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The Real Russia. Today. Fact-checking Russia's Security Council secretary, a Seventh Studio case key witness testifies, and ‘Putin's chef’ loses his bid to buy a troublesome news website

Source: Meduza

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

This day in history (472 years ago): On January 16, 1547, the Grand Duke Ivan IV of Muscovy became Russia's first tsar, replacing the 264-year-old Grand Duchy of Moscow with the Tsardom of Russia.
  • Russia's Security Council secretary says there was only one terrorist act in the country last year. Is he right?
  • Key prosecution witness testifies in Seventh Studio case
  • ‘Putin’s chef’ wanted to buy St. Petersburg’s leading investigative news outlet, but the owner of ‘Maxim’ magazine beat him to it
  • Vladislav Inozemtsev thinks it's too soon for a big overhaul of Russia's elite
  • Artem Shraibman pours cold water on theories that Putin might absorb Belarus to keep his grip on power
  • News briefs: rape defamation lawsuits, prison official holds onto job despite reckless driving, Serebrennikov gets an award he can't receive, alleged assassination plot against Putin in Serbia, and the ironic fate of Masha Gessen's new book

Not so fast, Mr. Patrushev 🚨

“Terrorist activity in this country has decreased by more than 20 times over the course of five years. In 2018, five crimes motivated by terror and one terrorist act were committed in this country. This decrease in the threat of terror is related to the meticulous work of special services and law enforcement in our country, which has resulted in the prevention of 36 crimes motivated by terror as well as 20 terrorist attacks,” said Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, in an interview with The Russian Gazette. Patrushev believes these statistics demonstrate that Russia is in a more stable situation than Europe, where “terrorist activity has increased.”

Officially, there really was only one terrorist attack in Russia last year

Patrushev did not say which attack he was talking about, but it is obvious that he was referring to an October 31 explosion in the FSB’s local headquarters in Arkhangelsk. The office of the Russian Attorney General has published statistics showing that within the first 11 months of 2018, the only successful terror attack to take place in Russia was reported in Arkhangelsk Oblast.

At least two more terrorism cases were reclassified

The best-known case in which a terrorist attack was reclassified under a different statue in Russian law was a shooting at Kerch Polytechnic College. Vladislav Roslyakov, a student at the college, triggered several improvised explosive devices there and fired at those who remained inside. Twenty people were killed as a result of the attack, and more than 40 were injured. Roslyakov committed suicide after the shooting.

In the hours following the attack, Russia’s Investigative Committee brought forward terrorism charges. However, after law enforcement determined the attacker’s identity, the Committee reclassified its investigation under a different statute that governs the murder of two or more people. The Committee wrote that its decision was based on “the general picture of the crime.”

A second terrorism case appears in the Attorney General’s statistics in September, but it is missing from the documents provided in subsequent months. On September 19, the Investigative Committee charged a man with threatening terrorism, which is equivalent to committing a terrorist act under Russian law, after he threatened the crew of a flight from Moscow to Vladivostok. At the time, the Committee announced in a press release that the suspect “threatened members of the crew with physical violence and threatened to blow up the airplane.”

In December, it became clear that the passenger’s case had in fact been investigated under a hooliganism statute. By that point, the Investigative Committee no longer mentioned his threat to set off an explosive device on board the flight. Investigators determined that the man was mentally ill and requested that the court sentence him to mandatory treatment.

The rate of other crimes “motivated by terror” has not decreased

Patrushev said that “terrorist activity [in Russia] has decreased by more than 20 times over the course of five years.” In fact, 661 crimes “motivated by terror” were reported in 2013 compared with 1566 in the first 11 months of 2018. Of those, only 848 cases addressed crimes that were committed on Russian territory, but that is still more than the number reported five years ago. “Crimes motivated by terror” include terrorist crimes that fall under Article 205 of Russia’s criminal code (“Terrorist Acts”) and its amendments or a range of other laws related to terrorist activity.

Blink and you'll miss this star witness 🌠

Employees of the Russian art house “Seventh Studio” were accused in 2017 of siphoning 133 million rubles, or approximately 2 million dollars, from government funds provided for a theater project. Numerous prominent figures in the media and the arts have since argued that the case is politically motivated. The studio’s founder, Kirill Serebrennikov, as well as all but one of its employees have denied the allegations against them. Nina Maslyaeva, the organization’s former chief accountant, is the only exception. A trial in the Seventh Studio case is ongoing in Moscow’s Meshchansky Court, and Valery Pedchenko, a key witness for the prosecution, began testifying today.

Meduza looks at the prosecution's key witness against Seventh Studio here.

