Despite having no strong challenger, the regime of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been aggressively mobilizing its allies to stage counter-demonstrations, wage a pro-Putin media blitzkrieg, and discredit opposition voices. With the largest protest demonstrations since the fall of the Soviet Union and United Russia’s diminished representation in the Duma, it is an “all hands on deck” scenario for Putin allies and those who have benefited in any way from his tenure. In this analysis, both the short and longer-term implications of Putin’s manipulation of the media are explored, including the impact it will have on opposition parties in Russia in the future.Background
Faced with mounting pressure and embarrassing exposure to criticisms, the regime of Russian presidential candidate Vladimir Putin is taking action to discredit, deflect, and mute opposition voices. Putin's United Russia Party initiated a criminal inquiry against Dozhd TV, alleging that the negative coverage of Putin was being funded by foreign elements. Allegations of foreign meddling have been a regular drumbeat of the regime to justify the state’s dominant presence in traditional media.
Two of the only independent members on the board at Echo Moscow Radio were forced out after the station aired harsh criticisms of the government. Echo Moscow is a radio station owned by Gazprom, a state-owned gas company.
Gosdep, a political satire show being aired over MTV Russia, was scrapped by MTV after an outspoken Putin critic and investigative blogger, Alexei Navalny, was invited to appear as a guest. The host of the show was TV personality Ksenia Sobchak who, despite being a celebrity, has considerable political ties as well. According to The Guardian newspaper, Sobchak is famous for being “Russia’s Paris Hilton,” a daughter of a former St Petersburg mayor, and a family friend of Vladimir Putin.
During the disputed parliamentary elections last December, Sobchak had initially taken a tempered stance towards the regime, encouraging dialogue between the government and protesters. More recently, however, she has been more outspoken, even going so far as to appear on stage at an opposition rally to criticize the regime.
Influential blogger Alexei Navalny said in a BBC interview that he believed that the Putin regime rested solely upon its monopoly over traditional media outlets. He went on to say that he did not think that support for Putin could last more than 18 months after “winning” the March 4 presidential elections. Russians, he said, were no longer willing to tolerate the type of election rigging witnessed during the Duma elections last December.
Navalny illustrates how the opposition has adopted an internet-centric political strategy to offset the regime’s monopoly over traditional media. According to The Guardian, Russia now has the highest population of Internet users in Europe, and this has been cited as a contributing factor to the highest turnouts in recent history for anti-government protests.
Putin’s strategy, thus far, has been to avoid a direct confrontation with opposition elements. Calculating, measured, and decisive, Putin’s political acumen reflects his instincts as a black belt judo master. He prefers to deflect criticisms, divide the opposition and stage the environment to play to his strengths. However, there is not a single, credible candidate that can stand toe-to-toe with Putin, not even the incumbent, President Dmitry Medvedev. Politically, this has left Putin in the quixotic position of having to spar without a partner. This only serves to further expose Putin to swarms of criticism that have proven difficult to contain.
Putin and the United Russia party have done their best to adapt to the modern political environment. When the opposition movements stage demonstrations across the country, Putin organizers stage counter demonstrations. When prominent societal figures lambaste Putin, United Russia counterstrikes with a media campaign of prominent cultural icons avowing their adoration for the regime. When Echo Moscow Radio became intolerably critical, the state-owned parent company, Gazprom, moved in and “reshuffled” the leadership. When Dozhd TV gave too much negative coverage of the regime, the United Russia party moved to discredit it by launching an investigation to uncover an alleged foreign influence.
Putin will most likely be elected president in March, returning to the office he held from 2000 to 2008. But he may still lose out in the medium to longer term. Putin will not be able to escape the impression that his third term as president was a contrivance. He anticipated losing seats in the Duma after it came out that he and Medvedev had reached a gentlemen’s agreement for Medvedev step aside for Putin’s reemergence as president. He may not have realized, however, how long this would stick to him politically. What the opposition parties do not have right now–consolidation–they will likely achieve after Putin’s re-election.