THE BELL WEEKLY: Libertarian activist sows discord among Russian opposition

The Bell

Hello. This week we look at why two dubious articles published by a libertarian activist have captured the attention of Russia’s opposition. We also cover the lengthy prison sentence handed down for an anti-war sticker protest and Russia’s escalating campaign against the LGBT+ community.

Troll farms and sanctions: Russian opposition gripped by libertarian activist’s questionable reporting

Over the past week, two big talking points have emerged around the Russian opposition — both triggered by political activist Mikhail Svetov, founder of the Russian Libertarian Party, which has found a niche among young Russians on Twitter.

First, Svetov’s SVTV News reported on how leading Russian economists helped to develop Western sanctions that are now affecting ordinary Russians — referring to the sanctions working group based at Stanford University that has been operating for 20 months but only recently came to public attention. The second story it picked up was about how Russian activists had created a “bot farm” to spread criticism of the war and the Russian authorities online. Both articles were marred by serious factual errors, but that did not avert a storm of indignation gathering pace on Russian-speaking social networks.

Context: Who is Mikhail Svetov?

Russian political activist Mikhail Svetov founded SVTV in 2021. In the late noughties, he became a popular blogger writing about his life and discussing politics. In the 2010s, Svetov spent several years in Japan and, in his own words, made a huge amount of money on bitcoin before the cryptocurrency boom.

  • In 2016, Svetov returned to Russia and became actively involved in politics. He joined the Libertarian Party of Russia (LPR) and although he was never its leader, he became its most prominent public face. He gained a lot of popularity thanks to his YouTube channel, where he hosts streams, talks about libertarianism and criticizes the Russian authorities.
  • Svetov has been in the crosshairs of Russian law enforcement on several occasions. In 2019, he was questioned for 12 hours in a case over a compromising photo of his ex-girlfriend published on his Instagram seven years earlier (the investigation mistakenly believed that she was under 16, the age of consent in Russia, at the time of their relationship). As a result, his account was added to Russia’s register of banned information resources due to false allegations that he had published child pornography.
  • In 2021, Svetov was arrested and held in jail for nine days after staging a rally in support of Alexei Navalny. After that incident, he left Russia and now lives in Brazil. In August 2023, a criminal case was opened against him for the “rehabilitation of Nazism,” based on a video in which he sings a song and talks about Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera in a “positive way.”
  • His SVTV outlet positions itself as a libertarian channel that doesn’t just write about Russia but also criticizes what it calls the “Western agenda.” This “agenda” is often reduced to the availability of gender reassignment surgery. SVTV’s hallmark among its critics is its repeated coverage of “the world’s bustiest worker” — a trainer from Canada who identifies as female and wears fake breasts.

Story 1: Russian economists drafting sanctions on Russians

The first SVTV story that created an online storm concerns the “International Working Group on Russian Sanctions.”

  • The group was formed in March 2022 by Michael McFaul, director of Stanford’s Institute of International Relations and a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow. It comprises 60 experts from the US, Russia, Ukraine and other countries. In the past 18 months, the group has released 15 reports on sanctions recommendations, including using seized Russian assets to help fund the restoration of Ukraine, policy ideas to strengthen financial sanctions on Russia and proposals for how to sanction Russia’s tech sector. Working papers published by the group are of an advisory nature, intended to be used to develop sanctions proposals, the group says.
  • The Russians on the team include high-profile economists and political analysts, such as Sergei Guriev (vice-rector of the University of Sciences Po in Paris), Sergei Aleksashenko (former deputy chairman of Russia’s central bank and ex-deputy finance minister), and Maria Snegovaya (political analyst at George Washington University). 
  • The Russian-speaking internet started paying attention to the group last week after a Twitter thread from a previously unknown Russian activist, Irina Kuklina, picked apart some of the group’s reports and public statements. She cited snippets of its work that proposed banning the issuance of European visas to Russians based abroad, as well as denying them Visa or Mastercard cards (since March 2022 both Visa and Mastercard have disconnected Russian cards from their service). Svetov’s SVTV picked up the thread and stated in its own tweet, which garnered almost 800,000 views: “The names of the architects of sanctions against Russians have become known.”
  • Most of the anger on social media was targeted at Guriev and Aleksashenko. They were accused of personally orchestrating the Western sanctions that have hurt their own compatriots. The economists dismissed these allegations and said that they put their names only on documents dealing with systemic sanctions against Russia, and not against Russians individually.
  • Nonetheless, Alexashenko’s signature appears on one report proposing a ban on issuing visas to Russian citizens. The economist said this was down to the nature of working in such a broad group. “You might find one point in 100 which is formulated in a way that you do not feel is correct and refuse to sign. Or you can look past it (and sacrifice your pride),” Alexashenko said. Guriev said Russians should blame Putin, not the West, for the costs of sanctions. “I understand perfectly well that while Putin’s regime is in power, it will try to shift the burden of sanctions onto ordinary Russians,” he wrote. “But this is not the fault of the Western coalition, which is trying to stop the war, but Putin, who took the Russian people hostage.”

Story 2: The ‘Elf factory’

The second story that caused a storm among the opposition was about how Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation is allegedly running an anti-Kremlin “bot farm.”

  • The essence of the report, which was derived from a single source, was that Navalny’s foundation operates what it called an “Elf factory” (a deliberate reference to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s notorious pro-Kremlin “Troll factory”), where staff are paid to post criticism of the Russian authorities and the war in Ukraine online. For example, posts that describe Putin as a “crazy grandad in the bunker” who is leading Russia to chaos. In addition, the “elves” allegedly sometimes launch special campaigns, including posts in support of Navalny and his foundation. The report claimed that the factory is funded by the Free Russia Foundation, an anti-war group.
  • Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation described the allegations as false and pointed out that it has no connection with the Free Russia Foundation. The SVTV article was criticized by other journalists for failing to actually investigate the claims, and instead relying on comments by a single source.
  • Nevertheless, a version of the “Elf factory,” where staff are hired to spread criticism of Putin and his war, does in fact exist. A year ago, the independent Fontanka news site reported that a “reverse troll factory” had been set up in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. It was supposedly paying $52 a day for staff to post 240 anti-Kremlin comments online and had recruited staff from among the thousands of journalists, activists and other dissenters who left Russia for Georgia following the invasion of Ukraine.
  • After the publication of the SVTV report about the alleged Navalny “bot farm”, the Free Russia Foundation confirmed that it had indeed created its own anti-Kremlin online operation, part of which was called the “Legion of Elves.”

Why the world should care:

The fact that the two main news stories of the week in opposition circles revolved around topics that have long been well-known and publicly available demonstrates the kinds of topics that continue to dominate conversation among anti-war Russians. First, the problem of getting foreign bank cards has not disappeared. After Visa and Mastercard were disconnected, Russians cannot use their Russian-issued cards abroad, and it is becoming more and more difficult to obtain a card from a foreign bank without other documentation, such as a residence permit or registration. Meanwhile, reports about using “bot farms” to combat Russian propaganda raises questions about ethics, especially given how the Putin regime continues to use its own “trolls” to promote its narrative online.

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Seven years in jail for supermarket sticker protestor

One of Russia’s longest and most controversial political trials since the start of the war reached its inevitable conclusion in a court in St. Petersburg last week. Artist Sasha Skochilenko, 33, was sentenced to seven years in a penal colony for spreading “false information” about Russia’s armed forces. Last year she had replaced a small number of price-tag stickers in a St. Petersburg supermarket with anti-war messages and slogans. The Russian authorities have used her case, along with several other trials against anti-war protesters, to scare the Russian people into not talking about the war.

