Weekly 4 May 2019

Is the sacking of Russia’s Belarusian envoy a step toward political integration?

Hello! This week we focus on the recent sacking of Russia’s ambassador to neighboring Belarus and whether it means we are about to see the two countries move closer to a political union. We also look at the ethical dilemma revealed by the exposure of one of the country’s most popular anti-Kremlin bloggers, the credible allegations of vote-rigging on a popular TV talent show and the backlash produced by meat producers lobbying for a ban on importing meat and dairy products intended for personal consumption.

Is the sacking of Russia’s Belarusian envoy a step toward political integration?

What happened

Heading a new state arising from a political union between Russia and Belarus is one way President Vladimir Putin could retain power after 2024 (the Russian constitution forbids him from running for a third consecutive term) and it has been widely reported this is one of several scenarios under discussion in the Kremlin. On Tuesday, Russia suddenly removed its ambassador to Belarus, Mikhail Babich, who had been an outspoken advocate for closer ties. This took place amid a dispute over oil supplies, but some speculated it was part of a deal to speed up integration between the two countries.

  • According to an anonymous source cited (Rus) in Kommersant newspaper, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko told Putin that the removal of Babich was a condition for speeding up the integration process, and Lukashenko has promised to go ahead with this (according to a 1999 agreement between the two countries, this would involve a single pension system, a single currency, coordination of laws and unified energy, transport and telecommunications systems).
  • If true, this would be an abrupt volte face by Lukashenko who has long fought against attempts by Moscow to push ahead with a unified state in which Belarus would, inevitably, be subsumed into Russia, and Lukashenko himself lose political power. Earlier this year, Lukashenko mocked (Rus) rumours of a political union and told journalists that 98 percent of Belarusians would vote against unification if it was put to a referendum.
  • The dismissal of Babich occurred amid a row between Moscow and Minsk over contaminated oil supplies passing through the Druzhba pipeline, one of the oldest transport routes for Russian crude. Druzhba (which means, literally, ‘friendship’) supplies 8% of the EU’s oil imports, as well as fuel for Belarusian refineries that then export oil products to Eastern Europe and the Baltics. Lukashenko has said that, because of 5 million tonnes of contaminated crude, Belarus has had to stop accepting deliveries and halted exports of oil products. After discussions with Putin, they have said that they plan to partially reinstate supplies within a week.
  • It isn’t clear who is to blame for the contaminated oil. Druzhba is operated by Transneft, the Russian state-owned pipeline monopoly, which says that the oil was deliberately polluted via an access point managed by a small private oil company. This company says that contamination like this is technically impossible. The situation is being investigated by law enforcement officers.

Why the world should care

Lukashenko’s promise, if it really was made, is difficult to interpret as entirely genuine. The Belarusian president has been able to avoid taking real steps towards a union for two decades, while, at the same time, preserving economic subsidies from Russia. But the current level of pressure from Moscow shows that the possibility of Putin preserving power through a union is, at least, being seriously considered.

Journalists reveal the identity of a famous blogger and he is targeted by police

What happened

In an unprecedented move, last Friday police raided the home of the parents of the writer behind Stalingulag, Russia’s most popular anti-Kremlin Telegram channel. The blog, like most notable Telegram channels, was anonymous until journalists from the RBC news outlet revealed the blogger’s identity six months ago. The blogger continued to deny everything despite the expose, but after his parents’ home was searched, he gave an interview to the BBC in which he confirmed his authorship.

  • Stalingulag publishes posts critical of the authorities and has an audience on par with that of some television channels: on Telegram and Twitter, Stalingulag reaches about 1.5 million people (on Twitter, Stalingulag has 50,000 more followers than Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev). Last year, RBC reported that Stalingulag was written by Alexander Gorbunov from the mainly Muslim republic of Dagestan in the North Caucasus. He appears to have no obvious political affiliations.
  • The still anonymous Stalingulag wrote about the raid on his parents’ apartment last week and The Bell was able to speak (Rus) with Gorbunov’s mother. She said that Investigators told her to “say thank you” that she and her 80 year-old husband were not placed “face down on the floor.” They were told the reason for the search was that a fake call was placed from their apartment about a bomb. The search lasted 6 hours.
  • After this, the founder of Telegram, Pavel Durov, officially verified Stalingulag (the first time an anonymous Telegram channel has achieved this ‘Blue Tick’ status), and offered Gorbunov help if he had to leave the country. A few days later, Gorbunov gave an interview (Rus) to the BBC Russian service in which he revealed that he is Stalingulag. It turned out that the blogger has a rare neuromuscular disease called spinal muscular atrophy and uses a wheelchair. While still in Dagestan, he began making money through online trading, but now he also earns money from blogging. He currently lives in Moscow, and plans to carry on with Stalingulag. “I am not afraid for myself,” he told the BBC. “Nothing can be done to me — it would be impossible to put restrictions on me; I have been living with limitations since birth. It is also impossible to cause me bodily or physical harm, because the pain that is with me is always there.”
  • The exposure of Gorbunov’s identity has led to a whole series of unpleasant consequences, not just the search at his parents’ home. He has had to stop raising money for an investment fund which he was “close to creating” because no investor would risk giving money to a blogger critical of the authorities. This led to much online discussion: RBC journalists were blamed for having hurt an “ordinary guy”, and many argued that knowing a blogger’s name doesn’t change the impact of the content. On the other hand, some said because the channel has a huge audience, and is overtly political, people have the right to know with whom they are dealing. An unbiased journalist, the logic goes, cannot just reveal the activities of “bad” people. Moreover, the RBC identified Gorbunov using open sources, and the authorities could have done the same.

Why the world should care

The case of Stalingulag reveals a whole host of contradictions in today’s Russian media landscape. Because of pressure on independent media outlets, Telegram channels, where you can speak freely because of their anonymity, are hugely popular. But can they be trusted? Should readers know who is behind them, and how should they operate vis a vis traditional media? There are no clear answers,

State-owned TV channel hires cybersecurity experts after voting irregularity on top talent show

What happened

Last week, the final of the Russian edition of The Voice Kids drew huge criticism on social media with many users calling it a fraud. Broadcast by state-owned Channel One, the results of the vote gave first place to Mikella Abramova, daughter of Russian pop star, Alsou, and her husband, businessman Yan Abramov. Mikella is also the granddaughter of Ralif Safin, a top manager at oil company Lukoil. Many were convinced Mikella only won because of her parents’ influence (you can judge for yourself: here is the winner’s performance and that of runner-up Yerzhan Maksim). Channel One itself called the result an anomaly and hired cybersecurity outfit Group-IB to investigate.

  • The winner of The Voice Kids is chosen with the help of paid text messages and calls, and voting takes place in real time. The operator of the voting is a third party hired by the television channel. In the disputed final, Abramova won with 56.5 percent of the vote while Maksim got 27 percent. “When our partners gave the channel the results of the vote, there was a shock: everyone was sure that Maksim would win. It was immediately clear that the voting results would mean a flurry of indignation,” a source at the show told The Bell. They said that they had 8 minutes to decide whether to show the results on the screen. The head of the show discussed announcing that an error had occurred and annulling the results, according to the source, but in the end they released the results as they were not totally sure rules had been broken.
  • There are several theories as to how this happened: Channel One falsified the results; they were inflated by a special company paid for by the girl’s parents; a successful campaign on behalf of the girl on social networks; or the vote was hacked. The last explanation was discredited by cyber experts: they said hacking would be expensive, complicated and easy to discover. Three sources, all unrelated to each other but close to the production company, rejected the theory that the vote could have been manipulated by the television channel.
  • Vote-buying seems likely. A source from a company involved in this business admitted to The Bell that he is often approached with requests to influence votes on shows like The Voice. The cost of his services are roughly $1.75 per vote. This same price was given to The Bell by a representative of a company representing a mother whose child was competing in the contest. It is extremely difficult to estimate the effect of a social media campaign, but the opportunities that Abramova’s parents have are clearly not on par with those of the rest of the parents of the children in the contest. Posts supporting Abramova were written by bloggers with millions of followers. In the end, Mikella got 80,000 more votes than Maksim. Channel One was aware of the danger of paid-for-promotion on social media, and met with the parents of the competitors to ask them to stop this, but it had little impact.
  • If one assumes that the posts by top bloggers were paid for, they would only have cost Abramova’s parents about $15,000. If a special service was used to generate 80,000 votes, this would have cost $122,000. However, a representative of Alsou (the winner’s mother) rejected the charge of manipulation. And Channel One told The Bell that “it takes the situation seriously” and will publicly announce the results of Group-IB’s investigation.

Why the world should care

The broad resonance of The Voice Kids scandal can be explained by two things. Firstly, even though there aren’t free and fair elections in Russia, there is often a demand for public fairness, which can take unexpected forms. Secondly, when 13% of the population lives on the edge of poverty, and lucrative jobs in state companies are passed from parents to children, the victory of a girl from a privileged background was, for many, a personal affront.

IN BRIEF

“A drama out of nothing”. This is how the founder of agroholding Miratorg, Viktor Linik, described the public’s reaction to news that meat producers are lobbying for a government ban on the import of “jamón and parmesan” into Russia for personal consumption. “People need to think about the development of their own country,” Linik added. According to those asking for the ban (Miratorg included), Russian businesses need to protect themselves against African Swine Flu. This is probably true: the discussion was about a total ban on imported meat and dairy products, and the jamón-stuffed suitcases of middle class travellers could be one way the illness is spreading. But it would be difficult to come up with a more unpopular proposal — and Linik has successfully managed to upset many of Miratorg’s customers.

Anastasia Stognei