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The Real Russia. Today. New Russian deaths in Syria, interpreting Mikhail Abyzov's arrest, and a 180 in Yakutia

Meduza

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

This day in history: 51 years ago today, on March 27, 1968, Yuri Gagarin and his flight instructor died in a MiG crash near the town of Kirzhach. The first human being to journey into outer space, Gagarin was only 34 years old when he died.
  • New details emerge about the deaths of Russian officers in Syria
  • Mikhail Abyzov's arrest: offshore reshuffling, Kashin thinks Medvedev is Russia's last line of defense against an FSB takeover, and Stanovaya says chaos reigns in the siloviki
  • Government officials in Yakutia spoke in support of recent anti-migrant protests. Now, they’re blaming external provocations for the unrest.
  • Lithuanian court sentences former Soviet defense minister in absentia to 10 years for January 1991 violence
  • After mass searches of Tatar homes in Crimea, FSB reports 20 alleged terrorists arrested
  • Protests continue in Ingushetia amid controversy surrounding border shifts
  • The Russian government has announced a plan to create digital profiles for its citizens. How is this going to work?

Just crushed under a barrage of fire 💥

Three Russian officers and one Syrian military interpreter were killed on February 22 in Syria after being ambushed in the province of Deir ez-Zor. The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported today that the soldiers’ UAZ utility vehicle came under fire on a desert road between Palmira and al-Mayadeen. A column of automobiles containing 30 Russian and Syrian fighters was accompanying the officers on their way. However, immediately before the UAZ was attacked about 25 miles away from al-Mayadeen, the officers found themselves without any escort vehicles for unknown reasons.

“The Russian officers were obviously caught unawares when armed terrorists opened fire on their car. The UAZ was just crushed under a barrage of fire,” Novaya Gazeta concluded after speaking to sources who were present at the time of the attack. A major in the Russian army and the Syrian interpreter, who were sitting in the front seats of the automobile, were killed on the spot. According to Novaya Gazeta’s sources, two other passengers died a few hours later.

The newspaper reported that the ambush targeting the Russian soldiers may have been enabled by former Islamic State fighters who had laid down their arms to join the Syrian military. Novaya Gazeta’s sources said it is possible that those fighters had passed on information about the Russian convoy’s route to its attackers. Another possible source of information about the convoy’s location could be a group of pro-Iranian units stationed in al-Mayadeen.

Shortly after the attack, Russian soldiers located the positions of the terrorists in the desert and destroyed them. On March 25, the Russian Defense Ministry officially announced that “a band of more than 30 fighters who participated in an attack on a vehicle carrying Russian service-members has been destroyed.” The Ministry also noted that the bodies of the Russian officers killed had been transported back to Russia.

Two of the four individuals killed in the ambush have been identified. Novaya Gazeta’s sources indicated that one of them was the Syrian colonel Monzer Luis, who served as an interpreter for the Russians. The BBC Russian Service reported that 35-year-old Major Sukhrob Karimov was also killed in the attack. One of his relatives told reporters that Karimov’s parents were called to a military hospital to provide DNA samples.

Earlier this month, the Ukrainian federal legislator Dmitry Tymchuk wrote that the Russian colonel Albert Omarov, who had previously fought in the ongoing war in Ukraine, was also killed in Syria on February 22. However, on March 27, the official newspaper of the Russian military, Krasnaya Zvezda, wrote that Albert Omarov had received an award in the Russian city of Tolyatti. The newspaper did not specify on which day the colonel had been honored.

Mikhail Abyzov's arrest

👮 The arrest

Moscow’s Basmanny Court has ordered former Open Government Minister Mikhail Abyzov to be kept under arrest until May 25. Abyzov has been charged with large-scale fraud and organizing a criminal organization. He led the Open Government project, an initiative intended to provide oversight over the actions of Russia’s executive branch, from 2012 to 2018.

The prosecution argued that Abyzov should be held under guard to prevent him from going into hiding. One of his alleged accomplices has apparently done just that. Abyzov’s attorneys attempted to prevent their client from being held in a pretrial detention center during his arrest. A number of noted Russian public figures offered to put up bail for Abyzov, RBC reported. They included nonprofit organizer Nyuta Federmesser, nanotech joint-stock company head Anatoly Chubais, his predecessor Leonid Melamed, and multiple former public officials who occupied visible positions in Russia’s executive branch.

Abyzov has denied the charges against him and offered to cooperate with investigators in order to demonstrate his innocence.

💸 Jittery offshore assets

The offshore company “Blacksiris,” which is mentioned in the case materials against former Open Government Minister Mikhail Abyzov, started changing its registration records in Cyprus, immediately following Abyzov’s arrest on Tuesday, Meduza has learned.

According to Russian investigators, Abyzov transferred a large sum of stolen money — 4 billion rubles ($61.8 million) — to a bank account registered to Blacksiris, which he controls. The newspaper Kommersant says Abyzov allegedly embezzled the money from the “Siberian Energy Company” and “Regional Electric Networks.”

Meduza obtained registrar records about Blacksiris from state officials in Cyprus indicating that the government received two notifications concerning alterations to the company’s office address and officers on March 27 — a day after Abyzov’s arrest.

The company’s current owner is listed as Genako Ventures Limited, a business registered in the British Virgin Islands. Russian investigators believe Abyzov and his accomplices are the offshore’s real owners.

Kashin: Weaker than ever, Medvedev is still the only obstacle to total FSB control 🚧

In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Oleg Kashin says Russia’s Federal Security Service has “ripped a page from Dmitry Medvedev’s biography” by arresting former Open Government Minister Mikhail Abyzov, and it’s not the first page torn from the prime minister’s political story. Kashin points out that people in Medvedev’s circle have been rendered so helpless that even a relatively influential figure like Natalya Timakova, his former spokeswoman, is finding her personal photos leaked online by siloviki-controlled Telegram channels, showing her on vacation with Abyzov.

Kashin says Medvedev still enjoys a “safety cushion” that protects him from being arrested or ousted, and he remains the only counterweight in the government to the FSB’s uncontested political dominance.

🎯 Stanovaya: Russia's security agencies are targeting more chaotically

In an article for the Carnegie Moscow Center, political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya says the recent arrest of former Open Government Minister Mikhail Abyzov is the latest evidence that Russia’s security agencies are turning from “selective” to “chaotic” targeting of prominent figures. The case against Abyzov “opens a new page” in the “story of late Putinism,” she says. This shift is noteworthy, Stanovaya explains, because political intrigue used to drive siloviki behavior, but political reasoning is now increasingly introduced only after arrests are made, as a secondary (albeit still important) factor.

Abyzov isn’t the first figure from Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s circle to end up in state custody, but he is a uniquely unsympathetic character, Stanovaya points out. Alexey Navalny, for example, has essentially claimed credit for compiling the case evidence against Abyzov.

Once upon a time, Abyzov earned himself a place in Medvedev’s heart, after organizing an ill-fated public reelection committee in 2011. For the show of loyalty, Abyzov was offered the position in Medvedev’s cabinet, though the Open Government Ministry was rendered useless after Putin returned to the presidency. (The Agency for Strategic Initiatives, Stanovaya says, actually performed more of the ministry’s intended role than the ministry itself.) Abyzov didn’t do himself any favors in office, either, prompting a very public dressing down at the January 2013 Gaidar Forum from Sberbank head Herman Gref and his former boss Anatoly Chubais.

Stanovaya says Abyzov’s many failures in business also earned him several powerful adversaries. In 2015, for example, he sold his nearly ruined company “Group E4” to creditors who threatened criminal prosecution if he didn’t pay off his debts. At the time, Alfa-Bank also complained to the Interior Ministry’s Economic Crimes Unit that Abyzov was running a business while serving in government. Alfa-Bank later demanded 33 billion rubles (more than half a billion dollars) from Abyzov and his partners. The oligarch Viktor Vekselberg has also sued Abyzov for $500 million in the British Virgin Islands. These scandals ultimately exhausted even Dmitry Medvedev’s patience, Stanovaya says, especially because the prime minister’s political capital has been shrinking ever since he rolled over and let Putin return to the presidency uncontested in 2012.

Since Russia’s third president reverted to prime minister, Medvedev has witnessed three stages of reputational collapse, Stanovaya says: (1) from 2011 to 2013, he weathered a tidal wave of “elite revanchism” that undid nearly all his presidential appointments; (2) in late 2013, Putin intervened and extended personal protection to Medvedev to stop his “nationwide humiliation”; and (3) the latest crackdown on his entourage gathers strength as the siloviki realize that Medvedev’s untouchability doesn’t extend to figures associated with him. This third stage started with the arrest of the Magomedov brothers, Stanovaya argues, and Abyzov is just the latest target.

Stanovaya compares Abyzov’s arrest to the FSB operation against American investment manager Michael Calvey, saying that both cases seem to be business conflicts where Russia’s siloviki were “activated” to settle a score. In both cases, Stanovaya says, the siloviki apparently meddled in a commercial dispute without initial instructions from the Kremlin, and a political dimension materialized only later. (For Calvey, “sources” claim that he financed the anti-Putin opposition.) Stanovaya says Russia’s siloviki-connected Telegram channels are now busy peddling rumors that Abyzov supported the independent TV station Dozhd and actively opposed Putin’s return in 2011, setting his children up to live in luxury in the United States. In other words, “patriotic” voices are depicting Abyzov as a “liberal sell-out” and borderline traitor. Stanovaya admits that this post-hoc “political weighting” is still an essential part of Russian police work, especially when it comes to a former government minister.

Who's the boss?

Anti-migrant protests have rocked Yakutia since mid-March. They were triggered by a rape and kidnapping case. Local authorities organized a town hall, and more than 6,000 people attended. The mayor of Yakutsk called on her audience to demonstrate “who the real boss is in this city.” After the town hall, the situation in Yakutsk began to stabilize. Now, local authorities argue that external forces initiated the protests as a form of provocation.

Read Meduza's report here: “Government officials in Yakutia spoke in support of recent anti-migrant protests. Now, they’re blaming external provocations for the unrest.”

Soviet war crimes ⚖️

A court in Vilnius has convicted former USSR Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov of war crimes and crimes against humanity, sentencing him in absentia to 10 years in prison. He is being held responsible for the events on January 13, 1991, when Soviet troops stormed a television tower in Vilnius after Lithuania declared its independence from Moscow in March 1990. The soldiers killed 14 civilians in the raid and injured more than 600 people.

According to prosecutors, Yazov ordered the Soviet military to develop a plan in late 1990 to return Lithuania to the USSR, including a list of strategic sites that needed to be seized. This planning resulted in “aggression from the Soviet Union and an armed conflict in Lithuania,” state officials argued.

KGB officer Mikhail Golovatov was also convinced in the same case and sentenced in absentia to 12 years in prison. Lithuanian officials have charged 67 citizens of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine for crimes related to “Soviet aggression,” though only two Russian citizens have come before courts, and the rest have been tried in absentia.

The Russian government has formally refused to cooperate in this case and rejected Lithuania’s request to question former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev about the decision making that led up to the deaths in January 1991.

20 “alleged terrorists” 👮

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) announced today that it had arrested 20 members of the terrorist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami in the Crimean Peninsula. The FSB wrote that those arrested allegedly “promoted terrorist ideology among the residents of the peninsula and carried out recruitment efforts to fill their ranks among Crimean Muslims.”

FSB agents attempted and failed to arrest four more individuals. The agents searched 25 homes belonging to Crimean Tatars in Simferopol and the Belogorsk district, according to Ukrinform. Lutfiye Zudiyeva, an activist involved in the Crimean Solidarity movement, published the names of 27 people who may have been affected by the searches.

After the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russian security services began arresting suspected members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Their attorneys have argued that the arrests are a result of religious persecution against Crimean Muslims. The Crimean Human Rights Group has reported that 32 people were sentenced to jail time for alleged participation in the terrorist group before February 2019.

Ingushetia protests border shenanigans once again 📣

In the Ingush capital of Magas, protestors momentarily agreed to leave a central square following multiple attempts to disperse them by force, Kavkazsy Uzel reported. Local authorities promised to permit another protest to begin within five days. Some protestors regrouped after leaving the square and blocked a state highway that runs between Baku and Rostov-on-Don, RIA Derbent journalist Malik Butayev told Znak.com.

Ingush residents have rallied regularly since late September of 2018, when Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and his Ingush counterpart Yunus-bek Yevkurov signed an agreement to trade contested borderlands between the two Northern Caucasian republics, which are both federal subjects of the Russian Federation.

The most recent protests began on March 26. They followed efforts in the parliament of Ingushetia to amend the republic’s laws in such a way that popular referenda would no longer be required to change the region’s borders. Approximately 10,000 people have voiced their objections to the amendments in the central square of Magas, and many remained on the square overnight. Protestors have also resolved within the past two days to demand Yevkurov’s resignation.

Digital killed the paperwork star 🛂

Russia’s Communications Ministry has announced a public comment period on a new bill that would amend a number of the country’s federal laws. On paper, the proposal is just “a clarification of identification and authentication procedures,” but a large portion of the text is devoted to the development of digital profiles. Before long, every Russian citizen will have one: the bureaucratic infrastructure for digital profiles has already been laid out in Russia’s nationwide Digital Economy project.

Read Meduza's report here: “The Russian government has announced a plan to create digital profiles for its citizens. How is this going to work?”

Yours, Meduza