THE BELL WEEKLY: Russians asked to pay for their own surveillance

The Bell

Hello. This week we look at a new proposal to build a national network of surveillance cameras. We also unpack some of the economic myths the Kremlin is telling itself, and the Russian people, ahead of next year’s presidential election, and look at why Russia is trying to engineer a migration crisis on its border with Finland.

Russian authorities forced to save money on video surveillance

As a result of the government’s budget deficit, the Russian authorities are keen to save money on anything they can that isn’t connected to the war effort or defense industry. This includes the creation of a national system of surveillance cameras, new plans show. Initially, Russia wanted to create a unified access system for 1.2 million CCTV cameras at a cost of around $1.1 billion. But proposals announced last week show the Digital Development Ministry has devised a much cheaper alternative. The planned costs have been reduced in part by getting Russians themselves to pay for cameras to be installed in their own apartment blocks.

  • Digital Development Minister Maksut Shadayev has said he wants to combine regional and private CCTV systems into a single centrally accessible platform, the Kommersant newspaper reported. According to his ministry, only half of the 1.2 million cameras currently installed with state funds across Russia are connected to a centralized system, and the authorities in Moscow also have no access to privately installed cameras. The government wants to connect both those groups to a new central platform, along with installing a new network of compulsory cameras in apartment block entrances.
  • The aim is to have 5 million cameras with facial recognition technology installed by 2030. According to the ministry, this will help to solve 30% more crimes. Needless to say, these cameras are also widely used to suppress protests and track anti-Kremlin activists. Even before the war, they were used to identify participants in anti-government rallies. The Bell has previously written about the rise of Russia’s surveillance system here.
  • This is the second time officials have tried to push forward a proposal to unify the country’s plethora of surveillance cameras. The Emergency Services Ministry proposed a similar system in 2020-22, but the plan was dismissed as too expensive. The new approach is far cheaper — with a headline cost of 12 billion rubles ($140 million) opposed to 97 billion ($1.1 billion). However, experts who spoke to Kommersant reckon the final bill is likely to come in five or six times higher, not far off the original price tag.
  • The planned costs have been reduced in part by planning to get those who will be being surveilled to pay for it, by adding the costs of installing CCTV cameras in residential buildings to the regular service charges paid by residents.

Why the world should care

Although Moscow has long sought to follow China’s example when it comes to monitoring its citizens’ lives, the Russian system is nowhere near as complete. Nonetheless, it is already enough to allow them to suppress protests and identify people who attend anti-Kremlin rallies thanks mainly to the roll-out of facial recognition cameras across Moscow in the late 2010s. A centrally-monitored surveillance system and cameras in every apartment block could move Russia a step closer towards China, allowing the authorities to track and identify its opponents far beyond just Moscow.

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How Putin's economic aide cherry-picks data for his reports

Maxim Oreshkin, Vladimir Putin’s economic aide, gave a major interview to the Moskovsky Komsomolets tabloid last week, in which he spouted figures showing that all is well in the Russian economy. He rarely resorted to using outright lies to make his argument, but he did cherry-pick and manipulate some key data points. What’s most noteworthy from the interview is that it probably reflects how Oreshkin presents his regular economic reports to President Vladimir Putin.

