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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Ambiguity And Control

Washington, 14 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian officials appear set to use ambiguities in that country's media legislation to rein in independent newspapers and magazines, a tactic that may allow Moscow to increase control while avoiding the kind of criticism that more explicit measures might generate.

The 1998 Russian media law specifies that all publishers in the Russian Federation must be licensed, a provision the media ministry had not enforced. But officials there had not required newspapers and magazines to obtain one, instead permitting them to operate on the basis of simple registration, as required by an earlier law.

Now Media Minister Mikhail Lesin has declared that newspapers and magazines must both register and secure a license, pointedly noting last week that "if one strictly follows the letter of the law, we could have shut you all down a long time ago."

On the one hand, some observers may welcome this move as a step toward the "dictatorship of law" that Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised and that many Russians see as the only chance to overcome the chaos that has afflicted Russian society for most of the last decade.

But on the other hand, such an approach not only represents a potentially dangerous threat to the independence of Russian media but it also highlights a more general style of governance in which those who administer the laws always have the chance to choose which laws they will enforce.

The threat to the media of Lesin's comments was immediately recognized. Andrei Richter, the director of the Center for Law and Media at Moscow State University, told the "Moscow Times" on Saturday that the new licensing requirement "is a very serious police club" in the hands of the authorities now that they have decided to use it.

The sudden decision to enforce this requirement certainly will increase uncertainty and hence insecurity among editors and publishers and is likely to encourage at least some of them to make arrangements with the media ministry -- especially since the latter now has the right to independently suspend licenses for up to six months for any violation of any law.

And Lesin's comments suggest that officials in his ministry will exploit this opportunity to seek conformity in much the same way that Russian officials at various levels have used their control of access to newsprint to avoid charges that the authorities were engaging in direct censorship.

But such use of legal ambiguity as a means of control has many other applications as well, some of them potentially far more serious. The existence of contradictory and seldom-enforced legislation clearly gives the authorities enormous power. They can decide what to enforce and against whom, be it on taxes, regulation, or almost anything else.

And that pattern in turn has several broader implications. The very arbitrariness it makes possible is likely to increase rather than decrease the amount of corruption in the society, as both officials and those they regulate seek to accommodate one another.

That in turn further reduces confidence in the rule of law among those only beginning to accept that as a fundamental principle, thus reducing even more the prospects for the development of an open and law-based civil society.

And both the corruption and uncertainty about the meaning of law opens the way to greater authoritarianism and even to its acceptance as something inevitable at the present stage of Russian development. That indeed may prove be the most important impact of announcements like the one Lesin made last week.

At the very least, this use of ambiguity as a means of control sets the stage for a new period of struggle between the Russian authorities and those they hope to govern, a competition in which law is likely to be frequently invoked but even more often misused.