The Prime Minister has enjoined us to be ‘in complete solidarity with Russia and the Russian people’, and invites us to draw a parallel between the terrorist threat from al-Qa’eda and the threat posed by Chechen lunatics. I am not so sure about that. Is it not possible that if Osama bin Laden had never been born and there had been no attack on the World Trade Center, Russia would still be besieged by appallingly cruel home-grown terrorists? It is easy to feel a sense of solidarity with the people of Beslan, even of Russia, but impossible to identify with President Putin and his government. We do not share the same values. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Putin’s almost totalitarian treatment of the media.
When he became President four years ago, Russia had what approximated to an independent media. Now all television channels and nearly all newspapers are controlled directly or indirectly by the Kremlin. Putin nationalised the liberal NTV channel by putting it in the hands of Gazprom, a state-backed gas company. The country’s last independent television channel was shut down last year on the pretext of financial insolvency. A law passed last summer threatens newspapers with closure if, during an election period, they express any opinion about a politician’s policies, his campaign or his personality. Intimidated by these and other new laws, many newspaper journalists practise self-censorship. There has been very little critical coverage of Putin’s human rights abominations in Chechnya. Television cameras follow Putin slavishly around Russia, portraying him in a heroic light.
Nonetheless, the Kremlin has not totally succeeded in throttling the independent media, as was clear from the reaction of some newspapers to the Russian government’s amazingly inept handling of the crisis in Beslan.