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KEY:

1   Opinion presented as news   


2   Omission of key facts   
3   Inaccurate statement/data   
4   Claim unsupported by data/facts   
5   Sensationalized text    
6   Slanted terminology    
7   One-sided perspective    
8   Lack of comparative context   
9   Overuse of same Russian source   
10   Overuse of same Western source   
11   Unidentified source   
12   Lack of historical context   
13   Lack of cultural context   
14   Obsolete information   
15   Repetitious clichés/ words   
16   Inflammatory headline    
17  Cold War rhetoric
New York Times
February 1, 2009
A Threat to Putin’s Big Plans
CLIFFORD J. LEVY

MOSCOW ­ Over the last eight years, as Vladimir V. Putin has amassed ever more power, Russians have often responded with a collective shrug, as if to say: Go ahead, control everything ­ as long as we can have our new cars and amply stocked supermarkets, our sturdy ruble and cheap vacations in the Turkish sun.

But now the worldwide financial crisis is abruptly ending an oil-driven economic boom here, and the unspoken contract between Mr. Putin and his people is being thrown into doubt. In newspaper articles, among political analysts, even in corners of the Kremlin, questions can be heard. Will Russians admire Mr. Putin as much when oil is at $40 a barrel as they did when it was at $140 a barrel? And if Russia’s economy seriously falters, will his system of hard, personal power prove to be a trap for him? Can it relieve public anger, and can he escape the blame?7

“We talk about a lack of democracy in Russia, but I like my own formula for the country, which is authoritarianism with the consent of the governed,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “And it can be taken away.”

“The present rulers know that they will not be toppled by Kasparov,” Mr. Trenin said, referring to Garry K. Kasparov, the former chess champion whose political challenges to Mr. Putin can seem quixotic. “But if the working people of Russia decide that they have had enough, that will be the end of it. It happened to Gorbachev, and it almost happened to Yeltsin.”

Few are predicting Mr. Putin’s downfall any time soon, especially considering how methodically he has undermined the opposition. Many Russians believe he rescued them from the misery of the 1990s, and the polls say his popularity remains very high.

But those polls also show his popularity slipping a bit, amid far darker indicators. The unemployment rate is soaring, banks are failing and the ruble has dropped so fast in value that Russians are again hiding their money in dollars in their apartments. Sporadic protests have broken out as some factories close or cut production.8

For now, the Kremlin is desperately spending down the hundreds of billions of dollars in reserves that it put away in good times,2,7 all the while trying to quell comparisons to Russia’s economic meltdown in 1998, when the government, under Boris Yeltsin, defaulted on its debt. Mr. Putin, the current prime minister and former president, and his protégé, President Dmitri A. Medvedev, try to assure the public that they are addressing its pain.2 Yet Mr. Putin has created a government so highly centralized and so resistant to criticism that it is unclear whether it can respond adeptly to rising dissatisfaction.8



At all levels, government officials are unaccustomed to vying in contested elections, let alone to reaching out for popular support or trying to get a feel for the range of grass-roots sentiment.1,2,3,7,8

The Parliament is essentially an arm of the Kremlin, and Mr. Putin has done away with the election of regional governors, who are now presidential appointees. The structure is known here as Mr. Putin’s vertical system of power ­ decisions emanate from the very top, then are passed down to regional and finally local officials.



Aleksandr A. Auzan, an economist and board member at a research institute set up by President Medvedev, said that in the Putin system, “there is not a relationship between the authorities and the people through the Parliament or through nonprofit organizations or other structures. The relationship to the people is basically through television.8 And under the conditions of the crisis, that can no longer work.”

In other words, if people feel their government is not heeding their complaints, they may think their only option is to take to the streets.

One social scientist, Yevgeny S. Gontmakher, created a bit of a sensation in political circles late last year when he explored this theme in an article in a newspaper, Vedomosti, that he titled, “Scenario: Novocherkassk ­ 2009.”

He described how unrest could occur in industrial cities that depend on a single factory, if the factory closes. (Novocherkassk is such a city; in Soviet times, food shortages set off riots there that the Soviets brutally suppressed.)8

In the scenario, local authorities beholden to Moscow would freeze up or panic in the face of spontaneous protests, and the situation would quickly deteriorate.



“The vertical system of power is not flexible,” Mr. Gontmakher said in an interview. “These bureaucrats, they wait for a reaction from Moscow, even in small situations, before making decisions. This is a big threat. It is very dangerous for Putin.12,7

The government’s response to the article hinted at how the authorities remain unsure whether to address the country’s financial troubles with a thaw or a crackdown. At first, Kremlin officials thanked Mr. Gontmakher. Then, federal media regulators warned Vedomosti that the article might be “an attempt to incite extremist activities.”

Mr. Putin may have also put himself in a political bind by establishing his tandem leadership with Mr. Medvedev. (Barred from running for a third consecutive presidential term, Mr. Putin anointed Mr. Medvedev as his successor and had Mr. Medvedev appoint him prime minister.)

Mr. Putin is still considered Russia’s paramount leader, but by taking the title of prime minister, he may have deprived himself of a fall-guy-in-waiting. That role traditionally has gone to Russia’s prime ministers; President Yeltsin repeatedly dismissed his during the 1998 default.

So far, Mr. Putin has instead made a scapegoat of the United States, saying it was at the heart of Russia’s crisis, rather than Russia’s over-reliance on the export of natural resources.8,1,2,3,7

Last week, as opposition leaders in Russia planned protests over the crisis, Mr. Putin was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.



He began his keynote address by saying, “In the last few months, virtually every speech on this subject has started with criticism of the United States. But I will do nothing of the kind.” And then he went on to do just that.
Dr. Gordon M. Hahn – Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; Senior Researcher, Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program and Visiting Assistant Professor, Graduate School of International Policy Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Monterey, California; and Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group. Dr Hahn is author of two well-received books, Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007) and Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), and numerous articles on Russian and Eurasian politics.

7 ONE-SIDED PERSPECTIVE: The indicated text sets the context of the article, which rests on the assumption that Putin should be blamed for the economic crisis in Russia – one that was caused by the global economic crisis induced by mistakes in U.S. economic policy, particularly housing policy. One issue the New York Times and the U.S. mainstream media will not raise is the positive side of Putin’s policies, in particular the large stabilization fund of $600 billion created for just such a ‘rainy day’. Another issue might be: what would the Russian crisis experience be like if the Kremlin were still controlled by a group of competing oligarchs. This is not to say that Putin’s economic system is an effective one capable of limiting the negative consequences of the global crisis for his country. It is to say that this and other articles produced by these media only look at the negative aspects of Putin’s rule.

8 LACK OF COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE: The Russian crisis, including the phenomena mentioned in this article, is not particularly unusual when compared to its effects on other countries. Iceland is bankrupt, the U.S. is experiencing rapidly rising unemployment and banking collapses. Indeed, for Russia the dissolution of insolvent banks may be a blessing, since Russia had too many banks to begin with.

2,7 OMISSION OF KEY FACTS and ONE-SIDED PERSPECTIVE: Omitted from Levy’s article is WHO created the stabilization funds accumulated during the good times and during whose tenure the good times occurred. If these facts were not omitted it would require including Putin’s positive role in this regard.

2 OMISSION OF KEY FACTS: Medvedev and Putin have taken numerous steps to address the population’s economic problems resulting from the crisis.

8 LACK OF COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE: Russia is hardly the most centralized or authoritarian government in the world. It is of interest that the U.S. mainstream media has not applied these criteria to China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and other highly authoritarian regimes.

1,2,3,7,8 OPINION PRESENTED AS NEWS, OMISSION OF KEY FACTS, INACCURATE STATEMENT/DATA, ONE-SIDED PERSPECTIVE, and LACK OF COMPARATIVE CONTEXT: This is opinion presented as news, and it is a gross overstatement and thus inaccurate to say that Russian officials are wholly “unaccustomed to vying in contested elections” or “trying to get a feel for the range of grass-roots sentiment.” Such a description would apply to a totalitarian regime, rather than Russia’s rather soft authoritarian regime. Levy omits that many regional governors and almost all city mayors have participated in elections. Although gubernatorial elections are no longer held, some elected governors remain in office, having been reappointed by Putin or Medvedev. While it is difficult to ascertain what Levy means by ‘government’, since journalists often refer to the presidential or gubernatorial administrations, government ministries, and parliaments as ‘government,’ it can be added that all of Russia’s legislative organs are popularly elected bodies, excluding the upper house of the Federal Assembly, the Federation Council. Furthermore, bodies such as the Public Chamber exist at all levels of administration precisely for gauging public opinion, including public councils under such bodies as the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs.) Opinion polls are routinely used by government officials as well. Indeed, if the Kremlin was not aware of the public’s “pain” referred to in the article’s previous paragraph, why would they be consciously addressing that very problem as stated in the same paragraph?

8 LACK OF COMPARATIVE PERPECTIVE: Although Russian civil society is relatively weak (and this explains in part the lack of a connection between NGOs and the state), there are some interactions between civil society and the state in Russia, and in most countries, the bulk of the population relates to government through television news not through NGOs. The key difference between democracies and Russia is the honesty of elections.

8 LACK OF COMPARATIVE PERPECTIVE: The scenarios and explanation Levy lays out here suggests that the real cause of any social upheaval resulting from the economic crisis may have more to do with the legacy of the communist economy which created the noted one-enterprise towns across Russia as much as the lack of democratic outlets and feedback.

12,7 LACK OF HISTORICAL CONTEXT and ONE-SIDED PERSPECTIVE: To be sure, the ‘ideal’ type of the ‘executive vertical envisioned by Putin and Levy would not be flexible. Fortunately, its rigor is much exaggerated. One will recall the historical Russian pattern of provincial officials playing lip service to directives from the center and the recently reported episode in which local MVD chief in Vladivostok refused to crackdown on demonstrations against the hike in automobile imports, forcing the Kremlin to send units from Moscow. In other words, the failure of the executive vertical could avoid or delay a provocative crackdown. In all the U.S. mass media’s coverage of the possibility of the economic crisis becoming a social and then political, one gets the distinct feeling that this is the product of wishful thinking rather than objective analysis; it is certainly not news reporting.

8,1,2,3,7 LACK OF COMPARATIVE CONTEXT, OPINION PRESENTED AS NEWS, OMISSION OF KEY FACTS, INACCURATE STATEMENT/DATA, and ONE-SIDED PERSPECTIVE: Here Levy’s argument loses water as soon as one attempts to compare Russia to other countries. Why is it that the U.S and virtually every state on earth are experiencing an economic crisis? Do they all have such dependency on oil exports? This consideration is omitted from the thinking of the New York Times, Clifford Levy, and the U.S. mainstream media and the Kremlin is incriminated under all circumstances. To be sure, Russia’s crisis may be worsened by its dependency on oil exports, but that needs further study, in particular of how the crisis plays out.



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