It is the 1990s All Over Again For the Press

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Do you remember the information wars of the second half of the 1990s? Western media coverage of Russian politics sounded something like this:

"This particular television station, owned by that oligarch brought allegations of corruption against such-and-such young reformer, the president's newly appointed deputy prime minister."

"The such-and-such newspaper, controlled by such-and-such bank -- known to have close ties to young reformers -- accused the such-and-such television station owned by oligarch so-and-so of supporting Chechen separatists."

And every morning, Russia readers snatched up newspapers, compared the news contained in them to the names of their owners. In this way, readers received a complete picture of the Russian politics of that era -- that is, who was battling whom over the privatization of government property at below-market prices. This situation with the media symbolized the country's "fledgling Russian democracy."

When President Vladimir Putin came to power, the state re-established a monopoly, not only over the armed forces, but also over the media, and it dealt harshly with any oligarchs unwilling to play by the new rules. Foreigners and self-proclaimed democrats characterized this process as "backtracking on democracy," while one Russian media business insider quipped, "By buying up all the mass media, the oligarchs thought they were acquiring a sword, but they were really building their own guillotines."

Why the nostalgic flash to the past? Because now that the situation is changing from "the state is me" under Putin to "the state is the two of us," we may be witnessing the beginning of the new "high tide of democracy." A few days ago, for example, I encountered a sickeningly familiar headline on one influential U.S. Internet resource: "Newspaper Close to Moscow Government Publishes Articles Criticizing Putin." It was a reference to a series of articles in the Vechernyaya Moskva newspaper.

Here is another example: Of all the editors-in-chief of the many daily Moscow newspapers, why was the editor of Vremya Novostei the only one invited to President Dmitry Medvedev's recent interview for journalists from the Group of Eight countries? True, Vremya Novostei is a good, high-quality newspaper, but it could not be considered an industry leader by any standards. As proof, in a recent 12-page issue chosen at random, I found only a single small advertisement in the entire paper. This suggests that advertisers have absolutely no interest in the audience Vremya Novostei is reaching. But somebody must need the newspaper or else the owners wouldn't finance it. And this somebody apparently is of interest to Medvedev or his entourage.

In journalistic circles, Vremya Novostei is nicknamed "The Voloshin Times." Alexander Voloshin worked as former President Boris Yeltsin's chief of staff, beginning in 1999. He stayed over in Putin's administration for the first three years of Putin's first term, either to maintain political continuity in the new administration or to serve the interests of Yeltsin's family. Voloshin resigned from Putin's administration in 2003 in a dispute over the government crackdown on Yukos. He has also been known as the person behind Vremya Novostei.

So what kind of signal is the new president sending when he handpicks an editor whom he trusts enough to conduct a personal interview? Could we really be in store for a return to the Yeltsin era and another redistribution of property -- this time accompanied by the cheers of those self-proclaimed "democrats" and foreigners? If so, we won't be seeing an independent press for a long time to come. It is much easier to earn money on information wars than from advertising.

Or is Medvedev making a conciliatory gesture and calling on us to forget old grievances? Or perhaps this means nothing at all. We will be able to find out by watching headlines in the Western press.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.