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The following was written by an SRAS student under the tutelage of Yuri Dubinin, one the brightest scholars at MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations), which, in turn is recognized as Russia's premier school for those studying international relations and other issues.

The following paper is presented for educational purposes only. It may be quoted or copied for educational purposes, so long as its author and SRAS are given credit as its source. Duplication for commercial purposes is strictly forbidden.


Russian Media and Democracy under Putin

"If Russia is a democracy"is a controversial, difficult question to answer. Russia today has democratic institutions, but it may be debated to what extent they are allowed to function democratically. One of these institutions is the mass media, which plays a vital role in a democratic society.

In a speech in the summer of 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that "Without truly free media Russian democracy will not survive, and we will not succeed in building a civil society."[1] From this statement, one assumes that Putin aimed to form a democratic society in Russia and, in order to do that the mass media would have to be free and independent. Despite this goal, Putin has been severely criticized for his "interventionist approach toward Russia's mass media."[2] In this essay I will look at the mass media in Russia, to what extent Russia can be called democratic from the perspective of mass media, and how Putin's media handling has been criticized.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, it marked the end of an era. The Cold War and the ideological struggle between East and West came to a definite end and the west was very optimistic about the former Soviet Union's adoption of democracy. Finally, the former ideological enemies would be able to peacefully live side by side. However, the years following the fall of the Soviet Union have been, to say the least, chaotic and turbulent for the Russian Federation. The transition to democracy has proven to be more complex than first presumed. But although Russia today is a transition democracy, it is difficult to argue that it fulfills all the criteria for democracy.

A democracy is defined as being "a form of government under which the power to alter the laws and structures of government lies with the voting citizenry (referred to as "the people", because in modern times it usually consists of all people over 18 years of age), and all decisions are made either by the people themselves or by representatives who act through the consent of the people, as enforced by elections and the rule of law."[3] The following institutions characterize a modern democracy:

  • A constitution which limits the powers and controls the formal operation of government, whether written, unwritten or a combination of the two.
  • Election of public officials, conducted in a free and just manner
  • The right to vote and to stand for election
  • Freedom of expression (speech, assembly, etc.)
  • Freedom of the press and access to alternative information sources
  • Freedom of association
  • Equality before the law and due process under the rule of law
  • Educated citizens informed of their rights and civic responsibilities.[4]

Thus, it is evident that in order to determine to what extent Russia is a democracy, one must closely look at all the above-mentioned institutions. In this essay, however, I have chosen to focus on mass media in the Russian Federation, and what role media plays in Russia today, as mass media is a vital aspect of democracy. I do not wish to ignore the many other aspects of democracy that should be analyzed in order to define whether Russia is a democracy or not. There are many incidents during Putin's presidency that have sparked fierce debate around democracy such as the centralization of power, or the recent election procedures. But from the perspective of media, is Russia a democracy or not? Does Russia today have a free press, or is its media under pressure to promote the government?

Abraham Lincoln said: "What is more important: Free press or free elections? Free press. Without it free elections are not possible."[5] As mentioned previously, Putin made a similar statement at the beginning of his first term as President, when stating that "Without truly free media Russian democracy will not survive, and we will not succeed in a building a civil society."[6] Thus, just as Lincoln believed that a free press is an essential part of a democratic society, Putin argued that free press is crucial for Russia to be democratic. Why then, has Putin been criticized for not respecting anything that resembles "a Western understanding of free expression in his country?"[7]

One problem when analyzing the freedom of the press is finding objective, reliable sources. One western organization trying to analyze the Russian media is Freedom House. Its western ideological outlook should be kept in mind when examining its observations. In 2003, media in Russia was for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, categorized as 'not free' as opposed to previously 'partly free' by Freedom House.[8] Judging from their survey it leads one to ask how media in Russia has changed in recent years. The control of mass media in Russia is one of the most hotly disputed topics in the discussion of Russia as a democracy. It is argued that Putin's way of ruling Russia shows an "apparent lack of understanding of the values of media freedom."[9] By examining the current media situation in Russia, how it has changed during Vladimir Putin's presidency, and how the change has been criticized, I will attempt to examine to what extent this argument can be supported.

