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The Real Russia. Today. Six years in prison for a Jehovah's Witnesses elder, felony charges for two former United Russia lawmakers, and Navalny uncovers another lavish apartment

Source: Meduza

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

This day in history (19 years ago): On February 6, 2000, federal troops raised the Russian flag above Grozny's city center, forcing the separatist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria government into exile.
  • Russian court sentences Jehovah's Witnesses elder to six years in prison for ‘extremism’
  • Two former United Russia lawmakers in Astrakhan face multiple felony charges for sexually abusing, raping, and filming children
  • New report finds five-billion-ruble downtown apartment owned by Russian tech czar
  • Russian city councilman faces felony charges for celebrating scene from police drama
  • The wife of Putin's spokesman reportedly has an illegal Swiss bank account
  • Russia coverage in English: Ivan Krastev and Leonard Benardo review Ambassador McFaul's book and what it says about U.S. failures, plus The New York Times dives into the murder of Denis Voronenkov
  • Meduza's roundup of top news reported at Novaya Gazeta, BBC Russian Service, Vedomosti, Dozhd, Kommersant, and Mediazona

Six. Years. ⚖️

A court in Oryol has sentenced a local Jehovah's Witnesses elder to six years in prison for alleged extremist activity. Before hearing his verdict, Dennis Christensen, a Danish citizen, told reporters that he hoped Russia would observe his right to religious freedom. Prosecutors say he “used his authority as a religious leader” and “kept the [Oryol Jehovah's Witnesses] organization operating, despite being aware of its prohibition.”

Yaroslav Sivulskiy, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, called the verdict “regrettable,” describing Christensen as “an innocent man who did not commit any real crime.” “It is sad that reading the bible, preaching, and living a moral way of life is again a criminal offense in Russia,” Sivulskiy said in a public statement on Wednesday.

  • Dennis Christensen moved to Russia in 1999, settling in Murmansk, where he met his future wife, a recent convert to the Jehovah's Witnesses. They married in 2002 and four years later moved to Oryol, where Christensen works as a private contractor. He was detained by police in late May 2017, becoming the first Jehovah's Witness to be arrested after the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling.

78 separate incidents ⚖️

In Astrakhan, court proceedings are underway against Vitaly Kurskov and Igor Poplevko, two former regional lawmakers from United Russia. The men are charged with heinous crimes against minors and the trial is closed to the public. Federal investigators cite 78 separate incidents where the suspects raped or sexually abused children. Kurskov and Poplevko filmed and photographed their crimes, as well. A 20-year-old woman who acted as an accomplice by bringing children to Kurskov’s apartment — including her own nephews — has already been sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Read Meduza's report here.

Opulence: he has it 💰

Research conducted by the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) found that Sergey Chemezov, who leads Russia’s state-owned technology conglomerate Rostech, owns an apartment worth five billion rubles (just under $76 million). Alexey Navalny, the leading opposition politician who founded the FBK, revealed the results of the organization’s report on February 6. The most expensive apartment owned by a Russian state official had previously been thought to belong to Igor Sechin, who leads the energy conglomerate Rosneft and owns a property worth approximately two billion rubles ($30.4 million).

Read Meduza's summary here.

When politics imitates TV 📺

“Game: Revenge” Episode 16 / NTV / YouTube

A man shows his friend a YouTube clip from a Russian police drama where the hero guns down a corrupt cop. Take that, buster! Long live the USSR! A few months later, the man — a troublesome local city council member — is charged with the felony of “justifying terrorism.” He says he’s being set up, however. In a special report for Mediazona, correspondent Maxim Litavrin traveled to the Pskov region to learn more about an investigation that could be its own television drama.

Read Meduza's summary here.

A most mysterious Swiss banque account 🏦

The wife of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov — former ice dancer Tatiana Navka — might have an account at the Swiss Banque Internationale à Luxembourg, according to new research by Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s investigative project Dossier, as reported by the television network Dozhd.

Dossier says it acquired evidence that Navka opened the bank account on February 20, 2014, before she married Peskov. Unnamed sources apparently provided Dossier with an electronic copy of a notification documenting the opening of a foreign bank account in Navka’s name. It’s unknown if Russian tax officials have been made aware of the account.

To verify that the Swiss bank account is still active, Dossier says it successfully wired five euros to the account. The transaction went through, recognized as a transfer to “Navka Tatiana.” Banque Internationale à Luxembourg also confirmed that the money was received.

As the spouse of a federal official, Tatiana Navka is prohibited under Russian law from having a foreign bank account. She told Dozhd that she doesn’t currently have an open bank account abroad, and Dmitry Peskov says his wife had foreign bank accounts when she lived in the United States, but she later closed them. “It’s true that she can’t have foreign accounts, and she complies fully with the law,” the Kremlin’s spokesman told journalists on Wednesday.

Transparency International Russia deputy director Ilya Shumanov says Russian officials have only recently started closing their foreign bank accounts, though the prohibition on these accounts has been in place since 2013. What changed? Russia’s tax authorities now automatically share information with their counterparts abroad. “In other words,” Shumanov explains, “Russian agencies either already have the information [about Navka’s account], or they’ll get it before the end of the year.”

Russia coverage in English

  • 🕊️ Ivan Krastev and Leonard Benardo review former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul’s book “From Cold War to Hot Peace,” arguing that the memoir helps to explain the “double failure” of Washingtons two approaches to Russia: (1) “democratizers failed to establish a Western-style democracy,” and (2) “realists never made an ally out of Russia at the expense of China.” After the financial collapse and geopolitical irrelevance of the Yeltsin era, Russians were “on the hunt” for a political leader committed to restoring the country’s status. “The Unquiet American” — The American Interest
  • ⚰️ While former Russian Duma deputy Denis Voronenkov was still lying dead on a Kyiv street, the world was already blaming Vladimir Putin. But who really killed him and what does it tell us about Russia, Ukraine, and our own assumptions? Sarah Topol spent more than a year investigating the murder. “He Was the Perfect Fixer for Putin’s Russia. Until He Got Fixed.” — The New York Times

Top stories from Russia’s news media

Novaya Gazeta

  • ⚱️ Darya Zelenaya traveled to a village in the Smolensk region where a bus crash earlier this month killed three girls and four mothers traveling in a dance group to a competition in Kaluga. Police have arrested the bus driver (even though he was sober when the vehicle overturned) and detained the owner. Prosecutors also say the private dance club that organized the excursion didn’t have an official operating license. Zelenaya says the real culprit in the tragedy seems to be poverty, however. Locals apparently knew the bus was unsafe (it was 30 years old with nearly half a million miles traveled), but it’s all they can afford on salaries that average $230 a month.
  • 🚑 Irina Tumakova reports from the town of Shimsk, about 30 miles outside Novgorod, where healthcare cutbacks have led to the closure of the local hospital. Regional officials say the facility was an unsustainable luxury and they are pivoting to high-quality outpatient services. Locals who need more serious medical care are being offered treatment at hospitals in Novgorod and Soltsy, but the “optimization” has enraged Shimsk residents, sparking relatively large protests and a public letter to Vladimir Putin that's already been redirected to the regional authorities.
  • 🚌 Two weeks before the start of last summer’s FIFA World Cup, Moscow officials moved a homeless shelter from the Yaroslavsky railway station to a more remote rehab center in the Maryino district. When winter came, the shelter at Yaroslavsky station wasn’t reopened, and now Moscow has a fleet of buses collecting homeless people at train stations, delivering them to shelters at the city’s outskirts. Correspondent Darya Zelenaya spoke to a homeless Tajik man and an elderly retired schoolteacher who still come to the Yaroslavsky station for food handed out by volunteers.

BBC Russian Service

  • 💳 Putin has weighed in on a debate between Russian banks and shopping centers about “acquirer processing fees” for debit cards. Current fees average between two and three percent on sales and cashback transactions. The president says this is “too high,” calling it a “quasi-tax.” Shopping centers say they can cut prices, if the acquirer fee falls to a fraction of a percent, but banks say they need this revenue to finance their client-loyalty programs. On February 1, Russia’s Anti-Monopoly Service was supposed to present the government’s plan to reduce these fees.
  • ⚖️ A Moscow court has ordered pro-Kremlin television pundit Dmitry Kiselyov to pay nearly $40,000 in remodeling debts for work on his villa in Koktebel. Vladimir Mazurin, the architect short-changed by Kiselyov, says he’s owed twice as much money. Kiselyov plans to appeal the ruling, arguing that Mazurin never finished the contract job. Last September, Mazurin published an article in the newspaper Gorod-24, describing the construction of a 200-million-ruble ($3 million) home in Crimea, presumably owned by Kiselyov. The next day, all copies of the newspaper were allegedly seized and the chief editor was fired.

Vedomosti

  • ⚖️ Three opposition Moscow municipal deputies have filed a lawsuit against the city’s Housing and Utilities Department, arguing that its use of anti-icing chemicals violates Article 42 of Russia’s Constitution and other environmental protections. The city has allocated about 6 billion rubles ($91.3 million) to maintaining its supply of anti-icing agents, which includes almost 100,000 tons of sodium formate, calcium chloride, and other chlorides. One expert told Vedomosti that Moscow’s roads are being over-salted, while pedestrian walkways should be treated with sand and crushed rock, instead of anti-icing chemicals.
  • 🗳️ Officials in Moscow are considering a limited trial program for online voting in this September’s municipal elections. The idea will come up for public discussion later this month and in early March. The system would potentially involve individual codes sent as text messages to mobile phones and automated calls to verify voters’ passport information.

Dozhd

  • ☦️ Correspondent Olga Gladysheva looks at how Svetlana Medvedeva, the prime minister’s wife, has become the a prominent national figure in Russian Orthodoxy, attaining “gray cardinal” and “right hand” status within the church.

Kommersant

  • 💸 Officials investigating the embezzlement of more than 30 billion rubles ($456.2 million) from Gazprom have put out arrest warrants for another two suspects who managed branches of a local subsidiary in Stavropol. One of the men is the son-in-law of Raul Arashukov, the Gazprom subsidiary’s CEO who’s charged with masterminding the embezzlement scheme. On January 30, Arashukov’s son, Senator Rauf Arashukov, was arrested in a dramatic session of Russia’s Federation Council.
  • 🗺️ State Duma deputy and United Russia Sevastopol branch acting secretary Dmitry Sablin wants to create a “roadmap” for “public and party control” to ensure that federal money allocated to the development of the city’s infrastructure is actually spent. One of the creators of the “Anti-Maidan” ultra-nationalist movement, Sablin complains that only 60 percent of these funds were actually spent in 2018. “This is unacceptable, of course,” he told Kommersant.

Mediazona

  • 📻 Last December, Russia’s federal censor cited Radio Liberty correspondent Svetlana Prokopieva for “justifying terrorism” in comments she made to Ekho Moskvy v Pskove about the October 31 Arkhangelsk FSB office bombing. The radio station was fined 150,000 rubles ($2,280) and officials opened a criminal case against Prokopieva. On February 6, federal agents detained and interrogated her, while officers raided her home.

Yours, Meduza