The authorities couldn't have scripted it better. The first high-profile test of a new law imposing stiff fines for unsanctioned public gatherings would involve none other than Garry Kasparov.
The former world chess champion turned opposition figure was detained outside a Moscow courthouse on August 17, the last day of the trial of three members of the feminist punk rock collective Pussy Riot. Kasparov said he was just speaking to journalists. Police said he was chanting "Down with the police state," "Russia without Putin," and other antigovernment slogans.
So they caught a pretty big fish. And few doubted, given Russia's servile courts, that Kasparov would be given a show trial. And few doubted that the show trial would result in a fine of up to $1,000 in accordance with the new law.
Enter Judge Yekaterina Veklich.
In the August 24 Power Vertical podcast
, my co-host Kirill Kobrin, managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian Service, said the following:
We can't say all Russian bureaucrats are corrupt, spoiled thieves. There are a lot of honest people who support the idea of a strong state and their attitude to all these tricks [is that] they are getting disgusted. Any honest bureaucrat, or a local police officer or judge, what do they think of this process? It's just shameful. Don't forget about the moral element in this.
Timely words indeed. Hours later, Veklich found Kasparov not guilty
“The facts recorded in the police report do not correspond to reality,” she said
in acquitting him.
Kasparov is now seeking to have the police who detained him brought up on criminal charges.
In preparing his defense, Kasparov gathered photographic and video evidence of the run-up to his detention to prove he wasn't shouting antigovernment slogans as police had alleged. He also used time stamps on photographs of his arrest to show that it took place more than an hour before the time listed in the police report -- bolstering his case that the police report was fabricated.
Moreover, journalists interviewing Kasparov when he was detained (including RFE/RL's Danila Galperovich) testified in his defense.
But none of that would have mattered if Veklich had acted according to the expected script. If she had not decided to issue her ruling based on the facts, rather than the political needs of the Kremlin.
As I have blogged here
and the Russian media has covered extensively, there has long been a deep division
in the elite between those who want to govern like it's 2007 and those who see a need to move on -- albeit slowly -- towards a more pluralistic approach. Most of this -- conflicts between shareholders and managers
and between siloviki and technocrats -- has focused on the upper echelons.
Just last week, Gazeta.ru
had a piece on a schism inside the Kremlin administration over the crackdown that followed Vladimir Putin's return to power. "Not everyone likes the harsh suppression of opposition and crude propaganda," the author, Yekaterina Vinokurova, wrote.
And the longer this split at the top persists, the more likely it will be reflected throughout the bureaucracy, in the law-enforcement community, and yes, in the courts.
"Those in Russian state bodies have a choice," Kobrin said during the podcast.
I suspect we will be seeing more and more officials like Judge Veklich surprising us in the future.
-- Brian Whitmore