Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 68

President Vladimir Putin yesterday gave a wide-ranging interview to Russian and German media on the eve of his visit to Germany. The Russian head of state touched on a number of domestic and foreign policy issues.

Chief among the former was the issue of press freedom in Russia, with Putin repeating a position he has put forward in the past–that in order to achieve “genuine and not imaginary independence,” the Russian media should not be dependent on “moneybags,” meaning tycoons or oligarchs. “There can be no democratic Russia without a free press,” Putin said, adding that “the free press and democratic institutions themselves here are in the process of formation.” The only thing currently under threat, he said, is “the freedom of certain so-called oligarchs to buy journalists and dictate their will to them.” “We must not,” he added, “allow separate individuals to develop the country’s strategy as they see fit, stuffing their pockets with money received by illegal means.” “If press freedom is understood as the opportunity for journalists [and] creative groups to openly, freely and fearlessly set forth their point of view on the main problems in the development of the state and society, to criticize the actions of the authorities, and to seek a corresponding reaction from the authorities, then there will be that kind of press freedom in Russia.”

Putin did not comment specifically on recent controversies, such as the closure earlier this year of TV-6, majority owned by the self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, and the recent tender for the channel’s broadcasting license. That tender was won by an alliance consisting of a group of leading tycoons and Yeltsin-era Kremlin insiders–including Chukotka Governor Roman Abramovich, Moscow banker Aleksandr Mamut and United Energy Systems chief Anatoly Chubais–a noncommercial partnership headed by former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and veteran Soviet-era industrialist Arkady Volsky, and the team of former TV-6 and NTV television journalists headed by Yevgeny Kiselev. Primakov recently said that he would welcome “self-censorship” at the new channel (see the Monitor, March 28, April 1).

Putin also commented on a proposal recently put forward by Aleksandr Fedulov, a member of the Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) faction in the State Duma, to ban the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) and bring criminal charges against its leader, Gennady Zyuganov, for allegedly trying to “incite social and national discord.” Fedulov put forward his initiative just several days before last week’s Duma vote that robbed the KPRF of most of its key committee posts in the lower parliamentary chamber (see the Monitor, April 4). Putin said it was wrong to call for a ban on the KPRF. “It has never been possible to solve any problems with bans,” Putin said, adding that the KPRF is “a constitutional party acting within the boundaries of the law and the constitution of the Russian Federation, [and] millions of people vote for it. To not acknowledge this is to not honor millions of one’s own citizens.” Putin, however, criticized the KPRF, saying that he did not agree with its policies or practices, especially involving the economy. “I, unfortunately, often see that deputies from the KPRF do not take part in voting even when it comes to those laws which KPRF experts admit are right for the country,” he added. Putin said, however, that while he viewed such behavior as wrong, this was not his business, but that of the party’s leaders. “In any case, this is no reason for bans,” Putin said, adding that such bans would only lead to “radicalization.” “To drive a real political force underground–and the Communist Party is a real political force in the country–would be a mistake,” he concluded.

Commenting on rumors that Gennady Seleznev, a top KPRF official, might step down as Duma speaker, Putin said that this was up to the Duma deputies to decide, but added: “I think there is no basis for changing the speaker; he is not a bad specialist and is an experienced person.” More generally, Putin said that, given the fact that more than 20 million Russians vote for the KPRF, the party’s constituents “have the right to see that among the state’s top people there are representatives of the political force for which they voted.” The KPRF has called a special meeting of its Central Committee’s presidium, at which the party leadership could decide to throw Seleznev out of the party’s ranks if he refuses to vacate the Duma speaker’s post in protest of last week’s vote to rob the party of its committee chairmanships (Lenta.ru, April 8; NTVru.com, April 7).