A lesson from Moscow

Benjamin Wegg-Prosser laments Clare Short's failure to renew aid to a school that supports democracy

As Boris Yeltsin clambered on to a Red Army tank to denounce the politburo plotters attempting to turn the clock back on perestroika in August 1991, Elena Nemirovskaya knew she had to do something. She made the short walk across the Moscow River from her home to the Russian White House and served soup to the protesters supporting Yeltsin. As the coup collapsed, she realised that for democracy to take root she would have to do more than cook.

By the late 1980s, her apartment was already established as a political salon for politicians, journalists and fellow academics to meet and think. She decided to formalise these discussions by creating the Moscow School of Political Studies (MSPS). The first seminar was in April 1993. The Cambridge social anthropologist Ernest Gellner spoke on the revival of patriotism in the former USSR and Donald Dewar, then opposition spokesman on social security, lectured on the importance of creating democratic institutions.

In the ten years since its creation, the school has had 5,000 native politicians attend seminars across Russia and her neighbouring republics. The topics for discussion have mirrored the development of democracy in Russia: where they once focused on the importance of regular elections, they now address issues such as institutional racism, anti-Semitism and the curious enthusiasm of some to rehabilitate Soviet symbols (the most recent being the suggestion to restore the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the forerunner of the KGB, on his former plinth in Lubyanka Square).

The school, recognising that the media play a vital role in fostering civil society, has recently begun to focus on supporting independent regional journalists. In the week before Christmas, the school held a three-day conference for 140 young reporters at Golitsyno, a former Soviet sanatorium 20 miles outside Moscow. Inevitably there was a session on spin-doctors - a profession that is now becoming as notorious in the east as in the west. I had travelled to Russia to shed some light on the dark arts of my former colleagues (in a previous life, I was a new Labour special adviser).

It took only five minutes listening to the delegates to realise the enormous cultural gap between western-style spin and that practised in Russia. Take "grey" and "white" advertising. It transpires that "white" advertising is the straightforward sort that we would recognise. "Grey" advertising is of a much more dubious nature and requires a payment, ranging from $100 to $2,000, which guarantees the appearance of a positive story about a politician or a business. (Obviously, the story makes no reference to the transaction that guaranteed its pres- ence.) This is a practice that Yeltsin used to devastating effect in the 1996 presidential elections and is now widespread. Although most journalists decry the deals, they recognise that some newspapers and TV stations rely on them for financial survival.

The media also face a level of obnoxious bullying from government officials which would make even Charlie Whelan blush. Take the story of a print reporter from the Caucasus. He had investigated a local mayor and exposed his corrupt business deals. The response from the mayor's office was to arrange for the journalist to be denounced on the regional television news as an "enemy of the state".

At Nemirovskaya's school, the journalists believe that only a root-and-branch reform of Russian political culture will rid the system of this endemic bribery and corruption. Few acknowledged that the market could also provide an answer. It was left to another speaker, Roman Petrenko, the chief executive of TNT, a successful independent television station, to highlight how market reform could end the corruption of the 1990s. The government could legislate an end to the $125m in subsidies that the state-owned TV channels receive through grants and soft loans; alternatively, it could introduce the Russian equivalent of the BBC royal charter, which would limit the companies' commercial activities - at the moment, these represent $750m of the advertising market. Not only would such reforms undermine the close relations between the state and the media, they could also inspire the creation of a more sophisticated and competitive advertising market. At the moment, $3,000 will buy an advertiser a 30-second slot with 1.5 million viewers on prime-time evening television. This is remarkably low compared to advertising rates in the west.

Such an approach would in time ensure that the media would have fewer financial concerns, and thus exhibit greater courage in their editorial stance.

Sir Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador in Moscow, recalls Pyotr Vyazemsky pointing out to Pushkin: if you want a foreigner to make a fool of himself, just ask him to make a judgement about Russia. Nevertheless, this foreigner will hazard one judgement: Russia will become a stable democracy only if such organisations as the Moscow School of Political Studies receive the support they need to flourish. So it is disappointing that, despite Tony Blair's much-stated admiration of Russia, Clare Short, his Secretary of State for International Development, has decided not to renew the financial assistance which her department gives the school. The argument seems to be that such progress has been made in developing Russia's democracy, that national institutions created to foster it no longer require outside funding. Nemirovskaya's remarkable institution deserves better from the west.

Benjamin Wegg-Prosser works for Guardian Unlimited