Admittedly, it’s a colorful story. Valiant press baron struggles to maintain independence of TV station; journalists broadcast emergency programs, calling for free speech; tens of thousands of people take to streets in rainy Moscow and St. Petersburg, clutching umbrellas and banners reading “NTV is protection from lies.” Now, the State Department and the Council of Europe have issued angry statements, and there are big personalities involved: Vladimir Gusinsky, the press baron, now in exile in Spain; Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia; Yevgeny Kiselyov, the talk show host and former general director of NTV, who has temporarily turned the station into a battleground. Even Ted Turner is now trying to buy shares in the company, raising an interesting question: Which is worse for Russian democracy, President Putin’s pro-government television, or the CNNization of the Russian evening news?
I’m sorry, I suppose it isn’t funny. Plus, as I have written before, any evidence of nascent civil society in Russia is something to be cheered, and this past weekend’s demonstrations are precisely that. It is also true that, although the business side of this story is complicated, last week’s shareholder meeting did seem to result in an effective state takeover of NTV, the last Russian national TV station to remain critical of the government. Given the importance of national television in Russia—where not everybody can even afford the local papers—this really does bode ill for the future of open public debate in Russia.
What I don’t like about the loud reactions to the NTV story, both in Russia and abroad, is that they seem to me too little, too late, and not quite on target. For one thing, it is clear that, whatever good things he may have done in the course of his career, Gusinsky himself is no hero: At the very least, had he not plunged his media group, Media-Most, into debt, it would have been more difficult for Gazprom, the state-controlled energy company, to take control.
More importantly, despite all the attention being paid to NTV, no one has paid much attention to the Russian regional media, which has been under a far more systematic siege for the past several years. I first became properly aware of this problem six years ago when, at a conference in Volograd, I encountered a group of Russian journalists. One worked for a local TV station that was owned by the regional government, as are most local TV stations in Russia. I asked her what would happen if she broadcast something critical of the governor. “They would shut us down,” she said flatly.
Paradoxically, this conversation took place at a time when Boris Yeltsin was still president of Russia, the IMF was still depositing millions of dollars into the Russian state budget, and no one had yet started much to worry about the return of authoritarianism to Russia. At the time, there were, on paper, myriad Russian media outlets: hundreds of TV stations, radio stations, newspapers. On closer inspection, however, it turned out that most Russian media were losing money—lots of money. That meant that many were being bought up, either by one of the Russian “oligarchs,” who were at the time forming big, pro-Yeltsin media groups; or by local businessmen, who were often fronting for the local governor; or, outright, by the local governor himself. Sad that no one thought of directing a little of that Western aid money into teaching local newspapers about the virtue of the classified ad.
Since then, the situation has grown much worse. Although President Yeltsin didn’t care much for criticism, he seems to have understood, at least in principle, why a free press is necessary. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, believes all media to be pro-state or anti-state, and he actually seems not to grasp that the press could have any other function. Alexei Venediktov, the chief editor of Ekho Moskvy, Media-Most’s flagship radio station, was at a meeting that Putin held with Media-Most journalists in February. The Russian president explained what he thought they should be doing: “Your job is to support the state.” Venediktov says he told him that ” ‘we are not an instrument of the state.’ He didn’t know what I was talking about.”
At the moment, the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a Russian media watchdog that keeps track of these things, reckons that only about a quarter of the country’s media is even nominally in private hands, and many of these are businessmen who front for the state authorities. By the end of this year, they guess that number will fall to 5 percent. This transformation has official support. Across the country, powerful regional governors, appointed by Putin, are already creating media-holding groups that will, among other things, control all access to advertising, effectively eliminating even the semi-independent regional media that exists at the moment.
Those not destroyed financially may be eliminated by other means. At Novaya Gazeta, a feisty Moscow biweekly with a circulation of about 100,000, one journalist has been murdered. Earlier this year another was beaten unconscious by thugs who then deliberately etched deep scars into his face with a knife. Novaya Gazeta’s advertisers have begun to drift away; last year, the paper was subjected to nearly 30 separate “tax inspections,” which have now become the established form of state harassment in a country whose tax laws are so complex and so contradictory that it is virtually impossible for any company to comply with them.
Outside of Moscow, methods have been more direct. Last summer, the Bashkir authorities laid siege to the region’s only independent radio station for nine days, then they stormed the offices and led the station’s employees away in handcuffs. In Moscow, Venediktov points out that the Russian authorities are more careful: “Putin wants to stay in the club of world leaders. He wants to keep up a civilized façade.” Thus will the harassment probably continue at a low level, causing only minimal public reaction, either in Russia or abroad.
But that, perhaps, has been the oddest thing about the slow attempt to eliminate opposition press—and, ultimately, opposition thinking—from Russia: the stunning silence that has, so far, surrounded the whole process. “Society supports the destruction of NTV,” is how Alexei Simonov, the Glasnost Defence Foundation’s president, succinctly puts it. In their current “national-patriotic mood,” he says, many Russians assume, like their president, that “opposition” journalists, especially those with superwealthy proprietors, are by definition working against the interests of the nation.
Yet without NTV, Russia may soon resemble, in the words of one of Simonov’s colleagues, “Russia of the 1970s”: a vast state propaganda machine—and a tiny group of “dissidents,” like last weekend’s protesters, who oppose it. Perhaps not coincidentally, that is also the Russia—not Stalin’s nightmarish Russia, but Brezhnev’s stultifying Russia—in which Vladimir Putin came of age and to which he often nostalgically looks back. After 10 years of change in Russia, it seems quite a modest goal toward which to strive.