Russian Regional Media
The nation’s financial crisis threatens journalists’ independence.
Seeking survival in a fractured economy, many regional newspapers in Russia tried to establish relationships with local businesses and regional banks. They did this in an attempt to avoid succumbing to the dictates of local authorities and powerful industrial groups.
This might have seemed a prudent strategy before the nation’s financial crisis in August of 1998. But what happened next worsened their plight. Banks now faced enormous difficulties, including collapse. And in the midst of this economic chaos, political leaders—many of them provincial governors—who favored the return to an oligarchy were able to strengthen their executive power both in terms of governance as well as in the oversight of businesses in their region, including newspapers.
Today, with poor distribution of the national press in Russian provinces, regional newspaper journalists will assume a major role in the coverage of legislative and presidential elections scheduled for December of this year and June of 2000, respectively. One thing is certain: The local political leadership will try to assert greater control over the press in an attempt to secure their governing positions. For journalists who work at these regional papers, how they perform under this pressure and during these elections will provide a test of whether local journalism in Russia will be able to perform as an independent press. Should they follow too closely the propaganda of the local authorities, they will be perceived as “full members” of the political elite rather than be seen as representatives of a civil society. And by doing so, they will run the risk of losing the confidence of their readers.
Political Pressures on Journalists
Already there are numerous examples of political pressure being exerted on local journalists. Provocations—and even murders—are no longer uncommon in the provinces where local leaders act in authoritarian ways. The Moscow-based Foundation for the Defense of Glasnost regularly publishes reports about attacks on Russian local journalists and tracks in systematic ways the human rights issues that arise.
In the northern Caucasus autonomous republic of Kalmykia, the Editor-in-Chief of Sovetskaya Kalmykia Segodnya (Soviet Kalmykia Today), a newspaper opposed to local President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, was killed in June 1998. The murder of this journalist, Larisa Yudina, who was considered close to the Yabloko democratic party that is represented in the Russian parliament, was immediately perceived as being politically motivated. A year later, it has become clear that the only motive for the murder was Yudina’s investigative reporting concerning illegal uses of the government’s budget in Kalmykia. For a brief time, the President was suspected of ordering the murder and two of his closest advisors have been arrested by the federal police.
During the 1998 election campaign, another incident involving one of the members of the regional press took place in the autonomous republic of Bashkortostan, located in the southern Urals. All of the regional media except one sided with incumbent President Murtaza Rakhimov: The Ufa-based Titan radio station kept its doors open to Rakhimov’s rivals. By doing so the radio’s Director, Altaf Galeev, exposed the ways in which independent candidates had been denied registration by the regional electoral commission. Galeev’s station also elaborated on how the Moscow press was covering the political situation in Bashkortostan.
A month before the first round of voting was to take place, the local authorities started to exert increasing pressures on Titan. They sent the tax police both to the radio station and to the businessmen from whom the station was receiving funds, and they spread the false rumor that the radio facilities would be burned down. Galeev reacted by urging his listeners to demonstrate in front of the radio station. That was precisely the response that the local authorities expected. When the police then tried to scatter the protesters and storm the building, Galeev fired several shots into the air to attract the attention of the crowd. However, by doing this he provided the authorities with the pretext to arrest him.
Galeev was accused of calling for violence and is now facing a prison term of up to seven years. In November 1998, the radio station was closed down. Galeev’s lawyers claim that if this incident had occurred in any other Russian region or autonomous republic, their client would have been forced only to pay a fine.
The Federal Role
The regional authorities’ ability to rule in such authoritarian ways comes, in part, from regulations passed by the federal government. The Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament that is comprised of local governors and heads of the regional legislatures, voted to set up a so-called “Morality Council.” This “Morality Council” consists of 12 senators whose assignment it is to monitor journalists’ “ethics.” But of even greater importance is an order Russian President Boris Yeltsin issued last July, establishing the Ministry of the Affairs of the Press, TV and Radio Broadcasting, and the Mass Media. This, as Russia’s Prime Minister has put it, should contribute to the “elaboration and realization of the state policy in all media services.” In a period of electoral campaigns (at the federal as well as the local level), this new body not only can be used as a political tool for personal interests of the candidates chosen by the Kremlin. But, more importantly, it serves as a bad example for local authorities, who are eager to manipulate the press in their region.
At the regional level, this tendency began last year, in May 1998, when Yeltsin mandated that the All-Russian State Television and Radio Company (RGTRK) should be transformed into a holding company in order to develop a coherent information policy on the national level. Coming as this does at the start of the 1999 and 2000 election cycle, Yeltsin’s order essentially creates an information network whose obligation it will be to support the state’s policy and ideology.
This change will be significant. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, RGTRK regional branches had stopped abiding by the orders issued by the government, even though they still accepted federal subsidies while at the same time make additional profits by selling broadcast times to local businessmen. During the intervening years, some journalists at these regional outposts became progressively more independent from the central and local authorities, sometimes harshly criticizing and openly opposing the regional governors. Now the state is attempting to regain control over what it regards as its “property,” and it is being assisted in this effort by regional executives.
The recent dictate states that the heads of RGTRK regional branches should be appointed only after consultation with the governors. This sets up an obvious dilemma for local television companies: Either they abide by decisions to change their leadership, thereby jeopardizing their political and (quasi) financial independence or they oppose these changes, thereby forfeiting their subsidies from Moscow.
The appointments of the new heads of RGTRK local branches—with the backing of the governors—have already led to a series of scandals in various regions. As a rule, the regional bosses have used this opportunity to regain ideological control over the local media. By doing so they hope to both secure a renewed mandate for governing in the forthcoming regional elections and maintain good relationships with the federal political leaders who are most likely to run for president in the year 2000.
One example of this approach occurred in Krasnoyarsk. In return for authorizing the national network to regain control over Tsentr Rossii (Russia’s Center), the local RGTRK branch in Krasnoyarsk, Governor Alexander Lebed was promised access to broadcasting time and the removal of the Director of the station, Konstantin Protopopov, whom he disliked.
A similar situation happened in the Far Eastern Maritime Territory (Primorye). RGTRK chairman Mikhail Shvydkoi sacked Boris Maksimenko, the General Director of the station’s Vladivostok branch, and replaced him with Valeri Bakshin. Maksimenko protested the move, claiming that his successor would serve the interests of local Governor Yevgeni Nazdratenko. Shvydkoi eventually decided to appoint Maksimenko Chairman of the station, while Bakshin would remain in the job of General Director.
Not surprisingly, this happened on the eve of the December 1999 gubernatorial local election while Nazdratenko was trying to strengthen his grip over the local media. Although the region is one of the poorest of the Russian Federation, Nazdratenko has been asking the local parliament to provide greater subsidies to local newspapers and TV channels. His tactics are reminiscent of those applied under many authoritarian regimes. The regional authorities produce numerous free leaflets filled with weather forecasts and other politics-free information, mail them directly to the residents, and subsidize the entire information channels, thus diluting the effectiveness of the opposition’s message.
Financing Regional Newspapers
Unfortunately, the local Russian media appear to be trapped in this new circumstance. Alternative funding is extremely difficult to find and, for the regional media, the 1998 crisis has dashed all hopes of financing their own enterprises through advertising. As a survey by the Russian National Press Institute found, many advertising contracts that had already been agreed to in the fall of 1998 were cancelled after the financial crisis. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, advertising was reduced by 30 to 50 percent.
But the crisis also produced an unexpected consequence for the media. The newspapers found themselves forced to adapt to the new economic environment. And this often meant playing by the rules of the marketplace. Those that owned their own presses could delay an increase in price while continuing to print from old stocks of plates, films and ink. These newspapers appear to have been able to secure several contracts that their competitors could not.
Another example reported by the Russian National Press Institute is also very instructive. The Stavropolskie Gubernskie Vedomosti (Stavropol Regional News) newspaper owns a barter retail store. Since 1995, this southern Russian publication has accepted bartered goods in return for advertising space. Then these goods are resold in its store. This business tactic offers an invaluable service in an economy where cash is scarce. During the banking crisis of 1998, the Stavropolskie Gubernskie Vedomosti was able to offer advertising space to the enterprises that were suffering from sudden money shortages and thus increased their own volume.
The financial crisis brought about another difficulty for regional newspapers: No longer could they afford the cost involved with maintaining access to information. Most of them were forced to cancel their connection to the Internet and Russian and international news services. They are now facing the risk of remaining uninformed about what is going on outside their region.
Not surprisingly, some of the newspaper owners advocate the creation of a nationwide lobby group in order to obtain tax exemptions from the federal government so they can increase their ability to circulate information among local media and resist political pressure from the regional governors. This may seem like a utopian perspective given the worsening economic situation, the end of small-scale industrial production, and the increasing dependency on political patronage. But if the 1998 crisis strengthened the regional oligarchies that developed around the governors, the local newspapers, and the regional industrial giants, then this assertive reaction on the part of the local media seems to be threatening their stronghold for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet regime. Behind the political scene and its endless struggles for power, Russia’s local media have launched a new struggle for independence. Should they continue to develop horizontal links among themselves and transform their association into an influential lobby group, they would challenge the arbitrariness of the state and eventually contribute to the building of a civil society.
Virginie Coulloudon is directing the research project “The Elite and Patronage in Russia” at the Davis Center for Russian Studies, Harvard University. She lived in Moscow for seven years (1990-1996), where she was permanent correspondent for several prominent French media, including the radio station Europe 1, the newsmagazine Le Point, and the quarterly journal Politique Internationale. She is the author of three books, published in France, on Soviet society and is co-author of a documentary filmed in Russia and in Uzbekistan.