The polls in Russia’s local elections have already opened in the Far East, and the Kremlin’s dirty tricks against the opposition have already begun, with a contrived report about “the detention of Open Russia activists with 2 million rubles” which has turned out to be untrue.
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.
– âI Was on Active Dutyâ: Interview with Captured GRU Officer Aleksandrov
– Meet The Russian Fighters Building A Base Between Mariupol And Donetsk
– ‘There Was No Buk in Our Field’
– With Cash and Conspiracy Theories, Russian Orthodox Philanthropist Malofeyev is Useful to the Kremlin
Translation: Voters in Buryatia are voting more actively than in Priangarye and Zabaikal (Trans Baikal).
Meanwhile, many foreign reporters and independent media as well as opposition bloggers are all focused on Kostroma.
election who earlier went on a hunger strike to protest the failure to
register candidates, published a help line number
Translation: The headquarters has begun to work. If yo have information about violations, or need legal aid or the mobile group, call 88003330295.
Opposition activists who have been associated with Aleksei Navalny have fanned out in this provincial province whose administrative center, the port of Kostroma is about 350 kilometers northeast of Moscow
Georgy Alburov of the Anti-Corruption Fund was arrested earlier this year and charged with “art theft” for taking a street artist’s sketch and giving it to Navalny as a joke present. Even Russia’s police chief wrote in a letter inadvertently released to Alburov that he saw no grounds for any charges. Alburov was ultimately fined in the case, like so many, trumped up to harass critics of official corruption.
Translation: I came to observe the elections in Kostroma. Excellent organization here, I was assigned to [the town of] Buy.
Translation: Distsrict Election No. 102, city of Galich. The building is collapsing, they’re singing Leps on the street : ) It isn’t elections that should be held here, but a horror movie should be filmed.
Georgy Leps, a famous Russian singer known as a devout Russian Orthodox believer and supporter of the government is wanted by the US Treasury Department on charges of serving as a money courier for a Eurasian crime syndicate.
One observer followed up on claims of a possible ballot-box stuffing in the making, but it turned out to be a false alarm.
Translation: Resident reported that there were ballots at one of the hotels in Kostroma. We arrived on the scene — they weren’t ballots but the hotel’s documents. We’re vigilant : )
Translation: I was let into the building at the Territorial Election Commission in the city of Kostroma only with a fight, despite the fact that I am a member of the Territorial Election Commission with the right to a consultative vote. For now everything turned out alright without complaints. Let’s see what happens tonight.
The concept of the consultative or advisory vote in the election commission, as in other Russian institutions, means that the individual does not have a vote counted per se, but can weigh in with an opinion and file complaints.
This observer described how the opposition leader Ilya Yashin, a close colleague of the late Boris Nemtsov, came to Kostroma to organize observation of the ballot and support independent candidates.
Translation: The last meeting of @IlyaYashin with voters in this campaign. We conducted 132 of these, we were in every courtyard in Kostroma!
Translation: Hooray! We did it! The meetings were conducted, the campaign is finishing up. What remains is not to allow the crooks to steal the votes of the people of Kostroma!
While the opposition activists attempted to campaign, they faced both official harassment as we reported and has been documented by Novaya Gazeta, as well as some incidents that seemed to have been set up:
Translation: A new form of provocations – they brought in alcoholic bums to the meetings with @IlyaYashin who shouted, “You’re all lying, we’re for United Russia, give us vodka!”
United Russia is the ruling party that brought Vladimir Putin to power.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
While claiming to be willing to allow opposition figures to participate in local elections, in fact the Russian government and intelligence agencies have worked to ensure such figures are blocked from the nomination process by not registering their parties, and then discrediting them in the public eye by spreading distorted or false stories about them.
Kostroma Region is the one region where the opposition has been allowed on the ballot after a long struggle, yet already there is claim of a scandal in the state media that could disqualify opposition candidates or at least cost them votes.
Yesterday Russian state media — and some social media in the West — was filled with a lurid tale of how employees from Open Russia, the movement founded by businessman and former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky were caught by police in a car headed toward Kostroma allegedly with 2 million rubles (about $29,500) in their possession which they were ostensibly going to use to “pay radical youth to demonstrate.”
The Kostroma Department of the Interior Ministry (the police) has a notice on its web site with the following headline, “Channel for Unlawful Delivery of Large Sums of Cash to the Region Closed.”
