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Struggle against fake information about events in Ukraine
Updated: 39 min 31 sec ago

Fake: Ukraine Admits Russian Gas Imports Profitable

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 20:01

Russian propagandist site Ukraina.ru declared this week that Ukraine has recognized the commercial profitability of Russian gas imports. The publication cites a television interview with the Naftogaz Ukrainian state gas company chairman Andriy Kobelev as the source for its fake claim.

Website screenshot ukraina.ru

Website screenshot pravda-tv.ru

At the center of this fake story is the Stockholm arbitration court decision regarding the “take-or-pay” gas dispute between Ukraine and Russia.  Ukraina.ru claims Kobelev called the court decision one that opens up the possibility of cooperation with Russia, a good opportunity to reduce energy costs and recognized the import of Russian gas as commercially viable for Ukraine.

Russian newspaper Vzglyad goes even further and writes that “even Kobelev agrees that purchasing half the gas the country consumes from Russia is very rational and market oriented” while the Pravda-TV website stated that “only the court could force Kyiv to buy cheap gas from Russia, otherwise Ukraine would persist overpaying Europe and deceiving its population.”

Informburo, Times.com.ua, 123ru.net, svpressa.ru, fesv.ru, Golos naroda and other Russian marginal sites also carried this fake story.

Website screenshot 5.ua

Ukraine’s 2009 gas contract with Russia negotiated by then Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Vladimir Putin was at the center of Ukraine’s Stockholm Arbitration Tribunal claim. The terms of the contract dictated that Ukraine pay Russia for gas even when Ukraine did not take delivery of the gas.

In an interview with Ukraine’s Channel 5 television station, Andriy Kobelev explained that the Stockholm Arbitration Tribunal overruled the 2009 Ukraine-Russia gas contract and ruled that instead of purchasing over 50 billion cubic meters of gas from Russia, Ukraine must purchase only 4-5, and only until the end of 2019, the year the contract expires. The court also ruled that the purchase price for Russian gas should be less than what Ukraine pays for gas it buys from Europe.

Ukraine’s annual gas needs constitute approximately 10 billion cubic meters of gas, buying half of that from Russia as per the new terms of the contract in my opinion is rational and a very market based ratio, Kobelev said. Ukraine spent three years arguing the punitive gas contract at Stockholm Arbitration Tribunal. During those three years Kyiv has purchased no Russian gas whatsoever.

Website screenshot censor.net.ua

Kobelev did not say that buying Russian gas was commercially profitable for Ukraine. What he said is that the Tribunal ruling changes the rules of the contract, reduces the amount Ukraine must purchase from 52 billion cubic meters to a minimum of 4 billion cubic meters and lowers the gas price to less than what Ukraine currently pays for gas imported from Europe. Buying half of the country’s gas requirements from Russia at these reduced prices would be commercially viable for Ukraine, Kobelev explained.

Categories: World News

Years of European horror

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 16:00

By EU vs Disinfo

Almost five years ago on 18 August 2013, a video in Russian named “Horror. Legalisation of incest in Europe” was published on YouTube.

It is a story that indeed resembles a horror movie: slowly, it tells us with a threatening voice, European countries and especially Scandinavia, are moving towards legalising incest and making even “incestophobia” punishable.

In fact, incest is prohibited in the EU countries.

Now, the video has been shared over 8 600 times on Facebook. It got a whole new life and audience for its disinforming messages, when it was posted on Facebook in November last year, and the fact that many commentators see it as a propagandistic piece doesn’t prevent others from sharing it.

The story is scraped together from screenshots of articles with headlines that actually tell the opposite of the disinformation claims – like “Icelandic app aims to prevent incest” – or video footage from police cracking down protests that have no connection whatsoever with the topic.

Delivering a warning

The video stuns viewers with twisted figures like  “38 500 children that have been taken against their will and handed over to same-sex families in Germany”. We have seen before how exactly the same disinformation message made its way to Georgia. And this is not surprising: if the Youtube video is the oldest version of the story, the message has been online for almost five years, which is more than enough for an disinformation message to put down roots. The message is clear: warning that following the path of supporting democratic values will inevitably lead to moral decay and catastrophe. And it is one of the favourites of the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign.

But if effectively debunked, attempts to use social media to disinform the public can have a much shorter life cycle. This week, the Dnipropetrovsk police department in Ukraine refuted the disinformation that a Ukrainian policeman published a Facebook profile photo with a Nazi uniform. In fact, the person has never worked in the police.

Distorting international law

The complexity of international law makes it one of the easiest sources to create pro-Kremlin disinformation. So this week Russia’s foreign minister was reported stating that Russia has not violated the Budapest Memorandum. Argumentation: Russia has neither used nor threatened to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine.

Sounds convincing? Actually, the Budapest Memorandum states that “The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the CSCE [Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe] Final Act, to respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” – which Russiaclearly has violated by annexation of Crimea.

Secondly, Russia’s president has already confirmed that Russia was ready to put its nuclear weapons into a state of combat readiness during tensions over the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea.

Legal subjectivity

Even Western outlets may end up confusing the audience with reports on Crimea. This week, a Euronews article told how the Russian army trains children in Crimea on how to plant and defuse landmines as part of army’s “recruitment drive”. The article failed to explain the background of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, or to tell that Russia supports separatists in the war in Ukraine. Though the version of the article now on the website does concede that “Crimea, seen as a geopolitical stronghold for Moscow, was annexed from Ukraine in 2014” it also described how the European Union and US were prompted to impose “sanctions against Russia over the “illegal” move.” We recall that The United Nations General Assembly Resolution clearly says that Russia’s actions in the peninsula as well as the referendum held in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea violate international law.

By EU vs Disinfo

Categories: World News

‘Comedy of Terrors’ Creating Real Problems for Moscow

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 15:56

By Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia

Armand Iannuci’s new British film, The Death of Stalin: A Comedy of Terrors, is presenting some real problems for the Russian authorities. On the one hand, banning the film will only attract more views to it online if not in theaters and make “banned in Moscow” almost as much a selling point as “banned in Boston” used to be in the US.

And on the other and more seriously particularly now, Moscow’s decision to ban this film is prompting leading Russians to ask why the Kremlin allowed the “Mathilda” film about Nicholas II to be shown but won’t allow “The Death of Stalin.”

Novaya gazeta reported that the Russian culture ministry after initially giving the green light to the showing of “The Death of Stalin” backed off after getting clear signals from Kremlin-controlled media that Russians or at least those who claim to speak for them view it as an insult to their country.

But that decision only made the situation of the authorities more untenable, Russian Orthodox and nationalist writers said. Igor Romanov of the Bereg Rus portal said that this decision, coming on the heels on one allowing the scandalous film about the love life of the last tsar, Nicholas II, was the real insult.

Allowing “Mathilda,” he said, showed that the authorities in Moscow were prepared to spit on the Russian people. Showing “The Death of Stalin” would have been yet another case of that. But by allowing the first but not the second, “the authorities chose which [insult] involved the larger consequences.”

“The decision,” he said, “was taken not on spiritual or moral bases but by a simple calculation of political consequences. For the holy tsar,” these officials appear to think, “people would pray and then go home. But for Stalin, they might decide to throw a Molotov cocktail at theaters.”

And the editors of Russkaya liniya, a prominent Orthodox and Russian nationalist site, declared that what happened this week shows that “Stalin for the Russian culture ministry is much more important than Emperor Nicholas II and the feelings of believers”.

The powers that be in Moscow may soon discover, the site suggested, that many Russians, including conservative and Orthodox ones whom the Kremlin wants to attract to its side in advance of the March 18 elections may feel very differently and remember on voting day what Moscow did now.

Meanwhile, a liberal Russian commentator, Kirill Martynov of Novaya gazeta told Echo Moskvy that this latest ban may highlight someething even more dangerous that just differences on Stalin and Nicholas II: Moscow, he suggests, is “paralyzed” by struggles in the name of public morality because it can’t offer any real actions.

By Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia

Categories: World News

Rewriting Russian history

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 15:41

Cover of New Eastern Europe

By Dagmara Moskwa, for Eurozine

Published in New Eastern Europe

A battle for the future shape of Russia’s education system is under way. Not only is the Kremlin increasing its control over what it considers the correct version of the country’s history, there are also signs of a gradual ideological turn towards promoting the glorification of Joseph Stalin.

In 2015 the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany was celebrated in grand style. During that time, a larger than usual number of Stalin monuments was erected in several cities especially in south-western parts of the country upon the proposal of the communist party.  The communists’ call came after a 2014 law passed by the Duma introduced a criminal penalty for rehabilitating Nazism and criticising Soviet activities during the Second World War. The law stipulates up to five years in prison for ‘lying about history’. Similar steps have been taken with regards to teaching history in schools.

Academic shuffle

In August 2017 Olga Vasilyeva, who is known for her close ties with the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church, was nominated as the new Russian minister of education and science. She replaced Dmitry Livanov who was considered to be a liberal-minded technocrat. This change came as no major surprise. Livanov’s dismissal from his post had been discussed in the circles close to Putin for some time. The minister had many enemies, especially after the fierce battle he led against academic plagiarism in doctoral and postdoctoral dissertations at Russian universities. Livanov also worked on reforming the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) which, in theory, was meant to improve Russian academia and science. In practice, it has led to the government taking control of RAS’s assets and operations. As a result of the reform, the Federal Agency for Scientific Organisations (FANO) was established in 2013. It is a body that is subordinate to the government that manages fixed property and other assets of all educational institutions in Russia.

Even though the RAS reform turned out to be to the government’s advantage, Putin still decided to move Livanov, making him his advisor on trade and economic relations with Ukraine. The decision was seen as the president’s concession to conservatives in the ruling elite, who believed Livanov did not put enough effort into promoting patriotism, pride and the accomplishments of the Russian state.

In academic circles, Vasilyeva is a highly regarded historian, specialising in the Orthodox Church. Her research has mostly focused on the Soviet era and specifically on relations between the communist regime and the clergy. Less known, however, is the fact that Vasilyeva graduated in music, with a focus on conducting church choirs. She began her academic career as a teacher of history and singing. Without doubt, the minister is a prolific scholar. She has published nearly 160 academic articles over a span of 30 years. Thus, the controversy around Vasilyeva’s nomination is not related to her academic accomplishments, but rather revolves around how she interprets the past.

