“I Saw the Light”: Why Ryazan Truckers Are Striking on March 27

“I Peeled Myself from the TV and Saw the Light”: Why Ryazan Truckers Are Planning to Join the Nationwide Strike
Yekaterina Vulikh
7X7
March 22, 2017

In early March, a video was published in which Sergei Ovchinnikov, an activist and long-haul trucker with the Association of Russian Carriers (OPR), announced a nationwide strike that would kick off in fifty regions of the country on March 27. As Ovchinnikov said, the strike would continue until the government sat down at the negotiating table or most goods had disappeared from store shelves.

The truckers’ demands:

1. The Plato road tolls payment system should be abolished or reorganized for transit transport and turned over to the state.
2. The transport tax should be cancelled. (There is already a fuel excise tax for this purpose.)
3. Work and rest schedules of drivers should adapted to real conditions in Russia.
4. The government should resign, and no confidence in the president expressed.
5. Weigh stations should be made to do their job properly.
6. Carriers should be given grounds for how the fuel excise tax is calculated.

7X7‘s correspondent went on a run with Alexei Borisov, coordinator of the OPR’s Ryazan branch, to check the validity of these demands.

“I Didn’t Want to be Father Frost Anymore”
“I have an old Kamaz. It rattles and growls, and the wind blows in through the door. It runs slow. Do you have motion sickness? It can give you motion sickness,” Alexei warns before our trip.

How do I know whether I have motion sickness? I don’t ride the big rigs every day. Honestly, I’ve never ridden in a big rig. I’ll be happy if I can climb into the cab.

Before the trip, Alexei and I agree we’ll address each with the informal “thou” (ty). It’s extremely hard to maintain etiquette when you’re bouncing over bumps in the road and your teeth are chattering from night frosts. Also, Alexei repeats to me several times that he is a carrier, not a long-haul trucker. There is a difference.

Alexei Borisov

9:00 p.m. We leave Ryazan headed for Moscow. Twenty tons of reinforced concrete slabs rumble on the nearly 14-meter-long trailer behind us. It’s dark and drizzling. The cab is hot and drafty at the same time. I hadn’t imagined the romance of the open road like this. I should have listened to an experienced wheelman earlier, instead of singer Tatyana Ovsiyenko’s tender voice.

Tatyana Ovsiyenko, “Long-Haul Trucker” (1993)

We have left the remains of Ryazan’s pavement behind and are traveling down a good road illuminated here and there. Round midnight, the trees, ravines, and hoses on the roadsides merge into one continuous blur, and my eyes close.

“Did you get in some good sleep before the trip?”

“No, I had a lot of things to do.”

“How’s that?”

“As long as I’m talking, I’m fine. But I usually stop in a side lane and doze for fifteen minutes or so. It helps.”

“How much?”

“Another half an hour.”

So we talk about roads and school pranks, fuel prices and children, the remnants of green zones and the nuances of professions.

Alexei is a “hereditary” driver, as they say. His favorite pastime in childhood was riding the bus his father drove. Immediately after graduation, he got a job as a vehicle mechanic in Motor Convoy No. 1310, and then a job as a bus driver. He finished his studies to be licensed to drive articulated buses and, at the same time, trailer trucks.

“I transferred to Motor Convoy No. 1417, which services the passenger route between Ryazan and Moscow. They had just purchased Setra buses. Compared to our ancient Russian buses, they were simply a dream. And I was entrusted with one of these buses. I would sign off on the manifest and I go off on my route in a white shirt and blazer. It was great, but after a while they cracked down on us. They made our work conditions harsher in the stupidest way, and in some cases they would just take the piss out of us,” recounts Alexei, irritated.

That was about six years ago. The stewardesses on the long-distrance buses (not to be confused with airplane stewardesses) were forbidden to relax after they handed out food and drinks. They had to keep serving passengers for the entire trip, and smile to them even if they were drunk. Drivers were forbidden from getting free rides to work on buses from their own motor convoy. The next-to-last straw was the Father Frost suit Alexei was obliged to wear over the New Year’s holidays. (The stewardesses were dressed, respectively, as Snow Maidens). The last straw was a fine for stretching his arms over the steering wheel for a couple of seconds. His back had gone to sleep, and he needed to move around a little. An observer saw him do this.

“I couldn’t stand it and I quit. Some might find it stupid. For example, a friend of mine still works there. After every new twist on the part of management, he would sigh and say, ‘They know better. If we’re not dealt with strictly, we’ll lose all fear.’ Why should I fear anyone? I was a responsible employee. I never argued with the passengers. I don’t drink. I don’t even smoke,” Alexei tells me buoyantly, meaning we’re going straight through without stopping.

12:00 p.m., Moscow Region. Through the murky window I notice road workers and convenient multi-level parking lots. A lot of new buildings are going up at a fair distance from the Moscow Ring Road, not as in Ryazan, where they are built right next to the the roads. Speaking of the roads: they exist, and they’re very good.

The big rig alternates between buzzing and barely dragging along, and calming down and cruising more briskly.

“My Kamaz truck is a bit old, and the trip is rough on it. On the other hand, it’s easier to maintain. Spare parts for foreign-made trucks cost so much the guys have to take out loans. The transport tax on them is higher. On the other hand, old trucks like mine won’t be allowed into cities. Right now, this truck feeds a family with two children. I haven’t thought about what I’ll do next.”

We turn off the Ring Road and drive into a pitch-dark neighborhood. The road has been paved with concrete slabs, but none too smoothly. Here and there, we bump along as if we are driving up steps. There is a shaft of light ahead and the outlines of high-rises.

02:05 a.m. A construction site in Mitino, our destination.

According to Alexei, we must “now unload quickly and hightail it back,” to make it through Moscow during permitted hours. He disappears behind mountains of slabs, bricks, and god knows what else.

Another multi-ton rig is already waiting to unload.

My legs numb, I clamber out of the cab. There is frost. The puddles no longer chomp underfoot, but crackle. After stretching my legs and strolling round the half-deserted construction site, I climb back into the cab and look for the thermos.

Alexei comes back in a very bad mood.

“They’ll unload that rig over there now, and then the crane will be busy. They won’t get to us till morning, so we’re hardly going to get through Moscow before the Ring Road has been closed to trucks. There’s the option of bypassing the city on the A107, but that’s an extra 100 kilometers. So this run will be a loss for me. Or . . . We’ll wait and see. I’m going to pull down the bunk for your now. Do you want the sleeping bag?

Oh, what a sinner I am. Remembering all the unprintable expressions I know, I climb up on the bunk located behind the seats. At first, I “modestly” cover myself with my down jacket, but within five minutes I realize my ear, back, and feet are freezing, and I give up, asking Alexei whether I can have the sleeping bag after all. I warm up instantly and doze off. Through my drowsiness I can hear the rumble of a construction crane, the occasional shouts of workers, and the roar of caged packages of bricks being loaded.

Alexei settles down on the seats to sleep.

Marriage, the Photo Shoot, and the Big Bosses
05:50 a.m. Nearly sea-like pitching wakes me up. They’ve finally begun unloading our Kamaz. Nearby, a scandal is brewing.

It turrns out one of the slabs is defective. The first “big boss” flatly refuses to sign for it. The second boss, who is even bigger and more important, orders it removed from the trailer and tossed “in that pile way over there.” He says the supplier has already sent them several defective slabs, but it’s not a disaster and not a rarity. It’s just that building material has to go back to the supplier on one of their own trucks. We still cannot head home, because Alexei has to sign several papers, and they won’t be available until eight o’clock. Eight o’clock! Apparently, we’ll have to hang around in some dump until 10 p.m.

For a while, I take pictures of the old Kamaz, the beautiful sunrise, and landscapes near and far. That is when I am detained until they “discover the purpose of the photo shoot.”

“Why are you shooting the construction site?” asks a heavyset guard.

“No reason,” I reply sincerely, “I’m shooting the truck.”

“You infiltrated the construction site in this truck?”

“Excuse me, what did I do? I infiltrated the site like a spy, and now I’m openly snapping pictures?”

I laugh, but just in case I hide my camera behind my back.

I’m asked to report to the boss, and then to another boss. The biggest security boss is surprised when I tell him the Plato toll rates have not been decreased, but are scheduled to go up. He clicks his tongue in sympathy, but still asks me to delete the shots where it is clear what residential complex this is.

“The tenants walk around shooting, and then they discuss the whats and wherefores on the internet. They complain regulations have been broken here. You can’t shoot here. It’s forbidden.”

“What regulations have been broken? Let’s talk about it.”

The boss politely but silently escorts me to the truck.

“What now?” I hopelessly ask my traveling companion.

“What now? We’re out of here!”

And yes, we’re driving on the Moscow Ring Road. It’s 7:40 a.m.

“We Wanted to Explain It All to Putin”
“We’re going to be fined,” I predict.

“What’s the difference? Either we pay the fine or we fuel up for a 100-kilometer bypass. Or we wait until nightfall. You want to do that?”

I don’t want to do that at all. I ask Alexei how he get involved in the OPR and became a coordinator for them.

“It all kicked off in late 2015, when the authorities informed us Plato would be introduced. Working and surviving got noticeably tougher then: the dollar went up, and prices skyrocketed. Fuel and spare parts were suddenly like gold. But instead of instituting preferential terms of some kind for carriers, they hit us with Plato. [The system’s name in Russian, Platon, is, technically, an abbreviation for “payment for tons,” but what comes to any Russian speaker’s mind when they hear the name Platon is not freight haulage tolls, but the great ancient Greek philosopher. Hence, throughout the numerous articles on the struggle of Russian truckers to band together and defeat what they regard as a death blow to independent trucking I have posted on this website, I have consistently translated the term as “Plato,” because, in part, this is the only way to convey the boundless cynicism of the Kremlin insiders and cronies who christened their system for fleecing hard-working men and women with the name of a brave man who willingly accepted death rather than betray his convictions. — TRR.] It was then that many headed to Moscow to seek the truth. We weren’t thinking about politics. We just wanted to explain to Putin we couldn’t work this way. Everyone would go bankrupt. We sincerely thought he didn’t know anything, and we would tell him how things were, and he would get to the bottom of it. Now it sounds funny, but that’s what believed then. Reporters and volunteers, friends and families, sympathizers and fence-straddlers came to our strike camp in Khimki, but no one in the government bothered to talk with us. Most of the media either said nothing about our protest or cooked the facts. I spent four and half months in that camp. I figured out a lot of things. I peeled myself from the TV and saw the light. I met outstanding people. The camp broke up on May 1, 2016, but on April 30 we held a founding congress and the Association of Russian Carriers (OPR) was established.

“Maybe It’s Better Not to Make Them Angry?”
11:10 a.m. We are leaving the Moscow Ring Road behind.

I silently rejoice in the fact that no one stopped us and fined us. True, along the way, we encounteredd several Plato system monitoring detectors, but more about that a bit later.

The conversation turns to profits and expenses. From everything Alexei tells me, it emerges that the better your rig, the more you earn, and the more you have to give back.

“I’ll get 15,000 rubles [approx 240 euros] for this run. That’s not a lot: it should be at least 18,000. Out of that money, I’ll spend 7,500 rubles on diesel fuel. An excise tax of 6,500 rubles has been added to the price of each liter. Plus, wear and tear on the tires costs another 1,000 rubles. So I end up making 6,500 rubles. It would be a good thing if I set aside some of this money for changing tires. I buy the cheapest tires I can find, Chinese-made, but even for them I’ll have to pay more than 250,000 rubles [approx. 4,000 euros] to ‘reshoe’ the tractor and trailer. I should also set aside money to pay the transport tax. I pay around 13,000 rubles, but my truck is low-powered. The rate for multi-ton tractors with 400 to 500 horsepower engines is around 40,000 rubles [approx. 645 euros]. Next comes the annual insurance payment. That’s 10 to 12 thousand rubles. Then there are the annual payments individual entrepreneurs make to the pension fund (23,400 rubles) and for the obligatory medical insurance policy (4,590 rubles). So when you set aside money for this and that, it means you haven’t earned anything. If you don’t set aside money, you’ll have to take out a loan to make all the insurance and tax payments. Finally, you have to rely only on luck in this job, because you might have to send your rig in for repairs for an indefinite period. You might be ill, and a client might not pay you.

