TV tactics win Putin new term

by Tina Burrett

On March 10, thousands of Muscovites took to the streets for a fourth time in as many months to protest against fraudulent elections. Protesters held placards demanding “Russia without Putin.” But this rally was smaller and quieter than previous anti-Putin protests.

The reason for the dwindling numbers of protesters is clear: On March 4, Putin won a third presidential term with nearly 64 percent of the vote. For now, Putin’s grip on power remains firm.

To secure victory, Putin deployed three tried and tested tactics perfected over previous presidential campaigns: manipulating the media, maligning political opponents and mobilizing voters’ fears and prejudices.

The social and generational divide between Putin and his detractors is well illustrated by their chosen channels of communication. While the opposition protest movement relies on Internet-based social networking and video-sharing sites, Putin utilizes television. Partly, the opposition’s choice of medium is dictated by necessity, with the state and its proxies controlling all five of Russia’s main television channels.

Media monitoring of election coverage by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights found that television coverage clearly favored Putin. Extensive, positive coverage was given to Putin’s activities as both prime minister and presidential candidate.

State-owned Channel One, Russia’s most popular network, gave 61 percent of news coverage to Putin. Two private broadcasters allocated 69 percent and 88 percent of coverage to Putin, virtually ignoring other candidates. In addition, over 25 documentaries were broadcast revering Putin’s achievements, while reminding viewers of the decade of political and economic turmoil in Russia before he took office in 2000.

The documentary “Bridge over an abyss,” broadcast Feb. 1, for example, shows 1990s footage of smirking oligarchs, striking coal miners and a clownish President Boris Yeltsin, accompanied by a voice-over crediting Putin with preventing Russia’s disintegration and delivering unprecedented levels of economic growth.

The heavy-handed propaganda meted out on Russian television during the presidential election campaign failed to deter anti-Putin protesters, many of whom were only children in the chaotic 1990s. But the young, middle class Muscovites who constitute the bulk of Putin’s opposition were not television’s intended audience. Moscow is becoming a different country from the rest of Russia, separated by its divergent political and social values.

Putin won a third term on March 4 by largely ignoring the protesters and concentrating on voters in Russia’s hinterlands, where he retains support.

Part of Putin’s winning strategy lay in highlighting the growing differences between urban intellectuals in the capital and voters in the rest of Russia. On television talk shows, journalists and politicians associated with the Kremlin played on fears that the current protests will lead to instability and even civil war.

Speaking on Channel One show “Freedom and Justice” on Jan. 31, television host Mikhail Leontyev suggested that “if rallies cannot resolve issues in a country like Russia, weapons will.” The same program featured Igor Kholmanskikh, a factory worker from provincial Russia made famous during a televised phone-in with Putin in December, in which Kholmanskikh promised that he “and the lads” were ready to “come and stand up for stability” against the anti-Putin protesters.

Television remains the most important information source in Russia- 70 percent of Russians get their news from it. Throughout Putin’s first two presidential terms, anti-government demonstrations — which rarely attracted more than a few hundred protesters — were largely ignored by television channels loyal to the Kremlin.

The rallies that have taken place in Moscow since parliamentary elections in December have been too visible to be airbrushed out of television news. From January, news programs that at first stayed silent on the protests began to include updates on anti-Putin rallies.

Opposition politicians and protest leaders were invited to engage in televised debates with government spokesmen. On Jan. 29, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who in the past has been arrested for protesting against Putin, made his first appearance on NTV in five years.

In allowing the opposition access to television, the Kremlin took a calculated risk. Russia’s opposition are deeply divided, with little in common except their dislike of Putin. In televised discussions, opposition politicians and activists quickly turned on each other, leaving Putin’s team looking organized and united in comparison.

Nemtsov, for example, used his first television appearance in half a decade to accuse presidential hopeful and fellow liberal Mikhail Prokhorov of being a Kremlin stooge.

Prokhorov was not the only opposition figure charged with having hidden allies. Accusations of covert connections with the U.S. State Department were repeatedly leveled at anti-Putin protesters by journalists on state-controlled television.

Putin’s willingness to oppose U.S. foreign policies impinging on Russian interests is central to his popularity with ordinary voters. A legacy of anti-American Cold War rhetoric continues to play well with the core of Russian society.

Meetings between opposition figures and Washington’s new ambassador in Moscow were the subject of negative commentary and innuendo on several news programs aired during the presidential election campaign. In one program broadcast on Ren-TV, the U.S. was accused of acting to provoke a Ukrainian-style “orange revolution” designed to “break up the Russian Federation and create in its place many small ethnic states dependant on Washington’s will.”

In another report, the U.S. was cited in connection with videos showing violations at Russian polling stations during parliamentary elections in December. A spokesman for the official committee investigating allegations of vote rigging noted that “all the edited videos were distributed from a single server based in California.” He failed to mention that California is home to YouTube, the site onto which most of the polling station videos were uploaded.

In allowing his opponents limited television coverage, Putin strengthened the power of television as a propaganda tool in his service. A total absence of criticism of Putin would point to censorship and undermine the legitimacy of any information conveyed by television.

Now that the presidential election is over, Putin’s opponents are again disappearing from Russia’s television screens. They are unlikely to disappear quite so easily from Russia’s streets.

Tina Burrett is an assistant professor of international relations at Temple University, Japan.