LIVE UPDATES: Reuters has reported on real estate deals related to Russian President Vladimir Putin involving his daughter and alleged mistress, based on investigative reporting by Novaya Gazeta‘s Roman Amin.
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:
– Getting The News From Chechnya â The Crackdown On Free Press You May Have Missed
– Aurangzeb, Putin, Realism and a Lesson from History
– Why the World Should Care About the Assassination of Boris Nemtsov
– How Boris Nemtsov Was Murdered: Investigation by Novaya Gazeta
– How Stalin Returned to Russian Contemporary Life – Meduza
In announcing his “withdrawal” from Syria, a draw down which never happened, President Vladimir Putin said that “2,000 bandits” were killed in Syria in Russia’s bombing campaign, adding the phrase “native Russians, including 17 field commanders,” so that it was somewhat unclear as to whether all those killed were actually fighters from Russia (or other former Soviet republics) or whether some were local opposition.
Before the campaign, Russia had said that there were “2,700” fighters from Russia, mainly the North Caucasus, fighting in Syria, and that authorities were stepping up efforts to prevent their return or catch them if they did. On the eve of the bombing campaign in September, one man was tried for helping ISIS, but in fact, there have been very few cases showing any actual dent in the figure of “2,700” — which again, is a figure that may or may not be related to the “2,000 killed in Syria,” i.e. we don’t know if there are now “700” left or a lot more.
Yesterday, March 29, Russian authorities reported that 20 Islamic State followers were rounded up in Moscow and charged with recruiting new fighters for the terrorist organization, Business Insider and Reuters reported.
“During a joint operation of the FSB (Federal Security Service) and the police, around twenty people suspected of connections to ISIS (Islamic State) were arrested,” RIA quoted the source as saying.
The FSB could not immediately be reached for comment; the police declined to discuss the matter.
“According to preliminary information, they were searching for and recruiting new members in Moscow,” RIA said, citing the source.
RIA said the majority of those arrested were citizens of the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. They had fake documents, including false Turkish driving licenses, it said.
“The recruiters forged the ID which which members of the terrorist group could enter Russia or leave other countries.”
“The majority of the detainees are emigres from Uzbekistan but ID made out to citizens of various countries, including Turkey, were confiscated.”
There are far less of such remittance workers who account for a large chunk of their homelands GDP than there were before the global downturn in the economy and now the worsening Russian economic crisis.
Uzbeks are a Turkic people with close cultural and language ties to Turkey. Tashkent’s relations with Ankara have not suffered in the same way as Russia’s ties after boycotts following the downing by Turkey of a Russian fighter plane near the Soviet border.
But Uzbekistan, too, periodically clears out markets and home-made prayer rooms and construction site of Turks they suspect of Islamism or dissent against the autocratic regime of Islam Karimov, who has asked Russia to help him crack down on Islamists.
Uzbekistan’s conditions for any kind of non-state-sanctioned Islamic activity, as well as the work of non-governmental groups and small businesses, grew far worse after the 2005 massacre of protesters in Andijan.
That’s served as another impetus for people to make their way to live even as a labor migrant in Russia, where conditions are not has harsh. The militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, sometimes described as decimated and “no longer in existence” in fact persists and is responsible for the deaths of American soldiers as well as civilians in a number of terrorist attacks, but it is not known how many supporters it has in the region.
In a related development, a young man in Ingushetia said to have fought with ISIS in Syria has been arrested and has been reported today, March 31, as under investigation for “participation in an illegal armed formation,” Caucasian Knot reports.
According to the web site of the Investigative Committee’s branch in Ingushetia, a man whose name is not given, age 24, was arrested for traveling to Syria and volunteering for ISIS in 2014 — which would mean long before the bombing campaign began in September 2015.
“Moreover, he did not take measures to voluntarily cease his participation in armed conflict,” the Investigative Committee stated – which suggests that they attempted to get him to do just that, and opens up the prospect that before the arrest, they may have looked the other way while he left Ingushetia to join ISIS.
The man could face 5-10 years of imprisonment if found guilty. Caucasian Knot was unable to get any more information or comments from authorities. The practice with these cases is to try the suspect in closed military courts.
It’s difficult to tell in a climate where the Russian police are making large crackdowns all over, such as on Roma community members tapping gas lines, or in the detention of 167 mafia members at a meet-up in Yekaterinburg, whether these Uzbeks are terrorists or petty criminals or both, and what the story is with the Ingush, given that in another case, an accused fighter was able to present a substantial alibi that he was studying in Turkey.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The damage to the doors of the Russian intelligence building on Lubyanka Square, the current home of the Federal Security Service (FSB), from a fire set by artist Pyotr Pavlensky has been assessed at 480,000 rubles ($7,151), Interfax reports.
At a hearing in Moscow’s Tagansky Court today, March 31, Pavlensky’s lawyer Olga Dunza told Interfax that the charges, based on what was read out by the prosecutor, have now been changed to “damage of a cultural heritage building.”
Translation: the damage from the burning by Pavlensky of the FSB’s doors is valued at 500,000 rubles.
The prosecutor petitioned against Dunze’s appeal to have her client released pending trial, and the court agreed to extend his pre-trial attention to May 5 (not April 5 as was reported yesterday).
As we noted, the prosecutor has also upped the ante regarding the nature of Pavlensky’s offense by claiming the Lubyanka is a building that is designated as a cultural treasure.
It’s not exactly clear what this is based on, although as we noted, parts of the FSB complex, formerly housing the KGB and its predecessors the NKVD, OGPU and Cheka, have historical value because they were built in the 19th century and Lenin and Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the chief of his secret police, walked in their hallways.
The prosecutor didn’t mention the Cheka, or reference the buildings’ actual age as an architectural gem (of sorts) or Lenin — all points made by the Cultural Ministry’s entry to its official historic sites registry for the building at 11 Bol’shaya Lubyanka — although 20 Bol’shaya Lubyanka, the formal address of the FSB, does not appear to be included.
Instead, he harked back to the Stalin era (translation by The Interpreter):
“According to the investigation, Pavlensky had the intent to damage a specific part of the building from he ensemble of administrative buildings of the OGPU, KGB and NKVD. In this ensemble of buildings in the 1930s, outstanding civic figures and figures of science were detained.”
This could be a reference to figures like the revolutionary Nikolai Bukharin, poet Osip Mandalshtam, and many others who were interrogated at the Lubyanka — the collective term used by Russians for this set of buildings — in 1938 before being sent to their deaths.
The prosecutor avoided referencing any by name — they include more recent figures like Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and Nobel literature laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It is hard to convey the significance of the Lubyanka doors in the mind of Russians, through which hundreds of thousands of people passed on their way to interrogations, torture, forced labor and often execution.
The most notorious internal prison at Lubyanka was closed in 1961; its last occupant was Gary Francis Powers, the US CIA pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union; it was then turned into an employees’ cafeteria.
Today’s political prisoners and other special cases of relevance to state security, broadly understood, tend to be taken to another former KGB detention center at Lefortovo Prison, now under the Ministry of Justice; that’s where Sergei Magnitsky died and where the suspects in the murder of Boris Nemtsov were taken.
In any event, Pavlensky’s staged protest, which already yielded hours of bizarre testimony on the history of art movements at his initial hearings, has continued to produce more colorful copy than perhaps even he intended.
For his part, he would like to be charged with terrorism, although so far the prosecutors have not given him that satisfaction.
On March 28, as we reported, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Western media was preparing an “informational attack” on President Vladimir Putin and his relatives.
He said an “international group of journalists” was preparing a story, Bloomberg reported:
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is seeking comment on dozens of questions concerning “Putin personally” as well as “information about his family, childhood friends,” and business allies including Yuri Kovalchuk and Arkady Rotenberg, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Monday.
The ICIJ itself had no comment at that time and didn’t acknowledge the story, but it made sense as they had previously published a study of post-Soviet oligarchs in London.
But meanwhile, another story has come out from Reuters, with reference not to ICIJ but another a report by journalist Roman Amin, head of the independent Novaya Gazeta’s investigative section for another investigative organization, Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an East European media network, funded by the Soros Foundations, USAID and the Swiss government. Amin is also part of Reuters’ investigative team.
His report concerns three women connected to Vladimir Putin. They are his younger daughter, Katerina Tikhonova, a senior official at Moscow State University married to businessman Kirill Shamalov, son of billionaire Nikolai Shamalov, a close associate of Putin’s; Alina Kabayeva (Kabaeva), a former Olympic gymnast often described as Putin’s mistress and her sister, Leysan Kabayeva. Also mentioned is Anna Zatsepilina, the Kabayevs’ grandmother, age 81, technically owner of some of the property involved. Says Reuters:
Public records show Grigory Baevsky, a 47-year-old business associate of an old friend of Putin, sold or transferred the properties to three of the women. In the other case, Putin’s younger child, Katerina Tikhonova, used the address of a flat owned by Baevsky as her own when registering a new company.
Public records show that companies co-owned by Baevsky have benefited from state construction contracts worth at least 6 billion rubles ($89 million) in the past two years.
Baevsky has previously attracted little attention. His connection to Putin was uncovered by investigative journalist Roman Anin who was conducting research for the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an East European media network.
Baevsky is a former property manager for a state company in St Petersburg. In 2006, he founded a dacha cooperative near the city with Arkady Rotenberg and Rotenberg’s brother Boris, public records show.
Baevsky went into business with the Rotenbergs in 2011, working until 2014 as a director at Arkady Rotenberg’s investment vehicle, the Russian Holding company, according to corporate filings. Public records also show he was declared as an ‘affiliated person’ of SMP Bank, which is majority-owned by the brothers.
Arkady Rotenberg was among the first Russian businessmen to be put under Western visa bans and asset freezes over Moscow’s seizure of Crimea. According to the U.S. Treasury, Rotenberg and his brother Boris have won billions of dollars from projects awarded to them by Putin. The brothers have denied getting help from the Russian leader for their businesses.
Reuters sent questions about the property deals to Baevsky’s last known home address, and to businesses owned by him, but received no response.
The property manager and Putin's friends
LONDON/MOSCOW A little-known Russian businessman from St Petersburg has provided properties to multiple women who share one common theme: President Vladimir Putin. One of the women is Putin's younger daughter; two are close relatives of a woman Russian media have reported to be Putin's girlfriend – though the president has strongly denied any relationship.
The funders of the journalists’ organization will likely be seized on by Russian state media or government officials to discredit the findings – the foundations of billionaire George Soros, who was forced to pull his foundation out of Moscow some years ago with increasing difficulties from the Putin Administration; USAID, the US government’s development agency, and the Swiss government.
The Kremlin will say the same about any foreign funding to discredit critical studies — or for that matter the involvement of any opposition figures like Alexei Navalny even without any foreign funding, as with his Anti-Corruption Foundation’s research on Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika.
But Anin’s work involves finding public records and just paying attention to how the networks line up from open source media and social media reports — a painstaking and time-consuming job. He has produced a number of other important investigative stories including on the Russian “laundromat” or money-laundering schemes and also tracked the money trail around the figures implicated in the death following torture in prison of Sergei Magnitsky.
Some of the real estate activity related to Putin centers around the Ozero [Lake] Cooperative of dachas or cottages in which Shamalov, Yury Kovalchuk, sometimes described as “Putin’s personal banker,” and Vladimir Yakunin, who retired from Russian Railways last year.