Is Putin Really Reining in Hard-Liners? Fact-Checking Gordon Hahn’s Article In The Moscow Times

December 3, 2014
Russian environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko in Krasnodar.

Gordon Hahn has published an article in Moscow Times, Putin is Moving Away from Hard-Line Siloviki which implies that Putin is reining in hardliners in the administration, known as the siloviki. (The word is also used to describe the military, police, intelligence and other “power” ministries.)

Hahn presents six recent events as evidence for this Putin “liberalization.”

We think they need some fact-checking.

First, Hahn describes a dispute between Russian actor Yevgeny Mironov and Yury Polyakov, editor-in-chief of Kultura, the cultural newspaper regarding the meaning of Solzhenitsyn. Polyakov was wrong on his facts in claiming misleadingly that Solzhenitsyn “left” the Soviet Union when in fact he was expelled into exile, and claiming falsely that Solzhenitsyn had “called on the US to wage war against the USSR.” Polyakov was warning against making a “cult figure” out of Solzhenitsyn as the 10th anniversary of his death approaches — and indeed, Solzhenitsyn is a figure that can mean the expose of the GULAG and great literature to some people, and Russian ethnic nationalism and even antisemitism and xenophobia to others.

In a further development, Putin visited Mironov’s theater on Russian Unity Day on November 4, which Hahn interprets as Putin choosing sides in the dispute among conservatives, although Putin has always expressed admiration for Solzhenitsyn, because of his theories of a great Russian state. Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of, the Kremlin’s leading propaganda arm, has also said meeting Solzhenitsyn was one of the two greatest moments of her life; the other was when Putin formally annexed the Crimea in a ceremony in the St. George Hall. That ensures that for now, Solzhenitsyn’s legacy will be pressed into service for state needs, in one form or another, and the argument is just about the details.

Second, Hahn says “Gazprom Media revoked the firing a few weeks ago of a journalist from its popular oppositionist radio station Ekho Moskvy for insulting Sergei Ivanov, the head of Putin’s presidential administration.” Alexei Venediktor, editor-in-chief, opposed the dismissal and was threatened by Gazprom Media CEO Mikhail Lesin with firing himself.

But in fact the journalist, Aleksandr Plyushchev, while technically restored to Ekho Moskvy, is banned from the radio studio and can’t make broadcasts. Ekho Moskvy has been ordered to develop a “social media policy,” which will be formally introduced into the company charter as “rules for behavior of staff members of the editorial office on social media.” It is not clear how much this might wind up gagging journalists on Twitter, for example; Venediktov says he will take “personal responsibility” for what journalists say.

So Venediktov may be seen as having prevailed for now, yet recently he said in an interview with that he must practice “not self-censorship but self-limitation.” He also said in that interview, “We are not fighting with Ukraine; I’m sorry, please, but they have a civil war there.” This indicates that Venediktov has kept his job because his own views match some of the Kremlin’s ideology and he has been able to maneuver around sensitive issues. Venediktov said that under the new social media policy he would not simply retweet items he found interesting, but would specify that he was merely citing them, so that it would not seem like endorsement.

Venediktov’s assistant Lesya Ryabtseva recently caused a firestorm among journalists when she said the social media guidelines whose drafting she was coordinating would be for journalists “for the radio station, the holding company or the country — it doesn’t matter” i.e. not just a policy for Gazprom Media’s outlets but language that might find its way into press law.

Earlier this year, Ekho Moskvy was forced to drop opposition bloggers like Boris Nemtsov and Alexey Navalny when the state censor sent a warning and blocked their pages. Ekho Moskvy’s independence has been receding for some time, and its continued existence is more about adaptation to Russian realities than victory for liberal forces.

Third, says Hahn, “a Moscow court rejected a defamation suit against Putin’s long-time nemesis, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, filed by populist-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR).” Yet while this may constitute evidence that Putin curbs Zhirinovsky’s excesses, it’s in keeping with his original political decision to pardon Khodorkovsky, which he can’t seem to be inconsistent about. (Note: The Interpreter is a project of the Institute of Modern Russia, which is funded by Pavel Khodorkovsky, the son of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.) On other excesses of Zhirinovsky’s — donating equipment to the Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass, calling for the rape of female journalists who asked him some pointed questions, and demanding the Baltics to be put under Russian control again — Putin hasn’t had any comment, and Zhirinovsky hasn’t apologized.

Fourth, Hahn invokes “amendments” that are to come to the law on storing Russian citizens’ Internet data and requiring bloggers with 3,000 or more readers to register with the state media agency and censor, Roskomnadzor:

Thus bloggers are now subject to the same legislation as journalists — for example, Russia’s strict libel and anti-extremism laws. The amendments are designed to provide a more precise definition of a blogger. Roskomnadzor has invited representatives from Twitter and Facebook to discuss the law and future amendments

Yet this “more precise definition” isn’t welcome, because it essentially forces bloggers who had more freedom on sites like LiveJournal or Vkontakte to now come under more restrictive rules that essentially eliminate them. That Roskomnadzor has “invited” foreigner Internet service providers to “discuss” the law is irrelevant — they cannot influence it and it has already passed and adversely affected them. Twitter has said it will not place servers in Russia, but has agreed to block accounts on the Russian government’s demand. This has already included a Ukrainian ultranationalist group Right Sector. Facebook is in secret talks with the Russian government, and it is not known whether they will cave to demand to put the servers in Russia. The same is true of Google, with services like YouTube popular with Russians. This story is not over yet, and the law is not to go into effect until next year.

Nothing about the current developments can be booked to any “liberalization,” as it is frequently a tactic of Russian officials passing harsher laws that they both invite comment and pretend they may be softened — this occurred, for example, regarding the Russian “foreign agents” law which has been deployed against at least six NGOs, including Russian Memorial Society, the leading human rights organization. The Russian Ombudsperson Elena Pamfilova was reported to get this designation removed from another group, Golos [Voice] in a court action, yet the designation remains on the Ministry of Justice’s website under “entry into register” and the box “removed from registry” is blank.

Thus, Hahn’s fifth claim that Putin “backed a proposal from Human Rights Commissioner Ella Pamfilova to establish a procedure for removing NGOs from the register of foreign agents after their foreign funding ends” just isn’t being implemented, and groups continue to face this designation even after they have not received foreign funding, for example the St. Petersburg chapter of the Soldiers’ Mothers organization which has been vocal about Russian soldiers killed in combat in Ukraine.

A sixth sign of Putin “backing off” from hardliners cited by Hahn is the fact that Andrei Makarevich, a popular rock musician, won a 500,000 rubles ($10,000) settlement against ultranationalist Aleksandr Prokhanov, editor of the newspaper Den’ [Day], who criticized Makarevich for giving a concert in Ukraine. But Makarevich has been vilified on state TV for months on end, notably in NTV’s “fifth column” broadcasts against the opposition. Billboards have appeared in Moscow calling him and others critical of the war “fifth columnists” and Putin ignored an appeal that Makarevich, who has received state awards for his music, addressed to him urging him to stop the harassment campaign in the state media. It certainly remains to be seen whether the virulent campaign against Makarevich will stop, and more importantly, whether he will be free to give a concert in Ukraine again without being branded as an “inciter of war crimes.”

Seventh, Hahn cites a Bloomberg article which we also reported about a meeting Putin had with his economic advisers last month. Yet far from implying that there will be some “liberalization,” the article explained that the anti-corruption crackdown could once again stifle business. The authors cited Boris Makharenko of the Center for Political Technologies, who said, “Such measures are alien to the mentality of the government bureaucracy, whose natural instinct is to go for more of the same, more regulation, more squeezing revenues from businesses.”

Yes, there were two competing proposals for rescuing the economy, one from Sergei Ivanov, head of administration and Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft, which amounted to a request for more handouts in the form of large state contracts. That the other proposal by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev prevailed, involving trying to stop corruption, prevailed isn’t necessarily a sign of liberalization at all. Bloomberg cited MDM Bank Chairman Oleg Vyugin who said that for Putin’s proposal of inspections to stop corruption to work, ““The economic powers of the Investigative Committee, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the police must be curbed.” In other words, Russia must be brought under the rule of law — not something that’s going to happen any time soon.

Hahn said the Kremlin “will seek to remove the burden of constant inspection and harassment of small and medium-sized businesses by government departments rather than a serious privatization of state assets and restructuring the economy.” Yet there is no evidence that the anti-corruption crackdown will in fact lesson inspections and in fact as we reported small businesses face a tax hike next year that will force some of them out of business.

Hahn also thinks that privatization “cannot be excluded,” but we don’t see any evidence of that. There have been rumors that Rosneft is contemplating selling off as much as 19.5% of its assets, a move to raise cash engendered by the economic crisis. It remains to be seen whether it will happen or who will get the spoils. Recently Bashneft, a private oil firm owned by oligarch Vladimir Yevtushenkov, was confiscated and nationalized by the state. Yevtushenkov himself is under house arrest and facing trial on charges of embezzlement of state property. The maneuver was widely reported as being engineered by Sechin, and again, it remains to be seen if Bashneft will be auctioned off or remain in the state’s control.

We could add to Hahn’s list that some have seen the removal of Aleksandr Dugin from Moscow State University, the arrest of the leader of the nationalist Russian March and the diminished turnout for that event this year; and the deposing of the Muscovite leadership of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” all as indications that Putin stops ultranationalists “from going too far.”

That’s all to the good, but it doesn’t mean Putin is in any less control of society, or that some “liberalization” has occurred; he has simply chosen one faction over another from among those competing for his backing, with his own sentiments for the Tsarist-era trinity of Russian Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality” still the ruling ideology.

Hahn leaves out a host of other negative developments recently which indicate a worsening of state control, not a liberalization:

o a draft law planned by hardliners to restore state ideology to the Constitution, abolished for 25 years;

o detention of 25 attendees of a lecture on Ukraine’s Maidan movement — Putin fears anything that looks like the Maidan in Russia;

o the growing list of Russia’s political prisoners, past 50 now, according to Memorial Society. They include the defendants in the Bolotnaya Square case of anti-Putin demonstrators, and Yevgeny Vitishko, an environmentalist who protested government dacha construction in the North Caucasus and the damages of the Sochi Olympics. Circassian activist Andor Azhokov who protested the Sochi Olympics on the grounds of his people’s historical lands, from which they were expelled in a genocide in 1864, was arrested, tortured, and handed a six-month suspended sentence after police confiscated a licensed firearm from his home.

o the continued denial that Russian soldiers are deployed — and are wounded and killed in combat — in Ukraine — with the accompanying harassment of anyone who tries to raise the issue. Lev Shlosberg, a regional deputy in Pskov from the opposition Yabloko Party, was assaulted by unknown persons and hospitalized with serious injuries last summer after demanding answers about members of the Pskov 76th Assault Guards of the Airborne Division who were killed in action.

We could add more — read our daily Russia Update and Russia This Week.