  • Skochilenko was sentenced to seven years for spreading “false information” about the Russian military, with the aggravating circumstance that she had done so “based on political hatred and enmity.” The artist, who was arrested in April 2022, will serve another four years in a penal colony (in Russia, every day spent in pre-trial detention counts as one-and-a-half days already served).
  • There are serious concerns about Skochilenko’s health. She has previously been diagnosed with a heart defect, bipolar disorder, PTSD and ovarian cysts — conditions that worsened while she was in the harsh conditions of a Russian pre-trial detention center. She was not given proper medical care and while in court she was not permitted to drink or take her prescription medication for hours on end. In one session, the prosecutor laughed out loud when Skochilenko’s lawyer reported on her deteriorating health. On eight separate occasions during the trial, judge Oksana Demyasheva said that Skochilenko was fit enough to be sent to a penal colony. The artist was never examined by a doctor and does not know who signed off on her health status.
  • In her closing statement, Skochilenko explained how the investigator who was first assigned to her case resigned from the Investigative Committee, allegedly telling her lawyer he did not become a criminal investigator to deal with cases like hers. Skochilenko told the court how he quit to go and work at a store selling military uniforms and equipment. “I respect his action enormously and I believe we are similar — we both acted according to our conscience,” she said.
  • Skochilenko’s sentence is similar to those handed down in other high-profile fake news cases, including against opposition politicians Ilya Yashin (8.5 years) and Alexei Gorinov (7 years), and journalists Mikhail Afanasiyev (5.5 years) and Maria Ponomarenko (6 years). However, the number of criminal cases — ones that could lead to prison time — brought under the “false information” law is not as many as might have been expected. In the first half of 2023, the courts handed down 21 sentences, eight of which resulted in prison time.
  • Relatively few criminal cases have also been launched under some of the other wartime censorship laws. In the first six months of 2023, 15 people were charged and two received jail sentences for “discrediting the armed forces”. The courts handed out the same number of sentences for  “high treason,” in cases brought by Russia’s security services. Meanwhile, in the first half of 2023 there were 149 sentences handed down for “public calls for a violent change to the constitutional order” — an article which has traditionally been widely applied to cover various public statements of dissent and calls to protest. Overall, the total number of sentences for these four crimes has fallen, to varying degrees, compared to the first months after the start of the invasion.

Why the world should care:

Demonstratively harsh sentences play a specific role for the Russian authorities. Even though there are relatively few cases that lead to long prison sentences — in the dozens rather than thousands — high-profile rulings garner widespread public attention. From the Kremlin’s perspective, they get the job done: people hear about them, and start to worry what the consequences of discussing the war could be for them. The falling number of cases under these anti-opposition laws could be a sign of growing caution among those in Russia, who are more and more refraining from discussing and protesting the war publicly.

Russia’s authorities seek to label LGBT+ movement as “extremist”

The Russian authorities stepped up their relentless campaign against the LGBT+ community last week as the justice ministry asked the Supreme Court to recognize the “International LGBT Social Movement” as “extremist” and ban it in Russia. Since there is no single organization that goes by that name, the move is seen as the ministry trying to secure a formal reason to ban the activities of any group that supports the LGBT+ community.

  • Russia’s justice ministry claimed that it had identified “various signs and manifestations of an extremist orientation, including the incitement of social and religious discord” within the so-called “International LGBT social movement”. As there is no organization registered under that name in Russia, according to its own laws, the Supreme Court should throw out the claim, lawyer Maxim Olenichev told The Bell. However, he assumes the court is likely to side with the justice ministry, given the very low evidence threshold in cases like this.
  • If the court does rule that the “LGBT movement” is “extremist,” it will also determine exactly what symbols are aligned with it, and therefore also to be banned. For instance, if the court decides that rainbows or rainbow flags are symbols of an extremist organization, then any time they are used in public could result in an administrative offense, punishable by a fine or a short spell in jail. Repeat offenses would be subject to criminal prosecution. In addition, any LGBT+ activist who, from the authorities’ point of view, is part of the banned movement could also be subject to punishment.
  • “The authorities are trying to erase LGBT+ people from the public agenda, depriving them of access to help from lawyers, psychologists and social workers who help them respond to violence related to sexual orientation or gender identity,” lawyer Olenichev said.
  • Most likely, the Nov. 30 court hearing will be held behind closed doors so the public will never know the reasons why the non-existent “International LGBT Social Movement” was identified as extremist, added lawyer Valeriya Vetoshkina.

Why the world should care:

In recent years, Russia has introduced several new laws discriminating against the LGBT+ community. In Dec. 2022, an extension to the “gay propaganda” law came into force, making it an offense to publish any positive representation of LGBT+ people whatsoever, not just those “aimed at children,” as in the original 2013 law. Then in July 2023, came new legislation banning legal and medical transition, a ban on transgender people adopting children or serving as legal guardians, as well as restrictions on their right to marry. In effect, the authorities are seeking to use legislation to ban an entire group of people whose existence does not conform with the Kremlin’s idea of “protecting traditional values.”


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