Tag Archives: Crimea

On 21 September 2020, the Free Russia Foundation submitted a Communication to the International Criminal Court Prosecutor’s Office (in The Hague, Netherlands) seeking accountability for Crimean and Russian authorities concerning international crimes perpetrated during Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea. The Communication was prepared in cooperation with Global Rights Compliance and Center for Civil Liberties and is based on a focused inquiry conducted over the past year. In our inquiry, we documented crimes as part of a systematic, planned attack by the Russian state against civilians and groups in Crimea in order to discourage them from opposing the illegal occupation of Crimea and to force their departure from the peninsula. Crimes against civilians included unlawful arrests, beatings, torture, enforced disappearances, and other inhumane acts causing severe mental and/or physical pain. In particular, the crimes targeted the Crimean Tatars, a native ethnic group who had only recently returned to their homeland, having previously been forcefully and brutally displaced by the Soviet Union in 1944.

One of the principal coercive acts was the illegal detention and concomitant violence before, during, and after the imprisonment of political prisoners. Most of those detained were arrested by Russian and Crimean authorities on terrorism charges, but it was their legal, pro-Ukrainian advocacy that led to their imprisonment. In addition, trials of those arbitrarily detained were conducted in wholesale disregard of their fair trial rights. For example, some of those illegally imprisoned were denied a speedy trial, access to independent lawyers, and the opportunity to defend themselves against their arrest in a courtroom.

In order to force those illegally detained to confess to crimes they did not commit, Russian and Crimean authorities also perpetrated acts of torture and cruel or degrading treatment, the levying of additional charges against them, even more inhumane prison conditions, denial of communications with their families and threats made against them, enforced disappearances, and even, in at least one case, a mock execution.

Other inhumane acts include “punitive psychiatry” and the denial of adequate prison conditions, including the following: (i) feeding people inedible food or, at times, no food at all; (ii) facing severe overcrowding in prisons; (iii) denial of regular water supply; (iv) threats of assault against them by prison cellmates; and (v) adding pork to food – prohibited for observant Muslims. Further, medical attention was systematically inadequate or denied for many individuals.

Concerning acts of torture, it was perpetrated by different Russian authorities, including the FSB. Allegations include the use of electric shocks in an effort to get an accused to confess. One was beaten in the head, kidneys, arms and legs with an iron pipe. With another, fingers were broken. Still another endured spinal bruises and having a plastic bag placed over his head to the point of unconsciousness. Further, threats of sexual violence against a detained man were made. Murder as well. Hands were broken, teeth were knocked out in still another.

Trials were largely held behind closed doors for illegitimate reasons, and many of the witnesses were secret not only to the public but also to the Accused. Further, credible allegations exist that, at times, there were FSB or other agents in the room, silently instructing witnesses what to say and how the judges should rule. This adds credence to words, according to the Kyiv Post, heard by Arsen Dzhepparov from a senior FSB lieutenant who stated “I will prove by all possible – and impossible – means that [an Accused is] guilty – even if he isn’t guilty”.

Concerning the crime of persecution, nearly all of these deprivations of fundamental rights were carried out with discriminatory intent. Specifically, these groups were targeted due to their political view – namely, by peacefully opposing the illegal occupation of their country. Some were targeted on ethnic grounds or religious grounds on the basis of their Crimean Tatar background.

War crimes, another group of crimes punished at the ICC, were also perpetrated in addition to or in the alternative to the crimes against humanity. This includes the crime of torture, outrages against personal dignity, unlawful confinement, wilfully depriving protected persons of the rights of a fair and regular trial, and the transfer of the occupying power of parts of its population into the territory it occupies or the deportation of all or parts of the population of the occupied territory within or outside this territory.

All these crimes had the ultimate objective of the criminal enterprise – the removal of pro-Ukrainian elements out of Crimea and the annexation of Crimea into the Russian Federation without opposition, including the installation of pro-Russian elements, which include the emigration of more than 70,000 Russians, the illegal imposition of Russian law in the occupied territory, forcing Russian nationality on many Crimeans, and the appropriation of public property.

Ultimately, we hope that all the information gathered by the ICC in the context of its preliminary investigation will lead the ICC to investigate mid- to high-level Russian and Crimean officials on this basis. The international community expects responsible global leadership that follows the rule of law and expects it – no matter the situation – to be respected, especially from a state that is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. When this fails to happen, the international community must demand accountability. We hope that an investigation can be opened and responsible officials of the Russian Federation will be investigated. After an investigation that conforms to international best practices, responsible persons should be charged with the systematic perpetration of international crimes.

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. Continue reading The Fate of Crimean Tatars in the Aftermath of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

On Thursday, May 21, 2020, at 16:00 (Kyiv time) / 9:00 AM (Washington, DC) an international online forum will be held with the participation of human rights activists and scholars from Kyiv, Simferopol, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and Washington DC.

Forum participants will talk about the Kremlin’s implementation of hybrid deportation of Crimean Tatars and public activists on the peninsula, for which a whole system of political repression has been launched. The issue of defining the criteria for the status of a “political prisoner” will be raised and lists will be formed. The participants of the online forum will also announce the work on the introduction of new international sanctions against Russian officials who are directly involved in the organization of political persecution. Human rights activists will spread the awareness of the global petition to the UN, the Council of Europe, the European Union, and the OSCE to save the lives of thousands of illegally detained in Russia, the Russian-occupied Crimea, and part of the Donbas from the threat of COVID-19 infection in prisons. The petition can be signed by following the link.

Speakers:

Oleksandra Matviychuk, Chairwoman of the Center for Civil Liberties NGO (Kyiv);
Sergey Davidis, Head of the Political Prisoners Support Program, Member of the Council at the Memorial Human Rights Center (Moscow);
Natalia Arno, President and Founder of the Free Russia Foundation (Washington);
Ilya Nuzov, Head of the Eastern Europe-Central Asia Desk at the International Federation for Human Rights (Paris);
Lilia Hemedzhy, a lawyer of the Crimean Solidarity initiative (Simferopol);
Wilfried Jilge, a historian of Eastern-Central Europe and Ukraine (Berlin);
Simon Papuashvili, Programme Director of the International Partnership for Human Rights (Brussels).

Event languages: Ukrainian and Russian.

The international online forum will be held on the second anniversary of the arrest of Server Mustafayev, coordinators of the Crimean Solidarity, which has united the relatives of political prisoners and activists in the occupied Crimea. According to his colleagues, he was the engine that drove the association. Since May 2018, Server has been held behind bars.
The event is organized by the global campaign #PrisonersVoise (formerly #SaveOlegSentsov) as part of the Week of Solidarity with the Crimean Tatars “Common Pain. Common History.” Informational support was provided by the PR agency KRASNI.

Live broadcast is available at the link.

On March 5, 2020, a Russian-controlled court in Ukraine’s Crimea sentenced Sergei Filatov, a Jehovah’s Witness from Dzhankoy, a town in the north of occupied Crimea, to six year in prison for organizing activities of an extremist organization, which, according to an investigation, consisted of “holding meetings, religious speeches, as well as promoting religious ideas.” Continue reading The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of Sergei Filatov

The Crimean Tatars are “a Muslim ethnic minority indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula.” They have been among the most vocal critics of the Russian occupation of Crimea, and as a result, the Russian authorities have “relentlessly persecuted” them.

Continue reading The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of Emir-Usein Kuku

Continue reading Free Russia Foundation Statement Against Persecution of Human Rights Defenders in Occupied Crimea

Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned by Russian forces in 2014, is on the verge of death. More than one hundred days ago, he began a hunger strike to demand that Russian President Vladimir Putin free sixty-four Ukrainian political prisoners being held in Russia.  Since then, Sentsov has lost almost 70 pounds and suffered cardiac complications. In early August, he confided to his lawyer that “the end was near” and this week he told his cousin that his limbs are going numb. Unless the international community takes urgent action, his uncompromising commitment to freedom will soon kill him.

Policy makers and human rights activists face an all-too-common decision: Do we raise our voices loudly and in unison now, when it can potentially spare one life, or honor yet another opponent of tyranny with a street name following his death? We’ve got enough streets named after dead democrats and courageous freedom fighters. Let’s make an uproar now if only to say we shed a light on those unfairly held in Russia’s modern gulag.

Sentsov’s trouble began soon after Russia illegally annexed Crimea. He was arrested on May 10, 2014, by Russian FSB security forces for peacefully protesting the illegal Russian takeover of Crimea. From his home in the Crimean city of Simferopol, he was jailed and held incommunicado for three weeks. During this time, prison authorities physically abused him, including by suffocation, and threatened him with torture, rape, and murder in an attempt to get him to “confess” to terrorism.  The Russian authorities proceeded to strip him of his Ukrainian citizenship—a blatant violation of international law—and tried him in a military tribunal in Moscow as a Russian citizen. Despite a lack of evidence—including from the main witness against him who retracted his testimony after admitting it had been made under torture—Sentsov was convicted of terrorism and sentenced to twenty years in prison.

