Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Power Vertical

The Other Russia

A man carrying a Russian flag walks to a demonstration on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square on December 10.
A man carrying a Russian flag walks to a demonstration on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square on December 10.

It began with a trickle, as change often does.

Isolated acts of dissent began popping up that eventually seemed to point to a larger trend. Street protests began attracting more than the dozen or so usual suspects. Support for reform appeared in unlikely places, including within the regime. Whistleblowers exposed wrongdoing in high places. Tech savvy youths mastered the art of getting their message out online. Artists and musicians began to speak out forcefully.

It took years, but little by little, people stopped being afraid and stopped being passive. Step by step, the other Russia emerged -- the one that inspires, the one that belies the stereotypes, the one that was on full display for all the world to see during Saturday's massive and peaceful protests. The one that is now impossible for the Kremlin to ignore or belittle.

Cracks in Putin's authoritarian power vertical started appearing as far back as late 2008 when protests in Vladivostok over increased tariffs on imported cars attracted an unusually broad cross-section of society. The Kremlin was spooked and instructed local authorities to shut the growing demonstrations down but local police officials refused. In the end, Russia's rulers were forced to fly in riot police from the Moscow region to do the job.

More acts of defiance followed. A month later in January 2009, Judge Aleksei Bondarev unexpectedly released opposition protestor Roman Dobrokhotov, who had been arrested for holding a silent protest -- standing with his mouth taped shut and holding a blank sheet of paper -- in front of the Russian government headquarters in Moscow.  Dobrokhotov was charged -- despite the taped mouth -- with public cursing. In dismissing the charges, Bondarev cited the European Convention on Human Rights.

An activist in the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth movement in February 2009 exposed how the authorities were using young spies to join opposition groups and then inform on them.

Whistleblowing soon became a bit of a fad. Most famously, Aleksei Dymovsky, the original YouTube cop, posted a viral video in November 2009 alleging massive corruption in the Novorossiisk police force where he worked, including the falsification of evidence against innocent crime suspects.

Dymovsky lost his job and faced prosecution and harassment, but a trend was born. More truth-telling cops, prosecutors, and judge's aides followed suit - despite the consequences.

Soon the artistic community got into the act. When a car driven by Lukoil vice president Anatoly Barkov was involved in an accident killing two women in Moscow in March 2010, the popular rapper Noize MC posted a song and video about the incident on YouTube that quickly went viral. The rapper then followed up with another viral video and song about police brutality months later.

At a concert in Moscow's Olympic Stadium (the same place where Putin was recently booed by martial arts boxing fans) veteran rocker Yury Shevchuk lit into the authorities for corruption and impunity in a four-minute rant between songs. A video of that also went viral.

The actor Aleksei Devotchenko -- star of popular TV crime shows like "Streets Of Broken Lamps" and 'Bandit St. Petersburg" -- followed up on Shevchuk's comments posting a diary on the Internet criticizing his colleagues for cozying up to the Kremlin and making "pseudo-patriotic" propaganda films.

By the summer of 2010, dissent appeared to be reaching critical mass (I even titled a blog at the time "The August Revolution," only half in jest.)

The Blue Bucket brigades protested the widespread use of police sirens by the rich and powerful to avoid Moscow's traffic laws. A new opposition star was born when Yevgenia Chirikova, a former Moscow businesswomen and mother of two -- a classic Russian everywoman -- took up the cause of defending the Khimki forest that was slated for destruction to make room for a new Moscow-St. Petersburg highway.

When the authorities struggled to respond to raging forest fires that same summer, a startling display of Internet-powered civic activism sprung up -- exemplified by a doctor, using the online handle Dr. Liza, who organized assistance for her fellow citizens when it appeared the government was unable or unwilling to do so. (Dr. Liza captured the emerging dynamic perfectly when she dished the ruling United Russia party which had sought to co-opt her philanthropic activities for their own political purposes.)

I could go on and on, but by now you get the picture. What happened over the past week in Russia was years in the making. It took the disappointment of the Putin-Medvedev job switcheroo and the anger over the disputed December 4 election to light the spark, but the kindling was long there.

Putin famously created Russia's power vertical, the rigid top-down power structure that brought a semblance of order at the expense of the democratic process. But he also, unwittingly perhaps, created a "power horizontal" -- a highly educated, prosperous, and wired middle class that is now clamoring for its rights. This Other Russia has shown its face to the world -- and it isn't going away any time soon.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: opposition,Russian protests,middle class

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: La Russophobe from: USA
December 13, 2011 08:37
Brian, have you lost your mind? The "highly educated, prosperous, and wired middle class" you describe did absolutely nothing to secure even one seat for Yabloko in the new Duma, or to secure a place for any other opposition party on the ballot, and now there won't be another election to the Duma for five years. Their only demand is to recount votes and give even more seats to maniacal deputies from the Communist Party and LDPR. They have no credible leader, no organization, not even a name. The represent a tiny minority of the Russian electorate and have no hope of influencing the presidential race on their own. The only really significant person in their ranks, Navalny, hasn't said he'll make any tangible demand for power, and his own background is murky and questionable. The acts of protest you describe are without any real political significance, and it is simply ludicrous to suggest that a group of 25,000 sitting around clutching balloons is significant in a city of 15 million ruled by a KGB spy. You are allowing your emotions to cloud your judgment, that is not what we read you for.
In Response

by: Marko from: USA
December 13, 2011 11:25
I more or less completely agree with one of La Russophobe's comments. Hell has frozen over and pigs are flying... dead on. Besides, do these ipad clutching youths really look like they are ready to take on Putin's OMON riot police-- who are tough hombres, loyal, and well-trained...not. I was there in 1993 when Boris Yeltsin lost control of street demos. The people that took on and routed his police were hard-bitten working class types and former soldiers not afraid to mix it up with a truncheon-wielding policeman. By the way, we supported good old Boris's decision to gun down those demonstrators. Just saying.

by: Ben
December 13, 2011 18:30
"Other Russia" without it`s leaders.RFE/RL mentions everybody: Navalny,Udaltsov,Prokhorow-everybody but not Iavlinsky and other democrats,why?

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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