One-and-a-Half Cheers for new Czech centre to resist Political Warfare

mvcrOn 1 January, the Czech Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats (CPTHH) is formally opened, within the Ministry of the Interior (MVČR). With a 20-strong staff, its main focus will be to tackle disinformation and political manipulation through the media–and yes, essentially this means Russia’s current ‘political war’ on the West–and to respond openly. My snap verdict is that this is a worthy start, but the Czechs, like other European countries, need also to move beyond this fashionable but essentially reactive approach and think more strategically and perhaps also robustly about fighting this political war.

The Centre’s website has a handy and in some aspects disarming summary of what it is and is not:

  • What will the Centre do?

  • It will essentially be a specialised analytical and communications unit. Given the competencies of the Ministry of the Interior, the Centre will monitor threats directly related to internal security, which implies a broad array of threats and potential incidents relative to terrorism, soft target attacks, security aspects of migration, extremism, public gatherings, violation of public order and different crimes, but also disinformation campaigns related to internal security.

  • Based on its monitoring work, the Centre will evaluate detected challenges and come up with proposals for substantive and legislative solutions that it will also implement where possible. It will also disseminate information and spread awareness about the given issues among the general and professional public.

  • What the Centre is not and what it will not do:

  • The Centre will not be a new law enforcement agency, nor an intelligence service.

  • The Centre will not have a button for “switching off the internet”.

  • The Centre will not force the “truth” on anyone, or censor media content.

  • It will not remove content from the internet or other (printed) media.

  • It will work primarily with open sources available to all and will openly communicate with civil society, the media, and other subjects.

  • The Centre will not lock anyone up, interrogate anyone, or lead any proceedings with anyone.

  • The Centre will not spread any kind of propaganda, but only expertise relating to the field of internal security, and is modelled on similar strategic communications teams that already exist in the Baltic states or in the United Kingdom.

  • The Centre will also inform about serious cases of disinformation and will provide expert opinions for the public and for government institutions. These opinions, as those of a government institution, will be based on the constitutional order of the Czech Republic.

So far, so open and laudable. The first thing to say is that it is a very welcome move when any Western country demonstrates a willingness to recognise that there is a political campaign under way to undermine and divide Western nations and institutions, and to do something about it.

At the same time, though, there is something a little discouragingly conventional about this approach, especially if a recent story in the Guardian is right that “The specialists will scrutinise disinformation and attempt to counter it, via a dedicated Twitter account and a new section of the interior ministry website devoted to communicating the government viewpoint.” This is a much more limited mission than that implies by the first paragraph in its own self-description, and I hope it is not the main role of the Centre.

The current fad for “mythbusting” and countering “fake news” is understandable, but it frankly is often more the product of a desire to do something, or at least to be seen to do something, than the best thing. The idea that gullible consumers of Russian disinformation will be swayed from their wayward path because a government agency tweets a counter is pretty far-fetched. On the whole, the targets are unlikely to follow such a feed, much less believe it, and while there is value to letting news media know, the problem is that today’s information is too quick and voluminous. For every story spotted, evaluated and countered, ten, fifty more will have appeared. To be sure, sometimes there are lies so significant but also so possible to counter with objective data — the infamous German “Lisa Case” is the obvious example — that it is worth it. But more often this smacks rather more of the kind of metrics beloved of all bureaucracies, of being able to report this many stories checked and that many rebutted, rather than actual impact.

Beyond that, again quoting the Guardian, “The centre will also train civil servants to avoid blackmail and resist foreign lobbying.” This is an interesting angle, because it begins to speak to the element missing from the counter-disinformation angle: dealing with culture and mindsets. Civil servants need to realise that this is a potential threat, and be sensitised to recognise it, and to know how to respond. (Of course, so too do politicians, but that is — alas — not within the CPTHH’s remit!)

This same approach ought also to be taken over disinformation. Sure, have a specialist centre within the MVČR, but arguably even more useful would be task forces within the Ministry of Education, Youth & Sports and the Ministry of Culture, to train young Czechs to consume media wisely and sceptically and crack down on the purveyors of “fake news,” respectively. In some ways, the parallel is with fighting the drug problem. The MVČR’s approach is the analogue of arresting pushers: necessary, but an endless and thankless task in isolation, and the real, long-term answer is to educate and uplift potential users and break trafficking networks in order to tackle the market and the demand, not just the street-side supply.

