A Jewish Russian Mayoral Candidate Even the Nazis Can Love

While Moscow’s upcoming mayoral election [GV] may be getting the lion’s share of attention from the Russian public and the world, September 8, 2013, actually sees mayoral and gubernatorial elections in a variety of Russian regions and cities. One of the more interesting campaigns may turn out to be in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city. Yekaterinburg’s political climate differs from the rest of Russia. The ruling United Russia party performs poorly here (finishing second in the 2012 Duma elections, behind the nominally social-democratic party “A Just Russia”), and oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov did relatively well in the 2012 presidential elections, taking 18.75% of the vote, compared to his 7.98% share of the electorate nationally.

Yekaterinburg is also home to one of Russian politics’ most unusual and independent political figures, Yevgeny Roizman. A Duma Deputy from 2002-2008, an anti-corruption blogger, and the head of the highly controversial anti-drugs charity [GV], “City without Drugs,” Roizman officially announced his candidacy for mayor on Friday, July 19, 2013. Roizman is currently involved (but not implicated) in a number of legal proceedings, including the trial of his partner, Aksana Panova, the former head of the regional news network Ura.ru, and an investigation headed by the FSB into the illegal wiretaps on his phones.

Evgeny Roizman in an interview in November 2012, screenshot from YouTube.
Evgeny Roizman in an interview in November 2012, screenshot from YouTube.

Announcing his mayoral run on the web portal Znak.ru [ru] (Panova’s new outfit), Roizman first claimed that he had received 12 million roubles from Prokhorov, whose “Civic Platform” party Roizman would represent, promising that the oligarch would “give as much as necessary.” Roizman then backtracked, declaring [ru] at a press conference that “we won’t take and we won’t spend a single kopeck of his money,” now claiming that Prokhorov had not asked [ru] him to run. “I’m not a little girl who needs to be persuaded. I’ve been thinking about this for several months… I made the decision,” he explained.

Unsurprisingly, Znak.ru readers greeted Roizman’s announcement with great enthusiasm. One commenter was moved to compose a short poem lauding Roizman, whom he addressed affectionately by his diminutive “Zhenya.”

Женя, Женечка, Евгений,
Ты в работе просто гений!
Раз решил – не отступай!
Пять лет городу отдай!

Zhenya, Zhenechka, Yevgeny,
There’s no work you find too heavy!
Once you’ve decided, don’t waver!
Give the city five years of your labor!

Roizman’s candidacy excited many members of the opposition, as well. Indeed, he is a nationally-known opposition figure with political experience and a large, concentrated power base, which is highly unusual in Russia. Vladimir Milov, a Moscow oppositionist, wrote a blog post on Ekho Moskvy, titled, “These Elections could be Revolutionary“:

Навальный в Москве, Ройзман в Екатеринбурге – слушайте, а чего вам еще надо-то? Вот они, выборы вашей мечты.

Navalny in Moscow, Roizman in Yekaterinburg, listen, what more could you need? Here they are: the elections of your dreams.

Not everyone shared Milov’s enthusiasm. Roizman is viewed with suspicion in many quarters for his views on migrants, his criminal record (he served two years for armed theft in the mid-1980s), and his strict detox clinics, where patients are reportedly handcuffed to beds. One Yekaterinburger astutely pointed out [ru] the problems that could arise from Roizman’s election:

В случае избрания Ройзмана, отношение к нему Кувайшева неизбежно будет вызывать конфликты между городом и областью, что явно не на пользу Екатеринбургу.

If Roizman is elected, his relations with [governor of the Sverdlovsk Region, Yevgeny] Kuivashev’s will inevitably cause conflicts between the city and wider region, which is clearly not to Yekaterinburg’s advantage.

Others’ took issue with Roizman’s character, like the Yekaterinburg-based research center “Analitik,” which wrote on its LiveJournal blog:

Это неловкое чувство, когда неглупые вменяемые люди на полном серьезе считают Ройзмана достойным кандидатом в мэры Екатеринбурга. Иконы, поэзия, борьба с наркотиками, романтика с псевдо-оппозиционными журналистками – это на здоровье, каждый дрочит как он хочет. Но лично мне будет как-то неуютно, если главой моего города станет человек с мутным прошлым (и не менее мутным настоящим), тюремной ходкой в анамнезе и очень запущенными отношениями с областными властями.

It’s an awkward feeling when intelligent and responsible people in all seriousness consider Roizman an appropriate candidate for Yekaterinburg’s mayor. The [religious] icons, the poetry, the fight against drugs, the dalliance with pseudo-oppositionist journalists—that’s all fine. To each to his own, if it pleases him. But personally I’d be really annoyed if someone with a murky past (and a no less murky present), а criminal record, and shabby relations with the regional authorities became mayor of my city.

Others are happy to look past Roizman’s colorful past. As one commenter pointed out [ru] to Analitik:

В нашей стране получить судимость-легко,как насморк.
ИМХО,Ройзман-намного честнее,чем все эти ставленники ПЖиВ.

In our country, getting a conviction is as easy as catching a cold. IMHO, Roizman is a lot more honest then all the other candidates from the party of cardsharps and thieves [a common disparaging term for United Russia].

Roizman’s grassroots popularity and reputation for getting things done has won him fans not only among liberals but among nationalists as well, who like his tough stance on drugs and willingness to face down the “ethnic gangs” associated with drug smuggling. Roizman’s efforts have, somewhat amazingly, even won him the endorsement of the neo-nazi “People’s Socialist Initiative,” whose stated anti-semitism did not preclude [ru] them from listing the achievements of Roizman, who is half-Jewish:

Чем он занимался последние годы? Решительной и бескомпромиссной, а зачастую и опасной борьбой с распространением наркотиков. Войной с этническими кланами, живущими наркоторговлей, и с крышующей их властью. В активе Ройзмана – спасенные наркоманы, посаженные наркобарыги, снос цыганских особняков… Поэтому Ройзман – это правильный еврей. Еврей, своими действиями показавший, на чьей он стороне.

What has [Roizman] been doing these last few years? Waging a decisive and uncompromising, not to mention dangerous, fight against drug distributers. Fighting with ethnic clans who survive by dealing drugs and with the authorities who shelter them. He has saved drug addicts, helped imprison drug-pushers, and demolished the Gypsies’ garish homes… For this reason, Roizman is the right kind of Jew. A Jew who has shown through his actions whose side he’s on.

Roizman is a highly divisive figure. But his popularity is genuine and crosses through multiple demographics, his anti-drug charity enjoys real support in a city that has been plagued by heroin addiction, and his tenure as a Duma deputy for the Sverdlovsk region gives him a proven political record. While polling suggests that Navalny’s Moscow candidacy is highly unlikely to result in his victory, Roizman has a good chance of actually winning. Like him or loath him, his candidacy means the Yekaterinburg elections may prove the most interesting to watch in the coming months.

This post first appeared on Global Voices at http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/07/26/a-jewish-russian-mayoral-candidate-even-the-nazis-can-love/


Snowden Airport Saga Polarizes Russian Human Rights Community

See our special coverage Snowden: The US is Watching You

After spending almost a month unseen in the international transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden met with representatives of Russian human rights organizations and Russian MP Vyacheslav Nikonov. During the Friday June 12, 2013 public appearance, Snowden made a brief statement, and took questions from the assembled journalists (full audio available here [en and ru]) at what was termed a “G9 meeting.” Snowden criticised his government’s secret courts, overarching system of surveillance, and the diplomatic campaign aimed at preventing him from finding political asylum. He also announced his intention to take asylum at any country that could ensure his security, and thanked those countries that have offered him assistance:

Even in the face of this historically disproportionate aggression, countries around the world have offered support and asylum. These nations, including Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador have my gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless. By refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation, they have earned the respect of the world.

A mob of journalists descended on Sheremetyevo airport Friday for the Snowden press conference. YouTube screenshot.
A mob of journalists descended on Sheremetyevo airport Friday for the Snowden press conference. YouTube screenshot. July 15, 2013

While the Russian government has come out in tacit support of Snowden’s asylum rights, Russians themselves are divided [GV] on whether he is a genuine whistle-blower or a hypocritical traitor. Snowden’s press conference (video clip below) has re-ignited the debate.

In a blog post [ru] for the independent Ekho Moskvy radio-station, journalist and human rights activist Natalia Gulevskaya directed her ire at the Russian human rights activists that had met with Snowden, claiming they were state-sponsored and self-centered hypocrites:

Из собравшегося правозащитного бомонда штатных и внештатных агентов Кремля в транзитной зоне аэропорта Шереметьево никого особо не интересуют граждане России, которые погружаются в репрессии, судебные, административные и физические расправы.

None of the human-rights-defending crème de la crème of official and non-official Kremlin agents, who have gathered in the transit zone, hold any interest for the citizens of Russia, who are drowning in repression, in legal, administrative and physical violence.

Political commentator and human rights activist, Marina Litvinovich was even more scathing, writing on her blog [ru] that Snowden’s meeting was nothing more than a “typical secret service operation” that “decent people and decent human rights organizations refused to take part in.”

Pavel Chikov, head of the the legal defense NGO “Agora” [ru] and member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights, was also suspicious of Sheremetyevo airport’s new found enthusiasm for helping human rights activists, tweeting [ru]:

Помнится, в декабре 2011 года аэропорт Шереметьево задерживал и незаконно (суд потом признал) изымал ноутбук у директора Ассоциации ГОЛОС

I remember, in December of 2011 [after the Duma elections] Sheremetyevo Airport arrested and illegally (as determined by a court) seized a laptop from the director of [election monitoring group] GOLOS [ru]

The idea that Snowden’s stay in Russia is closely monitored and controlled by the Russian secret services has permeated the discourse to such a degree, that when Nikita Batalov, a radio journalist, found [ru] a suspicious door in one of the Sheremetyevo terminals, he automatically assumed that this is where Snowden was being held:

И теперь главное! На одной из маленьких дверей в терминале Е бумажка со скотчем с надписью “СПЕЦОБЪЕКТ ФСБ РОССИИ, ВХОД ЗАПРЕЩЕН”

And now for the main bit! One of the small doors in terminal E [where Snowden held his press-conference] is labeled with a scotch-taped piece of paper “RUSSIAN FSB SENSITIVE SITE, NO ENTRY”

Pro-Kremlin activist and blogger Kristina Potupchik thought that the real hypocrisy lay with the human rights groups that had refused to speak up for Snowden. In a blog post entitled “Edward Snowden, Why is the Opposition Keeping Quiet” [ru] Potupchick mockingly wrote.

Почему молчим? Почему не требуем от кровавого режима в срочном порядке без каких-либо условий предоставить убежище герою, рассказавшему миру правду о нарушении прав человека и подвергающемуся за это преследованиям на родине??? Это же ваша тема! А может быть, они молчат потому, что это СОЕДИНЕННЫЕ ШТАТЫ АМЕРИКИ? Или кто назовет иные причины?

Why are [you] keeping quiet? Why aren’t [you] demanding the bloody regime to immediately and unconditionally grant asylum to this hero, who has told the whole world about human rights violations and who is being persecuted for this by his homeland??? This is the kind of thing you do! Or maybe, they are quiet because it’s the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA [that is doing the persecuting]? Or can anyone offer another reason?

Some bloggers who are usually critical of the Russian government, also side with Snowden in this instance. For example, the mockingly fake Twitter account of Russia’s former grey cardinal Vladislav Surkov criticized [ru] perceived attempts at intimidation by the Americans:

Интересно, как США отреагируют на потенциальное выдвижение Сноудена в кандидаты на Нобелевскую Премию Мира?… Разбомбят Швецию?

I wonder how the USA will react to the potential nomination of Snowden as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize?… Bomb Sweden?

The writer and blogger Boris Akunin also thought [ru] that if what Snowden uncovered is true, he deserves the support of the Russian opposition, regardless of all the “fuss that our officialdom has started around him.”

We are often accustomed to thinking that civil society is, while not apolitical, primarily above the dirty business of party politics. Some of those present at Snowden’s press conference can be linked to the Russian government, but others, like Tatiana Lokshina of the Human Right’s Watch, who wrote an account [en] of the meeting, have consistently criticized the Russian government in the past. A broad refusal of Russian human rights defenders to speak out favor of Snowden, can leave them open to charges of hypocrisy, even though they may find it distasteful to help someone who categorizes Russia as “the first to stand against human rights violations.” With the ever-tightening regulation [GV] of Russia’s NGO sector, its human rights defenders may have to decide which is more important: being consistent on a range of issues, or trying to prevent the Kremlin’s from scoring a few PR points.

This post first appeared on Global Voices at http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/07/15/snowden-airport-saga-polarizes-russian-human-rights-community/

Egypt’s “People’s Revolution” in the Eyes of Russians

The protests that have rocked Turkey, Brazil and Bulgaria this summer have finally spilled into Egypt, where massive demonstrations against the Islamist policies of President Mohamed Morsi have led to a second revolution or a cynical military coup (depending on who you ask). Morsi was ousted and arrested, the constitution suspended, and the liberal Mohamed ElBaradei has been appointed interim prime minister. Morsi’s supporters, many of them members of the Muslim Brotherhood, clashed with police and anti-Morsi protesters, leading to widespread civil unrest with at least 30 deaths and over 1000 injuries. With the unrest showing no signs of abating, on July 7, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that Egypt was on the road to civil war.

A small rally heading to Tahrir square to joint the 30 June protests against MB and President Morsi of Egypt. Photo by Zeinab Mohamed CC 2.0
A small rally heading to Tahrir square to join the protests against President Morsi. By Zeinab Mohamed CC 2.0

As with past protests [GV] in the region, Russians have been actively following the events in Egypt. Many take a positive view of the army’s actions in removing Morsi, or entirely elude references to the military, viewing the proceedings as a people’s revolution. For example, Kirill Goncharov [ru], a Moscow student involved in youth politics, was particularly impressed with what he saw as the non-hierarchical nature of Morsi’s removal, writing on his facebook [ru]:

Самое крутое в Египте, что там не было никакого координационного совета оппозиции. Люди просто взяли власть в свои руки, без всяких лидеров.

The coolest thing about Egypt is that there was no “Coordinating Council of the Opposition [GV]” there. People simply took power into their own hands, without any leaders.

This view was seen as naive by others. One user [ru] replied laconically:

Люди в погонах просто взяли власть в свои руки, да.

People in uniform simply took power into their own hands all right.

Alexander Ivanov [ru], a self-identified Communist, was also in favor of what he referred to as “the revolution” and hit back [ru] at suggestions the army was not acting in the people’s interests:

ну армия у арабов вообще очень важное место занимает. Тем более, что они поддерживают народ. Посмотрим что будет происходить.

well in the Arab world, the army occupies a very important position. In addition, it supports the common people. We’ll see what will happen.

Some Russian liberals like journalist Dmitri Bavyrin [ru] also had no problem [ru] with the removal of a democratically elected president, as long as that president was an Islamist. Bavyrin bitingly argued that Islamism was antithetical to the childish “hipsters” who started the first revolution, but eventually lost control of the democratic process:

Победил исламист и стал работать в пользу исламистов, что в корне противоречило хипстерскому пониманию демократии. Хипстеры опять вышли на улицы – и вот тут, наконец, военным всё надоело. Военные отобрали демократию… потому что либо демократия, либо эль-Барадеи, но не всё сразу. Люблю военных.

An Islamist won and started to work to the benefit of Islamists, who contradict the basic hipster understanding of democracy. The hipsters once again took to the streets and that’s where the military got sick of it all. The military took away democracy… because you can either have democracy or ElBaradei, but not both at once. I like the military.

The views of Bavyrin and Ivanov were echoed by Anton Kapshuk [ru], a rock musician and Communist, who wished his “Egyptian comrades” success [ru] in their endeavor:

[Мурси] не стал добиваться улучшения жизни народа. Цели Революции тогда, так и не исполнились. Вместо этого началась исламизация страны. Это вызвало массовые протесты. Была принята исламская конституция, которую назвать демократичной никак нельзя. Стало понятно что дни Мурси сочтены.

Главную роль в революциях обычно играют военные. Пока солдаты не перейдут на сторону повстанцев, свержение строя маловероятно. Тогда, во время прошлой Революции, решающую роль сыграли военные. Тоже самое случилось и в этот раз. Переворот совершён. Исламисты от власти отстранены и даже многие из них арестованы. Военные обещают новые демократические выборы.

