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.
A Russian trawler, Dal’ny Vostok, has capsized in the Sea of Okhotsk, leaving at least 54 dead, 15 missing and 61 rescued. Initial reports indicate that the captain’s navigation error may have caused the accident.
– 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
See also our Russia This Week stories:
– Can We Be Satisfied With the Theory That Kadyrov Killed Nemtsov?
– All The Strange Things Happening in Moscow
– Remembering Boris Nemtsov, Insider and Outsider (1959-2015)
– Ultranationalists Angry over âCapitulationâ of Minsk Agreement
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Aleksandr Reymar, former head of the Federal Corrections Service has been arrested for embezzlement of 3 billion rubles ($47.8 million) that had been allocated for purchasing electronic bracelets for house arrests, RBC.ru reported March 30. Two other prison officials and a businessman are also indicted in the same case.
Aleksandr Reymar. Photo by RIA Novosti.
This doesn’t surprise most Russians, who are familiar with the pattern throughout their history where yesterday’s executioners become tomorrow’s victims, and where corruption is rampant in the government.
Mikhail Senkevich of the Public Observers Commission, a prison monitoring group, has already visited Reymar and said he was alone in a cell meant for two although someone has been moved in, Gazeta.ru reported.
The cell is “standard” and “ideally clean,” he said, and Reymar had been given a television set.
This is the same monitoring group whose members visited five Chechens suspected as the murderers of Boris Nemtsov. Some of the group’s members later said the prisoners had withdrawn their confessions and complained of torture, and were themselves then threatened with criminal prosecution for disclosing the secret information of the investigation. Then the head of the commission denied there were any reports of torture at all.
Reymar’s case hasn’t sparked that kind of disagreement so far in the group.
Some of Russia’s political prisoners can’t help feeling a bit of schadenfreude, however, over the reversal of Reymar’s fortunes, even as they wonder if he will get better treatment.
Prisoners don’t always get a TV in their cells in Russia; one commenter on Ekho Moskvy quipped, “What’s the TV in for?”
Marina Tolokonnikova, a member of the Pussy Riot punk band who served more than two years in prison for staging a protest in a Russian Orthodox Church against Putin, had this to say on her Facebook page (translated by The Interpreter):
Reymar, the former head of the prison system of the Russian Federation, is now behind bars at the Presnensky Court in Moscow, in a dark sweater, covering his face with his hands. Why, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich? We know what you look like anyway. You’re a famous person.
We waited for your arrival with a Moscow commission in the pre-trial detention centers and the colonies; we painted the rotting walls and within in a day, paved the entire zone with asphalt so that you would like it. We wrote you complaints that we weren’t receiving medical treatment and we were being beaten, and you didn’t answer us. You’re a famous person.
And now you cover your face with your hands, you have been detained and jailed, and they are accusing you of stealing electronic bracelets worth 3 billion rubles.
Well, it happens. When we asked you why they feed us such shit, you answered: “You shouldn’t have committed a crime.” Yes, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich. You shouldn’t have.
Her comment attracted 11,752 likes.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has released this statement (translated by The Interpreter) after the news that a framework agreement has been met between the members of the P5+1 on the future of Iran’s nuclear program:
In this political agreement is laid the principle formulated by Russian Federation President V. V. Putin, namely, the recognition for Iran of the unconditional right to implement a peaceful nuclear program including activity to enrich uranium, with the placement of this program under international oversight and the removal of all existing sanctions against the IRI. All subsequent steps within the framework of the final agreement will be undertaken by the sides proceeding from the principles of staging and mutuality which at one time were also advanced by the Russian government.
Thus the negotiations marathon regarding the Iranian Nuclear Program lasting many years is completed. The main political conclusions are found, now ahead is the meticulous expert work in documentation of the technical measures for implement each one of the concrete decisions which in aggregate make up the subject of a future agreement.
The framework. the details of which can be read in full here, is designed to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, but is still allowed to move forward with a peaceful, civilian nuclear power program.
The statement by the Russian MFA is subdued — perhaps in order to avoid adding fuel to the fire which has already been started by the deal’s critics and skeptics.
