Putin Expands Definition of Treason in Russia
Kremlin gripped by spy mania continues to charge people with espionage and treason
Nowadays, under the word “treason” in Russia, you can fit anything you want, say Russian human rights activists.
The arrest of former journalist Ivan Safronov on charges of high treason drew international attention last week, but the arrest is only part of a Kremlin-sponsored “spy mania” in which more than just reporters and scientists can be declared traitors and spies.
The number of people accused and convicted of high treason and espionage in Russia has grown fivefold since 2011, with a noticeable acceleration after the Russian annexation of Ukrainian Crimea in 2014. According to the opposition website MediaZona, 12 people were convicted of espionage and high treason in Russia in 2009, and 62 last year. Of the more than 300 people accused of high treason, espionage or disclosing state secrets, since 2011 only one of the defendants managed to get an acquittal.
The Federal Security Service is feeling pressure from President Vladimir Putin to expose spies, political activists and commentators say.
“Every day we hear continually of new searches, detentions, arrests and criminal charges,” says Ilya Klishin, an opposition journalist and one of the organizers of the 2011-12 protests in Moscow, when people opposed election fraud..
“Perhaps there is no deeper logic behind all this than the desire to intimidate the population, to horrify them – in the truest sense of the word,” says an article that Klishin wrote for the English-language newspaper Moscow Times. “It has become a mechanical morning ritual: wake up and read the news to find out who the authorities have come to today “.
According to Klishin, the Russian authorities so far persecute mainly journalists and historians, but “everyone else may be the next” victim.
In fact, several people who can be categorized as “all others” have been charged with espionage in a series of bizarre arrests over the past few years. Among them are newlyweds who spent a year in prison on this charge..
Antonina Zimina was arrested in 2018, and her husband, Moscow lawyer Konstantin Antonets, was detained last year. They are accused of uncovering an FSB agent who acted undercover. Antonina’s father told the Kommersant newspaper that during Zimina’s wedding with Antonets, their friend, an FSB agent, got drunk, began telling those present about his work and taking pictures with the guests. Happy newlyweds sent pictures from the wedding to their friends, and they posted photos on social networks that featured the same agent..
Analysts believe that the persecution against Antonina and Konstantin is unlikely to be related to their professional activities, since Zimina worked as a consultant at a think tank founded by former Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev..
Another detainee is Oksana Sevastidi, a saleswoman in a store in Sochi, who was sentenced to seven years in prison for sending a text message to a friend in Georgia about a train she saw with military equipment. Sevastidi served two years in prison before Putin pardoned her amid public discontent.
“No spy mania”
Last week, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied claims that Moscow is gripped by spy mania and that the rise in arrests is a show of force to intimidate critics of the regime. “Compared to, for example, the US and the EU, there is no spy mania in Russia,” Peskov said, adding that he was unaware of the growing number of espionage cases in Russia..
“It’s not a secret for anyone that foreign intelligence services are not asleep on the territory of the Russian Federation, they work day and night against Russian civil servants and special services. Our counterintelligence is not asleep either, “Peskov said..
Russian journalists were shocked by the arrest of Ivan Safronov, communications advisor to the Russian space agency Roscosmos. Safronov denies accusations of selling military secrets to the Czech Republic and the United States. For many years he worked as a war correspondent for leading Russian newspapers. So far, the authorities have not presented evidence to support the charges against him of high treason..
Ivan Pavlov, a lawyer for the journalist, told Dozhd TV that the charges were related to Safronov’s previous reporting, and not to his work at the space agency, which he began in May. If found guilty, Safronov could be sentenced to 20 years in prison. After his arrest, dozens of journalists were detained in connection with solitary protests, most of them were released..
“Vladimir Putin has been in power for 20 years, and he doesn’t care what anyone thinks,” says one of Safronov’s supporters, journalist Grigory Pasko. In an interview with the BBC, he said: “Now there are no brakes; no restrictions. They can do what they want, how they want and whoever they want. ” In 1997, Pasko was charged with high treason in the form of espionage..
Safronov’s lawyer, in an interview with Meduza, suggested that the FSB switched to a different tactic – if scientists were persecuted several years ago, now it seems that the case has come to journalists.
Echoes of the past
The trends, however, are beginning to merge, Ilya Klishin believes. He says the Russian intelligence services seem to have even more cheered after the country’s constitution was amended to allow Putin to remain in power until 2036. Klishin believes that the special services have “doubled their activity”.
For some, treason-related arrests seem to be echoes, albeit faint ones, of the bloody thirties, when Joseph Stalin organized show trials against his enemies, intimidating an already intimidated population. Moscow show trials also helped fuel nationalist sentiment, making Russians feel like their country is under siege – feeling threatened not only by foreign ideological enemies, but also by the “fifth column” inside the country..