​Sentsov’s case is far from unique. Convicting political opponents on manufactured charges and bogus evidence is one of the hallmarks of Putin’s regime, and there are more than 183 political opponents currently imprisoned in Russia. In an attempt to wear them down, they are regularly subjected to torture; inhumane transport, including month-long transits in cramped trains with little access to water and sanitation; and imprisonment in “gulag-like” prison colonies.

​So far, Putin has managed to repress dissent, and Sentsov’s ongoing struggle is an attempt to change this. Sentsov hopes to force Putin to answer for the numerous Ukrainian activists he has imprisoned. Selflessly, Sentsov has not even demanded his own release; rather, he will only end the hunger strike if all other Ukrainian political prisoners are released, and he is willing to obtain his own freedom through death should Putin choose to ignore his demands.

​Unfortunately, Putin appears ready to let Sentsov die. Perhaps Sentsov’s case is a matter of pride. As a Ukrainian prisoner from Crimea, releasing Sentsov to the Ukrainian authorities might undermine Russia’s claim over Crimea. Or perhaps Putin simply wants to show the world that nothing, not even the death of an innocent man, can make him change.

Whatever the case, we must not let Putin have his way. It is time for the international community to stand in solidarity with all of Russia’s political prisoners and take concerted actions to hold Putin accountable. Sentsov’s life depends on it. If we don’t, it’s a defeat for those who believe in human rights and a victory to those who traffic in tyranny.

As an urgent first step, if Sentsov is to be saved, the world must unequivocally call for his immediate release.  As Sentsov’s situation has grown increasingly precarious, a handful of organizations and world leaders, including Amnesty International and French President Emmanuel Macron, have already done so. But to get Putin to listen, we need the United States and other countries and organizations that value democracy and human rights to prioritize Sentsov’s case.

Second, Russia must face serious and tangible consequences. Putin has repeatedly demonstrated that he does not act out of compassion or shame, so we must force him to do what is right. The United States should lead the charge by using all the tools in its arsenal—including significantly expanding sanctions—to force Putin to meet our demands for freedom.

Finally, we must not lose sight of what is at stake. Sentsov may be fighting to free Ukrainian political prisoners specifically, but this fight transcends national boundaries. It is a timeless and universal fight for freedom and justice—the very values that our society is built on. Sentsov has not weeks, but fleeting days left.  And if he dies, so does a part of our humanity.

This article originally appeared on the Atlantic Council’s website

The main photo: Barbed wire and placards with images of Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov are seen after a rally demanding the release of Sentsov, who was jailed on terrorism charges and is currently on hunger strike in Russian jail, in front of the Russian embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine August 21, 2018. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko/File Photo

Valeria Jegisman of Free Russia Foundation caught up with Maxim Tuula, producer of “The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov,” during his recent visit to Washington, to talk about the film, the international campaign to support the political prisoner, attitudes towards his case in Russia, and the current state of Sentsov’s health.


The film was released about 1.5 years ago. While you were working on it, you probably had your goals and expectations. Do you feel you have achieved them? Apart from Oleg still being in jail.

When we were making this film we wanted to bring the message about Oleg Sentsov’s case to the widest international audience possible. After a premiere in Berlin, some Russian film critics – friends of ours – told us they didn’t really like the film because they expected more. Since most of them support Oleg Sentsov and know a lot about his case, they expected some kind of revelations. But we didn’t make the film for them. We made it for people who don’t know about Oleg’s case. We wanted to make an internationally relatable film to explain everything and I think it works.

In terms of creativity, I don’t know – for the sophisticated taste it’s not an intricate arthouse film. It’s too simple for that, but we had to choose one way or another. I asked Natalia, Oleg Sentsov’s cousin, whether she liked the film or not, and she said she didn’t think about it in artistic terms, but that it is an important tool to help Oleg’s cause.

However, after our premiere in Berlin, Netflix was looking at the film and whether to take it and they decided not to. And a lot of European channels didn’t take it. They said the film is not relevant to their audiences because it’s Ukraine, and no one knows who Oleg Sentsov is. That is unfortunate.

So it must have come as a disappointment?

Of course we were disappointed because we wanted to make it as big as possible. But we are trying, maybe things will change. When we were making the film, we started a publicity campaign where we recorded messages from European, Russian, and Ukrainian filmmakers to support Oleg’s release. But it was really hard to get feedback from their American counterparts.

Many of them said that they had never heard anything about it and asked why they should care about a Ukrainian filmmaker? Something changed when Johnny Depp joined another global campaign, Imprisoned for Art, and supported Oleg Sentsov. And thanks to Pen America awareness of Oleg’s case has risen in the States.

After the hunger strike began, the American media started writing more about Sentsov, especially after Masha Gessen, the Russian-American journalist, wrote about him in the New Yorker. Her participation in our film screening in New York a few weeks ago attracted a lot of interest and it helped raise awareness.

It seems to me that the international campaign has been quite prominent and far-reaching. A lot of people, including from film industry and international organizations, support Oleg Sentsov’s case. But what is less prominent is political support. What do you think about this and what else can civil society do to put more pressure on politicians?

The Institute of Documentary Film in Prague asked me what they could do to help – should they write an open letter to the Russian Minister of Culture, or to President Putin? But I told them they [Russian authorities] don’t care about you. The only thing you can do is try to make an impact by talking to your politicians, who in turn may try to influence Putin.

French President Emmanuel Macron raised the issue of Oleg’s case during his recent visit to Russia, probably because the French intelligentsia exerted pressure by signing a letter in support of Oleg. Yet it did not lead to any results because Putin was not interested. The president of European Council, Donald Tusk, issued a statement calling for the release of Oleg because our Polish co-producer Dariusz Jablonski and director Agnieszka Holland wrote a letter to Tusk. But again, it didn’t have any effect.

The Czech Institute of Documentary Film asked me what they could do to help and I said the same thing: you need to write the politicians. They showed Oleg’s own film, Gamer, and our film about Oleg at a festival in Karlovy Vary and then wrote an open letter on behalf of all the Czech filmmaking associations to the Czech Parliament, which eventually took up the matter. But again these were cultural figures raising the issue, not the parliament itself.

Of course, there are politicians who are very active in supporting Oleg – for example, the former Bundestag member Marieluise Beck, who even came to our Berlin premiere and was an active participant of our other German screenings. Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid also took part in the interantional campaign and she held a #FreeSenstov sign in her hands – but I wish there were more of them.

Putin will not listen to the Institute of Documentary Film, but he might listen to someone who has an impact on Russian or international politics. So, high-level politicians could probably influence Putin, but he would want to get something in return.

Did you expect that the World Cup would bring more attention to Oleg Sentsov’s case?

This is what Sentsov was hoping for when he started the hunger strike. He started his hunger strike just few weeks before the World Cup to attract attention to the Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Our friends in Moscow were handing out leaflets to the soccer fans who came to Russia. We thought that if even five out of a hundred fans took the leaflets, and started to think about it, then that’s something. Unfortunately, nothing happened. The World Cup and the case of Oleg Sentsov turned out to be two different universes, not really connected to each other. But let’s see what happens after the end of the World Cup, there is still hope that Putin will do something.

In the film, Oleg Sentsov says that the majority of the population in Russia believes the state propaganda, but one-third understands what is really going on. So the majority of people believe that Oleg is guilty, but there are those who try to stand up for him in Russia. It must take courage to do that in Russia. How do you assess the support for Oleg in Russia?

Well, I think one-third is an exaggeration and that it’s much fewer people, but still this is the thinking part of the Russian population, people who really question the order of things. The Russian filmmakers, they continue to support Sentsov because they feel the blame is partly on them since this is their government who is doing this, yet they can’t do anything about it.

There is a documentary made by Radio Liberty that shows activists handing out leaflets about Oleg to people on the streets of Moscow. Many people don’t take the leaflets, those who do don’t really want to know anything about it. They also say they won’t take one because he is Ukrainian. When they see the word Ukraine, they don’t even read it because it is the enemy – they are so brainwashed.

But the worst part is when people clearly understand what is going on, but close their eyes to this injustice.

Do you think they are just afraid to stand up, or that they just don’t care?

They are not afraid, they work for the regime. They support Putin, if it works for Putin, injustice is not a problem to them. Maybe some people are afraid, but I don’t think fear is the main factor here.

Once I happened to have a conversation with a former FSB officer who said it’s Sentsov’s own fault because he didn’t have to stick out. He clearly realizes Oleg is not a terrorist and that it’s a show trial. But it’s normal to him, it is normal to many people. It’s all right to have this kind of injustice if it has a purpose. And for me that is the worst part.

How is Oleg Sentsov’s health at the moment, do you keep in touch with him?

It is deteriorating, of course, because it’s been 61 days. At this point, the changes in your body become irreversible. Even if he stops the hunger strike, he may not fully recover. He has lost about 20 kilograms and his health is clearly deteriorating.

I’m going to ask a difficult question and you don’t have to answer it. Do you think Oleg did the right thing to go on a hunger strike?

It is his choice and I respect it. There is a discussion among Russian filmmakers about whether we should ask for a pardon from Putin or should not because we have to respect his decision. I respect his choice, and I wouldn’t convince him to stop. I wouldn’t do it myself because my family just wouldn’t let me, because it is a serious risk I would be taking. But he is absolutely convinced he is going to win and I hope Oleg will win. In any case, he has achieved what he was trying to do. He has brought attention to the issue of Ukrainian political prisoners, but if he has to pay with his life – it is a very high price.

Maxim Tuula is an Estonian film producer whose work also includes “My Friend Boris Nemtsov.” The interview with Tuula took place on 13 July 2018. Photo credits: snapshot from “The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov,” and Alexei Salomatov

Valeria Jegisman of Free Russia Foundation, sat down with Alexandr Morozov during his recent visit to Washington, D.C., to talk about Russia’s political system and future, the impact of sanctions against its elite, and the changes taking place in Russian society.

 

Beyond 2024

“Putin is not going to change the constitution [to get rid of term limits],” says Morozov, while also ruling out the creation of a Chinese-style state council that would allow Vladimir Putin to rule for life as its head. It is more likely that Putin will find a successor, he says, a young and loyal bureaucrat – not someone from the old guard. “Whatever position Putin is in, he will remain the real shareholder of this political system,” says Morozov, adding that whoever becomes Putin’s successor will lack any political independence.

During the intermediate period of 2008-2012, when power was temporarily handed over to Dmitry Medvedev, there were hopes he would offer an independent alternative. But post-2014 Russia is very different, says Morozov. The annexation of Crimea and growing tension with the West has led to a strong mobilization of the Russian society, and Putin’s successor will face resistance to any kind of change from the entire establishment. “Therefore, Putin has a simple scheme ahead of him – in 2024 he can transfer power to someone else, and then later return,” Morozov says.

Yet Russia is no longer dependent on a particular leader such as Putin, says Morozov, as society has fully accepted the underlying system of governance. Russia’s political system has deteriorated into a form of Eurasian autocracy, says Morozov, something is seen in Central Asia and Azerbaijan. This system can go on in perpetuity since any change in the system would require completely remaking many fundamental issues.

Any attempt to reform the system from within is perceived as subversive by society itself, which has come to terms with various constraints, says Morozov. “This is not the Kremlin pressuring society, as it was before 2014 when the Kremlin was manipulating various social groups to hold them in subjection. This is no longer a problem for the Kremlin – the submission of society is completely voluntarily.”


The West is no longer a model

Russian society no longer sees the West as its political, social or cultural model, as it did 20 years ago. “It has not become an enemy of the Russian people in the full sense of the word,” says Morozov, “but it has crumbled in their minds.” Many ordinary Russians have been to Western countries and they have come to believe that the Western way of life is just one model – not a superior one – while Russia and other non-Western countries have their own models. And similar to Erdogan’s Turkey, those who disagree can leave, and the rest of society will carry on.

The new system is not simply the result of a post-Crimean mobilization. Putin has been successful during his previous terms and during the recent election in providing a comfortable social contract to the main societal groups. For example, in Putin’s annual state-of-the-nation address on March 1, it was clear to millions of people employed in the infrastructure and construction industries that a vote for Putin would bring good employment opportunities and incomes for them and their families in the coming years. The same goes for the military and defense industry, where millions of people work, and the agricultural sector, which expects growth as a result of sanctions and import substitutes. Meanwhile, the elderly are given pension increases, the younger generation is given the opportunity to get involved in urban development, and young bureaucrats are given career prospects in public service. The dissatisfactions and tensions among different societal groups – inherent to any society – have therefore been successfully managed by the Kremlin through these various promises.

Whether there are enough resources to fulfill the election promises is another question, but society has taken the offer.


The younger generation and the Russian opposition – any hope for change?

The younger generations, who grew up not knowing any other leader than Putin (and nominally Dmitry Medvedev), are very patriotic and it appears they would rather have a “young Putin” than a new political system. There is no evidence or data from social research that shows that the new generation wants to radically reform the political and social system, says Morozov. By voting for Ksenia Sobchak, they are just voting for someone younger, yet essentially still a representative of the same system. And many probably see a “younger Putin” in Alexei Navalny, too.

“Young people expect that they will be co-opted, that the politics will be inclusive of them, and that Putin’s establishment will give them a chance in life,” says Morozov. He notes that many people in their thirties and forties hold key positions in government, and those in their twenties expect to have career opportunities. Putin’s bureaucrats are undergoing a rapid rejuvenation, says Morozov, and this is very different from Brezhnev’s era when regional and federal officials were all in their sixties and seventies.

