Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Power Vertical

The Peculiarities Of The National Hunt (For Foreign Agents)

Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov doesn't appear to be down with Russia's controversial law on "foreign agents."
Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov doesn't appear to be down with Russia's controversial law on "foreign agents."
The various factions of the Russian elite send signals to each other and lay down markers in many ways. Some subtle. Some, not so much.
Addressing the State Duma on January 16, Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov seemed to go out of his way to undermine controversial legislation requiring NGOs engaged in political activities and that receive funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents."
Konovalov noted that thus far only one organization had registered as such, that the new law contradicts previously existing legislation on NGOs, and that the Justice Ministry would not go out of its way to uncover foreign financing for civil-society groups.

The comments came in response to a question from lawmaker Mikhail Markelov of the ruling United Russia party, who asked Konovalov what the Justice Ministry was doing to enforce the law, which went into effect in November. "The kind of provocations that have been taking place are not possible without foreign financing," Markelov said.

To be sure, Konovalov was careful. His response was parsed and laden with legalese. The law doesn't give the Justice Ministry the authority to conduct "audits" or "raids" to root out foreign funding, he said. This is the job of the Finance Ministry and law enforcement, respectively. And the issue of which NGOs are engaged in political activity is the job of the courts.
But it was abundantly clear that he was not crazy about the law and was trying to distance himself from it. Opposition lawmaker Ilya Ponomaryov tweeted from the floor of the legislature: "Markelov attacks Konovalov in the Duma: The Justice Ministry is not enforcing the foreign agent law. The Answer: It contradicts the spirit of legislation on NGOs."
The fact that somebody like Konovalov is opposed to the foreign-agent law isn't really surprising.
He belongs to the technocratic wing of the elite that is uncomfortable with the crackdown that followed Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency. Konovalov is also one of the "civiliki," specialists in civil law, that Dmirty Medvedev promoted during his presidency in an effort to mitigate the influence of the security-service veterans, or "siloviki," who surrounded Putin. Medvedev has long sought to get Konovalov named prosecutor-general, a prospect that looks increasingly far-fetched.

What is surprising -- and  interesting -- is that Konovalov would express his opposition, as cautious as it was, so publicly.
Even more so given that Konovalov's comments came as rumors are swirling in Moscow (yet again) that a government shakeup is imminent. The latest round of speculation was sparked by a front-page article in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia" this week that named the government's "most and least effective ministers."
In that report, based on interviews with unidentified Kremlin officials, Konovalov was ranked one of the seven most effective ministers in the cabinet. (Nine were ranked adequate and five subpar.)
Will Konovalov's Duma performance result in a downgrade? Will he be pulled back in line?
In response to Ponomaryov's tweet from the floor of the Duma, Markelov answered on Twitter: "I am certain that in the near future, the Justice Ministry will begin enforcing the law on foreign agents."
We'll have to wait and see how this all plays out.
But for now, it is yet another indication that not everybody, not even among those considered the most effective members of the government, is on board with the Kremlin's current hard line toward civil society.
-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Aleksandr Konovalov,NGO law

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Mamuka
January 16, 2013 21:43
Time for a new movie? Is Aleksei Buldakov still around? Daniel Craig could play Putin, and maybe Medvedev could do a cameo role as himself.

by: Robert from: Prague
January 17, 2013 08:50
I'm not so sure I see any "undermining" of the law in what Konovalov says. The only thing more chilling to normal civil society than a draconian law is a draconian law that is unpredictably and randomly enforced. His comments don't give any comfort to civil society, but rather have the effect of fostering self-censorship. His notion that NGOs are in the hands of "law enforcement" and "the courts," sounds more like a warning than anything else. It seems more like an effort to impose a crackdown without actually having to crack down. Now they just need an example or two and the process is complete.

by: Fred Eidlin from: Tallinn, Estonia
January 31, 2013 20:27
Perhaps criticism of the Russian law requiring foreign-funded NGOs engaged in political activities to register is entirely justified. However, to the extent that it is justified, would it not also apply to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA)? Should not Americans concerned about dangers to democracy be campaigning to abolish the FARA, as well as criticizing the new Russian law? According to The U.S. Department of Justice's FARA web site ( FARA "requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities. Disclosure of the required information facilitates evaluation by the government and the American people of the statements and activities of such persons in light of their function as foreign agents. The FARA Registration Unit of the Counterespionage Section (CES) in the National Security Division (NSD) is responsible for the administration and enforcement of the Act." Can anyone point out fundamental differences between the U.S. and Russian legislation? Moreover, democratic government does not fall out of the sky fully formed, it has to be fought for. The United States, for example, has a long history of legislation viewed as undemocratic by concerned citizens, who struggled to have such legislation repealed or struck down by the courts. As Russians gradually become accustomed to their new role as citizens taking responsibility for how their country is governed, they may, sooner or later, get around to struggling for abolition or modification of the law requiring foreign-funded NGOs to register. Or, a majority may accept this legislation as protecting the national interest of their country, as most Americans appear to view the FARA. Far from destruction of civil society this legislation, like many other causes for which Russian citizens are currently fighting, may represent the kind of challenge that will provoke civil society to mobilize.

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17:49 October 24, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of escalating conflicts around the world by imposing what he called a "unilateral diktat."

Putin made the remarks in a combative speech to political experts at the Valdai International Discussion Club, in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Putin said the United States has been "fighting against the results of its own policy" in Iraq, Libya and Syria.

He said risks of serious conflicts involving major countries have risen, as well as risks of arms treaties being violated.

He also dismissed international sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine as a "mistake," saying they aimed at pushing Russia into isolation and would end up "hurting everyone."

We did not start this," he added, referring to rising tensions between Russia and the West.

(Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, Interfax, TASS)


German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged Russian President Vladimir Putin in a telephone call to push for a quick resolution of the ongoing gas dispute with Ukraine as winter looms.

The call by Merkel to Putin on October 24 comes as representatives of the EU, Russia, and Ukraine are due to meet again next week in EU brokered talks aimed at solving the gas dispute between Kyiv and Moscow.

Merkel also underlined that upcoming elections in areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists must respect Ukrainian national law.

Pro-Russian insurgent leaders are boycotting a parliamentary snap poll on October 26 in Ukraine and are holding their own election in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions, home to nearly three million people, on the same day instead.

(Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters)



The United Nations says the conflict in Ukraine has forced more than 800,000 people from their homes.

Around 95 percent of displaced people come from eastern Ukraine, where government troops have been battling pro-Russian separatists.

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, told a briefing in Geneva that an estimated 430,000 people were currently displaced within Ukraine -- 170,000 more than at the start of September.

It said at least 387,000 other people have asked for refugee status, temporary asylum, or other forms of residency permits in Russia.

Another 6,600 have applied for asylum in the European Union and 581 in Belarus.

The agency said it was "racing to help some of the most vulnerable displaced people" as winter approaches.

It also said the number of displaced people is expected to rise further due to ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine.


Three alleged militants have been killed by security forces in Russia's volatile North Caucasus region.

Russia's National Antiterrorism Committee says that two suspects were killed in the village of Charoda in Daghestan on October 24 after they refused to leave an apartment and opened fire at police and security troops.

One police officer was wounded.

Also on October 24, police in another North Caucasus region, Kabardino-Balkaria, killed a suspected militant after he refused to identify himself, threw a grenade towards police, and opened fire with a pistol.

A police officer was wounded in that incident.

Violence is common in Russia's North Caucasus region, which includes the restive republics of Daghestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, and Chechnya.

Islamic militants and criminal groups routinely target Russian military personnel and local officials.

(Based on reporting by Interfax and TASS)


A lawyer, who represented an alleged victim of the notorious Orekhovo criminal group in Moscow, has been assassinated.

Police in the Russian capital say that Vitaly Moiseyev and his wife were found dead with gunshot wounds in a car near Moscow on October 24.

Moiseyev was representing Sergei Zhurba, an alleged victim of the Orekhovo gang and a key witness in a case against one of the gang's leaders Dmitry Belkin.

Belkin was sentenced to life in prison on October 23 for multiple murders and extortion.

Last month, another of Zhurba's lawyers, Tatyana Akimtseva (eds: a woman), was shot dead by unknown individuals.

The Orekhovo group was one of the most powerful crime gangs of the Moscow region and in Russia in the 1990s. Its members are believed to be responsible for dozens of murders.

(Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)

17:27 October 24, 2014


17:26 October 24, 2014


17:00 October 24, 2014
08:29 October 24, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is warning that Russia could attempt to disrupt Ukraine's parliamentary elections scheduled for October 26.

