Thursday, November 27, 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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15:34 November 26, 2014


So by now, we've all seen how passengers in Krasnoyarsk had to get out and push their flight out of the snow...

...and we've all seen the snarky Twitter memes this has inspired...

...but have you heard about onboard drunken onboard brawl that grounded a flight in Novosibirsk?

12:41 November 26, 2014


12:33 November 26, 2014


Via The Moscow Times:

A lawmaker on the State Duma's Defense Committee has proposed banning the import of French wines in response to Paris' decision to suspend delivery of the first of two helicopter carriers to Russia.

"Let's ban the sale of French wine in Russia," Deputy Vladimir Bessonov told Russian News Service radio on Tuesday. "Even talking about this can bring about desired results," he said, without specifying what these would be.

France, under pressure from its Western allies to cancel a 1.2 billion euro contract ($1.58 billion) with Russia for Mistral-class warships, said earlier Tuesday that it was suspending delivery of the first of two carriers because of Russia's meddling in eastern Ukraine.


12:21 November 26, 2014
12:20 November 26, 2014


12:18 November 26, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


By RFE/RL's Russian Service

The editor-in-chief of an independent Russian news website says he will seek political asylum in the United States.

Oleg Potapenko told RFE/RL on November 26 that he has arrived in the United States despite efforts by Russian authorities to prevent him from leaving the country.

Potapenko is editor of, a news site in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk that has reported about the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine.

On November 12, the openly gay Potapenko and his partner were prevented from boarding a flight from Khabarovsk to Hong Kong after border guards said a page was missing from Potapenko's passport.

Potapenko says the page was cut out by a police officer who requested his passport for a check earlier that day.

He told RFE/RL that he had managed to leave Russia from another city, Vladivostok, on November 16.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Russia's actions in Ukraine are a violation of international law and a threat to peace in Europe.

Speaking bluntly in an address to Germany's parliament on November 26, Merkel said, "Nothing justifies the direct or indirect participation of Russia in the fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk."

She told the Bundestag that Russia's actions have "called the peaceful order in Europe into question and are a violation of international law."

But she suggested there was no swift solution, saying, "Our efforts to overcome this crisis will require patience and staying power."

Germany has become increasingly frustrated over Moscow's refusal to heed Western calls to stop supporting pro-Russian separatists who have seized control of large parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in eastern Ukraine.

Close ties between Russia and Germany have been strained by the Ukraine crisis.

(Based on reporting by Reuters)


Ukraine has leveled fresh charges that Russia is sending military support to pro-Russian separatists in the east.

A foreign ministry spokesman said five columns of heavy equipment were spotted crossing into Ukrainian territory on November 24.

Evhen Perebyinis told journalists on November 25 that a total of 85 vehicles had been detected in the five columns that entered at the Izvaryne border crossing point from Russia.

"The Russian side is continuing to provide the terrorist organizations of the Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics with heavy armaments," said Perebynisis.

Separately, the Ukrainian military said one soldier had been killed and five others wounded in the past 24 hours as a shaky cease-fire declared on September 5 continued to come under pressure.

The six-month conflict in the east of Ukraine has left more than 4,300 people dead, according to the United Nations.

(Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters)



Russia has rejected accusations that it is planning to annex Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told RFE/RL’s Current Time program on November 25: “There can be no question about any annexations.”

Georgia and the West have criticized a "strategic partnership" agreement between Russia and Abkhazia signed on November 24.

Tbilisi condemned the pact as an attempt by Moscow to annex the region.

Karasin also said Russia will “continue sparing no effort, nerves, financial expenses” to make sure its neighbors “do not feel endangered.”

"As a large state and a powerful country, Russia is constantly responsible for stability on its borders and everything that is under way along its borders," he added.

Under the "strategic partnership," Russian and Abkhaz forces in the territory will turn into a joint force led by a Russian commander.


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.

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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