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Russia: Putin's Plan

Vladimir Pozner

Vladimir Pozner

Vladimir Pozner

Russia’s most influential TV political talk-show host, Vladimir Pozner, talks with FRONTLINE/World’s Victoria Gamburg about President Putin’s tight control of the media and why the country’s political opposition has failed to make an impact. He also responds to the general criticism in the West that Russia is moving away from democracy, not toward it. “You can’t be impatient with a country that is only 15 years old,” he says. “It’s not fair to the country, and it’s not fair to the people.”

The interview took place on November 13, 2007, in Moscow. It has been edited for clarity.

Victoria Gamburg: You’ve been a journalist for a long time. Can you compare journalism in the Soviet Union with journalism in Russia today?

Vladimir Pozner: Strictly speaking, in the Soviet Union there was no journalism. The role of journalism in the Soviet Union was to explain and support the ideology of the party, and that was quite openly said. And that’s not journalism. What we have today in Russia is journalism. You can qualify different parts of it, but it’s journalism as understood just about anywhere in the world -- certainly in America and Western Europe.

Is there censorship?

Today in Russia there is no official censorship, and, generally speaking, I would say that there is freedom of the press, but with limitations. The print medium is absolutely open. You can find far left, far right and everything in between -- criticism of Putin, whatever.  Radio, the same thing; local television to a lesser degree because very often the governor of an area or the mayor of a city can put pressure on a local television station. and sometimes the local stations are owned directly or indirectly by the local government. But when you look at what you would call a network in the United States -- here, that is Channel 1, Channel 2 and Channel 4 -- they are all directly or indirectly controlled by the government. This is specifically related to news and information programs. There are things like telephone calls to the general manager of a network saying, “You know, we don’t want this, or we do want that.” In my opinion, it is a very cynical approach to how to use the media. Network television is seen as an instrument that the government uses to impact public opinion.

But the Kremlin wants Russia to be perceived as a democracy.

Definitely. Putin would tell you that, “Yes, we’re a democracy. Don’t tell me that in your country you have absolute freedom of the press.” And he’d be right to ask that question. I worked in America for six years on television, and I know how you kill a show if you don’t like it. My good friend Phil Donahue was taken off the air because he was against the war in Iraq at a time when you weren’t supposed to be against it. You can always make an argument that we’re no different from you. But, in fact, the absence of any private network, the absence of public television, specifically, means that the vast majority of [Russian] people cannot get a different view, a different opinion, a different kind of news. That certainly is not what I would call a democratic system.

Does this trouble you?

Yes, it does, and I’ve been very outspoken about it. The show that I do, which I think is the only public affairs show that is still live and not taped, is an exception in the sense that I say pretty much what I want. It’s a kind of “Meet the Press” show, where I invite guests, and we discuss what we consider to be the most important event of the week. My role is to ask questions that the man on the street would like to ask but can’t. I do an Andy Rooney thing, where I say what I want to say. I’ve been able to do this. But I can’t promise you that I’ll be able to do it tomorrow.

In my interview with Mr. [Grigory] Yavlinsky [economic reformer and leader of the Yabloko Party], he complained bitterly about the lack of free speech in Russia. He said that it’s the No. 1 problem in Russia. Do you agree?

Let me answer it this way. I’m a person who follows public opinion polls very closely, and some of these polls ask people what they think are the most important problems and the main priorities. This could be 20 or 25 issues. What you always find, without exception, is that freedom of speech is down at the bottom of the list. I would say the overwhelming majority [of people] really don’t care about it. This probably sounds very strange to American ears, but Russia -- be it tzarist Russia or Soviet Russia -- never knew freedom of speech, never enjoyed it. It’s hard to care about something you’ve never had.

For Yavlinsky, it is an issue of principle. It’s very important that freedom of speech exist in Russia. In that sense, I would certainly agree with Yavlinsky. But it’s not something people hunger for, and that should be understood. 

Yavlinsky said that the main reason he believes his popularity has declined is because freedom of speech is limited in this country, and he can’t talk to the Russian population about the issues that are important.

He has a point, but I think he’s also being somewhat disingenuous. He began to lose his popularity during the Yeltsin years, when there was complete access to television. At that time his party, along with SPS [the Union of Rightist Forces, Russia's liberal opposition party], began to go down. It wasn’t because they didn’t have access; it was more [a case of] not being able to connect with the average guy out there. I agree with him that if he had more access to a network -- a medium that covers the entire country -- there probably would be more people supporting him, but not enough to make a difference. That’s the sad part of it, because his is an easy explanation: “I’m not to blame. It’s not my fault. It’s their fault [for not allowing us access to network media]." It’s an easy way to explain your lack of popularity.

And that’s [Garry] Kasparov’s main issue, too.

