Tuesday, April 12, 2016

$330 Million—The Cost of Replacing a Political Rival in Russia?

By Alden Wahlstrom

How much does it cost to replace a political rival in Russia? Can such a thing be bought? Journalist Yulia Latynina of Echo Moskvi seems to think so. On her weekly radio program “Kod Dostupa” (“Access Code”), Latynina uncovered information supporting this idea while delving into the financial information of Sergei Roldugin, details of which were released with the so-called “Panama Papers.”  Perhaps the most interesting Russia-related story to come out of this massive leak involves Roldugin, a Russian cellist and long-time friend of Putin who apparently has $2 billion stashed away in an offshore account. Excluding a select few elite musicians—Andrew Lloyd Webber, Paul McCartney and the like—whose extreme wealth can be directly linked to the success of their careers, a musician possessing such sizeable assets raises legitimate questions about the origin of their riches.

While investigating the transactions tied to Roldugin’s offshore account, Latynina found one transfer of funds that is of particular interest. The transfer was from Dagestani billionaire Suleiman Kerimov and his associated businesses to Roldugin. Twice in 2010, Roldugin’s offshore account received money from Kerimov—once for a sum of 4 billion rubles (about $132 million at the 2010 exchange rate), and a second time for $200 million. As Latynina asked rhetorically on her show, why would Kerimov, a businessman, be willing to just hand over upwards of $300 million to Roldugin at the expense of his personal wealth and his business? One possible explanation for all of this is that it was a business deal. However, when Latynina contextualized these transfers with the events of Kerimov’s life at the time, this seems less likely (Echo Moskvi, April 9).

Apparently, in 2010, Suleiman Kerimov was engaged in infighting with Mukhu Aliyev, the then-president of Dagestan. Aliyev, who initiated the dispute, sought to subjugate or destroy Kerimov, putting Kerimov in an incredibly vulnerable position. However, the tables turned rather quickly. Kerimov began saying publicly that he would replace the president of Dagestan, and he lobbied for Magomedsalam Magomedov to accede to the post. Shortly thereafter, Magomedov was made head of the republic. Both these events and the transfers of money from Kerimov to Roldugin all took place within a period of a few months (Echo Moskvi, April 9).

But why Roldugin? Roldugin has been a long-time friend of Putin. And Kerimov only transferred money to Roldugin during the period when he was politically in need. Not before. Not after. So how does a transfer of money to Roldugin buy Kerimov a favor in a time of need? Latynina notes that the relationship between power and money in Russia is at once inseparable and indirect. Therefore, she speculates, no one should believe that the $2 billion that Roldugin is in control of is entirely at his disposal. Of course, being close to Putin has financial benefits. But this money, naturally, is a supply of funds that would be available to Putin should he wish to access it.

Many Kremlin watchers have been waiting for information to come from these “Panama Papers” that directly ties Putin to cash stashed offshore. This sort of revelation is unlikely to come from the information released last week. But the information released therein has shed light on how corruption works in Russia. As Dr. Karen Dawisha, author of Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, said in a recent interview on RFE/RL, the Panama Papers have helped show exactly how the Putin regime moves state funds and other money into offshore accounts for private use (Rferl.org, April 8). The story pertaining to Kerimov’s political rivalry in Dagestan takes this one step further, possibly providing further insight into the confused, intertwined relationship of power and money in today’s Russia. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Ethnic Tensions Break out in North Caucasian Federal District Capital of Pyatigorsk

By Valery Dzutsati

A massive fist fight between Ingush students and ethnic Armenians in Stavropol region reignited the discussion about North Caucasian migrants in Russian regions. The incident took place in the city of Pyatigorsk, on February 15, but became widely known only in March. An estimated group of 70 Ingush and an unknown number of Armenian young men decided to use violence to settle their differences (Kmv.gorodskoitelegraf.ru, March 3). Interestingly, a local newspaper described the incident as a fight between “the newcomers [the Ingush] and the representatives of the local Armenian diaspora,” as if the Ingush students were not Russian citizens. After the police became involved, 22 Ingush students from the colleges in Pyatigorsk were removed from their programs and sent back home to Ingushetia (Bloknot-stavropol.ru, March 3).

