Hello. This week we look at how Russia fell in love with controversial American TV figure Tucker Carlson. We also go deeper into the $5.2-billion Yandex deal and cover anti-war candidate Boris Nadezhdin being blocked from the presidential election.
How Russia fell in love with Tucker Carlson
Conservative journalist Tucker Carlson’s visit to Moscow prompted an unprecedented furore among Russian propagandists. Carlson, an active supporter of Donald Trump and an enthusiastic promoter of conspiracy theories, became the first Western journalist to interview Vladimir Putin since the invasion of Ukraine. Putin told him nothing new, but the president's supporters and propagandists hailed the two-hour conversation as a breakthrough for the Russian leader in the west.
- Moscow’s propaganda machine followed Carlson's every move in Moscow with more than 2,000 news reports written about his visit. The Telegram channels of pro-Kremlin sources were fascinated by any tiny detail — from his trips to a supermarket and the Russian equivalent of McDonald’s, to taking in Spartacus at the Bolshoi Theater and an exhibition of Russia’s “achievements” under Putin. They wrote about him being invited onto a late-night show on Russian TV and even what he had for breakfast at his hotel. The whole situation quickly became a meme. Russian internet users were quick to mock how a visit from an American journalist was suddenly more important than the war in Ukraine and just how much significance was being placed on a foreign visitor to Moscow.
- The Russian establishment fell for Carlson, if only for his views and his support of former President Donald Trump. Carlson, whose show on Fox News was cancelled without explanation last year, has used his platform to cast doubt on global warming, rail against how the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from Trump, support anti-LGBT legislation and criticize the Black Lives Matter movement. The latter holds special resonance in Russia, where propagandist-in-chief Margarita Simonyan insists that the country opposes a “woke religion.”
- It's no surprise that Carlson, who has described the war with Ukraine as a “border dispute” was granted an interview with the president. Carlson was the first Western journalist to speak with Putin since the start of the war, with the Kremlin refusing similar requests from other Western reporters. For example, the BBC's Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg said that he and his colleague had repeatedly requested interviews with the Russian leader over the past 18 months without success.
- Carlson's two-hour interview with Putin contained no surprises. The Russian president took the opportunity to reprise some of his greatest hits. In a lengthy section at the start of the exchange he detailed his interpretation of the history and creation of Ukraine, going as far as to hold up archive letters from 17th century military commander Bogdan Khmelnitsky and hand Carlson a dossier of papers to support his claims. Eventually arriving at the present day, Putin repeated his complaints that it was impossible to negotiate with the Ukrainian government and called on Washington to cease its military support for Kyiv.
- The most unexpected moment came when Carlson asked if Putin would release jailed Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich as a goodwill gesture. Putin suggested that Russia would be willing to exchange Gershkovich with Vadim Krasikov, sentenced to life in prison in Germany for the murder of Chechen separatist commander Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, who fought against Russia in the 2000s. A German court ruled that Krasikov killed Khangoshvili in Berlin on the order of Russia's intelligence services, who supplied him with forged documents.
- Putin's puppets lapped up the interview. “It was the best two hours I've spent in front of the TV,” wrote pro-Putin rapper Timati. Russian MP Alexei Chepa even called the interview a “global event.” Tucker himself described Putin as an intelligent man but admitted straight after the interview that it would probably take him at least a year to “decide what that was.”
Why the world should care:
For a week, Tucker Carlson found himself Russia’s most popular foreigner in the eyes of Kremlin propagandists and the Russian public. The surge of attention paid to an American visiting Russia underlines how urgently the Kremlin wants to be heard in the west – even if it has nothing new to say.
The Bell is now listed as “a foreign agent” in Russia: our website is blocked, we can no longer raise money through advertising, and our business model is in ruins. Journalists in Russia face greater risks than ever before. Repressive new laws threaten up to 15 years in jail for objective reporting.
However, we are not about to give up. This newsletter is our newest project. It presents an in-depth analysis of the Russian economy, which has survived the first year of the war but is becoming ever more secretive. We will try and shed some light on what’s going on. Each edition will tackle a part of the big question: how long can the Russian economy endure under sanctions and when will the Kremlin run out of money for its war?
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Yandex: the end of independence
For the past 25 years, Yandex, arguably Russia’s most innovative company, has struggled to preserve its independence from the Kremlin. The announcement of a planned $5.2-billion deal to sell the company’s Russian businesses to a consortium of investors brought an end to that era, raising questions over not only who will be the company’s true owners, but the future of the company itself.
