Staunton, February 14 – Concerned that regional TV channels in Russia might broadcast something at variance to Moscow ones, especially in the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections, Vladimir Putin is moving quietly but quickly to take total control of those channels based outside of Moscow and in some cases still relatively independent of it.
That is the conclusion of Rashit Akhmetov, the editor in chief of Kazan’s “Zvezda Povolzhya,” in his lead article in the current issue, and it is one that suggests there may be some real fights ahead between Moscow and those regional channels, especially in Chechnya, over how much control they will have in the future (no. 5 (733), February 12-18, 2015, p. 1).
Putin has already succeeded in taking full control of the central television channels, Akhmetov says. He has even achieved something no one thought possible: transforming the slogan of NTV, which Boris Yeltsin created to be an alternative to the official line, from “news is our profession” to “soap operas are our profession,” Akhmetov says.
And it thus should come as no surprise that Putin is working to achieve the same thing in the regions, even though this effort has received less attention than it deserves, because he is obviously worried about a situation in which regional channels broadcast one point of view while his Moscow channels broadcast another.
Twenty years ago, Tatar media figures dreamed of creating a single Tatar media space in that Middle Volga republic, and Putin’s actions now first in Moscow and then in the regions are a testimonial to how right they were to focus on television as a way of shaping the national agenda, the “Zvezda Povolzhya” editor says.
But if Putin succeeds – and there is evidence that he will most places but not in all – this will be a real “Leviathan,” one in which “Moscow will seek to exclude even the theoretical possibility of a difference of opinions in the regions,” something that may be especially important now because the economic crisis is hitting them harder than it is hitting Moscow.
However, Putin is going to face a difficult time in some places, Akhmetov suggests, and he points to Chechnya as an example. Putin asked Ramzan Kadyrov not to go ahead with his march in support of Muhammed and minimized Moscow coverage of it, but Kadyrov, “confident of his support” among Chechens, went ahead anyway on both counts.
That contrasts sharply with the behavior of Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov, who lacks that confidence and who agreed not to have a march or give the Chechen one much coverage even though Minnikhanov has been named by Putin himself as Russia’s point man in relations with the Muslim world.
That suggests that Putin will move first – or indeed, has already moved – against the TV channels in those republics and regions which no longer have elections and where those in office are not very confident of how much support they have. But the Kremlin leader will be able to do so even there in most cases because few Russians now care much about freedom of speech.
Russia’s problem, Akhmetov concludes, is that “state capitalism rather than democracy replaced state socialism” in large measure because “the majority of the population” did not want democracy but were only concerned about their standard of living. Polls suggest, he continues, that “only one percent” of Russians care about media freedom.
The only thing that may change that he suggests is if Russians discover that countries which have media freedom do much better economically than countries which don’t, something for which there is evidence even now given that the ruble goes up when Putin talks about democracy and it goes down when he moves away from it.