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.
Civic Assistance, a group that helps refugees and migrants, has been declared a “foreign agent,” says leader Svetlana Gannushkina. It’s the 55th group to be saddled with this stigma since the law was passed in 2013.
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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Moscow Times reported that many Western leaders are not attending the ceremony:
In contrast to the last big Victory Day anniversary one
decade ago, most high-profile guests of the upcoming Red Square parade
are coming not from Western countries, but from Asia, Latin America
and Africa, with Chinese President Xi Jinping being the most prominent
confirmed international guest so far.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will not come to the parade
on May 9, but will attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the
Unknown Soldier in front of the Kremlin the next day, RIA Novosti
reported in March.
U.S. President Barack Obama will not be coming due
to Russia’s role in the Ukraine conflict, the White House said last
week. Even Alexander Lukashenko, president of Russia’s closest ally
Belarus, said Saturday he won’t be attending the parade because he will
preside over another one in Minsk.
Russian leaders have attempted to demonstrate indifference
over the issue. Answering a question about the absence of Western
leaders at the parade during his annual call-in show on Thursday,
President Vladimir Putin said that their presence was not essential.
The soft boycott of Putin over his war on Ukraine is one he has tried to spin, along with other Kremlin supporters.
Meanwhile, traditional allies of the Kremlin will be coming:
Obkom is a Soviet-era abbreviation which means “Regional Party Committee,” i.e. those who call the shots.
One close ally of Russia who is not coming is the Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The main reason seems to be that he wants to establish his presence at home on that day; he will still come to Moscow on May 7-8 for other wreath-laying ceremonies.
Ludmila Alexeyeva, a veteran human rights advocate and chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, has published a proposal to Putin, calling for everyone to stand and have a moment of silence on the 70th anniversary. Her own father was killed at the front.
The appeal seemed to be a test of sorts to see if Putin would overcome his hostility to NGOs and opposition to affirm at least the shared tragic past of Russia.
On the newly-re-designed Kremlin.ru page, Putin now has a “personal page” with pictures of his childhood and a biography which is very sparse regarding his father during World War II, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin, noting merely that he “participated in the war.”
From other sources, we learn that his father was in the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB or secret police where Putin himself service, and was severely wounded in 1942.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Police detained about 40 people at Club Seven in southeast Moscow and confiscated knives, brass knuckles and trauma pistols last night, saying that the crowd had gathered to celebrate Hitler’s birthday, LifeNews reported.
Interfax reported a source that said nationalist “Russian March” organizer Dmitry Dyomushkin was among those detained.
TV Rain reported that Dmitry Dyomushkin, head of the “Russians” association which organizes the annual nationalist “Russian March” has accused a LifeNews employee of planting a portrait of Hitler during the raid to set them up. TV Rain reported (translation by The Interpreter):
“We gathered and discussed today in our circle the holding of a knife-fight tournament. This was a closed event. We did not have any Hitler. An employee of LifeNews brought that portrait herself, the entire hall applauded her.”
Another source said that those who gathered together in the club wanted to celebrate Hitler’s birthday, which is on April 20. In LifeNews’ broadcast, the portrait of Hitler is shown among the items confiscated from the detainees.
In an interview with a LifeNews TV anchor, Anastasiya Tsapiyeva, the reporter for LifeNews, said she was threatened by the club-goers who put up screen shots of her on social media and claiming she planted the portrait and should be sued.
But she said this was “physically impossible” as she and a film crew had earlier made an agreement with law-enforcers prior to film their raid — although police had not given any details about who was to be detained. About 70 police were involved in the raid, she said.
She said they filmed the raid live as police showed the weapons and portrait already on the scene. One of the nationalists admitted to her that a Makarov pistol confiscated by police belonged to him, but none of them admitted to celebrating Hitler’s birthday. Tsapiyeva didn’t find this credible as it was a Monday night when people wouldn’t normally have a party, and food an alcohol had been set out.
Tsapiyeva thus confirmed what is often said about LifeNews, that it works closely with law-enforcement and intelligence. She did specify that when the suspects were searched, according to regulations, they did not film, but she said later a policeman told her that Dyomushkin had been “the most aggressive” of the detainees, and had “shouted and waved his hands.”
She also noted that while she was filming the raid, none of the nationalists had made any threats against her; these only came later that night when she got home. Tsapiyeva does not plan to press charges, however, because the threats are unsigned, and she fears further reprisals from the nationalists and soccer fans.
Dyomushkin, a leader of the now-banned Slavic Union, was one of leaders of the Russians nationalist march in 2013.
As Paul Goble reported, last month Dyomushkin’s apartment was searched which led him to conclude that the Kremlin persecutes nationalists not under its control and that “one can only love Putin with permission.”
Another organizer of the march, Vladimir Tor, was also searched at the time. Russian March co-organizer Aleksandr Belov (Potkin) was arrested on charges of money-laundering before the march lsat year and later claimed authorities targeted him because he refused to commit terrorist acts in Ukraine.
Translation: Searchers underway of organizers of “Russian March.” Tor, Dyomushkin and others.
Authorities have reportedly opened up a case on charges of “extremism” related to some of the signs at last November’s march which insulted Muslims. Turnout for the Russian March last year was sparse, as authorities staged Russian Unity Day at the same time and attracted many more people.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
In November, 2014, the Russian government passed a vaguely-worded ban on displaying Nazi symbols, a law which appears to only be selectively enforced. Today a Russian journalist has been found guilty of displaying Nazi symbols after he posted what was effectively a parody of the ruling party’s practices. The Moscow Times reports:
A court in the central Russian city of Saratov has fined local journalist Sergei Vilkov 1,000 rubles ($19) for posting the caricature, which combined the logo of United Russia and a swastika, his employer Obshchestvennoye Mnenie, or Public Opinion, magazine reported Monday.
Vilkov was found guilty of a “public demonstration of Nazi symbols,” Public Opinion reported.
Vilkov posted the caricature on his page on the VKontakte social network in November 2011, in response to a nationalist march held in Saratov earlier that month, he said in a recent post on the social network.
During the march, which had been authorized by the city’s administration, “its participants en masse raised their arms in a Nazi salute (there is substantial photo evidence),” the journalist claimed in a post this week.
The text in the bottom right reads “your advert could be here.”
Previously another journalist, Polina Petruseva, was also convicted under this law after she posted a historic photograph of her neighborhood in Smolensk under Nazi occupation during World War II.
— James Miller, Pierre Vaux
The Russian civic group For Human Rights reports that D. Levin, an attorney from the Moscow City Bar Association was able to visit political prisoner Sergei Mokhnatkin in Butyrka Prison where he is awaiting trial. The following is an account from For Human Rights translated by The Interpreter:
On April 16, a ‘prophylactic chat’ was held with the human righs advocate Sergei Yevgenyevich Mokhnatkin by the administration of investigation-isolation facility (SIZO) No. 2 during the course of which a reprimand was issued him in connection with the fact that in the opinion of the administration of No. 2, he is sabotaging the work of the corrections institution and is inclined to escape. After this, the political prisoner declared a hunger strike.
On April 17, Mokhnatkin was informed that he would be transported to another unknown institution in the corrective labor system. As a sign of protest, he cut his veins.
After he was given first aid, Sergei Yevgenyevich was transferred to the infirmary of no. 2, where there are mentally-ill people.
At the present time he is continuing his hunger strike.
Mokhnatkin was considered the first political prisoner from the Strategy-31 movement in 2010, where opposition leaders including the late Boris Nemtsov, and human rights advocates such as Ludmila Alexeyeva, from a variety of parties and groups, joined together to press the issue of Art. 31 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly.
Under restrictive laws for rallies and meetings, Russians have not been able to exercise this constitutional right. The group made some headway that set the stage for the 2011 anti-Putin marches, but then officials once again began refusing permits and arresting people even for solo pickets which are technically allowed.
Mokhnatkin was accused of striking a police officer, was sentenced to 2.5 years of prison, then pardoned by President Dmitry Medvedev before the end of his sentence. But after being arrested for a demonstration again in 2013, he was sentenced to 4.5 years as a repeat offender.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Viktor Ivanov, director of the Russian narcotics police, has said that according to the Federal Narcotics Service (FSKN), laboratories at unnamed locations were manufacturing drugs to bring about “color revolutions.”
The reference is to mass protests such have occurred in Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” and Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” in the last decade before the Maidan protests in Kiev last year. Said Ivanov (translation by The Interpreter):
“Last year, we encountered the phenomenon where the well-known synthetic narcotic was being cut with a new fluorochemical radical group and the narcotic substance acquired the capacity of chemical warfare agents, which caused an epidemic of deaths (in Russia),” said Ivanov.
“According to our data, certain scientific centers are working on this for use of such agents in ‘color revolutions’,” the head of the FSKN indicated, speaking at a meeting of directors of anti-narcotig agencies in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Ivanov has said in the past that drug addicts allegedly took part in the Maidan protests and that “totalitarian sects were hooked on methadone,” RIA Novosti reported. He claimed without evidence that drug addicts were “essentially cannon fodder on the Maidan and later in the southeast of Ukraine.”
Spice, a synthetic herb drug, has led to at least 40 deaths in Russia and 2,000 poisonings. In February, Russian officials banned the drug and gave the right to FSKN to create a registry of new potentially dangerous psycho-active substances which would be banned in Russia.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
the Siberian Federal District in the mid-southeast of the Russian
Federation, the site of massive wildfires in which at least 34 have
already lost their lives, some 900 have been injured, and over 5,000
have been made homeless as we reported last week.
Translation: Putin flew to the capital of Khakasiya.
It has been awhile since Putin has visited the site of a disaster; neither he nor Prime Minister Medvedev went to Sakhalin after 56 fishermen drowned when a trawler sank in the Sea of Okhotsk.
But the fires have been extensively covered in the state media and also dramatically visible in social media as people took videos and photos and sent tweets and Instagrams about the devastation around the world.
Some of the victims of the fires, who are known as pogoreltsy in Russian (“the burned ones”) appeared on the Pryamaya Liniya (Direct Line) call-in program watched by more than a million Russians last week to plead their case.
They said fire trucks didn’t show up, there was no water, they were made homeless, and they had no idea when they would get help. Putin was there to reassure them in person — and also punish those responsible.
Dmitry Smirnov, the same faithful tweeter of the president’s activities we last saw covering his appearance in St. Petersburg after an 11-day absence, was in the journalists’ pool in Khakasiya:
Translation: Putin drank tea with the fire victims. Promised to come in a few months to Khakasiya, to see how things are going.
As Paul Goble reported, volunteers in the city of St. Petersburg who wanted to get together a truck of humanitarian goods were thwarted in their efforts because “all the vehicles had gone to the Donbass.”
In general, people were asking on social media why Russia was preoccupied with the war in Ukraine when its own people were suffering at home.
As is known, the Russian government regularly sends “humanitarian relief” convoys to the Donbass despite objections from the Ukrainian government, and many volunteers from patriotic and veterans groups as well as churches make up aid shipments with local trucks and send drivers into Ukraine.
But when the volunteers in St. Petersburg tried to do this for their own country they ran into difficulties. Paperpaper.ru has more details on the story (translation by The Interpreter):
On Thursday, the Emergencies Ministry dispatcher told the volunteers that they must call back during work hours and a vehicle would likely be found. However, on the next day, according to the Vesna (Spring) [volunteer group] coordinator, they were sent from one telephone line to another, to the person on duty, to the department of material and technical provision, and then the department of civilian defense.
As a result, they managed to get connected with an Emergencies representative. The Vesna coordinators were told that rapid reaction is good, but coordination takes time. Emergencies Ministry planes only fly from Moscow; in order to get on board, volunteers have to send an official letter listing all their collected items. While the bureaucratic questions are being decided, they offered to leave the freight in the warehouse. Automobile delivery also turned out to be impossible since “all the vehicles are in the Donbass now.”
As for sending help via railroad transport, it turned out that all the cars in the country have been bought up by five commercial companies. The activists didn’t manage to find any charitable donors among them quickly, and all that was left was the option to make a commercial delivery of the freight.
In the week during which the active collection of help was under way, people brought things from noon to midnight. The activists manage to collect 230 kilograms of groceries, 10 kilograms of medicines, 1,500 items of clothing and as many household goods and also garden implements and a baby carriage. The activists did not collect money and ask material funds to be sent to the account opened by the government of Khakasiya.
According to the volunteers, all week the government of the city did not react to the calls from the coordinators, although pensioners and students came to their headquarters and private businessmen and companies began to take an interest in the problem. A charitable store called Spasibo (Thank-you) joined with a space called Korpus-2. City residents not only brought humanitarian aid but helped with contacts. Thus they were able to find a man who agreed to drive the loads to Khakasiya just for the cost of the gasoline. A St. Petersburg company anonymously paid the cost, which was more than 65,000 rubles.
The organizers learned from locals that a lot of the aid doesn’t reach them as furniture and electronics are stolen at the collection points. So the coordinators decided to go to Khakasiya themselves and track the distribution of the goods.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Russian Forbes‘ journalist Orhan Dzhemal reports an unusual experience as he returned to Russia from a reporting trip in the Donbass.
