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 Duma’s Defense Committee has approved a draft law barring draft-dodgers from leaving the country for five years which has obtained approval of the defense community.
– 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
See also our Russia This Week stories:
– Can We Be Satisfied With the Theory That Kadyrov Killed Nemtsov?
– All The Strange Things Happening in Moscow
– Remembering Boris Nemtsov, Insider and Outsider (1959-2015)
– Ultranationalists Angry over âCapitulationâ of Minsk Agreement
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President Vladimir Putin met today March 24 with Rustam Minnikhanov, leader of Tatarstan, and appointed him acting head of the republic until September 2015 elections, Kremlin.ru reported. Minnikhanov’s term expires this month.
Tatarstan, a Muslim majority republic, is among the largest constituent members of the Russian Federation and for Putin, is central to his nationalist notion of an ethnic-Russian dominated state with civic Russians, i.e. non-ethnic Russians who are loyal to the Russian Federation controlled from Moscow.
In 2010, the Federal Council passed a law to remove the title of “president” from the leadership of the autonomous republics since it was seen as undercutting the role of the president of the whole country, Vladimir Putin. Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of Chechnya was the first to propose this plan, even explicitly stating that there should only be one president.
But Tatarstan rejected this notion, saying that its treaties with Russia had been signed with this title and it wanted to keep it for its leader.
Tatarstan, 500 kilometers from Moscow, has a population of 3.7 million, making it the second largest republic; Bashkortostan with 4 million is larger in population and Sakha (Yakutia) has more territory. The largest-populated subjects of the federation are Moscow (11.5) and Moscow Region (7 million.
Tatarstan is made up of 53.2% ethnic Tatars and 39.7 ethnic Russians with the rest divided among other ethnic groups.
Throughout Putin’s tenure, Tatarstan has been valued for having a majority Muslim population yet not having the kind of radical violent movements associated with the Caucasus. In fact, Moscow has tried to harness Tatarstan in its efforts to co-opt the Crimean Tatars of Ukraine.
Unlike Chechnya, which requires more than a $1 billion in subsidies every year, Tatarstan sends its profits to Moscow to sustain the country and other republics — as one Tatar said, if Russia didn’t suppress its independence, each resident would have $70,000, Paul Goble reported. Goble has also pointed out that if a program of “decentralization” were put into effect due to austerity, as Primakov has suggested, it would come along with further Russification.
The Kremlin has constantly invoked the need for Ukraine to have “federalization,” yet as Kiev has pointed out, Moscow doesn’t practice what it preaches and has not really allowed true federalization at home.
Tatarstan has not experienced the kind of Islamist insurgency of Chechnya or Dagestan, although in 2012, a self-described “guerilla figther” killed one cleric and assaulted another. Fear of radicalism increased this year after some Tatars were convicted for fighting in Syria.
Earlier this month at least 30 people died at the Admiral shopping center collapse in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan after being trapped in rubble after a fire. Some of those who perished were merchants who crossed police lines to attempt to retrieve their wares. The wealthy owner of the center was in France and did not return, sparking anguished public protests. The Investigative Committee opened up a criminal case.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
In another escalation of tensions and nuclear posturing today, Russia demanded that the US remove its nuclear missiles from Europe, UPI reported.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich referred to comments by Jen Psaki,
his counterpart at the U.S. State Department, that U.S. missiles are
under constant U.S. control, as distorted. He added that deployment of
U.S. missiles in European NATO countries is a violation of the 1968
Treaty on Nuclear Weapons Non-Proliferation.
The US rejected the interpretation.
Moscow’s call follows a number of incidents in recent days where Russia has invoked its nuclear power, calling sudden exercises for combat readiness of troops with nuclear-capable missiles in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad; threatening to deploy weapons in Crimea, and responding to the Danish navy’s provision of shipborne radar data for NATO’s nuclear shield as grounds for Russia’s targeting.
“If this happens, Danish warships become targets for Russian nuclear missiles,” Russian Ambassador Mikhail Vanin wrote in the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten on March 21.
Last week, Moscow moved nuclear-capable Iskander missiles with a range of up to 500 kilometers into Kaliningrad during exercises. According to presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, they were withdrawn from Kaliningrad back to their bases today, RBC.ru reported.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
At least six policemen continued the search of the office of LifeNews.ru today while workers remained at their desks, RBC.ru reported. Representatives of the Investigative Committee and lawyers were also present. The police went through each office confiscating documents and hard drives.
President Vladimir Putin has been informed about the law-enforcement raid on LifeNews today, although the Kremlin has no comment on such investigations, Dmitry Peskov, presidential administration spokesman told reporters.
