The Week In Russia: Syria, Sanctions, And A 'Conscious Act Of Civic Courage'
By Steve Gutterman October 16, 2020
As Moscow struggled to contain the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, Human Rights Watch described "patterns of cruelty" in attacks by Russian and Syrian forces on civilian infrastructure in Idlib Province.
The European Union imposed sanctions on senior officials over Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny's poisoning, police cracked down on persistent protests in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, and a journalist who set herself on fire after being "methodically tormented" by state authorities was remembered as a champion of the truth.
Meanwhile, newly recorded COVID-19 cases spiked above 15,000 for the first time, and the government said it would miss a year-end target of making 30 million doses of a vaccine that it approved in August despite wide-scale human testing.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
The focal point of Russia's complex, cool-to-warm relationship with regional rival Turkey has shifted lately to the conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, as Moscow struggles to keep a major flare-up in fighting between two countries it has helped arm from escalating into a wider war.
A Moscow-brokered cease-fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been violated repeatedly since it took effect on October 10, also undermining a clause in the truce agreement meant to keep Turkey -- whose stepped-up military support for ally Baku is one of the factors making this the deadliest outbreak of violence in the conflict in more than 15 years -- out of a mediation process long led by Russia, France, and the United States.
For five years -- since Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet near the Turkish-Syrian border in 2015 -- the main theater for sometimes dramatic Russia-Turkey ties had been Syria. And a stark reminder of the war that has killed more than 400,000 people there and displaced millions more came with a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report that said attacks by forces of Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government on civilian infrastructure in the anti-Assad rebels' last stronghold, Idlib Province, were "apparent war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity."
Describing what HRW called "pattens of cruelty," the October 15 report addressed 46 attacks that it said revealed an "abusive military strategy that drove more than 1 million civilians from their homes" in Idlib, in northwestern Syria.
"Dozens of unlawful air and ground strikes on hospitals, schools, and markets from April 2019 to March 2020 killed hundreds of civilians" and "seriously impaired the rights to health, education, food, water, and shelter, triggering mass displacement," the report said.
Russia has given Assad crucial military and diplomatic support since the war began with crackdown on protests in 2011. Moscow launched a campaign of air strikes against Assad's opponents in 2015 and stepped up its military presence on the ground, a big increase in support that helped turn the tide at a time when the future of Assad's rule over Syria was in question.
Clout And Consequences
Moscow's intervention bolstered its influence in the Middle East, notching a victory for President Vladimir Putin in his effort to revive Russian power abroad as the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse recedes into the past.
But it has also been among a myriad moves that have harmed Russia's reputation in the West and resulted in the imposition of sanctions by the United States, EU, and others since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 after four years in the No. 2 role, prime minister.
Those include the forcible seizure of Crimea from Ukraine and actions that helped lead to war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, alleged interference in elections in the West, and what British authorities say was a Russian attack on former military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the toxin Novichok in Salisbury, England, in 2018.
Now Western countries say that a poison from the Novichok group was used in a different kind of alleged attack -- one carried out against a political opponent of Putin on Russian soil. Aleksei Navalny is recovering in Berlin, where he was taken in August after falling ill on a domestic Russian flight following a visit to Siberia to organize campaign against the ruling United Russia party in regional elections.
Navalny's poisoning has now led to new sanctions, with the EU and Britain imposing travel bans and asset freezes on six senior officials including Aleksandr Bortnikov, head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), and Sergei Kiriyenko, one of Putin's two first deputy chiefs of staff -- I know, go figure -- and his top adviser on domestic policy.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the sanctions a "deliberately unfriendly step." Bloomberg News quoted Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat who is now a Moscow-based foreign-policy analyst, as saying that they were "surprisingly escalatory" and that Russia-EU ties are now more or less "dead."
Navalny has vowed to return to Russia, where -- in addition to publishing reports detailing alleged corruption by members of Putin's ruling elite and seeking to challenge Putin in elections in 2018, in which he was barred from the ballot for what he contends are political reasons -- he has led or helped organize several nationwide protests over the past decade.
There have been few major anti-government protests beyond the local level in Russia in 2020, in part because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the rallies in Khabarovsk are unprecedented: Daily demonstrations that began when the popular regional governor was abruptly arrested on July 9 and have increasingly focused on opposition to the government and to Putin's long rule.
The Khabarovsk protests have been at their largest on weekends, and on Saturday, October 10, law enforcement authorities cracked down, violently dispersing demonstrators for the first time -- though hundreds defiantly gathered again in the evening.
With the geopolitical battle over Navalny's poisoning gaining prominence, the clampdown in Khabarovsk may have been meant as a warning of what he and others risk subjecting themselves to if they take to Russia's streets in the future.
While the crackdown was unprecedented for the city near the Chinese border, the authorities had already been targeting individuals -- including some of the main figures behind the demonstrations.
Now it appears reporters are not immune to that treatment. On October 16, a journalist who has covered the protests said that he had been abducted the previous evening and handcuffed by masked men who took him to a forest outside the city and threatened him by shooting live rounds of ammunition into the ground near his feet.
The plight of reporters in Russia and the risks many of them face -- perhaps particularly in places other than Moscow -- came into tragic focus on October 2, when independent journalist Irina Slavina died after setting herself on fire outside a police headquarters in the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod.
Slavina had written a Facebook post earlier the same day saying, "I ask you to blame the Russian Federation for my death," and there were signs she may have killed herself in reaction to pressure from investigators trying to tie her to an opposition group, including an apartment raid in which law enforcement officers seized the tools of her trade: computers, mobile phones, USB cables, and notebooks.
Slavina headed Koza.Press, a small and independent online media outlet that journalist and analyst Sergei Parkhomenko said had become popular in Nizhny Novgorod "thanks to the fearlessly critical manner in which it covered the city news."
'Defenseless But Like-Minded People'
Slavina had been fined countless times for alleged infractions of the civil code, including a penalty levied in 2019 for a Facebook post in which she criticized a decision to put up a plaque commemorating Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in a village outside Nizhny Novgorod, Parkhomenko, a senior adviser to the Kennan Institute at the U.S.-based Wilson Center think tank, wrote in a tribute published on October 13.
"Time after time, Irina Slavina had been the target of persecution," Parkhomenko wrote, describing constant pressure from local law enforcement agencies that "watched her closely and methodically tormented her with accusations, investigative procedures, interrogations, deposition requests, and subpoenas."
The October 1 home search began at 6 a.m., Slavina wrote on Facebook the day before her death, when "12 people entered my apartment with a chainsaw and a crowbar," she was forced to get dressed under the supervision of a woman she did not know, and she and her family were not permitted to phone a lawyer.
"I am left without the means of production," Slanina wrote, according to Parkhomenko. "I'm fine. But May [the family dog] suffered a lot. They didn't let us take him out until 10:30."
Over 20 years of Putin's rule, Parkhomenko wrote, the state has made a "systematic" effort to crush Russian journalism, "acting ruthlessly and often quite creatively, changing legislation, introducing economic restrictions, and engaging all security, law enforcement, and regulatory bodies at its disposal."
"But journalism as a community of individuals, each fighting on their own or as part of a small group of defenseless but like-minded people, is still alive in Russia‚Ä¶. The tragic death of Irina Slavina that put an end to her difficult but courageous life only serves to confirm that," he wrote.
Whether journalists "expose public officials, powerful special services, or criminal bosses" or "simply tell people in Russia how other people just like them actually live," Parkhomenko wrote, it is "a conscious act of civic courage."
Copyright (c) 2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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