Thursday, April 26, 2007

europe.view column: how to fight back


Counter-attacking the Kremlin

Apr 26th 2007

Support free media in Russia while you still can

THIS week’s Russian Economic Forum in London was a fiasco. The Kremlin signalled its current displeasure with the British government by making all the top Russian participants pull out at short notice.

That is a satisfying come-uppance for the morally myopic businessmen who shun any mention of Russia’s political problems. But it also highlights the Kremlin’s ominous use of commercial clout to influence decisions abroad.

Should Britain allow Boris Berezovsky to keep up his ill-phrased assault on Vladimir Putin’s regime from his Mayfair eyrie—or should he be encouraged to move abroad? Is it really in the public interest for Britain to issue arrest warrants for a couple of well-connected Russians who seem possible culprits in the radioactive poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko?

The British business view on these issues is a sorry mixture of pleading and panic: just give the Kremlin what it wants, so that we can get back on the gravy train. It’s the same story all over Europe. During the cold war the capitalists and the freedom fighters were on the same side. Now that alliance is broken, and the cause is muddier.

It is easy to conclude gloomily that the Kremlin has all the cards: oil, gas, money, decisiveness. The West is distracted, easily intimidated, and even more easily bought.

But counter-attack is possible.

Type rest of the post here

New Times is pretty much the only truly independent weekly left in Russia. Its editorial staff includes two of the remaining leading lights of serious Russian journalism: Yevgenia Albats, the country’s best investigative writer; and Raf Shakirov, fired from the editorship of Izvestia, once a top Russian daily, for his coverage of the botched anti-terrorism operation in Beslan. Its website carries footage of the Kremlin’s bully boys beating up opposition demonstrators—pictures that Russian television will scarcely touch.

The magazine is not perfect. Some may find it too wordy, or self-important, or shrill. But at least it is independent: it has no “sponsors”, no “roof”. The publisher, Irena Lesnevskaya, was told by a top Kremlin official that hiring Ms Albats was a “mistake”. Almost any other magazine in Russia would have hurried to correct the “mistake”. Ms Lesnevskaya politely refused.

Sympathetic outsiders who read Russian might consider subscribing. Every little helps. But what New Times really needs is advertisers. And in Russia now, nobody wants to risk incurring the Kremlin’s displeasure. Advertising in New Times would be commercial suicide, Russia’s top business people explain, while insisting that privately they are devoted to the cause of press freedom.

The only people who can help are those who have nothing to lose. It is time for Polish sausagemakers, Georgian wine producers, and Estonian sprat-canners to step forward for their unlikely moment of glory. They have suffered Russia’s spiteful boycotts and bans for months. Diplomacy has got them nowhere. They are mostly now thriving in other markets. So why not hit back, by taking out advertisements in New Times. “Dear Russian customers! We are sorry we can’t sell you our products right now—but please rest assured, we will return to you as soon as better times allow.”

The cost would be tiny relative to the psychological impact. Perhaps the tourist authorities could join in, underlining the welcome that awaits Russian visitors—sometimes to their surprise—in Warsaw, Tallinn and Tbilisi. Even Mr Putin’s Russia won’t touch the freedom to travel, leaving little scope for Kremlin revenge.

Outsiders can’t stop the Kremlin closing the New Times if it wishes. But they can at least help make it a commercial success while it lasts.


Bryan said...

Perhaps the US could take out an advertisement for its missile defense shield? Surely the autocrats would embrace that with open arms (pun intended).

Aaron Linderman said...

Supporting the countries most heavily bearing the brunt of Russia's bullying is a great way to oppose the Kremlin. So buy Georgian wine!

Anonymous said...

Why doesn't Europe help us more?! Don't you see what is happening?

Yes, of course you do, but you have no spine. Grow one!

Anonymous said...

If you would like some back-ground information to what is currently happening in Estonia, please read the blog entry (in English) that Mart Laar has made.

Anonymous said...

Edward, I have an idea which is good. (No need to say more, I think.)

beatroot said...

Why doesn't Europe help us more?! Don't you see what is happening?

Look, cut out all the talk about ‘spineless’ Europeans. You are a sovereign country now. Stop acting like children waiting for the big grown up EU to come and sort out your problems.

Anonymous said...

Our problems are over! You have a chance to end many of yours and change the world for the better!