Olga Vasilyeva. Source: kremlin.ru

Vasilyeva’s articles and lectures illustrate her open approval of the Stalin era and her appreciation for the impact – positive, in her view – that Stalin had on the development of the Orthodox Church as well as in his promotion of patriotism and pride among Russians. Not surprisingly, her nomination was received with sincere enthusiasm, on behalf of the Orthodox clergy, by Patriarch Kirill and Archimandrite Tikhon (Putin’s personal confessor). On the day of her nomination as the new education minister, Vasylieva gave an interview to Komsomolskaya Pravda, a Russian daily newspaper, in which she was reported as saying that her appointment was ‘a realisation of God’s will’. A few days later, however, she walked back from those comments, explaining that what she had said was ‘the realisation of the inevitable’. Since both expressions sound very similar in Russian (bozhestvovanye versus dolzhenstvovanye, respectively), the newly appointed minister was able blame her interviewer for misinterpretation, and accuse him of being unprofessional.

Thus, Vasylieva found a clever way to deal with an inconvenient situation. Her nomination caused quite a stir in the Russian media who started citing her earlier, approving references to Stalin and the Soviet Union. Her speeches from 2013 were published on lenta.ru, a leading online Russian-language news website, quoting her as saying: ‘Despite his shortcomings, Stalin is a public good because on the eve of the outbreak of the war he committed himself to uniting the nation; he reactivated the heroes of pre-revolutionary Russia and promoted the Russian language and culture which, in the long run, allowed Russia to win the war.

Vasilyeva is active not only academically, but also politically. Prior to her nomination, she had worked for the president’s administration thanks to her involvement in the widely discussed preparation of a project called ‘the single textbook of Russian history’.

The ‘single’ textbook

In 2013, when Putin criticized history teaching in schools – stating that various textbooks were presenting opposing points of view – it marked a new era for Russia’s education system. In response to the president’s criticism, a new, single textbook on Russian history was suggested. This new book was to be written ‘in beautiful and correct Russian … and free of any internal contradictions and ambiguities’. To achieve this aim, the president summoned a group of loyal officials and academics (among them Livanov, Aleksandr Tschubaryan of RAS, Sergey Naryshkin, the Chairman of the State Duma, and Vladimir Medinsky, the minister of culture) who quickly took on the project. It was endorsed in October 2013 and preparation of a standardized textbook of Russian history began.

The book was envisioned to promote patriotism, a sense of civic responsibility and tolerance towards other nationalities. It was meant to teach Russian youth to be proud of their country, specifically the accomplishments of the heroes of the 1812 war and the Great Patriotic War (Second World War). Thus, it was supposed to emphasize the common military effort of a nation faced with danger. It was also expected to include information about recent acquisitions by the Russian Federation: Crimea (the refrain ‘Crimea is ours’ still helps maintain Putin’s high popularity across the nation) and the port city of Sevastopol.

During the preparations, however, it was decided that there would not be a single textbook, but several books. ‘We will have a single standardized view of history and culture that should be followed when preparing all history textbooks. That does not mean, however, that there will be just one single textbook,’ Livanov told Izvestiya, a Russian daily, in August 2014. In the end, three different textbooks were approved for introduction into schools in October 2015.

One of the outcomes of the reform was a considerably shorter list of textbooks in other subjects authorized by the ministry to be used in schools. Textbooks that had formerly been quite popular among teachers (including several maths textbooks), and had been available at school libraries, disappeared from the list, deemed unpatriotic and ‘inefficient’. The reform also called for approved textbooks to be prepared every five years, rather than annually. Textbook publishers will now have a longer waiting period before they get another chance to bid for publishing new textbooks.

A single interpretation

The Prosveshcheniye publishing house now holds the largest share of the teaching materials market in Russia. As a result of the reform, in Moscow alone it increased its share from a mere 1.23 per cent in 2013 to 93.2 per cent in 2015. This phenomenal market success can be attributed to Prosveshtschenye’s owner, Arkady Rotenberg, who is a long-standing friend and former judo sparring partner of President Putin. Notoriously, companies owned by Rotenberg made huge profits during preparations for the Olympic Games in Sochi after being awarded a large number of lucrative contracts.

Prosveshcheniye operations prompt a number of questions. In May 2015, for instance, the Moscow department of education sent out a letter addressed to the directors of Moscow primary schools in which it was clearly suggested that they should purchase teaching materials and textbooks published by Prosveshcheniye. When asked, employees denied any knowledge of the letter. Similarly, in 2016 a letter signed by the publishing house’s director, Mikhail Kozhevnikov, was circulated. It stated that following the debates of the National Convention of History and Civic Education Teachers (in April 2014) it was recommended that textbooks published by Prosveshcheniye and edited by Anatoly Torkunov are the best option for history teachers. However, in the actual resolution that was prepared to summarize the decisions of the convention, Prosveshcheniye was not mentioned once.

In terms of the practical effects of the reform on the teaching of a single interpretation of history in Russian schools, the story of Vladimir Luzgin, a teacher from Perm, is instructive. It is also a warning of what can happen to those who attempt to depart from what is now being seen as the correct narrative. Luzgin posted on VKontakte, a popular Russian social media site similar to Facebook, a statement that the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had enabled Hitler to start the Second World War and that the signatories to the pact (the Soviet Union and Germany – editor’s note) had together invaded Polish territory in September 1939, thus unleashing the war. For sharing this information, he was fined 200,000 rubles (almost 3,000 euros) by a local court. The court justified its decision by ruling that Luzgin’s activities constituted an act of ‘rehabilitation of Nazism’, which, it argued, could lead to a revision of the consequences of the war, thus standing in contradiction with the decisions of the Nuremberg Tribunal. The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation upheld the verdict, dismissing the argument that Luzgin’s post was in accordance with the interpretation of history as it was presented in history textbooks from 1994–1995 – the time when Luzgin himself was learning history in school.

Another example illustrating the process of creating a single version of history and assigning this responsibility to Putin’s loyalists is the controversy over the doctoral dissertation of the current minister of culture, Vladimir Medinsky. In 2011 he defended his PhD thesis, which analysed problems of objectivity in Russian history from the 15th to the 17th century. However , five years later, in April 2016, the Russian ministry of science received a request to nullify his degree because of alleged plagiarism and citation of non-existent sources. The dissertation was re-examined in June 2017 and it was concluded that Medinsky could retain his doctorate. The case was again reopened in October after it had been recommended by the scientific council of the Higher Attesting Committee of the Ministry of Education that the minister’s academic degree should be nullified on the premise that his dissertation did not meet the necessary academic standards. However, the decisive body – the presidium of the Attesting Committee – rejected the accusation and the minister was again allowed to hold onto his doctorate. This episode attracted strong criticism within the academic community (including RAS members) who argued that academia should be independent of the government: in their view the Higher Attesting Committee should not be dependent on the Ministry of Education, but instead subordinate to the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Look who’s back

Many Russians see Stalin as the builder of the Soviet Union, the victor of the Second World War, and a commander and strategist who had extraordinary skills and amazing political intuition. Emphasising the dictator’s pragmatism makes it easier to justify his morally dubious decisions which led to mass repression and murder. Instead, it is argued, it is thanks to Stalin that Russia became a global superpower, something that many Russians feel nostalgic about today. Thus, demand for a cult of Stalin is now growing.

New monuments to Stalin are just one way to honour the dictator. In 2015, a few days before the commemoration of Victory Day, the Communist Party put forward a proposal to erect new statues of Stalin across the country. Such monuments can now be found in Lipetsk, Stavropol and Penza. Also, in 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the Yalta Conference, a monument to the Big Three (Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt) was unveiled in the city. The opening ceremony was attended by the chairman of the Duma and the president of the Russian Military-Historical Society (RMHS). In 2016, in the Pskov district a bust of Stalin was unveiled, funded by the RMHS. Upon another initiative by the same organisation, a ‘Leaders’ Alley’ was built in Moscow. There, next to the busts of various political figures from the Soviet and post-Soviet period, are those of Lenin and Stalin.

The myths associated with the Soviet Union’s victory in the Great Patriotic War are shared by many Russians who see it as the biggest accomplishment of the Soviet nation (and by the same token, the Russian nation) and are being used by the Kremlin as a foundation for an identity-building process. However, while the interpretation of history that is being now propagated by the Kremlin tends to stress military victories and technological advancements, Stalin’s repressions are conveniently forgotten. This manipulation finds fertile ground within Russian society: some research, for example, finds that many in Russia still regard Stalin as the most prominent figure in Russian history. In one survey, conducted by the Levada Centre, Stalin was ranked in first place, closely followed by Putin, Aleksandr Pushkin and Lenin.

Overall, knowledge of Stalin’s repressions and terror is rather limited in Russia. In 2012 six percent of respondents claimed to be unaware of his criminal acts, whereas by 2017 as many as 13 to 25 per cent said that the repressions ‘were a politically justified necessity’, while 36 per cent said that the aims and accomplishments of Stalin’s period justified the number of victims. There are, however, places where local authorities have opposed initiatives to unveil new monuments to Soviet leaders. In Surgut, for example, a statue of Stalin was disassembled by the municipal authorities at the request of the city’s inhabitants. The monument had been splashed with red paint several times. Such actions, undertaken either by the authorities or NGOs show the need to commemorate the victims of terror and repression is shared by part of Russian society, even though it is still a minority. It is also somewhat encouraging that the history textbook prepared by another publishing house, Drofa, which was thoroughly evaluated by experts and allowed to be published and circulated in Russia in 2015, emphasises that while Stalin is the symbol of Soviet Union’s victory in the Second World War, he was also responsible for political repressions.

Historical oversensitivity

Just like any other society, Russians want to promote an idealised version of their past rather than face inconvenient truths. It is a version that is driven by emotions and serves as guidance for social conduct and values. History textbooks are a useful tool in this regard, as it is through them that the young generation shapes its understanding of history. In Russia, so far, nothing has worked better than the myth of the Great Patriotic War which, to a large extent, was constructed on the Soviet victory over the Nazis, thus allowing the narrative that the Red Army saved Europe from complete disaster in 1945. This, in turn, has been interpreted as Russia having the moral right to decide on the fate of other nations in eastern Europe.

The immense power of suggestion wielded by the Russian authorities, as well as the appeal of the myth of the Great Patriotic War, has resulted in a lot of oversensitivity, especially in regards to statements that diminish the Soviet Union’s role in the victory over Nazism. This situation is one of the explanations for the changes that are taking place, which include the gradual revival of Stalin’s cult, punishment for those who are ‘lying about history’, and the introduction of new textbooks which present an officially accepted version of history. Such activities are undertaken with the long-term goal of forming a society that is loyal to the government, proud of its historical accomplishments and ready to defend it when needed. Before we judge, we should ask: is there any state in the world that does not want to have that?

Published 19 January 2018

Original in Polish
Translation by Agnieszka Rubka
First published in New Eastern Europe 1/2018 (January-February 2018)

Contributed by New Eastern Europe
© Dagmara Moskwa / New Eastern Europe / Eurozine

PDF / PRINT

Categories: World News

Sweden prepares itself for meddling attempts before the elections

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 15:30

Topics of the Week

The Kremlin Watch Program is looking for an intern! If you would like to contribute to our work, send us your application for a four-month internship until February 11th. No worries, you do not have to come to the Czech Republic to work with us, the internship can take place externally. You can read more information on our website.

