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Archive for the ‘Injustice of Russia’ Category

Belarus’ leader slams Russian talk of taking over his nation

December 14, 2018

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — The leader of Belarus on Friday accused some politicians in Russia of floating the prospect of incorporating his nation, and vowed that he wouldn’t let it happen. Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko also criticized the Kremlin’s plan to raise crude oil prices for Belarus, describing it as part of efforts to persuade his country to join Russia.

“I understand what all those hints mean: You get the oil but you break up your country and join Russia,” he said at a news conference. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko engaged in televised bickering during a meeting of a Moscow-dominated economic alliance earlier this month, with the Belorussian leader assailing Moscow for its intention to charge higher prices for energy supplies to Belarus.

Putin countered that Belarus would still get the energy resources at much cheaper prices than others, and noted that a deeper integration is needed to level the prices between the two countries. Lukashenko on Friday cited Russian ultranationalist lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky as one of those who have suggested that Belarus should be incorporated into Russia.

“It will never happen,” the Belorussian president said. “Sovereignty is a sacred thing for us.” Lukashenko has ruled the nation of 10 million with an iron hand for nearly a quarter century, cracking down on dissent and the media. He has relied on Russia’s loans and cheap energy to keep Belarus’ Soviet-style economy afloat.

Despite the close political, economic and military ties between the two ex-Soviet neighbors, Lukashenko has bristled at what he described as Moscow’s attempts to subdue his nation. “Is Russia ready today to incorporate separate Belorussian regions or the country as a whole?” he asked rhetorically, warning Moscow to think of the consequences of such move. “How will people in our country and your country will look at it, what will be the reaction of the international community to that kind of stealthy incorporation of one country into another?”

Lukashenko also noted that he rejected Russia’s push to set up an air force base in Belarus, arguing that the close military ties between the two countries made it unnecessary. Russia’s desire to open the base has unnerved many in Belarus, raising fears that Moscow could use the facility to take over the country like it did in Crimea, where it used its naval base there to annex Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula in 2014.

But even as he issued rebukes and warnings to the Kremlin, the Belorussian leader pledged to maintain a close alliance with Moscow. Lukashenko noted that he has no intentions of charging Russia for using the two military facilities it has in Belarus — an early warning radar and a naval communications center.

“I’m not even raising the issue of payment,” he said. “It would be improper to ask Russia to pay for them.”

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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Russian rappers, other artists targeted in crackdown

December 07, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — When the Russian “dark rave” duo Nastya Kreslina and Nikolay Kostylev stepped off the train for their gig in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, the police were waiting on the frozen platform. They were asked for their passports, Kostylev was handcuffed and they were whisked away to the local police station.

There, the police claimed they’d received an anonymous call about drug possession. But Kreslina and Kostylev, whose experimental performances as the electronic duo IC3PEAK feature provocative, morbid and often gruesome themes, say the real reason for their arrest is their art.

During their Russia-wide tour, which began last month and has spanned venues from the Volga River city of Kazan to far eastern Siberia, six of their 11 concerts have been cancelled. Club owners have been pressured not to host them and threatened with fines and closures.

“We have received no official statements, no letters, nothing,” Kostylev told The Associated Press of the harassment. “These are just ratty methods of fighting against art.” In recent months, Russian musicians have experienced a spike in pressure from the authorities, with a string of concert cancellations and arrests that have brought an outcry from critics who see it as the latest expression of censorship against Russian artists.

The crackdown evokes Soviet-era restrictions on the music scene, when Communist Party officials drove rock musicians deemed an ideological threat underground. More recently it follows the 2012 jailing of Pussy Riot punk band members and other heavy-handed moves by President Vladimir Putin’s government to tighten control over the nation’s cultural scene — reflecting uneasiness with the musicians’ broad reach and challenge to official policies.

Last month, a rapper known as Husky, whose videos have garnered more than 6 million views on YouTube, was arrested after he staged an impromptu performance when his show was shut down in the southern city of Krasnodar.

The 25-year-old rapper, known for his lyrics about poverty, corruption and police brutality, was preparing to take to the stage on Nov. 21 when local prosecutors warned the venue that his act had elements of what they termed “extremism.”

Husky climbed onto a car, surrounded by hundreds of fans, and chanted “I will sing my music, the most honest music!” before he was taken away by police. A court sentenced Husky to 12 days in jail on charges of hooliganism, but he was released four days later — hours before a solidarity concert in Moscow by a group of popular hip hop artists protesting his detention.

However, the official pressure on artists has continued. On Nov. 30, rapper Gone.Fludd announced two concert cancellations, citing pressure from “every police agency you can imagine,” while popular hip hop artist, Allj, cancelled his show in the Arctic city of Yakutsk after receiving threats of violence.

Other artists have been affected as well — pop sensation Monetochka and punk band Friendzona were among those who had their concerts shut down by the authorities last month. In IC3PEAK’s case, besides their Dec. 1 detention in Siberia, the artists have been hounded for weeks by the police and the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main KGB successor agency. Kreslina said the authorities were using “old, tried and tested Soviet methods” to crack down on musicians accused of overstepping.

“We don’t want to stop performing,” she said. “But we think it’s getting worse.” Their music videos use occult and “slaughterhouse” imagery, often featuring them in disturbing guises drinking blood and eating raw meat. They believe their most recent one, which fused ghoulish images of the pair lying in coffins with a backdrop of the FSB security service headquarters, is what has vexed the authorities

Kreslina and Kosylev maintain, however, their work is aimed more at shaking up popular perceptions than making an overtly political statement. “We are taking people out of their comfort zone, because it helps people to think, it opens up new feelings and emotions,” Kostylev said. “If people get scared of your art, you are most likely doing the right thing.”

Boris Barabanov, a music columnist at Russia’s top business daily, Kommersant, said the backlash will only fuel “tougher, more biting songs” and foster greater resourcefulness to get around restrictions.

Unlike in Soviet times, when Soviet rock stars were forced underground by Communist officials, “now all musicians are equal in front of the main channel for the distribution of content — the internet,” Barabanov said.

“Anything that is forbidden only encourages the imagination,” he said, adding that bands will start changing their names and holding secret concerts to dodge police. Indeed, less than an hour after their release from custody in Novosibirsk, Kreslina and Kostylev were playing to a 300-strong crowd at an abandoned loft on the outskirts of the city.

In the wake of so many obstacles, they now know how to organize secret, backup concerts. Details are sent out on an encrypted messaging app and people bring their own lights and sound systems. “People go crazy, it’s a big adventure for them — people love what is forbidden” Kreslina said.

“It’s a perfect way to say f— you to the government,” Kostylev added. It remains unclear if the recent crackdown has been directed by the federal authorities or driven by overzealous local officials.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, who along with fellow band member Maria Alekhina spent nearly two years in prison for “insulting religious feelings” with their provocative 2012 performance in Moscow’s top Russian Orthodox cathedral, said the latest backlash has been fueled by Kremlin fears.

“The artists whom they banned have a stronger, livelier, angrier electorate that is more convinced and reliable than that of Vladimir Putin’s,” Tolokonnikova said. “They’re starting to feel the competition in the Kremlin and at the FSB headquarters.”

Barabanov, the music columnist, has a different view. “I don’t think that the authorities want to ban a specific genre of music and I don’t think that this is a pre-planned campaign” by the Kremlin, he said. “More likely this is a matter of stupidity among officials in the regions.”

In a claim that appeared to back that assertion, Margarita Simonyan, head of the state-funded RT television network who has strong ties to top Kremlin officials, maintained that Husky’s release came after government intervention.

And last week, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service proposed creating grants to support local rappers, while Kremlin adviser and former culture minister Mikhail Shvydkoi defended rap as an art “that should not be ignored.”

Dmitry Kiselyov, the host of a top news show on Russia’s state TV, also came to the rappers’ defense, saying they represent a tremendously popular subculture that “should not be harassed.” Trifon Bebutov, the former digital editor of Esquire Russia, saw all that as a sign that “the Kremlin is trying to find a way to cooperate and start a dialogue with popular artists.”

The musicians’ popularity with young Russians and potential to proliferate ideas that are uncomfortable for the government worries the Kremlin, he added. “It seems that the government is really scared of an audience they don’t have the ability to control, that they are worried could be incited to action, to protest,” Bebutov said.

In a testament to that wide following, tickets sold out in just three hours for last month’s solidarity concert organized by three of Russia’s leading hip hop artists to protest Husky’s arrest. Between them, the rappers have a millions-strong audience, as well as the hearts and minds of internet-savvy, young Russians who don’t consume state media like the older generation.

The message they heard was clear. “This concert isn’t just about Husky,” 33-year-old rapper Oxxxymiron told the crowd. “It’s about the artists who have faced this in the past and, I’m afraid, for those artists who might face this in the future. This is about the freedom of society.”

Russian opposition leader Navalny barred from leaving Russia

November 13, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was stopped at a Moscow airport on Tuesday and barred from leaving Russia as he was about to travel to a hearing at the European Court for Human Rights in France.

Navalny said in a blog post that he was due to attend a court hearing which is expected to rule if his countless detentions have been politically motivated. He was stopped by border guards and told that a ruling by court bailiffs over an unpaid fine had barred him from leaving Russia.

The bailiffs’ service said the fine was paid later Tuesday and that restrictions on Navalny’s travel have been lifted. It was not immediately clear if he left the country after paying the fine. The hearing in Strasbourg on Thursday could prove a major embarrassment for the Kremlin which routinely dismisses Navalny, arguably Russia’s most popular opposition figure, as a trouble-maker with no political backing.

“Apparently, Putin’s regime thinks (that) not letting me fly to Strasbourg to hear this ruling will change anything,” he wrote on Twitter after being stopped at Domodedovo Airport. Navalny said the formal reason for barring him from leaving Russia was a bailiffs ruling, dated Friday to collect 2.1 million rubles ($31,000) from him in damages in a civil lawsuit against a timber company. He lost the lawsuit last year but Navalny said the court never provided any documents or banking details for him to pay the damages.

The bailiffs’ service later said “Navalny has paid the debt promptly and in full,” according to state news agency Tass. Navalny has faced numerous criminal charges in the past that are widely viewed as attempts by the Kremlin to sideline him.

Two separate criminal cases have prevented Navalny from traveling in the past but the ban was lifted in spring last year when he had to leave to Spain for urgent medical treatment. Navalny, who rose to prominence thanks to his investigations into official corruption, spearheaded major anti-government protests which have attracted Russians from across the political spectrum.

Ukraine demands access to filmmaker imprisoned in Russia

September 29, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry is demanding that Russia allow consular access to an imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker who has been on a hunger strike since mid-May. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mariana Betsa made the demand Saturday on Twitter. Russia’s penitentiary service said Friday that an unspecified “correction” in Oleg Sentsov’s treatment had been ordered; it published a photo of him being examined with a stethoscope.

Betsa also called for allowing Ukrainian doctors to visit Sentsov. The filmmaker is an opponent of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2015 for conspiracy to conduct terror attacks.

Sentsov denies guilt and has refused to seek a pardon from President Vladimir Putin. His lawyer said this month that Sentsov’s health was irreversibly damaged. Prison officials say he is receiving a nutritional formula.

Russia puts deep roots in Syria, warns West against meddling

September 26, 2018

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The same day that Russian diplomats struck a deal with Turkey over a demilitarized zone in Syria’s last rebel-run region, dozens of Russian businessmen were flying home from Damascus, contracts in hand for trade with a postwar Syria.

Whatever happens to the rebels in Idlib province, Russia is determined to keep Syria solidly anchored in its sphere of influence over the long term — both as a foothold in the Middle East and as a warning to the U.S. and its allies against future interference.

“Russia wants … a new Mideast security order,” said Emile Hokayem, Middle East security expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. While Russia is blamed for widespread death and destruction as it supports Syrian President Bashar Assad, its forces have proven decisive in the international struggle against the Islamic State group, giving Moscow a credibility that Western powers lack. “Their intervention yielded much better returns than anyone expected,” Hokayem said.

Now the central challenge facing U.S. and other Western diplomats huddling about Syria this week at the United Nations is how to stay relevant. European Union diplomats are meeting the U.N. Syria envoy Wednesday, and France is hosting a meeting Thursday of the “Small Group” that’s trying to weigh in on Syria’s future, after years of failed efforts to back the Syrian opposition.

Russia isn’t invited to either meeting but still has the upper hand. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, meanwhile, is working to persuade other world powers to endorse a Russian-Turkish accord reached last week to create a buffer zone and avert an all-out battle for the last Syrian opposition stronghold in Idlib.

Even as Russia flaunts its diplomatic success, it’s also securing a military future with Syria. Russia announced Monday it’s selling S-200 missile systems to Syria. A longtime client of Russian weapons manufacturers since well before the war, Syria also was a reliable trading partner. And Moscow is furthering that relationship by rebuilding roads, pipes and skyscrapers wiped out by seven years of war — including destruction wrought by Russia’s own weapons.

A group of 38 Russian companies took part in the Damascus International Fair earlier this month. It was at least the fourth event in the past year aimed at reviving Russian trade with Syria — and Russian companies are heading back to Syria in early October for a conference on rebuilding the country.

Syria’s neighbors are similarly active, but in Russia’s case, analysts say, the economic activity is part of an influence strategy. Russia, for example, wants to rebuild Syria’s train network. “Russia built it in the first place, and wants to rebuild this and strategic economic ties,” said independent Russian analyst Vyacheslav Matuzov.

Russian companies are seeking a diverse trade base, with food, farming and energy deals, according to the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Chamber Vice President Vladimir Padalko described “the firm intention of Russian business not just to restore past trade cooperation between our countries, but also actively move forward.”

But Russia doesn’t want to foot the bill for the huge cost of reconstruction, so it is seeking Western help, notably in Lavrov’s meetings at the U.N. Hokayem said prospects of that are low, but Russia is still “in the driver’s seat” in Syria.

“Russia is always a step ahead, and has a higher tolerance level” for ups and downs in the Syria war because Putin doesn’t face serious domestic opposition. Russia’s Astana peace process with Iran and Turkey has been so successful, Hokayem said, that “the U.N. envoy has adopted (it) as his own.”

The next few weeks will be critical for Syria — and for Russia’s footprint. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura told The Associated Press this week that October is going to be “a very important month” both for Idlib and for U.N.-led efforts to move toward peace.

Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny detained again

September 24, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was released from jail on Monday at the end of a 30-day sentence for staging an unsanctioned protest — and then immediately detained again. A police officer approached him and took him away just as he came out of a detention center in Moscow at daybreak to be greeted by supporters and the media.

Navalny has been the driving force behind a recent series of anti-government rallies that were held in dozens of cities and towns across Russia’s 11 time zones. Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, said on Monday Navalny is facing charges of staging a rally that caused bodily harm to unidentified people.

Navalny’s further detention comes amid a wave of popular discontent against a hike in the retirement age, an issue that angered Russians across the political spectrum. A drop in approval ratings for President Vladimir Putin and outrage at the changes in the pension system have weighed heavily on Kremlin candidates running in regional elections in Russian regions.

Early results from run-off votes in Sunday’s gubernatorial elections in two Russian regions see opposition candidates beating Kremlin incumbents. A week earlier, an opposition candidate for governor in the Far East mounted protests following widespread reports of vote-rigging in favor of the Kremlin candidate. Several days later, election authorities canceled the results of the elections and called a new vote.

Russian rights group says over 1,000 detained at protests

September 10, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — More than 1,000 people were detained at anti-government protests across the country in what the Kremlin on Monday called a legitimate response to unauthorized rallies. The OVD-Info group, which tracks police detentions and posts the names of the detainees on its website, said that 1,018 people were detained during Sunday’s demonstrations against a government plan to increase the ages at which Russians collect their state pension.

Nearly half of those detained were rounded up in St. Petersburg, according to the OVD-Info. Russia’s second-largest city arguably saw the most robust response with riot police charging at protesters with batons. Minors and elderly people were among those arrested.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the police acted in accordance with the law in response to unauthorized protests. He added that “hooligans and provocateurs” mixed up with protesters and assailed police.

In Moscow, authorities charged two men with assailing police. On Monday, several activists tried to launch another protest in a tree-lined boulevard in central Moscow but they were quickly rounded up by police.

Sunday’s rallies, which had been called by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, were held in dozens of towns and cities across Russia. Navalny, the anti-corruption activist who is Putin’s most visible foe, had called for protests against the government’s pension proposal before he was sentenced to 30 days in jail for organizing an unsanctioned January protest over a different issue.

The government’s plan calls for the eligibility age for retirement pensions to be raised by five years, to 65 for men and 60 for women. It has irked both older Russians, who fear they won’t live long enough to collect significant benefits, and younger generations worried that keeping people in the workforce longer will limit their own employment opportunities.

The government’s proposal has dented Putin’s popularity. The president responded by offering some concessions, but argued that the age hike is necessary because rising life expectancy in Russia could exhaust pension resources if the eligibility age remains the same.

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