RT: Recognition Is Everything

5aaf0798705d4a7d942df59f2b2443cd

Recognizing an Agent
The Kremlin Complains RT Has Been Treated Unfairly, but Deep Down It’s Happy
Ksenia Boletskaya
Vedomosti
November 16, 2017

This year, Russia has spent nearly 20 billion rubles [approx. 283 million euros] financing the TV company RT. These funds are pure expenditures: the channel’s income is incomparably lower than its expenses. But no one would think of asking RT to turn a profit, because the TV company has a completely different objective: political influence.

Ten years ago, the confrontation between Russia and the west was much less dramatic. In 2005, when RT was launched, originally as Russia Today, it was planned that the channel would showcase modern Russia, downplaying vodka and bears, and promoting the country’s IT and aircraft carriers. Officials decided it would be simpler to produce their own foreign media than re-educate and persuade western journalists clinging to hoary stereotypes. But then the political circumstances changed, and it was more vital not to tell the world what was happening in Russia, but to trumpet what the Russian regime and Russian companies were trying to achieve abroad. Russia Today broadcast this particular Russian view of current events.

However, this concept was soon outmoded, too. Nowadays, the channel’s mission is telling Americans and Germans what, allegedly, is really happening in the US and Europe. The channel got rid of the word “Russia” in its name and rebranded itself as RT. It now pitches itself abroad as an alternative perspective, one utterly independent from the local authorities. I will say it again: we spend twenty billion rubles of Russian taxpayers’ money so Americans and Germans better understand what their own politicans are up to. How does that not qualify RT as a foreign agent?

But it is us, Russia’s rank-and-file citizens, who can be irritated, to put it mildly, by the extent to which the national budget is allocated irrationally. The Kremlin, apparently, is more than satisfied, because RT’s operations irritate US politicians to no end. While RT does not garner huge ratings in the US the old-fashioned way, it is one of the most popular news channels on YouTube. RT’s main English-language channel has over two million subscribers on YouTube, and that is more than often for it to be quoted and reposted frequently.

For several years, US politicans and analysts have been dashing off serious reports about the damage caused by Russian propaganda in the guise of RT. The FBI’s investigation about the Russian factor in the US elections was only an excuse to brand RT a foreign agent: the gripes against the channel had been building for a long time. Russian officials can complain loudly that RT has been treated unfairly, but deep down they are definitely satisfied. If RT was a weakling that drew no attention, no one would bother fighting it. It is not for nothing that Forbes put RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan on its list of the world’s most powerful women. There was only one other woman on the list from Russia: Central Bank chair Elvira Nabiullina.

Simonyan categorically objects when RT is called a Russian propaganda channel. Of course, as a journalist, it is terribly critical for her to show the channel has editorial independence. But the fact remains that Simonyan has become an excellent agent of influence of whom the spy Putin can be proud.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Mikhail Fomichev/TASS via the Moscow Times

 

Advertisements

Report to UN on Racial Discrimination in Russia Banned

Report to UN on Racial Discrimination in Russia Banned
Takie Dela
August 17, 2017

Russian federal media watchdog Roskomnadzor has placed a report to the UN on racial discrimation in Russia on its list of banned information, reports the SOVA Center.

The alternative report in question is entitled “The Russian Federation’s Observance of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination” and covers the period 1996–2001. The report has been published on several websites, including the Kharkov-based human rights website Human Rights in Ukraine.

doklad screen shotScreenshot from Roskomnadzor website

In June 2015, the Yelniki District Court in Mordovia ruled the report information prohibited for dissemination. On August 11, the page on the Human Rights in Ukraine website containing the report was registered on Roskomnadzor’s list of banned materials, reports SOVA.

“The ruling itself has not been published, and we are unaware of the court’s arguments. In order for a court to rule information prohibited for dissemination in Russia, it must contain matter previously deemed extremist by a court.  Of course, the report on racial discrimination contained no such matter, so it is completely unclear in this case what triggered the lawsuit and the court’s ruling,” SOVA’s press service commented.

The report was compiled by the Memorial Human Rights Center with the assistance of twenty-five Russian NGOs involved in counteracting racism and discrimination. It was submitted to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

The report discusses the discrimination or promotion of discrimination against Meskhetian Turks, Chechens, and Romani. It also criticizes Russian authorities for insufficient efforts to counteract discrimination and creating appropriate mechanisms for counteracting discrimination.

In 2016, the Russian Federal Justice Ministry declared SOVA Center a “foreign agent.” SOVA Center staff do not consider their work political, the alleged determining criterion for ruling a Russian NGO receiving foreign funding a “foreign agent.”

Thanks to Maria Turovets and Mari Davtyan for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Living Levada Loca

Komar & Melamid, Russia's Most Wanted Painting, 1995. Image courtesy of Dia Art Foundation
Komar & Melamid, Russia’s Most Wanted Painting, 1995. Image courtesy of Dia Art Foundation

The Picture Is Going to Get Prettier
Greg Yudin
Vedomosti
September 6, 2016

The latest attack on the Levada Center (this past Monday, the organization was labeled a “foreign agent”) provoked a justified outcry from people in various parts of the ideological spectrum, from the center’s friends competitors, and opponents. The formal basis of the attack was the insane law that punishes people and organizations for something that should be rewarded. If Russia wants to be strong in academic research, then here were researchers who collaborated with serious foreign partners. (The University of Wisconsin, with whom the Levada Center had been working, has traditionally been a powerhouse in sociology.) Worse, the law construes “political activity” as something unsavory right at a time when Russia really needs to awaken an interest in politics, and any NGO willing to study the dynamics of political life in Russia deserves all the encouragement it can get.

The Russian Ministry of Justice can paralyze the operations of one of the country’s three major public opinion polling factories one and half weeks before national and regional parliamentary elections on September 18. In this case, the elections will be held with a newly configured polling industry, which has not changed for a long time. Putting our emotions aside, however, the assault on the Levada Center seems unexpected. For the past decade, the organization has objectively worked to maintain the current regime’s legitimacy.

The public opinion research field, a field once populated by many players, was purged by the Kremlin ten years ago, leaving only three companies standing. Two of them, FOM (Public Opinion Foundation) and VTsIOM (Russian Public Opinion Research Center) are substantially affiliated with the Kremlin, since they are wholly dependent on the commissions they regularly receive from the presidential administration and other government agencies. The Levada Center, on the contrary, has been financed independently of the Kremlin, and the liberal views of its senior staff have put the company almost in political opposition to the current regime. Yet the outcomes of the Levada Center’s polls have rarely diverged from the data published by its colleagues and competitors. The numbers adduced by all three pollsters have usually generated a sense of broad or overwhelming support for everything the authorities do, however aggressive and irrational it sometimes might appear.

Praise from the enemy is worth twice as much, especially if it is voiced publicly. Vladimir Putin has confessed on several occasions that polls mean a lot to them, and when the Levada Center records public support for him, this is proof the support is undeniable. Look, even our opponents are forced to admit the people are behind us, the regime’s supporters say time and again. These same people sincerely believe research results depend on who pays for the research.

Research studies, however, are much more complicated, and the results of Levada Center’s polls have had nothing to do with the political stance of its executives. Instead, they are stipulated by the way polls are conducted. In daily life, Russians show little interest in politics, so if you deluge them with a wave of news reports about some issue of little importance to them, such as relations with Turkey, and then ask them the next day whether we should be afraid of Turkey, they will respond in good faith based on the information they got the day before. With few exceptions, the Levada Center has humbly tackled the political agenda set by television, and asked the same questions as the other pollsters, questions focused on this agenda, predictably garnering nearly the same outcomes as the other pollsters. However, the center’s alleged oppositional status made the answers more important for the authorities and, at the same time, indirectly increased the credibility of the other companies. The depressive antidemocratic discourse about the stupid, aggressive common people with which the middle classes have been spooking each other nationwide has largely been the product of the Levada Center’s poll numbers, even if the outcome was unintentional.

You need a good reason to shoot the goose that has been laying golden eggs. What compelled the authorities to break off a piece of the rigging propping up its legitimacy? I should explain right off the bat how the Levada Center does actually differ from the other two major Russian pollsters. The difference has nothing to do with honesty or professionalism. The myth that one group of sociologists does honest work, while the two others fake the numbers is not even worth discussing seriously, and yet they all get the same results.

What matters much more is the fact that the Levada Center does not get commissions from the Kremlin. The Kremlin cannot tell it what questions to ask and what results to make public. We should not forget the poll results reported in the Russian media are only the poll results the client has allowed them to publish. The client can impose a temporary or permanent veto on publication of the results. The media’s picture of public opinion thus passes through two powerful filters nowadays. First, the client imposes on the polling organizations the subjects for which he is willing to pay, and then he decides what information he would like to make available to the public. The Kremlin can easily ban publishing results that shatter the image of monolithic public support for its decisions, and it has often done this.  It has no such power over the Levada Center, although in recent times it has not needed it, since the company has not produced polling data that would put the Kremlin in a vulnerable position.

Polling data has been long the main fodder from which Russians shape their notions about the balance of power at election time and decide how to vote. The numbers act like a tranquilizer, persuading voters not to waste time and energy by getting involved in elections whose outcome is clear in any case. Simultaneously, they send a signal up and down the power vertical about how much “slack” needs to be made up at the local voting precincts. The main thing is not diverge to too radically from the polls. If the Kremlin has had to break with this way of doing things on the eve of the elections, it means the independent player had become too dangerous. The mirror reflected something that forced the Kremlin to throw a stone at it.

If the Levada Center is forced to suspend operations, the credibility of poll numbers will drop, and the client will increase pressure on the remaining players. We will have to treat the polling numbers we see before and after the elections with a bigger grain of salt. If before, the public was shown only the pretty half of the picture, while the ugly was hidden from it, now it will see even less of the picture.

Greg Yudin is a research fellow and lecturer at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Translated by the Russian Reader

Is It Hard Being a “Foreign Agent” in Russia?

Viktor Voronkov
Viktor Voronkov

Is It Hard Being a Foreign Agent in Russia?
Vadim Shuvalov
Gorod 812
August 8, 2016

How does an organization officially declared a “foreign agent” manage? Gorod 812 asked Viktor Voronkov, director of the Centre for Independent Social Research (CISR) in Petersburg, what it has been like.

Did you expect to be declared a foreign agent?

On the one hand, after Bolotnaya Square, it was no surprise. On the other hand, we have never believed what we do is political activity.

Some Ph.D. in philosophy did the forensic examination on us for the Justice Ministry. I won’t repeat the stupid things he wrote. We have gone through four court trials. Recently, the Supreme Court reimbursed one of the fines we had to pay, in the amount of 300,000 rubles.

We were labeled a foreign agent, allegedly, for making recommendations on how to improve the work of magistrates, doing research on the political preferences of trade unions, and advertising a book (which we didn’t publish) on political movements in Russia.

Similar allegations have been made against us to this day.

What has changed in your work since you were declared a foreign agent?

Four times a year, instead of once a year, we write a financial disclosure report. We have to hire a specialist to help us write it. Any violation results in an “irredeemable” fine of 300,000 rubles from the Justice Ministry. But we don’t know we violated.

The Women of the Don Foundation, which deals with gender issues in the North Caucasus, has suffered because of us. It was declared a foreign agent only because we sent them 10,000 rubles out of a sense of professional solidarity, to help them pay a fine. Now we are trying to explain to the authorities the money was Russian in origin.

We cannot work with state universities and officials. We cannot do fieldwork in schools, hospitals, etc. Business is afraid to help us; it is afraid of reprisals. As for the populace, when people find out who we are, they are immediately put on their guard, and the conversation becomes stiff.

I once got a call from a major public radio station. They told me they were putting me on the air in two hours. I warned them that CISR was a foreign agent. They said it was not a problem. Half an hour later, a young woman called me and said her bosses had decided not to trouble me: they needed a cultural studies person, not a sociologist. All electronic media are now closed to us.

Recently, the Justice Ministry redefined political activity.

According to one part of the new definition, all sociological research is classified as political activity, while another part claims that scientific and scholarly research is not political activity. So sociology is no longer scientific and scholarly research.

So how do you do your work nowadays?

For example, we have been researching temporary сohabitation among migrant workers. They support each other while having families back home. Such research requires so-called participant observation. First, you help the migrant worker out. You take him or her to the doctor, get their kid into a kindergarten, and invite them over to your place. Only then will they tell you what they really think about the world they live in. It might take years to get to that point. Whose agent you are, in this case, matters not a whit.

As for working with officials and civil servants, now everything is based on off-the-record interviews.

Initially, when you opened in 1991, did you work with the state? Whose agents were you then?

We were the agents of Boris Yeltsin and his folk. We were interested in working on topics relevant to the country: grassroots movements, Russian nationalism, the new gender studies. A social revolution was underway, and values were being revised.

Did you get money from the government?

We would sometimes participate in grant competitions and get a few crumbs. The times allowed for completing the research were paltry, and the financial reporting was complicated. But we were not fundamentally opposed to taking money from the government. That became a hard and fast principle sometime in the early 2000s.

Why?

We ran up against corruption, against demands for kickbacks and rigged outcomes. The Smolny [Petersburg city hall] would send us invitations to grant competitions, but we quickly realized they had already picked the winners. Or they would ask us to do research on topics like “The Danger from Muslim Migrant Workers in Petersburg.” But we are researchers and don’t do appraisals. We are interested in how migrant workers integrate, in the issue of xenophobia. We gave up on public financing.

What is the size of the usual private grant, and how much time does a study take?

No less than a year or two, often as many as three years. The budget for a study of this sort comes to about three million rubles or more.

Do the foundations who subsidize you set conditions?

The foreign foundations set only one: the research has to be academic research, serious scholarship involving participant observation, and not just getting people to fill out surveys and quickly summarizing the results. By the way, I should note that [only] one out of fifty sociology department graduates goes on to become a serious researcher.

Russian foundations require self-censorship. We did work in Tatarstan: the republic’s president must not be disturbed by the research outcomes. We agreed to censor ourselves. We were interested in finding out why young people were leaving Tatarstan.

And why are they leaving?

It’s a nationwide problem: ours is an avuncular society. If you are outside this circle, you won’t get a good education and you will not be able to set up your own business. All this is highly developed in Tatarstan. There are confessional issues within Islam to boot. Given the circumstances, young people leave the republic or join “extremists.” We recommended an amnesty for certain religious groups that do not call for violence.

We had just finished this study when we were declared a foreign agent.

How have the foundations themselves reacted to your foreign agent status?

Some foundations, even ones with whom were on very good terms, have parted ways with us. They are afraid of being put on the list of undesirable organizations that will be cut off from all official contacts with Russia.

On the other hand, we have received offers of assistance from foundations we had never heard of before. That has been nice.

Why do western foundations finance academic research?

The conscience of the capitalists has awoken or they are unhappy with their own offspring.

What Soviet value has been forfeited in vain?

It’s a pity people have stopped reading. But this is a socialist value. Under capitalism, in new technological circumstances, it could not have survived.

Translated by the
Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of CISR