RUSSIA'S economy is in a shambles, unemployment is high and crime is rampant. Yet none of those dire problems has emerged as a defining issue in Sunday's parliamentary elections. Instead, politicians are rallying around Russia's seemingly victorious efforts to retake rebellious Chechnya -- even though official curbs makes it impossible for the public to learn what is going on.
As an orgy of jingoism has replaced issue-oriented electioneering, most newspapers and electronic media outlets have shed any pretense of objectivity. Instead, they are shamelessly promoting their owners' personal and political agendas.
In Soviet times, foreign stations such as the BBC and U.S.-financed Radio Liberty became surrogate information providers. Today, Russia has plenty of divergent media voices. But as political tendentiousness and military restrictions have curtailed their ability to break news, such Western sources as Reuters and the Associated Press have become essential vehicles to circumvent restrictions.
NTV, a gutsy independent television channel, is an example. Most of its Chechnya scoops in recent weeks have come from Reuters and AP. Even though the channel has a half-dozen reporters covering the war, they have been reduced to parroting military denials of events that a few days later are officially acknowledged.
Chechnya has provided a handy backdrop for two emerging politicians. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been skillful in exploiting photo opportunities in the combat zone -- which is closed to his rivals -- to promote his ambitions to succeed President Boris N. Yeltsin.
Chechnya visits have also heightened the visibility of Sergei Shoigu, the minister for emergency situations, whose centrist "Unity" party Mr. Putin has endorsed in Sunday's elections. Coming out of nowhere, "Unity" has soared to become the second most popular party -- after communists -- in recent weeks.
With presidential elections timed to occur in June, the fight to control Russia's media will intensify. This should be of concern to the United States and all other countries which cherish an unfettered freedom of speech.