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The Real Russia. Today. Tortured Jehovah’s Witnesses, half of Russia's woman-billionaire population, and a lousy proposal to crack down on election monitoring

Source: Meduza

Thursday, February 21, 2019

This day in history: 24 years ago, on February 21, 1995, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (still a brunette) signed a cooperation agreement that became the foundation for the Union State of Russia and Belarus, which some believe Vladimir Putin might command in the future, in order to remain in power after 2024.
  • New details emerge on reported torture of Jehovah’s Witnesses
  • Kyiv’s Maidan, five years later: A photo essay
  • Meet Tatyana Bakalchuk, half of Russia's woman-billionaire population
  • After massive Moscow fight, FSB detains Muslim blogger for terrorism under strange circumstances
  • Killers of three Russian reporters in Africa reportedly came from eastern Ukraine's separatist region
  • Russian anti-corruption leader says a murderous family is plundering Karachay-Cherkessia
  • A Russian bill would ban election observers from traveling to regions outside their own. It’s a very bad idea.
  • Pro-Kremlin protesters interrupt discussion of World War II comedy at leading human rights organization
  • American investment manager Michael Calvey is being jailed in Moscow on fraud charges. One of his cellmates is charged with attempted murder.
  • New penalties for crime bosses receive unanimous approval in first Duma vote
  • A town in Bashkortostan has been partly engulfed in poisonous smog for months
  • Political scientist Vladimir Pastukhov says Putin's heart wasn't in the social-policy rhetoric of his latest national address
  • Military expert Pavel Felgenhauer says Russia deliberately ruined its missile shipment to China because the weapon isn't ready yet

From harassment to torture 👮

Following mass searches and arrests near the Siberian city of Surgut earlier this month, several Jehovah’s Witnesses being held in the city said they had been tortured by law enforcement officers. On February 20, seven adherents of the religious group, which is banned in Russia, reported that officers caused them prolonged pain in an effort to discover where the group met and who attended meetings as well as the identities of local elders.

Both the official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and individual adherents who were arrested said they were beaten, suffocated, and given electric shocks to their genitals. Among other sources, both TV Rain and OVD-Info interviewed Jehovah’s Witnesses and their attorneys to confirm that information in detail. OVD-Info’s report indicated that the group of 40 or so people arrested this month included minors. It also revealed that while those who said they were tortured sought medical help and asked for a record of their injuries to be created, their attorney, Dmitry Kolobov, said medical staff were insufficiently trained to locate electric shock marks and recorded large hematomas as minor bruises.

Russia’s Investigative Committee denied that members of Jehovah’s Witnesses had been tortured in Surgut. Officials said no member of the group had made an official complaint regarding torture and that because the organization is banned in Russia, reports of torture that appeared on its website should never have been published in the country.

The reports of torture come amid an ongoing crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. Officials at the highest levels of government have defended the country’s ban on the organization, and in other parts of Russia, efforts to prosecute its members or transfer its former property to the state are ongoing.

Kyiv’s Maidan, five years later

Yevgeny Feldman

On February 21, 2014, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich left Kyiv for Kharkiv and fled from there to Russia. At the time, Ukraine was in the throes of the largest social crisis in the country’s modern history. Anti-government protests had been ongoing in Kyiv since the previous November, and at the Maidan, or Independence Square, more than one hundred people were killed during clashes with the police. The consequences of that crisis included a burst of Russian interference, the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, the ongoing war in the Donbass region, and a major rupture in Russian-Ukrainian relations. In this photo essay, Meduza recalls the events that rocked Kyiv in the winter of 2013 – 2014.

See Meduza's photo essay here.

Introverted, daring, and very rich 💰

Tatyana and Vyacheslav Bakalchuk got into online trading to earn money for their infant son. Within three years, they were industry leaders. Their business, Wildberries, became Russia’s first online superstore. Today, it’s one of the four most valuable companies on the Russian Internet. Tatyana Bakalchuk is a deeply private person. She attributes her success to her ability to make risky decisions. 

Read Meduza's report here: “Meet Tatyana Bakalchuk, half of Russia's woman-billionaire population”

120,000 followers and a two-month arrest 👮

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has accused the blogger Alibek Mirzekhanov of participating in terrorism after Mirzekhanov was arrested following an enormous fight in the Moscow café Neolit. The FSB claims Mirzekhanov recruited fighters for the ongoing war in Syria. He was charged under two different statutes: one that regulates participation in terrorist organizations and can carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years along with a statute that penalizes the recruitment of terrorists and carries a sentence of up to 15 years.

Read Meduza's story here: “After massive Moscow fight, FSB detains Muslim blogger for terrorism under strange circumstances”

CAR talk 🌍

Pyotr Verzilov, the publisher of the investigative news site Mediazona and a member of the activist group Pussy Riot, made an announcement today regarding his investigation of the murders of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic. Verzilov said those who killed Orkhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastorguyev, and Kirill Radchenko on July 30 while the three were collecting footage on Russian mercenaries may have traveled to the Central African Republic from the Donbass region of Ukraine.

Read Meduza's story here.

The “Kardashians” of the North Caucasus 💰

A handful of powerful families control virtually all the resources allocated to Russia’s Karachay-Cherkess Republic, according to a report from Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK). The organization’s new research focuses on the Kaitov family, who Navalny says wield the same level of influence as the Arashukovs.

