The Interpreter

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Russian parliamentarians decked in St. George ribbons applauding their vote to annex the Crimea. Photo by EuroNews.

Russia This Week: Will the Kremlin Reduce America to “Radioactive Ash”? (17-22 March)

Russians continue to protest the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, as tens of thousands turned out to protest the rigged referendum and forcible annexation of Crimea this past weekend. (Go here for last week’s chronicle.) The defendants in the Bolotnaya Case remain on trial. Some of those who protested during the Sochi Olympics last month, such as the Circassians, are still suffering the consequences. And the Russian government continues to make moves to suppress dissent. This blog will chart throughout the week what’s happening in Russia.

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March 22, 2014


1515 GMT: Our favorite Russian Demotivator posters for the week. The first one is titled “Churkin and Friends,” and was taken after Russia’s ambassador gave the sole veto to a UN Security Council condemnation of the forcible annexation of Crimea.

Churkin and Friends

Here Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov is photoshopped in Russian national costume proferring the traditional plate of food to show hospitality, with the caption “Welcome Home,” signifying the fate of autonomous regions in the Russian Federation who get out of line — they wind up with leaders on the Magnitsky List.

Welcome to Russia

The caption to this photo of Russian tanks says “Haven’t held a referendum yet in your country? Then we’ll come to you!”

Referendum Tanks

And finally the G8, minus Russia:
G7


1501 GMT: Alexey Navalny, who is under arrest and banned from Internet usage, is assailed from different directions, both with actual and threatened court cases, state TV exposes, and now a chorus from some conservative bloggers that his list of suggested Putin cronies to target in any sanctions list in a 19 March op-ed piece in The New York Times was somehow used by the US government in drafting its own list.


Translation: It looks like it’s not the CIA running Navalny, but Navalny running the CIA, the whole list of sanctions is from his column.

This is silly, given that the US has been working on this list for weeks, and more to the point, has finally focused on the actual financial sources of Putin’s power that numerous journalists and bloggers in Russia and the West have been writing about for years.

For the last year, The Interpreter has covered reports for example from Boris Nemtsov on the Rotenberg brothers; about Vladimir Yakunin of Russian Railways not only by Navalny but by Roman Shleynov in Vedomosti; on Vladislav Surkov by Ivan Osipov and Roman Badanin in Forbes; about Yuri Kovalchuk of Bank Rossiya by Natalia Biyanova in Vedomosti; and Putin’s massive arms build-up with the defense lobby under the patronage of Dmitry Rogozin by Andrew Bowen — just to cite a few of our articles.

Google the names in the US Treasury Department’s sanctions list to find plenty of articles; two days before sanctions against the Russian businessmen were announced, Bloomberg ran a detailed piece by Ilya Arkhipov and Henry Meyer about the Rotenbergs, Gennady Timchenko, Vladimir Yakunin and others and their shady involvement in the outrageously expensive $50 billion Sochi Olympics, described as ” a monumental waste of public money” by Stefan Szymanski, a sports economist at the University of Michigan.

None of these people had to get story ideas from Navalny.


1450 GMT: When NTV ran its hit-job on Navalny last week, they had no scruples about broadcasting videotapes of his private meetings with European officials and audiotapes of his private conversations, and even used police films from a search of his foundation director’s apartment for the show. This kind of routine Russian intelligence surveillance and collusion with state media in harassment of the opposition never seems to get a second look from those concerned more abstractly about the NSA’s dragnet which has yet to lead to publication of actual content from individual cases.

Now Navalny is fighting back to counter the false impression NTV created with of a slice of his chat about the CIA, which the Kremlin’s propaganda station tried to spin into a serious admission of cooperation with the CIA. He has obtained a signed letter from Dmitry Golubovsky, the editor of the Russian edition of Esquire magazine, who explains that Navalny traveled to the US in 2011 for the purpose of posing for the cover of Esquire magazine. While he was chatting with Esquire employees, they made a joke about how he “had to obtain his next instructions at the CIA” and would make another trip to the US for this purpose — a story which Navalny humorously repeated to his friends later.

Esquire


1444 GMT: People may have gotten the impression that the Russian parliament voted unanimously for Putin’s invasion of the Crimea — given that this body, accepts laws drafted in the president’s office and zealously follows the Kremlin line. And in this, the State Duma seems to be reflecting the will of the “aggressively obedient majority,” in the phrase historian Yury Afanasyev once used to describe the Soviet public.

But there was one vote in opposition which came from Ilya Ponomarev, a member of parliament from the Just Russia party who has taken controversial positions in the past; last week he was targeted for a disinformation campaign involving a draft law penalizing “Russophobia” which he disavowed and withdrew.

Just One

The reasons Ponomarev cites on his VKontakte page for his “no” vote aren’t the same that the non-system opposition outside of parliament marching against the war would cite. He thinks a majority of Crimeans wanted to join Russia, and that the Crimea justly belongs in the Russian Federation. He’s just concerned about the rash moves — which he thinks Ukrainians have made as well. Even so:

“Ukrainians, just like us, want to have fair trials, pensions, and housing fees; accessible housing; normal roads. They demand a real, and not immitation battle against corruption, a normal dialogue between the government and society without intermediaries in the form of the Russian OMON and Ukrainian Berkut [riot troops]. Now I do not know, against the backdrop of everything that has happened, how we will explain to our Ukrainian brothers our peace-loving intentions. If we had preserved restraint, under a new government, the Ukrainians would have realized in a year that they had made a big mistake. But now we have wound up on the other side of the barricade and the residents of Ukraine are holding talks with NATO in complete seriousness.Today’s decision of the Russian parliament sharply increases the likelihood of the entry of our neighbor into NATO, which creates new threats for the whole system of security in Europe and in Russia in particular.”

The new Ukrainian government has repeatedly made it clear that it has no intentions of joining NATO, however. Ponomarev thinks the 1994 agreement whereby Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan gave up their nuclear weapons in exchange for guarantees of their sovereignty was “shortsighted” but “we gave our word.” Like others concerned about the impact of Putin’s forcible annexation at home as well as abroad, Ponomarev comments:

“I deeply regret that although an enormous number of professionals in government, diplomats, and law-enforcers understand the hastiness of today’s decision, and the incorrectness of the chosen process, they fear honestly expressing their opinion. In the Duma, it was decided not to discuss at all this most important and fateful political step. That is also an indicator of the unhealthiness of our political system.”


March 21, 2014


1632 GMT: NTV’s hit-job on opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny and his staff is getting top views and discussion on Live Journal — making Navalny himself wonder if some of the blogs are getting an artificial boost.


Translation: @navalny Here, by the way, posts like this don’t just land in the top LJ, but take over all of the top LJ. Does Mamut himself personally put them in there?

Yes, aside from Lenta.ru, whose liberal editor-in-chief Galina Timchenko was just fired, and the building where independent TV station just got an eviction notice, Mamut owns Live Journal, too.

NTV aired tapes of Navalny’s private conversations and meetings with European politician Guy Verhofstadt and others. Now how was NTV able to do that, when Russia doesn’t have an Edward Snowden?

In the tendentiously-sliced broadcast segments, Navalny supposedly describes his contacts with the CIA, but says he avoids the US Embassy and US diplomats because of constant claims that he is an American tool. The NTV show also discusses meetings Vladimir Ashurkov, former Alpha Group manager, now executive director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, had with UK Labour Party representatives, and showed footage of his apartment, which NTV implied was overly pricey for his income, saying he was being questioned in a criminal case. Ashurkov himself has refuted the claims on Facebook, saying he and his girlfriend were renting the apartment from an acquaintance, whose husband is a businessman under investigation, and the rent was not “a million rubles”.

“I am not well acquainted with the details of the case, but everyone knows that criminal cases against businessmen in our country are often instruments of divvying up property, corporate raids, and political pressure. There has been no trial yet in this case, and as far as I know, no one has abolished the presumption of innocence. Possibly he is guilty, possibly he is not.”

Ashurkov added that when police searched his home with a warrant on 14 March, they brought a film crew and assured him that the footage would be kept strictly confidential. But by evening, NTV was already broadcasting scenes from his apartment. “This is a serious violation of the integrity of my personal life by the investigative group,” he said.


The Council of Europe has added to its list of Russian officials sanctioned for the violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity:

Interestingly, Europeans thought to add Dmitry Kiselyov, head of the Rossiya Segodnya [Russia Today] Kremlin media empire, as he is the chief state propagandist. Read more over at our Ukraine liveblog.


1553 GMT: Visa and MasterCard have frozen transactions on credit cards from a number of Russian banks, including Bank Rossiya, owned by Yury Kovalchuk, described as “Putin’s cashier,” who was included in the White House sanctions’ list announced yesterday in response to the illegal annexation of the Crimea. The Rotenberg brothers are also included in the list, so their SMP Bank is also affected, as are Sobinbank and Investkapitalbank, reports RBC.

“This means that these cards do not function in shopping centers and ATMs in the international netrwork. However, banks may service them through their client offices and ATMs,” RBC.ru reported. A number of media companies including OGK-2, TGK-1, Ren-TV, Channel Five and others pay their employees through payroll services run by Bank Rossiya, but the freeze will not affect them, said officials. Meanwhile a source at OGK-2 said that while cash could be withdrawn, payments could not be made. “The amounts frozen in the USA cannot cause any problems for the bank,” said an official. “These funds will finally be returned, but even if we suppose they are gone, it’s not a critical sum for the bank.”

Natalya Burykina, chair of the State Duma Committee on Finance, said that Russia plans to amend legislation and create its own national payment centers instead of Visa and Mastercard, because they have “violated Russian law” for failing to provide notice of the freeze.


1509 GMT: Prominent Russian economist Mikhail Dmitriev was assaulted on his way home from work sparking a debate on social media about whether the attack could have been politically related, as Dmitriev formerly worked as a deputy government minister of labor and is associated with former prime minister and opposition figure Mikhail Kasyanov.

Dmitriev, former head of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow who remains as a researcher, has told Interfax that the assailants took his laptop, but not his cash.

“I sustained a light concussion, and many cuts and bruises on my head. But fortunately, without fractures and internal bleeding. The attack was in the entrance to my building, when I had already left the commuter train and had gone inside the entrance.

Police who conducted an investigation noted that the robbers did not try to take cash, but only took my briefcase with a computer. Of course there is no commercially-valuable information in the computer, and it’s always a headache to sell a computer. I will not undertake to make any more conclusions.”

The robbers were not wearing masks and may have been caught on video surveillance in a well-lit area, he added. Police have responded well and worked all night on the case.


1415 GMT: Buzzfeed, one of the highest-read news sites in the US, and RT.com, the Kremlin’s propaganda arm, are having a traffic war over the story of the RT.com resignations. Rosie Gray of Buzzfeed has done the definitive expose of RT.com — which hides the “Russia Today” in its rebranded name the way KFC hides the fat content in fried chicken. It seems like RT.com is winning – except that Gray’s story ran on 13 May, and Simonyan’s vitriolic op-ed where she implied colleagues who didn’t agree with Putin were dishonest cowards was published 6 March — so it had more chance to gather clicks. Of course, Buzzfeed is a private media company that that can’t be expected to compete with a nuclear power where people are paid to click on pro-government articles.

Also being debated is a wildly tendentious take-down of critical coverage of an RT.com resignation which was started by Jamie Kirchick, who was famous for his protest live on RT.com against the Kremlin’s homophobia . Kirchick challenged insinuations from Firedoglake blogger Kevin Gosztola that Wahl’s resignation was cooked up as a “neo-con conspiracy.” Truthdig boosters fail to see that many people view the site as fringe, a home for truthers and Snowdenistas. See also Dave Weigel’s interview with Liz Wahl, the RT.com reporter who dramatically quit over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


1351 GMT: Gunvor seems to have gotten a jump on the US sanctions (the full list is on the Treasury Department’s web site):

“Anticipating potential economic sanctions so to ensure with certainty the continued and uninterrupted operations of Gunvor Group Ltd’s activities, the shares of the company held by Mr. Gennady Timchenko were sold on March 19 from his personal holding vehicle to Mr. Torbjorn Törnqvist personally. As a result, Mr. Törnqvist has become the majority owner of Gunvor Group Ltd, with an 87 percent stake, and Mr. Timchenko has fully divested his entire holdings in the company. The remaining 13 percent of shares are held by senior employees of Gunvor. There are no outside shareholders.”

This reminds us of reports of how Gazprom chief Viktor Zubkov sold his entire stake in Gazprom before the Crimean invasion, when the Russian stock market fell. But given the source is the anonymous provocateurs Zerohedge, we need more sources on this story — and so far they haven’t materialized.

A question being asked is whether former German Chancellor Gerhard Shroeder, who accepted a position in Gazprom’s project Nord Stream, has sold his shares. Shroeder has been in the crosshairs of both the Green Party and conservatives in the European Parliament for his remarks on Russia.


1333 GMT: The storm clouds have been gathering over Alexey Navalny’s head since he has continued to remain outspoken despite his house arrest and Internet ban, and has called for further sanctions. Yesterday his party’s candidates for the Moscow Duma elections were rejected and he was called “an EU and CIA collaborator” on NTV. Now his organization is being attacked by authorities:


Translation: @navalny A search has taken place in the apartment of Vladimir Ashurkov, director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation.


1330 GMT: Alexey Navalny published an op-ed piece yesterday in the New York Times in which he called for sanctions again Putin’s closest aides:

“Such sanctions should primarily target Mr. Putin’s inner circle, the Kremlin mafia who pillage the nation’s wealth, including Gennady N. Timchenko, head of the Volga Group; Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, influential businessmen and former judo sparring partners of Mr. Putin; Yuri V. Kovalchuk, a financier believed to be Mr. Putin’s banker; Vladimir I. Yakunin, president of Russian Railways; the oligarchs Roman A. Abramovich and Alisher B. Usmanov; and Igor I. Sechin and Aleksei B. Miller, the heads of Rosneft and Gazprom, respectively.

The sanctions must also hit the oligarchs whose media outlets parrot the regime lines, and target Mr. Putin’s entire “war cabinet”: the TV spin doctors, compliant Duma members and apparatchiks of Mr. Putin’s United Russia Party.”

By the end of the day, the White House happened to include some of these people in its second list of sanctions (the first was released on 17 March), namely the Rotenberg brothers, Kovalchuk of Bank Rossiya, described as “Putin’s cashier” and Yakunin of Russian Railways. As Adam Taylor writes in The Washington Post, supporters of sanctions are very happy with this list, as it finally seems to be effective.

As Navalny pointed out, however some in the “war cabinet” were left out — including Sechin and Miller, as we reported below for reasons now being debated. Were these state-owned businesses which do the Kremlin’s bidding somehow perceived as part of a corporate world that shouldn’t be touched by political sanctions? Yet other businesses were sanctioned. Were they not seen as material enough to the invasion of the Crimea?


Translation: Miller and Sechin are really, really, really missing from this list.

Some have pointed out that this is a good time to remember the Magnitsky List that the Obama Administration has stalled on extending:


March 20, 2014


1854 GMT: Members of the new Progress Party led by Alexey Navalny, just successfully registered last month, submitted a slate of candidates to the Territorial Elections Commission (TEC) for the Moscow City Duma elections to take place this fall, but they were rejected.


Translation: @volkova-ta Progress Party submitted a list of 21 candidates to the TEC — and not a single one was accepted. They don’t even want to create the illusion of liberalization.

Arkady Chaplygin, the head of the Progress Party in St. Petersburg was recently involved in a dispute with a local Orthodox Christian group, God’s Will, after he proposed banning the Bible or at least not having it disseminated in schools. Chaplygin said the Russian Orthodox Church has become “a cross between the ideological department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s central committee and the State Security Services.”


1836 GMT: Slon.ru, one of the few remaining independent news outlets in Russia, has obtained a leaked videotape of a meeting inside Lenta.ru, another news site whose editor, Galina Timchenko, was fired recently, triggering the resignation of 39 journalists and editors. The firing seemed to be a sacrifice made by the owners after Lenta.ru received a warning from Roskomnadzor, the state communications monitoring agency, that they had published “extremist” materials about the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist group Svoboda and its leader, Dmytro Jarosz. The Interpreter has the translation here.


1821 GMT: Remember the story of the abolition of mayoral elections that some people, including us, were a little early with although it seemed to have some basis? It’s back.


Translation: @gudkovd After the Crimea, up next is the law on the abolition of mayor elections.

Gudkov writes on his blog:

“While we’re all discussing the Crimea, the State Duma has introduced amendments to the law “On General Principles of Organization of Local Self-Government in the RF” (Municipal Self-Government), which would abolish direct elections of mayors of large cities. The law will be confirmed and passed in the Federation Council before 24 May 2014. The Kremlin has resolved finally to deprive Russians of their Constitutional right to choose not only mayors, but deputies of city Dumas as well (read the draft law!).”

Gudkov says that Kostroma has already been stripped of the right to elect its mayor, which is why there are so many pot-holes.

Photo by ru_kostroma
Photo by ru_kostroma


1713 GMT: Denials from some who have found themselves on the White House sanctions list have begun.


Translation: @aavst Moscow is studying the USA sanction lists, some of the names in them provoke extreme puzzlement — Peskov [Kremlin spokesman].


1640 GMT: Not surprisingly, the Kremlin has retaliated with sanctions against Americans, Business Insider reports:

Caroline Atkinson, White House deputy national security adviser
Daniel Pfeiffer, White House senior adviser
Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
House Speaker John Boehner
Sen. Robert Menendez
Sen. Mary Landrieu
Sen. John McCain
Sen. Daniel Coats


1640 GMT: So now that the Obama Administration has announced sanctions against many of Russia’s top political and business leadership, who did they miss?

One obvious name is Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, but the White House theory there may be to keep open a channel for negotiations. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was left off — either because it’s been finally conceded that he is irrelevant or hope springs eternal that he may still bring about “reforms.”

Also absent are Vyacheslav Volodin, first deputy chief of staff of the Russian Presidential Administration, who some think is more of a “gray cardinal” these days than Vladislav Surkov, the presidential advisor put on the sanctions list yesterday, and Arkady Dvorkovich, Deputy Prime Minister in Medvedev’s cabinet (who has a rude brother on Twitter as we discovered yesterday, see below).

Gazprom is missing, too — Viktor Zubkov, first deputy prime minister of Russia and chairman of the board of Gazprom, and Alexey Miller, deputy chairman of the board and CEO, although Kommersant has reported that they carried out orders from Putin directly regarding Ukraine.

Now, why not hardliner Igor Sechin, reputed former arms smuggler for the GRU, a powerful figure in the military-industrial complex in Russia? He previously served as Deputy Prime Minister of Russia in Putin’s cabinet and he is currently the Executive Chairman of Rosneft. Maybe the White House decided he is so busy selling Russian gas and oil to China these days that he isn’t as relevant for the West.


1624 GMT: The White House has announced further sanctions against Russia for its illegal forcible annexation of the Crimea.

The list hasn’t been published on whitehouse.gov, but Business Insider obtained the names from the Treasury Department. Sixteen are top Russian government officials:

Viktor Ozerov is the Chairman of the Security and Defense Committee of the Federation Council of the Russian Federation. On March 1, 2014, Ozerov supported Russian President Vladimir Putin’s appeal regarding the use of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine.
Vladimir Dzhabarov is the First Deputy Chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the Federation Council of the Russian Federation. On March 1, 2014, Dzhabarov supported the Putin’s appeal regarding the use of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine.
Evgeni Bushmin is the Deputy Speaker of the Federation Council of the Russian Federation. On March 1, 2014, Bushmin publicly supported the deployment of Russian forces in Ukraine.
Nikolai Ryzhkov is a Senator in the Russian Upper House of Parliament (Federation Council). Ryzhkov publicly supported the deployment of Russian forces in Ukraine.
Sergei Zheleznyak is the Deputy Speaker of the State Duma of the Russian Federation.
Sergei Mironov is a Member of the Council of the State Duma, a Member of the State Duma Committee on Housing Policy and Housing and Communal Services, and Leader of the Fair Russia Faction in the Duma of the Russian Federation.
Aleksandr Totoonov is a Member of the Committee on Culture, Science, and Information, Federation Council of the Russian Federation. On March 1, 2014, Totoonov publicly supported the deployment of Russian forces in Ukraine.
Oleg Panteleev is the First Deputy Chairman of the Committee on Parliamentary Issues. On March 1, 2014, Panteleev publicly supported the deployment of Russian forces in Ukraine.
Sergey Naryshkin has been the Chairman of the Government Duma of the Federal Gathering of the Russian Federation since December, 2011. Additionally, he is a member of the National Security Council of the Russian Federation and of the United Russia party.
Victor Ivanov >has been director of the Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN) of the Russian Federation since May 15, 2008; he was appointed as a member of the Security Council of the Russian Federation on May 25, 2008. Ivanov has served in a number of other government positions prior to that; he was Assistant to the President of the Russian Federation from 2004 – 2008; and Deputy Chief of the Administration of the Russian Federation from 2000 – 2004. Ivanov joined the KGB in 1977 and eventually rose to become the Deputy Director of the Federal Security Service. Ivanov is a close ally of Putin and served alongside Putin as the chief of staff of the St. Petersburg Mayor’s office in 1994 when Putin was first deputy head of the city’s administration.
Igor Sergun is the head of Russia’s military intelligence service (GRU) and is Deputy Chief of the General Staff.
Sergei Ivanov is the Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office.
Alexei Gromov is the First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office.
Andrei Fursenko is an aide to the President of the Russian Federation and has been in that position since May 21, 2012. Fursenko has held a number of positions in the Government of the Russian Federation since 2001, including Minister of Education and Science from 2004 – 2012. Although not being designated for being a member of the Russian leadership’s inner circle, Fursenko first met Putin in 1993 and they remain closely associated.
Vladimir Yakunin was appointed as chairman of the board of the Russian state-owned company Russian Railways on June 15, 2005; he has remained as head of the company ever since. Yakunin is being designated because of his official position in the Russian government, but he is also a close confidant of Putin.š Yakunin regularly consults with Putin on issues regarding the Russian Railways company.In addition, Yakunin accompanies Putin on many domestic and international visits.Yakunin met Putin while both were working in St. Petersburg. Yakunin decided to create a business center in the city and contacted Putin for his support.In addition, Yakunin became a member of the board of the Baltic Maritime Steamship Company on Putin’s instructions. Yakunin and Putin were also neighbors in the elite dacha community on the shore of Lake Komsomolsk and they served as cofounders of the Ozero Dacha Cooperative in November 1996.
Vladimir Kozhin was appointed the Head of Administration under the President of the Russian Federation by Putin on January 21, 2000. He has served continuously in that position until the present time. Kohzin is responsible for overseeing a staff of 60,000, over a hundred enterprises and institutions including the Kremlin and several other government buildings, and over four thousand vehicles. Kohzin’s positions have been variously referred to as Head of Administration, Head of the Presidential Affairs Office, Head of the Presidential Business Management Directorate of the Russian Federation, and head of the Presidential Property Management Directorate.

Three are close associates of Putin who have acted on behalf of the Russian government:

Gennady Timchenko is one of the founders of Gunvor, one of the world’s largest independent commodity trading companies involved in the oil and energy markets.š Timchenko’s activities in the energy sector have been directly linked to Putin.š Putin has investments in Gunvor and may have access to Gunvor funds.
Arkady Rotenberg and Boris Rotenberg have provided support to Putin’s pet projects by receiving and executing high price contracts for the Sochi Olympic Games and state-controlled Gazprom. They have made billions of dollars in contracts for Gazprom and the Sochi Winter Olympics awarded to them by Putin.š Both brothers have amassed enormous amounts of wealth during the years of Putin’s rule in Russia.š The Rotenberg brothers received approximately $7 billion in contracts for the Sochi Olympic Games and their personal wealth has increased by $2.5 billion in the last two years alone.
Yuri Kovalchuk is the largest single shareholder of Bank Rossiya and is also the personal banker for senior officials of the Russian Federation including Putin. Kovalchuk is a close advisor to President Putin and has been referred to as one of his “cashiers.”

Our readers will recognize some of these names from the Russian opposition reports we have published of corruption in the extravagant Sochi Olympics, which cost triple any other Games in history.


