OPINION: Russian ’democracy’ lacks free speech

For the past five years, I have flown to Moscow each summer to talk to Russian MPs about government relations with the media in a free society.

For the past five years, I have flown to Moscow each summer to talk

to Russian MPs about government relations with the media in a free


The seminars are organised by the Moscow School of Political Studies,

set up by a remarkable Russian - Elena Nemirovskaya - to help her

country make a lasting transition from communism to real democracy. Her

task does not become easier, as I discovered on my second trip this year

to talk, along with others from the UK, Europe and the US, to

journalists from Archangelsk to Zvenigorod.

Muscovites did not seem to be living in fear of terrorist bombs when, on

a day off, we visited Red Square, St Basil’s Cathedral, a Georgian

restaurant in a block of flats, and strolled down the Arbat where one of

McDonald’s restaurants was, as usual, very busy. The 60 to 70

journalists at the seminar in the forest on the road to Minsk were

preoccupied with ideas from 9.30am to 10pm - Mrs Nemirovskaya works them

like Stakhan-ovites - rather than bombs. Some cynics among them felt the

terrorist attacks were useful to Mr Yeltsin if, as they claimed, he

wanted to postpone next year’s presidential election so he could better

protect his family’s future.

The Yeltsins are beset with allegations.

The country is officially going downhill economically, yet every year

the roads around Moscow get busier, commercial developments increase,

more and more country dachas of widely varying sizes are built and each

visit brings improvements at the conference centre - this time we got

honey and jam at breakfast. But there is a sense of political paralysis

- of marking time - and of deep uncertainty about where Russia is


This is not to mention the appalling shabbiness of the nation outside

Moscow, combined curiously with an heroic determination on the part of

younger women to look smart and fashionable.

But my latest visit brought home to me as never before how tenuous is

their hold on democracy if you accept, as Western politicians say

through clenched teeth, that you can’t have a free society without a

free press.

One journalist told me he had been put out on the street by the local

town boss and was facing a court charge of undermining the security

services by writing about deficiencies in a locally-made defence

product. He was still publishing, but in competition with an

officially-sponsored paper now installed in the same building.

Most of the journalists saw no future for their publications unless they

kow-towed to oligarchs. Technically, they are freer than they ever have

been, but their freedom is heavily constrained by their ’owners’. To

reinforce its fragile democracy, Russia needs independent proprietors

who have some grounding in real, rather than hack, journalism. I like to

think Alastair Campbell would agree with me.


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