20 years under Putin: a timeline

Intellectual Touch

Another instrument of Russian government propaganda are the analytical centers and research institutes, or think tanks, created with a goal of lobbying for the Kremlin’s agenda and providing an intellectual basis for its message.

In the closed political system of Russia, a think tank’s main activity, to a large extent, consists in serving the regime. Some of the most influential Russian think tanks are: the Center for Political Technologies (Igor Bunin), the Institute for Globalization Problems (Mikhail Delyagin), the Institute for Contemporary Development (Igor Yurgens), the Foundation for Effective Politics (Gleb Pavlovsky), the Politika Foundation (Vyacheslav Nikonov).

Apart from these organizations, there are the so-called “talking heads”—public policy experts who articulate certain views in the media at the Kremlin’s request. One of the most active speakers is Sergei Markov, head of the Institute of Political Studies (a quasi-think tank that consists of Markov only) and a member of the Public Chamber. This group, known also as “kremlinologists,” includes Sergei Kurginyan, Mikhail Khazin, Mikhail Leontyev, Olga Kryshtanovskaya, et al. These organizations and people consult the Kremlin on political issues, configure political discourse in favor of the authorities, and develop strategies, argumentation and ways to deliver the authorities’ “message” to the masses.

In 2007, the first Russian think tanks were created abroad following Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Russia-EU summit in Portugal, where he said that “by using grants, the European Union helps to develop similar institutions in Russia… It’s time that the  Russian Federation does the same in the EU.” After that speech, the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation (IDC) was launched, with offices in Moscow, Paris and New York.

In the closed political system of Russia, a think tank’s main activity consists in serving the regime.

IDC’s foreign branches are financed from the Institute’s fund, based in Moscow. The head of the fund’s board of directors is a famous Moscow attorney Anatoly Kucherena, who was one of Putin’s proxies during the 2012 presidential election. Recently, Kucherena became the head of the Public Council of the Interior Ministry, and when IDC was launched in 2008, it was Kucherena who accused Western NGOs (particularly Freedom House) of ideological bias, doing their government’s will and cooperating with the CIA. He also said that his organization would not follow that example. As Nikolay Pakhomov, a senior fellow at IDC's New York branch, explained to IMR, the fund is formed from donations made by Russian companies: “We don't have a dime of government money,” he said.

Natalia Narochinskaya, a former Soviet diplomat and Russian politician, heads the IDC’s European office, while Andranik Migranyan, professor of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, became director of the New York office. It is noteworthy that these two offices have separate websites and their goals vary. For example, the website of the New York IDC states that its mission is to be “a bridge” between Russia and the US, which means providing a platform for dialogue between public organizations, a place where information can be exchanged and for networking. The European IDC’s goal is to foster discussions on the following issues: “the interaction of sovereignty and human rights; the East-West relationship; Russia’s place in Europe; the NGOs’ role in political life; interpretation of human rights and how, in practice, these rights are exercised; the use of historical memory in contemporary politics.”

As Nikolay Pakhomov told IMR, the offices in Paris and New York have their different tasks and for that reason the interaction among them is limited. “We can single out certain projects on which we are working [in New York], and these include: exchanging experience in the area of local government between Russia and the US; investigating the American social system and the protection of human rights; projects in the area of public diplomacy.” At the moment we are also working with the Moscow city government on a study of New York’s experience in resolving problems between different national and religious groups within the population.”

Overall, despite some differences between the two IDC branches, three common work areas can be found. The first is the monitoring of human rights violations in the US and Europe and criticizing their governments for such violations. Inasmuch as Western organizations monitor the human rights situation in Russia and criticize the Russian government for violations, Russia is trying to do the same in the West, even though Human Rights Watch reported that over the many years it has studied the problem, last year was “the worst for Russia” in terms of human rights abuses.

Since 2008, the New York branch of the IDC has been producing annual reports on human rights in the US. In its latest report, for 2012 (the only one available in both Russian and English), the following human rights violations are listed: corruption scandals involving US politicians; lobbying of personal interests; taking advantage of official posts; issues of unequal access to healthcare and education; bans on abortion in some states; illegal immigration; prisoners’ rights; LGBT rights; et al. It should be mentioned that the cases described in the report are real issues, but they are not the result of the US political system. Moreover, the report is based on media publications, which means that these issues are openly discussed.

The second area where the European and American branches of IDC have a common activity is in organizing events to promote the Kremlin’s agenda in the Western intellectual community. For example, the Paris branch held dozens of cultural and political gatherings in the course of its work. Some of these were “neutral” in terms of ideology, as, for example, the presentation of the book Everyday Saints, or a series of events for compatriots’ get-togethers, entitled “St. Petersburg Meetings in Paris.” But the majority of the events had a pronounced political agenda, such as  “Syria: A Challenge for World Diplomacy,” or “Falsification of History and its Political and Ideological Reasons.” The Paris branch also held press conferences where the Institute’s employees would echo the views of the Russian authorities on the recent parliamentary and presidential elections and their criticisms of the Russian protest movement.

According to Nikolay Pakhomov, the New York branch of IDC organizes 10–15 events per year in which policy experts from Russia and the US take part. Some of them take place in Washington DC in partnership with the Center for the National Interest headed by Dmitri Simes.

The third area of common effort is participation in media or other public discussions alongside Western political experts. The heads of both the Paris and New York branches of IDC (Narochnitksaya and Migranyan) publish their op-eds in Western outlets on a regular basis and make comments on radio and TV. Not surprisingly, both in their writings and interviews, their interpretations of events coincide with those of the Russian government.

In her public statements, Natalia Narochnitskaya follows the conservative stance of the Russian Foreign Ministry on the key policy issues, including Syria, Libya, and the former Yugoslavia. She often criticizes the European way of development and plays up the superior features of Russian history and culture. The Russian propaganda toolkit includes exploiting popular topics that put Russia in a good light, such as the USSR’s role in winning the Second World War. In her interviews, Narochnitskaya often claims that the West minimizes Russia’s (that is, the USSR’s) role in the 1945 victory and exaggerates the success of the “American democracy” in that war.

Andranik Migranyan is also a regular contributor to American and Russian publications. In the US, he has published op-eds in the Washington Post, the National Interest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Huffington Post. He has also been heard on CNN and the Voice of America. In his public statements Migranyan supports Vladimir Putin’s policies and presents the Russian president as a successful leader who has no equal. For example, on January 9, 2012, Migranyan published an article entitled “The Anti-Putin Campaign” in the National Interest, in which he accused some members of the Russian political elite (who happened to belong to Dmitri Medvedev’s circle) of attempting to discredit the “national leader.” He also tried to debunk what he called “myths” about the real strength of the protest movement, or about the “Putin-controlled media.”

This March, a new think tank called Center on Global Interests opened in Washington DC. It is headed by Nikolai Zlobin who until recently had been director of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the World Security Institute. The Center’s annual budget is about $1 million, funded primarily by donations from Russian businesses. As Zlobin points out, he embarked on this project because he thinks “it is necessary to eliminate the improvisational approach in politics,” which is widespread in the US, the European Union, and Russia, and to replace it with a strategic vision, which, so far, is lacking everywhere. The Center’s first project is to study the experience of Russia’s chairmanship of the G20 and to produce a report on it by this summer.

According to unconfirmed information, Zlobin acted as an unofficial advisor for the Kremlin and for United Russia party. Certain facts support the notion that he is connected to the Kremlin: since 2004, Zlobin has been a permanent member of the Valdai discussion club (a forum of experts that has Russian government support), and since 2008 he is also a regular participant of the World Political Forum in Yaroslavl, an alternative forum launched by Medvedev. It is noteworthy that Zlobin was among the political analysts who supported Medvedev’s “liberal” line during his presidency. In 2012, he gave a positive assessment of Medvedev’s tenure as head of state.


The Kremlin Pool

Another component of the Russian propaganda machine is a group of organizations under the brand of “Russia House—Kontinent—American University in Moscow,” managed by Edward Lozansky. Its activities include the annual World Russia Forum in Washington DC, and an analytical website us-russia.org.  The website was launched on August 1, 2010, and functioned in parallel with another website of the same organization—america-russia.net—until the latter stopped working in October 2012.

Russian politicians, officials, diplomats, policy experts and members of public organizations known for their loyalty to the Kremlin are usually invited to participate in the World Russia Forum. The participants have included Russia’s Ambassador to the US, Sergei Kislyak; the current head of the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation, Konstantin Kosachev; the head of the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation Andranik Migranyan; Public Chamber member Sergei Markov; and Russia Today editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan. Obviously, these people promote a positive image of Russia, presenting it as a modernizing, dynamically developing country that offers plenty of investment opportunities.


The World Russia Forum is one of the main pro-Kremlin discussion platforms in Washington DC (on right is Edward Lozansky, on left is Ambassador Sergei Kislyak).


A similar agenda has been created for us-russia.org, which it is trying to position itself as a kind of think tank and, in fact, has a Think-Tank section on the website.  The website claims that it aims to create a public platform for discussing US-Russia relations, including for overcoming misinformation and stereotypes spread by the media in both countries.

The website publishes articles by Russian and American political experts, journalists and bloggers who write about Russia, but the majority of these articles are reprinted from other outlets: RIA Novosti, Voice of Russia, Izvestia, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, RT, the Valdai Club’s website, and also Forbes, Foreign Policy, and National Interest.

Overall, the selection and topics of the articles appear biased. First of all, with rare exceptions, the articles are taken from media that are controlled by or loyal to the Kremlin. Secondly, many authors, whose articles are reprinted, support the policies of the Russian authorities. For example, there is an RT interview with Steven Cohen, NYU professor and a prominent sovietologist with a long history of criticizing American policies toward the USSR and Russia.  Most recently, he criticized the Magnitsky Act, calling the US Congress “ignorant” and accusing the White House of “a lack of leadership.” In Cohen’s opinion, this law will antagonize Russia, while the US should be cooperating with Vladimir Putin. Another example is the article by Martin Sieff, editor of The Globalist website. In this piece, entitled “NGOs: Dangerous Self-Righteousness of the West,” he discusses the new Russian law on registering NGOs that receive funding from abroad as “foreign agents.” In Sieff’s opinion, the West should not criticize Russian authorities for their attempts to limit foreign funding of NGOs, because “if an NGO in the US received money from the Russian budget, there would be an outcry.”

Thirdly, us-russia.org reprints posts from bloggers known for their sympathies for the Kremlin. These bloggers include Mark Adomanis (who runs his own blog on Forbes.com), Anatoly Karlin (Da Russophile), and Mark Chapman (The Kremlin Stooge). In the fall of 2012, an e-book entitled Putin’s New Russia was published on the website. It was a collection of articles written by these bloggers (and some others), edited by Jon Hellevig and Alexandre Latza, also pro-Kremlin writers. Some of the titles are quite revealing of this bias: “Welcome to Another Episode of “Who Believes That??” Starring Boris Nemtsov”, or “Yawn. Duma Elections and the Predictability of Western Outrage.”

Finally, the Expert’s Opinion section of the website reprints discussions from the Voice of Russia website (moderated by Vladimir Sobell, professor of NYU in Prague and a co-editor of the analytical website Consensus East-West Europe). The selection of the policy experts and the way the questions are formulated predetermine the course of the discussion, which is reduced to criticisms of the liberal course of the West and emphasis on the Kremlin’s foreign policy successes.

In general, the framework for discourse provided in Lozansky’s projects is limited to supporting the interests of the Russian government and thus can be considered as another component of the propaganda machine. At the same time, based on the very small number of persons viewing the articles (the number is shown next to the article and ranges from 0 to, at most, 200 per piece), the impact of this information is almost zero.


Useless Public Relations

In February, the Russian Foreign Ministry, at the request of Vladimir Putin, adopted a new Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation. The key provision of this document is that Russia has to stand up to an unpredictable and “turbulent” world, in which it serves as an “island of stability and security.” The authors of the Concept suggest that the historical domination by the West is ending, because the potential for strength and development is gradually shifting towards the East. In this situation Russia has the “role of a balancing factor in international affairs and development of the global civilization.”

Some of the priorities of Russian foreign policy are traditional (international security, economic and humanitarian cooperation, arms control), others are new: building of a new polycentric world; protecting the United Nations and defending international legal acts from being “creatively applied;” and “information support” for Moscow’s foreign policy.

37 percent of the American respondents said that the US can trust Russia “not too much,” and 27 percent noted that they cannot trust Russia “at all.”

In terms of “information support,” it is interesting to see how Russia is actually perceived in the world in order to understand whether the country’s aspirations for the role of an “island of stability” are justified or not, and to assess the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s propaganda.

In 2011, Gallup conducted a poll in 130 countries in order to find out whether their populations approved or disapproved of the heads of the five countries—the US, Germany, Great Britain, China and Russia—that aspire for global leadership. The poll showed that in the previous five years Russia’s approval was the lowest out of the five countries, averaging about 28 percent. For comparison, in 2011, Germany had the highest approval—47 percent, with the US (46 percent) as a runner-up. Even China had more than Russia—32 percent.

The polls by Pew Global Research allow us to see how Russia is perceived in the US. In 2012, only 4 percent of the American respondents said that the United States can trust Russia “a great deal,” 23 percent replied “a fair amount,” while 37 percent said “not too much,” and 27 percent noted that they cannot trust Russia “at all” (7 percent were undecided).

Another one of the Pew polls helps to see the change over time of American attitudes towards Russia by measuring the degree of favorability with which Russia is viewed. In the spring of 2012, 5 percent of Americans reported that they had a “very favorable” opinion of Russia, 32 percent had a “somewhat favorable” opinion. 27 percent said that their opinion was “somewhat unfavorable,” and 13 percent replied “very unfavorable.” 24 percent were undecided. A year before, the number of Americans who had a “somewhat favorable” opinion of Russia was much higher – 41 percent, while 22 percent had a “somewhat unfavorable” opinion. In 2010, the ratio was 42 percent to 24 percent, and in 2009, the ratio was least pleasant for Russia: 36 percent to 27 percent.

Finally, in 2008, Pew Global asked the respondents whether they thought the Russian government respected the personal freedoms of Russian citizens or not. 23 percent of Americans responded with a “yes”, and 59 percent gave a negative reply (18 percent were undecided).

From the foregoing data, it is clear that despite the Russian authorities’ enormous financial investment in their overseas propaganda machine, its efficiency is very low, and Russia’s image still requires a serious “facelift.”  The propaganda tools that are being effectively used for domestic Russian consumption do not seem to work for foreign audiences, and even if they do, it doesn’t last long. As soon as the novelty fades away, the ugly truth of the Kremlin’s actual policies comes into sight.  In the modern world, this ugliness can no longer be disguised.

by Olga Khvostunova