Vienna, March 10 – “The level of political unfreedom in contemporary Russia is incomparably less than in the USSR,” a Moscow analyst says, but “the partial freedom” its authoritarian government does allow represents “a trap” out of which the country may find it difficult to escape.
In an online posting yesterday, Vladimir Gelman acknowledges that “in comparison with the USSR when no one could speak about political and civil freedoms, the situation in Russia is principally different,” but he points out that “the repressive character” of the regime does not require that (slon.ru/blogs/gelman/post/310531/).
Like all other authoritarian regimes, he continues, the current Russian powers that be use “other instruments to guarantee the loyalty of their subjects, above all, patronage and the distribution of rents” and thus apply other means “only in exceptional cases when direct threats arise to their own survival.”
“On the contrary,” Gelman says, “the low repressiveness of the regime and the absence of limitations of part (but not of all) political freedoms at times serves as a testimonial to the consolidation of authoritarian regimes.” Russia now “is no exception” to this more general pattern.
Under current conditions, he writes, “when the freedom of association is limited, and the freedom to elect and be elected is an open fiction, then the elements of freedom of speech even in the absence of obvious limitations are converted into partial freedom,” a condition which entails four key aspects.
First, there now exist in Russia “certain ‘zones of silence’ defined by the powers that be, the discussion of which in the mass media either is not allowed or is cut off when it appears,” such as “accusations of corruption against the mayor of Moscow or the circumstances of the personal life of Vladimir Putin and Alina Kabayeva.”
Second, “the more significant channels of the mass media, and television above all, are under the direct or indirect control of the powers that be, which use them as a mechanism for propaganda and do not allow access to these channels by undesirable peoples and organizations or the discussion of undesirable themes.”
Third, “the mass media and particular journalists are not insured against arbitrary interference by the government but instead from time to time are objects of subjective punishment.” And fourth – “and most important – the discussion of the majority of significant social problems in the media is not translated into the political order of the day.”
Such “partial freedom,” Gelman concludes, not only is completely consistent with authoritarian regimes like the one in Russia now, but “at times it even serves as a means of their support,” providing the powers that be with useful feedback and other information they might not otherwise have without the risk that it presents an immediate challenge to them.
As Gelman notes, Soviet officials at times attempted to use the media in a similar way. In his memoirs, Konstantin Simonov said that Stalin wanted “Literaturnaya gazeta” to “express different points of view” so that the authorities could learn as a result, a function, Gelman says, that publication “successfully fulfilled without going beyond the limits of loyalty to the regime.”
Moreover, this “partial freedom,” the Moscow commentator points out, “creates among its audience the illusion of apparently real freedom and thereby preventing the radicalization of society,” because people can read “Novaya gazeta” or blogs rather than taking part in demonstrations against the government or forming opposition groups.
And because of the threat of “selective repression,” even these “partially free media” not only engage in “self-censorship” but are careful not to write very much that might be construed by the powers that be as calls to political action, however critical this or that article in them might be.
Indeed, Gelman says, “the audience of the partially free media risks becoming a limited circle of devoted ‘fans’ who read and/or listen to their favorite journalists or bloggers under any circumstances, while the rest of the public remains indifferent or is disappointed by the ineffectual quality of the criticism of the status quo by the partially free media.”
According to the Moscow analyst, “a demand for media freedom arises under the conditions of such type of authoritarian regimes only during massive cataclysms when distrust of the officially sanctioned sources of information provoke a search for independent assessments,” challenging “’zones of silence’” and demanding that media stories become political issues.
“In this regard,” Gelman points out, “it is worth recalling that the Chernobyl catastrophe at one time became one of the most powerful catalysts of the policy of glasnost which put an end to the absence of media freedom.” But under “normal” conditions, “the partially free media serve to stabilize the status quo rather than as agents of political change.”
“Partial media freedom,” the Moscow analyst argues, “is different from unfreedom approximately as the equation two times two equal ten is different from two times two equals 100. Both are false, although the first is less far from the truth than the second.” But that isn’t the end of the issue.
That is because “while unfreedom is beyond doubt worse than partial freedom, partial media freedom in Russia in the near term may be a dangerous institutional trap” and escaping from it will be very difficult not only for the “partially free media” but also for the partially free society “as a whole.”