Russia’s Revolution Won’t Be Televised
Vladimir Putin’s foray into the ring to congratulate the winner of a mixed martial arts match the week before last provided ordinary Russians with an extraordinary view of their country’s paramount leader. The live national television broadcast captured emphatic booing by the crowd of 20,000 that was clearly directed at Putin, who has made management of his image a top priority. Things quickly returned to normal, however, at least by the standards of state-dominated mass media in Russia. By the following day, Kremlin-controlled television stations had sanitized their coverage of the event, cleansing it of any heckling aimed at Putin.
The episode is instructive because it illuminates key features of today’s Russian media landscape, which are particularly relevant given the upcoming parliamentary elections on December 4, and the presidential vote set for March 2012. There are a number of reasons why these elections will not offer voters any real choice, but management of news media has been pivotal to the leadership’s efforts to maintain political dominance.
The modern authoritarian media model forged under Putin offers Russians a sometimes entertaining but always deeply warped lens through which to observe politics. Below we offer three points that, while not exhaustive, are essential to understanding Russia’s contemporary media system and how it has adapted to meet the needs of the authorities:
1. New media are not a political game changer in Russia (yet). Russia’s internet audience is growing. There are already some 50 million users in a population of roughly 142 million. The Russian internet is also comparatively free of state restrictions. Notably, even as the Kremlin quickly censored the Putin booing story through its control of television news, Russian internet users actively discussed and debated the spontaneous auditory assault on the prime minister. None of this has gone unnoticed by the authorities. Global Voices reports that regional discussion boards have become targets of oppression in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections, and Freedom on the Net 2011, Freedom House’s annual assessment of internet and digital media, identified Russia as a “country at risk” due to mounting encroachments on key spheres of online activity. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that Russian internet users are heavily concentrated in major cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. While such imbalances are changing, residents of the Russian hinterland largely remain a television audience. In an in-depth study released by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism three years ago, Floriana Fossato, John Lloyd, and Alexander Verkhovsky explained why the internet had not yet made a deeper impact on Russia’s politics, and their findings are still relevant today.
2. Among influential “old media,” state capitalism begets state outlets. Roughly 80 percent of the population gets its news and information from television, and the Kremlin has been quite thorough in its use of state-controlled enterprises to bring key outlets into line—and keep them there. Gazprom-Media, an arm of the state-run energy giant Gazprom, owns a stable of television networks, radio stations, and newspapers. Moreover, as the elections approach and the ruling party’s popularity declines, Putin’s most trusted allies in the state-dependent private sector have been expanding their own media empires. Yury Kovalchuk, a co-owner of Bank Rossiya and longtime Putin associate, this year purchased a 25 percent share in Channel One, Russia’s main television broadcaster, and the RSN radio station. Kovalchuk’s National Media Group already owned controlling stakes in Ren TV, Channel Five, the Izvestiya newspaper, and Video International Group, which sells a large share of the country’s advertising. For presidential politics, Channel One is a particularly important asset to control, as it reaches almost all of Russia’s population. Other Kremlin-friendly businessmen like Aleksandr Mamut, Alisher Usmanov, Oleg Deripaska, Aleksey Mordashyov, and Roman Abramovich have extensive media holdings. Equally important, the upcoming switch to digital broadcasting is expected to eliminate many independent regional stations.
3. Authorities don’t try to block everything, only the content that counts. Russia enjoys considerable diversity of information today, but this does not translate into meaningful coverage of policy and politics. For the authorities, blocking a candid discussion of what counts—broadly speaking, detailed information about policymaking, public spending, and the deeply intertwined relationship between business and government—is paramount. State dominance of the most important media allows the regime to systematically exclude meaningful criticism from the airwaves, leaving only progovernment views and various types of distraction and misdirection, including colorful entertainment programming of both the political and apolitical varieties. Putin’s appearance at the mixed martial arts competition represented just such a melding of politics and light entertainment.
The lack of real and consistent scrutiny of government performance, paradoxically, is at the root of what senior Russian officials cite as the system’s main challenge: an overriding lack of transparency. But for the time being, governance reform in Russia remains stuck on a closed, circular track. The regime must silence criticism because it increasingly lacks both electoral and performance-based legitimacy, yet the reforms that would restore legitimacy require exposure to public examination.
Given the curbed media environment, along with the other restrictions on public space in Russia, it is clear that the upcoming elections were throttled even before the campaign began. This is unfortunate, because as the recent heckling of Putin suggests, Russia’s increasingly restive population is ready for change.
During the headiest days of Putin’s tenure over the past decade, some observers argued (and some still do) that he would surely win a free and fair election in Russia, if only he and his associates permitted such a vote. This is a counterfactual notion that is impossible to confirm. But one wonders just how buoyant Putin’s popularity would be absent the regime’s magical powers to reshape reality through state-dominated media. It is not a stretch to imagine that his political career would soon be over if the withering criticism currently confined to the internet were allowed to reach Russia’s television screens.
* Christopher Walker is vice president for strategy and analysis at Freedom House. Follow him on Twitter at @Walker_CT.
*Robert Orttung is assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.