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Analysis: Kremlin Climbdown On Golunov An 'Isolated' Success For Russian Civil Society


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.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.