was going to name him prime minister, Kudrin gave two speeches slamming the government's economic policies and calling for more pluralism in the political system.

And a week after his resignation from the government, Surkov popped up in a rather odd way: Photos on the Internet showed him fishing with the powerful Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov -- who went on to praise Surkov. Those photos surfaced days before press reports claimed Surkov was in the Investigative Committee's crosshairs and suspected of funneling state funds to the opposition.

As different as they are, Surkov and Kudrin are on one side in the struggle that has been raging in the Russian elite -- pitting technocrat managers like themselves who want the system to change and security service veterans fighting hard to maintain the status quo.

And their appearance in the news this week is the latest evidence that this battle is heating up.

In the latest edition of the Power Vertical podcast, I discussed these issues with co-hosts Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL’s Russian Service, Mark Galeotti of New York University, and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies.


Power Vertical Podcast: Kremlin 'Cold War' Heats Up -- May 24, 2013
Power Vertical Podcast: Kremlin 'Cold War' Heats Up, May 24, 2013i
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Tags:Power Vertical podcast

Target: Surkov

"Psst. You're in trouble."

When photos of Vladislav Surkov hanging out and fishing with the powerful Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov appeared online recently, it raised some eyebrows but was viewed mainly as an odd curiosity.

Kadyrov said Surkov, whose resignation as deputy prime minister and government chief of staff was made public on May 8, spent this past weekend with him in Chechnya’s Itum-Kalinsky district, where the photos were taken.

Surkov "remains on the president's team and is ready to fulfill the tasks Vladimir Putin might give him" and "could be useful for the state in any role," Kadyrov added.

The two men are longtime allies, so Kadyrov’s public demonstration of support wasn't exactly shocking. But in light of recent news reports, it has become more interesting -- and appears to be much more than a kind gesture to an old friend.

Surkov, according to the latest round of media speculation, could soon become a target in the ongoing criminal probe into alleged corruption at the Skolkovo scientific and innovation center -- the flagship project Dmitry Medvedev initiated during his presidency to spur the modernization of Russia's economy. As deputy prime minister, Surkov was responsible for overseeing the center.

"The Investigative Committee is very interested in the activities of former Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov," reported this week, quoting unidentified Kremlin and law-enforcement sources.

The report added, quoting Skolkovo officials who have been called in for interrogation, that investigators appear particularly interested in "Surkov's role in administering the distribution of funds" from the center. "The nature of the questioning suggests that the goal is to prove he was involved with embezzlement," the publication wrote.

If Surkov is indeed in the Investigative Committee’s crosshairs, it would represent a significant escalation in the Kremlin's war on dissent -- expanding it from the opposition to also include their alleged collaborators among the elite. It would also mark a significant escalation in the cold war between the siloviki and technocratic wings of the elite that has been simmering since the Medvedev presidency.

As the Kremlin's chief ideologist during Putin's first two terms, Surkov was a key member of the president's inner circle. He was instrumental in devising both Putin’s tough-guy image and the faux system of "sovereign democracy" that legitimized his authoritarian rule.

Surkov fell out of favor with Putin during the period of the so-called tandem, when he endorsed keeping Medvedev in power for a second term as president and the introduction of more pluralism into the political system -- things the powerful siloviki clan of security-service veterans surrounding Putin hotly opposed.

For the time being, the criminal probe into Skolkovo alleges that the center's senior vice president, Aleksei Beltyukov, illegally paid opposition politician Ilya Ponomarev $750,000 for lectures and research projects. But media reports suggest that this is just one piece of a larger case in which investigators are seeking to show that since his estrangement from Putin, Surkov has been involved in covertly funneling state funds to the opposition.

Kremlin-friendly political analyst Sergei Markov told that when antiregime protests broke out in December 2011, anti-Putin elements in the bureaucracy and the business elite used Skolkovo for precicely this purpose.

"Those who were in charge of this project are of course now falling under suspicion," Markov said. "Putin cannot give the impression that he will stand by quietly while people betray him behind his back."

Moreover, Surkov's relations with the siloviki faction of the elite, particularly powerful figures like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin and Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, have always been frosty at best. And now, it seems, they are out for revenge.

