The Institute of Modern Russia is launching a series of publications that will be focused upon the operation of the propaganda machine within the system of power constructed by Vladimir Putin. In this first installment, IMR experts analyze the layout, content, and efficacy of propaganda geared toward “domestic consumption”—that is, toward sustaining the popularity of the regime and its leader among Russian voters.
On Saturday, October 20, 2012, amid the usual paucity of weekend news, the Presidential Press Office announced the creation of a special directorate within the Presidential Administration to manage “social projects.” Officially, the new entity will be in charge of “patriotic education” of Russian citizens; unofficially, it will oversee propaganda-related projects in the cultural sphere, which includes cinema, music, and so on.
The processes of formation and promotion of a propagandistic agenda within the country are becoming increasingly complex and tightly controlled. Thus, propaganda is being designed to deal with more and more aspects of society.
The Center in the Kremlin
The Presidential Administration is the central locus where propaganda strategies and concepts are produced. Within these headquarters, there are several competing centers of influence. The dominant position among them, which has general oversight of all the groups, is occupied by Vyacheslav Volodin, the President’s First Deputy Chief of Staff. His mindset is that of a regional-level party hack (tellingly, he maintained considerable influence in his bailiwick, Saratov Region, even after having made a career in federal government). Volodin emerged on the political stage at a time when the Kremlin was busy destroying its chief opponent in the 1999 parliamentary elections, the Fatherland-All Russia (FAR) Alliance, led by former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. This highly assertive coalition of regional elites and moderated leftists was countered with the hastily cobbled Unity Bloc. Government-controlled national TV worked hard to pump up Unity’s image while at the same time pursuing a strategy of character assassination against Luzhkov. Volodin was actually in the ranks of the FAR prior to the elections, but after its defeat and subsequent incorporation into the Unity bloc (renamed the United Russia), he promptly switched to the winner’s side.
For Volodin, the knack for identifying “the right” political allies became one of the prime determinants of his political longevity and meteoric career. Having distanced himself from Luzhkov, Volodin built working relations with then-Kremlin Deputy Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov (the principal ideologue of the Kremlin’s “sovereign democracy”), and by 2008 became one of the most influential apparatchiks of the ruling party. Yet as Surkov began to lose Putin’s confidence (due, among other things, to his rapprochement with new President Dmitry Medvedev), Volodin’s relations with the Kremlin’s eminence grise began to sour and eventually became adversarial. The final “divorce” between the two became official in 2010 with Volodin’s appointment as then–Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Chief of Staff. After that, Putin’s Cabinet became the locus of formation of a political management center that rivaled Medvedev’s Kremlin and functioned until Putin’s return to the presidency. Volodin was behind the idea of forming the All-Russian People’s Front that served as the cornerstone of Putin’s election campaign at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012.
In December 2011, twelve days after a 100,000-strong opposition rally on Bolotnaya Square – and four days before his departure from the Presidential Administration – Surkov made a curious comment: in an interview with Izvestiya, he stated that “certain influential people” were blocking the path of democratization of Russia’s political life. In the same interview, he noted that some in Russia’s government count on opposition activities petering out and the possibility of slowing down reforms: “Some may think that nothing needs to be done, that there was no reason to worry. That the problem again miraculously solved itself. And again they start procrastinating, postponing reforms until better times, as it was done before, or emasculating them.” Surkov’s words were likely a hint at Volodin, who would soon replace him as the Kremlin’s First Deputy Chief of Staff.
The Presidential Administration is the central locus where propaganda strategies and concepts are produced.
