The Real Russia. Today. The origins of Russian mercenarism, a dramatic arrest on the Russian Senate floor, and misreporting about ‘bribery decriminalization’
Wednesday, January 30, 2019
This day in history (89 years ago): On January 30, 1930, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party formalized Joseph Stalin's December 27, 1929, announcement of the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class.” Dekulakization resulted in the deaths of millions of people within just a few years.
- New report claims to describe inception of private military company allegedly controlled by ‘Putin’s chef’
- After dramatic closed session, federal agents arrest Russian senator on Senate floor
- Fact check: Is Russia’s Justice Ministry really legalizing bribes as long as bureaucrats find them ‘unavoidable’? Spoiler: No.
- Political scientist Grigory Golosov summarizes the four likeliest ways Putin will remain in power
- New Russian TV channel set to focus exclusively on World War II
- Russian LGBT Network formally requests federal investigation on Chechnya amid death threats to director
The Bell has released an extensive report that aims to document the rise of the private military company (PMC) “Wagner,” in which the caterer and restaurateur Evgeny Prigozhin reportedly plays a leading role. Prigozhin’s ties with the Russian president have earned him the nickname “Putin’s Chef,” and multiple journalists have confirmed that the Wagner PMC has been involved in conflicts from southeast Ukraine to Syria.
The South African connection
Unnamed sources told The Bell that the idea for a PMC gained steam among Russian military leaders following a private presentation for Russia’s Joint Staff at the 2010 St. Petersburg Economic Forum. Eeben Barlow, a retired officer of the South African Defense Force, allegedly gave the presentation; Barlow founded the South Africa-based PMC Executive Outcomes. The idea of employing veterans in Russia, where military service for men is avoidable but technically mandatory, to create a PMC evidently struck a chord with the Joint Staff. Its members had reportedly been discussing the idea for a year before Barlow’s presentation.
Despite its popularity in the highest echelons of the Russian military, the idea of a Russian PMC took time to get off the ground, The Bell reported. An initial idea to create small undercover teams of mercenaries for special assignments seemed to reach a dead end due in part to major personnel changes in both the military and the government, including the brief presidency of current Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. However, the broader impetus to create a private military force under Russian control reportedly remained.
Settling on Prigozhin
According to The Bell, when Russia’s Joint Staff set about creating that company, Prigozhin had already made a name for himself as a major state catering contractor. The Joint Staff reportedly asked him to manage the new PMC. In 2013, Prigozhin allegedly began hiring staff for Wagner against his own wishes.
Since then, reports in multiple news sources have described Wagner operations in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Syria. The company’s first operations in Syria, which took place in August 2015, also represented a test case for the concept as a whole: it was the first time Wagner had attempted to affect a conflict long-term and at a distance from Russia. The Bell claimed that after initial military victories were overshadowed by the capture of two alleged Wagner employees near Deir ez-Zor, Prigozhin was asked to explain the company’s failure to his superiors. Despite Prigozhin’s reported promises that the incident would not repeat itself, Wagner employees have not been sighted in active combat in Syria since early 2018.
However, Wagner’s operations have continued to expand in multiple countries in Africa. The Bell report attempts to shed entirely new light on the company’s activities in part by clarifying the role of Prigozhin and his businesses in the enterprise. For example, journalists reported that various government sectors from the Defense Ministry to the Moscow school system signed contracts with companies associated with Prigozhin. According to The Bell, the funds those agencies allocated were used only in part to fund agency projects while the rest of the money was siphoned toward Prigozhin’s PMC. Schemes like these have allegedly allowed Wagner to employ more than 10,000 mercenaries since 2014. The Bell estimates the company’s operating costs last year at 2 billion rubles, or $30.3 million.
One final point of interest in the new report is that The Bell’s journalists received comments from Evgeny Prigozhin himself. The businessman asserted that he works with Russia’s Defense Ministry on catering projects periodically but denies any ties with the Wagner PMC. He argued, “I can’t negotiate with a Defense Ministry where I have no ties about financing/provisioning a PMC that doesn’t exist.” Prigozhin went on to accuse Ukrainian security forces of spreading rumors about his involvement with Wagner. When Prigozhin did come to consider the hypothetical possibility that a Russian PMC is currently active in Africa, he asserted that it would be impossible to verify whether soldiers sighted there might be part of that PMC or not.
On Wednesday, Rauf Arashukov was arrested on the Senate floor of the Federation Council. On the morning of January 30, the parliament’s upper chamber was unexpectedly closed to the public, and Federal Protective Service officers sealed the assembly hall’s entrances and exits. Attorney General Yuri Chaika then addressed the senators. Federal Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin and his deputy director were also in the audience, a source told Interfax. During Chaika’s speech, Arashukov tried to leave the room, but Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko insisted that he stay, according to the news agency TASS. Arashukov’s colleagues then voted to strip him of his legal immunity as a senator and sanctioned his arrest by federal agents. Afterwards, the ruling political party United Russia suspended his membership, pending the results of an investigation.
Federal investigators suspect Arashukov of involvement in the contract killings of a youth activist named Aslan Zhukov and an adviser to former Karachay-Cherkessia President Boris Ebzeyev named Fral Shebzukhov. The two men were murdered in 2010. Three suspects in the case previously implicated Arashukov in the killings, though the senator’s representatives deny that there is any evidence connecting him to the crimes. The website Baza cites unverified reports that Arashukov is also a suspect in another two murders, claiming that police found a fake passport at his home that he allegedly intended to use to fly to the United Arab Emirates. Officials have not commented on these claims.
In addition to homicide, Arashukov is implicated in several other serious crimes. A source told the news agency TASS that the senator is suspected of leading or at least participating in organized crime. He is also accused of causing grievous bodily harm and even forging the documents that allowed him to join the Federation Council, according to RIA Novosti. Prosecutors in the United Arab Emirates previously accused Arashukov of falsifying his residency permit (changing its expiration date from February 2017 to August 2016) to sidestep restrictions on Russian senators. Arashukov called these allegations “nonsense.”
Rauf Arashukov is just 32 years old, but he’s already spent 14 years in politics. He became a city council member in Stavropol in 2014. By the age of 21, he was Karachay-Cherkessia's labor and social development minister. Over the years, Arashukov served in Karachay-Cherkessia’s parliament and government, and worked for different Gazprom subsidiaries. He joined the Federation Council on September 18, 2016.
His father is now in custody, too. Hours after Senator Arashukov’s arrest, federal agents also detained his father, Raul Arashukov, at his Gazprom office in St. Petersburg. A source told TASS that he is suspected of involvement in the alleged embezzlement of 10 billion rubles ($151.6 million).
Russia's Justice Ministry has announced a controversial proposal that would regulate when citizens are held responsible for corruption-related violations. News reports have paid particular attention to a line in the bill that says it may be impossible to avoid certain instances of corruption “due to circumstances of insurmountable force.”
Will government officials really be allowed to take “unavoidable” bribes?
No. Giving or receiving bribes is a crime in Russia that legally constitutes corruption in and of itself. The Justice Ministry’s proposal is about something else: regulations that were established “with the aim of resisting corruption.” In other words, the bill deals with preventative measures that regulate officials’ actions at various levels of government in order to bring corruption to light early or prevent it from happening in the first place. Officials who fail to follow these regulations only face disciplinary measures up to and including losing their jobs. After initial press coverage of its proposal, the Justice Ministry confirmed that these laws, not the Russian criminal code, would be affected by its current bill.
What regulations do officials have to follow?
- a prohibition on holding accounts and stocks abroad (this also holds for officials’ spouses and minor dependents)
- a reporting requirement for income, property, and expenses (this applies to spouses and minor dependents as well)
- a prohibition on handling cases that include relatives and might cause a conflict of interest
- a prohibition on managing a business
- an obligation to yield control of important papers to a secure agency (to avoid conflicts of interest)
- a prohibition on working in government agencies after being fired for corruption (i.e. after being registered as an offender of corruption regulations)
What are the extreme circumstances that might allow officials not to follow these regulations?
That’s hard to say. The Justice Ministry’s announcement uses maximally broad language to describe the reasons an official might refrain from adhering to preventative regulations: “circumstances of insurmountable force.” The agency has promised to enumerate those circumstances, but only after the public comment period for the proposal will come to a close on February 8. Kirill Kabanov, who leads the nonprofit National Anti-Corruption Committee, gave two examples of potentially “insurmountable” obstacles:
- An official cannot close a foreign bank account because they cannot leave Russia due to sanctions.
- An official is getting divorced but still has to report on their spouse’s income and expenses. The spouse refuses to fill out the necessary paperwork, and the official can’t force them to do otherwise.
In a subsequent press release, the Justice Ministry offered one more example: in one-factory towns or certain regions in Russia’s far north, it may be difficult to follow prohibitions on conflicts of interest because populations are small enough to force government officials to work on cases that involve their relatives in some capacity.
All that said, the phrase “circumstances of insurmountable force” is legally very broad. Russian civil law defines these circumstances only by specifying that they should be exceptional and unavoidable. The Ministry of Economic Development uses a more specific definition:
- volcanic eruptions
- military activities
- mass worker strikes
- the aftermath of accidents
The Justice Ministry’s proposal was developed on presidential orders as part of a national effort to combat corruption. As a result, it is very likely that the proposal will successfully pass through the State Duma and ultimately become law.
In an article for The New Times, political scientist Grigory Golosov reviews Vladimir Putin’s likeliest options for remaining in power after 2024, when his current presidential term expires. Golosov says he assumes that Putin will only leave office voluntarily when his health finally gives out. Until then, only popular unrest could influence Putin’s decision making, but it would have to reach a level that compels the ruling elite and state apparatus to believe that regime change is necessary for their own personal survival. Barring a “civic reawakening,” Vladimir Putin is here to stay. Nevertheless, as 2024 approaches, Putin will increasingly view any decision that weakens his position as a personal threat and a blow to Russia’s national interests.
Golosov describes four general scenarios by which Putin might skirt existing term limits and remain Russia’s ruler: “institutional manipulations,” constitutional changes, “state reformatting,” and a second placeholder presidency.
Institutional manipulations. Putin could become the president of an expanded Russia by merging with Belarus (or even by absorbing Abkhazia or South Ossetia), but Golosov thinks this option is too messy organizationally and legally (not to mention it would require the unlikely consent of the Belarusians, for example). Also, expansion would be “fraught with serious, unpredictable risks — especially internationally.”
Constitutional changes. Putin could simply have Russia’s presidential term limits abolished. With United Russia’s dominance in parliament, it would be easy to do. The Kremlin already tinkered with these rules when it extended presidential terms from four to six years. This reform would risk serious “reputational damage,” however, putting Russian democracy on par with African dictatorships. The Kremlin would also struggle to legitimize this change because Russia’s current Constitution doesn’t allow a referendum for amendments, robbing Putin of the popular-vote element he often cites to justify the annexation of Crimea. As a result, the public at home and abroad will perceive any decision by the parliament to extend or abolish term limits as Putin’s personal wish to remain in power.
State reformatting. To open the door to a national referendum, Putin could mobilize a Constitutional Assembly. This would technically mean proposing a new constitution, but substantive changes aren’t necessary — purely rhetorical edits (even a national name change) would suffice. If officials wanted, they could also use this opportunity to redact certain pesky language about civil rights from Russia’s existing Constitution. With a new Constitution adopted, officials wouldn’t even need to change Russia’s term limits, insofar as it would technically be a new country, and Putin’s term number would reset to zero.
Officials could also change the Constitution to shift the state’s executive power to the prime minister, rendering the presidency mostly symbolic. In this scenario, however, Putin would rely on United Russia’s absolute dominance of party politics, and Putin would lose his presidential capital, while inheriting direct responsibility for the government’s failures.
Another placeholder presidency. This worked once before, but Putin discovered that mutual trust thins as his replacement sits in office. Trust is key in this arrangement, because the president can fire the prime minister at any time, and even support from United Russia in the State Duma would be no guarantee against a placeholder’s betrayal. Golosov says Dmitry Medvedev could even reprise his old role for this scheme, but 2024 is still far off, and it remains anybody’s game.
This spring, a new channel is scheduled to be added to Russian cable and satellite television packages. The “Pobeda” (“Victory”) channel will be distributed by the international branch of the state-owned Pervy Kanal (Channel One). Its purpose will be to display films and television shows related to the Second World War. That war is known in Russia by a term that translates roughly as “the Great Patriotic War”; simply saying “the war” in Russian without additional context refers to World War II as well.
The channel will debut shortly before the 75th anniversary of the Soviet and Allied victory in the Second World War, which will take place in 2020.
The Russian LGBT Network has requested that Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee look into reports of renewed arrests, torture, and killings of those suspected of being LGBTQ in Chechnya, Mediazona reports. The Network has led efforts to help victims of anti-LGBTQ persecution in Chechnya escape the region for multiple years.
LGBT Network activists also named one of those arrested in the current crisis. Bekkhan Yusupov reportedly received asylum in France but returned to Chechnya to visit his family. In addition to making Yusupov’s arrest public, the Network made materials available to the Investigative Committee that testified to the killing of a Russian citizen between January 1 and 20 at the hands of law enforcement officers.
Igor Kochetkov, the Network’s executive director of programs, has described torture methods that include “beatings, sexual assault, and torture using electric shocks.” Meduza’s sources in the Russian LGBT Network and the LGBTQ community of the North Caucasus have previously confirmed that Chechen police have used these and other methods of torture, killing multiple people within the past several weeks.
In the hours after it released additional information about the crisis in Chechnya, the Russian LGBT Network began reporting that it had received death threats addressed to Kochetkov. The Network shared one clip on Facebook in which a man called the longtime human rights advocate “devil’s spawn” and less than human before threatening him explicitly.
- Chechen authorities have repeatedly denied and derided reports of renewed persecution in the region, and the Russian federal government has not taken meaningful steps to address the crisis since it was first reported in the spring of 2017.