The Real Russia. Today. Russia's top PMC in Syria employs at least 3,600 people; Promsvyazbank's co-owners pulled $80 million after the Central Bank intervened; and Navalny loses another lawsuit

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

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  • Republic digs up employment records for Russia's “Wagner” PMC
  • Stage director Kirill Serebrennikov's house arrest is extended
  • Federal agents investigate theater embezzlement in St. Petersburg
  • Warning-system failure may have contributed to the deadly plane crash outside Moscow on February 11
  • The co-owners of Promsvyazbank allegedly unloaded almost $80 million to another bank they own, after the Central Bank stepped into restructure
  • The State Duma rubber stamps another policing initiative from Putin
  • Navalny's surname is the key to Russians' ultimate lifehack
  • Navalny loses his lawsuit against Russia's federal censor
  • Federal election officials are miffed about “inappropriate” campaigning in schools

No mercy for Russian mercenaries 🇸🇾🇷🇺

On February 7, the U.S.-led international coalition launched airstrikes in Syria against a group of militants supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime. According to Russian and international reporters, the attack killed several Russian mercenaries fighting in the “Wagner” private military company. The exact number of Russians killed remains unknown, and unofficial estimates have ranged from a few dozen to more than 200 people.

The “Wagner” private military company has at least 3,602 combatants on its payroll, according to data published on Wednesday by the Russian news website Republic. Journalists cannot confirm how many of these individuals are still actively working for the company, but at least one of the names in Wagner’s staff records belongs to a man from Arkhangelsk who was killed in Syria in September 2017: Evgeny Alikov — the 3,601st entry on the list.

How much does it cost to run such a large operation? Republic estimates that the Wagner PMC’s operating costs were as high as 17.4 billion rubles ($307.5 million) over the past 2.5 years, judging by the mercenaries’ average monthly salaries (240,000 rubles, or $4,240), the cost of food, and the compensation paid to the families of anyone killed at work (5 million rubles — about $88,300 — for each combatant). Republic’s sources say Wagner has several “private investors.” Despite Wagner’s considerable losses in a U.S. airstrike on February 7, there are reportedly no plans to dissolve the company.

Artful artists 🎭

⚖️ Free to attend his mother’s cremation, but not free to go

Testifying at a hearing to extend his house arrest, stage director Kirill Serebrennikov revealed that he’d been permitted to attend his mother’s funeral on February 19. He told the court that he’d repeatedly asked for permission to visit his parents to be with his gravely ill mother, but the judge rejected every request. “God be with you, don’t free me from house arrest. But let Malobrodsky out of jail,” Serebrennikov asked the court, telling the judge that it would be good for his karma.

  • In the end, the court left all the “Seventh Studio” suspects where they are: Alexey Malobrodsky (the former director of the Gogol Center) will remain in jail, and Serebrennikov and Yuri Itin (the former Seventh Studio general director) are still under house arrest.
What’s the “Seventh Studio” case again? Serebrennikov, Malobrodsky, and Itin are accused of “cashing out” government funds allocated to theatrical productions. Investigators say their actions caused 133 million rubles (about $2.4 million) in damages.

💸 “Seventh Studio” isn’t Russia’s only theater criminal scandal

The Federal Security Service is investigating representatives of two firms, “Stroisoyuz SV” and “M-Proekt,” for embezzling funds allocated for the design of a new stage for St. Petersburg’s Maly Drama Theater. The companies allegedly stole 45.5 million rubles ($804,000) from a 146-million-ruble ($2.6-million) contract signed in December 2013. Federal agents have reportedly made multiple arrests, but officials haven’t released the suspects’ names.

  • According to the news agency RIA Novosti, the subcontractors’ failure to produce the stage designs forced a second procurement deal with another group that meant the Culture Ministry had to pay twice for the same work.

What crashed the An-148? ✈️

A warning-system failure may have caused the plane crash outside Moscow on February 11 that killed all 71 people on board. According to data recovered from the black boxes, the An-148’s sensors apparently froze, leaving the pilots oblivious to the aircraft’s actual speed.

Why didn’t the pilots de-ice the plane’s sensors? The former general designer at the plane’s manufacturer, Dmitry Kiva, told the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets that the captain may not have received one of the cockpit’s warnings that his co-pilot hadn’t activate the sensors’ heaters, though he insists that at least one of the plane’s warning systems should have worked correctly. Another source in Russia’s aviation industry told Moskovsky Komsomolets that the pilots’ actions were completely unsynchronized (the captain lowered the plane’s nose to gain speed, while the co-pilot continued to level the aircraft), suggesting that their instruments’ warning systems were likely malfunctioning.

You can take it with you 🏦

Alexey and Dmitry Ananiev allegedly transferred 4.5 billion rubles ($79.5 million) of their own money from Promsvyazbank to Vozrozhdenie Bank — two banks they both co-own — just two weeks after the Russian Central Bank stepped in to restructure Promsvyazbank. Sources told the newspaper Kommersant that the transfer apparently took place on December 28 or 29, flooding Vozrozhdenie Bank with more money than its average annual balance. A representative for Alexey Ananiev denies that the massive withdrawal took place.

What happened to Promsvyazbank and why would the Ananievs move their cash to Vozrozhdenie Bank? On December 15, 2017, Russia’s Central Bank announced the restructuring of Promsvyazbank, after discovering violations in its reporting and the destruction of credit history records. A week later, the Ananiev brothers fled Russia. Dmitry said that the Central Bank was imposing unrealistic conditions on Promsvyazbank. Alexey reportedly returned to Russia in January 2018 to negotiate the sale of the brothers’ 53-percent stake in Vozrozhdenie Bank.

Russia's parliament to Putin: whatever you say, boss ✍️

In early November 2017, Putin sent the State Duma draft legislation that would allow Russia’s National Guard to protect the heads of regional governments and “other individuals.” The bill doesn’t specify who these other people are, empowering the president to make that call. On February 21, lawmakers said okay, passing the legislation almost unanimously without any revisions.

  • These protection arrangements would occur “on a contractual basis,” and the government would be responsible for setting the National Guard’s rates. Governors are currently guarded by the Federal Protective Service. In 2014, Russia’s Interior Ministry first endorsed the idea of state protection for governors on a contractual basis.

Russians discover the ultimate lifehack: solve any problem by stamping it with Alexey Navalny's surname ☃️

Having played a decisive role in turning back both Napoleon and Hitler, the Russian winter is a fearsome adversary. Invading armies know it. Communal services crews in Moscow know it, too. This winter has dumped an unusually large amount of snow on the capital, overwhelming cleanup workers and forcing Muscovites to get creative, if they want to make their local roads and street corners a priority for the plows and snow shovelers.

  • Earlier this month, on February 10, Muscovite Tatyana Grigoryeva discovered a particularly inventive way to expedite the snow removal in her neighborhood: she wrote the name of politician Alexey Navalny in the snowdrift. Within a few hours, Grigoryeva says a cleanup crew showed up and started shoveling the walkway outside her home.
  • In cities around the country, Russians say they’ve repeated Grigoryeva’s experiment — generally with the same success. For some Russians, however, using Navalny's surname to clear snow is only the beginning. On Twitter, Internet users have been brainstorming the myriad other solutions this scheme might offer.
  • Read Meduza’s report on Russians’ Navalny-enabled wishlist.

Navalny loses another lawsuit 🤕

As expected, the Moscow Tagansky court has rejected Alexey Navalny’s lawsuit against Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal censor. The opposition politician tried to sue Roskomnadzor for enforcing an injunction issued by a court in Ust-Labinsky, where oligarch Oleg Deripaska is suing the woman who uploaded footage of him meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Prikhodko aboard a yacht in August 2016, possibly to discuss Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election. Navalny argued that the court’s injunction against the footage (which Deripaska says violates his privacy) is illegal because he wasn’t granted standing in the case.

Who’s complied with the censor, so far? Who’s fighting it? On February 15, Roskomnadzor ordered Russian ISPs to start blocking access to on the grounds that the website refuses to delete photos and videos blacklisted by a court order in Deripaska’s lawsuit against a self-described escort who calls herself “Nastya Rybka” (whose real name is Anastasia Vashukevich). Five media outlets, as well as Instagram, complied with Roskomnadzor’s takedown orders. At the time of this writing, Navalny’s February 8 investigative report about Deripaska and Prikhodko has more than 5.9 million views on YouTube. On Tuesday, February 20, Roskomnadzor said it won’t block YouTube, even though the video-hosting network has refused, so far, to delete Alexey Navalny’s investigative report. Google reportedly wants to wait for a formal verdict in Ust-Labinsky. When Deripaska presumably wins the case, YouTube might opt to block Navalny’s video for users in Russia, without deleting the video outright.

Wrist-slap election monitoring 🗳

Russian Central Election Commissioner Ella Pamfilova is mad that schools keep dragging students into the country’s presidential campaign. Her outfit is sending an official “please cut it out” letter to the Education Ministry, she says, highlighting several “inappropriate” incidents at schools throughout the country. The letter is only a list of recommendations and doesn’t impose any penalties on the schools where violations have apparently taken place.

What kinds of campaign violations have been happening at Russian schools? Earlier this month, a relatively unknown information agency called Charity Infrastructure organized a contest at several schools where students had to “draw Putin.” Election officials in Dagestan, where Putin won 93 percent of the vote in 2012, reviewed and promptly dismissed a complaint about the contest. In the Krasnodar region, also in February, fourth graders spent a “five-minute information session” lecturing one another about Putin’s re-election campaign. Is this legal? Not so much. Russian education laws prohibit teachers from conducting political propaganda in the classroom or imposing any political views on students.

Yours, Meduza