Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 9

By Elena Dikun

The Kremlin’s spin doctors believe that the tragedy of the Kursk nuclear submarine was a huge blow to Vladimir Putin’s image. In off-the-record conversations, presidential administration officials are unanimous in acknowledging that images of the head of state relaxing by the warm sea while Russian sailors were dying in the cold depths made a disagreeable impression on his fellow citizens. There is nothing that can explain why at a time of national grief the president was not at the scene of the disaster, but instead riding the waves of the Black Sea on a scooter and going to concerts given by the singer Nikolai Baskov. Everybody we spoke to agreed that the president’s team failed to neutralize the effect of the “media blow” dealt by the world’s press, and that it would now be very difficult for Vladimir Putin to recoup the capital lost that week.

At journalist briefings, presidential chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin acknowledged that the president’s behavior was “a mistake by the administration.” In other words, the Kremlin underestimated the effect that the image of the leader relaxing peacefully could have. Voloshin thus accepted the responsibility himself. Informed observers believe that it was easy for him to do this, because it was for him an act of self-sacrifice. There were in fact influential officials in the administration who were urging that the president should curtail his holiday and leave Sochi, if not for Severomorsk then at least for Moscow. Our sources incline to the view that Putin made the decision himself or trusted the advice of his military advisors (who said that the seamen would manage without his help).

This type of behavior is typical of Putin. He likes to keep himself at a distance from the epicenter of events. So it was in the sagas of Transneft, the redivision of the aluminum market, the arrests of the journalist Babitsky and the businessman Gusinsky, and the conflict between the defense minister Sergeev and the chief of the General Staff Kvashnin. By ostentatiously distancing himself from scandals, Putin always had an alibi: It somehow never had anything directly to do with him. But this time it seems that neither he nor his military advisors realized that they were faced with a completely different situation. This time the argument that it was “nothing to do with him” was a moral loser. The death of a submarine crew is not equivalent to officials squabbling over an oil pipeline. Perhaps Putin was thrown by the reactions of other political leaders who tried not to make too much of a fuss themselves at the time, and were astonishingly reserved in their assessments of Putin’s behavior. Only Union of Right-Wing Forces leader Boris Nemtsov described the president’s behavior as “amoral.”

Having suffered a heavy PR blow, the Kremlin quickly recovered from the shock and resolved not to brook any further liberties on the part of television magnates Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, whose TV channels told Russians the truth about the doomed submarine and the president sunbathing in Sochi. In principle, the plan to get the two oligarchs off the air was approved by the Kremlin in the spring. But the administration had a series of unexpectedly easy victories over the Federation Council, and then it was holiday time. Dislike for the media barons no longer appeared so acute. The Kremlin, for example, was remarkably dismissive of Boris Berezovsky’s plan to create a “constructive opposition” and to use Russian Public Television (ORT) for this purpose. When we asked him to comment on it, a senior presidential official replied: “We do not comment on jokes.” The suspicion even arose that Putin’s team was happier with an “opposition fronted by Berezovsky” than with any other, and were prepared to help the aggrieved businessman in his new endeavor.

It is no longer possible to suspect the Kremlin administration of this. The very mention of Berezovsky’s name causes visible irritation. This change of mood was understandably provoked by his channel’s coverage of the tragedy in the Barents Sea. We are informed that Putin was livid after watching the August 20 edition of Vremya, in which the widows and relatives of the dead submariners spoke out. The following day he told Voloshin to take immediate steps to reestablish Kremlin control over the news output of channel one. In turn Voloshin demanded that the general director of ORT, Konstantin Ernst, sack the channel’s directors of news programs, Tatyana Koshkareva and Rustam Narzikulov. Ernst drafted and signed the order on August 22. It was made public only later, however, when the president was on a visit to Japan and the new director of news programs–Sergei Goryachev–had been identified.

But Berezovsky, under siege by the Kremlin, then made an unexpected move. He transferred his shares in ORT to representatives of the artistic intelligentsia and journalists. He said that he did this after an ultimatum from Voloshin. Voloshin had apparently summoned him to the Kremlin and demanded that he hand ORT back to the state, threatening that otherwise he would, like Gusinsky, spend some time in prison. The president’s administration protested that there will be no censoring of ORT, but that “there would be certain limitations.” Journalists, for example, will not be able to speculate about people’s feelings or stir up antipresidential sentiments in times of catastrophes and natural disasters. “We will not let anyone else inflate their political image at somebody else’s expense,” a senior administration official admitted frankly.

In confirmation, the Kremlin offered a symmetrical response to Berezovsky’s stunt with the shares by taking a program by Sergei Dorenko off the air–a program in which he was planning to criticize the president, and criticize him harshly. Dorenko himself is sure that Putin is directly involved in the affair. He described how he recently met the head of state and was invited to “join his team,” but refused. The upshot is that whatever Berezovsky does with his shares, the last word lies with the state.

Neither can NTV boss Gusinsky can expect any leniency. In July the president promised, in the presence of witnesses, to meet Gusinsky for a face-to-face talk. All Gusinsky had to do was pick up the telephone and dial. He tried to do so, but managed only to talk to one of the president’s secretaries. While Putin was on holiday in Sochi the long-awaited conversation took place, and the president confirmed that he was prepared to meet Gusinsky on his return to Moscow. However, when NTV continued its harsh criticism of the head of state, Putin wanted nothing more to do with Gusinsky. “We decided that the telephone call was a sort of mutual agreement that NTV would stop attacking the president. But because they’re carrying on in the same vein, they only have themselves to blame,” our Kremlin source explained. The Kremlin is very much banking on Gazprom’s taking over NTV.

Thus, the Kremlin is making it very clear who’s boss. The conclusion to be drawn from all this is not very comforting: If anyone thought that talk of a threat to freedom of speech in Russia was exaggerated, recent events surrounding the television networks convincingly demonstrate that the threat is very real.

Elena Dikun is a political columnist with Obshchaya gazeta.