Russia Has No Senate or Senators

800px-Maccari-CiceroCesare Maccari, Cicero Denounces Catiline, 1889. Fresco. Palazzo Madama, Rome. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“Russia’s Senate wants a visit from Mark Zuckerberg.”
The Real Russia. Today email newsletter, May 30, 2018

I am not a huge fan of Mark Zuckerberg, but he can easily turn down this invitation, if only because Russia does not have a senate.

It does have something called the Federation Council, which is supposedly the upper house of the Russian parliament, a mostly fictitious organization itself, considering how its MPs are essentially appointed to their seats, not elected by popular vote.

The members of the Federation Council are a group of Putinist lackeys. They are handpicked by the Kremlin to represent Russia’s ninety-some regions. In most cases, however, they have nothing whatsoever to do with those regions, unlike during the rough-and-tumble Yeltsin administration, when each region’s two-person Federation Council consisted of its elected head and an elected representative of its own parliament. As I recall, this was the set-up not because Yeltsin decreed it, but because the regions themselves decided to run their own house of parliament this way, meaning the Federation Council was often a rowdy bunch, opposed to Yeltsin’s proposals and policies, just like the parliament’s lower house, the State Duma, which was so notoriously rowdy it often made the news in other countries. That does not happen anymore.

Nowadays, however, most Federation Council members are either natives or longtime residents of Moscow and Petersburg, both called “capitals” for similarly pompous reason. Like their fellows MPs in the State Duma, Federation Councillors engage in neither vigorous debate nor rebellion, but in rubber-stamping the increasingly odious law bills drafted for them by the Kremlin and various government ministries. They do their jobs as executioners of the remnants of Russian democracy and civil liberty so uncomplainingly and speedily that opposition-minded Russians have taken to calling the parliament the “mad printer.”

Naturally, given their real condition as contemptible yes-men, the Federation Councillors decided it would be more dignified if they fancied themselves “senators” and dubbed their rinky-dink collective sinecure a “senate.”

The funny thing is the non-senators have succeeded in hoodwinking nearly all reporters, even foreign reporters, into adopting this utterly groundless, self-aggrandizing, hokey moniker.

This is hardly surprising, since, in my experience, reporters are gullible creatures. I once persuaded a Russian reporter I was an unemployed Finnish shipbuilding engineer from Turku who had turned his life around by making fresh mango and salt lasses from a cart in downtown Helsinki. She duly reported this non-fact about my fictional alter-ego in her article about the latest edition of International Restaurant Day. The article was duly published in a well-known Petersburg daily, which has since gone defunct. I had just been joking to pass the time of day while making lasses outside in less than clement late-spring weather, but the reporter took me seriously. She even snapped my picture or, rather, the picture of the Finnish ex-shipbuilder from Turku, and it, too, was printed, properly captioned, in her overview of Restaurant Day in Petersburg.

The resident of New Haven, Conn., who edits the daily English newsletter for the online Russian-language news website-in-exile Meduza has bought into the “Russia Senate” con hook, line, and sinker, too. Seemingly indifferent to what really happens in our rapidly re-totalitarianizing country, he has endowed us with a senate on several occasions, in fact. You see, it is the done thing nowadays, whether it is actually true or not.

But I don’t have to buy it, nor does Mark Zuckerberg. And neither should you.

Russia has no senate and, hence, no senators. Anyone who says or writes otherwise is indulging in glibness for reasons that should make you question everything else they write or say. Good reporters write something because it it true or reported to be true. They don’t involve themselves in collective hoaxes, especially, as in this case, in an easily disproved imposture that has gone on for years. // TRR

Soaking the Public to Make Russia a Powerhouse

Russian Authorities Could Raise the VAT to 20%
Giving Them Two Trillion Rubles to Execute Putin’s May Decree
Yelizaveta Bazanova and Filipp Sterkin
Vedomosti
May 27, 2018

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has promised to find the eight trillion rubles [approx. €110 billion] the government lacks to carry out Putin’s new May decree. We have learned the government and the Kremlin will go looking for a considerable portion of this sum in the public’s pockets. Approximately two trillion rubles could be collected over six years by raising the VAT from 18% to 20%. Our sources, three federal officials, said this option had been discussed and was one of the most likely options, although a final decision had not been made. However, one of our sources said the Finance Ministry had proposed abolishing the 10% preferential VAT rate and replacing it with an allowance.

Another two trillion rubles or so would be supplied by an increase in the retirement age, which Medvedev had announced, said two of our sources, without specifying how quickly it would be increased and by how much.

The final four trillion rubles would be provided by measures that have already been made public. The state would raise three trillion rubles for infrastructure projects by floating fixed and variable federal bonds, and establishing a temporary fund within the budget. The remaining one trillion rubles would be supplied by reforming taxation of the oil industry, nullifying export duties and raising the severance tax to offset them.

However, some of the decisions could still be revised, our sources said. As one of them noted, everything was in a state of rapid, constant flux.

Who Will Pay the VAT Increase?
Officials have long discussed an increase in the VAT, but as part of an overall taxation maneuver, as proposed by the Finance Ministry, that would have involved reducing pension deductions while raising the VAT to a flat rate of 22%. The Finance Ministry’s idea was to sanitize the economy and pump an additional 500 billion rubles into the budget. The idea was rejected, but several officials said it had proven impossible to find the money to carry out the May decree without raising taxes. Increasing the VAT without reducing pension deductions was a common trick, said a member of the board of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP).

The VAT was pegged at 20% until 2004, when it dropped to 18%. Returning it to 20% would be a less painful solution than the other options on the table—increasing the personal income tax rate and introducing a sales tax—argued two officials. Although, as one of them noted, if the state wanted to stimulate economic growth, it should not rob it of resources.

By increasing the VAT, the state would be primarily confiscating resources from the general public, which has experienced a four-year-long slide in incomes, while businesses would be able to compensate a considerable portion of their costs by embedding them in prices and thus passing them on to consumers.

As research by the UK’s statistical service has shown, companies raise prices ahead of time when an increase in the VAT is expected. Natalia Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank, has calculated that a two-percent increase in the VAT would accelerate a rise in prices of 0.8% to 1%, which would not be terrible during a period of low inflation. (In April, inflation was 2.4% in annual terms.) But along with abolishing the preferential rate, raising the VAT could deal a serious blow to the general public and have a knock-on effect on consumption, warned Alexandra Suslina at the Economic Expert Group. The preferential rate is currently valid for food products (except luxury items), children’s goods, books, textbooks, and medicines. In 2017, the preferential rate deprived the federal budget of an additional 550 billion rubles or about 0.6% of GDP.

According to a study by Alexander Isakov, chief economist at VTB Capital, when prices suddenly rise, people are less inclined to skimp on food, alcohol, and transportation. A one-percent increase in prices leads, most of all, to decreased spending on communications and medical care.

Business would pass on costs to domestic consumers, but the VAT for exports is zero percent, said the RSPP board member. There would also be victims, however. A tax increase would hit sectors where competition is intense the hardest, warned Vladimir Salnikov, deputy director of the Center for Macroeconomic Analysis and Short-Term Forecasting (TsMAKP). This was borne out by an IMF study performed in the wake of an increase in the VAT in Germany in 2007.  When competition is intense, companies find it harder to retain their market share after price rises. Retailers, who have already slashed their profit margin amid weak consumer demand, would suffer, said a tax consultant at a major retailer. Salnikov warned the structural effect would be bad, increasing the burden on manufacturing industries, not on raw materials exporters.

Most of all, it would increase the burden on the machine-building and transportation sectors (by 6.8% and 6.6%, respectively), the electricity sector (by 6.8%), construction (by 5.6%), the information sector (by 5.4%), and the hotel business (by 4.4%), according to Salnikov’s calculations. On the other hand, it would decrease the burden on chemicals manufacturing, wood processing, and agriculture.

Officials have little time to decide who will pay for Putin’s May decree. The cabinet has drafted proposals for the tax system, and final decisions would have to be made during the State Duma’s spring session, Anton Siluanov, appointed first deputy prime minister and finance minister, said earlier. Currently, no decisions had been made, his adviser Andrei Lavrov confirmed, but in the near future the government would be deciding on measures for adjusting the tax system. Natalya Timakova, the prime minister’s spokesperson, would not comment on the subject, while Dmitry Peskov, the president’s press secretary, was unavailable for comment on Sunday.

fullscreen-1tqbPerformance of actual pensions and wages vis-à-vis the same period during the previous year. Red line=actual amount of allocated pensions; blue line=actual paid wages; *=lump-sum payments taken into account. Source: Rosstat. Courtesy of Vedomosti

Working for the Decree
Saving two trillion rubles over six years would mean raising the retirement age by at least one year annually for both women and men, noted Yuri Gorlin, deputy director of RANEPA’s Institute for Social Analysis and Forecasting. This would make it possible decrease transfers from the federal budget by two trillion rubles, agreed Tatyana Omelchuk, senior researcher at the Finance Ministry’s Financial Research Institute (NIFI). This option for increasing the pension age was tabled by the Center for Strategic Research when it was headed by Alexei Kudrin, who has now been tapped to chair the Accounting Chamber. Annually, around 40% of the Pension Fund’s income is provided by the federal budget. In 2018, 3.34 trillion rubles will be transferred from the budget to the Pension Fund.

The pension age should be raised not only to save two trillion rubles for executing Putin’s decree but also to generate resources for increasing pensions at the same rate as salary increases, said an official. There was the danger the government would try to minimize the transfer as much as possible, and then there could not be enough money to step up the indexing of pensions, Gorlin noted.

Options for raising the pension age were discussed even before Tatyana Golikova was appointed deputy prime minister for social issues. In an interview with RBC, she said the government had only discussed the decision. The final parameters had not been agreed. Her spokesperson declined to comment.

Gorlin said the main goal of raising the retirement age was to ensure a more acceptable increase in pensions. An excessively radical approach to the problem would significantly increase the danger of unemployment’s rising, while also spurring the demand for disability pensions, he argued. Referring to the findings of a sociological survey, experts at the Higher School of Economics have claimed the most acceptable option for raising the retirement age would be sixty years for women and up to sixty-three years for men. Gorlin argued the most rational option would be between sixty-two and sixty-three years for men, and between fifty-nineand sixty-one years for women.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Diabetics in Saratov Deemed Threat to Russian National Security

insulincPatriotic Russian diabetics treat their disease only with domestically produced insulin, such as Rosinsulin, pictured here. Photo courtesy of Medsintez Pharmaceutical Plant

For Insufficient Enthusiasm
Court Rules Saratov Regional Organization of Chronic Diabetes Sufferers “Foreign Agents.” Activists “Undermined the State’s Authority” by Questioning  Insulin Produced in Russia
Nadezhda Andreyeva
Novaya Gazeta
March 28, 2018

Saratov’s Frunza District Court today concluded its hearing of administrative charges against the Saratov Regional Organization of Chronic Diabetes Sufferers. Judge Maria Agisheva ruled the diabetics had violated the law on “foreign agents.”

The defense had asked for a postponement of the hearing, since Moscow human rights lawyer Nikolai Dronov, who had been representing the diabetics in court the past five months, was unable to travel to Saratov today. In addition, the organization’s president, Larisa Saygina, had not been able to read the findings of a forensic examination of the case, submitted to the court on Friday, May 25. Judge Agisheva rejected the defense’s motion, but announced a half-hour recess so the diabetics could read the findings of court-appointed experts.

The forensis examination was carried out by faculty members at the Saratov State Legal Academy (SGYuA). The court had attempted to engage specialists from RANEPA and the Kazan Interregional Expertise Center, but they had turned down the court’s request on various pretexts. SGYuA had also rendered its expert opinion last year, when the administrative case was in the process of being filed. As we reported earlier, Professor Ivan Konovalov saw signs of the work of “foreign agents” in the activities of the diabetics organization. The forensic examination was performed by his SGYuA colleagues Associate Professor Elena Koloyartseva and Professor Viktor Kupin.

According to SGYuA’s experts, the Saratov Regional Organization of Chronic Diabetes Sufferers was awarded a grant of 712,000 rubles [approx. €9,800] from foreign pharmaceutical companies. The authors of the forensic examination thus concluded the organization had engaged in political activity, namely, it had submitted critical remarks about the work of officials to the authorities. According to the political scientists, the organization’s former head, Yekaterina Rogatkina, had publicly expressed doubts about the quality of insulin produced in Russia, thus undermining the Russian state’s authority. [The emphasis here and elsewhere is in the original article—TRR.]

The experts found it noteworthy the media reported on the filing of administrative charges against the diabetics organization. In particular, the commentary of the organization’s current president, Larisa Saygin, filmed for the Saratov TV program “Open Channel” on a city street, was regarded by the experts as a solo picket. According to SGYuA’s faculty members, the news report had been deliberately aired three months before the presidential election in order to discredit presidential candidate Vladimir Putin.

We should recall at this point it was Nikita Smirnov, the head of Putin’s student campaign headquarters in Saratov, who had filed the complaint against the diabetics with the the local prosecutor’s office.

As the experts emphasized in their findings, opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky offered the Saratov diabetics legal assistance, which likewise testified to the organization’s guilt.

As indicated on SGYuA’s website, Professor Koloyartseva studied in the 1980s at the Saratov State Pedagogical Institute. In 2001, she was awarded a kandidat degree in political science. She serves on the public council of the Saratov Regional Duma. She is also a member of Civic Dignity, a grassroots organization that supports social and civic activism among young people and has been heavily involved in forums on moral and spiritual growth sponsored by the authorities.

According to the website Legal Russia, Viktor Kupin graduated from the Lenin Military Political Academy in 1978, while Saratov media outlets earlier reported he studied at the Engels Air Defense Academy.

Until 2007, Professor Kupin taught a course entitled “Philosophical and Political Problems of National Security” at military academies in Petersburg.

In 2004, Professor Kupin defended his doktor dissertation, entitled “The Geopolitical Imperatives of Global Security.”

In 2014, Kupin was an expert in the trial of Partnership for Development, an environmental organization that had operated in Saratov Region since 1995. The NGO received $42,000 from the US government to encourage civic involvement in the region’s villages and small towns. An anonymous complaint against Partnership for Development was filed with the prosecutor’s office on July 10, 2014. On July 22, an administrative case was opened against the organization under Article 19.34 of the Administrative Offenses Code (“Absence of registration in the relevant registry on the part of an organization performing the work of a foreign agent”).

Professor Kupin’s expert finding was ready the very same day. As he explained in court, he wrote the five pages of text in several hours, since he had been asked to do it “as soon as possible.” According to Professor Kupin, Partnership for Development showed clear signs of carrying out the “political orders of a foreign state, orders meant to undermine social stability, generate political tension in the region, expand the base of political influence on public opinion [sic], and  implement US geopolitical interests.”

“The interest in Saratov Region was occasioned by its special place and exceptional geopolitical position in Russia as a lynch pin in the emergent Eurasian Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan,” wrote  Professor Kupin. “[Partnership for Development’s] activity runs counter to the security interests of Russia, which opposes the uni-polar dictatorship of the world, headed by the US.”

Less than a month after the prosecutor received the anonymous complaint, a court ruled Partnership for Development was a “foreign agent.” It was fined 300,000 rubles. Its chair, Olga Pitsunova, was also personally fined 100,000 rubles. Partnership for Development closed up shop.

At today’s hearing, Judge Agisheva denied the defense’s motion to summon its own expert witnesses to the trial. The diabetics were fined 300,000 rubles [approx. 4,100 euros]. The organization’s ex-president, Ms. Rogatkina, told us the diabetics would appeal the ruling.

“We are discouraged. This case was absurd from the outset.  We consider it a miscarriage a justice.”

Putinist youth activist Nikita Smirnov. Photo courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

Last year, Mr. Smirnov, a student at the Saratov Medical University and head of Vladimir Putin’s student campaign headquarters, asked the Frunza District Prosecutor’s Office to verify whether the work of the diabetic organizations was covered by the law on “foreign agents.”

As the future physician told us, he had “read on the internet that the organization was financed by foreign companies, I don’t remember which.” He had felt it was his “civic duty” to “send a signal.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

Zeitgeist Checklist

taste real mexicoA Williamsburg-inspired eatery in snowy central Petersburg, 5 February 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

It’s remarkable how the MH17 final report and Ukrainian political prisoner and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike have exacerbated two sad trends among Russia’s left/liberal/creative/academic intelligentsia.

The first trend involves intelligenty out-Putining Putin and his regime’s put-on anti-Americanism by ramping up the number of social media posts and hasbarical hate-a-grams about the US, its sinister machinations, and its signal failings.

This is part of the same operetta in which the nefarious NATO is a greater threat to world peace than a country that reserves the right to invade its closest neighbor and join in crushing a democratic, grassroots rebellion in a faraway country whose people have never harmed Russia in any shape or form.

But it’s no fun talking, much less doing anything, about that at all, because it would require real collective effort. So, depending on your political tastes, it’s much easier, as a Russophone, to hate on NATO or Hamas.

Some Russians go for the trifecta, hating on both “terrorist” organizations, while also indulging in the most satisfying infantile pleasure on our planet today: Islamophobia. You know, Europe has been overrun by Islamic terrorists and that whole tired spiel, which gives such a sense of purpose to otherwise wildly ignorant people who have betrayed their own country and countrymen so many ways over the last 25 or 30 years it should make all our heads spin.

The other trend, which has also kicked into high gear again, is going hipster as hard as you can. There are any number of “projects,” “creative clusters,” eating and drinking establishments, festivals, semi-secret dance parties, and god knows what else in “the capitals” to make the younger crowd and even some of the middle-aged set forget they live in a country ruled by a ultra-reactionary kleptocratic clique that can have any of them abducted for any reason whatsoever at a moment’s notice and charged with “involvement in a terrorist community” or some such nonsense and ruin their lives forever.

That’s no fun to think about it, either, and it’s altogether scary to do something about it, so why not pretend you live in Williamsburg while you can?

The day before yesterday, I translated and posted an essay, by Maria Kuvshinova, about Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike and the non/reaction to this brave call to action on the part of Russia’s creative so-called intelligentsia. At some point, I thought the essay might be a bit off the mark, but on second thought, despite its obvious quirks, I decided Ms. Kuvshinova had sized up the Russian zeitgeist perfectly.

Post-Soviet infantilism is total. It affects the so-called intelligentsia no less than the so-called ordinary folk. Infantilism means being unable to empathize, being unable to put yourself in another person’s shoes, even if that person is President Putin, a man with a quite distinct sense of ethics, a man who has been studied backwards and forwards for twenty years. Apparently, the message sent to the creative communities through the arrest of Kirill Serebrennikov was not registered. If you want to be a dissident, start down the hard road of doing jail time for misdemeanor charges, facing insuperable difficulties in renting performance and exhibition spaces, becoming an outsider, and experiencing despair. If you want a big theater in downtown Moscow, play by the rules. Like your average late-Soviet philistine, Putin regarded the creative intelligentsia with respect at the outset of his presidential career. (See, for example, footage from his visit to Mosfilm Studios in 2003.) However, a few years later, he was convinced the creative intelligentsia was a rampantly conformist social group who would never move even a millimeter out of its comfort zone and would make one concession after another. A lack of self-respect always generates disrespect in counterparts. // TRR

The Policemen’s Ball

DSCN6837At €2.50, the official licensed sticker album of the 2018 World Cup is a steal. Russian officials also plan to steal the civil rights of their own citizens during the month-long tournament. Photo by the Russian Reader

Restrictions on Movement and Freedom of Assembly during the 2018 FIFA World Cup
Denis Shedov and Natalya Kovylyayeva
OVD Info
May 25, 2018

Russia welcomes the 2018 FIFA World Cup with Presidential Decree No. 202, which places restrictions on the movements of people and the staging of public rallies in cities hosting the matches. According to the decree, “enhanced safety measures” will be enforced from May 25 until July 25 (although the first match, between Russia and Saudi Arabia, will not be played until June 14). Denis Shedov and Natalya Kovylyayeva studied the decree specially for OVD Info.*

The restrictions will be introduced on May 25, 2018. They will be enforced in the cities and regions hosting 2018 World Cup matches: Moscow, Petersburg, Volgograd Region, Sverdlovsk Region, Nizhny Novgorod Region, Samara Region, Rostov Region, Kaliningrad Region, Krasnodar Territory, the Republic of Tatarstan, and the Republic of Mordovia.  Additionally, the decree also applies to certain neighboring regions where, in particular,  competing teams will be accommodated: Moscow Region, Leningrad Region, Kaluga Region, Voronezh Region, Stavropol Territory, and the Republic of Chechnya.

It is worth noting Decree No. 202 applies absolutely to everyone who is located in the regions listed during the period the decree is in force. In this light, OVD Info felt it was vital to discuss these changes.

Monitored and Restricted Areas
The decree introduces “monitored and restricted areas,” which will either be entirely off limits to people or will have restricted access. These areas include training grounds (including at other stadiums), team headquarters, hotels where teams and referees are staying, cargo inspection points, the broadcast center at Crocus Expo in Moscow, fan festival venues, press centers, and parking lots for special transport. You will be able to enter these “monitored areas” only after security guards have conducted a thorough inspection of all your belongings.

In addition, there will be special pedestrian security zones, so-called last miles, consisting of areas of one to two kilometers in radius around the stadiums where the matches will be held. Aside from World Cup transport, only residents of nearby buildings, equipped with special passes, will have access to these zones. To obtain the passes you need your internal passport and the papers for your car and your flat. Information about these zones has been posted on the official municipal websites of the cities hosting matches and published in local periodicals.

  • During the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the city was off limits to cars from other cities, i.e., cars not registered in Sochi, with the exception of vehicles owned by the secret services and vehicles that had received accreditation as municipal maintenance and 2014 Winter Olympics support vehicles. Vehicles registered in Sochi were restricted from traveling in “monitored areas.” 

Mandatory Registration for Everyone
Upon arrival in a city, you must register with the local immigration authorities within three days. This rules applies to everyone except those who are registered to live permanently in the particular city. Additionally, special rules for registering domiciles and temporary stays will be introduced in the cities where World Cup matches are scheduled.

Russian nationals and foreign nationals must register with the police within 72 hours of arriving. Usually, during “normal” times, Russian nationals have the right to spend up to 90 days in another Russian region without registering, while foreign nationals have seven days to register. Decree No. 202 specifies that the party hosting the visitor, i.e., the hotel, spa, holiday home, etc., must notify the proper authorities of the arrival of foreign nationals within 24 hours, as stipulated by Russian federal law.

Immigration authorities in the regions mentioned in the decree will be open for business daily during the World Cup, including weekends and holidays. There are several ways of registering your stay in another city:

  • Submitting an application to the management of the hotel, hostel, camping ground or youth hostel where you are staying, or the management company, proprietor or landlord, if you are staying in a private flat.
  • Reporting to the local immigration authorities yourself.

Foreign nationals must personally present their papers to the regional office of the Interior Ministry (i.e., the police) or a multi-service center, or their official hosts must do it for them. It is forbidden to register via the post office or a government services website.

Arriving foreign nationals are obliged to provide notification of their arrival, a copy of their identity card (e.g., passport or either ID), a copy of their Russian visa, and a copy of their migration card. This rule applies to all foreign nationals, regardless of their nationality and status in Russia. If the host party is a legal entity, this organization must supply the authorities with a complete set of documents.

Private individuals who act as hosts need only present their Russian internal passports, proving they are permanent residents, a copy of their passports, and a copy of their ownership deed to the dwellings where they will house foreign nationals.

If these rules are violated, Russian nationals will be obliged to pay an administrative fine. In Moscow and Petersburg, the fine will range from three to five thousand rubles, while in the regions it will range from two to three thousand rubles. Foreign nationals who violate these rules can be expelled from Russia.

Restrictions on Freedom of Assembly
According to the decree, from May 25 to July 25, 2018, assemblies, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets that have nothing to do with the 2018 FIFA World Cup can be held only in places, along routes, and at times approved by the authorities. The authorities can also determine the number of attendees and the duration of the event.

Decree No. 202 was first enforced during last year’s Confederations Cup, also hosted by Russia. A large number of activists involved in group protests and solo pickets were apprehended at that time. Some of the people detained during solo pickets were subjected to “explanatory discussions” by the police, while others were written up for violating the rules for holding public events and fined as much as 20,000 rubles.

