Sunday, April 19, 2020

Kaliningrad Military Court Sentences BARS Activists to Lengthy Prison Terms

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 18 – Yesterday, a Kaliningrad military court sentenced four activists of the Baltic Avantgarde of the Russian Resistance (BARS) to lengthy prison terms: eight years in the case of Aleksandr Orshulevich, six years each to Igor Ivanov and Aleksandr Mamayev, and three years to Nikolay Sentsov, who was released because he, like the others, has been in detention since the fall of 2017.

            BARS, SeverReal journalist Yuliya Paramonova reports, is a marginal group of monarchists who follow the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. They’ve been accused of various things, including owning weapons and explosive substances, but the chief complaint is that they want to seize power and join Kaliningrad to the EU (

            After initially trying them in open court, the authorities closed the hearings because the defendants reported how the authorities were inventing evidence and using false witnesses via the Internet. Their supporters continue to speak out on their behalf but have not been able to attend the trial since February.

            The BARS activists were arrested during the peak of the anti-Germanism campaign the authorities in Kaliningrad launched four years ago, and they were immediately labeled fascists. But there is no evidence of that: their actions have been exclusively within the law and against issues like corruption.

            The activists do call themselves Russian nationalists but they also want to restore the historic name Koenigsberg to Kaliningrad and rebuild the German Royal Castle in the center of the city that was torn down in Soviet times.  Their lawyers say they will appeal their sentences as soon as they are given copies of them. 

            Over the last three years, this case has followed many twists and turns, although it has only rarely attracted attention in Moscow and the West.  That is unfortunate, Mikhail Feldman, a Kaliningrad journalist argued last fall, because it shows that Kaliningrad, long a testing ground for economic reform, now is playing “the very same role in criminal practice.”

            In the past, he observes, the authorities there and elsewhere generally felt compelled to follow the letter if not the spirit of the laws but this case shows that they do not any longer feel any need to do that. And consequently, this case may prove a bellwether for how the authorities will behave elsewhere (

            And that in turn means, he argued, on the basis of his analysis of what the powers that be in Kaliningrad have been doing in the case of the Baltic Avantgarde of the Russian Resistance, it is entirely correct to describe the Russian state as a terrorist organization that has become fundamentally illegitimate.

            Since the BARS activists were detained in 2017, Feldman points out, they have been the victims of tortures, threats, blackmail, and all the kinds of things associated with a criminal group but not with a normal government. Worse, the absurdity of the charges which keep changing is that what is going on is clearly an act of revenge, a mafia not state action.

            But if the tactics the Russian authorities have used over the last 30 months have changed little, he wrote, there have been three major shifts in overall strategy that should be noted and suggest a serious deterioration in what used to be called law enforcement by the powers that be in the Russian Federation.

           First of all, the BARS members have been charged and mistreated not for actions they have taken but on the bases of unconfirmed charges about their intentions.  That opens the way for anyone under the power of the Russian state to become a victim if it suits the purposes of those in charge.

            Second, two years ago and in most cases at that time, Feldman said, the police and the courts at least nodded in the direction of trying to come up with semi-plausible charges and to follow established procedure. Now, the authorities feel they can act however they like with impunity, again opening the way to a Hobbesian world or a totalitarian one.

            And third, the sentences that prosecutors have demanded and the courts are now handing down are increasingly draconian, far out of proportion to the crimes that the individuals supposedly have thought about committing but that the powers that be lack the ability to prove. They simply assert guilt and expect that to be accepted.

            Taken together, these shifts mean that the powers that be have shifted from trying to punish people after they act to “preventive frightening of society” so that no one will think about acting against the power vertical. Such actions are those of a criminal or terrorist group, not those of a state that follows its own declared laws.

            Moreover, the increasing proclivity of the authorities to detain someone and then extend and extend their period behind bars supposedly while an investigation is going on is little more than the taking of hostages, again the action of terrorist groups or mafia-type organizations rather than a legitimate state.

            But perhaps most disturbing is that the Russian pseudo-state is increasingly adopting laws that in and of themselves violate the constitution but that allow the powers that be to say they are acting legally and thus should not be condemned for their violations of the rights and freedoms of their citizens.

            That pattern, however, Feldman concludes, is confirmation of Cicero’s observation that “the closer to the collapse of an empire, the more insane its laws become.”

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