Should Putin Worry About Spate of Whistleblowing?

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Alexei Druzhinin / Pool / AP / RIA-Novosti

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin addresses an international Arctic conference in Moscow on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2010

Russia has its fair share of whistleblowers. Over the past few years, at least a dozen of them — local officials, policemen, entrepreneurs — have taken it upon themselves to air their boss's dirty laundry. Most often, a complaint is addressed to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the country's strongman, who then has the option of boosting his ratings by setting the matter straight. But in recent weeks, this phenomenon has started turning on its head. New whistleblowers are making Putin out to be the bad guy, and that has left many Russians wondering, What is their motivation? And why now?

It's tempting to think that in Russia's descent into perennial corruption, some moral line has simply — finally — been crossed. "That is the typical whistleblower's story — just someone who gets angry about being part of a corrupt organization. They can't live with themselves anymore until they do something about it," says the University of Maryland's Fred Alford, an authority on whistleblowers.

This profile would seem to fit Russia's latest to speak out: Natalia Vasilieva, 42, a judge's assistant. On Feb. 14, she revealed to the press that her boss, the judge who in December sentenced the imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky to six years in jail in addition to the eight he has already served, had been under the "constant control" of judges from a higher court and almost had a heart attack when they pushed him to read a guilty verdict he hadn't even written. (The judge, Viktor Danilkin, has denied Vasilieva's account while declining to fire her or press charges for slander.)

Although the details of Vasilieva's story were fascinating, the crux of it was no surprise. Most observers had long claimed that the Khodorkovsky trial was politicized, part of Putin's vendetta against the oil billionaire who had challenged him in the early 2000s. But Vasilieva is the first insider to confirm that the process was fixed. This put Putin in an awkward spot. The Khodorkovsky case is a central part of his political legacy, and he has claimed for years that its prosecution was all done by the book. He has not responded to Vasilieva's statement, which was given to a small cable-news channel and wasn't reported by the big state-run networks.

The public's response has been one of suspicion. Practically no one believed that Vasilieva, a former cook at a train-station café, had come forward out of a sense of moral purpose. "In Russia, a person who goes against the system is treated in the best case like some foolish Don Quixote, or, more frequently, he is suspected of having some low-down motive, usually greed," says Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Center think tank in Moscow.

One theory is that Vasilieva made a secret deal with Khodorkovsky, but that's undercut by the fact that the oligarch's lawyers were also deeply skeptical about her account. One defense attorney told the Kommersant daily that Vasilieva's statements "are of a speculative nature," while another said she and the judge should take a lie-detector test. Besides, no amount of money would seem to justify the enormous risk she has taken, as the case of the late whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko suggests. The former spy accused Putin of vicious crimes in 2002; four years later, he was poisoned with a rare isotope of polonium and died an excruciating death in London. Putin has denied all involvement.

The far more common theory paints Vasilieva as one link in a chain of whistleblowers who have come forward recently. The most famous is Sergei Kolesnikov, a businessman who said in December that he was involved in building a secret palace for Putin worth at least $1 billion, most of which was paid for by kickbacks from Russia's super-rich. He pointed to his conscience as a motive; Putin's spokesman has denied the claims. Then there is Alexei Navalny, an investor and activist who published documents in November that appear to show $4 billion in fraud in Russia's oil-pipeline monopoly, whose management has close links to Putin. The monopoly denies any fraud, while Putin's only comment was to praise its management days after the documents were released.

"Navalny got those documents from somewhere, and the others clearly had outside encouragement too. It's obvious that these [revelations] were prepared long in advance and released in a steady stream," says Olga Krystanovskaya, head of Moscow's Center for the Study of Elites. She believes that the whistleblowers were prepped by people in President Dmitri Medvedev's team — with promises of protection from any potential backlash — with the aim of turning public opinion against Putin in the run-up to Russia's presidential election next year. "This is part of a hidden war," says Krystanovskaya.

Favored by most of Russia's talking heads, this theory — which pits Putin against Medvedev as rival candidates for the next presidency — fits into the country's pre-election narrative, the prism through which almost every major news event recently has been viewed. Although both men have said they would amicably decide on who will run in 2012, Russia's pundits cannot believe that either of them would let the other take the Kremlin without a fight. "All these recent revelations are part of the friction between the two branches of the elite," says Lipman.

But of the two possible explanations for Russia's recent spate of whistleblowing — newfound morality or political sabotage — it's not clear which would pose a greater threat to Putin. If he does face off against Medvedev and his loyalists, Putin seems up to the challenge. He chose Medvedev in 2008 as his successor and still enjoys broad support among the bureaucracy, military and police, who would play a crucial role in any struggle for control of Russia. Yet if the more banal theory holds — if a sense of moral revulsion is actually rousing dissent inside Putin's ranks — that may prove trickier for the Prime Minister to tackle.

"Whistleblowers, when they have the courage to come forward, make us all confront what is wrong in our society," says Alford. That courage could come from the protection of Putin's rivals, who would be keen to encourage the nascent tattlers in the Prime Minister's midst to come forward before the presidential vote. And if they do, there's no telling what ugly secrets could float to the surface this year — or what methods could be used to push them back.