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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mironov Only a Symptom

It is tempting to see the Mironov affair, which blew up last week as a scandal in the upper echelons of government, as merely L'Affaire Mironoff. Ministers are not supposed to air their prejudices in public, whatever they say at home. This one, who was in charge of Russia's newspapers, stepped out of line and called himself a fascist in public.


Boris Mironov was subsequently fired and the president's press secretary, Vyacheslav Kostikov, made it clear that a person with such views was not welcome in the government. Applause from the liberal camp, who have not had much to cheer about recently.


But was it mere chance that Kostikov, briefing journalists on why Mironov had been fired, dwelt almost exclusively on his declarations of "fascism?"


Mironov also called for tough state control of the press and said it should be "managed more rigorously than the army." He argued that local newspaper editors should be appointed by the men who fund the publications, the heads of local administrations.


A lowly press minister cannot convert the country to fascism, but he can intimidate the local press.


The average Russian citizen, living in Perm or Omsk, gets most of his information from two sources -- central television and local newspapers.


Control over television news is fairly effective. Even if Alexander Rutskoi or Vladimir Zhirinovsky attracts a crowd of half a million at some rally, the cameras will completely ignore it. But a few words by Boris Yeltsin at an airport send-off will be aired in full.


As for the local newspapers, a survey in the daily Segodnya last spring found that they were overwhelmingly people's main source of print information (followed a distant second and third by Argumenty i Fakty and the sex-and-advice paper Spid Info). The liberal musings of Segodnya or Moskovskiye Novosti, it seems, do not reach far beyond Moscow or St. Petersburg.


Your average local newspaper is housed in the same building as the local administration, which gives it most of its funding. The editor is probably great friends with the mayor. You want an expos? on corruption at the town hall or coverage of an opposition rally? Don't even think about it.


But times are changing and not all local papers are obedient. Furthermore, the scheduled presidential elections are under two years away. Mironov's ill-fated tour of the provinces appears to have been a reconnaissance mission by a member of the campaign team, charged with putting the local media in their place.


All trails in this story lead back to the man who is the most likely campaign manager, Mikhail Poltoranin.


Yeltsin's old buddy from the days when Poltoranin was editor of Moskovskaya Pravda, he is the classic "democrat hardliner." Although Poltoranin has lost his government posts in charge of the press, in the best tradition of "gray cardinals" he still pulls strings from behind the scenes.


The Press Committee on Strastnoi Bulvar had Poltoranin's stamp all over it. Mironov, his prot?g?, was the head. Sergei Gryzunov, the deputy head, who stood up to Mironov, was appointed with Poltoranin's approval, although the press baron reportedly said he regretted it.


As for the new acting head, Vladimir Volodin, formerly Mironov's immediate deputy, he was on Poltoranin's government staff. And just to be triply sure, Poltoranin has apparently kept an office in the same building.


Even with Mironov gone it would be foolish to expect a big change in policy.


In his new guise as head of the Media Committee in the State Duma, Poltoranin is author of the latest attempt to keep a watch on the media: the draft law on state support for the press.


The law, which has already passed its first reading in the Duma, proposes a new state fund to oversee funding to all of the subsidized press.


Professor Anatoly Vengerov, who heads the Judicial Chamber on the Media, effectively Russia's only media watchdog, called the draft law a "monster," and not surprisingly. No one with memories of 70 years of state control wants the press to be centralized again.


Even publications that do not accept funding are vulnerable to government pressure through the printers. A telephone call to the central printers, Pressa, would be all that it takes to shut down half of Moscow's newspapers.


The biggest irony is that the loudest complaints about press restrictions come from the illiberal likes of Zhirinovsky and Rutskoi. And as they are shut out of the state media they are taking their campaigns out onto the streets.