Europe World

In St. Petersburg Election, Russia’s Political Rot Is on Full Display

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Struggling to shake his image as a bumbling dolt before local elections on Sunday, the acting governor of St. Petersburg made a rare public appearance this past week to open three new subway stations that had taken six years and cost more than $500 million to build.

Residents, promised they would finally get a cheap and reliable way to reach the center of Russia’s second-largest city, crowded outside long-sealed subway entrances waiting for the governor, Aleksandr D. Beglov, to show up and the doors to open.

They never did.

Instead of providing a triumphant finale to the election campaign of Mr. Beglov, a longtime associate of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, the opening ceremony pointed to the slow unraveling of Russia’s social contract of authoritarian rule in exchange for efficiency, predictability and growing prosperity.

With 10 television camera crews controlled by the governor or his supporters and dozens of other, mostly tame, journalists on hand to record the event, the governor turned up late to announce that, because of unspecified flaws, it was not yet safe to open the new stations for passengers.

The last-minute upset added a rare off-message note to a carefully scripted election campaign that had at first seemed little more than a formality to confirm Mr. Beglov’s role as leader of Mr. Putin’s hometown.

Heavily backed by loyal news outlets and powerful tycoons like Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s cook,” Mr. Beglov is still expected to win the St. Petersburg poll, part of a nationwide series of municipal and regional votes on Sunday.

But political foes of the Kremlin — who were mostly barred from competing in the elections, spurring the first widespread protests in Moscow since Mr. Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 — took comfort from the governor’s subway agonies as a sign that not everything in Russia is going Mr. Putin’s way.

Dmitri Vishnevsky, a longtime Kremlin critic excluded from the ballot in St. Petersburg, said subway construction crews had been ordered to “work night and day” to get the stations ready for what he described as a “big campaign advertisement” for the governor as a can-do manager who gets things done.

Instead, Mr. Vishnevsky said, the event showed that Russia’s system, a rigid hierarchy of power built around Mr. Putin and loyal underlings like Mr. Beglov, does not work — at least not as described by fawning media outlets that constantly hail Russia’s revival as a great power after the weakness and chaos of the 1990s.

“People are starting to say more and more: Things are not right,” said Alexander Gorshkov, the chief editor of Fontanka, an independent news site in St. Petersburg. This sentiment, he added, is not limited to opposition activists, but is now extending to some residents of the city who generally support the authorities.

Elections “won’t change anything,” he said. “Real change needs to happen in people’s heads. And in the last few months, this has been happening.”

As the clock runs down on what is supposed to be the end of Mr. Putin’s final term in office, in 2024, the Kremlin has increasingly tried to bottle up public discontent by displaying the vast powers of repression at its disposal and vesting power in trusted loyalists like Mr. Beglov, who was appointed last year by Mr. Putin to govern St. Petersburg.

While presenting himself to voters as an efficient and apolitical manger above the hubbub of carping politicians, the 63-year-old construction engineer has had trouble erasing memories of his government’s failure last winter to clear streets of snow and buildings of dangerous icicles, the most basic duties of all municipal authorities in Russia.

As the piles of snow grew higher, the governor — whose name sounds like “Big Love” — gave his officials shovels, which quickly became known as “Beglov shovels,” and told them to start digging.

That fiasco prompted Meduza, an independent online news service that tilts toward the opposition, to describe Mr. Beglov as a “gaffe machine” who “just might be the Kremlin’s worst candidate in this fall’s elections.”

In trying to damp down on disruptive political quarrels in favor of bland rule by sometimes incompetent but always loyal functionaries, the Kremlin is reviving a model that Lev Lurye, a St. Petersburg historian and writer, compared to the system under Leonid Brezhnev.

That Soviet leader ruled from 1964 to 1982, a period now remembered as the “era of stagnation.” It was two years shorter than Mr. Putin’s time at the pinnacle of power.

A back-room functionary for decades who dislikes speaking in public, Mr. Beglov has appalled the intellectual elite of Russia’s cultural capital — a city that gave the world Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexander Pushkin and other giants of Russian literature — by mangling the Russian language.

Prone to bizarre malapropisms, he has described his city’s residents as “actively yucky people” and their multiple religious faiths as “multi-confectionarism.”

Whatever his shortcomings, Mr. Beglov has one undeniable asset — the trust of Mr. Putin. The Russian president worked with Mr. Beglov in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, later employed him in the Kremlin and last year named him as acting governor, the equivalent of mayor.

