Exclusive Interview: Mikhail Loginov

In Leksika’s first exclusive interview, Moscow-based Mikhail Loginov, the former editor-in-chief of Profileрофиль) and deputy editor-in-chief of the monthly publication, Business-Magazine, took the time to speak with Leksika’s editor about global developments effecting Russia - from Ukraine to ISIS - and the state of journalism in Russia.


Resignation from Russia Profile | "Stay cool ... among the jingoist hysteria"

Spencer Vuksic: You recently resigned from your position at Profile. Can you explain the circumstances surrounding your departure, and do you feel there was a political reason behind this decision?

Mikhail Loginov: I do not want to speculate on political reasons. No word on politics was said. The reason for my leaving Profile was economic. The Russian market of advertisement suffered a drastic fall in the first quarter of 2014. So the Profile owners had to cut costs dramatically, they wanted to run both paper and online versions with fewer people for less money. That is the main reason for my resignation. Of course, all these events were somehow connected to politics - the Ukrainian crisis, etc.- but I do not think that we can derive my departure from the departure of Mr Yanukovych directly. Though a sort of connection does exist…

 

SV: Can you clarify on any connection you had to events in Ukraine?

ML: I am afraid I do not understand the question. I did not play any particular role in the Ukrainian events either as a journalist or as a private individual. The only thing I could do as an editor was to stay cool and collected among the jingoist hysteria that broke out in Russia after the Crimea annexation. I was very critical about this issue and expressed my views clearly, or so I believe.



Ukraine | "Another frozen conflict"

SV: The current ceasefire arrangement in eastern Ukraine has experienced significant breakdowns from both sides while the EU and US have largely ignored these developments, do you expect the peace plan initiated in September to last despite the violations, and what final status for Donetsk and Luhansk do you expect?

ML: I do not expect any dramatic change in the Ukrainian front in coming months. I am afraid that we have got one more "Pridnestrovie,” another frozen conflict on post-Soviet territory. I cannot imagine Mr Putin withdrawing from eastern Ukraine and the Crimea in the near future. But I cannot imagine Western countries calling off sanctions without real de-escalation either. This situation of no war - no peace can last rather long. So it is no sense to try to guess what future status of Donetsk and Luhansk could be. Everything is possible.


SV: I agree with your assessment that a long-term frozen conflict is distinctly possible in Ukraine, however the EU is much more economically tied to Russia and I’m not sure there is the political will, particularly in Western Europe, to maintain these sanctions in the medium to long-term. However, after all this, can business-as-usual resume or do you expect Russia to be seen as a higher risk investment?

ML: A very good question, I think that a few foreign companies that already have business in Russia will try to continue their projects somehow. A few companies will leave and have already left. Very few new projects will be launched because banks and investors will view Russia as a highly risky country while sanctions are on. But I do not expect business-as-usual to resume because economic cooperation is a matter of trust, and the worst thing that has happened is that mutual trust between Russia and the West was undermined. And I think that Russian and Western countries will be able to reset full-scale economic (and political) cooperation only after Mr Putin is gone.


SV: Do you foresee the events in Ukraine leading to a long-term increase in Putin’s domestic popularity, such as that seen this summer and early fall, or do you think eventually there will be domestic backlash to Russian support of separatists in the Donbass?  How have Russians reacted to Russian soldiers involvement, particularly since the revelations about secret shipments of Russian casualties back to Russia in “Cargo 200” shipments?

ML: It is very difficult to answer the question in short. Right now many Russians do support Putin's policy in Ukraine, and I do not foresee any considerable change in the short run. But it is much more difficult to guess what will happen in the long run. I reckon it is a matter of what price Russia will pay for its policy in Ukraine. I think that in this particular case the economy will decide. With the economic situation getting worse, support of Putin will weaken, but it will take time. So far as Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine are concerned, the public reaction in Russia was rather sluggish. I could find at least two reasons for this. First, these facts were not amply covered by the state TV, the main source of information for the majority of Russians. Second, people often do not hear what they do not want to hear. Those who support Putin's policies tend to ignore facts contradicting their opinion. Of course, more dead means less popular support, remember Afghanistan or Vietnam. But this process also will take time. It may sound cynical but at the moment the number of victims is not enough to rock public support for Putin.


SV: You mention the large factor the economy has in determining domestic support for Putin, but we are already seeing a fall in oil prices that threatens the security of the state’s revenue flows, is this enough to weaken Putin domestically?

ML: Sanctions and falling oil prices are a deadly cocktail for Russia. But you should keep in mind that any economy, especially a relatively large economy, is a very inertial system. Besides that Russia has large gold and currency reserves. I have heard an expert on RBC TV channel saying that Russia can resist sanctions for 4 years. If so, then the year of the next presidential elections, 2018, will be critical. But you see many things can change in this time period - for better or for worse.


SV: There remained a fairly sizable opposition to Putin after the 2012 elections and the subsequent  protests, but the surge in national unity following The Olympics and Ukraine has taken the wind out of the sails of what was left of this movement. Are there any unifying individuals you see garnering enough support to force a serious reformulation of Kremlin policy? Navalny or Khodorkovsky?

ML: Navalny and Khodorkovsky are rather popular in certain strata of Russian liberal intellectuals, but I cannot give any forecasts on their political future.



Foreign fighters in Ukraine and Syria | "Russia has practically lost its capacity to influence politics" in the Middle East

SV: Looking beyond Europe, Russia has consistently opposed any Western, and particularly US led, involvement in the Syrian Civil War. However, the threat of ISIS in both Syria and Iraq is a major security concern for all states with interests in the region. With expected long-term Western involvement in the fight against ISIS, how do you see Russian perspectives shifting?

ML: If you mean Russian perspectives in the Middle East, I do not think that we could count on any progress. In my opinion recently Russia has practically lost its capacity to influence politics in the region, and I think that the war against ISIS will weaken Russia's position further. If you do not take active part in military or political efforts you cannot take part in post-war arrangements as well. Russia is rather passive right now and it does not participate in the anti-ISIS campaign. My forecast for Russia's perspectives in the Middle East is negative.


SV: Chechen fighters have been documented in both the fighting in Ukraine and Syrian Civil War (and ISIS by extension); how does the return of fighters to Russia with opposing ideologies and allegiances pose a security threat and is Russia actively seeking to limit the flow of volunteers?

ML: It seems to me that it is a bit too early to discuss the issue. There is a lot of hearsay and unconfirmed information on Chechen fighters both in Ukraine and in Syria. We do not know how many people have crossed Russia's boarder to join fighting parties and how many of them have come back. Too little ground for speculation, I suppose. I have never heard about any special efforts of the Russian government in limiting the flow of volunteers.


 

Russia Profile | "Under my rule ... [we] stood on similar ground to the The New Times and Novaya Gazeta"

SV: Mr Loginov, from 2009-2014, you worked at Profile as editor-in-chief, what were you major contributions and areas of focus as editor?

ML: I believe that my main task was running the magazine as a whole. I set plans and goals for desk editors and authors, concentrating on the most important issues. The most important matters for us were domestic politics and economics. We paid relatively less attention to culture, sports or international issues.

 

SV: Does Profile follow a particular political or social line?

ML: Well, it is rather difficult sometimes to apply American political terms to the Russia's reality. I believe that "under my rule" Profile was a distinctly liberal magazine, which stood on similar ground with The New Times and Novaya Gazeta. Of course, we tried to be objective and gave the ground for different speakers with different points of view, but our critical attitude toward current Kremlin policies was quite clear.

 

SV: Can you explain the ownership structure of Profile? Do foreign companies or individuals have a sizable stake in the company, and if so how do you expect the publication to deal with the changing legal landscape and media needs?

ML: It may be hard to believe but I always had a very vague idea of the ownership structure of Profile. Profile and few more publications (weeklies and monthlies) are published by the company ИДР-Формат (IDR-Format). IDR means Izdatelsky Dom Rodionova or the Rodionov Publishing House. The company has never been public and I know very little about its formal owners. As far as I know the company was controlled by Mr Sergey Rodionov, former banker and investor, living now somewhere in Luxembourg. I am not sure that he is still a major shareholder, but I have never heard that he controlled IDR-Format via foreign companies. So I do not think that the law on 20% stake for foreigners can be applied to IDR-Format. As I see it IDR is a relatively small, private media company that does not have access to budget money or loans of state-owned banks, its main problems are dramatic fall in ads revenues in paper media and underdeveloped online services.



On Russian media | 'Not restricted but not objective'

SV: Just last week, Mr Putin signed into law a bill restricting foreign ownership of media outlets to 20%, due to be implemented by 2017. How has the news media community in Russia responded to the government’s restriction of foreign ownership of Russian media?

ML: Of course, the community is not happy, but I do not think that foreign owners of Russian media have many legal means to respond. So if the situation does not change in coming years many media owned by foreigners will be closed or sold to Russian private or state-owned companies.


SV: The notion of a “New Media” is widespread, where little information is disseminated by traditional means without being first available in electronic form, but will restraints by the Russian government on electronic media dissemination disadvantage media coverage of rapid developments?

ML: I do not think so. In my opinion the whole matter is a bit more complicated. I do not believe that the Russian government wants to restrict or to stop electronic media dissemination. They do understand that this is impossible. The thing they want is control. The government does not want to deprive you of information; it just wants you to get certain point of view. So we can imagine the situation when we shall have a lot of very professional and technologically advanced new media working under state control (for example, RIA Novosti or Russia Today). They will deliver information very rapidly and promote themselves very aggressively to gain readers. But the information they will give won't be objective.


SV: If the state wishes to provide a particular point of view, where will dissenting opinions survive?

ML: In my opinion the main channel for dissenting opinions is and will be internet.



Russian 'Intranet?' | "Highly speculative"

SV: The news that President Putin’s administration is developing a plan to nationalize the internet into an “intranet” in the event of an information crisis received some attention in the West, do you feel this is a realistic possibility? Under what circumstances will relations between Russia and the West cause such a plan to be implemented and do you see such plans implemented in a limited capacity or entirely?

ML: There are a few questions in one. I do not know anything about Russian "national intranet", but I have heard much about Chinese-style regulation of internet, about implementing a firewall and things like that. So everything that can technically be done is possible. So far as the political aspect of the issue is concerned I think that serious restraints on internet in Russia are quite possible and the process is on already. How far can this go? And, under what circumstances can Runet be closed? It is again a highly speculative matter. In case of war, I suppose, or in case of serious domestic political/economic crisis.





Photo courtesy of Mikhail Loginov