According to reports, cyber-hackers with links to the Kremlin are expanding their political target base (espionage operations or more subversive attacks, including assaults on critical infrastructure). Importantly, their approaches are growing more sophisticated, for example involving forgeries, document and credential phishing, and ‘faketivist’ leaks of sensitive material.

Stefan Loefven, the Swedish Prime Minister, appears to be actively preparing for any attempts to meddle in the electoral process coming up in 8 months. He said that he is aware that there are “operations underway at the moment”, mentioning that Sweden counts on attacks from Russia, but also other actors.

We suggest you take a look at the position paper published by the European People’s Party group, which lays out a realistic and responsible strategy for the EU’s relations with Russia.

Czech young developers looked into countering fake news while undertaking a fake news challenge during the Fakehacks ideathon. Mindbrella, a Chrome app that allows you to verify news, was awarded first prize. Feel free to use it.

Good Old Soviet Joke

A Frenchman, a Brit, and a Russian are admiring a painting of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. The Frenchman says, “they must be French, they’re naked and they’re eating fruit.” The Englishman says, “clearly, they’re English; observe how politely the man is offering the woman the fruit.” The Russian notes, “they are Russian, of course. They have nothing to wear, nothing to eat, and they think they are in paradise.”

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE CZECH ELECTIONS

At the end of January, incumbent president Miloš Zeman is facing a tight run-off in the second round of the Czech presidential elections. He is standing against Jiří Drahoš, a former Chief of the Academy of Sciences. Their views on the geopolitical direction of the Czech Republic are diametrically opposite.

Who is Miloš Zeman?

Miloš Zeman is a Kremlin Trojan horse in the Czech Republic. He spreads the Kremlin’s narratives internationally and domestically, appears in the Russian information space as a supporter of Vladimir Putin’s regime, supports confederates, extremists and pro-Kremlin disinformers, and seeks to sabotage Czech government policy towards the Russian Federation. He continually denies Russian military presence in the separatist regions of Ukraine, considers the annexation of Crimea to be a ‘done deal’, and has troubling disrespect for serious journalism.

What is the connection between Miloš Zeman and Russia?

Zeman surrounds himself with advisers who have ties to Russian business, using their positions to obtain sensitive information (even without security clearances) and lobby for strategic contracts for Russian firms, for example in the energy sector. The Russian company Lukoil paid off a fine for Zeman’s economic aid, Mr. Nejedlý, when he illicitly sold jet fuel from strategic reserves. Nejedlý now works as the middleman between the President and Russian interests.

What is the nature of Miloš Zeman’s campaign?

According to his words, it is a “non-campaign”. Yet according to his transparent account, this “non-campaign” has received around 9 million CZK from the club Friends of Miloš Zeman, without full disclosure of how the money was collected. Between the first and second election rounds, the Czech Republic has been flooded with billboards promoting the message that ‘only Zeman can save the Czech Republic from the flood of refugees’.

What is Miloš Zeman’s relationship with the disinformation community?

Miloš Zeman is an ardent sympathizer with the disinformation websites that he considers trustworthy. His support goes hand in hand with his vocal criticism of the Czech public broadcaster Czech Television (as well as other mainstream media) which he regularly accuses of being biased. He is also notorious for his negative attitude towards journalists and media outlets that criticise him. Consequently, something like a symbiosis between the president and the disinformation community has developed in the last few years. The former serves as a source of legitimacy for the members of that community, while the latter works in support of Mr. Zeman and his re-election.

What are the topics of the disinformation campaigns before the elections?

The main subject of the disinformation campaign is the presidential candidate Jiří Drahoš who has been accused of being a collaborator of the Soviet-era State Security of Czechoslovakia, even though he has a lustration certificate, of favouring Muslim migration into the Czech Republic, and being the chosen candidate of the evil “globalized elites” and Brussels. Some disinformation websites also claim that Prof. Drahoš is coupled with Angela Merkel against the interests of the Czech nation and that if he is elected, Drahoš will push Czechs to adopt the euro and to place US troops on Czech soil.

Who is Jiří Drahoš?

Jiří Drahoš is a scientist who accepts and promotes the fact that the Czech Republic belongs to Europe and that it should be a reliable partner for NATO. He is also a candidate who seems to be dividing society the least – according to the polls from November 2018, only 15 % considered him unacceptable (unlike 45% of respondents considering Zeman unacceptable). However, he has also been widely attacked by the disinformation websites.

What is Zeman doing prior to the second round of the elections?

Most recently, for example, he met with pro-Kremlin U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. Mr. Rohrabacher has been investigated for his close connections to the Kremlin, allegedly obtaining compromising materials on Hillary Clinton from Russian oligarch Vladimir Jakunin, who is also a good friend of Miloš Zeman.

US Developments Russian cyberattacks show no signs of abating

While US lawmakers grapple with how to approach and counter the Kremlin’s influence operations, signs indicate that Russian cyberattacks are on the uptick. According to reports, cyber-hackers with links to the Kremlin are expanding their political target base (including the US Senate, as we reported last week). According to cybersecurity experts, Fancy Bear (the group responsible for the DNC hack that is now eyeing the Senate) is just one of several cyber groups with different agendas sponsored by the Russian government; while some conduct espionage operations, others undertake more subversive attacks, including assaults on critical infrastructure. Importantly, their approaches are growing more sophisticated, for example regarding forgeries, document and credential phishing, and ‘faketivist’ leaks of sensitive material.

The reported plans of attack against the Senate have provoked serious concerns on the Hill. Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) has requested a briefing from Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the steps taken and planned by the Trump administration to counter Russian cyberattacks.

“We’re not here to be the thought police”:

New FBI task force aims to expose Russian social media manipulation

Bloomberg reports that the FBI is instituting a new task force “to alert U.S. companies and the public about efforts by Russia or other nations to use disinformation and social media manipulation to interfere in upcoming elections, while being careful not to upset free speech and constitutional rights.” According to a top FBI official, who has been the first to reveal any concrete plans about the task force’s mandate, “the intention […] is to shine a light on election interference efforts while leaving it up to companies and the public to make their own decisions about what to do with disinformation, fake news or contaminated online content.”

Facebook isn’t good for democracy

After saying, post 2016-election, that it was “crazy” to suggest that Facebook influenced the outcome, Mark Zuckerberg has changed his tune amidst mounting scrutiny and criticism. The company’s founder and CEO has promised that 2018 is the year he’ll “fix” Facebook; a statement read,

“We are taking many steps to protect and improve people’s experience on the platform. In the past year, we’ve worked to destroy the business model for false news and reduce its spread, stop bad actors from meddling in elections, and bring a new level of transparency to advertising. Last week, we started prioritizing meaningful posts from friends and family in News Feed to help bring people closer together. We have more work to do and we’re heads down on getting it done.”

But critics say that Facebook is merely paying lip service to the problem, and failing to take substantive steps to learn from past mistakes and prevent similar exploitation of the platform in upcoming elections. Facebook insider Tristan Harris, who is also a former design ethicist for Google, says that “what people don’t know about […] Facebook is that polarization is built in to the business model. Polarization is profitable.”

One of Zuckerberg’s early advisers and investors, Roger McNamee, says that Facebook’s business model is good for the company’s profits, but bad for democracy: “Making you angry, making you afraid, is really good for Facebook’s business. It is not good for America. It’s not good for the users of Facebook.”

McNamee also says that Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg “treated it like a public relations problem, rather than a substantive issue for the business”, after he informed them during the 2016 Democratic primaries that Facebook content was being exploited to manipulate users’ political preferences.

Harris and McNamee, together with other critics, believe that Facebook’s newfound self-regulation efforts are insufficient to address the problem of fake news and disinformation. Instead, they are calling on Facebook to make its data available to external researchers who can identify and investigate suspicious activity before it spreads.

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative Let’s blame the victim

It was wholly unsurprising that Moscow would be the first to comment on a recently adopted law on the “re-integration of Donbas”. The main provisions of this law include: labelling the self-proclaimed and Russia-backed DNR and LNR as “temporarily occupied territories,” while qualifying the actions of Russia as “aggression against Ukraine”; granting President Petro Poroshenko the right to use military force inside Ukraine without consent from the Rada, including for reclaiming Donbass; creating a joint operative staff of the Ukraine Armed Forces to take command of all the military, police, and volunteer units in the conflict area. Most importantly, the law labels Russia as an aggressor and responsible for the temporary occupation of Donbas. Russia’s reaction? Kyiv is preparing for a war and “Kyiv has switched from sabotage of the Minsk agreements to their burial” (says the senator of the country responsible for provoking the war and arming the terrorists who constantly violate the cease-fire required by the Minsk agreement). It’s typical Kremlin style to shift the blame: calling the victim an aggressor and blaming others for its own wrongdoings.

Top of the top

As we know, RT loves to make lists. Typically, these involves the quotes by President Putin, but this time, RT decided to devote its attention to US President Donald Trump. In RT’s selection of Trump’s quotes we predictably find several that align perfectly with the Kremlin’s narratives.

“He reserved his ire for BuzzFeed and CNN, however, at his January 11, 2017 press conference, shortly after CNN promoted and BuzzFeed published the notorious “Steele dossier” making all sorts of salacious allegations about his “Russian” connections”.

“Trump continued to hammer the media outlets hostile to him, singling out the New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS and CNN in a February 17 tweet: “The FAKE NEWS media…is not my enemy, it is the enemy of American people”

“As the ‘Russian collusion’ investigations in Congress failed to reveal any actual evidence, the president’s critics seized upon his firing of FBI Director James Comey as proof he was somehow obstructing justice: “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director. Witch Hunt!”

“When will all the haters and fools out there realize that having good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing”.

Policy & Research News The European debate on disinformation

During recent talks, several EU politicians and representatives expressed wariness about the disinformation campaigns deriving from the Russian Federation and its proxies. For example, Julian King, the Commission’s security chief, stated that the disinformation campaigns “orchestrated” by the Russian government have been “extremely successful”, and presented the disinformation cases collected by the EEAS East Stratcom Team as evidence. According to King, it is clear that these disinformation campaigns are an “orchestrated strategy”.

Several MEPs, including Denmark’s Jeppe Kofod, also warned against possible attempts to meddle in the elections of the new European Parliament next year, since these efforts are becoming a new norm in Europe. Spain’s centre-right Esteban Gonzales Pons highlighted the fact that the stratcom unit is comprised of 22 people and works with a budget of €1.1 million, while Russia spends at least €1 billion a year on its state media. Several others called for more funding and personnel.

