“I Felt Like Going Up to Him and Spitting in His Face”

“I Felt Like Going Up to Him and Spitting in His Face”
Yevgeny Karasyuk
Republic
July 2, 2019

Torrential rains began falling in the western part of the Irkutsk Region early last week. When they were over, there was no doubt the bad weather had caused local rivers to rise, producing a major flood involving human casualties and large-scale damage.

The flood, which affected over ninety towns and destroyed at least a thousand homes, has been declared the most powerful in the region in the one hundred some years since the weather there has been systematically observed and recorded.

The flood put a crimp in President Putin’s schedule, probably even as he was attending the G20 summit in Japan, which wrapped up on Saturday.

He visited the flooded region the same day, but he had no intention of staying there for long. He never left the airport in Bratsk, a city that had also suffered from the flood, but which had not been inundated as disastrously as other cities and towns.

Putin’s visit to Bratsk on his way home to Moscow from Osaka was a logistical opportunity he could not pass up, of course. The Russian regime’s personification has long ago reached the point the populace regards the president as morally responsible for any high-profile disaster anywhere in the country.

Going where disaster has struck is thus a matter of political instinct. The president last showed his trust in it only six months ago in Magnitogorsk. The critics can accuse Putin of arriving at the sites of tragedies after they are over and visiting fake patients with arms demonstratively in slings, but he knows what he is doing.

He still finds the strength to board a plane so that, a few hours later, he can appear, stern-faced, before the cameras and issue orders at emergency meetings of local and federal officials. This is exactly what the president did late at night in Bratsk.

The speed with which Putin arrives at the epicenter of events, like the amount of time he spends there, matches the alacrity with which Russia’s press reports the news.

“Putin instructed the head of the Emergencies Ministry to fly immediately to Kemerovo.”

“Putin was informed about the tragedy in Magnitogorsk immediately.”

“Putin demanded that immediately, as of today, compensation be paid to the victims [i.e., the residents of the affected districts in the Irkutsk Region] and that an action plan for rebuilding housing and doing it as quickly as possible be outlined without delay.”

All the fuss testifies not to the might of the so-called power vertical Putin has fashioned but, on the contrary, to its weakness. It produces nothing remotely resembling independence, flexibility, and responsibility on the part of local authorities, especially when it comes to the safety of ordinary Russians. Putin continues to run our vast country manually, but the outcome of his administration is quite deplorable, as we can see.

irkutsk.jpegA satellite image, provided by Roskosmos, shows the parts of the Irkutsk Region affected by the flooding. Courtesy of Republic

It does not matter a whit where and when the president arrives, and how long he stays there because it happens after the fact. Russian authorities usually do nothing at the most crucial moments. In a country run by the security services [siloviki], a country where there are more experts in security than anywhere else, a country with a whole emergencies ministry, it can easily happen that you would not be warned of impending disaster.

According to the Emergencies Ministry, four out of ten Russians are still not covered by the early warning system. Its absence goes a long way toward explaining the disaster in Krymsk in July 2012 in which entire houses and their sleeping owners were swept away by flood waters in the middle of the night. While Moscow was fiddling around with modernization and digitalization, towns in Krasnodar Territory did not have radio transmitters at their disposal to sound warning signals and inform residents of the approaching flood.

Seven years have passed since the disaster in Krymsk, and what happened there has happened again in Eastern Siberia. Residents of the town of Tulun, in the Irkutsk Region, have claimed they were not warned about the impending flood, and so they did not have time to gather their belongings and flee their homes. Local officials, however, assured Putin everyone had been warned.

“I watched our mayor giving his report to Putin and I felt like going up to him and spitting in his face,” a local woman who could not contain her emotions told journalists.

Officials now say they knew nothing. Irkutsk Region Governor Sergei Levchenko said regional authorities were not informed of the dangerous rise in the levels of water in local rivers, while the Emergencies Ministry has claimed the opposite.

Officials argue nature is capable of catching anyone by surprise, including the Russian state. At Irkutsk State University, scientists said global climate change had caused the flooding. Arctic and subtropical air masses had mixed with humid air from the Pacific Ocean, something quite rare for the region, to produce the atmospheric anomaly that led to the disaster.

In fact, all that is required in such circumstances is that officials pretend they sympathize with the populace in its plight and are ready to help. But the authorities, disinclined by habit from bowing to public pressure, could not make such a sacrifice.

“What do you want me to say? Do you want me to complain? I can complain to you, too,” Alexander Uss, head of Krasnoyarsk Territory, retorted to local residents upset by their governor’s passivity.

Krasnoyarsk Territory was next in the flood’s path after the Irkutsk Region, but the floodwaters have begun to subside.

You can relax. Putin will not be paying you a visit.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Ekaterina Nenasheva: Fire Safety at Russian Shopping Malls

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Ekaterina Nenasheva
Facebook
March 28, 2018

#KemerevoIsNotAlone #InsecurePlacesList #OkhotnyRyadShoppingCenter

What should you look for in terms of fire safety at a shopping center? I decided to call the Emergencies Ministry and find out everything firsthand.

“What, I’m supposed to reread you the whole booklet?”

The man on the other end of the line, whom I had reached after a couple of transfers, was not very happy to hear from me.

“What’s your district? You need to talk to your own fire inspector.”

I waited again to be transferred.

“You realize we now have these temporary reprieves for small businesses. It’s now impossible for us to carry out a normal fire inspection. We need a court order. We can, of, course, call a facility and find out what’s happening there. But beyond that . . .”

