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Russia: 'Nezavisimaya Gazeta' Is Worth Watching Again

  • Robert Coalson

http://gdb.rferl.org/607D60E2-3CF3-47B4-8669-D92F5F279256_w203.gif --> http://gdb.rferl.org/607D60E2-3CF3-47B4-8669-D92F5F279256_mw800_mh600.gif (RFE/RL) September 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Throughout the era of President Vladimir Putin, Russian media have been dominated by a trend toward bland, state-dominated homogenization.


Inexorably, the media have fallen under the control of the state, state-controlled structures like Gazprom, or holding companies controlled by Kremlin-connected business figures. As the country enters an election season that will stretch into March 2008, the media can be relied upon to help ensure a carefully scripted process and to turn a blind eye to the manipulations of the courts and election commissions that may prove necessary for the Kremlin to achieve its aims.


At first glance, the story of the highbrow daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" fits this scenario. Once a darling of the late-perestroika and post-1991 media scene, the paper was taken over by then-oligarch Boris Berezovsky in 2001 (who had been financing it since 1995) and began a precipitous decline. The paper's founder and long-time editor, Vitaly Tretyakov, was dismissed, and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" became known for giving acres of front-page space to Berezovsky's tendentious diatribes.


Remchukov said he does not view criticism of the authorities as the primary task of his newspaper, although he is ready to speak out when "it is necessary to criticize."

In 2005, as part of a sweeping process by which the disgraced Berezovsky was divested of his properties, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" was sold to Konstantin Remchukov (technically, the paper is owned by his wife, Yelena) for a rumored $3 million (according to "Vremya novostei" and others). Around the same time, metals magnate Alisher Usmanov picked up Berezovsky's "Kommersant" group. Both men entered the decidedly political realm of Russian media making pronouncements about how they intended to place profits above politics.


But the story of "Nezavisimaya gazeta" may yet turn out to be an anomaly in Russia's Putin-era media environment.


'The Leading Political Newspaper'


Remchukov, 52, has impressive credentials. In the mid-1980s, he pursued graduate studies at Pennsylvania State University, later working as Russia program director for the Scandinavian Management Center in Stockholm and as a visiting professor at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1997, he became a consultant for the Siberian Aluminum group, which is part of Oleg Deripaska's holdings. He held a variety of positions in Deripaska's organizations at least through 2001. In 1999, he joined the political council of the Union of Rightist Forces political party and was elected to the State Duma on the party list later that year. While in the Duma, he served as deputy chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, apparently while simultaneously working for Deripaska.


Konstantin Remchukov (RFE/RL file photo)

In 2001, he began working in the government, first as a presidential adviser on matters relating to Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization and, since 2004, as an adviser to Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref.


In an interview with Radio Mayak in July, Remchukov said, "I bought ["Nezavisimaya gazeta"] simply because I needed something to do after I stopped being a deputy and left business." Nonetheless, the media at the time were full of speculation that Remchukov made his move at the behest of Deripaska, who in turn was acting on behalf of the Kremlin. Remchukov steadfastly denied these rumors.


In February, Remchukov took the bold step of appointing himself editor in chief of "Nezavisimaya gazeta" and taking over day-to-day operations of the paper. He has told journalists that he personally writes the paper's unsigned editorials and that his goal is to make the daily "the leading political newspaper in the country." He told Radio Mayak that he wants "Nezavisimaya gazeta" to be "the paper that is in the offices of company executives," and that achieving this goal will make it attractive to elite advertisers.


Criticism 'When Necessary'


Since Remchukov took on this active role, the paper has maintained a line that is best described as principled liberalism. It has not shied away from criticizing government policies or individual officials (including Putin), but it can hardly be described as an "opposition" paper. Remchukov told "Novaya gazeta" in February that he does not view criticism of the authorities as the primary task of his newspaper, although he is ready to speak out when "it is necessary to criticize." In April, he launched a weekly supplement called "NG-Politika," which he introduced as an effort to counter the widespread notions that "there are no politics" in Russia and that everything political begins and ends with Vladimir Putin.


In particular, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" has criticized the Kremlin's tightening control over the Central Election Commission and the Academy of Sciences. Remchukov has also assailed the administration for damaging Russia's image abroad through, among other things, a confrontational approach, the use of "energy expansionism," and the poor handling of the investigation into the poisoning death in London of former Russian security official Aleksandr Litvinenko.


On the other hand, in June, Remchukov penned an article that was generally favorable toward presidential aide Vladislav Surkov's pronouncements on "sovereign democracy." He noted that Surkov has succeeded in building a political system, while "none of his opponents have offered us such an independent reading of the fundamental problems of freedom and democracy in Russia." Tellingly, Remchukov offered up the pages of his newspaper for a discussion of this theme and in recent weeks the paper has published several articles from across the central portion of Russia's political spectrum.


Although Remchukov has expressed some personal support for the presidential ambitions of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (who is reportedly supported by Deripaska as well), "Nezavisimaya gazeta" has been evenhanded in its coverage of the successor speculation, publishing long articles in recent months about First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin, and Rosoboroneksport head Sergei Chemezov.


No Political Pressure


In May, Remchukov was among the civil-society representatives who met with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "I told the secretary that, as the owner and editor of a print-media organ, I have never come across pressure from the authorities," Remchukov was quoted by opec.ru as saying after the meeting. "Not when I was buying the paper and not since I have been working there have I received a single phone call."


However, like all media in Russia, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" works under the sword of Damocles of the state, which controls printing and distribution, is able to exert massive pressure on advertisers, and controls an arsenal of state agencies from the fire brigade to the tax inspectorate. These potential pressures and the lack of protections against them must qualify any Russian media outlet's claims of independence.


The "Nezavisimaya gazeta" print run is less than 50,000 copies per issue and Remchukov reports the paper's website has about 70,000 daily visitors. It is a serious outlet aimed at an elite audience. The paper bears watching, especially as the election season unfolds and, as seems likely, the policies of sovereign democracy come into conflict with the principles of liberalism. At this point, though, it seems the daily offers a promising media model that is somewhere between direct state control and the self-serving irresponsibility that characterized the era of Berezovsky and fellow media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky. As Remchukov told Rice in May, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed by private owners and the more of them there are, the greater the guarantee of objective discussion in society."

Nudging The Kremlin Toward Reform

A DAY IN THE LIFE....
By Robert Coalson

September 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The unsigned, regular Page 2 editorial in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" today was headlined, "The Duma Election Campaign Begins." It is a model of the way the newspaper advocates rational, evolutionary reform in a way clearly intended to avoid offending the authorities.

First, the editorial asserts that the next three months will see "a sharp political battle for seats in the Duma," belying the widely held view that the elections will be noncompetitive and highly managed. The piece then goes on to assert, as if it were to be taken for granted, that "the Kremlin has recognized that it is unnecessary to exercise total control over the lower house of parliament." Playing to the Kremlin's often-stated desire to present Russia in the best possible light on the international stage, the "Nezavisimaya gazeta" editorial points out that "some real conflict on tactical questions will not harm the image of the country abroad."

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" argues that the period of Unified Russia's dominance of the Duma was necessary to "fundamentally transform the political landscape," but that that process is now complete. What the Kremlin needs now, the editorial says, is a "representative parliament." Moreover, the Kremlin, according to the daily, realizes too that this is what it needs. The paper asserts, almost as if speaking for the Kremlin, that the authorities are now seeking a legislature comprised of parties representing a wide range of ideological positions. As a result, the paper argues that the Kremlin will not prevent "a market-oriented liberal party" from gaining seats in the new Duma.

The editorial is an artful example of the daily's approach toward nudging the Kremlin in the direction of liberal reform without rocking the boat in a way that risks unwanted attention from the powers that be.


RELATED ARTICLES

RFE/RL's Russian Service coverage of the 2007 Duma elections

RFE/RL's Russian Service interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta" owner and editor Konstantin Remchukov

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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to coalsonr@rferl.org

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