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 human rights monitors who took testimony from the Chechen suspects jailed for the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov have now themselves been threatened with criminal charges and got a late-night visit from investigators.
– Alexey Navalny On the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
–Theories about Possible Perpetrators of the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
–Novaya Gazeta Releases Sensational Kremlin Memo: âIt is Seen as Correct to Initiate Annexation of Eastern Regions of Ukraine to Russiaâ
–Former Russian Intelligence Officers Behind Boisto âTrack IIâ Talks â and Now the Flawed Minsk Agreement.
See also our Russia This Week stories:
Remembering Boris Nemtsov, Insider and Outsider (1959-2015)
Ultranationalists Angry over âCapitulationâ of Minsk Agreement,
âAnti-Maidanâ Launched by Nationalists, Cossacks, Veterans, Bikers
The Guild War â How Should Journalists Treat Russian State Propagandists?
Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costsâ.
There has been serious speculation about Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov being in some kind of war with the Federal Security Service (FSB) — as exhibited by the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and the subsequent investigation.
As we reported, Novaya Gazeta as well as blogger Oleg Kashin believe the FSB’s chief Aleksandr Bortnikov is clashing with Kadyrov’s forces over the Chechen suspects in the murder who were arrested within a week, two of whom were in Kadyrov’s forces in the Chechen Interior Ministry. Kadyrov said Zaur was decorated and called him a “brave warrior” while conceding that murder was a crime. Dadayev was found to have taken leave on January 27 for 30 days before the murder, and submitted his resignation, which went into effect the day before the assassination on February 27.
Dadayev is currently in Lefortovo prison, and some members of the Public Observation Commission active in prisoners’ rights said he was tortured after a visit yesterday, and published their interview with Zaur and the Gubashev brothers, two other suspects. Then the head of the Public Observation Commission, who heads an organization defending military men under investigation then denied there was torture, as did Dadayev’s lawyer. Subsequently the first human rights activists got a late-night visit from investigators and have been threatened with prosecutor for “obstructing justice.”
The other suspect whom Kadyrov called “a brave warrior” was Beslan Shavanov who either blew himself or missed when he threw a grenade at police who came knocking on his door March 7.
Initially, Kadyrov made a statement Nemtsov’s murder — first blaming “Western intelligence services” on February 28, and ignoring the claim by Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin that fury over the Charlie Hebdo journalists’ murder by terrorists in Paris was the motive. He published a fake meme supposedly said by Edward Snowden which claimed the State Department “removed” those they had been “feeding for many years” who “wouldn’t fulfill their plans and knew their secrets.”
“The State Department won’t stop at Nemtsov, they will go further,” said the fake quote from Snowden — who is not on the record as having ever made such a statement from Moscow.
Then on March 8, Kadyrov praised Dadayev, noting that he was a “devout believer.” Apparently he has not made any other statements about the investigation or the suspects since then.
Meanwhile, on March 4, Kadyrov published a picture of himself arm-in-arm with Putin, as if they were best buddies, and rapped US Secretary of State John Kerry for thinking sanctions could affect Putin.
Kadyrov has been busy with his presidential duties and visits to the mosque, where the homily was about how the ISIS extremists had nothing in common with Islam. He did take a day off — a rare one, he said, on March 9 to go to a virtual firing range and hold a competition, but “nobody won.” He says that he and his friends agree that it is good to look in on a firing range now and then.
Yesterday, March 11, Kadyrov reported that Russia’s Security
Council had a field meeting in the southern city of Pyatigorsk in the North Caucasus Federal District which he attended, which was
chaired by security council head Nikolai Patrushev. (This is not uncommon; the Security Council went to the Urals last month for a meeting.)
Kadyrov included a clip of Patrushev’s speech in which he said work against religious extremism had a “positive dynamic” and due to the Chechen Republic’s investigative work, the “bandit underground” has been “nearly crushed.” The president of Dagestan also reported this meeting, saying Patrushev was concerned to oppose extremist activities of those returning from fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Former Kremlin advisor Andrei Illarionov believes this meeting in fact represented the “capitulation” of Kadyrov; he doesn’t explain why, and links to an RT.com article which is basically Kadyrov’s own Instagram text. The meeting could just as easily be read as approval of Kadyrov.
