report: March 2008

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Jewgenija Albaz - Eduard Steiner
 
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social issues & initiatives | Russia | by Eduard Steiner | 2007-04

What should I be afraid of ?

Jewgenija Albaz is one of those journalists in Russia who, like Anna Politkovskaya, her former colleague from her student days, places her finger on the wounds of the state and its regime. During the era of the Soviet Union she conducted research into the KGB for which she received a number of threats. Albaz still receives threats and is on the “death lists” of various groups on the Internet. In addition to printed articles she chairs a political discussion on Sundays on the liberal radio station “Echo Moskvy”. In an interview with “Report” she offers insights into the everyday world of a journalist in an authoritarian state, in which human rights are of little account and representatives of the media can die for presenting the unvarnished truth.

— EDUARD STEINER talks to JEWGENIJA ALBAZ —

Eduard Steiner: I have serious worries about Russia’s poor image in the world.

Jewgenija Albaz: You think you have worries! I am interested in human rights and freedom of opinion in the country. I am disturbed by what state institutions are doing. I don’t think it is necessary to defend any kind of image. 

Nor is that the direction I wanted to take. But doesn’t it seem to you that your country’s reputation is at an all-time low?

That’s true but it doesn’t worry me. Russia’s image is not entirely negative. Gerhard Schröder, the former German prime minister, explained to all the Western states that Putin is a “flawless democrat”. One had the impression that many Germans who do business in Russia and make profits there, above all through the gas industry, are entirely willing to undersign Schröder’s statement. Schröder has never lived in a cage the way we do. He doesn’t know what lack of freedom, lack of air, a feeling of choking is actually like. The East German Merkel, due to her own biography, seems to understand our tragedy better.

Has the murder of Anna Politkovskaya had an effect on your own life?

Naturally it affected me very deeply, as we studied together at the journalism faculty and we lived one building away from each other. But professionally I have not allowed myself be influenced, just as I didn’t allow the earlier murders of journalists to influence me. Journalism is dangerous throughout the world. It is not a profession for those with weak nerves.

Strong people can also feel afraid, don’t you?

Oh please! I lived under the Soviet system. When my daughter was born in 1988 I was investigating the KGB and received a telephone call with the discreet reminder that I was not only a journalist but now also a mother. So, what should I be afraid of now, if nobody was able to strike fear into me back then? If you are a journalist then you can’t allow yourself to be fearful. Otherwise you would have to give up the profession, and write about flowers or cultivate radishes.

I can also imagine that there are themes that you would prefer not to touch at the moment.

No. I don’t apply any form of self-censorship. Another thing that influences my choice of themes however, is that it is very difficult to carry out research in Russia at the moment. In contrast to previously times the state bodies are completely closed, you can’t even get to them. My suppliers of information from all areas are afraid to give their family names and dates. Out of a sense of anticipatory obedience they prefer not to hand out even arbitrary critical statistics. Given this collective fear of issuing any kind of information, when investigating you have to rely increasingly on anonymous sources. This completely kills the culture of independent, transparent and traceable investigation work.

I take it that you receive threats
I think this is part of the profession. I am careful and take precautions as far as possible. But I am well trained, as I grew up in the Soviet Union. In the past few years the threats have increased in as much as my name is found on all kinds of execution lists that are put onto the Internet. But working as a journalist in Iraq or Chechenia is far more difficult than working in Moscow.

Was the murder of Anna Politkovskaya a turning point or only one further event in the everyday life of Russian journalism, something that was to be expected sooner or later?
 You know, murder in Russia is a very common thing. Three years ago Juri Schtschekotschichin, a journalist with the “Nowaja Gazeta” and member of the Duma was murdered because he was investigating the smuggling of furniture that was being covered up by members of the secret service. No case was brought. Later Paul Chlebnikov, the American editor of the Russian “Forbes”, was executed. This case has not been solved as yet. The murder of Politkovskaya was nothing new for us. Anna was very famous, a very hard and unconciliatory critic of the people currently in power, and above all of Putin personally. Anna’s murder confirmed for many their hypothesis that our country is headed by a terrorist regime.

Do you think that this murder will ever be ­solved?

If Russian state authorities were involved in it, then no. I suspect that the police forces of the Russian Federation were involved in this murder. I think that this terrible event has opened the eyes of Western observers a little. Until that point, it had seemed to them that the Russians are still wild bears who don’t need Western freedoms. They accepted that there is complete chaos in Russia, everybody steals and a strong president holds the sceptre in the hand. But the murder of Politkovskaya showed that our country is not headed by a strong power but by a collapsing institution called the “State”. This is, in fact, a conglomerate of different business structures that creates capital using the country’s resources and the state budget. The situation is worsened by the fact that, while under Jelzin it was still possible to “breathe fresh air”, to carry out investigations and to publish the results, under Putin it is difficult to breathe and utterly impossible to carry out any kind of investigative journalism. 

Do I understand you correctly? That today you would prefer the 1990s even though it is known that, during the presidential election in 1996, the media allowed themselves to be bought and supported Jelzin with every possible means?
You know: I never sold myself to anybody. I have worked as an investigative journalist since 1986. But I have never written an article to order. I don’t like these generalisations. I only appear as me, myself.

Then I ask you personally: do you think the 1990s were better?

Yes, without a doubt.  For me, despite the chaos and the confusion caused by crime, these freedoms are more valuable than the right to a security that doesn’t really exist anyhow. In the 1990s at least one newspaper in three began to publish sensitive material. At that time I could go to almost any ministry, get information, meet civil servants and ask them questions. Today this would be impossible.

But in the Nineties the oligarchs had the reins in their hands.

I have worked a lot in the West. There, a medium is generally owned by a tangible person. If in Russia a medium belongs to, say, Vladimir Gussinski, then that’s called oligarchic. Why, actually? Where does this distortion in Western perception come from? Where do you in the West get your convictions about how good and honest journalism should be practiced? Perhaps in fact it is the case that you in the West could learn something from us. Forgive my impertinence: I haven’t seen much investigative work of any quality carried out in the West. In contrast we have carried out this kind of work.

I meant the pluralism of the Nineties. Surely it was to an extent an “oligarchic” pluralism, which, due to the current Putin regime, is in my opinion somewhat glorified.

Of course in the 1990s there were restrictions on freedom of expression but, due to the fact that the media belonged to different business structures, despite influence being exerted pluralism was preserved. At that time the State owned less than 34 per cent of the media throughout the country, today the figure is 98 per cent. One should not brand Russian oligarchy capitalism to such an extent, these kinds of things existed in many countries in the world. We still have monopolies today: “General Motors” or the “Times Corporation” in the USA. Each of them defends their interests aggressively. In Russia, where there is a complete lack of any form of civil society this kind of capitalism has taken on a more hideous form. But journalism has not ceased to be journalism just because of this.

And today?
Today the directors of the television channels and the newspapers are invited every Thursday into the Kremlin office of the deputy head of administration, Vladislav Surkov to learn what news should be presented, and where. Journalists are bought with enormous salaries. In discussions they tell us then how horrible it is to work in the state television service. All channels of Russian television aim at telling people incessantly: “Don’t worry, be happy.” Don’t get upset, laugh, make a joke and don’t think about the problems that confront you! Nevertheless, people feel that these are lies because in real life they see that prices and the crime rate are rising, to the same extent as the bribery money that “business” pays to civil servants. They see that their rights are being infringed. We experienced all of this already under Soviet rule. We have already built up a developed socialism. You must understand the fact that we have immense experience. We have a fantastic ability to survive. We can (unfortunately) live without all of that.

The number of listeners to your station “Echo Moskvy” rose last year to the respectable figure of 600,000.

Hardly surprising, people are sick and tired of propaganda. In every ministry, in the Kremlin and in the government “Echo Moskvy” is played the whole time, because they are craving for information. Recently I held a two-hour programme with the theme “civil society”. I asked the listeners whom they trust more: the state or the institutions of the civil society? 95.6 per cent answered in favour of the civil society. And this despite that on all channels people are told about the wonderful President Putin, the father of the people and the great brother who solves all their problems. People just don’t believe this any more.

Don’t you see a certain new stability?

No, because we are starting an election year. Putin is protected by the bureaucracy, the nomenclature and big capital that made its money in the oil, gas, nickel and titanium business. These people are afraid that, when Putin goes, the legitimacy of the capital that they have accumulated in the last six years will be questioned. An entire group of people in the immediate or more distant surroundings of the president are afraid that their property could be taken away from them.

Do you think that more pressure from the West would encourage the development of Russian democracy?

No. The fate of democracy in Russia depends on the citizens themselves – on how much freedom they demand. As a democrat I don’t rely on any help from outside. When Russia was poor and the oil prices were low one could influence the leadership. Today, as the oil prices are beyond any notion of good and evil, and as Europe is up to 44 per cent dependent on Russian gas, it is completely senseless to rely on pressure from abroad. In the first years when Putin brought so many of these offspring of the most repugnant organisation in the Soviet Union, the KGB, to power, something could have been done. But at that time everyone closed their eyes, now it’s too late. 

According to the Russian association of journalists, from 1991 to October 2006, 261 journalists were murdered in Russia and only 21 of these cases have been solved. This makes Russia the third most dangerous country in the world for journalists (after Iraq and China) and, according to “Reporters sans frontiéres”, it is one of the few countries in Europe where critical journalists must fear for their lives and freedom.

Jewgenija Albaz, was born in 1958 in Moscow and studied there. During the Soviet era she began to investigate the KGB and in 1992 she produced her first book, which has been translated into German: “Geheimimperium KGB. Totengräber der Sowjetunion” (The Secret Empire of the KGB. The Grave Diggers of the Soviet ­Union), dtv, Munich. Around this time she was being published regularly in Western media such as “Spiegel” or the “Chicago Tribune”. From 1996 to 2003 she published her investigative researches in the “Nowaja Gazeta” – the paper for which Anna Politkovskaya also worked until her death. Ms Albaz was awarded a masters degree in 1996 at Harvard University where she wrote her dissertation thesis on “Bureaucracy and the Russian Transformation” in 2004. From 2002 to 2003 she taught in the USA at Yale University. She has received many awards in Russia, Europe and the USA for her journalistic work.

Eduard Steiner lives and works in Moscow as Russian correspondent of “Der Standard”.
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