ZOiS Spotlight 21/2017

Is democratic rhetoric in Russia just a decoration?

by Anna Litvinenko 06/09/2017
Journalists at Vladimir Putin's annual news conference. Pressestelle des russischen Präsidenten

It is hard to convince journalists from Russian state media to give research interviews. When you ask them, they usually say something about corporate culture. They are not allowed to give interviews without special permission, they say. It is the same for CNN, they add. The comparison with Western media comes up often in discussions with journalists from Russian state media, who stress they are just the same as their Western colleagues. They talk about business models and audience orientation. And they say nothing about censorship or political bias. If asked directly, they say, ‘But a certain bias is common for all media: CNN and Fox News also have their owners and have limitations because of it.’

When my colleague Florian Toepfl and I began to study the discourse of Russian journalists for our research project Mediating (Semi-)Authoritarianism: The Power of the Internet in the Post-Soviet Space at the Free University in Berlin, we expected to find differences between the rhetoric of Russian and Western journalists. However, it was not the differences but the similarities that struck us. If you don’t know that you’re reading an interview with a journalist from a state news agency, you can mistake it for an interview with an editor from Reuters.

As researchers, we take into account that the way journalists talk to us is different from the way they talk to each other. But it is still the discourse that they articulate to the outside world, and it matters. We observe this pattern not only in the journalistic community but also in political communication: in Russia, democratic rhetoric and authoritarian practices often go hand in hand. Toepfl described this paradox in a recent paper, which made a plea for a discourse-based approach to studies of the relationship between media and politics. As his research showed, democratic rhetoric is prominent in the political news of Russia’s First Channel. Russian TV audiences regularly watch news pieces about members of the President’s Council for Human Rights meeting Vladimir Putin or about officials addressing online petitions. Seen through the TV lens, policies in the country seem transparent and democratic.

Decorating authoritarian practices with democratic words is often perceived as a trick of the regime. Political scientists describe this tactic as a typical feature of modern hybrid regimes. But is it really a tool of the regime, or just the absence of a coherent narrative? When you talk to journalists, especially the younger generation, they seem to be fluent only in the language of democracy. This rhetoric is a legacy of the time of democratic transition that post-Soviet societies went through in the 1990s. The elites have adopted the new language, and now there is no substitute for it. So today, despite authoritarian trends in Russia, political elites still talk using democratic rhetoric. And journalists who were socialised in the 1990s and early 2000s often adopt phrases from Anglo-Saxon journalism textbooks.

It may seem that this is just diluted rhetoric and that it doesn’t really matter what kind of words the elites use. However, this so-called decorative rhetoric does have some power. It was in part this discrepancy between words and deeds that triggered the recent schoolchildren’s protests. In their textbooks, Russian millennials were taught that Russia was a democracy that respects human rights and freedom of speech. They have been listening to this rhetoric their whole lives, and now they are demanding that these concepts should work in the country. And they are not afraid to speak out, because elites still insist that Russia is a democracy.

These young people increasingly stop using state media, which merely imitate freedom of speech. Instead, they create spaces for free speech themselves—on YouTube or in clubs that organise verbal battles between rappers, such as the recent battle between hip-hop stars Oxxxymiron and Gnoyny. Young people also create their own language that corresponds to their reality but seems incomprehensible for older generations as well as for state media. The latter have recently tried to flirt with rappers’ fans, but have failed to reach them. Instead, pro-state media received warnings and fines from Roskomnadzor, the federal service for the supervision of mass media, for sharing YouTube videos containing swear words.

Anna Litvinenko is a researcher with the Emmy Noether Junior Research Group Mediating (Semi-)Authoritarianism: The Power of the Internet in the Post-Soviet Space at the Free University in Berlin.