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Interference in Elections? The View From Moscow on Muller’s Report

In a series of coordinated surveys conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Levada Center in Moscow, sociologists asked Americans and Russians a variety of questions on foreign policy. The results somewhat surprised them. 

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Moscow
People walk along Nikolskaya Street near the Kremlin on a sunny day in Moscow, Russia, March 9, 2019. VOA

It was late Saturday evening in Moscow and almost 24 hours since the news that special counsel Robert Mueller submitted his long-awaited report to the U.S. attorney general had reached Russia’s capital. But both the Kremlin and the country’s Foreign Ministry were quiet.

While no details of the inquiry were made public, a single commentary by an unnamed Justice Department official could be viewed in Moscow as a preliminary victory: Mueller and his team, investigating alleged collusion between Russia and President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, did not recommend any further indictments.

Russian officials for months have been denying any interference in the U.S. elections, despite dozens of charges brought by Mueller and his team against 25 Russian nationals, mostly military officers and trolls, for their role in alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign.

The people VOA interviewed on the streets of Moscow seemed uninterested in Mueller himself and the line of work he does.

‘It never happened’

And a few, who were familiar with the inquiry he had led, stood firmly by their government, denying Moscow’s interference in the U.S. elections or any other malign activity abroad.

“We didn’t need any such interference and it never happened,” said one unnamed Moscovite to VOA. “Russia didn’t have either desire or resources to influence the will of the American people,” echoed another.

Independent experts are not surprised by such reaction by fellow countrymen.

“The majority will tell you that you have to deny everything by default. We are in the state of information war, and it’s the right tactics,” said Denis Volkov from Levada Center, a Russian independent polling organization.

Volkov has been studying public opinion in Russia for more than 10 years. He said that typically, at the beginning of surveys, Russians avoid answering questions about Moscow’s malevolent behavior abroad by just saying “it could have been anyone.”

The researcher said that with such responses people almost subconsciously repeat the ever-changing interpretation of Russia’s involvement abroad by state-controlled TV.

“It’s just like we [Russians] were rejecting the idea of Russian troops being in Crimea until Putin said, ‘Yes, those were our soldiers.’ But previously, he denied it,” Volkov said.

Old grudges

Experts believe many Russians also tend to accept the government’s interpretation of global events because of sociohistoric grudges stemming from lost glory.

The ongoing conflict between Moscow and the West doesn’t help, either.

“I’d say it’s almost some kind of envy toward a country that is No. 1. Because just recently, there was a parity and 30 years ago it all ended,” Volkov said.

trump, mueller
FILE – Special counsel Robert Mueller and President Donald Trump. VOA

The head of the Russian International Affairs Council, Andrey Kortunov, disagrees with Volkov. By siding with the government on issues like this, Russians simply seek affirmation of their new place in the world today.

“I think for an average Russian it’s a mechanism of attracting American attention. Russia means something and you cannot write it off. You cannot call it Upper Volta with missiles, or a gas station that pretends to be a country,” Kortunov said.

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But studies show that Russians are not the only people who accept the mainstream position for ultimate truth.

In a series of coordinated surveys conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Levada Center in Moscow, sociologists asked Americans and Russians a variety of questions on foreign policy. The results somewhat surprised them.

“It amused me quite a bit. The answers were mirror images of each other. The Russians said: ‘It’s not us, it’s them who interferes in our affairs.’ The exact opposite was true for the U.S.,” Volkov said. (VOA)

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Russia’s Alternative to Western Credit Card Debuts in London

Russia will next year diversify its foreign currency holdings in its National Wealth Fund

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Employees demonstrating a payment card
Employees speak while demonstrating a payment card during a tour at a branch of VTB bank in Moscow, Russia. VOA

A Russian backed bank payment card, introduced after Western sanctions upended Russia’s financial system five years ago and prompted Visa and Master card to deny electronic services to some of the country’s leading banks, is set for its European debut on London Wednesday, when a pilot project will be launched in collaboration with the Dutch global payment company PayXpert.

Moscow authorities hoped to get the MIR card accepted eventually in foreign markets, but progress has been slow outside Russia for the MIR payment system,  which operates outside of Western-controlled international financial systems such as Swift, which banks use to transfer money.

The pilot project with PayXpert “will lay the foundation for new promising trends in the foreign expansion of Russian payment cards,”  according to Vladimir Komlev, the head of Russia’s National Card Payment System, which operates the MIR system.

De-dollarization efforts

The effort is seen by analysts as part of the  Kremlin bid to de-dollarize the Russian economy to lessen the sting of Western sanctions. A Russian Finance Ministry official this month told Reuters that Russia will next year diversify its foreign currency holdings  in its National Wealth Fund, which supports Russia’s public pension system, aiming to lower the share of dollars in the fund’s reserves.

Dmitry Dolgin of the Dutch banking group ING said in  a report this month that de-dollarization efforts are now obvious across most sectors, including local business loans and bank-held international assets, although he said the dollar’s role  has actually increased in company and household savings and cash assets, partly because dollar interest rates have been higher than those offered for euros.

Credit Cards offers unique features
American Express, Visa and Master Card is displayed in this image. Each Credit Card offers unique features and benefits, along with unmatched privileges. Pixabay

U.S. authorities have been able advance sanctions by targeting companies that use dollars, and the establishment of electronic payment systems not tied to the dollar or largely controlled by U.S. businesses is one way for the Kremlin to reduce the impact of the West’s serial punishment of Moscow. Washington and the European Union have imposed a wave of sanctions since 2014 to punish Russia for the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections, and the poisoning of a defected Russian spy in England.

Komlev told Reuters this year that “In the next three years we want MIR cards to be operational in countries where Russians are used to traveling.” He projected MIR cards would be operational at some banks in at least a dozen countries by the end of this year. Turkish banks started to conduct transactions this year with MIR, which means both “peace” and “world” in Russian.

MIR was launched initially as a national payment system, with the first cards issued in December 2015. Russia’s leading bank, state-owned Sberbank, started issuing them in October 2016, and by the end of last year more than 70 million MIR-based cards had been issued by 64 Russian banks. The Kremlin has mandated that state welfare and pension payments must be processed through the system by next year, along with salaries paid to civil servants.

The card has a long way to go before it rivals VISA our Mastercard internationally. It is not accepted by international shopping platforms or major online booking services for airlines and hotels, although APEXX Fintech, a British start-up global payment company, said Thursday it would now start working with the MIR system. Among smartphone applications only Samsung has concluded an agreement with the MIR system.

Meanwhile, de-dollarization has been moving quickly. Russia’s Central Bank has currency swap deals in place with Iran, China and Turkey, allowing direct trade to be conducted in local currencies instead of U.S. dollars. Russia reportedly lost $7.7 billion in its bid to reduce dollars held in its reserves. Some of the dollars were turned into gold, and since January the bank has purchased 96.4 metric tons of gold.

People stand in line as they wait to enter the bank with their card
People stand in line as they wait to enter a branch of Sberbank of Russia bank. VOA

Alexei Zabotkin, head of the Russian Central Bank’s monetary policy department, has conceded that it would be impossible to completely empty the country’s foreign exchange reserves of dollars, as this would be  “fraught with excessive risks.” According to central bank data the  National Wealth Fund has $45.5 billion, 39.17 billion euros and 7.67 billion British pounds.

In August, the state-controlled Rosneft oil giant announced it would stop using the U.S. dollar for its export contracts.

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Nonetheless, analysts say there are limits on how far Russia can de-dollarize – the ruble is highly volatile and remains unattractive for investors and de-dollarization brings additional and sometimes prohibitive trading costs.

European regulators will be watching the London project closely. EU officials have been sympathetic about Russia’s de-dollarization bid, suspecting that as a spin-off the euro will be boosted as an international currency. In June the European Commission concluded that “the euro clearly stands out as the only candidate that has all the necessary attributes of a global currency that market participants could use as an alternative to the U.S. dollar.” (VOA)