Swedish Prime Minister expects the worst

Stefan Loefven, the Swedish Prime Minister, appears to be actively preparing for any attempts to meddle in Sweden’s electoral process, coming up in 8 months. He said that he is aware that there are “operations underway at the moment”, mentioning that Sweden counts on attacks from Russia, but also other actors. As a result, Sweden has decided to establish a new agency responsible for “identifying, analysing and responding to external influence”. The budgets for Swedish intelligence and cyber-defence services will be increased and the Prime Minister plans to hold meetings with political parties in order to discuss the increase of their protection and resilience.

What is the Finnish Hybrid Threats Center doing?

That is what Reid Standish focuses on in his piece for Foreign Policy. He points out that even though the Centre for Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats has received a lot of political attention, nobody is exactly sure how the Centre will fulfil its mission. “The nature of its activities remains ambiguous, raising questions about what it brings to the table.” He concludes that, so far, the Centre functions more as an “in-house think tank”, contributing research mostly on the analytical level, and is searching for its identity beyond that. At this point, it is still too early to say whether it will be make a meaningful dent in the public debate.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion EPP Group’s Position Paper on Russia

This week’s reading suggestion is a position paper published by the European People’s Party group, which lays out a realistic and responsible strategy for the EU’s relations with Russia. It is based on five guiding principles with which we very much agree:

First, the EU must demand the implementation of the Minsk agreements as the key condition for any substantial change in its stance towards Russia. This is the only way that peace in Ukraine can be achieved. Unfortunately, there is currently no progress in Russia’s implementation of the Minsk agreements, rather the opposite.

Second, the EU should strengthen its relations with the Eastern Partnership countries and other neighbours. Specifically, there is a need to create a mechanism for information exchange between the EU and its Eastern Partners in the field of cyber-security, to balance Russia’s increasing influence in the Western Balkans and to increase aid to Ukraine.

Third, the EU must strengthen its resilience from within, be it against disinformation and propaganda, election interference, or dependence on Russian energy supplies. Initiatives such as the EEAS East StratCom Task Force can be very helpful in this regard, however, it is crucial that they receive enough funding to do their work effectively, which is currently a serious problem for the Task Force.

Fourth, it is important to find ways to de-escalate current tensions and engage in constructive dialogue with Russia. Nevertheless, the EU must stand firm on key issues.

Fifth, the pursuit of people-to-people-contacts and support of Russian civil society should not be omitted.

Take a look at the paper for more details!

Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Think-Tank, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against liberal-democratic system.

Categories: World News

Fake: Crimean Tatars to Support Putin in March Presidential Election

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 14:45

As the March presidential election grows ever nearer, Moscow’s propaganda machine is actively pushing a new theme, that new Russian citizens from the recently annexed Ukrainian Crimea, all wholeheartedly support Putin. Crimean Tatars announce their support for Vladimir Putin announced TASS, Putin is our president, declared NTV, followed by RIA Novosti  and Moskovskyi Komsomolets.

Website screenshot TASS

Website NTV

The source for this story is  Seitumer Numetullayev, the  head of the Public Council of the Crimean-Tatar People, a group that allegedly includes 20 Crimean Tatar organizations.

Numetullayev has never been a Crimean Tatar leader. Prior to the annexation of Crimea he was a member of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s Regions Party heading a regional administration in the southern Kherson province. He singlehandedly controlled much of the businesses in the region according to Ukrainian Center for Journalistic Investigations, with vast land holdings, vacation resorts and automobile businesses. After the Russian annexation of Crimea, Numetullayev moved to the occupied peninsula and entrusted his Kherson businesses to his wife Nadia. He established the Public Council of the Crimean Tatar People in 2014, the organization is completely subservient to Crimea’s occupying authorities.

Ukrainian authorities opened three criminal cases against Numetullayev in 2014 and issued an arrest warrant for him. Since then he has not left Crimea and has been particularly vocal in his declarations of support for Russia and its president.

According to the sole genuine representative body of the Crimean Tatars, the Medjlis, Numetullayev and his bogus organization have no influence or support among the Crimean Tatar people. The Medjlis is a national parliament with historic traditions in Arabic, Persian and Muslim societies. The Crimean Tatar Medjlis was organized in 1991. The new Russian masters of Crimea declared the organization extremist and banned it in 2016. Refat Chubarov, the current Medjlis chairman is banned from entering Crimea. Today the Medjlis is based in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and is recognized by Ukraine’s parliament as the representative organ of the Crimean Tatars.

Categories: World News

Upcoming US ‘Kremlin Report’ release worries Russian elites

Wed, 01/24/2018 - 18:48

By Roman Goncharenko, for DW

The US government is set to present its “Kremlin Report” to Congress detailing oligarchs’ close ties to President Vladimir Putin. Whose names will appear in the document and will its release result in new sanctions?

One week before “day zero,” political heavyweights in Russia have gone on the offensive. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a Sunday interview that the government and the president had “taken all necessary precautions.” On the same day, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed that his country’s foreign policy was supported by the Russian people and that any attempt to change that, “by putting pressure on the country’s elite,” was doomed to failure.

An election time bomb

For weeks, Russians have been wondering what exactly will appear in the so-called Kremlin Report that the US government is set to present to Congress on January 29.

When Congress passed sanctions against Washington’s adversaries Russia, Iran and North Korea in the summer of 2017, lawmakers added a built-in time bomb to those measures affecting Russia. They ordered the secretary of the treasury to deliver a detailed report to Congress no later than 180 days from the date on which the bill was passed. That deadline is approaching – whether intentional or not – in the middle of Russia’s presidential election campaign. Observers agree that Kremlin boss Vladimir Putin will, in all likelihood, be victorious in the March vote. The report takes aim at the elites that have loyally supported him.

Names, holdings and relatives

The sanctions bill was part of Washington’s response to Russian activity in Ukraine — and even more so — to Russian attempts to meddle in the 2016 US presidential election; an accusation that Moscow denies. The Kremlin Report will likely exceed everything that has so far transpired in the worsening sanctions spiral that began with the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. The report aims to put the entirety of Russia’s financial elite under the magnifying glass, meticulously listing individuals according to their wealth and proximity to the Kremlin. The criteria are formulated in broad terms. Authorities are looking at wealth, business dealings and relatives — parents, wives, children and siblings.

The Kremlin Report comes as Putin is seeking re-election for a fourth term as president

Those affected are not just oligarchs currently close to the Kremlin but also those who held sway previously. Moreover, Russian connections to top-level US businesses are also to be described in detail and the effect of possible sanctions evaluated. The report is due to be partially published, with the rest remaining classified.

Clues from the ‘Panama Papers’

A number of Russian media outlets have speculated that as many as 50 oligarchs and their relatives could be named. That would suggest as many as 300 people. Other sources have said that tens of thousands of names could appear.

Daniel Fried of the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, believes the list will not be quite that long. “This is not simply about wealthy Russians, but rather those who have ties to Putin,” he said. “Putin’s inner circle and his business dealings will be laid open in the report, and he cannot do anything to stop it from happening.” Fried previously worked at the State Department coordinating sanctions policy.

Fried’s Atlantic Council colleague Anders Aslund, an expert on the US economy, is convinced that the report will not simply provide already known names but will instead present of a number of previously unnamed oligarchs. Moreover, Aslund suggests that the report will contain two new groups. One, he says, will include those people who “keep cash for Putin,” like cellist Sergei Roldugin, a longtime friend of the president from his days in Saint Petersburg. Roldugin’s heretofore unknown billions came to light when the “Panama Papers” were published in 2016. Aslund says the other group will likely consist of the children of Putin associates, many of whom have received lavish payments and been awarded lucrative government posts. Aslund says the aim of the Kremlin Report is to divide Russia’s elites.

Roldugin (left) is a longtime friend of Putin

The end of an era?

Renowned Moscow foreign policy expert Lilia Shevtsova believes the report will sow discontent and doubt. Nevertheless, she does not foresee the oligarchs rebelling against Putin. The Kremlin Report will “end a 20-year geopolitical era” which has seen Russian elites simultaneously “integrating into the West, while at the same time railing against it,” Shevtsova said. “The model was to make money in Russia and then to spend it in the West with the help of lobbyists.” According to her, that system has become untenable and the report is the basis for a new US deterrence policy toward Russia.

Although the report does not directly call for sanctions, Fried noted, it will nonetheless make life more difficult for those touched by it. “I think the report will raise the possibility that others will be added to it in the future,” he said. “And that will lead to image problems for Western businesses and banks should they continue working with those people.”

A conundrum for Russia’s elites

Aslund points to the fact that Putin met with top managers twice last year — in September and December as opposed to one customary year-end meeting — as evidence of just how seriously Moscow takes the report. Furthermore, he says that there were many more people in attendance than is usually the case. Another indicator of the nervous demeanor of Russian elites is the skyrocketing number of Russian businessmen applying for residency permits for themselves and their families in Malta, an EU member state.

Could sanctions extend beyond oligarchs and target Russia’s arms industry?

A portion of Russia’s financial elite seems to be facing a dilemma: Namely, whether to repatriate cash back to Russia from abroad to protect it against sanctions, or to do exactly the opposite and flee to the West. Both seem to be happening at the moment, according to Russian and Western business circles.

In reality, however, it is not just Russia’s elites that will be affected by possible US sanctions. Washington is weighing the option of going after Russian arms manufacturers as well. Greece’s powerful Alpha Bank, for instance, recently announced it would cease doing business with Russian arms companies out of respect for US sanctions. Russian media outlets are reporting that the Kremlin is in the midst of creating a new state-run bank as a way to protect the country’s arms industry from sanctions. That is just one of the precautionary measures that Putin spokesman Peskov was referring to.

By Roman Goncharenko, for DW

Categories: World News

Fake: Ukrainian Military Shoot Passenger Bus in Donbas

Tue, 01/23/2018 - 20:12

Scores of Russian media reported this week that the Ukrainian military fired on a passenger bus in Donbas. The alleged shooting, they report, took place in the gray zone, the swathe of neutral territory between the Ukrainian army and the Russian backed separatists. The Ukrainian military denied any responsibility for the alleged firing, while the OSCE Special Ukrainian Monitoring Mission said the bus was not in the gray zone but beside a separatist roadblock and was fired upon by small arms from a westerly direction.

One person died as a result of the shooting, another was wounded.

Representatives of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) were quick to blame the shooting on the Ukrainian army. In an interview with the Russian propagandist Anna News DPR leader Alexander Zakharchenko declared that this shooting is a sign of worse things to come. Ukrainians don’t hesitate to shoot at civilians now, he said.

Among the media who carried this fake story are Lenta,ru, REN TV, Channel 5, Komsomolskaya Pravda, the Russian Defense Ministry television channel Zvezda, Vzglyad, Izvestia, Kommersant, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Russkaya Vesna, Donetskoye Agentstvo Novostey, Federalnoye Agentstvo Novostey, DNR 24, NewsFront, , Tsargrad, Voyennoye Obozrenie and others.

Website screenshot Ren.tv

Website screenshot donetsk.kp.ru

Website screenshot osce.org

Website screenshot slovoidilo.ua

According to the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission January 22 report from the region, accompanied by an armed DPR member at the Olenivka checkpoint, OSCE monitors recorded two bullet holes on a passenger bus. The report also states that the monitors had earlier seen the bus about 50 meters south of the checkpoint, traveling north. The report estimates that the shots came from small arms fire from a western direction.

In a video posted by a crowd-funded journalist working on the separatist side, a DPR representative says the bus was coming from Ukraine and was en-route to Donetsk. It passed the gray zone and was at the DPR customs point (3:34-3:50), he also estimates that the bullets were 5.45 or 7.62mm. These are the calibers of the two most-commonly used types of Kalashnikov rifles with a one kilometer range.

On the same video Alexander Zakharchenko points to the west as the direction from where the shooting came.  According to the war zone map, area west of the Olenivka checkpoint is controlled by the DPR.

That the shooting occurred at a DPR checkpoint and not in the gray zone as Russian media claims is confirmed by one of the men wounded in the shooting, who says he was cared for at a medical tent at the checkpoint. Several comments on a Donetsk forum by passengers on the bus in question, confirm that the bus was at the checkpoint when the shots were fired. One eyewitness writes “I don’t know who was shooting and from where. I know it was machine gun fire and it could not have traveled so far from Ukraine.”

According to Ukraine’s Anti-Terrorist Operation press office (ATO – name used by the Ukrainian government, OSCE and media for the Kyiv government’s military operation against Russian supported militants in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions) the mid-day shooting of a passenger bus at the separatist checkpoint is a cynical attempt to discredit the Ukrainian military in the eyes of the local population.

 

Categories: World News

Reviving the Propaganda State

Tue, 01/23/2018 - 16:17


How the Kremlin hijacked history to survive

By CEPA

Are Western actions to blame for the steady deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations? While the Kremlin’s view of the West has long been hostile, the spread of “color revolutions” in the early 2000s acted as a catalyst. Fearing a similar revolution at home, Putin’s “political technologists” worried that they lacked powerful stories, symbols, and the means to mobilize youth in support of the government. The Kremlin subsequently undertook a systematic effort to transform the country’s own history into a tool of the state. The retelling of Russian history — and the revival of potent anti-Western narratives — became an important component of the regime’s survival strategy. Parts of the old propaganda state were being reborn — with significant consequences for Moscow’s relations with the West.

In the first of a three-part analytical series on Russia, the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) publishes its latest brief on “Reviving the Propaganda State: How the Kremlin hijacked history to survive.” In it, author Maria Snegovaya dissects how the Kremlin reimagined Russia’s identity to support its policies both at home and abroad. It was the starting point for two of the most influential narratives in the Kremlin’s contemporary propaganda kit: the “predatory West” and the glorification of Russia’s past. Snegovaya concludes that not only is the Kremlin successfully reframing contemporary perceptions of Russia, but that its propaganda pen is not yet out of ink.

By CEPA

Categories: World News

Militarily, Baltic region is stable; but in terms of information war, it’s not, Latvian expert says

Tue, 01/23/2018 - 15:12

Andis Kudors. Photo by newsader.com

By Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia

The situation in the Baltic region militarily is “quite stable,” Andis Kudors says, not only because NATO has beefed up its defenses there but because Vladimir Putin is interested in the first instance in maintaining the status quo in Russia, something that would be threatened by an attack on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The director of the Riga Center for Research on the Politics of Eastern Europe says that at the same time, Putin is heavily engaged in an information war against the three, a war that they have not yet found a way to respond to effectively.

As far as information security is concerned, Kudors continues, the situation is “far from stable. I would even say that we here are in an asymmetrical situation.” That is because Russia is making use of “the classical methods of strategic communication” and the Baltic countries and their Western allies have not come up with an adequate response.

Moscow seeks to set one group of people in each Baltic country against another and to set the Baltic states into opposition with Europe. “In Latvia,” he says, “Russians are put in opposition to Latvians, and conservative values to liberal ones. In Lithuania, in tis sense, ‘the Polish card’ is used. And in Estonia, the strategy is similar to the one used in Latvia.”

But at the same time, the Latvian analyst says, there are important differences in Moscow’s approaches to Estonia and Latvia, reflecting differences that arise from geography and history and from Moscow’s very different approach to Latvia during the period of occupation than the one it was able to apply in Estonia.

In Riga during Soviet times, Moscow set up the headquarters of the Baltic Military District. As a result, he says, “Moscow did everything in order that it could be certain that Latvia would be genuinely Soviet. Therefore, there was greater pressure on Latvians and they were to a greater extent dragged into Soviet discourse.”

“Even in Soviet times,” Kudors continues, Estonians felt commonalties and ties with Scandinavia. This helped them oppose the occupation and preserve their identity. In Latvia, for example, it was impossible to watch foreign TV channels while in Estonia, residents along the coast, including those in Tallinn could watch Finnish television.”

“This is only one example,” he says; “but it is extremely important.”

Moreover, Kudors says, “the Russians in Tallinn had greater motivation to study Estonian because Estonians to a lesser degree spoke Russian during the Soviet occupation. In Latvia, the situation is different. The majority of Latvians speak Russian well, especially in Riga. Therefore, we still feel a strong information influence from Russia.”

Despite its efforts, “the Kremlin is not capable to remain our strategic priorities which are in the West or convert us into a buffer zone like some kind of Armenia or Belarus; but it has information instruments which do work,” just as Soviet propaganda couldn’t change the basic orientation of Western countries but could create “definite problems.”

But there is another aspect to this problem that few take note of, Kudors says. Russia’s information war forces the Baltic governments to focus on it rather than devoting their energies to resolve basic domestic problems. That too is exactly the kind of thing Moscow hopes for and then exploits.

Many in Europe are beginning to understand just how dangerous this information war is, but many do not yet take that into account in their policies. And they do not want to acknowledge just how cynical Russian policy is, committed to no principles except the spread of chaos, the Latvian analyst concludes.

By Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia

Categories: World News

Explaining Russia’s schizophrenic policy toward the United States

Tue, 01/23/2018 - 13:59

By Kimberly Marten, for PONARS Eurasia

(PONARS Policy Memo) The weaknesses and inconsistencies of Russia’s recent actions toward the United States need to be explained. President Vladimir Putin is often seen as a foreign policy wizard, leading Russia to a string of successes and heightened international influence. But Moscow’s interactions with Washington are actually puzzling.

Using information drawn from press and other publicly available sources, this memo will examine four explanations for the situation: (1) Putin’s own psychological makeup and biases; (2) the unwillingness of knowledgeable advisors to stand up to Putin; (3) infighting among Putin’s advisors; and (4) the possibility that intelligence officers in Russia are acting on their own authority, without real state coordination. These explanations are not mutually exclusive, and we lack evidence to know which might be definitive. But the exercise is useful for thinking about the future trajectory of the Putin government and its foreign policy choices, suggesting that Putin may not be the only figure who matters going forward.

The Puzzle

There are two major inconsistencies in recent Russian policy toward the United States that require explanation. First, Russia seems to have gleaned very accurate data about how to influence U.S. public opinion in the lead-up to the 2016 elections. Moscow both timed the release of damning Democratic National Committee and other doxed emails, and targeted fake advertising campaigns on Facebook, with a high degree of sophistication. Yet the Kremlin appears to have been taken completely off guard by the resulting ramp-up of U.S. sanctions against Russia in 2017. This is the case even though the new sanctions followed the same basic political pattern of the Magnitsky Act of 2012, where the president (in that earlier case, Barack Obama) was forced by large bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress to sign and enforce sanctions against Russia that he did not support. How could the Kremlin have had an astonishingly good understanding of one major aspect of U.S. electoral politics, while entirely missing the impact of Congress on foreign policy?

Second, the Kremlin tried to launch a wholescale reset of its relationship with the United States in spring 2017, presenting a detailed and comprehensive secret document to the White House whose authenticity has been confirmed by both sides. Yet simultaneously Russia continued actions around the world that challenged almost every U.S. core security interest, from its dealings with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and various arms limitation agreements to its interactions with Ukraine, Syria, North Korea, and Venezuela. How could the Kremlin believe that the administration of President Donald Trump could ignore these real challenges, when it was being investigated both by Congress and an independent prosecutor for collusion with Russia?

Explanation One: Putin Succumbed to His Own Ignorance and Biases

This is the explanation offered by the Brookings Institution’s Steven Pifer: “Putin doesn’t seem to understand that Trump’s powers are not the same as his… The checks and balances, the special prosecutor and congressional investigations have tied Trump’s hands in ways that didn’t occur to Putin.” This explanation fits Putin’s interactions with former U.S. President George W. Bush in the early 2000s, too. For example, Putin asked why Bush couldn’t just change the Constitution to allow him to run for a third term in office, and seemed genuinely to believe that Bush was personally responsible for firing Dan Rather, the private-sector CBS journalist who misreported a story about Bush’s supposed draft evasion.

Putin spent most of his pre-presidential career inside the Soviet KGB or follow-on Russian FSB. While no one is exactly sure what his work there involved, guesses include that he dealt with internal dissidents in Leningrad, collected technical information about NATO military installations while stationed in Dresden, and ferreted out tax, trade, and other financial information from businesses located in St. Petersburg when he worked there in the office of Mayor Anatoly Sobchak in the early 1990s. There is nothing to suggest that Putin has any expertise in analyzing the U.S. political system, and he may have assumed that all world leaders have the same type of power that he does.

But while this is a reasonable explanation for the outcome, it begs another question: why didn’t any of Putin’s advisors try to set him straight? There certainly is good analysis available in Russia, including from the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of USA and Canada Studies (ISKRAN), which has in the past done commissioned studies for Russian intelligence agencies and the presidential administration. The cleverness of the Kremlin’s attempts to interfere in the U.S. election campaign process indicates that high-quality information about at least some aspects of U.S. politics was obtained somewhere.

As Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center has publicly stated, though, and as other top Russian international affairs analysts have lamented more privately, the Kremlin has ignored Russian think tanks for many years. Putin is also believed to have largely sidelined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and hence its diplomatic expertise about the United States. The Kremlin may have gotten its information about U.S. public opinion from U.S. contractors. The question then becomes, why were some good sources of information ignored?

Explanation Two: Putin’s Advisors Are Afraid to Tell Him the Truth

This has been suggested by journalist Mikhail Zygar. It fits a pattern observed in dictatorships around the world, where the leader has the power to kill (or at least kill the career of) any messenger who brings bad news.

