March 31 (Bloomberg) -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin may be using an icon of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost policy to widen his appeal as his support sinks less than a year before presidential elections.
Moskovskiye Novosti, or Moscow News, which had as many as 6 million readers in its heyday, this week published its first issue as a state-run enterprise in 21 years. The paper went through several private owners before closing in 2008 and returning for a nominal cost to RIA Novosti, the state-run news service known as APN when it started the paper in 1980.
With Moskovskiye Novosti, the government wants to widen its reach to more educated Russians as Putin, 58, his protégé President Dmitry Medvedev, 45, and the prime minister’s United Russia party prepare to retain control of parliament in December and the Kremlin next March.
“This is yet another project mounted by the Kremlin, but people are going to be skeptical,” said Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, by phone. “This will make intellectual life more interesting but it doesn’t change the situation of political and economic monopoly in the country.”
Putin’s approval rating has fallen 14 percentage points since mid-2009 to 57 percent, a five-year low, the Public Opinion Foundation in Moscow said this month. The elections may trigger a “political crisis” because voters increasingly see their leadership as “illegitimate,” the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Studies said in a March 28 report.
Gorbachev, the 80-year-old former Soviet leader whose Glasnost policy relaxed censorship, has railed against increasing control of national media and curtailment of democratic freedoms since Putin was elected president in 2000. The prime minister and his “St. Petersburg clan” of allies have “dug in for decades of rule,” Gorbachev told journalists in Moscow last month.
Vladimir Gurevich, the former deputy editor whom RIA brought back to run the new version, said while the newspaper won’t be an opposition voice, it won’t shy away from criticizing the government. Gurevich said he’s been promised editorial freedom and independence in hiring.
“The appearance of a new media outlet is positive,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told Bloomberg News about the paper’s return. “It has declared its intention to provide fresh information. That’s always good, to diversify the media market.”
Moskoviye Novosti sells for 18 rubles (63 cents) at newsstands. Its competitors include Kommersant, owned by Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, and business daily Vedomosti, published in collaboration with the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times.
The front page of the March 28 inaugural edition included stories about mass protests by fishermen and government plans to promote a party that will agitate for civil liberties and a free market economy. The newspaper is being distributed in Moscow and eventually will reach other large cities, said Gurevich.
“We want to publish a newspaper for an intellectual readership that cares about what is happening in the country,” he said in an interview in his office in RIA’s headquarters in central Moscow.
Moskovskiye Novosti’s relaunch appears linked to the plans to create an alternative party to United Russia with a seat in government that will represent the interests of urban elites, according to Lipman.
“We may see more freedom of expression but this is not genuine political participation,” she said.
Middle-class Russians, who account for 40 percent of voters in Moscow and between 15 percent and 20 percent in other major cities, have been ignored by authorities, said the Center for Strategic Studies, which advises the government.
The report said Russia needed a coalition government after December elections formed by at least two parties to include critical voices. A new government-backed party, Right Cause, may be headed by Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, Moskovskiye Novosti reported.
Reporters Without Borders said the revival of the newspaper may show that Putin’s ruling elite is more open to criticism.
“We are waiting with a lot of curiosity to see how it will work out,” said Johann Bihr, head of the European and Central Asia desk at the media freedom watchdog, by phone from Paris. “It would be an excellent signal” if the newspaper is allowed to act independently.
Russia, like other “authoritarian states of the former Soviet Union,” controls national broadcast media, from which most people obtain news and information, Freedom House said in a report on March 23. All three of the national television networks are controlled by the state.
The Washington-based democracy advocate last year ranked Russia 175th among 196 countries in its annual press freedom survey, labeling the country’s political system as “Not Free.”
Russia is also the eighth-most dangerous country in the world for journalists, after countries including Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which puts the number of murdered reporters since 2000 at 19.
The victims include Anna Politkovskaya, a reporter for Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper partly owned by Gorbachev. Politkovskaya, who wrote about corruption and army abuses during Putin’s presidency, was shot dead in her Moscow apartment building in 2006, on Putin’s birthday. The killer or killers have yet to be found.
“What we want to see tackled is the impunity for murders of journalists and repeated assaults,” Bihr of Reporters Without Borders said.
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