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The Belonuchkin Case: An Example of What Happens to Defenders of Democracy in Russia

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In December 2007, Russian political journalist and researcher Grigory Belonuchkin told a court that the results of that month's federal parliamentary elections in two electoral precincts of his home town Dolgoprudnyi near Moscow were tainted. Working as an official observer during the voting for the Russian State Duma, Belonuchkin collected documentation of electoral fraud in favor of Vladimir Putin's party United Russia. In early April 2008, Belonuchkin was beaten so severely that he had to be hospitalized. One fears that Belonuchkin is a case small enough for the Kremlin to let the Dolgoprudnyi gang make the journalist an example for others who may have illusions similar to Belonuchkin’s.

In the night of 2nd April 2008, Russian political journalist and researcher Grigory Belonuchkin (39) received a late telephone call at his home town Dolgoprudnyi, a small city close to Moscow. An unknown man had knocked at his grandmother’s door asking to meet the journalist concerning publication of some material. Belonuchkin’s grandmother explained that her grandson does not live there. She called him, and gave the man at her door the receiver. The man asked Belonuchkin to come out immediately, as “only he could help with this.” Living in a small city where people know each other, Belonuchkin was not afraid to meet the callers. When he arrived at his grandmother’s house, two young men approached and beat him so severely that Belonuchkin had to be hospitalized. Notably, the attackers did not rob the journalist.

The circumstances of the assault indicate that it was related to recent civic activity by the researcher. In December 2007, Belonuchkin had laid information, at a local court, concerning the results of that month’s federal parliamentary elections at two precincts in the Dolgoprudnyi electoral district. Working as an official observer during the voting for the Russian State Duma, Belonuchkin had collected documentation of electoral fraud in favor of Vladimir Putin’s party “United Russia,” in his native town. For instance, at the 306th Electoral Precinct, between the end of the counting of bulletins by the Precinct Commission on 2nd December, and the publication of the results by the Territorial Election Commission on 3rd December, the parties’ numbers of voters changed. While the protocols handed to the election observers on voting day indicated a support of 54,4% for “United Russia,” the protocols that arrived one day later in the Territorial Electoral Commission reported that 82,4% had cast their vote for “United Russia.” Several minor parties, in contrast, had lost most of their votes so that, in the second protocol, the overall number of voters remained the same as in the first. After the elections, fraud suggested itself: Even following months of brainwashing of Russian voters by government-controlled mass media, 82,4% for “United Russia” was an unusually high result for the “party of power” at a Central Russian electoral precinct.

Belonuchkin published his material on these cases in the local press as well as on Vladimir Pribylovsky’s popular website Belonuchkin also initiated a legal process concerning possible electoral fraud, at the Dolgoprudnyi City Court. The day before Belonuchkin’s beating, the hearing’s second session had taken place at which the representatives of the election commission had failed to show up. A third session was scheduled to happen on April 15.

Since December 2007, Belonuchkin had been repeatedly receiving phone calls threatening him and demanding that he discontinues his investigation into the December 2007 elections. He was also suggested, by the anonymous callers, not to take part in the presidential elections on March 2nd, 2008. Otherwise his “head would be ripped off.” The journalist laid information concerning the threats at the local police station. Strangely, his first report was lost by the Regional Department of Interior officials. When Belonuchkin, after further calls, complained for a second time to the police, the officers declined to open a criminal case. They explained their decision by the fact that nothing had happened to Belonuchkin after the researcher’s first complaint about threats. After the 2nd April attack, a Dolgoprudnyi police spokesman said: “We don’t know anything about it, and we are not supposed to comment.”

The carefully planned assault was apparently a direct reaction to Belonuchkin’s persistence and his participation at the court hearings the day before. It is unclear how the perpetrators had managed to get hold of the address of Belonuchkin’s grandmother where they first went. Pribylovsky does not exclude that the hit men found Belonuchkin with the help of those private coordinates that the journalist had submitted when laying information, at the local court. There he gave his grandmother’s flat’s address.

Belonuchkin has an unusual biography. He studied at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations known by its Russian acronym MGIMO. Something between the London School of Economics and Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, MGIMO is related to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As many alumni of MGIMO enter government service, the institute’s careerist student body tends to be, even by Russian standards, politically inactive. Belonuchkin, in contrast, became a civic activist in his second year of study at MGIMO. In 1989, he entered late Soviet Russia’s emerging so-called “informal” movement of various new non-governmental groups. The student started working for the independent Moscow Bureau of Information Exchange that later became the Institute of Human and Political Studies for which Belonuchkin continued to work for several years.

Most of Belonuchkin’s activities since 1989 were, however, linked to the Panorama Information and Research Center - a small group of political investigators around Pribylovsky. A living legend within Moscow’s remaining small opposition scene and frequent contributor to both Russian and Western mass media, Pribylovsky provides on his website free-of-charge background information on numerous prominent Russian figures. His center is known among Russian and foreign journalists in Moscow for its numerous reliable hand-books and dictionaries on many aspects of post-Soviet, above all Russian politics – whether of the lunatic fringe, or in the Kremlin. Belonuchkin edited or authored several of Panorama’s most widely circulated books on the varying composition of the two chambers of Russia’s parliament in 1994-2003, the 1995 and 1999 State Duma and 1996 presidential elections, as well as similar subjects. Belonuchkin has also made himself known by operating a number of informative political issues websites.

Somebody like Belonuchkin was, perhaps, destined to become, at one point or another, a victim of abuse in Putin’s new Russia. To be sure, the electoral fraud and physical attack at Dolgoprudnyi was, probably, not an action of which the Kremlin knew. Yet, the atmosphere that Putin’s entourage had created for the 2007 State Duma elections facilitated it. As Russia was returning to a de facto one-party political system, the officials in the small city seemingly felt compelled to engage in manipulations, and able to let the hit men go. In a democratic state, a vibrant civil society in combination with an independent legal system, would take care of such cases, and bring electoral manipulators, not to mention officials with criminal energy, behind the bars. Yet, Russian society is different and now largely structured around Putin’s “vertical of power” - itself engaged in less obvious, but more consequential manipulation of political processes. The Kremlin’s “political technologists” do so mostly not by fraud, but sophisticated management of information flows and small-scale sabotage of independent activity – so as not raise too much local and international attention. One fears that Belonuchkin is such a case small enough for the Kremlin to let the Dolgoprudnyi gang make the journalist an example for others who may have illusions similar to Belonuchkin’s.

[A heavily edited version of this article was published by “The Jerusalem Post” on April 10th, 2008, This version contained a number of imprecisions that are corrected in the above text.]

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============================================================================== Andreas Umland, CertTransl (Leipzig), MA (Stanford), MPhil (Oxford), DipPolSci, DrPhil (FU Berlin), PhD (Cambridge). Visiting fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution (more...)
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