Monday, August 03, 2015

Accused Of Stealing Billions, Yanukovych Defends His Ostriches

Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to the BBC: "What's wrong with supporting...? That I supported the ostriches, what's wrong with that?"

Deana Kjuka

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has granted his first extended interview to Western media since eastern Ukraine erupted in conflict after he fled into exile last year.

But in the midst of his sit-down with BBC Newsnight, after accepting some responsibility for the Maidan deaths that led to his downfall in February 2014 -- "Of course, among others, I am to blame as well" -- it happened.

He laid an egg that did not go unnoticed. 

Interviewer Gabriel Gatehouse had asked Yanukovych about the luxurious residence at Mezhyhirya, outside Kyiv, that became a symbol of excess and alleged financial abuses.

Yanukovych responded by saying there was only one house on the property that belonged to him; everything else belongs to the Ukrainian state.

Gatehouse pressed him about the "zoo" of exotic animals, including ostriches, at the former residence. 

In an attempt to extricate himself, Yanukovych countered: "What's wrong with supporting...? That I supported the ostriches, what's wrong with that?" 

They just lived there, he added. "Yes, what am I supposed to do, go around with my eyes closed?"

That bit made the interviewer chuckle.

It also marked the start of a flood of wild reactions on Twitter. 

Soon enough, the Internet did one of the things that it arguably does best, and the memes started rolling in. 

"Look how he was supporting us." 

Merchandise has even begun to appear. "We are simply living here": 

But with all the lingering questions about events since Yanukovych's ouster, The Guardian's Luke Harding asked an important question: 

Ian Katz, an editor at BBC Newsnight, replied that Yanukovych was asked about the existence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine but the answer was "not interesting."

Catching ‘Hell’: Navalny Says Notorious Russian Hacker To Be Unmasked In Germany

“Anyone who wants to personally get to know the hacker can do so just one week from now,” says Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.

Carl Schreck

For years, a mysterious self-identified "hacker" has boasted about wreaking havoc against prominent Kremlin critics, claiming responsibility for stealing troves of their personal e-mails leaked online and hijacking their social-media accounts.

To date, however, the true identity of the individual -- known by the online pseudonym Hell and arguably the Russian-language Internet’s most notorious alleged hacker -- has never been publicly confirmed.

But that may soon change for the pseudonymous blogger, who once bragged that "they can’t catch me."

A Bonn court on June 24 is set to hear a criminal case against the online activist that opposition leader Aleksei Navalny claims is based on materials he provided to German prosecutors.

"Anyone who wants to personally get to know the hacker can do so just one week from now," Navalny wrote in a June 18 post on his website

Navalny declined to give the individual’s name, but identified the blogger as a 41-year-old man.

Hell’s targets have included the famous novelist-turned-Kremlin-critic Boris Akunin; the fiery dissident Valeria Novodvorskaya, who died last year; and numerous journalists and political activists prominent in opposition circles.

Going After Navalny

But Hell’s greatest impact on Russian political life was his alleged hack of Navalny’s e-mails in 2012. Navalny makes a direct link between this breach and his subsequent criminal convictions, which he said were largely based on the contents of those stolen correspondences.

Russian authorities scoured the e-mails for anything “that resembled anything close to a discussion of some sort of business and declared it fraud,” Navalny wrote this week.

Navalny, a driving force behind antigovernment street protests in Moscow in 2011-12, is currently serving two suspended sentences following convictions on theft and embezzlement charges. He and his allies call the prosecutions groundless and say they are part of a Kremlin campaign to punish him for his activism.

In a June 2012 interview with the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia, an individual claiming to be Hell said Navalny was chosen as a target because the opposition leader “is a fraudster and a scoundrel.”

“It was a very difficult breach,” Hell was quoted as saying in the interview.

Hell also claimed to have hacked Navalny’s Twitter and Facebook accounts that same year.

FSB Agent?

Speculation has long swirled in the Russian blogosphere that Hell is connected to Russian security services, and that despite all of the braggadocio about hacking skills, the blogger may have been spoon-fed the hacked e-mails by operatives linked to the Russian government.

It had long been widely understood that Hell resides in Germany. Vladimir Pribylovsky, an enigmatic political analyst who catalogues biographies across Russia’s political landscape, several years ago claimed to have exposed Hell as a Russian emigre living in Bonn. (Hell also claims to have victimized Pribylovsky.)

Navalny wrote on his website that investigators in Bonn raided Hell’s apartment in 2013 and confiscated discs and other data-storage devices that contained the opposition leader’s e-mails.

He added that the court is set to convene at 9:30 a.m. on June 24 and provided a link to the schedule on the Bonn court’s website (case no. Ls 6/15).

Navalny, who had his passport taken away from him due to his convictions, said he is a co-plaintiff in the case but will not be able to travel to Germany to serve as a witness in the case.

Hell responded to Navalny’s post with a series of tweets laced with the colorful, profane, and grammatically disastrous language that is a hallmark of the blogger’s online output.

In several of the tweets, the blogger suggested that the “dude” facing criminal charges in Bonn is not, in fact, Hell.

With reporting by Armen Sargsyan

Pothole Politics Grip Russian Region In Road-Repair Scandal

Saratov Governor Valery Radayev says this doesn't even look like him.

Carl Schreck

Crumbling roads have long provoked grassroots outrage in Russia, where no less than President Vladimir Putin has attributed the abysmal condition of the country's thoroughfares to pervasive corruption in the road-construction industry. 

Russian activists in recent years have taken their disgust with this state of affairs to the streets, both literally and creatively, by painting caricatures of local and regional officials over potholes that serve as comically grotesque mouths in the portraits.

One such image resembling Saratov Governor Valery Radayev has gripped the local political and media establishment, sparking fervent talk of a political "hit job" that comes at the midway point of a regional street-repair initiative dubbed Year Of The Road.

The pothole-adorned portrait was discovered the morning of June 11 on a central street in Saratov, 350 kilometers southwest of Moscow. 

A week earlier, a large municipal KamAZ truck was immobilized after its front wheel plunged into that very pothole, right in front of the regional branch of the All-Russian National Front, a movement formed by Putin in 2011.

A message stenciled next to the caricature on the street read: "Radayev, thank you for Year Of The Roads.

Local authorities quickly dispatched a street sweeper to the scene, though it was unable to scrub away Radayev's likeness. Workers then proceeded to paint over the picture, and later filled in the pothole. 

Days later, Saratov police hauled in the man who painted the caricature, a 20-year-old graffiti artist named Vikenty Belikov. He told RFE/RL that he was apolitical and that a local activist with the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party paid him 10,000 rubles ($186) for the job.

"I would never go and draw a face resembling the governor's over a pothole on my own initiative," Belikov said in a telephone interview. "It's just not interesting for me."

He added that police said they could fine him up to 500 rubles ($9) for an administrative violation but ultimately decided not to. Police were more interested in finding out who paid him for the street portrait, Belikov said.

The head of the Saratov region's public council, a consultative body to the regional administration, called the pothole portrait a "political hit job" aimed at smearing the governor. 

"While regional authorities are doing all they can to secure resources for roads amid the difficult conditions presented by a budget deficit, others are trying to score political points with petty, dirty tricks," the official, Aleksandr Lando, told the news portal SarInform.

The strategy of shaming Russian officials over road conditions by painting their pictures over potholes appears to have first emerged a few years ago, most notably in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg. 

Last month, pothole caricatures of the city manager of Ryazan, 200 kilometers southeast of Moscow, were posted on a Twitter fan account dedicated to renowned guerrilla artist Banksy that has 1.3 million followers. 

Ryazan police subsequently investigated street images of the local administration head, Oleg Bulenkov. 

The Ryazan incident prompted Russian State Duma Deputy Sergei Mironov, a Putin loyalist who heads a party that positions itself as an opposition movement, to criticize local authorities for choosing to paint over the images of Bulenkov before fixing the potholes. 

Russian authorities have largely moved to restrict or co-opt grassroots dissatisfaction with the government during Putin's 15 years in power.

But it has often moved delicately when dealing with discontent among the country's drivers, who have proven themselves capable of mobilizing protesters on issues ranging from import tariffs and road privileges flaunted by Russia's ruling elite.

Belikov, the Saratov graffiti artist, chose his words carefully when describing the subject of his pothole portrait, saying only that he based it on a picture of someone who "resembled" Radayev, the Saratov governor and a member of Putin's United Russia party.

As for Radayev, his spokeswoman told the local news site Vzglyad-Info that while the governor had a sense of humor, he didn't recognize himself in Belikov's portrait.

"‘It doesn't look like me,'" she quoted the governor as saying.

Video U2 Demands Freedom For Azerbaijani Political Prisoners

Rock Star Bono Speaks Out For Political Prisoners In Azerbaijani
June 16, 2015
Rock singer and political activist Bono spoke out against rights abuses in Azerbaijan during a concert with his band U2 in Montreal on June 13. Bono named six Azerbaijanis who he said "are locked behind bars for the crime of expressing their opinion" -- Khadija Ismayilova, Emin Huseynov, Anar Mammadli, Leyla Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, and Intigam Aliyev. The singer made the statement at the request of the Sport For Rights campaign, an initiative launched to raise the issue of Azerbaijan's rights abuses as it hosts the European Games in Baku. (Video courtesy of the Sport For Rights campaign)
WATCH: Rock Star Bono Speaks Out For Political Prisoners In Azerbaijan
RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

Irish rock band U2 is demanding freedom for political prisoners in Azerbaijan, using the stage of its current North American concert tour to call attention to activists and journalists imprisoned by Azerbaijani authorities for speaking up about human rights.

Lead singer Bono made impassioned appeals at U2's June 12 and 13 concerts in Montreal's Bell Centre arena during the performance of the song Pride (In The Name Of Love).

Bono named Emin Huseynov, RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova, Anar Mammadli, Leyla Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, and Intigam Aliyev while their photos were displayed on a massive projection screen above the audiences of more than 21,000 each.

Probably unbeknownst to the band, Huseynov had quietly been shuttled out of Azerbaijan just an hour before the June 12 appeal, hitching a ride with Switzerland's foreign minister when the latter departed after the opening ceremony of the inaugural European Games in Baku. The 35-year-old head of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety had been sheltered at the Swiss Embassy since August after Azerbaijani authorities targeted him with criminal charges that were widely seen as specious, and Swiss authorities said his departure from the country was the subject of months of quiet negotiations.

Huseynov now reportedly has three months to decide if he will seek asylum in Switzerland.

But the other five remain in Azerbaijani jails, either on convictions or in lengthy pretrial custody.

On June 12, Bono told the crowd that "free speech and expression are the building blocks of freedom."

As the audience sang along, he said, "Now we will sing tonight to Azerbaijan. Come on, you can hear us," then told the crowd, "Sing for Emin, Khadija, Anar, Rasul, Intigam -- for the right to speech and to speak truth to power."

On June 13, Bono told the crowd: "Blessed are the freedom makers. Sing for Amnesty. ... Six friends of ours who tonight are locked behind bars for the crime of expressing their opinion. Sing. Sing for Amnesty. Sing for Emin, Khadija, Rasul, Intigam, Anar, and Leyla. Sing. Sing a message of love from a city of love, Montreal. Sing.

"And a message to [Azerbaijani] President [Ilham] Aliyev. And that message is this, sir: If anything happens to one of our friends, we will hold you responsible!"

The band's official website described Bono's speech about the jailed Azerbaijani activists and journalists as "one of the biggest moments" of the June 13 concert.

U2's official website also noted that human rights activists from Amnesty International have been banned from attending the European Games that opened in Baku on June 12.

Bono's appeal was made at the request of Sport For Rights, an international coalition of nongovernmental organizations that promote human rights.

Sport For Rights coordinator Rebecca Vincent said the coalition is "thrilled that Bono spoke out on behalf of our jailed colleagues in Azerbaijan, including Sport For Rights founder Rasul Jafarov."

Vincent said "the world knows what is really taking place" in Azerbaijan and "will not keep silent."

Photogallery Georgian Patriarch Blames Deadly Flooding On Communists' Sins

Georgian Patriarch Ilia II leads a midnight Christmas service at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi in January 2013.

Farangis Najibullah

The head of Georgia's Orthodox Church has an explanation for the heavy flooding that devastated Tbilisi on June 14, killing at least 13 people and leaving escaped zoo animals to fend for themselves.

According to Patriarch Ilia II, the devastation is punishment for the communist persecution of Christians and the origins of the zoo itself.

"When the communist regime was established in Georgia, it ordered that all the crosses and bells in churches be melted down and the money used to build the zoo," InterPressNews and Gruzia Online quoted Ilia as saying during a June 14 sermon.

The patriarch concluded that the deaths of people and animals were "the result" of the communist rulers' actions.

Ilia suggested that the zoo be vacated and rebuilt in a different location, because the current zoo "was founded on sin."

The Tbilisi Zoo, which was established in 1927, was almost entirely destroyed by the flooding. Three zoo employees -- including a married couple that lived on the zoo grounds -- were among those reported killed in the disaster.

Scores of animals also died as a result of the flooding. Most are believed to have drowned, but an undetermined number -- including a hippopotamus, tigers, bears, and wolves -- escaped from their enclosures and into the city streets. Some were rounded up and returned to the zoo, but others were shot and killed by police.

PHOTO GALLERY: Search and rescue operations were continuing in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, a day after deadly floods swept through the city. 

  • A runaway hippopotamus walks down a flooded street in Tbilisi.
  • Men push a hippopotamus out of a flooded street. Zookeepers shot one hippo with a tranquilizer dart in order to capture it.
  • Debris covers a road where the Vere river burst its banks.
  • A soaking wet bear tries to escape from a flooded area of the Tbilisi zoo on June 14.
  • Animal footprints are seen in the mud on the grounds of the zoo.
  • The body of a bear lies next to destroyed cars at the Tbilisi zoo.
  • Another zoo animal that did not survive the flood
  • A man surveys the damage to some of the zoo enclosures.
  • Zoo employees recover the body of a wild boar that escaped during the floods.
  • A section of the zoo that suffered major damage
  • A municipal worker sits near the body of a lion.
  • Youngsters carry a swan that had escaped from the zoo on June 14.

Zoo director Zura Gurelidze demanded an explanation for the killing of zoo animals, including a rare white lion cub called Shumba, one the zoo's favorite attractions.

Police shot and killed six wolves near a children's hospital, while the hippopotamus was tranquilized and taken alive while walking past shops.

Several potentially dangerous animals remain unaccounted for, leaving officials to urge city residents to remain indoors as a search continues.

Antigay Russian Lawmaker Takes Aim At Game Of Thrones

St. Petersburg lawmaker Vitaly Milonov says morally bankrupt values often portrayed in Western TV "work on a subconscious level" and are seeping into the national psyche.

Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW -- A St. Petersburg lawmaker who styles himself as the crusading guardian of traditional Russian values has set his sights on corrupt films and the American TV fantasy series Game Of Thrones.

Vitaly Milonov has appealed to the Culture Ministry to devise a system to brand any film containing what he sees as deviant Western values as "harmful," while also listing the TV shows he feels should be banned.

Milonov, a member of United Russia who is famous for campaigning against so-called gay propaganda, told Izvestia that morally bankrupt values often portrayed in Western TV "work on a subconscious level" and are seeping into the national psyche.

Citing a popular MTV program that began in the 1990s, Milonov said he belonged to the Beavis and Butt-head era. "I'm in general a person of the old generation," Milonov told the pro-Kremlin newspaper. "I grew up when Beavis and Butt-head laughed at homosexuals and it was considered funny."

The animated characters Beavis and Butt-head were famous for their barely literate critiques of music videos and for mocking civilized society, but were not known for laughing at homosexuals.

"Certain ideological things are skillfully edited into everything. They do not affect the content so as not to appear obsessive," Milonov added. "What's more, ideas that were previously unacceptable are treated as absolutely normal. For example, there might be a lesbian or a homosexual in a film."

Milonov singled out the cult fantasy drama Game Of Thrones atop his suggested list of TV shows to be banned. 

"Every one in 10 characters is a sexual deviant," he was quoted as saying. "It is precisely through these kinds of works and their popularization in our conscious that a new understanding is being laid down that certain things and phenomena are normal." 

The HBO drama, which is known for its nudity, gore, and sexual violence, is hugely popular in Russia. According to Izvestia last week, some Russian parents have begun naming their children after Game Of Thrones characters.

The name Arya -- a main character in Game Of Thrones -- appeared for the first time in Russian birth registries last year, with eight Aryas registered in Moscow Oblast and four more in St. Petersburg.

Milonov has appealed to the Culture Ministry to devise a quality-control system by which the ministry would authorize films and other works of art with a "stamp of quality." Morally devious works would be branded "harmful." The lawmaker of Russia's culture capital proposed naming the quality-control system "The Concept For Defending The Information Space Of The Fatherland."

Earlier this month Milonov proposed introducing fines on people appearing in public nude or in unacceptable clothing such as undergarments or swimsuits. 

No, Nikola Tesla's Remains Aren't Sparking Devil Worship In Belgrade

Belgrade's Nikola Tesla Museum -- or the devil's workshop?

The late Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla just can't catch a break in Belgrade.

Bizarre comments by a city councilor there have reignited a devilish debate over the final resting place of his ashes.

Nikola Nikodijevic, the Socialist president of the Serbian capital's city council, told fellow councilors in Belgrade on June 8 that an order had come from the senior ranks of the Serbian Orthodox Church for Tesla's remains to be moved out of the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade. 

In the middle of a debate about whether Belgrade should commission a monument to the world-renowned electrical engineer and physicist, Nikodijevic said, "If you really want me to tell you the truth, this is an initiative by Patriarch [Irinej], who came to the city council and begged us to remove the ashes because of the satanic rituals that are taking place in the museum."

He later acknowledged that he'd used "strong language," but stood behind his assertion that the Serbian Orthodox Church was requesting the relocation.

But Branimir Jovanovic, director of the Nikola Tesla Museum, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that it was all a big misunderstanding. "I have been working at the museum for more than 20 years. We preserve and take care of everything concerning Tesla. This kind of story has nothing to do with reality," he said.

Some of his most controversial theories on energy and matter, as well as his ambitious hopes for emerging technologies at the time, were regarded as heretical by critics in the religious establishment.

There was no confirmation of satanic concerns on the part of the Serbian Orthodox Church. But it wouldn't be the first time the church's leadership has gotten all charged up over Tesla.

In March 2014, government officials, reportedly pressured by the Serbian Orthodox Church, sought to move Tesla's ashes from the museum to St. Sava Church -- the largest Orthodox Church in the world, where other Serbian national heroes are buried.

However, the initiative -- proposed by the patriarch and supported by the energy minister and city mayor -- was dropped after citizens protested

An ethnic Serb born in Croatia, Tesla was a pioneer in harnessing electrical, radio, and X-ray technologies. After initially working abroad for another genius of invention, Thomas Edison, Tesla moved to the United States, where he became a naturalized citizen and lived out an active if not necessarily lucrative experimental and entrepreneurial life until his death in 1943.

It wasn't until 1957 that his ashes were moved to the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade.

-- Dusan Komarcevic and Deana Kjuka

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at