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What To Make Of The Russian Media’s Reaction To Iran?

Julia Ioffe is a writer living in New York.

As we continue to pick apart the dubious Iranian election returns, it's worth considering their very different treatment in Russia, which has long sought to play the lion tamer in the nuclear tug-of-war with Tehran. For starters, the mainstream Russian press has taken the official election results largely at face value, referring to Ahmadinejad as the "winner" without the slew of qualifiers that pad the term here. Only Tuesday, when the ayatollahs announced a partial recount, did some Russian papers label the election results "shaky." Today, the fourth day of protests, what coverage there is (many papers have dropped the story) is a bit more urgent, focusing on a growing threat of real upheaval (Kommersant, the main national daily, leads with "Iran Finally Remembers the Revolution"). The tone, though, is still one of strict objectivity: Here's who won, here's who people hoped had won, and here's the official data.

Why has the Russian press largely sidestepped a skeptical analysis of the election returns? One answer is that the Kremlin always feels as if it has to be at center stage and, for that, it needs Ahmadinejad and his antics. This explains why the hard-line Pravda depicted Mousavi's supporters as sore losers and quoted a Russian Iran expert as saying that "the protests will not yield anything. ...We can firmly and definitively call Ahmadinejad the elected president of the country." But what's surprising is that even fiercely liberal outlets like Novaya Gazeta (Anna Politkovskaya's paper) gladly accepted the results. On Monday (it is published Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays), it described the elections as lively and "wondrous."

Though it's impossible to generalize, there's one fairly obvious explanation for such uniformly accepting coverage: This just doesn't look like a rigged election to Russians, because Russians don't rig their elections; they engineer them. Last year's choreographed election, remember, was carried out with no room for error: no debates, with one candidate's message drumming ceaselessly on state-owned media for months, and, when the vote finally came, returns spiked conveniently at all the round numbers. It's a low standard, but, given the fact that local governors aren't even elected in sham elections anymore, anything with more than one pre-ordained candidate and a modicum of friction seems like a free and fair election to Russians.

And so, though the press is reporting extensively on the protests and dashed hopes of a thaw, it is also questioning whether the Mousavi-ites are as representative as the Western press implies. The centrist Moskovskiy Komsomolets, for instance, compared the green protests to the recent unrest in Moldova: "Without much of a base and without much chance of success--but with a lot of noise." Even Yuliya Latynina, an opposition columnist for the liberal, pro-Western Ezhednevniy Zhurnal, was not surprised that, in a country full of the pious and "simple poor," Ahmadinejad swept to a resounding victory. "The elections in Iran demonstrate one simple thing, evident even to Aristotle and Plato, but often forgotten by devotees of democracy," she wrote. "Democracy is one of the most imperfect forms of government if the poor get to vote."

But there may be a quick about-face in the coverage, as even the Kremlin seems to have taken a cooler stance toward Ahmadinejad and his landslide. Some of the press's coverage has surely been influenced--though not overtly--by the fact that Ahmadinejad has been a Russian ally because he has been a constant irritant to American ambitions in a region Russia historically views as part of its sphere of influence, and because that irritant lets Moscow play the needed and important salve. Now, though, the winds are changing. Obama has taken a less militant tone with Tehran and with Moscow. Medvedev, lately showing more sleight of hand than his predecessor, seems to have finally picked up on the world's extreme skepticism about the election results and the growing seriousness of the unrest in Iran.

Here's what happened: Slated to arrive in Yekaterinburg on Monday for the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit (Iran is an observer in the group, which is a sort of answer to NATO in Asia), Ahmadinejad postponed his trip because of the situation at home. When he finally arrived yesterday, Ahmadinejad found that his two-hour tete-a-tete with President Dmitri Medvedev had been canceled due to the president's "overly-saturated schedule." Instead, he shook hands in front of the cameras with Medvedev, whose spokesperson insisted that this fleeting encounter was nothing more than a flicker "on the sidelines." As Gazeta noted in its main headline on Iran of the day, "Ahmadinejad Can Wait."

--Julia Ioffe