Another attempt to make some kind of sense of what's going on east of the Dniester. Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan come in for special attention.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Thoughts on party and NGO funding (Part I)

A recent issue of The Economist had a very interesting article on Russia under Putin, touching on a great many aspects of the country today. Two issues that really piqued my interest were the funding of political parties by big business, and NGOs by foreign aid funds. I'd be interested in hearing the thoughts of any readers (I think I have precisely 2, but they're 2 good readers!)

The article's author maintains that among the reasons for Khodorkovskii's incarceration was the fact that he tried to buy up political support in the Duma - an allegation that is, to the best of my knowledge, unproven. If he did, however, what's the problem? Businessmen in the West certainly use some of their money to support parties either ideologically sympathetic to further goals/values held mutually, or willing to trade influence for monetary support. Politics and media being what they are, we never hear of the innocuous cases (if there are such things) - only the ones in which financing has been used to secure favours, "access," favourable legislation, even fast-tracked citizenship status, etc.

Well, clearly, there are several problems with the idea of political financing by business, in both West and East. In the West, one need only look as far as recent scandals with both Democrats and Republicans, Lord Levy and "peerages for cash," or the Canadian Liberal meltdown. It's a fairly off-putting spectacle. But what of the East?

I would posit that crucial parts of the "money + politics" system are missing here, only making the potential for abuse even greater. In no particular order, these are: a truly independent and more or less responsible press, a taxation system conducive to political (or charitable) giving (and requiring reporting of gifts,) endemic corruption and utterly opaque political decision-making.

The press in the West is a key element in calling attention to suspicious instances of money for access, and they do flag these. While the media in the West is far from perfect and/or perfectly independent, and press vendettas do take place, they have a considerable edge over their East European counterparts (in Ukraine, Russia, etc.) in this regard. However much one may dislike the idea of massive media conglomerates like News Corp, Clear Channel (or the former Conrad Black empire) -- and I do dislike them -- I have a perhaps mistaken belief that the driving motive behind the agglomeration of these media resources is profit, not what could be called, for lack of a better term, the propaganda imperative.

Contrary to apparently popular belief, there are newspapers and radio stations not run by the Kremlin in Russia. However, just as a Kremlin-controlled newspaper or radio/TV station is not likely to step over the line in reporting anything that would be frowned up by the handlers (and we have seen many examples of what happens when one does dare to infringe,) and is frequently used as a clearing-house for official views, attacks, etc., the privately-owned press has been similarly used as a cudgel against the political or business enemies of the respective owners. And journalists are for sale. One need only remember how Sergei Dorenko sold himself to the Putin camp, using his Sunday broadcast to villify Luzhkov, only to later perform a similar function for the anti-Putins. Or one can think back to the spectacle of Berezovskii vs. Gusinskii - not the finest hour of the non-official press.

At the end of the day, therefore, it apears to me that the media in Russia and Ukraine has two functions: to promulgate the official "line" and to attack one's enemies. I see no public information component. This, of course, applies to the "serious" publications. For that reason, one has every reason to be on one's guard when learning of allegations of corruption here (although it's so obviously widespread!): it's simply too likely that the charges are political. So, who does one trust? Do not answer "The court system," please.

This utter inability to trust the media, coupled with the fact that even the most positive political developments take place almost exclusively behind closed doors (and Yushchenko is a past master at cutting the ground out from under his own feet in this regard) leaves your average Ukrainian or Russian with few options other than to believe that they (public figures) are uniformly corrupt.

More to come, but your thoughts, please.

1 comment:

Pēteris Cedriņš said...

There are a lot of similar problems with the media in Latvia, despite a theoretical (and fortunately, for the most part also practical) freedom of the press. Like our beloved political parties, newspapers tend to be in somebody's pocket -- the worst example would be NRA, which is very obviously a possession of the sweet Lettish oligarch Lembergs ("transparency is not a striptease"). The most respectable newspaper, Diena, is portrayed as a vehicle of the Sorosistas and like evil cosmopolitans therefore -- unfortunately, some of the slant Diena has offered in the past (most visible when it covers local anomalies, like politics in Stalkerlande [yet another name for Dvinsk, Blair, gratis Diena...]) could also be called "independent" only with great difficulty. The op-ed page sometimes reads like it was written at Langley. On burning issues, like adamant support for EU entry, it blurs the line between news and stance; on the other hand, I happen to agree with its stance most of the time.

If you measure by the number of subscribers rather than readers, Latvijas Avīze is now the main paper -- originally "the peasant's paper," it has veered increasingly rightward, and I would no longer hesitate to say that it is way out on the very edge of right field these days, providing legitimacy for persons like Raivis Dzintars on the far right (he was actually their politics editor before taking a leave of absence to run for parliament). The Russian language press is for the most part remarkably noxious; being hateful sells more papers, and the most "normal" Russian paper, Telegraf, is also the least read. Perhaps unusually, then, national television is actually more trustworthy?

I would also note that there is a very strong local press scene in Latvia. Daugavpils, for example, with a pop. of ca. 115 000, has five furiously competitive newspapers. The local offers a better (maybe more depressing) view of how cliques work, however -- and we don't have parties; we have cliques, lucre dominating their (lack of) convictions.

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