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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Update: March 18, 2015

Publication: Russia Update
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
South Ossetia and Russia Sign Alliance and Integration Treaty - But with What Implications?

Today a ceremony was held in the Kremlin to sign the integration treaty between Russia and South Ossetia, and President Vladimir Putin met with South Ossetian President Leonid Tibilov.

The treaty formally referred to both "alliance" and "integration," but chose to focus more on the word "alliance" and stress military cooperation.

It was the signing ceremony that was supposed to happen on March 12 and didn't, because Putin went missing the week before then.

But now this occasion, like his meeting in St. Petersburg with Kyrgyz President, and his chairing of the Victory Day planning committee meeting  yesterday, were meant to highlight how vigorous the president is supposed to be now.

As we wrote last week, excuses were made about the treaty-signing postponement, to the effect that it was about lack of readiness of the documents, and the speaker of parliament jumping the gun to release an early copy before Moscow did.

It was more likely related to the reasons for Putin's disappearance -- which remain a mystery, as they might be related to illness, as rumored, or some kind of power struggle or slow-moving coup in which other figures, notably Sergei Ivanov, chief of staff, may have been involved. A photo on showed Ivanov, whose duties do not include foreign affairs, was present. (Vyacheslav Surkov, the Kremlin aide responsible for relations with South Ossetia and Abkhazia did not appear to be present.)

Back on the 12th, the Russian army staged massive rocket artillery drills -- indeed, such combat readiness exercises are going on throughout Russia recently.

The signing of this treaty was greeted with skepticism -- even cynicism. It is noteworthy that Carnegie Russia, which usually hews to an establishment line on the Kremlin and is seldom sharply critical of Putin, had this to tweet:

It's useful to go over the history again.

But the question is now whether Russia will see it as an advantage to essentially "swallow" South Ossetia or keep it as a rump state, not recognized by the US or the EU and recognized only by three Russian allies outside the "near abroad" -- Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru.

The Latin American countries make such alliances as anti-American foreign policies; for Nauru, the recognition is part of its own self-identity and in tandem with its recognition of Kosovo, but also helped by $50 million in humanitarian aid from Russia.

Russia is likely to maintain at least the fiction of "independent statehood" for South Ossetia for these reasons:

1. Invocation of the "precedent" set by Kosovo's independence is a major staple of Kremlin propaganda and was used in its takeover of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. If these breakaway states, recognized as part of Georgia's territory, don't actually get to be independent, the value of the Kosovo propaganda trope breaks down.

2. In the Soviet era, the Kremlin maintained the fiction that the Belarusian and Ukrainian soviet socialist republics were independent so that they could have separate votes at the UN; this gave the Soviet Union three votes instead of one, always in a bloc. For a number of potential international purposes, whether the Collective Security Treaty Organization or the Eurasian Customs Union or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Moscow might like to keep the options open to add to its voting bloc with another dependent independent state.

3. Russian public opinion is tepid about adding these breakaway territories for the practical reason that they add to the nation's social and defense costs and become a burden, like financing Crimea's pensions and other social costs.

4. Having soldiers deployed in Russia's wars but not technically from Russia can have its advantages.

As always, it's useful to go back over Paul Goble's writings and see how support for annexation has been falling:

This pattern almost certainly reflects the concerns of Russians about the costs both direct and indirect Putin has incurred by annexing Crimea and likely means that there is far less support for absorbing parts of the former Soviet republics neighboring Russia than there may be for federalization or partition of them.

That in turn means that any Putin project for the restoration of a larger empire within the borders of a single state is likely to be far less welcome in Russia itself than many in the Kremlin and its partisans elsewhere think. A remarkable development, given the massive propaganda campaign the Russian president has unleashed on behalf of that idea.

"Integration" versus "annexation" still means that Russia has a defense relationship with South Ossetia and the most operative point is this language, as reported:

According to the draft treaty “separate units of the armed forces and security agencies of the South Ossetian Republic will become part of the armed forces and security agencies of the Russian Federation.”

Lots of South Ossetians have already been seen fighting in the war in Ukraine. Last summer, when the notorious Givi, head of the Somalia Battalion, commandeered a civilian apartment building across the street from the Donetsk Airport, reinforcements arrived waving the flag of South Ossetia.


Col. V. Kiselyev, deputy foreign minister of the self-proclaimed "Lugansk People's Republic" decorated soldiers from South Ossetia in December 2014:


- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Using INTERPOL To Target Russian Dissidents Living Abroad

In December, the Russian Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against Aleksandrina Markvo, the common-law wife of Vladimir Ashurkov, a key ally of Alexey Navalny.

The next day, Facebook, at the request of the Kremlin, censored Facebook pages supporting Navalny. Clearly, the charges against Markvo had more to do with politics than embezzlement.

Today, Ben Judah has published an article in Newsweek warning that even though Ashurkov and Markvo have fled to London, they may still be Putin's next target:

Exclusive: Opposition Leaders in London Are Putin's Next Target

Finbarr O'Reilly for Newsweek The Kremlin's war on the Russian opposition has now become so savage it has torn up its own rulebook. Russian dissidents struggling against Vladimir Putin used to be sure of two things. The security services would not shoot them and they would not come after their families.

View full page >
Mar 18, 2015 22:32 (GMT)

Judah writes:

The Kremlin is coming after Ashurkov the same way it is coming after Navalny: with "lawfare", using fabricated court cases as a weapon to silence and paralyse them. Putin's regime has been mounting an escalating campaign on the opposition movement since 2012. The Kremlin first opened more than a dozen politically-motivated lawsuits against protesters who took part in a May 2012 rally that turned violent. Then it brought charges against Navalny, locking him into an ongoing, seemingly never-ending series of Kafkaesque trials. Many who had publicly donated money, often as little as 1,000 rubles (£11) to the campaign, have been harassed.

"Some of our strongest allies were even forced to leave the country," says Ashurkov, "this wave of persecution even went as far as touching Russia's leading economist and close government adviser Sergei Guriev, who was a public supporter of Alexei Navalny. The next wave of persecution now is they are trying to punish Navalny and myself by turning against our family members. This is their plan to stop us."

Judah then explains that a "Red Notice" has been issued through Interpol encouraging member states to detain Markvo, which is preventing the couple from traveling out of fear of arrest and could become a major problem if their visas are denied.

Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization, is a group of intergovernment organization consisting of 190 member countries, including the UK and Russia. But it's "Red Notices" are voluntary. The tactic of issuing Red Notices for opposition leaders is something which is not new, even if Russia is using it more often recently. Just this week, INTERPOL announced that it is working with a human rights group, Fair Trials International, to review the practice of issuing and acting on Red Notices.

Below is part of Fair Trial's statement, which says that changes at INTERPOL are specifically designed to prevent abuses by Russia and other states which may target dissidents through the criminal justice system:

The changes introduced are in line with recommendations made by Fair Trials, and also by the Commission for the Control of INTERPOL's Files (CCF). Since September 2014, enhanced measures have been implemented by the General Secretariat in relation to compliance checks before any Red Notice is published or visible to member countries. This important change means that Interpol has the opportunity to weed out cases of abuse through computerised and manual checks before the wanted person alert is distributed across the global network of police forces. It will prevent cases like that of Bill Browder in which INTERPOL publicly refused Russia's request for a Red Notice but only after the information had been circulated to INTERPOL's 190 member countries.

In addition, at INTERPOL's General Assembly which took place late last year, a resolution was adopted supporting a comprehensive review of INTERPOL's supervisory mechanisms at all levels, including National Central Bureaus, the General Secretariat and CCF. Fair Trials has been invited to contribute to the working group established to oversee this review.

Fair Trials has been campaigning for simple changes to make INTERPOL a more effective crime-fighting tool since 2012, and these reforms are a really positive step. Our 2013 report and subsequent work have shown the devastating impact a Red Notice can have on refugees and exiled dissidents who are targeted by countries who misuse INTERPOL's alert systems. There is, however, still work to be done.

In addition to these changes, our report outlined other steps that would help to strengthen respect for human rights, as well as strengthening INTERPOL, making it a more effective crime fighting tool. It is still possible that abusive alerts could be missed by the system and while this remains the case, there still needs to be an effective and transparent process in place so that people who have been affected are able to challenge the alerts. Currently, the way to have a Red Notice removed is an arduous and unclear process. The CCF remains the only realistic avenue that victims can apply to have their reconsidered, and this committee meets just three or four times a year for a few days. You can read more on our recommendations for reform here.

- James Miller

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
'Happy Russians' in Moscow Rally for Crimea - But Why So Few in Crimea Itself?

As we reported earlier, some 40,000 people turned out for a state-sponsored rally and concert to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the forcible annexation of the Crimea..

State media has broadcast many pictures of happy Russians with accordions and folk dancers and t-shirts and posters saying "Crimea is Ours."

But as Yod News and other independent media and bloggers have pointed out, why aren't there such happy crowds in Crimea itself?

Turnout indeed seems to be sparse at events arranged in Simferopol, Sevastopol -- where it was snowing -- and other towns.

Only men in uniform are visible in some of the pictures.

Translation: #Simferopol today the occupiers marked in formation through empty, wet streets.
Translation: Yalta now.
Translation: In Moscow along more people turned out than throughout the whole Crimea. It's immediately apparent for whom this is a holiday, and for whom it's disappointment and sorrow.
Translation: I clearly was too hasty in my last post. Here is the very peak of the festivities of the occupation in Yalta.

As Yod quipped in showing this tweet below, "In Yalta, there is also joy and mass strolling":

Translation: Yalta now.

Translation: Simferopol today.

Yod also collected examples of what appeared to be evidence that people were turned out from their schools, and that they were paid to attend the events:

Translation: we are going to a rally in honor of Crimea from school with @KamLiza. What sort of crap are we doing?)

Translation: Line for 300 rubles for Crimea.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Twelfth Cancer Suicide in Moscow

Edmund-Mikhal Lyude, a professor at the Bakluyev Center for Heart Surgery, committed suicide today, after leaving a note that he couldn't stand to suffer from cancer, Yod News reported.

He was the 12th such person since February to opt for ending his life rather than to undergo treatment in the Russian health care system, where pain medications are severely restricted.

Lyude jumped from the window of his 7th floor apartment.

Since February, 11 other persons sick with terminal cancer have committed suicide.

Yod has published a lengthy investigation on the failure of Russia to develop palliative medicine to address the suffering of patients and their relatives.

Leonid Pechatnikov, deputy mayor for social development at first said that these suicides were the result of psychiatric illness and claimed that there wasn't a problem obtaining painkillers in Moscow.

But Yod found many indications of terminally-ill patients reporting difficulties in obtaining pain medicine; others who aren't dying have even more obstacles.

Georgy Novikov of the Yevdokomov State Medicine and Dentistry University told Yod about 700,000 to 1,000,000 patients in Moscow need palliative care, and of these about 2/3 are ill with cancer.

It's not just that patients are denied medicine; authorities actively prosecute those whom they suspect have obtained medications illegally.

Mariya Ilina, a resident of a town in the Volga Region has been investigated for the last half year on suspicion that she obtained painkillers for her severely ill mother, after the chief physician at the district hospital where here mother is a patient filed a complaint.

Ilina said the doctor informed on her after she said in desperation during one visit that if he didn't prescribe medications to help her mother, who had suffered from a stroke and has a brain tumor, she would go and buy medicine herself on the black market. After her mother died, she continued to be hauled in for interrogation.

This punitive climate means that doctors themselves fear prescribing painkillers.

Western activists have pushed for Russia to adopt not only better palliative medicine with access to painkillers, but a different approach to drug addiction that emphasizes "harm reduction" such as providing clean needs to drug users to prevent the spread of AIDS, rather than focusing on prevention and cures.

Authorities have rejected such models as sanctioning drug use, which is rampant in Russia. Last year, the director of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service blamed Afghan heroin for the deaths of at least 500,000 people in 13 years. Illegal drug trafficking business is estimated at $100 billion a year, he said.

Last month, regional media covered the near-death of a Russian man in Lithuania who overdosed on "spice" on the day a funeral was held for his friend, who died of spice.

Twitter is filled with references to spice both from users and government propagandists trying to curb its use.

Spice is a cannabis substitute made with herbs and synthetic drugs that many heroin addicts have turned to, but have found as equally addicting. At least 25 deaths and 700 overdoses have been recorded in the last year from spice.

Recently a famous circus performed died of a spice overdose.

Translation: After smoking spice, a famous circus performer died in Yaroslavl. Two others were severely poisoned.
Translation: Friend of overdosed performer: Spice was sold to us by a former circus worker.
Translation: #Murderer of 7 people nicknamed #Mosgaz warns youth of using spieces - VIDEO

Russia also rejects the approach of methadone maintenance for heroin addicts, which causes some of them to turn to dangerous alternatives.

The combination of a poor health care system with further cuts to spending due to the economic crisis; the abusive criminal justice system; and lack of adequate treatment facilities mean that the problem of both drug addiction and failure to provide pallatiative care are likely to worsen in Russia.

- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Navalny Says 'Financial Restrictions for Oligarchs Would Hit Putin’s Regime Harder than Drones" for Ukraine

Opposition leader Alexey Navalny is causing a stir again today with an interview for the Washington Post in which he declined to offer support for arming Ukraine - although he did not make a call against it.

Asked about his response to the murder of his fellow leader in the opposition movement, Navalny said:

This murder was sanctioned by the leadership of Russia one way or another, and this act of scaring people is aimed not at people like me, but those who are still hesitant. People who are probably around Vladimir Putin or members of the ruling elite.

The basic compromise of the authorities has been violated. Because they killed a person from the system, a person who once almost became the president of Russia.

 What will the opposition do now?

I do not want to be a dissident, like in Soviet times. I don’t like this role. However, in the current situation, we have to use recommendations and the experience of those times. So now the issue is not about organizing, not politics, but probably morals. We should do what we believe in.

Birnbaum then raised the question of arming Ukraine:

In Washington there’s a discussion about arming Ukraine to increase the cost for Russia. Is this a good way to help Ukraine? Is this a good way to calm the situation?

Navalny replied:

I do not think that supplies of weapons, well, lethal weapons, will change the situation dramatically. Just because the fact is that a military victory of Ukraine over Russia is impossible. Putin will get new facts that Americans are fighting the war in Ukraine and not Ukrainians. But I cannot assume that the Ukrainian army, even armed with American drones, will win a victory over the Russian army.

The supply of weapons is a somewhat popular step inside the United States. This is something for the American public opinion. “We armed Ukrainians so that they could resist.” I would say that introduction of visa and financial restrictions for oligarchs would hit Putin’s regime harder than drones.

While clearly Navalny didn't make a specific call here, and said in his view arming Ukraine was futile because it would inevitably lead to war with Russia which the West would decline, his statement is already being picked up and twisted to emphasize  that as a Russian nationalist, Navalny is out of step with liberals at home and abroad.

Navalny in fact merely said personal sanctions on those closest to Putin would be a more effective way to deter Russia.

No opposition leader of any political persuasion in Russia has called for arming Ukraine.

Read the rest of the Washington Post interview here:

Today, Navalny left Moscow for the first time in three years ( except for one trip to give testimony in the Kirovoles case), to visit his brother, Oleg, who was sentenced to 3.5 years of labor colony. The charges against him related to a mail order business contracted by the French firm Yves Rocher were  widely viewed as fabricated, as Yves Rocher said they had no claims against the Navalny brothers.

Navalny has repeatedly said that he views the imprisonment of his brother, who was not involved in opposition activity, as a way of "taking a hostage" to put pressure on him.

He posted some pictures on his blog.


Yesterday, a Moscow court turned down a request from the Federal Corrections Service to turn Navalny's own suspended sentence in the Yves Rocher came into time he must serve. The request was turned down due to a failure to fill the forms out correctly, and it's possible the request will be resubmitted. Because Navalny has been arrested a number of times since the suspended sentence for picketing and leafletting without permission, he could face jail time.

- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick