Victims of the Crisis

Today the list of victims of the economic crisis in Russia is not long but is extremely revealing. It starts with “Moskovsky Korrespondent” weekly that appeared at the end of September and was closed in October.

Akram Murtazaev, editor-in-chief of the newspaper, can tell us how it was closed in detail. However, in this case the general logic of the process rather than the details of the concrete situation is of importance. The fact that the newspaper, which is independent of the Kremlin, was the first to be closed, is very significant.

Russian independent mass media have always existed at the expense of ambitious capitalists who see such projects as an instrument in their controversies with the authorities and its competitors rather than an influential mouthpiece. As the Kremlin in the 2000s managed to consolidate the Russian elite, the mass media were getting more and more homogeneous politically, and antigovernment materials were published only by the editions financed either by disgraced oligarchs, who fled abroad, or by ambitious “second-grade” businessmen who wanted to raise their status. It would be wrong to think that the Kremlin has intimidated the businessmen and the editors-in-chief of “independent” mass media. The businessmen themselves were interested in stability. The Kremlin and big corporations had common interests. So, the mass media, their sponsors and the government expressed the same political views.

During the economic crisis, the businessmen take the mass media projects as “non-core assets” that are mainly unprofitable. It is easy to guess what decisions will be made. The journalists will be dismissed and the mass media projects are likely to be closed or their financing will be cut. As a matter of fact, this is happening now.

Does it mean that the fate of the domestic mass media has been decided and the economic crisis will deliver the freedom of speech a final mortal blow, which even the most authoritarian Kremlin officials did not dare to do? The answer would probably be no.

Certainly, the pro-Kremlin editions will survive in the first place. But what will the Kremlin be in six months or a year? There were talks about differences in the Kremlin throughout the period of “managed democracy” and the politics in Russia consisted in this turf battle much more than in the clashes of the government and the opposition.

Today we witness the fight between different groupings in the Kremlin and the government. Head of the Republic of Ingushetia Murat Zyazikov and Sochi Mayor Vladimir Afanasenkov became its first victims. There will be many dismissals and appointments and the bureaucratic reshuffles will show a new correlation of forces within the elite. We went through something similar in the Soviet period when Perestroika began. Now capitalism is in Russia but the logic of the bureaucratic conflicts remains unchanged.

At one time Vladimir Lenin called the “crisis of the upper strata” extremely important sign of a revolutionary situation. Paraphrasing his words, one can say that now lower strata are ready to live but the upper strata cannot run the country as before. When the upper strata have to fight against the crisis, they unintentionally get involved into conflicts, come to mistrust each other and enter into struggle for melting financial resources.

In 1998 when Russia’s gold and currency reserves made up $60 billion, it took six months to waste those funds in the futile attempts to avert the financial collapse. This year $80 billion were wasted for the two autumn months. It is easy to predict how severe the struggle will be for the last $ 30-40 billion that were left in the Stabilization Fund.

One can ask how all of that is connected with the freedom of speech. I believe that those things are intimately connected. The competing clans will need the press as a tool of struggle and a propaganda instrument allowing them to unmask the vices and crimes of each other. The more hard-fought battle will be carried on by the authorities, the more pluralistic and, eventually, free the press will be. Independent mass media cease to exist but, at the same time, the control mechanism is destroyed. When, several years later, we sum up the current changes, it is quite possible that we will be amazed to see that the situation with the mass media has changed for the better.

Euroasian Home, 10 November 2008

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