While the Ingush authorities reprimanded the parents of the Ingush students for the lack of control over their children (Kmv.gorodskoitelegraf.ru, March 3), some Ingush academics defended them. Anzhela Matieva said that the Ingush young men were right to protect their dignity after the Armenians allegedly disparaged the flag of Ingushetia (Haqqin.az, March 9). Moreover, it appears that mass street fights between the Ingush and the Armenians in Stavropol region have become a regular occurrence in the past several years.


The Russian government’s strategy of trying to promote a “melting pot” solution for the North Caucasians by sending more students to the predominantly ethnic-Russian regions has been marked by scandals. In Stavropol region, especially in its southern part known as Kavminvody (acronym of Kavkazskie Mineralnye Vody), it appears that various ethnic groups clash particularly often. The latest violent episode in the region and its aftermath indicate that the various ingredients of the Russian “melting pot” may not be incorporating harmoniously; and the government clearly chooses to employ collective punishment to deal with these resulting inter-ethnic conflicts.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

After Ukraine: Russian Nationalists Return

By Richard Arnold

Russia’s Neo-Nazi racist threat has not been in the news recently, but an attack on January 17 showed that the movement is far from toothless. According to reports, a group of young people burst onto a Moscow metro train at the station Biblioteka Imeni Lenina and beat a group of migrants in their 30s and 40s from Central Asia. One man fell to the ground and was kicked and punched repeatedly. Most of the attackers fled the train at the next station, although police did manage to arrest one of the youth. The unfortunate victim of the attack was taken to the hospital (Sova-center.ru, February 5). The incident is notable not so much for its occurrence—such attacks have been common in the past—but for its occurrence now, especially in light of the Russian state’s effort to fight domestic neo-Nazi ideology.

First, although Neo-Nazi attacks had been declining slowly since 2009 (due mostly to better police enforcement), their fall became precipitous following the Kremlin’s annexation of Ukraine and championing of the rights of ethnic Russians outside the country. According to the SOVA center, there were 525 violent attacks on ethnic minorities in 2009—a number which fell to just 168 in 2015 (Sova-center.ru, February 2016). Such a decline can be attributed to the exodus of ethnic Russian neo-Nazis to fight for their brethren in the “Near Abroad” (see EDM, June 11, 2014). With the fighting in Ukraine declining from its highest levels, it is a plausible hypothesis that many neo-Nazis are returning to Russia and renewing the fight against domestic “enemies” once more. It is worth noting that this exactly parallels the official putative Russian justification for intervention in Syria—fighting Islamic State terrorists in Syria would stop them returning to Russia to continue the fight for Islamic radicalism in the North Caucasus. Of course, in the above-mentioned case on the train, the attackers were teenagers and young people rather than hardened combat veterans, although sociological studies of skinhead groups have shown that gangs of youth tend to be organized around an “old” skinhead in his mid- to late-twenties (Sergei Belikov, “Britogolvye: Vse o Skinheadakhi” [4th Ed.] Moscow, Ultrakultura, 2011). Should 2016 indeed witness an increased level of skinhead violence, there would be support for the “return” hypothesis.

