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.
Russian Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin, notorious for his hardline views, has created a scandal by landing on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard despite Norwegian sanctions against him.
Russia This Week:
– What Happened to the Slow-Moving Coup?
– Can We Be Satisfied with the Theory That Kadyrov Killed Nemtsov?
– All the Strange Things Going On in Moscow
– Remembering Boris Nemtsov, Insider and Outsider (1959-2015)
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As we reported yesterday, Russian media are reporting that Ali Abu Muhammad (Ali Kebekov), the
head of the terrorist group Caucasus Emirate, has been killed in a
“special operation” in Dagestan in which three militants including him
were “annihilated,” RBC.ru reported.
There is always some doubt when the Russian government claims that a given terrorist is “liquidated” because often they turn up again and again, not having really been killed. Such was the case with Doku Umarov, the past head of the Caucasus Emirate who finally really was killed last year.
But now it seems as if Kebekov has indeed been killed, as there are a variety of sources reporting it.
Translation: Among those killed in the special operation in Buynaksk were two women.
According to Caucasian Knot, the two women were the wives of Kebekov and Shamil Gasanov, amir of the Untsukul District.
With the assassination of Kebekov and two other leaders, the question remains open as to whether the Russians have now finally eliminated the Caucasus Emirate as an organization.
There is some debate about the successor who might be chosen.
Translation: the National Anti-terrorist Committee speaks of three killed leaders but does not give the name of the third…perhaps this could turn out to be the amir of the Shamil District, in that case the Emirate Caucasus has a chance.
According to the National Anti-Terrorist Committee (NAK), five fighters were killed in the counter-terrorist operation in Dagestan, RBC.ru reports.
The operation began April 19 in the village of Gery-Avlak outside of Buynaks. NAK said the bodies were retrieved from the rubble of a home after a firefight and were identified. In addition to Kebekov, they were Shamil Gadzhiev, head of an underground gang operating in Untsukul District; and Omar Magomedov, head of a gang from the so-called “central sector” of the underground in Dagestan. The other two names were not obtained.
The NAK says these individuals were responsible for a number of terrorist attacks. In 2006, Gadzhiev and Magomedov killed three tax collectors; in May of 2007, they robbed a post office in Untsukul; and Gadzhiev was also wanted for the murder of two traffic inspectors in Ulyanov Region in 2008.
Kebekov is said to have taken part directly in the murder of Said Afandi al-Chirkawi, the Sufi sheikh of Dagestan in 2012 and also preparation of the terrorist attack in Volgograd in 2013. He is a key link in the financial structure of the Caucasus Emirate who was said to extort money from the public. He also repeatedly issued extremist statements and calls for murdering government officials, said the NAK.
Seven machine guns, eight rounds for a grenade-launcher and a large amount of ammunition were found at the site.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Earlier today we reported on the provocation of Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin, who landed on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard (known as Spitsbergen to Russians) during a trip to the Arctic over the weekend.
Norway protested strongly, and Rogozin was defiant. A meeting then took place today between the Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende and the Russian envoy to Norway, Amb. Vyacheslav Pavlovsky.
Oslo said it was not interested in aggravating relations with Moscow over the trip to Svalbard by Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin, TASS reported, citing Borge Brende after the meeting (translation by The Interpreter):
“We have no intentions to aggravate this situation. Nevertheless, today in conversation with the Russian ambassador we clearly stated that we do not want to see these figures in the sanctions list in Norway, including on the territory of Svalbard (Spitsbergen). We expect that Russia as our good neighbor will behave appropriately.”
Brende also said that Norway would “take all necessary measures to make clear the fact that the effect of restrictive measures will also apply to the territory of Svalbard (Spitsbergen).
Yesterday, April 19, Russia’s Foreign Ministry representative A. Lukashevich made a statement about the incident published on the Ministry’s web site. At first he sounded conciliatory, saying the stops on Svalbard were made due to bad weather conditions which did not allow for a continuous flight. Rogozin used the time to visit the Russian settlement of Barentburg:
“The use of the archipelago for the North Pole-2015 trip was caused by reasons of a strictly logistical nature and the requirements of air safety at high latitudes. This circumstance is entirely natural, and we could have counted on understanding by the Norwegian government in the spirit of partnership in the Arctic which Norway had always displayed until now.”
But then Lukashevich went on to defend the Russian interpretation of the international agreement about Svalberg, saying that Norway’s demand for an explanation of the trip that broke sanctions “provoked puzzlement”.