The notice said a “49-year-old coordinator of Open Russia traveling
in a Volkswagen Passat” was stopped and found to be carrying 2 million
rubles. His name was not given in the police notice.
Police said the cash was seized
and sent for forensic analysis to see if it was counterfeit. No mention of charges or any impending warrant for arrest were made, and the notice concluded with a vague statement that “a
check is being made at the present time, after which a procedural
decisions will be made upon the results.”
In fact it was determined that only one consultant — not two — from Open Russia was detained, no char
As we reported, two versions of the story involving $2 million and $1.5 million, respectively were circulated by LifeNews, a pro-Kremlin TV
station close to police and intelligence, and NTV, a state TV often used
to air denunciations of the opposition, using footage taken of
opposition figures clandestinely or materials seized from their homes
and offices during police raids.
Neither could be confirmed in all its details, and the story appeared to be either deliberate disinformation or exaggeration, and was mixed with another story confirmed by opposition involving an activist detained on the train from Kostroma to Sharya (about 350 km away) with 200,000 rubles (about $2950).
In fact, Sergei Mendeleyev, one of the people named in the news report says he was not arrested at all, much less with a large amount of cash.
He was also discovered to be the chief “hero” of a propaganda film aired by NTV yesterday claiming the opposition used Western grants to plot disruption of the election under the guise of observing it.
Mendeleyev told Novaya Gazeta that his words were taken out of context in the NTV program, although possibly the footage was authentic. He said he was in Moscow and not Kostroma.
Later, Marina Baranova, a spokesman from Open Russia published a statement on her Facebook (translated here)
saying that no employees had been carrying any cash, nor had they been
detained to her knowledge. She said Mendeleyev was not from Open Russia and was in
Moscow, not Kostroma, and was attempting to find out further information about the other person detained, who was not named in initial state news reports.
But while activists struggled to make sense of the NTV smear and the state media scandals and try to figure out what was going on, the story got widely distributed.
Newsru.com quoted Khodorkovsky in a story published yesterday September 12 characterizing the police claim as ridiculous.
In a tweet posted yesterday, Khodorkovsky linked to the police notice:
Translation: Honestly, this is kindergarten! Both [the claim of] Kostroma as a center of Russian protest, and the price of a used wheelbarrow [car] as a large sum.
In an interview with the independent TV station TV Rain, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Jr., coordinator of Open Russia, confirmed that Stanislav Ryabov, a
consultant (not an employee) for Open Russia, was in fact detained briefly while driving
his car in Kostroma Region, and that Ryabov “had been carrying some
amount of personal cash.”
Kara-Murza added and that police said they had reason to believe his cash was counterfeit, and seized it for analysis.
Ryabov had been carrying a large amount which cash police determined
was in fact to go to some groups for demonstrations, he might have
likely been arrested. But in face he was released, with the odd story of a concern about counterfeit money.
In response to the TV Rain reporter’s query about whether there was
a police report of the incident, Kara-Murza indicated that no charges
were made, and that the money was taken for analysis.
Russia’s Maria Baranova noted, it is not illegal to carry cash even of
this relatively large amount (for Russia). Candidates for elections are supposed to track expenses carefully from separate accounts.
Yet a private group that decided to monitor elections and pay for the travel and lodging of their observers would be a separate matter, and it is not clear how, in the current oppressive climate, the Russian authorities will deal with such activity which they used to tolerate.
“If there hadn’t been the colourful statement by Churov, this wouldn’t even be discussed,” said Kara-Murza, Jr.
“It tells you that people fear observation, and that something will come to light,” he said.
Newsru.com quoted Churkov as darkly invoking “external forces” which were “trying to interfere with our conduct of free, democratic elections.” He added, “Most likely there will be a criminal case” related to the seizure of cash in Kostroma but he did not provide any details.
The Russian government has registered at least 85 non-governmental groups as “foreign agents” if they receive grants from abroad. Open Russia is not registered in Russia.
Churov said Kostroma Region police would deploy 1,500 police to maintain order and strongly urged journalists to wear vests clearly marked with the word “PRESS”. While this was not an absolute requirement for covering the elections, Churov warned journalists that they were “not allowed to use the status of journalist not for coverage of a public event, but for participation in it.”
A good example of how disinformation and distortion works in the Russian media on a story like this can be seen in one of the many similar versions online:
Navalny Tells Why Ryabov Was Carrying Money to Kostroma
Saturday, opposition figure Aleksei Navalny called the detention of the
Open Russia coordinator, an activist from the Parnas party Sergei
Ryabov, the “start of outrages” and falsification on his Facebook page.
