The president’s loyalists turn bad news into good ahead of referendum that could keep Putin in power long after his current term ends.
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Just as Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984 rewrote history to reflect the changing party line, so Vladimir Putin’s media lieutenants have been busy adjusting Russia’s national narrative. With an upcoming referendum on critical constitutional changes, they have opted to project a fresh Russian ‘truth’ in the hope of rallying support for proposals cementing Putin’s political future.
Mostly gone, for now at least, is the tried and tested electoral pitch of ‘Russia up against a dangerous West’ that has previously served the president so well. That has been largely superseded by a constant stream of ‘good news’ about developments at home and abroad. The airwaves, news websites, and blogosphere have been full of such stories, as Russians prepare to vote on July 1 on 200-plus constitutional amendments, ranging from protecting forestry to ceding more powers to key state institutions.
Yet the only proposal that matters, at least to the incumbent leader and his inner circle, is the one that allows him to stay in power beyond 2024 when, according to the current constitution, he loses the right to run again. It is therefore a critical vote as his approval ratings are reported to have slipped to their lowest level since he became prime minister in 1999.
In recent years Putin has successfully contested elections by presenting an image of ‘Fortress Russia’ – strong and self-reliant – beating off the perceived threat of Western powers intent on undermining and weakening the country and its interests. It worked as the narrative for Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. Russians were told this was a patriotic endeavour to both protect under-threat ethnic Russians and fend off NATO expansion into the near abroad. Similarly, Russia’s subsequent involvement in Syria in support of its ally Assad was projected as a war on US-backed extremist forces.
But with international sanctions and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic taking their toll on the economy, ordinary Russians have begun to tire of foreign escapades and their dressed-up justifications, many seeing them for what they are: distractions from the increasingly dire condition of their economy and declining living standards. This has eaten into Putin’s popularity, which has been further depressed by his poor handling of the pandemic.
So in the run-up to the constitutional vote, the standard rallying cry of ‘Russia under siege’ has been subtly substituted by more upbeat messaging, just as detached from the actual facts. In the latest parallel version of reality, a stream of positive spin or ‘good news’ stories has been pumped out by government-controlled media resources and pro-regime journalists over the past four weeks, in an effort to make Russians feel better about themselves and their country and more well-disposed to their president.
The morning news bulletin on Russia’s leading state broadcaster, Perviy Kanal, no longer lets you know how many new cases of COVID-19 there are; instead we are informed of the number people who have been discharged from hospital. There is ample footage of the economy sparking into life in various regions – with everything from hair salons, swimming pools and hotels reopening. And the gloss is completed with features on concerts in the courtyards and squares of small towns. For anybody watching, the virus would seem to have been defeated. Yet the official infection rates tell a different story – about 8,000 new cases daily. But you won’t hear that on state TV or radio.
And the spin has not been confined to events in Russia. It was not that long ago that state media coverage of Poland and the Baltic states tended to focus on negatives, such as the removal of Soviet monuments or anti-Russian laws. The new narrative, though, has been surprisingly positive. In one bulletin, Perviy Kanal reported on the upcoming presidential elections in Poland, pointing out that their staging underlined the limited risks associated with holding a vote during the pandemic.
And yet more unusually, Western democracies are being portrayed in a good light. In various TV appearances, official representatives, including senator Andrey Klishas, chair of the Federation Council’s Committee on Constitutional Legislation, have sought to justify the proposed constitutional amendments by arguing that they turn Russia’s basic law into one approximating to those of politically plural countries – the French constitution cited as an example. Why, he asked, shouldn’t Russia follow the path of established democracies?
Putin’s loyalists will probably hope no one searches Google for their leader’s past views on constitutional change. One comment quoted by Ria Novosti in 2005 jars with his current embrace of reform. “If every president amended the constitution to suit his own interests, then there will be little left of this country,” he is reported to have said. And there have been similar remarks since then, most recently in 2013.
The irony will not be lost on the politically engaged, but it is of little concern to most Russians. And for those who have yet to be persuaded that things are looking up, there’s more good news on the way. The postponed 75th anniversary of Victory Day, a great unifier and feel-good factor, has been rescheduled for June 24 and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin is due to announce details of a RUB 5 trillion ($73 billion) economic recovery plan, just days before the constitutional reform vote.
There is little doubt that the changes will be passed, but Putin will want the margin of victory to be convincing. Will his media lieutenants’ new ‘truth’ carry the day? It is hard to say. I wonder what Winston would have made of it all, and what he might have advised. He may have raised an eyebrow over the timing of the poll, held as it is in the middle of an economic crisis. But you could just see Putin’s spin merchants shrugging their shoulders and retorting: “What crisis?”