Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russia and the New Authoritarians

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russia and the New Authoritarians

Article excerpt

Abstract: Russia has adopted a neo-authoritarian media system that has more in common with similar non-democratic systems around the world than with the Soviet system that once prevailed on the same territory. Though the picture for media freedom in Russia is bleak today, the types of control imposed are significantly different from the Soviet era in terms of breadth, depth, and mechanisms of control, and the role of ideology. Fearing the kind of revolutions that took place in Serbia, Ukraine, and Georgia, Russian President Vladimir Putin is imposing tight restrictions, setting an example for authoritarian regimes around the world.


More than twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and twenty-five years after Soviet Communist General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev unleashed the heretofore moribund Soviet press with the policy of glasnost, the landscape of media in the post-Soviet space has changed. And for the worse. After the liberalization of the late 1980s and relative freedom amidst the chaos of the 1990s, the press has taken a big step backwards in the Putin era, and not just in Russia. In the 2013 Freedom House rankings, nine of the fifteen post-Soviet countries were rated "not free," with Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine listed as "partly free," and only the three Baltic states, now European Union and NATO members, free. (1) Russia has ignominiously made the Committee to Protect Journalists' Impunity Index's top ten list for countries "where journalists are slain and the killers go free." (2) Reporters without Borders expresses a similar view, with their map of the former Soviet space (with the exception of the Baltics and Kyrgyz Republic) swathed in red and black, their lowest categories of press freedom. They also name Russia's Vladimir Putin and Belarus' Alexandr Lukashenka as leading "enemies of press freedom." (3)

That things have not gone well for the media in most of the former Soviet states is undeniable. But it does not necessarily follow that the current challenges are the same as those during the Soviet period. The primary purpose of this paper is to answer the following question: Is there something uniquely post-"Soviet" in media systems in Russia and many of the countries which emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union? In other words, in using the word "Soviet," whether the modifier is "neo" or "post," are we speaking of a geographic space or specific and unique legacies of the Soviet era that continue to shape and impact the media in those countries?

I will argue that the media landscape, particularly in the critical sphere of government control, has more in common with other authoritarian countries than it does with the immediate Soviet past. In this context, the media systems are better described as "neo-authoritarian" than "post-" or "neo-" "Soviet." (4) This distinction is important for two reasons. From a politics perspective, it helps to clarify analytically that what is taking place in the post-Soviet space is very different from Soviet times: authoritarianism may be on the rise after the failure of the democratic hopes of the 1990s and the colored revolutions of the 2000s, but we are by no means witnessing the rebirth of the Soviet Union. Second, from a media studies perspective, it moves forward the analysis of differences between various forms of non-democratic media systems, a subject which media scholars often lament as understudied. (5)

In order to answer the primary question, a number of related questions will be addressed: What is a neo-authoritarian press and how does it differ from the post-totalitarian press that typified the Soviet Union? How is the current Russian press similar to and different from the Soviet press? How is it similar to and different from media in authoritarian counties outside of the former Soviet space and what does that mean for the relationship between the current press and Soviet legacies? …

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