Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Unlike in Soviet Times, Russians Today Overwhelmingly Trust Government Propaganda, Urnov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 27 – At the end of Soviet times, the Russian people didn’t trust official propaganda even though as a result of state controls they had little access to alternative sources of information. But today, they do trust that propaganda and thus see no need to turn to the plethora of alternatives available, according to Mark Urnov.

            In an article in “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” the political analyst at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that both what has not changed between Soviet times and now as far as propaganda is concerned is as striking as what has changed both in the government line and the availability of alternatives (ng.ru/stsenarii/2016-09-27/13_narkoz.html).

                As in the late Soviet period so too now, television is the main channel for the dissemination of propaganda providing in both cases “not so much factual information as evaluations,” Urnov says. “The role of all other channels of mass information (radio, newspapers, magazines, the Internet) is incomparably less important as far as propaganda is concerned.”

            So too as in the late Soviet period, the two main messages of Russian propaganda today are the great significance of Russia in the world and the striving of others and above all the United States to restrict that role in order to “subordinate Russia to its interests and establish control over our natural resources.”

            There are major differences. Because it did not face much competition from other channels, Soviet propaganda suggested that the Soviet people lived “significantly better than toilers in capitalist countries and that the economy of our country was not behind that of America’s.

            Now, fully recognizing that insisting on those two points is a fool’s errand, Russian government propaganda focuses not on the level of Russian life or live in other countries but on the justice of Russia in seeking a multi-polar world and the evil of the US that “seeks to remain the only super power.”

            That shift reflects the fact that “the information background” available to Russians now is incomparable to that available to Soviet citizens.  Soviet propagandists could count on the fact that their audience had few alternative sources and would thus accept whatever Moscow declared to be true.

            Now, Russian propagandists know they must operate in a world in which their audience at least potentially has widespread access to alternative ideas. Thus the focus on values rather than on facts. But what is striking is this, Urnov continues. “Now there is no official monopoly, but the alternative sources clearly don’t attract the attention of a broad public.”

            The reason for this is rooted in a major difference from the late Soviet period. Then, “fewer than five percent” believed what officials said. Indeed, many assumed that if Soviet officials said something, the opposite or something close to it must be true. Now, the situation is very different.

            More than 70 percent of Russians today accept anti-American propaganda as true, Urnov says, and for two important reasons: Russians are happy to be able to blame someone other than themselves for their difficulties and are convinced that “being great” is “the natural state” of the Russian nation, a view they have had for five hundred years.

            The problem with such views, Urnov says, is that they prevent Russians from facing up to and having an honest discussion of the problems their country faces. And without such discussions, they won’t be able to address them in a timely fashion, guaranteeing that they will only get worse and will end in tragedy.


Kremlin Allowing ‘Aggressive Social Groups’ to Impose Their Own Moral Orders, Moscow Paper Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 27 – A dangerous mechanism has emerged in Russia, one that unlike much else in that country, is as reliable as clockwork, according to the editors of “Nezavisimaya gazeta.” It involves the rise of “aggressive social groups” who act on their own to impose their version of a desired moral order.

            That carries with it enormous risks. On the one hand, it undermines the role of the state as the guarantor of the rights and freedoms of its citizens. And on the other, it opens the way to a situation in which various social groups may come into conflict because the particular moral orders they wish to impose are in conflict – and the state is not acting to control the situation.

            In a lead article today, the editors say that these groups effectively operate without hesitation as substitutes for the state, sometimes as allies of those in power who are only too happy to see others do their dirty work for them but at other times in ways that call into question who is really in charge of the situation (ng.ru/editorial/2016-09-27/2_red.html).

            This “mechanism,” in which someone does something others don’t like and then aggressive groups use their clout either to get the government to act on their behalf or, failing that, act on their own to impose their will is something that Russian groups have taken from the West.

            “Precisely there, aggressive church groups of conservatives have worked out in detail the algorithm which domestic champions of Christian-great power ethnic are now making use of,” the paper says, noting that “fundamentalists in the West have blockaded art galleries, blocked access to abortion clinics, and threatened theaters where are shown ‘immoral’ pictures.”

            Russian moralizers, “who justify their aggression with patriotic feelings willingly copy Western Protestant practices of direct action” sometimes against the same targets but sometimes against others.  That is what has happened this week with the Sturgis photography exhibit in Moscow, and it can be expected to be repeated when a film about Nicholas II’s affairs with Matilda Ksheshinskaya is released.  Indeed, the coming protests likely will be larger.

            “The struggle for public morality, which extends into the political realm, has a long history in the West, and there have been developed mechanisms for the reaction of state institutions to such actions,” the editors say. If the state decides the attacks are unjustified, it will protect those the aggressive groups attack rather than allow such groups to gain their way.

            In Russia, however, “forcible actions of such groups are becoming the occasion for the complete and final closure of art protects.” Yana Lantratova, the responsible secretary of the Presidential Human Rights Council, has come out in favor of that, even calling for its legalization, implying the state should support the crowds rather than the rights of artists.

            That points to a disturbing trend, the paper continues, with the state failing to do its job and allowing such groups to “brutally” enforce their will, often with government subsidies and ties to the Russian Orthodox Church but without the responsibility that governments at least in principle should have to show.

            The “Nezavisimaya gazeta” editorial points to something important: Many things are being translated from the West into Russian life, but they are being translated only in part. And both the origins of these tactics and the ways in which Russians are modifying them need to be carefully watched.

Russian Autocracy ‘Will Always Threaten the Development of Ukraine,’ Shevtsova Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 27 – Russian autocracy by its very nature “will always threaten the development of Ukraine,” and this threat may be especially serious now because the world has entered a kind of “interregnum” in which the old international arrangements have “exhausted themselves” and have not yet been replaced by new and effective ones, Lilya Shevtsova says.

            In the course of a wide-ranging interview with Ukraine’s Apostrophe portal, the Moscow-based Brookings Institution scholar argues Ukrainians understand the permanent threat Russia poses but may not fully comprehend how what is occurring in the West affects them (apostrophe.ua/article/world/ex-ussr/2016-09-27/liliya-shevtsova-rossiyskoe-samoderjavie-vsegda-budet-ugrojat-razvitiyu-ukrainyi/7441).

            One of the reasons Ukrainians have not focused on the underlying changes in the West is that Western support for sanctions against Russia over Moscow’s Anschluss of Crimea are “unwavering and steady,” Shevtsova says, although she cautions that because of loopholes, Moscow has been able to end run some of them. 

            Moreover, Moscow has launched a two-pronged attack to try to get some in the West to waver on sanctions. On the one hand, the Kremlin has sought to link sanctions to the Minsk accords rather than the occupation of Crimea. And on the other, it has tried to suggest that Ukraine is partially to blame for the Minsk accords not having had their intended result.

            At a deeper level, Shevtsova says, Russia, at least as long as “Russian autocracy” exists, will seek to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty, security and stability. But because Ukrainians understand this, there is “a paradox: It is precisely the existence of Russia [which] is accelerating the formation of Ukrainian national identity and its pro-European direction.”

            Unfortunately, “Ukraine is paying a heavy price for this,” she adds.

            At the same time, Shevtsova continues, “Ukraine itself has stirred up the Western community,” and it is “in essence the most important external factor for Europe which recalls to Europe its obligations, its international agreements and also its generally accepted European norms.” In short, “Ukraine has force the Europeans to return to their values.”

            But again and unfortunately, Ukraine is also paying a heavy price for this as well, although “despite its vacillations, Europe will hardly give Ukraine back into the pocket of any neighboring imperial state. But at the same time, Europe “is trying not to get into a fight with Russia.” It wants to find a balance and “doesn’t want to introduce new sanctions which would destroy the Russian economy.”

            The reason for that is simple, the Brookings analyst continues. “The Western community is worried about a Russia in a deep crisis and the unpredictably” that such a Russia represents.  The West will defend Ukraine and Ukrainian sovereignty; but the West has its own problems of balance and change.

            “In any case,” Shevtsova continues, “the current Interregnum, when the West is weakened is a temporary phenomenon. The West will get out of it via the renewal of elites, but this period will last several years. Sometime between 2022 and 2025 … we will see new political leaders who will seek to find a new consensus” on a variety of issues, including relations with Ukraine and Russia.

            The problem the West and indeed the world now feels is that “the old international institutions, beginning with the UN, the IMF, the WTO, and the OSCE and ending with regional regulators have exhausted themselves.” They are no longer setting the limits on action and have become “dysfunctional.”  The EU is affected by this as well.

            With Brexit, Germany’s position is weakened, while that of France and the Mediterranean countries has been strengthened. And this has consequences for Ukraine because the latter have always sought a more “pragmatic” and “utilitarian” approach to Russia, Shevtsova argues.

            These developments and the way in which they are reflected in American politics, she continues, “put Ukraine, which is seeking to strengthen its European vector in an extremely unfavorable position, because if the West is prostrate, has lost its role as example and icon, and is occupied with itself, it will be very difficult for young democracies to strengthen themselves.”

            In short, the next few years are going to be very difficult for Ukraine, because it is directly threatened from theEast and indirectly threatened by changes in the West.