Russian Crisis: Emergency law silences opposition: Media curbs prompt accusations of dictatorship

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MOSCOW - 'Boris Yeltsin is a true Bolshevik,' says Viktor Lennik, deputy editor of Pravda, a white plaster bust of Lenin peering over his shoulder, writes Andrew Higgins. In the circumstances, it might seem a tribute of sorts to the man who has just closed down his newspaper and half a dozen other journals.

He is speaking to a room full of writers, journalists and politicians, most of them Communist sympathisers and fierce Yeltsin opponents, so there is some confusion. Soon everything becomes clear, though the more orthodox in the audience probably resent such a distortion of Lenin's memory.

'Yeltsin's aim is to terrorise, to make sure there is no alternative to his regime,' continues Mr Lennik, a polished former foreign correspondent who describes himself as 'liberal democrat'. Most people in the room, gathered to comfort each other after the debacle at the White House on Monday, and certainly most of Pravda's readers, have rather more robust political views.

'The situation now is like it was in 1985 . . . before perestroika in 1985,' continues Mr Lennik. 'There is no parliament, no opposition, no press. If this is not Communism, what is it? It is precisely Yeltsin who is the Bolshevik.'

As official organ of the Central Party Central Committee, Pravda was once the most most establishment of Russian newspapers, one of only a handful to report dutifully every decree issued by the State Emergency Committee in 1991, and to mourn tearfully the coup's defeat after Mr Yeltsin rallied opposition from the White House.

After the putsch it was briefly shut down but rose from the ashes to become an irreverent organ of opposition. It kept Lenin on the masthead and decorates the halls of its offices with photographs of Lenin reading Pravda. Circulation dropped but the paper still claims to sell nearly half a million, distributed not only in Russia but in most former Soviet republics. The revival of the Soviet Union is one of its pet themes.

At least until Monday, when an order arrived, signed by a deputy information minister, informing Mr Lennik and other editors that Pravda was being closed down as part of the state of emergency imposed by the Kremlin late on Sunday. Others included in the same ban are Sovietskaya Rossiya, an anti-Semitic nationalist weekly called Den, and a host of small papers loyal to the radical right and left. 'The obvious aim is silence all opposition to their regime. They are creating a dictatorship,' Mr Lennik says.

Censorship has also made a comeback. This morning's edition of the independent daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta was being printed last night with four blank rectangles where articles the censor did not like would have run.

So long as plans for elections for a new parliament in December remain on course, Mr Yeltsin will probably get the benefit of the doubt. And the crackdown on the press is expected to be only temporary. But the closure of Pravda, which while fiercely opposed to Mr Yeltsin did not agitate for armed rebellion, raises questions about the fairness of a future election, particularly as Russia's two main television channels are both biased strongly in Mr Yeltsin's favour.

Some foreign observers are concerned. 'There are so few opposition papers left, and television is controlled so tightly by the state, that in the interests of fair access this should not happen,' says Rachel Denber, of the Moscow office of the human rights group Helsinki Watch.

Mr Yeltsin yesterday made one of his most loyal allies, Vladimir Shumeiko, Information Minister, a post left vacant since the previous minister resigned in protest in the summer.

Pravda does not come out on Sunday or Monday, so its last edition was on Saturday. Its headline, celebrating what then seemed to be the failure of Mr Yeltsin's efforts to shut down parliament, made no secret of its views: 'Blitzkrieg failed again in Russia, just as it failed

in 1941.'

When the order arrived shutting Pravda down, yesterday's edition devoted to the attack on the White House had already been written. Its headline: 'Troubled Saturday, Bloody Sunday, Black Monday.'

(Photograph omitted)