But going after a fish as big as Surkov would escalate the conflict within the elite to unprecedented levels and would require Putin's go-ahead. It is unclear whether he has given it.

Which puts those photos of Surkov and Kadyrov in context.

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical podcast on May 24, when I will discuss the issues raised on the blog this week with co-hosts Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service, Mark Galeotti of New York University, Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies.

Tags:Vladimir Putin, Ramzan Kadyrov, Vladislav Surkov

Putin's Game And Kudrin’s Choice

Who is using whom?

If Russian President Vladimir Putin ever actually appoints Aleksei Kudrin as his prime minister, we’ll know that one of two things happened: Either Putin decided to radically change course or Kudrin shamelessly sold out.

In the weeks since Kudrin made a surprise appearance at Putin’s annual live call-in program with carefully vetted Russian citizens, when he harshly criticized the president’s economic policies, the media has been abuzz with speculation that the former finance minister would replace the hapless Dmitry Medvedev as premier. 

"The president has already given the go-ahead for this move in principle," the daily “Nezavisimaya gazeta” reported last week, citing an unidentified "informed source in the security services." But, the report continued, "a struggle around the issue is continuing within the regime and Kudrin has many opponents."

For his part, Kudrin claims he’s not interested -- at least not right now.

"I think I have a wealth of experience and abilities, but I do not agree with a number of decisions made by the political leadership," Kudrin said on May 19 at a seminar in Voronezh. "I’m not interested in being a technical prime minister who carries out policies that are alien to me. Maybe after some time the situation will change."

A day later, speaking at an event in the State Duma, Kudrin lashed out at the authorities, saying the country needed to modernize economically and politically or risk stagnation and decay.

"Stagnation is not a one-day story," he said. "Even if we roll our sleeves up now, we'll have to toil three or five years to attain new elements of effectiveness...The political system is lagging behind the challenges of the time, and does not ensure the mechanism for arranging the modernization of the country."

Kudrin added that there is no "internal stimulus" for economic reforms and that the regime needed to overhaul the electoral system and "take steps toward broader representation" in the government and legislature. He said legislation requiring NGOs receiving foreign funding to register as "foreign agents" was "by any measure an obvious restriction of civil society."

Kudrin, of course, was careful. He slammed Medvedev’s government. He took shots at the ruling United Russia party. But he did not criticize Putin personally or directly.

Part of this, no doubt, is explained by the two men's long and close friendship, which goes back to when both of them served in the St. Petersburg city government in the 1990s. But part of it, I think, is also because Kudrin is playing a very delicate game with Putin.

I believe Kudrin is trying in private to convince his old pal that by listening to his siloviki colleagues from the KGB, by cracking down on civil society, by stalling on economic reform, and by abandoning political reform, he is harming the country, destroying his legacy, and missing an opportunity. And he is, ever so carefully, applying pressure in public.

Kudrin is one of the few people in the elite that can dance this way with Putin and get away with it -- and he knows it.  Whether this has any chance of success, whether Putin is at all malleable at this stage of the game, is another question.

And Putin also appears to be using his old friend and the speculation surrounding his possible return to politics -- and it has nothing to do with being interested in the types of reform and institution building Kudrin is fond of lecturing about.

No, for Putin it is all about control, about keeping his subordinates in fear and on tenterhooks.

"Putin finds it boring to develop institutions. He prefers to send signals to his subordinates," political analyst Rustem Falyakhov wrote on his blog in "This is why he brought Kudrin back, in the virtual sense. As a bogeyman for the government. If economic growth drops to the level of recession, the Kremlin has a premier ready to take over. Now the government must waste no time sleeping and must be afraid."

If that is indeed Putin’s strategy, it’s all well and good -- until the economic crisis many have been predicting finally comes and he actually needs to fire Medvedev’s government.

And then Putin will have a very important choice to make. And so will Kudrin.

-- Brian Whitmore


Audio Podcast: Cracking Surkov’s Hall Of Mirrors

Did the gray cardinal of the Kremlin jump ship? Or was he pushed? And what are the implications of Vladislav Surkov’s abrupt exit from the halls of power? A week after the fact, there is little consensus.

In the latest edition of "The Power Vertical Podcast," I discuss the fallout from Surkov’s resignation with co-hosts Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL’s Russian Service and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies.

Also on the podcast, Kirill, Sean, and I talk about the strange spy scandal -- wigs, compasses, and all -- that erupted in Moscow this past week.


Power Vertical Podcast -- May 17, 2013
Power Vertical Podcast -- May 17, 2013i
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Vladislav Surkov, Power Vertical podcast

Surkov’s Last Stand

Is Russia's puppet master playing one last trick?

It’s more than fitting that the circumstances surrounding Vladislav Surkov’s sudden exit from the halls of power continue to be shrouded in mystery a week after the fact.

The master of political subterfuge, the architect of the make-believe democracy, the creator of faux parties and imitation social movements, of course, would have it no other way.

A week after Surkov’s departure as deputy prime minister and government chief of staff was announced, we still don’t even know for sure when exactly he actually tendered his resignation, which was officially announced on May 8.

The Kremlin’s preferred narrative: Surkov resigned on May 7, right after President Vladimir Putin publicly dressed down the government for its poor performance. That is what Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

But Surkov is telling another story.  He insists that he tendered his resignation on April 26 of his own accord, but the Kremlin waited nearly two weeks to announce it.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was typically wishy-washy on this point. His press secretary said Surkov discussed his resignation with the premier on both April 26 and May 7.

Does this really matter? Actually, probably not. But it is quite telling. The man who for over a decade masterminded Russia’s political narrative on the Kremlin’s behalf is not allowing his old masters to write the script of his banishment.

The authorities couldn’t even get their story straight about who would replace him.

The government first announced that Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich would be Surkov’s replacement. They then walked this back. Dvorkovich would just temporarily handle Surkov’s ministerial duties. His job as government chief of staff would be shared by two of his deputies: Aleksandra Levistskaya and Sergei Prikhodko. 

There was just one problem with this: Levistskaya, it seems, resigned back in April. Oops. Finally, days later, the government announced that Prikhodko would temporarily serve as acting chief of staff alone.

"It’s quite apparent...that the deputy prime minister’s departure was unexpected and that the Kremlin and the government do not have a candidate for the vacancy," the daily "Kommersant" wrote.

The reasons for his departure also remain murky.

Kremlin spokesman Peskov told journalists that it was related to the government’s failure to implement Putin’s decrees, which was Surkov’s responsibility -- but few are buying that explanation.

Most media focused on the fact that Surkov fell out of favor with Putin back in 2011 when he supported keeping Dmitry Medvedev in the Kremlin for a second term as president.

Speculation also zeroed in on a very public conflict he had with the powerful Investigative Committee, which is examining alleged corruption at the Skolkovo scientific and technological center, a flagship Medvedev project that Surkov supervises.

The probe alleges that Skolkovo’s Senior Vice President Aleksei Beltyukov illegally paid opposition politician Ilya Ponomarev $750,000 for lectures and research projects. Press reports from Kremlin-friendly outfits suggested that this illustrated Surkov’s ties with the opposition. 

In a speech at the London School of Economics on May 2, Surkov criticized the investigation, sparking a harsh response from Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin. In an article in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia," Markin ridiculed Surkov’s "pitiful moaning from London," adding that it "would not stop the Investigative Committee from doing its job."

And some accounts simply suggested that, after masterminding high Kremlin intrigue for so long, Surkov was just bored with the mundane work of day-to-day governance.

Surkov himself was typically cryptic about what is really going on. "I’ll tell you about it later, when it is appropriate," he told "Kommersant."

So is Surkov playing some deeper game here? Mikhail Rostovsky, chief political analyst for the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets," thinks so.  

"Russia’s former chief puppet master has refused to play the role of the loser in Putin’s puppet theater," Rostovsky wrote this week.

"I venture to suggest that the government chief of staff’s departure was not part of Putin’s plans," Rostovsky continued. "Why? Because in the political drama that Putin is now playing out, each person has been assigned his own role. The president’s own role was to constantly kick the government and exclaim: 'You losers! You are failing to execute my edicts!'"

