Putin sheds tough-guy im­age, grants funds to ‘for­eign agents’

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY MARC BENNETTS

MOSCOW | They are Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s fa­vorite mo­tor­cy­cle gang, but the black-clad Night Wolves may soon be strug­gling for cash af­ter be­ing snubbed in the most re­cent round of pres­i­den­tial grants, while strug­gling or­ga­ni­za­tions la­beled “for­eign agents” by the Krem­lin have been ap­proved for fund­ing.

This week’s un­ex­pected out­come of the na­tion­wide bid­ding for gov­ern­ment rubles has sparked a num­ber of in­ter­pre­ta­tions, with some po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts sug­gest­ing it may sig­nal a shift in the hard-line do­mes­tic poli­cies that have held sway in the Krem­lin un­der Mr. Putin since Rus­sia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014.

The Night Wolves, whose mem­bers have been in­volved in fight­ing in eastern Ukraine, has re­ceived around 60 mil­lion rubles — about $993,000 — in gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies since 2014. The group used some of the money to stage fes­tive shows for chil­dren that de­pict an “evil” United States as try­ing — but fail­ing — to de­stroy Rus­sia.

Alexan­der Zal­dostanov, the group’s 54-year-old leader, once said the shows had to be “re­ally scary” to con­vince Rus­sian chil­dren of the “Amer­i­can threat to their home­land.”

The group, re­port­edly the largest mo­tor­cy­cle club in the coun­try, has in­creas­ingly been seen as a key re­cruit in Mr. Putin’s drive to re­store Rus­sian power and bat­tle lib­eral Western ideas. When the fem­i­nist punk rock group Pussy Riot played an unau­tho­rized gig in a Moscow cathe­dral, the Night Wolves set up guard posts at other Or­tho­dox sites to pre­vent any fur­ther “hooli­gan­ism.”

This was the first time the pro-Krem­lin bik­ers had failed to se­cure a pres­i­den­tial grant. Mr. Zal­dostanov de­clined to com­ment on his gang’s fail­ure to se­cure Krem­lin fund­ing, but vowed that the chil­dren’s fes­tive shows would take place re­gard­less.

“We can­not de­prive chil­dren of this event,” he told Rus­sian me­dia.

Mr. Putin has tra­di­tion­ally had warm re­la­tions with the leather-clad, heav­ily tat­tooed gang. In 2010 and 2011, the Rus­sian strong­man joined the Night Wolves at bike shows, rid­ing into the events on a three-wheeled mo­tor­cy­cle. In 2013, Mr. Putin per­son­ally awarded Mr. Zal­dostanov the pres­ti­gious Order of Honor.

Other pro-Krem­lin groups that failed to re­ceive grants were the youth wing of Mr. Putin’s United Rus­sia party, as well as a host of “pa­tri­otic” or­ga­ni­za­tions. An or­ga­ni­za­tion con­nected to Yevgeny Fy­o­dorov, an ul­tra­na­tion­al­ist law­maker, was also de­nied fund­ing.

Pavel Salin, di­rec­tor of the Center for Po­lit­i­cal Stud­ies at the Fi­nan­cial Univer­sity un­der the Rus­sian Gov­ern­ment, told Rus­sian me­dia that the fail­ure of such groups to re­ceive fund­ing rep­re­sented a recog­ni­tion by the Krem­lin that it needed new ideas to re­place the “ex­hausted” anti-Western stance it has used to con­sol­i­date sup­port for Mr. Putin in re­cent years.

Al­though Mr. Putin has not announced for­mally that he will run in next year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, most ob­servers be­lieve he will seek a fourth term of of­fice that would keep him in power un­til 2024.

“The au­thor­i­ties are seek­ing a new agenda,” Mr. Salin said.

