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Sunday, 21 December 2008

Protest, what protest?

Photo: Andrey Kremenchuk
Everybody in Russia loves their government; the Kremlin enjoys universal support, as all citizens rejoice that their authorities are working together to ensure a bright and prosperous common future. Right? Of course not, although you’d be forgiven for believing that, if your only source of news was the state-owned media.

A couple of weeks ago the Russian government announced plans to raise customs duties on imported cars, in a protectionist move to defend the struggling Russian auto industry. The decision, which many say will have a direct and negative impact on their income, caused uproar in cities throughout Russia, although noticeably in Vladivostok, where hundreds of people turned up bearing banners saying ‘No to import duties.’

What’s interesting here is not the fact that the government has decided to raise import duties - I’m not an economist and I couldn’t say whether the raised taxes are a good or bad thing. What caught my attention was the way the incident was dealt with in the media; whilst the protests were covered by a few independent papers, not a word was breathed about it on Pervy Kanal, the main state channel, and coverage of the protests in most other papers and on other channels was patchy, at best.

Particularly telling was how the incident was reported in Rossiskaya Gazeta, the official state paper, in which state proclamations and new laws are announced. On 9th December the paper announced the government’s plans and then… everything fell silent. Despite people protesting across Russia, the editorial of RG saw no need to mention the disturbances. A few days later readers were told about demonstrations in support of the new duties, and were assured that, despite a global crisis, the Russian car-production industry remains the strongest in the world. But what of the protesters? Eventually their activities were recognised, when RG reported that grievances against the new taxes would be registered by federal agencies. Nevertheless, the way in which we were told about these protesters suggested that they were a minority, almost extremist group, whose protests should not be of universal concern.

This tactic of turning a blind eye to anything unpleasant is symptomatic of how much of the Russian media deals with anti-Kremlin protests. Rather than risk offending the Kremlin, it’s easier just to sweep everything under the carpet and not mention it all. But what opportunity does that allow for the expression of oppositionist ideas?

At the same that people were protesting the increased duties, a series of opposition marches expressing discontent with Russia's general economic and political situation were taking place across Russia. 15th December saw marches in 30 cities across Russia, organised by opposition political parties. The marches, however, didn't have an opportunity to take off, and were quickly broken up by the riot police, with participants being detained or whisked off into waiting trucks. Again, these riots were barely noted in the media. If its not reported, it didn't happen. And in a country as big as Russia, by not giving something adequate reportage you allow it to become an isolated event, effectively preventing further discussion on a topic.

As I was following all this, I was interested to come across an article in the St. Petersburg Courier, a free Petersburg weekly, which addressed media coverage of popular demonstrations. The author, Maria Shilova, noted the absence of media coverage of the anti-import and non-agreement marches, remarking how such protests provide the sole arena for citizens to express non-conformist opinions or a place to express constructive criticism. However, as the breaking up of the opposition marches illustrates, as a democratic pressure valve such marches are far from ideal: any attempts to express discontent will be immediately cracked down on. Shilova ended her article with the following question: And, if you’ll forgive me asking, how will the authorities know what they need to do, if we don’t have an arena for legal Constitutional marches and meetings? If we don't have freedom of speech, social discussions and transparency of information? If the authorities don't have to answer for their actions?

I can’t think of a better way to express the problems Russia faces if it really wants to develop the mechanisms necessary to create a solid civil society. If the country can't even recognise a plurality of opinions by reporting protest, then how can it ever hope to have a truly representative democratic society?

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