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Free Russia Forum: sanctions and boycotts

Russia’s opposition remains weak and divided — but the latest forum in Vilnius could hint at consolidation down the road. RU

Garry Kasparov - one of the organizers of the "Free Russia Forum". Photo(c): Andrei Kalikh. All rights reserved.In early December, Vilnius once again hosted the fourth Free Russia Forum. This, the Russian opposition’s main annual get-together, is normally described by the pro-Kremlin media as a fugitive émigré coven, but is nothing of the sort. A good half of the participants actually reside in Russia, but there is a compelling reason for holding the Forum elsewhere – it just wouldn’t be allowed to happen at home.

Like-minded people criticise the Forum for trying to bring together oppositionists of all hues (it is attended by Democrats, left-wingers and Russian ultra nationalists). This means that it rarely arrives at any concrete conclusions: people come, argue and go home again, giving the media an excuse for further criticism in its wake.

I shall therefore refrain from analysing panel sessions with titles such as “The Putin Regime in the International Arena”, “Russia caught on the FSB’s Hook” and “The Centenary of the October Disaster”. Their speakers – academics, politicians and journalists – did an excellent job of describing the place and role of today’s Russia in the international political sphere. I would rather concentrate on the Forum’s “product” – the concrete recommendations for further opposition activity that came out of it. Three other discussions were devoted to these questions: fighting the Kremlin’s propaganda machine; what to do about the forthcoming elections and the possibility of further sanctions.

Running the propagandist gauntlet

The forum began with the traditional Russian game of “Avoid the propagandist”. To get into the auditorium where the sessions took place, delegates had to run the gauntlet of reporters and Russian TV crews milling around in the foyer. The security people wouldn’t let these into the auditorium, so people with cameras and microphones squeezed up to this or that delegate outside, hoping for a picture and a soundbite.

Ivan Tyutrin is one of the few opposition politicians who agreed to an interview with propaganda television. Photo(c): Andrei Kalikh. All rights reserved.The most sensible thing to do in this situation would be to walk past in silence. But the participants inevitably included missionaries who insisted on trying to win others over to their unwinnable points of view, to the joy of the TV crews. Politician Ivan Tyutrin, one of the forum organisers, buttonholed by “Rossiya-1” reporter Yelena Yerofeyeva was patiently explaining to her why she and her fellow hacks would not be admitted to the Forum: “Because you are not journalists, but propagandists. You support the war in Donbas and the occupation of Crimea; you tell lies about the opposition and Russia’s economic situation, and we won’t let you in because you will only tell lies about this as well. When your bosses are kicked out, then we’ll talk to you”. To which Yerofeyeva responded: “But I personally don’t support anyone. I’m not part of the propaganda! I never lie!”

It turned out just as well that Yerofeyeva was kept out of the auditorium — she lies through her teeth. Her report, shown to half the world that evening on the main Russian state news channel, was full of delegates’ statements taken out of context and her own disparaging comments, such as “Unreliable media were kept out of the Forum, but reliable ones were also notable by their absence.”

"Enemies of the people" according to the version of Rossiya TV channel. Screenshot Rossiya TV.In fact, correspondents from opposition media such as RFERL, Kasparov.Ru, Grani.ru and some local Lithuanian- and Russian-language outlets reported on the sessions, although, surprisingly enough, Yerofeyeva’s interview with Tyutrin didn’t make the cut. Her package was, however, used in the Rossiya TV channel’s “60 Minute” programme about the “Russophobe party in Vilnius”, against a backdrop of photos of “enemies of the people”.

But while the state TV channels’ reporters were buttonholing delegates in the foyer, other journalists were in the auditorium, kicking the forum off with a discussion on how to combat the Kremlin propaganda machine.   

“To argue with propaganda means taking the fight into their own turf. You can’t out-yell and out-freak people who have been specially trained to yell and freak out and earn their living doing it”

Political journalist Fyodor Krashennikov took the traditional line. He believed it was useless to try, given the resources poured into it: “To argue with propaganda means taking the fight into their own turf. You can’t out-yell and out-freak people who have been specially trained to yell and freak out and earn their living doing it. Today’s Russians have the advantage of choice over their Soviet predecessors – they can change channel. And the internet has broken the information monopoly. You can protect yourself from fake news and propaganda but you can only do it for yourself.” 