Second, the January 17 attack was particularly notable for its brazenness despite the considerable efforts of the Russian state to combat racist attitudes. The metro station where the attack occurred—Biblioteka Imeni Lenina—is right in the heart of Moscow and close to the Kremlin. Such an attack is thus a symbolic refutation of the state’s campaign against neo-Nazism. Indeed, the Russian state has launched a number of legal and administrative cases against the display of racist symbols on the Internet and in public. For instance, a court opened a case under article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code (incitement of hatred on grounds of nationality) against a 19-year-old inhabitant of Kursk for posting racist videos to VKontakte (Sova-center.ru, February 12). And a bookstore in Moscow was fined 30,000 rubles ($387) for displaying bags with the official stamp of the chief of the Wehrmacht on them, in contravention of laws prohibiting the open display of Nazi symbols (Sova-center.ru, February 11). Many more such cases exist of the Russian state clamping down on the open display of racist symbols and attitudes. While the January 17 attack does not mark the outright failure of this policy to create a more tolerant society, it does indicate that, by itself, the approach will not be sufficient. This is an even more urgent task as Russia gears up to invite thousands of non-white foreigners to the country to celebrate the 2018 World Cup.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Russia’s Arctic Militarization: Words Versus Actions

By Alden Wahlstrom

Russia has no plans to militarize the Arctic. At least, that is a according to Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister charged with overseeing Russia’s defense industry. Speaking in St. Petersburg, on December 7, at the opening of the forum “Arctic: Today and the Future,” Rogozin emphasized that Russia’s rebuilding of military infrastructure in the Arctic is focused on creating the conditions necessary for Russians to live and work peacefully in the region (Kommersant, December 8, 2015). Just two days after this, however, Russia announced the opening of a major new military installation on the archipelago of Novaya Zemlya.

The Novaya Zemlya facility is home to the first full regiment of Russia’s Northern Fleet located on Russia’s Arctic islands. Previously, deployments had been limited to smaller individual units. Its primary role is to secure Russian airspace on the country’s northern borders. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, modernized S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems have been deployed to Novaya Zemlya to achieve this. These systems, which have been modified to be able to work in Arctic conditions, are capable of intercepting aircraft and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) within a 400-kilometer perimeter around the site (Mil.ru, December 9, 10, 2015; TVRain.ru, December 9, 2015). This marks a return of anti-aircraft/anti-ballistic missile capabilities to Novaya Zemlya, last present on the island in the early 1990s (Interfax, December 12, 2015).

In addition to the S-300s, the installation on Novaya Zemlya is reportedly outfitted with weapons systems to defend from both air and sea attack. The Pantsir-S1 (NATO name: SA-22 “Greyhound”) is a combination weapons system that includes short- to medium-range surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. This system is capable of engaging aircraft and missiles flying at lower altitudes and has a 20 km range, providing air defense for the area immediately surrounding the installation. Likewise, the Bastion-P Costal Defense System (NATO name: SSC-5) is capable of defending the area from surface-level ships. This system uses Oniks supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles (NATO name: SS-N-26 “Strobile”; also known as the “Yakhont” in export markets). Traveling at a speed of Mach 2.5, these missiles have a range of 120–300 km and are capable of engaging various surfaces ships, carrier battle groups, convoys and landing crafts. Beyond providing for the general defense of the installation on Novaya Zemlya, the range of the Oniks missiles allows the Russians to create a choke point, preventing the passage of ships from the Barents Sea to the Pechora Sea and onward along the Northern Sea Route.

Further evidence of Russia’s push to establish its presence in the Arctic can be seen in both the organization of the Russian military and in official doctrine. In late December 2014, Russia’s Northern Fleet left the Western Military District to form the foundation of the newly created Arctic Joint Strategic Command. Although it does not have the title of a military district, the Arctic Joint Strategic Command is functionally a fifth military district responsible for securing Russia’s entire northern border and the Arctic. This structural reorganization, which is representative of the priority that the Kremlin is placing on the Arctic, was intended to centralize responsibility for the administration of this zone within the Russian military. Prior to this, these responsibilities were spread across the Western, Central, and Eastern military districts and the Northern and Pacific Fleets (TopWar.ru, September 15, 2014). The hope is that this restructuring will allow for the more efficient and effective administration of Russia’s growing military resources in the Arctic.