  • In May 2017, five activists from the local headquarters of opposition leader Alexei Navalny were detained for setting up a campaign booth on the main square in Kazan. Law enforcement said the action had not been authorized by the authorities. All the detainees were sentenced to ten to twelve days in jail, as well as 35 hours of community service.
  • During the Navalny-inspired anti-corruption rallies that took place in a number of cities on June 12, 2017, including Petersburg, Moscow, and Sochi, police detained protesters on the basis of Paragraph 11 of the decree, as paraphrased above. Although in Krasnodar, where the rally against corruption had been authorized, no one was apprehended, despite the special security regime.
  • During the protest rally “Farewell to the Communications Ministry,” in Moscow in June 2017, a teenager was detained when he tried to leave flowers outside the ministry due to restrictions on freedom of speech in Russia, including the possible blockage of the Telegram messenger service. The arresting officer cited the presidential decree restricting rallies during the Confederations Cup and the 2018 World Cup when he detained the boy. The teenager was taken into a police station for questioning before being released.
  • In mid-June 2017, fifteen people holding solo pickets against Moscow’s massive “renovation” program were detained outside the entrance to the State Duma.
  • Several activists who held solo pickets in support of mathematician Dmitry Bogatov and demanded an end to the prosecution of nationalist Dmitry Demushkin were detained on June 24, 2017, in Moscow.
  • Solidarity Party activist Mikhail Lashkevich was detained on July 4, 2017, while holding a solo picket demanding the people behind opposition leader Boris Nemtsov’s assassination be found. The police admitted he had a right to carry out a solo picket and released him from Basmanny Police Precinct in Moscow without writing him up. Subsequently, Roman Petrishchev, another Solidarity Party activist, was detained for a solo picket.
  • In early July 2017, five activists of Protest Moscow were detained in different parts of the city while they held solo pickets against censorship. All of them were charged with violating the rules for holding public events, punishable under Article 20.2 Part 5 of the Administrative Offenses Code.
  • On July 5, 2017, the well-known democracy activist Ildar Dadin was detained during a solo picket outside FSB headquarters in Moscow, since his protest had not been authorized by law enforcement. On July 7, 2017, the Meshchansky District Court found him guilty of violating the “rules of solo pickets” and fined him 20,000 rubles.

In May 2017, Alexander Pomazuyev, a lawyer with Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) asked that Paragraph 11 of the decree be declared null and void in a suit he filed with the Russian Supreme Court. Pomazuyev claimed he had been denied the right to hold a solo picket. He also argued the presidential decree infringed on civil liberties guaranteed by the Russian Constitution, including the right to free speech and freedom of assembly. The court threw out Pomazuyev’s suit, thus rubber-stamping the restrictions on rallies and pickets during the Confederations Cup and the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

In February 2018, organizers of the Boris Nemtsov Memorial March in Nizhny Novgorod wrote an open letter to FIFA president Gianni Infantino asking him to protect freedom of assembly in Russia in the run-up to the World Cup. The football functionary did not react to the letter, apparently.

“Although the decree restricts certain rights only from May 25 to July 25, 2018, even the smallest pickets have been turned down by the authorities on the grounds of the terrorist threat,” the march organizers wrote on their Facebook page.

Commentary by Lawyer and Human Rights Activist Alexander Peredruk
Yes, Presidential Decree No. 202, dated May 9, 2017, definitely violates people’s constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of assembly in Russia.

If you want to hold a public rally from May 25 to July 25, 2018, at a venue of your choosing, there is no guarantee you will pull it off. The authorities could turn you down on the grounds the venue you have chosen was not vetted by the Interior Ministry and the FSB. 

As last year showed, when several applications to hold rallies were filed simultaneously, the authorities would reject all the applications. However, when the applications were filed, the authorities had not yet determined what venues could be used. They drew up a list of permissible venues only after looking over the first applications. It was thus a “complete coincidence” that the venues indicated in the applications that were submitted to the local authorities were not on the list of permissible venues. 

In other words, the rejections were perfunctory and practically groundless. The authorities were not interested in conducting a proportionality test, in striking a balance between public and private interests.

In addition, questions are raised about the legitimacy of the division between public sporting events, which are permitted during this period, and public political events, which are virtually banned. Russian citizens are thus subject to discrimination.

During the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, a local man, David Hakim, was detained while holding a solo picket in defense of the convicted environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko. (Hakim was jailed for four days for his “crime.”) Agora used his case to challenge the president’s Olympic decree in the Russian Constitutional Court. However, the court refused to examine whether the decree complied with the Constitution, since it had expired by the time the complaint was examined. 

* If you are worried about how Presidential Decree No. 202 will affect foreign fans traveling to Russia for the World Cup, you shouldn’t be. They are required to purchase special “fan IDs” that will exempt them from most if not all of the decree’s strictures. // TRR

Denis Shedov is a lawyer with the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow. Natalya Kovylyayeva is a journalist. Translated by the Russian Reader

Maria Kuvshinova: What Sentsov Could Die For

What Sentsov Could Die For
Maria Kuvshinova
Colta.Ru
May 25, 2018

Detailed_pictureOleg Sentsov. Photo by Sergei Pivovarov. Courtesy of RIA Novosti and Colta.Ru 

On May 14, 2018, Oleg Sentsov went on an indefinite hunger strike in a penal colony located north of the Arctic Circle. His only demand is the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. According to Memorial’s list, there are twenty-four such prisoners.

In August 2015, Sentsov was sentenced to twenty years for organizing a terrorist community and planning terrorist attacks. The second defendant in the case, Alexander Kolchenko, was sentenced to ten years in prison. Mediazona has published transcripts of the hearings in their trial. Around three hundred people have read them over the last three years. The transcripts make it plain the only evidence of the alleged terrorist organization’s existence was the testimony of Alexei Chirniy, who was not personally acquainted with Sentsov. It is police footage of Chirniy’s arrest while he was carrying a rucksack containing a fake explosive device that propagandists often pass off as police footage of Sentsov’s arrest.

Before his arrest, Sentsov was an Automaidan activist. In the spring of 2014, he organized peaceful protests against Crimea’s annexation by Russia.

“Yesterday’s ‘suicide bomber auto rally’ took place in Simferopol yesterday, but in quite abridged form,” Sentsov wrote on Facebook on March 12, 2014. “Only eight cars, six reporters with cameras, and twenty-five activists/passengers assembled at the starting point. I would have liked to have seen more. Unfortunately, most of the armchair revolutionaries who were invited were afraid to go. The traffic cops and regular police also showed up at the starting line, insisting we not leave for our own safety. We told them our protest was peaceful. We had no plans of breaking the rules, so we suggested they escort us to keep the peace for everyone’s sake.”

The second defendant, Kolchenko, admitted involvement in the arson of an office that was listed in the case file as belonging to the United Russia Party, but which in April 2014 was an office of Ukraine’s Party of Regions. The arson took place at night. It was meant to cause physical damage while avoiding injuring anyone.

The Russian authorities tried to prove both Sentsov and Kolchenko were linked with Right Sector, a charge that was unsubstantiated in Sentsov’s case and absurd in the latter case due to Kolchenko’s well-known leftist and anarchist convictions. Gennady Afanasyev, the second witness on whose testimony the charges against the two men were based, claimed he had been tortured and coerced into testifying against them.

Sentsov and Kolchenko’s show trial, like the show trials in the Bolotnaya Square Case, were supposed to show that only a handful of terrorists opposed the referendum on Crimea’s annexation and thus intimidate people who planned to resist assimilation. The Russian authorities wanted to stage a quick, one-off event to intimidate and crack down on anti-Russian forces. But two circumstances prevented the repressive apparatus from working smoothly. The first was that the defendants did not make a deal with prosecutors and refused to acknowledge the trial’s legitimacy. The second was that Automaidan activist Oleg Sentsov unexpectedly turned out to be a filmmaker, provoking a series of public reactions ranging from protests by the European Film Academy to questions about whether cultural producers would be capable of blowing up cultural landmarks. Segments of the Russian film community reacted to the situation with cold irritation. According to them, Sentsov was a Ukrainian filmmaker, not a Russian filmmaker, and he was not a major filmmaker. The owner of a computer club in Simferopol, his semi-amateur debut film, Gamer, had been screened at the festivals in Rotterdam and Khanty-Mansiysk, while release of his second picture, Rhino, had been postponed due to Euromaidan.

The Ukrainian intelligentsia have equated Sentsov with other political prisoners of the empire, such as the poet Vasyl Stus, who spent most of his life in Soviet prisons and died in Perm-36 in the autumn of 1985, a week after he had gone on yet another hunger strike. The Ukrainian authorities see Sentsov, a Crimean who was made a Russian national against his will and is thus not eligible for prisoner exchanges, as inconvenient, since he smashes the stereotype of the treacherous peninsula, a part of Ukraine bereft of righteous patriots. Sentsov’s death on the eve of the 2018 FIFA World Cup would be a vexing, extremely annoying nuisance to the Russian authorities.

Sentsov is an annoyance to nearly everyone, but he is a particular annoyance to those people who, while part of the Russian establishment, have openly defended him, although they have tried with all their might to avoid noticing what an inconvenient figure he has been. Although he was not a terrorist when he was arrested, he has become a terrorist of sorts in prison, because his trial and his hunger strike have been a slowly ticking time bomb planted under the entire four-year-long post-Crimean consensus, during which some have been on cloud nine, others have put down stakes, and still others have kept their mouths shut. Yet everyone reports on the success of their new endeavors on Facebook while ignoring wars abroad and torture on the home front. Sentsov represents a rebellion against hybrid reality and utter compromise, a world in which Google Maps tells you Crimea is Russian and Ukrainian depending on your preferences. To what count does “bloodlessly” annexed Crimea belong, if, four years later, a man is willing to die to say he does not recognize the annexation?

The success of Gamer on the film festival circuit, which made Sentsov part of the international film world, and his current address in a prison north of the Arctic Circle beg three questions. What is culture? Who produces culture? What stances do cultural producers take when they produce culture? There are several possible answers. Culture is a tool for reflection, a means for individuals and societies to achieve self-awareness and define themselves. It is not necessarily a matter of high culture. In this case, we could also be talking about pop music, fashion, and rap. (See, for example, the recent documentary film Fonko, which shows how spontaneous music making has gradually been transformed into a political force in post-colonial Africa.) On the contrary, culture can be a means of spending leisure time for people with sufficient income, short work days, and long weekends.

Obviously, the culture produced in Russia today under the patronage of Vladimir Medinsky’s Culture Ministry is not the first type of culture, with the exception of documentary theater and documentary cinema, but the founders of Theater.Doc have both recently died, while Artdocfest has finally been forced to relocate to Riga. The compromised, censored “cultural production” in which all the arts have been engaged has no way of addressing any of the questions currently facing Russia and the world, from shifts in how we view gender and the family (for which you can be charged with the misdemeanor of “promoting homosexualism”) to the relationship between the capitals and regions (for which you can charged with the felony of “calling for separatism”). Crimea is an enormous blank spot in Russian culture. Donbass and the rest of Ukraine, with which Russia still enjoyed vast and all-pervasive ties only five years ago, are blank spots. But cultural producers have to keep on making culture, and it is easier to say no one is interested in painful subjects and shoot a film about the complicated family life of a doctor with a drinking problem and a teetotalling nurse.

When we speak of the second type of culture—culture as leisure—we primarily have in mind Moscow, which is brimming over with premieres, lectures, and exhibitions, and, to a much lesser extent, Russia’s other major cities. So, in a country whose population is approaching 150 million people, there is a single international film festival staged by a local team for its hometown, Pacific Meridian in Vladivostok. All the rest are produced by Moscow’s itinerant three-ring circus on the paternalist model to the delight of enlightened regional governors. It matters not a whit that one of them ordered a brutal assault on a journalist, nor that another was in cahoots with the companies responsible for safety at the Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam, where 75 people perished in 2009. What matters is that the festival movement should go on. There is no room in this model for local cultural progress. There can be no free discussion generated by works of art when everyone is engaged in total self-censorship. After I went to Festival 86 in Slavutych, whose curators have been conceptually reassessing the post-Soviet individual and the post-Soviet space, I found it painful to think about Russian film festivals. This sort of focused conceptualization is impossible in Russia. It is of no interest to anyone.

There are two more possible answers to the question of what culture is. Culture is propaganda. Or, finally, culture is only the marquee on a commercial enterprise profiting at the taxpayer’s expense. It is not a big choice, and the kicker is that by agreeing today to be involved in churning out propaganda, milking taxpayers, supplying optional leisure time activities, producing censored works, and colonizing one’s own countrymen for the sake of money, status, and membership in a professional community, the people involved in these processes automatically stop making sense. It is naïve to think the audience has not noticed this forfeiture. It is no wonder the public has an increasingly hostile reaction to cultural producers and their work.

No one has the guts to exit this vicious circle even in protest at the slow suicide of a colleague convicted on trumped-up charges, because it would not be “practical.” The events of recent months and years, however, should have transported us beyond dread, since everyone without exception is now threatened with being sent down, the innocent and the guilty alike.

Post-Soviet infantilism is total. It affects the so-called intelligentsia no less than the so-called ordinary folk. Infantilism means being unable to empathize, being unable to put yourself in another person’s shoes, even if that person is President Putin, a man with a quite distinct sense of ethics, a man who has been studied backwards and forwards for twenty years. Apparently, the message sent to the creative communities through the arrest of Kirill Serebrennikov was not registered. If you want to be a dissident, start down the hard road of doing jail time for misdemeanor charges, facing insuperable difficulties in renting performance and exhibition spaces, becoming an outsider, and experiencing despair. If you want a big theater in downtown Moscow, play by the rules. Like your average late-Soviet philistine, Putin regarded the creative intelligentsia with respect at the outset of his presidential career. (See, for example, footage from his visit to Mosfilm Studios in 2003.) However, a few years later, he was convinced the creative intelligentsia was a rampantly conformist social group who would never move even a millimeter out of its comfort zone and would make one concession after another. A lack of self-respect always generates disrespect in counterparts.

By signing open letters while remaining inside the system and not backing their words with any actions whatsoever, the cultural figures currently protesting the arrests of colleagues are viewed by the authorities as part of the prison’s gen pop, while people who live outside Moscow see them as accomplices in looting and genocide. No one takes seriously the words of people who lack agency. Agency is acquired only by taking action, including voluntarily turning down benefits for the sake of loftier goals. The acquisition of agency is practical, because it is the only thing that compels other people to pay heed to someone’s words. I will say it again: the acquisition of agency is always practical. At very least, it generates different stances from which to negotiate.

Sentsov has made the choice between sixteen years of slow decay in a penal colony and defiant suicide in order to draw attention not to his own plight, but to the plight of other political prisoners. Regardless of his hunger strike’s outcome, he has generated a new scale for measuring human and professional dignity. It is an personal matter whether we apply the scale or not, but now it is impossible to ignore.

Thanks to Valery Dymshits for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Sonnet 42

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That thou hast her, it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I lov’d her dearly;
That she hath thee, is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly.
Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye:
Thou dost love her, because thou know’st I love her;
And for my sake even so doth she abuse me,
Suffering my friend for my sake to approve her.
If I lose thee, my loss is my love’s gain,
And losing her, my friend hath found that loss;
Both find each other, and I lose both twain.
And both for my sake lay on me this cross:
But here’s the joy: my friend and I are one:
Sweet flattery! then she loves but me alone.

Source: Wikipedia. Photo by the Russian Reader