In this story, Navalny’s Facebook page is referenced, but not
linked and the name of the person supposedly detained is “Stanislav
But on his actual Facebook post,
Navalny did not name the activist, and did not say 2 million rubles were involved. Here’s what Navalny
actually said (translated by The Interpreter):
In Kostroma, the outrage has started. Yesterday police
caught people from Open Russia (they are doing observation at 1/4 of all
election districts) and stated that they are foreign agents with
And just now criminal investigation (!) has taken
off the Kostroma-Sharya train our campaign worker for the fact that he
was carrying 200,000 rubles to pay for the observers’ hotel. (Sharya is
350 km from Kostroma and lodging was needed). And this despite the fact
that the money was officially withdrawn from the campaign account.
It seems tomorrow we can expect major falsifications, otherwise they wouldn’t be organizing this circus.
In fact, as we reported, the Parnas party Twitter account itself gave the name of a different person — Dmitry Androsov — in a series of tweets about their activist’s arrest on the train from Kostroma to Sharya.
Argumentiru.com then quoted Navalny’s description of the detention,
citing the figure of 200,000 rubles, but then quoted a Kostroma
policeman saying it was 2 million.
Navalny’s post makes clear that the detention of
the campaign worker with 200,000 rubles is a separate story:
Navalny’s earlier reference to a story that was later refuted by one of the claimed detainees themselves then became part of the disinformation
process, with the calculation that as an opposition figure, he would
have more credibility than the government with many people.
In fact it turned out then Ryabov had been detained alone and his cash seized,
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Local elections have begun throughout Russia, the world’s largest country, with eleven time zones spanning 17.1 million kilometers.
The polls are already open in Chukhotka, RIA Novosti reports in Russia’s Far East.
In nearly all of Russia’s regions — 83 — elections are being held today for local legislatures on one unified date. Two regions will not have elections: Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, site of some terrorist activity and the killing by special forces of Islamic militants earlier this year, and in Northern Ossetia-Alaniya.
Twenty-one of Russia’s regions will be electing governors, and 11 regions will be electing deputies to their regional legislatures. About 100 candidates from 16 parties have been registered to run in the gubernatorial elections. Elections will also take place to 23 city councils and municipal legislatures.
Seven governors availed themselves of the opportunity to leave their posts early, in some cases under pressure from Moscow, and new governors will be elected to replace them. All of them have been made “acting governors” in the meantime. They are:
Aleksandr Drozdenko, Leningrad Region
Vladimir Ilyukhin, Kamchatka Territory
Sergei Eroshchenko, Irkutsk Region
Viktor Nazarov, Omsk Region
Sergei Sitnikov, Kostroma Region
Aleksei Ostrovsky, Smolensk Region
Igor Orlov, Arkhangelsk Region
Seventy-six political parties have been registered to take part in the elections, which seems like a lot until they are examined and found to be mainly those loyal to the government or at least not significantly challenging them.
One major exception is the Parnas opposition party, where slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was one co-chairman. Parnas (the name is the Russian acronym for “People’s Freedom Party”) has been registered in Kostroma, after a series of difficulties, legal challenges, arrest of opposition candidates, and protests, including a hunger strike by a campaign worker and candidates.
Yesterday, September 11, a member of the Parnas party was detained in
Kostroma reportedly with 200,000 rubles (approximately $2,952) which was
said to be intended to pay for the hotel rooms of observers, Slon.ru reported.
Opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who is part of the opposition’s Democratic Coalition said on his Facebook page that the activist was removed from the Kostroma-Sharya train by police
Navalny said in a statement (translation by The Interpreter):
“Police investigators removed our staff person from the Kostroma-Sharya train for carrying 200,000 rubles [approximately $2,950] for payment of the hotel rooms of observers. (Sharya is 350 km from Kostroma, and lodging was needed there.) And that despite the fact that the cash was formally withdrawn from the election account.”
Parnas recounted the arrest on their Twitter feed:
Translation: We have all come out of the Sharya police station. A car is following us.
There was also a separate report from the pro-government channel LifeNews that “$30,000”
was allegedly brought to the Kostroma Region by an activist of Open Russia, the movement
founded by businessman and former political prisoner Mikhail
Khodorkovsky. The funds were ostensibly to “fund radical youth protests.”
Another version of this story published by NTV said “1.5 million rubles” (not 2 million) was being carried by two opposition political consultants (not just one). Traffic police reportedly detained a car in which Stanislav Ryabov and Sergei Mendeleyev were travelling.
Both these stories sounded like either garbled versions of the first
story, or evidently separate pieces of disinformation from state media;
the story was initially not confirmed by an Open Russia representative and
ultimately one individual said to be arrested unrelated to Open Russia
said he was not in fact detained at all.
Last night (September 11), Maria Baronova, a representative of Open
Russia in Moscow, published a statement on her Facebook page linked to
Twitter, indicating that she was unable to confirm the story and that
Open Russia did not have any members detained, much less with this large
amount of cash:
Translation: Regarding the detention of apparently two activists, apparently one outside of Kostroma. Official statement.
Translation by The Interpreter:
Regarding the news published on NTV on the detention of “opposition political consultants” outside Kostroma, I began to get massive numbers of phone calls from journalists about this as well. All the questions amount to asking whether it is true about the employees of Open Russia, and who are all these people.
Regarding essentially all the questions asked of me, I would like to reply the following:
1) The Mr. Mendeleyev indicated, who has been shown previously on the television channel NTV, is neither a coordinator of Open Russia or anybody else regularly connected to Open Russia, much less Mikhail Borisovovich Khodorkovsky.
2) When I began to make phone calls regarding legal aid and getting the exact number of persons detained, and finding out who Mr. Mendeleyev is, I was told that he was in his apartment in Moscow.
3) I am attempting to get more precise information on this person. But I know for a fact that it is not prohibited to carry cash on your person in the Russian Federation.
4) If, now, in violation of the letter of the law, it is planned to detain all those who carry cash on them, then I propose beginning with the people coming out of the building of the RF State Duma [parliament] and the Spassky Gates [the Kremlin].
5) Open Russia is not taking part in the elections. Open Russia is involved in preparing observation [of the elections] in order to ensure maximally honest democratic elections on the unified voting day.
6) Open Russia is not a revolutionary cell (to my deep disappointment) and is not connected to any activists planning any protest actions.
7) Open Russia is not an organization in which salaries are paid. A number of people in Open Russia are employees of Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky. In the last hour, I called all these employees and none of them were detained.
8) In the event that any of the opposition activists are detained for political reasons either with cash or without, the human rights section of Open Russia will provide them with support.
This statement is accurate at this time [September 12]. In five minutes, I may learn of new entertaining details.
[Update September 13: Subsequently it was determined
that Stanislav Ryabov, a consultant to Open Russia, was detained but
released without charge, and police seized his cash for analysis, saying
they feared it was counterfeit.]
In her statement, Baranova referenced the fact that Mendeleyev had “already appeared” on NTV. This was a propaganda show broadcast yesterday September 11 by NTV called “Master Class for Provocateurs” in which Mendeleyev, a municipal deputy from Yasenevo District in Moscow and Lithuanian politician Mindaugas Lapinskas are portrayed as discussing how they took part in a “secret” seminar about elections observations whose true purpose, NTV claimed, was to disrupt the elections, Novaya Gazeta reported.
Mendeleyev later told Novaya Gazeta that it was “difficult” for him to tell if the NTV footage was authentic but statements appeared to be taken out of context. For example, he noted, if you were describing ways that elections are falsified with the intent of preventing them, if your introductory phrase was removed, it would appear as if you were advocating such falsification yourself.
Asked if he had been detained near Kostroma with Stanislav Ryabov, Mendeleyev said it was not true. The information about Ryabov was not confirmed.
Some of the footage of the NTV program appears to have been taken from films seized from the office of Open Russia during a search in April, Mikhail Yastrubitsky, who is involved in Open Russia’s educational program, told Novaya Gazeta. He said the seminar on election observation was not “secret” and that a quotation used by NTV in their program was also ripped out of context.
In the NTV video, Yastrubitsky is shown saying “I don’t hide it, it’s not true” as if in answer to a question of whether or not he worked with Open Russia. But Yastrubitsky said that his answer came in an interview with an NTV reporter on the day of the search in April, who asked him another question, not about his work at Open Russia. Yastrubitsky also noted that it was not clear how videos confiscated by police from the office of Open Russian wound up in the hands of NTV, to be spliced together out of context.
According to Slon.ru, Vladimir Churkov, head of Russia’s Central Elections Commission, said that “external forces” were attempting to “interfere” with local elections.
Ongoing coverage of election today in Russian is available at Open Russia.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick