LIVE UPDATES: President Putin has signed off on a package of amendments granting the authorities dramatically increased powers of surveillance and prosecution against so-called extremists.
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.
Recent Analysis and Translations:
– NATO Got Nothing From Conceding To Russia In the Past, Why Should It Cave To The Kremlin Now?
– Who is Hacking the Russian Opposition and State Media Officials — and How?
– Does it Matter if the Russian Opposition Stays United?
As with all Russian laws in Russia’s civil law tradition, every law is accompanied with a set of “normative acts” or instructions for how to implement it, enabling bureaucrats, not judges, to interpret them.
In other words, not only does the law itself provide for significant erosion of privacy and freedom, including civil liberties under the Russian constitution, the bureaucratic instructions proliferating in connection with the law create a field day for arbitrariness and confusion with only a faint hope for leniency.
While Putin’s mandate involves a certain delay in the impact of the law, the reports expected later this year will likely contain little relief for critics’ concerns.
Snowden is known for mainly criticizing Western governments and companies for compromising user privacy, but has rarely commented on the more severe problem of surveillance in Russia.
“Let’s be frank. Snowden did share intelligence. This is what security services do. If there’s a possibility to get information, they will get it.”
Snowden’s lawyer and supporters denied the claim, saying he had no files with him when he arrived at Moscow’s Sheremeytovo Airport in June 2013. In seeking asylum in China, Germany, and other countries, Snowden offered to turn over information about US spying on those countries, and it is possible a similar offer was made to Russia.
A key problem with monitoring the impact of the law is that the independent press has suffered significant blows lately with the firing of more independent editors and installation of those believed to be more loyal to the Kremlin, as occurred with RBC and Gazeta this week.
Human rights groups have also been whittled down with the imposition of the “foreign agents” law requiring them to register assistance from abroad if they engage in vaguely-defined “political” activities.
There has been a rash of cases of users themselves handed fines and even prison sentences for their own work or reposting objectionable comments by others.
While there is considerable criticism of the law, it appears that with the help of Yarovaya, who has reportedly never been elected but appointed, Putin has gained — with the ominous new National Guard — the tools to consolidate and harshen his authoritarian rule.
Translation: The stocks of Russian cell operators fell after the signing of the Yarovaya law.
The picture used in the tweet is a Russian meme based on a clip from a Russian state TV interview with Justus Walker, an American dairy farmer who came to Siberia, known as the “Happy Dairy Farmer,” in which he extols the advantages to Russia’s food sanctions on the West: now Russians will be forced to buy his cheese, “Because your Italian cheese won’t exist.”
Translation: What the implementation of the Yarovaya law will lead to (a conspiracy theory post).
Volkov recounts a theory that the Yarovaya law may actually be an attempt to introduce white lists of approved sites — something conservatives have repeatedly tried to and failed — because it will be a way for operators to reduce the load of retained content.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Interfax reports that Aleksandr Poteyev, a former Russian intelligence officer who revealed the names of Russian sleeper agents operating in the USA, has died.
Poteyev, who was reported to have been recruited by the CIA in the 1990s, revealed a network of so-called “illegals” — Russian sleeper agents operating under false, foreign identities in the United States.
The most notorious of the ten agents was Anna Chapman, who was feted on her return to Russia and became a celebrity.
The Guardian‘s Shaun Walker recently interviewed the children of two other “illegals,” Andrei Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova, who had posed as Canadians Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley:
The day we discovered our parents were Russian spies
Tim Foley turned 20 on 27 June 2010. To celebrate, his parents took him and his younger brother Alex out for lunch at an Indian restaurant not far from their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Both brothers were born in Canada, but for the past decade the family had lived in the US.
It is uncertain if Poteyev was the sole reason the “illegals” were identified, or when he disclosed the information.
According to some reports, he was the deputy director of ‘Department S’ within the SVR — Russia’s foreign intelligence service. The department oversaw the work of sleeper agents within the USA.
The FBI had begun investigating ‘Tracey Foley’ as far back as 2001, but Poteyev fled Russia just a few days before the arrests were made in 2010, sending his wife a text message:
“Mary, try to take this calmly: I am leaving not for a short time but forever.
I did not want this but I had to. I am starting a new life. I shall try to help the children.”
Poteyev was convicted in absentia in 2011 of treason and desertion by a military court in Moscow. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Russian double agent sentenced in absentia to 25 years in prison
A Russian double agent who fled to the US after betraying the espionage ring which included Anna Chapman has been convicted in absentia and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Alexander Poteyev was found guilty of state treason and desertion.
Today Interfax reports, citing “informed sources,” that Poteyev has died in the USA.
