Saturday, October 25, 2014

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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17:49 October 24, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of escalating conflicts around the world by imposing what he called a "unilateral diktat."

Putin made the remarks in a combative speech to political experts at the Valdai International Discussion Club, in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Putin said the United States has been "fighting against the results of its own policy" in Iraq, Libya and Syria.

He said risks of serious conflicts involving major countries have risen, as well as risks of arms treaties being violated.

He also dismissed international sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine as a "mistake," saying they aimed at pushing Russia into isolation and would end up "hurting everyone."

We did not start this," he added, referring to rising tensions between Russia and the West.

(Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, Interfax, TASS)


German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged Russian President Vladimir Putin in a telephone call to push for a quick resolution of the ongoing gas dispute with Ukraine as winter looms.

The call by Merkel to Putin on October 24 comes as representatives of the EU, Russia, and Ukraine are due to meet again next week in EU brokered talks aimed at solving the gas dispute between Kyiv and Moscow.

Merkel also underlined that upcoming elections in areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists must respect Ukrainian national law.

Pro-Russian insurgent leaders are boycotting a parliamentary snap poll on October 26 in Ukraine and are holding their own election in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions, home to nearly three million people, on the same day instead.

(Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters)



The United Nations says the conflict in Ukraine has forced more than 800,000 people from their homes.

Around 95 percent of displaced people come from eastern Ukraine, where government troops have been battling pro-Russian separatists.

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, told a briefing in Geneva that an estimated 430,000 people were currently displaced within Ukraine -- 170,000 more than at the start of September.

It said at least 387,000 other people have asked for refugee status, temporary asylum, or other forms of residency permits in Russia.

Another 6,600 have applied for asylum in the European Union and 581 in Belarus.

The agency said it was "racing to help some of the most vulnerable displaced people" as winter approaches.

It also said the number of displaced people is expected to rise further due to ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine.


Three alleged militants have been killed by security forces in Russia's volatile North Caucasus region.

Russia's National Antiterrorism Committee says that two suspects were killed in the village of Charoda in Daghestan on October 24 after they refused to leave an apartment and opened fire at police and security troops.

One police officer was wounded.

Also on October 24, police in another North Caucasus region, Kabardino-Balkaria, killed a suspected militant after he refused to identify himself, threw a grenade towards police, and opened fire with a pistol.

A police officer was wounded in that incident.

Violence is common in Russia's North Caucasus region, which includes the restive republics of Daghestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, and Chechnya.

Islamic militants and criminal groups routinely target Russian military personnel and local officials.

(Based on reporting by Interfax and TASS)


A lawyer, who represented an alleged victim of the notorious Orekhovo criminal group in Moscow, has been assassinated.

Police in the Russian capital say that Vitaly Moiseyev and his wife were found dead with gunshot wounds in a car near Moscow on October 24.

Moiseyev was representing Sergei Zhurba, an alleged victim of the Orekhovo gang and a key witness in a case against one of the gang's leaders Dmitry Belkin.

Belkin was sentenced to life in prison on October 23 for multiple murders and extortion.

Last month, another of Zhurba's lawyers, Tatyana Akimtseva (eds: a woman), was shot dead by unknown individuals.

The Orekhovo group was one of the most powerful crime gangs of the Moscow region and in Russia in the 1990s. Its members are believed to be responsible for dozens of murders.

(Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)

17:27 October 24, 2014


17:26 October 24, 2014


17:00 October 24, 2014
08:29 October 24, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is warning that Russia could attempt to disrupt Ukraine's parliamentary elections scheduled for October 26.

Yatsenyuk told a meeting of top security officials and election monitors on October 23 that "It is absolutely clear that attempts to destabilize the situation will continue and will be provoked by Russia."

Yatsenyuk said "we are in a state of Russian aggression and we have before us one more challenge -- to hold parliamentary elections."

The prime minister said Ukraine needs the "full mobilization of the entire law-enforcement system to prevent violations of the election process and attempts at terrorist acts during the elections."