But let me close by being provocative. The CPTHH is very clear that it is not a police or an intelligence service, won’t arrest people, won’t take content off the net. Why not? To put it another way, is there not also scope for such methods? given the tight relationship between the Kremlin’s media and intelligence assets, and the degree to which arguably its political war could prove more dangerous to the Czech Republic and other European states than any mere military threat, why is there not scope for such measures? If a radical preacher grooms a would-be terrorist to carry out an atrocity, that is rightly seen as something deserving of full-scale law-enforcement activity. If a government-funded disinformation network starts to pump dangerous lies into the information space which could undermine a government, foment civil tension, or even lead to the break up of alliances crucial to national security and prosperity, ought that not be treated with similar seriousness, even if not blood is directly shed?

This does not mean blacklisting websites because they dare cover alternative perspectives, or witch-hunting those who retweet a questionable story. It means going after those who actively and knowingly are engaged in the spread of disinformation directly harmful to national interests, as well as those other horsemen of the infocalypse: intelligence agents, those facilitating the covert spread of Russian economic penetration, etc. It also means the ČR needs to redouble its efforts generally to fight corruption — there is no point hoping to fight “Russian corruption” or even “foreign corruption”, so long as corruption remains a serious issue (which sadly it is, even if things are improving, and the recent claim that it “suffers from some of the worst corruption in the world” was a ridiculous exaggeration). One cannot depend on the patriotism of bribe-takers!

So in short, one-and-a-half cheers for the Czechs, for starting the process. In common with other Western states, though, they may want also to think more deeply as to what is the most effective way of dealing with the challenge on a deeper level, both educating the public, and also taking a more robust position with those knowingly engaged in political war.

Putin’s regional reshuffle: the rise of “men in epaulettes” or just a search for reliable cadres?

The most recent reshuffle of regional officials is at once precisely what presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov called the “usual cyclical rotation” and also an interesting snapshot into the staffing policies and priorities of today’s Kremlin.

SlonInfographic

Who’s out? The old and the dirty?

It was usual in that as with most reshuffles, one or two dismissals or retirements tend to create cascading reappointments, as people move up, down or across the system. In this case, Federal Customs Service (FTS) chief Andrei Bel’yaninov’s dismissal courtesy of a corruption probe probably triggered an overdue bout of reorganization. Mikhail Zurabov, ambassador to Ukraine, had been in place for seven years and the position really needed new blood (perhaps an unfortunate expression…), while Siberian polpred (presidential plenipotentiary) Nikolai Rogozhkin, at 64, was also due for retirement. Kirov governor Nikolai Belykh, also under investigation for corruption, was another figure hanging on by his fingertips. Given that the Kremlin had little love for this liberal businessman – the jury is still out on whether his arrest was a put-up job – he was hardly likely to survive. Finally, Sergei Yastrebov, governor of Yaroslavl region, whose future is still unclear, has certainly been the target of some gossip and allegations in the past (though who isn’t?).

On the whole, then, it is striking that those dismissals not explained by age actually appear to reflect genuine questions about their effectiveness and honesty. Belykh’s case is unclear, admittedly. This is hardly conclusive, but it does incline me further to believing that – while corruption allegations and the like remain a weapon of personal feud and state repression – there is at the same time a real, quiet campaign to redefine the social contract with the elite such that they “steal a little bit less, do their job a little bit better.”

Who’s in? The uniformed…?

Predictably, considerable attention has focused on the security service background of many of the new appointees. According to Stanislav Belkovsky “All the figures appointed today are Putin’s personal bodyguards.” Hardly.

New FTS chief Vladimir Bulavin was previously polpred to the North-Western Federal District, but he had been a Colonel General in the FSB. New acting governor of Kaliningrad region Evgenii Zinichev had been head of the region’s FSB directorate, but before that one of Putin’s bodyguards in the FSO. Dmitri Mironov, incoming governor of Yaroslavl region, had been deputy interior minister, but before than an FSB officer. Finally, new National Guard deputy commander Sergei Melikov had been a career MVD Interior Troops officer and commander of the Moscow ‘Dzerzhinskii Division’ before becoming presidential plenipotentiary to the North Caucasus. Viktor Vasil’ev, head of the Federal Service for State Registration, Cadaster and Cartography (Rosreestr), and a former KGB veteran, became the new governor of Kirov.

But it is worth questioning the quick and easy assumptions that this shows some “rise of the siloviki.” First of all, two of these positions – deputy commander of the Rosgvardiya and head of the FTS – were almost automatically going to go to candidates with a military, security or law enforcement background. So really we are talking about three siloviki in the remaining seven significant promotions.

But while the others certainly have significant current or recent time in the “organs,” Vasil’ev served in the KGB 1985-early 1990s, largely in foreign intelligence. Although there are the usual litanies that “once in the KGB, always in the KGB,” that is demonstrably not true. That over twenty years ago he was in the KGB hardly makes him “one of them” these days, so to be honest I’d exclude him from the roster. So in practice, two out of seven.

