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The Way It Is

Briefing by Alexey Venediktov
On October the 10th the AEB organised a high informative briefing by Alexey Venediktov, the Editor-in-Chief of Ekho Moskvi radio station on a rather obscurely titled lecture: The Mass media and The Elections, the Fourth Estate, or what..? Here are the highlights of his talk and of the questions and answers that followed.
Compiled by John Harrison

Many foreigners would love to know the answer to the question: what kind new Putin be when he takes office again next year? Could he become, as some American colleagues put it, a new Gorbachev? The world has changed vastly over the past 4 or 5 years, and as far as I can tell from my personal contacts with the Prime Minister, it is clear that he understands that there is a new situation and threats that this country has to face up to. He cannot come to power and be the same president as he was in 2000 or as Medvedev was in 2008. One shouldn’t think that he is totally fixed in his ways.

Alexey Venediktov, Editor-in-Chief, radio station Ekho Moskvi AEB, October 10, Hotel Marriott Grand. “The mass media and the elections, the Fourth Estate, or what..?”

His new programme has three major aspects. The first is to unite previous countries of the Soviet Union in a common economic bloc, and that is why he is now pushing for a customs- agreement between countries, with the aim of, together with the European Union, creating a third centre of power after America and China with Asia. What methods will he use to do this? This is difficult to say, nevertheless, the man is 59 years old, and it is difficult to expect any completely new methods. Putin considers, as before, that the press is an instrument which can be used to resolve a task or problem, and not an instrument of civil society, it is an instrument which can be used by, let’s say, its owner. If the owner considers that the instrument is the right for him, then he will use it, if he doesn’t, then he will disregard it, as in 2000 with ORT and NTV, and then put them under state control.

The second aspect is, as I would call, is the issue of Caucasians vs. fanatics. If in some European countries, gypsies, for example, can be moved on, in Russia Caucasians cannot, because they are already amongst us everywhere. If in 2006 and 2007, the main threat was the expansion of NATO, when Georgia and the Ukraine strove to join NATO, this threat is now insignificant in comparison to problems within our own borders.

The third facet of the new Putin is dealing with the very serious state of our country’s economy.

Naturally enough Putin’s team will be replenished with new people. Who will come and who will go is not yet clear. Some older, tested members of his team will stay on, in one capacity or the other, as can be seen by Alexey Kudrin who will probably become either the chairman of the central bank or deputy head of the presidential committee of economic policy.

I haven’t noticed any changes in regards to the concept of freedom. Putin and his team consider Russia to be a collectivist culture rather than individualistic. The new media, in particular social media has caused some concern. Putin himself does not use the internet, and distrusts it. He considers it to be a zone of manipulation and disinformation, perhaps justifiably. After all, systems of filtration of real messages from false messages on Twitter, Facebook and so on, have not yet been established. When something important happens, his press service prints him out a pile of reports and places that on his table. This is in complete contrast to the present President, who views his daily schedule on his iPad. Putin’s approach is in opposition to the facts. I talked to professionals who organise elections in this country recently. They told me that the elections next year are going to be the last elections where television will play the decisive role in swaying the electorate like now. In five or six years, they say, people will be informed in a completely different way.

“Putin himself does not use the internet, and distrusts it. He considers it to be a zone of manipulation and disinformation, perhaps justifiably.”

What real power has Dmitry Medvedev enjoyed over the past four years, and what will be his role in the future?

When Medvedev became President, he did in fact enjoy the mandate of the people. At least for the first three years of Medvedev’s presidency, Vladimir Putin, during meetings and events, when talking about Medvedev, said that this or that question is to be decided by the President [not by me]. All the appointments in the ‘A’ group of civil servants were carried out by Medvedev on condition that Putin didn’t oppose, but he didn’t have to agree either. So Medvedev did actually have a lot of power. Foreign policy was given entirely to Medvedev, even when Putin was against Medvedev’s decisions, as with Libya. Putin respects presidential power as something sacred. Why were Luzhkov, Mironov and Kudrin all sacked? Because they dared to raise their voices against presidential power. Putin always, when referring to Medvedev would say things like: “Yes, he’s young, but he’s the President”. There were of course areas where Putin had a veto, for example with Khodorovsky. Medvedev knew better than to enter that territory. The fact that judicial and other reforms were started by the President but not finished tell us that he was unable to create his own team. I do hope that Putin will give Medvedev some authority to carry on these reforms in one way or the other as Prime Minister. After all, he will be a Prime Minister who used to be a president. Informally, I think that Putin considered Medvedev to be rather weak, that he needed to develop some more muscles to be the leader of this country. If Medvedev doesn’t do this, as Prime Minister, in the midst of a crisis, I think Putin will show him the door in a year or two.

How should the media react when everything is already decided?

A section of the media will react and quite rightly so, but we all know that Putin will be President. We can criticise the decision, but 52 million people will come and tick the box for Putin. Therefore it seems to me that it is more productive not to concentrate on the people, but the programme. What will he do when the crisis hits us, what will he do when 10,000 or 100,000 come out and demonstrate on Manezh square? The programme is what is interesting. Putin, for example, said recently: let’s introduce a tax on luxury. What exactly is luxury? Is a car a luxury? If so, what kind of car? Is 15 sotok a luxury? The problem is that in Russia there is no opposition, and no independent arbitration court. A section of the press, actually quite a large portion of the press is free, where all these questions can be discussed. Five years ago the situation was worse. Internet was not developed then, cable television wasn’t either. People are getting a lot more information. On the basis of that, let’s organise a discussion. In the past, only groups like fascists and Stalinists joined together on the Russian internet. Now, over the past one and a half to two years, civil groups have started to organise, and this is great. We publish on our site lists of blogs, the whole thing is growing. This turbulent new mass media is giving a new platform to civil campaigners. Discussion of Putin’s programme will make people think: what exactly do these people who are going to be elected, actually mean?

There have been recent reports about young people wanting to leave Russia. My question is where are they going to go, given than both America and Europe are in deep economic trouble, when Russia is relatively stable, economically speaking?

This is a reflection of a mood rather than a factual situation. It really doesn’t matter who is coming back; Putin, Medvedev, Luzhkov, or whoever. The world of Russian business has formed, it is difficult to break in, the same can be said for almost every other career. People feel that they don’t know how they are going to grow, to develop. The other aspect of your question is that some of the people who are emigrating know exactly where they are going, these are young scientists. Our laboratories are in a terrible condition, apart from a very few. When these young Russians hear somebody talking about the equipment in a lab say in a small university in Germany, they naturally want to leave not only because of the money, but because of the career possibilities. The people leaving Russia are not, as the French say, Polish plumbers. They are not labourers or want to work as taxi drivers in Paris. These are people mostly with a higher education who think that they have more chances in America, Europe, or Morocco, for example. This is a brain drain, not a migration of workers, unlike the kind of people who want to come here to work from the near east. This is a small but very serious problem, it’s like a leak in the body’s circulation of blood. So that’s why we have Skolkovo. But there should be five or ten Skolkovos. There is another, horrible problem here: why don’t any Russian universities appear in ratings of the top 100 international educational institutions? The reason is that our universities are not research universities. Our universities are educational institutions, not research units, for that, you have to go elsewhere, to research institutions. This will change, and our top seven universities will change their status and become research centres, but the transition is complex and reforms have been started late, only two years ago. But don’t worry, there won’t be a band of Russian lads in felted winter boots, strolling down the highway in Arizona to take American cattle herders’ jobs!

Does the self-selection of Putin, for all his tremendous popularity, signify that the Western democratic path that Gorbachev and Yeltsin started here has finally come to an end? Will the internet be censored, as it is successfully censored in China?

The question about democracy can only be theoretically discussed. I told Vladimir Putin a year ago, “You have done everything to destroy competition, both in business and in the media.” He said that he didn’t agree. I think that democracy entails competition, and in a post-industrial society, competition drives people. Nevertheless, recently, we see that the government is pulling back a little on its control on capital in strategically important industries, making more markets a little more accessible. If the rest of the world encourages us to increase competition, it means that this will bring democracy. We won’t be another Singapore. There is a small, too small, tendency in the direction of increasing competition and this is very important.

As far as the internet goes, yes, people might have to search through proxies. In the past, even that was impossible. Recently I had a discussion about the internet with the minister of Communications and mass media, Igor Shchegolev about regulating the internet. He said that you’ve gone mad, what regulation? We don’t have the technical ability. What goes on in Chain is one thing, not the same as what happens here. Of course there is problem with things like paedophilia and how to make bombs on the net, but we just don’t know at the moment how to control that.

Do you think that Putin will bring back a new era of stagnation?

One of Putin’s most frequently used words is stability. He doesn’t like to take great risks. If something can be left alone, he’ll leave it alone. He doesn’t like turbulence. Having two leaders, Putin and Medvedev, resulted in instability of the ruling class, as they felt uncomfortable having to get things signed off by two people instead on one. In this context, Putin’s stability signifies stagnation. So the new Putin won’t be a Putin/Gorbachev or Putin/Khruschev.

“I told Vladimir Putin a year ago, “You have done everything to destroy competition, both in business and in the media.” He said that he didn’t agree.”

What about capital flight from Russia? If Brezhnev comes back in the form of Gorbachev, what is the big message that Putin’s return means?

The reason for capital flight is clear. It is clear that the weakest point in the administration of Russia is an independent judiciary. Without confidence in the defence of rights and property, there is no confidence in investing in Russia. You could make a soap serial about what happened to BP here. So capital flight will continue until the judicial reforms that Medvedev tried to carry out are actually done. In reference to Brezhnev and Gorbachev.

Let’s remember two Soviet reformers, Khruschev and Gorbachev. Who are these people? Khruschev was a Stalinist executioner. He even tried to impress his leader by increasing the quotas of people to be shot. Look at the archives. Then he became a reformer. What about Gorbachev? Here is man who voted against Sakharov under Brezhnev and in 1984 voted for the reinstatement of Molotov’s party ticket, but who three years later becomes a reformer. What happened? Did Gorbachev realise that the world has changed? Maybe Putin will see that the world has changed? If he begins to carry out reforms, it won’t be the first time an executioner has introduced reforms. The question is why? Because the situation forced these people, who are not stupid, to realise that new policies are needed.

We shall see what will happen to Putin. I think it is a question of survival and the different threats that face countries at different times. The message that is being transmitted is negative. We knew that Medvedev was not an elected president. Obama knew, all European leaders knew that, but they communicated with him as if he was an elected president. Vladimir Putin will be a legally elected president. If Vladimir Putin will allow you to develop your business and your business will be protected and effective, you will say thank you to Vladimir Vladimirovich. If he doesn’t you will report him as being the head of a bloody regime, that’s understood. We understand also, we are also pragmatic in this respect.

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