Russia Update: Opposition MP Ponomarev Faces Criminal Charges

April 30, 2015
Ilya Ponomarev, member of Russian parliament, speaking on CNN about the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, in March 2015.

A criminal case has been opened up against Russian opposition parliamentarian Ilya Ponomarev, the only MP to vote against the annexation of the Crimea.

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.


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)

Special features:

With Cash and Conspiracy Theories, Russian Orthodox Philanthropist Malofeyev is Useful to the Kremlin
Alexey Navalny On the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
Theories about Possible Perpetrators of the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
Novaya Gazeta Releases Sensational Kremlin Memo

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Conservative Russian Deputy Slams Kseniya Sobchak for “Blasphemy” over Instagram Picture

Kseniya Sobchak, talk-show host for TV Rain and magazine editor, is in a controversy again for posting an Instagram picture of herself dressed in clerical robes and a fake beard.


On her Instagram account, she posted the picture and wrote about plans with another journalist, Anton Krasovsky, with whom she has a regular series in Snob:

“Krasovsky and I are preparing a wonderful new report for Snob. Guess what it’s about.”

Vitaly Milonov, a conservative United Russia party member from St. Petersburg predictably sounded off, as he has about other cases of alternative culture:

As a human rights advocate and an art critic I can say that Sobchak’s toilet jokes in Russia have never been appreciated. Like people who try to pass themselves off as journalists, they aren’t such. I hope that Sobchak will not smear besides herself anyone with dung and pig squealing;  it is only her friends who appreciate this joke — it is the same as smears of mud on her face.

She has to wear platform high-heels because the Russian earth is burning beneath her feet! Kseniya wants to seem wanted to someone in the context of somebody supposedly wanting to kick her out of here or threaten her. She tried to become a new Decembrist and political victim, but no one needs her. A sacrifice should have some value. Kseniya Anatolyevna just like her “holey” friend Krasovsky do not represent any values.

Sometimes when Milonov takes offense, he files complaints with the prosecutor’s office, as he did with the Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg, so it’s interesting that in this case, he didn’t immediately try to get a case started under Russia’s “blasphemy” law, but he did threaten it, saying she had been “spoiling for criminal prosecution for a long time” (translation by The Interpreter):

Unfortunately, Kseniya will not wind up in prison because there is a method to her madness. She will be declared mentally incompetent. She is a child who was spoiled early with drugs and alcohol. She has not found herself among the Moscow hang-outs and it’s too bad that the crisis and Kseniya’s decadence do not enable her to think. She is a pathetic underling in the mechanism of resistance of a generation of PR people to a renewing spiritual country. She is being used like a stinking floor rag thrown in the middle of a holiday table with the purpose of provoking shock. She was always only artificial dog poo which frightens people at a banquet. Sobchak is a person who has no right to associate herself with Russia and I’m ashamed for Russia diplomacy when I see Sobchak, a graduate of MGIMO [Moscow State Institute for International Relations]. She gets in everywhere through connections and has never fought for anything. Fer her, the maximum fight is in the toilet of a night club with her latest pal.

Kseniya Sobchak is the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of St. Petersburg and Putin ally who died in 2000 after meeting Putin about his election campaign, and whose death is still regarded as suspicious by some.

Sobchak was widely reported by the Russian media as forced to go abroad for a time in March after she was directly threatened three times at the funeral of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Some reports mistakenly said at the time, based on some comments by her friends, that she was emigrating permanently from Russia, but in fact she was only abroad for a short time, reportedly at the advice of the Federal Security Service (FSB) although this was never confirmed.

Since then, she has come back and forth to Russia, recently making trips to Switzerland and Georgia, but appearing in Moscow for the opening of a children’s clothing store and also for TV Rain’s 5th anniversary party.


She has also continued to be an outspoken critic of the Kremlin and its allies. Recently she posted a condemnation of the “Night Wolves” motorcycle trip through Europe.


— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

US Commission on International Religious Freedom Reports ‘Serious’ Violation of Rights in Russia and the Donbass

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has released its annual report. Russia has been placed on what is called a “tier two” status which means that it has significant violations of religious rights but is not yet on the “country of particularly concern” (CPC) list such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the Eurasia region.

Religious freedom is an issue that does not get much attention against the many other pressing human rights issues for Russia although the growing role of the Russian Orthodox Church as a factor is often noted. The key findings of the report:

Amid a sharp increase in human rights abuses, serious violations of freedom of religion or belief continue in Russia. The government continues to bring criminal extremism charges against peaceful religious individuals and groups, particularly Muslim readers of Turkish theologian Said Nursi and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Hundreds of Muslims are jailed, reportedly on false charges; many are denied due process and mistreated in detention. Increased legal restrictions on civil society have negative implications for religious groups. Rising xenophobia and intolerance, including anti-Semitism, are linked to violent and lethal hate crimes that often occur with impunity. Religious freedom violations are pervasive in the North Caucasus. There are growing religious freedom concerns in Russian-occupied Crimea and Russian-separatist regions of eastern Ukraine.