And the role of the government and its chief of staff "was to make feeble attempts to justify itself and to promise to mend its ways."

Using the government as a lightning rod allowed Putin to deflect criticism for any crisis that may arise -- like the economic downturn many are predicting -- and to reinforce his image as the strong national leader.

"Surkov has, to a degree, wrecked Putin’s game," Rostovsky wrote. "Putin can, of course, continue to use Medvedev’s Cabinet as a whipping boy. But it seems that Surkov’s departure has weakened the government to such an extent that it will now be difficult to treat it without a pitying smile...Putin has discredited the government so successfully that Medvedev no longer has the strength to bear the burden of responsibility. And that burden now falls on the president’s shoulders."

I think Rostovsky is on the mark here. Surkov, it appears, has torn off the mask. The master of make-believe politics is, to a degree, putting an end to the era of make believe.

Which completes a circle that began with the resignation of former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin back in the fall of 2011, shortly after the infamous Putin-Medvedev "castling" was announced at the United Russia party congress.

That, of course, was also not in Putin’s plans -- and it was a harbinger of future turbulence in the ruling elite.

As I have blogged in the past, Surkov and Kudrin are "managers" who owe their positions in the elite to specific skill sets -- as opposed to "shareholders" like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, who have a very tangible stake in the status quo. 

The managers sensed that Russian society was changing and that the political system needed to open up to some extent to accommodate that change -- which made them potential allies of the opposition.

They lost that argument and now the heavyweights among them appear to be defecting. Which raises the question of whether the ongoing Cold War in the Kremlin is about to get a little hotter. 

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the May 17 edition of the Power Vertical podcast, where I discuss the fallout from Surkov's exit with co-hosts Kirill Kobrin or RFE/RL's Russian Service and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies.

Tags:Vladislav Surkov

Audio Podcast: Putin And Bolotnaya, One Year Later

The confrontational tone for Vladimir Putin's third term in the Kremlin was set on the eve of his inauguration when police clashed with protesters on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square.

A year after those protests, some 28 people are facing charges of inciting mass unrest, and in some cases, of being involved in dark coup plots hatched by foreign governments.

In the latest edition of the Power Vertical podcast, I discuss the Bolotnaya case one year on with co-hosts Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service, Mark Galeotti of New York University, and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies.


Power Vertical Podcast: Putin And Bolotnaya, One Year Later
Power Vertical Podcast: Putin And Bolotnaya, One Year Lateri
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Listen to or download the podcast above, or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Vladimir Putin, Power Vertical podcast, Bolotnaya case

Audio Podcast: Digital-Age Show Trials

Pussy Riot band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova looks out from a holding cell during a court hearing.

The charges are often ludicrous, the evidence flimsy, the cases weak, and the media spotlight bright. But the outcome is, nevertheless, rarely in doubt.

From Pussy Riot to the Bolotnaya protesters to Aleksei Navalny, sensational trials with clear political overtones are the trend of the moment in Russia.

What is the Kremlin trying to accomplish with these cases? What messages are they trying to send and to whom? And what are the risks of a backlash?

In the latest edition of the "Power Vertical" podcast, I discussed these issues with the co-hosts: Kremlin-watchers Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," and Sean Guillory, a visiting fellow at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European studies and author of "Sean's Russia Blog."


Power Vertical Podcast -- Digital-Age Show Trials
Power Vertical Podcast: Digital-Age Show Trialsi
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Listen to or download the podcast above, or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

NOTE TO READERS: Apologies for the light posting of late. I was traveling in Georgia recently working on other assignments.

Tags:show trials, Aleksei Navalny, Pussy Riot, Power Vertical podcast, Bolotnaya case

The Trial Of The Decade

Russian Opposition Leader Says Putin Wants Him Jailedi
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April 16, 2013
Two days before the start of his trial for embezzlement, Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny claimed he will be found guilty in a falsified case that will be decided personally by President Vladimir Putin, whom Navalny accuses of defending corrupt officials stealing billions of dollars. Navalny is a 36-year-old anticorruption blogger who was one of the leaders of the biggest opposition protests seen during the Putin era late last year. His trial starts on April 17. (Reuters video)
It's always interesting when officials get caught telling the truth.

In a recent interview with the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia," Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin pretty much admitted that the criminal case against anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny is politically motivated.

"When somebody is constantly attracting attention to himself and even mocking the authorities, claiming he is so pure, then interest in his past increases and the process of exposing it is accelerated," Markin said.

Navalny's trial on charges that, while working as an unpaid advisor to Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh, he organized the theft of 16 million rubles from a state-owned timber company is set to begin on April 17.

Navalny has dismissed the charges as "ridiculous" and, in an effort to make a public case for his innocence, posted all the case materials online. 

"There are bank documents, and we show those documents to everybody: to the investigation, to the public, to everyone. And everybody, apart from the investigation… said, 'oh God this has been totally fabricated.' But the investigation is not interested in this," Navalny said in an interview with Reuters

The fact that the Kremlin has decided to go ahead and prosecute a case against Navalny that has been dropped numerous times due to lack of evidence is a sign of the times. Like the prosecution of Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky a decade ago, it has the potential to be an era-defining event.

"It may not be the trial of the century, but it could be the trial of the decade in terms of defining what is going to happen [in the coming years]," Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," said recently on the Power Vertical podcast.

Indeed, Navalny's trial could turn out to be the mirror image of the 2003 Khodorkovsky case, which helped consolidate and strengthen Vladimir Putin's ruling elite by sending a message that politically uncooperative tycoons would be dealt with harshly.

Khodorkovsky's prosecution also played well with the public, which was weary of the wild capitalism of the 1990s and supportive of cracking down on the oligarchs who defined that era.

The Navalny case is doing the opposite. It is fracturing the elite and sending a message that the Kremlin is desperate and frightened of a blogger with a cult following who made his name exposing graft in high places.

"Navalny is a far far more dangerous enemy/victim for the state than any they've taken on so far," Galeotti said.

"In prison, Khodorkovsky has been able to reinvent himself as a liberal martyr, but at the time [of his prosecution] he was just one more of these arrogant get-rich-quick oligarchs. [Here] you have a very weak case and you've got a Kremlin with less credibility."

Navalny, Galeotti adds "is not a man who enriched himself obscenely, this is a man who has gone after corrupt officials." Moreover, the trial will give the PR-savvy Navalny "the platform to create his own narrative" and define himself before the public.

In fact, he is already doing so. In media interviews he has showcased his modest lifestyle. He has stressed that he will continue to expose corruption, even if he has to do it from behind bars. And he recently admitted that he wanted to someday seek the presidency to continue his antigraft fight and change the way that Russia is ruled.

And he is seeking to frame the trial as a David and Goliath showdown, pitting an honest blogger against Putin's overbearing Kremlin monolith, which "will destroy anybody who opposes Putin being a lifelong president."

And at least publicly, he appears to be accepting the inevitability of a guilty verdict and the possibility of a long prison sentence stoically.

"I understood that this would happen," he told Reuters. "I perfectly understood that I was fighting against people who stole billions and have seized power in a vast country. And I understood that these people would defend their right to steal those billions. And they will not give up just like that."

Navalny's case is about to join last year's Pussy Riot trial and the ongoing prosecutions of the May 6, 2012 protestors on Bolotnaya Square as defining events of Putin's third term in the Kremlin.

And if the 2003 Khodorkovsky trial, regardless of its merits, showcased a confident and ascendant regime, these cases are exposing one that is exhausted, frightened, and increasingly desperate.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Aleksei Navalny

Podcast: The Cultural Cold War

A woman holds up a banner during a demonstration by the gay community during a visit from Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Netherlands, in Amsterdam.

Vladimir Putin is greeted by boisterous protests over discrimination against gays and lesbians during a recent visit to Europe. Mark Knopfler, founder and frontman of the legendary British band Dire Straits cancels concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg over the Kremlin's human rights record.

As the one year mark of Putin's third term approaches, the chasm between Russia and the West on basic cultural and humanitarian values is noticeably widening.

In the latest edition of the Power Vertical podcast, I discussed this emerging cultural cold war with co-host Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Will this cultural cold war lead to Russia's cultural isolation? And what are the political implications inside Russia?


