Russia: Putin's Plan

In the line of Fire

Filmmaker Victoria Gamburg was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and immigrated to the United States with her theater director parents at the age of four. She has made a number of films from her cross-cultural experience that focus on Russia's tumultuous transition from communism. She divides her time between California, New York and Moscow.

Victoria Gamburg

Reporter, Victoria Gamburg

Reporter Victoria Gamburg spent months in Russia in the run-up to the country’s March 2 elections. She followed the political opposition and the limited independent media allowed to operate in Russia under tight censorship by the Kremlin. Here she talks with FRONTLINE/World’s Senior Interactive Producer Jackie Bennion about why Garry Kasparov and other opposition figures have failed to galvanize any serious challenge to the presidency, and why Putin is so popular.

Jackie Bennion: You've spent a lot of time in Russia over the past few months reporting this story. How has the momentum for the opposition changed over those months?

Victoria Gamburg: Back in the summer of 2007, there was still hope that some members of the democratic opposition could get on the presidential ballot. But by the end of the race, they either pulled out in protest over election fraud, as in the case of Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, or had their candidacies blocked by the Kremlin. It’s a disheartening situation for them.

How much has the opposition and its message been affected by the Kremlin's tight control over the media?

Media censorship in Russia is felt most profoundly on television. It’s said that the Kremlin still leaves the printed press alone, though that’s not always true. There have been many instances of Kremlin pressure and intimidation. But few Russians read independent newspapers. Of course, there’s the Internet, which the Kremlin can’t control and where the opposition can say anything it wants.

But no media outlet has more influence over public opinion than television, and that goes for all countries, not just Russia. Most Russians get their news from the country’s federal television stations, whose newscasts are pro-Kremlin. Station managers can’t afford to rile the Kremlin, so if the Kremlin doesn’t want a politician on the air, then that person doesn’t get on.

Why do you think the opposition has not been able to pull together collectively to mount a stronger challenge to Putin's successor Dmitri Medvedev?

Other Russia, Garry Kasparov’s political coalition, is a collection of political groups that make very strange bedfellows. Kasparov, a self-styled democrat, has somehow managed to unite groups from the far right and far left. But many in the established democratic opposition, most notably, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, refuse to unite with Kasparov because of the dubious political groups that Kasparov has embraced in his fight against Putin.

What about the public’s level of interest or enthusiasm for these elections? What was your sense when you were there?

It’s hard to get excited about an election when you already know the outcome. I think that Russians are more interested to know what Putin will do after leaving the presidency. That’s the real question in people’s minds.

Why is Putin so popular?

Few Russians I met were as enthusiastic about Putin as his popularity ratings of 70 to 80 percent would suggest. That said, many Russians still credit Putin with restoring stability to Russia. The 1990s were a terrible time for most Russians. The economy was in shambles, and crime was rampant. Yeltsin’s drinking and antics were embarrassing for people. Putin, in contrast, is a teetotaling judo master. Now that Russia’s economy is booming from record-high energy prices, Putin isn’t afraid to stand up to the West. Russians like the strength and control he projects.

Can you talk about the significance of Nashi, the mass youth movement supporting Putin? How did it get started?

Nashi’s origins are mysterious, but it’s believed that the Kremlin was afraid of another Orange-style revolution like in Ukraine, where thousands of people protested against rigged elections and demanded and got a revote. Nashi’s founder Vasily Yakemenko says that Nashi is a democratic anti-fascist movement that is devoted to helping the next generation by giving them educational opportunities and job skills. But for Nashi, a fascist seems to be anyone who doesn’t agree with Putin, including Kasparov and Yavlinsky. The group is also quite militant. It harasses the Kremlin’s political opponents and even pursued the British Ambassador in Moscow for months after he attended a conference of Kasparov’s political coalition.

What do you think Putin's influence will be post this election?

Medvedev announced in December that Putin will become his prime minister, but no one knows what influence Putin will really have. Under the Russian constitution, the president has more power than the prime minister and can fire the prime minister at will. Will the Russian constitution be rewritten to give the prime minister more power than the president?

According to the Russian constitution, the president can only serve two terms in a row, so there’s nothing stopping Putin from taking a four-year vacation and stepping back into the presidency in 2012 for another eight years.

But I’ve also heard a lot of speculation and rumors. One rumor is that Russia and Belarus might unite into a kind of “great Russia” with Putin as leader, giving him power over Medvedev. It’s hard to say how this will play out because the Kremlin is improvising. But the expectation is that Putin will find a way to retain the power he has now.

Kasparov said in an interview with you, "We're not fighting to win elections but to have elections." Given that polls are predicting that Medvedev will get between 70 and 80 percent of the vote, what would be a good outcome for the opposition?

From Kasparov’s point of view, I don’t think he succeeded in his fight to “have elections” this year. Given the fact that there’s no candidate representing the democratic opposition on the ballot, the outcome can’t be very good for the opposition.

In the past, you could choose the “none of the above” category on the ballot. But the Kremlin got rid of this option, so there’s no way for people to express their dissatisfaction with the candidates. There are now only four candidates to choose from: Putin’s handpicked successor Dmitri Medvedev, hard-line communist Gennady Zyuganov; ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhironovsky and the obscure Andrei Bogdanov, who used to work for one of the Kremlin parties.

You focus part of your story on the independent radio station Echo of Moscow, which is providing an alternative political viewpoint to the Russian public. But it seems to be a lonely voice. Where else is criticism of the Kremlin coming from within the country?

Radio Liberty, which is funded by U.S. taxpayers, still broadcasts in Russia. Radio Liberty was a tool of U.S. foreign policy during the cold war and was founded by Congress in its global fight against communism. I think it’s ironic that Russian communists have to go on Radio Liberty to get their views out. No one could have anticipated this 20 years ago.

Both Radio Liberty and Echo of Moscow have excellent websites where people can listen to news programs and archived interviews with opposition figures.

Although there’s less censorship in the printed press in Russia than on television, I know journalists often practice self-censorship because they fear retaliation. You may see articles that criticize government corruption, but you’ll rarely see articles that investigate the corruption. Journalists have lost their lives because of their investigative work. The order for the murder of journalists Paul Khlebnikov and Anna Politkovskaya may not have come from the Kremlin, but many in Russia feel the Kremlin has not done enough to bring their killers to justice.

What makes you optimistic about Russia's future?

I hope that Russia and the West will continue to see themselves as partners. But what I see in Russia today troubles me. The Kremlin is promoting nationalism and Russian chauvinism, which is potentially very dangerous. But unlike in the Soviet era, Russia is not closed off from the West. There is a free flow of ideas and information, and Russians can travel freely. But I’m worried that the percentage of Russians who are pro-Western and liberal leaning may be too insignificant to influence Russia’s political direction.