Yatsenyuk told a meeting of top security officials and election monitors on October 23 that "It is absolutely clear that attempts to destabilize the situation will continue and will be provoked by Russia."

Yatsenyuk said "we are in a state of Russian aggression and we have before us one more challenge -- to hold parliamentary elections."

The prime minister said Ukraine needs the "full mobilization of the entire law-enforcement system to prevent violations of the election process and attempts at terrorist acts during the elections."

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said authorities have ordered some 82,000 policemen on duty for election day.

He said 4,000 members of a special reaction force would be among those maintaining order during polling hours and would be concentrated in "those precincts where there is a risk of some terrorist acts or aggressive actions by some...candidates."

The warning by Yatsenyuk comes on the heels of three violent attacks on parliamentary candidates in the past week.

The latest, against Volodymyr Borysenko, a member of Yatsenyuk's People's Front Party, occurred on October 20 when Borysenko was shot at and had an explosive thrown at him.

He allegedly survived the attack only because he was wearing body armor due to numerous death threats he had recently received.

Elections to the Verkhovna Rada, the parliament, will be held despite continued fighting in the eastern part of the country between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Voting will not take place in 14 districts of eastern Ukraine currently under the control of the separatists.

Those separatist-held areas -- in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions -- are planning on holding their own elections in November.

Additionally, Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in March means the loss of 12 seats from the 450-seat parliament.

Polls show President Petro Poroshenko's party leading with some 30 percent of respondents saying they would cast their vote for the Petro Poroshenko Bloc.

It that percentage holds on election day it would mean Poroshenko's bloc would have to form a coalition government, likely with nationalist groups who oppose conducting peace talks over fighting in the east.

(Based on reporting by Reuters and Interfax)



Moscow has denied claims of an incursion by a Russian military plane into Estonia's airspace.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman told Interfax news agency on October 23 that the Ilyushin-20 took off from Khrabrovo airfield in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on October 21.

The spokesman said the reconnaissance plane flew "over neutral waters of the Baltic Sea" while on a training flight.

On October 22, Estonia’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador in Tallinn, Yury Merzlakov, after the Estonian military said the Russian plane had entered its air space.

In a statement, NATO said the Ilyushin-20 was first intercepted by Danish jets when it approached Denmark, before flying toward non-NATO member Sweden.

Intercepted by Swedish planes, the alliance said the Ilyushin entered Estonian airspace for “less than one minute” and was escorted out by Portuguese jets.

NATO has stepped up its Baltic air patrols and Moscow has been accused of several recent border violations in the region amid heightened tensions between Russia and the West over the Ukraine conflict.

Last month, Estonia accused Russia of abducting one of its police officers on the border.

Russia claims Eston Kohver was seized inside Russia on September 5, while Estonian officials say he was captured at gunpoint in Estonia near the border and taken to Russia.

The European Union and United States have called for the immediate release of the Estonian security official, who is facing espionage charges in Russia.

Meanwhile, the Swedish Navy has been searching for a suspected submarine sighted six days ago some 50 kilometers from the capital, Stockholm, although it said on October 22 it was pulling back some of its ships.

Swedish officials have not linked any particular country to the suspected intrusion and Moscow has denied involvement.

(With reporting by Interfax, TASS, and the BBC)


A Moscow court postponed to next week a ruling on a move to take control of Bashneft, an oil company from tycoon Vladimir Yevtushenkov.

The judge said on October 23 that the next hearing will take place on October 30 after the prosecution requested more time to prepare its case.

Prosecutors filed the suit in September to regain state ownership of Bashneft, citing alleged violations in the privatization and subsequent sale of the company to AFK Sistema investment group.

Yevtushenkov, the main shareholder of the conglomerate, is under house arrest on suspicion of money laundering during the firm's acquisition in 2009.

Yevtushenkov, 66, was arrested on September 16.

He is ranked Russia's 15th richest man by U.S. magazine Forbes, with an estimated fortune of $9 billion.

(Based on reporting by Reuters and TASS)

11:11 October 23, 2014


According to a report in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia," deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin told a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi that Western politicians "do not understand the essence of Russia."

"Volodin stated the key thesis about the current state of our country: As long as there is Putin there is Russia. If there is no Putin, there is no Russia," Konstantin Kostin, head of the Foundation for the Development of Civil Society, told "Izvestia."

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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