Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

PARTY LINES: Ski-Mask Politics Will Stay

Cognitive dissonance is back, in a big way. On Thursday, it was literally wafting out of the news wires, where reports about how the Council of Europe's foreign ministers were feeling "positive" about developments in Russia nuzzled comfortably up against items slugged: "Armed tax police raid Russian media group." It was there in the images of President Vladimir Putin exchanging pleasantries with CNN founder Ted Turner while masked guys holding little Uzi-like automatics guarded the front entrance of Media-MOST's headquarters on Bolshoi Palashevsky Pereulok. (Why, after all, let petty concerns like press freedom or journalistic solidarity get in the way of weighty deliberations about nuclear disarmament, not to mention the chance to do some good business.)

On Friday, the newly inaugurated head of state - or, rather, his press service - finally got around to commenting on the Media-MOST raid. "The president is firmly convinced that freedom of speech and freedom of the media are immutable values," Putin's statement read. "A free press must exist as an important guarantee of democratic development. As for the investigation of criminal cases, all are equal before the law, regardless of the kind business they may be involved in." Wow! An endorsement of press freedom and the rule of law, all in one! Somebody tell Fitch IBCA to raise Russia's credit rating another notch.

Let's accept, for the moment, that the allegations that Media-MOST's security service engaged in illegal electronic surveillance are true. If so, the law enforcement and judicial authorities would be obliged to take the case to court in a reasonable amount of time. The authorities' record here is not encouraging. The investigation of the murder of television journalist Vladislav Listyev, for example, has been going on for five years, with no apparent results. And the history ofcases similar to the one brought against Media-MOST on April 26 is not encouraging. What ever happened, for example, to the case involving Atoll, the private security firm that shared offices with the Sibneft oil company and was raided last year for allegedly eavesdropping on various officials and VIPs? Anybody out there know?

The problem, of course, is that the legal system is so thoroughly politicized that many otherwise intelligent local observers speak of this as if it were normal. The newspaper Nezavismaya Gazeta, for example, which is part of Boris Berezovsky's media empire, drew the obvious parallel between the Media-MOST raid and the Sibneft/Atoll case. Putin, it wrote, can either prove the Media-MOST case in court or drop it and "hush up the scandal" - as, the paper implied, happened in the Atoll case. Taking it to court is unlikely, the paper concluded, given the realities of Russian "paper work." So the second option is likely.

What was notable about Nezavisimaya Gazeta's comments was its almost reflexive assumption that Putin should decide the fate of such cases, and that such cases can never be successfully adjudicated because of "paper work." The record of the last decade, of course, suggests both assumptions reflect reality, but let's not dance around what that implies. It means the rule of law does not exist in Russia, and cannot under the current system.

The raid elicited other examples of refreshing frankness in the Russian media - such as the following comments from Izvestia's Georgy Bovt.

"What is freedom of speech in Russia?" wrote Bovt. "The product of civil society? Or a form of coexistence [between] oligarchical clans that use the mass media as a battlefield for resolving contradictions? [Media-MOST chief] Vladimir Gusinsky has never been engaged in the media business in its pure form, although he came closer than anybody else did to creating 'the Russian CNN.' He always - like any of our oligarchs - built all business (including media) on special relations with the government. The authorities themselves are zealously protecting exactly this kind of capitalism - where the rules of the game, tenders ... and their results are determined by the Bureaucrats."

The bottom line of Nezavisimaya Gazeta's and Bovt's comments? That Putin's promises to create a level playing field, chase the oligarchs from the corridors of power, etc., are empty sloganeering. Largely aimed, they might have added, at the Western businesses, media moguls, credit rating agencies and heads of government who, yet again, see Real Reform just over the horizon.

It would be petty to wish them ill. Live long and prosper. Just watch out for the guys in the ski-masks.