RT Expert View: In the eye of the beholder, part 2

This week we continue discussing the perception of Russia’s political life by the Western media. How has the prospect of extending the country’s presidential term become the stuff of headlines?

Peter Lavelle, RT's political commentator and anchor

This week Russia’s leading government officials focused on how the country was faring through the current financial downturn. Their message was that the government understands what to do and has the resources to do what is necessary.

However, foreign media coverage was far more interested in Dmitry Medvedev’s call to have the presidential term limit changed from 4 years to 6 years. Why is this subject such a fascinating topic for foreign media? Aren’t Russia’s election laws simply an internal issue? Or is there something else afoot? Showing Vladimir in a negative light is a sure and easy sell.

Patrick Armstrong retired in 2008 after 30 years as an analyst for the Canadian government, specialising in the USSR and then Russia.

In Western media coverage of Russia, one should never rule out ill will. We know that Berezovsky is doing everything he can to bring down the government; we know that Saakashvili and other interested parties hire PR firms to shape opinion. Many of Russia’s neighbours like to describe the communist period as Russian imperialism (perhaps so that their own nation’s contributions are downplayed) and that fits the Russia-as-eternal-enemy prejudice in many circles in the West.

And Moscow is startlingly inept at public relations, being alternately too frank or too opaque. Russia lacks transparency and one can never be sure if a foreign institution really hasn’t paid its taxes or is the victim of a power-play by the Kremlin.

But one of the contributing factors is that the MSM likes to keep its stories simple. It is just easier to write that Russia uses its near-monopoly on gas supplies to keep its neighbours in line than to go into the long boring detail of comparative prices, pipelines, bad feelings, non-payments and non-deliveries that stretch back to the end of the USSR. But the truth is in the details. The simple story wins: in the 1990s the simple story was that Russia is becoming just like us (under our wise tutelage) and now the simple story is that it isn’t.

And one of the easiest things of all is the neo-Kremlinology that reduces Russia to the actions of a few leaders. No research is required in another, soon forgotten, speculative piece that Putin is going to stay on. The people to interview are on the Rolodex the reporter inherited from his predecessor (most of whom said exactly the same things about Yeltsin or Gorbachev, come to think of it). The story practically writes itself. It is easy and it fits the prejudice of the day. It also allows the reporter or editor to pose as a historian: “No Russian leader has ever left power voluntarily…” began many a portentous head-scratcher in the Yeltsin times (who, by the way, was the first German leader to leave voluntarily?)

Perhaps, however, this desire for stories that can be summed up in a simple sentence is starting to work in Russia’s favour. The Western MSM bought Tbilisi’s account of the August war: Russia invaded Georgia. But another, equally simple – much simpler indeed – story is emerging in testimonies of OSCE observers et al: Georgia invaded Ossetia. Tbilisi’s story is now becoming the complicated one: telephone intercepts mysteriously lost, villages that may or may not have been within earshot of OSCE observers in Tskhinval, KGB plots to influence editors.

But laziness and deadline pressure will always produce more Neo-Kremlinology; stories that are easy to write that fit the simple story line. No one remembers all the failed examples of the past. The reliance on the easy story and the Gadarene rush to report what all the other media outlets report is one of the reasons why the MSM is shedding readers, advertisers and stock value.

Sergei Roy, editor, www.guardian-psj.ru.

I sometimes envy Western correspondents who write about Russia the ease and comfort attendant on their job. Their formula is as simple as pie: blackwash anything that happens or does not happen in this country, and your copy will be a sure and easy sell. If the facts of real life interfere with the blackwashing process, ignore them, or invent your own – plainly speaking, tell lies, however brazen and absurd. Actually, the more brazen and absurd, the better. The Goebbels formula.

If you think this an exaggeration, I suggest we go through just one such epic, one of a zillion written in the same spirit – the Daily Telegraph’s Moscow correspondent Adrian Blomfield’s piece “Russia's crumbling economy provides stiffest test yet for autocratic leader” in DT’s 17 Nov 2008 issue (see at www.telegraph.co.uk). Practically every sentence in this exercise is either a direct lie or some other trick in the propaganda warfare bag of tricks.

What evidence does the author provide for his scary phraseology about a “crumbling economy”? Here goes: “Russia's own stock markets have been the world's worst performers, with share prices falling by 75 per cent since the summer.” The world’s worst performers? Man, have you heard of basket cases like Iceland, Ukraine, the Baltics, Hungary, and others lining up for aid from the IMF? We here in Russia have forgotten how to spell IMF – yet we are said to be “crumbling”!

OK, Russia’s stock market has not been too healthy – just like some others one could name, given that the crisis is global and coming as it does from you-know-where. But equating the stock market, with its soap bubbles, “toxic derivatives,” money out of the air and its overall Las Vegas spirit, with what is generally referred to as the “real economy” is just a propaganda trick. Blomfield never mentions the fact that very, very few Russians are shareholders, even fewer have had anything to do with stock market games, and that the absolute majority of them are just like me – without any access to or interest in the stock market. What immediately and vitally concerns millions of Americans, with shares on their hands losing value by the day, is a remote and only dimly understood preoccupation for us. It may be sad, in the capitalist scheme of things, but it’s true here in Russia. Leaving this fact out of the picture skews it enough to make it unrecognizable.

To justify his verbiage about a crumbling economy, Blomfield would have to quote a similar 75 percent drop in production, or at least something like it. Instead, he is quoting some anonymous sources “predicting that growth could slow to between 2 and 3 per cent, a disastrous slowdown.” Marvellous. France posts a 0.7 percent growth, and that is great news that all the airwaves are full of for days on end – and no wonder, compared with recession among its neighbors. Russia is anonymously expected to slow down to 2 and 3 percent – and it’s a “disaster.” That’s logic according to Blomfield, borrowed straight from a textbook on psyops.

These projected percentages are, of course, no more than a figment of an anonymous imagination, yet even without them we Russians know things are going to be tough, in the real economy and all-round – not because President Medvedev told us so the other day in so many words, but simply because we can put two and two together, especially where the twos are two widely different prices of a barrel of oil.

So what? So bloody what? We have seen much, much worse, and not so long ago. We’ve been through the thousand-fold rise in prices in 1991-1992, brought about by a shock therapy engineered by our Western-trained and directed radical liberals. We’ve been through the August 1998 meltdown and rouble devaluation, engineered by the same bunch. Those were real disasters for us, under those darlings of the West, Boris Yeltsin and his radical-liberal cohorts.

I clearly remember the times when Russia’s entire forex reserves were a paltry $12 billion – not enough to stave off a crisis for a day even. Now these reserves are closer to half a trillion, which makes them the world’s third largest, and that’s reason enough, for me and the likes of me, to take the tough times ahead in our stride. Times just cannot be worse than they used to be. It will be yet another occasion for us Russians to exercise our national characteristic that has seen us through countless times of war, famine, crisis and all sorts of troubles down the ages – endless patience and a certain bloody-mindedness in the teeth of adversity.

That is not the explanation Adrian Blomfield palms off on his readers. His “explanation,” in fact, reads like Russophobic hate mail: “Subjected to more than a century of propaganda masquerading as news, Russians often seem to live in a different reality from the rest of us… at a time when their country is locked in its worst financial crisis in a decade, they are more optimistic about the economy than they have ever been.”

What could you say about a people like that? A bunch of propaganda-besotted morons, surely, and that’s pure, undiluted Russophobia. I particularly liked this bit about “more than a century of propaganda masquerading as news”: In Blomfieldian chronology, the trend was started around 1900 by none other than Czar Nicholas II. That must have been the reason why the Bolsheviks shot him and his entire family out of hand, I suppose.

As one reads on, suspicion creeps in that it’s his readers that Blomfield takes for morons, not the Russians: “Obeying orders from the top, Russian television has banned the use of words such as ”crisis“, ”decline“ and ”devaluation“. Coverage of the mayhem in the country's stock market… is scant.”

