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Karina Tsurkan, a former executive at an energy holding company, remains in prison on dubious charges of espionage. Originally from Moldova, Tsurkan began working in the Chisinau office of the state-owned company Inter RAO in 2005. She later moved to Moscow to work in the main office in 2007, and obtained Russian citizenship in 2016. In 2018, she was arrested under article 276 of the penal code of the Russian Federation. She was subsequently sentenced to 15 years in prison. After being released for less than a month in 2020, she was forced to return to prison, and has remained there ever since. Tsurkan maintains her innocence. The human rights organization Memorial has recognized her as a political prisoner.
Personal and Professional Background
Karina Valierevna Tsurkan was born in Chisinau, Moldovan SSR, in 1974. Her mother, Irina Aganesova, an energy engineer, describes Tsurkan as a curious person who always enjoyed a challenge. She was keenly interested in energy, law, and foreign languages. As a child, she took an interest in her mother’s work and began learning about the energy sector. After high school, she enrolled in a degree program that was conducted primarily in Romanian, despite not being fluent in the language at that time. She graduated from the International University of Moldova with a law degree in 1995. She subsequently obtained an MBA from a university in Spain. Due to her diverse educational background, Tsurkan is fluent in Russian, Romanian, and Spanish.
After completing her education, Tsurkan founded a law firm with her then-husband, Alexander. The couple, who have one son, divorced in 2002. Around this time, Tsurkan changed careers and took a job at Gas Natural Fenosa, the largest energy company in Moldova. In 2005, she took a job at the Chisinau offices of Inter RAO, the Russian state-owned energy company and the country’s fourth-largest producer of power, which has offices in multiple countries throughout the former Soviet Union. In 2007, she was promoted and moved to Moscow to work in the main office. At Inter RAO, she was employed as the head of the company’s trading division. In that capacity, she oversaw electrical power trade between Ukraine, Romania, and Moldova. This included the breakaway regions of Transnistria, in Moldova, and the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, in Ukraine.
In 2016, Tsurkan became a Russian citizen. She maintains that she renounced her Moldovan citizenship at that time and holds no other passport.
Current Case: 2018—Present
In 2018, Tsurkan was arrested on ambiguous charges. Although the precise essence of these charges varies from source to source, she stands accused of having shared classified information with an unidentified business contact. This individual is said to be of either Moldovan or Romanian nationality, and to have ties to the intelligence community in one or both of those countries. Tsurkan is accused to have shared the classified information with this individual in 2015. Because she still had Moldovan citizenship at that time, she was charged under article 276 (espionage) of the penal code, where a Russian national would have been charged under article 275 (treason). The prosecution sought to have Tsurkan imprisoned for eighteen years; she was sentenced to fifteen.
In connection with this case, the Russian Embassy in Romania has asserted that Tsurkan took Romanian citizenship in 2014, a charge which she denies. There have also been unsubstantiated rumors about Tsurkan’s personal relationships and the relevance they might bear to the charges.
Tsurkan maintains her innocence. In a 2018 interview with Meduza, she stated that she “would comment on the charges, if [she] understood them.” She willingly surrendered her computer, phone, and passwords to investigators, saying that she had nothing to hide. She stated that no law enforcement official had told her the name of the individual to whom she supposedly supplied classified information. She believes that she may have become a target because she “oversaw the implementation of corporate assignments in several complicated regions.”
Boris Kovalchuk, the son of Yuri Kovalchuk, a friend of Vladimir Putin, and the chairman of the board of Inter RAO, testified in Tsurkan’s favor at her trial. He said that he believed she had been framed by associates of Evgeny Shevchuk, the former self-proclaimed president of Transnistria (he now lives in Russia), who had objected to the presence of an Inter RAO power plant in the breakaway republic, and who is believed to have ties to intelligence agencies.
Tsurkan has said that conditions in the prison are poor and that the rights of prisoners are not respected. For example, while prisoners are legally entitled to unlimited contact with their lawyers, there is not sufficient space in the prison to facilitate these meetings. During her initial stay in prison, Tsurkan filled her time by studying Latin, German, and iconography. She told Meduza that she was worried about her mother and son, who were present in her apartment on the morning that she was arrested, and whom she had not been able to see since.
On January 16, 2020, Tsurkan was briefly released from prison. Twenty-three days later, she was forced to return. She has remained there ever since.
Political Prisoner Status
The human rights organization Memorial has recognized Tsurkan as a political prisoner on the grounds that she was denied her constitutional right to a fair trial, and was subsequently convicted on dubious evidence.
Tsurkan is not a typical political prisoner: she worked for a state-owned company and was not involved with any opposition movement. Her case demonstrates that it can happen to someone who does not fit the usual profile.
“I am a devoted Muslim, and I profess traditional Islam. My mother was a victim of a terrorist attack. How could I ever support or promote terrorism? I only wanted to help Muslim African countries that have almost no drinking water. That was my only intention.”
-Georgy Guyev during his trial on Nov 20, 2020
Georgy Guyev, a Muslim native of North Ossetia, moved to Moscow when he was a teenager. After graduating from high school, Georgy was accepted to the Plekhanov University of Economics, one of Russia’s most prestigious universities. As he was finishing his degree, he started working for a major auditing company KPMG and then was recruited as lead economist in Promstroi construction company. Georgy is married and has two children.
Ever since Georgy was a student, he has been involved in charity work and devoted himself to helping people in struggling Muslim communities both in Russia and abroad. His family describes him as a man with a kind heart who always puts others first.
In May 2019, one of Georgy’s friends shared with him a donation link from the Living Hearts Charitable Fund website, that claimed it was collecting money to build schools, provide water, and food for vulnerable Muslim communities in Africa. Feeling moved to help the cause, Georgy transferred a small amount of money to the account provided on the website. Shortly thereafter, Guyev was arrested and charged with financing terrorism under Art. 205.1, Part 1, of the Russian Criminal Code. The police took Georgy to an unknown location and refused to disclose any information regarding his whereabouts or condition to his family.
Two days after the arrest Guyev’s family was able to find out that Georgy was held at detention center, charged with “[transferring] at least $680,000 to the ISIS terrorist organization, and specifically, to a convicted terrorist Abu Umar Sasitlinsky, to finance the preparation and commission of terrorist crimes as well as to support the armed struggle in Syria.”
As evidence, the state cited the testimony of Anna Papushina, who was an accountant in the foundation to which Georgy transferred money. Papushina claimed the foundation collected money to support the Jihad, and that Guyev knew about the foundation’s true intentions from Telegram chats of the fund of which he was a member. Guyev claimed he was never a member of such chats, and the investigation did not prove otherwise. Moreover, the Memorial Human Rights Center believes Papushina was coerced into providing this false testimony after being threatened by police to be jailed for decades if she refused to cooperate. Papushina was placed under house arrest, while Guyev, who has denied all accusations, has now been held in a detention center for over a year.
Guyev told the investigation that he looked into the background of the Living Heart Foundation, and that donations made by Ramzan Kadyrov (leader of Chechnya) and Yunus-Bek Yevkurov (former head of Ingushetia), instilled confidence into Georgy that he was donating his money to a good cause. Guyev added:
“The site indicated the number of accounts to which I could send the money, so I transferred a small amount. I have never supported terrorism, and I am very critical of violent forms of Islam. My mother was a victim of a terrorist attack. How could I possibly support it?”
Georgy’s wife Madina commented on the accusations in her interviews with journalists:
“There has never been any fundraising and financing of terrorism. Those are all far-fetched accusations that are easy to refute. At the beginning of Ramadan, my husband transferred a small amount to a publicly available bank account to help Muslim African countries. We know nothing about Abu Umar Sasitlinsky, especially that he is a convicted terrorist.”
Madina has also denied the police’s claim that they have confiscated extremist terrorist literature, a “large number” of bank cards, and phones with “instructions from ISIS”.
“This is all untrue. They only confiscated a laptop and our phones. We never had any literature of that kind in our home, or multiple bank cards, or terrorist instructions. This is ridiculous.”
After Guyev’s legal defense team submitted an appeal, which asserted that Georgy never was in possession nor had the means to donate the $680,000 USD the court accused him of donating, the prosecution changed the donation amount to just $94 USD.
Besides the testimony of Anna Papushina, the police used Guyev’s telegram chats as evidence of his supposed crimes. One such chat is Georgy’s conversation with a user named Alikhan Horanti, whom Georgy told about an acquaintance of his who converted to Islam. The chat with Horanti also discussed setting up financial assistance of $40-$70 to Imams, since “many of them are forced to work at gas stations and as taxi drivers to feed their families.” In the protocol of the examination of this correspondence, the leading police officer on the case claimed that this dialogue “was encrypted and talked about the recruitment of persons who converted to Islam for terrorist purposes and about financing terrorism.”
On November 20, 2020, the court sentenced Georgy to six years of prison.
Why does the Memorial Center recognize Georgy Guyev as a political prisoner?
The Center believes that Guyev’s guilt was not proven:
- Texting about providing financial assistance to Imams is not an indication of adherence to violent forms of Islam or support of terrorism.
- Guyev transferred money to the account of the Living Hearts Charitable Fund, an organization that seemed transparent regarding their activities and clearly stated that its purposes are to provide aid to vulnerable civilians. No proof was established as to whether the fund was using the donations to finance terrorism.
- The investigation could not prove that Guyev was part of Telegram chats that discussed donations being funneled to support terrorism.
- Anna Papushina, the fund’s accountant and pillar upon which the prosecution relied to convict Guyev, was forced to collaborate with the police to avoid cruel punishment and false imprisonment.
The Memorial Human Rights Center believes that Guyev’s imprisonment was politically motivated and carried out in order to artificially increase statistics in resolving terrorist crimes, as well as for the Russian police to demonstrate their success to their superiors. The Memorial Center Georgy Guyev to be released immediately, and all charges against him are dropped.
Everyone is guaranteed freedom of thought and speech; the right to freely seek, receive, produce and disseminate information in any legal way; freedom of the media is guaranteed; censorship is prohibited.
Article 29 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation
Darya Polyudova is a civic activist and a leader in the Left Resistance public movement.
Born in Uzbekistan, Darya moved with her family to Bashkiriya, Russia as a teenager.
Thinking back on their adjustment to Bashkiriya, Darya’s mother Tatyana recalls the city’s horrendous weather. “There were snowstorms in Bashkiriya in winter,” Tatyana remembers. “She [Darya] would come to the bus stop to go to her music classes, and I would say ‘Maybe you shouldn’t go, it’s freezing.’ She would say ‘No, I must go no matter what.’
She has been remarkably stubborn ever since she was a child. She always speaks her mind. Sometimes it is safer to remain silent, but she would spill everything out with no hesitation. She will fight for her truth until the end.”
After graduating from high school, Darya moved to the Krasnodar Krai in the south of Russia to attend the Ministry of Internal Affairs University. She wanted to become an investigator. During college, she joined the Communist Party of the Russian Federation during her third year of college, but soon realized how broken the system was, and that the party, in fact, did not care about the people, as it claimed.
Her strong sense of justice and urge to support those in need, especially in times of blatant injustice, brought Darya to the streets where she staged solitary pickets, holding home-made posters and voicing her criticism of Putin’s regime. These actions have resulted in numerous administrative arrests and even threats to expel her from the university.
Darya came out to the streets to support the Russian opposition during mass protests against falsified elections in 2011. In 2012, she came out to show solidarity with Pussy Riot activists imprisoned for their non-violent musical performance against Putin’s regime. Darya was vocal about her opposition to Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, most notably his illegal invasion of Crimea, and in her support for Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainian political prisoners. Her criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and her public fight for human rights have made Darya a target of political persecution by government authorities.
In 2014, the police raided Darya’s house and arrested her on charges of inciting separatism and extremism. The official evidence cited for her arrest was her plan to organize a “March for the Federalization of Kuban” (a southern Russian region) and carrying of a poster at a protest shortly after Putin’s annexation of Crimea with words “Not a War in Ukraine but a Revolution in Russia!” Darya was sentenced to two years in prison. The Memorial Human Rights Center declared her a political prisoner in 2014. Tragically, six years later, she again was jailed by the Kremlin for her dissent, leading the Memorial Center to have to declare her a political prisoner again.
The Case of 2020
After her release from prison in 2017, Darya continued her peaceful civic activism, refusing to be bullied into silence by the Kremlin’s immoral and illegal repressions. In January 2019, Darya staged a one-person picket in Moscow holding a poster that read: ‘Hey, Kuril Islanders! Stop feeding Moscow! Long live the Far Eastern Republic!’ Her protests advanced the position that the residents of these islands should hold a legal referendum on withdrawing from the Russian Federation. On her page on the Vkontakte social network, she wrote that it could benefit Russia to be divided into several sovereign countries.
Based on her solitary pickets and online activity, the Russian government claimed that Polyudova was calling for armed separatism. However, the incident the government used as pretext for her arrest was a February 2017 repost of someone else’s’ publication on a Russian social media platform VKontakte. The content she reposted included a photo of the militant Shamil Basayev and the inscription ‘when we demanded a referendum, the Russians came and killed everyone who did not have time to hide.’ Darya did not accompany this repost with her own commentary, yet the authorities deemed this post enough to accuse Polyudova of publicly defending terrorism.
In January 2020, the FSB once again raided Darya’s house and initiated criminal proceedings against her under Part 1 of Article 280.1 of the Russian Criminal Code for “public incitement of separatism,” and Part 2 of Article 205.2 of the Russian Criminal Code for “public justification of terrorism.” In mid-January, Darya was arrested, brought to a detention center, and denied her right to see her mother. After already having spent a year and a half in detention, Darya was sentenced to six years of increased security prison on May 31, 2021.
Why does Memorial consider Polyudova a political prisoner?
1. Polyudova’s imprisonment violates her constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of speech.
The Memorial Center believes that Article 280.1 of the Russian Criminal Code must be repealed. The Center asserts that the state only has the right to criminalize manifestations of separatism that are violent in nature or promote violent actions. It certainly does not have the right to arrest those who engage theoretical deliberations about the possibility of separation. Darya Polyudova did not in any way urge the residents of Kuril Islands to take part in an armed struggle for independence. In advocating a peaceful legal referendum, she merely expressed her point of view, which she has a lawful right to do according to the Russian Constitution—a document that guarantees freedom of speech. Additionally, the criminalization of calls for a public referendum, even one on a controversial question l, contradicts the basic principles of popular sovereignty, and Russian statehood enshrined in the Constitution.
2. Facebook repost is not adequate grounds for imprisonment
The charges that Darya faces under Part 2 of Article 205.2 (accusing her of justifying terrorism by reposting someone else’s publication) are far-fetched and unreasonable. Addendum 1 to Article 205.2 defines a public justification of terrorism as a ‘public statement recognizing the ideology and practice of terrorism as correct, and in need of support and emulation. Darya’s repost did not endorse terrorist practices or affirm the need to support terrorism. Indeed, to claim that it does necessitates an excessively broad misreading of the repost that is intentionally unfavorable to Darya. Polyudova’s defense lawyers stated: “These accusations are very convenient [for the government]. The investigation finds a linguist who will determine the hidden meaning of the message. That’s it. Now you can include the linguist’s conclusion in the case and cite their words. This is how the police artificially increases the statistics of the cases related to terrorism to prove their success to their bosses.”
Moreover, Darya’s actions pose no real danger to the public. In March 2020, her repost had 60 views, including views by the staff of Memorial Center and the FSB. Not a single like or comment was made on the post. The Center believes that despite the obvious ambiguity and controversy of the repost made by Polyudova, her actions are certainly not sufficient to accuse her of defending and promoting terrorism.
The Memorial Center concludes that Darya’s detention is politically motivated and directly connected to her social and political activities. Darya is a consistent critic of the Russian political leadership and actively opposes the war with Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and political repression. Thus, the Center believes that these opposition beliefs and activities are the real reasons Darya is now serving her second sentence in prison. The Center demands that all charges against Polyudova are dropped immediately and she is released from prison without delay.
Emil Ziyadinov, a Muslim Crimean Tatar, led a modest life in his small hometown of Oktyabrskoye in Crimea. For years, he worked as a sports coach and just recently completed specialized education necessary to become a certified electrician. He is married and is a doting father to four little boys.
After Russia illegally invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin unleashed a massive wave of political repressions targeting Muslim Crimean Tatars, many of whom are members of the non-violent religious and political organization Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT). The Kremlin views the Crimean Tatars as a threat due to their vocal opposition and criticism of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Resultantly, they are continuously attacked by the Kremlin for their ethnicity and religious beliefs.
Emil Ziyadinov, like many Crimean Tatars and devout Muslims, was not willing to stand idly by while others were being unlawfully arrested, interrogated, and thrown in prison. He joined the Crimean Solidarity civic initiative and started attending political trials, providing care packages with basic necessities to the imprisoned, helping their families get crucial financial and psychological support, and staging solitary pickets to express his solidarity with those in prison.
Tragically, yet unsurprisingly, last year the Russian government came for Emil as well. On July 7, 2020, several masked men brandishing machine guns stormed Emil’s home and hauled him away as his four young children were watching.
Mr. Ziyadinov is accused of organizing and leading a cell of the Hizb ut-Tahrir, which has been unlawfully designated a terrorist organization in Russia, Under Article 205.5, Part 1, of the Russian Criminal Code. Additionally, under Article 30, Part 1, in association with Article 278, Emil was charged with preparing a seizure of power. The Investigative Committee justified this charge based on the goal of Hizb ut-Tahrir to create a worldwide Islamic Caliphate, uniting all Muslims around the world. Emil Ziyadinov remains in illegal captivity hundreds of miles away from home to this day.
The Memorial Human Rights Center believes that the Kremlin’s designation of Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organization is illegal and baseless. HT’s members in Russia have never promoted violence or organized a single terrorist act. Nevertheless, because of their connection to this organization, Muslim Crimean Tatars are interrogated, their houses are bugged by the police, they face terrifying house raids and are thrown in prison with no corpus delicti.
In 2013, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ruled that its security officers were no longer required to prove that someone has participated in the organizing or plotting of terrorist acts to accuse them of committing a crime. Such a simplified investigation process allows the Russian police to artificially increase criminal case statistics to show their seemingly-efficient performance in preventing terrorism to the higher authorities.
In the case of Emil Ziyadinov, the police used secret audio recordings and the testimony of an anonymous witness to accuse Ziyadinov of terrorism. The Memorial Center has studied the ‘evidence’ in this case and found it seriously lacking in substance. The assessment of the audio recordings by the ‘experts,’ who remain unidentified by the investigation, claims that Ziyadinov was acting as ‘a mentor’ while someone in the recording, also unidentified, supposedly acted as ‘a student.’ The only supposed wrong doing that these tapes purport to demonstrate is that the two men read the “texts from the ideological sources of Hizb ut-Tahrir” and discussed them. Additionally, the investigation cites Emil’s solitary picket in 2018 as evidence of his ‘harmful activity.’ During this peaceful picket, Emil simply came out to the streets of his hometown holding a poster saying “Muslims are not terrorists.” According to investigators, everything mentioned above constitutes ‘terrorist activities.’
Why the Memorial Center recognizes Emil Ziyadinov as a political prisoner?
1. Emil Ziyadinov is being prosecuted with no corpus delicti.
The Investigative Committee accusing Emil tries to substantiate the accusations of terrorism, separatism, extremism, and the seizure of power by citing as evidence the meetings of believers, discussions of religious topics, and reading Islamic literature. Indeed, this is their sole evidence of ‘harmful’ actions. Such justifications include the description of dissemination of knowledge, the formation of “tendentious” thinking among believers, participation in meetings, reading relevant literature, and watching religion-themed films to prove terrorist intent. Yet, none of these actions are crimes. Moreover, every activity listed above, along with the right to freedom of religion, are declared in Article 28 of the Russian Constitution as basic human rights.
Thus, Emil’s non-violent activities, that demonstrate no signs of terrorism, must be perceived as completely legal under Russian law.
2. Given the conditions of annexed Crimea, any prosecution brought by the Russian State, let alone the unjustified persecution of the Crimean Tatars, is illegal.
According to Amnesty International, post-annexation Crimea is officially an occupied territory per international humanitarian law. In this case, Russia, as an occupier, has no right, under any circumstances, to eliminate the previously existing system of government and its criminal legislation. Under Ukrainian law, Hizb ut-Tahrir is a legal organization. Thus, the Russian government violates international law by illegally prosecuting Muslim Crimean Tatars.
The Memorial Human Rights Center demands that Emil Ziyadinov is released immediately, all charges against him are dropped, and the political persecution against Muslim Crimean Tatars is terminated once and for all.
On September 6, 2020, Salman Tepsurkaev, a 19-year-old Chechen native, was abducted from his workplace by two men who introduced themselves as Chechen law enforcement officers. When Salman’s family tried to report an abduction to the police, they were promised that their son would be back home in a week if they kept quiet. It’s been almost a year, and Salman is still being held hostage by the Chechen authorities.
Salman Tepsurkaev lived with his parents and brother in a small Chechen village before moving to Gelendzhik to work as a waiter at a resort hotel. Along with this, he was secretly moderating the 1ADAT Telegram channel. Created in March 2020 to connect Chechen immigrants abroad, the channel gained thousands of followers in just six months. 1ADAT positions itself as a “civil movement against Ramzan Kadyrov’s dictatorship”. 1ADAT exposes government torture and repressions, gross human rights violations, mass corruption, secret prisons, and other illegal actions of Chechen officials and sheds light on social inequality in Chechnya, documenting the incredible wealth and luxurious lifestyles of Chechen officials in contrast with the unemployment, corruption, and poverty that ordinary Chechens face daily.
In May of 2020, the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, appointed several journalists of the Grozny State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company to high level government jobs. Kadyrov was explicit about the mandate of these appointees— identifying and punishing his critics on the Internet. Seeing that the 1ADAT Telegram channel was one of the most influential outlets criticizing Kadyrov’s tyrant regime, the newly appointed officials immediately started the “hunt” on the channels’ activists. At their command, a few anonymous 1ADAT’s channel members sent $500 to Salman Tepsurkaev’s PayPal account under the pretext of donating. These transactions were made to identify Salman’s phone number and location. Obtaining such data would have been impossible without access to Tepsurkayev’s detailed phone billings, which are available only to law enforcement.
On September 6, 2020, two men dressed in black came to the Laguna resort hotel in Gelendzhik where Salman Tepsurkaev worked as a waiter. While one of the men guarded the front entrance, another went into the building and grabbed Salman. Salman tried to escape from the abductors, holding on to a column by the front desk and shouting “Call the police!” The hotel workers called security and tried to intervene, but one of the abductors showed them a law enforcement ID.
Salman was forced out of the hotel and his coworkers never saw him again.
For an entire day afterward, Salman’s phone was turned off and his location was unknown until it was turned back on briefly the next day. At that point, his family discovered that their son was kept at a police office in Grozny, Chechnya. That specific office is notorious for being the holding space for abducted Chechens and the location of many extrajudicial executions. Salman’s family quickly traveled to Grozny, but when they got to the location, they were told Salman was not there. The relatives tried to report the abduction to the police, but Grozny Investigative Department told the family to keep quiet and they would see their son in a week. A week later, Salman was not released.
Public Torture and Humiliation
On the day of the abduction, an anonymous member of the 1ADAT channel under the nickname “Hunter” published a video of a completely naked Chechen youth sitting on his knees with a glass bottle in front of him. In the video, a young man introduces himself as Salman Tepsurkayev, and states that he is 19 years old and is one of the administrators of 1ADAT. In a distraught and confused speech, he tries to explain what the channel is about, calling it a “dirty group”, in which the administrators “do disgusting things” that he is ashamed of. Salman also insults his mother and calls himself a bastard and a scum who was rejected by his father a long time ago. In the end, Tepsurkaev says he “punishes himself for a behavior inappropriate for a Chechen and passes the baton to other channel administrators and followers”. He then attempts to sit down on a glass bottle. His face contorts in pain and the video cuts off. In the next few days, more videos of Salman were released by anonymous users both on Telegram and Instagram. In the videos, Salman continues to criticize the Chechen opposition and keeps cursing himself. In addition, the Chechen state-controlled TV channel published a video message from Salman’s father. In which he states that he disowned his son years ago for “disobedience and terrible behavior”.
On September 8, 2020, the Memorial Human Rights Center (MHRC) filed a complaint with the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation in the Chechen Republic, demanding an investigation of the abduction and torture of Salman Tepsurkaev.
The Chechen Republic refused to open the case citing the absence of a crime.
On September 11, 2020, lawyers of the Committee Against Torture filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on the violation of Salman’s rights under Articles 3 and 5 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: “Prohibition of torture” and “The right to personal inviolability.” The ECHR lodged an inquiry with the Russian government on what measures to release Tepsurkaev are being implemented on the national level. The ECHR has not received any response from the Chechen officials.
On October 15, investigators from Gelendzhik, where Salman’s workplace is located, transferred the materials they had collected to the Chechen Investigation Department since the car of Tepsurkaev’s alleged abductors had crossed the Chechen border.
The Chechen police refused to initiate a criminal case, citing the absence of a crime.
At this time, it is unknown where Salman is located or whether he is alive.
Why the Memorial Human Rights Center Recognizes Salman Tepsurkaev as a Political Prisoner
Involvement of the Chechen Special Services
The MHRC believes there are serious grounds to believe that the Chechen Special Services were involved in the kidnapping of Salman Tepsurkaev. Discovering Salman’s location required access to information from telecommunication networks. This information is only available to law enforcement officials associated with the Chechen Special Services. Investigation has also revealed that at least one of the two vehicles involved in the abduction belonged to a current Chechen Interior Ministry employee.
Salman Tepsurkaev is a Victim of Kadyrov’s regime
As it has been documented by numerous sources, including Novaya Gazeta and Kavkaz Uzel, psychological pressure and torture are known methods of Chechen authorities. These methods are used to punish those who criticized Ramzan Kadyrov and whose political beliefs differ from the government’s. The facility in Grozny where Salman was kept has become a place of detention, torture, and extrajudicial executions of illegally arrested residents of Chechnya.
The open approval of torture by Chechen officials
Several representatives of the Chechen top leadership including Adam Delimkhanov and Salakh Mezhiev, indirectly confirmed that they knew the identities of those behind the abduction of Tepsurkaev and had approved such actions. At the same time, the investigative authorities of the Chechen Republic refuse to investigate the abduction.
Violation of the right of freedom of expression
The MHRC asserts that although the current location of Salam Tepsurkaev is unknown, and information is lacking on the circumstances of his abduction, the MHRC considers him alive and illegally detained by Chechen officials. The MHRC claims that the video recordings with Salman’s participation were made under extreme pressure and are the result of torture. Salman’s persecution seeks to silence all public criticism of the Chechen authorities and terrorize the opposition with cruelty and public humiliation. Salman’s persecution violates his right to freedom and security, as well as freedom of expression. The Memorial Human Rights Center along with the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights and the Representative for Foreign and Security Policy of the EU demand that the Russian government takes immediate action to ensure the safety of Salman Tepsurkaev and investigate the illegal actions committed against him.
“I came out to the street to express my solidarity with Alexei Navalny and support the Russian people. I just wanted to help an innocent kid when I saw he was brutally mishandled by the police. I never wanted to cause any harm or humiliate anyone, especially the security officers.”
Valeriy Yevsin during his court hearing on April 7, 2021
On January 23, 2021, mass protests broke out in almost 100 cities across Russia and internationally. Thousands of peaceful protesters came out to support Alexei Navalny, a prominent ant-corruption politician and Putin’s top political rival, who was illegally arrested by the Russian government on January 17. People who have participated in these protests are now facing the most brutal repression in the history of modern Russia. Hundreds of people were assaulted on the streets by the police, and in the months since, more still have faced interrogations, house raids, psychological abuse, and illegal incarcerations at the hands of law enforcement– all because they peacefully exercised their legal right to protest.
Though the intensity of these repressions has certainly increased since the spring of 2020, the approach and schemes used by law enforcement to crack down on protestors, are not new. Indeed, after an earlier wave of mass protests in Russia took place in July of 2019, dozens of people faced criminal charges for allegedly “causing harm to the health of the police officers.” This particular criminal charge has emerged a frequently-used government method for prosecuting protestors. The most notorious example is the “Moscow case,” opened on July 27, 2019, in which 13 protesters received anywhere from two to four years in prison for merely “pushing a government official,” “touching the arm of a government official,” or “slapping a government official’s helmet.” Beyond the disproportionate punishment for such actions even theoretically-speaking, these charges were made without any supporting evidence (read more on the “Moscow case” in our report). No matter their validity, these cases have established a new avenue for the government to silence opposition: prosecuting the innocent for supposedly endangering police officers and making it clear that anything that is ever said or done against the police will result in a prison sentence.
The 2021 protests in support of Alexei Navalny have deployed this mechanism en masse, with dozens charged with “causing grievous bodily harm to the police.”In reality, these brave Russians exercised their constitutionally-guaranteed rights and stood up to the government oppression.
Valeriy Yevsin came to Moscow from the Pskov Oblast to work as a taxi driver. He is married and is a doting father to two small boys. His social media pages used to consists mainly of family photos and reposts of content from opposition politicians and activists. But now his account has been flooded with “pro-Kremlin” trolls barraging him for his criticism of the government and divulging personal information about his life: “Pal, are you not satisfied with your life? You have kids, a car, you go on vacations. What else do you need?”
On April 7, after two months in detention without seeing his wife and kids, Mr. Yevsin was found guilty by the court and sent to prison for two years. The supposed crime he committed: “pushing a metal street closure barricade in the direction of a police officer” during the protest on January 23. These charges fall under Part 1, Art. 318 of the Criminal Code of Russia – “The use of violence, not dangerous to life or health, against a government official on duty”.
Events preceding Mr. Yevsin’s arrest
According to Mr. Yevsin, on January 23, he was walking down the Sretenskiy Boulevard in Moscow with a group of protesters when he heard someone from the crowd scream that the police was assaulting a teenage boy. Valeriy said that he saw the police grabbing a skinny-looking teenager and dragging him away. Mr. Yevsin felt he simply could not just walk away and he felt the responsibility to help the boy. He confornted the police and asked them to release the innocent kid. The crowd supported Mr. Yevsin and started screaming “Let him go! Let him go!,” a plea which the police ignored, continuing to drag the boy away . Furious, Mr. Yevsin and a few other protesters pushed a metal barrier toward one of the police officers, which lightly brushed one of the officer’s chest. The officer wielded his baton to hit Mr. Yevsin, but Valeriy managed to duck the hit.
Later, during his interrogation, Mr. Yevsin said: “I saw that the police had finally released the boy, and I shouted to the crowd that we could leave and that the conflict was resolved. Everyone started applauding and we left.”
