Misreading Russia | Freedom House

Misreading Russia

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In recent remarks made at the Heritage Foundation, House Speaker John Boehner said that “in Russia’s use of old tools and old thinking, we see nothing short of an attempt to restore Soviet-style power and influence.” In using this formulation the Speaker gets things only half right. Moscow is undeniably seeking ways to reassert power and influence. But Russia’s Putin-era effort to flex its muscles is not in the Soviet mold, as the Speaker suggests. The contemporary effort represents, instead, a modern, adaptive form of authoritarianism, whose particular methods and tools pose new challenges.

Energy plays a big but not exclusive part in Russia’s strategy to exert influence today. Russia’s resurgence on the international scene has closely tracked the rise in energy prices. The energy windfall from which Russia has benefited over the past decade has been the resource platform for Vladimir Putin’s lucrative patronage system at home and clout beyond Russia’s borders. These resources animate Russia’s modern authoritarianism.

Take mass media, for example. Under Putin, the authorities have brought all of the major national television channels - Channel One, RTR, and NTV – under effective state control. But domestic media under Putin is not the uniformly and oppressively ideological programming of the Soviet era. Russia’s media today is rich in entertainment and modern programming of high technical quality and production value. Russian television offers a wide assortment of entertainment options, but for the most part excludes alternative views and analysis on news and public affairs. This is particularly the case where it counts most on national television broadcasts, from which most citizens continue to get their information.

Russian media also plays an important role in influencing perceptions in neighboring countries. The same manipulated programming consumed by Russians within the Russian Federation is watched by ethnic Russians beyond the country’s borders. Abroad, Russian-language broadcasts from Moscow are used for instance with respect to Latvia, an economically fragile country of two million that still contends with combustible ethnic minority issues. A steady diet of illiberal media is fed from Moscow to the sizable ethnic Russian minority community in Latvia, giving them a jaundiced view of a host of difficult issues, many of which are integral to minority integration. The destructive role of Russian media in Latvia should not be underestimated.

Recently in Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished post-Soviet republic with reform ambitions, Russian language media originating from Moscow has been used in sophisticated and often subtle ways to shape views.

Russia’s leadership values its image in the West and therefore invests handsomely in prestige public relations initiatives, including many millions of dollars for lobbying efforts in Washington and Brussels, and slickly produced advertising supplements in major Western newspapers.

Russia Today, a Kremlin television initiative that broadcasts to North America, Europe, and Asia, represents another piece of the modern authoritarian puzzle. Overseen by the state-controlled RIA Novosti news agency, since its launch in 2005, it reportedly has grown to a staff of several hundred with tens of millions of dollars invested in the initiative.

Meanwhile, Russia has become an integral player in matters of global security, business and economic relations. It is, for instance, seeking membership in the WTO and is already a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe. In 2006, Russia held the presidency of the G-8 and the chairmanship of the Council of Europe, whose mandate is to promote human rights and democracy and uphold the rule of law in Europe. Russia has also blocked reform within the European Court of Human Rights. Today, Russia operates within a raft of leading rules-based institutions and therefore has influence, more often than not seeking ways to hobble the human rights and democratically accountability dimensions of these organizations’ work. Undermining Democracy: 21st Century Authoritarians, a 2009 report produced by Freedom House, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia, observed that “Russia and its allies in the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have pressured the OSCE to move away from election monitoring, the promotion of democratic standards, and the observance of human rights, and urged it to focus instead on economic, environmental, and security issues.

Brezhnev and Putin

Today, it is important to recognize that current Kremlin ambitions are not as vast as those of Soviet-era vintage. Instead, Russia is pursuing a more circumscribed approach that first and foremost looks to ensure that transparent and accountable (i.e., democratic) systems do not succeed on Russia’s periphery. Such successes would pose the greatest threat to the Putin model of governance in Russia. For all of the successes in Central Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reform record in the former Soviet Union is abysmal. Russia’s leadership and standard setting against human rights and democratic reform during the past decade have been embraced by anti-democratic forces throughout Russia’s neighborhood and are therefore instrumental in wider obstacles to democratic development in the region. This includes strategically critical Ukraine, which is now in the throes of a democratic rollback led by Ukraine’s Moscow-oriented president, Viktor Yanukovych.

Misapprehensions about the shape and designs of today’s Russia have important implications. Russia and other leading authoritarian states are operating in more sophisticated ways. In fact, it is precisely because today’s Russia is employing new and often more sophisticated methods of repression at home and influence abroad in its use of diplomacy, mass media and economic integration, rather than the old, more familiar ones, that policy makers need to be particularly attuned and attentive.

With Vladimir Putin’s unsurprising return to the presidency, quite possibly for another dozen years, there will be a temptation by outside observers to depict today’s Russia as a Soviet reprise. Putin in the end may hold power longer than Brezhnev, but the way in which Putinism has evolved should not be mistaken for the staid and rigid model of the 1970s and 1980s. This would be a highly counterproductive diagnosis that could lead to incorrect prescriptions. U.S. officials, analysts and news media should avoid the “Soviet” and Cold War terminology and the trap it sets.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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