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The Week In Russia: Mercenaries, Mining, And More Pension Woes


Photographs of journalists Orkhan Dzhemal (right), Kirill Radchenko (center) and Aleksandr Rastorguyev are seen at a small memorial to the slain jounalists outside the Central House of Journalists in Moscow.

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Three seasoned journalists were shot dead as they were investigating Russian military contractors and mining interests far beyond the country's borders, while pension-reform plans put millions of people back home in a protest mood and exposed rifts in the ruling party.

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

Killed In Africa

Russian journalists who snoop around where the state and its allies don't want people snooping end up dead on occasion -- in some cases gunned down by attackers who make little effort to cover up the crime.

That's what happened to Anna Politikovskaya, who was killed in her apartment building in central Moscow in 2006. It's also what happened late on July 29 to Orkhan Dzhemal, Aleksandr Rastorguyev, and Kirill Radchenko, who were shot dead on a road in the Central African Republic, nearly 6,000 kilometers from the Russian capital.

Working with a media outlet established by Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky, they were there to investigate the operations of ChVK Vagner -- a "private military company" said to be controlled by a businessman dubbed "Putin's chef" because of catering contracts with the Kremlin -- as well as Russia's interests in diamond, gold, and uranium mining.

Slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya (1958-2006)
Slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya (1958-2006)

Of course, there are many ways a journey in an unfamiliar, violence-torn country can go badly wrong in an instant. But Andrei Konyakhin, the editor of Khodorkovsky's Investigation Control Center, isn't sure any of them explains the killings of three highly respected journalists whose deaths -- like Politkovskaya's and those of other reporters and activists whose work has challenged the Kremlin or those close to it -- have cast a pall over Russia and raised questions about the motive.

"This was done in a very demonstrative fashion," the Associated Press quoted Konyakhin as saying.

"If they could have just taken everything from them, why kill them?" he said, questioning why the attackers spared the journalists' local driver and did not cover their tracks.

Death And Details

When things like this happen, the Kremlin and its support system normally present a united front, with state officials, parliament deputies, and pundits conveying a common message in public statements and social media posts.

This time, there are signs that not everybody is on the same page.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova (file photo)
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova (file photo)

In comments on August 1, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova made a point of saying that the stated purpose of the trio's trip to the Central African Republic was tourism, seeming to distance them from Moscow and take them to task for misstating the intent of the visit.

Amid an outpouring of grief from friends and colleagues, the focus on that technicality didn't sit well with some Russians. Those who took issue included Leonid Slutsky, the chairman of the International Affairs Committee in the State Duma -- and hardly a Kremlin critic.

Issues such as the purpose of the trip are "not very important now," Slutsky wrote in Instagram.

"What's important is that Russian citizens have been killed," he wrote, adding that Russia "should follow the example of our 'strategic friends' from across the ocean: The United States does not leave the death of any of its citizens without consequences. No matter what country they were in and what political views they adhered to."

Ruling Party Rifts

Another issue that has exposed rifts in the ruling elite -- and may have long-lasting repercussions for Russia -- is the government's plan to raise the retirement age.

A government-backed bill that has cleared the first hurdle in parliament would raise the retirement age to 63 for women by 2034 and to 65 for men by 2028. Currently, the retirement age is 55 for women and 60 for men.

Two prominent Duma deputies from United Russia disobeyed what was reportedly an order to back the bill in the first of three votes on the pension-reform bill in the lower house.

'Elites Will Wipe Their Feet On Us': Russians Protest Pension Change
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Conservative lawmaker Natalya Poklonskaya, who gained prominence as the chief prosecutor in the Russian-imposed government of Crimea after Moscow occupied and seized the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014, voted against the bill -- prompting a spat and speculation that she could face punishment.

Sergei Zheleznyak skipped the July 19 Duma vote and was forced to resign as deputy head of the party's General Council.

The bill passed easily, with every single "yes" vote cast by United Russia: an unusually monolithic display of displeasure from the other three parties in the Duma, which have been seen for years by many Russians as window-dressing -- a kind of loyal opposition that is part of Putin's system.

Putin's Poll Problem

Meanwhile, street protests over the pension reform plan persist. And while they may be smaller than the wave of demonstrations in 2011-12, which failed to stop Putin from returning to the Kremlin after a stint as prime minister, a survey by independent pollster Levada Center indicated the protest mood is growing.

Poll results released on August 1 showed that 28 percent of Russians would take to the streets if protests against falling living standards and in defense of their rights were held in their hometown – more than at any time since September 1998, in the midst of a devastating financial crisis.

And despite elaborate efforts to shield Putin from political fallout from the planned retirement-age hikes, the unpopularity of pension reform appears to have rubbed off on the president.

A July poll conducted by Levada put Putin's approval rating at 67 percent, the lowest in 4 ½ years.

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