Ivan Golunov, Jan Kuciak, and the politics of the last straw (or the last straws…)

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I’m always wary of grand claims that “everything has suddenly changed”, not least because specific events tend rather to be the dots on the graph that show us wider processes and trends rather than true historical junctures in their own right. But I have just got back from Slovakia, where the 2018 murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírováled to the downfall of a government and — arguably — the political backlash against a cronyist status quo that saw the rise of the brand-new Progressive Slovakia party, and the election of their presidential candidate, Zuzana Čaputová. People knew that their politics were corrupt, that cosy deals between businesspeople, gangsters are officials were commonplace, and that it was not necessarily safe to probe too deeply into them. The 27-year-old Kuciak did, though, and when he died, it somehow catalysed a long-building public anger at the status quo. Somehow, this felt different, and not just within Slovakia’s relatively small and tightly-knit political and media classes.

So too the arrest of Russian journalist Ivan Golunov feels as if may be another of these catalytic moments. He dug a little too deeply into too many corrupt deals in Moscow, and the shabby and pretty transparent frame-up and subsequent beating at the hands of the police has become a cause celebre. People have queued up to protest ever since the arrests, cultural figures are openly criticising the case, and three heavyweight newspapers – Vedomosti, RBC and Kommersant – are all running covers tomorrow that say “We are Ivan Golunov.”

On the one hand, it is easy to be a little skeptical. After all, such cases happen all the time in Russia, alas — but not usually in Moscow. That people are still willing to be investigative journalists in the provinces, a career every bit as safe and comfortable as being a war correspondent, continues to inspire and amaze me. Their cases fail to make the same splash, though, even when they lead to murder, not mishandling. It would be easy to snark, to say that Golunov’s status as a member of the Muscovite media family is what made this one prominent, that it is his friends and colleagues who have made this such a big deal — or those who fear they might be next. But so what? It is not just journalists who are protesting, and there is often a degree of arbitrariness as to which stories catch the public attention and which do not. Several people in Slovakia, after all, said that Kuciak’s age was a crucial issue, that even for members of the elite they could feel that it could have been one of their children.

On the other, it is easy to get carried away, to see this as some tipping point, the beginning of the end for a corrupt system. Obviously, we’ll have to see, as the truth of the matter is that we rarely spot those pivotal moments at the time. The scale of the protests and the way these newspaper have coordinated their very public responses are striking, to be sure, but I don’t think this is the cause of some sea change. Rather — and actually I think this is a more optimistic perspective — I think it is a symptom.

I faced some pushback last week when, in response to a story about Levada polling that showed growing willingness to join protests, I suggested that even though many of the issues ostensibly causing them were very specific and local, this should be seen as demonstrating a shift in attitudes. Ultimately, however much even the protesters might try to deny it, everything is political.

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The social contract of late Putinism allows a degree of protest, activism, even democracy — as long as it does not seem to be a threat to the core interests of the state and Putin and his close cronies personally. Civil society, even politics, exist, but the etiquette is to protect that there is not a direct connection between the irritants, whether road tolling, environmental damage, or whatever, and the overall political situation. Of course, though, everyone knows there is; everyone understands that the fundamental root causes are corruption, inefficiency, clientelism and unresponsiveness within the ruling elite.

The Kremlin presumably assumes that, like the fake party politics of the Zyuganov ‘n’ Zhirinovsky circus, this bleeds off pressure and helps maintain the status quo. But a key difference is that these protests are generated from below, not choreographed from above. Little by little, they create the organisational habits, structures and skills of protest, and also a culture of calling power to account. When an especially egregious case such as Golunov’s comes along, one that has the right characteristics — it’s in Moscow, it’s patently unfair, it’s close to the heart of the mobilising media, and it fits general assumptions about how “they” punish “us” — then not only does it push these processes forward a little, but we get to see them at work.

It is not likely to be the last straw, by any means. In Slovakia’s case, after all, there was a free media and genuine democracy not only to turn popular dissatisfaction into political change, but also to help encourage people that such an outcome was possible and worth fighting for. But it may prove to have been one of them.

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1 Comment

  1. Euan Grant

     /  June 10, 2019

    The Jan Kuciak case has everything, and should have received much more attention in the West. There have been disturbing indicators of a lack of curiosity and hopefully the Golunoiv case can kickstart a more holistic and energetic look.

    Reply

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