A few days later, the police found Mr. Yevsin by tracking his car’s license plate number, arrested him, and brought him to the detention center. The police officer brushed by the metal barrier against claimed that Mr. Yevsin was aggressive, that he tried to grab his baton, and that he deliberately lifted the metal barrier with the intent of hitting the officer in the chest and the stomach. The officer maintained that the incident caused him great physical pain.
According to the Memorial Human Rights Center, this claim was intentionally exaggerated to make it seem like Valeriy Yevsin had caused damage to the health of the police officer which in reality did not happen.
Speaking in his own defense, Mr. Yevsin said he never wanted to cause harm or humiliate a police officer and that all he wanted was to help a child in danger. He said he was sorry that this situation took place and he later admitted his guilt hoping that the court would reduce his punishment. Nevertheless, on April 7, the court sentenced him to two years in prison.
Why does the Memorial Human Rights Center consider Valery Yevsin a political prisoner?
The Memorial Human Rights Center asserts that to understand the nature of a person’s detention it is important to consider the context of the event, as well as the reactions of the law enforcement and judicial systems to it.
In this case, the important elemnt of the context is that Valeriy Yevsin was taking part in a peaceful protest that constituted a legitimate expression of public outrage at the Putin government’s repressive actions. Yet, in spite of the legal nature of this protest,, law enforcement agents used extreme violence towards protesters trying to silence them and end their completely legitimate activity.
Mr. Yevsin’s arrest is political in that it seeks to scare activists and silence voices of dissent. Furthermore, Russian law enforcement have already violated people’s right to protest, by brutally and illegally beating up protestors each time they take to the streets. The police officer identified as the victim in Yevsin’s case declared that he ‘experienced great pain’ from the push. Yet, at the time of the incident, he was wearing full body armor and could not have possibly suffered any physical injuries from such an insignificant push. In contrast, on the same day of the incident with Mr. Yevsin, the police seriously injured dozens of protesters and have gone unpunished for their violence. This is in spite of the fact that their actions were recorded in photos and videos and that the protesters’ injuries have been confirmed by medical records. The Memorial Center claims that such a selective use of criminal prosecution is evidence of a clear bias of the Russian authorities on who deserves punishment and who does not. Thus, Mr. Yevsin must be considered a political prisoner.
Common punishments based on Article 318.1 (the statute under which Mr. Yevsin was charged) imposed on people in non-political cases are far less severe than those imposed on protesters. For example, outside of the context of a protest, for punching a police officer in the jaw, one could get fined for 50 thousand rubles (approximately $680), and for swinging at a police officer with an ax one could get six months in a penal colony. Yet, while at a political protest, if one touches the helmet of a police officer, a person could receive a three-year prison sentence.
The Memorial Center believes that such blatant disparities prove the unjust selectivity of persecution of this particular law. Through prosecutions like that of Mr. Yevsin, the police and the National Guard are transmitting a clear message to the public: the police are allowed to commit any act of violence with impunity, while ordinary citizens who dare to disagree with the government will be punished as severely as possible.
The Memorial Human Rights Center considers Valeriy Yevsin a political prisoner and demands that he and other victims of the regime arrested and jailed during peaceful protests are released and the persecution against them is stopped immediately.
The Kremlin propaganda machine has used the global spread of COVID-19 to open a new “front” in the information war. Its main goal was to instigate suspicion and animosity toward the West in the minds of the Russian people, discredit liberal values and democratic forms of governance. However, its targets were not limited to the domestic audiences in Russia, as it purposefully planted conspiracy theories into the media space of other countries, primarily of those with large Russian-speaking populations. This report documents and analyses such instances of media manipulation by the Kremlin, coordinated and controlled insertion of destructive misinformation and campaigning within the context of the pandemic.
“Wow, what a situation. I did not expect that at all. I wanted to go on vacation, and then this happens: the police enter the plane and tell me: “You are on the federal wanted list.” What a crazy special operation, I was escorted from the plane minutes from take-off and arrested. What was the reason? I planned to run in the State Duma elections. That’s all. The case was fabricated in two days. Except for the immense desire of the Russian government to restrict political activity and silence the opposition, I see no other reasons.”
-Andrei Pivovarov in court on June 2, 2021
In 2015, the Russian government created a new law on “undesirable organizations”. According to this law, any organization that, in the view of the Kremlin, “undermines the safety, security, and the constitutional order” of the country can be declared undesirable. The law, however, is unconstitutional, as it encroaches on the right to freedom of expression guaranteed by the Russian constitution.
Organizations that have so far been targeted by this regulation, work in international education and cultural exchange, or advance political and economic development of Russia. All of them do so by peaceful, non-violent and legal means. Currently, there are 35 undesirable organizations both in Russia and abroad, and the list will likely keep growing. The law has unleashed a new wave of oppression against these groups, with their employees and even volunteers facing home raids, interrogation, and incarcerations.
Since 2018, Andrei Pivovarov, one of the most prominent leaders of the democratic opposition in Russia, has served as the Executive Director of the Open Russia.
The goals of this organization included “strengthening relations between the state and society in Russia, promoting free and fair elections, and ensuring rights and freedoms of the Russian citizens.” Such activities are lawful and common in any democratic society. Open Russia activities and methods have always been peaceful and never supported destructive methods of building democracy in the country. Nevertheless, for the past 5-6 years, Open Russia’s staff members, such as like Yana Antonova, Anastasia Shevchenko, and Mikhail Iosilevich, have been harassed by the officials, interrogated, and prosecuted on false charges.
Since 2015, Andrei Pivovarov has faced four administrative and criminal charges ostensibly due to his affiliation with Open Russia. The Memorial Human Rights Center has concluded that all of the charges against Mr. Pivovarov c are baseless, have no constructive evidence, and were imposed on him solely because Putin’s regime feels threatened by him. Charges against Mr. Pivovarov are nothing but the Kremlin’s attempt to silence this activist and stop his legal political and social activities. Pivovarov has already been recognized as a political prisoner by the Memorial Center in 2015, when he was falsely accused of bribery and abuse of authority. A few weeks ago, he was granted this status again.
On May 27, 2021, Andrei Pivovarov publicly announced the dissolution of Open Russia. He did so preemptively— as the organization had not yet been declared undesirable. However, Mr. Pivovarov anticipated that, in light of increased political repressions, it was forthcoming. He did not want to put his people at risk of being thrown in prison at Putin’s command for trying to restore democracy in Russia. In his video address publicized on May 27, as well as in his media interviews that followed the announcement, he explained the rationale behind this decision.
On May 31, Mr. Pivovarov was getting ready to fly to Poland for vacation. Minutes before his plane’s take off, the police stormed the plane, arrested Andrei and hauled him away. He was taken to the Investigation Committee where he learned he was being charged for cooperation with an undesirable organization (under Article 284.1 of the Criminal Code of Russia).
A few days later, the police raided Pivovarov’s house in St. Petersburg. Mr. Pivovarov was transported to Krasnodar for trial. This was when he was informed that he was facing six years of prison for a repost on Facebook from the “United Democrats” page made a year ago about supporting candidates on municipal elections.
According to Andrei Pivovarov’s lawyer, the post in question was not even published by him. Anna Kuznetsova, one of Mr. Pivovarov’s page administrators, admitted to publishing the post which was also certified by a notarized technical expertise. Andrei’s lawyer filed an appeal citing Ms. Kuznetsova and the conclusion of the expertise demanding the immediate release of Andrei Pivovarov, but the court ignored his petition. On June 2, after a court hearing, Mr. Pivovarov’s detention was extended to two months.
The Memorial Center believes the persecution of Andrei Pivovarov is directly related to Mr. Pivovarov’s announcement to run for the State Duma as an independent opposition candidate in September of this year. His arrest is a part of the Kremlin’s efforts to clear the political field before the elections, eliminating all independent candidates and viable competitors.
Why the Memorial Human Rights Center recognizes Andrei Pivovarov as a political prisoner?
- The law on undesirable organizations is unconstitutional — it contradicts the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the constitution of the Russian Federation. The definition of an “undesirable” organization is vague and allows for arbitrary interpretation, and the fact that the organizations are recognized as undesirable without any trial and behind closed doors is outrageous. It assumes the absolute subjectivity and groundlessness of such decisions with the complete absence of evidence-based argumentation and transparency of the procedure. In the case of Open Russia, the organization does not in any way fall under these vague criteria, and there is no reason to assert that it poses a threat to the country.
- The law on undesirable organizations is unconstitutional — it contradicts the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the constitution of the Russian Federation. The definition of an “undesirable” organization is vague and allows for arbitrary interpretation, and the fact that the organizations are recognized as undesirable without any trial and behind closed doors is outrageous. It assumes the absolute subjectivity and groundlessness of such decisions with the complete absence of evidence-based argumentation and transparency of the procedure. In the case of Open Russia, the organization does not in any way fall under these vague criteria, and there is no reason to assert that it poses a threat to the country.
Consequently, when the case against Pivovarov was opened, the charges against him included leading the undesirable organization registered in the UK rather than the one in Russia. Unsurprisingly, no objective evidence was presented to support this claim. Moreover, a study of public registry indicates that British organizations that were declared undesirable in 2017 never, in fact, existed. Therefore, it allows one to assume that all these manipulations were done to target Open Russia led by Pivovarov at some point in time.
- Andrei Pivovarov’s prosecution even contradicts the undesirable organizations law itself. Mr. Pivovarov was detained three days after he announced the dissolution of Open Russia. The law states that “a person who voluntarily stopped participating in the activities of an undesirable organization is exempt from criminal liability.”
- Andrei Pivovarov’s prosecution even contradicts the undesirable organizations law itself. Mr. Pivovarov was detained three days after he announced the dissolution of Open Russia. The law states that “a person who voluntarily stopped participating in the activities of an undesirable organization is exempt from criminal liability.”
The Memorial Center asserts that the criminal charges against Andrei Pivovarov are part of the massive campaign of political repressions, and demands that they are dropped immediately, and the persecution and pressuring of the independent candidates and their lawful activities are stopped at once.
Until 2020, Vadim Bektemirov led a quiet life in his native Crimea. He was a family man, a father of two young daughters, and a loving husband to his wife who was expecting their third child. He made his living as a translator, though his dream was to become an Imam.
In July of 2020, his life was brutally turned upside down when Russian security officials raided his house. He was arrested and charged under Part 2, Art. 205.5 of the Criminal Code of Russia —participating in a terrorist organization. He remains in illegal captivity to this day. Following the sudden arrest of his son, Vadim’s father suffered a heart attack and died. Vadim was not allowed to attend his father’s funeral and was denied the opportunity to say goodbye. Vadim has not been allowed to welcome his new baby boy or support his wife through her pregnancy and postpartum recovery. Rather, he is languishing in prison, and his family deprived of its breadwinner.
What was the crime committed by Vadim? At his first court hearing on May 26, 2021, Vadim Bektemirov stated: “I just followed my religion. This is a continuation of the genocide that began under Stalin. These are repressions against my people. I am facing charges only because I am a Muslim and a Crimean Tatar.” The Memorial Center which documents political prosecutions in Russia agrees with his assessment.
In 2014, Russia invaded and illegally annexed Crimea. Crimean Tatars, an ethnic group indigenous to the region were vocal in their opposition to the peninsula’s annexation and as a result, have faced Kremlin repression. Putin’s government views Crimean Tatars as a political threat because of their opposition to his aggressions in Ukraine, as well as their tightly-knit and well-organized communities. In fact, Putin has been so threatened by this group that the Russian government targeted their executive-representative body, the Mejlis, declaring it an extremist organization and banning it in 2016.
Recent Russian criminal cases against the Crimean Tatars are mainly based on their affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), an international Islamist party which the Kremlin designated a terrorist organization in 2003. Yet, HT’s members in Russia have never promoted violence or organized terrorist acts. Nevertheless, Russian security forces regularly raid the Crimean Tatars’ homes, interrogate and torture them, and place them in detention, claiming to be defending against the supposed threat of HT. Furthermore, those community members who dare to come out and support neighbors during a raid are frequently detained by the police.
In 2013, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ruled that the government was no longer required to prove that someone accused of terrorism was plotting or committing terrorist acts for that person to be found guilty of the crime. As a result, the mere joining HT or participating in its activities is now sufficient for convicting a person of terrorism. The simplification of the investigation process has allowed Russian security forces to falsify the statistics, claiming an artificially inflated rate of terrorist plot prevention and misleadingly demonstrating high performance to their superiors.
According to the Memorial Center, as of June 15, 2021, 326 people have faced persecution for their affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Over 210 of them have been incarcerated, serving sentences of at least ten years.
The evidence of Bektemirov’s participation in terrorist activities is based on the testimony of two anonymous witnesses who claim that from 2015 to 2018 Bektemirov took them to secret HT meetings in Simferopol. According to their testimony, Bektemirov discussed the need to follow the HT’s ideas, attract new supporters to the organization, and publicize the facts of oppression of Muslims in Crimea. The case file also mentions a video recording in which Bektemirov allegedly defended the activities of HT “in front of other people present in the room.” Another piece of supposed evidence of Bektemirov’s guilt, according to the investigation, is the Islamist literature seized from his house during the raid. Finally, they cite as evidence the fact that Bektemirov constantly supported his coreligionists, attended their trials, helped those imprisoned, and advocated for the Crimean Tatars’ rights.
Why does the Memorial Human Right Center consider Vadim Bektemirov a political prisoner?
1. Bektemirov is facing charges without corpus delicti.
The “evidence” of his crime includes meetings of other HT followers, discussion of religious topics, and reading Islamic literature. These actions are absolutely legal in Russia. Indeed, Freedom of expression, conscience, and assembly are guaranteed by the Russian Constitution.
2. Bektemirov’s charges violate international law.
According to Amnesty International, post-annexation Crimea constitutes an occupied territory in international humanitarian law. In this situation, therefore, Russia has no right, under any circumstances, to eliminate the previously existing system of government and its criminal legislation. Under Ukrainian law, Hizb ut-Tahrir is a legal organization. Therefore, the persecution of HT’s members in Crimea is inherently illegal. The Memorial Human Rights Center demands Vadim Bektemirov’s immediate release and the complete termination of all criminal prosecution against Crimean Tatars and members of Hizb ut-Tahrir.
On January 22, 2021, the day before mass protests in support of Alexei Navalny took place across hundreds of cities in Russia and around the world, young journalists from a student-run magazine DOXA published a short video. Entitled “They will not defeat youth – appeal of the DOXA editors to students and schoolkids,” the video featured four editors of the magazine expressing solidarity with students who had joined the opposition and demanding that the authorities stop threatening them with school expulsion for their political views.
On January 26, the authorities demanded that the editors delete the video. On April 14, all four were detained and put under strict house arrest. The journalists are facing three years in jail under Art. 152.2, Part 2 of the Criminal Code of Russia – “involvement of two or more minors in committing actions that pose a danger to the life of minors in information networks (including the Internet).” The Memorial Human Rights Center recognized the journalists as political prisoners.
Armen Aramyan, 23
Alla Gutnikova, 23
Vladimir Metyolkin, 26
Natalia Tyshkevich, 27
All four have been under house arrest since April 14, 2021 awaiting trial. They are not allowed to use the Internet or any other means of communication except when they need to contact their lawyers. The defendants are also not allowed to communicate with each other or leave the house except for 2 hours each day from 8 AM to 10 AM, without departing their immediate neighborhoods. In the first two weeks of their house arrest, the defendants were not allowed to leave the house at all.
Why the Memorial Human Rights Center recognizes them as political prisoners
The protests supporting Alexei Navalny and demanding the restoration of democracy and civil society in Russia prompted a wave of repression unprecedented since the collapse of the USSR. The DOXA Magazine case is just one of them. The Memorial Center holds that the accused are completely innocent, and believes they are being persecuted solely because of their political beliefs. After studying the video released by DOXA, the Memorial Center concluded that the DOXA editors did not call for the commission of any criminal act or potentially dangerous actions for minors. On the contrary, the editors simply encouraged them to be stalwart in the face of illegal pressure owing to their political views, to create student associations and student media, and to work on behalf of the universally recognized human rights, those which in fact are enshrined in the Constitution of the Russian Federation. In this video, there are no calls to participate in mass public events.
In support of its charge that the editors called upon minors to protest, the Investigative Committee cited the following quotations from the video:
“We appeal to the authorities and administrations of educational institutions: stop intimidating students and schoolchildren”;
“Do not be afraid and do not stand aside”;
“The authorities have declared war on youth, but youth is us and we will definitely win!”
“Do not resist the demands of the police”;
“Do not resist or insult the authorities, try not to touch them.”
The Memorial Center believes that these four young people have been subjected to an unnecessary and humiliating degree of legal restraint that only allows them a daily two-hour walk. They are victims of a propaganda campaign falsely accusing them of calling upon teenagers to take part in allegedly dangerous rallies. Having witnessed such opposition rallies, which are entirely peaceful and law-abiding, we can categorically state that any supposed danger arises only from unspeakable police brutality. Official suppression of opposition organizations is aimed at blocking any public activities of journalists and activists not controlled by the state. In so doing, the authorities aim to underline to the public that they will not tolerate any unapproved social and political activity and to bring home that participation carries grave risks. Therefore, relying on international guidelines defining “political prisoners,” the Memorial Center affirms that Armen Aramyan, Alla Gutnikova, Vladimir Metelkin and Natalia Tyshkevich are without question political prisoners. They are undergoing persecution solely for political reasons involving their beliefs. But their non-violent exercise of freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The Memorial Center demands their immediate release and dropping of all charges.
The Kremlin’s Social Media Influence inside the United States: A Moving Target is a report co-authored by Maria Snegovaya and Kohei Watanabe summarizing key insights of their analysis of social media behavior on Twitter during the 2020 US Presidential elections.
The study scopes out the Kremlin’s malign social media operations in the United States, their key purveyors, platforms and enablers. It analyzes how the Russian approach to conducting social media campaigns targeting domestic audiences in the US has evolved since 2016 and whether its efforts can be deemed successful or effective.
Snegovaya and Watanabe attempt to determine what demographic characteristics make specific members and segments of the US audience more susceptible to the Russian disinformation campaigns and how that impacts their voting behavior. The report articulates a list of policy recommendations for improving the US society’s resilience to the Russian malign influence campaigns.
On February 11, 2021, the DFR Lab at the Atlantic Council hosted a discussion of the report. You may view the recording of the event here: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/event/foreign-interference-us-politics-kremlin/
How the Kremlin Undermines Western Solidarity with the Russian Opposition Using the Left.
Imagine a scenario where two policemen catch a known rapist-killer. As they are about to handcuff him, he says: “I just saw a guy around the corner who jaywalked two days ago putting three cars at risk of crashing. Perhaps you could arrest him”. The policemen forget the task at hand and start discussing whether they should go after the jaywalker. As the discussion heats up, they forget about the rapist-killer, who simply walks away.
In political warfare, the trick used by the rapist-killer in this scenario is called “reflexive control”. It involves conveying particular information to an adversary in order to induce that adversary to voluntarily make a specific decision to their own detriment. Most often, reflexive control is about confusing an adversary, clouding his thinking and making a wrong decision.
The two policemen in our story lose track of a critical and time-sensitive priority—arresting and neutralizing a grave offender. Not veering off into a discussion about whether the jaywalker was real or imagined, whether he deserved to be arrested or not.
The current attacks against Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny alleging his nationalistic leanings bear all the traditional markings of a reflexive control operation initiated by the Kremlin. Their goal is to undermine the legitimacy of Navalny in the eyes of the West and paralyze action in his support.
I am unable to shake off a strong feeling of a déjà vu with tragic events that took place seven years ago. As the Kremlin unleashed its invasion of Ukraine, it has successfully crowded the Western media space with anti-Ukrainian narratives in order to undermine Western support for Ukraine. The leitmotif of this campaign portrayed the Maidan revolution as an ultranationalist putsch that resulted in the rise of an ultranationalist government.
In February-March 2014, as the Russian green men establish a blockade of Ukrainian military bases in Crimea and occupy administrative buildings; and as Russia annexes Crimea, in gross violation of a number of international treaties,—a significant bulk of the Western media discourse is evaluating whether the Maidan revolution was instigated by ultranationalists.
The Kremlin’s ultimate goal was not to convince the West that Kyiv was run by a fascist junta. Rather, it sought to distract Western attention from Moscow’s criminal actions and to shift the focus of Western decision-makers to an entirely different issue, whose importance and time-sensitivity was disproportionately low compared to the Kremlin’s gross violation of international norms and post-war order. Putin has successfully executed a reflexive control operation as part of a 4D approach to managing the aggression against Ukraine internationally: dismiss, distort, distract, dismay. Dismiss the fact of occupation of Crimea by Russian troops, distort the general picture of the situation in Ukraine with the use of disinformation, distract Western attention from the Kremlin’s activities by launching accusations elsewhere, and dismay Western audiences by scaring them with Russia’s unpredictable behaviour.
In the case of Alexey Navalny, the Kremlin’s method is similar.
Over the years, Navalny has published a series of shocking investigations into the mind-boggling corruption of Russian kleptocratic elites. The investigations were highly damaging to Putin’s reputation. Navalny continued his investigative work despite the intimidation by criminal cases fabricated by the Kremlin against him.
Switching its approach, the Kremlin decided to kill Navalny with a Novichok nerve agent, in violation of the national law, all democratic norms, and the international Chemical Weapons Convention.
Miraculously, Navalny survived the assassination attempt and returned home from Germany, where doctors treated him after the poisoning. Upon his arrival to Russia, he was immediately arrested and jailed.
The European Parliament has responded by adopting two resolutions related to Navalny, one strongly condemning his attempted assassination, the other calling for his immediate and unconditional release. In October 2020, while Navalny was still recovering from the poisoning in Germany, the EU introduced sanctions against top Russian officials and a number of entities involved in his assassination attempt.
Moscow’s 4D approach to eroding the European solidarity on the Navalny case has been the following: dismiss accusations of poisoning the leading opposition figure, distort the circumstances surrounding Navalny’s poisoning by suggesting multiple theories of his sickness, distract European attention from Navalny’s attempted assassination sanctioned by the Kremlin, and dismay European politicians by expelling diplomats for supporting the jailed opposition activist.
The “mechanics” of the “distract” element consist of a reflexive control operation involving three phases. First, the Kremlin conveys the narrative (“Navalny is a nationalist”) privately to its agents of influence and publicly via state-controlled media (such as RT) setting up the agenda. Second, Russian “leftists” reproduce the sanctioned narrative in Western national and international left-wing media. Third, the narrative “travels” to more moderate, centrist media space and becomes part of the mainstream discussion, which is Moscow’s main goal of the “distract” element. By “laundering” this reflexive control operation through Russian “leftists”, the Kremlin partially removes traces of its influence in “Navalny’s nationalism” debates among Western left-wing commentators and activists.
Unsurprisingly, Russian mediators between the Kremlin and the Western left feature the very same personalities who advanced Moscow’s anti-Ukrainian campaign.
One egregious specimen is Alexey Sakhnin, a member of the Russian organisation “Left Front”. Introduced to Western left-wing audiences as an opponent to Putin, Sakhnin has been continuously involved in the Kremlin’s information war against Ukraine since 2014, as well as in several operations aimed at smearing and discrediting European experts and politicians critical of Putin’s regime. While living “in exile” in Sweden in 2012-2019, Sakhnin was busy packing Sweden’s Left Party and Green Party with pro-Kremlin narratives packaged as genuine left-wing analysis of international relations. Upon his return to Russia, he became a regular commentator for the Russian once leading financial newspaper Vedomosti: shortly before Sakhnin started writing for it, Vedomosti had been sold to businessmen loyal to the Kremlin who needed new authors after the newspaper’s senior staff departed in protest to the loss of editorial independence. Today, as part of the Kremlin’s reflexive control operation against Navalny, Sakhnin is targeting left-wing circles not only in Sweden, but also in Norway and internationally. While it may be Sakhnin’s and other Russian “left-wing” contacts’ objective to convince Western left-wing activists and commentators of Navalny’s nationalist political sentiments, it is only an intermediate and not even necessary objective for the Kremlin. With its reflexive control operation against Navalny, Moscow’s ultimate goal is to elevate an irrelevant debate into prominence, undermine Western solidarity with the Russian opposition and let the murderous kleptocratic regime get away with the very real crimes infinitely worse than Navalny’s presumed nationalism.
Continued detention of Navalny is illegal and he must be freed immediately. Suppression of peaceful protests and mass arrests of Russian citizens must stop, and the Kremlin must release all those illegally detained and imprisoned on political motives. Free Russia Foundation calls on the international community, the US and European leadership, to move beyond expressions of concern and articulate a set of meaningful instruments to compel the Kremlin to stop its atrocities.
In this exclusive and groundbreaking report, Free Russia Foundation has translated and published five documents from the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.
The documents, obtained and analyzed by Free Russia Foundation’s Director of Special Investigations Michael Weiss, details the GRU’s modern psychological warfare program and are dated from within the last decade. The documents include the memoir of a former colonel in the Soviet Unions’s Special Propaganda Directorate who explains how psychological and information operations were conducted at the tail-end of the Cold War, and then adapted for the post-Soviet era. The documents also include the organization of psychological warfare, down to the military unit, as well as the theory and practice of working over targets in the West.
We are deeply concerned with information recently distributed by the well-respected authoritative source Center “Dossier.” According to “Dossier,” the Kremlin is using Russian political expert Sergey Mikheev and consulting company “Politsecrets” to manipulate Georgian society, distribute disinformation and anti-democratic narratives, undermine Georgia’s Western aspirations, and interfere in free and fair elections in Georgia scheduled for October 2020.(more…)
Free Russia Foundation is gravely concerned about the life and safety of Alexey Navalny. (more…)
Free Russia Foundation stands in staunch solidarity with the People of Belarus. (more…)
On June 2, 2020, Free Russia Foundation hosted a congressional discussion on the Fate of Crimean Tatars in the Aftermath of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. (more…)
On Monday, April 20, 2020, numerous virtual protests took place throughout Russia, including several cities with populations of over a million of inhabitants.
The PR Campaign:
April 2020 has witnessed a conspicuous uptick of publications in Western and Russian media in support of the Nord Stream 2 project:
- Germans want closer contacts with their eastern neighbors – survey
- Great understanding of Corona travel restrictions
- Forsa survey: great understanding of travel restrictions due to Corona
- Support for Nord Stream 2 Pipeline Strengthens in Germany
- Germany stands for closer cooperation with Russia
- OST EUROPA In cooperation with the business magazine OstContact | 3/4 – 2020
Who Paid for the PR Campaign?
The poll was commissioned by the German Eastern Business Association (Ostausschuss – Osteuropaverein der Deutschen Wirtschaft, OAOEV)
OAOEV is a fairly new NGO that promotes German business in “Eastern” countries – from Russian to China. It was founded in 2018 through the partnership of the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations (Eastern Committee) and the Eastern Europe Business Association of Germany.
In December 2019, several OAOEV members met with Vladimir Putin. Following the meeting, OAOEV published a press release.
The press contact for the Nord Strom 2 Survey listed on the OAOEV website is Andreas Metz. Metz is described by Politico Europe as “member of Berlin-based lobbying group Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, which supports the pipeline Nord Stream 2.”
This OAOEV survey coincided with the November 1, 2019 appointment of Mario Mehren as the new spokesperson of its Russia working group. Mehren is a member of the shareholders committee of Nord Stream 2.
Mr. Mehren is also the Chairman and CEO of the natural gas and crude oil company Wintershall Dea – one of the two German companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 project (the second is E.On). It is a joint venture of a German concern BASF (67%) and LetterOne (33%) co-owned by Russian oligarchs with strong ties to the Kremlin, – Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan.
There is overwhelming evidence suggesting that these oligarchs have close ties with the Putin’s regime and its intelligence services.
Wintershall Dea owns stakes of gas reserves in Russia and chemical factories in Germany that rely on the export of that gas.
In this role as the head of Wintershall Dea, Mario Mehren met with the CEO of Gazprom Alexei Miller numerous times:
- Gazprom and Wintershall Dea discuss current issues of cooperation
- Gazprom and BASF Discuss Cooperation On gas Production and Nord Stream 2 project
- Gazprom supplies to Germany climb 20.4pct in October 2016
Mr. Mehren has been on the record lobbying for Nord Stream 2 for a few years now. For example, he is a co-author of a 2018 disinformation piece about Nord Stream 2 in a US outlet.
Given the above connections of the oligarchs to the Kremlin and conflicted interests of the Wintershall Dea shareholders and top leadership, it is reasonable not to be believe in the independent nature or objectivity of this research poll.
Who Executed the Polls?
The Nord Stream 2 survey was executed by an infamous commercial polling agency Forsa Politik- und Sozialforschung AG, which had been accused of data manipulations in several of its past projects. In 2009, for example, the firm was involved in a scandal concerning a methodologically flawed survey whose cooked results claimed disapproval of the 2007 railroad operators’ strike and approval of privatization of the railway. It was uncovered that the biased study had been secretly funded by Deutsche Bahn.
Forsa’s Nord Stream 2 poll is based on a phone interview of 1,006 Germans and purports them to reflect the attitudes of the entire German population.
While neither the full Nord Stream 2 survey data nor its methodology have been made public, the Wintershall Dea website features the most extensive write-up of the Forsa Nord Stream 2 survey.
The Wintershall Dea website highlights the interpretation of data according to which the majority of German people do not see the U.S. as a reliable partner and juxtapose it to Putin’s Russia. Its title is “Forsa: less and less confidence in the U.S.”
The survey’s other published findings also reinforce the anti-US and pro-Russian narrative through claims such as:
- Only 10% of Germans regard the United States as a reliable energy supplier. That puts the U.S. behind the Middle East (with 14% of German citizens having confidence in the Middle East as a reliable energy supplier);
- Over half (55%) of German citizens want closer economic ties with Russia;
- More than three quarters (77%) of respondents say that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline construction should continue despite US opposition.
What Are the Prospects for Nord Stream 2?
With just a hundred miles of seabed pipeline construction remaining, the work on the Nord Stream 2 project was abruptly halted by US sanctions introduced in December 2019. The sanctions threaten to blacklist any foreign companies collaborating on the construction of the pipeline. This caused all foreign partners to pull-out from the construction and left Russia with no foreign vessels willing to complete the pipe-laying, according to analysis by Benjamin L. Schmitt published by the Jamestown Foundation.
Neither the sanctions, the Coronavirus Pandemic nor the perturbations on the global energy market seem to have any affect, as Putin vowed to finish the pipeline no later than the first quarter of 2021. Such a timeline, however, seems overly optimistic, for two reasons.
Firstly, Russia needs to receive a permit from Denmark to deploy in its territorial waters. Such a permit (given Denmark’s appreciation for the true nature and purpose of Nord Stream 2) is far from certain, and even if granted, may be issued with a significant delay. The Danish Energy Agency (DEA) had spent two and a half years evaluating Gazprom proposals before finally granting permission to build the pipeline in its waters in October 2019.
In February 2020, the Danish Energy Agency said it began negotiations with Nord Stream 2 AG regarding the unfinished Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, but the involvement of any specific new vessels has not yet been discussed.
Secondly, Russia currently has no vessels equipped to carry on the construction. According to a European energy expert and Jamestown Foundation Senior Fellow Margarita Assenova, Russia has two ships it may potentially use to complete the project: Akademik Chersky and Fortuna.
Akademik Chersky, a vessel owned by a Moscow-based construction firm with a loan from Gazprombank, set sail from Russia’s Far East toward the Suez Port in Egypt in March 2020 and after several peculiar route diversions headed to Las Palmas in early April. It possesses dynamic positioning stipulated by Danish authorities. Chersky, however, requires a technology upgrade to be able to lay pipes. An upgrade can potentially be performed in two to three months. It would then take additional time for Akademik Chersky to reach the Baltic, said Assenova.
Fortuna, located in the Baltic Sea, does not have dynamic positioning. As explained by a CEPA report, “dynamic positioning is a computer-controlled system that automatically maintains the vessel’s position and heading, without the need to use anchors to maintain its course in deep waters. Avoiding anchors in the Baltic Sea is a key environmental and security requirement of Danish authorities for drilling platforms, research ships, and cable-laying and pipe-laying vessels.” Gazprom has floated an idea of attaching a tugboat with dynamic positioning to Fortuna, as reported in the Russian media.
Even if either of these schemes is successful, the vessels would still have to be insured, and its insurers would fall under the US sanctions. Russia has been developing its own instruments for insuring vessels under the new sanctions regime, according to Mikhail Korchemkin from East European Gas Analysis group.
What are the Objectives of this PR Campaign?
With its publicity campaign, Wintershall Dea has attempted to improve the political and social dynamics in Europe to facilitate the quickest completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline so badly wanted by the Kremlin.
While revenues from gas exports are not essential for the Russian federal budget, the sector has become the primary instrument of expropriating state resources and channeling them into the accounts of Putin’s’ cronies. As such it is one of the key factors to the ability of Putin to remain in power.
Putin’s regime simply cannot afford to lose its market share to a highly competitive US LNG. Gas price manipulation has proved an effective strategy for Gazprom in the past decade. By completing Nord Stream 2, Gazprom is hoping to brainwash European consumers in its ability to sustain high volumes of affordable gas supply for the long term while in reality Russian gas has always come with the political strings attached, bringing corruption and subversion of democratic institutions.
With this PR campaign, the Kremlin attempts to shift the focus away from its track-record of price manipulation and to the commercial aspects of this partnership with the EU, as well as convince the society that the Nord Stream 2 is a purely commercial project and not a political weapon of the Kremlin.
At the present time, the political life of Russia’s regions is all but destroyed. There are no organizational or financial resources for it and such a state of affairs is the result of a deliberate strategy to destroy democracy in Russia which has been implemented throughout the last 20 years.
Despite the fact that various regions of Russia have their own nuances and special features, on the whole, the situation is the same everywhere: the head of the region and the heads of the major municipalities are approved, and de facto appointed by the presidential administration, and all the rest of the regional leadership is appointed and approved by the governor. Those who disagree with this state of affairs are forced out of official politics.
On the whole, it should be acknowledged that after the presidential elections of 2018, political life in the regions was completely sterilized; so in that sense, there is only a point in discussing the reasons which led to this state of affairs and to think about the prospects for Russia to get back on track to democracy and federalism. Obviously, without radical changes in the leadership of Russia, the situation will not change, and as long as the laws, and most importantly, the president of Russia remains unchanged, any sort of revival of regional politics cannot be expected.
Democracy and Federalism in Russia
Democracy and federalism in Russia turned out to be powerless before the onslaught of autocracy in the early 2000s, because they had no real support either in the government itself or among citizens – and such a state of affairs had been programmed by the creators of the political system of Yeltsin’s Russia.
Even those government agencies which were formed directly by citizens had no real autonomy from the higher levels of government, primarily at the federal level, because the president was able to rid himself of inconvenient regional leaders and the regional leaders were able to oppress the municipalities. Naturally, in such circumstances the level of citizens’ trust in municipal and regional government was rather low, so the Kremlin was not afraid that some mayor or governor would be bold enough to argue with it, that they relied on the real support of the people, rather than on fixed elections. The local elites wasted so much effort on fighting among themselves that they were gladly ready to agree to the federal center’s terms, just to get rid of their rivals. In the end, a tactical alliance with the federal center became a trap; once they fell into it, local elites lost their political agency. This is what Putin exploited when he set about sterilizing regional politics completely.
The current state of affairs and its incorporation into the renewed text of the Russian constitution is the result of a constant and consistent attack on democracy and federalism. This has been under way for the entire 20 years of Putin’s rule, but as has been noted, it began much earlier. Essentially, the system created by Yeltsin in 1993-1996 had to guarantee the president that even if he had a minority in parliament and his personal rating was low, and if members of the opposition come to power in a number of regions and major cities, he could still remain in power and successfully block all the efforts of his critics.
Precisely within the framework of this concept, the prospects for local and regional self-government were in fact destroyed. Since all real powers were concentrated in the president, and all the other branches of government (parliament, the courts, the regions, and local self-government) were intentionally weakened, the deliberate course of the new President Putin enabled him to destroy both federalism and democracy in several years, without encountering any real resistance.
The Attack on Self-Government
Thus, as has already been said, the constitution of 1993 was written not so much to create a firm foundation for democracy and federalism in Russia, but rather to serve the interests of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Its authors were motivated by fear of a communist revanche, which they expected “from below.”
Obviously, local elites fully shared that fear of Yeltsin’s entourage, or rather exploited it for solving their own tactical problems. The presence in Russia in the 1990s of the so-called “red belt,” that is, the regions where the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) traditionally garnered many votes, forced the Yeltsin team to search for any allies for themselves who were prepared not to allow a victory of the CPRF and in exchange for that, forgive them any abuses.
Thus, emerged the phenomenon of “electoral reservoirs,” that is, regions guaranteed to show a high turn-out at all elections with high indicators for the party of power and its candidates. Essentially, a number of local leaders simply changed their loyalty for financial bonuses and impunity. This is exactly what defined the nature of interrelations between the federal center and the regions. Therefore, when Putin took the line of restricting the real powers of local bodies of government, the elites of the regions were already rather isolated from the citizens and did not have high authority among them which would have enabled them to rely on the support of voters in opposition to the Kremlin’s policy – if they even had such a wish at all.
Nevertheless, under Yeltsin, political life in the regions was preserved – among other reasons because the Kremlin played on the contradictions of the local elites, in each case wishing to find a counterweight to an ambitious governor through the head of a regional center or in some other way. Taking into account that Yeltsin’s ratings were extremely low all through the second half of the 1990s, the Kremlin was forced to reconcile itself to a certain level of political freedom in the regions, in the wealthiest of which quite interesting political systems had been formed and operated relatively successfully. For example, in Sverdlovsk Region there was a bicameral regional parliament where the upper house was elected every two years through elections in the districts, and the lower house by party lists; in fact the main fight was usually among the regional parties, whereas the federal party did not have significant influence. But all of this was possible because Sverdlovsk Region was relatively wealthy, which enabled numerous regional industrial groups to exist, which were interested in political representation among other things.
This is why we must not forget that Alexei Kudrin’s tax reform finally put to death the prospects for political life in the regions, the result of which led to the total financial dependency of the regions on the center and made struggling for power in their regions pointless; if the center distributes cash and everything comes from the center, then it is quite logical that a person appointed from the center is at the head of the region.
The local elites accepted the rules of the game and instead of resistance to the changing viceroys, tried to cooperate with each new governor because any other strategy is fraught with serious problems and losses.
We cannot overlook the quality of the local elites as well; in the absolute majority of cases, already by the mid-1990s, power in the regions had wound up in the hands of the Soviet nomenklatura. On the one hand, it preferred the administrative-command methods of leadership and leaned toward the necessity of taking part in honest and competitive elections, but that is why it was prepared to obtain powers from the leadership and not the public. On the other hand, it turned out to be involved in corrupt schemes which enabled the federal government to control any local leader by the kompromat [compromising material] compiled on him. In many cases, it was these people who kept power in their hands all through the 1990s and 2000s, until the Putin administration gradually, but methodically, got rid of them.
The situation in Sverdlovsk Region was illustrative, where Arkady Chernetsky, mayor of the regional center, remained in his post from 1992-2010, but Eduard Rossel, governor of Sverdlovsk Region, had in one way or another headed the region from 1991-2009 (with a break from 1993-1995). Both of them came out of the Soviet nomenklatura, and despite the undoubted political talents and readiness for participation in competitive politics, both were drawn to authoritarian methods and were not ashamed of using manipulative techniques in the elections.
All the years they were in their posts, these politicians and their teams waged an unceasing war, but in the end both of them gave up their power, not by losing elections, but by subordinating themselves to order. Now both of these rivals represent Sverdlovsk Region in the Federation Council without any real weight in regional politics.
It is noteworthy that even after the departure of Chernetsky from the post of head of Ekaterinburg, his team resisted pressure from the regional government for several years, which created a certain space of political struggle and even enabled the non-system politician Evgeny Royzman to win the elections to head of Ekaterinburg (by that time, this position had already become symbolic). But this resistance had purely economic reasons and in no way presupposed criticism of the federal government and its policy. On the eve of the 2018 presidential elections, the city team finally capitulated, and with that, politics in the region ended. In May 2018, Evgeny Royzman was forced to give up his powers as head of Ekaterinburg prematurely, and the city charter no longer stipulated new direct elections. Despite the specific nature of the situation in Ekaterinburg and Sverdlovsk Region, in the end even there, the Kremlin achieved its aims – as in all other regions of Russia, rich and poor, national republics and ordinary regions and territories.
What Is to Be Done?
What can and should be done, so that democracy is returned to Russia and cannot be so simply overthrown? As was said at the very outset, without changes at the federal level, we should not expect a flourishing of politics in the regions. But it is important not to repeat the mistakes of the past and not create the prerequisites so that democracy and federalism in Russia could be overthrown some time again.
First, it is necessary to have the constitutional transfer of the maximum number of political, legal, and financial powers to the level of local self-government. Even the regional level of government must be not be as influential as the municipalities. Essentially, the regional administrations must be involved only in the creation and maintenance of the general infrastructure and coordination of the efforts of local communities. It is much harder to take control of thousands of municipalities with great powers, elected by direct elections, than several dozen regional governments. This is exactly why the municipalities must become the foundation of democracy and the guarantor of the separation of powers in Russia, or otherwise everything will rapidly return to the current state of affairs.
Secondly, the restrictions on the creation of regional parties must be removed. Taking into account the dimensions of Russia, it is more logical to prohibit federal parties as such, motivating regional parties to form blocs at the federal level around common program lines and interests. Federal politics must be made in the regions and municipalities and not the opposite.
Third, the incorporation of a parliamentary system of governance at all levels of government – from the federal to the municipal – seems correct, that is, in both the regions and in the major cities, executive power must be in the hands of the head of government elected by the parliament. This will enable the destruction of the prerequisites for a revanche of Putinism several years after the departure of Vladimir Putin from politics, because it will destroy even the theoretical possibility of subordinating one level of government to another through personal agreements or blackmail. On the whole, all of Russia’s history teaches us that any opportunity to concentrate power in the hands of one person rather quickly leads to authoritarianism and a lack of change in government – and not only at the level of the head of state.
Fourth, any attempts to return Russia to the path of democracy and federalism are unthinkable without lustration not only at the federal but also at the regional and even municipal level. The main reason why the democratic endeavors of the 1990s were so easily overthrown was the fact that in the early 1990s, real power in Russia was left in the hands of descendants of the Soviet nomenklatura. Taking into account by whom and how the regional and municipal bodies of governments were formed in recent years, keeping these people in politics will inevitably lead to a revanche in a very short time. There are quite enough new people for politics at all levels in Russia, but for them to get involved and not lose at the very first elections to the re-painted Putin nomenklatura, the latter must be lawfully excluded from the process. Otherwise, everything will come full circle in this new, reimagined future.
Translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Pro-democracy Russians appeal to the world leaders and international community to condemn Kremlin’s repressions and the recent attack on civil liberties. (more…)
This publication is the product of an initial effort undertaken by Free Russia Foundation in 2018 to stimulate public discussion of Russian scenarios, mitigate the likelihood of a bad surprise or missed opportunities, and support the country’s transition to a more positive future. (more…)
On November 25, the Ukrainian ships “Berdyansk,” “Nikopol” and “Yany Kapu,” en route from Odessa to Mariupol through the Kerch Strait, were detained by officers of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation. During the detention, Russian border guards used life-threatening violence. As a result, the coast guard boat of the Russian Federation rammed a Ukrainian tug. According to the Ukrainian Navy, six Ukrainian seamen were wounded, all three Ukrainian vessels were seized together with a crew of 23 people and taken to the port of Kerch, located on the territory of the occupied Crimea on the Crimean Peninsula. Later, a Spokesman for the President of the Russian Federation announced the opening of criminal proceedings against detained sailors on charges of illegally crossing the border.
This incident became a turning point in the Azov conflict, which has been mounting over the past few months between the two countries. After the opening of the Kerch bridge, which established the road transport connection between Russia and the occupied Crimea, the Russian side strengthened its military presence in the waters of the Sea of Azov and complicated the passage of Ukrainian ships, despite the existing international treaties ensuring unhindered access of the two countries to their ports. Arbitrary detentions of Ukrainian ships, as well as the emergence of new military equipment, were regarded by many Ukrainian and international experts as a deliberate escalation of the conflict, culminating in the events of November 25.
It is important to note that the collision in the waters of the Azov Sea was the first case of open aggression of Russia against Ukraine. Despite the fact that the armed conflict between the parties began in 2014 with the illegal annexation of Crimea, and then developed in the form of military actions in the territory of Donbass, earlier Russia did not commit acts of military aggression against Ukraine under its own flag.
Andreas Umland, a German political analyst, an expert of the Euro-Atlantic Cooperation Institute specializing in Russian ultra-nationalism and authoritarianism identifies three possible reasons why such an escalation could occur right now. The first and most common version is a decrease in Putin’s rating and the need to divert attention from socio-economic problems with yet another demonstration of power. The second possible reason is the probability of the existence of the project on turning the Sea of Azov into the inner Russian sea and the desire to negatively affect the Ukrainian economy by the blockade of ports in Berdyansk and Mariupol. And the third possible reason concerns the news that the construction of the brand-new Kerch Bridge is allegedly shifted. Accordingly, a new attack could have been undertaken in order to divert attention from the news damaging the reputation of the Russian authorities.
Mikhail Gonchar, director of the Centre for Global Studies “Strategy XXI”, adds that the situation should be looked at much wider than just the conflict between the two neighboring countries. Russia claims the leading world position and in every way demonstrates to the west its strength, checking the limits of what is permitted. In addition to the Ukraine and Syria cases, as well as the case of Skripals, Mikhail also cites a recent example of failures in the GPS navigation system in Norway and Finland, which resulted in that the Norwegian frigate rammed the Finnish tanker during NATO exercises in Norway. According to the Presidents of both countries, the reason was the deliberate creation of GPS-interference from the Russian side. Mikhail Gonchar claims that Ukraine in this chain of events is just an element of a more global policy of Russia’s aggression against the West.
Further Russia goes, the more cynically and shamelessly it lies. Despite the open attack on the sea vessels of Ukraine, the ram of one of them, the opening of fire against members of the Ukrainian vessels crews, and the detention of these crews, Russia accused Ukraine of provocation and violation of the state borders of the Russian Federation and initiated an emergency session of the UN Security Council, which indeed took place on November 26. However, the members of the UN Security Council rejected the wording proposed by Russia and the session was held in accordance with the agenda proposed by the Ambassador of Ukraine to the UN.
The member states of the UN Security Council expressed their deepest concern about the events and called on Russia to immediately release the detained Ukrainian sailors and return the vessels to Ukraine. The NATO Secretary General, as well as the President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, expressed their full support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. The International Monetary Fund, in turn, said that it would not stop cooperating with Ukraine even if martial law was introduced.
There is no doubt that the actions of Russia fall under the definition of aggression, stipulated in Art. 3 of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3314 (XXIX) adopted on December 14, 1974 (paragraphs “a” “c” and “d”).
By its actions, the Russian side violated the basic principles of the United Nations concerning the non-use of force or the threat of force in international relations. The provisions of Section 2 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, as well as Art. 2 of the Treaty between Russia and Ukraine on cooperation in the use of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait in 2003 were also violated.
However, since the Russian Federation is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and has the right to veto its decisions, bringing Russia to justice becomes a rather difficult task. Nonetheless, other UN member states have the legal tools for a peaceful resolution of the current situation in the framework of existing international law. However, this would require extraordinary efforts and the development of new approaches that have not yet been applied in international practice. It is entirely possible, under rule 9, to convene an emergency session of the UN General Assembly. In that case, if the GA recognizes the fact of a material violation of the basic UN principles and the fact that Russia is a party to the conflict, then guided by paragraph 3 of Art. 27 of the UN Charter and the principle “in propria causa nemo judex” the Russian side would be obliged to abstain from voting in the Security Council on the issue of resolving this dispute.
It is worth noting that according to the definition of the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 23 detained Ukrainian sailors fall under the status of prisoners of war and should be subject to the rule that “no physical or moral torture or any other coercive measures” can be applied to them. At the same time, at the moment the detainees are in the status of suspects who have allegedly committed a criminal offense and, most likely, are subjected to cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment.
Even though there are still unused international legal means in the arsenal of Ukraine, many experts question their effectiveness in comparison with economic tools. Mikhail Gonchar believes that the so-called collective West has to take decisive consolidated actions necessary in order to break the chain of illegal actions of Russia both in regard to Ukraine and in relation to the entire Western world. Both Gonchar and Umland see the most realistic response to the current situation in the suspension of the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline being built from Russia to Germany, as well as the second thread of the Turkish Stream.
As for the actions of Ukraine itself, in addition to international legal instruments, it has taken unprecedented measures to ensure internal security. On November 25, 2018, the President of Ukraine convened the National Security and Defense Council, which took the initiative of imposing martial law throughout Ukraine. On November 26, a presidential decree on imposing martial law was approved by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine.
On November 25, 2018, the President of Ukraine convened the National Security and Defense Council, which took the initiative of imposing martial law throughout Ukraine. For the presidential decree on the introduction of martial law to enter into force, its approval by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine is necessary.
The legal framework of the martial law is settled by International Humanitarian Law and the Law of Ukraine On the Legal Regime of Martial Law.
Martial law implies a significant expansion of the powers of state bodies, simultaneously with a significant restriction of civil rights. The restriction of the rights of persons present on the territory of Ukraine may concern almost all spheres of public life (property rights, freedom of movement, political rights, etc.). However, the text of the presidential decree introduces only a small part of the measures on martial law, whether this list will expand we will see in the future. The validity of such emergency measures throughout the territory raises serious doubts.
Special attention should be paid to the clause on a direct prohibition of elections for the period of martial law, which, given the first version of the presidential decree, meant that presidential elections already scheduled for March 31, 2019 could be delayed by at least one month. However, after a decisive protest of the deputies of the Verkhovna Rada, Petro Poroshenko changed his decision and shortened the period of martial law to one month, as well as narrowed the geography of its application to several regions.
Thus, the decree approved by the Verkhovna Rada introduces martial law in 10 regions of Ukraine from 9:00 on November 28, 2018 for 30 days to 9:00 on December 27, 2018 (the final version of the document as of November 27, 2018 has not yet been published). The President also instructed the Administration of the State Border Service of Ukraine to strengthen the protection of the state border with the Russian Federation and the administrative border with the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and the Security Service of Ukraine to take measures to strengthen the counter-intelligence, counter-terrorism and counter-sabotage regime. The essence and limits of these measures are not yet clear; it is the responsibility of the authorities to determine this. Apart from that, the Decree contains a secret part (paragraph 12) closed for the public.
As of November 27, 2108, there were no additional restrictions imposed on persons present on the territory of Ukraine regarding their movement and stay inside the country, as well as the border crossing regime. The administration of the Boryspil airport has officially stated that the adoption of martial law will not affect the mobility of the population, and the airport will operate in a normal regime.