Weekly 23 August 2021

Russia and the Taliban

Hello! This week our top story is about how Russia established a new relationship with the Taliban despite decades of mutual animosity. We also look at a mass walkout at eco-cosmetics company Natura Siberica, why there was little commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the failed coup that led to the fall of the Soviet Union, a derided ‘dog poop’ statue, and independent TV channel Dozhd’s designation as a ‘foreign agent’.

Russia courts the Taliban as U.S. exits Afghanistan

As Western countries rushed to evacuate their embassies from Kabul last week amid the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Russia was one of the countries that kept their diplomats in place. Even though Moscow and the Taliban are traditional foes, they have been cooperating more and more closely in recent years.

  • The Russian Foreign Ministry announced last weekend that there were no plans to evacuate the Russian embassy in Kabul — and, sure enough, embassy staff stayed put when the Taliban took the city. According to the ministry, the Taliban had guaranteed the safety of Russia’s diplomatic mission. Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov later said Russia wants to improve relations with the new Afghan government, and that the Taliban could even lose its official designation as a terrorist organization.
  • Diplomatic contact between Russia and the Taliban has been increasing in recent years. Senior Taliban officials came to Moscow last month to meet Kabulov and promised they wouldn’t try to cross Afghanistan’s borders and that they would keep militant groups Al-Qaeda and ISIS out of Afghanistan. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Taliban leaders in both 2018 and 2019.
  • However, warming relations between Russia and the Taliban is a recent phenomenon. For most of the time the Taliban has existed, Moscow has been one of their major enemies — not least because the Taliban backed Chechen rebels in a series of wars with Russian forces during the 1990s. Long before the start of the U.S. operation in Afghanistan, Russia was providing support to Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance that opposed the Taliban in Afghanistan. Though the Taliban has never committed an attack on Russian territory, it was declared a terrorist organisation by Russia’s Supreme Court in 2003.
  • The situation changed dramatically in 2015 when Russian troops intervened in Syria to save the government of President Bashar al-Assad. One of Russia’s targets in Syria was ISIS — also foes of the Taliban and Kabulov announced in December 2015 that Russia had begun negotiating with the Taliban. Some experts suggested at the time that Moscow was looking to take advantage of a split in the Taliban after the death of its founder, Mullah Omar.
  • Moscow’s foreign policy goals in Afghanistan have remained more or less the same for many years: to prevent the emergence of an Islamist terrorist threat and make the country’s northern provinces a security buffer. Since the Taliban are now in control, the Russian authorities need a relationship with them — they are the only force that can stop terrorism. “Russia has made good use of its opportunity to gain a foothold in Central Asia and was not wrong to establish ties with the Taliban,” said Kirill Semyonov, an international affairs expert. “But if the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates… Afghanistan could become for Russia what Algeria is for France — a constant security threat.”
  • Despite improving relations, there is little prospect Russia will be able to derive any material benefits from the Taliban. “Large business projects that bring money need stability, safety for employees, and a safety guarantee for investments,” said expert Dmitry Verkhoturov. “And in order to extract something from Afghanistan — which could theoretically be done by Russian companies — you need an infrastructure that is currently completely absent … no one will make such a long-term investment.”

Why the world should care

As relations between Russia and the Taliban improve, Moscow looks set to enjoy far more influence in Kabul than it has done for at least two decades.

Russia marks 30th anniversary of failed coup that doomed the USSR

There were no official ceremonies or big public speeches to mark the 30th anniversary last week of the attempted coup by Communist hardliners that was defeated by Russian democrats in the dying days of the Soviet Union. An epoch-defining event that saw tanks on the streets of Moscow, the failed plot now largely evokes indifference among Russians.

  • Official commemorations for the 30th anniversary were muted and President Vladimir Putin did not make an official statement. Such silence was hardly a surprise: the Kremlin tends to avoid marking events that are — in the minds of top officials — synonymous with periods of weakness for the Russian state. You only have to recall the silence that accompanied the centenary of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
  • Events in 1991 began two days before the scheduled August 20 signing of a new treaty to restructure the USSR. First, the plotters visited then-Communist leader Mikhail Gorbachev while he was on vacation in Crimea. They asked Gorbachev to declare a national state of emergency and — when he refused — they blockaded him in his presidential residence.
  • The following day, tanks and soldiers entered Moscow. Paratrooper units seized control of key media outlets and all television channels switched from scheduled programming to a recording of ballet Swan Lake, which was traditionally broadcast to announce a death in the country’s leadership.
  • The then-president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) was Boris Yeltsin — and he led the resistance, denouncing events as an illegal takeover and calling on supporters to come to the White House (the residence of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR). By the evening of August 20, there were several hundred thousand people on the streets. That night, there were clashes with the military and some casualties. As public opinion swung against the plotters, high-ranking military officers announced their opposition to the coup. By the morning of August 21, troops began to withdraw from Moscow.
  • Public opinion about the defeat of the coup is gradually turning negative, according to a recent survey by independent pollster Levada Center. A record 43 percent of Russians think what happened was a tragedy that had disastrous consequences. Only 10 percent now consider it a victory for democracy. There are also signs of growing indifference: 66 percent of Russians believe neither the coup plotters nor their opponents were in the right — up from 53 percent two years ago. In general, Levada Center polls show most Russians regret the fall of the Soviet Union (although less than a third want to return to Communist rule).

Why the world should care

Thirty years after the failed coup by Communist hardliners, Russia is ruled by the political heirs of the defeated plotters rather than their democratic opponents.

Mass walkout in shareholder tussle over Natura Siberica

Just seven months after the death of cosmetics tycoon Andrei Trubnikov, his company Natura Siberica has been engulfed by a shareholder conflict that has led to chaos. Employees last week accused new management of unlawfully seizing control and quit in droves. There are also reports that billionaires — including Oleg Deripaska and Vladimir Yevtushenko — are after a piece of the Trubnikov empire.

  • Protests over a perceived attempt to seize control of organic cosmetics giant Natura Siberica last week led to about 60 percent of its central office staff resigning or going on vacation, according to media outlet vc.ru. One employee told The Bell that 57 staff members quit and 101 left for a holiday in just 48 hours. Current company head Sergei Buylov confirmed the reports, calling them attempted sabotage. “We have now stabilised the situation through outsourcing, but I can’t say the issue is resolved,” he said.
  • The conflict began shortly after the death of founder Andrei Trubnikov in January. It remains unclear if the late Andrei Trubnikov left a will, but he likely has four inheritors, people familiar with the matter told The Bell. They are: son Dmitry and daughter Yekaterina from his first marriage; daughter Yelizaveta from his second marriage; and his third wife Anastasia (who he was set to divorce). Immediately after his demise, the CEO of the company became his first wife and Natura Siberica co-founder Irina Trubnikova.
  • But when Trubnikov’s relatives began suing each other, control of the company passed to trustee Grigory Zhdanov, who made personnel changes, including appointing former Natura Siberica top manager Buylov — who was previously fired for incompetence — as the company’s CEO.
  • Natura Siberica employees loyal to Irina Trubnikova published an open letter earlier this month accusing Zhdanov, Buylov and their supporters of trying to seize control — and announced a strike. Then, Trubnikova and her son Dmitry — who together own 55 percent of Natura Siberica — as well as other employees were blocked from entering the company’s office or accessing company databases. Natura Siberica’s Instagram claimed “strong young people” who looked like “fighters” showed up to enforce order. “Thank God my employees haven’t been beaten up, but they were very scared,” Irina Trubnikova told The Bell. Buylov said access to the company’s offices had been restricted for those hindering “lawful activities”.
  • The upheaval at the company may give billionaires looking for a stake in the business their chance. Yevtushenkov was in talks to buy shares owned by Trubnikov’s first wife Irina and her children, The Bell reported earlier this year (although Trubnikova later denied this). And media outlet Forbes reported Yevtushenkov was also trying to acquire shares owned by Trubnikov’s third wife. In addition, there was media speculation that metals tycoon Deripaska was seeking to acquire a stake in Natura Siberica, possibly as a way of settling a 4.2 billion ruble lawsuit related to fire at a factory rented by the company.

Why the world should care

Natura Siberica has stood out both at home and abroad by its focus on Siberia and an ecological spin on cosmetics. The company is “a rare bright spot for a Russian economy that has been languishing,” The New York Times wrote in 2007. “In general, all cosmetics are the same. We invent a fairy tale and sell it to women,” Trubnikov famously said. If the current conflict continues, it could mean the end of this particular fairy tale.

IN BRIEF

Muscovites deride ‘dog poop’ sculpture

Downtown Moscow got a new landmark last weekend with the installation of Big Clay #4, a sculpture by Swiss artist Urs Fischer that was previously displayed in the U.S. and Italy. But the artwork provoked almost universal fury and derision. Enraged observers including popular comedian Maxim Galkin compared the 12-meter high sculpture to dog poop.

The temporary exhibit is located on a riverbank in the center of the Russian capital, just outside the soon to be opened House of Culture museum. The building is owned by the V-A-C Foundation, which supports contemporary art and was set-up in 2009 by natural gas billionaire Leonid Mikhelson, Russia’s fifth richest person.

The sculpture is “a metaphor for creativity”, V-A-C curator Katerina Chuchalina told media outlet Afisha. Yet the only creative force it seemed to unleash was disdain. It’s a “monument for unity in hatred,” architectural critic Grigory Revzin wrote on Facebook.

Media crackdown reaches Dozhd and iStories

Russia added leading independent television channel Dozhd (TV Rain) to its fast growing list of ‘foreign agents’ Friday, along with the investigative outlet iStories, its five journalists and editor-in-chief Roman Anin. Being given the Soviet-era ‘foreign agent’ label puts significant financial pressure on outlets (because it deters advertisers) and can make the work of journalists more complicated (sources are more reluctant to give interviews).

Dozhd began broadcasting in 2010, but has been under growing pressure. It was excluded from the Kremlin press pool in June and, last month, members of misogynistic far-right group ‘Male State’ demanded the channel be designated a ‘foreign agent’ because of alleged LGBT propaganda. Dozhd founder and CEO Natalia Sindeeva was phlegmatic about the decision. “This was bound to happen, sooner or later,” she told Meduza.

Media start-up iStories has never hidden the fact that it is formally registered in Latvia, and said that its ‘foreign agent’ designation will not mean closure. Since it was set-up in 2020, iStories has specialized in investigations, including reports about Putin’s daughter Katerina Tikhonova and the assets belonging to the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.