Russia Update: Moscow Investigators Prevented from Questioning Geremeyev

April 9, 2015
Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov (L) with Vyacheslav Volodin (C), first deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration. April 7, 2015

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 Happening in Moscow
Remembering Boris Nemtsov, Insider and Outsider (1959-2015)

Special features:

Alexey Navalny On the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
Theories about Possible Perpetrators of the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
Novaya Gazeta Releases Sensational Kremlin Memo: ‘It is Seen as Correct to Initiate Annexation of Eastern Regions of Ukraine to Russia’

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Google is Renting Server Racks in Russia To Store User Data There – Sources

Google is already storing its data in Russia data center including some that belong to Rostelekom, and has “dozens” of towers in Russian data centers, reported.

Google was widely reported as closing down its development office in December 2014, a move that prompted some press to say they were “pulling out of Russia” and that this was even “in protest” against the crackdown on the Internet, exemplified by the new Russian Internet law that requires Internet service providers to keep data on Russian soil.

But if the report is accurate, it looks like things are more complicated.

Google began discussions about transferring data in late March at a meeting with the Minister of Communications devoted to preparation for the law to go in effect in September, says

Three participants in the meeting — companies that own data processing centers (DPCs) — and a source close to the government — told about this meeting.

Aleksey Sokolov and Rashid Ismailov, deputy communications ministers, and Alexey Degtyarev president of the Association of DPC Industry Members and also owners and directors of major Russian data centers attended this meeting. Dmitry Marinichev, the Internet ombudsman, was the organizer of the meeting. obtained a transcript of the meeting according to which one of the participants reported that Google is storing information at his company’s data center.

“The company Google is [now] our client. We have a secure semi-government enterprise,” he said.

According to this source, “Google wasn’t letting anybody touch their racks” and only Google’s own employees, who came from abroad, were able to handle the servers.

Another one of those who attended the meeting says that an official from Rostelekom made this statement. Ilya Khala, general director of 3Data data center who also took part in the meeting confirmed this information. Andrei Polyakov, a representative of Rostelekom, said that the company can give out its clients’ names only with their consent.

Google representative Svetlana Anurova said that the company is not commenting on the subject of the storage of personal data.

Under the law passed in July 2014, companies who handle personal data of Internet users must store it on servers on Russian soil, where Roskomnadzor, the state communications oversight agency which functions as a censor will be responsible for “oversight and surveillance of the processing of personal data including placing its violations in a special register.”

 All ISPs in Russia are required to make data accessible to the Federal Security Service (FSB) or other law-enforders on demand.

Companies are still uncertain how broadly the concept of “personal data” will be defined, what can be protected, whether a copy can be kept abroad and so on. Roskomnadzor says it will have about a dozen “explanatory” meetings with representatives of different industries.

Anton Platonov, general director of the company StoreData said Google began to conclude agreements to place its equipment in Russia more than a year ago, reports.

“In October 2014, Google had just installed about 40 towers which took up half a room at the data center,” said another participant in the meeting who said that Google was the client of several commercial data centers in Russia, including TrastInfo. Now Google was renting the whole room and is talking about renting another room at TrastInfo, he said. Yelena Boglovskaya, press secretary at TrastInfo, refused to comment on the story.

According to Khala, server rentals depend on parameters and configuration but can be up to 6,000 rubles a month ($115). The data processing centers in the 3Data network contain 15-60 rack, and in each rack there are 30-40 servers. So to rent 40 cabinets would require more than 7 million rubles ($134,960).

But since Google has all its own equipment, it might only need to rent the space and not the racks, another participant noted. So that might run to $2,000 a month per rack, taking into account electricity, cooling and other services. None of the participants could estimate what the capacity of the servers were.

Earlier we reported the eBay and PayPal had agreed to move their customer data on to Russian soil. Other companies that have made the move are Tourmaline Labs and Ugo who are renting virtual servers “in the cloud” — but a cloud that is in Russia.

One Ministry of Communications officials told that the law on data storage in Russia was written by deputies of the State Duma, and the ministry was not involved in it, therefore its “formulas are not ideal.”

Yet neither this ministry or the Internet industry in Russia were able to stop the law.

Alec Luhn explained in the Nation that the law was directly in response to the revelations of Edward Snowden.

Even before Snowden, Russian intelligence had extensive access to user communications through the program SORM, and the Kremlin had a vision of a “sovereign Internet” that they could create to get the advantages of connectivity but introduce state control to rid themselves of the disadvantages that undermined authoritarian control.

Soon after Snowden’s arrival in Moscow, Senator Ruslan Gattarov, who at that time headed  Working Commission to Investigative the Facts of Surveillance of Russians by US Intelligence Services, created in response to Snowden’s revelations, summoned Google to his commission and implied that the company had now become more compliant by “changing its position” to be “more constructive.”

Gattarov met with Carlo D’Azaro Biondo, President of Southern & Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa Operations at Google, Inc. on July 25. Google is ready for “constructive cooperation,” said Biondo.

So far from retreating from Moscow, Google is renting space evidently to store user data.

Last year, Bloomberg treated the Google’s announcement that it was closing it engineering department as a protest:

There is no reference to the data storage law in the official statement,
which instead stresses Google’s commitment to its Russian users and
points out that the company’s commercial office in Moscow isn’t closing.
Yet this clearly is  another case of a tech giant not wanting to deal
with the personal data law or any other present and future government
efforts to control the Internet. Google had relocated engineers from the
Nordic countries when personal data protection laws were passed there,
and those rules are much softer than the Russian ones (Sweden’s,
for example, allow the transfer of data within the European Union and
to some countries outside it that meet European security requirements.)

Google made such a decision with China just to keep its presence there in that huge market, but eventually it it left when it was discovered how hackers from the government had accessed its servers.

Google itself has not had any comment on its negotiations with the Russian Federation.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Stalin Banner Appears at Traffic Police Building
A banner with an image of Joseph Stalin has appeared on Plyushchikha Street with the words “Eternal Glory to the Victors,” Interfax reported.

The banner is on the fence at 11A Plyushchikha, which is the location of
the 6th Special Battalion of the traffic police (DPS GIBDD).

of Russians have shared photos of the banner which first appeared April
7 on a Facebook account, many with comments of outrage at the return of
Stalin’s image. An Interfax reporter went to the location and confirmed
that there is such a banner there.

Russia will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Nazis on May 9. Since Stalin is associated with that victory, it’s likely his image will pop up more.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russian Blogger Starodubets Abducted, Beaten in Dagestan

Russian blogger Vyacheslav Starodubets is under police guard in
hospital after being abducted and attacked by at least three masked men
in Derbent, in the southern republic of Dagestan, on Sunday, April 5, according
to the New York-based Committee to Project Journalists
and the regional news site Caucasian Knot:

Vyacheslav Starodubets was forced
into a car and taken to the outskirts of the city where he said he was
questioned, beaten, and warned to leave the region within three days, regional and international press reported.

Starodubets reported the incident to police, saying that he believes the attack was related to his reporting, regional press said.

News reports said that Starodubets ran pages called Moi Derbent (My
Derbent) and Zhemchuzhina Yuga (Pearl of the South) on Facebook and the
Russian social networks VK (also known as VKontakte or In Touch) and
Odnoklassniki (Classmates). He reported on social and economic problems
in Derbent and criticized municipal authorities for their apparent
inability to address them, the reports said. Starodubets, who is
originally from Moscow, also worked for the press department of a
Derbent museum, reports said.

Authorities have moved Starodubets from Derbent to Makhachkala, and the Dagestan branch of the Investigative Committee has opened an investigation, according to an announcement on their website (translated by The Interpreter):

Regarding the victim, forensic medical examination will be made with the purpose of establishing the degree of severity of the bodily damages he sustained, and also other circumstances of this incitement will be examined, which the plaintiff indicated, including his civic activity.

A procedural decision will be made upon receiving the results of the inspection activities of the investigative agencies.

According to Starodubets’ account videotaped by Caucasian Knot and uploaded to Youtube, two masked men forced him into a Lada Priora sedan with tinted windows and a third man appeared to help subdue him.

According to CPJ’s summary of the video:

According to his account,
Starodubets screamed for help, but nobody standing nearby or passing on
the street came to his aid. Once inside the car, Starodubets said the
attackers taped his eyes and hands, put a bag over his head, and drove
to the mountainside where he was put in another vehicle and questioned
about his personal information, his parents’ address, and his connection
to regional parliament members. During the ordeal, Starodubets said,
his attackers beat him on his arms and head, broke his nose, told him
not to write anything about municipal officials, and urged him to leave
the region within three days. Afterwards, the blogger said he was forced
back into the first car and taken to the Derbent area where the
attackers dropped him off. CPJ could not independently verify details of
the attack.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Former BlackSeaNews Editor Tatyana Guchakova Searched, Detained by FSB in Occupied Crimea
Agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB) have arrested Tatyana Guchakova, who formerly worked as the deputy editor-in-chief of the BlackSeaNews, in Russian-occupied Crimea, Radio Svoboda reported.

Andrei Klimenko, the current editor-in-chief reported on his
Facebook page that after a 10-hour search, Guchakova was taken away,
presumably for interrogation.

FSB agents arrived at 7:45 am this
morning, April 9 he said. After seizing all the computer equipment in
the house, she was driven away at about 17:00 to an unknown destination.

has not worked at BlackSeaNews for more than a year, since the
annexation, but still remained a member of the National Union of
Journalists of Ukraine. She was also a participant in the Crimea
Political Dialogue which ran from 2010-2014 until the annexation.

Yaremenko, head of the Maidan Foreign Affairs Fund, said the detention
of Guchakova was “yet another example of the nasty and illegal war of
the occupation authorities of Russia in Crimea against any manifestation of dissent” (translation by The Interpreter):

“I view this situation today as the FSB’s seizure of a hostage. The purpose of this terrorist act is to intimidate me and Andrei [Klimenko] in our activity in Maidan Foreign Affairs and BlackSeaNews. We will keep distributing this information and will never cease our work, nor the fight for the release of Tatyana Guchakova.”

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russian Interior Ministry Troops Practice to Put Down ‘Maidan’

Russian Interior Ministry Internal Troops are practicing to put down potential “Maidan”-style protests in Russia in an exercise titled “Barrier,” Elizaveta Antonova of reported (translated by The Interpreter).

“From April 2-10, large-scale exercises titled ‘Barrier’ are being conducted,” Vasily Panchenkov, the press officer of the Interior Ministry troops confirmed for RIA Novosti. The purpose is to train troops to resist “disorders similar to the events in early 2014 in Kiev.”

“The latest stage [of exercises] is based on events which occurred in the recent past in a neighboring company,” Panchenkov said euphemistically. To make the exercises realistic, “all attributes of those events, including burning tires and throwing of stones and bottles at soldiers have been deployed.”

This seemed to leave no question that the reference was to Ukraine’s Maidan movement.

The exercises are taking place in North-Western, Central, Volga, North Caucasus, and Southern territories of Russia and also occupied Crimea and involve close cooperation with the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Federal Narcotics Control Service (FSKN).

The training includes the use of individual special devices  police tear gas, water cannon and also various forms of military armor and special non-lethal weapons. “Special devices” can mean bulletproof vests and helmets for riot police as well as hand-cuffs and rubber clubs for crowd control.

The Telegraph
covered the exercises, saying that Putin “believes that Mr. Yanukovych was forced out in an unconstitutional coup backed by the West and wants to avoid a repeat in the Kremlin.”

There’s some evidence t
hat in fact the Kremlin knew Yanukovych would not last and had plans to invade the Crimea and take over the Donass even before Yanukovych was toppled.

But Russian security services have been keen to prevent anything even faintly reminiscent of a “Maidan” type protest — although there have been none like this in the last year. Most anti-war or other protests have reached only about 30,000 participants, and dispersed voluntarily after a few hours. Only a few striking doctors angry at massive lay-offs in the health care system have camped out at the United Russia offices but were soon arrested by police.

Last December 30 when a protest rally was called without authorization from the city to protest the Navalny brothers’ sentence, some in Pussy Riot and Gruppa Voyny, a performance art group, tried to remain overnight in a giant Christmas ornament on Manezh Square but were arrested within an hour.

Interior Ministry troops are used for riot control but have also fought in the two Chechen Wars. Members of a unit of these troops are suspected in the murder of Boris Nemtsov.

The Telegraph also noted that 30 fighter jets took part in the exercises in eastern Primorsky Territory and 400 troops practiced with APCs and grenade-launchers in Transdniestria, the breakaway territory of Moldova.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Navalny Brothers Not to Fall Under Amnesty on Occasion of 70th Anniversary of Victory Day

Not surprisingly, opposition leader Alexey Navalny and his brother Oleg Navalny will not fall under the amnesty of prisoners declared in conjunction with the 70th Anniversary of Victory Day, May 9.

As the text of the decree makes clear, the amnesty cannot apply to those who have been convicted of fraud. The Navalny brothers were convicted of fraud in a mail-order business contracted to Yves Rosher East, the French cosmetics company. While the French company had no claims against the Navalny brothers, authorities claimed that there was overcharging for the mail service. The case was widely viewed by Navalny’s supporters as fabricated for his anti-corruption blogging.

On December 30, 2014, Oleg Navalny received 3.5 years of labor colony and has gone to serve the sentence in Orlov Region following the fail of his appeal. Alexey Navalny was handed a suspended sentence of 3.5 years, and has stated that he believes his brother, who was not involved in the opposition, had been “taken as a hostage” to pressure him by retaliating against a family member.

Navalny was also handed a suspended sentence in the Kirovoles case in which he was charged with embezzlement in a lumber deal. On the one hand, the amnesty degree says that those with suspended sentences would fall under the amnesty, but since it also says that those who had committed “grave crimes” would not be covered, he might not, as embezzlement is considered a “grave crime.”

About 60,000 people are expected to fall under the amnesty who were sentenced to actual terms of imprisonment, and about 200,000 persons who had suspended sentences.

The amnesty also does not apply to those who committed violent crimes or murder, as well as terrorism and extremism. That means the Bolotnaya defendants, some of whom were accused of resisting officers, would not be eligible.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russian Film-Makers Ask for $18.5 Million from Putin to Start Fast-Food Business to Compete with McDonald’s

Andrei Konchalosky and Nikita Mikhalkov, two brothers who are famous film-makers in Russia, are planning to start a domestic competitor to McDonald’s, Kommersant reports.

The partners asked for 971.8 million rubles (about $18.5 million) to launch a network of fast-food cafes under their Yedim doma! (Let’s Eat at Home!) brand, which is owned by Yuliya Vysotskaya, Konchalovsky’s wife.

The brothers have initial approval for the project from President Vladimir Putin, who assigned the government to evaluate it, saying it should be “reviewed and supported in the context of solving the task of import replacement.” Vice Premier Arkady Dvorkovich will discuss it today.

Ever since Russian fell under Western sanctions and retaliated with food boycotts, it has been studying how to reduce dependency on foreign imports.

The plan envisions haing stores attached to the cafes in which prepared meals will be offered, produced at regional industrial kitchens.

Konchalovsky believes this project fits perfectly within the Kremlin’s plan to promote small business. He confirmed to Kommersant that he had asked Putin for support and financing.

Fast food is a $19 billion business in Russia and has grown slightly in recent years; in Moscow Region, it is worth $1.25 billion.

A spokesman for McDonald’s said that it didn’t mind the competition. But McDonald’s has had half of its locations closed for inspection in the last year in a campaign that seems politically driven.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Moscow Investigators Who Traveled to Chechnya Were Prevented from Questioning Ruslan Geremeyev

In an April 7 news story, provides some more detail about a field visit to Chechnya by federal investigators to follow up on leads in the Nemtsov murder investigation — and how they got stonewalled.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov even had to intervene — but they still didn’t get to question Ruslan Geremeyev, the man whose first name was leaked by Novaya Gazeta weeks ago, and whose full identity as a relative of the president’s relatives was figured out by bloggers such as Alexey Navalny.

Translation: In plain Russian, “Novaya Gazeta” wrote: the murder was organized by A. Delimkhanov and S. Geremeyev through Ruslan Geremeyev.

The group of investigators from Moscow from the Investigative Committee did meet with Alibek Delimkhanov, commander of the
Sever Battalion, the unit where two of the suspects served — Zaur Dadayev,
believed to be the trigger man and Beslan Gasanov, said to have followed
Nemtsov before he was killed. Gasanov died in a grenade explosion March 7 when
police came to his door to arrest him.

Dadayev resigned from the
battalion, which is in the Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops in
Chechnya and left January 27 on a 30-day leave, so that by February 27, the night
of the assassination of Nemtsov, he was no longer a member.

said they were inclined to believe that Ruslan Geremeyev was the same
person as “Ruslik,” who had promised each of Nemtsov’s killers 5 million
rubles (about $83,000).

In his meeting with the investigators, Delimkhanov mainly repeated the
characterizations already made on Instagram after the murder by Kadyrov
to the effect that the men were “brave warriors.” As a source told
RosBalt (translated by The Interpreter):

On the whole, the
position of representatives of the Chechen republic and the battalion
could be characterized as follows: these fighters fought in Sever, they
were heroes, if they have got in contact with anyone bad in civilian
life and are accomplices to the murder of Nemtsov, let the investigation
find it out. Representatives of the republic and battalion do not have
anything to do with anything that happened.

The investigators
were kept away from Ruslan Geremeyev and did not even learn his location.
Earlier there had been reports that he was under heavy guard in the town of Dzhalka
which is also the home town of Adam Delimkhanov and his brother,
Alimbek Delimkhanov. But Chechen law-enforcers told the visiting investigators from Moscow that they had no
information that Geremeyev was in Dzhalka. Earlier, sources told that local investigators in Chechnya had questioned Geremeyev as a witness, but there were no further details.

Investigators said
there were no other persons among Dadayev’s contacts with that name;
they originally got the information from Tamerlan Eskerkhanov, although
his confession was said to be made under torture. Dadayev has now
withdrawn his confession.

Kadyrov made no mention of the Investigative Committee’s visit to his republic on his Instagram account — there was no hospitality, and no awards.

he did post a photo of himself with Vyacheslav Volodin, deputy head of
the presidential administration dated April 7 saying it was “after the meeting of the
RF State Council” in Moscow. He said:

“We had a very useful and pleasant
conversation about many political, economic and social issues.
Vyacheslav Viktorich, as an experienced and wise state figure always
gives important advice,and helps and supports projects necessary to the
Chechen Republic. It is very pleasant that such dedicated
comrades-at-arms are on the team of our national leader Vladimir Putin.

So, are subsidies in place for Chechnya and does the economic crisis mean there are any austerity measures? This was the issue Nemtsov raised before his death in a post in December 2014 regarding the $1 billion in subsidies Chechnya receives, expressing concern about Kadyrov’s growing private army.

While in Moscow, Kadyrov also met with Vladimir Churov, chairman of the Central Elections Commission, who
gave Kadyrov a plaque that awarded him “for significant contribution in the
development of the electoral system of Russia.” That “significant
contribution” consists of turning in a suspiciously high 99.75% percentage of
for Vladimir Putin, with 107% turnout in the presidential elections in Chechnya.

and today Kadyrov called on his tens of thousands of readers to go vote
in the Time magazine contest — where Putin is already getting numerous
votes because of such efforts.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick