Why Bother Reporting the News When It Reports Itself?

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If I were an MP in the Commons or a peer in the Lords, I would ask for a formal inquiry into how the BBC is wildly and, apparently, deliberately misreporting the so-called Russian presidential election campaign by constantly asserting that Vladimir Putin is incredibly popular, that his message of “strength and stability should be enough to persuade voters to give him another term” (I heard that gem on the late late news on Radio 4 last night) and that Alexei Navalny was not admitted to the race because of “previous corruption convictions.”

Only in every third or fourth report do BBC reporters and presenters even bother to hint vaguely that Navalny’s so-called corruption convictions were on trumped-up charges and explicitly meant to hobble and disable him at moments like this, when he is literally the only person in Russia with a political organization and campaign strategy capable of putting a serious dent in the myth of Putin’s popularity.

And it is a myth. A free and fair election—after a campaign run without assistance from the so-called law enforcement agencies (who now, apparently, are gearing up to go after Navalny for calling a boycott) and the other assorted thugs who have been routinely arresting and assaulting Navalny’s campaign workers and volunteers in large numbers all over Russia during the past year, and without a giant leg up from a mainstream media, especially the national TV channels, whose general demeanor gives you a sense of what television would have looked like had the Nazis had it in their agitprop arsenal—would return results that would surprise all the lazy reporters and “Russia experts” who have been aping the discredited pollsters at Levada-VTsIOM-FOM by perpetuating the Putin popularity myth these past seventeen years.

The fix was in from the moment the Family chose Petersburg’s incredibly corrupt ex-deputy mayor to succeed Yeltsin, and truly awful things for which lots of people should be serving life sentences were done to cement the succession in blood.

It’s only been downhill from here, including the period when oil prices were high, because they only discouraged whatever impulses for reform Putin may have had (although I see no evidence he had any such impulses).

There’s no reason to like Putin unless you’re a member of his inner circle, because the real economy has tanked long ago, rampant corruption has become the supreme governing principle, and the security services have launched a selective, targeted Great Terror Lite to remind anyone with a brain what “stability” really means: Putin and his criminal clique are determined to remain in power until they die of natural causes.

This stunning plan will have terrible consequences for Russia and the world. The very least honest news reporting organizations, supposedly devoted to balanced, objective journalism, can do is report the whole story I have just told in brief, instead of repeating the dangerous truisms and outright lies generated by the Kremlin and its minions. TRR

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The Best Russia Experts Don’t Live in Russia, or, Crypto-Putinism

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“There’s a more likely possibility, and it doesn’t hinge on accumulated historical trauma or some irrational longing to go back to the Soviet system. With the USSR’s fall came the loss of many other things Russians valued: their country’s stature in the world, decent living standards, the welfare state, education, even a sense of community and collective identity. Putin’s apparent promise to restore some of these things is a far better explanation for his widespread popularity at home than the theory that most citizens have been too brainwashed or traumatized to think for themselves.”

But he’s been eighteen years “in office” and he hasn’t restored any of these things really, and he never really promised to restore most of them, not that you would notice if you hadn’t lived here during those eighteen years, as the author of the book review, quoted above, has signally not lived here.

Nor, as far as I know, did the author ever live in the Soviet Union he misses so much, but which lots of former Soviet citizens I know don’t miss at all.

Go figure why the western left misses a country most of its current supporters never lived in or visited for a millisecond, but which millions of its actual former inhabitants don’t miss for a second. It says something slightly disturbing about the intellectual integrity of the western left, doesn’t it?

As for brainwashing, I can’t say anything about Russians, but I know a lot of foreign so-called Russian experts and reporters covering the Russian beat who have been brainwashed by the triumvirate of dishonest Russian pollsters known as FOM, VTsIOM, and Levada Center into believing that Putin enjoys “widespread popularity at home.”

In fact, this popularity is a lot less apparent when you’re actually on the ground day after day for years on end, conversing and dealing with lots of different people who say lots of different things but somehow usually fail to express their ardent love of Putin. Here, in the actual Russia, not the imaginary Russia inhabited by the Russia experts, his “popularity” looks more like a dictatorship for life, reinforced by brute police force, flagrant corruption, major TV channels that have been nazified to the point that almost no one I know has watched them for years, and selective but regular show trials in case anyone has forgotten where they really live.

Why do so-called Russian experts, like the author of the review, quoted above, believe every poll about Russia those shysters and shills publish, including the pap about Putin’s rampant popularitry?

I’ll tell you why.

Because the world’s greatest Russia experts do not live in Russia, nor do they want to live here (they’re not stupid!), but endlessly citing so-called Russian public opinion polls as if they are the gospel truth gives their specious, highly partisan arguments an air of scholarly or empirical knowledge, of “knowing what Russians really think.”

The subject of today’s Russia and what Russians really think is way more complicated (and, sometimes, way more simple) than the certified Russia experts suspect or want to admit, however. TRR

Photo 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

We Are Just Making It Up as We Go Along

A map of European countries by average monthly wage, as denominated in euros. Source: Wikipedia
A map of European countries by average monthly wage, as denominated in euros. Source: Wikipedia

Personal income of Russians shrank by 52.2% in January 2016 as compared to December 2015. According to the report by the state statistics body Rosstat, the monthly income in January averaged only 21365 rubles (about USD $291) though only a month ago it was 45212 rubles ($614). Elena’s ModelsMarch 9, 2016

Pollocracy continues its triumphant march across the sweeping plains and endless forests of the world’s largest country, stamping out the last vestiges of real reality there.

Less than a month before nationwide elections to the Russia State Duma and regional legislative assemblies, on September 18, 2016, the Public Opinion Foundation (whose Russian abbreviation FOM should be changed to FOAM) has published the results of a new survey, according to which more than fifty percent of Russians believe the country’s economic situation is satisfactory. At the same time, reports RBC, 44% of respondents said depositing money in Russian banks was a reliable way of saving it.

This astounding victory for what the FOAMsters euphemistically call “sociology” comes amidst a spate of bank license revocations by the Russian Central Bank, a hunger strike by miners at Rostov mining company King Coal, who have not been paid back wages amounting to over 4.1 million euros since May 2015, and an abortive attempt by Krasnodar farmers to drive their tractors in a convoy to Moscow to protest the parceling off of prime land by authorities in the region to big agribusinesses instead of to them.

And those are just the recent “economic achievements” that came immediately to mind when I saw those dubious poll results. There are hundreds of more such examples that I could adduce, starting with the fact that there have been more than a few reports in the media and elsewhere about a decline in the real wages and income of Russians over the past couple of years.

Things are indeed going swimmingly for the Russian economy, and we know that is the case, yet again, because the utterly objective Russian pollsters have told us so. TRR