Russia Reform Monitor No. 2296

Related Categories: Democracy and Governance; Human Rights and Humanitarian Issues; Public Diplomacy and Information Operations; Corruption; Europe; Russia; Latin America

Another Russian anti-corruption lawyer may have paid for his work with his life. On the night of February 11th, Dmitry Gribov, the head of the Vingradovo Center for Action Against Corruption located just outside Moscow, was attacked by a group of masked men armed with baseball bats and later died from his injuries at the local hospital. While an investigation into the identities and motives of Gribov's assailants is just beginning, his colleagues believe that the crime was directly tied to the activist's anti-corruption efforts. (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, February 13, 2019)

For the last several years, journalists have relied on the personal social media accounts of Russian service members to shed light on Moscow's role in conflicts abroad. Now, a new Russian law is seeking to roll back that open-source access. If passed, the legislation currently under discussion in the Duma would prohibit Russian servicemen and reservists from posting to their social media accounts anything that might reveal information on their role in the military or their location, including photos, videos, and geolocation data. The legislation aims to formalize defense ministry recommendations issued to service members in 2017, when the Kremlin began to take note that personal social media posts were inadvertently undermining its staunch denials of its troops’ involvement in Eastern Ukraine, Syria, and even the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. (Reuters, February 13, 2019)

The Russian government is giving an increasingly blunt message regarding the possibility of U.S.-backed intervention to remove Nicolas Maduro from power in Venezuela. Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, commented that "our goal is to prevent another color – or black and white – revolution tailor-made by the Americans," invoking the non-violent political uprisings in a number of Russia’s neighbors over the past two decades, which the Kremlin interpreted as covert external attempts at destabilization. "We are categorically against it," added Russia's UN Ambassador, Vasily Nebenzia, as he joined Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza at the United Nations to launch a 50-country coalition opposing foreign influence in the country. (The Moscow Times, February 15, 2019)

Religious tensions escalated further in Ukraine last month when authorities in Kyiv deported a senior Moscow Patriarchate church official and stripped him of his Ukrainian citizenship. Bishop Gedon (born Yuriy Kharon in Ukraine) was detained at the Kyiv airport on February 13th and interrogated for hours about his public statements on Russia's intervention in Eastern Ukraine. Gedon – who also holds American citizenship and had reached out to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the ongoing church dispute in Ukraine – later posted on Facebook that authorities confiscated his Ukrainian passport and put him on a flight out of the country, escorting him "to the plane by armed gunmen like a criminal!"

Gedon's fate is indicative of the broader conflict provoked by the recent decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople to authorize a new "Orthodox Church of Ukraine" (OCU), effectively granting it independence from the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church. Since the split, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called for Moscow Patriarchate priests to convert to the new OCU, but reportedly only 300 of 12,000 churches in Ukraine have done so. There are growing reports that the holdouts are being subjected to to what a senior member of the Moscow church described as the "Soviet-era tactics" of the Ukrainian security services: conducting raids and interrogating priests accused of "treason and inciting religious hatred." Multiple clerics from the Moscow Patriarchate have publicly supported Russia's military intervention in the eastern part of the country and its annexation of Crimea, and Poroshenko and others have pointed to these statements as a national security threat intended to destabilize the country. (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, February 15, 2019)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov led the Russian delegation to last month's Munich Security Conference, where he stole the spotlight by trading jabs with his Western counterparts. After British Defence Minister Gavin Williamson accused the Kremlin of pursuing illegal activity and provocations to "goad the West," Lavrov followed up the following day with a pointed comment critiquing Williamson's hawkish tone: "If you listen to some people like the minister of war - oh, sorry the minister of defense - of the United Kingdom then you might get an impression that nobody except NATO have the right to be anywhere." (Reuters, February 16, 2019)