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"Manipulated Democracy"

 

Putin’s clampdown on the media moguls, such as Berezovsky and Gusinsky, is part of a more general campaign to change what some analysts describe as a “media-political system,” which took shape in the 1990s and which now hinders Putin’s pursuit of a strong presidency and an effective state. 

 
Evgeny Kiselev, NTV's chief anchorman in the 1990s 

Under Yeltsin, when state institutions and political structures were enfeebled and unstable, the national TV shaped, to a great extent, the contours of the political system. When the party system was underdeveloped and when only one party – the Communists – could boast mass membership, the main TV stations assumed the functions of political parties. They played out a political show and determined the hierarchy of roles in the political arena. At times of elections, these roles were assigned “brand names” of parties and movements, for which the viewers were enjoined to vote.

In the media-political system the press and television became effective mechanisms of manipulating political power relationships and public opinion, and were used to great effect by the alliance of the media oligarchs and the Kremlin Family to pursue their political and commercial interests. Their concerted efforts brought about a perverted form of democracy – sometimes described as “manipulated democracy” – that dominated Russian politics in the 1990s.

This system was possible as long as the state was prepared to put up with the presence of powerful and even quite independent players in the media-political system. Yeltsin’s regime was tolerant toward the media for historical and utilitarian reasons. Following the first wave of privatization, when the mass media had been taken away from the Communists and handed over to the journalists, the media always supported Russia’s first president at all key moments when the fate of his regime hung in the balance. With all his faults, Boris Yeltsin remained a guarantor of civil liberties and private ownership for the media community.

However, the growing commercialization of the media brought new dangers to its freedom and reputation. Millions of rubles were spent to fan “wars of kompromat and stage character assassinations by publication of compromising material. The oligarchs used their media empires to pursue their political and commercial battles. Through their control of TV and other media, they could create political crises in the country almost at will.

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