The billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov was the talk of the town
when he was forced from his post as leader of the Kremlin-friendly, pro-market Right Cause Party earlier this month. Addressing an auditorium half-full of fellow defectors, he condemned the Kremlin's shadowy master of domestic strategy, Vladislav Surkov, as a "puppetmaster" for trying to control the party. Among the dissidents, the previously apolitical, aging pop star and Prokhorov supporter Alla Pugacheva -- adored for her Soviet-era ballads -- then crossed an even bigger line by taking to the stage to call Surkov "crazy."
Russians watching the video footage were transfixed. The transgression of a top oligarch -- whose continuing good fortune depends on the Kremlin's goodwill -- denouncing the Kremlin's top ideologue injected longed-for drama into Russia's otherwise stage-managed politics. Not that you would have seen any of that day's top news on television. The video was viewed on countless Internet sites, while the main state-controlled news channels, which had once regularly shown Prokhorov on nightly newscasts, barely mentioned him at all.
If Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin returns to the presidency next year -- as many Russians expect -- it will be in no small part due to that kind of leverage over the main national media, which is all the Kremlin needs to manipulate public opinion. More than 80 percent of the population gets its news from state-controlled television, according to the Levada Center, the country's top independent polling agency. But although Putin's drive to reshape the country's once-vibrant free press began more than a decade ago, it doesn't mean all you get these days is propaganda, as a survey of the media shows. The critical press may be limited to a very small audience, but it continues to contribute to a varied media landscape -- and that's probably just what the authorities want.
Agitation And Propaganda
Russian television news may look far splashier these days than its old Soviet incarnation, but many viewers will tell you the content differs little. Glowing reports show the country's leaders visiting factories, laughing with foreign counterparts, or dressing down subordinates in what many complain is dull propaganda. On the night of Prokhorov's resignation, state television showed his rump former party unceremoniously voting him out -- after he failed to show up at the meeting -- along with President Dmitry Medvedev on a trip to Kazakhstan announcing that everything in relations with Russia was "excellent." Evidently in case anyone would wonder why he was there, he added that "it doesn't mean we have absolutely nothing to discuss."
Boring it may be, but the Levada Center's Denis Volkov says the heavy-handed stage-managing is effective. He says events the Kremlin doesn't want to publicize -- such as an international scandal
over the prison death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky -- aren't common knowledge "just because state television doesn't report them."
That wasn't always the case. NTV television, one of the three main networks, often criticized the Kremlin until Vladimir Putin became president in 2000. Then NTV's oligarch owner was temporarily jailed and his station forcibly taken over by a minority shareholder, state-owned Gazprom. It became a model for what would happen at other outlets.
NTV joined state-owned Channels 1 and 2 broadcasting reports that Aleksei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation press freedom advocacy, characterizes as Kremlin-approved "agitation and propaganda." A fourth channel, independent REN-TV, held out longer. But now that more than 60 percent of its shares belong to a metals conglomerate and an oil firm whose success depends on their good standing with the government, REN-TV also largely stays within prescribed boundaries.
But that doesn't mean there's no free press in Russia. Take "Novaya gazeta," a biweekly newspaper acclaimed for investigations into official corruption and abuses in Chechnya. Russia's flagship of independent reporting has paid heavily for the honor: Four of its reporters have been killed or died under mysterious circumstances since 2003, prompting billionaire co-owner Aleksandr Lebedev to request staff be allowed to carry guns, saying the state had failed to protect them.
High-profile backing from Lebedev and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev -- who together own 49 percent of shares -- has helped protect the paper from government pressure, while the staff's controlling 51 percent stake ensures editorial independence. Moreover, "Novaya gazeta"'s relatively small circulation of under 200,000, mainly in Moscow and St. Petersburg, also relieves pressure because it doesn't threaten the authorities' grip on power.
But Andrei Lipsky says that isn't enough. "Novaya gazeta's" deputy editor responsible for politics and media credits an "information famine," even among the ruling elite, for also helping shield the paper. "It's a paradox, but even the authorities need 'Novaya gazeta.'" he says. "Not least as a source of sometimes unpleasant information about one other." Leading politicians, Lipsky explains, thirst for ammunition for the infighting believed to be rampant at the top levels of power. That theory extends to another standard bearer for critical reporting -- the top independent radio station, Ekho Moskvy -- which so far has withstood threats from its biggest shareholder Gazprom, unlike NTV.
Top among other respected news sources is "Vedomosti" newspaper. Owned by Finland's Sanoma media group and published in conjunction with "The Wall Street Journal" and the "Financial Times," the business daily is known for its scoops in business and politics.
Then there's the vast gray mass at the middle of the spectrum. Among them "Kommersant" newspaper, another of Russia's leading business papers, which has a circulation of 130,000 and remains generally well respected. Once the property of exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, it was bought by Kremlin-friendly steel tycoon Alisher Usmanov in 2006. Then-deputy editor Kirill Rogov, who subsequently resigned, says the sale ensured "Kommersant" would "no longer remain independent."
"'Kommersant' was once in the wonderful, unique position of being mostly impervious to control by the Kremlin as well as its media tycoon owner," he says, "but that's ended."
Among other leading newspapers, "Izvestia" -- circulation 230,000 -- was once the Soviet government's official mouthpiece. Now it's owned by the SOGAZ insurance company, which is in turn controlled by Bank Rossia, whose co-owner Yury Kovalchuk is believed to be close to Putin. "Nezavisimaya gazeta," with a circulation 40,000 aimed at Moscow's intellectual elite, belongs to Konstantin Remchukov, a former liberal member of parliament who appointed himself editor. Russia's bestselling newspaper, with a circulation of more than 1 million copies, is a tabloid called "Komsomolskaya pravda." Once a Soviet youth paper, it's now controlled by ECN Group, an energy company believed to be close to Gazprom.
Currently forbidden topics at these papers are said to include those that would damage the authorities, including corruption at the very top, infighting among the most powerful elites, and personal information about leading members of Putin's and President Dmitry Medvedev's circles.
Nevertheless, "Kommersant" and other newspapers continue to publish critical reports about those lower down the food chain, even as their already limited reach continues to decline. Volkov of the Levada Center says only around 20 percent of Russians read newspapers, and at that mostly local papers with little national news.
Internet No Panacea
As one would expect, websites are picking up some of the slack. Rogov -- the founding editor of Russia's first major political news site, Polit.ru, in the late 1990s -- credits the Internet with enabling journalists, scholars, and bloggers to bring topics to public discussion outside the "controlled, traditional media." Indeed, social commentators have divided the country in half: the "Internet Russia" of mostly young, increasingly globalized readers who can access any information they want; and the "television Russia" that listens to what the authorities want it to hear.
Readership dynamics are steadily tilting toward the Internet, with almost 60 million Russians -- more than 40 percent of the population -- already using it. Top news sites include the well-respected Gazeta.ru -- also controlled by "Kommersant's" Usmanov -- and Newsru.com, one of the former NTV television owner's few remaining media holdings.
But despite the ardent hopes of many in the West that the Internet's rise would help undermine authoritarianism in Russia, observers say that's just not happening. That's partly because most Internet use is for social networking or entertainment, says the Glasnost Foundation's Simonov. "The Internet isn't a panacea, it's only a medium, an opportunity to access information," he says. "But it's not what people want right now."
Rather than individual publications, it's news aggregators -- such as on Yandex.ru, Russia's most popular search engine -- that get most traffic. In any case, Volkov says only 5 to 6 percent of the population gets its news from the Internet, and "that's just not going to change the country."
Not Completely Free
Among the newest developments has been the rise of bloggers such as anticorruption crusader Aleksei Navalny. His site Rospil.ru, which documents crooked government deals, has helped make him the newest darling among opposition figures. But Navalny has had a negligible influence among ordinary Russians so far, Volkov says. "No one needs to be told corruption is Russia's biggest problem," he says. "In fact, Medvedev already talks about that topic more than anyone. Average Russians just don't know about Navalny."
With parliamentary elections approaching in December and a presidential vote due in March, observers say that situation suits the authorities just fine. But Lipsky says despite the disappointing retreat of civil society under Putin, the dynamic may be showing signs of change, thanks partly to the Internet.
"More people want an active part in life, for their voices to be heard," he says, "and that's the hope, the slow growth of civil consciousness."