Is this meeting suspicious, i.e. could coup-plotters be getting together in the south to move against Putin? But Patrushev himself, a former KGB office from St. Petersburg was director of the FSB from 1999-2008; he replaced Putin when Putin was made first deputy prime minister and remained through the first eight years of Putin’s rule before being moved to head the Security Council. If the FSB and Kadyrov are clashing, this meeting where Patrushev praises the Chechen Republic for its work against extremism and terrorism hardly seems to indicate it — unless it’s for show.
Later on March 11, Kadyrov visited a mosque in Nazran about 200 miles further to the south.
Kadyrov’s last celebration of his loyalty to Putin came yesterday
March 11, when he showed a picture of Putin with the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, apparently from a meeting in October 2014. The picture is accompanied by a message in Arabic which is (badly) Google translated here. A better Russian translation which we saw there for a time from a reader was deleted for some reason.
In the picture, Kadyrov seems to be smiling admiringly at Putin, who almost seems to be instruction the Crown Prince in something. This is the very same picture that Kadyrov’s fan club posted on VKontakte on October 29, 2014 with a gushing message from him (excerpt translated by The Interpreter):
Vladimir Vladimirovich opposes the USA and the West, and also their vassals who think that sanctions can put Russia on its knees. How far are they from the truth! Russia has always been, is, and shall be, as long as it has such sons as Vladimir Putin! And in these photo we see that the powerful people of this worl always wish to meet with Vladimir Putin. The photo is made in Sochi after talks with the Crown Prince of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan
(Kadyrov himself only just opened up a VKontakte account this week.)
It’s hard to know what’s going on really with an Instagram over-sharer like Ramzan, but so far he is trying to portray that he loves Putin like a father, respects his authority in the Muslim world, is loyal to Russia and cooperative with the Security Council and even praised by its head — and is also keeping up his marksmanship skills.
– Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
It’s after midnight in Moscow. Do Russians know where their president is?
As we reported earlier, Putin has not been reliably seen in public since Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi last saw him — along with a Russian mother who was in a taped program for International Women’s Day with him on March 5.
Throughout the day and evening, Putin still did not put in any public appearances, sparking a lot of concern about his health.
But there were a number of sources appearing to say he was alive and healthy and imply that those who expressed doubts were conspiracy theorists.
Dmitry Peskov gave an interview with Ekho Moskvy in which he said the president was not only healthy but that his “handshake would break your arm.”
Kremlin.ru announced that Putin had had a telephone call with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan. Armenpress reported it and the president’s office posted a notice about it:
Could they, like the governors Putin was said to meet actually last week report it later, on instructions?
In an interview today about Putin’s whereabouts, Alexey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy, told radio host Karina Orlov that his sources had confirmed the conversation with the Armenian president. He said these weren’t journalists but “sources with whom we have worked for a long time, whom we trust,” although he conceded that they themselves could be deceived. He noted Twitter was filling up with theories about parody artists really calling the Armenian president.
Asked what he thought was really going on, Venediktov replied (translation by The Interpreter):
I don’t know, but I think that of course it’s related to his health because even with a heavy schedule, all the president’s meetings — not all, but significant meetings of the president — are shown on television or the Kremlin site reports them or the state news agencies report them; therefore I don’t see any reasons why his meeting with the finance minister or the head of state corporations couldn’t be reported, or with foreign diplomats. All of the president’s meetings are in fact recorded. And the fact that he isn’t apparently seen for a week, that not only journalists and ordinary people don’t know what’s going on with the president, and the absolute majority – 95% of the political elite. That’s a big question.
Although I must say, that I am watching the behavior of Dmitry Medvedev, who by law is the acting president if something happens to Vladimir Vladimirovich – he is acting quite…he is traveling, he is behaving…That is, there isn’t the sense that the successor has come running in…
Orlov: What should he do?
Venediktov: Sit and wait.
Orlova: Wait for what.
Venediktov: Something. The little suitcase. [This likely is a reference to the nuclear suitcase–The Interpreter].
Orlova: You’re saying you think there’s a problem with his health.
Venediktov: I think so, but I don’t know.
Orlova: But if it they’re not too serious, why not report it?
Venediktov: It’s a different culture. I’ll tell you why. Because our president, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, behaves like Batman.
Orlova: Like God.
Venediktov: Like Batman.
Orlova: You mean a bat man.
Venediktov: Like a rescuer. A person who flies in and helps. He can’t have something wrong with his health. He is like Batman, who, when he is Batman, is such a tough guy. And his weaknesses can’t be visible. This a sacrilization of government in Russia of course has always been the case. I remember when French President Pompidou died in 1974, I think a special law was passed in the French Republic to have medical reports on the current president twice a year. Now, I think, it has been abolished. But in many different democratic countries of Europe and North America, there is a medical rule. But in others, there is the privacy of illness and the privacy of the individual. We also, by the way, have a law that preserves the privacy of the individual when he is sick.
Orlova: No, I realize, but it’s simply that if there is some kind of insignificant injury…Obama had something after all, something with his back..
Venediktov: Yes, there was something… Listen, I don’t know. I will remind you that when Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was sick — I remember that we dug out the story of his operation and we cited the date and all the rest. Because that’s the culture. It can be considered right or wrong, but that’s the political culture — not to report, above all, about family matters…I will remind you that he has a notion — Putin does, if we’re talking about Putin — that nothing public should be said about his family, and accordingly, about his private affairs, and health is a private affair, not a political affair. He understands it that way. If this is a question of his health, if it is not some political crisis caused by the murder of Boris Nemtsov and a fight between the Kadyrovites and silovi [law-enforcement, intelligence and security].
Popular blogger Ilya Varlamov contacted the Kremlin this morning:
Translation: my sources in the Kremlin have confirmed that everything is fine with Putin.
Then about two hours ago, he added another comment:
Translation: The source in the Kremlin: Yes, he probably went fishing, he probably fucked off with Shoigu and everybody has started fussing. Just now the smelt have started running.
More to the point, would Putin take a fishing trip when he had the FSB annual meeting to attend today and the Eurasian Customs Union summit which he has planned to attend yesterday?
The mention of Shoigu follows the line of thinking of a lot of Russians watching the Kremlin to see if Putin will pop out — they think that those who might devise a coup against him could be missing as well or need watching. Shoigu is the defense minister and is viewed as loyal to Putin. He was last reported by TASS yesterday March 12 to be at the South Military District command (formerly the North Caucasus District, the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla) in Rostov reviewing the troops. The military press page did not report it but Shoigu was shown yesterday on Channel 5 news.
Is Shoigu checking up on the state of Russian military involvement in Ukraine? And where was he today?
In August 1991, the State Committee on the State of Emergency (GKChP) was formed by hardliners in the government of Mikhail Gorbachev, led by Vladimir Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB. Gorbachev was kept from leaving his dacha in Foros, Crimea while the KGB, security and Party conservatives took over the government. But then some military units refused to obey orders to fire on demonstrators and ultimately Boris Yeltsin, at that time head of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, a member of the USSR, eventually took over the Kremlin and the USSR collapsed.
Putin has been rumored to be in bad health before. In 2012, chief of staff Sergei Ivanov reassured the public on NTV that everything was fine. Last year, there were rumors that Putin could have cancer, and some observers continue to say there are signs of illness to be seen in his broadcasts.
There has been lots of speculation that hardliners more nationalist than Putin could overthrow him because he was “too soft” in making a peace agreement with Ukraine; but there is also speculation that “doves” in the Kremlin might move against him, possibly with the backing of oligarchs losing money over the economic crisis and Western sanctions.
Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky writes that the first conclusion to draw from Putin’s absence from public view is that he is more than just an authoritarian leader, he is a dictator — precisely because we can’t find out anything about whether he is ill or what’s going on. This has fueled conspiracy theories:
Somewhat worryingly, and unlike Yeltsin’s spin doctors, who were willing to admit that
the president was unwell while downplaying the seriousness of his
condition, Peskov has firmly denied that anything at all is wrong with
Putin. That has set up a feast for conspiracy theorists. Andrei
Illarionov, a former Putin aide, has suggested in a LiveJournal post that the president may have been overthrown by hardliners, including his chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, in a palace coup.
Konstantin Remchukov, a journalist and publisher with top-level access at the Kremlin, has tweeted the
rumor that Putin’s friend Igor Sechin, who runs Russia’s biggest oil
company, state-owned Rosneft, is about to lose his job, which would
either mean that Putin is conducting a major shakeup of his inner
circle, or that he’s on the way out himself. There have been hundreds of
tweets and Facebook posts suggesting Putin might even be dead — and,
this being Russia, numerous attempts at black humor.
Bershidsky noted that if anything, Russia’s stock market did better today than usual, as if the news of Putin’s absence encouraged investors. But many Russians were like children whose fathers were missing and apprehensive about whether “the steep pyramid of power Putin has built over the years can function without him at the top,” he said.
Putin’s absence coupled with Shoigu’s failure to be accounted for today could mean trouble, and until Putin appears again, we won’t know — and maybe not even then.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick with Anton Melnikov
Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, said his print edition “may be suspended in May” after Victory Day, May 9, which will be the 70th anniversary since the defeat of the Nazis in World War II. Muratov did not ask any questions about the future of the online edition (translation by The Interpreter):
“It’s quite likely that in May, after marking Victory Day with a special issue, we will suspend our paper edition.”
Muratov did not ask any questions about the future of the online edition.
Muratov said that Novaya Gazeta could not longer compete with subsidized government-owned press. He also cited “one of the share-holders who is always trying to put us out of business, thinking that he is taking part in managing editorial policy.” He didn’t give a name.
Muratov also added that the ability to place an advertisement had become “a political bonus,” by which he meant that companies buying advertising would take a political risk with Novaya Gazeta, who has specialized in hard-hitting investigative reports of corruption of top officials and has been particularly active in exposing Russia’s covert war against Ukraine this year.
Novaya Gazeta has lost to assassinations six writers who
published their investigations in the paper: Yury Shchekochikhin, Sveta
Olyuk, Anna Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov, Anastasia Baburova, and
A recent article about a Buryat soldier burnt while fighting outside Debaltsevo garnered more than 1.2 million views from Russian readers. Muratov also published a report leaked from a group said to include Russian Orthodox philanthropist and businessman Konstantin Malofeyev which was said to have been approved by Kremlin officials. The plan showed that top officials contemplated the annexation of the Crimea and war in Donbass to achieve association with Russia even before the toppling of former president Viktor Yanukovich. (See our translation here).
Describing his financial pressures, Muratov said:
“Under these conditions, we want to be people who will pay everyone — partners, printing presses — and leave without debts.“
That sounds final, although he used the verb “suspend” rather than “close” regarding the print edition.
Muratov added that the newspaper is “at the peak of its media success” and is among the most read in the country.
“We don’t have any problem with content, we have a problem with the political system which categorically does not provide the opportunity to attract either investors or shareholders or advertisers. An advertisement with us is payment for loyalty, and we don’t know how to produce it. We don’t have a shop for producing loyalty.”
Muratov didn’t say whether the online edition would also halt, but he said it, too, cost money:
“Online — that’s when journalists work who do not aggregate other people’s news ,but create their own. That means they have to receive salaries, they have to go on reporting trips, they have to research the topic. Why, if we say ‘Internet,’ does this mean free? Free is when people write ‘reposts’ or ‘cross-posts.'”
Muratov didn’t mention the name of the shareholder, but the paper was originally founded in 1993 by Mikhail Gorbachev, who used the money he earned from his Nobel Peace Prize to set it up and buy the editorial office its first computers. Gorbachev owns 10% of the paper, and Alexander Lebedev, a Russian oligarch’s whose net worth is over $1 billion, owns 39%. The rest is owned “by the paper’s staff” who control 51% of the shares.
Could Gorbachev be pressuring Novaya Gazeta over their coverage of the Kremlin, the opposition, state sponsorship of Anti-Maidan, the war in Ukraine, and other sensitive topics?
Gorbachev has supported annexation of the Crimea and does not seem to have commented on the issue of Russian soldiers killing in Ukraine — arguably the most sensitive of the paper’s topics because it runs straight up against the Kremlin’s denial that there are any troops there, as distinct from some “volunteers.”
Could Lebedev be pressuring the paper? He has more shares but has been more critical of Putin and the government than Gorbachev.
Lebedev, an economist by training, worked for the First Chief Directorate of the KGB, then the KGB’s successor, the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), with diplomatic cover in the Russian Embassy in London of economic attache. Lebedev then left intelligence and set up his first finance company and today is worth more than $1 billion according to Forbes, although he has suffered some losses.
Lebedev shut down Moskovsky Korrespondent, another paper he owned after an article about Putin’s affair with Olympic gymnast. On the other hand, he praised Anna Politkovskaya’s work after her assassination and announced a bounty for information leading to the arrest of her killers. Both he and his son have bought British newspapers; among them is The Independent which has had critical coverage of the war in Ukraine.
In an interview last year, Lebedev told Bloomberg that he favored “negotiations not sanctions” and envisioned Crimea as a kind of “Hong Kong” that might rejoin Ukraine “in 50 years” — when both Ukraine and even Russia would join the EU. He told the BBC in another interview that sanctions wouldn’t work and Putin didn’t like to be cornered. In his Bloomberg interview he said:
From somebody like myself, having been criticizing the Kremlin for years and sacrificing most of my business for that I reserve the right, when necessary to support Putin for the simple reason that there could be a much worse outcome, for example, we see him ousted, this way or another.
He said the West had a much more serious threats than Putin, such as ISIS
It seems that if Gorbachev, the respected founder but only a 10% shareholder were pressuring the paper, the other owners, including the staff might overcome this pressure. But Lebedev, with 39% would be a significant loss — enough to force the paper and even the online edition out of business.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Russia’s Investigative Committee (SKR) has opened up a criminal case against retired US general Robert Scales for “public calls to unleashing aggressive war, committed through the use of mass media” under Art. 354, part 2, RBC.ru reported.
Vladimir Markin, spokesman for the Investigative Committee said the call was made on Fox News, and translated Scales’ statement as follows:
The only thing that the USA can do to influence the situation in the region and turn the course of the war is to start killing Russians. Kill so many Russians that even Russian media can’t hide the fact that Russians are returning to the motherland in coffins.
The video can be seen at 3:22 on the Lou Dobbs’ show on Fox News, a conservative TV channel without about 2 million viewers.
Here is a transcription by The Interpreter:
Gen. Robert Scales, US Army (retired) former commandante of the US Army War College and Fox News military analyst.
asked Gen. Scales what effect would sending 3,000 US troops to Europe
have, and he replied:
“To no effect, Lou. It’s game, set and match in the
Ukraine. The only way the United States can have any effect in this
region and start turning the tide is to start killing
Russians. Killing Russians by…killing so many Russians that even
Putin’s media can’t hide the fact that Russians are returning to the
Motherland in body bags. Given the amount of support we’ve given the
Ukrainians, given the ability of the Ukrainians themselves to
counter-attack against these, what, 12,000 Russians camped in their
country, sadly, that’s not likely to happen, Lou.”
The full video shows that the Russian IC’s translation is more or less accurate, but leaves out the context and substitute’s “Russia’ for “Putin’s” and “coffins” for “body bags.” Russian military don’t use body bags in wars, but have cheap zinc or wooden coffins.
The context makes it clear that this retired general and TV military analyst is making a hypothetical statement, not an incitement to imminent violence — which would be the US Supreme Court test for whether such statements might be actionable.
Russia’s reaction to the TV general might have come in response to yesterday’s additional sanctions by the US government against figures involved in Russia’s war on Ukraine. These include Aleksandr Dugin, an ultranationalist and ideologue of the Eurasianism philosophy, who has called for killing Ukrainians on social media. This is believed to have cost him his job at Moscow State University last year.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
He has not been seen in public since March 5, when he met Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and a woman who was in a pre-taped show for March 8, International Women’s Day, says she saw him in person, according to RBC.ru.
The Kremlin cancelled a scheduled summit of the Eurasian Customs Union with Kazakhstan’s President Nursat Nursultan Nazarbayev and Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashenka, although possibly it may be re-scheduled soon.
While state broadcasting has aired footage of two of his meetings on
March 10 and March 11, with the governors of the Yamal-Yenets and
Karelian autonomous republics, respectively, in fact there is evidence
that those meetings were also taped last week. Sources of a local news
site Vesti Karelii say that Aleksandr Khudilaynin, their governor, was in Moscow at the Kremlin
on March 4, but that the transcript of their meeting was held for a
week before being published March 11 on kremlin.ru, the official Kremlin
news site. Sources told RBC.ru that Dmitry Kobylkov, Yamal-Nenets
governor, also did not meet Putin on March 10, although a transcript of their meeting with that date has appeared on kremlin.ru and Kobylin’s own web site.
We looked carefully at the broadcasts, and the desk calendar in
both of these videos on March 10 and March 11 looks to be on a single digit — or at any rate, not
changed. Perhaps Putin doesn’t flip his desk calendar, or it may be a
desktop inspirational quote, but in any event, the calendar does not
prove the dates claimed.
And nothing else does.
The Kremlin also cancelled the signing ceremony for the treaty of integration with South Ossetia planned for yesterday — another project dear to Putin’s heart since the breakaway republic was essentially annexed after the war with Georgia in 2008. Yet officials said the cancellation was about the “agreement not being ready” because it was leaked by the head of the republic, about who a vote of confidence is scheduled in the South Ossetian parliament today.
Presidential administration spokesman Dmitry Peskov gave an interview to Ekho Moskvy today (see our translation) in which he deflected persistent questions about why Putin did not plan on attending today’s collegium or annual board meeting of the Federal Security Service (FSB) which he has done in the past (and as he attended the collegium of the Interior Ministry last week.) See our translation of that exchange below.
We listened to the audio of his interview, and compared it to past recordings. Although Peskov is usually soft-spoken and somewhat casual in his presentation, he sounds tired and stressed in today’s interview.
It’s worth comparing his voice today with past recordings to hear the contrast. On February 25, Peskov answered questions from Ekho Moskvy about why a tow-truck was found on Red Square. Peskov answered with dry humor that Putin wasn’t informed of the tow truck because he was in a meeting with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and “the question of the tow truck wasn’t on the agenda.”
On February 28, Peskov answered questions about the investigation of the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated the night before, where he sounds as if he is reading a prepared statement about Putin’s assignment of the investigation to law-enforcement agencies.
Yesterday, March 11, he also took questions from Alyona Vershina about a report to the president claimed by Novaya Gazeta involving a “hit list” maintained by Ramzan Kadyrov, and said he “wasn’t familiar” with the all the details of the investigation’s report to the president.
But then he challenged the journalist, “Did you see those lists?” and when she responded that Ekho was concerned because their editor-in-chief Aleksey Venediktov was said to be on the list, he joked about it several times, adding “What, you think it’s on my desk? Do you understand the absurdity?”
No further dated pictures of meetings this week have appeared on Kremlin.ru, but there is a notice today of a telephone conversation with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said to have taken place today.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Amid concerns that President Vladimir Putin has not been verified as seen in public since March 5, presidential administration spokesman Dmitry Peskov has given an interview to Ekho Moskvy and also made a comment for TASS, RBC.ru reported.
The Interpreter has a translation:
“As soon as the sun comes out in the spring, as soon as it begins to smell of spring, the acute illnesses come on — somebody imagines the resignation of Sechin, someone imagines the resignation of the government, and someone doesn’t see President Putin on TV for several days.”
The reference is to Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft, a close ally of Putin’s and one of his associates in Western sanctions list. Rosneft has denied the rumors.
Peskov says the Kremlin “reacts to such illnesses calmly and patiently answers all questions asked.”
But he hasn’t produced Putin in public. As we reported, Putin has already missed two key previously-scheduled meetings, the summit of the Eurasian Customs Union with the leaders of Kazakhstan and Belarus, and a ceremony to sign a treaty of integration with South Ossetia — both Putin’s pet projects. The meetings had to be postponed. Now he will miss the annual collegium (board meeting) of the FSB.
The following is a translation of Peskov’s interview for Ekho Moskvy with Varvara Kostina:
Kostina: We wanted to ask you — will there be a collegium [board meeting] of the FSB? If so, at what time?
Peskov: You have to ask the FSB about the FSB’s collegium.
Kostina: Well, it seemed that they were expecting the president to be present…
Pskov: Who was expecting him? Yes, he usually is present. But this year, no, had hadn’t planned on it.
Kostina: But Vedomosti, let’s say, a number of media have written that the president was supposed to attend. Ad since we are all concerned about his health…we’re worried.
Peskov: You don’t have to worry, everything is in order.
Kostina: What are the president’s next planned activities? When will we see him on television?
Peskov: No, well, the thing is — look — he has meetings constantly. He has meetings constantly, but not all meetings are public. The schedule now is very packed — in relationship to the crisis phenomena, and so on. Now there is constant communication with the government and with state companies and with the banking community. Naturally, a lot of time is spent on this. Therefore these are all, you know…these are all abstract discussions.
Kostina: But there are just a lot of rumors — and we’re worried and the public is worried and our listeners as well. Regarding the president’s health.
Peskov: Oh, no, you don’t have to worry. Everything’s in order.
Kostina: That is, he’s healthy?
Kostina: Is his handshake strong?
Peskov: It breaks your arm.
Kostina: And he’s working with documents?
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Novaya Gazeta has long been following the topic of the “Olgino Trolls,” the Kremlin’s troll farm in a semi-secret office of a company called “Internet Research” in the St. Petersburg district of Olgino (see Russia This Week: The Kremlin’s Growing Army of Internet Trolls)
Now Novaya Gazeta has obtained new information and has published the special report of St. Petersburg journalist Andrei Soshnikov of Moy Rayon, along with a list of LiveJournal bloggers and other social-media nick-names of the employees in this firm. (Find the list here.)
Three shifts of paid trolls are kept busy writing pro-government posts on social media and in the comments sections of online media, following a script.
With the murder of Boris Nemtsov, says correspondent Diana Khachatryan, the harassment of trolls online is now viewed differently as part of the climate of hatred that made such an assassination possible.
“If before political harassment including online simply interfered with opposition members’ lives, now it is directly and obviously turned into a real physical threat,” she says.
Colleagues from the St. Petersburg newspaper Moy Rayon found the temniki, or list of topics which St. Petersburg trolls are to write on. They also found 500 “Internet warriors”.
How do the journalists know that these are paid trolls, and not just individuals who have a pro-government opinion? For one, all the accounts were created in 2013, and they all live in St. Petersburg. They all have high ratings on LiveJournal. They all periodically put in similar housekeeping tips from time to time, such as “how to do a pedicure at home” or “how to bake a tender and fluffy bisquit.”
They also had a uniform line on the murder of Nemtsov, which was traced as repeating through a number of the LiveJournal entries.
– The murder was designed to destabilize Russia.
– Some forces are creating a provocation.
– The opposition has deliberately created a martyr in a false flag operation.
– Ukrainians are likely involved.
– The White House reacted immediately which was likely “no accident”.
– The US will use the killing to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs.
Andrei Soshnikov was able to obtain some new information about the troll farm from a former employee:
– Workers are fined 500 rubles if they are late to work and also for leaving early.
– Turnover is very high in the office due to the fines and pressures.
– Employees include students, a former prominent radio announcer, disabled people, counter-culture people, skinheads, housewives, even married couples.
– There are 124 people per shift.
– Occasionally, people come to give lectures to the employees.
– Employees go through loyalty tests; they are asked complicated questions about the political situation in Syria or Iran.
– There are cartoonists who draw caricatures of opposition leader Alexey Navalny or Obama.
– The trolls praise Putin and also Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, curse Obama and figures like Navalny and spread conspiracy theories like “Doctrine 2050”.
– A lot of effort is put into getting top ratings on LiveJournal which Soshnikov characterizes as an effort of “10 years ago.” (Yandex has stopped servicing a script that used to show traffic counters on blogs after the “Bloggers’ Law” was instituted requiring anyone with more than 3,000 views to register with the government as mass media.)
– There is an elite among the trolls — these are people who can have a blog under their own name, i.e. not a fake blog.
– Pay is 40,000 rubles per month or about $642
– There is a room in the building that has a sign “Do Not Enter Live Camera”. This content hasn’t been widely distributed but there are plans to start video blogs.
– After Nemtsov was killed, the trolls were reassigned for a time from dumping on Ukrainians to working comments sections with the themes listed above, i.e. that the murder was the opposition’s attempt to destabilize the country.
The firm Internet Research is the successor to Agency for Internet Research with a legal address at Bolshaya Raznochinnaya 17, bldg. 1-N. Mikhail Bystrov, born 1958, retired police captain, former head of the Interior Ministry for Moskovsky District in St. Petersburg is listed as the general director. The rent is said to be 3 million rubles ($48,186) and the payroll 16 million rubles ($257,000) with 400 employees.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
A ceremony to sign a treaty of integration between Russia and South Ossetia scheduled for today March 11 was cancelled, RBC.ru reported, causing further speculation about the state of health of President Vladimir Putin.
The ceremony was to essentially formally annex South Ossetia, a breakaway territory from Georgia which Russia took over after the 2008 war with Georgia. A delegation had already arrived for the meeting from the capital of Tskhinvali, by24.org reported.