In a blog post today for Ekho Moskvy titled “What was That?“, Dzhemal describes how he was stopped at the border, searched, interrogated, held and then finally released after several hours with an apology.
Why would Russian border guards check a Russian journalist?
Interestingly, just as in two other stories we covered recently — a report from Russian volunteers from the Urals, and a report from a Russian businessman who fought with the “Lugansk People’s Republic” so-called “militia,” the figure of Russian-backed separatist commander Alexey Mozgovoy was involved in the story. He is the head of what was known as the Prizrak (Ghost) Battalion which has actually had to merge into the 4th Territorial Battalion and is known now as a “brigade.” Mozgovoy was reluctant to subordinate to the forces controlled by the LNR’s Prime Minister Igor Plotnitsky.
Why another story involving Mozgovoy? Is this just a coincidence or attempt to discredit him because he hasn’t fallen into line? Or are Russian authorities cracking down more on war reporters to prevent leaks about their presence there?
Dzhemal doesn’t speculate on any of these issues, but simply gives an account. He says on this particular trip, he wasn’t looking for evidence of the Russian military presence, or covering how Ukrainian soldiers broke out of kettles, or how residential areas were shelled, or how the ceasefire was going — all topics he had covered before. This time, he was only covering the Alchevsk Iron and Steel Factory in an effort to determine who owned it and whether it was “a pile of scrap” or “a masterpiece of the steel industry.”
At the border, an official in plainclothes tells Dzhemal that his
passport has to be verified because of “mechanical damages” and that it
would be a “formality” dictated only by frequent incidents of fake
passports. But after a half-hour wait, the official tells him the data
base is down and he has to wait. The Interpreter has translated an excerpt:
I have with me my foreign passport and my work ID, perhaps that’s enough?
A plainclothesman looks at these documents.
“How famous a journalist are you?”
“If you’re on the topic of checking on the Internet to see if I really am a journalist, then I’m fairly famous.”
I download an entry from Wikipedia on my telephone and the plainclothesman looks over my photographs and videos.
“That’s Mozgovoy, there’s such a field commander in Alchevsk, I did an interview with him.”
“That’s Pavel Dremov, a commander from Stakhanov…And that’s Khodakovsky, head of the DNR security council…and that’s artillery operating outside of Debaltsevo…and that’s Natoinal Guard fighters from the Azov battalion, I sat in their cellar on August 6 with a bag over my head, but it all turned out already, we parted if not friends, at least without claims against each other.”
It went on like that for another hour:
“What’s with your data base, everything’s down.”
The plainclothesman gets to my notebook.
“And what have you written here about Said Amirov?”
“Well, at one time I was involved in those problems, and what of it?”
“What do you think about Amirov?”
I outlined everything I thought on this topic.
“So in your opinion, Amirov is not guilty of what he is charged with?”
“Not in my opinion, no.”
“And did you write that?”
“Did you receive money from Amirov for that?”
“I received an honorarium from the editorial board for my article, I think you have a poor understanding how journalism works.”
“And now, why were you traveling to the LNR?”
I outlined in brief the story of the Alchevsk Iron and Steel Plant. It was already 18:30. I realized that I was already going to miss my plane. My cameras, telephones, computer, and flash sticks had all been carried away with the words, “there are a lot of materials here, let them look at it there, and we will write an explanatory statement with you here.”
We spent two hours writing the statement. Along the way, they ask with whom I have contacts in the Ukrainian SBU or government. The chat that had begun 4 hours ago in quite a friendly disposition was now “with teeth gritted.”
When all of this is done, Dzhemal is told that he his identity is confirmed and they are sorry for the detention, and they ask if there is anything they can do to smooth things out for this “misunderstanding.” He asks if they could buy him a new plane ticket as he has missed his flight, and they offer to escort him across the border to Rostov. But then he is stopped and his baggage searched again.
We go into an office and a border guard digs for half an hour in my dirty shorts, socks, and cameras…Then he sits down to type. I explode:
“Well, Henri Rousseau, you didn’t find a gat, or any hash, either, do you have any claims against me?”
“There are no claims, but I have to write up a report.”
“If there are no claims, then why a report, I won’t sign it…”
“I don’t know even, I’ll ask my bosses what to do…”
The border guard disappeared and appeared again with the fellow in the plainclothes whom I was thoroughly sick of by now. At first I thought that he was that very boss who could explain everything to the dense border guard. That they had already settled things and there were no claims against me.
But on his heels floated into the office a plus-size peroxide blond of Balzac age and behind the blonde, a dry little brunette of the same years.
The man in the civilian suit nodded at them and explained that they were “witnesses,” and in a theatrical voice, he intoned: “I inform everyone that now according to the law on investigation activity, an investigative activity will take place, and now I will explain to all those present their rights.” My rights consisted of having the right to be present at the next search of my things which were still laying on the table, and the search would be called an inspection.
The plainclothesman informed him that all of his devices would be sent to be checked for “extremism,” and began to question Dzhemal again about the contents, and the journalist pointed out he had done that already, and the official pretended that he had never seen him before. When he got the report, he saw the official signed himself as Oleg Petrovsky, senior agent of the Rostov Region Department of the Federal Security Service (FSB), and that he had in fact written down things from his previous interrogation which showed that he had lied. Finally at 4:00 am, Dzhemal was let go, but demanded a copy of the report.
Dzhemal recalled the time he was stopped by Ukrainian intelligence who looked at his documents and publications on the Internet and questioned him as to why he reported that the Ukrainian forces had shelled residential areas from the Donetsk Airport. But after determining that he was not from a propaganda outlet, they let him go, then took him to the train station and got him a ticket.
“On the whole, regarding a representative of the media of a hostile country, and even writing ‘against them,’ these Bandero-fascists behaved quite politely,” writes Dzhemal.
“But I don’t even know what to think, what was the reason for the hostility from my own native Chekists? Perhaps in Alchevsk I had dug up something that I didn’t realize the value of myself? And now the FSB agents will search through all my flash cards for that terrible secret.”
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Civic Assistance (Grazhdanskoye Sodeistviye), a veteran Russian human rights group that has defended the rights of migrants and refugees since 1990, has been declared a “foreign agent,” Russian human rights activists report.
Svetlana Gannushkina, the leader of the group, wrote on her Facebook page (translation by The Interpreter):
We are accused of activity aimed at the CHANGE of the policy of the government. If we strive to oppose corruption, discrimination in the penitentiary system, if I join the Government Commission on Migration Policy, that means, in the opinion of the prosecutor’s office, that we are trying to change the policy of the government. Thus the prosecutor considers that government policy encourages corruption and discrimination.
But the Government included me in the Commission not for me to take part in the drafting of migration policy, but to influence it with the aim of changing it in someone’s hostile interests. You could say that the Prosecutor’s Office is slandering the Government.
But the Ministry of Justice waited the month stipulated for corrections. We did not enter ourselves into the register of foreign agents, they put us in there themselves. What was unexpected was the coincidence down to the very minute. And for that reason, Kirill and I had decided not to appeal the notice, because we realized: a month will pass, and we will be put in there without efforts on our part. Then we will appeal the actions of the Notice of the Prosecutor’s Office and the actions of the Justice Ministry simultaneously. We are not fulfilling the functions of a foreign agent.
(LR) Oleg Orlov of Memorial Human Rights Center; Yuri Dzhibladze of Civic Solidarity Platform; and Svetlana Gannushkina of Civic Assistance attempt to hold solo pickets but police stop and examine their posters for Azeri political prisoner Gilal Mamud, October 2014. Photo by Varvara Pakhomenko.
Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch has written a “Dispatch” titled “Another Day, Another ‘Foreign Agent Designation in Russia.”
Anyone lucky enough, as I have been many times, to spend an hour with
Svetlana Gannushkina, one of Russia’s top advocates for the rights of
refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers, gets used to the conversation
being interrupted at least a dozen times by phone calls. They’re almost
always from people trying to navigate Russia’s asylum system, desperate
for legal help, material assistance, you name it. And she talks to each
and every one of them.
There is probably no other organization that has done more to help
refugees and migrants in Russia than Civic Assistance Committee, which
Svetlana has lead for 25 years. And there is probably no one more
knowledgeable on these issues in Russia than Svetlana, who has been
decorated with prizes and awards ranging from the French Legion
d’Honneur to the Cross of Honor of the Russian Cossacks.
So, maybe – and sadly – it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Civic
Assistance has become the latest target in the Russian government’s
unrelenting campaign against independent nongovernmental groups. Today
Russia’s Ministry of Justice added Civic Assistance Committee to its
list of so-called foreign agent organizations, a term ubiquitously
understood in Russia to be mean traitor or spy.
To date, the Justice Ministry has categorized 55 non-governmental organizations as “foreign agents” which means that they face more intrusive scrutiny and reporting requirements and are stigmatized in the public eye. (Civic Assistance is on page 4).
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick