Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Power Vertical

The Propaganda Machine

Surkov (left) and Medvedev at a meeting with political party leaders last November.
Surkov (left) and Medvedev at a meeting with political party leaders last November.

About a month ago I wrote a post about the dueling polling agencies in Russia and discussed briefly the relations between the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) and the Kremlin (particularly with the office of the Kremlin’s domestic-politics curator Vladislav Surkov and with the United Russia party).


That post prompted a query from a reader of the blog that made me think that the subject deserved a little more attention. Joera Mulders, writing from Amsterdam, asked the following:


You write about a " ... network of purportedly independent political parties, nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, and the like that are brought to bear in many situations to press the Kremlin’s line or, at least, to blur the non-Kremlin lines.


Isn't it a lot simpler to acknowledge the uprise of a considerate group within civil society that supports the current form of government and the current division of property? Do you really believe Surkov is orchestrating all that by himself? I did check out the partner and clients page at the VTsIOM side. Besides United Russia other 'organisations we cooperate with' are mentioned. NATO amongst others. Do you have other proof that VTsIOM is controled by UR or the Kremlin?


First, I do think that Surkov is orchestrating such a network and has been doing it for years now. Of course, he is not doing it “by himself.” Within the presidential administration, Surkov heads something called the “Main Department of Domestic Politics” (Glavnoye upravleniye vnutrennei politki), which was created in 2000 and in March 2004 (following United Russia’s successful showing in the December 2003 presidential election and just 10 days after Vladimir Putin’s reelection to the presidency) was elevated to the status of an “independent subunit” of the presidential administration.


It is a pretty secretive “subunit,” so there is no telling how many people Surkov has working under him there, but even its bland description on the Kremlin’s webpage is a little unnerving: “Within the areas of its competency it develops and presents to the president and the head of the presidential administration materials about the sociopolitical situation in the country, as well as proposals about matters relating to the state structure, federal relations, local self-government, and regional and informational policies.”


It oversees the relations between the Kremlin and “the Federal Assembly, organs of state government, organs of local self-government, political parties, professional and creative unions, business organizations, commerce chambers, social and religious organizations, and other civil-society structures.”


It oversees the president’s relations with the presidential envoys to the seven federal districts, which means that it has powerful mechanisms for implementing its policies on the local level across the country.


It isn’t easy to figure out all the threads of the “network of purportedly independent political parties, nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, and the like” that this office oversees, but I can say that I stumble across new ones all the time. In the run-up to the Georgian war last August and in its wake, numerous “Russian-Caucasian friendship societies” popped up to spread the Kremlin’s take on events in the Caucasus, to take one example.


There are other examples in the information sphere. Last December I wrote a post about some mysterious English-language websites that were publishing pro-Kremlin “information” and a man named “Vladimir” who was working out of the Russian Embassy in Washington and offering U.S. journalists money to reprint their materials. Some great reader comments to that post offered up links to other, equally suspicious websites.

Foreign Policy” this week posted a nice little piece about a Kremlin 2.0 project called, a project of Kremlin-connect spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky that is intended “to make the Kremlin’s increasingly unappealing ideological package relevant to the younger generations.” (And speaking of Georgia, when I opened today they were featuring on the homepage a nice little video called “The Battle for History: Georgia 1989” that blames the anti-Soviet uprising in Tbilisi in 1989 on the CIA.)


Returning to Joera’s questions, I do feel that VTsIOM is a crucial part of this network and a look at the list of organizations for which VTsIOM conducts research gives some indication at how effective it is in distributing the Kremlin’s views on what public opinion in Russia is. In part, it is responsible for what I called in an earlier post, “the myth of Putin’s popularity” and, the other side of the same coin, the myth of the fecklessness of the anti-Putin opposition, including former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov.


The telling part of the list of partner organizations on the VTsIOM site comes when you scroll all the way down to the bottom and get to the real “partner organizations.” These include, in order, the presidential administration, the Health and Social Development Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the sociology center of the Defense Ministry, and the United Russia party.


Further down the list you will find Kremlin-friendly political consultant Stanislav Belkovsky's National Strategy Council (famous for “predicting” the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky) and Pavlovsky projects such as the Effective Politics Foundation (its site is under reconstruction), and the “experts network” Another partner is the Center for Political Forecasting, which is headed by Aleksei Chesnakov – who until last June was deputy head of – you guessed it! – the Main Department of Domestic Politics of the presidential administration (the department is headed by Oleg Govorun, a colorful character in his own right, but we don’t have time to pursue that thread of the network just now).


How does Chesnakov’s name fit into this picture? In preparing a response to Joera’s message, I dug through my VTsIOM files and came across the most thorough look at the polling agency, a November 2007 expose published in “Novoye vremya” by Moldovan investigative journalist Natalya Morar (you may remember her because she was not allowed into Russia because she purportedly presents a national security threat to Russia and because of the role she played in the April political unrest in Moldova).


Morar’s piece makes excellent reading and begins to expose both the ties between VTsIOM and the presidential administration and the shady scheme of offshore companies VTsIOM uses to hide its financial dealings.


Morar writes: “Deputy head of the Department of Domestic Politics of the presidential administration Aleksei Chesnakov personally oversees the work of the sociologists. According to a VTsIOM employee, center director Valery Fyodorov personally goes over all survey questions with Chesnakov for the weekly national express polls of public opinion. Every Friday, the presidential administration approves all the VTsIOM press releases that are being prepared for issue the following week.”


After discussing the surveys for a bit, Morar goes on to begin unraveling the research center’s financial structure, which involves at least two offshore companies – one registered in Cyprus and one in the British Virgin Islands. An independent financial analyst who studied the documents Morar secured said: “The purpose is obvious – avoiding taxes and shipping capital out of the country.” One might add that another purpose is to prevent outsiders from knowing how much money is going through the organization to keep them, for example, from seeing how it spikes during the election cycle. (Morar has said that the roots of the accusations that she presents a “national security threat” to Russia stem from her various investigations into the offshore financial manipulations of the ruling elite.)


Another VTsIOM employee (speaking anonymously, of course) said: “They pay us for our loyalty by giving us the chance to steal. They let us sit on certain money streams and don’t watch what we do with them. It is a classic example of bureaucratic kickback: using a state organization to draw in money that ends up in the pockets of bureaucrats. We are allowed to earn whatever we want as long as we meet all their conditions…. In general, I think that today’s VTsIOM is not a research organization. It was not created for this. It is part of a propaganda machine.”


Anyway, Joera, thanks a lot for reading and for writing. Your message set me off on a really interesting voyage of discovery.


-- Robert Coalson

Tags: surkov,vtsiom,propaganda,Russia

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: La Russophobe from: USA
June 05, 2009 12:03
Now I've got a question!<br /><br />Putin went to Finland and said &quot;Ukraine won't survive.&quot; He went to Piter and said capitalists are &quot;cockroaches&quot; and they, not he the proud KGB spy, are responsible for Russia's problems.<br /><br />A little while ago, Russian tanks rolled into Georgia.<br /><br />To repeat, the KGB governs.<br /><br />Oh and, at the Olympics, the music of the USSR plays for Russia.<br /><br />And now you document this insidious propaganda machine. <br /><br />So my question is: Just how exactly is Putin's Russia different from the USSR?<br /><br />So much for the idea that Russia could &quot;never go back.&quot; Those who said so helped delay our opposition and create our current nightmare, just as Chamberlain once did.

by: La Russophobe from: USA
June 08, 2009 17:14
On the topic of propaganda, you guys really should consider blogging the story of Yelena Maglevannaya. The Kremlin's actions towards her are the ultimate expression of propaganda.<br /><br />

by: Joera Mulders from: Amsterdam
June 09, 2009 11:40
Dear Robert Coalson, <br /> <br />I am delighted to hear my comments sent you on a voyage of discovery. Please consider the below comment a well intended continuation of a conversation. <br /> <br />Let me first return to the initial post that prompted our exchange of opinions. There you wrote that you “think some sort of “thawing” is taking place (not a liberalization, but a kind of reorientation as factions within the ruling elite compete for a dwindling pool of resources).” Whether such a reorientation of factions can be described as a liberalization, I will leave to the historians. <br /> <br />I was drawn to this sentence because I like the framework of competing factions to explain developments in Russian politics. Honestly said, I had hoped and still hope that this aspect of our conversation is to be the one to set you on a voyage of discovery, but it did not and so be it. <br /> <br />To be clear with these factions I do not mean the so called liberal and silovik towers in the Kremlin, but something I would refer to as stakeholders in the company called Russia; these can indeed be the various siloviye and economic ministries and state organs, but also big business, the SME lobby, the juridical corpus, civil society representatives, governors, political parties, middle class, pensioners etc.. With every new president the relations between the center and these various stakeholders acquire new meaning. These are therefore interesting times for us ‘russiawatchers’. <br /> <br />I mention this because even though ‘the power vertical’ is the right concept to explain major tendencies within Putin’s two presidencies, ‘the power vertical’ is a too limited concept to explain the full scope of developments taking place inside Russia. I may interpret you wrong, but for me the term suggests the image from a cold war movie with a soviet desk with some twenty telephones, from which orders are given to amongst others party representatives (in our times multiple parties), history teachers and pollsters. <br /> <br />Modern Russia’s society - I am convinced -is much too open and diverse for such control to be effective. This is most likely the crux of our conflicting opinions. Your professional affiliation with Russia originates in the Cold War, while I visited Russia for the first time in 2000. For you – it seems - modern Russia has (still) to prove it is different country from the Soviet Union. For me, you will have to prove that modern Russia is indeed as totalitarian as you suggest it is. As people who stand for freedom and pluralism of opinion, let us say our opinions should strive to be complementary. <br /> <br />Let us get concrete and talk about VTsIOM. The right approach to prove your alleged VTsIOM subordinance to the Power Vertical either trough Surkov’s office or the United Russia office is to point at differences in polling results between VTsIOM and other polling agencies. I still challenge you to find such examples. <br /><br />My complete reply can be found here: <br /><br /><br /><br />In case the url breaks, try this one:<br /><br /><br />Joera Mulders<br /><br />

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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