Surkov’s forecast proved completely true: unlike his predecessor, Volodin was not accustomed to building complex coalitions and multistep strategies in implementing propagandistic scenarios. Instead, he simply appoints his own people wherever he is allowed to—first and foremost, at the Domestic Policy Directorate in the Presidential Administration and within the “party of power.” And yet Volodin is not immune to competition: in recent times, his rivals in the Kremlin have started gaining clout, engaging in bureaucratic turf wars and accruing one victory after another. As a result, Volodin’s closest ally, Dmitry Badovsky, was forced to leave his job as deputy chief of the Domestic Policy Directorate. He now works at the Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, which was set up for the purpose of producing the All-Russian People’s Front program for the parliamentary and presidential elections, but failed to achieve this aim (as a result, United Russia’s campaign was managed from the Kremlin, while the election program was written by Putin’s public relations specialists—Volodin and Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov).
The establishment of the Directorate for Social Projects in the Presidential Administration turned out to be yet another of Volodin’s bureaucratic failures. The Directorate’s task was to work on “the strengthening of the moral foundations of Russian society, perfecting government policy in the area of patriotic education, development and implementation of significant societal projects in this realm.” The post of Directorate chief went to Pavel Zenkovich, previously deputy chief of the Domestic Policy Directorate. This appointment was intriguing: as recently as a few months ago, Zenkovich was profiled by Gazeta.Ru as an alleged critic of the hardline approach to suppressing the opposition—the approach that many see Volodin as personifying. In voicing this critique, Zenkovich relied upon his ideological alliance with Surkov, who is now Deputy Prime Minister in Medvedev’s Cabinet.
Gazeta.Ru’s anonymous sources identified Surkov as the leader of the “moderate” faction in the establishment. They also portrayed him as clearly a more efficient manager than Volodin. One inside source close to the Presidential Administration forecast that Surkov “took time out, but the game isn’t over yet. They are waiting until the strategy chosen by the Administration will drive it into a blind alley. This may take another year.” These kinds of rumors and leaks suggest that the Kremlin’s excessively hardline policy with regard to dissenters is viewed with skepticism in the Cabinet. Moreover, there is some evidence of the launch of a careful information offensive by the Surkov group against Volodin—a move that could hardly have happened without the Prime Minister’s approval. It is in this context that the issue of a possible replacement of the Medvedev government before the end of 2012 has been actively debated in the Russian establishment.
Surkov "took time out, but the game isn’t over yet".
The clout of Volodin’s ideological opponents is growing: according to Gazeta.Ru, this movement is being orchestrated by Peskov, who heads yet another center of influence within the Administration that enjoys autonomy vis-à-vis Volodin. Where precisely the Peskov-Zenkovich combination will lead may be too early to judge, especially given that the creation of the new Directorate corresponds to Volodin’s strategy of suppressing the opposition and moving the regime in a more hardline direction. As well-informed sources have noted, the Directorate for Social Projects will take over the functions of the former Department of Humanitarian Policies and Public Relations; this department was previously headed by Ivan Demidov and was eliminated after Surkov’s departure from the Administration. According to Gazeta.Ru’s source, “If the Domestic Policy Directorate will remain in charge of working with political parties and elections at all levels, then Zenkovich’s Directorate will be in charge of working with the media and public opinion, as well as the implementation of its own projects in this area.” Another Gazeta.Ru source close to the Administration speculated that the new unit was going to develop its own system of grant-making to replace the support offered by USAID before its recent expulsion from Russia.
Volodin’s right hand is Oleg Morozov, chief of the Domestic Policy Directorate, who took this job in May 2012 after leaving the position of Deputy Speaker of the Duma. Morozov cannot be considered an ideologist; rather, he is a skilled bureaucrat with no record of conflicts, capable of finding common ground with every influence group. After Morozov’s appointment, a Kremlin-connected source emphasized that this decision implied a transitioning of the Administration from direct involvement in public politics to a policy of “modeling”: “This is a reflection of the return of our politics to openness.” According to this source, Morozov “is an experienced politician with an extensive record of public politics, strong ties to the regions, and an excellent grasp of inter-ethnic relations.” This comment may be viewed as an attempt by the Volodin camp to rebuke the accusations of curtailing public politics and reducing transparency in the work of the Presidential Administration. However, after half a year of Morozov’s work in the Administration, the situation in regard to transparency and public debate has only deteriorated.