With less than two weeks to go before Russia’s presidential elections, the country’s independent journalists are in a state of anxiety. Government-run media seem more open than ever to divergent viewpoints — but officials may be cracking down on independent outlets that go too far.
Two incidents last week suggest that the Russian government is prepared to lean on journalists — both domestic and foreign.
The first involved the editor-in-chief of the capital’s influential news and talk radio station, Moscow Echo. Alexei Venediktov and his deputy were ousted from the station’s board of directors.
They were replaced by directors chosen by Gazprom Media, a subsidiary of the giant state-owned gas company that is Moscow Echo’s major shareholder.
Moscow Echo has a reputation for airing a wide range of views. But it has drawn the ire of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is running for president in next month’s election.
Putin and Venediktov had a run-in at a meeting of prominent editors in January. Putin charged that Moscow Echo was serving the interests of America; he accused Venediktov of trashing him.
The prime minister said he had no hard feelings, although he told Venediktov, “You pour diarrhea on me from morning until night.”
Last week, Venediktov said that his removal from the radio station board wasn’t a catastrophe, but that he did regard it as an attempt to adjust the station’s editorial policy.
Venediktov also said he doesn’t see his ouster as a direct action by Putin, but as an attack by the system that Putin has created. He said that when Putin criticizes the radio station — in public or private — zealous officials in his administration take that as an order to attack.
Another example of apparent official overzealousness occurred last week in the provincial region of Vladimir, east of Moscow.
Anne Nivat, a French writer and war reporter, was expelled from the country. Speaking from France, she says that the official excuse was that there was a problem with her visa.
But she says officials told her that the real problem was that she had been interviewing members of the opposition.
“And that was a big shock to me,” she says, “because to have conversation with people from the opposition, from the legal opposition in Russia — is it a crime? Well, I didn’t know that.”
Nivat, who speaks fluent Russian, says she was surprised to find that the authorities knew all about her activities, including the addresses of people she had visited.
It’s the kind of surveillance of foreigners that was common in Soviet times, but something Nivat says she had never encountered in more than 10 years of working in post-Soviet Russia.
“This is the atmosphere in Russia today, and everybody is afraid — everybody from the top to the very bottom in the deep province, where I was traveling around when they caught me,” she says.
Nivat’s story has a positive outcome. The local immigration official who expelled her was forced to resign, and Russian authorities have invited her back.
Masha Lipman, an analyst and editor at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says the latest developments are worrying, but that there are hopeful signs.
“I would say that right now is a time of very mixed signals, and very mixed reality,” she says.
Lipman says Moscow Echo has survived other attacks and crises, and it’s likely to survive now, because it has built a loyal audience.
She notes that even the three state-controlled television channels now include opposition voices — although in general, they’re overwhelmingly pro-Putin.
Lipman says there is a danger that the government may crack down once the election is over and Putin’s grip on power is secure.
But she says it’s unlikely that the government will ever be able to stifle independent voices on Russia’s Internet, where anti-government commentaries and jokes are posted and reposted throughout the country.
“It’s like an avalanche,” Lipman says. “Russian people are known to be very creative, very verbal — not infrequently quite cynical. And the culture of reposting is very high in Russia.”
And that culture, she adds, has been emboldened by opposition rallies that have drawn tens of thousands of people to the streets of the capital.