Syria is different through Russian eyes

By Andrei Nekrasov
FT.com | July 30, 2012 7:33 pm

It is normal that news headlines differ from country to country, but the western world might be interested to know that Syria has not been among the main news items in Russia. If there is a report on an event that is all but impossible to ignore, such as the massacre in Tremseh on July 12 it is like this one from news2.ru: “Syrian insurgents have been instructed to kill as many people as possible.”

The Russian word boyeviki, used to describe the rebel fighters, is less neutral than “insurgents” and is just one step away from bandits or terrorists. It passed from slang into the mass media during the war in Chechnya in the 1990s as a way of branding the Chechen separatist fighters. It is also worth noting in the report cited above the use of the words “instructed to kill”. They are intended to hint clearly that the opposition are acting on the orders of some invisible masters.

The report, which was on prime time TV, featured Anastassia Popova, a young and charismatic reporter. She provided “evidence” of the rebels killing innocent people in Tremseh, while claiming that the majority of those killed by the army were armed fighters and deserters. The reporter also claimed that the UN authorities were hampering her crew because of its country of origin.
 
Russia’s government is stubbornly supporting Bashar al-Assad and, true to Soviet-era traditions, it is unashamedly using the media it controls to justify its policy. Vladimir Putin’s control of information is not absolute. The internet has so far been almost completely free. However, the truth is Mr Putin does not need to exert control over public opinion on Syria.
 
Most people in Russia see the fighting there as a proxy war between their country and the west. While the humanitarian crisis receives little attention, the diplomacy is the focus of regular and detailed reports. The “struggle for peace” of foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Russia’s UN mission, against “aggressive western powers bent on force”, are what we mostly hear about in reports on Syria.
 
The government encourages this proxy war narrative, as it has a vested interest in portraying itself as the defender of a nation’s geopolitical position against the west’s perceived global expansion. While many of Mr Putin’s other policies are increasingly under attack, most Russians share the divisive world view that he projects. Even the independent internet-based media’s “objective” reporting tends to present Mr Assad’s version first and as fully legitimate. That is not a result of any direct pressure from the government.
 
When it comes to reporting on domestic political issues, such as the government’s handling of natural disasters or freedom of assembly, the same media outlets are much less patient with the government’s interpretation of events. But with Syria, geopolitics take precedence over objectivity. Many abroad may wonder at Russian stubbornness in the face of the near certainty of Mr Assad’s demise. But this geopolitical nationalism has cultural roots. And Mr Putin of course is himself a product of this culture, not just its manipulator – although to be clear he is a master of that technique too, using it to maintain his power.
 
More and more, the Russian people are told that vlast – a word that does not really have an English equivalent, incorporating authority and political power with a hint of brutal force – comes from God. Attacking it, for whatever reason, is both sinful and criminal.

On the face of it the Pussy Riot case, a political show trial in which three young women are being effectively persecuted for blasphemy, is unconnected to Syria. The trio stands accused of singing an anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral. It is another example of the bid to reintroduce autocratic ideology. The trial’s message is simple: an insult to the leader is an insult to God.
 
Two weeks ago Abdel Basset Sayda, the head of the Syrian National Council, accurately described his movement as a “revolution” when he came to Moscow to urge officials to stop supporting Syria’s regime. He was, inadvertently, highlighting the very reason for Mr Putin’s support. Mr Sayda may have wanted to inspire Russian leaders with a vision of democracy and justice that invoked the end of the cold war. Instead, those same leaders found themselves imagining how they might end up in Mr Assad’s shoes.
 
The writer is a film and TV director

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