Monday, January 31, 2005

TV News in Bashkortostan

Last week I spent in Ufa – the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan. Although only about one third of its population is Bashkirs, the Bashkir language is official and Islam is very strong there. The president of Bashkortostan is Bashkir national so as most of the highest officials. If you don’t count several mosques and the fact that all street signs are written both in Bashkir and Russian, Ufa looks like any other Russian provincial town, even better. It’s definitely more clean and tidy than average although some streets are covered with ice sometimes a feet deep. Almost all national supermarket chains are present together with major electronics chains like ‘Eldorado’ or ‘Mir’. In the center of Ufa you cannot miss McDonalds – it’s one of the major local attractions albeit too expensive for an average family. I also noticed a lot of fashion stores like ‘Naf Naf’ or ‘Gucci’. Ufa changed a lot since I was there five years ago – it’s much nicer and better. You see positive changes everywhere.
When I return to my hotel later in the evening I turned on local TV news. That was a shock – like coming back to the Soviet Union in late 70s. I wouldn’t say that today in Russia we enjoy a lot of freedom on national TV but at the pro-Kremlin bias of ORT and RTR is somehow balanced by NTV ‘neutrality’ and anti-Putin bias on RenTV. In comparison with Vesti Bashkortostan even ORT could be taken for a beacon of the freedom of speech. The news started with a long speech by the ‘wise and beloved by the people’ President Rakhimov who condemned Moscow bureaucrats for trying to rob the people of social benefits they have. But beware Moscow bureaucrats! The great and wise President solved absolutely every problem and the people of Bashkirtostan believes in him. In comparison with other Russian region Bashkortostan is an oasis of happiness and social security. There were some tiny protests and demonstration but they were organized by ‘so called’ opposition – ‘those disgusting parasites and power mongers who want to grab Bashkir oil businesses and impoverish the people’. The reporter takes “random” interviews on the street – all respondents say they love their wise President and condemn those who want to ‘seed doubt in the wisdom of our great leader’!
What if Putin was right to abolish gubernatorial elections? Otherwise Bashkortostan will remain an Eastern feudal monarchy disguised as a democracy.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Freedom House Farce

Freedom House decided that Russia can no longer be called a ‘partly free’ country. In 2005 with the rating of 5.5 it became ‘not free’. That actually means that: “People in countries and territories with a rating of 6 experience severely restricted rights of expression and association, and there are almost always political prisoners and other manifestations of political terror. These countries may be characterized by a few partial rights, such as some religious and social freedoms, some highly restricted private business activity, and relatively free private discussion.” What a surprise! How comes that living in Russia I didn’t notice it! Actually I personally feel that Russia is freer today than it ever was in the last 15 years. Let’s take only 2004. Since the last year in courts there are jurors, not a judge with two side-kicks, who decide if a person is guilty or not. A search and arrest warrant is issued only by a judge but not by an attorney as it was before. More diversity comes to TV: ORT and RTR are not so pro-Kremlin biased on one hand and RenTV political shows can be compared to ‘The Nation’ magazine editorials. Access to Internet is encouraged and it becomes less and less expensive. How comes Russia is compared to Iran where even rock music is forbidden (with an exception of the ‘Queen’ because Freddy Mercury was a Persian).
At the site of ‘Freedom House’ I found the methodology of its freedom rating calculations. I tried to calculate the Russia’s rating as if I was a radical Russophobe and right-wing pro-Bush freedom monger. Even then I couldn’t calculate the rating lower than 4.5. “Unfortunately” for lower ranking Russia should forbid its citizens to leave the country or travel outside, close down EuroNews Channel or ‘Newsweek Russia’ magazines shut all opposition parties, etc. One really has to be deaf and blind to come to 5.5 rating. By the way, “Freedom House” never notices any problems with freedom in the US.
More surprises come when you look at Russia freedom rating retrospectively. According to ‘Freedom House’ the peak of Russian freedoms comes on 1992. Since then Russia is slowly sliding towards totalitarianism. 1992! My God! I couldn’t believe it! I don’t suffer from amnesia and remember very well that “freedom” in 1992. Even if we stick to the FH methodology this couldn’t be so.
1. In 1992 leaving the country was strictly limited by the authorities. In May 1992 I got German visa but still I had to apply for a Russian exit visa that was given by a special security unit at the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
2. In 1992 the governors of all Russian regions were appointed by the president that didn’t need even a formal approval from any elective body. The FH stated that Putin’s decision to appoint governors was the major move from democracy. Why then in 1992 it was democratic?
3. In 1992 television and major Russian newspapers and magazines belonged to the state. Opposition newspapers like ‘Pravda’ were simply closed down. TV journalists who were critical of Yeltsin were fired.
4. In 1992 business was totally controlled by organized crime. By ‘totally’ I mean you couldn’t even start a garage sale without paying protection money to a local gangster.
5. In 1992 the country was mostly ruled not by laws but by direct Yeltsin’s decrees.
I can go on and on. If you follow FH methodology in 1992 the most optimistic freedom rating for Russia could not 5.5 or 5. Today the most pessimistic Russia freedom rating could not be lower than 4.