May 31, 2013 7:21 pm

What Putin learnt from Berlusconi

With 80 per cent of Russians getting their news from TV, the Russian president knows it’s the best place for propaganda
Illustration by Luis Grañena of a viewer watching Putin on TV©Luis Grañena

I first met Derk Sauer in Moscow in 1992, amid the ruins of the Soviet Union. I’d fallen in with journalists at a new English-language newspaper called The Moscow Times, and I often hung around the paper’s office in a Radisson hotel. You could pop straight from your desk into a hotel-room shower, which was quite handy in Moscow then. One day I met the paper’s founder: a tiny Dutchman, who, amid his eager young staff, resembled a bespectacled scoutmaster.

Sauer is still in Moscow. Last week I visited him in his latest office, in a Soviet-era building that’s a comedown from the Radisson. But by now he’s a Russian media mogul. Moreover, he’s an excellent observer of the country, with his journalist’s eye, mogul’s contacts and experience of a long-term resident whose sons went to Russian schools. Sauer can judge whether President Vladimir Putin is taking Russia and its media back to the Brezhnev era.

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Simon Kuper

A teenage Maoist and, later, a war correspondent, Sauer landed in Moscow in 1989. Despite speaking no Russian, he was too fascinated to leave. He and his wife Ellen Verbeek gave Russians western titles such as Playboy and Men’s Health, and newspapers such as Vedomosti (a joint venture involving the FT). Their biggest hit, Russian Cosmopolitan, became Europe’s bestselling glossy; Sauer says it “changed the way women here view the world”. He still chairs his original venture, now called Sanoma Independent Media, which has 60 per cent of the Russian magazine market. But he’s simultaneously president of RBK Media, Russia’s main provider of business news. (Declaration of interest: Sauer’s Dutch publishing house published a book of mine.)

Last year Mikhail Prokhorov, the oligarch who had recently stood for president, persuaded Sauer to run RBK. Sauer insists Prokhorov doesn’t interfere with content: “I spoke to him once, when he asked whether I’d do this, and never since.”

The bigger threat of interference comes from Putin. Freedom House, the American non-governmental organisation, concluded last month that Russia’s government has almost “complete control over television, radio, and the print press”. France-based Reporters Without Borders called Putin a “predator” on the media, and made posters of him sticking up his middle finger. Meanwhile a recent poll by the Russian Levada Center found that Leonid Brezhnev was the country’s most popular 20th-century leader. Lenin came second, and the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev ranked bottom.

But Putin’s model for media management isn’t Brezhnev, says Sauer. “Putin mirrors himself on Berlusconi. It’s not for nothing that they are such good friends. They understand that if you control the main TV stations and make propaganda there, you’ll go far.” The Italian playwright Dario Fo wrote a play in which Putin’s brain was transplanted into Berlusconi’s body but, according to Sauer, it’s more Berlusconi’s brain in Putin’s body. Russia’s recipe, says Sauer, is Italian TV, Chinese politics, “plus a dash of oil”.

TV is Putin’s priority. Unlike Stalin and Brezhnev, he understands he doesn’t need total media control. Sauer says the state still leaves his websites and newspapers alone. “We don’t notice any change. No phone calls, no pressure, nothing.” Russian internet use is soaring, yet Sauer says: “We all think, because we’re in the media, that these changes happen very fast.

But in reality most people still get their news from TV.” That’s true not just in Russia, where perhaps 80 per cent do, but even in the US. Russian newspapers are comparatively tiny: few sell more than 100,000 copies, a figure representing under 0.1 per cent of the population.

“The funny thing about Russia,” Sauer had told me in 2005, “is there’s complete press freedom for the informed but none for the uninformed. The informed, the people who read papers like Vedomosti or Kommersant, know a lot anyway because they also see satellite TV and the internet. There’s no point trying to suppress us. It would just create a fuss and international criticism.” Moreover, allowing some critical voices only makes Putin’s propaganda on TV more credible.

And so Moscow’s middle classes are allowed pockets of freedom of thought. These people aren’t about to oust Putin. Sauer says: “There’s no question of an Arab spring happening here. For a revolution you need lots of unemployed young people. But there’s no unemployment here, and very few young people, and they all have a job within five minutes. They have no time to sit in Tahrir Square, they have to work in the morning. Only one thing could change the status quo: if the oil price collapses.”

Sauer divides his Moscow years into three periods. In the first seven or eight years he saw “unlimited optimism”. Then came “unlimited consumption”. “And now there’s cynicism. People who can afford to leave the country. Our rich neighbourhood is half empty. People who can’t leave try to stay far from the state and do their own thing.”

Sauer himself appears wedded to Russia. He’s 60 now, and can imagine growing old here, like his friend George Blake, the 90-year-old British spy defector. But that presumes that Russia’s Berlusconi model doesn’t morph into Brezhnev.

simon.kuper@ft.com .

Twitter @KuperSimon

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