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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The restriction of Internet freedom has increased this year, with violence used against some bloggers, say the Association Of Internet Users.
On February 2, we reported that according to an article in Kommersant, the Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg had received more than 20 complaints of conscripts being forced to sign military service contracts, instead of entering the regular army. Draftees are unlawfully made into “contract soldiers” and thrown into combat, where some have been killed.
Most of the soldiers in the complaint were being deployed to the Rostov region which borders Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk regions, from which Russia has mounted covert warfare and aided separatists across the border or invaded themselves to bring tanks and trainers into Ukraine.
Kommersant spoke with Aleksandr Peredruk, who represents the Soldiers’ Mothers, and he said draftees from base no. 54096 in Mulino in Nizhy Novogorod Regoin were being turned into contract soldiers. “Some are persuaded, some are threatened, but in general, the complaints are of the same nature,” said Peredrunk. The Soldiers’ Mothers appealed on behalf of some 20 draftees regarding this pressure, but said they received no answers. The Defense Ministry claimed they never got the complaints, and Russia’s human rights commissioner, Ella Pamfilova intervened to ask for more details.
Now Maksim Solopov of RBC.ru has done some additional reporting on February 3 in a piece titled “Service Against Your Will: How Contracts and a Trip Outside Rostov Are Imposed on Draftees.“
He followed two soldiers from military base no. 7, originally deployed in Abkhazia (at the former 131st Maykop Brigade) who returned from their trip to Rostov and appealed to the military prosecutor of the South Military District (as the former North Caucasus district is now called) asking for help in breaking their contracts. RBC obtained copies of the contracts. The soldiers, who requested anonymity, said they didn’t want to return and went on leave in February, hoping not to come back. But now their parents are being threatened, and a criminal case on charges of “desertion” has been opened against them.
The two soldiers are now in hiding, and met the RBC correspondent “somewhere in a city in the south of Russia” because they don’t want their commanders to know their location, given the investigation that is still open. The pair said they were drafted in December 2013, and in August 2014, the commander of an artillery division talked them into joining the multiple-launch rocket system unit (which operates the Grad and other systems) on a two-year contract. The commander verbally promised them that they would be demobilized in fact in December 2014, and the fact that the contract expired in 2016 “was just a formality.” They would supposedly be sent for maneuvers in Crimea, and then they could resign in December, and get paid for their time of training.
This story indicates a feature of “passportization” seldom noticed — that when Russia began handing out passports to people in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which stateless people in Georgia in particular were happy to have, draft into the Russian army came with it down the line.
Now the two soldiers are saying that their contracts were unlawful, that they weren’t tested for physical endurance, nor did they undergo a medical exam to see if they were fit. They weren’t paid anything, either. “Essentially, we remained draftees,” said one.
Instead of Crimea, the recruits were sent to Rostov Region, near Ukraine’s border, for several months. They didn’t say why or what they did there. “We signed non-disclosure statements,” they said.
But RBC managed to obtain some photographs of the soldiers and their commanders from base no. 7, by looking through the Russian social network VKontakte. The Ukrainian website InformNapalm, which researches social media to find evidence of the Russian military presence in southeastern Ukraine, provided some photos. An RBC correspondent recognized the two soldiers he had been interviewing in one of them. The photo is posted on the site, but with the faces not recognizable.
Photo by Yekaterina Kuzmina/RBC
Even so, this is an important development: for the first time, an independent and credible Russian media source has separately interviewed soldiers that InformNapalm has claimed on its own were in combat — and indicated they may well have been.
The photograph is dated in early November; two months earlier, a soldier from base no. 7, a contract fighter from Astrakhan Region named Anatoly Terekhov, had been killed in combat. The Interpreter covered the story of this brigade; the first person to report the death of Terekhov was Anatoly Salin, an expert of the Astrakhan Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, and the information was confirmed by local media.
The district prosecutor sent the request to break the contract back to the garrison, says Valentina Melnikova, executive secretary of the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers. The prosecutor had no comment.
RBC found other cases of two-year contracts for “training” in Rostov Region, with a promise to let soldiers leave early. The father of a soldier of the 138th Motorized Brigade located in Leningrad Region said (translation by The Interpreter):
“My son was told that the contract was a formality. It was necessary because draftees can only be sent for training for a month, but they would be sent to Rostov Region for three.”
His son got not only a verbal pledge but even a written document, as did another man he served with. RBC obtained copies of the documents, and confirmed that they said:
“The command of the army unit is obliged to release the soldier who contracted for 2 years at his own wish on the date his service under the draft would end.”
A military lawyer, Vladimir Trignin, told RBC that he didn’t see any difference between the way in which draftees or contractors were sent for training. They can be sent into combat after four months of training. He thought most likely some commanders didn’t have enough draftees willing to go into combat, so these contracts were signed with them. He said the verbal pledges and documents with side agreements would have no legal force. If a soldier signed the contract, it would be viewed as remaining in force by any court; he would then have to demonstrate coercion was used or that he wasn’t paid.
