Putin Claims Pardon of Savchenko ‘Dictated by Considerations of Humanism,’ But Needed GRU Officers

May 25, 2016
President Vladimir Putin meets at the Kremlin on March 23, 2016 with Marianna Voloshina (L) and Yekaterina Kornelyuk, widows of state journalists Anton Voloshin and Igor Kornelyuk, at the Kremlin. Photo by Presidential Press Service/kremlin.ru

LIVE UPDATES: President Vladimir Putin said he was “dictated by considerations of humanism” in his release of Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko although he received two GRU agents in return.

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.

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Ekho Mosky Radio Show by Independent Journalist Albats Cancelled; Editor Venediktov ‘Furious’

In yet another indication of Russia’s vanishing press freedoms, a popular critical show by prominent independent journalist Yevgeniya Albats, editor of New Times, has been cancelled due to refusal of the host to sign a contract involving censorship, Open Russia reported.

The editor and journalists at Ekho Moskvy have rushed to explain the situation as their readers showered them with queries on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook — all Western-developed social media sites where increasingly Russians have gone to have uncensored discussions.

First, Venediktov said he would get to the bottom of it: 

Then he posted an image of an angry cartoon character, which elicited a sharp comment from a reader who blamed him for the situation and criticized his recent mild posts.

Translation: This is me on the ‘Albats Incident’.

He received pushback:

Translation: @Mary_Read_9 Ridiculous. For a whole month, you’ve been silent, and since others have written about this, you’re suppoesd furious. But for a whole month you’ve been posting girls and Game of Thrones

Venediktov had a sharp comeback, evidently referring to the conservative military expert and journalist Igor Korotchenko:

Translation: Mary, I’m not Korotchenko after all, so as to post boys.

He then had a more serious comment: 

Translation: I am furious about the story with Albats.

Vladimir Varfolomeyev, the deputy editor of Ekho Moskvy commented: 

Translation: Regarding the ‘Total Albats’ program: the broadcast was NOT closed. But due to the lack of a contract, the host wasn’t present. I hope she will return to the air soon.

Venediktov then had more details: 

Translation: The Administration has made a contract with censorship, but Albats didn’t sign it.

Albats, who has been covering the prisoner exchange, has not posted any comment on Twitter or Facebook yet but did give a comment to Open Russia (translation by The Interpreter):

“The contract indicts that I do not have the right to ask questions that are not cleared with the general director, to raise topics that aren’t cleared and so on. Again, I believe that these are questions for the editor-in-chief because he is the one to decide this issue. I’m the editor-in-chief of the New Times, for example, and I am the one to decide whether material goes in, in the end, or not and it’s a secondary issue as to what it is worthy. I think that this question is for Venediktov. I think that he has enough power at Ekho Moskvy so that the contract with me would be signed which will not violate the law on the media, not violate the authorities of the editor-in-chief, and which does not contradict the Russian Constitution, which forbids censorship.”

By holding Venediktov responsible, Albats may be indicating a sentiment held by other independent journalists that Venediktov, who admits that he takes phone calls from the Kremlin, may have become more accommodating to the government.

Last year, Venediktov was embroiled in a major controversy at Ekho Moskvy, when one of his reporters, Aleksandr Plyushchev tweeted a sarcastic remark about the death of the son of Sergei Ivanov, chief of the presidential staff and close associate of Putin. Government officials called for Plyushchev’s head.

At that time, Venediktov had to negotiate with the late Mikhail Lesin, who at that time was still head of Gazprom Media, the media corporation of the Russian state gas monopoly and majority owner of Ekho Moskvy. (Lesin was found dead under mysterious circumstances in a Washington, DC hotel in November 2015; by that time he had already stepped down from the Gazprom position.) 

After tense negotiations for days, during which rumors circulated that Venediktov himself would be fired by the Ekho Moskvy board, ultimately Plyushchev was only put on leave but not fired, and Venediktov remained – but with a pledge to create a “code of conduct” for the radio. The drafting of this document was taken by his assistant at the time, Lesya Ryabtseva, who cooperated with government experts in the process.

