This week, the news of the killing of three Russian journalists in Central African Republic caused a great stir, with discussions and speculations spanning across all major publications. On a different front, the debates around the pension reform continue as the protests against it took place in dozens of the Russian cities. Finally, in the light of the recent torture video in the Yaroslavl prison, the Russian officials have floated the idea of a penitentiary service reform.

 

Flowers brought to the Central House of Journalists (Moscow) in memory of three Russian journalists killed in the Central African Republic: Orkhan Dzhemal, Kirill Radchenko, and Alexander Rastorguyev. Photo: Sergei Savostyanov | TASS.

 

  1.  Russian Journalists Killed in the Central African Republic

The story: On July 30, three Russian journalists—the military correspondent Orkhan Dzhemal, the cameraman Kirill Radchenko and the documentary filmmaker Alexander Rastorguev—were killed in the Central African Republic (CAR) where they were investigating the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, and its activities in Africa. Their project was for Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Investigations Management Center. [Svoboda]

What is known:

  • The Center’s statement provides details on the journalists’ work. For example: their trip was coordinated with the UN Peacekeeping office in Bangui (MINUSCA).
  • Most of the investigative work for the Wagner project was conducted inside Russia. During the trip journalists tried to access the Berengo military base where Russian mercenaries allegedly trained Central African Armed Forces. They were denied entry to the base. Their next stop was the city of Bambari, but the journalists never got there.
  • Their car was ambushed and all three were shot to death from automatic guns at a place that, for some reason, was off the planned route. The motive for the murders and the identities of the killers remain unknown.
  • The Center vouched to continue the Wagner project and to conduct its own investigation into the circumstances of the journalists’ death [MBK Media].

Background:

  • The story comes back to Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russian businessman and restaurateur, commonly referred to as “Putin’s chef.” Last year, talks between Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev and Sudanese president Omar Bashir gave Prigozhin the go-ahead to mine for gold in Africa under what is believed to be his firm, M Invest.
  • Prigozhin also finances the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, which the BBC reported was in Sudan in December 2017. In February 2018, Bashir said that Moscow is helping develop Sudan’s military capacity and to protect the country against external threats (including from the U.S.). Wagner mercenaries came to train military units—and possibly to protect the mining sites awarded to M Invest.
  • The Wager PMC has also been involved in Syria since 2016, when Europolis, another company connected to Prigozhin, reportedly collected a quarter of oil and gas extracted from Syrian fields by the PMC, under an agreement with Bashar Assad (the idea is that Prigozhin expected to earn Syrian oil as a dividend from military operations). In February 2018, an attempt to seize oil and gas fields controlled by the Kurds—U.S. allies—resulted in the death of a number (reportedly, up to 200) of members of the Wagner PMC. [The Bell

What Russia is doing in CAR:

  • Tatiana Denisova, head of Center for Tropical Africa Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences: Russia has recently been trying to expand its influence in Africa. After a long break (following the dissolution of the Soviet Union), Russia is restoring its old ties to CAR—establishing trade, selling weapons. There is an intense struggle for resources in the country right now, and private military companies are hired to protect the fields, gold mines, etc. [Novaya Gazeta]
  • A limited Russian contingent has been deployed in CAR in January 2018; about 40 Russians reportedly serve in the President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s detail. [RBC

Postscriptum: Colleagues of the killed journalists share their memories of Orkhan, Alexander and Kirill. [Novaya Gazeta]

 

  1. Pension Reform Protests

The story: More than 6,000 protesters rallied in Moscow on July 29 against the raising of the retirement age and tax looting. The demonstration—registered with the authorities—was organized by the Libertarian Party of Russia. Twenty four other cities held concurrent rallies. 

  • In Moscow, protesters gathered on Sakharov Prospekt, carrying signs that read, “Putin is a thief,” “Give back our money,” “Russia will be free,” “Down with the tsar,” and “The government resigns.” Many people were under 40—including schoolchildren. [The Bell]
  • Four people were detained afterward in Moscow: The founder of the Libertarian party Sergei Boyko, the coordinator of Alexei Navalny’s Moscow office Oleg Stepanov, the leader of the rally Mikhail Chichkov and a journalist, Ivan Yegorov.
  • Alexei Navalny did not attend the rally but called upon his supporters to do so on Telegram two days prior, writing: “‘Reform’ should be in quotation marks. The only goal in raising the retirement age is to pay pensioners less money.”
  • The day before, the Russian Communist Party organized additional protests against the pension reform, where more than 12,000 protesters united under the slogan, “Don’t allow the authorities to wield social terror against their own people!”
  • If there will be any changes to the draft law on raising the retirement age, it most likely won’t be known until September when the State Duma takes on a second reading. [Vedomosti

Experts weigh in:

  • Evsey Gurvich, economist: Right now, Russia spends about 9 percent of its GDP on pensions—more than double the average expenditure in emerging market countries like China, which spends 4 percent. There are 46 million pensioners to 44.5 million workers in Russia, when other countries usually see a ratio of 1.5 to 2, and improving life expectancy will continue to exacerbate problems for the economy and health care.
  • Faced with problems like this, a country can take one of three paths: 1) to increase financing for pensions each year, 2) to increase the gap between pensions and wages or 3) to raise the retirement age.
  • Up until now, Russia has chosen the first path, which leads to a dead end, growing the tax burden, slowing economic growth and denying funds to another important development initiatives like education, infrastructure and foreign investment. Raising the retirement age, while difficult, is urgent and will only help grow the economy. [Forbes.ru]

Where is Putin? Political commentator Tatyana Stanovaya argues that because the current regime’s only source of legitimacy is Vladimir Putin, his lack of involvement in the pension reform is becoming a source of delegitimization for the political system. [Vedomosti]

 

  1. Penitentiary Service Reform 

The story: On July 20, Novaya Gazeta published a video showing a prisoner being tortured in the Yaroslavl Correctional Facility No.1. Following the material’s publication, the Investigative Committee detained seven employees of the facility and opened a case under Article 286 of the Criminal Code—the Kremlin is drafting a prison reform bill as well.

  • This week, Federation Council Chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko called the torture a “monstrous crime,” and offered a new proposal: dividing the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) into civilian and military units. [RBC]

What it means:

  • Olga Shepeleva, Center for Strategic Research: Yaroslavl was not an isolated incident; stories of torture in Russian prisons will continue until the FSIN becomes a civilian agency.
  • Reform in the system is long overdue: More than 78 percent of staff in the FSIN is devoted to security, while medical assistance makes up 11 percent and psychological assistance only 1 percent, which hinders prisoners’ ability to eventually reintegrate into society. Correctional facilities are located far from modern socioeconomic centers, making it difficult to supervise prisoners’ rights and easy to avoid scrutiny about prison conditions. [RBC]
  • Kirill Martynov, policy expert: Matviyenko’s statement is positive in that it publicly recognizes the need for reform. But when the FSIN was separated from the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), it came with the assumption that it would no longer be burdened by an archaic, incompetent system. Matviyenko’s plan would bring the FSIN back to MVD—but simply shuffling signs isn’t enough to effect lasting change. [Novaya Gazeta]

 

Other stories that mattered this week (in Russian)

  • Dangers of the Past: What are the risks of Robert Kocharyan’s arrest for Armenia?”: Political expert Sergei Markedonov discusses the surprising development arguing that the arrest of a former Armenian president creates a precedent that may pose risks to the power succession in the country. [RBC]
  • In search of political infrastructure: What political projects will be offered to Putin during his last term”: Journalist Andrei Pertsev argues that the latest public discontent surrounding the pension reform reveals a profound lack of political infrastructure in the regime that relies on Vladimir Putin’s personal power. Still, a market of ideas to build such infrastructure has been shaped: some of its key players include Sergei Kiriyenko, Vyacheslav Volodin, Andrei Turchak, Alexei Kudrin et al. [Carnegie.ru]
  • Hole in Teflon: What Vladimir Putin’s rating is based on and why it tanked this summer”: Citing social and economical studies, Margarita Zavadskaya, fellow at the Higher School of Economics, writes that Putin’s rating that was called “Teflon” for its resistance to any negative developments, has recently tanked due to one factor: the controversial pension reform is the issue about which most Russians have strong personal opinions. They see the reform as the government’s attempt to take away something that is inherently their own—as opposed to abstract ideas, such as economic performance or patriotism. [Republic]

 

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