LIVE UPDATES: Aleksei Pushkov, chairman of the State Duma Committee on Foreign Affairs who lost the United Russia primaries has been offered to run on the ballot from the legislature of Perm Region.
Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.
The previous issue is here.
Recent Analysis and Translations:
– NATO Got Nothing From Conceding To Russia In the Past, Why Should It Cave To The Kremlin Now?
– Who is Hacking the Russian Opposition and State Media Officials — and How?
– Does it Matter if the Russian Opposition Stays United?
Oleg Mikheyev, a deputy from Just Russia, has introduced a draft law to the State Duma providing criminal punishment for “discreditations of Russia or its government bodies,” RIA Novosti reports.
Mikheyev explained (translation by The Interpreter):
“Discreditation of the RF, that is the dissemination of deliberately false, inaccurate or distorted information about the political, economic, social, military or international position of the RF, the legal status of citizens of the Russian Federation, discrediting the Russian Federation or its government bodies, to be punishable by a fine in the amount of 500,000 rubles or in the amount of the wages or other income of the convict for a period of six months or compulsory work for a period of 160 hours.”
If the “discreditation” is public or through the mass media or information-telecommunication networks (including the Internet), the fine would be up to one million rubles or wages or other income for up to one year or compulsory work of up to 240 hours.
If the “discreditation” is made from an official position, then those found guilty will pay a fine up to two million rubles of wages or other income for a period up to two years with a ban on serving in certain offices or engaging in certain activities for a period of up to 3 years or compulsory work up to 320 hours.
Mikheyev cited “international practice” for such a draconian law, but invoked only one such analogous law in neighboring Belarus, Art. 369-1.
The wording is eerily like the infamous Article 190-1 of the Soviet era, whose text was:
“dissemination of deliberately false fabrications that defame the Soviet state and social system, punishable by up to three years of imprisonment.”
Hundreds of people were sent to the GULAG in the Soviet era under Article 190-1, which was repealed when President Boris Yeltsin came to power.
Mikheyev said the law was motivated by the international “war for world views” and said that with the overload of information, too many unchecked and inaccurate reports were creeping. He said false information was leading to “the outflow of capital, personnel, the creation and activization of asocial groups of citizens and other negative consequences.”
Of course, it’s quite possible that capital flight and Russia’s brain drain, as well as the making of various opposition groups — whether liberal or reactionary — are about truthful information that finds its way even into state media, let alone independent media.
Russian authorities have already been battling free expression with punitive sentences. Sova Center, a non-governmental group that monitors extremist movements and applications of the law on extremism in Russia, issued a report by Natalya Yudina published by Mediazona on cases of punishment for social media, titled “Anti-Extremism in Virtual Russia: 2014-2015.”
Russia’s Internet penetration rose from 67% of the population or 78.2 million people to 84 million people. TV remains the main source of news for most people, but social media is where they discuss what they see.
In the last year, out of 232 free expression cases, 194 involved online posts (84%). Most of the cases were in Orlov and Samar region (15 cases each), Chuvashia (14), and Krasnodar and Khabarov (13 and 12). This gives the impression that the Russian heartland and southern areas — although not the North Caucasus — are more repressive of speech than Moscow or St. Petersburg although each of these cities had at least 8 cases last year.
The Agora legal association has also charted a growth in free-expression cases from less than 50 in 2007 to nearly 250 today.
Most of the expression prosecuted is considered racist hate speech under Art. 282 of the Russian criminal code (“incitement of ethnic hatred or enmity and also denigration of human worth”). Less often cases under Art. 280 occur (“public calls to carry out extremist activity”).
Sometimes little is known about the cases. For example, this week, Znak reported that an 18-year-old youth in Yekaterinburg was sentenced under Art. 281-1 (“extremism”) for scrawling something on the elevator wall in his apartment building. Znak learned about the case from law-enforcement. The man’s name is not known nor the content of his graffiti. The FSB and local Interior Ministry anti-extremism center investigated the case.
“As a result the youth was exposed in a crime for which current criminal law provides for maximum liability in the form of imprisonment of 4 years,” a source told Znak.
Previously, another resident of Yekaterinburg, Yekaterina Vologzheninova was sentneced to 32 hours of corrective labor for re-posting memes on VKontakte, Russia’s most popular social network.
Sova analyzed the targets of the hate speech as follows. The numbers don’t tally with the total number of cases because in some instances, defendants targeted multiple groups and that is reflected in the list.
192 – natives of the Caucasus
83 – Jews
74 – natives of Central Asia
62 – undefined non-Slavs
30 – Russians
26 – persons of color
3 – Roma
2 – Arabs
2 – Malaysians
2 – Tatars
2 – Ukrainians
1 – Turks
1 – Komi
1 – Bashkirs
1 – Kurds/Yezidi
1 – Americans
1 – Mongols
1 – Chinese
“Unbelievers” (calls for armed jihad) – 41
Government officials – 32
Anti-fascists – 10
Muslims – 27
Christians – 13
Judaic (as distinct from Jews) – 8
Pagan – 1
Pedophiles, homosexuals 5
Drug Addicts 1
Yudina said that she had to rely on official reports and court documents for description of the cases, and that issues like the distinction between ethnic Jews and religious Jews are not clear.
In one document, a prosecutor wrote that the defendant had called for violence “against natives of the Russian Federation republics of the Caucasus, and also Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Dagestanis” — although Dagestan is a subject of the Russian Federation.
But it’s clear that at least in terms of the number of speech cases, hatred of the Caucasians among Russians is greater than hatred of “infidels” by Islamists. Two targets of the tremendous hatred incited in the official media have been Ukrainians, with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbass, and Turks, with the Turkish plane shooting down a Russian fighter jet near the Syrian border. But there is only one of each of these type of cases, which reflects the willingness of law-enforcement to ignore the issue, says the author.
The overwhelming majority of “speech crimes” are committed on Vkontakte (119) with only one case on Facebook and another on Odnoklassniki [Classmates]; to a far lesser extent, people are tried for blogs (3) or videos (2). Yudina notes that this is because many youth use VKontakte, including those in radical movements, but also it is easier for authorities to find the people behind the accounts there: to register for VKontakte, you have to supply a phone number; Facebook log-in is an option as well.
The cases don’t calibrate to any actual degree of “public danger,” as police arrest people whether they have only a few readers on their own page or massive numbers in popular community groups.
Even so, top figures in ultra-right movements were tried, including: Dmitry (Besheny [Mad]) Yevtushenko of Slavyanskaya Sila [Slavic Power] and Russkiye Zachistki [Russian Purges]; Maksim (Tesak) Martinskevich, leader of the neo-Nazi movement Restruct!; Oleg Gonchar of Khakasiya, head of the press service of the South Siberian Cossacks District; Nikolai Babushkin of Norilsk, administrator of the group Russian March 2013 on VKontakte; Nikolai Bondarik, leader of Russian Purges in St. Petersburg; Vitaly Shishkin of Moscow, leader of Right-wingers for European Development; and Maksim Kalinichekno, former leader of the St. Petersburg Russian Jogging group.
These figures who posted original content to wide audiences differ significantly than those with tiny audiences who merely reposted others’ memes, yet the sentences do not reflect this.
Most of the sentences were for videos (106); 56 were for drawings and photos; 40 were for articles and other texts; 13 were for comments on forums and 8 was for creating a group on social media.
Yudina also notes that authorities were selective in what materials they chose to prosecute figures for. For example in the case of Martinskevich, notorious for luring gays through dating sites and beating them and filming this cruelty, videos on Stalingrad, the Biryulevo race riots and football violence were chosen for prosecution and the issue of gays avoided.
While the fact of any court case over a “like” on social media seems astounding to Westerners, in the Russian scheme of things, the free expression cases are “light” by contrast with punishment for public demonstrations, with most people getting “only” a few years of prison (43 cases) or fines (35) or compulsory work (61) or corrective labor (26) or even suspended sentences (40); 3 were forcibly put in psychiatric hospitals.
Even so, the number of people actually put behind bars rose in the last year; in the last year at least 16 were imprisoned just for their writings; in 2014, there were only 3 such cases. Of these, 9 involved Internet statements, and some were tried for “extremism” under Art. 282, including Tatar activist Rafis Kashapov; Anton Podchasov of Barnaul, who called for discrimination against Russians in Ukraine; and Aleksandr Byvshy, for a poem “to Ukrainian Patriots” calling for the Ukrainians to meet the “Moskaley” [a pejorative term for Russians) with guns in their hands.
Four other persons were sentenced for statements regarding Ukraine: Dmitry Semyonov of Cheboksar, who reposted a cartoon accusing the Russian authorities of anti-Russian policy; Sergei Titarenko from Krasnodar for reposting a report that a bounty was supposedly being offered in Ukraine to remove the Russian president; Konstantin Zharinov, a blogger from Chelyabinsk who reposted an appeal by the ultranationalist group Right Sector in Ukraine; and LGBT activist Andrei Marchenko of Khabarovsk, for publishing calls for violence against “Russian supporters of fascism and terror.”
The report notes that law-enforcers are inconsistent in whether they use the administrative code or the criminal code to prosecute speech, with the same song by the group Kolovrat used to prosecute one person in Novgorod Region to a fine of 1,000 rubles under the administrative code, and another in Khakasiya to 8 months of corrective labor.
In addition to individual posters on social media, owners or administrators of Internet or computer clubs, libraries, Internet cafes, etc. have been held responsible for failure to filter content; there were 17 such cases in the last year including the owner of a restaurant called “Chicken House” at a train station as well as the director of a public library. The owner of a store in Penza called “Fresh Bake” was fined 5,000 rubles for maintaining a public wi-fi in his store without a filter to block information banned in Russia.
One big problem involved in tracking this repression is that Roskomnadzor, the state censor, stopped publishing a list of warnings to media with a description of the content involved, even though they continue to issue them.
RosBalt received such a warning for a video and news story on a controversial figure in Ukraine, Irina Farion; Sib.FM was warned for publishing an article complaining that the Russian Orthodox Church claimed a monopoly on morality and spirituality with a cartoon by the art group Siniye Nosy [Blue Noses] which showed Christ, Pushkin and Putin; and a half dozen news sties for publishing cartoons from Charlie Hebdo.
Warnings were also issued for the coverage of a demonstration in support of anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny; the last battle of the Donetsk Airport; interviews with Right Sector; and the invasion of Russian tanks in Ukraine. In the last year, 133 web sites were blocked for objectionable content; the number was higher in 2014 (166) suggesting that censorship works to chill new expression. Among the sites blocked temporarily was “the Wayback Machine” (archive.org) which contains copies of some sites that later get taken down.
The report concludes that repression for free expression, especially on social media, is growing ominously and affects not only radical nationalists and opposition members as well as Muslim activists but also people who just accidentally fall under the all-seeing eye of the anti-extremism center.
Although this connection is not made by either Yudina or Mediazona, the tightening of the screws could be related to the forthcoming September parliamentary elections.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The release of the list immediately prompted speculation that some of these prominent individuals would be leaving their influential government positions to take up parliamentary seats.
But TASS reported that Volodin was not planning to move to the State Duma.
Translation: Kadyrov and 6 heads of regions of the South of Russia have gone into the election campaign list of the United Russia party.
Tom Parfitt, a veteran correspondent in Moscow, said no doubt United Russia was using what is known as the “steamship” [paravoz] technique in Russia, in which big names are put on the ballot to help attract voters.
Translation: Congress of the United Russia party.
The photo shows a line of Chechen MPs: the first in the row is Magomed Daudov, Kadyrov’s former chief of staff and now speaker of parliament; next to him is Adam Demlikhanov, a relative of Kadyrov’s.
Dmitry Oreshkin, political analyst indicated United Russia’s unpopularity and told Novaya Gazeta it would not get more than 50% of the vote even with the “star list” (translation by The Interpreter):
“They understand at United Russia that no one will be elected by the lists. For good reason, Volodin himself recently announced that we shouldn’t chase percentages (although it would seem, what else would you chase?) Now the party has nothing to boast of in the economic sphere. The only sphere where there is support is the patriotic. In this instance, Volodin is a symbolic gesture for the party demonstrating that the bosses have not rejected them.
The presence of Kadyrov in the lists will guarantee the support of administrative resource, this is 70-80%, but the result of course is Kadyrov’s personal matter, it depends on him, how much of a percentage he will ‘write up’. The same support will be in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Dagestan and other such republics The problem will be in the big cities, because here, something has to be proposed to people and this hasn’t worked out for the party.”
It’s not clear how or whether some of these people put in the list will run campaigns. Says Oreshkin:
“The ordinary person has formed the impression that there’s no point in the party: everyone loves Putin, he is a necessary and useful person, but what does UR have to do with it? Most of the population believes that the party is needed to play its role in parliament. United Russia has always operated, so to speak, by inertia, but it dried up in the last election cycle. Now it has to make itself known, play with new colors and make its brand but there is no other space for this play except the Crimea and the consolidation against external enemies. It’s a weak position, before the first serious upheaval.”
President Vladimir Putin himself is not actually a member of United Russia, and attended the party congress this year for the first time in four years.
As Oreshkin puts it, Putin “keeps a polite distance” from the party, which doesn’t have its own resources to operate independently anyway.
“The head of state does not need a ‘mirror’ in which he is reflected, he is great and powerful himself and radiates in the minds of Russians already independently, without UR. Therefore UR must independently find its niche in the primitively- organized cognitive memory of the Russian voter, and in Putin’s Russia this memory is drastically reduced: only Putin fits there, and possibly the CPRF [Communist Party of Russian Federation] (they can’t be accused of non-patriotism, after all?) and a certain Western elite. United Russia will find it hard to find its place among these.”
Igor Bunin, director of the Center for Political Technologies, said Sobyanin would serve as the “steamship” for Moscow, and Volodin, who got United Russia 65% of the vote in Saratov Region in 2011, would now be the “steamship” for the 15th District.
“Poklonskaya is simply a pretty woman, let her bring a few percentage points to her Crimean peninsula. That’s the logic,” commented Bunin.
The elections to the State Duma will take place September 18.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed today that a US destroyer came within a “dangerously close distance” of a Russian warship in the Mediterranean earlier this month.
The state-owned RT channel has released a video filmed from aboard the Russian vessel:
The state-owned TASS news agency reports:
“On June 17, the US guided missile destroyer Gravely came within a dangerously close distance of 60-70 meters from the Russian warship along the left side and crossed the sailing route of the frigate Yaroslav Mudry at a dangerous distance of 180 meters from the ship’s bow,” the Defense Ministry said.
“The Russian warship was sailing in international waters, maintaining constant course and speed, and was not making any dangerous maneuver towards the US ship,” the ministry added.
The US destroyer’s crew violated the international rules for preventing collisions at sea (IRPCS-71) and also point 1, clause 3 of the 1972 Russian-US Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas. Pursuant to this point, “In all cases ships operating in proximity to each other … shall remain well clear to avoid risk of collision,” the Russian Defense Ministry said.
“In particular, the US sailors ignored rule 13 [“Overtaking”], which prescribes that any vessel overtaking any other “shall keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken” and rule 15 [“Crossing Situation”], which clearly defines that “when two power-driven vessels are crossing so as to involve risk of collision, the vessel which has the other on her own starboard side shall keep out of the way and shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, avoid crossing ahead of the other vessel,” the ministry’s press office said.
The US destroyer’s crew also violated point 1, clause 3 of the 1972 Russian-US Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas. Pursuant to this point, “In all cases ships operating in proximity to each other … shall remain well clear to avoid risk of collision,” the Russian Defense Ministry said.
The Russians are likely keen to present evidence of American infractions of navigational rules after the US criticised Russian pilots for conducting repeated, dangerous low-level passes over the USS Donald Cook in April this year:
That said, one has to ask why the Russian MOD waited eleven days before making these claims, considering the US reacted to the Donald Cook incident just a day later.
US officials are yet to issue a response to the Russian claims.
— Pierre Vaux