Media roundup: The release of opposition activist Ildar Dadin and the investigation into Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s corruption schemes attracted a lot of attention from Russia's independent media, while state-owned outlets preferred to pass over these events or relegated them to the secondary agenda.
Pictured: Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (left) and President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Kremlin.ru
Last week two key events made headlines in the Russian independent media — a new corruption probe of whistleblower Alexei Navalny into Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s financial activity and the release of democratic activist Ildar Dadin from jail. However, the state-owned media seem to have ignored the investigation.
Navalny vs. Medvedev
On Mar. 2, Russia’s well-known anti-corruption campaigner and presidential candidate, Alexei Navalny, presented a provocative investigation into the financial activity of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who was accused of possessing expensive yachts, mansions and vineyards inside and outside the country. The high-profile official was reported to have registered all his real estate through charity and offshore companies.
Oddly enough, the investigation didn’t produce such explosive effect like Navalny’s previous findings or the arrest of liberal Alexey Ulyukaev, the former Economic Development minister. The state-owned media seem to have ignored the probe. In contrast, independent outlets — Vedomosti, Novaya Gazeta and Nezavisimaya Gazeta — paid a lot of attention to the case. At the same time, RBC Daily and Meduza quoted the spokespersons of the Russian authorities.
The reaction of those at the helm was quite predictable. Medvedev’s spokeswomen Natalya Timakova described Navalny’s investigation as anti-government political propaganda launched before the 2018 presidential elections. She highlighted that Navalny himself is a convict who was accused of alleged embezzlement.
Meanwhile, Vedomosti, an independent business newspaper, argues that the investigation conducted by Navalny's Foundation for Countering Corruption proves that the authorities are impervious to any criticism or investigations no matter how persuasive these probes could be. Navalny’s findings indicate that those at the helm are “incorporated in the modern 'feeding' system — tacit and informal.”
Legally, officials cannot earn billions of rubles and possess yachts and mansions, but they could come up with convenient schemes and bypass the law, according to the newspaper. In fact, all these amenities and perks are included in the part of their “employment contract” — they prefer to see it not as bribery, but as an employment premium or a bonus for loyalty, Vedomosti argues in its editorial.
At the same time, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a newspaper that identifies itself as independent, pays attention to the fact that Russian systemic and even non-systemic opposition refused to comment on Navalny’s investigation just not to create the pre-election publicity for him. The only exception is the leader of the Yabloko Party, Grigory Yavlinskiy, who responded to the investigation immediately.
He assumes that Navalny's move could only contribute to strengthening the positions of the authorities. If the accusations against Medvedev prove to be true, this means that Russian President Vladimir Putin and the prime minister are supposed to resign. If it don't happen, the publication of the Navalny’s probe looks like a part of Putin’s pre-election campaign to dismiss Medvedev, who is increasingly losing his popularity among people, said Yavlinskiy as quoted by Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
At the same time, Novaya Gazeta, a liberal newspaper, argues that the publication of the investigation creates a great deal of rumors and conspiracy theories. The first question that comes to one’s mind is who might benefit from the provocative probe and who could have orchestrated it. All this indicates, “The pre-election campaign has already started,” Novaya Gazeta concluded, implying that Navalny conducts his probe to score political points.
The release of Russia’s opposition activist from jail
Another political story that got media attention is the release of Ildar Dadin, a democratic activist, who became the first person to be imprisoned in December 2015 under a controversial federal law that criminalizes repeated public protests. He had been transferred from a jail in the Republic of Karelia, where he experienced numerous and violent incidents of tortures. In January 2017 he found himself in a prison in the Altai Region and was paroled in the late February after serving about one year of a two-and-half year sentence.
Pictured: Ildar Dadin, the first person to be imprisoned under a controversial federal law that criminalizes repeated public protests. Photo: AFP / East News
His story attracted a great deal of attention both inside and outside of Russia after the publication of his letter on the website of Meduza, an independent Russian media outlet now based in Riga. That letter, from Dadin to his wife Anastasia Zotova, revealed an inconvenient truth about the Russian prison system: perennial human rights abuses, violence and severe torture.
The story of Dadin reached even the American government. An important and symbolic move came from U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (Democrat – Maryland), who initiated the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which imposes sanctions on Russian officials involved in the alleged murder of Sergei Magnitsky, an anti-corruption campaigner. Cardin published an opinion piece in the Washington Post on Nov. 17, 2016, in which he called on the U.S. to extend the Magnitsky Act to cover those Russian officials implicated in Dadin’s torture.
Shortly after the release, Dadin gave interviews to Russian and foreign liberal and independent media, including Dozhd TV channel, Meduza, Novaya Gazeta, Echo of Moscow radio station, RBC Daily and others. He vividly described the tortures he was facing in prison and reiterated his intentions to hold those involved in the crimes accountable. The activist makes no bones about his plans to stay in Russia and participate in political activity to bring together his supporters and fight with what he calls “despotism”, “injustice, lie, and the villainy of the [Russian] regime,” which covers up numerous crimes.
Naturally, the state-owned media did not pay attention to Dadin’s release or, at best, were reticent in covering this event. For example, Rossiskaya Gazeta published a short piece of information about Dadin, while pointing out to the fact that he was imprisoned for repeated violations of the Russian federal law.
However, Dadin sees this law as “anti-constitutional” and seeks to push the cancellation of the controversial amendments to Russia’s Criminal Code, which criminalize protest activity. He made it clear during the live press conference, organized by Echo of Moscow, an opposition radio station.
Dadin firmly believes that he was released thanks to the efforts of his wife and Russia’s emerging civil society as well as the support from abroad. “Russia cannot be isolated and ignore the response from the word,” he told Meduza. “They [the authorities] had to release me under the pressure of the society; after all, they have to create the illusion that courts and laws are effective in the country.”
Amidst the release of Dadin, some observers started speculating about “the thaw” in Russia before the 2018 presidential elections. However, Vedomosti is skeptical about this scenario. The newspaper gives voice to Russian human rights activist Pavel Chikov, who argues that it is too early make any conclusions. Yet he doesn’t rule out that there might be some moves, which could liberalize Russia’s judiciary system to a certain extent, but it is hardly likely to be a breakthrough or a game-changer.
Ivan Tsvetkov, an associate professor at St. Petersburg State University, about Navalny's investigation:
The first reaction from the Russian government and the Kremlin clearly indicates that the country’s leadership uses the same well-elaborated approach — those at the helm just point fingers to the fact that Navalny is himself facing criminal charges for alleged embezzlement. They just describe his probe as “anti-government propaganda” and suggest ignoring it. And for ordinary Russians, this rhetoric looks like a persuasive argument, so that they don’t take Navalny’s investigation seriously — such a scenario is almost impossible in most European countries and the United States. Navalny’s attempts to hold the authorities accountable will play only against him. So will the fact that the Russian opposition cannot unite and create a politically viable and competitive coalition.