The Real Russia. Today. Google's alleged deal with Moscow, meds needed but not found for sick kids, and Russia's costly Internet isolation plan
Thursday, February 7, 2019
This day in history (5 years ago): “Hot. Cool. Yours.” That was the motto of the 2014 Winter Olympics, which kicked off in Sochi, Russia, on February 7, 2014.
- Google reportedly agrees on cooperation with Russian censors
- Russian doctors and families are fighting to access the medicine sick children need to survive
- The Russian government is planning to isolate the country’s Internet to facilitate censorship and security measures. How is this going to work?
- Russian journalist charged with ‘justifying terrorism’ for a single phrase she used on the air
- New feminist ad campaign by Reebok Russia features cunnilingus joke that's promptly deleted
- Putin's spokesman explains why Russia is imprisoning Jehovah's Witnesses
- Opinion and analysis: Kashin on Prigozhin as a Kremlin “scarecrow,” and Sinitsyn on Rosstat's worrying new statistics
- Meduza's roundup of top news reported at The Insider, Mediazona, Novaya Gazeta, BBC Russian Service, Kommersant, and Govorit Moskva
The business news source Vedomosti is reporting that Google has struck a deal with Russian censors to continue operating in the country by deleting websites that are banned in Russia from its results. The government censorship agency Roskomnadzor maintains a registry of sites that may not be distributed on Russian territory, but Google is one of a few search engines that does not subscribe to that registry. However, the company regularly deletes links from its search results that Roskomnadzor has banned, sources within both Roskomnadzor and Google told Vedomosti.
In December of 2018, Roskomnadzor charged Google a fine of 500,000 rubles ($7,590) for refusing to subscribe to the registry. The company did not challenge the agency’s decision and chose to pay the fine. The Russian law that made the fine possible does not allow Roskomnadzor to block sites that do not comply with its censorship demands, but that did not stop Roskomnadzor from threatening to block Google within Russian borders regardless.
Vedomosti reported that Google has now reached an agreement with the agency to receive an updated list of banned websites daily before deleting some of its links to those sites following additional research. Google has reportedly already removed about 70 percent of the websites censored in Russia from its search results.
A little girl from Russia’s Penza Oblast received a rare diagnosis: a genetic disorder that causes increasingly severe epilepsy, limiting the girl’s life expectancy to her teenage years. An effective treatment for her condition exists, but only outside Russia: within the country, the medication she needs is not officially registered. The girl’s parents used established laws to request government funding for the drug and even took government officials to court in the process, all to no avail. They are not alone: many Russians need lifesaving medications that have not been registered in Russia and cannot be sold in pharmacies there as a result. Accessing unregistered drugs requires incredible and sometimes even illegal efforts. Meduza correspondent Darya Sarkisyan reports on the lives of Russians who need unregistered drugs and explains what Russian residents do if they need immediate access to medications that cost several hundred thousand dollars a year.
Russian Senator Andrey Klishas has proposed the Internet isolation plan as an amendment to an existing Russian communications law. His amendment would require all online services that operate in Russia to install specialized equipment that would enable them to block websites banned by the Russian government with greater efficiency. That technology would necessarily make the Russian segment of the World Wide Web independent from the rest of the global network. Klishas and his co-sponsors have justified the bill on the grounds that it would enhance Russia’s ability to withstand external cyberattacks.
Will it pass? Will it cost 1.8 billion rubles or 20 billion rubles? Does Russia have the funds to isolate its Internet? What's all this mean? Read Meduza's special report here.
Officials searched the residence of Radio Liberty correspondent Svetlana Prokopyeva on February 6. The searches followed charges brought under Article 205 of Russia’s criminal code: prosecutors accused Prokopyeva of “justifying terrorism.” Those charges stemmed from a statement the journalist made on the radio station Echo of Moscow in Pskov regarding an October 2018 attack on the local Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters in the northern city of Arkhangelsk. Prokopyeva said “the government itself raised” a generation of citizens that decided to struggle against it. Article 205 carries a fine of up to one million rubles ($15,160) or a prison sentence of up to seven years.
Prokopyeva said she was made to sign a nondisclosure agreement. “Seven people total came into my little apartment from the ‘60s, including four SOBR [Special Rapid Response Unit] people,” the journalist told Meduza. “I guess they were expecting me to put up some kind of desperate resistance. They didn’t commit any acts of aggression; they said they were looking for ‘devices that could be used to commit a crime.’” Prokopyeva said officers confiscated a computer, flash drives, a microphone, a telephone, and various papers during the search. She was summoned for additional questioning on the evening of February 7.
Prokopyeva’s colleagues say officials are putting pressure on her because of local FSB politics. “The head of our local FSB branch, Alexey Ivanovich Kalyan, is on rotation this year. At the end of the year, he will either get promoted or have to retire,” said Denis Kamalyagin, the editor-in-chief of Pskov Governate, a newspaper Prokopyeva previously led. He added, “This isn’t a federal trend. It’s just the local FSB freaking out.” Kamalyagin said the same regional branch has brought forward three other criminal cases in the last month and a half: one against Pskov Oblast’s vice governor, one against activists from the opposition organization Open Russia, and one against the director of the Moglino commercial park.
On February 7, the Russian branch of the footwear and apparel company Reebok unveiled its new advertising campaign. Titled “Ne v kakie ramki” (Out of Control), the promotion is intended to “dispel myths about traditional male and female professions.” The ads are modeled on the English-language “Be More Human” campaign, which focuses on “strong women.”
Reebok’s Russian ads feature European wrestling champion Anzhelika Pilyaeva, mixed martial artist Justyna Graczyk, and Zalina Marshenkulova, the co-creator of the feminist Telegram channel Zhenskaya Vlast (Woman Power). On social media, Reebok shared several photos and videos showing the women talk about how they have succeeded in life, despite gender stereotypes.
One of the ads posted to Reebok’s Instagram account generated significant interest among Internet users. The image showed Marshenkulova together with a sexually suggestive slogan she devised herself: “Don’t sit around hooked on male approval — sit on a man’s face.”
After several hours, Reebok deleted all the ads from its Instagram page. The company quickly restored the images, except for the picture with Marshenkulova and the cunnilingus joke.
Alexander Golofast, Reebok’s head market specialist in Russia, told the television network Dozhd that the brand’s management had approved all the slogans in advance. After the launch of the campaign, however, management told him that the language was “awful, horrible, and horrendous,” and demanded its removal. Golofast says he plans to leave Reebok, as a result.
“We can’t operate with common-sense concepts for state purposes.” That's the Kremlin's spokesman, trying to explain why Russia is imprisoning Jehovah's Witnesses. Meduza lays out how we went from Putin's defense of the religious group last December to a court in Oryol sentencing Dennis Christensen to six years in prison for extremism.
Opinion and analysis
In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Oleg Kashin looks at Evgeny Prigozhin’s unique role in Kremlin politics, asking why someone so wealthy and influential would stoop to posing for a photograph outside a hotel to fuel phony rumors about a meeting with Alexey Navalny in St. Petersburg last weekend. The story is weird, Kashin says, and not just because investigative journalists failed to infiltrate the hotel and question the maids.
The rumors were clearly manufactured, Kashin says, to discredit Navalny by associating him with Prigozhin, which is remarkable, given that Alexey Navalny is such a toxic figure within Russian officialdom that President Putin never even utters his name. This means Prigozhin is more toxic than Navalny, but “what riches could compensate for such a reputation?” Kashin asks.
Prigozhin’s two apparent reasons for attacking Navalny — retaliation for Navalny’s (1) investigative research into food poisoning at schools serviced by Concord catering, and (2) attempts to disrupt St. Petersburg politics — are relatively petty for a supposedly all-powerful oligarch.
Kashin says Prigozhin has acquired a reputation in the news media that, if true, would turn someone like Igor Sechin green with envy. But Kashin says it’s hard to imagine Igor Sechin going to such lengths for revenge against someone like Navalny. When Sechin feuds with rivals, like former Economic Development Minister Alexey Ulyukaev, the rivals end up in prison.
Prigozhin seems to be the exception to a trend that’s emerged in the past decade, Kashin argues. Revelations like the Panama Papers have shifted public attention from the “formal owners” of major businesses to the individuals really in charge of these assets. For some reason, however, people still believe Evgeny Prigozhin is as rich and powerful as he appears to be. Kashin says this privileged role is either Putin’s gift to Prigozhin or his punishment. In other words, Prigozhin is either an “international demiurge” or a “state scarecrow,” “sobbing as he stirs borscht in the Kremlin’s kitchen.”
In an op-ed for Republic, journalist Andrey Sinitsyn says unusually optimistic GDP growth figures from Rosstat show how divorced Russia’s official statistics have become from everyday realities. This is only natural, he argues, given that the Economic Development Ministry reports to the president, not the people. Ordinary Russians nevertheless know firsthand that their real income has been declining for the past six years.
Sinitsyn says the GDP numbers are part of a worrying trend in Russian economics, citing the Russian Education Academy’s recent rejection of a high-school textbook by Igor Lipsits after an expert review determined that the text lacked sufficient “patriotism” and praise for the salubrious effect “important substitution” has had on Russians’ national pride.
Drawing on “Why Nations Fail” by Acemoglu and Robinson and cultural historian Alexander Etkind’s concept of “super-extractive states,” Sinitsyn argues that citizens are becoming more superfluous in Russia, as the elites' dwindling wealth depends less and less on the welfare or health of the population.
Rosstat’s statistics, incidentally, are only as good as the numbers logged at the local level, which means they’re bad. In other words, Sinitsyn says, the experts really have no idea what’s going on in the country, which means Russians might be weathering economic hardships despite the best efforts of corrupt elites to bleed them dry.
Top stories from Russia’s news media
- ☦️ On February 6, the news agency TASS reported that supporters of the new unified Orthodox Church of Ukraine attacked a cathedral belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine’s Volyn region. The Insider’s Yuri Bershidsky says the local parish actually voted in January to transfer the cathedral to the new Ukrainian church, but the facility’s priest refused to surrender the keys. As a result, local officials were summoned to force the door open, which the Russian state media reported as a seizure by force.
- ⚖️ A 19-year-old man in Nizhny Novgorod named Mikhail Gerasimov is charged with “justifying terrorism” in comments he posted under a pseudonym on Vkontakte in late 2016 and early 2017 in support of the terrorist group ISIS. Gerasimov suffered brain damage as a child, and both his lawyers and state prosecutors agree that he should receive outpatient medical treatment, instead of incarceration. A local court has nevertheless ordered a linguistic analysis of his social media posts to determine his guilt, which is necessary in order to sentence him to mandatory psychiatric care.
- 👮 Moscow State University graduate student Azat Miftakhov, who is suspected of trying to plant a bomb on a gas pipeline outside the city, was released from jail on Thursday and immediately re-arrested in connection with another criminal investigation. Police believe Miftakhov helped vandalize United Russia’s Khovrino district Moscow office in January 2018. Meduza wrote about problems in the initial case against Miftakhov here.
- ⚖️ Prison administrators in Dimitrovgrad have filed defamation lawsuits against two local activists who keep picketing their offices, calling the warden a “torturer” and an “extortionist,” and comparing the facility to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. At the center of the protests is inmate Alexander Bobrov, a businessman convicted of selling illegal synthetic cannabinoids. His sister-in-law has taken up his case, which allegedly involves officials forcing Bobrov to spend 150,000 rubles ($2,275) of his own money to build a bakery for the prison, which led Bobrov to file complaints, resulting in abusive treatment by the guards.
- 🔗 Roskomsvoboda director Artem Kozlyuk calls into question claims by federal censor Roskomnadzor that Google has started cooperating with an Internet blacklist and has removed 70 percent of the websites banned in Russia from its search results. Kozlyuk says he’s still able to find hyperlinks to materials banned for propagating narcotics, suicide, and extremism, including the opposition news websites Kasparov.ru and Grani.ru. He was even able to find search results redirecting him to the Chechen rebel website Ichkeria.info. The only resources listed on Roskomnadzor’s registry that apparently aren’t available on Google Search are the same online piracy websites that Google blocks in accordance with its own company policy.
- 🤢 More than two dozen cadets at a military academy in Ulyanovsk have contracted tapeworms and been infected with echinococcosis. Russia’s Defense Ministry initially denied allegations of contaminated food, but local military investigators have now opened a criminal investigation into violations of sanitary regulations resulting in negligent mass infection. The cadets’ parents believe Defense Ministry officials are “hiding something.”
- 🐋 French oceanographic explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau is asking Russia to release the nearly dozen killer whales now trapped in a “whale prison” in Primorye. Yuri Trutnev, Vladimir Putin’s presidential envoy to Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District, told Cousteau to “mind his own business.” The region’s newly elected governor, Oleg Kozhemyako, previously assured the Kremlin that the situation is under control, though environmentalists say nothing has changed, and they fear the animals are being rounded up for sale to China. “There’s a line between the environment and the economy,” Trutnev told reporters on February 6. “And we must consider the country’s interests.”
BBC Russian Service
- ⚱️ Russian Special Operations Forces officer Maxim Pletnev was killed in combat in Syria on January 31, 2019, according to the man’s relatives, media reports, and a statement by local officials in the Krasnodar region, where Pletnev was born. The Defense Ministry, however, has said nothing about his death. Investigators at Conflict Intelligence Team were the first to report the casualty and confirm that Pletnev served in Russia’s Special Operations Force. Last month, the BBC reported the death of another Russian soldier in Syria named Andranik Arustamyan. Moscow has refused to comment on his death, as well.
- 🧳 After a long “power struggle,” Russia’s Federal Tourism Agency has a new director: Zarina Doguzova, who will leave her position as head of the president’s Public Relations Office, which is overseen by First Deputy Chief of Staff Alexey Gromov. Doguzova replaces Oleg Safonov, who was fired two days ago. Safonov’s appointment almost five years ago was “initiated” by Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky. Kommersant’s sources say Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets tried and failed to staff the position with Alexey Kasprzhak, the former head of the “Artek” international children’s center.
- 📠 Controversial “digital sovereignty” legislation is riddled with legal ambiguities, enormous implementation costs, and political toxicity, but the State Duma will review it on Monday, February 11, and a vote on its first reading could come as soon as February 12. Kommersant reports that the Duma’s Information Policy Committee is willing to move forward with the initiative on the understanding that the amendment process will be extensive.
- 🗳️ Officials in three regions holding gubernatorial elections this September are moving forward with initiatives to reform election laws in order to allow independent candidates to run for office. Outside Lipetsk, Chelyabinsk, and Kurgan, however, most of these races will be restricted to candidates endorsed by registered political parties.
- 🗳️ With no publicity whatsoever, regional lawmakers and the governor’s office in Kemerovo have abolished direct mayoral elections in two of the region’s biggest cities: Kemerovo and Novokuznetsk. Spokespeople for Governor Sergey Tsivilev told reporters that he “didn’t want to attract unnecessary attention.” The reforms were “hidden” in otherwise technical legislation, says Kommersant.
- 🔫 Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is playing down the arrest of Murad Saidov, an assistant to the Chechen government’s envoy in Crimea, Isa Khachukaev. This week, police in the town of Saky broke up a fight involving Saidov at a local restaurant. He was reportedly detained in possession of a firearm. On his Telegram channel, Kadyrov explained that Saidov has a permit for the weapon. The Chechen ruler says the business dispute that caused the fight will be resolved “fairly and in strict accordance with the law.” Chechen Press Minister Dzhambulat Umarov initially denied that Saidov has any connection to the Chechen government.