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The Real Russia. Today. NTV co-founder Igor Malashenko dies, Kremlin disputes latest Michael Calvey rumors, and Novaya Gazeta censors op-ed about S-400 missiles

Meduza

Monday, February 25, 2019

This day in history: 27 years ago today, on February 25, 1992, President Boris Yeltsin formed Roscosmos by executive decree. The space agency's current director is Dmitry Rogozin, former deputy prime minister and firebrand ambassador to NATO.
  • Igor Malashenko, the founder of Russia’s first independent TV station, dies at 64
  • Kremlin press secretary rejects reports that Putin defended the case against U.S. investor Michael Calvey
  • Investment firm Baring Vostok asks Putin to ‘take personal control’ of the criminal case against its partners
  • Kremlin press secretary’s daughter scores internship with right-wing European Parliament member
  • Following Putin comments, pro-Kremlin pundits gleefully (and incorrectly) imagine a missile strike against the U.S.
  • Russian newspaper deletes article by defense analyst who accused Moscow of sabotaging long-range missile shipment to China
  • Parents say a Russian pediatrician gave kids fake vaccines and tests for years
  • Another Russian federal agent is attacked in the street
  • Fact check: is Russia too big to use an online voting system?
  • Vedomosti editorial implies that Alexey Navalny doesn't measure up to Boris Nemtsov
  • Top news reported at Novaya Gazeta and Kommersant

“His fate is the fate of Russian history” ⚱️

On February 25, Igor Malashenko passed away in Spain. Malashenko, a major media figure, was the co-founder and general director of the television station NTV. After completing a doctorate in philosophy and working briefly as a political scientist, Malashenko began his media career in the 1990s, working not only as the director of the Ostankino media center and of NTV, Russia’s first independent television station, but also as the leading aide in Boris Yeltsin’s presidential campaign. After 2001, Malashenko left Russia, and until 2009, he directed the channel RTVI. In the months leading up to Russia’s 2018 presidential election, he also became a campaign director for the celebrity journalist and controversial opposition candidate Ksenia Sobchak. Meduza asked those who had worked with Malashenko in various stages of his life to share their memories.

Read the story here: “Igor Malashenko, the founder of Russia’s first independent TV station, dies at 64”

Michael and the Funky Bunch

⚖️ Personal control to ensure independence

The investment firm Baring Vostok has published an open letter to Vladimir Putin, asking the president to “take personal control of the criminal case” against Michael Calvey and five other suspects, “in order to ensure a comprehensive, independent, and objective investigation.”

Published in both Russian and English, the text states that the charges against Calvey and his supposed accomplices were “launched in the midst of a commercial conflict related to Vostochny Bank.” The company argues that the defendants are “accused of offenses in connection with the execution of normal management functions at a commercial organization.” Baring Vostok also protests the suspects’ imprisonment, pointing out that it contradicts Russia's declining use of jail as a form of pre-trial detention “for cases related to commercial activities.”

  • In mid-February, federal agents arrested Michael Calvey, the U.S. founder of the private equity group Baring Vostok, and five other suspects: Baring Vostok partner Vagan Abgaryan, financial industry partner and French citizen Philippe Delpal, investment director Ivan Zyuzin, PKB CEO Maxim Vladimirov, and Alexey Kordichev, an adviser to Norvik Banka’s board chairman and the former director of Vostochny Bank. The men are charged with violating Criminal Code Article 159, Section 4, which concerns “large-scale fraud committed by an organized group.” The offense carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence.

👮 A fact-based presidency

Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary to Vladimir Putin, said the Russian president did not defend the country’s prosecution of American citizen Michael Calvey, who leads the major investment fund Baring Vostok.

On February 25, Bloomberg reported that Putin had made statements in a closed meeting several days before that appeared to justify Calvey’s arrest. Putin reportedly said that while he did not personally approve the arrest in advance, the accusations against Calvey could not be ignored and may justify putting the investor in custody. When asked later that day whether Putin had in fact justified Calvey’s arrest, Peskov answered, “Unequivocally no. The president was stating the facts. He did not state any preferences of his own.”

The intern 🥐

Yelizaveta Peskova, the daughter of Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov, has found work as an intern in the European Parliament. The television channel Nastoyashchee Vremya discovered her position on February 25.

Peskova is registered as an intern in the office of the French deputy Aymeric Chauprade, a former member of France’s National Front party who has since joined an independent group of right-wing populist politicians in the European Parliament. Chauprade himself confirmed that Peskova worked in his office, saying that although she is “the daughter of an important Russian figure,” she has as much right to an internship as any other student.

Not so fast, Russian hypersonic missiles 📺

In his annual State of the Nation address, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his government is preparing a response to the possible transfer of American missiles to Europe, where “their flight time to Moscow could be as low as 10 – 12 minutes.” Putin said a symmetrical response would not only target rocket launchers; it would target “the territories where decisions are made to deploy missile complexes that threaten us.”

Read Meduza's story: “Following Putin comments, pro-Kremlin pundits gleefully (and incorrectly) imagine a missile strike against the U.S.”

Pavel Felgengonzo the Disappearing Columnist 🚀

Last week, Meduza summarized a column by Pavel Felgenhauer that appeared in Novaya Gazeta on February 21 where the defense analyst accused Moscow of sabotaging a shipment to China of 40N6 very-long-range missiles for the S-400 air-defense system. (Felgenhauer believes the weapons aren’t ready yet.) That text has since disappeared without explanation from the newspaper, though it’s been republished at several other websites. (You can still read it here, for example, but the original hyperlink leads to a “404 Not Found” error, and Novaya Gazeta’s most recent published article by Felgenhauer is currently from February 9.)

In her weekly radio show on Ekho Moskvy, fellow Novaya Gazeta columnist Yulia Latynina expressed similar doubts about the bungled missile delivery, though she didn’t mention Felgenhauer’s article or say outright that the Russian authorities deliberately damaged the cargo.

Follow the ships

On February 20, the website Fontanka reported that the S-400 system components were apparently shipped to China on at least three vessels, and two of these ships traveled routes that show signs of “bizarre tampering.” All three ships left from Ust-Luga, situated on the coast of the Gulf of Finland. The first ship, “Ocean Lord,” left on December 19, 2017, and reached Tianjin, China, on February 9, 2018. Next up was the “Nikifor Begichev,” which left on December 30 and hit a storm in the English Channel on January 3, before returning to Ust-Luga on January 9. This is reportedly how China’s 40N6 missiles were damaged beyond repair.

A third ship called “Ocean Power” left Ust-Luga on January 5, but then returned to port almost immediately, probably because of the storm. On January 26, the Ocean Power’s registration was changed from Liberian to Russian and renamed “Adler.” Four days later, it set out for Greece, but on February 12 it changed course for the Suez Canal and eventually reached Tianjin. In March, the Nikifor Begichev followed the same route, passing through the Suez Canal on April 20 and reaching Tianjin on May 16, 2018.

These shipments are apparently what triggered U.S. sanctions on September 20, 2018, against the Chinese entity Equipment Development Department and its director, Li Shangfu, “for engaging in significant transactions” involving “S-400 surface-to-air missile system-related equipment.”

Follow the money

According to Fontanka, the two ships that weren’t caught in the February 2018 storm (Ocean Lord, now called “World Carrier,” and Adler) are operated by the “Baltic Trans-Port” company, whose co-owner and CEO, Alexander Malakhov, is also head of the “Eladi” company, which belongs to an offshore business that is owned by Rostec. Malakhov was removed as head of Eladi on February 14, 2019, just days before Rostec head Sergey Chemezov revealed at a defense exhibition in Abu Dhabi that China’s shipment of 40N6 missiles was damaged and replacements wouldn’t be delivered until late 2020. (Moscow and Beijing signed the S-400 arms deal back in 2014.)

For years, unverified rumors have circulated in Russia that Chemezov secretly funds and keeps afloat Novaya Gazeta. In May 2017, then chief editor Dmitry Muratov flatly denied that his newspaper received any money from either Rostec or Chemezov.

Fontanka speculates that the Baltic Trans-Port company chartered the Nikifor Begichev at the request of Rosoboronexport, Russia's state arms exporter.

On February 20, 2019, Russia’s state media reported that the arms manufacturer Almaz-Antey has started receiving insurance compensation for the missiles damaged aboard the Nikifor Begichev. A month earlier, the Moscow Arbitration Court registered two lawsuits by Rosoboronexport against Baltic Trans-Port for a combined $166.6 million in damaged freight. The hearings are closed to the public. The defense-industry insurer “Independent Insurance Group” (NSG) is seeking an additional 31.7 million rubles ($485,775) from Baltic Trans-Port in a St. Petersburg court. NSG is also suing another company called “Neva-Transport-Trading” (NTT) for an identical sum of money. Rosoboronexport is trying to sue NTT, as well, for $86 million, but the Moscow Arbitration Court hasn’t yet accepted the case. NTT’s founder, Sergey Morozov, is reportedly close with Georgy Poltavchenko, St. Petersburg’s former governor.

The life and lies of Yevgeny Likunov 👨‍⚕️

On February 21, several Moscow doctors publicly announced a set of frightening accusations made against one of their colleagues, the pediatrician Yevgeny Likunov. The parents of Likunov’s former patients accused him of fraud: they said the pediatrician forged their children’s test results and gave them fake vaccines either by merely pretending to perform injections or by using an insulin syringe to inject saline solution instead of an actual vaccine. Meduza spoke with Likunov’s colleagues and patients and discovered that he has been deceiving patients for several years, all while hosting talk shows about health and appearing in the news media as a medical expert.

Read Meduza's story here: “Parents say a Russian pediatrician gave kids fake vaccines and tests for years”

A dangerous job 👮

Someone in Moscow walked up to a federal agent on February 24, punched him in the face, and stole his wallet. According to the Moskva news agency, the 41-year-old victim serves as a Federal Security Service (FSB) local department chief in Khabarovsk. He says the attacker ran away with his badge, bank card, and 24,000 rubles (about $370) in cash. Local police are still trying to identify the assailant.

Earlier in February, unknown men in Moscow attacked FSB Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Budagotsky, throwing a bottle at his service vehicle and then beating him up. Budagotsky serves in the agency’s “Department K,” which investigates economic crimes.

  • Attacks against Russian federal agents aren't as rare as you might think. In the 2000s, for example, Russian intelligence officers were attacked and robbed almost constantly. You can read more about that in Meduza special correspondent Daniil Turovsky's history of the Military Intelligence Directorate.

Is Russia too big to use an online voting system? 🗳️

The claim

The news agency Zakon (The Law) reported that the head of Russia’s Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, asserted that Russia would be unable to use an electronic voting system like Estonia’s due to the large number of time zones in the country. Meduza was unable to find a record of Pamfilova’s exact words. However, while reporting on an official hearing in St. Petersburg where Pamfilova gave a public address, Zakon paraphrased her statement as follows: “Pamfilova on electronic voting: Estonia is the only country where this strategy has been successful. In Russia, where we have 11 time zones and a ton of other problems, we definitely wouldn’t be able to do things like Estonia. It wouldn’t be effective for us.”

The facts

A large number of time zones would be no obstacle to deploying a voting system modeled on Estonia’s. In that country, citizens can vote through the Internet only if they vote early, and they have seven days (153 hours) to make their decision during that period. Early voting ends several days before regular voting in physical voting sites. The online voting period typically closes on a Wednesday evening to give election commissions enough time to make a record of those who have already cast their vote using that system before in-person begins over the weekend. In order to protect voters from potential outside pressure, those who vote online can change their decision as many times as they would like, but only during the course of those seven days.

It seems that Ella Pamfilova simply doesn’t know how absentee online voting works in Estonia. In the past, figures like Alexey Venediktov, a member of Russia’s Civic Chamber and the editor-in-chief of the Echo of Moscow radio station, have offered to research Estonia’s system in depth and potentially adapt it for the Russian government. The Central Election Commission has agreed to conduct an experimental round of online voting in a single Moscow precinct during the Russian capital’s city council elections in the fall of 2019.

You're no Nemtsov, Navalny 🕯️

A new editorial by the newspaper Vedomosti argues that the fourth anniversary of Boris Nemtsov’s assassination, which demonstrators marked over the weekend with marches across the country, drew relatively small crowds nationwide, but “what matters” is that Nemtsov’s memory continues to be a rallying cry for disparate political groups. Vedomosti’s editors stress Nemtsov’s success as a communicator capable of compromise. In an apparently veiled criticism of Alexey Navalny, who is often described as the informal leader of Russia’s anti-Kremlin opposition today, the newspaper laments that no politician since Nemtsov has demonstrated the ability to “moderate their own chieftain ambitions.”

Top stories from Russia’s news media

Novaya Gazeta

  • 👮 Yulia Polukhina writes about how members of the militant “patriotic” group “United Popular Community Partnerships” (“ENOT,” or “Racoon”) were active in eastern Ukraine, before losing their “handler” support among Russia’s state officialdom and oligarchy. The group briefly rebounded after major hostilities in the Donbass ended, cooperating with the Investigative Committee and FSB on counter-terrorism and anti-mafia cases, but members later started being charged in criminal cases, including a racketeering investigation in Krasnodar that Polukhina says promises to be “big.” She believes ENOT has lost its influential handlers, and members have become police targets because they retain “information” about how Russia’s special forces work, how Moscow smuggles contraband in wartime, and how it finances its “military patriotic projects.”

Kommersant

  • 🔗 The State Duma’s Information Policy Committee wants to remove a proposal from Russia’s controversial “Internet isolation” bill that would nationalize the Coordination Center for TLD RU, the national registry for the .RU and .PФ domains. The legislation’s steering committee argues that it’s unnecessary to grant Roskomnadzor or another federal agency control over the domain registry, because Russia’s Communications Ministry is already represented in the RuNet’s Coordination Center, giving the state sufficient influence and an existing “backup domain name registry.” According to The Bell, the revision to the legislation’s second reading would be largely “tactical”: the law would still create an Internet monitoring and control center. On the other hand, maintaining the Coordination Center’s general independence would preserve a system not created for isolationist purposes.

Yours, Meduza