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.
– Alexey Navalny On the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
–Theories about Possible Perpetrators of the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
–Novaya Gazeta Releases Sensational Kremlin Memo: âIt is Seen as Correct to Initiate Annexation of Eastern Regions of Ukraine to Russiaâ
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Tomorrow, April 16, President Vladimir Putin will be on Pryamaya Liniya [Direct Line], a talk show where annually he takes “spontaneous” questions from viewers — i.e. questions first cleared by officials — and answers them at length on air – his record is 4 hours and 47 minutes, although last year, he fell short, as Bloomberg reports.
People inside Russia can visit a website, call a number and arrange to
have their videotaped question reviewed to be put on the site and
possibly into the queue for Putin.
This year there are more questions on Ukraine, says Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, according to Bloomberg:
“The number of questions on foreign affairs has risen significantly,” Peskov told reporters on Tuesday. “These include a possible standoff with NATO, with Western countries, and the new situation in international affairs in general.”
But most of the questions are about the ruble crash and the loss of savings and wages and poor housing and quality of services.
A few of the top questions are as follows (translation by The Interpreter):
“When the economic crisis happened and the ruble fell, the prices in stores began to rise. Now we’re seeing a strengthening of the ruble. But the prices in stores are the same. Why? Who should keep track of this? And will anything be done about it?”
This woman told a dark joke about people complaining about prices of food and rent and everything going up, but “thank God, wages aren’t going up.” She said 3,000 rubles ($60) used to be enough to buy a week’s groceries, but now it doesn’t last even 3 days.
Fire-fighting services might be on the minds of a lot of people in the Transbaikal with numerous wildfires raging there. One person from Khakasiya wrote:
“In Khakasia more than 10 homes have burned in many villages. In the village of Vershino-Bidzha where my parents live, 7 homes burned down, people are in shock and confusion. Not a single fire truck came to help them! Only one village water carrier came to help. Why are people in villages practically doomed to death in such emergencies? Is it really hard to provide each village where more than 500 people live with at least one fire truck? What will people do who have been left out on the street now? What measures will be taken to help them restore their housing?”
An elderly man in Novokursk, who had bought a house and lived it in for 12 years posted a video of himself standing among the ruins. “They promised us they’d rebuild it, but we don’t know how fast this will be, or how it will be,” he said.
The ruble crisis hit hard on people whose mortgages were denominated in foreign currencies.
“Hard-currency mortgage-payers are in trouble. We appeal to you with the problem of the hard-currency mortgage. We know of the government’s negative attitude toward this problem. However, the government is the executive branch, and we really hope for your fair resolution of this problem! We don’t ask to forgive our debts, we ask the legislate a recalculation of our debt according to the devaluation rate and equate us with ruble-denominated mortgage payers.
We need a law, since the banks will not reject super-profits voluntarily. We are prepared to pay the bank mortgages further, but on manageable and reasonable terms. We really urge you to influence this situation. We have written to various offices but we get only form answers. We’re awaiting a resolution in the very near future as every day of delay threatens us with a substantial lowering of living standard since delinquents have their apartments taken away from them as a consequence.”
Another asks, regarding relief for small businesses going under in the economic crisis:
“Under conditions of the economic crisis, are tax holidays planned for existing small-business and medium-business enterprises and organizations which are now on the edge of insolvency due to the reduction of the population’s purchasing power and other consequences of the crisis?
In Samara Region, the law on tax holidays has still not been passed. And perhaps it won’t be passed. Offering the right to regions to establish tax holidays and zero tax rates, and not obliging them to do this leads to a lack of equality of rights for citizens and organizations working in the same country, but where different laws apply in different regions.”
“Vladimir Vladimirovich!” implored one questioner, using Putin’s patronymic:
“Please, come to visit us in Kirov. We urge you! Or else we will drown in mud and be deprived of our what’s left of the roads. If you come visit us, the utility workers will at least clean up the town and patch the potholes. And if they don’t clean up and don’t patch up, then you’ll see what terrible conditions we’re living in.”
Another man uploaded a video of Karl Marx Street in Samara, filled with mud, to complain about the mayor’s failure to repair the roads, and the tendency of governor of his region to build missiles “instead of looking on the ground where people live.”
