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The Real Russia. Today. A third Salisbury suspect, Prigozhin takes down another journalist, and the lives of Russian sex workers today

Source: Meduza

Friday, February 8, 2019

This day in history (64 years ago): On February 8, 1955, Georgy Malenkov was forced to resign as chairman of the USSR's Council of Ministers for abusing his power and taking too long to rehabilitate political prisoners. Malenkov's successor, Nikolai Bulganin, would lose the job three years later to Nikita Khrushchev.
  • Investigative journalists link third Salisbury attack suspect to poisoning of Bulgarian arms dealer
  • Former editor at Russian state news agency says she was forced to resign after her investigative report linked contaminated school lunches to ‘Putin's chef’
  • Russia’s federal investigative bureau is putting a 10-foot statue of St. Michael the Archangel outside its headquarters
  • The lives of Russia's sex workers today
  • Opinion and analysis: Evgeny Karasyuk says Russian entrepreneurs are too eager to use the state to cut corners, and Oleg Kashin says terrorism is the new extremism

Novichok, again 😷

Investigative journalists at The Insider and Bellingcat have released another joint report this time about a third suspect in the March 2018 nerve-agent attack on former Russian military intelligence (GRU) agent Sergey Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. The evidence reportedly points to a man named “Sergey Fedotov” who apparently works for Russian intelligence. Several years before the Salisbury incident, Fedotov allegedly tried to poison Bulgarian arms dealer Emelyan Gebrev using a Novichok-class nerve agent.

The St. Petersburg news outlet Fontanka first reported Fedotov’s name in October 2018. On February 6, 2019, The Telegraph’s sources confirmed his involvement in the Salisbury attack. The Insider and Bellingcat say “Sergey Fedotov” is a cover name, and his invented patronymic is “Vyacheslavovich.”

The journalists say Fedotov received his agent identity in 2010, like the two known Salisbury attack suspects, “Alexander Petrov” and “Ruslan Boshirov,” whom The Insider and Bellingcat say are really GRU officers Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, respectively. Fedotov then traveled extensively throughout Europe and Central Asia. According to Fontanka, he was in Prague in 2014 at the same time as Chepiga and Mishkin, and in London in 2018, when the Skripals were poisoned. The Telegraph’s sources also claim that Fedotov was in Great Britain on the day of the nerve-agent attack. He had a plane ticket to leave the country on the same flight as Chepiga and Mishkin, but for some reason he never boarded the aircraft.

According to The Insider and Bellingcat, Fedotov also traveled to Bulgaria in either 2014 or 2015 (the investigation shows different dates). On April 24, he arrived from Moscow in the resort city of Burgas with a return ticket for April 30. By the evening of April 28, however, Fedotov was already in Istanbul, where he purchased a plane ticket back to Moscow. Earlier that day, Bulgarian arms dealer Emelyan Gebrev was suddenly hospitalized in the city of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, collapsing at a reception. At roughly the same time, Gebrev’s son and one of his company’s top executives also fell ill.

All three men were taken to the hospital with severe poisoning symptoms. The University of Helsinki Laboratory, which specializes in chemical weapons, detected traces of two organophosphates in Gebrev’s blood, suggesting that someone tried to kill him with a Novichok-class nerve agent, The Insider and Bellingcat say. It’s unclear if the same substances were found in samples from the two other patients.

A month later, Emelyan Gebrev regained consciousness and his condition started improving. In May, however, he began getting sick again. The Insider and Bellingcat say this turn for the worse coincided with another Fedotov visit to Bulgaria. The suspected Russian intelligence agent arrived in the country for three days and once again changed his return itinerary at the last minute.

Gebrev survived the poisoning. He told The Insider and Bellingcat that there are two reasons he might be a target for the GRU: (1) his company has supplied arms to Ukraine, and (2) Russia might “have designs” on his weapons factory.

Pack your bags 🤢

Journalist Darya Burlakova says she completed an investigative report for TASS about food services in Moscow’s public schools and kindergartens, but the Russian state news agency refused to publish the text because it mentioned Evgeny Prigozhin and his catering company “Concord.”

The independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta later agreed to publish Burlakova’s report, but her supervisors at TASS told her she would need to resign, she says, if her name appeared in the byline. “When I refused to deal in ultimatums and asked not to be bothered with further unlawful job requirements, I was soon invited in an altogether different tone to terminate our cooperation voluntarily on terms that suited me,” Burlakova explained in a blog post published on Ekho Moskvy’s website, adding that she stepped down as an editor at TASS in January 2019.

In the report published by Novaya Gazeta on February 8, Burlakova describes how Prigozhin’s firms got into the business of catering Moscow’s public schools and kindergartens. Students’ parents have criticized the meals provided by Prigozhin’s companies, calling it “inflight food” that’s prepared remotely and reheated at the schools. Parents also say there is a lack of alternatives for students with food allergies and lactose intolerance.

A source also told Novaya Gazeta that Prigozhin’s catering empire provided food services at campaign events in March 2018 for Vladimir Putin’s re-election effort, and at a shopping center in Red Square during the New Year’s holidays.

In December 2018, nearly 130 children at seven kindergartens in Moscow’s South-Eastern Administrative District contracted dysentery. Russia’s Agency for Health and Consumer Rights tracked the infection to contaminated cottage cheese supplied from the Lipetsk region. Concord’s spokespeople confirm that the dairy supplier in question has worked with Evgeny Prigozhin’s company in the past, but Concord says it no longer does business with this particular enterprise.

Human lawlessness, tremble 👼

Veterans of Russia’s federal Investigative Committee (SK) plan to install a 10-foot-tall statue of the archangel Michael outside the bureau’s headquarters in Moscow. The SK’s current director, Alexander Bastrykin, has already given his official support to the plan to honor his agency’s patron saint.

The cost of the project has been estimated at 13 million rubles (nearly $200,000), and SK officials have agreed to collect some those funds from the agency’s current employees. While an official letter regarding the statue’s construction emphasized that donations would be voluntary, one SK division head has already announced that his employees voted unanimously to set aside 0.5 percent of their budgets for the statue’s construction. Officials wrote that each willing employee’s donation would amount to approximately 1,500 rubles (almost $23).

Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church named St. Michael the Archangel the patron of the Investigative Committee in 2016. SK officials explained that Michael is the foremost representative of the struggle against human lawlessness in the Christian tradition, while the SK is responsible for initiating and investigating criminal cases throughout the Russian Federation.

Off the streets and into the frying pan 💄

According to different estimates, there are between one and three million sex workers in Russia today. Compared to two decades ago, the industry also has a new look. Most prostitutes have moved indoors, finding their clients online instead of on street corners. The women are generally older (in St. Petersburg, the average age is 32), and a whopping 90 percent are mothers. Prostitution remains illegal, however, which exposes this labor force to additional violence, disease, and corruption. In a special report for the BBC’s Russian-language service, correspondent Nina Nazarova spoke to several Russian sex workers and a handful of human rights advocates who are trying to improve conditions for prostitutes in Russia.

Read Meduza's summary here: “The lives of Russia's sex workers today”

Opinion and analysis

✂️ Karasyuk says Russian businesspeople are too eager to cut corners

In an article for Republic, journalist Evgeny Karasyuk argues that Russian entrepreneurs’ tendency to “cut corners” in market solutions by appealing directly to President Putin is reducing economic freedom and making business dependent on the state.

Karasyuk points to a forum this week where business leader Anna Nesterova asked Putin about “acquirer processing fees” for debit cards, complaining that they are prohibitively high. The president agreed with her, despite the fact that his government and the Central Bank have done nothing about the issue. But now Putin’s comments have prompted the Federal Antimonopoly Service to move against these fees, and both banks and retailers can expect new transparency requirements. As a result, Russian bankers worry the government’s interference will disrupt the delicate, complex billing system that’s emerged between counter-parties, endangering Russia’s recent progress away from cash.

Karasyuk says the lobbying around these processing fees demonstrates how Russian businesspeople try to sidestep market negotiations that take decades in Europe and the U.S., which leads to self-induced outrage about the Kremlin’s invasive “manual control.”

👮 Kashin says it's up to Moscow to stop the latest police craze

In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Oleg Kashin warns that the case against journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva in Pskov could signal a new wave of criminal prosecutions in Russia. Kashin argues that police are responding to the partial decriminalization of online “extremist” speech by charging “thought criminals” with “justifying terrorism” instead. Pskov has emerged as a testing grounds for this new police practice, which could become a national phenomenon, if Moscow doesn’t intervene.

Kashin says Prokopyeva’s current affiliation with the U.S.-government-funded news outlet Radio Liberty makes her a useful public scapegoat as an “American propagandist,” but she built her reputation as a journalist at Pskov Gubernia, a local newspaper that has reached national audiences with independent reporting about Russian paratroopers who fought and died in eastern Ukraine. Kashin also defends Prokopyeva’s supposedly illegal comments about the October 31 Arkhangelsk FSB office bombing, arguing that she “delicately” explored how Russia’s heavy-handed approach to state security (fabricating terrorism cases and torturing suspects) provokes real terrorist attacks. Searching for the causes of terrorism isn’t tantamount to justifying terrorism, Kashin says.

Like the prosecutions of Yuri Dmitriev in Karelia and Oyub Titiev in Chechnya (but not like the “Kirovles” case against Navalny), the charges against Prokopyeva appear to be a local initiative, Kashin believes. “There’s no use in suspecting Russia’s power vertical of excessive organization,” he says. “It has plenty of chaos and room [to maneuver].” If the Kremlin doesn’t intervene to stop Prokopyeva from going to prison, however, “justifying terrorism” cases will spread beyond Pskov to the rest of the country. Citing terrorism-related investigations against the “Novoe Velichie” and “Set’” groups, and now Moscow graduate student Azat Miftakhov, Kashin says the trend might already be spreading. Russia doesn’t have precedent law, he warns, but it does have “selective enforcement.”

Yours, Meduza