While the presidential campaign in Russia was officially launched three months ahead of the voting to be held on March 18, 2018, the international media initiated its coverage far in advance, as part of their attempts to produce an “unbiased” snapshot of the public’s opinions about the preparations for the election as well as the final vote count. Without going into details of how this fits in with the crusade that has been going on for almost a year and a half about the notorious “Russian interference in the elections” in the US and other countries (in which RT and Sputnik are the prime “suspects”), let’s try to inquire into the Russian political picture that they’re trying to sketch for their audiences.
Almost everything coming from the mainstream media about the presidential elections in Russia takes the form of either direct propaganda aimed against Vladimir Putin or else a call to boycott the vote.
In one of the few lines of reasoning cited by Western journalists, the predominant assertion is that the popularity of the current Russian president has been greatly exaggerated and that supposedly his administration has been busily applying pressure to boost Putin’s approval ratings. This can be heard in segments broadcast by Radio Free Europe that accuse the Russian media of violating election laws. As evidence they cite 55 (!) stories aired by various Russian television networks (both national and regional), which, RFE believes, qualify as examples of illegal political ads for Putin. But the truth is that most of those videos are simply news coverage of the beginning of a campaign to collect signatures in support of presidential candidates, and they talk about all the candidates. Or should the fact that signature collecting has begun be ignored by the news programs?
Enthusiasm for the opposition figure Alexei Navalny has traditionally been widespread in the Western media. But, after his attempts to rally a public protest on Jan. 28 fell flat, they were deeply disappointed by his organizational abilities. “That balloon has deflated,” sadly noted the Norwegian newspaper Dagsavisen. “Very little political mobilization can be seen in Russian society.” However, charitable European observers have kindly pointed out that that situation could change if the country’s economy took a turn for the worse!
How should we view that? As a slip of the tongue or a moment of truth? We seem to be seeing some evidence of the Western commentators’ true motives behind their approaches to analyzing the Russian political scene. They want to see regime change in Russia at any cost. And although their words passionately advocate for ordinary Russians and the welfare of the Russian people, they are not actually the end goal of their efforts, but rather, the means to another end.
Nevertheless, Western journalists continue to pretend to lament the plight of the inhabitants of Russia, who are sedated, as they try to convince their readers, with “the drug of propaganda.” At the same time, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the Western media are quite well aware of the extremely low approval ratings of the “most popular Russian politicians” whom they would like to see in the Kremlin. The Moscow correspondent of Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung was even surprised when he heard Lev Gudkov, a Russian sociologist who directs the Levada Center (a polling and research institute), claim that Navalny could have won 20% of the vote in the election. “So much? Your polls always put him at 1%,” the journalist commented in astonishment.
We are sure that after reading this dialog many German readers were equally astonished. “The best-known researcher into the country’s public opinions” (in the opinion of Süddeutsche Zeitung) had just made quite an astonishing statement for a sociologist: “He [Navalny] could have won as much as 20%, if the playing field were truly level and if, for example, he had been granted access to TV time. This would have radically altered the situation. But that’s all hypothetical.” What does “hypothetical” mean? How did this experienced sociologist derive a figure of 20%? Were voters actually given the survey question, “For whom would you vote if there were a level playing field?”
When the Western media try to analyze the economic and political changes that might occur in Russia after the election, as a rule, their arguments can be boiled down to: “everything is bad, but it’s going to get worse.“
As the chief woe in Russian society, reporters point to the social problems that allegedly arose after the price of oil collapsed and the West introduced sanctions against the country. But, when brainstorming possible solutions, they blame Moscow for the lack of “liberal economic reforms,” failing to mention that their proposed remedies would themselves stymie any attempts to improve social conditions. That is why such measures are labeled as “unpopular” and are almost always accompanied by a deterioration in social conditions.
But the Western media dodge such details, confining themselves to the beautiful word “reform.” Otherwise, it would be difficult for them to explain why their prescriptions would actually have the opposite effect. An example of this approach can be seen the article by Sergey Aleksashenko, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He calls for “comprehensive reforms,” which Putin allegedly will not be able to implement, but he is careful not to name any single specific remedy.
A more professional analysis was offered by the Financial Times. First of all, that paper does not entirely swallow the mantra of “everything is bad.” The newspaper writes that there have been positive developments in the Russian economy in recent years. “But despite dire predictions from many Western policymakers and analysts, Russia did not collapse,” the periodical states. Where did those Western analysts go wrong? Why did Barack Obama’s boastful claim that he had left Russia’s economy “in tatters” turn out to be a bluff? Should we perhaps not be so trusting in the future of the predictions made by those analysts and politicians? But the paper avoids presenting the issue that way. Among the positive changes during the recent years of economic crisis in Russia, the Financial Times notes: the emergence from the recession, the reduced dependence of Russian companies and banks on foreign debt, and the lower rate of consumer-price inflation (down to 2%), which is below where it was before the economic crisis.
The British newspaper does suggest some specific reforms that the next Russian government needs to carry out. Among them — the introduction of a much higher retirement age, increased spending on education and health care, and lowering the tax burden on businesses. This prompts a logical question: why are mutually exclusive measures being proposed at the same time? Obviously lower taxes would bring in less of the revenue that is needed for social spending, and a high retirement age would spark a public outcry.
