Tatyana Moskalkova, Russia’s human rights ombudsman and a retired police major general, visited Ukrainian prisoner of conscience Oleg Sentsov on June 28, 2018, which was the forty-sixth day of his hunger strike.
“Sentsov is in good physical shape. He is up and walking. He is interested in current events and watches football on TV. He is writing a screenplay,” Major General Moskalkova reported.
The major general was joined in her visit to Sentsov by Anatoly Sak, human rights ombudsman of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District and a former prosecutor. Sak’s account of the visit is like an expensive frame for Moskalkova’s humanity.
“Tatyana Nikolayevna is a wonderful woman!”
According to the Yamalo-Nenets prosecutor-cum-human rights ombudsman, this was Sentsov’s appraisal of Moskalkova.
Sak continued to “quote” Sentsov.
“Thank her very much and thank you for not forgetting me!”
According to the local human rights ombudsman, Sentsov’s heart was brimming over with love for his jailers, while if you believe Moskalkova, the Polar Bear Concentration Camp, situated north of the Arctic Circle, is the perfect vacation spot, especially if you combine your stay there with a long hunger strike.
Lyudmila Denisova, Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, did not believe her colleague. Worse, she refused to recognize her as a colleague.
“I don’t believe that ombudsman, and I can’t bring himself to call her a human rights ombudsman,” Denisov said.
She explained why.
“We flew there on the same plane. Then she rode past me in a motorcade as I stood on the roadside trying to figure out what was happening. She does not pick up her phone, she does not respond in any way. That is why I do not believe any of Moskalkova’s statements.”
The Russian jailers, whose ranks undoubtedly include Moskalkova and Sak, did not let Denisova see Sentsov. The refusal was delivered with the trademark bullying for which the Russian bureaucracy has always had a flare, especially its policemen and jailers. The prison guards told Denisova “no one had forbidden anything,” meaning her meeting with Sentsov. At the same time, none of the prison staff would accept her written application to visit the inmate. As described above, Moskalkova, who had flown there on the same plane as Denisova, subsequently flatly refused to acknowledge her presence. Keep in mind that prior to the trip they had conducted lengthy negotiations on visiting inmates.
All of the ferocity and, simultaneously, the absurdity of Putinist Russia has been concentrated in the Sentsov Affair. The man was forcibly made a Russian national, and he has not been turned over to Ukraine on these ground. A police major general who is in charge of defending human rights claims a man who has been on hunger strike for forty-six days feels fine. The Ukrainian human rights ombudsman is not allowed to see a citizen of her country, and yet the guards claim no one has forbid her to do anything.
The chances of saving Sentsov are fewer with each passing day. International pressure must be ratcheted up to a fundamentally different level than where it is currently. Putin must be made to feel that Sentsov’s death would lead to unacceptable losses for him personally.
Over the years, Novaya Gazeta has regularly published information about massacres and reprisals in Chechnya. The motives for persecuting the people who live in the repubic have been quite varied. In early April, Novaya Gazeta published evidence testifying to the widespread persecution, torture, and killings of gay Chechens. Due to enormous international pressure, Russia’s law enforcement agencies for first time conducted, much against their will, a pre-investigation of evidence of extrajudiciary killings in Chechnya. This was in itself an incredible achievement.
On April 20, we handed over to police investigators information about two men who, we had concluded, had been killed during the anti-gay campaign in Chechnya. Our journalistic investigation, in fact, began with attempting to clarify what had happened to these two men.
We sent all information about the murdered men to investigators for their review as soon as we received it. We also gave the Russian Investigative Committee the anonymous testimony of the surviving victims, who had been kept in secret prisons and gone through terrible torture. This testimony aided investigators in independently and successfully establishing the identities of the victims, according to our information.
Igor Sobol, deputy head of the major case squad in the Central Investigations Department at the Russian Investigative Committee’s North Caucasus Federal District office, who conducted the pre-investigation, had planned to meet with the victims to try and convince them to make statements. However, Sobol had worked on the pre-investigation for a mere two weeks when he was suddenly appointed to a new post. The pre-investigation was assigned to another investigator. After this reshuffle, the official investigation ceased to be robust and adopted a predictable stance. Since the victims had not filed complaints themselves, no crime had taken place.
We guessed this would be the outcome. It is the silence of living victims, scared to death by the unlimited capacities of Chechnya’s security forces, that is the main argument used by police investigators in response to all complaints about human right violations in Chechnya.
Therefore, in addition to the names of the slain gays, we gave investigators a list of twenty some Chechens, arrested starting late December 2016 and, according to our information, murdered in January of this year. These people were arrested during several special raids conducted in Chechnya after December 17, 2016. These people were not formally charged with any crimes. As in the case of the gays, a decision was most likely made to exterminate these people, and the order was carried out.
On December 17, 2016, a group of young men assaulted and murdered a policeman’s acquaintance. The assailants stole the policeman’s car. During the chase, they ran over a traffic police officer in this car. All the assailants were destroyed [sic], including three detainees.
According to the Memorial Rights Center, they were shot in a hospital in Grozny.
The incident triggered massive arrests throughout Chechnya, and two preventive, proactive counter-terrorist operations were conducted.
All the information about what we have assumed were murdered Chechens was passed on not only to police investigators but also to high-ranking officials, including Tatyana Moskalkova, Russia’s federal human rights ombudsman.
In our letters to these officials, we made a special point of distinguishing between the people we assumed had been killed on suspicion of homosexuality, and the people killed for another reason. (Most likely, they were killed on suspicion of extremism, although we cannot corroborate this: no formal charges were filed, and the Chechen police did not have sufficient information to file charges.)
“No one can be subjected to violence, humiliation and, especially, the loss of life under any circumstances,” Moskalkova announced publicly before sending our petition to the Russian Investigative Committee for review.
On June 6, the preliminary outcome of the review, which the Russian Investigative Committee had been conducting for over two months, was made public. Ombudsman Moskalkova reported on the Investigative Committee’s reaction to her request.
“The reply I received says they have not ascertained evidence confirming violent actions, because they had no specific information on these citizens.”
Moskalkova had every reason to put the matter to rest, as many high-ranking officials had done before her. But she adopted a principled stance under the circumstances.
“Since my request and the letter from Novaya Gazeta I sent contain the names of the people who have, allegedly, perished, the review cannot be deemed completed at this point, and I ask you to clarify what happened to the people whose names are listed in the letter,” wrote Moskalkova.
In an interview with TASS News Agency, Moskalkova likewise remarked that the list given to her by Novaya Gazeta “contains only surnames and names, and nothing else.” She expressed her hope that the “investigative authorities would be able to talk with the article’s author and obtain additional information about years of birth, places of burial, relatives, and former places of residence.”
The fact is that, during our communications with the investigator conducting the review, we passed on more complete information that would make it possible to identify people from the list and establish what had happened to them. At the time, we had information about the places where these people had resided and their dates of birth.
One January Night
After sending the list to the official investigators, we did not halt our own investigation. We kept on trying to explain what had happened to these people.
Since we no longer have any confidence that the new investigator conducting the review will want to talk with our reporters, we have decided to publish everything we know about the circumstances of how these people disappeared.
Large-scale arrests of people kicked off in Chechnya after December 17 of last year. In early January, special raids were carried out the Grozny, Kurchaloy, and Shali districts of Chechnya, during which many people were arrested. The arrestees, however, were not formally registered or charged with crimes. Instead, they were put in the cellars and outbuilding of police departments. The arrests continued until late January. According to what we have learned, around two hundred people were arrested.
Novaya Gazeta carefully monitored these events and has written on several occasions about the plight of the arrestees. Thus, on January 12, we published the names of those arrested after a special raid in the Kurchaloy District. Some of the people on this list were “legalized” only on February 20. This means they were formally arrested only a month and a half after they had in fact been detained. These people were formally charged with illegal arms trafficking (Article 222 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code), and a handful were also charged with violating Article 208 (involvement in an illegal armed formation).
We believe that, during a month and a half of illegal detention, these people were coerced into confessing their guilt, which is often the only evidence of guilt in Chechnya. This can be easily seen if we examine the criminal cases currently under investigation by the Chechen Investigative Committee. The names of twenty-two men, detained on January 9 and 10, 2017, and published on Novaya Gazeta‘s website on January 12, is evidence of the illegal one-and-a-half-month detentions, which, in fact, from the legal point of view, render null and void all thhe so-called confessions of guilt.
When comparing this information, we discovered that six people, detained on January 9 and 10, are on the list of those presumably murdered, which we passed on to the Russian Investigative Committee.
The Marked List
During our journalistic investigation, we were able to obtain a list of the people detained in January from a source in the Chechen Interior Ministry. We were also able to match the detainees with the following towns and villages in Chechnya.
Shali: 28 people
Kurchaloy: 9 people
Tsotsi-Yurt: 11 people
Mayrtup: 6 people
Germenchuk: 3 people
Komsomolskoye: 1 person
Avtury: 2 people
Old Sunzha: 4 people
Serzhen-Yurt: 2 people
Belgatoy: 1 person
Comparing this document with the list of allegedly murdered people that Novaya Gazeta sent to the Russian Investigative Committee, we found out what had happend to another 21 people who had been arrested and subsequently killed, according to our information. The great number of arrests took place in Shali, and we have ascertained the addresses of the people on our list from Shali. But all our attempts to find out anything about the plight of these people have been met with incredible fear on the part of our sources. One of them, an employee in Shali city hall, panickedly refused to look over the names of the Shali residents we had ascertained.
“Everyone who was detained in Shali in Janury is gone. Don’t look for them,” he said.
Currently, we know about 27 people who were presumably killed (see the list at the end of this article), although we have reason to believe that 56 Chechens may have been killed. These people were detained at different times. (We have managed to ascertain the dates when thirty of the detainees were arrested: January 9, January 10, January 21, and January 24.) However, the date and time of death, according to our information, is the same for all these people: the night of January 25.
That night, all the detainees were held at the base of the Police Patrol Service’s Hero of Russia Akhmat-Hadji Kadyrov Regiment, headed by police colonel Aslan Iraskhanov. The relative of one victim, an influential Chechen official who has managed to uncover the circumstances of the detainees’ disappearance, has testified that, on the night in question, the following people were located at the Kadyrov Regiment’s base: Apti Alaudinov, First Deputy Interior Minister of the Chechen Republic; Abuzeyd Vismuradov aka The Patriot, commander of the Terek Rapid Deployment Task Force and head of Ramzan Kadyrov’s personal security detail; Colonel Iraskhanov of the Kadyrov Regiment; and the police chiefs of the districts where the detainees were registered.
According to the information we have, the detainees were shot that night. Their bodies were transported to various cemeteries, including Christian cemeteries, and buried in hastily dug graves. (Novaya Gazeta knows the locations of some burial sites).
Careful study of the lists of detainees has led us to conclude that the decision to carry out the extrajudicial executions was taken centrally [sic] and, oddly enough, spontaneously. However, this is how key decisions are made in today’s Chechnya.
This follows, at least, from an analysis of a document given to us by our source in the Chechen Republic Interior Ministry. It consists of the typical photo charts that are used by all police officers and are compiled, apparently, according to a single template. (We can assume that Chechen police officers keep records of their “unofficial” actions according to the generally accepted practices of the Russian Interior Ministry.) The photographs were obviously taken immediately after the arrests; moroever, they were not taken in official police departments. Many of the detainees are handcuffed to gym wall bars or radiators, which are more typically found in basements. Marks have been made next to certain photographs, apparently, at different times. If there are no marks, it means the detainee was released. Marks containing the numbers of criminal code articles mean the detainee was later charged with a criminal offense. These marks were made in the same column of the photo chart, right after each detainee’s personal information.
That is, up until a certain point, the police had two options as to what to do with the detainees: release them or bring them up on criminal charges. Later, however, marks that have nothing to do with police expediency emerged on the margins of the list: plus and minus signs. The plus signs most often match detainees charged with criminal offenses. The minus signs can mean only one thing: extermination.
The Dead Speak
We would like to underscore the fact that despite its having been confirmed by two sources (the first source works in the Investigative Department of the Chechen Investigative Committee, and the second in the administration of the head of Chechnya), we cannot affirm that, on the night of January 25, an extrajudicial execution took place in Chechnya, unprecedented in its scale even for that republic.
But we can insist on instituting a criminal case, during which it would not be particularly hard to check this evidence. First, we have given the Russian Investigative Committee more than enough evidence about the victims. Second, the exhumation and postmortem forensic examination of corpses is quite capable of revealing traces of bullet wounds: they stay on bone remains forever. Ascertaining the identities of the presumed murder victims is also easy: DNA samples would need to be taken from the relatives of the victims for comparative analysis. Unlike the persecution of the gays, in which the victims’ families, albeit under duress, were involved in the crackdown, the relatives of people arrested on suspicion of extremism will assist investigators in this case. In addition, far from all of them know what really happened to their loved ones. Many still hope the detainees will come home alive. People are still looking for their loved ones who disappeared in January. They visit police stations and ask questions.
In response, they have heard the same excuses for months on end. “Maybe they are already somewhere in Syria.” “You should have kept track of your relatives yourselves. What do you want from us?” At best, the police tell these people, “You’ll find out when the time comes.”
Our recurrent and now public appeals to the Russian Investigative Committee are our attempt to bring to the country’s leadership and the country’s head investigators evidence that leaves little doubt that extrajudiciary executions have been actively pursued in Chechnya. We are sure it was long-term connivance of this practice that made possible the widespread persecution of gays in Chechnya. If this practice is not harshly eliminated, next time we will face an even more brazen crime than killing people only because somebody considered their sexual orientation unacceptable.
We have published this evidence because the state, as represented by the authorized law enforcement agencies, has left us no choice. For two months, we had hoped for cooperation, which was effective at the very outset. Today,it is obvious that the Russian Investigative Committee is giving ground on this case just as it gave ground in the Boris Nemtsov murder case. That is why we are publishing a list of those people who, according to our information, were victims of possibly the most terrible extrajudicial execution in Grozny. And now police investigators, who refer to the lack of living complainants, will have to deal with special witnesses.
Because in Chechnya only the dead have nothing to fear.
Novaya Gazeta‘s List
1. Abdulmezhidov, Adam Isayevich, born May 27, 1987
2. Abumuslimov, Apti Hasanovich, born June 2, 1989, resided at Shkolnaya Street, 16, Shali
3. Abdulkerimov, Said-Ramzan Ramzanovich, born March 25, 1990, registered at Dokhtukayev Street, 18, Kurchaloy
4. Alimkhanov, Islam Aliyevich, born July 6, 1998
5. Abubakarov, Adam Dzhabrailovich, born May 5, 1995
6. Bergayev, Ismail Shadidovich, born August 19, 1998
7. Dasayev, Adam Ilyasovich, born June 16, 1988, Shali
8. Jabayev, Zelimkhan Khizirovich, born December 18, 1993
9. Ilyasov, Adam Khuseinovich, born September 22, 1997
10. Lugayev, Rizvan Said-Khamzatovich, born September 13, 1987, Shali
11. Malikov, Rizvan Agdanovich, born June 1, 1990
12. Muskiyev, Mohma Turpalovich, born July 17, 1988, registered at Novaya Street, 10, Tsotsi-Yurt
13. Mussanov, Temirlan Ahmadovich, born April 28, 1986, Chicherin Street, 2, Shali
14. Ozdiyev, Usman Vakhayevich, born December 24, 1989, registered at Grozny Street, 39, Shali
15. Rashidov, Doku Ibrahimovich, born May 30, 1995
16. Syriyev, Magomed Musayevich, born February 23, 1993
17. Soltamanov, Ismail Ezer-Aliyevich, born March 30, 1994, registered at Nuradilov Street, Mayrtup
18. Suleimanov, Magomed Arbeyevich, born January 3, 1987, Caucasus Village, 8/4, Shali
19. Tuchayev, Ahmed Ramzanovich, born February 23, 1987, Shkolnaya Street, 30, Shali
20. Khabuyev, Khamzat Slaudinovich, born February 14, 1993
21. Hakimov, Alvi Aslambekovich, born November 16, 1992
22. Khamidov, Shamil Ahmedovich, born November 14, 1986
23. Tsikmayev, Ayub Sultanovich, born April 2, 1984, Molodezhnaya Street, Germenchuk
24. Shapiyev, Muslim Isayevich, born November 28, 1989, registered at Kutuzov Street, 12, Shali
25. Eskarbiyev, Saikhan Vahamsoltovich, born May 23, 1992
26. Yusupov, Sakhab Isayevich, born January 19, 1990
27. Yusupov, Shamkhan Shaykhovich, born June 17, 1988, registered at Soviet Street, 11, Kurchaloy
Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Pavel Chikov Don’t Film That! You’ll Go to Jail Snob.ru
May 4, 2016
A new trend has emerged in Russia that is a logical sequel to the state’s policy of intimidation. Diggers, roofers, base jumpers, bloggers, and other curious folk who like going to places and, especially, filming places not everyone goes and films are under threat of investigation and prosecution. Law enforcement’s arsenal includes heavy fines, arrest, and criminal charges for disseminating state secrets, followed by up to eight years in prison.
