The Khodorkovsky Test and the Future of Independent Thought in Russia

June 4, 2013
Putin, Medvedev, and the Siloviki/Photo by

It is safe to say that publicly challenging Putin means that you may find yourself facing charges of money laundering, extortion, or the regime’s curiously esoteric understanding of hooliganism. The experiences of Pussy Riot, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Alexei Navalny have all shown the repercussions that dissent entails. Now, however, it seems that even disagreeing with the control exerted by the regime means that you may find yourself the subject of persecution as well.

Sergei Guriev, rector of Moscow’s highly respected New Economic School, former economic advisor to Dmitry Medvedev, and a board member of the state controlled Sberbank, is the latest target of Putin’s anti-liberal housecleaning. However, it seems that Guriev was able and smart enough to realize the signs of his impending prosecution and jumped before he could be pushed — or detained. But why was such a well-respected economist and former advisor to the government targeted?

It seems that Guriev’s transgression was being asked to co-author a fair and honest review of the charges and procedures against imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his former Yukos associate, Platon Lebedev. When the authors found that there were “widespread irregularities” in the investigation and charges, four members of the nine member panel subsequently found themselves under investigation by the ever watchful Investigative Committee and its head, Alexander Bastrykin.

At first glance, the investigation and harassment of the authors of this report seems almost counter-productive and serves no real benefit. It has to be said that the authors are not opposition figures and do not publicly challenge the regime at rallies or even in the press. The question is then why are they being targeted?

The answer is fairly straightforward: to cull the unfaithful of the elite and illustrate the ramifications of challenging the decisions of the regime. The pressure exerted on these experts is also another way for the siloviki — that is, the hard liners who control much of the state’s security and state monopolies — to increase their power relative to the more liberal elements that are traditionally associated with Dmitry Medvedev. With the waning power of the liberals, those aligned with Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin have found themselves with growing authority over all aspects of the Russian economic and political system. These figures include Alexander Bortnikov, director of FSB, the successor agency of the KGB; Mikhail Fradkov, the head of SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service; Sergey Naryshkin, chairman of the Duma; and Viktor Zubkov, chairman of the board of directors of Gazprom, the state gas giant. This has also meant that the liberals associated with Medvedev and Guriyev, like Arkady Dvorkovich, the deputy prime minister in charge of energy, have seen their ability to influence the course of Russia gradually weaken.

The siloviki are making it clear that it is their stock that is rising in the Kremlin, and that any attempts at modernization, democratization, or the like will be dealt with swiftly, using Bastrykin as a battering ram. The liberals’ attempts at reforming the stagnating Russian economy and their tacit support for more transparent politics all create potential threats to this nomenklatura of state warlords and oligarchs. And there should be no further illusions as to which side Vladimir Putin has taken in this internal conflict.

Despite no actual charges being leveled (yet) against the authors of the Khodorkovsky report, it is clear that the pressure exerted is enough to precipitate a flight of the intellectuals. Guriev’s departure coincides with 15 of the country’s most respected economists’ writing an open letter criticizing the new “NGO law” that requires the registering of NGOs that receive money from abroad or otherwise engage in nebulously defined “political” activity as “foreign agents.” As human rights monitors have pointed out, this encompasses any and all organizations committed to documenting crimes or human rights violations; at its absurdest level, it also ensnares bird-watching societies and AIDS treatment centers. What’s at stake, however, is nothing short of Russian freedom of thought and expression.

While not yet on the scale of the Soviet era, these crackdowns do portend a dramatic turn for independent-mindedness whereby any deviation from a pre-approved script — one that is clan-based rather than ideological — spells legal harassment, coerced exile, arrest, or worse. If the current pressure exerted on the country’s most brilliant minds is allowed to continue, then it won’t be long before the Russian government is filled exclusively with yes-men. From there, a return to the bad old days is inevitable.