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The Kremlin vs. NTV

April 16, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TRANSCRIPT

TERENCE SMITH: Joining us to further discuss Russia and the fate of NTV are Michael McFaul, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of a new book, Russia’s Unfinished Revolution. And Ellen Mickiewicz, a professor at Duke University and the author of Changing Channels: Television and the Struggle for Power in Russia. Welcome to you both.

Michael McFaul, put this in perspective for us — in terms of its meaning for free expression in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

MICHAEL McFAUL: Well, I think looking back on the last ten, even fifteen years, I would go back to the Gorbachev era, this has to be one of the greatest setbacks for democracy in Russia that I’ve witnessed. The book you just described Russian’s Unfinished Revolution is about the attempt to build democracy in Russia and the institutions of democracy. And when I ended the book a year ago I said the one big achievement was a free and independent press. That now seems to have ended as well.

TERENCE SMITH: Is it your impression that it will necessarily be an arm now of the government, NTV?

MICHAEL McFAUL: I don’t think there’s any question about it. Listening to Mr. Jordan speak there, my question to him was, would be, if you weren’t going to change editorial policy, then why did it change in just the last 48 hours? I just watched NTV’s news program before coming to your program and it has a very different flavor, a very different tone. They’re covering very different kinds of news today. So I don’t think there’s any question about it. This is about politics, not about economics.

TERENCE SMITH: Different in terms of hewing to what you might describe as a party line?

MICHAEL McFAUL: Well, without question in Russia today, the number-one news story in Russia was the NTV takeover or the NTV transfer of ownership, whatever you want to call it. It was not the top of the news today on NTV.

TERENCE SMITH: How direct a role does this, Michael McFaul, does this suggest Vladimir Putin has played in a development like this?

MICHAEL McFAUL: Well, a year ago I would have given them the benefit of the doubt. In fact I wrote a piece called “Indifferent to Democracy” about Mr. Putin’s attitudes towards democracy. But this episode and the way it played out, there’s no doubt about it, that he was about it, he was involved behind it from day one. When it comes right down to it, he doesn’t like criticism and NTV criticized him and so he muffled that criticism today.

TERENCE SMITH: Ellen Mickiewicz, we’ve been having difficulty with the audio. Can you hear me?

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: Yes, that’s fine.

TODD ZYWICKI: You too watched NTV I believe earlier today.

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: Two editions.

TERENCE SMITH: And did you notice a difference as well?

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: Oh, it’s night and day.

TERENCE SMITH: Really?

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: Yeah. It’s not as professional. It’s boring. It’s very, very tame. And most importantly when they did cover NTV at all, it had nothing from the other side; that is, the NTV side. It was merely a voiceover and pictures.

TERENCE SMITH: Ellen Mickiewicz, we know that Ted Turner and George Soros, two American investors, expressed an interest earlier in investing in NTV or in television in Russia. Does that seem practical or sensible to you at this point?

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: I think the problem here is, what is there of value? What’s left? And where is it? And also, how likely is it that Gazprom will sell some shares, which the Turner-Soros consortium would require and at what price? The more this goes on, the more Gazprom takes over and essentially ruins the network, the less worth it has.

TERENCE SMITH: Of course, Ellen Mickiewicz, the requirement of Ted Turner and George Soros was a guarantee of independence. Does that seem realistic?

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: I don’t think that any business arrangement can guarantee independence. I don’t think that’s really an issue here for investment. I think that certainly they wanted to feel comfortable that their overall values were shared, that there would be transparency, it would be run like a normal business. And they are certainly not at that point now.

TERENCE SMITH: Michael McFaul, what are the implications for the United States in this? I mean, what could or should the Bush administration do about it?

MICHAEL McFAUL: Well, speaking today it’s too late to try to get guarantee from Mr. Putin about allowing the western investors to come in. I don’t think there’s any chance that they’re going to come in now. I do think we need to speak out strongly about this issue because we have an interest in democracy in Russia. A democratic Russia will be more friendly and more sympathetic to our interests around the world than a non-democratic Russia. And immediately, most immediately, we can take action. We can begin to increase our funding programs for non-governmental, independent media in Russia today. We have some very effective programs, especially in the regions of Russia that already exist. My suggestion would be to double or triple those budgets right away send a signal that we take this very seriously.

TERENCE SMITH: Ellen Mickiewicz, what does it say to you that this action was taken after President Putin heard from both the German chancellor and the U.S. Secretary of State expressing their concern about NTV?

TERENCE SMITH: Michael McFaul, what are the implications for the United States in this? I mean, what could or should the Bush administration do about it?

MICHAEL McFAUL: Well, speaking today it’s too late to try to get guarantee from Mr. Putin about allowing the western investors to come in. I don’t think there’s any chance that they’re going to come in now. I do think we need to speak out strongly about this issue because we have an interest in democracy in Russia. A democratic Russia will be more friendly and more sympathetic to our interests around the world than a non-democratic Russia. And immediately, most immediately, we can take action. We can begin to increase our funding programs for non-governmental, independent media in Russia today. We have some very effective programs, especially in the regions of Russia that already exist. My suggestion would be to double or triple those budgets right away send a signal that we take this very seriously.

TERENCE SMITH: Ellen Mickiewicz, what does it say to you that this action was taken after President Putin heard from both the German chancellor and the US Secretary of State expressing their concern about NTV?

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: I think there is a very limited role that the U.S. can or should or any other country for that matter can or should play internally in the communications systems of Russia. I think it is extremely central to national identity, and I don’t think it will work. Putin was certainly sending that message. And, by the way, I think on the horizon there’s a still more worrisome issue, which again makes us doubt that this thing with NTV is purely economic, and that is that the tax police today are reported to… and the tax police were those people with masks we saw in the film… that they’re after that cable THT affiliate of NTV.

Let me just say that I have a rather different notion, I think, of what the United States should be doing. I think Michael’s point is well taken — within limits. But I think we should recognize that as this dries up, this alternative source of information through NTV, that the Russian people will have fewer sources of information, simply, to compare and contrast as they’re very good at doing. And therefore, there may have to be other ways of making American policy or American interests known, much wider perhaps movement of citizens, more and wider exchanges, so that there are other ways that people can learn.

TERENCE SMITH: Michael McFaul, very briefly, what are the chances that the government in Russia will allow another independent voice to arise on television?

MICHAEL McFAUL: I’m not very optimistic — already today, as Ellen just said, they are going after this very small, tiny cable station going through their books, looking for indictments. They’re taking it very seriously. They tried the soft way. They thought they could cover up and do this in a very legal way. Now it’s going to an autocratic way in shutting down the media.

TERENCE SMITH: So the trend signs are all in one direction. Thank you both very much.