This structural reorganization came in the lead-up to the Russian government’s release of its new maritime doctrine this past August (see EDM, August 11, 2015). The Kremlin’s Arctic ambitions are reflected in the document, which dedicates a whole section to the region. At a glance, establishing firm control over its northern borders and the nearby Arctic zone is important to Russia for two reasons: 1) ensuring the passage of its Northern Fleet to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and 2) safeguarding Russia’s access to the abundant oil and gas resources in the area. Russia’s new Maritime Doctrine clearly articulates both of these points. However, the doctrine also dedicates significant attention to the increase of Russian military activity in the Arctic and specifies that one of Moscow’s goals is to restrict foreign military activity in the area (Kremlin.ru, July 26, 2015). Russia’s opening of the military installation on Novaya Zemlya is a major step toward establishing the regional capabilities that will make these goals a reality.

The opening of the new Russian military installation on Novaya Zemlya is all the more notable when contextualized with Russia’s other activities in the Arctic. In conjunction with Rogozin’s aforementioned proclamation, the opening of a new S-400 site in Tiksi, Sakha Republic, was also announced (Kommersant, December 8, 2015). Furthermore, Russia has built five other military bases on its Arctic islands (New Siberian Islands, Alexandra Land, Severnaya Zemlya, Cape Schmidt, and Wrangle Island) and began construction of over 440 military infrastructure projects that were due to be completed by the end of 2015. Future projects include the construction of a major airbase that is due to be completed by 2017 (Kommersant, December 8, 2015).

As a part of a larger network of new and reopened Russian military installations in the Arctic, the base on Novaya Zemlya is the Russian military’s largest unveiling in the region thus far. The weapons systems deployed there give it firm control over the Western end of the Northern Sea Route, as it exists along Russia’s borders. Continued development in the region promises to increase Russia’s capabilities and extend this level of control across Russia’s entire expansive northern border. Russian officials, like Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin, continuously emphasize that their goal is only to maintain stability and security in the region so that life in Russia’s northernmost regions can develop peacefully and its people can prosper from the resource wealth of the area. Nevertheless, the reality remains that Russia is rapidly changing the facts on the ground in the Arctic. While Moscow claims it is not trying to militarize the High North, Russia’s rapidly expanding military presence in the Arctic increases the possibility for conflict as other countries begin to assert their interests in the region. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Signs of Coming Civil Strife in Trans-Baikal Region?

By Richard Arnold

The Trans-Baikal Region is not generally known for its contentious politics or social disharmonies. But a recent open letter from the Public Chamber of the region to the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan of Chita suggests one could be in the offing.

On December 30, the Trans-Baikal Public Chamber—an organization created in 2010 to resolve social and political problems and defend civil rights in the region—addressed a letter to the head of the city of Chita’s Orthodox Church, criticizing the suggested transfer to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) of a building now housing a museum dedicated to the 19th century “Decembrist” movement. The open letter stated that “the mere posing of the question to transfer the building to the ROC has become one of the most talked-about in the region, caused a wave of indignation, and actually promised to split the society, threatening to develop into civic strife… the pretensions of the Chita Metropolitan might become the start of a dangerous split in a territory marked by peace, stability, and unity in the Trans-Baikal region of which we are proud. We reckon that today it would be a sign of positive historical memory, a sign of respect for people-patriots of Russia, local pride in our region as a place of kindness and knowledge, for the securing of social unity and peace, to preserve the Decembrist museum in its present form” (Sova-center.ru, December 30, 2015).

The museum commemorating the Decembrists was opened in 1985 in Chita, the location of the first cooperative community they had organized in the region. The Decembrists were originally a group of liberal officers from the Russian army who were encouraged by the reforms of Tsar Alexander I to demand further change and modernization in their society. The group was made famous in the 1825 revolutionary uprising against Tsar Nicholas I, an event interpreted by some observers after the fall of Communism as proof of Russia’s democratic heritage and aptitude for democracy.

