BBG Watch Guest Commentary by Lev Roitman
Reset at Radio Liberty Russia – Never Attribute To Malice That Which Is Adequately Explained By Stupidity
In the realm of Russian Internet popularly called Runet, political correctness, civility, and even simple politeness are commodities in a short supply. I will not therefore mention even the most innocent barbs that pop up next to Masha Gessen’s name. The controversy surrounding Gessen’s objections to being personally involved in the mass terminations at the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Moscow bureau, was aptly captured in a newspaper article ironically titled “Masha Gessen did not fire but just recommended to fire the Internet Department.” (The Evening Moscow, 21 September 2012)
I, for one, did not stumble at a single entry in Runet expressing trust in Gessen’s assurances that she is not involved in the mass firings of Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda) Moscow bureau employees. In the first place, her claims to innocence are discounted by Radio Liberty insiders in Moscow. And the sad forecast is that she will not be trusted also by the new team to be handpicked by herself to replace the fired personnel.
Gessen’s reputational damage seems irreparable. To the disappearing present and eventually any new (hopefully but doubtfully) Russian Service audience, Radio Svoboda will be tightly associated with unflattering notion of untrustworthiness – even after Masha Gessen, who alas has a brilliant style as a journalist and is an interesting writer, will take her hat and leave the Radio.
When will that happen? That’s a question more suitable for off-track betting. The tip is that she rarely kept her jobs longer than a year or two and left usually in a public scandal. Her last stint with Vokrug sveta magazine lasted only eight months and was accompanied by a controversy involving Putin himself. One could say mockingly that she is going places, however, quite the contrary is true: in Putin she got a vindictive foe with demonstrably long and evil memory.
That might not be that bad for promotion of her recently published book, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, i.e., but it is a dreadful perspective for her, publicly other than about her own book, and for her future subordinates in Moscow. And it is a very unexciting promise for the smooth functioning of the RFE/RL Moscow office, which is being presently expanded and modernized (why then fire 50 people?) – understandably, with U.S. public dollars.
The question why all of a sudden Vladimir Putin invited some Masha Gessen to the Kremlin, is intriguing but perhaps easily answerable at the same time. Putin had to know that his phone call inviting Gessen to the Kremlin might reach her in Prague, where RFE/RL has its headquarters. Also, it would be somewhat naïve to assume that Vladimir Putin did not know much about her or her book, as she implies; the book was reported on, reviewed and published in excerpts in Russia. Was he curious to meet in person an engaged public defender of alternative sex orientation and alternative marriage who, living in his Moscow, reportedly with an American passport, dares to throw dirt at him, a Russian alpha male? Was he sending a signal to U.S. Congress-funded RFE/RL that Masha Gessen (and by natural extension, the RFE/RL Moscow office) is on his radar? Did he imagine himself as boa constrictor mesmerizing a rabbit? Did he want to show his majestic magnanimity and win over critics in Russia and in the West by reinstating her at the helm of Vokrug sveta magazine? Or did he want to compromise Masha Gessen, Radio Liberty, America’s image, American public diplomacy and the U.S. Government — all in one sweep — no matter what the outcome of his meeting with her in terms of what she would do next?
While there are different “schools of thought” concerning reasons for Masha being invited to Kremlin (some name it “summoned”), one thing is evident: In her account of that meeting, Gessen apparently did not reveal what she said exactly to Putin’s offer at the time of their conversation. That gap was filled by Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary. And — if he is correct — it puts Gessen’s sincerity under question mark again.
Describing her conversation with Putin, Gessen wrote: “Our meeting lasted exactly 20 minutes.” Then comes new paragraph: “And I will not go back to Vokrug sveta. Simply because I cannot work in the magazine where editor-in-chief is assigned by Putin.” (Bolshoy gorod, September 13) Peskov: “ Gessen quite correctly presented the essence of the conversation, save some insignificant flaws (…) We also regret that Ms. Gessen forgot to write: at the end of the conversation, answering President Putin’s question if she would agree to continue her work as chief editor, provided the (magazine) owner consents, she answered yes. And next day she refused.” (RBK daily, September 13) I have not seen in Runet any entry doubting Peskov’s statement.
Gessen reportedly travelled to Prague in her capacity as a RFE/RL consultant prior to her meeting with Putin. Her appointment as the Moscow-based RFE/RL Russian Service director — effective October 1 — was officially announced September 13, shortly after her meeting with Russia’s autocratic President. Mass terminations in Moscow commenced on September 20.
Could not RFE/RL management in Prague and BBG bureaucrats in Washington foresee that by such a close timing — appointment—terminations — they expose Gessen to accusations as being an author and an engine of clearing out (some say “destroying”) the Moscow bureau for her to step in less than two weeks later? That, regardless of her ardent statements to the contrary – true or not – her public standing will be lost? That the belated, coming after the scandal broke out, styled as “don’t worry, be happy” pronouncements by RFE/RL president Steven Korn and his vice-president for content, Julia Ragona, are the self-attestments of professional incompetence, of inability to look and see a step ahead?
Among the theories teeming in Runet, one necessarily finds the theory of some evil pro-Putin and anti-American political conspiracy in Prague, Washington, and Moscow. I don’t share it. I side with Napoleon Bonaparte: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
Lev Roitman was for many years a broadcaster, editor and senior commentator for Radio Liberty in Europe and in the United States. He lives in Prague.
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