Meanwhile, the Russian opposition is often accused of not being able to reach an agreement among themselves, says Morozov. He finds that the main problem is that the ideas of liberal values that originated in the 1990s have exhausted themselves, and not only in Russia. Across Europe, for example, the leaders of Velvet Revolutions are in the minority, says Morozov.

An additional challenge for the Russian opposition is competing with the promises Putin makes to society and coming up with an alternative to Putinism. This is something Alexei Kudrin and his Center for Strategic Research have been working on: trying to convince some of Putin’s bureaucrats that even minor changes could achieve some kind of development towards democracy and freedom. Yet the anti-Putin movement in Russia is very small and “can only fight for self-preservation,” says Morozov. The Putin opposition in Russia and abroad must come up with new ideas for a transition – it is no longer enough to say we propose a European model of development, says Morozov. “For example, there has to be changed in the military, which employs 4 million people. If they say they want to change, then something can significant happen.”


Sanctions on the mafia state

Morozov says sanctions are important, as they have a clear goal: the West wants Putin to end his interventionism abroad and his propaganda. However, sanctions have little impact on internal politics. They do not seem to have worked on ordinary people, who are convinced that Russia is on the defensive against the West. The Kremlin’s propaganda has worked well; it has persuaded all levels of Russian society, including the well-educated, that if the West imposes sanctions, it is an act of economic war against Russia and Russian companies.

There is no reason to expect that this will split the elites, says Morozov. In the last ten years, there has been a transformation within the so-called “oligarchat”. Those who oppose Putin have left Russia, and those who have stayed are deeply co-opted in the system. “They have made their choice,” says Morozov, “they must carry their fate to the end with Putin.”

Putin’s Russia is essentially a mafia state, says Morozov. It is organized in a similar way, with Putin’s underlings enjoying relative freedom, so long as they don’t challenge the leader. This does not necessarily mean that Putin is always aware of or agrees with all the activities of the various factions, but he is their guardian. If Putin had clearly stated that he would investigate one incident or another and that the perpetrators would be punished, there might not be such a big problem, says Morozov. But Putin defends everyone connected to Putinism.

This became especially clear after the shooting down of the Malaysian Boeing in 2014, and since Crimea, there seems to have been other groups that have carried out “uncoordinated” actions. Morozov says, “Putin believes that the West is waging a war against him, and Russia is certainly in a weaker position militarily and economically.” This is the basis, in Putin’s mind, for legitimizing the activities of those who are part of his system, even when he does not approve of their actions. According to Morozov, Putin and the Security Council of Russia frankly believe the Boeing was shot down accidentally, that Skripal’s poisoning is a provocation against the Kremlin, and that the recent chemical attack in Syria did not happen and is being used as a pretext by the West to intervene in Syria.


What else could the West do?

Firstly, says Morozov, the West could ramp up sanctions, so Russia would focus on its internal affairs and development instead of malign activities abroad. Sanctions should also be imposed on companies – and there are around 20 of them – that are involved in recruiting mercenaries in Russia for activities in Ukraine and Syria. Furthermore, sanctions should be brought against journalists who actively generate Kremlin propaganda on Russian state TV and against organizations which co-opt Western politicians to advocate the Kremlin’s views. The latter leaves the impression in Russia that the West shares the Kremlin’s views, thus strengthening propagandistic messages.

It is also important to support groups of Russian intellectuals who might provide the answer to Russia’s future. There is also a need for closer monitoring of human rights abuses in Russia, perhaps through the creation of new institution, since Russia’s nuclear capability and UN membership means it should be under greater scrutiny and pressure.

“No human rights violations have been observed in Crimea”, — announced the group Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD) political party members who visited Crimea in early February, 2018.

The nine-person delegation was composed of State Diet (Landtag) representatives and city council members, such as Evgeny Schmidt from the “Russian Germans for AfD” fraction; as well as Christian Blex, Nick Vogel, and Helmut Seifen, — all three from the North Rhine-Westphalia parliament.

The German parliamentarians had been invited to Crimea by the obscure organization called the Regional German Ethnic and Cultural Autonomy of the Republic of Crimea. Its Chair Yuri Gempe confirmed that the Autonomy covered part of the expenses associated with the trip. Incidentally, Mr. Gempe happens to serve on the Crimean State Council as representative of the Putin’s United Russia party.

This trip has set off an outpour of indignation from various German federal government officials, outraged the leadership of the AfD party itself and drove a wedge among its various chapters. While the Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia AfD factions have supported the visit, several local AfD chapters refused to endorse it. The Berlin AfD attempted to publicly distance itself from the controversial visit by stressing via its social media accounts that the trip was private in nature and the delegation members hadn’t received the mandate “from neither the faction nor from the party”.

“I am critical of this visit” – stated George Pazderski, the head of the Berlin AfD in his interview to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He felt that this initiative by his colleagues was dangerous in that it could “shut the doors to other east European countries”. He also speculated that the parliamentarians who visited Crimea may have been simply “used” by someone.

Notably, the visit has been covered extensively in the Russian media. Russian newspapers and TV channels have described in rich detail the astonishment of German guests who, contrary to their pre-trip expectations, observed modern well-designed highways instead of beat-down roads.

In their coverage, Russian outlets conveniently leave out certain details. For example, “not every segment clarifies that these were local officials representing State Diets (Landtag)”, —notes a reporter from Deutschlandfunk. “Instead, they are introduced simply as “German parliamentarians”. Such nuance is critical. The politicians who spent a week in Crimea and returned to Germany on February 9, are members of local parliaments from three states: North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Württemberg, and Berlin. They are not part of the AfD’s leadership and do not play a significant role in decision-making at the federal level. For example, one of them, Roger Beckamp, merely chairs an AfD chapter at the City Council of Cologne.

This was not the first trip by AfD representatives to Crimea. The April 2016 visit by an EU Parliamentarian and AfD member Marcus Pretzell to the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by the Russian Federation turned out just as scandalous when it was uncovered that it was sponsored by a Russian foundation. This became evident from the disclosure documents filed by the German politician at the insistence of the Ethics Commission of the European Parliament.

The Prosecutor’s Office of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (which is a part of Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine) has opened a criminal investigation against the German citizens who visited the peninsula. The announcement has been published on the website of Prosecutor’s Office.

The case was initiated under Article 332-1 Part 1 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine (“Violation of the entry regulations to the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine”). The Prosecutor’s Office stated, that “on February 3, 2018, a group of citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany arrived in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea in disregard of the order of entry to the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine. The above-mentioned citizens planned to use this visit to meet with representatives of the Russian occupation authorities to discuss cooperation with the German side”.

This, however, is not the end of the story of the odious adventures of AfD reps. Some of them (Christian Blex, for example) followed up with a trip to Syria, which also triggered a negative reaction, including from the ruling party of Christian Democrats (CDU).

On Tuesday, March 6, 2018, Michael Brand who represents the CDU/CSU parliamentary faction issued a statement denouncing the trip to Syria by a number of MPs from the AfD party. He declared that “meeting with criminal cliques” while “dictator al-Assad uses bombs and chemical weapons” is “just awful.” AfD members of parliament “did not shy away even from meeting the ruthless mufti” who, according to Brand, “called for suicide attacks in Europe and personally signed thousands of death warrants”.

Why would members of German local parliaments so actively pursue foreign affairs activities while conducting them “privately”? The AfD delegates insist that the latter trip was self-paid, which contradicts the Russian official story. Such activity is outside of their jurisdiction level and is not sanctioned by their party or even local chapters.  Clearly, courting scandal and the attention of the media is one of the key political tactics of the AfD. The Russian media omits from its coverage the AfD’s far-right populism, asks no inconvenient questions and portraits it as a viable political force in Germany.

We should, therefore, not be surprised to discover AfD representatives serving as so-called “independent” observers during the Russian presidential elections. Exactly what they will “observe” is hardly a mystery either.

The Russian government is planning a large “international” conference in Crimea this April.  The invitations have been already issued to the left-wingers as well as to AfD members. We will just have to wait and see whether the AfD participation will once again take the form of “personal visits”, or the party leadership would finally stop this homegrown diplomacy.

More than 2.25 million people turned out for Sunday’s referendum across Catalonia, a region in the northeast of Spain. The regional government said 90% of voters were in favor of a split from Madrid. But the turnout was low – around 42% of the voter roll. Catalan authorities blamed the figure on the crackdown on the vote initiated by the national government. Almost 900 people were injured, during clashes with Spanish police forces.

Another bloody battle provoked by the referendum happened in Russian and Ukrainian social media where a massive number of opinion makers, bloggers and regular users tried to interpret actions in Spain through the prism of a three-year old trauma –  a so-called “referendum” in Crimea.

To get a bold and comprehensive look into the phenomena of referenda, including manipulation and disinformation possibilities related to it, Free Russia Foundation asked Michael Arno for his expert opinion on direct democracy and referenda campaigns.

An election can be a clarifying event.  So too can the suppression of an election.

Over the weekend, more than two million Catalans, greater than 40 percent of those eligible, voted in a referendum on independence from Spain. To which Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared, “There was no independence referendum in Catalonia today.”

Spanish authorities shut down referendum websites and sent hordes of national police into the region to seize ballots and forcibly prevent people from voting. News reports are full of those police using rubber bullets on crowds, smashing their way into polling places and roughing up people.  Nearly a thousand citizens of Catalonia were injured in various clashes

While the referendum result was a lopsided 90 percent opting for independence, previous polling shows Catalans split on the question. Perhaps the suppression worked best with those opposed to separation from Spain, who seem to have stayed home.

Earlier last week, Iraqi Kurds also held a referendum in which voters overwhelmingly favored separation — in this case from Iraq and for the formation of their own wholly independent nation. And, likewise, others, including the United States, tried to block the vote. Thankfully, not by force.  However, Turkey and Iran oppose an independent Kurdistan because they fear it will embolden demands by their own Kurdish populations for greater autonomy.

Referenda for independence has long been seen as the perfect demonstration of democratic will or as a lawless action by terrorists wishing to destroy a great nation.  How one falls on those views is strictly in the eye of the beholder.

 

Pavel Elizarov, political activist, eyewitness of the referendum in Catalonia:

“The day of the referendum that I observed in Barcelona gave me a lot to think about.  The brutal action of the Spanish police was not surprising – thousands of them were deployed there for the likely purpose of blocking the vote. There is no reason in questioning the accuracy and honesty of the ballot counting. The most impressive thing about this referendum was an ability of Catalans to organize voting and counting based on effective grassroots organization. The significant role in this was played by the technical strategy: for example, the possibility of voting at any polling station was mentioned only during the beginning of the voting.

From another side, the final numbers predictably show a lack of unity within Catalans: the referendum became a roll call for independence supporters. Two million final votes “in favor” of separation out of 7.5 million total population of Catalans is roughly equal to the number of votes for the ruling coalition in recent parliamentary elections. Such a number will force the leaders of the republic to keep counting the other opinion in following steps.”

 

Almost 26 years ago, Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union by forcing a referendum vote by gathering more than 800,000 signatures.  On December 1, 1991, 92% of Ukrainian voters opted for independence, thereby all but crushing what remained of the Soviet Union.  The next day, the U.S. and hundreds of other countries recognized Ukraine as an independent state.  Yet six weeks later, a similar independence referendum was held in South Ossetia and a year earlier a vote was held in Abkhazia for a return to the Soviet Union from Georgia.  Nearly 99% of the votes (Georgians boycotted the referendum vote) were cast for leaving Georgia, but the U.N. and most other countries refused to recognize the vote.

It’s been impossible over the years to remove geopolitics and sometimes ancient territorial claims from independence referenda.  Once an independence vote succeeds, it has a domino effect on other regions making similar claims.  China abhors the recognition of an independent state out of fear Tibet will find a way to stage a similar vote.  The United Kingdom wants to stay united and that means keeping Scotland in the fold with even the thinnest of connections remaining.  Spain will be concerned that the Catalans will encourage the Basques and Romania will worry that the western part of the country would rather unify with Hungary to say nothing of the recent seizure of Crimea by Russia and the desire China holds for Taiwan and a great deal of the South China Sea.

Democracy can be a wonderful thing because it’s a full expression of the will of the people, but it can also have its consequences.  When there’s an attempt to block democracy, as in the case of Catalan, Spain will be left with two bad choices:  allow the vote to count and recognize Catalan’s independence, or refuse to accept the voters and hold the Catalans in Spain against their will.  It remains to be seen how this will play out and how it will affect others with similar claims to independence.

The Wall Street Journal published an editorial last Thursday arguing that the recent escalation of conflict on the border of Russian-occupied Crimea is “a pretext…to pull out of peace talks,” and that these events are the latest indication of Western (particularly the Obama Administration’s) weakness in the face of Russian aggression.

Continue reading Russia’s Crimea Escalations Require a Deeper Look

Victory Day means millions of people’s stories carefully told from generation to generation. There used to be those happy days when the Kremlin didn’t need this holiday for its pseudo-patriotic frenzy, and real heroes were marching along central streets of various cities and towns tearfully greeted by young Russians.

Continue reading “We cannot do it again”

In 2015, Crimea realized it did not become a special region for Russia. Now it is time to reflect on the changes in peninsula’s economy, tourism, human rights situation and its relations with mainland Ukraine.

Continue reading Farewell to sacredness. What 2015 brought to Crimea