Scant?! Why don’t you watch the 24x7 Vesti channel, where you can seldom hear or see anything other than such coverage, complete with diagrams every hour? Not to mention all the other channels, including the English-language Russia Today. Or myriad newspapers and radio stations. And who could ban the use of words like “crisis”, “decline” and “devaluation” in the media, when the country’s top officials, its president and premier, constantly use them?

Really, this sort of lies would make even Goebbels blush. There has been so much blather about rouble devaluation in Russia’s media that both Medvedev and Putin have gone on record, more than once, to the effect that there is no question of rouble devaluation or re-denomination, citing precise measures the government is taking against such an eventuality – and Mr Blomfield is treating us to select quotations from «1984.» Crazy…

If Russia’s masses are portrayed as gullible morons brainwashed by “more than a century of propaganda,” then the fountainhead of that propaganda, the Russian media, are sycophantic, Nazi-type purveyors of the most rancid nonsense about the West – according to Blomfield, that is. Here is what these jackals say about the West: “Just as in Soviet times, Russians are told how bad everything is in the West. The US, Russians are told, is in irreversible decline, while desperate Britons are throwing themselves into the Thames. The Queen, facing imminent penury, has been forced to pawn her diamonds and, according to one tabloid front page, we can no longer afford to bury our dead.”

All I can say is, I wish Mr Blomfield betrayed his predilection for anonymity at least once, giving chapter and verse for just one of his sources – say, that tabloid he mentions. I have been in the journalistic profession here for more years than I care to remember, and I have never come across any such flimflam – which, according to Blomfield’s skit, makes up the substance of Russia’s press.

For the DT readers’ information: Russian journalists take their foreign news from foreign sources. I cannot answer for every “tabloid,” but the general rule is to name the foreign sources of such foreign news. For those media people who do not read in every European language, there are such Internet resources as Inopressa or InoSmi complete with Russian translations of an extremely wide variety of material from European, US and other outlets. Mr Blomfield will be interested to find there scores of his own stories – in Russian. If he came up with a few canards there, they will merely be reproduced in the Russian media, and he will have no one to blame for it other than himself.

So, unlike Blomfield, Russian journalists do not have to exercise their ingenuity inventing stories about the West – they just borrow them from open sources. If someone threw himself or herself in the Thames – OK, some Russian tabloid may notice the story in a British one and print it, why not. If it’s a canard, it’s a canard in every clime, Russia included. But to insist that Russia’s media do nothing but bamboozle their public with this kind of trash is a lie – not very pure but much too simple.

It is not long before Blomfield, in his hatred for his Russian colleagues, grows personal: he describes my good friend Edward Lozansky, president of the American University in Moscow, as a “former dissident” who is now “close to the Kremlin.” Jesus H. Christ… Ed, who was a painful thorn in the Kremlin's side for decades, a dissident who was thrown out of the USSR and whose trials made world news (there is a BBC documentary, feature film, and hundreds of articles in all major newspapers about his story, including, by the way, the Daily Telegraph), a US citizen who has ever been a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and won personal praises from Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, and even John McCain, Ed who is quite prominent on the international scene for his relentless efforts to bring the US and Russia closer together … “close to the Kremlin”!

Come to think of it, in this frame of reference I, too, qualify for the description. I live not two miles from the Kremlin, I used to take my nonagenarian mother to the Dormition Cathedral there, and on one occasion the British Council invited me to attend an Armenian violinist’s concert held, for reasons better known to the Council, in the Kremlin’s Armoury – and how closer can one get? Then again, I share Ed’s purpose of bringing Russia within the European commonwealth of nations as an equal partner – definitely reason enough to classify me as “close to the Kremlin,” I suppose. Though I distinctly remember the times when I was referred to as “that grandfather of Russian liberalism,” and not so long ago, either.