“It is inexplicable and absurd from the perspective of international law. Article 3 of the Treaty on Spitsbergen of 1920 provides for free access to the archipelago of citizens of the countries participating in the treaty. Such unilateral sanctions do not change in any way this statute of the treaty and in this case are irrelevant. Thus, there are no international legal grounds for making any claims against the Russian government.,
Furthermore, there was no violation of Norway’s law, which is acknowledged by the Norwegian government.
Norway’s initiative to join the anti-Russian EU sanctions provokes regret, and it has brought negative consequences for Russian-Norwegian relations and as we see, leads to a distorted perception of realities by our Norwegian neighbors.”
But under the treaty, the islands are recognized as being under Norway’s sovereignty, and Norway’s decision to apply a sanction is seen as consistent with its sovereignty over the territory; the “distorted perception of reality” would seem to be on Russia’s side, that it can challenge Norway’s sovereignty in this fashion.
What’s clear is that Norway is not going to push this farther now, however, and the matter is likely to be dropped until the next incident.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
New charges have been made against Eston Kohver, the Estonian officer of the Estonian Internal Security Service known as KAPO who was abducted by Russian agents last year, Kommersant reports, citing Interfax.
Kohver’s lawyer Yevgeny Aksyonov is cited (translation by The Interpreter):
“The first interrogation of Kohver this year in my presence was Friday evening [April 17] and lasted for an hour and a half. In addition to the main charge of espionage, the prosecutor’s office has filed new charges against him — weapons smuggling and unlawful crossing of the Russian border.”
He added that in the course of the interrogation, Eston Kohver was shown a videotape made in Pskov Region both questioning of witnesses in a border unit as well as those made by Russian counter-intelligence on the board at various time including before his detention. Kohver was shown nine episodes of his crossing of the Russian state border at various times.
According to the Pskov Region Interior Ministry, Eston Kohver, 36, citizen of Estonia, was detained in Pskov at a garage on Novatorov Street. He was searched and a Taurus pistol with ammunition and 5,000 euros were confiscated as well as certain secret materials for which he had come to Russia. On September 6, the authorization for his arrest on charges of espionage was made in Moscow.
As we reported, Estonia says Kohver was kidnapped and brought across the border in September 2014.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Environmental activist Yevgeniya Chirikova announced today that she had fled to Estonia to avoid persecution in Russia for her activism and to prevent being separated from her children, AFP reported.
Russia’s leading environmentalist whose fierce campaigning once
threatened the interests of some of the country’s richest men has moved
to Estonia to ensure she is not separated from her children.
Yevgenia Chirikova, 38, is best known for a 2010 campaign opposing
the construction of an $8 billion toll highway linking Moscow and St.
Petersburg. Chirikova’s investigations shed light on some of the murkier
aspects of a project that is partly owned by President Vladimir Putin’s
As her allies and environmentalists from other Russian regions face
increasing government pressure, Chirikova has opted to leave her
“It is difficult to work in Russia because they can come for you at
any moment like they blackmailed me once with my children,” she told The
Associated Press on the phone from the Estonian capital of Tallinn.
“Now I’ve eliminated my biggest vulnerability by leaving for Estonia.”
Chirikova said she is in Estonia on a residence permit and that she
would not apply for political asylum because this could hamper trips to
The mother of two, who won the prestigious Goldman Award in 2012, also
said she does not want to see her taxes pay for Russia’s “war against
the brotherly Ukraine.” Overall, she said the government’s policies are
designed to distract attention from a disastrous environmental situation
Chirikova wrote on her blog that she was tired of the topic imposed on people by the Kremlin like the annexation of the Crimea and “nonexistent fascism” in Ukraine, but wanted to focus on environmental issues.
Yevgeny Vitishko, a Sochi environmentalist who tried to bring attention to the environmental damage caused by top officials building dachas on nature preserve land, lost his appeal and is to remain in prison.
Chirikova follows numerous other Russian intellectuals and activists who have fled the country under the growing crackdown by President Vladimir Putin against opposition and human rights activists.
Vladimir Ashurkov, anti-corruption activist
Aleksandrina Markvo, events planner
Suren Gazaryan, environmentalist
Sergei Guriev, economist
Pavel Durov, tech entrepreneur
Ilya Ponomarev, tech entrepreneur, parliamentarian
Masha Gessen, writer
Boris Akunin, writer
Oleg Kashin, blogger
Garri Kasparov, chess master
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, businessman
Kseniya Sobchak, magazine editor
Indeed, Eduard Limonov, the National Bolshevik politician and leader of the Other Russia party who opposes the liberal opposition, had this to say:
Emigrants: Kasparov, Khodorkovsky, Sobchak, Ponomarev, Sakhnin, Guriev, Kashin and a hell of a lot of other less well-known. Russia has not lost anything.
