The Russian government has dropped a criminal case against a prominent anti-corruption reporter whose arrest had sparked an outpouring of protests from journalists, celebrities and activists who said the charges against him were politically motivated.
Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist with the independent news site Meduza, was released Tuesday from house arrest and the case against him dismissed because of what the Interior Ministry said was a lack of evidence.
Police involved in the case are being scrutinized, with two arresting officers suspended and two senior officers referred to the Kremlin for possible dismissal. Golunov, who said police beat him during an interrogation and initially denied him medical care, was later diagnosed with several broken ribs and a concussion.
The turn of events was highly unusual in a country in which the court system has a nearly 99% conviction rate and officials at all levels are rarely held accountable.
Golunov was arrested June 6 and charged with dealing drugs on a large scale — an allegation that he and his supporters said was fabricated in retaliation for his investigative reporting.
Over the years, his stories have implicated dozens of officials and businessmen. His recent investigations examined corruption schemes involving family members of a Moscow deputy mayor and at least two high-level officers in the Moscow branch of the Federal Security Service.
Golunov’s supporters believe that someone decided to retaliate and put an end to his investigations by creating a case that would put him behind bars.
Traditionally, the Kremlin has given lower-level security officials freedom to take such action, without fear of being held accountable, experts said.
But this time it created a political problem for the Kremlin that few could have foreseen.
After Golunov’s arrest, hundreds of journalists from the independent and pro-Kremlin media united in their stand against the charges. For days, they picketed outside Moscow’s main police station and across the country.
On Monday, three major Russian newspapers ran front pages with the words “I/We are Ivan Golunov.”
Demonstrators demanded answers from police on accusations that they falsified photographs of a drug lab that were allegedly taken in Golunov’s apartment. The police later said that the photos were a mistake, and that the images belonged to an entirely different investigation.
Editorials published in prominent Russian newspapers called for a transparent investigation.
The case began to unravel as the Kremlin watched the public outcry spreading across the country.
Abbas Gallyamov, a political analyst in Moscow and a former Kremlin speechwriter, said the Kremlin probably intervened to stop growing demonstrations from turning more political or morphing into rallies against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I would never say the Kremlin gained something in this case, but by reacting in time it didn’t lose much,” he said. “Today is a big win for Russian civil society, but only a small loss for the Kremlin.”
The reversal comes at a time when public trust in the Russian government and the economy are declining — and some local governments have been forced to heed the demands of protesters.
In Yekaterinburg, nearly a week of demonstrations last month against the construction of a cathedral in a public green space forced the local authorities to find another site.
Discontent with local authorities flows up the ranks to the Kremlin. Though Putin is widely regarded as the top-down, czar-like manager of the system he created, experts said the reality is more complicated.
“It would be a big jump to say that the Kremlin is still some unified force,” Gallyamov said. “What we have now are independent clans and players who use their authority not for the sake of the regime or Putin’s approval. They are using the powers given to them by Putin to promote their own business interests.”
Invoking two other high-profile cases, Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King's College London and coauthor of “Putin v. the People,” put it in a different way.
“If members of the system below the Kremlin are going to go after someone like Michael Calvey or Golunov or Boris Nemtsov, they are doing it with the expectation that it's OK with the Kremlin,” he said. “They do so knowing that even if Kremlin is not happy with it, at least they won't be upset about it.”
Calvey is a prominent American investor with business ties in Russia dating to the early 1990s. He is under house arrest in Moscow after being detained on suspicion of fraud in a commercial dispute involving a well-connected Russian businessman.
Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and fierce Putin critic, was slain in 2015 near Moscow’s Red Square. To date, no one has been prosecuted for ordering his assassination.
In all these cases, the Kremlin has to decide whether it wants to allow such rogue actions from lower ranks to proceed, or whether to take action, Greene said.
“Usually, they do allow it to proceed because not allowing it to proceed means changing the logic of the way the system works,” he said.