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Russian Journalist Released After Police Drop Charges
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Russian authorities appear to have bowed to public pressure to free an investigative reporter as they grapple with growing discontent over rampant corruption and falling living standards.

The June 11 decision to end a criminal investigation against Ivan Golunov on suspicion of attempting to sell drugs is a rare concession by Russian law enforcement, whose power has largely been unassailable under President Vladimir Putin.

Golunov, who exposed corruption among Moscow officials for the Latvian-based, Russia-focused news outlet Meduza, was released following protests and media outrage over what critics said were fabricated charges to silence him.

Nearly 25,000 people had signed up on Facebook to attend an unsanctioned rally in Moscow on June 12 -- a national holiday -- to demand his release. The illegal protest would have potentially set the stage for clashes with police just a week before Putin holds his annual call-in with the public.

However, Russia analysts have been quick to say that the reversal and Golunov’s release from house arrest do not imply a softening of the Kremlin's stance toward civil society or a strengthening of its fight against corruption. Authorities just a day earlier sentenced well-known activist Leonid Volkov to 15 days in jail for organizing a rally.

"The problem here is that this kind of success as in the case of Golunov is isolated. They don't accumulate to fundamentally change the system," Maria Snegovaya, a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis who focuses on Russian domestic politics, told RFE/RL.

Golunov was simply not important enough for authorities to sacrifice their public ratings over, Russia analysts said. Had high-ranking officials considered the reporter an enemy, then the protests would have been unlikely to stop the criminal case, Aleksei Makarkin, a political analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, told the Russian newspaper Vedomosti.

Golunov's release comes amid rising grievances over living standards after five years of stagnant economic growth caused in part by lower oil prices and Western sanctions.

Rising Social Anxiety

Russia last year also raised the retirement age, triggering an outcry among wide segments of the population and putting a dent into Putin's popularity ratings.

Public trust in Putin's leadership has sunk to its lowest level since he took power nearly 20 years ago, according to a May poll by state-financed agency VTsIOM.

At the same time, about a quarter of Russians are now willing to protest for better living standards and civic freedoms compared with less than 10 percent at the beginning of 2018, according to a survey last month by the independent polling agency Levada Center.

Russian authorities in the country's fourth-largest city scrapped plans to build an Orthodox church on a popular square after hundreds of disgruntled residents took to the streets to protest. Regional officials said they would find another location.

Golunov's release will let off some steam among the public, much as the decision to relocate the planned church in Yekaterinburg did, analysts said.

"The Kremlin is worried about rising social anxiety, falling disposable incomes, and people being unhappy. The decision in the Golunov case and in Yekaterinburg are examples of how the Kremlin attempts to manage these protests,'' Snegovaya said.

The Kremlin sought to end the Golunov case before June 20, when Putin hosts his annual call-in show in which he takes often choreographed calls from citizens, Proyekt, an online news website, wrote on June 10.

"The temperature of public displeasure needs to be reduced'' by the show date, Proyekt reported, citing people close to Putin's administration.

Show Of Solidarity

Golunov's arrest on what many saw as trumped-up drug charges that threatened to put him away for as long as 20 years may have hit home for many Russian citizens, helping spur outrage.

More than one-third of all Russians behind bars are serving prison terms for drug trafficking, according to the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily. Russian deputies plan to submit a bill to soften drug-possession sentencing, local media reported on June 11 following news of Golunov's release.

''This [Golunov's arrest] concerns everyone -- anyone could end up in his situation," said Ilya Varlamov, a popular Russian blogger, during a radio interview on June 10, adding that it was easy for police to abuse drug-trafficking laws to put someone away.

Oyub Titiyev, a civil rights activist in Chechnya, was arrested in 2018 on charges of possessing marijuana that he said were planted by authorities. Amid the outcry over Golunov, Russian authorities said on June 10 that they would grant Titiyev early release from a prison colony.

Golunov's release was also facilitated by camaraderie among Russian journalists. Vedomosti, Kommersant, and RBK, the country's top three newspapers, ran nearly identical front pages on June 10 titled "I Am/We Are Golunov," calling for the reporter's release and an investigation into the officers who detained him.

Such a show of solidarity didn't happen during past attacks on Russia's independent media, including state-owned Gazprom's takeover of NTV, the ousting of editor Galina Timchenko -- now executive editor at Meduza -- from Lenta, or when Novaya Gazeta investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya was murdered, said Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King's College London, in a June 9 tweet.