All of these were factors for the “Tier 2” status.

There is no question that the Russian Orthodox Church, the official state religion, has the most privileged and well-subsidized position in Russia, and there are also many hurdles placed in the way of other religious groups, such as a 15-year wait for registration.

The 2013 blasphemy law with fines up to US $15,000 and jail terms of up to three years for “public actions in places of worship that disrespect or insult religious beliefs” means that essentially the state can enforce a religious belief as in theocratic states. The law was put into place as a response to the punk rock group Pussy Riot, whose members staged an anti-Putin protest in a cathedral and were sentenced to 2.5 years of jail.

The anti-extremism law was the greatest problem for religious groups as even Jehovah’s witnesses can find their texts on the Federal List of Extremist materials. As with Central Asia, Russia’s growing trade relationship with Turkey has not mitigated the plight of Said Nursi followers who continued to be arrested or have their literature confiscated.

The increasing role of Muslims in Russia was highlighted this year with the Charlie Hebdo case when Islamist terrorists killed cartoonists in Paris. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov responded both by threatening secular independent press in Moscow, notably Aleksey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy who opted to publish the cartoons in solidarity with the slain journalists, and with a mass rally of nearly a million Chechens to protest what they saw as blasphemy in the cartoons.

Kadyrov forces women to war headscarves in Chechnya and also imposes what is viewed as a distortion of Chechen Sufi traditions as a state religion in his republic. He is accused of murders, torture and disappearances of critics and human rights activists.

As of September 2014, 14 people were killed in hate crimes and 77 injured according to the SOVA information center; 13 people were sentenced for racist violence.

When Russia occupied the Crimea, it cracked down in particular on religious organizations to bring non-Russians under control — some 1,500 groups were forced to re-register under Russia’s more stringent requirements, and of these only two centralized religious organization (one Orthodox diocese and the Muftiate) and 12 local communities were registered, along with one Jewish group in Yalta – about one percent of the groups under Ukrainian governance. All the mosques in Crimea have been put under a single Muslim Spiritual Directorate which he said was necessary to prevent extremism. This was seen as a way to bring nearly 300,000 Muslim Crimean Tatars under further control. All the Turkish Muslim imams and religious teachers were ordered to leave the country, although the Ukrainian government had tolerated them.

The self-appointed Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov has ordered raids and confiscations of libraries, schools, mosques, madrassas and other religious organizations and issued fines for possession of Islamic and Jehovah’s Witness texts.

Among the most shocking crimes of the Russian-backed militants in the Donbass last year was the kidnapping and torture of four members of a Pentecostal Church in Slavyansk. The men disappeared and then were confirmed as murdered when the mass graves of Slavyansk were opened up after the rebels’ retreat in July 2014 and reassertion of Ukrainian government control.

For some reason, the USCIRF report mentions the torturing to death of only two Protestant pastors in Slavyansk and it’s not clear if it is the same case. There was some speculation at the time as to whether the four Protestant church members were killed for their cars and cash only, but a Christian Science Monitor investigation of the story revealed that the church was visited and threatened multiple times by the rebels who saw their non-Orthodox faith as a threat:

Protestants in Slaviansk had felt particularly under threat from the
rebels. Despite about half of the town having fled the violence, several
thousand Protestants, belonging to 15 or so non-Orthodox denominations,
including the Church of the Transfigurationstill remained. And
a number of them had been arrested by the separatists, accused of being
“Satanists” or of helping the Ukrainian Army.

“Their logic is: ‘We brought the Orthodox Church, ours is right and there are no others. Your church is linked to America,
our enemy, so we will destroy you,’” says Peter Dudnik, a priest at the
local Christian Center of the Good News Church, who also runs a charity
for orphans. The bishop of his church was arrested and held for 24
hours, amid several other arrests of church members, including drivers
and even music attendants.

USCIRF reports that Greek Catholic priest Father Tikhon Kulbaka was kidnapped as was Roman Catholic priest Father Pawel Vitka during the militants’ take-over. USCIF also describes the damaging of eight Ukrainian Orthodox churchs in Lugansk Region and the raiding of a Protestant orphanage. Says USCIRF:

A 4,000-man pro-Russian armed group known as the Russian Orthodox Army (ROA) (once headed by a former Russian military intelligence officer) reportedly has been involved in such incidents.

The ROA’s flag was spotted just this week again near Donetsk in a military convoy.

The report also mentions the role of Konstantin Malofeyev (Malofeev), the Russian Orthodox philanthropist who bankrolled the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and was placed under Western sanctions and Ukrainian investigation.

The USCIRF’s inclusion in the chapter on Russia of the abuses committed by Russian-backed militants in what is recognized as part of Ukraine does not mean a recognition of the territory as Russia’s but constitutes an important official recognition of the responsibility of the Russian government for war atrocities.

The USCIRF report has a summary of the Obama Administration’s failed policy of the “reset” in Washington’s relations with Moscow, including the US-Russian Bilateral Commission where civil society issues were addressed. Ultimately the Magnitsky Law was passed to address Russian impunity regarding mass violators of human rights.

It is the USCIRF that has recommended that Ramzan Kadyrov be placed on the list of those sanctioned under the Magnitsky List, which includes an unpublished section, which reportedly includes Kadyrov, the report notes.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russia In The Headlines – Today’s News Roundup

A quick roundup of today’s headlines being reported by other major English-language news agencies.

The Moscow Times has a report about the first year of legislation designed to block “extremist content” from the internet:

Russia’s Internet watchdog said about 4,500 websites were blocked in the country last year because of alleged extremist content, the Interfax news agency reported.

Agency specialists identified 3,500 violations of Russia’s extremism laws, and prosecutors informed them of another 700, Roskomnadzor head Alexander Zharov was cited as saying Tuesday by Interfax.

Wall Street Journal reports that Russia’s central bank will cut its interest rates to 12.5%, a partial reversal of December’s emergency rate hike, designed to stop the rapid devaluation of the ruble. The ruble is now rebounding:

The ruble, which is up some 55% versus the dollar from the record lows hit in December, firmed to 51.5 a dollar from levels of 51.75 before the rate cut.

In the longer run, the rate move is set to slow the ruble’s rebound as lower rates reduce the currency’s appeal for carry trade-transactions where a market player borrows low-yielding dollars or euros and convert them into high-yielding ruble assets.

Russia needs a weaker ruble to support the competitiveness of industry and the ruble windfall the currency’s drop generated for the country’s budget, which is heavy dependent on taxes pegged to the dollar and euro.

Time Magazine reports on the (likely inevitable) loss of the Progress space cargo ship, which was supposed to carry supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) but is now spinning out if control. Their angle: “Why an Out-of-Control Spacecraft Is Bad News for Russia.”

The problem comes at an unhandy time for Russia. Even as Roscosmos was fighting to right the Soyuz, a Dragon resupply vehicle, successfully launched by California-based SpaceX, was docked to the station and going through five weeks of unloading. Both SpaceX and the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences-which flies the Antares supply vehicle-are under contract to make cargo runs to the station. Progress has a far longer success record than either of the comparative upstarts, but the current malfunction is the second since 2011, when another Progress spun out of control just 325 seconds after launch and crashed into the Kazakh steppe.

Roscosmos has enjoyed a monopoly on manned space flight to the station ever since the shuttles were retired in 2011, and briefly owned the market for unmanned runs too-at least until the Dragon made its first successful trip in 2012. By 2017, both Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft are supposed to begin carrying crews to the station. That will hurt more than Russia’s ego: Roscosmos charges $70 million per seat for passengers, and Russia-pinched by low oil prices-could sorely use the cash. It’s not as if SpaceX and Boeing will fly folks for free, of course-the transition to private suppliers means someone’s got to make a profit-but SpaceX founder Elon Musk likes to speak about how important it is to “repatriate” the money the U.S. is currently paying Russia. It’s an idea that has special appeal when relations between Moscow and Washington remain chilly.

New York Times writes that a company belonging to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has released a new statement accusing the Russian government of seizing Poroshenko’s assets:

Roshen, the confectionary company owned by President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine, says that assets of the company worth $39 million in Lipetsk,Russia, where it owns two candy factories, have been seized this week by the Russian authorities, according to a statement by the company.

The band U2 and the technology giant Apple have been heavily criticized for a promotion where Apple “gifted” free copies of U2’s latest album, forcing anyone with an iTunes account (which is everyone with an Apple device) to download the album. The Guardian is carrying a story about a new problem for the band and the brand — that a Russian lawmaker says that U2 and Apple are promoting “homosexual propaganda,” an act which is banned by law in Russia:

Alexander Starovoitov, a member of the rightwing LDPR party, says Apple spammed youths with illegal content when it released U2’s latest album, Songs of Innocence, to more than 500 million iTunes customers worldwide in September 2014. 

The album cover in question features the band’s drummer, Larry Mullen Jr, embracing his 18-year-old son, Elvis, shirtless. The image was taken by photographer Glen Luchford, and the group says it is a visual metaphor for the album and its theme of “how holding on to your own innocence is a lot harder than holding on to someone else’s”.

But Starovoitov disagrees. He says the U2 album art promotes sex between men, and the newspaper Izvestia, known for its pro-Kremlin reporting, quotes Evgeny Tonky, a lawyer, who says he’s ready to sue Apple for compensation for moral damages on behalf of his own son.

James Miller
Russian Businessman Kudryavtsev Buys One-Third of Vedomosti and All of Moscow Times

Vedomosti, an independent business news site once owned jointly by the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times has now been purchased in-part by a Russian businessman, Demyan Kudryavtsev, Vedomosti reported.

The deal also includes the independent newspaper The Moscow Times.

The Finnish company Sanoma Corporation announced the deal on its website today:

Sanoma has signed a sale and purchase agreement with Ivania Ltd. for the company’s 33.3% stake in Delovoi Standard, which is the publisher of Russia’s leading daily financial newspaper Vedomosti. Additionally, Sanoma has agreed to sell its United Press portfolio of titles to MoscowTimes LLC.

Demyan Kudryavtsev acquired the Finnish company’s shares in Vedomosti. Sanoma signed an agreement to buy 33.3% of the shares of Delovoi Standard from the company Ivania, Ltd. Sanoma also agreed to sell the portfolio of the publisher United Press which includes Moscow Times. Kudryavtsev has confirmed to Vedomosti that he is now the sole owner of Ivania and Moscow Times.

All of these assets were previously part of the publishing house Sanoma Independent Media (SIM).

The deal with Vedomosti is already closed, but not yet with United Press, a Sanoma representative told Vedomosti. A source close to the deal said that now Kudryavtsev must obtain the consent of the owners of the licenses to the journals published in Russia by United Press. These include the American Rodale magazines Men’s Health and Women’s Health as well as National Geographic. Neither of these details require the consent of the Russian authorities, a Sanoma representative added.

The deal has been reported differently over the last day.

Translation: It’s already official: Demyan Kudryavtsev bought a third of Vedomosti form Sanoma, the newspaper The Moscow times and several journals.

It seems Vedomosti‘s tweet describes it most accurately, as Kudryavtsev is not sole owner of Vedomosti.

As Vedomosti explained, Kudryavtsev bought the assets of the company — the brands, licenses to publish the journal, etc. — not the company itself. Sanoma reported that the revenue from United Press in the first quarter of this year was 2.5 million euros.

While the deal is being described by some as a complete sale of Vedomosti, sources say that Dow Jones and FT Group (owners of The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times) intend to remain as co-owners, although they had no comment, said Vedomosti. Said Kudryavtsev:

“To be in partnership with such global companies is unusually useful, this can be a great school and learning. I don’t see any sense in changing anything this second.”

SIM will remain a service company for Vedomosti, the Moscow Times and the magazines during a transition period.

Kudryavtsev also said he was not planning on insisting that senior executives be changed, which meant managing director Gleb Prozov and editor-in-chief Tatyana Lysovaya would remain, said a source close to the deal. Kudryavtsev said:

“It is premature to talk about this. In any event I will not insist on it – the position of a minority holder would not enable doing that. The management approaches and structures operating at Vedomosti are proven and there is no need to change them quickly.”

The total figure for the sale has not been publicized. Earlier, a source said that the buyer was prepared to pay 6 million euros for a third of the newspaper, but then two weeks ago, said that the sum was less.

Kudryavtsev is best known as the former head of Kommersant, the company that published the newspaper by the same name.

Everyone is wondering how the new ownership will affect the content. If the editors remain the same, there may not be any difference. Yet there is ample concern, in the current climate of increasing Kremlin pressure on the media and the economic crisis, that the kind of hard-hitting critical articles and investigative pieces for which Vedomosti and Moscow Times are known could be at risk.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Criminal Case Reportedly Opened Against Russian MP Ilya Ponomarev

A criminal case has been opened up against Ilya Ponomarev,
the Russian member of parliament who was the lone voter against the
annexation of the Crimea, reports, citing Interfax and a
source familiar with the situation.

As we reported earlier this month, he was stripped of his parliamentary immunity to make this possible.

case has been opened up under Art. 33, part 5 and Art. 160 part 4
(“complicity in misappropriation of funds”). The charges stem from a
claim that lecture fees paid to Ponomarev on a consulting contract with
the Skolkovo Foundation were excessive. (For a detailed account of the
case, see our previous post.)

There is no official notice yet about the case on the Investigative Committee’s website.

the former head of the Committee on Innovation in the State Duma, or
parliament, is currently in the US on the West Coast where he has been
pursuing projects with Silicon Valley contacts. Recently he joined other
recent Russian exiles to form the Free Russia Foundation which is coordinating efforts to develop a “strategic vision of Russia ‘After Putin'”

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick