Crude Propaganda vs. Human Capital

However touching the friendship might appear between Russia's second and third presidents, life's vagaries will constantly place Dmitry Medvedev into situations that require him to make hard choices. The result of these choices will determine his own political future as well as the future development of the country.

Rossia state television put Medvedev in a difficult situation last month. During a live broadcast of his evening news program on Feb. 22, anchor Konstantin Syomin referred to former Yugoslav Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic as "a puppet of the West who got a well-deserved bullet" when he was assassinated in 2003. That comment raised a storm of protest in Serbia. Several days later in Belgrade, Medvedev was compelled to start his first visit to a foreign country with an apology. Yet, as far as I am aware, Rossia never apologized publicly for Syomin's comment, and he was back on the air again after only one week's hiatus.

Why is this episode, which has already left the front pages of newspapers, so significant for Medvedev's political future? These types of setups should not be forgiven. If after his inauguration Medvedev allows the general director of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Company, which owns Rossia, to retain his post, or if he transfers him to some other high-ranking position, it will be a clear signal that the president is weak or highly dependent on others.

But let's suppose that Medvedev will act like a typical battle-hardened politician and dismiss the company's head. His choice for a replacement will indicate his true commitment to creating an independent press in the country.

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President Vladimir Putin has said repeatedly that profitability is the main guarantor of the media's independence. Although media firms have become quite profitable during Putin's reign, this has not translated into independence.

The media have transformed into a dynamic business and an attractive segment for investors. The advertising boom began to take off in 2000, reached $7 billion in 2006, and hit the symbolic $10 billion benchmark in 2007. "Capitalization" became the name of the game for Russian media companies after a few were listed on international stock exchanges. Moreover, the eMarketer market-research company predicts that Russia will have the second-largest number of Internet users in Europe by the end of this year, and it will surpass Germany, the current leader, by 2010.

This is truly revolutionary progress when you compare the situation now with the years under President Boris Yeltsin, when the media was reliant on the patronage of a few powerful oligarchs. And it makes Putin's strict government control over the media, which reached an unprecedented level of absurdity during the recent State Duma and presidential elections, look all the more archaic. I have already written a great deal in recent weeks about the harm the Kremlin's clumsy propaganda machine has done to Putin's and Medvedev's reputations among the more active members of society who are able to think independently. A crude propaganda campaign might increase voter turnout among pensioners and others for whom television is their only source of information, but these inert and easily manipulated members of society hardly constitute the "human capital" needed to fulfill Medvedev's four I's -- institutions, infrastructure, innovations and investment -- that he unveiled in his speech at the Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum on Feb. 15.

The Serbian flap is only one example of how an existing propaganda machine can cause damage to the country's top officials, including the president-elect. When it comes down to it, obsequious and paranoid state television has thrown out a challenge to the progressive hopes of the country's new leader. Now we will have to watch how the relationship evolves between President-elect Dmitry Medvedev and news anchor Konstantin Syomin.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of IFRA-GIPP, a magazine for publishing business professionals.