GLOBAL ECONOMIC VIEWPOINT
IS PUTIN RENEGING ON GLASNOST?
By Freimut Duve
Freimut Duve, the German publisher and writer, is
the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) representative
for Freedom of the Media.
How events unfold in the next few months will reveal whether or not a key lesson of history has finally been learned in Russia: To grow and endure, a successful economy requires freedom of expression.
During President Putin's recent visit to Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder correctly noted that the new Russian president "has the most difficult political task on earth.'' Market reform is facing great difficulties; the war in Chechnya is neither over nor forgotten; and anxious Western investors are demanding stability, while human-rights observers are demanding guarantees of the right of free speech, no matter how clamorous.
There is no doubt that the freedom of citizens and journalists to express their views, investigate government and publish their findings is guaranteed by the laws of the Russian federation. Indeed, albeit with a skeptical smile, then-Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov agreed, when I visited him in Moscow in 1997, to my OSCE mandate to keep an eye on media freedom in his country.
To be fair, Russia has no 200-year history of the unquestioned First Amendment. Modern journalism in Russia has only the experience of centuries of Czarist censorship and, later, communist dictatorship.
While all this must be understood, difficult political challenges or the weight of history can be no more of an excuse than can laws on the books be relied upon as some kind of guarantee when they're undermined by power plays. In modern Europe, to which Russia aspires to be a part, either there is freedom of expression, or there is not.
There was jubilant hope back in the late 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev initiated (ITAL)glasnost(END ITALIC). As market reform shed the assets of the state, and a new power structure based on private ownership of banks and industry took hold, the importance of owning their own media became clear to the new post-Communist oligarchs. Indeed, Gusinsky himself, who began as a banker, rose to become one of the most prominent and influential media magnates, with his NTV station and his weekly magazine, Itogi.
The pivotal event that marked the transition from the ``golden'' glasnost years to today's extremely difficult conditions for free journalism took place in 1996. In that year, the old Kremlin reacted in a new market fashion to an extremely critical article in the national newspaper Izvestia about then-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.
In response, two of Russia's largest companies that stood behind Chernomyrdin -- Oneximbank and Lukoil -- bought Izvestia, fired most of the senior staff and replaced the editor-in-chief with a banker. Though Izvestia remained one of the more unbiased Moscow dailies, it never again attacked Chernomyrdin.
This method of direct political influence, using the new instrument of the market economy, is so common in the post-communist OSCE member states that we have coined a term for it: "structural censorship.''
As the 1999 parliamentary election made clear, most Russian media today are divided among the oligarchs who use them as public-relations agencies in pursuit of their business and political interests. Yuri Lyuskov, Moscow's mayor, saw his election results cut in half by a campaign organized against him by Sergei Dorenko, a famous TV anchorman for another station owned by Boris Berezovsky, the other giant media oligarch.
Under Yeltsin, the Kremlin avoided strong-arm tactics against critical journalism of the kind being used against Gusinsky. The second Chechen war and the arrival of President Putin has changed the situation.
This year there have been cases of harassment of the kind unseen since the last days of the Soviet Union. The most prominent case was the disappearance of Andrei Babitsky, a reporter for Radio Free Europe who was critical of the Russian conduct of the war. Though he was ultimately 'released'' by pro-Russian forces in Chechnya who had captured him, state prosecutors will not allow him to leave Moscow and return to work. In the most alarming reminder of the old days, the government tried to commit Aleksandr Khinstein, a reporter for the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets who was also critical of the war, to a mental hospital.
Though such episodes have already prompted journalists in Moscow and St. Petersburg to revive the old style of prudence and self-censorship, they remain relatively free, compared to their colleagues in the vast expanse of the Russian provinces.
Out there, the brutal "censorship by killing'' often supplements the "structural censorship'' of the oligarch-owned media. In 1998, Ludmila Yudina, a local editor who was investigating corruption by the governor in Kalmykia, was found murdered. Many cases of intimidation or direct violence against journalists in the provinces of the Russian federation have been brought to the attention of my office. Clearly, the fear of revenge for investigative reporting into corruption is growing.
And some local governors or mayors act like local chieftains, squashing any dissent, and even censoring the local editions of national newspapers. On April 14, a critical article on the governor of the Saratov region in Izvestia disappeared from the local edition of the paper.
For a country that has made clear its aspiration to be linked closely with Europe, these are all troubling developments. Europe must in turn make clear that freedom of expression is part of the foundation of any lasting stability that will attract investment and affirm closer connection to the new Russia. The Chinese model of market reform without a free press does not fit the values held by the main institutions of Europe, including the OSCE. As Gorbachev once put it, "Russia needs free expression like it needs air to breath.''
If Mr. Putin really wants his country to join Europe, he ought to relax a little so that Russia can breathe freely.
(c) 2000, European Viewpoint/El Pais. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate
For immediate release (Distributed 6/21/00)