Evgeny Roizman, former mayor of Ekaterinburg, at the Kafka and Orwell Forum, Kaliningrad. Source: Gleb Fedotov / Facebook. This year, it seemed like the Kafka and Orwell intellectual forum — now in its sixth year — was going to come off without a hitch. There would be no incidents, and its participants could make their way home safely. Alas, this wasn’t the case.
The methods the Russian authorities use to defend their monopoly on public discussion of society and politics are acquiring harsher and harsher forms. The latest forum, which ran from 14-16 September in Svetlogorsk, Kaliningrad, turned into a testing ground for a new genre of police intervention — “police raid on camera”. Here, Russian riot and armed police played the role of “masked men”; and the cameras recording the proceedings were provided by Evgeny Prigozhin’s “media factory”.
Since 2012, forum participants have travelled to the Kaliningrad region to discuss the fate of Russia and the wider world. Members of the Kaliningrad branch of Transparency International – Russia have been the driving force, although the organisation itself isn’t officially involved. (Indeed, TI-R was recognised as a “foreign agent” in Russia in 2015.) This year, the forum was organised together with the Committee of Civic Initiatives and the Kaliningrad businessman Igor Pleshkov, who is also the chairman of the regional branch of liberal political party Yabloko.
After the formal part of the forum ended, police special forces burst into the hotel where the forum was being held, together with a media team. Three participants were detained during this show raid: Artyom Pronyushkin, Konstantin Sarvanidi and Andrey Veselyuk, who were all attending from Moscow.
For 20 hours, Pronyushkin, Sarvanidi and Veselyuk were unable to contact their families, nor their lawyers. Before the Kaliningrad police issued a statement on the special operation in Svetlogorsk, several media outlets reported that the participants had been detained on suspicion of drug-dealing. The RIAFAN news agency, which belongs to Kremlin oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin, published a video showing the raid. The headlines in the articles that were published immediately after the detentions underlined the connection between the Forum’s organisers and “drug dealers”. Many outlets emphasised the fact that Evgeny Roizman, the former mayor of Ekaterinburg known for his tough position on drugs, had attended the forum as a speaker.
Riot police leave the hotel where forum participants were staying, 16 September. Source: Andrei Kuznestov / Facebook. This information quickly made its way through Russian national and regional media, and a segment was also broadcast on state news programme Vesti 24. The fact that law enforcement’s suspicions were not confirmed, and that the whole operation turned out to be a failure in terms of results, was not reported. Not a single outlet has published a correction regarding the alleged link of the forum’s organisers with drug dealing.
Pronyushkin, Sarvanidi and Veselyuk were released the following day and returned to Moscow. None of them were charged with drug offences. Instead, they were charged with the administrative offence of refusing to undergo forensic examination — i.e. the only “crime” happened during the raid itself.
Artyom Pronyushkin, one of the men detained, is a Moscow political consultant, and previously worked as an advisor to a parliamentary deputy. Apart from the shock of being detained, these events will likely harm his reputation. “From the very start, we had no doubt that this investigation was political,” he tells me. “From the start, the masked police were talking about the forum, Transparency International, some sort of revolutionaries and so on.”
“A camera team from Moscow was also present with the police. The next day, on 17 September, we saw how this brigade went back to Moscow. This raid was prepared in advance, it wasn’t part of a real investigation — it was just a show for the cameras. According to Russian law, and I think elsewhere, you need to have a warrant for the police to break into a residence, there should be a real suspicion and some kind of initial evidence, approved by a judge. It was clear that this was all being done for the show of it, we were handcuffed and placed on the floor, they beat us with truncheons, one of us was hit over the head with a pistol. And then everything ended in an administrative offence, as if we’d crossed the road in the wrong place.”
Police raid the three forum participants. Source: RIAFAN. Artyom, Konstantin and Andrey were interrogated separately, but they all understood the seriousness of the situation and refused to talk to interrogators without their lawyers being present. As a result, they refused to undergo forensic examination. And this refusal led to the administrative charge, which will be examined in Moscow.
The Forum’s organisers hope that this is the end of the investigation, although the risks associated with this event seem to increase every year.
“Practically every year there’s some sort of incident, which can be explained via external reasons, and which threatens our ability to carry out the forum itself,” says Ilya Shumanov, one of the organisers of the Kafka and Orwell Forum, and the deputy director of Transparency International – Russia. “Only the first forum came off without incident, we organised that event together with representatives of the authorities. The last forum, 2017, was also uneventful. Prior to that, we’ve lost electricity, the owners of the venue have received calls asking them not to rent us the space. And then in 2015, there were some Cossacks who attacked the forum. This year, though, was unprecedented in terms of the scale of provocation.”
“This complicates the understanding of how to work with Russia, how to build dialogue, given that Russia has a big problem with dialogue towards external actors right now. As it turns out, the country can’t build a dialogue with internal actors either,” says Shumanov. “Dialogue is held with the help of police special forces, truncheons, TV cameras and discrediting representatives of civil society. And this a cycle, not just one event. This is a whole cycle [of events] and the tension is rising.”
The problems facing the Kafka and Orwell Forum are far from unique in Russia. Attempts to curtail free discussion in public have long become part of Russia’s civic landscape. Pressure on owners and managers of venues where civic events are held is an everyday occurrence. But now Russian law enforcement are increasingly involved in trying to control public discourse.
Take the situation facing the Russian counter-culture zine moloko plus. In July, the police stopped a presentation of a new issue of the zine in Krasnodar, and its founder Pavel Nikulin was detained in the process. This situation was repeated in Nizhny Novgorod on 16 September.
Russian journalist Oleg Kashin, who grew up in Kaliningrad, spoke at the Kafka and Orwell Forum in 2015. Indeed, the Cossack troupe attacked the forum during his presentation.
“I’m sure that the order to target the forum comes from Moscow, the federal level,” Kashin comments. “For Kaliningrad, this is an event of local politician Igor Pleshkov, a businessman connected to Yabloko. He has political ambitions, he’s had a conflict with the regional authorities, and the forum and Pleskhov personally have been attacked before on the local level — he’s had his windows smashed at home, a pig’s head and a grenade have been left. Cossacks visited the forum when I spoke there. All this has the mark of provincial political technologists. But when there’s police officers in balaclavas, this is a federal-level job. For Moscow, this forum is a Transparency International event. And Transparency International is a ‘foreign agent’ and potentially hostile organisation.”
By contrast, quite a different atmosphere could be felt at another forum held in Kaliningrad last week. The “Community” forum was organised by Russia’s Civic Chamber, and included the governor of Kaliningrad among its participants. Discussions at both events may have touched on similar themes, but the “official” event did not attract the attention of Russian law enforcement, and pro-government media covered it in a positive light. It’s fine to talk publicly about civic activism and engaging citizens in governing the country, it’s just not everyone is allowed — e.g. Russia’s liberal community, and definitely not “foreign agents”. Even if their conclusions overlap.