Friday, June 8, 2007
The missing ingredient
This post is published as part of the Russian media "Blog-Carnival" hosted by my friends at Krusenstern.
Russia’s notoriously fractious opposition has finally settled on a single candidate for the 2008 elections in former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov. As I wrote before, I think Kasyanov is the right choice – someone who can claim credit for some of the good done in terms of stabilizing the country during Vladimir Putin’s early years in office, while able to distance himself from the authoritarian slide that followed.
Kasyanov’s nomination moves the opposition one step closer to their goal – which is not the electoral victory over Sergei Ivanov or Dmitriy Medvedev (or whomever the Kremlin puts forward next spring) that Kasyanov and friends claim to be seeking. With the Kremlin in full control of the electoral machine, and known to be willing to dump a few thousand ballots in a pit in Dagestan if it comes to that, no one expects the official results of the vote to yield anything other than a convincing victory for Vladimir Putin’s hand-picked successor. (If Putin goes at all, I should add here. See poll at bottom right.)
The real aim is an Orange Revolution-style uprising on the streets of Moscow next spring, something that Kremlin strategists like Sergei Markov and opposition figures like Boris Nemtsov have told me both sides are actively preparing for.
In preparing the country for such an uprising, putting aside pride and personal ambitions to rally around a single leader like Kasyanov is crucial for the opposition. The Orange Revolution would never have happened if Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko hadn’t been prodded (by the USAID-backed National Democratic Institute, among others) into ignoring the fact they agreed on little else, and focusing on their shared desire to see the end of Leonid Kuchma and Russian tutelage in Ukraine. The same goes for Mikhail Saakashvili and Zhurab Zhvania in Georgia before that, as well as Vojislav Kostunica and Zoran Djindjic in Serbia back in 2000.
This is no conspiracy theory, just the way politics works across the former Soviet Union in this new cold war between Russia and the West. Putin and his coterie see the ex-republics of the USSR as still being Russia’s sphere of influence, and invest heavily in leaders like Viktor Yanukovich and Nursultan Nazarbayev who share that worldview.
The West – predominantly America, but increasingly Europe too – recognize that Russian meddling in the internal affairs of its neighbours has corrupted the politics of those countries, giving the Kremlin an unsettling amount of control over the energy basin of Central Asia and the Caspian Sea (which worries the White House far more than, say, the lack of democracy in Western-friendly Azerbaijan). Since the success of the Western-sponsored uprising against Slobodan Milosevic seven years ago, they’ve actively been trying to export the model that worked there to other countries in the region. It worked in Ukraine and Georgia, it’s failed twice in Belarus.
What’s missing in the opposition's plan so far is an independent national broadcaster that can put the its message out across the vast Russian hinterland and rouse public anger with the authorities by letting ordinary Russians know that they’ve been deceived by the current Kremlin. B-92 in Serbia and Rustavi-2 television in Georgia (both supported by American billionaire George Soros) played key roles in popularizing the pro-Western opposition and demonizing the old authorities in those countries. Petro Porashenko’s 5th Channel rallied Ukrainians to Independence Square, and provided 24-hour coverage of the demonstrations that played a part in convincing Kuchma and Yanukovich not to disperse the crowd by force.
Russia, under Putin, has no national broadcaster that can (or is willing to) play such a role. Himself partially a creation of the oligarchs and their media empires, Putin understood early on that he could just as quickly be undone by them, and in his first years in office he systematically brought all the main television channels under direct or indirect Kremlin control. Bringing the once feisty media to heel was a key step towards establishing the system that cynically came to be known as “managed democracy”: giving people the appearance of choice, with little in fact to choose between.
Newspapers like Novaya Gazeta and the unmatched Echo of Moscow radio station continue to bravely buck the Kremlin, and thereby provide some outlet for the opposition and its message. But neither has national reach. No one in Chelyabinsk or Pskov or Perm is going to hear their coverage of Mikhail Kasyanov’s attacks on Ivanov/Medvedev, let alone reports about missing ballot boxes or the discrepancies between the official results and the Western-sponsored exit polls.
Barring a major change in the political landscape, most Russians, just as they did during the 2004 elections, will receive only a single line from the Kremlin and its media outlets - one that will be mandated through government-issued “themes”, or temnyki sent to editors across the country. The essence will be: Ivanov/Medvedev is the choice of the people. The other candidates are an unpatriotic bunch of creeps. Everything is getting better. Trust us.
Tight media control by Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus was one of the major reasons that attempted pro-Western uprisings have twice failed in Minsk (in 2001 and 2006). In Ukraine, the state’s use of temnyki turned half the population against the Orange Revolution before it even began.
But all is not yet lost for the opposition, as demonstrated by how quickly government control of the media cracked in Ukraine in 2004 after a single, extremely symbolic act of defiance by Nataliya Dmytruk, a sign-language presenter at the state-run UT-1 television station.
“The results announced by our Central Election Commission are rigged. Do not believe them,” she signed to her audience in the first days after the rigged presidential run-off between Yushchenko and Yanukovich, an orange ribbon rebelliously tied around her wrist.
Her Ukrainian-language colleagues carried on with their coverage president-elect Yanukovich, unaware of Dmytruk's one-woman uprising. “Our president is Yushchenko," she went on. "I am very disappointed by the fact I had to interpret lies. I will not do it anymore. I do not know if you will see me again.”
Within days, Dmytruk’s lone act of defiance had spread into a wider journalists’ revolt against the authorities and their temnyki. They started telling the truth to their audience and angry at the deception, thousands Ukrainians more joined the orange-waving crowds in the streets. It was a breakthrough that no amount of Western funding could have bought.
These are dark days for the Russian media. The murder of Anna Politkovskaya made clear the risks that independent minded journalists run when they try to tell the truth about their country and the people who run it. According to Reporters sans frontières, she was the 21st journalist murdered in circumstances seen as likely related to her work since Putin came to power in 2000.
The Russian opposition has its Yushchenko now in Mikhail Kasyanov. But what will determine the country’s future is whether it has enough Dmytruks and Politkovskayas to tell the country about him.
One can't help but worry that too many have been scared into silence.