MOSCOW — Ivan Golunov’s fate appeared all but sealed.
The Russian investigative reporter, known for his work exposing corruption in Moscow City Hall, disappeared on Thursday, June 6, shortly after filing a story detailing shady dealings in the Russian funeral industry. More than 12 hours later, he emerged in police custody, having been beaten after he refused to sign a confession, according to his lawyer.
Golunov was charged with narcotics trafficking, with arresting officers claiming they found bags of an unidentified substance in his backpack when he was detained outside a Moscow metro station, along with scales and laboratory equipment in his apartment following a police raid.
The charges didn’t add up. The Moscow journalism community is tight-knit, and Golunov is well-respected within it. No one who knew him believed he was running a drug manufacturing operation out of his small one-room Moscow apartment. Everyone believed, instead, that Golunov — who works for a fiercely independent online outlet called Meduza — was being framed for his work, which focuses on corruption in the Moscow government.
Using trumped-up drug charges to silence critics is nothing new for Russian authorities, but what happened next may be without precedent: Following public outrage protests on the streets of Moscow over the treatment of Golunov, the Kremlin, and Putin, were forced to tacitly admitted a mistake was made. One day after the Kremlin issued its first statement on the case, Moscow police dropped all charges against Golunov. The officers responsible for his arrest were suspended pending investigation. And on Thursday, Putin fired the head of the Moscow police counter-narcotics unit and the head of the district where Golunov was arrested.
It was hailed as a major victory for Russian civil society, demonstrating both the limits of public tolerance of official corruption and the circumstances under which Putin’s regime would back down to popular pressure. More importantly, it suggested that Putin’s system is weakening, with corrupt cops brazenly fighting to protect what’s theirs and fed-up citizens looking for cracks to exploit. The Kremlin, caught in the middle, is struggling to manage the situation.
“The reality is that Russia has horrible drug laws, and thousands of people are in jail on bogus drug charges”
“No one will ever be the same again,” wrote journalist Oleg Kashin in an op-ed published by online outlet Republic. “The important and truly historic precedent is that the system has learned to hand over its own. The basic principle of the Putin regime has been violated.”
Among the reasons Golunov’s case galvanized the public has to do with one of the most popular weapons used by corrupt mid-level officials in Russia: Article 228 of the criminal code, detailing penalties for drug possession and distribution. These laws are widely abused by police officers across the country to frame business competitors, critics, or just random citizens to meet department quotas. (The conviction rate, according to The New Times, an opposition-learning Russian-language magazine, is 99.6 percent.).
In recent years, a number of high-profile figures have been charged and sentenced for possession or distribution including Chechen human rights activist Oyub Titiev, who earlier this year was sentenced to four years in a penal colony after authorities claimed to find marijuana in his car.
“The reality is that Russia has horrible drug laws, and thousands of people are in jail on bogus drug charges,” Alexey Kovalev, Golunov’s editor, told VICE News. “We received a lot of stories from ordinary people that sounded, almost word for word, like Ivan’s case.”
Golunov’s case — initiated under Article 228 — became an unlikely rallying cry for Russians increasingly fed up with a corrupt system.
Following Golunov’s arrest, demonstrators began picketing outside Moscow police headquarters and did not let up for days. State media personalities, in an unexpected move, took up the mantle as well. Artists and musicians spread the word to their own audiences across the country.
Sentiment hit critical mass on Monday, when three of the nation’s most influential daily newspapers ran identical front-page editorials declaring “I am/We are Ivan Golunov.” For the very first time, the entire Russian-language journalism scene was standing together in solidarity against an attack on one of their own. The message sent by the papers was clear: what happened to Golunov could happen to any of us, even non-journalists.
The people, it seemed, heard the message loud and clear. Copies of the newspapers, collected in sets of three, sold out from Moscow newsstands by lunchtime Monday.
Already struggling to address public discontent ranging from altering pension ages to trash dumps poisoning small villages, the Kremlin could ignore the Golunov situation no longer. As the three newspapers sold out, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that Putin had seen them and was briefed on the situation. He added that the case raised many questions.
Though the Kremlin is engaged in a constant balancing act between appeasing corrupt state apparatchiks at various levels and managing public anger towards those officials, there is a generally understood foundational rule: never be seen to bend to public pressure. And yet that’s exactly what Putin appeared to do.
“Civil society is reawakening”
The question now is, what comes next? Golunov’s freedom has shown Russians that solidarity and pressure on the authorities can produce results, and some have speculated in the aftermath of the journalist’s release that a page had been turned in Putin’s reign.
This idea was bolstered by the news that the Chechen human rights activist, Titiev, also believed to have been framed, was now being released on parole.
But some Russian experts caution that less has changed than some might think.
“The good news is that civil society is reawakening,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow think tank. “But the reversal is very pragmatic, nothing more. The Kremlin doesn’t want to have unrest because some police officers were trying to solve their own personal problems. The day after Golunov’s release, we can see the same level of political cruelty as before.”
Indeed when Golunov’s supporters gathered on June 12 for an unauthorized protest against police misconduct, the police were given a free hand to take their revenge by detaining more than 500 people out of a crowd of around 2,000. So far, on this matter, the Kremlin has been silent.
“This was an effort to demonstrate that nothing has changed, and that Golunov’s case was an isolated one,” Kolesnikov says.
“What happened to Ivan is happening to thousands of people“
Kovalev, Golunov’s editor, agrees.
“They had to give in because of the overwhelming response, but now they are trying to compartmentalize this to the precinct where Ivan was arrested,” Kovalev said. “But let’s hope that this all is going to at least lead to serious questions asked of the police about the problem of fake drug charges. What happened to Ivan is happening to thousands of people, and they cannot be unaware, at the upper-levels, of the scale of the problem.”
There is some indication that the government is waking up to the problem, or is at least spooked by its resonance with the public. Since Golunov’s release, Moscow’s political machine has already shown to be surprisingly receptive to easing drug laws. On Tuesday, in the State Duma, an organ that for years has been seen as little more than a rubber-stamp for Kremlin-approved laws, deputies began to mull a softening of Russia’s stringent drug codes
On June 13, a member of Russia’s Academy of Sciences appealed to Putin for a broad review of all cases opened under Article 228 and its related codes. Normally such calls would barely scratch the surface, but the Kremlin decided to acknowledge it — if only to say that Putin has not yet seen the letter.
Matthew Bodner is a journalist based in Moscow.
Cover: Prominent Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, cries as he leaves a Investigative Committee building in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, June 11, 2019. In a surprising turnaround, Russia's police chief on Tuesday dropped all charges against a prominent investigative reporter whose detention sparked public outrage and promised to go after the police officers who tried to frame the journalist as a drug-dealer. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)