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.
After President Vladimir Putin attended the annual meeting of the Prosecutor General, the Prosecutor requested immunity be removed from MP Ilya Ponomarev, and that Jen Psaki and foreign officials be charged with “extremism.”
– 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
Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costsâ.
Yesterday, Dukuvakha Abdurakhmanov, the parliamentary speaker of Chechnya, gave an incendiary speech, published on the parliament’s web site, in which he denounced a resolution passed by the US Congress to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, and threatened to deliver weapons to Mexico to use against the United States to revive secessionist struggles in southern US states (translation by The Interpreter):
Hence it follows that the US has no right to advise Russia how to conduct itself regarding to a neighborly friendly people. The supply of arms to Ukraine will be perceived by us as a signal for appropriate actions — we will begin with the supply of the latest armaments to Mexico to revive disputes about the legal status of territories annexed by the US, where there are now the American states of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and part of Wyoming.
We reserve the right to conduct conferences in Russia, Mexico and America to raise the question of separating the above-mentioned states from the US and delivering arms for the partisans there.
Abdurakhmanov seemed heedless of the actual parallels of what he was saying with Russia, which has supplied armaments and troops to the separatist war in southeast Ukraine — including some fighters from Chechnya’s Interior Ministry troops.
The speaker said that Russia was “fed up” with America and the “millions” it had supposedly killed in wars from Iraq to Libya to Afghanistan and that it must renounce “its imperialist ideas of its greatness and impunity” and reconcile itself to Russia. The speaker left out the million Afghan civilians killed by Soviet troops in the 1980s and perhaps more pointedly, the 200,000 Chechen civilians killed by Russian troops in two wars in his own republic.
Needless to say, the Chechen threat to deploy weapons in Mexico has gotten a lot of attention in Russia and abroad in the last news cycle, mainly in the form of ridicule.
Finally today Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia has no intention of deploying weapons in Mexico.
“Such statements cannot be coordinated with Moscow. The subjects of the Russian Federation cannot deliver special equipment [weapons] abroad or trade in them. This is simply impossible under our existing legislation.”
Peskov said he hadn’t read the Chechen parliamentary web site, but the
notice is still there, after a warning about DDoS attacks is clicked
The Chechen speaker’s threat came in response to news stories about the US Congressional resolution to provide lethal aid to Ukraine — which remains to be approved by President Barack Obama, who opposes it.
The US has provided non-lethal supplies to Ukraine in the last year, and yesterday delivered Humvees. Military trainers are also scheduled for this spring.
This incident is the latest in a round of incendiary statements to come out of Grozny.
Putin condemned the terrorist attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo which had published cartoons deemed offensive to Muslims, and expressed condolences to the victims’ families. But he let Russia’s state-approved Muslim leaders and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov do the talking after that, and they made statements that the journalists had “committed the sin of provocation” which seemed to justify the attacks. Kadyrov organized a million-strong march of Muslims in Grozny to protest the cartoons, and himself has made ominous statements to Ekyo Moskvy editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov, who decided to publish a number of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons satirizing various figures from different religions.
But what can Kadyrov do when he needs to a layer of plausible deniability and can’t have his image consist only of threats? He can turn to the Chechen government administration and parliament which have been increasingly active. It was the head of the presidential administration, not Kadyrov himself who announced that Chechnya was filing a libel lawsuit against talk-show host Kseniya Sobchak who challenged the practice of burning down the homes of terrorists’ relatives. And now the speaker of parliament has made the threat regarding weapons in Mexico.
Kirilly Martynov said in Novaya Gazeta that Abdurakhmanov seemed ill informed about politics in the Americas, noting that the US had good relations with Mexico and “had no intention of fighting for Texas and California” and participated in NAFTA.
More worrisome, said Martynov, was the idea that Chechnya saw itself as an arms supplier to the world — competing with the centralized Rosoboroneksport, the state agency that manages Russia’s arms sales world-wide:
“Where is the Chechen Republic getting the ‘latest models of weapons’? Perhaps they’re talking about the flails and Kalashes seized from the devils in the mountains? Or perhaps there’s something we don’t know and the Chechen Republic — on track for further growth of federalism — has been preparing secret caches of artillery and rocket systems, combat aviation and tanks?”
