Eurasia Group | Journalist’s case shows how Russia is both improving and deteriorating

Journalist’s case shows how Russia is both improving and deteriorating

14 June 2019
Russian journalist Ivan Golunov meets the media in Moscow. REUTERS. Russian journalist Ivan Golunov meets the media in Moscow. REUTERS.
Ivan Golunov is a freelance journalist best known as a reporter for Meduza, an online newspaper based in Latvia. He was arrested in Moscow on 6 June and charged with carrying illegal drugs. Golunov is noted for investigating corruption, so it looks like someone had paid the police to plant drugs on him. The case caused a storm of protest on Russian social media, and the mainstream newspapers soon took up the cause. On 10 June, three major Russian newspapers—Vedomosti, Kommersant, and RBC Daily—published identical front-pages with the headline "I/We are Ivan Golunov" to show their solidarity.

The case soon collapsed: On 11 June, Golunov was released, and all charges dropped. President Vladimir Putin fired two police generals on 13 June—showing how this affair has sent shockwaves all the way up to the Kremlin.

Good news

In some ways, the Golunov affair is an encouraging sign of change in Russia. Journalists in Russia are often persecuted, and there is nothing new about police corruption or fabrication of evidence. But it is unusual for these actions to have wider political repercussions, which means that the injustices are seldom addressed. The backlash this time points to certain changes taking place in Russian society.

For example, it is unlikely the case would have had much resonance without social media. Widespread internet usage is a relatively recent phenomenon in Russia, and even today a majority of the population still rely more on traditional media, notably television (still tightly controlled by the state). But emboldened by the social media campaign, the treatment of the case by major Russian newspapers was also surprisingly unequivocal and defiant.

And bad news

At the same time, paradoxically, conditions have never been tougher for professional news gatherers in Putin's Russia. There have been several examples of journalists losing their jobs recently after they wrote articles that displeased people in power. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has backed ever more laws to restrict freedom of speech. It is even now a criminal offense to publish anything, including posts on the internet, deemed to be "disrespectful" of the authorities.

So while now, in a bid to curry public favor, Putin is displaying outrage at the actions of his corrupt police force, this behavior is hardly surprising in a society where for years dissent and criticism has been discouraged and even persecuted.

How serious are the protests?

Public dissatisfaction and defiance needs to be put into perspective. About two-thirds of the population says it still supports Putin. In fact, relatively few Russians have taken to the streets to express their outrage over Golunov's arrest: About 2,000 people attended a rally in Moscow on 12 June. Opposition and protest rallies in Russia generally tend to attract only a few thousand people, even in the capital city, so they are still very small by international standards. 

Nevertheless, the latest backlash has been sufficiently strong to cause worries in the Kremlin.  Putin knows well how in countries such as Ukraine in 2004 and 2013—or in eastern Europe, where he served as a KGB officer in the 1980s—protests gained critical mass with surprising momentum. His immediate dismissal of senior officers over the case shows he is growing sensitive to the public mood. Still, the Kremlin's inclination to clamp down further on media freedoms risks provoking more dissent in the long run.

The Calvey case

Michael Calvey, another high-profile victim of dubious criminal charges, remains under house arrest four months after his detention in February. Although not as likely to provoke popular protests as the persecution of a journalist like Golunov, the arrest of the prominent American investor has been a big shock not just to foreign investors in Russia, but also to many Russian businessmen. The case has been very damaging for Russia's international image and for this reason Calvey will probably be released eventually.

Nevertheless, Calvey's continuing detention illustrates that the rapid release of Golunov isn't necessarily a sign that similar injustices will be quickly reversed. In Golunov's case, the abuse of power by police looked so blatant that it was easy to take a stand against it, but this is usually harder in complex financial cases such as Calvey's. Another complicating factor is that Calvey is being investigated by the FSB, Russia's very powerful security service. At times, it looks like even Putin himself is unwilling or unable to stand up to abuses of power by the security services he depends on—another reason the Golunov affair is unlikely to mean that Russia has suddenly changed for the better.
LOUD WORLD. CLEAR SIGNAL. Signal is a newsletter on international affairs published four times a week by GZERO Media, a Eurasia Group company.
Eurasia Group Eurasia Senior Analyst Jason Bush.
Jason Bush specializes in the political economy, economic policy, reform prospects, and geopolitics of Eurasia, with a particular focus on Russia. Prior to joining Eurasia Group, he spent 15 years in Moscow, mostly as a senior economics correspondent at Reuters and Moscow bureau chief for Business Week.