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The Case of Mikhail Savva

9 January 2014

By Leonid Nikitinsky

Source: Novaya gazeta

Photo Mikhail Savva: (c) Evgeny Titov, Novaya gazeta

Playing at ‘American spies’ and Olympic Games: why the Krasnodar FSB decided to put behind bars the region’s foremost expert on ethnic conflict 

On 4 December Elena Savva, wife of university teacher Mikhail Savva, who at that time had been held on remand for 8 months, returned home from the university earlier than usual. There was a call at the apartment’s intercom, and she went to the door, not expecting anything good. Through the peep-hole she could see her husband, standing surrounded by three police officers. That is how, to everyone’s amazement, the release of Mikhail Savva, charged with theft of part of a local government grant, took place. True, for the time being he remains under house arrest.

At that time, discussion of the future amnesty had only just begun in the Kremlin. It seemed that the amnesty would not apply to any of the defendants in the Bolotnaya case, and no one had any idea that Khodorkovsky might be pardoned any time soon. The transfer of Savva from pre-trial detention to house arrest was the first indication of a certain relaxation in political repression, although we do not know how long it might last.

At the same time it was announced in Krasnodar that the judge, who had over several months drawn near to announcing a final judgment in the case, had fallen ill. Now Savva’s case would be heard by a new judge, Popova. Many expected that she would send the materials of the case back to be reviewed again by the prosecutors, all the more so since there were unanswered questions about these materials. But on 25 December the district court began to hear Savva’s case afresh from the very beginning.

True, Savva has no right to communicate at home with his daughter, who recently gave him a grandson, but to get around the law Elena Savva takes the baby in her arms from her daughter on the stairwell so that the professor can shake a rattle to make his grandson smile. House arrest is not pre-trial detention, and we can calmly and carefully sort out the case brought against Savva, something that no one has yet done in public. Why that hasn’t happened will be clear from what follows.

The charges

In August 2012 the governor of Krasnodar region, Tkachev, signed a decree ‘On subsidies (grants) <…> to support socially useful programmes of socially-oriented NGOs’. With only four months remaining before the end of the year, the regional government hurried to set up a commission to run the grant competition, and called for NGOs to submit proposals. The Southern Regional Resource Center (SRRC), where Savva worked as grant manager, applied for funding and won a grant with a project entitled ‘Peace Building (strengthening interethnic relations among the main diasporas and indigenous population of Krasnodar region).’ Initially the application, with a budget of approximately 600,000 roubles, proposed running a series of cultural and sports events, in which ethnic diasporas would take part.

The total budget for the grant competition (altogether about 30m roubles) turned out to be too much for the number of competent and promising applications. It was therefore decided to give those who had won grants additional funds for useful purposes. One of the members of the commission proposed giving SRRC an additional 345,000 roubles to conduct sociological research: measuring the ‘potential for socialization’, in other words the actual readiness of diasporas and the indigenous population to work together. Everyone in Krasnodar region knew who would be capable of organizing research of that kind in the three months that were left: Mikhail Savva, who had been studying interethnic relations in the region (as well as elsewhere) since the mid-1980s, that is, for more than a quarter of a century.

Savva himself had not asked for this money for research (in the upshot SRRC received 366,000 roubles), but, when he got a phone call from the regional government offering it, he of course agreed and SRRC submitted an extended project proposal. To conduct the research, sociologists were needed, and it was decided to outsource this part of the project to Pilot, a marketing agency. Savva reached an agreement on this with the director of Pilot, Viktoriya Remmler.

The corresponding part of the grant (366,000 roubles) under the contract with SRRC was paid in to Pilot’s account in two tranches, in November and December 2012. Remmler took the money from the account via ATMs. According to Remmler, all this money, except for a deduction of 100,000 roubles, she gave to Savva (there are no witnesses of this). But in the charges brought by prosecutors, there are two mutually exclusive versions: in one place the investigators assert that the research had not been done at all, and in another they say that it was conducted, but was paid for by Remmler from another source – out of money belonging to the Centre for Social and Marketing Research, of which she is also director.

