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A 'Hard Rain': Five Takeaways From A Treason Charge In Russia

Ivan Safronov appears at a hearing at a court in Moscow on July 7.
Ivan Safronov appears at a hearing at a court in Moscow on July 7.

Prominent former defense reporter Ivan Safronov has been arrested and jailed in Moscow on a charge of treason, accused of passing state secrets to a NATO country that his lawyer says is the Czech Republic. Safronov denies the allegation, and former colleagues say it's absurd. Here's a look at possible motives and meanings behind the latest prosecution to rock Russia.

After The Vote

Safronov was detained by the Federal Security Service (FSB) on July 7, five days after President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on amendments to the constitution, including one that allows him to seek two more six-year terms in office after his current term expires in 2024.

As Russians cast ballots in a weeklong vote on the amendments whose result was never in doubt due to Putin's dominance and the Kremlin's control over political levers nationwide, several analysts predicted the changes would strengthen the hand of Russia's already powerful security establishment -- the "siloviki" -- and leave everyone else under increased risk of arbitrary prosecution, persecution, and the use of force by the authorities.

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Georgy Satarov, president of the Moscow think tank INDEM, told Current Time last week that contradictions in the amended constitution mean that it "no longer exists" in the normal sense, adding that "when the constitution ceases to exist, one thing remains: power."

Safronov's detention very quickly deepened those concerns.

"In light of Ivan Safronov's arrest on treason changes, v[ery] depressed to find how quickly my prediction at the end of my latest podcast -- that a hard rain's a-coming w[ith] a new campaign of repression -- seems to be coming true," Mark Galeotti, an author and expert on Russia's security services, wrote on Twitter.

A Cold Summer Climate

A longtime defense correspondent for prominent dailies Kommersant and Vedomosti, Safronov had changed careers less than two months ago, becoming an aide to the head of the state space agency, Roskosmos. But while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov suggested that the allegations had nothing to do with his past journalistic work, the timing laid out by a defense lawyer cast that claim into doubt. In any case, observers said the arrest sent a very clear and chilling signal to journalists.

In a Facebook post, Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist who has written extensively about the security services, called Safronov's arrest "a new level of repression" against reporters. And in an article in The Moscow Times on July 8, Soldatov wrote, "The FSB is applying its paranoid definition of espionage to journalists -- and is going out of its way to make sure everyone knows."

Safronov's arrest came less than 24 hours after a Russian court convicted journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva of "justifying terrorism" over a commentary she wrote about a suspected teenage suicide bomber who died in a blast outside the FSB offices in the northern city of Arkhangelsk. The suspected bomber had posted statements on social media accusing the FSB of tampering with criminal cases, and in her article Prokopyeva linked his remarks to the political climate under Putin. Her conviction was widely denounced as an attack on the freedom of speech and a fresh sign that the Russian authorities are seeking to silence those who question the authorities or attempt try to reveal uncomfortable truths.

That does not only apply to journalists.

"The experience of the last few years shows that any citizen of Russia whose work is connected with public activities -- whether it is a human rights defender, scientist, journalist, or employee of a state corporation -- can face a serious charge at any time," Kommersant, where Safronov worked from 2010 to 2019, said in a statement on its website on July 7.

The Same, But Different

Safronov's arrest revived memories of what to many seems like the long-ago prosecution of Ivan Golunov, a journalist who was detained in June 2019 on a narcotics charge that was later dropped, with police acknowledging that drugs were planted on him.

That unusual about-face came after fellow journalists and others mounted heavy pressure on the authorities over what supporters said was a blatantly falsified charge, and the collapse of the case was a powerful display of the influence that public protest can have.

The jailing of Safronov potentially set up a similar showdown between the authorities and the people, essentially. But rights activists and Kremlin critics fear that the authorities' unusual climbdown in the Golunov case was more an isolated incident fueled by pragmatism than a sign of a sea change.

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In any case, commentators point out that he faces a more severe charge and a more formidable opponent -- the FSB, rather than the police. And supporters of the jailed former defense reporter say that the state is playing by new rules, or lack thereof, in light of the constitutional changes and the prospect that Putin could remain president until 2036.

Chilly Czech-Russia Ties

The FSB claims Safronov provided classified information to the authorities of an unnamed NATO member-state. According to defense lawyer Ivan Pavlov, the specific accusation is that of passing information to the Czech Republic in 2017 about the Russian arms trade with "a Middle Eastern African country" -- wording that could refer to Egypt.

At least in part, the case could be a salvo in a persistent and bitter back-and-forth between Russia and the Czech Republic in recent months.

The spat has focused largely on monuments and memories -- particularly the legacy of World War II and Moscow's oppressive, decades-long domination of Czechoslovakia and other Soviet satellites. It has included an alleged Russian plot to poison Prague officials that the Czech prime minister later said was a hoax resulting from a bizarre dispute between two Russian diplomats.

With Putin and his government reluctant to accept criticism of the Soviet Union's actions before, during, or after World War II, the tension continues.

Wedge Issue?

According to Pavlov, investigators claim that the United States was the "final beneficiary" of the information that Safronov allegedly provided via the Internet to the NATO member -- that Washington at some point received the information from the Czech Republic.

That part of the allegation could be aimed at asserting -- as the Russian authorities often do -- that NATO's European members are mere pawns of the United States.

That suggests that the allegation against Safronov, or at least the way it is being presented, may be aimed in part at driving a wedge between NATO members or create tension between Washington and its European allies.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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