Finally not forget that two of the outgoing figures – KGB veteran Bel’yaninov and soldier and Interior Troop commander Rogozhkin – were also siloviki. Indeed, Bel’yaninov was generally considered to have a personal connection of sorts to Putin following time in St. Petersburg. Take out the career diplomat and you have two of four senior dismissals coming from a silovik background, too.

…Or just the trusted and efficient?

Of course we can point to other recent leapfrogging promotions granted to siloviki, notably from the FSO: Viktor Zolotov to head the Rosgvardiya and Alexei Dyumin to become acting governor of Tula. (Though Dyumin’s move was probably a consolation prize for failing to become head of military intelligence.) Nonetheless, it does seem that the case for a “spookification” of the government is hardly made.

Rather, I would suggest the truth is a little more nuanced. In the run-up to the Duma elections and then the 2018 presidentials, at a time of growing tension in the Moscow elite and also between Moscow and the regions, Putin is looking to renovate the regional cadres and reaffirm central control. The governors and the polpredy are crucial to this process on the political level, just as the National Guard is on a coercive one.

So he is casting about for candidates he feels he can trust, who are honest (enough), loyal (enough) and efficient (enough). In part, this means not just the uniformed services but the ones he knows personally; it is striking, for example, not just how he now turns more often to the FSO even than the FSB, proportionate to the size of the respective agencies, but also that he no longer seems to be appointing soldiers.

With the exception of new North-Western Federal District polpred Nikolai Tsukanov, around whom a reasonable cloud of scandals swirl, most of the rest do share a reputation for a degree of efficiency that elevates them from their peers. None of them could be called liberals or freethinkers, necessarily, but nor are they all close-minded Kremlin clones. Some (notably new North Caucasus polpred Oleg Belaventsev and his Siberian counterpart Sergei Menyailo) are meant to be close to Sergei Shoigu. Others (including Vasil’ev) are meant to have an almost Medvedevian belief in the importance of rule of (tough) law, and for that matter Dmitri Ovsyannikov, who moves from deputy minister for trade and industry to governor of Sevastopol, was given his big break by Medvedev. (He was presumably appointed to try and do something about the city’s economy, after all.)

Putin generally and genuinely believes his “new aristocracy” of security officers are more likely to be loyal and efficient, but I think to believe that what we are seeing “The Men in Epaulets Take Over” mistakes cause and effect. Putin is indeed looking to remont, to repair the Power Vertical and he may look first to the siloviki for the human resources he needs, but he will also look beyond. I suspect this is a man building a new regional elite, likely also with an eye to a post-2018 order, not rewarding “his boys” willy-nilly.

 

Russia under pressure: more crime, more petty

Police BadgeAccording to the MVD’s latest figures, January saw total numbers of recorded crime rise by 4.6% on last year’s (to almost 172,000) but the proportion of serious crimes fall by almost 3%. Some quick and preliminary thoughts:

The absolute level of serious crime is still up–yes, it fell as a proportion, but of a total that rose even faster–yet much less so than other crimes. These other crimes tend to be low-level instances of unpremeditated inter-personal violence and petty theft such as shoplifting. In other words, crimes which are often a pretty good indicator of underlying levels of social and economic pressure on the general population.

Last year overall, the crime rate was 8.6% up. In part, I think this reflects continued improvement in actually recording offences, cutting down on so-called “latent crime” (despite all the challenges, there is still progress), but in the main I think this is a genuine rise, even if not quite as high as that figure suggests.

So, does the January figure actually reflect an improvement? Maybe, but looking month-by-month, January tends to be a less “elastic” month anyway, perhaps because of holidays, higher levels of street policing in the main cities, etc. It’s too soon to say for certain, although it is also worth noting that there is considerable anecdotal evidence of a resurgence in petty police corruption because of the direct and indirect economic pressures on them (I talk about this a little here), which could also lead to renewed under-reporting. It will be interesting to see how the February and March figures pan out.

The risk of a gangster “Transdnestrianisation” of the Crimea

Now, does he look like a gangster to you?

Now, does he look like a gangster to you?

Just a quick note to the effect that over at Russia! magazine I have a piece looking at the allegations that de facto Crimean premier Sergei Aksenov was in the 1990s a gangster known as ‘Goblin’ in one of the two main gangs in Simferopol. I go on to consider, regardless of the truth of these allegations, the risk that an annexed or even maximally-autonomous Crimea might become a criminalised pseudo-state like the ‘Transdnestr Moldovan Republic’, just distinctly larger and more closely linked to Russia.

Will ‘Goblin’ Make Crimea a “Free Crime Zone”?

The claims that Crimean premier Sergei Aksenov was once a gangster with the underworld nickname of ‘Goblin,’ has at once been a gift to headline-writers and also a potentially alarming portent for the peninsula’s future.