RBC also interviewed Natalya Zhukova of the Nizhny Novgorod Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers. She showed RBC a registry of complaints her organization had handled from soldiers who complained about violations of the law in the contracting process. Among them were some from the 9th Vislenskaya Separate Motororized Brigade and the 6th Tank Brigade from Mulino. The Soldiers’ Mothers found that “deaths during training” had occured to two soldiers from the 9th Brigade, Armen Davoyan and Aleksandr Voronov.
Pyotr Khokhlov from the same brigade, who signed a contract after he was drafted in 2014, wound up as a POW held by the Ukrainian armed forces in October of last year.
After Zhukov filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office on January 26 regarding soldiers from the 6th Tank Brigade being talked into going into combat in Ukraine last November, the recruits were left on the base, and an investigation is underway.
The Soldiers’ Mothers have also dealt with other cases, including regarding the soldiers of the 36th Borzinskaya Brigade in the Trans Baikal region for failing to release five soldiers at the end of their draft period. They, too, had been talked into signing contracts and promised early release. There are similar cases in St. Petersburg, where a deputy of the city legislature, Boris Vishnevsky has appealed to the military prosecutor in Leningrad Region not to send draftees to Ukraine. Yet another case involves recruits from the 51st Tula Regiment of Airborne Forces (VDV) in Perm Region who were forced
to sign contracts in August 2014. The Perm ombudsman said that local human rights advocates managed to obtain a recognition from a local prosecutor’s office that the actions of the VDV were unlawful.
Russia has a civil law system, not a common law system, which means that it is difficult to get a higher court to set a precedent that would take effect everywhere. So activists or parents are trying to battle these unlawful contracts in each individual town, depending on local politicians to push their cases.
The Defense Ministry press service has promised to answer an inquiry from RBC on these cases of pressure being put on draftees to go to Rostov Region — right next to Ukraine. But they also reiterated past statements refuting the claim of a Russian military presence in Ukraine. A Defense Ministry official also told RBC privately that he thinks the issue may only involve some local commanders “overdoing it” or even parents and human rights activists “lying” to serve “personal interests.”
That doesn’t seem likely, as complaining about anything to do with combat in Ukraine has only brought beatings to journalists and activists and threats to parents to get their pensions suspended.
The official also said the soldiers should just sent complaints to the military prosecutor — although as RBC has explained, that didn’t work for some cases, although Melnikova did manage to get a reply from Viktor Goremykin, head of the Main Personnel Division of the Defense Ministry, on September 16 (translation by The Interpreter):
“The commanders of the army units are not authorized to accept soldiers who have been passed through military service through the draft, for military service on a contract. All activities are done through the stations (the recruitment to military service by contract) at military draft boards.”
Melnikova believes that the commanders just don’t have enough contract soldiers to rotate through Rostov. “I think they are trying to observe the requirement that participation in this secret operation must involve only contractors,” she said.
Military expert Aleksandr Golts agreed that a shortage of contract soldiers could drive this situation. Originally, military reformers envisioned creating 10-15 units for permanent combat readiness, made up primarily of contracts in order to be deployed anywhere in the CIS:
“But these were intended for short-term conflict, for example, repelling an invasion of the Taliban in Central Asian. The problems emerged when the ongoing operation in Rostov Region has dragged on almost a half year and requires regular rotation.”
Golts said the spreading news of funerals of contract soldiers in the provinces may reduce the numbers of those willing to sign contracts to serve in the army. At least 265 Russian soldiers have been confirmed to date as killed in Ukraine, and many more missing may be held as POWs or dead as well.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The Interfax news agency reports
that inflation in Russia this January has reached a rate of 3.9%. Last
month’s increase in consumer prices was the the highest since February
January’s inflation rate significantly exceeds the predictions of
both independent analysts and Rosstat, Russia’s federal statistics
monitor. Experts polled by Interfax and Reuters predicted, on average, a price increase of 2.2–2.6%,
while Rosstat predicted an inflation rate of 3%. For comparison, the
inflation rate in January 2014 was 0.6%, or 6.5 times lower than it is
In annual terms, inflation in January rose to 15%, which is the
highest the inflation rate has been in Russia since September 2008. This
inflation rate has reached the key interest rate set by the Central
Bank of Russia, which last Friday unexpectedly lowered it
from 17% to 15%. The Central Bank originally raised the key rate to 17%
from 10.5% in December of last year as a response to the sharp
devaluation of the ruble.
Russia’s currency has been greatly depreciating since spring of 2014,
when 1 US dollar was worth approximately 35 rubles. The biggest drop in
ruble’s value happened on 15 December, when 1 US dollar reached a peak
of approximately 79 rubles. Since then, the ruble’s exchange rate has
stabilized somewhat (the exchange rate for today is 66.35 rubles for 1
US dollar), but the currency is still losing value. Experts explain the depreciation of ruble by pointing to the decrease in oil prices and Western sanctions against Russia’s economy.
— Anton Melnikov
Novaya Gazeta reported yesterday, February 4, that President Vladimir Putin filed a draft law at the State Duma on the procedure for NGOs to leave the registry of “foreign agents” under a law he imposed in 2012 to tackle civic organizations he viewed as threatening that received foreign funding and engaged in vaguely-defined “political activities.”
Leaving aside the issue of the president sending draft laws to the parliament instead of the reverse — this is how Russia’s system works — it should be noted that Putin’s act is not any kind of liberalization of this harsh law.
The headline alone — which many Russian news outlets ran yesterday and today — when re-tweeted — sounds like Putin may be softening his stance. He’s not.
What the law specifies is merely the procedure for getting off the list — since NGOs complained that while they could be put on it — by self-registering or having the Justice Ministry put them on forcibly — they weren’t given an “off-ramp.”
In July 2014, five organizations including Memorial Human Rights Center, AGORA, an association of civic associations and Public Verdict, another human rights group, found themselves put on the list. Since then others such as Soldier’s Mothers of St. Petersburg have been put on despite objections or have self-declared, bringing the total to 30.
Until now, organizations put on the list, such as the Soldier’s Mothers, have objected in judicial appeals to placement on it even after they end foreign funding. This objection through the courts hasn’t worked — evidently authorities can say they cannot use this point as a means of prevention or removal without a legal procedure.
Removal is indeed implied by the list itself, which has two columns “entry to registry” and “removal from registry.” In fact, the existence of the two columns on the Justice Ministry site indicates that any group that manages to get off the list still retains the stigma of having once been put on it by being in the “removed” list.
Putin’s draft law provides for an NGO to be removed from the list if, within a period of one year, they have not received foreign funding and/or have not taken part in “political activity” (translation by The Interpreter):
In such cases, the authorized federal body of executive authority makes a decision in no less than three months from the day of receipt from an NGO regarding removal from the register of non-commercial organizations fulfilling the function of foreign agent.
This language sounds like the federal body, i.e. the Justice Ministry, still has discretion to keep the NGO on the list, but it’s not clear how it will be enforced. Laws usually have instructions about how ministries are to fulfill them and this remains to be seen.
The law also provides an NGO an opportunity to quit the list if they
return any foreign funding they have already received within three
months after getting the designation.
Putin said last year that the law needed “improvement” after numerous lawyers complained about it, and attempts were made to challenge it in courts. At the time, Yelena Topoleva-Soldunova, head of a commission in Putin’s own Presidential Council for Human Rights, proposed that the law be suspended. Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov had also said once that it was impossible to define “political activity,” Novaya Gazeta noted. Konovalov later said, however, he would have other agencies such as the prosecutor’s office do that for him, and that is how it has worked in some cases.
This improvement does not mean that the law will be removed, nor has “political activity” been more narrowly defined. It remains to be seen now after the law is passed — it must go through three readings — whether the groups that stopped their foreign funding to get off the list will be let go.
Meanwhile, authorities rushed to inspect Moscow Helsinki Group, which had already ceased foreign funding last year. The organization will attempt to use this argumentation to have the harassment stopped.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The prosecutor’s office of Chechnya has not found any evidence of violation of the law in the statements made by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has called for the homes of terrorists to be burned down, Novaya Gazeta reports.
After an attack by the terrorist group Caucasus Emigrates on the Press House and a school building in Grozny in December in which 17 police and 11 terrorists were killed in a gunfight, Kadyrov called for the destruction of the homes of the relatives of the attackers. Among the policemen killed was his own relative.
More than a dozen homes were set ablaze in various villages, and families forced to flee from Chechnya; some even went to Ukraine, seeking asylum.
Igor Kalyapin, a lawyer who heads the Russian Committee Against Torture and the Joint Mobile Group of Russian human rights defenders, filed a complaint about Kadyrov’s orders, which were a form of collective punishment.
He received an answer to his complaint to the prosecutor’s office (translation by The Interpreter):
It has been established that in the appeals cited in the mass media, there were no calls to commit any crimes, but expression of opinion about the negative consequences that can happen regarding relatives of those who take part in illegal militant formations, if the information about their support of the criminal activity of the latter will be confirmed.
In December, Kalyapin’s organization suffered the torching of their own office and brief detention of their employees after they protested Kadyrov’s reprisals.
In a post on the web site of members of the Presidential Council for Human Rights, Kalyapin said he plans to keep appealing the Chechen authorities’ approvals of the house-burnings:
Additionally, on the basis of my statement to the Investigative Committee to addressed to Aleksandr Bastrykin, the Main Investigative Division of the RF Investigative Committee for the North Caucasus Federal District will conduct an investigation of due process. There are two statements providing a reason for this, mine and that of Ludmila Mikhailovna Alexeyeva. The inspection will be conducted both regarding the circumstances of Kadyrov’s statements and the circumstances of the burning of homes in Chechnya, as well as the fact of the burning of the Joint Mobile Group of human rights defenders in Grozny.
This week, the Moscow Helsinki Group, which Alexeyeva has led for many years, was unexpectedly subjected to a prosecutor’s inspection on the grounds that the organization should be designated a “foreign agent” under the law requiring NGOs that receive funds from abroad and also engage in unspecific “political” activity must register as such agents. The office director has objected that the group has ceased receiving foreign funding and is attempting to address the Justice Ministry’s concerns.
Slon has filmed some of the burnt homes in the village of Yandi on December 6, 2014: