Blog Post

Outsourcing Propaganda

You may know that a Russian Court has sentenced Russian poets Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Santsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova to two more months in prison. Amnesty International has declared them prisoners of conscience.

Actions of solidarity have been held in many different parts of the world; Australia, Israel, the U.S.A., the U.K., Finland, Germany, Spain, and many other places held concerts and actions protesting their detention. But the Russian government is not retreating. In fact, it is practising the new type of censorship: neoliberal propaganda. Which is not exactly the same as the Soviet-era model of public relations. Rather, Putin has learned from contemporary and postmodern experiences. It is quite interesting to see how the new Russian propaganda is operating 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

On March 31, 2012, Beloit College hosted a conference on “Russia after the Collapse of Communism: Prospects for Liberalization.” Mr. Yuri Dzhibladze, the Founder and President of the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights in Moscow, was the keynote speaker, followed by other researchers and practitioners who have worked in the post-Soviet space. In his speech Mr. Dzhibladze outlined the problems with democracy that Russia is facing today. Although civic participation has increased during last six months, it still remains unclear what are the prospects of democratic development in the country, where the postmodern authoritarian system is still dominating. As in other post-Soviet States, in Russia the elections are most often rigged. Almost the entire population is aware of it. Although in 2012 we have seen some protests against election rigging, Putin’s regime is still quite strong. The regime has almost a complete monopoly on media and commands fear among the population outside Moscow.

Did freedom of expression advance in post-Soviet States? Did media become more independent or free? This question is difficult to answer – but one thing is obvious: government propaganda is still extremely powerful in post-Soviet States, meanwhile there are some small islands of independent press that allow government criticism. The existence of those small media outlets, like “Echo Moskvi’ gives the government the opportunity to assert that media in Russia and other post-Soviet States is free. Naturally this is not true. But the new, neoliberal methods are more sophisticated than traditional Soviet propaganda was. Simply, independent media do not get enough financing from business and it is claimed that their poor coverage is just a result of ‘fair market competition’. But in fact, everyone knows that no business will be able to contribute to the ‘opposition media’ as they call it in newly independent states, because the punishment will follow very swiftly. Tax inspectors or criminal police will show up at their doorsteps and it is a big chance that their license will be suspended. Therefore, most of the "independent," privately owned media is actually more loyal to existing regimes than public broadcasting units.

It is obvious there are some changes in Russia and other post-Soviet countries. However, it is not obvious whether these changes are for the better. Emma Gilligan from the University of Connecticut talked about the human rights situation in Chechnya. It has become very apparent that Russian policy in this autonomous region is heavily relying upon force and in some cases very brutal methods of suppression. Naturally, this has caused a backlash. Hence, for the last 17 years we have witnessed almost a permanent cycle of violence. War in Georgia in 2008 was in a way a continuation of this type of policy, where main purposes are achieved through military force. There are many well-known cases of human rights abuses in Chechnya and this could confirm the fact that there is much work left to do to improve human rights records and establish democracy. Are these facts reported by the independent media? Not really, most of the time the audience relies on the information supplied by “Radio Liberty” or other Western sources. Even though there are some exceptions in the media, but many outlets simply ignore the fact of brutal rule in Chechnia.

As far as corruption is concerned, there are some changes in this area, but again it is difficult to say how positive these changes are. Lauren McCarthy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst talked about the situation with trafficking in post-Soviet Russia and surrounding states. Since the introduction of market economy in 1990 the gap between rich and poor has dramatically increasedthe suffering of ordinary citizens due to socio-economic problems. This in part has contributed to the increase of illegal economies. Drug trade, arms trade and human trafficking has become widespread. In fact Russia and post-Soviet countries became some of the main suppliers of slave laborers. Defeating the problem of corruption and illegal business activities is hard to imagine without thinking about social justice and equal opportunity. The police is still practicing corruption on different levels. In short, the situation has not improved since the decline of the Soviet Union. It has just changed. In relation to the involvement of former Soviet states in international criminal rings such as human trafficking situation has even deteriorated. We can talk about liberalization towards the activities such as prostitution. Yet at the same time neoliberal Russian economy creates conditions when many young women are almost forced into this illegal activity because of the lack of opportunity given by the present socio-economic system. So in this case we can say that with the rise of liberalism, socio-economic rights have declined. How does Putin’s neoliberal media cover these stories? Not much – in contemporary Russia these problems are being ignored – on the contrary, the government claims that it is not corrupt and blames everything on “the Other” – being it the West or some other “enemies of Russia’.

There are some voices today that suggest that Russia is on the path of consolidating dictatorship or moving back to the old, imperial ways of censorship, where it was practically impossible to have an independent voice and media. Joel Ostrow from the Benedictine University made a very interesting case for dictatorial tendencies in contemporary Russia. In fact, former Soviet states very often rely on large and extended security services to maintain stability in their own country. This is more or less true in Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Central Asian Republics, and Belarus. Effective police state and security apparatus is helping the new elite to maintain control over population and solidify its own private property. In fact most of the private capital in these countries is concentrated in the hands of regime loyalists if not the relatives and friends of presidents. This is one of the main reasons for ‘loyal independent media’. Again the ruling parties, such as United Russia maintain the active control of economy and political discourse. Same could be observed in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and other former Soviet States.

Thomas Ambrosio from the University of North Dakota talked about authoritarian consolidation in Russia as the foundation of Putinism. Authoritarian tendencies are very well defined. Military confrontation and the threat from “the Other” remains the main feature of postmodern authoritarian states propaganda. Putin is the one who championed this kind of a rule since 2000, and he was followed by many other former Soviet authoritarian rulers. In fact, those regimes heavily rely on the premise of security and occasionally need military confrontation since they could not survive in a peaceful situation. The main premise for postmodern authoritarianism that could trace its connections with the Peruvian populist leader Alberto Fujimori is a reliance on security apparatus while economic liberalization works to enrich the close circles of ruling elites. In these systems the borderline between political and economic elites is not marked very well and very often they simply overlap.

Many presenters at the conference have agreed that introduction of economic liberalism did not really improve the situation with free and independent media. In some cases it became even more difficult to detect the censorship of government, since many ‘independent media actors’ are doing nationalistic and authoritarian propaganda in much more sophisticated way than Soviet media did. In fact, the censorship is even more consolidated through variety of private TV stations and media outlets. So called ‘electoral autocracies’ have all the appearance of democracy, among them elections for political office, private property ownership and so called ‘independent media’. But in reality these outlets of media are subject to strict commercial censorship that does not allow one to express real opposition to the government and ruling oligarchic elite. In fact, there are many pseudo opposition parties that are given some time on TV, just like Zhirinovski’s Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia or many other small parties. In fact their criticism of the system is not really aimed at authoritarian tendencies, but their lack of authoritarianism. This is why this kind of neoliberal media is more sophisticated than Soviet propaganda. It is more difficult to pinpoint which ‘private’ entities enforce propaganda on their own and who is directly ‘ruled’ by Kremlin.

To use the term coined by Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik, “electoral autocracies” have no more free media than Soviet government did. Their methods of ruling are more difficult to detect and it is more complicated to bring legal cases against this propaganda model. Not just media discourse of the ruling regime, but also the murder of independent journalists has been outsourced to private entities that are held by ruling elites. Outsourcing the Propaganda—that is how I would call this model.

Irakli Zurab Kakabadze's picture

Irakli Kakabadze has been a leading figure in the nonviolent movement for social change in Georgia for more than two decades. 

A member of the Civic Disobedience Committee in 1989 and during the Rose Revolution in 2003, he has since been harassed and detained repeatedly by authorities. 

He is the author of five books and hundreds of essays in English, Georgian, and Russian. His play Candidate Jokola controversially depicted a love story between a Georgian presidential candidate and an Abkhaz woman. He is also an author of lyrics for “Postindustrial Boys,” and, together with Zurab Rtveliashvili, practices a literary performance style called Polyphonic Discourse. 

He taught art and peacebuilding at Cornell University from 2008-2012 and currently teach at the Georgian-American University in Tbilisi, Georgia..