What we have here is a failure to communicate.
The words actor Strother Martin said as Captain, Road Prison 36, in the Academy Award-winning feature film
Cool Hand Luke,
describe perfectly the way the news from Russia is often reported and digested in the United States.
More than one person have asked me if I'd heard that Russian President Putin is not running for president in the next election.
They got a blank stare in return.
Here is why.
The Russian Constitution bars Mr. Putin from running for the third time. That fact was reported by mainstream media in the United States on numerous occasions. So were his repeated but vague denunciations of persisting rumors that he may bend the rules and do it anyway.
Mr. Putin has given equivocal answers to similar questions a number of times after a group of sycophants suggested that he change the constitution and run for the third term. Most analysts are still wondering what he is really up to.
The process of miscommunication was threefold.
First, Mr. Putin gives a purposefully vague statement, answering a question about the possibility that he may change the constitution that bars him from running the third time in 2008.
In a rare nationally televised call-in show, he said he is against 'abrupt changes in the constitution' and doesn't want 'to stay in the Kremlin forever.' At the same time he asked the constituents not to worry because, 'as they say in the military, I will find my place in the ranks.' He also said that his role is to make sure that Russia is ruled by able managers.
The answer kind of implies that he will step aside as the leader of Russia but not really. In fact, it's open to interpretation.
Some analysts suggest that he may have a successor in mind, which means that he'll make a mockery of democratic elections and bring to power a marionette who in turn will bring him back to power in 2012. Others are afraid he may use the loyalist United Russia party to resurrect one-party rule in Russia, with himself at the helm.
Second, headlines and story leads in the U.S. papers report that Mr. Putin has announced that he is not going to change the constitution and therefore won't run for president in the next election.
Wait a minute, he said only that he is against 'abrupt changes' in the constitution, whatever he may mean by that. Moreover, he dropped an ominous hint when he said that he will find his 'place in the ranks.'
Finally, even that simplified account was lost on most U.S. readers.
Steeped in democratic tradition, they read over all those subtleties about the chance that Mr. Putin may change the constitution to be able to run for the third time.
As a result, here is the message the reader gets:
Putin Says He Won't Seek a 3rd Term
Coincidentally, at least one major U.S. paper carried it as a headline.
That would have been news last year had it really happened and had it happened before President Putin ran for his second and supposedly final term in office.
Alas, happen it did not.
Mike Sigov, a Russian-born journalist, is a staff writer for The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6050.