Russia in between security and democracy

Following 9/11, crucial social issues are often described as a choice between security and threat, rather than between freedom and oppression. This is the case also in Russia. There are, however, major differences: in Russia, different tactics are used to control independent media and dissidents, writes Russia specialist Johan Öberg. 

December 19 2013 Text: Johan Öberg Translation from Swedish: Christina Cullhed

A few decades ago the theorist of “risk society“ Ulrich Beck discussed the risk for a re-emergence of new totalitarian societies arguing that “if people are forced to choose between security and democracy they will choose security.” This, he meant, had been proven by the political developments in Europe in the inter-war period. Politics in democratic societies should therefore aim to hinder the emergence of this kind of choice. The global surveillance of citizens currently discussed—and the rather lame protests directed towards this monitoring—could be related to Beck’s dilemma. And immediately this question becomes situated at the intersection of our relationship to Russia and our image of Russia. A skilful attempt to connect the processes in Russia to the global conflict surrounding these issues was Russia’s offer of asylum to the CIA employee Edward Snowden. The subtext of this act is of course,that “we are all alike—in the final analysis you are no more friends of the freedom of expression than we are.”

The question then arises: How should we react to this kind of subtext? How different do we want to be—or can we claim to be—from the fear-driven and security-orientated Russian politics? The answer will depend on how we see our own situation at the moment and what we envisage concerning these matters for the future in Sweden and in the West at large. Because, no matter how different the situation in Sweden is compared to the one in Russia, we are still linked to one another. The NSA case is evidence of this.

Today’s media and publishing market in Russia is an enormous profiteering patchwork. As in the West the media produces its revelations, its scandals, and its romantic gossip surrounding people in power. There are popular magazines and a dynamic advertising industry that guarantee a circumscribed independence for the media. However, one aspect of sensationalistic journalism in Russia is highly specific: media are often controlled by economic interests that use the media to wipe out competition (for example, concerning the acquisition of property and profitable export licenses). In a similar way the large national TV channels are ideologically and economically owned by the government, which uses them to couch their particular interests as more general interests, and to forward well organised and in many ways destructive campaigns against individuals, states, and social movements.

Parallel to this, in the Moscow press, on web portals, on blogs, and in streamed media there is an intense and on-going critical public debate that resists any simple categorizations and that in many ways is free. Part of it is certainly “co-opted,” while another part is “tolerated.” Streamed media is constantly being monitored, and oppositional websites have also been closed down. The overall impression though is that in this rather small-scale sector there still exists a rationality of communication of sorts.

Thus, there is also a kind of normalcy in the Russian media situation. The surface looks fine. However, apart from what has already been mentioned there is a darker underside to the media situation in the country. There exist topological borders for this normalcy. When critical media grow and become influential, they will unfailingly be contained in one way or another. The methods for implementing this kind of reprisal or containment are many; they are well tested and highly individualized. Some topics, for example, are taboo. There is a list of taboo topics that is implemented variously depending on the size and audience of the media. These taboos may connect to corruption in the government, to Russia’s military industrial sector, and to the country’s foreign policy as regards the former Soviet republics where the Russian leadership wants to strengthen and consolidate its influence. It is therefore adequate to describe the situation concerning the freedom of speech in Russia in the terms of Ulrich Beck’s dilemma mentioned above. In the Russian context democracy and thereby the question of freedom of speech is closely connected to the interests of state security. The rationale behind this relative albeit permanent state of emergency is that the Russian leadership consistently and paradoxically, with the assistance of state-controlled media, construct Russian society as a weak and relatively vulnerable society—the victim of all kinds of outer threats—and that those who are demanding democracy and the right to free speech contribute to this instability and undermine state security by aligning themselves to these outside threats.

In the past year we have seen an example of this mechanism in the process whereby Russian organizations in the third sector that receive support from foreign funders, have been forced to register as “foreign agents.” Also, the contemporary controversy in connection with Ukraine’s opening up towards the EU has in Russia been dealt with according to this relatively simple yet in the context highly effective formula: USA’s and the other Western countries’ intelligence services are undermining Russia’s security by paying demonstrators and luring the people of Ukraine into befriending the West. Intermingled with this propaganda are images of threat that date from the Soviet period and more recent ways of reasoning, all mixed into a discourse that must be described as both successful and efficient, especially at a time when the Russian economy is stagnating, when the country’s monopoly on energy in a global perspective has been weakened, and when malcontent is on the brink of rising—not only in Moscow and Petersburg but in other parts of this enormous country as well.

