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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Update: December 17, 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.
Reporter Asks Hard Questions on Corruption and Attacks on Journalists But Gets Evasive Answers from Putin

As we reported before President Vladimir Putin's press conference today, journalists were preparing a number of tough questions they hoped he would answer. But while some of them got to ask their questions, Putin ducked them and distracted with other points, leaving the answers ambiguous.

All eyes are on Putin during this annual event, occurring for the 11th time, but it's also a snapshot of the state of Russian journalism, both independent, such as it is, and government-controlled.

Each year there's the question of whether Putin will even call on some of the more critical reporters, and whether those reporters have quietly coordinated their questions with Kremlin staff in advance.

This year, Putin didn't even call on some of the hardest-hitting reporters in the room, and while he did take some pointed questions from independent journalists, he ducked and weaved more than he had in the past, without seeming to care to make a show of a frank response.

Perhaps symptomatic of how news can be suppressed or manipulated, in the middle of Putin's press conference, Interfax moved a story about a man who attempted self-immolation on Red Square, which was widely re-tweeted. The man, whose name was not given, was from Tver, and had evidently been examined by psychiatrists in the past in connection with a beating. He was hospitalized with burns over 9% of his body.  

The news was widely re-tweeted and seemed particularly emblematic -- just like the news of the murder of Ukrainian journalist Oles Buzina which broke during Putin's marathon talk show earlier this year -- but then it turned out that the self-immolation had occurred in fact yesterday and media had not found out about it.

Ekaterina Vinokurova from, a critical independent news site, was the reporter who stepped up to ask pointed questions about "the second generation of the elite" -- referring to allegations published by opposition leader Aleksei Navalny regarding the sons of Prosecutor General Yury Chaika, and the beating of prominent blogger Oleg Kashin in 2010, to which a security employee in a plant owned by the father of Pskov Region Governor Aleksei Turchak confessed. She asked whether these were the accomplishments of recent years.

(For a summary of her questions in English, including a query about Putin's daughters, see 4FreeRussia.) 

Putin began with a call to be "objective" and said the increase in the GDP and defense capacity of Russia were the real accomplishments and then evasively answered her questions.

Here's how Vinokurova summed up the answers she got from Putin (translation by The Interpreter).

The answers to all these questions were largely rather ambiguous. What we learned that was new: [the] Chaika [case] is being worked by the oversight legal directorate of the presidential administration; Putin believes that the case of Kashin's beating may be related to Turchak's father, but not Turchak himself; both daughters of the president work in Russia and know many foreign languages; Nemtsov shouldn't have been killed; he will look into the case of the journalist.

Vinokurova was also critical of her fellow journalists:

The regional journalists did not pick up the baton of sharp questions -- even a complaint against governments could not be heard, which also seems symptomatic and sad. Unfortunately, there remain many journalists who come to Putin wit presents and applaud him on any issue. Which in my observation rather irritates than pleases him.

But if we look at what Putin actually said, we can see she may have seen more than meets the eye (translation of the transcript at by The Interpreter):

Such things of this nature of which you spoke are possible practically everywhere. As for the reaction of the press and public on the work and activity of the children of the highest leadership in various fields. Young Rotenberg, whom you mentioned -- his father does not work anywhere in any state agencies as far as I know. Perhaps he's slipped in somewhere but I don't think so.

As for Chaika. And who else was there? Turchak and so on. I know that in the media and on the Internet, information has appeared that Turchak, let us say, is involved in the beating of journalists. But is he himself involved or is his father involved? You know, there's a famous joke from back in the Soviet times, when a bureaucrat said, "No, we won't give him a promotion." "Why?" "Well, you know, there was some incident with a fur coat." It turns out that five years earlier, his wife's coat was stolen at the theater. Something happened, but at any rate, we won't give him a promotion. Well, we shouldn't take that attitude. It's good that you are bringing attention to this. Truly, it is good. It gives us a pretext...It doesn't give us a pretext, but we are obliged to react to it.

