Welcome to our new column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.
President Vladimir Putin met with the state-created All-National Popular Front (ONR) to rally the astro-turf activists to brace for further Western sanctions, vowing never to be “subjugated” by America.
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We’ve been covering Russian state TV propaganda as a weaponization of information by the Kremlin, produced by official propagandists and pro-government politicians, as well as the Kremlin’s “troll army.”
But it’s important to know that the so-called private media in Russia is also part of the disinformation war. Sometimes, it turns out that private media isn’t so separate from the state, as we reported earlier this week on RBC’s investigation of the relationship of Ermira, Ltd. and the vodka brands Putinka and Kristall to REN-TV, in which the Rotenberg brothers, President Vladimir Putin’s childhood friends are involved.
Fatima Tlis, a VOA reporter who formerly worked at Novaya Gazeta and was chief of the North Caucasus bureau of Regnum before she was forced to emigrate, reminds us in an essay in Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor on November 12 that there’s still LifeNews — and literally son of LifeNews, Babo — both private media corporations.
LifeNews is owned by a Russian holding company named News Media, headed by Aram Gabrelyanov, known as Aram Ashotich, his name and a diminutive form of his patronymic. Gabrelyanov’s son, Ashot Gabrelyan (he was given his grandfather’s name) recently left his position as executive director of LifeNews to head up the London-based Babo, a new platform for user-generated videos, which the company plans to buy from local people and re-sell to international mainstream media.
This is a big business, as the major networks want local videos so that they don’t have to send an expensive news crew themselves, particularly to a war zone. They also want experts to verify that they are authentic as to the time and place they claim, even if they are biased — as LifeNews and Ruptly often are.
As Tlis explains, despite already having a mammoth state propaganda empire, the Kremlin still likes to have friendly private media at its disposal for ostensible credibility:
The Kremlin’s growing generosity toward RT is impressive: Its budget for 2015 had been increased by 41 percent, while its overall government subsidies will be doubled. According to RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, in 2015, the agency will receive 15.38 billion rubles ($337 million) (colta.ru, September 23).
RT has become a key global propaganda weapon in President Vladimir Putin’s “hybrid war” against Ukraine and the West. However, RT fights the Kremlin’s wars largely unmasked—its ties to the Russian government are generally known and have even been candidly admitted to by Putin himself. Therefore this media outlet is vulnerable to criticism over the journalistic authenticity and reliability of its content.
We wonder if Babo emerged to compete with — or ran tag team with? — Ruptly, which is RT.com’s streaming video service founded last year. After he left RT.com, Graham Phillips, the controversial stringer, went to work for Ruptly and the Russian Defense Ministry’s TV Zvezda.
LifeNews is often described as close to Russian intelligence and law-enforcement; they are first on the scene of every major incident, as we noted in our recent analysis of MH17 videos. LifeNews was so close to the action in the war in Ukraine that there was a claim last summer that its journalists were directing combat by Russian-backed separatist fighters, although it turned out that LifeNews had simply used the separatists’ own video in their broadcasts without identifying it as such.
There’s nothing on Babo‘s English-language web site to give away the fact that it comes from master pro-Kremlin propaganda experts — except if you scroll all the way down and notice “our clients” consists of “LifeNews” and “Ruptly“.
Or if you happen to remember that LifeNews was the first to get a photo of fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden after he was missing for months from the public view in Moscow in 2013. Babo didn’t exist then, the photo appeared on LifeNews first, but now the site credits Babo with getting this “amateur video.”
Screenshot of Babo.com
The video is not likely from an amateur, however, as Snowden — Russia’s chief Western defector asset — must be guarded
carefully by Russian intelligence officers. Only an approved list of
journalists have been able to interview him, and they’ve been taken to
see him in cars with darkened windows and met him in hotels. No Russian
journalist, even a state reporter, has ever gotten near him. Except LifeNews.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Kommersant reports that deputies in two of central Russia’s autonomous provinces within the Tyumen region have voted to abolish the direct election of governors. Instead local legislative bodies will vote for one of three candidates to be nominated by the President.
The Interpreter translates:
Today deputies in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Province adopted statutory amendments stipulating the abolition of the direct election of governors. The amendments were adopted almost unanimously, with only one deputy from A Just Russia, Anatoly Vats, voting against them. In the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Province, the amendments were also adopted with only one dissenting vote.
Kommersant reports that the terms of the incumbent governors will come to an end in March 2015, and that nominations should be submitted in February.
The governor of the Tyumen region, Vladimir Yakushev, will recommend lists of candidates to President Putin.
The direct election of governors, a crucial element for any semblance of de-centralised democracy in such a vast state as Russia has had a complicated recent history.
In December 2004, Putin abolished direct gubernatorial elections across Russia. Instead, all regional leaders were appointed by the president himself.
The right for regions to elect their own governors was returned under Dmitry Medvedev’s interregnum in May 2012.
However in April 2013, Putin signed a law into effect that allowed individual regional legislatures to abolish direct gubernatorial elections. At the time, Putin claimed that the move would protect the rights of minorities in ethnically mixed areas. However, given the power of the Kremlin to coerce local authorities, the law effectively returned ultimate control to the presidency.
— Pierre Vaux
Russian President Vladimir Putin met with his state-created
“grassroots movement” called the All-Russian Popular Front (ONR) to
rally the masses for what he expects to be a long siege under Western
sanctions over Putin’s aggression against Ukraine.
Last year when the ONR was created to replace the increasingly
discredited United Russia, the party of power and Putin’s vehicle to
prevail in elections, it was treated as a joke — a typical top-down
Translation: When Putin created the All-National Popular
Front, many laughed over the name ‘front’ — who’s the war with? what
war? Now they’re not laughing.
In his speech, Putin railed against what he called the West’s desire to “subjugate” Russia. Reuters reported:
“They do not want to humiliate us, they want to
subdue us, solve their problems at our expense,” Putin said at the end
of a four-hour meeting with his core support group, the People’s Front.
“No one in history ever managed to achieve this with Russia, and no one ever will,” he said, triggering a wave of applause.
Translation: Vladimir Putin promised that the US would not subjugate Russia.
The speech echoed the themes he had emphasized at the Valdai
International Discussion Club earlier this month when he said that “the
bear does not ask permission from anyone…he does not give up his taiga.”
Putin also took the opportunity to appear as the populist hero and “good Tsar,” reining in over-zealous bureaucrats.
Doctors recently took to the streets to protest cuts in the number of hospitals and staff by Moscow city administrators.
Translation: Putin criticized Moscow authorities for the ill-conceived reforms in health care/All-Russian Popular Front.
It’s helpful to remember when the ONR was formed — at a time when
the Kremlin was concerned about competition from the mass rallies
organized by anti-corruption blogger Aleksei Navalny, who attracted 30%
of the vote in the Moscow mayoral elections.
Now he is under house
arrest, banned from the Internet, with his sites blocked insider Russia,
although his wife and staff continue to post regularly on sites hosted
outside of Russia and on Facebook and Twitter.
Translation: One country – two leaders: Vladimir Putin at
the Congress of the Movement of the Popular Front for Russia on June 12,
2013. [Links to videos of Putin and Navalny rallies.]
The ORN Twitter account dutifully tweeted Putin’s remark about civil society:
Translation: The Popular Front can really become an effective tool of civic oversight.
But Putin, while he wants to co-opt the anti-corruption theme from Navalny, is selective about such oversight, turning it on to chase
Moscow bureaucrats who may not have gotten the health care plan right or take bribes to register businesses,
and ignoring it when it involves groups like Navalny’s complaining about
the privileges and wealth of corrupt officials.
Putin’s meeting with the supportive mass organization contrasted
with his subdued meeting with economic advisers three weeks ago in
mid-October, Bloomberg reports:
A recession is imminent, inflation is getting out of hand and the ruble and oil are in freefall, Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev
told Putin, according to people who attended the meeting at the
presidential mansion near Moscow in mid-October. Clearly, Ulyukayev
concluded, sanctions need to be lifted.
At that, Putin recoiled. Do you, Alexei Valentinovich, he asked, using a patronymic, know how to do that? No, Vladimir Vladimirovich,
Ulyukayev was said to reply, we were hoping you did. Putin said he
didn’t know either and demanded options for surviving a decade of even
more onerous sanctions, leaving the group deflated, the people said.
Putin also opted for a crackdown on corruption rather than easing
back on what some see as predatory regulatory practices that stifle
business.At today’s ONR meeting, Putin said, “Wastefulness, an inability
to manage state funds and even outright
bribery, theft, won’t go unnoticed.”
Bloomberg authors Evgeniya Pismennaya and Irina Reznik have a useful account
of how different factions within the Putin administration have offered
conflicting advice on liberalizing the economy to confront the damage
caused by sanctions.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick