Guriev, Sobyanin and the politics of plausible deniability

June 5, 2013
Sergei Guriev/RIA Novosti/Yekaterina Shtukina/AP

Sergei Guriev has spoken about his decision to flee Russia, stating frankly that he left because “I don’t want to sit in jail.”

Guriev, a leading economist once very much part of the Russian establishment who wrote speeches for Dmitry Medvedev, described how the increasing pressure from investigators over a report he had authored criticizing the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky convinced him that he was being targeted by the authorities as retribution for taking this position.

Guriev explained his suspicions:

“I noticed that the investigators’ actions were growing increasingly harsh, and this was a complete surprise. The last straw came on April 25 when the investigator invited me for questioning but, instead of questioning me, he handed me a court order to seize all my e-mails since 2008 and to search my office. He also hinted that he may search my home. That’s when I understood that my status could be changed at our next meeting.”

Russia-watchers are speculating that this could be a sign of a more extensive split within the political elite, purging the upper echelons of dissent in an attempt to rebuild Putin’s once unquestioned dominance. Guriev is also a known supporter of Alexei Navalny—perhaps once a tolerable quirk, but in the current climate, almost a heresy.

And while Navalny faces the prospect of jail on trumped-up embezzlement charges, his rumored aspiration to run for the Mayor of Moscow has been potentially disrupted by Sergei Sobyanin, who resigned from his post as Mayor yesterday in what many speculate could be an attempt to catch political challengers off-guard by forcing an early election.

What does this story have in common with the self-imposed exile of Sergei Guriev, apart from this rather tangential connection to Navalny? Both are prime examples of one of the key tactics of the Putin regime in shutting down the political competition. The Kremlin prefers its repression to have the patina of legitimacy—whether through pseudo-legal measures such as the new law requiring NGOs receiving foreign funding to register as “foreign agents,” or by “addressing corruption” by putting the very individuals who fight it in the dock (Alexey Navalny).

Guriev may say that he was all but driven out of the country by the increasing intimidation and uncertain climate he faced, and reasonable people would believe him—but Vladimir Putin can turn around and say that it was his decision, and he very much hopes Guriev will return. Likewise, we don’t know for certain why Sobyanin has resigned, and it would be difficult to prove it is in the service of undermining opposition candidates in the mayoral race—one of the only elections in which the candidates stand a very good chance of prevailing, due to Moscow’s high proportion of dislike for United Russia and support for political reform. Yet of course, such an underhanded tactic can’t be proven. Whether subtle or outrageous, the common denominator is a desire to restrain political competition at all costs—but plausible deniability remains an attachment of this “managed democracy.”