Baku, March 21 – Embattled Ingush President Murat Zyazikov’s efforts to shut down the independent Ingushetiya.ru web portal and to block broadcasts by REN-TV to his republic -- both of which Moscow rejected this week -- offer three important lessons about the relationship of media freedom and state power in the Russian Federation.
In an article posted online yesterday, Sergei Markedonov argues that these cases show that greater regional autonomy may not produce democracy but rather its antithesis, that human rights groups can be allies of those who want to strengthen the state, and that leaders who proclaim their loyalty to the Kremlin may in fact be the greatest threat to it.
These lessons show, he says, how “absurd” it is to assume, as many in Moscow now do, that democracy and a strong state are antithetical, a view just as wrong as to believe that there is a trade off between health and wealth, when in fact the two values reinforce one another (http://www.apn.ru/publications/article19512.htm).
On Tuesday, the Russian Supreme Court rejected Zyazikov’s latest effort to close down his nemesis, the independent news portal Ingushetiya.ru. (Over the past year, he has pressured that site’s IP providers, had it hacked to redirect visitors to a pornography site, and used the threat of physical violence to intimidate the family of the owner.)
But on the same day, demonstrating that he had learned nothing and forgotten nothing, Zyazikov had his pocket parliament issue an appeal to Moscow calling for the central authorities to block broadcasts of REN-TV, which recently carried a film highlighting his repressive measures, to Ingushetiya.
This appeal, which was directed not to the courts but rather to the heads of the Russian parliament, the director of the FSB, the prosecutor general and the interior minister, Markedonov suggests, is cast in language that “calls to mind” the Soviet prosecutor’s tirades at the show trials during “the notorious year of 1937.”
The appeal speaks of “dark forces” that supposedly are trying to “destabilize” Ingushetia and the Russian Federation as a whole, it calls REN-TV reporting “provocatory, slanderous and tendentious,” and it says that not only must the broadcasts be stopped but the station’s journalists must be pulled out of Ingushetiya.
What makes this case especially disturbing is that this is not the first time a regional leader has tried this tactic. Nine years ago, Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov did the same thing, closing down broadcasts of two all-Russian channels there and thus taking his republic out of the country’s common information space, albeit only for a brief time.
Because President Vladimir Putin has concluded “a pact with regional barons” in which they are given enormous local power in exchange for declarations of undying loyalty to the center, ever more of these leaders have been tempted to follow Zyazikov’s course in crushing local media and local human and media rights groups.
But as the current case shows, these barons are now not satisfied with that: they want Moscow to that the all-Russia media also toe the line, something that if the central authorities were to agree, Markedonov points out, would destroy the common information space of the country and thus its integration as a strong state.
Many Russian officials do not yet appear to understand that linkage, Markedonov says. Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov, for example, responded to Zyazikov’s latest appeal with an expression of “regret” that “we do not have the possibility or authority to close a television channel or influence its content.”
But some in Moscow are beginning to recognize just how dangerous such a step would be. Boris Reznik, the deputy chairman of the Duma’s information policy committee, said this week that “Ingushetiya is a subject of the Federation, and REN-TV is a federal channel. There is no basis for stopping its broadcasts. “
Ingush officials, Reznik suggested, “need to put their own house in order and not try to cover up negative facts -- if they exist.”
Unfortunately, Markedonov continues, “the representatives of the federal government did not say the most important thing.” They did not point out that “Russia is a single country and on its entire (?) territory, all (?) all-national channels, radio programs and television, and newspapers ought to be distributed whether anyone likes it or not.”
If Moscow does not recognize that reality – and it is one that media rights people have been pointing to for a long time -- then one republic will be able to close one channel, a second, another, and so on, and in that event “tomorrow, there will not be a country,” but rather a set of “archaic and authoritarian khanates.”
Zyazikov’s people, however, show no sign of backing down. Isa Kostoyev, Ingushetiya’s senator, has since sent a letter to the Russian prosecutor general demanding the closure not only of REN-TV but also of other “diversionary” and “subversive” outlets like Ekho Moskvy, Zhizn’, and Novaya gazeta.
Like Zyazikov now and like some regional leaders in the North Caucasus earlier, Kostoyev says that unless these outlets are blocked, the situation in Ingushetiya will deteriorate. But that will happen regardless, Markedonov insists, until “the entire system of administration” in that region is changed.”
And he sums up his article with words certain to attract the attention of some in the Russian capital: “Without an adequate understanding of the nature of the crisis, you won’t be able to correct it!” If Moscow blocks REN-TV, then Al-Jazira or “some other foreign station” will fill in the gap.
Those sources obviously will provide a very different interpretation of the situation than either Zyazikov and his minions or Moscow officials concerned with building Putin’s “power vertical” could possibly want. “Who will win as a result?” Markedonov asks rhetorically. “Certainly not Russia and not its national interests.”