Kasparov has more of a reason to make that beef because he has even less access than Yavlinsky. But this idea that if they got out there and could address millions and millions of people on television, they would suddenly get this mass support … either they’re being disingenuous or they’re profoundly mistaken.

Why have press freedoms been so sharply curtailed during Putin’s presidency?

Again, I want to make it very clear we’re talking about network television, not the …

But that’s where most Russians get their news.

Exactly. But it’s important to keep that in mind because in the Soviet Union there was no freedom of the press.

So now you tune into Echo Moscow, which is accessible all over the country, and you get the most critical, I would say very negative, information. You have a choice. You want to listen to pro-government? Fine. You want to listen to anti-[government]? There it is. 

But no mass media outlet is more important than television.

With network television, that’s where I say, “Yes, it’s been curtailed.” Now, why is an interesting question. Back in 1996 there were presidential elections. It was Boris Yeltsin’s second term, and just prior to that his popularity rating was around 5 percent, and Mr. [Gennady] Zyuganov, the head of the Communist Party, enjoyed a rating of about 30 percent. It was very clear who would be the next president. The Communists were going to come back. Then, in Davos, Switzerland, a group of what were then correctly called "oligarchs" got together (they are no longer correctly called oligarchs because they no longer have political power; they only have money, so you could call them "tycoons"). They controlled television, and they said, “We will not allow the Communists to come back. What we’re going to do is invest huge sums of money in Yeltsin’s electoral campaign, have him on television all the time, say positive things about Yeltsin, and we’re not going to give the time of day to Zyuganov.” 

As a result, Yeltsin’s popularity climbed and climbed, and he won the elections. The people who watched that, including Mr. Putin, said, “So that’s what you can do with television!” It became very clear that whoever controls television controls public opinion. And Mr. Putin, with his views of how Russia had to evolve and where it had to go to get there, included control of network television. That’s precisely what happened then, and [it is] what’s happening today with the elections to the Duma -- where it becomes a foregone conclusion that the United Russia Party is going to win. 

The Putin administration is doing everything it possibly can to make sure that the population doesn’t vote for anyone but Putin’s appointed successor.

Yes, it is. And I think there’s a certain degree of paranoia that is rooted in what happened in Ukraine, the so-called Orange Revolution. It was totally unexpected in Russia; the powers that be suddenly saw that there could be a real opposition and that the opposition could come to power. What they don’t seem to understand is that there is no real opposition in Russia. There is not one person who embodies the views and represents the things that are attractive to the majority of the people.

But there is no such person in any country, not even in the United States.

First of all, there is no opposition in the United States; … pardon me for saying that. There’s a Republican Party and a Democratic Party, which to me is Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum -- pretty much the same thing. There’s opposition in Europe. There you have real opposition. Opposition arises when there is unhappiness with the leadership of a country.

Today, there is a golden boy in Russia, and that golden boy is Putin. And as long as he’s golden, the opposition will be there; it’ll make noise, but it’s not going to be able to get a lot of votes. I would open up television to them absolutely. I think it would be a wonderful thing. Let them talk. Let people hear them. 

But what are they so afraid of? Kasparov’s polling numbers are what, 2 percent, 3 percent?

Oh, no, not even that. I think his polling numbers are probably lower than 1 percent. But even if it’s 3 percent, they have nothing to be afraid of. They could play a much more -- how should I put this? -- a much more classy game. Say, “Yeah. Let them talk,” and then nobody would be able to say anything. They’d still have a landslide victory, but nobody could say, “Well, it’s because you didn’t allow the opposition to. ... [And they could say,] “Sure we did!”

Kasparov says it's because the leadership is afraid to hear the truth.

If you talk to your average Russian, there’s a lot of criticism voiced. What truth is [Kasparov] talking about? And if you have anything to say that’s really serious, you have to be able to prove it. When you say, for instance, that so-and-so is corrupt, you have to be able to prove that; otherwise, it makes no sense. I understand Mr. Kasparov’s being extremely unhappy with the situation, but, again, people who are so involved tend to only see what they want to see. They don’t want to admit that perhaps they have shortcomings of their own, that they don’t know how to address issues and to speak on terms that are understandable to your average guy. Which Putin knows how to do, by the way. He’s very good at that.

One thing that I find interesting is that Echo [of Moscow] is owned by Gazprom [the largest Russian gas company], but you hear very sharp criticism of Putin. How does it continue to operate independently?

That’s a question that a lot of people should be asking. But I think the answer is very evident. Gazprom is controlled by the government. Gazprom owns the majority stake in Echo of Moscow, so if Echo of Moscow can do what it does -- which is not only sharp criticism; sometimes it’s violent and insulting -- it means the government is OK with it.  The government is OK with it because it sees Echo of Moscow, first of all, as having no electoral influence; a couple of million people listen to it. And secondly, it sees it as a way to let off steam. It’s a window to point to and say, “What do you mean we have no democracy? Listen to this radio station.” So I think it’s calculated. 

Why are we seeing billboards in Moscow promoting Putin when he’s not running in the presidential election?

The billboards are actually promoting United Russia. As you know, he has agreed to be their representative, but he’s not a member of the party. So far, in the short history of a president of modern Russia -- which is just Yeltsin and Putin -- neither Yeltsin nor Putin was a member of any party. They were above representing everyone, as it were. But the fact that Putin now represents United Russia strengthens that party significantly and may lead to its winning an overwhelming number of seats in the Duma. Some of the representatives of United Russia have said publicly, “This is not an election; this is a referendum on Putin’s policies.” So if you vote for United Russia, you’re saying, “We support Putin’s policies.”

Under Putin, do you think Russia is moving in the right direction?

I would hesitate to give you a positive answer. Economically, it seems to be doing great. Certainly a middle class is developing pretty rapidly, but the present leadership is playing cards that are going to have negative influences on the direction Russia takes. The card is the Russian Orthodox Church, which is a very self-centered, xenophobic, anti-Western organization, nationalistic, chauvinistic. Even though Putin has come out against it, nonetheless that card is played consistently, depicting Russians as the chosen people, that kind of thing. It’s not helpful. So when we speak of the political path -- the fact that once upon a time in Russia you elected the governor, now he’s appointed, those kinds of things -- the curtailing of the initial democracy that appeared during the Yeltsin period is not a good thing.

So is the West right to worry?

I don’t know what the West really worries about. Is it worried simply by the fact that Russia is back? That it’s becoming a power again? That it’s an energy superpower? That it can and will influence international events? I am not cynical, but I tend to have serious doubts that, deep down inside, they care about democracy in Russia; [they care] only in that they think a democratic country is easier to deal with than one that is not democratic.

Anything Russia does today that seems to be negative immediately is seen in the light of the Soviet Union. I’ve often said, “Look, here’s China, a Communist country, one-party system, no freedom of speech at all, no freedom of the press at all, no freedom of religion at all." The West has no problems with that. Now, here’s Russia: compared to China, a paragon of democracy. No Chinese would speak to you the way I’m speaking now in China, believe me.

Would Russians have supported Putin if he had wanted to run for a third presidential term?

He could have easily. He had a sufficient majority in the parliament to change the constitution and run for a third term, a fourth term, a whatever term. The fact that he has consistently refused to do this, time and time again, is an interesting and important development because it means that he is setting a tradition. It’s going to be difficult for the next president to change the constitution for himself precisely because Putin refused to do it. The constitution here does not bar him from running for a third term after four years of absence, and that’s fine. In my opinion, isn’t it democratic to allow a nation to elect a person they want to see president? If, after March 2008, they still want Putin, they should be able to elect Putin. 

What’ll happen in those four years? It’s hard to say. But Putin is definitely a patriot of Russia. He wants to see Russia a strong, healthy country where people lead good lives, where people are happy, where Russia occupies a prominent position on the world stage. He’s not a chauvinist at all. He’s not a nationalist, in the bad sense of the word. He loves his country. That’s obvious to me. I’ve met the man several times. I’ve had a one-on-one [hour-long] discussion with him. He wants Russia to be part of the world community. He doesn’t want Russia behind a separate iron curtain, cut off from the rest of the world.

What role will Putin play after stepping down as president?

He won’t go away. The question is "Where will he go?" Now, I don’t have a crystal ball, but if he were to become the actual leader of United Russia, and in that sense head the Duma, it gives him tremendous power. It also switches power a little bit away from the president to the Duma. And although this is not a parliamentary republic, nonetheless it would be a very interesting change to see the center of power move from the presidency to the Duma because Putin leads United Russia. It might be a very positive thing to make the president less powerful than he actually is today. So that’s where he might be, depending on how the country evolves. He might run for president again. He might not.

We have no idea. You know, this is a very young democracy, if you want to call it a democracy. It has no traditions yet. It’s in the process of being formed. But, you can’t be that impatient with a country that is basically 15 years old. It’s not fair to the country, and it’s not fair to the people.

So, despite his shortcomings, you think Putin is good for Russia?

I would think so, yes. I’m not a great Putin fan, OK. I’m not a hoorah-hoorah Putin guy. But when I compare him to the other politicians that I’ve met, and I’ve met a bunch, he stands out. There’s no doubt about it. He does stand out. Are there other people around? Definitely. Will they appear? No doubt about it. But today, as far as I’m concerned, he’s the best we have, for better or worse.