Media-managed democracy: How Russian state-funded broadcasters are representing the 2018 Presidential election campaign | Stephen Hutchings, Vera Tolz and Precious Chatterje-Doody

The 2018 Russian Presidential Elections in perspective

In a televised election debate recorded live yesterday, journalist-turned-campaigner and Presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak threw a glass of water over nationalist LDPR leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, after he encroached on the airtime of another candidate and repeatedly insulted Sobchak when she called him to order. Of the 8 candidates successfully verified, approved and registered by Russia’s Central Election Committee on February 10th, (from a record 17 candidates who initially declared their intention to stand) Russia’s incumbent President, Vladimir Putin, was the only one not present for the latest minor scandal in the stage-managed media coverage of the election.

Putin has left the overt electioneering to the opposition. This includes Sobchak, Zhirinovsky, and the Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin. Alexei Navalny – the nationalist anti-corruption campaigner whose political ambitions and protest organisation have been widely covered in the UK media – is barred from running due to criminal convictions on what many see as politically-motivated charges.

Compared to the social drama around the 2012 elections, this cycle has been pretty tame. Back then, Putin released several detailed manifesto articles, as the Russian authorities scrambled to address the mass protests that followed rigged parliamentary elections, and Putin’s shock decision to run for a third, extended, term.

This time, Putin’s rather late and low-key announcement of his intention to stand came as no surprise, and the public responded apathetically: only around 4000 people attended Navalny’s January protests. Putin has kept a deliberately low profile, with no official social media campaign but a star-studded #Putinteam website and online social movement apparently operating independently. He has made a few liberal noises about Russia’s need for effective political competition, whilst lamenting the inexperience and overall lack of credibility of the existing opposition. This is a criticism likely to resonate in Russian society, and a recent viral video of unknown provenance played on homophobic and xenophobic clichés to satirise the social preferences of opposition candidates.

Ballot box 2018

Representing the Russian elections at home

State-funded domestic TV has enthusiastically adopted Putin’s framing in its limited election coverage. The President is shown fulfilling his official duties, and in stories highlighting his popular support. Historical films broadcast for the centennial of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution implied the necessity of a strong leader like Putin for preserving state stability. Indeed, Putin’s capacity to save Russia from a repeat of 1917 was explicitly articulated in the popular tabloid Moskovskii komsomelets.

Opposition candidates receive little airtime, with news coverage related to their perceived electoral threat. Grigory Yavlinsky, the liberal economist whose party now has no parliamentary seats, received few, largely factual reports. The leader of the nationalist LDPR, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is covered with light interest and sarcasm. Pavel Grudinin, the Collective Farm manager and Communist Party candidate seen as the most credible threat to Putin’s numbers, is covered critically.

Reporting of his campaign activities shifts to questions over financial irregularities, and commentary on his personal addresses to workers is sarcastic. Similarly, one of the first questions in Grudinin’s televised interview with Vladimir Solov’ev was about his “complex political biography” and ties to the pro-Putin United Russia party.

Alexei Navalny is almost entirely absent from the coverage, aside from passing references made by fellow candidate Ksenia Sobchak. For her part, Sobchak has been represented negatively from the start – as a shameless self-publicist appealing to a disloyal liberal elite, and with no hope of electoral success.

Sobchak has been permitted several appearances on the (lesser-watched) talk-show circuit. She has roundly criticised the Putin regime. On Rossiia’s ’60 Minutes’, Sobchak questioned the legitimacy of the Crimean referendum; and in a November interview with Vladimir Solov’ev she condemned: an interventionist foreign policy that produces declining living standard in Russia; a politically-motivated justice system (including a case against Navany’s brother, Oleg); and a political model in which “nobody can win, with the exception of one candidate”. Sobchak accused the media of complicity with political elites, arguing that they spread hate and lies and refuse to cover opposition figures such as Navalny.

Sobchak’s critiques went further than other opposition figures have been permitted, but Solov’ev went out of his way to discredit her throughout the interview. Questioning Sobchak’s popularity and originality, Solov’ev even suggested that she was a “Kremlin project” to split the liberal vote. This is a widely-circulating rumour, based on Putin’s previous mentorship by Sobchak’s father, former mayor of St. Petersburg, the late Anatoly Sobchak. In voicing it, state TV is returning to pre-Crimean-annexation practices: ‘performing’ freedom of speech by appropriating some aspects of public criticism of Putin.

Ultimately, the programme, like yesterday’s debate show, degenerated into personal insults. Sobchak had only agreed to appear on the programme “out of necessity – as one would use a public toilet”; whilst for Solev’ev, her decision to so relieve herself had left her (literally) exposed, and could only damage her campaign. This crudely-worded exchange typified Solov’ev’s attempts to mobilise wide-spread misogyny against Sobchak, representing her as too bold, too aggressive, too rude – all traits unbecoming for a Russian woman. Whilst Sobchak has also used her own YouTube channel to stage interviews with well-known figures from political and journalistic circles more on her own terms, some have gone on to perpetuate viciously negative images of Sobchak in their own outputs.

Engaging an international audience

Russia’s international broadcaster, RT, has produced largely low-key election coverage with a number of similarities to domestic television. Various programmes have commented implicitly on election-related matters: the ‘Cross Talk’ discussion of the 1917 revolution that highlighted the dangers of radicalism; and the foreign talk show guests who have expressed positive assessments of Putin and his policies since announcing his decision to stand (film director Oliver Stone, and Dutch nationalist politician Geert Wilders, both appeared on SophieCo in December 2017).

Direct election reporting on RT’s website features in the ‘Russian politics’ section, low down on the homepage and often takes a jocular tone – including through sarcastic or flippant reporting of various female candidates; coverage that emphasises human interest or scandalous elements; and light-hearted reporting of Putin’s own joke that he might become a combine driver, should his election campaign fail.

Generally, Putin is represented fulfilling his official duties, and the activities and programmes of the major presidential candidates are reported fairly dispassionately. However, their personal credibility is subtly undermined. Grudinin, it is mentioned, is a former member of the pro-Putin United Russia party, a non-member of the Communist party, and a “mogul”. Sobchak remains primarily a celebrity rather than serious politician.

The most analytical election coverage has come within a series of pre-election interviews with political figures on the World’s Apart programme. In discussion with controversial public intellectual, Aleksandr Dugin, presenter Oksana Boiko frames questions in relation to Putin’s “liberal” candidacy for the Presidency. Sobchak’s later appearance on the same show produced an unconstrained, combative, and rather uncomfortable exchange. In airing it, RT seems to be striving to demonstrate its independence and commitment to ‘balanced’ coverage.

However, the interview draws Sobchak’s unfavourable personal attributes into sharp relief: she avoids key questions; uses aggressive body language; and refuses to articulate a programme beyond that of immediate protest. The interview also highlights the aversion to radical change shared by Sobchak and Putin; as well as her tensions with Navalny, and within the wider opposition. In a subsequent interview with former opposition MP, Dmitry Gudkov, Boiko reports the Kremlin’s view that such frictions demonstrate opposition figures’ egotism and lack of civic mindedness. Boiko herself is “more or less pro-Putin” – whilst he might not be perfect, he’s the best of a bad bunch.

This open discussion of Alexei Navalny represents the biggest different between RT’s coverage of the elections and that on domestic television. RT clearly recognises the interest that Navalny holds for its international audiences. Asked by interviewer Afshin Rattansi how he’d respond to the criticisms in the British media about Navalny’s exclusion from the ballot, Russia’s Ambassador to Britain laments that the press remains silent on the two criminal convictions that bar Navalny constitutionally from running, whilst presenting wholly negative coverage of Putin. He characterises this as “meddling” from the “free” press. At no point does Rattansi follow up on allegations that the charges against Navalny were trumped up specifically to bar his candidacy.

As with the major candidates, news reporting on Navalny combines overall neutrality with subtle techniques of delegitimation: particularly the unqualified reminder that he is barred from running due to criminal convictions. In reporting Navalny’s temporary YouTube ban  (and his attribution of blame for this to Kremlin ‘troll’ activity), RT seems to imply that social media giants police users randomly and undemocratically (thus de-legitimating Facebook and Twitter action against RT); and possibly, that Navalny is paranoid. This seems to reflect a wider RT strategy of borrowing from popular narratives about Russia and RT and re-deploying them in unexpected contexts which both expose ‘western’ hypocrisy and indirectly undermine the very basis for those narratives.

What might we expect from ongoing election coverage?

Broad similarities between domestic and international coverage of the Russian elections and their candidates reflect a shared aim: to present Putin as the most competent, relatively liberal, candidate. Nonetheless, coverage, both domestically and internationally, must continue to respond to the commercial concerns of its respective audiences.

Domestic media will rely on its audience’s conservative social values to foster Sobchak’s negative profile – through affording her greater opportunities to express (and undermine) herself than the major male opposition figures. The latest water-throwing incident is unlikely to help her in this regard.

RT, whose international audiences have easy access to news media from ‘western’ sources, will likely reflect the prevailing concerns of this coverage, whilst subverting some of its core tropes. This may include increasing intimations of direct or indirect election meddling.

In both cases, it seems likely that (barring unexpected developments) news coverage will remain relatively low-key. Analytical content is likely to appear within outputs that audiences must actively seek out (talk shows, online news reports, etc) rather than in core popular output.

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