At the height of the crisis over Russia’s invasion of Georgia last month, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin summoned the top executives of his nation’s most influential newspapers and broadcasters to a private meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
The Kremlin controls much of the Russian media, and Putin occasionally meets with friendly groups of senior journalists to answer questions and guide news coverage. On Aug. 29, though, for the first time in five years, he also invited the editor in chief of Echo Moskvy, the only national radio station that routinely broadcasts opposition voices.
For several minutes, according to people who attended the session or were briefed about it, Putin berated the editor in front of his peers, criticizing Echo’s coverage of the war with Georgia and reading from a dossier of transcripts to point out what he considered errors. “I’m not interested in who said these things,” one participant quoted Putin telling the editor, Alexei Venediktov. “You are responsible for everything that goes on at the radio station. I don’t know who they are, but I know who you are.”
The message to the 30 or so media executives at the gathering was clear: With Russia occupying parts of Georgia and locked in perhaps its most serious conflict with the West since the Cold War, they should be especially vigilant against reporting anything that the government might find objectionable.
Four months after Putin handed the presidency to his protégé Dmitry Medvedev, mildly raising expectations that the Kremlin might relax its grip on political life here, the continuing standoff with the West over Georgia has largely ended that talk and brought fears that a turn toward increased repression might be underway instead.
Prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into whether Echo Moskvy has broadcast “extremist” speech. A leading opposition figure in the troubled Ingushetia region has been shot dead by police.
And a campaign to undermine the reputations of nongovernmental organizations seems to be picking up. In remarks to a group of foreign academics last week, Putin said Russia needed to act in Georgia because “certain nongovernmental organizations in certain republics” were using the crisis to justify separatism in the Russian part of the Northern Caucasus region.
The domestic fallout of the Georgian war can also be seen in the caution and anxiety of journalists, civic activists and others who work near the boundaries of what the Kremlin tolerates — and who little more than a month ago were optimistic those limits might be expanding.
“When Medvedev took office, we hoped for a new thaw,” said Mariana Maximovskaya, deputy editor of Ren-TV, a station that often broadcasts voices critical of the government. “But after the Georgian war, people are now very concerned about a new tightening inside the country.”
Yuri Samodurov, former curator of the Andrei Sakharov Museum, an institution devoted to honoring the late Soviet dissident, said a prominent filmmaker recently backed out of a plan to produce a documentary for the museum about the Soviet era. “Before the war, she agreed to do it, but she told me she is afraid now,” he said. “The situation is changing, and she felt it changing.”
The museum is also being more cautious, he said. For years, a banner protesting Russia’s long war in Chechnya hung outside the building. After the invasion of Georgia, Samodurov wanted to put up another tough message, but the museum decided to take down the old banner and not replace it. “It’s just a bad time to do it,” said Igor Veritiny, the museum’s acting director. “We’re trying to be careful.”
During eight years in office, Putin consolidated control of the government, media and big business. Many analysts say he remains Russia’s paramount leader despite stepping down as president to make way for Medvedev, the low-profile bureaucrat and former law professor he chose as successor.
After winning an election carefully scripted by the Kremlin, Medvedev immediately appointed Putin prime minister.
But even as Medvedev positioned himself as a Putin loyalist, he raised hopes in some quarters with promises to fight corruption, help small businesses and champion human rights and the rule of law. In an early move, Medvedev established a think tank, the Institute of Contemporary Development, to help him develop domestic policy and gathered a group of liberal-minded scholars who favored a program of economic and democratic reforms.
“We had hopes in the spring that we were entering a new stage,” said Evgeny Gontmakher, an economist whom Medvedev invited to serve on the board of the institute. “We hoped for some kind of democratic transition.”
Gontmakher said he and others thought that Medvedev was trying to build a base of political support for such action, and that Putin had stayed on as prime minister to help him. But the Georgian crisis has altered the political calculus, he said, making it more likely the leadership will put off reforms and strengthening influential officials and state corporations resisting change.
“It’s a dangerous situation,” Gontmakher said, warning that with economic problems on the horizon — industrial growth has slowed, and inflation is climbing fast — Medvedev and Putin might be tempted to use the crisis in Georgia to divert public anger over the economy.
Some analysts still think a thaw is possible under Medvedev, arguing that he has gained political capital during the Georgian crisis by positioning himself as a tough, decisive leader. Although Putin remains far more popular, Medvedev’s approval ratings have jumped, and he has received more time on national television than Putin.
But others say the crisis has highlighted Medvedev’s lack of clout, especially after he signed a cease-fire agreement with Georgia and then appeared unable or unwilling to get his military to comply. Gontmakher said officials have told him that Putin has been the driving force behind the key decisions during the crisis.
Yevgenia Albats, a prominent journalist who hosts a show on Echo Moskvy, said that although Medvedev has been getting media attention, he has looked like Putin’s press secretary. Democratic reforms, she added, will be difficult to adopt because the Kremlin has portrayed the West as the enemy in the Georgian crisis, and reforms are associated with the West.
“All hope is gone,” she said. “Basically, most of the liberals are trying to figure out if we are about to go into a repressive period in our history. It means what’s left of the free media may disappear. We don’t know if Echo Moskvy will exist a month from now.”
Venediktov, Echo Moskvy’s editor in chief, confirmed he had been called on the carpet by Putin in Sochi. He said Putin pointed out problems with the station’s coverage of the Georgian war, including a statement by one reporter referring to Russian soldiers as enemy forces and a report about troop movements based only on Georgian accounts.
“It was unpleasant to be publicly reprimanded, and it was even more unpleasant to have to admit mistakes, because there were mistakes, unfortunately,” he said, adding that Putin didn’t single out any journalists or make any demands.
Venediktov said that he disagreed with some of Putin’s complaints and was allowed to explain his positions, and that Putin expressed his displeasure with the radio station even more forcefully in a private session. Venediktov declined to further describe that conversation.
The station continues to operate as usual and broadcast voices critical of the Kremlin. But Venediktov acknowledged that “the situation is complicated” by heightened official scrutiny. “It means we must work even more professionally, even more accurately,” he said.
A day after meeting Putin, Venediktov barred a dissident politician, Valeriya Novodvorskaya, from appearing on Echo Moskvy for the rest of the year after she made on-air remarks that appeared to defend the Chechen separatist responsible for the 2004 Beslan school siege that left 334 people dead. He also announced that Yulia Latynina, a program host and critic of the Kremlin, would be off the air and out of the country on business and vacation for several weeks.
Latynina is the focus of an investigation by prosecutors in the southern province of Dagestan examining whether the radio service violated laws prohibiting “public incitement of extremist activity through the mass media,” the official RIA Novosti news agency reported Aug. 27.
According to two journalists, the pressure on Echo Moskvy intensified after the meeting with Putin. Top government officials reacted angrily to its coverage of the slaying of Magomed Yevloyev, the opposition leader in Ingushetia province who was shot in the head in a police vehicle Aug. 31.
Authorities have maintained that Yevloyev was shot after trying to seize a gun from an officer in the car with him. But opposition leaders say the killing is an example of how the Georgian crisis has emboldened hard-liners in the government apparatus. A colleague of Yevloyev’s, Magomed Hazbiyev, was heard on Echo Moskvy accusing the Russian government of committing genocide in Ingushetia and saying that if it continued, “we need to ask Europe or America to have us disconnected from Russia.”
Opposition activists said they thought that Murat Zyazikov, the former KGB official who is the Kremlin-appointed president of Ingushetia and has been accused of waging a campaign of abductions and killings against his critics, seized on the Georgian crisis as a chance to move against Yevloyev and others with impunity. Hazbiyev, for example, said Zyazikov’s security forces fired machine guns at his home just days after the Georgian war began.
Addressing a news conference on Sept. 5, Zyazikov denied there was any unrest in Ingushetia and accused the United States of trying to “destabilize” the republic just as he said it had done in Georgia.
Hazbiyev and other opposition activists in Ingushetia have gathered tens of thousands of signatures on a petition calling on Medvedev to replace Zyazikov. But Zyazikov is considered a strong ally of Putin’s, and there has been no action on the request.