New im­age for Putin

Mr. Putin, whose rides with the Night Wolves showed him in a black leather jacket rid­ing a Har­ley-David­son, once spe­cial­ized in photo ops that em­pha­sized his ma­cho side — rid­ing a horse shirt­less, pi­lot­ing a mini-sub­ma­rine, hunt­ing white tigers in Siberia. But such images have faded in re­cent years as the one­time KGB agent has emerged as an in­creas­ingly con­se­quen­tial fig­ure on the global stage.

Among the 970 or­ga­ni­za­tions that re­ceived a share of the $37.2 mil­lion in pres­i­den­tial fund­ing was the Le­vada Center, an in­de­pen­dent poll­ster that was forced this year to de­clare it­self a “for­eign agent.” Le­vada, among the most cited or­ga­ni­za­tions in the Western press for gaug­ing pop­u­lar opin­ion in Rus­sia, faced clo­sure last year af­ter re­fus­ing to com­ply with the “for­eign agents” law. It has since said it will not ac­cept for­eign fund­ing.

Un­der a Rus­sian law much crit­i­cized by Western civil lib­er­ties groups, or­ga­ni­za­tions that re­ceive for­eign fund­ing and en­gage in what Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties loosely de­fine as “po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties,” are obliged to iden­tify them­selves as “for­eign agents” — a term that most Rus­sians as­so­ciate with es­pi­onage. They are also sub­ject to in­creased scru­tiny from the Jus­tice Min­istry.

The other “for­eign agents” to re­ceive Krem­lin fund­ing were the NGO De­vel­op­ment Center, which as­sists non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions through­out Rus­sia, and the Sa­mar­naya Gu­berniya fund, a char­ity that helps vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple, in­clud­ing se­nior cit­i­zens, in cen­tral Rus­sia.

Where once Mr. Putin ap­peared to revel in the bad-boy street cred af­forded by hang­ing out with the Night Wolves, some say the Rus­sian leader is seek­ing a dif­fer­ent im­age on the do­mes­tic and global stage.

“The grants rep­re­sent a change in the poli­cies of the pres­i­den­tial ad­min­is­tra­tion,” Lev Gud­kov, di­rec­tor of the Le­vada Center, told The Wash­ing­ton Times. “The Night Wolves are too scan­dalous, and the Krem­lin wants to dis­tance it­self from them.”

He also called the awards to the Le­vada Center and other “for­eign agents” a ges­ture by the au­thor­i­ties. “But I wouldn’t over­es­ti­mate the po­lit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of this,” he said.

An­other or­ga­ni­za­tion that ben­e­fited from the Krem­lin’s grants was Rus Sidyashchaya, a group that lob­bies for Rus­sian pris­on­ers and seeks to im­prove con­di­tions in Rus­sian jails. The or­ga­ni­za­tion is headed by Olga Ro­manova, a well-known rights ac­tivist and jour­nal­ist. In 2015, NTV, a pro-Krem­lin TV chan­nel, aired a death threat against Ms. Ro­manova over her crit­i­cism of Rus­sia’s war in Ukraine. Ms. Ro­manova said she was stunned to re­ceive the grant. Grants were also awarded to en­vi­ron­men­tal, sci­en­tific and ed­u­ca­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions.

A source close to the pres­i­den­tial ad­min­is­tra­tion told Rus­sia’s Ve­do­mosti news­pa­per that pro-Krem­lin groups had “al­ways won [grants] in the past, but this time the ac­cent was on use­ful projects.”

The com­mit­tee re­spon­si­ble for dis­tribut­ing the grants was headed by Sergei Kirienko, a for­mer prime min­is­ter who is now a se­nior fig­ure within the pres­i­den­tial ad­min­is­tra­tion.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

RID­ING AWAY: Rus­sian Prime Min­is­ter Vladimir Putin (center) snubbed his fa­vorite mo­tor­cy­cle gang, the Night Wolves, in fa­vor of or­ga­ni­za­tions that re­ceive gov­ern­ment fund­ing and en­gage in loosely de­fined “po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin once spe­cial­ized in images show­ing his ma­cho side. Here, he is ac­com­pa­nied by Night Wolves biker group leader Alexan­der Zal­dostanov.

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