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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Update: May 2, 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.
Night Wolves Biker Club Head Says 'Belarus, Ukraine' are 'Russia'; Banned from Poland
Aleksandr Zaldostanov, the head of the motorcylists' club Night Wolves known as "Surgeon," riled some tempers today with a comment about Russia's neighbors -- "Belarus is Russia, Ukraine is Russia," the Russian blogger Ilya Varlamov reported.

The sentiment was consistent with the "Novorossiya" approach to regional politics popularized by the Russian-backed separatists in southeastern Ukraine, by which Russian nationalists incorporate parts of the old Russian Empire into a new pro-Russian territory or even into Russia itself. Belarus and Ukraine obtained their independence from the Russian-dominated Soviet Union in 1991 after it collapsed following the defeat of the August 1991 coup.

The press secretary of the Belarusian KGB -- yes, it is still called by the Soviet-era name -- commented on Zaldostanov's claim with the following statement to the Belarusian newspaper Nasha Niva: "I will draw the attention of our competent agencies to this."

Of course, the KGB's press secretary  himself represented one of the "competent agencies," a euphemistic phrase that means "intelligence" in Belarus, Russia and other former Soviet republics.

Nasha Niva, a supporter of Belarusian independent said such statements calling to  damage the security, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Belarus could be characterized as violating Art. 361 of the criminal code.

Zaldostanov made his comments about Belarus and Ukraine along with an expression  of regret that the USSR fell at the Khatyn memorial complex where victims of a Nazi massacre are commemorated.

Soviet and later Belarusian and Russian authorities have preferred to focus on the Khatyn memorial rather than one involving a similar-sounding town - Katyn - where 22,000 Polish officers were massacred by Stalin's henchmen. These two atrocities are so often confused that Wikipedia has to put in an explanation re-directing readers to the Katyn page.

Soviet and later Belarusian authorities also wanted to avoid a focus on the forest of Kuropaty outside Minsk, where hundreds of thousands of other victims of the Stalinist regime were executed over a period of years and thrown in mass graves.

The bikers had planned to join others in a ride to pay homage to the Red Army related to May 9, Victory Day.

Poland had earlier blocked Night Wolves in 2015 and there were also objections to their presence in Germany. Zaldostanov has been placed on  the European Union's list of sanctions in connection with the annexation of the Crimea and war in the Donbass.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Activist Vows 'Info War' Against Cell Phone Operator Over Hack; Telegram's Durov Blames Russian Intelligence
Georgy Alburov, a staff member of the Anti-Corruption Fund (FBK) founded by Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader devoted to official exposes, has vowed to wage an "information war" against the cell phone operator MTS over the hack of his phone and that of another activist via the Telegram app, Novaya Gazeta reports.

Last week there were a series of hacks, involving the emails of notorious Kremlin propagandist Dmitry Kisilyev, the pro-Russian ANNA news service, Alburov, and Oleg Kozlovsky, an opposition blogger. They all seemed to take advantage of a temporary security hole and involved both Whatsapp, a popular encrypted messaging app, and Telegram, another strongly encrypted app created by Pavel Durov, the founder of the Ruissian social network VKontakte who sold his shares in that company and left Russia after Russian intelligence demanded he turn over customer data.

Alburov, who has more than 83,000 followers on Twitter, decided to focus on the cell phone company's lack of security rather than blame the FSB or Federal Security Service, which demands cooperation from all Internet service and mobile providers (translation by The Interpreter):

"I would like to unleash a real information war against MTS, out of those which Kisilyev told us about. I did a survey on Twitter, about 36% of my subscribers are their clients. This is a castrophic number. We will lower it, and thankfully it's easy now to move to another operation. Landings [landing page messages], ads-- thee may be various types of activity."

He said that he had heard of such hacks before "only in theoretical discussions about the 'almighty' FSB". He said that on the night of April 29, MTS turned off the ability to receive SMS messages, after which access to Telegram accounts were requested through a code which Alburov believes was given to hackers. After the correspondence was downloaded, MTS once again turned on the ability to receive SMS texts. Afterwards, MTS then denied that it had turned off the SMS capacity and said the previous announcement of this problem was "a technical mistake."

