Staunton, June 22 – The Russian government under Vladimir Putin has not been shy about making direct and very public attacks on the rights of non-Russians inside the Russian Federation; but in this area as in so many others, Moscow has also used what might be called “covert” means that attract less critical attention but may be equally destructive.
Three cases of this were on display last week. First, a meeting of journalists from 30 regions and republics across the Russian Federation adopted a resolution saying that the charges the Russian postal service was imposing for distribution of their publications were in fact forcing them to close.
Russian officials suggested that globalization rather than state policy was to blame, but various speakers pointed to the ways in which increases in the cost of distribution arising from changes in Russian postal rates were affecting non-Russian and regional media far more heavily because these outlets have fewer readers.
Second, Viktor Sadovnichny, rector of Moscow State University, said that “the problem of the insufficient knowledge of Russian,” a problem that forced the Russian government to drop the number of a passing grade in state examinations from 36 to 24 was “in the first instance typical of non-Russian schools”.
The Moscow educator declared that “there are schools where the children practically do not know Russian,” even though everyone is aware that state examinations and much else are in that language.
Sadovichny’s comments not only will reduce interest in and support for non-Russian schools among non-Russian parents who are concerned about the future success of their children but also will increase the tendency of many Russians to blame non-Russians for shortcomings in the country’s educational attainment.
And third, having been forced to defend itself against nuisance lawsuits brought by Russian officials who opposed its activities, the Peryt Circassian Organization has run out of money to pay its staff or rent and has been forced to close its doors.
The group had been responsible for sending more than 2500 invitations to Circassians in war-torn Syria, thus providing them with a required document for returning to their historical homeland in the North Caucasus. Many Russian officials have opposed that idea. Forcing the group to defend itself against 19 charges has had the desired result: its closure.
When other governments in the post-Soviet states use such indirect forms of attack, Western media watchdog groups regularly denounce the practice, but they often appear to be more reluctant to do so when the Russian government is involved, a kind of “double standard” that is as indefensible as any other.
On Friday, for example, Reporters Without Borders reported that “one of Azerbaijan’s leading independent newspapers, the Russian-language Zerkalo [Mirror], has been forced to stop publishing because government control of the advertising market and distribution networks has deprived it of the income it needs to keep operating”.
“Street vendors were banned in Baku in 2011 on the grounds that they were obstructing traffic,” the media watchdog group added, noting that “the state-owned Gasid distribution network’s newsstands were gradually eliminated in 2012 or replaced by a new network of shops from which independent newspapers are for the most part excluded. Finally, selling newspapers in the metro was banned in 2013.”
Johann Bihr, head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, told Reuters that “the economic difficulties that Zerkalo has been facing are the result of the government’s implementation of an insidious censorship strategy.” He could have added that the Russian authorities under Putin are doing exactly the same thing.