Russian Conspiracy Theories about Boston Bombings Abound

Conspiracy theories flourish in times of confusion and uncertainty. Claims that the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings were part of some sort of US government-led false flag operation were circulating on the English-speaking internet before the dust had literally settled, particularly on conspiracy forums and social media groups like the Citizens Action Network.

The news that the two bombing suspects were ethnic Chechens turned what had been a passing interest for the RuNet into the number one topic of conversation [GV]. Because the RuNet, just like the Internet at large, has always had a penchant for conspiracy theories, the events in Boston provided ample fodder for some its more paranoid denizens. For example, the pro-regime nationalist LiveJournal community vvv-ig [ru] was quick to place the blame on the American intelligence services, running an extremely graphic post [ru] from the blogger frallik [ru], outlining how the bombings had in fact been faked using actors. The post, mainly using materials and memes sourced from western sites, alleged, among other things, that a man who was in the epicenter of the explosion and lost both of his legs was in fact an Iraq war veteran and previous amputee named Nick Vogt.

Despite the fact that the vvv-ig commonly deals in anti-American conspiracies, the allegation that the bombings had been faked proved too bizarre for some contributors. Blogger proobman [ru] published a rebuttal [ru] in the same community, pointing out that the man who lost his legs was in fact named Jeff Bauman, who has a Facebook page and a fund set up to aid his recovery. Interestingly, proobman’s issues with accusations of “staging” appears partially due their similarity to ones leveled at the Russian security services: that they were behind the bombings of several apartment buildings in 1999 [en] as a pretext for the Second Chechen War. proobman quipped:

Башни-близнецы взорвал Буш, Буйнакск и Волгодонск – Путин. Обама взорвал марафон. Продам шапочки из фольги, недорого.

Bush blew up the Twin Towers, Putin blew up [the towns of] Buinaksk and Volgodonsk. Obama blew up the marathon. Tin foil hats for sale, cheap.

The two suspects, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. FBI.gov, April 25, 2013

While many Russian bloggers were quick to accuse the FBI and CIA of carrying out or staging the bombings, one group in particular has almost entirely rejected the official version of events: the Chechens. The Tsarnaev family itself continues to profess their sons’ innocence. The belief that the Tsarnaev Brothers are innocent (or have at least been set up in some way) is common among groups and individuals ranging from Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, to his sworn enemies at KavkazCenter [ru], the online mouthpiece of the Caucasian Emirate. While the Tsarnaevs’ innocence may be one of the incredibly few things Chechens can agree on, radically different conclusions have been drawn about who is to blame. Kadyrov stated publicly [ru] that “what happened in Boston is the fault of the American security services”. Kavkaz Center pointed the finger [ru] squarely at Kadyrov himself, and claimed he was acting on orders from Putin.

Кадыров очень удобная фигура для выполнения «грязных дел». В случае необходимости его можно в любой момент ликвидировать, спрятав все концы, и никто этому не удивится. На нём кровь десятков тысяч чеченцев, да и моджахеды ведут на него постоянную охоту.

Kadyrov is a very useful figure for carrying out “dirty business”. If the situation required it, he could be liquidated at any moment, concealing all evidence, and no one would be surprised. He has the blood of tens of thousands of Chechens on his hands and the mujaheddin are constantly hunting him.

Chechen blogger Zulikhan [ru], whose views on the Boston bombing are discussed in detail here [GV], saw the hands of both the Russian and American security services at work in the bombings.

Путин и Обама, по инициативе российской стороны, договорились по телефону о координации усилий в борьбе с международным терроризмом. Считаю, что за событиями в Бостоне торчат уши российских спецслужб. По принципу “кому выгодно”. […] Путину выгодно – чтобы Штаты не мешали России творить на Северном Кавказе все, что угодно, под видом борьбы с терроризмом.

Putin and Obama, at the initiative of the Russians, have come to an agreement about coordinating efforts in combating international terrorism. I think that the Russian special services are visible behind the events in Boston. Based on the “who profits” principle. […] Putin profits — so that the States let Russia do what it wants in the North Caucasus under the guise of fighting terrorism.

Netizens have not confined themselves to speculation and counterfactuals. Some have set up an active defense of Tsarnaev. An April 21 petition on Avaaz.org entitled “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is innocent” [en] gained over 5,500 signatures in four days. Ethnic Chechens actively distributed links [ru[ to the petition on social media. A rolling tally at the side of the page showed the names and locations of the signatories, many of whom were located in Russia and many of whom had Chechen names. According to the author of the page, when enough signatures are collected the letter will be delivered to Barack Obama.

Avaaz-tiff
List of recent signatures to an online petition proclaiming Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s innocence. “Lom-Ali” and “Khamzat” are Chechen names. Screenshot. April 25, 2013

Chechnya and her people have suffered greatly throughout this century and the last. It seems in this case they are reluctant to suffer yet another indignity – that of having their people’s name tied to a terrorist act half way around the world. Someone is to blame no doubt, but few in Chechenya want to believe it is the two young men whose family left their war-town country years ago.

This post first appeared on Global Voices at http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/04/27/russian-conspiracy-theories-about-boston-bombings-abound/

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Is The Kremlin Trying To Force The Russian “Mark Zuckerburg” Out Of The Country?

A seemingly endless supply of astonishing dash-cam videos have come out of Russia in the last few years, but this one is still impressive for the driver’s apparent brazenness. A white Mercedes is pulled over on St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospect by police for a series of serious traffic violations. When the police attempt to walk over to the car, the driver takes off, despite the fact that the two officers are hemmed in beside the Mercedes by additional traffic and any potential exit from the situation is blocked by additional traffic. In the process, one of the officers is hit by the car. As the officers proceed to question the driver, another individual appears to approach them. The driver runs away and the second man, who allegedly identified himself as the driver’s “security guard” appears to block the officers from pursuing.

On April 9 2013, Russian news outlets began reporting that the driver was believed to be none other than Pavel Durov, the 28-year-old founder of Russia’s most popular social network, VKontakte (Russian for “in contact”), which boasts over 100 million active users. Durov is sometimes referred to as “The Russian Mark Zuckerberg” and his website is often claimed to be closely modelled on the success of a better known social networking site. NTV reported that Durov had been identified by several St. Petersburg “internet detectives” after a number of pictures were discovered of him “standing next to” the white Mercedes in question.

News also emerged that one of the officers had recognised Durov from a photograph. VKontakte put out an official statement claiming that “Pavel Durov doesn’t own a car, he walks to work or gets the metro” (the car in question is in fact registered to VKontatke’s Vice President Ilya Perekopsky, who resides in Moscow). Durov, for his part, also denied any involvement in the incident and has not officially been named as a suspect, merely a potential witness.

Several days later on April 16, investigators from Russia’s Investigative Committee conducted a search of VKontakte’s offices in St. Petersburg and Durov’s home in connection with alleged hit and run. The next day, it was announced that Durov’s business partners, Lev Leviev and Vyacheslav Mirilashvili, who together own 48 per cent of VKontakte’s voting shares, had sold them to United Capital Partners. UCP group’s President, Ilya Sherbovich, sits on the board of directors of both Rosneft, (Russia’s state oil company) and Transneft (Russia’s oil pipeline monopoly). According to Durov, the sale was made without his knowledge, a violation of VKontakte’s internal rules, which state that those already holding shares in the company should be offered priority in any sale. Durov continues to control 52 per cent of VKontakte’s voting shares.

Last month, Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper, claimed to have received information that showed Durov had offered to assist the Russian authorities by providing information on VKontakte users who were engaged in opposition demonstrations and actions. VKontatke’s press secretary denied the claims and further evidence of Durov’s complicity in assisting the government failed to materialise. On the evening of the April 21, Durov appeared to be the victim of a malicious provocation again, as respected Russian journalist Leonid Parfenev reported on independent TV channel Dozhd that Durov had already in fact emigrated to Buffalo, New York. As it turned out, Dozhd had been wildly misinformed. Durov denied the claims and noted he hadn’t been to America for over a year.

Image Credit: Y

Image Credit: Screenshot from Youtube video by NTVRU

There is little doubt that someone is sending Durov a series of fairly stern warnings. VKontakte has drawn government ire before, but Durov has always kept a low profile and avoided taking sides. The accusation that Durov was at the wheel of the Mercedes is questionable, to say the least. There would be little motivation for Durov, an extremely wealthy individual, to futilely attempt to drive off in a country where traffic police are almost synonymous with corruption. The video shown on television is grainy and seemingly incomplete. While the security guard has been questioned, no details of his identity have been given. The ease with which the driver seems to make his escape is also suspicious.

If Durov really hit a cop while evading police he would be facing up to five years in prison, but as yet, the investigative committee have restricted themselves to searching his office and home. At the same time almost half the voting shares in his company have been bought up by a representative of the heavily securitised oil and gas industry, seemingly without his knowledge. In the wake of all this, the false report fed to Dozhd that he had emigrated seems to be more of a suggestion than anything else.

If this all seems eerily familiar, that’s because we’ve seen this before. When Putin wanted to consolidate his control over the traditional media (which had been a constant headache during his Chechen campaign), he sent the two largest independent media moguls, Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky a stern warning to leave the country or face criminal investigation. They took the hint and left. Gusinsky was later stripped of his Russian citizenship. Berezovsky took his own life in London last month. With social media a rapidly growing source of information in Russia, it appears VKontakte now finds itself in the Kremlin’s sites, just like Gusinsky’s MediaMost before it. Whether Durov decides to stay or leave, he would be wise to look to his country’s recent history and Russia’s 99 per cent conviction rate.

This piece first appeared on the International Political Forum at http://internationalpoliticalforum.com/is-the-kremlin-trying-to-force-the-russian-zuckerberg-out-of-the-country/

Russian Journalist and Election Observer Speaks about Her Arrest

On April 16, 2013, RuNet Echo published an article about Svetlana Lokotkova, a Russian journalist and election observer who was arrested and removed from an overnight train for alleged intoxication. Lokotkova was charged with “minor hooliganism” and faces 15 days in jail if convicted. Lokotkova denied the charges and used Twitter [ru] and Facebook [ru] to post pictures of injuries she claims to have received at the hands of the police. Her version of events was apparently contradicted when pro-Putin television station NTV aired “amateur footage” [ru] of her in police custody, where she appeared confused and unsteady on her feet. The NTV report also quoted extracts from her Twitter feed that seemed to suggest she had been indulging herself both before and after boarding the train (Lokotkova made references to Saratov’s “outstanding hospitality” and recovering from a cold using “traditional methods” [or “folk remedies”]).

Svetlana Lokotkova, 6 April 2012, photo by Svetlana Lokotkova, used with permission.
Svetlana Lokotkova, 6 April 2012, photo by Svetlana Lokotkova, used with permission.

Lokotkova later contacted RuNet Echo, and agreed to outline what happened on the train and in the police station in her own words. She also spoke about social media as a tool for political activism.

First, Lokotkova contests the fact that she was intoxicated at the time of her arrest. In fact, she strenuously denies consuming any alcohol at all:

в поезде я пила только чай с медом и сок. в материалах дела, представленных полицейскими в суд, есть показания проводницы вагона, в котором я ехала. в своих письменных объяснениях полиции проводница поясняет, что я села в поезд трезвой, и что в поезде я не пила. кроме того, как я уже говорила, в последнее время я живу в таком бешеном ритме, который чисто физически не позволяет даже задуматься о выпивке.

on the train I drank only tea with honey and juice. in the case materials, which the police have submitted to the court, there are testimonials from from the conductor of the train-car. in her written account she explains that I was sober when I got on the train, and did not drink while on the train. besides, as I already said, recently I’ve been living at such a frantic pace, that I physically haven’t even had the time to think about drinking.

Instead, she attributes her wooziness and apparent intoxication visible in the video to a combination of physical illness and emotional distress:

у меня была очень сильная простуда, кашель, с утра была температура 38,8. […] сразу после того, как меня притащили в отделение полиции, с моей шеи сорвали сумочку со всеми документами и кошельком (впоследствии из него пропало около 10тыс. рублей), грубо сильно толкнули так, что я упала на пол и ударилась головой. впоследствии врачи у меня зафиксировали закрытую черепно-мозговую травму-сотрясение мозга. и кроме того, у меня сильно поднялось давление. уже на следующий день, когда все успокоилось, у меня было давление 160/130. так что в момент выложенного полицейскими видео давление было никак не меньше этих цифр. а по ощущениям – где-то 180/140: жутко кружилась голова, все плыло перед глазами.

I had a very bad cold and a cough, and since that morning my temperature was 38.8 degrees [101.8 F]. right after they dragged me to the police station, they ripped my purse from my neck, containing all my documents and wallet (from which about 10,000 rubles later disappeared), rudely pushed me so that I fell to the floor and hit my head. later, doctors determined that I received a closed head brain injury. in addition, my blood pressure rose a lot. the next day, when everything was calmer, my blood pressure was 160/130. so when the police were shooting the video my blood pressure could not have been any lower. but, actually, I felt like it was 180/140: my head was spinning, everything was blurry.

Lokotkova also argues that the tweets read on television, which NTV clearly implied were evidence of alcohol consumption (“folk remedy” being a common euphemism for liquor), were taken out of context. She says she was simply using actual folk remedies like honeyed tea to cure her cold, which she claims to use commonly:

поскольку лекарства вообще не люблю принимать, предпочитаю народные средства – травяные настои, мед, малина

since I do not like to take medicine, I prefer folk methods — herbal infusions, honey, raspberries

She elaborated:

под словами “опять угощают” я подразумевала домашние котлеты, которыми меня угостили соседи. в прошлый раз, когда я ехала из саратова, меня угостили домашними пирожками с капустой. […] а под словами “лечусь народными средствами” – как уже выше пояснила – я подразумевала средства народной медицины для лечения простуды, главным из которых во все времена был и остается мед. медом меня угостили другие соседи.

by “getting entertained again” I meant the homemade cutlets that my neighbors [in the train car] treated me to. the last time I was coming from Saratov, I was treated to homemade cabbage pirozhki. […] and by “recovering using folk remedies” – as I said earlier – I meant folk medicine for curing colds, the main [ingredient] of which has always been and always will be honey. I was treated to the honey by another neighbor.

Lokotkova also described what happened to her in the police station:

со мной обращались очень грубо, издевались морально и физически. били, толкали, пытались затащить в камеру […], несколько раз прищемили дверью руки, ко мне не пускали врача, отобрали паспорт и телефон.

they treated me very roughly, abused me morally and physically. beat me, pushed me, tried to drag me into a cell […], several times they squashed my hands in the door, didn’t let me see a doctor, and took away my passport and telephone.

Finally, Lokotkova explained why it was that she refused to undergo a medical test for drunkenness. She cited the fact that she was charged with hooliganism (which does not require a blood alcohol test), not drinking in public (which does). She also says that the way she was offered the test was procedurally incorrect. Instead of officially recording the need for a test, and offering a choice of medical institutions:

меня обманом вывели из помещения полиции (сказали, что идем покупать билет на поезд до Москвы), уже на улице скрутили, силой затолкали в машину, отобрали телефон, привезли посреди ночи в какое-то здание без опознавательных знаков (во всяком случае, я не увидела никакой вывески, хотя просила мне ее показать), завели в кабинет, где была одна-единственная женщина, вручили ей направление на мое освидетельствование. а когда я сказала, что в таких условиях я проходить не буду, на оборотной стороне этого листочка написали, что я отказалась.

they tricked me into leaving the station (told me that we are going to buy a train ticket to Moscow), on they street they tied me up, pushed me into a car, took away my phone, drove me through the night to some unmarked building (at least I didn’t see a sign, even though I asked to show me one), took me to an office where there was one single woman, gave her a referral for my examination. and when I said that I would not go through with it under these conditions, on the back of that sheet they wrote that I refused.

This moment was also recorded on the video published after the case gained notoriety. Interestingly, although the video is clearly being shot with a hand held camera, or perhaps a smartphone, Lokotkova believes that the footage came from some sort of security camera:

я не знаю, кто снимал. но насколько я поняла, в этом отделении полиции идет круглосуточная запись на видеокамеры, и именно запись с этих камер была использована.

I don’t know who shot [the video]. as far as I understand, at that police station there is 24 hour video recording, and it was these cameras that were used.

Despite the fact that she thinks her tweets were misinterpreted, Lokotkova remains positive about the use of social media, and particularly impressed by the effectiveness of social networking for practical action.

абсолютно все без исключения мои друзья и даже почти совсем незнакомые люди в ФБ меня поддерживали, выражали сочувствие, предлагали помощь, координировали действия по моему вызволению из полиции. предложения о помощи поступают до сих пор – все в шоке от этой истории. в твиттере появилось несколько (3-4) бота-тролля с 20-ю подписчиками и с реальным заданием (в одном из твитов оно даже сохранилось) – как поливать меня грязью и выводить из себя идиотскими сообщениями. в ситуациях, подобных той, что произошла со мной, я считаю, что соцсети гораздо более эффективны, чем СМИ: люди координируются друг с другом, консультируют друг друга, находят телефоны полиции, прокуратуры, распределяют усилия – кто кому звонит, что предпринимает. так, например, в ФБ совсем недавно создана группа прямого действия, участники которой в частности помогали и моему вызволению.

absolutely without exception my friends and even people I didn’t know have supported me on Facebook, expressed their sympathy, offered help, and coordinated actions to get me released. Offers of help are still coming in – everyone is shocked by the story. on Twitter, there are a few (three or four) troll-bots with 20 followers each and an actual assignment (which is still around in one of the tweets) to heap dirt on me and to harass me with idiotic messages. in situations like the one that happened to me, I think that social networks are a lot more effective than [traditional] mass media: people coordinate with each other, consult one another, find the phone numbers of the police, the prosecutor’s office, and divide the labor – who calls whom, who does what. for example on Facebook this direct action group [ru] was recently created, members of which in particular helped get me released.

 

This post first appeared on Global Voices at http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/04/19/russian-journalist-and-election-observer-speaks-about-her-arrest/

 

Beer & Twitter Prove Toxic Mix for Russian Journalist

Trains are a cheap and reliable way to get around Russia, particularly compared to the country’s famously poor roads. Russia is a big country and journeys between cities can take hours (or even days). Given these difficulties, it is not uncommon for some passengers to have a drink or two to pass the time. Sometimes people can overdo it. According to a Russian police statement [ru], this is exactly what happened on an overnight train from Saratov to Moscow on April 11, 2013, when law enforcement officers ejected and detained Svetlana Lokotkova, a journalist with the independent magazine The New Times, after reports that “a passenger in a state of alcohol intoxication was disturbing the general peace.”

Lokotkova, an election observer who had traveled to Saratov to testify at an enquiry into the disputed October 2012 election for the regional parliament, was quick to hit back, informing a correspondent [ru] from Ekho Moskvy that she had called the police herself, due to the unwanted attention of a male passenger, but that the police instead arrested her:

за руки-ноги схватили, в полицейский участок буквально бросили. Когда пыталась пройти, буквально прищемляли руку дверью, у меня все руки в синяках, обзывались, оскорбляли.

They grabbed me by the arms and legs and literally threw me into the police station. When I tried to go past, they literally pinched my arm with the door, my whole arm is in bruises. They called me names and insulted me.

Lakotkova later posted pictures on her Facebook [ru] and Twitter [ru] accounts, showing the injuries she claimed to have received at the hands of the police.

Some were quick to jump to her defense. Twitter user tsarfree wrote (employing a hashtag for Lokotkova’s surname):

#Локоткова стала жертвой провокации. Она должна была свидетельствовать в суде по выборам в Саратовской обл.

#Lokotkova has become a victim of a political provocation. She was supposed to give evidence in a court on the elections in the Saratov Region.

Despite her claims, Lokotkova’s credibility was somewhat diminished, when pro-Putin television station NTV aired “amateur footage” [ru] of Lokotkova in the police station.

In the film, Lokotkova appears unsteady on her feet, irritable, and slurs her words. In the report, NTV also reproduced two tweets [ru] from Lokotkova’s account dated just before the incident.

Саратовцы нравятся все больше и больше. Опять потрясяющее гостеприимство (предс ТИК Иноземцеву не считаем), опять в поезде угощают #саратов

I like Saratov’s inhabitants more and more. Once again outstanding hospitality (apart from Electoral Commission head Inozemtzev), once again being treated [by others] on the train. #saratov

лечусь от дичайшей простуды в поезде #саратов-мск, 2й вагон. народными методами. саратовцы супер))))

Recovering from the worst cold on the train #saratov-moscow, 2nd train car. Using traditional methods. Saratov people are great 🙂

The NTV announcer inflects his reading of Lokotkova’s tweets with an ironic pronunciation of “outstanding hospitality,” “being treated,” and “traditional methods,” implying (rather plausibly) that Lokotkova did not, as she maintains, abstain from liquor while on the train. This was an opinion that LiveJournal user Fish12a seemed to share:

Хорошо, что наша полиция научилась снимать своих клиентов на видео.
Дабы вранье неполживых журналистов было видно сразу же.
Уж лучше бы она молчала. Потому что видео появилось на тв в ответ на обвинения журналистки в “провокациях” и “зверстве полиции”.

