Ivan Golunov, a journalist who worked for the independent website Meduza, sits in a cage in a court room in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, June 8, 2019. A prominent investigative journalist who was detained on drug-dealing charges in Russia.
Ivan Golunov, a journalist who worked for the independent website Meduza, sits in a cage in a court room in Moscow, June 8, 2019.

This story originated in VOA's Russian service.

Since last week's stunning reversal, when Russian officials abruptly scrapped drug charges against a prominent investigative reporter and then jailed the officers who fabricated them, the multitudes who rallied for his release seemed to revel in a brief victory over an often-repressive state apparatus.

But numerous regional experts say the unexpected — and unexpectedly swift — act of leniency had little to do with adherence to legal procedure or an expanding respect for a free press.

They say the sudden arrest, detention, and shockingly rapid release of Ivan Golunov, 36, whom Moscow police officers tried to frame with drug charges based on demonstrably false evidence, was fueled by a blend of internal Kremlin politics and burgeoning domestic crises.

"The first reason is internal conflicts and complexities in the Kremlin — some of which are visible on the surface, some not — among various groups governing Russia in Putin's name," media analyst Vasily Gatov of the University of Southern California told VOA. 

Prominent Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, greets colleagues and his supporters as he leaves an Investigative Committee building in Moscow, June 11, 2019.

The second reason is that Golunov's arrest by municipal police acting of their own volition meant Kremlin officials could call the officers to heel with minimal political fallout, thereby defusing an international scandal.

"In the last five or six years, there have regularly been situations when some mid-level security officers have done something that adversely affects Kremlin business, something 'above their pay grade.' When [these lower-level officials] overreach in wielding power, the system is typically ready to retreat," he said. "Maybe the target turns out to have sufficient resources to fight back ... there are such examples in the banking sector, in retail, even in real estate."

In this particular instance, Gatov added, it was President Vladimir Putin's chief of staff, Anton Vaino, who ordered Golunov's release.

"The internal affairs minister was simply forced to submit to the power of Vaino's post," said Gatov.

Domestic crises

Already beset by a range of domestic crises and sinking approval ratings, Putin's office used what Gatov called a relatively common tactic in which the Kremlin faults the lower-level officials in order to defuse street protests and ostensibly assume an ethical posture.  

"This decision was not spontaneous, but was clear from the moment it became public," he said. "It was a simple tactical calculation to retreat and reassert command over the domestic agenda."

Surveys by the Moscow-based Levada Center show approval of Putin's performance as president has been stuck at a near-record low of 64 percent since January 2019, after dropping 25 percentage points from an all-time high in June 2015.

On Tuesday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov acknowledged the accuracy of a politically controversial Rosstat poll from April showing that an estimated 80 percent of Russian families find it difficult to make ends meet, and that 12.9 percent of the population, or 18.9 million citizens, lived at or below the poverty level in 2018. 

A supporter of Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist holds a newspaper with texts of his investigations during a protest rally in St. Petersburg, June 12, 2019.

An August 2018 Levada Center poll showed Russians' willingness to protest had reached a two-decade high.

These combined factors, said Alexander Morozov of the Boris Nemtsov Center at Charles University in Prague, have forced the president to focus more on domestic issues.

"There's been talk that Putin, after a long period of foreign policy enthusiasm, has returned to internal affairs in the last month, that he's listening to those who pay attention to what's going on inside the country," said Morozov.

Morozov also said the international outcry over Golunov's arrest never factored into Putin's political calculus, and that Kremlin gestures of leniency are sometimes done at the whim a single high-level official.

"The entire political history of the last five years, since the annexation of the Crimea, shows that Vladimir Putin absolutely ignores consequences of any foreign policy scandal," Morozov told VOA.

"In no case has Putin budged. Take the situation with [the MH-17 commercial airliner] being shot down in 2014 over Ukraine, or the poisoning [of ex-spy Sergei Skripal] in Salisbury — his answers are always sarcastic," he said.

"From the whole history of Putinism, we know that in each case, when arbitrary prosecutions or violence stops, it's because there is one man from Putin's closest circle — literally one among the top 10 people whom Putin not only trusts, but who are the main shareholders of the political regime — who, perhaps without even presenting any argument, simply asks that the case be suspended."

'Smart authoritarianism'

Political scientist Kirill Rogov of the Moscow-based Liberal Mission Foundation called the Kremlin's recent acts of leniency part of an effort to emulate "Beijing-style smart authoritarianism."

"For some time now we've already seen a number of such steps on the part of the Kremlin that demonstrate moderation," he said, referring to Putin's direct intervention in a bitter church-construction dispute in Yekaterinburg, and in advocating for the release of American financier Michael Calvey

"And now we see it in the case of Golunov," Rogov added. "The nature of this phenomenon is still unknown and incomprehensible, and we can't tell to what extent it is a tactical device or a strategic course, but it is indisputably happening."

Rogov also said Golunov's detention, which coincided with the annual St. Petersburg Economic Forum — which, this year, was meant to showcase Putin's close friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping — dominated media mentions.

"For Putin, this event was overshadowed by Golunov's arrest," Rogov told VOA. "In this situation, Putin had no reason to support the [arresting officers] — on the contrary, they had screwed up badly in his eyes.

"It was obvious that Golunov should have been released to house arrest as soon as possible," Rogov said. "If Golunov had fallen into a pre-trial detention center and something had happened to him, it would have been a huge scandal.

"This style of authoritarianism is both repressive and responsive," he said. "You fully enter into a dialogue with citizens, give in to them where it is not critical for you, but apply hard repression in moments that are critical to regime stability. It seems 'smart authoritarianism' works in China, and Putin clearly wants to copy it."