The average price of the tachograph truck drivers are now required to install is 60,000 rubles. We have driven 380 kilometers on a federal highway, so the Plato system toll should amount to 580 rubles. From April 15, the rate will climb to 3.06 rubles a kilometer, so the same run would cost 1,163 rubles in tolls. [Fontanka.ru reported earlier today, March 24, 2017, that Prime Minister Medvedev, after meeting with a group of unidentified truckers, had agreed to reduce the planned per kilometer tariff to 1.91 rubles. When I pointed this development out to a civic activist working closely with the OPR, he told me, “That circus won’t stop the guys. They weren’t involved in the negotiations.”— TRR.]  According to Alexei, it is seemingly not that much, but if you add each payment to all the previous payments, you wind up with a whopping sum of money. Alexei says many carriers resort to the help of logistics companies, who also have to be paid for their services.

“Can you earn more?”

“You can. You can get three or four orders a week, but then your expenses go up, too, on fuel and depreciation. You can take orders that have to be unloaded in Moscow itself. But to get into the city you have to buy a pass. If I’m not mistaken, the starting price for it is 35,000 rubles a month.”

That’s  probably what matters most. Carriers cannot count on earning a stable living. You can’t guess how many runs you’ll get, but you have to pay all the bills.

Alexei’s Kamaz truck

“Is everyone used to Plato?”

“Almost no one pays,” says Alexei, noticeably coming to life. “They dupe the system as they’re able by paying much less than the mileage they’ve traveled, and many drivers don’t pay at all. It’s a sort of tiny rebellion. But that’s for the time being, because the bugs haven’t been worked out of the system. We’ve been promised a crackdown in April such that we’ll paying out more than we earn. And those aren’t empty threats,” Alexei says confidently.

“How can you not pay the road toll if those detectors, which are equipped with video cameras, are out there?”

“Well, they don’t see our license numbers,” my companion utters mysteriously. I realize he won’t say anything more on the subject.

We pull into roadside cafes, simply stopping to down the tea in our thermos. Then we head to Kolomna for loading, but that job has nothing to do with the earnings from today’s run. They’re just old obligations. The road drones continuously in my head, and my legs and back seemingly no longer belong to me.

4:00 p.m. Ryazan, Village of Yuzhny.

Alexei drives the big rig into a parking lot (another expense), located in a field next to a cemetery. He tidies up his “work area.” The last thing he does is turn off the radio, which broadcast the strike notice and the strikers’ demands the whole time we were on the road. Drivers reacted in different ways.  Someone confidently said, “The Rotenbergs won’t stop here. They’ll push through a systematic increase in tolls for travel on federal highways, just as they have made a tradition of increasing rates for utilities and housing maintenance.” Others were blatantly afraid and suggested not angering them: otherwise, they would stop employing the truckers. Still others awkwardly feigned they had no idea what was going on.

“How many Ryazan trucks will go on strike?” I ask finally.

“I’m hoping around twenty, but it’s better not to guess beforehand.”

Alexei closes the tractor’s doors and checks to make sure they’re shut.

“Do you believe in change?”

“If I didn’t believe in it, I would pay my rates and keep my mouth shut.”

“Aren’t you afraid?”

“I’m tired,” he replies, partly closing his eyes. “I’m tired in general and tired of being afraid.”

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Uvarova for the heads-up. All photos courtesy of Yekaterina Vulikh and 7X7. See the original article in Russian for many more photos from Ms. Vulikh’s road trip with Mr. Borisov

Partisans of Suna Win Fight to Save Forest

“You’ve signed up to defend the forest!” Placard hung in the Suna Forest by the “partisans.” Photo courtesy of Gleb Yarovoy

Suna Forest Defender Tatyana Romakhina: We Gestated This Victory for Nine Months like a Baby
Gleb Yarovoy
7X7
March 18, 2017

The standoff between the inhabitants of the village of Suna and quarry developers has ended in victory for the defenders of the Suna Forest. On March 17, the develоpers, Saturn Nordstroi, informed the Karelian Natural Resources Ministry in writing it was terminating its rights to the subsoil in the Suna Forest. This means that its lease agreement for the forest lot will also be terminatedin the very near future. The news was published on the republic’s official government website by acting head of Karelia Artur Parfyonchikov.

“Members of the public and the press asked me to pay particular attention to situation in the Suna Forest in the Kondopoga District from the very first day on the job as acting head of Karelia. The confrontation between local residents and the sand quarry development company took extreme forms after elderly people, veterans of the war, pitched a tent camp last year to keep a forest lot allocated for the quarrying of sand from being used in this way. All the procedures for legalizing the forest for subsoil extraction were were carried out in keeping with the law, but no one listened to the voice of the people for whom the Suna Forest was an inalienable part of their history and lifestyle,” Parfyonchikov wrote.

