The widening Putin clampdown
In today's Russia, even a moderate critic like Sergei Guriev is in danger of arrest.


Sergei Guriev, Rector of the New Economic School in Moscow, speaks during an interview with Reuters journalists in Moscow September 24, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • In late May, Sergei #Guriev fled Russia fearing arrest. His crime? Being critical of the #Putin regime.

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  • Putin's message: You must stop public criticism of the government—or risk harassment and even jail.

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  • The #Guriev exile marks the beginning of the Putin regime's transition from softer authoritarianism to a much harder and malignant version.

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In late May, Sergei Guriev, a prominent Russian economist and dean of Moscow's prestigious New Economic School, fled Russia fearing imminent arrest. His crime? Being critical of the Putin regime.

His concerns were well founded. Since February, Mr. Guriev had been interrogated more than once by Russia's Investigative Committee, the most feared of the Kremlin's tools of repression, and pressured to surrender personal and professional documents. He and his wife were under surveillance, his office searched, and five years of emails seized. He was told that his home would soon be searched.

Mr. Guriev was no opposition activist, much less an opposition leader—the typical targets of Kremlin harassment. To the contrary, while his incisive analytical articles (a must-read for all Russia watchers) were often critical of government policies—and while he never shied away from advocating the rule of law or condemning corruption—he was in many ways a consummate insider. A longtime adviser to the Kremlin, Mr. Guriev sat on the Presidential Commission on Open Government as well as the board of several state-run companies. Even after fleeing the country, he was re-elected to the board of Sberbank, SBRCY -2.43% Russia's state-controlled banking giant.

It is precisely Mr. Guriev's within-the-system position that makes the regime's attack on him so portentous and troubling. In forcing him into exile, the Kremlin has signaled a unilateral renegotiation of the long-standing social compact with liberal public-opinion leaders.

Not long ago, pro-reform members of the establishment could say and write what they pleased so long as they did not actively support the opposition. Now the message is: You must stop public criticism of the government—or risk harassment and even jail. If you don't like the deal, leave while the going is still good. Those who choose to stay, according to the popular opposition blogger Yulia Latynina, must "believe that the greatness of Russia lies in Vladimir Putin," and that criticism of him is part of a "world conspiracy" or "fifth column" machinations inside the Russian government.

Thus, a year into the authoritarian consolidation that followed Mr. Putin's re-election as president in March 2012, his government has entered a new phase of repression. The Guriev exile marks the beginning of the regime's transition from the softer authoritarianism of who is not against us is with us to a much harder and malignant version of who is not with us is against us.

This is on display in the continuing trial of popular opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a lawyer and anticorruption crusader who had the temerity to declare that he would challenge Mr. Putin in the 2018 election. Facing the unlikely charge that he stole 10,000 cubic meters of timber from a state-owned company while he was an unpaid adviser to a regional governor, Mr. Navalny faces a maximum sentence of 10 years.

Another opposition leader, Sergei Udaltsov of the Left Front movement, is awaiting trial under house arrest for his role in protests against Mr. Putin after last year's election. Mr. Udalstov is charged with the "preparation of riots and mass disorder," arranged with the help of the "government of Georgia." There is little doubt now that, like Mr. Navalny, he is likely to be sentenced "to the full spool of thread," as Russians say of a maximum sentence.

The Guriev ordeal also leaves little doubt about the fate of Russia's most famous prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who more than a decade ago refused to heed Mr. Putin's warning to "stay out of politics." After two trials, two convictions and 10 years in jail, the former "oligarch" and principal owner of the now bankrupt oil giant Yukos is up for release next year. It would not be a surprise if the government found a reason to keep him in jail.

Mr. Guriev's key sin appears to have been his participation, with eight other law and economics experts, in a commission convoked in 2011, at then-President Dmitry Medvedev's request, to address a widespread revulsion over the second trial and conviction of Mr. Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev the previous year. Predictably, the independent commission found the state's case bogus.

In the regime's new mode of repression, the survival of Russia's few remaining independent media outlets looks precarious. These include Ekho Moskvy radio station, the Dozhd television and online station, and the Vedomosti daily and Novaya Gazeta twice-weekly newspapers. The main financier of the latter newspaper, former billionaire Alexander Lebedev, is on trial for "malicious hooliganism" for getting into a fist fight on live television. "The full spool of thread" for him would be five years., where most opposition leaders blog, has in recent years been the target of several mysterious cyber attacks, causing it to shut down for short periods.

"It seems that Russia is entering a new period—the establishment of a dictatorship," a leading Russian political sociologist wrote to me in recent days. Earlier this spring, I would have asked if I could cite him by name and almost certainly would have received his permission. Now that even Sergei Guriev has fled the country, such a request was no longer safe to make without putting my correspondent in danger.

 Mr. Aron is director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991" (Yale University Press, 2012).





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About the Author


  • Leon Aron is Resident Scholar and Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of three books and over 300 articles and essays. Since 1999, he has written Russian Outlook, a quarterly essay on economic, political, social and cultural aspects of Russia’s post-Soviet transition, published by the Institute. He is the author of the first full-scale scholarly biography of Boris Yeltsin, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life (St. Martin’s Press, 2000); Russia’s Revolution: Essays 1989-2006 (AEI Press, 2007); and, most recently, Roads to the Temple: Memory, Truth, Ideas and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991 (Yale University Press, 2012).

    Dr. Aron earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University, has taught a graduate seminar at Georgetown University, and was awarded the Peace Fellowship at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He has co-edited and contributed the opening chapter to The Emergence of Russian Foreign Policy, published by the U.S. Institute of Peace in 1994 and contributed an opening chapter to The New Russian Foreign Policy (Council on Foreign Relations, 1998).

    Dr. Aron has contributed numerous essays and articles to newspapers andmagazines, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, theWall Street Journal Foreign Policy, The NewRepublic, Weekly Standard, Commentary, New York Times Book Review, the TimesLiterary Supplement. A frequent guest of television and radio talkshows, he has commented on Russian affairs for, among others, 60 Minutes,The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Charlie Rose, CNN International,C-Span, and National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and “Talk of theNation.”

    From 1990 to 2004, he was a permanent discussant at the Voice of America’s radio and television show Gliadya iz Ameriki (“Looking from America”), which was broadcast to Russia every week.

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