The MFA did appear eager, however, to make sure that the framework for the nuclear deal agreed upon today are codified by the UN Security Council:
Part of the framework reads as follows:
– Iran will receive sanctions relief, if it verifiably abides by its commitments.
– U.S. and E.U. nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended after the IAEA has verified that Iran has taken all of its key nuclear-related steps. If at any time Iran fails to fulfill its commitments, these sanctions will snap back into place.
– The architecture of U.S. nuclear-related sanctions on Iran will be retained for much of the duration of the deal and allow for snap-back of sanctions in the event of significant non-performance.
– All past UN Security Council resolutions on the Iran nuclear issue will be lifted simultaneous with the completion, by Iran, of nuclear-related actions addressing all key concerns (enrichment, Fordow, Arak, PMD, and transparency).
– However, core provisions in the UN Security Council resolutions – those that deal with transfers of sensitive technologies and activities – will be re-established by a new UN Security Council resolution that will endorse the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] and urge its full implementation. It will also create the procurement channel mentioned above, which will serve as a key transparency measure. Important restrictions on conventional arms and ballistic missiles, as well as provisions that allow for related cargo inspections and asset freezes, will also be incorporated by this new resolution.
Therefore, the Sputnik article is somewhat confusing, as there will be no immediate UNSC action which will codify this framework. In fact, it’s likely that the exact wording of the proposed UNSC resolution, as well as the language of the entire P5+1 deal, has yet to be written and will be agreed upon in June.
Russia has previously expressed concern about one aspect of the nuclear deal often referred to as the “snap back.” Under the language released today, sanctions on Iran which relate to its nuclear program will be lifted as soon as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been able to verify that Iran has complied with their end of the deal. However, at any point that Iran then stops complying with the deal, those sanctions could automatically “snap back” into place. This automatic action, however, potentially undermines Russia’s ability to veto any new sanctions. Reuters reports:
“Russia has never been ready to give up its veto power and the status that gives it,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
“It doesn’t want to forgo any future decision to play a role in either impeding American diplomacy or possibly playing a card positively in the future,” he added. “They don’t want to give up leverage now that could be useful in the future.”
It is a central issue in the case of Iran. If Tehran fails to comply with a nuclear agreement and Western powers decide that U.N. sanctions should be reimposed, if there is no trigger, a new Security Council resolution would be required. And sanctions resolutions can be a tough sell for Russia and China.
In such a case, Western diplomats say, Russia could, and most likely would, veto any attempt to restore U.N. sanctions on Iran. As a result, any so-called temporary relief involving U.N. nuclear sanctions or other U.N. measures would be permanent.
Now that the framework has been agreed upon, however, it’s not clear how this particular issue has been resolved.
If Russia is still reluctantly going along with this deal, it isn’t the only country which has its doubts:
For all of the significant details released today, the actual language of the deal has not been agreed upon, and there are many unanswered questions about the specifics of the deal and whether it will be agreed upon in June and successfully implemented after that.
— James Miller, Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
A notice was sent by the Kremlin to the managers to clarify an issue that has vexed them as well as anti-corruption activists for more than a year.
The further explication given to inquiring journalists by Natalya Timakova, press secretary for Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, actually says more about the muddle that is state capitalism in Russia, which has provided exceptions for some oligarchs close to President Vladimir Putin even as others are over-scrutinized:
“There was an additional explanation to the decree passed earlier by the government, the point of which came down to the fact that heads of commercial organizations, including those with part state ownership, if the are an OAO [open stock company], that is, if there is some government shares, in the strict sense they are not civil servants but are representatives of commercial business.
They still remain commercial, hiring employees; therefore according to this paper, the heads of such companies are obliged to provide tax declarations to the government, essentially as it was before. This obligation remains for them but they are released from the necessity of publicly declaring their incomes. Above all because they are participants of the commercial market, and therefore this constitutes in particular a commercial secret”
As for those organizations which are established by the government and exist on state budgets where the heads are appointed directly by the government, for them the rule remains the same — they will go on submitting declarations to the government and they will be published on the Internet.”
As RBC explains, back in 2013, Putin passed a law requiring officials of state corporations to publish their incomes. This caused a backlash from Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russian Railways, and others who said it was an invasion of privacy but then reluctantly complied. Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft refused to reveal his income and even sued Forbes magazine for making an estimate of his wealth. Rosneft did publish a disclosure of the aggregate of all the incomes of all their top officers including Sechin, then finally published a figure just for Sechin’s compensation for serving on the board at Inter RAO EES, which was 2.97 million rubles ($51,183), “sent to charity,” said Rosneft.
Putin last received Sechin publicly at the Kremlin on February 5, 2015.
Newsweek‘s Damien Sharkov has published a piece titled “‘Victory’ for Russia’s Top State Executives as They Keep Salaries Secret.”
He links to the Russian original of a piece titled “Three Victories for the State Managers: What Sechin and Yakunin Win From the Right Not to Publish Data About Their Incomes” although there’s an English translation published the same day.
Sharkov cites this paragraph, which is from the English translation:
Sechin, Yakunin, Miller, and others have shown basically that they don’t have to obey the government’s orders, and not only that but they can get meddlesome decisions reversed. “Special” individuals can get “special” treatment from the country’s leaders—that’s precisely the message Russia’s top managers send with this turn of events.
Sharkov doesn’t mention how this issue became so public — the work of opposition leader Alexey Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Fund and other opposition leaders such Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated on February 27.
Meduza mentions Navalny in the context of explaining that the new law is a psychological victory for the oligarchs, given that Sechin had already disclosed his salary as a deputy prime minister.
Even these scandals, however, pose no great threat to top managers. Anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny’s many investigations of politicians’ undeclared property have produced just one resignation (Duma deputy Vladimir Pekhtin’s in 2013) and not a single reprimand from the Kremlin.
There’s no question that Russia’s opposition leaders have put the issue of oligarch compensation and lucrative state contracts such as for the Sochi Olympics on the map (See Nemtsov’s Winter Olympics in the Sub-Tropics translated by The Interpreter.)
Georgy Alburov, the former head of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund, tweeted this humorous meme last year to illustrate the issue of Sechin, whom he depicted as a little orphan boy named Igoryok, continuing to get loans from the government even as the government raided the pension funds to bail out Russian corporations targeted by Western sanctions:
Translation: At the Ministry of Finance, they say they are sending the
pension funds in particular to support major corporations.
ATTENTION! HELP NEEDED!
This nice bright boy is named Igoryok, he is only 53 years old.
Igoryok needs help. He has a severe, possibly hereditary disease — he
has is totally f**ked.
If every one of us gives Igoryosha his salary, perhaps we can save him.
Alburov is on trial in the city of Vladimir on charges of “art theft,”
facing years in prison, for taking the sketch of a street artist off a
public fence and giving it later to Navalny. The work has been valued at
less than 100 rubles by the artist, and even under pressure from state
investigators, was characterized in court documents as worth no more than 5,000 rubles, i.e. $1.75 to $88.
news about the new secrecy law for top officials’ salary comes out as the VEB Bank is softening the terms for paying back the loans
for Olympic buildings, RBC.ru reports.
At a meeting of the board, it was decided to
give the companies with loans the right to spend up to 20 percent of
their operational profits on development, such as capital construction of parks and bus stops that are “necessary to raise investor
attractiveness for these projects and the related increase in the flow
So in other words, instead of paying back their loans, they can keep building.
January, RBC.ru reported that at a board meeting chaired by Vice
Premier Dmitry Kozak, it was decided that Vladimir Potanin of Interros
and Oleg Deripaska of Basic Element — two oligarchs with access to Putin — could increase their costs for
financing development of their Sochi resorts. The move was explained as
“part of the program of further cooperation between the government and
investors in the Olympic facilities.”
Interros spent 81.8 billion
rubles on the Olympics, 80% of which were borrowed from VEB Bank.
Earlier Interros representatives said that if the government subsidies
the rates on their loans and gives the Roza Khutor housing development
at the Sochi site tax breaks, then it may pay back investors in 15-20
Basic Element built the airport, the Imeret port and the Olympic
Village. The Olympic Village cost Basic Element 24.2 billion rubles ($427 million),
with a loan of 15.5 billion rubles ($273 million) and the Imeret Port caused 6 billion
rubles ($105 million) (for which they had a VEB loan of 3.7 billion rubles or $65 million). These
loans were all received when the ruble was worth much more than it is
Putin received Potanin at the Kremlin on March 23.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The tragedy of the Dal’ny Vostok, a Russian fishing trawler which sank in the Sea of Okhotsk killing at least 56 crew members, with 13 still missing, occurs amid a massive government shakeup in Sakhalin Region.
The ship was owned by Magellan, Ltd. and registered at the port of Nevelsk on Sakhalin Island.
Sakhalin is Russia’s largest island in the North Pacific Ocean which was seized from the Japanese near the end of World War II and remains a subject of bitter dispute between the countries.
On March 4, long-time Sakhalin governor Aleksandr Khoroshavin was fired and arrested along with his associate Andrei Ikramov on charges of corruption, including acceptance of a $5.6 million bribe for the construction of a thermal power station. This has led to a government shakeup in which other officials associated with the discredited governor have been fired or resigned under pressure including Yekaterina Kotovo, head of the governor’s office and former minister of finance, dubbed by sakhalinmedia.ru as “the government’s chief blonde.”
Her patron, deputy governor Sergei Khotochkin may be next in line for dismissal. The scandals in Sakhalin have not been complete without charges that another former regional development official, Timur Solovyov, was “an informer for the USA,” says Sakhalinmedia.ru. Solovyov was arrested last year at Sheremeytovo airport with synthetic drugs as he returned from the US, then sentenced to 14 years of prison.
“After this incident, the head of the regional budget department naturally had to be changed,” says Sakhalinmedia.ru.
Oleg Kozhemyakov was appointed acting governor and the Kremlin has installed its own person today Aleksandr Dernovoy, who previous served as an aide to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, to keep an eye on the domestic policy of this troubled remote province.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The death toll has risen to 56 from the capsizing of the Dal’ny Vostok, a Russian freezer trawler, 300 kilometers off the coast of Magadan. More than 1,600 people have been deployed to help with the rescue, RIA Novosti reports. Sixty-three people have been rescued, with at least 9 in critical condition from hypothermia. But after a day of searching, there is no hope that any more fishermen would be found alive in the freezing waters; 13 are still missing. Those that did survive credit the fact that all crew members were in wet suits and 30 other fishing boats were nearby to start the rescue immediately.
Both the captain and his first mate died in the accident.
Kommersant.ru said the search was continuing in the dark, with a designated search area of 8,500 square miles; earlier an administrator of the Petropavlovsk-Kamchakta sea port said the search was called off until morning.
On board were 76 Russian citizens, most from Sakhalin and Primorsky Territory and 54 were citizens of Ukraine, Latvia, Azerbaijan, Myanmar and Vanuatu.
Vasily Sokolov, deputy head of Rosrybolovstvo, the Russian government fishing agency said the Russian citizens and two specialists from Latvia, where the ship was purchased, were the trained crew. The rest of the foreign citizens were “cheap labor,” said Kommersant.
A criminal case has been opened on violation of water transportation safety regulations, and the crew and owners are being interrogated.
Very few pictures of the disaster of been supplied by authorities — just a few close-ups of emergency workers and one rescue ship.
Kommersant said that authorities were researching “10 different versions” of the accident.
But RBC.ru said that acting governor Oleg Kozhemyako and the Emergencies Ministry have said a failure to observe safety procedures led to the sinking (translation by The Interpreter):
“They had empty tanks, the ballast had not been pumped in. A trawl of about 80 tons was taken on board which prompted the disruption of the ship’s balance – it was at zero, negative. The ship capsized and sank within half an hour.”
“According to preliminary data, the crew of the trawler violated industry rules. The ship in which there were little reserves of fuel hauled a trawl of 80 tons on board and lowered a second net. With the choppy waves, the ship ‘caught the roll’ and sank.”
Some Russian social media commentary has focused on the heavily competitive world of commercial fishing in over-fished waters as the backdrop of the tragedy.
But Vasily Sokolov, deputy head of Rosrbybolovstvo, the Russian fishing agency, said that there was no overload on the Dal’ny Vostok. He said his agency had their theory about what happened but only the investigation would establish what happened.
Investigative Committee sources said investigators are also looking at “the most likely” reason for the accident which was that the ship struck an obstacle such as an ice floe which damaged the hull.
The sinking of the Dal’ny Vostok is far from the worst sea disaster in Russia’s history, as there have been many more over the last decades with many hundreds lost in each incident. The last accident near Sakhalin was in 2011, when 53 died after an oil-drilling rig sank, AP reported.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
First, Lukashevich announced that in the next week the foreign ministers of Madagascar, China, Armenia, and Belgium will each visit Moscow to discuss various policy issues.
Following that, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will host a group of more than 100 Russian NGOs “that specialize in foreign affairs”:
The irony, of course, is that NGOs operating in Russia, no matter what their purpose, have to register as “foreign agents” if they receive foreign donations and are perceived as engaging in “political activity”. ‘Perceived’ needs to be stressed, as the law is arbitrarily (or, rather, politically) enforced. There are 49 such NGOs so far.
We would need to see a list of such organizations to be sure, but Lukashevich, here, is likely not referencing these groups, but other NGOs, or perhaps organizations which have come to be known as GONGOs (government organized non-governmental organization) which help carry out Russia’s foreign policy agenda.
The entire world is watching Yemen closely and is understandably
concerned about the escalation of violence there. In recent weeks,
Houthi rebels have overrun large parts of the country, have solidified
their hold on the capital, Sana’a, and are now trying to establish
control of the port city of Aden. After Houthi fighter jets fired missiles at the presidential compound in Aden, Saudi Arabia began to lead a coalition of Arab nations which have conducted airstrikes against the Houthis.
Today, Houthi rebels have seized the Maasheeq presidential palace in Aden, despite the Saudi coalition’s attacks. While that battle was ongoing, al-Qaeda militants took advantage of the fact that they are currently being ignored by the Houthi rebels and the Yemeni military, and captured another port city, Mukalla, east of Aden.
Lukashevich commented on the conflict:
Lukashevich’s statements, however, should not be taken at face value. While Yemen’s troubles have more to do with water and food insecurity and domestic politics, Houthi rebels, who are Shia, have received military support from the Iranian government, and both Sunni and Shia regional powers are now engaged in a proxy war for control. But Russia openly supports Iran and its proxies in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the region, so it’s call to peace is driven by ulterior motives. In fact, the language that has been used by the Russian foreign ministry in relation to the international coalition against the Houthis mirrors Russia’s calls for restraint in the international response to Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s chemical weapons attack, and the Ukrainian military’s counteroffensives against Russian-backed fighters in Ukraine.
These statements are not truly summaries of the OSCE’s reports. For instance, here is an excerpt from the latest update from the OSCE SMM (Special Monitoring Mission), dated April 1, on the obstruction of the OSCE teams. Note that while the SMM was stopped at both checkpoints controlled by the Ukrainian government and the Russian-backed fighters, at a checkpoint held by fighters from the self-declared ‘Donetsk People’s Republic,’ only the OSCE vehicles were stopped:
The SMM attempted to visit government-controlled Krymske, (51km north-west of Luhansk), but was not allowed to pass a nearby Ukrainian Armed Forces checkpoint. Soldiers at this checkpoint explained to the SMM that it was too dangerous to drive on, but did not specify why.
At the entrance to Horlivka (“DPR”-controlled, 36km north-west of Donetsk) the SMM was stopped at a “DPR” checkpoint and told by a “DPR” member that the SMM was not allowed to enter Horlivka. The SMM saw that at this checkpoint “DPR” members were allowing other vehicles to pass.
And here is a similar statement from March 31, but note that in this report only the Russian-backed separatists are implicated in “restrictions on SMM access and freedom of movement.”
The security situation in Donbas is fluid and unpredictable and the cease-fire does not hold everywhere. For this reason, the SMM requires security guarantees from the “DPR” and “LPR” which are not always provided. Where such guarantees are limited to escorted movements, and escorts are not provided for all planned patrols or are delayed, this also represents a restriction of SMM freedom of movement. During the reporting period, for two patrols, the SMM was escorted by the “DPR”.
Both sides have been implicated as having violated the ceasefire, though Ukraine maintains its forces are simply responding to separatist attacks, whereas the Russian-backed fighters claim that they have pulled back all of their heavy weapons from the demarcation line.
In other words, the Russian Foreign Ministry is either selectively summarizing the OSCE reports or is outright distorting the SMM’s positions.
Lukashevich stressed the importance of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). This follows a trend where the Russian government has been arguing that it is in fact not isolated on the world stage due to its ties with BRICS.
while BRICS is important to Russia’s economy Moscow consistently
overplays how beneficial this relationship has been.
Below are just a few examples of how China, in particular, often has competing interests with Russia:
Lukashevik then turned back to the Middle East, this time to focus on Syria:
Lukashevich is employing an old trick — equating the Jihadists in Syria (ISIS) with the less-radical-but-still-dangerous hardline Islamists (Jabhat al Nusra), and claiming that these groups are supported by the international community and the Syria opposition.
Well, maybe not the entire Syrian opposition. Lukashevich continues:
Many of the members of the Syrian “opposition” referenced here are part of a group of the National Coordination Committee, a group of opposition candidates who are recognized by the Assad government and are not part of the internationally-recognized opposition groups which are now working to depose Bashar al Assad.
This group also met in January. Reuters described the key issue with that (fruitless) meeting here:
“We are trying to create an atmosphere of trust, between all sides, including the regime, and with all who are trying to create a ceasefire,” Majid Habbo, a senior member of the opposition National Coordination Committee said in Moscow.
Many of the more than 30 opposition figures attending are from a Damascus-based official opposition tolerated by Assad and are viewed as traitors by his armed enemies in the conflict, which has killed more than 200,000 and displaced millions.
Habbo said through a translator: “Russia is an ally of the regime and an important player in the conflict. We hope they will hear our views and help put pressure on Assad.”
He said the opposition would seek progress on alleviating the plight of civilians and freeing political prisoners.
As CBS noted, both Bashar al Assad and the internationally-recognized Syrian opposition, headed by the Syrian National Coalition which did not attend the meeting, were skeptical of this format:
Distrust of Russia runs deep in the anti-Assad camp, reports CBS News’ George Baghdadi, and it only deepened when Moscow opted to send invitations to individuals in the opposition — rather than the actual opposition groups — to the Moscow talks. The move fed suspicions that the Kremlin was merely trying to further fracture Assad’s already-divided opponents.
While the SNC is not attending the Moscow talks, Baghdadi says five of its members were there in a personal capacity, along with members of other opposition groups tolerated by the Damascus authorities, according to a diplomatic source.
The list of those who declined to attend, however, includes the bulk of the anti-Assad factions.
What Lukashevik also failed to mention in today’s briefing is that, according to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, Russia is supplying Assad with new weapons, including weapons to take into account the current needs to fight the Syrian opposition. Moscow Times reports:
“There are contracts that had been sealed before the crisis started and were carried out during the crisis. There are other agreements on arms supplies and cooperation that were signed during the crisis and are being carried out now,” Assad said.
“They went through some changes to take into account the type of fighting the Syrian army carries out against the terrorists,” he said in the full text of the interviews, excerpts of which were published last week.
Lukashevich also praised an international donor’s conference, but bemoaned the fact that the Syrian government was not invited.
This is laughable since the Syrian regime is the one bombing the Syrian people, and since the government’s aid only gets distributed to specific people in specific neighborhoods in specific towns and cities.
Lukashevich’s wide-ranging briefing is a good snapshot of the official Russian narrative on several key events taking place across the world. As you can see, there is a significant gap between the official Russian narrative on many topics and the internationally-accepted narrative, and these gaps illustrate Russia’s current foreign policy objectives.
— James Miller
On March 30, we reported that bloggers had found evidence from satellite photos on Google Earth that corroborated pictures taken by other bloggers last November of what appeared to be large numbers of fresh graves in Rostov’s Severnoye (Northern) Cemetery.
There was much speculation that the graves might contain Russian soldiers killed in combat in Ukraine who were not able to be identified. As we noted then, the satellite photos matched the pictures, but more research was needed to prove that those buried were Russian soldiers.
Now Andrei Koshik of Gazeta.ru, has traveled to the cemetery to investigate the graves and has interviewed the director of the cemetery as well as veterans’ groups and a representative of the “militia” or Russian-backed fighters in Donbass.
He has concluded that there was no secret mass burial of soldiers killed in Ukraine, although there might be some combatants from the war in Ukraine interred there.
The reason the story got started about a new area of graves appears to
be a decision by authorities to exhume old graves and move them to make
way for a road — a road that in fact never got constructed.
Gazeta.ru is owned by Alexander Mamut and is more critical than many online news sites in Russia today and yet does not go far out of the bounds of what is permissible under increasingly-heavy Kremlin control of the media.
The story has a lot of interesting points but never directly addresses the main contention of the bloggers who found something suspicious in the burials — that they were all made between the months of July and September 2014, exactly at the time of the Battle of Ilovaisk and other clashes. So no doubt the issue will continue to be debated.
Valery Zykov, the director of the Rostov cemetery told Koshik that it would be against the law to burial large numbers of people in a city cemetery without the proper paperwork — “I could go to jail for that,” he said.
Precisely because it is a big, public city cemetery with half a million people already buried in it, it would be hard to sneak anything past the management who have to account for each plot.
And as an official in the mayor’s office points out, if the Russian army or the militants in the Donbass were faced with the task of what to do with hundreds of bodies, they would be more likely to bury them in the woods out of sight so as not to attract attention rather than bring the corpses across the border into a highly-visible cemetery.
Zykov showed Koshik the area of fresh burials that evidently were photographed by bloggers and said this section — 31a — was for unknown persons not identified at morgues who were then buried here. Koshik said he could see the letters «НМ» and «НЖ» which stand for “unknown male” and “unknown female,” but he also saw a wide variety of estimated ages — 40-50, 60-70, 40-50 on some signs — and a range from 30-80, which meant that they weren’t all of combat age as reported by bloggers back in November 2014.
Koshik was shown another section of graves of unknown soldiers from the first Chechen war. There were several hundred buried there.
Aleksandr Kozhin, chairman of the Rostov branch of the All-Russian Society for the Preservation of Monuments of History and Culture provided background to Koshik (translation by The Interpreter):
“At that time [in Chechnya] there was a war in which the government officially participated. It’s today that we say that the army isn’t fighting, but we admit there are volunteers and ‘vacationers.’ In my understanding, that’s barbaric. That war we called the ‘counter-terrorist operation’ – it mirrors the war now in Ukraine. So on the railroads — there is a spur in the direction of Taganrog — a lot of refrigerator cars piled up with human remains which had come from the Chechen war. They didn’t know what to do with them, the DNA laboratory couldn’t cope with them. So at the level of the government, a decision was made to bury them here. We have to give them their due, it wasn’t in a mass grave but each one separately.”
Kozhin made the point that the Donbass fighters would not want to bury their comrades in secret, but would want them to have honors.
“The other day there was a story with a guy who was in a search organization, he was 25-26. He sincerely believed in the idea of the ‘Russian World.’ I don’t know how long he fought but he was killed. His comrades from the search organization asked the administration of the village of Matveyev Kurgan if they could bury his remains in the Honor Row. I don’t know how the issue was decided.”
Koshik also interviewed Valentina Cherebatenko, head of an independent group called Women of the Don which is involved with draftees and monitoring the situation in the Donbass. She said she had no information about any suspicious graves.
Vladimir Artsybashev, deputy head of the administration of the city of Rostov (the mayor’s office) also told Koshik that the Rostov cemetery was filling up, they were running out of space, and that’s why they were narrowing the roads there. He said that unclaimed bodies are buried if relatives cannot be found, and gave a figure of 436 such persons within the last year, in this city of one million. As he told Gazeta.ru (translation by The Interpreter):
“If you purely theoretically imagine the situation which the Ukrainian media are describing, burying soldiers would be more logical closer to the border, in remote villages, where no one will see the graves. That is incredibly hard to do in Rostov — there are no closed cemeteries here, everything is freely accessible. There is a decision of the local Duma and a decree from the administration under which we bury only residents of Rostov here, or people who died in the city if their bodies are not collected by relatives. It could be supposed that a militiaman went from Ukraine through Rostov and died here. Then we would have the right to bury him here. No such statistics are kept but if there are such cases, they are isolated instances, theoretically, this is possible.”
Artsybashev said the report of the new graves were the result of a decision to construct a new road extension to the new Suvorovsky micro-district in 2014, for which 500 graves had to be exhumed. But after the law was scrutinized, the project was dropped because nothing new can be built on the grounds of the cemetery. This account seems to imply that no exhumation took place.
Koshak also interviewed Oleg Melnikov, a field commander in the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” who said Russian soldiers who were killed were buried where they died if their relatives could not be reached or in an emergency.
An example was in Slavyansk last summer, when the Russian-backed fighters were surrounded by Ukrainian forces. He said that soldiers were then buried just under the name of their commanders, i.e. his people would be under the letter “M.”
Melnikov said he knew of one case, a 22-year-old policeman from Moscow named Pavel, who died fighting in Ukraine, and whose body the separatists then returned to his relatives; “the Interior Ministry helped in every way,” he commented.
While an admission that Russians do fight and die in the war — and officials even know this — it wasn’t a mass phenomenon.
“I really doubt that they will make nameless graves in Rostov. If I wanted to hide bodies — and of course, we don’t do that — then why not bury them in Donetsk and Lugansk?”
One answer might be that just as Soviet military officials didn’t leave the bodies of their comrades in Chechnya, but brought them by rail to Rostov, so might the Russian military today prefer to bury the soldiers for which they were responsible in the military district closest to where they fought.
But Koshak was unable to find any evidence that any mass burial took place last year. Other Donbass fighters he interviewed said they returned bodies to relatives. Vladislav Brig, a representative of the DNR Defense Ministry said the Donetsk Ombudsman’s office was responsible for contacting relatives and sending the bodies of Russian volunteers home. He said the bodies were brought out “with a certain regularly as they accumulated.”
Last year, we published excerpts of an article by Yelena Kostyuchekno of Novaya Gazeta who followed up on stories published by Ekho Moskvy and Novaya Gazeta of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine. Kostyuchenko followed one war widow as she tried to collect her husband’s body after he died at the Donetsk Airport battle of May 26, 2014. Kostyuchenko found that the Southern Military District still maintained a morgue in the officers’ village of Voyenved near Rostov, but that they denied that they handled corpses of those killed in Ukraine. Ultimately, however, after contacting various officials and fnally the FSB, the soldier’s wife was able to claim his body at Voyenved.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
According to the Far East Investigation Department of the Investigative Committee, the trawler sank at 23:21 Moscow time on April 1 or 4:12 am Sakhalin time on April 2 (latitude 56.49 north by longitude 150.41 east). Citizens of Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Myanmar (Burma) and Vanuatu were on the ship. Most were residents of Sakhalin and the Primorye region of Russia.
The captain of the trawler, Aleksandr Pritotsky, 48, was considered one of the best captains in the Far East and had set records for catching fish, a representative of the ship owner said. But a source told LifeNews, a TV station known for its close relationship with law-enforcement and intelligence, that the zeal to compete for higher yields may have caused the captain to take risks with fishing equipment.
Currently 26 fishing boats are on site assisting with the rescue. RIA Novosti reports that according to a source, there is little liklihood that there are any more survivors in the freezing waters, as their wet suits would enable them to survive only 15-20 minutes. Some of those rescued are currently in serious or critical condition and all suffered exposure.
The rescued fishermen are being taken to Magadan for treatment, and the bodies of the victims are being brought to Sakhalin. The owner of the ship is Magellan Ltd, which has pledged to provide material assistance to the families of those who died or were injured.
The Investigative Committee has opened up a case on charges of violation of transportation safety rules in using water transport leading to the death of 2 or more persons, Interfax reports, citing Oksana Polshakov, an IC investigator. Investigators plan to question both the owners and the crew members.
Likely the reason for the accident was violation of the rules for handling a 100-ton sweep-net. The ship sank within 15 minutes of experiencing problems, and did not manage even to send an SOS signal.
A representative of Magellan told RIA Novosti that the trawler had been totally fit for the voyage and was in good working conditions. “The trawler went through repairs in late 2014 so there can be no question that it sank due to technical malfuntions,” he said.
LifeNews has published the passenger manifest which shows 76 Russian citizens and 54 foreigners.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick