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Published in Press Stream:
September 13, 2015

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Published in Stream:
September 13, 2015
Press by
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Detained Open Russia Consultant Released, As State Media Works to Discredit Russian Opposition in Local Elections
4 years
Stream: September 13, 2015
Publication: Russia Update
Polls Open in Russia's Local Elections, and Regime's Dirty Tricks Against Opposition Already Started
Polls Open in Kostroma Region, Where Opposition is Hopeful, and Observing Closely

While claiming to be willing to allow opposition figures to participate in local elections, in fact the Russian government and intelligence agencies have worked to ensure such figures are blocked from the nomination process by not registering their parties, and then discrediting them in the public eye by spreading distorted or false stories about them.

Kostroma Region is the one region where the opposition has been allowed on the ballot after a long struggle, yet already there is claim of a scandal in the state media that could disqualify  opposition candidates or at least cost them votes.

Yesterday Russian state media -- and some social media in the West -- was filled with a lurid tale of how employees from Open Russia, the movement founded by businessman and former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky were caught by police in a car headed toward Kostroma allegedly with 2 million rubles (about $29,500) in their possession which they were ostensibly going to use to "pay radical youth to demonstrate."

The Kostroma Department of the Interior Ministry (the police) has a notice on its web site with the following headline, "Channel for Unlawful Delivery of Large Sums of Cash to the Region Closed."

The notice said a "49-year-old coordinator of Open Russia traveling in a Volkswagen Passat" was stopped and found to be carrying 2 million rubles. His name was not given in the police notice.

Police said the cash was seized and sent for forensic analysis to see if it was counterfeit. No mention of charges or any impending warrant for arrest were made, and the notice concluded with a vague statement that "a check is being made at the present time, after which a procedural decisions will be made upon the results."

In fact it was determined that only one consultant -- not two -- from Open Russia was detained, no char

As we reported,  two versions of the story involving $2 million and $1.5 million, respectively were circulated by LifeNews, a pro-Kremlin TV station close to police and intelligence, and NTV, a state TV often used to air denunciations of the opposition, using footage taken of opposition figures clandestinely or materials seized from their homes and offices during police raids.

Neither could be confirmed in all its details, and the story appeared to be either deliberate disinformation or exaggeration, and was mixed with another story confirmed by opposition involving an activist detained on the train from Kostroma to Sharya (about 350 km away) with 200,000 rubles (about $2950).

In fact, Sergei Mendeleyev, one of the people named in the news report says he was not arrested at all, much less with a large amount of cash.

He was also discovered to be the chief "hero" of a propaganda film aired by NTV yesterday claiming the opposition used Western grants to plot disruption of the election under the guise of observing it.

Mendeleyev told Novaya Gazeta that his words were taken out of context in the NTV program, although possibly the footage was authentic. He said he was in Moscow and not Kostroma.

Later, Marina Baranova, a spokesman from Open Russia published a statement on her Facebook (translated here) saying that no employees had been carrying any cash, nor had they been detained to her knowledge. She said Mendeleyev was not from Open Russia and was in Moscow, not Kostroma, and was attempting to find out further information about the other person detained, who was not named in initial state news reports.

But while activists struggled to make sense of the NTV smear and the state media scandals and try to figure out what was going on, the story got widely distributed. quoted Khodorkovsky in a story published yesterday September 12 characterizing the police claim as ridiculous.

In a tweet posted yesterday, Khodorkovsky linked to the police notice:

Translation: Honestly, this is kindergarten! Both [the claim of] Kostroma as a center of Russian protest, and the price of a used wheelbarrow [car] as a large sum.

In an interview with the independent TV station TV Rain, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Jr., coordinator of Open Russia, confirmed that Stanislav Ryabov, a consultant (not an employee) for Open Russia, was in fact detained briefly while driving his car in Kostroma Region, and that Ryabov "had been carrying some amount of personal cash."

Kara-Murza added and that police said they had reason to believe his cash was counterfeit, and seized it for analysis.

If Ryabov had been carrying a large amount which cash police determined was in fact to go to some groups for demonstrations, he might have likely been arrested. But in face he was released, with the odd story of a concern about counterfeit money.

In response to the TV Rain reporter's query about whether there was a police report of the incident, Kara-Murza indicated that no charges were made, and that the money was taken for analysis.

As Open Russia's Maria Baranova noted, it is not illegal to carry cash even of this relatively large amount (for Russia). Candidates for elections are supposed to track expenses carefully from separate accounts.

Yet a private group that decided to monitor elections and pay for the travel and lodging of their observers would be a separate matter, and it is not clear how, in the current oppressive climate, the Russian authorities will deal with such activity which they used to tolerate.

"If there hadn't been the colourful statement by Churov, this wouldn't even be discussed," said Kara-Murza, Jr.

"It tells you that people fear observation, and that something will come to light," he said. quoted Churkov as darkly invoking "external forces" which were "trying to interfere with our conduct of free, democratic elections." He added, "Most likely there will be a criminal case" related to the seizure of cash in Kostroma but he did not provide any details.

The Russian government has registered at least 85 non-governmental groups as "foreign agents" if they receive grants from abroad. Open Russia is not registered in Russia.

Churov said Kostroma Region police would deploy 1,500 police to maintain order and strongly urged journalists to wear vests clearly marked with the word "PRESS". While this was not an absolute requirement for covering the elections, Churov warned journalists that they were "not allowed to use the status of journalist not for coverage of a public event, but for participation in it."

A good example of how disinformation and distortion works in the Russian media on a story like this can be seen in one of the many similar versions online:

Navalny Tells Why Ryabov Was Carrying Money to Kostroma

On Saturday, opposition figure Aleksei Navalny called the detention of the Open Russia coordinator, an activist from the Parnas party Sergei Ryabov, the "start of outrages" and falsification on his Facebook page.

In this story, Navalny's Facebook page is referenced, but not linked and the name of the person supposedly detained is "Stanislav Ryabov."

But on his actual Facebook post, Navalny did not name the activist, and did not say 2 million rubles were involved. Here's what Navalny actually said (translated by The Interpreter):

In Kostroma, the outrage has started. Yesterday police caught people from Open Russia (they are doing observation at 1/4 of all election districts) and stated that they are foreign agents with funding.

And just now criminal investigation (!) has taken off the Kostroma-Sharya train our campaign worker for the fact that he was carrying 200,000 rubles to pay for the observers' hotel. (Sharya is 350 km from Kostroma and lodging was needed). And this despite the fact that the money was officially withdrawn from the campaign account.

It seems tomorrow we can expect major falsifications, otherwise they wouldn't be organizing this circus.

In fact, as we reported, the Parnas party Twitter account itself gave the name of a different person -- Dmitry Androsov -- in a series of tweets about their activist's arrest on the train from Kostroma to Sharya. then quoted Navalny's description of the detention, citing the figure of 200,000 rubles, but then quoted a Kostroma policeman saying it was 2 million.

Navalny's post makes clear that the detention of the campaign worker with 200,000 rubles is a separate story:

Navalny's earlier reference to a story that was later refuted by one of the claimed detainees themselves then became part of the disinformation process, with the calculation that as an opposition figure, he would have more credibility than the government with many people.

In fact it turned out then Ryabov had been detained alone and his cash seized, 

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick