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U.S. Must Speak Out for Russian Democracy

April 08, 2001|MICHAEL McFAUL | Michael McFaul, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, teaches politics at Stanford University

The Russian government's assault against the independent television network, NTV, represents the greatest threat to Russian democracy since the coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his democratic reforms. Just like the coup plotters in August 1991, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin--through his proxy, Gazprom, the largely state-owned gas company--has used extraordinary means to seize control of the last important bastion of the independent national media.

Gazprom officials describe the takeover as a financial issue, but everyone involved in the conflict knows that the move is political. Putin does not like criticism, and he is wielding the enormous power of the Russian state to muzzle it. Gazprom is also moving to shut down Sevodnya, a daily newspaper, and Itogi, a weekly magazine, both part of Media-Most, the holding company that created and once owned NTV. If these attacks were just financial, why would Moscow be trying to muzzle the profitable Itogi?

As in the last coup attempt, the Russian people are resisting. A public demonstration in Moscow last week attracted 20,000 people, the largest showing of public activism since the one in 1991. Even more boldly, the journalists at NTV have defied the takeover, maintained a 24-hour vigil in their offices and continued to broadcast protest programming. Their defense of media independence has attracted supporters from every major political party in Russia, from the Communists to the liberals. The overwhelming support from elected officials should not be surprising. They may know what recent polls of Russian citizens show: 79.4% of the voting population believes freedom of the press is important.

In comparing today's coup attempt against freedom of the press to 1991, one ingredient is still missing: American support for the "democrats." As one Russian journalist who worked for Media-Most told me, "It feels exactly like August 1991, only this time one of the coup leaders has an American accent." Boris Jordan, an American investment banker hired last week to run NTV, has cleverly spun the crisis as a typical U.S.-style merger and acquisition that has nothing to do with politics.

The Bush administration cannot interfere in the ownership of a Russian company. Nor can it save independent media in Russia or democracy more generally. Ultimately, only the Russian people can prevent dictatorship from reemerging. The Bush administration can, however, signal clearly and loudly that it sides with the majority of Russians and the brave NTV journalists. Silence only confirms what many of those holed up in the NTV offices already believe: that the new American administration does not care about Russian democracy. Even if these Russians lose their battle to maintain a free and independent media, the Bush administration should position itself on the right side of history in this struggle.

President Bush should signal his support for Russia's democrats in three simple ways. First, he should issue a statement about American support for freedom of the press in Russia. The president should make clear the U.S. government does not believe the propaganda that this is just a financial matter. If Russian citizens are willing to defend democratic principles against enormous odds, we should be standing by them.

Second, behind the scenes, the U.S. should be assisting CNN's Ted Turner, a potential new minority shareholder in NTV, to secure a guarantee from the Putin government that there will be no censorship. To be credible, however, Putin himself must make this commitment public.

Third, with no fanfare, the Bush administration should increase financial assistance to American nongovernmental organizations that currently subsidize and support other sources of independent media in Russia. Obviously, grants provided by the U.S. cannot save NTV. But these small programs can help to keep afloat important regional television stations, newspapers and Internet news services.

The Bush team has yet to completely review its Russia policy and still has not named many of the important officials who will work on it. Given the mixed achievements in U.S.-Russian relations in the 1990s, a thorough policy review is prudent. Support for freedom of the press is a no-brainer. In this important turning point in Russian democracy, the U.S. can no longer remain silent.

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