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Russia, Explained #10 by Novaya Gazeta

Russia’s “Big Brother” — “Foreign agent” law 2.0 — Gorbachev on the Berlin Wall

12:10, 13 ноября 2019

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12:10, 13 ноября 2019

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Фото: Zuma / TASS

This Week’s Highlights

Moscow launches a “Big Brother” face recognition system, the authorities crack down on human rights organizations while looking to extend the “foreign agents” law, Novaya Gazeta talks to Mikhail Gorbachev about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Ministry of Internal Affairs unveils a new plan to combat illegal call centers in Russian prisons. 

Want to get the full story? Click the links below for full-length articles in Russian. 

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Moscow’s “Big Brother” System, Explained

This fall, the Moscow Mayor’s Office launched a new facial recognition system, installing and updating 162 thousand CCTV cameras in the capital. The mass surveillance system is one of the main projects in Moscow’s Smart City — 2030 program, which is set to build a system of digital control over its citizens. In May, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced a competition to create a large-scale face recognition system, which would include over 200,000 CCTV cameras. The Moscow-based microelectronics company Sistronics — controlled by Russian conglomerate AFK Sistema — is handling the project. 

Big Brother. Russia is working closely with China for the development of its urban video surveillance system, since China has had such a system in operation for four years. That being said,

Russia currently has no legislation to regulate the use of face recognition technology and the wording of the law “on personal data” is very vague. This creates a huge opening for abuse of the system.

Backstory. The Moscow officials behind the Smart City — 2030 program are trying to sell it as something that can turn the capital into Russia’s own Silicon Valley. In reality, it will look more like the system of total surveillance China has installed to spy on the Muslim minority in Xinjiang. The Mayor’s Office is planning a 20 percent increase in funding for the Moscow Department of Information Technology and is set to spend almost 240 billion roubles (around $3.7 billion) on updating the city’s technology from 2019 to 2021. This is almost as much as the amount allocated for investing in Moscow’s urban development and improving utilities infrastructure. 

Read Novaya Gazeta’s full report on Moscow’s new face recognition system here

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Extending the “Foreign Agent” Crackdown

The persecution of human rights organizations in Russia has become increasingly frequently as of late, with the authorities making use of the “foreign agent” law to facilitate the crackdown. Now, lawmakers are threatening to extend the status of “foreign agent” not only to the media, but also to individuals like bloggers — who are increasingly popular and influential due to the state’s tight control on the country’s media space.

Anyone could become a person of interest for the Ministry of Justice, so long as they receive financing from abroad and share “illegal” information on their page.

_“Fantasies about ‘foreign agent’-housewives are another example of the incompetence of the authorities, especially in situations when they are trying to regulate the internet, which they themselves don’t use.” _— Novaya Gazeta Columnist, Kirill Martinov. 

NGO crackdown intensifies. Last week, the Supreme Court decided to liquidate the rights organization For Human Rights, led by the well known political and civil activist Lev Ponomaryov. The organization was found guilty of failing to disclose their “foreign agents” status. Legacy human rights watchdog Memorial has also been slapped with six different fines totaling nearly 22 thousand dollars for violating the “foreign agents” law this year alone. 

_“For some reason, the Russian authorities still can’t speak directly about the fact that they are introducing censorship and forbidding citizens from expressing any points of view different from the official ones. Therefore, they are endlessly expanding prohibitions linked to the ‘foreign agent’ status.” _— Novaya Gazeta Columnist, Kirill Martinov. 

Backstory. Russia enacted its controversial “foreign agents” law in 2012, requiring non-profit organizations that receive funding from abroad and engage in “political activity” to register and declare themselves as “foreign agents.” Memorial’s international branch was included in the “foreign agents” register in 2016, for calling Russia’s actions in Ukraine “aggression” in accordance with the United Nations definition. According to the Chairman of the Board of the Memorial Human Rights Center, Aleksandr Cherkasov, “they said we are foreign agents because we keep lists of political prisoners [in Russia] and track arrests at rallies.” 

To find out more about the persecution of NGOs in Russia, read Novaya Gazeta’s interview with Aleksandr Cherkasov here **and Kirill Martinov’s op-ed on extending the scope of the “foreign agents” law ** here

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Mikhail Gorbachev on the Fall of the Berlin Wall

To mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (November 9, 1989), the head of  Novaya Gazeta’s editorial board Dmitry Muratov spoke to the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. In an informal chat, Gorbachev — who helped set up Novaya Gazeta in 1990 using his Nobel Peace Prize money — opened up about his decision not to intervene militarily in the Eastern Bloc in 1989, which is often seen as the beginning of the end of the USSR.

“A half-joking tone about great [things] — this is generally typical of Gorbachev. As well as the fact that behind every ironic inflection lies an indelible, now unpopular humanism,” Muratov said about their conversation.

“This in particular, and not geopolitics, seemed most interesting to me.” 

Gorbachev Weighs In.

  • On western leaders opposing the fall of the Berlin Wall: “You don’t understand why? Germany is very strong and it has progressed and increased competition in Europe. Many at that time feared this…and historical memory had not disappeared.” 
  • On the overthrow of Romania’s Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989: “He wanted to get to [the Soviet Union] and hide here, but why did he start shooting on the people? Well, as they say, may he rest in peace…Dictators should always keep a small airplane fueled at an inconspicuous airfield…[That’s] a joke. ”
  • On the decision not to intervene militarily in 1989: “‘I have always been and remain an opponent of bloodshed. I have always been and remain an opponent of the use of force against the people.’” 
  • On the reason the Berlin Wall fell: _“The reason for the fall of the wall, unification and, most importantly, the establishment of lasting peace in Europe is the victory of our people and the people of other countries over fascism. _Think about it.” 
  • On why the Second World War ended in 1989: “Because people in our Europe stopped being afraid of each other.” 

Read Dmitry Muratov’s full conversation with Mikhail Gorbachev here .

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Crackdown on Prison Calls, Explained

In an attempt to combat the phenomenon of illegal call centers run from inside Russian prisons, the Ministry of Internal Affairs has announced plans to install cell signal blockers in correctional facilities across the country. The installation is supposed to be worked out by July 30, 2020. But it will likely fail to bring the desired result. Here’s why.

Telephone Fraud. Although cellular communications are allowed in prisons, the Ministry of Internal Affairs sees the blockers as a way to combat telephone fraud in Russia, where a third of telephone scammers “work” in these illegal prison-based call centers.

“With the help of mobile phones, convicts can not only commit fraud but also put pressure on witnesses, coordinate criminal groups etc.,” said the deputy who proposed the law, Aleksandr Khinshtein.

A Flawed Plan. According to special correspondent Irek Murtazin, the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ plan may be well intentioned, but it’s unlikely to work. Rather than targeting the symptom, the authorities must first acknowledge the corruption among prison officials who are not only allowing these illegal call centers to operate but likely getting a cut of the profits too. “Apparently the Ministry of Internal Affairs decided to come up with this kind of initiative, [while] clearly aware that all of these telephone fraud hotspots are working under the auspices of the prison leadership,” Murtazin says.

Read Irek Murtazin’s special report on the flaws in the plan to block cell service at Russia’s prisons here

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Thanks for reading! To keep up with Novaya Gazeta’s reporting throughout the week, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Telegram. Our video content is available on Youtube and don’t forget to visit our website https://www.novayagazeta.ru for the latest stories in Russian. Until next time! 

— The Novaya Gazeta Newsletter Team 

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