Basic instinct diplomacy

The Bell

Hello! This week our top story is on high-level damage control by the Kremlin after a crude online joke by a Russian official outraged the Serbian government. We also look at how Russia is supporting Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko as opposition protests enter their second month, and why ex-PM Medvedev is championing Universal Basic Income.    

Serbia unfriends Zakharova in ‘Basic Instinct’ Facebook row

There was a certain inevitability about a diplomatic scandal that erupted this week when a mocking Facebook post by Russia’s freewheeling Foreign Ministry spokeswoman caused outrage in Serbia — a close ally. President Vladimir Putin himself was forced to make a personal apology to smooth over the row and keep Russo-Serb relations on track.    

What happened?

  • Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic last week signed an economic cooperation agreement with Kosovo, a former Serb province that declared independence in 2008. The deal — that was brokered by U.S. President Donald Trump — was inked in the White House, and the set-up of the Oval Office caused a minor social media storm. While Trump was seated behind a huge desk, Vucic was perched awkwardly on a small chair some distance away, looking a bit like a badly behaved schoolboy. 
  • Maria Zakharova, official spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry posted a photo of the meeting spliced with a photo of Sharon Stone from the 1992 movie Basic Instinct, suggesting Vucic should have copied Stone’s tactics in the explicit ‘chair scene’.


  • One after another, key figures in Serbian politics joined a chorus of outrage. Marko Djuric, Director of the Serbian Government’s Office for Kosovo, tweeted that Zakharova should be ashamed of herself, while Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin also voiced his discontent. Vucic himself criticized Zakharova’s “primitivism and vulgarity”.
  • Zakharova apologized on Facebook (although she did not delete the post). But that wasn’t enough. Within hours, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had spoken with Vucic on the phone. And a few days later, Vucic revealed Putin had also apologized to him in person. “As a well-bred person, I wouldn’t dream of bringing it up,” Vucic said. “I believe we have good relations [with Russia] and for me this is a fleeting, insignificant incident.”
  • Russia and Serbia are close political allies. When Western countries recognized Kosovan independence 11 years ago, Belgrade turned towards Moscow, which has been consistently vocal in its support to the extent that Putin enjoys something of a cult following in parts of Serbia. The key bargaining chip in this relationship is Russia’s UN veto in respect of an independent Kosovo. But Russia has little interest in seeing the dispute resolved because that could enable Serbia to seek NATO and EU membership.

Who is Maria Zakharova?

  • The 44-year-old was appointed spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry in 2015, the first woman to hold the post. “She’s like Marmite: Some people love her and some people hate her,” one Russian official said about her a few years ago. Foreign Minister Lavrov is clearly in the ‘lovers’ camp.  
  • Whatever your views, Zakharova is clearly a contradictory character. On the one hand, she provides a modern media service, and understands how the media operate. She doesn’t ask for questions in advance and regularly includes opposition-leaning publications in briefings (although she did weasel out of a debate with opposition leader Alexei Navalny at the last moment).
  • On the other hand, Zakharova enjoys turning her public appearances into a show. She performed a folk dance for journalists at the Russia-ASEAN summit in 2016 and is a prolific social media user. Her list of gaffes include imitating a Jewish accent to claim Trump was put in power by Jews from Brighton Beach.  

Why the world should care Zakharova behaves like a playground bully: trolling her opponents while the teachers look the other way. But when someone stands up to a bully, they inevitably capitulate. Maybe after this latest embarrassment, she will be more cautious. But it’ll perhaps be more interesting to see what happens to her career. Does Lavrov like her more than Putin hates apologizing?

Belarus enters second month of political turmoil  

After over a month of street protests in Belarus, this week saw a crackdown on the opposition Coordination Council and the abduction of three of its leaders, including figurehead Maria Kolesnikova, who tore up her passport to prevent the authorities from forcibly expelling her to neighboring Ukraine. Russia continues to give its full backing to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, whose victory in a rigged election last month sparked the upheaval.