Power Vertical Podcast: The Cultural Cold War
Power Vertical Podcast: The Cultural Cold Wari
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Listen to or download the podcast above, or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Vladimir Putin, Power Vertical podcast, LGBT rights

Zhukovsky's Grassroots Revolution

Residents of Zhukovsky camping out to save the Tsagovsky forest in April 2012

The Zhukovsky People's Council this week set up task forces to address a series of issues, including the environment, housing, urban renewal, transportation, and youth affairs.

It all seems pretty banal at first glance, except for one small detail. The 15-member council was chosen in a free and fair vote last month at the initiative of local citizens and civic groups -- without the participation of Russia's official electoral authorities.

It has no formal power, but nevertheless meets regularly in sessions open to the public and advertised online. Member of the People's Council say they intend to "erect a reliable shield against decisions that do not correspond to the interests of the population.” 

Local journalist Natalia Znamenskaya, a member of the council, says they plan to actively attend hearings on local issues -- like an upcoming one on plans to build a 17-story building in a local park -- and go door-to-door to organize residents.

And this trend that began in this town in the Moscow region appears to be spreading.

"The organizers describe the Zhukovsky council as the first organ of popular self-government in Russia that was elected in open, fair, and equal electronic elections," the daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote in a recent editorial.

"Civic activists are affirming that they will hold similar alternative elections across the entire country. Local people’s councils could be formed in the near future in Voronezh and Yekaterinburg. The technology to hold alternative elections in Russia’s regions is already prepared."

It's probably much too early to call this the start of a grassroots revolution, but it nevertheless appears to be the start of something important.

The idea to form the council in Zhukovsky came about because local activists believed that the town's mayoral election would be falsified.

Andrei Voityuk, a nominally independent candidate backed by the ruling United Russia and the regional governor Andrei Vorobyov, won the election with 36.8 percent of the vote. Turnout was a dismal 39 percent.

Zhukovsky became a hotbed of opposition in recent years, with activists galvanized by a battle to prevent the felling of a local forest to make room for a new road.

"If the inhabitants of Zhukovsky had trusted the existing structures and procedures, the idea of an alternative council may not have arisen at all," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" opined.

"If citizens continue to see that the authorities are incapable of organizing transparent and fair elections, they will take their problems to alternative structures."

The alternative election in Zhukovsky, which took place on March 25, followed the model established by the Opposition's Coordinating Council last year. The vote took place online and was open to anybody proving local residency.

Since it was elected last October, the Coordinating Council has been much maligned -- perhaps unfairly -- as ineffectual and plagued by the infighting typical of Russia's fractious national opposition.

But one thing the Coordinating Council did was to set an example of self-organizing and grassroots democracy -- one that is now being replicated in the regions.

And as the trend spreads, it will only serve to deepen the crisis plaguing Russia's rulers.

"It is no accident that the opposition increasingly declares that it does not intend to participate in official elections and relies on the spread of parallel structures," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" opined.

"And it is not only nonestablishment opposition figures who are saying this, but also politicians who are not so distant from the Kremlin. They admit that the authorities today are encountering their most dangerous foe -- illegitimacy."

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Zhukovsky Peoples' Council, Russian local politics

Audio Podcast: Asymmetrical Warfare

In many ways, anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny's struggle with the Kremlin has the hallmarks of a classic asymmetrical struggle.

One side has the full weight of the Russian state at its disposal -- from politicized courts and law enforcement to broadcast media ready to smear its opponents.
The other has a charismatic leader with a devoted following of new media-savvy supporters who are in tune with the emerging zeitgeist and adept at seizing control of the narrative.
In many ways, anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny's struggle with the Kremlin has the hallmarks of a classic asymmetrical struggle.
In this week's edition of "The Power Vertical Podcast," I discussed Navalny's war with the Kremlin and its political implications with co-host and NYU professor Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia's security services and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows."
Will the authorities succeed in silencing Navalny? Or will they only succeed in boosting his stature?

Power Vertical Podcast: Asymmetrical Warfare
Power Vertical Podcast: Asymmetrical Warfarei
|| 0:00:00

Listen to or download the podcast above, or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Aleksei Navalny, Power Vertical podcast

The Race To Frame Navalny

Will Navalny win even if he loses in court?

