Russians are puzzling over the strange case of Sergei Guriev – one of the country's leading economists, dean of the world-class New School of Economics in Moscow, member of the board of the giant state bank Sberbank, newspaper columnist, and adviser to the Russian government – who, in a single day this week, concluded a "vacation" in France by abruptly quitting all his posts and announcing that he will not be returning to Russia anytime soon.
In another country, the sudden departure of even such a prominent figure might be regarded as a personal matter, and hence attract little notice. But in Russia, where political significance is seldom far from the surface, Mr. Guriev's flight has been received as a dire signal by many intellectuals that the ongoing crackdown against anti-Kremlin protesters and "politically active" non-governmental organizations may now be expanded to include prominent academics and other professionals who think they should be able to work within the establishment while also maintaining openly critical views about President Vladimir Putin and his policies.
"Guriev's departure is a major blow to the public face of Putin's Russia," says Ilya Ponomaryov, a Duma deputy who is facing his own serious troubles, which include investigation by the Kremlin's powerful Investigative Committee after he became a leader of the protest movement that erupted in December 2011 over alleged electoral fraud.
"People like Guriev, whom we call 'system liberals', are one by one getting sacked. They had played the role of showing that all is basically well, you can be a professional, do your job, have your own opinions, even be critical of the Kremlin, and no ill will befall you. Wittingly or not, they put a respectable front on the regime. But that mask has fallen now, and reality is coming into sharp focus," he says.
Guriev's fall from grace
Though a solid, mainstream figure who served on government commissions and reputedly became close to former President Dmitry Medvedev, Guriev never made any bones about his liberal views – which he espoused in a regular column for the Moscow business daily Vedomosti – his sympathies for the protest movement, or his personal contribution of 10,000 roubles (just over $300) a year ago to anti-corruption blogger and protest leader Alexei Navalny.
Guriev also served on an independent expert panel in 2011 that examined the prosecution's case against politically disobedient oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was sentenced for a second time two years ago, and which found the trial was rife with legal, procedural, and factual errors.
That latter activity may have been Guriev's undoing. During the month of April he was reportedly summoned repeatedly by the Investigative Committee, mainly to discuss Mr. Khodorkovsky and his now-dismantled oil major Yukos, while investigators also paid threatening visits to the New School of Economics.
Finally breaking his silence and speaking to The New York Times on Friday, Guriev said investigators had put escalating pressure on him to cooperate, including a demand to hand over five years' worth of professional and personal emails, and submit to searches of his home and office.
"I have no issues with Putin or Medvedev. It is just that I (and my family) have a subjective dislike of my chances to lose my freedom, given that I have done nothing wrong," the Times quotes Guriev as saying.
The Kremlin's Investigative Committee is building a series of cases against dissidents, including almost 30 people charged with inciting "mass disorders" during peaceful demonstration on the eve of Mr. Putin's inauguration for a third term last May allegedly under the direction of foreign-inspired leaders.
A broader crackdown
Another case – which appears, in the Investigative Committee's narrative, to be related – involves the alleged misappropriation of state funds given to former President Medvedev's pet "modernization" project of Skolkovo. In this dossier, the parliamentarian Mr. Ponomaryov, who was paid $700,000 for research and consultation on behalf of Skolkovo, is accused of being the conduit through which sympathetic government officials allegedly funneled state cash to the street protest movement.
Ponomaryov says the charges are "ridiculous," and that he openly declared and paid taxes on legitimately earned income.
Yet another potential case, which has not yet been announced, may well be a third trial for Khodorkovsky and his co-defendent Platon Lebedev, who are due to be released next year after spending over a decade in prison.
Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Vadim Klyugvant, says they have received no official notice of new charges against his client, but all signs point that way.
"Since the first case was initiated in 2003, there have always been additional charges budding from the principal case," he says. "We've already been through a whole second trial. There is no legal basis for fresh charges against Khodorkovsky, but everything depends upon the tasks set to a group of investigators who have, by now, made their entire careers on pursuing him. Some of them have been promoted to generals by now," he adds.
This connects with Guriev's tale, experts say, because as one of the key experts who tore apart the previous case against Khodorkovsky, he will be under great pressure to recant.
"The Khodorkovsky case was never really closed," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal. "He's supposed to be released next year, but many people, including me, won't believe it until they see it."
'People have to make a choice'
Sergei Markov, a former adviser to Putin who often expresses the inner-Kremlin point of view, says that Guriev was trying to stand on two stools, and couldn't keep it up.
"Guriev was a strong critic of Putin, at the same time he worked for the Russian government. Such people have to make a choice, either don't be an opponent, or don't try to work for the government. Guriev gave expertise to support Khodorkovsky, and yet he had received money from Khodorkovsky. This is a good starting point for investigation," Mr. Markov says.
Guriev strongly denies ever having received money from Khodorkovsky.
Markov goes on to paint a wider conspiracy.
"Guriev's departure was specially organized by some people who want to protect high-level opponents within the establishment. There are such people, who want to retain their high positions while being secret opponents of Putin. Guriev was an open opponent, but there are also hidden ones," he says.
Is Medvedev next?
Some experts say the Investigative Committee is working its way toward accusing members of former President Medvedev's circle, and perhaps ultimately Medvedev himself, of financing, encouraging, and possibly even organizing the protest movement.
"It all comes down to the view, on the part of the siloviki," – former members of the security forces who came into power alongside ex-KGB agent Putin – "that Medvedev was too permissive, too liberal, and that he may have privately sympathized with the protesters," says Ms. Lipman.
"The push for Putin to get rid of Medvedev and everything he supposedly stands for is getting stronger by the day.... Putin is moving from a more open to a more rigorously-controlled society, and the siloviki are playing an increasingly influential role," she adds.
Guriev, the economist who thought he could work within the system without sacrificing his principles, has made his personal escape, but left behind a stark message to the rest of Russia's liberal intelligentsia, she says.
"The Kremlin wants everybody to know that even if the current crackdown comes at the cost of losing some of Russia's best minds, that's a price they don't mind paying."