Michael Bohm, opinion page editor of the Moscow Times, writing for the paper:
A year after former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested on fraud charges, Baikal Finance Group — a mysterious company with a share capital of only 10,000 rubles ($330) — acquired Yukos’ largest subsidiary, Yuganskneftegaz, for $9.3 billion in an “auction” consisting of only one bidder. After Yuganskneftegaz was sold four days later to state-controlled Rosneft, Andrei Illarionov, economic adviser to then-President Vladimir Putin, called the state expropriation of Yukos “the Biggest Scam of the Year” in his annual year-end list of Russia’s worst events. When Illarionov announced his 2009 list in late December, he should have added another award and given it to Putin: “the Best PR Project of the Decade.”
The Yukos scam was “legal nihilism” par excellence, but most Russians have a completely different version of the event. The Kremlin’s 180-degree PR spin on the Yukos nationalization should be a case study for any nation aspiring to create a Ministry of Truth. As Putin explained in his December call-in show, the Yukos affair was not government expropriation at all, but a way to give money that Yukos “stole from the people” back to the people by helping them buy new homes and repair old ones. Putin, it turns out, is also Russia’s Robin Hood. War is peace. Ignorance is strength.
Putin is the national leader made in heaven. He is the quintessential “kind tsar” who — live on national television — saved factory jobs in Pikalyovo, redrew an oil pipeline route with one stroke of the pen to save the pristine Lake Baikal, and after meeting babushka Pelageya in Ufa raised her pension and then did the same for all pensioners.
He also plays a convincing Terminator, threatening to hang Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili by his family jewels, sending the country’s richest oligarch to jail and chiding the United States to its face during the now-famous Munich speech of 2007.
Putin never lies, steals or even makes a mistake. His reputation is irreproachable. Few Russians know about the corruption allegations brought against him by two Legislative Assembly deputies when he headed the Committee for External Relations of the St. Petersburg Mayor’s Office in the early 1990s. Few know about Putin’s decree two weeks ago allowing the notorious Baikalsk Paper and Pulp Mills, owned by oligarch Oleg Deripaska, to renew operations after being closed down for polluting Lake Baikal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; nor do they know how many of Putin’s friends were given CEO positions in Russia’s largest corporations, helping them make their way onto the Forbes billionaire list in only a couple of years — nor would they believe any of this if they found out about it.
In a rare occasion, Putin responded to Western media reports alleging that his net worth is estimated to be tens of billions of dollars. In his signature style, he said commentators invented this rubbish by picking the information from their noses and spreading it across their newspaper pages and Internet sites. End of discussion. In an open society, these and other allegations would be aired, investigated and made part of the public discussion.
In sharp contrast, look at what happened to U.S. President Barack Obama’s approval rating late last year after the U.S. media had examined his strengths and weaknesses for 11 months: It dropped from a January high of 67 percent to below 50 percent in November. Also, remember Russia’s television during the wild, but free, 1990s — NTV and other independent networks showed every side of President Boris Yeltsin, including his very worst ones, and viewers drew their own conclusions. It is interesting to speculate how much Putin’s ratings would drop if there were a full, open discussion of his record on independent television.
A president needs to earn his political legitimacy by winning in a fierce and competitive battle that includes campaign debates (Putin and United Russia have always refused to participate in debates), free and fair elections, criticism from a real opposition in the parliament and scrutiny from an independent media — above all, television.
The goal of any political PR project, of course, is to manipulate public opinion without the people having even the slightest inkling that they are being manipulated. In this sense, the Kremlin spin doctors — with tremendous help from government-controlled television, of course — get top marks for creating Project Putin. When more than 70 percent of Russians year after year approve of Putin, they do it sincerely, wholeheartedly and without any coercion. Putin is clearly no Kim Il Sung, whom citizens love out of fear.
Russia’s infatuation with Putin was so strong in 2007 that his most avid supporters formed the For Putin movement and begged him to change the Constitution to remain president for life. Although, to his credit, he turned down the offer, he found a way to leave without leaving, and his fans are content enough with the tandem setup to wait it out until the next presidential election in 2012.
There is one Russian national trait that makes the Kremlin’s PR job a lot easier: Many of Putin’s loyal constituency are all too willing to deceive themselves into believing the overly pretty picture that the Kremlin paints of Putin’s infallibility, kindness and omnipotence. Even when Russians experience hardships directly tied to the government’s incompetence, corruption and criminal negligence, “the tsar is always good; it’s the boyars who are bad.” Believing in Vladimir the Great is like believing in a wonderful fairy tale. After all, who wants to listen to Putin’s opponents carping about his mistakes and misdeeds? Why make life more complicated and ugly than it already is? Putin himself put it best a week ago: Russia’s political life should never be “Ukrainized.” Leave the free media that air the country’s dirty laundry, messy debates and political battles to Ukraine.
Of course, a lot of the credit for Putin’s high ratings should go to Putin himself: He is very smart, talented and, indeed, works like a “galley slave.” At times, even the most cynical of all cynics have trouble not falling under Putin’s spell. The attraction is certainly powerful. For example, while watching the first television replays of the Pikalyovo dressing-down scene, they couldn’t resist being captivated by Putin’s apparent wizardry — how he masterfully controlled the meeting, knew all the minute details of the complex contracts and how he put the greedy Deripaska in his place. Bravo! Encore! Only afterward did it become clear that it was a well-orchestrated theatrical performance in which every actor played his role.
To be fair, Putin has certainly done a lot of good things for Russia, but there is a difference between being a good president and being an immaculate or divine tsar. Although Putin has said on several occasions that he doesn’t like being a cult figure, in all likelihood he was being falsely modest.
In the 1939 movie classic “The Wizard of Oz,” the wizard created a God-like image with the help of a machine that generated fire, smoke and a booming voice. He was able to dupe the people for a long time until Toto, Dorothy’s dog, pulled back the curtain that was hiding him and his machine. It turned out that the wizard was a complete sham — a simple man from Kansas pulling a lot of levers.
The wizard’s mistake, of course, was that he had terrible security. If he were smart, he would have made sure that nobody got even close to him and his PR machine. Putin is clearly much smarter than the wizard. He has a team of talented, shrewd “PR technologists” who carefully script his public appearances and deftly spin his image on state-controlled television. He has built a PR fortress that is virtually impenetrable.
Barring a devastating economic crisis similar to 1991-92 that would allow Russians to pull back the curtain and reveal the Wizard of Russia, Putin can rest assured that he can keep pulling those levers for many years to come.