Russia, Explained

The future of mass protests – Science freedoms curtailed – Endangered Baikal 

Russia, Explained
Photo: Victoria Odissonova / "Novaya Gazeta"

This Week’s Highlights

As Russians flooded the streets over the weekend in solidarity with Navalny, we explain what this watershed moment means for Russia’s future; the Russian parliament takes away more creative freedoms from the country’s already dwindling number of scientists; plus, officials are fast tracking the development of the pristine land around Lake Baikal in another assault on Russia’s unique nature reserves.

**Want to get the full story? Click the links below for full-length articles in Russian. **

Mass Protests for Navalny, Explained

The scale of pro-democracy protests in Russia over last weekend surprised even the Kremlin. Thousands of Russians united on January 23rd in opposition to the arrest of Alexei Navalny. At least 3,500 protesters ended up arrested — a record, at least among recent years' protests. This week our politics columnist helps us make sense of what this weekend means for Russia and the country's future.

KREMLIN MAKES BET ON POLICE BRUTALITY. One trend is certain — increasing use of brutal force against peaceful rallies. In Moscow alone, riot police detained at least 1,200 people. In both Moscow and St. Petersburg, they also manhandled and beat numerous journalists. A policeman hit Novaya Gazeta's correspondent Liza Kirpanova over the head with a truncheon. Another broke our photojournalist Victoria Odissonova's camera lens.

Illustration by Petr Sarukhanov / "Novaya Gazeta"
Illustration by Petr Sarukhanov / "Novaya Gazeta"

REGIONS JOIN THE PROTESTS IN A BIG WAY. Saturday's protest marked the first time people took to the streets not only in Moscow and other largest cities, but also in smaller towns and regions, points out our political editor Kirill Martynov. When people in Moscow are up in arms, people in the regions generally stay home and vice versa. But over the weekend, people took to the streets all across Russia. People came out not just to support Navalny but to protest the lack of free elections and an independent court system.

EXPECT 'THE BELARUSIAN SCENARIO. ' Martynov warns of the further increase of state brutality against dissenting voices in the following months. This is similar to the strategy that Belarusian dictator Aliaksander Lukashenka uses against the ongoing pro-democracy uprising in his country. Navalny's arrest and sham trial in the Khimki police station have left his supporters with no option but to take it to the streets. Meanwhile, Russian security officials have nowhere to go but the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague, Martynov argues. This standoff will only lead to more persecution of dissidents by the state and more mass protests by the opposition.

RUSSIAN TIKTOKERS TO THE STREETS. Now the TikTok generation is growing up and making their voices heard. The popular social media platform Tik Tok has become a refuge for young Russians critical of the government, even as the Kremlin cracks down on other social media platforms. Russia has the 5th largest number of Tik Tok users in the world.

"One noteworthy fact from Saturday is that protests are no longer led by the same small group of opposition leaders who were most visible in the early 200s and 2010s," Martynov writes. "Generations change. Hundreds of thousands of young people have grown up in a version of Russia without fundamental rights and freedoms. Their numbers will only grow as today's Tik Tok users mature." 

Photo: Yuriy Kozyrev / "Novaya Gazeta"
Photo: Yuriy Kozyrev / "Novaya Gazeta"

**THE SIZE OF THE PROTESTS IS STILL FAR FROM MAKING A REAL CHANGE. ** The official goal of the mass protests was to facilitate Navalny's release. But it's still extremely unlikely to happen anytime soon, Martynov warns.

"To gain freedom for a politician, it's likely that we'd need around 60 million people to take to the streets, or the same number of people who read Navalny's anti-corruption investigations," Martynov argues. "Still, the protests have succeeded in showing the Kremlin just how many people care about Navalny's fate." 

BACKSTORY. The Kremlin has been tightening its grip on dissent, and its treatment of Navalny is no exception. After being poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok in August and evacuated to Germany for medical care, Navalny boarded a flight to Russia in early January. He was immediately arrested upon landing at the airport. Many debated whether it was a good idea for Navalny to return home and put his life at risk. The massive response, however, shows that his return may have been a catalyst for political change.

**Read Kirrill Martynov’s analysis of Saturday’s protests here. **

Russian Scientists Penalized for Foreign Links

Russia's lower house of parliament passed changes to the country's education laws, making it even harder for scientists to do their work. This week our correspondent Daria Kozlova breaks down what those amendments actually do and how exactly they make Russian intellectual and academic isolation worse.

EXPANDING GOVERNMENT CONTROL OF EDUCATION. The amendments will put significant curbs on the ability of scientists to cooperate with their colleagues from overseas. Educational organizations will have to coordinate with the Ministry of Education and Science to obtain approval for any work with foreign scientists or enter any international agreements. The bill would also allow the government to exert control over educational activities, broadly defined in the bill. It has passed the first reading in parliament and will be reviewed again, probably sometime in February. These initiatives resonate with the recent significant expansion of Russian ''foreign agent'' laws designed to stifle local civil society and independent journalism.

EVEN YOUTUBE TUTORIALS COULD END UP GETTING LICENSED. The expanding oversight may affect anything considered 'supplemental education.' This includes language courses, popular science sources, or even online tutorials. Now everything connected with educational activities outside of the walls of academic institutions or schools might need a state sanction. Lawmakers haven't specified the control mechanism yet, but it will most likely include licensing.

Illustration by Petr Sarukhanov / "Novaya Gazeta"
Illustration by Petr Sarukhanov / "Novaya Gazeta"

OFFICIAL REASONING IS OBSCURE. Kremlin-controlled lawmakers say they want to address the lack of regulation in Russia'sRussia's education system and counter the spread of foreign-funded ''anti-Russian propaganda.'' But this all seems more than a little hyperbolic. Senator Andrei Klimov told us that the changes are necessary because some 'totalitarian sects could easily teach children to cut off the heads of anyone who disagrees with them and claim that it is an educational activity.' No one knows where this outlandish hypothetical example came from.

THE VAST MAJORITY OF SCIENTISTS AND EDUCATORS OPPOSE THIS. After the first reading of the bill, opponents launched several online petitions demanding that lawmakers withdraw the changes. The most popular one is created by a prominent Russian astrophysicist Sergei Popov. Over 300,000 people signed it. Hundreds of scientists and educators oppose the bill, as does the entire Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences and many Russian lawmakers, too.

'WE HAVE GONE THROUGH THIS MANY TIMES BEFORE. First, a vague rule is introduced along with a note saying that people with two extra pieces of paper will be exempt from the rules. Then people are repressed for failing to obtain these two pieces of paper,' argues Mikhail Gelfand, a doctor of biological sciences and one of the signatories of the petition.

OVERREGULATE TO DEATH. Popov's petition warns of numerous new bureaucratic requirements included in the amendments, including the need for licensing and agreements on each lecture's contents. This will lead to many academic projects disappearing, the petition argues. 'Neither the amendments nor the explanatory note attached to them contains a word about the intention to support educational activities. The only thing that is mentioned is the intention to regulate. Russian authorities should stop regulating our education any further. All reasonable restrictions have been already in place applied.'

WHY KREMLIN IS OBSESSED WITH CONTROLLING SCIENTISTS SO MUCH. The Covid pandemic facilitated the rising curiosity of Russians about science. There's an explosion in the number of popular science bloggers and online educational initiatives. All this stimulates critical thinking — something that the current ruling elites in Russia do not welcome. According to a popular scientist Alexander Panchin, Russia's burgeoning pro-education movement highlights the value of skepticism and rationalism, the desire to think independently. This runs counter to Russian political elites' agenda that use conspiracies and 'external enemy' mythology to manipulate society. The more people think that facts and research should support statements, the less they will listen to populist rhetoric, Panchin warns.

Mikhail Gelfand. Photo: Vlad Dokshin / "Novaya Gazeta"
Mikhail Gelfand. Photo: Vlad Dokshin / "Novaya Gazeta"

BIDEN FEARS ALSO AT PLAY. New science restrictions' restrictions' quite logically supplement other new laws aimed at limiting Russian international cooperation. The United States' presidential elections also exacerbate Russian lawmakers' desire to limit people's communication with foreigners,'' political scientist Yekaterina Schulmann tells us. She connects the new draft law to the departure of the Trump administration. According to Schulmann, the Russian authorities may believe that the Democratic Biden administration is more inclined to interfere in Russian internal affairs.

BACKSTORY. Scientists are an easy target for Russia’s security services, the FSB. They often travel abroad for work, have access to state secrets, and frequently receive grants from Russia. Most of the cases brought by the FSB are against older scientists with extensive experience. That's because they are more likely to have traveled worldwide and to have a network of contacts in the international community, making them the perfect prey. The FSB, which needs to justify its existence with high-profile arrests, sees treason in every communication that a scientist has abroad. Investigations into scientists and their alleged criminal activity also completely lack transparency.

**Read our full report on the crackdown on Russian scientists here. **

Oligarchs vs Russian Environment

Amid Russia’s worsening environmental degradation, the Russian government is determined to develop nature reserves surrounding UNESCO-protected Lake Baikal. The push is fueled by Russian oligarchs and developers eyeing fancy land profits. Shortly before the New Year, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin gave the green light for development projects on some untouched lands there. That means the already ongoing development of the lake’s shores (we reported about it last year) will be kicked up a few notches and bring environmental ruin to one of the world’s most unique ecosystems. Our columnist Alexey Tarasov reports this week.

WHAT HAS JUST HAPPENED. T he authorities nullified the official list of activities that were prohibited on Lake Baikal, in addition to hundreds of other environmental regulations. Then they replaced the old list with a new one. But the problem is that new regulations are put together with the input of the developers hungry for Baikal opportunities. The government hasn’t asked any independent scientists or environmentalists for any input.

OLIGARCHS LOBBY TO SCRAP THE WATER LEVEL REGULATIONS. AND THEY ARE SUCCEEDING. The new set of regulations substantially expanded the amplitude between the maximum and minimum permitted water levels for Lake Baikal. This is an old fight between Russian oligarchs and Baikal eco-activists over how companies are allowed to drain the lake and then artificially raise the water levels back up. Entire industries in the area depend on the artificial manipulation of the water levels, from companies profiting off hydroelectricity to fisheries and tourism. But the maneuvers are severely damaging local ecosystems, activists warn.

Photo: Alexey Nikiforov
Photo: Alexey Nikiforov

UNESCO IS THE ONLY HOPE TO SAVE BAIKAL NOW. A Russian environmentalist Evgeny Simonov of ‘Rivers without Borders’, teamed up with Greenpeace to appeal to UNESCO. Many other experts signed it, arguing that the legal protection of Lake Baikal, a World Heritage Site, has been seriously weakened as a result of consistent lobbying efforts on the part of land and real estate speculators, as well as large Russian corporations. Now UNESCO has the ball. Plus, another online petition in defense of Lake Baikal now has over 150,000 signatures.

LOCAL COMMUNITIES ALSO ENDANGERED. Mikhail Kreindlin, head of the Greenpeace Council program, argues that there could be very real human consequences, aside from the environmental damage. “All of the newly built residential and commercial facilities could flood since the Ministry of Natural Resources is also allowing the water levels of Lake Baikal to rise. Permission for new construction automatically entails massive development of the coast. In case of flooding, the damage will be paid for out of the budget,” Kreindlin told us. “Thus, if the list of regulations is adopted in this form, it can lead to the destruction of the most valuable natural areas, and in the future, it could lead to emergencies with grave consequences, including the death of residents,” he added.

BACKSTORY. Located in the northern region of Siberia, Baikal is the deepest lake in the world with the still largely untouched ancient ecosystem. It now risks becoming the next victim of the severe environmental degradation that has been taking place across the country. It has recently sparked a series of public pushbacks and uprisings among Russians. For example, protests against the construction of Europe’s biggest landfill at the Shiyes station became ground zero for Russian eco-protests and inspired others.

**Read our columnist’s full analysis of the development project here. **

Other Top-Stories Russia Has Been Reading


Another popular with our readers story this week is about badly implemented market regulation that is affecting supermarkets across the country. Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin called attention to the exorbitantly high prices of sunflower oil and sugar, two staples in the Russian diet. A few days later, representatives of retail and manufacturers, as well as the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Industry and Trade, signed an agreement regulating the prices of these essential goods with an artificial price cap. Now, however, it turns out that retailers are having a hard time sourcing these products at the stipulated prices. That’s because the regulations don’t apply to distributors, the middleman between the producers and the stores. This regulatory oversight has created confusion, and, according to economists, will ultimately cause prices to spike.

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