#42 | July 2 - 15, 1998  smlogo.gif


In This Issue
Feature Story
Press Review
Kino Korner
Moscow Babylon


Talking Heads of State in Disguise

By Abram Kalashnikov

Imagine you're the director of a small company, and an applicant for a job comes for an interview and leaves you his resume. You like the applicant and are leaning toward giving him the job, so you call him back and ask for his references. He faxes you a list. You make the calls and it turns out that no one has anything bad to say. Everybody loves the kid. So you hire him on.

A month later, your company is in ruins. Your employee has embezzled every dollar in the company bank account and split for Holland with the books. You think to yourself: how did this happen? All those references...

As it turns out, of course, the references he provided were all your ex-employee's relatives. Either that or they were plants, briefed by the employment agency that stood to make two month's salary if you hired the applicant. You'd been had.

Believe it or not, something similar happens to you every day, if you're a regular reader of Western news coverage out of Moscow. The only difference is, you're being sold not a job applicant, but a version of history. And the references in this case are "talking heads"-analysts quoted by journalists to shed light on this or that political development. Unbeknownst to many readers, many of these "talking heads" are actually interested parties in the story they're commenting on. Often they're hired consultants to a certain government, literally selling the party line under cover of academic impartiality. Take this recent example from an Associated Press story about new Russian tax chief Boris Fyodorov:

"Like his predecessors, Fyodorov, a former finance minister and investment banker, has pledged to make life difficult for tax dodgers, who vastly outnumber Russia's few taxpayers.

"What sets him apart is that many people believe him.

"'He's an enormously strong person,' economist Anders Aslund says. 'If you appoint Boris Fyodorov the head of the tax authority, then you are serious.'"

The AP's Mitchell Landsberg in this piece boldly goes where just about every other reporter in Moscow has gone at least once, mis-labeling the ultimate Teflon Analyst, Anders Aslund. Aslund is indeed an "economist" and a "senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace," as he is later identified in the article, but these are very transparently secondary titles. What Aslund really is, first and foremost, is a former chief adviser to USAID and a key architect of the disastrous reform program. His endorsement of Fyodorov is clear self-interest, a very unsubtle piece of cheerleading for a member of the reform regime Aslund's name is, or should be, inextricably linked to.

Like many other graduates of USAID service, Aslund is seldom identified in public discourse as someone with links to the government. Instead, he is allowed to mine the Carnegie center for private sector credentials and appear in public as a disinterested party, commenting on what is essentially his own work. Another USAID graduate who is almost never identified as such is fellow Carnegie associate Michael McFaul, who contributes cheerleading pro-Yeltsin commentary to newspapers as diverse as The Moscow Times and The Washington Post without ever being identified as a person who has every reason to be an apologist for the state.

This kind of thing doesn't happen too much outside of foreign journalism. In the United States, for instance, the political battle lines are so clearly drawn, and the left-right spectrum of political commentary so deeply ingrained in the reading public's mind, that a political analyst can't really appear in public without having his political orientation made clear. Instead of the faceless academics who pepper Western analyses of Russian politics, commentators on the American scene tend to appear in the news as "members of Republican think-tanks," or "former Carter aides," and so on. You'd never hear Mary Matalin referred to as a simple "political consultant." At home, Americans know no disinterested objective academic could be as obnoxious as Matalin. When reading foreign reports, though, they don't have a clue-and end up swallowing government employees masquerading as private-sector types on almost a daily basis.

Think-tanks, the natural breeding grounds of quotable analysts, never identify themselves as government-funded even when they are. In a recent Moscow Times article by Sujata Rao, for instance, you'd never know that the following quote about the austerity plan came from a European Union-funded spokesman:

"'It seems to me that they are getting something and losing something,' said Alasdair Breach, an economist at the Russian European Center for Economic Policy."

Like the oft-quoted but now departed Rory MacFarquhar, Breach was ultimately a government-funded economist, as the Russian-European Center was created with EU funding. However, the reader is left with the impression that he is just some tweedy observer making the strange judgement that the oligarchs are actually losing something under the upcoming austerity plan.

Even more common is the quoting of Russian analysts who are some way or another under the employ of the Russian government. Among the most notorious offenders on this score is publicity hound Vladimir Nikonov of Fond Politika, quoted on almost a daily basis by The Moscow Times.

Nikonov, a great-nephew of Soviet hack Vyacheslav Molotov, was a political adviser to Boris Yeltsin in the mid 1990s. His commentary tends to be suspiciously pro-Yeltsin, suggesting that he may be hoping to be re-hired. In any case, the failure to identify Nikonov as a former Yeltsin aide leaves the reader at a disadvantage in his effort to know what's going on. When Boris Berezovsky was named CIS chief, Nikonov was quoted by Dima Zaks of The Moscow Times as saying:

"This appointment means that recent rumors of a split between Yeltsin and Berezovsky have been greatly exaggerated."

If you don't know that Nikonov once worked for Yeltsin, his comment seems to suggest that Yeltsin and the notorious Boris Berezovsky are closer than previously believed. Once you know Nikonov's past ties to the President, however, you almost get the sense that Yeltsin wants you to believe that he and Berezovsky are close, whether it's true or not. I mean, you tell me what that quote means. I have no idea.

Other regular offenders are Boris Mikhailov of the USA-Canada Institute, a former Yeltsin aide who is never identified as such, the Center For Political Technologies, which was founded by former Yeltsin campaign strategist Igor Bunin, and the Indem think tank, another Moscow Times favorite, which was founded by Yeltsin political adviser Georgy Sakarov.

If you're wondering why so many academics seem inordinately calm about the recent crisis, remember that for a lot of the time, that's their job. Government spokesmen preach calm, smile all the time, and lie whenever necessary. Any prosecutor in the world would tell you they are terrible witnesses. That they remain omnipresent in news coverage tells you how powerful the government propaganda machine is-and how gullible Western reporters really are.

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