BBG Watch Commentary
As the Kremlin orders USAID to pull out of Russia, accusing the U.S. government agency of giving support to anti-Putin groups, and the Russian Parliament tentatively approves a new law expanding the definition of treason, the President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), also a U.S. government-funded operation, has announced his decision to select Masha Gessen, an anti-Putin journalist and gay rights activist, to be the new director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service. Casting security concerns aside, Steven Korn also announced that Ms. Gessen, who reportedly has a dual Russian and U.S. citizenship, will be based in Moscow rather than at the RFE/RL headquarters in Prague, the Czech Republic. He further announced that due to a new, even more restrictive Russian media law, Radio Liberty will no longer be able to broadcast on a leased medium wave (AM) frequency in Moscow, but that the Russian authorities have allowed RFE/RL to construct a larger news facility in Moscow, which will soon be opened. Even before Ms. Gessen came on board, RFE/RL has fired a large number of its employees in Moscow who presumably will be replaced. News reports have linked her to this firing, but she denies that she played a significant part in the decision. And in a strange turn of events, President Putin reportedly met with Ms. Gessen.
BBG Watch will examine these issues in a series of commentaries to be published this week. Today we focus on Ms. Gessen’s reporting on her meeting with President Putin. In Part Two and Part Three, we will examine security issues surrounding Mr. Korn’s decision to expand the RFE/RL Moscow bureau and to base Radio Liberty’s Russian Service director in Russia. We will also examine the reported management turmoil at the RFE/RL headquarters in Prague under the new management team installed by Mr. Korn and will focus on the overall strategy for Russia being implemented by Mr. Korn and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) executive team in Washington.
Part One: Newly-selected director of Radio Liberty Russian Service Masha Gessen met with Putin, denies role in mass firing of RL staffers
Masha Gessen, the newly-selected director of the Russian Service of Radio Liberty (RL), leaves no doubt that she is no fan of Vladimir Putin, but the Russian President invited her to a meeting after she was fired as the chief editor of Russia’s oldest magazine, Vokrug Sveta (Around the World) on September 1, 2012. The reason for her firing was reportedly her refusal to send a reporter to cover a Russian Geographic Society event featuring President Putin flying with cranes. Gessen apparently saw it as nothing more than a publicity stunt. “Flying Putin, Fired Editor” by Masha Gessen in The International Herald Tribune, September 10, 2012.
After her firing, Putin reportedly reached out to her and tried to help her get her job back, but she declined his offer and opted instead to accept a job of the Russian Service director of Radio Liberty. The job had been proposed to her previously by Steven Korn, the president of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), but at that time she took the chief editor’s job at Vokrug Sveta.
RFE/RL President Moves Quickly to Hire Gessen
About two weeks after Gessen was fired from Vokrug Sveta, Korn made the following announcement to his staff on September 13:
“We are extremely lucky to find Masha, who had been consulting with us for about six months, but until last week was not available to be a candidate for our service director since she was Editor-in- Chief of Vokrug Sveta, or (Around the World). As soon as Masha became available and interested in working with us, we moved forward as quickly as we could. She will join us on October 1, and will be based in Moscow.”
Is Putin a Fool?
Korn’s announcement to the RFE/RL staff on September 13 does not mention Gessen’s telephone conversation and her meeting with Putin.
On September 16, Gessen wrote about her meeting with Putin in The International Herald Tribune: “A Call From The Kremlin.” In her article Gessen stressed that that she had refused President Putin’s help in getting her old job back, but she did not disclose that subsequently she had accepted a job offer from RFE/RL on September 13.
“It seemed that Putin, who gets most of his information from television channels he dominates, had been unwittingly set up to offer a job to one of his most vocal critics. Sure, I had held the job before — but if I accepted it now, I would be doing it as a Kremlin appointee. Which is precisely why I had to say no.”
We do not share Ms. Gessen’s view that Mr. Putin was a foolish victim of a set up by his ill-informed advisors. In our view, he knew exactly who Ms. Gessen is, knew about her background as an opposition journalist and an activist for gay rights, and knew about her association with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The question is why he chose to have a meeting with her: to improve his image in the West or to embarrass the U.S. and RFE/RL while he was kicking USAID out of Russia, or both?
Gessen’s comment that Putin may have not know about her anti-Putin reporting is somewhat disturbing. “Of course, he knew, and, of course, she knows that he knew,” one Russia expert told BBG Watch. “And Gessen knows perfectly well that Putin, an ex-KGB spy, gets most of his information not from TV but from his security and intelligence services,” another Russia expert told us. It’s a mystery why she wrote this. Our guess is that Gessen may be so blinded by her contempt for Putin that she makes him look like a fool, which he is not.