Aksenov, head of the Russian Unity party, was installed as Crimea’s new premier despite his being elected to the regional parliament in 2010 with only 4% of the vote. His role appears to be the face of Russian interests in the peninsula, but he faces claims that he is also the front man for regional organized crime.

Read the rest here.

Russia’s Anticorruption Campaign: Putin hopes the KGB veterans in the Presidential Admin can turn the tide

A revised and updated version of this post is up on the Russia! website, here.

                                   

Bribe_Petersburg(1)_0Russia’s new draft Public Security Policy says that corruption ought to be considered a serious national security threat—something I’ve long argued—and also suggests that it is a growing challenge. After all,

We are seeing stable tendencies towards the merging of the interests of businesses and officials and inclusion in corruption schemes of officials and foreign businessmen.

Now, I don’t read “stable” in this passage as being a compliment, but rather meaning a continuing one, given that it is in the context of a process that is taking place, and the document admits that (more…)

Updated after Biryulevo: Is Navalny a Revolutionary? If So, Which One?

Navalny-cartoonA few days back, I wrote this note: Is he a reformer, a radical, a revolutionary? Indeed, what do these kinds of distinctions mean? A reformer wants to change and ameliorate the existing system, a revolutionary wants to change it. In that context, it seems hard–at least, if we believe his rhetoric–not to see Navalny as a revolutionary. Following this thought, and in the hope of being able to say something about the man that hasn’t already been said in the umpteen articles, profiles and posts about him, I ruminated in a trilogy of articles for Russia! magazine, about the contrasts and similarities one might be able to see between Navalny and three icons (or devils) of the ‘official’ Russian Revolution: LeninTrotsky and Bukharin. Times change, but the underlying realities of power and the human condition do not. The key issue, ultimately, will be whether his focus will be of tearing down the old order or working with elements within it to change it. After all, a revolution need not be built on an uncompromising campaign of destruction, it can be negotiated–and likewise what may seem like a revolution in its sound and fury may, as the USSR discovered, actually replace one autocracy with another…

Since, then, the events of Biryulevo, in which the murder of a Russian man by a man presumed to be from the Caucasus sparked rolling race riots in Moscow, have also given Navalny the chance to speak out on race issues. It’s long been known that under the cheery liberal demeanor there lurk some attitudes which, to be honest, are much more traditionally and recognizably Russian. Certainly his initial responses, both through re-tweets of racist messages and then tweets of his own did not bode well. On his blog,he then proceeded to blame the riots on the Kremlin above all for encouraging and allowing the influx of workers and migrants from abroad and also from the North Caucasus (and let’s remember that these are Russian citizens; it would be like a mayoral candidate for New York wanting to bar African-Americans from southern states). He then went on to advocate a popular vote on tougher visa regimes for Central Asians, admitting graciously that “not every Central Asian is trafficking heroin” (no, they are more likely to be doing the miserable jobs no one else wants), but still blaming them for drug addition, crime and disorder.

Navalny is a politician. He is also a Russian and prey to many of the same unpleasant prejudices that even otherwise enlightened and humane Russians often do. (The irony is that Putin, while undoubtedly a Russian state nationalist, actually appears–as near as we can tell–to be less of a racist than Navalny. Go figure.) I can see the potential political merits of positioning yourself as the tribune of the angry and disenfranchised Russian lumpenproletariat (and judging by the images, those mobs don’t get much more lumpen). I can also accept that there are issues of crime, alienation and even intimidation connected with living near particular concentrations of migrants. Navalny is not one to encourage pogroms, to be sure, but at the same time, by sympathizing with the rioters, by presenting the paroxysm of violence that ripped southern Moscow as the desperate cry for help by victims, then he is at the very least giving violent racists aid and comfort.

It would be just too, too easy to suggest a pseudo-Nazi salute here...

It would be just too, too cheap, glib and easy to suggest a pseudo-Nazi salute here…

I wonder if, returning to my revolutionary comparisons, this may prove to be Navalny’s equivalent of Lenin’s decision to seize power in 1917; a moment when political opportunism begets its own original sin. By seizing power in a country so unready for a proletarian movement, Lenin virtually ensured that a Stalin (or at least some kind of authoritarian modernizer) would arise, despite Bukharin’s hopes for NEP. In other words, the political compromises he made then–and to win the Civil War–actually doomed what positive potential there may have been in the Bolshevik movement. If Navalny becomes similarly seduced by the idea that he can rise to power, and do reformist good, by harnessing this embittered, angry racism, then he may well find that he cannot so easily tame these energies. Instead, they may possess him: the hungry ghosts of the Black Hundreds, of General Skobelev (the butcher of Geok-Tepe), of Pamyat, all await the summons…

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