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said authorities have ordered some 82,000 policemen on duty for election day.

He said 4,000 members of a special reaction force would be among those maintaining order during polling hours and would be concentrated in "those precincts where there is a risk of some terrorist acts or aggressive actions by some...candidates."

The warning by Yatsenyuk comes on the heels of three violent attacks on parliamentary candidates in the past week.

The latest, against Volodymyr Borysenko, a member of Yatsenyuk's People's Front Party, occurred on October 20 when Borysenko was shot at and had an explosive thrown at him.

He allegedly survived the attack only because he was wearing body armor due to numerous death threats he had recently received.

Elections to the Verkhovna Rada, the parliament, will be held despite continued fighting in the eastern part of the country between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Voting will not take place in 14 districts of eastern Ukraine currently under the control of the separatists.

Those separatist-held areas -- in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions -- are planning on holding their own elections in November.

Additionally, Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in March means the loss of 12 seats from the 450-seat parliament.

Polls show President Petro Poroshenko's party leading with some 30 percent of respondents saying they would cast their vote for the Petro Poroshenko Bloc.

It that percentage holds on election day it would mean Poroshenko's bloc would have to form a coalition government, likely with nationalist groups who oppose conducting peace talks over fighting in the east.

(Based on reporting by Reuters and Interfax)



Moscow has denied claims of an incursion by a Russian military plane into Estonia's airspace.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman told Interfax news agency on October 23 that the Ilyushin-20 took off from Khrabrovo airfield in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on October 21.

The spokesman said the reconnaissance plane flew "over neutral waters of the Baltic Sea" while on a training flight.

On October 22, Estonia’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador in Tallinn, Yury Merzlakov, after the Estonian military said the Russian plane had entered its air space.

In a statement, NATO said the Ilyushin-20 was first intercepted by Danish jets when it approached Denmark, before flying toward non-NATO member Sweden.

Intercepted by Swedish planes, the alliance said the Ilyushin entered Estonian airspace for “less than one minute” and was escorted out by Portuguese jets.

NATO has stepped up its Baltic air patrols and Moscow has been accused of several recent border violations in the region amid heightened tensions between Russia and the West over the Ukraine conflict.

Last month, Estonia accused Russia of abducting one of its police officers on the border.

Russia claims Eston Kohver was seized inside Russia on September 5, while Estonian officials say he was captured at gunpoint in Estonia near the border and taken to Russia.

The European Union and United States have called for the immediate release of the Estonian security official, who is facing espionage charges in Russia.

Meanwhile, the Swedish Navy has been searching for a suspected submarine sighted six days ago some 50 kilometers from the capital, Stockholm, although it said on October 22 it was pulling back some of its ships.

Swedish officials have not linked any particular country to the suspected intrusion and Moscow has denied involvement.

(With reporting by Interfax, TASS, and the BBC)


A Moscow court postponed to next week a ruling on a move to take control of Bashneft, an oil company from tycoon Vladimir Yevtushenkov.

The judge said on October 23 that the next hearing will take place on October 30 after the prosecution requested more time to prepare its case.

Prosecutors filed the suit in September to regain state ownership of Bashneft, citing alleged violations in the privatization and subsequent sale of the company to AFK Sistema investment group.

Yevtushenkov, the main shareholder of the conglomerate, is under house arrest on suspicion of money laundering during the firm's acquisition in 2009.

Yevtushenkov, 66, was arrested on September 16.

He is ranked Russia's 15th richest man by U.S. magazine Forbes, with an estimated fortune of $9 billion.

(Based on reporting by Reuters and TASS)

11:11 October 23, 2014


According to a report in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia," deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin told a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi that Western politicians "do not understand the essence of Russia."

"Volodin stated the key thesis about the current state of our country: As long as there is Putin there is Russia. If there is no Putin, there is no Russia," Konstantin Kostin, head of the Foundation for the Development of Civil Society, told "Izvestia."

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