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Russia: Press Freedom Issue Could Affect Putin's Popularity

The Russian government's treatment of missing Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky has revived the question of press freedom in Russia. RFE/RL's Sophie Lambroschini asks Russian political scientists whether the issue could influence voters ahead of presidential elections next month.

Moscow, 14 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Freedom of the press is not a burning issue for the general public in Russia. But political scientists say the growing restrictions on journalists' rights could still erode support for acting President Vladimir Putin as he prepares for a presidential election next month.

Russian authorities' treatment of Andrei Babitsky, the war correspondent they arrested and then handed over to masked men, has been widely interpreted as a blow to press freedom that could herald a crackdown on the press under Putin. The government has strictly controlled its release of information about the war in Chechnya, and just this week a French journalist (Anne Nivat) based there reported that government authorities confiscated her satellite phone and her notes.

Political scientist Sergei Markov told RFE/RL that most people consider freedom of speech less important than non-payment of salaries, personal safety, economic growth, and national pride.

However, says Markov, most Russians do support press freedom. And he says any politician can lose popularity if journalists begin to perceive him as a threat to their work.

"But this problem is very important for journalists who play a very important role in forming public opinion. In a democratic society it is very dangerous for a politician to fall out with the journalistic corps. He immediately exposes himself to thousands of small blows that in the end can destroy any politician. That's why it would be very unpleasant for Putin if he ends up on bad terms with the press."

Heritage Foundation expert Yevgeny Volk thinks that the "Babitsky affair" has become, to some extent, a dividing line indicating Putin's backers.

"For the people who have something to do with politics, of course the Babitsky issue is a kind of litmus paper that tests the sympathy or the antipathy towards the new regime that now appeared after Yeltsin leaving his presidential post."

Putin's apparent apathy about Babitsky's fate could jeopardize his support by the Union of Right Forces (SPS), a group of reformist politicians supported by pro-Western, democratically oriented voters. Influential party member Anatoly Chubais, head of Russia's electrical monopoly, this week called the authorities' attitude about Babitsky a mistake and said it would have negative consequences.

A tactical alliance between the pro-Putin Unity faction and the communists in the Duma last month had already spurred the Union of Right Forces to disavow some of Putin's actions. And the Heritage Foundation's Volk says that the Babitsky affair may cause that party to move further away from Putin.

"In recent days the right-liberal flank has amassed a lot of questions about Putin. And the unconditional support that it decided to give Putin during parliamentary elections as Russia's [future] president is no longer as clear."

Political scientist Markov says that although the treatment of Babitsky is worrisome, it is still too early to draw pessimistic conclusions about Putin's future policy toward the media based on this one incident. But if the standoff between Putin and the media continues, Markov says, then more repressive actions could result.

"The more Vladimir Putin clashes with journalists, the more he will be hostile to democratic institutions as a whole. The more he is criticized by the media, the more he will want to tighten the screws a bit on [their] work. That's why the conflict between Putin and journalists is a very important one and dangerous for both sides."

Markov says it seems obvious that Putin will never possess the equable attitude of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. He points out that Yeltsin came to power under perestroika, freedom of speech was still the main issue for Soviet society. He says this is not true for Putin, who needs the media much less. "You can say that Boris Yeltsin came to power on a wave of public opinion support that was to a large extent forged by the press that supported him. While Putin came to power on a wave of tough policies -- he was supported by the population as a civil servant who was not afraid to make important decisions. Journalists did not play a role in Putin's ascension to power. Even during the parliamentary election campaign, when the media supported Unity, Putin's bloc, and supported Putin himself, this was less the initiative of the journalists themselves than that of their management, those oligarchs who now control the media. That's why Yeltsin was always grateful to journalists while Putin has nothing to thank them for."

So far, press freedom has not shaped up as an issue in the March 26 presidential election. Andrei Ryabov, a consultant with the Carnegie Fund's Moscow branch, says he thinks that restrictions on press freedom would influence only the pro-reform voters.

Those voters, who are concentrated in Moscow, St. Petersburg and a few other regional capitals, comprise no more than 20 million of Russia's 108 million voters.