In early 1990 I visited Eastern Europe for the first time, traveling in Hungary,
Romania, and what was then Czechoslovakia just a few months after the
revolutions that had freed them from Communist dictatorship.
One indelible lesson from that trip was the remarkable role that had been played
by the US government's broadcast services Voice of America and Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty in providing a lifeline to people trapped behind the
Iron Curtain. Several times in private homes I was shown the shortwave radio on
which a family had for years picked up the American-produced programs that were
their only reliable source for news and analysis, especially about events in
their own country.
Naturally the Communist thugs who ruled in Budapest, Bucharest, and Prague
and the thugs in Moscow who ruled over them hated these American voices of
freedom. They often deployed high-powered jammers to block the broadcasts,
generating the obnoxious noise known as "KGB jazz." That wasn't all they did: In
1981, terrorists blew up the headquarters of Radio Free Europe in Munich.
"One of the most fervent wishes of the KGB," Anatoly Kuznetsov, a Soviet author
who defected to the West in 1969, remarked years ago, "is to destroy Radio
Liberty." Today, the KGB no longer exists. But at least one former KGB agent
Russian President Vladimir Putin is apparently still pursuing the old
The Washington Post reported last week that, under pressure from Moscow, scores
of radio stations have stopped airing the Russian-language news programs
produced by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. With hundreds
of journalists across the country, and a combined network of more than 70
affiliates airing their stories and commentary, the US-sponsored broadcast
services have been among the largest and most independent news organizations in
Russia. "In a country where the news media increasingly avoid controversial
subjects," the Post noted, "millions of Russians had made the broadcasts a
But over the past year, the number of stations carrying their broadcasts has
collapsed, sinking from more than 70 to just nine. Beginning last September,
regulators from the Ministry of Culture descended on the stations, warning them
that they were likely to lose their broadcast licenses if they continued airing
material from Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Nearly all
of them capitulated. The few stations still carrying their shows are mostly in
Moscow and St. Petersburg, where their influence is minimal. But in the
far-flung regions beyond Russia's two biggest cities, where they were an
essential source of information, they are no longer being heard.
So it goes in Putin's Russia, where the stifling of independent media voices is
now routine. Since coming to power in 1999, Putin has seized control of the
country's major TV channels, all of which are now under the thumb of the
government or its allies. Local media outlets rarely challenge the regional
governors, most of whom are Kremlin loyalists especially since Putin
abolished the popular election of regional officials two years ago.
A bill now before the Russian Parliament would broaden the crime of "extremism"
to include media criticism of public officials. If convicted, journalists could
be imprisoned for three years and their publications closed down. Yet crimes
already on the books are not always prosecuted zealously: Since Putin became
president, 12 journalists have been murdered in contract-style killings,
including American Paul Klebnikov, the 41-year-old editor of Forbes Russia. To
date, none of the killers has been brought to justice.
The rollback of press freedoms is of a piece with the Kremlin's deepening
authoritarianism. Nearly all serious opposition to Putin has been broken or
marginalized. Prominent businessmen unwise enough to oppose him have been
prosecuted and imprisoned, or forced to flee the country. Neighboring countries
have been outrageously bullied. Putin has even gone out of his way to defend
Soviet-era crimes like the occupation of the Baltic states in 1941.
"Just as in the old days," Garry Kasparov, the chess champion and Russian
democracy activist, wrote in a New York Times column on Monday, "Moscow has
become an ally for troublemakers and anti-democratic rulers around the world.
Nuclear aid to Iran, missile technology to North Korea, military aircraft to
Sudan, Myanmar and Venezuela, and a budding friendship with Hamas: These are the
West's rewards for keeping its mouth shut about human rights in Russia."
The West ought to find its voice, and fast particularly the American
president who keeps saying that the promotion of freedom is the cornerstone of
his foreign policy. The G-8 summit that convenes in St. Petersburg this weekend
is supposed to be a gathering of democratic allies, but Russia is no longer a
democracy, and it doesn't act like an ally. Putin is counting on the West not to
embarrass him by making a fuss about his creeping dictatorship. As a rule,
guests are not supposed to scold their hosts. This is one time when that rule
should be broken.