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

Free Russia Foundation Calls for Urgent and Concrete Steps to Stop Putin’s Global Assassination Campaigns

Feb 11 2021

Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent Russian pro-democracy advocate, was closely tracked by an FSB assassination squad when he suffered perplexing and near-fatal medical emergencies that sent him into coma in 2015 and 2017, establishes a new investigation by the Bellingcat group

Documents uncovered by Bellingcat show that this is the same assassination squad implicated in the August 2020 assassination attempt on Alexey Navalny and whose member has inadvertently confirmed the operation in a phone call with Navalny.   

Bellingcat has also established the FSB unit’s involvement in the murder of three Russian activists, all of whom died under unusual but similar circumstances. 

Taken together, these independent nongovernment investigations establish the fact of systemic, large-scale extrajudicial assassinations carried out by Putin’s government against its critics inside and outside of Russia, including with chemical weapons banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention. 

Free Russia Foundation calls on the international community to formally investigate and prosecute Putin’s government for these crimes. 

Free Russia Foundation calls on the Biden Administration to direct the FBI to release investigation materials surrounding the assassination attempts against Vladimir Kara-Murza that have been denied to him thus far. 

Free Russia Foundation calls on the international community to articulate measures to compel Russia to free Alexey Navalny from his illegal incarceration where his life remains in dire danger. 

Free Russia Foundation condemns in strongest terms today’s court sentence announced to Alexey Navalny

Feb 02 2021

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.

Free Russia Foundation demands Navalny’s immediate release

Jan 17 2021

On January 17, 2021, Putin’s agents arrested Alexey Navalny as he returned to Russia from Germany where he was treated for a near-deadly poisoning perpetrated by state-directed assassins.

Navalny’s illegal arrest constitutes kidnapping. He is kept incommunicado from his lawyer and family at an unknown location and his life is in danger.

Free Russia Foundation demands his immediate release and an international investigation of crimes committed against him by Putin’s government.

The European Court of Human Rights Recognizes Complaints on Violations in “Ukraine v. Russia” as Admissible

Jan 14 2021

On January 14, 2021, the European Court of Human Rights published its decision on the case “Ukraine v. Russia”. The Grand Chamber of the Court has recognized complaints No. 20958/14 and No. 38334/18 as partially admissible for consideration on the merits. The decision will be followed by a judgment at a later date.

The case concerns the consideration of a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights related to Russia’s systematic administrative practices in Crimea. 

The admissibility of the case is based on the fact that, since 2014, the Russian Federation has exercised effective control over the territory of Crimea, and, accordingly, is fully responsible for compliance with the norms of the European Convention on Human Rights in Crimea. The Court now needs to determine the specific circumstances of the case and establish the facts regarding violations of Articles of the Convention during two periods: from February 27, 2014 to March 18, 2014 (the period of the Russian invasion); and from March 18, 2014 onward (the period during which the Russian Federation has exercised effective control over Crimea).

The Court has established that prima facie it has sufficient evidence of systematic administrative practice concerning the following circumstances:

  • forced rendition and the lack of an effective investigation into such a practice under Article 2; 
  • cruel treatment and unlawful detention under Articles 3 and 5; 
  • extending application of Russian law into Crimea with the result that, as of  February 27, 2014, the courts in Crimea could not be considered to have been “established by law” as defined by Article 6; 
  • automatic imposition of Russian citizenship and unreasonable searches of private dwellings under Article 8; 
  • harassment and intimidation of religious leaders not conforming to the Russian Orthodox faith, arbitrary raids of places of worship and confiscation of religious property under Article 9;
  • suppression of non-Russian media under Article 10; 
  • prohibition of public gatherings and manifestations of support, as well as intimidation and arbitrary detention of organizers of demonstrations under Article 11; 
  • expropriation without compensation of property from civilians and private enterprises under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1;
  • suppression of the Ukrainian language in schools and harassment of Ukrainian-speaking children under Article 2 of Protocol No. 1; 6 
  • restricting freedom of movement between Crimea and mainland Ukraine, resulting from the de facto transformation (by Russia) of the administrative delimitation into a border (between Russia and Ukraine) under Article 2 of Protocol No. 4; and, 
  • discriminating against Crimean Tatars under Article 14, taken in conjunction with Articles 8, 9, 10 and 11 of the Convention and with Article 2 of Protocol No. 4 to the Convention.

Cases between states are the rarest category considered by the ECHR. Almost all cases considered in Strasbourg concern individuals or organizations and involve illegal actions or inaction of the states’ parties to the Convention. However, Art. 33 of this Convention provides that “any High Contracting Party may refer to the Court the question of any alleged violation of the provisions of the Convention and its Protocols by another High Contracting Party.” In the entire history of the ECHR since 1953, there have been only 27 such cases. Two of them are joint cases against Russia, both of which concern the Russian Federation’s aggression on the territory of its neighboring states, Georgia and Ukraine.

New Year’s Blessings to All

Dec 30 2020

While 2020 gave us unprecedented challenges, it created transformative changes in the way we work and communicate. The hours of Zoom calls seemingly brought us all closer together as we got a glimpse into each other’s makeshift home offices along with interruption by kids and the family pets. Remote work also made us appreciate human interactions, in-person events and trips much more!

As 2020 comes to an end, we want to especially thank our supporters who continued to believe in our mission and the value of our hard work, and we hope the coming year brings all of us progress and growth for democracy throughout the world. We’d also like to thank our partners and staff in the U.S. and abroad, and we know how hard everyone has worked under difficult world changes to achieve so many of our objectives this year.

We send our best wishes to all who have stayed in the fight for democratic reforms and for the values of basic human rights. We look forward to a new year with the hope of many positive changes to come.

– Natalia Arno and the Free Russia Foundation team.