The fire inspector told me it was absolutely normal and legal to ask a shopping mall’s security guards and employees about their fire safety system. If doors are locked, why is that? How do they work? What would happen during a fire? If shopping mall staff and, especially, security guards had the least bit of training, they would easily be able to answer any and all questions.

The guys and I headed to Okhotny Ryad Shopping Mall in Moscow. We immediately located the evacuation plan, which made it easier to find the emergency exits. The funny thing about the emergency exits at Okhotny Ryad is the plan says they exist, but in reality the doors are marked “Staff Entrance” and “Keycard Access Only.” Naturally, all of these doors are locked. All of them.

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“We don’t have any exits,” said a guard, “only entrances from the outside.”

“I don’t know anything. Go ask that policeman over yonder,” replied another guard.

“What have I got to do with it?” the policeman wondered, laughing.

“Look, we have emergency exits in every shop. Got it?” replied a third guard, who had a mustache.

“Can we go and take a look at them?”

“No, you can’t. You know what? If something happens, we’ll save you. Got it?”

We could not understand how we would be rescued by guards who still did not know how the emergeny exits in their shopping mall worked. We went to pull on the other doors on the upper floors. We found ourselves outside the restrooms. A female cashier explained she did not know what exactly was beyond the door, but you could only get through it with a magnetic key. If there were a fire, she would exit the shopping mall via the regular entrance to the mall.

“What’s the big deal? You grab your stuff quickly and take off.”

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Wherever we went, a mustached guy in a gray blazer would come running. He sweated and was out of breath. He had obviously hurried. He would stand off to one side and stare at us.

“Did you forget something? Well, what? What do you want?”

After asking his questions, the man would turn around and slowly walk away from us.

“Everything works here. Everything. The doors operate on magnetic keys, but in a fire they open automatically.”

“How does that happen?”

We were nearly chasing him in an attempt to continue the conversation.

“The guards line up in the corridors, and the emergency . . . begins.”

The dude swallowed half his words.

“Who the heck are you guys? Should I really be talking to you?”

Irriated, the mustached Mr. Suit vanished. Now we were certain the guards would save us.

So, what conclusions can we draw?

1. Shopping mall staff and security are obliged to know how the emergency exits function, and how the fire safety system is organized. It is our right to ask them about it. The staff at Okhotny Ryad Shopping Mall are completely ignorant about the building’s layout, where the exits are, and how they work. Meaning that the guards, who are supposed to save us, have had no training whatsoever and have not even bothered to take a glance at how the building is laid out. Can we trust such people in an emergency? No.

2. The doors in the shopping mall are kept firmly locked. Neither staff nor security know  how they work. Can we trust a safety system like this? No.

3. The evacuation plan does not always synch with reality. Where the plan says there are exits, there are always signs saying, “Staff only.” The signs pointing to the emergency exits are confusing and could lead you into a dead end. This is scary. Given a system of signage like this, would you be able to escape if a fire slightly less ferocious than the one in Kemerovo broke out? No.

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The Okhotny Ryad Shopping Mall is a prime candidate for the #InsecurePlacesList. In addition, we encountered another problem: a total ignorance of fire safety rules on the part of mall employees. Therefore, I demand employees fix the problem. I will no longer be patronizing the Okhotny Ryad Shopping Mall. Sure, it’s a local fix, but I will #boycott the mall. I also plan to relate our adventures to the Emergencies Ministry.

Do you go to Okhotny Ryad often? How do things stand in terms of fire safety at the shopping mall you frequent?

I am still proposing we do inspections of shopping centers right away. Sure, we are not professionals, but it’s enough to reach out to to mall employees and find out whether they know the rules. If they don’t, it is a clear violation of the law.

1. Go to your local shopping malls. Look and see what is going on with the emergency exits. Study the evacuation plan. Ask security guards and mall management about their arrangements. Record your findings by snapping pictures and making videos.

2. Write up the results of your spot checks and post them on social media. Identify and tag the shopping malls in your posts and tag the posts with the hashtags #KemerovoIsNotAlone, #InsecurePlacesList, and anything else you can think of.

3. Don’t hesitate to call the Emergencies Ministry and report violations, rude behavior, etc. It all helps.

After launching spot checks like this and expanding the list, we can think about filing class-action complaints against the shopping malls and continuing to publicize the issue on social media.

I regard posts about insecure places, like shopping malls, in which fire safety rules do not function, as an elementary tool of self-defense and a means of protecting my friends and loved ones.

Currently, any and all information and all spot checks are truly important. Unfortunately, no one else will do this work for us. So join us!

You can also post your findings on the Facebook group page Act!

P.S. Dmitry Gudkov and his Open Elections team are organizing training sessions for people who want to learn how to conduct fire safety inspections professionally.

Translated by the Russian Reader. All photos courtesy of Ekaterina Nenasheva

Refugees

“Everything There Is like a Horror Film Now”:
Young Refugees Talk about War, Fleeing Home, and Living in Russia

Filippo Valoti-Alebardi
Furfur
October 19, 2016

Armed conflicts in the Middle East and instability in parts of Africa and South Asia have led to one of the largest immigrant crises since the Second World War. According to Frontex, 1.82 million refugees arrived in Europe in 2015, and another 173,761 people arrived in Europe by sea in the first part of 2016. Russia has found itself on the sidelines in terms of most migrant flows. Only one route, which runs through Russia’s land borders with Norway and Finland, was used for the transit to Europe. According to RIA Novosti, around 6,000 people traversed this route between October and December 2015.

