20 years under Putin: a timeline

At the end of September, the Russian State Duma passed several amendments to the law “On Mass Media.” Starting in 2016, the share of foreign capital in any Russian media company cannot exceed 20 percent. According to writer Alexander Podrabinek, this limitation might have an effect opposite to that intended, putting Russia’s foreign interests abroad at risk.


According to one of the sponsors of the new bill, LDPR member Vadim Dengin, “foreigners acquire shares in the Russian media and start influencing the [Russian] children’s minds.” Photo: RIA Novosti.


Recently, a law that limits the share of foreign capital in any Russian mass media company to 20 percent was passed. One dollar for every 160 rubles is the ratio that Russian legislators claim is appropriate when it comes to the share of foreign capital in the Russian mass media ownership structure.

What is the goal of the authors of this law? Its motives are not being concealed: the authors believe that Western influence on the Russian public is destructive to the Russian state. (The Russian authorities think of themselves as actually being the state.) A range of bizarre arguments is given in support of this law. For example, it is said that foreign investors are buying small regional media companies all over Russia in order to build a powerful anti-Russian informational empire.

In fact, heads of Russian regional newspapers and regional radio stations that are struggling to survive are dying of jealousy of their colleagues who have been lucky enough to receive foreign sponsorship. Foreign investment is a dream for Russian media managers—but it is rare. It’s only in the sick minds of Duma deputies that Western business sharks prowl throughout Russia, searching for independent media to buy.

Nevertheless, mass media that are supported by foreign investment exist in Russia. There are not many such outlets, and most of them are glossy magazines. But there are also serious publications, such as Forbes Russia, which belongs to the well-known publishing house Forbes, Inc., and Vedomosti, a joint venture of the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Sanoma Independent Media company.

The idea that regional newspapers are simply dainty morsels for Western business to gobble up is, of course, nonsense. The new law targets those media with large audiences, including Internet outlets such as the Ekaterinburg-based website E1.Ru and the Nizny Novgorod–based NN.Ru, both of which belong to Hearst Shkulev Media, a company with 50 percent foreign ownership. Incidentally, these websites are very popular in their home cities, with their monthly readership exceeding half a million.

Foreign capital provides Russian mass media with a certain degree of independence, especially when foreign ownership exceeds 50 percent. It’s harder for the authorities to control the journalists and editors of such publications. It is also harder for them to control the owners. The Russian Investigative Committee can’t send law enforcement officers in camouflage and masks to a publishing house based in London or New York to lay all their employees facedown on the floor and confiscate all of the office equipment, including laptops and iPads.

The Kremlin’s major goal is to limit Western influence on Russian citizens. Achievement of that goal can produce many benefits: a lack of alternatives, the success of domestic propaganda, and the easy manipulation of public opinion—perfect conditions for totalitarianism to thrive.

But what else can the Kremlin do to control media? Legislation, which has proved successful on various occasions, is its only other method. The Kremlin just had to pass the law, and now foreigners cannot own more than 20 percent stake in a Russian mass media company. Next, though, comes a question: What should the Kremlin do with industries in which foreign investment plays a larger role? Shouldn’t the authorities reject all international investments in order to not upset Russian patriots? Shouldn’t they close their credit lines in Western banks and international financial organizations in order to stay independent from the malicious West? So many laws can be introduced here!

But the situation isn’t that simple. It is one thing to impose sanctions against your own people or limit ordinary Russians from coming under the influence of the “rotten West.” But it’s an absolutely different thing to put at risk economic cooperation with the developed economies of the West. The problems that the current authorities have to face certainly require much thought. On the one hand, it’s necessary to limit Western influence on Russian citizens. That is the Kremlin’s major goal. Achievement of that goal can produce many benefits: a lack of alternatives, the success of domestic propaganda, and the easy manipulation of public opinion—perfect conditions for totalitarianism to thrive. On the other hand, the authorities have to be careful to limit Western influence in a way that ensures that the economic interests of the Russian elite remain safe. And the Russian economy is fully dependent on and oriented toward the very West that the authorities are trying to blame for all their woes.

The authorities hardly care for the state of the country’s economy. But a deteriorating situation might have an effect on the personal welfare of the Kremlin elite, and that would be a serious thing.

The Russian authorities are trying, as they say in Russia, to sit on two chairs, attempting to solve two contradictory problems.