All this is too silly for words. Things get even sillier, though, as Blomfield moves from the economy and journalism into the field of politics. Of all the constitutional changes proposed by President Medvedev, only the extension of the presidential term from four years to six is discussed at length – and it is, of course, a sign of “panic behind the scenes,” what else. Not a word about all the other, in my view much more significant moves. The proposal to make the government more accountable to the Duma, providing for the premier’s annual reports to the legislators? Utterly ignored. The regional electorates’ greater say in the composition of the upper chamber of parliament? Dead silence. Extension of the Duma’s term of service to five years? Ditto. Why?

No prizes for guessing why. Russia has a symbolic figure that stands for its move away from its near collapse in the hated 1990s to the current modest prosperity and enhanced prestige. That symbolic figure is Vladimir Putin. So when any Russia-hater hits on a slur to throw at this figure, he does throw it and keeps throwing it in the hope that some of the mud will stick. None of the other constitutional changes offer much of a chance for such mud-slinging, but the term extension does.

The mud in this case is that this constitutional change will enable Putin to grab the presidency for 12 years rather than eight and thus become even more of an autocrat than he now is. Which is awful, of course. It was all-right for a French president to serve a seven-year term, but for a Russian one to serve for six years or, God forbid, 12 in a row is plain unspeakable.

It could, of course, be argued that this business of the length of presidential service is a purely internal, Russian matter; that, after all, elections are elections, and the people elect whomever they prefer. If they like Putin so much, why shouldn’t they give him the top job for whatever term the legislators stipulate? You know, the people’s concern is entirely with their own well-being, not with pleasing the Daily Telegraph – but the Daily Telegraph seems to think otherwise.

It’s a pity, though, that DT’s man again had to resort to outright lies to make his point: “Russia's leaders scarcely even bothered to justify the need to extend the presidential mandate, claiming that the measure was good for democracy without ever saying how.”

Now, is it a lie, or is it? Every RF politician of any note, from the president down, has been at pains to explain the pressing need for such a move, citing the need for greater stability, for changing the present procedure in which presidential and parliamentary elections come sort of lumped together, for giving a newcomer to the post of president more time to actually carry out his program rather than learn the administrative ropes in his first year and fight in the next election campaign in the fourth, and so on. A plethora of reasons has been given, some more convincing, others less, but to say that none has been brought out is simply yet another crude lie of Blomfield’s.

From lies to hyper-imaginative speculation: “every independent analyst (anonymous again! – SR) says they will be more surprised if Mr Putin is not president within two years than if he is.” This sort of “independent analysis” vividly reminds me of the months and even years prior to the March 2008 presidential election in Russia, when what I then called a whole “cottage industry” flourished, all devoted to the burning issue of “Will he or won’t he?” Meaning, of course, will Putin run for a third term of office or not? Despite Putin’s numerous public assurances that he was not going to violate a clear stipulation of the RF Constitution, the Commentariat refused to believe him and, like I said, built a whole industry around the pseudo-problem. Well, it looks like Russia specialists of the Blomfield type intend to treat us to a repeat performance.

In fact, they’ve given the campaign a start already. Putin let drop somewhere: “As for who will run for office and when, it's too early to talk about that now.” This was immediately taken by Blomfield, along with others, as a “hint that an election could be held sooner than 2012, when Mr Medvedev's first term is due to expire.” In Russian, this sort of surmise is described as “sucked from the finger.” Putin could have meant “sooner than 2012,” as Blomfield’s independent but very anonymous analysts hypothesize, or “later than 2016,” or “not before 2020,” or any other date. In short, he said what he said – that it was “too early to talk about that.”

Yet talk, and write, the Commentariat will. Not much harm in that, of course, unless you happen to be a dedicated environmentalist fighting against the destruction of forests for the production of newsprint. But the lies, the lies…

No, I do not envy Western Russia specialists their ease and comfort, after all. “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is still good enough for a great many people, and, Lord, how I want to be in that number, when the saints go marchin’ in…