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With a bit less than a year left to Russia’s Presidential elections in 2018, the general contours of this cycle’s protest movement against Putin are already coalescing.
Alexey Navalny has called a march for tomorrow along Tverskaya Street, a central boulevard that leads to the Kremlin. The Moscow mayoralty refused to allow it, and Navalny in turn refused its offer of alternative venues, so the march is going to be unsanctioned. These events tend to come with a high journalist to protester ratio, because Navalny’s office plankton constituency doesn’t like events where there is a non-negligible chance they’ll be roughed up by the police. So I don’t expect much to come out of it. But we’ll see. I’ll probably go myself to observe it first hand.
As in 2011-2012, when he coined the term “The Party of Thieves and Scoundrels” to describe United Russia, the brunt of Navalny’s attacks are going to be on corruption in the Kremlin. It appears that the centerpiece this time around is going to be a massive investigation carried out by Anti-Corruption Fund on Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev, and released early this March:
In Russia, even amongst liberals, Medvedev has a reputation as a cuddly, affable, and absent-minded sort of fellow, often nodding off at meetings, but endowed with a hip, modernist outlook that will take “Russia forwards” into the clean, prosperous, sponsored content clicking future. This expresses itself in things such as appreciation for Deep Purple, support for the Skolkovo technology hub, and an obsession with hip electronic gadgets – the latter of which earned him his nickname, iPhonchik. Another of his nicknames is his diminutive, “Dimon,” which became very popular after his press secretary told Russia’s bloggers, commenters, and online trolls not to use that name: “He is not Dimon to you.” That worked on the Internet! (Not).
But according to Navalny’s investigation, which builds on earlier work by Russian journalists, the nice, professorial teddy bear is a mere mask for a deeply corrupt swindler; not so much a fan of hi-tech Apple gadgets as of big money and elite properties. Piecing together documents, his team constructed a convoluted web of charitable funds directed by Medvedev’s friends, classmates, and even relatives that don’t seem to do much in the way of genuine charity work, but do maintain a sprawling network of elite real estate for make benefit of the Prime Minister.
This includes an elite estate in Moscow’s Rublevka district and a luxury ski resort in Krasnodar, each of which is valued at about $100 million; a big estate and agro holding compnay in his ancestral homeland of Kursk oblast; two yachts, both named after the Orthodox version of his wife’s name; an elite apartment in Saint-Petersburg; and even a wineyard and villa in Tuscany, Italy, bought in 2012-13 for $120 million. There is strong evidence, including from Medvedev’s Instagram account, that he has stayed at many of these properties, and partaken of his yachts.
These “charitable funds” are sponsored by a bevy of Kremlin-friendly oligarchs and state banks. For instance, one of them was funded by Novatek’s Simanovsky and Mikhelson, who contributed $500 million. The Uzbek oligarch Alisher Usmanov, who spent six years in a Soviet prison in the 1980s for financial fraud, appears to have funded the acquisition of the Rublevka property. Gazprombank is on record giving a loan of $200 million in 2007. Its Deputy Chairman at the time? Ilya Eliseev, a classmate of Medvedev’s from his time at Saint-Petersburg State University, who also happens to be listed as the current chairman of most of these charitable funds. In total, documented “contributions” run to about 70 billion rubles, or more than $1 billion.
Even a small fraction of this would sound the death knell for any politician in a country within the Hajnal Line.
In Russia, however, this is not atypical for the elites. Everybody knows that they are stealing, and if Russians didn’t move to overthrow them in 2011-12, in the aftermath of massively fraudulent elections in Moscow and at a time when Putin was at a trough in his popularity, they are certainly not going to do so now; not when Putin’s approval rating remains north of 80% in the long afterglow of the Crimea euphoria. Moreover, Navalny’s own reputation has since become tarnished, due to his own corruption scandal (which might disqualify from running for the Presidency entirely), and due to his ardent pro-Ukrainian rhetoric, which has driven off most of his former nationalist supporters.
This, at least, is my impression.
Anyhow, March 26 will be an opportunity to more directly gauge his support at the level of the streets.