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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Update: April 22, 2016

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.
Kremlin Denies Pressure on RBC Re: Editor's Sabbatical; Pro-Kremlin Site Claims Expose of RBC Editing

RBC, one of Russia's few remaining independent news sites, appears to be under pressure from the Kremlin for its frank news reporting, notably on the Panama Papers in recent weeks that exposed figures close to President Vladimir Putin as involved in corruption.

Three red flags known to all independent media in Russia from similar attacks in the past have occurred  -- 1) searches of the owner of the media; 2) a hurried trip abroad by the editor 3) a hit-job on editors in pro-Kremlin media. 

Earlier this week there were searches of Oneksim, the company owned by oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of RBC. Prokhorov, who once ran against Putin in the presidential elections and founded the Civic Platform and later left it, in fact appears to have stayed loyal to Putin, but this has not helped.

Novaya Gazeta reported on April 16 that the Kremlin denied there was any desire to put pressure on RBC's freedom, but cited the statement of the FSB, which conducted the search (translation by The Interpreter):

For the purposes of checking reports of possible evasion of payment of taxes and fees from organizations, premises were opened and searched which are occupied by the companies of the Oneksim group and affiliated legal persons, including the credit organizations International Financial Club, JSA ACB, Renassaince, Ltd. CB. As a result of initial measures, information was obtained about the violation of tax law requirements by a number of commercial organizations. Documents confiscated were transmitted for further investigation to specialists for the purpose of taking the appropriate procedural measures.

As Novaya commented about the statement, referring to the nickname of the FSB still used from the Soviet era (the Cheka):

This commentary was wonderful for the fact that it could be interpreted to the broadest extent possible and be bound up as a basis for any version of a case: from the Chekists' routine work on a criminal case unrelated to Prokhorov's shares, to a smoke curtain for the attack on RBC nonetheless.

Reuters reported April 20 that Elizaveta Osetinskaya, editor-in-chief of the RBC [Russian Business Consulting] Media Group decided to depart early on a sabbatical, four months earlier than planned:

A source close to the media group said the departure of the editor-in-chief, Elizaveta Osetinskaya, may have been brought forward under pressure from Kremlin officials who were displeased with the publications about Putin's inner circle.
A Kremlin spokesman denied the media group or its owners were being subjected to pressure., a formerly independent news site reported that they had received a notice that Osetinskaya would leave to participate in Stanford's Innovation Program after the May holidays in Russia and would spend the year there. She indicated that she would start her studies in the fall of 2016 and that the program was 10 months long.

She said while retaining the title of editor-in-chief, she would delegate responsibilities to other editors responsible for various divisions. Osetinskaya has been at RBC since January 2014, and early worked for three years at Russian Forbes, and before that at Vedomosti.

Stanford University happens to be where Amb. Michael McFaul, former US envoy to Moscow, is teaching, a fact not lost on Russian observers.

Some felt that her departure was precipitated by the searches.

Translation: Osetinskaya went on an early leave...right after the searches at RBC.

Presidential administration spokesman Dmitry Peskov once again denied today that the Kremlin has placed pressure on Osetinskaya to depart for her sabbatical early, Novaya Gazeta reported, citing RIA Novosti.

We regularly speak with many of the editors-in-chief. You know, first of all, that Putin regularly holds meetings, they take place once a year with all the editors-in-chief...and all of this is in a routine regimen. And we often also meet with editors, with the editors-in-chief of various media -- the ordinary maintenance of working contact. In this case, we did not establish a goal to learn the plans regarding Elizaveta's leave, we just discussed issues of information cooperation.

A source told Novaya Gazeta that the searches of Oneksim were a way of putting pressure on Prokhorov to sell RBC -- to persons who might be more accommodating to the Kremlin.

But the Kremlin denied the searches were in any way related to pressure, said Novaya Gazeta.

Novaya Gazeta said Osetinskaya had spoken about how she would be leaving to study at Stanford University.

Ruposters, a site that often publishes pro-Kremlin perspectives and news, ran a draft article today saying that RBC published an article by mistake with notes still on the text.

The article (final version) is on state privatization, with the headline "Privatization Under Threat: Why the Authorities Are Not Hastening with Sale of Assets." The Ruposters take-down  urports to show an RBC editor asking his journalists in a note within the text of the draft article to find the "right" sort of expert to comment on the issue, who would criticize President Vladimir Putin's directives on privatization of state shares.

There was no independent confirmation that the draft was authentic and RBC did not appear to have a comment. Ruposters claimed to link to a Google cache, but in fact put in a link to a LiveJournal page of a screenshot. The Google cached version available doesn't show any markings from editors.

RBC has also seen the arrest of one of its journalists, Aleksandr Sokolov this year on charges of extremism for involvement in a group called "People's Will Army."

The game of pretending that the media outlet isn't under pressure will likely continue, RBC itself may continue not to comment on the issue of whether it is experiencing pressure, and readers will only be left with examining the content to try to make a judgement. 

RBC continued to publish unbiased dispatches today, for example, carrying all the Western, Russian and Syrian versions of the story of the downed MiG-23.

RBC also published critical stories about Russia domestic and foreign issues, for example on Mikhail Khodorkovsky's intentions to challenge the overturn of the Yukos decision in the Hague, on Transparency International's claim that Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin had purchased an apartment abroad through an offshore company, and a lengthy article on the exchange process that might occur with Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko and two GRU agents, and other POWs and prisoners.

RBC also published an article on the claim by Sergei Aksyonov, head of Russian-occupied Crimea, that the Crimean Tatar Mejlis or popular assembly was a "semi-criminal structure," as well as a 
claim by Natalya Poklonskaya, prosecutor of Russian-occupied Crimea, that the Mejlis was "not democratic" and "extremist" and that was the only reason the West wanted it -- and if they liked such an organization "they should create their own Mejlis."

RBC did note at the end the orginal statement by White House spokesman John Kirby calling on the Russian Ministry of Justice to reverse the ban on the Mejlis.

RBC also ran a story from Bolshoi on Facebook's acquisition of the Belarusian mobile app MSQRD, in which the Belarusian developers said Facebook ordered them to remove masks (picture filters) of Barack Obama and Snoop Dogg for reasons of "political correctness." The tech press in the US has also covered this story, and added that the PC managers at Facebook left the mask of Stalin untouched.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
State Duma Passes Law to Strip MPs of Their Mandates for Absences Over 30 Days
The State Duma has passed a law in the third and final reading to strip its members of their mandates for absences, reported.

The law, introduced by the Just Russia faction in parliament gained 344 votes in favor and 93 opposed; 1 member abstained.

Under the law, any member who does not attend sessions of parliament for 30 days will lose his seat if he is not shown to have been working in his region at that time. The process of stripping him of his mandate may be initiated either by the 
faction in which he is a member, or a committee of which he is a member. They in turn send their concerns to the Duma Commission on Ethics, which in turn decides whether there is a basis for punishing the deputy. Then that question is put to 
the entire membership of the Duma.

The Duma has considered this issue for years; back in 2010, momentum gathered to punish the AWOL MPs but then the Duma in the end didn't pass the measure. MPs are in the habit now of giving their electronic voting cards to fellow members who vote for them by proxy.

Last year, the issue was taken up again by Just Russia; a factor was likely their own member, Ilya Ponomaryev, who had left their party in fact in protest against their policies, and was the sole person to vote against the annexation of the Crimea. Authorities then revived an inquiry about his role in Skolkovo Foundation, an innovation project started by then-president Dmitry Medvedev which came under fire when Putin was back as president.

Ponomarev was charged in relationship to fees he had been given under contract to run lectures and investment seminars; he countered that he returned much of the disputed funds though they were not shown to be unlawful. He then fled Russia and is living abroad now involved in opposition activities, as he says he would face selective prosecution if he returned.

The Duma voted to strip him of parliamentary immunity last year. 

Ponomarev has been far from the only controversy regarding absenteeism, however; another deputy, Roman Vanchugov of Karelia, who was investigated in a case involving bank fraud and accused of missing sessions, also faced discipline but appears to have hung on to his seat.

The communists did not vote for the measure. Sergei Reshulsky, deputy from the Communist Party of Russia Federation, opposed an amendment that allowed any committee to start the process.

"An explosive atom bomb is put under every deputy: how can you give initiative to a committee that does not know what a deputy is doing?
He said committee meetings often sit without all members present, and those present hold proxy votes for others.

Boris Kashin, another Communist, said the purpose of the amendments to the law involved an "unprecedented" procedure enabling the influence of the "parliamentary majority" to be deployed on one member. 

"No one doubts this was sent down from the administration of the president," he said -- which could be said about many drafts laws in parliament.

Yury Sinelshchikov, another Communist, said that if the law is signed by President Vladimir Putin, his faction would appeal to the Russian Constitutional Court for a determination as to whether it complied with the Constitution.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
AM News: Putin, Netanyahu Meet Amid Reports of Aerial Incidents in Syria; Kremlin Denies Pressure on RBC

The ruble rate of conversion to the dollar is 65.94 and to the euro 74.25. Brent crude is at $44.85 per barrel.

The following headlines were taken from 7:40 na Perrone, Ynetnews, Novaya Gazeta, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, and Rufabula

Netanyahu and Putin Met Amid Reports of Aerial Incidents Over Syria

Russia Denies Incident with Israeli Plane