When Writing About the Crisis Is Extremism

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The shelf life of most newspaper articles is usually one or two days. After that, readers tend to forget whatever the article said. That is why I am so surprised by the continuing debate over my article, "Novocherkassk-2009," published on Nov. 6 in Vedomosti. In that comment, I described a typical city with a workforce dependent on a single major factory or industry (Russia has about 700 such cities) and the social problems that could result if the economic crisis were to worsen.

I suggested that first, the central factory or industry would shut down, causing widespread unemployment. This, in turn, would lead to spontaneous demonstrations and public disorder. The local authorities would be at a loss as to how to respond and would either freeze up or panic. That is the type of system that the "power vertical" has created over the past eight years. The only way out of this predicament is to modernize the whole country, and this must include switching to a truly competitive economy and creating an open political system.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's White House responded the same day the article came out. I received a telephone call from a high-ranking bureaucrat thanking me for the timely warning and saying that the government would be using the information as part of its crisis-management planning.

With that, my article's shelf life should have ended. But on Nov. 21, Vedomosti received a letter from the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service that was signed by the agency's deputy head. The letter said my article "could be considered an attempt to incite extremist activities."

From that point on, my colleagues and acquaintances began calling me to express solidarity with my position. A stormy debate ensued on the Internet, with the text of the article popping up on one web site after another. Radio and television stations asked me to comment on the situation. I told everyone that the government's "warning" was a direct attack against the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

What part of my piece hit such a raw nerve with the minor officials charged with monitoring freedom of speech? Was it the rioters in the hypothetical scenario who shouted out, "Make those fat-cat bureaucrats accountable for their actions!"? Recall what President Dmitry Medvedev said on the issue in his state-of-the-nation address on Nov. 5. "The state bureaucracy is governed by the same distrust of personal freedoms as it was 20 years ago. That logic is pushing it toward dangerous conclusions and dangerous actions. The bureaucracy periodically 'nightmarizes' businesses -- so that they won't do anything 'wrong.' It takes over control of the media -- so that they won't say the 'wrong' things. It interferes with the electoral process -- so that the 'wrong' person isn't elected. It puts pressure on the courts -- so that they don't sentence the 'wrong' person. ... The result is that our state apparatus has become the largest employer, the biggest publisher ... it has become its own court of law with jurisdiction over itself ... That kind of system is absolutely ineffective and creates only one thing -- corruption. It gives rise to legal nihilism on a massive scale, it stands in opposition to the Constitution and slows the development of innovate economic and democratic institutions."

What bothers me most about these events? I don't like the fact that a precedent has been set. If an analyst or journalist in a particular city publishes something the local authorities don't want to hear, those officials can -- and with the law fully backing them -- bring pressure on both the author and the publication.

That is why I wrote to the Glasnost Defense Foundation asking them to explain the legal basis for determining that my article was "an attempt to incite extremist activities." On Dec. 8, Foundation president Alexei Simonov sent a request for an explanation to the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service and to Prosecutor General Yury Chaika. We will have to wait a bit for the answer because state agencies usually respond within one month.

Meanwhile, last week I learned that the media oversight agency would be reorganized. Already, as Interfax reported Dec. 10, the head of the watchdog, Boris Boyarskov, has been dismissed by Medvedev after four years in the post. I hope the new staff will have a little better attitude toward freedom of speech.

Regardless of how the legal dispute regarding the accusations of "inciting extremism" turns out, the incident has confirmed the conclusions I made in the "Novocherkassk-2009" article. Without a radical modernization of the leaders' vision of democracy and the market economy, Russian society and the country itself are ultimately headed toward self-destruction.

To avoid that unhappy scenario, we must change the direction of Russia's political development. We must switch from the current top-down vertical power model of ruling the country to one that includes an active dialogue with all sectors of society -- including the opposition.

I recently met with some people from the Netherlands, and they asked me what I thought would happen in Russia in 2009. I told them that the people of Utrecht would certainly be riding bicycles as they have for decades. As for the question of what will happen in Russia, I don't know. And I am not the only one who doesn't know exactly what upheavals await us in the near term. Perhaps this is the biggest problem in our long-suffering country.

Yevgeny Gontmakher is the director of the Center for Social Policy at the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences.