Friday, April 20, 2018

Kremlin, Worried about a Popular Explosion, Taking Steps to Counter It Before It Begins


Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 20 – Vladimir Putin is not acting with the self-confidence one would expect of someone who has just won re-election with more than 70 percent of the vote. Instead, he and those around him appear to be afraid there will soon be a popular explosion that could challenge his rule and are taking new steps to intimidate and combat his opponents.

            Of course, Putin’s margin of victory reflected less overwhelming support for him than his use of the powers of incumbency and exploitation of traditional Russian deference to those at the top. Indeed, he likely knows that now as polls show his standing has slipped since March 18 (vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2018/04/20/767285-reiting-doveriya-putinu-nachal-snizhatsya).

            Consequently, his regime is taking steps designed to intimidate those who might be thinking about protesting, to attack opposition figures in the streets, and to suppress what the regime seems to think will be a rising tide of protests over the next year – even though polls show only one Russian in 12 is prepared to take to the streets.

            Earlier this week, Procurtor General Yury Chaika declared that his agency has made “the struggle with the protest activity of the population” the chief priority of its work given that in his view protesters of one kind or another separately or together want to “destabilize the situation in Russia” (apn.ru/index.php?newsid=37224).

            Chaika’s remarks are only the tip of the iceberg of the regime’s efforts at defense against protests that so far, despite the anger of the population about trash, Telegram, pollution and economic hardship, have not been large or coordinated in a way that could challenge the regime. Nonetheless, it seems clear that the powers that be are worried.

            Putin’s Russian Guard has ordered new weapons to be used against protesters. It has announced plans to purchase more than 18 million rubles’ worth of them by November 30 (rusmonitor.com/vlasti-gotovyatsya-k-podavleniyu-massovykh-besporyadkov-uzhe-v-sleduyushhem-godu.html).

            Meanwhile and more worrisome because its activities are likely to be even less restrained that the official siloviki, the Young Guard of the United Russia Party has announced plans to form detachments to go after protesters and especially protest leaders (politsovet.ru/58722-molodaya-gvardiya-sozdast-ulichnye-otryady-dlya-borby-s-oppoziciey.html). 

            These detachments will number between 100 and 200 persons each, will be put in Moscow and all other large cities of the Russian Federation, and be prepared on short notice to go into the street “and express their opinion on the most varied questions.”  Such groups recall the bully boys the Nazis and fascists used before coming to power.

            The Kremlin talked about the formation of such groups earlier, but during the protests of 2011-2012, such “pro-regime” youth did not appear or interfere with the street actions at that time. Now, many Russian commentators say that the same thing may happen again for all of the regime’s tough talk (realtribune.ru/news/authority/806,  afterempire.info/2018/04/19/mger/ and facebook.com/ihlov.evgenij/posts/2085801091435038).

            The big question which at least some in Russia are asking is why is the Kremlin so afraid of protests given its enormous coercive resources and its ability to do things like arrest a hated oligarch or invade another country that can be counted on to mobilize popular support and thus demobilize any opposition movement.

            There are at least three reasons. First, the Kremlin for all its vaunted intelligence operations cannot be sure it knows what people really think. Russians tell pollsters and vote in ways that they think the authorities want them to, but that works only until it doesn’t – and no one knows when that might be.

            Second, Putin and his regime are angering ever more people by their actions. Russians know that they are living ever less well in order for Putin to be able to engage in aggression.  They are furious about things like the Kemerovo fire, trash disposal and environmental pollution, and now the regime’s efforts to block Telegram.

            And third, while these various protests have not come together yet and no opposition figure has emerged as a real leader, the possibility that they could come together and someone now unknown could become the leader is something no one in power, especially if he knows how hollow his support really is, can afford to ignore.

            As one Russian commentator put it this week, massive and successful protests are always unexpected. They jump from something small to something massive in ways no one can predict or even after the fact entirely explain.  This process is “always unexpected,” and it is why authoritarians are always less confident than they appear (svpressa.ru/society/article/198139/).

            This is not to say that the protesters will seek in ousting the Russian dictator or even shake his regime to its foundations.  But it is a reminder to all those who think Putin is in complete control need to remember that commentators have always thought much the same thing right up until such rulers are overthrown.

Moscow Inserts Political Operatives into African Countries Where Elections are Scheduled


Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 20 – Even as the United States and other Western countries wrestle with the question of how involved Russian operatives were in recent elections and referendums in their countries, Moscow appears to be upping the ante by sending more such operatives to key African countries for the same purpose.

            But in what may be a cover story, Russian election experts argue that these operatives are more likely seeking to make money than to influence outcomes and will be limited even in doing that because Russia lacks embassies in many of these countries and the kind of infrastructure it has relied on elsewhere.

            Nonetheless, this descent of Russian election operatives into Africa, especially given some of the details of this operation that have surfaced today, is worrisome because it may provide Moscow with an opportunity for political and economic influence there below the West’s current radar screen.

            In today’s Kommersant, journalist Andrey Pertsev says that Moscow is sending operatives to monitor and get involved with elections “in Madagascar, the Republic of South Africa, Kenya and several other African countries where elections are to occur in the next year or two” (kommersant.ru/doc/3607961).

                The operation is being organized by Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s former chef and the man who was behind both portions of Russia’s trolling operations against the United States and the United Kingdom as well as the Vagner private military company of mercenaries Russia has been using in Syria, Pertsev says.

            At present, the Kommersant sources say, this project is focusing on monitoring the social-political situation in these countries by means of sociological research, but “experts suggest,” Pertsev says, “that political technologists may work to export Russian political technology,” although they doubt this has the goal of influencing the outcome of these votes.

            But of course, that is exactly what Russian government sources and experts could be expected to say about a project designed to do exactly what they deny it is about. To say otherwise would certainly send up red flags in these countries and could make it impossible for Russia to introduce such personnel into them.

            According to Pertsev, in several African countries where presidential or parliamentary elections are in the offing, “groups of Russian political technologists” are already in place doing the kind of sociological polling and political intelligence gathering that they have done elsewhere.

            How successful they will be remains to be seen. Nikolay Shcherbakov, a senior scholar at the Moscow Institute for African Research, says “Russia has no possibility of seriously getting involved in African affairs.” It simply doesn’t have the resources and can’t compete with others like the Chinese.

            In his view, Prigozhin is simply trying to make money. Demand for such Russian “services” has fallen to almost nothing in Europe, and so Putin’s friend is looking for a new market. But another expert, Sergey Polyakov, himself a Russian political technologist, says that even in that quest, the Russians are likely to fail given how out of date their approaches are.

‘As Long as Trump’s in the White House, Putin will Remain in the Kremlin,’ Nemets Says


Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 20 – Many Western and some Russian commentators have seriously misread what the new American sanctions have done to the Russian stock market and ruble exchange rate, US-based Russian analyst Aleksandr Nemets says. Yes, those sanctions initially pushed down both, but both have largely recovered.

            Moreover, the threat of any additional sanctions appears to have passed as has the threat that Russia would be cut off from the SWIFT payments system, something that would have had a most serious impact on the Russian economy and its ability to do business (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=5AD8764F6BD15).

            Consequently, Nemets continues, all the media hype notwithstanding, it is a profound mistake that Moscow now is mired in “fear and despair.”  Russians were initially genuinely frightened that the sanctions imposed earlier this month would be expanded upon, but when they saw that was not the case, they breathed a sigh of relief, not despair.

            There are two reasons why the Russian equities market and ruble exchange rate, after taking an initial hit, have come back: oil prices continue to rise, and “talk about new sanctions still remains just that, talk.”  And what Moscow feared most, being cut off from SWIFT, now is not likely to happen.

            Nemets cites with approval a comment by the Bloomberg news agency that this reflects Moscow’s judgment about US President Donald Trump. “Trump,” it says, “is the most valuable Putin resource. It is crazy to deny this. And Putin will take care of Trump and not even try to use the mountain of compromising information he has about him against him.”

            The reason is simple, Nemets argues: “as long as Trump sits in the White House, Putin will confidently keep control in the Kremlin; and the world will become ever more chaotic.”