Staunton, December 3 -- In his state of the nation speech, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that regional administrations should not retain ownership of anything, including the media, that is not “necessary for the fulfillment of their responsibilities,” a proposal that has already led to the submission of a draft bill to the Duma.
But regional leaders say that government ownership of at least some of the media is absolutely essential to do their jobs, be it to promote patriotic education, support for the ruling party, develop a common media space for large regions or maintain bilingualism in the non-Russian republics. And some analysts suggest that dispensing with such control is very risky.
As a result, many heads of the federal subjects have come out against this proposal. But given the Kremlin’s dominance of the Duma, the new measure is likely to pass. And observers are already speculating about how regional officials will keep control of the media by selling it to loyal companies, something that will do little besides increasing corruption at the local level.
The Moscow press today is full of articles and commentaries on this subject. “Kommersant,” for example, notes the governors are correct in asserting that federal law allows the regional governments to own the media. If that changes, one official said, the regions will go along, but without enthusiasm (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1549696).
(For a discussion of these various articles and the anger that they are provoking among many regional officials, see the commentary offered by Aleksandr Ivakhnik, the head of the political analysis department of the Moscow Center for Political Technologies at www.politcom.ru/11128.html).)
But perhaps the most thoughtful discussion of this issue so far is offered by Tatyana Stanovaya on Politcom.ru. She points to the fundamental contradiction between Medvedev’s desire to get the government out of more sectors of the economy and the dangers that will arise if the regional media are privatized too quickly (www.politcom.ru/11127.html).
“The media,” Stanovaya notes, “in the current political situation fulfill some most important functions including ‘therapeutic’ and propagandistic. [Its outlets] guarantee a favorable information background for both participants in the tandem and support the ratings of the party of power,” United Russia.
Given that, she writes, “it is difficult to imagine that a political decision about the privatization of the media which today guarantees the stability of the political regime will be adopted.” Moreover, many of the regions and republics have special needs which can only be met by controlling the media either by ownership or other means.
Indeed, “considering how on them lies today responsibility for the results of the party of power [in elections, such regional heads] are quite obviously not prepared to deprive themselves of the most important instrument of influence on public opinion.” If they have to give up ownership because of Moscow’s fiat, they will find other ways, including corrupt ones.
And that will not be hard, Stoyanova writes, because “the place of the regional owner can be occupied by companies close to the structures of power there, as a result of which there will be a reduction in competition in the media markets of the regions, something that in turn means [a reduction in] access to objective information.”
Thus, she concludes, as so often happens in post-Soviet Russia, “once again a liberal idea can be turned to the benefit of the state” rather than to the society for whom it is ostensibly intended.” Medvedev may get his new law, but he won’t thereby achieve the ends many who look to him for change expect.