Then and Now: Vladimir Kovalev
Fellowship Year: 2002
Host News Organization: Rocky Mountain News, Denver, Colorado
Mentors: John Ensslin, Ann Imse
Home news organization at the time of the fellowship: St. Petersburg Times, St. Petersburg, Russia
Current position: Energy NewsToday, Brick, New Jersey
Biography: A native of St. Petersburg, Russia, Vladimir Kovalev today specializes in reporting on the energy industry, including oil, gas and refining in Europe. Energy News Today provides real-time news reports to subscribing energy investors. Previously, he was a political correspondent, columnist and chief reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, Russia. Other experience includes Radio Free Europe, Novaya Gazeta and three other St. Petersburg newspapers, specializing in local political coverage. Vladimir is married and lives in Vienna.
You have covered Russia for all of your career, beginning two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. What changes have you seen in press practices over the post-Soviet years? Are Russian journalists able to do investigative reporting? Is there a more open, honest media environment?
When I began working as journalist, the environment was quite open. There were basically no limits, it was completely new and there was a lot to discover.
My colleagues, at the Smena Daily at that time, provided very interesting investigative reporting, and I had a lot to learn from them. They had started much earlier than I did, when the changes in the former Soviet Union had only begun at the end of the 1980s.
Since then, a lot has changed. The journalistic community in Russia has had limitations imposed by local and federal authorities. This tendency has become stronger and stronger in the years since Vladimir Putin came to power.
In my view, journalists are a part of society that reflects problems of the society, such as corruption, violation of law by authorities and so on. But in its current state, a bigger part of the Russian journalistic community is unfortunately working as a voice of authorities rather than a voice of the society.
There are still publications, especially in Russia’s major cities, that are doing a real job of journalism, such as Novaya Gazeta in Moscow, Radio Echo Moskvy, Dozhd TV, Fontanaka.ru in St. Petersburg. But the heavy weight of state-controlled media is much more stronger, unfortunately.
In business coverage the situation is much better, but this is for one simple reason: because there is big money involved. If shares are falling, people lose big money and it’s impossible to avoid or play with this fact. But if Putin’s electoral rating is falling, there is room for interpretation.
As for self-censorship, one can clearly see it in commentaries offered in state-controlled media.
You have made a transition from political reporting to covering the energy industry across Europe, including Russia and Eastern Europe. What are the major energy issues on the continent? What are the primary political currents that influence energy development and trade?
Energy issues are very close to politics, and they intersect with each other. In fact, energy issues influence political decisions quite strongly — for instance in relations between Russia and Ukraine, Russia and the EU, as well as Central Asia and the EU regarding gas supplies from Russia.
Take, for instance, the Nabucco pipeline, which was seen as an alternative source for gas supplies to Europe (the plan was scrapped last year), or development of shale gas reserves in Poland or Ukraine, aimed to improve energy security for the region.
All of these developments are a direct result of Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom company’s policy that several years ago left eastern parts of Europe without gas for a couple of weeks in winter, due to an argument with Ukraine. The official argument was about payment for gas delivered by Gazprom to Ukraine, but political analysts alleged that the background was Russia’s attempt to increase political influence over Ukraine. This was well before this winter’s Russian-Ukraine crisis.
There are a lot of different opinions on who was right or wrong in the earlier situation, but the outcome is quite clear: There are alternative gas-supply projects in Europe, and major Russian gas exporters such as Gazprom face challenges in attempts to participate in privatization of Europe’s gas-related assets.
Russia doesn’t have the full trust of Europe, which thinks Moscow is unpredictable. I can understand this point of view quite well.
One of the main challenges for the continent is to find a balance in the source of energy commodities. This could be achieved only if all participating parties — Russia in particular — play by business rules and leave behind a political agenda as much as possible. The Cold War ended a long time ago, but unfortunately some people still have old barriers in their minds.
Russia’s refining industry is undertaking ambitious steps to upgrade its refineries for low-sulphur fuel production; the government wants to stimulate investments to modernize the refining sector. Within the next several years, Russia is expected to increase shipments of low-sulphur fuels to international markets, including the U.S.
The European refining sector is likely to face greater competition from Russia. In addition, the EU is vulnerable to global competition, notably from rapidly growing Asian and Middle Eastern refining capacity, at a time when gasoline demand in Europe and North America is falling.
In what ways did the Alfred Friendly Fellowship experience have impact on your life?
Personally, I met very nice and open-minded people, right in the beginning when I arrived in D.C. Suzan Albrecht and Beth Woods did a great job organizing all this. I imagine it was not simple to put together people from different countries, basically from all around the word.
And then in Denver, working in the newsroom – this was one of the best times in my life. Sometimes it was difficult, sometimes funny, but in general it was extremely great.
One of the most important things I learned there was priority in news coverage. While in Russia the national coverage was always more important than local matters, in the United States it’s quite different: Local issues seem to be more important. This way, people have more information to deal with issues in the areas where they live. And I see this as a very good approach. This is quite a common approach in most of Europe as well – local stuff is more important, and it’s clear why.
At the end of your fellowship, you wrote critically of your experience at the Rocky Mountain News (which since has gone out of business). You expressed concern that “there isn’t enough research of the local topics at the paper.” After being gone for several years and covering Russia and Europe again, do you still think that U.S. media are doing a poor job?
No, I think journalists are doing great job in the U.S. At the same time, there are certain problems I saw that hadn’t been touched.
For instance, even though Denver is quite a successful city, there were areas that looked abandoned by City Hall, with people living in poor conditions, where young people haven’t been able to find what to do in their lives, which leads to many problems in these areas, including in the local schools.
On the other hand, when a crime was committed in a neighborhood, the newspaper tried to reach locals in order to get a clear picture, which I think is a very good approach. Such an approach is being missed in Russia.
In that same essay, you described Russia as “a country where journalism is in quite an undeveloped condition.” Does this description still hold for Russian media?
It has been developed in a way since that time, but I wouldn’t say in a right way. Balanced reporting is still a general problem in coverage of political issues.
At the same time, business coverage became much better, even in state media. On state-controlled RTR television, for instance, there are quite good reviews of national and international economic situations. Once an economic issue is not directly related to political interests, it is all right.
Private media are doing much better. Vedomosti Daily, Kommersant Daily, RBC Daily are very good in covering economics — I’d say by international standards of journalism. They look for sources — anonymous and on the record — trying to get balanced reporting. But again, this is only in the area of economics.
After your fellowship, you returned to the St. Petersburg Times in Russia. What changes were you able to make in your newsroom as a result of the fellowship?
Shortly after I returned, I was appointed a chief reporter. My role in the editorial operation was increased. I started selecting areas for the newspaper to cover, and I believe this brought benefits for our readers with an increased emphasis on and quality of information that directly affected their lives, such as analysis of new legislation, the possible impact of new laws and interrelations between authorities and community sectors such as business, students and political interests.
What safety challenges do journalists face in Russia? How might the Friendly Press Partners be able to help?
More than 160 journalists have been killed in Russia in the past 20 years, but within the past several years the numbers have been declining.
Maybe it’s related to the centralization of federal power over both business and journalism, especially affecting journalists who had sought to investigate corruption. It has become extremely hard for people to raise their voices if a problem appears. Also, it is likely that most journalists stopped trying to get at the roots of issues they cover, especially after Anna Politkovskaya was killed in 2006.
One of the main challenges is to journalists involved in real investigative work, as well as for journalists working in internet media, including blogs. They now have to deal with the country’s judicial system, which is enforcing new laws that can be used to limit expression of opinion. For this reason, there is a need to provide training in law for journalists, to give them a better understanding of how the judicial system works and what rights they have. Also, it would have been useful to provide some safety training, just in case .
What tips would you give to young reporters today in Russia?
To be an honest journalist, to be objective, respect sources, and respect each other.
What do you consider to be your greatest professional achievement to date?
I think it is that I continue to work as a journalist, the profession that I love. I don’t think there are that many people who are truly excited about their profession.