  • The interview was Oreshkin’s second major media appearance in recent months. In August, as the ruble plunged past 100 against the dollar, he wrote a column for the Tass news agency in which he indirectly blamed central bank chief Elvira Nabiullina for the devaluation of the national currency. This time round, he spoke to Moskovsky Komsomolets, a tabloid newspaper popular with Russian pensioners — a choice that fits with a new Kremlin tradition of appealing to the older generation through the more widely read tabloid press (Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, for example, gives his major interviews to rival tabloid Argumenty i Fakty), and can also be seen as preparation for the upcoming presidential election.
  • Although the publication is loyal to the Kremlin, the interview was not entirely uncontroversial — the reporter asked Oreshkin about inflation, chronic labor shortages, the military imbalance in the economy and other thorny issues. But the Putin aide tackled each with confidence. To prove that “all is well in the Russian economy,” he immediately cited the country’s record low unemployment rate. This is a typical manipulation of the figures — low unemployment reflects serious labor shortages at a time when the government is rapidly increasing military spending. Most experts in fact see this imbalance as a key sign of an unhealthy economy, not a source of strength. The rapid rise in inflation that Russia has seen lately is a direct result of the shortage of workers. Politically, however, talk of low unemployment and higher salaries plays well with voters.
  • Oreshkin’s other key messages were based on similar statistical sleight of hand. On high inflation, he said that only certain things had become more expensive, such as cars and some food products, so people think that prices are going up when in reality this isn’t the case. On the transition of Russia’s economy onto a military footing, he agreed that this was happening, but argued it was a good thing — thanks to its defense sector, “Russia will become stronger in terms of technological development,” he said. And so on. In some cases, Oreshkin could have referred to genuine good news. It’s true that the Russian economy is currently growing at 5% on an annual basis — albeit from a low base in 2022. On some occasions, he resorted to outright lies to make his point: for example, Oreshkin claimed that Russia’s consolidated budget “shows a surplus.” In reality, according to the latest official figures the budget deficit is 0.8% of GDP and the Finance Ministry expects it to be around 1%.
  • Oreshkin also touched on the international and geopolitical consequences of the global macroeconomic situation. Growth in the EU is flatlining, there are serious problems in industry and its infrastructure is in decline, Oreshkin claimed. Against this background, “it is absolutely clear that economic growth is now found in Asia” — to which Russia is now turning.
  • The crowning achievement of Oreshkin’s misdirection in the interview was his response to a question about whether the Kremlin was planning to effectively bribe voters with public funds in the run-up to the March 2024 presidential election, and then hit them with bad news after polling day. In 2018, for example, Russia announced a highly controversial five-year increase to the pension age shortly after the vote. “Russia compares favorably with other European countries, which you call democracies,” Oreshkin said. “There, the planning horizon is short. The main thing is to get through to the next election and then, after that, the grass doesn’t grow. We all know that President Putin’s planning horizon is not three months, a year, or even five years. He looks decades ahead, generations ahead.”

Why the world should care:

Oreshkin is Putin’s main economic adviser and his interview is the most reliable way to understand what the president is being told about his country’s economy. Based on what Oreshkin shared publicly, it seems that Putin’s view of the economic situation in the country is, at best, the result of embellishment, if not outright falsification.

Russia tries to trigger a migration crisis on its border with Finland

Russia has belatedly responded to Finland’s accession to NATO by attempting to engineer a migration crisis along the two countries’ shared border. Russian border guards have begun to allow hundreds of refugees from the Middle East without proper documentation to cross the Russian border with Finland. Helsinki responded by closing several of its border crossings in a move which is already hitting Russian citizens. The situation is reminiscent of when Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko prompted a migration crisis on his own country’s border with Poland in 2021.

  • The Finnish government recently announced that since August they have seen a significant increase in the numbers of refugees from Middle Eastern countries (Syria, Iraq and others) attempting to enter the country from Russia. Russia has historically not let people pass through its side of the border without proper documents that would allow them to also enter Finland. But Helsinki says this approach changed in late summer and escalated significantly in November. Since August, 900 refugees have attempted to enter Finland — 800 of them in the last month. Some of the would-be asylum seekers, who have paid thousands of dollars for the journey, arrive at the wintry Russo-Finnish border wearing sneakers and only light clothing.
  • In response to the increase in attempted border crossings, Finland closed seven of the eight border posts on its 1,340-kilometer border with Russia. Only the northernmost crossing, deep in the Arctic, remains open. The Finnish border has been closed to Russians who only hold a tourist visa since last year, but had remained open for Finns and Russians with family visas or real estate in Finland, and residents of border areas who had always enjoyed simplified entry procedures.
  • The Finnish authorities say that Russia is not only allowing migrants to cross without documents, but is actively helping them to do so. Russian media outlets found no direct proof of this, but there is plenty of circumstantial evidence of the role Russian authorities are playing. Fontanka reported that refugees are driven to the border by people smugglers in cars with both Russian and European plates. The service costs €2000–3000, and includes an official invitation letter to receive a visa to Russia, a plane ticket to Minsk or Moscow, transfer via road to St. Petersburg and onward travel to the border. The cost of a bicycle, necessary for crossing the border, is paid separately, the outlet reported.
  • Both the Finnish authorities and analysts are certain that the situation has been artificially engineered by Moscow. They recall similar events in 2015-2016, when Russia allegedly took revenge on Finland after it took part in NATO military exercises, as well as the parallel situation in 2021, when Belarus’ Lukashenko staged a far larger migration crisis on the border between Belarus and Poland. The current crisis is seen as Russia’s response to Finland’s accession to NATO in April 2023.

Why the world should care:

Trying to create difficulties for democratic countries through engineering a migration crisis is typical of Russia’s approach to “hybrid warfare.” The main thing is to ensure that these attempts do not result in an Iron Curtain coming crashing back down along Russia’s western borders.


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