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The Real Russia. Today. Russia's 470-dollar word, open season on ‘Open Russia,’ and Russia's latest Donbas gambit

Source: Meduza

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

This day in history: 93 years ago, on April 24, 1926, German and Soviet officials signed the Treaty of Berlin, pledged neutrality in the event of an attack on the other by a third party for the next five years. The agreement reaffirmed the German-Soviet Treaty of Rapallo, signed in 1922.
  • How calling Vladimir Putin a ‘fuckwit’ became illegal
  • How the Russian government uses laws against ‘undesirable organizations’ to target activists from a single human rights group
  • BBC Russian Service asks what's next with Russia's citizenship scheme in separatist-held Ukraine
  • Putin signs order expediting Russian citizenship process for Donbas residents
  • Twitter appeals 47-dollar fine it received for storing Russian user data outside Russian borders

Russia's 470-dollar word 🤐

On April 22, a court in the Novgorod region fined local resident Yuri Kartyzhev 30,000 rubles (about $470) for violating Russia’s new law against insulting state officials. The man was found guilty of sharing two posts on the social network VKontakte where he allegedly wrote “Putin is an unbelievable fuckwit.” Kartyzhev’s sentence marks the first known enforcement of this new curtailment of free speech. Here are the highlights of this story:

  • A man in the Novgorod region wrote two posts about Putin. He says the police tampered with the evidence and planted the obscenities.
  • Police brought witnesses to an ISP’s office and recorded angry testimonies.
  • Kartyzhev plans to challenge his 30,000-ruble fine in the European Court of Human Rights.
  • This is the first known enforcement of this new curtailment of free speech. Identifiable Internet users are at risk of being next.
  • Lawyers say writing online about Putin is probably riskiest.

Read Meduza's full report: “How calling Vladimir Putin a ‘fuckwit’ became illegal”

Open season on Open Russia 🎯

In early April, Russian investigators opened three new criminal cases against members of the nonprofit organization Open Russia, which is associated with exiled opposition politician and former oil company executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The defendants were charged with participating in an “undesirable organization.” Although Open Russia was officially liquidated in Russia, security forces have continued to write up the group’s activists, and at least five more people are at risk of facing criminal charges. In the meantime, the organization has attempted to reorganize and regain legal status in the country it is named for. We asked Mediazona journalist Maxim Litavrin to analyze recent persecution against Open Russia’s members.

Read Meduza's story: “How the Russian government uses laws against ‘undesirable organizations’ to target activists from a single human rights group”

Russia's latest Donbas gambit 🕊️

Following news about Putin’s executive order to create an expedited path to Russian citizenship for residents of Ukraine’s separatist-controlled Donbas region, the BBC Russian Service published a story answering six questions about the likely consequences of the Kremlin’s latest move in eastern Ukraine. Meduza summarizes this text below.

Is Russia getting millions of new citizens? Hard to say! The separatists claim a population of 3.7 million people, but Ukrainian officials say the areas of the country beyond Kyiv’s control are home to just 2.8 million people. More than a million of those in the region have already emigrated to Russia on work permits, residence permits, temporary asylum, and other statuses. Ukraine doesn’t recognize dual citizenship, moreover, meaning that Donbas residents would need to renounce their Ukrainian passports before turning to Russia.

Why would people in the Donbas need Russian citizenship? Money (employment and entitlements) and rights (residence and voting). People in the Donbas are still able to claim payments from the Ukrainian government, but they need to cross into Ukrainian territory physically to collect a check or cast a ballot. Moscow blames Kyiv’s “economic blockade” for creating a humanitarian crisis in the Donbas, and the Kremlin says it’s addressing this crisis with easier citizenship. According to presidential aide Vladislav Surkov (Russia’s informer “handler” in Donetsk and Luhansk), Moscow owes a “debt” to “people who speak and think in Russia,” especially when they’re abandoned by Kyiv. Russian Senator Andrey Klimov also calls it a humanitarian effort, arguing that Donbas residents need bank loans and other transactions they can’t execute using their separatist-issued documents. Kremlin-friendly political analyst Alexey Chesnakov says President-Elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy must respond by lifting Ukraine’s “economic blockade” in the Donbas.

Will Russia literally hand out passports in the Donbas? It did 11 years ago in Abkhazia, months before Moscow recognized the breakaway region’s independence. Donbas residents would need to file their Russian citizenship paperwork at a Russian Interior Ministry branch, meaning that most people in separatist-held eastern Ukraine would need to apply from the Rostov region, inside Russia.

Will Russian state money now fund payments to people living in the Donbas? Yes, but it’s still impossible to know how much. As Russian citizens, they can expect benefits and social-security payments, but they’ll need to come to Rostov, most likely, to submit the needed documents to collect each payment. (And Russian officials might reject a lot of their Ukrainian paperwork.) People in the Donbas are unlikely to get access to “retirement-age pensions” (payments supported by contributions from employers); they’ll probably have to settle for Russia's minimum “social pension” payments.

Why is any of this necessary? Political expert Andrey Kolesnikov says Moscow is signaling Zelenskiy that relations with Russia require his urgent attention, and that the Kremlin intends to go rough on him until the president-elect’s policies are clear. In effect, Kolesnikov says, Russia has absorbed another chunk of Ukraine, this time “through people, not territory.” According to Sergey Solodky, a political expert at a Ukrainian think tank, Putin’s executive order is a “show of force” meant to compel Zelenskiy to prepare concessions for renewed negotiations. Solodky doesn’t think Russia’s liberalization of citizenship in the Donbas will affect many lives, however, because Russia has already recognized the passports issued by the two self-declared people’s republics in the region.

What will the Ukrainian authorities do? Still Ukraine’s president for a little while longer, Petro Poroshenko says Russia has “crossed red lines” in the Donbas, “openly and brazenly torpedoing the peace process.” Poroshenko says the Kremlin is only trying to justify and legitimize Russia’s military presence in the area. Zelenskiy’s headquarters, meanwhile, says Putin’s executive order amounts to Russia’s acknowledgement that it is an occupying power in the region. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, called the Kremlin’s decision “legally null and void,” and his agency is urging residents in the Donbas to reject Russian citizenship.

News briefs

  • 🛂 President Vladimir Putin has signed an order creating an expedited path to Russian citizenship for residents of the war-torn Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. The order allows for citizenship applications from the region to be evaluated within the course of three months. It will take effect on the day that it is officially published. Read the story here.
  • ⚖️ Twitter representatives have submitted an appeal to Moscow’s Tagansky Court regarding a decision on the part of the Russian government’s censorship agency to fine the company 3,000 rubles (almost $47). Read the story here.

Yours, Meduza