news

The Real Russia. Today. Washington threatens new sanctions over the ‘Novichok’ attack in the UK, and there are some dirty dirty politics in Khabarovsk

Meduza

Thursday, August 9, 2018

This day in history. On August 9, 1999, President Boris Yeltsin fired his prime minister, Sergey Stepashin, and for the fourth time dismissed his entire cabinet.
  • Trump reportedly prepares executive order to appease Russia hawks
  • New U.S. sanctions over ‘Novichok’ attack in UK trigger panic about ruble and Aeroflot
  • Prominent Russian lawmaker says new U.S. sanctions over ‘Novichok’ attack expose Washington's role in ‘staging the operation’
  • Election officials in Khabarovsk boot opposition candidate from mayoral race, just as he's summoned by local draft board
  • A man who planned to blow up St. Petersburg's Kazan Cathedral gets five years in prison
  • Cousin says political prisoner Oleg Sentsov's 88-day hunger strike has brought him ‘near the end’
  • Russia's war on debtors leads to ‘pyramids of shame’ in Samara and costs a teacher her job outside Chelyabinsk
  • The Russian Supreme Court’s appellate bench sides with the FSB against Telegram

“Draconian robotics” 🧛‍♂️

“The White House is drafting an executive order that would authorize President Trump to sanction foreigners who interfere in U.S. elections, the administration’s latest effort to demonstrate it is serious about combating Russian disinformation and hacking,” says The Washington Post, calling the document an apparent “effort to stave off aggressive legislation” now in the pipeline on Capitol Hill. Read the story at The Washington Post.

✈️ Unfriendly skies

Russia’s largest air carrier, Aeroflot, plunged to an almost two-year low on Thursday after Washington threatened sanctions that could include flight restrictions. The State Department announced new sanctions against Russia on August 8 to punish Moscow for allegedly using the “Novichok” nerve agent against former double agent Sergey Skripal (and several bystanders) in the UK earlier this year. A second round of sanctions in three months could suspend Aeroflot’s flights to the U.S, according to the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991. One analyst warned that Aeroflot could lose as much as 5 percent of its revenue. Read the story at Bloomberg.

According to the magazine RBC, a high-ranking State Department official told Reuters on Thursday that U.S. sanctions over the “Novichok” attack won’t directly target individual Russian companies, though they might still theoretically affect some of Aeroflot’s exports.

💵 Unfriendly currency

Following the State Department’s announcement, the ruble’s exchange value slipped to its lowest level since November 2016. The ruble-dollar rate reached 66.7 on the Moscow stock exchange. On Tuesday, it had been 63.4.

🤖 America just outed itself

“America’s political-sanctions robotics is an invention that threatens the entire world’s global security. [...] The U.S. has exposed itself as the one behind the crude and shameless staging of the Skripals’ poisoning. [...] The ‘Novichok’ operation was set in motion by skilled professionals in order to launch a series of global sanctions.” — Irina Yarova, State Duma deputy chairperson and the author of several infamously draconian laws

Down and out in Khabarovsk 🗳

If you’re looking for a mayoral race that will rekindle your passion for electoral democracy, don’t bother with Khabarovsk, where a city court just removed opposition mayoral candidate Alexey Vorsin because he failed to include the word “spouse” on a standard form in his candidacy paperwork. Vorsin, the regional coordinator for Alexey Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign, is unmarried.

According to Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s national campaign manager, the ruling against Vorsin takes effect immediately, leaving him with no opportunity to appeal the verdict while continuing his campaign. The election takes place in just a month, on September 9. Vorsin says he will challenge his exclusion from the race, regardless. He tweeted on Thursday that the authorities want to kill his candidacy because they fear he will defeat incumbent Mayor Sergey Kravchuk, a member of United Russia, the country’s ruling political party.

As if the court ruling weren’t enough, Vorsin also received a summons from his local draft office, ordering him to appear on August 10 for a review of his passport and military service card. Alexey Vorsin is 30 years old.

Getting off “easy” ⚖️

The Moscow District Military Court has sentenced 18-year-old English teacher Evgeny Yefimov to five years at a maximum security prison for plotting to blow up the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg in December 2017. Yefimov, who confessed to the charges and repented the beliefs that motivated his actions, received the minimum penalty for planning an act of terrorism. Police arrested another four people in this case: two have already been sentenced to 2 and 2.5 years in prison for storing weapons and failing to report knowledge of a planned terrorist attack, and the other two suspects are still awaiting trial.

Sentsov is “near the end”? 🍽

Natalia Kaplan, the cousin of Oleg Sentsov (the imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker now 88 days into a hunger strike), says Sentsov’s health is now “catastrophically bad.” Kaplan says she received a letter from her cousin through his lawyer, where Sentsov claims to be bedridden and “near the end.” She says her cousin told her that he’s living in an “information vacuum” and isn’t receiving any correspondence. He apparently even asked if anyone has shown interest in his hunger strike, which has generated news headlines around the world. Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service insists that Sentsov’s condition is “satisfactory,” and says he’s receiving treatment for his health. The inmate’s lawyer, Dmitry Dinze, previously warned that his client is in serious danger.

Oleg Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks in Crimea. There has been an international campaign to lobby for his release. Read Meduza’s summary of why his case matters here.

Sentsov is hunger striking for the release of Russia’s “Ukrainian political prisoners.” During Vladimir Putin's live call-in show in early June, the president rejected a proposal to exchange the filmmaker for Kirill Vyshinsky, a Russian-Ukrainian journalist arrested in Kyiv in May on treason charges. Putin argued that Sentsov was convicted of plotting terrorist attacks, while Vyshinsky’s charges relate to his actions as a journalist. “You can’t compare these things,” Putin said.

Hope for a pardon? Ukrainian Human Rights Commissioner Lyudmyla Denisova announced on Thursday that an appeal to Vladimir Putin from Sentsov’s mother has reached the Russian Presidential Pardon Commission. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later confirmed this information, though he refused to comment any further on the matter.

Russia's war on debtors

⚠️ Pyramids of shame

Police in Samara have opened a criminal case against a local man who stole the three-ton “pyramid of shame” planted outside his cottage by his utility company. Stamped in bright yellow letters, the landmark reads, “A debtor lives here!” The man in question (whose name hasn’t been released to the public) reportedly owes more than 45,000 rubles ($690) for water and sewer service. Several days after the object was deposited outside his home, the man decided to rid himself of the dishonor, not by paying off his debts but by breaking off the top of the pyramid and then paying a freight truck to carry it away.

Local reporters say surveillance cameras captured the whole incident on video. The man is charged with felony theft and faces up to two years in prison. He’ll also have to pay for the damage he inflicted on the utility company’s pyramid — a drop in the bucket compared to the 25 million rubles ($384,125) he reportedly owes to other companies and lenders.

The “pyramid of shame,” meanwhile, was quickly discovered, repaired, and returned to the curb outside the man’s house. On its website, the utility company thanked the “attacker” for revealing a flaw in the object’s design, adding that it’s made some improvements. “Now it’s basically impossible to break the pyramid and remove it!” the company explained.

The RKS-Samara water company first mobilized these “shame pyramids” in May 2018. So far, the objects have appeared outside the homes of 82 people who refused to pay their bills. The company says this unorthodox tactic has helped bring in more than one million rubles ($15,370) in outstanding fees. For bad customers who live in apartment high-rises, RKS-Samara has even used a crane to perch a lighter version of its shame pyramid outside people’s balconies.

A school outside Chelyabinsk has fired its director after she refused to sit down with students’ parents and lecture them about their unpaid utility bills. According to local journalists, the town’s education officials sent school director Natalia Matveyeva an email with a spreadsheet listing individuals with outstanding utility debts, ordering her to find the names of any students’ parents and summon them for “explanatory meetings.” She said no, arguing that such behavior would violate her relationship with parents.

Administrators say they aren’t required to explain their decision to fire Matveyeva, but education officials told reporters that they’ve received complaints about her for years. Matveyeva has already appealed to the district attorney’s office, and says she plans to challenge her dismissal in court, if necessary.

Russia's legal system says no to Telegram 📵

It’s the end of the line for Telegram: the Russian Supreme Court’s appellate bench has upheld the Federal Security Service’s demands that the instant messenger surrender encryption keys for all correspondence sent over the messaging network.

The FSB gained this authority thanks to “anti-terrorist” legislation usually attributed to its most vocal supporter in the State Duma: Irina Yarovaya. In the fall of 2017, Telegram was fined 800,000 rubles (about $12,000, by today's exchange rate) for ignoring the FSB’s orders, and in April 2018 the federal censor started trying (mostly without success) to block the service in Russia.

Yours, Meduza