If President Bush thought he would receive support from Russian reporters when he raised the cause of free speech, he did not know much about the Kremlin press pool.
"What is this lack of freedom all about?" one Russian reporter challenged Bush during his joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday. "Our regional and national media often criticize government institutions."
Bush seemed surprised. "Obviously, if you're a member of the Russian press, you feel like the press is free," he replied. "You feel that way? That's good." Bush added, "That is a pretty interesting observation for those of us who don't live in Russia to listen to."
The exchange illustrated more about the state of freedom in Russia than met the eye. While Putin travels around with a contingent of reporters just as Bush does, the Kremlin press pool is a handpicked group of reporters, most of whom work for the state and the rest selected for their fidelity to the Kremlin's rules of the game. Helpful questions are often planted. Unwelcome questions are not allowed. And anyone who gets out of line can get out of the pool.
The Kremlin press pool is like so many institutions in Russia that have the trappings of a Western-style pluralistic society but operate under a different set of understandings, part of what analyst Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center calls "the illusion of democracy." Television channels air newscasts with fancy graphics but follow scripts approved by the Kremlin. Elections are held, but candidates out of favor with the Kremlin are often knocked off the ballot. Courts conduct trials, but the state almost never loses. Parliament meets but only to rubber-stamp Kremlin legislation.
Putin offered an example of that at the news conference when defending his decision last fall to abolish elections of regional governors. "The leaders of the regions of the Russian Federation will not be appointed by the president," he said. They will be approved by "regional parliaments, which are directly chosen by secret ballot." Putin compared this to the Electoral College, which selects U.S. presidents. "It is not considered undemocratic, is it?"
In fact, under the new system, Putin will appoint governors. His selections have to be ratified by regional legislatures, but if such a legislature rejects his choice twice, it will be dissolved. As for secret ballots, Russian regional leaders have proved adept at generating the outcomes they wish.
Although some print media in Russia remain lively and critical of the government, coming to Putin's defense at yesterday's news conference in Slovakia were two reporters who belong to the Kremlin press pool. The first was Andrei Kolesnikov, a correspondent for Kommersant, a business newspaper owned by Putin critic Boris Berezovsky. But Kolesnikov just released two books about his time covering Putin that the Kremlin likes.
Kolesnikov challenged Bush, asserting that "it's impossible to call Russia or the U.S. fully democratic" and questioned Bush about the "enormous powers of the security services" in the United States that had resulted in "the private lives of citizens falling under the control of the government."
The second reporter, who questioned Bush's assertion that Russian media are not free, works for Interfax, a news service that often closely hews the state line. He asked Bush "about violations of the rights of journalists in the United States, about the fact that some journalists have been fired."
While he did not specify what he meant, Russian media several years ago highlighted the cases of a couple U.S. journalists at obscure news organs who lost jobs after criticizing Bush's post-Sept. 11 legislation. Bush noted that whenever reporters are fired in the United States, it is not by the government.
In Russia, on the other hand, Putin's Kremlin used a state-controlled company to take over the only independent television network, NTV. When the ousted NTV journalists took over a different channel, TV-6, the state shut it down. When they tried again with a network called TVS, Putin's press minister yanked it off the air and replaced it with a sports channel.
The general manager installed at NTV after the Kremlin takeover was later fired when his coverage of the Moscow theater siege in 2002 angered Putin. Then NTV's most independent remaining hosts, Leonid Parfyonov and Savik Shuster, were taken off the air after the government bristled at their talk shows. Shuster's show was called "Freedom of Speech."
Kolesnikov's predecessor at Kommersant, Yelena Tregubova, was kicked out of the Kremlin press pool because, she said, she would not follow official instructions. She later wrote a tell-all book that peeved the Kremlin. When Parfyonov interviewed her for NTV, the segment was yanked after it had already aired in eastern time zones. When a small bomb exploded outside her apartment door last year, Tregubova fled the country.
If Bush does not trust the Russian press to get the story of yesterday's news conference right, he can at least go to the Kremlin's own Web site. On it was posted a transcript of the joint news conference. Only all of Bush's statements and answers were deleted.