How Surkov and Medvedev Financed the Opposition

May 1, 2013
Drawing by Sarukhanov

The efforts to morally discredit the opposition, set against the backdrop of new criminal cases against the leaders and rank-and-file participants of the protest movement, is a good way to finally bury the political landscape of Russia under concrete, or in a bog (in the literal sense, not to be confused with Bolotnaya Square.  The task of the authorities is clear: convince at least some of the protest supporters that even if the regime is not the conscience of the nation, neither are the leaders of the opposition. Thus, given rule by a corrupt and kleptocratic government—setting records even by Russian standards—the opposition must be more holy than the Pope in financial matters. The degree of avarice and deception in Russian politics is so high that real changes in this country can be made only by those who are honest and have not been bought. And God forbid this would be a Robespierre.

The criminal case against Aleksey Beltyukov, Senior Vice President of the Skolkovo Fund, is a new development in the relations between the government and the opposition. We already have quite a few criminal cases against the revolutionaries themselves. There are the purely political cases, such as those against Sergei Udaltsov, Leonid Razvozzhaev and Konstantin Lebedev who are suspected of the organization of mass disorders in Bolotnaya Square on 6 May 2012. There are the quasi-economic cases such as against Aleksei Navalny who is incriminated not with attempts to overthrow Putin but causing damage to a modest lumber company called Kirovles. We have criminal cases which directly discredit government officials, but which never reach the significant figures of the regime: Anatoly Serdyukov, despite the numerous loud declarations of representatives of the Investigative Committee is still at large – or released altogether. But the case of Beltyukov is the first which tries to tie the mutual protection system of the losers in the current government with recognizable leaders of the opposition.

According to the investigation, from February 2011 until February 2012, Beltyukov unlawfully transferred $750,000 from the Skolkovo Fund to Ilya Ponomarev, deputy of the State Duma from Just Russia and an active participant in the street protests. The investigation has characterized this act as falling under Article 160, Part 4 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code (“appropriation or misappropriation, that is, embezzlement of another’s property, entrusted to the perpetrator, in an especially large amount”). Again, according to the investigation’s version of the story, Beltyukov tried to disguise the misappropriation of such a large sum of money by concluding contracts with Ponomarev in the name of the Fund. Under the terms of these agreements, Ponomarev was supposed to give ten lectures in various Russian cities for a total of $300,000, and perform scientific research work for the remaining $450,000.

Ponomarev himself acknowledges receipt of this sum and considered it completely justified: “I directed a state program for the creation of high-technology parks, and there was no one else in Russia who had the practical experience of creating something like the Skolkovo Project. I have both the experience of successfully creating innovative companies (I founded my first at the age of 16) as well as investment experience, plus the experience of government management and the experience of major private organizations – the domestic YUKOS and the international Schlumberger. Show me such people in Russia – I don’t know any. And if you find one, I guarantee you that they will not undertake such work for such money,” Ponomarev told Rossiysaya Gazeta.

But the case (which is not yet a criminal case) is not only about Ponomarev. It’s not even just about the deliberate nullification by the current government of the already low reputation of Skolkovo, which was once synonymous with Medvedev’s modernization programme; now such a word in the current political lexicon of Russia just doesn’t exist. Putin’s Russia doesn’t need “innovation” from “foreign agents”.

But the Skolkovo Fund is supervised by Vladislav Surkov, who for many years was the deputy head of the presidential administration and the chief architect of the political system. However, the initiative and “face” of the project remains Dmitry Medvedev. The criminal prosecution of Beltyukov for the giant honorarium given to Ponomarev is an indirect but quite transparent hint that Surkov, with the knowledge of Medvedev, could fund the protest movement.

This isn’t like the statement of Prosecutor Mikhail Reznichenko at the trial of Razvozzhaev, Lebedev and Udaltsov, that Georgian politician Givi Targamadze paid 50,000 rubles to each of these three men so that they could organize riots in Bolotnaya Square on the 6th of May last year. A revolution for 150,000 rubles is cheap and angry.

Thus the puzzle pieces come together. The opposition charges the government with “Pekhting,” [a neologism conceived by Aleksei Navalny based on the name of a State Duma deputy, Vladimir Pekhtin, who was accused of owning foreign real estate. Pekhtin famously maintained that he has “virtually no” such land, but was discovered to own properties in Miami]. But then the government is providing a cover for Ponomarev with the honoraria for Skolkovo. The opposition recounts how the government paid participants to turn out for Putin, but the Investigative Committee describes how Saakashvili’s comrade-at-arms provide money for important figures in the 6th of May action in Bolotnaya to overthrow the government. It’s as if the government is saying, “Perhaps we are thieves after all, but the opposition is no better.” The calculation is that now no one will trust in any effort by opposition leaders to collect money, whether through the Yandex Wallet of the irreproachable Olga Romanova, or the anti-corruption projects of Navalny. After all, Navalny, according to the government, is himself a thief and a crook.

Previously, the leftist flanks of the street demonstrations were in the way of civic ethical protest; now,  revolutionaries discredit protest through scandals with Skolkovo honoraria. If these criminal cases would be reviewed in a normal fashion, however, and not by a political investigation, if their defendants were tried in a normal fashion and not a political court, then you could easily provide moral judgments as well. But now try to distinguish what is the real transgression of an anti-regime protester, and where there’s the usual support of the government.

The main point of discrediting the opposition is not only to extinguish protests from society, but also to deprive them of a moral foundation. What’s the point of fighting against the government of one set of crooks and thieves, if others will come in their place? Thus, they want to convince us that if such an opposition comes to power, nothing will change.

Of course, along with the jailing of opposition leaders, there is the growing persecution and consistent destruction of independent media – all part of a gradual forceful suppression of protest sentiments. Mentally, 1937 has returned to Russia. The question has already been sent to the “direct line” of the president: why shouldn’t the participants in the opposition actions be tried under the article for “treason against the Motherland”?

In such a situation, in our country, anyone can become an enemy opposition member, even government officials. The protest itself should not disappear and lose energy because of this. It is critically important that its rank-and-file members keep faith in themselves and the correctness of their ethical choices. Smart and honest people can preserve the energy of the protests only if they remember that the government has complete responsibility, including for the moral problems of the opposition. And without a peaceful, legal change of the regime, Russian morals will definitely not improve.

The two Biblical commandments “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not steal” will become the political credo of everyone who sincerely desire a better future for Russia.

P.S. The editors of Novaya Gazeta would like to know readers’ opinions of how the moral scandals around the opposition will affect the protest movement and what to do if society once again plunges into its torturous lethargic sleep.