Russians, fighting back Against Putin

In another excellent piece of reporting on Russia, the New York Times documents how Russians are fighting back against the Putin Kremlin, and how it is cracking down on them with barbaric neo-Soviet force.  The piece includes several protest Youtubes by Russians translated into English.

LISTVYANKA, Russia — On the edge of this Siberian village is a resort with a veiled guest list and armed guards at the front gate. When local officials have expressed unease about what goes on inside, the reply has always been the same: do not interfere.

Two and half years ago, the village’s mayor, Tatyana Kazakova, had enough. A major construction project at the resort had exposed a hot water main, threatening the heating supply for the entire village as temperatures plunged to 30 degrees below zero.

Ms. Kazakova was not a typical bureaucrat. She was one of the most successful businesswomen in this vast region, a real-estate magnate with a blond ponytail who represented a new breed of Russian entrepreneur.

She filed a lawsuit against the resort, and asked the regional prosecutor to open a criminal inquiry.

A criminal inquiry was indeed opened — against Ms. Kazakova.

The resort belongs to the F.S.B., the main successor to the Soviet-era K.G.B., and the F.S.B. arrested her and had her prosecuted.

She is now on trial in a case that has already become a disquieting example of the power of the security agency in today’s Russia.

More than 25 agents have delved into every aspect of Ms. Kazakova’s life, carrying out what they have termed a “counterintelligence operation.” Masked special service officers with automatic weapons have raided her associates’ homes. More than 250 witnesses have been interrogated, and 67 volumes of evidence have been amassed, according to the trial records.

Even a prominent Kremlin official has declared that Ms. Kazakova is being persecuted, and so has the human rights ombudsman here in Siberia, who is a government official. Yet the F.S.B. remains largely untouchable.

“Why are they doing this, who fears me?” Ms. Kazakova, 47, asked in a letter that she passed to her lawyers last year. “Why are they keeping me in jail, when I pose no threat?”

The F.S.B., which protects national security and investigates major felonies, has never publicly explained why it decided to devote such resources to pursuing the mayor of a village of 1,700 people. She was charged with abuse of office and election irregularities, crimes that the F.S.B. rarely scrutinizes at the local level.

After her arrest in March 2008, she was held in a cell at Pre-Trial Detention Center No. 1, a jail in the Siberian regional capital of Irkutsk that was once used by Stalin’s secret police. For nearly two and a half years, she was denied all contact with her fiancé, mother and three children, including a 15-year-old daughter who has a neurological disease.

Late on Wednesday night, after The New York Times made repeated inquiries to the F.S.B. about the charges against Ms. Kazakova, the judge in the case reversed previous decisions and agreed to release Ms. Kazakova on bail. The next day, Ms. Kazakova embraced her family for the first time since 2008.

The judge is expected to issue a verdict in Ms. Kazakova’s trial within the next few weeks. Her lawyers say, based on how the trial was conducted, that the judge does not seem open to the possibility that Ms. Kazakova is not guilty. She could face several years in prison.

Russia is a freer society than its Soviet predecessor, and the F.S.B. is smaller and less intrusive than the K.G.B. But the agency still functions mostly in secret, with an intimidating reputation and almost no oversight from other branches of government.

Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, the country’s paramount leader, is a former director of the F.S.B. and a former K.G.B. officer, and since his rise to power a decade ago, the agency has wielded tremendous influence in government and industry. Mr. Putin has appointed many former agency officers to senior positions. They are known as the siloviki, from the Russian word for “force.”

The agency has regularly faced criticism for undertaking politically motivated inquiries, especially those involving opposition politicians. It has also prosecuted scientists and academics for what it has contended were illegal transfers of classified information abroad.

And now, the Kremlin seems bent on making the F.S.B. even stronger. Parliament, controlled by Mr. Putin’s party, is in the process of approving legislation that would allow F.S.B. agents to warn people that their activities were “unacceptable” and leading toward a crime. The K.G.B. once employed a similar practice against Soviet dissidents.

The F.S.B. would not comment on Ms. Kazakova. Regional prosecutors said her arrest had nothing to do with the security agency’s resort. But they could not explain why in many other municipal corruption cases in the region, the F.S.B. was not involved, and defendants were treated far more leniently.

“There are laws in Russia, but the security services are beyond any laws,” said one of Ms. Kazakova’s lawyers, Dmitri Dmitriyev. “They act with total impunity. They can undertake special inquiries, collect information on people, violate fundamental human rights, put people in prison, keep them there as long as they want, manipulate judges and manipulate prosecutors. This case is just a demonstration of all this.”

Ms. Kazakova’s longtime companion, Dmitri Matveyev, 40, who had lived with her for years, wanted to marry her after her arrest, but the judge in the case would not allow it. After Mr. Matveyev gave an interview to The Times, he said he was visited by two F.S.B. agents, who instructed him not to speak to The Times again.

“I told them that I am not going to listen to them,” Mr. Matveyev said. “It has been two and a half years, and that has been a long enough period of silence. That is why I am going to talk.”

Getting Things Done

Ms. Kazakova made her fortune operating hotels and markets in Irkutsk, earning praise for her savvy all the way to the Kremlin. She then turned her attention to Listvyanka, a downtrodden fishing village on Lake Baikal, an environmental masterpiece that by some estimates has 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.

She built a hotel here, and after her election as mayor in 2006, promised to spur an economic revival. She planned a major vacation complex, called Baikal City, and even proposed building a residence for the Russian president.

She prided herself on getting things done, but her political opponents called her headstrong and domineering. Her family said she spent more than a million dollars of her own money building a municipal government headquarters for Listvyanka and modernizing utilities and other services. Those figures could not be confirmed independently. Still, the revival of the village was widely praised around Siberia by leaders of Mr. Putin’s governing party, and residents said the changes were notable.

“I am sorry to say that before, we didn’t even have toilets,” said Igor Skripkin, 72, a retired basketball coach. “Now, we have hotels and workplaces. It is all because of her.”

When the F.S.B. resort, which is also a rehabilitation center, began renovations and expansion, it would not divulge its plans to local officials. It said the work was being done under an “antiterrorism program” and thus had to be kept secret, according to court records.

After construction exposed the hot water main, Ms. Kazakova contacted the resort’s director, an F.S.B. colonel named Valery Trifonov, but he dismissed her concerns and told her that she had no right to involve herself in the resort’s activities.

Though the resort appeared to eventually take efforts not to damage the water main, Ms. Kazakova complained that two major fires there had also threatened her village. And she took her most provocative step, appealing to the regional prosecutor in February 2008 to investigate. In her complaint, she said the resort never received permits from the village for its projects, and frequently violated safety rules.

She accused Colonel Trifonov of “threatening the lives of not only those who vacation at the resort and its workers, but also the lives of those people who reside in Listvyanka.” She even sent a complaint about Colonel Trifonov to F.S.B. headquarters in Moscow.

The next month, Ms. Kazakova was arrested by a squad of F.S.B. agents at the regional airport after returning from a business trip to China.

The F.S.B., in conjunction with the regional prosecutor, accused Ms. Kazakova of fraudulently awarding a $120,000 contract for utilities maintenance to a company that Ms. Kazakova secretly controlled, and said the work was never done.

“The fact that she really did something for Listvyanka, thank God for that,” said Vladimir Salovarov, a regional spokesman for the investigative committee of the Russian prosecutor general’s office. “Let her keep doing this. But there is another side to this. You shouldn’t break the law.”

Asked whether the case was related to the F.S.B. resort, he said, “That is absolute garbage.”

Two of Ms. Kazakova’s trial lawyers, Aleksandr Gliskov and Ilya Shcherbakov, said the allegations were fabricated. They said the utilities contract was delayed because of typical weather-related and bureaucratic problems. They pointed out that the company, Kommunalshik, had returned the $120,000 to the village budget even before the charges were brought.

Kommunalshik’s founder, Irina Mikhailova, denied that Ms. Kazakova had rigged the bidding or had anything to do with the company. Ms. Mikhailova said she was arrested by the F.S.B. and transferred in an unheated railway car to a jail 400 miles away. She was held for nine months while the authorities pressured her to corroborate the charges against Ms. Kazakova, she said.

She said investigators threatened to send her to Kolyma, which is 2,000 miles away and was once notorious for its gulags, if she did not cooperate. “They said I would rot in jail,” she said, but she refused to cooperate.

Without Ms. Mikhailova’s help, prosecutors relied mainly on two former Kommunalshik employees, who testified that Ms. Kazakova had a financial interest in the company. Ms. Kazakova’s lawyers described the former employees as disgruntled.

The F.S.B. also scrutinized the village election two years before, which Ms. Kazakova won, 618 votes to 541. She was accused of illegally registering 136 people who did not live in the village.

There are no records left from the election, so prosecutors acknowledged in court that they did not know whether any of the 136 people actually voted. Nor have they presented testimony that these people had been asked to register personally by Ms. Kazakova.

While election fraud is rampant in Russia, the F.S.B. has not typically devoted its resources to investigating electoral malfeasance even in more prominent districts or races.

The agency’s investigation of Ms. Kazakova seemed so unusual that when its regional head, Maj. Gen. Sergei Staritsyn, held a rare news conference, journalists peppered him with questions about it. Two asked why the F.S.B. was involved in such a “trivial” case.

“Your question demonstrates a deformed attitude toward such types of crimes,” General Staritsyn said. “Such facts must not be perceived as trivial.”

Kept From Her Family

In Russia, the authorities wield strict control over the conditions of suspects in pretrial detention, including when to approve medical care and visits by family members. Often, this power is used as a weapon to obtain confessions or to weaken suspects so that they cannot mount a defense in court.

For nearly two and a half years — from her arrest in 2008 to her release on bail on Thursday — Ms. Kazakova had been barred from seeing her three children, mother and fiancé in jail. The judge in the case, Yekaterina Maslova, and prosecutors would not allow it.

Ms. Kazakova’s youngest child, Darya, 15, was apart from her for so long that in recent months, she could barely remember her mother’s voice. “When I come home, it’s so empty without her,” Darya said in an interview in May. “I miss her so much. I want to sit next to her, to hug her and to kiss her.”

The law enforcement authorities had also barred Darya from leaving the country to receive crucial medical care. She has neurofibromatosis, an inherited neurological disorder that is not curable and causes noncancerous tumors to appear throughout the body. Local doctors had recommended that she go abroad.

Ms. Kazakova’s mother, Olga Falomeyeva, 74, burst into tears when she recounted the many times her requests for jail visits had been rejected. She salved her grief by harvesting vegetables in her backyard garden and preparing Ms. Kazakova’s favorite dishes, which she sent to her behind bars. In her rulings, the judge had said that because Ms. Kazakova’s oldest daughter, Olga Kazakova, could be called as a witness, permitting any relatives to see Tatyana Kazakova “could influence the course of the judicial process in the criminal case and could affect the determination of truth in this case.”

The issue of pretrial punishment has drawn widespread attention in Russia in recent months after scandals surrounding two defendants who died in custody in Moscow. One of them, Sergei Magnitsky, was ensnared in a tax fraud case, and investigators sought unsuccessfully to get him to testify against his client, a London-based fund, Hermitage Capital Management, that was once a major investor in Russia.

After those two deaths, Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, called for better treatment of defendants accused of nonviolent economic crimes. But the authorities in Irkutsk did not relent until Wednesday, only after receiving questions from The Times.

Last month, before the judge’s decision to grant Ms. Kazakova’s bail, Mr. Salovarov, the spokesman for the investigators, was asked about the family’s assertion that visiting rights had been denied for nearly two and a half years. He said the family was lying.

“The accusation that we have not granted permission for visits for relatives, it is absolute nonsense,” he said.

But Mr. Salovarov was directly contradicted by documents from the jail itself. A Kremlin official, Pavel Astakhov, the federal children’s ombudsman, has also supported the family. Mr. Astakhov has called the treatment of Ms. Kazakova a “major injustice.”

“I just don’t understand how this can be reasonable in this particular case,” Mr. Astakhov said in a letter to the chairman of the regional court system.

The regional human rights ombudsman, Ivan Zelent, has said that Ms. Kazakova has grounds for filing an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Once, in the spring, prosecutors did agree to allow Ms. Kazakova’s mother and Darya to attend her trial. But when they arrived at court, the judge was taken aback. “Who is that?” the judge asked of the prosecutors. When told that it was Ms. Kazakova’s mother and daughter, the judge demanded that they be removed.

Ms. Kazakova, who was being held in a large cell in the courtroom, as is customary for criminal defendants at trials in Russia, cried, “Momma! Momma! Take off your coat and sit down!” Ms. Kazakova said. The judge ordered Ms. Kazakova to be silent. And her mother and daughter were escorted out.

2 responses to “Russians, fighting back Against Putin

  1. How tragic and rude… Again, the stupid and arrogant way to show “power” to normal, common russians. Terrible fate for this brave woman!

  2. @When the F.S.B. resort, which is also a rehabilitation center, began renovations and expansion, it would not divulge its plans to local officials. It said the work was being done under an “antiterrorism program” and thus had to be kept secret, according to court records.

    A “F.S.B. resort” under “antiterrorism program” may implicate something very sinister. Katyn mass murder and secret burial site was officially an NKVD “resort”. There are thousands people who had disappeared without trace and are presumed dead (ECHR rulings declared more than 100 dead) after Russian agents seized them in Chechnya and elsewhere in North Caucasus.

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