  • Lukashenko gave a big interview Wednesday to a group of tame Russian propagandists including Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief state-owned English language TV network Russia Today. It wasn’t easy watching Lukashenko demonstrating his complete detachment from reality while the four ‘journalists’ nodded along earnestly.
  • One quote in particular summed up the interview. When asked about his notorious recent helicopter flight with a machine gun, Lukashenko said: “I was sitting in the helicopter but those American bastards can see everything from outer space. They gave the signal to their center near Warsaw that the presidential helicopter had taken off. No sooner were we in the air – and we had travelled barely 1,500 meters – then the protesters began moving.” Lukashenko also insisted he won’t negotiate with the opposition, and alleged that the bruises on protesters were merely “blue paint”, rather than the result of vicious beatings by police. 
  • Russian TV has generally been backing Lukashenko. One ‘satirical’ sketch mocking Belarusian demonstrators put out by state-owned network NTV caused a mini-outcry and the actress involved apologized to the Belarusian people. She was cast as a Belarusian protester whose frustrations were not directed at the government, but at her own “small tits”. The sketch went out on Tigran Keosayan’s show — Keosayan is Simonyan’s husband.
  • There are some exceptions to this narrative: for example, Evening Urgant on state-owned Channel One, which mocked Lukashenko’s flight with the machine gun and an obviously fake ‘intercepted’ telephone call that was used as evidence of Western meddling by Belarusian officials. But the boundaries for criticism on shows like Evening Urgant are clearly defined: in the same show as the jokes about Lukashenko, the first sketch was a toothless nibble at the Kremlin in which the most biting line suggested it was unwise to joke about the recent fall of the ruble.
  • At the same time, Lukashenko’s crackdown continues. Opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova and two other members of the Coordination Council were kidnapped Monday in downtown Minsk. It later emerged the authorities had tried to forcibly deport all three. But Kolesnikova ripped up her passport, and returned to Belarus (according to the story of one of the other abductees).
  • Kolsenikova is currently in Belarus accused of plotting the overthrow of the regime, which carries a maximum five-year jail term. She has formally complained that security officers threatened to kill her, and send her to jail for 25 years. The world’s media may be impressed by Kolesnikova’s courage, but Lukashenko sees things differently. He said in his interview she was “thrown from the car by her own people” on the way to the border.
  • On the streets, demonstrations continue and protesters are arrested every day. At last Sunday’s rally in Minsk, a man resembling a senior Interior Ministry official was seen smashing the windows of a coffee shop to get at demonstrators hiding inside.
  • Russia’s support for Belarus is not limited to the media. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin asked state-owned banks to keep their Belarusian counterparts well supplied with ruble liquidity, according to a Reuters report. That’s a big deal: Belarus is in the throes of a classic ‘bank run’ and this week 10 banks reportedly stopped issuing loans.

Why the world should care There’s no doubt Russia is 100 percent behind Lukashenko, a dynamic that will likely be on display when Lukashenko visits Moscow next week. But the nature and scope of this support is a matter for debate. Forcing the integration of Russia and Belarus, which Moscow has long advocated, is high risk: it could trigger more protests and infuriate the West. Right now, it seems as if the Kremlin wants Lukashenko ever more tightly bound to Russia while, at the same time, ensuring he is no longer Russia’s only means of exerting leverage on Belarusian politics. 

Medvedev proposes Russia adopt Universal Basic Income 

Former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev chose this week to remind people of his existence with a surprise suggestion that Universal Basic Income (UBI) might be a viable prospect in Russia. Little has been heard from Medvedev since he stepped down from the premiership in January, though he remains head of ruling party United Russia and deputy chairman of the influential Security Council. Officials who spoke to The Bell said nobody is taking the idea particularly seriously, but it’s notoriously tricky to predict the fate of proposals like this one. 

What happened?

  • Medvedev suggested Tuesday considering the introduction of UBI for Russia – i.e., paying a modest sum to everyone in the country, irrespective of their financial circumstances. The idea is not being seriously considered, according to two government officials who spoke to The Bell. One of them said he had only heard about Medvedev’s idea from the media. 
  • This is not the first time Medvedev has put forward such radical measures: a year ago he proposed introducing a four-day workweek. Nobody took it seriously and it was never implemented — although the proposal did generate a lot of media discussion.

Why is Medvedev talking about this now?

There are several theories about why Medevdev chose to raise UBI:

  • There’s nothing to see here, it’s all just a PR smokescreen, or the irrelevant musings of an increasingly irrelevant politician. 
  • It could be an attempt to reform Russia’s complex system of benefits and subsidies, in which claimants are often unaware of their own entitlements. This could be overhauled under the aegis of introducing ‘Universal Basic Income. If this did go ahead, it’s likely payments would likely remain conditional on fulfilling certain criteria — except now they would be disbursed from a shiny new fund with a pretty new name.
  • The authorities want to ‘soften up’ the public for tax hikes and the switch to a progressive tax system. There are good grounds to be suspicious such a scheme is afoot as this is exactly what happened with the ‘National Projects’, a huge state infrastructure and social spending program costing 25.7 trillion rubles ($340 billion). Putin used the National Projects as his economic program at the 2018 presidential elections but, after his victory, the public found that it was also required to contribute via an increase in sales tax. It’s also true that discussions about increasing income tax are ongoing. Russia has had a flat rate income tax since 2000, but there was a symbolic shift this summer when a tiny proportion of the rich saw their rate rise from 13 percent to 15 percent. This appears to have opened the door to income tax rises for a much bigger chunk of society.

Could Russia afford UBI?

Russia has large cash reserves (the National Wealth Fund holds $120 billion in liquid assets) and little debt. But that’s nowhere near enough to pay for UBI. If you gave every Russian of working age 10,000 rubles ($130) a month (just below the minimum wage), reserves would be spent in a year. So, UBI would likely have to include about $20 billion currently spent on social welfare. Or the authorities would have to find a new source of income — taxes, for example. 

Why the world should care It’s hard to take Medvedev seriously. But he does play an important role in Russian politics as the posterboy for controversial initiatives; the fall guy if things go wrong. Medvedev is like a lightning conductor: Russians associate him with political and economic failure, while Putin wins plaudits as a successful international statesman. So, it’s always worth listening to what Medvedev talks about — you can gauge the topics of interest to the authorities.

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