27 June 2019

The case of Ivan Golunov: a turning point in the fight against the Kremlin?

Anti-government protesters achieved a rare victory when investigative journalist Ivan Golunov was released after being arrested. Is his release a sign of growing 'people power' against authoritarianism?

On 11 June, anti-government protesters in Moscow achieved a rare victory when investigative journalist Ivan Golunov was released after being arrested five days prior on drug charges widely suspected to be fabricated. His release followed daily protests outside the capital’s police headquarters and a rare show of unity by activists, journalists and even some pro-Kremlin figures in condemning his arrest. The cause brought together the opposition, which had been divided among several minority parties, groups and activists with no singular leader. On 13 June, President Vladimir Putin fired two police generals over the case. On the surface, Golunov’s release appears to be a sign of growing 'people power' against authoritarianism, especially in light of another protest in May when residents of Yekaterinburg successfully stopped the construction of a church on a public park and in the backdrop of Putin’s steadily declining approval rating.

However, Golunov’s release signals few meaningful changes. From the beginning, his arrest posed little interest to senior officials in the Kremlin. Like the since-halted church construction in Yekaterinburg, Golunov’s arrest was an initiative taken by local authorities without Putin’s prior knowledge. While Golunov was likely targeted for his investigative reporting, his work primarily focused on city officials and other low-level figures. His arrest also generated heavy scrutiny of the government's ever-continuing crackdown on independent media, creating more trouble than what it was worth. Firing two senior officers after freeing Golunov was an acceptable concession that allowed Putin to distance himself from local authorities and portray himself as a leader who listens to the public. Putin’s annual television call-in, in which he takes questions from members of the public on a wide range of issues including local disputes, was scheduled on 20 June and provided another reason to settle the issue in a timely manner. In this aspect, Golunov’s arrest differs from government-backed pension reforms of 2018, which passed despite nationwide protests on a much larger scale.

In handling Golunov’s case, the Kremlin showed that it remains unchanged in its tactics to silence criticism and fragment the opposition. On the same day as Golunov’s release, the city authorities approved a march organised by government-aligned journalists on 16 June, instead of the main protest march called in his support on 12 June. The response to this move showed that the unity of the opposition was temporary at best. On one side were those who disavowed the march on 12 June: in a collective statement, the heads of Golunov’s employer Meduza and other independent news outlets typically critical of the Kremlin urged readers not to attend the unsanctioned demonstration, raising suspicions of a secret deal with the authorities. On the other side were over 1,000 people who gathered outside Chistye Prudy metro station on 12 June as originally planned. Their march to police headquarters ended with over 500 people detained.

During Golunov’s arrest, Russia’s civil society and media had put on a rare show of unity, as exemplified by matching headlines - "I am/We are Ivan Golunov" - that appeared on the front pages of prominent daily newspapers RBK, Vedomosti and Kommersant. If the fight for Golunov’s release appeared to be a sign of progress in fighting the country’s authoritarianism, its aftermath showed the opposite. The opposition returned to its usual fragmented state and riot police relentlessly dispersed protesters with impunity just as they did during previous anti-government demonstrations.

The backlash against Golunov’s arrest came at a time of growing frustration over low standards of living and widespread government corruption. Even before his arrest, previous street protests have shown that the threat of arrest and violence no longer deters demonstrators from gathering across the country. However, protesters have yet to achieve a victory that goes beyond a local level. Golunov’s release represents a win but falls short of becoming a turning point in the fight against the Kremlin’s authoritarianism. Bigger victories will require an opposition that remains united long after Golunov’s release with an eye on the wider system that has allowed the police to fabricate charges and arrest him and many others.