Vladimir Pribylovsky, an independent historian and political commentator and co-author with Yuri Felshtinsky of The Corporation: Russia and the KGB in the Age of President Putin, was found dead in his apartment today by his son, Mikhail Pribylovsky.
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.
–The Non-Hybrid War
–Kashin Explains His âLetter to Leadersâ on âFontanka Officeâ
–TV Rain Interviews Volunteer Fighter Back from Donbass
–âI Was on Active Dutyâ: Interview with Captured GRU Officer Aleksandrov
Opposition activist Leonid Volkov is on trial today in Novosibirsk in a contrived case where authorities have accused him of “blocking the media” for refusing to give an interview to LifeNews, Novaya Gazeta reported.
The prosecutor has taken advantage of a Yeltsin-era offense under Art. 144, section 3 of the Criminal Code, “hindering the lawful professional activity of a journalist with the use of force and damage of property” in order to turn the tables on opposition’s efforts to monitor elections.
Volkov, who once served as Alexei Navalny’s campaign manager when he won nearly 30% of the vote in the Moscow mayoral elections, could face imprisonment for up to six years in a labor colony for the alleged offenses. Postupinsky commented that he didn’t want “a real sentence” for Volkov.
Volkov tweeted a picture of himself with his lawyer and a link to a blog post:
Translation: The case of the microphone: the interrogation of the plaintiff Postupinsky.
A Novaya Gazeta photo of the same scene showed that he was in a cage, which is the custom with defendants in Russian criminal cases.
He pointed out the contradictions in Postupinsky’s testimony in a brief summary:
“Volkov didn’t grab me by the hand, he did. He grabbed me by the right hand, by the left. Volkov put a bruise on my wrist, on my elbow. I didn’t threaten Volkov, only promised to break his arm. The microphone was working, not working, at first was working, then not working. The microphone was new, it was used. There were no damages on the wind guard, there was a hole from a cigarette. I showed the bruise to Kirsanova, I didn’t show it to Kirsanova, I showed it to Pyatinok, I didn’t show it to anyone. All my testimonies are true in full and I do not reject any of my words.”
As Zotova noted, LifeNews‘ own video from the day show activists from the extremist National Liberation Movement (NOD) picketing Parnas’ headquarters and throwing eggs at Alexei Navalny and other opposition activists. Volkov is shown grabbing the microphone; as he later explained, he was trying to prevent the reporter from approaching Navalny, who was being showered with eggs. Postupinsky can be heard on the video, “What, should I break your hand? Let my micrpohone go,” whereupon Volkov replied, “This is not a microphone, but shit.”
At the trial, Postupinsky didn’t deny he made the comment about breaking Volkov’s hand but said he meant it to “calm him down.” He also said he “no longer worked at LifeNews,” but the circumstances of his employment and departure were not explained.
Volkov asked how Postupinsky had learned about the press conference, and Postupinsky said he had seen a notice on Parnas’ VKontakte page. But as Volkov explained, the notice was for a press conference the following day, July 18; Postupinsky came a day earlier, on July 17, he believed, in order to film the NOD attack.
Postupinsky claimed that he found the microphone to be damaged the next day, but a forensics analysis found that the microphone was worn, but in working order.
He then filed a complaint on September 8, weeks after the incident, that his finger was bruised.
At the trial, when the judge asked him to show the place where he was bruised, he said it was above his elbow, although as Vladimir Bandura, Volkov’s lawyer countered, in his original testimony he said the bruise was “in the area of his forearm near his wrist.” Volkov pointed out that only after forensics found the microphone wasn’t broken on September 1 did Postupinsky come up with the story of his bruised arm on September 8.
The defense also pointed to Postupinsky’s police deposition in July which he said “No harm to my health was caused, only the equipment suffered,” which he said in court — to the laughter of the audience — was true at the time.
Pavel Chikov, a human rights lawyer, said that the criminal code article about hindrance of the media, which intended to protect journalists, was rarely used; there were only two sentences issued under it in the last five years.
LifeNews is a pro-Kremlin channel close to police and intelligence which is often first at the scene of an incident.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said at the seventh annual Gaidar Forum today:
“In the current difficult conditions, we have to speak of a very economical, hard budget policy so as not to slide into a high rate of deficit and not slide into more volumes of debt.”
He said Russia’s cost of borrowing was too high now and the budget had to be changed.
“If we don’t do this, the same thing will happen as in 1998-1999, when the public, through inflation, will pay for what we didn’t do within the framework of bringing the budget into accordance with the new realities.”
At the Gaidar Forum today, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Russia had to prepare for the worst:
“The accumulated reserves enable the balancing of the budget for the current year. But if the prices of oil will go on falling, the parameters of the budget will require correction. This must be understand, it is necessary to prepare for the worst.”
Finally at a government meeting today, President Vladimir Putin himself called on government agencies to be ready “for any development of the situation,” Gazeta.ru reported.
“I want to draw your attention to the fact that the situation is changing in the markets,” he said, saying he had discussed the situation with Medvedev.
“We must be prepared for any development of the situation, to have scenarios for the development of the Russian economy for any option.”
Even with these dire pronouncements, of all the leaders, Putin still has exhibited a tendency to try to make lemonade out of lemons. In his interview with Bild this week, he said the fall in oil prices was actually a healthy corrective for the Russian economy:
“Everything can be bought for petrodollars. And when the income from them is high, then there is a de-stimulation of our own development, especially in the high-tech branches of industry.” He said Russia still had a high level of reserves and that he expected to “emerge to stabilization and a rise in the economy.”
Meanwhile Aleksei Kudrin, former minister of finance, called for uniting Russia’s Reserve Fund, currently at 3.93 trillion rubles and the Fund for National Welfare, currently at 4.78 trillion rubles or a total of $113 billion Gazeta.ru and RIA Novosti reported.
“Today there is practically no difference, second, we have problems already starting with the pension system at full growth. They [the funds] are managed practically the same, with the exception of a small part which can be transferred to some institutions for developments. The Reserve Fund and the Fund for National Welfare should be merged since the challenges which we have in the coming two to three years exist…and they must be managed with a unified instrument.”
It’s important to remember that even before the war in Ukraine, Western sanctions and the fall in the price of oil, Russia was headed for trouble due to Putin’s populistic promises after his election in 2011 and heavy deficit spending in Russia’s region.
Last February, Vyacheslav Volodin, deputy head of administration, convened a three-day conference with Russia’s provincial governors and released a report that was part a political rally stressing patriotic — and anti-Western — themes and partly an anti-crisis plan
At that time 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.
Vedomosti had an even more frank report on Kudrin’s remarks than Gazeta.ru, noting that of three structural faults of the Russian economy now — the issue of state versus private property, lack of competitiveness and efficiency with the dependency on oil, and social welfare, the third issue would prove to be the most explosive.
The budget has no capacity to raise social support, but its maintenance at the current level will mean a rise in poverty, Kudrin stated.
“I am for a socially-oriented state. Now we are saying that we will fulfill all the social obligations, but at the same time, the number of poor people will grow.” He characterized the claims the government was making of such a “social orientation” to be “populistic slogans.”
In European countries, the GDP is twice the level of Russia’s, although the tax rate is somewhat higher; Russia would have to have the same kind of growth to increase the tax burden — and that means burdening business, which has already had to cope with the ruble crash and bans on imports. The pension age would have to be raised even further.
Kudrin cited some stark figures based on official statistics: the number of people below the poverty level in 2016 was 14.1% of the population versus 12.6% for the previous years, as people saw their real incomes drop. While the indexing of wages to inflation is built into Russian law, as parliamentarian Olga Batalina pointed out in the meeting, the issue is the amount it will be set at. The government plans to reduce 10% more expenditures and may refrain from indexation, said Vedomosti.
Russians are already seeing the practical result of existing inflation rates in their food basket; the price of cucumbers has risen 9.2%, tomatoes, 3.1%, eggs 0.8% and sugar 0.4%.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Three Russian citizens have been arrested in Turkey, reportedly on suspicion of links to ISIS.
The news follows yesterday’s bombing in Istanbul which killed 10 people and has been blamed on an ISIS suicide bomber.
According to Turkey’s Dogan News Agency, the three Russian citizens were arrested in the Antalya province, on the Mediterranean coast. Six other people were arrested and “large numbers of organisational documents” were also reportedly seized in the police raid.
The Russian consulate in Antalya confirmed the arrests, Interfax reports, but complained that the Turkish authorities have refused the detainees any contact with the Russian authorities.
A source in an unnamed government agency told Interfax later today that one of the Russians arrested had previously been sought by law enforcement officers in his homeland and had even been placed on an international watch list.
The other two, the source claimed, had left Russia of their own accord several years ago “with the stated aim of studying in a Middle-Eastern state.”
— Pierre Vaux
The ruble also rallied for the first time in more than a week, but analysts are warning that the rally is likely to be short-lived. Bloomberg reports:
The currency gained 1.3 percent to 76.09 against the dollar by 3:47 p.m. in Moscow, the most on a closing basis since Dec. 23, as Brent crude climbed 2.2 percent to $31.55 a barrel. Bonds rose, with the yield on five-year government notes declining six basis points from a three-month high to 10.54 percent.
According to Zenrus.ru, which is monitoring both the ruble and Brent Crude in real time, the ruble is exchanging at 76.03 to a dollar and 82.45 to a euro — bad, but an improvement over yesterday. Here is a screen grab taken moments ago:
But as we discussed at length yesterday, the Russian government has cut its spending for 2016 and many analysts expect the ruble — and the price of oil — to continue to tumble, perhaps even approaching $20 a barrel.
The energy giant BP has just announced that it is cutting 600 jobs from its operations in the North Sea and will trim more than 4,000 staff members globally. This follows decades of a “drill baby, drill” attitude taken by certain politicians and oil companies that saw a large expansion in energy projects. Now, many future projects are on hold, but since investments were made a decade or more ago, energy production is expected to remain higher than demand for the foreseeable future. The Week reports:
Brendan Warn, senior oil and gas analyst at BMO Capital Markets, said the increase in production was only a result of investment decisions taken years before prices plunged and that as they have fallen, investment in new wells has been withdrawn. This lag means “North Sea oil and gas production news headlines will be horrendous in the 2017-20 time period”.
The Week continues by saying that some are predicting oil prices to drop to $16 — or even $10 — per barrel:
Oil prices have fallen sharply again – and the latest range of investment bank forecasts has them dropping as low as $10 a barrel before finally bouncing back.
Turmoil on the Chinese markets, a strong dollar and more evidence of global supply remaining high despite an already heavily overstocked market prompted oil to fall sharply yesterday to a 12-year low. International benchmark Brent crude touched a low of $30.43 a barrel before steadying – and it had pared losses to a little below $30.90 this morning in London.
At its nadir, overnight oil fell close to 8 per cent from where it had been in London earlier in the day.
There are many variables that could change the dynamic and stabilize oil prices, or even make them fall further. But what’s important is that it’s nearly impossible to see how oil prices, or the ruble, could hold significant rallies in the foreseeable future.
For Russia watchers, then, the questions are these: How long will the storm last, will Russia weather it, and will Putin make bold and potentially dangerous geopolitical moves out of desperation in order to change his fortunes or distract from his domestic economic problems?
— James Miller
His son had not heard from him in three days and went to check on him and found his body. He had no details on the cause of death, which he said would be reported after an autopsy is completed.
The state-owned TASS news agency reported that there were no signs of violence, citing a source in law-enforcement (translation by The Interpreter):
The body of Pribylovsky was discovered today without outward signs of a violent death at 01:15 am Moscow time in the apartment at no. 40, Dubinskaya Street. The cause of death is being determined.
The suddenness of his death and the subject matter of his research has prompted speculation that he may have been murdered. Blogger Andrei Malgin who was forced to leave Russia, said in a post on LiveJournal today:
“I don’t know the circumstances, but I am certain he was murdered. He would have turned 60 on March 6.”
Pribylovsky was fired from Kommersant Vlast last year, where he had a daily column called “Resignations and Appointments,” supposedly due to a “reorganization” and “low ratings” of his column, but colleagues believed it was due to censorship. Pribylovsky responded sardonically on his Facebook page.
Translation by The Interpreter:
“Of course the rating of the column was low since my efforts to reduce its (the rubric’s) super-seriousness with an ironical tone, and to dilute it with curiosities or episodes ‘containing signs of corruption’ were cut off at the root. Even citations from Wikipedia, about a deputy from United Russia who was killed in 2013, a doctor of law (Gadzhi Makhachev) who had served 3 years in prison on three criminal charges — for rape, theft and heavy bodily damage — were cut out from my [column] during editing.”
Currently “Vladimir Pribylovsky” is a topic trending on Moscow Twitter.
One curious incident we could note is that several days ago, we noticed that a duplicate account with the name “Vladimir Pribylovsky” had been made on Facebook on December 22. We sent a friendship request — as did some 200 other friends — and asked whether this was really his account. While the friendship request was accepted, no answer to our question was received. The last posts on this account were January 8, about the death of the GRU chief Igor Svergun and a post asking why Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s wife had not been seen in public.
Meanwhile, Pribylovsky’s, last posts on the account known to be his were dated December 21 about State Duma members’ resistance to the state budget; the NKVD’s arrest and execution of people in order to seize their apartments, and a question about why there were so many explosions in Russia lately. His last post on his LiveJournal blog was December 22, 2015, about the Magnitsky case.
Pribylovsky was born in Moscow and educated in Chistopol, Tatarstan and graduated from the history department of Moscow State University. He first became involved in dissident activity in 1979 as he was close to the “Young Socialists” group who published the samizdat journal Levy Povorot (Left Turn) for which they were arrested. He was also involved in the nyeformaly (informal) movement and the Club of Social Initiatives in the 1980s and together with Sergei Mitrokhin, now in the Yabloko party, Vyacheslav Igrunov, now a Duma depty and others founded the Moscow Public Bureau for Information Exchange (M-BIO) to distribute independent reports on history and current events.
For many years he worked for Panorama, the independent research center and then authored a series of books on political movements and parties in Russia as well as maintained the site Anti-Kompromat.ru, which maintained a mirror presence after it was closed. (The site is currently not working but a Google cache version can be accessed.) Pribylovsky was also the translator of George Orwell’s Animal Farm into Russian, published both in Russia and the US.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick