The swift release of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov from custody after unprecedented protests is a triumph of Russia’s increasingly confident civil society and press. The way it happened also tells us a lot about the worst fears of the Russian president.
Something quite unusual happened today in Russia. An investigative journalist, arrested on bogus drug charges just days before and tortured in custody, was promptly freed and all the charges against him were dropped following an unprecedented protest campaign on the streets and in the Russian media. When Ivan Golunov was released from custody, he was cheered by people around the world. Alas, even Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s usually vitriolic spokeswoman claimed that she was “moved to tears”. What is more, not only were the policemen who handled Golunov’s case immediately dismissed by interior minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev but the State Duma registered a bill aiming to relax the exact articles of the criminal code that were used to imprison the journalist.
First of all, it is great news that this is happening. Imprisoning activists and journalists on drug-related charges is one of the favorite methods of the authorities to crack down on dissent in former Soviet autocracies. Drugs are easy to plant; drug laws are usually draconian and the charges discredit the victim and their activities in the eyes of the population. A simple, ugly way of dealing with the enemies of the regime. The less opportunity the authorities have to abuse criminal law the better.
It is also great news that Golunov’s case led to such an outcry. Thousands of Russians waited in a queue to mount one-person pickets in front of the Interior Ministry (Russian law does not allow a bigger protest without a permit). On 10 June three of Russia’s leading newspapers, Kommersant, Vedomosti and RBK published identical front pages siding with Golunov. They claimed that they did not coordinate the move with their owners and that it was a spontaneous consequence of the realization that whatever happened to Golunov the week before might very well happen to them tomorrow. Kommersant was itself the center of a scandal related to the freedom of the press recently when two of its journalists were fired following the publication of rumors about Valentina Matvienko, the head of the Federal Council (who in this case was “concerned” about the mistrust that the handling of Golunov’s charges aroused in Russians).
Mark Galeotti likened the case – with the necessary caveats – to the murder of the Slovakian investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova last year, which prompted a backlash against political corruption and turned Slovakian politics on its head. I would add that Slovakia’s case showed how important ingrained positive experiences are for the functioning of a healthy civil society. Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989 and the toppling of Vladimir Meciar’s illiberal government in 1998, both of which required the dogged fight of a broad coalition of opposition forces and civil society, are living memory for most Slovaks. The first allowed them to transition to multi-party democracy; the second put Slovakia on track to EU accession. When Kuciak was gunned down for his investigative work, a lot of middle-class Slovakians knew what was in danger and what to do about it. What we have seen emerging in Russia in the past year from Volokolamsk through Yekaterinburg to Moscow might just be the bedrock of a more resilient and active engagement in politics.
But the good news end here. The policemen who violated Russian law in every possible way when arresting and torturing Golunov might have been fired, but those who ordered his arrest will hardly be brought to justice. And arrests like this can and probably will still happen. Leonid Volkov, the head of Alexey Navalny’s campaign was arrested as the world looked at Golunov’s case.
One thing seems certain: it was not Vladimir Putin who wanted Golunov arrested, nor did he give his blessing to the arrest. There are multiple signs to suggest this. First, the arrest happened during the St. Petersburg Economic Forum and got immediate international attention, embarrassing the president. Second, the case was resolved and closed so quickly and so over-eagerly that this itself suggests intervention from the president in favor of Golunov. The Proekt investigative outlet claimed on Monday that Putin wanted the case out of the way before his yearly Q&A show next week. Russia’s pro-government pundits went out of their way to show solidarity with Golunov. Rather than Putin, it was, as Aaron Schwartzbaum of Bear Market Brief pointed out, most likely a mid-tier member of the political elite; someone whom Golunov’s investigations personally offended (the son of interior minister Kolokoltsev being one of these people) and who felt entitled to take matters into their own hands.
And this is probably the most alarming lesson of the Golunov’s case for Vladimir Putin and the Russian political elite as a whole. As the president is increasingly withdrawing from day-to-day domestic politics and members of the political elite accept that this might indeed be Putin’s last presidential term with no one really knowing what comes after, increasingly members of the elite will feel entitled and pressed to settle scores, grab what they can and hedge for whatever comes. As more and more people with enough influence over state institutions to attack others feel at liberty to do whatever is not explicitly forbidden, the chances of dangerous overreaches like Golunov’s arrest will inevitably grow. Add to this an increasingly confident and disgruntled Russian population and you have an autocrat’s worst nightmare: a dark, crowded room full of anxious people with matches, any of whom can burn down the house.