Johnson's Russia List
19 September 2003
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A CDI Project
September 18, 2003
Dunderheaded Dictatorship of Election Laws
By Vladimir Kovalyev
The meaning of what President Vladimir Putin called a "dictatorship of the
law" in spring 2000 became clearer to me after a conversation on election
issues with the St. Petersburg police this week.
A police official warned me -- off the record, of course -- that our
newspaper might be stripped of its license if we are not sufficiently
careful in following new election laws. Specifically, I was told that we
are obliged to ask gubernatorial candidates for permission to use their
names whenever we write articles about them.
I had always thought there was at least some limit to the stupidity of the
authorities, but at moments like this I am on the verge of giving up hope.
I asked if we needed permission each time we ran an article mentioning a
candidate's name and the answer was "yes." "Well, in that case we wouldn't
lose much by mentioning candidates' names two or three times more without
asking, as we have already done so on numerous occasions. On those grounds,
our paper could have been closed a hundred times over by now," I replied.
I don't have the slightest idea where the police found a regulation that
media outlets can be deprived of their license on such grounds. According
to what a local Press Ministry official told me last month, newspapers'
activities can under certain circumstances be suspended for the duration of
an election campaign, but not entirely shut down.
Only a few newspapers in St. Petersburg in the last two months have been
affected in some way by these regulations, including the daily Smena and
weekly Delo. Both got warnings, but were not suspended. The most ridiculous
example of the police attempting to enforce a dictatorship of the election
law here took place at the end of August when more than 200,000 copies of
Delo Chesti, the campaign newspaper of gubernatorial candidate Anna
Markova, were confiscated by the police because it contained a small
picture of Admiral Mikhail Motsak, the deputy presidential envoy. The
reason given was that the editors had not asked Motsak for permission to
use his picture in an article about his activities in support of Valentina
I don't know which law Motsak was referring to, but if it really exists,
Putin could legally demand the closure of all media outlets in the country
at once. However, he prefers to focus his energies on shutting down
national television channels, as has been demonstrated with the closure of
TV6 and TVS.
I would be happy if the police were strict about everyone adhering to
national and local legislation, but it seems that law enforcement officials
are mainly concerned about catering to the needs of certain people close to
the president who are interested in dictatorship -- but not of the law,
which is no more than a toy in their hands.
Vladimir Kovalyev is a reporter for The St. Petersburg Times.