Monday, November 24, 2014

The Power Vertical

The Looking-Glass War

A journalist looks at the Twitter page of opposition activist Aleksei Navalny on August 7.
A journalist looks at the Twitter page of opposition activist Aleksei Navalny on August 7.
Whatever you think about Aleksei Navalny's politics, it's hard not to be impressed by his ingenuity.
This week, he was at it again, releasing an application called a "Truth Browser" on Google Chrome that translates Russian-language web pages into Navalny-speak.  
With a simple mouse click, United Russia magically changes -- of course -- into "партия жуликов и воров" or, "The Party of Swindlers and Thieves."
And Navalny's nemesis, Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin? That of course morphs into "Иностранный агент Бастрыкин" (Foreign Agent Bastrykin).
Detractors may dismiss it as a childish prank, except for the fact that Navalny's antics have a tendency to seep into Russia's political bloodstream and affect the zeitgeist. This is, after all, the guy who coined the phrase "Swindlers and Thieves" that has become part of the country's lexicon. He clearly understands the PR value of monotonous repetition and has clearly gotten under the ruling elite's collective skin.
Which is why Bastrykin is now trying to silence, sideline, or at least discredit Navalny with the criminal charges which were announced last week.
The writer Anna Fedorova opined in "Izvestia" recently that the way the charges were formulated suggests that Bastrykin's goal is to damage Navalny's brand -- just as he has successfully damaged the brand of the ruling elite with his "swindlers and thieves" campaign.
The battle between Navalny and Bastrykin, she wrote, increasingly resembles "a war in looking-glass land [where] we see two crooked mirrors directed toward each other. The authorities and the opposition are doing one and the same thing: trying to use the other side's own arguments against them."
And she suggested that the effort to taint Navalny as corrupt could prove effective.
The majority of people do not want to ferret around in the details. For every one who reads the long blog post, with its diagrams and explanations, right through to the end, there will be nine who simply think: Well, yes, so he is just the same as his enemies. They are crooks and thieves -- and he himself is a crook and a thief, it is just that he is lower down the scale and does not belong to United Russia. 

When they 'create a martyr' of somebody, the way in which the charge is formulated is of fundamental importance. For a shining model of a revolutionary and campaigner against corruption, it is good to go to jail 'for the truth' or 'for an exploit,' but not very good, to put it mildly, to go to jail for theft (of money, timber, fish, copper, or other national assets).
In an interview on Dozhd TV on the day he was charged with organizing a criminal conspiracy to steal 16 million rubles ($506, 448) worth of timber products from the state-owned KirovLes company, Navalny made a similar point.

"They just want people to hear over and over on television that Navalny stole 16 million," he said.

Mindful of this, Navalny has made it clear that he doesn't plan to allow Bastrykin to define him as a crook in the public consciousness. In remarks reported by RIA-Novosti, he said he will soon release specific documents proving his innocence and that the case against him has been fabricated.
The case, which dates back to 2009 when Navalny was an unpaid adviser to Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh, has been indeed gone through so many bizarre twists and turns that it is easy even for somebody unfavorably disposed toward Navalny to 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 and closed so many times that it is easy to lose track.
It was reopened most recently in April at Bastrykin's very public insistence, with the charges changed and with individuals who previously testified against Navalny suddenly being named as his coconspirators. (A detailed analysis of the charges themselves is the subject of a separate post. But for now I would recommend this piece in "Novoye vremya" which does a good job of chronicling the case.)

But before the case ever gets to court -- if it ever gets to court -- this odd little "looking-glass war" over public perceptions is bound to continue. As are incidents like Navalny's claim to have found a sophisticated listening device in his office this week. 
And the case could have implications far beyond Navalny's fate. As I have blogged in the past, Bastrykin clearly wants to play hardball with the opposition and wants to put Navalny away badly. But as Kremlin-watcher and siloviki expert Mark Galeotti pointed out in the latest Power Vertical podcast, his enthusiasm is not shared by many in the ruling elite -- or even in the law-enforcement community.
How this case winds up, therefore, could end up being one barometer of Russia's future political direction.
-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Aleksei Navalny,Aleksandr Bastrykin

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: La Russophobe from: USA
August 08, 2012 01:14
It's pretty hard to find even one example in human history where zeitgeist brought down a dictator. And maybe that's why Navalny has failed utterly at everything he's ever tried, and is now heading for prison where he'll keep an ice cube warm next to Khodorkovsky. Navalny told us there would be a re-vote for Duma. Not. He told us there would be a runoff for president. Not. He said his demonstration marches would grow. They shrank. He said he'd take down Bastrykin, but it's Navalny who's on his way to prison. Instead of asking what Navalny will do next (play with which Internet toy in a new and even more foolish way), you ought to be asking who should replace him, and whether in fact there is any movement left for a replacement to lead.
In Response

by: Mark from: Victoria
August 08, 2012 18:26
If the Russian government is smart, it will encourage Navalny's longevity and the continuation of the love affair between him and sites like this one, perhaps by pretending to be afraid of his developing into a real political heavyweight. Because there is just as much chance of his developing into a starfish or an aircraft carrier. But the longer the western regime-changers go yapping down the trail of the latest Alexey Navalny techno-treat, the further they will find themselves from the goal when reality eventually presents itself.

Don't worry about there being a movement left to lead. If you believe the western demographers who say all the smart, hip Russians are involved in a rush for the exits - and have been for at least the last 15 years - the entire "movement" will have emigrated by the time Navalny gets out of jail. Maybe they'll be your neighbours!!
In Response

by: Andrew from: Auckland
August 09, 2012 10:07
Just the sort of asinine comment one would expect from a Victorian.
Tell me Mark, where would you rather live, Australia or Putin's Russia?
Regime change is required in Russia to remove a criminal, repressive, and in the Caucasus, mass murdering regime from power.
The demographics are correct, look at the large numbers of young Russians leaving for Europe, USA/Canada, for New Zealand and Australia, and even for Georgia (where their kids can have a similar cultural & religious upbringing without the repressive regime).

I notice you seem to have a lot of time for Putin, why don't you try living in Russia Mark?

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In this space, I will regularly comment on events in Russia, repost content and tweets I find interesting and informative, and shamelessly promote myself (and others, whose work I like). The traditional Power Vertical Blog remains for larger and more developed items. The Podcast, of course, will continue to appear every Friday. I hope you find the new Power Vertical Feed to be a useful resource and welcome your feedback. More

19:16 November 21, 2014


On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we use the one-year anniversary of the Euromaidan uprising to look at how it changed both Ukraine and Russia. My guests are Sean Guillory and Alexander Motyl.

09:14 November 21, 2014
09:11 November 21, 2014


09:09 November 21, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:

Ukrainians are marking a new national holiday on November 21 -- the anniversary of the start of Kyiv’s Euromaidan protests that led to the ouster of the country’s former pro-Kremlin regime.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed decree on November 13 that declared the holiday for annual “Day of Dignity and Freedom” celebrations.
The protests began with a few hundred people who met spontaneously on a vast square in central Kyiv of November 21, 2013 – disappointed by then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of a landmark deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.
After that first night, as the protests quickly swelled to tens of thousands of demonstrators, brutal police efforts to disperse the crowds with batons and teargas backfired.
As the crowds got bigger, the protesters began to call for Yanukovych’s ouster – which came in February 2014 after more than 100 people were killed in clashes with police that failed to end the demonstrations.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was expected to announce an increase in nonlethal U.S. military assistance to Ukraine on November 21 as he meets in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
The talks come on the first anniversary of the start of the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv that toppled Ukraine's former pro-Kremlin regime.
As Biden arrived in Kyiv on the evening of November 20, U.S. officials told reporters that he will announce the delivery of Humvee transport vehicles that are now in the Pentagon’s inventory of excess supplies.
They said Biden also would announce the delivery of previously promised radar units that can detect the location of enemy mortars.
The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not specify a dollar value for the assistance. 
Russia on November 20 warned the United States not to supply weapons to Ukrainian forces.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich cautioned against "a major change in policy of the (U.S.) administration in regard to the conflict" in Ukraine. 
He was commenting on remarks by U.S. President Barack Obama's choice to fill the number two spot at the State Department, Anthony Blinken, who told a congressional hearing on November 19 that lethal assistance "remains on the table. It's something that we're looking at."
The U.S. State Department's Director of Press Relations Jeffrey Rathke on November 20 told reporters that "our position on lethal aid hasn't changed. Nothing is off the table and we continue to believe there's no military solution."
He added, "But, in light of Russia's actions as the nominee mentioned [on November 19] in his testimony, as he indicated, this is something that we should be looking at."
The aid expected to be announced by Biden on November 20 falls short of what the Ukrainian president requested during a visit to Washington in September when he appealed for lethal aid - a request echoed by some U.S. lawmakers in response to what NATO allies say is Russia's movement of tanks and troops into eastern Ukraine.
In September, Washington promised Ukraine $53 million in aid for military gear that includes the mortar detection units, body armor, binoculars, small boats, and other nonlethal equipment for Ukrainian security forces and border guards in the east.
The United States and its European allies have imposed several rounds of economic sanctions on Russia for its seizure of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine.
(With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, and TASS)

Russian Olympian hockey player Slava Voynov – who plays with the Los Angeles Kings NHL hockey team – has been charged with felony domestic violence against his wife.
Voynov faces one felony count of spouse abuse with a maximum penalty of nine years in prison. If convicted, he also could be deported.
Prosecutors say Voynov “caused his wife to suffer injuries to her eyebrow, check, and neck” during an argument at their home in October.
Voynov has been suspended from the NHL since his arrest early on October 20 at a California hospital where he took his wife for treatment.
Voynov’s attorney, Craig Renetzky, says his client didn’t hit his wife.
Renetzky blames the charges on a misunderstanding between police and Voynov’s wife, who speaks very little English.
Voynov – who played on Russia’s team at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics -- faces arraignment on December 1.
(Based on reporting by AP and Reuters)

