Kemerovo, the place where corruption kills

Mar 30 2018

You probably haven’t heard of Kemerovo. It’s understandable if you haven’t, it isn’t exactly Paris or London.

Keremovo is a city in Russia located 255 km (158 mi) from Novosibirsk, the biggest city in Siberia and Russia’s third largest behind Moscow and St. Petersburg. Slightly over 500,000 live in the industrial city of Kemerovo.

On March 25, 2018, a fire ripped through the “Winter Cherry” mall and theatre complex in the city. According to the BBC, the fire started somewhere on an upper floor in the mall, during school holidays. The complex, which had multiple movie theatres, a bar, cafe, and a bowling alley, was packed and bustling.

While the cause of the fire isn’t known yet for sure, two speculative answers are floating around.

“Senior regional official Vladimir Chernov was quoted as saying the fire probably began in the children’s trampoline room on the top floor of the four-story building.

“The preliminary suspicion is that a child had a cigarette lighter which ignited foam rubber in this trampoline room, and it erupted like gunpowder,” he said.

However, Rossiya 24 TV, a national broadcaster, said an electrical fault was the most likely cause – as in most previous deadly fires in Russia.”

President Vladimir Putin visited Kemerovo and blamed “criminal negligence and sloppiness” for the disaster.

The scenes were heartbreaking.

A Russian man spoke to a crowd of indignant protesters in the city center on the 27th of March, which had been declared a day of mourning. He detailed the last words he spoke to his daughter before she fell victim to the blaze. His last words to the crowd were interrupted by his own tears. The protesters called for an investigation into the disaster and for local officials to resign.

Rumors are swirling around. Official numbers claim 64 people died and that 27 are still missing, but some are adamant that the death toll is much higher, perhaps as high as 300. Despite the history of deceit and propaganda which has come from authorities and the state media in Russia, this has not yet been confirmed. In fact, Meduza, a Russian and English paper based in Riga which is generally quite critical of the Kremlin and President Putin, lays out a comprehensive list of reasons why the rumors of the death toll being much higher than reported may not be true.

Even if the official figures are not found to be entirely accurate, there is still a problem to be discussed among the Russian people in the wake of this horrific disaster.

The disaster in Kemerovo is a symptom of two much larger and much more grim problems than a simple building fire. First, corruption in Russia is a rampant epidemic. Transparency International ranks Russia 135th out of 180 in its corruption index, on par with countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, and Bangladesh. While corruption is arguably not as bad as it was in Russia under former President Boris Yeltsin, the issue is still a common scapegoat for Russia’s internal issues or inefficiencies.

Yet little ever seems to be accomplished regarding corruption. The current government, while occasionally offering words of encouragement to anti-corruption efforts, does not seem particularly interested in resolving the issue on a national scale. “Not as bad as it was under President Yeltsin” is a low expectation to set and an even lower one to declare the status quo.

Corruption has been a problem in the Kremlin long before Vladimir Putin ever considered running for office. It started to rear its ugly head on a nationwide scale under hardliner Premier Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s. The planned economy, still being heralded as the superior system to the perceived excesses and hedonism of capitalism, had become rife with redundancies, waste and an endless bureaucracy. It had started to stagnate and rot from within. Reformist Premier Mikhail Gorbachov tried to right the ship, but his reforms largely backfired and contributed to mounting instability which eventually became a major reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union. It only grew and spread under Yeltsin as his ineffective and wildly unpopular government fruitlessly attempted to reform the Russian economy from the smoldering ashes of the collapsed planned economy.

And here we are, in Vladimir Putin’s eighteenth year of power. While rushing to blame Putin as if he was the one to personally start the fire is excessive, it may be time to seriously address a different, intangible problem that is related to the stubborn corruption present in Russia: apathy.

Russians and their Eastern European counterparts are often stereotyped as stoic peoples who grimly go about their lives, rarely smiling unless something unexpectedly wonderful happens or they’ve had a few drinks. Unfortunately, this stereotype can sometimes translate to the political arena. Russians are generally supportive of democracy in theory, but the brain drain, poverty, crime and lost identity that came to define the 1990s soured many Russians’ opinions on the new system of government. Political apathy, while found everywhere, is especially recognizable and tangible in today’s Russia.

While Russia in the 1990s was more democratic than it is now or was under communism, “more” is a relative, and in this case, marginal term. When people are represented by a government which struggles to complete even basic functions, the power and freedom that democracy is supposed to extend to the people  of a sovereign state are difficult to realize.

This was a problem in the United States before its constitution was written as well. Between the end of the American Revolution in 1783 and the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation, a sort of prototype constitution that decentralized government to an extreme degree. While life was freer under the Articles that it was under the British Crown, the new government was so ineffective that it proved difficult to realize and celebrate these freedoms.

Eighteen years after Vladimir Putin swept his way into power, he remains the ever-dominant figure in Russian politics. While the Russian economy surged between 2000 and 2007, it has been sluggish or in serious recession since then. President Putin is starting to be compared to Leonid Brezhnev, as while life is generally stable and steady, corruption and apathy are rampant in a sluggish, stagnant state.

That’s where the Russian people can come in and make a difference.

The Kemerovo Disaster was a horrific disaster which could have been prevented. It’s easy to lay the blame at those directly involved, and they are right to be reprimanded. There is no excuse for the alleged negligence of those in the direct vicinity: the security who failed to pull or fix the fire alarm, those who decided to lock the theater doors, and the bogus inspection of the building’s procedures and preparedness for an emergency.

These livid protesters are calling for accountability, a basic tenet of representative government. For years the Kremlin has failed to deliver that. It’s not healthy to fall back into the complacency that life is stable and quiet-society requires an active and invested populace. Another reason for Kemerovo’s disaster was the under-funded fire department: Russia’s wealth, unfortunately, is mostly focused on Moscow and St. Petersburg. Proposed investments in the smaller cities are slow to come if ever.

Russia does not necessarily need photogenic pictures of millions in the streets demanding reform or even revolution as was seen in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014. What it needs, at least as a first step, is for its people to demand accountability on a grand scale. It’s time to stop brushing off corruption as a fact of life-reform is difficult but it certainly is not impossible. Kemerovo was not the first fire disaster in contemporary Russia, but if the people are willing to demand accountability, disasters like this can be prevented or at least substantially controlled so there is less to grieve.

by Kyle Menyhert

Keremovo is a city in Russia located 255 km (158 mi) from Novosibirsk, the biggest city in Siberia and Russia’s third largest behind Moscow and St. Petersburg. Slightly over 500,000 live in the industrial city of Kemerovo.

On March 25, 2018, a fire ripped through the “Winter Cherry” mall and theatre complex in the city. According to the BBC, the fire started somewhere on an upper floor in the mall, during school holidays. The complex, which had multiple movie theatres, a bar, cafe, and a bowling alley, was packed and bustling.

While the cause of the fire isn’t known yet for sure, two speculative answers are floating around.

“Senior regional official Vladimir Chernov was quoted as saying the fire probably began in the children’s trampoline room on the top floor of the four-story building.

“The preliminary suspicion is that a child had a cigarette lighter which ignited foam rubber in this trampoline room, and it erupted like gunpowder,” he said.

However, Rossiya 24 TV, a national broadcaster, said an electrical fault was the most likely cause – as in most previous deadly fires in Russia.”

President Vladimir Putin visited Kemerovo and blamed “criminal negligence and sloppiness” for the disaster.

The scenes were heartbreaking.

A Russian man spoke to a crowd of indignant protesters in the city center on the 27th of March, which had been declared a day of mourning. He detailed the last words he spoke to his daughter before she fell victim to the blaze. His last words to the crowd were interrupted by his own tears. The protesters called for an investigation into the disaster and for local officials to resign.

Rumors are swirling around. Official numbers claim 64 people died and that 27 are still missing, but some are adamant that the death toll is much higher, perhaps as high as 300. Despite the history of deceit and propaganda which has come from authorities and the state media in Russia, this has not yet been confirmed. In fact, Meduza, a Russian and English paper based in Riga which is generally quite critical of the Kremlin and President Putin, lays out a comprehensive list of reasons why the rumors of the death toll being much higher than reported may not be true.

Even if the official figures are not found to be entirely accurate, there is still a problem to be discussed among the Russian people in the wake of this horrific disaster.

The disaster in Kemerovo is a symptom of two much larger and much more grim problems than a simple building fire. First, corruption in Russia is a rampant epidemic. Transparency International ranks Russia 135th out of 180 in its corruption index, on par with countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, and Bangladesh. While corruption is arguably not as bad as it was in Russia under former President Boris Yeltsin, the issue is still a common scapegoat for Russia’s internal issues or inefficiencies.

Yet little ever seems to be accomplished regarding corruption. The current government, while occasionally offering words of encouragement to anti-corruption efforts, does not seem particularly interested in resolving the issue on a national scale. “Not as bad as it was under President Yeltsin” is a low expectation to set and an even lower one to declare the status quo.

Corruption has been a problem in the Kremlin long before Vladimir Putin ever considered running for office. It started to rear its ugly head on a nationwide scale under hardliner Premier Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s. The planned economy, still being heralded as the superior system to the perceived excesses and hedonism of capitalism, had become rife with redundancies, waste and an endless bureaucracy. It had started to stagnate and rot from within. Reformist Premier Mikhail Gorbachov tried to right the ship, but his reforms largely backfired and contributed to mounting instability which eventually became a major reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union. It only grew and spread under Yeltsin as his ineffective and wildly unpopular government fruitlessly attempted to reform the Russian economy from the smoldering ashes of the collapsed planned economy.

And here we are, in Vladimir Putin’s eighteenth year of power. While rushing to blame Putin as if he was the one to personally start the fire is excessive, it may be time to seriously address a different, intangible problem that is related to the stubborn corruption present in Russia: apathy.

Russians and their Eastern European counterparts are often stereotyped as stoic peoples who grimly go about their lives, rarely smiling unless something unexpectedly wonderful happens or they’ve had a few drinks. Unfortunately, this stereotype can sometimes translate to the political arena. Russians are generally supportive of democracy in theory, but the brain drain, poverty, crime and lost identity that came to define the 1990s soured many Russians’ opinions on the new system of government. Political apathy, while found everywhere, is especially recognizable and tangible in today’s Russia.

While Russia in the 1990s was more democratic than it is now or was under communism, “more” is a relative, and in this case, marginal term. When people are represented by a government which struggles to complete even basic functions, the power and freedom that democracy is supposed to extend to the people  of a sovereign state are difficult to realize.

This was a problem in the United States before its constitution was written as well. Between the end of the American Revolution in 1783 and the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation, a sort of prototype constitution that decentralized government to an extreme degree. While life was freer under the Articles that it was under the British Crown, the new government was so ineffective that it proved difficult to realize and celebrate these freedoms.

Eighteen years after Vladimir Putin swept his way into power, he remains the ever-dominant figure in Russian politics. While the Russian economy surged between 2000 and 2007, it has been sluggish or in serious recession since then. President Putin is starting to be compared to Leonid Brezhnev, as while life is generally stable and steady, corruption and apathy are rampant in a sluggish, stagnant state.

That’s where the Russian people can come in and make a difference.

The Kemerovo Disaster was a horrific disaster which could have been prevented. It’s easy to lay the blame at those directly involved, and they are right to be reprimanded. There is no excuse for the alleged negligence of those in the direct vicinity: the security who failed to pull or fix the fire alarm, those who decided to lock the theater doors, and the bogus inspection of the building’s procedures and preparedness for an emergency.

These livid protesters are calling for accountability, a basic tenet of representative government. For years the Kremlin has failed to deliver that. It’s not healthy to fall back into the complacency that life is stable and quiet-society requires an active and invested populace. Another reason for Kemerovo’s disaster was the under-funded fire department: Russia’s wealth, unfortunately, is mostly focused on Moscow and St. Petersburg. Proposed investments in the smaller cities are slow to come if ever.

Russia does not necessarily need photogenic pictures of millions in the streets demanding reform or even revolution as was seen in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014. What it needs, at least as a first step, is for its people to demand accountability on a grand scale. It’s time to stop brushing off corruption as a fact of life-reform is difficult but it certainly is not impossible. Kemerovo was not the first fire disaster in contemporary Russia, but if the people are willing to demand accountability, disasters like this can be prevented or at least substantially controlled so there is less to grieve.

by Kyle Menyhert

Lukashenka’s Ryanair Hijacking Proves Human Rights is a Global Security Issue

May 24 2021

The forced diversion and landing in Minsk of a May 23, 2021 Ryanair flight en route from Greece to Lithuania, and the subsequent arrest of dissident Roman Protasevich who was aboard the flight, by the illegitimate Lukashenka regime pose an overt political and military challenge to Europe, NATO and the broad global community.  NATO members must respond forcefully by demanding (1) the immediate release of Protasevich and other political prisoners in Belarus, and (2) a prompt transition to a government that represents the will of the people of Belarus. 

The West’s passivity in the face of massive, continuous and growing oppression of the Belarusian people since summer 2020 has emboldened Lukashenka to commit what some European leaders have appropriately termed an act of “state terrorism.”

The West has shown a manifest disposition to appease Putin’s regime —Lukashenka’s sole security guarantor. It has made inappropriate overtures for a Putin-Biden summit and waived  Nord Stream 2 sanctions mandated by Congress. These actions and signals have come against the backdrop of the 2020 Russian constitutional coup, the assassination attempt against Navalny and his subsequent imprisonment on patently bogus charges, the arrests of close to 13,000 Russian activists, and the outlawing of all opposition movements and activities. All this has led Putin and Lukashenka to conclude that they eliminate their political opponents with impunity.  

Today’s state-ordered hijacking of an international passenger airplane—employing intelligence agents aboard the flight,  and accomplished via an advanced fighter-interceptor—to apprehend an exiled activist, underscores that violation of human rights is not only a domestic issue, but a matter of international safety and security.  Western governments unwilling to stand up for the victims of Putin’s and Lukashenka’s regimes are inviting future crimes against their own citizens. 

Absent a meaningful and swift response, the escalation of violence and intensity of international crimes committed  by Lukashenka’s and Putin’s regime will continue, destabilizing the world and discrediting the Western democratic institutions. 

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS – THE KREMLIN’S INFLUENCE QUARTERLY

May 20 2021

The Free Russia Foundation invites submissions to The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly, a journal that explores and analyzes manifestations of the malign influence of Putin’s Russia in Europe.

We understand malign influence in the European context as a specific type of influence that directly or indirectly subverts and undermines European values and democratic institutions. We follow the Treaty on European Union in understanding European values that are the following: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Democratic institutions are guardians of European values, and among them, we highlight representative political parties; free and fair elections; an impartial justice system; free, independent and pluralistic media; and civil society.

Your contribution to The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly would focus on one European country from the EU, Eastern Partnership or Western Balkans, and on one particular area where you want to explore Russian malign influence: politics, diplomacy, military domain, business, media, civil society, academia, religion, crime, or law.

Each chapter in The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly should be around 5 thousand words including footnotes. The Free Russia Foundation offers an honorarium for contributions accepted for publication in the journal.

If you are interested in submitting a chapter, please send us a brief description of your chapter and its title (250 words) to the following e-mail address: info@4freerussia.org. Please put The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly as a subject line of your message.

Criminal operations by Russia’s GRU worldwide: expert discussion

May 06 2021

Please join Free Russia Foundation for an expert brief and discussion on latest criminal operations conducted by Russia’s GRU worldwide with:

  • Christo Grozev, Bellingcat— the legendary investigator who uncovered the Kremlin’s involvement, perpetrators and timeline of Navalny’s assassination attempt. 
  • Jakub Janda, Director of the European Values Think Tank (the Czech Republic) where he researches Russia’s hostile influence operations in the West
  • Michael Weiss, Director of Special Investigations at Free Russia Foundation where he leads the Lubyanka Files project, which consists of translating and curating KGB training manuals still used in modern Russia for the purposes of educating Vladimir Putin’s spies.

The event will take place on Tuesday, May 11 from 11 am to 12:30pm New York Time (17:00 in Brussels) and include an extensive Q&A with the audience moderated by Ilya Zaslavskiy, Senior Fellow at Free Russia Foundation and head of Underminers.info, a research project on post-Soviet kleptocracy

The event will be broadcast live at: https://www.facebook.com/events/223365735790798/

  • The discussion will cover Russia’s most recent and ongoing covert violent operations, direct political interference, oligarchic penetration with money and influence; 
  • GRU’s structure and approach to conducting operations in Europe
  • Trends and forecasts on how data availability will impact both, the Kremlin’s operations and their investigation by governments and activists; 
  • EU and national European government response and facilitation of operations on their soil; 
  • Recommendations for effective counter to the security and political threats posed by Russian security services. 

YouTube Against Navalny’s Smart Voting

May 06 2021

On May 6, 2020, at least five YouTube channels belonging to key Russian opposition leaders and platforms received notifications from YouTube that some of their content had been removed due to its being qualified as “spam, deceptive practices and scams”. 

They included: 

Ilya Yashin (343k YouTube subscribers)

Vladimir Milov (218k YouTube subscribers) 

Leonid Volkov (117k YouTube subscribers)

Novaya Gazeta (277k YouTube Subscribers) 

Sota Vision (248k YouTube Subscribers)

Most likely, there are other Russian pro-democracy channels that have received similar notifications at the same time, and we are putting together the list of all affected by this censorship campaign. 

The identical letters received from YouTube by the five account holders stated:

“Our team has reviewed your content, and, unfortunately, we think it violates our spam, deceptive practices and scams policy. We’ve removed the following content from YouTube:

URL: https://votesmart.appspot.com/

YouTube has removed urls from descriptions of videos posted on these accounts that linked to Alexey Navalny’s Smart Voting website (votesmart.appspot.com).

By doing this, and to our great shock and disbelief, YouTube has acted to enforce the Kremlin’s policies by qualifying Alexey Navalny’s Smart Voting system and its website as “spam, deceptive practices and scams”. 

This action has not only technically disrupted communication for the Russian civil society which is now under a deadly siege by Putin’s regime, but it has rendered a serious and lasting damage to its reputation and legitimacy of Smart Voting approach. 

In reality, Smart Voting system is not a spam, scam or a “deceptive practice”, but instead it’s a fully legitimate system of choosing and supporting candidates in Russian elections who have a chance of winning against the ruling “United Russia” party candidates. There’s absolutely nothing illegal, deceptive or fraudulent about the Smart Voting or any materials on its website.

We don’t know the reasons behind such YouTube actions, but they are an unacceptable suppression of a constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the Russian people and help the Kremlin’s suppression of civil rights and freedoms by banning the Smart Voting system and not allowing free political competition with the ruling “United Russia” party. 

This is an extremely dangerous precedent in an environment where opposition activities in Russia are being literally outlawed;  key opposition figures are jailed, exiled, arrested and attacked with criminal investigations; independent election campaigning is prohibited; and social media networks remain among the very few channels still available to the Russian opposition to communicate with the ordinary Russians.

We demand a  swift and decisive action on this matter from the international community, to make sure that YouTube corrects its stance toward Russian opposition channels, and ensures that such suppression of peaceful, legal  pro-democracy voices does not happen again. 

FRF Lauds New US Sanctions Targeting the Kremlin’s Perpetrators in Crimea, Calls for Their Expansion

Apr 15 2021

On April 15, 2021,  President Biden signed new sanctions against a number of officials and agents of the Russian Federation in connection with malign international activities conducted by the Russian government.

The list of individuals sanctioned by the new law includes Leonid Mikhalyuk, director of the Federal Security Service in the Russian-occupied Crimea.

A report issued by Free Russia Foundation, Media Initiative for Human Rights and Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union in December 202, identified 16 officials from Russian law enforcement and security agencies as well as the judiciary operating on the territory of the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula currently occupied by the Russian Federation. These individuals have been either directly involved or have overseen political persecution of three prominent Crimean human rights defenders – Emir-Usein Kuku, Sever Mustafayev and Emil Kurbedinov.

Leonid Mikhailiuk is one of these officials. He has been directly involved and directed the repressive campaign in the occupied Crimea, including persecution of innocent people on terrorism charges and massive illegal searches. The persecution of Server Mustafayev was conducted under his supervision. As the head of the FSB branch in Crimea, he is in charge of its operation and all operatives working on politically motivated cases are his subordinates. 

Within the extremely centralized system of the Russian security services, Mikhailiuk is clearly at the top rank of organized political persecution and human rights violations.

Free Russia Foundation welcomes the new sanctions and hopes that all other individuals identified in the report will also be held accountable.