Russia Reform Monitor No. 2399

Related Categories: Democracy and Governance; Human Rights and Humanitarian Issues; International Economics and Trade; Europe; Russia

The Kremlin has announced that it will take countermeasures against the UK after the British government imposed fresh sanctions against senior Russian officials, including a close ally of President Vladimir Putin. The Russians included on the new government list were allegedly involved in the death and mistreatment of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax advisor who died in a Moscow prison in 2009 after he was refused medical treatment and abused by authorities. Putin's press spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, announced: "We can only regret such unfriendly measures... obviously the principle of reciprocity will be applied." The Russian embassy in London went on to assert that all questions regarding the circumstances of Magnitsky's death had been answered long ago. The embassy claims that the UK's decision was conceived merely as a publicity move.

It is unclear what form the Kremlin's response might take. In 2012, Putin banned the adoption of Russian orphans by American citizens after the U.S. Congress passed similar "Magnitsky" legislation targeting Russian human rights abusers. It is also possible that Moscow will respond asymmetrically by targeting British companies with offices in Russia via raids and closures. (London Guardian, July 7, 2020)

On July 7th, Rebecca Ross, the spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy in Moscow, publicly expressed concerns about the recent clampdown on journalists in Russia. "Watching arrest after arrest of Russian journalists - it's starting to look like a concerted campaign against #MediaFreedom," Ross tweeted. The Kremlin’s answer wasn’t long in coming. In response, Russia’s foreign ministry responded on Twitter that Ross should "Mind your own business."

Ross' comment was made in connection with the FSB's recent arrest of former journalist Ivan Safronov on suspicion of state treason (see the last issue of the Russia Reform Monitor). Safronov's detention sparked an uproar among supporters and journalists alike, who say his arrest is punishment for his past coverage of Russia's defense sector. The arrest also fits a larger pattern; in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, journalists working for print and online news outlets have complained about increasing curbs on press freedoms and pressure from the Kremlin. (New Delhi TV, July 8, 2020)

Outrage over the arrest of a popular regional governor in the Russian Far East has brought thousands of people into the streets of Khabarovsk. Sergei Furgal, the Governor of Khabarovsk Krai on Russia's Pacific Coast, was arrested on charges of murder dating back to 2004, long before his gubernatorial election - charges that Furgal vehemently denies. The political context of the arrest is important, because Furgal is a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, having defeated a member of Putin's United Russia faction in a 2018 regional election. Experts believe Furgal's arrest is meant to serve as a warning to opposition candidates planning on running for office in September's upcoming regional elections. (Reuters, July 9, 2020; The Moscow Times, July 12, 2020)

The Russian military presence in Transnistria (Transdniester), an unrecognized breakaway region of Moldova on the banks of the Dniester River, is being called into question once more, decades after Moscow promised to withdraw its troops from the area. Former Moldovan Prime Minister Pavel Filip, now a member of the country's parliament, called on Russia to live up to the 1999 Istanbul Declaration and remove its troops from the disputed territory during a recent television interview.

Moscow, however, views the situation differently. According to its official explanation, Russia keeps a small force of 1,500 soldiers in the region to serve as peacekeepers and stewards of a large Soviet-era weapons arsenal. In addition, these forces are deployed to protect the 220,000 Russian citizens living there, since over the past two decades the Kremlin has granted the region's residents Russian passports. As such, explains Russian Ambassador to Moldova Oleg Vasnetsov, the soldiers, "cannot be withdrawn." (Balkan Insight, July 10, 2020)