Ivan Zassoursky on Wed, 22 Dec 1999 15:06:40 +0300

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Syndicate: Russian elections, Chechen war and media-political system at work

A report on Russian elections follows

=========this is a long message=========

As the votes are counted, the conclusions are drawn. There are no surprises
except for the fact that Russian media-political system was able to achieve
results so surprisingly predictable. But let me explain.

What is media-political system?

Media-political system is a way to describe the complex structure of media
ownership (who owns what). In Russia political system has been nonexistent.
The place of political parties has been taken by a number of media holdings.
Their owners work as powerful political brokers and exercise total control
over the main TV channels.

The structure of Russian media-political system could be described as
consisting of three levels.
First level is politicized media, i.e. those, who work not for profit but
for political influence. Politicized investment has been very important for
Russian media in the 90-ies, so it should not surprise you that these
'non-profit media' are numerous.

The most important is central TV. Two channels (ORT & RTR) are broadcasted
over 99% and 97% of Russian territory. They are both formally controlled by
the state, but in reality ORT information programs are under control by Mr.
Berezovsky. This media mogul owns also a number of important daily
newspapers and weekly magazines + another nationwide TV-network called TV6.

The second level of media-political system is comprised of commercial media.
They are also to a large degree controlled by political investors. But some
of the most important outlets are owned by moguls trying to balance between
profits from political influence and commercial advertising (such as Mr.
Gusinsky, a Murdoch-styled owner of two TV networks, a whole bunch of
on satellite TV + a couple of magazines and a daily newspaper). They are not
as vicious as the first level guys - they don't sell out at parliamentary
elections. They wait for the presidential campaign instead eager to earn a
bonus for their patience.

The third level is regional media. In regions commercial media are rarely
numerous. Most of the TV stations and regional newspapers are controlled by
the governors (usually figures of paternalist appeal) or huge companies
and other powerful investors capable of keeping local journalist corps


Elections-99 were for the State Duma - lower chamber of Russian parliament,
450 seats to be filled by aspiring politicians. The last Duma was controlled
by the communists and their allies (i.e. more than 226 seats). That was a
peculiar result of the presidential campaign of 1996, when Boris Yeltsin was
Presidential campaign follows after that of parliament - after 6 months or
In 1995 the govt then worked hard to promote communists in their
successful attempt to marginilize non-communist candidates for presidential
campaign - Duma is not nearly as powerful as president in this country.
Their plan worked out pretty well - people voted for Boris Yeltsin in the
second round
of elections in spite of everything, simply because there were no other
non-communist politicians to choose from. But that intrigue left a communist
majority in Duma.

Elections-99 were different but in a way very much like those in 1995. They
are also best understood in the contest of presidential campaign (elections
are scheduled for this summer).

As in 1995-1996 privatized property is at stake - those who win the
elections, may distribute the remains of Corporation USSR at will. Yeltsin
in 1995-6 and Putin in 1999-2000 stand as a guarantee that oligarchs will
not go to jail and will keep what they already own (almost everything). As
before, there is a war in Chechnya. But some things are different.

Of all the differences the most important one is that in 1999 Yeltsin and
oligarchs were confronted not only by dispersed opposition and weak leaders,
but also by a powerful Moscow-based clan, headed by Youry Luzhkov (Moscow
major) and ex-prime minister Evgeny Primakov (candidate for presidency).
This clan was represented in the elections by the political party
Fatherland-All Russia (FAR). It was regarded as a favorite for parliamentary
race, because it was built with support from local governors (+ regional
press and TV of course) and had a couple of media holdings to support them
(for example Gusinsky worked for them).

The strategy

The strategy of presidential administration and Putin during the
parliamentary campaign was thus almost the same as that employed four years
ago. Information war on their main enemies + publicity for weak opposition
parties to discredit Primakov and marginalize FAR. A new political movement
Unity was constructed three months before the elections using the same model
as FAR (making some FAR-supporting governors even changed their minds) and
the central TV endorsed it, launching a Soviet-style all-out attack on FAR

Among those supported to marginalize FAR were Unity, The Right Forces Union
(RFU), Zhirinovsky as usual and - to a much greater degree then 4 years ago,
but for the same reason - communists. Poor scapegoats are once again
pushed to continue their hopeless struggle.

The results come with no surprise - they mirror almost exactly the map of
media ownership (corrected according to the PR strategy employed).
Communists, Unity, FAR, Zhirinovsky, The
Right Forces Union and Yabloko passed into the Duma. The idea is that two
fractions (Unity and RFU) will endorse Putin as their candidate. Basically
this is why their campaigns were paid for - to stage a growing cross-party
support for Putin, preparing him for the landslide victory next year.
But destroying other candidates and promoting communists is not enough to
get anybody elected. You have to find a positive issue, at least a single
reason why this or that candidate is ok.

The Chechen war

Nobody knows who blew up all those buildings and why some of the Chechen
rebels invaded Dagestan. But as a result this war started in a totally
different fashion then the first one in 1994. Who could guess that oil
prices would take off as a rocket (letting Putin run as the economics
wizard), so there was no other
issue except for war if Putin was to run.

And war is the ultimate pseudo-event. Press-conferences, pop-conserts and
other gatherings, political scandals etc. - all these features of political
spectacle can be ignored. Except for war. War is the ultimate feature of
political spectacle, one of those methods of persuasion of last resort. No
matter what are the reasons for war, it is impossible to ignore it. You are
drawn into the spectacle, and once you are politicized you can be
manipulated to support the patriotic consensus emerging here - and vote for

Putin is Chechen war and nothing else. Almost everybody I know among
political consultants is already hired to work for him in the next couple of
months. Their job will be to prepare enough 'events' for future media
coverage of this wartime hero. This probably explains why this war receives
such a different coverage here and in the West. Here it is an election issue
supported by the most important media-holdings in Russian media-political

To win Putin needs a definite 'solution' in Chechnya and nothing else. All
the extra incomes from growing oil prices allow this war to drag as long as
needed - at least until some kind of 'victory' can be proclaimed. So far
this war has been regarded as successful revenge here, but if things go
wrong some kind of face-saving formula could be invented during some kind of
negotiations, and peace treaty could be signed before the second round of
presidential elections.

At least that will be the case if Putin stays as popular as he is now, when
nobody really knows a thing about him (he sports astonishing 48% of
potential votes). But the funniest thing is that Yeltsin can always change
his mind and destroy Putin as easily as he was once created, replacing him
with somebody else instead - and things could work out somehow anyway. As
the example of pro-govt Unity movement (built from scratch, 23% of votes)
has shown, existing media-political system and PR-technologies allow to
establish a brand so quickly these days - almost at the speed of broadcast.


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