Sarah Hurst reports on Vladimir Putin’s increasingly desperate attempts to suppress dissent in Russia, where nothing is what it seems.
While record high temperatures in Moscow resulted in city authorities bringing in artificial snow to make Russia’s capital more festive, and a national decree declared that the Government would attempt to take advantage of global warming, nothing prevented a flurry of actions aimed against the critics of the Russian President Vladimir Putin over the holiday season.
One of the victims was Alexei Soldatov, a 68-year-old pioneer of the Russian internet, who was placed under house arrest on convoluted embezzlement charges. Soldatov happens to be the father of well-known investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov – the author of The Red Web on digital surveillance, and the recently-published The Compatriot, looking into KGB assassinations of exiles.
Another investigative journalist, Novaya Gazeta’s Yulia Polukhina was detained and questioned about her reporting on a group of Donbass militants known as the E.N.O.T. Corp., who fell out with Russian occupying authorities in eastern Ukraine and themselves were charged with crimes. Polukhina’s home was searched and she was told that she was a witness in the case – a common Kremlin tactic of intimidation that can later lead to charges being brought.
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Meanwhile, law enforcers smashed the door of the flat of Ruslan Shaveddinov – an aide to opposition leader Alexei Navalny who has previously been jailed for hosting coverage of protests in Moscow on YouTube – and swept him off to Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic for military service.
There is no internet connection or mobile phone service in the archipelago. Navalny and his team expressed outrage and were rewarded with a raid on the offices of their organisation, the Foundation for Fighting Corruption. This time, masked men sawed through the door with the help of a blow-torch. The official reason given was Navalny’s refusal to delete a YouTube video about the Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s alleged corruption, Don’t Call Him Dimon, which has had more than 33 million views.
Rights are respected even less in occupied Crimea, where dozens of Crimean Tatars are in prison on spurious charges and were left out of the recent prisoner exchange in Ukraine.
However, the case of blogger Yevhen Gayvoronskiy is relatively unusual because he has been “deported” by Russia from his own home in Yalta to mainland Ukraine.
Gayvoronskiy initially supported the annexation of Crimea but then became an outspoken Putin critic and was jailed on drug charges in October. The retribution is reminiscent of how Putin blocked Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev from Crimea in 2014. Dzhemilev was deported by Stalin as a baby and spent 15 years in Soviet labour camps.
Putin’s rule is increasingly looking like the game whack-a-mole, with more protestors popping up as fast as he can bash them.
A one-man shooting spree at the FSB’s Lubyanka headquarters was particularly embarrassing as it took place a few hours after the Russian President’s annual press conference in which tame journalists compete to give him an opportunity to boast about his achievements and even give him presents.
The perpetrator, who killed two law enforcers before being shot dead, turned out to be a Putin admirer with a grudge against the FSB, but authorities quickly tried to claim he had a link to Ukrainian extremists.
The final absurdity for 2019 was Putin calling Donald Trump to thank him for intelligence that had allegedly led to the arrest of two men in St. Petersburg, who had sworn allegiance to ISIS and were plotting to blow up the Kazan cathedral. Even more oddly, the story was virtually identical to one from December 2017, when Putin also claimed that the CIA helped foil a plot to blow up the Kazan cathedral and subsequently jailed the suspects.
As Peter Pomerantsev has said of Russia, nothing is real and everything is possible.