Issues and plots of the week: Putin and the media, Putin and the "Family", Putin and Berezovsky


“The Kursk disaster has put an end to the long honeymoon between Putin and the Russian media.” Olga Romanova, an observer of Vedomosti, considers this statement in “The Wall Street Journal” to be “very important”. A storm of critical assessment, which has crashed down on the president and his retinue for the first time since Putin rose to the top, seems to have greatly impressed the Kremlin. As the weekly Moskovskye Novosti points out, following the first period when, as a result of polemics between the independent press and the state “image service”, it became clear that the latter was losing, confusion has set in. And then the leadership tried to counterattack, but the chance had been lost already: “Society had already changed its standpoint. Now every step by the authorities was closely watched, as if through a microscope, with the purpose of finding any traces of insincerity.”

The Kursk tragedy must have taught the president and his team that “minding their business” and “talking to people” are two equally important functions of the leadership, Moskovskye Novosti writes. And, moreover, “public relations” is a specialized field: “The criterion of its fulfillment is not self-satisfaction of the leadership, but the loyalty of the public opinion. If the press is indignant at information policies, not the press, but the policies must be changed. In these terms, public opinion is right even when it is wrong.” The weekly sees not failures by the Kremlin PR experts and image-makers, but the way they tried to recover the situation as the main problem. Their goal was simple: cover their own botch by drawing public attention to their opponent. This is why they tried to make criticism in regards to themselves appear as attacks on the leadership. The attempt worked out well: “At one moment Putin became angered not with those who had set him up, but with those who noticed this.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes: “PR is nothing else but consideration of the public mind factor which includes national traditions, public sentiment, social stereotypes, historical archetypes and many more… A public politician who refuses or is unable to use these factors loses authority and votes…” Arguing with Gleb Pavlovsky, the main Kremlin ideologist who assess the state of society as abnormal (“the problem of the sub incident, as it is, is not regarded as the most important, it is of greater importance whether the president visited the scene of the disaster or not”), Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote: “The Kremlin political experts again have bad luck: people are wrong and society is in an abnormal state.” At the same time, the newspaper emphasizes, politicians, political analysts, publicists, but by no means PR experts have the right to speculate about public opinion deviating from the norm. “For a professional PR expert, the state of society and public sentiment is a given factor, a field where they and their political clients operate.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta answered with an even harsher retort to Pavlovsky’s statement that society must realize that the myth about Putin does not in the least correspond to reality and that the country needs “not a hero savior, but a professional official”. The newspaper reminds the reader that the only “professional” among presidential candidates, Grigory Yavlinsky, usually gathers six or seven percent of the vote, whereas all winners and all those who gathered more than 10% of the vote appeared as “heroes” during their election campaigns: Yeltsin, Putin, Zyuganov, Lebed, “even Zhirinovsky, as of 1993”. In the opinion of the newspaper, “if Kremlin-related PR experts try and turn Putin into a professional instead of a hero, we will have a new president by 2003.”

Novaya Gazeta lays a special emphasis on the difference between the Western and Russian image-makers: while the former are experts engaged with purely technical issues and by no means claiming to have any political influence, the latter are masters of the situation: “They understand what is to be done better than their clients. They even do not define policies, they invent them. Real events must serve the purposes of a TV report.” Such a situation poses a serious threat not only to unsophisticated ordinary people, but for the leadership itself: “The illusion of permissiveness, unlimited opportunities of propaganda, and absolute impunity of lies can lead too far.”

This is the trap in which, in the opinion of the newspaper, voters were caught during Putin’s election campaign the essence of which was not to show Yeltsin’s successor as he is, but to create an image of a mythical hero which does not correspond to reality at all. “Vladimir Putin was portrayed as a “strong leader”, a “strong-willed politician”, whereas he has always been and will be an ordinary bureaucrat totally devoid of his own will and political initiative,” the newspaper writes. Moreover, Putin does not possess Yeltsin’s “ruler instinct”: “He tries to solve problems mechanically and his retinue indulging in bureaucratic intrigues and scheming forgot that, apart from virtual reality and bureaucratic showdowns, there is the country to consider.”

However, the main drawback of the incumbent president is his inconsistency: he, as Novaya Gazeta defines, “is too weak to become a dictator, and at the same time too inexperienced and helpless to play democracy”. And the point is that the Russian history has proved: much can be forgiven to rulers of this country, “except for weakness,” Novaya Gazeta emphasizes.

“Weak Points of the Elected Monarch” – this is the way the weekly Moskovskye Novosti entitled a comment by Igor Klyamkin, a well-known political analyst, on Putin’s plan of restoration of strong state power in Russia. Klyamkin holds that there are two ways out of the critical situation where the country has found itself: “The first one lies in concentration of bureaucratic and security resources in the hands of one person. The other one is appealing to society for help, seeking to come to an agreement with it. Putin is now following the former tack.” The essence of the actions by the current authorities, Klyamkin states, is strengthening of the power of the federal bureaucracy brought to life by Yeltsin, and this is not civil bureaucracy alone, but military and security ones, as well. At the same time, these actions are poorly justified: the federal bureaucracy is in no way better than the regional one and the new administrative structure is “a shaky and cumbersome provisional installation which will have to be changed sooner or later.” This is the reason for the unpredictability of further development.

At the same time, Klyamkin remarks, during the last period of Yeltsin’s rule, the idea of a “public treaty” was very popular, and the experience of the countries where this idea had been implemented (for instance, Spain) was actively discussed. Now that the presidential election is over, discussing a public treaty is no longer fashionable: the leadership, as Klyamkin put it, intends to “outwit” society: liberal reforms will be “rammed through” by means of Soviet political techniques. Hence the necessity of a tough control over media: these techniques are unlivable without turning television into a “mouthpiece of the authorities”. There is, however, another component to these techniques – a search for enemies, concrete opponents of implementation of the Kremlin plans. There is a serious contradiction here: “Where can such malingerers be found, other than in the liberal sector of society, that is in the sector which the current leadership seemingly intends to strengthen and expand?”

All of this, the political analyst maintains, creates “a niche and ground” for liberal opposition without which the current regime will evolve “in the direction opposite to that of the law and, ultimately, to liberal economic reforms.” It is impossible, Klyamkin emphasizes, to “outwit society in the current conditions. The only option left is to start a public dialogue with society about a way for us to overcome the semi-anarchic leftover of Yeltsin’s epoch.”

Obshchaya Gazeta attempts at classification of current PR experts. As a starter, the newspaper cites the words of an “educated Moscow banker” who called our time “an epoch of Chichikovs, St. Germaines, and Princes Caliostro” having specified that this estimation is far too flattering: “None of those “behind the throne” today is a match for St. Germaines or Caliostro”. Still, they are given credit for some “claims to possess supernatural powers” – this is what the leadership has demanded from them and demand brought about supply. New PR experts, Obshchaya Gazeta writes, consider themselves to be “above-all-the-mundane” ephemeral computer creatures. Their sacred belief is that the entire political life of Russia is the product of implementation of their virtual ideas and projects. “A contemptuous and haughty glance above spectacles, stage pauses, intricate obscurity of words and thoughts, self-confidence mingled with fear,” – this is the way the newspaper describes this extraordinary breed of courtiers. To date, Obshchaya Gazeta writes, “virtual experts” can be credited with two PR miracles “paid for with all financial and organizational resources of oligarchy” – the Unity and the Yeltsin’s successor projects.

However, times are changing and the end of this variety of political manipulators is near at hand, the newspaper believes. With the end of Yeltsin’s epoch, all problems accumulated over the recent years came to the surface: terrorism reminded people of itself with the explosion on Pushkin square, the epoch of technical disasters was ushered in by the Kursk incident and a fire at Ostankino, etc. “Virtual experts” who feel in their element only in an artificially created reality, were rendered useless when real trouble came: “A “PR approach” characteristic of them brings about either tragedies or a scary farce.” And in the new reality “experts” themselves look “as absurd as clairvoyants in an operation room where surgeons are fighting for the life of a patient”.

The newspaper Vedomosti, in a comment by Mikhail Leontyev, a well-known publicist, draws the readers’ attention to striking differences between the ways the Kursk disaster and a fire at the television tower were presented by the Russian media. As far as Ostankino was concerned, no one was indignant at the fact that the leadership is again rescuing machinery instead of people, no one demanded that the president arrived at the scene of the incident, no one reproached him for rejecting help from abroad.

As Leontyev ironically remarked, “a promising theory of an arson arranged by the Kremlin enemies striving to redistribute spheres of influence in the media and crash the independent press was left practically unheeded”. The reason, the Vedomosti observer holds, is simple: “this time the blow was struck too close to the feeding-trough”.

In Leontyev’s opinion, the fire at Ostankino has shed light on the parasite nature of the development of the Russian information market: the new Russian business in the media sphere, as well as in other spheres, has merely exhausted the social industrial structure, feeding on “the fruit of our economic system where there are no laws guaranteeing security of property, contracts, and agreements and where ordered public defamation became the best-seller.”

In the opinion of Alexander Arkhangelsky, an observer of Izvestia, the burnt TV tower should be considered a symbol of the Russian business: “Failing to create its own broadcasting system and toughly exploiting the old one, our information business acted in the same way as Berezovsky did on the economic scene: take everything, give nothing, privatize the country without contributing anything to its modernization.”

At the same time, the information about Berezovsky’s readiness to give away his share parcel of the ORT company to the “journalist collective of the channel” was the sensation of the beginning of the week. This happened a day after Sergei Dorenko who is traditionally linked to the omnipotent oligarch expressed scathing criticism in regards to President Putin. As Arkhangelsky remarked, “having returned from vacation, Dorenko turned his weapon from the half-alive Moscow mayor to the quite capable Putin”. The purpose remains the same – a decline in the president’s rating. Methods have not changed either. It is hard to predict whether Putin’s rating will resist Dorenko’s onrush. However, it is not ruled out that many viewers of ORT will react to the escapades of the “TV killer” in a way similar to that of the Izvestia observer. “I have many inner civil claims to the president,” Arkhangelsky writes, “but if the progressive intelligentsia led by Berezovsky is against Putin, I am in favor. I am guided only by my instinct of self-preservation.”

At the same time, last week Putin continued construction of a new administrative structure in keeping with his plan of the federal reform. On Friday, an edict on the creation of the State Council was signed. The press is trying to guess about the mission and the prospects of the “governor club” as the new agency was christened.

From the point of view of the newspaper Vremya Novostei, the prospects of the State Council are rather dubious: “If the new agency is supposed to help governors deprived of the Federation Council socially adapt themselves, the future of the State Council is dark and empty.” The practice of state construction of recent years has proved: an agency without concrete functions or at least apparatus purposes is short-termed. On the other hand, the newspaper does not rule out that the creation of the State Council may mark the beginning of dismantling of Yeltsin’s system of governing the country. Formation of the presidium of “the true political heavyweights” (President Mintimer Shaimiyev of Tatarstan, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, Governor Vladimir Yakovlev of St. Petersburg, Viktor Kress and Leonid Roketsky, governors of the Tomsk and Tumen regions, Magomedali Magomedov, chair of the State Council of Dagestan, Viktor Ishayev, head of the Khabarovsk region administration) testifies to the possibility of such a development. It is not ruled out, Vremya Novostei writes, that the presidium will become an important instrument of state policy whereas the State Council itself will remain a purely decorative agency.

“The magnificent seven”, “the governor Political Bureau” – this is the way the newspaper Izvestia characterized the newly-created State Council presidium. It is hard to understand from the sidelines why governors wanted so much to be included in “an insignificant consultative agency” and are now with yet more enthusiasm ready to work in its administration.

However, as Izvestia holds, the further development of the federal reform will soon put everything in its place. There is every reason to believe that the president who once spoke that a one-chamber parliament is “more pleasant” for him will not limit himself to a reform of the Federation Council. All the more so, since, as Izvestia emphasizes, “neither the Kremlin nor regional elites will need the Federation Council in the form in which it will start functioning in 2002.”

Another rumor of the last week was a meeting between two Russian presidents. According to Moskovsky Komsomolets, the “Family” thought it appropriate to express its discontent with Putin’s behavior this August, for instance, his communication with “Communist anti-Semites” Prokhanov and Chickin. Besides, it is rumored that Yeltsin decided to learn whom Putin had in mind when speaking about people who had destroyed the country and the army at the same time acquiring villas on the Mediterranean. According to the information of Moskovsky Komsomolets, the “Family” is disturbed by the fact that in critical situations Putin always refers to the problematic legacy of the past.

The newspaper Segodnya published its own theory of the reason for the meeting between Yeltsin and Putin. According to the information of the newspaper, one of conditions of transferring state power to Putin was an agreement on the current security ministers retaining their positions within two years. It is this agreement, in the opinion of the newspaper, which accounts for “Putin’s reserved reaction (to put it mildly) to recent events in the Armed Forces.” This is also a key to the president’s indifference toward “an unprecedented world-scale quarrel in the military agency between Defense Ministry Igor Sergeyev and the head of the General Staff, Anatoly Kvashnin,” during which, Segodnya points out, “many domestic strategic secrets about the structure, combat readiness and battle efficiency of the nuclear forces have flown away.” Few doubted that radical personnel decisions will be made immediately, but there was nothing of the kind. Moreover, the defense minister retained his job, despite resignation sent in after the Kursk disaster – only because, as Segodnya holds, “the Family was strongly opposed to his resignation”.

However, there are media which support another opinion. From the point of view of the newspaper Vremya MN, at the beginning of a new political season Putin “much more effectively controls the situation in the country and in the corridors of power than he did in spring”. Over the recent months, the president has succeeded in forming his own team which is likely to gain access to state administration – to the posts which are now occupied by Yeltsin’s proteges.” The newspaper concludes that “the time of the Family is over”.

The main intrigue of the new political season is said to be a fight for the jobs of the chair of the Presidential Administration and the prime minister. “Only by appointing his people to these jobs thus liquidating the “Family” link Voloshin-Kasyanov-Mamut-Abramovich, Putin will demonstrate to the country and the world his ultimate political victory and prove that he is in control of the situation.”

“Predictions of total disillusionment by citizens of Russia in their president proved wrong,” the magazine Itogi writes. Putin’s rating survived. However, the picture is very odd. According to a poll done by the ROMIR polling agency, 12.6% of respondents fully approve of the president’s behavior during the Barents Sea tragedy, 20.2% do so partially, 22.6% categorically disapprove of it and 25.6% rather disapprove than not. Thus, nearly half the population considered the president’s behavior inappropriate. Nevertheless, according to other ROMIR polls, only 27.8% of respondents have changed their opinion on Putin for the worse. Almost 60% did not change their opinion; and even those who began to think worse of Putin approve of his performance as president. Beyond a certain point, it is fatal for a society to have no confidence in its leaders,” Itogi writes. “When the public contemptuously rejected Gorbachev, and then became disillusioned with Yeltsin, people could still believe that things went wrong because Gorbachev was no good, or because we made a mistake about Yeltsin. Now that the unloved Yeltsin has gone, but the endless fiascos and tragic errors are continuing under the beloved Putin – are we to believe that nothing can go right for us?” The Russian public has grown tired of feeling ashamed of itself and for Russia, to such an extent that is ready to take pride in it no matter how absurd this may be.