Putin’s Spectacles of Strength and Security at Home and Abroad

op31-Russia-in-SyriaRamped-up attacks in northwestern Syria by Damascus and its ally Russia have claimed the lives of hundreds since late April. Photo courtesy of AFP and the National

At home and abroad, Russia is using chaos to create spectacles of strength and security
Faisal Al Yafai
The National
July 30, 2019

In two incidents, in the space of one week, the Kremlin has twice sought confrontation where none was needed.

On Tuesday last week, Russia’s fighter jets violated South Korean airspace for several minutes, resulting in a major diplomatic incident as Korean jets fired more than 300 warning shots.

Then, over the weekend in Moscow, thousands of protesters gathered for the second week in a row, sparked by a crude and unnecessary attempt by the municipality to bar independent candidates from the city’s council elections.

Police responded forcefully to the protests, arresting thousands, including Russia’s most high-profile opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, who was imprisoned before being taken to hospital for exposure to an unidentified chemical.

Both situations could have been avoided. Neither were accidents, either. The Kremlin is actively creating confrontations at home and abroad, hoping to find a role in solving the chaos it is sowing.

This was especially clear in the protests.

The spark for the demonstrations came from an unlikely source: a decision by the country’s electoral commission to not allow a series of independent opposition candidates to stand in September’s Moscow city elections. Independent registrations for the elections require several thousand signatures, a usually insurmountable obstacle. But, when two dozen opposition candidates managed it, the electoral commission simply refused to register them.

These elections, it should be noted, are not for the city’s mayoralty, an important position. Instead, they are for seats on the city council, a much smaller prize.

But, even on something that barely matters, the Kremlin is determined to show its power, and show it in a way that demonstrates overt and public contempt for the election process. It is that sense, that Russia’s government is willing to publicly violate the rules, which pushed so many to protest.

That desire to flex the country’s muscles was also on show last week.

In a murky incident, Russian planes flew without warning through airspace where Seoul requires foreign aircraft to provide air identification, and then further violated the country’s air space. South Korean jets tracked the military aircraft and a volley of warning shots were fired.

On the surface, it seems bizarre to provoke South Korea, a country with which Russia has maintained good relations. However, the East China Sea is heavily contested. It was only last month, after all, that Russian and US warships almost collided in the waters below where the incident took place.

Under Vladimir Putin’s two decades of leadership, the role of the Russian state has shrunk. Although he often harks back to the glory days of the Soviet Union, in fact, the Russian state today does substantially less for citizens than its predecessor. Most housing is owned by private companies and landlords.* The idea that the state would provide the “flat, car and dacha” of Soviet lore is long gone.

Instead, Mr. Putin offers security and spectacle. He creates an idea of a world in turmoil, which only his government is able to defend ordinary Russians from, and offers visible displays of the protection he provides.

The intervention in Syria amply demonstrates this. First, the necessity of intervention, of Russia’s forces fighting beyond their country’s borders to stop a threat to the homeland. Second, the spectacle of a train full of tanks and guns looted from the Syrian battlefield touring the length and breadth of Russia, often accompanied by Soviet war songs.

There is no room for subtlety, either. The train departed from Moscow on a military holiday and returned on May 8, Victory Day in Russia, which commemorates the end of the Soviet war against Nazi Germany.

Mr. Putin behaves similarly on a personal level. On the same day as the street protests in Moscow, he was filmed descending in a two-man submarine to the bottom of the Gulf of Finland. In doing so, he projected himself as a strongman politician, able to control the unstable forces of the world by pure brawn and daring.

The Putin state needs these spectacles and this chaos, whether on Russia’s streets or beyond them. They demonstrate to a watching world a Russia that is more than a regional power, one that is a global player, able to cause global incidents from Salisbury through Syria, and on to South Korea. They also demonstrate to the Russian public that only the state can keep them safe.

With a weakened economy, poor relations with the West, and a war in Syria that drags on without end, the Kremlin is setting up clashes to create a place for itself at home and abroad.

Yet there is a danger in manufacturing conflicts because they can easily escalate out of hand. Even small skirmishes have the potential to expand unpredictably.

There was, for example, no guarantee that the South Korean incident would have ended peacefully. One miscalculation by either side in the skies above the Korean Peninsula, and there could have been serious consequences.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Mr. Navalny has been taken ill and his doctors believe he could have been poisoned. What started as a minor attempt to exclude candidates from a meaningless election has escalated first into the biggest street protests the Russian capital had seen in years, and the world watching to see whether an opposition politician had been brazenly poisoned in custody.

That is the problem with chaos: once unleashed, it is difficult for anyone, even the Russian state, to bring under control.

* This is the only false note in an otherwise powerful, impeccable analysis. Given the extraordinarily high number of Russians who own their own flats and dachas, legacies of the post-perestroika giveaway privatization of the country’s housing stock and the late-Soviet period, respectively, it seems dubious to claim, as Mr. Yafai does here, that landlords and private companies own most of the housing in Russia. Maybe this would prove true if we looked carefully at ownership statistics, but I am nearly certain Mr. Yafai has not done that. // TRR

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UN reports 400,000 Syrians displaced since Idlib offensive started in April
Deutsche Welle
July 26, 2019

The UN says there has been a “dramatic escalation” in violence since Syrian forces started an operation to retake Idlib province. Human rights chief Michelle Bachelet regretted “international indifference.”

More than 400,000 people have been displaced in northwestern Syria since the start of a government offensive to retake the region in late April, the United Nations said Friday.

David Swanson from the UN’s humanitarian coordination office (OCHA) said more than 2,700 people have died during the “dramatic escalation” in violence in Idlib province.

Russia has been helping government forces loyal to President Bashar Assad with airstrikes, despite an international truce.

UN reports persistent pattern against civilians

UN Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet criticized “international indifference” at the number of civilians dying in attacks on schools, hospitals, and other civilian targets.

“These are civilian objects, and it seems highly unlikely, given the persistent pattern of such attacks, that they are all being hit by accident,” she said.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had registered 39 attacks on health facilities and at least 50 attacks on schools. More than 740 civilians have been killed in those strikes, it added.

Intentional attacks are war crimes

“Intentional attacks against civilians are war crimes, and those who have ordered them or carried them out are criminally responsible for their actions,” Bachelet said.

Forces loyal to Assad have retaken around two-thirds of Syria’s territory.

The country’s civil war has claimed the lives of more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it began in 2011.

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Olga Tseitlina: “Society Doesn’t Understand Why It Should Protect Syrian Refugees”

What Happens to Syrian Refugees in Saint Petersburg
Veronika Prokhorova
September 9, 2015
paperpaper.ru

A flood of refugees from Syria has swept over Europe. The refugees have been passing through Hungary on their way to Austria and Germany. The German government is willing to take in 35,000 refugees. More than four million people have gone to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. According to Amnesty International, Russia, as, for example, Japan and South Korea, has not officially provided places for refugees, although legally speaking, Syrians still have ways of remaining in the country.

Paper spoke with Olga Tseitlina, a lawyer who works with the Memorial Human Rights Center, about how things really stand in Russia with Syrian refugees.

The human rights lawyer told us how the refugees end up in Petersburg, why, because of legal conflicts, the refugees can neither stay nor be deported to zones of military conflict, and how Syrians who have lived in Russia for long periods become illegal immigrants.

A525E3E4-CA83-4A0B-87A2-2891FE71AD0D_w640_sOlga Tseitlina, human rights lawyer from the organization Migration and Law. Photo by Tatyana Voltskaya. Courtesy of RFE/RL

Why Syrians Go to Russia
Syrian refugees seek safe countries in order to save their own lives. Sometimes, smugglers deceive them, saying they are taking them to Egypt, bringing them instead to Russia. This is common. Some refugees themselves choose Russia because they have family or friends here (there is a diaspora of Syrian refugees in Petersburg), but this is the exception rather than the rule. They do not receive real help from the authorities, since the region lacks a center for receiving and housing displaced people.

It is important to know that only people who are seeking asylum are not held responsible for illegally crossing borders. Those with whom we work had not asked for asylum but were merely trying to get out of our country.

After the court has made its ruling, these people are sent to the Deportation Center in Krasnoe Selo [a far southern suburb of Petersburg], whence by law they should be forcibly removed to Syria, but that is inadmissible, because there is a war going on in their home country. If they are returned, these people might be killed, meaning their right to life would be violated. We cannot forcibly return people to military conflict zones: this is contrary to international law.

Our government agencies do not understand that people are in Russia illegally for long periods not because they are criminals and villains. Sometimes, because of language problems and lack of knowledge, they do not draft their claims properly. They do not know where to turn or how asylum is granted, since there is virtually no information either at the border or at police stations.

Often they turn to the police, who do not send them to the immigration authorities, but immediately cite them for an administrative violation or pass the citation on to the Federal Migration Service. There, the procedure for bringing them to justice and subsequently deporting them is immediately set into motion.

What Syrians Can Expect in Petersburg
Officially, Syrians are entitled to temporary asylum for one year, but that does not always work out, especially in the big cities like Moscow and Petersburg. In Ivanovo, for example, it proved much easier to receive temporary asylum. There it was possible for people who in Petersburg had been turned down even when they asked to start the procedure of granting asylum. In contrast to Ukrainians, no zero quotas for granting asylum to Syrians exist. [Not only have Ukrainians not been granted temporary asylum, but immigration authorities have also refused to take their applications, citing the absence of a quota for Saint Petersburg and Leningrad Region — Paper.]

Syrian refugees often come to big cities. Over a dozen people have turned to us for help in the last three months. In Petersburg, however, there are many more such people. It is just that people turn to our organization only when they are already going through the deportation procedure or cannot get asylum.

Asylum claims are rejected for many reasons. In a number of cases, the authorities refuse to accept claims because people have been in the Russian Federation illegally for some time. If people do not have a valid visa, residence registration, and a job, they are denied asylum and told they are violating Russian law. But here a contradiction again arises. There are refugees who because of the war have simply been unable to return to Syria and renew their student visas, for example. They were forced to break the law. The authorities also attempt to expel them, and the situation known as refugee sur place arises. Others are rejected because they reported false information or they failed to apply on time, although they might simply not have known when and where to apply.

Russian Laws and the European Court of Human Rights
We have managed to bring several attempts to deport Syrian refugees from Russia before the European Court of Human Rights. Only then did the Leningrad Regional Court overturn the decision to deport several people from Aleppo to a military conflict zone. Then, the ECHR asked a crucial question: whether the military situation in Syria had been taken into account when the decision was made. Typically, this issue is not discussed at all by courts either in the case of Syrian refugees or displaced people from Ukraine. It is necessary, however, to take into account the social and political situation in the country of origin and explore the issue of whether it will be safe for asylum applicants to return.

People awaiting deportation are placed in special facilities in Krasnoe Selo. The local conditions of detention were also examined by the ECHR as part of the case of Kim v. Russia. In June 2014, both the ECHR and the Government of the Russian Federation deemed the conditions of detention inhuman and in violation of Article 3 of the Europe Convention on Human Rights. However, they have virtually remained unchanged since then. Moreover, there are no temporary accommodation centers for refugees who have qualified for temporary asylum either in Petersburg, Leningrad Region or Moscow.

How Society Treats Refugees
Now Russians are negatively disposed even towards their “native” Ukrainian refugees, although earlier there was support for them. They say, What do we need these refugees for? We have enough problems of our own. They take our jobs and put an additional burden on infrastructure.

The attitude to Syrian refugees is even worse. These are people from a completely different culture and religion. They might look differently, and they speak a different language. People tend to associate Syrians with ISIL and suspect them of being terrorists. If people are afraid of the refugees from Ukraine, finding volunteers to work with Syrian refugees seems completely unreal in Petersburg and Russia generally. Some people manage to find shelter through churches, but this happens quite rarely. Society does not understand why it should provide protection to Syrian refugees and refugees in general.

Translated by the Russian Reader