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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2124
Recognition for Ukraine's separatists;
Putin moves to protect believers
Edited by Amanda Azinheira, Kaitlyn Johnson and Garrett Lynch
March 27, 2017
The Russian government's decision to recognize passports issued by separatists in eastern Ukraine is impeding progress toward peace between Moscow and Kyiv. The order to recognize separatist documentation came directly from President Vladimir Putin, just as the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine agreed to a new ceasefire deal. Observers are crying foul at the development, which they say makes violations of the newly-signed ceasefire more likely. "The steps taken last night by Russia to recognize these documents are making implementation more difficult" because they "recognition of those who issue the documents," Lamberto Zannier, Secretary General of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, has died suddenly of cardiac arrest at the age of 64. According to the New York Times, the heart attack occurred while he was at work in his New York office, just one day before his birthday. The New York Police Department has found no evidence of foul play. Ambassador Churkin had recently been uncharacteristically absent from committee meetings, sparking speculation about his health. While Churkin was known to be privately critical of President Putin, he was nonetheless a staple of Russian foreign policy, loyally serving and publicly defending the Kremlin before Turtle Bay since the time of Mikhail Gorbachev.
The Moscow Times reports that Russian officials have been instructed to ensure that incumbent Vladimir Putin attains at least 63 percent of the vote in the country's upcoming presidential election in 2018. The Kremlin expects a "record voting turnout," and is looking to beat the current record of 70 percent support set in 2008 with Dmitri Medvedev's election to the presidency.
Given widespread concern over voter fraud and ballot stuffing, government sources have taken pains to stress that the process will be "transparent." But for most Russians, the results of the election are largely a foregone conclusion. Popular expectation is that, despite current economic hardship and widespread discontent, Putin will win the vote handily, publicly reaffirming his mandate.
Russian authorities are cracking down and arresting individuals under the claim that they "insult(ed) the feelings of religious believers." This controversial criminal offense has been in effect since the law on religious belief was signed by President Putin in June 2013 following the very public trial of the all-female band "Pussy Riot." While rarely enforced since its introduction, the law has increasingly been employed by authorities to justify the prosecution of church critics and religious dissidents, reports Politico.
According to Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Moscow-based SOVA Center, a public policy think tank, enforcement of the measure is strategic, insofar as it allows the state to "strengthen its ideological stance on ties with the church" - a relationship which the government has been keen to emphasize to the public. The law has likewise proven to be a useful tool to many hardline Orthodox Christians in their campaign to reshape Russian society, though at the expense of individual rights and civil liberties.
According to the New York Times, the Russian Foreign Ministry has set up a new section on its government website that will highlight articles it considers to be "fake news." Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has defined "fake news" as any reports that fail to include an official Russian reaction or the Russian position on a given issue, or which cite unidentified sources. Experts fear, however, that under such a vague definition any article the Russian government doesn't like can simply be labelled as "fake news" - and that the new initiative is aimed at discrediting all news sources that report on Russia by creating counter-narratives that confuse and mislead the general public. So far five publications - Bloomberg, the New York Times, NBC News, London's Daily Telegraph and the Santa Monica Observer - have been singled out as "fake" by Russian authorities.