Putin Scores Propaganda and Public Diplomacy Points
If anybody was set up, it was Gessen, Korn, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. By asking for a meeting with Gessen, Putin scored public diplomacy points in the West trying to show a benevolent side and propaganda points to please his nationalistic supporters in Russia as well.
Commenting on Gessen’s appointment, a BBG official specializing in strategic planning and research wrote in his private blog: “OK, as long as her decisions at Radio Svoboda to cover or not to cover stories are based on sound news judgments and not on anti-Putin sentiments.” Mission accomplished as far as public diplomacy targeting the West and even BBG executives.
As for his supporters in Russia, Putin has shown that he can be a magnanimous tsar — something they like and identify with — but can claim that he was cruelly betrayed by an ungrateful woman who, as they are already pointing out with glee in the blogosphere, is a lesbian activist — defending gay rights is a type of activism highly unpopular with most Russians — was born in Russia but has an American citizenship — again not very popular with Russian nationalists — and who has joined the organization — Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty financed by the American government — an organization which the Kremlin wants all of its internal supporters to view as an enemy of Russia. Again, mission accomplished. We don’t think Putin was set up at all. He knew what he wanted, he knew what was going to happen, he was in control of the events at all times, and he got what he wanted.
Mass Firings at Radio Liberty
Even before Gessen could take her job at RFE/RL, which is to happen on October 1, she became involved in controversy surrounding the sudden mass firing of Radio Liberty Russian Service staffers responsible for RL’s Russian website. As reported by the Russian Service of the BBC, Gessen wrote on her Facebook page that these layoffs and changes were planned for a long time and described her new role as the future director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service as part of these plans, but not the cause of the firings.
“The firings of the staff and the change in its structure were planned quite some time ago. My arrival was only a part of that plan and not the reason for the firings.”
“Увольнения в редакции и изменение ее структуры запланированы давно. Мой приход – часть этих планов, а не их причина.”
“Радио ‘Свобода’ прекратит вещание в эфире с ноября” — BBC Russian, September 21, 2012.
Some journalists who have been fired question how Gessen could claim no prior involvement in this decision since she had been commissioned earlier by RFE/RL as a consultant to do a study of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service bureau in Moscow. Some of her critics suggest that she may have in fact proposed these firings in her report and accuse her of being disingenuous in her explanations. This is how Gessen further clarified her role in her Facebook post:
“I have no reason to doubt the correctness of decisions: everything I know about the process of decision-making, makes me think that the decisions are correct. The fact that they are taken not by me – is just a historical fact.”
“У меня нет причин сомневаться в верности принятых решений: все, что мне известно о процессе принятия решений, заставляет меня думать, что решения верные. То, что они приняты не мной, – всего лишь исторический факт.”
Dropping Radio Broadcasts
The Voice of America reported that senior Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty official Julia Ragona — who, by the way, will be Masha Gessen’s boss — said Saturday that the organization is planning to go off the air on a medium wave radio frequency in Moscow on November 10. On that day a new Russian law takes effect which bans radio broadcasting in Russia by companies that are more than 48 percent owned by foreign individuals or legal entities.
Ragona said RFE/RL is reducing its Russian Service staff by a substantial number and said those leaving are doing so by mutual agreement, with severance packages.
She added that Radio Liberty Russian Service plans to expand its online content and will continue broadcasting on shortwave radio. Considering Ragona’s and Korn’s public pronouncements, it is probably only a matter of time before shortwave radio broadcasts are also eliminated. The Broadcasting Board of Governors strategists and executives are silent on this issue, as they are eliminating broadcasts and pushing forward with their Internet-only strategy. Meanwhile, the Voice of Russia continues to be heard on AM and FM frequencies in the United States and Russia Today TV is being carried on U.S. cable systems. As one Russia expert observed, the agency — the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) — seems to be run by a bunch of amateurs, particularly when compared to the Russians.
The popular Russian news website Vesti chose the following title for their story on Masha Gessen and Radio Liberty: “Masha Gessen will be left at Radio Liberty without employees and without broadcasts” – Маша Гессен на “Радио Свобода” осталась без сотрудников и эфира.
Pro-Putin Crowd Focuses on Sexual Orientation
Lev Roitman, a former senior commentator for Radio Liberty Russian Service, who retired several years ago, had this comment for BBG Watch:
“What a great start for RFE/RL Russian Service director! Well, let’s wait for the finish: Gessen rarely kept her jobs longer than a year. The funny side of all that is that most Russians following and commenting on the present messy bickering could not care less about the real problems and the ongoing destruction of the Radio Svoboda’s (Radio Liberty) reputation but concentrate on Masha being openly lesbian. It’s not quite popular in Russia… In the meantime, staff in Prague is bracing for what may come.”