U.S. President Donald Trump’s first few days in office—plagued by questions of fake news, disinformation, and attacks against journalists—feel a lot like those of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sixteen years ago, Putin was in the early days of reshaping his country’s politics and society after rising to power the previous year. Having already curbed the independence of leading industries such as the country’s largest carmaker and biggest metals exporter, the president turned his attention to the once-vibrant free press. In April 2001, a state-controlled minority shareholder in Russia’s only independent national television station, NTV, announced that it wanted to oust the broadcaster’s directors to save the station from a looming debt default. Tens of thousands of protesters braved raw weather on a drab, wet day outside the station’s sprawling Soviet-era studios in northern Moscow to denounce the sudden concern about NTV’s finances and the fact that a minority stakeholder could use such a flimsy justification to derail the company.
Holed up in the offices upstairs, defiant journalists hustled to cover the standoff in real time as a stream of celebrities and opposition lawmakers dropped by to drink, smoke, and crack jokes in the office of the director, Yevgeny Kisleyov. But they did little to dispel the sense of impending doom. Kiselyov, Russia’s most trusted news anchor who was among the government’s most incisive critics, laid out the obvious. “This is not a financial affair,” the immaculately coiffed journalist told me at the time, taking a debonair drag on his cigarette. “This is a hostile takeover by the government. It wants to nationalize the channel because we ask questions. ‘Who is Mr. Putin?’ for example. Other channels have the answer to that. It’s prepared for them in the Kremlin. He’s a national hero, a genius!” Meanwhile, Putin—the only person whose opinion really mattered—was maintaining absolute radio silence.
It soon became clear that no real public outcry was forthcoming because most Russians either supported Putin’s actions or didn’t care enough to register dissent. At 3:00 a.m. on a Saturday the following week, security guards forced their way into the studios and ejected the journalists, quickly turning a major page in Russia’s post-Soviet history. With another stage of Putin’s incremental consolidation of power complete, he moved on to other targets at home and abroad, methodically prodding for political and public backlash.
PUTIN’S PAST, TRUMP’S PRESENT
A decade-and-a-half on, Trump has entered the White House waging relentless assaults on his rivals both in the opposition and within his own party, marshaling a staunch nationalism and street-brawler brashness in doing so. His attacks against the news media have included singling out reporters for personal ridicule and labeling CNN, the New York Times and other outlets as purveyors of fake news.
Like Putin, Trump sees weakening the ideals-based Western liberal order and its openness as essential to maintaining his support. Trump’s temporary ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, attacks on the judiciary, and other measures enacted by a battery of executive orders make it hard to deny his authoritarian tendencies.
Nevertheless, Trump differs from Putin in at least one critical respect. Almost everything the latter has said and done to consolidate power has been coldly calculated to steadily expand his authoritarianism. The Russian president almost certainly sees his high approval ratings as a pillar of the personal power buttressing his all-important role as the country’s supreme national leader. Faced with obstacles whose costs he has deemed too great, he has backed down, perhaps most memorably after angry pensioners blocked off main thoroughfares into major cities to protest changes to the social benefits system in 2005.Read More...
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