The Guriev Affair – Signal or Noise?

Last month, well-known Russian economist Sergei Guriev fled Russia in an apparent attempt to avoid what he described as a politically motivated investigation of his involvement in co-authoring a 2011 report critical of Russia’s prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In an interesting twist, Guriev was reelected to Sberbank’s board on Friday.

Who is Guriev?

Guriev was serving as head of the New Economic School in Moscow and has a professional background in economics. Guriev was a member of the Presidential Council on Science, Technology, and Education, as well as the Presidential Commission for the Implementation of Priority National Projects and Demographic Policy. Importantly, Guriev was also one of the authors of the idea for the Skolkovo Innovation Center and was a member and driving force behind Dmitry Medvedev’s “Open Government” (Открытое Правительство) initiative.

Guriev also serves on the boards of directors at various companies, including OAO “Sberbank”, OAO “AlfaStrakhovanie”, and OAO “Rossiiskaya Venturnaya Kompaniya”. Guriev publishes a regular column at the Russian business daily Vedomosti, and has also published articles in The New York TimesMoscow Times, Project SyndicateEkspert, and other outlets. Since fleeing Russia, Guriev has taken up residence in Paris at the Instituts d’études politiques.

What was the proximate cause of Guriev’s departure?

News of Guriev’s departure first broke on Tuesday, May 28, when it was first reported that he would leave his position at the New Economic School. Guriev was quoted as stating that he was merely abroad on vacation, and not as part of a permanent move. By Friday, May 31, Guriev acknowledged to the NYT via email that he does not plan on returning to Russia.

Guriev explained that his decision stemmed from a conflict-of-interest investigation into the authors of the 2011 report on the Khodorkovsky case prepared by the Council on Human Rights. Essentially, investigators allege that experts involved in the preparation of the 2011 report were paid by Khodorkovsky’s NGO “Open Society” (Открытое общество). Still, there seems to be some doubt among experts as to whether the facts presented by investigators – even if true – would amount to criminal conduct. Others have noted that the report was prepared by the Council on Human Rights – not the individual experts targeted in the investigation – and thus the investigators are “confusing an expert study with free advice for government agencies.”

Guriev stated that the investigators had grown more aggressive over the past few months, “culminating in a sudden … demand that he surrender five years’ worth of professional and personal e-mails and submit to searches of his office and home.” The growing intensity of the investigation led Guriev to conclude that he would be named as a suspect, and not simply a witness, in the Khodorkovsky report case. According to Guriev, in late-April he learned from “well-placed friends” that he no longer had sufficient political protection to avoid being targeted.

The reason for Guriev’s loss of political protection was summed up well by an unnamed silovik source in Nezavisimaya Gazeta (emphasis added):

  • “If you support the other side, then why did you take from us? And he lived well. That is, if you want to play the [part of] opponents, then go live on your own.”
  • “He openly and publicly announced his support of Navalny … that there were falsifications at the elections, and that Khodorkovsky is in jail illegally.”
  • “We don’t know what he discusses while in New York or France or elsewhere with other individuals.”

The same source suggested that there is actually/also an investigation into “some nuances of the New Economic School.” Under this scenario, the Khodorkovsky report investigation was actually used as a ruse to obtain access to Guriev’s emails, home, and office.

Anti-liberal trend?

As other analysts have argued, it is possible that Guriev overreacted to the perceived threat of criminal prosecution, or wanted to promote his own career, or wanted a plausible reason to leave Russia and obtain asylum in a Western country (not that there is any evidence he is petitioning or plans to petition for asylum in France or anywhere else). But that line of thinking misses the point.

The point is that it could be true that Guriev fled Russia to avoid political persecution, and is just as, if not more, likely than any of the alternatives. Such a scenario is difficult to imagine in any of the countries whose economic performance and social development Russia seeks to emulate.

The Guriev affair is the latest in a number of ‘anti-liberal’ developments. These range from major criminal investigations – at Skolkovo in particular – to minor course corrections in policy, such as Putin’s decision to delay Russia’s joining of the  Open Government Partnership. Even Vladislav Surkov – the architect of Putin’s power vertical – got into a public shouting contest with the Investigative Committee over the Skolkovo investigations and got himself fired in the process. And Surkov’s not even a ‘liberal’, except in the post-ironic sense of a shape-shifting political operative.

The moves against the ‘system liberals’ who populate[d] Medvedev’s team are important in light of similar and harsher measures taken against the ‘anti-system’ opposition such as Navalny, Udaltsov, etc., as well as the dawn raids at NGOs to check compliance with the new NGO law.

Guriev foreshadows a worsening and unavoidable dynamic

The statements of the silovik quoted in Nezavisimaya Gazeta and reactions of other regime celebrants such as Sergei Markov do not bode well for Russia’s political – not to mention economic – development. Despite his involvement with the protest movement, Guriev was not a driving force behind any threat to the regime. The post-Soviet Russian elite has tended to tolerate intellectual diversity, even within its own ranks. The idea is to preempt the formation of organized discontent by maintaining a facade of intellectual diversity.

Someone like Guriev can think and say whatever he pleases, so long as his ideas are unpopular and ineffectual. The regime gets two for the price of one: it appears enlightened because of the faux ‘competition of ideas’ in the country, and undermines the rise of an opposition because just enough freedom and opportunity is available.

Guriev’s case suggests that the siloviki hivemind has made a conscious decision to abandon the ‘diet’ authoritarianism approach. Why? The most likely explanation would be that the protest movement that arose after the 2011 Duma elections scared the regime and led some to the dubious conclusion that the liberals in Medvedev’s team caused it to happen. The ‘enemy’ (or CIA/State Department/George Soros/etc.) planned and financed it.

 

Thus, the purge of system liberals like Guriev is likely to pick up steam, even if this dynamic serves to weaken the regime further.

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