Firstly, in a democratic society, freedom of the press guarantees the "free public speech often through a state constitution for its citizens, and associations of individuals extended to members of news gathering organizations, and their published reporting."[10] Although media companies within the Russian Federation claim to be independent it is often added that they 'respect the elected politicians'. If 'respecting the elected politicians' means that they are forced to acclaim the authorities or if they personally are in favor of them is up to one's own interpretation.

Before I go on to analyze the role of mass media in Russian society today, I will first indicate the route it has taken since 'glasnost' in the late 1980's, when Gorbachev favored freedom of speech prior to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This was followed by privatization during Yeltsin's era when media companies quickly came under the power of oligarchs, who "proceeded to use the media as a weapon in their struggle against each other and to influence the policies of the state."[11] Russia adopted its law on media, based on European media laws, but while "this law provided the basis for the free and private press, it did not reflect the developing market structure in Russia."[12] After Putin came to power, the role of the media, which had been "relatively free during Yeltsin,"[13] changed. Within months of his presidency, Putin sought to ensure that the oligarchs would no longer be able to "exercise class power over the state."[14] Without delay, Putin"launched a campaign against some of the beneficiaries of the market free-for-all of the Yeltsin years."[15] This led to the NTV scandal, one of the most hotly discussed topics during Putin's presidency.

The head of NTV, Vladimir Gusinsky, had been severely critical of Putin. Shortly after Putin became the President of the Russian Federation, Gusinsky was arrested allegedly for criminal activities. However, although his arrest was said to be due to illegal business, it appeared to many be an excuse to get rid of anyone opposing the authorities. Gusinksy's arrest caused an outrage among other oligarchs who argued that "democracy was in danger."[16] Putin, however, insisted that his campaign against "the illegal activities of various oligarchs and their apparently illegal influence is completely acceptable and essential for the democratic development of Russia."[17] According to Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of Politika, those targeted in Putin's campaign were selected "on the basis of two criteria - their loyalty or disloyalty to the president and their political weight."[18] While some argue that the condemnation of Mr. Gusinksy was "an open attack on press freedom,"[19] others argue it was necessary in order for Russia to reach democracy.

Before Putin's campaign against the oligarchs, only three television networks had the "national reach to really count in politics – ORT, RTR and NTV."[20] Putin deliberately and successfully sought to take control of these television networks. By running "billionaire Boris Berezovsky out of the country with politically motivated criminal prosecutions,"[21] Putin got his hands on ORT. The NTV scandal followed, which resulted in Putin effectively acquiring control of NTV. As RTR was already fully state controlled, Putin easily gained influence over the third important channel as well. When the Kremlin had taken control of all nation-wide television networks, the independent media on the regional level eroded as well.[22] On the regional level, support of Putin is more or less definite. Some criticism of Putin still occurs within Russian media, but not those with mass audiences. According to Masha Lipman, from the Moscow Carnegie Center, "the crackdown and the increasingly authoritarian rhetoric have created a strong urge among liberals to express their frustration and fury."[23] But these outlets make essentially "no difference in policy formulation"[24] as "the Kremlin dominates the political scene, and official media control the airwaves."[25]

Thus, soon after assuming office in 2000, Putin managed to strip those oligarchs who expressed criticism of his administration of their political influence. Consequently, "many of them left Russia, others are imprisoned, and those remaining have accepted their diminished role."[26] Is it a coincidence that those who criticized Putin, such as Guzinsky and Berezovsky, have been driven out of the country while other oligarchs who stick to strictly economically related activities have gone free? Russian oligarchs have been criticized for corruption, tax fraud and other economic criminal behavior, but it appears that the authorities only focused on those who have taken the largest part in the public criticism of the President. Many other economic criminals have acquired enormous wealth due to their dishonest economic activities, but as long as they do not engage in any political opposition against the President, they are not harassed.

According to duma deputy Ryzhkov, Putin's aim is to control Russia and the Russians by means "entirely foreign to any state that claims to adhere to democratic principles."[27] He argues that Putin has used his control of the most influential mass media as "instrument of propaganda"[28] favorable to his administration. This, Ryzhkov argues, is obvious when looking at Putin's handling of the numerous catastrophes that have occurred in Russia during his presidency.

The Kursk tragedy of 2000 and the hostage crisis at the Dubrovka Theater in 2002 are two major incidents which led to wide criticism of Putin. It was questioned to what extent the media was showing the whole picture. According to Freedom House, "the government used draft changes to the media law to censor and shape coverage"[29] of the hostage crisis at the Dubrovka theater and allowed "NTV television to broadcast only some of the statements made by the Chechen rebel leader inside the theater."[30] As a result of the theatre-trauma, Russian media came under wide examination by the West as it became apparent that the whole picture was not shown.

Likewise, Putin seems to be intent on controlling the media reporting from Chechnya. During Yeltsin's era, the first Chechnyan war was shown on TV. With many journalists present in Chechnya it was possible for the Russian population to follow the brutal war live. It resulted in a reaction of disgust, and eventually the war was stopped. Since Putin came to power, however, the coverage of the second Chechnyan war has taken a new route, with a limited coverage of the conflict strictly controlled by the Russian military: pictures are censored, conversations with the civil inhabitants are under strict control etc. The Russian media was further criticized following the recent hostage crisis in Beslan. It appears as though the media gave out false information of the number of hostages, the number of victims, the number of terrorists etc. In a survey by Reporters Without Borders, Russia's freedom of press ranks 140th out of 169 countries. The "biased coverage of the tragic hostage crisis in Beslan"[31] is referred to as a "flagrant illustration of the total control exercised by the Kremlin over the national TV stations."[32] Just like the coverage is questionable, many wonder if reports from Beslan were accurate, especially as no state controlled televisions networks have shown any independent analysts or hostage accounts.[33] A similar report published in 2003, ranked Russia 148th, where the Reporters Without Borders argue that "Russia's poor ranking is justified by the censorship of anything to do with the war in Chechnya."[34]

Furthermore, the Russian media caused a stir during the 2003 parliamentary and the 2004 presidential elections where media played a very different role compared to the previous elections held four years earlier. In the recent election, where Putin was re-elected with a large majority, all the nationwide channels were under his control. Again, is it a coincidence that this time around Putin won with such a large majority when the population was fed with indirect pro-Putin propaganda?

By analyzing only a fraction of a democratic society, the mass media in this case, one fails to take other aspects into consideration that are essential to democracy. An example of this is free elections that, as Lincoln suggested, are not possible without free press. Media accounts must be objective and independent in order to be efficient within a democracy. For free and open elections to function democratically, it requires the citizens to be able to form their own opinion. If all media is biased, this will not work and one could argue that the rights of the citizens have been abused as the authorities have not fulfilled their responsibility. However, this is a conclusion easily jumped to when analyzing Russian mass media. It must be kept in mind that although the major TV channels are controlled by the Kremlin, independent media still exists in Russia. To be fair, it should be added that in democratic societies in the West, many media outlets are openly influenced by various political parties and private ownership of media is highly concentrated in many Western countries.

Although the democratic institutions are present in Russia today, they will not benefit society as a whole if they are not handled democratically. From looking at the example of the Kremlin's control of the leading TV channels, one asks if Putin would enjoy the popularity he does today without the indirect pro-Putin propaganda the channels provide. It is obvious that the Kremlin's increasing control over media may seem more totalitarian than democratic, but one must also keep in mind that Russia cannot turn into a democracy overnight. If Putin is steering Russia in a direction that is only beneficial for a minority of the Russian population, is too early to answer. Although there are many reasons to distrust and criticize him, he has gotten the country 'back on its feet' after Yeltin's disorganized years as President. It has been argued that Putin's reforms are a step back towards the dictatorship of the Soviet Union for Russia. However, as Anatol Lieven from the Carnegie Center stated "The anarchy, misery, and decline of the 1990s were such that any Russian administration would have had to act to restore a measure of order and eliminate the oligarchical system created in those years; that far from pursuing some kind of uniquely wicked course, the kind of system Putin is creating has many analogies round the world, including many states which the West has supported; and that semi-authoritarian capitalist modernization is not an irrational strategy."[35] It is too early to say how Putin's route will turn out and how Russia's democracy will evolve.

Thus, to conclude, I would like to go back to Putin's statement "Without truly free media Russian democracy will not survive, and we will not succeed in a building a civil society."[36] I believe it is fair to say that from the media-related incidents discussed in this paper, it is clear that Russia is far from having truly free media. Although Russia may have the institutions that make up a democracy, it will not be a democracy until those institutions are allowed to function in a democratic matter. One cannot however, strictly follow Western criticism of Putin's presidency without taking into account the transition Russia is going through. Additionally, other features such as the centralization of power, are also viewed as problems of democracy. Without addressing democracy from all angles, it is not possible to come to a definite conclusion. There are flaws within the Russian democracy that are widely known, but the difficulty, not only with mass media, but other democratic institutions as well, are to prove those defending Russian democracy wrong. In the case of mass media, it is known that they are corrupt, manipulated, and can be closed down by the Kremlin, etc., but to find solid evidence of this is next to impossible.

According to the British scholar Richard Sakwa, Putin's "commitment to democratic values would only be proven by the flourishing media freedom, the rule of law and ultimately the greatest challenge, the democratic rotation of the highest political office in the land in free elections."[37] In the meantime, I believe there is no right or wrong way to define Russia: calling it a dictatorship is too harsh, whereas referring to it as democracy may be too optimistic. A 'democracy with flaws' would more accurately describe Russia in a diplomatic, fair manner.

Works Cited

[1] Putin, Vladimir in Sakwa, Richard's Putin: Russia's Choice. P. 104.

[2] Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 'Russia's Uncertain Pathway of Change', April, 2004.

[3] Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia, 'Democracy'. 2004.

[4] Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia, 'Democracy'. 2004.

[5] Bogomolov, Andrey. Novosti iz Rosii. P. 176.

[6] Putin, Vladimir in Sakwa, Richard's Putin Russia's Choice.

[7] Lavelle, Peter. 'The Realist Bibliophile: Getting to Know Vladimir Putin'. 2004.

[8] Freedom House, 'Country Report: Russia'. 2003.

[9] Sakwa, Richard. Putin Russia's Choice. p. 89.


[11] Sakwa, Richard. Putin Russia's Choice. P. 107.


[13] Ryzhkov, Vladimir. 'Russian Democracy in Eclipse: The Liberal Debacle' in the Journal of Democracy. P. 54.

[14] Sakwa, Richard. Putin Russia's Choice. P. 97.

[15] Sakwa, Richard. Putin Russia's Choice. P. 97.

[16] Sakwa, Richard. Putin Russia's Choice. P. 99

[17] Gentleman, Amelia. 'Putin picks off opponents who matter most wages partial war on corruption' for The Guardian.

[18] Gentleman, Amelia. 'Putin picks off opponents who matter most wages partial war on corruption' for The Guardian.

[19] Gentleman, Amelia. 'Putin picks off opponents who matter most wages partial war on corruption' for The Guardian.

[20] McFaul, Michael & Petrov, Nikolai. 'Russian Democracy in Eclipse: What the Elections tell Us' in the Journal of Democracy. P. 23.

[21] McFaul, Michael & Petrov, Nikolai. 'Russian Democracy in Eclipse: What the Elections tell Us' in the Journal of Democracy. P. 24

[22] McFaul, Michael & Petrov, Nikolai. 'Russian Democracy in Eclipse: What the Elections tell Us' in the Journal of Democracy. P. 24

[23] Lipman, Masha. 'Fear and Fury in Russia' for the Washington Post.

[24] Lipman, Masha. 'Fear and Fury in Russia' for the Washington Post.

[25] Lipman, Masha. 'Fear and Fury in Russia' for the Washington Post.

[26] Ryzhkov, Vladimir. 'Russian Democracy in Eclipse: The Liberal Debacle' in the Journal of Democracy. P. 54.

[27] Ryzhkov, Vladimir. 'Russian Democracy in Eclipse: The Liberal Debacle' in the Journal of Democracy. P. 54.

[28] Ryzhkov, Vladimir. 'Russian Democracy in Eclipse: The Liberal Debacle' in the Journal of Democracy. P. 53

[29] Freedom House, 'Country Report: Russia'. 2003.

[30] Freedom House, 'Country Report: Russia'. 2003.

[31] Reporters Without Borders, 'East Asia and Middle East have worst press freedom records'. 2004.

[32] Reporters Without Borders, 'East Asia and Middle East have worst press freedom records'. 2004.

[33] Lavelle, Peter. 'The Realist Bibliophile: Getting to Know Vladimir Putin'. 2004.

[34] Reporters Without Borders, 'Cuba second from last, just ahead of North Korea'. 2003.

[35] Lavelle, Peter. 'Q&A: Lieven - A different view of Putin'.

[36] Putin, Vladimir in Sakwa, Richard's Putin Russia's Choice. P. 104.

[37] Sakwa, Richard. Putin Russia's Choice. P, 75.

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