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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
April 14, 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.
Death Toll Rises to 29 in Khakasiya Fires; Amur Situation Worse with 12 New Fires

The death toll from forest fires has risen to 29 with 3 missing in Khakasiya, a federal subject in the mid-south of the Russian Federation. The blazes started by farmers to clear dry brush went out of control due to high winds. At least 1,328 private homes in 33 towns are affected with about 5,000 made homeless. Khakasiya remains on fire alert. A government commission from the Emergencies Ministry is coming to inspect the area.

Officials have also warned that the Krasnoyarsky Territory, the Irkutsk Region and the Republic of Buryatiya remain danger zones. Fire-fighters are still working to put out flames in Transbaikal, Krasnoyarsk, Buryatiya and the Amur Region, where states of emergency have been declared.

Amur is seeing the most rapid deterioration of the situation as 12 new fires have broken out, TASS reports. This means emergency workers are coping with 18 foreign fires over 23,900 hectares; 10 have been put out already. Officials have handed out 150 notices of administrative offense and opened four criminal cases regarding the forest fires in this region.


Photo by Igor Podgorny/TASS

In Transbaikal, fires have grown and the area affected has doubled to 57,000 hectares. The Investigative Committee opened up 25 criminal cases for starting fires. The prosecutor of Transbaikal Territory also opened up a criminal case against the acting director of the State Forestry Service of the territory and several other local officials for failure to prevent and put out the fires.

In Transbaikal, 21,000 people have been affected, with 203 homes destroyed in 18 towns. Bair Zhamsuyev, a senator from Transbaikal Territory put the cost of the damage at 460 million rubles ($9.1 million) and said the territory could not cope with the disaster on its own. He said his region had still not finished paying off loans for putting out the last season's fires. The Russian parliament will review the question of allocating funds from the reserves for putting out fires in the provinces.

Photo by Aleksei Shtokal/TASS

Fire-fighters managed to prevent flames from reaching the village of Aksha of 3,500 people in the south of Transbaikal Territory where steppe fires have raged out of control. The fire did not jump the River Onon and homes were saved but there is a lot of smoke in the air, say officials.

Rosleskhoz, the government forestry agency has found that out of 85 subjects of the Russian Federation, only 45 have prepared for the fire season and 9 are absolutely unprepared, says TASS.

Russian territory consists of 22% forest, and every year, 10,000-35,000 forest fires are reported covering 500,000 to 2.5 million hectares.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky Speaks at Stanford University on Future of Russia, Ukraine

Yesterday, April 13, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, businessman and former political prisoner, gave a speech at Stanford University in California titled: "Russia: Back to the Future."

Khodorkovsky was the head of Yukos, one of Russia’s largest oil producers, and pioneer of the Internet in Russia. He was an outspoken critic of corruption and funder of opposition parties and established Open Russia, a non-governmental organization promoting a strong civil society.

In 2003, Khodorkovsky was arrested and charged with fraud and tax evasion, and sentenced to nine years in prison, extended to eleven years after a second trial. This was widely believed to be in retaliation for his political activism. Amnesty International declared Khodorkovsky a prisoner of conscience, an ultimately, he was released by President Vladimir Putin on the eve of the Olympic Games hosted by Russia in Sochi.

Khodorkovsky was introduced by former US ambassador to Moscow, Prof. Michael McFaul, a professor at Stanford, who noted:

"When I was in government, I want to tell you honestly, it was our view in the Obama Administration that these charges and convictions, especially the second conviction were politically motivated. And US officials, myself and the president himself frequently discussed Mr. Khodorkovsky's arrest and imprisonment with our Russian interlocutors."

In his 40-minute speech, Khodorkovsky, said he was particularly honored to be speaking in Palo Alto, in Silicon Valley, because of his own entrepreneurial and civic work promoting business and Internet freedom.

Some highlights of his speech:

- Russia increased its export revenues from $306 billion in the period from 2004-2008 to $490 billion from 2010-2014 -- 60% -- and yet economic growth fell by a factor of three from 7% to 2.5% and roads, universities and hospitals fell into decline.

- During Putin's rule there has been a "destruction of freedom and liquidation of normal democratic institutions" despite this revenue increases; hundreds of thousands of people are unlawfully convicted or become victims of arbitrary rule.

- Now Putin's "state capitalism" no longer ensures growth and was "always created for war"; this had to be started to "justify the existence of the current system." Once the "internal enemy" of independent business was destroyed, an "external enemy" was needed to "mobilize the masses around the kleptocracy." Now numerous soldiers and volunteers are dying in Ukraine.

Khodorkovsky outlined his view for democratic development, separation of powers, and an end to Russia's isolation in an "open Russia."

-  There are people in Russia who share his vision; "16% of society which even during a time of post-imperial hysteria had the courage to speak about the annexation of Crimea as an ill-considered and irrational step, a violation of international law that led to international isolation and a decline in the standard of living".

The full text of the speech can be found on Khodorkovsky's web site.

Khodorkovsky also took questions in English and Russian from members of the audience. A number of questions concerned the war in Ukraine and the prospects for peace.

Khodorkovsky said "a durable peace with this current regime of course will not be possible; this regime cannot be trusted."

But he added:

"Can Ukraine become success while Putin is in power? My answer is yes. Look at Korea, it was completely divided, and it didn't stop South Korea from reaching impressive. I very much hope Ukraine will be successful. Not only because my friends live there, but because for Russia, this example would be very significant. If Ukraine will be a successful country, democracy will come faster to Russia and with less bloodshed."

Asked about his response to the widespread belief that Putin brings "stability," Khodorkovsky said that the notion that "political competition is instability" is a "grave error" in Russia, where there is a connotation that "instability is bad." But "everyone knows instability means movement," he said in this audience in Silicon Valley, known for innovation.

"Absolute stability is only in the graveyard," he said. What is going on in the North Caucasus is only "an exacerbation of the problem" throughout Russia; the current position of the government of Chechnya is "as a personal vassal of Putin's," and not as "a part of Russia."

Khodorkovsky said he feared a "third Caucasian war" while Putin was in power was very likely, and that those who come after him will have to resolve these problems.

Asked pointedly "Who does Crimea belong to?"

"In preparing for this speech, I especially posted on my Twitter account a link to recording of Putin in 2008 in which he said without a doubt, Crimea is Ukrainian. So what can I say if the president says so?"

Translation: Putin 2008. Essence: "Crimea is not ours, but Ukraine's. We do not have claims." Interesting, why does no one in the world now believe him?"

Asked about the prospects for the opposition in Russia in the 2016 parliamentary elections, and what mistakes were made by the opposition in the Moscow city council elections, Khodorkovsky said he wouldn't criticize his colleagues now in an election he was not able to be involved in, but that he was confident that there is a large percentage of people who will vote for an alternative candidate.

As an example, he cited a recent election in Novaya Devyatkina, a town near St. Petersburg where municipal elections were recently held. As a test, his organization got involved in fielding an alternative candidate, and was surprised at what fierce resistance there was. His opposition candidate was not a local but came from St. Petersburg; even so, he was able to get 51% percent of the vote, whereas the government's approved candidate got only 28% of the vote.

Yet the government's favorite still won because there was an absentee balloting and early voting, during which he had already garnered 98% of the vote. This told Khodorkovsky there is a demand for an alternative, but the opposition is faced with "a very serious, difficult struggle" but they can certainly bring to the public's attention "the existence of an alternative." Despite the difficulties, "we will win," he commented.

One young man asked Khodorkovsky what advice "the Khodorkovsky of today would give the Khodorkovsky in 2003," and he said, "Business isn't the most important thing."

(Note: The Interpreter is a project of the Institute for Modern Russia, which is funded by Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.)

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Iran's Defense Minister To Travel to Moscow and Discuss Delivery of S-300 Advanced Anti-Aircraft Missiles

The Russian state news agency TASS reports that Iranian Defense Minister Brig. General Hosein Dehqan will be in Moscow on April 15 to attend the Moscow international security conference -- but the discussion on how Iran will go about receiving advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles will likely take place during his visit:

Sources in Tehran told TASS that Dehqan was expected to discuss with Russian officials the supplies of S-300 air defense missile systems to Iran.
"This is a high priority issue in the light of recent decisions," the source said referring to President Vladimir Putin's order to lift the ban on the S-300 deliveries to the Islamic Republic.

The sale of the S-300 to Iran has been blocked by UN sanctions, but Russian President Vladimir Putin lifted that ban yesterday in anticipation of those sanctions being lifted as part of the P5+1 deal on Iran's nuclear program, negotiated this month. But the framework is still being debated, and it remains to be seen whether or not there will ultimately be a deal put in place, or whether sanctions will be lifted at the signing of the deal (as Iran's Supreme Leader wants) or after the international community has confirmed Iran's compliance (the language in the framework deal).

Why is the S-300 important? Because if Iran does not comply with the deal, the presence of the S-300 will make any military reaction to an Iranian military nuclear program much harder -- perhaps nearly impossible: 

-- James Miller
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
RAF Jets Intercept Russian Military Aircraft Near UK Airspace

The British Ministry of Defence (MOD) has announced that RAF Typhoon fighters have been scrambled to intercept Russian military aircraft flying near UK airspace today.

Earlier, Deborah Haynes, defence editor for The Times, tweeted that the Russian aircraft were bombers:

The incident comes on the same day that the Royal Navy frigate HMS Argyll was dispatched to monitor ships from the Russian Northern Fleet, which entered the English Channel this morning.

Earlier today, The Independent had reported, citing Russia's Interfax news agency, that the Russian warships were planning to conduct military drills of the British coast.

However a spokesman for the Russian Northern Fleet subsequently denied this, the state-owned Sputnik news agency reports:

“We’re not holding anything in the English Channel. The ships are currently taking a course through the Channel, but exercises will be held later in the northern regions of the Atlantic,” Capt. 1st-Rank Vadim Serga said.

-- Pierre Vaux

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Anti-Maidan Gets Permit for Concert in Center of Moscow While Liberal Opposition Still Waits

The liberal opposition is planning a rally on April 19, but is having the usual difficulties getting permission for a centrally-located venue in Moscow. Meanwhile, Anti-Maidan, a group of nationalists, bikers, Cossacks, Afghan veterans and others determined not to allow a Maidan movement in Russia have permission to hold a concert on April 21 on Revolution Square in the center of town, Nezavisimaya Gazeta (NG) reported.

Nikolai Starkov, one of the co-chairmen of Anti-Maidan said the event was titled "Our Square is For Music and Not Maidan" and will feature classical music and songs of soldiers and Soviet-era tunes.

This week Anti-Maidan was in the news again as another Anti-Maidan co-chairman, Aleksandr "Surgeon" Zaldostanov announced that he would lead a motorcycle rally to Berlin in honor of the 70th Anniversary of Victory Day.

Polish bikers have already announced their intention to block the Surgeon's gang and 8,000 people have called for the Russian bikers to be blocked from passing through EU countries, citing the fact that they took part in the forcible annexation of the Crimea and some of them have fought in the Donbass. Organizers have countered that formerly, it is not the "Night Wolves" organizing the trip but the Russian Federation of Motorcycle Tourism. Yet Zaldostanov himself said his group was organizing it and it has been advertised on one of his clubs' websites.

NG asked Starikov if Anti-Maidan had any plans to take part in elections; the movement is not even registered as a civic organization. Starikov said there were different opinions as to whether the activists should register or not, but that the Great Fatherland party, which he himself heads already existed for political activism.

Igor Bunin, general director of the Center for Political Technologies said that in his view, both the liberal camp of the opposition and Anti-Maidan seemed to have more spontaneity in them than in past "projects" of the Kremlin.

This was a reference to organizations like Nashi (Ours) and Mestnye (Locals) that were created by Kremlin "grey cardinal" Vladislav Surkov to advance the government's goals.

Bunin said there were more "ordinary people" in the Anti-Maidan movement who were not merely bused into the demonstrations but came on their own. He characterized Anti-Maidan as a sub-culture where "communists, nationalists, imperialists, paternalists and many others" were mashed together and that "it was hard to believe in its political future."

But Dmitry Kraynev, lawyer for the Party of Progress led by Alexey Navalny said that Anti-Maidan was "a typical pro-Kremlin project aimed at provocation." He didn't believe the organizers' claims that they were sincere about a "peaceful" attitude toward the liberal opposition but nevertheless said he didn't see them as a "real threat." Members of Anti-Maidan have beat up liberal protesters and bloggers after past actions.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick