Last week the Prosecutor-General's Office ordered its branches in the regions to keep an eye out for media reports about the financial crisis that could constitute "informational attacks against banks or inflame a mood of panic." Since then several journalists -- Oksana Panova of ura.ru; Yevgeny Gontmakher, for an article in "Vedomosti"; Pavel Verstov in Magnitogorsk -- have received unwanted attention from officials for their writings related to the crisis. "Kommersant" reported yesterday that Verstov was expelled from the ruling Unified Russia party for an article asserting that suicide is on the rise in Magnitogorsk.
The Gontmakher case is intriguing as well. "Vedomosti" has received an informal warning over his article, in which he imagines a scenario in which distress from the crisis produced public demonstrations at which people called for the removal of bureaucrats and officials. The prosecutor's warning is strange because the law cited criminalizes inciting others to violence on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or social class.
Leaving aside the matter that there is no violence in Gontmakher's article and no incitement of any type, the warning raises the question of whether the Russian bureaucracy now considers itself a social class. If that is true, the prosecutor might take a look at this passage from President Dmitry Medvedev's November 5 address to the Federal Assembly: "As a result our state apparatus is the largest employer, the most active publisher, the best producer, its own judge, its own party and, in the final analysis, its own nation. Such a system is absolutely ineffective and creates only one thing -- corruption. It foster mass legal nihilism; it contradicts the constitution; it freezes the development of the institutions of an innovation economy and a democracy." He goes on to say that "the all-powerful bureaucracy...is fatally dangerous" for democracy. Sounds like a declaration of class warfare, as do many statements by Medvedev, Vladimir Putin, and others complaining about the bureaucracy and corruption.
A smaller version of the same kind of "kill-the-messenger" mentality also surfaced during the summer of 2004, when Russia experienced a relatively small, but painful contraction in the banking sector. A few high-profile cases, especially one against "Kommersant," were enough to let everyone know which way the wind was blowing.
The latest warnings and public statements by officials seem to be the proverbial shot across the bow of the Russian media. "They will definitely find someone and will begin settling up with someone," economics journalist Irina Yasina told RFE/RL's Russian Service, "in order to demonstrate their own importance and to show they are fighting against the financial turbulence, as they are calling it."