Intensifying crackdown

The Bell

Hello! This week our top story is about the escalating pressure on independent journalists and supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. We also look at new U.S. sanctions on Russia that turned out to be more bark than bite, and how the Russian government ruined the holidays of hundreds of thousands of people planning on visiting Turkey. 

Political repression intensifies as Navalny supporters plan new protest

A police crackdown against opposition activists and independent media dramatically gathered pace last week. Not only has the health of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny reportedly deteriorated to a point at which his life is now in danger, but law enforcement took unprecedented steps to shut-down his political organization and put his allies in prison. Prominent student magazine DOXA was also targeted by the security forces, which raided the apartments of its journalists.  

Which journalists have been targeted?

  • It looks like Russia is entering another period of pressure on independent journalism. Last week, Roman Anin, chief editor of investigative publication istories, was hauled in for questioning by police. However, Wednesday morning raids targeting the staff of DOXA were unprecedented even by recent Russian standards. DOXA is published by students and graduates of Moscow’s prestigious Higher School of Economics (HSE), and has a significant audience outside of academia. This is very unusual in Russia (although HSE does not see this as a source of pride and has denied DOXA the status of a student organization). The magazine supports LGBTQ rights, female empowerment and — crucially in this context — Navalny.
  • Four journalists from DOXA were named in a criminal case that is looking into how under-age people were ‘involved’ in political protests  — specifically, calling on people to join pro-Navalny rallies earlier this year. If found guilty, the journalists could get up to four years in jail. 
  • Ahead of a trial, a Moscow court placed them under house arrest. Chief editor Armen Aramyan and editor Vladimir Metelkin are scheduled to be questioned by investigators every working day until the end of May. More than 250 academics from around the world signed an open letter in support of DOXA, including prominent philosophers Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek.
  • At The Bell, we believe the case against DOXA is the latest unacceptable act of harassment against journalists trying to do their job. We stand in support of our colleagues at DOXA.

Navalny’s organisation to be declared ‘extremist’

  • Moscow prosecutors demanded Friday that Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and his regional political headquarters be labelled extremist organizations. If this is endorsed by a court, it will give the authorities a reason to launch a massive crackdown against Navalny supporters and destroy Navalny’s political organizations. Taking part in extremist activities (such as working in a regional headquarters) could earn you a six-year jail term while financing extremism (such as making an online donation) carries a maximum sentence of eight years. Even a car bumper sticker could land you behind bars for 15 days — and the law can be applied retrospectively. The full repercussions of this decision are frightening to contemplate. 
  • At the same time, dozens of Navalny’s regional offices have suffered. Police tactics last week varied from region to region: in some places, they searched offices and confiscated flyers and banners. In others, staff at Navalny’s regional headquarters were arrested on the street.
  • Those associated with Navalny continue to suffer at the hands of law enforcement. Cameraman Pavel Zelensky, who worked for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, was sentenced to two years in jail Friday on extremism charges. In one of two offending tweets last year, Zelensky said he hated President Vladimir Putin and that his words could be “considered an appeal”. He was arrested in January and pleaded guilty to inciting extremism.
  • One of Navalny’s close allies, former deputy energy minister Vladimir Milov, announced Sunday that he had left Russia to avoid possible arrest and in order to continue lobbying for international pressure on Moscow to help get Navalny out of prison.  

As all this was going on, Navalny’s health in prison has been steadily deteriorating. His supporters say he is days away from death. The opposition politician’s hunger strike has now lasted three weeks, and the authorities still refuse to allow him access to an independent doctor. According to Navalny, this is because they fear a medical report would link his health problems with a poisoning – either the legacy of the nerve agent attack he suffered last year, or a more recent attempt on his life. Over 70 prominent cultural figures including actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Jude Law last week signed in support of Navalny. The Russian prison authorities said Monday that Navalny had been moved to a local hospital, although they insisted his condition was “satisfactory”. 

In response to Navalny’s failing health, the Anti-Corruption Foundation team said Sunday they were bringing forward a nationwide protest to demand his release. The plan had been to wait until 500,000 people signed up to a special website with a commitment to come out on the streets to protest (currently over 464,000 have registered), but the Foundation said the situation was now too critical to wait. The rally will take place Wednesday, the same day as Putin will give his annual state-of-the-nation address. 

Why the world should care

Many believe it was approaching parliamentary elections that prompted the authorities to decide to pummel the opposition into the ground. The momentum behind political repression is now stoking fears about what else might take place in the months before polling day in September.  


New U.S. sanctions on Russia are mostly symbolic

In the week after a phone call between U.S. President Joe Biden and Putin, Russia-U.S. relations continue to oscillate wildly. New U.S. sanctions on Russia imposed Thursday were mostly symbolic, but Washington has kept the door open to new restrictions. Meanwhile, preparations for a face-to-face meeting between Biden and Putin continue — but it’s unclear when this might happen.

  • Biden spoke with Putin on Tuesday for the first time in Biden’s three months as president (previously their only contact had been when Putin congratulated Biden on winning the election), and suggested a face-to-face meeting. The call was regarded as a win for Putin, with pro-Kremlin experts quick to suggest it was Russia’s military build-up on the Ukrainian border that had ‘made people take us seriously’.
  • The following day it emerged that new U.S. sanctions on Russia were the stick attached to the White House’s carrot of a Putin-Biden summit. At first sight, the sanctions appeared to be damaging. In addition to restrictions on companies associated with the influential Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as ‘Putin’s chef’, and the usual round of diplomat expulsions, we saw the first limitations on trading in Russian debt. However, the U.S. measures barely caused a ripple on the markets and, by the evening, the ruble had strengthened against the dollar.
  • Why? Firstly, there were no big surprises. Secondly, foreign investors were only barred from taking part in the first placements of new Russian government bonds — meaning that anybody can simply purchase the securities from the original buyer.
  • And even if investors flee government bonds, it won’t have a big impact on Russia’s finances. As a result of geopolitics, the pandemic and a big fall in Russian rates (in late 2014, the key rate was 17 percent, today it is 4.5 percent), the number of non-resident investors in government bonds has fallen from 35 percent to just 20 percent in recent years. And if it dropped to 0 percent, it would only cost the Finance Ministry up to $290 million, according to Marcel Salikhov, a researcher at the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies. 
  • The only real cause for concern in the new sanctions was the legal measures the U.S. used to impose them. Now, the Department of the Treasury now has the right to sanction any company for its work in the tech or defense sectors, or links with the Russian government. This may mean foreign businesses shy away from the slightest connections to the Russian state.

What happens next?

  • Political analysts are of one mind: a meeting between Biden and Putin will bring no miraculous reset. Most likely, the two men will only debate matters of shared strategic importance like nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, climate change, and the pandemic. The really tricky stuff – the crisis on the Ukrainian border, cyber-attacks – won’t see any breakthrough.
  • Meanwhile, more sanctions remain likely. The next deadline is June 2, when the U.S. is expected to impose sanctions over the poisoning of Navalny. The law dictates that the U.S. president must impose new restrictions — however, he can make them largely cosmetic if he wishes.

Why the world should care

It may seem like last week’s developments were a fundamental change in U.S.-Russia relations, but the status quo remains intact. Washington’s main instrument to pressure Russia is not sanctions, but the threat of them. This has a far greater impact on the markets and the ruble than any real-life restrictions.


Half a million Russians lose out on a Turkish beach holiday

Moscow announced a ban on flights to Istanbul last week due to the deteriorating coronavirus situation in Turkey, ruining the holiday plans of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Russians. Turkey has always been one of the most popular destinations for Russian tourists and, during the pandemic, it has been one of the only foreign destinations not made inaccessible by travel restrictions.

  • There were repeated official hints that a flight ban was in the offing, but the decision was only formally announced last Monday when the government said all charter flights would be cancelled until June 1. A similar ban was imposed on flights to Tanzania, but that has far less impact.
  • During the pandemic, Istanbul has been a hub for Russians wanting to fly abroad: even though Russia had no direct air links with most countries, it was possible to make onward connections from Istanbul. But Turkey is also a popular destination in its own right.
  • It’s hard to overstate the impact of the decision: about 600,000 Russians saw their holidays cancelled, costing tour operators up to $481 million. Many ordinary people will never get their money back: according to the law, tour operators are not required to refund the full cost. Long queues built up at the offices of Turkish Airlines in Moscow last week as people were unable to get answers from overstretched call centers.
  • The official reason for the ban is Turkey’s rising coronavirus infection rate. Anna Popova, the head of  the public health watchdog in charge of Russia’s pandemic response, said 80 percent of the 25,000 Russians who tested positive for coronavirus on returning from abroad since last summer came from Turkey. While this is true, it’s also true that only a handful of other countries have been open to Russian holidaymakers, and they are all more expensive and less popular.
  • However, many saw a political motive in the ‘closure of Turkey’. Talk of the ban first emerged on the eve of Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky amid rising tensions in Eastern Ukraine. During the meeting itself, Erdogan said Turkey would never recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
  • And it’s important to remember that Russia has almost no anti-pandemic restrictions in place. Bars and restaurants operate as normal, likewise planes and trains. There is no social distancing on public transport (at best, some passengers might have a mask below their chins). Coronavirus cases are gradually increasing (Russia recorded 9,300 new cases Saturday, the highest for three weeks), and fatality rates have not declined since the peak of infections in late 2020. On top of this, Russia’s vaccine programme lags far behind most Western countries. 

Why the world should care

For Europeans living under strict lockdowns, the idea of going on holiday to Turkey might seem crazy. But Russians have been told for months that their government has ‘beaten coronavirus’. And the ban on Turkish flights illustrates how the authorities can make decisions affecting hundreds of thousands of people behind closed doors and based on obscure reasoning. This leaves many ordinary people — not to mention businesses — in a state of continuous uncertainty, even on a day-to-day basis.

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