The writing on the wall?

On Friday, a Russian news agency had its publishing licence revoked, supposedly for publishing two ‘profane’ Youtube clips. For Daniil Kotsyubinsky, however, the episode was but the latest example of a 'summary execution' — intended as a warning to any would-be political independents.

Daniil Kotsyubinsky
5 November 2013

The revocation of the news agency Rosbalt’s licence seems at first glance to be more suited to the theatre of the absurd. One of the Russia’s biggest internet media outlets has been closed down because it posted two video clips which contained some obscene language. You really couldn’t make it up!

First, the idiocy of the charge. Rosbalt has been shut down for using video material taken from YouTube, which exists perfectly legally in Russia and which [federal communications watchdog] Roskomnadzor has never challenged about its use of unacceptable language. 

Second, the speed with which the ‘death sentence’ was carried out. The Moscow city court ordained that Rosbalt’s licence should be revoked without even waiting for an appeal hearing, following the magistrate court’s decision that found Rosbalt guilty of breaking an anti-obscenity media law.

It’s blatantly obvious that Rosbalt was not being punished for using a few four letter words. Practically all the commentators agree on that. Then what for? And – more importantly – what would this achieve?

To unlock the full mystery of Rosbalt’s demise, we must avail ourselves of methods used for archeological reconstruction i.e. examine this event not just as a strange phenomenon in itself, but as a tiny knuckle bone which will permit us to recreate the whole skeleton of the Putin dinosaur. But even before we move on to the level of broad historical and political generalisation, let us try and grasp what actually happened in this particular case. And for that we need to remind ourselves how the Rosbalt news agency came into being.

A secret police idyll

Rosbalt was set up in late 2000/early 2001 i.e. at the very beginning of Putin’s first presidential term, and as the name suggests, its initial news coverage was to be limited to Russia’s North-West region. 

A small, but important, point and one that is now quite difficult to grasp: at that time Vladimir Putin saw one of his most important goals as the removal of  Vladimir Yakovlev from his post as Governor of St Petersburg. In the 1996 election Yakovlev had defeated Putin’s patron, the mayor of St Petersburg Anatoly Sobchak, and subsequently sacked the whole Sobchak team from the city government. Putin himself was even unemployed for a few months, so for him Yakovlev’s victory was a kind of public humiliation. 


Viktor Cherkesov meeting with his one-time junior Putin at Novo-Ogaryovo. Cherkesov's independence, and subsequent loss of influence, was arguably the most significant factor behind the decision to revoke Rosbalt's licence. Photo (c) RIA Novosti/Vladimir Rodionov

Four years later, at the 2000 gubernatorial elections, Yakovlev put on a particularly confident show (and indeed he took 75% of the vote). Putin at the time was consolidating his position as national leader, but nonetheless felt obliged to withdraw his own candidate, Valentina Matviyenko, and recall her to Moscow before the election — A second ritual humiliation in his own city. 

The coordinator of the attacks on Yakovlev was presidential representative and FSB general Viktor Cherkesov, whose specially-created ‘media pool’ included the news agency Rosbalt - which just happened to be headed by Viktor’s wife Natalya.

So it’s not difficult to see why political revenge on Yakovlev became a matter of honour for Putin. Soon enough, a massive ‘special operation’, including police, political and media campaigns, was organised against Yakovlev. This ran according to plan for three years until Governor Yakovlev blinked first and announced his early retirement, rather than losing to Valentina Matviyenko at the next election.

All throughout this time the coordinator of the attacks on Yakovlev was the Presidential Representative for the North-West Region [and FSB general] Viktor Cherkesov. He had a specially-created ‘media pool’ (TV, newspaper and internet) to help him, and the news agency Rosbalt was an important part of this system. And it just happened to be headed by Viktor Cherkesov’s wife Natalya, a well-known Petersburg journalist and former editor in chief of the weekly ‘Petersburg Rush Hour’. 

I worked with Natalya on ‘Rush Hour’ and I know that she is a lively and talented manager, so I was in no way surprised when Rosbalt quite quickly expanded its area of operation and became one of the most influential Russian news and analysis internet media outlets. In other words, conditions for Rosbalt were very favourable from the beginning and Vladimir Putin’s support, direct or indirect, was an important part of this. And in return, he obviously saw Viktor Cherkesov and the Rosbalt News Agency headed by Natalya Cherkesova as all part of one political whole.

Putin and Cherkesov in fact went back some way together, and by the beginning of the 2000s, when Rosbalt was set up, their relationship was based on very considerable levels of trust. 

While Putin was Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee and First Deputy Mayor of St Petersburg (1991-6), Cherkesov was head of the St Petersburg and Leningrad Regional FSB [successor organisation to the KGB] (1992-8).  Assuming that some kind of informal hierarchy had been preserved within the ‘Secret Police Empire’, Lieutenant-General Cherkesov must at that time have been senior officer to the ‘plain clothes’ FSB officer Lieutenant-Colonel Putin.

The relationship of trust between Putin and Cherkesov lasted throughout the 90s, despite the sensational corruption scandal linked with Putin’s name. 

The relationship of trust between Putin and Cherkesov lasted throughout the 90s, despite the sensational corruption scandal linked with Putin’s name. A group of deputies from the city parliament accused him, as head of the Foreign Relations Committee, of a multi-million fraud relating to the procurement by St Petersburg of food products in return for raw materials.  Anatoly Sobchak had considerable difficulty in persuading the deputies to let the matter drop, but the Petersburg FSB division, of which Cherkesov was the head, showed no interest in the deputies’ investigations. 

When Putin became head of the FSB in 1998, he appointed Cherkesov his First Deputy; in 2000, as he prepared to become president, he made him one of the managers of his election team and a member of the Security Council, and afterwards entrusted him with the responsible job of organising the ‘overthrow’ of Petersburg’s Governor Yakovlev. Then, on the successful conclusion of this project, Cherkesov was appointed to the influential and prestigious position of Head of the State Committee (later to become the Federal Service) for the Control of Narcotics. 

A rebellious general 

After that the idyllic relationship beween Putin and Cherkesov started falling apart. We needn’t go into the details of why this happened; the main thing is that that twice (in 2004 and 2007) Viktor Cherkesov acted off his own bat, publishing critical interviews which had not been agreed with Putin. These interviews revealed the existence within the Putin team of antagonism between various interest groups, and indeed within the FSB itself. In other words, Viktor Cherkesov showed himself to be a relatively independent ‘politician-secret policeman’ with his own views, principles and ideas about the limits of free public discussion.

The first time this happened Putin asked Dmitry Medvedev (at that time Head of the Presidential Administration) to ‘reply’ to General Cherkesov via a similar extended interview, which he did without actually naming the former FSB general. Cherkesov just about kept his job, but his influence was obviously on the wane, and his unauthorised attempts to continue his battle with corruption in the higher echelons led to the arrest of his own subordinates. Which is when he decided to publish the second interview.

Cherkesov showed himself to be a relatively independent ‘politician-secret policeman’ with his own views, principles and ideas

This time Putin himself openly criticised Cherkesov for bringing into the public domain information about conflict within the FSB. Some time later Lt Gen Cherkesov was dismissed from his prestigious ‘police’ position and transferred to a less distinguished ‘commercial’ post as head of the Federal Agency for Military Procurement. But here too, as in his former job, he tried to show his independence in dealing with corruption, so finally, in 2010, Cherkesov was removed from that post too. Russian Newsweek wrote at the time that: ‘Cherkesov’s dismissal is the first case of a close buddy of Vladimir Putin (they studied together at the Law Faculty of Leningrad State University and worked together in the FSB) leaving for…nowhere.’ 

In 2011 Viktor Cherkesov was elected as a Communist Party MP, so making his opposition to Vladimir Putin and United Russia official. 

The tightening of the media screws 

As General Cherkesov gradually slipped down the administrative chain, the Rosbalt news agency, run by his energetic wife, became ever more successful and influential, ending up as one of the top ten of Russian internet media resources. It retained a degree of loyalty to Putin and to Russia’s national interests while at the same time publishing critical analyses and comments on the actions of the Russian government as a whole. Over this long period, however, Rosbalt’s style of journalism probably gave the Kremlin little cause for anxiety. 

After the 2011-12 events on Bolotnaya Square, a raft of anti-constitutional laws were passed, which effectively legalised punitive censorship in Russia

But after the 2011-12 events on Bolotnaya Square, the Kremlin embarked on a new hard-line policy on the dissemination of news and information, using fascist-style campaigns (against homosexuals, atheists and migrants) to up the temperature of intolerance and conflict in society, and to increase the perceived need for paternalism and direct police clampdowns in order to control processes in society. A raft of anti-constitutional laws were passed, which effectively legalised punitive censorship in Russia: bans on promoting homosexuality among young people, on offending the sensibilities of religious believers and on using foul language in the media etc. etc.

These laws were obviously intended to tighten up control of all the media, including the internet, forcing providers and editors to practise strict self-censorship out of fear of the repressive measures which might rain down on the head of any unsuspecting media outlet at any time and for any reason. 

The technology for implementing strict media self-censorship had been developed by Vladimir Putin as far back as 2001. That was the time of the ‘show’ crackdown and the seizure of NTV, which had dared to portray the actions of the Russian government in a critical light. After that, all Russian TV channels without exception ceased to be agencies providing information to the public and became instead purveyors of government propaganda.  Print media, however, and especially the internet, remained relatively independent. 

Protest leaders Garry Kasparov, Aleksey Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov share a platform at the Rosbalt news agency. While some way off being a radical media outlet, Rosbalt nonethless has proved too unreliable to be left to its own devices.

But now the time has come to crush Runet [the Russian internet] and, apparently, Rosbalt is playing the role of the ‘second NTV’ i.e. the media freethinker which is demonstratively condemned to death, and whose public execution is intended to serve as a warning to all the others.  

The disloyalty of Rosbalt

Rosbalt would no doubt have managed to survive in the new frosty media landscape, had it had toned down its oppositional stance and shown more loyalty to Putin’s ‘new course’.  But it did exactly the opposite. The site became ever more critical of the Putin government’s foreign policy, of the Kremlin’s authoritarian regression and the police’s abuse of powers. Rosbalt was one of Russia’s first media outlets to publish sharp criticism of the homophobic legislation and the bigoted attacks by the Russian Orthodox Church (supported by the Kremlin) on the life of civil society. Sometimes the pages of Rosbalt referred sceptically to the ‘sacred cows of the secret police mentality’- imperialist great power ideas and spymania. Rosbalt set up a special page with the pithy title ‘The post-P generation’ to publish articles written by younger journalists, students of various Russian and foreign universities, also naturally written from an opposition standpoint.

The Russian internet has of course other sites and outlets which express considerably sharper criticism of Russian government actions and Putin himself. But the disloyalty of these sites doesn’t bother the Kremlin. In the political plan they are marginal, as they are not connected with any of the real political forces that exist in Russia and which are in one way or another dependent on Putin. In other words, they are not ‘political entities’ and are not capable of rattling the stability of the existing Putin system of checks and balances.

Rosbalt is a completely different matter. Putin’s relations with Cherkesov may have cooled, but this media resource is regarded by the Kremlin as a political entity, for Viktor Cherkesov, despite everything, is still an important figure in the political hierarchy of today’s Russia. And they see that now, out of the blue, Rosbalt has started behaving in almost the same way as the most hostile liberal media outlets…

Sentence was carried out as fast as possible: this was no battle to preserve the ‘purity of the Russian language’, but a summary execution dressed up as ‘judicial process’.

The first alarm bell rang this summer when the author of the controversial law ‘On prohibiting the promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships’, MP Elena Mizulina, accused Rosbalt of libel. Some expert, writing on the  site, had expressed the view that Elena Mizulina was bent on banning oral sex in Russia. Mizulina decided to refute this statement and submitted a complaint to the Investigative Committee, the Russian equivalent of the FBI. At the time few could have imagined that this caricature-porno interlude would trigger very dramatic events.

It was probably just at this time that the Kremlin, thinking it was time for a high-profile internet-execution, decided on the much too opposition-minded Rosbalt as its target. The sentence was pronounced and carried out in the shortest time possible, so that no one would have any doubts: this was no battle to preserve the ‘purity of the Russian language in the internet space’, but a summary execution by censorship dressed up as ‘judicial process.’

A pinch of historical metaphysics

It’s quite obvious that the Rosbalt affair involves many private, incidental and even personal factors which could be said to make it unusual. But there is also something absolutely objective and, dare one say it, metaphysical in all this. Effectively we are dealing with another ‘typical episode’ in Russia’s many centuries of political history.

Russia is a country that was created from the start by violent occupation (first by the Mongols, then by Muscovy).  There is no tradition of legal self-regulation in either the centre or the regions. Since the 15th-16th centuries the only political entity in Russia has been the autocratic ruler. There was no horizontal legal framework in Russia five hundred years ago, and there is none now. And, moreover, as soon as any political force tries to demonstrate that it is a political entity, Russia leaves the phase of stability and starts slipping towards revolution and disintegration (as in the early 17th century Time of Troubles). 

In the 20th century Russian autocracy twice lost its monopoly as a political entity: as a result it twice endured total collapse – in 1917 and 1991. The only support for the heterogeneous, archaic and long since obsolescent imperial machine called Russia is society’s inertia, rooted in fear of the government. As soon as the autocratic ruler loses his authority and power, the whole imperial carcass collapses.

In today’s Russia any conversation between the regime and society is a short one.

So any claim to be a political entity (whether at an individual or mass level, verbal or based on force) is instinctively regarded as rebellion by the government and instantly put down because it carries within it the seed of the collapse of the entire Russian autocracy. In the 16th century, at the time the centralised Russian state was being established, Ivan the Terrible indiscriminately destroyed anyone who had retained even the most insignificant signs of political independence – illustrious boyars, his closest counsellors, the deputies of the Land Assembly, religious leaders, a whole city (Novgorod the Great) and his cousin Vladimir. In the 21st century, the age of Putin’s ‘restoration of the empire’, the same logic applies: independent TV channels, a whole country (Chechnya), elected governors, oligarchs who don’t toe the line (Mikhail Khodorkovsky), excessively independent journalists (Anna Politkovskaya), insufficiently toadyish team members (Viktor Cherkesov) were all destroyed.  

Now it is Rosbalt’s turn… 

In today’s Russia any conversation between the regime and society is a short one. If you want to oppose Putin, you can bid goodbye to any future; you’ll end up on the margins of the opposition i.e. you’ll be a ‘would-be political entity.’  If you want to have a future, to be ‘inside the system’, then don’t try to become a political animal. Don’t get involved in the game of independent politics. ‘Don’t rock the boat.’

As soon as the autocratic ruler loses his authority and power, the whole imperial carcass collapses.

All quite logical really. But that’s the trouble. This ‘prison warden’ system of government is so abhorrent to human nature, it makes society (including the elites) so neurotic, that a nationwide nervous breakdown is inevitable. And this will target the regime, rather than ‘gays’ or ‘foreigners’, as the Kremlin would like to think. 

This breakdown will be followed by the next imperial landslide, as surely as day follows night. And to judge by the gloomy tension which reigns in Russian society today, this will happen before Putin manages to exit smoothly into retirement. No censorship of the internet or TV, no public executions of news agencies will change anything. The writing is on the wall: like the Babylonian empire, Putin’s Russia has been ‘weighed in the balance and found wanting.’ (Daniel, 5.27)










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