Russian prosecutors on Thursday were investigating a journalist who jokingly appealed to President Vladimir Putin to send troops to his region of Vologda to liberate its population from corrupt officials.
In a witty appeal posted on Facebook this month, Roman Romanenko, chief editor of a local newspaper, added the Kremlin would not face any international sanctions if it improved the lives of Russians in the region around the city of Vologda, located some 500 kilometres (300 miles) to the northeast of Moscow.
A spokeswoman for the Vologda prosecutors, Oxana Vinogradova, told AFP that investigators were conducting a probe into the journalist’s appeal “in accordance with the requirements of the current legislation”.
The probe has been launched following a request of Vologda region governor Oleg Kuvshinnikov, she added.
Romanenko posted the bitterly ironic joke on Facebook after Putin sent troops to Ukraine’s Russian-speaking peninsula of Crimea, noting Moscow needed to protect compatriots following a popular uprising in Kiev.
Speaking to AFP, Romanenko said he had been questioned by investigators on Monday, noting that the entire conversation was awkward.
“It’s like trying to explain a joke to a man without a sense of humour,” he said.
Romanenko, who is chief editor of Vologda’s Premier newspaper, said that even though he realised that it would be difficult to prosecute him over the joke, he was still concerned.
“I am seeing the worsening atmosphere in Russia,” he said. “It reminds me of the time of my parents’ youth,” he noted, referring to the Soviet times when authorities brooked no dissent.
– Letter went viral –
His humorous but sarcastic letter written on behalf of “the residents of the Vologda region” went viral on the Russian Internet and was also published on the website of top opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
“Everyone here is a Russian speaker and our rights are severely violated,” the letter said.
“Our sick cannot get the medicine and treatment they need, the level of our education is decreasing every year, children’s clubs and interest groups are closing, (and) agriculture has virtually been destroyed.
“We are suffering a lot.”
“But the occupiers, who have seized power with the help of dishonest elections, are not doing anything for the conquered people.”
“We would be very grateful to you and can guarantee that there won’t be any guerilla war against liberators,” he said.
The letter also asked whether it would be possible to spend the money earmarked for improving the lives of people in Crimea on medicine and education in the Vologda region.
The day he was questioned derogatory graffiti reading “Stop Maidan” appeared on the door of his apartment in Vologda.
The Maidan is a Ukrainian name for Kiev’s Independence Square which has become the focal point of a popular uprising that ousted Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych from power last month.
Leaflets calling the journalist “a Ukrainian” and “a Jew” and urging his neighbours to be vigilant were stuffed in the mailboxes of his apartment building.
The probe comes amid an ongoing crackdown on independent online media, the last bastion of free speech in Russia.
In a historic address marking Russia’s taking of Crimea, Putin this week warned of a “fifth column,” referring to his critics.