Late last week, several parties called for a boycott of the Gazeta newspaper, which published an interview with Eduard Limonov, writer and National Bolshevik Party (NBP) leader. The other parties claim that the interview contained calls for extremism. On April 9, the Presnenskaya inter-district prosecutor’s office started inspecting the “Seeking a Solution” radio program, broadcast on Echo of Moscow, for violations of media laws; Limonov also participated in that program. Media representatives say that these actions are an attempt to try out a new technique for restricting free speech.
Gazeta published the interview on April 5. Limonov talked about the aims of Dissenter March participants – President Putin’s resignation and free elections – alleging that Putin is guilty of “dozens of crimes committed during his time in power.” Limonov said that the present-day regime is “vile and antiquated, akin to Tsarism in its worst form,” and that “the servility flooding our whole country makes me sick.”
Limonov also said that Chechnya should be separated from Russia, because Russia cannot “fight a hundred-year war,” and “in any event, Russians and Chechens won’t be able to live in harmony on the territory of Chechnya for generations to come.”
Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Political Techniques Center, points out in an article for Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal that what Gazeta published was not “self-promotion for Limonov,” but “a perfectly normal interview, including some inconvenient questions: the odd alliance between Limonov and Kasyanov, and Limonov’s extremely unpopular stance on Chechnya, and the fact that most voters don’t support the NBP but do like President Putin.”
Alexei Makarkin: “However, Limonov’s interview was published in the lead-up to another Dissenter March, which is drawing a harsh reaction from the authorities – given what happened in St. Petersburg, when the radical opposition managed to get the media’s attention. Moreover, the boycott of Gazeta is supposed to be a warning to other media outlets who might consider giving some coverage to Limonov or ‘politicians who cooperate with him.’ All this seems to be the explanation for subsequent events – efforts to mobilize parties for a boycott of the guilty newspaper.”
Kommersant reports that on April 6, statements condemning the “promotion of extremism” in Gazeta were posted on the websites of four parties that signed the Anti-Fascist Pact in February 2006.
The first to speak out was Civil Force (Grazhdanskaya Sila): the head of its political council, Alexander Ryavkin, said that “proponents of a destructive, misanthropic ideology” have no right to access a wide audience via the media, and announced that Civil Force is “ceasing any and all interaction with the Gazeta newspaper.” Civil Force leader Mikhail Barshchevsky expressed support. Noting that he doesn’t want to “call on anyone else to do anything,” he promised that he would not give “any interviews or comments to Gazeta for three months.”
Gazeta has responded by noting that Barshchevsky and his party have never been among the outstanding newsmakers on its pages.
Kommersant reports that the boycott was also mentioned by LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who cited Article 7 of the Anti-Fascist Pact, which obliges its signatory parties to “boycott any media outlets that offer a forum for individuals who promote the ideology of fascism.”
The Union of Right Forces (SPS) press service said that the party fails to understand why “a respected newspaper is offering space on its pages to a person who is one of the symbols of national-socialist ideology in Russia.”
The last salvo in the “anti-extremist” offensive was fired by United Russia. Andrei Isayev, deputy secretary of United Russia’s general council presidium, said that Gazeta facilitated the publication of Limonov’s extremist appeals, and proposed “discussing the Gazeta newspaper’s actions” in light of the abovementioned Article 7 from the Anti-Fascist Pact.
Then again, some party members later chose to back down. For example, SPS leaders told Kommersant that the party has not expressed any official judgements about Gazeta. “This is an act of provocation,” said Boris Nadezhdin, secretary of the SPS federal political council. “The party staff responsible for this have already been punished.”
According to Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal, Vladimir Zhirinovsky said that the LDPR is not calling for a boycott of Gazeta and considers that such a move would be a mistake. He promised to “reprimand” the speechwriter who inserted that passage into his statement. Zhirinovsky said: “Boycotts are unnecessary – they’re nonsense. The LDPR has never been in favor of boycotts or bans.” However, LDPR lawmaker Sergei Abeltsev has sent an enquiry to the Prosecutor General’s Office, requesting it to “pay close attention” to “sorting out” Limonov’s interview.
Mikhail Barshchevsky told Echo of Moscow that although he has “always regarded Limonov as a political provocateur, freedom of speech hasn’t been abolished in Russia.” He went on to say: “If Limonov wishes to speak out on any topic – barring extremist or unconstitutional statements – then any newspaper has the legal right to publish what he says.”
According to journalist Alexander Ryklin (Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal), the simultanous call for a boycott by four parties could only have been the result of telephone calls from the presidential administration, demanding that the parties condemn Gazeta. “Those who made the corresponding statements didn’t dare to disobey,” says Ryklin.
In Ryklin’s view, the fact that the SPS appeared in the company of “the likes of Isayev, Zhirinovsky, and Barshchevsky” indicates that the person at the SPS press service who took the phone call from Vladislav Surkov and complied with the demand to condemn Gazeta didn’t consider it necessary to inform SPS leaders of this: “Why bother telling them, if they have no choice but to comply? It’s an order from the boss, after all.”
Ryklin’s prediction: “As the domestic political situation grows more acute, such incidents will happen more and more often. Very soon, we will reach the point where Kremlin handlers stop allowing their underlings to disclaim responsibility for whatever they do on the pretext of saving face. So the age-old question of ‘Whose side are you on, masters of culture?’ will have to be met with a clear and unequivocal reply – and they’ll find themselves in the company of Isayevs, Zhirinovskys, and Barshchevskys.”
Once the “masters of culture” had had their say, the judicial bodies moved in. Moscow prosecutors took an interest in what Eduard Limonov said on Echo of Moscow. As Novye Izvestia reports, prosecutors are investigating to see if any media laws were broken during the “Seeking a Solution” program, broadcast on April 9. The program’s topic was “Unperson (according to Orwell),” and it took the form of an interview with Limonov.
Staff at the Moscow prosecutor’s office told Novye Izvestia that they have “no comments as yet.”
“Let the prosecutors check it out,” says Echo of Moscow chief editor Alexei Venediktov. “The only thing I find surprising is that although we also interviewed Konstantin Kosachev and Vladimir Yakunin that day, no one is investigating those broadcasts. In this case, the selective attention of the Moscow prosecutors seems suspicious to me.”
When Lenta.ru asked if he expects Echo of Moscow to be penalized in any way for giving Limonov some airtime, Venediktov pointed out that “according to the law, there cannot be any penalties – but according to lawlessness, we’ll wait and see.”
Venediktov told Gazeta.ru: “Our lawyers say there was nothing unlawful in that broadcast. On the contrary, as the chief editor, I’m disappointed – the program turned out to be rather dull.”
Of course, Limonov talked about the potential boycott of Gazeta in his Echo of Moscow interview. Like Ryklin, he attributed “such unanimous cries of outrage from all those so-called political parties” to “a memo from the Kremlin.” According to Limonov, the presidential administration issued instructions for organizing some popular party indignation, in the knowledge that a court case currently under way concerns condemning the NBP as an extremist organization.
The next Moscow City Court hearing in the NBP case is set for April 18. Limonov said: “Of course, they had to do something to give the impression that everyone in Russia condemns this person named Limonov – this misanthropist, as they call me.”
Limonov also applied the term “extremism” to a call from political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky for pro-Kremlin youth groups to enter into physical confrontations with Dissenter March participants.
Yezednevnyi Zhurnal notes a curious detail. The Echo of Moscow broadcast included a phone-in poll for listeners: they were asked if they would vote for the NBP in a parliamentary election – and 87% of the 5,800 participants said yes.
In an interview with Gazeta.ru, Alexei Venediktov notes that the Moscow prosecutor’s office investigation of Echo of Moscow is “an attempt to tell other media outlets that it’s best not to give certain individuals any airtime – not even if they keep silent. And who would risk trouble with the prosecutors for the sake of some Limonov or Illarionov, or some former prime minister called Kasyanov?”
Kommersant says that other leaders of the Other Russia alliance may be next in line for persona non grata status, like Limonov: for example, Garry Kasparov or Mikhail Kasyanov. “At any rate, Gazeta chief editor Petr Fadeyev admits the possibility that this might be a test case,” says Kommersant.
“This is an attempt to test a certain technique,” Fadeyev told Kommersant. “As for who will apply it – that remains uncertain. It isn’t clear why an interview with a writer has caused such a fuss. After all, our country still has freedom of opinion and freedom of speech. Even if the NBP was officially banned, that doesn’t mean that individual NBP members can’t express their thoughts.” According to Fadeyev, there are no grounds at all for issuing a warning to Gazeta regarding “extremist” activities: “If there had been any extremism in that interview, we wouldn’t have published it. We don’t interview Osama bin Laden, after all.”
In an election year, the authorities are sure to turn their attention to the Internet as well. According to Novye Izvestia, the National Anti-Terrorist Committee (NAC) is working on some amendments intended to increase penalties for ISPs, holding them responsible for dissemination of terrorist or extremist materials.
On April 9, NAC spokesman Nikolai Sintsov said that the NAC is preparing some proposals for changes to legislation: tougher penalties for ISPs, holding them responsible for dissemination of terrorist materials. News agencies quote Sintsov as saying: “We believe that strict measures should be taken to prevent terrorist and extremist ideas from being promulgated via the Internet.”
Viktor Ozerov, chairman of the Federation Council’s defense and security committee, assured Novye Izvestia that if some way can be found of implementing this idea in terms of technology, lawmakers will certainly find a way of setting it down in law.
Ivan Zasursky, director of the Media Culture and Communications Laboratory (Journalism Faculty, Moscow State University), says the special services already have ways of monitoring the Internet: “They already see everything and know everything. They’re already reading e-mail – what more do you want?” Zasursky attributes attempts to pass tougher legislation to the approaching elections. “In principle, they’re sure to tighten the screws to some extent in the lead-up to elections,” he told Novye Izvestia. “The only question is how tight they will be.”