The Russian Federal Migration Service (FMS) claims there are very few people with refugee status in Russia, less than eight hundred. Basically, people who seek refuge here can count only on temporary refugee status, which is valid for one year. But if a person manages to obtain it, no one can guarantee it will be renewed in the future. Furfur met with four young refugees and wrote down their stories of fleeing their home countries and living in hiding in Russia.

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Hasan, a 20-year-old refugee from Syria

I left Aleppo three years ago. In 2012, the civil war came to our city. All the state institutions closed, except for some hospitals. I stopped going to school and almost never left my house. Everything was topsy-turvy in Aleppo then: government troops might be in one district, while the opposition was in the next. Life was hard but bearable. The financial crisis was not as bad as now, and my family had some savings. We were bombed, but not like during the Islamic State’s offensive. The electricity didn’t work, but we had a generator. The water was severely rationed, but it was enough.

Almost as soon as fighting broke out, I was forbidden to leave the house. I was not yet threatened with conscription, but my parents feared I could be recruited, killed or kidnapped, since I was the oldest son in the family. The other members of the family also tried not to leave our flat without a very good reason. We just sat at home and waited for it to all be over.

In the summer of 2013, an acquaintance of my father’s helped me get a work visa to Russia, and I left Syria. The person worked here in a sewing factory where there were many Syrians. He met me at the airport and took me to Losino-Petrovsky, where I still live. I immediately started worked in the sewing workshop. My father had been a tailor, so I already had some skills.

During the fifth month of my stay in Russia, I applied for refugee status. The [UNHCR] helped me prepare the papers for the FMS, where I had to have an interview. I was asked about my family’s financial state, whether I had served in the army, and about my political stance. A few months later, I received temporary refugee status, but it lasted for only a year.

I lived in Moscow Region and worked in the workshop. I tried to keep in touch with my family and friends. One day, a friend called me and said our house had been bombed and everyone had been killed. So only two members of my family, which had consisted of eleven people, have survived: my sister, who got married and lives in Istanbul, and I.

When my refugee status ended, I went to the FMS and asked for an extension. This time round, my case was handled by a different officer. He also asked me questions about my origins, financial state, and political stance, but then he asked why I had not gone to Iran, Turkey or Europe. I said I liked it here. I also told him that, over the past year, my mother,  brother, and all my brothers and sisters had died, except one. I was given a certificate, valid for one month, and then I was turned down. I was told the situation in Syria had normalized, that I was in no danger and could return home safely. But I had nowhere to return: my home and family were gone.

I was given three months to appeal against the refusal. I made four attempts to appeal it, but to no avail. Finally, I went to a Syrian man who said he had friends with pull. He promised to help me for 70,000 rubles [approx. 1,000 euros]. Ultimately, however, I was turned down once more, and never saw the guy again. Now I am in Russian illegally, and for the time being I have managed to avoid problems.

The police often stop me under the pretext of checking my papers, but they have a pretty good attitude to Syrians. Previously, when my papers were in order, they would haul me down to the precinct and take my fingerprints before letting me go. The situation has now become more complicated, and I often have to bribe them. It is usually not in Moscow where the police check my papers, but in Losino-Petrovsky itself. The local police are well aware of where the migrants live and work. They know our routes and when we get off work. So at least one or twice a month they detain one of us.

I rarely leave my own neighborhood. I work six days a week, twelve hours a day, and have almost no free time. But when I have the time and energy, I go play football with my friends, either in Noginsk or Moscow. I speak almost no Russian. At work, I get by with Arabic and a few words in Russian, since I work with Syrians, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. I sometimes chat on the phone with my sister in Turkey and with friends who have left Syria and gone to Turkey and Europe. I used to really miss my family and my home in Syria, but not anymore. I have lost my family and simply see no point in life. I even think it would have been better had I been with my family the day the bomb fell on my house. It would have been better to die with them than to hear about their deaths over the telephone.

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Yasmin, an 18-year-old refugee from Yemen

This is the second war my parents have fled. My father is half Vietnamese, half Yemeni. My mother is a Vietnamese Muslim. When the war between the US and Vietnam ended, they found themselves in a refugee camp in Yemen, which is where they met. My mom was seventeen then, the same age I was when I came to Russia.

Life in Yemen had always been hard for our family. Because my father speaks Arabic poorly and cannot write it, he could never count on a good job. On the streets, people would always point at us and say, “Look! There go the Chinese.” Everything got complicated after the 2011 revolution. Some government offices ceased to function, and foreign companies gradually left the country. A year later, the German firm for which my father worked as a driver closed its office, and he lost his job. It was hard to find another job. Ultimately, my older brother had to quit school to support us. He spoke the best Arabic in our family.

War broke out in Yemen in 2014, but we were affected by it only in 2015, when the heavy bombardment began. We lived in the city of Taiz, but our house was not far from a rebel camp, so the planes targeted our neighborhood. We took our things and left for Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, to stay with relatives. It was much safer there, and we livef peacefully for two weeks or so, but then the bombing recommenced.

In Sanaa, we lived near the Russian Embassy. After one of the bombing raids, we went there to ask for help. The embassy officials told us a Russian Emergencies Ministry (MChS) plane would be leaving [soon]. They explained where to go and when, but they did not promise we would be taken aboard. On the right day, we arrived at the appointed time at the airport, where we saw a team of [Russian] rescuers. They put our family on the plane. We had no visas, but we had passports. All the others who wanted to go had no papers and were left behind.

There were lots of Russian citizens on the plane with us, but there were also Yemenis, Syrians, and even a few Americans. We made a stopover in Djibouti, and there we were given the right to choose: stay behind or fly on to Russia. Since we had no family in Djibouti or other countries, we decided to fly to Russia. First, we were taken to a military airport, and then to a civil airport, where we had to wait for a consul. He gave us ten-day entry visas and ran off.

We did not know a word of Russian or English, we had no money, and we were hungry.  I don’t know what we would have done if it had not been for the Syrian who was on the plane with us. He spoke Russian and interpreted for us. Then he gave us two hundred dollars and ordered us a taxi to the Yemeni embassy. For some reason, the taxi driver took us to the Egyptian embassy, not the Yemeni embassy, and on top of that he made us pay him fifty dollars, not thirty dollars, as we had agreed. But it was a good thing the guard at the embassy spoke Arabic, since it was cold and we had no idea where we were. He called us a cab to take us to our embassy, and the next driver, an Egyptian, did not even charge us.

At the embassy, we were given a room where we lived for approximately two months. During this time we put together papers for obtaining refugee status, which we applied for at the [UNHCR] offices and the FMS. Later, the Vietnamese ambassador came to see us. He helped us get a room at the Hanoi Moscow Hotel, where we have been living ever since.

Our application for refugee status has been turned down twice. We have appealed the decision and are now awaiting the outcome. We need the status in order to be able to work and somehow organize our lives in a new place, because for over a year we have been living solely due to support from the Vietnamese. We have nowhere else to go. The war and bombing are still going on in Yemen, and there is almost nothing left of our home and neighborhood in Taiz. Everything there is like a horror film now.

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Didier, a 23-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Before leaving Congo, I lived in Kinshasa, our country’s capital, and was studying psychology. I left not because I was starving, but because I feared for my life. When my father died, I could not even go home to mourn and bury him. Instead, I am here, but I don’t know how much time I have left in Russia.

In 2015, I attended a rally against changes to the electoral system that would have enabled the president to serve another term. It was a major protest rally, for which a thousand and a half students and staff from my university showed up. The authorities responded by sending in the army, police, and large army trucks to kettle the protesters. The police and soldiers shot to kill. At some point, we were herded into a corner where nothing was visible, everything was covered in flames. Twelve people were killed between January 19 and January 25. Two of them were my friends. We were at university together.

The best thing that happened to many people involved in the protests was that they simply disappeared. I managed to hide from the police at the place of some acquaintances. I could not go back home or to the university, because secret service officers were surveilling the demonstrators. They were especially interested in the people who had incited university students and staff to take part in the protests. I was a ringleader, and at the time I was already a member of Congo’s second largest opposition party.  I did not want to leave the country, but my parents insisted. They were worried about me, since a lot of people were disappearing at the time.

Why did I leave for Russia? I knew people who had friends with connections and helped me get the necessary papers. This took a while, but the situation got worse and I had to leave urgently. I left Congo on a night flight after convincing the police I was somewhere else. In Russia, I had the contacts of the people who had helped me get a student visa. The first six months, I lived in the place of a friend who had gone home, and then I lived at the People’s Friendship University, where I met a lot of people and was advised to go to the Civic Assistance Committee. They helped me obtain temporary refugee status, which is issued for a year, and now I am trying to extend it.

There is a small Congolese diaspora in Moscow, but I do not communicate with them. I do not want to disseminate information about myself. I deliberately limit my dealings with other people, and I do not maintain contact with people from the Congolese opposition movement. I know that people in the Russian opposition are also detained, and I am scared my country’s authorities might send an official extradition request. In Congo, I would definitely go to prison.

Russia is a “white” Africa. People here live in greater safety than back at home, but you are also unable to assemble and protest. You fear the police, who help implement the policy of dictatorship. Nevertheless, in Russia, you can find a job easily, you can buy a flat, and get a loan. The government thinks about its people at least a little, but not in Africa. The regime has complete forgotten about people. The president works only to benefity his own family. He stuffs his pockets and takes holidays in the States and Canada, while the populace suffers. Only officials, the people who stuff his pockets, live well. They should all be in prison. God needs to descend and free my people.

People in my country continue to protest, but they are few and the police arrest them, including members of our party, which they are trying to bleed to death. Some of my comrades have left the country, while many have been arrested.

I would like to go back to Congo to fight for human rights and give people back freedom of speech and the right to vote. I want to give them the ability to speak their own mind freely. I can tell you that right now in Congo women are being raped, people’s heads are being cut off in markets, and people are being shot at.

More than ten million people have been killed in my country to date. It is the most dangerous country in the world for women: there are a huge number of rapes, and war is going on almost all the time. But if you dare talk about it, you are lost. Most of the people who can talk about it are in Europe. They upload short videos to the Internet and talk about the atrocities occurring in Congo, but if they went home they would be detained immediately.

And that is why I would like to tell Mr. Putin personally what is actually going on there. Our situation resembles the one in Syria right now, if it is not worse, but everyone talks only about Syria, and not about Congo. You white people in Russia, Europe, and the States, you are well aware of what is happening in Africa, but your governments would rather not doing anything about it. They only support the criminal regimes that rule our countries, getting money from them or investing in them. The whole world buys our diamonds: France, Belgium, and the US. Even you Russians are involved in diamond mining in Congo, which is always accompanied by war. Many people are afraid to talk about it, because they are afraid of disappearing. But I am not one of those people. I like telling the truth.

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Muhammad, 28-year-old refugee from Syria

I am from the city of Kobanî, on the border with Turkey.  I am a Kurd, and I left Syria five years ago, in 2011. I had just finished my military service when opposition rallies took place in Syria. It was all quite peaceful, and the situation in Kobanî was calm, but I sensed something serious was going to happen and decided it would be better to leave the country. I worked in the clothing industry, and a friend of mine invited me to Russia. I got help getting a yearlong business visa: that was how I ended up at the fabric in Noginsk. Initially, I came just to sit things out, but it has dragged on for five years, and there is no telling how much longer it will last. The first year I lived on a visa, and then I went to Egypt  to extend it. Subsequently, Egypt changed the rules of entry for Syrians, and I was unable to do the same thing a second time.

‏Meanwhile, Syria has shifted into a state of war. One of my little brothers was captured by Islamic State when he was traveling with other schoolchildren to take exams. He was freed several days later, but I lost contact with my relatives when fighting broke out in the Kobanî area. There were heavy battles near the city, and my family were forced to flee to Turkey. Some of my second and third cousins stayed behind to fight Islamic State. Ten of them were killed, and my brother was seriously injured.

‏All this time, I was working and living in Russia, trying to formalizing my status as a refugee, but I was not having any luck. I would come somewhere with papers, but I would be sent first one place, and then another. An appointment would be made for me, but then it would be postponed: I would be told to come back in fifteen days, and then in ten days. I was once told to come at nine in the morning. I came half an hour early, but to no avail. I was told the queue was already too long and I had better come the next day. But they could not see me the next day, since I had been in the previous day’s queue and had not shown up, allegedly. They toyed with me like this for several months. I decided to ask the [UNHCR] for help, but nothing changed. During the nine months I was going to the FMS, I was unable to file an application for refugee status. Finally, I gave up and stayed on illegally. ‏

I met a Lebanese man who promised to help solve the problems with my papers if I went to work for him at a construction site. I went, but my problems were not solved. Instead, the police caught us. They beat us up right at the construction site. There were even some reporters with policemen, but they were told to turn their cameras off. We were thrown on the ground and beaten on the feet. They beat us so badly I could not walk normally for five days or so. They wanted us to sign some papers. We did not know what was in the papers, because they were in Russian, but we were forced to sign. After that, they stopped beating us and took us to court. We were not provided with an interpreter and so we did not understand most of the proceedings. I do remember, however, that the judge tried to find out what was up with us. He could see we were in a bad way. But we were unable to tell him what had happened, and the policemen told the judge that we were just tired from working.

‏After that, I returned to the factory and started working night shifts, since there are fewer chances the police will catch you. However, I am still sometimes detained on the streets anyway. I always try and have money with me to pay the police off. Usually, I take a five-hundred-ruble note with me: that way they cannot take too much. But I rarely go outside. I work almost seven days a week, and I have no energy to do anything else after a shift of twelve to fifteen hours. I only sleep and work, and the money I send to my family: they need it more. I would like to be near them, but we Syrians now need visas to get into Turkey, and I cannot get one anywhere. Nor can I return to Syria. I have no one in Kobanî, and there is almost nothing left of the city.

Furfur thanks the Civic Assistance Committee and translators Igor Farafonov, Alexander Khodunov, and Muhammad Haled for their help with this article. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sergey Abashin for the heads-up

Read more about the treatment of Syrian and other refugees in Russia:

Back to Beirut

A Toilet for the Investigator
Tatyana Voltskaya
Radio Svoboda
November 30, 2016

Inside the Café Beirut. Photo courtesy of Tatyana Voltskaya/RFE/RL

Criminal charges have been brought against the co-owner of the Café Beirut in Petersburg; on November 29, police searched her home. In September and October, the café was searched on several occasions by Investigative Committee, Rospotrebnadzor, and Emergencies Ministry officers.

The café believes the only cause of its woes is a casual patron who tried to use the establishment’s toilet last summer, but was turned away.

There is generally nothing wrong about popping into a café to use the toilet. The employees of the Café Beirut say they would never turn away polite, friendly visitors. But when an individual makes noise, swears, and might make a less than pleasant impression on diners, they do not see fit to let him in. Thus, this past July, they turned away a young man who, they say, behaved just this way.

On September 7, investigators, Rospotrebnadzor inspectors, and Emergencies Ministry officers raided the café and searched it. An employee recognized the young investigator leading the raid as the same young man who had unsuccessfully tried to use the Beirut’s toilet in summer.

Another search took place on September 23, resulting in the completely undocumented confiscation of the establishment’s cash register, computer server, order terminal, and charter documents, meaning everything they needed to stay in business. The café was closed for a whole week, but then it opened again, having suffered considerable losses, of course.

But that was not the end of the matter. On November 29, police searched the home of the café’s co-owner Elizaveta Izvozchikova, who has been charged with violating Article 238 of the Criminal Code (“Production, storage, transport or sale of goods and products, works or services that do not meet safety requirements”). According to Izvozchikova, the female investigator who led the search rang at her apartment at seven in the morning.

“She came to my apartment accompanied by an officer of the economic crimes department district office and two official witnesses. They served me with a search warrant, which made it clear to me that criminal charges had been filed against me under Article 238. The article says nothing about harming anyone, only about providing poor-quality services. To file charges under this article, it is sufficient to record violations of some kind, say, sanitation rules. We quickly fixed all the violations for which we had been cited and submitted a report to the Investigative Committee. After all, we opened just recently, in late February of this year. We did a major overhaul and replaced all the plumbing, sewerage, and electrical wires. The basement was in bad shape. Then we restored the historic storefront, made high-quality repairs inside, and installed new equipment in the kitchen. We wanted to do something good for people, feed them tasty food and give them good service. I am a designer by education, and I really wanted to make the café pretty. I am a responsibe person, so I tried to make sure everything was in order: that the fire extinguisher was certified, that the kitchen was clean, that we followed all the rules. But on September 7 we had our first inspection. The investigator from the Investigative Committee forced everyone outside and demanded we sign papers of some of kind without reading them. Otherwise, he threatened us with immediate closure and put a lot of pressure on my manager, who is fairly young.”

Café Beirut co-owner Elizaveta Izvozchikova. Photo courtesy of Tatyana Voltskaya/RFE/RL

I asked what the reason for the first inspection was.

“My internal investigation revealed that our manager had seen the young man who turned out to be an investigator: he had not let him use our toilet. We had guests, he had demanded to use the toilet in a rude way, waving his arms and cursing, so he was not allowed to use the toilet. The second inspection, headed by this investigator, took place on September 23. He confiscated the cash register and a bunch of other things. The investigation was then terminated. Later, however, the decision to terminate the investigation was annulled, the case file was submitted for an additional investigation, and another inspection was organized. Rospotrebnadzor and the Emergencies Ministry cited us for four violations. We immediately fixed two of the problems: we installed a missing washbasin and a germicidal lamp. But the other two violations were simply nonexistent. We were told our doors had to be at least one meter wide, and we had to have a second emergency exit. According to fire safety rules, however, wide doors and a second exit are obligatory only for premises larger than one hundred square meters, and if there are over fifty evacuees, but our place seats only thirty people. We explained everything to them and attached documents to our reports, including the cadastral passport, which shows we have only sixty-three square meters of space. We also requested that everything they had confiscated be returned to us, as they had nothing to do with the inspection. Instead of a response, however, criminal charges have been filed. The charges are based on those same two violations, turned up by the Emergencies Ministry, but I do not believe that the Emergencies Ministry officer was unfamiliar with the rules in question. The third violation consisted in the fact that, according to Rospotrebnadzor, we had no right to worked with unpeeled root vegetables; this requires a separate bath or even a whole room. So we ordered peeled root vegetables, meaning we started using prepared food, which we immediately reported to the authorities. But it made no difference at all. I was summoned for interrogation on November 29, but I refused to answer the questions in order to better familiarize myself with the charge sheet. So I will be going to the Investigative Committee on Monday, December 5. While the inspections were going on, we made huge losses. We were closed for an entire week, and many of our clients even now think we are still closed. Nothing like this has ever happened to any of my colleagues, and I continue to hope for justice. We have not violated any law. We are conscientious taxpayers and entrepreneurs who are trying to run a small business, and we do no harm to anyone,” says Elizaveta Izvozchikova.

Restored historical storefront at the Café Beirut (right). Photo courtesy of Tatyana Voltskaya/RFE/RL 

Lawyer Boris Gruzd argues that criminal prosecution has not been used for its intended purpose in this case.

“I think that criminal charges are sometimes filed on insufficient grounds and used for other purposes, as a means of revenge, for dealing with undesirable persons. I think this is one of those cases. It often happens that, even when criminal law has seemingly been violated, it is extremely hard to file criminal charges. An enormous amount of effort is made to turn even obvious crimes into criminal cases. But here criminal charges have been filed out of thin air, so to speak. Because, when criminal charges are filed, aside from violation of the law, another important element is danger to the public. In this case, however, they have found fault with a telegraph pole, as the saying goes. I am sure you could find a dozen such violations in any small business and major state company. What public good has been violated that it is necessary to resort to criminal prosecution? It is a last resort that should be used very selectively and carefully, when other tools do not work. This is a classic case of ‘nightmarizing business.'”

I asked Gruzd whether there was any hope of punishing those who spin such cases out of thin air.

“It is necessary to take steps in this direction. It produces a particularly sharp contrast with the notorious case of the women who was murdered although she called the police because her [ex-]partner had threatened her. But the dispatcher, the best beat cop in the city, told her that if and when she was killed, they would come and describe her corpse. Here, the Investigative Committee, whose remit is grave and especially grave crimes, has pounced on a café. So they have the time and the energy to deal with this nonsense?” notes Gruzd.

Alexander Kobrinsky, a member of the fifth convocation of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, says the persecution of the Café Beirut’s co-owner is not something out of the ordinary in Russia.

“Recently, everyone watched the video in which security guards tried to keep a drunk man, who turned out to be a police officer, from entering a café. A while later, the riot cops arrived and detained the security guards, who were just doing their jobs. But the situation is understandable, because law enforcement officers consider themselves a superior caste, endowed with special rights, including the right to cook up criminal cases as a means of personal revenge. It is quite widespread, since the law allows them to file criminal charges, suspend business operations, and confiscate tools, computers, whatever. Maybe the charges will be dropped a year from now, but getting a business back up on its feet after such shocks is not always possible. That is why, by the way, prohibiting the detention of people involved in commerce and seizure of their property has now been actively discussed. What point have we reached to openly admit that the vast majority of criminal charges filed against businessmen in Russia is based on mercenary motives and revenge! Clearly there are thieves and con men, but it turns out that they constitute the minority of defendants in such cases. Such is the system and such is the law. We see that a completely peculiar set of circumstances has been established in Russia. I don’t know, maybe Putin was speaking sincerely about the investment climate, but there is no longer any way of manually managing hundreds of thousands of these minor strongmen. In Russia, every police capitan, assistant investigator, and junior assistanct prosecutor is a low-level power broker. They are used to living this way: they have been living this way for a quarter of a century. And they do not want to live any other way, no matter what Putin has said,” argues Kobrinsky.

According to Kobrinsky, this mindset—that I am a landlord, and you are my slaves—is very difficult to eradicate. One has the impression that the head of state seemingly has no leverage over Russia’s law enforcement system, that it must be completely dismantled and reassembled anew.

On November 29, Elizaveta Izvozchikova was released on her own recognizance.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Beirut

Did happy looking customers know what danger they were in?
Did these happy looking customers know what danger they were in?

When It’s More Dangerous in Petersburg than in Lebanon
Denis Korotkov
Fontanka.ru
November 29, 2016

The police came to the home of the woman who owns the Café Beirut at seven in the morning with a search warrant. The grounds for the search were serious: the cafe lacked a germicidal lamp. Thus ended the three-month confrontation between the businesswoman and the Investigative Committee.

All the might of the Central District’s law enforcement and regulatory authorities came crashing down on Café Beirut, which serves Middle Eastern cuisine on Stremyannaya Street. To our knowledge, no one has complained about the service or quality of the food, but the Investigative Committee, police, fire inspectors, and consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor are extremely concerned for the consumer’s safety at this eating establishment.

The Beirut is a small Middle Eastern café on Stremyannaya Street. Since early September 2016, it has been a battlefield between entrepreneur Liza Izvozchikova and regulators.

The first shot was fired on September 7, when Ivan Lyalitsky, an investigator in the Investigative Committee’s Central District office, visited the café, accompanied by police officers, Rospotrebnadzor inspectors, and Emergencies Ministry officials. Lyalitsky drew up a document of some sort and left. According to café employees who were present, he did not let them read the document. During this first visit, nothing but the cash register report was confiscated.

Izvozchikova says that on Sunday, September 18, Lyalitsky contacted her by phone and demanded she immediately report to his office. Otherwise, “criminal charges would be filed.”

Izvozchikova refused to go to the informal meeting. She went to see the investigator on a weekday, accompanied by a lawyer. They were presented with a long list of alleged violations. Izvozchikov says some of the alleged defects were simply not true. For example, the list stated the café lacked a fire alarm (it had one), that the café’s inventory was not labeled (it was), and that there were no employee health books at the café, although no one had bothered to check them.

Izvozchikova admits certain violations, for example, the lack of a chart showing the evacuation plan for the premises. These shortcomings were fixed, and a corresponding registered letter with notification of delivery was sent to the Investigative Committee. The letter was refused, and the notification returned.

Lyalitsky made a second visit to the Beirut on September 23. On this occasion, the café did not get off with an inspection, but had its cash register, computers, charter documents, contracts with suppliers, and other papers confiscated. Employees who were present say they were not provided with a list of the confiscated items. The café was paralyzed for a week, until it purchased and licensed a new cash register, and obtained copies of the documents.

Izvozchikova’s complaints to the prosecutor’s office and the Central Investigative Department of the Russian Investigative Committee’s Petersburg office were reviewed, but the confiscated cash register and computers were not returned to her, and Lyalitsky’s actions were deemed appropriate. On the other hand, the Beirut was left in peace for a month.

The break in the investigation lasted for all of October.

On November 9, the Beirut was once again visited by law enforcement officers, whose order of cognac, two coffees, and a salad turned out to be test purchases. No violations were found during the sample purchases, but they were followed by another inspection, led this time by investigator Ludmila Stepanova. A whopping five violations were found: no sink for washing hands in the kitchen, no germicidal lamp, the toilet door opened onto the kitchen, no second exit, and the width of the evacuation passages was narrower than necessary.

Izvozchikova installed a sink and germicidal lamp, and reported that the requirements for a second exit and wider corridors should not be apply to her café in accordance with the regulations, since it is small and located on the first floor.

It was no use. At seven in the morning on November 29, the investigator came to Izvozchikova’s apartment with a search warrant. From the warrant, Izvozchikova learned that a criminal case had been opened under Criminal Code Article 238.1 (“Production, storage, transport or sale of goods and products, works or services that do not meet safety requirements”), and that “relevant items and documents” might be located in her apartment. No one knew what this meant. The only item investigators confiscated was a Beirut LLC stamp, which no one had hidden.

Surprised by the investigation’s intransigence, Fontanka.ru contacted investigator Ludmila Stepanova and asked her to comment on the need for a morningtime search of an apartment in a case dealing with the lack of a sink and an emergency exit in a café. The investigator refused to comment, citing service regulations, and asked us to contact the Investigative Committee’s press service.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade KV for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of vk.com

Refugees from Yemen in Dead End

Emergencies Ministry Flights Brought Yemeni Refugees to Russian Dead End 
Elena Srapyan (Civic Assistance Committee)
refugee.ru
January 29, 2016

Refugees from Yemen, who came to Russia in April 2014 aboard Emergencies Ministry (MChS) flights, have found themselves in a desperate situation. As they have attempted to gain asylum in Russia, they have run not only into bureaucratic hurdles but also deliberate resistance from migration service officers. Thus, instead of being received during office hours on January 11 at the Moscow office of the Russian Federal Migration Service (FMS) on Kirpichnaya Street, the Waqidi family was taken to the immigration control department and threatened with expulsion for overstaying.

The family became refugees in April of last year, when armed conflict erupted in Yemen, and many countries began evacuating the civilian population from the country. Russia was also involved in this operation. MChS planes delivered several hundred people to Moscow. Among them were nationals of other countries as well as Yemeni nationals who planned to seek asylum.

It was then that an MChS plane took on board Amina Hassan Hadi Mohamed Waqidi, her husband Mohamed Abdo Naji, their nine-year-son Abdul Karim Mohamed Abdo, and seventeen-year-old daughter Yasmin Mohamed Abdo. They arrived in Moscow on April 23, 2014.

Nobody gave the Yemenis any advice on how to obtain asylum status. Instead, the Waqidis found out everything on their own and applied for asylum at the appropriate time. On August 3, however, the FMS refused to grant refugee status in Russia to any members of the Waqidi family.

In November, Amina and Yasmin first applied for temporary refugee status. But instead of accepting their applications, FMS officers transported the women to the Izmailovo District Court. The court, in turn, returned the matter to the local FMS office, underscoring the fact the family had arrived on an MChS plane from Yemen and had already, at the time of the hearing, submitted an application for temporary asylum to the head of the FMS Moscow office.

Amina and Yasmin finally submitted their documents on November 10. Yasmin’s passport was taken and she was issued a certificate stating her application for temporary asylum was under review. Her mother, who was not issued the same certificate, was asked to submit translations of several documents. Amina also had no luck during the interview, either. Here it would be appropriate to mention that Amina is originally from Vietnam. While Yasmin easily got through the interview at the FMS office with assistance from an Arabic translator, her mother, who speaks only her native Vietnamese fluently, was not provided with a Vietnamese translator. The interview was nevertheless conducted in December, but in Arabic, which Amina speaks quite poorly.

Молодой Ясмин совсем недавно исполнилось, но она уже хорошо знакома со взрослыми проблемами беженцев в России.
Yasmin Wadiqi. Photo courtesy of Civic Assistance Committee

By the new year, the translated documents, certified by the UNHCR, were ready. On the first working day of January, Yasmin and Amina went once again to the FMS Moscow office on Kirpichnaya to secure the certificate. Without certificates that their documents were under review, the Yemenis would be vulnerable to police, who periodically detain migrants for violating their terms of stay, whereas FMS-issued certificates would attest to the legality of the Waqidi family’s presence in Russia.

But strange things began to happen on Kirpichnaya Street. Instead of issuing the certificate to Amina, FMS officers summoned an immigration control officer. He took the certificate and her mother’s passport from Yasmin, went into Office No. 104, where the refugees were planning to submit documents, and reemerged with two passports. He took them upstairs to Yuri Yevdokimov, head of the department for refugees and displaced persons. The Yemenis were then taken to the FMS immigration control department at Sadovnicheskaya Street, 63.

Laila Rogozina, head of the Civic Assistance Committee’s community liaison office, contacted the immigration control department on Sadovnicheskaya and suggested the officers there familiarize themselves with the text of the United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

“I picked up the telephone and told the man on the other end of the line to read Article 31.* He read it and said, ‘Well, everything is clear. I will give them back their passports and let them go wherever they like,'” recounted Svetlana Gannushkina, chair of the Civic Assistance Committee.

Indeed, there had been no grounds for sending Yasmin and Amina Waqidi to the immigration control department. Their applications were in the midst of processing, and they had applied for asylum in due time, so it had been unlawful to confiscate Yasmin’s certificate and take her and her mother’s passports.  The passports were returned to the women and they were released.

“What was once a trend has become a regular practice,” concluded Svetlana Gannushkina. “When people come to the FMS Moscow office to file asylum applications, Mr. Yevdokimov immediately calls immigration control to come and get them. They are written up for having violated Russian federal migration rules, and the asylum seekers are taken to court. Whereas earlier this happened only to those people who had been in Russian illegally for long periods and, according to the migration service, intended to be legalized by submitting an asylum application, now it applies to everyone, both new arrivals and even those whose applications are already in process. This practice has led us to accompany every refugee [to the FMS]. Otherwise, we run the risk of finding our applicants later at the Special Detention Facility for Foreign Nationals (SUVSIG), without their even having had the chance to apply for asylum.”

Gannushkina discussed the Waqidi family’s case with both Svetlana Pleshakova, deputy head of the Moscow migration service, and Valentina Kazakova, head of the citizenship department at the Russian FMS. Both officials agreed that the refugees had been treated improperly. Amina and Yasmin then went to see Marina Kapustina, deputy head of the department for refugees and displaced persons. She issued application processing certificates to both women.

“Maybe Mr. Yevdokimov should also read the 1951 Convention and the Russian federal law ‘On Refugees’?” Gannushkina commented. “It is important to note here that this is a matter of people who not only arrived from a dangerous region but were brought here by Russian MChS planes. You get the impression that our foreign and domestic policy are totally inconsistent. People arrive from a war zone, where their lives were definitely in danger, and it is obvious they are going to apply for asylum. However, the Moscow migration service apparently has no access to geographical information or reports from other agencies about how the people came to Russia, and tries to avoid doing any work to this end.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

*Article 31 (United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees)

Refugees Unlawfully in the Country of Refuge

1. The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.

2. The Contracting States shall not apply to the movements of such refugees restrictions other than those which are necessary and such restrictions shall only be applied until their status in the country is regularized or they obtain admission into another country. The Contracting States shall allow such refugees a reasonable period and all the necessary facilities to obtain admission into another country.