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, and see also our Russia This Week stories âAnti-Maidanâ Launched by Nationalists, Cossacks, Veterans, Bikers and The Guild War â How Should Journalists Treat Russian State Propagandists? and special features âManaged Springâ: How Moscow Parted Easily with the âNovorossiyaâ Leaders, Putin âThe Imperialistâ A Runner-Up For Timeâs âPerson of the Yearâ and It’s Not Just Oil and Sanctions Killing Russia’s Economy, It’s Putin.
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Adam Osmayev, a Chechen fighting on the Ukrainian side in the war in southeastern Ukraine, is heading up the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion following the death in battle yesterday of Brig. Gen.
Anti-Putin activist Alexei
Navalny, who is currently under house arrest, has officially informed
authorities of his intention to assemble a 100,000-strong, anti-government protest in Moscow on 1st March.
A photo of Navalny’s letter, addressed to Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin and requesting permission for the protest, was posted on his blog. The image also revealed that Mikhail Khodorkovsky was one of the letter’s five signatories.
Khodorkovsky is unlikely to return to Russia for the march, as he was not given guarantees that he can travel freely to and from the country when he was pardoned by President Vladimir Putin last year and released after serving a decade in jail.
Navalny is facing several court cases on various fabricated charges, including a frivolous “art theft” case involving a street artist’s sketch given to him by his colleague, Georgy Alburov. In December, Navalny was handed a suspended sentence of 3.5 years, and his brother was given 3.5 years of labor colony. That case was also based on trumped-up charges related to a mail-order business contracted by the French firm Yves Rocher East, which denied it had any claim against the Navalnys.
Translation: I found in my case about the poster from the fence some amazing correspondence between Bastrykin and
Chaika. Read here.
Georgy Alburov is the former executive director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund who was forced to flee Russia over this case. The reference is to the artist’s sketch, which he tore from a fence, and to Aleksandr Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee and Yury Chaika, Prosecutor General.
In the correspondence, which Alburov published on his blog, Prosecutor V. Grin admits that the sketch was posted in a public place and not at an art exhibit and that no damage was done to the artist beyond 100 rubles required to file the case — which was done at the behest of the authorities trying to trump up a case against Navalny and his associate.
As we discover from the letters, in an extraordinary action, the prosecutor returned the case back to the Investigative Committee for further investigation, because he doesn’t find evidence to support the charges. Bastrykin replies that such an action is “unlawful” and will be contested. Finally, another document surfaces in which it becomes clear that the fence is now claimed as property by the Russian Orthodox Church, which means a further set-up may be awaited in this case.
In December, Navalny cut off his ankle bracelet enabling police to
monitor him, because he said he was unlawfully kept under house arrest,
which was not legally established as a form of pre-trial restraint for
the “art theft” case and which cannot be a form of sentencing under
Russian law. But police could monitor him anyway, and soon caught up
with him and detained him when he went to a supporters’ demonstration, and then some days
later again when he went to give an interview on Ekho Moskvy.
On January 27, Navalny called for mass protests when his unlawful house arrest wasn’t lifted. As Newsweek reported at the time:
“The idea is simple,” Navalny wrote today. “Those sitting in the Kremlin
have not managed [to halt the financial crisis] and they are still not
managing to do it. They have had 15 years and three trillion dollars at
their disposal, all from our natural resources. A government such as
this cannot stand strong,” Navalny added.
Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s mayoral campaign manager and organizer of the December protest, is gearing up for March 1 on his Facebook page.
Translation: Central Committee of the Party of Progress.
When Volkov formed a Facebook group to protest Navalny’s sentencing,
originally anticipated in January, he had to quickly regroup and stage
the gathering in December with no notice. Originally, some 18,000 people
said they “planned to attend” but in the end, less than 5,000 actually
showed up in freezing weather. About 250 people were arrested, and some
given jail sentences of 14 days.
Navalny is calling the action “Spring,” which he says is supposed
to bring associations with the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe,
although these began with what was called “the Velvet Revolution” in
what was then Czechoslovakia. The “Prague Spring” was in 1968, and
preceded the Soviet invasion. Authorities are likely to be uncomfortably
reminded of the “Arab Spring,” which they feared would spread to their
country. And Navalny may be hoping to create some deliberate “brand
confusion,” as nationalists, some of whom supported his own nationalist
tendencies, perceived of the war in Ukraine as a “Russian Spring” that
would lead ostensibly to more freedom for the Russian people in various
Navalny bypassed other days that have brought out protesters, like
February 23, Red Army Day, now called “Fatherland Defense Day” which is
also the day that the Chechen people were massively deported in 1944.
Indeed, the question people have been asking is whether this march
is about economic hardship and the “anti-crisis program” or against the
war in Ukraine. Volkov answers the question (translation by The
Each to his own. There is no contradiction. Anti-war demands
are very high in the list of the march’s demands. We at the Party of
Progress believe that the criminal military adventure in the Donbass is
the consequence of the international political and economic crisis, a
typical attempt at the expense of a “little victorious war” to distract
attention from the collapse of the corrupt economy. That is, corruption
is the reason for everything, and war is the consequence.
many believe it is otherwise. Well, that’s fine! As Mikhail
Khodorkovsky noted, “there are no ideological contradictions here.” The
agenda of the march is sufficiently broad, and encompassing, and
everyone can find something for himself in it. It’s stupid to arge over
Activists in other cities in Russia, such as St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, will also take part in marches on March 1.
The Moscow march doesn’t yet appear to have a Facebook page. The
St. Petersburg one has created one, with 227 people signed up already to
go. These figures can be very misleading, as the ratio of “planned” to
“actual” has been something like 1 to 4.
A big factor will be whether or not the authorities grant
permission for the rally. When permits have been given in the last year,
as many as 30,000 to 50,000 people have turned out to protest the
forcible annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine. But when
permission is denied, only a few thousand people tend to come, if they
are willing to risk arrest. Now, added to formal police arrest is a
beating by a new “Anti-Maidan” group made up of Afghan war veterans,
bikers and Cossacks who plan to disrupt every liberal opposition meeting
they can by drowning out participants with their own large numbers —
and resorting to violence while the police look the other way.
(Note: The Interpreter is a project of the Institute for Modern Russia which is funded by Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.)
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Svetlana Davydova,a Vyazma resident charged with “treason” has been released from pre-trial detention with a pledge not to leave town and is awaiting trial, gazeta.ru reported.
Davydova, a mother of 7 children who lives next door to an army base, reportedly alerted the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow to the fact that soldiers from her area had been mobilized and were heading toward Ukraine.
Svetlana Davydova and her lawyer.
Ivan Pavlov, Davydova’s attorney, said that her release pending trial was the best outcome to be expected now (translation by The Interpreter):
“This is common sense and compliance with the law. No articles are a justification for keeping her in custody. Grave reasons would be needed for this. In this case, of course, the media resonance did help.”
Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s ombudsman for children’s right, also sent an appeal to the court urging that she be released before trial, in light of her young children.
Davydova had no comments for the press and left the prison area with her lawyers.
Originally according to news accounts, last April, Davydova noticed the barracks were empty near her home, where the GRU (military intelligence) special assignment troops are located. She also overhead a soldier talking on his cell phone on a commuter bus, saying he was going to Ukraine. This prompted her to call the Ukrainian Embassy.
But after she was arrested, Davydova denied her previous statements, rejected the accusations and even denied that she had called the Ukrainian Embassy.
Her initial testimony was given under pressure, at the behest of her first lawyer, Andrei Stebnev, who was appointed by the government. She then dismissed him and found another lawyer, Pavlov.
“Svetlana really does have a number of claims against the previous lawyer. I cannot confirm this exactly, but it’s possible that she will file a complaint on his actions to the chamber of the bar. In any event, it’s up to her to decide. My first priority is to get her back to her children.”
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Gazeta.ru‘s Natalya Galimova reported on a conference of Russia’s governors last weekend convened by Vyacheslav Volodin, deputy head of the presidential administration.
At one level, the meeting was not particularly remarkable — governors don’t have as much power as they once did, and now, if their local legislatures decide to scrap direct elections, they are no longer chosen democratically but selected by the Kremlin. Even where democratic elections remain, the ruling United Russian party, a conveyor-belt for the Kremlin, tends to prevail.
But at another level, the meeting was important to get a glimpse into the provinces of Russia, which tend to get neglected by the Moscow and world press, and also see the Kremlin’s plan for trying to control regional challenges from non-compliant regional bosses to non-Russian minorities.
This three-day meeting was designed for Volodin, Putin’s main ideology czar, and other officials to give doctrinal lectures on the current domestic political agenda and enable governors to vent — which they did, about everything from lack of authority to make decisions to qualms about to the anti-crisis plan to evils of minority-rights NGOs and the Lutheran Church (hardly a threat).
Volodin’s 61-page report was titled “The Current Domestic Political Agenda and Tasks for Its Realization” and consists of an ambitious if vague plan for addressing Russia’s key challenges, with a mixture of sycophantic chapters like “The Activity of President Putin Totally Meets People’s Interests” to disturbing sections like “‘To Be and Remain Russia’: Identity and Patriotism as Conditions for Development”; “The Growth of Popularity in the World of the Concept of Deliberative Democracy” and “Regulation of the Internet.” (We will have more on this report in the next post.)
Volodin instructed those governors still being elected not to look for too high percentages in their wins, or they might not be credible. As a model election, he cited the Moscow mayor election that brought United Russia-backed incumbent Mayor Sergei Sobyanin to power, but in which opposition leader Alexey Navalny managed to garner 29% of the vote. He urged governors not to prevent registration of parliamentary candidates, i.e. parties already approved and in parliaments — a problem which applies to Navalny’s party still, which hasn’t been registered for elections.
The scolding was intended for Oleg Korolev of Lipetsk and Valery Shantsev of Nizhegorod regions, respecitvely, since they had recently blocked candidates from the Communist Party of Russian Federation (CPRF) — the Kremlin’s preferred opponent, if they have to have one.
“You are responsible for the formation of the elite,” Volodin told the governors. “If the opposition parties are driven into a corner, political processes will be marginalized.” Gazeta.ru writes that governors seemed nervous about asking questions, after the first day of the seminar, when Nikita Belykh, governor of Kirov Region, challenged a history lecture from Aleksandr Myasnikov who described how the Decembrists were financed by the British and Alexander Herzen was given money by the Rothschilds.
“Is that official history?” he asked. Later, Volodin finessed the awkward question by ascribing to Belikh support for a unified national history textbook — and he wasn’t in a position to object.
Sergei Sitnikov, governor of Kostroma Region, complained about the press services of the Investigative Committee, Interior Ministry and prosecutor’s office — they seemed to “work according to a plan” and report totals of crimes at the end of months and quarterly, and this had a negative effect on investment. Aleksandr Drozdenko, governor of Leningrad Region, was unhappy with an NGO that he said was financed by Estonians and Finns and was raising the issue of the numerically-small peoples of Russia. Couldn’t the Moscow government do something?
Volodin — as Kremlin officials often do on this subject — tendentiously referenced US law, which makes a distinction between 501-c-3 organizations, that are not subject to taxation as they engage in educational or charitable activity, and 501-c-4 organizations, that run political campaigns, and are taxed. Of course, there’s a difference between groups that seek to affect legislation or run candidates, and those that raise awareness or promote rights, and Volodin was not keen to make that distinction.
“All countries that think of their sovereignty strictly regulate such issues. Our legislation in that regard is one of the most liberal,” said Volodin — an assessment regularly challenged by Paul Goble in The Interpreter.
Volodin said an amendment was being worked on in the “foreign agents’ law” that would specify how groups could get off the “foreign agents” registry once put on. He conceded there weren’t very many (currently there are 30). He said most groups were engaged in “socially-useful activity” — although that’s the rub, as the definition of what is “useful” is set arbitrarily by the government. Anatoly Artamonov, governor of Kaluga Region then spoke up about another channel besides NGO for foreign funds — churches — and complained about the Lutheran Church. “This channel has to be closed down soon because they actively use it.” Gazeta.ru wondered who “they” were, and concluded: “enemies,” although nothing more specific was said.
Svetlana Orlova, governor of Vladimir Region, said the regions needed more authority — and money — and more participation in decision-making. She pointed out that the governors should have been involved in drafting the anti-crisis plan, but wrapped her point in a loyal statement: “At the end of the day, we are one team and we have a new stage of development of our country.” Her emphasis was on import substitutions — which means stimulating local production and manufacturing to replace things that Russia is banning from the West in retaliation of Western sanctions over Crimea.
Perhaps among the most telling moments was when Mikhail Abyzov, minister for “open government” — a concept that became popular in the West and was imported with mixed results to Russia — explained that even he and his colleagues never saw the drafts of the anti-crisis plan — but he chalked that up to the haste with which it was prepared, not a lack of openness. The press was then kicked out for a closed-door meeting of the governors with Economic Development Minister Aleksey Ulyukayev, Finance Minister Siluanov, Central Bank Chair Elivira Nabiullina.
One governor, Evgeny Savchenko of Belgorod Region said that among the topics discussed was the wish of the regions to regulate the liquor market and place “the harshest control over production and sale” — which they see as a revenue generator. This comes at a time when Putin, for reasons of populism, however, wants to reduce the price of alcohol.
The regions of Russia are hurting; Prof. Natalya Zubarevich of Moscow State University, an economic geographer, told Gazeta.ru that the deficit for provinces tripled to 642 billion rubles ($9.5 billion) in 2013 when the regions went into debt to fulfill Putin’s post-election populist promises. This is a telling moment, as it indicates the beginnings of the economic crisis long before the war in Ukraine, Western sanctions, and the fall in the price of oil.
Moscow would not accept demands to restructure the debt, and an urgent issue for governors was the conversion of commercial loans into budget (state) loans; the difference is 8-12% interest for the former and 0.25% for the latter.
Sergei Morozov, governor of Ulyanovsk Region called for re-capitalization of the banks in the region, but found that the response of the financial ministers was to support the concept in principle, but they were not sure how to best do it. Morozov believes that Moscow tends to ascribe all its problems to Western sanctions, but there are deeper problems, and the anti-crisis plan is “a collection of activities where there is no regional segment,” he told gazeta.ru.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Yesterday we reported on the death in battle of Brig. Gen. Isa Munayev, a Chechen military commander who was fighting on the side of the Ukrainian army, and died in the effort to prevent the encirclement of Debaltsevo.
Munayev, 50, fought in the Chechen wars in the 1990s, but distanced himself from the terrorist leader Doku Umarov, who was killed by Russian forces last year.
Munayev’s battalion was called the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion, in honor of President Dudayev of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, who was assassinated by Soviet forces. He was replaced by his deputy, Adam Osmayev, who took over the battalion as it continues to fight in eastern Ukraine.
Meduza.io, the Russian emigre news site in Latvia, ran a story today February 3 headlined “Man Accused in Assassination Attempt on Putin Heads Dudayev Battalion.”
That headline is misleading even from Meduza’s own reporting inside the story, which acknowledges that Osmayev was once accused in Odessa in 2012 of planning an attack on Russian President Vladimir Putin, but these charges were dropped during the investigation even under the Yanukovych regime.
Chechnya’s current president Ramzan Kadyrov not surprisingly had some comments to make about Munayev on Instagram — in the usual Soviet-style mode of denunciation, discreditation and disinformation — with incendiary, unsubstantiated claims made about Osmayev and his wife, Amina Okuyeva.
The Interpreter has a translation:
Isa Munayev is killed. His murder was organized by Adam Osmayev and Amina Okuyeva on assignment by the SBU [Ukrainian Security Service] and agents of the CIA. The decision about the liquidation of Munayev was taken when they were convinced that he was a drunk and not capable of fighting. Munayev was never a warrior. Much less a real man. Could a warrior, a Chechen, a man, leave his commander in battle? But Munayev without a backward glance fled from Grozny, abandoning his “commander-in-chief and president of Ichkeria.” All these years, he was on the payroll of the Western intelligence agencies. They were the ones to put an end to him when they realized wasn’t worth a worthless hrvynia.
Today I appeal to those who through deception have been dragged by Munayev and the bandit Osmayev into the adventure with the Ukrainian fascists. Have you not see the drunken mug of Parashenko? [Here Kadyrov makes a pun out of the word parasha, the bucket used as a toilet in Russian prisons, and the name of the Ukrainian president–The Interpreter]. Haven’t you seen the video where his subordinates openly tell him to screw off? If you haven’t, see it! then you’ll realize who you’re fighting for!
He continues in that vein, then urges Chechens fighting on the Ukrainian side to come home, or their wives will become widows and their children will become orphans. Of course, he doesn’t explain why the same admonition wouldn’t apply to the “volunteers” which he claims are only “a few” in number – although the numbers spotted in Ukraine, specifically from the Chechen Interior Ministry or police loyal to Kadyrov, and with higher ranks indicate that they likely came with Kadyrov’s blessing.
Meduza.io reports that Osmayev was detained in Odessa in February 2012 a week before the presidential campaign in which Putin won. He was accused of plotting an assassination attempt against Putin, although that charge of “terrorism” was dropped, and after spending three years in prison for possession of explosives, he was released.
Russian Wikipedia tells the story differently as it is based on more Ukrainian media articles. After the intercession of Osmayev’s wife, Amina Okuyeva, with the new Kiev authorities, Osmayev was ultimately released on November 18, 2014. Osmayev was charged with unlawful handling of explosions, negligence in destroying another person’s property and document forgery and sentenced to nearly 3 years. But since he had served much of the sentence in pre-trial detention, he was released.
Kadyrov’s denunciation may have been driven by a keen awareness that numerous Chechens have been found fighting on the side of the Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine, and have shown up in a wide variety of roles killing a Russian officer in a mutiny or being killed at the Donetsk Airport or other battles and running Krasnodon. Naturally, suspicion would fall on them as having a motive to remove a thorn in Kadyrov’s side.
Semyon Semyonchenko, commander of the Donbass Battalion has an account of Munayev’s last day which they spent together, but then he himself and his men were wounded, and he only later heard that Munayev was killed in combat, and he is not certain of the circumstances, but he referenced Munayev’s plan to attack an apple orchard where there was a Russian position.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick