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Media Matters: February 13, 2004


13 February 2004, Volume 4, Number 3
RUSSIA
'IN THIS CONTEXT, YOU CAN'T REALLY BE A JOURNALIST'
Masha Gessen has reported on her native Russia since the 1980s, writing for a variety of Russian and foreign magazines. She has worked as chief correspondent for the weekly news magazine "Itogi," Moscow bureau chief for "U.S. News and World Report," and editor in chief of the website polit.ru. She has reported from Chechnya during both wars there. This month, Gessen stirred controversy among media and Russia specialists with her critical take on U.S. coverage of Russia with her article "See No Evil" in "The New Republic."

RFE/RL's Catherine Fitzpatrick reached her in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she is currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

RFE/RL: In your book, "Dead Again: The Russian Intelligentsia After Communism" (1997), you describe a young woman who was a 1994 graduate of Moscow's prestigious Literary Institute with a degree in literary criticism, "a profession that has been eliminated for lack of demand." Now you have recently told me that, as a journalist, you "no longer have a profession" in Moscow. Are you being overly dramatic? What are we to make of those thousands who still toil away in this profession? Are they crazy?

Masha Gessen: I don't think they are crazy. I just think it's a different profession now. Different in different ways for different people. There are those who are servicing the propaganda machine, which is straightforward enough. And those who are engaged in a polemic with the propaganda machine, which is very difficult and very honorable, but also isn't journalism.

RFE/RL: What do you believe to be journalism? Is there a "special path" for journalism in Russia?

Gessen: The problem is, when you try to report on what you see and what you know and what you find out, and if all of that is not reflected in any way in the mainstream media, then you find yourself in a quandary. For example -- this is only a slight exaggeration -- most people do not believe there is a war in Chechnya. So how do you cover it? Do you begin every article with the introduction, "There is a war going on in our country." Or do you plunge in, assuming your readers will recognize the reality you are describing?

RFE/RL: Perhaps television viewers have been misled into thinking there is no war in Chechnya. But journalists?

Gessen: This isn't a theoretical question. I'll give you an example from my own work at polit.ru. A young man came to work on the wire. Nice, educated, aware, 22 or 24 years old. One evening I messaged him: this just in from our Chechnya correspondent, edit it, and put it in. It was an item on some women getting the bodies of their teenage sons, who'd been taken away by federal troops a few days earlier. So he says, "Should I just put this in as is?" I say, "No, edit it a bit." He says, "But should we just say like it says here, just that they got their sons' bodies back?" I say, "Obviously, they paid for them, but she didn't report it, so don't put that in." And he says, "But isn't there going to be an investigation?"

You can't be a journalist when you don't share a context with your readers and with your neighbors and people you pass in the street. It seems self-evident to me that these things happen every day and there are never any investigations, but how do I write for people who became adults after the papers and television stopped reporting this stuff? You can be a dissident in this context and do dissident writing in this context, but you can't really be a journalist.

RFE/RL: I'm trying to understand whether this boy was horrified or not. Or clueless. Or both? How do you think that shared context can be created? Is it only through the media?

Gessen: He was horrified. And clueless. Perfectly well intentioned, but just in from the cold, which would be the case with many, but not all, our readers. And I have no idea how many. I think the media -- television, to be precise -- is the main instrument of creating that context, yes. And it is remarkable how sincerely people believe what they see and hear on television -- still. And even if they claim not to believe, that's the only picture they really have.

RFE/RL: Some polls are indicating a widening gap between those who only watch television, and who are getting less truthful and more manipulated television now, and therefore have a reinforcing factor to harden their already conservative views, and those who consider themselves liberals, who scorn television, who have the Internet and liberal newspapers and independent radio and, possibly, Western radio as their news sources. They find fuel for their liberal critique, which is in turn once again "out of touch with the people." Is this the case? Do you see it happening?

Gessen: I haven't seen those polls, and of course we have a growing problem with polls. But yes, I think that's happening. I'd add a couple of caveats, however. One is, in the USSR a huge number of people listened to "vrazheskiye golosa" ["enemy voices," or Western radio stations] -- many more than anyone would have believed at the time, I am sure now. What did that do for the discourse? Nothing. So I think all these alternative sources of information need to be put in proper perspective. It's just samizdat and tamizdat and "vrazheskiye golosa" today -- that's all.

I'm not trying to say that the situation is as restricted as it was in Soviet times. The Soviet leaders also learned in the 1970s that they needed a lot less restriction than previously thought to get the job done. You didn't need Stalin's camps to keep people in line. You just needed [jailed writers Yulii] Daniel, [Andrei] Sinyavskii, [Joseph] Brodsky, and that's all. Now we are finding out that in fact you need even less. [hounded oligarchs Boris] Berezovskii, [Vladimir] Gusinskii, [Mikhail] Khodorkovskii, [assassinated parliamentarian Sergei]Yushenkov, and possibly [journalist and parliamentarian Yurii] Shchekochikhin [who died in July of an unexplained allergic reaction]. Actually, it does start to add up.

RFE/RL: The cases of Daniel and so on were clearly defined under Amnesty International's notion of "prisoner of conscience." Khodorkovskii appears rather to be a victim of the selective prosecution of criminal offenses. What about the story of Yelena Tregubova [a "Kommersant-Daily" reporter who was removed from the Kremlin pool]? And will [Sakharov Museum Director] Yurii Samodurov, who has been indicted for organizing a controversial art show said to be "blasphemous," go to jail? Will we see a return to prisoners of conscience, or worse, more journalists' deaths, which are already quite prevalent in Russia?

Gessen: I am completely prepared to believe that the bomb outside Tregubova's apartment was intended by the [Federal Security Service] to intimidate her. I say that based on my own experience. I didn't have a bomb, thank God, but I did face a lot of intimidation. And what I think is remarkable about it is that: one, I didn't have to do very much to bring it on myself; and, two, I was a reporter for "Itogi," for God's sake, with a circulation of 80,000.

I don't know what will happen with Samodurov, but what has happened with him already is certainly symptomatic. I mean, an art show! One that was vandalized! No one argues with these facts.

RFE/RL: Has this climate affected the coverage of elections? Why don't Russian news organizations get together and conduct exit polls? Is this a lack of know-how or a problem of fear? Is it permitted?

Gessen:I was teaching a course on reporting in St. Petersburg. My co-teacher and I decide to have this really great exam project. On local election day, we tell the students, here are the addresses of the three nearest polling stations, split up into three groups. Later, I decided to go check on the students. I went to the addresses, which we'd gotten from the election commission, and they all turned out to be wrong. Finally, I found a real polling station and went in and asked the chairman if he'd seen my students. He says, "They were here, but they already left." "Deadbeats," I think.

RFE/RL: So what is it? Laziness? Inability to go out and make cold contacts?

Gessen: To cut a long story short, they weren't deadbeats. They had been beaten up by the special thugs they had for just this purpose -- and the chairman called for them on his walkie-talkie. One group was beaten up, and two narrowly escaped. They were also threatened, and the whole thing was clearly meant to go along the same scenario. And here, I thought the same thing -- that they were lazy -- and they were my students!

RFE/RL: But this is violence in St. Petersburg. Would it be the same everywhere? What if powerful news organizations got together and made consortiums for exit polls, could they not overcome intimidation?

Gessen: I think my example shows why upstarts can't do it. As for powerful organizations, why should they? Obviously, television can't do it. That leaves us with newspapers. But there isn't a whole lot of point to newspapers doing it, and it does open them up to all sorts of potential problems. People are afraid to cover elections, even after the [October] Constitutional Court decision [that invalidated parts of the election law on media coverage of campaigns (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," 14 November 2003)].

RFE/RL: Some have found your critique of the Russian press far too harsh, as we have seen from a fierce discussion on the popular Johnson's List [http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/default.cfm]. They point out that major dailies like "Trud" and "Komsomolskaya pravda" do not go after Putin, but there's always a kind of sidelong snicker in the intellectual/business press: "Izvestiya," "Kommersant-Daily," "Nezavisimaya gazeta," "Vremya novostei," "Moskovskie novosti," "Novoye vremya," and even "Literaturnaya gazeta." Regular readers of the Russian press say the anti-Putin viewpoint is loud and clear, and by extension, the U.S. press, if it reads it, won't get the story wrong. What do you say?

Gessen: This is a pretty varied list of papers. "Izvestiya" and "Literaturnaya gazeta" are in a very different category than "Kommersant-Daily." You really wouldn't see more than a "sideways glance" in those two. The others are more outspoken. But even if we accept this list as indicative of press freedom, they have a combined press run of less than 1 million. I would put the rough estimates in the order listed as 400,000, 80,000, 80,000, 30,000, 20,000, 10,000, and 10,000. Even if I am off by 50 percent, it's still less than 1 million. Compare that to television, which reaches into 98 percent of Russia's roughly 45 million households.

I really don't think the print media can affect elections appreciably. Even the opposition-minded print media are in the bind of having to counter television. Radio -- there's one radio station, Ekho Moskvy. It reaches more people than the papers do, but it's lost a lot of its reach in the last few years. A bunch of cities have pulled out of the network, and some of the affiliates have stopped carrying news and political stuff, so its reach is effectively shrinking to Moscow and St. Petersburg, which, even if they voted overwhelmingly pro-democratically, wouldn't make much of a difference. And that audience has a huge crossover with the papers, so there isn't a cumulative effect. As for preference, I prefer radio and papers too, but I still watch every newscast, and it does affect my thinking, in ways I sometimes find striking.

There's another point to be made, about what to cover. Unified Russia [the pro-Kremlin political party] simply refused to participate in debates. I think it's a pretty effective way of discrediting and devaluing the debates. Especially after Putin's position in 2000 that he wouldn't campaign. That's the mainstream of politics now. And campaigning is seen as kind of beneath the dignity of our elections.

RFE/RL: Is the intelligentsia still alive in some form, and if so, does it have any organs? In print only? Never anything on television? Not even a Sunday talk show? Not even any kind of stealth program?

Gessen: That depends on what you mean by the intelligentsia. For the intelligentsia to exist, the regime has to reclaim its repressive function. I think that's happening, but to get a new intelligentsia, we'd have to wait a few years. It might be Committee 2008 [founded by journalist Yevgenii Kiselev and others], which has some of the classic traits. It distances itself from political parties and from the regime and proposes an enlightenment mission. If things go well, it will turn into a "normal" political organization. If things go poorly, it might become an intelligentsia organization.

RFE/RL: But where do people get their ideas nowadays? What do they read? The Russian Internet is very rich and complex, impressive in some places, horrifying in others, i.e., as a spreader of hate literature. Does the Internet matter? Does a large part of the intelligentsia and political class access it?

Gessen: I think all sorts of proto-fascist and plain fascist ideas are very much in the intellectual mainstream now. A great example is the Ad Marginem book list and the reviews of [nationalist journalist Aleksandr Prokhanov's award-winning 2002 book] "Mr. Geksogen." Another incredible example is the "Konservator" newspaper, its second iteration, which pulled together a group of people who'd until then led mostly virtual discussions. [See http://www.livejournal.com/users/olshansky and http://www.livejournal.com/users/krylov and users/holmogor].

RFE/RL: But those are weblogs. What about daily news sites with some legitimacy?

Gessen: Internet news sites have a pretty small audience. And again, it's many of the same people. I think they play a role quite similar to the "vrazheskiye golosa" in the USSR

RFE/RL: Tell me about polit.ru, and why you left.

Gessen: Polit.ru was the oldest online publication, in existence since 1998. I re-launched it in January 2003. It had 5,000-7,000 regular readers. My thoughts were to try to do a different kind of political journalism than the one practiced by everyone since "Kommersant-Daily," not to follow palace intrigue, not to dissect who is getting favors from whom, but to evaluate everything on the basis of its consequences for real people. We were relentless about covering housing reform, for example.

I had a mutiny when I wrote an editorial criticizing the handling of [the 23-26 October 2002 Moscow-theater hostage crisis]. People said they wouldn't work with me. I heard comments like "you are too critical of the government." I was also told I was too radical. I hired my own replacement, and he is a much better manager.

RFE/RL: Other than polit.ru, are there any newspapers or websites that you consider free?

Gessen: Gazeta.ru has actually become excellent since its owner [Khodorkovskii] was jailed. I go to Ekho Moskvy to get news and commentary all the time. So no, I wouldn't say it's bleak. It can even be very entertaining. It's just not exactly journalism anymore.

RFE/RL: Are you saying that repression forces them to become better journalists?

Gessen: The prospect of losing their livelihoods made them work harder. But it is not journalism. It is polemics. That all has a place in journalism, but not if that's the only thing they do. I mean, journalism is basically, "here is a story about what I saw." And what they do in Russia is more like, "Listen, I didn't see what they told you happened, and they didn't say what they said they said, and it was all completely different, so don't believe a word you hear."

RFE/RL: Is this a matter of education? What about Western media-development programs?

Gessen: I think training is great. I think various Western programs had various problems, chief among them over-reliance on foreign trainers, but that's not the big problem. The big problems are that they ignored Moscow and that they pulled out about three or four years ago. Internews, the leading organization for television journalists, which has done wonders for regional television in the past, now gets the bulk of its funding from Khodorkovskii's foundation.

I think training can probably be more effective now than ever before. When I go out to Rostov and tell journalists there that they are not crazy, that really makes a difference. It's a reality check. All of this at this point can only have one aim: survival. Get together groups of people to help them survive emotionally, provide training and funding to help media outlets survive. Provide legal help!

RFE/RL: What are the major accomplishments and mistakes of Russian journalism in the last 10 years?

Gessen: Being born. And dying. I would actually stress the emotional issue. Even if you are a Kostroma health reporter, when you hear about the bomb outside Tregubova's apartment, you get scared. You are constantly terrified that you'll write something that will get you in trouble, or that your paper will publish something and get in trouble. Seriously, the biggest accomplishment was coming into being. And the biggest mistake was 1996. The mother of all mistakes to come.

RFE/RL: You mean the obvious support for [then-President Boris] Yeltsin's re-election.

Gessen: Yes, the conscious decision to lie to readers for the greater good.

COME BACK, WE'RE READY NOW: AN INSIDER'S VIEW OF MEDIA ASSISTANCE IN RUSSIA
By Aleksei Pankin

Looking back over more than a decade of Western governmental and nongovernmental efforts to establish free and independent media in Russia, it seems that paradoxically the scale of those efforts have been distinctly out of sync with the need for them. That is to say, the most assistance was offered in the first phase of Russian independence, when the press needs it least of all. Now, in the last three or four years, when the Russian media have matured to the point where they can absorb Western experience, Western interest in the problems of the Russian media has waned sharply.

From the perspective of Western democracies, Russian independence and the beginning of reforms looked like a "democratic revolution," like the transition from political and economic totalitarianism to a democratic, market-oriented system. This impression created a sincere desire to ease that transition and to help build such a system through the transfer of expertise. And the mass media -- as a key component of a democratic society -- was one of the primary beneficiaries of this desire.

Domestically, it was obvious that this transition was being undertaken by a people that was worn out from years of complete uncertainty and unpredictability going all the way back to the middle years of perestroika. The chaos and the pace of the elemental changes overwhelmed any normal human capacity for coping with them. Any conception of social good or the public interest was completely erased from the very top of society to the very bottom. Life -- both individual and institutional -- was reduced to mere survival.

And the media were no exception. Media workers, who during the years of central planning had no idea that media is a business, were overwhelmed with day-to-day problems of paying ever-increasing costs, doing whatever was necessary to keep their product coming out regularly, and retaining their workforce. At the same time, parties, commercial companies, the authorities, and others appeared, ready to pay cash for media outlets for their own purposes, not worrying about getting a reasonable return on their investment in the usual sense. In short, nobody in Russia was really interested in reforming the media sector. Not the media, which quickly grew accustomed to selling their propaganda services on the new market and not the political establishment, which was perfectly happy using the media as a weapon in the political struggle.

I remember attending one of the first conferences at which some Europeans offered assistance in helping create democratic media legislation in Russia. At the time, the summer of 1992, I was the director of the East-West program of the European Media Institute (EMI) in Dusseldorf, and I organized a seminar on public broadcasting in Russia. Later I published the conclusions of the seminar in a well-known journal, and the EMI still later published a book on this topic in Russian that was distributed to all interested parties.

Over the next 10 years, I participated in numerous conferences, seminars, and symposiums on the subject of public broadcasting in Russia, holding this book in my hand. And every time, I was struck by the thought that the participants were reinventing the wheel. And the reason for this was the disparity between the supply of these ideas and the demand for them. The well-intentioned Europeans naturally thought that Russians would be immediately interested in such an important concept as public broadcasting, while those in power in Russia couldn't even conceive of the idea that such an important informational weapon as television should be released and allowed to disseminate neutral, objective information.

I'm sure that practically all the media-law conferences held over the years suffered from the same problem. The Russian participants were thinking to themselves that they should listen politely to the Europeans, even though what they were saying had absolutely no relation to Russia. As a result, today we have a very strange media-law system. We have a general mass-media law, laws on state support for the media, and countless others on every possible topic, but we do not have the single basic law without which a democratic media system is impossible: a law on broadcasting that would regulate the distribution of a limited public resource -- broadcast frequencies.

The subject of media and elections is another example. Westerners naturally expected that the press, having thrown off the shackles of totalitarianism, would embrace the vital function of helping the people to choose consciously and responsibly among parties and candidates. They didn't stop to consider that, together with those shackles, the media lost state financing as well. They saw election season as a time of plenty, the harvest from which could keep them afloat all the way until the next election cycle. No one was interested in "buying" the goods of objectivity and professional journalism that Westerners brought to innumerable seminars and roundtables.

Unfortunately, the truth is that Western aid played almost no role in the restructuring of the Russian media that took place in the years immediately after 1991. This isn't meant as criticism of Western governments and NGOs. The fact is that no one in Russia was interested in their help, no matter how hard they tried to give it.

This conclusion also does not mean that nothing positive was done during this period for specific media companies, even if there was no overall positive effect. A lot of new, ambitious print and broadcast media companies were created in the early and mid-1990s, even though their enthusiasm exceeded their professional capabilities. In this context, the training that was offered in those years by organizations like Internews, the National Press Institute (later, the Press Development Institute), the BBC, and others really helped to improve the professional effectiveness of the regional press, particularly in technical areas such as print design and camera operation. These skills did much to give many regional media products a contemporary appearance.

A three-year USAID-funded program initially called Russian-American Media Partnerships (RAMP) and later renamed the Media Development Program (MDP) and ultimately worth more than $10 million was something of a watershed between the romanticism of the early years of Russian independence and the hard realities of the new market. In the final phase of this project, I served as its director. By then, I must confess, its concept and its priorities were already determined and my role was largely bureaucratic. So I think that I can praise it without people thinking that I am merely congratulating myself.

RAMP/MDP was the first attempt in my mind to supplement traditional media assistance to specific media companies with help in forming an overall media-market infrastructure. For instance, the project led to the creation of the National Association of Telebroadcasters, which over the years has united the country's leading regional broadcasters and done a creditable job representing their interests. It has played a leading role, for instance, in long-running efforts to develop a single television-ratings system, which is a key infrastructural issue for broadcasters. RAMP/MDP also led to the creation of a business-development program for regional newspapers that was the first management school for many Russian media managers.

I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that this project marked the real beginning of the infusion into the Russian media of the idea that the media business isn't so much about self-expression as it is about the ability to intelligently sell a product to an audience that is counting every ruble. In the wake of this project, other organizations began replacing their grants for specific media projects like election coverage with development grants and, eventually, loans. In order to receive these grants and loans, regional media companies had to be able to withstand a thorough due-diligence process and commit to an intense program of Western management consulting. These programs, in turn, led to the emergence of a group of leading regional media companies that were truly market-oriented and financially solid enough to withstand considerable blows from a fickle economy and hostile politicians.

When President Vladimir Putin came into power, the demand among regional media managers for such assistance grew markedly. Under Putin, economic liberalization has made real progress while, at the same time, political pressure on the mass media has increased markedly. And that pressure has usually not come in the form of direct censorship, but through the exploitation of ownership conflicts and other real, fundamental problems with the media outlets themselves. Media outlets, especially regional media outlets, have come to realize that the best security for survival is an intelligently structured business.

Russian media managers have stopped asking their Western colleagues, "what does your advice have to do with my life?" and have started asking, "how would you handle this problem in the West?" They have stopped complaining that if aid organizations gave Russian media outlets half the amount they pay consultants in cash, that would solve all their problems, and have finally realized that professional consulting is worth far more than money.

In short, literally over the last two or three years, the balance of supply and demand in the area of Western media assistance has shifted dramatically. In that short period, the conditions have emerged for achieving the goal -- the establishment of an independent, market-oriented media sector -- for which so many Western assistance organizations strove for so many years under hostile conditions. Therefore it is particularly discouraging that, at this particular moment, Western donors have suddenly lost virtually all interest in Russia and funding for such efforts has been slashed.

Aleksei Pankin is the founder and editor of "Sreda," a professional journal for media managers.

DO NOT ATTEMPT TO ADJUST YOUR SET
By Julie A. Corwin

Last month, Russian presidential hopeful and businessman Anzori Aksentev-Kikalishvili withdrew his bid to participate in the 14 March presidential election, complaining among other things about allegedly unfair treatment he had received at the hands of the Lithuanian press. Aksentev was vying to run in the Russian -- not the Lithuanian -- presidential race, but hardly a word could be found about him in the pages of Russian newspapers.

Of course, there could be explanations for not covering Aksentev-Kikalishvili. After all, he tried to run in the 1999 presidential election, but in the end he didn't make the ballot. But it is much harder to make a reasonable journalistic case about other potentially sensational stories that the Russian media has chosen to ignore this election season. It is becoming increasingly hard to argue that the Russian press is operating freely and independently.

On 2 February, presidential hopeful and former State Duma Speaker Ivan Rybkin took out a full page advertisement in the business daily "Kommersant-Daily," in which he charged that President Vladimir Putin "is the biggest oligarch in Russia" and that a trio of Russian businessmen -- Gennadii Timchenko and Mikhail and Yurii Kovalchuk, together with the "well-known [Chukotka Autonomous Okrug Governor Roman] Abramovich" -- are looking after Putin's business interests and swallowing up a vast share of the nation's financial flows.

Rybkin's charges were not covered by any national television station. They were picked up by only a handful of print media outlets, including "Nezavisimaya gazeta" and "Kommersant-Vlast" -- both of which, like "Kommersant-Daily," are controlled by self-exiled tycoon and staunch Putin opponent Boris Berezovskii, who is widely believed to be financing Rybkin's campaign -- and the liberal "Novaya gazeta." Only the weekly "Moskovskie novosti" actually appeared to investigate Rybkin's charges, rather than just report that they had been made. Among Russian radio stations, only RFE/RL and Ekho Moskvy covered Rybkin's allegations.

On 3 February, during a roundtable discussion of media topics on Ekho Moskvy, "Yezhenedelnyi zhurnal" journalist Aleksandr Ryklin noted the media's silence. "A presidential candidate accused incumbent President Putin of corruption and named names," Ryklin said. "And did anything happen? Will perhaps any kind of newspaper put out a dossier on these people? Why hasn't the presidential administration opened an inquiry into this, and why aren't they telling us that it is all monstrous lies and slander?"

On 13 January, Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) political council member and presidential candidate Irina Khakamada posted an open letter to Putin on her personal website (http://www.hakamada.ru), accusing him of covering up the truth about the 23-26 October 2002 Moscow-theater hostage crisis. She claimed she met with the hostage takers during the incident, and she was convinced that they did not plan to blow up the building. She charged that the authorities were not primarily interested in saving the lives of all of the hostages. She also alleged that then-presidential administration head Aleksandr Voloshin ordered her, in a threatening tone, not to interfere in the matter. Finally, she charged that Putin covered up the truth, which she said is a state crime, and that this is why she decided to run for president.

Khakamada's charges got somewhat more coverage than Rybkin's, particularly in the print and online media. However, most of the mainstream newspapers treated Khakamada's charges in the context of her election campaign, rather than as revealing any new information about the theater crisis. "Vedomosti," which declined to print Khakamada's open letter to the president as a paid advertisement, wrote on 15 January that "experts believe Khakamada's appeal could be treated [by the authorities] as 'premature campaigning'" and that the newspapers that did print it -- "Kommersant-Daily" and "Moskovskii komsomolets" -- could face fines.

The state-controlled federal television stations -- ORT and RTR -- did not carry any stories about Khakamada's accusations, and NTV's "Segodnya" program alluded only to the fact that she had made "serious" accusations against Putin.

If the national television stations chose not cover the allegations by Khakamada and Rybkin, what were they covering? On 3 February, the day after Rybkin's paid advertisement appeared in "Kommersant-Daily," ORT carried a story about the opening of an exhibition of election posters and photographs. The previous day, it showed footage of Putin meeting with the head of Russia's pension fund. And, of course, it devoted considerable coverage to the recent tiff between the leaders of the Motherland party, one of whom is also running against Putin.

A Russian citizen who relies only on national television for news -- as the vast majority of Russians do -- would have no idea that some of Putin's few political opponents have levied serious charges against him. It seems little wonder that Putin's popularity rating remains so high month after month.

Some pollsters have argued that Putin continues to be so popular -- despite his failure to deliver on key promises such as ending the conflict in Chechnya and despite tragedies such as the 2002 theater hostage crisis or the 6 February Moscow subway bombing -- because he serves as a kind of touchstone for the Russian people's hope. Their need to believe in Putin has turned him into a kind of Teflon president, and the stain of policy failures never seems to stick. Perhaps the explanation for his seeming invulnerability is a little simpler: independent media and any viable political opposition that might hold his administration accountable simply do not exist.

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