The apparent government kidnapping of an influential opposition figure is exposed. What will happen next?
Remember Aleksandr Bastrykin's "forest scandal"? In light of the horrors Leonid Razvozzhayev says he endured, merely hauling a journalist out into the woods and threatening his life looks positively quaint. Bastrykin has managed to survive -- and indeed thrive -- amid not just the forest incident, but also the revelations about his unreported properties and business dealings in Europe. And his sharp bureaucratic elbows have made him plenty of enemies inside the elite.
Will the mushrooming scandal around Razvozzhayev's abduction and alleged torture finally be the one that brings him down? I wouldn't count on it.
Bastrykin enjoys President Vladimir Putin's favor and the Kremlin leader isn't one to throw his people under the bus. Moreover, the case that led to Razvozzhayev's abduction -- allegations that he, Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov, and Konstantin Lebedev conspired with Georgian officials to provoke mass unrest in Russia -- was clearly green lighted at the highest level. But more pertinent than how the scandal will affect Bastrykin is another question: Is this one of those tipping point cases that turns a critical mass of the public against the regime? We'll see in the coming weeks. But even by the standards of today's Russia, what appears to have happened to Razvozzhayev is pretty shocking.
According to the account he gave to human rights activists who visited him in detention, he was abducted in Kyiv outside the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was helping him apply for political asylum. He had been directed there by the UN High Commission for Refugees. Razvozzhayev says he was bundled into a van, basically hogtied (he was handcuffed and his legs were chained to his hands), had a balaclava put over his head, and driven for five hours across the Russian border. His abductors then turned him over to men who held him in a basement and kept him for three days in chains. He was told he and his family would be killed if he didn't sign a confession implicating himself, Udaltsov, and Lebedev. He wasn't allowed to use the toilet. And he believes he was drugged. After he finally relented and wrote the confession, he was driven to Moscow and taken to the Investigative Committee.
The case against Razzovzhayev, Udaltsov, and Lebedev -- which was initiated by the latest installment of NTV's "documentary" film series "Anatomy of Protest" -- looked shaky at best from the start. But the authorities appear intent on pursuing it regardless of the circumstances. Why they so relentlessly went after Razzovzhayev -- who, until now, was a bit player in the case -- also remains a mystery. Was his "confession" necessary to build a case against Udaltsov, the obvious main target of this whole drama? Were they trying to expand the case and target opposition State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomaryov, for whom Razvozzhayev works as an aide? Who knows?
But what is clear is that the scandal is changing Russia's national conversation in a way that could be devastating for the authorities. "Clearly now everybody will be talking about torture. This is a poison pill for Putin," Gleb Pavlovsky, editor of the Russ.ru website and a former Kremlin adviser, told The Moscow Times. And this comes at a time when the ruling elite's standing with the public is at its Putin-era nadir. A report released October 24 by the Committee of Civic Initiatives, a think tank associated with former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, said Putin is supported by just 44 percent of the population. But even that number -- an all-time low for the president -- paled in comparison to the way survey respondents characterized their government. Asked to compare their rulers to an animal, 88 percent named some sort of predator -- either a wolf, lion, or wild boar.
And Razvozzhayev's ordeal will only serve to harden those attitudes.
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.