MOSCOW, June 6 (Howard Amos, RIA Novosti) – When investigators summoned prominent Russian economist Sergei Guriev for questioning in February, his first thought was that his professional work could be paralyzed if they confiscated his computers and documents.
“With other experts, they took everything away so they could not function,” Guriev told RIA Novosti by telephone from Paris, where he fled on April 30 fearing arrest for his role in a 2011 report that questioned the legal basis for the imprisonment of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Looking at the pressure exerted on Guriev – who is well known among economists, foreign investors and top officials – and the report’s other coauthors, Russian academics and researchers have started to fear a growing intolerance for independent expertise in policymaking and, perhaps, in general.
“Guriev’s experience has left an unpleasant aftertaste,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a top think tank advising the government.
The exact goals of the investigation in question are unclear. Last week, Russia’s powerful Investigative Committee confirmed that Guriev had been questioned in connection with the decade-old case against Khodorkovsky and his oil company, Yukos. Prior to his 2003 arrest, Khodorkovsky had come to pose a political and even economic challenge to the Kremlin, which led to much criticism of his prosecution as unfair and stage-managed by Russian authorities.
Those who have been questioned, including Guriev, are unable to share the details of their meetings with investigators because they signed non-disclosure agreements. The uncertainty has prompted some commentators to suggest the authorities may be preparing new criminal charges, a so-called “third case,” against Khodorkovsky.
Guriev said investigators told him they would question him, as a witness, for a second time on April 25, but instead arrived at his office at the New Economic School with a court order to seize all his emails from the last five years.
“If they lied to me that time,” said Guriev, who headed the research university until last month, “they can lie to me again.”
The Khodorkovsky report was commissioned by then-President Dmitry Medvedev’s Human Rights Council to examine the 2010 trial of the oil magnate and his business partner, Platon Lebedev. Nine experts, including three foreigners, worked – for free – on the report, coming to similarly critical verdicts, without any contact with each other.
Five of the six Russian experts have since been questioned by investigators or had equipment and documents confiscated, according to Tamara Morshchakova, a former Constitutional Court judge and now a professor at the esteemed Higher School of Economics (HSE), who coordinated the compilation of the report.
“It’s beyond the pale,” she told RIA Novosti. “The Human Rights Council cannot invite anyone [to participate in expert research] under such circumstances.”
Another of the report’s coauthors, Mikhail Subbotin, also an HSE professor, was the first to be investigated. He said his office and dacha were searched on September 7 last year and that he is still unable to work as all his computers, and records, were confiscated.
“It’s a classic, narrow-minded government agency approach,” he said in a telephone interview. “They should be looking into crimes, but they are settling scores with people who criticize them.”
Searches linked to the Yukos case took place as recently as last month in the offices of HSE staff, a university spokesperson confirmed Tuesday.
As part of the same investigation, Russian officials also searched the homes of HSE professor Yelena Novikova – not just in Moscow, but in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where her husband works as a lawyer, according to Subbotin.
Novikova did not participate in the Khodorkovsky report, but works in the Centre for Legal and Economic Research, an HSE-affiliated think tank, alongside Subbotin and Morshchakova. She is currently in Almaty, and has not returned to Russia since the latest searches, said Subbotin.
According to some academics and researchers, the ongoing crackdown is part of a broader Kremlin-driven effort to intimidate critical social scientists and economists.
“There is a whole cluster of experts … who are in a very pessimistic mood,” said Vladimir Nazarov, an economist who, like Guriev, worked as an expert for the Open Government initiative, a project set up by Medvedev to make the executive branch more transparent.
Disregard for expert opinion is particularly acute within the presidential administration and has spiked since Putin returned to the Kremlin last year, said historian Nikolai Svanidze, a member of the Public Chamber, a national advisory body.
“Expertise is [considered] friendly if it coincides with the opinion of the authorities … but if it diverges it is hostile and paid for,” he said. “In the Soviet Union it was exactly the same.”
But an official from the presidential administration’s expert council, which coordinates dozens of experts advising the Kremlin, told RIA Novosti that no notable changes have taken place in the group’s work during Putin’s third term.
“The format and intensity of our work over the past year haven’t changed in any way,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak to the media and thus requested anonymity. “We’re working with experts just as we worked with them before.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has told reporters that Guriev’s departure was a personal matter, not political.
However, a controversial new law obliging some NGOs, including a number of analytical groups and the respected Levada Center pollster, to register as “foreign agents” was heavily criticized last week by Russian economists in an open letter to the Vedomosti newspaper. They said the law threatens to destroy cooperation between independent experts and the authorities.
Guriev declined to comment on the details of what investigators asked him. But a source familiar with the economist’s situation, who requested anonymity because the probe was ongoing, said investigators had suggested to Guriev that he had accepted money from organizations affiliated with Khodorkovsky to influence his research.
Guriev said he has never been paid, directly or indirectly, by Khodorkovsky. He acknowledged that the New Economic School received a grant of $50,000 from a foundation funded by Khodorkovsky back in 2003 – before Guriev was head of the university, and while he was away on a sabbatical at Princeton University.
Even if Guriev had received money from Khodorkovsky that influenced his conclusions in the 2011 report, it might damage his reputation, but it could not be grounds for a criminal case, said Mikhail Fedotov, the head of the Kremlin Human Rights Council that commissioned the report.
Guriev’s decision to leave Russia was particularly shocking because of his apparently close relationships with many senior officials. He had appeared regularly on panels alongside Medvedev (although Guriev said he had not been a close advisor), and served on the board of Russia largest bank, Sberbank – a position to which he was re-elected last week.
Mikhail Abyzov, the minister in charge of the Open Government project, said last week that Medvedev “highly valued Sergei Guriev’s input,” but Medvedev has not directly commented on the case.
Guriev said he finally decided not to return to Russia when it became clear that his acquaintances and friends would not be able to protect him.
“My colleagues said I should not burn bridges [straightaway], so they spoke to high-level political leaders … but from what I heard, I did not consider the risks to be acceptable,” he said.
Speaking for the first time about Guriev on Tuesday, Putin said that, if the famous economist had not done anything illegal, there was nothing threatening him in Russia.
“I only heard this surname recently and I don’t know if he has transgressed the law,” said Putin. “Let him [do his economic work] wherever he wants and wherever he prefers to be.”
Sergei Aleksashenko, a former deputy central banker who is a friend of Guriev’s and holds a senior position at the Center of Development think tank, predicted that Russian experts would continue to follow Guriev abroad: “He is definitely not the first, and certainly not the last.”