Many would believe in fact that Russia has lost some of its best minds and that the flight of these figures abroad means also that those around them inside Russia may become more subdued.
Limonov himself was an emigre in New York for many years before returning to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Olga Serebryanaya of Radio Svoboda (the US-funded Radio Liberty) has rounded up some tweets this morning on the interrogation of Natalya Pelevina, member of the opposition RPR Parnas party who was searched on Friday, April 17 as we reported. We’ve also added a few.
Translation: My close friend @NatPelevina is now at an interrogation at the Investigative Committee regarding the May 6 case. Hang in there, Natasha.
Translation: Natalya Pelevina at the Investigative Committee
Pelevina emerged from the interrogation half an hour ago with her colleagues, and the Parnas party account had a tweet:
Translation: Natalya Pelevina @NatPelevina after interrogation at the Investigative Committee.
Another supporter said her status was the same, i.e. she is a suspect and required to remain in town pending investigation.
In an interview with Open Russia, Pelevina describes how masked men burst into her apartment on Friday, April 17 and she was not even able to call a lawyer as they snatched her phone out of her hand. At first they claimed she was a witness in a case, then switched to calling her a suspect. She pleaded Art. 51 (against self-incrimination) and did not reply to the questions even when the investigator told her it would be worse for her if she didn’t. She said she would not answer questions until she had a lawyer with her.
The Interpreter has translated an excerpt:
What in your view was the reason for the criminal prosecution?
The reasons were political, since there cannot be any tie to the Bolotnaya Square Case; I was not there physically, I was not involved in the organization of the march, I didn’t open up any wallets and didn’t finance anything. I didn’t know a single suspect in this case then and don’t know them to this day, I have never contacted them, and moreover, I am certain that they don’t even know my name. I don’t know how they plan to explain how I organized and financed the May 6 event.
What do you think, why was this particular moment chosen for the search and interrogation? Is this timed to something?
I think the time had come for some sort of political reason, since they decided to pressure me in this way. Plus, perhaps they even want to revive the Bolotnaya Square Case. I don’t know what was primary here; perhaps it was simply the wish to indict me in any trial at all — and they couldn’t think up anything better than May 6. In any event, now they have the opportunity to intrude into all my devices with information. Perhaps that was even the purpose. Most likely they wish to hold me in such a suspended state or jail me. To be sure, I don’t know for what and why, I have to wait until it happens — then their plan will be understood better.
Recently you expressed a desire to take part in the elections in Kaluga Region which are going to take place in the fall. Literally two days later, you become the suspect in a criminal case. Do you see a connection in this here?
I really did plan to run in the elections for the Legislative Assembly of Kaluga Region, we had already begun to conceive a campaign in Kaluga. I don’t know how much this is connected, it’s possible they had already been following and wire-tapping me. At least yesterday, they said that they know at what time my first meeting was, they knew how long they had to wait until I came out of the house. That is, they were listening in on my phone in real time, because I had organized the meeting literally a few hours before leaving. Surveillance has been put on me, but I think it has been put on many.
An activist had this suggestion for the reason why Pelevina was being singled out:
Translation: The human rights activist Pelevina helped to put Judge Karpov in the Magnitsky List. Karpov is the one who authorized the search at Pelevina’s home.
Judge Artur Karpov is known for refusing to authorize the investigation into the death in prison of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, for whom the US government’s lists of persons suspected of human rights violations was named. He’s also known for the Bolotnaya Square Case and for putting anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny under house arrest. In 2013, he unsuccessfully attempted to sue William Browder for libel, after Browder publicized the story of Magnitsky, who had been investigating a tax fraud scheme by the authorities when he was arrested.
The environmentalist Chirikova said she thought the persecution of Pelevina was caused by her past investigative work:
Chirikova herself announced today that she was leaving for Estonia because she was concerned about the increased level of oppression in Russia.
Pelevina herself has made only a brief update on her Facebook:
Hi. It’s me again. Thanks enormously for the support! It is
very important now. I have no devices as they’ve all been confiscated.
Tomorrow will be the first interrogation as a suspect. Thanks again!
I’ll try to be in touch.
The more you are pressured, the straighter your spine has to be.
(Note: Open Russia is a movement to promote civil society in Russia founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The Interpreter is a project of the Institute for Modern Russia funded by Pavel Khodorkovsky, his son.)
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The supporters of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov have been trying to keep a memorial for him going on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsk Bridge, the site of his murder.
But city authorities keep clearing away the flowers and candles.
Irina Shadrina reported on Facebook that one lone picketer appeared on Friday, April 17 with a sign saying:
“Well… Surely you understand everything yourselves perfectly.”
This is something of a tag line in Russia, which many understand is a kind of arch euphemism, a reference to overwhelming powers-that-be doing things that the individual can’t oppose.
It’s also the line that sometimes rueful officials tell dissidents when they are forced to do something they themselves don’t particularly support but which they have to carry out because they are ordered to do so in the system.
Under Russian law, solo picketers are allowed to walk around with signs, but they must be 50 meters away from other picketers, and they can often be stopped by police anyway.
Some more picketers came on Friday night, with sketches made by the artist Lena Hades spelling out the word “Boris'” which means “Fight!” in Russian and is similar to the name “Boris.”
The night-time picket was allowed to go by.
But then the next day, the blogger Martin recounts on his LiveJournal page how picketers were detained on Sunday, April 19 on both Tverskaya Street and the bridge:
Some of them had signs opposing the war in Ukraine, as can be seen in these photos by George Malets (more here).
Photo by George Malets
One woman had a puppet of Putin.
But the police came after them.
Picketers were removed by police from the bridge.
This man’s poster explains the idea that some of the demonstrators have:
The poster says (translation by The Interpreter):
Memorial Nemtsov Bridge
This is a permanently operating People’s Outpost!
For Rescue of “the Country and the World”
From Nuclear Suicide of the Nation
It requires the status of International Protection
and Round-the-Clock Civic Defense
My Country and the World is the title of a book by Dr. Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and human rights campaigner of the Soviet era.
An informal group of people are hoping to keep up regular “watches” on the bridge to put back the flowers and candles when they are swept away, and to picket now and then to keep the message alive.
Opposition parties have also urged the city of Moscow to put a plaque there in memory of Nemtsov and re-name the bridge for him.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is in charge of military and space affairs, created a scandal this past weekend by unexpectedly and demonstratively landing in Longyearbyen on Norway’s Arctic archipelago Svalbard.
Rogozin is on the EU and Norway’s sanctions list of individuals barred from entry due to his direct involvement in the annexation of Crimea.
Northern Arctic Sea under the sovereignty of Norway, administrated by a
governor. There is a Russian mining community at Barentsburg. The
largest of the islands is Spitsbergen, and Russians call the whole
archipelago by this name.
The island is recognized under the 1920
Svalbard Treaty as fully part of Norway although Russians have some
rights to commercial activity there. For a time in the Soviet era, the
Soviets objected to all new Norwegian activity on the islands and there
were twice as many Soviet citizens as Norwegian citizens. But then in
the 1990s, the Soviet communities dwindled down to only a few hundred
residents.Russia may be seeking to re-emphasize this presence with
Rogozin’s gambit as Russia has a keen interest in expanding its presence
in the Arctic.
We have clearly expressed to the Russian Embassy in Oslo that listed people are not wanted on Svalbard,” says Head of Communication with the Foreign Ministry, Frode Andersen, to BarentsObserver late Saturday evening.
“It is therefore regrettable that Rogozin stays at Svalbard,” Andersen continues.
“We have asked Russian authorities for an explanation.”
It is still unclear how Dmitry Rogozin traveled to Svalbard. He has likely arrived with a Russian charter aircraft directly to Longyearbyen airport. The Deputy Prime Minister travels together with Governor of the Nenets Autonomus Okrug, Igor Koshin. The governor’s press officer says to BarentsObserver that they after Svalbard are heading towards the North Pole.
Rogozin’s response to the Norwegian complaints about the scandal, as Lenta.ru reported:
Translation: They’re just envious that we went swimming at the North Pole )
Translation: The Arctic is a Russian Mecca.
This latest provocation comes after a series of other incidents in a context of numerous provocations by Russia against the West..
In December 2014, Norway suspended bilateral military relations with Russia until the end of 2015 over Russia’s continued destabilization of Ukraine.
In March, Russia complained about Norway’s military exercises near the border although Russia does the same thing itself all the time in the region.
On April 9, as we reported,
the defense ministers of Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland and the
foreign minister of Iceland issued a joint statement of solidarity in
countering Russian aggression and propaganda.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick