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Medvedev pardoned petty criminals along with spies

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

MOSCOW — At midnight last Thursday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree pardoning four Russians jailed for years because of their contacts with the West. The group was swiftly flown to Vienna and exchanged for 10 spies arrested in the United States just days earlier.

In far less dramatic fashion, and with none of the Cold War intrigue, Medvedev also pardoned 16 other people that night, most of them obscure petty criminals or corrupt local officials.

One was the director of a machine-tool plant who was removed from his post in May for failing to pay his employees. Another was a 25-year-old doing time for theft. Another was the deputy head of a committee overseeing local federal property who received six years of probation on July 8, 2004, for fraud and abuse of power — a sentence that ran out just as Medvedev signed his pardon.

This group had little in common with the Russian intelligence officers accused of selling state secrets to the CIA, and that might have been the point. Pardoning the seemingly random convicts along with the higher-profile group seemed to be an important tactical maneuver by the Kremlin to play down the spy incident and deflect accusations that the law was being applied selectively.

“This was the president showing that he is ready to pardon not only under extraordinary circumstances but is also willing to exercise his constitutional power,” said Alexey Makarkin, a political analyst with the Center for Political Technologies. “It was designed to show that any Russian can count on this option, not just a person for whom the U.S. asks.”

More complex cases were also in the mix, but none had anything to do with espionage. Sergey Ananyev of Smolensk, for instance, was hastily sentenced in 2003 to 15 years in jail for murder. He maintained his innocence after a trial that he was not allowed to attend. Last July, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in Ananyev’s favor and awarded him 2,000 euros.

Then there is the case of Ivan Vinogradov, a former paratrooper who was held in Butyrka, one of Moscow’s most notorious prisons, for shooting a police officer who wouldn’t accept a $2,000 bribe.

One day in October 2001, when his mother came to visit, Vinogradov approached a guard at the entrance to the visitors’ room, handed him a false ID and, wishing him a good day, walked out. He was caught three months later after a shootout with police and a foiled suicide attempt.

“They combined the cases in order to demonstrate that this is a normal pardon,” said Sergei Markov, a member of the lower house who chairs the parliament’s council on global politics. “They didn’t want to make this into a special case.”

According to Article 71 of the Russian constitution, the president has the power to grant pardons to citizens who appeal to him for clemency. During Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, a panel of rights activists and independent lawyers recommended cases for pardons or commutation of death sentences (Russia now has a moratorium on the death penalty). By the time he stepped down in 1999, Yeltsin had pardoned about 50,000 people.

Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin’s successor, briefly continued the practice but disbanded the panel in 2001 to stanch the torrent of pardons.

Today, pardons are granted to prisoners who have admitted guilt, served most of their sentence, exhibited good behavior or are somehow exceptional — a mother of many children, say, or a veteran (such as Vinogradov, who served in Afghanistan).

The prisoners appeal to the president through a regional committee, which passes its candidates for clemency up to the Kremlin. There, presidential advisers examine the materials and make nonbinding recommendations to the president.

“This is done on a regular basis,” said Lev Ponomaryov, a human rights activist with the Moscow Helsinki Group. “It is a necessary and important practice.”

Medvedev pardoned petty criminals, corrupt officials along with spies [WP]

A Russian-American’s Uneasy Return to Moscow

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

About a month ago, I came home to find an odd e-mail from Alexander Parkhomenko, a man I’ve never met. “Is everything really so bad in Russia?” he wrote.

I have been reporting from Moscow for the past six months, and Parkhomenko had been reading my work. He liked the stories, he said, “but one gets the sense that you were brought back here by sheer force to this hated country, back to the funny, stupid Russians, back to a horrible city unfit for life, and that your ‘love/hate relationship’ means mostly the latter.”

This was not the first time a Russian had attacked me — in an only-I-can-make-fun-of-my-family sort of way — for being critical of Russia, which to many people here is indistinguishable from hating Russia. But something about the way Parkhomenko cut to the central dilemma of my place in Russia shook me.

Because I am back. And — aside from the detail that I now live on the same street, in the same building, where I spent part of my childhood and from which my parents, Jewish refugees, took me almost exactly 20 years ago — I am back in a way that is very easy to resent.

I may have been born here, speak the language, and have Russian family and friends, but I no longer have Russian citizenship. Instead, I am back as a representative of the American press, the same institution that needles the Russians for their failures and their absurdities.

I am, in other words, a traitor.

I am not like the Chinese American or Indian American repats, thousands of whom have rushed back to propel the countries of their roots on their jet-packed upswings, enriching themselves along the way.

I am a Russian repat, and there aren’t that many of us. In fact, most people are moving in the opposite direction. According to a recent calculation, more people have emigrated during the alleged stability of the Vladimir Putin era than during the chaotic 1990s. Until last year, Russia ranked among the three countries that produced the most asylum-seekers. Last year, it made progress; it came in fourth.

Few of us are here to participate in something uplifting, a fact I realized by the time I had my first grumbling, fatalistic conversation with a local. A couple of weeks ago, for example, I had coffee with a spokesman for a Russian state corporation. First he asked if I really believed all the negative things I wrote about Russia and his company, or if it was the American editorial line. By the second cup, he was rolling his eyes at the kickbacks and bribes he knew were probably all over the company, and dismissing Russian sloganeering about modernization as “Potemkinism.”

If Russians don’t have much hope for this place, we Russian-born, American-bred returnees have even less. A fellow repat recently read Alexander Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” with her Russian-language teacher. When they got to the part expressing hopes that in 500 years the nation would have decent roads, they burst out laughing. “Onegin” was first published in 1825.

For those of us born here, the question of when Russia will catch up with its hopes is not that funny. Twenty years ago, on April 28, 1990, my parents — at 30 years old, just three years older than I am now — dropped their careers and their friends who gathered at the airport to sob, took their two little daughters and walked through passport control, relinquishing their citizenship forever. They took us away as a political statement about this nation’s chances of a bright future; to them, there would never be one.

Once safely in lush American suburbs, however, our parents sentimentalized the country they’d left — the culture, the language, the better table manners and the clear truth that we Russians won World War II virtually unaided. And like many expat children who hardly knew the place, I accidentally fell in love.

After a college class on Soviet history helped cement my obsession, I went back to Russia almost every year, until I decided to try living here.

But coming back is a luxury. Repats like myself love living here because we do so voluntarily; because we, with our blue passports, can leave whenever we want, because our parents had the foresight to do it for us.

We don’t have to get upset, the way my grandmother in Moscow does, that elections are doctored, because it is not our democracy that is being stolen. We don’t have to pay into the corruption that eats up, even by the government’s own estimates, one-third of the country’s budget.

Here, we live a charmed and parallel life. The extent became clear to me on a recent evening, when I sat in a Russian friend’s kitchen, buried in another dispiriting talk of how long the current incarnation of Russia could possibly last. Suddenly, her 3-year-old daughter ran in. My friend leaned down to hug her and murmured sadly into her hair, “Oh, daughter. What will become of us?”

Few repats I know of stay more than five years, and most of us will go back to our more stable, more protected, more predictable lives. Moscow will become a memory, a crazy story that over the years will become a riff repeated at cocktail parties until it becomes shiny from use. We’ll read the Russian news less and less, keep in touch less and less with our Russian friends who will still have to live here.

Of course, this rankles someone like Parkhomenko: You left, you lived your cushy American life, and now you’re here again, criticizing us before you scuttle back to your suburb?

A few days ago, I finally found the courage to respond. I explained that my job was to objectively report what I saw, not to flatter or berate. Then I asked: “How can you love Russia and ignore all its problems?”

He wrote back long and fast. He said he was now in Kazakhstan. Many of his friends had been arrested. “Believe me,” he wrote, “that what’s happening here corresponds to Moscow the way Moscow corresponds to New York.” He said he had quickly run into Kazakhs telling him to shut his sanctimonious mouth. But his reaction was a distinctly Russian one: It wasn’t his place to criticize, and, anyway, what could one man do?

“Eventually, I just became silent,” he wrote. “I can criticize the government, I can point out the inaccuracies, but I cannot say that my truth is better than theirs. Alas, everyone has their own. And if I can be helpful to them somehow by proposing what I think is right . . . I will be glad if they accept it. But they are in no way obligated to do this.”

But Kazakhstan is not Parkhomenko’s, at least not in the way that Russia is still mine, and will be indelibly.

The room where I write is where my great-grandmother spent the last years of her life. I am surrounded by remnants of her elegant china, by my grandfather’s art books. Every day, I pass the school — an ivory block, set back from the road — where I went to first grade. My mother went to school there, too.

These things have become part of my daily life again, and that is perhaps why Parkhomenko’s words jabbed so keenly. Yes, I am critical of Russia, but because I wish the country would meet the standards it sets for itself. I wish the government would stop comparing itself to Europe and the United States in one breath and proclaim its sacred exceptionalism in the next. I wish it would stop posturing and demanding respect, and simply command it with its actions, the way it showed it could when half the Polish government crashed into a Russian field.

I realize these are un-Russian sentiments, particularly in a country where 85 percent of adults, according to a recent poll, think they can do nothing to make an impression on their government.

But how can you love this place and remain politely silent, responding only if the Kremlin calls on you?

A Russian-American’s Uneasy Return to Moscow [Washington Post]