Putin's Assault on Russia's Free Press Continues Apace

Print workers glance over a freshly printed Moscow Times newspaper, Moscow March 3, 2008. The author writes that In a bizarre gesture about ten years ago to prove the freedom of the press in Russia, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice compact CDs containing recordings of some Russian TV programs. Denis Sinyakov/reuters

This article first appeared on the Kennan Institute site.

Living in Russia and being involved in politics (or just writing about it or worrying about it) creates an odd sense of time.

Political time in Russia moves at a carefully measured pace. It creeps along, rather than passing. New legislation, new rules, new prices, new problems for businesses, media, or NGOs come piecemeal—never too much in one go.

Last week, top editors of the RBC media group owned by the tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov had to leave their posts, apparently for political reasons.

About two years ago, a group of professional and inspired journalists headed by Elizaveta Osetinskaya (former editor-in-chief of Forbes Russia and, previously, Vedomosti), were invited to run the RBC website, newspaper and television channel. After a few months of intensive tinkering, the website and the paper turned into a daily must-read for anyone following Russian news and opinion.

RBC media were the only ones, apart from Vedomosti and a handful of smaller outlets, following the news as it happened, without yielding to pressure from the Kremlin or private vested interests.

RBC publications also created an agenda of their own by pursuing the subjects that were guaranteed to touch a nerve with Russia's political elite. Investigative pieces that are widely rumored to have incited Putin's personal wrath, included a report about the president's daughter running publicly funded projects at Moscow State University; an investigation into personal holdings of the president's son-in-law; an article about the funding of the All-Russia People's Front, Putin's quasi political party and a quasi-watchdog; and the revelations of the Panama Papers. None of this kind of journalism will appear on the RBC pages anymore.

Rumors of the Kremlin putting strain on the owner and pushing him to sell the media holdings (or even other assets) have persisted for quite a while. Still, the collapse of editorial independence came as an unpleasant surprise. The RBC management asked Maxim Solyus, the editor-in-chief of RBC Daily to leave. Osetinskaya and another top editor responsible for the website, Roman Badanin, left in solidarity.

The Russian authorities have been repeating this familiar act with methodical regularity. They push for a sale or for a change of top editors or, most often, for both. By now, almost every Russian journalist who works on the shrinking, independent side of the country's media has first-hand memory of at least one magazine, newspaper, or website changing hands and its newsroom leaving en masse.

The Kremlin never admits that politics are behind the changes. It is always presented as a voluntary transaction between two consenting private firms or state-owned companies.

Officials, including Putin himself, will always tell you that there are thousands of media outlets in Russia, including at least 2,000 that are subsidized by the government. In a bizarre gesture about ten years ago, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice compact CDs containing recordings of some Russian TV programs. This was meant to prove the existence of independent reporting.

Despite these halfhearted attempts to draw a curtain over this process, the creeping crackdown on media in Russia has been ongoing for at least 15 years.

Major television channels were dealt with during Putin's first term in power, but the piecemeal destruction and degradation of media continues to this day. What remains of a formerly vibrant scene are a number of outlets, which I won't recount by name, because the boundaries of freedom often go through newsrooms.

There are independent journalists working in a partly-free media space, and there are first-rate experts who are able to publish their work in state-owned, state-run or state-influenced media (99 percent of the country's media would fall into at least one of these categories).

Even when all independent platforms have disappeared, public conversation will continue on social networks, in cafes, parks, living rooms and kitchens.

I am not writing this to complain about the state of independent media in Russia. It is too late and too boring to do so, since the general trend became obvious years ago. I'm writing to point out that Kremlin politicians know how to bide their time and pursue a long-term strategy, while sending distracting or misleading signals to the Russian public and foreign countries. This is very much relevant to Putin's foreign policy too.

The Kremlin continues always to cut a slice that is too small to cause much noise, but large enough to confirm a general, observable trend. Those facing the takeover of their media outlet, or NGO, or business, or country are always too weak to attract attention; the people involved are too few to help themselves, or prevent another slice from being cut tomorrow.

The psychology of the process is probably well known to scholars and historians, but living through it is not a pleasant experience. Even the most stoic end up thinking of how not to become the next slice of salami.

By now the Kremlin has achieved many of its real goals (not stated ones): it consolidated companies responsible for all natural resources and their exports; collected major industrial assets in large state-run holdings; put banking under state control; got rid of independent media; undermined all independent action by civil society; turned all domestic politics into a manageable theater; made the Orthodox Church a mighty supporter.

The consolidation of resources and centralization of state power under Putin is a masterpiece of statecraft. The Hungarian communist leader Matyas Rakosi is credited with coming up with the "salami tactics" phrase. He claimed that he destroyed all non-Communist parties by "cutting them off like slices of salami." There are virtuoso users of this technique in the Kremlin.

One of the most important secrets of Putin's success, I believe, is his restraint and an excellent sense of timing—knowing where, when and how much to cut.

There is no known term limit for Putin. The exact amount of time he is willing to spend at the top of Russian politics is the country's best guarded secret.

The salami will, of course, continue to shrink. Its only chance is to learn to regenerate and grow faster than the knife is able to strike.

Maxim Trudolyubov is a senior fellow at The Wilson Center's Kennan Institute and editor-at-large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.