There has been a lot of ink spilled in recent years about the supposed fecklessness of the Russian opposition and their purported inability to come up with “new ideas” instead of just complaining (the critics usually use the word “whining”) about Kremlin policies (Kremlin critics usually use the word “abuses”). While there maybe grains of truth in these arguments (personally, I rarely see them), you have to keep in mind the political environment that has emerged in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
A pair of brave political consultants in Saratov has written a book describing how the local United Russia party machine uses a noxious slurry of dirty tricks, illegal activities, and domination of the media to discredit and destroy any politician, businessperson, or anyone else deemed an enemy of the Saratov Oblast United Russia party boss and Duma deputy speaker Vyacheslav Volodin (who just celebrated his 45th birthday on February 4!) .
The book, “The Black PR Practitioners Of The White Bear,” will be published in Moscow soon. As coauthor Sergei Pochechuyev told RFE/RL’s Russian Service, “This is yet another warning about how we cannot have any illusions that power and politics can be moral unless we change the system entirely. Because the politics we show are amoral politics, the politics of moral cripples.”
Pochechuyev and fellow author Igor Osovin are former Saratov political consultants who were directly involved in the dirty politics that they describe in the book and who are now asking forgiveness of those whom they harmed.
Pochechuyev’s description of the way things are done in Russia deserves quoting at length:
At first when a person is identified as a personal enemy of Volodin they initiate a series of negative articles in the mass media. Next those representatives of the public who only imitate the feverish activity of building civil society are activated. These pseudo-activists create paid-for articles in the media that create the necessary public outcry. Or their activities become the excuse for new paid-for articles and television reports. When the number of publications reaches a critical mass, local deputies begin flooding the state organs of the Russian Federation with official inquiries and letters from residents of Saratov Oblast demanding decisive action be taken against the target of Volodin’s attacks, although they produce no real facts that the person has violated the law, because there are no such facts. They merely cite the numerous publications in the media. As a result, authorities higher up in the government form a false image of the real situation in Saratov Oblast. People who are undesirable to Volodin and his entourage and clan are seen in a negative light, which has negative consequences for the political climate inside the region and for the level of decision making here. In short, using such political tactics is a form of disinformation targeting the highest levels of government, which should be considered a premeditated, conspiratorial crime.
The authors of the new book say that in Saratov it costs about 40,000-50,000 ($1,300-$1,700) rubles to place an article in the press and about 75,000 to arrange a roundtable on a particular topic. They say that they personally handled nearly 2 million rubles just in the second half of 2007. As might be expected, the money was all in cash and under the table, not reflected in the party’s financial documents.
The authors described one piquant scene from November 2007 when United Russia disrupted a press conference in support of a local opposition politician by paying a student 18,000 rubles to come into the hall and throw a bucket of animal feces at the journalists. The next day, the local media were flooded with paid stories about the event that asserted it was an opposition trick to “discredit” United Russia. (This “discrediting” tactic is a common one among the Putin crowd – the most offensive example of it being the still-sometimes-heard assertion that investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed by people who wanted to “discredit” Putin; for a good example of this arguing, check out this article.)
This is the context against which claims of “popularity” and “unpopularity” must be measured in Russia. And as the authors correctly note, the distortions of the information environment in Russia also affect the perceptions of the country’s leadership itself. It is hard to imagine how anyone could carry out meaningful reform in Russia without addressing these problems first of all.