“Putin demands 100 percent loyalty, and he knows that with Beglov there will be no surprises: Better to have a fool than a traitor,” Mr. Lurye said. “He might be a cretin but he is not a psychopath, a pedophile or an alcoholic.”

In its push to squeeze out politics, the Kremlin seems to have all but given up on even its own political party, United Russia, which is now so unpopular that many of its members competing in Sunday’s elections, including Mr. Beglov, deny any connection to “the party of crooks and thieves.”

That tag was first applied by the anticorruption campaigner Aleksei A. Navalny, who last month released a video accusing Mr. Beglov of buying a large apartment in Moscow in 2013 that cost five times his total declared income over the previous five years.

The governor’s election in St. Petersburg has been somewhat more open than the vote in Moscow. Mikhail Amosov, a veteran opposition figure who has been allowed to run against Mr. Beglov, said the governor’s race in St. Petersburg “is a real step forward” and predicted that “next time will be even freer.”

He complained, nonetheless, that the playing field was far from even, with most news outlets beholden to the governor and the “administrative resources” of the state tilted exclusively in Mr. Beglov’s favor.

Vladimir Bortko, the Communist Party’s candidate for governor in St. Petersburg and a celebrated film director, last week dropped out of the race, declaring the elections a “farce” and “the whole system rotten and in need of change.”

In a blistering statement explaining his withdrawal, he said: “Let the authorities take away the fig leaf of ‘democracy’ and present themselves as they are: an authoritarian and undemocratic order that has usurped power for a clan of big bourgeoisie that has no connection with the interests and views of the working people.”

Mr. Vishnevsky, the excluded liberal candidate, said he agreed with much of that but doubted the director’s sincerity, saying he had almost certainly pulled out of the race as part of a deal with the authorities, who worried that his presence on the ballot would make it more difficult for Mr. Beglov to win in the first round.

Three days before he withdrew, the film director met with Russia’s culture minister and discussed a new television series he would like to make, presumably with money from the state.

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Europe World

The Weekly | Russia’s Playbook for Disrupting Democracy

Producer/Director John Marks

Russia’s brazen interference in the 2016 American presidential election shouldn’t have been a total shock. President Vladimir Putin’s government had done it before, almost a decade earlier in tiny Estonia, where Russian operatives provoked political violence and mounted malicious cyberattacks.

In fact, many of the methods Moscow used back in 2007 to disrupt Estonian democracy are eerily similar to tactics Russian operatives used to hack American politics — an effort that intelligence officials and security experts warn is still underway.

“The Weekly” travels to Estonia, where our correspondent Matt Apuzzo pieces together clues hiding in plain sight, and he examines how vulnerable American democracy is to Russian hackers well-practiced in spreading disinformation, exploiting political differences and sowing chaos and mistrust.

[Join the conversation about @theweekly on Twitter and Instagram. #TheWeeklyNYT]

Senior Story Editors Dan Barry, Liz O. Baylen, and Liz Day
Director of Photography Philipp Friesenbichler
Video Editor Geoff O’Brien
Associate Producer Lora Moftah

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Europe World

After Radiation Sensors Blink Off, Russia’s Explanations Change

MOSCOW — In the days after a nuclear accident at a Russian military site on the White Sea, four radiation sensors sending data from Russian territory to an international monitoring network blinked offline.

On Tuesday, a senior Russian official said that the country did not have to share data from those sensors with the network — raising concerns that the Kremlin was withholding information about the severity of radioactive contamination caused by the incident in northern Russia.

The mysterious failure of the four sensors, part of a global system established by a Vienna-based group, had already fueled fears about what took place on Aug. 8. The explosion at a naval weapons range that day killed seven people and released radiation that elevated readings in a city 25 miles away.

Since then, the Russian government has said little, and rumors, incomplete statements and Western analysis have filled the silence. Russian scientists eventually conceded that a nuclear device had released radiation, and American officials, including President Trump, suggested the blast involved a type of novel, nuclear-propelled cruise missile that NATO calls the Skyfall.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said on Monday that the accident posed no risk to the public, although Russian officials have not disclosed how much radiation was released.

Two radiation sensors within the international network and relatively close to the accident, in Dubna and Kirov, went offline on Aug. 10, according to a spokeswoman for the Vienna-based group, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization. She asked not to be identified in accordance with the treaty organization’s policies.

[“They didn’t tell us anything,” a nurse said in a port city about 40 miles from the accident.]

Another two sensors, in Bilibino and Zalesovo in Siberia, went offline on Aug. 13, according to the treaty monitoring organization. Two sensors resumed functioning on Tuesday, the group said, though it was not immediately clear which ones. The outages were reported Monday by The Wall Street Journal.

After the automated sensors failed, the treaty monitors inquired about the reason. Russian authorities who manage the sensors, which typically send data in real time to Vienna, said they had suffered technical problems — or “communications and network issues” — according to the spokeswoman.

But on Tuesday, a Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, appeared to contradict that statement. He told the Interfax news agency that Russia’s transmission of data from the sensors was voluntary, and that Russia had chosen to provide data but was not treaty-bound to do so.

The data might have helped determine the nature of the incident and the extent of radioactive contamination — potentially helping people decide whether to take medicine to protect against radiation, such as iodine, but also possibly revealing military secrets about what happened.

Mr. Ryabkov did not directly address the Vienna-based group’s assertion that Russia had stopped sharing the data after the accident. But his comment suggested it was Moscow’s prerogative, and not a coincidental technical fault at four sensors, that caused the disruption.

“It is necessary to keep in mind that handing over the data from the national segment of the international system of monitoring is an entirely voluntary affair for any country,” Mr. Ryabkov said.

The test ban treaty of 1996 is observed by many states but has not formally taken effect, as some countries with nuclear capabilities, including the United States, have not signed or ratified it. Site inspections would only be possible under the treaty after it takes effect. Russia has signed and ratified the treaty.

Mr. Ryabkov added that the incident near Arkhangelsk “should have no relation at all to the activities” of the test ban monitoring group, as the organization’s mandate is limited to identifying possible nuclear explosions. Russian scientists said on Aug. 11 that the accident occurred as they studied “small-scale sources of energy with the use of fissile materials.”

In his first public comments on the accident, Mr. Putin said on Monday that there was “no threat and no rise in radiation level.” He said that “preventive measures are taken so nothing unexpected happens.” He did not clarify what those measures were.

Newsader Analytics, a Russian news site, posted a grainy video that showed a Russian soldier discussing safety with residents of Nenoksa, a village near the weapons test site. The soldier cautioned them not to handle unknown objects that wash ashore on the beaches of the White Sea, suggesting radiation risks remain.

“This would be unwise, because you would be exposing yourself to the same problems you are afraid of now,” the soldier said about beachcombing. There would be risks, he said, of taking home “objects lying on the beach that at first glance seemed safe.”

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Rammstein members kiss on Moscow stage in defiance of Russia’s anti-LGBT stance

Two members of Rammstein kissed onstage in Moscow as a sign of defiance at the country’s notoriously anti-LGBT+ stance.

Guitarists Paul Landers and Richard Kruspe were seen moving towards one another before kissing during a performance of “Aüslander”.

The German heavy metal band posted a photo of the moment on their Instagram page with the caption: “Russia, we love you!”

Legislation against “gay propaganda” was passed in Russia in 2013, and has helped create an inhospitable environment for LGBT+ Russians.

There has been a rise in hate crimes against LGBT+ people, and even recently anti-gay pogroms in Chechnya. 

On 21 July, a prominent LGBT+ activist was found dead in St Petersburg, having been strangled and stabbed.

The two musicians have kissed several times onstage during their ongoing Europe tour, with fans dubbing the pair “Paulchard”. 

Fan-shot footage also caught the moment:

It follows their performance in Poland where they crowdsurfed in a rubber dinghy waving a Pride flag, following the news that LGBT+ people had faced violence during a Pride march in the country.

Both moments have prompted delighted reactions from fans, with one referring to it as a “power-move” while another said it was “heartwarming” to see.

Rammstein released their latest, untitled album (referred to as Rammstein) in May, and are currently touring in support of the new music.

They are scheduled to perform a number of dates in the UK in 2020, including the Cardiff Principality Stadium on 14 June.

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Russia’s violent crackdown sets the tone for Putin’s remaining years, and issues a challenge to the west

As Russian President Vladimir Putin climbed into a miniature submarine and descended to the seabed in the Gulf of Finland on Saturday, Russian authorities proceeded with a violent and coordinated crackdown on unsanctioned protests in Moscow ahead of the September elections to Moscow’s municipal parliament.

Police officers arrested a record number, some 1,300 Muscovites, who had gathered to protest over ballot restrictions which had disqualified dozens of opposition candidates to run for the Moscow city council elections. According to OVD-Info, an independent monitoring group, the number of detentions had risen to 1,373 by Sunday. This was the largest crackdown on the non-systemic opposition since the 2011-2012 protests against rigged Duma elections and Putin’s announced return to the presidency.

These latest arrests were violent and arbitrary, at least in part. Police were seen beating protesters with truncheons, knocking on apartment doors at night to raid and search properties of disqualified candidates, and searching and arresting pedestrians without always making it clear what criminal charges were brought against them. 

Opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who had called Saturday’s protests, was arrested outside his house, and then taken from jail to hospital after an alleged exposure to an “an unknown chemical substance”, according to his lawyer, Olga Mihailova. 

The protests were limited to Moscow, and the city council elections are not critical at a federal level. But a localised structure of opposition protests was also characteristic of previous protests of national significance, from the 2011-12 “For Fair Elections” protests to the protests in 2017 and 2018 (over elite corruption, declining living standards and planned retirement age reforms). 

The symbolic nature of any such anti-government protests (even if limited to the big cities) cannot be ignored by the Kremlin due to their inherent links to questions about Putin’s continued legitimacy.

The European Union has criticised the disproportionate use of force against peaceful protesters, and European governments have called on Moscow to allow free and fair elections in line with Russia’s OSCE commitments. 

The Russian counter-reaction was indicative of the foreign policy implications of Russia’s latest protest wave: “Follow the Vienna Convention (on diplomatic relations)”, the Russian foreign ministry testily cautioned the German government, “and don’t meddle with internal affairs of sovereign governments.”

The arrests took place just a week after the latest Petersburg Dialogue between Russia and Germany, where the atmosphere at a working level was hailed as constructive. Russia and Europe have a lot of foreign policy issues on their plate where policy coordination is needed, from trying to salvage the Iran nuclear deal to discussing arms control and the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

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The arrests also come only a few weeks after Russia’s readmission into the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). The latter is potentially good news for civil rights in Russia, as Russian citizens can appeal to the European Court of Human Rights if human rights violations have no more legal recourse domestically. This (besides Russia’s significant financial contribution to the Council’s budget, which the organisation was loath to renounce) was the main argument for advocates of Russia’s return to PACE.

The cause for which Russia had its voting rights suspended in 2014 (the annexation of Crimea), however, remained entirely unchanged. Therefore, the restoration of its voting rights was hailed as a diplomatic victory by the Russian government: with strategic patience, according to such an interpretation, Russia can get away with breaking international law.

That will be an alarming message for the protestors who were dragged away by the scruffs of their necks, and their theoretical access to the ECHR will be paltry consolation. Clearly, Russian law enforcement agencies do not necessarily operate in compliance with provisions enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Political instability (as defined by the Kremlin and linked to Putin’s remaining years in power until 2024) will be seen by the Russian government as one of its defining challenges for the years ahead. If anything, this weekend’s violent arrests were a reminder of the growing gap between the Russian and western governments regarding civil and political liberties, regardless of Russia’s Council of Europe membership. 

They also represented a challenge to the west. Russia believes other nations should set aside disagreements over domestic politics in their pursuit of issue-specific foreign policy cooperation with Moscow.

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Russia’s RT news channel fined £200,000 for impartiality breaches over Salisbury poisoning and Syria

Russian government-owned broadcaster RT has been fined £200,000 for programmes about the Salisbury poisoning and Syrian war.

Ofcom said the channel, formerly named Russia Today, had committed “serious failures” to comply with broadcasting rules on impartiality in seven news and current and affairs programmes.

The shows, aired between 17 March and 26 April 2018, included two hosted by former Respect MP George Galloway, three current affairs shows and two news bulletins.

“Taken together, these breaches represented serious and repeated failures of compliance with our rules,” a spokesperson for Ofcom said.

“We were particularly concerned by the frequency of RT’s rule-breaking over a relatively short period of time.

“The programmes were mostly in relation to major matters of political controversy and current public policy – namely the UK government’s response to the events in Salisbury, and the Syrian conflict.”

Ofcom has fined RT £200,000 and directed it to broadcast a summary of its findings in the format and time of the watchdog’s choosing. 

RT, which has not committed any further breaches, has launched a legal challenge against Ofcom’s decisions, and the sanctions will not be imposed until the outcome of legal proceedings.

A court granted RT permission for judicial review in June, and a full hearing is expected towards the end of the year.

A spokesperson for RT vowed to challenge the breach decisions and said the sanction was “very wrong” and disproportionate.

Ofcom said it would be defending its decisions in court, and added: “We consider this sanction to be appropriate and proportionate. 

“It takes into account the additional steps that RT has taken to ensure its compliance since we launched our investigations.”

One episode of Mr Galloway’s Sputnik programme saw a co-presenter claim novichok was held at Britain’s Porton Down defence laboratory, while a former FSB secret service officer called the poisoning a “badly prepared provocation”.

Another saw Mr Galloway interview an “independent researcher” who presented the Salisbury poisoning as a plot to “punish Russia”.

Russian novichok suspects appear on TV to claim they were tourists visiting Salibury Cathedral

The breaches come as the UK accused Russia of proposing “contradictory and changing fantasies” to deny involvement in the attack on Sergei Skripal, amid heightened tensions over wars in Syria and Ukraine, alleged election interference and cyberattacks.

British security services identified two Russian GRU agents as the perpetrators of the attempted assassination, which caused the death of British mother Dawn Sturgess. RT broadcast an interview with the two suspects, in which they claimed to be salespeople who visited Salisbury for its “internationally famous” cathedral.

In March, researchers found that RT and Russian government-owned news website Sputnik worked as “damage control” for the Kremlin during the Salisbury attack and other incidents.

A report by the Policy Institute at King’s College London found that coverage of the Skripal poisoning “had all the features of a disinformation campaign and sought to sow confusion and uncertainty” through a “vast array of contradictory narratives and unchallenged conspiracy theories”.

Three episodes of the Crosstalk current affairs programme were found to be in breach, including one that broadcast claims of a “false flag chemical attack” in Syria, and accused the US of trying to “partition” the country and funding jihadis. Another episode of Crosstalk repeated claims that gas attacks on civilians had been “staged”.

An RT news bulletin on 18 March last year was found to have broken impartiality rules after claiming that militants were “preparing to stage chemical attacks in Syria to give the US a pretext to attack the government”. On 29 April, another RT news bulletin claimed that the Ukrainian government was “promoting the glorification of Nazism”.

A spokesperson for RT said: “While we continue to contest the very legitimacy of the breach decisions themselves, we find the scale of the proposed penalty to be particularly inappropriate and disproportionate per Ofcom’s own track record.

“It is notable that cases that involved hate speech and incitement to violence have been subject to substantially lower fines. It is astonishing that, in contrast, Ofcom sees RT’s programmes – which it thought should have presented more alternative points of view – as worthy of greater sanction than programmes containing hate speech and incitement to violence. We are duly considering further legal options.”

RT has an average audience of 3,400 viewers at any given point during the day, and an average weekly reach of 1 cent of UK adults, according to Ofcom figures. Owner TV Novosti has been disciplined for 15 breaches of the broadcasting code since 2012, mostly relating to Russia’s foreign policy in programmes about the wars in Ukraine and Syria.

Ofcom’s code states that all news must be reported “with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality”, and that “undue prominence” must not be given to a particular side on matters of controversy.

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Oliver Stone defends Russia’s ‘anti-gay propaganda’ law and asks Putin to be daughter’s godfather

Vladimir Putin is believed to be godfather to Oliver Stone’s 22 year-old daughter, after transcripts from an interview between the pair revealed that Stone had taken advantage of an Orthodox Christian tradition that means no one asked to be a godparent can refuse the honour.

In a transcript of a June interview between the pair that was published this week by the Kremlin, Stone references the tradition and tells Putin that he would like to ask him to be his daughter’s godfather. “Does she want to become an Orthodox Christian?” Putin responded, to which Stone answered: “We’ll make her that [Orthodox].” 

The pair did not return to the conversation, leading to the fair assumption that the request was granted.

In the same interview, Stone also called Russia’s “anti-gay propaganda” law, which Putin has claimed protects children from pro-LGBTQ+ influence, “sensible”.

“I don’t know what is going on with the American culture. It’s very strange right now,” Stone said. “So much of the argument, so much of the thinking, so much of the newspaper, television commentaries about gender, people identify themselves, and social media, this and that, I’m male, I’m female, I’m transgender, I’m cisgender. It goes on forever, and there is a big fight about who is who.”

After Putin told Stone that Russia has a law that “[bans] propaganda among minors,” Stone replied: “Yes, that’s the one. It seems like maybe that’s a sensible law.”

Stone and Putin have been unexpected friends for several years, Stone having previously conversed with the Russian president for the 2017 documentary series The Putin Interviews.

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