David Satter, a former Financial Times journalist and author, achieved another distinction a few weeks ago. He was living in Moscow and working for Radio Liberty when he suddenly found himself under intense scrutiny: His visa was revoked by Russian authorities, and he was banned from the country. As the first U.S. journalist living in Moscow to be expelled from the country since the Cold War era, the story received extensive international coverage.
We asked Satter to walk us through his expulsion from Russia in late 2013, and go into the trends in his CIMA report The Last Gasp of Empire: Russia’s Attempts to Control the Media in the Former Soviet Republics.
Satter: I was told on December 25, 2013 by a diplomat in the Russian embassy in Kiev that the “competent organs” had decided that my presence on the territory of the Russian Federation was “undesirable” and I was being barred entry to Russia where, at the time, I had my apartment with my notes and belongings. The phrase “competent organs” is used in Russia to refer to the FSB [Federal Security Service].
I am now living in London and making an effort to have the Russian action cancelled. I am in touch with the U.S. embassy in Moscow and am planning to file a legal appeal. Most important in this situation, however, is public pressure.
I was serving as an adviser to Radio Liberty in Moscow helping to plan the future development of the Russian Service. This work can continue from London.
I believe that the Russian authorities were not reacting to anything that I did while I was in Moscow from September 7, 2013,to November 29, 2013. I think instead their action was based on what I have done in the past and their assessment of what I might do in the future.
In Satter’s report to CIMA, he highlights challenges to building independent and sustainable media institutions in the former Soviet republics. Satter dissects the media environments in the four regions (Baltic, South Caucasian, Central Asian, and Slavic) as they exist within the reach of Russia’s influence.
Russian attempts at soft power to control the media in the region vary from indirect financial investment, to cultural programming, to appointing sympathetic professionals to captain international media houses. The influence is wielded by a savvy strategy tailored to each country’s specific circumstances and relationship with Russia. The ultimate goals, Satter argues, are to further Russia’s foreign policy objectives and create a similar buffer region against European and Western influence that was seen in the Soviet era.
Despite these challenges, the media development community has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the region in the past 30 years, with relatively little success in building a sustainable environment for media.
Satter: There is really only one trend: the will of Russia to dominate the former Soviet republics that are now independent nations. They strive to do this in whatever way they can.
The conditions in the former Soviet republics are very different from each other. Russia has a general goal–to increase its influence and hobble their independence. But circumstances force them to take a variety of approaches.
A lot depends on the attitude toward the Soviet past. In Central Asia, where the Soviet period brought progress, people are more easily influenced than, say, in the Baltic republics, where the memory of the postwar deportations is all too present.
The Putin regime is becoming more autocratic, but as the experience of Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan show, the population can sometimes be pushed too far. Putin may resort to draconian repression if Russia begins to repeat the experience of Ukraine, but it may not work and, if it does, it won’t be for long.