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#5 - JRL 7137
Date: Tue, 08 Apr 2003 m
From: Jody Ferguson <jferguson@nbr.org>
Subject: Russian media coverage of Iraq

Dear David,

I have been closely following the Russian coverage of the war, in print, television, and radio.

It has been extremely interesting seeing the reaction.

Of course, thanks to your great work, we are able to follow the latest Russian opinion polls, the Russian government line, and also the take of many intellectuals in Russia.

As most people who moderate your list can see, there is a divergence at the top level. Many of the intellectuals and academics at the institutes around Moscow (many who are most definitely not pro-American) have been warning that criticizing the US over such an issue such as Iraq is (in the words of one analyst in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta) "the height of stupidity." Foremost in their in their minds is what makes the most sense in terms of protecting Russia's strategic interests. Although it may be distasteful, they argue that Russia should fall in line behind the U.S., and become a favored strategic ally along the lines of Great Britain (one analyst even suggests that Russia become the "next Great Britain"). It is also interesting to note that many of the oligarchs also support this view, not least Mikhail Khodorkovsky of YUKOS. Whereas in the period prior to the war in Iraq, anti-Americanism seemed to be centered squarely among intellectuals, now it seems to have filtered down to the average Ivan on the street. And now within the government, particularly the Foreign Ministry, there has been a very negative backlash to the United States and its overbearing attitude (not surprising I suppose since Igor Ivanov is a trusted Primakov lieutenant). Prior to the war, most people on the streets had a fairly positive image of the United States (at least that had been my experience living for almost two years in Russia), and Vladimir Putin seemed to share this view. As recently as late January Putin had strongly supported the US in Iraq and had backed UN Resolution 1441. Then, suddenly in February the Russian attitude changed. There seems to have been a flip-flop about that time. No doubt Putin's switch was partly a reaction to domestic currents, and no doubt it was partly due to the bullying attitude on display in Washington in the months preceding the war. At any rate, some of the analysis touches on this, and Masha Lipppman's recent article points to the concern of the Kremlin toward the rise in support for the communists on the eve of the Duma election. Now, of course, it looks as if Putin is changing tack again and is ready to support a continued partnership with the United States.

At home (here in Seattle) I have been able to follow the state press (Vremya, etc.) on television, and I am struck at how closely the coverage of Iraq mirrors the coverage of Chechnya in the West. Most news reports features the suffering Iraqi people. Shots of women and children in hospitals is the favored camera angle. And whereas US coverage of the Iraqi war is done from the perspective of the US and British soldiers, so too does Russian coverage of Chechnya (with the exception of NTV in the past) focus on the Russian soldiers. I became instantly aware of these similarities.

Most fascinating for us (my Russian wife included) has been the Russian coverage of the war in Iraq from the US-based Russian media, particularly RTN (Russian Television Network, based in New York and run by emigrees) and Russkoe Radio (based here in Seattle where there is a very sizeable Russian and Ukranian emigree community). These two stations have made it clear that they will not be outflanked on the right in their coverage of the war. They want to be seen as more pro-American than even the White House. Russkoe Radio had a program yesterday that featured Russian state media coverage of the war. The announcer, who usually does feature stories on Russians living in the US, spent the entire time lambasting Vremya and the other state-controlled media, saying that it appears as if they are working for the Iraqi Information Ministry. It sounded like FOX News in Russian translation. RTN has also featured analysis that very much supports the war. It made me think of the Russian emigrees in Israel that tend to be more to the right than even Likud, especially when it comes to national security.

I think the strategic partnership will weather the Iraqi crisis, but Putin has clearly demonstrated that he understands there are limits as to how far he can go in supporting the United States. The fact that these limits are defined, for the most part, by domestic politics and elections, gives one hope that democracy, though far from perfect in Russia, is well on its way to becoming a normative feature of the Russian political landscape.

Joseph P. Ferguson
Director, Northeast Asia Studies
The National Bureau of Asian Research
4518 University Way NE, Suite 300
Seattle, WA 98105
206-632-7370 TEL
206-632-7487 FAX

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