Read Meduza's summary of the report here: “Russian anti-corruption leader says a murderous family is plundering Karachay-Cherkessia”

A very bad idea 🗳️

Russian Duma deputy Mikhail Romanov has announced that the legislative body plans to introduce new limits on election observers under which observers would only be permitted to monitor elections within their own regions. Central Election Commission Deputy Chair Nikolai Bulaev agreed that limiting the observation of regional elections to people who are eligible to vote in a given region would be a good idea. Meduza asked Grigory Melkonyants, the co-chair of the “Golos” (“Voice”) movement, to explain why observers travel to elections in regions outside their own and what dangers the new Duma bill might bring about.

Read Meduza's story here: “A Russian bill would ban election observers from traveling to regions outside their own”

Don't joke 📽️

On February 20, the Moscow office of the major human rights research and advocacy organization Memorial International held a discussion of the recent comedy film Holiday, which offers a controversial take on the Siege of Leningrad that caused hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties during World War II. (Meduza reviewed the film here.) According to social media posts by Memorial representatives, a group of people interrupted the discussion shortly after it began. Many of them were wearing the Ribbon of Saint George, a symbol that memorializes Soviet participation in World War II but has also been adopted by Russian nationalists and Kremlin loyalists.

Read Meduza's story here.

Calvey's cellmates 😬

Human rights officials have identified procedural violations in the pretrial detention of Michael Calvey, the American investment manager arrested last week on controversial fraud charges. According to Ivan Melnikov, the executive secretary of Moscow’s Public Monitoring Commission, Calvey is being held in an eight-bunk cell that also includes a man who allegedly tried to murder a judge, despite the fact that Russian penitentiary regulations require the separate housing of potentially violent offenders and economic crimes suspects. Philippe Delpal, another Baring Vostok partner and foreign citizen arrested in the same case, is being held in a four-bunk jail cell.

Melnikov says Calvey and Delpal have not filed any complaints against the conditions of their detainment, but officials still haven’t provided Calvey with the second mattress he needs for his bad back.

Take a bite outta crime 👍

A new bill introduced by Russian President Vladimir Putin to the country’s State Duma has passed its first reading and been accepted for consideration with a vote of 406 – 0. The bill would officially criminalize holding a high rank in the hierarchy of a criminal organization, an act that currently merits no special punishment in Russian criminal law.

The proposal must now pass second and third readings in the Duma before it becomes law. During that process, changes and amendments may be made to the bill, which currently proposes a prison sentence of 8 – 15 years for criminal leaders.

Meduza recently asked journalist Tatiana Zverintseva, who worked on the organized crime beat for many years, to answer a few basic questions about this underworld. Read the story here: “How ‘the Russian mafia’ came to be”

Beautiful poison 😷

Cough cough. Since last November, that’s been life for many people in Sibay, a town in Bashkortostan partly engulfed in poisonous smog. The pollution is coming from a nearby quarry owned by billionaire Iskander Makhmudov’s Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company. A decade after excavations ended, the ore in the quarry is now oxidizing and releasing sulphur dioxide into the air. Locals suddenly suffering from respiratory problems say they’ve had trouble seeking compensation for medical bills, because doctors refuse to diagnose them with chemical poisoning.

Sibay officials have responded by dividing the town into “zones” based on proximity to the quarry, with top priority going to residents living within 500 meters (about 1,640 feet) of the site. Children in this area have been offered trips to health spas in Crimea, though the competition for this treatment has been fierce and not entirely transparent. Kids living more than 1,000 meters from the quarry are on their own. In early February, a local court convicted the town’s authorities of failing to warn the population in time about the environmental danger. (City Hall is challenging this ruling.)

In late January, industrial fans were installed to disperse the smog on windless days, and in early February four mining groups opted to flood the quarry to stop the ore oxidation. That will take until late March.

Opinion and analysis

💬 Pastukhov isn't impressed with Putin's guns-and-butter planning

In an op-ed for Republic, political scientist Vladimir Pastukhov says Vladimir Putin’s address this week to the Federal Assembly resembles an “application extension” for his regime. Pastukhov credits chief of staff Anton Vaino with getting the president to focus on social policies in the speech, but Pastukhov says this is a “false semantic center.” Putin’s real interest remains the status quo at home, buoyed by militaristic rhetoric against the West, despite evidence that Russians’ public consciousness isn’t as militarized as the Kremlin hoped in 2018, when Putin filled his State of the Nation speech with short films about missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

Pastukhov says the Kremlin’s leadership strategy appears to rely on “bombs and money”: bombs to scare the West, and money to “flood” problems at home. But WMDs won’t win Russia any breakthroughs internationally, Pastukhov warns, and money has a tendency to run out — especially when you’re busy with domestic crackdowns and foreign confrontations.

🚀 Felgenhauer says Russia deliberately ruined its missile shipment to China

In an op-ed for Novaya Gazeta, military expert Pavel Felgenhauer speculates that Russia deliberately botched a delivery of new long-range missiles to China, arguing that the weapons probably aren’t yet operational, and Moscow needed to buy time and save face. The new missiles are supposed to add long-range capabilities to the S-400 anti-aircraft systems already deployed in China.

Felgenhauer points out that the rockets were inexplicably shipped by sea along a treacherous, circuitous route, when it would have been logical to deliver the weapons by rail. Either way, the missiles should have been inside hermetically sealed containers, making Rostec’s claims about water damage especially suspicious. The soonest Russia can manufacture and deliver replacement missiles is late 2020.

Felgenhauer says phony damage reports designed to buy time for delayed military projects is a practice that dates back to the Soviet era. A more recent development, however, is the reversed hardware dependency between Moscow and Beijing, brought about by the intense Western sanctions imposed on Russia over the past five years.

(A correction from yesterday) 🤷‍♂️

Yours, Meduza