[Mursi] didn’t work to improve the lives of the people. The aims of the Revolution were not realized at that time. Instead, the country began to be Islamicised. This brought about massive protests. An Islamic constitution was adopted, which could in no way be called democratic. It was obvious Morsi’s days were numbered.

The main role in revolutions is often played by the military. If the soldiers don’t go over to the side of the uprising, the overthrow of the [old] order is unlikely. During the previous Revolution the deciding role was played by the military. The same happened this time. The overthrow is complete. The Islamists were removed from power and many even arrested. The military has promised new democratic elections.

Others were less optimistic. Blogger Aleksandr Chernokozov [ru] believes that Morsi’s removal was attributable to “the virus of revolution” that had taken hold in Egypt since Mubarak’s ouster and that what was happening called to mind “the start of a civil war” [ru]. Writing on his LiveJournal, Chernokozov warned:

Уже арестованы лидеры «Братьев-мусульман». Есть информация, что в списках на арест — сотни, а по некоторым данным тысячи активных участников движения. «Братья-мусульмане» серьезно готовятся к акциям протеста. Похоже, самая массовая из них уже начинается. Самое главное здесь то, что все они готовы пожертвовать жизнью…

The leaders of the “Muslim Brotherhood” have already been arrested. There are reports that the list of those arrested reaches hundreds, and according to some, thousands of active participants in the movement. The “Muslim Brotherhood” is seriously preparing itself for protest actions. Indeed, the biggest one of these actions is already starting. The most important factor here is that they’re prepared to sacrifice their lives…

Twitter user Aleksandr Barbashov seemed to be one of the few RuNet bloggers to respect democratic institutions, tweeting [ru]

Хоть исламист Мурси мне и не нравится, но он был ЗАКОННО избранным президентом! Опасный для себя прецедент создают египтяне. #Египет

I don’t like the Islamist Morsi either, but he was a LEGITIMATELY elected president! This is a dangerous precedent for Egyptians to set for themselves. #Egypt

Morsi’s removal by the military speaks to the failure of formal politics in Egypt. Weak democratic structures, a highly polarized electorate and an entrenched military elite meant such an outcome was probably sadly unavoidable. While Russia’s hard-left opposition usually makes no secret that it views parliamentary democracy as a sham, the fact that many of Russia’s self-professed liberals approve of such a coup speaks to the failure of a genuine liberal tradition in Russia.

This post first appeared on Global Voices at http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/07/09/egypts-peoples-revolution-in-the-eyes-of-russians/

How Edward Snowden Divides the Russians

When former NSA contractor Edward Snowden left Hong Kong for Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, it placed Russia at the center of what had primarily been an American story. According to a statement issued by the anti-secrecy group Wikileaks on June 23, 2013, Snowden was “bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from WikiLeaks.”

Moscow-based journalists scrambled to the airport to try to locate Snowden, while the presence of cars with Ecuadorian diplomatic plates at the airport touched off rumors that Snowden’s ultimate destination was Ecuador. Though Snowden was booked on two Aeroflot flights, he failed to materialize on either of them (stranding a number of hopeful journalists who had purchased tickets on an 11 hour flight to Havana).

"Edward Snowden Found." Photo mashup by Rob Tom, 26 June 2013, CC 2.0.
“Edward Snowden Found.” Photo mashup by Rob Tom, 26 June 2013, CC 2.0.

Snowden has not been sighted in Sheremetyevo since he arrived, though Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claims he is still in the transit zone there and has thus “not crossed the Russian border” [ru]. Snowden has made numerous applications for asylum, but has so far been rebuffed or ignored by most countries. President Vladimir Putin has offered to give asylum to Snowden on the condition that he stop revealing American secrets, but Snowden refused to comply with this condition. His situation is complicated by the fact that his passport has been revoked by the Americans who consider him a fugitive and have charged him with espionage.

Snowden has been a highly controversial figure in America since the leaks. Some believe he is a whistleblower to be lauded, while others consider him a traitor who has endangered civilians. For Russians, his prolonged stay in Sheremetyevo (he remains there as of July 4, 2013) has turned the question of what should be done with him from academic to practical, as his fate now rests largely in Russia’s hands.

Some Pro-Kremlin commentators saw Snowden’s treatment as indicative of American hypocrisy. The blogger Kristina Potupchik [ru], former press-secretary of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, was particularly damning [ru]:

США заочно предъявили Сноудену обвинение в хищении государственной собственности, раскрытии данных о национальной обороне и умышленной передаче секретной информации посторонним лицам. Он также был заочно лишен американского гражданства. Демократия? Свобода? “Права человека”? “Служить и защищать”? Не, не слышали. Несмотря на очевидное несоответствие официальной позиции США с данными, раскрытыми Сноуденом, штаты решили объявить его преступником национального масштаба, хотя тот, фактически, наоборот раскрыл гражданам реальные угрозы, которые ждут их по милости собственного правительства.

The US has accused Snowden in absentia of stealing of government property, revealing information about national defense, and the willfully transmitting secret information to third parties. He was also stripped of his American citizenship in absentia. Democracy? Freedom? “Human rights”? “Protect and serve”? No, they’ve never heard of them. Despite the obvious fact that the official position of the US doesn’t agree with the facts uncovered by Snowden, the US has labeled him a criminal on a national scale, despite the fact that, really, he has revealed to citizens the real threats they face at the mercy of their own government.

Not every pro-Putin figure took this view. Aleksei Filatov, security expert and vice president of the International Association of Veterans of the Anti-Terrorist Alpha Group, thought returning Snowden to America could be a boon to Russian-US relations and would “force the US to take a look at itself in the mirror” [ru] and reconsider its relations with Russia. A former member of the security services, Filatov took a dim view of Snowden’s professional ethics:

C профессиональной точки зрения Сноуден никакой не правозащитник. Это человек, который сознательно выбрал себе профессию, давал подписку о неразглашении служебной тайны, получал за ее соблюдение деньги, но в конечном итоге предал и свою страну, и свою профессию.

From a professional point of view, Snowden is no human rights defender. This man, who willingly chose his profession, signed a non-disclosure agreement and recieved payment, but ultimately betrayed both his country and his profession.

Edward Snowden - Human Rights Defender or Traitor? (Screenshot from Youtube.com)
Edward Snowden – Human Rights Defender or Traitor?
(Screenshot from Youtube.com)

Ironically, this view was shared by anti-Putin activist Akram Makhmutov, who took to Facebook [ru] to voice his frustration at Snowden’s perceived collaboration with less-than-savory regimes:

Это Сноуден, ну уж и “борец за права человека”, блин. Одно непонятно, отчего за эти права он вздумал бороться с помощью режимов, в которых эти права и не ночевали (Китай, Россия, Эквадор, Куба). Такое поведение есть признак гуманитарной недоразвитости и отсутствия убеждений. Нет, не правозащитник он, а типичный предатель.

I’ll be danmed if this Snowden is a “crusador for human rights.” One thing I don’t get is why he decided to fight for these rights with the help of regimes (China, Russia, Ecuador, Cuba) where these rights are nowhere to be found. Such behavior is a sign of a poorly developed sense of humanitarianism and a lack of conviction. No, he’s no human rights defender, but just a typical traitor.

Oleg Kozyrev disagreed. While the authorities’ support for Snowden was hypocritical, given their own human rights record, he argued [ru] that  Snowden still deserved to be protected:

Мне не ясно, почему за Эдварда Сноудена не вступились ведущие российские правозащитные организации. Я лично считаю, что сегодня в мире должны быть защищены права не только гражданских лиц, вскрывающих преступления правительств, но должны быть защищены и военные и работники спецслужб. Если военный или работник спецслужб сталкивается с очевидным нарушением базовых прав человека, я бы хотел, чтобы такие люди, не боясь, могли открыто выступать, и быть защищенными и законами своих стран и законами международными.

I don’t understand why the leading Russian human rights organizations have not come out in favor of Edward Snowden. I personally think that in today’s world, the military and intelligence workers who uncover government crimes should be defended as much as civilians. If a military or intelligence worker comes across an obvious violation of basic human rights, I would want that person to be able, unafraid, to come out openly, and be protected by the laws of their own country and by international laws.

Some people saw the black humor in Snowden’s kafkaesque sojourn in “the neutral zone.” One Twitter post [ru] by user yasvidirov received over 140 retweets:

“Зато теперь я мэр Шереметьево,” – подбадривал себя Сноуден, чекинясь в сотый раз.

“Well, now I’m the [foursquare] mayor of Sheremetyevo [airport],” Snowden consoled himself, checking in for the hundredth time.

Other users have simply lost patience with the story, which has been developing for over a week and a half. Fashion model Tanya Stychinskaya, for instance, recently tweeted [ru]:

От фамилии Сноуден уже тошнит

I’m already sick of hearing Snowden’s name

In Russia, as in his native country, Snowden is a divisive figure, bringing to the fore the intrinsic conflict between the need for government openness, the individual’s right to privacy, and the need for security services to carry out certain work in secret. In the debate over Snowden’s character and his ultimate fate, most RuNet users seem to have glossed over the details of what the programs he uncovered actually entail. And perhaps most surprisingly, few have noted the similarity of these details to Russia’s own monitoring program, SORM, which (unlike PRISM) is no state secret.

This post first appeared on Global Voices at http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/07/04/how-edward-snowden-divides-russians/

Russian NGOs Learn to Invest in Paper Shredders

At 3AM, on Saturday, June 22, 2013, Russian riot police and private security raided the offices of one of the country’s oldest human rights organizations, the “For Human Rights” group [ru]. Those inside, including the group’s leader, Lev Ponomarev, and the chairman of the liberal opposition party “Yabloko,” Sergei Mitrokhin, were forcibly evicted from the premises. Both Ponomarev and Mitrokhin claimed to have received cuts and bruises from the rough handling of the police. According to the authorities, For Human Rights’ lease expired in February and that the Moscow Government, which owns the building, did not wish to renew it due to unpaid rent.

The authorities claimed the organization had received ample warning and requests to leave the premises, but had not complied.

Lev Ponomarev speaks to journalists, as city authorities raid his downtown Moscow office, 21 June 2013, screenshot from YouTube.
Lev Ponomarev speaks to journalists, as city authorities raid his downtown Moscow office, 21 June 2013, screenshot from YouTube.

Some liberal oppositionists were quick to paint this as yet another example of Russia’s growing clampdown on non-governmental organizations. For Human RIghts is one of Russia’s oldest and most widely known rights organizations and its founder’s activism goes back to the late Gorbachev years. Oleg Kozyrev made an explicit link [ru] between the raid and the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.

Сегодня ночью, демонстративно в день и час годовщины Великой Отечественной войны, полиция и непонятные ЧОПовцы зачистили офис старейшего российского правозащитного движения “За права человека”.

Мы все знаем, почему это произошло. Потому, что это старейшее движение. Потому, что работающее и помогающее людям движение. Потому, что влиятельное.

Мы все понимаем, каким способом это сделали. Сперва массовой атакой в СМИ. Потом законами об НКО. Потом наездами прокуратуры и блокированием финдеятельности. И далее, лишив денег, создали формальный повод для выселения.

This evening, deliberately on the very day and hour of the anniversary of the “Great Patriotic War,” the police and unknown private security contractors purged the office of the oldest Russian human rights movement, “For Human Rights.”

We all know why this happened. Because it’s the oldest movement. Because it’s a movement that works with and helps people. Because it’s influential.

We all understand how this was achieved. First, mass attacks in the media. Then, the laws on NGOs. Next, investigations by prosecutors and injunctions on financing. And later, having taken their money, [the authorities] created a formal reason for the eviction.

Not everyone agreed on this point, as wealthy socialite and occasional oppositionist Ksenia Sobchak demonstrated [ru]:

Собственник имеет полное право не продлевать аренду. По Любым своим соображениям. Это Его (собственника) право. Не вижу проблемы.

The owner has the full right not to extend a lease. For any reason they want. It’s their (the owner’s) right. I don’t see any problem.

President Barack Obama meets Lev Ponomarev at the Parallel Civil Society Summit. Metropol Hotel, Tuesday, July 7, 2009, in Moscow, Russia.  Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, public domain.
President Barack Obama meets Lev Ponomarev at the Parallel Civil Society Summit. Metropol Hotel, Tuesday, July 7, 2009, in Moscow, Russia. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, public domain.

Soon, however, the question of the eviction and beating of Mitrokhin and Ponomarev was overshadowed by revelations from Maxim Mischenko, a 35-year-old former Duma Deputy in United Russia and founder of the pro-Putin youth movement, “Young Russia.” Mischenko announced online that his organization had recovered sensitive documents that Ponomarev had allegedly attempted to destroy. Writing on LiveJournal, Mischenko explained [ru] how his people came by the documents:

Сегодня была самая короткая ночь в году. Годовщина трагических событий начала Великой Отечественной Войны. Главной темой в твиттере стала тема выселения Льва Пономарева и его фирмы… Муниципальные депутаты и активисты общероссийского движения «Россия Молодая» стали очевидцами этих событий. Сергей Полозов случайно услышал просьбу забарикадирровашихся правозащитников уничтожить пачку документов. Проследив за посыльным, он сумел найти эти документы в мусорном контейнере в одном из соседних дворов.

Today [June 22] was the shortest night of the year. The anniversary of the tragic events of the start of the Great Patriotic War. [And yet] the main theme on Twitter became the eviction of Lev Ponomarev and his enterprise… Members of the local assembly and activists from the all-Russian movement “Young Russia” [ru] were eye-witnesses to these events. Sergei Polozov [ru] happened to overhear a request from the human rights defenders to destroy a bag of documents. Following the person they sent out [to do this], he managed to find these documents in a rubbish container in one of the neighboring courtyards.

Mischenko provided scans of the documents he claimed to have found (which appeared both in English and Russian), including one to US President Obama [ru], asking him to say if he personally considered For Human Rights to be an “American agent.” Mischenko uploaded a 20-minute video [ru] (see below) depicting Young Russian activists discussing their findings, with the documents laid out in front of them. On Twitter [ru], Mischenko also claimed that the documents prove For Human Rights had received at least 100,000 USD from the US [ru], was working with LGBT groups and foreign embassies [ru], and attempting to convince major international companies like Coca-Cola not to do business with pro-regime television station NTV [ru].

Liberals were quick to disparage the “discovery.” Roman Dobrokhotov tweeted [ru]:

Ничего компрометирующего в документах они, конечно, не найдут. Но могут найти имена правозащитников работающих, скажем, на Северном Кавказе

Of course, they’re not going to find anything compromising in the documents. But they may find the names of human rights defenders working, say for example, in the North Caucasus.

One user, helen20011 [ru], pointed out that Mischenko’s very interest in these documents showed that the whole ordeal was about politics and not rent:

штурмовики отдали документы ЗПЧ кремлевским гопникам. Вот прямое док-во что ночной штурм был погромом

The raiders gave over “For Human Rights” documents to the Kremlin scumbags. This is obvious proof that the nighttime raid was a pogrom.

For Eduard Limonov, however, the alleged revelations weren’t entirely unsurprising [ru], particularly following a story in 2012 claiming Ponomarev had met with an official from the Japanese Embassy and was accused of plotting the return of the Kuril Islands to Japan in exchange for financing:

Лёва Пономарёв всё время искал денег. Я далёк от мысли, что он искал денег для самого себя. Он искал денег для организации, для оплаты оффиса в престижном центре Москвы, для оплаты сотрудников и оргтехники. Как для блатных бизнесменов дорогой автомобиль, офис стал для Пономарёва признаком статусности и авторитета.

Leva [a slightly mocking diminutive] Ponomarev was looking for money the whole time. It’s hardly my opinion that he was looking for this money for himself. He was looking for money for the organization, to pay for the office in Moscow’s prestigious city center, to pay his colleagues and for IT. Just as a blatnoi businessman needs an expensive car, the office became for Ponomarev a sign of status and authority.

There’s little indication For Human Rights has committed any crime, according the documents Mischenko has posted online. But the move has put Ponomarev and his supporters on the back foot again, turning what should have been a propaganda victory into a PR quandary. For Human Rights’ current troubles offer a simple lesson for other NGOs in Russia: pay your rent on time and invest in a shredder.

This post first appeared on Global Voices at http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/06/26/russian-ngos-learn-to-invest-in-paper-shredders/

Russians See Themselves in Turkish Protests

While Istanbul continues to be rocked by mass demonstrations [en] against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the RuNet has been actively observing and discussing the events. Turkey is a popular holiday destination with Russians, who are drawn there by its beaches, proximity, low prices and a visa-free travel agreement with Russia. Last year alone nearly 3 million Russians visited Turkey. While some interest in current events there can therefore be chalked up to concerns for non-refundable travel packages, Russia itself has been no stranger to street protests in the last two years. Many Russians were quick to draw parallels: both between the two protest movements and the two political leaders.

From the start, most Russian sympathies have tended to be with the protesters, a phenomenon the controversial writer and head of the Other Russia opposition group Eduard Limonov ascribed [ru] to the Russian national character:

Мы, российские граждане, всегда надеемся, что восставшие против своих правительств победят, всегда инстинктивно встаём на их сторону. Объясняется этот феномен крайне просто. Поскольку мы ненавидим своё правительство и всё руководство нашей страны, и хотим, чтобы оно оставило нас, как можно быстрее; мы солидаризируемся инстинктивно с любой борьбой против правительств.

We Russian citizens always hope that those rising up against their governments will win, instinctively flocking to their side. This phenomenon is quite easily explained. As we hate our government and all those who rule our country and want for them to leave us, the quicker the better, we instinctively express our solidarity with any struggle against the state.

"Unrest in Istanbul", June 11, 2013, Photo by  Eser Karadağ CC2.0
“Unrest in Istanbul”, June 11, 2013, Photo by Eser Karadağ CC2.0

Limonov, however, went on to explain that in Turkey’s case the sympathy was not just a reflex. Noting the centrality of environmentalism to sparking the Taksim protests, Limonov wrote “the Turks appeared very similar to us, like Chirikova and her Khimki Forest [en].”

Limonov wasn’t alone, as many Russians took to Twitter and LiveJournal to express their support of the protesters. Arkady Babchenko, a Russian journalist who blogged about the Istanbul protests from the ground, was highly critical [ru] of Erdoğan’s response (he was later detained, beaten [ru] and deported from Turkey [en].)

По поводу переговорщиков (вчера одиннадцать человек ездили к Эрдогану на переговоры, насколько я понял, ни о чем не договорились, но это не точно) – не то, чтобы разброд и шатание, но разговоры уже начались. Очень грамотный ход со стороны Эрдогана. Разделяй и властвуй. Умно. У Путина учится.

As for the negotiators (yesterday [June 12, 2013] eleven people went to Erdoğan for negotiations, as far as I known they haven’t reached any agreement, but that’s not clear) — it’s not so much confusion and disharmony [that they’ve caused], but people have already started to talk. An expert move on Erdoğan’s part. Divide and rule. Clever. He’s learning from Putin.

Comparisons of Erdoğan to Putin abounded, particularly on Twitter. Real_Estate_Mos [ru] tweeted:

Эрдоган – это такой турецкий Путин..

Erdoğan is a sort of Turkish Putin

Riffing on both leaders’ fondness for presenting themselves as public servants, sergeiolevskii [ru] tweeted:

Эрдоган: “я слуга народа”.
Путин: “я как раб на галерах”.
Чего же так сложно избавиться от этих слуг и рабов?

Erdoğan – “I’m a servant of the people”
Putin- “I work like a galley slave”
Why is it so hard to get rid of these servants and slaves?

Pro-Putin Russians were reticent to voice their support for Erdoğan, under whose premiership Russo-Turkish relations have soured, particularly over the issue of Syria. Nevertheless, Nikolai Starikov, a hard-line Putin supporter, writer, and conspirologist stated [ru] that the protests had been whipped up by the Americans in order to create disorder in Turkey and force the government to support Syrian opposition fighters, which Starikov alleges they have been trying to avoid:

Не хочет – нужно заставить. И вот «турецкая весна» на улицах. Погромы, драки с полицией, попытки штурма офисов правящей партии. И все из-за планов сноса одного парка, как говорят нам СМИ? Полная чушь. Цель беспорядков – заставить Турцию активно вписаться в сирийский конфликт и помочь исламистам.

[Turkey] doesn’t want [to get involved] so they need to be compelled. And there you have it: “The Turkish Spring” is on the streets. Pogroms, clashes with police, attempts to storm the offices of the ruling party. And all from plans to demolish a single park, as the media says? Complete rubbish. The aim of the disturbances is to force Turkey to sign up for the Syrian conflict and help the Islamists.

In the past Starikov has repeatedly claimed the US State Department is behind Russia’s opposition movement, as an active means of weakening the country.

Twitter user aliciamillor [ru] made an argument in a series of tweets [ru] that since Erdoğan had offered to hold a referendum on the park, he was better than some other western politicians:

Браво! Эрдоган предложил провести референдум. Того же самого требовали фр-зы по поводу гей браков. Олланд отказал в груб форме,собаками и газом. Вывод – Эрдоган больше демократ чем Олланд.

Bravo! Erdoğan has proposed holding a referendum. The French demanded the same thing for gay marriage. [French President] Hollande refused this very rudely, with dogs and [tear] gas. Consequently, Erdoğan is a bigger democrat than Hollande.

One Russophone group that did seem to mostly support Erdoğan were citizens of the Central Asian republics, most of whom are Turkic peoples, ethnically and linguistically related to the Turks of Anatolia. One user [ru, uz] in Uzbekistan (whose own president responded to popular protest in 2005 by massacring [en] hundreds of people) applauded Erdoğan [ru] for his relative restraint:

Эрдоган поступил правильно , предупредил , не отреагировали , и теперь выгнал всех нахрен !!! и вообще можно было без предупреждении

Erdoğan has acted correctly, he warned [the protesters], they didn’t react, and now he’s gotten them the hell out of there!!! and anyway, he didn’t have to warn them

Another user, Eva_Alli [ru, kg] of Kyrgyzstan, whose country has also been plagued by unstable government, also praised [ru] Erdoğan’s steadfastness.

Эрдоган красавчик. нам бы такого. знает, что делает, имеет свою точку зрения и ни перед кем не пасует. лев в мужском роде. одним словом.

Erdoğan is one cool dude. Would that we had someone like that. He knows what he’s doing, has his own point of view and nothing gets past him. A sort of a lion, in a word.

Leonine Erdogan is anything but cowardly, according to some RuNet users. YouTube screenshot. June 18, 2013.
Leonine Erdogan is anything but cowardly, according to some RuNet users. YouTube screenshot. June 18, 2013.

Each of these groups of RuNet users perceives Turkey through the prism of their own domestic concerns: members of the opposition see an example to follow, while regime supporters see the disturbances as evidence of foreign meddling and western hypocrisy. Conversely, Central Asians seem to envy their Anatolian cousins for having a more moderate or more decisive leader than they do. While social media has clearly made it much easier for users to closely follow and discuss events thousands of kilometers away, their concerns suggest that for many, all politics is still local.

This post originally appeared on Global voices at http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/06/19/russians-see-themselves-in-turkish-unrest/

Russia’s New Exiles

At first there appears to be little linking these three men. One is a 28-year-old entrepreneur and founder of Russia’s most popular social network; the second, a respected economist who has been an advisor to Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev; and the third, a world-renowned former chess grandmaster and outspoken critic of the Kremlin.

What links Pavel Durov, Sergei Guriev and Garry Kasparov together is that all three have fled Russia in the past three months amid fears of politically motivated prosecution. They are, in effect, a new generation of Russian exiles.

Exile was a common fate for dissidents like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov in the 1970s and 1980s. Post-Soviet Russia has, by and large, avoided such heavy-handed tactics. However, the latest string of high-profile emigrants suggests the Kremlin may be turning the screws on previously untouchable figures.

Pavel Durov, occasionally called “Russia’s Mark Zuckerberg“, is the multimillionaire founder of social network, VKontakte. Durov’s troubles began in April of this year when police announced he was suspected in a hit-and-run incident in St. Petersburg, where a traffic cop was injured by a white Mercedes. Video of the incident was broadcast on Russian television. Durov denied he was the driver and stated he didn’t even own a car.

On April 17, Russia’s feared Investigative Committee raided the company’s headquarters. The following day, it was announced that Durov’s business partners, Lev Leviev and Vyacheslav Mirilashvili, who owned 48 percent of the company’s voting shares, had sold them to United Capital Partners. UPC’s President, Ilya Sherbovich, has strong links to the Kremlin and sits on the board of directors of both Rosneft, (Russia’s state oil company) and Transneft (Russia’s oil pipeline monopoly). Saint Petersburg police announced they wished to speak to Durov as a “witness.”

Durov has disappeared, most likely to Italy, where he spent much of his formative years. Durov, who identifies as a libertarian and has refrained from personally criticizing the regime, likely fell foul of the authorities for his refusal to shut down groups on his site and hand over information on users involved in the protests that arose in the wake of December 2011’s Duma elections.

Sergei Guriev was Rector of Russia’s prestigious New Economic School and a board member of Russia’s Sberbank until May 30, when he tendered his resignations and announced that he would not be returning from France, where he was visiting his wife and children. Guriev wrote an article in The New York Times explaining that he had been targeted by the Investigative Committee following recommendations he had made in a report calling for the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oligarch imprisoned on charges of tax fraud. Amnesty International considers Khodorkovsky to be a prisoner of conscience.

Guriev claimed he was called (like Durov) as a “witness”, but was subjected to interrogations and extensive requests for personal documents about the Khodorkovsky case. He stated that he and his wife were under surveillance and he had concluded his liberty was under threat.

Following Guriev’s announcement, on June 6 another high-profile Russian, former chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, announced that he too would not be returning to Russia. Kasparov has been an outspoken critic of Putin for some time and has been arrested before for illegal demonstrations.

On his Facebook page, Kasparov explained (in English) that, “Putin is cracking down harder than ever and is showing he is willing to create a new generation of political prisoners unseen since the days of Stalin. I have already been ‘invited’ to speak to prosecutors and such invitations have a way, at a minimum, of limiting one’s freedom of movement. Adding another victim to the regime’s list will not do much good.”

The three cases display striking similarities. In each, the individual is questioned by members of the feared Investigative Committee, often as a “witness” to another case. The questioning and requests for personal information both interfere with the individual’s day-to-day life and create a pervading sense of unease and fear. The cumulative effect of this questioning is to leave the individual in no doubt that life will be much easier if he or she leaves the country.

This process is much easier than actually putting people on trial. The departure of a high-profile individual creates much less of an impact in the Western press than the highly politicized trials of opposition blogger Alexei Navalny, on trial for alleged fraud, members of feminist art collective Pussy Riot, or Khodorkovsky. The process also gives the Kremlin plausible deniability – Putin’s spokesperson Dmitri Peskov claims Guriev’s move is solely for personal reasons and he is not wanted for any crime.

The Kremlin has discovered it is better to have troublemakers move abroad than to make potential martyrs of them at home. With Russia currently clamping down on dissent on all fronts, we can expect to see more high-profile Russians packing their bags for good in the future.

This post first appeared on the Huffington Post at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-alan-kennedy/russias-new-exiles_b_3430867.html