Russia Update: Attack on Prime Minister of Abkhazia

November 16, 2014
Beslan Butba, prime minister of the disputed republic of Abkhazia. Photo by ITAR-TASS/Dmitry Aleshkovsky

Welcome to our new column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

Yesterday’s issue is here, and see also our Russia This Week.

Prime Minister Beslan Butba of the disputed breakaway republic of Abkhazia was beaten by two men who assaulted his car.

Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costs‏.


Mistral’s Flag Appears to Change from French to Russian and Back — What’s Going On?

The Mistral ships that France was planning to sell to Russia became a great subject of controversy, and with Russia’s war on Ukraine, France decided to delay delivery of the ships under contract. This has caused anger at home where shipworkers depend on the work, and constant speculation about when or if France will sell the ships.

Sputnik, the new Russian propaganda outlet, has relished the disputes and stoked the coverage of unrest over the issue in France:

Last week, the Mistral-watchers such as the activist group “No Mistrals for Putin” went into a panic — the Russian flag suddenly appeared on online trackers of the ship Vladivostok on Friday.

AIS — the Automatic Identification System used to track ships on Marine Traffic and similar sites was showing a Russian flag on the Mistral’s identification tag.

People were concerned that France was lying about delaying the
deliveries and were secretly involved in a handover. Usually such events
involve ceremonies with the raising and lowering of the countries’
flags, but perhaps this was to be done in secret due to the controversy?

No Mistrals for Putin then reported on its website:

French DCNS denies transfer of Vladivostok to Russia and says that
Bureau VERITAS requested the system to be activated to deliver the
ships’s seaworthiness certificate as per international rules

There was even more consternation when the AIS signal for the ship simply went silent for more than 15 hours — no one could understand what this meant.

Finally, No Mistrals for Putin and other bloggers later reported that the AIS was back to showing the French flag.

We checked, and sure enough it was back to the French flag on November 16:

France does not appear to have commented on this incident, and it may be ignored.

Meanwhile, the question remains about France’s intentions and the repercussions if Russia does not receive the deliveries.

Hint: to find the Vladivostok, go in the inlet near Av. Chartonay and
look for the grey ship marker and click on the icon. It can take awhile
to resolve to show the flag and other information because the site
sometimes loads slowly.

What happened?

A Russian ship expert named Mikhail Voytenko explained in detail on an Ekho Moskvy blog entry how the system works.

There’s nothing automatic about the establishment of the signal
that a flag has been changed on a ship. The information has to be keyed in
manually, and then once it is sent, will go out to other automatic
systems that will use it for things like updating Marine Traffic.

So that means someone came in and sabotaged the signal device deliberately as a prank.

“Roughly speaking, such an ‘unofficial’ alteration of the AIS
signal is like somebody bursting into the Embassy of France in Russia,
taking down the French flag, and putting up some other flag,” commented

France’s  Prime Minister Manual Valls said on Friday November 14 that France “would not be dictated to” when an unidentified Russian official told Paris that it had only two weeks to deliver the first of two Mistrals or possibly face compensation claims, Reuters reported.

France didn’t budge on the threat:

“Today, the conditions to deliver the Mistral aren’t there,” Valls
told reporters. “France honours its contracts, but France is a nation
that counts, wants peace in Ukraine and that makes sovereign decisions
without anybody from outside dictating how it acts.”

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Ekho Moskvy Editor Fears Dismissal Over Refusal to Fire Reporter, But Compromise May Be Achieved

Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow), a radio station and web site that has tried to
maintain its independence for years, despite 66% ownership by the Gazprom-Media, the
Russia state gas monopoly’s media arm, is now in jeopardy.

After a series of incidents provoking the state censors and high officials, there is growing pressure on Ekho to conform to the Kremlin’s increasingly repressive media guidelines.

