Russia and the West – polar opposites or two sides of the same coin? Part III

MOSCOW. (Ian Pryde for RIA Novosti)

The Western and Russian media – not quite so different

Western critiques of press freedom in Russia look somewhat ironic against the background of huge concern about the decline in the Western media.

Would the intervention in Iraq have been avoided if the U.S. media had not completely abdicated their responsibility to question the motives of the authorities, promote debate and act as a watchdog?

The Bush administration’s line that a religious fanatic was in bed with an atheist and socialist dictator like Saddam because they both disliked the West should have set the alarm bells ringing immediately – even for people lacking any expertise in the Middle East.

This “group think” and the collective failure of the U.S. mass media to criticize and question are understandable against the background of 9/11. But this is a far cry from the Enlightenment ideal of well-informed citizens weighing up choices rationally on the basis of objective information.

And yet the West believes it has a “free press” and criticizes Russia for lacking one. In fact, the mass media are often just as poor and superficial in Russia as in the West, a situation many put down to the 24/7 news agenda and commercial pressures.

That freedom of expression in the media has declined under Putin is doubted by few people, but once again there are nuances. At the risk of gross simplification, the situation can be described as follows: in the late 1980s, television was still very Soviet, but there were lively debates, including link-ups with audiences in the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. Since everybody, economists as well as the general public, thought the end of the Communist system would result in an instant consumer paradise, there is a strong case for arguing that the disappointment of the 1990s had its origin in this period. The same mistake was made by the people in East Germany. The problems of the 1990s led to the liberals and the democrats losing their credibility – and they have not regained it to this day.

In the 1990s, the media enjoyed much greater freedom of expression – but not in the Western sense. “Freedom of speech” was seen as the right to say whatever you wanted about anyone. The much-vaunted press freedom in this period is therefore a myth since what in fact happened was a free-for-all, with regular character assassination. In any Western country, many of these periodicals and journalists would have been sued for slander and libel.

And in the current decade, despite claims by the opposition that they no longer get on TV, the converse, that the government is pushing a strong PR agenda, is not true. Even state-controlled television does not really support the government in the propaganda sense – especially compared with what it could do or compared with the Soviet period. Political items featuring Putin and/or the government are short, and news broadcasts often focus on banal human-interest stories. So whereas in the 1990s, there was a surfeit of information on television and it was often impossible to know what was true among the mud-slinging, now there is virtually no real information at all – and that applies to President Putin and government policies.

Is it much better in the West? In recent weeks, some channels have given virtually blanket coverage to the death of Anna Nicole Smith and Britney Spears’ shaven head. And far too many television journalists seem more interested in interrupting their interviewees or foisting their own views upon them, rather than letting them speak for themselves and letting the audience judge.

It is probably not concerned with television or the media, but it is nevertheless a damning indictment – and also a sign of the uncertain times – that according to opinion polls some 35% of Americans believe that the American government was involved in 9/11. This high percentage hardly represents a fringe element and is surely indicative of a deep lack of trust in the political system and politicians.

Opposition – what opposition?

The main reasons for Putin’s popularity are well-known – he is relatively young and dynamic, and he has of course brought stability and material improvements after the Yeltsin decade.

But the truth is, he has little opposition. It should be remembered that Putin is almost certainly the best-educated and most articulate leader of the country since Lenin – and he died in 1924. The Communists present no threat to the Kremlin, and nor does the radical right-wing populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky; their voters are simply too few.

As for the liberals, they have produced virtually no new ideas since the mid-1990s. With annual economic growth of around 7% in recent years, it would be hard for anyone to go up against the Kremlin and compete with the economic success of the government. That applies to both the parliamentary elections in December 2007 and the presidential elections in March 2008.

So while the opposition will continue to complain, it is hard to see how they could be successful given Russia’s lack of a real civil society, even if they had far better access to television airtime.

Conclusion

We no longer live in a simple bipolar world with the certainties of the Cold War. American military power might be the most dominant the world has ever seen, but it has failed in Iraq and cannot represent a meaningful solution to the world’s problems.

Unfortunately, it has taken the reality of Iraq to teach the Bush Administration what should have been clear from a reading of history and a solid knowledge of the Middle East. It was of course this better understanding of Iraq that held back the Allied coalition from invading in the early 1990s.

Putin feels America’s recent foreign policy has been far too ideological and often based on military and economic might. Russia’s policy – like that of China – is based on pragmatism – and perhaps also on weakness.

Eurasia is now undergoing vast changes. The Commonwealth of Independent States, an organization comprised of 11 former Soviet republics, might be ineffective, but these countries are working together – and that includes on the security front. Russia, like Poland and Hungary earlier in European history, sees itself as a defender of Western civilization, notably in its attempt to retain Chechnya, whose independence movement in the early 1990s morphed into oil theft, smuggling and corruption and attracted numerous Arab and other Muslim fighters looking, it seems, to set up the Caliphate.

Russian forces based in Kyrgyzstan are there to protect Russia’s soft underbelly against incursions from unstable Afghanistan.

As Putin has recognized, these are real threats not only to Russia, but to the West. Russia is not the West; it is not democratic and the rule of law is weak. But neither is Russia the Soviet Union. After the many concessions under Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, Russia now feels it is holding the line in the Caucasus and Central Asia against Islamic fundamentalism.

Germany has been grateful to Russia for allowing a peaceful unification, but many Russians believe America has simply exploited its goodwill, and they therefore feel aggrieved.

Wolf says Russia should be encouraged to become more democratic. Maybe. But Russians feel they have been experimented upon since 1917, with the last round of experiments beginning under Gorbachev in the mid-1980s. After twenty years of this, they are either enjoying the fruits of middle-class success – witness the traffic jams of mid-range cars in Moscow – or they are doing their best to survive. But public sector workers and pensioners are getting paid and receiving their pensions on time – a huge improvement on the 1990s.

Yes, Russian economic growth is of a poor quality and far too dependent on oil. But it remains to be seen if sustained growth can be achieved under what some call market authoritarianism. This is uncharted territory, and informed debate is more necessary than ever.

Ian Pryde is CEO of Eurasia Strategy & Communications, Moscow.

This is the final and third part of this article.

Originally written for Ian Pryde’s weekly column for the Opinion & Analysis section of RIA-Novosti’s English-language website.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

 

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