Rus­sia

And the Beat­ing Goes On

Newsweek International - - CONTENTS - MARC BENNETTS @mar­cben­netts1

IVAN SKRIPNICHENKO, A 35-year-old Rus­sian op­po­si­tion ac­tivist, was stand­ing guard at a me­mo­rial to a slain foe of the Krem­lin when a man in army sur­plus cloth­ing ap­proached. “Don’t you love Putin?” he asked, then knocked Skripnichenko down with a punch to the face.

Eight days later, Skripnichenko was dead. “It was a pow­er­ful and pro­fes­sional blow,” Ma­rina Lebe­deva, an anti-gov­ern­ment ac­tivist who says she wit­nessed the Au­gust 15 at­tack in cen­tral Moscow, tells Newsweek. The as­sailant also kicked Skripnichenko as he lay on the ground next to the flower-strewn me­mo­rial for Boris Nemtsov, the op­po­si­tion leader who was shot dead at the ex­act same spot near Red Square by Chechen gun­men in 2015. Author­i­ties have re­fused to give per­mis­sion for the me­mo­rial, so op­po­si­tion ac­tivists have been guard­ing it since Nemtsov’s death.

There are roughly a dozen se­cu­rity cam­eras on and near the bridge, but po­lice say there is no closed-cir­cuit TV footage of the at­tack on Skripnichenko. That’s also what they said after Nemtsov was gunned down.

Skripnichenko, a fa­ther of two who loved rock mu­sic, died in the hos­pi­tal while be­ing treated for his in­juries. In­ves­ti­ga­tors have not made any ar­rests over the as­sault and say Skripnichenko may have died of heart dis­ease un­re­lated to the beat­ing. Fam­ily mem­bers say he was in per­fect health, and his fel­low op­po­si­tion ac­tivists have no doubt about what hap­pened that evening. “This was a po­lit­i­cal mur­der,” says Lebe­deva. “The beasts killed Ivan.”

ACID IN THE FACE

Skripnichenko’s death is part of a surge in po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated vi­o­lence ahead of next March’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, in which Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin is ex­pected to seek a new six-year term. Ten­sions have been ris­ing be­cause Putin has a gen­uine chal­lenger: Alexei Navalny, a charis­matic anti-cor­rup­tion lawyer. Although Rus­sia’s gov­ern­ment-con­trolled elec­tion com­mit­tee wants to keep Navalny off the bal­lot, the 41-year-old has been cam­paign­ing for months. He’s at­tracted tens of thou­sands of young vol­un­teers and raised over a mil­lion dol­lars from or­di­nary Rus­sians.

Putin has called op­po­si­tion fig­ures like Navalny “na­tional traitors,” and there have been a se­ries of re­cent at­tacks by pro-krem­lin ac­tivists and shad­owy thugs with sus­pected links to the author­i­ties. In Siberia, peo­ple in­volved with Navalny’s cam­paign have been stabbed or beaten with base­ball bats. In Septem­ber, Niko­lai Lyaskin, the head of Navalny’s elec­tion cam­paign head­quar­ters in Moscow, was as­saulted by a man armed with an iron bar. “He hit me twice while I was tak­ing out cam­paign ma­te­ri­als to a fel­low ac­tivist’s car,” says Lyaskin. “A few min­utes after the at­tack, my cell­phone buzzed, and I re­ceived a text mes­sage that read ‘It’s Done.’” Lyaskin, who suf­fered a se­vere con­cus­sion as a re­sult of the beat­ing, had no idea what the mes­sage meant. He would soon find out.

Within days of the in­ci­dent, po­lice in Moscow de­tained Alexei Shcherbakov, who con­fessed to tar­get­ing Lyaskin. Op­po­si­tion fig­ures were as­ton­ished: The vast ma­jor­ity of vio- lence against gov­ern­ment crit­ics goes un­pun­ished in Rus­sia. But their sur­prise quickly turned to out­rage. Shcherbakov told po­lice Lyaskin had promised to pay him 150,000 rubles ($2,570) to at­tack him. He gave no rea­son as to why Lyaskin, who de­nies the al­le­ga­tions, would have done this.

De­spite his ad­mis­sion, po­lice swiftly re­leased Shcherbakov from cus­tody pend­ing the re­sults of their in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the as­sault. He was not even re­quired to post bail. It was

“This is fright­en­ing. I have a wife and a small child, and this man is out there some­where.”

a rare show of le­niency by Rus­sian author­i­ties, who fre­quently hold peo­ple charged with “ex­trem­ist” so­cial me­dia posts—which of­ten means on­line crit­i­cism of Putin—in cus­tody un­til their cases comes to court. “This is fright­en­ing,” says Lyaskin. “I have a wife and a small child, and this man is out there some­where.”

Lyaskin be­lieves Shcherbakov, whom Newsweek could not reach for com­ment, is work­ing with the author­i­ties to frighten and dis­credit op­po­si­tion ac­tivists. “The ‘It’s Done’ mes­sage was likely sent to pro­vide the po­lice with some kind of false proof that Shcherbakov was work­ing on my orders,” he says. After the in­ci­dent, pro-krem­lin sup­port­ers used so­cial me­dia to al­lege Lyaskin had or­dered an at­tack to drum up pub­lic­ity for Navalny’s cam­paign.

As he mounts his un­prece­dented chal­lenge to Putin, Navalny has also been at­tacked. The most se­ri­ous in­ci­dent came in April, when he was al­most blinded in one eye after an as­sailant threw a chem­i­cal sub­stance at his face in Moscow. There’s tele­vi­sion footage of the in­ci­dent, but op­po­si­tion ac­tivists have been un­able to iden­tify the at­tacker with cer­tainty be­cause the pro-krem­lin TV chan­nel blurred out his face.

For Lyaskin, the mount­ing vi­o­lence is a sign that Putin is wor­ried about Navalny—who is banned from speak­ing on state me­dia—and his abil­ity to get his de­fi­ant mes­sage across via the in­ter­net and his fre­quent trips to the prov­inces. On the day that Lyaskin was as­saulted, Navalny was cam­paign­ing in front of a large and en­thu­si­as­tic crowd in Mur­mansk, a Rus­sian city within the Arc­tic Cir­cle. “The Krem­lin can’t fight against us with their own cam­paign vol­un­teers or cam­paign ral­lies be­cause they don’t have th­ese things,” Lyaskin says. “Vi­o­lence is all that Putin has left now.”

RUS­SIA’S ‘WEST­ERN REVO­LU­TION’

Although no one has been charged over the at­tack that al­most cost Navalny his eye­sight, the op­po­si­tion leader has pointed to a mem­ber of a na­tion­al­ist group called the South East Rad­i­cal Block. Igor Beke­tov, the leader of SERB, makes no ef­fort to dis­guise his loathing for op­po­si­tion fig­ures. “Op­po­si­tion ac­tivists are like ma­lign tu­mors on Rus­sia’s body,” he says. “It’s our job to draw at­ten­tion to them.”

The na­tion­al­ist group, which was formed dur­ing vi­o­lent pro-rus­sia protests in east­ern Ukraine in 2014, has been in­volved in nu­mer­ous as­saults on peo­ple op­posed to Putin’s rule. The chem­i­cal at­tack on Navalny came the day after SERB ac­tivists vis­ited the Rus­sian par­lia­ment for a meet­ing with what Beke­tov says were se­nior law­mak­ers. “They lis­tened very at­ten­tively to our ex­pe­ri­ences in fight­ing against at­tempts to stage a Maidan in Rus­sia,” says Beke­tov, in a ref­er­ence to the protests that top­pled Ukraine’s pro-moscow pres­i­dent. Beke­tov won’t say who spon­sored the group’s visit to par­lia­ment, but SERB mem­bers have got­ten face time with prom­i­nent pro-putin politi­cians, in­clud­ing Py­otr Tol­stoy, the deputy speaker of par­lia­ment.

Beke­tov de­nies the group had any­thing to do with the as­saults on Skripnichenko or Navalny. He has no qualms, how­ever, about ad­mit­ting that the group of­ten hurls ex­cre­ment and other sub­stances, in­clud­ing a bright green dye known in Rus­sia as ze­ly­onka, at op­po­si­tion ac­tivists and jour­nal­ists. “Th­ese peo­ple want to harm Rus­sia,” he says, by way of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion.

SERB has ide­o­log­i­cal links to the Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Move­ment (NOD), a fa­nat­i­cally anti-west­ern move­ment founded in 2012 by Yevgeny Fy­o­dorov, a for­mer pres­i­den­tial ad­viser and se­nior law­maker with Putin’s rul­ing United Rus­sia party. NOD, whose ac­tivists reg­u­larly clash with op­po­si­tion ac­tivists, claims 200,000 mem­bers across Rus­sia, although an­a­lysts say the true fig­ure is likely much lower. While Fy­o­dorov says he does not con­done at­tacks against op­po­si­tion fig­ures, he also says that he “un­der­stands” the anger be­hind them.

“We know that the United States has in­vested a great deal of money into a mas­sive un­rest be­fore or after the elec­tions. They want to get mil­lions of peo­ple out on the street,” says Fy­o­dorov. “NOD ac­tivists are peo­ple who sim­ply want to stay alive. They are do­ing ev­ery­thing they can to pre­vent a West­ern-spon­sored revo­lu­tion in Rus­sia.”

GOONS CROSS THE LINE

Vi­o­lent fa­nati­cism has forced some op­po­si­tion fig­ures to flee Rus­sia over fear for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Yu­lia Latyn­ina—a 51-yearold jour­nal­ist who writes for No­vaya

Gazeta, Rus­sia’s old­est and only op­po­si­tion news­pa­per—knows all too well about the pres­sures faced by those op­posed to Putin’s long rule.

In Au­gust 2016, an as­sailant hurled a buck­et­ful of ex­cre­ment over Latyn­ina as she was walk­ing to the of­fices of Ekho Moskvy, a Moscow ra­dio sta­tion, where she hosts a weekly show. “You are pour­ing shit on Rus­sia, you bitch!” shouted the man, who was wear­ing a mo­tor­cy­cle hel­met, Latyn­ina says. Rus­sian author­i­ties re­fused to open an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the in­ci­dent, which they deemed in­suf­fi­ciently se­ri­ous to be con­sid­ered a crim­i­nal of­fense.

In July, a nox­ious liq­uid was smeared over the jour­nal­ist’s car, as

“There is an end­less sup­ply of small-fry gang­sters ready to do [Putin’s] dirty work for him.”

well as the walls of her home in the coun­try­side. No one was hurt in the in­ci­dent, which hap­pened in the mid­dle of the night, but the re­sult­ing fumes left Latyn­ina and her el­derly par­ents feel­ing nau­se­ated. In­de­pen­dent ex­perts hired by No­vaya Gazeta later iden­ti­fied the liq­uid as con­tain­ing dimethyl­for­mamide and high molec­u­lar ph­tha­lates, a po­ten­tially fa­tal com­bi­na­tion. Neigh­bors told Latyn­ina they had seen a black car driv­ing away from her home shortly be­fore the at­tack. A month later, some­one set fire to Latyn­ina’s car while it was out­side her home. That was the cue for her to leave Rus­sia. She has no plans to re­turn any­time soon.

Latyn­ina tells Newsweek she holds Putin ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble for the vi­o­lence against her and other Krem­lin crit­ics. Even if Putin isn’t di­rectly or­der­ing the as­saults, she says, his com­ments and the lack of ac­tion by the author­i­ties have sent a sig­nal that ag­gres­sion against op­po­si­tion fig­ures will go un­pun­ished. “Putin is an old KGB guy who likes to have the pos­si­bil­ity of de­nial,” Latyn­ina says, speak­ing via Skype from an undis­closed lo­ca­tion out­side of Rus­sia. “There is an end­less sup­ply of small-fry gang­sters ready to do his dirty work for him. And Putin is now will­ing for th­ese goons to cross the line.”

Shortly after Latyn­ina’s com­ments, Putin’s rul­ing United Rus­sia party named An­drei Tur­chak, a re­gional gover­nor, as its new sec­re­tary-gen­eral. Tur­chak, 41, has been linked to the near-deadly beat­ing of Oleg Kashin, a well-known op­po­si­tion jour­nal­ist, in 2010. The wife of one of the al­leged as­sailants says Tur­chak or­dered the at­tack on Kashin as re­venge for crit­i­cal com­ments. Some an­a­lysts be­lieve Tur­chak, who de­nies the al­le­ga­tions, but has not been ques­tioned by po­lice, is now a con­tender to be­come Rus­sia’s next prime min­is­ter.

The vi­o­lence seems likely to con­tinue. On Oc­to­ber 23, a man stormed into the of­fices of Ekho Moskvy and stabbed Tatyana Fel­gen­hauer, the ra­dio’s sta­tion’s deputy ed­i­tor, in the neck. Fel­gen­hauer, 36, was sent to the hos­pi­tal, in a crit­i­cal con­di­tion. She is now re­cov­er­ing after an op­er­a­tion. Po­lice ar­rested a 48-year-old man over the at­tack. His mo­tives are un­clear: The man said he tar­geted Fel­gen­hauer be­cause she had “tele­path­i­cally” ha­rassed him. How­ever, op­po­si­tion fig­ures sug­gested the stab­bing could have been con­nected to a re­cent state me­dia re­port that de­scribed Fel­gen­hauer and her col­leagues at the ra­dio sta­tion as agents of the U.S. State De­part­ment. “This is the pro­pa­ganda of ha­tred, and it’s putting peo­ple’s lives at risk,” says Ilya Yashin, a prodemoc­racy ac­tivist.

Back at the makeshift me­mo­rial to Nemtsov, a photo of Skripnichenko has been placed next to a por­trait of the slain op­po­si­tion leader. “They’ve killed two peo­ple here now,” says Lebe­deva, the ac­tivist. “Who knows when the deaths are go­ing to stop?”

Navalny, far left, is a gen­uine chal­lenger to Putin. Latyn­ina, be­low, is a Krem­lin critic and jour­nal­ist; an as­sailant hurled a buck­et­ful of ex­cre­ment at her in Au­gust. SHIT LIST

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