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23 May 2016

“You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Is Prokhorov’s bargaining with the siloviki doomed to fail?

Prokhorov’s strategy “change of the editorial board in exchange for the cessation of pressure” wont’ work 

The dismissal of RBC media group’s management has been interpreted as the death of RBC in its current form. The new editorial staff – no matter who the editor-in-chief may be – is expected to carry out a more politically correct and complaisant policy. According to a source close to RBC, this is how owner Mikhail Prokhorov has decided to keep the media outlet which has recently been subjected to intense political and legal pressure. Based on information available on social media, one may arrive at the impression that the liberal community no longer trusts the RBC project which will now suffer the same fate as Lenta.ru. Prokhorov has made yet another deal with the Kremlin. However, there are grounds to believe that his attempts to escape the ongoing conflict are doomed to fail and that RBC will not survive for very long even in its new, complaisant mode.

RBC was slaughtered after publishing a series of articles concerning Putin’s daughters, because it touches directly upon the President’s private life. This widespread view became the most accepted interpretation, but it may in fact be quite wrong. High-profile investigations like this could become the pretexts for the onset of political pressure applied to media outlets which do not conform as the majority of large media outlets do.

Note that there are still media outlets operating in the Russian market which are afforded greater leeway than others. Radio station Echo of Moscow is still afloat despite immense pressure, due to a single lifeline, Alexey Venediktov. Novaya Gazeta continues to exist due to the fact that it originally managed to position itself as a niche liberal periodical which also engages in defending human rights (hence the respective attitude towards it) largely oriented towards its predominantly liberal audience. Besides, Mikhail Gorbachev remains one of its co-owners and Putin prefers not to touch former heads of state for personal reasons (perhaps, for fear of finding himself in the same situation one day). Both media outlets lack large financial resources and have not tried to engage in big political games. What’s more, unlike RBC, they do not have TV channels. Finally, Dozhd has almost been snuffed out, lacking the vast financial resources of RBC.

On the other hand, RBC had ambitions to attract an audience which doesn’t necessarily only represent opponents of “Putin’s bloody regime.” Top-quality business journalism published alongside criticism of the regime makes this media outlet a political factor of influence in the eyes of the authorities. Some believe that RBC managed to place a stranglehold on the power elite, having analyzed their every move in detail under the microscope and having rubbed their noses into the results of every wrongdoing. In this way it differed from Vedomosti, for example, which has a habit of scolding Putin in a politial, abstract style.

The elimination of media outlets as a factor of political influence as the fourth estate, has occurred in the last few years. In previous years, the Kremlin allowed some space both for independent Internet-media outlets, and top-quality business press was afforded the privilege of writing about politics as well. Laws limiting the rights of foreign owners have led to changes of ownership and to the editorial boards at Forbes  and Vedomosti. The war in Ukraine and the sharp increase in the importance of the Ukrainian issue brought about a change to the editorial board at Lenta.ru. However, the squeezing out of foreign investors from the media market and changes of inappeasable editorial boards are a consequence of the new tendency whereby attacks by individual journalists constitute a convenient excuse, yet the articles about Putin’s daughters do not. Vedomosti, Forbes and Lenta.ru have been forced to adapt to new informal political requirements set out by the Kremlin.

It’s high time to admit that the reason for what is happening lies not in Putin’s intolerance for the publication of articles about his daughters, but rather in the intolerance of the regime for the existence of politically influential media. The transformation of Putin’s regime has brought about the gradual disappearance of the second and third branches of power (the judicial and legislative branches) and there is no way the fourth estate can survive given such a trend.

What does Prokhorov want now? According to a source close to RBC, the goal is to save the media outlet by having found a balance between the interests of the shareholders and the power elite and to get rid of “the radicals” having made the information policy more appeasable and less provocative.

If we were to believe such intentions, it is not about turning RBC into today’s Lenta.ru or pro-government media outlet akin to the Vzglyad newspaper, it is about a lower degree of politicization which leads to the transformation of RBC into a kind of Forbes under its previous owner or Vedomosti with its politically acute, yet philosophical columns that, unlike evidence-based investigations by RBC, pose no serious threat.

But will this ploy work in the case of Prokhorov? Yes, but for one problem: there is reason to believe that the present head of the National Guard, Viktor Zolotov,  and the head of the Federal Security Service, Alexander Bortnikov, are behind the political pressure exerted on RBC. Given the high political stakes involved and the fact that the siloviki are personally involved to a considerable extent changes the situation around RBC. The way notes-denunciations are prepared by the most devoted and most patriotic, according to Putin, is easy to imagine. “Prokhorov, the richest of all the oligarchs, having ramified connections with Western elites earmarks huge funds for financing the media outlet whose editorial policy undermines the fundamentals of the constitutional order.” “Purposeful attacks targeted at the President of the Russian Federation, deliberate discretization of the government, providing a grandstand to openly pro-Western forces, incompetent and biased information about the real state of the Russian economy and financial sphere – all this gives grounds to suspect that the owner intends to conduct a political game that threatens the stability of the state in line with his own or foreign interests.” This is roughly the way Zolotov and Bortnikov could present it to Putin; stating that the articles about Putin’s daughters are the consequence of “hostile intentions” of a rich and independent “oligarch.” Prokhorov was prompted to sell his assets.

The line assumed by Prokhorov in such a situation resembles an attempt at bargaining, at striking a “deal” with the opposition party: a change of the editorial board in exchange for the cessation of pressure. However, the siloviki, who have actively taken the issues of domestic policy onboard, do not bargain.

Prokhorov is experienced in failed compromises with the authorities. A deal as regarding the right-wing party Right Cause - “I relinquish my membership of the Right Cause party and intend to set up Civic Platform” - ended in the collapse of party-life ambitions. Failure to support protests in late 2011 and participation in the presidential election as a “neutralizer” for the discontented, very convenient for Putin, resulted in the “enraged urban class” losing trust. “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” – this principle does not work in relations with the authorities, especially when a potential source of threat to political stability is bargaining with them. An attempt at playing politics by pouring billions into RBC is perceived as a challenge to the state and pressure exerted on RBC is a result, not so much of the dissatisfaction with the articles about Putin as it is about dissatisfaction with Prokhorov’s readiness to create such a media outlet as well as his motives for doing so. This is a crime and the change of the editorial board does not deflect blame away from Prokhorov.

The current authorities, fixated on the notion of the “besieged fortress”, have one critical requirement regarding the media: that it has no influence and no personality, since this is politics, and politics belongs to the monopoly of the power elite. A number of exceptions such as Novaya Gazeta, Echo of Moscow, Dozhd and Vedomosti will remain until such time that arguments against them are formulated by the “guards” of the regime. Elimination of the media is a question of objective political tendencies but, in practice, the process is extremely personalized. Prokhorov has become the object of pressure, and the “relinquishing” of the editorial board is a recognition of the righteousness of his attackers who, under such circumstances, are capable of mustering an appetite for victory. And even though Prokhorov may not have been personally responsible for the publication of the “wrong articles”, having failed to reach an agreement with his editorial board, this issue is less than pertinent for the authors of the attacks on RBC. Prokhorov caused it – and he is to be held accountable. 

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