''Journalists in Russia have long lamented the lack of a sense of community -- of a [guild] that recognizes that when the state goes after one, it goes after all. It would be a stretch to say that things have changed. But there is reason to believe that they are changing," he said.

Reformist legislator Parvaneh Salahshuri cites lower-level gains but blames discrimination and sexism for an absence of women in leadership positions in parliament.

Iranian lawmaker Parvaneh Salahshuri, a sociologist, says that when she decided to apply for one of a handful of influential posts in parliament, she realized she didn't have a chance.

The reason, as the 55-year-old reformist sees it, is that she's a woman.

"The lawmakers saw it as a man's position and they wouldn't accept the presence of a woman," Salahshuri told the news site on June 7.

Salahshuri is one of 17 women voted into the 290-seat parliament in 2016, a record number in Iran since an Islamically fueled revolution ushered in conservative religious leadership four decades ago.

Women there routinely face legal and cultural discrimination that gives less weight to their testimony in court, bars them from many sports arenas, enforces a strict dress code, and in some cases bars them from traveling unaccompanied.

Salahshuri said she and other female lawmakers have faced added resistance from male colleagues, who have dismissed their proposals, pressured them for speaking out, and locked them out of senior positions.

Several women have made bids for senior positions on the parliamentary board in the past three years, but none successfully.

"In these situations, it becomes clear to what extent men are supportive of women and, more importantly, how much they believe in women," Salashshuri said.

She cited a proposal that would set a one-sixth quota for women on electoral lists but said it was "strongly" opposed by men.

Iranian women wearing the compulsory hijab walk down a street in the capital, Tehran. (file photo)
Iranian women wearing the compulsory hijab walk down a street in the capital, Tehran. (file photo)

President Hassan Rohani won election in 2013 on a platform of relative moderation, including calls for "equal opportunities for women" and a relaxation of some curbs on media. But his critics say he has mostly fallen short in both areas.

"The parliament is part of the discriminatory macrostructure of the country," Salahshuri said.

But she also said female lawmakers had successfully raised the collective voice of women while highlighting some of the issues they face, including compulsory Islamic dress, or the hijab.

A draft bill banning the marriage of girls under the age of 13 was rejected by the parliament's Judiciary Committee amid opposition by opponents of the bill who claimed it contravened Islamic law.

A bill was recently adopted that toughens punishment for acid attacks, which more often target women. But it still requires approval from the hard-line Guardians Council, a vetting body that exclusively comprises elderly men.

'We Suffer Every Day': An Acid-Attack Victim's Fight For Justice In Iran
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Salahshuri and her colleagues have proposed other measures, including a bill that could facilitate travel for female athletes and others to attend international cultural, scientific, and sports events outside the country.

Under Iranian law, women need the permission of their fathers or husbands to travel outside the country. In 2015, the husband of one Iranian soccer player refused to grant her permission to attend a tournament in Malaysia.

They have also pushed for a greater role for female judges who currently serve in an advisory capacity.

The outspoken Salahshuri has repeatedly been criticized for raising women's issues and calling for the release of opposition figures Mir Hossein Musavi, his wife, university professor Zahra Rahnavard, and reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi, all of whom have been under house arrest since 2011 for challenging the Iranian establishment and highlighting alleged human rights violations.

'It's Hard To Leave Everything Behind': Hijab Protester Flees Iran
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Salahshuri reportedly faced vicious online and offline attacks and sexual slurs for a September 2018 speech in which she criticized the lack of freedom in Iran, as well as poverty and corruption, and suggested that "military bodies" should not interfere in politics.

Her colleagues said at the time that Salahshuri had been "shocked" by the intensity of the verbal attacks she faced. A male colleague, Gholamreza Heydari, who had also been critical of state policies in a speech delivered the same day, was said to have been spared such attacks.

"The reactions were awful," lawmaker Tayebeh Siavoshi said, suggesting that "even common and uneducated men" feel more important than women in Iranian society.

"This society has not yet accepted the presence of women on the political scene or in the highest echelons of the establishment," Siavoshi told the semiofficial ISNA news agency in 2018.

Salahshuri told Khabaronline that she and her colleagues would continue to pursue women's issues in parliament.

"The system acts in a way that humiliates women," she said, adding that laws need to change to end such discrimination.

But she also suggested that there had been slow progress.

"I think we have managed to be effective to a certain extent, not fully," she said.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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