Alexey Venediktov,
Ekho’s editor-in-chief fears dismissal after an
incident in which one of his reporters insulted a top official grieving for his

The controversy involves an ill-advised tweet by Yevgeny Plyushchev,
in which he implied that “God’s justice” was done when Aleksandr
Ivanov, the son of Kremlin chief Sergei Ivanov, drowned last week in Saudia
Arabia. In 2005, Aleksandr had struck and killed a pedestrian, but charges against him
were dropped. Mikhail Lesin, chairman of the board of Gazrpom-Media ordere
Plyushchev dismissed after Venediktov refused to fire him himself.

Ekho has faced mounting interference from the Kremlin, as earlier this
year opposition bloggers like anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny had to be dropped when Roskomnadzor, the state censorship agency issued an order to
block their pages or suffer blockage of the whole website.

And a controversial
radio program about the battle for the Donetsk Airport also earned Ekho a
warning of investigation on charges of “extremism.”

Venediktov said that
dismissing Plyushchev violated Ekho Moskvy’s charter, under which he alone
could approve of dismissals. He does not consider that Plyushchev has been
fired, and has put him on leave until the resolution of the issue at a November
21 board meeting of Gazprom-Media.

Now Venediktov himself believes he, too, is in danger of
being fired, as he said in an interview with Open Russia,

But late in the evening of November 15 Moscow time, Lesin said “There is an option that the conflict will
be resolved peacefully — the sides are formulating a mutually-acceptable
position. I for my part confirm that I have no aggressive aim in itself to fire
Venediktov,” RIA Novosti quoted Lesin as saying.

Lesin said he had proposed to Venediktov sending Plyushchev on a long

Announce publicly that Plyushchev is going off the air
for two months, is being re-educated, that the editors will take all efforts to
correct the moral image of Plyushchev. Maybe that’s pointless, but at least say

Plyushchev displayed a letter on Twitter asking permission
to take leave but only until December 7, after the decision of the “labor
inspection” about the legality of his dismissal. Venediktov hand-wrote
“Agreed” and signed it dated November 15.

Translation:  They made a mistake with the date, excuse me. I destroyed it. Here is the right paper.

Lesin had suggested that Plyushchev take a two-month, not two-week leave.

In an earlier interview with Novaya Gazeta, Lesin said that he “didn’t dispute that the firing of Plyushhev was unlawful” but that he felt the tweet was a disgrace, and being a liberal journalist didn’t exonerate the offender.

Lesin said Venediktov “put him in an awkward situation” with the shareholders, but denied it was a political matter even while making a candid remark about Venediktov’s political skills:

Venediktov was always to me a smart and talented politician, who for many years maneuvered his way between the shareholders and political forces. He was convenient for everyone. All these myths that he is superdemocratic and liberal, leave them to yourself. But the situation with Plyushchev really surprised me. I didn’t understand what was going on with Venediktov.

Venediktov posted a picture to Instagram, commenting, “here’s my week ahead…I’m cutting through…


Plyushchev, for his part was happy to hear that Lesin admitted his dismissal violated Ekho’s charter:

Translation: Mikhail Lesin says in an interview that my firing from Ekho was unlawful.

Sergei Dorenko, a popular host on Ekho, tweeted sardonic support of Venediktov:

Translation:  Stop burying Venediktov. He and Ekho are a very important part of the modern Russian world system on par with kholodets and tea from bags.

Kholodets is a traditional Russian delicacy made of jellied calves’ feet usually abhorred by foreigners; tea-bags are a more recent, modern invention that some Russians, used to loose tea leaves, find a travesty.

But Dorenko had a word of caution for Plyushchev, having had his own battles:

Translation:  I would consider beating Lesin not without danger, he is a…heavy guy with a long memory ) )

Plyushchev replied that the “threats had started,” and Plyushchev countered:

Translation: threats? The simple observation of a young naturalist leaning over the aquarium ) )

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Four American Exchange Participants Detained, Forced to Leave Russia

Four young Americans who were taking part in international leadership training in St. Petersburg were detained and told their visas were not in order, the San Jose Mercury reported earlier this week.

Russian police burst into the hall where the four were attending a closing session of a conference, and detained San Jose residents Liana Randazzo, 27, Quyen Ngo, 24, and Jennifer Phan, 21, and Chico resident Sterling Winter, 18, all US citizens involved in the California Association of Student Councils (CASC).

Investigators began a
grueling seven-hour interrogation with the group, first at the hotel and
later at immigration offices nearly an hour outside of the city.

they asked to see our passports, I thought that was going to be it,”
Randazzo said. “(U.S. state department officials) told us that being
detained was a new thing, so that increased the level of how scary it
was for us and how restricted we felt.”

Investigators told the group they were charged with using
their visas for purposes other than what they had marked on their
travel documents, and that their paperwork was incomplete. After the
interrogation, investigators charged the four and that same night, they
had their first court appearance.

A judge continued the hearing
to the next day, allowing the group to go back to their hotel on the
condition they would not leave the country.

The only way the group
could go home was when a judge decided their fate hinged on four
choices: he could issue them a warning, a fine, deport them or at worst,
jail them.

“It became very clear that this wasn’t just about us,
that there was a bigger argument being made here,” Randazzo said. “We
told the truth. We kept it simple. There was a bigger picture that we
weren’t aware of and didn’t understand.”

The four were defended by Russian lawyers who did not speak English, and when prosecutors said they needed more time to gather evidence, the situation grew “tense,” said the participants.

Yevgeny Velikhov, a top Russian science official and internationally-renowned physicist flew to St. Petersburg to intervene on behalf of the group, since he is the founder of a sister group with which CALC also partners. June Thompson, director of CALC, described this as “huge.”


CALC exchange participants in St. Petersburg

Velikhov’s testimony
“certainly helped the group,” said the San Jose Mercury whose members were ultimately fined $100 each for
“improper documentation.” Although their program was not finished, Thompson and other U.S. officials agreed they needed to leave Russia immediately.

Last month, two American professors of journalism had an identical experience in St. Petersburg when they, too, were detained by police in the middle of a lecture, brought before a judge, and told that their activities in Russia were “not consistent” with their type of visa — a tourist visa.

Joe Bergantino, co-founder of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and Professor
Randy Covington of the University of South Carolina were in the middle of teaching a class when police detained and questioned them for several hours.

They said that the State Department had in fact suggested that they get tourist visas, which are easier and cheaper to obtain. They, too, decided to leave Russia early.

So it seems Russian officials are returning to the practices of the Soviet era, whereby any traveler can easily find himself afoul of complicated rules involving permission from the Foreign Ministry only for approved institutions and meetings, with stamps and verified numbers.

Velikhov, head of the Kurchatov Institute and the Tokamak thermonuclear experiment has long been an advocate of US-Russian exchanges. He was a leader of the now-defunct International Foundation for the Survival
of Humanity, involving many prominent figures in Moscow and Washington in discussions of nuclear disarmament and human rights, even before the
collapse of the USSR. He remains as a top science adviser to the Kremlin for nuclear issues.

For such a respected official to have to personally fly from Moscow to St. Petersburg to intervene in a police matter involving an exchange visitor’s visa is a troubling signal.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Conflicting Reports about Motorcade Crash Involving Dagestan’s President
Last week on November 10, Ramazan Abdulatipov, the head of Dagestan, a
republic in Russia’s North Caucasus was in an accident on the 
Makhachkala-Kaspiisk highway. Initially Russia state news services
reported briefly that Abdulatipov was in an accident but unharmed, then later added that one car in his motorcade crashed into another car
in the same escort.

But other contradictory reports, including
from Abdulatipov himself are indicating that there was a lot more to the
incident than admitted, although Dagestan’s traffic police denied the president was in the accident.

, a pro-Kremlin TV station close to intelligence and law-enforcement agencies reported that four cars were involved in the accident
— a Toyota LandCruiser 200, an Opel, a Russian-made Lada-Priora and a
GAZelle — and that Abdulatipov’s own armored automobile was struck. Three
of his bodyguards and three passengers from other cars were injured, two
of them seriously. All were treated in area hospitals.

But, in a piece November 11 titled “Abdulatipov’s Motorcade Once Again Drives Away from a Road Accident,” said Dagestan’s traffic police denied that Abdulatipov’s motorcade was even involved, saying that a separate “serious accident” took place a half hour after the government motorcade had already passed. learned that the driver of the Toyota LandCruiser 200 was listed at the
garage of the government of Dagestan.

Then the Dagestani president’s press service said that the
president’s motorcade was in an accident after the work day. Tamara
Chinennaya, head of the administration, said (translation by The Interpreter):

“The crash was of cars in the motorcade which were
traveling in front of the car with the head of state. It was reported
that according to preliminary information, as a result of the road
accident no one was killed and Ramazan Abdulatiopv himself did not

That was the version that Russian state wire services went with, but LifeNews soon contradicted this by saying Abdulatipov’s own car was struck and his body guards hurt.

The Dagestani Traffic Inspection (GIBDD) placed a notice on its website (translation by The Interpreter):

On 10 November at 19:35 at the 10th kilometer of the
Makhachkala-Kaspiysk Highwa in the area of the Primorskaya tourist
center, the driver of an Opel Astra, who was in a state of alcoholic
intoxication, crossed over to oncoming traffic and crashed into a Toyota
Land Cruiser 200, after which the Toyota LandCruiser 200 crashed into a
VAZ-217030 parked on the side of the road.

As a result of the incident the drivers of the Toyota
LandCruiser 200 and VAZ-217030 and also three passengers from the
Toyota Land Cruiser 200 and one passenger from the VAZ-217030 were taken
to the regional trauma center in Makhachkala.

The road traffic incident occurred a half hour after the Government motorcade passed by.

This already sounded closer to LifeNews‘ report but LifeNews said the president’s own bodyguards were hurt, and the Traffic Inspection was saying the president’s motorcade had already passed. obtained
a statement from Dagestan’s Health Minister Tank Ibragimov who confirmed
there were six victims: three of whom were treated in the orthopedic
trauma ward, one with a fracture of the femur who was operated on; three
others had light scratches and bruises.

got additional information from the Traffic Inspection which said that
besides the Opel, the Toyota Land Cruiser 200 and “a Priori” [i.e. a
foreign-made not Russian automobile–The Interpreter] there was a BMW also involved in the crash.

Three of the cars were registered to private persons. The Toyota
LandCruiser was registered with the government — but reportedly had not been
accompanying the motorcade. All of this is being investigated; said according to sources close to the investigation, police in Dagestan did not leave their desks until 4:00 am Tuesday.

the next day, November 11, on his own Facebook page, Abdulatipov
himself said that a drunk driver crashed into his motorcade going the
wrong way on the highway, and published a picture from the accident


Photo via Facebook page of Ramazan Abdulatipov

Abdulatipov’s account (translation by The Interpreter):

Yesterday, after the work day, as always I was riding along the road from Makhachkala to Kaspiysk. There was almost no traffic and suddenly, as witnesses testify, an Opel Astra crashed into the escort’s car with a drunk driver at the wheel. On an unlit highway the drunk drive of the car swerved into the lane of oncoming traffic as a result of which a car in my escort crashed into that car. As a result of the accident, several people were injured and are now in the hospital. The main thing is that no one was killed. When I got out of the car, the first thing I did was to order that the victims be cared from and an ambulance be summoned.

Against that sad background, more on what is even more sad. I am concerned that the number of such incidents on the roads of Dagestan is growing in arithmetic progression. In the last 6 years, about 10,000 road accidents have occurred in which more than 3,000 people were killed and 12,000 were injured.

People do not observe traffic rules in many places, including crossing the solid lines. I can say that the motorcade creates an inconvenience but for each person in traffic it is less than a minute of lost time if the rules are observed. I ride all over the North Caucasus and as a rule, people brake and move to the right to allow the motorcade to pass by. I will repeat: this is less than a moment of sabur [Arabic word for “patience”], of patience.

The Dagestani leader took the opportunity to lecture citizens further against disobeying traffic rules and driving while intoxicated

Dagestan’s road fatalities may be among the worst in the world, and make up 10% of all the Russian Federation’s traffic deaths. But what he’s referring to is a particularly sensitive issue for the public in Moscow and other Russian cities — bigwigs who roll around in fast cortèges, as they are called in Russian (from the French word for motorcade) and sometimes knock over pedestrians or crash into other vehicles with impunity.

In one famous case, when Aleksandr Ivanov, the late son of Sergei Ivanov, chief of the Russian presidential administration, struck and killed a pedestrian at a crosswalk, the charges were dropped — to general public outrage. When Aleksandr drowned in Saudia Arabia last week, a journalist from Ekho Moskvy who tweeted that “God’s justice” was done found himself fired from his job even after apologizing.

This isn’t the first time Abdulatipov’s escort has been involved in an accident, says; last year reportedly his motorcade struck and killed a pedestrian on the federal Kavkaz highway, an incident Abdulatipov confirmed but without providing any details. The police report says that an “unidentified motorcade” struck the person, who was later said to be “homeless” and “jay-walking.”

How are we to understand these conflicting accounts? Perhaps Dagestani police wanted to play down anything about the incident that might suggest an assassination attempt and bring further interference from Moscow, but Abdulatipov himself was compelled to give more details locally. The reality is that while the roads are bad in Russia in general and drunk drivers abound, there are also numerous assassination attempts as well.

Abdulatipov, who opposed Yeltsin’s decree dissolving the soviets [government councils] in Russia’s White House crisis of 1993, was appointed by Putin as acting president in 2013 to replace his predecessor Magomedsalam Magomedov, who was forced to resign after a number of terrorist attacks in his republic. These included a suicide bomber who assassinated the officially-recognized head of the Dagestan Muslim community and the killing of the chief judge of the public. Alarmed, the Kremlin decided to impose further control and reject direct elections for the governor, which Magomedov favored.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Attack on Prime Minister of Abkhazia
According to a report,
Prime Minister Beslan Butba of the disputed republic of Abakhazia has
been attacked, TASS reported, citing a law-enforcement source.

Translation: The Prime Minister of Abkhazia has been beaten in Sukhumi

The Interpreter has the translation:

“The incident occurred at about 21:30 Moscow time, when the head of the state of Abkhazia [Butba] was traveling in an automobile with his family, and he was cut off by another car, out of which jumped two men and landed bodily blows on the premier, after which he escaped,” said Raul Lolua, head of the Interior Ministry.

The nature of Butba’s injuries is not known.

Sources noted that Butba was traveling around the city without a bodyguard. Butba immediately called the head of the Interior Ministry after the incident.

An “intercept” plan was immediately declared in Sukhumi, capital of Abkhazia.

The car in question was detained at the Eshera checkpoint, there were two men and a woman in the car. Their identities are being confirmed,” emphasized Lolua.

TASS reported that prosecutors in Abkhazia had launched a probe into the incident, and that the two assailants were intoxicated. They said the prime minister suffered a concussion but was discharged from the hospital and returned home.

The blogger @cuxumu [Sukhimi] commented in a discussion about crime in the enclave on his LiveJournal page that while Butba does have a security detail, he apparently doesn’t always travel with his bodyguards.

Abkhazia’s independence is not acknowledged by Western states, and has been recognized by the Russia Federation, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru and the other unrecognized territories of Transdniestria, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick