“No man, no problem”

May 12, 2016

Sergey Orlov

The regime will stop at nothing to stop young oppositionists.

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Mikhail Konev: oppositionist and conscript

“We believe that the conscription system represents a modern-day version of serfdom. People should choose their own path in life,” declared protesters from Yabloko’s youth wing at a Moscow rally timed to coincide with the start of the spring draft. The accuracy of this comparison became all too clear to see when the regime attempted to exploit military service as yet another weapon against young oppositionists.

Mikhail Konev, the 23-year-old leader of PARNAS’ youth wing, should have been exempt from military service for health reasons. On April 4, however, he tweeted the following alarming message: “In spite of the medical documents I’ve provided the doctors with, the draft board has deemed me fit for duty. I’m going to appeal against this in court.” But there was no time for Konev to do so: on April 26, he was once again summoned to the Ostankino military commissariat, where the draft board informed him that he was indeed fit to serve and that he must therefore report to the recruiting station. The lawyer accompanying Konev was simply ignored. And it was then that the plot of some sick action film kicked off. “As Mikhail was leaving the draft board office,” said PARNAS leader Mikhail Kasyanov, “he was seized by a trio of men in civilian clothes. They pushed his lawyer aside, hauled him into a car, and drove off in an unknown direction.” Konev’s lawyer filed a kidnapping charge (as per Article 126 of the Criminal Code), while activists from PARNAS’ youth wing protested outside the Ostankino enlistment office with placards reading “Freedom for Konev,” “People get kidnapped here,” and “Konev’s Draft is Illegal.”

From the very outset, Mikhail Konev’s colleagues had absolutely no doubt as to the rationale behind the kidnapping: “This is 100% linked to his political activities,” said opposition politician Ilya Yashin. “Konev was involved with PARNAS’ youth movement, he organised rallies in Moscow. He repeatedly received threats from Centre E operatives [Centre E is a subdivision of the Ministry of the Interior whose ostensible purpose is to combat extremism; in practice, however, it is engaged in the persecution of the opposition – Ed.] whose general gist was this: ‘Either you quieten down a notch or it’s the army for you.’ We don’t know who kidnapped him. These were people with no identifiable markings on their clothing. It would seem that Centre E’s threats are becoming a reality.”

Konev’s associate Alexander Miroshnichenko believes that his friend has fallen victim to the Kremlin’s ‘gangster methods:’ “This is how the regime eliminates the finest representatives of civil society – people who might present a threat to them at the upcoming elections.”

In fact, the persecution of Mikhail Konev began months ago: he’d already received his call-up papers back in November 2015, and, as Ilya Yashin asserts, they were handed to him as part of a special operation conducted not by the enlistment office but by the Criminal Investigations Department, and that selfsame anti-extremism centre: “There was a ring [at Konev’s door]: it was someone claiming to be his next-door neighbour. She said she’d been flooded, and when he opened the door, she removed her dressing gown to reveal a police uniform.” That same month, Konev had already been driven off in an unknown direction by the security forces, but it was only in 2016 that the regime resolved to escalate the situation, and actually haul him off to the army.

The kidnapped Mikhail Konev was found by relatives at a recruitment office in the south of Moscow on the evening of the same day – a photo of Mikhail in military uniform had been posted online. But as for what the Ministry of Defence had in store for the hostage-cum-recruit, that proved to be classified. Where would Konev be dispatched, and when? The recruiting office concocted a proper military secret out of this, denying his relatives access to the relevant information. The Kremlin-loyal channel REN TV, in contrast, proved to be in the know about Konev’s fate: on April 27, the channel published several new photos of Mikhail – now in uniform, shaven-headed, and surrounded by soldiers of a similar age. The photos were accompanied by mocking captions: “A contented-looking Konev helps himself to mashed potatoes and tea;” “Konev’s dear lawyer couldn’t help him avoid the draft;” and finally, and most impactfully, “As can been seen from the photo, significant changes have already taken place in the young man’s life – changes that his associates and teachers like Ilya Yashin and Alexei Navalny didn’t experience back in their own day.”

And although Navalny is long past call-up age, with his associate Ivan Zhdanov also having left that age-bracket, albeit recently, the regime won’t let things rest as far as the latter is concerned. In mid-April 2016, a criminal case was opened against Zhdanov – the head of the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s legal service – for evading conscription. Zhdanov himself asserts that he was at law college and graduate school throughout virtually the entire period when he could have legally been called up, and that neither he nor his parents received any draft notices during the one year he had off. “A criminal case can be brought against someone who’s received a draft notice but then failed to turn up at the enlistment office,” says Zhdanov, “but in this case no draft notice was sent.”

It’s noteworthy that the case against FBK’s lawyer had been brought just as Zhdanov was running for the Barvikha city council elections. Even new CEC chief Ella Pamfilova – who had initially suggested that, having taken the plunge into politics, Zhdanov should be prepared, among other things, to fight criminal cases – subsequently softened her position: “To put it mildly, there’s good reason here to be shocked and indignant, and to work out what’s behind all this [the opening of the criminal case]. In other words, it’s a very ugly story.”

As if the searches and interrogations relating to his own case were not enough, Ivan Zhdanov has also had to contend with an investigation concerning his father. Novaya Gazeta has written about the way in which the regime pressures young oppositionists via their parents: “According to Ivan, his father lives in Naryan-Mar and works there as the head of a vocational training school. Recently, the prosecutor’s office, the labour inspection authorities, and the Investigative Committee have all begun keeping tabs on him in an attempt to initiate at least some kind of criminal case. Remarkably enough, the persecution of Ivan’s father began after Ivan started working for the FBK.”

But the regime won’t leave off even if it doesn’t succeed in blackmailing the oppositionist by threatening his parents, or if the army tack is inapplicable (in the event, for example, that the oppositionist is a she rather than a he). Thus, child services are always ready to hint to a young mother that, “if need be,” the state can take on the upbringing of her youngster. Activist Maria Baronova endured precisely this ordeal in the wake of the Bolotnaya Square case in 2012, when child services personnel came to inspect her apartment. “You can’t just take a child away from a highly socialised individual by legal means,” Baronova said at the time. “You can only do so illegally. I believe that the regime is exerting pressure on me via my child in response to my civic activism.”

On the eve of major federal elections, the regime will seek out (and find) any pretext to eliminate “inconvenient” candidates: “You’ve not done military service and you’re under 27 years of age? To the army you go!” “You’ve not done military service and you’re over 27 years of age?! Well, jail it is then!”

“No man, no problem,” said Stalin. In the vast majority of cases, the present regime won’t have to go that far; the following (less catchy) maxim will do it just fine:  “No man on the ballot paper, no problem.”

For instance, Article 20.3 of the Administrative Code (“propaganda and public demonstration of Nazi attributes or symbols”) presents the Kremlin with some unique opportunities to get rid of “undesirables.” Even reposting an illustrated article about the similarities between Nazi and Soviet propaganda posters could land you in hot water, as Mikhail Kasimov, head of PARNAS’ Perm branch, discovered recently: having done precisely that, Kasimov was found guilty under the article in question. And although he received what might be called a nominal punishment (a 1000-rouble fine), individuals charged under Article 20.3 are also temporarily deprived of the right to stand for election. If he fails to contest the decision, Kasimov will miss both the Duma and the regional elections – and that’s all the regime really needs.

But it gets worse: leaflets featuring images of swastikas were simply planted in the office of Novosibirsk Open Elections candidate Yegor Savin. The initiation of a criminal case under Article 20.3 seems to be just a matter of time. “It isn’t hard to predict what’s going to happen next,” writes oppositionist Leonid Volkov. “Numerous other independent candidates with plans to run for the Duma will be exposed as ‘swastika lovers’ in the coming weeks.”   

The only way for the regime to fix the election results in the big cities without resorting to brazen fraud – thereby insuring itself against the possibility of mass protests, and securing an opportunity to showcase its “newfound” legitimacy to the West – is to pre-empt the threat of non-systemic candidates by preventing them from even getting on the ballot paper.

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