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The Other Russian Crackdown

Unrest in Ukraine means more repression in Moscow.

Mar 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 26 • By CATHY YOUNG
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On the media front, Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio, one of the very few surviving broadcast media outlets that provide a platform for dissent, may be facing new threats. Since 2001, the station has operated under the primary ownership of Gazprom Media, an arm of the natural gas giant with close government ties. And despite initial fears of a pro-Kremlin takeover, its editorial independence has remained largely intact until now, perhaps as a showcase for media freedom. On February 18, however, Ekho’s Gazprom-controlled board of directors abruptly sacked its CEO and general manager, Yuri Fedutinov, and replaced him with Yekaterina Pavlova, a former producer at the state-owned Rossiya TV channel and more recently deputy chair of the pro-government radio station Voice of Russia.

The station’s editor in chief, Alexei Venediktov, who has held the job since 1998 and has managed to maintain a difficult balance between principle and compromise, told reporters that Pavlova’s appointment was a blatantly political move: With Ekho operating at a profit, there seemed to be no business-related reason for the change of leadership. Pavlova has pledged, for now, not to push for changes in programming. A big test of Ekho’s ability to continue as an independent voice will be whether the board of directors votes to keep Venediktov as editor in chief later this month. On March 2, Nemtsov wrote on his Facebook page that, for the first time ever, a blog post he made on the Ekho website became the target of censorship: He was asked to remove the phrase “fratricidal war” and a reference to Putin as “a vampire thirsting for blood” from a comment on the Crimea invasion.

The possible muzzling of Ekho is particularly alarming given the slow strangulation of Dozhd, Russia’s last TV news station that does not toe the Kremlin party line. The cable channel found itself under attack after running an online poll on January 26 asking whether Leningrad should have been surrendered to the Germans during World War II rather than face a blockade that cost a million civilian lives. The backlash was swift, and came not only from the blogosphere but from the government. Despite an apology from Dozhd, the St. Petersburg legislature filed a complaint seeking legal retribution against the channel, “possibly including its shutdown.” The State Duma passed a resolution condemning the poll; then, on February 11, it ordered an investigation into claims that Dozhd was offering illegal kickbacks to cable providers for offering it allegedly preferential treatment. Under pressure, one cable provider after another began to drop Dozhd from its lineup. In early March, the channel’s general manager Natalya Sindeyeva said that unless the situation changed, Dozhd would be off the air in a month. 

Another alarming development was reported by Izvestia on March 6: The Duma will soon consider legislation that makes it a criminal offense to publish “deliberate falsifications intended to provide support for terrorism, intervention, extremism, separatism or genocide.” The author of the bill, Yevgeny Fyodorov, told the newspaper that his initiative was a response to what he regards as overly sympathetic coverage of the revolution in Ukraine.

With Russia poised on the brink of a war with uncanny echoes of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and with political repression on the rise, one can understand the concerns of independent journalists such as deputy editor in chief Alexander Golts, who wrote in his March 4 Moscow Times column, “I am afraid that when we wake up tomorrow, we will find ourselves in a different country. I even know the name of that country: the Soviet Union.”

Still, for now Putin’s Russia has space for dissent that would have been unthinkable in the USSR—and not just in the virtual space of the Internet. The President’s Advisory Council on Human Rights—which has no real power but does have a public voice—issued a statement condemning the use of military force in Ukraine, causing a very public split between the council’s liberal majority and its pro-Kremlin minority. The human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, has criticized the detentions of protesters at the Bolotnaya sentencing. And, remarkably, Andrei Zubov, a professor at Moscow’s prestigious State Institute of Foreign Relations who was asked to resign from his job after publishing a column that compared the Crimea incursion to Hitler’s Anschluss, was promptly reinstated after his dismissal received negative media coverage and drew protests from students.

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