Russia Monthly Digest: Kremlin-Aide Front Runner Denied Interpol Top Job and Putin Visits France for World War I Armistice6 min read

 In News, Politics, Russia

1st November – A teen boy, identified as Mikhail Zhlobitsky, has died after detonating explosive devices in the FSB’s headquarters in Arkhangelsk. Three officers were also hurt in the blast, but there were no other fatalities. The teen identified his motives on an anarcho-communist chat-board, stating that the FSB “fabricates cases and tortures people”. He was 17 years old.

7th November – Ballet director and outspoken critic of art censorship in Russia, Kirill Serebrennikov, has gone on trial for embezzlement charges. The director, whose much anticipated ballet about Cold War defector Rudolf Nureyev was initially cancelled at the Bolshoi Theatre a week before its premiere (but then opened on the 10th of November), described the charges as “absurd” outside his hearing. He is accused of stealing around 2 million US dollars of public funds; prosecutors argue that he formed a criminal gang that created fraudulent contracts for non-existent services and kept the money for themselves. If convicted, he can face up to 10 years in prison. A petition last year gained over 50,000 signatures against “flimsy accusations… [attempting] to silence an internationally renowned director”. Big name stars like Cate Blanchett and Lars Von Trier were among the signatories. Despite being under house-arrest, having no access to a phone or the internet, and forbidden to leave the country, Serebrennikov still managed to produce an opera in Zurich.

9th November – An Austrian colonel has gone on trial for espionage after reports that he had been spying for Russia since 1990. The now retired colonel, 70, was believed to have kept in touch with his Russian contact “Yuri” using undisclosed “sophisticated equipment”. The news was released by Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz during a press briefing in Vienna. The secrets that were shared apparently contained information about the Austrian air force’s operations, artillery systems and information on high-level officials. Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov responded to the allegations by denouncing Western diplomacy as “megaphone diplomacy”; [they are] publicly accusing us… of matters we know nothing about”.

11th November – Vladimir Putin and other world leaders such as Donald Trump and Angela Merkel gathered in Paris to mark the 100-year anniversary of the World War I armistice. Many had expected Trump and Putin to hold a bilateral summit in Paris, especially after strained relations over the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and accusations of interference in the 2016 United States presidential elections; however, both agreed not to meet in order not to overshadow the ceremony. They are expected to meet at the end of the month in Buenos Aires for “substantial talks” – although the topics that are likely to be covered still remain a mystery.

15th November – The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decreed that the numerous arrests of Aleksei Navalny (Read more about this in last month’s “What’s up Russia?”) were “unlawful, arbitrary and politically motivated”. This comes after Russia filed an appeal against a previous judgement in favour of Navalny. The case focused mostly on the politician’s seven arrests and pretrial detentions between 2012-14 – the court ruled that these lacked a “legitimate aim” and “had not been necessary in a democratic society”. After his victory, Navalny wrote on Twitter “the government is crushed – hooray!”

The Russian government has been ordered to pay Navalny 64,000 Euros and its decision is final and binding. The government can usually ignore judgements from the ECHR if they are found to be against the Russian constitution – however in this case, this is not applicable due to the binding rule.

16th November – A Russian IT specialist, Vadim (not his real name) claims that he was instructed to find back-door access to the British visa system by the Russian Security Service as long ago as 2015 while working for TLScontact, a company responsible for IT services to foreign consulates. This information has become exponentially more intriguing since the Sergei Skripal poisoning in Salisbury, where the alleged assassins travelled to the United Kingdom on apparently legitimate visas; the British government deny that the issued visas were due to any hack into the system, but based on the false information and passports provided. After underhand contact from the FSB, Vadim was barred from leaving Russia and harassed after he noticed hack attempts into the visa-IT system and attempted to leave the country. He and his family eventually managed flee Russia in 2016 where Vadim travelled to the United Stated and requested political asylum. He attempted to contact both MI6 and the British embassy in the United States, but received no replies.

19th November – Kremlin-controlled TV channel Channel1 accused the British government of “Russophobia” in the wake of Brexit scandals and ministerial resignations. The channel claimed that anti-Russiannness was at the heart of the Brexit chaos and compared Theresa May to the Red Army sniper in the film “41st” who murders traitorous soldiers; the newscaster said that May must be like this in the face of the 48 MPs needed to unseat the Prime Minister in a vote of no-confidence. The newsreader advised the Prime Minister’s advisers to watch the film, and former Kremlin adviser Alexander Nekrasov, along with other pundits on the show, claimed that the United Kingdom was inherently anti-Russian.

20th NovemberInterpol is electing a new chief this week – the front-runner for the job, Russian Interior Minister Major General Aleksandr Prokopchuk, is likely to be elected despite fears that the Kremlin has exploited Interpol to pursue political enemies. Arsen Avakov, Interior Minister for Ukraine, vowed to suspend his country’s membership if Prokopchuk were elected: “Russia’s possible presidency at Interpol is absurd and contradicts the spirit and goals of that organisation”, he said on the 19th of November. A bipartisan conglomerate of  Senators from the United States also pushed against the election, saying that it would be like “putting a fox in charge of a henhouse”. In the United Kingdom, a cross-party group wrote to the Home Secretary Sajid Javid, urging him to demand suspension of Russia from Interpol’s databases over fears that the system would be exploited further than it already has; high-profile cases of Russia’s use of Interpol include repeated attempts by Russian law enforcement to arrest American-British financier Bill Browder, once the largest foreign investor in Russia and now campaigner against human rights abuses, and exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky had been detained for more than a decade on “trumped-up charges” as Interpol has attempted to verify Russian arrest warrants. He said that: “I seriously fear that if Mr Prokopchuk is elected president of Interpol, then at the command of the Kremlin he will be ready to perform absolutely any actions, because he doesn’t have to worry about his reputation.” On the 22nd of November it was announced that South Korea’s Kim Jong-yang was elected to the job of Interpol’s chief; the interior minister of Ukraine tweeted from the conference room “The Russian Candidate has been rejected. This battle is won!”.

– Finally, last week two police officers in Siberia have been commended after putting out a fire with nothing but snowballs at their disposal. The two traffic police noticed smoke rising from a garage and evacuated the residences before continually hurling snowballs at the fire until the fire department arrived. Nobody was harmed, and the two officers are expected to be rewarded later in the year.  

Main sources: BBC Russia (EN) RFE/RL (EN/RUS) Moscow Times (EN), The Guardian (EN)

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