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Russia: Poll Finds General Public Unfazed By Moves Against Media

  • Sophie Lambroschini

In Russia these days, warnings about a crackdown on freedom of expression are on every television channel -- even the state-controlled ones. The Russian elite has been vocal in its denunciations of the arrest of media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky and other recent moves to control the media. But ordinary Russians are unfazed. RFE/RL's Sophie Lambroschini asked a leading sociologist why.

Moscow, 22 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Democratic politicians, human rights organizations, and even prominent businessmen have been issuing warnings that Russian President Vladimir Putin is cracking down on the media. The arrest of Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky last winter, the arrest of Media-Most boss Vladimir Gusinsky last week, an announcement that newspapers will require licenses, a prohibition on publishing statements by Chechen rebels -- these events have spurred an outcry unequaled since Boris Yeltsin shelled the Soviet parliament in October 1993.

But it is only the elite who are speaking out against the perceived clampdown. The arrest of Gusinsky caused the oligarchs to rally together -- but it has inspired no public rallies.

Aleksey Levinson of the widely respected Russian Institute for Public Opinion Study, known as VTSIOM, told RFE/RL that expressions of elite outrage are perceived by ordinary Russians in the same way as the protests of dissidents in Soviet times.

"Now, again, it is only the fates of marginal groups [at stake] -- roughly the equivalent of the human rights activists [in the Soviet Union] at the beginning of the '80s. So, naturally, political demonstrations are marginal."

Even in Moscow, where Gusinsky's NTV station is popular and where awareness of press freedom is considered higher than elsewhere in Russia, most people are unmoved by the treatment of Gusinsky. A recent opinion poll by VTSIOM found that a third of Moscow respondents had no reaction to the arrest, and a quarter said they were happy about it. Less than 10 percent of respondents said the arrest was cause for worry. And only 4 percent said Gusinsky's arrest was unjustified.

Nevertheless, sociologist Levinson disagrees with the commonly expressed stereotype that Russians do not care about freedom of expression. He says, rather, that they simply do not associate a rich tycoon like Gusinsky with the issue of press freedom.

Levinson says Russian authorities have had great success in putting their own spin on their actions. It is always easier, Levinson says, for people to believe the stories their leaders give them.

"Since there is a strong identification of the people with their leaders, they try to find psychologically acceptable and morally positive explanations for the [authorities]' actions. It takes courage to give a harsh judgement of whoever you voted for. So when the authorities offer the version that the president didn't know anything about [Gusinsky's arrest], the people who offer this explanation are assuming that while people know that's hardly possible, they'll still grasp at that straw to be at peace with themselves."

Most people, he says, prefer to believe that anyone who is imprisoned must be guilty of something. The alternative view, that the state could act arbitrarily, is too unsettling.

Still, in the poll of Muscovites, more than half (57 percent) said that Gusinsky's arrest was political, and about the same amount (56 percent) said they thought public pressure from Russian and international media helped free him.