Russia's Manipulative Media

MOSCOW: Today, there are no political parties in Russia, only mass media. This is the little noticed result of the last parliamentary and presidential elections. To be sure, the press is powerful in most democracies and often influences the ways in which political messages are read by the public. But in more developed systems, political programs and ideas are ultimately the work of political parties and politicians – what people ultimately vote for or against. In Russia, the media don't "mediate"; they are the very source of Russia's political ideas. Russian voters vote don't vote a party line, they vote the mass media line.

Last summer there was little doubt that the coming parliamentary elections would make the Luzhkov/Primakov Fatherland-All Russia party (OVR) the biggest fraction in the Duma. After the vote on December 19, OVR was not even runner up: it came third, with 13% of the vote and 46 out of 450 seats in the Duma. Similarly, no one doubted last July that the next President would be either ex-prime minister Primakov or Moscow's mayor Luzhkov. All that was left to guessing was which of the two would agree to be prime-minister in the other's presidential administration. When the presidential election occurred, however, neither man was anywhere to be seen.

What happened to OVR, supposedly the new party of power? What happened to Primakov and Luzhkov? Did they change their political positions? Did OVR commit some huge political blunder that finished them off? They were destroyed, not by themselves or their unpopularity with voters, but by the mass media. That same mass media also created a new idol who has now swept all before him. A new inter-regional movement, Unity, founded only in September ‘99, dominated the parliamentary elections last December on a platform that could be summarized in two words: Vladimir Putin. From then on the presidential election was a yawn: the only (not very exciting) question was whether Putin would need one or two rounds to switch from being the "acting" to the "elected" holder of the highest office. In the wake of Putin's personal juggernaut, Unity also lapsed into desuetude.

To understand what happened, we need to look beyond politics and into the psychological makeup of Russian voters. Only two groups of Russians today show some resistance to the all-powerful sway of the media. The first – around 30% of the voting population – is made up of political extremes, mostly hard core communist supporters for whom "party discipline"and unqualified hatred of everything since the Soviet Union's collapse trumps all other considerations. Included in this 30% is a also sprinkling of right-wing nationalists who look at post-1991 history as a vast anti-Russian conspiracy.