Russian 'gas war' useful distraction from domestic woes
Little attention has been given to a 20 percent decline in the value of the ruble in two months, plunging revenues or collapsing real estate prices.
Moscow -- The realities of economic crisis in Russia get little play these days on television, where -- conveniently for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- the gas dispute with Ukraine is the only story in town.
As Putin has taken personal control of Russia's "gas war" with Ukraine, touring gas facilities and meeting European politicians, the phrases "economic crisis" and "financial crisis" are barely heard on television channels that work in lockstep with the authorities and are Russians' main news source.
This week a business broadsheet, Vedomosti, observed that in the latest New Year and Orthodox Christmas period the festive broadcasts that are a staple of the season were competing "with reports on Europeans freezing due to the actions of the Ukrainians."
Meanwhile, one politician who has not minced his words on domestic economic conditions, President Dmitry Medvedev, has curiously been only a marginal presence on television screens.
Political commentator Sergei Parkhomenko of the radio station Echo of Moscow also noted the unbalanced television reporting of Russia's economic problems, which include a shrinking of credit, devaluation of the ruble and plunging revenues from exported oil and gas.
"If someone really wants to be informed on the effects of the economic crisis, they have to find some other media source than (Russian) television, where one finds nothing but disinformation.
"Nothing that is broadcast is left to chance and the directives demand that as little attention as possible is paid in programming to the negative consequences of the crisis," he said.
Illustrating the point, television channels barely touched Tuesday on an announcement that capital flight from Russia in 2008 was 130 billion dollars (100 billion euros).
Equally little attention was given on Monday to a central bank decision to allow the 14th drop in the value of the ruble in two months, representing a 20 percent decline in the value of the national currency over that period.
Instead, television viewers have received unending coverage from remote gas pumping stations on the border with Ukraine and denunciations by Russian officials of the "irresponsible" Ukrainian authorities.
The Russian public may be taking their television news with a pinch of salt, however.
A poll by the research institute Vtsiom found that only 27 percent believed media reports on the economic crisis were "objective."
For an alternative view, Russians can find details of the latest wave of redundancies and factories obliged to suspend production in the pages of newspapers, while Internet sites and news agencies also provide a sober look at the economy.
Still, the country's president has been outspoken in criticising slow implementation by the Putin government of plans to combat the economic crisis, such as bailouts for key industries and the retraining of those made redundant.
Visiting a jet engine factory on Sunday, Medvedev was reported by RIA Novosti news agency to have been withering in his criticism.
"One must admit that at the moment the implementation of the measures really is slower than expected and particularly slow given the situation," Medvedev said.
He went on to recite a litany of problems, including "the fall of domestic demand," "the fall in the price of exports" of steel and oil and "the lack of finance faced by the majority of enterprises."
He added that only 30 percent of government crisis measures worked out late last year had been implemented.
His comments, however, got little attention on television.
Where he did get television attention was at a ceremony handing medals to mothers of large numbers of children, an echo of Soviet awards for "hero mothers" at a time when a demographic slump remains one of the most pressing Russian problems of all.