How Vladimir Putin Backed Down Over a Journalist’s Arrest

Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov was charged with attempted drug dealing.

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Why you should care

Because this is a rare victory for Russia’s independent press.

The pieces of evidence were blatantly fabricated but when Russian investigative reporter Ivan Golunov was arraigned in a Moscow court this month on charges of drug dealing, he expected the worst.

“I never thought I would be present at my own funeral,” he said, between sobs.

Then the unthinkable happened. Three days later, the 36-year-old journalist was free — and the police officers who had framed him were the ones under investigation.

The Kremlin’s unprecedented U-turn in response to widespread public outrage at the case marked both a rare victory for Russia’s beleaguered independent media and a triumph for civil society and public discourse that has been suffocated under President Vladimir Putin’s almost two-decade rule.

The release of Golunov emboldens Russia’s non-systemic opposition to demand more and to cede less. 

Tatiana Stanovaya, founder, R Politik

It also underscored the nervousness among those in power in Russia at the threat of popular unrest and protest, at a time when Putin’s ratings are at historic lows and years of tepid economic growth and declining living standards have eroded public confidence in the authorities.

“The Kremlin conceded not because they understood it was important, but because not doing so would have harmed Putin’s position,” says Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of Russian political analysis firm R Politik.

Intimidation and assaults are a frequent feature of a journalist’s life in Russia. As a reporter for online outlet Meduza, Golunov, who uncovered the granting of luxury Moscow penthouses to senior city officials and extortion in the capital’s funeral business, said he had received threats. Four reporters are currently in prison, while 28 more have been killed since Putin came to power in 2000, including war reporter Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. As a comparison, nine journalists have been killed in the U.S. over the same period.

 

But Golunov’s arrest on June 6 touched a nerve among Russians that caught the Kremlin off guard, making him a lightning rod for disgruntled citizens irate at police impunity and official corruption, amid testing times for cash-strapped ordinary people.

The amateurish fake evidence against him, which included the publication of doctored and false photographs that police said showed a drug-production laboratory in his home, brought to the fore the harsh treatment of journalists by Russian police, the high number of drug prosecutions and the practice of fabricating evidence.

“The case against Golunov is over. But the case against the system in which such lawlessness became possible is just beginning,” wrote Maria Zheleznova, opinion editor of newspaper Vedomosti, in an article last week.

In a sign of how Golunov’s case has emboldened Russian citizens, a few thousand people took part in a protest march in Moscow on Wednesday against his treatment by the police, despite authorities warning it was an illegal demonstration. Police detained 549 protesters, according to OVD-Info, a monitoring website.

“The idea that we got our guy out and can all go home is very tempting, but it is wrong, because people were not just protesting for Golunov,” says Olga Mostinskaya, a local council member in western Moscow.

The shy, diffident reporter is an unlikely figurehead for a mass protest movement. He skipped the protest to spend time with his family. But his case has triggered wider discontent. Three of Russia’s biggest newspapers ran identical front pages on Monday declaring: “I am Ivan Golunov,” a slogan that was soon printed on T-shirts and placards.

As riot police violently dragged protesters into waiting trucks on Wednesday, just over a kilometer away in the Kremlin Putin was handing out medals at a ceremony. A reporter, Anna Luganskaya, the daughter of a pianist given an award, sat in the front row wearing one of the T-shirts.

The U-turn, and Putin’s subsequent sacking of two senior Moscow police officials, has been seen by some experts as a sign the Kremlin has become more responsive to social tensions amid popular anger at recent measures including tax increases and a raise to the pension age.

Senior Moscow city and police officials met a group of independent media editors soon after the arrest to hear their views, while Tatyana Moskalkova, Putin’s human rights ombudsman, made a detailed report to him on the inconsistencies of Golunov’s case.

It follows mass protests last month in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, against plans to raze a major park and replace it with a church, which forced the authorities — under pressure from Putin — to put the plan on ice.

But analysts suggested Golunov’s example differs from others detained in Russia in controversial cases such as U.S. private equity executive Michael Calvey or former Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev, whose accusers were politically connected figures, and who lacked the swift, well-coordinated public campaign calling for their release.

“The release of Golunov emboldens Russia’s non-systemic opposition to demand more and to cede less. Maybe we will observe more unsanctioned protests,” says Stanovaya. “And I am afraid that the Kremlin will want to suppress such attempts.”

The response to Wednesday’s protest suggested as much. Several of those detained were beaten with batons or arrested while standing around eating ice cream, activists said.

Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition politician, was one of those arrested. He said police told him he would be charged with organizing the protest and spend up to 30 days in jail, though he had no part in it.

“The authorities are terrified of the fantastic, unified expression of solidarity in the Golunov case. So they want to start by destroying solidarity, then scaring and arresting those who keep speaking up,” Navalny wrote on Twitter.

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By Henry Foy and Max Seddon

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