Weekly 15 June 2019

Ivan Golunov is freed but this is not the first sign of a thaw

Hello! This week was dominated by the story of Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist who police tried to frame as a drug dealer. We have the insider account of his release and the disagreements over a rally in his support. We also look at talks between Russian officials and Huawei executives over whether the Chinese company will switch to using a Russian operating system and what the recent political upheaval in Moldova means for Moscow.

Ivan Golunov is freed but this is not the first sign of a thaw

What happened

Meduza journalist Ivan Golunov was arrested last Friday and accused of drug dealing; but all charges were dropped Tuesday ahead of an unsanctioned protest in Moscow. It became clear that drugs had been planted on him by the police in apparent revenge for his investigative reporting.

After the arrest, everyone from independent journalists to employees of state-owned television channels and officials came out in support of Golunov. His name was mentioned more often on social media than President Vladimir Putin’s. Drug dealing prosecutions in Russia can drag on for years, but Golunov’s case was closed in five days and two deputy ministers at the Interior Ministry, the head of the Department for Narcotics Control and the head of the Moscow Police Department were all fired. Golunov’s release caused euphoria, but it all, predictably, ended in tears: the organizers of the protest fell out with each other and over 500 people were arrested at the demonstration Wednesday.

How Golunov was freed. The effort to save Golunov began Saturday, a few hours before his first court appearance. On one side was two deputy Moscow mayors, on the other, two liberal journalists: the chairman of the board of directors at Novaya Gazeta newspaper, Dmitry Muratov, and editor-in-chief of radio station Ekho Moskvy, Aleksei Venediktov. Both Novaya Gazeta and Ekho Moskvy are critical of the regime, however, Venediktov is a frequent guest in the Kremlin, and his radio station is owned by Gazprom Media. Novaya Gazeta is often tied (Rus) to Sergei Chemezov, head of state conglomerate Rostec.

The Moscow head of the Interior Ministry was also present at the initial meeting. “For a long time, we asked questions and it became clear that the basis for the charges was terribly wobbly,” Muratov told The Bell. Eventually, it was decided that Golunov should be placed under house arrest: according to media outlet Proekt (Rus), this was agreed with Anton Vaino, the head of the Presidential Administration. Putin himself participated in the final decision to drop all charges, Muratov told The Bell. Everything was decided, but to release Golunov the authorities needed a legal pretext. It soon appeared in the form of DNA test results that showed Golunov’s DNA was not on the drugs ‘found’ in his apartment.

An outpouring of support. According to Muratov, public outrage played a big role in Golunov’s release. In particular, a petition on Change.org signed by 200,000 people, and the prospect of almost 20,000 taking part in a protest in Moscow. Golunov was backed by hundreds of journalists who questioned officials about the arrest. The case was reported on national television channels (with the sanction of the Presidential Administration, according to Proekt). On Monday, three leading newspapers — RBC, Vedomosti and Kommersant — published identical front pages with the phrase “I am/We are Ivan Golunov”. Moscow became full of t-shirts, stickers and posters with this slogan. But solidarity wasn’t just limited to the journalist community: from the moment of Golunov’s arrest, people queued to take part in a picket in front of police headquarters in Moscow. Similar pickets also took place in other Russian cities.

A protest marred by arguments. The march in support of Golunov was scheduled for 12 June, which is a national holiday. And when Golunov was released the day before, protestors decided to make the march about police abuses and a demand to find those who ordered Golunov’s arrest. Before the protest, the organisers, most of whom were journalists, could not agree whether it was worth trying to get official approval. The Moscow mayor’s office refused to discuss the question on-the-record, and the organizers refused to engage in an off-the-record discussion. After Golunov’s release, Muratov of Novaya Gazeta, the management of Meduza, where Golunov works, and The Bell founder Elizaveta Osetinskaya published a joint statement (Rus) suggesting approval be sought for the march (in effect putting in doubt whether it would go ahead). This was met with anger on social media, and journalists were criticized for only caring about one of their own. In the end, both Osetinskaya and Meduza’s management attended.

A rough police response. Police officers began detaining people even before the march began, and peaceful protestors were dragged along the ground and, in some cases, beaten with rubber batons. In total, almost 550 people were detained: the majority charged with participating in an unauthorized rally and let go the same day. These people now face either a fine of $155 to $4,600 or up to 30 days in jail. One of the organizers was detained while on the phone with a deputy mayor to ask why the police were detaining people without placards in apparent violation of an agreement that they would not be touched. He wasn’t able to finish his conversation; he was hauled off to a police van.

Who actually planted the drugs on Golunov? Those behind the arrest are still unknown, but there are rumors. In his first interview after being freed, Golunov said (Rus) he had recently received threats. It is likely these were related to his work looking into the involvement of security service officials in Moscow’s funeral service business.

Why the world should care

The Golunov case has made it clear that an agreement can be reached with those in power, particularly when what is happening is not in the Kremlin’s interests, and certainly not in the interests of the Moscow city government, which was the focus of many of Golunov’s investigations. The protest march showed that such agreement are the exception, and not a rule. It is far too early to speak of a “thaw”. The disagreements between Golunov’s supporters also show that civil society solidarity is always fragile.

Huawei smartphones may switch to using Russia’s Aurora operating system

What happened

China’s Huawei, which lost access to the latest update of Google’s Android operating system as a result of a U.S. ban, may receive help from Russian telecoms operator Rostelecom (almost half of which belongs to the state) and Russian businessman Grigory Berezkin. Together, Berezkin and Rostelcom own the company that developed the Aurora mobile operating system.

What happened? Ahead of last week’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Huawei Deputy Chairman Guo Ping discussed the possibility of switching Chinese smartphones to Aurora with Russian Minister for Digital Development and Communications Konstantin Noskov, according to two sources familiar with the discussions. The issue was also raised during the meetings between Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping, another source explained.

What were the talks about? According to a federal official, talks are underway in two areas. The first is the installation of the Aurora operating system on various Huawei devices (replacing Google’s Android). “China is already testing devices with Aurora,” a source close to the government told The Bell. The second is Russian production of some Huawei devices. When contacted by The Bell, Rostelecom did not confirm the talks and Huawei declined to comment.

What is Aurora? Aurora is an operating system based on the open-source Sailfish developed by Finish company Jolla (founded by former Nokia executives). In 2014, Russian billionaire Berezkin became co-owner of Jolla and signed an agreement with the Ministry of Communications to create a Russian national mobile operating system and, since 2016, a company tied to Berezkin, Open Mobile Platform (OMP), has been working on this. In May 2018, Rostelecom bought 75% of OMP from Berezkin. Then it emerged (Rus) that officials and employees at state-owned companies would be transitioned to mobiles with Russian operating systems. In May 2018, Rostelecom renamed (Rus) the OMP operating system Aurora.

Why the world should care

It is often pointed out that Russia’s much-vaunted ‘pivot to the East’ amid geopolitical tensions with the West has been more about words than actions. If it comes off, collaboration with Huawei would be a relatively rare example of successful cooperation between Moscow and Beijing.

A change of power in Moldova gives Russia new opportunities

Dramatic political events have engulfed Moldova this week. Russia, the U.S. and the European Union, for whom Moldova, one of Europe’s smallest and poorest countries, is traditionally an arena of confrontation, joined forces to remove oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who had been in control of the government. And in so doing, they were able to avoid another political escalation. However, their unity is unlikely to last long: while Plahotniuc was undesirable for all sides, now Russia and the West have different interests.

Who is Plahotniuc? He is a very rich man with ties to all types of Moldovan business: from energy to the media. Since 2015, analysts have been saying (Rus) that Plahotniuc practically owns the country and that he controls the General Prosecutor, the National Center for Fighting Corruption, the security services and the courts. Moreover, he is believed to be one of the beneficiary owners of the so-called Moldovan laundromat, credited with spiriting up to $5.7 billion out of Russia. A Russian court ordered Plahotniuc’s arrest in absentia for the attempted murder of a Russian banker, but Interpol refused to add him to its wanted list because, at the time, he was the leader of the country’s leading political party.

What happened In February, Plahotniuc’s party lost its parliamentary majority in elections (it retained 30 seats while the pro-Russian socialists got 35 seats and ACUM, the pro-Europe block, got 26 seats), but was reluctant to give up power. The constitutional court, controlled by Plahotniuc, declared the new government illegal and, for the sixth time in two years, it removed pro-Russian president Igor Dodon from power. The court argued that Dodon wasn’t able to form a parliamentary coalition (which was finally achieved with much difficulty and international support last week). Plahotniuc’s allies blocked access to the parliament building. The other side called on people to come out for a big demonstration on June 16, which threatened to turn violent.

A solution is found After long talks with diplomats in Russia, the EU, and the U.S., Plahotniuc agreed to allow access to all government offices and the parliamentary building, and the old cabinet finally resigned. All these negotiations took place behind closed doors, and the details are unknown. On the same day, politicians and businessmen close to Plahotniuc began to flee the country and one private jet after another left Chisinau airport. Local media believe Plahotniuc was on board one of these jets.

What does this mean for Russia? A reduction of Plahotniuc’s colossal influence is a big plus both for Russia and its unexpected allies, the U.S. and EU. Plahotniuc was not only immensely powerful, but also incompetent and was able to use Dodon, Russia’s protege, to further his own interests. Dodon met with Putin more often than any other foreign head of state, Putin opened the Russian market for Moldovan wine and announced an amnesty for Moldovan migrants. But at the same time Dodon became a shield for Plahotniuc: he was able to pursue anti-Russian decisions with now fear of sanctions from Kremlin. Going forward, Russia should be able to exert more influence over Dodon and the pro-Russian Socialist party, while the ACUM is more favorable disposed to the EU.

Why the world should care

In addition to new opportunities for all external actors, far-reaching change to Moldova’s political system might lead to opportunities to start resolving the Transdniestrian conflict (between Moldova and neighboring Transnistria, an unrecognized state that declared autonomy in 1989). And this, in turn, could provide a precedent for solving the so-called frozen conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

Anastasia Stognei