Sunday, March 16, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Kremlin Propaganda on Ukraine Likely to Backfire on Putin, Gudkov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 16 – Kremlin-orchestrated propaganda about Ukraine and Crimea remains “absolutely effective” for the moment, Russia’s leading independent pollster says, but it is likely to backfire on Vladimir Putin as Russians draw parallels between the Kremlin leader and Viktor Yanukovich, the ousted Ukrainian president.

            According to Lev Gudkov, the head of the Levada Center, trust among Russians in the authorities and in Putin personally is falling, an indication that Putin is no longer “the Teflon leader” many have assumed him to be and one that points to further declines in support in the future (

            Increasingly numbers of Russians, he suggests, especially in times of economic hardship, no longer view Putin as an above-the-fray national leader but rather as one of those involved with the defense of the interests of a particular corrupt clan. And that Gudkov continues is costing the Kremlin leader support.

            Surveys show that Russians currently believe two contradictory things about Ukraine. On the one hand, they think the West provoked Ukrainians into the Maidan and are manipulating them against Russia.  But on the other, most of them understand that Ukrainians have no choice but to turn to the West and at least until recently opposed Russia getting involved there.

            Kremlin propaganda has changed that but only in part, Gudkov says.  “Propaganda cannot destroy the understanding of the basic deep motives which have forced Ukrainians to seek integration with the West. But it can discredit those forces which articulate pro-Western attitudes and is doing so with great success.”

            That is why Moscow constantly talks about the presence of extremist groups in the Maidan. Such groups exist, but they do not set the weather, and Russians can see this because they undertand that what has taken place in Ukraine is “an uprising of society against a corrupt regime.”

            This reflects the fact that propaganda can be very effective on some subjects but completely ineffective on others.  “It is very difficult to convince people that the authorities consist of competent and law-abiding people,” Gudkov says. But it is easy to convince them that Americans are mistreating Russian orphans.

            In general, what Kremlin propaganda is doing is “destroying an alternative understanding” rather than creating a consistent new one. “People do not have illusions about the authorities” in another country or their own.

            Moreover, Gudkov says, the impact of propaganda falls over time.  Putin thanks to the Kremlin propaganda machine got a big boost during the August 2008 war with Georgia, but shortly thereafter, popular support for him declined as people focused on the problems of the economy. The same thing is or will happen now.

            According to Gudkov, ever more Russians view Putin not as a leader, master or father of the nation “who is concerned about everyone” but rather see him as the leader “of one of the clans,” and thus infected by corruption as well. Such an understanding cannot fail to send his ratings down even though people fear instability.

            The current wave of propaganda about Crimea has slowed for a time the growth of such attitudes but it cannot prevent the rise of “a diffuse understanding that besides extremists in the Midan there were people who were protesting against a corrupt and venal regime,” much like the one they have at home.

            And that is now having the following effect. While Russians have long had a negative view about the authorities as a category, they have been supportive of the top leader, in this case Putin.  But with economic difficulties mounting and with a growing sense of corruption at the top, that is beginning to change, and ever more people have a negative view of Putin.

            The Kremlin leader has already lost the support of the middle class. He is losing the support of entrepreneurs because of corruption.  But he still has the backing of the provinces who view him as a paternalistic leader who  embodies the ideas of success they would like to but have not achieved.

            Because those provinces are conservative, Putin is promoting conservative values, a process that is reinforcing rather than unidirectional, Gudkov says. Indeed, such a pattern is typical of authoritarian regimes, as Juan Linz pointed out more than 40 years ago.

            According to Linz, Gudkov says, “an authoritarian regime unlike a totalitarian one does not need ideologies.” It isn’t promoting aparticular future. Instead, it makes “appeals to the past, to an artificial past, an invented past as a means of security the passivity of the population.” And it can secure that by witch hunts and a “purely preservationist policy.”

            The Kremlin’s propaganda effort may slow but not block the decline in support for Putin over time.  It can have only short-term successes as now. But by 2018, the time of the next election, Putin will face more popular unhappiness and will retain power only by destroying any alternative leader.

            That means, Gudkov suggests, at best that some new leaders with new ideas will emerge and a rotation of elites will begin or at worst that there could be the growth of social conflicts and clashes. The one thing he implies will not occur is the recovery by Putin of the kind of unquestioned support he had a decade ago.

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