At the Christmas session of the local legislature in Chita, Metropolitan Vladimir petitioned for the transfer of the building used to house the Decembrist museum to the ROC. Deputy Roman Shcherbakov supported the transfer, as did the leader of the Zabaikalsky Cossacks, Ataman Gennadi Chupin. Similarly, the consul of the Australian branch of the Zabaikalsky Cossacks called on his followers to mobilize in defense of the church of the Archangel Michael. Activists from the regional branch of the Russian Union of Architects have opposed the conversion of the building into a church; and regional authorities recently prohibited the construction of a church on the site of a local sports stadium. Reportedly, the activists have also contested the claims of Chita’s 140-year-old Cossack organization to a building dating back some 300 years (Chita.ru, December 30). It remains to be seen how the issue will resolve itself, but the contest is a microcosm of one of the larger social debates in Russia today.

The debate over whether Russian national identity is an ethnic or civic category—the Russki/ Rossianie debate—has been in existence since the fall of the Soviet Union (Valery Tishkov, “Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Conflict After the Soviet Union: The Mind Aflame,” 1997). The Decembrists are a symbol of a liberal, civic, and inclusive sense of Russian national identity; the ROC’s attempt to impose control over sites of popular memory symbolizes a conservative, ethnic, and exclusive sense. Some analysts have claimed that this debate is behind the spate of race riots in Russian cities over the past several years, including the 2010 riots on Moscow’s Manezh Square (see EDM, March 5, 2014; Vera Tolz and Steven Hutchings, Nation, Race, and Ethnicity on Russian Television, 2015) as well as calls to establish a segregationist regime with the North Caucasus. Debates over Russian national identity—and the need to undermine the appeal of ethnic-Russian nationalists by assuming elements of their agenda—are also behind Russia’s annexation of Crimea as well as the Kremlin championing the interests of ethnic Russians in Donbas (see EDM, October 23, 2015). Therefore, if not handled tactfully by the authorities, the fate of a relatively minor museum in a remote Russian province could boil over into the kind of social conflict warned about by the Trans-Baikal public chamber.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Is the Islamic State a Threat to the Security of the Republic of Georgia?

By George Tsereteli

On November 29, authorities in Tbilisi, Georgia, arrested four people accused of being connected to the Islamic State (IS) organization. Weapons, explosive devices, IS flags, and Islamist literature on CDs and DVDs were found in the suspects’ apartments (Civil Georgia, December 1). The Georgian State Security Service announced an investigation into whether other individuals are involved in IS-related activities on Georgian soil. Interestingly, the four individuals were from the Guria region, and not from the Pankisi gorge, which has in the past been a source of Islamic extremism (Interpressnews, December 1). The suspects denied the charges against them, although two of them had allegedly appeared in a Georgian-language IS propaganda video released on November 23. In this video, they call on Georgian Muslims to join the “Islamic Caliphate” and issue threats against “Georgia’s infidels” (The Clarion Project, November 25). The video also mentions that Georgia has been fighting against Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq, conflicts in which Georgia contributed significant troop numbers to coalition military efforts. The release of the propaganda video suggests that the Islamic State’s ideology has now spread, at least in some small part, to Georgia’s capital city.

In an interview that aired on December 7, regional expert Mamuka Areshidze contended  that various organizations—which are either affiliated with the Islamic State or wish to be—are working to build an ideological base and foundation in Georgia and thereby gain influence. Those who fall under this influence are taught Salafi-jihadist ideology and are radicalized from a young age (Maestro, December 7). This is the case not only in the Pankisi gorge, but other regions such as Adjaria and Guria, where there are sizeable Muslim populations, and even in Tbilisi. Areshidze went on to explain that according to IS ideology, Georgia is located within the self-declared Caliphate’s territory; thus, when the group decides to move into the region, it will want a loyal segment of the population already in place, ready to welcome it.

