Russian Lawmakers Look for Foreign Hand Behind Wave of Protests

Jake Rudnitsky

(Bloomberg) -- Leaders of Russia’s lower house of parliament met to discuss alleged foreign meddling in the country’s affairs including in elections, amid the biggest wave of protests in Moscow in seven years.

The council of the State Duma, comprising party leaders and top officials, held a special session on Monday to create a commission to investigate “the facts of possible interference in Russia’s internal affairs,” according to a statement on the legislature’s website. It will start work this week, the state-run Tass news service reported.

The meeting during the Duma’s summer recess highlights the increasing alarm among officials over the growing protests, which are the biggest since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. Andrei Klimov, the head of a similar commission in the upper chamber of parliament, last week accused YouTube and the U.S. embassy of advertising opposition rallies, two days after an estimated 60,000 turned out to protest in Moscow.

A series of protests that began in the capital last month, initially over the refusal to register opposition candidates for the Sept. 8 city council elections, has swiftly gained momentum after riot police beat and brutally detained peaceful protesters. Despite thousands of detentions and the imprisonment of many of the movement’s leaders, the anti-Kremlin opposition has called another protest for this weekend.

In an unusual intervention, Sergey Chemezov, an influential Putin ally who heads Rostec State Corp., said “the presence of a sound opposition” would be good for the authorities in Moscow and Russia generally, in an interview published Monday by the RBC news website. “It’s obvious people are very upset and that’s not good for anyone,” said Chemezov, adding that Russia risked a return to times of stagnation without a healthy opposition and “we have already gone through this.”

Growing Discontent

Discontent is spreading in Russia after five years of falling living standards and last year’s unpopular pension-age hike that helped push Putin’s approval rating to the lowest since 2013. Organizers of opposition demonstrations have avoided support from abroad since Russia passed its tough “foreign agent” law as part of moves to break the 2012 protests.

Lawmakers delayed a separate discussion on the spread of “fake news” via algorithms on Yandex NV, Russia’s largest search engine and biggest news aggregator, until October.

The Duma’s focus on foreign meddling comes amid a broader crackdown by the authorities that includes mass unrest charges against at least 10 people arrested at the peaceful rallies, and a money-laundering probe against opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. State TV has also taken up the theme in reporting on the Moscow protests.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused the U.S. embassy of interference earlier this month for posting a notice on Twitter and on its website warning American citizens about an unsanctioned election protest in Moscow, along with a map of the route of the proposed demonstration. The ministry summoned Tim Richardson, a diplomat in the U.S. embassy’s political section, on Aug. 9 to complain that publication of the map was “a call to action, which constitutes an attempt to interfere in Russia’s domestic affairs.”

The Foreign Ministry also summoned Germany’s envoy, Beate Grzeski, to complain about the “unacceptable” behavior of Deutsche Welle, alleging the broadcaster called on people in social media to take part in unsanctioned protests. Deutsche Welle said its correspondent was detained briefly while reporting on a July 27 protest in Moscow.

(Updates with Chemezov comment in fifth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Jake Rudnitsky in Moscow at jrudnitsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Torrey Clark at tclark8@bloomberg.net, Tony Halpin, Paul Abelsky

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