As for all the incidents especially related to the children of high-ranking officials...After all, if, for example, we speak of the Prosecutor General -- this is of course a very important office -- we have to understand: did the children of the Prosecutor General violate the law or not? Are there some elements in the work of the Prosecutor General related to a conflict of interests? Has he in some way facilitated and helped his own children? But for that, there's the President's Oversight Office. I don't wish to speak about this, but that doesn't mean we aren't working on it. Everything has to be looked at carefully. Just as it is necessary to attentively review and clean up all possible relevant information appearing on the Internet.

The reality is that Putin has left each and every point so ambiguous that if events turn in various directions, he will be covered.  And as Rotenberg is his childhood friend and a close associate, he'd know his position; the point isn't that he is employed by the state but that he wins many state contracts.

So far, the Kremlin has said it did not find the Chaika allegations interesting, and Chaika himself has accused Navalny of being put up to the exposure by William Browder, founder of Hermitage Capital who was tried in absentia in a Russian court on charges widely seen to be fabricated in retaliation for his campaign for justice in the case of his auditor Sergei Magnitsky who was tortured and died in jail.

Putin did not really add much to that reaction, although there is a bit of an implication that the Kremlin might actually look at the claims -- if only to repudiate and punish Navalny. 

Radio Svoboda, the Russian-language service of RFE/RL reported on the reaction of both Kashin and Navalny to Putin's replies.

Translation: #Kasihn : Putin should change his head so that he realized that the contractor of the assault on me is #Turchak and not his father.

Navalny himself said on his blog:

I lost all my bets. I was certain that Putin would prepare very well for the most relevant question [on Chaika] and answer it as many times as was necessary. For this purpose, they would let [Navalny's researcher Georgy] Alburov ask a question, or else why accredit him? I even wrote a version of the answer Putin would give. In the traditional format taking into account what Peskov said.

But instead of that, not only didn't he call on Alburov; he didn't call on [Kseniya] Sobchak which had never happened before.

Further, Navalny noted that Putin didn't indulge in conspiracy theories as he has on other issues:

There's no "this is a contract" much less "this is Browder and the intelligence services." Not to mention that there is the strictest taboo on the Tsapoks and all that. The only thing the Kremlin is prepared to discuss in this story is this: "Chaika has children, these children have suspiciously large homes. And the reply: well, the children are adults.

Navalny says this leaves it to Chaika, Lopatina and the rest to reply to the charges as the Kremlin won't look at them.

The only real reaction on the Chaika case is the rejection by a Moscow court of the libel suit of Olga Lopatina, the wife of the deputy prosecutor general Gennady Lopatin implicated in corruption, against Navalny. But this may be on technicalities and the story is not yet over.

Ultimately, Putin didn't make a very good show of answering questions, but then, journalists were not that tough either, and small wonder after a year of censorship, intimidation, beatings and contrived infractions -- while the press conference was underway, TV Rain, the only independent TV station in Russia, was getting a notice from the prosecutor that it had been found guilty of violations of the fire code. These had been found after "an appeal by citizens about the violation of civil rights by TV Rain" but were "not serious"; the prosecutor ordered them to be corrected immediately. TV Rain is also currently under inspection for possible violation of the tax code and the law on "extremism" as well.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Estonia Protests Russian Violation of Its Air Space

While Russian aircraft have skirted NATO airspace before, as has happened repeatedly in the last year, and have violated NATO airspace in Turkey on multiple occasions in the last three months, but today there was a new incident, perhaps of even greater significance than most, in Eastern Europe.

Estonia, a NATO member, has charged Russia with entering its air space, Novaya Gazeta reported, citing the Russian-language edition of the Estonian news site Postimees.

Translation: Estonia has accused Russia of violating its airspace.

Postimees reported (translation by The Interpreter): 

Today at 12:10 local time, a Russian AN-72 military transport plane entered Estonian air space without permission.

The Russian plane was in Estonian air space less than a minute. Its transponder was off, and the plane was flying along a route announced previously, according to which it should have flown in international air space. During the time it was violating Estonian air space, the plane did not maintain radio communication with Estonian air dispatchers.

The Estonian Foreign Ministry has summoned the Russian ambassador in Estonia to make a formal protest.

Russia has repeatedly engaged in such provocative approaches to or violations of air space of NATO countries in the last year. As Turkish Weekly reported, in the last year, there have been dozens of such incidents:

NATO officials have reported a list of violations by Russian military aircraft trespassing in European airspace. According to those statistics, there were six incidents with Estonia, three with Finland, and one each with Denmark and Poland. Against Sweden there were ten in 2014, up from eight in 2013, and seven in 2012. While there were no violations of Latvian airspace, there were over 180 incidents in which the Russian air force flew close to the borders in 2014. The Russian intruders turned off their transponders, electronic devices most aircraft are required to operate to make it easy to track them, in nearly all of the cases.

NATO fighters policing Baltic airspace were scrambled 68 times along Lithuania’s borders [in 2014], by far the highest count in more than 10 years. Estonia has said its sovereign airspace had been violated by Russian aircraft five times this year.

Tactics typically deployed by Russian pilots include a practice of deliberately failing to report flight plans, ignoring civilian air traffic controllers and switching off their on-board transponders that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg refers to as "flying dark" an approach which he said was inherently unsafe and poses a serious risk to civilian air traffic.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Reporter Asks Putin About Chaika Corruption Allegations, Kashin Beating; Putin Changes the Subject To Striking Drivers

A Russian journalist managed to confront President Vladimir Putin today at his marathon press conference concerning a number of scandalous cases that have been investigated by the independent press.

She referenced investigation into allegations of corruption the two sons of Prosecutor General Yury Chaika, Artyom and Igor, who have been discovered by opposition leader Alexey Navalny to have made business dealings with the wive of organized crime bosses and to have inexplicable assets incompatible with their salaries. 

Also mentioned was the severe beating and injury of journalist Oleg Kashin; the former security guard at a firm owned by Governor Aleksei Turchak's family fingered the governor as the mastermind behind Kashin's assault in order to silence his exposes of Turchak's alleged corrupt practices.

Putin repeated the question back to the journalist, and groped for the name of Turchak several times before it was supplied to him. He answered curtly that there was an office in the government responsible for oversight of official malfeasance and that was sufficient to address these kinds of claims.

He then quickly turned the subject to the striking long-haul drivers, whose protests he himself had ameliorated this week by slashing a heavy fine mandated for overweight loads. Translation by The Interpreter:

We must understand if the children have violated the law or not...whether he assisted the children or not
But we have the presidential monitoring directorate...
Now about the truckdrivers...

Translation: let Kashin nearly be killed, but revenues have grown!
Translation: Did you expect such results when you came to power?

Translation: Oh, on Turchak and Chaika!

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
At Annual News Conference, Putin Praises Economic Progress in Russia Despite Crisis; Slams Turkey; Concedes Russian Military Presence in Ukraine

President Vladimir Putin is giving his annual marathon press conference today, and has moved from general remarks mainly about the economy to taking some questions from reporters.

The event can be viewed on with English translation here.

Putin emphasized that capital flight had lessened this year -- but failed to mention it had doubled last year compared to 2013.

Putin also addressed the continuing deterioration of relations with Ankara since Turkey's downing of a Russian fighter plane which strayed into Turkish airspace near the Syria border. 

Putin said that Russia wouldn't boycott Ukraine, but it would essentially leave its "most favored nation" status and face higher tariffs.

Translation: Putin: Starting in 2016, it is possible that economic relations with Kiev will worse.

Putin surprised some by appearing to admit  that Russian regular army forces have been fighting in Ukraine.

Translation: finally Putin admitted that regular Russian military are fighting in the Donbass.

Putin appears not to have changed Russia's own position that the criminal case against Savchenko is what prohibits Russia from treat her as a POW.

Putin also referenced the recent elections in Ukraine and claimed that 43% of the people in the Donbass under Kiev's control voted for the Opposition Bloc; he said Kiev didn't want to accept that it had no support in southeastern Ukraine.  

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Independent Journalists Hope to Ask Tough Questions on Official Corruption at Putin's Marathon Press Conference Today

Today is Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual hours-long marathon press conference, where he takes questions from domestic and foreign journalists.

Mainly state or pro-Kremlin reporters are accredited to the event and they are expected to ask soft questions to bring out Putin's favorite rhetoric points.

Dmitry Smirnov is accredited regularly to the Kremlin pool from the pro-Kremlin Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Translation: Some of the journalists have brought a painting to the press conference as "a present for the president." Apparently, it's Putin and Medvedev there?

Translation: in the foyer, journalists from all over the country can purchase something "governmental" with the state emblem.

Translation: In 11 press conference, Vladimir Putin answered more than 500 questions from journalists.

Some independent journalists have also been accredited, although not all who requested. Ilya Azar is from Meduza, which was founded last year in Riga, Latvia after's editor-in-chief Galina Timchenko was fired for critical reporting on the undeclared war in Ukraine, and decided to go into exile with some of the site's journalists and editors.

Translation: I'm at the Annual Press Ball.

Translation: Judging from the list of badges handed out, three people will represent the journalism of Latvia at Putin's press conference, including myself and Roman Dobrokhotov.

Dobrokhotov at first said he was not in the list despite registration but then was admitted. 

Translation: I spoke with Alburov, he proposed making a bet for a pie and 100 rubles, that he will be allowed to ask a question. Does Navalny get approval of the questions at the Presidential Administration? (((

Georgy Alburov is a researcher at the Anti-Corruption Fund run by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and was involved in the recent expose of Prosecutor General Yury Chaika and his two sons.

Chaika has responded by claiming that Navalny's report was commissioned as a project by William Browder, founder of Hermitage Capital Management, who has exposed corrupt Russian practices and championed the cause of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky who was tortured and died in prison. 

Translation: I hope someone will ask Putin -- perhaps he himself is a colossal project of Browder's? He destroyed Russia completely.

Ekho Moskvy, an independent radio station that has increasingly come under pressure from the government has a reporter accredited. 

Translation: Aleksei Solomin will go to Putin's press conference from Ekho.

Translation: Knowing the nature of Putin's press conference and his opportunities, Aleksei Solomin will ask a few questions insignificant for your life and the country's.

His remark is a sarcastic reference to the fact that last year, journalists asked about Nemtsov's murder and Kadyrov's impunity.

Ilya Varlamov is a popular blogger and photojournalist.

Translation: Well, now, who will ask Putin about Chaika?

Translation: They will ask. And the answer will be clear. A) A contract and B) there's nothing on Chaika.

His comment references the claim by Chaika that Navalny's expose was commissioned by Browder, and that authorities are unlikely to probe the allegations of corruption.

In an interview with Rossiya-24 in advance of the event, presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov battened down the hatches for his boss in advance (translation by The Interpreter):

"Provoke the president--I don't think there are journalists who can provoke the president. I think that in this case, I'll put it this way, the president's expert information in practically all areas, the level of his briefing on the whole and in press conferences in particular, and we know that he very conscientiously, very attentatively prepares for such large-scale events, and this is likely a guarantee that no one will likely manage to provoke him. And that's not even the main thing."

Two years ago, before the Sochi Olympics, the war in Ukraine, the murder of Nemtsov and numerous political imprisonments, New Times editor-in-chief Yevgeniya Albats drew up a list of 25 questions that she believed Putin would never answer on issues ranging from corruption in the Sochi Games exposed by Nemtsov to Moscow's pressure even then on Ukraine. They were never answered.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick