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The Real Russia. Today. New evidence may tie a Salisbury suspect to the GRU agent, Pussy Riot's Pyotr Verzilov is awake again, and the Central Bank raises interest rates


Friday, September 14, 2018

This day in history. On September 14, 1917, the Russian Provisional Government proclaimed the birth of the Russian Republic in a decree signed by Alexander Kerensky. Less than six weeks later, the Bolshevik Revolution happened.
  • After a Salisbury suspect's passport records leak, Russian journalists find a phone number in the documents possibly tying him to the GRU
  • Pussy riot member Pyotr Verzilov regains consciousness. He's been hospitalized for three days and friends fear he was poisoned.
  • Russian agents suspected of trying to spy on a Swiss laboratory arrested in the Netherlands
  • Russian Central Bank raises interest rates for first time since 2014
  • VTB Bank CEO Andrey Kostin lays out four-step plan to ‘switch from the greenback’
  • Yabloko's chairperson wants Putin to fire Zolotov for challenging Navalny to a duel
  • Yekaterinburg is jailing an epileptic woman who protested against pension reform, even after she was rushed to a hospital

Spies, spare a thought for your phone numbers ☎️

On September 14, the open-source intelligence group Bellingcat and the investigative news website The Insider released passport data belonging to Alexander Petrov, one of the men identified by British authorities as a suspect in the March 4 nerve-agent attack in Salisbury, showing that his passport files contain various “top-secret” markings that seem to contradict his claims that he’s a mere civilian.

Hours later, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that the leaked passport records include yet another piece of evidence linking Petrov to Russia’s intelligence services: below one marking, the phone number 195-79-66 appears. This number, the newspaper says, is linked to the Russian Defense Ministry’s Military Intelligence Directorate.

According to Novaya Gazeta, the automatic telephone station number “195” is tied to Moscow’s Khoroshkovsky District, which is also home to the headquarters of the Russian Defense Ministry’s Military Intelligence Directorate.

The newspaper says the phone number’s connections to the Defense Ministry can also be tested another way: if you take the first five digits of the number and plug them into any online search engine, you’ll find several phone numbers belonging to various subdivisions and affiliated offices of Russia’s Defense Ministry.

For example, the telephone number for the Defense Ministry’s magazine Foreign Military Review is 499-195-79-64 (only a single digit different from the number listed on Petrov’s documents). The magazine’s office is located off Khoroshkovsky Highway, near the GRU (Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation).

“Most likely, the number on Petrov’s Federal Migration Service certificate is the phone number for the branch office where they served,” a former Russian intelligence worker told Novaya Gazeta.

Verzilov is awake! 🏥

Pussy riot member and Mediazona publisher Pyotr Verzilov has regained consciousness after three days of intensive care treatment, his friends told Meduza. He remains hospitalized at the Moscow Sklifosovsky Institute, where his friends say doctors believe he was poisoned by anticholinergic drugs.

According to Veronika Nikulshina, Verzilov's common-law wife, he is again able to recognize her and his mother, but he is still experiencing “hallucinations” and remains in a “delusional state.”

On September 11, Verzilov suddenly started losing his vision, speech, and mobility, and paramedics brought him to Moscow’s Bakhrushin City Clinical Hospital, where he was treated at the toxicology wing before being transferred to the Moscow Sklifosovsky Institute on September 13.

A member of Pussy Riot and the publisher of the investigative news website Mediazona, which conducts often daring reporting on Russia's criminal justice system, Verzilov has been a prominent figure in Russia’s anti-Kremlin opposition movement since the late 2000s, when he performed in the controversial “Voina” artist-activist group alongside his then wife, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.

News from some other outlets 📰

Russian spies in the Netherlands

“Two Russian agents suspected of trying to spy on a Swiss laboratory were arrested in the Netherlands and expelled early this year, Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger reported on Friday, citing unnamed sources.” Read the story at Reuters.

Raising the rates

“Russia’s central bank unexpectedly raised interest rates for the first time since 2014, following its counterparts across emerging economies as inflation risks mount with a slumping currency and threats of U.S. sanctions.” Read the story at The Moscow Times.

Begone, foul greenbacks! 💸

In a new interview with the newspaper Izvestia, CEO Andrey Kostin said VTB Bank has developed a four-step plan to abandon the dollar: (1) accelerating the transfer of settlements with foreign states on export-import transactions to other currencies, such as euros, yuan, or rubles; (2) transferring the legal addresses of Russia’s biggest holding companies to Russian jurisdiction; (3) issuing Eurobond primarily on Russian exchanges; and (4) licensing all securities market participants in such a way that they all operate under uniform rules.

For years, Russian officials at various levels have discussed “the process of switching from the greenback” and shifting the country’s foreign economic calculations to other currencies. The push has gained some momentum, as the United States keeps imposing new sanctions on Russia for its perceived acts of aggression abroad. Two potential policies the U.S. still holds in reserve are disconnecting Russian banks (especially the institutions with ties to the government, like VTB Bank) from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) network, and prohibiting any transactions relating to new Russian sovereign debt.

That whole duel thing ⚔️

Emilia Slabunova, the chairperson of the opposition party Yabloko, is asking Vladimir Putin to fire Viktor Zolotov, the head of Russia’s National Guard, for challenging anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny to a “duel.” Slabunova says Zolotov’s bizarre proposal “discredits the honor and dignity of Russian officers and is incompatible with his high-ranking position.” In her appeal to the president, Slabunova also stresses that state officials have no right to threaten people with violent reprisals in response to allegations of corruption. The Yabloko chairwoman says Zolotov’s remarks — shared on YouTube and posted on the National Guard’s official website — constitute a murder threat, an abuse of authority, and extremism. She’s also reached out to Attorney General Yuri Chaika, asking him to open a criminal case against Zolotov.

On September 11, Viktor Zolotov released a video where he challenges Navalny to a fist fight, in retaliation for an investigative report about evidence of corruption in the National Guard’s food-supply procurement contracts. Researchers found that prices on basic foodstuffs nearly tripled after the agency’s only supplier became the “Friendship of the Peoples“ Meatpacking Plant LLC, which is owned by Boris Kantemirov, the former head of the Interior Ministry’s Central Archive of Internal Troops. Formed in 2016 by Vladimir Putin’s executive order, Russia’s National Guard was built primarily from staff and resources pulled from the Interior Ministry.

This whole duel thing is pretty weird. What’s it all about?

Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya wrote an interesting interpretation for the Moscow Carnegie Center, where she argues that Zolotov’s oddly personal appeal actually criticizes the country’s authorities for allowing Navalny to operate as freely as he does. The National Guard positions itself as a rival to the Interior Ministry and FSB, Stanovaya says, and Zolotov is angry that they’ve allowed this “enemy of the state” to go about his business. Zolotov’s need to be so public shows that he’s lost some access to Putin, who simply has no time for granular domestic problems, except maybe for pension reforms, Stanovaya says. In other words, Putin didn’t sanction Zolotov’s duel challenge; it was more likely an attempt to get his attention. What Zolotov likely hates most about Navalny’s anti-corruption work is that it tries to undermine Zolotov’s subordinates’ faith in him, potentially pulling the rug out from beneath his feet at “the critical moment,” which is especially upsetting because Zolotov has made a big play to be the Kremlin’s indispensable man when it comes to preventing a color revolution in Russia. Meanwhile, Sergey Kiriyenko, Putin’s first deputy chief of staff, has weakened the influence of siloviki like Zolotov, when it comes to domestic political enemies. Stanovaya concludes by arguing that Zolotov’s challenge to Navalny demonstrates the “fragmentation of Putin’s circle,” where the need to adapt to a “harsher reality” has people looking out for themselves, not thinking of the collective.

In a (paywalled) article at Republic on September 12, columnist Oleg Kashin also argued that Zolotov’s public challenge betrays his insecurities as the head of a relatively new policing agency. “He’s not from their social class. He’s an outsider, and this is his fundamental [psychological] complex,” Kashin wrote, claiming that Zolotov’s gruff fenya (gangster talk) was crafted to convince his men that he’s one of them. Kashin also believes Zolotov is trying to expand his influence within Russia’s security apparatus — an endeavor he compares to the ambitions of Viktor Cherkesov, the former head of the Federal Drug Control Service, who famously lost his power grab and his entire agency. The irony, Kashin says, is that Zolotov is the upstart “oppositionist” within the “Kremlin towers,” and he’s trying to grow his status through a crackdown on Alexey Navalny’s coalition.

Jailing an epileptic ⚖️

Irina Norman, an activist who suffers from epilepsy, was arrested on September 9 at a protest in Yekaterinburg against the government’s plans to raise the country’s retirement age. Three days later, a judge later sentenced her to 15 days in jail for repeatedly attending “unpermitted” public assemblies, but on September 14 she was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.

Norman received treatment from a general practitioner at the city’s Number 24 Hospital (where there was no attending neurologist), before police whisked her back to jail, according to fellow activist Polina Greisman.

Alexey Navalny’s local office later published an audio recording of a telephone call between Norman’s lawyer, Yulia Fedotova, and an official at Norman’s special detention center, where the latter explains that a doctor “looked at her, looked her over, and that was it — she had no questions for her and she said she could go back to lockup.” When Fedotova points out that Norman had been “calling and crying into the phone,” the jail official dismissively says she was “just all wound up.”

“She’s nervous, that’s all. She’s very eager to get to the hospital, but the doctor who examined her said that everything was fine. They put it all in the paperwork. [...] She’s fine in jail. If you saw her condition, you wouldn’t say she’s very ill. I’ve got the paperwork here in my hand,” the official said.

Fedotova wrote on Facebook that officials at the detention center also didn’t give Norman her medication when she needed it. Members of Navalny’s team believe this is why paramedics had to rush her to the hospital.

The news website says Irina Norman volunteers with the local chapter of Alexey Navalny’s anti-corruption coalition. On September 12, a court convicted her of repeated violations of Russia’s regulations on public assemblies. In her verdict, the judge stated that she’d taken into account Norman’s medical condition. Sergey Krivonogov, Norman’s common-law husband, says the law enforcement officers in the courtroom “were shocked and admitted that they’d hoped for a simple fine.”

On the morning of September 14, the Sverdlovsk Regional Court rejected Irina Norman’s appeal, leaving her arrest in force. Activists, including Navalny coalition leader Leonid Volkov and former Yekaterinburg Evgeny Roizman, have signed an open letter addressed to Sverlovsk regional officials, demanding Norman’s release.

Yours, Meduza