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Patriots against Carlson

Andrei Pertsev sums of the week (February 5−11)

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The Kremlin tried to turn the arrival of right-wing American journalist Tucker Carlson to Russia into a major domestic political event. The media controlled by the presidential administration documented his every move as he went to see a ballet, bought a chicken at a supermarket and visited a kebab shop. Carlson even complained about the allegedly intrusive attention paid to him by Muscovites and advised them to stay at home. This statement was also spread by Russian propaganda. The former Fox News host came to interview Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin’s information bloc has long dreamed of inviting Carlson, for example, as a presenter at the St Petersburg Economic Forum. Besides, the Russia Today television channel, run by Margarita Simonyan, who is close to the head of the information bloc, Alexei Gromov, spread rumors that the American journalist would work for the RT. Simonyan herself is not embarrassed to show open sympathy for Carlson and Donald Trump. It is likely that she or her boss gave Putin the idea of inviting the guy they so clearly fancied for an interview.

For those familiar with the Russian president’s speeches, there were no new theses in this interview. A significant part of it was a lecture on the history of Russia and Ukraine, the main points of which have long been known to internal and external audiences. Ukraine as a state was created by Lenin, and before Lenin it was the Poles and the Austro-Hungarians who had worked to shape the Ukrainians’ ideological outlook. Russia, Putin claimed, was not generally opposed to Ukraine’s association with the European Union, but it was concerned about nationalist movements in the country. Putin once again named the United States as the major force responsible for creating the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The president reiterated that he did not consider European leaders and the Ukrainian leadership to be non-self-sufficient and dependent, and once again recalled that Russia was supposedly ready to join NATO. Carlson (and the entire Western audience in his face) heard Putin talk about Russia’s good relations with China. Putin also repeated that he was ready to negotiate with either Ukraine or the West (it was not clear), but on the Kremlin’s own terms.

The audience for this conversation is primarily in the West, and the Kremlin is making no secret of this. After all, it was not for nothing that the state agency RIA Novosti set up a counter to record the number of times Carlson’s interview had been viewed. The target audience is also clear: conservatives, conspiracy theorists and so on. There are a few of them in the West, but not too many. Putin likes different formats of «communication with the people»: plebescites, meetings with different social and professional groups. The information bloc of the presidential administration has «sold» him the idea of an interview with Carlson as a way to reach «the common man in the West.»

At the same time, Russian propagandists decided to include Tucker Carlson’s visit in Putin’s presidential campaign. The message was clear: there are those who admire Putin even in the most unfriendly countries, and these are not ordinary people, but popular figures. Of course, the propaganda did not mention that these figures are popular in certain, very particular circles. The president was supposed to be portrayed as a figure revered throughout the world, whom people come to visit, bow their heads and listen to his wise speeches. The foreign policy successes that Russia is supposedly achieving are an important line of propaganda. All sorts of forums are organized for this purpose, including a forum for the leaders of African countries. For a while, Vladimir Putin himself has been trying to make as many international visits as possible. Tucker Carlson’s visit to Moscow was supposed to be part of this propagandistic narrative.

However, the information bloc soon ran into a serious problem: the majority of Russians had no idea who Carlson was or that he even existed and hence the aggressive presentation of his visit, with the publication of its smallest details. One the one hand, they tried to make Carlson «one of the lads», someone who loves Russia and goes to supermarkets as regular people do, and on the other, a certain influential figure worthy of dialogue with Putin. Both of these objectives had to be achieved almost immediately. This is where propaganda fell into its own trap. It has long told Russians of a hostile America trying to dictate its rules to Russia and its leadership, with a defiant Putin and his country refusing to bow to this pressure. The propagandists said little about the «good Americans»: they portrayed the US as a generally hostile state devoid of nuances or complexity. And suddenly, out of nowhere, a «friendly American» appeared in this rhetorical construction, and more than that: he supposedly occupies an important position in his country. This thesis was in marked contrast to the previous propagandistic narrative.

Moreover, the attention paid to Carlson began to irritate ultra-patriots and people loyal to the authorities. «For the third day in a row, I have been marveling at something truly astonishing: how the same people who tend to ridicule Ukrainians for genuflecting before European politicians and public figures are carefully recording every step and sneeze of Tucker Carlson in Moscow. He flew in, he ate, he drank tea. How wonderful, an American has come to us! Happiness is here!», wrote Andrey Medvedev, TV presenter and Moscow City Duma deputy representing the «United Russia» party on his Telegram channel. The authors of many other popular Z-channels (pro-war) also expressed roughly the same point of view. All in all, Carlson’s visit and its coverage damaged the image of Putin and the authorities in general in the eyes of the politicized Russian public (especially the patriotic segment of it). The pandering tone of the propaganda showed them the president’s weakness rather than his strength. It turned out that it was Putin himself, not Carlson, who was most interested in the interview. For some reason Putin wants to prove something to the West and America, to get their attention, not the other way round. The ultra-patriots, on the other hand, do not receive such attention from the president. Of course, these revelations will have no effect on the presidential elections: the results have already been virtually pre-programmed by multi-day electronic voting and corporate mobilization. But the story of the rampant publicity surrounding Carlson’s arrival shows that Russian propaganda is becoming increasingly deadlocked and confused in its own ideas. This is partly a consequence of the ideological deadlock of the Putin regime, which has not yet decided on its attitude to the West, the purpose of the war with Ukraine and how to end it.

Nadezhdin has been kicked out of the campaign

The Central Election Commission predictably refused to register Boris Nadezhdin as a candidate for the presidential election. The official reason given was the problems with some of the citizens’ signatures submitted to the commission in support of Nadezhdin’s candidacy, which is a standard part of the procedure. Nadezhdin posed a clear threat to the Kremlin’s KPIs set for Putin’s results: the opposition leader’s support rating in Russian polls was 7.8 per cent and had clear potential for growth. Even before the opposition’s high-profile campaign to collect signatures for Nadezhdin, the authotiries were clearly not going to register Nadezhdin. Back in the summer, the political bloc of the presidential administration decided that Putin should run against the predictable candidates of the parliamentary parties, and only them. The refusal to register Nadezhdin, according to political administrators in the Kremlin, was supposed to be the end of his campaign and promotion. However, Nadezhdin is not resting on his laurels: his headquarters is still in contact with his supporters who have collected signatures in order to sue the CEC and prove the authenticity of the signatures. The Moscow Region MP, who has regained his status as an opposition politician, will continue to influence the news agenda for at least a few weeks. This is clearly taking Putin’s campaign even further away from the originally conceived smooth script of regional trips punctuated by forums and festivals attended by the president. The events with Putin’s participation were supposed to be the highlights, but were eclipsed [by Nadezhdin’s campaign].

The politicized segment of society continues to talk about Nadezhdin. His removal from the presidential campaign managed to eclipse Putin’s interview with Carlson. Pro-government TV channels are forced to spend their airtime working out the motives for Nadezhdin’s dismissal, which distracts them from showing the Kremlin-sanctioned mainstream propaganda line. Nadezhdin’s case and the PR overdrive that accompanied Tucker’s arrival and interview are both examples of how the Kremlin has lost its ability to dictate the agenda even to its loyal audience. The patriotic public does not like what the media managers from the presidential administration have to offer them, and citizens who were previously indifferent to politics are more interested in following Nadezhdin’s struggle to register as a presidential hopeful rather than to Tucker Carlson’s trips to the supermarket to buy chicken and his conversations with Putin.

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