The Real Russia. Today. Fact-checking the supposed ‘Navalny-Prigozhin’ meeting, torturing an anarchist, and Putin's new ‘rule from the shadows’ strategy
Tuesday, February 5, 2019
This day in history (19 years ago): On February 5, 2000, Russian federal forces reportedly executed dozens of people in a suburb outside Grozny, Chechnya. The incident is known today as the Novye Aldi massacre.
- Meduza fact-checks reports that ‘Putin’s chef’ met with opposition leader Navalny
- Court says opposition leader must retract investigative report about corruption in National Guard
- Graduate student and anarchist activist faces closed hearing after alleged torture, intimidation, searches
- Political expert Tatyana Stanovaya says the Kremlin is pushing a new Internet crackdown from the shadows
- Meduza's roundup of top news reported at BBC Russian Service, Dozhd, The Bell, Kommersant, Novaya Gazeta, RBC, Rosbalt, Fontanka, Mediazona
Navalny can't catch a break
“Evgeny Viktorovich [Prigozhin] said that one of the topics discussed was Alexey Navalny’s offer to put a stop to his [Anti-Corruption Foundation’s] attacks on the school lunch issue in exchange for loyalty to Navalny’s team in St. Petersburg’s municipal elections. Evgeny Viktorovich answered him by saying, “I wouldn’t trade a soldier for a marshal.”
This is how the press service for Prigozhin’s company Concord responded when the BBC Russian Service asked about rumors that the entrepreneur, whose presidential ties have gained him fame in English as “Putin’s chef,” had met with Russia’s leading opposition politician in St. Petersburg. Rumors of a meeting appeared when an anonymous channel on the messaging site Telegram published two photographs showing Prigozhin in one image and Navalny in the other with both men at the entrance to the hotel Sokos. The channel’s moderator claimed that the two had met the night before. Navalny responded by denying that a meeting had taken place, saying he had visited St. Petersburg only to open his local campaign office in advance of the city’s elections.
A number of Russian news sources quoted the BBC and spread Prigozhin’s version of events. In the process, they ignored many of Russia’s largest wire services and most of its major news sources.
Did that quote really come from Prigozhin’s press service? Yes, but even that isn’t an entirely straightforward question. The BBC received its response from the address “firstname.lastname@example.org,” which contains no indication that it belongs to Prigozhin himself or to his company, Concord. The company has its own domains, concord-catering.ru and concord-moscow.ru, but it does use addresses with the inbox.ru domain for business dealings with the Russian government. The BBC explained that it sent an email to the inbox.ru address because “[a] source close to Evgeny Prigozhin advised us to use that particular email address to contact his company’s press service.”
Corresponding statements apparently issued by Prigozhin’s press service are also available on social media. At the end of January, when the investigative news source The Bell published a lengthy report on Prigozhin’s alleged ties to the Wagner private military company, a group appeared on the social media site VKontakte with the title “Concord Company Press Service.” Both questions from journalists and answers to them appear on the group’s page. The published responses mention a variety of legal entities that Prigozhin directs, including Concord Management and Consulting, Concord Food Production, and Concord as a whole.
What reason is there to doubt what Prigozhin’s press service said? Prigozhin’s account of a meeting with Navalny is suspicious for three main reasons. First, Navalny responded to the press service’s claims immediately, saying, “Prigozhin is lying, and there was no meeting.” Prigozhin himself did not provide any evidence that the meeting took place. The result is a “he said, he said” situation — neither position is better argued or more convincing.
Second, on February 3, Prigozhin’s press service refused to answer questions related to his alleged meeting with Navalny. However, on the very next day, it sent an entirely different response to the BBC. Why Prigozhin’s position changed is unclear.
Finally, in its responses to other questions, Prigozhin’s press service appeared to be trolling journalists. When The Bell attempted to follow up on the story of the meeting, a spokesperson responded off the record with comments supposedly made by Prigozhin himself. Those comments nonetheless appeared on the Concord VKontakte page: “I don’t read your little bell either. It’s one of those bullshit foreign media sources, so I hope they just fuck off.” Novaya Gazeta journalist Irina Dolinina was told to look for corruption “among your own Yankees” after she said she was working for an anti-corruption organization that partners with Novaya Gazeta. That comment also came with a dose of profanity-laden idioms.
When the BBC asked Prigozhin’s press service to prove that its director had met with Navalny, a spokesperson responded with a saying once again. This time, the press service wrote that Prigozhin does not keep a record of his business meetings and explained, “Do not do to others what you would not have done to you.”
