Russia Eyes Another Orphan Experiment

It’s been a particularly bad year for Russia’s long-suffering orphans. First they became unwitting pawns in Russia’s diplomatic spat with the US, and adoptions by Americans were banned [GV] in retaliation for the American “Magnitsky List” back in December 2012. Then, on May 30, 2013, Pavel Astakhov, the Russian Ombudsman for Children’s Rights, proposed a ban [en] on adoptions by France, citing France’s new laws on same-sex marriage. Perhaps eager to head off suggestions he was merely curtailing orphans’ opportunities for adoption, rather than expanding them, on June 7, Astakhov proposed a new, experimental programme [ru] where Russian orphans could be put up for adoption in different regions of the country.

“Странно, что итальянец, француз, немец приезжают в Россию и могут взять ребенка, а житель Северо-Кавказского или Дальневосточного федерального округа не может взять ребенка в Москве или Нижнем Новгороде. Это возможно.”

It’s strange that an Italian, a Frenchman or a German can come to Russia and take a child, but someone living in the North Caucasus or the Far-East Federal District can’t take a child from Moscow or Nizhny Novgorod. This is a possibility.

"Explaining Dipping Sticks to Russian Orphans" Kaluga, Russia. Photo by Robert Dann CC 2.0
“Explaining Dipping Sticks to Russian Orphans” Kaluga, Russia. Photo by Robert Dann CC 2.0

Astakhov went on to claim that “If we are talking about an experiment, then I’m not opposed to an experiment”. He should probably have chosen his words more carefully, as the idea of sending Russia’s highly-politicized orphans to the restive North Caucasian Republics as a kind of social “experiment” was overwhelmingly condemned by netizens of all political stripes.

Russian nationalists were naturally incensed. One blogger, fotograf_1 (whose blog is simply called “Slav”), pulled no punches [ru].

Мои глаза меня обманывают?! Да этим детям сломают психику, их будут насиловать, их будут учить убивать, их будут воспитывать в ненависти к русским. А если нет, то что? они будут овец пасти в горах?! да к этим детям будут относиться как к рабам, если не хуже!

Are my eyes deceiving me!? These children will have their psyches broken, they’ll be raped, they’ll be taught to kill, they’ll be brought up to hate ethnic Russians. And if not, then what? They’ll tend sheep in the mountains?! These children will be treated like slaves, if not worse!

The theme of slavery was brought up by another nationalist blogger, belyaev [ru], who wrote [ru]

К примеру, не так давно в СМИ просочилась информация, что прямо на автобусной остановке в Махачкале был организован рынок рабов, который «крышевали» полицейские. Местный блогер Закир Магомедов, который и привлёк внимание к этому ужасу, даже приводил цены на живой товар – 15 тысяч рублей за мужчину и за 150 тысяч за девушку. Ну а сколько приходит сообщений про рабов, освобождённых с кирпичных заводов Кавказа, лучше вообще промолчать.

Look at the recent example exposed by the media [ru], where a slave market was organised at a bus stop in Makhachkala, which was “under the protection” of the police. Local blogger Zakir Magomedov, who brought this horrific story to public attention, even gave the prices for the living goods – 15,000 rubles [460 USD] for a man and up to 150,000 rubles [4,600 USD] for a girl. And I’ll save my breath on the subject of how many slaves have been liberated from brick factories in the Caucasus.

Belyaev was referring to the case of Andrei Popov [en], a soldier who claims he was kidnapped and forced to work in a brick factory in Dagestan. Such fears are not the sole preserve of hard-line nationalists. News of the story prompted over 300 comments [ru] on Andrei Malgin’s popular opposition blog [ru], the overwhelming majority of them negative and many of them xenophobic or Islamophobic.

Even otherwise liberal Russians were less than impressed. Blogger yttytt [ru] sarcastically tweeted [ru]:

А меня Астахов порадовал свежестью мысли: отдадим сирот на Северный Кавказ, обратим в мусульманство и дадим в руки по автомату “Борз”. Ура!

I’m pleased with Astakhov’s original thinking: give orphans to the North Caucasus, convert them to Islam and put a “Borz” [en] machine gun in their hands. Hurray!

The announcement was also discussed on the popular liberal opposition Facebook group “We Were On Bolotnaya Square and We’ll Come Again“[ru], where the reaction [ru] was entirely negative:

Diallo Marina: У них девочка считается женщиной лет с 12 . Об этом он подумал?

Diallo Marina: They consider a girl to be a woman when she turns 12. Has [Astakhov] thought about that?

Olga Leonova: А что? И вырастят…боевиков

Olga Leonova. So what? They’ll raise them… to be [terrorist] fighters

Leonid Jerschow: Похоже, Астахов нашел способ подготовки террористов с европейской внешностью

Leonid Jerschow: Looks like Astakhov has found a means of creating terrorists with a European appearance

The Kremlin has expended a great deal of blood and treasure over the last 20 years ensuring that the North Caucasus remains within the Russian Federation and has broadly succeeded in this aim. But while the threat of secession now seems remote, for the vast majority of Russians the North Caucasus and her people remain decidedly hostile and alien. Opposition activists from across the ideological spectrum have come to associate the region with the worst excesses of corruption and lawlessness, and resent the massive subsidies that go to local despots like Leader of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov [en]. Perhaps Astakhov’s proposal was designed to bridge this divide and bring ethnic Russians and the peoples of the North Caucasus closer together. If that’s the case, then the public outcry shows it’s going to take a lot more than a few adoptions to change xenophobic attitudes.

This post first appeared on Global Voices at http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/06/11/russia-eyes-another-orphan-experiment/

Russians & Cigarettes: A Hard Goodbye

Russia is one of the heaviest smoking countries in the world. While 39 percent of Russians smoke, the figure rises to 60 percent among Russian men (for comparison, the figure is about 21 percent for both sexes in the UK). Russian attitudes and laws on smoking have been incredibly lax when compared to the rest of Europe. Russians have been free to feed their nicotine addictions not only in bars, restaurants and cafes, but in schools, hospitals, many forms of public transport, government buildings and apartment complexes. Adverts for cigarettes decorate the nation’s street corners and metro systems, and fill the pages of Russian publications. Taxes on cigarettes are negligible and a pack of Marlboro can be purchased for less than two dollars, with domestic brands available for half that.

Russian's smoking habits know few boundaries. "Bad Habit," Volgograd, Russia, 22 November 2009, photo by Mohd Hafizuddin Husin, CC 2.0.
Russians’ smoking habits know few boundaries. “Bad Habit,” Volgograd, Russia, 22 November 2009, photo by Mohd Hafizuddin Husin, CC 2.0.

The Russian government aims to change this and, on Saturday, June 1, 2013, it instituted a new law “On the Protection of the Health of Citizens from the Effects of Passive Tabacco Smoke and the Consequences of Tabacco Consumption” [ru], banning smoking in government buildings, educational facilities, healthcare facilities, the lifts and corridors of apartment complexes, train stations, and inside most trains. The law also mandates tough restrictions on tobacco advertising, increases taxes on the smoking industry, raises penalties for sales to minors, and paves the way to a phased introduction of similar bans in shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants.

Back in October 2012, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev himself used his blog to disseminate a video (see below) explaining the government’s reasons for introducing such a law, noting that Russia’s smoking rate was abnormally high (comparable only to China’s) and that, since the 1990s, the percentage of Russian women who smoke had risen from 7 to 22 percent, while the age at which a person first smoked on average had fallen from 15 to 11.

While official figures [ru] state that between 70 and 80 percent of the population supports these new measures, the law has proved controversial on the Russian blogosphere, where many took issue with it for a variety of reasons. Blogger Nicolai Troitsky (pictured in his LiveJournal profile enjoying a cigarette) claimed that he was joining the recently established “Common Russian Movement for the Rights of Smokers” [ru]. Troitsky denounced the legislation in the strongest possible terms in his post, “Stop the Genocide Against Smokers!” [ru].

тоталитарная, гестаповская, фашистская борьба с курильщиками, больше похожая на истребление, на геноцид, противоречит всем нормам здравого смысла. Целая немалая группа граждан демонстративно лишается элементарных прав.

This totalitarian, gestapo-like, fascist fight with smokers is more like an extermination, a genocide, running counter to all norms of common sense. An entire group of citizens is having its basic rights violated.

While Troitsky was apparently happy to confirm Godwin’s Law in his opening salvo, hyperbole was not the sole preserve of smokers. Duma Deputy Igor Lebedev took the time to pen an article titled, “‘The Rights of Smokers’ Are ‘The Rights of Drug Addicts’ and ‘The Rights of Murders'” [ru]:

Привычка, конечно, сильна. Причем не только привычка курильщиков к никотину, но и наша общая привычка видеть вокруг себя людей с белыми бумажными дымящимися палочками во рту. Надо сделать так, чтобы вид прилюдно курящего человека вызывал такую же реакцию, как и вид прилюдно “ширяющегося” наркомана. По сути, это одно и то же.

The habit is strong, of course. Not just the smokers’ nicotine habit, but also our common habit of seeing people around us with smoking white paper sticks in their mouths. We need to make it so that the sight of a person smoking in front of people will bring the same reaction as the sight of a drug addict “shooting up” in front of people. After all, they are one and the same.

Lebedev, a member of the ultra-nationalist political party LDPR, also underlined that “smoking is not a Russian tradition—the habit was introduced by Peter the Great” (that is, 300 years ago).

The more liberal Anton Nossik criticized the law on the grounds that the coercive measures contained in the laws would prove fruitless [ru].

в любой стране, где за последние 10 лет достигнуты ощутимые успехи в борьбе с курением, мы видим огромный спектр усилий, направленных именно на помощь курильщикам в бросании курить… А там, где это направление работы задвинуто, никакие даже самые жёсткие репрессивные меры не помогают. Мы это недавно тут обсуждали на примере французских драконовских мер, результат которых с 2000 по 2010 год оказался нулевым. И британских программ помощи курильщикам, которые за тот же период помогли снизить число страдающих зависимостью в полтора раза.

In any country where they’ve achieved an apreciable success in the fight against smoking, we see the massive spectre of efforts centered namely on helping smokers to quit… But where the direction of the work is forceful, even the harshest, most repressive measures don’t help. We recently discussed [on Nossik’s blog] the example of France’s repressive measures, the results of which between 2000 and 2010 turned out to be nothing. And the British program of helping smokers in the same period lowered the number of those suffering [nicotine] dependence by one-and-half times.

Many Russians, however, were less interested in the law as a question of rights and simply focused on the likelihood of it being enforced or enforceable. As Osik101195 bluntly tweeted [ru]:

Если вы думаете, что антитабачный закон будут соблюдать в России, то вы точно ебанутый

If you think the anti-tabacco law will be observed in Russia, then you’re a complete f*cking idiot

Writing several days after the law’s adoption, MindNasty painted a grim picture [ru] of the efficacy of the ban:

В тамбуре электрички курили два контролера, выдыхали дым в табличку “Не курить”. Обсуждали антитабачный закон. Не вижу смысла в этом законе.

Between the carriages on the train, two ticket inspectors were smoking, blowing their smoke at the “No Smoking” sign. They were discussing the anti-tabacco law. I don’t see the point of this law.

For all the controversy, Russia’s new smoking laws are broadly similar to legislation most Western countries have had for over 20 years (not coincidentally, its smoking rates are similar to those of countries like the UK 30 years ago). With 400,000 Russians dying from smoking-related illnesses every year, the government has a huge incentive to increase public health and implement anti-smoking legislation, but whether Russia’s population is willing to obey or its police are ready to enforce such legislation remains to be seen.

This post first appeared on Global Voices at http://globalvoicesonline.org/wp-admin/post.php?post=416413&action=edit

Tinker, Tailor, Compass, Wig: Russia’s Amusing American Spy Scandal

The Cold War may have ended over twenty years ago, but it’s an open secret that the US and Russia continue to spy on each other. The uncovering of a Russian spy-ring three years ago in America demonstrated that for the SVR (Russia’s CIA equivalent), old habits die hard. This week showed that the same holds true for the CIA, when on Tuesday 14 May 2013, the FSB (Russia’s internal security service) announced they had arrested Ryan Christopher Fogle, third secretary at the US embassy in Moscow for attempting to recruit Russian citizens as spies. Fogle had allegedly written letters and placed telephone calls to potential agents offering them up to one million dollars for their services. The US State Department declined to publicly comment on which government agency Fogle works for or on the allegations of spying.

Fogle’s arrest was filmed by the FSB and shown on Russian television. In the video [ru], Fogle is seen in an unconvincing blond wig and baseball cap, which are then removed by an FSB agent before Fogle is frogmarched into a waiting car. Fogle’s “spy-kit” (which included two wigs, sunglasses, a compass, a cheap Nokia phone, an Atlas of Moscow, a Swiss army knife and several envelopes of 500-euro notes) is then displayed for the cameras. Later in the video, Fogle and what appear to be three of his colleagues from the Embassy are given a dressing-down by a pixilated FSB agent. In a manner strangely reminiscent of a school headmaster scolding wayward students, the agent expresses his shock and disappointment at Fogle’s attempts to recruit Russian citizens, in light of the recent close cooperation of Russia with American intelligence agencies in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.

The story catapulted the murky world of counterintelligence into the spotlight of the Russian blogosphere, where the details of the case were dissected with glee. From the start many were somewhat perplexed at Fogle’s spy-kit, which seemed to come straight from an early James Bond novel.

User Best_JS [ru] quipped

Парики,черные очки и особенно–компас в Москве.Не хватает только секстанта и астролябии.ЦРУ оснащает своих агентов в магазине 99 центов?

Wigs, sunglasses and especially — a compass in Moscow. He’s only missing a sextant and astrolabe. Is the CIA equipping their agents at the 99 cent store?

Tweeter user Timque [ru] also took a dim view of Fogle’s spycraft.

Если наша контрразведка способна ловить только шпионов с чуть ли не надписью «ШПИОН» на лбу. То из меня бы вышел отличный агент ЦРУ!

If our counterintelligence is only capable of catching spies with the word “SPY” practically written on their forheads, then I could make an excellent CIA agent!

Fogle's alleged spy-kit generated interest for it's "low-tech" nature.
Fogle’s alleged spy-kit generated interest for it’s “low-tech” nature. YouTube Screenshot. May 17, 2013.

Somewhat surprisingly, a much more charitable appraisal [ru] of Fogle’s equipment came from popular Russian tech blogger Eldar Murtazin [ru], who pointed out the pitfalls of using advanced gadgets in the world of espionage.

Начнем с самого противоречивого предмета в глазах обывателей — обычного атласа Москвы и дорог с указанием каждого дома. В век высоких технологий, когда у каждого в телефоне есть навигация и хорошие карты, это выглядит анахронизмом. А теперь давайте представим специфику работы агента, когда он не должен оставлять следов, в том числе и цифровых. Я плохо представляю себе агента, который прокладывает путь к тайнику или месту встречу в Google Maps и затем сохраняет маршрут. Этот агент должен быть конченным идиотом. Равно, как мне сложно представить как сообщить о месте встречи в электронном виде, это дополнительный риск […] Поэтому можно долго ворчать, что разведчикам чужды новые технологии, но это не так. Эффективный способ не оставлять следов, не использовать программы навигации.

Let’s start with the most controversial item in the eyes of the average person: the common Moscow road atlas with the adresses of all the buildings in it. In the high-tech era, when everyone has a phone with GPS and good maps, it seems like an anachronism. But now consider the specifics of an agent’s work, when he can leave no traces, including digital ones. I can’t picture the agent who looks up the way to a secret location or a meeting place on Google Maps and then saves the route. That agent would have to be a complete idiot. Similarly, it’s hard for me to imagine sending information about meeting place in electronic form, this is an additional risk […] So you can whinge all you like about intelligence agents shunning new technologies, but it isn’t the case. An effective means of leaving no traces is not to use GPS.

Blogger and social media guru, Anton Nossik [ru], on the other hand, laid the blame at Americans’ inability to work with agents in human intelligence. Referencing an interview [ru] with famous Soviet defector Viktor Suvorov, Nossik claimed:

По мнению Суворова, у ЦРУ просто очень хреново поставлена агентурная работа. Потому что, с одной стороны, львиная доля разведданных собирается с помощью техсредств (спутниковая съёмка, перехват коммуникаций), а не от живых людей. С другой стороны, самые эффективные агенты на службе Америки — иностранцы, шпионящие в своих собственных странах. Которых не нужно учить маскироваться, гримироваться, носить парики, потому что их главная маскировка — реальная биография и занимаемая должность.

According to Suvorov, the CIA is simply bloody awful at working with agents. This is because, on the one hand, the lion’s share of intelligence info is gathered by technical means (satelite photos, intercepted communications) and not from living people. And, on the other hand, the most effective agents in the service of America are foreigners working in their own countries, who don’t need to learn to disguise themselves, apply make-up, wear wigs, because their main disguise is their real biography and the work they do.

Nossik went on to claim Fogle’s alleged letter [ru] (written in awkward if grammatically correct Russian) looked like “Nigerian spam run through Google translate”.

Of course, as usual, some RuNet users saw the invisible hand of the Kremlin at work in the entire episode. As one commentator [ru] sarcastically put it

Ну, да — накладные усы, парики, шифры и прочая хуета. Почти как в кино. Не верю я в это лицедейство! Компас меня убил окончательно. Надо было еще словарь англо-русский добавить. И детскую порнографию.

Oh yeah, fake moustaches, wigs, codebooks and similar bullsh*t. Almost like in the films. I don’t believe this charade. The compass was the last straw. They should have added a Russian-English dictionary. And some child porn.

Interestingly, while Fogle’s competence (or lack there of) as a spy has been a hot topic of conversation, almost no attention has been paid to the potential fallout from the expulsion of a US diplomat for spying. Similarly few have bothered to speculate on why the Kremlin chose to expel Fogle now, when the Kremlin and the US are in high-level talks about Syria and intelligence-sharing. It is telling that what should normally be a major diplomatic incident now barely registers as more than an amusing anecdote for Russian netizens.

This post first appeared on Global Voices at http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/05/18/tinker-taylor-compass-wig-runet-amused-by-spy-scandal/

After Fatality, May 6 Displays Troubles & Resilience of Russian Protest Movement

The Russian opposition, it seems, can’t catch a break. Sometimes, this is because the Kremlin’s political technologists outmaneuver them. Other times, it is thanks to internal bickering. On May 6, 2013, however, the culprit was plain bad luck. On May 6, Muscovites planned to assemble at Bolotnaya Square for the largest rally in a year, in order to commemorate the anniversary of the now infamous protests at the same location on May 6, 2012, when demonstrators and riot police clashed violently for the first and only time in Russia’s 2011-2012 protest season. Investigators have charged twenty-eight people with varying degrees of involvement in the “rioting,” making this group a cause célèbre for the Russian opposition, which views them as political prisoners.

Demonstrators through the sanctioned opposition rally on Bolotnaya Square in downtown Moscow, 6 May 2013, photo by Alexander Chernavskiy, copyright © Demotix.
Demonstrators through the sanctioned opposition rally on Bolotnaya Square in downtown Moscow, 6 May 2013, photo by Alexander Chernavskiy, copyright © Demotix.

After months of preparation and weeks of wrangling with the Moscow authorities for permission to hold the protest, a tragic fatality marred the event before it could even begin. When the rally’s start was just six hours away, a falling speaker crushed to death 25-year-old Maksim Melkov, a volunteer helping to set up the stage. When police declared the stage area a potential crime scene, it seemed possible that organizers might have to cancel the entire event. Shortly thereafter, however, the Mayor’s office announced the demonstration could continue without the stage. Amidst the confusion, anti-opposition spambots flooded Twitter with messages bearing the hashtags “sick of protests” [ru] and “the opposition has faded away” [ru].

Twitterbots simultaneously tweeting the hashtag "the opposition has faded away"
Twitterbots simultaneously tweeting the hashtag “the opposition has faded away”

Such tactics failed to distract Ekho Moskvy journalist Serguei Parkhomenko, who quickly took to Facebook, where he tried to coordinate alternative logistical arragements in a post [ru] that attracted over 130 “shares”:

Друзья, пожалуйста, прекратить битья головами об углы и причитать,”какой кошмар”. Да, случилось ужасное несчастье. Но именно потому, что оно ужасное, сейчас не истериковать нужно, а очень слаженно работать, чтобы в создавшейся ситуации ситуация не пошла вразнос.

Ситауция таков: поскольку трагедия случилась в самом начале работ, сцены нет, и звука нет. Место монтажа оцеплено полицией. Организаторы (не я) продолжают переговоры с мэрией о том, как быть дальше […]

Итак, нужны:

1) Большой грузовик с откидывающимися бортами
2) генераторы
3) мощные динамики
4) усилители
5) пульт
6) кабели для всего этого

[…]

Если кто-то может помочь – немедленно пишите мне в личные сообщения.

И пожалуйста, не истерите здесь больше. Не накачивайте друг друга, не орите истошно. Просто помогите.

Friends, please stop beating your heads against the wall and proclaiming “what a disaster.” Yes, a horrible accident has occurred. But, exactly because it is horrible, we don’t need to get hysterical. Instead we need to work as a team, so the situation doesn’t get away from us.

The situation is this: insofar as the tragedy happened at the very beginning of the work, there is no stage and no sound. The rigging is cordoned off by police. The organizers (not me) are in talks with the mayor about how to continue. […]

And so we need:

1) A large truck with removable sides.
2) generators
3) powerful speakers
4) amplifiers
5) a mixing board
6) cables for all of this

[…]

If someone can help, quickly get in touch with me.

And please, no more hysterics about this. Don’t work yourselves up, and don’t lose your heads. Just pitch in.

Some oppositionists were keen to turn Melkov into something of a martyr. User social_hipster[ru] tweeted:

Максим Мелков – жертва режима!

Maksim Melkov is a victim of the regime!

Pro-regime netizens were less impressed by oppositionists’ handling of the tragedy. Twitter user xstazik was happy to take the opportunity to troll the protestors:

погиб человек, а этим лишь бы помитинговать #6мая #ОппозицияСдулась

A person has died, but these guys just want to have their rally #6may #TheOppositionHasFadedAway

Blogger alekssidor [ru] also disapproved:

Организаторы готовят аппаратуру к митингу на крови

The organizers are setting up the equipment for their protest on blood

While organizers did manage to acquire a truck and a sound-system, a lack of adequate amplification plagued the event’s speeches. Journalist Oleg Kashin, perhaps given the circumstances, decided to forgo a speech. Instead, he sang an a capella version of seminal Soviet punk band Grazhdanskaya Oborona‘s best known song, “Everything is going to plan” [ru], to the apparent bafflement of many in attendance.

The confusion was shared by others online, as well, including those who enjoyed it. LiveJournal user langobard wrote [ru]:

сказать откровенно, я Кашина после вчерашнего зауважал.

Хотя один мелкий обывательский вопрос все равно мозолит мозги. Все-таки он бухой был или нет? Ну чего уж, ну принято интересоваться про это в таких вот случаях.

I can honestly say that I respect Kashin after what happened yesterday.

Just one little parochial question all the same pops into my head. Was he wasted or what? No big deal, it’s just interesting to know in such cases, that’s all.

Kashin, of course, is an extremely prolific tweeter [ru] and occasionally posts entire song lyrics, 140 characters at a time. SimonKostin [ru] noted the collision of the journalist’s online and offline personae.

Похоже, Кашин перенес свои принципы ведения твиттера в реальную жизнь

It’s as if Kashin has carried his tweeting principles into real life

The event finished with a speech from Alexey Navalny, who appeared onstage alongside his wife. In a straightforward address, which Navalny himself admitted contained “nothing new,” he promised to continue to fight the criminal charges against him and the corruption and excesses of the government. He closed with “Russia is our country! Russia will be free!” The crowd repeated the slogan in a shout, and Navalny’s speech was over.

Though the final attendance of the event (estimated to be around 27,500) was much smaller than the mass demonstrations of December 2011 and early 2012, the turnout does testify that that there are still people in Russia willing to come out on an unseasonably cold day and make their displeasure known to the regime, despite accidents, soundsystem failures, and the ever-present fear of arrest and provocation. Despite its setbacks, the opposition has not faded away, which—a year on from Putin’s reinauguration—could be an achievement in and of itself.

This piece first appeared on Global Voices at http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/05/08/after-fatality-may-6-displays-troubles-resilience-of-russian-protest-movement/

Russia’s “Bolotnaya Case” – An “Ordinary” Political Trial

This Sunday will mark the one year anniversary of the beginning of what Russians call “The Bolotnaya Case”. On May 6 2012, protesters at Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square demonstrating against Vladimir Putin’s presidential inauguration at an event called “The March of Millions” were involved in clashes with riot police. Despite the fact that the route of the march had been agreed with the city authorities back the February, participants were blocked by chains of riot police at one of the entrances, leading to heightened tensions. Who attacked whom first is a bone of contention: the police claim the protesters attacked them with stones, while members of the opposition maintain they were the victim of provocation. Prominent leftest leader Sergei Udaltsov was dragged off stage by riot police during a speech after urging those present to stage a sitting protest. By the end of the protest, over 400 people had been arrested and 16 police and 20 demonstrators had been injured. Following the disturbances, Kremlin press secretary Dmitri Peskov claimed the police had dealt with protesters “too leniently”. In the wake of the Bolotnaya protests, the maximum fines for unsanctioned demonstrations were increased from approximately 30 USD to approximately 50,000 USD.

After the altercations, Russia’s feared Investigative Committee began criminal proceedings under Article 212 (engaging in mass disorder) and Article 318 (violence against law enforcement) of Russia’s Criminal Code. Charges under these articles carry sentences of between four and ten years in prison. Twenty eight people are currently being investigated, 17 of whom are currently in being held in prison and three of whom are under house arrest. One of the accused, Leonid Razvozzhaev was allegedly kidnapped from Ukraine by Russian forces and tortured into giving a confession. The most recent arrest occurred on April 28 2013, when prominent anti-fascist activist and member of the opposition’s “coordinating council”, Aleksei Gaskarov, was accused of attacking a riot police officer at Bolotnaya. Gaskarov maintains he was only preventing the officer from attacking someone else and that he had in fact sustained serious injuries from the police that day.

The Russian opposition maintains that these investigations are politically motivated, based on flimsy evidence and designed to scare people away from mass demonstrations and other forms of opposition activism. They have set up a committee to help with the defence of the accused as well as increasing awareness of the proceedings. The committee’s “One Day – One Name” campaign which has been running throughout April seeks to highlight the case of a different individual accused every day with a series of blogsyoutube videos and individual protests. Prominent opposition figures like Aleksey Navalny (who is himself on trial in Kirov), television presenter Leonid Parfenov, and journalist Oleg Kashin have participated in the campaign by recording videos in which they discuss the case of one fo the accused.

Aleksei Gaskarov in a cage at his hearing. Image via Youtube

Aleksei Gaskarov in a cage at his hearing. Image via Youtube

The “One Day – One Name” campaign comes to an end on Monday, May 6 2013, as opposition figures plan to stage another protest on Bolotnaya square to mark the anniversary of the first demonstration and to protest the “Bolotnaya Case”. The mayor has agreed to the protest, but has forbidden a march, claiming it would be too disruptive for a working day. A smaller march, scheduled for Saturday, May 5 was allowed instead.

Though the Bolotnaya case is in many ways another example of the politicisation of the justice system in Russia, it has failed to capture the western imagination in the same way the trials of Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot or Navalny have. The case lacks a charismatic central figure and doesn’t fit neatly into a simple good/evil narrative. While Pussy Riot was portrayed as a battle between a group of pretty rock-and-rollers and a reactionary government, the type of violent political demonstrations that characterised Bolotnaya arenot viewed favourably in the West either. But in many ways the Bolotnaya Case may be one of the most important politically motivated trials of the last ten years. The Khodorkovsky case was about teaching the oligarchs their place, Pussy Riot was all about shoring up domestic support among Putin’s conservative base, and Navalny’s trial is likely about simply disqualifying him from running for elected office. The Bolotnaya Case on the other hand is about targeting ordinary rank-and-file opposition figures themselves, rather than their leaders, and making examples. It represents to some extent the “normalisation” of political trials in Russia. This dovetails nicely with the Kremlin’s new law that forces NGOs that receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents” increased penalties for libel, age restrictions on websites and magazines and “homosexual propaganda” all of which are designed to put the liberal (and not so liberal) opposition on the back foot.

A year on since Bolotnaya and Putin’s return to the presidency some are loosing patience. On April 29 Oleg Kashin published an article called “Teach Yourself to Hate” in which he lambasts the opposition for their pusillanimity in the face of the Kremlin’s actions and calls on them to learn to hate their enemy. Whether the opposition needs to teach itself to hate or whether this would simply play into the Kremlin’s hands remains to be seen.

This post first appeared on the International Political Forum at http://internationalpoliticalforum.com/russias-bolotnaya-case-an-ordinary-political-trial/

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/

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/