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The Real Russia. Today. Telegram gets blocked in Russia, the sanctions war heats up, and oh the things you learn from polls

Meduza
14:45, 16 april 2018

Monday, April 16, 2018

  • Russian ISPs finally start blocking Telegram
  • The Health Ministry wants a ban of online propaganda from “HIV dissidents”
  • New sanctions might or might not harm Russian financial interests in Syria
  • A Russian mayor wants the “Yanks” wiped off the map
  • Lawmakers hurry to adopt a series of new potential “counter-sanctions” against the U.S.
  • A controversially convicted doctor is free to go
  • A Soviet space artifact is stolen
  • Two polls reveal that Russians don't know much about Leonid Slutsky's scandal or have much desire to protest about anything political
  • Moscow's mayor pushes voting reforms, months ahead of his likely re-election
  • A protest organizer in outside Moscow gets his arrest expunged (after he served two weeks in jail)
  • A journalist who investigated Russian mercenaries in Ukraine and Syria falls to his death

Story of the day: Telegram finally goes kaput in Russia 💀

On Monday, April 16, Russia’s federal censor followed through on months of threats and finally ordered Internet service providers to start blocking Telegram. Last Friday, a Moscow district court granted Roskomnadzor the authority to block the popular instant messenger without allowing the company to stall the process in appellate court. Clients of all major telecoms in Russia have been reporting that Telegram has stalled on their phones. Roskomnadzor says it has also ordered Google and Apple to remove the app from their stores in Russia. (It's unclear if they'll comply.)

The Kremlin has already stopped using Telegram to arrange conference calls with journalists and switched to ICQ, which Mail.ru Group acquired in 2010.

Are people getting around this? To circumvent the government’s ban, many users have turned to VPN and proxies that connect them to Telegram through servers located outside Russia. These services — especially the free networks — can dramatically slow down a person’s Internet connection. They are also costly to run all the time, both in terms of money and battery power. Roskomnadzor has promised to start blocking the circumvention tools that allow Russians to connect to Telegram. “Opera VPN,” the most popular free VPN service in Russia, announced over the weekend that it will close down all operations by the end of the month.

On Friday, Meduza published a special editorial in response to the blocking of Telegram. Read it here: “Blocking Telegram is a blow to Russia's future”

How the most popular Telegram channels in Russia are responding to the government’s decision to block the messenger? Meduza collected some of the early reactions from channels like “StalinGulag,” “Mash,” “Metodichka,” and others. Read the full collection here: “Welcome to 1984”

In the afternoon on Monday, Telegram founder and CEO Pavel Durov wrote on Vkontakte that the blocking of Telegram:

  • Makes life difficult for the app’s 15 million users in Russia.
  • Does nothing to reduce the risk from terrorists, who he says will use other messenger apps or access Telegram through VPN.
  • Reduces Russia’s national security by sending citizens’ private data from a “neutral platform” (Telegram) to the “U.S.-controlled” apps Facebook and WhatsApp, as Russians migrate to those services.

A most dangerous “dissidence” 😷

Russia’s Health Ministry has proposed legislation that would outlaw the publication of information that incites people to refuse medical treatment for HIV infections. The ban would also apply to propaganda for so-called “HIV dissidents” — people who believe the AIDS virus is a myth. Individuals who defy the law would face fines as high as 3,000 rubles ($50), state officials would face fines as high as 10,000 rubles ($160), and legal entities could be fined as much as 50,000 rubles ($800). Roskomnadzor would also gain the authority to block this content online.

Is this really such a problem? In the past year alone, Russia has witnessed at least four criminal investigations following the deaths of small children whose parents refused to administer lifesaving HIV antiretroviral treatments. The most recent case was launched in Irkutsk earlier this month.

🇷🇺 + 🇸🇾 = 💘, but add a little 🇺🇸 sanctions and it goes a little 😅

💵 Shared business interests

As the United States prepares to impose new sanctions against the Syrian government, the Assad regime’s $400-billion reconstruction plans are in jeopardy. On Monday, the newsletter The Bell published a report summarizing the potential Russian-Syrian deals that could be threatened by new American sanctions. Moscow has invested significant blood and especially treasure into its military intervention in Syria, and state officials have expressed confidence that Russia will be “rewarded” financially for this loyalty with lucrative reconstruction contracts. (Dmitry Rogozin even said Moscow has a “moral right” to these deals.)

What are the highlights of this report?

  • Investment risks. In February, at a Russian-Syrian conference held at Russia’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the chamber’s president, Sergey Katyrin, announced that Russian investors would get preferential treatment in Syria’s rebuilding procurement deals. Sources later told The Bell, however, that many Russian enterprises would stay away from Syrian contracts, fearing future sanctions.
  • Hard times for an important bank. When the U.S. Treasury sanctioned the Russian Financial Corporation Bank (RFC Bank) in early April, Washington apparently targeted the main financial institution used for settlements between the Russian and Syrian governments. RFC Bank was “designated” for being owned by Rosoboroneksport, which supplies weapons to Syria. Russian and Syrian enterprises and agencies can still circumvent RFC Bank by turning to institutions in Lebanon, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, says The Bell, but cross-rate currency fees would cost an additional 10 to 15 percent.
  • It’s a good time to have nothing more to lose. Many Russian companies cooperating with the Syrian government (like Technopromexport) had little to lose from additional Western sanctions, as they’ve already been sanctioned for activities in Crimea. The Syrian government is also working with the companies Evro Polis and Wagner (both tied to Evgeny Prigozhin) to reclaim and protect Syrian oil and gas fields. According to the magazine RBC, the Wagner private military company is spending anywhere between 5.1 and 10.3 billion rubles ($81.9 and 165.3 million) in annual operating costs in Syria. State Duma deputy Dmitry Sablin, who is one of the leaders of the hyper-patriotic social movements “Brothers in Arms” and “Antimaidan,” has strongly advocated closer ties between Russian and Syrian entrepreneurs, organizing a whole delegation of the latter to Khanty-Mansiysk.
  • The official bilateral trade is tiny. The official volume of Russian-Syrian commercial trade was a piddling $282.7 million in 2017, with $279.8 million in exports and $2.9 million in imports. (Arms sales are likely classified and hidden from these statistics.)

💥🔪🤬Eradicate the Yanks

Commenting on an Instagram post from Damascus, Syria, by Andrey Turchak (the secretary of United Russia’s General Council), Pskov Mayor Ivan Tsetsersky wrote on Monday, “Dear Andrey Antolyevich, take care of yourself! There’s no reasoning with the fucking Yanks. They’re so full of shit that it would be easier to wipe them from the face of the Earth, but the Lord forbids it! Again, be careful! We need you! I need you!”

🤠 Counter-sanctions for Uncle Sam

In response to the latest U.S. sanctions against prominent Russian billionaires, lawmakers in the State Duma have drafted legislation designed to counter “hostile actions by the United States and other countries.” The bill’s sponsors are Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin and the leaders of all the political parties with seats in the parliament.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergey Ryabkov, said on Monday that lawmakers will expedite the passage of legislation granting the government several new counter-sanction options, arguing that “the [international] situation itself dictates the need for thoroughly energetic efforts.”

In an explanatory report on this draft law, Meduza took a closer look the biggest questions about the legislation. What happened? What’s the gist? What exactly do they want to ban? What the heck is “the exhaustion of exclusive rights to trademarks”? What’s the logic behind banning certain drugs? How do the authorities justify all these measures? When would this come into effect?

The doc is free to go 👩‍⚕️

A Moscow district court has returned the case against Elena Misyurina to prosecutors, overturning her two-year sentence for supposedly causing the accidental death of a patient by allegedly botching a bone marrow biopsy. In January, Moscow’s Cheremushkinsky District Court convicted the doctor in a case that drew criticism from medical figures throughout the capital. Misyurina’s first trial was open to the public, but the appellate judge agreed to prosecutors’ request to make her new trial a closed session. Both the state prosecutors and Misyurina's attorneys asked the judge to overturn her conviction. Local investigators, meanwhile, insist that they relied on sound medical expertise to build their case against her.

Sorry, Yura 🚀

A relic of the Soviet space program has been stolen from a parking lot in Moscow’s Strogino District, where the altitude test chamber had been sent for restoration before it was supposed to be transferred to the Museum of Astronautics. Museum staff first filed a police report on April 10. The chamber was reportedly used to train the first Soviet cosmonauts, including Yuri Gagarin, the first human being to orbit the Earth.

Pollster revelations 📊

🙉 So that's why Slutsky still has his job

Despite a frenzy in Russia’s independent media last month, the overwhelming majority of Russians have never even heard about the sexual harassment allegations against State Duma deputy Leonid Slutsky. According to a new national survey by the Public Opinion Foundation, just four percent of the country say they’ve followed the story, and another 17 percent say they’ve “heard something about it.” Seventy-seven percent told pollsters that they knew nothing about the allegations.

Of the few people who did know that multiple women journalists have accused Leonid Slutsky of sexual harassment, one-third said the charges were unfounded, only 20 percent supported the women, and almost half said they had no opinion on the matter. Those who reject the charges told pollsters that they believe the victims are just promoting themselves without evidence. These individuals also called Slutsky “a man of worth.” More than 60 percent of those who did know about the Slutsky scandal said they had not heard about the independent media’s boycott of the State Duma, in response to the Ethics Committee’s decision not to censure Slutsky for his conduct.

✊ No thanks, protesters

A new poll by the Levada Center says fewer than 10 percent of Russians are prepared to participate in social or political protests — the lowest “protest sentiment” recorded in at least a decade. Russian’s highest levels of self-reported protest sentiment were in late 2011 and early 2012, when thousands marched across the country against election fraud in the 2011 parliamentary elections.

Two more hours to re-election Sobyanin 🗳

Incumbent Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin is asking the city’s parliament to adopt legislation that would extend voting hours to 10 p.m. on September 9, when he will likely win re-election. Sobyanin’s draft law would also expand the number of “proxies” candidates can authorize from 100 to 500, and grant the city’s Public Chamber the authority to to appoint observers in elections for local government. Two “democratic movement” candidates, Ilya Yashin and Dmitry Gudkov, are expected to split and thus cannibalize the opposition electorate.

Finally somebody in Volokolamsk catches a break ⚖️

A day after going free from a 15-day jail sentence, a regional court in Moscow revoked the arrest of Volokolamsk businessman Artem Lyubimov, who has helped organize several protests against a controversial local landfill. According to his lawyer, Denis Kunaev, the court found that the evidence against his client had been insufficient to warrant his arrest. On March 31, Lyubimov was arrested for supposedly disobeying police orders. While he was in jail, law enforcement officers reportedly raided his home. Since the beginning of the year, protesters throughout the Moscow region have demonstrated en masse against local landfills leaking pollution into the air.

  • On Wednesday, April 18, a local court will hear a class-action lawsuit from Volokolamsk residents against the operators of the “Yadrovo” garbage dump. The plaintiffs demand the immediate closure of the landfill. The court date was set on March 19, two days before 77 local children required medical attention due to inhalation poisoning.

A “tragic suicide” 🗞

Maxim Borodin, a Russian journalist who wrote about the deaths of Russian mercenaries fighting in Syria has died after falling from his fifth-floor apartment in Yekaterinburg. Police investigating Borodin’s death said they were not treating it as suspicious. Borodin did not leave a suicide note, and the door was locked from the inside. Polina Rumyantseva, Borodin’s editor, said police suspected that he had fallen off his balcony while sitting on a ledge to smoke.

Yours, Meduza