A Moscow arbitration court has ordered opposition leader Alexey Navalny to take down an August report that pointed to insider negotiations between Russia’s National Guard and a Crimean meat processing company. Interfax reported that “Druzhba Narodov” (“Friendship of Nations”) sued Navalny after his Anti-Corruption Foundation accused the company of selling food to the National Guard at inflated prices after becoming its only food provider.
Viktor Zolotov, the director of the National Guard, initially responded to the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s report by challenging Navalny to a duel. Navalny responded by challenging Zolotov to a public debate. Zolotov also sued Navalny himself for one million rubles (more than $15,000), but his lawsuit was rejected on technical grounds.
On February 1, plainclothes and uniformed officers searched the homes of a group of Moscow residents suspected of anarchist activity. The officers arrested 11 people, 10 of whom were then released. Three of those arrested said they had been tortured in custody, OVD Info reported.
Azat Miftakhov, a graduate student in mechanics and mathematics at Moscow State University, was not released. Officials have charged him with attempting to set up an improvised explosive device on a gas pipeline in Balashikha, a city on the outskirts of Moscow. The MGU Initiative Group, a student activist organization at Moscow State University, wrote that law enforcement officials later told TASS the device was a fake. However, prosecutors have maintained that Miftakhov is suspected of preparing a terrorist attack.
The group also announced on social media that Miftakhov had been threatened on the Russian-based social site Telegram as early as July of last year by accounts with alleged ties to law enforcement.
The mathematics student is suspected of participating in the “People’s Self-Defense” anarchist movement, and others among the group of 11 who were arrested Friday have ties to anarchist groups. One of them has been accused of vandalizing an office of the ruling United Russia party. Authorities kept Miftakhov’s location hidden for more than a day after he was arrested before allowing him to make contact with attorneys. The student said officials had beaten him and tortured him using a screwdriver while threatening to use it to sexually assault him. His attorney told reporters she noticed signs of injury on the young man’s chest.
Daniil Galkin, who was one of the other 10 people arrested alongside Miftakhov, said officials had applied an electric shocking device to his body and groin. He also told journalists he was asked to denounce Miftakhov in front of television reporters under threat of torture.
On February 4, after a hearing that was closed to the public and the press, a Balashikha court ruled that Miftakhov would remain in custody for an additional 72 hours “in connection with a lack of sufficient evidence that would provide a basis for the suspicions that [Miftakhov] committed the actions imputed to him.” The student has maintained that the charges against him are fabricated while prosecutors have continued to deny his claims.
In an op-ed for Republic, political expert Tatyana Stanovaya says the strange progress of draft legislation to ban “fake news” and “online insults against state authorities” demonstrates the Kremlin’s effort to remain in the shadows, while grabbing more influence and leverage over Russia’s mediaspace. Stanovaya describes the recent passage of the legislation’s first readings as shrouded in “intrigue,” arguing that silence from the Kremlin opened the bills to criticism from Duma steering committees, the government cabinet, the Attorney General’s Office, the Justice Ministry, and the Communications Ministry. Because of the Putin administration’s silence on the issue, lower officials “probably didn’t fully understand” the seriousness of this initiative, Stanovaya says.
In other words, Putin’s team has turned to a “political technology stylistic” whereby controversial or unpopular initiatives (like pension reform) are presented as “non-Kremlin” projects. Stanovaya says the Kremlin has used a similar tactic for past initiatives, such as Rostec’s creation and Rosneft’s acquisition of Bashneft — both of which went ahead, despite a lack of clear support from the Putin administration.
Stanovaya believes the Kremlin is resorting to this “stylistic” now in response to the authorities’ falling popularity. Polling trends also increase the need for new tools to “manage the flow of information” and minimize the spread of compromising information about Putin’s inner circle. (Stanovaya says recent investigative reports about figures like catering mogul Evgeny Prigozhin and National Guard Director Viktor Zolotov have unnerved the Kremlin.)
Last-minute Kremlin lobbying in the State Duma to pass the first readings of the “fake news” and “insults” laws is evidence that Putin directly supports the legislation.
Recalling her past analysis that Kremlin First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko is gradually making the Putin regime less “personalized” and more “corporate and technocratic,” Stanovaya says the Kremlin’s public inaction around controversial issues is part of a new “corporate model” that replaces direct presidential control with “impersonal rules” that “depersonalize” actions and “erode” political responsibility.
Top stories from Russia’s news media
BBC Russian Service
- 🤝 Responding on Vkontakte, spokespeople for Evgeny Prigozhin’s catering company “Concord” claim that he met with opposition leader Alexey Navalny during the latter’s weekend visit to St. Petersburg. On February 3, the anonymous Telegram channel Nezygar posted photos showing the two men entering the same hotel separately. Studying the images, the BBC warns that they might have been taken at different times of day. Prigozhin’s spokespeople said on Vkontakte that Navalny offered to end the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s investigation into food poisoning at schools serviced by Concord, if Prigozhin pledged his loyalty in St. Petersburg’s coming municipal elections. Prigozhin says he rejected the deal, even quoting an apocryphal saying by Stalin. Navalny denies that a meeting took place at all.
- 🔗 The latest report (PDF) on Internet freedom by the “Agora” human rights group highlights the “delegation of repression” in Russia, where police and censorship roles are shifting to “private actors.” For example, prosecutions that were previously treated as extremist cases are now going to court as defamation lawsuits brought by prominent businesspeople like Oleg Deripaska and Andrey Kostin. The Russian state’s Internet policy is generally shifting from (1) blocks at the service-provider level and mass criminal prosecutions against ordinary users to (2) attempts to control the “global platforms” with access to user data and the real capacity to limit the flow of information.
- 📽️ Lukas Dhont’s controversial film “Girl” (trailer) is coming to Russian movie theaters this Thursday, February 7. The Belgian drama about a transgender girl who pursues a career as a ballerina has won critical acclaim, despite criticism from many in the LGBTQ community for the film’s depiction of gender dysphoria and self-harm. Dhont’s movie got its Russian distribution license without a hitch, promoters say. The delayed premiere in Russia was a purely commercial decision.
- 🔗 Sources in parliament say State Duma deputies plan to pass the first reading of “Internet sovereignty” legislation before the end of the month, viewing the draft law as “insurance” against a possible attempt by the West to cut off Russia’s access to the Web. Lawmakers apparently aren’t interested in walling off the RuNet completely, like in China. Under the law, Russia would create a national domain name system and develop special rules for Internet traffic routing. Read Meduza’s summary of the initiative here.
- 🛢️ Russia's biggest oil company, Rosneft, says it more than doubled its net income last year, earning $8.9 billion. Rosneft credits rising oil prices and revenue from joint international development projects.
- ✊ Moscow City Hall has rejected a permit request by organizers of the “Mothers’ Rage March” scheduled for February 10. Officials say the paperwork was submitted late (it needed to be in at least 10 days before the event). The rally is planned in response to the January 31 death of Rostov activist Anastasia Shevchenko’s daughter. Shevchenko is currently under house arrest and charged with working for a banned “undesirable organization.”
- 📈 Economic Development Minister Maxim Oreshkin is feuding with economist Kirill Tremasov, who managed forecasts for the ministry under Oreshkin's predecessor, Alexey Ulyukaev. On January 25, the Federal State Statistics Service (which has been under the Economic Development Ministry’s management since 2017) reported a 10-year record boom in construction, supposedly thanks largely to the World Cup, the Crimean bridge, and “overlooked” growth in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug. On Telegram, Tremasov said the abnormally optimistic data are “trash” and accused Oreshkin of incompetence and fudging the numbers. Since Oreshkin took over the ministry, Rosstat has adopted new methodologies that paint a rosier picture for Russia’s economy, inviting criticism from several prominent economists.
- 📈 Experts contacted by The Bell and Vedomosti expressed skepticism about Rosstat’s latest figures showing 2.3-percent GDP growth in 2018 — what would be Russia’s biggest economic leap in six years. Not only have Economic Development Ministry officials repeatedly raised this number in recent weeks, but last November Rosstat reported a third-quarter investment boom that is still unexplained. Vladimir Putin’s May 2018 orders instruct the government to keep Russian GDP growth at or above the global average, which Moscow expects to be 3.5 percent in 2019.
- ⚖️ In a dissenting opinion written by Constitutional Court Justice Konstantin Aranovsky for a case brought by Petersburg Music Industry head Evgeny Finkelshtein, Aranovsky says recent restrictions on foreigners’ mass media ownership rights are unconstitutional and xenophobic, questioning the national security threat cited as a basis for the law. Since 2014, Russia has restricted foreign ownership of mass media outlets to 20 percent.
- 👻 United Russia officials in Volgograd are asking the party’s national leadership to censure Dmitry Orlov, a political strategist who sits on the party’s Supreme Council. Orlov recently called Volgograd a “cursed region.” Locals complain that the remarks came insensitively on the eve of the Stalingrad Battle anniversary, though Orlov insists that he was only referring to “problems with the budget, elite, and infrastructure.”
- ☎️ A new wave of “telephone terrorism” is causing mass evacuations in Russia and nearby countries this week, affecting more than 200 buildings and 25,000 people in Moscow. Similar prank bomb threats swept Russia in 2017 and 2018, causing work stoppages and requiring emergency responses that cost hundreds of millions of rubles.
- ⚓ Eleven sailors from Murmansk are currently jailed in Cape Verde, off the coast of Africa, on charges of trafficking almost 10.5 tons of cocaine aboard the ESER cargo ship (sailing under the flag of Panama). The identities of some of the detained sailors are still unknown, as is the name of one crew member who reportedly died during the voyage. The sailors’ relatives say they haven’t been in contact since late January. The drug bust follows seizures of large amounts of cocaine in Belgium (in bricks labeled “United Russia”) and at Russia’s embassy in Argentina (in suitcases).
- 👮 Correspondent Tatiana Likhanova goes down the rabbit hole of Pavel Zlomnov’s criminal prosecution. Federal agents first arrested the 36-year-old antique weapons expert in January 2018 for illegal arms trafficking, allegedly torturing him in pretrial detention. A year later, Zlomnov was finally released on his own recognizance, but officials immediately arrested him again, this time on charges of writing poetry while behind bars that supposedly justifies terrorism — a felony in Russia. Based on Likhanova’s reporting, the evidence against Zlomnov in both cases is weak.
- 📍 Vladimir Evtushenkov, the founder and board chairman of the Russian conglomerate Sistema, denies allegations that an affiliated company in Lithuania collected data for the Russian Armed Forces. Vilnius says an investment firm run by Evtushenkov’s son acquired a Lithuanian company that does mapping and aerial surveying work that’s useful to Moscow. Evtushenkov says Sistema hasn’t made any corporate acquisitions in Lithuania of any kind.
- 👋 Beslan Baichorov, the head of Karachay-Cherkessia’s Khabez municipal district, has resigned, saying that he’s “tired of the job.” Khabez is home to Rauf Arashukov, the Russian senator arrested last week on charges of multiple homicide.
- 🏨 Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee denies that Director Alexander Bastrykin is personally acquainted with Senator Rauf Arashukov, though the agency spokeswoman’s, Svetlana Petrenko, acknowledged that Bastrykin vacationed last summer at a hotel in Khabez apparently owned by Arashukov’s family. Petrenko says photos circulating online showing Bastrykin and Senator Arashukov together are fabricated. An unnamed source “close to the Investigative Committee,” however, told RTVI that the photos are real.
- ☢️ Mikhail Volokhov, the son of the Tomsk region’s Duma, is charged with embezzling 38 million rubles ($580,000) from a National Guard housing project, but the courts refuse to jail him. The Attorney General’s Office opposed investigators’ request to detain Volokhov. The 130-apartment housing facility was supposed to be located in the restricted-accessed city of Seversk, where the National Guard protects a chemical plant that manufactures nuclear fuel.
- 💸 A court in Moscow has jailed Maxim Nizdiminov, the CEO of “OKS Group,” a contractor for Russia’s Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation, on embezzlement charges. The Federal Security Service says OKS was contracted in 2016 to remodel a research facility in Nizhny Novgorod, but most of the job was never finished, causing at least 10.4 million rubles ($158,600) in damages. The company’s suspected real owner, Khasan Tumgoev (the former CEO of the building concern Rosatomstroi and one of the richest men in Ingushetia), was arrested in early December. Weeks later, Tumgoev’s brother-in-law (a well-known local religious figure) was murdered when assailants opened fire on his car in Nazran.
- 👃 Ecologists in St. Petersburg have tracked a stench engulfing parts of the city to a rusted tank near Prospekt Narodnogo Opolcheniya. Locals worried that the smell was the result of a liquefied natural gas leak. In fact, the stink was the distinct odor of ethanethiol, which is added to odorless gaseous products to help warn of gas leaks. At least two tons of the stuff may have escaped.
- 👮 Investigators in Omsk have dropped extremism charges against Lyubov Kalugina, a 31-year-old feminist who allegedly incited hatred against men with several posts on Vkontakte. Kalugina’s case was launched last September. Since then, Russia partially decriminalized first-time “Internet extremism” offenses. Meduza explained this reform here.
- 👮 Last April, police in Tatarstan pulled over two men for hashish possession, allegedly beating up one of them. Officials have twice refused to investigate the reported abuse, and police still haven’t interviewed the sole witness or the officers present when the car was searched. The victim says police started beating him when he threatened to file a complaint against them.