A year ago, many were asking, who is Vladimir Putin? A valid question in that this junior-level KGB officer had risen to become prime minister and then president of Russia with amazing speed. After being elected as Russia's second post-Soviet president, Putin said all the right things about markets and democracy. For those who had worked to overthrow Soviet communism, the coming to power of a KGB officer in postcommunist Russia could only be seen as tragic. Nonetheless, this new, young, and energetic leader inspired hope with his statements about a new beginning for Russia.
The verdict may still be out regarding Putin's commitment to market reforms, but today there is no doubt about his antidemocratic proclivities. More than any event in the Putin era, the recent closing of NTV—Russia's only independent national television network—demonstrates unequivocally that Putin seeks to destroy Russia's already fragile and weak democratic institutions.
Putin did not personally order the seizure of NTV. Instead, Gazprom—the largely state-owned gas company—exercised its so-called property rights as a major shareholder in NTV to fire the management and leading journalists from the popular television network. Gazprom did the same to shut down Segodnya, a popular daily newspaper, and Itogi, a weekly magazine. In one week, three media outlets critical of the president were muzzled.
NTV had serious financial problems, but the management was working to resolve its financial woes by securing new investment from Ted Turner. Putin's government blocked the deal. And if Gazprom was only worried about its investments in NTV, then why destroy the value of the company by firing the most popular journalists? The firing of Itogi's staff was even more overtly political since this magazine was actually turning a profit, a rare achievement for a weekly in any country.
Putin apologists claim that he played no role in this "merger and acquisition." And that's the point; if he really cared about freedom of the press, he could have stopped this gross violation of democracy with one public statement. His inaction reveals his true preferences about a free and independent media. Journalists can be free and independent just as long as they do not criticize the president.
The seizure of NTV and the closure of Segodnya and Itogi constitute one of the greatest setbacks to Russian democracy in the last ten years. Competitive elections cannot occur without a free press. Corruption cannot be fought without a free press. Elected government officials cannot be held accountable without a free press. And, ultimately, Russia cannot become a normal European country without a free press.
Putin continues to believe that these developments at home do not affect his foreign policy mission abroad. He has stated numerous times that he wants to see Russia become a full member of Western institutions, such as the European Union and the G-8. Western leaders need to make it clear that the EU and the G-8 do not accept applications from dictatorships. The sooner Putin realizes the costs of brutish activity at home for his agenda abroad, the better.