After an unprecedented public outcry, Russian police have dropped questionable drug charges against investigative journalist Ivan Golunov and freed him from house arrest. What caused authorities to back down?
There is an unwritten rule in Russia that when someone is arrested, that person will also be tried and sentenced. But on Tuesday, this rule was broken when drug possession charges against 36-year-old investigative reporter Ivan Golunov were dropped. Golunov, who writes for the dissident Meduzaonline platform, had maintained that Russian police were trying to frame him. Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev has now announced that those responsible for the trial will be fired.
Exceptional display of solidarity
In an exceptional display of solidarity, three leading liberal Russian newspapers — Vedomosti, Kommersant and RBK — ran identical front pages on Monday declaring: “I am/We are Ivan Golunov.” Even pro-Kremlin, state-run media outlets and major television stations demanded Golunov be treated fairly.
Last weekend, pro-Golunov rallies were also held outside Russia’s embassy in Berlin. A spokesperson for the German government on Tuesday told DW that it welcomes Golunov’s release, saying: “The government is carefully monitoring Russian developments and the treatment of journalists, opposition politicians and civil society.” After various smaller pro-Golunov rallies in Russia over the past days, thousands had planned to take to the streets on Wednesday in support of the journalist, even though authorities had not approved the protest.
Illicit practices in funeral industry
Until recently, few Russians were familiar with Ivan Golunov’s name. Yet Meduza, the online platform for which he writes, is widely known and respected throughout the country. It was founded in 2014 by exiled dissident journalists in the Latvian capital, Riga, and grew to become one of the most widely read Russian-language media outlets in the world. The site is particularly popular among the urban middle class.
Golunov mainly publishes investigative reports exposing corruption in the Russian capital, for example regarding the procurement of plants or New Year’s Eve decorations for a party. Recently, the journalist had been researching illicit practices within the funeral industry and reportedly received threats.
In past years, Russians have repeatedly showed solidarity with individuals suspected of being prosecuted on the basis of trumped-up charges, like star director Kirill Serebrennikovor respected Chechen human rights activist Oyub Titiyev. But the massive pro-Golunov rallies of recent times surpassed these displays of solidarity by far.
Golunov’s case bears similarities to Titiyev’s, though the latter was sentenced for alleged drug possession. On Monday, however, word got out that the human rights activist would soon be released from jail. The announcement is seen as a move to ease tensions.
Further demonstrations loomed
There seem to be several explanations as to why Golunov’s case was thrown out. One is that those who had brought him to trial had not expected the tremendous show of solidarity in the media. When Russia’s three major liberal papers publicly sided with the investigative reporter, Golunov’s arrest transformed into a high-profile case. On the other hand, street clashes and anti-police violence could have followed, in particular due to Wednesday being Russia’s national holiday.
For months, pollsters have been documenting a growing willingness among Russians to protest. Russia’s government, which appears concerned by this development, has started giving in to the will of the people. Several weeks ago, for instance, Russian authorities surprisingly stopped the planned construction of a church in a popular Yekaterinburg park after citizens protested against the move.
The timing of Golunov’s release may also have to do with the Direct Line television show planned for June 20th, an annual live show during which Russians can phone in and ask President Vladimir Putin questions on air. Some media outlets had reported that the Kremlin had sought to sort out the Golunov case ahead of the live Q&A show, but Putin’s spokesperson denied this was so.
A further explanation for Golunov’s swift release may be that Putin plans to visit western Europe in early July and does not want the case to overshadow his trip. So far, it has been confirmed that the Russian leader will meet the Pope in Rome. And in spring, unconfirmed reports surfaced that Putin intends to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Petersburg Dialogue civil society summit near Bonn. Moreover, accusations of arbitrarily charging a dissident journalist would not cast Russia in a favorable light just as the country is set to rejoin the Council of Europe, the continent’s main human rights body.