Staunton, December 11 – Russians have responded to President Vladimir Putin’s decision to abolish RIA Novosti in a very different way than they have toward many of his other recent moves, according to Tatyana Stanovaya. Instead of viewing the Kremlin’s leader’s actions as pointing to the demise of his system, many now feel open fear instead.
That is a first, the Paris-based analyst of the Moscow Center for Political Technologies says. “Earlier all attempts of the authorities to ‘tighten’” the screws were viewed as “the next step toward a collapse. The stupider the authorities behaved, the sooner they would fall.” But reactions to the shuttering of Novosti have been different (politcom.ru/16884.html).
Many Russians appear to feel that this latest and quite unexpected move “puts the country on the rails toward the Soviet Union” ad that it is “irreversible,” Stanovaya says. As a result, people have “stopped joking” about what many had viewed as Putin’s “caricature authoritarianism” and now think what they are seeing is the real thing.
The main question is why did Putin take this step now. Stanovaya suggests there are three answers. First, the “conservative wave” which Putin has promoted and ridden since returning to the presidency now needs more than “political correctness.” It requires much tighter control. The new media arrangements give the Kremlin that possibility.
RIA-Novosti was in part a more open, even liberal news agency, but its leaders understood the limits most of the time and obeyed them, Stanovaya says. Consequently, it would be a mistake to see it as a bastion of free media that has now been destroyed.
Second, she says, Putin’s moves against Novosti are part of “the attack of the Kremlin on everything connected” with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, his aides and his ideas. For Putin, talk about modernization is a thing of the past. Now, the focus is on “war, the State Department, Russia’s enemies” and dividing up Ukraine to combat “the virus of an ‘orange revolution.’”
And third, Stanovaya says, the events in Ukraine have played an especially critical role. The 2004 Orange Revolution had “the deepest consequences for Russian domestic and foreign policy; “the current Euromaidan will have no fewer consequences.” Liquidating Novosti, she continues, is a sign that the Kremlin is reading to move in that direction.
Stanovaya is clearly right overall, but there are two aspects implicit in her argument that she does not highlight. On the one hand, Putin is acting out of fear even as he is spreading it in the Russian population. His latest moves to give him a totally controlled media outlet are intended to block any possibility of Maidan-like developments in Russia.
And on the other, and precisely because the Kremlin leader is doing this not because he is confident but because he is anything but, the reaction of the Russian people or at least its most active elements and that of the West are going to be critical. If both treat what Putin is doing as inevitable and irreversible, it may become so; if they don’t, this latest action doesn’t need to be.
Because of the Internet, many Russians will continue at least for the time being to be able to get independent news and information even if Putin expands his repressive course. And because they have a vested interest in a democratic rather than dictatorial Russia, the Western powers have leverage against Putin if they are prepared to use it.