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The Real Russia. Today. The head of Russia's GRU is dead, funny Health Ministry promos, and a ‘baby murder’ controversy

Meduza

Wednesday, November 21, 2018 (Meduza's daily newsletter will return on Monday, November 26. Happy Thanksgiving, Americans!)

This day in history. On November 21, 2013, the first demonstrations and civil unrest in what would become Ukraine's Euromaidan Revolution began. The movement culminated in late February 2014 with the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych.
  • The head of Russia's GRU spy agency is reported dead ‘after a long and serious illness’
  • Russia's Health Ministry has been paying millions of dollars to a group of curiously connected former TV marketers to create PSAs
  • Russia's National Guard spent nearly a million bucks to outfit crowd-control vans with laser weapons
  • Court overturns verdict against Russian Instagram model who attacked a traffic cop
  • Russian rapper is arrested for performing in the street, after police force his concert venue to lock out fans
  • A ‘baby murder’ controversy in Kaliningrad has pit Russia's medical professionals against federal investigators and national TV networks
  • Valeria Costa-Kostritsky reports from Donetsk during the self-proclaimed DNR's recent election
  • Nurmagomedov's next opponent is boozy nightlife
  • South Korea scores an Interpol presidency upset
  • Mark Galeotti looks at Interpol's real significance (and lack thereof)

Another dead spy chief 🕵️

Igor Korobov, the head of Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate (GRU), died “after a long and serious illness,” a Defense Ministry spokesperson told the news agency RIA Novosti early on November 22. Korobov was 62 years old. He served in the Soviet and Russian armed forces since 1973, joining the USSR's military intelligence in 1985 and becoming Russia's GRU director in 2016.

Igor Korobov
Igor Korobov

According to a report by Sergey Kanev published at Dossier Center in October, Korobov reportedly started feeling unwell after a severe reprimand from President Putin in mid-September, following the exposure of an apparently bungled GRU operation to assassinate Sergey Skripal in Salisbury, England. For months, investigative reporters have pieced together evidence exposing the agency's illegal mission in March 2018. At the time, Kanev's sources speculated that Korobov might be fired before the end of the year and replaced by GRU General Sergey Gizunov, a St. Petersburg native who is supposedly known as “Putin's eyes and ears inside Russia's military intelligence.”

Not the GRU's first sudden death. Korobov's predecessor, Igor Sergun, died suddenly on January 3, 2016. Officially, he passed away at his home outside Moscow after suffering a heart attack. According to the American geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, however, Sergun died on New Year’s Day in Lebanon.
  • A career intelligence officer who started out in the 1980s, Korobov graduated from the “Conservatory” and went on to oversee Russia’s strategic intelligence gathering, including the management of all foreign stations. His appointment was no surprise: since the 1990s, the president has traditionally entrusted the job to lieutenants who supervised Russia’s foreign stations.
  • American officials added Korobov to their sanctions list in December 2016 for his “efforts to undermine democracy” by organizing hacker attacks. Nevertheless, Korobov and the directors of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) made an unprecedented trip to Washington in February 2018 to meet with members of the U.S. intelligence community to discuss the war against terrorism.
  • For more about the GRU, read Meduza's special report on the agency here: “Here are the most important things you should know about Russia’s intelligence community”

Brush your teeth, take an HIV test 💉

In 2018, Russia’s Health Ministry spent almost 100 million rubles ($1.5 million) to promote its HIV-prevention program, but the effectiveness of these ads remains unclear. The VNG Communication Group has been getting money from the Health Ministry for years to produce public service announcements. All in all, the firm has received more than 1.5 billion rubles ($22.8 million). VNG was founded by former Muz-TV employees who have ties to Health Ministry officials and members of Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova’s staff.

Read Meduza’s full report here: “Russia's Health Ministry has been paying millions of dollars to a group of curiously connected former TV marketers to create PSAs”

Sharks with frickin lasers on their heads 🦈

The Russian National Guard bought two vehicles equipped with a whole array of non-lethal crowd-control measures, including laser emitters. That’s right: the agency created in 2016, led by a man who recently challenged anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny to a fist fight, and described in the media as “a kind of Praetorian Guard” — will now have lasers to disperse groups of protesters.

The order was placed back in May, but the Open Media project only just discovered and publicized the procurement contract, which went to the company “ASB Plus” (the sole bidder). Russia’s National Guard spent 65.2 million rubles (about $988,000) on the two police minibuses. The agency's arsenal already includes sonic weapons. In the past three years, the National Guard also paid ASB Plus 220.4 million rubles (more than $3.3 million) for 128 sets of riot police shields.

Overturned by not freed 🚨

On November 21, the Moscow City Court overturned the verdict against Mayer, returning the case to prosecutors, due to procedural violations. According to the news agency RAPSI, different copies of the her sentence listed different kinds of imprisonment (prosecutors' documents indicated a “colony-settlement,” while the court's paperwork identified a “standard-regime penal colony”). Mayer will remain jailed, while prosecutors rework the case against her.

Rappers under pressure 🎤

The Russian rapper Dmitry Kuznetsov, better known as “Khaski,” was arrested in Krasnodar late on November 21, after police reportedly hounded him out of two venues and pressured organizers into canceling a scheduled concert. In the end, Khaski tried to perform for a crowd of die-hard fans atop a parked car, but that’s when officers moved in and dragged him downtown. Lawyers representing the entertainer told the television network Dozhd that he faces misdemeanor charges and up to 15 days in jail for ignoring police orders and refusing to submit to an alcohol and drug exam.

What’s the authorities’ beef with Khaski? Regional officials reportedly warned venue owners that Kuznetsov’s lyrics are under investigation for potential extremism, particularly when it comes to disseminating harmful information to minors about drugs and suicide. Khaski says police in Samara, Nizhny Novgorod, and Perm are also planning to ban his concerts. Earlier this month, YouTube made one of his music videos unavailable in Russia. (It features a lot of violence and some drug use.)

In mid-November, Meduza reported on a growing backlash in Siberia by parent groups, supported by local police, against hip hop concert performers. For example, the cities of Krasnoyarsk and Kemerovo banned shows by the St. Petersburg group “Friendzone.”

Read more about the crackdown trend here: “Siberia's hip hop concerts are in jeopardy, as parent groups discover the genre's fascination with sex and drugs”

The baby murder that wasn't 👩‍⚕️

The head of a maternity clinic in Kaliningrad has been jailed on charges of refusing life-saving treatment to a newborn and falsifying the infant’s death certificate, leading to a backlash from the medical community and local government. On November 5, a 23-week-pregnant Uzbek woman gave birth to a boy who weighed just 700 grams (about a pound and a half). The child had a heartbeat but couldn’t breathe on his own. He was put on a ventilator but did not survive.

Nine days later, federal investigators showed up at the maternity clinic and arrested its acting head physician, Elena Belaya, leading her out of the building in handcuffs. On November 15, she was accused of ordering her staff to deny the November 5 child “Curosurf” (a pulmonary surfactant used to treat respiratory distress syndrome in preterm infants) and falsify the baby’s death certificate to say he was a stillborn. Russian national television networks soon picked up the story, characterizing Belaya as a bloodthirsty baby murderer.

Medical officials and associations throughout Kaliningrad and across Russia have rallied to Belaya’s defense, arguing that she adhered to standard procedures, and pointing out that the Investigative Committee’s charges are nonsensical. For example, Belaya allegedly withheld the medicine because it was too expensive, but Curosurf is not an expensive drug, and the maternity clinic’s supply is not running low. Furthermore, the child born on November 5 actually received a dose of Curosurf, and simply did not live long enough to receive a second dose. As for tampering with the death certificate, doctors have pointed out that postnatal stillbirth is the correct designation for the baby’s death, given that it was born but never breathed independently.

So what happens now? On November 20, Kaliningrad’s district attorney challenged Belaya’s pretrial detention, asking an appellate court to release her from jail. A day later, the governor’s office made the same request. When asked what Belaya’s future is at her maternity clinic, representatives for the center told Meduza that they can’t comment on the situation without the Health Ministry’s permission.

DNR democracy 🗳️

In a report from rebel-held eastern Ukraine for The London Review of Books Blog, Valeria Costa-Kostritsky describes the recent (internationally unrecognized) leadership election held in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, where acting DNR leader and “white collar politician” Denis Pushilin won the vote and officially replaced Alexander Zakharchenko, who was assassinated on August 31. For local color and details about “chocolate bars and flowers,” pariah European observers, and overwhelmed women in shawls, click here.

Nightlife is for lowlifes 🥊

“UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov is probably the best-known Muslim athlete in Russia, and he’s rapidly becoming a leading conservative voice at home,” reports James Ellingworth for The Associated Press. His new bugaboo is nightclubs and alcohol, so watch out, Dagestani booze and boogie maniacs. Read the story here.

Russia's Interpol defeat

👮 South Korea for the win

This Wednesday, Interpol’s General Assembly defied expectations and elected South Korean Kim Jong-yang as its next president, rejecting the controversial Russian frontrunner, Alexander Prokopchuk. The decision thrilled many in the West, including the activist-tycoons Bill Browder and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who a day earlier held a press conference devoted to the perils of Russian leadership at the world’s international police organization. Moscow blamed the vote’s outcome on “unprecedented pressure and interference.” Read the BBC’s coverage here.

🌏 It was never so dire

In an op-ed for The Moscow Times, scholar Mark Galeotti argues that “Interpol wasn’t at risk of becoming Putin’s plaything,” explaining that the “essentially bureaucratic structure” weathered Chinese leadership and “would have likely survived with a Russian in charge, too.” By electing Kim Jong-yang, Galeotti says, Interpol avoided further drift toward “irrelevance or fragmentation,” and another denied the “trend of rising authoritarianism worldwide” a victory against the West’s notions of the “universality of its norms.” Read the op-ed here.

Yours, Meduza