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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Kremlin's Big Mistake

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Well, the Kremlin has stepped on its own rake. For an entire year now, the Kremlin has been suffocating the nonstate media and has made itself believe that the only true information is what it receives from those media outlets loyal to it. Thus, the Kremlin has left itself without any means of assessing the real state of affairs across the country. By doing so, it has proven the wisdom of the axiom that there is no good management without good, unbiased information.

The blow-up came on the very day that President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual state of the nation address to parliament. On the same day Gazprom-Media — the state's surrogate in its war against the only national, opposition-oriented television network in Russia — held a shareholders meeting that changed the top management of NTV's newsroom. By appointing Boris Jordan, a businessman with a murky reputation, as general director and Vladimir Kulistikov, the current head of RIA-Novosti (the state propaganda news agency and the former journalistic cover of the KGB), as editor in chief, Gazprom and the Kremlin made it perfectly clear even to those who wanted to give the state the benefit of the doubt that this conflict is not just about business. It is about politics.

The spate of public demonstrations in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities across the country has proven that the people have figured this out. The state, which during the last year has emerged as the biggest and most powerful oligarch in Russia, already owns two major national television networks and is eager to put the third — and last — under its thumb as well, leaving no room for discontent or discord. To be precise, according to my own calculations, with the acquisition of NTV and other Media-MOST outlets (the magazine Itogi and the newspaper Segodnya in particular) the state will control either directly or through subordinate monopolies 83.7 percent of all national media, with almost total control of national broadcast media.

Click here to read our special report on the Struggle for Media-MOST.

The NTV crisis has placed another big question mark over President Putin's real intentions. His speech last week was widely regarded as extremely liberal, especially its emphasis on the de-bureaucratization of economic life. However, the Kremlin's deeds of the same day speak much louder than Putin's words.

After the nonstate media is swept aside, the hands of the bureaucracy will be even less restrained than they are now, lacking in fact any control whatsoever. It sounds like a cruel joke: Russia's bureaucracy waging the fight for de-bureaucratization.

Almost as funny as the attempt to present Boris Jordan as a savior of the free press for no other reason than that he was born in America. By this logic, Marc Rich can claim to be a human rights activist and Al Capone a champion of individual entrepreneurship battling state regulation. The other day I asked a well-known Moscow financial manager (who asked not to be identified) why did the Kremlin chose Jordan? He responded: "Because no businessman with any decent reputation would get involved in these dirty games."

Sources close to the Kremlin have a somewhat different answer. "Jordan's appointment will be well-received in the West," they say. "He is American so Westerners will think that he cannot be against freedom of the press." This simplistic logic illustrates the intellectual level of those who are running the Kremlin now. By the same logic, they thought that the timing of the two events — Putin's speech and the NTV crisis — would do Putin no harm. According to sources in a position to know, top Kremlin managers discussed the issue and came to the conclusion that "NTV is an old story and the public won't be bothered by replacing the management."

In short, the Kremlin made a huge, but unavoidable mistake. Enchanted by Putin's high popularity rating and lacking proper information, his advisers decided that no dissident voices had survived the last year. In fact, the opposite has happened. Independent-minded people see the state's assault on NTV as the last straw. They were ready to tolerate Putin's KGB-influenced management style until he decided to nationalize what these people see as the only property they have acquired over a decade of dubious reform — their freedom of speech.

The Kremlin has gotten used to overlooking people with brains and voices but with little money, believing cynically that everyone can be bought. It will soon learn that there are still people in Russia capable of valuing freedom higher even than their own self-preservation.

Yevgenia Albats is an independent, Moscow-based journalist.