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Russian TV Backed Trump In 2016. In 2020, It's Zeroing In On Tensions In A Tight Race


“There is no ‘best candidate’ for Russia in the United States,” says political analyst Aleksei Pushkov.

MOSCOW -- November 4 in Russia is Unity Day, a state holiday filled with official events that celebrate the country's multiethnic makeup. This year, it coincides with the nail-biting vote count in a hotly contested U.S. presidential election that has thrown American political divides into sharp relief.

Russian state TV and government officials have made the most of the tension surrounding the race, using it to bring home a Kremlin narrative that depicts U.S. democracy as a deeply flawed, chaotic, and potentially explosive process.

"We wish our American friends a bit of that same national unity that we’re celebrating in Russia today," a presenter on flagship state news channel Rossia-24 quipped in the morning, as results from various U.S. states continued to trickle in and the outcome of the election remained uncertain.

Four years ago, channels like Rossia-24 were pumping out reports lauding Donald Trump, then a presidential candidate who pledged to improve relations with Russia and spoke critically of sanctions imposed over Moscow's military interference in neighboring Ukraine.

This year, with a longer-than-usual vote count and the prospect of court battles adding to anxiety over an election already complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, the focus from pro-Kremlin media and public commentators was on another theme familiar to Russian audiences: the uncertainty -- cast as chaos by some pundits and presenters -- that comes with U.S. democracy.

Following unrest earlier this year that was sparked in part by anger over police killings of unarmed black Americans, and businesses in some U.S. cities preparing for the possibility of election-related violence, Russian state TV shows appeared to accentuate the possibility that things could get out of control -- in several cases seeming to even revel in the idea.

Then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (right) meets with then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in Moscow in March 2011.
Then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (right) meets with then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in Moscow in March 2011.

"I don't know who dislikes this. For me, it's wonderful!" Russian lawmaker Aleksei Zhuravlyov on the popular talk-show 60 Minutes on November 3, citing real past incidents of looting on U.S. streets as well as imaginary violence while video clips played on a large screen behind him. "I love it!"

On November 1, a reporter for Russia's state-run First Channel walked past the boarded-up entrance of a department store in New York City. "The big question in Manhattan now is not 'Trump or Biden?'" he said. "It's, 'Will they start looting?'"

Workers put plywood over windows of stores in New York City as a precaution against potential damage from election-related protests on November 2.
Workers put plywood over windows of stores in New York City as a precaution against potential damage from election-related protests on November 2.

And on Election Day in the United States, a headline in the Kremlin-friendly, mass-circulation tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda asked, "Is an American civil war likely after November 3?"

Throughout Vladimir Putin's more than two decades as president or prime minister, the Kremlin's message to Russians has been that he restored political stability following a turbulent decade ushered in by the Soviet collapse of 1991. Comparisons with the United States, where the realistic prospect of presidential power changing hands occurs every four years, have for years been a central theme for the TV channels that bolster Putin's position in Russia.

That has not changed this year, after Putin secured constitutional amendments that will allow him to seek two more six-year presidential terms after his current Kremlin stint ends in 2024.

But there are two sides to the narrative. Russian government critics and Kremlin opponents point to the uncertainties locked into the U.S. system as a potential strength, not an inherent weakness. A popular joke has one Russian saying to another, "The U.S. election is tomorrow, and their system is so imperfect they don’t even know who will win."

As results came in following the closure of polls in the United States, a Russian comedian captured the whipsaw effect of watching the counting process play out -- and contrasted it with a glimpse of how future Russian elections could conceivably play out.

"USA: 8 p.m. Biden, 9 p.m. Trump, 10 p.m. Biden, 11 p.m. Trump, 12 a.m. Biden, 6 a.m. ???" a post on the Twitter account of Alexander Thorn said. "Russia: 2000 Putin, 2030 Putin."

Not all Russians were watching that closely, though -- or watching at all.

In 2016, Trump's praise of Putin and his promises to improve ties with Russia made him the favorite for the Kremlin over Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state whom Putin accused of helping foment anti-government protests in Moscow in 2011. Some Russians held election night parties in his honor in the Russian capital, celebrating his unexpected win.

But Trump's efforts to warm up ties with Russia were hobbled from the start, after U.S. intelligence agencies announced their determination that Moscow meddled in the 2016 election and amid concern about other Russian activities abroad. And the picture was more clouded this time -- both for the Kremlin and for many ordinary citizens, polls suggest.

Analysts say the prospects for a substantial improvement in ties is slim under either Trump or Biden, and a recent poll found that almost two-thirds of Russian believe U.S. policies toward Russia won't change regardless of who wins.

Still, as the vote count continued on November 4, some politicians and pundits who support Putin made clear they were gunning for Trump.

"There is no 'best candidate' for Russia in the United States," Aleksei Pushkov, a political analyst and frequent critic of the West who is also a member of the upper house of parliament, wrote on Twitter.

But Biden, he said, had "displayed anti-Russian reflexes more than once. His administration would be ideologized and obsessed with 'values.' Trump has avoided conflict with Russia. Biden is more dangerous."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based correspondent for RFE/RL covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. Before joining RFE/RL in 2018, he reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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