We know, for example, that this held true for Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Documents captured during the U.S. war in Iraq and interviews of Saddam’s former officials reveal that Saddam insisted that the United States would never dare invade Iraq. He also refused to give up the charade that made it appear to outside inspectors that Iraq was hiding its weapons of mass destruction because he believed this perception was a useful tool to keep his enemies afraid of him. No one contradicted Saddam too loudly because he had a pattern of arresting and executing those who displeased him. While merely disagreeing with Putin has not led to murder in Russia, the Russian president has fired and reassigned officials at will—and in Russia’s patronage system, to lose a particular job can end a long gravy train of side benefits.

If Putin is relying on narrow information channels, particular individuals may be able to sway Putin in directions that are favorable to their own interests. Without complete information, the president’s agenda can be manipulated by those around him. No one knows for sure who Putin’s most influential advisors are. Whenever one or another Russian pundit tries to analyze the status of various coalition members, other Russians immediately disagree. This leads to the next possibility.

Explanation Three: Inconsistent Foreign Policy Is the Result of Infighting in Putin’s Inner Circle

While we cannot know from the outside who influences which decisions, some of Putin’s closest colleagues might have strongly differing foreign policy preferences.

For example, Sergei Chemezov is the CEO of Rostec, the state corporation that oversees Russian defense industrial enterprises. (He lived in Putin’s building when they were in Dresden together, and probably served alongside Putin in the KGB there.) Rostec has a strong interest in the profitability of Russian arms sales, and of course Chemezov, whose approval is needed for the signing of every contract, has the opportunity to request a bit on the side for himself as well. This gives him a personal stake in favoring military solutions to international problems, like those in Ukraine and Syria—and indeed the pattern of Russian arms sales in recent years reflects a risky approach to Russia’s long-term interests. For example, as Alexander Gabuev of Carnegie Moscow has noted, Russia has chosen to sell late-generation weapons to China recently, even though China has an established pattern of replicating Russian weapons designs and then outcompeting Russia as a global supplier of them. Also, much has been made of Russia’s recent decision to sell the S-400 ballistic missile defense (BMD) system to Turkey. While this might lure Turkey further into Russia’s orbit—and the United States has expressed concern about the S-400’s interoperability with NATO systems—if U.S.-Turkish relations improve, NATO might gain an unprecedented firsthand look at the Russian BMD technology that threatens its own defenses in the Baltic and Black Sea regions. Russia seems to be selling arms to any and all takers, for the sake of selling arms.

In contrast, Igor Sechin (who worked with Putin in Sobchak’s office in the early 1990s, and is rumored to have served in the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU, in Mozambique) has somewhat different interests, despite his cordial relationship with Chemezov. Sechin is the CEO of Rosneft, Russia’s huge state-owned oil conglomerate, and his own opportunities there have been constrained by U.S. and EU sanctions. In 2014, Rosneft lost a large contract for Arctic oil exploration and development with ExxonMobil, the U.S. private oil company then headed by Rex Tillerson (currently U.S. Secretary of State). Whereas Chemezov might benefit from continuing Russian conflict with the United States and its allies, Sechin would probably like to see the sanctions lifted—and may have hoped that his friend Tillerson, whose firm was responsible for violating those sanctions in 2014, would concur.

Of course, what Chemezov and Sechin have in common (in addition to their affiliation with Putin) is their connection with Russian intelligence services, and that leads to a possible fourth explanation.

Explanation Four: Disparate Members of Russia’s Intelligence Network Are Controlling Foreign Policy, with Negative Consequences for State Interests

The Soviet Union had a long tradition of infighting across its intelligence services, and no tradition of joint analysis (unlike, for example, the U.S. Joint Intelligence Assessment). Given that Soviet intelligence agencies were renamed but not really restructured or reformed in the post-Soviet era, continuing bureaucratic conflict would be par for the course. Several additional factors might lead representatives of the Russian intelligence community to step beyond bureaucratic bounds and stake out foreign policy fiefdoms of their own.

First, in any authoritarian system—and this was certainly true of the Soviet Union as well as Russia today—the ideal norm, where intelligence organizations serve the state while staying out of politics, has never been practiced. The KGB always monitored the personal conversations and loyalty of Soviet leaders, and Yuri Andropov epitomized movement back and forth across the intelligence membrane, serving first as Soviet ambassador to Hungary, later joining and eventually heading the KGB, and finally becoming General Secretary of the Communist Party. The distinction between intelligence and political roles is even blurrier in post-Soviet Russia, where many high-ranking officials have had intelligence careers. Second, the distinction between commerce and intelligence broke down in the 1990s. Large numbers of intelligence officers were laid off under President Boris Yeltsin, and those who remained saw their salaries and benefits shrink. This led many to move to (or moonlight in) positions as security providers for private companies, without giving up their intelligence ties. Third, and directly related to this, individuals and units from the Russian intelligence services have been repeatedly implicated in large-scale business crimes of corruption and violence at home, even as they have hired active cyber criminals to engage in cyber conflict abroad on behalf of the Russian state. Intelligence, business interests, and crime extending beyond Russian borders are interwoven into complex webs, making the real interests of individuals in the Kremlin even harder to parse.

While it is difficult to tease out exactly how unconstrained intelligence representatives might be affecting Russian actions, the controversial Steele Dossier suggests one clue. (This is the report compiled by a former British intelligence officer about Russian involvement in the U.S. elections, publicly leaked by Buzzfeed.) While the document contains factual errors, reputable and high-ranking former intelligence officials like John Sipher of the CIA argue that the dossier’s basic analysis rings true, and may turn out to have value. The Dossier claims that Sergei Ivanov, who attended KGB training school with Putin and has served him in a variety of roles (including in the FSB) over the past twenty years, was responsible for the decision to “dox” (i.e., release) the Democratic National Committee and other purloined emails to WikiLeaks and DCLeaks. It also suggests that this is why he was let go from his position as Putin’s Chief of Staff in August 2016, after the maelstrom in U.S. politics that followed initial accusations of Russian responsibility for the doxing. It may be Ivanov (believed to be a hawk) more than Putin who failed to understand the realities of U.S. politics—and he may have used the active measures he learned as a KGB officer to further his own interests, in contradiction to those of the Russian state as a whole.

Implications for Understanding Russian Foreign Policy

While Putin certainly remains the ultimate “decider” on foreign policy, decision-making in Russia is more complex than is often realized. Putin may not be fully in control of the information he is receiving from his advisors, and those advisors may have their own agendas that deflect Russian policy from a consistent course.

Putin will run in the March 2018 presidential election and win. But he is aging, and enthusiasm for his rule seems to be waning, especially as the Russian economy continues to stagnate amidst high levels of corruption. Many therefore predict that this will be Putin’s last term as leader, and that jockeying for his replacement will soon intensify.

What the analysis here suggests is that Russia’s policy toward the United States will be affected by this growing power struggle. Who is up and who is down in the Kremlin will matter for Moscow’s relations with Washington—and it may be time for old-school Kremlinology, this time without the Communist Party, to emerge as the new fashion in Washington once again.

[PDF]

By Kimberly Marten, for PONARS Eurasia

Kimberly Marten is the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and the Director of the Program on U.S.-Russia Relations at Columbia’s Harriman Institute.

Categories: World News

Propaganda targets Baltic energy independence

Tue, 01/23/2018 - 06:26


By Dalia Bankauskaitė, for CEPA

On 15 December, Lithuania’s floating liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal at Klaipeda began trucking LNG to Polish, Estonian, and Lithuanian consumers. Klaipeda’s land-based, small-scale LNG terminal will transport 4,000 cubic meters of LNG (the equivalent of 2.3 million cubic meters of gas, or 27.5 GWh) to 100 trucks, which will deliver LNG overland to four companies. The deal strengthens the Baltic natural gas market and enables Klaipeda to export LNG by both land and sea.

Pro-Kremlin media in Russian and Lithuanian largely ignored the event. However, two pro-Kremlin websites—Rubaltic.ru and Sputniknews.lt–reported that “none of the Baltic [energy] initiatives (Klaipeda LNG, Estonian LNG terminals, and Latvian LNG storage) have been included on the list of EU Projects of Common Interest (PCI) to be funded from the EU budget.” PCIs are key infrastructure projects which are cross-border and link the energy systems of EU countries. They help the EU achieve affordable, secure, and sustainable energy for all citizens. Every two years the European Commission draws up a new list of PCIs to receive EU financing.

The pro-Kremlin websites saw the absence of EU funding for the Klaipeda and Tallinn LNG terminal projects as an indicator that Brussels does not support Baltic energy projects like Klaipeda that aim to lessen dependence on Russian energy.  On 5 and 12 December, Rubaltic.ru posted an article in Russian and Lithuanian titled “Europe will not give money to the Baltics for ‘divorcing’ Russia.” It stated that “the Baltic struggle for ‘energy independence’ from Russia is not interesting to Europe and Europeans will not give money to the Baltic states for this purpose.”

A Sputniknews.lt article advanced a similar narrative: that Brussels is not interested in “supporting Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn in completely replacing Russian gas with liquefied from Scandinavia and the U.S.” The article pointed to the fact that Latvia did not agree to join the trans-Baltic project. As a result, the Klaipeda and Tallinn LNG terminals failed to qualify as a “regional LNG project” under EU regulations and thus cannot receive EU financing, which would have lowered costs for Lithuania and the Baltics. This forces Lithuania to continue financing the Klaipeda LNG terminal itself. Pro-Kremlin media outlets also claimed that Latvia’s refusal to join the project made a mockery of Baltic solidarity and supports a longstanding Kremlin theme that “the Baltic states are failing states and Lithuanians will have to pay too high a price for the Klaipeda LNG terminal.”

Meanwhile, Russia also is venturing into the European LNG market: Gazprom has begun building the large-capacity Baltisky LNG terminal next to St. Petersburg. On 16 November, the fringe pro-Kremlin website in Lithuanian, Ekspertai.eu, wrote about Europe’s total dependence on Russian gas, warning that “if Gazprom implements its gas projects, Russian gas will push out the USA and Qatar, because it is cheaper.”

These narratives show that the Kremlin is carrying out a comprehensive, well-researched, pro-active disinformation campaign to manipulate the energy vulnerabilities of Lithuania and its Baltic neighbors.  The new line in this case, that pro-Kremlin media sets the Baltics against the EU, aims to create the false impression that the EU does not support the goal of energy independence for the Baltics—and that the Baltics themselves are not unified in pursuing their own energy independence.

The pro-Kremlin media attempts to do this by describing a failing Klaipeda LNG terminal and the failing Lithuanian state, raising Russia’s profile by diminishing the opponent. This is called card stacking, in which the information is correct—but it is offered and interpreted selectively to guide audiences to a conclusion that fits into the Kremlin’s longstanding narratives.