Aleksei Navalny says he is prepared to go to prison. But he is also determined to make sending him there as painful and costly as possible for the Kremlin.

One round in Navalny's long-running battle with the Kremlin will be decided in a courtroom in Kirov Oblast, where the trial that could land him a 10-year sentence is scheduled to begin on April 17. In that venue the outcome is likely preordained.

But the enduring part of the Navalny saga, the part that will have potentially long-term political implications, will be determined in the hearts-and-minds struggle to define him in the public imagination.

And it is here where the crafty anticorruption blogger and opposition figure just might have an edge -- even as he is being smeared by the state-controlled media

Last week, Navalny posted all the case materials from his upcoming trial online and used his blog and Twitter feed to urge the public to make up its own mind about his guilt or innocence.

In a recent interview with "Moskovsky komsomolets," he made a point of stressing that he has lived in the same modest apartment his whole life, drives a simple car, and sends his children to ordinary public schools.

"This is the life of an ordinary Muscovite. And meanwhile they are telling fairy tales about how I stole millions," Navalny said.

Navalny himself says he's certain he will be convicted of organizing the theft of 10,000 metric tons of timber worth 16 million rubles ($520,000) from the state-owned KirovLes company. 

"The case is ridiculous," he told "Moskovsky komsomolets." "All the evidence for the prosecution is simultaneously our evidence too, from the payments to the wiretapping by the FSB. It is immediately clear from the wiretap that I am absolutely innocent."

The case dates back to 2009, when Navalny was an unpaid adviser to Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh. It has taken so many dizzying twists and turns that even somebody unfavorably disposed toward Navalny would have suspicions about the allegations' veracity.

Since the investigation was first launched in December 2011, it has been closed for lack of evidence and then reopened numerous times, most recently in April 2012 at the very public insistence of Navalny's arch-nemesis, Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin.

But in the case's latest incarnation, individuals who previously testified against Navalny are suddenly being named as his co-conspirators.

"The Investigative Committee has no legal strategy. It has a PR strategy," Navalny told "Moskovsky komsomolets." "My defense against this PR is to post all the case materials on the Internet -- all the payments, all the bookkeeping."

The strategy is classic Navalny -- using his nimble online organizing skills and his army of devoted supporters to get his message out.

But it also represents something of a twist.

Up until now, Navalny excelled at this online looking-glass war by playing offense. He famously rebranded United Russia as "swindlers and thieves." He exposed Bastrykin's undeclared property in Europe and managed to dub Russia's top cop "Foreign Agent Bastrykin." He forced the issue of top officials' overseas properties into the national conversation.

But with his trial looming, and with state television certain to be repeating like a mantra that "Navalny stole 16 million," he now appears to be taking steps to define himself, to seize control of his own public image and narrative.

The authorities can, no doubt, get the verdict and the sentence they want from an expectedly obedient Kirov court -- the evidence notwithstanding.

But if they imprison Navalny even as he manages to convince a critical mass of the attentive public that he is innocent, his stature will only grow -- and take on the added glow of martyrdom.

In various interviews, including a recent one with "The New York Times," Navalny has suggested that the real goal of a conviction could be to legally disqualify him from running in the upcoming elections to the Moscow City Duma -- something he says he is planning on doing.

If that is the Kremlin's goal, he would likely receive a suspended sentence.

"If they give you a suspended 10-year sentence, you are sitting in a restaurant in Moscow fat and happy and cannot say the bloody regime ruined your life," he told "Moskovsky komsomolets." "But you cannot run for anything either."

But Navalny also doesn't rule out the possibility that he could be sent to prison. "There is a high probability that this will happen," he said. "The thought does not give me the slightest pleasure, but I have been ready for it for the past few years."

And even if he is sent to prison for a decade, Navalny says he believes time is on his side and he is certain that the regime will change before his term is up.

"The regime can extend and revive itself, but everyone has come to understand that it is doomed," he said. "Nevertheless, difficult times lie ahead for us for a year or two."

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Aleksei Navalny

About This Blog

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or