President Vladimir Putin has issued another warning to Russia’s powerful oligarchs. In an interview published yesterday in the French newspaper Le Figaro, Putin said that the state had a “club” it had only brandished, but would not hesitate to use if necessary. His warning came response to a question about challenges to his authority by the tycoons, including a quip which Boris Berezovsky recently made, to the effect that Boris Yeltsin used to pretend not to be in power, while Putin pretends he is in power. Putin said that during the 1990s certain persons had benefited from the “collapse of the state,” earning capital by manipulating state structures and now wanted to “freeze” the status quo using the mass media. “The state has a club, the kind that hits just once,” Putin said. “But on the head. We haven’t used this club yet. We have only showed it, and that has been enough to get attention. But when we seriously get angry, we will use this club without hesitation: The state cannot be blackmailed. If necessary, it will destroy those instruments that make this blackmail possible.” Putin said he supported a free press, but added that “all must be equal before the law, including the press,” while “two or three persons” had gained possession of the national media “unknown” terms and used them to consolidate their positions as oligarchs and “blackmail the authorities.” Putin stressed in the interview that his goal was “democratize” Russian society. The “two or three persons” Putin referred to obviously include Berezovsky and Media-Most founder Vladimir Gusinsky, who control two of Russia’s most important media outlets–Russian Public Television (ORT) and NTV television.
Despite his insistence that he aims to level the playing field and promote democracy, Putin’s comments will probably do little assuage those who fear that his aim is to reassert state control over the media and limit press freedom. Indeed, Sergei Ivanenko, deputy head of the Yabloko faction in the State Duma, said that the president’s comments about the state’s “club” were not “words with which the president of a democratic state should speak with the citizens” (Russian agencies, October 26). Earlier this week, Yabloko head Grigory Yavlinsky said that the current period was the worst in the last decade in terms of government pressure on the media. Yavlinsky was commenting on the draft law–promulgated by the Press Ministry and the Kremlin’s Security Council–which would ban all media wholly or partially owned by foreigners from existing in Russia. The law, which has been introduced into the State Duma, would mean an end to such media outlets as Radio Liberty’s Moscow bureau and the English-language Moscow Times newspaper (Moscow Times, October 25).
It is interesting to note that both Putin’s comments in his interview with Le Figaro and the bill which would ban foreign ownership of media correspond closely to points made in an “information doctrine” authored by Gleb Pavlovsky, the controversial “political technologies” specialist and Putin adviser. In it, Pavlovsky condemned Berezovsky and Gusinsky for making fortunes acting as “information and political brokers,” and suggested that the state should help the country create a “new media.” Pavlovsky also warned of the “potential threat” that “political capital, more likely than not of foreign origin” would fill the void left the domestic media tycoons, with their media holdings possibly ending up “under external management of foreign buyers of their political services.” Pavlovsky’s doctrine was published on October 25 by the Strana.ru website, which he recently launched. While Pavlovsky has not revealed the source of funding for Strana.ru–and it is clearly well financed–the website faithfully represents the views of the Kremlin.
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