A discussion meeting with Masha Lipman, Editor of Pro et Contra magazine, at the current state of Russian media in the context of recent reforms in Russia.

On December 2, 2004, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a meeting on the current state of Russian media in the context of recent reforms in Russia. The speaker was Masha Lipman, Editor of Pro et Contra magazine and Scholar-in-Residence with the Civil Society Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Anders Åslund, Director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment, moderated the session.

Masha Lipman began her presentation by stating that the recent events in Ukraine exemplify the central feature that is missing from Russian democracy: a system of checks and balances. This system has been demonstrated in the efficiency of the judicial and legislative branches to counter balance the corrupt executive branch by discarding the results of a contested runoff election. In Russia, on the contrary, such a development has been missing altogether and instances such as the Yukos affair and treatment of Valentin Danilov cast further doubt on the efficiency of the Russian judicial system.

Unlike Ukraine, Russia has been following a path of increased crackdowns on democratic institutions, such as freedom of the press, autonomy of business, multiparty system, existence of opposition, and even regional elections. These reforms, and increasingly undemocratic trends, have contributed to a shift in the view of Putin among the liberal elite; from a more favorable to a more hostile perception, and a rise of a public movement that is critical of Putin. Major newspapers have begun to feature more anti-Putin articles, while conferences and round-tables criticizing Putin’s reforms have become frequent.

The problem, however, is that this movement by the media is isolated from any response of civil society, and, at the same time, civil society fails to stimulate any sort of response from the media. There is a complete lack of a democratic lattice in which both civil society and the media would be effectively integrated. Such a framework could emerge if access to information was increased, and the media became a tool with which the public could hold the government accountable and which could serve as a stimulant for civil society to take action.

To make Kremlin’s control of the public absolute, it has begun to seek control of civil society. To achieve this, the Kremlin utilizes two strategies; one, to marginalize the existing relatively-significant human rights groups and civil society networks; and two, to co-opt loyal organizations and bring them under the auspices of the state. In the context of Russian society, this is not hard to accomplish, and the government implements many tactics in achieving this.

First, Russia lacks a strong civil society core, making resistance to such a movement minimal. Planting seeds of suspicion and discrediting these organizations as instruments of the West, is another effective tactic that has been deployed by the current Russian administration. A policy of superficial promises by the government has also contributed to the increased marginalization of these groups by inviting them to work with the government, but accomplishing little in reality. The creation of parallel institutions, groups or events, further overshadow and neutralize the impact of the actual civil society groups. Co-option of loyal civil society groups further achieves the purpose of bringing civil society under Kremlin’s control.

Co-option is a very compatible idea with Putin’s policy of strengthening the vertical of power, since it would sever the ties along the horizontal institutions. This begins to resemble outsourcing, where regional elites contract the civil society groups to fulfill a particular cultural or social agenda. Ultimately, this removes the autonomy of the civil society groups, and places it under the direct control of the government. Although such structures boast of independence from the government framework, their members are often hand picked by the Kremlin and sometimes as much as a third of their budget comes from the government. A valid example of such an organization is the Public Chamber (Obshestvennaya Palata), which, despite its promise to serve as a counterbalance to the legislative branch, defines clear boundaries around what it will and will not address. Kremlin’s large assets facilitate the task of corruption even further by offering lucrative salaries.

During the question and answer session, Lipman was asked whether the situation in Russia resembled that of Poland in the late 1970s, as well as what defined Russia’s democratic development, which is now so distinct from Ukraine’s, despite similar paths of the two countries in the 1990s. Lipman replied that the main difference between the Russian scenario and that of Poland is the Russian lack of history of a continual struggle that was present in Poland. Today’s Russia also lacks cohesion and unity against one single enemy, and because of high oil prices, does not suffer from economic hardships as Poland did. Russia’s distinction from Ukraine is embedded in Russia’s lack of European influence that Ukraine has enjoyed since independence. Ukraine also lacks natural resources, which has lead to a development of a climate conducive to small business and a self-sustained population. Russia’s size and influence allows it to be less united or to perceive a single threat, as Ukraine perceives Russia, thus hindering political cohesion that is currently present in Ukraine.

When asked about the role of the Internet to motivate civil society and the Russian government’s perception of it, Lipman acknowledged that although this has not yet come under the control of the government, it has potential to be so in the future, as the number of internet users continues to grow. Lipman was also asked if there is room for political diversity, to which she replied that despite recent reforms, there is still vast diversity at the regional level which will continue as long as the Russian government does not become repressive.

The implications for Russia and its President if Victor Yushenko wins the Ukrainian presidential post were also brought up. Lipman noted that although this can potentially weaken Putin in the eyes of the CIS leaders, it will probably have little immediate effect on the citizens of Russia. This, however, can translate into a weakening of Putin overtime.

To a question regarding mobilization of civil society, Lipman replied that although it is true that civil society is doing little to motivate the public, this is primarily the result of a continual inefficiency of government actions, and higher efficiency generated when legal procedures are sidestepped via bribes.

Summary prepared by Alina Tourkova, Junior Fellow with the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.