Why Did Russians Unite Around Ivan Golunov?

Many Russians believed that investigative journalist and anti-corruption activist Ivan Golunov was framed by the police at the behest of some of the powerful oligarchic forces that he exposed through his work and that the dismissal of the case against him due to a lack of evidence validates their claims, which is why people of all classes from the regular man all the way up to RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan and even the country’s third most powerful person Chairwoman of the Federation Council Valentina Matviyenko publicly expressed their support for him and ended up on the right side of history.

Golunov’s Cause Galvanized The Masses

Last week’s arrest of investigative journalist and anti-corruption activist Ivan Golunov in drug charges was shady from the get-go after the authorities originally released several photos of supposed “evidence” that they later admitted weren’t even involved in his case. Not only that, but many Russians immediately suspected that he was framed by the police at the behest of some of the powerful oligarchic forces that he exposed through his work, which is why his plight quickly became a cause célèbre within the country and abroad. People of all classes from the regular man all the way up to RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan and even the country’s third most powerful person Chairwoman of the Federation Council Valentina Matviyenko publicly expressed their support for him, ending up on the right side of history after his case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

The Kremlin’s Concerns

The Kremlin was also forced to pay attention after several protests were organized in his support and following the unprecedented coordination of three of its largest newspapers when they ran identical front pages declaring that “I/We Are Ivan Golunov“. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov revealed that Putin was being regularly briefed on the case’s latest updates and acknowledged that “errors are possible”, though he cautioned that everyone should wait until the forensic report is released before drawing any conclusions. This was an important statement because the Interior Ministry earlier reported that the DNA of several people was found on the bags of drugs that were seized from Golunov, supporting the theory that he was framed and possibly being the reason why the charges against him were ultimately dropped.

Large-scale protests were planned to take place the day after his case’s dismissal during the annual Russia Day celebrations despite not having permission from the authorities, which could have led to a new cycle of anti-state escalations if they had taken place and the police arrested the participants for their illegal demonstrations. There’s no doubt that Color Revolution tactics were being used by the opposition in support of Golunov, though that didn’t in and of itself mean that an actual Color Revolution was underway, the same as can be said for the protests in Yekaterinburg against the controversial construction of a church in one of the city’s last remaining green spaces. In any case, these developments were concerning for the Kremlin because they were taking place at the beginning of its sensitive political and socio-economic transitions.

Systemic Transitions And The Cycle Of Instability

Russia isn’t just preparing for the post-Putin political transition in 2024 (PP24), but is also attempting to modernize its nationwide hard and soft infrastructure through the $400 billion “Great Society” initiative (also known as the “National Development Projects”), though both are now at risk because of the latest developments. American sanctions have exacerbated Russia’s systemic shortcomings and correspondingly stalled its economy growth, which has disturbingly led to nearly half of Russians only being able to buy food and clothing, something that Peskov reluctantly acknowledged and pledged that the government is working to improve. It’s therefore not for naught that foreigners aren’t flocking to invest in the country like the state expected and thus compelling the authorities to tap into the state’s wealth fund to pay for the “Great Society”.

A destabilizing cycle might be about to start whereby the population’s sub-par living standards (brought about by the combination of sanctions and the state’s hitherto lack of urgency over the past two decades of Putin’s tenure in reforming the economy and alleviating the budget’s dependence on resource & arms exports) make the country less attractive of a destination for foreign investors (including China) because its consumer market isn’t attractive enough to warrant the risks at the moment and its labor costs are still above those in the “Global South”. As the situation stagnates, people might naturally begin to harbor more anti-state sentiment, which they periodically express from time to time in protests such as those surrounding the Yekaterinburg church construction scandal and Golunov’s case.

The Worst-Case Scenario

The more widespread that such protests become and the more actively that they engage all members of society (with anti-corruption causes being the most unifying of them all), the more likely it becomes that Putin will have to take public opinion into account when choosing his successor, which isn’t exactly something that he and his team expected since they’d hitherto assumed that the intelligence wing of the country’s “deep state” (the so-called “siloviki”) would simply select the “right person” and then encourage the public to support the President’s hand-picked choice (as they customarily do per Russian tradition). Now, however, PP24 is at risk of becoming much more complicated than before and potentially enticing the politically dormant but once-again recently restless oligarchs to consider getting involved in guiding this process just like they did during the 1990s.

If this state of affairs isn’t responsibly handled by the authorities (especially if they fall for proto-Color Revolutionary provocations by disproportionately responding to illegal protests in support of whatever the contemporary cause may be), then the resultant perception of political uncertainty (whether objectively existing or weaponized through infowar techniques) might further compound Russia’s international investment problems and accelerate the aforementioned cycle of instability that could offset both PP24 and the “Great Society” at the country’s most vulnerable moment. The ideal solution would be for Putin to belatedly begin the far-reaching reforms that he should have implemented years ago in hindsight, but doing so might feed into the perception (again, whether objectively existing or weaponized) of “instability” and “weakness”.

Concluding Thoughts

As the state contemplates its choices amidst this ever-present Color Revolution dilemma that it’s suddenly (but not surprisingly) found itself in, civil society is celebrating its success after getting the authorities to drop their case against Golunov following the highly publicized support that they obtained from some of the country’s most influential figures. The problem, however, is that events such as this one will probably reoccur in the coming future because the system lacks the flexibility needed to adapt to constantly changing challenges, which is why it was loathe to make anything other than superficial reforms for nearly the past 20 years in the first place. Faced with such an unprecedented situation especially given the overall strategic context of dual systemic transitions in which events are unfolding, a turning point might have finally been reached in Russia, but whether it’s for better or for worse has yet to be seen.

DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.

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