Yet along with illustrating a loophole in Russian laws regulating protests and embarrassing some senior officials, the episode involving Golunov also highlights another issue: that of Vladimir Putin’s control, or apparent lack thereof, over goings-on in Russia and its security apparatus. While the Russian president undoubtedly exercises a significant amount of power here, the latest episode highlights the dissonance between how he is portrayed abroad—as being a master orchestrator who is to blame for all of the country’s actions, both at home and elsewhere—and the limits of his reach in reality.
Golunov, a reporter with the news website Meduza, had reported on alleged corruption on the part of Moscow Deputy Mayor Pyotr Biryukov, and had reportedly been investigating the apparent involvement of a senior intelligence officer in a funeral company when he was arrested on Thursday—police officers said they found drugs in his backpack and in his apartment, but the journalist said the narcotics were planted there. His detention overshadowed the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, an annual Kremlin-organized event that the Russian government attaches great importance to: This year, Putin was meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.
Those talks got scant press coverage, however. Instead, journalists focused on their colleague’s arrest, and on Monday, the front pages of the country’s leading business newspapers—Kommersant, Vedomosti, and RBK—all bore headlines that read, “We are Golunov,” and carried editorials saying they did not believe statements being made by the police about his detention. “The entire forum’s press center was buzzing with Golunov’s name—none of us could focus on Putin and Xi,” Olga Bychkova, the deputy editor in chief of the Echo of Moscow radio station, told me. According to Brand Analytics, a Russia-based research firm, the journalist’s name was mentioned on social media at least 34,000 times, more than Putin’s, on the last day of the event.
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In short, the entire episode proved a distraction from a set-piece meeting that Putin had expected would garner wide media coverage. Hardly a strategy that the government would have orchestrated. “That was not the Kremlin who wanted to see Golunov behind bars,” Tanya Lokshina, the Moscow-based associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, told me.
Golunov’s arrest and subsequent release are only the latest such example of questions over the limits of Putin’s power. Analysts and critics say there is a degree of freelancing by security officers and government officials who believe they are carrying out the Kremlin’s ultimate bidding, or at least have its passive acquiescence, only to see draconian measures like arresting or attacking critics backfire.