- The story of Yandex is an analogy for Russian business during the Putin era. Back in the late 1990s the company was one of the most attractive investment prospects for international investors, at a time when the Russian market was opening up to the world. At one point, Google’s founders tried to buy the company — but Yandex was set on competing against the Western tech giants, not being swallowed up. By 2008, its increasing dominance, influence and plans for an IPO in the United States had spooked the Kremlin. Sberbank was put among the company’s corporate structure to act as the state’s eyes and ears, formerly given the right to block any major change in ownership.
- A decade later and the Kremlin, trying to exert more oversight over the Russian internet, wanted more oversight. It created a new corporate body that could veto major transactions, company deals said to threaten national security or those that involved the personal data of Russian users.
- That uneasy compromise held for just a few years, until founder Arkady Volozh decided he wanted out after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
- The bulk of Yandex will go to a consortium of senior managers and four financial investors: venture investor Alexander Chachava, a Lukoil subsidiary, Infinitum CEO Pavel Prass, and independent investor Alexander Ryazanov. None of those names, with the exception of Lukoil, were among the many being touted by sources to The Bell and other outlets in the past year of negotiations.
- Yandex said that there will be a one-year lock-up period, during which time the identified buyers cannot dispose of their assets. However, the purchase of Yandex will be carried out via a closed mutual investment fund, which under Russian law is not obliged to disclose information about their ultimate owners. Therefore, over time, those named in the deal could easily be replaced without outsiders knowing.
- Inside the Kremlin, the search for possible buyers was overseen by Sergey Kiriyenko. Putin’s friend Yury Kovalchuk, long linked to the deal, but could not be formally involved as he is under sanctions. His interest in the company will likely be represented, at the very least, by relatively unknown investor Pavel Prass, who has history with Kovalchuk’s companies.
- Yandex founder Arkady Volozh will continue to develop several of Yandex’s current early-stage businesses abroad. Some of these development teams did not wait for the formal division before moving to rename and reorganize their breakaway start-ups under the Yandex N.V. umbrella — Nebius (formerly Yandex Cloud), TripleTen (formerly Yandex Prakticum), Avride (autonomous vehicles) and the Toloka AI crowdsourcing project.
Why the world should care
For the millions of Yandex users, little will change to the company’s services and products. However, the Russian Yandex will likely have to abandon its Western ambitions. There are big questions about whether and how Volozh's plans will work out while he remains under European sanctions. Despite the war, an internal split, scandals over censorship and the departure of some employees to Volozh’s international arm, Russia’s most innovative company has largely survived with all its major products and money-making business units. Nevertheless, it’s not the same company as the one which spent 25 years creating and building them.
Russia blocks the only anti-war candidate from running against Putin
Russia's Central Election Commission has finally blocked Boris Nadezhdin — the only anti-war campaigner to make it this far — from registering as a candidate in next month's presidential election.
- Nadezhdin's campaign submitted 105,000 signatures in support of his candidacy, giving them a possible 5% margin for error once the election commission had scrubbed any flawed and invalid names. Predictably, the commission found many more errors — 15% of the 60,000 it said it checked were deemed invalid. According to the commission, 11 signatures were from dead people — a fact that was much talked about in the run-up to the decision.
- Nadezhdin himself published examples of some signatures the commission said were invalid that included errors as a result of the digitization of the names, which are submitted in hand-written form. For example, the printed lists contained signatures from people whose home city was listed as “Rostov-na-Domu” (one letter away from the actual city of Rostov-na-Donu) or “Salikhard” (instead of Salekhard). Some of these errors were challenged successfully, but the campaign was still unable to go through the more than 9,000 flaws the commission said it had found.
- “I'm second only to Putin, I'm getting double digits in the polls, and you're telling me about 11 dead,” Nadezhdin said to the commission after his campaign was rejected. He was referring to an opinion poll he had commissioned from the Russian Field center that showed that 10.4% of Russians were ready to vote for Nadezhdin. Levada Center head Lev Gudkov estimated that support for Nadezhdin is “at most” about 4%.
- Nadezhdin said he is going to appeal his exclusion from the ballot paper at the Supreme Court. He has almost no chance of success. The Supreme Court has consistently endorsed every decision to block candidates from elections and almost every opposition candidate taking legal action against the election commission at various levels has lost in court.
- The expulsion means there will be just four names on the ballot for March’s election: Putin and three representatives of Kremlin-backed so-called opposition parties.
Why the world should care:
Even though Naezhdin was never registered as a candidate in the presidential election, his campaign swiftly mobilized tens of thousands of anti-war Russians both abroad and, much more significantly, at home. This show of support for a candidate opposing the invasion caused great distress to the Kremlin, which is determined to secure a comprehensive victory for Putin.