The Future of the Free Media in Russia
Meeting report, Vol. 3, No. 13, May 1, 2001

On Tuesday, May 1, 2001, Masha Lipman and Igor Malashenko discussed the recent attacks on free media in Russia, and its implications for Russia's political development. In addition to Gazprom's take-over of NTV, the only independent national television network, the daily Segodnya has been shut down and the entire staff of the weekly Itogi fired. Masha Lipman is the former Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Itogi; Igor Malashenko is the First Deputy Chairman of the Board of Directors of Media-Most. The discussion was moderated by Carnegie Endowment Senior Associate Michael McFaul.

Malashenko: Putin's KGB Regime

Malashenko placed the responsibility of the NTV take-over on President Putin, and contended that the affair demonstrates exactly what kind of a regime Russia has today. The President passed "a point of no return" -- if NTV was a "fork in the road" for Russia, and the choice stood between building a functioning democracy and reverting back to the Russian and Soviet pathological political culture, then Putin has chosen the latter.

The past year there has been a preoccupation with the question "Who is Mr. Putin?" Now we know the answer, Malashenko claimed -- Mr. Putin and his regime are the KGB. Putin's regime is obsessed with traditional KGB goal of control. The Putin team really believes that if they acquire control over the country, they will be able to accomplish something important. Yet, Malashenko noted, the government has not been able to provide any viable solutions to any of Russia's pressing problems thus far, and it is highly improbable that they will be able to do so having built a consensus around Putin.

Building a consensus and acquiring control - even if it is not exactly Soviet-style control -- involves an elimination of all systems of checks and balances. In that respect, the attacks on the mass media is not a singular case, but just one instance of this trend. The same is happening with political parties, as more and more parties join ranks with the pro-Putin Unity, creating essentially a one-party system. Malashenko disagrees with members of the political elite like Chubais and Nemtsov, who view the NTV affair as a "minor bump" on the road to democracy and market capitalism; without a free press and other critical voices of opposition, Putin will not be able to achieve the promised economic reforms. And a government-controlled mass media can never be free, it is "an incurable evil."

According to Malashenko, Putin's KGB regime is placing Russia on a "collision course" with the United States. There has been a lot of misperceptions about Putin in the US over the past year, but it is time to stop allowing him the benefit of the doubt. President Putin and his key supporters are "viscerally anti-American," and will bring their KGB views to bear on Russian foreign policy. It should be of no surprise if North Korea, Iran or Iraq emerge with a more threatening arsenal of weapons and a more advanced nuclear program. Whether as a response to President Bush's NMD plans, or in some other form, there will be trouble for the US from Russia.

"The only future for Russia is to become a Western nation," Malashenko emphasized. Over the last decade, US-Russian relations have been characterized as a "strategic partnership," the goal of which was not entirely formulated to most American leaders. Malashenko advocated a new strategy and a new goal to guide the US in its relations with Russia -- a strategy of compulsion. Without US support and influence, NTV, Itogi and Segodnya would have been shut down a long time ago, Malashenko claimed. The US should use its influence to compel Russia to enter the West -- for its own sake, for the US, and for the rest of the world.

Lipman: Eliminating Opposition to What End?

When Kremlin began its campaign against Gusinski and his media holding, Lipman stated that her news weekly Itogi, with its modest circulation, was not worried about its own fate. (Itogi is published in cooperation with Newsweek, by Seven Days publishing house that is part of Gusinski Media-Most empire). That President Putin would go after NTV is understandable; national television is truly a powerful tool of influencing public opinion. But why would Kremlin bother with a small bunch of liberal-minded individuals who read Itogi?

Yet on April 17, 2001 the entire staff of Itogi was fired, under the pretext of restructuring the publishing house, which no longer had space for an old magazine like Itogi. The excuse was clearly bogus; for weeks prior to this date, Lipman said, a new team of journalists was being trained by the publisher to take over Itogi. This new team consisted of 30-40 of Segodnya's staff, a daily newspaper produced by the same publisher. The publisher, deciding to side with the "strong guy" - that is, Gazprom and the Kremlin, told Segodnya journalists that the newspaper will be shut down, but offered them to publish "a magazine." The magazine promised to the Segodnya staff was Itogi.

The new Itogi came out a week ago, without a single mention of these events or even a notice to the readers explaining the change. There was no public protest or outcry and not many stories appeared in the Russian press. Even the take-over of NTV, with its 100 million-strong audience, did not evoke significant public protest. The importance of the two rallies of roughly 20,000 people, Lipman claimed, were exaggerated. These cannot be seen as popular democratic rallies for a liberal cause; people came mostly because they believed NTV risked being shut down altogether.

When NTV was finally taken over by force, the public reaction was largely absent. The state now controls all three national channels; this is barely seen as a problem among Russians. Even the vast majority of people who supported the old NTV staff and came out to rally does not see this as a freedom of speech issue; only 4% believe that this freedom is at stake. Lipman suggests that this is due to two forces. First, Kremlin and Gazprom were successful in their efforts to spin the conflict as a business dispute. Second, the public in Russia is generally in favor of greater government control over all spheres of life, not excluding the mass media. Lipman cited opinion polls demonstrating that over half of the Russian population favor bringing back censorship. Even some journalists do not object to working for a state-controlled media. Today, liberalism is only popular in the economic sphere, while individual freedoms are regarded as Western values unfit for Russia.

Government rightly regards free media as a political threat; and since the people generally don't care about the free media, the Kremlin saw no reason to preserve it. Putin and his advisers view a uniformity of opinion as a prerequisite for liberal economic reform. The desire for liberal reform is understandable, even if it requires certain compromises, but Lipman voiced a major reason for skepticism about Kremlin's ability to carry out such reform.

If Kremlin wants to have full license to implement economic reform, it needs to have a specific plan, and it needs to base this plan on an accurate, objective assessment of the country's needs. Fist, the Kremlin is not a monolith, but an entity of feuding teams that disagree on most major issues. The first year of Putin's presidency was wasted in inaction, not because of political opposition to Kremlin's reform plans, but because these feuding teams within the Kremlin could not agree on any course of action in most major areas crying for reform.

Second, the current system is unable to give the necessary accurate and objective assessment of the situation. Lipman brought up two examples of inaccurate assessment and poor information. When the Kursk submarine sank last August, the nation and President Putin were told that Russia had the state-of-the-art equipment to rescue the sailors; as it transpired, a foreign rescue team accomplished in half-hour what Russia failed to do in a week. More recently, President Putin traveled to Austria to conclude an arms deal, in which he had utmost confidence, only to discover upon arrival, that the Austrian government had no interest in the deal. These are just two of the many examples of misinformation and poor assessments that should put in doubt the ability of the Kremlin to undertake the correct remedies to Russia's problems, even if opposition is absent.

Putin and his advisers are now able to act unhindered by parliamentary opposition or dissenting media; their time to make decisions has come. Whether Putin can make the right choices, or whether he is even properly informed to make them is doubtful. Lipman concluded by warning that unanimity of opinion is unlikely to ensure better implementation of reforms. "A passive, uncommitted and misinformed nation" cannot be expected to overturn the status quo; and the hopes that changes will be carried out entirely by some well-meaning government bureaucracy are even more unfounded.

Summary by Elina Treyger, Junior Fellow with the Russian and Eurasian Program.