A Sobering Picture

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Two themes dominated the media in December: the presidential succession and the New Year's drinking binge. The second topic addressed such questions as what to drink, how to drink and in which combinations. There was also a lot of advice as to which appetizers to eat to avoid overloading your liver, how best to avoid a bad hangover, and how to deal with a nasty hangover if all of the preventative measures failed.

The wide range of answers to these questions in both serious and popular newspapers and magazines could easily impress an unbiased observer. Advertisers also competed for readers' attention. One advertisement from a travel agency read, "If you want to relax and gather strength for the long holiday ahead, visit the United Arab Emirates."

A few newspapers sporadically appeared during the first two weeks of the new year, and some did not appear until as late as Monday. This is how they summed up the results of the nationwide revelry: Hundreds died from improperly handling fireworks or from freezing while drunk.

Coverage of these various events was handled with exemplary pluralism. Two op-ed articles devoted to the holidays appeared in Izvestia's first issue of 2008. One was titled "I Hate the New Year!" and the author, apparently in a sour mood on the first day back at work, suggested we start the year off on the right foot by boycotting the Old New Year on Jan. 14. In the other opinion piece, titled "Synergy of the Souls," the columnist dreamed of a day when Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy days would all be celebrated as national holidays. This, the author suggested, would make life "better, more peaceful and sweeter."

While Russia relaxed, the world raged. The presidential election was held in Georgia, which, in my opinion, was a major gift for the Russian authorities. Against the backdrop of the enormous scandal that surfaced there, the Kremlin even viewed the victory of the hated Mikheil Saakashvili as only a minor tactical failure. Moscow's strategy in regard to Georgia -- and Ukraine, for that matter -- has been to convince both the Russian public, and as far as possible the international community, of the senselessness of the popular political demonstrations in those countries. Throughout the former Soviet republics, the spirit of "sovereign democracy" reigns. People's votes therefore carry equal weight -- which is to say, very little -- whether or not a particular country has or has not been in the throes of a color revolution. Three different newspapers -- the pro-Kremlin Izvestia and Komsomolskaya Pravda as well as the relatively independent Moskovsky Komsomolets -- all painted more or less the same picture of election fraud in Georgia. This seems to support the Kremlin's vision.

Incidentally, newspapers and magazines dedicated substantial space to articles that mocked the international election observers who declared that Georgia's elections were generally honest and democratic despite some irregularities. The last circumstance served as yet another gift for the Kremlin and its propaganda efforts because this was a case in point that exposed the double standards of the international observers.

But on the same day that the Izvestia editorials ridiculed the international election observers, the director of the Georgian mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe announced that new information provided grounds for giving a more critical evaluation of Georgia's election.

The observers thus provided grist for Russia's anti-revolutionary mill. But at the same time, they maintained their reputation for political independence. And this will make it harder to brush them aside when Russia faces the presidential election in March. The Kremlin will definitely regard this statement as a cunning anti-Russian ploy.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Strategii i Praktika Izdatelskogo Biznesa, a magazine for publishing business professionals.