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The Week In Russia: Blue Balloons, Blood Feuds, And A Trial In Chechnya


Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (left) and the region's top lawmaker Magomed Daudov. (file photo)

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The Kremlin shrugs at the top Chechen legislator's "blood feud" threat against a blogger, while a top human rights activist in Chechnya faces a verdict in a drug-possession trial denounced as a "tragic farce." There was a touch of farce in Moscow, too, where activists said police classified blue balloons held by protesters at a 15,000-strong rally for Internet freedom as "pilotless flying vehicles" and detained the demonstrators handing them out.

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

Be Afraid

When Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was asked about the Chechen parliament speaker's declaration of a "blood feud" targeting a dissident blogger who is in hiding in Poland, his response was telling: He said there is no such thing as a blood feud in Russian law.

Well, exactly.

Magomed Daudov's threat, and the nonresponse from President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, underscore Chechnya's status as an anomaly in a country often portrayed as being buttoned under Putin's tight control.

Since 2007, when Putin installed Ramzan Kadyrov at age 30, he has run the region in the North Caucasus as his own and played largely by his own rules -- both inside Chechnya and sometimes beyond its borders.

Kadyrov and his allies sometimes call those rules Islamic law, as Daudov did during the March 12 Instagram Live broadcast in which he delivered what its recipient, the blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov, called a "veiled threat" that "we will find you and kill you, punish you, kill you."

After Abdurakhmanov called Kadyrov a traitor, Daudov declared the blogger "an enemy to me and my brothers." While he said he would not kill Abdurakhmanov, he added: "From now on, when you go to bed, make sure that you lock the door with a key. When you go outside, be vigilant. If you get a kick in the back, know that it's no accident."

One might think that such a warning, coming from the top lawmaker in one of the 83 regions of the Russian Federation, is the kind of thing that might embarrass Putin, who as president is the guarantor of the Russian Constitution. He would never admit being embarrassed about it, though -- as Peskov's noncomment comment made clear -- so it's hard to know and does not really matter.

A Killing Near The Kremlin

But in some ways, it seems like quite the opposite: that the Kremlin uses Chechnya's unofficial special status -- its reputation, steeped in centuries of conflict with the Russian state and furthered by the late author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, as a wild place whose people will not knuckle under to authority -- to distance itself from such incidents while doing little or nothing to stop them.

For instance, take the killing of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead on a bridge near the Kremlin on February 27, 2015.

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In 2017, five men from Chechnya were sentenced to prison for his murder, but relatives and government critics have voiced suspicion that the culprits will never face justice because an honest investigation could lead too close to Kadyrov or to Putin.

After the killing, Kadyrov deflected attention away from himself -- and from Moscow, the Kremlin, and Putin -- with an Instagram post in which he portrayed the Chechen convicted as the triggerman, Zaur Dadayev, as a pious Muslim who was incensed at the controversial depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The implication being, of course, that the killing was a personal thing, a matter of faith and fiery convictions, and that there was no need to look for a mastermind in Moscow or anywhere else.

Another case that Russian authorities seem to have done their best to keep from bleeding across Chechnya's borders is the trial of human rights activist Oyub Titiyev, the head of the Moscow-based group Memorial's office in Grozny, the Chechen capital, on a marijuana-possession charge he and supporters contend was fabricated.

The case was quite literally kept in Chechnya at the start of last July, in fact: The defense sought to move the trial to Moscow or elsewhere, arguing that he had no chance of acquittal in his home region whose head, Kadyrov, called him a drug addict and a traitor working for an "enemy" organization.

'The Absurdity'

The top court in Chechnya rejected that plea, and Titiyev faces a verdict on March 18, with prosecutors calling for a four-year prison sentence for the 61-year-old father of four.

The overall strategy here is familiar from trials across Russia in the past 20 years: A Kremlin critic, an opposition activist, a business rival is accused of a crime -- often one not directly related to what is widely suspected to be the authorities' real motive for targeting him -- and is put on trial. And convicted.

The prosecution's case in Tityev's trial in some ways resembles others in its core simplicity: a bag of marijuana was found under a floor mat in his car, the state claims; in the case of former Russian Economic Development Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev – now serving an eight-year prison term -- a bag holding $2 million in bribe money was allegedly found in the trunk of his car. l

There are details that set this one apart from some others, though. In his final statement in court before the trial wrapped up on March 7, Titiyev said he was certain he will be convicted and added, "You don't need a law degree to see the absurdity of this case." Rachel Denber, the deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called it a "tragic farce."

Human rights activist Oyub Titiyev (file photo)
Human rights activist Oyub Titiyev (file photo)

Those details include: Security cameras out of order during a crucial four-hour period on the day Titiyev was arrested; a scrap of human hair -- the only piece of forensic evidence -- stuck to a piece of tape on the bag of marijuana; and a trip back to the scene of the alleged crime to round up witnesses who had not been there at the time, according to the defense.

A key prosecution witness testified that "a man next to him in a taxi van was reading an article about someone who had just been arrested for marijuana possession," Denber wrote. "The witness said he recognized the man in the photo -- Titiyev -- as the man he had seen smoking a joint in the street two months earlier."

'Drones' Detained

There was a strong sense of farce, though perhaps less tragic, at a demonstration against so-called "sovereign Internet" legislation that critics fear is part of an attempt by the state to strengthen control over online discourse and stifle dissent.

Activists said that police classified the blue balloons some were holding as "pilotless flying vehicles" and detained the demonstrators handing them out -- also trying to bundle the balloons into buses.

Several bunches of balloons escaped and sailed up into the sky, but others ended up bumping against the ceiling of a police precinct house, above the heads of detained demonstrators.

The arrest of the balloons added a touch of humor to a serious situation: More than 15,000 packed a street named after Soviet dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov for the rally, making it one of the biggest protests in years.

One demonstrator, lawyer Daniil Lipin, even registered his balloon with the relevant authorities as a pilotless flying vehicle in a wry comment on the situation, according to a Facebook post.

Advocates of the "sovereign Internet" legislation have cast it as a measure of protection against the United States and its allies, saying they want to ensure the Russian segment of the web can continue to operate in the event of an attempt by forces abroad to cut the country off.

Critics -- including lawmakers from parties other than the ruling United Russia in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, which gave the bill preliminary approval in February -- contend that its real aim is to give the government the sweeping powers to censor online content and muzzle free speech.

What A Laugh

Other pieces of legislation that are causing concern about the Kremlin's intentions include a pair of bills -- now on Putin's desk after breezing through the Duma and upper house, the Federation Council -- that would enable the authorities to block websites and mete out punishment for "fake news" and material deemed insulting to "society," the state, or state authorities.

Putin's own Presidential Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights -- an advisory body whose advice often goes unheeded -- had urged the upper house to send the bills back, issuing a somber statement warning that they would groundlessly curb the freedom of expression.

Upper-house lawmakers ignored the human rights council, passing both bills by overwhelming margins on March 13. And if the Kremlin human rights council found little to laugh about in the legislation, that was not so for Federation Council chief Valentina Matviyenko.

A YouTube video shows Matviyenko recounting, with a stumbling delivery and a few false starts, what she says is a meme making the rounds among the "very talented, very smart, very creative" Russian people: "Criticize those in power and you violate the law against insulting the authorities, praise them and you violate the 'fake news' law."

Matviyenko and several others present at the meeting of cultural officials then break out in laughter, apparently finding it funny.

About

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

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