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Friday, April 15th, 2022

Putin’s war in Ukraine isn’t going well, but with no free press to hold him accountable, public opinion isn’t turning against him

Russia’s Vladimir Putin is viewed by many world lead­ers and free peo­ples as a treach­er­ous war crim­i­nal, killing thou­sands of Ukrain­ian cit­i­zens, dis­plac­ing mil­lions more, and turn­ing cities into rubble.

Yet Putin’s approval rat­ing in Rus­sia has nev­er been higher.

A recent Reuters arti­cle ref­er­enced a state-run poll­ster VTsIOM, not­ing that Russ­ian trust in Putin has risen to 81.06% from 67.2% before he ordered a huge num­ber of addi­tion­al troops into Ukraine on Feb­ru­ary 25th.

How is this pos­si­ble? It comes down in large mea­sure to how peo­ple receive their infor­ma­tion. Is it fac­tu­al news report­ing or propaganda?

Some his­to­ry: Back in 1994–1996, both Vladimir Putin and his pre­de­ces­sor, Boris Yeltsin, were com­mit­ted to Russia’s mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Chech­nya. At the same time, Russia’s new­ly found­ed pri­vate and inde­pen­dent TV sta­tion, NTV, had jour­nal­ists inves­ti­gat­ing the pos­si­ble FSB stag­ing explo­sions in Moscow to jus­ti­fy the Kremlin’s actions. Such crit­i­cal report­ing had rat­tled both leaders.

While Yeltsin was tol­er­ant, Vladimir Putin prompt­ly ordered his own inves­ti­ga­tion that ulti­mate­ly put NTV and the oth­er media out­lets under state control.

It was dur­ing the Yeltsin era, that Vladimir Gusin­sky, a young and ambi­tious Jew­ish entre­pre­neur, acquired NTV, the news mag­a­zine Ito­gi (a part­ner of Newsweek), Echo Moscow radio sta­tion and the news­pa­per Sevodnya.

Gusin­sky also want­ed to be a pow­er bro­ker inside of Rus­sia, which was pos­si­ble as long as Yeltsin remained in office.

In David Remnick’s arti­cle in The New York­er on Feb­ru­ary 22nd, 1995, The Tycoon and the Krem­lin, Gusin­sky was best described as “the most pow­er­ful and mys­te­ri­ous mem­ber of the new Moscow elite.”

Rem­nick went on: “He is also Russia’s biggest media mogul and, as a result, is deeply embroiled in Krem­lin politics.”

His oth­er ambi­tion was to build net­works (media, finan­cial, polit­i­cal) in America.

At that time, I rep­re­sent­ed Mr. Gusin­sky, over­see­ing his sched­ule and accom­pa­ny­ing him at meet­ings in New York and Wash­ing­ton, D.C. His meet­ings with the Wash­ing­ton Post and Newsweek in April 1995 made a huge difference.

It was piv­otal, giv­en that he and his oli­garch bud­dies intend­ed their own­er­ship of media out­lets to advance their own busi­ness and polit­i­cal inter­ests. For Gusin­sky, it was a wake-up moment, real­iz­ing that he was posi­tioned to become a true cham­pi­on of free and inde­pen­dent report­ing in the post-Com­mu­nist era.

That ambi­tion would not sit well with Putin. Beyond the NTV’s crit­i­cal report­ing of the Krem­lin, what real­ly upset Putin was the pop­u­lar week­ly satir­i­cal TV show known as “Kuk­ly.” It dis­played a cast of hideous-look­ing latex dolls to mock politi­cians. One por­trayed Putin as a scream­ing, ugly baby, even hint­ing at him being a pros­ti­tute on the streets of Moscow. Putin would have none of that, which marked the begin­ning of the end of a free and inde­pen­dent press in Russia.

In June, 2000, the Russia’s Pros­e­cu­tor Gen­er­al had Vladimir Gusin­sky arrest­ed on fake charges and incar­cer­at­ed in the infa­mous Butyr­ka Prison. Sev­er­al weeks lat­er, Gusin­sky was giv­en a choice — turn over his Media Most assets to Gazprom, Russia’s largest ener­gy com­pa­ny, and leave the coun­try or face indef­i­nite prison time. The state’s legal claim was a demand that Gusin­sky imme­di­ate­ly repay to Gazprom a $300 mil­lion loan he had received a few years earlier.

Fac­ing grow­ing finan­cial pres­sures, Gusinisky fran­ti­cal­ly sought out­side investors, includ­ing CNN’s Ted Turn­er, to fend off an effort by Gazprom to take over his media oper­a­tions. But the high risks and lim­it­ed time left Gusin­sky with no choice but to sign an agree­ment turn­ing over all his media assets to Gazprom.

The crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion was sub­se­quent­ly closed and Gusin­sky prompt­ly left Moscow. On his last dri­ve to the Moscow air­port, he was accom­pa­nied by Boris Nemtsov, an oppo­si­tion leader who was assas­si­nat­ed in Feb­ru­ary 2015.

The news of Vladimir Gusinsky’s arrest and the Russ­ian government’s seiz­ing of his media assets made waves in many west­ern coun­tries, includ­ing the Unit­ed States. Here are a few head­lines from the turn of the century:

  • The New York Times (August 3, 2000): Rus­sia Try­ing To Get Assets of Top Crit­ic — A Bat­tle for Con­trol of Gusin­sky Empire.
  • The Wash­ing­ton Post (August 3, 2000): Russ­ian Faces Bat­tle to Save TV Sta­tion – Krem­lin Could Gain Con­trol Of Last Inde­pen­dent Channel.
  • The Wall Street Jour­nal (Jan­u­ary 25, 2001): Russ­ian Media Mogul Bat­tles to Hold On To a Besieged Empire
  • U.S. News & World Report (June 26, 2000): Is the new Krem­lin up to old tricks? — Tycoon’s arrest stirs fears for press freedoms

In the 1980s, as chair­man of the House For­eign Affairs Sub­com­mit­tee on Human Rights, I con­duct­ed a series of hear­ings on South Amer­i­ca coun­tries tran­si­tion­ing from mil­i­tary jun­tas to frag­ile democ­ra­cies. My final report empha­sized the three fun­da­men­tal pil­lars of any democ­ra­cy. They were (a) free and fair elec­tions, (b) inde­pen­dent news report­ing, and (c) a sov­er­eign judiciary.

Vladimir Putin fails on all three.

He poi­sons or impris­ons oppo­nents, con­trols the mass media by requir­ing it be state owned, and keeps Russia’s judi­cial sys­tem on a tight leash.

Of the three, press free­dom is per­haps the most important.

If Vladimir Gusinsky’s media con­glom­er­ate exist­ed today (report­ing the truth, not pro­pa­gan­da), Vladimir Putin’s poll num­bers would like­ly be reversed, and there would be a polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion capa­ble of ush­er­ing him out of the Kremlin.

It’s a good reminder that while the right to a free press can be messy from an elect­ed offi­cial’s point of view, it remains vital to any democracy.

Edi­tor’s Note: Don Bonker is a for­mer Demo­c­ra­t­ic Unit­ed States Rep­re­sen­ta­tive who rep­re­sent­ed the 3rd Dis­trict (South­west Wash­ing­ton) in the House from 1975 — 1988. He is the author of two books: America’s Trade Cri­sis and A High­er Call­ing — Faith & Pol­i­tics in the Pub­lic Square

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