Russia Update: Moscow To Ban Food Imports From Ukraine From January 1

November 18, 2015
Photo by Stepan Petrenko/TASS

The Russian economic development minister, Alexei Ulyukayev, has announced that an embargo on all Ukrainian food imports will be introduced from January 1, 2016.

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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US Embassy Exposes Izvestiya Fake Letter of ‘State Department’ to Controversial Russian Gay Activist

The Russian-language US Embassy Twitter account in Russia has uncovered an obvious forgery used by the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestiya in a disinformation claim to discredit a gay activst.

The letter purports to be on US State Department stationery to a well-known gay rights activist, Nikolai Alekseyev, from an official named Randy Berry.

But a cursory examination showed the letter was fake. 

Translation: Next time when you’re using fake letters, send them to us, we’ll help fix the mistakes.

In forging the letter, the Russians made the classic mistake often made by Russians speaking English – the grammatical articles are dropped. The Russian language does not have “the” and “an” in the same way English and other languages do, and has other ways of indicating specific items through stresses, word order or adjectives.

The US Embassy wrote in hand at the bottom of the letter in somewhat stilted Russian:

Dear Izvestiya,

Next time when you use fake letters, send [them] to us — we will be happy to help you correct mistakesn.
Sincerely Yours,
Gosdep

The Embassy used the nickname for the State Department in the Russian media, “Gosdep,” which stands for gosudarstvenny department.

Randy Berry is a real official; he is special envoy for the human rights of LGBT persons, but he did not write any such letter. 

The Twitter account @UsEmRu has been a lively source of comments on Russia, sometimes more pointed than from the official commentary from Washington.

“LGBT Activists Used to Discredit Russian Officials,” blared the Izvestiya headline yesterday November 18, 2015 (translation by The Interpreter):

“On orders from the US State Department, most effective members of government and administration attempt to accuse in non-traditional sexual orientation,” said the sub-head, using the awkward but preferred phrase for “gays” used by the Russian government. 

Political scientists polled by Izvestiya believe that the US State Department may be behind accusations regarding the homosexuality of prominent Russian politicians; in the opinion of experts, sex-minority activists earn grants received from the American government, among others. In fact, they chose the most effective Russian officials.

In May 2015, Russian LGBT rights activist Nikolai Alekseyev said on the radio station Ekho Moskvy that Vyacheslav Volodin, the Kremlin aide; German Gref, the head of Sberbank; and Mikhail Vasilenko, head of Sheremetyevo Airport; were supposedly homosexuals. Meanwhile on the site GayRussia, controlled by Alekseyev, an article appeared by Russian Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin quoting his Twitter statement that the West will collapse under the “grip of ISIL and gays.”

In a climate of widespread anti-gay sentiment, accusation of public figures as “gay” is a common technique to discredit them in Russia, regardless of their actual sexual preferences.
Izvestiya claimed the “State Department letter” was uncovered by hackers and cited Sergei Chernyakovsky, a political analyst, who said the selection of the targets was ostensibly because they were associated with successful anti-opposition campaigns. Volodin is associated most with the crushing of the “white ribbon” demonstrations by opposition leader Aleksei Volodin, slain leader Boris Nemtsov and others in 2011-2012.
Sergei Markov, the former representative of Carnegie Endowment in Moscow and now a member of parliament, often engaged in sharp anti-American polemics said Alekseyev’s statement was meant to ruin Volodin’s reputation, as he associated with domestics politics and Rogin’s as he is responsible to defense and space and others who have “a significant role” in Russian politics.
Alekseyev’s radio show appeared on May 25, 2013, at a time when he attempted to organize a gay parade in Moscow.
The participants were beaten and dispersed as the event didn’t have an official permit. On the show, Alekseyev made his unsubstantiated accusations that certain officials were closet gays, which supposedly explained their oppression of their fellow gays.
As readers of Andrei Malgin’s Live Journal blog post about the Izvestiya article, thanks to Izvestiya and the “Barbara Streisand effect,” now millions of Russians would learn about these claims instead of the few hundred thousand mainly in Moscow who would have listened to Ekho Moskvy’s radio show two years ago.
President Vladimir Putin himself, during an interview with the US journalist Charlie Rose in September, objected to claims of Western critics that Russia suppresses gay rights, saying he himself had given awards for good service to unspecified people in the LGBT community. He was reiterating statements reported by the AP before the Sochi Olympics.

Putin has also made a point of giving awards to notorious anti-gay figures such as Vitaly Milonov, the St. Petersburg lawmaker who launched the anti-gay propaganda law.

Alekseyev himself is controversial figure in his own terms and is widely-traveled and publicized; when he appeared on Ekho Moskvy, some listeners texted that he himself was a provocateur within the gay movement.

From his first attempt at a gay demonstration in 2005, other gays denounced him as “a provocation of officials,” since they believed he cooperated with the presidential administration to make the gay movement radical and visible, and then attract a police crackdown and angry public opinion.

These types of accusations are common in social movements in Russia where groups are split about tactics given the reality of state oppression and where it is easy to believe someone is a secret police informer given Soviet history. An American blogger accused Alekseyev of collaborating with the Kremlin when he claimed that a new anti-gay law would not be enforced, when it fact it was to charge a solo picketer.

As Ekho Moskvy host Timur Olevsky commented during the talk show:

The co-organizer of the gay parade in Moscow, Nikolai Bayev, an acquaintance of Alekseyev, Nikolai Alekseyev believes that he is too rigid, and that this harms the cause of the gay community, however even so, he says that only coming out, only publicly emerging from the shadows, that is designating the right to be yourself, can help the LGBT movement in Russia.

Alekseyev has been arrested numerous times both for his attempt to stage the gay parades and campaign for same-sex marriages in Russia, where they are outlawed. He has also launched winning cases before the European Court of Human Rights on gay rights. 
But he also became controversial in the West in August 2013 when he made a series of antisemitic comments on Twitter and Facebook about Advocate editor Matthew Breen and the magazine OUT. As a result, the organization Human Rights First, which had been active on promoting non-discrimination and tolerance of racial minorities and LGBYT withdrew from a planned conference call with Alekseyev. Alekseyev’s social media outbursts at the time then culminated in slamming Peter Tachell’s “Love Russia, Hate Homophobia” campaign.  Finally, he issued a death threat to Michael Lucas, a Jewish American with Russian and Israeli roots. Alekseyev then claimed to quit LGBT activism after the scandals.

Kremlin propagandists know they can count on their audience to take their campaigns both literally and in reverse; some will see the “expose” as true and some will see it as obviously false, but with an agenda related to domestic politics. Either way, the LGBT community will lose in Russia.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

Two Russian Scientists Sentenced to 9, 14 Years of Imprisonment on Espionage Charges
Moscow City Court has sentenced physicist Maksim Lydomirsky to 9 years of strict-regimen labor colony for treason against the state, Interfax and Novaya Gazeta report.
The case is marked “secret” so little is known about it, and the trial took place behind closed doors.
Ludomirsky’s arrest became known in late July. The scientist was alleged to have been to co-owner of Elektrooptika, a scientific firm which specialized in the development and manufacture of laser and navigational systems used by the latest generations of weapons. Lyudomirsky is the author of several scientific articles on laser technology.
Another scientist was also recently sentenced for treason against the state to 14 years of prison in September. He is radio engineer Gennady Kravtsov, who was accused of sending an e-mail to a Swedish organization that supposedly contained classified information. Investigators believe he indicated his position as a GRU employee at the time and leaked secret information about Russia’s space program.
These two cases are part of a wave of espionage cases that have occurred in the last year about which little is known and indicate that, as in the Soviet era, the Kremlin is cracking down on suspected ties to foreigners, in concert with the campaign to register NGOs as “foreign agents.”

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

Suspected Organizer of Nemtsov Murder Mukhudinov Illegally Fled Russia, Says Investigative Committee
The driver of a Chechen Interior Ministry troops officer alleged to have organized the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov has illegally fled Russia on someone else’s passport, a Russian federal investigator said today, TASS reports.
An investigator from the Investigative Committee, who was not named, announced in the Basmanny Court that according to available files, Ruslan Mukhudinov, a driver for the Sever [North Battalion] of Chechnya’s branch of the Interior Ministry troops, was in hiding abroad.
The announcement by the unnamed investigator is the first such public announcement from an official in the Nemtsov case since March. All other news reports, whether in the official or independent press, have been based on anonymous leaks by “persons close to the investigation” or “people in law-enforcement” and have sometimes been wrong or contradictory. 
The officer said Mukhudinov was in the United Arab Emirates, to which other Chechen fugitives have fled in the past, where Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov has good ties. He said:


“Mukhudinov’s guilt is confirmed by the confessions of the accused, and also other materials of the case.”

The five defendants currently under custody have all renounced their testimony, which they said was given under torture. Efforts by human rights advocates to document and publicize the torture ended with threats to both them and journalists who covered their stories that they themselves could be arrested for “divulging the secrets of the investigation” under Russian law.

The officer said in court that Mukhudinov may have “used someone else’s passport” as distinct from a forged passport and would likely remain abroad permanently.

The Basmanny Court reviewed the question of declaring Mukhudinov’s arrest in absentia. If captured, Mukhudinov could face from 8 to 20 years of imprisonment, the investigator said, and urged that the court order his arrest rather than any “softer” measure. The court obliged by ruling that Mukhudinov was arrested in absentia on charges of premeditated murder and illegal arms possession (Art. 105-2 and Art. 222-3 of the Russian Criminal Code) — nine months after the murder, and four months after the independent media identified him as stalking Nemtsov.

Interfax reported November 16 that Mukhudinov was finally placed on the federal and international wanted lists — four months after investigators leaked to the independent wire service Rosbalt.ru that he was spotted on a surveillance tape trailing Nemtsov outside a restaurant on Red Square, as we reported at the time.

The investigation has now extended its deadline to February 28, 2016, exactly one year from the date of the murder, February 27, 2015, said TASS, but then contradicted itself at the end of the article, saying it was extended until November 28, 2015. 
Mukhudinov’s lawyer objected that the court had no proof of Mukhudinov’s involvement in the murder, and stressed that testimony so far came under torture. He was the driver for Ruslan Geremeyev, the commander of the chief suspect in the perpetration of the murder, Zaur Dadayev, a Sever officer who went on leave for a month from the forces and went to Moscow, where he is claimed to have left a lot of evidence of his relationship to the murder. He was also seen on airport cameras together with Geremeyev right before the murder. 
Nemtsov’s friends and supporters naturally wonder why it took so long to get to Mukhudinov, after he had long fled the country, if his name was mentioned early in the investigation and there was even evidence from surveillance cameras on Red Square of his trailing Nemtsov. Members of the Investigative Committee who tried to travel to Chechnya and interrogate suspects were repeatedly rebuffed by Kadyrov, who takes great pride in his republic’s Interior Ministry troops, which were described by Nemtsov himself and other critics as his “personal army” and who have been deployed in the war in Ukraine and against terrorist suspects and other enemies of Kadyrov in Chechnya.
Nevertheless, Vadim Prokhorov, Nemtsov’s lawyer, said “We’re glad that at last it has been resolved and we hope in the future there will be an analogous charge filed against his childhood friend Ruslan Geremeyev.
As we reported a month after the murder, Geremeyev, Dadayev’s direct superior in the Sever Battalion knew Mukhutdinov since childhood. A month after the murder, RBC.ru, an independent business daily, reported that Dadayev had hid out in the apartment of a relative of Ruslan Geremeyev’s on Veyernaya Street and later at Kozino, a village in Moscow District.
But the Russian justice system has take months to act on this information, changing the chief investigator in the case, facing obstruction from Kadyrov, and other unknown problems. 

Further hearings in the case are expected November 24 and 25.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russia To Ban Food Imports From Ukraine From January 1

The Russian economic development minister, Alexei Ulyukayev, has announced that an embargo on all Ukrainian food imports will be introduced from January 1, 2016.

The state-owned TASS news agency reports:

“Since Ukraine joined anti-Russia sanctions – economic, financial – we’ve decided to impose … protective measures in the form of food embargo,” he said, adding that the decision is “postponed till January 1.”

“Most likely we’ll have to protect our market on a unilateral basis from unattended access of goods through Ukraine’s customs territory, those being goods from third countries, first of all from the states of the European Union. The protection will mainly concern introduction of most favored nation regime. In a situation like that we won’t have reasons for keeping zero rate of customs tariff with Ukraine,” the Minister said.

Reuters notes that the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, said in August that Ukrainian food imports would be banned if the economic association agreement between Ukraine and the European Union came into force.

Corn, wheat, sugar, and rapeseed and sunflower oil are some of Ukraine’s most important exports, with Russia traditionally the country’s largest buyer. Despite the war, exports to Russia have continued.

With Ukraine’s largest industry, metallurgy, damaged by the occupation of coal mines and steel plants in the Donbass, a Russian embargo on food exports will only worsen the country’s fragile economic situation.

 

— Pierre Vaux