However, not everyone believes that the Islamic State poses a serious threat to Georgia at this time. A few days after the November 13 attacks on Paris, the deputy head of Georgia’s State Security Service, Levan Izoria, stated that Georgia is not among the countries with a high risk of terrorist attacks, since it is not involved in the anti-IS air strikes carried out by the United States and its coalition allies (Civil Georgia, November 17). Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli echoed this sentiment when she announced that although additional safety and confidence measures would be taken, such as heightened security at airports and along the border, this would be done as a precaution and not in response to any immediate threat (Civil Georgia, November 18).

One must remember, however, that the Islamic State’s ideology and actions are not driven solely by recent or contemporary developments; indeed, the argument that Georgia falls within the so-called “Caliphate’s” territory is based on a historical precedent dating back to the ninth century. Therefore, the fact that Georgia is not involved in international coalition airstrikes against the IS in Syria and Iraq does not preclude the possibility of future terrorist attacks on Georgian soil by this extremist militant group.
Georgia is most likely not high on the current list of priority targets for the Islamic State. And yet, the above-mentioned recent arrests, the appearance of the Georgian-language propaganda video, as well as the presence of IS recruiters in the Pankisi gorge (see Jamestown Blog, June 22) indicate that a mobilization of Georgia’s defense, security and information channels may in fact be necessary.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Armenia and Serbia Pledge Military Cooperation

By Erik Davtyan

On November 24, the Defense Minister of Serbia Bratislav Gašić arrived in Yerevan for a two-day official visit. Interestingly, as the minister himself mentioned, this was the first such trip to Armenia by a Serbian minister of defense. Minister Gašić met with Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan, who stressed that “recent years’ reciprocated official visits and meetings have gone a long way toward intensifying the political dialogue between the two countries, improving the legal framework and deepening the ongoing cooperation within international organizations.” As to possible areas of defense cooperation, both officials underlined the importance of sharing their experiences in the fields of military medicine, military education and interaction within the framework of international peacekeeping forces (Gov.am, November 24).

On November 25, Minister Gašić met with his Armenian counterpart, Seyran Ohanyan. After the two delegations discussed issues of bilateral, regional and international importance, the Serbian and Armenian defense ministers signed a declaration on cooperation in the field of defense (Mil.am, November 25). According to the declaration, the bilateral defense cooperation treaty, when ultimately signed, will cover areas like defense and security policy, military-economic cooperation, peacekeeping missions, military scientific/technical cooperation, military education and training, military medicine, and so on (Razm.info, November 25).

Though this was only the first step toward establishing Serbian-Armenian military ties, the signing of the declaration opens a new chapter in Armenia’s international military cooperation. First, the treaty will embrace a wide span of areas of defense cooperation, thus contributing to the more extensive development of bilateral relations with this key Balkan country. In a wider context, Armenia will be expanding the geographic scope of its global military partnerships. To date, Armenia has regularly cooperated with Russia, Greece, the United States, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); moreover, it actively participates in a number of international peacekeeping missions.

Armenian-Serbian defense cooperation will be an impetus for further rapprochement between the two states. On November 25, the Serbian defense minister was also received by the President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan. The Armenian head of state welcomed the bilateral initiatives in the military field and said that “the Armenian people attached great importance to the presence of Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić at the events dedicated to the centennial of the Armenian Genocide [on April 24, 2015],” describing Nikolić’s gesture as “a unique display of friendship and solidarity that the Armenian nation will always remember and appreciate” (President.am, November 25).


During his visit to Yerevan, Minister Gašić also had meetings with Minister of Foreign Affairs Edward Nalbandian and His Holiness Garegin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, as well as the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly (NA) of Armenia Hermine Naghdalyan. The NA deputy speaker emphasized the development of inter-parliamentary relations, noting a necessity for greater cooperation in this sphere. In particular, she has highlighted the active cooperation of the Friendship Groups in the parliaments of the two countries (Parliament.am, November 26). It will now be up to the mid-level bureaucrats in both governments to turn these pledges and high expectations into concrete policy actions.