By Dalia Bankauskaitė, for CEPA

Dalia Bankauskaitė is an Adjunct Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington, D.C. She has extensive professional experience in strategic and integrated communication in public (central and local) and private sectors of Lithuania, Balkans, Ukraine and Georgia. She served as a political counsellor at the Lithuanian Embassy in Moscow and served as an Advisor to the European Affairs Committee at the Lithuanian Parliament. Ms. Bankauskaitė holds a Master’s degree from the LSE, UK and EMBA from Baltic Management Institute in Lithuania.

Categories: World News

Manipulation: US Preparing a New Revolution in Ukraine

Mon, 01/22/2018 - 19:38

On January 11 scores of pro-Kremlin media blazed with incendiary headlines such as US Threatens Ukraine with New Maidan, United States Preparing a New Revolution for Ukraine, A Third Maidan for Ukraine.  While the headlines may sound menacing, the story that follows purports to be an overview of a blog post by a senior fellow at the American think-tank the Atlantic Council Diane Francis This Time It Will Be Very, Very Different. But the retelling is very far from the truth of the original.

Website screenshot Utro.ru

Website screenshot Atlantic Council

Politnavigator, Rossiyskiy Dialog, Utro, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Lenta.ru and other pro-Kremln media reprinted this manipulated retelling of Ms. Francis’ views.

Website screenshot Lenta.ru

Website screenshot Rossiyskaya Gazeta

Diane Francis is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, she is editor at large with the National Post in Canada, a Distinguished Professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management, and author of ten books. The Atlantic Council is an independent think tank committed to Euro-Atlantic cooperation and does represent any official US policy.

Neither Rossiyskaya Gazeto nor any of the other Russian publications retell Francis’ blog faithfully. Using words such as coup, western demands, they twist her points to present a classic trope of Russian disinformation on Ukraine, that the US is calling all the shots in Ukraine and predicts an early coup d’etat there.

All revolutionary events in Ukraine will be controlled by the West, which will not repeat any of its past mistakes, writes the site Utro, implying this to be the gyst of Francis’ blog. Needless to say, there is no such thing in the original text, on the contrary, Francis writes about the West supporting Ukrainians’ aspirations to real democracy and rule of law, the word control does not appear anywhere in her text, nor does the phrase past mistakes.

Francis’ article is a warning to the current Ukrainian administration to carry out further reforms before the next elections in 2019. Ukraine has successfully built one of Europe’s largest armies, Francis writes, “developed stronger financial institutions, important Western allies and expertise, and an ‘infrastructure of governance,’ consisting of hundreds of honest parliamentarians, executives, financiers, lawyers, activists, international donors and benefactors, and political leaders.

If the Ukrainians’ fight against corruption and for the rule of law will have to take to the streets again, all of these factors will make it a completely different fight, there will be no chaos, or of a Russian invasion, because the Ukrainian army is armed to the teeth, Francis writes. And then there are those Javelin anti-tank missiles and sniper rifles that America is sending to Ukraine’s military. Not a peep about those.

Categories: World News

StopFake #167 [ENG] with Yuri Polakiwsky

Mon, 01/22/2018 - 11:55

Fakes: Crimean Tatars to support Putin in Russia’s March presidential election; Kyiv residents want Russian social media back; Ukrainian train arrives in Russia carrying grenades.

Categories: World News

What (if anything) do Facebook’s News Feed changes mean for fake news?

Mon, 01/22/2018 - 09:05

Plus: Lessons from Bolivia and Slovakia, and what’s the reach of fake news in the EU?

By Laura Hazard Owen, for Nieman Lab

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

Less is more? Facebook, as you certainly know by now, announced last week that it’s making changes to News Feed. Posts from friends and family are in; content from Pages (including publishers) is out. There are a lot of questions about what this means for publishers. There are also questions about what it means for the spread of fake news on the platform.

— “While it may cut down incidental exposure to misinformation, the changes could, in some cases, only harden filter bubbles with a steady stream of content from people with similar ideologies. Meanwhile, a retrenchment from News Feed into more walled-off Groups and communities could exacerbate exposure to misinformation.” (Charlie WarzelBuzzFeed)

— “Facebook’s head of news partnerships, Campbell Brown, also wrote to some major publishers that the changes would cause people to see less content from ‘publishers, brands, and celebrities,’ but that ‘news stories shared between friends will not be impacted,’ which could suggest that fake news might get promoted over content directly from legitimate news outlets.” (Alex KaplanMedia Matters)

— “The accounts Facebook suggests at the top of your feed won’t have necessarily gone through any sort of vetting process. This is bad news if your fake news radar is a little rusty and your aunt is prone to sharing links from questionable sources.” (Marissa Miller, Teen Vogue)

Facebook’s solution to Fake News is to publish less news unless your racist uncle shares news with you.

— Anthony De Rosa

Categories: World News

Most people in the West make two fatal mistakes about Moscow ‘media,’ Yakovenko says

Mon, 01/22/2018 - 07:36

By Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia

Most people in the West continue to make two “fatal” mistakes about the media in Putin’s Russia, Igor Yakovenko says. They assume that Russians who call themselves journalists are in fact journalists and that Russian propaganda is propaganda in the normal sense.

“Few in the West understand,” the Russian commentator writes, “what the world is dealing with in the form of the Putin regime and its information arm;” and because of that, they commit “two principled and fatal” mistakes reflecting their willingness to take the claims of Moscow’s representatives at face value.

On the one hand, Yakovenko points out, people in the West “continue to call employees of Russia media journalists, a practice that automatically converts any measures taken against them into limitations on free speech.” But these people aren’t journalists and thus should not be able to expect the respect given to real journalists.

“Not a single government media outlet in Russia and also not a single one which adopts a pro-Kremlin position, has any relationship to journalism,” and understanding that must be the basis for the adoption of an adequate response by Europe and the West more generally to what these Russians are doing.

He continues: “Not a single employee working [for Russian outlets] should be considered a journalist, and everything connected with the defense of freedom of speech has nothing to do with them.  This also relates to ‘experts’ who live in the studios of Russian talk shows” and spew hatred against the West, Ukraine, and the Russian opposition.

And on the other hand, Yakovenko says, people in the West need to recognize that “the content of the Russian media” is not propaganda. Those who call it that implicitly put it in the same rank with “political propaganda of any other direction,” including that offered elsewhere now or in the past.

But “the distinguishing feature of Putin’s information forces from such models as the communist or Nazi versions is that the propaganda of Goebbels and Suslov advanced a definitive ideology, albeit an anti-human one.” Each offered a certain “image of the future” and sought to win people over to its pursuit.

“In Putin’s Russia,” however, “there is no such ideology and no image of the future. There are not and cannot be any books entitled ‘Putinism.’ The Putin media simply destroys the foundations of all norms, moral, legal and scientific.  It simply sows hatred, lies, crudities and provocations.”

And “not having any positive program for humanity,” Yakovenko continues, “Putin and his media trade in threats and unpleasantness, using any problems in the world for efforts to destroy it, to sow hostility among people and thus allow them to continue to rule and steal in Russia.”

Unfortunately,” he concludes, “the world still doesn’t fully understand the nature of the threat it is confronted by in the form of Putinism.”  Failure to recognize another threat in the middle of the 20th century cost Europe and all humanity.

By Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia

Categories: World News

Fake news kicks into high gear in Czech presidential runoff

Mon, 01/22/2018 - 06:26

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Czech President Milos Zeman in Sochi on November 21, 2017

By Alan Crosby, for RFE/RL

In the first round of the Czech presidential election earlier this month, Jiri Drahos was variously portrayed — without substantiation — as a pedophile, a thief, and a communist collaborator.

The smears were part of a string of unfounded allegations in social media and on websites suspected of dealing in fake news.

Now that the pro-Europe challenger’s campaign in a second-round runoff against incumbent Milos Zeman, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strongest allies in central Europe, is in full swing, the disinformation gloves have come off once again.

Within days of the start of the runoff, which will culminate in balloting on January 27-28, pro-Zeman websites and social media were sending out messages and publishing ads accusing the 68-year-old scientist of seeking to open the country’s borders to immigrants, playing on local fears of a possible influx of Muslim extremists.

“The deciding factor [in the second round] is expected to be the intensive disinformation campaign directed against Professor Drahos,” says Jakub Janda, deputy director of the European Values think tank in Prague.

Czech presidential candidate Jiri Drahos has makeup applied ahead of a debate in Prague on December 12

“We’ve already seen a growing number of attacks related to migration and his personal affairs, which is likely to intensify,” Janda adds.

Much of the focus has been on about 30 or so pro-Russian websites that have published a raft of conspiracy theories, slanderous articles, and anti-Western rhetoric against the United States as well as NATO and the European Union, both of which count the Czech Republic among their members.

Meanwhile, the sites consistently praise Zeman, who opposes immigration and is seen as pro-Russian.

Zeman won the first round on January 12-13 with 38.6 percent of the vote, compared to Drahos’s 26.6 percent second-place showing.

“I was expecting this type of lies and disinformation, common slander,” Drahos said in response to a wave of ads on January 18 that called him a “welcomer” in reference to wanting to increase immigration.

Drahos has repeatedly said during the campaign that he opposes quotas set by the European Union that would force member states to share asylum seekers, though he would accept a limited number if they met certain criteria.

Zeman, 73, has courted controversy since being elected four years ago by voicing antimigrant views, denigrating Muslims, and warming up to Putin at a time when Russia is unilaterally redrawing European borders and many in the West accuse Moscow of meddling in Western elections.

He once called the 2015 migrant crisis “an organized invasion” of Europe and has said that Muslims are “impossible to integrate.”

During the campaign before the first round of voting, attacks against Drahos from sites such as aeronet.cz questioned his character, accusing him of collaborating with the StB, the communist-era secret police, even though he had been given a clean lustration by Czech authorities affirming that he never worked with the police.

For his part Drahos, a political novice who has railed against Zeman’s “unacceptable stance” toward Moscow, says he long expected more of the same before voters head back to the ballot box because “Russia is interested in our elections.”

“My adversaries are hoping that if they ram down people’s throats [the false accusations] that I was an StB collaborator or a pedophile, it will stick with some voters,” Drahos says.

Jakub Janda

“I know Milos Zeman is coming with blows below the belt,” the soft-spoken chemistry professor adds.

Analysts have been warning for the past year about meddling, mainly Russian-backed, in the Czech election after suspected similar campaigns in votes in the United States, the Netherlands, France, and Germany.

Moscow has long sought to hold sway in the Central European country and intensified its Czech efforts after the outbreak of violence in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists sparked a backlash, according to the Czech Security Information Service.

Zeman’s pro-Kremlin comments and ties between Moscow and some of his senior aides have raised fears even further that Russia is making inroads with its influence.

Martin Nejedly, the president’s chief economic adviser, worked in Moscow and subsequently headed a subsidiary of Russian oil firm LUKoil until 2015, when it collapsed. The bankruptcy left the Czech state with a liability of more than $1 million, which LUKoil reportedly covered after Zeman warned that it could cost Nejedly his job at Prague castle.

Neither Nejedly nor another senior Zeman aide, Vratislav Mynar, has received full security clearance from Czech officials, reportedly in part over possible ties to Russia.

In response to disinformation fears, the Czechs set up the Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats (CTHT) last year. A unit inside the Interior Ministry, its agents look to combat terrorism and radicalization.

Several websites dedicated to rooting out fake news, such as popravde.cz, manipulatori.cz, and the VolbyDezinformace Facebook page, have also been set up to knock down erroneous reports.

But Josef Slerk, head of the Independent Journalism Foundation in Prague, warns that by the time fake news has been refuted, it may be too late.

“The biggest danger of fake news is the so-called ‘sleeper effect.’ From the beginning, we know it was from an untrustworthy source, but in a few weeks we will forget it and we will just say next time that we’ve heard it somewhere,” he said.

The attacks haven’t always flowed one way.

Zeman, who has the backing of the unreformed Communists and the far-right anti-EU and anti-NATO SPD party, has complained about allegations he is in ill health and will be unable to fulfill another four-year term.

The claims have been strongly rejected by the presidential office and Zeman’s own physician.

There have also been reports that some social media websites were spreading a hoax to Zeman’s voters that they did not have to vote since the incumbent president automatically advanced to the second round.

Some analysts are also skeptical about how much influence Moscow can really have on Czech voters.

Mark Galeotti, senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, says that while he believes the Kremlin clearly has a “favored candidate,” Zeman doesn’t need help mobilizing his base.

“Zeman is able to do that himself quite well,” according to Galeotti.

“At other times it [Russian disinformation] is quite good for mystifying, creating that situation where you have no idea what the truth is. But again, this is a situation where most people have had a chance to make up their mind about Zeman,” Galeotti told the Financial Times.

By Alan Crosby, for RFE/RL

Alan Crosby is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL.

Correction: This story has been amended to fix the date of the runoff to January 26-27.

Categories: World News

Russians so overwhelmingly apolitical that poll numbers are meaningless, Kagarlitsky says

Mon, 01/22/2018 - 00:14

By Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia

Given that 90 percent of Russian society is “apolitical,” Moscow commentator Boris Kagarlitsky says, “it is impossible” to say how much support Vladimir Putin or anyone else has. Indeed, asking that question under Russian conditions now is completely inappropriate.

This comment from the director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements came in response to a question posed by Kazan’s Business Gazeta to a number of Russian and Tatar analysts as to how much support Putin really has in Russia and in Tatarstan.

Talking about the support Putin has “would be possible if there were other politicians in the country or in general if there were politics.” But “as there is no political life or political competition and as strictly speaking, alternatives to society aren’t offered or are in fact banned, then the level of support [Putin has] is impossible to assess.”

Others surveyed and their reactions include:

  • Mikhail Delyagin, head of the Moscow Institute of Problems of Globalization, says that “support and attitudes toward a candidate are completely different things.”  Many who are very critical of Putin are still inclined to support him. Thus, he has support but not necessarily approval. Putin has mastered “the art of appearing to be the lesser evil.”
  • Maksim Kalashnikov, a Moscow commentator, says that post-Soviet people “vote for whoever is ruling” and they are especially likely to do so if their rulers as Putin have done create the impression that there are no alternatives.  The incumbent president will get “more than half” of the votes without any effort. Boosting his figures to 70 percent will require playing games.
  • Aleksey Mukhin, the head of the Moscow Center for Political Technology, says Putin’s support is “on the order of 80 percent” but that the authorities won’t be able to carry out the elections with scandals of one kind or another. The opposition “and other forces” have the capacity to ensure that things won’t go smoothly.
  • Iskander Yasaveyev of the Higher School of Economics says that since Aleksey Navalny has not been allowed to be a candidate, the vote has no drama and participation will be much lower than many expect.  As a result, the Kremlin will do whatever it has to in order to ensure  that participation “on paper” is what it wants.
  • Fedor Krasheninnikov , a Yekaterinburg political analyst, says that apathy among Russians  is “very great” and that makes the likelihood of Putin getting “a firm 55 to 60 percent” of those who will vote somewhat impressive.
  • Rafik Mukhametshin, the rector of the Bulgar Islamic Academy, says that the people of Tatarstan will support Putin at roughly the same level as voters in the country as a whole, 70 to 80 percent.
  • Rkail Zaydulla, a Tatar dramatist, says that given what Moscow has done to Tatarstan in the past year, support for Putin should be “much lower.”  But “under our conditions, that won’t be the case.”
  • Azgar Shakirov, a Tatar actor, says that no one in Tatarstan will speak against Putin “because it is well known that he will win.  “I think that more than 50 percent of the population will vote for the current president,” if votes are counted accurately.   But the re-election of Putin “will not lead to any changes.”
  • Fauziya Bayramova, a Tatar nationalist, says that Putin has all the administrative resources he could want but “the dissatisfaction of the people is very great.” He’s been in power for a long time without serious progress at home and with policies that have made Russia an outcast in the world at large.
  • Renat Ibragimov, a Tatar singer, says that Putin could easily boost his support to “more than 70 percent” if he were to come out in support of changes in the law such as the introduction of progressive taxation.
  • Marat Bikmullin, head of Kazan’s Information Systems group, says that Putin has more than 50 percent support but that most of it comes from those with low levels of education, low incomes, and a propensity to watch Moscow television all the time.
  • Ildar Bayazitov, head of the Yardem Foundation, says that despite what has happened in the last year, “the support for Putin in Tatarstan will be higher than in Russia as a whole,” possibly about 80 percent in the republic and only just over 60 percent in Russia as a whole. “The national republics always give [incumbents] more support.
  • Rafik Abdrakhmanov, co-owner of the Tugan Avylym company, says that in his view, “the rating of Vladimir Putin has fallen” because of what the Kremlin leader has done to Kazan. He suggests Putin will get about 60 percent of the vote and that the elections will be marred by falsifications and protests.

By Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia

Categories: World News

Antisemitism and pro-Kremlin propaganda

Sat, 01/20/2018 - 14:37

By EU vs Disinfo

“Most people know about, but few are willing to condemn, the strict taboo in the media, of criticizing Jews as a group, using that term. One cannot even criticize a small subsection of Jews, a miniscule percentage of the Jewish population, even when they richly deserve it”.

This, and a whole series of similarly anti-Semitic statements, was part of an editorial published on Monday in Moscow by the pro-Kremlin English language outlet, Russia Insider. The article, which ran under the headline “It’s Time to Drop the Jew Taboo,” attracted a wave of negative attention among observers of Russian media. How does it inscribe itself in the wider pro-Kremlin propaganda picture?

What is Russia Insider?

Russia Insider is a private, Moscow-based English language online media outlet, in which Western authors and commentators appear with criticism of Western governments and praise of the Kremlin. It presents itself as crowd-funded and run by a group of Western expats living in Russia who share a wish to make the Russian perspective on different issues available to audiences outside Russia. The author of the anti-Semitic piece is the outlet’s editor-in-chief, an American based in Moscow who appears as a commentator on RT (Russia Today). In a leak analysed by academic Anton Shekhovtsov, author of the book Russia and the Western Far Right, it is claimed that the outlet could be sponsored by the Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, who holds strongly nationalist views, allegedly sponsors rebels in Eastern Ukraine, and owns Russia’s largest nationalist media outlet, Tsargrad TV.

The Church and anti-Semitism in Russia

The Russian Orthodox Church is considered by many a strong source of nationalist sentiment in modern Russia; observers have seen the Church as central in building up an anti-Semitic narrative around the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution and the upcoming 100th anniversary of the execution of Russia’s last Imperial family. But also leading Russian politicians have publicly expressed anti-Semitic views. Former talk show host, now Duma Deputy Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy, was on the record with anti-Semitic statements a year ago. Similarly, news host and Secretary of the Russian Civic Chamber, Valery Fadeev, voiced anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, targeting French President Emmanuel Macron and his election campaign.

Endorsed by RT

Even if the anti-Semitic component in the propaganda is not initiated from the top of Russian authorities, but rather has its roots in some religious and other nationalist conservative circles, it is clearly tolerated by a government that normally does not shy away from trying to control the country’s information environment. Similarly, the systematic endorsement of the editor of an anti-Semitic outlet on the government’s international channel, RT, suggests that there is hardly more than an arm’s length between the two.

By EU vs Disinfo

Categories: World News

NDI Poll: 30% of Respondents Believe Russian Propaganda Exists in Georgia

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 18:59

By Tabula

The National Democratic Institute (NDI) released the results of their most recent public opinion survey in Georgia regarding major issues surrounding the country, its foreign policies, efficiency of the government’s work, and political propaganda.

The fieldwork for the survey was carried out from November 29th to December 19th, 2017 throughout the regions of Georgia, excluding the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. 2,298 face-to-face interviews were conducted based on a sampling selection. The NDI survey was conducted by CRRC-Georgia. The average margin of error is +/- 1.9%.

According to the NDI survey, 30% of respondents believe that political propaganda is common in Georgia. 53% disagreed and 17% did not answer the question.

To the question about Russian/US/EU propaganda, the results were:

29% believe that propaganda promoting the European Union exists in the country, 45% disagreed with this opinion, and 26% did not answer the question.

28% believe that there is propaganda coming from the United States. 44% did not agree with the opinion and 28% did not answer the question.

Respondents were given the definition of propaganda as “an attempt to spread information especially of a biased or misleading nature, to promote a positive image of a specific country, justify its actions and create a negative image of the opposing countries.”

Out of the 30% who believe that Russian propaganda exists in Georgia, 53% say it is spread through Georgian TV channels, and 32% believes Russian propaganda is promoted by political parties. 28% name the Internet and social media as a weapon for spreading Russian propaganda, 12% blame society, and 11% think foreign TV channels spread the misleading and biased information.

Out of the 29% of interviewed respondents who believe that there is a propaganda from the European Union, 66% thinks it is spread via Georgian TV channels, 31% thinks propaganda reaches society through the Internet and social media. 23% of respondents believe political parties bring propaganda to the public, 11% blame society, and 8% claims foreign TV Channels are responsible for spreading propaganda.

Out of the 28% who believe that US propaganda is heavily present in Georgia, 66% say that it is spread through Georgian TV channels, 32% believe information comes from the Internet and social media, 26% from political parties, 10% from society, and 9% think propaganda is spread through foreign TV channels.

By Tabula

Categories: World News