The Kremlin's quest for Pravda 2.0

The Kremlin's inability to wage effective information warfare in the international media has not gone unnoticed. It was last year's war in South Ossetia that revealed how unprepared and incompetent the Kremlin's political technologists really are: while Russia may have prevailed on the battlefield, it certainly lost the media battle for public opinion abroad (you could also check Wikipedia's extensive entry on the information angles of that war).

What's worse, Moscow has yet set to discover what a "learning curve" is - it doesn't draw any lessons from its past mistakes. Given that it wasn't the Kremlin's first attempt at PR damage control - the Yukos affair and the Second Chechen war, with its bloody terrorist aftermath, set the highly critical international media mill in action much earlier - one would have thought that by now the Kremlin's technologists would know how to handle (if not manipulate) the international news cycle.

But the Kremlin has learnt nothing from those PR disasters. In fact, it seems that the only source of international media expertise in today's Russia is the press office of Gazprom, whose spokesman - Sergey Kupriyanov - has become a permanent fixture on all Russian and international TV channels, at least during Christmas time (Christmas happens to be that weird time of the year when Russia like to renegotiate gas contracts with its neighbors ). As Christmas hiatus is usually the only time when I get to watch a lot of Russian TV, I can attest that Kypriyanov is as ubiquitous on television as some of Russia's worst pop stars. Ditto BBC and CNN.

Gazprom's sophistication aside, the Kremlin's ability to broadcast its own take on geopolitical events - particularly those involving Russia - is largely non-existent. The launch of Russia Today, a 24-hour English-language news channel, in late 2005, was supposed to bridge that gap; however, the channel is yet to pose a serious threat to CNN International or Al Jazeera. Given its propensity to air conspiracy theories on a daily basis, sometimes it feels more like a TV arm of the LaRouche movement than a serious international news outlet (it's also, perhaps, the only international news channel that actually invites LaRouch himself to air his putrid punditry to the global audience). So far, Russia Today has mostly failed to effectively advance the Kremlin's viewpoint: in times of an international crisis - like the war in South Ossetia - international audiences (at least the sane viewers amongst them) tend to disregard RT's coverage as biased - and they are usually right to do so.

However, the Kremlin's spin doctors seem to have learnt their lessons in last year's war with Georgia. This is the only way to explain a recent decision by the Russian government (article in Russian) to increase its spending on propaganda - most of it on the international level - bringing its total investment in propaganda-related activities to 1.4 billion USD, which is a 33% increase compared to last year. The increase looks even more staggering in the sector of online-only media : their budgets would grow by whopping 75%. Who said Russia was suffering from the financial crisis?

Much of this money would go to the Kremlin's news strongholds like "RIA Novosti" and "ITAR-TASS, who would see their budgets almost double.  Both agencies are increasingly doing more work online, which also explains need for more funding: the Kremlin hopes that their online presence will get much more global (the trajectory of ITAR-TASS's evolution from a telegraph agency to a Web-savvy news platform itself is quite remarkable in itself: the agency has been operating - under different names, formats, and political regimes - since 1904).

"TV Novosti", the entity behind the aforementioned "Russia Today" TV channel, is slated to receive 230 million USD (which is twice as much as last year); lion's share of this money would go towards diversifying its international broadcasting and launching new TV channels in English, Arabic, and Spanish. In case you were wondering: TV Novosti's web-site presents it as an "autonomous nonprofit organization" - it must be one of those cases where money does buy autonomy (this is still a huge pile of money: Russia Today's start-up budget was only 30 million USD and it needed another 60 million USD in its first year of operation). The state-owned print media, on the other hand, would see a funding decrease of almost 15 percent; perhaps, the Kremlin has finally grasped that the future of media is online, not in print. Has Medvedev's decision to embrace blogging played any role here?

What is most surprising about it is that this decision comes at a time when there are plans for radical cuts across virtually all other budget lines in the federal and local budgets; in fact, most Russian bureaucrats are currently busy devising innovative cost-cutting schemes. Increased spending on propaganda - particularly domestically - may be an early sign that public discontent is inevitable and needs to be contained by producing more spin (I even coined a special term to denote this increasing use of online spin by the governments: the spinternet).

Just to put the 1.4 billion USD figure in perspective:  the Russian government is planning to spend the same amount of money across the entire nation to create 1 million new jobs and stimulate employment (a huge chunk of Russia's own stimulus package). In other words, this is a gigantic sum of money and is already raising eyebrows, particularly among those who are asked to make huge cuts to social programs. It is sending quite an ambiguous message to apparatchiks on the ground. The increase in the propaganda budget could mean that the Kremlin is gearing up for another military campaign in the Caucasus and would desperately need to have global public by its side. Alternatively, it coudl also mean that it is preparing for a huge wave of political discontent - triggered by the financial crisis - to sweep the nation and it would need to have more influence on domestic public discourse. Go figure.

From the Kremlin's perspective, the timing of the announcement could hardly be better. As most commercial titles on the  Russian media market are struggling to survive - Smart Money, the country's best financial magazine, has just announced that it is folding; many others have already done so - putting such a big pot of money in front of nervous journalists would surely provide the right incentives.  

It's easy to understand why the Kremlin is getting so uneasy about its inability to control the online public opinion. Internet media is not the Kremlin's stronghold yet; its earlier attempts to embrace it have not been very successful - most of them failed due to incompetent management or poor strategy. For example, earlier this year Inosmi.ru, RIA Novosti's flagship media project that selectively translates foreign press into Russian (often projecting an image of extremely hostile, biased, and incompetent Western press), booted its founder and owner Yaroslav Ognev and replaced him with US-educated and media-savvy Maria Pustilnik. This triggered a very hostile response from the Inosmi community; what used to be one of the most popular news sites on the Russian internet quickly disintegrated, with the most aggressive fans of the Ognev empire even launching DDOS attacks on their favorite site. Inosmi still operates but members of its community have moved elsewhere and it would take a miracle to return it to its former status. 

In Inosmi's case RIA Novosti's intervention has been a disaster, even though it's not yet clear whether Ognev himself may have volunteered for a new job, as he claims. In the current circumstances, this seems quite possible: after turning Inosmi into the flagship project of Russia's Internet, Ognev has now been tasked with revitalizing The Voice of Russia, which is the Kremlin's languishing radio service that broadcasts in 32 languages in more than 160 countries. Ognev's chief task at the Voice of Russia would be to build its Internet presence (he would need to do it from scratch as he himself acknowledged on his blog); given his excellent track record at Inosmi, he may as well succeed. That the Kremlin would turn to the medium of radio (which is, more or less, dying in the West) to project its soft power around the globe tells us something about the regions which may be of increasing interest to Russia's geopolitical mavens: Africa, much of Asia, and Latin America. 

The reshuffling of new media personnel inside the government's media empire demonstrates that the Kremlin has largely succeeded in producing (or luring away from commercial companies) at least a dozen of talented and Web-savvy political technologists who are now fully prepared to take reigns of the country's Web and media empire.

One such rising star is a 32-year-old Askar Tuganbayev who made a very smooth transition from being one of the founders and top executives of RuTube (the most popular Russian alternative to YouTube) to being one of the most powerful Internet gurus inside the state media empire. In March 2008 Tuganbayev was put in charge of the entire internet activity of VGTRK, Russia's giant media conglomerate, which spans several TV channels, radio stations and, most interestingly, the RIA Novosti news agency. Currently Tuganbayev spends most of his time curating the activities of "Bibigon", a state-owned channel for children, which, itself, is a very interesting venture, probably designed to brainwash the younger generations from early on. 

While much has been said about the Kremlin's attempts to establish control over LiveJournal (I've also been guilty of speculation on this front), the most important blogging platform in the country, so far it seems that its technologies simply do not have the vision to steer it in any direction that could produce tangible political benefits. So while LiveJournal passes from one Kremlin-friendly oligarch to another, it's yet to come up with a business model that could actually make it sustainable (the company recently laid off much of its staff and moved out of its glamorous and extremely expensive Moscow office).

But even if SUP - the company behind LiveJournal - doesn't make much business sense, it has been very useful as a training ground for Internet-savvy media managers that could then go and join the Kremlin's own projects. This, perhaps, has been its most significant contribution to the Russian internet. For example, Marina Pustilnik, the aforementioned new manager of Inosmi.ru is a SUP alumnus; other SUP alumni could surely find employment in Kremlin-affiliated media companies as well (if they haven't already quietly done so).

However, direct state support to various online ventures is only the most visible layer of ways in which the Kremlin tries to manipulate cyberspace. In what could be a textbook example of classical economics, the Kremlin's most successful new media projects have so far been started and run by for-profit companies that had strong connections to the the Kremlin. Those companies usually attract bright Web developers, pay well, and actually adjust themselves to the needs of the market - very much unlike the heavy state-owned media structures like VGTRK.

This is, for example, how Konstantyn Rykov's new media empire has come into being: a host of commercially sustainable popular projects, ranging from news sites like Vzglyad to Internet television like Russia.ru (Russia.ru's viral vidoes came in very handy during the war in Georgia; a few months after the war it also released a short documentary "War 08.08.08", which almost instantenuously went viral as well). Rykov himself has made a very successfull move from counterculture (one of the founders of the edgy site fuck.ru) to policy-making (a well-respected member of Duma - actually one of its youngest ones), showing all other aspiring Internet technologists that they could be very well compensated - both financially and politically - for their service to the country.

Combining Rykov's efforts with a new host of state-owned online projects run by smart, entrepreneurial, Western-educated, and practical managers may actually help the Kremlin to establish strong and global online presence. Given Medvedev's own displays of affections for all things digital - from Apple computers to blogs - it's quite likely that we'll soon be seeing new and extremely innovative forms of onine propaganda. Pravda may be dead, but Pravda 2.0 is already in the making. 

photo by surfstyle/Flickr