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Friday, June 27, 2008

EDITORIAL: The Disappointing Moscow Times


The Disappointing Moscow Times

If we do say so ourselves, sometimes the prescience of our founder and publisher Kim Zigfeld unnerves even those of us who work on this very blog. No sooner had Kim (who had nothing to do with this editorial) posted on Pajamas Media about the disappointing slide in the quality of the Moscow Times of late than the paper chose to publish an op-ed column by that slithering rodent of Russophilia, and Kremlin henchman, Peter Lavelle, whom we have routinely exposed and ridiculed here on this blog (put his name into our search engine if you want to read our coverage).

It's difficult to know where to begin in pointing out the utter failure of the Moscow Times editorial staff in regard to this piece of trash or to find words to express how disappointing that failure is to us. Yet, for the second time this month, we are compelled to try.

Let's start with how Lavelle is identified: "Peter Lavelle is anchor of 'In Context' on Russia Today, and Olga Tarbeeva is the program's executive producer. The opinions expressed in this comment are their own." Apparently, the article was co-written by Tarbeeva, yet she doesn't appear in the byline. Lapse number one. Though the article appears in the op-ed listing on the main page of the paper's website, nothing on the web page that contains the article identifies it as opinion. Lapse number two. And finally, nothing in the identification tells the reader that Russia Today is owned by the Russian government, making Lavelle an employee and lackey of the Putin dictatorship. That's an outrage and a betrayal of the basic responsibilities of the Moscow Times editors as journalists. We condemn it.

Now, let's move on to the title: "Chechnya's Revival." Lavelle has been taken on a junket tour of Potemkin Chechnya by the Kremlin, shown a series of lies to tell about the place, and now he's doing so. That's fine for Russia Today, that's its purpose. But until now, we thought the Moscow Times had a higher one, to tell people the actual truth about Russia. Perhaps we were mistaken. Lavelle chooses not to tell MT readers (and the paper's editors allow him to do so), for instance, that on May 5, 2008, Freedom House released a report called Worst of the Worst: The World’s Most Repressive Societies 2008. The report lists the 20 nations and territories on the globe which are the very most pathologically backward in terms of civil society, and Chechnya is among them (see page 107-112 of the PDF document). The report states that "women face increased discrimination" and "widespread corruption and economic devastation caused by the war severely limit equality of opportunity." It concludes that "the rule of law is extremely weak" and that Chechen courts are wholly useless as a mechanism of justice, and notes that the people of the country are consistently forced to turn to the European Court of Human Rights for relief, a forum where the Kremlin has lost many cases of late, including those alleging state-sponsored murder. It states that Russian military forces "impose severe restrictions on journalists' access to the widening Caucus conflict area" meaning that the war is spreading outside Chechnya's borders and the Kremlin is covering it up.

If we turn to the actual text of Lavelle's shameless propaganda screed (remember, he's a paid agent of the Kremlin -- we have to remind you, because MT sure won't), it's hard to get all the way through without losing our lunch. Nothing but repugnant, brazen lies from beginning to end.

While reading his garbage, it's necessary to ask yourself a question: If things were going really badly in Chechnya, and it was all Putin's fault, would Russia Today tell you that? Would Mr. Lavelle? Would Russia Today keep him on the payroll if he did? If you answer in the negative, then you simply can't take a word this man says seriously.

Lavelle states:

We have just returned from a week's stay in Chechnya. Many fellow journalists told us beforehand: "Don't go there. It isn't safe." We decided otherwise. What spiked our interest was the first annual Chechen international film festival, interestingly called Noah's Ark. How could a place like Chechnya host such a thing? Isn't Chechnya a war-torn and miserable destination?
He spends a week in Chechnya at a film festival and he thinks that's a basis for commenting on political and economic progress. No data. No studies. Just his anecdotal observations at a film festival. No declaration of his conflict of interest as a Kremlin employee, of course. Sound like propaganda? There's much more in store for you.

He continues: "Chechnya's capital, Grozny, is almost completely rebuilt. It is becoming prosperous." Where's the data on buildings destroyed and rebuilt to back that up? Could it be he doesn't have any? Where's the data on personal incomes before and after the war?

He freely admits: "During our stay, we were shown what the authorities there wanted us to see." This is classic Soviet style propaganda. Admit what your target thinks you will try to hide, confuse him. But this isn't the Soviet era, and it's just lame and pathetic. Do they really still think they can fool people with this nonsense? Then he spins it: "Who would have thought that Chechnya is learning a lot about the importance of good PR?" So it turns out that being lied to by propagandists actually shows how sophisticated and civilized they are becoming. Isn't that amazing!

He continues: "Business has already noted the positive changes in Chechnya. Chinese, Turkish and some European businesses are eyeing Chechnya as an investment opportunity in the energy and manufacturing sectors. The influx of meaningful foreign investment in this North Caucasus republic will be the real litmus test of progress." Notice how he doesn't name one single such investor?

Then he piles on the manure in a manner that would make any Soviet propagandist proud for the big finish" "Meanwhile, security is very tight in Chechnya. The vast majority of the people there only wish to see the current drive for normality to continue. Chechnya is simply an ark looking to dock in a safe port. The current trend gives reason for optimism."

Vast majority of the people? Really, do tell. Are they conducting effective public opinion surveys in a region that "voted" 99% for Vladimir Putin? Or is it that Lavelle actually interviewed the vast majority of the country during his weeklong stay? Notice how he didn't quote a single such person, or describe anything that happened during the "film festival"? We're just supposed to trust him, and imagine it. That's more propaganda 101.

Chechnya is an ark. It's biblical! And Putin is God. Isn't it all really very nice and simple?

In short it's almost as if, just as Kim indicated in her PM column, the Moscow Times has decided to try to confirm it is trying to buy off the Kremlin from moving against it as it recently did against The eXile by publishing a spate of Kremlin propaganda -- in other words, it seems the paper is engaged in appeasement, just as Kim feared.

By no means has the paper lost all its value as a source of information about Russia. In our last issue, all three of the news items we reported were taken from the MT, and our editorial was also based on its coverage. But as Kim also noted, a recent redesign of the paper's website appears to have been undertaken for the purpose of burying this kind of coverage in way that will make it least likely to catch the Kremlin's attention. The tone of the editorial material the paper is now publishing is markedly different, openly receptive to Kremlin propaganda, and unwilling to give voice to the most aggressive and direct critics of the Putin administration including most especially those engaged in active opposition, like Garry Kasparov and Oleg Kozlovsky.

Nothing would please us more than to be proven wrong, that all this is just a temporary accident soon to be offset by a new round of truth telling about the Kremlin. But the demise of The eXile shows that the threat to the Moscow Times is absolutely real, and its understandable that the paper's investors want to preserve their investment and the jobs of the brave people who work for the paper.

But just because it's understandable doesn't mean we have to accept it, and we don't. We urge the paper to reconsider its position before its final chapter is written. Going down in a blaze of glory is vastly preferable to selling out.

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