Wednesday, November 26, 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?

The Power Vertical Feed

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