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A Nobel prize for a Russian compromise?

How can an authoritarian government strangle independent news outlets with one hand and use the other to embrace the editor of a hard-hitting paper?

A Nobel prize for a Russian compromise?

A Nobel prize for a Russian compromise?THERE's plenty of symbolism to Russian editor Dmitry Muratov's (shared) Nobel Peace Prize. The media outlet he edits, Novaya Gazeta, started, in a way, with another Nobel — Mikhail Gorbachev's: He spent part of his 1990 Peace Prize to buy computers for the Novaya startup in 1993. The award also comes almost exactly 15 years after Novaya journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in Moscow; she was one of several at the publication to lose their lives as a result of their reporting.

And yet, as much as Politkovskaya, for example, may have deserved such a distinction for her courageous coverage of the war in Chechnya, Muratov's prize — meant to support independent Russian journalism at a time when President Vladimir Putin's regime appears to be out to eradicate it — sends entirely the wrong message.

In 2019, Proekt, an independent Russian investigative project, published a long story about the unusual links between Sergei Chemezov, an old friend of Putin's and head of the giant Rostec State Corp., and various "liberals." The story alleged that Chemezov, who is also friendly with Muratov, had been funding Novaya via his business partner Sergey Adonyev; in exchange, a special approval procedure allegedly existed at the publication for stories about Chemezov and Rostec, and some Novaya journalists ended up publishing their exposes of the Putin crony elsewhere. Muratov flatly denied taking money from Chemezov or doing him any journalistic favors, but is quoted by Proekt admitting that Adonyev was a sponsor. That's an interesting enough association, though. As part of its research into the Russian part of the so-called Pandora Papers, the investigative outfit Important Stories alleged that in 2012, Adonyev lent his yacht — free of charge — to Anton Vaino, soon to become Putin's chief of staff; a long-standing Chemezov associate was allegedly along for the ride.

Here's why I mention these two investigations. Proekt was banned by the Russian government earlier this year as an "undesirable organization" and its journalists were declared "foreign agents"; editor Roman Badanin was forced into emigration. Important Stories and its journalists have also been designated as "foreign agents," making it near impossible for them to interview Russian officials. They are obliged to refer to the designation in every story and social media post and to account for every penny spent — even for personal needs — to the Russian Justice Ministry. This is what happens to independent journalists in 2021 Russia; Muratov dedicated his prize to the assassinated Novaya journalists and the "foreign agents" — in the full knowledge that nothing of the kind can happen to him.

Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov commented thus on Muratov's Nobel: We can congratulate Dmitry Muratov, he has been consistently true to his ideals in his work. He is talented, he is courageous. And of course, this is a high distinction. We congratulate him.

Asked whether Putin would send his personal greetings, Peskov replied, "Give it time." When Russian-speaking Belarussian writer Svetlana Alexievich, a sworn enemy of the Putin regime, won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015 and immediately spoke about the Russian occupation of parts of Ukraine, Kremlin felicitations weren't forthcoming. "I'm sure everyone is congratulating her on winning the Nobel prize," Peskov said then. "But Svetlana probably lacks the information she would need for a positive assessment of the situation in Ukraine."

Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the State propaganda channel RT, also congratulated Muratov, noting that he "actively and passionately helps sick children." Indeed, Muratov pledged part of his prize to a charity foundation supporting children with rare diseases; the organisation, Good Deeds Circle, was set up by Putin's personal decree.

It won't be an eye-opener for anyone if I say Russia is a complicated place. Muratov, for instance, also calls Konstantin Ernst, the CEO of Russia's powerful state-owned Channel One and impresario of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics opening ceremonies, a "good friend." It's difficult for foreigners to understand how an editor whose rhetoric sounds stringently anti-regime and whose publication doesn't appear to toe any kind of pro-Kremlin line can be friends with Putin's associates and honored members of the regime establishment. How can an authoritarian government strangle independent news outlets with one hand and use the other to embrace the editor of a hard-hitting paper?

The answer to this question is that connected "liberals" have their uses. Muratov's close friend Alexei Venediktov, editor of Echo Moskvy radio, another reputedly free and independent news organisation, recently served as the public face of an electronic voting campaign in Moscow. As the e-voting results came under attack for questionable statistical anomalies, Venediktov continued defending them — and Muratov, in turn, publicly defended Venediktov.

That's just one example of the kind of compromise required of such token "liberal" figures in a country that imprisons real dissidents, like corruption fighter Alexei Navalny, or effectively forbids them to practice their trade, like the "foreign agent" reporters. What other compromises are made behind closed doors, we'll never know — but personal liberties don't come free in Putin's Russia.

"If somebody has devised a plan to give the prize to a regime-loyal person from Russia so that, God forbid, the prize doesn't go to Navalny or some other political prisoner or political emigre, that's a devilishly sophisticated blow to our country, its present and future," economist Konstantin Sonin wrote on Facebook. "If someone has organised this as a 'compromise' — let's show some love to these Russians but let's not bait the bear, that's even stupider than the other option."

Sonin is right about the kind of message Muratov's prize sends to Russian journalists and activists who have rejected compromises and refused to make friends with regime figures looking for "liberals" to co-opt. But I'm not sure the effect is intentional. Rather, I fear the judges can't quite see the distinction between Muratov and Navalny, Muratov and Badanin, Muratov and Politkovskaya. They don't know or care who drinks with whom in Moscow, which parties people attend, which charities they favor; their impulse is to support the free press in Russia, and they don't see what might be wrong with honoring what could be plausibly described as its last remnants; it's not even a consideration that the plausibility is enhanced by the demise of truly independent outlets.

That's one reason Peskov might raise his glass to Muratov: One of the Putin regime's underrated but important resources is the ignorance of foreigners. (Bloomberg)

Leonid Bershidsky
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