Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russia and the New Authoritarians

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russia and the New Authoritarians

Article excerpt

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 authoritar- ian 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: authoritari- anism 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 ques- tions 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 rela- tionship between the current press and Soviet legacies? Finally, what are the implications of similarities and differences of current media vis-à-vis Soviet times and other authoritarian media (historically and not) and what do these mean for countries' future? The paper will first and foremost concentrate on Russia because of its size and influence on its Eurasian neighbors, but other post-Soviet states will be brought into the discussion to illustrate some of the key points.

Soviet (Post-Totalitarian) vs. Neo-Authoritarian Media Systems

In order to understand where the media in Russia and many of the states of the former Soviet Union stand today, we need to step back to look at the conceptual distinctions between the Soviet (or what I have previously termed "post-totalitarian") press system6 and neo-authoritarian media systems. …

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