Hopefully promising 📰

Viktor Shkulev now owns the St. Petersburg news publication Fontanka. He also owns the magazines Maxim and Elle. Fontanka published investigations about the catering and mercenary mogul Evgeny Prigozhin, causing certain problems for the website. In the fall of 2017, when Fontanka angered oligarch Yuri Kovalchuk and representatives of a presidential envoy, the website’s owners decided to sell. Prigozhin wanted to buy Fontanka, but he couldn’t reach terms with its owners. The author of the investigation about the Wagner PMC quit. Viktor Shkulev has given assurances that he doesn’t intend to change anything, and Fontanka’s chief editor says he’s happy with the new owner.

Read Meduza's special report: “‘Putin’s chef’ wanted to buy St. Petersburg’s leading investigative news outlet, but the owner of ‘Maxim’ magazine beat him to it”

The peanut gallery

🏗️ Inozemtsev says Russia's elites would be fools to tear it all down now

In an op-ed for RBC, economist and columnist Vladislav Inozemtsev argues that it’s too soon to expect a major overhaul of Russia’s elite. He rejects the idea that growing social discontent necessitates significant reforms, such as a mass crackdown on corrupt governors or a wider “reformation” of the country’s ruling class. According to Inozemtsev, Russia’s elites don’t see a crisis: financially, budget surpluses and reserves matter more than oil market fluctuations; politically, the Kremlin’s regional election losses don’t matter, so long as locals are protesting in the streets; and organizationally corruption among the governors is just part of Russia’s systemic problems.

Ordinary Russians, Inozemtsev claims, are even more indifferent to the drama within the elite, caring more about their own economic vulnerability than governors, high-ranking officials, the Kuril Islands, or even what Putin plans to do after 2024. Apparently, most people in Russia don’t link these issues to their own well being.

The intra-elite infighting that is visible, Inozemtsev says, is a reflection of the “mechanism” by which these groups grow careers and gain wealth and influence; it’s business as usual, not evidence of a cataclysmic “battle with reality.”

Inozemtsev is convinced that it would be a mistake for the Kremlin to rebuild Russia’s elite now. He offers three reasons: (1) it’s unclear which social and political groups would rally to the authorities, given that reforms would not win over diehard critics or render “moderately disloyal” groups more loyal; (2) it would spark real intra-elite volatility by abandoning the golden rule where the Kremlin tolerates corruption in return for loyalty (Inozemtsev says an anti-corruption crackdown without a new “consolidation point” would crash Russia’s bureaucracy); and (3) Russia’s system is actually fairly stable (financially and in terms of foreign policy), and its checks and balances “both in terms of corruption and national security” are still functioning.

Inozemtsev attributes the outward appearance of crisis in Russia’s elite to the fact that these groups can't appeal to the masses in normal competition for “redistributions of spheres of influence,” resorting instead to “manipulations and constant changes to the rules of the game.” In other words, the system undermines its own stability, but it looks worse from the outside than it really is.

Artem Shraibman says the annexation of Belarus would be a stupid gamble for Putin

In an article for Moscow Carnegie Center, journalist Artem Shraibman comments on resurfaced rumors that Russia might absorb Belarus, to allow Putin to remain in the Kremlin past 2024, arguing that the costs would simply be too high, and a constitutional amendment would be far simpler.

Moscow would have to take the country by force, Shraibman argues, saying that the Belarusian people have grown accustomed to independence, despite their support for continued close ties. Moscow also lacks the local political structure (a “Russian party” or pro-Russian nonprofits) that it leveraged in Crimea and eastern Ukraine to destabilize the authorities in Minsk. Most people prefer international neutrality to joining Moscow’s foreign policy, and even the older, more Soviet Belarusians dislike the oligarchy and social inequality associated with modern-day Russia.

Also, the Belarusian elite have lots to lose, if Russia annexed their country. Moscow can’t offer Alexander Lukashenko anything better than dictatorship, and Belarusian state officials expect to leave office and live comfortably as businessmen, without competing against Russian oligarch carpetbaggers. Shraibman also dismisses the notion that Belarusian generals are secretly loyal to Moscow because many were trained in Russia. (He says military ethics and decades of life in an independent country outweigh the days these men spent at the academy.)

Ultimately, Shraibman says, Moscow could never justify the costs that would accompany the annexation of Belarus. Even if the land grab didn’t lead to a devastating war, it would provoke new Western sanctions, which has apparently been enough to keep Moscow from formally taking South Ossetia. Also, Shraibman asks, if Putin is willing to risk so much to boost his ratings, why did he agree to raise Russia’s retirement age now, instead of punting the issue to his successor? Recent polls, moreover, show that another annexation could backfire, as Russians show foreign-policy fatigue.

News briefs

Yours, Meduza