February 24, 2005

The Party Line


George Bush is supposed to sit down with his good pal Vladimir today.

So, what’s on the agenda?  Russia’s appropriation of the media?  The roll back of constitutional rights?

If you read yesterday’s NYT preview of the meeting (“Bush May Feel Chilly Blast From The Russians” – link), apparently the primary concern of the Administration is Russia’s crackdown on capitalism, not democracy.  In fact, the Administration seems almost blind to Russia’s abuse of liberty unless it involves to the infringement of corporate liberty.  With this in mind, Bush should have a lot to say about the Russian government’s seizure of the Yukos Oil Company and the prosecution of its executives, the “new intolerance of independent business power,” … and probably not much else.

The Administration’s passive relationship with Russia was really cemented last September, when Bush and Co. said and did virtually nothing as Putin proceeded to water down the entire Russian political system, abolishing elections for governors, presidents and other regional representatives in favor of direct presidential appointments.  How serious was the move?  Well, even the Russian newspaper Izvestia equated Putin’s powergrab to the Russian Revolution of 1917. 

Despite the sudden and radical curtailment of democracy, however, the Bush administration hardly took notice.  “These steps do appear to run counter to fundamental principles,” a White House aid was quoted in the NYTimes.  “But we want to get a better sense of how the Russians think they’re going to be implemented.”  In a related article (link), White House officials asserted “that public criticism tends to irritate the current Russian leaders without changing their behavior.”

The image above is one I saved from the International Herald Tribune in late December (during the Russian government’s shady acquisition of Yukos Oil).  To really appreciate this photo, however, you have to also know that, over the past year, the Kremlin has assumed almost total operating and editorial control of Russia’s television channels, Channel One, Russia TV, and Gazprom’s NTV.

If a photo ever illustrated the concept of “the party line,” it’s this one.  No matter what channel you turn to, what you get is Putin.

The scale of Putin on the near left screen, and the presence of Putin on the bank of screens is also telling.  His omnipresence implies he can’t help but command attention (in spite of where his own attention lies). 

(The reason the Russian leader can command such attention, however, seems to go beyond controlling the screen.  Unless the devices on the ceiling are projectors, they are probably surveillance cameras.  This would cast Putin as not just anchor, but Big Brother, bringing a whole new appreciation to the idea of a captive audience.)

One more way to read this picture involves Putin as pitchman.  One reason the press has been predicting a stalemate between Bush and Putin is because both are so much about spin. In the first NYT article referenced above, the story suggested that any substantive criticism of Russia would likely be met with “firm rebuttals, explanations and counter-arguments rather than promises to change.” 

How familiar does that sound?

Letter to President Bush from Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) —  link

(image: Denis Sinyakov/Agence France-Presse)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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