Russia Update: Five Chechens Reportedly Arrested in France on Suspicion of Terrorism

January 20, 2015
An estimated million Muslims held a rally in Grozny's central square on January 19, 2014 to protest cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. Photo by EPA

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 story The Guild War – How Should Journalists Treat Russian State Propagandists? and special features ‘Managed Spring’: How Moscow Parted Easily with the ‘Novorossiya’ Leaders, Putin ‘The Imperialist’ A Runner-Up For Time’s ‘Person of the Year’ and It’s Not Just Oil and Sanctions Killing Russia’s Economy, It’s Putin.

Five Chechen immigrants, one of whom is an Austrian citizen, have been arrested in France on suspicions of preparing a terrorist attack, following the killing of 17 people by terrorists in Paris in the last week.

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Novaya Gazeta Loses Court Challenge to Russian State Censor

Rights in Russia reports that an effort by Novaya Gazeta, the independent newspaper and news site, has lost its court case to challenge Roskomnadzor, the state censor.

Novaya Gazeta was handed a warning last year for an article by Yulia Latynina, “If We Are Not the West, Then Who Are We?“, published on September 10, 2014.

The court rejected Novaya Gazeta’‘s defense which said Latynina’s article doesn’t contain any extremist material and does not go beyond the scope of academic debate.

SOVA Center, an organization that monitors extremism in Russia, said they found Roskomnadzor’s warning unlawful because they never explained exactly what was “extremist” about Latynina’s work.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that when making this analysis, Sova felt it still had to explain that they did not believe Latynina’s “strident thesis” to be “beyond question.”

Latynina, a journalist as well as a fiction writer, has been a popular presenter and columnist at both Ekho Moskvy and Novaya Gazeta and other papers long known for her controversial articles

In the article in question, Latynina analyzes the increasing use of the “ancient Rus'” theme in everything from state propaganda to advertising and makes a rather unflattering portrait of Russia today by contrast with the West (translation by The Interpreter)

It was Peter the Great who inoculated the Russian wilding with the European cultural strain, or to be more accurate, re-inoculated, since the first immunization was made by the Vikings, but then the Tatars chopped down the tree almost at the root. That’s how Russia would have grown after the Tatars — with drunkenness, with the Oprichina [Tsar’s secret police], with ignorance, with the dance of Fedka Basmanov before the tsar, whose boots everyone kisses until he chops off their heads, and with the endless certitude in ignorance and hypocrisy of one’s own superiority, if it had not been for Peter.

A reference to history might have been forgiven, even if not in the official canon, but Latynina applied this assessment of Russian culture to the present — hence it was deemed “extremism,” which, as Roskomnadzor saw it, using the language of the law, is “exceptionalism, superiority or inferiority of a person on the basis of their social, racial, national, religious or linguistic affiliation, as well as a public and knowingly false accusation against a person holding public office.” As Latynina writes:

Under the slogan of “Return to great Russian culture” in a society
rapidly turning fascist, we are told to consider Russian crudeness,
drunkenness and lack of culture as primordial. It is instilled in us
that what is primordially Russian is drinking, chopping off heads and
taking bribes. And all the rest is supposedly the rotten West.

there is nothing “primordially Russian” in brutality and bloodshed.
It’s simply wildness which is peculiar to the roots of any civilization.
Henry the VIII chopped off the heads of his wives, but David Cameron
would hardly do the same and refer to “primordial British traditions.”
All successful civilizations pass through bestiality and barbarianism.
But not a single successful civilization takes it into their head to
make bestiality a model. Only fascism would get this idea.

Novaya Gazeta plans to appeal the court decision.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Moscow Art Activists Who ‘Exorcized’ Lenin Get 10 Days in Jail
Russian performance artists who threw holy water on Lenin’s Tomb yesterday, January 19, have been sentenced to 10 days of jail, Yod News reports.

Oleg Basov and Yevgeny Avilov of the art collective Blue Horseman said they were “exorcizing” Lenin.

The group was formed in St. Petersburg in 2013 and describes its work as “petty bourgeois sots-art,” which was a Soviet spin-off of pop art. Other actions include eating 100-ruble bank notes at the Bank  of Russia and posing as dead people on the Ukrainian flag at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers.

Many Russians have demonstrated on Red Square over the years for all kinds of causes, but this action seems to be the first time that protesters actually attacked Lenin’s Tomb, a sacred state object. Russians are still divided on whether Lenin should be given “a decent Christian burial” or kept on display. In 2013, renovation was completed on the tomb, which seemed to indicate that the forces for Lenin were prevailing. President Vladimir Putin announced at that time that the body would stay, and compared the preservation of Lenin to the custom of keeping saints’ relics in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Putin Believes He Has Deliberately Been Left Out of Auschwitz Commemoration

Putin will not be traveling to an event on January 27 in Poland to commemorate
the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazis’ concentration camp
Auschwitz, reported.

organizers of the event are believed by Moscow to have deliberately not
invited heads of state so that they would not have to invite Putin,

This year, not the government of Poland but the
leadership of the Auschwitz-Berkanau Memorial Museum have issued a
general invitation to all leaders of European countries and the US,
without indicating specific names. Russia’s envoy to Poland, Ambassador
Sergei Andreyev will attend the ceremony on behalf of Russia.

President Barack Obama will not attend, but has organized a delegation which has been announced on the White House web site
Jacob J. Lew, Secretary of the Department of Treasury, will lead the

Nicholas Dean, Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues of the Department of
State is also included along with other officials responsible for
European and religious affairs, and two Holocaust survivors.

French President Francois Holland, Austrian President Heinz Fischer and German President Joachim Gauck will all attend.

Russian Parliament Plans Law to Ban ‘Undesirable’ Foreign Organizations

Meduza reports
that a new law to create a list of banned “undesirable” foreign organizations has been passed in the first reading, which means it still
has to get through the second and third readings before being signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.

Russian laws are often
drafted in the presidential administration and move as if on a conveyor
belt to the docile parliament, but they can also originate in various
interest groups and factions who are jockeying for position, as Moscow Times recently explained.

This law would
require first a decision of the Prosecutor General’s Office and the
Ministry of Justice that determined an organization was “not desirable”
before it could be included in the “banned” list. This would mean such
organizations could not operate on Russian territory or distribute their
materials, including over the Internet.

Under the draft law, an
organization found to be “undesirable” will be fined 20,000 rubles (US
$305), and after already being branded with that designation, its
members could face up to 8 years in prison.

The law was introduced in November 2014 by Aleksandr Tarnovsky, the
deputy head of the State Duma Committee on Civic Organizations, and
Anton Ishchenko, a member of the ill-named Liberal Democratic Party of
Russia headed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, BBC Russian Service reports.

There is already a “Foreign Agents” law under which any group that
receives grants from abroad and engages in vaguely-defined “political
activity” can be placed under further regulation and scrutiny. This has
led some to close.

The new law would broaden the scope behind foreign
organizations with grantees in Russia, to any foreign organization that
fell afoul of arbitrary state definitions of what is “undesirable.”

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russian Conservative Appointed as Deputy Head of Bank of Russia has a profile today of Aleksandr Torshin, the Russian senator from Mari-El who has been named state secretary and deputy chairman of the Central Bank of Russia.

With the drop in the price of oil and the ruble crash, President Vladimir Putin has decided to bring in a figure who was last involved significantly in credit and monetary policy more than 15 years ago but is now associated with the championing of conservative state ideals. He is now the only member of United Russia, the ruling party, in the bank’s management.

Torshin is remembered most of all for heading the parliamentary commission to investigate the terrorist hostage crisis in Beslan in which 385 were killed, mainly children. Critics faulted Russian riot troops who refused to negotiate after initial successes by Ingushetia’s former president Ruslan Aushev in getting out some pregnant women and infants. They stormed the building, killing many of the hostages. So when Torshin’s commission produced a report in 2005 blaming Ingushetia’s law-enforcers and not containing any criticism of federal troops, there was a great deal of dismay and anger, especially from survivors.

“The terrorist act in Beslan mobilized the resources of the state that enabled the turning of the tide for the better in the battle against terrorism,” Torshin said in 2006.

Torshin in Beslan.

Meduza has collected a number of other details from Torshin’s career:

– He presided over a toughening of the criminal code to crack own on terrorism, and also urged that pedophiles be “chemically castrated” — a move that was not approved.

–He pushed for life sentences for drug dealers and severe punishment for “spice” sellers.

– He advocated for the right to carry a weapon, a position that has little support in Russia (he’s a life-time member of the National Rifle Association);

– He has been an outspoken critic of Ukraine’s Maidan movement, and has described the election of Viktor Yanukovych as “fair” and not marred by fraud. “I don’t understand those who call Maidan a peaceful protest, but the advocates of federalization terrorists and separatists,” he said in an interview.

– He defended the Federation Council’s authorization for President Putin to send Russian troops in Ukraine.

The one qualification Torshin doesn’t have is recent experience on economic issues, since he’s mainly been preoccupied with cracking down on terrorists and drug dealers. In 2013, he criticized the Central Bank for high interest rates for refinancing mortgages, and believed that lowering these rates below the inflation rate would help grow the economy. Meduza quotes him as saying (translation by The Interpreter):

“Current legislation defines the chief purpose of the activity of the Bank of Russia is to secure the stability of the national payment system. And not to oblige the Central Bank to be concerned about the development of the economy and to support the economic policy of the government. But that is what is extremely important to do now.”

Torshin also welcome the introduction of a sign for the ruble, calling it “historic,” and praised his future boss, Elvira Nabiullina, head of the Central Bank.

Torshin is also well-known on Twitter, with 23,000 followers.

He uses the account to post several dozen tweets a day, links to news, congratulations on religious holidays and the anniversaries of various events. The feed is chock-full of cat pictures and religious greetings, but also has some thinly-veiled anti-Ukrainian sentiment:

Translation: Good night, friends!
Translation: Happy Baptist Cathedral and St. John the Baptist Day!

Translation: I’m watching the biathalon race. Well, and the last names:
the Ukrainian Zhirny, the Slovenian — Fak, imagine! Perhaps an 18+ mark
should go on this. Children are watching.

“Zhirny” is a Russian word that means “fat.”

is a big supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church, and one of the
authors of the Orthodox publication “Rus Derzhavnaya” [Rus’ Supreme, a
term using the ancient name for Russia–The Interpreter]. In 2012, he was famous for
saying “Enough blasphemizing!” about Pussy Riot, and fulminating against evil:

“Against us
there are forces fighting that are hidden, cunning and systemic, with
the help of the newest network technologies. Who are they? They are
various forces, but the worst is that we are fighting ourselves! The
Russian Orthodox Church opposes negative processes occurring in society.
Therefore it is not surprising that it has become an object of massive
attack, the aim of which is to discredit this most important
institution. Nothing more nor less is at stake than the fate of Russia.”

Meduza doesn’t comment on Torshin’s actual political affiliations beyond mentioning that he is in United Russia — the vehicle for Putin’s re-election.

This tweet shows him posing at a conference with Sergei Baburin, one of the most prominent Russian nationalists, vice speaker of the State Duma, leader of the Narodnaya Volya [Popular Will] Party of National Revival and member of the parliamentary Rodina [Motherland] bloc.

Translation: Sergei Nikolayevich Baburin. Mercury Club

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

4 Chechen Immigrants and 1 Austrian Citizen Accused of Preparing Terrorist Attack in Vienna

Five Chechens have reportedly been arrested in France on suspicion of terrorism, AFP and The Local report.

Five people suspected of plotting to carry out an attack in
France were arrested last night in southern France, the local prosecutor
Yvon Calvet announced on Tuesday.

Four of
the men aging from 24 to 37-years-old were held in the town
of Saint-Jean-de-Vedas, near Montpellier and one was picked up in
Béziers, around 70km away.

The five
suspects, Russian nationals from Chechnya, were placed in custody in
Béziers and their homes have been searched, the prosecutor said.

The prosecutor said certain “products” had been recovered during their searches, without giving further details.

According to the regional newspaper Midi Libre, “a cache of explosives was discovered not far from the Sauclières stadium.” 

One of those arrested lives in Béziers and another “probably” in the Mediterranean city of Montpellier, said the prosecutor.

Investigators are trying to find the addresses of three other individuals held in custody.

For some reason, Le Monde has removed this story from their web site after tweeting it.

Translation: Five Russians suspected of planning an attack arrested in Beziers

But other press have now published quotations from the prosecutor so it appears to be valid.

French TV has reported that five Chechens, one of whom has Austrian citizenship, were arrested and were preparing a terrorist attack in Austria.

Both Russian state and independent media have avidly covered the story, but have not supplied any new details.

The arrests follow weeks of high alert since the terrorist attacks on
the French cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo and another attack at the same
time of a kosher deli, killing a total of 17 people.

In 2013, two brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnayev were arrested and charged with bombing the Boston Marathon. Tamerlan was killed in a gunfight with Boston police, and Dzhokhar, wounded, was eventually captured and is now on trial. The Tsarnaevs’ father is Chechen and their mother Avar, and they lived at various times in Dagestan and Kyrgyzstan before emigrating to the US. The terrorist attack led the FBI to repeatedly question a number of Chechens in the diaspora, numbering several hundred in the US.

There are an estimated 70,000 Chechens in Europe. Some Chechens have been found fighting in the war in Syria. 

In 2009, an outspoken critic of Kadyrov who had supplied testimony on human rights violations to the European Court of Human Rights was gunned down in Vienna, Austria, an assassination which some suspected was initiated by Moscow intelligence or Kadyrov’s secret police.

The BBC reports
that “European states have agreed to launch anti-terror “projects” with
Muslim-majority nations and improve Arabic skills” following the
terrorist attacks, so likely more scrutiny will be applied to Chechen immigrants.

In recent years, Chechens have gone to Europe in search of work due to
discrimination in Russia. Many tens of thousands fled to neighboring and EU countries due to armed conflict in the 1990s in which
an estimated 200,000 civilians lost their lives from Russian bombing.

President Vladimir Putin installed Ramzan Kadyrov as president of
the Chechen Republic following the assassination of his father in 2004.
Since then he has launched a brutal crackdown on any remaining
insurgents and their relatives and also on human rights activists,
lawyers and journalists who covered his massive human rights violations.

Unlike neighboring Dagestan, where Russian forces have
assassinated more than 160 terrorists in the last year in police sweeps,
Chechnya has been relatively quiet, although in December, members of
the terrorist group Caucasus Emirate took over the Press House in the
center of Grozny, leading to a firefight in which 11 terrorists and 18
policemen were killed, including a relative of Kadyrov’s. Kadyrov retaliated by ordering the homes of the terrorists’ relatives to be burned down, and also the offices of human rights lawyers who protested the collective punishment.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick