Bovt Speaks

Writing in the Moscow Times, Georgy Bovt — as we previously reported, recently terminated from his positions in Russian media establishments as part of a Kremlin powerplay against this ferocious critic of the Putin dictatorship — fills in the details on the Russian media quagmire. Unfortunately, he gives no further information about his termination.

Staffers at one of this country’s more official newspapers told me recently that their editor had been dressed down by the Kremlin for allowing the phrase “Fradkov instructed Medvedev” to appear in an article about a Cabinet meeting.

Instructing someone is slightly less forceful than ordering them to do something, yet to the Kremlin’s way of thinking, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov cannot even give instructions to First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who until recently was considered President Vladimir Putin’s likely successor. Medvedev may be a member of the Cabinet, but he’s off on his own with the national projects.

It’s hard to know what verb the Kremlin would prefer: asked, implored, entreated. Or perhaps Fradkov is forbidden to do anything of the sort. For now, the Kremlin can only give instructions like this to official publications; the rest retain a certain amount of editorial freedom. As the State Duma and presidential elections approach, however, the authorities will step up their efforts to bring the media to heel.

These efforts take various forms: browbeating by telephone, excluding reporters from pools for major events, and squeezing the owners of media companies financially and otherwise. The companies that resist, encounter problems finding advertisers or are acquired by new owners loyal to the Kremlin. Sometimes a change of management is enough to alter a company’s editorial line.

Until recently it was thought that the authorities only cared about television. Then even the smallest, serious newspapers came under ideological surveillance. Next came the influential magazines. As a result, some of the hardest-hitting political articles are now found in glossy magazines, which apparently fly under the Kremlin’s radar. Next up: the Internet. A number of notable court cases have demonstrated that even postings in private blogs can be classified as extremism or slander against high-ranking public officials.

At the same time, the Kremlin’s ideologues are becoming more touchy and capricious. It used to be that the top dogs would take offense at direct accusations or insults. Then they began to complain about coverage that deviated from the party line. Now their feathers get ruffled when the media neglect to cover certain events, such as Nashi marches.

Take the recent U.S. congressional report on the state of human rights in Russia. The report was covered by nearly every publication and television station in the country, and they all presented it as meddling in Russia’s internal affairs. The actual state of human rights in this country doesn’t make the nightly news these days. But media outlets that didn’t cover the report got an earful from the higher-ups.

When top media professionals talk off the record about the current ideological climate and the authorities’ increasingly over-the-top responses to things they wouldn’t have given a second thought to in the past, they use words like absurdity and paranoia. Very often this is true, mostly because no one can figure out what the Kremlin is trying to achieve. No coherent ideological position can be discerned behind the demands to give front-page coverage to one story and pointedly to ignore another. What we have is more an ever-changing succession of bans, taboos, discussions and protests — aimed mostly at the West these days.

So what is it we want, folks? Sovereign democracy, the theory concocted by Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s deputy chief of staff, cannot be considered a coherent program for social progress because it is little more than a rejection of Western democratic values. Surkov made little effort to come up with a new, integral system of Russian values. The defining characteristic of Russian ideology today is that the people who are trying to formulate and manipulate it are capable only of rejection and negation.

They have nothing positive to offer. And that’s why they’re getting nervous.

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