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The Real Russia. Today. Reburying the USSR's dead in Latvia, Putin 2024, and America's terrorist columnist


Friday, May 18, 2018

  • Meduza reports on civic groups in Latvia that have spent decades finding and reburying Soviet soldiers killed in WWII
  • Medvedev unveils his next cabinet
  • Russia's parliament will consider a constitutional amendment to let Putin run for re-election in 2024
  • Sergey Skripal is discharged from the hospital
  • Russian investigators charge two American journalists with propagating terrorism
  • The U.S. ambassador to Russia will attend but not speak at this year's St. Petersburg Economic Forum
  • Telegram is accused of using Russian military tech
  • The airline that operated the flight that crashed outside Moscow in February is shutting down
  • Strange happenings in the drugs possession case against a human rights activist in Chechnya
  • Investigators go after the men who took the Hermitage Museum for millions
  • Somebody in Saratov tried to cover up a helicopter crash

Story of the day: Digging up the USSR's dead in modern-day Latvia ☭

There are roughly a dozen organizations working in Latvia today to find the remains of Soviet soldiers killed during the Second World War. Every year, excavation crews find and bury between 200 and 500 people, almost all of whom died at the very end of the war, in the winter of 1944 and the spring of 1945, when Soviet troops attacked the Germans and their allies in Latvia. Almost none of the dead can be identified. To learn more about this search and find out what happens to the recovered remains, Meduza correspondent Andrey Kozenko met with some of the people still digging today.

Russia's next government 🧐

On Friday, at a meeting with President Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev proposed Russia’s new government cabinet.

Evegny Zinichev, the former acting governor of Kaliningrad (he quit after a few months) and the ex deputy director of the Federal Security Service, will take over as head of Russia’s Federal Emergency Management Agency. Vladimir Medinsky will stay on as culture minister. Medvedev wants Olga Vasileva to take over as education minister and Mikhail Kotyukov to take charge of the new Science and Higher Education Ministry. Tyumen Governor Vladimir Yakushev will be the next housing and communal services and construction minister, while Dmitry Patrushev (the son of Russia’s Security Council secretary) will helm the Agriculture Ministry. What about Russia’s Transport Ministry? Its next head will be Evgeny Ditrikh. And say hello to Labor and Social Protection Minister Maxim Topilin and welcome back Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova. Also sticking around are Economic Development Minister Maxim Oreshkin, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov (who will also serve as first deputy prime minister), Energy Minister Alexander Novak, and Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov.

And here's Medvedev's deputy-prime-minister wish list:

  • Dmitry Kozak — industry and energy
  • Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov — the defense industry complex (which used to be Dmitry Rogozin’s job)
  • Former Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko — construction and regional policy
  • Former Health and Social Development Minister Tatyana Golikova — social policy and healthcare
  • Former Deputy Prime Minister for Social Affairs Olga Golodets — culture and sports
  • Former Voronezh Governor and former Agriculture Minister Alexey Gordeyev — agriculture
  • Deputy government chief of staff Maxim Akimov — transportation, communications, and the digital economy
  • Presidential advisor Konstantin Chiuchenko — chief of Medvedev’s staff (which used to be Sergey Prikhodko’s job)

Paving the way for three decades of Putin? 🕰

On the advice of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen Parliament has introduced a constitutional amendment to the State Duma that would allow Russian presidents to serve three — not just two — consecutive terms. In other words, Chechen lawmakers want to let Putin run for re-election in 2024, without the smoke and mirrors needed in 2008, when Putin stepped aside briefly for Dmitry Medvedev’s four-year placeholder presidency.

According to the legislation’s explanatory note, Russia currently needs longer-serving leaders because of the country’s “current stage of development.” Allowing third consecutive terms, argues the Chechen Parliament, would “preserve the achieved socio-political stability” without eroding democratic principles. “It would allow the people to determine Russia’s future themselves,” the draft law says. Following a reform adopted during the Medvedev presidency, Russian presidential terms are now six years long.

Rocky-road foreign relations

🏥 Skripal gets discharged

Sergey Skripal, the former Russian intelligence officer caught spying for the British, was finally discharged from the hospital on Friday, more than two months after he was poisoned with a nerve agent. Two other individuals exposed to the same poison, Skripal’s daughter and a responding police officer, were discharged earlier.

The poisoning of Sergey Skripal sparked a major diplomatic confrontation between Russia and Western countries, leading to another round of sanctions in a relationship that has soured enormously since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

🚨 America's terrorist columnist

Russian federal investigators have charged two staff members at The Washington Examiner with propagating an act of terrorism by publishing an article urging the Ukrainian military to bomb Russia’s new bridge to Crimea. On Tuesday, the newspaper published an article by columnist Tom Rogan titled “Ukraine Should Blow Up Putin's Crimea Bridge.” Three days later, after Russian officials launched the criminal case, Rogan argued that the outrage expressed by “President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry ‘the watch’ Peskov” is a response to his larger body of work about Russian aggression. Also on Friday, investigators charged Rogan’s editor, Hugo Gurdon, with propagating terrorism.

🤐 Huntsman won't speak in St. Pete

Put down the popcorn, folks, because U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman says he won’t be speaking at this month’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, though he will attend. In a video address shared on Twitter, Huntsman said he won’t participate in any panel discussions at the event, but he will “be meeting with as many people as possible to discuss the road ahead.” The forum’s program previously listed Huntsman as a panelist at the conference, where he would have appeared alongside the sanctioned billionaire Viktor Vekselberg.

Telegram's “military tech” 💻

The former director of a Russian federal state unitary enterprise has accused the instant messenger Telegram of evading government censorship by relying on technologies patented by the Russian Defense Ministry a decade ago. According to Dmitry Gryazev, the Russian military designed the “package-in-package” circumvention technique that Telegram now utilizes alongside end-to-end encryption. A former manager at Telegram told the newspaper Kommersant that Gryazev’s claim is bunk. The company itself won’t comment on the allegations.

A Russian airline is grounded for good ✈️

Russian aviation officials have revoked Saratov Airlines’ license to reserve and sell tickets for flights after May 30, leading the company to announce that it is shutting down. The airline says it will start laying off staff in mid-July. “One thousand, two hundred highly qualified experts will be out on the street,” the company warned in a press release. The airline has a fleet of eight planes and owns the airport in Saratov.

Saratov Airlines operated the passenger flight that crashed outside Moscow in February, killing all 71 people on board. The leading theory about what caused the accident is that icing disabled the plane’s speed sensors, confusing the pilots.

All in a day's police work 👮‍♂️

Chechnya's disappearing act

Lawyers representing the human rights activist Oyub Titiev noticed something funny about the material evidence against him in the felony drug possession case now underway in Chechnya: Titiev’s personal belongings (confiscated by police when he was arrested) have disappeared. When police stopped his car on January 9, Titiev had a dashcam, geolocation equipment, an air pistol, ammunition, a license to carry, three mobile phones, a tablet, and identification documents. Activists at Titiev’s human rights organization, “Memorial,” suspect that the arresting officers are responsible for the disappearance of his belongings.

Oyub Titiev faces up to 10 years in prison for supposed possession of marijuana. He denies the charges, saying police officers planted the drugs in his car. Shortly after his arrest, Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov called human rights activists “enemies of the people,” and said, “There’s no room for such people in Chechnya.”

Ripping off the Hermitage

St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum estimates that it lost 860 million rubles ($13.8 million) due to fraud perpetrated by Nikita Kolesnikov’s construction firm “Mekhstroitrans,” which was hired to build a new public library for the facility. Federal investigators have launched a criminal case against Kolesnikov, whose company never completed the work and never returned the 860-million-ruble advance, and Grigory Pirumov, who lobbied to hire Mekhstroitrans while serving as deputy culture minister.

The helicopter crash “never happened”

Investigators in the Stavropol region say someone tried to bury a helicopter that crashed in the area on May 16, to cover up the incident. The Mi-2 transport helicopter reportedly belonged to a local collective farm and its 62-year-old pilot has been hospitalized with burns covering more than 70 percent of his body.

Yours, Meduza