Interview with Vladimir Posner: Present Perfect on Russia's Media and Putin's Politics

Peter Lavelle, an independent Moscow-based analyst, had a long chat with Vladimir Posner, Russia's leading media figure and internationally recognized political talk show host on the country's media and politics.

Peter Lavelle, an independent Moscow-based analyst, had a long chat with Vladimir Posner, Russia's leading media figure and internationally recognized political talk show host on the country's media and politics.  Presented here are excerpts from their conservation.

Q: In your opinion how has the electronic media, particularly television, changed and/or evolved during Vladimir Putin's presidency?

Posner: The main media difference under this president is the content found on the airwaves. As far as the three federal broadcasters are concerned - broadcasting all over the country and not through affiliates - there has been a curtailment of news and opinion. These broadcasters are directly controlled or indirectly controlled by the government and it is clear the government, in other words Mr Putin, does not want certain things to figure on the air. This includes the following: Chechnya, especially of any kind of criticism (of government policy there); the Khodorkovsky case [the "oligarch" currently on trial for tax evasion and other charges] and whatever ramifications the case may have; and president Putin himself. These subjects are pretty much taboo now.

Q.: Instead of characterizing Russia's electronic media as simply government controlled, isn't it more important to address the following issue: Are Russian audiences provided with enough accurate information to form informed opinions?  

A.: If we are speaking only about television - the three main television broadcasters - then the answer is no. Viewers cannot make an educated decision on what actually is going on in Chechnya. They really don't know what is behind the Khodorkovsky affair - though most people are behind the president on this as there is a general dislike for all the so-called "oligarchs." Also, people don't know much about the president himself and about the decisions he makes. Thus, one could say that people may be relatively well-informed, but there remain certain important areas where they are not informed or have to look for information elsewhere - the print media, for example.

Q.: Given that there are sensitive, even taboo, subjects not to be discussed on the airwaves; does this foreknowledge force a degree of self-censorship?

A.: Of course it does. The vast majority of Russians are still "Soviet" people. There was still a Soviet Union 13 years ago, so anyone who was twenty then and brought up under that system (not to speak of even older people) was clearly formed by that system. Back then, people knew very well what they could say and not say without even being told. It was a built-in reflex. So today, when there is a sense something in air that tells you "Well, better not touch this subject," it is like a Pavlovian reflex as a form of self-preservation.

Q.: Among academics and some of the better journalists, there is a debate about Russia's political and economic development. Do you think that economic progress is incompatible with political pluralism as understood in the American context? Or presented differently, as stated in a recent "Scotland on Sunday" article, "He may be an economic liberal, but Putin is an Andropov at heart."

A.: I would say to Americans that such a characterization is like a propaganda picture. I would simply point to China, where there is no political freedom. Compared to Russia, China is a total dictatorship. There are no differing opinions to be found in newspapers or television - everything is controlled directly through the government and the (Communist) party. There are no elections and a one-party system. And yet, everyone points out China's economic successes, which is an open capitalist market. So if it can work there, why can't it work elsewhere?

What I think happens is that in the West, particularly in America, there is the perception that the Chinese are, well, Chinese. We can allow them to be the way they are, whereas the Russians should be like us because we are white. Thus, what should apply to the Chinese should not be allowed for Russians.

However, ultimately I believe that one cannot have an open market system without political pluralism - eventually China will have to either change its current economic system or political system. Thus, in the long run, I agree that economic progress is incompatible with political pluralism.

Now, if you want to talk about Russia and Putin. Putin is no (Yuri) Andropov; let's not kid ourselves. Yes, he worked in the KGB when it was the KGB, he worked in the FSS - the KGB's successor, and he even headed the FSB for a short time. But there is no comparing of the two men. Andropov was a true blue, or should I say true red, communist with a very narrow view.  As a matter of fact, I am very glad he passed away when he did.  Had he realized that the Soviet Union could not long compete and standup to the West, particularly the United States, and was in danger of falling apart, I think he would have launched a nuclear attack. That was the mindset of that kind of person. This is something Putin would never do.

People have to understand where this country is coming from. During the Yeltsin years, when supposedly there was more freedom of speech and democracy, it was complete bedlam and crisis. The fact that this man Putin, in his own way, is trying to bring some order to the country is understandable. Yes, he is not very democratic, how could he be a democrat? On the other hand, he certainly is not a KGB dictator.