Relations between the United States and Russia continue to be strained, but no more so than the relationship between Russian journalists and their own government. With the upcoming G8 Summit in Russia, the country is trying hard to show its commitment to democracy, fair arms, education and economic trade. Based on recent events, however, it may be difficult to convince world leaders that Russia is serious about changing both its image and its mission.
State of the media in Russia
• Three leading news Web sites in Russia have been disciplined by the government. Beginning in March, the state took action against the companies for allegedly “spreading extremist ideas,” according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international media watchdog agency based in Paris. One site, Pravda.ru, was shut down temporarily while Bankfax.ru was prosecuted and Gazeta.ru received a public warning.
“The authorities already control most of the traditional media, and now it seems they are trying to get control of the Internet, using the need to combat extremism as an argument for censoring the news Web sites that are still independent,” said an RSF official.
• A newspaper editor was released in May after spending three weeks in jail for “inciting terrorist activities through the media,” reported RSF. “Viktor Shmakov, editor of the sole opposition newspaper in the small semi-autonomous republic of Bachkortostan, Provintsialnye Vesti, was released … on the order of the Supreme Court, which ruled that his arrest was illegal.” He was arrested on charges of criticizing the local government. Shmakov, who has owned the paper for 15 years without incident, said he will continue to publish.
Stories making the news
• St. Petersburg hosts the G8 Summit from July 15-17, the first time the country will chair the event. Russia has suggested that deliberations focus on three critical issues: global energy security, combating infectious diseases and education. President Vladimir Putin warned recently that “the arms race has entered a new spiral today with the achievement of new levels of technology that raise the danger of the emergence of a whole arsenal of so-called destabilizing weapons. … We see, after all, what is going on in the world. The wolf knows who to eat, as the saying goes. It knows who to eat and is not about to listen to anyone, it seems.”
• Attempting to avoid a one-third decline in the country’s population by 2050, Putin has introduced a government plan to pay women extra money for having children. “I propose a program to encourage childbirth … to encourage families to have a second child,” Putin said in a May 11 state-of-the-nation address. Under the plan, monthly child support payments would more than double to 1,500 rubles ($55). Those who decide to have a second baby would receive 3,000 rubles ($110) per month up to a total of 250,000 rubles ($9,243).
The major issues
• Fifteen years have passed since the U.S.S.R. dissolved into 15 independent republics. As general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1985-91) and also as president of the Soviet Union (1990-91), Mikhail Gorbachev implemented major reform — glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) — throughout the country to improve the economy, government and living conditions.
“Since then, Russia has struggled in its efforts to build a democratic political system and market economy to replace the strict social, political and economic controls of the communist period,” according to the U.S. Department of State. The number of people living below the poverty line in 2004 was 17.8 percent.
Facts about the country
• Russia is the largest country in the world, about 1.8 times the size of the United States, but much of the land does not have suitable soil or temperatures for agriculture. Total arable land is 7.17 percent.
The country has vast natural resources — oil, natural gas, coal, strategic minerals and timber. Mining and development are difficult, however, because of the harsh terrain and climate in many areas.
Bruce C. Swaffield is a professor of graduate studies in journalism at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. In addition to working as a professional journalist for many years in South Florida, Swaffield has been teaching journalism and writing since 1983. He is a member of the SPJ International Journalism Committee and may be contacted at email@example.com.