1622 GMT: Putin likes Russian nationalism — but not if it gets out of hand. Police searched the apartment today of Aleksandr Belov, one of the leaders of the Russians nationalist movement, ITAR-TASS reported, citing an anonymous law-enforcement source. The pseudonymous Belov (his real name is Potkin) is known as a founder of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration and also served as press secretary for the ultranationalist group Pamyat (Memory). Belov/Potkin has been charged before for inciting ethnic hatred in 2006, but the case was dropped; in 2009 he was sentenced to 1.5 years suspended for a rally in November 2007.


Translation: @Beskudnikoff A search is underway in the apartment of Belov (Potkin). At last the government has decided to put the squeeze on provocateur Potkin. It’s long overdue.


1602 GMT: The trial of Sergei Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhayev on charges of planning and inciting riots in the Bolotnaya Case has adjourned, Udaltsov’s Twitter account reports. Razvozzhayev filed a request to be moved to Matrosskaya Tishina [Sailor's Haven] Prison in order to be closer to the courthouse, and not face such long rides in a stuffy, cold police van. But then he was moved in the middle of the night and kept awake, so his lawyer filed another complaint. The judge ruled to postpone the trial until tomorrow. More on his Facebook page.


Translation: @s_udaltsov Leonid Razvozzhaev has been transferred to an investigation isolation cell at Matrosskaya Tishina


1541 GMT: Gazeta.ru reports that Ali Abu Muhammad (Kebekov), the new head of the terrorist organization Caucasus Emirate, has posted his first YouTube address as leader, and confirmed the statement by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov that the video where the emirs were discussing the death of Doku Umarov and the choosing of a new leader was leaked.

The address mainly consists of a eulogy for Umarov. Abu-Muhammad quotes from the Koran regarding Umarov that as a martyr he has died a special death: “Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, they are alive, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord.” He added that Umarov has become a green bird in paradise. Abu-Muhammad vowed to punish those responsible for the leak, gazeta.ru reported. The exact date and circumstances of Umarov’s death are still not known, says gazeta.ru.


1441 GMT: Russian blogger Anton Nossik says that the Russian government’s blockage of alternative news sites seems to be spotty. Despite reports of some major providers blocking “extremist” sites on orders of Roskomnadzor, the Russian communications monitoring agency, major Russian ISPs BeeLine and MTS were in fact allowing access to kasparov.ru, grani.ru and ej.ru (Ezhednevky Zhurnal) even without circumvention software. Nossik also directs readers to nalany.us a mirror site for Alexei Navalny’s blog, which has been blocked.

The one down side to this incomplete censorship, says Nossik is that officials may then ask the owners of Live Journal to remove Navalny’s blog completely because it is essentially still being accessed. Navalny announced when he was placed under house arrest and barred from Internet use recently that his wife and colleagues at the Anti-Corruption Foundation would update his Twitter, Live Journal and other social media pages.

The pro-Kremlin TV channel NTV ran a broadcast today accusing Navalny of violating the terms of his house arrest and collaborating with the EU and the CIA.


1439 GMT: Britain is shutting down 5 of its visa applications centers in Russia, as part of its sanctions for the annexation of the Crimea. RFE/RL report here.


1330 GMT: One of the more sinister features of President Vladimir Putin’s speech yesterday at the Kremlin’s St. George Hall was his invocation of the idea of “traitors to the Motherland” who are undermining state progress:
Kremlin officials applaud Putin 18 March 2014. Photo by kremlin.ru
Kremlin officials applaud Putin 18 March 2014. Photo by kremlin.ru

Putin evokes Russia’s KGB past — and his own — and his claims to be a good neighbor ring false after troops forcibly annexed the Crimea.

“Obviously, we will encounter external opposition, but this is a decision that we need to make for ourselves. Are we ready to consistently defend our national interests, or will we forever give in, retreat to who knows where? Some Western politicians are already threatening us with not just sanctions but also the prospect of increasingly serious problems on the domestic front. I would like to know what it is they have in mind exactly: action by a fifth column, this disparate bunch of ‘national traitors’, or are they hoping to put us in a worsening social and economic situation so as to provoke public discontent? We consider such statements irresponsible and clearly aggressive in tone, and we will respond to them accordingly. At the same time, we will never seek confrontation with our partners, whether in the East or the West, but on the contrary, will do everything we can to build civilised and good-neighbourly relations as one is supposed to in the modern world.”

Even RT.com’s loyal chief propagandist Margarita Simonyan (especially Simonyan?) was quick to tweet the question yesterday from the annexation ceremony:


Translation: So who here among us is a national traitor?

Paul Goble writes about the impact of this threat on someone like Arkady Babchenko, a critical war correspondent who was just in the Crimea.

Sergei Aksyonov (“the Goblin”), the self-appointed head of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, was quick to pick up the theme:


Translation: @sergyaksenov Especially hot-headed citizens, I urge you to think over the words of President Putin about national traitors. Think very well.

Remember how Khrushchev described Stalin at his famous “Secret Speech” at the 20th Party Congress?

“Facts prove that many abuses were made on Stalin’s orders without reckoning with any norms of Party and Soviet legality. Stalin was a very distrustful man, sickly suspicious. We know this from our work with him. He could look at a man and say: “Why are your eyes so shifty today?” or “Why are you turning so much today and avoiding to look me directly in the eyes?” The sickly suspicion created in him a general distrust even toward eminent Party workers whom he had known for years. Everywhere and in everything he saw “enemies,” “two-facers” and “spies.” Possessing unlimited power, he indulged in great willfulness and stifled people morally as well as physically. A situation was created where one could not express one’s own volition.”


1326 GMT: The last remaining independent television station, TV Rain, has received a notice of non-renewal of their lease from Krasny Oktyabr (Red October), the building where their studios have been located. Last month TV Rain came under pressure for a controversial poll about the Leningrad Blockade, and cable operators cut the station from their offerings. Krasny Oktyabr is owned by Alexander Mamut, the same man who took over the formerly independent news site Lenta.ru recently.


Translation: @Vinokurov12 TV Rain has received a warning from Red October that the lease will not be renewed. The reasons were not given.



Translation
: @rrubanov Last week Mamut closed Lenta.ru, this week he evicts Rain as owner of Red October.

Translation: @navalny TV Rain is being evicted. Oh brave new world.


March 19, 2014


1815 GMT: Are Russian authorities retaliating now against Ukrainian businesses? This morning in Lipetsk (Russia) a police post was set up on Dovatora Street at the entrance to the famous Roshen confectionary factory owned by Ukrainian oligarch Petro Poroshenko, liga.net reported.
Police block Roshen candy factory 19 March 2014. Photo by liga.net
Police block Roshen candy factory 19 March 2014. Photo by liga.net

The entrance to the factory was blocked by an OMON (riot police) truck and a police UAZ vehicle. Workers are barred from the factory grounds without explanation. Office employees of the factory have been assembled in the conference hall. Police have no comment, and factory managers are unavailable and their mobile phones are not responding.

According to some reports, an operation to find illegal migrant workers is underway at the factory. The workers say that the police officers introduced themselves as employees of the Moscow Oblast department of the Interior Ministry.


1715 GMT: Coverage has been muted in Russia of the reported death of Chechen terrorist Doku Umarov and his replacement by Ali Abu Muhammad, the new emir of the terrorist organization Caucasus Emirate.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty notes that the story has not really been confirmed officially yet:

The website Kavkazcenter has reported the death of self-styled Caucasus Emirate leader Doku Umarov, but failed to say when and how he died. Specifically, the brief report fails to mention, let alone clarify, the claim circulated last month by Israeli scholar Avrom Shmulevich that Umarov was poisoned last fall while visiting an insurgency winter base in Chechnya.

RFE/RL also helpfully reminds us that Umarov, while Chechen himself, abandoned the Chechnya independence struggle:

“Umarov broke with the ideology of Chechen independence and proclaimed himself, reportedly under pressure from the radical Islamist wing of the insurgency, the leader of an Islamic state encompassing the entire North Caucasus.”

The changeover from a Chechen to an Avar from Dagestan is significant.


1645 GMT: Russians have been whipped up into an anti-American frenzy as we’ve seen from a TV show reminding us that only Russia can reduce America to nuclear ash and other nasty comments. But is this flyer for real?

Translation: Do you consider America the Evil Empire??? Only at our shop! Obama and Drunk Obama MUFFINS”. Chocolate and Rum Chocolate. Bring this flyer and get a Crimea roll free!

Presumably this bakery is in Moscow — the address shown is only 5 Proseka, d. 99 (next to the post office). So perhaps someone can try to verify this, but better, hurry, the offer ends 23 March.


1604 GMT: A new breakaway faction of National Bolsheviks (or “natsbols” as they are known in Russia) got off to a vigorous start today protesting Putin’s forcible annexation of the Crimea — their way. Here’s a tweet about a banner unfurled from a bridge in Moscow in response to Russian blogger Oleg Kashin’s tweet about Russian flags on apartment buildings:


Translation: @romanpopkova1 @KSHN chauvinism of the Moscow Housing and Communal¡No pasarán! Banner text: Revolution in Russia, Not War in Ukraine

Ukrainian writer Halya Coynash has written about the Russian National Bolsheviks led by Eduard Limonovs in recent months:

“Russian National Bolsheviks have, incidentally, been calling on the faithful to defend the Kremlin line on the Crimea.They have also supported Pavel Gubarev, a former member of the neo-Nazi, Russian chauvinist Russian National Unity movement who in early March, called on the Kremlin to send troops into the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.”

But as Popkov explains on his Facebook page today, (and as Other Russia posted on VKontakte) some natsbols split from Limonov “because of his obvious reactionary out-of-touch position.” A translation of an excerpt from their manifesto:

“Today, on the day when the Constitutional Court has pronounced legal the incorporation of the Crimea into Russia, Moscow natsbols have staged a direct action, explaining the essence of the RF foreign policy actions. At Bolshoy Kamenny Bridge, opposite the Kremlin, the activists hung a banner, lit torches and scattered leaflets. None of the participants in the action were detained.

At this moment third parties are trying to incite very real war in Ukraine. This is explained by the unhealthy interest on the part of the US and several NATO countries and also on the part of the Russian Federation which is interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs not for the purpose of defending Russians, as Kremlin agitators try to assure us, but exclusively proceeding from the interests of the oligarchy and the major Russian bureaucracy. War in the interests of Chubais, Abramovich, Putin and Vekselberg and others will not bring the people anything except grief and poverty.”


1550 GMT: Alexander Verkhovsky, the respected independent expert on Russian extremists movements, has a useful point to make about the right-wing Crimean observers invited by the Russian government this past weekend to support the forced annexation of the Crimea. The Kremlin is making the most noise about the “fascists” in the new Kiev government, claiming that ultranationalists, anti-Semites and Bandera-like fascists are taking over the rule of Ukraine, and therefore Moscow’s intervention is required.

Yet if Putin wanted to convince the world that he’s right about Ukrainian “fascists,” he’s hardly credible when he invites Europe’s worst neo-Nazi and neo-Stalinist parties to help bolster his case about the Crimea — and is silent about those at home.

Photo by Ilya Varlamov. Followers of Kurganyan's left nationalists at pro-Putin march 15 March 2014.
Photo by Ilya Varlamov. Followers of Kurganyan’s left nationalists at pro-Putin march 15 March 2014.

Even more interesting is where Verkhovsky was able to publish this — on the web site of the presidential human rights commission, of which he remains a member:

“Many of us have been seriously concerned at the role of ultra-right Ukrainian organizations in the events of recent months in Ukraine. This topic has largely become a subject of propagandistic speculations and distortions on both sides, but few will deny that this problem really exists. Undoubtedly, concern about it played some role in the recent unfolding of events in the Crimea, the culmination of which was the 16 March referendum.

Since nationalism has been for many years a subject of my research, I am interested in its manifestations in Ukrainian events from all sides of the conflict. I am not an expert on the nationalist movement in Ukraine and therefore have not expressed an opinion until now on this topic. But in connection with the referendum, I have been shocked by the composition of the observers from countries of the European Union. Since public opinion in the Crimea, and most importantly in Russia, will now rely on their appraisals, it seems important to draw attention to this delegation.”

Verkhovsky notes that most of the list of observers come from ultra-right parties — “not conservative, but in fact ultra-right” and provides a list with affiliations.


1544 GMT: The Kremlin propaganda channel RT.com published happy little stories of the referendum observers, characterizing them as “professional” and not always admitting their troublesome political backgrounds and affiliations. EuroMaidan PR and several human rights sites published fuller information, and below see the annotated list from a widely-shared labeled photo of the observers.

But the best, fullest and most accurate list of these right-wing observers we have found comes from Ukrainian Live Journal blogger Anton Shekhovtsov. As he notes:

The illegitimate “referendum” in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, which was held in this Ukrainian region at the gunpoint of Russian invaders on Sunday, has proven my point again. Supported by the pariah states such as North Korea and Assad’s Syria, yet strongly defied by the civilised world that is beginning to understand the terrifying nature of Putin’s Russia, the Crimean “referendum” has, however, been hailed as “fair” and “legitimate” by a number of European “election monitors” who have been hired by dubious European structures and who have clear links to the extreme right, pro-Russian organisations as well as the extreme left.

The main organisation which invited right-wing and left-wing extremists to monitor the Crimean “referendum” is the Eurasian Observatory For Democracy & Elections (EODE). It is headed by Luc Michel (1958) and Jean-Pierre Vandersmissen (???). Both are followers of the major Belgian collaborationist and neo-Nazi Jean-François Thiriart and members of the extreme right Parti Communautaire National-Européen (PCN-NCP).

Read his full post in English here.


1533 GMT: An annotated photo of the pro-Putin Crimean referendum observers widely shared in social media describes many of the figures from Europe and American right-wing groups as “fascists” or “neo-Communists.” A tweet from Republic Party of Russia/Popular Freedom Party (RPR ParNas) is typical of the coverage:


Translation: Thug’s gang of international observers at the referendum: fascists, anti-Semites, Stalinists, separatists, Putinists.

Western media has been more gingerly in describing these people, possibly from fear of lawsuits but more likely out of political correctness. Yet not everything in the picture label checks out. The photo was given wide visibility by publication by censor.net.ua, although it originated on the Facebook page of a Ukrainian activist in the Crimea named Oleksandra Dvoretska, who crowd-sourced the descriptions from a dozen people. One important point to add about these people is many of them are accepted members of the European Parliament, which sanitizes them for some, but actually makes their unqualified support of Putin in his violent land-grab of the Crimea all the more disturbing. Here is our translation of the names and descriptions, and our comments in parentheses.

Tatyana Zhdanok (Latvia) member of pro-Putin party of Latvian Russians (MEP, For Human Rights in United Latvia)
Charalampos Angourakis (Greece) ultra-leftist neo-Stalinist (MEP, Communist Party of Greece)
Mateusz Piskorski (Poland) Polish fascist and anti-Semite, (former member of the Polish Sejm, left-wing populist Self Defense of the Republic of Poland party)
Johan Backman (Finland) supports Nashi actions in the Baltics, advocates annexation of Estonia by Russia
Johann Stadler (Austria) believes that Politukovskaya commissioned her own murder (could not confirm) (former member of Haider’s Austrian Freedom Party; in March 2012 served as observer in Russian presidential elections and denied there was falsification.)
Zoran Radoicic (Montenegro) anti-Semite, due to Holocaust denial, denied entry to Canada (could not confirm) (candidate for nationalist Serbian Doors party)
Luc Michel (Belgium) Belgian founder of neo-Nazi party, supporting also ultra-leftists
Frank Creyelman (Belgium) Flemish separatist and ultra-nationalist (from right-wing party Vlaams Belang)
Bela Kovacs (Hungary) Hungarian fascist (from the far-right Jobbik party noted for anti-Semitic and homophobic views)
Enrique Ravello (Spain) Catalon separatist, (far-right politician)
Nepad Popovich (Serbia) pro-Russian politician, ally of United Russia
Fabrizio Bertot (Italy), member of Europarliament, friend of Berliusconi, friend of Putin, removed from position of mayor for ties to Calabrese mafia (could not confirm, former mayor of Rivarolo, appears to have been investigated for mafia ties).

We couldn’t find anything about that odd claim regarding Politkovskaya, as it was not in the original text of either censor.net.ua or Dvoretska’s Facebook page, so it’s a mystery how it crept in.


March 18, 2014


2033 GMT: Mikhail Dvorkovich, brother of Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, had a great idea — to boycott all American products in retaliation for the White House sanctions against 7 Russian officials announced yesterday:


Translation: From today on I will remove from my life American products. Friends, join me!

The concept began to unravel when some bloggers pointed out that he was tweeting from his i-Phone, which was an American product. He then pledged to fix that soon:


Translation: For now, yes. This afternoon I’m changing to a Samsung.

But others on Twitter persisted, explaining that Twitter itself was an American product. Dvorkovich had an answer:


Translation: @mdvorkovich Internet, Twitter and Facebook — these are not products.

He then dug himself in deeper, however:

Translation: @mdvorkovich Don’t confuse the American with the transnational. Internet and Twitter are not products.

Other gems from Bubba’s timeline:


Translation: @mdvorkovich Tell me, am I the only one with the impression that a transvestite has attacked Churkin at the UN from the USA…? Imagine her without hair.”

His response was no doubt to this picture widely shared on social media, where Power berates Churkin after Russia had the sole veto defeating a resolution to condemn the unlawful annexation of the Crimea.

Photo by EPA
Photo by EPA


1936 GMT:
The scant biographies published so far about the new head of the Caucasus Emirate and his one known YouTube can’t answer the key questions people have as to whether he will likely strike outside of Dagestan or whether he will renew a moratorium on terror against Russian civilians, which his predecessor did for a time when he thought the Russian opposition was gaining ground.

So here is what Murad Batal Shishani, London-based Writer & Commentator and expert on Islamic groups, has to say about Ali Abu-Muhammad to add to the picture:


1930 GMT: The independent news site Caucasian Knot has a biography posted now of the new head of the terrorist organization Caucasus Emirate. Our translation:

“Ali Abu-Muhammad (Aliashab Alibulatovich Kebekov) was born in 1972 in the village of Teletl in Sovyetsky District or what is now called the Shamil District of Dagestan, and is by ethnicity an Avar. Previously he had the position of qadi or judge in the Supreme Sharia Court of the vilayat Dagestan (which is the term the organization gives to the region), then held a similar position for the whole Emirate. He is on the Russian Federation List of Active Terrorists and Extremists.

In April 2012, by decision of the Sovyet District Court of the city of Makhachkala in the Republic of Dagestan, Kebekov’s speech, which was posted to the Internet on the Guraba news site, was declared to be “extremist.” In his speech, Kebekov called on the people of Dagestan to make jihad, and for insubordination to the existing government and armed resistance to it.

On 26 April 2012, Kebekov was put on the wanted list and accused of ‘organization and participation in an unlawful armed formation’ in violation of Art. 208 of the RF Criminal Code. According to intelligence information, it was Kebekov who carried out the decision to murder Said-afandi al-Chirkavi (Chirkeysky) (Said Abdurahmanovich Atsayev, the most authoritative sheikh in Dagestan.

On 16 January 2014, a video was posted to YouTube with the voice of Ali Abu-Muhammad speaking of the death of Umarov, and saying also that Abu-Muhammad himself was proposed to become head of the Emirate. Kebekov himself proposed for the post of leader of the organization “brother Aslambek” (evidently the reference is to Aslambek Vadalov).

The news was published 18 March 2014 that Ali Abu-Muhammad was chosen as the new head of the Caucasus Emirate by decision of the veliyat amirs. The Emirate also announced the death of Umarov on the same date.”

It is not known if the YouTube of Abu-Muhammad’s “Address to Law-enforcement Workers in Dagestan” is the same speech for which he was charged.


1806 GMT: How do we know Doku Umarov, the past head of the Caucasus Emirate is really dead? Aside from the notices on his organization’s site calling him a shahid, or martyr, experts are now saying that this “man wanted” at the Dagestani Interior Ministry is his replacement.

Aliashab Alibulatovich Kebekov, born 1972, is said to be Ali Abu Muhammad, the new emirate. He is wanted for “grave and especially grave crimes, including of a terrorist tendency.”


1755 GMT: Report of the new leader of the Chechen insurgents, the Caucasus Emirate, which has been entered in the US list of foreign terrorist organizations.


1655 GMT: Russia has a new Human Rights Ombudsperson, Ella Pamfilova, Rights in Russia and RIA Novosti report. Pamfilova, a former parliamentary and chair of the presidential human rights commission, replaces the respected Vladimir Lukin, who during his two terms for 10 years confronted the Russian leadership in annual reports and personal meetings regarding poor prison conditions, mistreatment of migrants, and suppression of press freedoms.
Ella Pamfilova. Photo by Denis Sinyakov/AFP
Ella Pamfilova. Photo by Denis Sinyakov/AFP

It’s worth reading RFE/RL’s 2011 interview with Pamfilova, the first woman in Russian history to run for president (against Putin, in 2000), when she explained her reasons for her dramatic departure from the presidential human rights commission, citing a lot of pressure from the Kremlin-created youth group Nashi (Ours) and even “an information blockade.”

RFE/RL: And President Medvedev — who promised you all possible support — didn’t come to your aid?

Pamfilova: I thought it was beneath my dignity to complain to the president. I always preferred to deal with such problems myself. And I would have coped in this case too. But at some point the struggle just seemed senseless. Surkov — his ideology, his scorched-earth political methods — didn’t exist in a vacuum. They were demanded by the system. That is why I think it is disingenuous of many political analysts to try to split the ruling elite into two components — “liberal” and “authoritarian.”

RFE/RL: Did you have the feeling that they were using you as a liberal fig leaf?

Pamfilova: We never pretended to be working. We were really digging. I met with Medvedev regularly. I personally handed over all the most burning matters to him. And it turned out that I would present them and he would agree, give an order, sign an instruction, and then everything would again disappear in the sand. Nothing happened.

The paradox is that after Medvedev became president, he accepted more of our proposals than ever before but reactions to them on the part of government agencies and concrete results were fewer than ever. The last straw came during the preparation for the president’s meeting with human rights activists from the North Caucasus. It took a miracle for me to arrange that. There was a frank, important conversation and the next round of presidential orders. And then nothing. That is when I began to fear that everything had been turned into a smokescreen.

Pamfilova also said in this interview that she believed the liberal intelligentsia “can only cooperate with the authorities when the result of that cooperation is that the political system — even if just gradually — moves in the direction of the principles espoused by that intelligentsia.” It will be interesting to see what changed for her in that regard, given Putin’s increasing conservativism, but it may simply be that the province of the parliamentary-appointed ombudsman is one not directly under the Kremlin’s or Surkov’s purview.


1605 GMT: James Brooke, the Voice of America’s (VOA) bureau chief in Moscow is leaving his position and taking up an English-language newspaper editing job in Cambodia. Moscow News has published his interesting exit interview, citing his reasons for leaving:

“We’re living in a dictatorship. It really reminds me of Argentina where I worked in the late 1970s, under the army generals, very conservative, essentially very reactionary. Russia has gone…it’s an interesting contrast. If you go back to the 1920s, Russia was the world capital of the Comintern, the Marxist Revolution. Now Moscow has become the world capital of world reaction. And they’re ‘no, no, no, change is bad, change is bad’ and very conservative — essentially reactionary. I’m talking about the government. But the problem for ordinary Russians is that when they travel overseas, they end up having to defend their government, or explain their government, or being associated with their government, and so….it’s hard for outsiders to put daylight between the Russian people and the government.”

Brooke added that he was not under any great threat, but:

“We are entering a very depressing political cycle in this country. I see reason why it should end in the near future, and I personally don’t want to devote another five years of my life to explaining it.”

Given that Putin is a vigorous age 61, Brooke expects him to remain even president for life. “He’s hit several home runs,” says Brooke to account for Putin’s popularity, stabilizing the economy, raising the standard of living, and largely suppressing violence. “So for many Russians the Putin years are the best they’ve seen since 1905,” he says.

But as a former KGB officer deployed to Dresden, Putin is very conservative. He increasingly controls the media, which is “inculcating people with crazy ideas” and is “kooky.” Kiselyov, head of Rossiya Segodnya, said the hearts of gays who died in car crashes should be burnt. “That kind of person in the US winds up being a high school janitor,” comments Brooke. There is now demonization of Ukrainians and “the list of hate is very long” at the Kremlin; there isn’t a positive ideology,” he concludes.


1605 GMT:
LifeNews.ru, the tabloid TV channel close to the Kremlin, is buying the story of Umarov’s death, citing the Chechen insurgent command.


Translation: @lifenews_ru The fighters’ command announced the death of Doku Umarov.

No cause of death is cited, although LifeNews.ru references earlier reports “of a poisoning.”


1528 GMT: Among those who did not seem particularly happy to see the Medvedev reform era definitively pass (such as it was) may have been Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev himself.


1527 GMT: Is the top Chechen terrorist dead again? He’s been declared dead 3 or 4 times in recent years. Maybe he really is if the Kavkaz Center says so.


1526 GMT: A reminder that the signal to use the St. George ribbon to counter the Russian opposition’s use of white ribbons in anti-Putin demonstrations came from the very top, from Russia’s deputy premier for defense and the space program:


1423 GMT: President Vladimir Putin’s speech today at the Kremlin Palace is a big deal for those watching Russian foreign policy.


Translation: Putler has dared to open the Pandora’s Box. Photo by Reuters.


For his speech at the signing of the Crimean annexation “agreement,” Putin chose the ornate golden St. George Hall — the same St. George whose ribbons have been worn by Russian nationalists in both Russia and Ukraine in recent attacks on demonstrators and takeovers of bases in the Crimea. Even with ceremonial guards as a backdrop, ties were optional for some, notably Sevastopol Mayor Aleksei Chaliy. The speech is being studied closely for clues to Putin’s next moves at home and abroad — we are back to Kremlinology with independent press increasingly being silenced. One of the stand-out quotes from Kremlin.ru’s ongoing English translation:

After the revolution, the Bolsheviks, for a number of reasons – may God judge them – added large sections of the historical South of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine. This was done with no consideration for the ethnic make-up of the population, and today these areas form the southeast of Ukraine. Then, in 1954, a decision was made to transfer Crimean Region to Ukraine, along with Sevastopol, despite the fact that it was a city of union subordination. This was the personal initiative of the Communist Party head Nikita Khrushchev. What stood behind this decision of his – a desire to win the support of the Ukrainian political establishment or to atone for the mass repressions of the 1930’s in Ukraine – is for historians to figure out.

Evidently Putin is winding the Bolshevik tape in reverse now, selectively choosing some territories over which to gain control, picking his way carefully through the mine-field of his own constituent republics that would also love to have more autonomy — and maybe even referendums to join other countries.

Among the great-power Kremlin operatives with goose-bumps over Putin’s sweeping historical speech was Margarita Simonyan, head of RT.com, part of the Rossiya Segodnya [Russian Today] state media empire headed by Dmitry Kiselyov (who was busy yesterday reminding us that Russia was the only country capable of “reducing the USA to radioactive ash.” She tweeted from the St. George Hall:


Translation: @M_Simonyan Twice I have acutely sensed myself part of the history of my country. When once I drank tea with Solzhenitsyn at his home, and now here.

We can’t think of a better example in a more compressed form of how different traditions of Russian dissent can rise and fall and be blended with Kremlin politics on demand. And what it really is all about for such nationalist intellectuals entrusted to run state propaganda is self-definition in antipathy to the West:

Translation: @M_Simonyan “Amazing, primitive and blunt cynicism; VV [Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin] has now formulated what so infuriates me in the Anglo-Saxon world.

A better explanation for Putin’s pronouncements on the West — he likes to think he has company in his cynicism — can be seen in a recent op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times by Russian journalist and author Masha Gessen, forced to leave Russia as both a critical writer and a lesbian mother facing persecution:

This belief that everyone, without exception, acts solely out of base self-interest is what has led Putin to ratchet up the aggression, meanness and vulgarity of both his public statements and political actions over the years. When he threatens to castrate a journalist, when he invades other countries, Putin is showing the world that he has the courage of his convictions.

For American culture, which relies heavily on a belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity, this is an impossible world view to absorb. It is another world indeed. But that does not make it crazy.


1400 GMT:
Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Kremlin’s propaganda TV channel and Internet site RT.com complained today that YouTube’s management had blocked her channel for a day — then unblocked it.


Translation: @M_Simonyan Our channel on YouTube was blocked. I will remind you that this is the most popular news channel on international YouTube with more than a billion views.


Translation: @M_Simonyan We were unblocked. I am awaiting explanations for what that was. To say nothing about the losses of advertising money.

Google, owner of YouTube, rarely itself consciously blocks a channel; instead, it has various automatic processes to respond to spam and piracy, and also responds to user abuse complaints. It’s possible that yesterday YouTube got some complaints about the “radioactive ash” story. Simonyan says RT.com was blocked exactly a year ago today, and it could be a technical glitch.


March 17, 2014


2142 GMT: Some targets of the White House sanctions against the Kremlin are taking it in stride. In an interview with Moskovsky Komsomolets, top presidential aide Vladislav Surkov had this to say (our translation):

“I regard the decision of the Washington Administration as a recognition of my achievements for Russia. This is a great honor for me. I don’t have any bank accounts abroad. In the USA, I am interested in Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsburg, and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa for access to their works. So I lose nothing.”

Dmitry Rogozin, deputy prime minister of Russia, head of the Military-Industrial Commission, couldn’t take President Obama’s move very seriously:


2135 GMT: Not surprisingly, Putin has announced that in retaliation for the Russian and Ukrainian officials put on a sanctions list today by the White House, US Senators will be barred from Russia. The list will be announced tomorrow. Sen. John McCain has already said he’d be honored to appear on the list. We’re pretty sure there aren’t any senators with assets in Russia.


2119 GMT: One of the three pieces of recent troubling legislation, dubbed the “Russophobia Law” outraged the Russian journalistic community this weekend, already reeling from firings and government website blockages, by seeming to indicate a draconian new form of censorship, a ban on any “anti-Russian” statements — a vague concept that was sure to include any criticism of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.

But it turned out to be a sort of disinformation — the alleged author of the law, Duma member Ilya Ponomarev, a member of Just Russia, said in fact he had never submitted such a draft law.

Translation: @iponomarev: Regarding the law on Russophobia — it’s a provocation. I did not submit it and don’t know what this is about. I just woke up, I’m in shock, and I will get to the bottom of it.

Translation: @AlexLenSpb Ilya, what was the end of the story with the draft law “in your name”? @iponomarev: I rescinded it, but some sort of fuss continues. I’ll be in Moscow tomorrow, I’ll find out.

Lenta.ru, which was recently placed under a new editor and lost much of its staff in protest, said Ponomarev recalled the draft law by publishing a request on Twitter to the speaker of parliament, Sergei Naryshkin. Lenta.ru said the draft law was submitted under his signature on the evening of 14 March, but that Ponomarev could not have physically done this as he was in Novosibirsk. Yury Shuvalov, deputy head of staff of the Duma said the draft law was submitted by Ponomarev’s aide.

The reason the story was persuasive is because Ponomarev is known for supporting “Internet censorship” in a controversial draft law introduced by his fellow party member Yelena Mizulina advocating a block list of domain names to address the problems of piracy and child pornography in Russia; Ponomarev proposed a self-governing body of Internet activists to make decisions. Opponents accused him of taking the position for commercial reasons to benefit a company called Infra-engineering, where his father sat on the board, which sells Deep Packet Inspection hardware, could gain from any kind of censorship bill. Ponomarev rejected the charges, and his father resigned from the company’s board to stop speculation.After lobbying from the Russian Pirate Party, Ponomarev dropped his support of the bill.


2117 GMT: We’re happy to welcome Paul Goble, a veteran expert on Eurasia’s nationalities and religions, to The Interpreter. Check out his posts today on how Kosovo is not a precedent for Moscow’s actions in the Crimea, how the world has become a more dangerous place with Putin’s moves on Ukraine; the face-off between the armies of Ukraine and Russia; and troubling new draft laws that indicate a further departure from universality and the rule of law in Russia.


2112 GMT: Popular TV and radio host Vladimir Soloviev on the Crimean referendum:


Translation: @VRSoloviev The Crimean referendum opens up a Pandora’s Box. In a little while there will also be attempts to go this route in Kaliningrad and not only there.


2036 GMT: Russians (like the former professional boxer-turned-parliamentarian Nick Valuev) have been tweeting a Demotivator poster of the last Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev with the gag line: “I broke it up. But they all want to come back.”
Gorbie Break Up

Slon.ru interviewed Gorbachev himself
to see what he thought. Here’s our translation of an excerpt:

Slon: Mikhail Sergeyevich, did you follow events in the Crimea?

Gorbachev: To be honest, yesterday I sat for a long time and listened to the news from there. And I think that it ended up the way that it was supposed to end up. It was necessary to meet the people of the Crimea half-way, who wanted such a resolution of their issue. After all, in this case nobody forced them to go to the polls. People made their sincere choice.

Slon: That is, you believe that the Crimea should have been returned to Russia even earlier?

Gorbachev: The detachment of the Crimea should not have happened in general. But alas, it did happen.

Gorbachev admitted that back in 1954 when Khrushchev gave the Crimea to Ukraine, he hadn’t been so bothered; he was 13 years old. But in 1991 he was “a resolute opponent of the fall of the Union state.” He preferred to solve the discontent of the non-Russian republics by “handing out to these nations rights and powers.” He added that the hasty scheduling of the Crimean referendum hadn’t concerned him because in fact, it had “essentially been going on all these years.” He also discounted the presence of unmarked troops as “made-up”.

“The West, and Russia and Ukraine must understand that our world is global, but crowded. We essentially live in a big village,” he added. He urged America to get over its “triumphalism” and “hold its own perestroika.”

Gorbachev admitted that while had liked Putin at first, in recent years he had become to prone to leaderism and driven people out of politics. But he supported his actions in the Crimea.


1615 GMT: As we noted on our Ukrainian liveblog, the White House has announced sanctions against top Russian officials involved in the invasion of Ukraine. At the top of the list is Vladislav Surkov, long considered the “grey cardinal” of the Kremlin, who was removed for a time from President Putin’s close circle of advisors, then brought back.
Photo by Dmitry Azarov/ Kommersant
Photo by Dmitry Azarov/ Kommersant

The list of those sanctions is noteworthy as much for who is on it as much as who is not on it — including Vyacheslav Volodin, first deputy prime minister who was believed to have replaced the Surkov’s role as ideology tsar.

An article in Kommersant by Elizavetas Surnacheva, Aleksandr Gabuyev and Sergei Sidorenko titled “Multi-Headed Eagle” published 3 March describes who in the government influenced the Kremlin’s Ukraine policy. All agree that Putin made the main decisions himself, and Glazyev and Surkov were key architects, but there is some disagreement as to their weight. “If Surkov was at the Ukrainian government twice, it’s pointless even to count the meetings with Glazyev — he was there constantly.” Sources said, “The Ukrainian agenda was run by First Vice Premier Igor Shuvalov, Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin and in part Finance Minister Anton Siluanov as well as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, his deputy Grigory Karasin, and Russia’s envoy in Kiev, Mikhail Suragov, as well as Gazprom and the intelligence agencies.”

A source told Kommersant that Gazprom “fulfilled the direct instructions of the highest leadership” on Ukraine, yet Viktor Zubkov, chairman of the board, is not on the sanctions list. No sources wanted to comment on the role of the FSB and SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service), although one official noted “There is a mass of traces of possible actions like the hacking of the tape of the conversations of American and European diplomats, but there aren’t reinforced concrete facts.”

Kremlin negotiators told their Ukrainian counterparts that they weren’t intimidating them, but making “necessary responses” by cutting of trade and ending the gas discount if Ukraine went into the EU Association. Kommersant comments that policy toward Ukraine, like others in the “near abroad” is formulated not so much by the Foreign Ministry as by the president’s administration, as the Kremlin views these countries as “a kind of region, to which the knowledge and skills of Russian political analysts can be applied,” as a source put it. Officials denied that Surkov was formally assigned to Ukraine, but this claim is undercut by the fact that two of Surkov’s close colleagues were brought into the presidential staff to develop responses to Ukraine’s plan to sign the EU Agreement — Oleg Govorun and Boris Rapoport, who was repeatedly seen in Ukraine.

Ultimately, the Kremlin became “a hostage of its own propaganda cliches about the ‘Orange Revolution’ threat to Ukraine, which did not allow it to begin working with a moderate opposition in time,” said a source.


1422 GMT: Russia’s top propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov, recently made head of the revised state media agency Rossiya Segodnya [Russia Today], has ensured himself maximum mind-share and retweeting today with his fiery television speech reminding us that Russia is the only country that can “reduce America to nuclear ash.” As Kiselyov ranted, a backdrop showing an atomic cloud and the phrase “radioactive ash” appeared.

Israel’s Russian-language 9TV has some excerpts of the TV program which we have translated:

“Russia is the only country in the world which is really capable of turning the USA into radioactive ash. And I don’t know whether this is a coincidence or not. But Obama telephoned Putin on 21 January. Most likely he once again tried to pressure him somehow. And on the next day literally — 22 January — in the official print organ of the government of Russia, an article appeared, where quite accessibly it spelled out, how our Perimeter system of guaranteed nuclear retaliation works.

Even if people at all our command centers after an enemy attack are silent, the invincible system will send our strategic missiles flying out of silos and from submarines in the right direction.”

Kiselyov noted that the system is nick-named “Dead Hand” in the US, and flashed a photo of the US president, labeled “Gray-haired Head,” saying Obama keeps calling Putin and talking “for hours.” Then he cited a poll where Putin is described as a “stronger leader” than Obama. Kiselyov then aired footage of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a press conference yesterday, fetching ostensible Western moral equivalencies to Moscow’s land grab, explaining that “the Crimea is immeasurably more significant to Russia than the Falklands to Great Britain or the Comoros Islands to France.”

Photo by Rossiyskaya Gazeta
Photo by Rossiyskaya Gazeta

The article Kiselyov referenced is titled “Guaranteed Retaliation” in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, and describes an automatic system controlled by artificial intelligence. One of the Perimeter’s designers, Vladimir Yarynich, is quoted as admitting that he “does not know a reliable means of knocking the system out of order. The command-and-control system, its sensors and missiles are designed to work under conditions of a nuclear attack.”


1329 GMT: Tens of thousands of Russians turned out in Moscow this weekend to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and fewer numbers demonstrated in support of Putin’s policies.
Photo by Ilya Varlamov
Photo by Ilya Varlamov

After AFP reported 15 March that crowds swelled from 10,000 to 50,000 in a matter of hours, some people have debated whether the numbers were that large. Certainly from watching the live feed from TV Rain all day we could see that the numbers were easily in the tens of thousands. The New York Times cited Moscow police estimates of “3,000 people in this crowd,” but commented that “it seemed many times larger, in the tens of thousands, filling a boulevard with bodies for many blocks.” The Russian state news agency ITAR-TASS didn’t give a number, but even the pictures it used showed many thousands.
15 March Parade TASS
The march proceeded largely without incident, although ITAR-TASS said “several participants of the march against the re-unification of the Crimea with Russia” were detained. Andrei Blinishov, the head of Ryazan Memorial Society, reported that he was stopped and held briefely for “smoking in a public place.” TASS also reported that ultranationalist leftist activist Sergei Kurginyan, who organized a rally featuring people marching in formation waving red Soviet flags and men in red jackets with the slogan “USSR 2.0″ to support annexation of the Crimea told reporters that “any attempt to repeat the ‘Kiev Maidan riot’ in Moscow will receive the rebuff of all patriotic forces.”

Kurginyan’s rally as well as a second nationalist event featuring singing Orthodox priests and biker gangs also appeared to proceed peacefully, although journalist Yelena Kostyuchenko reported on her blog at Ekho Moskvy that later that night she found two young women and a man from Yakutiya in the metro who had been beaten and injured by Russian nationalists, but other Russians had helped them escape.