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Russia, Explained

Kremlin vs. investigative reporters — ‘Useful idiots’ — Deforestation in Crimea

13:00, 12 мая 2021«Новая газета», редакция


13:00, 12 мая 2021«Новая газета», редакция


Photo: Andrey Zolotov / "MBH-Media"

Here what’s in store for you this week:

  • The Kremlin is trying to silence the investigative work of our newsroom and of our colleague Roman Anin. This week we report how officials were spying on us and Anin for exposing the vast wealth of the Kremlin-linked elites;
  • This week we also explain how the Russian government uses prominent far-right and far-left foreigners to whitewash electoral fraud and human rights abuse;
  • The Russian annexation comes in one package with mass man-made deforestation. Our Crimea correspondent sends a dispatch about the destruction of one of Crimea’s iconic parks;
  • Plus, we explain Russia’s new era of stagnation, and to end on a slightly more upbeat note, Novaya’s recent TikTok success story!

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

Assault on Russian Investigative Journalism, Explained

When they go low, we publish more. We've been closely following the prosecution of Novaya’s former reporter and veteran investigative journalist, Roman Anin. He faces up to four years in prison after publishing a 2016 exposé about Russia's ‘oil tsar’ and one of his superyachts. This week we continue to amplify Anin’s work in the face of his persecution. Plus, we sit down with the reporter himself for an interview. In it, he opens up about how the government has been surveilling Novaya and its journalists since 2016.

NAMING AND SHAMING OFFENDING INVESTIGATORS. Anin is primarily being investigated by two Russian officials: Konstantin Rodionchik, who conducted Anin’s case for around three months, and Igor Fedutinov from the main directorate of the Investigative Committee in Moscow. Since 2016 these officials and Russia’s top security agency, the FSB, have been closely and deliberately examining Anin and Novaya’s newsroom, putting everyone involved under surveillance. According to Anin, they managed to do the following:

  • identify the technical workers at Novaya’s printing presses and the managing editor of our website, who participated in the design and publication of the newspaper and the website;
  • compile a dossier on Anin’s character;
  • issue an FSB order to monitor and record journalists’ telephone conversations and other communications.

Roman Anin. Photo: Anna Zhavoronkova / "Novaya Gazeta"

‘THE SECRET OF 'PRINCESS OLGA’. All this surveillance was triggered by our 2016 investigation into a superyacht called ‘Princess Olga’, owned by Igor Sechin, CEO of state-owned oil monopoly Rosneft. Sechin's ex-wife Olga was photographed aboard the vessel, then worth around $100m and which remains one of the 100 largest yachts in the world. After that, Sechin’s people started to target the authors with several lawsuits — Anin faces jail because of one. However, the reporter strongly believes he hasn't crossed any legal lines with his ‘Princess Olga’ story — it was very much in the public interest, with much of the sourced information coming from the public domain.

“Information about how the head of a state-owned company's wife is vacationing on a yacht worth about $150 million, of course, should be considered socially important — especially in a country with such high levels of inequality between rich and poor as is the case in Russia. In addition, Olga Sechina herself published these photos to a wide Instagram audience — more than 400 people,” Anin notes.

TO AMPLIFY ANIN'S REPORTING, we have previously published a complete list of his investigations. Anin was recently nominated for the European Press Prize's investigative reporting award. Anin published a detailed account of his initial detention and noted, post-release, that investigators expressed a specific interest in Novaya Gazeta's inner workings.

“The Investigative Committee and the FSB used the case, initiated at the request of Sechina, to monitor not only me but also other employees of Novaya Gazeta,” says Anin.

THE CENTER OF RUSSIAN POWER HAS MOVED TO LUBYANKA. Following intensifying repressions against Putin critics and the FSB’s growing role in them, Novaya's columnist Yulia Latynina warns of an impending “total terror” with the current regime's only pillar of support being the FSB.

“In a country in which power has passed into the hands of the FSB, one can expect an increase in political repression. Everything we see is just the beginning,” she writes in this week’s column.“Up until this point, the authorities would disguise repressions as elaborate lies. For example, Navalny wasn’t targeted with criminal investigations for his opposition views, but for ‘land fraud,’ Latynina explains. “But this new case means that the Kremlin is no longer afraid of sanctions. Furthermore, it somewhat welcomes them as they are a useful excuse for growing poverty levels.”

“THIS IS A SYSTEMIC DECISION TO PURGE THE NEW GENERATION OF UNREGULATED MEDIA outlets that have developed before our eyes,” Latynina continues, mentioning Kremlin’s recent attack on Meduza, a prominent independent newsroom in exile. The officials have put it on the infamous ‘foreign agents’ list and Meduza’s donations system has suffered from cyberattacks. The story got a lot of international attention, at the same time it is not an isolated incident and most independent news outlets in Russia deal with the same pressure.

BACKSTORY. Being a journalist in Russia has never been easy. Journalists are routinely taken to court as part of a campaign to silence and intimidate, and violence against them is common. But the government crackdown on independent reporters and outlets took a brutal turn in 2019 and has reached new lows in recent years. Sergei Smirnov, editor-in-chief of the country’s leading courts news outlet Mediazona was sentenced to 25 days in jail in February for making a joke on social media. Last year Novaya got fined $3,300 for publishing an expose on Chechnya’s repressive COVID-19 lockdown measures, and this year our newsroom suffered a suspected chemical attack. Our investigative reporter Elena Milashina was attacked in Chechnya back in February and faces death threats over her latest reporting piece. Six of our journalists were also murdered over the past 25 years, including Anna Politkovskaya. Her assassination still hasn’t been adequately investigated.

Read Anin’s full interview here, and Latynina’s opinion piece here.

Putin’s ‘Useful Idiots’ Abroad Exposed

The Kremlin has offered expensive charter flights transporting foreign individuals to Moscow as part of what appears to be a campaign to whitewash voter fraud and human rights abuses. The Russian public has likely been footing the bill. While authorities refused to provide a complete list of people who flew to Moscow in July 2020 to ‘monitor and certify’ a constitutional referendum/Putin's power grab, our journalists, along with the Dossier center, have managed to establish their identities independently. In total, there were around 60 foreign representatives from 29 different countries, according to our investigative reporter Denis Korotkov.

AN ODD BUNCH. The bizarre mix of ‘experts’ featured far-right party politicians and businesspeople and some odd outliers, such as an Austrian psychotherapist and a woman of the unknown profession from Uzbekistan. France featured most heavily on the list of 'experts' flown over to Moscow, followed by Serbia. Still, there were also Latvian, Lithuanian, and Armenian attendees. We've managed to put together the complete list and pin the airplane seats assigned for each of them on a shared charter flight.

NOT OFFICIAL ‘OBSERVERS’ EITHER. The group arrived ostensibly to “observe” voting on amendments to the Russian constitution, which would essentially allow Putin to maintain his hold on power until 2036. The amendments to the Russian Constitution were made following a “vote” from June 21 to July 1, 2020. However, the vote was officially neither a referendum nor an election which meant that official international observers couldn't be invited in that capacity. Thus, members of the group were referred to as “experts” to circumvent the issue.

USEFUL WHITEWASHERS. The Kremlin has been limiting international oversight of Russian elections since the 2000s. However, the number of Kremlin-sanctioned “election observers” has somehow kept increasing. This facade of monitoring throughout the voting process allows the Russian government to claim a degree of international legitimacy. For example, if you are a foreigner wishing to observe the Russian electorate, the Kremlin will approve your presence if it also approves of your political alignments.

"We saw an almost complete list of foreign experts who, collectively, are brought to Russia to create the image of international approval for rather questionable electoral procedures", Korotkov notes.

SHADY FINANCING OF 'ELECTION OBSERVERS.' While the government claims it did not finance the trip of foreign election observers, someone must have done so. The charter flight — an Airbus A321 — transported the group as one between Minsk and Moscow — and it wasn't cheap. However, our journalists managed to shed some light on the mystery. Some of the “observers” were members of the European Parliament. Since they must report third-party financing of their travel or accommodation expenses, we managed to identify traces of Russian government funding in their disclosed receipts. Specifically, an MEP and French National Rally (formally National Front) member Thierry Mariani submitted a declaration that shows that the Russian Civic Chamber (a state-funded potemkin institution that claims to be “a civil society council to the government”) was paying his expenses during the trip.

Illustration by Petr Sarukhanov

FAR RIGHT AND FAR LEFT. The Kremlin is often forced to scrape the bottom of the barrel when it seeks foreigners wishing to embrace Putinism. Among the contingent shipped to Moscow last July were far-right French politicians from the National Rally (National Front), who were predominantly based in Crimea over the course of their Russia trip. Then, the six Serbian nationals included the former minister of defence, Zoran Djordjevic. Besides AfD members, the far-right German delegation included the head of a community advocating for the restoration of Prussia, Volker Chapke. All in all, not necessarily our reporters’ top choice of party guests.

MOUTHS SEALED. We sent about fifty requests, asking the ‘experts’ from the list to confirm who exactly invited them, who paid for the trip and whether there was compensation for participating in it. No one has answered. We understand the silence — they probably don’t want to risk the gig. Our first guess: the majority of these ‘experts’ will pop up this September as ‘observers’ in upcoming parliamentary elections in Russia. Our second guess: their assessment of the voting procedure will be invariably ‘high.’

BACKSTORY. Russia hasn’t had a free or fair election since at least 2004. The Kremlin is notoriously reluctant to allow independent observation by foreigners of Russian elections. At the same time, it has a long track record of courting international individuals, which it believes could help bolster the regime’s legitimacy and further its cause both domestically and abroad. It often likes to describe people sharing their political sympathies as ‘experts’ despite a frequent lack of qualifications beyond a shared political vantage point. However, some genuine political figures are involved in these projects, specifically Eurosceptic politicians on both far-right and far-left sides of the political spectrum. Most notably, French and Italian far-right leaders Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini and German far-right party AfD (Alternative for Germany.) Election ‘observers’ from Russian-controlled statelets (such as Abkhazia or Donbas) or friendly authoritarian regimes (Belarus, Venezuela, or Tajikistan) are also most welcomed by the Kremlin.

Read ‘Friends. In bulk’, our investigation into Putin’s ‘foreign friends’ in full here.

Pillage of Annexed Crimea, Explained

With the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula has witnessed the arrival of Russian troops and the spread of Russian environmental degradation, too. This week our correspondent Nadezhda Isaeva reports from one of the region’s most cherished green areas. The 200-year-old Foros Park is being illegally developed and ecologically destroyed in the process, yet local police seem more eager to defend the site from protesters than the construction moguls responsible. Rapid deforestation has been severe in Russia (as we documented last week). Now, it is fast becoming a new norm for the Ukrainian peninsula, too.

DEFORESTATION AND SUBTERFUGE. The current Kremlin-proclaimed head of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, paused all construction work in the park area following an outcry from both locals and the international community. “Construction stops until fall. From June 1, a ban on any construction work will come into effect,” he recently announced. He claims that the construction project’s goal is to create a “children’s camp” in Foros Park. But to locals, this alleged “construction project” is equivalent to obliterating one of the most beautiful natural jewels in the peninsula’s proverbial crown.

Photo: Arden Arkman / "Novaya Gazeta"

NATURE CAPTURED BY THE ELITES. Around 40km west of Yalta, the gorgeous resort town comprises part of a region that was restricted to the general public during the Soviet era. The park and its surrounding areas were the preserve of the ruling party elite, the nomenklatura, in the USSR. The park was first founded in 1834 and is home to vegetation from around the globe, including Europe, Africa, and the Americas — with some 200 different species in total. That is, until the most recent round of destruction.

PROTECT CRIMEA FROM PROTESTS! During recent protests against construction work at Foros, only 100 people showed up to engage in discussions about the park's future. However, local authorities still saw fit to deploy some 30 uniformed policemen and 20 plain-clothes officers. There was a subsequent bout of detentions.

"We were kept in a cold basement for about two hours," one of the detained protesters tells us. "Four people fell ill; some were even laid up with a fever. I am 60 years old, I am hypertensive, I felt unwell, but the police refused to even call a doctor from an outpatient clinic next door."

THE PRIME REGIONAL ATTRACTION, THE SANATORIUM IS NOW REPORTEDLY CONTROLLED BY RUSSIAN OFFICIALS from the autonomous Tatarstan region. High-ranking bureaucrats have been purchasing significant swathes of the Crimean coast in recent years. Locals don't believe that a children's camp is being constructed, but rather a massive residential area to cater to the wealthy. Construction still seems to be gaining momentum, says Isaeva.

BACKSTORY. Crimea’s coastal regions have been a prime holiday destination and hotspot for high-end summer houses for over a century. After Ukrainian independence from Russia, the lucrative coastal region became engulfed by ongoing property wars. Since Moscow's annexation of the peninsula in 2014, the situation has deteriorated. This past year we’ve been reporting on increasing turbulence in Crimea. A struggle with growing corruption, aggressive raids on attractive business assets, a crackdown on Putin critics in the region, and the ongoing persecution of Crimea's indigenous people were among them. Additionally, Crimea has been experiencing a swath of ecological issues since the Russian takeover, notably a drought. Land wars and mass evictions often aggravate the region’s environmental degradation.

Read more about illegal deforestation in Crimea here.

Bonus Corner

  • GIRL WITH THE CONSTITUTION. A 19-year-old journalism student, Olga Misik, who came to be known as the ‘girl with the constitution’ during Moscow pro-democracy protests in 2019 is now facing criminal charges after simply reading out the Russian law to riot police. According to the prosecution, Misik and two others (Igor Basharimov and Ivan Vorobyevsky) are being charged with vandalizing government property after allegedly hanging banners and splattering paint on and around a security booth near the Prosecutor General’s Office in the Russian capital. The defense has suggested parts of the prosecution's documentation has been falsified. Misik has made powerful and fearless statements about her situation. However, the case has still profoundly affected her. “In my own home, I have to filter every word, and am constantly afraid that I am being watched, that there are bugs and wiretaps in the apartment. I am not doing anything remotely bad, but nevertheless I perpetually have to be cautious and check to see whether someone is watching me, whether I accidentally said something that could theoretically fall under the banner of extremism,” Misik says.
  • EAT THE POOR. Russia is entering a new era of stagnation, with the pace of economic development currently even lower than the USSR’s Brezhnev’s years. That is, according to a new report from the Liberal Mission Foundation. However, our in-house economist takes a look who is being affected by stagnation, in the “world’s most stable luxury goods market”. The enrichment of the rich, at the expense of everyone else is a thriving practice in Russia, with five out of nine key luxury brands only increasing their revenue here. “If you look at Russia this way, then there is no trace of stagnation: yachts are getting longer, palaces are getting more expensive, a solid breakthrough!”
  • NOVAYA ROCKS TIKTOK. And last, but not least, Novaya has landed a coveted spot as one of Europe’s top news media on TikTok. Coming in above London’s Evening Standard, Novaya Gazeta boasts more than 25,000 followers. Be sure to follow us here. Many of our colleagues at newsrooms across the world are still skeptical about maintaining a TikTok presence. To be honest, even in our own newsroom it remains a divisive issue. However, the platform has emerged as something of a refuge from online censorship for many Russians and Russian civil society, to the point that it has clearly upset the Kremlin. So we’ve seized on this momentum, too. Our TikTok team has not only made a cultural imprint on the platform by coining the concept of ‘cringe’ journalism among GenZ, but they have also managed to turn our investigative reporting, for example, on queer pogroms in Russia, into viral TikTok stories.

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. — The Novaya Gazeta Team

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