Aram Gabrelyanov, owner of News Media, the holding company that owns LifeNews, told TASS (translation by The Interpreter):
“The searches at the editorial offices of the holding LifeNews may be connected to the search for documents from journalists’ investigations run by the editors. The investigators are confiscating servers, and have not yet provided official documents on the case. However, most likely it’s a question of a case connected with sexual scandals in schools which the journalists of the holding company were investigating.“
Anatoly Suleymanov, editor-in-chief, said the Investigative Committee had a warrant approved by the Savelovsky Court, and investigators took hard discs.
Olga Kostina, chairman of the board of Soprotivleniya [Resistance], the group that filed the complaint to authorities said she learned about the search of the LifeNews office from colleagues (translation by The Interpreter):
We really did appeal to the Investigative Committee, but our organization only attached a letter to the statement from the parents of minor children whose personal information was disclosed in broadcasts by the television channel, through which the identities of the children was disclosed. It’s strange that the IC is acting so harshly, confiscating documents and servers, it would be sufficient to have something of smaller scope based on our complaint.
The group was created in 2005 to provide free legal aid and psychological counseling for victims and witnesses in criminal trials.
Kostina’s statement and the fact that many documents and hard discs are being taken raise the issue of whether authorities are on a fishing trip for other information or whether the case is larger than a story about child abuse.
LifeNews, a popular tabloid TV specializing in accidents and scandals, enjoys a close connection to intelligence and law-enforcement. It has been at the forefront of the Kremlin’s propaganda and disinformation campaigns around the war in Ukraine.
But when President Putin went missing for 11 days, journalists never asked where he was or broadcast anything about him, such as discoveries that certain videotapes posted on Kremlin.ru had been made previously. Instead, it fell silent as if waiting for instructions and reported only the usual building collapses, car accidents and scandals.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Note: at this time, all links to memo.ru, the main website of Memorial Society, are returning only pages from a data base of the victims of Stalin (Lenmartirolog) which means the site is malfunctioning or hacked.
The cached page on Google does not have the news item about the Chechens, although a tweet by Memorial Human Rights Center indicates that they had earlier posted the story in Russian today.
Translation: #Chechnya The body of a detainee was returned to relatives. The fate of a minimum of at least five more detainees is not known.
No other news services seem to have carried this story so we are continuing to research it.
Since the arrest of 5 Chechens in the investigation of the murder of Boris Nemtsov, increased scrutiny has been brought to bear on Chechnya’s strongman ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov. Two of the suspects in the murder were members of the Sever Battalion in Chechnya’s Interior Ministry troops, ruled by Kadyrov. Zaur Dadayev, one of the former officers has confessed to the murder, although he later retracted his statement, saying it was made under torture. Another was killed from a grenade explosion as police came to his door to arrest him.
At his year-end press conference in December 2014, President Vladimir Putin was challenged by talk-show host and magazine editor Kseniya Sobchak as to why he tolerated Kadyrov’s order to burn down the homes of relatives of terrorists. Putin responded by conceding this extrajudicial practice was against the law, but said Kadyrov deserved sympathy because his own relative had been killed in a shoot-out at the press building in Grozny in December, in which 11 terrorists and 14 police were killed.
Some commentators believed that with this public reprimand of sorts, Kadyrov was “reined in.” Yet the house-burnings continued, and the offices of lawyers who continued to protest them were also torched. The Chechen government immediately filed a libel suit against Sobchak, and she began to get threats and picketers at her home. At the funeral for Nemtsov on March 4, an unidentified man approached Sobchak three times and warned her that she would be “next.” At the advice of the FSB, she went abroad temporarily.
With these reports of fresh atrocities now, there is further evidence that Kadyrov’s forces have not been controlled by Moscow, despite a supposed conflict now under way between the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Kadyrov.
Meanwhile, the regional web site Caucasian Knot reports that police made a mass sweep of youth at the Berkat Shopping Center and nearby streets in Grozny, checking their cell phones.
One woman told Caucasian Knot that police boarded a city bus and checked young people’s phones, warning them that they should not have “unnecessary” videos and audio tapes. This is likely regarding a common practice in the region where people download religious videos and inspirational pictures, some of which come from preachers or organizations not authorized by state-controlled muftis or which are related to jihadists fighting in Iraq and Syria.
A young man told Caucasian Knot that police seemed to be selective in their searches at the shopping mall, only checking young men of combat age, reinforcing the sense that the action was related to efforts by authorities to stop the recruiting of Chechens to ISIS.
Another university student said he had been stopped and searched, but since his phone was an ordinary one without Internet, he was let go. He said police were more interested in the “hardcore phones” that had videos downloaded on them.
Police had no comment about the sweeps, says Caucasian Knot.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
LifeNews, a TV station close to intelligence and law-enforcement, has now itself been targeted by the Investigative Committee, the company reported.
The Investigative Committee is separate from the Interior Ministry, police or the
prosecutor’s office, and is responsible for handling the highest-profile
political and business-related cases in Russia, such as the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and the fraud case against the Navalny brothers.
The raid is also possibly another signal out of Moscow that perhaps some power struggle has been underway, although LifeNews has enjoyed full support from the Kremlin for years.
LifeNews reports that computer servers and documents are being taken “with the participation of the Investigative Committee.” An official with the initials “EKTs UVD” for the forensics center of the Moscow department of the Interior Ministry or police is also visible in the video.
Managers believe the search is related to a statement from a human rights group called Soprotivleniye (Resistance) which had appealed to investigators over the publication on Lifenews.ru of news about two crimes against minors.
LifeNews says that in compliance with law, the subjects in the news stories, which were not referenced, had their faces disguised and their real names were not used. The search warrant had the following statement (translation by The Interpreter):
At the present time, for the purposes of a comprehensive and objective inspection, study is needed of the video subjects posted on the site of LifeNews.ru, and persons who uploaded these subjects to the Internet are to be questioned.
It is not know if investigators are seizing just computers related to this story or all computers or whether there may be other issues for the authorities.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The State Duma’s Defense Committee is supporting a draft law which will ban departure from Russia by draft-dodgers, RBC.ru reported, citing Interfax.
The Defense Ministry and other power ministries have weighed in.
“We have taken a decision to support this legislative initiative of our colleagues,” said Adm. Vladimir Komoyedov.
He said the law had elicited an “unambiguous reaction in society” implying full support and would be refined further both by the ministries and the State Duma’s committees. Andrei Krasov of United Russia and first deputy chair of the defense ministry proposed the draft law.
He also advocated barring draft-dodgers from holding state and municipal posts.
The law will have to pass through three readings and votes and be approved by the president to go into effect.
On March 11, Sergei Shishkin, the ataman or head of the Russian South East Cossack Society, said that Cossacks would run raids in search of draft-dodgers. He claimed that his organization had already signed agreements with two town administrations, that of Lyublino and Kuzminki.
He said a Cossack representative would be in every draft commission, RBC.ru reported.
The Moscow Times also reported last week about the Cossacks’ public patrolling, “facilitated by the adoption last spring of a law on citizen participation in maintaining public order.”
As we reported, Putin said at his speech at the annual Interior Ministry meeting that citizens’ patrols needed to be enhanced and expanded to combat street crime.
But then after a certain outcry, the Defense Ministry denied the reports they would pursue draft-dogers, said The Moscow Times.
Major General Igor Konashenkov, the official spokesman for the Defense Ministry, was cited by the news agency as saying that there are no such agreements between Moscow military commissioners and Cossacks, a quasi-militant group predominantly found in southern Russia and Ukraine.
“Such reports do not correspond at all with reality,” Konashenkov was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, aside from this additional envisioned punishment, draft-dodgers or draft-resisters face existing penalties of fines and jail.
Translation: Due to the lack of desire to serve in the army, a Kuzbass resident will face trial.
The 26-year-old defendant in this case is being investigated under an article that punishes refusal to serve in the army “if there are no lawful grounds” for this, usually related to health reasons or extreme family hardship. Conscientious objector status can be difficult to obtain and can be substituted with construction work in the army.
A court in Chaikovsky in the Ural mountains sentenced another man to a 40,000 ruble fine ($690). Aleksei Debelny, another man in Saratov, was fined 20,000 rubles ($345) for failing to appear at the draft commission after a summons. A man who failed to answer his draft summons also faced criminal proceedings in Penza.
In Bashkortostan, local veterans’ organizations have encouraged citizens to turn in the names of draft-dodgers and publish them, which they say was an initiative of Defense Minister Shoigu. But recruits and their families said the method of public shaming was unlawful and not effective. In Pskov, they were published as well.
In 2012, the State Duma passed a law barring draft-dodgers from state service, but the Constitutional Court overturned it. Of all things, the Chechen parliament objected to it on the grounds that it violated the precept of equality before the law in Russia. The Chechen legislators’ reasoning was that people already served in government in Chechnya without having served in the army and they didn’t want them to be fired or to stop new hires.
This story revealed that in fact, only in October 2014 did Kadyrov resume the draft to the Russian armed forces; most of the state-armed people in his republic are in the Interior Ministry troops, which is separate from the army. The Chechnya objection was heard and the court ordered that the federal law be amended.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick