“We Are Treated like Schmucks”: Why Volga Region Pensioners Have Rebelled against the Regime

“We Are Treated like Schmucks”: How and Why Volga Region Pensioners Have Rebelled against the Regime
Yeveniya Volunkova
Takie Dela
April 4, 2017

What Happened?
Certain benefits for pensioners, disabled people, and other beneficiaries were cut in Samara at the beginning of 2017. Monthly payments for housing services and utilities were replaced by compensation for actual expenses. People now have to pay their bills first, then show the authorities the receipts, and only after that, if they have no debts, are they compensated for their expenses. The system has not been put through its paces and does not function, so there have been problems with assembling documents and getting compensation. In addition, a charge for major renovations has been added to the housing maintenance bill, a charge that many people do not pay as a matter of principle. Also, free public transportation for working pensioners has been abolished, and the number of free rides on the subsidized transport pass has been limited to fifty. This lasts many people two weeks; moreover, people complain the “rides” disappear more quickly. The frosting on the cake was the cancellation of monthly cash payments for working pensioners, who number 175,000 in Samara Region. People have lost their supplementary pensions, which ranged from 600 to 1,200 rubles. Non-working pensioners, whose pensions are over 19,500 rubles, have also been stripped of supplementary payments. The Samara administration did not give permission to hold a protest rally on the city’s central square, allowing it only in a remote neighborhood. Despite these precautions, the protesters packed the square.

The fourth large-scale protest by pensioners took place in Samara on April 2. The old folks first rebelled against Samara Region Governor Nikolai Merkushin in early February, when around 300 people attended a protest rally. The number of protesters has grown each time, and yesterday, according to unofficial statistics, around 4,000 people gathered on the square near the Athletics Palace. The protesters told our correspondent Yevegniya Volunkova what they were protesting and how they had succeeded in coming together when the rallies have not been mentioned on television at all.

***

Nina Dmitrievna and Tamara Petrovna

Both women are seventy-nine years old. They heard about the rally from flyers and the internet. Their main complaints are Mordovian produce in the city and a fountain during the plague.

We’re upset about our poverty, the judicial system, and very many other things. But first of all, we want to see Merkushkin replaced. He squanders money and imports everything from Mordovia, including crushed stone, paving tile, and cement. Whatever shop you go to, the produce is all Mordovian. It’s no wonder his nickname is the Mordvin Pasha. During these hard times for the region, he wants to build the best fountain in Europe on the river embankment. Is now the time for it? Replace the pavement and benches, sure, but why the heck do we need a fountain right now? My friends and two children live in poverty, and it’s hard to buy bread. But this stadium [Samara is one of the host cities for the 2018 World Cup — TD], good God, how much money they’ve embezzled, and it’s not clear whether they’ll finish it or not. They took their kickbacks, but there’s no money left to build the thing. If we could see that everything was being done on behalf of the people, we would put up with it, but they have been stealing. Merkhushkin pumped three million into the wall on Samara Square [the Wall of Honor on Glory Square, which cut off a beautiful view of the Volga and Zhiguli Mountains, popularly known as the Wailing Wall — TD). It’s in terribly bad taste! And so much money was spent.

Mikhail Viktorovich

Seventy years old, he heard about the rally from friends. His main complaint: how can he survive on his pension?

How the mean regime deals with veterans! Yesterday, villagers told me their family had a monthly pension of 8,000 rubles [approx. 133 euros] or so. What is that? How can a person survive? Today, I went to get milk and bread. I also bought some biscuits and something to put in a soup. 600 rubles [approx. 10 euros] was gone just like that. Is the governor here? He didn’t show up? Shame on him! He stole kopecks from pensioners. Down with our government! They have not made a single effective move to improve the well-being of veterans.

Irina Olegovna

Sixty years old, she heard about the rally from a girlfriend. Her main complaint is that she has been forced to work to survive.

My monthly pension is 7,700 rubles, and I used to get a veteran’s bonus. I worked as an educator my whole life. Merkushkin took way the 621 rubles I got as a veteran’s bonus. I have no husband and no support. I’m forced to work to survive, but I have a whole passle of ailments. Should I approve his policies? He can go back to his native Mordovia. Besides, he lies and lies and lies. He shamelessly lies that he gives us a pension. I wrote a letter to him asking him to help me find work. Do you think he helped me? He didn’t do a damn thing for me.

Valentina Andreyevna

Sixty-three years old, she found out about the rally from the internet. Her main complaint is shamefully low pensions.

I came out of a sense of solidarity. I don’t receive any discount benefits: my length of service was too short. There should other slogans here: “Decent pensions!” Give us a decent pension and we wouldn’t need discounts. We’ll pay for public transport passes, for apartment maintenance costs, and so on. But it’s impossible to live on our miserly pensions.

Valery Remizov

Twenty-two years old, he found out about the rally from the internet. His main complaint is bad roads.

I came to the rally to voice my dissatisfaction with Nikolai Merkushkin’s social policies. It’s a pity our pensioners have to stand in the cold, demanding a few miserable kopecks. I’m sick of the state of the roads in this country. I’m tired of the fact the regime treats me hypocritically not only as a disabled person but also as an individual. It treats everything as a resource that can be sent off to war, god knows where. And yet it cannot organize a decent urban infrastructure, a decent life. I think the government needs to revise its policy of restricting the number of rides on public transport one can take if you have a discounted travel pass. I ride public transport all the time and I travel around town more than the authorities think I do.

Emma Viktorovna

Seventy years old, she heard about the rally on the internet. Her main complaint is that the governor was decorated “for his contribution to cosmonautics.”

Merkushkin is impudent. He’s an outsider in Samara. My colleagues, who have worked all their lives at the cosmodrome, were decorated for their service. But why the hell did they did stick an honorary pin on him for his contribution to cosmonautics? He has made no contribution whatsoever to cosmonautics. A persons should be more modest. Yet our colleagues where shown on TV standing off to the side, while he was shown in close-up. How did Samara manage without Merkushkina? Probably, it didn’t manage. But little Nikolai showed up, and it has been once achievement after another since then.

“Roads are Samara’s second misery. The fools in power are the first.” Roads are one of Samara’s worst problems. Photo courtesy of Yevgeniya Volunkova/Takie Dela

Roman

Sixty-five years old, he heard about the rally from his grandson. His main complaint is that the restricted number of trips on the discounted public transport travel pass make it hard for him to travel to the Volga.

Can you deceive people like that? They compare us with Penza, where forty-eight rides is more than enough, supposedly. Samara is a huge city: fifty trips a month is not enough here. When I’m traveling, all my rides get eaten up by he transfers. It’s a huge city. In the summer, I want to go to the Volga to swim. How many transfers is that? Fifty trips runs out in two weeks. Then there are housing services and utilities. We are forced to pay for utilities, but the discounts come later, after we’ve paid. Yet officials have included a fee for major house renovations in our bills. I don’t want to pay it. What am I paying for? I’ve lived half my life in the same building, which is falling apart at the seams. Major renovations have never once been carried out in that building.

samara-metro-28
Samara Subway and Tram Map. Courtesy of CartoTalk

Nadezha Fyodorovna

Sixty-nine years old, she heard about the rally from reading flyers. Her main complaint is how the money owed to pensioners has been used to pay for the governor’s palaces and the World Cup.

That scumbag Merkushkin took away all our benefits. How did he dare? He built himself palaces on Rublyovka, four palaces at three hundred million each. Does he have a conscience? Today, he was on Channel Two saying he built all the roads for us. The roads are all good, and everything in Samara is good. Only our pensions will have to pay for the World Cup. He’s a real bastard, a scumbag. We should send him packing back to Mordovia, where he can choke on his sons and relatives. Let’s keep coming out for protest rallies and demanding he resign.

Irina Olegovna and Lyubov Andreyevna

Forty-six and seventy-seven, they heard about the rally on the internet. Their main complaint is that the regime embezzles money and treats people like schmucks.

Irina Olegovna: I’m not a pensioner, but I came to stick up for them. I’m outraged by the injustice that flourishes in our country. The authorities have found the right people to rip off: pensioners. They holler about being a super power, that they defeated the fascists. Who beat whom? What’s the standard of living in Germany and the standard of living in Russia? Who did they defeat? Pensioners and sick children?

Young people attended the rally this time to support the pensioners. Photo courtesy of Yevgeniya Volunkova/Takie Dela

Lyubov Andreyevna: We’ve been spat on from all sides. You cannot get in anywhere to talk to anyone, whether it’s housing services and utilities or healthcare. Everywhere they could not care less about us. I’m seventy-seven. I use the internet and I know everything. I was a decision-maker when I was employed, but now I’ve been utterly humiliated. Thank you, Navalny, that you exposed Medvedev. We must send him packing

IO: It’s absolutely clear to everyone that regime embezzles money, and the fact they are silent is additional proof that thievery is going on. What happened to Serdyukov and Vasilyeva are proven facts. There was a trial, and they were let go. They sold off the property of the defense industry and lined their pockets. I don’t understand who needed this demonstrative flogging. They pulled out their dirty underwear, showed it to everyone, and put it away. I’ll be damned!

LA: Because they consider us idiots.

IO: Stupid schmucks!

LA: Stupid schmucks, cows, that’s who we are!

IO:  I agree with you completely. But ultimately they have to understand a point of no return will be reached, when it all goes to hell. What, are they waiting until people come after them with pitchforks? The country has already reached the boiling point. What the heck do we need Crimea for when our country is poor? I used to support Putin. He inherited a heavy burden, the country was in ruins. He seemed decent. I believed he’d put the country in shape. But then I realized what was what.

LA: Putin works for the oligarchs, not for himself. And we cows will all die off.

Vasily Petrovich

Eighty-two years old, he found out about the rally from a flyer. His main complaint is that payments have not been made to people who went through the war as children.

Look, I’ve brought a newspaper from 2014. Merkushkin promised to make monthly payments of 1,000 rubles to people who went through the war as children. But he didn’t give us fuck-all. We spent the war on a collective farm. Cold and hungry, we supplied the front and the cities with produce, while we ourselves ate grass and dirt. We survived, we were victorious, and now what? Now we are dying in poverty.

“Stop Making Fools of Russian Dudes!” Protest rally in Samara. Photo courtesy of Yevgeniya Volunkova/Takie Dela

Lydia Nikolayevna

Sixty-eight years old, she heard about the rally on the internet. Her main complaint is that her family has been stripped of all benefits, and that the regime takes people for idiots.

I’m a history teacher, I worked my whole life. Three years ago, my daughter died, leaving me to take care of my granddaughter Lada. She’s thirteen and in the sixth grade. By order of the city administration, the city paid the difference in the housing services and utilities bills for her as an orphan for the whole of 2016. The payment was small, but it made a difference. I’m a veteran of pedagogical work and disabled. We were supposedly divided into two groups: “rich” pensioners, who got 19,000 rubles a month, and poor pensioners. Money was taken away from us under the pretext of giving it to the poor. Money was taken from 175,000 people and then returned, allegedly, but we still haven’t got the money back. I don’t think they took the money in order to give it back. I take my granddaughter to school. I have to transfer, and I use four rides on my discounted travel pass. When they limited the number of trips to fifty, they took us for idiots. They also sucker us out of rides. My friends recorded every trip and noticed that they were shorting us by ten rides. They run out before the month ends, and they kick us off public transport. They’re secretly stealing even from these crumbs, from the fifty rides, as if we couldn’t check how many rides we were getting. I feel ashamed of this regime. We worked honestly our whole lives, and now they’re punishing us, punishing orphaned children and disabled people. It’s disgusting.

Nadezhda

Sixty-one years old, she heard about the rally on the internet. Her main complaint is the thieves in the government.

I have been denied the chance to travel by public transport. I need to drop off and pick up my granddaughter nearly every day. Of course, the number of rides on the travel pass is not enough. It’s just digusting. Why did they decide to limit us? What made them think fifty rides was enough for us? Merkushkin says that somebody made a thousand trips in a month on a seasonal pass. That’s utter rubbish. Even if it’s true, does that mean everyone has to have their benefits slashed? How many crooks and thieves are in the government? How many cases of corruption have been proven? In keeping with Merkushkin’s line of reasoning, all governors should be hauled into the Investigative Committee, no?

Organizing People through Their Wallets

“Let’s Reforge Medvedev’s Palaces into Unlimited Rides for Veterans.” The fifty rides they get on their free transport passes is not enough for residents. Photo courtesy of Yevgeniya Volunkova/Takie Dela

The main organizer of the rallies, Mikhail Matveev, a Communist MP in the Samara Regional Duma, is certain that his best organizer, the person who gets people out to the protest rallies, is Governor Merkushkin himself, the man whose decisions have driven people to the edge.

“Our old ladies don’t just read newspapers and watch TV. They’re not as backwards as they seem. They read social networks and blogs. Young people tell them things. Plus, we leaflet mailboxes and residential building entryways. We printed around 15,000 leaflets for the March 19 rally. The printing was paid for by the party and by ordinary people. It’s not a lot of money, but we don’t have anymore. Residents help us by leafletting for free and printing the leaflets at home on their printers. But the main organizing factor is people’s wallets, and the main organizer is Merkushkin. It used to be that pensioners weren’t aware that the number of trips on public transport was limited, but suddenly they were kicked off buses. The pension checks arrived, they were 700 rubles less, and so on. Dissatisfaction has been growing. We are grateful to Governor Merkushkin for the fact that his blunt propaganda pisses people off. There are all the phrases he tosses off at meetings with constituents, like, ‘It was you who did it so that we did nothing for you,’ and so on. They make the rounds. There will be more protest rallies until we get the pensioners their benefits back and send the governor packing.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

Psychiatry as a Tool of Political Repression in Crimea

Elena Lysenko
A picket for the release of Crimean lawyer Emil Kurbedinov on 31 January 2017 in Simferopol, Ukraine. Photo by Elena Lysenko

Psychiatry as a Tool of Political Repression in Crimea
Madeline Roache
Special to The Russian Reader
April 9, 2017

Lawyers and human rights activists claim the Russian authorities in annexed Crimea have been persecuting human rights activists, most of whom belong to the Muslim Crimean Tatar community. The Crimean Tatars, who make up about 15% of Crimea’s population, have vocally opposed Russia’s occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula since February 2014. As a result, the group has been specially targeted by Russian authorities. Many Crimean Tatars have been forced to leave the region to avoid harassment and arbitrary arrest.

According to a new report, presented on March 23 by Ukrainian advocacy group Crimea SOS, a total of 43 local activists have been abducted since Russian troops occupied Crimea in February 2014—allegedly, by the Russian authorities and their accomplices. Eighteen of those who were abducted are still missing and six have been found dead.

Robert van Voren, a Dutch human rights activist and political scientist, said that, since the annexation, many Crimean Tatar activists who oppose the occupation have been arrested and subjected to abuse and imprisonment in psychiatric institutions.

“Since the annexation of Crimea, Russian authorities have prosecuted and forced into exile virtually all those who oppose the Russian occupation, including key leaders and activists within the Crimean Tatar community”, he said.

Emil Kurbedinov, a prominent Crimean lawyer, told the Guardian that, between December 2016 and March 2017, twelve Crimean activists were forcibly admitted to psychiatric hospitals in Crimea. Four of them remain in hospital, while the rest have either been transferred to prison or discharged.

According to Kurbedinov, Crimean activists are treated in a degrading way and face appalling conditions in psychiatric hospitals.

“Some are placed in isolation and are denied their basic needs, such as access to a toilet. Others are housed with numerous people suffering from severe mental illnesses. The activists are interrogated about their alleged involvement in ‘extremism’ and their views of the government. They are also deprived of the right to speak with their families or meet their lawyers on a one-to-one basis without a guard being present. All of this violates international law,” he said.

All of the Crimean activists were arrested on suspicion of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, which Russia, unlike Ukraine and other countries, has declared a terrorist group. The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG) asserts there is no evidence to suggest the organisation has anything to do with terrorism, nor is there any proof the men were even involved in the group.

Kurbedinov says their arrest was illegal and a breach of protocol, as it was not sanctioned by a judge but ordered by a police investigator.

According to KHPG, a further 19 Crimean activists are currently in custody, accused of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. Memorial, a Russian human rights organization, has declared all the activists in custody political prisoners. KHPG claims that one of the detainees, Emir Kuku, was most likely arrested due to his work for the Crimean Contact Group on Human Rights, which provides legal assistance and support to members of Muslim groups.

Last year, Kurbedinov defended Ilmi Umerov, a Crimean Tatar activist who openly opposed the Russian occupation. Umerov was sent against his will to a psychiatric hospital in August 2016. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) detained Umerov in May 2016 in the Bakhchysarai District and charged him with separatism. Umerov is also a representative in the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, an elected body that was suspended by Moscow after it annexed Crimea. Human Rights Watch heavily criticized the case, calling it “a shameful attempt to use psychiatry to silence [Umerov] and tarnish his reputation.” Umerov was released twenty days after his confinement.

Kurbedinov argues that these cases have “acutely raised the issue of the vulnerability of ordinary citizens who have no civil rights whatsoever before the legal and judicial monolith.”

Soviet Psychiatry
The practice of punitive psychiatry in the present day is particularly disturbing given its historical use as a tool of rampant political repression the in the later decades of the Soviet era. Psychiatry was used to systematically confine and punish Soviet dissidents. However, under President Vladimir Putin, cases of the alleged political abuse of psychiatry have resurfaced, leading many to believe that the Soviet-era practice has returned.

The involuntary hospitalization of protestor Mikhail Kosenko in Russia in 2012, is just one of many modern-day cases that has been widely held up as an example of the political abuse of psychiatry. Kosenko was convicted on charges of rioting and assaulting a police officer during the Bolotnaya Square anti-Putin protests in Moscow on May 6, 2012. The case sparked international attention from human rights activists, who asserted the charges were fabricated and that Kosenko’s hospitalization was unnecessary.

The abuse of psychiatry in Russian criminal trials is not uncommon, according to Yuri Savenko, psychiatrist and head of the Independent Psychiatric Association (IPA) in Russia.

“Psychiatry is now frequently part of the procedure in criminal trials where there is no concrete evidence: it is more economical in terms of time and effort just to obtain a psychiatric diagnosis,” he says.

This disturbing phenomenon is of particular concern to the Federation Global Initiative on Psychiatry (FGIP), a human rights organization that protects human rights in mental healthcare. FGIP closely monitors the practice and is currently compiling a report about cases of psychiatric abuse in the post-Soviet states, to be published later this month.

Madeline Roache is a London-based freelance journalist focusing on human rights conditions in the former Soviet Union. Her work has been published in The Guardian, The Times of Central Asia, and Euromaidan Press.

“Optimizing” Russian Healthcare to Death

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Given the dismal state of Russian healthcare, many people practice folk medicine. Photo by TRR

Experts Predict Reduction in Number of Hospitals to 1913 Levels
Polina Zvezdina
RBC
April 7, 2017

The optimization of healthcare has led to massive hospital closures and a decrease in the quality of medicine in Russia, experts say. By 2021–2022, the number of hospitals in the country might drop to the level of the Russian Empire.

Hospitals of the Russian Empire
Between 2000 and 2015, the number of hospitals in Russia halved, dropping from 10,700 to 5,400, according to calculations made by analysts from the Center for Economic and Political Reform (CEPR), based on data from Rosstat. In a report entitled “Burying Healthcare: Optimization of the Russian Healthcare System in Action,”  CEPR analysts note that if the authorities continue to shutter hospitals at the current pace (353 a year), the number of hospitals nationwide will have dropped to 3,000 by 2021–2022, which was the number of hospitals in the Russian Empire in 1913. (RBC has obtained a copy of the report.)

Healthcare reform kicked off in 2010, when the law on compulsory health insurance was adopted, David Melik-Guseinov, director of the Moscow Health Department’s Healthcare Organization Research Institute reminded our correspondent. It consisted in optimizing costs by closing inefficient hospitals and expanding the use of high-tech health facilities. The authors of the CEPR’s report explained that they examined a fifteen-year period when Vladimir Putin was in power, including his tenure as prime minister. In addition, the vigorous reform and optimization of healthcare kicked off between 2003 and 2005, as is evident from the statistics on the numbers of hospitals and outpatient clinics.

Hot on the heels of the hospitals, the number of hospital beds also decreased during the fifteen-year period: on average by 27.5%, down to 1.2 million, according to the CEPR’s calculations. In the countryside, the reduction of hospital beds has been more blatant: the numbers there have been reduced by nearly 40%. These data have been confirmed by Eduard Gavrilov, director of the Health Independent Monitoring Foundation. According to Gavrilov, the number of hospital beds has been reduced by 100,000 since 2013 alone.

Melik-Guseinov agrees the numbers of hospitals and beds have been decreasing, but argues these figures cannot be correlated with the quality of medical service and patient care. The primary indicator is the number of hospitalizations, and that number has been growing, he claims. For example, 96,000 more people were discharged in Moscow in 2016 than in 2015. This means that, although hospital bed numbers have gone done, hospital beds have been used more efficiently. Each hospital bed should be occupied 85–90% of the time, Melik-Guseinov stresses. If beds stand empty, they need to removed.

Outmaneuvering Outpatient Clinics
As the CEPR’s report indicates, the trend towards a decrease in hospitals and hospital beds could be justified were resources redistributed to outpatient clinics, but they too are being closed in Russia. During the period from 2000 to 2015, their numbers decreased by 12.7%, down to 18,600 facilities, while their workload increased from 166 patients a day to 208 patients.

“The planned maneuver for shifting the workload and resources from hospitals to outpatient clinics did not actually take place. The situation became more complex both in the fields of inpatient and outpatient care,” conclude the authors of the report.

In its report, CEPR also cites the outcome of an audit of healthcare optimization performed by the Federal Audit Chamber. The audit led the analysts to conclude that the reforms had reduced the availability of services. As the CEPR notes, the incidence of disease increased among the population by 39.1% during the period 2000–2015. Detected neoplasms increased by 35.7%, and circulatory diseases, by 82.5%. The analysts personally checked the accessibility of medical care in the regions. The report’s authors tried to get an appointment with a GP in a small Russian city, for example, Rybinsk, in Yaroslavl Region. If they had been real patients, they would have waited 21 days to see a doctor. In addition, write the analysts, hospitals do not have a number of drugs, such as dipyrone, phenazepam, and ascorbic acid.

Melik-Guseinov is certain that one cannot rely on data on the incidence of disease among the population as an indicator of deteriorating healthcare in Russia. He points out that what is at stake is not the incidence of disease per se, but diagnosis. The fact that the more illnesses are detected is a good thing.

Fastfood Wages
The CEPR’s analysts write that the lack of medicines in hospitals reflects another problems in Russian healthcare: its underfunding. The government constantly claims expenditures on healthcare have been increasing, but, taking inflation into account, on the contrary, they have been falling. The CEPR refers to an analysis of the Federal Mandatory Medical Insurance Fund. Their analysts calculated that its actual expenditures would fall by 6% in 2017 terms of 2015 prices.

The report’s authors also drew attention to medical personel’s salaries. Taking into account all overtime pay, physicians make 140 rubles [approx. 2.30 euros] an hour, while mid-level and lower-level medical staff make 82 and 72 rubles [approx. 1.36 euros and 1.18 euros] an hour, respectively.

“A physician’s hourly salary is comparable, for example, to the hourly pay of a rank-and-file worker at the McDonald’s fastfood chain (approx. 138 rubles an hour). A store manager in the chain makes around 160 rubles an hour, meaning more than a credentialed, highly educated doctor,” note the analysts in the CEPR’s report.

According to a survey of 7,500 physicians in 84 regions of Russia, done in February 2017 by the Health Independent Monitoring Foundation, around half of the doctors earn less than 20,000 rubles [approx. 330 euros] a month per position, the Foundation’s Eduard Gavrilov told RBC.

Compulsory medical insurance rates do not cover actual medical care costs, argue the CEPR’s analysts. For example, a basic blood test costs around 300 rubles, whereas outpatient clinics are paid 70 to 100 rubles on average for the tests under compulsory medical insurance. Hence the growing number of paid services. Thus, the amount paid for such services grew between 2005 and 2014 from 109.8 billion rubles to 474.4 billion rubles.

The authors of the report conclude that insurance-based medicine is ineffective in Russia. Given the country’s vast, underpopulated territory, one should not correlate money with the number of patients. This leads to underfunding and the “inevitable deterioration of medical care in small towns and rural areas.”

“It is necessary to raise the issue of reforming insurance-based medicine and partly returning to the principles of organizing and financing the medical network that existed in the Soviet Union,” the analysts conclude.

RBC expects a response from the Health Ministry.

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

It Was a Good Week in the Supah Powah, or, The Return of the Green Lanterns (OVD Info)

‘In 2016, Donald Trump rode a wave of popular discontent to the White House on the promise that he would “make America great again.” As Russia’s presidential election, scheduled for March 2018, draws nearer, President Vladimir Putin may try a similar tactic — by contending that he has already restored Russia’s greatness.’

Blogger Norwegian Forester

The authorities have been using every trick in the book to counteract the plans of Alexei Navalny’s supporters to hold events against corruption on March 26 in scores of cities. Authorities have been refusing to authorize the protests under different pretexts. Rally organizers in different regions have been arrested on trumped-up changes, summoned to the police, fined for inviting people to rallies on the social networks, and written up for holding meetings with activists. Volunteers have been detained for handing out stickers.

More Navalny

At the same time as he has been getting ready for the anti-corruption protests, Navalny has been opening election campaign headquarters in different cities. These events have also been subject violent attacks. In Barnaul, Navalny was doused with Brilliant Green antiseptic (zelyonka). In Petersburg, the door of his headquarters was set on fire. In Volgograd, Navalny was dragged by his feet and nearly beaten.

Alexei Navalny

In Bryansk Region, a schoolboy was sent to the police for setting up Navalny support groups on the social networks: the police demanded he delete the accounts. In Krasnoyarsk University, a lecturer was fired for showing Navalny’s exposé of PM Dmitry Medvedev, Don’t Call Him Dimon. In Orenburg, a coordinator of the Spring youth movement was summoned to the rector, who asked him questions about Navalny. In Moscow, famous blogger Norwegian Forester was detained for going onto Red Square, his face painted green, in support of Navalny.

Not Only Navalny: Crackdowns on Freedom of Assembly

Long-haul truckers have planned a nationwide strike for March 27. Around twelve people were detained during a meeting of truckers in Vladivostok. Police claimed they had received intelligence on a meeting of mafia leaders. In Krasnodar Territory, an activist got three days of arrest in jail for handing out leaflets about the upcoming strike.

Krasnodar farmers have planned a tractor convoy for March 28. However, organizer Alexei Volchenko was arrested for twelve days for, allegedly, not making alimony payments. Another tractor convoy participant, Oleg Petrov, had his internal passport confiscated by police.

Judge Vladimir Vasyukov

In Petersburg, Dzherzhinsky District Court Judge Vladimir Vasyukov during the past week imposed fines of 10,000 rubles [approx. 160 euros] each on three women, involved in a feminist protest on International Women’s Day, March 8, 10,000 rubles [approx. 160 euros], elderly activist Igor “Stepanych” Andreyev, accused of walking along a building during a solo picket, and activist Varvara Mikhaylova for picketing outside the Segezha Men’s Penal Colony in Russian Karelia in support of civic activist Ildar Dadin, who was recently released.

Varvara Mikhaylova. Photo courtesy of David Frenkel

In Murmansk, the authorities refused to authorize three marches against inflated utilities rates, food prices, and public transportation costs, while Moscow authorities refused to authorize a protest rally against the planned massive demolition of five-storey Soviet-era apartment buildings. In addition, Moscow police demanded a party at Teatr.doc be cancelled.

Moscow City Court ruled that meetings of lawmakers with their constituents should be regarded as the equivalent of protest rallies.

The Constitutional Court ruled the police can detain a solo picketer only if it is impossible to ensure security. The very next day, two solo picketers bearing placards on which Vyacheslav Makarov, speaker of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, was depicted as a demon were detained by police.

Criminal Prosecutions and Other Forms of Coercion

Sergei Mokhnatkin, whose spine was broken in prison, was sentenced to two years in a maximum security penal colony for, allegedly, striking a Federal Penitentiary Service officer.

Sergei Mokhnatkin

As for talk of a new Thaw, two Ufa residents, accused of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, had their suspended sentences changed to four years in a penal colony.

In Stavropol, Kirill Bobro, head of the local branch of Youth Yabloko, was jailed for two months, accused of narcotics possession. Bobro himself claims police planted the drugs on him.

Kirill Bobro

A graduate student at Moscow State University was detained and beaten for flying a Ukrainian flag from the window of his dormitory. In addition, he was forced to sign a paper stating he agreed to be an FSB informant. Ukrainian journalist Roman Tsymbalyuk was detained while trying to interview the graduate student.

What to Read

LGBT activist Dmitry Samoilenko describes how he has been persecuted in Kamchatka for a brochure about the history of gender identity in the Far North. Activist Rafis Kashapov, an activist with the Tatar Social Center, who was convicted for posts on the social networks, sent us a letter about life in a prison hospital.

Rafis Kashapov

The Week Ahead (March 26—April 1)

Closing arguments are scheduled for March 27 in the trial of Bolotnaya Square defendant Maxim Panfilov, who has been declared mentally incompetent. Prosecutors will apparently ask the judge to sentence him to compulsory hospitalization.

On March 29, an appeals court is expected to hear the appeal against the verdict of Alexander Belov (Potkin), co-chair of the Russians Ethnopolitical Movement.

Thanks for Your Attention

We continue to raise money for our monitoring group, which collects information on political persecution and takes calls about detentions at protest rallies. Thanks to all of you who have already supported us. You can now make monthly donations to OVD Info here.

Translated by the Russian Reader

They Also Lie About How Much They Pay Us

“Loans, whatever your credit history, paid in cash in 30 minutes.” Flyer photographed in central Petersburg, 15 May 2017. Photo by TRR

Russian Public TV: Average Wage in Pskov Region Two Times Lower than Official Figures
Pskovskaya Guberniya Online
March 15, 2017

An SMS poll conducted by Russian Public Television (OTR) has shown that the average monthly wage in Pskov Region is two times lower than the official figures, amounting to 9,950 rubles [approx. 160 euros]. These figures were published by OTR’s news service on the basis of information sent by viewers. OTR viewers reported their minimum and maximum monthly wages: they amounted to 6,500 rubles and 15,000 rubles, respectively. According to Rosstat, the average monthly wage in Pskov Region amounts to 22,264 rubles [approx. 358 euros].

The poll showed that the average monthly wage in Russia is 15,158 rubles [approx. 244 euros], which is also two times less than the official figures. Rosstat reported that the average monthly wage this year has amounted to 36,746 rubles [approx. 590 euros]. According to Rosstat, the poorest region is Dagestan. The average monthly wage in the country’s wealthiest regions—Murmansk, St. Petersburg, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District, Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District, Sakhalin, Kamchatka, Moscow, and Moscow Region—is over 40,000 rubles per month [approx. 640 euros].

According to OTR’s survey, only viewers in Moscow, Moscow Region, Buryatia, Ingushetia, the Maritime District, and Belgorod Region make over 30,000 rubles a month. Viewers in Kabardino-Balkaria, Kursk Region, Orenburg Region, Pskov Region, Saratov Region, and Tver Region make less than 10,000 rubles a month. The lowest monthly wage was discovered in Novgorod Region. A postman there makes 2,800 rubles a month [approx. 45 euros].

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. See “Russia’s Economic Performance: Fudging the Stats” (February 16, 2017) and “Alexei Gaskarov: A 25,000 Ruble Minimum Monthly Wage Is a Good Idea” (February 9, 2017) for more perspectives on these issues.

Alexander Morozov: The So-Called Partners

The So-Called Partners: How the Kremlin Corrupted an Unimaginable Number of People in the West
Alexander Morozov
Colta.ru
March 14, 2017

Vladimir Putin and Michael Flynn at TV channel Russia Today’s birthday party, December 2015

Before Crimea, everyone “cooperated” with the Russians. Until mid 2016, there was confusion about this past. The sanctions did not almost nothing to change this mode of cooperation.

But since the elections in the US, quite significant changes have been occurring that are hard to describe accurately and identify. Outwardly, this is encapsulated in the fact that people accused of communicating with the Russians have been losing their posts, and all this comes amidst public scandals. It’s not that people cooperated maliciously, but they were involved in what Russian gangsters call zaskhvar, “getting dirty.”

No one doubted Flynn’s loyalty, but he resigned due to “contacts.” The deputy speaker of the Lithuanian Seimas, Mindaugas Bastys, resigned the other day. He resigned because the Lithuanian secret services refused him access to secret information, although the list of Russians with whom he palled around at different times doesn’t contain anyone special: employees of Russian state corporations in Lithuania, crooked local Russian businessmen, and so on. Recently, the mailbox of an adventurer who has worked for the Kremlin in four countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary), and the Balkans to boot, was hacked. It transpired that Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeev had discussed or conducted ops of some kind during the elections in Bosnia and Poland.

Malofeev is, seemingly, an extreme example of frankly subversive actions in other countries. Perusing the correspondence and knowing the atmosphere of Russian affairs in Europe, you realize that Malofeev’s strategy and tactics differ not a whit from the actions of dozens and hundreds of similar actors operating outside the Russian Federation. Before Crimea, all of this resembled benign “promotion” of their interests on the part of all those who cooperated with such people. But now retrospection kicks ins. What trouble have those who were involved in the Petersburg Dialogue, the Valdai Club, the Dialogue of Civilizations, and the dozens and hundreds of programs where the Russians either footed the bill, generated incentives or simply provided a one-time service got themselves into? I was told by people from compatriots organizations (who fairly early pulled out of Russian World’s programs) that initially they were fooled by Nikita Mikhalkov’s early cultural projects outside Russia. They sincerely supported his appeal to the descendants of the post-revolutionary emigration. Around 2008, however, they sensed they were getting sucked into a system of ideological support for the Kremlin. Many even continued to travel to Moscow to the compatriots congresses, but inwardly they already felt like observers. They had already decided then that this was a new “Comintern,” and it would be wrong to accept grants from it. But others happily kept on taking the grants and sailed off with the Kremlin for Crimea.

* * *

But all these political, humanitarian and media contacts pale next to the vastness of business collaborations. Millions of people worldwide were involved in Russian money for over a decade. After all, so-called capital flight occurred on a massive scale. This capital was then partly reinvested in Russia through offshores, and partly spent on buying various kinds infrastructure outside of Russia (firms, shares in businesses, real estate, yachts, etc.). This entire giant machine for circulating the Putin corporate state’s money was serviced by millions of people as counterparties, including lawyers, dealmakers of various shapes and sizes, politicians, MPs, movie stars, cultural figures, translators, and so on.

The outcome, when Crimea happened, was a huge spontaneous lobby. This doesn’t mean all these people had literally been bought off, to describe the process in terms of the battle against corruption. People simply “cooperated” and received various bonuses from this cooperation. It is not a matter of recruitment, but a psychological phenomenon. Any of us, having once received money from a rich childhood friend, even if we are critical towards him, would still remain publicly loyal to him. Would you want to shout to the heavens about the atrocities of a man thanks to whom, say, you had earned enough money to buy a new house? You would just keep your lips sealed.

* * *

In other words, for around ten years, beginning approximately in 2004, after the takeover of Yukos, the Russian economy “warmed up” foreign strata whose scale is hard to evaluate. It was not a matter of corruption in the narrow sense of the word. Of course, on their part it was regarded as economic cooperation with a peculiar type of “eastern” economy that involved “pats on the back,” kickbacks, exchanges of various bonuses and preferences, trips to the banya, hunting for wild sheep from helicopters, and so on. But it was not criminal. On their part, it was indulged as a “peculiarity.” Russia is hardly the only economy marked by these ways. It was a partnership in the primary sense. The world’s major companies opened offices and production facilities in Russia. Until recently, it was a privileged economy, included in the BRICS grouping.

Crimea turned all the fruits of this decade-long warming-up into a problem. It is obvious Putin used Crimea to implement an instantaneous mobilization amongst those involved in the partnership. He confronted all the partners with the need to define themselves. Putin’s use of the word “partners,” which he pronounces ironically, has often been thought to relate to the diplomatic lexicon. But in fact Putin has in mind other partners, the millions of people who have received big bonuses for dealing with Russian contracts, Russian money, and various undertakings with Russians for a decade.

* * *

Now these partners have big problems, and we must sadly note that the problems are not due to Crimea as such nor to the regime of sanctions and countersanctions, nor to the ambivalence of having been involved in toxic projects with Russians in the past.  The problems lies entirely in the fact that Putin does not want to stop.

This entire massive milieu would sigh in relief if it found out that Putin had “transferred the title to himself” (i.e., focused on Crimea) and called it a day.

But the extreme ambiguity has been maintained and even intensified from 2014 to 2017. It was not Putin who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, but folks mobilized by Malofeev. It was not Putin who murdered Nemtsov, but Chechen security officials. It was not Putin who hacked the Democratic Party’s servers, but volunteer hackers, who maybe were Russians or maybe not, but they used Russian servers. The attempted coup in Montenegro was not orchestrated by Putin, but by persons unknown. It was not Putin who plotted to destroy Ukraine as a country and establish Novorossiya, but, say, Sergei Glazyev. The pro-Russian rallies in European countries were organized not by Putin, but by a guy named Usovsky, who raised money for the purpose from patriotic Russian businessmen. And so on.

The list now grows with every passing day. Yet the Kremlin doesn’t really distance itself from any of it with a vigor that would be comprehensible to its so-called partners. The Kremlin has not conducted an investigation of any of these events, but has played an ambiguous game that can be clearly read as “covering up” all of “its own” people.

So the ten-year economic warming-up has been transformed before our very eyes into “inducement to conspiracy.” Everyone is now looking back and asking themselves, “Who was it we ‘partnered’ with? Maybe it was Russian intelligence? Or, from the get-go, was it just bait to get us involved in an unscrupulous lobbying scheme?”

* * *

There is tremendously frightening novelty at play here. Everything happening before our eyes with the State Department and pro-Russian politicians in Europe lays bare a complex problem. The boundaries between lobbying, partnership, espionage, propaganda, and corruption have been eroded.

A situation is generated in which it it impossible to tell benign partnership from complicity in a politics that erodes the limits of the permissible. Just yesterday you were a Christian Democrat building a partnership with the Russian Federation, but today you are just a silent accomplice in eroding the norms of Europe’s political culture. You are not just tight-lipped, refusing to evaluate the Kremlin’s actions. On the contrary. “Maintaining fidelity,” so to speak, to the fruits of your past partnership with the Kremlin, you even raise a skeptical voice. “What’s so criminal about Putin’s policies?” And others do the same. “The sanctions have been been ineffective. Frankly, Crimea has always been Russian.”

And if you were somehow able to take in at a glance the entire so-called Kremlin propaganda machine abroad as a combination of the work of Moscow news agencies and little-visited European websites run by left- and right-wing critics of American hegemony who for that reason sympathize with Putin, it would be utterly impossible to get a glimpse of the giant roots the Kremlin has put down in the western economy. It is beyond estimation, just like the transformation or, rather, the corruption not only of its own native population but also huge circles in the west, a task the Kremlin has accomplished in ten years.

Three years ago, I imagined Putin was putting together a kind of right-wing Comintern, and I wrote about it. Now it is often dubbed the “black Comintern.” I think, however, the situation is more complicated and a lot worse. The “Putinist Comintern” is the fairly insignificant and well-visible tip of a much larger process taking place on other floors of European life, where people who are not involved in either ultra-rightist or ultra-leftist politics remain silent about the Kremlin’s actions. Condemning it, they remain loyal nevertheless. They considerately wait for Putin to return to European norms of partnership. These people cannot see and do not want to see that the ambiguity fostered by the Kremlin in the matter of responsibility for murders, paramilitary detachments, mercenaries, and destabilization of small countries is not a temporary phenomenon. It has been conceived that way. And it will continue that way in the future.

Alexander Morozov is a Russian journalist and political analyst. Translated by the Russian Reader

Defenders of the Fatherland

fatherland-defenders

Front page of St. Petersburg news website Fontanka.ru on the morning of 21 February 2017. The lead story is headlined, “Who Is Accused of Attempting to Kill Montenegro’s Prime Minister?” On the other hand, today’s most popular story is, allegedly, “Defenders of the Fatherland to Be Congratulated with a 30-Gun Salute.”

_________________

Russia law on killing ‘extremists’ abroad
Steven Eke
BBC News
27 November 2016

A new Russian law, adopted earlier in the year, formally permits the extra-judicial killings abroad of those Moscow accuses of “extremism”.

In the wake of the death of ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko in London, the Sunday Telegraph has alleged that Russian spy agencies – “emboldened” by the new law – have carried out a number of such targeted killings.

In July, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament – the Federation Council – approved a law which permits the Russian president to use the country’s armed forces and special services outside Russia’s borders to combat terrorism and extremism.

At the same time, amendments to several other laws, governing the security services, mass media and communications, were adopted.

The overall result was to dramatically expand those defined as terrorist or extremist.

Along with those seeking to overthrow the Russian government, the term is also applied to “those causing mass disturbances, committing hooliganism or acts of vandalism”.

Much more controversially, the law also defines “those slandering the individual occupying the post of president of the Russian Federation” as extremists.

Specific law

Russian lawmakers insisted that they were emulating Israeli and US actions in adopting a law allowing the use of military and special forces outside the country’s borders against external threats.

But the Russian law is very specific in that it permits the president – alone, and apparently without consultation – to take such a decision.

The only proviso is that he must inform the Federation Council within five days.

At the same time, he is not obliged to disclose the location of the operation, which units are involved, or the timescale for its execution.

Memorial, one of the oldest and most-respected Russian human rights groups, reacted strongly to the new law.

In an open letter addressed to Vladimir Putin, it accused the Russian leader of sanctioning extra-judicial executions.

It said the country’s “highest leaders” had turned a blind eye to the activities of “death squads” in the North Caucasus for some years. And, it predicted, with the adoption of the new law, those activities would now be seen in other countries too.

‘Poison umbrella’

The case of Mr Litvinenko has led to an outpouring of conspiracy theories, many of which suggest he was killed by a Russian secret service, of which there are several.

But in reality, there have been only a very small number of killings by poison of Russia’s opponents abroad.

Indeed, the last known case abroad of this type of execution was of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident assassinated by “poison umbrella” in London in 1978.

Many years later, during the perestroika era, a retired KGB general admitted that he had provided the toxin.

Such events were, however, widespread inside the Soviet Union during the terror of the 1930s to 50s.

The 1958 trial of Pavel Sudoplatov – a lieutenant general in the Soviet secret service, who was closely involved in the execution in Mexico of Trotsky – heard how toxins were “illegally tested” on a large number of prisoners who had been sentenced to death.

In more recent years, there is convincing evidence that an extra-judicial killing was carried out by Russian special forces in Qatar in 2004 when the former Chechen separatist president, Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, was blown up by a car-bomb.