It’s good that our police have learnt to film their clients on video. That way the lies of disingenuous journalists are immediately apparent. She should have kept quiet, because the video was shown on TV in answer to the journalist’s [own] accusations of “provocation” and “police brutality.”

Ironically, Lokotkova’s attempts to paint herself as the victim of excessive police force and political provocation seem to have failed because the authorities utilized two of the opposition’s most beloved tools: smartphone cameras and Twitter.

Lokotkova faces a 15-day administrative detention penalty for “minor hooliganism,” and it remains to be seen whether this will affect her planned return to Saratov, where she is scheduled to testify again in election fraud hearings today, April 16.

This post first appeared on Global Voices at http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/04/16/beer-twitter-prove-toxic-mix-for-russian-journalist/

Putin Unfazed by Topless Protest in Hannover

On Monday, 8 April 2013, Putin’s tour of a trade fair in Hannover with German Chancellor Angela Merkel took an unexpected turn when three members of the controversial Ukrainian feminist and self-described “sextremist” organization FEMEN [en] staged a half-naked protest [photo gallery] aimed at the Russian president. Their bodies painted with anti-Putin slogans in English and Russian, the protestors rushed the President and Chancellor screaming “F**k the dictator!” before security dragged them away.

FEMEN’s unconventional and confrontational style of protest has been the topic of controversy in both the West and Russia. However, from the very beginning, many were more intrigued by Putin’s reaction to the protests than anything else.

President Vladimir Putin is accosted by a Femen demonstrator. The writing on her back reads “Go f**k yourself, Putin”. Photo courtesy http://femen.org/

Many on the RuNet were particularly struck by one widely distributed photo, in which the Russian President appears to smile and give two thumbs up, while Merkel looks on in shock. Neiswestnij [ru] claimed Putin’s “duckface” reminded him of “Yeltsin in his last days in the Kremlin”. Within hours humurously photoshopped versions appeared online:

A satirical photo-edited image widely and anonymously distributed online.
One example of the many Putin-FEMEN-related photo-edited satires widely and anonymously distributed online.

When asked about the events at a press conference [ru] later that day, Putin stunned some by expressing his overwhelmingly positive reaction to the protest.

Что касается акции – она мне понравилась. В принципе мы знали о том, что такая акция готивится. Скажите спасибо украинским девушкам. Они вам помогли раскрутить ярмарку… Секьюрити работают очень жестко. Такие здоровые лбы навалились на девчонок. Это.. мне кажется, что неправильно. Можно было бы и помягче с ними обращаться.

As for the protest, I liked it. We basically knew such a protest was being prepared. Say thank you to the Ukrainian girls. They helped you promote the trade fair… The security guards were a bit rough—such big lugs launching themselves at these girls. This is… it seems to me, wasn’t right. They could have dealt with them more gently.

While Putin clearly enjoyed the display of “sextremism”, reaction to FEMEN’s latest protest was primarily negative, leading to an unusual consensus between the RuNet’s liberal and conservative factions.

Feminist blogger radulova [ru] was quick to denigrate FEMEN's supposed commitment to women's rights:

эти девушки, конечно, такие же феминистки, как и Pussy Riot. Ни те, ни другие не имеют никакого отношения к борьбе за равноправие полов. Просто слово, которое считается у наших теток и дядек почти матерным, им как бунтарям понравилось.

These girls, of course, are feminists in the same way Pussy Riot are. Neither one, nor the other has any relation to the battle for gender equality. [Feminism] is just a word that our aunts and uncles consider almost profanity, and these rebels like it for that reason.

Pro-kremlin blogger lera-vad [ru] was also not amused:

Забавно, конечно, но скоро эти абсолютно больные на голову тетки уже на детских утренниках голосискаться будут. Им бы в стриптизерш переквалифицироваться, на праздниках олигархов выпрыгивать из торта.

It’s all very funny, of course, but soon these sick-in-the-head chicks will be flashing their breasts in children’s matinees. They would be better of retraining as strippers and jumping out of cakes at oligarch’s parties.

While many were entertained by Putin’s reaction, some found his subsequent comments distasteful in light of how the Kremlin handled the Pussy Riot affair last year. Twitter user sangdrag [ru] was quick to point out what he saw as the President’s hypocrisy:

Продажные СМИ наперебой хвалят путина, дескать добрый, пожалел пославших его на х+й Фемен. Что же он, крыса лживая, Pusse Riot не пожалеет?!

The mercenary media are all vying to praise Putin, saying how kind he is to pity Femen after they told him to go f**k himself. So why doesn’t this lying rat pity Pussy Riot?!

While FEMEN issued a statement [en] denying Putin had any advance warning of the protest, the President’s nonchalant reaction to the whole affair lends a certain credence to his claim to the contrary. Twitter user sovprezident [ru] posited the theory that the Kremlin could have hired the protesters, and warned Putin in advance. Members of FEMEN have been called agents provocateurs before, notably after cutting down a Christian cross with a chainsaw [en] at the height of the Pussy Riot scandal. Regardless of how much the Kremlin knew in advance, it is hard to deny that Putin emerged from what could have been an embarrassing affair looking far better composed than his detractors—whether that’s the result of innate PR instincts or something more sinister is anyone’s guess.

This post first appeared on Global Voices http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/04/11/putin-unfazed-by-topless-protest-in-hanover/

A Dishonest Election & A Divided Opposition in Russia

Zhukovsky, a mid-sized city just 40 kilometers outside Moscow famed for its aerospace industry, last weekend became the site of a bitterly contested mayoral election, which was marred by reports of electoral fraud and vote-buying. The election was prompted last January, when mayor Aleksandr Bobovnikov resigned at the behest of the acting governor of the Moscow Region, Aleksandr Vorob’yov.

In the last year, Zhukovsky has witnessed a grass roots protest movement [ru] to protect the local Tsagovsky forest, after local authorities stripped it of protected status in order to construct a new road. The local reaction and protests [photo album], which include clashes with police and riot troops, have surprised the authorities, ultimately leading Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to intervene personally [ru] on the side of the protesters. Having drawn much of their inspiration and public support from the better-known environmentalist movement to protect Khimki Forest [en], many consider the protests to have been instrumental in removing Bobovnikov, who allegedly lost his post due to “the loss of the inhabitants’ confidence” and “the instability of the socio-political situation” [ru].

Eleven candidates appeared on the ballot, including Sergei “The Spider” Troitsky. Troitsky is the leader of legendary Russian metal band Korroziya Metalla [en] and had previously stood in the October 2012 mayoral election in Khimki. The real contest, however, was between the nominally independent Andrei Voityuk (a former official in the Ministry of Emergency Affairs with strong links to Vorob’yov and Shoigu) and Igor Novikov (a member of “opposition oligarch” Mikhail Prokhorov’s “Civic Platform”).

The election itself was marred by suspicion and tension long before anyone went to the polling stations. Novikov’s campaign website suffered a DDoS attack on March 23, 2013. A week later, activist Ilya Yashin tweeted a picture [ru] of an official notice forbidding any photo- or video-recording by anyone but “representatives of the media”:

Избирком официальным (!) решением запретил наблюдателям съемку на выборах в #Жуковский. Жулики. Совсем охамели.

The electoral commission has officially (!) forbidden observers from taking photos at the elections in #Zhukovsky. Swindlers. Completely egregious behavior.

While Zhukovsky has only about 80,000 registered voters, in order to ensure the election went ahead peacefully, the authorities brought in 600 police [ru] from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, while an estimated 1,000 independent electoral observers [ru] monitored the proceedings.

Despite the presence of these monitors (or perhaps because of it), within hours of polls opening, videos emerged online purporting to show widespread, organized vote-buying on behalf of Voityuk. In the video below, posted by the independent Russian electoral rights group GOLOS [en], people are seen queueing to have papers with the name “Aleksandr [sic] Petrovich Voityuk” stamped by two young women.

The two women report that they are merely “taking note” of the proceedings and that “everything is being done officially,” but seem ill at ease when questioned. When the camerawoman asks those in line if they were “promised any kind of reward,” however, an elderly man in a hat leans forward and replies “of course.” When asked what he was promised, he replies “one thousand roubles” (roughly thirty U.S. dollars).

A similar video posted by youtube user Alex Flaxman showed a large queue outside a local vehicle inspection center.

Moving towards the front of the queue, the cameraman asks several users how much money is being given out. Several reply that they too were promised 1,000 roubles. At the very front, the cameraman asks a man in a leather jacket if there is any sort of pass needed to receive money. The man removes from his wallet a copy of the same paper with the name “Aleksandr Voityuk” seen in the first video. He informs the cameraman that it was given to him by “United Russia.”

The liberal blogosphere reacted angrily to the reports of electoral fraud and to the news that Voityuk had been declared the winner of the election. The next day “в Жуковском” (“in Zhukovsky”) trended on Twitter in Russia and worldwide. User Sapojnik, in a LiveJournal post titled “1000 Roubles for a Vote,” wrote:

На самом деле никто во власти, конечно же, не собирался устраивать никакие «честные выборы». Наоборот: эти выборы руководством МО и даже, возможно, АП воспринимались как выборы «выставочные», «Химки-2». Жуковским власти хотели продемонстрировать urbi et orbi, что они полностью контролируют электоральную ситуацию и что «оппозиция не имеет никаких шансов».

Basically no one in power, of course, planned on staging any kind of “honest election.” On the contrary, the leadership of Moscow Oblast and even, perhaps the Presidential Administration took these elections to be “staged.” A “Khimki Part 2.” The Zhukovsky authorities wanted to demonstrate urbi et orbi that they are in full control of the electoral situation and that “the opposition doesn’t stand a chance.”

In a Facebook post, Mikhail Fishman drew similarly depressing conclusions from the election:

Первый: выиграл Войтюк. Второй: нам показали, как “Единая Россия” (или ОНФ) будет выигрывать выборы в Думу. Третий: барьера против фальсификаций, обмана, жульничества любого рода больше не существует. Now it’s official.

Firstly: Voityuk won. Secondly, they’ve shown us how “United Russia” (or the All-Russian People’s Front [Putin’s new social coalition]) will win the Duma elections. Thirdly, the barrier against falsification, fraud, [and] swindling of any variety no longer exists. Now it’s official.

Twitter humorist KermlinRussia reacted to the reports with characteristic levity:

На выборах в Жуковском Единая Россия не стала воровать голоса избирателей и честно скупила их.

In the elections in Zhukovsky United Russia has stopped stealing the votes of the electorate and purchased them honestly.

Not everyone was content to lay the blame solely with the authorities. Some faulted the opposition for failing to win in a city home to a highly educated workforce that has long been a hotspot of anti-Kremlin sentiments. Writing on Twitter, opposition Duma Deputy Ilya Ponamarev pointed the finger at the protest movement’s disunity:

В #жуковский все, как всегда – два главных оппозионера не договорились, взяли 30% и 25%, в итоге побеждает единоросс с 35%. Доколе?

In #zhukovsky it’s business as usual – the two main oppositionists [Novikov and Communist candidate Andrei Anikanov] took 30% and 25% with the result that United Russia wins with 35%. When will it end?

Similar accusations were leveled by Twitter user iphone_mitko, who faulted the opposition for lackluster campaigning:

Кстати, #Химки и #Жуковский очень яркие примеры беспомощности “оппозиции”. Кричать и митинговать – да. Работать “на земле” – ноль.

By the way, #Khimki and #Zhukovsky are excellent examples of the helplessness of the “opposition.” Shouting and demonstrating – sure. Working “on the ground” – zip.

Such well-documented voter fraud shows that “managed democracy” (where the ruling elite uses its administrative resources to ensure desired electoral results) continues to be the defining characteristic of the Russian political process. If anything, that process has become cruder and more obvious in the last two years. The election also shows that the United Russia brand may be becoming a liability for the elite, as Voityuk ran as an independent, despite strong links to party figures.

But the main lesson from the Zhukovsky election is that over a year on since the Bolotnaya Protests [en] (probably the high water mark of the protest movement) the opposition has yet to make much of a dent in Russians’ widespread political apathy. Indeed, the official turnout in Zhukovsky was a mere 37.6% [ru]. Given the choice between the opposition and the elite, most voters chose simply to stay home.

This post first appeared on Global Voices at http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/04/06/a-dishonest-election-a-divided-opposition-in-russia/