Second Term: Media Coverage of Putin May 2004-May 2008

In general, I consider myself an optimist; spending my summer delving deep into the events of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, however, is hardly conducive to such a world view. In this blog post, I’m going to present what I saw as the most crucial events, in terms of American media coverage, of Putin’s second term. Then, I’ll outline the broader trends I saw from 2004 to 2008. Again, this will be a bit lengthy. In the interest of some brevity, I won’t go into too much detail about the events I discuss. I think of this project more like calculus than algebra: I’m not making a graph, I’m describing the trend of the graph. And this graph begins in May 2004, when Vladimir Putin was sworn in for his second term.

Fall of 2004 saw a turning point in how Putin was represented by the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. On September 1, gunmen, most of them Chechens, in the southern town of Beslan

A memorial to the victims of the Beslan seige, via NPR

A memorial to the victims of the Beslan seige, via NPR

took hundreds of hostages, many of them children, at a school. The crisis lasted a tense three days; on the third day, the gymnasium in which the hostages were being held exploded, and a firefight ensued. The siege resulted in over 350 deaths, and much was made of possible mishandling of the situation (in April of this year, in fact, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia’s “lack of responsibility and coordination had contributed, to some extent, to the tragic outcome of the events”). Putin’s silence during the first part of the event was criticized by the papers, and the Post especially pointed to Putin’s policy in Chechnya that created the climate in which such an attack was possible.

But while the negative tone the papers took with regard to Putin’s handling of Beslan was tempered by the real human tragedy of the situation and empathy for Russia, what followed was the harshest criticism of Putin to date. In the wake of the tragedy, Putin put into place a few changes that served to tighten his grip on power. One was ending the direct election of regional governors; another changed parliamentary elections to a party list rather than a mixed representation system, limiting the ability of independent candidates and candidates from smaller parties to be a part of the Duma, helping the pro-Putin United Russia. The papers presented these moves as crossing a line; if before, they were condemnatory but allowed room for uncertainty, now, they came down harshly on Putin as an authoritarian. David Ignatius of the Washington Post concluded that “Like his Russian forebears, Putin can now claim the title ‘czar of all czars.’” In an editorial for the journal, Garry Kasparov (a member of the Russian opposition) called Putin’s response “uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has lived under Soviet rule.” The tone had changed: Putin was, in their representation, no longer a budding dictator or a leader with autocratic tendencies but a full-fledged authoritarian.

In 2006, Putin began his year of chairing the G-8, a rotating position. He started the year, however, by alienating many countries in the group when he abruptly cut off a pipeline to Ukraine that also supplied natural gas to many western European countries. While this was meant by Putin to be a show of strength, and the Journal took the move seriously, the Post portrayed it as damaging for him, saying he was “the real loser” of the situation. This situation is a good example of an uncertainty the papers have often shown, not knowing to what extent Putin is posturing and muscle flexing, and to what extent they should actually take moves like this seriously.

 

 October and November of 2006 saw two high-profile killings. Anna Politkovskaya, an independent
journalist who was known for her bold, often anti-Putin reporting, including in Chechnya at a time when few reporters remained, was shot down in her apartment building on Vladimir Putin’s birthday. The next month, Alexander Litvinenko, a vocal Putin critic who had been living in the UK for five years, was poisoned with Polonium 210, a hard-to-obtain radioactive substance. In the papers, both deaths, especially Litvinenko’s, were portrayed as Putin-adjacent if not Putin-

Anna Politkovskaya, via humanrights.gov

Anna Politkovskaya, via humanrights.gov

directed. These events didn’t really present a shift in tone, though; since fall of 2004, it had been pretty consistent condemnation. By this point in Putin’s reign—seven years after he emerged as an anonymous bureaucrat—the media saw Putin critics dying as routine. The Post’s November 21st editorial sports the wry headline, “Political Poison; Is it just a coincidence that enemies of Vladimir Putin keep ingesting toxic substances?” Litvinenko’s death was something of a surprise in that it was carried out 1700 miles from Moscow, but even so, the idea that Putin would have a critic killed was not shocking.

 

May of 2007 saw a relatively little-noted but, in retrospect, significant story: Moscow’s cyber-attack against Estonia. What coverage it received presented it as a serious but ultimately small problem.

In October of 2007 Putin announced his decision to run for the Duma, suggesting he would be open to becoming the next Prime Minister. The papers walked a strange line, suggesting both that Putin was in absolute control but that the situation was also precarious. From this point, the papers leave no doubt that one, United Russia will win a majority of seats in the Duma, and two, whoever Putin endorses for president will win and appoint Putin Prime Minister. Both of these outcomes occurred: in December, United Russia won a majority and Putin announced Dmitri Medvedev as his preferred candidate. In March he was elected, in what the Post termed “more coronation than contest.” Finally, in May, Putin relinquished the presidency and Dmitri Medvedev was inaugurated.

Bearing those events in mind, here are some of the trends I wanted to take note of. Some of these will be continued from my post on Putin’s first term, and some are new.

 

  1. Putin the Petrocrat

There are many facets to Putin and the news media presents these different facets to varying degrees at different times. In his second term, especially the first two years, he was presented as a petrocrat. Russian oil and gas was shown to be among the most important aspects of his rule and other countries’ relationship to him. Take, for example, the 2006 shutoff of natural gas to Ukraine. The papers reported this almost in a panic. The Wall Street Journal stated that “the west’s dilemma is that it needs Russia’s energy.” The word “petrocrat” was repeated several times and Energy was pointed to as the key to Putin’s power.

 

  1. Anticipating 2008

As early as July of 2005, there was already speculation and confusion about whether Putin would really step down in 2008. For the next three years, possibilities swirled—would he change the constitution? Remain behind the scenes? Anoint a successor? It seems that Putin enjoyed keeping everyone—including his possible successors—guessing. It seems, too, that the media enjoyed the

Dmitri Medvedev, Putin's chosen successor, via CNN

Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s chosen successor, via CNN

guessing game; every new government appointment or shakeup, every barest mention of Putin’s future was met with interest and speculation. Although the papers seemed to acknowledge that Putin would likely maintain control, as noted above, they also presented the future as uncertain for him. Perhaps it was, and obviously things look different from 2017, but given the level of authoritarianism he had already reached, it’s interesting that there was still the idea that a new president could shove Putin aside.

 

  1. Duplicity/Who is he?

In my last post, each of these points garnered its own section, but in Putin’s second term, they seem to come together more than before. In September of 2007, the Post was still calling Putin an enigma. In an article by Jay Winik, the following paragraph stood out to me particularly:

On the surface, enigmatic seems to be the word. Putin dons well-tailored suits even as he clamps down on domestic opposition and homemade democracy. He flashes a warm smile in the councils of international summitry even as he smashes dissent in Chechnya. He has charmed President Bush even as he stymies U.S. policy in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. The conventional wisdom is that Putin’s background in the KGB is what ultimately drives his more notorious actions, leading foreign policy commentators to raise the specter of a renewed Cold War.

What strikes me, and not just in this one article, is the equal heft given to things that seem not to be equivocal. The papers wonder how Putin could get along so well with Bush, and then limit opposition and speech. It seems to me that the answer is not that he is an enigma, but that he is a man who puts on a mask of diplomacy and democracy when it suits him but does not bother to hide the messier side of his reign. Given how blatant many of his less-than-democratic actions are, I wonder that he was still presented as a man we could not quite figure.

 

  1. Paranoia in the Kremlin

Between 2004 and 2008 I read about “paranoia gripping the Kremlin,” “Mr. Putin’s paranoia,” “increasing instability and paranoia,” etc. As Putin jailed dissenters who posed no immediate threat to him, as he tightened control on an election whose results were already all but guaranteed—the papers discussed a paranoid leader. Pathologizing him makes some sense, perhaps, as a leader whose actions we’d like to think would never be acceptable in our country (at least, as of 2008).

 

  1. Putin the character (historical comparisons)

Last time, I talked about how often Putin was compared to Yeltsin, his soviet forebears, or czars. Those comparisons kept coming, though the czar analogy grew in prominence. One item of note was Yeltsin’s April 2007 death. The post, in its covering, discussed how the Kremlin was cultivating the narrative of 90’s chaos, and Putin as the antidote and the anti-Yeltsin. In criticizing this narrative, they don’t have the perspective of someone who has read almost a decade of Putin coverage in a few weeks. But I do, and I remember not very long ago the Post and the Journal themselves using this same narrative with repeated Yeltsin comparisons in 2000 and 2001. In addition to these historical comparisons, though, increasingly Putin was represented as a larger than life character. There was much talk of him as a mob boss or a mafia don. There is a human desire to create narrative, and viewing Putin as a czar or a boss can cast him in terms easier to understand and conducive to that narrative.

 

Alright, thanks for reading again! I’m not sure exactly what form the next four years will take, with Medvedev in the presidency, but I know there’ll still be a lot to parse. Come back next time for what I’m calling the Medvedev Interregnum (Interredvedev? I’ll work on it).

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