Economy

Nationalizing The Elite: The Kremlin's New Plan To Quash Dissent

Vladimir Putin is genuinely convinced that protests against his rule are fomented abroad

Moscow's Red Square
Moscow's Red Square
Elizabeta Suracheva, Aleksander Gabuev and Ilya Barabanov

MOSCOW - In February 2010, there was an article published in the Russian newspaper Vedomosti that investigated allegations of corruption against Elena Skrinnik, then the Agriculture Minister.

That article could have easily provided the basis for a criminal investigation, but Skrinnik continued working for the government until May 2012, and the government didn’t really take an interest in the corruption allegations until last November. Now Skrinnik is being brought in for interrogation, as are many other former ministers and government officials.

Compare that to the case of Vladimir Pekhtin, a member of the ruling party and head of Parliament's ethics committee. A blogger revealed he has an undeclared property in Miami, and Pekhtin stepped down almost immediately.

Even a year ago, this would have been impossible. Government agencies weren’t paying attention to the media, especially not blogs. But the rules of the game have changed, say representatives of the government and business elite.

Signs of a massive crackdown on the country’s elite began last year, a few months after new laws were passed to restrict street protests and create strict controls on non-profits. Last August, the government began considering a bill to ban civil servants and elected officials from having a foreign bank account or owning foreign property.

A law on foreign bank accounts was passed – but went almost unnoticed. Under the new rules, Russians and permanent residents in Russia are required to do all their transactions through Russian bank accounts. That means, for example, that if someone is paid into a foreign bank account, that money must be transferred to a Russian account – the only exception being for Russian citizens who live abroad and do not come back to Russia even once a year.

“This rule makes it possible to catch almost everyone. Most middle-class people have foreign bank accounts – people use them to pay for studies, medical care and to keep their money somewhere reliable, where privacy is respected,” explained an accountant who helps people set up foreign accounts. “Of course, they don’t tell the government or tax service about these accounts. Now this is illegal, although in effect, the tax service does not have the resources to find all Russians and their foreign accounts. But the real danger is that if you are in trouble for some other reason, they will come after your foreign accounts and confiscate it all.”

Nationalizing the elite

In October, the government started a new program of “nationalization of the elite.” That’s a term that was thought up by Konstantin Kostin, an advisor to President Vladimir Putin. Kostin says the Kremlin is aiming to change the mentality of many elite Russian business people, who see Russia as a country to exploit, but who end up going to live elsewhere.

Other sources close to the Kremlin agreed that there was another motivation for these laws. They said that this “nationalization of the elite” was a direct response to the mass protests last year demanding honest elections in Russia.

“The government is convinced that there are foreign governments behind these protest movements,” said one source.

That source added that when Putin said that Hillary Clinton might be behind the protests, he was not simply playing to the public – he really believed it. “At that point, Putin realized that a huge number of civil servants, elected officials and businesspeople depend on the West – because of children who live there, real estate they bought in London and bank accounts in Switzerland. That’s when he got the idea to try to bring all of that back to Russia, so that the West wouldn’t have such an influence.”

One Russian official remembers a diplomatic meeting with the United States regarding the U.S. rocket defense shield. One of the U.S. negotiators told Russia to stop threatening to attack European cities with their missiles, saying bluntly to the Russian delegation: “You really think we are going to believe that you are going to attack a city where your children are studying and you keep your money? We have your number.” The members of the Russian delegation thought long and hard about that comment.

Restricting international travel

According to people close to the Kremlin, these laws are instruments to allow the government to control the elite. And there is yet another instrument at their disposal: restricting international travel. There is already a pilot project at the FSB (the successor agency to the KGB). Employees have to turn in their passports and can only get them back with their boss’s authorization. In addition, according to currently laws, an unpaid speeding ticket could be a reason to deny authorization to leave the country.

Russian passport - Photo: paukrus

The number of Russian government employees, at all levels, who own property abroad is quite high. For some, the new rules will mean that they leave government service – particularly for elected officials who came from business backgrounds.

But owning property abroad does not mean that someone is independently wealthy, and for many it will mean choosing between a life-long career and cherished vacation properties. It also means that the government will be losing a fairly large number of employees who decide that working in the government is not worth the restrictions. It will also mean that today’s business people will never get involved in politics.

According to Kommersant’s interviews, more and more civil servants are looking to move out of the public sector, including the police and other agencies who helped get these new laws passed. According to one source in Russian law enforcement, everyone is looking for ways to get private sector jobs. These people might not have luxurious apartments in Miami, but they might have money in Latvia or a modest apartment in Bulgaria.

According to Mikhail Prokhov, the Russian billionaire whose overseas assets include the Brooklyn Nets basketball team, the government is trying to accomplish two mutually exclusive tasks – pleasing voters while restricting actual talk about corruption. “The Kremlin has a choice – either it can start taking corruption seriously, which means adopting rules that apply to everyone equally, or it can put the brakes on this whole topic.”

As it is, the only thing that is clear is that the old rules of the game no longer apply, and the new rules make it hard to know exactly what will be allowed and whose transgressions will be overlooked. That uncertainly has had one clear effect: the Russian elite are getting very nervous.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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