Vrio!

brail-1.jpg

Alexander Beglov was appointed the acting governor of Petersburg or vrio (to coin the acronym for such officials who “temporarily carry out the duties” of one office or another) on October 3, 2018.

His appointment immediately sparked speculation the Kremlin had put him in charge of Putin’s hometown not only temporarily but also so he could run for the post “legitimately” in the upcoming gubernatorial election, scheduled for September 8, 2019.

As luck would have it, the seven-year reign of his predecessor, the dull but mostly inoffensive Georgy Poltavchenko, was blessed by relatively snowless winters.

Petersburg, however, is the northernmost major city in the world and, unsurprisingly, it sometimes snows a lot there in the winter. The “anomalous winter” of 2010–11, during which the local authorities could not get a handle on cleaning relatively heavy snowfalls from streets, pavements, and roofs, spurring wild popular discontent, famously led to the dismissal of then-Governor Valentina Matviyenko and her replacement by the quieter Poltavchenko.

Like all members of Putin’s clique of made men and women, Matviyenko was not punished for her failures. Instead, she was “upmoted” (my term) to the much cushier post of speaker of the Federation Council. There she has been instrumental, I suspect, in persuading the press and the public she presides over a “senate,” peopled by “senators,” not a rubber-stamp entity filled with repellent losers too big to fail who have been rewarded generous sinecures in exchange for total loyalty.

In any case, today’s would-be Russian “senate” is a far cry from the feisty and, at times, mildly separatist Federation Council of the nineties, whose members would never have been so obnoxious as to style themselves “senators” and then get everyone else to go along with this sycophantic malarkey, including opposition activists, reporters, and academics who should know better.

The winter of 2018–19 was another “anomaly,” apparently, and vrio (interim governor) Beglov made it even worse by behaving even more brazenly and clumsily than Matviyenko had done during her own “snow apocalypse.”

You would think the Kremlin would not be so provocative as to shove Beglov, who looks remarkably like Mel Brooks in his salad days, playing the “villain” in one of his hilarious film parodies, down the throats of Petersburgers on Election Day 2019, but that is the plan. All the stops have been pulled out, including a total purge of opposition candidates attempting to run for seats on the city’s district municipal councils, although these underfunded, powerless bodies that have zero say over the Smolny, Petersburg’s city hall, where Beglov and his team call the shots.

The Kremlin is willing to make Beglov the city’s “legitimate” governor over everyone’s dead bodies, as it were, alienating even more otherwise apolitical Petersburgers from the regime.

Finally and, perhaps, apropos of nothing, has anyone ever remarked on the fact that both Beglov and Poltavchenko were born in Baku in the mid-1950s? Does it snow there in the winter?

The picture, above, was taken by Kseniya Brailovskaya in downtown Petersburg during the height of the municipal collapse this past winter. As another heat wave envelopes Europe, you will probably see more of these snapshots in the coming days, especially since I have a post or two in the works about the flagrant purges of opposition candidates in Petersburg. They have mirrored similar purges in Moscow, but without sparking spontaneous unrest of the weekend before last or the heavily attended protest rally that took place in the capital on Saturday{TRR}

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Rotunda
Telegram
July 16, 2019

A friendly meeting between the heads of over twenty Petersburg media outlets and acting Governor Alexander Beglov took place in the Smolny. The meeting was cast as a campaign event at which heated discussions were not welcome.

During the first hour, Beglov cheerfully talked about all the problems he had solved. He said his priority has been to combat depression among Petersburgers. Beglov thanked, in all seriousness, the opposition for keeping him on his toes and informing him about hotspots.

Then followed several questions from the attendees. The most pointed question was, “How can we help you?” or something like that. Despite being a candidate in the gubernatorial race, Beglov was not taken aback by this offer and spent another hour outlining his plans for the near term.

The only question that knocked the vrio off his high horse had to do with the scandals surrounding the elections to the municipal district councils. Beglov said he could not intervene since he himself was a candidate.

As the meeting drew to a close, the heads of the city’s media outlets asked whether Beglov would be willing to meet with reporters in a similar format in the future. Beglov said he would definitely talk with everyone but only after September 8.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Crossing Jordan: Day Three of the Network Trial

Jordan and Maidan: The Network Trial, Day Three
Sergei Kagermazov
OVD Info
April 11, 2019

ovd1Yuli Boyarshinov in court. Photo by David Frenkel. Courtesy of OVD Info

The left-wing radical community Network existed, but its young anarchists were training to fend off attacks by ultra-rightists when and if a coup like the one that took place in Ukraine kicked off in Russia. In any case, this was the takeaway message of the testimony given by defendant Yuli Boyarshinov. Echo of Moscow in Petersburg correspondent Sergei Kagermazov describes day three of the Network trial for OVD Info.

The Guerrilla School
The courtroom at the 224th Garrison Military Court in Petersburg is unable to accommodate everyone. Some members of the public are left standing on the far side of the metal detector. The bailiffs claim there is no room and do not let people into the hallway even.

Later, it transpires that several university students who had not heard of the case wormed their way into the courtroom. Someone asked them to attend the hearing, and so reporters from Novaya Gazeta, TASS, and Rosbalt are unable to get into the courtroom. Subsequently, one of the students was identified as a member of the local branch of United Russia’s Young Guard (Molodaya gvardiya). Fontanka.ru would write that the FSB were behind the restricted access to the courtroom.