According to one of the agency’s sources in Russia, the reports received from abroad were “being verified.”
Another said that they too had received such news, but suggested that it may be “disinformation, with the aim that the traitor is simply forgotten.”
If Poteyev’s death is confirmed, then questions will inevitably arise as to whether he was murdered by the Russian security services like Aleksandr Litvinenko, another former intelligence officer who had decided to leave Russia and collaborate with the British security services.
In 2011, during Poteyev’s trial, Reuters noted that an unnamed Russian newspaper had:
quoted Kremlin source as saying a hitman had been sent after the man who betrayed Russia’s spying operation.
A year earlier, in the immediate aftermath of the Russian sleeper agents’ deportation, Vladimir Putin, then the prime minister, was asked whether the agent who had betrayed the network would be punished.
“This is the wrong question, it can not be resolved during a press conference. They live by their own laws and these laws are well known to everyone in the intelligence services.”
We can only guess traitors can expect according to the laws of the special services. However Vladimir Putin spoke about what happens to traitors.
“Traitors always come to a bad end. They come to their end, as a general rule, either from drinking or from drugs in the gutter. One such example recently ended his existence.”
— Pierre Vaux
Vedomosti and Bloomberg report that two editors from the state-owned TASS news agency are to take over the editorial board of RBC, which has come under considerable pressure from the Kremlin this year, leading to the resignation of editors and reports that the news agency’s owner is being pushed to sell.
Elizaveta Golikova and Igor Trosnikov, both deputy editors at Tass, will start on July 14, RBC said in an e-mailed statement on Thursday.
“In the next several months, they will determine and approve the structure of the newsroom and distribute roles within the newsroom’s management,” RBC said in the statement. “Editorial policy at RBC will continue to be based on objectivity, professionalism and quality.”
An RBC employee told Vedomosti that Golikova would be working more on “the RBC site as a product, with Trosnikov on content.”
This was confirmed to the paper by a second source at the company, who said that Trosnikov would “soon be responsible for the production of content, Golikova for its packaging and distribution.”
RBC had long been one of the best news outlets in Russia, known for its reliable reportage and some major investigative work.
But this summer saw a series of catastrophes for the agency:
Is the Kremlin Forcing Mikhail Prokhorov to Sell His Russian Assets? | News
Russian tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov once said he likes to completely overhaul his professional life every eight years. And so things have turned out. In the 1990s, Prokhorov was a banker, scooping up a business empire on the cheap in the county's chaotic privatizations.
The appointment of editors from the staid, government-owned TASS (which once stood for Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union) as heads of the editorial team at RBC may well herald the end of the outlet as an independent entity.
— Pierre Vaux
President Vladimir Putin has signed off on a controversial package of anti-terrorism amendments, dramatically extending the already oppressive scope of authorities’ ability to prosecute “extremist” behaviour.
Interfax reports that Putin’s signature of the amendments was announced today by his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov.
The package, sponsored by MP Irina Yarovaya and Senator Viktor Ozerov, was approved by the State Duma on June 24.
The package introduces new, powerful surveillance measures, including stipulation that all telecoms and online communications companies store records of all their clients’ phone calls, messages and social media activity.
The Interpreter reported in June:
Furthermore, these companies will have to provide law-enforcement not only with users’ correspondence but the keys to any encrypted chat or files. Companies that refuse — as Apple did with the FBI in the case of the San Bernadino terrorist’s phone — or which use non-certified encryption will face fines from 3,000 rubles for an individual to one million rubles for legal persons ($46 to $15,379).
The law tackles “missionary” activity which is defined as propagating beliefs, holding services, distribution literature, and collecting donations for religions not legally registered with the government. Preaching in residential buildings is now outlawed and equated with “extremism”. Urging citizens to withdraw from the state education system or other civic duties is now also a crime. Foreign missionaries will be unable to obtain long-term visas as they had in the past, and may enter Russia only if they have an agreement with a recognized religious body.
The age of responsibility for the offenses was lowered to 14 and the penalties for the offenses made more harsh with lengthier terms of imprisonment.
Peskov said today that Putin had given specific instructions to carefully monitor the implementation of the package for problems.
But while perhaps the most extreme element of the package – an amendment to strip Russians implicated in terrorism of their citizenship – was removed during the rapid process in the Duma, Putin was apparently more concerned with financial issues than overreach.
Together with this package a check-list of instructions for the government was signed, entrusting the Cabinet of Ministers with accurately monitoring the course of the implementation of this law, so that, if necessary, they can minimise the potential risks associated with financial costs, with the use of indigenous equipment for protecting information and so on, continued Peskov.
— Pierre Vaux