"This story should not be left unpaid by MTS. And any other operator to which they [the secret police] come in this way must know that it is easier to sabotage such demands and ask for a paper than to bear collosal reputational damages."

Alburov plans to file complaints to the Russian censor and consumer agency and also file suit in foreign courts, as MTS has offices in London and New York.

MTS had no comment on the hack itself, but denied that SMS service was turned off, TV Rain reported. Kozlovsky said he got the information about the shut-down from an MTS worker when he called to complain.

Anton Nossik [Nosik], a Russian blogger who is now charged with "extremism" for calling for the bombing of Syrians, also posted information about how people can protect their Telegram accounts.

As often happens with hacks, the debate has focused on blaming the victims rather than the hackers:
Pavel Durov, for his part, in a blog post for Ekho Moskvy, placed the blame on Russia's intelligence agencies.

He noted that Oleg Kozlovsky had "figured out the situation" best of all.

On Facebook, Kozlovsky explained that his and Alburov's account were breached at 2:25 am because MTS turned off the SMS function enabling a server at the New-York based IP address, one of the anonymizers of the Tor circumvention software, which sent a request for authorization to his number, 15 minutes later. He was then sent a code which didn't reach him because the service was turned off.

But the hacker now had a code to enable access to Kozlovsky's account -- Telegram also sent him a notice of this, but he didn't receive it until the morning.

Alburov's account was hacked at about the same time from the same IP address and the same Tor session, said Kozlovsky.

By 4:55, the service was restored. Said Kozlovsky:

"The main question is how unknown persons obtained access to a code that was sent on SMS, but didn't reach [me]. Unfortunately, I have only one hypothesis: through the SORM [FSB filtration] system or directly through an MTS technical security department (for example, by phone call from the 'competent agencies' [intelligence]. If there are other variations, propose them."

He urged that everyone turn on two-factor authentication to foil such attempts, and urged Telegram not to accept authorization codes that were not authenticated.

Durov concluded:

"Summary: judging from everything, the Russian Federation special services [intelligence] decided to pressure the cell operators so that they carried out an intercept of an authorized SMS code. This is usually encountered only in the context of the cannibalistic regimes that don't care about their reputation -- in Central Asia, sometimes the Middle East. But suddenly this happened in Russia (if, of course, you rule out corruption inside MTS, which in the case of opposition journalists is little likely.)"

Translation: Pavel Durov suspected the Russian special services in the hacking of the Telegram accounts of opposition members.

He's also put a cautionary tweet in English on his Twitter account, where he has 1.03 million followers, to a post on the Telegram site:

He then followed up in Russia in reply to an active opposition member who is a member of the Moscow City Council:

Translation: @max_katz @google An email for establishing 2FA [two-factor authentication] on T[elegram] is not mandatory.

(Durov has denied reports that he is selling his service to Google.)

Durov said he would also do a mass Telegram mailing in Russia urging people to turn on two-factor authentication. He then added that he himself not only used two-factor authentication, but also "a sim card from an appropriate jurisdiction," a hint that users should not use Russian-made cards. A number of Kozlovsky's readers gave him the same advice, to use a foreign sim card instead of those made in Russia.

One reader of Kozlovsky's post quipped, "No sim card, no case," paraphrasing Stalin's infamous "no person, no problem." 

The case of the murder of Nemtsov was allegedly broken through discovery of a careless mistake made by one of the perpetrators, who did a short-burst message on a burner phone to Ingushetia about the commission of the murder, but used a sim card associated with his regular phone.

There haven't been any comments about the methodology used to hack Kiselyev, which involved both his email and Whatsapp, and ANNA, but presumably these also took advantage of the turn-off of SMS.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Veteran Russian Journalist Calls Out Botched Coverage of Police Family's Murder Re: Suspects' Ethnicity
As we reported, the murder of a former police chief and his family in a village in the Syzran District of Samara Region has roiled the Russian press and parliament and led to a prominent MP calling for the borders of Russia to be closed to some Central Asian countries except for cleared visa-holders.

In his statement about the arrest of suspects, Vladimir Markin of the Investigative Committee said the suspects were "emigres from a Central Asian country" -- leaving open the question of which country, and their exact status in Russia.

This seemed a bit strange, as the names of the people involved appear to be typical of Caucasian last names.

Arkady Dubnov, a veteran Russian reporter of events in Central Asia, wrote a Facebook post reprinted by Ekho Moskvy today titled "New Kasha in Russian Brains," referring to a common porridge in Russia and an idiom that indicates a person is confused. Said Dubnov (translation by The Interpreter):

What a sordid, fussily nasty thriller has unfolded around the tragedy in Syzran and the detention of the alleged murderers of police colonel Gosht and his family!

First, we are told that that investigators arrested three emigres from Central Asia, apparently from Tajikistan, then the publicist Yuliya Latynina [a writer for Ekho Moskvy--The Interpreter] hurries to dump the plant that migrants who were born in Russia (!) are suspected of the murder, most likely from Uzbekistan, and provides their last names, but the main point is that they fought on the side of the separatists in the LNR [self-declared Lugansk People's Republic].

The horror.

Then another hustler thirsting for PR, Sen. Frants Klintsevich (by the way, the deputy chair of the Federation Council Committee on Security) demands a visa regimen to be imposed with the countries of Central Asia, from which supposedly the marauders come to our country. Of course, here the former Afghan veteran weaves in the 'crazy nanny from Uzbekistan.'

Fresh horror.

Finally, we're shown a video with the detention of the three suspects with brutal reprisals in Syzran; here they are natives of Azerbaijan and once again their last names are mentioned.

The final horror?

So a great country, where bread is growing more expensive, demands circuses and new enemies among its former neighbors in the Soviet Union and immediate reprisals against them.

RIA Novosti reported this afternoon, citing police spokesperson Irina Volk, that the murderers have "have provided an exhaustive confession."

In the second paragraph of the news story, RIA continued to refer to the Investigative Committee's statement about the suspects as "emigres from a Central Asian country."

But in the penultimate paragraph of the story, RIA also cited a local prosecutor in Syzran District of Samar Region, Yevgeny Ikhri, who said all three suspects were natives of Azerbaijan and "foreigners," i.e. without Russian citizenship. RIA didn't attempt to clarify the different statements.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russian Police Arrest 3 'Central Asian' Labor Migrants in Murder of Police Family, Prompting Calls for Visas

Russian police have made arrests in the grisly murder of a former Samara Region police chief and his whole family, reports.

Andrei Gosht, 58, former deputy head of the Samar Region Interior Ministry branch (the police), was murdered April 24 in the village of Ivashevka near the town of Syzran in Samara Region, along with his wife, father, mother, and brother's daughter, LifeNews was apparently first to report the murder. Another niece, age 7, survived the attack but is in serious condition in a coma in the hospital.

The murders in a provincial town have rocked Russia at a time when President Vladimir Putin is reorganizing law-enforcement into the National Guard, which has fully preoccupied the press and parliament. Investigators have compared the murders to the infamous underworld hit in 2010 on an entire family of a local farmer, Serever Ametov in Kushchyovskaya, in which 12 people were killed.

In that case, a notorious gang leader and members were arrested -- it was this crime family that was discovered to have ties to Olga Lopatina, the alleged former wife of deputy prosecutor Gennady Lopatin, who registered a company with Anzhela Mariya Tsapok, wife of Sergei Tsapov, the mastermind of the murders who was convicted to life imprisonment but died of a stroke in prison in 2014; three of his accomplices committed suicide.

At the time, Putin said the Kushchyovskaya murders in the Krasnodar Region as well as murders in Gus-Khrustalny in the Vladimir Region exemplified "the failure of the entire law-enforcement system," Interfax reported. He blamed not only the police but prosecutors, the Federal Security Service and the Federal Narcotics Control Service as well as the courts for the failure to stop organized crime before it reached this epic proportion.

These are the very agencies he has tackled in a massive restructuring of law-enforcement into the newly-created National Guard. 

After announcing a bounty of 3 million rubles ($46,193), in record time, police have come up with three suspects in the Samara murder, all from Central Asia, Vladimir Markin of the Investigative Committee announced May 1. They were arrested on April 30 and the night of May 1; a video of the arrest shows one man arrested in an apartment and another who tried to flee from a bus stop.

According to LifeNews, which ran a headline "Syzran Police Chief Murdered by Labor Migrants," they are Islam Babayev, Orkhan Zokhrabov and Roman Fataliyev.

Two other brothers from the Ferghana Valley region of Uzbekistan, Anatoly and Yevgeny Nushtayev, have also been identified as possibly involved in the murder; one of them is said to have fled Russia and is now wanted by police in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Aleksandr Khinshtein, a deputy of the State Duma from Samara Region, said the murders were motivated by revenge. He said the murderers used iron rods and hammers to kill the family members in their sleep. But a Samar publication, 63.4 said the murderers used bats, and Syrzan today said the killers stole the video surveillance camera in the building.

Khinshtein also compared the murder to the Kushchyovskaya case, adding that Samara was just as criminalized a region.

There are some significant differences, however, notably that Tsapov and his gang waged a reign of terror for a decade in Krasnodar, enabled by corrupt local police and prosecutors, and were accused of murdering two dozen people. The Central Asians did not have a track record in Russia and other than Gosht have not been shown to have a relationship to law-enforcement.

That suggests to some they were hired killers, but one of the motives for the killing has been revenge against Gosht who reportedly hired Central Asian workers to build a house, but then allegedly didn't pay the workers in full. Komsomolskaya Pravda has published this theory of the case, noting that while some sources said Gosht "got in the way" of a criminal gang by policing their crimes, others say it was merely a debt that led to his murder.

They said Gosht had purchased the home in Ivashevko for his parents, but it had no conveniences so he hired a construction group to put in plumbing, a banya (steam bath) and a fence. Workers were said to work for two months, night and day, and then grew angry that he shorted them by 1.5 million rubles of a promised payment ($23,096). The story that hammers and iron rods from a construction site were used in the murder supports the thesis that it was related to the builders.

In covering the murder, out of deference for the victims, the Russian press has not shown any curiosity about where the former policeman got the funds for construction on what would have presumably been a modest pension.

Police discounted robbery as a motive as valuables remained in the house after the murderers fled.

Frants Klintsevich, first deputy chair of the Committee on Defense and Security of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament, called for a visa regimen to be imposed on Central Asian countries whose workers currently enter Russia freely.

"Everything has its limit. The brutal murder of the former head of police in Syzran and his family by emigres from the republics of Central Asia -- this is over the line. Moreover, everyone still recalls the horrible murder of a Moscow child at the hands of her deranged nanny from Uzbekistan."

He added that Russia had not succeeded in both maintaining good relations with former Soviet republics and securing the safety of its own citizens. Subsequently, he said that the Central Asian countries shouldn't be bundled together, and stronger measures should not affect Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan "with which Russia has special economic relations."

That left Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan; of the two Uzbekistan has far more labor migrants than the hermetic Turkmenistan which has been in poor relations with Russia over gas pipeline disputes. Recently Uzbekistan's leader Islam Karimov visited Moscow, where the main agenda item appeared to be his demand not to use the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which will have a summit in June, for addressing security challenges from Afghanistan.

Trade between Russia and Uzbekistan has fallen by 29% in the last year compared to the previous year due to the economic crisis and crash of the ruble, amid an increasing animosity against Central Asian market sellers.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Putin Reshuffles Law-Enforcement Agencies; Suspects Arrested in Murder of Policeman and Family