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The Week In Russia: Prison 'Torture' And Putin's Propaganda


The cameras were rolling as Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu drove over snow-covered ground in a camouflaged all-terrain vehicle and drank tea from tin cups at a table in the open air.

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The peculiarities of Putin’s propaganda were in the spotlight as a Siberian sojourn in sheepskin is captured on camera, while his alleged COVID-19 vaccination is not. Also unseen: imprisoned Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny, whose lawyers raised the alarm about his treatment, saying he is in severe pain and accusing the authorities of a “deliberate campaign” to undermine his health.

And as the State Duma passed legislation formalizing Putin’s option of seeking two more terms as president -- a change that analysts say has emboldened already powerful security agencies and police -- new RFE/RL reports reveal further evidence of far-reaching ties between Russian law enforcement and the criminals it’s supposed to be catching.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Killer Coda

In the wake of an indirect but acrimonious exchange with U.S. President Joe Biden, Putin traveled to Siberia for a weekend in the woods with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, as he has done at least once in the past.

The cameras were rolling as Putin and Shoigu drove over snow-covered ground in a camouflaged all-terrain vehicle, drank tea from tin cups at a table in the open air, and checked out what one observer called the defense chief’s “bits of old wood collection.”

Some of Putin’s past action-man photo shoots have featured him bare-chested, but in this case more attention was paid to what he was wearing -- a matching shearling coat and pants, lacking only a vest for a three-piece sheepskin suit -- than to what he wasn’t.

Putin’s taiga time-out had apparently been planned earlier: He mentioned it when he challenged Biden to an “open discussion” -- a debate, that is -- saying that the weekend would be no good but that Friday or Monday would work. Biden’s response: “I’m sure we’ll talk at some point.”

As a propaganda exercise, it’s hard to imagine that Putin’s weekend activities could help move the needle much on his popularity ratings or hand Russians more confidence about their personal finances.

Propaganda Fail?

For example, such displays seem unlikely to affect the views of the 57 percent of Russian adults under 25, or the 51 percent from 25 to 40, who have decided they don’t want him to president after his current term ends in 2024, according to a survey by independent polling agency Levada Center.

But the Kremlin may have seen it as a way to show audiences at home and abroad that Putin has priorities -- namely, his own country -- other than how to respond after Biden was asked whether he thought the Russian president was a killer and answered, “Mm-hmm, I do.”

Later in the week, Putin missed what many observers agreed was a chance to make a sizable impact with a brief on-camera appearance: More than seven months after he announced that the first of Russia’s three coronavirus vaccines was approved for use, he was inoculated against COVID-19 on March 23, according to the Kremlin – but not on camera.

Given the trouble his government has had getting Russian citizens behind the idea that they should be vaccinated, and ensuring there are doses on hand when they do, refraining from getting the shot in public seemed hard to explain. It sparked speculation about his motives and whether he was vaccinated at all.

Putin was not shy about showing this doctor's consultation after he reportedly injured his shoulder during judo practice in 2011. But he would not allow cameras to record his alleged coronavirus vaccination on March 23.
Putin was not shy about showing this doctor's consultation after he reportedly injured his shoulder during judo practice in 2011. But he would not allow cameras to record his alleged coronavirus vaccination on March 23.

Russia has aggressively marketed the vaccine abroad, signaling even with its name -- a nod to the satellite that stunned the West and heated up the U.S.-Soviet space race in 1957 -- that the Kremlin sees distribution of vaccines as a competition.

But less than 5 percent of Russian adults have received both doses of a two-shot vaccine. In late December, a poll conducted by the Levada Center found that 58 percent of Russians were not prepared to be vaccinated with Sputnik V, which Putin announced on August 11 had received regulatory approval -- the first in the world.

Russia has recorded nearly 4.5 million coronavirus cases since the pandemic began in early 2020 -- fourth in the world after the United States, Brazil, and India, which have much bigger populations.

Distractions

Its official death toll reached 96,612 on March 25, but state mortality statistics indicate that the real number of coronavirus-related deaths is more than 200,000, and some researchers suspect it is still higher.

In any case, Putin’s appearances and nonappearances may have served to draw attention away from far more momentous developments -- and that may have been the point, at least in part, as it often is.

One such development was a technicality: The State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, passed a bill that will align electoral legislation with a change that was inserted into the constitution last year, after a choreographed campaign and a controversial nationwide vote, enabling Putin to seek two more six-year terms as president, in 2024 and 2030.

When the constitutional amendments were in the works, heading for certain adoption, political analysts and rights activists predicted that one result would be to embolden law enforcement and security agencies, such as the Federal Security Service (FSB).

At the time, Georgy Satarov, a Moscow think-tank head and former aide to Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, said that the changes figuratively sounded the death knell for the constitution, and that "when the constitution ceases to exist, one thing remains: power."

An array of developments seems to have proved those predictions accurate. Some of them are connected to Navalny, Putin’s most prominent foe, who was poisoned with a powerful nerve agent in Siberia on August 20, less than two months after the constitutional amendments entered into force.

Navalny was flown to Germany for treatment and was arrested upon his return to Russia on January 17. His jailing, along with anger at Putin and his government over a range of issues, sparked nationwide protests later that month that were the biggest in years -- and were met with one of the harshest police crackdowns in years.

'Torture'

On February 2, Navalny was handed a 2 1/2-year prison sentence on a parole-violation claim he calls absurd, stemming from a conviction on financial-crimes charges he contends were fabricated. And on March 25, lawyers who visited him in prison after several delays said that he was in “extremely unfavorable” condition, with severe back pain and problems that made his right leg “practically nonfunctional.”

Navalny had been complaining of sharp back pain for the past month and was denied treatment, lawyer Vadim Kobzev tweeted, accusing his jailers of pursuing “a deliberate strategy to harm his health.” He asserted that they were “essentially subjecting him to torture by lack of sleep” and were giving him two ibuprofen tablets daily for the pain -- treatment he said was “obvious mockery.”

A security guard outside Correctional Colony No. 2 where Navalny is being held, in the town of Pokrov, outside Moscow.
A security guard outside Correctional Colony No. 2 where Navalny is being held, in the town of Pokrov, outside Moscow.

The Russian prison service, in what came across for many as something far closer to trolling than a reliable medical assessment, said that Navalny’s condition was “satisfactory.”

The concerns about Navalny’s health and treatment will draw comparisons with the fatal ordeal suffered by whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky, who died in Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina jail in December 2009 after being denied medical treatment and subjected to abuse that he and rights activists said amounted to torture.

A 2012 U.S. law that enables Washington to impose sanctions on Russians deemed to have committed human rights abuses is called the Magnitsky Act, and other Western countries have passed similar legislation. Earlier in March, under different legislation, the United States and the European Union imposed sanctions on senior Russian officials -- including the FSB director, the prosecutor-general, and the prison service chief -- over the poisoning and jailing of Navalny.

In an Instagram post in which she said that “everyone who knows Aleksei knows that he would never complain until the last minute,” Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, wrote that his back problems began a month ago, when he was being held at Matrosskaya Tishina, and had worsened since his transfer to a prison in Pokrov, east of Moscow.

Navalny blames Putin for his near-fatal poisoning and, along with open-source investigative outfit Bellingcat and its media partners, has produced detailed evidence -- including a phone call in which an operative appeared to admit involvement -- indicating that it was carried out by the FSB.

In Cahoots

While the FSB, police, prosecutors, and other law enforcement agencies may be feeling increasingly emboldened, their outsize clout is nothing new: It’s been a phenomenon since Putin, a longtime Soviet KGB officer who headed the FSB for a year in 1998-99, came to power months later.

In 1999, before Yeltsin stepped down on New Year’s Eve and made him acting president, Putin pledged to make Russia into a “dictatorship of law.” Kremlin critics say what has emerged instead is a country in which law enforcement and organized crime are deeply and seemingly inextricably intertwined.

Crude Conspiracy: How Russian Cops And Criminals Collude To Steal Oil
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Two recent RFE/RL reports have added to the evidence of those ties, which span a broad swath of economy sectors and have withstood several campaigns with the stated goal of curbing such corruption.

One describes how a forest ranger at a nature reserve near Lake Baikal helped arrest five suspected poachers -- and found himself facing criminal charges for "exceeding his authority,” a turn of events activists say may have resulted from friendly ties between poachers and prosecutors, police, and local politicians.

The other is a detailed and revealing report grounded in a far-reaching investigation that captures the scale and scope of the theft of oil from pipelines in Russia and the role that law enforcement officers play in it.

'Emblematic'

On a smaller scale, there’s the article that author and analyst Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security agencies, posted along with a seemingly rhetorical question: “How much of Putin's Russia is encapsulated in this story?”

Assailants abducted a retired FSB general and tortured him until he led them to his home outside Moscow and dug up seven plastic containers in the yard that held about $5 million in a mix of currencies, the tabloid Moskovsky Komsomlets reported on March 25. Two suspects were caught, convicted of kidnapping and extortion, and sentenced to 10 years in prison apiece.

Meanwhile, with the testimony about containers stuffed with cash, the trial “attracted the attention of prosecutors” to the retired FSB officer’s undeclared wealth, which far exceeded the possibilities provided by his state salary and pension. In the end, the authorities seized a safe-deposit box holding $1.1 million and 5 million rubles ($66,000) as well as a house near Moscow valued at 36 million rubles ($475,000).

According to the business daily Kommersant, the retired general argued that his assailants had not taken any money from him. And the defendants claimed their confessions were extracted through torture.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward, by the editor of RFE/RL's Russia Desk, Steve Gutterman.

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