Moscow threatens to block BBC over separatist interview

A Siberian independence march that was planned in Novosibirsk for 17 August  was banned by the Russian government yesterday. In parallel, authorities have threatened to block BCC’s Russian version over its reports on separatist protests and more precisely an interview of the march’s organiser, Artyom Loskutov. They declared his intervention "calls to mass unrest, extremist activities or participation in illegal public events", which is legally forbidden in the Russian Federation. The event contradicts Moscow’s recent support to independence movements in former Soviet states such as Ukraine and Moldova.

Blocking “extremist” contents

The Russian state media watchdog Roskomnadzor asked on August 4th for the removal of an interview of Artyom Loskutov, broadcasted on 31 July. The Russian artist and activist urged viewers to join a march in Novosibirsk in favour of the federalisation of Siberia, and greater independence from the central government. Although Russia is in theory a federalized state, political power is greatly centralized in practice, and Moscow largely controls appointments of regional governors. 

Control over local media has been increasingly tightened under the rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as underlined by this case. Warnings were issued by the prosecutor general  to fourteen different media agencies which covered the interview with Loskutov. News websites such as Ria Novosti and saw their coverage of the story taken down on Monday.  The event page published on Russia’s Vkontakte social network was also deleted. These decisions were taken although the rally had been forbidden by Novosibirsk mayor’s office “to ensure the inviolability of the constitutional order, territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Russian Federation," they announced yesterday. Russian lawmakers extended in June the December 2013 law against separatism that was until then limited to the public sphere. It aims at preventing "calls to mass unrest, extremist activities or participation in illegal public events" on internet and in news media. It increased the sanctions for spreading separatist views and violations of Russia’s territorial integrity through all means to a maximum of five years imprisonment.

The communication regulator also threatened to obstruct access to the entire Russian version of BBC. Western media had so far been spared. The British media outlet responded by denying it had any “plans to remove this interview from our website.” “Mr Loskutov is an artist and activist known for organising events which are, at first sight, parodies of political activity, but which also bring out serious issues about life in Russia,” they added. On the international scene, yesterday’s move against BCC could reinforce animosity between Russia and Western countries, which have increasingly criticised the Kremlin’s intervention in Ukraine and overall authoritarianism. 

Changing Siberia’s status

Loskutov said in his interview that the Novosibirsk demonstration had two priorities. First, denouncing the rhetoric used by the government. "They decided to tell us how great it is when some republic moves for self-determination. Can Siberia allow itself this same rhetoric? It turns out it can't,"  he explained. Second, highlighting Siberia’s delayed development compared to the rest of Russia. Indeed, despite large oil and gas resources,  its quality of life ratings remain far lower than other Russian areas and big cities such as Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Dmitry Zhuravlyov, director of the Institute for Regional Problems based in Moscow explains that "[The protest’s organisers] want to have more control over the riches of Siberia, and that is understandable. But what is unacceptable to Russia is that this whole idea goes against the Constitution. You cannot change the status of your region just like that." If separation from Russia is unlikely to happen, redistribution of tax earnings organisation should be modified. Since the beginning of the 2000s financial help allocation was only decided by  the federal government. “[Reforms] need to be done for the sake of all regions, not only for Siberia," Zhuravlyov concluded.

Reaction to West sanctions

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen denounced on  August 5th Russia’s involvement in “[stirring] up conflict in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, and [challenging] the rules-based international order.” In addition, Washington and Kiev denounced the double standard used by Moscow, saying it provides arms and funding to separatist movements in eastern Ukraine while cracking down on similar activities at home.

As a response to recent US and EU sanctions, Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev announced yesterday that European flights over Siberia could be banned. "We should discuss possible retaliation," he said during a meeting. Its enforcement would force airlines to take costly routes to join Asian cities and further escalate diplomatic tension between both sides.

The interview of Artyom Loskutov can be found here (in Russian).

Sources : The Guardian I , Ria Novosti, Itar Tass, BBC Media Centre, The Guardian II, Reuters, Radio Free Europe, Kyiv Post, Financial Times, The Moscow Times, The Moscow News.

 Author : Laura Gounon


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