THE first line of defense for democracy in Russia is its media. In the power struggle between President Boris Yeltsin, the Congress, and the Constitutional Court, Russia's fourth estate may well play the pivotal role in maintaining a peaceful transition to civil society. Despite numerous attempts by Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov and President Yeltsin to control it, the mass media in Russia remains relatively impartial.
While Russia's two state broadcasting companies have tended to favor Yeltsin in their reporting, the Russian people receive a fairly accurate representation of the political developments in the country. So long as all ethnic and political groups continue to have access to the news media, civil war can be avoided.
In Serbia, President Slobodan Milosevic has mastered the use of TV the way Hitler had earlier exploited the power of radio to incite fear and hatred of his enemies.
With 65 million former Soviet citizens living outside the boundaries of their national homelands, Russia cannot afford to let the media fall into the hands of any single political faction. In the current crisis of authority, levelheaded leaders from all factions should join in defending the independence of the mass media.
In the political climate that prevails in Moscow, partisan claims to control state television are rampant. Extremists from all sides will attack the state broadcasting centers, as we saw in Vilnius, in Tbilisi, in Bucharest and elsewhere. Unlike in the West, in Russia there is no tradition of press freedoms to insulate the media from this political maelstrom.
Russian television reaches 95 percent of households and is by far the main source of news in the country. The West should help with financial support to reform and improve this information channel. Aid for the media should be offered with the same conditionality that comes with financial support. Freedom of the press, guarantees for media pluralism and independence of the electronic media from partisan politics should be the price of American aid for democratization.
United States policy should stress broadcast pluralism as strongly as we do any other human right. After all, no other human right can be protected if the media is censored. Multichannel television is as important to modern democracy as multiparty elections. Western support for the Russian media could have an immediate impact in strengthening democracy, whereas financial assistance appears to average citizens to be lost in a black hole. No conceivable amount of Western economic aid can rescue Russia's cr umbling economy.
Three hundred billion dollars in economic assistance from Germany for the former East German Democratic Republic has not been enough to integrate that homogeneous state; and Russia's needs swamp those of East Germany.
But Western help for the Russian media could effectively bolster the fourth estate to defend its role above the political struggle.
We have witnessed repeated attempts by the Congress and Yeltsin to bring the mass media under their control. The struggle over Izvestia; the forced resignation of Yeltsin's minister of information; his return to the Federal Information Center with wide and ambiguous powers; the decree abolishing St. Petersburg television; the firing of Yegor Yakovlev and resignation of Igor Maleshenko, heads of Central Television; and decrees and counter-decrees by the Congress and the president attempting to assert cont rol over state TV, are ongoing battles in the internecine struggle to control the media. Only the ineptitude of political stalemate has left television centers relatively impartial. But the best and brightest TV talent is leaving the state broadcasting companies.
Meanwhile, independent television and radio broadcasters have proliferated throughout the former Soviet Union. There are more than 300 independent broadcast and cable stations operating in Russia today. The center has begun to license these enterprises but they are by no means under the control of Moscow.
The extent of independent television in Russia far exceeds the development of the broadcasting media anywhere else in East Europe. This is a rare asset in Russia's fledgling transformation to civil society. Urgently in need of equipment, training, and Western programming, these independent broadcasters should receive increased Western support to help sustain democracy in the provinces where the future of Russia may well be determined.
IT is important that the West act immediately with promises of help to the Russian media to strengthen its cause. More importantly, Russians across the political spectrum should rally in defense of media independence. Yeltsin's "Decree on Information Stability," if carried out fairly, would create a federal commission for television and radio broadcasting that could act independently to regulate the Russian broadcasting industry as the Federal Communications Commission does in the US.
Local administrative bodies should do what they can to support the independent commercial stations that have multiplied in the vacuum of power after the August 1991 coup. By offering alternatives to the state news broadcasts, these small independent companies help keep the state media honest. Many of them will need Western help to survive the economic crisis.
The existence of these stations ensures against the rise of the kind of virulent nationalism fueled by the monopolization of the media, which we have seen in Yugoslavia.
Press and broadcast freedom is a political right that must be raised to the same level of concern by the West as any other human right. Political, economic, and moral support for Russia's news media will be aid well spent.