President Vladimir PutinOn March 15, 2006, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a meeting entitled “Putin’s Demobilization Project,” with Masha Lipman, of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Senior Associate Michael McFaul chaired the session. Lipman’s remarks are summarized below.

President Vladimir Putin is a curiosity: a politician without a message. Even as he has moved to weaken non-presidential institutions and marginalize all possible opposition, Putin has replaced them with—nothing. That is because his aim is not to mobilize society, but rather to neutralize it, to create a community of passive onlookers.

The media provide ample evidence of this strategy at work. The national TV networks are under tight government control, which achieved its apotheosis in 2004 with the elimination of the remaining live political talk shows. Television provides only favorable coverage of the president. (This system of control differs from the one employed in Soviet days, however, because it pertains only to subjects deemed “strategic” by the Kremlin.)

Some print media remain high quality, but they are largely irrelevant. Nonetheless the Kremlin is encouraging regime-friendly businessmen to acquire ownership of print outlets. Gazprom (the state natural gas monopoly) recently acquired Izvestia, one of the largest-circulation print dailies. It has since gone tabloid. Thus is consummated an ugly bargain. Kremlin-friendly owners strip an outlet of meaningful information and replace it with rubbishy gossip. The owners increase their profits and the Kremlin silences another independent voice.

Putin’s administration is moving to silence any actor who smells “political” or might offend Kremlin nostrils with a political scent. With the NGO law the administration sought to eliminate the independence of NGOs by cutting off their foreign funding. While Western pressure led to dilution of the law’s worst provisions, Putin can achieve his ends without any new laws. He has threatened former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov with prosecution over his purchase of a dacha. The authorities disrupt his lectures and meetings. The state has barred Dmitri Rogozin’s Rodina party, originally created with Kremlin approval, from eight local or regional elections over the last few months.

Meanwhile the Kremlin replaces the neutered opposition with parallel institutions (or pseudo-institutions) under its control. The Nashi youth movement stands ready to smear any opposition as fascist. The Public Chamber attempts to occupy the space where civil society should be. The Chamber is obviously incoherent; even its members disagree on its role. While some double the Kremlin line about an “institutional third sector,” one member called it an “aristocratic assembly.” There is no need for consistent rhetoric, because Putin does not want to communicate with the public. They need only vote the right way.

There have been two recent attempts to codify Putin’s ideology. One was the book Putin: His Ideology, by Aleksei Chadayev. Chadayev’s incoherence is redeemed somewhat by his enthusiasm for Quixotic projects. One such is his proposal for uniform “McDonald’s” housing projects, which would allow people to leave home without feeling they’ve left it. More consequential than Chadayev’s book was Surkov’s speech to a group of United Russia activists. Surkov argued there is nothing wrong with Russia today, nor is there anything unique about its Soviet past. He acknowledged problem, but insisted Russia will become prosperous, politically stable, and a center of high culture. How? By ensuring the dominance of United Russia for the next 10 to 15 years. The regime is relying on bread and circuses: that is, oil revenues and vapid TV. Since its primary goal is self-perpetuation and enrichment, it does not need coherent ideology. It ponders neither policy, nor the future beyond the next presidential election cycle.

For its part, the public is ready to vote for United Russia and Putin’s successor. But people are not deceived: they know the government doesn’t care about them. Opinion polls reveal their distrust, anxiety, and insecurity. They understand the government has become more corrupt and less professional under Putin. Generally people combine loyalty with a negative assessment of the government. Increasing prosperity due to high oil prices goes a long way toward explaining this phenomenon.

In the near- to medium-term, shifts and splits within the elite are far more likely to provoke change than a mass social movement.

Q&A

Q: How was the TV version of The First Circle [by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn] received?
Lipman: It was popular and well-received. But many people are still fond of Stalin and the movie won’t change their attitudes.

Q: How important is the idea of external threat in keeping the public in line?
Lipman: The official line is actually not so anti-Western, though of course one sees such rhetoric on TV. There is remarkably little criticism of the Iraq war, perhaps because the Kremlin fears criticism over Chechnya. With the G8 meeting approaching Putin wants some acceptance. Awash in money, the government doesn’t need to intimidate; it can co-opt.

Q: In other one-party states people often don’t vote or vote for the opposition. How does United Russia win with such high turnout?
Lipman: People understand they’re required to vote. United Russia does campaign, but not on policy. Moreover the Kremlin eliminates all viable alternatives. People are left to choose between United Russia, [frothing nationalist] Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the Communists. The latest idea is to have all elections on the same day. This would benefit United Russia because it’s very expensive to run 88 campaigns at once and no other party has the resources to do this.

Participant comment: Maybe there’s no ideology on TV, but there’s a narrative. It’s in Soviet style: things are good in Russia, but the world outside is full of danger and unrest. TV loves to dwell on stories like Katrina and the Muslim rioting in France, then turn to positive coverage of Putin. The anti-Western rhetoric is carefully dosed. TV also downplays cooperation with the West, while exaggerating cooperation with China and the CIS. Last year’s Sino-Russian military exercises received voluminous coverage.

Summary prepared by Matthew Gibson, Junior Fellow with the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.