Putin sheds tough-guy image, grants funds to ‘foreign agents’
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.
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.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin once specialized in images showing his macho side. Here, he is accompanied by Night Wolves biker group leader Alexander Zaldostanov.