This and other incidents earned sharp criticism from Russian journalists. Ryabtseva ultimately resigned to work on other media projects, and confessed in sensational interviews that she had conspired with pro-Kremlin propagandist Konstantin Rykov to deliberately infiltrate and spy on Ekho Moskvy and hack their servers. She said they should expect “criminal cases” soon.

Albats, who has been covering the prisoner exchange, has not yet commented directly on Facebook or Twitter about the censorship and the contract, but gave this comment to Open Russia: 

“The contract indicts that I do not have the right to ask questions that are not cleared with the general director, to raise topics that aren’t cleared and so on. Again, I believe that these are questions for the editor-in-chief because he is the one to decide this issue. I’m the editor-in-chief of the New Times, for example, and I am the one to decide whether material goes in, in the end, or not and it’s a secondary issue as to what it is worthy. I think that this question is for Venediktov. I think that he has enough power at Ekho Moskvy so that the contract with me would be signed which will not violate the law on the media, not violate the authorities of the editor-in-chief, and which does not contradict the Russian Constitution, which forbids censorship.”

Open Russia then obtained more details from Venediktov:

“I confirm this [that Albats was offered a contract with censor restrictions–Open Russia]. I can also add that I am absolutely furious at this, because there has not, is not and will not be censorship at Ekho Moskvy. I understand Yevgeniya Markovna [Albats’ patronymic]. I unfortunately learned about the presence of such elements in the contract late last week, and I will do everything in the remaining days so that Yevgeniya Markovna returns to the air on June 1.

Under the charter of Ekho Moskvy, Ltd. the editor-in-chief is responsible for editorial policy. All the restrictions and additions to the rights and duties of the journalists is my affair, and not that of the general director. Here, as with the story of Aleksandr Plyushchev, we see intrusion into the competency of the editor-in-chief.

Naturally I do not accept the contract in this form and believe that it cannot be signed in this form since it significantly influences editorial policy.
There is an introduction of a prohibition on mentioning topics not cleared, as it is written in the contract, and information that is not cleared….I want to ask: cleared with whom? It doesn’t have to be cleared with me. Or, for example, to not air text violating commonly-accepted norms of morality. Or not to air swear words and expressions in any language. What are swear expressions? The word “goat” — is that a swear word?

I am categorically against this [a prohibition], I have initiated the creation of a legal group with representatives of the administration and the editorial bird and have asked Gazprom-media, our shareholder, to take part in this legal group so that the contract is subjected to re-working and is accepted by the administration, Yevgeny Albats, the editor-in-chief, and the laws of the Russian Federation.

Therefore, I am furious: I have lost the program of a journalist whom I invited on the air. If there appear other such contracts they will also e subject to correction.”

It’s not clear which programs may have irritated the authorities although Albats has been reporting extensively on the Panama Papers and recently on the pressure on RBC managers and editors.

Venediktov himself tweeted a link to her last program that may have angered Russian intelligence:

Translation: Albats: Much of the land that was owned by FSB [Federal Security Service] agents, and then ended up outside the fatherland was in all kinds of offshores. 

Albats also wrote about the criminal investigation of RBC’s manager — which no other outlet covered.

The importance — and controversy — of the show is summed up in the title the editors gave it: “Pol’ny Albats,” or “Total Albats.”

To understand the punch of this title for Russians, some explanation is needed. Yevgeniya’s last name “Albats” ends in “ts”. It reminds people of a swear word in Russian with the same ending, “pizdets” which could be translated as “fucked-up situation” or literally “cuntery.” The word is often used by Russians in a bound phrase “pol’ny pizdets” (totally fucked up) to indicate an expression of shock or surprise or a kind of Russian FUBAR.

The other background information that is important to understand relates to Ekho Moskvy’s general director — a figure who in theory would be only involved with the business side of a media outlet but who in Russia can interfere with editorial decisions.

Yekaterina Pavlova is the wife of Aleksey Pavlov, a deputy head of the President’s Office for Press and Information; his boss is the well-recognized Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. She is said to be close to Margarita Simonyan, the head of RT, and others involved in managing state media. 

Lesin’s replacement at Gazprom media is Dmitry Chernyshenko, organizer of the Sochi Olympics and manager of the Volga Group, which handles the assets of Gennady Timchenko, an oligarch who is a close associate of Putin’s, placed on the US sanctions list for his role in sponsoring the annexation of Crimea.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

TV Rain Posts Stark Contrast Between Receptions at Home of Ukraine’s Savchenko and Russia’s GRU Officers
TV Rain, the last independent TV channel in Russia under constant threat of closure, has posted on Facebook two contrasting film clips showing the stark difference between how Nadiya Savchenko, the Ukrainian soldier taken captive by Russian-backed militants and held in a Russian prison for 709 days was greeted, and how two GRU officers, Aleksandr Aleksandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev were met.

Телеканал Дождь | Facebook

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May 25, 2016 19:38 (GMT)

On the left is Savchenko arriving at Boryspil Airport in Kiev to a cheering crowd, giving a rousing speech about her determination to fight for Ukraine and expressing sorrow about all those killed in the war in Ukraine and those Ukrainians who remain as POWs and political prisoners of Russia.

On the right, the two GRU officers, greeted only by their own wives, and silently filmed by the Kremlin’s propaganda channel, RT, which was not allowed to ask them any questions. They did not issue any statements.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

Col. Igor Strelkov of Donbass Infamy Denounces Exchange of Savchenko for 2 GRU Agents as ‘Unequal’ as They Are ‘Nobodies for Russia’

Col. Igor Strelkov (Girkin), the former head of the armed forces of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” criticized the prisoner exchange of Ukrainian military officer Nadiya Savchenko for two GRU agents, Aleksandr Aleksandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, Gazeta.ru reported.

“On the whole, there is the impression that the [Russian government] is trying to cover or mask its lack of decisiveness by some petty agreements without resolving the main problem. The exchange is not equal from a moral point of view. I understand that our two military men had to be freed. However they [Aleksandrov and Yerofeyev] are nobodies for Russia, but Savchenko will be presented as a national heroine for Ukraine who fought against Russia, and Ukraine did not abandon her. They [the Ukrainian authorities] will get an additional stimulus from the fact that such people as Savchenko have been fruitful and multiplied in a much larger quantity.”

Strelkov’s admission that there wasn’t any popular campaign for the release of these GRU agents in Russia, much less a drive to make them heroes fighting for Russia, was largely a function of the government’s refusal to admit they were on active duty or even related to military intelligence.

Strelkov also pointed out that in his opinion, the Russian authorities renounced Aleksandrov and Yerofyev after they were taken as POWs. “That is, they demonstrated just the opposite from the Ukrainian government’s attitude toward Savchenko,” Gazeta reported him as saying. 

The Russian authorities did not comment or act upon the capture of the GRU agents at first, and only reluctantly began negotiating with Ukraine later. As Strelkov commented: 

“Accordingly, the dividends will be completely different. Ukraine is using the release of Savchenko to raise a wave of pseudo-patriotic, Ukrainian hysterics, but the [Russian] government cannot extract practically anything out of this.”

Savchenko was accused falsely by the Russian government of involvement in the shelling of a Russian-backed separatist checkpoint at which 2 Russian state journalists were killed.

Putin’s engineering of the request for clemency from the journalists’ widows — who have never been heard to make this plea before this date and whose meeting with Putin in March was kept secret until now — seemed designed to keep maximum distance of the Kremlin from the exchange, portraying it as “humanitarian.”
Valentina Matvienko, the conservative speaker of the Federation Council or upper chamber of parliament also sought to spin the exchange:

“This is not an exchange. Russia and Ukraine ratified the European Convention on Extradition of convicts for serving sentences in other countries. Such a rendition occurred — just as a rendition of Savchenko to Ukraine was made, so a rendition on appeal from Russia of our two citizens was made.”

Kremlin spokesmen and Russia state media continue to call the two GRU agents “Russian citizens” and deny that they were military men on active duty.

No journalist, even from the state media, has been allowed to get an interview with the two GRU soldiers since their release, and there’s simply been a news blackout in Russia on where they will go next. 

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

Russian GRU Agents Fly to Moscow; Greeted by Wives at Vnukovo Airport; Only State Press Allowed to Cover

Aleksandr Aleksandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, two GRU agents captured by Ukrainian forces and pardoned by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, were released today and allowed to return home in exchange for imprisoned Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, pardoned by President Vladimir Putin, Gazeta.ru reported.

The two were met by their wives at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport when they arrived after the prisoner exchange. 

Gazeta.ru has a live broadcast from the airport and liveblog on the exchange here.

Putin praised the relatives of the journalists killed for whom Russia continued to blame Savchenko.

Translation: Putin to the relatives of the journalists killed: Your act could avoid such terrible and needless losses.

Pavel Kanygin, a journalist from Novaya Gazeta who published a lengthy interview with Aleksandrov last year, said that only state journalists were allowed into the airport to see the released prisoners:

I don’t know what went on in Borispol. But here in our country, only Russia Today, Channel One and NTV were allowed in to a special terminal at Vnukovo  to the meeting with returness Yerofeyev and Aleksandrov. And they didn’t allow them to ask questions, but only to make silent footage.

Only the two wives of the GRU agents were allowed to meet them, other relatives had to remain behind a cordon.

Translation: Russian citizens Yerofeyev and Aleksandrov returned to the motherland.

RT did not admit that the two prisoners released were GRU agents, although the men themselves testified to this. RT described them as “supposedly Russian military” and repeated the official version of the Russian Defense Ministry about their case: that they were merely “citizens of Russia” who were “not military on active duty in the Russian Federation Armed Forces.” Aleksandrov, however, reported to Kanygin that they were on active duty at the time of their capture. 

'I Was on Active Duty': Interview with Captured GRU Officer Aleksandrov

Pavel Kanygin, a war correspondent for Novaya Gazeta, was arrested by Russian-backed separatist forces on June 16, beaten and interrogated, and then deported the next day back to Russia. It was the second such detention he had suffered at the hands of militants from the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" in a year.

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May 25, 2016 17:46 (GMT)

Gazeta.ru, a relatively independent news site, included a tweet by journalist Noah Sneider to make the point about the exchanged prisoners’ status.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Putin Claims Pardon of Savchenko ‘Dictated by Considerations of Humanism,’ But Needed GRU Agents

President Vladimir Putin pardoned Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko today, claiming his action was “dictated by considerations of humanism,” Novoye Vremya reported, citing Interfax (read our live updates here).

As Interfax Ukraine reported, Putin said he was moved to make the pardon of Savchenko, whose release has been vigorously advocated by Ukrainians as well as Western governments and human rights groups, by a request from the widows of the journalists (translation by The Interpreter):

“I would like to express the hope that such decisions, dictated above all by considerations of humanism, will lead to a reduction of the conflict in the well-known zone of conflict and will help avoid such horrible and unnecessary losses.”

The “the well-known zone of conflict” that Putin couldn’t name is Ukraine, where he has not acknowledged that Russian tanks and troops are waging war. And he did not mention what may have been his real motive — obtaining the return to Russia of two GRU agents captured by Ukraine, Aleksandr Aleksandrov and Yerofeyev.

The presence of the two GRU officers has been a constant reminder of the Russian army’s actual involvement in Ukraine, denied by the Kremlin, which has maintained that only “volunteers” are fighting in the Donbass.

Aleksandrov stated to a Russian reporter, Pavel Kanygin, last year that he was “on active duty” as a contract worker soldier.

Putin said on March 23, the relatives of Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, a reporter and sound engineer from state TV killed July 8, 2014, requested that he pardon Savchenko.

“I want to thank you for that position,” Putin was quoted as saying.

Putin’s choice of the term “dictated” might have better been used about his own authorization of jailing Savchenko in the first place, although there was no evidence that she had committed the crime she was charged with — spotting for Ukrainian armed forces who bombed a Russian-backed checkpoint at which two Russian state journalists were killed.

Her defense was able to show that she was captured and was being interrogated by fighters of the self-declared “Lugansk People’s Republic” even before the two journalists were killed.

As we reported, the two reporters were not wearing protective gear and were exposed at the checkpoint — a legitimate target in war — when a shell landed that did not detonate immediately. The Russian Union of Journalists urged government media to require mandatory bullet-proof vests and helmets after the deaths.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick