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The Week In Russia: Trials, Tunnels, And An Ominous Homage To Orwell


The trials of Paul Whelan (above) and Svetlana Prokopyeva have deepened concerns about the Kremlin’s use of the courts as a tool to achieve its political and economic aims.

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The consecration of a colossal cathedral for the successor of the Soviet Army. A school surveillance-camera system called Orwell. Spray-equipped tunnels set up at the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin’s main residence to protect him from the coronavirus. And a regional leader whose denial of a plot to murder a journalist seems to double as a threat.

Plus, trials in Moscow and Pskov deepen concerns about the government’s use of the courts as a tool to achieve its political and economic aims, and the Russian state stands accused of killing a perceived enemy in a Berlin park last summer.

All this – and more – as Russia readies for a vote meant to put the people’s stamp of approval on constitutional changes allowing Putin to seek 12 more years as president after his current term runs out in 2024.

Polls show Putin’s support among those very people has waned over the past few years and the past few months, since the advent of the coronavirus – which continues to infect thousands of people in Russia every day following the lifting of lockdowns that government critics say were imposed too late.

Tunnel Vision

And now, an almost comically apt symbolic measurement of Putin’s distance from the people has emerged -- in the form of “disinfection tunnels” set up in the Kremlin and at Putin’s residence at Novo-Ogaryovo, outside Moscow, to protect the man who could potentially remain president until 2036, the year he turns 84.

Putin's Disinfection Tunnel To Ward Off The Coronavirus
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Visitors walk through the rectangular gates and are sprayed with disinfectant from nozzles in the sides and above.

"When it comes to the head of the state, additional precautionary measures are justified," Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov – who himself was hospitalized with COVID-19 and released in late May, said of the tunnels. He told the AP they were installed when the coronavirus, which also infected Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and others in government, was in “full swing” in Russia.

In another additional precautionary measure, World War II veterans who are to sit near Putin to watch the rescheduled Red Square military parade marking 75 years since Nazi Germany’s defeat are reportedly being kept in isolation ahead of the June 24 event.

Nearly 80 veterans were brought to a health resort outside Moscow for a 14-day stay ahead of the delayed Victory Day parade, Bloomberg reported, citing two unnamed officials with knowledge of the preparations.

Oh, (Big) Brother

Younger Russians, meanwhile, may be subjected to more long-term monitoring in a development not directly related to the coronavirus. Some Russian schools – and possibly almost all of them, eventually – are being equipped with surveillance cameras linked to a system that is called Orwell, after the British novelist who wrote the book – several books, actually, including 1984 – on totalitarian states.

The mist-spraying coronavirus tunnels and Orwell security cameras made for some wry remarks and mocking memes on social media.

But they were probably eclipsed by the response to the consecration on June 14 of the huge cathedral that has been built at Patriot Park outside Moscow, with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, in attendance.

Putin was absent and had tamped down criticism ahead of time by saying, according to Peskov, that it was premature to honor his performance as head of state by depicting his face in a mosaic along with Shoigu, among others.

But there was plenty to catch the eye, and several observers drew comparisons to the film The Death Of Stalin, a British black comedy about Soviet generals, bureaucrats, and high-level toadies jockeying for power following the demise of the dictator.

One commentator said it seemed like “some kind of extremely dark parody,” while opposition politician Aleksei Navalny described it as “pure gold: Members of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) since 1975 posing not only as combat generals but also as believers. A delight.”

Putin, with more than 20 years in power as president or prime minister, has mixed symbols from tsarist times and the Soviet era in a persistent bid to bolster his own image and incite patriotism. And the church ceremony seemed to serve as a reminder that, within a few weeks, the Russian Constitution is all but certain to mention God for the first time.

That’s one of a slew of amendmentson social and economic issues, mainly -- that are overshadowed by the wording permitting Putin to run for reelection in 2024 and 2030.

Power To The Putin: What's In Russia's Constitutional Reforms Package?
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Even as that prospect looms, one development this past week appeared to underscore the limits of Putin’s control – at least when it comes to Ramzan Kadyrov, the former rebel fighter he has relied on to rule the Chechnya region, the site of two devastating post-Soviet wars and an Islamist insurgency, for about 15 years.

Rights activists say that Kadyrov rules through repressive measures and has created an environment of impunity for security forces in the region. They claim Kadyrov is responsible for abuses of political opponents that include kidnappings and forced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings -- some of them carried out abroad – and that Putin turns a blind eye to the regional leader’s conduct.

A Killing In Berlin

The Kremlin certainly seemed unconcerned by the ominous wording Kadyrov chose to use when denying accusations that he was behind an alleged plot to kill Giorgi Gabunia, a Georgian journalist who insulted Putin on air in July 2019.

"Believe me, if someone is acting on my orders, he will carry them out, and if a mission is to be accomplished quietly, nobody...would learn about it," Kadyrov, who has called himself Putin’s foot soldier and vowed at the time to “punish” Gabunia, wrote on Telegram. He added that the journalist should "go down on his knees and ask for forgiveness.... Otherwise, he will, I repeat, remain my enemy."

Peskov called the allegations against Kadyrov "absurd." Putin has not commented on the matter.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov: "Believe me, if someone is acting on my orders, he will carry them out." (file photo)
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov: "Believe me, if someone is acting on my orders, he will carry them out." (file photo)

Kadyrov’s remarks came two days before prosecutors in Germany announced they have filed murder charges against a Russian national accused of killing a Georgian man of Chechen ethnicity in Berlin in August 2019, and accused the Russian state of ordering the slaying.

The victim has been identified in media reports as Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, who had fought alongside separatists in Chechnya 20 years ago. There was no indication of a direct link to Kadyrov, but the German prosecutors’ claim echoed accusations of Russian state involvement in attacks on perceived enemies abroad, such as the radioactive polonium-210 poisoning of Aleksandr Litvinenko in 2006 and the nerve-agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018, both in Britain.

The assertion that the Russian state was behind a slaying in the heart of Europe in broad daylight has added to concerns in the West about Russia’s conduct beyond its borders, from violence to alleged meddling in elections.

Two trials inside Russia, meanwhile, have elicited criticism of the government’s treatment of its own citizens and compounded claims that it uses fabricated or exaggerated criminal cases against foreigners as a geopolitical tool, essentially holding the accused hostage and employing them as bargaining chips in potential prisoner swaps or to seek other concessions from countries ranging from Ukraine to the United States.

On June 15, a Moscow court convicted American Paul Whelan of espionage and sentenced him to 16 years in prison after a trial denounced by the U.S. ambassador as a “mockery of justice.”

Swap Meat?

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Russia’s treatment of Whelan “appalling” and said the United States is “outraged” by the conviction that came “after a secret trial, with secret evidence, and without appropriate allowances for defense witnesses.” He said the trial was unfair and demanded the immediate release of Whelan, who said he was innocent and was set up by Russian authorities.

Two days after the verdict was pronounced, the Russian news agency Interfax reported that Russian and U.S. officials were negotiating a possible swap of Whelan for two Russians serving lengthy sentences in U.S. prisons – Viktor Bout, an arms dealer nicknamed the Merchant of Death, and Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was sentenced to 20 years for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the United States.

The Interfax report cited an unnamed official and could not be verified, but it added to indications that Moscow would like to negotiate a deal leading to the release of Bout and Yaroshenko.

Meanwhile, at a trial hearing in the northwestern city of Pskov on June 16, journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva, a freelance contributor to RFE/RL’s Russian Service, rejected charges that she had "justified terrorism" by publishing an online commentary that linked a suicide bombing with Russia’s political climate as her trial resumed proceedings.

Human Rights Watch called Prokopyeva’s prosecution a “violation of freedom of expression” that “sends yet another chilling message that in Russia, raising uncomfortable questions can have severe repercussions -- a lesson the authorities have been giving the media for years."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. He has lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union off and on -- mostly on -- since 1989, including postings in Moscow with the Associated Press and Reuters.

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