The evidence

On 12 April 2013, at 5 in the morning, Viktoriya Remmler was taken off a train in mid-journey as she was returning to Krasnodar, and brought to an FSB investigation centre. She was allowed to leave that evening only on condition she would not leave the city after she had admitted guilt and given the evidence described above. The same day after a search at his home, Professor Savva was detained, but he did not admit his guilt and was held on remand.

Viktoriya Remmler (who had been in the same year as Savva and his wife studying history at university) did not deny her testimony in court, but did not confirm it either, relying on Article 51 of the Constitution which lays down the right not to testify against oneself. However, the questions that the defence and Savva wanted to ask her related not so much to her, but rather to his fate and reputation. Until the present time the court has denied Savva the right to defend himself by pointing out the inconsistencies in Remmler’s testimony. And even during the investigation for some reason there has been no face-to-face meeting between the two of them.

All the evidence of the case against Savva is based exclusively on the verbal testimony of Remmler, plus records from ATMs, but all the other documents in the case support the arguments of the defence. Despite requests by Savva’s lawyer, the prosecution did not conduct an independent financial audit of the two limited companies headed by Vikoriya Remmler. Moreover, such an audit could give answers, if not to the question from what sources the research was paid for, then as to the reason why Remmler should give such strange testimony.

Remmler’s two limited companies were staffed by the same people. There was only one difference between them: the first (Centre of Social and Marketing Research) produced its accounts in the usual way, and the second (Pilot) according to the simplified system of tax payments. By taking orders via the Centre, but passing the expenses and profits through Pilot, it is possible that Remmler in part avoided paying taxes. Not that there is anything extraordinary in this. But in order to frighten someone, all the more someone who no longer has the bravado of youth, it’s enough. Moreover, there were reports in the press that Remmler’s daughter, with whom she also worked, had been threatened.

It is interesting that the court could have decided not to hold Remmler on remand, since she was the head of a commercial enterprise. As a businessperson, the general ban on pre-trial detention in economic cases would apply to her. Yet in the same case Professor Savva, who is prosecuted in his role as manager of a non-profit, has spent 8 months behind bars, despite the fact that the sum of which he has been accused of stealing (for example in comparison with the Olympic construction projects in Sochi) is of no size at all, and bail would surely have been appropriate.

The defence

The main argument of the defence is that, in the absence of any harm to the regional administration that made the grant, it is not in principle possible to talk of the theft of this money. After all, all the work that was supposed to be done was done, and indeed done well.

In accordance with the grant proposal, mediators in ethnic conflict were trained, concerts and meetings were held, and a major football match involving teams of various ethnic groups took place in Krasnodar on the Day of National Unity. A brochure on the methodology for preventing inter-ethnic conflict was published and distributed, and at the end of December 2012 Mikhail Savva, together with representatives of the regional government, travelled to Moscow to receive a diploma for winning first place in the All-Russian Festival of Social Programmes.

The sociological research was also carried out, and this had come to interesting and important conclusions. The report on the research was bound and sent to the regional government. This report was added to the materials of the criminal case, along with 600 questionnaires filled out by interviewers in 12 villages and towns (the defence holds that there were 800 questionnaires). According to Remmler, for each questionnaire Pilot paid between 80 and 150 roubles, and altogether ‘about 70,000 roubles’ were spent. However, the prosecution did not even subtract these sums from the total amount allegedly ‘stolen’, and Savva and Remmler are accused of conspiring to steal the whole sum allotted to the project research: 366,000 roubles.

Without taking into consideration the costs of project-related travel, other costs that should have been taken into account include the preparation of research methodology, the development of the questionnaires, the entry of data and its analysis, development of conclusions, the writing of the report, and finally the cost of printing and binding the report itself. It was only during her second interrogation in May 2013 that Remmler explained that this part of the work was paid for by the Centre for Social and Marketing Research. But Remmler could not give a clear explanation for either the motives nor the financial sources of this ‘second donation’ by the commercial company. After all, if this had been done for the purpose of ‘stealing the grant’, then what we have is an exchange of like for like: ‘the vodka was sold, and the money was spent on drink’.

Apart from the contradictions listed, Mikhail Savva’s lawyer Marina Dubrovina from Novorossiisk says the charges have not been brought under the appropriate article of the Criminal Code. The Article used, ‘Fraud in receiving payment’ (Article 159-2) was recently introduced into the Criminal Code, if one reads a little further than just its title, concerns theft (by means of giving inaccurate information about oneself as an individual) of social payments, in other words pensions, benefits, maternity payments, and so on. Why the Krasnodar FSB decided that the grant given to the NGO (a legal person) is a ‘social payment’, remains unclear, as does much else in this absolutely artificially created construction.

A Half-Defence (the author's version)

On 25 December, in the corridor of the court, I was able to shake Mikhail Savva's hand but I could not speak with him, since house arrest also means isolation. The version I myself am about to put forward does not agree with Savva's and, more importantly, he will probably not like it very much. If it had been possible to rely on the presumption of innocence in the Krasnodar Court, and in a politically-motivated case come to that, then the absurdity of the charge would have been enough. But for readers, including those who are taking politically-motivated decisions in the Savva case, I think it is important to emphasise that there was no mystery here for either the investigators or the judges from the very beginning.

I suspect that Victoria Remmler is not even lying when she says she gave some money to Savva. What she does not want to talk about, ruining a former classmate and using Article 51 of the Constitution to cover herself, is the fact that he earned this money. Professor Savva (I believe) developed the methodology, the sampling and the questionnaires, and wrote a substantial part of the report. Nobody except him spent three months doing this, nor would they have been able to. But Remmler could not sign a formal contract with him since according to the rules of non-governmental grants, which are often absurd, this would have been called "a conflict of interests" (but by no means theft). All of this was clear to everyone involved from the very beginning, including the regional administration and the competition committee. They are now keeping silent about it, and Professor Savva has already spent eight months in a pre-trial detention centre for "theft".

Indeed, by persecuting NGOs and labelling them "foreign agents", the government has reduced the most honest and unselfish of them to poverty and is pushing them to the margins, where they are being forced to resort to petty tricks to survive. And in reality, it is unlikely that the Krasnodar regional FSB were so naive as to look for kickbacks here and not in Sochi. The cost of the work as stated in the Southern Regional Resource Centre's application was not excessive but, on the contrary, was humiliatingly low, since for a subject of such paramount importance as interethnic conflicts, and this includes from the point of view of state security agencies, the government could not find any more money for a unique expert in the field like Mikhail Savva.

The course of Mikhail Savva's career 

Mikhail Savva was never someone, as they say, who opposed the State. After graduating from the history faculty of Kuban State University in 1989 and graduate school by correspondence at the sociology faculty of Moscow State University in 1991, Savva did research into the ethnic relations, and held a series of posts in region’s Council of People’s Deputies, the regional government, and the Federal Ministry on Ethnic Minorities. His career in government ended in 2001 when the country’s political direction changed. After this, Savva, already a doctor of political science (a degree he obtained from the Russian Academy of State Service in 2000), he went to work in the non-commercial sector, in the Southern Regional Resource Centre, while at the same time working as a part-time professor at Kuban State University.

Having been squeezed out of the government sphere into the non-profit sector, Savva continued to work on the same issues. Leaving government service gave him greater possibilities to study the experience in regulating ethnic relations in other countries, including the USA. At the same time, SRRC took on the role as a re-granter for the south of Russia and the republics of the North Caucasus for USAID – the US government agency for international development. In recent years Savva had travelled abroad a great deal, and in the Caucasus, where as an ethnologist he me with many ethnic groups and studied the invaluable historical experience of their good-neighbourly relations.

However, government bodies paid ever less attention to the advice of people such as Savva. President Putin entrusted delicate questions of inter-ethnic relations to quite another, and purely ‘law enforcement’, agency, whose work at that time, and since, has been completely ineffective. It is terrible to cite examples of this failure, but they are known to everyone, and the most recent is Volgograd. These failures, especially in the light of the forthcoming Olympics in Sochi, which lies in a geographical area exposed to such dangers, had to be blamed on some one. And here he is – the academic Savva: ‘an American spy’. It was not a big step, just a question of evidence, but it was high time to report on the destruction of the network of foreign spies in Krasnodar region, and, we do not doubt, such reports have already been made in the Kremlin without any fuss in the courts.

When in September 2012 the Russian authorities told the USA of the decision to close the agency down, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the Russian objections to the agency’s activities in these terms: ‘We are talking about attempts to influence political processes by means of the distribution of grants…The activities of USAID in the Russian regions have given rise to serious questions, especially in the North Caucasus.’ Possibly, in its classified part, the trial of Savva has served as an illustration of this statement, and it was in those terms that reports were delivered to Moscow. This means that, back in 2012, the fate of Savva was already sealed, just as the crackdown on other non-profits in Krasnodar was bound to follow.

According to lawyers acting for Mikhail Savva, the FSB talked with him about this issue many times, although informally, while he was in pre-trial detention. The CIA, without any doubt, does have a network of agents in the North Caucasus, what kind of security agency would it be otherwise? But to suppose that the CIA used the university teacher Savva as an agent, and supported him by means of very small and very transparent grants for non-profits, is nothing more than a poor quality spy story.

And now the biggest state secret is who gave the order to the court in Krasnodar (after all, without an order, this would never have happened) to transfer the ‘spy’ to house arrest. It wouldn’t have been Obama, would it?

Recruiting spies: who does it and how

Not so long ago a new head of the FSB in Krasnodar region was appointed. There followed a clampdown on the non-profit sphere of unprecedented ferocity (for more on this, see the report by Agora). So far as the prosecution of Mikhail Savva is concerned, despite the usual methods, in this case the FSB did not even use the Investigative Committee to do its dirty work, but sent a group of its own investigators to deal with the case.

I almost forgot to say that Mikhail Savva for good measure, as is often done in such cases, was charged with one more offence: stealing a university teacher’s six months’ salary to the sum of 71,722.08 roubles by means of forging evidence that he had given a 57-hour-long course, which in fact had been given by a colleague. However, a closer examination of the facts shows that this money was a university teacher’s total six-month salary combined with bonuses for the previous year and vacation pay, while in reality a university teacher receives in their bank account (if they work half-time) no more than 6,000–7,000 roubles a month.

Mikhail Savva, who had handed over this course a year earlier to a former graduate student, explains that his share in the total pay amounted perhaps to about 1,000 roubles. But he had never investigated how exactly the university would pay this sum, because it fact it was not beneath a university teacher’s dignity to do so. We shan’t look any further into this ourselves, but simply compare the pay of the FSB investigator, the head of the police station, of the prosecutor and the judge who are all engaged in the prosecution of Mikhail Savva, with the pay, let’s say, of all those teaching at Kuban State University. We’ll let the students draw the conclusions.

On 13 April 2013, a Saturday, students at the journalism faculty who attended another course given by Savva came to their lecture to find their teacher was not there. When they found out what had happened, almost all of them went to the courtroom where a decision had just been taken to remand Savva in custody.

Later this support group lost some of its members and took a slightly different form, but one of the journalism students initiated a website in support of Mikhail Savva, which she voluntarily runs to this day. Some of the teachers quietly complain to her that the university has insisted they must not give her pass marks. She naively fails to understand what she had gotten involved in, and whose enemy she has now become. For her part she thinks that to run a site for Mikhail Savva is her duty. Her name is Olya Zozulya, and Novaya gazeta will be extremely unhappy if she has meets any unpleasantnesses at the university.

Mikhail Savva had known this group for just a couple of months, but his wife Elena had noticed Olya Zozulya earlier, but only as a very able student, with no indication that she was someone inclined to be involved in protests. To whom should we be grateful for the miraculous appearance of such young people in the scorched earth they have created? Surely not the FSB?

This article was originally published under the title 'Professor Savva’s Head', a reference to ‘Professor Dowell's Head’ a 1925 science fiction novel by Russian author Alexander Belyayev.