Russia’s leading opposition figure is waging war on the media

What happened

The talk of the month in Russia’s media community is a conflict between the most popular opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, and reputable business daily Vedomosti — one of the few relatively independent Russian media outlets (and a former partner of The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal).

  • The conflict was triggered by Navalny’s expose that the 82-year-old mother of State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, who was a school teacher all her life, owns an apartment worth $3.4 million. Vedomosti refrained from publishing the news of the accusations, instead requesting documents from the registration authorities and comments from Volodin and Navalny. Other private Russian publications took different sides. Some, like news website RBC, just skipped the story. Some, like Riga-based Meduza, published it without any of its own proof. While the BBC Russian Service found corroborating evidence a day earlier than Vedomosti.
  • But Navalny’s primary target was Vedomosti. He accused the newspaper, which has been one of the most diligent in following his anti-corruption campaigns, of censorship at the Kremlin’s behest. He alleged that Vedomosti’s owner, Demyan Kudryavtsev, took part in the 2018 presidential election campaign of Ksenia Sobchak, who was supported by the Kremlin to counter Navalny. Vedomosti journalists replied that they were following editorial standards, which require documentary evidence as well as comments from the accused party. Technically, this wasn’t a dishonest answer and Navalny’s accusations were clearly exaggerated. However, Kudryavtsev’s involvement in Sobchak’s campaign is well known and even Kudryavtsev has himself admitted it. This is a clear conflict of interest, which the paper has never admitted. Vedomosti never put disclaimers in its many pieces about Navalny and Sobchak.
  • A conflict between Navalny and the press was inevitable. In many ways, Navalny’s relationship with the press resembles that of Donald Trump’s. He owes much of his fame to the press: when he started out he was busy unearthing corruption in state-owned companies and Vedomosti, as a business daily, paid more attention to this struggle than most media outlets. But, after 2010, newspaper readers have increasingly switched to social networks where Navalny is better informed than most journalists. This August, the monthly audience of Navalny’s website and YouTube channel (without taking into account his other social media) reached 14 million people — more than Vedomosti’s audience. At the same time, Navalny works with databases and has recruited a professional team that makes his blog nothing less than the best investigative outfit in the country. On the one hand, this outfit does the work of journalists (and does it very well), but, on the other hand, it is a political undertaking, which has no obligation to abide by standards of fairness and neutrality. The nature of the relationship between such an entity and journalists bound by professional ethics means that there are many potential conflict. It is surprising the first large-scale row has only just taken place.

Why the world should care

Independent Russian news outlets are scarce and it’s important to understand their approach to information. In Navalny’s conflict with Vedomosti, both sides are guilty of some hypocrisy. For Navalny, the story is just about censorship — but it is clearly also about media influence and his personal conflict with Sobchak. Vedomosti cites editorial standards, but it is no secret that in such a situation those standards wouldn’t usually be observed so strictly. Bottom line: even independent sources of news about Russia have their own bias and must be viewed critically.

Peter Mironenko