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Khakassian nullification of Putin’s power vertical

Andrei Pertsev sums up the week (August 7−11)

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The problems of the presidential administration in Khakassia are still here. In September, the region will hold elections for the head of the republic and the republican parliament. We have already written about the high-ranking representatives of the local elite who are moving into the opposition to the Kremlin and to the «United Russia» party. Influential members of the «United Russia» who had been hurt by the federal center and its candidate for governor, Sergei Sokol, switched to the side of the incumbent head of the republic, Communist Valentin Konovalov. They also chose to run as Communist Party candidates in the regional Duma elections. Parenthetically, Sokol is an MP from the «United Russia» party and a «Varangian» of sorts: just like these Scandinavian voyagers who were «invited» to rule Rus’ in the 9th-10th centuries and established the Rurik dynasty, Sokol, too, is not local and is essentially a carpetbagger, «imported» from elsewhere to run for this office. Among these dissenting defectors is Vladimir Shtygashev, the longtime speaker of the regional assembly and number two on the Communist Party list. Federal officials who support Sokol visit the region, and the federal government sends him public signals of support. The Kremlin is trying to present its candidate as an effective lobbyist for Khakassia in Moscow: this is a familiar technique for positioning «Varangians», and it often works. But not in the case of Sergei Sokol, though.

According to ratings published by Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), one of the Kremlin’s main sociological contractors, the region is almost guaranteed to see a second round of gubernatorial elections, and Konovalov’s popularity is still higher than that of the «United Russia» party candidate. However, the data quickly disappeared from the VTsIOM’s website, and pro-Kremlin experts began commenting on UR’s good ratings as an achievement of their gubernatorial candidate.

At the same time, the presidential administration is trying its best to get Sokol elected: he took part in the war against Ukraine, and the Russian authorities demonstrate every chance they get that going to the front is the most reliable means of social mobility for officials and politicians in modern Russia. Alexander Kharichev, head of the division of operation of the State Council in the administration of the president, (a key political structure of the Kremlin), has embarked on a business trip to the republic. Officials of this level sometimes travel to the most problematic electoral regions, but these visits are unofficial and do not get covered by the media. More often than not, acts of disobedience can be quelled with threats and promises behind the scenes. In 2018, after Kharichev’s visit, which was not officially announced, the LDPR candidate for governor of the Khabarovsk region, Sergei Furgal, announced that he would work in the team of the then acting head of the region, Vyacheslav Shport, and actually stopped campaigning. In the end, this did not help Shport; Furgal won anyway, but under pressure from the presidential administration the LDPR leader curtailed his active campaign and campaigned for his rival.

This cannot be said about Khakasskaya Kharichev’s trip: his angry remarks about administrative pressure from the Communists were published by both local and federal media. He intimidated the Communists and local elites who supported Konovalov with threats that he made sure were as public as possible. The signal sent by this presidential administration official is quite clear: «Let us win this election the easy way, or we will punish you.» The shift to explicit public threats is an extreme measure on the part of the Kremlin; it shows that despite the war and the rising tide of repression, the political bloc is threatened by the prospect of seeing its candidate lose the elections (and possibly the prospect of seeing «United Russia’s» candidates defeated in the parliamentary elections) and is beginning to play hardball. In a sense, Kharichev’s signals are a gesture of desperation and weakness.

Local elites sensed this weakness. After the Kremlin official’s visit, Igor Naidenov, mayor of the Khakass town of Sorsk, left the ranks of the «United Russia» party. He criticized the party of power and its nominee, essentially supporting Konovalov. The case of Khakassia is noteworthy because it illustrates one of the scenarios of a possible collapse of Putin’s power vertical. Having started the war, the Russian president put the system in a mode of extreme tension, but even before February 2022 he already stressed and frustrated the system with his whims, such as voting on amendments to the Constitution enabling him to run for the office again and again. The strained elites are willing to play along (the aforementioned Konovalov supports the war), but they would like to see some reciprocity. In return, however, they receive threats and pressure. At some point, these threats cease to work, and elites and citizens begin to act in their own interests. In the case of Khakassia, influential politicians want to see Konovalov, who is understandable and familiar to them, rather than Sokol, a stranger [imposed on them by Moscow], as the head of the region. Local residents prefer the «local and honest» (Konovalov’s campaign slogan) to a carpetbagger lobbyist. Both the stick in the form of threats and the carrot in the form of promises of federal aid do not work in such conditions, although the power vertical has long been relying on this combination as one of the main tools.

Khakass elites and citizens want the Kremlin to leave them alone and stubbornly pursue their agenda. The political bloc of the presidential administration has no good way out of this situation. The removal of Konovalov after threats and pressure will be a recognition of the fact that the Kremlin technologists cannot win even by the rules that they themselves have formulated and established. Konovalov’s arrest after the election will be a sign of even greater weakness. Falsifications in Sokol’s favor entail the risk of mass protests, and again this is proof of weakness. Sokol’s defeat is a serious blow to the campaign to promote the «veterans of the Special Military Operation» but this scenario entails the least significant negative consequences for the Kremlin. In this case, the failure of the power vertical and its collapse in one particular region may not be noticed in other constituent entities of the Russian Federation (although it is far from certain that other regional elites are not watching what is happening now in Khakassia). If the collapse is loud, everyone will notice the Khakassian nullification of Putin’s system of territorial management.

Propaganda starts at school

Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov and former Culture Minister and current Vladimir Putin aide Vladimir Medinsky have unveiled a new history textbook for Russian high school students. Medinsky called it a «state textbook» and said it was the first such manual since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Schools could, in fact, teach history (as well as other subjects) using different textbooks, including books that agreed with the Kremlin’s official interpretation of historical events. Now teachers have been given a signal: there is a «state» textbook, the only correct one, created by their own bosses. The majority of Russian public sector employees (i.e. teachers in public schools) will inevitably start using it in order not to fall out of favor with their superiors (i.e. principals, headmasters, and officials of education departments) and not to appear as a «black sheep» among their colleagues.

Officials rushed to hold the presentation before the start of the school year. Not so long ago, Kravtsov promised that the new manuals would not appear until the end of the war with Ukraine. However, the books are out, and there are pages devoted to the war, or as Russian officials call it «Special Military Operation» (the textbook also use the euphemism SMO to talk about Russia’s war against Ukraine). The message of the textbook is exactly the same as the state propaganda. The authors of the textbook do not really hide it. «When we talk about today’s events, life requires appropriate assessments. The textbook gives the assessments that the state gives today,» Anatoly Torkunov, one of the authors of the textbook, rector of Moscow State Institute of International Relations, told journalists.

Following the propaganda, the textbook authors call Ukraine an «ultra-nationalist state» where «any dissent (…) is severely persecuted, opposition is banned, and everything Russian is declared hostile.» The book tells high schoolers that «everything that in one way or another testifies to the common history and culture of the brotherly peoples is destroyed.» Russia, the textbook argues, tried its best to establish friendly relations with Western countries, helped Europe to ensure its energy independence (from whom, though, is not specified), supplied it with oil and gas. In fact, the United States is declared guilty of starting the war because it allegedly wanted to deprive Europe of its «energy independence» and started helping Ukraine. Russia was supposedly forced to start the war to stop the «resurgence of Nazism» in the neighboring country. Teachers will tell students that the launch of the «SMO» was supported by the majority of the population, while the war against the Russian army is being waged by Ukrainian Armed Forces replenished by foreign mercenaries and instructors: ideologically brainwashed, equipped with NATO weapons and trained according to NATO standards.

Russia’s modern history is presented in a propagandistic way. There are no negative aspects to it at all, everything has been good all along. For example, the Soviet period is described in the textbook’s introduction as follows: «The progressive development of the economy combined with the achievements of science and technology in the 1950s-1970s made our country one of the two most influential powers in the world. The Soviet Union reached unprecedented heights: it opened the way to space for mankind and achieved impressive achievements (tautology in the original) in the development of science, medicine and education.» The authors do not shy away from mentioning Stalinist terror, the persecution of dissidents under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, and the problems of the stagnation period. But they are obscured by a common framework: the USSR became an «influential power» and «reached unprecedented heights.» Against this background, details pale and fade, and schoolchildren are expected to see these «isolated shortcomings» (as it was customary to say in the Soviet times) as unfortunate misunderstandings against the background of general Soviet prosperity.

