An Example of the Skewed Reporting on Russia

The New York Times tauts itself as the newspaper of record and seeker
of truth.  But my attempts as a former Soviet/Russia specialist by training
to correct its significantly skewed and outright false reporting on Russia
belies that as illustrated by the following unsuccessful attempt to correct
the Times’ misstatement concerning opposition candidates’ access to
Russian television.


From: John Howard Wilhelm
Date: Wed, Dec 21, 2016 at 11:34 AM
Subject: The NYT and Journalistic Integrity in Its Russia Reporting 1 of 2
To: <>
Arthur Sulzberger,  Following are copies of an unsuccessful
attempt to correct a serious error in your newspaper’s reporting
on the recent Russia election.  Bringing this to the attention of
your Public Editor, the Foreign News Desk, the Correction Editor
and the writer of the article has done nothing to correct this
error.  Doesn’t the Times have a responsibility to correct such
errors in its reporting?  Would it be possible to discuss this with
you by phone?  John Howard Wilhelm, Tel. 734/477-9942

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: John Howard Wilhelm <>
Date: Tue, Dec 13, 2016 at 10:58 AM
Subject: Russia’s Recent Election a Credible Account
Cc:, Alexander Mercouris <>

Greg Brock, Just now I tried to follow up on the following with
a person at your foreign desk.  When I did, it was suggested
that I should also raise with you the issue of a correction in
the NYT on its misstatement in the Sept.16, 2016 issue of the
NYT about Russian opposition access to Russian TV prior to
the recent Duma elections.  The article in question was 
“Russia’s Opposition, While Repressed, May Be Its Own Worst
Enemy” by Andrew Kramer to whom I am copying this amongst
others.  As a Soviet/Russian area specialist by training, I am
curious to know why things like this are happening and why it
has been so difficult to engage your newspaper on such issues as
your Maidan 2014 coverage and the reality of Russian elections.
I look forward to you response.  Regards.
John Howard Wilhelm, Ann Arbor, MI, USA, Tel. 734/477-9942
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: John Howard Wilhelm <>
Date: Thu, Dec 1, 2016 at 1:43 PM
Subject: Fwd: Attention Henry Fwd: Russia’s Recent Election a Credible Account

Ryan Burleson,  Thank you for speaking with me just now.  Following
is the text of the e-mail I told you about to which I have not gotten any
real response.  The article in question appeared in the NYT that I
bought here in Ann Arbor on September 16, 2016.  Below in the
piece from Johnson’s Russia List, I highlight a paragraph that
corroborates my observation to my friend with a short comment.
Regards.  John Howard Wilhelm
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: John Howard Wilhelm <>
Date: Thu, Sep 29, 2016 at 3:32 PM
Subject: Attention Henry Fwd: Russia’s Recent Election a Credible Account

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: John Howard Wilhelm <>
Date: Mon, Sep 26, 2016 at 11:50 AM
Subject: Russia’s Recent Election a Credible Account

Now that I understand that there is a new public editor at
the NYT, I would like to raise once again the issue of its
Maiden post February 20, 2014 coverage.  In addition to
that I would like to bring your attention to the text of an
e-mail I sent to a friend on your coverage of the recent
Russian election which clearly was as skewed as the
Maidan coverage.  The following item from Johnson’s
Russia list substantiates the observation I made to my
friend.  Why is this happening?
                                      John Howard Wilhem
                                      4 West Eden Court
                                      Ann Arbor, Michigan 48018
                                      Tel. 734/477-9942
Sent Sept. 17, 2016
Michael,  In  a piece in yesterday’s New York Times titled
“Divisions and Infighting Stifle Russia’s Opposition” it is
stated that “Opposition candidates are also barred from
appearing on television.”  Recently I have been watching the
First Channel’s Morning program and each day they have
a spot in which representatives of other parties than United
Russia,  Gregory Yavlinsky of Yabloko being the most
prominent one, regularly appear making a brief appeal to
vote for their party.  That is, the statement is clearly blatantly
wrong.  I also have a copy of the March 19, 2016 Economist
with an article on the “Hollow superpower: Putin, Syria and
the propaganda machine” in which it is stated in summary
that Russian TV focuses on foreign disasters and ignores
their own domestic disasters.  I had watch enough Russian TV
prior to the appearance of that article to know and was very
disturbed when I saw it because it also was blatantly false.
According to Jill Daugherty, who was for many years the
CNN Moscow correspondent and whom I knew when she
and her twin sister Pam were undergraduates,  Putin has
a considerable cadre of specialists who carefully go over
the English language press and summarizes it for him.
She indicated from her sources that Putin pays a lot of
attention to what is written in our press.  What do you
think a leader of Russia is going to conclude about us
and our policies when they read such things?  How
could anyone argue that it makes no difference in
understanding Russian behavior?  Regards.
Johnson’s Russia List
20 September 2016

September 19, 2016
What the Duma elections say about Russia
The elections to the Duma accurately reflect voting in the country. The elections confirm overwhelming support for Vladimir Putin and the government, and prove that Russia’s “liberal opposition” is no more than a fringe group.
By Alexander Mercouris   Though there are still a few votes to count, the results of the Duma elections are no longer expected to change, and are as follows:United Russia, Russia’s governing party, has won 54.21% of the vote. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation came second with 13.53% of the vote, and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) of Vladimir Zhirinovsky came in third place with 13.28% of the vote.  The social democratic A Just Russian party gained 6.19% of the votes.No other party overcame the 5% threshold for entry into the Duma in the half of the Duma elected by the proportional representation/party list system.Voting for the minor parties was as follows: Communists of Russia is in the fifth place with 2.35% of the vote, followed by Yabloko (1.86%), the Russian Party of Pensioners for Justice (1.75%), Rodina (1.44%), the Party of Growth (1.18%), the Green party (0.74%), Parnas (the party Khodorkovsky is supporting) (0.70%), Russia’s Patriots (0.58%), Civic Platform (0.22%). The Civil Power party is in last place with 0.14% of vote.Because half the Duma is elected by the first past the post winner-takes-all single member constituency system these results have given the ruling party United Russia a lopsided majority.According to the latest election returns the Central Election Commission says United Russia will have a total of 343 seats in the Duma (76.22% of the seats). In other words it will enjoy a ‘constitutional majority’ (which requires 300 seats), enabling it to amend the constitution without needing the support of the other parties.The Communist Party of the Russian Federation looks to win 42 seats (9.34% of the total), Zhirinovsky’s LDPR – 39 mandates (8.67% of the total), and A Just Russia, 23 seats (5.11% of the total).In addition, the nationalist Rodina party and Civic Platform – the liberal party of the billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov – have each won one seat by each winning the vote in one single member constituency, whilst an independent – Vladislav Reznik – has also managed to win himself a seat in this way.

Contrary to some early reports neither Yabloko – Russia’s oldest and biggest liberal party – nor Parnas – the party led by former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and backed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, with which such liberal opposition activists such as the blogger Alexey Navalny have on occasion been associated – won seats, and neither party will have any seats in the new Duma.

That means that those parties and political leaders who were at the forefront of the 2011 protests have completely failed to gain election to the Duma.

Russia’s liberal parties are a mixed bunch.  Prokhorov – the de facto leader of Civic Platform, the one liberal party to win a seat in the Duma – is not really an opponent of Putin’s, nor is he really an opponent of the government.  Rather he and his party should be seen as representing the uttermost liberal fringe of the governing political establishment, even if they do say critical things about the government from time to time.  The same thing could also be said of the Party of Growth, which is essentially the latest iteration of the former Union of Right Wing Forces, another pro-establishment liberal party.

Nonetheless if one brings together the votes of all of the liberal or quasi-liberal parties and treats them all as opposition parties, then their combined vote in this election is still just 4.1%.

What that means is that even if all the liberal parties had come together into one party they would still have failed to pass the 5% threshold needed to gain entry to the Duma in the half of the Duma which is elected by the proportional representation/party list system.  It is not even clear that they would have won any more seats than the single seat Prokhorov’s Civic Platform won in the half of the Duma elected by the single member constituency system.

Despite their dismal showing the Western media and Western governments still persist in pretending that it is these liberal parties which are the opposition to the government.

The standard refrain is that if these parties do badly in elections it is not because the government is popular or because they are unpopular.  It is because the elections are rigged and because the political system is supposedly so heavily tilted against them as to deny them the access to the media and the resources they need to campaign effectively.

The reality is the precise opposite.

The government’s response to the 2011 protests was to pull out all the stops to try to make these elections as clean and as transparent as possible, and the great majority of observers agree that it has succeeded.  These elections were probably the cleanest in Russia’s post Soviet history, and there is no serious doubt that their results more or less accurately reflect how Russians voted.  All the leaders of all the major parties have accepted the results as legitimate.

In order to achieve this result a whole raft of changes were made to the election rules following the 2011 protests.  Procedures for registering minor parties such as Parnas were greatly simplified, the voting process was made more public and more transparent, the threshold for entry to the Duma in the half of the Duma elected by the proportional representation/party list system was brought down from 7% to 5%, and single member constituencies were reintroduced to make it easier for liberal candidates to win seats, even if the actual consequence of this change has been to give United Russia an even bigger majority.

In an extraordinary gesture towards the liberals, back in March the government even replaced Vladimir Churov – the veteran but deeply controversial head of the Central Election Commission which supervises the elections – with Ella Pamfilova, a liberal politician who was once a minister in Boris Yeltsin’s first liberal government, and who was previously Russia’s Commissioner for Human Rights.

Ryan Burleson,  The following amplifies and substantiates what I told my friend
in my Sept. 17, 2016 note above.  Why is this happening and doesn’t the NYT
have an obligation to correct its statement about political access in the  recent
Russian election?

Not only has the simplification of the procedure to register parties made it possible for parties like Parnas to participate in the election, but as participants in the election they have been provided with access to state television to an extent that has not previously been the case in national elections that have taken place in recent years.The issue of access to the media for Russia’s liberal opposition is anyway a false one.  Russia’s liberal opposition has always had far more access to the news media than it or its Western sponsors pretend.  The reality – obvious to anyone at all familiar with Russian politics – is not that the anti-government pro-Western liberals overwhelmingly concentrated in the Yabloko and Parnas parties get too little publicity.  It is that on the contrary, given their derisory level of support (1.86% for Yabloko and 0.7% for Parnas) they get far too much – both in Russia and in the West.The result is that what is nothing more than an angry though very well resourced fringe group, supported in this election by just 2.56% of the voting electorate, gets taken far too seriously, and gets far more attention than on any objective assessment it truly merits.This completely disproportionate level of attention comes with a cost.  Not only does it seriously distort Western understanding of Russia.  It comes at the expense of other far more worthy groups and individuals, who deserve attention far more.  Obvious examples are Russia’s real opposition parties: the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party, and the social democratic A Just Russia.However it also includes many others, such as those groups and individuals in Russia who are really interested in Green issues – as opposed to merely using Green issues to further an anti-government and pro-Western political agenda.Thus Jill Stein – the Green candidate in the US Presidential election – recently felt obliged to send a letter to Yevgeniya Chirikova and Nadezhda Kutepova after receiving complaints about her supposed closeness to Putin from them, apparently under the impression that in Russia they are important leaders of the Green movement and environmental activists.  Chirikova (who actually lives in Estonia) and Kutepova (who now also lives or has fled abroad) are in fact better described as Western funded anti-government opposition activists.  Real Russian Green activists – of whom there are many – by contrast get far less attention, and are practically unknown in the West.Since Western supporters of Russia’s anti-government pro-Western liberal fringe cannot deny the overwhelming extent of United Russia’s victory – or the utter failure of the pro-Western liberal fringe groups they support – they have hit instead on the turnout, which at 47% is lower than in previous parliamentary elections, and which they say shows diminishing public support for the government (see for example here and here).This is to stand reality on its head.  If turnout in this election had been 13% higher so as to bring turnout back to the level of 60% achieved in the 2011 election, and if United Russia was not given a single extra vote over and above those it actually achieved in the election, its vote share would still be 47% – still far more than that of any other party, and still a convincing victory by any measure.In reality it beggars belief that if turnout had been higher none of the extra votes would have gone to United Russia.  On the contrary everything points to the probability that many of the voters who didn’t vote would, if they had voted, have supported it.

As it happens, since liberal voters in Russia tend to be more motivated than other voters (a factor that proved important in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election), the probability is that they actually benefited from the lower turnout rather than suffered from it.

The lower turnout in this election in fact has a perfectly simple explanation, which has nothing to do with disenchantment with the government or with the political system or with concern about election fraud.

In previous election cycles the parliamentary elections were timed to precede by a few months the far more important Presidential elections of which they were seen as a dress-rehearsal.  One of the changes made following the 2011 protests was to break this link, so that the next Presidential election is not now due until 2018.

This has inevitably diminished interest in the parliamentary elections, and is sufficient by itself to explain the lower turnout.

The fundamental lesson of this election, made previously for The Duran by myself and by my colleague Adam Garrie, is that Russia is politically an extremely stable country.  The government commands very high levels of support, and the political system has legitimacy.  Individuals and groups who reject the government and deny the political system’s legitimacy are few and marginal.

Western commentators’ refusal to acknowledge this fact, and their persistence in treating the post-election 2011 protests as indicators of widespread popular hostility to the government, is an exercise in denial.

The 2011 protests were triggered by anger on the part of liberal voters in Moscow at their failure to gain representation in a Duma elected that year exclusively on the proportional representation/party list system – something which would also have been true if the Duma had been elected exclusively through such a system in Sunday’s election.  This followed an election campaign in which liberal voters – excited by Navalny’s branding of United Russia as “the party of crooks and thieves” – persuaded themselves that they would win far more votes in the elections than on any objective assessment they had a right to expect.  The protests did not signify wider public hostility to the government – a fact shown by the fact that they were both comparatively small and were confined entirely to Moscow.

What this means is that continued attempts by the US and other Western governments to engineer “democracy promotion”, “colour revolution” or “regime change” in Russia are doomed to failure.  They will continue to fail even if a future Hillary Clinton administration steps up with them.

On the facts the only thing such attempts can achieve is anger the Russians, and make sure that relations between the US and Russia will go on getting worse.