In the wake of his victory in the March presidential election, the West appeared enchanted by Vladimir Putin. The Western media were referring to him as "Vladimir the decision-maker," they have noted that he spoke "fluent German and passable English," was "the youngest leader since Stalin," would "espouse liberal pro-market economic policies," and was "a canny pragmatist."
Most European journalists assured their readers that Putin was a convinced "Westernizer" who understood that Russia's future lay with Europe. These same journalists faithfully reported that Putin's popularity stemmed from his promises to fight corruption and put the oligarchs in their place.
It is almost as though the journalists were writing what they wanted Putin to be doing filling in the blank slate of Putin's policy platform with their own ideas.
A strong state'
On the other hand, what Westerners chose to criticize at the time were Putin's two most famous statements for resurrecting Russia imposing a "dictatorship of the law" and reconstructing "a strong state."
Why is it that these two phrases, two of the keys to Putin's high standing in domestic public opinion, have drawn the most criticism from the Western press? Probably because to Western ears, the subtext of these messages is an appeal to the population's instincts toward an authoritarian state, one where force, not institutions, decides problems.
Most Russians, by contrast, understood the statements differently. I asked a couple of Russians about their views to try to understand their interpretation of what Putin said.
To Dima, 28, the "dictatorship of the law" meant having "a law that really worked. A law that applied to everyone equally, as in the West." To Andrei, 31, "a strong state" meant "to have a state that functioned, including paying old people's pensions on time and in full, as in Europe."
This difference of interpretation has seen a lot of Russians even those who did not vote for Putin become confused when they hear criticisms in the Western press of notions that they consider to be democratic.
Still, confusion aside, the question remained: How did Putin understand his statements? In the Russian interpretation, or that of the Western press?
A free press is a cornerstone of any successful democratic society. However, since Putin became prime minister, we have witnessed the reintroduction of a certain amount of censorship in society and now, as president, we appear to be seeing a further tightening of controls.
The first instance came with the detention in January by Russian troops of Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky, who disappeared for three weeks following a puzzling prisoner exchange. Then, this month, the deputy media minister, Andrei Romanchenko, defined the position of Radio Liberty as unfriendly to the Russian state. He proposed revoking the licenses of foreign media outlets if they took a position hostile to the government.
Romachenko's comments came just a few days after police commandos in ski masks raided the Moscow offices of Vladimir Gusinsky's Media-MOST holding company. Gusinsky's media have been critical of the war in Chechnya witness NTV television reports and skeptical about Putin's democratic credentials. Media-MOST's papers, such as the daily Segodnya and biweekly Novaya Gazeta, are anti-Kremlin and consistently attempt to reveal corruption in high places.
"Does the president know what's going on?" asked Yevgeny Kiselyov, the anchor of NTV's Sunday night "Itogi" program, in the wake of the MOST raids.
To date, Putin has avoided giving any commentary on, or explanation of, the raid and many people are feeling confused. It seems improbable that Putin didn't know anything about it, because a struggle in the Kremlin is now taking place, as officials vie to become the president's favorite. Hence, it seems unlikely someone would dare to make a move without Putin's approval.
This latest event has left much of the Western media shocked. It was front-page news, and its significance was heavily emphasized. The Western media now seem to have grasped that this latest attack on press freedom demonstrated that there is no democratic basis to Putin's "dictatorship of the law" and "strong state" statements.
A lot of Russians who voted for Putin in the hope that their country would become a Western-type society must now realize that they deeply misunderstood his intentions.
(E-mail Media Watch at email@example.com)