Our round-up of the week’s news
11 December 2021
RFE/RL: Russia has blocked off nearly 70 percent of the Sea of Azov around the illegally annexed Crimean Peninsula, the Ukrainian Navy has announced. “Currently, the Russians have issued navigation warnings on restrictions on navigation in certain areas, allegedly in connection with artillery fire in areas near Mariupol, Berdyansk and Henichesk,” the Ukrainian Navy said in a statement issued on December 10.
RFE/RL; Last month, the Russian government initiated legal proceedings aimed at shutting down Memorial International and the Memorial Human Rights Center, venerable nongovernmental organizations devoted to researching and memorializing the crimes of the Soviet Union, as well as to promoting human rights in former Soviet republics today. The Russian Supreme Court will resume hearing the case against Memorial International on December 14, and the Moscow City Court will hold hearings on the Memorial Human Rights Center on December 16.
Meduza: About 20 years ago, Alexander Sokurov directed a film set in the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum, recorded on location and in a one-take single 96-minute sequence shot. In the movie, an unnamed narrator wanders from room to room, encountering real and fictional characters from various periods in St. Petersburg’s 300-year history. On December 9, 2021, during a virtual meeting between Vladimir Putin and the Presidential Human Rights Council, the same filmmaker offered another sweeping look at Russia, this time in just 15 minutes. Sokurov warned the president that the nation faces a constitutional crisis, suggesting that Moscow should permit certain regions of the country to leave the Russian Federation. Putin denounced the remarks, accusing Sokurov of wanting (“like they do in NATO”) to take Russia backwards to its days as a small principality.
12 December 2021
RFE/RL: Pope Francis has joined the international chorus of concern over tensions stemming from a Russian troop buildup near its border with Ukraine, urging dialogue to resolve strains and avoid armed conflict. The Roman Catholic pontiff told an audience of thousands at St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican on December 12 that “weapons are not the path to take.”
13 December 2021
The Moscow Times: Russia on Monday confirmed 29,558 Covid-19 infections and 1,121 deaths.
The Moscow Times: Russia’s top social media platform, VKontakte, has appointed the son of an influential Kremlin insider as its new chief executive, the company announced Monday. Vladimir Kiriyenko —whose father Sergei Kiriyenko is first deputy chief of staff in the Presidential Administration — will become the CEO of VK Group, which controls VKontakte and a number of other internet businesses, “effective immediately.”
RFE/RL: Russian President Vladimir Putin has described the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 as the demise of “historical Russia,” a comment that could fuel speculation about his foreign policy intentions amid a buildup of tens of thousands of Russian troops in regions bordering Ukraine. “It was the disintegration of historical Russia under the name of the Soviet Union,” Putin said of the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union while speaking in a documentary film called Russia. Recent History that aired on state television on December 12.
Human Rights in Ukraine: 51-year-old Dmytro Shtyblikov should have been released on 10 November 2021, after five years in Russian captivity. Instead, Russia’s FSB came up with new charges, as surreal and implausible as the original ‘Crimean saboteur’ accusation used to imprison him, fellow military analyst Oleksiy Bessarabov and Volodymyr Dudka, a retired naval captain. This time, the Ukrainian is accused by the Russian regime that invaded Ukrainian Crimea under Russian law of ‘state treason’. Having made all kinds of grandiose claims back in November 2016, while showing only a Ukrainian flag, a fake business card and sports airguns, this time almost nothing is known about the charges. Nor will it be, since the ‘trial’, of Shtyblikov and Oleksandr Obloha, now beginning at the Southern District Military Court in Rostov, will be behind closed doors.
Meduza: Video blogger Yuri Khovansky has been locked up since June, awaiting trial on charges of “justifying terrorism.” For months, he’s claimed in letters released to the public through his lawyers that the police are trying to frame him for performing a banned song about the deadly 2002 Nord-Ost siege. The case against him, Khovansky says, relies on false testimony from a handful of witnesses who claim he played the song in 2018. He says he performed the piece (which he now renounces) only once, in November 2012, which should exonerate him under the statute of limitations. Journalists at the news outlet RBC obtained copies of the case evidence against Khovansky and found that significant portions of the prosecution’s witness testimony repeat identical phrases and even whole paragraphs of text. Two of the three witnesses also appear to be former police officers.
14 December 2021
The Moscow Times: Russia on Tuesday confirmed 28,343 Covid-19 infections and 1,145 deaths.
RFE/RL: A court in Moscow has fined investigative website The Insider for failing to mark its materials as being produced by a “foreign agent,” a mandatory requirement for those added to the state’s controversial registry. The Taganka district court on December 14 ordered The Insider to pay 1 million rubles ($13,600) for the lack of labels on its materials. The group was added to the “foreign agent” registry in July.
RFE/RL: Russia’s Supreme Court has resumed a hearing into a request by federal prosecutors to shut down one of the post-Soviet world’s oldest and most prestigious human rights organizations, Memorial International. Judge Alla Nazarova started the hearing on December 14 after a 20-minute delay. The initial phase of the hearing saw the court study basic registration documentation from Memorial International, after which the prosecutor-general’s request to shut down the group and other documents in the case will be studied.
Meduza: The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that Russia is to pay compensation to several domestic violence victims over the authorities’ failure to respond to their cases. One of the applicants, Margarita Gracheva, whose ex-husband was sentenced to fourteen years in prison for cutting off her hands in 2017, was awarded more than $400,000 in compensation.
RFE/RL: Five years ago this month, historian Yury Dmitriyev, the local head of the human rights group Memorial in the northwestern region of Karelia, was arrested at his apartment in Petrozavodsk. He was accused of taking pornographic images of his foster daughter, a charge he has staunchly denied, saying the photographs were taken at the insistence of social workers in order to monitor the girl’s development. Dmitriyev is best known for his research into the victims of political repressions in Karelia under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. He was instrumental in the investigation and memorialization of the Sandarmokh mass graves, where the bodies of at least 6,000 victims were buried.
Human Rights in Ukraine: The ‘trial’ is underway at the Southern District Military Court in Rostov (Russia) Rostov (Russia) of two civic activists from Bakhchysarai facing 15-year sentences on preposterous ‘terrorism’ charges. The latter are based on conversations about religion five years ago, and on the clearly suspect ‘testimony’ of two ‘anonymous witnesses’ whose identity and reasons for giving false testimony are well-known.
15 December 2021
The Moscow Times: Russia on Tuesday confirmed 28,363 Covid-19 infections and 1,142 deaths.
The Guardian: Germany’s new government is facing calls to stand up to the Kremlin after a Berlin court jailed a Russian man, 56, for life for the “painstakingly planned” assassination of a Chechen dissident in the German capital at the behest of the Russian authorities. Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili, 40, a Georgian citizen who fought against Russia during the second Chechen war in the early 2000s, was shot twice in the head at close range in the Kleiner Tiergarten, a park in central Berlin, in August 2019.
The Moscow Times: Germany expelled two Russian diplomats on Wednesday after a Berlin court jailed a man for killing a former Chechen commander on German soil in 2019 on orders from Moscow, escalating a growing diplomatic rift. Judges in Berlin sentenced Russian Vadim Krasikov, alias Vadim Sokolov, to life in jail after finding him guilty of gunning down Georgian national Tornike Kavtarashvili, 40, in a Berlin park in broad daylight on Aug. 23, 2019.
RFE/RL: A Russian court has handed lengthy prison terms to seven people who led protests in Ingushetia against a change to the administrative boundaries between the Russian North Caucasus regions of Chechnya and Ingushetia.On December 15, the court in the city of Yessentuki, in the Stavropol Krai region, sentenced Malsag Uzhakhov, Akhmed Barakhoyev, and Musa Malsagov to nine years each; Barakh Chemurziyev, Bagaudin Khautiyev, and Ismail Nalgiyev to eight years each; and Zarifa Sautiyeva to 7 1/2 years in prison. The defendants were found guilty of creating an extremist group and assaulting law enforcement officers.
Amnesty International: Responding to the sentencing of seven Ingush protest leaders to between 7,5 and 9 years in prison for organizing peaceful protests against the authorities in 2018 and 2019, Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said: “The sentencing of these protest leaders today represents a gross violation of the rights to freedom of expression and assembly. Once again, Russia has failed not only to meet its obligations under international human rights law, but also to abide by its own constitution. “By jailing these protest leaders, the Russian authorities add their names to a long list of Ingush activists imprisoned simply for practising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly. The baseless charges levelled against them serve as little more than a tool to punish and intimidate activists, while their sentencing sends a chilling message to civil society leaders in Ingushetia and beyond.”
RFE/RL: A court in Moscow has ordered the Memorial Human Rights Center — one of the post-Soviet world’s oldest and most prestigious human rights organizations — to pay a 500,000 ruble ($6,800) fine for allegedly violating Russia’s controversial “foreign agent” legislation. The December 15 ruling comes a day after Russia’s Supreme Court resumed a hearing into a request by federal prosecutors to shut down Memorial International, the umbrella organization for the group.
RFE/RL: A Russian court has rejected a request filed by the father of Ivan Zhdanov, a close associate of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, to be transferred to house arrest, his lawyer says. A court in Russia’s Arctic city of Naryan-Mar ruled that his client must stay in a detention center while his trial is under way, Yury Zhdanov’s lawyer, Vladimir Voronin, wrote on Instagram on December 15. The court said that Zhdanov, 67, may leave the country to escape justice if released.
RFE/RL: The daughter of jailed Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny has urged European Union governments to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, as she collected the Sakharov Prize on his behalf during a ceremony in the French city of Strasbourg.
The Moscow Times: Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s daughter on Wednesday urged the EU to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, as she collected a rights prize on behalf of her father. “Although coming here is amazing, it is also probably exactly how mine and my family’s worst nightmare looks like,” Daria Navalnaya told the European Parliament as she picked up its annual Sakharov Prize. Navalny — Putin’s highest-profile domestic opponent — has been behind bars since returning to Moscow in January from Germany, where he was recovering from a poisoning attack with a Novichok nerve agent that both he and the West blame on the Kremlin.
RFE/RL: The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ordered Russia to pay compensation to four victims of domestic violence, including Margarita Grachyova, whose husband used an ax to cut off her hands four years ago.
Meduza: Russia Today’s parent company is suing Feelosophy, a Moscow-based store that recently started selling merchandise branded with the phrase “foreign agent” (inostrannyi agent and inoagent) to raise support for Meduza. Available court records indicate that ANO TV-Novosti’s lawsuit is against Georgy Saribekyan, Feelosophy’s founder. RT’s parent company seeks 500,000 rubles (about $6,775) in damages.
Front Line Defenders: On 8 December 2021, the Kirov District Court of the Republic of Crimea ruled in favour of the sentencing of human rights defender Mustafa Seidaliev to 10 days detention. The Court found the human rights defender guilty of “production and publication of extremist data” (Article 20.29 of the Code of Civic Conduct) and “propaganda of prohibited symbols” (Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Civic Conduct) in relation to his social media posts published in 2012. Representatives of the organisation Crimean Solidarity believe that the charges against the human rights defender result from his peaceful and legitimate human rights work.
European Parliament: The award ceremony of the 2021 edition of the Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought took place on December 15th, in Strasbourg. The laureate Alexei Navalny, was represented at the ceremony by his daughter, Daria Navalnaya, and Leonid Volkov, friend and political advisor.
European Parliament: Alexei Navalny, a leading opposition figure in Russian politics, has been awarded the 2021 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought for his fight for democracy in Russia. Navalny has spent years exposing corruption among Russia’s top officials and leading demonstrations against the regime. His actions struck a chord with millions of people across the country. Since becoming a household name, he has been arrested, harassed and poisoned in an apparent attempt on his life. In February, he was imprisoned in a penal colony. “He once said that corruption flourishes when there is disregard for human rights. And I believe he is right. The fight against corruption is a fight for the respect of universal human rights. It is certainly a fight for human dignity, for good governance and for rule of law.” Navalny’s daughter, Daria collected the prize on behalf of her father, delivering his message to the European Parliament. “When I wrote to my dad and asked: What exactly would you like me to say in the speech from your point? He answered: Say that no one can dare to equate Russia to Putin’s regime. Russia is a part of Europe and we strive to become a part of it.” The European Parliament has condemned the arrest, attempted assassination and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny. It is calling for his immediate release. By awarding him the 2021 Sakharov prize, MEPs recognise his fight for democracy and fundamental freedoms in his native Russia.
Euopean Parliament [Resolution]: Urges Russia to stop the ongoing crackdown on civil society, human rights defenders and independent media by repealing the ‘foreign agents’ and ‘undesirable organisations’ laws, ceasing to create special legislation or abuse existing criminal or administrative laws with the aim of targeting dissident voices in the country or abroad, and bringing its legislation in line with the commitments that Russia has voluntarily undertaken under international law and its own Constitution, including by fully reinstating freedom of association and expression, as well as media and internet freedom; calls on the Russian authorities to ensure that restitution and reparation measures are put in place to address the violations committed in the process of implementing the ‘foreign agents’ and ‘undesirable organisations’ laws; Expresses its solidarity with the Russian people and urges the Russian authorities to stop persecuting Memorial, its staff, and all other NGOs, human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, scholars, historians, women’s rights and LGBTIQ+ rights activists and environmental activists in Russia; reiterates its support to Russia’s civil society and human rights defenders and calls on Russia to establish a clear legal framework and a safe working environment for civil society in line with international human rights standards; stresses the need to guarantee effective and efficient legal recourse procedures for civil society actors whose freedom to work has been compromised; Reiterates that the free and independent work of civil society organisations and the media is a cornerstone of a democratic society based on the rule of law; calls therefore on the Commission, the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the Member States to increase support for civil society, independent NGOs, human rights defenders, historians and independent media outlets active in Russia, including sustainable and flexible financial support and emergency assistance, and to encourage greater international support for these actors and their broader inclusion in international civil society networks; appeals to the sense of responsibility of Russian academia to provide those researchers and historians with adequate and safe opportunities to pursue their academic activity; Praises Memorial’s significant contribution to the documentation, research and education about political repression in the Soviet Union and highlights that this work established international standards; applauds its tireless work in defence of human rights in today’s Russia and beyond; commends in particular its initiatives such as the request for initiation of criminal proceedings against members of the Wagner Group on behalf of victims in Syria, and its sustained efforts for the criminal prosecution of crimes and human rights violations in Chechnya; stresses that liquidation of International Memorial and Human Rights Centre Memorial would therefore have significant negative consequences for civil society as a whole and for the protection of human rights in Russia in particular; Underlines that the liquidation of these organisations would also bring an end to Memorial’s unique databases and document collections and believes that these records are a unique heritage of humanity; stresses that it is paramount that they be protected and preserved and continue to be available to anyone interested, including students, researchers and families of victims; invites the Commission and the EEAS therefore to produce a comprehensive report together with civil society and Russian human rights experts on the living memory of the millions of victims of political terror in the Soviet Union, which would be based on the witness statements and databases collected by Memorial;9. Condemns the policy of historical revisionism and glorification of Stalinism promoted by the Russian Government and authorities, used not only in the current attempts to liquidate Memorial Human Rights Centre, but also in numerous other cases, such as the discovery of mass graves in Sandarmokh in the Republic of Karelia and the subsequent politically motivated prison sentence, based on fabricated charges, of Yury Dmitriev, local leader of Memorial, as well as the confiscation of the book by Agnes Haikara on the tragic fate of Norwegian and Finnish colonists of the Kola peninsula; underlines that remembering the victims of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes and recognising and raising awareness of the crimes committed by communist, Nazi and other dictatorships is of vital importance for the unity of Europe and for fostering resilience against modern threats to democracy, particularly among younger generations; […]
RFE/RL: Russia has presented the United States with a set of proposals for binding Western security guarantees during a meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried in Moscow on December 15, the Kremlin said.
16 December 2021
RFE/RL: The Moscow City Court has ruled that hearings on a prosecutor’s request to shut down one of Russia’s oldest rights watchdogs, the Memorial Human Rights Center, will begin on December 23. Dozens of Memorial supporters gathered in front of the court’s building on December 16 as the decision was being handed down.
Human Rights in Ukraine: The grenade which Ukrainian journalist Vladislav Yesypenko is accused of carrying in his car in Russian-occupied Crimea does not fit in the car compartment where the FSB claimed to have found it. This was not the only glaring discrepancy in the prosecution’s case demonstrated during the ‘court’ hearing on 13 December, yet prosecutor Yelena Podolnaya once again demanded and ‘judge’ Dlyaver Berberov ordered that Yesypenko be held in detention until (at least) 18 March 2022, just over a year after he was first seized and imprisoned.
RFE/RL: Petrakov is one of an unknown number of military officers who are resigning from duty, demoralized, or disgusted, or simply fed up by the conditions, physical and psychological, they are forced to serve in. While the problem of hazing conscripts remains a stubborn and much-documented problem in Russia’s armed forces, the issue of officers resigning in protest is less well-known.
The Moscow Times: Western allies on Thursday rejected Russia’s bid to thwart Kiev’s NATO ambitions and urged Moscow to halt its military build-up along Ukraine’s border and return to talks led by France and Germany. European Union leaders, meeting in Brussels, insisted on “the urgent need for Russia to de-escalate tensions caused by the military build-up along its border with Ukraine and aggressive rhetoric”.
RFE/RL: A court in Moscow has rejected a request to release from pretrial detention the chief executive of a leading Russian cybersecurity company who was arrested in September on charges of state treason. The Moscow City Court on December 16 ruled that a lower court’s November 23 decision to extend Ilya Sachkov’s pretrial detention until February 28, 2022, was legal and cannot be changed.
RFE/RL: A court in Moscow has ordered Twitter, Facebook’s owner Meta, and TikTok to pay more fines for violating the country’s rules on banned content. A magistrate court in the Russian capital ruled in separate hearings on December 16 that Twitter must pay 10 million rubles ($135,300), Meta 13 million rubles ($176,000), and TikTok 4 million rubles ($54,130) for failing or refusing to delete banned content as instructed in an earlier ruling.
17 December 2021
The Moscow Times: Russia on Friday confirmed 27,743 Covid-19 infections and 1,080 deaths.
Meduza: Moscow’s Tverskoy District Court has jailed Pussy Riot activists Maria Alyokhina and Lyusya Shtein (a municipal deputy) for 15 days and 14 days, respectively, under the administrative article prohibiting the display of Nazi symbols. On Friday, December 17, Alyokhina told Mediazona that the administrative charge was brought against her over a photo of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko with swastikas, which she posted on Instagram in 2015.
RFE/RL: A leading member of the Pussy Riot protest group in Russia, Maria Alyokhina, has been detained in Moscow over an online post she made in 2015. Alyokhina wrote on Instagram on December 16 that she was detained for posting a picture six years ago of Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka with Nazi swastikas on it, comparing him with “fascists.”
Meduza: A Moscow court has upheld the decision to prolong the detention of former journalists and Roscosmos communications advisor Ivan Safronov, who is awaiting trial for treason. For the first time in a long time, journalists were allowed to attend the hearing. Before the court announced its ruling, Safronov wished everyone a happy New Year and said that he had begun to receive letters again after several months of being denied the right to correspondence at the request of investigators. The court ruled to extend Safronov’s detention until January 7, 2022. By that time, he will have been in pre-trial custody for 18 months — the maximum period of detention at the preliminary investigation stage. However, since investigators have already handed over the case materials to the defense for review, they can petition to prolong his detention beyond this period.
RFE/RL: The Supreme Court of Russia’s Republic of Tatarstan has rejected an appeal filed by Nakia Sharifullina, a noted teacher and founder of Islamic schools for girls, who was handed a suspended two-year sentence in August after being convicted of organizing the activities of a banned Islamic group. Sharifullina’s lawyer, Ruslan Nagiyev, told RFE/RL that the court handed down its decision on the appeal on December 17.
RFE/RL: A bribery case in southern Russia indicates the country had troops stationed in eastern Ukraine, contradicting a long-held Kremlin position that it has never been a party to the conflict in the region. The verdict in the case against V.H. Zaboluyev, the deputy manager of a food supplier in Rostov-on-Don, a city near eastern Ukraine, states that he oversaw the procurement and delivery of food to “Russian military personnel located in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR).”
Meduza: Russia’s censorship agency is threatening to restrict access to YouTube after the video platform shut down yet another German-language channel run by the Russian state-controlled television network RT (Russia Today).
The Moscow Times: Russia’s laws adequately protect victims of domestic violence, the Kremlin said Thursday, a day after Europe’s top rights court ordered Russia to pay damages to four victims for failing to properly investigate their abuse cases. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov defended the status quo after one of the high-profile victims expressed hope that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling would prompt Russia to push through legislative changes. Peskov’s comments also contradict a Russian Constitutional Court ruling in April that ordered stronger laws to punish repeat domestic violence offenders.
RFE/RL: Russia has imposed a travel ban on seven unnamed British citizens in a tit-for-tat response to London’s sanctions connected to the August 2020 poisoning of Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.
Meduza: Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya warns that reforms recently adopted by the State Duma to further the centralization of power in Russia’s federal government could endanger the entire political system by pinning too much on the presidency and the Kremlin’s “subjective and closed insider logic.” “Constitutional Putinism” is supposed to weed out remnants of the destabilizing “opportunism” elevated in Russia’s “Yeltsin Constitution,” Stanovaya argues in a recent essay for the Carnegie Moscow Center, but Putinism could prove to be even more prone to opportunism if it is incapable of accommodating the multiple power centers that would emerge in a serious political crisis (for example, the loss of United Russia’s parliamentary monopoly or a severe decline in the president’s popularity).