On Russian State TV, The Kremlin’s N°1 Pundit Tries To Sell Change Without Change

As the infamous head of the state press agency “Rossiya Segodnya,” Dmitry Kiselyov’s job is to sell the Kremlin’s viewpoint to a foreign and domestic audience. But in the October 1st edition of “News of the week,” the flagship news show of Russian state TV channel “Rossiya24”, the conservative and traditionalist Kiselyov did something slightly unusual: he tried to sell change.

It was a short bit, barely five minutes long in a one and a half hour show, about a dry topic: the gubernatorial reshuffle that saw new heads of regions being elected, and later appointed, in September.

But this reshuffle, Kiselyov argued, wasn’t a purely bureaucratic move: instead, it was the result of a “demand for change in society.” To prove this, Kyselyov rolled out the statistics: 7 of the 8 governors who received more than 75% of the vote in the September elections were newcomers appointed by Putin, he told his audience. By contrast, the “veterans” suffered, and Mordovian governor Vladimir Volkov was merely an outlier (he scored 78% of the vote and has been leading the region since 2012). The people wanted change, and the Kremlin delivered.

The Kremlin’s Dilemma

The need for change in a context of economic stagnation and patriotic fatigue has been one of the year’s main theme, along with the way Vladimir Putin could answer this without putting his own legacy in jeopardy. “Obraz Budushego”, or “Vision for the future” is the latest buzzword in the Kremlin, and it seems the team surrounding Vladimir Putin still has trouble finding a compelling one.

That some change is required is obvious to most of the political elite. At the same time however, fear that deep, structural reforms (advocated by the “economic bloc” of the Kremlin) could lead to instability seems to have paralyzed the authorities. Meanwhile, anticorruption protests spearheaded by opposition politician Alexei Navalny only served to reinforce the Kremlin’s dilemma: how to address Russians’ grievances without fundamentally changing the workings of the state – and risk chaos? In August, the head of a polling agency close to the Kremlin warned that Russia was entering a “dangerous phase” as Russians could start “making demands.”

In this bit, Kiselyov tried to showcase a view of the future that combines change and stability or, rather, change without change. His first argument was that the Kremlin listened to the people’s desire for renewal by appointing new governors. But those heads of regions aren’t just new: they are young, too, between 30 and 43.

“The president has opened the road to the youth”, Kyselyov says, before detailing their qualifications: most of them comes from elite Russian and foreign universities, “speak foreign languages and have compelling experience at the service of the state, as well as in business”. That Nizhny Novgorod governor Gleb Nikitin holds an MBA in business from the Columbia University isn’t hidden or presented as unpatriotic (as it may have been the case before), but on the contrary showcased as an example of the governor’s competence.

Dry Future

The word “technocratic” isn’t uttered by Kyselyov, though it has largely been used in the Russian press (the new governor of the Nenets region said he didn’t think the word was “offensive,” while his 62 years-old counterpart in Krasnoyarsk said he wasn’t “a technocrat, but was young in spirit.”) and is clearly implied here.

The new governors aren’t politicians, corrupted and untrustworthy: they are managers, faceless and efficient. Their work will be evaluated on a purely technical basis with specific criterias of effectiveness that will lead to the governors being ranked “green”, “yellow” or “red.”

This, Kiselyov concludes, “will change for the better not only the style of power, but also the results of the whole country.”

Kiselyov –and, maybe, the Kremlin– seem to bet on the fact that though Russians want change, they would prefer if this change was delivered in an apolitical, painless form. Whether this will be adopted as an actual campaign strategy and later trajectory for the presidency remains to be seen, as governors are often used to “test” ideas. But the more important question is, if it was indeed used, whether this will be enough to compensate for a campaign without any real new ideas or people. That is, without change.

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