This was the second cancellation of a meeting on a priority issue for Putin; the first was the summit of the Eurasian Customs Union in Astana, Kazakhstan, which has now been postponed “for a few days,” says sources in Kazakhstan, according to a Reuters report.
But Nezavisimaya Gazeta says that the reason the South Ossetia ceremony was cancelled was because the agreement was not sufficiently prepared. A vote of confidence was put on the agenda of the South Ossetia parliament regarding David Sanakoyev, head of the republic, who had published the draft agreement in the local press on his own initiative without the consent of the leadership. So there may have been valid reasons to halt the signing — but it seems odd that it got as far as it did, with the participants already in Moscow.
Concern has been raised that two meetings that the official web site kremlin.ru said took place this week, with governors from Karelia and Yamal-Yenets, actually took place last week, and were only published this week. Sources say Aleksandr Khudilaynen, the governor of Karelia actually met with Putin last week, and Dmitry Kobylkin, governor of Yamal-Yenets was not in Moscow on March 10.
In the absence of any solid information, news broadcasts said to be made of Putin March 10 and March 11 are being closely examined. Do the calendars in the meetings with Kobylkin and Khudilaynen show single digits, indicating the filming was done last week?
Or is this not a calendar, but perhaps a stand with an inspirational quote?
Meanwhile, without confirmation of Putin’s condition, and concern that meetings at the Kremlin reported this week in fact took place last week, Russkiy Monitor has gone ahead and published an email received by the editorial office claiming that Putin had a stroke. The Interpreter has a translation:
A letter arrived in the electronic email box of Russkiy Monitor signed by an anonymous official of the Central Clinical Hospital of the Department of Presidential Affairs in Moscow, in which he reported that among the patients of this elite Moscow hospital, where the top leadership of the Russian Federation are registered, there were rumors that Vladimir Putin was diagnosed several days ago with an ischemic stroke. Even so, the source said that the president was not hospitalized directly at the Central Clinical Hospital.
The editorial board of Russian Monitor cannot confirm or deny the information which might very well be false, however we must note the fact that the president has not been seen in public since last week, his meeting with the presidents of Belarus and Kazakhstan was unexpectedly cancelled. Observers note that since Putin has been in power, nothing of this sort has occurred.
Russkiy Monitor also reported that on 4chan.org, a site frequented by hackers, a comment appeared from a user claiming that the Russian Embassy in London was in an agitated state and was going to make a big announcement today.
The comment in English was tweeted by Vsyo Plokho (@sranysovok), a Twitter account whose name means “Everything is Bad” and which is sometimes used to post information about hacks.
It’s important to note that rumors of illness, death and calamity are often spread on the Russian Internet as a way of intimidating enemies or sowing confusing. So far, LifeNews is only covering lots of accidents, including the fire in Kazan in which 4 people were killed, and other news sites are covering Russia’s entry in EuroVision.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Vladimir Osechkin, director of the Gulagu.net [No to Gulag] social network told RBC that as 23:00, 10 investigators from the Investigative Committee came to the home of Eva Merkacheva, Moscow coordinator for Gulagu.net and a reporter for Moskovsky Komsomolets and informed her that “a general wants to talk to her.” They didn’t give his name, and Merkacheva was not home. Osechkin said that her friends had “taken her to a safe place until tomorrow.” There was no search of her home.
Later, Anton Tsvetkov, head of the Public Monitoring Commission who also visited Lefortovo yesterday and issued a refutation of the claims of torture said that there were only 3 investigators, not 10, as they had all fit in one car. They did not perform a search and only asked for the human rights advocate.
The same investigators then went to Andrei Babushkin’s office; an assistant told RBC.ru that they had “acted within the confines of the law.” Babushkin has been declared a witness in a case, but he doesn’t know what the case is about. Earlier the notice on the Sledkom.ru site had said that an investigation would be made into whether there had been obstruction of justice in the Nemtsov investigation when the human rights advocates visited the suspects in prison and took their testimony that they had been tortured.
Osechkin says he plans to file a complaint about the late-night visit as there is no reason to have an investigation of the human rights monitors. Pavel Gusev, editor-in-chief of Moskovsky Komsomolets also said that Eva Merkacheva would go to the Investigative Committee in the morning to file a complaint about “obstructure of journalistic activity” regarding the visit, TASS reported.