This whitewashing of Russian history is characteristic of Vladimir Putin: he is very cautious in his assessment of Stalinist repression. The Russian president wrote an essay arguing that the USSR was forced to sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and that the Soviet Kremlin was pressured by Western countries to sign a treaty with Nazi Germany. For Putin, to justify the actions of the state means to justify the actions of its government, and vice versa: the authorities act as they do because they have the interests of the state in mind. Whether he means it or not, the Russian president is trying out this belief when considering his own rule, and of course he wants to be on the right side of history, at least, on the good pages of his textbook, which will be used to teach history at Russian schools. It is noteworthy that the authors of the textbook were guided first and foremost by Putin’s own tastes and views of history, which they also want to inculcate in schoolchildren. They not only repeat Putin’s slightly reformulated thoughts, but also use direct quotes from him, for example, when calling Ukraine «anti-Russian.» It is half a step from where Russia is today to the Soviet era, when General Secretaries of the Communist party were quoted left and right.

The propaganda role of the textbook is not limited to history alone; it contains direct appeals and agitation. «With the departure of foreign companies, many markets are open to you. Fantastic opportunities for a career in business and your own start-ups are open. Do not miss this chance. Today Russia is truly a country of opportunities,» the textbook’s authors encourage schoolchildren. They also speak about «foreign agents» who work against Russia’s national interests and are paid by foreign agencies, and criticize those in opposition to the regime. «Just think about it: why, for what purpose does this or that „member of the opposition,“ „opinion leader,“ or „popular blogger“ produce staged videos, fake photos, and news, and what do they get in return for their services? In whose interest do they act? Think about it. And if you do, you won’t fall prey to their cheap manipulations,» urges the new textbook says.

The History textbook, published by the Ministry of Education and the Kremlin, proves that propaganda in Russia is reaching a new, totalitarian level. Russians are literally beginning to receive political information at school, and teachers will evaluate the «correctness» of their knowledge. In higher education, ideological studies will continue: the political bloc of the presidential administration has prepared a new subject for first-year students called «Fundamentals of Russian Statehood.» There they will learn about the «collectivism» of the Russian people, their inherent «willingness to sacrifice themselves,» Russia’s «messianic role,» and the usual: the plots and intrigues against Russia hatched by the evil West.

The Kremlin knows that young people are the most protest-minded part of society, and they have access to independent and objective information on the Internet. The authorities are fighting this as best they can. More precisely, political managers-technocrats offer a solution to the problem in the taste of the country’s aged leadership. These solutions are well known: young people are supposedly critical of the world because they have been badly educated, so the necessary attitudes should be taught in childhood, and not just taught. Students should be assessed as to how well they have internalized the «correct» worldview. However, propaganda in schools and universities did not work well even in the Soviet era, when there was little access to alternative information. Ideological subjects were the most unpopular in universities and schools: students saw the discrepancy between the picture of the world painted by propagandists and reality. This is going to be the case this time, too. Discussions about the «country of opportunities» will clash violently with the high-school students’ personal knowledge about the arbitrariness of law enforcement and inequality plaguing Russian society. While the textbook urges its readers to «think» about the words «member of the opposition» and «blogger», it may as well achieve the opposite result: even those students who are not interested in politics will want to explore «the forbidden fruit.» Political managers and education officials understand this; after all, they, too, were children and teenagers in the Soviet times, who loved listening to «forbidden» Western music and dreamed of jeans and chewing gum. But they also understand something else: in order to stay in the system, they have to cater to the tastes of one particular person [on top of it], otherwise more zealous careerists will offer their own alternative solutions to the problem at hand.

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