Russia, Explained#21 by Novaya Gazeta

Our Journalist Attacked

Elena Milashina. Photo:
Elena Milashina. Photo:

This Week’s Highlights

An attack on our journalist, the opposition rallies to fight changes to the Constitution, the coronavirus outbreak threatens the economy and other top stories Russia has been reading this week.

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

Our Journalist Attacked

A group of people attacked Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Milashina and lawyer Marina Dubrovina late in the evening on February 6, at the Continent Hotel in Grozny, the capital of the Chechnya region in Southern Russia. Fifteen people beat the two women, who suffered bruises.

In Milashina’s words. Milashina remembers a woman coming up to her and saying “you are protecting the Wahhabis [Islamic fundamentalists] who killed my husband.” Before she had a chance to respond, the girl punched Milashina in the face. “The crowd, as if on cue, knocked me and Marina onto the beautiful, and as it turns out, not so clean marble floor. [They beat us] hysterically, dramatically,” Milashina recalls. Milashina says that the incident felt scripted and both she and Dubrovina are sure that the attack is related to their professional activities.

Investigative video blogger on trial.In December 2019, Milashina published an article about Chechen video blogger Islam Nukhanov, who was illegally abducted and tortured by law enforcement after trying to expose the lavish lifestyles of top regional officials. When Milashina was attacked last week, she was in Grozny to cover Nukhanov’s trial – and lawyer Marina Dubrovina was there as his representative.

What Chechen officials fear.“This attack is undoubtedly linked to Islam Nukhanov,” Milashina says. “The Chechen authorities are afraid of topics that have been ripening in society for a long time. Things like corruption, catastrophic social inequality and the lawlessness of Chechen security officials. And it just so happens that young people, like Nukhanov, are raising these topics — and end up filling up the basements of secret Chechen prisons today because of it.”

Read Elena Milashina’s account of the attack and the case of Islam Nukhanov here.

The Nyet! Campaign, Explained

In the aftermath of Putin’s political shakeup in January, Russia is now preparing for a “nationwide vote on constitutional amendments” in April – a procedure that has no established legal status and seems to be taking the shape of an expensive public opinion poll. Nevertheless, popular pushback has been gaining a bit of momentum.

The Nyet! Campaign.Opposition politicians are already trying to hold a pseudo-referendum, called the Nyet! (“No,” in Russian) Campaign to protest the extension of President Vladimir Putin’s powers. And while our politics editor Kirill Martynov doubts that the campaign will have a decisive effect, he still thinks the opposition can pursue specific and realistic goals. “Firstly, failed voting in major Russian cities (Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg) may demonstrate the weakness of the Kremlin’s policies at the federal level,” Martynov says. “Secondly, preserving the existing Constitution may become a shared opposition agenda and a second point of consolidation – along with the fight against political repression.”

Illustration by Peter Sarukhanov / Novaya Gazeta
Illustration by Peter Sarukhanov / Novaya Gazeta

Key Navalny’s role.The way Martynov sees it, much of the success of the Nyet! Campaign will depend on opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who has been unusually silent on the topic of the constitutional changes. While he initially came out in support of the current ‘super-presidential’ Constitution, he has yet to speak on the issue in detail.

Read Kirill Martynov’s full column on the potential of the Nyet! Campaign here.

Coronavirus Sparks Surprising Fears in the Far East

The outbreak of the coronavirus has led Russia’s far-eastern Amur region to close its shared border with China. So our correspondent traveled to the regional capital, Blagoveshchensk. Surprisingly, catching the disease is not what scares residents there most – they’re more afraid of the growing economic fallout.

A vibrant border no more.Blagoveshchensk is the closest Russian city to China – located just across the Amur River from the Chinese province of Heilongjiang. Until recently, ferries connected the two countries, running every 30 minutes to take buses filled with tourists and shuttle traders over the border. Now it’s been shut down.

City of Blagoveshchensk. Photo: Ivan Belozerov / Novaya Gazeta
City of Blagoveshchensk. Photo: Ivan Belozerov / Novaya Gazeta

Ignore the virus away.At first glance, everything in Blagoveshchensk seems normal. It’s almost like the city has been trying to ignore the virus – and it seems to be working. Playgrounds are filled with children, pensioners are out for walks, young people meet in cafes and the city’s yellow buses are filled with passengers. And no one is wearing medical masks, despite the fact that the local authorities introduced a “mask regime” at the end of January.

Economic fallout mounts.Meanwhile, most of the salespeople are worried about the border closures causing sales to drop. “Everything is focused on China! People come from Heihe constantly – they love our gold. And now look, everything is empty,” says a jewelry saleswoman named Galina, working at one of the 10 jewelry stores on one particular street. The border closure has hit local travel agencies, too — 40% of their trips on offer are to China.

Impending food shortages.Meanwhile, Blagoveshchensk is already running out of some vegetables, since so much produce was brought in from China. “Yes, the vegetables have run out,” says the manager at a local supermarket, Tatyana, showing our correspondent trays of apples, carrots, and onions. “Before the tomatoes and cucumbers were here, instead of the apples. The onions haven’t run out yet, but the price has risen by two and a half roubles per kilogram. We have a local greenhouse but it can’t cope, there’s no time to grow vegetables.”

View of the chinese city of Heihe from Blagoveshchensk. Photo: Ivan Belozerov / Novaya Gazeta
View of the chinese city of Heihe from Blagoveshchensk. Photo: Ivan Belozerov / Novaya Gazeta

Meanwhile, in Russia’s coronavirus “ground zero.”Meanwhile, panic has broken out in the Siberian city of Tyumen where 144 Russian citizens evacuated from China are under army-guarded quarantine at a sanatorium 30 kilometers outside of the city. This has become Russia’s “coronavirus ground zero.” In the city itself, the situation is tense: pharmacies are running out of medical masks as people have begun buying multiple packs at a time and rumors are spreading about new cases in the area around the hostel where the country’s first patient – a student from China – used to live.

Read our full dispatch from the main city on the Russian-Chinese border here and find out more about the panic in Tyumen here.

Other Top-Stories Russia Has Been Reading

  • Our top read story this week was an investigation into the deaths of officers from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) who were shot and killed in Syria. According to the official version, the four men were killed in the crossfire during a shootout, ahead of planned suicide bombing in Aleppo. But this is far from the truth. According to our sources, the officers were ambushed near Latakia – a relatively peaceful region completely controlled by pro-Assad forces – and they were shot at point blank range.
Russian military police in Syria. Photo: Reuters
Russian military police in Syria. Photo: Reuters
  • Among this week’s top stories was an analysis of Putin’s deteriorating relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over the situation in Syria. During their last phone conversation on February 4, the two leaders discussed the ongoing hostilities in the city Idlib – where the ceasefire they declared on 12 January isn’t holding. According to military expert Pavel Felgenhauer, Putin has invested a lot of money and effort into his friendship with Erdoğan, in order to pull Turkey away from the United States and drive a wedge into NATO’s southern flank. However, Russia’s top brass are not necessarily on the same page. “To the Russian military and diplomats, those who are close to Assad’s regime or are interested in Lybian oil having one owner, Putin’s bromance with the Turkish president seems like an expensive and senseless tsarist whim,” he says.
  • Yesterday, verdicts were handed down in the “Network Case,” resulting in seven members of the leftwing organization known as the “Network” (or Set’ in Russian) receiving between six and eighteen years in penal colonies on terror charges. The “Network’s” members were accused of an alleged anti-Putin coup; charges which Amnesty International deemed “absurd.” What’s more, the defendants’ complaints about being tortured in pre-trial detention were either dismissed or even deemed legal.

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 Newsletter 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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