Sharply formulated security interests also underlie the limitations that the laws are setting for the freedom of speech in the media. These limits are comprised of rules of secrecy, the above-mentioned taboos, and the rules stipulated for foreign economic assistance of media and publishing houses and from national financial interests (for example, the dethroned oligarch Aleksandr Lebedev’s support of the oppositional daily paper Novaja Gazeta, which falls into this pattern). The journalists who do manage to reach out with their democratic and/or pro-Western slant on political issues will in the official propaganda unfailingly be judged as security risks. Pussy Riot is no exception despite the fact that this project has claimed no affiliation either with liberalism, or capitalism, or even the West in general. Pussy Riot has become a threat by committing what may be deemed as sacrilege: by exposing and debasing the strategic alliance between the financial sector, the governmental powers, the security forces, and the church. In this way the security issue comes to function to divide Russian society into the silent majority and those who have an oppositional stance who, disregarding their political allegiances, will come to be labelled cosmopolitan security risks. The security issue also dictates the ways in which the state chooses to come to grips with opponents who are regarded as threats. The state-controlled media disarm them by critiquing them harshly and debasing them (for example in the TV documentary “The Anatomy of Protest” on NTV in the winter 2012-13). Such relative ‘dehumanization’ of the opponents in turn leads to the populist hatred directed towards the proponents of the liberal opposition, its ideologists, and writers, which at times may even lead to physical assault or murder. The mechanism at play is similar to the one directed towards the LGBT movement in Russia today. And the same mechanism has lately impacted Sweden in consequence of the support our country and Poland have given to Ukraine in view of the future integration into the EU.

Until now the most important legal measures that the state has taken in order to curtail or put pressure on unwanted media and oppositional politicians have been connected to the fight against economic crime. Since the Russian economy in general is steeped in corruption and tax avoidance, and this economic shadiness also distinguishes the media, it is usually easy for the state to find, or partly fabricate, evidence of things untoward within the financial sectors of the dissident media—despite the fact that these media in the Russian context have a relative high degree of transparency and openness surrounding their financial dealings.

The requirement of unimpeachability on behalf of the opposition and oppositional media is thus much greater than on behalf of the authorities themselves. This demand for unimpeachability was mentioned several times by President Putin in connection to the opposition leader Aleksey Navalny’s run for the position of mayor of Moscow in the summer and autumn of 2013, and this was an underlying reason behind Navalny’s imprisonment and his subsequent trial in Kirov. The exact same principle, which the President has called the “dictatorship of law,” has been implemented on several occasions in the past years. The very matrix for this kind of action took shape in connection to the verdicts against the politically active oligarchs Michail Chodordovskij and Platon Lebedev at the beginning of the new millennium.

Another dimension of the media problem in Russia concerns the embryonic independent media that saw the light of day in the 1990s in the Russian provinces: the Ural, Siberia, the Far East, in the large metropoles on the Volga, and in several smaller cities. Here the arbitrariness in the treatment of the dissidents and of the oppositional media threatening the local power elites is more noticeable than in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and the fates of the dissidents are here also more uncertain than for their more renowned compatriots in the two Russian capitals.

In both cases we are dealing with people who often take enormous risks when showcasing their opinions and revealing unpleasant information, and whose plight will most often remain unknown to colleagues in the West or even to the rest of Russia. In the context of the currently increasing international tension and in the light of the reasoning above, their situation is of course ever more uncertain.

Literature, however, is judged by another scale altogether. The book market is not noticeably being censored. What is evident though is that innovative and controversial literature is being plucked out of the canon (thereby causing it to disappear from the school curricula) in order to further classical works of literature deemed to be more morally instructive and ‘uplifting.’ This development has its own inherent logic: increasing calls for more security paradoxically create a greater sense of insecurity and fear, which in turn motivate harsher action directed towards an enemy that is hard to define since this enemy, in the final analysis, may be no other than the citizenry itself and its real and potential demands for democracy and social development.

From these aspects there is a difference between the Russian situation and the situation in the West. In the West there still exists a relatively well functioning division of power between the legislative and the executive powers; between the state, the courts of law, and civil society, and between media companies and other companies. During a short period in the 1990s, this division of power was on the brink of coming into being in Russia. The described balance of power is the fundament of a functioning democracy, and in Russia today it is this very fundament that is being sacrificed on the altar of security.