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Potemkinism


Former Arkhangelsk Mayor Aleksandr Donskoi was hounded out of office after saying in 2006 that he intended to run for president against Vladimir Putin. One of the accusations against him was that he had a fake diploma.

Former Arkhangelsk Mayor Aleksandr Donskoi was hounded out of office after saying in 2006 that he intended to run for president against Vladimir Putin. One of the accusations against him was that he had a fake diploma.

In Russia these days things are seldom what they seem to be. Nonetheless, though, there seems to have been an unusual amount of smoke and mirrors being held up to the light of day in recent days.


The most obvious example, of course, was Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s high-profile road trip across the Far East that was intended, in part, to promote the domestic auto industry. Putin has been shilling for AvtoVAZ’s Lada for some time now, and it was something of an embarrassment when it was revealed that he used no less than three of them for his 2,000-kilometer jaunt while his entourage tailed him in a convoy of some 100 foreign-made cars. Internet users have been laughing themselves silly watching the video, and television viewers in Belarus also got the story. Viewers of Russian state-controlled television, however, got the Grigory Potemkin version of the trip.


Another memorable example of Potemkinism came in a “The Moscow Times” op-ed by Michael Bohm about the epidemic of fake diplomas in Russia. NTV recently reported that more than 70 “engineers” at an aviation plant near Khabarovsk had bought fake degrees. But management at the factory didn’t care. Bohm goes on to note that Russian companies rarely check on academic credentials because universities refuse to provide such information. He cites experts who believe that up to 50 percent of postgraduate degrees issued in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union were bought. Bohm asks sensibly whether the Kremlin’s modernization agenda can be pursued with so many fake “engineers,” “business administrators,” and “economists” (people who have learned the advantages of cheating over those of hard work) running the country.


An August 31 opinion piece on gazeta.ru lambasted the government for emphasizing the use of “advertising articles” and “propaganda websites” for the promotion of Russia as an attractive target for foreign investment. The plan proposed by the Economic Development Ministry emphasizes “rebranding” the country – ironically, including by using “Soviet propaganda methods.” The plan doesn’t discuss using “agents of influence,” such as the recently exposed ring of illegal agents in the United States, but it such tactics are definitely in the spirit of the ministry’s proposal. The gazeta.ru authors point out that building such a Potemkin image isn’t going to fool many investors, but it is a lot easier domestically than “adopting correct legislation, reducing corruption, eliminating visas, and making Moscow more comfortable and attractive – including for foreigners.”


Regular Power Vertical readers may remember we wrote recently about a new political talk show called “Duel” that was coming to Rossiya state television. Host Vladimir Solovyov was touting the show as a prime-time live “socio-political” program. That show premiered on September 2 (you can watch it here), but was not broadcast live in Moscow or the European parts of Russia. It was taped in the afternoon (I know because both Solovyov and Zhirinovsky actively tweeted about it) and broadcast at 10:50 p.m. It was only seen live in the Far East. Although viewers in other time zones had no way of knowing it, they were watching and voting on a taped version. Those who thought that live political discussion had returned to Russian state television had better pack their bags and move to Vladivostok.


“Duel” contained many levels of Potemkinism within it as well, such as when host Solovyov tells Mitrokhin that Russians elected the ruling United Russia party and so that must mean that they want authoritarian government. Hard to imagine that Solovyov has such a naive view of the way “elections” are staged in Russia.


Nezavisimaya gazeta” had a story today about President Dmitry Medvedev’s stepped-up talk about cutting back the bureaucracy. In the middle of the piece, there is this gem: “A source close to the presidential administration said that reductions in the number of state employees is not really a goal in itself. Statements by the leading figures in the government about this are really aimed at producing an electoral effect.”


Another gazeta.ru article on September 1 reported that residents in Khimki had been compelled “under pressure” to sign a petition being organized by Moscow Oblast authorities in support of plans to construct the Moscow-St. Petersburg highway through a protected forest. (Here’s a nice graphic of the proposed route and other possibilities.) Amazing how the authorities can drum up 20,000 valid signatures in a small city in a couple of days to support the felling of a protected forest, while opposition groups – according to the official versions – have to resort to all sorts of illegal trickery in their bids to get candidates on election ballots.


And “Vedomosti” reported this week that research has shown the Russian media are exaggerating the government’s efforts to combat corruption. According to the study, between early 2008 and late 2009, about 100 media stories concerning “exposing corruption” appeared each day. From late 2009 to the present, that figure jumped to 125 stories per day.


However, the actual number of corruption cases filed, according to the Justice Ministry, was basically unchanged (21,842 in 2007 and 23,518 in 2009, a 7.6 percent increase). Of the 2009 cases, 6,691 went to court; 3694 defendants received suspended sentences; 1,926 were fined; and 903 were sentenced to real prison time. That is, one person went to prison for every 25 corruption cases filed. Not a single defendant received the maximum sentence of three to five years in prison for “abuse of office” and only four were given the maximum sentence of five to eight years in prison for “bribe-taking.”


The article quotes Transparency International-Russia Director Yelena Panfilova as saying that the struggle against corruption in a systematically corrupt country is a political matter, not one for law enforcement or the courts.


And here’s one last example and you can decide for yourself whether there is any Potemkinization going on here. Media reported this week that unknown burglars had broken into the Moscow offices of the Investigative Committee’s department of “particularly important cases.” The office is handling, among other things, the case of the brutal beating in 2008 of Mikhail Beketov, the editor of a newspaper in Khimki that was relentless in reporting about the corruption surrounding the proposed highway project.


Officials say the thieves opened 18 filing cabinets and 25 locked safes. But all they took was a television and a video camera.


-- Robert Coalson

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The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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