THE first line of defense for democracy in Russia is its media.
In the power struggle between President Boris Yeltsin, the
Congress, and the Constitutional Court, Russia's fourth estate may
well play the pivotal role in maintaining a peaceful transition to
civil society. Despite numerous attempts by Speaker Ruslan
Khasbulatov and President Yeltsin to control it, the mass media in
Russia remains relatively impartial.
While Russia's two state broadcasting companies have tended to
favor Yeltsin in their reporting, the Russian people receive a
fairly accurate representation of the political developments in the
country. So long as all ethnic and political groups continue to
have access to the news media, civil war can be avoided.
In Serbia, President Slobodan Milosevic has mastered the use of
TV the way Hitler had earlier exploited the power of radio to
incite fear and hatred of his enemies.
With 65 million former Soviet citizens living outside the
boundaries of their national homelands, Russia cannot afford to let
the media fall into the hands of any single political faction. In
the current crisis of authority, levelheaded leaders from all
factions should join in defending the independence of the mass
In the political climate that prevails in Moscow, partisan
claims to control state television are rampant. Extremists from all
sides will attack the state broadcasting centers, as we saw in
Vilnius, in Tbilisi, in Bucharest and elsewhere. Unlike in the
West, in Russia there is no tradition of press freedoms to insulate
the media from this political maelstrom.
Russian television reaches 95 percent of households and is by
far the main source of news in the country. The West should help
with financial support to reform and improve this information
channel. Aid for the media should be offered with the same
conditionality that comes with financial support. Freedom of the
press, guarantees for media pluralism and independence of the
electronic media from partisan politics should be the price of
American aid for democratization.
United States policy should stress broadcast pluralism as
strongly as we do any other human right. After all, no other human
right can be protected if the media is censored. Multichannel
television is as important to modern democracy as multiparty
elections. Western support for the Russian media could have an
immediate impact in strengthening democracy, whereas financial
assistance appears to average citizens to be lost in a black hole.
No conceivable amount of Western economic aid can rescue Russia's
Three hundred billion dollars in economic assistance from
Germany for the former East German Democratic Republic has not been
enough to integrate that homogeneous state; and Russia's needs
swamp those of East Germany.
But Western help for the Russian media could effectively bolster
the fourth estate to defend its role above the political struggle. …