The highlight of day three of the trial is defendant Yuli Boyarshinov’s testimony. He pleaded guilty and moved to have his case tried separately under a special procedure involving elimination of the evidence phase, but the court denied his motion.

According to Boyarshinov, he knew he was an antifascist approximately since 2009. Six years later, he met another person accused [and convicted] in the case, Igor Shishkin. Shiskin also pleaded guilty, made a deal with case investigators, and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

“Around 2015 or 2016, I came to think a violent coup was possible in Russia. On the internet, I learned about radical right-wing groups planing something like what happened in Ukraine in 2014,” says Boyarshinov, who speaks as if he were reading the case file aloud.

People ordinarily do no talk like this.

Boyarshinov insists he was interested only in self-defense in the event radical nationalists emerged in Russia. He learned to handle weapons at the Guerrilla Club, a place in Petersburg affiliated with the DOSAAF [Voluntary Society for Assisting the Army, Air Force and Navy]. Other suspects in the Network case, whom Boyarshinov identified as Yegor and Polina, also took instruction there. Boyarshinov cannot recall their surnames. The young people purchased mock-ups of Kalashnikov rifles and practiced with them. However,  their only goal was self-defense. Boyarshinov emphasizes the young people were not planning any attacks.

It was also then the suspect [sic] met Alexandra Aksyonova, who introduced herself as Olya. Aksyonova is the wife of another defendant in the case, Viktor Filinkov, who is being tried together with Boyarshinov. The young woman is currently in Finland, where her application for political asylum is under review. NTV has reported Aksyonova was one of the leaders of the Network and alleged she had ties with Ukrainian nationalists.

As for the Guerrilla Club, it was also a place where future Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic volunteer fighters trained, as well as the Swedes responsible for the bomb attacks in Gothenburg in 2016 and 2017. But none of these people had yet piqued the FSB’s curiosity. When Filinkov asks whether Boyarshinov knew numerous nationalists trained at the Guerrilla Club, Judge Roman Muranov disallows the question as having no bearing on the case.

Jordan 1
Boyarshinov also testifies that, in the early summer of 2016, he was invited to a meeting in the Priozersk District of Leningrad Region. The meeting was attended by Yegor, Polina, and Shishkin, as well as Anton and Pasha, Network members from Penza (the men’s real names were Maxim Ivankin and Dmitry Pchelintsev, who are two more defendants in the case), and two other people. Since the Petersburgers did not know the people from Penza, they also used pseudonyms. Boyarshinov introduced himself as Yura, Yegor as Matvei, and Shishkin as Maxim.

At the meeting, the young men from Penza showed the others a document they called “The Code.” It was a draft project for a community called the Network. Boyarshinov says “The Code”{ ran to around fifteen pages, but only a couple of pages were read aloud to him. The case file contains a document resembling “The Code,” but that is the problem: it only resembles it. Boyarshinov was able to read the entire text of “The Code” only during the pretrial investigation. The young men from Penza said [at the meeting in the Priozersk District] they wanted to encourage the cooperation of different groups involved in self-defense.

ovd2Yuli Boyarshinov in court. Photo by David Frenkel. Courtesy of OVD Info

“So, formally, I joined the Network community,” Boyarshinov admits.

Due to security considerations, it was decided to identify the Petersburg group as “Jordan 1.”

Subsequently, members of the Network would choose different specialties for themselves. Since he had studied demolition and explosives at the Guerrilla Club, Boyarshinov became the group’s sapper.

Another meeting was held in western or northwestern Moscow Region in the woods. Six people attended, including members from Moscow. A third meeting took place in the winter of 2016 at Shishkin’s mother’s dacha. There were also several meetings in the autumn of 2016.

It was at one of these meetings that Boyarshinov met Filinkov. After Boyarshinov has testified, the people in the courtroom learn that, according to the case file, the FSB was already staking out both defendants at the time.

In February 2017, another meeting was held in a rented flat in Petersburg. Shishkin did not come to the meeting, but Filinkov, the Muscovites, and Pchelintsev and Ivankin were present. It was at this meeting that what the FSB identifies as “the minutes” was left behind, finding its way into the case file.

“I cannot corroborate what is described in the minutes of the meeting: I did not take notes. But the description seems more or less accurate,” says Boyarshinov.

When he read the minutes of the meeting, he realized the Network had decided not just to learn self-defense, but to try and destroy the regime.

“I don’t believe in violence, in violence against state authorities. I am sorry I was in such a community,” Boyarshinov repents.

Boyarshinov was detained by police. He claims to have found the smoke powder [with which police apprehended him] on the the roof of a building, since he worked as an industrial climber. He found the powder interesting, since he was studying demolition and explosives. When it was reported Pchelintsev had been detained, Boyarshinov decided to throw the powder away. He left his house and was caught by police.

“Russia’s Falling Apart, We Have to Leave”
The next to testify is Stepan Prokofiev, in whose flat Filinkov lived while he was looking for a place to rent. Prokofiev’s flat was searched by the FSB after they detained Filinkov.

The defendant [Filinkov] immediately points out Prokofiev might commit perjury and slander him.

“The FSB coerced the witness,” argues Filinkov.

[On the day of the search at his flat], Prokofiev was awoken, forced to lie face down on the floor, and handcuffed. He would spend the night at a police station. When Filinkov’s defense attorney, Vitaly Cherkasov, asks whether police explained to him why spent the night at a police station, Judge Muranov disallows the question as having no bearing on the case.

ovd3At the courthouse: members of the public holding pieces of paper inscribed with the message “NTV lies.” Photo by David Frenkel. Courtesy of OVD Info

“Filinkov went to Ukraine to see his wife. When he got back, he told me he had met someone who had fought in Donbas while he was in Kyiv. Filinkov told me a couple of times that Russia was falling apart and we had to leave. He said it would happen after the [March 2018 Russian] presidential election. He would talk about leaving for Georgia or Ukraine after this happened, because it was cheaper to live there,” Prokofiev recounts.

Filinkov counters that he never mentioned talking with anyone who fought in Donbas.

Prosecutor Yekaterina Kachurina is more interested in two guns that were legally registered in Filinkov’s wife’s name. However, it follows from the testimonies of Filinkov and the witness that, for the time being, there is nothing for the prosecution to get its hooks into.  The papers for the guns were in order, and the guns were kept in a safe.

The day ends with an attack by an NTV crew on the attorneys and parents of the defendants. However, members of the pubic cover the lens of NTV’s camera with pieces of paer inscribed with the message “NTV lies” and rattle the young woman holding the microphone by peppering her with absurd questions. Meanwhile, the defense attorneys are able to escape, while the parents get into taxis and quickly quite the scene.

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Vitaly Cherkasov
Facebook
April 10, 2019

Today, defendant Yuli Boyarshinov, while generally admitting his guilt, did not corroborate the prosecution’s position.

The prosecution has insisted that the members of the Network terrorist community, via “direct involvement in training sessions” that took place in St. Petersburg, Leningrad Region, and Penza Region, mastered “tactical methods of seizing buildings, facilities, and individuals” in order to “forcibly capture and eliminate” state authorities and “change the constitutional order.”

When examined in court, Boyarshinov corroborated the testimony he had given during the pretrial investigation: the goal of the training sessions was to master the skills of self-defense against ultra-nationalists. Defense, not offense!

[…]

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He Admitted His Guilt But Did Nothing Wrong: Yuli Boyarshinov’s Testimony at Network Trial Gives Prosecution’s Case No Trump Cards
Тatyana Likhanova
Novaya Gazeta in Petersburg
April 11, 2019

The authorities decided to restrict access to the trial of the so-called terrorist community Network, which is an organization now officially banned in Russia.

The high-profile case is being heard by a circuit panel of judges from the Moscow District Military Court at the Garrison Military Court in Petersburg. The hearings have been held in a cramped courtroom with two rows of benches accommodating ten people each. It is thus out of wildly out proportion with the heightened attention paid to the case by the public and the media.

On Tuesday, journalists from several periodicals appealed to the Moscow District Military Court to provide them with normal working conditions. On Wednesday morning, the approaches to the courtroom were occupied by groups of students from the Chemical and Pharmaceutical University and Herzen University’s law school.

The former said they had been sent there by a university official responsible for military training and patriotic education, while the latter claimed they had come to witness a high-profile case they had long been following, although they could not answer a single question about what was at stake in the case.

Among those crowded around the door to the courtroom was a young man bearing a resemblance to Vlad Girmanov, secretary of the military and patriotic club at the Pharmaceutical University, as well as people who had picketed the Petersburg office of [Russian opposition politician and anti-corruption crusader] Alexei Navalny.

nip1Yuli Boyarshinov arriving at the courthouse. Photo by Elena Lukyanova. Courtesy of Novaya in Petersburg

The influx of “extras” was an excuse to limit the access of the press and the public to the trial. The bailiffs refused to let correspondents from Deutsche Welle, TASS, Fontanka.ru. Bumaga, Rosbalt, and other media outlets into the courthouse to cover the trial, as well as Petersburg Public Monitoring Commission member Yekaterina Kosarevskaya. Complaints were filed with the head of the St. Petersburg bailiff service and the chairs of the Petersburg Garrison Military Court and the Moscow District Military Court. They were asked to verify the legality of the actions taken by the bailiffs and secure a courtroom large enough to accommodate everyone interested in witnessing this high-profile case. According to Fontanka.ru, the order to restrict access to the courtroom was made by FSB officers, who thus bypassed the top officials in the Petersburg judicial system.

The hearing opened with testimony by Yuli Boyarshinov, who has pleaded guilty. He said he had been an antifascist since 2009. In the winter of 2015–2016, he concluded that riots involving violence by nationalist groups (“along the lines of the events in Ukraine in 2014”) were possible in Russia. In order to acquire self-defense skills, Boyarshinov attended a month-long course at the Guerrilla Tactical and Firearms Training Center. (Its website says it is affiliated with the DOSAAF [Voluntary Society for Assisting the Army, Air Force and Navy] and “teaches civilians survival skills in local armed conflicts, social unrest, and martial law.”) The course included instruction in handling firearms, surviving in the woods, first aid, radio communication, and mines and explosives.

Boyarshinov attended the classes with his friend Yegor and a young woman identified as Polina. In addition to lectures, training sessions were held at a shooting range near the village of Olgino, during which Boyarshinov used a mock-up of a Kalashnikov assault rifle he acquired. Alexandra Askyonova, co-defendant Viktor Filinkov’s future wife, also went to the shooting range.

In the summer of 2016, Boyarshinov was invited to a meeting with “guys from Penza who were also interested in self-defense.” The meeting took place in the woods of Leningrad Region.

“We made bonfires, discussed different social problems and issues of self-defense, and trained with dummy weapons,” he said.

The attendees used fictitious names because they did not yet trust each other. One of the four attendees would later be identified as Dmitry Pchelintsev, another as Maxim Ivankin.

According to Boyarshinov, the Penza attendees talked about a project provisionally entitled the Network, designed to unite different groups for self-defense classes.

They presented their vision of the organization in a manifest of sorts, entitled “The Network Code,” one or two pages of which were read aloud.

Boyarshinov claimed he did not take what he heard seriously, and when someone later sent him the entire text of “The Code,” he did not bother to read it from cover to cover. He read the full text, nearly twenty pages, only when he was recently reviewing the criminal investigation case file. He was unable to corroborate whether what he read was identical to what had been sent to him earlier, but he said it seemed similar.

The document also outlines possible areas for studying self-defense skills: tactician, medic, signalman, and other roles, with no reference to specific people.

“These areas correspond to the disciplines I studied during the course at the Guerrilla Center,” Boyarshinov noted.

nip2Yuli Boyarshinov’s father Nikolai in the courtroom. Photo by Elena Lukyanova. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta in Petersburg

The second meeting that summer took place in the Moscow Region. Several young people from the capital joined the attendees of the first meeting. Boyarshinov remembered only that one of them was named Lev. There were more conversations around campfires and training sessions with dummy weapons.

In the winter of 2016–2017, the group traveled to Igor Shishkin’s mother’s dacha, spending their time in much the same way.

Boyarshinov stressed they worked only on fending off attacks during all the meetings and training sessions: they never practiced raids and assaults. Political issues were not discussed, and there was no talk of drilling for terrorist-like crimes.

Shishkin, who made a deal with case investigators, also noted the absence of violent actions during the training when he described the trip to his mother’s dacha in his testimony.

Boyarshinov corroborated that Filinkov did not attend the first two meetings. Aksyonova introduced Boyarshinov to Filinkov in the autumn of 2016. Filinkov took part in a couple of training sessions at the firing range near Olgino. One dealt with first aid and evacuating the wounded, while the second focused on fending off attacks of VIPs [sic] by employing the methods of private security companies. No knives or firearms were used during the training sessions, only dummy machine guns.

As for the group’s allegedly strict conspiratorial methods, among which case investigators identified the use of messengers and encrypted correspondence, Boyarshinov explained they had been his usual means of communication in the years prior to his involvement with the group.

The third meeting with the young men from Penza and several Muscovites took place in a rented flat in Petersburg in February and March 2017. In the case file, this meeting has been identified as a “national congress of the Network terrorist community.”

Boyarshinov, on the contrary, described a two- or three-day meeting, involving approximately a dozen people. They discussed a little of everything, from music to social, environmental and antifascist events. Filinkov was in attendance, but Boyarshinov could not remember him giving a report, showing any initiative or shouldering any responsibilities for further action.

Boyarshinov could not say who organized the meeting and who kept the minutes of the meeting. (A printed file entitled “Minutes of the Congress” was entered into physical evidence.) He could not corroborate whether Filinkov was present the entire time or whether he came and went, since he had himself had come to and gone from the meeting. As far as he could remember, “The Network Code” was also discussed.

However, some of those present said the group should prepare vigorously to fend off potential violent actions when circumstances in Russia deteriorated, while others had advocated “provoking actions themselves,” Boyarshinov recalled uncertainly.

Only after carefully reading the redaction of “The Network Code” provided to him by case investigators did Boyarshinov discover “it had been proposed to establish combat cells and target the authorities.”

“I have never espoused terrorism and I am sorry I wound up in this community,” he added.

However, Boyarshinov was unable to clarify who he believed had authored the document, how its contents were regarded by any of his current co-defendants, and whether it had been backed by someone specifically.

UPDATE
The next day, April 11, the hearing started nearly two hours late. (Allegedly, the armed escort bringing the defendants to court had got stuck in traffic, although it takes fifteen minutes to drive from the remand prison to the courthouse.)

The hearing was brief. The court heard the testimony of the two janitors who had served as official witnesses during the search of Filinkov’s place of residence. The presiding judge then announced the trial was adjourned until May 14.

One explanation for such a long adjournment is the reluctance of Petersburg investigators to wind the case up before the scandal surrounding the lead investigator in the main part of the Network case, Valery Tokarev, a senior investigator in the FSB’s Penza Region office, has been cleared up.

The previous day’s evening news broadcast on state TV channel Russia 24 featured a segment on fugitive businessman Alexei Shmatko.

Shmatko, who complained he was tortured by Tokarev, has been granted political asylum in Great Britain. (The segment starts at the fifty-minute mark.)

This was not the first time the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company had discussed the vicissitudes of this Penza businessman’s career. Shmatko had been on federal business ombudsman Boris Titov’s list of fugitive Russian businessmen who had voiced a desire to return home. But Tokarev’s name had never been mentioned on the air before. (Although Shmatko claims he had mentioned it during previous TV interviews.)

This time round, the presenter on state television was insistent, encouraging the businessman to dot his i’s and cross his t’s. Who had bribed him? What was the reason?

“He subjected me to torture,” Shmatko said, specifying his charges against Tokarev, “and accepted a bribe from me to release me from remand prison.”

Shmatko complained he had informed the Russian Investigative Committee about this incident in a written statement, but they “had not batted an eye.” He also assured the news presenter he was willing to return to Russia if his case were transferred to the feds, investigated thoroughly, and Senior Investigator Tokarev were arrested.

If this happened, Shmatko would return to Russia for Tokarev’s trial and testify against him.

The interview with Shmatko was chockablock with quotations from the President’s Address to the Federal Assembly on the need to criminalize illegal investigations and punish those responsible for launching them.

On April 10, Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, speaking in the Federation Council, reported the number of corrupt FSB officers who had been outed had more than doubled. He also drew attention to “egregious cases of cruelty toward inmates.”

Three defendants in the Network case in Penza—Dmitry Pchelintsev, Ilya Shakursky, and Arman Sagynbayev—complained they had been tortured with electric shocks in an attempt to force them to incriminate themselves and others, including the Petersburg defendants.

Translated by the Russian Reader. You can find links to my previous coverage of the Network case here.

Ivan Ovsyannikov: How Russia’s New Laws on Disrespecting the Authorities and Fake News Will Play Out

markischer bunny

Russia: How Will the Laws on Disrespecting the Authorities and Fake News Play Out?
Ivan Ovsyannikov
Eurasianet
March 26, 2019

Six months after easing punishments for speaking out on the internet, Vladimir Putin has signed laws that would restrict freedom of speech in Russia, argue civil rights activists.

People who are deemed to have disrespectfully criticized the Russian authorities and disseminated fake news face blocked websites and stiff fines.

The new laws do not explain how to distinguish ordinary criticism of the authorities from disrespectful criticism, and fake news from honest mistakes or the truth, in cases in which the authorities have decided to declare it fake. Defining disrespect and unreliable information has been left to the discretion of the authorities.

How the New Laws Are Worded
According to Russian Federal Law No. FZ-30 and Russian Federal Law No. FZ-31, which have amended the previous law “On Information, Information Technology, and Information Security” (Russian Federal Law No. FZ-149, dated July 27, 2006), people who disseminate “unreliable socially significant information in the guise of reliable news” could be fined, under the corresponding amendments to the Russian Federal Administrative Offenses Code, between 30,000 rubles and one million rubles, while people who voice their “flagrant disrespect” for society, the state, its authorities, and its symbols “improperly” could be fined between 30,000 rubles and 300,000 rubles.

On March 18, 2019, Putin signed the corresponding law bills, as previously passed by the State Duma and the Federation Council, into law.

Russia’s federal communications watchdog Roskomnadzor now has the power to restrict access to a website that has published “false” or “disrespectful” claims, according to law enforcement agencies, without a court’s sanction.

Both law bills were tabled in the Russian parliament by Andrei Klishas, who formally represents Krasnoyarsk Territory in the Federation Council, the parliament’s nominal upper house. Klishas had previously coauthored law bills on making the Runet autonomous, on stiffening punishments for advocating separatism, on breaking rules for holding political rallies, on desecrating the national anthem, and on declaring media outlets “foreign agents.”

klishasAndrei Klishas, a member of the Russian Federation Council for Krasnoyarsk Territory. Photo courtesy of Ilya Pitalev/RIA Novosti and RBC

The Russian Government Will Be Able to Pinpoint and Block Bad News
Despite the prohibitive bent of MP Klishas’s lawmaking, he heads United Russia’s “liberal platform,” stressing that his law bills are not attempted crackdowns. When discussing the law criminalizing disrespect for the state and society, Klishas pointed to European precedents.

“The rules existing in Europe say you can criticize the authorities as much as you like and demand their resignation. […] But when you communicate with the authorities, you should show respect, because they did not appear out of the blue. They are the outcome of people’s choices,” Klishas told Znak.com in an interview published in February 2019.*

As for the law on so-called fake news, MP Klishas stressed only people who distributed knowingly false information that engendered panic and endangered society had to fear prosecution, not reporters and bloggers who made honest mistakes, he told the website.

Klishas’s stance is not shared by the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, which described his law bills as unacceptable, anti-constitutional, and a threat to the public.

“The way in which these innumerable, insane law bills are tabled reveals a simple desire to curry favor with the regime. They generate a sense of legal uncertainty. First, swearing was criminalized. Then ‘extremism’ and ‘foreign agents’ were targeted. Now fake news and ‘disrespect for the authorities’ have been added to the list. Give the well-known practice of selectively charging and convicting people for these crimes, no one knows what might get them in trouble,” says journalist and presidential human rights council member Leonid Nikitinsky.

The law on fake news does not stipulate how real news should be differentiated from counterfeits, which makes the law a bogeyman, argues Nikitinsky. The authorities can use it to trip up undesirable journalists and silence unwanted news.

Nikitinsky notes that, while Russian state propaganda is chockablock with fake news, it is is independent media that are primarily at risk of being penalized for violating the new law.

New Prohibitions Make Up for Easing of Old Bans
Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group, argues the penalties for disrespecting the authorities and fake news are meant to compensate for the partial decriminalization, in November of last year, of “extremist” statements published on the internet.

After first-time convictions for public incitement to hatred or enmity (Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 282 Part 1) were reclassified as administrative offenses, Russian police lost part of their workload. Under the so-called quota system, in which law enforcers are evaluated according to the number of crimes they have solved, the introduction of new offenses in the Administrative Offenses Code can generate new possibilities for fudging the statistics on cleared cases and conviction rates.

On the other hand, the amended law appears “liberal” only when compared with its earlier redaction, which stipulated a maximum of five years in prison for careless statements on the internet.

Improper Does Not Mean “Obscene”
If the law against fake news would probably be applied selectively, administrative charges of disrespect for the authorities and society could be a large-scale phenomenon within a few years, argues Alexander Verkhovsky, head of the SOVA Information and Analysis Center.

“People are punished five times more often under the ‘anti-extremism’ articles in the Administrative Offenses Code than under the corresponding articles in the Criminal Code. The partial decriminalization of Criminal Code Article 282 shifts the proportion even more heavily toward administrative punishments. The introduction of new articles in the Administrative Offenses Code means there will be fewer criminal prosecutions and many more administrative prosecutions,” Verkhovsky predicts.

Last year’s easing of anti-extremist laws was justified by the fact that the mechanical application of Article 282 had produced a proliferation of inmates who had no relation to extremist groups. The administrative prosecution of “disrespect for the authorities” could also balloon into a crackdown against rank-and-file Russians.

“It is difficult to predict the extent to which such cases will be politically motivated,” says Verkhovsky.

Prosecuting people of disrespect for the authorities is complicated by the lack of clarity over what can be said and what cannot. According to Roskomnadzor’s official clarification, which was not issued in connection with the new law, “four well-known words (kh.., p…., e…., and b….), as well as the words and expressions derived from them,” are considered obscene.**

Verkhovsky stresses, however, that improper does not mean obscene. The new law does not define what it means by “improperly.”

Nikitinsky agrees.

“You can arbitrarily call anything improper,” he says.

The Authorities Are More Sensitive to Criticism 
According to Chikov, the passage of Klishas’s law bills is the regime’s knee-jerk reaction to its dwindling popularity. After the pension reform of summer and autumn 2018, the ratings of Russia’s supreme executive and legislative authorities took a severe hit. Also, according to a poll done by VTsIOM, a year after the last presidential election, in March 2018, Putin is trusted by 33.4% of Russians, a drop of 21.9% from March 2018.

For example, in March 2018, a court in Naberezhnye Chelny sentenced activist Karim Yamadayev to twenty-eight days in jail for erecting a fake headstone for President Putin by way protesting the law bill that would create a “sovereign” Runet, if passed into law.

putin doa“Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, 1952–2019.” Image courtesy of BBC Russian Service

In summer of 2018, Petersburg activist Varya Mikhaylova was fined 160,000 rubles for publicly displaying the picture 9 Stages of the Supreme Leader’s Decomposition, which also depicts Putin, during the city’s annual May Day march. Despite the fact the march itself was legal, the picture had not been vetted by the police. As Mikhaylova admits, she was completely surprised when she was detained, since she has a poor sense of the line between what is acceptable and what is forbidden.

The Kremlin is likely to use the new laws to crack down on its most audacious critics.

varyaVarya Mikhaylova (center, with megaphone), carrying {rodina}’s 9 Stages of the Supreme Leader’s Decomposition as she marched with the Party of the Dead bloc in last year’s May Day demo in Petersburg. Photo by Elena Lukyanova. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

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* Members of the Federation Council are not “chosen by people” in the sense of free and fair elections, but appointed by President Putin via highly stage-managed “elections” in the legislatures and parliaments of the Russian regions they only nominally represent. Aided and abetted by lazy journalists and political spin doctors, the thoroughly non-elected members of the Federation Council, whose only function is to rubber-stamp destructive law bills like the two described in the article, have taken to calling themselves “senators” in recent years, although Russia has no senate or senators. TRR

** I.e., khui (“dick”), pizda (“cunt”), ebat‘ (“fuck”), bliad‘ (“bitch”), all of which are indeed incredibly productive roots in colloquial Russian. TRR

Ivan Ovsyannikov is a member of the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD) and a trade union organizer. Lead photo and translation by the Russian Reader. All other photos featured in the translation were selected by me and were not included in the original article, as published on Eurasianet.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

DSCN1726Goodbye to all that. Exchange rates for the US dollar and the euro, as displayed electronically on the door of Zauber Bank, Ligovsky Prospect, September 19, 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

Putin Signs Law Banning Outdoor Currency Exchange Rate Electronic Display Boards
Delovoi Peterburg
December 18, 2018

President Putin has signed a law banning outdoor foreign currency exchange rate electronic display boards. The document was published on the Legal Information Website on Tuesday, December 18.

The document amends the law on foreign currency regulation. The Russian Central Bank now has the right to regulate how commercial banks post information about foreign currency exchange rates.

In Febrary 2018, the Central Bank proposed banning foreign currency exchange rate electronic display boards outside the premises of banks. The regulator explained the idea was prompted by the need to combat illegal exchange offices.

“As practice shows, information about foreign currency exchange rates is most often displayed outdoors by so-called illegal currency exchange points, which are camouflaged as limited service branches of authorized banks,” the Central Bank’s press service explained.

In December, a law bill that would grant the regulator the right to establish requirements for display of such information was adopted by the State Duma and approved by the Federation Council.

The Central Bank’s draft instructions explain that information about foreign currecy exchange rates can be placed only within the premises of an authorized bank and in such a way that the information is visible only inside the facility itself.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Russia Has No Senate or Senators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Annals of PreCrime: “An Absolute Nightmare”

precriminals.jpegUnder legislation currently tabled in the Russian parliament, these up-and-coming Russian businesswomen could do hard time in a penal colony for the wholly fanciful crime of “complying” with western sanctions against target businesses and individuals. Image courtesy of Credit Bank of Moscow

Sanctions Victims Refuse the Russian State’s Protection
Big Business Categorically Rejects Adopting Law on Anti-Sanctions
Yelizaveta Bazanova, Anna Kholyavko and Yekaterina Burlakova
Vedomosti
May 16, 2018

“An absolute nightmare”: that was the phrase used by the majority of lawyers and executives of Russian and foreign companies whom we asked to comment on plans to imprison people who “implemented” foreign sanctions. On Monday, a law bill to this effect, tabled by State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko, and leaders of all four parliamentary factions was passed in its first reading. The second reading has been scheduled for Thursday.

Under the law bill, if a company refuses to sign a public contract with an entity on the sanctions list, the company and its executives would be threatened with a maximum fine of ₽600,000 [approx. €8,200] and a maximum prison term of four years.

The board of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP) has decided passage of the law would be completely unacceptable. Companies would find themselves between the frying pan and the fire: violations of sanctions would threaten them with secondary sanctions, while complying with sanctions would make them criminally prosecutable in Russia.

The RSPP’s resolution was supported even by board members who had themselves been sanctioned.

“We believe it would cause further damage to the Russian economy, including business with foreign and Russian companies, and both Comrade Vekselberg [Renova Group Chair Viktor Vekselberg] and I voted for the resolution,” Interfax has quoted VTB Bank president Andrei Kostin as saying.

A spokesperson for Vekselberg did not respond to our questions. We were also unable to contact a spokesperson for Oleg Deripaska, another target of western sanctions, yesterday evening.

If passed, the law would be unlikely to have a considerable impact on how businesses operate, but it could be a means of threatening and pressuring them, the entrepreneurs we surveyed said unanimously. The wording of the law bill is harsh. Nearly anyone could be prosecuted on the flimsiest of pretexts, complained an executive at a transnational food producer.

The key risk is the absence of clear criteria for defining what would constitute a violation of the proposed law, our sources all agreed. Even the Russian Finance Ministry could be prosecuted. In its Eurobonds prospectus, it pledged not to use the funds raised to support entities targeted by western sanctions. In January, Alfa Bank warned Russian defense companies it would not handle their accounts due to sanctions. Spokespeople for the Finance Ministry and Alfa Bank did not respond to our inquiries.

The Kremlin has also been unhappy with the law bill, said a federal official close to the presidential administration.

The law bill, if passed, would also generate risks for those companies who refuse to do business in Crimea due to sanctions, said Alexei Panich, a partner at Herbert Smith Freehills. These include the state banks Sberbank and VTB, as well as mobile telecom operators. Andrei Isayev, deputy head of the State Duma’s United Russia faction, claimed  companies who do not open branches in Crimea would not be affected by the law. What was at stake, he said, were the ordinary deals and transactions companies perform almost automatically. However, refusal to do business with counterparts in Crimea could be considered a criminal offense under the terms of the law, said an attorney at a major international law firm. The law could complicate public offerings, the issuing of loans, and contracts and transactions, he specified.

An employee at a major international firm explained it would be hard to determine whether a company refused a deal with a counterpart due to their bad reputation or the threat of sanctions. An auto dealer agreed the threat of criminal prosecution would be powerful leverage. To encourage its partners to agree to a deal, a business could threaten to report them to law enforcement agencies, argued Panich.

The proposed measures were excessive, agreed a spokesperson for an agricultural commodities trader. Some companies have in-house rules restricting such deals. Our source said the law bill appeared to be means of coercing such companies. Theoretically, it could be used as leverage. A company or person on the Specially Designated Nationals And Blocked Persons List (SDN) could show up and demand another company do business with them, agreed the head of major private bank. It was difficult to imagine how banks would solve such dilemmas, he said.

“There are many ambiguities in how the law would be interpreted, and what specific actions or inactions would be punishable,” he concluded.

Foreign businesses could interpret the law bill as a signal it was time to wrap up their operations in Russia, said the vice-president of a major foreign company that produces popular consumer products. No one has any intention of sacrificing their top executives to the Russian law enforcement and judicial system.

All issuers of bonds include in their covenants the refusal to do business with entities targeted by sanctions. Perhaps expatriates who do not want to take risks would leave the country, argued an employee at a large foreign company.

Passing the bill into law would be a mistake, said political scientist Yevgeny Minchenko. The law would have to be seriously amended over time.

“Knowing how this could affect both Russian companies and foreign business operating in Russia, this is very risky decision in my opinion,” Minchenko told us.

Spokespeople for Sberbank and Credit Bank of Moscow declined to comment.

With additional reporting by Vladimir Shtanov, Darya Borisyak, Alexandra Astapenko, and Svetlana Bocharova

Translated by the Russian Reader

Getting (No) Satisfaction

fullscreen-rz

“How the European Court of Human Rights Did in 2017.” Romania, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Hungary, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, and Poland were the the leaders in terms of numbers of complaints the ECHR agreed to consider further, while Russia was number one in terms of rulings made against it. Among the most complaints from Russia were cases involving the right to liberty and security, the right to be protected from inhumane, humiliating treatment, the right to effective medical treatment, to right to a fair trial, and property rights. Source: ECHR. Courtesy of Vedomosti

Russia Leads in the Number of Human Rights Violations Confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights 
This Is Due to the Ineffectiveness of Russia’s Courts, One Expert Argues 
Anastasia Kornya
Vedomosti
January 26, 2018

Russia ranks second among Council of Europe member countries in numbers of complaints made to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and ranks first in number of violations of the European Convention on Human Rights, according to a report on the court’s work in 2017, presented on Thursday by ECHR President Guido Raimondi. Last year, the ECHR rendered a total of 1,068 decisions: 305 of these decisions, or 29%, concerned complaints from Russia. In 293 of these cases, the court ruled that at least one article of the human rights convention had been violated. As of January 1, 2018, 7,747 cases from Russia were in proceedings at the ECHR. Only Romania has supplied the court with more cases: 9,920. In 2017, the 49% of complaints filed against Russia and deemed worthy of consideration amounted to nearly half of all cases accepted by the court for further review.

Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group, draws attention to the nature of the cases Russia has lost. They account for 66% of all of the ECHR’s rulings on the right to life, half of its rulings on torture, inhumane treatment or ineffective investigation of complaints of torture and inhumane treatment, and half of all rulings on the lack of “effective legal recourse” and groundless arrests. Finally, Russian plaintiffs won 38% of all cases involving the right to property. Chikov notes that not only has the number of rulings against Russia increased (by a third: from 222 to 305), but the number of complaints filed in Strasbourg has also experienced a sharp upturn. Chikov explains this both in technical terms (the ECHR has taken care of its backlog of cases and accelerated its document review process) and as due to the worsening overall human rights situation in Russia. The ineffectiveness of the country’s own tools for defending people’s rights has led to Russia’s becoming the most problematic country in Europe in this sense.

Russia consistently fulfills its international obligations, including implementing ECHR rulings, although some of them are flagrantly politicized, objects Andrei Klishas chair of the Federation Council Committee on Nation Building. Lately, there has been a tendency to endow the ECHR with the powers of a supranational body, but Russia acknowledges its powers only as an optional mechanism for protecting rights [sic]. National bodies remain the main mechanisms, including the Russian Constitutional Court, Klishas underscores.

The overall circumstances surrounding Russian cases in the ECHR is workaday: nothing overly worrisome has happened, argues Yuri Berestnev, editor in chief of the Bulletin of the European Court of Human Rights (in Russian). According to Berestnev, the growth of rulings in cases against Russia was to be expected, and the cause is purely technical. For three years, the court was completely focused on weeding out flagrantly unacceptable complaints from Russia. The Russian Justice Ministry dispatched a group of twenty Russian attorneys to help the ECHR clear up the logjam by filtering out several tens of thousands of complaints. [Sic!] The remaining complaints have good prospects. In late 2017, the court had accepted 3,000 complaints from Russia for further review, so the number of rulings went up from last year, explains Berestnev. He likewise notes that, in the autumn, the ECHR closed proceedings in 12,000 complaints from Ukraine, pointing out that the systematic problem of the non-fulfillment of decisions by national courts, due to the lack of financial means on the part of member states, should be discussed further by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers. Russia has successfully managed to deal with the same problem, recalls Berestnev.

Translated by the Russian Reader

••••••••••

Opposition Leader Navalny Targets Kremlin in European Court
The Associated Press
January 24, 2018

STRASBOURG, France — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Wednesday appeared at a hearing at the European Court of Human Rights into whether Russian authorities violated his rights through numerous arrests.

The court ruled last year that seven of those arrests were unlawful and ordered Russia to pay 63,000 euros (about $67,000) in compensation, but the Russian government appealed.

Proving that Russian authorities had political motives in arresting him and not allowing his rallies to go ahead would set an important precedent for activists across Russia, Navalny told reporters outside the courtroom in the French city of Strasbourg Wednesday.

“This case is important not only for me but also for other people in Russia, especially in the regions because they are stripped of the freedom of assembly,” he said. “If the European Court for Human Rights sees political motives in those cases—and I think we have presented enough evidence for this today—it will make an important precedent in Russia.”

A final ruling is expected at a later date.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most serious political foe, Navalny wants to mount a boycott of the March presidential elections after he was barred from running.

Navalny has faced fraud charges viewed as political retribution for investigating corruption and leading protests. A Moscow court this week ordered the closure of a foundation that he used for his failed election campaign.

Navalny mounted a sprawling grassroots presidential campaign before he was officially barred from running in December. Navalny’s boycott campaign might cut the voter turnout, which would be an embarrassment for the Kremlin.