In Russia, a spoonful of propaganda helps the pension reform go down


This is how the Kremlin enacts an unpopular economic reform: deny responsibility, declare its inevitability and, yes, distract the public with a popular sporting event.

Иван Давыдов
12 July 2018

1 July, protest against planned pension reform, Omsk. Source: Navalny.com.Finally, Russian citizens can taste some of the bitter fruits of the Kremlin’s confrontation with the west: it’s clear that the government’s planned pension reform are just the first of a series of coming unpopular policies.

On the one hand, having transformed the presidential elections into a test of loyalty, Vladimir Putin now has, in effect, the right to make any move. But on the other, the authorities have nowhere to move – there is no money, as Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev famously noted.

The pension reform is thus a kind of testing ground, an opportunity to develop new forms of propaganda to accompany decisions by the authorities which will definitely be unpopular among Russian society. Even according to polling data from VtsIOM (hardly the most independent of pollsters), up to 80% of people surveyed are against the reform. And this makes the reform doubly interesting.

The faceless authors of pension reform

Aristotle believed that some unpleasant animals are born from dust and dirt alone, without creators. The same thing seems to apply to Russia’s pension reform. The reform has many defenders, but the authors are never in sight. State and regional deputies, officials, TV presenters and even representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church all agree: raising the retirement age is definitely a blessing. But there is no person in power who would go out to the people and say: “Yes, and this is my decision.”

Putin’s silence on the subject is almost comic. And this is quite sad for the national leader – his ultra-loyal electorate is ready to let him unleash almost anything, but Russia’s authoritarian leader doesn’t have the right to be funny. As his press-secretary Dmitry Peskov has constantly stressed: “The president is not involved in the pension reform.”

Putin’s most loyal electorate – it’s currently interesting to watch their activity on social media – have already begun asking their leader unpleasant, even offensive questions. These people supported all the president’s previous decisions, approving any and all of his actions and promising to put up with any difficulties – as long as these difficulties could be explained via the “external enemy”, scared into action by our “successes”. These groups were ready to forgive even the lack of radicalism – the fact that our tanks aren’t yet in Kyiv, and even the fact that the “fifth column” has not yet been crushed by bulldozers, like Polish tomatoes and French cheese. They came up with reasonable justifications for the leader’s false restraint.

But the first sign of alarm for this section of the president’s supporters was the re-appointment of Dmitry Medvedev, the “liberal” who is deeply unpopular among this section of the population. Then the news of the pension reform was, first, completely unexpected, and second, an attack on this group. The Russian state betrayed the hopes of the super-statists, and this time without any pressure from outside. This is precisely how the most loyal (and importantly, sincere) Putinists are experiencing and describing these post-election reforms. And these people are bigger Putinists than Putin.

It will be hard to convince the Russian public that the president did not know anything about the preparation of this unpopular reform

And this means that the standard scheme of “Good Tsar, bad boyars” is showing some cracks. Sources close to the presidential administration and the government hint that, in the end, Putin will intervene. By autumn, Putin will decide to “work on the reform”. He will slap the government on the wrist, then give Russian citizens some minor concessions.

But this approach will not mitigate the situation so easily. It will be hard to convince the public that the president did not know anything about the preparation of this unpopular reform. After all, the government did not exactly originate from dust.

Neither the ruling party nor the government want to take responsibility for this reform. With this is in mind, leaders of the ruling United Russia party held a recent private meeting – the aim was to explain to regional leaders how to react to the reform. The information about that closed meeting reached the press. One of the key points was “to avoid theses about the support or approval by the party of pension reform in any formulations”. An important and ironic point: Medvedev, both the leader of the United Russia and the prime minister of Russia, attended the meeting. That is, the head of the government, who was preparing the reform, also does not want to recognise his responsibility for it.

Zealous defenders

This strange “shyness” does not in the least prevent United Russia from cracking down on opportunists in the party ranks. For example, Mikhail Borovitsky, the head of the Yaroslavl branch of the United Russia, dared to doubt the meaningfulness of the reform. Borovitsky was immediately sacked.

After all, this reform might be lacking a father, but it has many admirers. Serious media support has been thrown at explaining why these reforms are necessary and inevitable. There are arguments for every season: some rational, others idiotic and even openly derisive of the target audience. (It is not easy to tell which is which). Thus, one Orthodox priest explained that increasing the retirement age was cast upon Russians for their sins. One of the leading state propagandists, Dmitry Kiselyov, stated on his flagship Sunday show that people should not be allowed to discuss this reform at all. This, Kiselyov noted, is the preserve of experts and specialists.

Lawmakers are also using outlandish arguments to do with sin and atonement. United Russia deputy Yevgeny Fedorov believes that the reform is a punishment. What for? For those Russians who betrayed the USSR in its time, allowing it to collapse. Russia’s Ministry of Health explains that having the opportunity to work longer will keep Russians in an optimistic mood for longer. At the same time, the ministry explains, prolonged economic activity will keep men from drinking themselves to death. (It will also keep women from getting depressed apparently). Vyacheslav Volodin, Speaker of the State Duma, asserts that the reform is for raising the standard of living for pensioners.

Equally interesting are the presidential administration’s notes for hired bloggers. These were leaked online, and recommend special emphasis on how pension payouts will now gradually increase.

World Cup cover-up

An honest debate over what made all these reforms necessary is impossible – this would prove too damning of the Russian government’s track record. To mitigate the effect of political protests, the Kremlin’s pocket trade unions were given a green light to hold rallies. That sets the stage for “constructive dialogue” between the authorities and the workers. An easy arena for Putin to be the conciliatory presence.

Real attempts to protest at the same time are restricted. Moscow City Hall clamped down on a procession planned for 18 July in the city centre. The rationale? The city is hosting World Cup related events. But the World Cup will end on 15 July, not the 18th.

The World Cup is playing another part in easing the passage of pension reforms. Russians heard the news of retirement age increases on the opening day of the tournament. As Russia’s national team beat Saudi Arabia 5-0, the authorities revealed its plans. The calculation was that unpleasant news would be either sweetened or pass by unnoticed. But that did not work entirely. Independent media channels did pick this up. So did some Russian fans who chanted “Pensions! Pensions!” along with “Russia! Russia!”

The calculation did work, however, where the Russian authorities did not expect. Bloggers and publicists known for their radical opposition views were angry at their less principled associates who allowed themselves to watch football. All the while, these bloggers claimed, the regime continued to plunder the country. Most dwelt on whether an honest person can cheer for the Russian national team. Equally, they asked if the World Cup fever that seized the host cities is evidence of patriotic hysteria and militaristic frenzy. As a result, all the anti-pension reform protests that Alexey Navalny held in 39 cities on 1 July passed by without fanfare.

The latest scheme of how the Russian regime seeks to win approval for unpopular economic measures is gradually emerging. Such measures will appear by themselves – as if by magic, out of nowhere. They will not be bound to representatives of the authorities, and especially – will have nothing to do with the president. Those measures will then be framed as justified, meaningful, and even supposedly useful to Russians. Then the authorities will distract the Russians, by any means possible, from discussing those measures in a thoughtful manner.

Meanwhile, for Russia’s state propagandists, an increase or decrease in protest activity will, it seems, be the most reliable measure of success.


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