Media sanctions?

Lawyer Mark Feygin, moderating the session, proposed discussing the possibility of extending sanctions to media that he believes secretly aid the regime. “There is a much larger number of apparently free media that can be considered as not propagandist as such, but certainly as Kremlin outlets. There is a question hanging over Ekho Moskvy [radio station], for example, and a lot of other media supposedly friendly to us. It’s a debatable question, but we will miss a lot if we don’t discuss the issue. Take the fact that these media still somehow manage to sell Kremlin policies to a wide circle of protest-minded members of the public at a point when we have excluded the state media ourselves. In other words, the Kremlin continues to reach us through those media that the 'Moscow intelligentsia' is used to believing.”   

Feygin also raised the question of the gradual propaganda assimilation of the free cybersphere. Russia’s rulers very rapidly took on board its crucial significance for manipulating public opinion: “You would think that the decentralisation of information sources would lead to the appearance of an alternative media landscape. But what have we seen? The internet is turning into an adjunct of the propaganda machine, and possibly one of its central elements. The Kremlin buys expensive cutting edge internet technology, pays for the training of highly professional IT specialists, hires hackers and uses them as soldiers in its virtual army.”

Elena Lukyanova speaks at a session on the tactics of the opposition in the elections. Photo(c): Andrey Kalikh. All rights reserved.At the same time, Russia’s opposition comes up against a wall of incomprehension when it tries to convince western politicians of the need to limit the influence of their country’s propaganda. Westerners see their demands as an attack on media freedom and are very slow to react to virtual danger.

As economist Andrey Illarionov put it at the forum, “We are up against an enormous problem: the lack of understanding of the level of danger. In the west, people are not ready to distinguish between propagandists and journalists. Even in situations where journalists are effectively government employees – take Dmitry Kiselyov, for example, who combines his role as presenter of the “News of the Week” show with running the state owned RT [Russia Today] international television network. We can’t break down this wall. The west doesn’t understand or accept that some journalists should be punished: such an idea doesn’t fit into their concept of media freedom. So the idea of extending sanction lists to include them is still very hazy.”

German journalist Boris Reitschuster took up Illarionov’s thought: “What’s happening in Germany now, for example, is very sad. The issue of combating propaganda is very far from Germans’ thoughts. Last week, the deputy head of our Social Democrat party gave an interview to the Russian-government-run Sputnik news and commentary site, and our Minister of Foreign Affairs, who should be countering foreign propaganda, gives interviews to RT, arguing that we should be trying to get through to the Russian public. Great! Reach Russians via RT! Our minister is certainly well informed!”

“We’ve handed four million Russian speakers living in Germany over to Kremlin propaganda because we couldn’t give them an adequate alternative”“We’ve handed four million Russian speakers living in Germany over to Kremlin propaganda because we couldn’t give them an adequate alternative, such as anti-propaganda Russian-language media,” continues Reitschuster. “Five of the seven parties in the Bundestag are pro-Putin in one way or another. Our elites have been undergoing a total 'Schroederisation'. It’s getting to the point where, when you read the German press, you start believing that it was Trump who shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in 2014, and that Trump’s political opponents are killed and imprisoned in his USA. We have lost our immunity to authoritarianism and propaganda and have abandoned politics for social education, trying to win Putin over. We should learn how to counter authoritarianism from the Baltic States, the Poles and the Romanians, because we have forgotten how to do it.”

Reitschuster believes that there is a long, laborious road ahead of us, if we are to explain to western societies and politicians the harm that propagandist media are bringing to the world, and that this has nothing to do with media freedom. He is however unclear about whether we could ever match Putin’s success in this field.

The question of tactics that could be used by Russia’s opposition during the forthcoming elections was a hot topic at one forum session. Pavel Ivlev, who led the session, started by making a “special offer” to members of Ksenya Sobchak’s staff (the TV presenter and journalist recently announced her candidateship for presidency in the election taking place next March): “Here’s an important question: if Ksenya is accepted as a candidate, and other potential opposition candidates are rejected, should we support her or not? I would be happy to vote for her under one condition – will she make a public commitment, in writing, to announce a democratic general election within a year, to elect a new president and Duma members? If she did that, I would personally give her my vote.”

A boycott and another boycott

Yelena Lukyanova, a legal specialist and professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, announced at the same session that she was working with Sobchak’s campaign staff and was also a member of Aleksey Navalny’s Progress Party’s think tank. She saw, she said, “no cognitive dissonance here” and would support “all the young, clever, candidates and both Ksyusha and Lyosha” [the usual diminutive pet names for “Ksenya” and “Alexey”].

At this session, Vladimir Ashurkov, one of the chief ideologues of “Lyosha’s” presidential campaign, also summarised his already stated strategy for action, if Navalny be excluded as a candidate: “If his application is rejected, we’ll take the matter to court. If his candidature is thrown out, we’ll boycott the election.”

This last remark sounded like an attempt at compromise with the majority of the people at the forum, who were strictly against any participation in the election and had condemned “Ksyusha and Lyosha” because of Putin’s concurrence in their legitimisation. In the end, their position came out on top: a majority of the forum voted to boycott the forthcoming presidential election.

The oppositionists also announced another, unexpected boycott, of the 2018 Football World Cup taking place in Russia, which I can only explain by some passionate inertia that had collectively taken hold of the forum after they had made the decision about the first boycott.   

Russia’s weak and divided opposition will have as little effect on the election as on combating propaganda – it doesn’t have access to the country’s mass mediaBe that as it may, Russia’s weak and divided opposition will have as little effect on the election as on combating propaganda – it doesn’t have access to the country’s mass media. Western countries’ sanctions against Russian corporations and individuals are another matter. The opposition can have an effect on the character of the sanctions and the list of those affected by it: when compiling such lists, western governments consult with a wide variety of groups of independent experts and investigative journalists.

One of the founders of the Free Russian Forum, Andrey Illarionov, was an economic advisor to President Putin between 2000 and 2005 and is now a senior fellow in the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC. He is a member of one such think tank, set up by the Atlantic Council, as is another prominent Russian political writer and analyst, Andrei Piontovsky, who is also now based in the USA.

The forum’s “Sanction” session was organised in the run up to a new Congress List to be passed in the USA in February 2018; consultations on this are currently taking place in the American legislature. According to Illarionov, the Americans cite the following as reasons to compile a new list: continuing infringement of human rights in Russia, its aggressive external politics and interference in US elections. It could be called (in contrast to the sanctions introduced by the US and the EU after the annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in Donbas) the first purely anti-kleptocracy list, as it is expected to include names from the inner circle of the most influential oligarchs who use their closeness to President Putin to enhance their super-profits. 

The session also introduced an initiative from the forum itself, the “’Putin List’ Civil Project”. The list is already impressive in terms of its length and scope: it contains around 200 names divided into 12 categories – from “Leaders” and “Doers” to “Songbirds” and “Foreign Agents”. As you can guess, the “songbirds” are the Kremlin propagandists, while the “Foreign Agents” section includes, in its compilers’ elegant description, “the members of the International Putintern, as well as activists of the 'Putinversteher' club” – Gerhardt Schroeder, Silvio Berlusconi, Miloš Zeman, Marine le Pen and so on. 

A separate category of “gilded youth” has been set up for children, relations and close members of Putin’s inner circle, “who have received considerable assets from them”: they include Putin’s daughters, sons-in-law and other relatives and cronies such as the children of the Rotenberg brothers, as well as a certain “A. Kabayeva”, thef ormer gymnast who has frequently been rumoured to be in a relationship with Vladimir Putin.
 
It was proposed that everyone attending the forum continue to work on their own on the “Putin List”, so that it can be presented to Congress next month.
 
The Free Russian Forum sanctions list may be a little absurd, but the compilation of its own database on the Putin kleptocracy is an important step, marking a change from words to deeds. Along with the adoption of the first collaborative documents to appear in four forums, including, for example, a boycott of the presidential election, it represents the start of a slow process of consolidation of the most active, but also most divided, part of the Russian opposition.       

Translated by Liz Barnes. 


About the author

Andrey Kalikh is a Russian political activist and independent journalist. He currently writes analytical reviews for Index on Censorship, and has previously worked for Deutsche Welle. He is the author and editor of many reports on human rights issues and combating international corruption, and since 2014 has been the coordinator of the EC-Russia Civil Forum’s working group on trans-border corruption.

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