In this week’s roundup: Russian media report on the political power of the Telegram channels; Konstantin Gaaze explains the Kremlin’s interest in the youth; Dmitri Kamyshev discusses an experimental poll by Levada Center featuring a fake presidential candidate; Tatiana Stanovaya argues that the 2018 elections should not be viewed as predictable; Vladimir Pastukhov offers a political explanation of the Ulyukayev case; New Times profiles Alexander Mamut, who has become one of the influential media magnates in Russia. If you are interested in receiving this weekly roundup in your mailbox every Friday, let us know at info@imrussia.org.

 

Vladimir Putin and Yandex CEO Arkady Volozh at the Yandex headquarters in Moscow. On September 23, Yandex, Russia’s biggest technology company, turned 20. Photo: Mikhail Metzel / TASS.

 

The Political Power of Telegram

  • Earlier this week, Vedomosti reported that the Kremlin and various government officials actively read and monitor channels of Telegram, a popular messenger developed by  Russian-born Pavel Durov (who previously created VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook).
  • According to Medialogy, a media monitoring company, two of the top-3 most popular channels are anonymous (Nezygar and Stalingulag). In many cases, it is not clear who is behind the channel in question, which adds interest and intrigue.
  • Vedomosti notes that for many Russian officials Telegram is currently the place where they can receive signals from various interest groups and their positions on certain issues, especially if it is known who is behind each channel.
  • As Telegram political channels gain momentum among the Russian elites, BMF spoke to political experts and owners of political channels about the costs of political advertising through the messenger.
  • Some media outlets claim that the price tag for one paid post can reach up to 450 thousand rubles ($7,700), but experts view this figure as exaggerated, approximating that an ad placement in one of the top-5 channels would probably cost about 100 thousand ($1,700).

 

Below are the top-10 Telegram political channels as of September 23, 2017

(according to Telegram’s own ratings and data audit)

  1. Nezygar (Незыгарь)  https://t.me/russica2 68,117 followers
  2. Metodichka (Mетодичка) https://t.me/metodi4ka 32,096 followers
  3. Lentach (Лентач) https://t.me/oldlentach 31,808 followers
  4. Venedictov (Венедиктов https://t.me/aavst55 31,478 followers
  5. Murzilka (Мурзилка)  https://t.me/MRZLKVK 27,794 followers
  6. Karaulny (Караульный) https://t.me/karaulny 23,598 followers
  7. Kadyrov (Кадыров)  https://t.me/RKadyrov_95 16,624 followers
  8. Plushchev (Плющевhttps://t.me/PlushevChannel 15,332 followers
  9. Kashin (Кашин)https://t.me/kashinguru 15,245 followers
  10. 338  https://t.me/go338 14,603 followers

 

RBC: The Era of Volunteers: What the Kremlin’s New Youth Politics Means

  • A number of the Kremlin’s recent PR stunts—from Vladimir Putin’s visit to Yandex’s office to rumors that he will announce his nomination for president at the 2017 World Festival of Youth and Students (in October)—seem to suggest that Russian youth are in significant demand in politics.
  • However, journalist Konstantin Gaaze argues that Putin’s recent political gestures were not directed at the youth so that the president could negotiate with them on political matters. Rather, the Kremlin sees an opportunity to mold young people into a model for how they will influence the political picture during Putin’s fourth term.
  • Looking at the demographics, there is no real reason for the Kremlin to focus on the youth. The number of people in the 20- to 34-year-old cohort has declined since 2012, while the number of retirees has grown by 5 million. More importantly, the older a voter, the more likely he or she is to vote for Putin.
  • The Kremlin’s current strategy is important because it is part of First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergei Kiriyenko’s grander vision for Russian politics.
  • In contrast with previous domestic policy curators, Vladislav Surkov and Vyacheslav Volodin, Kiriyenko took on a political system that was in a state of anomie—the low turnout in the State Duma elections a year ago was not a sign of what some experts deemed as “civilized indifference,” but rather of the rapid demise of party politics.
  • In the anemic political climate, Kiriyenko has chosen to build a political system without politics. In this system, the youth will feed into the new political elite, which will lack Soviet and modern Russian political values altogether, knowing only that to perform good deeds is a positive thing.
  • In his recent speech, Kiriyenko paid special attention to the development of non-government organizations and volunteer work. This notion is no smokescreen, notes the author, it’s the actual platform: volunteers will not complement politics, they will replace politics.
  • In conclusion, Gaaze writes that “[t]he utopia will be made of plastic, white-toothed smiles and identical t-shirts worn by young people, each professing that society is more important than the individual.”

РБК, Эпоха волонтеров: что означает новая молодежная политика Кремля, Константин Гаазе, 25 сентября 2017 г.

 

Vedomosti: A Candidate “In A Poke”

  • Journalist Dmitri Kamyshev discusses an experimental poll by the Levada Center. As part of the experiment, pollsters created a fake candidate named Andrei Semenov, who has supposedly been nominated for the 2018 presidential elections and publicly endorsed by Vladimir Putin.
  • The poll, which set out to judge how much the authority of the incumbent president extends into the electoral attitudes of Russians, asked respondents to state whether they are ready to vote for Semenov.
  • Three percent answered that they had heard about Semenov and were planning to vote for him, 8 percent said they knew about the nominee, but had no the desire to vote for him, and 15 percent had not heard anything about him, but were nonetheless going to vote for him. Finally, 63 percent had not heard anything about Semenov and were not planning to vote for him.
  • While the search for Putin’s successor will most likely not begin before 2024, the Levada Center’s experiment illuminates that today in Russia, Putin’s pointing a finger at the desired candidate is enough to garner the support of almost 20 percent of voters. If Putin were to support this candidate, victory would be guaranteed.
  • The Levada Center suggests that the 63 percent of respondents who did not show support for the fake candidate Semenov “are resistant to the pressure of the majority-held position” and to the collective approval of the current government.
  • But Kamyshev comes to another conclusion: first, these Russians are attentive television watchers, and second, if something is not shown on the screen, they know it does not exist. Therefore, if at some point they are shown Semenov next to Putin on television, they will join those who have “heard” of Semenov and plan to vote for him.

Ведомости, Кандидат в мешке, Дмитрий Камышев, 25 сентября 2017 г.

 

Carnegie.ru: Transformation-2018. What Is Changing Putin’s Routine Re-election 

  • Putin has yet to confirm his participation in the 2018 presidential race, but preparations for his re-election have already started.
  • Political commentator Tatiana Stanovaya argues that the 2018 elections should not be treated as too simple or predictable. Rather, it will be a political and strategic test for the system that will lay the foundation for the transition from Putin’s Russia to Russia after Putin.
  • The current preparations differ from the previous ones because Putin’s role has changed: the post-Crimea reality gives him a moral and historical right to treat re-election lightly, as a mere technicality, so to speak.
  • As seen in the September 10 elections, institutions have become less important than procedures, enhancing the significance of strategists and reducing the role of politicians (in the systemic opposition, the ruling party, and the parliament) and of politics in general (in terms of competition and elections as an institution).
  • For the presidential elections, Kremlin strategists are convinced that legitimacy is a result of legality—as long as the elections are done cleanly, without explicit tampering, it will be harder for the real opposition, the liberal public, and the West to question or find fault with them.
  • Putin is set to announce his campaign in November, rather than December, but that the active phase of his campaign will be pushed as close as possible to voting day.
  • The logic behind this apparent contradiction is that the Kremlin’s political strategists want to launch the de facto campaign as soon as possible to lessen the intrigue and tension among the elites, and to make the situation more predictable and manageable. But Putin, tired of all this “democracy,” only has interest in minimizing the personal costs of his campaign.
  • Stanovaya argues that whether Putin will align with United Russia or campaign as an independent candidate will also be extremely important for the Russian electoral system.
  • Running as an independent would be a big step toward depoliticization and the technocraticization of the political sphere. On the other hand, this would make the party’s position and its role in the elections more controversial—support for Putin would become more pluralistic and the role of United Russia could become less exclusive, which could help the Domestic Policy Department gain more control over the majority party.
  • It would also make Putin’s campaign more missionary and allow for more distancing from the elites, creating great potential for staff rotation at the political, state, and corporate levels.
  • Stanovaya concludes that like all previous presidential campaigns of the Putin era, this one is becoming an important milestone in the regime’s development. Not only will these elections cement a new legitimacy for Putin as a ruler who wants his name to go down in history, but they will also offer a glimpse into a new technocratic management model and attempts to adjust the system without Putin’s active participation.

Carnegie.ru, Трансформация-2018. Что меняет рутинное переизбрание Путина, Татьяна Становая, 26 сентября 2017 г.

 

Republic: The Hunter’s Failure. What Sechin Really Wanted in Starting the Ulyukayev Case

  • Political scientist Vladimir Pastukhov analyzes the reasoning behind Igor Sechin’s attack on Aleksei Ulyukayev, explaining why the Ulyukayev case could trigger serious changes in the Russian political system.
  • For Pastukhov, the first week of the Ulyukayev case only confirmed that Sechin had no apparent business rationale to take up arms against Ulyukayev—the economy minister was neither a threat to the privatization of Rosneft nor to Sechin himself. The only explanation of his involvement in such a dubious operation is that Sechin misinterpreted his own reality—what at first may have seemed to be an attack was actually a form of defense.
  • Pastukhov proposes an alternative explanation, one that is not economic, but political. While Sechin has received unlimited financial opportunities as the head of Rosneft, it’s possible that he has become dissatisfied with this unlimited informal power and now seeks official political status. This, Pastukhov believes, is what leads Sechin to commit acts that he would never venture upon under other circumstances.
  • Ulyukayev could not be, and never really was, Sechin’s end goal. Rather, Sechin is becoming nervous because he has begun to think of a Russia without Putin.
  • And without Putin, Sechin’s dreams of official political status will become unrealizable because his proximity to the president has created an unprecedented number of opponents ready to do everything in their power to prevent him from ever gaining a spot in the future Kremlin.
  • No less problematic is that if anything happened to Putin, Dmitry Medvedev—Sechin’s main opponent—would automatically replace him.  
  • Regarding Sechin’s involvement in the Ulyukayev case, Pastukhov describes the Rosneft head as a “revolutionary of the apparatus.” Thus, the real point of Ulyukayev’s arrest was to catalyze the resignation of other government figures, which in turn would lead to the reformatting of the entire elite, finally providing Sechin a way out of his economic blockade and into politics.
  • Pastukhov concludes that the Ulyukayev case demonstrates that the elite can no longer live by old habits. Еlements of a new revolutionary situation are quickly forming in Russia, and the idea that the country can be controlled through terror alone is gaining traction.
  • But if there is to be a shift, Putin wants to be in charge of it, not stand on the sidelines of Sechin’s game. Sechin calculated everything correctly, but did not make his goal.

Republic, Неудача охотника. Чего на самом деле добивался Сечин, начиная дело Улюкаева, Владимир Пастухов, 23 сентября 2017 г.

 

New Times: The Fear and Сonscience of Alexander Mamut

  • Journalist Olga Proskurnina profiles Alexander Mamut, once known as a “Kremlin cashier” and now a media magnate who owns two of the largest cinema networks in Russia—Formula Kino and Cinema Park. Initially a young partner of oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich, Mamut grew to become “the leading censor of Russian media and film.”
  • Until now Mamut’s political intuition and caution have not failed him, but recently his cinema network fell under media scrutiny after the businessman took the decision to suspend screenings of Alexei Uchitel’s new film Mathilda.
  • While supposedly made in the interest of security following threats from Orthodox activists, the move was unprecedented and raised suspicions that the authorities were behind Mamut’s decision.
  • Proskurnina looks back on Mamut’s career, which illuminates his ties to the government and provides some measure for his current and potential influence. The businessman started out as a lawyer and in the nineties co-founded Imperial Bank, to which Gazprom became a client. During this time, Mamut provided legal assistance to Boris Berezovsky and impressed the oligarch with his grasp of complex financial issues.
  • Mamut then befriended Berezovsky’s partner Roman Abramovich and began to voluntarily serve as an economic adviser to the head of the presidential administration, Alexander Voloshin.
  • In 2013, Mamut combined his media business with that of another oligarch, Vladimir Potanin, merging Rambler-Afisha and SUP Media, which is the blog host for LiveJournal, Gazeta.ru, and Lenta.ru. Mamut is now the sole owner of both SUP Media and Rambler&Co.  
  • In an interview, Mamut said that freedom is an internal state and that he enjoyed being free even in Soviet times. But his actions over the last few years sow doubt of his love of freedom.
  • In 2014, Mamut fired Lenta.ru’s editor-in-chief, Galina Timchenko, over an interview with one of the leaders of Ukraine’s Right Sector (Timchenko and other former employees then founded Meduza.io). She was replaced by Aleksei Goreslavsky, former editor-in-chief of the pro-Kremlin Vzglyad who now works in the presidential administration.
  • In another interview, Mamut said that if a fundamental cultural environment is absent in Russia, fighting for power will not lead to the formation of a new model. This environment that Mamut envisions is likely still lacking, therefore he is forced to follow the rules of whatever model is currently in place in Russia.

Новое Время, Страх и совесть Александра Мамута, Ольга Проскурнина, 24 сентября 2017 г.

 

BONUS

In light of a new wave of resignations of Russian governors this week, Minchenko Consulting released a new report titled “Politburo 2.0: The Governor Corps”:

  • The authors argue that the elite factor dominates the decision-making process on staffing issues.
  • Massive rotations in the governor corps is inherent to the elite regrouping before the presidential elections.
  • The role of the so-called Politburo 2.0 (the company’s model describing the hierarchy of elite members around Vladimir Putin) in matters of personnel increased in 2016-2017.  

 

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