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Flurry Of U-Turns In Russian Criminal Cases Raises Questions About Kremlin's Intent

Are the U-turns signs of a thaw, or just image management ahead of Vladimir Putin's annual call-in show?
Are the U-turns signs of a thaw, or just image management ahead of Vladimir Putin's annual call-in show?

A leading investigative reporter walks free after dubious drug charges are dropped, a dogged rights defender is released in Chechnya, and a top aide to Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny is sprung from jail after his term is cut in half.

A series of abrupt U-turns in politically-charged criminal cases leaves Russians wondering what's going on: Is it a coincidence, a PR ploy ahead of President Vladimir Putin's annual call-in show on June 20, or the first signs of an actual thaw?

The answer, analysts suggest, is that it looks like a bit of the first two, mostly the second, and that whether a sea change is coming is unclear -- but it would take a lot more freedom to make for a bona-fide, lasting loosening of the screws in what may be Putin's final term in the Kremlin.

And whether or not the releases are an attempt to assuage tensions as part of the stage-setting for the Direct Line show, in which Putin seeks to connect with the people and create the image of a firm but fair tsar, they seem to reflect growing pressure on the Russian authorities to curb pervasive lawlessness and right perceived wrongs.

The most eye-catching development came in the case of Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist for the news outlet Meduza whose reports on corruption have raised hackles among authorities in Moscow.

Golunov was arrested on June 6 and charged with intention to sell illegal drugs in large amounts, an accusation that could have led to a 20-year prison sentence but was dismissed by friends and colleagues as a farce. In the days that followed, crowds of people -- many of them reporters, mostly in Moscow -- took to the streets to criticize what they said was clearly a fabricated case. The 36-year-old's editors accused police of targeting him in retaliation for his muckraking reporting, and said he was beaten in detention.

Five days later, the charges were dropped and Golunov was released from house arrest. Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev made the announcement, and Putin soon fired the two senior Moscow officers he recommended be dismissed.

Ivan Golunov talks to the press after being released on June 11.
Ivan Golunov talks to the press after being released on June 11.

Analysts said they did not see the upcoming call-in show, formally known as Direct Line With Vladimir Putin, as the direct trigger of the decision to drop the charges and free Golunov -- though it may have affected the timing.

Rushed Decision?

Golunov would have been released regardless of the spectacle of a national call-in show, says Tatyana Stanovaya, a political consultant who runs the think tank R.Politik, but it probably would not have happened so fast.

"They would make the same moves, but it would be more slowly and discussed at more length within the Kremlin," Stanovaya tells RFE/RL.

Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst who advised Putin for years and left the Kremlin in 2011, says that while Putin's administration seeks to defuse tension ahead of major presidential presentations -- he also gives an annual press conference and a state-of-the-nation speech -- the situation surrounding Golunov had to be addressed anyway, call-in or no call-in.

"Golunov was a serious event, a crisis issue -- no question," Pavlovsky says.

But other cases seen by Kremlin critics as politically motivated have also taken unexpected turns.

On June 18, Leonid Volkov, a top aide to Navalny -- who has built a formidable national following by railing against alleged corruption in circles close to Putin -- had his 15-day jail term cut in half and was freed by a Moscow court. He had been jailed for organizing a demonstration against an increase in the retirement age.

A day earlier, a court in St. Petersburg downgraded extortion charges against newspaper editor Igor Rudnikov and ordered him released. Rudnikov's colleagues said his arrest in 2017 was retaliation for material published by his newspaper about a top investigative official in the Kaliningrad region.

'Endless Arrests'

And a day before Golunov was freed, a court in Chechnya ordered early release for human rights activist Oyub Titiyev, the regional head of the rights group Memorial who was arrested in January 2018 by police who said they found marijuana in his car. Titiyev and Memorial said the drugs were planted to put him away and silence the rights group in Chechnya, but he was convicted and sentenced to four years in a penal colony in March.

Those cases -- and many others like them -- were for many Russians symptomatic of the arbitrariness of Russia's judicial system and its law enforcement agencies, said Olga Romanova, an activist who heads a civil-rights group called Russia Behind Bars.

"People are sick of endless arrests, trumped-up cases from which no one is safe, police who must be feared more than a gang of thugs in a dark alley, investigators who don't investigate, prosecutors embroiled in commerce, and courts that don't care but simply stamp rulings that weren't decided by them," Romanova said in a commentary published earlier this month.

"People are sick of endless arrests, trumped-up cases from which no one is safe."
"People are sick of endless arrests, trumped-up cases from which no one is safe."

Putin may be under increasing pressure to change this -- or at least change the perception.

But Pavlovsky says that the releases of Golunov and others should be viewed in a different light from Putin's call-in show, which he calls a "completely different political instrument."

The marathon Q&A session, which is shown live on multiple channels and last year went on longer than four hours, is meant to show that Putin is "up to speed on everything in the country, and that he can resolve it all -- it's an instrument to build trust," Pavlovsky says. "He will demonstrate his closeness to the people. That's the most important goal: to prove that Putin is on the side of the people, not on the side of the bureaucrats."

Matter Of Trust

While his political position remains unrivaled, trust in Putin is exactly what recent polls by a state-funded public-opinion research outfit VTsIOM have shown to be declining. That was even after the pollster changed the wording of its question in order to achieve a more favorable-looking result.

Putin's administration faces other headwinds. The economy is weakening, wages are stagnating, and the national value-added tax was hiked in January. Russians took to the streets last year to protest the Kremlin's push to raise the retirement age.

The pension protests failed, unless you count a concession that many observers suspect was built in to make Putin look more charitable.

But in a sign of a shift in Russia, some more localized protests have prompted the authorities to back down -- most notably over plans for a Russian Orthodox cathedral in a park in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg.

In some ways, the climbdown by church and state in that dispute seems to fit well with the series of favorable court decisions in the cases of journalists, activists, and politicians who challenge the authorities. But there are plenty of cases that don't fit in, and that give off no sign of a thaw.

The situation surrounding Michael Calvey, an American equity-fund founder who was detained along with several colleagues in February on suspicion of fraud, may be somewhere in between.

Calvey's case brought vocal criticism of law enforcement from business leaders and even officials as prominent as Aleksei Kudrin, the Audit Chamber chief and longtime former finance minister who called Calvey's jailing an "emergency" for the Russian economy. In April, the American was moved from pretrial detention to house arrest.

But the charges remain in place and Calvey was not permitted to attend the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum this month, casting a pall over a conference Putin uses to court foreign investment. Four of Calvey's colleagues, including Frenchman Philippe Delpal, remain behind bars.

And there has been no change in the status of other cases that have drawn condemnation inside and outside Russia over what critics say are arbitrary or politically motivated arrests and judicial proceedings.

'Who Is Responsible?'

Jehovah's Witnesses have faced major repression since the Supreme Court declared the religious group an extremist organization. Human Rights Watch said the campaign against the group showed "how a number of laws designed to counter violent extremism and terrorism use vague and expansive definitions that not only run counter to human rights norms but facilitate serious human rights violations."

Ukrainian director Oleh Sentsov is serving a 20-year prison term near the Arctic Circle following a conviction on charges supporters say was trumped-up as punishment for opposing Russia's seizure of Crimea. Activists say Crimean Tatars are being persecuted for similar reasons, including in a wave of recent arrests. Two dozen Ukrainian seamen whose boats were seized near the Russian-controlled peninsula in November remain in a Moscow jail facing trial.

And even Golunov's release came with a sizable caveat: When Russians demonstrated in Moscow the next day to press for more of the same, police cracked down, detaining more than 530 people.

Both abroad and in Russia, Putin's call-in show will be watched for statements, signals, and hints about and how he plans to handle public discontent and what comes next -- a loosening or tightening of the screws.

"For the Kremlin, it is not just social discontent. It is a question of responsibility, who is responsible for this new normal? Who is responsible?" Stanovaya says. "When the regime faces new challenges and a new difficult situation, the infighting becomes harder."

The infighting pits the so-called siloviki -- members of the law enforcement, military, and security agencies -- against more bureaucratic, often-liberal-minded administration officials. And the infighting also reflects uncertainty, she says.

"Nobody knows what we are going to face tomorrow, what will happen tomorrow, in the economy, in social life, in political life," she says. "Everyone waits for Putin to make it clear, and again, not only for people, but for the senior officials who work with him every day."

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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