Some people made group videos. In Karelia, a group of mothers gathered in front of a video camera, some holding up a sign saying “Day Care for Children” while one woman read a petition. She said that while a new day care center had been built at the republic’s expense, it was not taking open applications but was being turned into a private facility for high fees. The petitioners asked Putin to prevail over the governor, already a target of protest about the jailing of a deputy and businessmen, to make the facility public.
Another questioner said that in her area “voluntary” fees of 15,000 rubles ($301) were demanded by administrators to get a seat in public day care, pre-school and elementary schools. Couldn’t this be stopped?
As Bloomberg points out, one questioner asked, “Why is the investigation into the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov going slowly?”
But it hasn’t been voted up very far.
Some of the planted questions aired on TV — or even authentic queries from those saturated in Russian state television broadcasting — will have to do with affirming patriotism and expressing defiance about “Western aggression, says Bloomberg:
Patriotism: With his support still above 80 percent after the annexation of Crimea last year, Putin is riding a wave of patriotic feeling in Russia. He’s often used the show to bash the U.S., the EU, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as well as former Soviet allies that seek closer ties with the military alliance. This year should be no exception. Expect lots of loyal declarations of defiance from callers, particularly those from Russia’s far-flung regions. There may also be a focus on the 70th anniversary Victory Day commemorations on May 9 of the end of World War II, which Russians call the Great Patriotic War.
To be sure, one contributor says (translation by The Interpreter):
“Russia has proposed good discounts on gas to Kiev. Tell us, please what is the reason for such generosity? It’s not a secret that money in the Ukrainian budget is going to the financing of the so-called ATO (anti-terror operation) among other things.”
But another person asks:
“Why are relations with the Baltic countries so confrontational? Is it possible to establish with them really mutually-profitable good-neighborly relations, and on which countries does this mainly depend?”
The theme that comes through in many of the questions is the conundrum of Russia: on the one hand, power is too centralized in Moscow, so that numerous issues queue up in serial-processing form to the Kremlin get permission to be resolved, and then never get attention. The constituent subjects of Russia don’t have the power — or often the funds — to do things on their own and the Kremlin prefers to keep it that way.
But on the other hand, when the regions are given latitude on certain questions, such as whether to cut taxes on small business or not, they don’t act — which then prompts people to demand that the center come down hard on the recalcitrant bureaucrats, reinforcing the vertikal or vertical command system refined under Putin. It’s very hard under these circumstances to take initiative and solve problems before punishment comes. This contributes to a feeling of helplessness and fear if not anger. One person comments,
“I’m concerned about the war in Ukraine, will it cross over to Russia?”
Only people inside Russia will be able to dial the phone numbers to the TV station. But the web site allows people from any country to submit a query.
Visitors to the site can vote on the questions regardless of whether they are inside Russia. So far the questions that have the most votes concern the prices in the stores, the “Maternal Capital” program which gives grants to new mothers, and concern about bad roads in Arkhangelsk and Samara Regions.
Last year, there were 2.4 million call-in questions logged, and 3 million in 2013.
Of the 50,068 registered on the Internet site so far, most concerned housing and utilities or human rights, which in this case included economic rights such as pensions. Issues of public policy and then labor and wages came next, with questions about foreign policy second to last, and health last of all.
Last year, fugitive NSA contractor Edward Snowden appeared on the show with a softball question about whether Russia put Internet users under surveillance and interfered with their privacy, which enabled Putin to claim that the government did not put ordinary citizens under surveillance, even though the Federal Security Service (FSB) maintains a program to filter all communications and Internet Service Providers are required to cooperate with the FSB.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Russia’s decision to sell Iran the S-300 complex will “cause an even greater lack of trust in Russia” and shows “just how much the Kremlin doesn’t respect Barack Obama,” said Konstantin Eggert in an essay published by Kommersant today April 15.
The Interpreter has translated the piece:
First, the American president has not forgotten the so-called “reset” policy of 2009-2011. In my opinion, to this day it is perceived in the Kremlin as an attempt to drive a wedge between Putin who was prime minister at that time and Medvedev who was president.
Second, Obama is seen as a weakling, who for the six years of his presidency has retreated from everywhere that he could retreat from, has betrayed all the allies he could betray and is now desperately trying, in the two years remaining him to secure himself a foreign policy legacy in the form of a thawing of relations with Iran.
After all, America isn’t liked in our country above all because in the perception of Russians, American can conduct the sort of policy which Moscow always dreamed of — command allies, punish and pardon enemies, and loudly convince everyone of its superiority. Putin’s decision in that sense is a deliberate, demonstrative, anti-American gesture.
Third, and finally, the Russian leadership understands: in the event that Iran comes to an agreement with the six leading powers, after the removal of the sanctions it will be most of all interested in establishing relations (at a minimum, trade and economy relations) with the United States. It is direct ties with America that were always the most desirable confirmation of its international status for the Iranian regime. After Moscow’s decision to unfreeze the deal with the S-300s missile system, it’s significantly harder for Obama to convince Congress and the military that not only Iran but Russia as well can be trusted. Obama risks losing a chance to go down in the history of foreign affairs.
Moscow essentially is trying in unilateral fashion to begin the dismantling of the sanctions regime. Moreover, it is trying to complicate the restoration of ties with Tehran to the maximum extent for the US Administration. It seems to me that for Moscow, better an Iran under sanctions than an Iran establishing its own ties to Washington. And don’t forget the Russian audience — the television will tell Russians that our country has once again shown its sovereign might to the presumptuous Yankees.
There’s one “but” here, however — the decision to sell the anti-aircraft missile systems to the Iranians may not contradict the letter but in my view does not correspond to the spirit of the collective work with international partners on the agreement with Iran. This will cause even greater lack of trust in official Moscow. Perhaps this can be considered trivial, but in fact it is mutual trust that is the main currency of world diplomacy.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The two-week 6,000-kilometre (3,750-mile) rally by Russian bikers including the Night Wolves, a motorcycle club backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, comes as tensions run high between Russia and the West over the crisis in Ukraine.
Night Wolves’ leader Alexander Zaldostanov is under US and Canadian sanctions for his support of Moscow’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine last year.
“I consider the announcement of this rally a provocation,” Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz told the private TOK FM radio station.
“If this is to undermine our security, cause Poles trouble, then the law is there for us to use it,” Kopacz said, adding that Polish customs officials have the final say on who can cross Poland’s border.
The German foreign ministry said it did not know of any visa requests from the group.
Zaldostanov is not included in the EU’s sanctions list, and has claimed his organization is not involved, although the rally was advertised on one of his club’s web pages. Zaldostanov and his gang members took part in taking over the Crimea by running patrols and blocking army bases last year.
The event is technically organized by the Russian Federation of Motorcycle Tourism, and the organizers insist their road rally is not politically motivated.
“The main goal is to pay respects to those killed on WWII battlefields in the struggle against Hitler’s Nazis,” rally organiser Andrei Bobrovsky told AFP.
The bikers said they will visit the former Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, which Nazi Germany installed in occupied Poland and the Red Army liberated at war’s end.
A spokesman for the museum at the site told AFP a group of Russian bikers has reserved tickets for April 29.
But Zaldostanov is one of the co-chairs of Anti-Maidan, a group that has openly lobbied against the Ukrainian Maidan, and consistently turned out to harass liberal opposition rallies. Recently the group obtained a permit to hold a concert on Revolution Square in the center of Moscow, even as an opposition request for a permit in the same area was turned down.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The death toll from forest fires has risen to 29 with 3 missing
in Khakasiya, a federal subject in the mid-south of the Russian
Federation. The blazes started by farmers to clear dry brush went out of
control due to high winds. At least 1,328 private homes in 33 towns are
affected with about 5,000 made homeless. Khakasiya remains on fire
alert. A government commission from the Emergencies Ministry is coming
to inspect the area.
Officials have also warned that the
Krasnoyarsky Territory, the Irkutsk Region and the Republic of
Buryatiya, all part of the Siberian Federal District remain danger
zones. Fire-fighters are still working to put out flames in Transbaikal,
Krasnoyarsk, Buryatiya and the Amur Region, where states of emergency
have been declared.
Amur is seeing the most rapid deterioration of the situation as 12 new fires have broken out, TASS reports.
This means emergency workers are coping with 18 foreign fires over
23,900 hectares; 10 have been put out already. Officials have handed out
150 notices of administrative offense and opened four criminal cases
regarding the forest fires in this region.
Photo by Igor Podgorny/TASS
In Transbaikal, fires have grown and the area affected has doubled
to 57,000 hectares. The Investigative Committee opened up 25 criminal
cases for starting fires. The prosecutor of Transbaikal Territory also
opened up a criminal case against the acting director of the State
Forestry Service of the territory and several other local officials for
failure to prevent and put out the fires.
In Transbaikal, 21,000
people have been affected, with 203 homes destroyed in 18 towns. Bair
Zhamsuyev, a senator from Transbaikal Territory put the cost of the
damage at 460 million rubles ($9.1 million) and said the territory could
not cope with the disaster on its own. He said his region had still not
finished paying off loans for putting out the last season’s fires. The
Russian parliament will review the question of allocating funds from the
reserves for putting out fires in the provinces.
Photo by Aleksei Shtokal/TASS
managed to prevent flames from reaching the village of Aksha of 3,500
people in the south of Transbaikal Territory where steppe fires have
raged out of control. The fire did not jump the River Onon and homes
were saved but there is a lot of smoke in the air, say officials.
Rosleskhoz, the government forestry agency has found that out of 85
subjects of the Russian Federation, only 45 have prepared for the fire
season and 9 are absolutely unprepared, says TASS.
territory consists of 22% forest, and every year, 10,000-35,000 forest
fires are reported covering 500,000 to 2.5 million hectares.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The opposition has rejected an offer from the mayor’s office to move a rally planned for April 19 from the center of Moscow to the area of the metro stop Oktybrskoye Pole, Slon.ru and Interfax reported, citing an applicant for the event, Aleksandr Ryklin.
The “Committee of Protest Actions” as the group is calling itself says it may protest in other forms, such as having one-person pickets in the center of the city and laying of flowers at the site of the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
Aleksei Mayorov, head of the department for regional safety in the mayor’s office, said Ryklin’s comment about the unauthorized actions could lead to prosecution of both organizers and participants.
But as Slon pointed out, the Law on Meetings, Rallies, Demonstrations, Processions and Pickets say that one-person pickets do not require permission, but that the distance between the one-person pickets has to be at least 50 meters.
The original march, titled “March of Anger and Decency” was planned to go from Trubnaya Square to Revolution Square, but the mayor’s office refused to grant a permit. Meanwhile, the Anti-Maidan group was given a permit for a concert on Revolution Square on April 21.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The social network VKontakte has a group called Tipichnaya Chita (Typical Chita), location of some of the worst forest fires, where the people have posted a meme saying:
Hey, Government, we’re the Transbaikal Territory, we haven’t seceded from Russia. We are Russia and we’re on fire! Enough discussing Ukraine, help save your own people!
In the group chat, people have made a number of sardonic comments about Kremlin’s focus on the war on Ukraine at the expense of taking care of Russia’s own disasters.
This meme uses the pejorative term for Ukrainians, khokhly and has a caption, “What’s that happening with the khokhly?” coming even from a burning house.
There are also memes with sayings like “Greetings from Buryatia,” with a photo that became famous from the Battle of Debaltsevo, showing the face of a Buryat soldier who was fighting there — now there are forest fires in Buryat Republic and neighboring Transbaikal Territory.
One woman in the group asked sardonically, “Are a lot of militia coming?” using the term opolchentsy which is used by the Russian-backed militants in Ukraine.
Another suggested, “take only the [Ukrainian] refugees as volunteers, we helped them, let them help us!” Others objected to the slurs on refugees because they themselves were from the Donbass and had been resettled in this region.
Still another said regarding the fires, “It’s God’s punishment for Ukraine!”
One man wrote a macabre poem about a one-legged Buryat tank gunner, injured in the war, who returned to find his house burned down.
Other people ask why there are so many scenes of people standing around just watching the fires and not doing anything.
But one man says that when he and his friends tried to get up a volunteer group to put out the fires, the official fire-fighters and Emergencies Ministry staff kept them away, because they said it is too easy to get injured.
The group has started a hashtag which translates as “Transbaikal is burning” has gotten a fair amount of pick-up.
Translation: it’s impossible to go outside in Smolenk. It’s terrifying even.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
As we have been reporting today, massive wildfires are burning in multiple territories of Russia’s Siberian and Far East Federal Districts and states of emergency has now been declared in three locations.
A dramatic dashboard cam video claims to show civilians in cars trying to escape the fires in Zabaikalsky Krai (Transbaikal Territory) on April 13, as the flames shoot over the road and at one point light one of the cars on fire. The title of the video: “Fire 13:04.2015 in Transbaikal, Chita, Transbaikal Territory – Now I know what HELL looks like!”
We have been analyzing the video to determine whether it is real. The video is timestamped April 13, 2015, after 16:55. The video also carries the stamp “HIGHSCREEN,” a dashboard camera company. At both 23 seconds and 40 seconds license plates are visible, and both cars are registered in Zabaikalsky Krai. Though the text on the screen jumps around, there does not appear to be a panning effect on the video itself. Using reverse-image search of multiple frames of this video, there is no evidence that it was uploaded before now. The one thing that does give pause, however, is that we have been unable to find a version of this video without the music.
However, we do know that the fires have been devastating, having killed at least 23 people and injuring more than 900. This video could be real, and if it is, then it provides frightening insight into the lengths people will go to escape these fires.
— James Miller, Pierre Vaux, Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Spring fires are continuing to blaze in a number of parts of Russia.
Fire-fighters have only managed to put out 11 out of 31 fires burning in
the Far East Federal District, RBC.ru reported.
Photo by Federal Forestry Agency
Photo by Marya Vasilyevna/Kommersant
Most of the efforts are concentrated in Amur Region were flames
raced through more than 19,000 hectares in a day. But authorities said
the Vostochny Space Center is not threatened in this area.
Authorities in Buryatia have declared a state of emergency due to
forest fires there which have doubled to 1,400 hectares in size, forestry
officials said, Lenta.ru reported, citing TASS.
More than 600 fire-fighters and 96 fire trucks are at work trying
to control the flames. Two Defense Ministry planes have also been
Village of Shira. Photo by Ilya Naimushin.
As we reported, 23 people were killed and 900 were injured in
forest fires that began earlier this week in Khakasiya. At least 5,000 residents were
left homeless as more than 1,000 homes were destroyed in at least 20
towns. Khakasiya as well as the Transbaikal Territory were also put
under states of emergency; 3 people have been killed since March in
Authorities have banned the sale of alcohol in Khakasiya, saying they want to reduce the number of incidents of public disorders and the difficulty of dealing with drunks in temporary shelters.
The head of the Emergencies Ministry said at a government meeting that plastic surgeons and medications needed to be sent to Khakasiya because of the number of people who had suffered burns, Lenta.ru reported, citing RIA Novosti.
Photo by Denis Mukimov/RIA Novosti
Leninskaya Iskra, Shushensky District
Photo by Yevgeny Yepanchintsev/AP
Photo by Dmitry Sokovikov/Kommersant
Yevgeny Yepanchintsev/RIA Novosti
Photo by Ilya Naymushin/Reuters
Photo by Ilya Naimushin/Reuters
For more photos, go to Lenta.ru.
There is now fear of flooding in this same area as warmer weather is coming this week, which will foster a huge snow melt with little cover to absorb it, which could cause some localities to go under water, Gazeta.ru reported, citing RIA Novosti.
Officials are telling residents to remove all their food stores out of basements and to tie down all objects that might float away.
Gazeta.ru TV has a video with an aerial view of the fire in Khakasiya.
They said more than 150 residences and 100 dacha constructions were destroyed, and that local towns were not prepared with sufficient personnel and equipment to put out fires and protect the population. and there is fear that the fires may erupt again.
Authorities say the fires are started because of a custom among Russians on farms to burn dry grass, Lenta.ru reported. Rosleskhoz, the state foresty agency, is thinking of banning the practice, even thought it has been useful for agriculture.
Farmers find that setting grass fires is the quickest and cheapest way of clearing pastures, although environmentalists say that the usefulness of this practice is dubious. There aren’t official statistics on how many forest fires are started from these grass fires, but Greenpeace says that contribute to about 30-40% of the fires.
Aleksei Yaroshenko, a biologist and head of the foreign program for Greenpeace Russia, the history of grass fires goes back into the ancient history of Russian agriculture, where it was used to prepare fields for planting and livestock grazing. But in neighboring Finland, this practice has been eliminated as Finns have protected land from fires and they have obtained more favorable results.
Yaroshenko said Russian farmers often believe they are actually contributing to fire safety by burning brush that might catch fire — but then they can’t control the fires started.
Greenpeace said that more than 100,000 hectares were involved in fires throughout Russian now.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick