Letter From the Editors

Now that United Russia has secured victory in the recent State Duma elections, it’s time for the party to roll up its collective sleeves and get down to work. In late September, Vladimir Putin announced that poverty and “unresolved problems” in the education and health care systems are Russia’s main enemies. With the economy in what Izvestia compares to hospice care and the population set to decrease by 500,000 people per year over the next 10 years (at least according to researcher Bulat Nigmatulin), United Russia certainly has its work cut out for it.

One of Putin’s proposed solutions was to create new committees led by the top five vote getters on the United Russia ticket to address the most pressing issues. One of these winners, Denis Protsenko, a doctor who runs a COVID‑19 hospital in Moscow, has been tasked with leading the health care committee. With Moscow and other regions on the cusp of a fourth wave as new COVID‑19 cases are spiking to record-breaking daily highs, Protsenko’s appointment appears to be a wise decision. But is this all a ruse on Putin’s part? As Meduza describes, the government is holding out on imposing stricter public health measures because it wants to avoid handing out more subsidies, in spite of its rainy day fund, which Nezavisimaya gazeta says is flush with more than 18 trillion rubles. If that’s the case, then how serious can the government really be about health care and the declining population?

A similar scheme can be seen in remote electronic voting for Moscow, the only area of the country where voters were able to recast their ballots if they changed their minds after their initial choice. This feature was purportedly added so that people who felt pressured by their employers to vote a certain way could later revise their votes. However, as Meduza explains, the blockchain system on which remote electronic voting is based cannot isolate repeat submissions, which means that ballots had to be counted using another system that election monitors could not access. As expert Grigory Golosov concludes, “It’s a general principle that everything that makes voting easier also makes voter fraud easier.”

The same level of dissimulation can be seen in the charges of “extremism” and “treason” that are being brought with greater frequency. In a new indictment, Aleksei Navalny is being charged with creating an extremist community and calling for “violent regime change.” Similarly, Ivan Sachkov, CEO of Group‑IB, a cybersecurity company, was arrested in Moscow on suspicion of treason. The trick here is that cases brought on these charges are handled by the FSB and trials are conducted behind closed doors. With little information available about these cases, it is hard to judge if the charges are valid or just a political tool.

Not one to be left behind, Aleksandr Lukashenko is deploying similar tactics in Belarus. In a disturbing incident that has shaken Belarussians, a KGB agent and a young man both died in an exchange of fire after the KGB broke down the door of the man’s apartment. The circumstances surrounding the situation remain murky, but it presents a perfect excuse for Lukashenko to raise the specter of terrorism and the possibility of martial law – which, if imposed, would cancel the constitutional referendum planned for early 2022.

On a brighter note, the US and Russia appear to have taken tentative steps toward cooperation. The two countries have held bilateral talks on cybersecurity and military issues, and are poised to pursue deeper joint efforts. But, not to be outdone by collaboration, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov resorted to his usual subterfuge: During his visit to the UN General Assembly, he accused the US of “double standards” and said he expected Washington to continue its methods of imposing its own model of development on other countries.

So what’s the point of all this sleight of hand? These tricks only serve one purpose – that of the person performing them.