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#33 - JRL 2009-107 - JRL Home
June 4, 2009
The Propaganda Machine
By Robert Coalson
Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036

About a month ago I wrote a post [http://www.rferl.org/content/blog/1622029.html] about the dueling polling agencies in Russia and discussed briefly the relations between the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) and the Kremlin (particularly with the office of the Kremlin’s domestic-politics curator Vladislav Surkov and with the United Russia party).

That post prompted a query from a reader of the blog that made me think that the subject deserved a little more attention. Joera Mulders, writing from Amsterdam, asked the following:

"You write about a " ... network of purportedly independent political parties, nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, and the like that are brought to bear in many situations to press the Kremlin’s line or, at least, to blur the non-Kremlin lines.

"Isn't it a lot simpler to acknowledge the uprise of a considerate group within civil society that supports the current form of government and the current division of property? Do you really believe Surkov is orchestrating all that by himself? I did check out the partner and clients page at the VTsIOM side. Besides United Russia other 'organisations we cooperate with' are mentioned. NATO amongst others. Do you have other proof that VTsIOM is controled by UR or the Kremlin?"

First, I do think that Surkov is orchestrating such a network and has been doing it for years now. Of course, he is not doing it “by himself.” Within the presidential administration, Surkov heads something called the “Main Department of Domestic Politics” (Glavnoye upravleniye vnutrennei politki), which was created in 2000 and in March 2004 (following United Russia’s successful showing in the December 2003 presidential election and just 10 days after Vladimir Putin’s reelection to the presidency) was elevated to the status of an “independent subunit” of the presidential administration.

It is a pretty secretive “subunit,” so there is no telling how many people Surkov has working under him there, but even its bland description on the Kremlin’s webpage is a little unnerving: “Within the areas of its competency it develops and presents to the president and the head of the presidential administration materials about the sociopolitical situation in the country, as well as proposals about matters relating to the state structure, federal relations, local self-government, and regional and informational policies.”

It oversees the relations between the Kremlin and “the Federal Assembly, organs of state government, organs of local self-government, political parties, professional and creative unions, business organizations, commerce chambers, social and religious organizations, and other civil-society structures.”

It oversees the president’s relations with the presidential envoys to the seven federal districts, which means that it has powerful mechanisms for implementing its policies on the local level across the country.

It isn’t easy to figure out all the threads of the “network of purportedly independent political parties, nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, and the like” that this office oversees, but I can say that I stumble across new ones all the time. In the run-up to the Georgian war last August and in its wake, numerous “Russian-Caucasian friendship societies” popped up to spread the Kremlin’s take on events in the Caucasus, to take one example.

There are other examples in the information sphere. Last December I wrote a post [http://www.rferl.org/content/Putins_Russia_Reaches_Out/1362800.html#relatedInfoContainer] about some mysterious English-language websites that were publishing pro-Kremlin “information” and a man named “Vladimir” who was working out of the Russian Embassy in Washington and offering U.S. journalists money to reprint their materials. Some great reader comments to that post offered up links to other, equally suspicious websites.

“Foreign Policy” this week posted a nice little piece about a Kremlin 2.0 project called liberty.ru, a project of Kremlin-connect spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky that is intended “to make the Kremlin’s increasingly unappealing ideological package relevant to the younger generations.” (And speaking of Georgia, when I opened liberty.ru today they were featuring on the homepage a nice little video called “The Battle for History: Georgia 1989” that blames the anti-Soviet uprising in Tbilisi in 1989 on the CIA.)

Returning to Joera’s questions, I do feel that VTsIOM is a crucial part of this network and a look at the list of organizations for which VTsIOM conducts research gives some indication at how effective it is in distributing the Kremlin’s views on what public opinion in Russia is. In part, it is responsible for what I called in an earlier post, “the myth of Putin’s popularity” and, the other side of the same coin, the myth of the fecklessness of the anti-Putin opposition, including former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov.

The telling part of the list of partner organizations on the VTsIOM site comes when you scroll all the way down to the bottom and get to the real “partner organizations.” These include, in order, the presidential administration, the Health and Social Development Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the sociology center of the Defense Ministry, and the United Russia party.

Further down the list you will find Kremlin-friendly political consultant Stanislav Belkovsky's National Strategy Council (famous for “predicting” the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky) and Pavlovsky projects such as the Effective Politics Foundation (its site is under reconstruction), and the “experts network” kreml.org. Another partner is the Center for Political Forecasting, which is headed by Aleksei Chesnakov ­ who until last June was deputy head of ­ you guessed it! ­ the Main Department of Domestic Politics of the presidential administration (the department is headed by Oleg Govorun, a colorful character in his own right, but we don’t have time to pursue that thread of the network just now).

How does Chesnakov’s name fit into this picture? In preparing a response to Joera’s message, I dug through my VTsIOM files and came across the most thorough look at the polling agency, a November 2007 expose published in “Novoye vremya” by Moldovan investigative journalist Natalya Morar (you may remember her because she was not allowed into Russia because she purportedly presents a national security threat to Russia and because of the role she played in the April political unrest in Moldova).

Morar’s piece makes excellent reading and begins to expose both the ties between VTsIOM and the presidential administration and the shady scheme of offshore companies VTsIOM uses to hide its financial dealings.

Morar writes: “Deputy head of the Department of Domestic Politics of the presidential administration Aleksei Chesnakov personally oversees the work of the sociologists. According to a VTsIOM employee, center director Valery Fyodorov personally goes over all survey questions with Chesnakov for the weekly national express polls of public opinion. Every Friday, the presidential administration approves all the VTsIOM press releases that are being prepared for issue the following week.”

After discussing the surveys for a bit, Morar goes on to begin unraveling the research center’s financial structure, which involves at least two offshore companies ­ one registered in Cyprus and one in the British Virgin Islands. An independent financial analyst who studied the documents Morar secured said: “The purpose is obvious ­ avoiding taxes and shipping capital out of the country.” One might add that another purpose is to prevent outsiders from knowing how much money is going through the organization to keep them, for example, from seeing how it spikes during the election cycle. (Morar has said that the roots of the accusations that she presents a “national security threat” to Russia stem from her various investigations into the offshore financial manipulations of the ruling elite.)

Another VTsIOM employee (speaking anonymously, of course) said: “They pay us for our loyalty by giving us the chance to steal. They let us sit on certain money streams and don’t watch what we do with them. It is a classic example of bureaucratic kickback: using a state organization to draw in money that ends up in the pockets of bureaucrats. We are allowed to earn whatever we want as long as we meet all their conditions…. In general, I think that today’s VTsIOM is not a research organization. It was not created for this. It is part of a propaganda machine.”

Anyway, Joera, thanks a lot for reading and for writing. Your message set me off on a really interesting voyage of discovery.