Roskomnadzor’s ultimatum: a new round of censorship in Russia
On February 1, 2022, dozens of independent media outlets received a 24-hour order from Roskomnadzor (Russian Federal Service for Supervision in Information and Communications) to remove news and materials related to investigations by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.
TV channel Dozhd was ordered to remove six specific articles. Radio station Echo of Moscow— thirty-four posts. Meduza media outlet received a list of seventeen items, Znak.com—thirteen, The Village—eight, the Saratov newspaper Svobodnye Novosti —nine, and Bumaga from Saint Petersburg— three. Radio Liberty may have set a record with a notice enumerating 40 posts ordered for removal by Roskomnadzor; letters have also been received by the Ukrainian, Tajik, Kazakh, and Tatar-Bashkir services of the radio station.
The information that the Russian government finds so offensive mainly deals with real estate owned by officials and their families, including the head of Roskosmos Dmitry Rogozin, presidential aide Vladimir Medinsky, State Duma deputy Leonid Slutsky, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, and Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev. Among the materials that Roskomnadzor demanded to be urgently removed were also FBK’s investigation into a luxury palace near Gelendzhik allegedly custom-built for Putin.
On January 28, 2022, Roskomnadzor also alerted the Office of the Prosecutor General that the outlets “disseminate materials from an organization whose activities are banned under the law against extremism.” In 2021, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation was designated as foreign agent, extremist organization and banned in Russia.
Many of the outlets complied with Roskomnadzor orders to avoid having their online resources blocked. Tikhon Dzyadko, editor-in-chief of Dozhd, wrote in a Telegram post that he views such developments as an undeniable act of censorship, but “the blocked site would prevent the media from reporting on the following investigations,” he added. In addition, the Navalny investigations targeted by Roskomnadzor have been distributed on many platforms “and in general everywhere on the Internet,” he noted. Meduza, Echo of Moscow, Znak.com and other editorials have also removed publications under the threat of being blocked in Russia.
However, Radio Liberty and Current Time TV channel refused to remove articles about Navalny’s investigations. Jamie Fly, director of the media corporation, said that Radio Liberty would not comply with Roskomnadzor’s demands. “We will not allow the Kremlin to dictate our editorial decisions,” he said. The corporation called the Roskomnadzor’s demands “a blatant act of political censorship.”
Alexey Navalny’s spokesperson Kira Yarmysh called Roskomnadzor’s demands an act of censorship. “Absolutely pure naked evil that everyone resents by reading about it in history textbooks. And now it’s all in reality before our eyes,” the Navalny associate tweeted.
Roskomnadzor is the Russian federal executive agency responsible for monitoring, controlling and censoring Russian mass media. The service has repeatedly been accused of attempting to censor the Internet and violate freedom of speech by blocking websites and services under the pretext of not transferring data to Russia from foreign web servers or “protecting children from harmful information” or directly criticizing the activities of the Russian Government or Parliament.
Censorship and violations of the right to freedom of speech are expressly prohibited by Article 29 of the Russian Constitution, but Clause 4 contains an exception to the rule that the legislature has the right to restrict the right to disseminate information by a federal law, which is regularly used by Roskomnadzor.
Why the Navalny Team’s Investigations Are Important Not Only to Russians
Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation investigated corruption in the highest echelons of the Russian government, big business, and regional elites.
The Foundation was created by Navalny in 2011. According to its website, its only source of funding over the years has been donations from supporters. The organization employed approximately 40 people who searched for and uncovered corrupt schemes and cases of illicit enrichment, and drafted complaints to the Investigative Committee of Russia, the Prosecutor’s Office, and the municipal services.
Since 2013, the FBK has released over 80 investigations, making serious waves in the public opinion. FBK’s documentary “Putin’s Palace.The Story of the Biggest Bribe” received over 120 million views and became the most viewed non-interactive content on Russian-language YouTube, as well as the record-breaker in the number of positive user ratings in the Russian YouTube segment.
Alexey Navalny has consistently emphasized that corruption is not only one of Russia’s main problems, but also one of the most important issues for the entire world. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the global ideological confrontation, it was corruption— in its classic definition of ‘the use of one’s official status for personal gain’— has become the universal basis for the new authoritarian international to blossom, from Russia and Eritrea to Myanmar and Venezuela. And corruption has long ceased to be only an internal problem of these countries. It is almost always one of the main causes of the world’s problems that the West faces,” Navalny wrote in his 2021 column published in major Western media outlets.
An important aspect of corruption in authoritarian countries— and Russia is a prime example here— is its use of the financial infrastructure of the West— 90% of the money stolen by an autocrat is stored there. According to Navalny himself, the FBK investigations should not only open Russians’ eyes to corruption in Russia, but also encourage Western leaders to show determination and political will towards Russian corrupt officials who take their assets to the West and legalize them there.
Alexey Navalny has expressed dismay that the FBK investigations do not seem to trigger action by Western tax authorities and prosecutors. “The US, the UK and Germany have excellent tools and laws for fighting foreign corruption. Guess how many cases were opened after the investigations of our Anti-Corruption Foundation, which is now qualified by Putin’s government as an extremist organization? That’s right, not a single one. Even Western law enforcement agencies behave cautiously with corrupt foreign officials,” Navalny reports.
Navalny’s team’s meticulously documented investigations churn up materials that could serve basis for the introduction of more precise sanctions —not only against law enforcement officials, but also against oligarchs and corrupt businessmen from Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and beyond. This is how Navalny describes it: “Until personal sanctions are imposed on the oligarchs – first and foremost from Putin’s entourage, who is a role model for corrupt officials and businessmen around the world – any anti-corruption rhetoric from the West will be perceived as a game and a hollow talking point. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing the names of colonels and generals of special services no one has ever heard of on another sanctions list, but not seeing the names of those in whose interests these colonels are acting. Putin’s oligarchs who run “state-owned” or formally private companies are not businessmen, but leaders of organized criminal groups. Right now the Western establishment is acting like Pavlov’s dog. You show them a secret service colonel, they shout, “Punish him!” You show them an oligarch who pays the colonel, and they shout, “Invite him to Davos!”
Perhaps this issue will move forward thanks to the Navalny List, a 2021 listing of 35 individuals from the upper echelon of Russia’s elite implicated in corruption and human rights abuses, as well as those directly linked to the poisoning and imprisonment of the Russian opposition leader. The list was compiled thanks to years of hard work by the FBK team. On September 24, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives approved an amendment to tighten anti-Russian sanctions in the new fiscal year’s defense budget. The House of Representatives bill calls the list’s members “Russian kleptocrats and human rights violators.”
Five Strikes Against The Kremlin.
Strike One: “Chaika”
Case in focus: an investigation into the business activities of the family of Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika. The investigation mainly focuses on the official’s sons Artem and Igor.
Release date: 12/01/2015
Number of views on YouTube: 25 million
Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) published a huge investigation about the family of Prosecutor General Yury Chaika. It is mainly about his eldest son, Artem Chaika.
Artem Chaika owns the posh Pomegranate hotel in Greece on the Halkidiki peninsula. Olga Lopatina, the former wife of Deputy Prosecutor General Gennadi Lopatin, also owns a stake in the hotel. The FBK staff believes that their divorce is a formal one, as she still wears a wedding ring.
Olga Lopatina is a co-owner of the Kuban Sakhar company, shares in which belong to the wives of Sergei Tsapok and Vyacheslav Tsepovyaz – leaders of the Kushchevskaya organized crime group, who committed the brutal murder of 12 people, including four children, which shocked Russia.
Artem Chaika has a villa in Greece where construction is continuing. Nearby, Olga Lopatina is building a villa for herself. FBK examined her tax returns from her time as the wife of Deputy Prosecutor General (up until 2011) and found that Lopatin earned 18 million rubles – not enough to buy part of a hotel and a villa.
Artem Chaika owns a house in Switzerland worth about three million dollars. At the same time, he lists the Swiss address of his more humble home in all the documents. Artem Chaika keeps money in Swiss accounts.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Artem Chaika seized the Verkhne-Lenskoe River Shipping Company in the Irkutsk region and appropriated 12 ships. That’s how Yury Chaika’s son allegedly earned his first capital, which he exported to Switzerland. The FBK investigation details the entire embezzlement scheme.
Artem Chaika has a holding company with a turnover of hundreds of millions of dollars. He buys assets randomly: he has salt and sand mining, construction, brick-making, and law offices.
The business structures of the youngest son of the Prosecutor General, Igor Chaika, were able to get government contracts worth 300 billion rubles.
Domestic and international reaction:
According to a mid-December 2015 study by the Levada Center, 38 percent of Russians knew about the film “Chaika” in one way or another. At the same time, 82% of Russians who have heard of the film consider the corruption schemes and connections with criminal groups described in the film to be typical for the modern Russian authorities.
In his official statement on December 3, Prosecutor General Yury Chaika called the film a fraud, and the facts presented in it untrue.
On December 7, Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the information from the film did not arouse the Kremlin’s interest.
On December 8, 2015, the Anti-Corruption Foundation filed a complaint against Artyom Chaika with the Swiss Prosecutor’s Office based on suspicions of money laundering. The complaint mentioned Artyom and Igor Chaika, the sons of the Russian Prosecutor General, as well as other individuals, firms, bank accounts, and real estate allegedly connected to them. In order to exclude any bias in the verification, the prosecutor’s office assigned the investigation to a special police unit in Lugano, which investigates “white collar” crime. The investigation confirmed that the individuals named in the complaint were in Switzerland and were connected to the company mentioned in the complaint. However, no money laundering facts were identified. Later, Artyom Chaika received a notification from the Swiss prosecutor’s office that there were no claims against him. Also, based on his own petition, Artyom Chaika received a notice from Greek officials stating that the transaction he had conducted in Greece to purchase a hotel on the island of Halkidiki was legal.
Strike Two: “He Is Not Dimon To You”
Case in focus: An investigation into the multibillion-dollar property and corruption schemes used to enrich Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, formerly President of Russia.
Release Date: 03/02/2017
Number of views on YouTube: 44 million
The investigation “He Is Not Dimon To You. Palaces, Yachts, Vineyards – Dmitry Medvedev’s Secret Empire” deals with the real estate and expensive hobbies of then-Prime Minister Medvedev in Russia and abroad. The film is divided into 10 parts – “chapters”, each lasting about five minutes. The majority of episodes deal with the assets of the “Dar” charitable foundation and its related companies. The chairman of the foundation’s supervisory board is Ilya Eliseev, an old acquaintance and classmate of Medvedev’s, who is referred to in the film as Medvedev’s key confidant. The film shows that, on the one hand, Medvedev is acquainted with the foundation’s management and uses the foundation’s property for recreation, while, on the other hand, the foundation is filled with contributions from Russian oligarchs.
According to the authors of the investigation, the image of an official who no one takes seriously has been created artificially. In reality, Medvedev is “the creator and head of a huge, multi-level corruption scheme. According to the FBK, the house on Rublevka District of Moscow, worth about 5 billion rubles, was a gift from oligarch Alisher Usmanov to structures associated with Medvedev. The FBK called this “gift” a “bribe.”
According to the anti-corruption activists, Medvedev is also connected to another estate on Rublevo-Uspensky Drive, as well as a residence in Kursk region, a mansion in St. Petersburg, two estates by the sea in Krasnodar Krai, a mansion near Sochi, vineyards near Anapa (Krasnodar Krai, Russia) and in Italy, and an estate in Ivanovo region of Russia (already announced by Navalny’s supporters last year).
The FBK investigation also disclosed two yachts registered in the names of people close to Medvedev. Navalny’s supporters claim that the funds of the foundations and companies that the head of the government controls total at least 70 billion rubles. In addition to Usmanov, the sources of this money include shareholders of the gas company Novatek Leonid Mikhelson and Leonid Simanovsky, as well as Gazprombank and Bashneft. Most of the funds, according to FBK, are withdrawn to offshore accounts.
Based on this information, Navalny accused Medvedev of creating a “multi-level corruption scheme” and “taking bribes from the oligarchs.” He said that thousands of people are involved in “servicing the schemes” and that his real estate is “guarded by state security services.”
Following the release of the film, FBK sent a statement to the Russian Investigative Committee demanding that criminal charges be filed against Dmitry Medvedev and billionaire Alisher Usmanov for bribery. Navalny accused the Russian authorities of failing to respond appropriately to the investigation and called for rallies across Russia to “ask the authorities to answer our questions about corruption.” On March 26, 2017, tens of thousands of people marched in several dozen Russian cities for mass anti-corruption protests, which were then repeated on June 12, 2017. The protesters’ main demand was the resignation of Dmitry Medvedev from his post.
On April 5, at a plenary session, the State Duma refused to support the CPRF party’s proposal to contact law enforcement agencies and verify the information presented in the FBK investigation.
On April 4, 2017, Dmitry Medvedev called the FBK investigation “rubbish, nonsense,” collected “according to the principle of compote,” and on April 19, he said that he would not “comment on the absolutely false products of political crooks.” For his part, Alisher Usmanov filed a libel suit against Navalny and FBK. On May 31, 2017, the Lublinsky District Court in Moscow ordered Navalny to retract the information in the investigation and remove the publications about Usmanov.
Navalny refused to comply with the court’s decision and appealed.
At the moment, materials about this investigation have been removed from the websites of most Russian media outlets at the request of Roskomnadzor and under the threat of blocking.
Strike Three: “Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov transports dogs on a private plane”
Case in focus: in two investigations, the FBK found that Deputy Prime Minister Shuvalov has a private jet for transporting dogs, as well as a large amount of luxury real estate
Release dates: 07/14/2016 and 03/06/2018
Number of views on YouTube: 2.5 million (1st investigation), 7.5 million (2nd investigation)
Second Investigation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbRoZyuOijk
The Anti-Corruption Foundation published an investigation showing that Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov spends 130 million rubles a year on flights on a private jet and another 40 million on transporting his wife’s dogs to participate in foreign shows.
The FBK staff found that a member of the Russian government may own a $50 million Bombardier Global Express plane, which Shuvalov uses as a private jet. In the summer of 2018, it was also reported that Shuvalov’s family actually also owns a Gulfstream G650 aircraft with an estimated value of about $70 million.
Most often (18 times a year) the plane flew to Salzburg, Austria, where Shuvalov’s wife owns real estate. It was found that sometimes a private plane flew this route several times a week. The FBK investigation noted that the service of a one-way flight to Salzburg on a private plane costs from $40,000.
Olga Shuvalova, the wife of the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, confirmed to FBK the fact of flights with dogs on a private plane: “We take our dogs to exhibitions on our declared plane. By the way, of international level, to defend the honor of Russia”.
The investigation also revealed that Shuvalov’s money manager is buying up an entire floor of apartments in a high-rise on Moscow’s Kotelnicheskaya Embankment – 10 apartments worth about 600 million rubles. The fund previously wrote about Deputy Prime Minister’s London apartment of about 500 square meters and costing about 700 million rubles, as well as a luxurious Rolls-Royce for 40 million rubles.
Shuvalov’s family also occupied the former state summer residence of CPSU Politburo member Mikhail Suslov in the Odintsovsky district near Moscow on the area of about 7.5 hectares. The Italian architect Giuliano Moretti was in charge of designing the buildings, and the official’s neighbors include billionaires Roman Abramovich and Suleiman Kerimov.
Some economic observers believed that Shuvalov caused great irritation to the public by his indifferent attitude to the problems of ordinary citizens and the obvious “inter-class gaps.” Negative assessments of Shuvalov were given by opposition politician Vladimir Milov, who once worked with Shuvalov, drawing attention to the fact that he “does not hesitate to show money,” unlike his former boss Alexander Voloshin.
Shuvalov resigned as first deputy prime minister of the Russian government on May 24, 2018, and was appointed by the Russian president as chairman of Vneshekonombank. It was reported that “the investigations did not affect the official’s career and are not related to his possible departure from the government.”
Strike Four: “I Know All Those Who Tried To Kill Me”
Case in focus: A two-part video narrative about the secret group of assassins who tried to poison Alexey Navalny with a deadly chemical agent
Release Date: 12/14/2020 and 12/21/2020
Number of views on YouTube: 26 million (1st investigation), 29 million (2nd investigation)
Second investigation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibqiet6Bg38
On December 14, 2020, The Insider, Bellingcat and CNN, with the participation of Der Spiegel and FBK, released a joint journalistic investigation. According to its conclusions, eight employees of the FSB special group followed Alexey Navalny for several years and poisoned him with Novichok warfare agent.
The investigators established the identities of the employees involved in the poisoning by comparing cell phone billing data with offline databases.
By analyzing airline flight records, investigators found that members of the group had flown to dozens of Russian cities where Navalny had flown to since 2017 – usually two or three operatives went on each trip, their lineup constantly alternating. They bought tickets under real and fictitious names, and tried to fly not on the same flights as Navalny, but on parallel ones, often from other Moscow airports. The main activity came in 2017 (when Navalny announced his intention to run for presidency) and then in 2020.
Navalny himself, commenting on the investigation, called what happened “state terrorism.”
At the end of December 2020, the second part of the investigation came out: Navalny called an FSB officer and recorded a conversation with him, saying that this conversation was an actual confession by a Russian special services officer of his participation in an assassination attempt.
Domestic and international reaction:
The poisoning of Navalny caused an international outcry and became a turning point in modern Russian history.
Even before the release of the investigation, on September 3, 2020, the European Union Foreign Affairs Office issued a declaration in which on behalf of all 27 EU member states, as well as Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Northern Macedonia, Montenegro, Georgia and Ukraine condemned in the strongest terms the attack on Alexey Navalny. German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a statement calling the attempt on Navalny’s life an attempt to silence him, “a crime against the basic values for which we stand.” Boris Johnson, for his part, said that the poisoning of Navalny “shocked the world” and called Russia’s use of chemical weapons “outrageous.” On October 15, “for the use of chemical weapons for the attempted murder of Alexey Navalny,” the European Union imposed sanctions against FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov and five other high-ranking Russian officials and security officers, as well as against the state-owned plant that was involved in the development of Novichok. On the same day, the United Kingdom announced similar sanctions.
According to the EU, the poisoning of Navalny was possible “only with the consent of the presidential administration” and with the participation of the FSB. Navalny himself believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally behind the attempt on his life. Putin himself characterized the investigation as “legalization of materials from the American secret services,” and said that if the Russian secret services had wanted to poison Navalny, they would have completed the case.
On December 23rd, a U.S. State Department spokesman accused the FSB of poisoning Navalny and the Russian leadership of creating conspiracy theories around him.
In mid-January 2021, Navalny returned to Russia. He was detained at the airport on suspicion of violating his probation in the Yves Rocher case. According to the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service, Navalny failed to report to his place of residence several times, as required by law for those sentenced to probation. Navalny himself indicated that he had been unable to do so because he had been undergoing rehabilitation in Berlin after being poisoned. On February 2 the politician was sentenced to two and a half years in a penal colony, after which several more criminal cases were initiated against him.
On August 20, 2021, on the anniversary of the poisoning of Navalny, Britain imposed sanctions on seven FSB officers it believes were involved in the poisoning. The U.S. imposed sanctions against nine FSB officers. In addition, the U.S. announced a second round of sanctions against Russia for the use of chemical weapons in the poisoning of Navalny, under which the U.S. imposed additional restrictions on exports of nuclear and missile-related products and technologies, as well as restrictions on imports of certain Russian firearms and ammunition.
Strike Five: “Putin’s Palace”
Case in focus: An investigative documentary about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal, incredibly expensive “mini-state” on the shores of the Black Sea.
Release Date: 01/19/2021
Number of views on YouTube: 121 million
The documentary “A Palace for Putin” tells the story of a 17,700 square meter palace for the Russian president built on the Black Sea near Gelendzhik. According to the FBK, its construction was financed by state and private companies connected to Putin’s friends through corrupt schemes. The FBK estimated the total amount of money spent on the palace and the vineyards around it to be at least 100 billion rubles.
The authors of the investigation managed to unravel the complex web of property relationships around the palace. The data they collected showed that the palace belongs to Putin’s nephew, and its maintenance is entrusted to old cronies of the Russian president: former KGB employees.
The area of the palace complex is 68 hectares, and 7,000 hectares of land around the palace (including the airspace) is a closed area under the jurisdiction of the FSB. The film claims that the Russian president’s residence near Gelendzhik was built in 2010 and has an underground ice palace, an “aquadiscotheque,” a concert hall, a church, an 80-meter bridge “for the approach to the tea house” and a tunnel to descend from the palace to the sea.
Domestic and international reaction:
Vladimir Putin, commenting on the investigation, stated that the palace had never been registered in his name and did not belong to his close relatives. In response, Navalny’s team pointed out that neither Putin’s brother-in-law Nikolai Shamalov, in whose name the palace was registered, nor Putin’s great-nephew Mikhail Shelomov, who was managing the construction site, were indeed close relatives under the Russian Family Code. Later, the owner of the facility called himself a businessman longtime acquaintance of Putin’s Arkady Rotenberg. He claimed that he was building an apartment hotel.
According to the Levada Center, of those who have seen the film, are aware of its contents, or have heard about it, the attitude toward Putin has worsened; 3% of those who have improved; 80% of those who have not changed. At the same time, 17% are certain that the content of the film is true; 38% believe that it is similar to the truth, but it is difficult to verify; and 33% are certain that it is not true.
The film caused widespread resonance and outrage in almost all of the world’s major media outlets. Many Western journalists were shocked by the size of Vladimir Putin’s alleged palace, which is 39 times the size of the Principality of Monaco.
According to experts, the investigation was a serious blow to the position of the authorities and the image of the Russian president. It has also seriously broadened Navalny’s audience, allowing him to collect additional donations from sympathizers.
The investigation about Putin’s palace was a serious hit to the Kremlin, after which any actions by the authorities against Navalny were perceived as retaliation for the investigation. And so it happened: Alexey Navalny was detained at Sheremetyevo airport on January 17, 2021, immediately after returning from Germany, where he had undergone treatment and rehabilitation after severe poisoning. He was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison.
In the winter and spring of 2021, there were mass street protests in Russia – protests related to the detention of Navalny and rallies in his support. Police and Rosgvardia officers detained a record number of people at these events. The law enforcement agencies acted harshly; criminal proceedings were instituted against dozens of protesters.
Many of Navalny’s supporters were also put under investigation, or forced to leave Russia in a hurry. The politician’s structures are now considered extremist and banned in Russia. Any individual who has in any way helped or expressed sympathy for the opposition leader is now barred from running for a seat in the State Duma for several years.
On June 9, 2021, the FBK in Russia was recognized as an extremist organization and liquidated by court order.