In late April, activist Yan Katelevsky was jailed for twelve days after videotaping outside the Ramenskoye police station in Moscow. He wanted to broach the topic, on his YouTube channel, of how policemen illegally park their police vehicles and personal vehicles, but it transpired he had been filming a “sensitive facility” and had “resisted the lawful order of a police officer” when he refused to stop filming.
A few days earlier, Meshchansky District Court in Moscow sent digger Gennady Nefedov to a pre-trial detention facility for “contacts with the media” (!) and with other defendants in his criminal case. Nearly a year and a half ago, Nefedov and five other guys had wandered into an underground passage in the Moscow subway in downtown Moscow. They were initially fined for “trespassing on a secured, restricted site” (Article 20.17 of the Russian Federal Administrative Offenses Code). A year later, they were detained and charged with “illegally obtaining and disseminating information constituting a state secret” (Article 283.1 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code).
Article 20.17 of the Administrative Offenses Code demands special attention. As they say, keep your eyes on the ball. On the first working day of 2016, Russia’s official government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta published a largely unnoticed article bearing the prophetic headline “Freeze! It’s 15 Days for You: If You Sneak into a High-Security Site, You’ll Go to Jail.” Its topic was something its author dubbed the “diggers’ law,” meaning a set of amendments to the Criminal Code and Administrative Offenses Code that have considerably stiffened the punishments for trespassing on restricted-access areas. The fine has been raised from 300 rubles to 200,000 rubles (i.e., 666 times), and punishment now includes confiscation of “the weapon [sic] used in the commission of the offense, including photo and video equipment.” In addition, fifteen days in jail has been stipulated as possible punishment “as long as the act does not contain evidence of a criminal offense.” In the worst case, diggers, roofers, base jumpers, and bloggers can face the above-mentioned Article 283.1 and eight years in prison.
It is noteworthy that one of the people who drafted the diggers’ law was Tatyana Moskalkova, who would become Russia’s human rights ombudsman a few months later. In the same article in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the author complains that diggers and “just plain thugs” are not spooked by restrictions, but unnamed sources in law enforcement explain to him that fifteen days in jail is not a soft punishment “but, so to speak, a mere makeweight to a whole passel of other criminal charges [including] disseminating state secrets, resisting arrest, theft, and property damage.”
No sooner said than done. In 2016, a schoolgirl who took a stroll on the roof of the Mariinsky Place, home of the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly, roofers and just plain tipsy young people who climbed the TV towers in Tver and Arzamas, respectively, and schoolchildren in Astrakhan who decided to take a selfie at the airport next to a TU-134 passenger jet and jumped the fence to do it have all been written up for “trespassing on restricted-access sites.” And these are just the incidents that have been reported in the media.
Thus, the Russian Federal Interior Ministry’s Inter-Municipal Directorate for Closed Jurisdictions at Important and Sensitive Sites in the Moscow Region (the Vlasikha Inter-Municipal Directorate of the Russian Federal Interior Ministry) has reported that from April 12 to April 19 of this year, it had uncovered six incidents of “trespassing a secured, restricted-access site.” If such statistics are being recorded, it usually means there is an order from the higher-ups to push up the numbers.
For example, according to his attorney, Vitaly Cherkasov, Petersburg digger Andrei Pyzh has already been charged with six administrative violations, including two for trespassing on secured sites: Engineering Design Bureau Center JSC and the Naval Academy’s experimental model basin.
The climax so far has been the case of the Moscow diggers. The authorities have followed the classic pattern for implementing their plans. Laws are amended right before a big holiday. They are tested out at the local level, and then a landmark, high-profile criminal case is staged to teach everyone else a lesson. Because even if you have been fined for the administrative offense of trespassing on a restricted site, it is far from certain that FSB officers will not burst into your home a year later and charge you with criminal violations such as “Illegal Entry into a Secured Site” (Article 215.4, amended December 30, 2015; punishable by up to four years in a penal colony) or “Illegal Acquisition and Dissemination of Information Constituting a State Secret” (Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 283.1). No one will pay any mind to the fact that “dissemination,” as in the case of the Moscow diggers, amounted to reposting a photograph of the Moscow underground on the VKontakte social network, and that the “state secret” was something the accused would have no way of knowing by definition, since they had no physical access to it and were not privy to it. Moreover, it will sound like a legal travesty in such cases when prosecutors argue there were no signs of high treason and espionage (Articles 275 and 276 of the Criminal Code, each punishable by twenty years in a penal colony) in the actions of the accused. Meaning the creative scope, range, and freedom that law enforcement can exercise in such cases will be complete and unconditional.
Lawyer Dmitry Dinze said that a colleague told him the story of his client while they were waiting in line at the Lefortovo pre-trial detention facility in Moscow. The client had been arrested for photographing clearings in the woods near Bryansk and charged with treason. It turned out the place was an abandoned military airfield.
Also, considering how investigators and prosecutors juggle articles of the Criminal Code, various forms of “daching” and investigations involving drones and video cameras will be at risk. It is safe to say that the case of the Moscow diggers is the first harbinger and, unfortunately, it clearly won’t be the last.
A new element in the establishment of a police state has thus been born. There is a clear understanding in law enforcement that orders have come down to suppress attempts at photographing and filming special facilities and sites, moreover, in the broadest sense of these words, and posting what you have shot on the web. This is probably due to the latest secret report on a study of the Internet and the popular video hosting websites and social networks where such matter is usually posted. Under the guise of prudent counter-terrorism and maintaining public safety, the authorities have apparently ratcheted up the requirements for guarding sensitive facilities. True, so far, it seems, they are more inclined to use the traditional methods of intimidation and arrest. What is sad is that they deem even a vacant parking lot outside a police station a “sensitive” facility.
Pavel Chikov is chair of Agora, an association of Russian human rights lawyers and activists that was ordered shut down by a court in Tatarstan in February 2016. Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Russian Beyond the Headlines, from a now-hilarious article entitled “Moscow diggers reveal secrets of the underground world.” Oh well, goodbye to all that.
The 2016 Elections: Putrefaction as the Laboratory of Life
Ilya Budraitskis OpenLeft
April 29, 2016
How do the upcoming Duma elections threaten the regime?
Today, it would seem that the upcoming September elections to the State Duma are a cause of growing concern only in the Kremlin. While polls continue to record a low level of public interest in the event, and the tiny number of parties allowed to run in the election wanly prepares to fulfill their usual roles, the president and his entourage are increasingly talking about possible threats.
The rationale of radicalization
At a recent meeting with activists of the Russian People’s Front, Putin noted that external enemies would preparing ever more provocations to coincide “with elections to the State Duma, and then with the presidential election. It’s a one hundred percent certainty, a safe bet, as they say.”
Regardless of their real value, the upcoming elections have been turning right before our eyes into a point of tension on which the state’s repressive apparatus has focused. Beginning with the establishment of the National Guard, the process has been mounting. Each security agency has now inaugurated its own advertising season, designed not only to remind the president and public of its existence but also to show off its unique capabilities, inaccessible to other competing agencies, for combating potential threats.
Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika has uncovered a plot by the Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector, while in his programmatic article, Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin essentially suggested canceling the elections since holding them could prove too dangerous. He made a direct appeal to stop “playing at pseudo-democracy” and provide a “tough, appropriate, and balanced response” to the country’s enemies “in light of the upcoming elections and the possible risks presented by the stepping up of efforts by destabilizing political forces.” With the appointment of Tatyana Moskalkova, even the previously neutral office of the human rights ombudsman has, apparently, been turned into yet another bastion of the fight against conspiracies.
This nervousness is certainly due to the fact that the growing economic and social crisis has had no visible political fallout for the time being. There have been no mass spontaneous revolts or sectoral strikes, although there has been an overall uptick in isolated labor disputes. The political realm has long ago been securely purged of any uncontrollable opposition, while the president’s personal rating has remained phenomenally high. Nothing, it would seem, portends serious grounds for political destabilization this autumn. The absence, however, of real threats itself has become a threat to the internal stability of the state apparatus.
Where does the threat lie? In recent times, it has become obvious that decision-making at all levels and whatever the occasion has been subjected to a rationale of radicalization. Its principle can be described roughly as follows: no new decision can be less radical than the previous decision. Bureaucratic loyalty is measured only by the level of severity. MPs must propose more sweeping laws against latent traitors. Law enforcement agencies must expose more and more conspiracies, while the courts must hand down rulings that are harsher than the harshest proposals made by the security officials and MPs. Permanently mounting radicalism enables officials to increase budgets, expand powers, and prove their reliability, while any manifestation of moderation or leniency can cost them their careers. This radicalization, whose causes are rooted in the political psychology of the Russian elite (which suffers from an almost animal fear of uncontrollability), has set off an extremely dangerous bureaucratic momentum. Its main problem is the inability to stop. It is not only unclear where the bottom is, but who is ultimately interested in reaching that bottom and leaving it at that.
All this generates a strange situation vis-à-vis the elections, which have generally functioned primarily as a political balancing mechanism for the Putinist system, and even now function in this way. Elections have always been a reminder—not to voters, but to the elite itself—that varying opinions within a clearly defined framework have not only been possible but have also been encouraged. This reminder has been important not out of faithfulness to an abstract principle, but as confirmation that political bodies (first of all, the presidential administration) have had the monopoly on deciding domestic policy, not a military or police junta.
Fixing the broken mechanism?
For the Kremlin, the upcoming elections are overshadowed by the political trauma of 2011, when the smoothly functioning system of managed democracy suffered a serious breakdown. The current chief political strategist Vyacheslav Volodin has more or less consistently focused on making sure the failure of five years ago is not repeated. Volodin’s mission is to fix the broken mechanism with political methods, not by force.
It is worth remembering that, for the greater part of the Putin era, parliamentary and presidential elections were parts of a single political cycle, in which the same scenario was played out. The triumphal success of the ruling United Russia party was supposed to precede and ensure the even more resounding success of Vladimir Putin. In December 2011, however, the cycle’s unity backfired against the Kremlin’s plans. The interval between elections enabled the protest movement to maintain its grassroots energy for several months.
The political rationale of Putin’s third term is now aimed not only at technically but also at conceptually disrupting this cycle. Amidst a sharp drop in confidence in the government, the Kremlin decided last summer to move parliamentary elections up from December 2017 to September 2016, and, on the contrary, postpone the presidential election from March 2017 to March 2018. The point of the maneuver is obvious. The presidential and parliamentary elections must now represent not two parts of the same script but two completely different scripts. In the first script, a limited number of parties, which make up the symphony of the Crimean consensus, will criticize the government and each other, thus competing for the sympathies of the dissatisfied populace. In the second script, the natural patriotic instinct of voters should leave no doubt as to the need to support Putin unconditionally.
The new ideological content was embodied by Volodin’s famous statement: “There is no Russia today if there is no Putin.” This personification virtually means that, as a symbolic father, Putin transcends everyday politics. You can be a liberal or a nationalist, a proponent of greater intervention in the economy or a fan of the free market. You can choose not to like the government or government officials. But the nexus Putin-Crimea-Russia is beyond any doubt. Those who fundamentally disagree with it are simply removed from the Russian political spectrum and branded “national traitors.”
In keeping with this rationale, responsibility for the sharp drop in living standards and the consequences of the neoliberal “anti-crisis” measures has been borne by ministers, MPs, and governors, by anyone except the president. Even now, when the propaganda effect of the “reunification” of Crimea has obviously begun to fade, the president’s personal rating remains high. Thus, according to the latest opinion polls, 81% of respondents trust Putin, while 41% do not trust Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and 47% do not trust his government overall.
Within the new-model Crimean consensus, United Russia will no longer play the role of the backbone it played in the noughties. Untethered from the non-partisan figure of the president, it will take on the burden of unpopularity borne by its formal leader, Dmitry Medvedev, and his government. The mixed electoral system will enable candidates from local “parties of power” in single-member districts to dissociate themselves from United Russia, presenting themselves as “non-partisan Putinists” criticizing the soulless federal authorities. Volodin’s scheme involves loosening United Russia’s grip on power and slightly increasing the value of the pseudo-opposition as represented by the Communist Party and A Just Russia.
It is worth noting that the very existence of a bureaucratic mega-party previously played a stabilizing role by dampening intra-elite conflicts. Now they will inevitably come out into the open, including in the shape of inter-party struggles. Of course, the presidential administration counts on being able to effectively ensure compliance with the clear rules of this competition, but there are no guarantees. The managed multi-party system with the “father of the nation” towering over it consummates the new architecture of the Putin regime as a personalistic regime, and becomes more and more vulnerable.
In the new reality of the crisis, Putin’s depoliticization also facilitates a more intensive “natural selection” among bureaucrats at all levels by culling those who have not mastered the art of maintaining the conservative sympathies of the populace while simultaneously implementing what amount to aggressively anti-social policies. The September campaign is supposed to go off without a hitch, culminating in a predictable outcome. Having given a human face to the Central Elections Commission, which was seriously discredited by the previous leadership, Ella Pamfilova is meant to increase this manageability and predictability. It turns out that the upcoming elections are the primary pressure test of the new, post-Bolotnaya Square design of managed democracy. The future of Vyacheslav Volodin and his team, as well as Putin’s willingness to trust them with the extremely important 2018 presidential campaign, probably depends on how smoothly they come off.
From the foregoing it is clear that the objective of reestablishing the rules of managed democracy is directly at odds with the above-mentioned rationale of radicalization, whose standard-bearers are the competing law enforcement agencies. Their individual success in the internal struggle is vouchsafed by the failure of the political scenario, which would give rise to the need for a vigorous intervention by force. After all, the National Guard’s value would be incomparably increased if it put down real riots instead of sham riots, and Bastrykin’s loyalty would all the dearer if, instead of the endless absurdity of the Bolotnaya Square Case, he would uncover real extremists. To scare someone seriously, the ghosts have to take on flesh and blood.
Life is everywhere
Marx said that putrefaction is the laboratory of life. Now we see how Putinist capitalism has embarked on a process of gradual self-destruction. The upcoming elections provide a clear picture of how this has been facilitated by two opposing rationales, the political rationale (Volodin and the presidential administration) and the law enforcement rationale. Thus, the first rationale, in order to generate the necessary momentum and expand the range of opinions, must respond to social discontent by providing United Russia’s managed opponents with greater freedom to criticize. Restoring the internal political balance will inevitably lead to the fact that topics related to the crisis and the government’s anti-social policies will become the centerpiece of the entire election campaign. On the other hand, the security forces will destabilize the situation outside parliament. Together, they will do much more to undermine an already-flawed system than the long-term, deliberate efforts of any western intelligence agency.
Of course, Russian leftists should in no way count on events following an automatic course. But it is absolutely necessary to take into account the conflicts of interest within the elite and understand their decisive influence on the shape of the upcoming elections. These elections have nothing to do with the real struggle for power or traditional parliamentarianism in any shape or form. But they are directly related to the internal decomposition of an authoritarian, anti-labor, and anti-social regime. So our policy vis-à-vis these elections should be flexible and remote from all general conclusions. That means we can and should support certain leftist candidates in single-member districts. We must use all the opportunities provided by the leftist, socialist critique of the Medvedev government’s so-called anti-crisis policies. We must be ready to go to the polls. Or we must be ready to reject them, taking to the streets when the time comes.
Ilya Budraitskis is a writer, researcher, and editor at OpenLeft. Translated by the Russian Reader
As the free world mourns the passing of Prince Rogers Nelson, the Russian State Duma has appointed a former (?) police general, Tatyana Moskalkova, to the post of Russian federal human rights ombudsman.
Appearing in the State Duma, Moskalkova spoke of the need to raise the prestige of the Russian ombudsman to the world level.
“The topic of human rights has been actively used by western and American organizations as a weapon for blackmail, speculation, and threats, as a weapon for attempting to destabilize and pressure Russia,” TV Rain quotes her as saying.
The new ombudsmen added that “compatriots living abroad” are in need of her protection.
“Russian schools have been closed. The basic rights of Russian citizens living abroad—political, social, economic, and other rights—have been infringed. The human rights ombudsman should take up this problem.”
In 2012, as the trial of punk rock group Pussy Riot was taking place, Moskalkova proposed criminalizing “assaults on morality,” but the State Duma did not support her bill. In April 2015, she also proposed renaming the Interior Ministry the Cheka and giving the police the “appropriate powers for restoring order and preserving the country’s peace and security” in connection with the crisis.
According to the information on her website, she served 27 years in the Interior Ministry [i.e., the Russian police].