Huffpost WorldPost
Robert Coalson Headshot

A Reality Check for Russia's President

Posted: Updated:
Print

On January 29, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev summoned Novaya gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov and the newspaper's co-owner, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, to the Kremlin. At that meeting, Medvedev broke his long silence about the murders of Novaya gazeta journalists, particularly the brutal gunning down in broad daylight of Anastasia Baburova 10 days earlier as she left a press conference with defense attorney Stanislav Markelov, who was also killed.

After the meeting, Muratov spoke with media, including RFE/RL's Russian Service, and explained that Medvedev had not spoken previously because he did not want to influence the ongoing investigation into the killings. Medvedev also reportedly expressed his support for independent media, reportedly saying, "Thank God Novaya gazeta exists."

But Medvedev is smart enough to know that his silence also sends signals to law enforcement agencies and to society. And, indeed, we should thank God that Novaya gazeta exists, because we certainly cannot thank the Russian government, which has spent the last decade systematically destroying independent media and the rest of the country's nascent civil society.

Medvedev's chat with Muratov set off a flurry of analysis to the effect that the president was finally showing his liberal colors, moving out from under the shadow of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Analyst Andreas Umland suggested the meeting "might be the starting point" for a transformation in Russia on a parallel with Gorbachev's own late-Soviet reforms.

But you'd think Medvedev would be a little more proud of such a historic achievement. The official Kremlin website does not relate any of the president's liberal pronouncements. It does not include a photograph of the event. It merely lists a one-line statement to the effect that the meeting took place. State television did not deem the event worthy of significant coverage, despite its potentially historic significance. Medvedev has not repeated any of the sentiments he expressed to Muratov in public.

The official silence about the meeting has led Novoye vremya this week to editorialize that the meeting was nothing but another example of the Kremlin's "liberalism for export." Former Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov urges us to "look past [Medvedev's] superficial photo ops and meaningless statements."

And if we follow Ryzhkov's advice, Medvedev's praise for independent media rings pretty hollow.

Medvedev knows the first step toward building Putinism in Russia was the destruction of the non-state media, particularly the popular and successful NTV television network. In January 2001, then-President Putin met in the Kremlin with journalists and said the same things Medvedev told Muratov. "Many of you in different ways interpret what is happening in the country, and our foreign policy initiatives and steps. You do this sometimes, even quite often, in a very sharp and critical way. The state swallows this, and, even more, I must tell you that this is useful for government at any level as it makes us react to the mistakes the state sometimes makes," Putin said.

Less than two weeks later, Putin met with journalists from the embattled NTV network and told them that, although he felt the actions of prosecutors against the station were "excessive," there was nothing he could do because in Russia, prosecutors are independent. According to a The Moscow Times editorial, "No doubt this independence was underscored when [Prosecutor-General Vladimir] Ustinov emerged from Putin's office and bumped into the NTV delegation as they arrived to meet the president."

A few weeks later, the independent NTV was dead, swallowed up by Gazprom. The chairman of Gazprom's board of directors at the time was Dmitry Medvedev. Killing independent media in Russia can well be considered Medvedev's first step toward the presidency. On April 5, 2001, The Moscow Times editorialized again: "Destroying NTV as an independent journalistic voice is an unforgivable crime against Russia's children and their hopes for a better life in a democratic country. Moreover, it is a crime behind which will stand years and years of other crimes in the form of unexposed corruption, unbridled state avarice and unexamined incompetence."

Taking control of NTV paid off again for Medvedev when he "ran" for president last spring. According to the independent Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, the network's favorable coverage of Medvedev outstripped even that of the formally Kremlin-controlled channels, Rossia and Channel One. A good litmus test for Medvedev's purportedly liberal credentials will be if he ever acknowledges the grossly undemocratic means by which he became president and admits that he lacks any form of legitimacy more sophisticated than "might makes right."

In November, a Freedom House report was pretty clear on Medvedev's "liberalism":

During the eight years of his presidency, Vladimir Putin systematically attacked the rights of Russian citizens to form politically oriented nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), address labor concerns through trade unions, and demonstrate openly against government policies. These crackdowns came as part of a larger campaign against democracy. Unfortunately, the downward trajectory has continued even as Putin shifts to the post of prime minister and Dmitry Medvedev takes over as president.

Yesterday, the Committee to Protect Journalists again tried to rattle Medvedev's cage, dredging up some of his public (for Western audiences!) pronouncements on the importance of defending journalists and urging him to end the culture of impunity in Russia that has put them in such danger. The CPJ appeal ends with a plaintive, "We await your response."

Today, Aleksei Venediktov, the editor in chief of the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio station, reported that when he returned to his Moscow apartment in the early morning hours, he found a log with an ax embedded in it outside his door. A security camera in the corridor had been covered with tape.

I guess the signal Medvedev intended to send by meeting with Muratov wasn't quite loud enough. Or was it?

Cross-posted from RFE/RL's The Power Vertical.