The Solution to the Security Dilemma?

IT’S A BOY! Well no, it’s actually a genderless bureaucratic institution aimed at promoting national security…

This month saw the birth of a new government entity: Национальная Гвардия России (Natsionalnaya Gvardiya Rossia). Yes, Putin went forward with creating a National Guard Service on April 5th. According to the Kremlin’s website, the Guard is essentially the new incarnation of the Russia interior forces. The same website lists their responsibilities as follows:

  • participation in the protection of public order in cooperation with internal affairs agencies
  • participation in countering terrorism and extremism
  • guarding important government facilities and special cargo
  • assistance to the border authorities of the Federal Security Service in protecting the state border
  • and state control over arms turnover.

The Russian National Guard will also assume responsibility over policing migration and anti-drug and crime efforts. This force, which is more or less comparable to a gendarmerie, answers directly to the President and has been empowered to act in times of emergency. Viktor Zolotov was appointed as the head of this administration. He seems to be a typical siloviki, one of the so-called tough guys that Putin likes to surround himself with.

What can we expect from this new institution? Does it represent Putin’s desire to have more control over the Russian state, or is it simply a rational, timely, and necessary advancement to the cause of Russian security?

Unfortunately Russia is no stranger to terrorism. There have been many attacks since the fall of the Soviet Union, each with devastating consequences and important political ramifications. The Beslan School Crisis of 2004 is the most infamous incident, and the state responded to it by tightening central controls.

The last major attack on Russian took place in October of last year when ISIL apparently brought down a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula. While this attack took place outside of Russia, the homeland remains vulnerable to attack. Lasting historical tension with Chechnya and, more recently, support of Syria means that Russia remains a target, and ISIL has made threats. Russia has always had issues with security due to its massive borders and lack of natural barriers. This reality, which has haunted Russia time and time again in war, is an obsession of the Russian political psyche. Imagine then how Russia feels in an age where acts of terror are perpetrated by well-organized, highly mobile, and difficult to track individuals rather than large armies; size goes from being an effective defense to being a key security liability. Revitalizing state security initiatives therefore makes sense from the standpoint of historical necessity and modern political reality.

There is a general perception that crime, terrorism, and drugs are linked (for more you could read up on the Tri-Border Area). There is probably some truth to this, since all three ultimately rely on the funneling of dark money, and therefore it makes sense to create a single institution aimed at combating all three. At the very least it greatly cuts bureaucratic inefficiency by obviating the need for information sharing mechanisms. One agency can determine and react to threats with more speed and consistency.

Of course, the Kremlin’s motives are always being questioned, and individuals both within and without Russia are raising more than a few eyebrows at the new National Guard Service. Some believe that it would just be a mechanism for enforcing greater state control. The BBC article regarding the National Guard’s creation pursues the angle that the National Guard was designed to dampen potential protests at the upcoming Parliamentary elections. We mentioned earlier that Russians are concerned about security, and we have to remember that security in many cases can be equated with stability. Putin has said and done much to this effect.Putin has done much after the unrest of the colour revolutions a decade ago, which saw post-Soviet states liberalise, to try to avoid the potential of their being such a revolution in Russia. Putin’s fears may have been reaffirmed in 2011 and 2012, which saw large protests during Federal elections. These years also happened to coincide with the Arab Spring. If Putin is expecting continued resistance, then the National Guard may be a valuable asset in quelling riots.

Certain media outlets seem to push this line, and recent discussions in the State Duma are only raising fears. Apparently the original decree creating the National Guard bans them from firing into crowds. A recent Moscow Times article points out how this might change: several State Duma deputies believe that there may be conditions where the National Guards may be justified in firing into crowds. And, taking the idea further, if they are given such powers some suggest that should also be freed from being persecuted for any actions they might take. If Putin is trying to enhance presidential power then he has at least succeeded in making the Duma complicit.

The proposals that the National Guards be given more power and less accountability is troubling to me, especially since my hometown of Baltimore just passed the one year anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray and the riots that broke out. I suppose that both America and Russia have issues of security and policing to confront. Unfortunately the issue may be trickier for Russia to handle. Without a vibrant civil society to stand up for citizen rights, Russian legislators may go down the slippery slope of making sacrifices in the name of security and freedom. The Russian Constitution and current legislation like “On Combating Terrorism” already give the Russian executive branch tremendous power in handling terrorism and extremism, and the current debates only echo the logic that “desperate times call for desperate measures.” The State has tremendous discretion in labeling certain groups as terrorists or extremists, and we have already seen from Putin’s intervention in Syria that little distinction is made between rebels and terrorists.

Personally I think it is a double-edged sword. As with most things in Russia, we must take the good with the bad. The National Guards will be more efficient in the fight on terror and crime, but they may also be more efficient in suppressing protests and dissent. I doubt that National Guards will ever be ordered to fire into crowds; I am sure Putin is familiar with the events of Bloody Sunday and the effects this had on Tsar Nicholas II. I don’t think that Putin is trying to create a police state, but the Guards will only further enervate civil society and strengthen the Kremlin’s grip.

Koshkin, Zubacheva, and Pylova, writing for Russia Direct, seem to present the most sober assessment of the Federal Guard. What is most striking about the Federal Guard is not that they unite security functions, but rather that they unite these functions under the direct control of Putin. The guard further insulates Putin from a coup by the people, or by his fellow political elites. At worst, they may just be an insurance policy.

The Kremlin’s website is always a great place to get an idea of what Putin is up to. Here is some of the coverage regarding the creation of the National Guard.

Here is the BBC’s coverage of the National Guard:

Here is the Moscow Time’s excellent story regarding the expansion of National Guard Duties:

Here is a fantastic analysis of the potential ramifications of the National Guard by Russia Direct.


Tax Evasion Olympics 2016 (Hosted by Panama)

American’s have about nine days left to file their taxes, so I figured now would be as good a time as any to comment on the conflagration happening at Mossack Fonseca this week. Sure I could wait until next week, but this is a story that has the potential to rapidly develop (we have already seen the prime minister of Iceland resign).

Nobody likes paying taxes, but some are willing to go to great lengths to avoid paying. This is what drove many to use Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca to hide earnings in assorted off-shore shell companies.

This week a massive collective undertaking by journalists around the world published the “Panama Papers” which unveiled Mossack Fonseca’s money moving scheme along with all sorts of clients, some of whom are heads of state. Evading taxes was not the sole motivation for the Panamanian firm’s clientele; some wished to launder money, others wished to hide money earned through corruption, while others wished to hide certain holdings. All of this constitutes a defeat for so-called “dark money,” but many realize that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The leak has also attracted a lot of attention to Russia, specifically towards Vladimir Putin. In fact, a surprising amount of print space and air time has been dedicated to incriminating Putin despite the fact that he in particular did not have any holdings. Comparatively little time was spent on King Salmon of Saudi Arabia or Petro Poroshenko (the former a U.S. ally, the latter can be loosely labeled as a U.S. ally). Russia was quick to fire back, challenging the validity of the Panama papers and accusing the West (mostly America) of trying to undermine Putin.

The simple fact is that Putin is not directly involved in the Panama Papers. “But wait” Billy Mays would shout, “there’s more.”Several close friends of Putin are incriminated by the Panama Papers.

There is Roldugin, who is godfather to Putin’s eldest daughter. Then there is Yury Kovalchuk, a banker who forged links with the future president when Putin was a municipal official, and Arkady Rotenberg, a childhood chum who has become a billionaire through state-sponsored construction projects, oil pipelines and other ventures.
All Putin’s Men: Secret Records Reveal Money Network Tied to Russian Leader (see below for the Link to the article)

Russia has always seen corruption. It may be essential for ruling such a large nation, or at least it is the easiest means of doing so. The Tsars employed it. The Soviets built a massive network of nomenklatura that peaked under Brezhnev’s reign. The new Russia has been no different. Yeltsin’s crash course privatization created an ultra-wealthy oligarchy overnight. Yeltsin later got into bed with these oligarchs to win re-election in 1996 and relied heavily on them. When Putin came in he straightened out the oligarchs and their undo influence, causing some to fall from grace while rewarding those who supported him. Putin also relied on many friends and political contacts, among them his current right-hand man Dmitri Medvedev. While Putin was able to revive the Russian economy and curb the power of oligarchs, corruption has greatly increased. Putin in particular has managed to accumulate great wealth while enabling friends and relations to do the same.

There is no doubt in my mind that a great deal of money is being drained from the Russian state through modern corrupt, especially through corporate contracts, but I believe that using the Panama Papers to attack Putin is putting the horse before the cart. Yes Roldugin, Kovalchuk, and Rotenberg have a lot of money. Yes they only have this money because of a friendship with Putin. But can we conclusively tie Putin down with the Panama Papers in any way? Did Putin know about his cronies having this account? Were his cronies holding shell accounts for Putin? We don’t know right now, and I doubt that we ever will. Russian leaders tend to have a talent for remaining a few degrees removed from political drama and the blame-game. Even if Putin were directly involved I believe that his support in Russia is strong enough to enable him to weather any sort of disaster. Citizen apathy and chronic denial would come through for him.

I would feel comfortable saying this much. Yes, Putin and his administration probably engage in corruption, but using the Panama Papers to attack him is inconsequential and only furthers the Kremlin’s suspicion of the West.

Regardless the situation is dynamic. As I have said before, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Who knows what other connections might emerge? Hopefully I will have something to report by next Saturday.

Honestly I am more curious to see how comfortable Edward Snowden feels right now that I am about Putin. Snowden is a champion of whistleblowers everywhere, and he currently lives in exile in Russia. Putin kept Snowden around and offered asylum probably just to irritate America, and it works spectacularly, but I find it odd that a patriotic man with an intelligence background would have any patience for someone who broke another intelligence agency’s code of silence. Putin and Snowden just don’t share the same values. Snowden strikes me as very liberal, especially in terms of information transparency and censorship. I often wonder if Russia would ever extradite him back to America. This concern came to the forefront of my mind when I read this tweet from Snowden:

Here is Snowden, a political exile, calling his asylum out. Brave. I doubt it is the first or last time he has criticized Russia. And yet, Russia still grants Snowden asylum. After reading more of Snowden’s tweets though I don’t think the Kremlin has any problem with him criticizing Russian policy: the overwhelming number of tweets are aimed at the Western leaders embroiled in the Mossack Fonseca scandal.

Reading Snowden’s posts helped put things in perspective. Honestly I think it is more appropriate that we should keep our own house in order before trying to pin down Putin. Iceland’s PM was corrupt and has effectively resigned after historic protests. David Cameron may be soon to follow since his family was tied to the leak. Petro Poroshenko obviously took a hit as well. We can expect Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia to lack transparency. Why then do we aim more criticism at these countries than at our own allies? How much criticism has the United States even levied against itself? On Democracy Now! Amy Goodman discussed with guests about how Manhattan was probably an even larger tax haven and about how the Panama Papers raise questions about who exactly is donating and lobbying in American politics.

Like I said, this is only the beginning. Ultimately I am not surprised at all about Russian figures being caught up in all this. I am more eager to see how all of this plays out over the next months.

For the above mentioned article go here:

For more info on the Panama Papers:

For news from Democracy Now! They have had great coverage all week:

For Snowden’s Twitter Feed:

In the mood for a plot twist? Try this article which suggests that Russia may have been behind the Panama Papers:

Murder Mystery: The Death of Dmitri Tsilikin

Journalism is a dangerous profession in Russia. Since the fall of the Soviet Union many prominent journalists critical of the new regime have ended up dead. This is really just the tip of iceberg; how many other journalists have been intimidated into giving up on the trade?

The scariest part is that Kremlin may not be behind the murders. Federal governors may be more to blame. In either case these murders are seldom investigated and justice remains evasive, which only furthers the chilling effect on journalism and freedom of the press.

I bring this topic up because Russia lost a prominent journalist this week. Dmitri Tsilikin, a famous writer on culture and the arts, was found dead from stab wounds in his apartment. The circumstances are suspicious, as they usually are, but I found it especially odd that an arts and culture writer would be killed. The mainstream news seems to implicitly agree, reporting this incident as if it were just a murder-and maybe it is just a murder.

But any time a journalist dies in Russia we have to look a little deeper. Generally these killings are politically motivated; the poster child for Russia’s suppression of journalism was Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in 2006 probably due to her intensive coverage of the brutal Second Chechen War.

Would anyone have political reasons to kill Mr. Tsilikin? I suppose the only way to find this out would be to read some samples of his work. Time to do some journalistic work.

According to most media outlets reporting his death, Mr. Tsilikin wrote for Vedomosti, Kommersant, Vogue, and Elle. I did a few cursory searches of Дмитрий Циликин/Dmitri Tsilikin depending the language of the outlet I was searching. Google Chrome’s translate function made up for my loose grip on the Russian language, although it still struggles mightily to make a coherent Russian translation.

A search on Kommersant yielded nothing I was hoping to find. Mikhail Belyaev, an editor for Kommersant, wrote a rather elegant obituary for him though.

A cursory search on Vogue and Elle revealed nothing as well…

Luckily Vedomosti came through with plenty of stories written by Mr. Tsilikin. Yes, I can confirm that Mr. Tsilikin was indeed an arts and culture writer; his work seems decidedly non-political. I am doubly unqualified to report on the quality of Dmitri’s reviews as a shoddy translation does not do his words justice and, even if I had a perfect translation, theatre was never my strong suit (although a theatre teacher once told me I should minor in acting). He may have dabbled in politics here and there, but I was unable to locate anything indicating such.

Regardless, I was able to glean some things from reading a few articles. Mr. Tsilikin seemed to enjoy reviewing avant-garde productions. While Chrome’s translation does him no justice,  I could tell that he strove in most articles to paint a picture of the show at hand. He brought up the details that stuck out most to him, and by criticizing or praising various sundry points he painted a bigger picture. If I am not mistaken there was much more criticizing; Mr. Tsilikin seemed hard to please as a good critic should be. I invite you to review some of his articles if you have time, as his personality comes through pretty well, even with a bad translation.

I was originally going to end with some positive message about how we should celebrate the life and work of deceased journalists. I would have said something along the lines of “we should not just read the deaths of journalists and dissidents as political intrigue, but rather we should look and what they said and why.” Too often we think of Politkovshaya as murder victim over journalist, and we pay more attention to what was written about her death than what she wrote in life. I feel like this message is valid, especially for a man like Mr. Tsilikin who I am going to say died due entirely to non-political causes, but I think there is another lesson to be had here…

After all, I did just spend a half-hour writing a post where I essentially argue that Mr. Tsilikin was not a target of assassination. When a journalist dies my first instinct, and the first instinct of the West in general, is suspicion. It is true that Russia does not have a great track record with freedom of the press, but is this record so  bad that we immediately assume that all dead journalists died for political reasons?

Actually yes! The record is that bad. What does this say about the state of civil liberties in Russia?

Perhaps we are just conditioned to be cynical of the non-Western Russia. Perhaps that cynicism is warranted when we are talking about a country where intrigue is and always has been rampant.

I think that if a person doesn’t feel cynical then they’re out of phase with the 20th century. Being cynical is the only way to deal with modern civilization — you can’t just swallow it whole. – Frank Zappa

Hopefully the perpetrators will be brought to justice. Since this is probably not a political murder, I believe that this is a likely outcome. Unfortunately for dozens of other political killings there will be no such luck…