NATO says Russia's growing military presence in the skies above the Baltic region is unjustified and poses a risk to civil aviation.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Tallinn on November 20 that the aircraft regularly fail to file flight plans or communicate with air controllers and also fly with their transponders off.
Speaking at the Amari air base, he said alliance fighters have intercepted planes more than 100 times in the Baltic region alone so far this year, a threefold increase over 2013. 
He did not say how many of the intercepted aircraft were Russian.
Stoltenberg also said that, overall, NATO aircraft have conducted 400 intercepts to protect the airspace of its European alliance members in 2014 -- an increase of 50 percent over last year.
(Based on reporting by AP and AFP)


16:55 November 19, 2014


Konstantin Eggert has a commentary in "Kommersant" on Russia's anti-Americanism. He opens like this:

"Sometimes I have this feeling that there are only two countries in the world - Russia and the United States. Of course, there is Ukraine, but it either to join us or the Americas. Russian politicians and state television are constantly in search of the 'American hand' in all spheres of our life. In Soviet times, the United States was formally considered to be our number one military and ideological enemy. But even then it didn't occupy such a large space in the minds of the political leadership and citizens. And the paradox is that, on one hand, officials and the media regularly talk about the decline of America as a great power, and on the other declare it to be the source of all evil in the world. This contradiction does not seem to disturb anybody."

And closes like this:

We still have not been able to use the opportunity that we were given with the collapse of the communist regime - to arrange our lives based on liberty and civic virtue. And today, we, as a people, want to go back to the starting point, to beat everyone. And the Soviet Union, with its absence of sausage and freedom, again suddenly seems sweet and dear. But it won't happen. I will put it banally: you can't go into the same river twice.

Read the whole thing here (in Russian, with audio)

15:53 November 19, 2014


MIchael Weiss, editor-in-chief of The Interpreter magazine, appearing on Hromadske TV to talk about Russia's information war.

Michael and Peter Pomarantsev recently co-authored an excellent report "The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture, and Money." Both also appeared recently on The Power Vertical Podcast to discuss the report.

15:42 November 19, 2014


Oleg Kosyrev has a snarky and clever blog post on the subject up on the Ekho Moskvy website. 

1) The United States is the ideal opponent. "It is big and strong and your self-esteem increases when you fight somebody really influential."

2) The United States is not fighting with Russia. "They aren't really interested. They have enough of their own problems and dreams. It's nice to fight somebody who is not fighting you."

3) It is a substitute for the authorities' inability to benefit Russians. "How convenient. Who is to blame for rising food and gas prices? The U.S.A.. Who is to blame for the fact that Russian has political prisoners? The U.S.A. Who is to blame for people demonstrating on the streets? The U.S.A. Who is to blame for the fact that independent international courts denounce the Russian court system? The U.S.A. You can even blame the U.S. for the fact that the light doesn't work in the entrance to your apartment building."

Read it all (in Russian) here.

15:23 November 19, 2014


14:47 November 19, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Ukraine says it will not tolerate pressure from any other country over whether or not it seeks to join NATO.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebyynis spoke made the remark to reporters in Kyiv on November 19, after the BBC quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying in an interview that Moscow wants "a 100 percent guarantee that no-one would think about Ukraine joining NATO."

Hitting back with a reference to Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, Perebyynis said Kyiv would like guarantees that Moscow will not interfere in Ukraine's internal affairs, send in troops, or annex Ukrainian territories. 

The U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, told journalists on November 19 that any decision on seeking to join NATO could be made only by the Ukrainian people, not by Russia, Europe, ar the United States.

The Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk, made a similar statement on November 19.

(Based on reporting by UNIAN and Interfax)


President Vladimir Putin says that Russia is ready for cooperation with the United States as long as Washington treats Moscow as an equal, respect its interests, and refrains from interfering in its affairs.

Putin spoke November 19 at a Kremlin ceremony during which he received the credentials of foreign envoys including John Tefft, the new U.S. Ambassador to Moscow.

Putin said, "We are ready for practical cooperation with our American partners in various fields, based on the principles of respect for each other's interests, equal rights and non-interference in internal matters." 

The remark echoed a formula Putin set out in a foreign policy decree at the start of his third term in 2012.

Tefft, 64, is a career diplomat who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Georgia and Lithuania. 

His posting starts at a time when ties are badly strained over the Ukraine crisis. 

Tefft replaces Michael McFaul, who was ambassador from January 2012 until February 2014. 

(Based on reporting by Reuters and TASS)



Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has signaled that a landmark nuclear arms treaty with the United States is not in jeopardy despite severe tension over Ukraine.

Speaking to Russian lawmakers on November 19, Lavrov said the 2010 New START treaty "meets our basic strategic interests and, on condition of its observance by the United States, we are interested in its full implementation."

The treaty, one of the main products of President Barack Obama's first-term "reset" of ties with Russia, requires Russia and the United States to have their long-range nuclear arsenals under specific ceilings by 2018.

But Lavrov said the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, which President Vladimir Putin suspended in 2007, is "dead" for Moscow. 

NATO has refused to ratify a revised version of the CFE treaty without a full withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova and Georgia.

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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