But the authors of the article have no plans to ask such a question. After all, then they would have to admit that most of the analyses and apocalyptic predictions about this economy that is “in tatters,” which are now being published about Russia, are nothing more than election-campaign intrigue on the part of the Western media and politicians, with the intention of focusing exclusively on the country’s social problems in order to goad both the masses and the elite into expressing their discontent openly and publicly.
This is the real reason why the discussions of the Russian presidential election among the experts in the Western media are not terribly erudite and show a clear ideological bias.
A typical example of such debates could be seen the airing of a program by the British-Qatari television network Al Jazeera UpFront, “Russia elections: President Putin for life?” that included input by Yevgenia Albats, the editor-in-chief of the Russian opposition magazine The New Times, the Russian TV journalist and public figure Vladimir Kara-Murza, and the patriarch of Soviet/Russian TV news shows, widely known for his pro-Western, liberal, and hedonistic stance, Vladimir Posner (several years ago we published a review of his notable interview with the then-US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul). The quintessence of the discussion moderated by Mehdi Hasan, the host of the program, boiled down to a rehash of the old arguments that Russia is not a democratic country and does not hold free elections — only farces intended to legitimize Vladimir Putin’s hold on power.
Nor could one miss the heavy-handed insinuations in regard to the instances in which the incumbent Russian president’s political rivals were allegedly eliminated. And again we hear about Putin’s “formidable” rival and “the most popular politician,” Alexei Navalny, whose actual approval rating (which is low enough to be comparable to statistical error) is never mentioned. That would prevent the discussants from trotting out their arguments, in which they try to prove to their audience that in order to fight the opposition, the Kremlin is being forced to resort to pressure from the administration and even brute force.
They are careful to bring up the name of the liberal Russian politician Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered on Feb. 27, 2015, practically at the very walls of the Kremlin. Obviously the audience is invited to reach the self-evident and logical conclusion. Only — who is this “logic” aimed at? In the final years of his life Boris Nemtsov did not carry any political weight in Russia. Given his very unsuccessful tenure as governor of the province of Nizhny Novgorod, and later as deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin, he was quite unpopular with the public. There was no reason for the Russian authorities to get rid of him. It is easy to see that that murder, which bore all the hallmarks of a carefully planned operation by Western intelligence services, dealt its heaviest blow to the current leadership of Russia.
But the show must go on for the host of UpFront, and such details are no hindrance. He even plowed ahead after being defiantly rebuffed by Vladimir Posner, who stormed out of the studio, explaining that he was unwilling to take part in “ideological debates” in which the subject matter held no interest. In other words — everything that would be said there could have been predicted in advance.
Why does the Al Jazeera TV host Mehdi Hasan run his program this way? Is this unintentional or a deliberate move? Perhaps he purposely keeps even the guests on his show ignorant of the true aims of his program? So then what would he have to say about his audience? Probably this young British journalist with a family background in India, whose own religious views are quite intolerant and who considers Christians and atheists as not only disbelievers, but “people with no intelligence,” holds a fairly unflattering opinion about all his viewers.
In such an environment as this, any narratives that make an attempt to convey an understanding to a Western audience of the real state of affairs in Russia — despite the totalitarian mandates of the Western mainstream media — deserve serious attention. For example, in an interview with the German publication t-online.de, Jörg Baberowski, a professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin, claims, “We should rejoice that Putin is in power. Politicians in the West think that if Russians were allowed to, they would elect liberals or greens. This is completely wrong-headed. In free elections, the majority of votes would have been cast for neo-Fascists and Communists. Anyone who hears how Alexei Navalny talks about people from the Caucasus or Central Asia might find himself wondering if Putin isn’t the best solution after all.“ It would be difficult to suspect this scholar of bias or blind love for Russia. Many of his observations are quite unflattering and even extremely critical in regard to the past and present eras of the Russian political system. However, in his analysis, the German professor takes a solely pragmatic approach, which he urges Western political figures to share: “Putin is much more predictable than Trump. The same could have been said back when George W. Bush was president. In the US, morality and mission are still seen as the backbone of foreign policy. That is a completely alien idea to us. Bush wanted to export American democracy to the rest of the world. Putin is a pragmatist, a man from the intelligence services who plays only if he can win. He does not shoot from the hip or risk Russia to a roll of the dice just to carry out a mission. He does not want to change Russia the way Erdoğan is trying to do in Turkey. He is interested in domestic stability and law-and-order and in strengthening Russia’s role in the world. Everyone can relate to goals like that — they are predictable. From this perspective Putin is a partner we can rely on.“
Re: “But, when brainstorming possible solutions, they blame Moscow for the lack of “liberal economic reforms,” failing to mention that their proposed remedies would themselves stymie any attempts to improve social conditions. That is why such measures are labeled as “unpopular” and are almost always accompanied by a deterioration in social conditions.”
And who would know better about the effect of “liberal economic reforms” than a Russian audience that survived the ’90s ? Keep these reporters talking to the Russian audience. They expose the poverty of their understanding without any prompting or argument.