The Real Russia. Today. Online voting is coming, Baring Vostok's politics are in question, and Russia's top investigator is beaming with pride
Friday, March 1, 2019
This day in history: Say goodbye to the “militsiya” and hello to the “politsiya.” Eight years ago today, on March 1, 2011, an executive order by President Dmitry Medvedev took effect, reforming and renaming Russia's cops.
- Online voting and other reforms are coming to Russia in September. Opposition politicians are skeptical.
- Putin’s press secretary pushes back against reports that Baring Vostok firm funded opposition movements
- Russia’s top investigator is very proud of the justice system's low acquittal rate, and it’s actually just half of what he thinks
- Officials arrest suspected teenage terrorist in Khabarovsk whose classmate gunned down two federal agents in 2017
- Belarusian president raises possibility of common currency with Russia
- Russian TV channel invites Trump and Maduro doppelgangers to comment on Trump and Maduro
- Columnist Irek Murtazin questions the Sergey Mikhailov and Ruslan Stoyanov convictions
- Top news reported at BBC Russian Service, The Bell, Kommersant, and RBC
Just before Russia’s most recent presidential elections in 2018, several fundamental changes were made to the country’s election laws. Absentee ballots were replaced with the so-called Mobile Voter system, which allowed voters to switch precincts ahead of the election either online or in person. Both election observers and opposition politicians immediately criticized the new system. Less than one year later, Russian authorities have decided to introduce two new absentee voting systems, including opportunities for online voting. Meduza summarizes these new proposals, which are set to take effect as early as September 2019.
Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary for Russian president Vladimir Putin, has responded to reports that financial charges against the investment firm Baring Vostok and its American leader, Michael Calvey, might have followed suspicions that the firm funded Russian opposition groups. The independent television station Dozhd reported earlier on an anonymous source close to the Kremlin who said the firm had funded opposition efforts in advance of Russia’s most recent presidential election.
In response, Peskov told Vedomosti, “I didn’t know about these suspicions. This is the first I’m hearing about it.” Baring Vostok representatives also refuted the reports, writing, “It’s possible that somebody has found it advantageous to present this situation in some other way, but this is a commercial conflict. The employees of Baring Vostok are innocent, and the courts will affirm this.”
“The annual level of acquittals in cases brought by the Investigative Committee is about 0.5 percent. Investigative Committee Director Alexander Bastrykin cited this as evidence of the stability and quality of his agency’s work,” says the headline and subheading of a story reported by the news agency TASS about a forum on March 1 where the Investigative Committee reviewed its work in 2018.
Interfax reported the same, writing that “Bastrykin considers [Russia’s] low acquittal rate to be a sign of the Federal Investigative Committee’s efficiency.” The news agency attributes the following quote to Bastrykin: “The numbers speak for themselves. In 2018, there were 516 people acquitted. That amounts to 0.51 percent of the total volume of our investigative work.” RIA Novosti reported a similar Bastrykin quote: “Of 108,000 criminal cases that were sent to the courts by the Investigative Committee, there were just 516 acquittals, which amounts to 0.51 percent of the total volume of our investigative work.” (Other news agencies reported Bastrykin’s statement without mentioning specific numbers, perhaps because 516 of 108,000 is 0.48 percent, not 0.51 percent.)
For starters: The assumption that acquittal rates reflect the quality of investigative work is fundamentally flawed. Officials at the highest levels of Russia’s justice system have acknowledged that formally independent courts often accept blindly whatever prosecutors argue. Some convictions are based on confessions obtained through torture. Also, prosecutors might not even take bungled investigations to trial, if they fear a not-guilty verdict. In other words, the quality of the work performed by Bastrykin’s agency is assessed before it ever reaches a judge or jury.
Aside from the obvious pitfalls of Bastrykin’s logic (see above), the Investigative Committee director’s numbers are wrong. According to statistics released by the Supreme Court’s Justice Department, Russian courts heard criminal cases against 497,141 people in just the first six months of 2018, acquitting 1,044 suspects (0.21 percent). In 2017, the courts acquitted 0.28 percent of all defendants in criminal cases.
In other words, according to Alexander Bastrykin’s success metric (the lower the acquittal rate, the better the agency’s work), the Investigative Committee’s numbers indicate job performance that’s roughly twice as bad as the Supreme Court would have you believe.
On February 21 in Khabarovsk, federal agents detained 18-year-old Alexander Onufrienko on charges of plotting a terrorist attack. The case is being handled by the regional branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB), which has not commented officially on the arrest.
The first reports about Onufrienko’s arrest appeared on the Telegram channel Baza on February 23. Sources told the outlet that the Khabarovsk student planned to commit mass murder at his former school. The Telegram channel later clarified that local 18-year-old Alexander Onufrienko had been preparing the attack for some time: when searching his home, officers discovered a 16-gauge sawed-off shotgun and 96 rounds. Sources told Baza that Onufrienko worshipped the Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Breivik as a role model.
On February 28, Meduza confirmed that Khabarovsk’s Central District Court jailed Onufrienko in pretrial detention on February 22. The court’s website doesn’t mention his case, but a spokesperson told Meduza that Onufrienko’s hearing was not closed to the public.
Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko revealed new details during a press conference regarding recent negotiations with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Lukashenko said the two state leaders discussed transferring their economies to a common currency under the legal framework of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. The Union was formed in 1995 and has since been a source of hope for those who would like the two countries to be fully reunited as a single state. Since then, the Union’s precise nature has remained vague, but some commentators have speculated that Putin could use the structure to retain power after the end of his current term in 2024.
Several attempts to create a common currency for Russia and Belarus failed in the 2000s. However, Lukashenko said he and Putin had discussed the possibility in recent talks. “[Putin] says rhetorically, ‘Look, of course, this would be a ruble.’ I say, ‘Of course, a ruble. We have a ruble, and you have a ruble. Why switch to a thaler? A ruble! But that’s not the question. This would not be a Russian ruble or a Belarusian ruble; it would be our shared ruble if it comes about,” Lukashenko explained.
Lukashenko also said Putin suggested that the printing center for this hypothetical currency could be based in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. “Why not have it in Petersburg? It’s the Russian president’s hometown and my favorite city,” Lukashenko said in return.
Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov affirmed that current treaties between Russia and Belarus would allow for the active creation of a Union State and a common currency but also agreed that current discussions on the matter remain hypothetical.
AFP correspondent Maria Antonova has noted that the Russian state-owned channel Rossiya-24 occasionally broadcasts interviews with expert commentators who look suspiciously similar to world leaders.
The TV station invites these guests to discuss current events such as interference in Venezuelan politics and legal accusations against U.S. president Donald Trump. The expert invited to speak on Venezuela was Alexey Leonkov, an editor at the magazine Arsenal Otechestva. In its segment on Trump, the station posed questions to Eduard Lozansky, the president of the American University of Moscow. Antonova pointed out that Leonkov is similar to Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro while Lozansky’s appearance is reminiscent of Donald Trump’s.
The resulting scenes on air are striking. See them here.
In an “investigative report” for Novaya Gazeta (really it's more of an op-ed), columnist Irek Murtazin questions news that Sergey Mikhailov and Ruslan Stoyanov were convicted of treason for selling case materials to the FBI from an investigation that resulted in a 2.5-year prison sentence for Internet spammer Pavel Vrublevsky. Murtazin suggests that the former Federal Security Service Information Security Center chief and former Kaspersky Lab cybersecurity expert were more likely convicted of treason for sharing intelligence about Russia’s cyberattacks on U.S. political institutions — intelligence that identified some of the hackers responsible. (The Bell reported these allegations in December 2017.)
Murtazin says he personally had access to case materials from the Vrublevsky investigation, which he says were also leaked online in 2011. He points out that Vrublevsky was initially accused of carrying out a DDoS attack against a business competitor, before officials pivoted to illegal data-access charges, when the statute of limitations expired on the first offense. In other words, Murtazin asks, why would a foreign intelligence agency pay $10 million for data available on the Internet about a rejiggered criminal case?
Murtazin also highlights that cybersecurity expert Brian Krebs obtained some of the leaked Vrublevsky case materials in September 2010 and interviewed Vrublevsky in 2011, which informed his 2014 book Spam Nation. Krebs didn’t reveal his access to this information, however, until January 2017, a month after Mikhailov and Stoyanov were arrested. Just days later, Murtazin says, Vrublevsky was called in to testify against Mikhailov in the treason case.
Top stories from Russia’s news media
- 🕊️ With Bashar al-Assad’s control over Syria mostly restored, Russia is trying to convince the regime to begin facilitating the return of millions of refugees. Moscow has struggled to deliver on this goal, however, despite the general consensus among refugee-receiving nations that Syrians should go home. Repatriation has stalled, thanks to the Assad regime’s insistence on drafting returning young men and subjecting families to draconian paperwork requirements. Novaya Gazeta met with several Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, and learned about their daily challenges in exile.
- 🎤 Kremlin officials are reportedly planning to create an “expert group of musicians” to allocate grant money to specific rappers and other artists. On February 20, after meeting with cultural advisers, Vladimir Putin instructed First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko to explore state support for pop musicians and performers “relevant to young people.” The move follows a year of tensions between police and rappers, where local officials in cities across the country pressured musicians into canceling shows, amid concerns that their lyrics are too mature for younger audiences.
- 📽️ Most Russian moviegoers will have to find a way to survive March without big-screen access to two computer-animated children’s movies featuring small dogs. Three major cinema chains have endorsed a letter from the Russian Association of Theater Owners to Russia’s Culture Ministry, vowing not to show the Russian film Harvie and the Magic Museum if they’re not permitted to carry the Belgian movie The Queen's Corgi at the same time. The latter picture was scheduled to premiere on March 7, but on Friday the Culture Ministry invoked a government decree that permits delays to foreign films that compete with “analogous domestic movies.” Harvie was produced with public grant money by a company jointly owned by Rostelecom and the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company. A bigger production with a wider international release, The Queen's Corgi was expected to earn 100 million rubles ($1.5 million) on its opening weekend in Russia — four times more than Harvie’s anticipated revenues.
- ⚖️ Federal investigators have launched a criminal case against still-unidentified FSB agents in the St. Petersburg area who allegedly tortured two police officers, demanding that they confess to planting drugs on suspects to inflate their job performance numbers. The officers were detained and allegedly tortured in 2017. The FSB agents in question are being charged with abusing their authority through acts of violence. The maximum penalty for this offense is 10 years in prison. Mediazona reported extensively on the torture allegations last September.
Zone out: Watch journalists Julia Ioffe and Jill Dougherty debate (in jest) whether Joseph Stalin “dreamt about” taking away people's hamburgers, sosiski, or kolbosa.