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‘The plane was about to take off’ Former Open Russia director Andrey Pivovarov under investigation following arrest at St. Petersburg airport

Source: Meduza
Alexander Miridonov / Kommersant

On May 31, law enforcement officers in St. Petersburg boarded a plane just before takeoff and arrested Andrey Pivovarov, the former executive director of the nonprofit organization Open Russia (Otkrytaya Rossiya). Reports quickly surfaced that Pivovarov had been taken to the Investigative Committee for questioning in connection with a criminal case concerning the work of an “undesirable organization.” The BBC Russian Service later reported that Pivovarov is facing criminal charges over a Facebook post he allegedly published in August 2020. Pivovarov’s detention came four days after Open Russia announced its dissolution in an attempt to protect its activists and supporters from criminal prosecution ahead of impending amendments to Russia’s law on “undesirable organizations.”

On the evening of May 31, Andrey Pivovarov — the former executive director of the recently dissolved nonprofit organization Open Russia — was arrested in St. Petersburg. Describing his own arrest in a Telegram post, Pivovarov said that it took place at the Pulkovo Airport: he was set to depart for a vacation in Warsaw, when he was taken off a LOT Polish Airlines flight at the last moment. Police officers stopped the departure of the plane, which was already on the runway and preparing for takeoff. “The plane was stopped while taxiing, that is, when the plane was about to take off [...] a group of police officers and FSB officers came on board, after which they told me that I’m wanted,” Pivovarov told the radio station Ekho Moskvy. According to the human rights group Pravozashchita Otkrytki, Pivovarov isn’t subject to any travel restrictions and wasn’t questioned at passport control. The Interior Ministry’s database doesn’t include any information about Pivovarov being on a wanted list.

After removing Pivovarov from the plane, the law enforcement officers took him to an FSB office located on the airport’s grounds. There, he was forbidden from using his phone. Before contact with Pivovarov was cut off, he managed to announce that the officers planned to hand him over to the Investigative Committee. Human rights lawyer Elena Borodina from Pravozashchita Otkrytki went to the Pulkovo Airport, but wasn’t allowed to see Pivovarov for several hours. At the time, Pravozashchita Otkrytki’s former coordinator, Anastasia Burakova, reported that the FSB’s border department was “persistently saying that no one had been removed from the flight and that they hadn’t seen Pivovarov.” 

Reports quickly emerged that Andrey Pivovarov had been taken to the Investigative Committee for questioning in connection with a criminal case for involvement in an undesirable organization. A source in law enforcement told the state news agency TASS that Pivovarov’s status in the case had yet to be determined. In turn, an informed source told Interfax that the authorities planned to press criminal charges against Pivovarov for cooperating in the activities of an “undesirable organization.” Pravozashchita Otkrytki later confirmed that the former Open Russian director was taken to the Investigative Committee in connection with a criminal case on the work of an “undesirable” group. This was also reported by former Open Russia coordinator Tatyana Usmanova. At the time of writing, state investigators had yet to comment on the case. In a letter published on his Telegram channel, Pivovarov wrote that the case was opened in Krasnodar on May 29, 2021. The letter also said that the investigators planned to take him to Krasnodar after conducting searches. 

The letter Andrey Pivovarov released following his arrest on May 31

Citing the order to initiate proceedings, the BBC Russian Service reported that the decision to open a criminal case against Pivovarov was based on a Facebook post he allegedly published while in Krasnodar on August 12, 2020. According to the Russian BBC, state investigators describe the Facebook post as “United Democrats informational material” and claim that it concerned a fundraising campaign. The investigators therefore concluded that in writing this post, Pivovarov expressed his intent to participate in the activities of the “undesirable organization” Open Russia. That said, as noted by the Russian BBC, Pivovarov’s Facebook page doesn’t include any posts dated August 12, 2020 that fit this description. However, it’s possible that the investigation was actually referring to a Facebook post by district councilman Alexander Korovainy, which Pivovarov shared on August 13, 2020. Speaking about Open Russia activist Yana Antonova’s nomination to the Krasnodar City Duma, Korovainy wrote that her campaign would require at least 200,000 rubles (about $2,725) in funding, and described how to make a donation. Antonova told the Russian BBC that “no one from the Investigative Committee or any other structures” had contacted her in connection with Pivovarov’s arrest. 

Andrey Pivovarov was detained four days after Open Russia (Otkrytaya Rossiya) announced its dissolution. On May 27, Pivovarov said that the NGO, which is linked to exiled former oil company executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was completely halting its operations, in order to protect its supporters from criminal prosecution. Pivovarov added that the decision to dissolve Open Russia voluntarily was linked to the amendments to the law on “undesirable organizations” that were submitted to the Russian State Duma earlier last month. That said, the Russia-based nonprofit Open Russia isn’t formally designated as “undesirable.” The pressure on its activists apparently stem from the fact that this status was handed down to two other organizations linked to Khodorkovsky, the Open Russian Civic Movement and OR (Otkrytaya Rossia). 

Mikhail Khodorkovsky compared Pivovarov’s arrest to the Belarusian authorities forcing the landing of a Ryanair passenger plane in Minsk and subsequently arresting opposition journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Russian citizen Sofia Sapega. “Are there still doubts that Putin and Luka [Alexander Lukashenko] are two of a kind?” Khodorkovsky wrote on his Telegram channel on May 31. In turn, Tatyana Usmanova, the former coordinator of Open Russia, called the fact that Pivovarov was arrested for cooperating with an “undesirable organization” after Open Russia was dissolved “complete absurdity and lawlessness.”

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Story by Alexander Baklanov

Translated and updated by Eilish Hart

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