A new criminal case known as the “case of experts” is underway in Russia. Its first outcome was the emigration of Sergei Guriev, rector of the Moscow New Economic School, who fled the country following interrogations over his participation in a panel of experts that reported on the infamous Yukos trial. Guriev himself has called his case a special one, but history might prove otherwise. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya asks whether the new case targets those involved in the Yukos trial, or whether it is the start of a broader attack on liberal experts in Russia.
As strange as it might seem, Dmitri Medvedev is once again to blame. During his presidency, a political “thaw” began in Russia, which provoked today’s conservative wave. Under Medvedev, the government opened a dialogue with human rights activists, and the activity and influence of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights increased. The Council conducted expert evaluations of many high-profile cases that were political in nature, including the second Yukos trial and Sergei Magnitsky’s case. Medvedev and his administration believed that this dialogue between the government and civil society would increase the regime’s stability.
The independent report on the second Yukos trial (in which ex-Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his former business partner Platon Lebedev were sentenced to lengthy prison terms) was supposed to demonstrate that the outcome of the trial was suspect. This was intended to be a challenge to Putin and Putin-oriented security services. In December 2011, when the Council submitted the results of its independent investigation, its findings revealed that “fundamental irregularities” had occurred during the trial. The council urged the courts to review the second Yukos case and proposed introducing changes to the legislation on parole and pardon, the necessity of which became evident during their examination of Khodorkovsky–Lebedev case. It also suggested an amnesty for prisoners convicted for economic crimes. The Council’s recommendation to revisit the second Yukos case was based on serious irregularities during the inquiry that “resulted in a judicial error committed during the resolution of the case.” The panel suggested that the Investigative Committee begin proceedings on the newly discovered evidence and take up the matter of repealing the judgment with the Prosecutor-General.
The Council submitted the results of its independent investigation, which revealed that “fundamental irregularities” had occurred during the Khodorkovsky–Lebedev trial.
Few could have predicted the consequences of the expert report. The first signs that a new criminal case might be building appeared last spring. According to Novaya Gazeta, on April 1, 2012, a source at the Investigative Committee informed the state media that “Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s structures had been financing public organizations, the representatives of which later joined the working group of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights that was preparing a report on the second trial.” The source at the Investigative Committee went on to add that the Open Russia Foundation, established by Khodorkovsky, made grants to Memorial, the Moscow Helsinki Group, and the Public Verdict Foundation. However, former head of the Open Russia Foundation Irina Yasina, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group Lyudmila Alekseeva, and founder and chairman of Memorial Arseny Roginsky had nothing to do with the report on the second Yukos case.
Nonetheless, the Investigative Committee did eventually find the “missing link” it was looking for. In summer 2012, the court authorized a search of the non-profit organization Center for Legal and Economic Studies. According to investigators, “legal monetary funds are being transferred into public organizations’ accounts through foreign banks in order to hinder proceedings on the [second Yukos] case by falsifying the evidence and committing other acts, such as financing knowingly false expert opinions under the guise of independent public reports.”
As former judge of the Russian Constitutional Court and member of the Council for Human Rights Tamara Morshakova explained to Vedomosti newspaper, investigators declared that experts had received Yukos’ money from abroad through the Center for Legal and Economic Studies at the Higher School of Economics, the deputy director of which is Mikhail Subbotin. Since the end of 2011, when the expert report on the second Yukos trial was published, five out of the six Russian experts who worked on it have suffered the consequences: according to Subbotin, one of them was prosecuted for administrative offenses and four others were subjected to search or called in for questioning. Subbotin’s apartment was searched in September 2012. The search warrant mentioned Article 294 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation—obstruction of justice (which can carry a sentence of up to four years in prison).
Searches have recently been conducted at the Higher School of Economics, focusing in particular on the department led by the head of the Human Rights Council, Mikhail Fedotov. “We do not expect any trouble in this regard for either the school or its employees,” representatives of the school told Interfax. Their apparent calm is a self-defensive reaction: the Higher School of Economics is trying to depoliticize the investigative process, which in reality could entail very negative consequences for the school.
Are we looking at a third Yukos case? The media certainly thinks so. An anonymous former Yukos employee told Vedomosti that the purpose of the case of experts is to bring yet another, third, charge against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev. This would allow the regime to keep them in prison even after their sentences expire in 2014. It is worth noting that the Supreme Court has recently started reviewing the ruling of the second trial because lower courts had not sufficiently reduced Khordorkovsky’s and Lebedev’s sentences in light of a reduction of the funds listed in the charges against them.
In spite of the talk about a “third case,” there is still reason to believe that today’s campaign is multi-vectored in nature. Who are the security services really targeting?
Of course they aim first for those involved in the Yukos case. Today, the question of setting Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev free has acquired heightened significance for the regime. On the one hand, with the beginning of mass protests and the emergence of a new generation of young and energetic political leaders, the former Yukos managers are now considered secondary threats. On the other hand, the current environment of general political uncertainty and the Kremlin’s paranoid urge to guarantee the regime’s stability, as well as the strengthening of the police and security services, prevent the government from releasing its political prisoners. In any case, the situation does not favor Khodorkovsky. There is no doubt that the masterminds of the Yukos case will do all they can to keep those involved in prison for as long as possible. One can add to this the inertness of the system, which, in its desire to carry out proceedings against its “enemies,” commits a growing number of illegal acts.
But there may yet be other targets in the Kremlin’s crosshairs. Having lifted the curtain on the regime’s plot against Yukos, the institution of public evaluation has itself become subject to attack, despite its embryonic state. The case of experts represents a deliberate campaign aimed at discrediting systemic human rights organizations and institutes, which are integrated with the regime but spoil the “picture” with their self-dependence and authority. It is also a strong reaction to the high profile and influence that civil institutes gained under Medvedev.
Independent and liberally oriented partners of the regime from the expert community represent a third object of attack. The Russian government’s economic course was determined with the active participation of liberal-minded experts. Free market economists were part of the system; they had the opportunity to give advice to the government, to criticize it, and to cooperate with it in working out financial and economic decisions. Under President Medvedev, the role of expert economists increased considerably: twenty-one groups were created under the government, responsible for the strategy of the country’s social and economic development for the next twenty years. The role of experts remained important in the beginning of Putin’s third term: last June, he founded an economic council made up of well-known experts. They were supposed to help the president determine his economic policy strategy. Vlast magazine, with reference to former Kremlin Chief-of-Staff Alexander Voloshin, wrote at the time that “roughly once a week, one expert group or another meets with a minister or a deputy prime minister to have tea and discuss ideas.” Sergei Guriev was among the most competent experts.
There is a growing rift within the regime itself.
Over the past year, however, the situation has begun to change: Putin’s policy is becoming increasingly secretive, and expert economists’ opinions contradict more and more drastically the ideology reflected in the country’s current course. Dirigiste economists from the Russian Academy of Sciences, supervised by presidential advisor Sergei Glazyev, have gained considerable influence. Under Prime Minister Medvedev, and under the auspices of the “open government,” liberals have continued to participate in government discussions; however, they no longer possess any practical influence. All key decision-making powers have been transferred to the Kremlin. This happened alongside the collapse of Medvedev’s own political influence. Working in Medvedev’s “open government” is a discredit in the eyes of conservatives and secret services close to Putin.
Until recently, the conflict between “protectionists” and liberals was between the regime and the non-systemic opposition. Now the situation is different. There is a growing rift within the regime itself—between isolationists, anti-Westernizers, and supporters of a tougher authoritarian system on the one hand, and moderate supporters of a more open Russia on the other. This will inevitably result in new conflicts among Russia’s elites, and the Council for Human Rights may become the first victim. On May 5, the Council published a statement of apology to all the experts who had participated in preparing the report on the second Yukos trial. The secret services may consider this an open provocation, a challenge that could spark a temptation to “do away with” the nest of liberals within the regime. The impulse to fight dissent, coupled with the fear of losing control over the system, compels regime leaders to purge the elite and the bureaucracy of the doubters and of those with uncertain positions. The Soviet slogan “You are either with us or against us” may yet become the guideline for action for Putin’s hawks.