Does public opinion matter to authoritarian leaders? Just ask Vladimir Putin. Putin has shown great care in the past several months to hide the deaths of Russian soldiers killed in eastern Ukraine, where he has repeatedly promised that no Russian soldiers are being ordered to fight, in the face of a rising death count. Loved ones and others who attempt to investigate, and in some cases to publicize, these deaths are told to be quiet if they know what’s good for them. Putin’s fear that those opposed to him could sway the public against him have likewise been responsible for the long trail of killings of media and opposition figures over the years, as well as for yesterday’s conviction on trumped up charges of “money laundering” of the Navalny brothers, who have outspokenly attempted to expose the corruption surrounding Putin.
Despite the sky high public support for Putin within Russia that we keep hearing about, his political foundation is much shakier than has commonly been assumed. His careful manipulation of the news media and his unwillingness to countenance any opposing voices evidences this insecurity. Yes, public opinion matters – even under an authoritarian government that attempts to imprison and kill its opponents. In fact, such regimes are many times even more sensitive to public opinion due to the fact that they are by their very nature more brittle and politically unstable than more transparent and democratic forms of government.
Underlining Putin’s appreciation for the power of media to shape public attitudes further is the stark contrast between Russia’s new domestic protectionist legislation targeting foreign media operating in Russia and Russian media expansion abroad. Indeed, his realization of the importance of public opinion is the primary reason the Kremlin has backed so much of the media that shapes public opinion among Russia’s neighbors, which Moscow has been attempting to tie to itself through the Eurasian Economic Union and which Russia is determined not to completely lose either to China or to any other outside power. Russia’s increasing isolation due to its actions in Ukraine and its need for friends is adding urgency to the push on the part of the Kremlin to win hearts and minds.
In Central Asia, pro-Russian media has always been influential, but given the fact that Russia, particularly now that its economy is in free fall, simply cannot compete with China’s economic clout in the region, media is one of the most important tools it has left with which to attempt to maintain some level of influence. Moscow’s increasingly weak hand in the region vis-a-vis China in particular has caused it to double down on its attempts to influence thinking through television, radio and print media. According to M-Vector, a Central Asian polling and consulting firm based in Central Asia as well as in Toronto, Russian media make up approximately 90% of the media consumed by Central Asians every day. This illustrates a powerful ability on the part of the Kremlin to shape within the region public perceptions of Putin, of the various Central Asian leaders (which provides the Kremlin with a powerful point of leverage over the governments of the region), and of Russia’s major competitors in the region, particularly China and the United States. Among other things, pro-Russian media does its best to criticize the United States, contributing heavily to negative attitudes towards the United States, as well as to tie Central Asian leaders that Moscow would like to bring to heel to the allegedly malevolent Americans. Stories in pro-Kremlin periodicals make it a point to spread conspiracy theories about pernicious American involvement in the region, including rumors that regional leaders are secretly working hand in glove with Washington, and to attack US Government-funded Radio Free Europe. China is similarly criticized.
The effectiveness of this constant drumbeat of pro-Putin, anti-Chinese and anti-American broadcasting and print can be seen in the attitudes revealed by polls taken by M-Vector and others. A recent poll of several Central Asian countries sponsored by M-Vector found that US President Barack Obama had a public approval ratings of around 26% or so, depending upon the country, and that Chinese President Xi Jinping had a somewhat higher but still low approval rating of between 31% and 35%. In Kyrgyzstan, President Almazbek Atambayev had an approval rating much higher than either Obama or Xi, at just under 60%. This paled in comparison to the approval rating of Russian President Vladimir Putin within Kyrgyzstan, however, which stood at 90% – a figure even higher than Putin’s approval rating within Russia, which was 85% in July according to the Moscow-based Levada Center. Putin’s approval rating in Tajikistan similarly stood at 85%. People in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also both overwhelmingly perceive Russia to be a more powerful world actor than the United States.
According to a Gallup-endorsed poll taken earlier this year, a Kremlin-backed television station is the 2nd most watched station and most trusted source of political news in Kyrgyzstan, and its popularity is rising while that of the Kyrgyzstan government-backed station is in decline. Given that Russian media played a role in the political discontent that violently ousted Kyrgyz President Bakiyev in 2010, this trend is clearly worrisome for Bishkek’s current leadership and puts additional light on the issue of why the Kyrgyz government, though dragging its feet, has felt that it has “no choice” but to join Putin’s EEU. The fact that internet penetration in Kyrgyzstan is only about 20% adds to the importance of Russian domination of television and print media within the country and minimizes the exposure of the public to alternative sources of information.
As in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Russian television (although not print media) also dominate in Turkmenistan, a media market that is likely the least trusted in the region in terms of having respected, solid content. While the Turkmen government has been friendly to Russia on the surface, there is no affection and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov is unwilling to share the loyalty of his people with Vladimir Putin. Berdimukhamedov has shown a very high level of sensitivity toward public opinion – evidence that his regime’s political foundation, like that of Putin, is fragile. Berdimukhamedov’s sensitivity is such that his government is attempting to force consumers to switch from satellite television, which gives the public a much greater range of information sources, to cable television, which his regime can more easily control. His efforts, however, have been sporadic, partially because they have met resistance in certain neighborhoods, indicating that many in Turkmenistan want the freedom to access their own sources of information and not be spoon fed by the government.
Moscow, attempting to double down on the most effective tool at its disposal for gaining influence within the region, has used its state-owned media conglomerate, Rossiya Segodnya, to open offices in Kyrgyzstan earlier this month for a new media outlet which it has named “Sputnik”. The obvious reference to Cold War rivalry and a Cold War-style clash of ideas says much about the dominant mindset within the Kremlin and the role that Putin sees Russia playing on the world stage. Rossiya Segodnya has announced plans to open media outlets in Tajikistan, as well. In Central Asia, while it is certainly true that the Russian economy is no match for China’s (and the Kremlin’s decision-makers recognize this fact), Russian-backed media dominance clearly has a power all its own that can be ignored only at the peril of Central Asian leaders. It is also clear that Vladimir Putin means to use that power for all it is worth.