The news came as a shock to the defenders of the Suna Forest. In conversation with 7X7, Tatyana Romakhina told us she had found out about the so-called partisans of Suna’s victory from reporters and had taken a long while to believe what they had told her.

Tatyana Romakhina. Photo courtesy of Gleb Yarovoy

Tatyana Romakhina: I immediately got on the government website and opened this news article, but I couldn’t focus on what I was reading. The letters were dancing before my eyes, and I couldn’t figure out what they meant. And even after I read it I couldn’t understand whether I should believe it or not. I scanned the web, and people called me, but I couldn’t say anything. Then something happened. I got hysterical: I bawled and shook. We have been fighting this quarry for five years. And the last nine months… We’ve been saying now that we gestated this victory like a baby. It’s our child.

7X7: How did the people standing watch in the forest react at the time?

Tatyana Romakhina: I telephoned them, but they already knew. Nina Shalayeva had already got a phone call, and she had read it on the web herself. See, we had bought her a tablet and taught her to use the internet. So they all had found themselves and were happy.

7X7: When are you planning to remove the camp from the forest?

Tatyana Romakhina: We’re waiting for the papers, which I think we’ll  get soon. Otherwise, they said what they said, but we need to be sure it’s all official. So for the time being everything will be as it has been, but I’m hoping they would give us answer in the near future, especially because sent Mr. Parfyonchikov an official letter. So only after we get an official confirmation will we start tearing down the camp. I hope the river doesn’t start flowing again before we drag things out of the forest.

7X7: We’re willing help move thing, so let us know when it happens.

Tatyana Romakhina: Definitely. But we’ve already decided we’re having a celebration during the May holidays. We’ll set up tables on the river bank and invited all the folks who have helped and supported, all the reporters,, scientists, environmentalists, and activists. We’ll throw a big party. We’re an very grateful to everyone. We won only because we united forces. We wouldn’t have achieved anything on our own. Of course, we lived in the camp, and this was difficult and painful for us, but nothing new is ever born without pain and suffering, so we’re glad.

7X7: But now you have a landmark in the forest. Are you going to  give tours?

Tatyana Romakhina: Yes, we would like to commemorate this historic site somehow, to leave it to our children and grandchildren. We want people to know that nothing happens by itself, that it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.

*****

The residents of the village of Suna fought five years for the pine forest, which had been handed over to the company Saturn Nordstroi for development as a sand quarry. The Suna Forest was the only place where locals picked mushrooms, berries, and medicinal herbs.

In 2015, endangered species of plants were discovered in the forest: Lobaria pulmonaria, or lungwort, a species of lichen, and Neckera pennata, or feather flat moss. But after Rosprirodnadzor (Russian Federal Agency for Oversight of Natural Resource Usage) permitted Saturn Nordstroi to relocate the endangered lungwort to a site outside the planned quarry, work on cutting down the forest commenced.

In the summer of 2016, the residents of Suna set up a camp in the forest to keep the forest from being destroyed. In February 2017, the social conflict between the villagers and businessmen was discussed by the Presidential Human Rights Council. They visited the vigil in the forest and concluded that all permits had been issued legally, but people’s opinion must be respected.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up

Russian Truckers to Strike Nationwide on March 27

Russian Truckers to Launch Nationwide Strike on March 27
Rosbalt
March 13, 2017

On March 27, truckers will launch an indefinite strike against road tolls for cargo trucks on federal highways and the Plato toll payment system in general, Andrei Bazhutin, chair of the Association of Russian Carriers (OPR), announced at a press conference. According to Bazhutin, the protest’s objective is to force the government to revise the regulations for road freight transportation.

“We want to stop the flow of goods as much as possible. Maybe this will be painful for ordinary folks, but we have no other choice. We are supported by 80% of the carriers in Russia. In the big cities, we will be organizing convoys along the roadsides, and we also have rallies planned. Our goal is to sit down at the negotiating table,” said Bazhutin.

He noted that if the authorities do not react to the strike, the strikers will call for the government to resign.

“We have several issues. The main issue is the Plato system. We don’t agree with it, and carriers have been sabotaging it. The government still hasn’t explained to us what we’re paying for, the kind of damage we’re doing to the roads, allegedly. They haven’t shown us any figures,” explained Bazhutin.

The OPR’s chair added that carriers were also worried about technical errors in the weight-and-size scales at the entrances to highways, as well as the work schedules of drivers.

“When a truck drives through the electronic detector, the machine might output the wrong data. There have already been such incidents. Drivers have run through these scales, delivered their cargo, unloaded, and gone home, only to get a fine in the mail of 150,000 rubles [approx. 2,400 euros] and higher a while later. This is really painful for carriers. The work schedule has to be based on Russian realities. They are imposing a European system that doesn’t suit us,” Bazhutin underscored.

According to Bazhutin, strike organizers are currently informing notifying carriers in the regions and getting permissions for protest actions from local authorities.

“Most likely, closer to April 15 there will be a rally. We’ve chosen the date because it’s when the rates go up. I think the strike will last a month, at least. If we stop work for a day, the flow of goods will not stop, except for perishables. It’s a long process, and it will develop as it goes along,” said the OPR chair.

[…]

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Real Russia Today

Krasnodar Farmers Plan Another Tractor Convoy

Krasnodar farmers speaking to the press before heading out on the first protest convoy, last August. Photo courtesy of Meduza

Farmers Plan Another Tractor Convoy
Rosbalt
March 13, 2017

Krasnodar farmers intend to hold another protest against the illegal seizure of land on March 28, Alexei Volchenko, chair of the grassroots organization Polite Farmers, announced at a press conference at Rosbalt News Agency. According to Volchenko, the tractor convoy will set out from the village of Kazanskaya in the Krasnodar Territory’s Kavkazsky District and spread to other regions.

“You’ve all heard about the African Swine Fever that has been making its way around Russia. Farms are being destroyed, subsidiary farms are being destroyed, and people are simply going hungry. They take out million of rubles in loans to get their farms going, and as we see now, due to the fact these farms are being destroyed, people are hanging and shooting themselves. It’s a total mess,” said Volchenko.

The tractor convoy will be held as part of nationwide strike by truckers. Earlier, strike organizers announced their intention to call for the abolition of freight charges on federal highways and an amendment of the regulations concerning freight haulage. If the authorities do not react to the strike, the truckers will call for the government to resign.

According to Volchenko, organizers of the protest have faced pressure from officers of the regional Investigative Committee and the FSB. Criminal cases have been opened against several of the activists.

“This convoy is mainly about the fact that the squeeze has been put on farmers. Instead of helping farmers in some way (in fact, the problems of farmers are not so great: they canbe solved), criminal charges are filed against them,” Volchek added.

Polite Farmers activist Nikolai Maslov underscored the fact that the convoy participants so far have no plans to make political demands, insisting only that their legal rights are honored.

“We would like the situation resolved. For the time being we are not making political demands,” he said. “We don’t want a revolution, we know our history. We just want to solve our problems through dialogue.”

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up

Pavel Chikov: A Managed Thaw

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Is a new thaw on the way?

A Managed Thaw: What the Reversal of Verdicts in the Dadin and Chudnovets Cases Means
Pavel Chikov
RBC
March 6, 2017

The Kurgan Regional Court quashed the verdict against Yevgenia Chudnovets and released her from a penal colony, where she had served four months of a five-month sentence for, allegedly, disseminating child pornography on the web. The Russian Deputy Prosecutor General almost literally copied the arguments made in the appeal by Chudnovets’s attoreny. Previously, during its consideration of the appeal, the selfsame Kurgan Regional Court had refused to release Chudnovets at the request of both the prosecutor and defense attorneys. The same court then denied the appeal against the verdict. The verdict was reversed only after the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Supreme Court intervened. Now Chudnovets will have the right to compensation for the harm caused her by illegal criminal prosecution.

The Chudnovets story unfolded at the same time as the even more high-profile case of Ildar Dadin. Dadin’s case was the first criminal case filed under the newly minted law on violating the law on public rallies, the first guilty verdict handed down under the new law. Dadin was taken into custody in the courtroom. Then came the shocking sentence of three years in a medium-security penal colony for a first offense, a moderately severe offense whose underlying cause was purely political, in a case tried in Moscow under the glare of all the media. During the appeals phase, the verdict was altered slightly, and the sentence reduced a bit. But then there was the drama of Dadin’s transfer to the penal colony, his arrival in a Karelian prison camp infamous for its severe conditions, the immense scandal that erupted after he claimed he had been tortured, and the harsh reaction to these revelations by the Federal Penitentiary Service. Then Dadin was secretly transferred to a remote penal colony in Altai over a demonstratively long period, after which the Constitutional Court, in open session, ruled that the relevant article of the Criminal Code had been wrongly interpreted in Dadin’s case. After this, the Supreme Court jumped quickly into the fray, granting a writ of certiorari, aquitting Dadin, and freeing him from the penal colony.

Politically Motivated Releases
The judicial system acted with phenomenal alacrity in both the Chudnovets and Dadin cases. Chudnovets’s criminal case was literally flown round trip from Kurgan to Moscow and back. Given current realities, this could only have been possible under the so-called manual mode of governance and with authorization at the highest level.

It calls to mind the instantaneous release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky from the same Karelian prison colony in December 2013, and the same sudden early releases, under amnesty, of the Greenpeace activists, convicted in the Arctic Sunrise case, and Masha Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova, two months before their sentences were up. Of course, the record holder in this sense is the Kirov Regional Court, which in the summer of 2013 quashed Alexei Navalny’s five-year sentence in the Kirovles case.

In all these previous cases, the causes of the system’s sudden softness were self-explanatory. The thaw of December 2013 was due to the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Navalny’s pardon was clearly connected with his being able to run in the Moscow mayoral elections. It was hard not to doubt the narrowly political, tactical objectives of these targeted releases.

The latest indulgences—the sudden releases of Dadin and Chudnovets, the transfer of the last defendant in the Bolotnaya Square case, Dmitry Buchenkov, and the Yekaterinburg Pokémon catcher, Ruslan Sokolovsky, from custody in pretrial detention facilities to house arrest—have been greeted with a roar of approval from the progressive public. The liberal genie would have burst out of its bottle altogether were it not for the eleven-hour police search of the home of human rights activist Zoya Svetova in connection with the ancient Yukos case. The search was as sudden and hard to explain as the releases described above.

Federal officials have not tried to dampen the talk of a thaw. On the contrary, they have encouraged it. The president’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, Supreme Court Chief Justice Vyacheslav Lebedev, federal human right’s ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova, and Justice Ministry spokespeople have publicly supported decriminalizing the Criminal Code article under which Dadin was convicted.

Putting the Brakes On
Even earlier we had noticed that the number of politically motivated criminal cases had stopped increasing. Twelve years of defending grassroots activists, human rights activists, journalists, and heads of local NGOs mean we are sensitive to changes in which way the wind blows. It would be wrong to speak of an improvement. Rather, the brakes have been put on the slide into deterioration. There are still dozens of political prisoners doing time in Russia’s prisons.

Political scientists have spoken of an unloosening of the screws; lawyers, of necessary legal reforms. One way or another, it is clear these events did not began in February, and the changes have been implemented from the top, quite deliberately, but without any explanation.

Given the tactial objectives pursued in previous reversals of high-profile cases, there are serious grounds for assuming recent events are due to next year’s main political event, the presidential election.

Preparations for the election began last spring with a shakeup of the law enforcement agencies. The superfluous Migration Service and Gosnarkokontrol (Federal Agency for Drug Trafficking Control) were eliminated. A new political special forces unit, the National Guard of Russia, was established. The influence of the Investigative Committee has been sharply reduced, although from 2012 to 2016 it had been the Investigative Committee that served as the main vehicle for domestic political crackdowns.

The old framework has gradually ceased functioning. The effectiveness of show trials has waned. Leading opposition figures have grown accustomed to working with the permanent risk of criminal prosecution hanging over them. Some have left the country and thus are beyond the reach of the security forces, but they have exited politics as well. Protest rallies have not attracted big numbers for a long time, and NGOs have been demoralized by the law on “foreign agents.” The stats for cases of “extremism” are mainly padded by the online statements of web users in the provinces and “non-traditional” Muslims.

In recent years, the state has delegated its function of intimidation and targeted crackdowns to pro-regime para-public organizations. Navalny is no longer pursued by Alexander Bastrykin, but by organizations like NOD (National Liberation Movement) and Anti-Maidan.

Under a Watchful Eye
The foreground is no longer occcupied by the need to intimidate and crack down on dissidents, but by information gathering and protest prevention, and that is the competence of different government bodies altogether. It is the FSB that has recently concentrated the main function of monitoring domestic politics in its hands. FSB officers have been arresting governors, generals, and heavyweight businesmen, destroying the reputations of companies and government agencies, and defending the internet from the west’s baleful influence.

Nothing adds to the work of the FSB’s units like a managed thaw. Bold public statements, new leaders and pressure groups, and planned and envisioned protest rallies immediately attract attention. The upcoming presidential election, the rollout of the campaign, and good news from the courts as spring arrives cannot help but awaken dormant civic protest. Its gradual rise will continue until its apogee in March of next year [when the presidential election is scheduled]. Information will be collected, analyzed, and sent to the relevant decision makers by the summer of 2018. And by the autumn of 2018 lawyers will again have more work than they can handle. This scenario needs to be taken into account.

There is, of course, another option: the Kremlin’s liberal signals may be addressed not to the domestic audience, but to a foreign one. Foreign policy, which has remained the president’s focus, is in a state of turbulence. Vladimir Putin is viewed by the western liberal public as a dark force threatening the world order. Sudden moves toward democratization can only add to the uncertainty and, consequently, the Kremlin can gain a tactical advantage in the game of diplomacy. Considering the fact there are lots of politicians in the world who are happy to be fooled, the ranks of the Russian president’s supporters will only swell.

Pavel Chikov is head of Agora, an international human rights group. Thanks to Comrade AK for the heads-up. Translation and photograph by the Russian Reader

Showdown in Kazan between Officials and Angry Depositors

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Photo courtesy of Mikhail Zakharov/Kazansky Reporter

Tatfondbank Depositors Protest in Kazan
RBC
March 4, 2017

On Saturday, March 4, depositors of Tatfondbank, whose license has been revoked, held a protest rally outside the Republic of Tatarstan’s government house. The protesters presented Ildar Khalikov, the republic’s prime minister, with a petition demanding the government challenge the Russian Central Bank’s decision to revoke the bank’s license and compensate depositors for their losses. The depositors gave the authorities three days to think it over. Otherwise, they will call for the republic’s president and cabinet to resign. Tatfondbank’s license was revoked on March 3.

Translated by the Russian Reader. See the rest of Mikhail Zakharov’s photoreportage here. For more information on the Russian Central Bank’s recent crackdown on insolvent banks, see Evgeniya Pismennaya and Gregory White, “Russia’s Central Banker Is on a Tear,” Bloomberg Markets, February 14, 2017. Thanks to Sean Guillory for the heads-up on the Bloomberg article

 

March 3, 2007 (March of the Dissenters, Petersburg)

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Anti-Putin protesters gathered on Nevsky Prospect in Petersburg next to the old City Duma building, March 3, 2007. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

A comrade reminds me that today (March 3, 2017) is ten years to the day from the first March of the Dissenters in Petersburg (March 3, 2007), in which thousands of anti-Putin protesters who had been kettled by riot police on Ligovsky Prospect near Insurrection Square broke through the police lines and marched, nearly unimpeded and without anyone’s “authorization,” all the way down the Nevsky to the old City Duma building, where various “ringleaders,” including the then-fearless and inspiring local politician Sergei Gulyaev, several Natsbols (during their “liberal” phase, now long since forgotten), and Garry Kasparov tried to mount the steps to give speeches, which they did with more or less success until the riot cops infiltrated the huge crowd gathered around the Duma and dragged them away to paddy wagons.

Needless to say, it was a wonderful day, one of the most memorable in my life, and a rare manifestation of real grassroots people power in a city whose populace is too often prone to wait for the cops to give them permission to stand in a dirty, invisible corner of town and hold up their handmade placards, which will be seen by no one except their mostly fairweather friends on Facebook.

If you weren’t there that day, but could have been, you made a big mistake, for which, I suspect, the gods of Ingria will never ever forgive you.

A great time was had by all. Really. TRR

Thanks to Comrade Oregon for the heads-up