The Nobel Peace Prize and Putin’s War on the Watchdogs

Beth Knobel

The Nobel Prize committee just sent Russian President Vladimir Putin a powerful message, awarding its Peace Prize to Russia’s best known human rights organization, Memorial, along with the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine and jailed Belarussian human rights activist Ales Bialiatski. The Nobel Peace Prize committee’s announcement focused on the crucial role played by civil society organizations like these—institutions other than government and business that help anchor society by providing the information and, more importantly, playing a watchdog role.

But elements of civil society including the free press, advocacy groups, cultural institutions, and universities have been ravaged by Putin since he came to power in 2000. Memorial itself had to close last year, after being targeted by the government as a “foreign agent.” Putin’s choice to wage war in Ukraine illustrates perfectly the terrible decision-making that can result when leaders dismantle civic institutions like Memorial, robbing themselves of the information that feeds good governance.

I’ve been covering Putin for over two decades—including 14 years when I was a journalist based in Moscow. My interest in Russia actually traces back to the Shorenstein Center, my home base when I wrote my dissertation in the early 1990s on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s cultivation of positive press coverage.

Gorbachev and Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin both fostered the growth of civil society, and a wide range of new advocacy organizations and crusading journalism outlets sprung up during their years in office. But since Putin became president, the Russian government’s attitude toward civic organizations has moved sharply in the opposite direction. Over the Putin years, I’ve watched as all kinds of civic organizations have been silenced, leading Russia to become a nation where information no longer flows normally.

That has left Putin operating in a giant thought bubble that has eliminated virtually any voice that might say something he doesn’t like. The dominant societal voices now are those of Putin, his steadfast spokesman, other loyal top officials, and the president’s enablers on Russian state television.

It’s all part of Putin’s larger efforts to remake Russian society. After Putin became president in 2000, he created a “vertical of power” in Russia—meaning a system where all power could be traced upwards to him. This required Putin to do two things: remake Russia’s political system to make it far less democratic, and to eviscerate civil society.

It was surprisingly quick and easy for Putin to gut Russia’s democratic system—eliminating nearly every opportunity for someone to be elected to office who was not loyal to him. He used the horrific terrorist act in the city of Beslan in 2004 as an excuse to hem in the electoral system significantly. This included replacing direct election of governors with presidential appointments and cutting Russians’ ability to choose someone directly in the lower house of parliament, the Duma, to represent their area. While direct elections for governors did return, the only way for anyone to get into the Duma is still off a party list—and the high barrier for opposition parties makes it close to impossible for anyone from a political party not favored by the Kremlin to get elected.

It took longer for Putin to dismantle civil society. But Putin has attacked every civic sector over the years using a wide array of tactics—particularly legal and administrative restrictions.

For example, one of Putin’s first major actions after becoming president was to neutralize the free press. He started with Russia’s critical television network NTV, taking it out of the hands of an oligarch and forcing it under state control. He moved on other television companies, independent newspapers, radio stations, and online news organizations over the years. This includes Novaya Gazeta, whose editor, Dmitry Muratov, was one of the winners of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

The attacks on the media got fiercer over time, to the point where physical violence against journalists became commonplace. Many NGOs were also driven out of existence, like Memorial—even ones that were not overtly political.

The sum effect of weakening both civic and democratic institutions was to stem the flow of real information coursing through the entire Russian political system. This has robbed many Russians of the truths they need to make good decisions—particularly those who only watch state television for their news.

But the throttling of Russia’s information flow has also affected Putin. Instead of getting honest advice, Putin seems to be surrounded by yes men (and a few, rare yes women), who seem bad at delivering any news that is in the slightest bit negative to their boss. This created the path that eventually led to the war in Ukraine, because hobbling the watchdogs that would speak the truth to power in Russia left Putin without enough real information to analyze possible policies authentically.

Of course, Putin speaks excellent German and is proficient in English, and there is nothing stopping him from getting on the Internet and reading international media in either of these languages, or Russian-language media in exile. But that requires he take the extra step to do so, and it’s not clear that he does.

The information he really needs should be coming from sources in Russian civil society and opposition politicians, but Putin has eliminated nearly all those voices inside Russia over the past 20 years. I can understand how he could be making bad decisions given that the entire political system he created is meant to choke the flow of information. This has left Putin in an unreal world fueled by his own propaganda, robbing him of the facts he needs to challenge his own assumptions.

Recent intelligence reports are suggesting that things have gotten so bad in Russia that people in Putin’s government are starting to speak out behind the scenes. This takes great bravery, as does trying to keep any institution going in Russia that is doing real journalism or trying to protect human rights. After 20-plus years of destroying the sources of information that feed society, Putin has hurt himself badly, along with the millions of Russians who sadly must now bear the brunt of his poorly informed decisions. The announcement of this year’s winners of the Nobel Peace prize should remind Putin that civic organizations exist not just to protect society, but ultimately to fuel leaders’ ability to avoid catastrophic decisions.

Beth Knobel MPP ’87 PhD ‘92 is Associate Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University in New York. She was a Fall 1989 Joan Shorenstein fellow and a resident scholar at the Center during her PhD studies from 1989-1992. Knobel lived in Moscow from 1992-2006, and spent most of it as Moscow Bureau Chief for CBS News.