Russia, Explained#13 by Novaya Gazeta

‘Putin’s Chef’ and his latest attack on us — Another environmental crisis in the far-north

Yevgeny Prigozhin
Yevgeny Prigozhin

This Week’s Highlights

Novaya Gazeta takes a media company belonging to “Putin’s chef” to court for libel, another ecological crisis in the Russian far-north, Cyprus deprives Russia’s biggest oligarchs of citizenship, the Russian authorities play the blame game in the country’s latest doping scandal and Roskomnadzor launches new measures in the fight against “fake news.”

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‘Putin’s Chef’ and His Persistent Attacks on Us, Explained

Novaya Gazeta is suing the Russian online news outlet RIA FAN, a company that is among the media structures belonging to Kremlin-linked billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin. The basis for the libel suit is a recent publication falsely claiming that our investigative correspondent Denis Korotkov works for the Islamic State. The publication appeared after Korotkov released a reportthat identified one of the militiamen involved in apparent war crimes in Syria as an intelligence operative for the Wagner Group; a private military contractor associated with Prigozhin.

‘Putin’s chef’ has a long history of abusing us.The confrontation goes back nearly a decade. In the past, Prigozhin’s agents have infiltrated the editorial office to collect compromising information (unsuccessfully), fabricated criminal cases for robbery against some of our journalists (which were also unsuccessful), left a severed sheep’s head with a funeral wreath and a photograph of Denis Korotkov at the editorial office and sprayed commentator Yuliya Latynina’s car with toxic chemicals and set it on fire. Formal investigations yielded no conclusions and failed to identify anyone involved.

Snooping, exposed.Prigozhin is known for his links to the Russian President and is often called “Putin’s chef” because of the chain of restaurants he owned in the Kremlin. But his business empire is much bigger than that, encompassing everything from catering companies and disinformation outlets to private military contractors and “troll factories.” Prigozhin’s companies are, however, lacking in one key area: their own information security. For Prigozhin’s parent company, Concord Management and Consulting, an information leak that included the contents of the businessman’s personal email inbox has been their biggest security failure to date.

‘Putin’s Chef’ is watching you.The leak revealed that Prigozhin’s attempts at surveillance went beyond the Novaya Gazeta editorial office: ranging from spying on activists and journalists, to snooping on meetings between Putin and the then-Prime Minister of Italy Silvio Burlusconi, as well as with then-President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez and then-President of Finland Tarja Halonen. He used his caterers as spies. Bizzare, right?

Backstory.Prigozhin is leading Putin’s expansion in Africa, and is under sanctions from the United States for his affiliation with the so-called Internet Research Agency, aka the St. Petersburg “troll factory” – a company engaged in disruptive commenting and influence campaigns on social networks. Sources believe that Prigozhin’s people could be involved in attacks on activists, as well as the murder of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic in July 2018.

Read more about how “Putin’s chef” was spying on the Russian President and his guests here.

Another Environmental Disaster in Northern Russia, Explained

On the morning of November 13, 2019, the industrial town of Segezha in Russia’s northern region of Karelia was overcome with the familiar smell of rotten eggs. It was the usual smell of hydrogen sulfide, coming from one of the country’s largest pulp and paper companies. It wasn’t until the next day, when the snow turned yellow and birds began falling from the sky that locals realized something was amiss. Then, on the afternoon of November 18, 2019, a fetid fog descended on the city. After this second surge, eco-activists connected the discoloured snow and dying birds to the smell of hydrogen sulfide and the emissions from the Segezha Pulp and Paper Mill.

“You couldn’t see anyone from ten meters away. We thought maybe it was fog. It was frightening, it wasn’t clear what it was. And it’s still frightening, because no one knows what it is. They say it’s salt, [but] we’ve never put down salt here.” – Segezha resident, Natalya.

Segezha Plague. The people of Segezha took to social media, where they posted photos of the yellow snow and dead birds. A petition appeared on titled “Segezha Plague.” Local officials ran several tests, but claimed that they turned out fine. They were seconded by the Federal Service for the Oversight of Consumer Protection and Welfare, Rospotrebnadzor, which officially declared that air sample analysis revealed no excess concentrations of pollutants.

Serial environmental crime. One local Deputy (who asked not to be named “because of possible problems”), says that on November 13, 2019, “The plant workers said there was a toxic emission at the facility. What kind of toxic emission, no one said. They were ready to talk to journalists but then they refused.” Although the Deputy claims that the plant is investing in the town’s development, there has been an excess of hydrogen sulfide in the tap water since 2016 and the authorities have admitted that the water quality is not up to code. It is unsuitable for drinking and is yellow in colour.

“Now I am afraid that the plant will go to court, because a lot of people are blaming it. I’m scared for the people: going up against this kind of monster is scary. And not a single political party is standing up [for them],” the anonymous deputy says.

Backstory. The ecological crisis in Segezha speaks to the severe environmental degradation taking place across the Russian provinces and in the far-north. Like many of Russia’s industrial towns Segezha was developed during the Soviet period as a “single-industry city,” making the local pulp and paper mill the main employer and source of income for local residents. Last year, Segezha marked its 80th anniversary, but the town is in many ways struggling to survive because the plant has such a devastating environmental impact.

Read Novaya Gazeta’s full report on the ecological catastrophe in Segezha here.

Cyprus Takes Citizenship from Russia’s Biggest Oligarchs

In early November 2019, Cyprus’s judicial and migration authorities announced the beginning of deprivation of citizenship procedures for 26 people, including a number of Russia’s wealthiest oligarchs. This week, a local newspaper called Politis named a few of the alleged “victims,” including U.S. sanctioned billionaire oligarch Oleg Deripaska, as well as Vladimir Stolyarenko and Aleksandr Bondarenko, the former top-managers of one of the biggest commercial banks in Russia, Evrofinance Mosnarbank.

Backstory. The news of Russia’s wealthiest being deprived of citizenship abroad follows a general trend of Western countries trying to expel questionable Russian figures from their jurisdictions. For oligarchs like Oleg Deripaska, the grounds for the deprivation of their Cypriot citizenship (which they usually obtained through citizenship by investment or so-called “golden passport” programs) is the fact that they are under sanctions from the U.S. Treasury Department. That being said, the loss of their “golden passports” is just a consequence of the toxic dealings that Russian oligarchs have been involved in since they began accruing wealth in the 1990s.

Read more about Cyprus’s decision to deprive Russia’s wealthiest oligarchs of citizenship here.

Russia’s Latest Doping Scandal, Explained

In the wake of another doping scandal, Russia is awaiting the December 9th decision on the disqualification of the country’s anti-doping agency and the removal of the Russian team from all international competitions. This would include a ban on participating in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Experts from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) proved that the database Russia’s Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) transferred to them in January 2019 had been tampered with, concluding that “this is an extremely serious case of non-compliance with the requirement to provide a genuine copy of the data, which is characterized by a number of aggravating circumstances.”

Disinformation. Russian officials not only transferred a database that had been altered and tampered with to WADA, but also launched a disinformation attack to discredit the former head of Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory, Griogry Rodchenkov. Ahead of WADA’s announcement, the state-controlled television channel NTV released a documentary defending the Russian side’s “desecrated honor and dignity,” and placing all of the blame for Russia’s doping problems on Rodchenkov and his subordinates. According to the documentary, they were not only responsible for manipulating the laboratory’s databases, but also for blackmailing athletes and entire sport federations with the aim of personal enrichment. But as Novaya Gazeta sports columnist Vladimir Mozgovoy writes, “the authors [of the film] forgot to explain the main point: that the multifaceted activities of the laboratory directors, which included explicit fraud, were completely planned by [its] Russian parent organizations.”

Read Novaya Gazeta sports columnist Vladimir Mozgovoy’s take on the latest Russian doping scandal here.

Roskomnadzor’s “Fake News” List, Explained

Having allegedly taken up the fight against disinformation with its recent law on combating the spread of “fake news,” Russia has introduced another measure that could also be used as a tool to arbitrarily put pressure on independent media. The federal watchdog for communications, IT and mass media, Roskomnadzor, has compiled a list of information resources that have, according to the agency, repeatedly distributed ‘fake news’ online.

Testing. This list includes a number of online communities based on the social network VKontakte (the Russian equivalent of Facebook), where users are allegedly writing “incorrect” comments. The online communities listed range from groups for residents of particular cities to the accounts of specific users, as well as a number of mass media outlets such as the RBK media group and news site Gazeta.Ru. According to Roskomnadzor, the list is not meant to target the posts in online communities, but rather the comments users write underneath them.

Experts Weigh In.Given that there are already legal mechanisms for combating false and/or damaging information online, media law expert Galina Arapova thinks the registry seems like a waste of time, money and government resources. “There is no need to gather information from all over the country about someone distributing inaccurate information. Any gossip is, in fact, false information. But it’s not prohibited by law,” she says. Arapova also raises concerns about how the registry was compiled and whether or not the information was verified. She also doubts that it will actually be useful for targeting fake news. Meanwhile, the Kremlin hijacking the fight against disinformation to whitewash attacks on Russia’s few remaining independent media outlets exposes the shortcomings of the fight against “fake news” that democratic government are pursuing abroad. Now, Russia can point to the measures democratic countries are taking and argue that they have the right to call out “fakes” too.

Get all the details on Roskomnadzor’s latest attempts to combat “fake news” here.

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 for the latest stories in Russian. Until next time!

— The Novaya Gazeta Team

The new English language newsletter from Novaya Gazeta brings you a weekly overview of our finest journalism covering and explaining key news events across Russia. This includes a rundown of Novaya Gazeta’s high-stakes investigative reporting, as well as analysis aimed at answering your questions about the latest developments. In short, we bring you everything you need to know about Russia, courtesy of a legacy newspaper in the country. Subscribe here.
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