Sunday, September 10, 2006

Putin's Presidential Pseudo-News

Putin will not run for a third presidential term in 2008. This is a message that he has been repeating every other month over the past years. Still, it was one of the top stories of international media today. Why is it that this is considered so important news as to reach the headlines of respected news sources throughout the globe next to every time that Putin says he will step down from power in 2008? The answer might be that this is the effect of a well-orchestrated media-coup by Putin's political spin-doctors - the political technologists.

News should always be considered critically by those who receive it. What essentially constitutes news should also be filtered by those whose profession it is - journalists and editors. As the mere term indicates, news should also present something new to its audience. How is it then that something which is news to nobody is repeatedly treated as such?

Should not any journalist in his sound mind defer from reporting what everyone already knows: That Putin does not want to remain Russia's president after 2008. On the contrary, if Putin would declare that he will run for a third presidential term and thus change the constitution, then it would be news of great significance. Until then, this is not the case.

Putin's repeated denial of furher presidential ambitions is perhaps - paradoxically - the main reason why journalists are so susceptible to this message. A climate has been created in which Putin's statement of facts becomes a crescendo of denials in anticipation of the orgiastic eruption when he finally comes out of the closet: "Yes, I will run for a third term! Yes, I will change the constitution! Yes, I cannot live without power! Yes, I am dizzy with success!" Putin's "No" becomes a resounding "Yes!!!" in the ears of media and the public.

That journalists and political analysts alike miss to comprehend Putin's "No" is partly explained by all the rumours that have reverberated throughout Moscow over the years. The question whether Putin will stay in power after 2008 has been a recurrent theme in all political discussions. Still, the answer has been the same all along, namely that the president respects the constitution and thus has no ambtion to change the fact that his tenure of power will end once his term runs out. So, rumours to the opposite must originate from somewhere else. One source might be the president himself by proxy of his "political technologists."

Why might this be the case? Putin has set before himself three tasks: to create and maintain political stability, produce economic growth, and gain control over strategic resources. Here, political stability is perceived a prerequisite for the latter two. In the political area, it is in the best interest of power that a climate of uncertainty prevails on whether Putin will continue in power. As long as this is the case, potential contenders will keep a low profile and nobody of significance will challenge Putin as long as he retains apparent popular support. Thus, Putin avoids running the risk of becoming a lame duck, and his political succession may be handled in an orderly manner by the Kremlin entourage that forms his basis of power. A measure of uncertainty for the public thus becomes an instrument of certainty for power, and thus the political tools for developing economic growth and gaining control over strategic resources is maintained.

Personally, it actually appears that Putin is weary with power and the constant obligations it involves. Associates at times describe him as disinterested with the chores of his office, allocating an increasing amount of time to activities normally not associated with the exercise of power. Also, Putin does not seem to be the sort of politician that thrives on power - to the opposite of what is often claimed in view of his extremely power-oriented policies.

Here also his KGB-background is regarded a reason why Putin would cling on to power, because KGB by essence epitomises power. To assume so may however be to miscomprehend the Chekist culture from which Putin originates. Chekist power tradition sets the system before the individual, and if Putin is true to these ideals he will also be loyal to the constitution as long as power to the system is ensured. His lack of ethics might also be construed in a Chekist context and not as evidence of self-perpetuating personalised authoritarian power.

Finally, why would Putin want to risk another period in office? His presidency has been more successful than what he himself might have imagined. Putin has restored the Russian state as an important actor both domestically and internationally. The country's economy thrives on the enormous incomes from oil, and a measure of stability has been restored to society. Why should Putin risk jeopardising an apparently favourable judgement as the great restorer of the Russian nation that the Russian people and history might pass on him, when the future is uncertain?

So, the question should perhaps be rephrased: "Why should Putin not step down from power in 2008?" So far, few substantial reasons have been presented why he should stay in power, so the assumption must naturally be that he will leave office.

Still, international media continues to report that Putin will leave power in 2008, in the anticipation that somewhere along the line he will change his mind. This does not only mean that the press runs the risk of a gigantic anticlimax once Putin actually leaves office. It above all serves the interests of Kremlin's perpetuation of authoritarian power while preventing democratic debate on the future of Russia. Wherever you turn, it seems that laughs will be on Putin in 2008, if he continues to pull off this game of ambiguities.

Comment: The full text of Putin's appearance is available at Financial Times.


Rikard said...

Seems like a very important point you are making with long-term consequences.

You write: "It above all serves the interests of Kremlin's perpetuation of authoritarian power while preventing democratic debate on the future of Russia."

I'm interested in what specific mechanisms and strategies the Kremlin employs to make this happen. Do you think, for instance, that the Kremlin's "Valdai Discussion Club" plays any part in this favorable barrage of publicity that you describe (it is where the Kremlin invites a number of foreign commetators to travel to Russia each year at Kremlin expense to be wined and dined and hobnob with bigwigs in the administration)? Is it a successful propaganda ploy?

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Rikard,

I think this is a matter of simple psychology. If someone says "I'm not guilty" or "I didn't do it", most people assume exactly the opposite. This is a well-established psychological mechanism, which in a situation where there are few alternatives is further emphasised.

Political spin-doctors in any country would use such an opportunity to the best of their abilities and Russia is no exception. It is such a basic psychological technique that next to anyone who has ever been engaged in politics knows it. It does not need any specific mechanisms in addition to Kremlin's overall policy to keep political stability.

That the business of state information and indoctrination has had a renaissance in Russia should come as no surprise, but I do not think that this specific phenomenon is an exponent of them. Kremlin's Valdai meetings is just another venue for getting one's message across, but I do not see it as an extraordinary instrument in addition to state information and PR, even if the assortment of journalists is much more exclusive than ordinarily.

The matter of fact is much more simplistic in the reiteration of a standpoint carrying over a directly opposite message. Still, western and Russian media repeatedly fall into this pit, and thus gives Putin an opportunity to hammer in a message, which only strengthens the impression that one day the answer will be the opposite. By now, the post-2008-issue has become an household question to Putin and the mechanism that has thus been activated has gained a life of its own.

Having seen this for years, I cannot but become irritated that distinguished and well-respected journalists seem to not understand what they are doing when repeatedly playing into the hands of Russian power interests. They simply come across as amateurs and not as the skilled professionals they are in most other contexts. The cynicism of it all is that many journalists probably exactly understand what is at play, but still report on it as they know that everyone else will and that their story will be published in contrast to many other that simply end up in some drawer. If they would not report on it, their home offices would probably ask them why they have not covered the story when everyone else does. So, I do not think that the Putin 2008 issue needs some great conspiratorial explanation. It is simply a matter of basic psychology and the terms for media reporting that Kremlin spin doctors use to the best of their abilities in the symbiotic relationship between media and power that has become a hallmark of modern political journalism.