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A Good Season To Bury Bad News

  • Claire Bigg

The verdict in the trial of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (right) on fraud charge was abruptly brought forward to December 30.

The verdict in the trial of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (right) on fraud charge was abruptly brought forward to December 30.

From shock resignations to military offensives to crackdowns, bad news often strikes in late December while much of the world is busy ringing in the holidays. So far, Russia leads the trend.

Soviet Invasion Of Afghanistan

The protracted Soviet-Afghan War began on December 24, 1979, with the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops. A Soviet commando executed Afghan leader Hafizullah Amin and replaced him with its own protege, Babrak Karmal, in a bid to quell rebellion against the Soviet Union's influence in Afghan politics. But what the Kremlin believed would be a quick and decisive victory ended with a humiliating retreat after more than nine years of conflict.

Demise Of The Soviet Union

On December 25, 1991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev gave up his struggle to preserve the crumbling Soviet Union and resigned as president. He declared his office extinct, ordered the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., and handed over full power to Boris Yeltsin. The hammer-and-sickle flag was lowered over the Kremlin on New Year's Eve and replaced with the Russian tricolor, marking the demise of the Soviet Union.

New Year's Eve Assault On Grozny

On New Year's Eve in 1994, just over two weeks after Moscow began its first war against separatists in Chechnya, Russian forces launched their first major assault on Grozny. Instead of ringing in the new year, Grozny residents cowered under shelling and bombing. The assault ended in a crushing defeat for Russian forces. Due to the poor military training of troops and confusing orders from Moscow, they quickly retreated after suffering devastating losses during the operation. Russian forces eventually captured Grozny in early February 1995.

Yeltsin's Resignation

Russian President Yeltsin kept with tradition by making his grand exit during the holiday season, announcing his surprise resignation in a televised speech on New Year's Eve in 1999. Yeltsin ended his final speech by wishing his stunned nation a happy new year. His resignation, six months before the end of his term, paved the way for then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's rise to the presidency.

Russia-Ukraine Gas Disputes

The bitter gas-pricing feuds between Russia and Ukraine usually culminate in the final days of December, with Russia's Gazprom monopoly turning off the taps on Ukraine at the peak of festivities. In 2006, Gazprom reduced supplies on January 1. Three years later, also on January 1, Gazprom entirely halted supplies to Ukraine. Supplies were restored on January 20 after lengthy bilateral talks.

Khodorkovsky Verdict

The high-profile embezzlement trial of Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky wrapped up on December 30, 2010, one day before Russia's biggest national holiday. Khodorkovsky and his associate, Platon Lebedev, already in jail for tax evasion, were sentenced to an additional six years in prison following a protracted trial widely denounced as politically motivated.

Navalny Verdict

Lawyers for Aleksei Navalny announced on December 29 that the verdict in a fraud case against the Kremlin opponent was brought forward to December 30. The initial date for the verdict had been January 15, 2015. Supporters say the charges against Navalny, who faces 10 years in prison, are retaliation for his opposition to President Putin. Navalny's supporters are planning a protest rally near the Kremlin after the verdict is announced.

Azerbaijan's Crackdown On RFE/RL

Other governments have used Christmas as a smokescreen for actions that would attract more attention -- and criticism -- at a less festive time of the year. On December 27, Azerbaijani law enforcement officers sealed RFE/RL's bureau in Baku after ransacking the premises and detaining staff members for a day of questioning. The homes of journalists working for the U.S.-state-funded broadcaster were also raided. Incidentally, Azerbaijan barred international radio stations, including RFE/RL, from national frequencies on January 1, 2009.

Detention Of Kazakh Opposition Figure

Despite being a prominent Kazakh opposition figure, Muratbek Ketebaev's detention on December 27 has drawn almost no attention from the Western media. Ketebaev was arrested in Madrid on an Interpol warrant issued by Kazakh authorities in mid-December. He faces extradition to Kazakhstan, which accuses him of being implicated in the 2011 Zhanaozen riots and a planned terror attack in Almaty the following year. He denies the charges. Ketebaev is a vocal critic of Kazakhstan's longtime autocratic leader, Nursultan Nazarbaev, and has actively denounced high-level corruption in the Kazakh government. Ketebaev had lived since 2001 in self-imposed exile in Poland, which granted him political-refugee status.

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​