Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in! I’ve decided to write one more article about Russia-related stuff (for the foreseeable future) just because I recently saw another example of a trope that never seems to die and I don’t think I’ve ever actually dedicated a whole post to it. Before I proceed let me point out that I’m not trying to single out any particular author here. I’ve seen this trope and variations thereof many times over the years, and in my less-informed days I’d actually voiced similar arguments. With the disclaimer out of the way, let’s jump in.
Among Western Putin apologists there’s a grand tradition of smearing Western Russia correspondents by pedantically homing in on any mistakes, real or imagined, in their work. The idea is that they’re actually ignorant about Russia, that they have an axe to grind against poor wittle Putin. To be fair, some journalists, usually those not actually based in Russia, can display horrendous ignorance about the country. Case in point:
However, when attacking long-time Moscow correspondents, the grievances are typically unfair, inaccurate, nitpicky, or all three at the same time. When there’s a major election in Russia, Putin’s pedants rehash the same trope every time- they complain that the Western media gives so much attention to non-systemic opposition candidates who in fact are very unpopular and have no chance of winning.
In support of this claim they will provide plenty of legitimate opinion polls. Rest assured you can usually take these polls at face value; they’re typically correct. It’s no secret that opposition politicians in Russia are incredibly unpopular, indeed far less popular than the two leading systemic-opposition parties the “Communist” Party of the Russian Federation (I can’t put enough quotes around the word “Communist” in their name) and the equally inappropriately-named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. So why does the Western media focus so much attention on politicians who have no chance of winning and are almost unheard of outside of Moscow? Apparently someone actually needs to explain this, so here goes…
First let me say that the inspiration for this comes from a tweet thread by David Filipov, Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post, in which he addressed this very question.
In case that didn’t make it painfully clear to you, let me break it down to preschool level.
In an election, a real election, candidates are supposed to compete. That means they actually want to be president. Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky have no plans to be president of Russia. If you deny the existence of systemic opposition in Russia you are either ignorant or a liar- period. While there is sometimes opposition at the local level and in the Duma, none of the systemic opposition parties pose a threat to Putin and his favored United Russia party. None of them plan to do anything to change the system that basically lets Putin do what he pleases as long as he wants.
Those opposition candidates, in spite of their minimal popularity, actually do want to change the system in some way. They actually intend to be real politicians. It’s kind of the media’s job to interview candidates, ask them about their ideas, why they want to be president, a representative, or whatever. Unless we’re talking about the Russian state media, of course.
And speaking of state media, it might be time to ask why these politicians are so unpopular. Apart from occasionally appearing on talk shows while they are mercilessly shouted down by other guests, most major opposition figures in Russia almost never appear on TV unless it’s in a bullshit story alleging that they’re working for the CIA, Soros, the YMCA, or whatever other organization the Kremlin is scared shitless of this week. All the while they and their volunteers are routinely harassed and their offices searched or closed under suspicious circumstances. Meanwhile the perpetrators are either never found or are promptly released.
Remember that the Putin apologists who constantly whine about the Western media devoting so much attention to minimally-popular opposition candidates are at least tacitly asserting that Russia has a functioning democratic electoral system. If they aren’t, I don’t know why they even bother, but let’s assume for the moment that they do. If this is the case, why are Russian elections so bizarrely different from those in other democratic states? Why are the second and third most popular presidential candidates not even interested in actually becoming president? Hell, one of them (Zhirinovsky) actually called for elections to be abolished and for Putin to be given the title of “Supreme Commander.” Can anyone imagine a Republican in the US suggesting such a thing for Obama? Can you even imagine them just calling for Obama to be able to run for a third term? The scandal would be at least equal to the one surrounding the Trump administration at the moment.
So please, Putinist pedants- stop pretending Putin’s regime is just a little quirky or just as democratic as other states and wringing your hands while presenting polls to show how unpopular candidates like Navalny are. We all know they’re unpopular, and anyone who knows about Russia’s political an mass media system knows why. To para-phrase Filipov, if you think there’s another candidate Russia correspondents should be spending more time covering, please name them and explain why. What is newsworthy about them? And to extrapolate from that- if you’re not happy with the stories that Western journalists cover, maybe you should provide examples of the stories you think should be covered and again, say why. I’ve often written about my complaints about some of that coverage and I give my reasons.
Otherwise, I suggest you drop that trope and stick to your whataboutism. At least there you’re more likely to come up with a decent point from time to time.