The major stories you need
to understand Russia

An insider view, in 5 minutes

Photo credit: Moskva agency

1. The Russian government is trying everything to increase voter turnout in the upcoming election

What happened

The Russian presidential elections are only a week away, and despite the lack of intrigue, the election campaign is becoming more interesting.  The are of course no real candidates other than Vladimir Putin. It is therefore a priority for the Kremlin that all of the state’s influence be used to increase voter turnout, so that Putin’s victory will look as legitimate as possible.  Enormous efforts are being made with this goal in mind, which has let to some interesting developments.

The candidate who cannot be removed

According to recent polls, the current runner up in the presidential race is Pavel Grudinin, the candidate from the Communist Party (of course, with Kremlin approval), with 7.8% of the vote. He is a paradoxical character — the communists have chosen a millionaire who made his fortune by reselling expensive land holdings just outside of Moscow.  At first, Grudinin was seen as a “spoiler” candidate, selected to draw the leftist protest vote away from Alexey Navalny. However, Grudinin turned out to be unexpectedly popular, and since the middle of January he has been the primary target of criticism by Russia’s state-controlled television channels.

The moment of truth occurred this week.  The Central Election Commission (CEC) received information stating that Grudinin has 13 bank accounts, each valued at $1 million, in Switzerland, which he didn’t declare when registering his candidacy.  The law forbids candidates to have foreign bank accounts, and Grudinin should have been removed from the election. But removal of the only popular alternative candidate would have negatively impacted the Kremlin’s goal of increasing voter turnout.  Grudinin said that he closed all his accounts, and the CEC stated that they “took his word for it” and took no action to remove his candidacy. This, however, didn’t stop Russian TV from continuing to bash Grudinin on a daily basis.

Getting out the vote everywhere and anywhere

Voter turnout of 70% in an election without intrigue is quite difficult to achieve, and the government is trying to remind Russians of their civic duty everywhere and anywhere.  Businesses are helping (Russian) with this, as they are eager to publicly demonstrate their loyalty.

Russia’s largest retailer, Magnit, printed messages to go out and vote on every receipt (and that’s 300 million receipts per month), Russia’s largest banks, Sberbank and VTB, remind voters about the election on their ATM screens and in their mobile apps, Russian Railroads and Aeroflot have election reminders next to where tickets are sold, and Burger King restaurants in Russia remind their customers about the election on the electronic order tablet screens. The most popular men’s magazine in Russia, Maxim, which is published in partnership with Hearst Media, stirred up the vote with the help of a video featuring half naked young women at voting stations.

Pop stars are using Instagram to remind their fans to vote, and the state-owned information agency, TASS, shared on social media channels a music video of the song, “The Guiding Star”. In Russian it is “Putevodnaya Zvezda”, and the root of the name refers to Putin. The song was recorded by the Putin Team movement, which is formally led by one of the NHL’s top stars, Alexander Ovechkin.

Official data shows that the state has spent $14 million to date reminding voters to get out and vote, but most companies explain that they are helping free of charge, in order to “help out the country’s citizens”.

Why the world should care

In one week’s time the predictable result of the Russian presidential election will be in the news across the world — it’s important to understand how the result will be delivered.

2. Former escort vows to publish proof of Russian interference in the U.S. election

What happened

The story of billionaire Oleg Deripaska and escort girl Nastya Rybka, who published photos of the billionaire together with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Prikhodko on a yacht in August 2016, continues (we wrote about the story in detail here). At the end of last week, Rybka and her manager were jailed in Thailand for organizing illegal sex courses. The pair asked for political asylum in the U.S., promising to publish audio recordings proving Deripaska’s role in Russian interference in the last U.S. presidential elections.

  • Rybka claims that while she was on the yacht with Prikhodko and Deripaska, she made a 16-hour long recording of their conversations, and that part of these conversations were about the U.S. presidential elections.
  • The U.S. State Department said that it does not plan to help the young woman, and described the whole story as “strange”.
  • Nevertheless, the meeting on the yacht between Deripaska and the deputy prime minister is growing even more interesting.  This week, it was discovered that just a view days prior, on August 3, 2016, Deripaska’s private jet landed in New York. On this same day, Paul Manafort, then chairman of Trump’s election campaign, discussed with his partners private briefings for Deripaska in advance of the presidential elections.

Why Deripaska

  • Oleg Deripaska — #23 on the Russian Forbes list with a net worth of $5.1 billion, the owner of the world’s largest aluminum producer, UC Rusal, and one of the oligarchs with close ties to the Russian government. Deripaska was married to the daughter of the former head of the presidential administration under Boris Yeltsin, Valentin Yumashev.
  • In the 2000s, Manafort already did consulting work for Deripaska and offered him a plan to promote Russia’s interests abroad, AP reported. Deripaska tried to have this article removed in court, but he lost the case.
  • Since 2006, Deripaska has not been able to receive an American visa, due to suspicions regarding his possible ties to organized crime.
  • On Thursday, the billionaire published an op-ed in the American conservative publication, The Daily Caller, in which he referred to the accusations against Russia in the U.S. as “plotting by a small group of people” close to former U.S. President Barack Obama.

Why the world should care

Even the State Department had to comment on Nastya Rybka’s announcement. However, it is unlikely that the young lady from the escort agency has an audio recording proving Russia’s interference in the U.S. election — but such an audio recording could be a rare piece of evidence regarding the 2016 elections for the Russian side.

3. Friend of Putin’s daughter, banker with $10 billion: Kirill Dmitriev, a possible link between the Kremlin and Trump

What happened

Special counsel Robert Mueller has gathered evidence that the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s campaign team attempted to create an unofficial communications channel in a meeting in January 2017 in the Seychelles between the CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), Kirill Dmitriev, and the founder of the private military company, Blackwater, Erik Prince.

What we know about Dmitriev

  • RDIF, led by Dmitriev, is a $10 billion sovereign investment fund, funded from the Russian government budget. The fund was initially created as a subsidiary of VEB (Vnesheconombank) and together with VEB was hit with U.S. sanctions in 2015.
  • In addition to his official role with the fund, Kirill Dmitriev also has a personal connection to Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. Dmitriev’s wife, Natalia Popova, was a university classmate of Katerina Tikhonova, believed to be Vladimir Putin’s daughter. Popova works as Tikhonova’s deputy at the Innopraktika fund.
  • Dmitriev serves on Innopraktika’s board of trustees and also served on Sibur’s board of directors. Sibur is co-owned by Tikhonova’s ex-husband, Kirill Shamalov, and RDIF invested in Sibur projects.

Why the world should care

The Bell’s editors have known Dmitriev since the early 2000s, when he was one of Russia’s best private equity professionals. Dmitriev refused to comment on the meeting in the Seychelles, but it’s difficult to question the authenticity of Prince’s testimony.  Their meeting will now certainly be a key area of focus for special counsel Mueller’s investigation.

4. The Bell Scoop: Evgeny Prigozhin, sponsor of Russian mercenary soldiers in Syria, lost his military contracts

What happened

The Bell analyzed data from the Ministry of Defense and discovered that companies owned by Evgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the St. Petersburg “troll factory” and sponsor of the private military company Wagner, have lost almost all of their military contracts.

  • Prigozhin’s companies provided custodial, construction and other services to Russian army military bases and supplied the bases with fuel.  In 2015, they received $400 million for these services, in 2016 — $190 million, and in 2017 — only $17 million.
  • In 2016, relations between Prigozhin’s companies and the Ministry of Defense soured, according to Fontanka.  The reason for the fall out was the poor secrecy of those fighting in Syria (and before that in eastern Ukraine) with private military company Wagner (Russian), which is also connected to Prigozhin.  Another version is that the ministry and Prigozhin quarelled over the number and value of medals which were awarded to Wagner’s soldiers.
  • At the end of 2016, Prigozhin came under U.S. sanctions, and the United States recently accused him and a dozen of his “troll factory” employees of interference in the U.S. elections.  It is believed that Prigozhin sponsored the creation of the troll factory.
  • Prigozhin’s companies are now trying to make money from Syrian oil.  Evro Polis, another company affiliated with Prigozhin, agreed with Bashar al-Assad’s government on the division of profits from the development of those oil fields which Wagner will liberate. The agreement was signed not long before Russian mercenary soldiers clashed with American forces over the refinery in the Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor.

Why the world should care

Evgeny Prigozhin and his employees are the only Russian citizens who have been officially accused of interference in the U.S. elections.  Much of what will happen to Prigozhin will depend on relations between the two countries.

5. The chairman of Russia’s Duma defends a deputy accused of sexual harassment

What happened

Three female journalists described how they were sexually harassed by the head of the Duma’s international affairs committee and Duma deputy, Leonid Slutsky. One of the journalists also made an audio recording of the harassment. On March 7, the chairman of the Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, commented on the accusations.

“You find working in the Duma to be dangerous?  If so, then get a new job.” Volodin said to one of the female journalists in the Duma press pool. Volodin associated the accusations of sexual harassment with the election campaign.

Why the world should care

The accusations against Duma deputy Slutsky have resulted in Russia’s most serious sexual harassment scandal in its history.  The cynical reaction of the head of Russia’s parliament drew sharp criticism even from those who had never before thought about women’s rights in Russia.

Peter Mironenko