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
President Vladimir Putin spoke today at the annual meeting of the Federal Security Service (FSB) — a meeting that was postponed during his unexplained 11-day absence earlier this month. The FSB is the successor of the departments of the KGB responsible for domestic surveillance and intelligence.
His speech was published on Kremlin.ru.
Putin reiterated the Kremlin line that the events of the last year in Ukraine should be characterized as a “state coup and a civil war,” as if Russia itself had not backed the war first to annex Crimea forcibly, then to take over the Donbass, sending Russian tanks and troops to fight alongside separatists.
He continued to adopt the line that Russia is an innocent target of Western pressure and deterrence including “political isolation” and an “information war” and even “arm-twisting”. “But such things can’t be put over on Russia, they never have and never will,” he said.
Putin also characterized NATO as developing rapid-reaction forms “near our border” as if Russian airplanes never buzzed NATO air space and as if dozens of provocations hadn’t occurred in the last year, including the arrest of an Estonian intelligence officer. The US was also to blame for “a one-sided approach” to anti-missile defense but Russia would always “give the appropriate response” to such external and internal threats — which as we’ve seen in recent weeks includes a call to target Russia’s nuclear weapons against Denmark.
Terrorist crimes were 2.6 times less frequent than in 2014, a trend that followed from previous years which Putin attributes to the coordination of the National Anti-Terrorist Center working in concert with the FSB and other law-enforcement agencies.
Judging from such incidents as the terrorist raid on the press building in Grozny last December, terrorists “don’t have very many weapons in their hands.” He also invoked the threat caused by Russian citizens going abroad to fight for ISIS in Syria and other countries which are “used against Russia and our neighbors” but said efforts were made to “close off their channels of exit and entry” including in occupied Crimea. No mention was made of the number of terrorists killed in the past year in battles with law-enforcement, which in 2013 was about 300.
Anti-terrorist measures will be stepped up for Victory Day May 9th, which this year is the 70th anniversary since World War II, and for the summits of the BRICS countries and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization coming up in Ufa, said Putin.
Putin said “authoritative civic and religious associations” had to be more actively drawn into to combat “terrorism, radicalism and extremism above all among youth, migrants and socially disadvantaged groups.”
While terrorist attacks were down, extremist crimes grew by 15%, Putin admitted, a phenomenon that had to be combated with “the most diverse methods and means including modern information technology.” Russia has recently urged Twitter to remove more than 100 accounts it says are “extremists.”
Counter-intelligence had successfully intercepted the activity of “52 cadre officers and 290 foreign agents.” Putin invoked again a picture of Russia has targeted by outside agitators, even as he implied he was available for “dialogue” with the opposition (translation by The Interpreter):
Attempts of Western intelligence agencies have not ceased to use in their ends the civic, non-government organizations and politicized associations. Above all, this is for the discreditation of the government and the destabilization of the internal situation in Russia. Actions are already planed for the period of upcoming election campaigns in 2016-2018.
I have said and will repeat may times: we are ready for dialogue with the opposition, we will continue our partner relations with civil society in the broadest possible meaning of this word. We always listen to those who criticize substantively certain actions or inactions of the government, including at any level.
Such a dialogue, such a partnership are always useful — they are simply necessary for any country including ours. But it is pointless to enter into discussion with those who work on orders from outside in the interests not of their own country but foreign country or foreign countries.
Therefore we will go on paying attention to the presence of foreign sources of financing of non-government organizations, and compare their charters and practical work and any violation must be intercepted.
Already 49 NGOs in Russia have been declared “foreign agents” but Putin did not mention this fact.
Putin said there had been 74 million cyber-attacks on Russia — never mentioning how many of the world’s cyber attacks emanate from Russia itself. He said 25,000 web sites had been discovered with illegal publications, and more than 1,500 extremist sites had been closed. That’s half as many as in 2013, evidently proof of effective control:
We must continue to cleanse the Russian Internet space of unlawful, criminal materials and more actively use modern technologies for this, taking part in the formation of the system of international information security.
Putin claimed this did not involve restricting Internet freedom but of “guaranteeing security and observing the law.” He said Russia would not impede people’s online communications “and posting of lawful, admissible and correct information.”
– Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
A search is under way at the home of Vladimir Tor, a Russian nationalist who led the Russian March, politsovet.ru reported.
The Investigative Committee has evidently opened a case on charges of “extremism,” says politsovet.ru. According to the Russian Public Movement (translation by The Interpreter):
The search is supposedly in connection with a case under Art. 282 regarding the Russian March on November 4, 2014, where Vladimir Tor was an application. After the search, Vladimir Tor will be brought for interrogation to the Investigative Committee’s investigative division for the South West Administrative District.
Others involved in the Russian March are also being searched said Yod News.
Translation: Searches are under way at the homes of organizers of the Russian march — homes of Tor, Dymushkin and others.
Last year’s Russian March had a lower turnout than in past years, with only a few thousand attending. On the eve of the march, Aleksandr Belov (whos real last name is Potkin) the a co-organizer who had submitted a request for the march permit, was arrested and later charged with money-laundering.
The law-enforcement action was yet another indication that the Kremlin may be cracking down on some forms of nationalism, even as others, such as the Rodina (Motherland) Party, have been tacitly encouraged. Rodina organized a conference of conservatives last weekend in St. Petersburg that brought many prominent far-right figures in Europe to meet their counterparts in Russia.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
“art theft” involving Georgy Alburov and Nikita Kulachenkov, associates of Alexey Navalny who have been active in his Anti-Corruption Fund.
Translation: The case of the “stolen painting” given to Navalny by his colleagues as a gift will be heard today in Vladimir Court.
The painting was made by a street artist named Sergei Sotov who works as a janitor and draws in his spare time. The sketch was hanging on a fence on the sidewalk when Navalny’s friends took it. It was not for sale.
At first Sotov denied that the sketch had any value but later under pressure from authorities he provided testimony claiming a theft had taken place.
The painting shows a “bad man” and a “good man,” the former associated with “the Internet” and the latter with “love for the Motherland.”
Alburov appeared in court today. Kulachenkov has gone into hiding.
The case seemed to be among the most far-fetched that the Russian government has come up with to harass Navalny and his associates.
Translation: broadcast from the court in the “poster affair” can be seen here.
Supporters decided to appear with satirical posters made in the same vein as the original painting.
According to a report from Novaya Gazeta, the case, while on simple theft charges under Art. 158 of the Russian criminal code was handled by the national FSB office and the Investigative Committee’s special cases division.
Sotov originally said the painting was not worth more than 100 rubles ($1.74) and said he didn’t want to write a complaint about the missing painting, but was “deceived” by local police and people who “introduced themselves as Vladimir Region officials.”
He said police had come to him and demanded that he put a price on the
missing painting; he replied “I might sell it for 5,000 rubles ($87)”
because “you couldn’t ask a million for it.” Alburov’s lawyer pointed
out that the work was not signed and Sotov acknowledged that he did not
sign his works.
The investigation of the case proved a pretext to put Alburov under surveillance and even bring in an art specialist to appraise the painting; at one point billboards with the picture were even put up around Moscow. Prosecutor General Yury Chaika complained to Aleksandr Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee in a letter Alburov discovered among his case materials, saying there was no evidence to try the case.
With all the furor, Sotov stopped displaying his works and removed himself from social media. Alburov’s lawyer said that because the sketch was on a public fence and was not secured, there was no evidence that a theft took place.
In his testimony, Sotov said he had attended an industrial art school and was now living on a pension. A local folk museum once took 12 of his paintings to display. He said his works had disappeared in the past. “The rain washes them away or the glue falls off. And sometimes people take them.” He said he had no notion of going to the police but just put up new pictures, which he enjoyed drawing because “they reflect life.”
Alburov said he believed the case was trumped up in retaliation for the “daching” he had done of high officials. This is a term Navalny’s Fund invented to describe their disclosure of the fancy dachas or resorts that officials had built well beyond their actual salaries, indicating they were involved in some corrupt dealings.
The trial will resume March 31. Alburov faces up to 5 years of imprisonment.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Three suspects in the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov may be released, Kommersant reports today March 26, citing a source close to the investigation.
The case for keeping three of the suspects — Shadid Gubashev, Khamzat Bakhayev and Tamerlan Eskerkhanov — may fall apart as they were handled in one court session when their cases should have been reviewed separately, a violation of the Code of Criminal Procedures by the Basmanny Court, say their lawyers.
A review of their complaints will take place April 1. The Investigative Committee called for their jailing because of the severe nature of the crime and belief that they may flee, but without citing any evidence that they were involved in the murder. Previous press reports indicate that some of them have alibis.
Kommersant also discovered that case materials may have indicated that a total of 25 million rubles ($433,481) was offered for the murder, not just the 5 million ($83,000) said to be given to Zaur Dadayev. The contractor of the murder — who is still not named — was said to offer 5 million to each of the 5 suspects currently in jail, said Kommersant.
But Ivan Gerasimov, lawyer for Zaur Dadayev, the lead suspect in the case, says he knows nothing about either the motivation for the crime or the amount of any supposed contract payment, although he noted that investigators believe the murder was contracted. He also noted that his client had not formally withdrawn his confession.
In a meeting with human rights activists earlier this month, Dadayev said he was tortured and denied his confession. Gerasimov said he was still gathering evidence of his client’s innocence.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Yesterday March 25, 2015 we reported that President Vladimir Putin had issued three decrees granting the title “Guard” to three army units, the 11th and 83rd Separate Assault Brigades of the Airborne Troops and the 38th Separate Communications Regiment.
The text of the award spoke of “massive heroism, bravery, persistence and courage displayed by the personnel in combat actions in defense of the Fatherland and state interests under conditions of armed conflict.”
There was no indication of where the combat had taken place — or when. As we noted, there did not appear to be a connection between these troops and known units in Ukraine verified by journalists.
Dmitry Peskov replied to journalists’ questions that “there could not be and cannot be” any connection between the decrees and Ukraine, News.ru reported yesterday evening.
“We know that Russian armed forces, regular units, did not have and do not have any involvement in these events,” Interfax quoted Peskov as saying.
But there was no indication where the combat did take place. Possibly the awards related to combat in the two Chechen wars of the 1990s.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Russia certainly has many injustices of its own to address. But it’s interesting to see the cases the Prosecutor General has announced the next day after President Vladimir Putin attended the Prosecutor’s annual meeting.
Ponomarev, a reformer who promoted technological innovation and entrepreneurship was forced to go abroad last year after he was vilified in the state media and threatened as the sole member of the Russian parliament to vote against the annexation of the Crimea.
Ponomarev, who left the Just Russia party in 2013 but remains in the party’s Duma faction, has made a number of critical speeches abroad, including expressing his conviction that the government is behind the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
But he has said he has no intention of requesting asylum abroad because he wants to return to Russia, where he is an elected official from Novosibirsk. He said that if his immunity was removed, however, he would not return because he saw no point in walking into a prison sentence.
Last year, Ponomarev was targeted in a government probe of Skolkovo Foundation, a project begun under Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev when he was prime minister but which has fallen into disfavor. Skolkovo’s director was accused of overpaying Ponomarev for investment workshops he held in a number of cities to attract entrepreneurs.
Ponomarev remarked ruefully on his Facebook page about his former colleagues in Just Russia who may support removing his immunity.
In a statement on his Facebook page March 25, Ponomarev said (translation by The Interpreter):
The date for my return to Russia in May approaches. I kept thinking whether they will give me this opportunity or not. Last week, I especially gave about 30 interviews, and everywhere confirmed that in 6-8 weeks I will return [to Russia].
Today I got an answer. According to unconfirmed information, the prosecutor’s office has appealed to the Duma to remove my deputy’s immunity. In honor of what — is not clear. I have three theories: the Skolkovo case was moved forward for some reason; they decided to accuse me of organizing May 6 [the demonstrations on May 6, 2012 on Bolotnaya Square–The Interpreter] (most likely); or they are slapping together a state treason case (it’s unpredictable).
We’ll see. One thing is clear: there are those who do not want to see me in the Motherland. It’s nothing, gentlemen, the wheel of history will soon run over you!
Other cases the Prosecutor General has asked to open are directed against former State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki; Philip Hammond, British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; and Yuliya Tymoshenko of the Ukrainian Batkivshchyna Party, LifeNews reported.
Oleg Mikheyev, a State Duma member of Just Russia, has appealed to Prosecutor General Chaika and asked him to review the statements of a number of foreign politicians and officials regarding the “reunification” of Crimea and Russia, says LifeNews and Izvestiya. Psaki is charged with speaking of the “annexation” of the Crimea and Hammond has called for returning the peninsula to Ukraine. It was not clear how the prosecutor was able to conceive of the extension of Russian law to foreign territories.
Psaki, who is moving to the White House communications staff April 1, recently infuriated Russian state media again by announcing blandly that she hadn’t watched the new propaganda film about the Crimea because it was “too long.”
Earlier this month, the Investigative Committee opened up a case on “extremism” against retired US Gen. Robert Scales for speaking of the need to “kill Russians” fighting in Ukraine to deter further Russian aggression.
These latest calls may indicate a desire of Chaika to have some cases of his own to prove his loyalty to the Kremlin at a time when the Investigative Committee has been getting all the glory, but they could also indicate the role of the prosecutor emphasized by Putin in monitoring violations of the law, ensuring legality and then calling for remedies such as the opening of criminal cases or stripping of immunity for a parliamentarian.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
At the annual meeting of the Prosecutor General’s office on March 24, Putin called for price controls admidst the economic crisis and also to step up the battle against “extremists” and end the failure to open up criminal cases, Kommersant and other Russian media reported.
Russian press coverage mainly focused on Putin’s call on the prosecutors to “monitor facts of unfounded price rises on agricultural and food products.”
The Kremlin’s campaign to force farmers and merchants hobbled by the ban on foreign imports as well as the economic crisis not to raise their prices is yet another indication of how Russia has an increasingly state-controlled market.
At a government meeting yesterday March 25, Putin heard reports on the increase in pensions by 11% which is supposed to cover the gap many elderly and disabled people are now experiencing as they cannot buy basic groceries to survive.
But as this increase is still not enough, Putin is hoping to use the criminal justice system to stop price hikes, although he conceded that there might be “seasonal rises” on some produce.
“Unregulated actions of resellers, wholesalers, and retail merchants who arbitrarily raise their prices must receive the appropriate legal appraisal,” he warned.
On March 24, Kommersant reported that tea — which Russians consider a staple of their diet — will go up 30% in cost in April. Major produce networks have already received notice from suppliers of these impending price hikes. In order to cope with this crisis for consumers, merchants are asking the State Duma and the government to reduce taxes from 18% to 10% on tea and coffee producers.
Companies which have sent out notices are Unilever, which makes Brooke Bond, Lipton and Beseda brands and Dilmah, a Ceylonese tea company. Auchan, the supermarket chain, has also reported the warnings. According to Kommersant, Roschaykofe, a tea and coffee agency, says 85% of the tea consumed in Russia is produced within the country. But only 0.02 percent of the tea leaves are grown in Krasnodar Territory – the rest are imported.
Another topic at the meeting was extremism, Ruposters.ru reported.
“We must immediately and firmly react to an calls to unlawful actions, to violence, to mass disorders,” TASS quoted Putin as saying.
If there has been some confusion between the roles of the Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor General, Putin outlined the Prosecutor’s core mission:
“The key tasks of the prosecutor’s corps remain as before, the reinforcement of law and order, the reliable protection of civil rights and liberties, the fight against the criminal world, bureaucratic abuse and corruption.”
Putin praised the prosecutor’s office for blocking 3,000 Internet sites where there was “information of an extremist nature.” He also praised the “improvement of law, order and discipline in the troops, and the payment to citizens of wages delayed by employers totaling about 8 billion rubles” (about $139 million).
He also acknowledged the prosecutors’ role in “the integration of the Crimea and Sevastopol into the Russian legal system.”
Putin’s one complaint was the number of crimes that law-enforcers refused to investigate — “2.5 million unlawful notices about refusal to open criminal cases” and “450,000 decisions to suspend or end investigations of cases.” This may be a veiled hint about bribes paid to law-enforcement, or the reluctance of local prosecutors to challenge various mafias or officials.
This sort of laxity made people doubt the justice system “and the ability of the state to restore justice protect their rights, security, personal dignity and property,” said Putin.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick