He probably puts the milk in before the tea, too

Foreign Policy has taken a break from its usual schedule of Hillary: She’s Less Awful Than You Think pieces, to tell us about a heinous crime:

OLY-2014-RUS-RUSSIA-PUTIN-POLITICS

Vladimir Putin Doesn’t Actually Care About Saving Leopards 

A high-profile, Putin-backed campaign to protect the habitat of Persian leopards has been quietly abandoned, clearing the way for the country’s richest man to expand his ski resort…

Link.

Now I’m about as pro-fluffeh as political analysts get, but I’m still not 100% convinced that when Putin finally stands before the Pearly Gates, his attitude towards Persian leopards will be the number one item on St. Peter’s charge sheet. It may not even feature in the top five.

Which is a moderately interesting reaction in and of itself. If I had run into this same article on one of the many animal rights sites to which I subscribe (I wasn’t kidding about the pro-fluffeh item – you should see the amount that poorly battery hens and downtrodden milch cows have had off me over the years), I would – right now – be searching for the “donate” button with suspiciously watery eyes.

Reading it on FP, however stirred not a shred of sympathy for the sadly afflicted kitties, merely cynical irritation at the idea that someone felt this was high-quality negative PR.

Seems like Facebook feels much the same way:

Alas, poor leopards. Choose your media outlets more carefully next time.

(P.S. If the political fannying about hasn’t soured you on the idea, you can donate to the leopards here: https://ptes.org/grants/worldwide-projects/persian-leopards-in-iran/ or here: http://www.worldlandtrust.org/projects/armenia/save-caucasian-leopard)

Who wore it better?

Park Geun-hye ice hockey

President Park Geun-hye playing iceless hockey (?) at the Daegu Athletics Promotion Centre.

Leaving aside the oddly surreal fact that an Athletics Promotion Centre apparently features as its key attractions ice hockey without the ice and a virtual reality ski-lift (neither I nor the original article have a convincing explanation for either of these things), what do you think of when you look at this picture?

Was it this?

Putin ice hockey

It’s not as if Putin’s the only politician ever to have played hockey. Nevertheless, what’s interesting here is the way that – whether you approve of his PR or not – he’s raised the macho bar for everyone else.

If he didn’t exist, I would have scrolled wearily past that Park shot as one does with all the millions of pictures of politicians gamely missing easy football penalties that seem to have become an obligatory part of public discourse these days. However, because he does exist I couldn’t see the picture of Park – who, incidentally, is an entirely serious and competent politician – without automatically making a comparison.

In rather the same way that (as Borges tells us) Kafka created his own precursors, politicians create each other, simply by acting as points of comparison. If you’re up against someone wacky, you’ll look duller by comparison. If you’re up against someone stupid, you’ll look smarter by comparison. The audience isn’t making a conscious choice at any point in the proceedings, they’re just situating you within your environment.

Alexander Wendt described the process of identity creation for states as a sort of ongoing battle between their own perceptions of themselves (or how they wish to be seen) and the way that others see them. Seeing Park – who, incidentally, is an entirely serious and competent leader – lining up this shot, it struck me that individuals face the same struggle.

New Year, Old School Cool

Winning the Politicians’ New Year Messages Stakes by a country mile this year is Shinzo Abe, with this impeccable display of old school cool:

This year’s effort from Vladimir Putin was also pretty good – he gets kudos for actually going out into the snow to film it this year, rather than doing it in a studio in which everyone present looks as though they’d rather be removing their own gall bladder with a hammer drill rather than ploughing their way through this dismal charade again (see also under: all Russian tv ever).

Putin New Year address

The end result is definitely up there with Shinzo Abe’s message as the best of the bunch under review here. Sure, the only thing colder than the weather is his delivery, but we weren’t expecting rainbows and unicorns.

Nice coat too.

Park Geun-hye, for her part, did a pretty standard speech hoping for growth through innovation in the year of the red monkey, which only sounds batshit insane if you’re unfamiliar with the Chinese calendar.

Park Geun-hye new year speech

On the other hand, pretty much every South Korean national event involves a military component, and the film of Park honouring the RoK’s fallen soldiers is actually rather evocative, and certainly a classy look for her:

Park Geun-hye incense

There she is putting out her cigarette at the National Cemetery.

Just kidding. She’s burning incense.

Kim Jong Un’s new year message was a pretty standard performance, notable mainly for the fact that no two media outlets were capable of agreeing on whether it was conciliatory or belligerent (see under: choose your own adventure):

Reactions to Kim Jong Un new year speech.

Similarly, the aesthetics of Xi Jinping’s speech were much the same as last year (which we covered in great detail here).

Xi Jinping New Year speech

In fact, if you pay close attention, you will notice that all of the books and photos are in exactly the same positions as last year, arguing strongly in favour of this being a stage set.

Oh, and he also promised that China will be kicking ass and taking namesnot be absent” internationally in 2016, which is pretty ominous however you look at it.

Pranab Mukherjee was also broadcasting from a fake office, and an unsettlingly non-euclidean one at that:

Pranab Mukherjee new year speech

Is that green thing wall or carpet? Are those bookcases resting on the floor or some sort of trompe-l’oeil effect painted onto the plaster? Look at that thing for too long and you’ll find yourself feeling oddly sea-sick. It’s clearly got to Gandhi already.

He also dropped some pretty heavy hints on the subject of tolerance, seemingly directed at Narendra Modi and his followers.

By contrast, Lee Hsien Loong gave his message not only from within the four mundane dimensions of time and space, but inside a real room. He’s been on holiday in Korea for the past two or three weeks, which explains the rather relaxed look (even if the deskless chair makes him look like he’s applying for a job):

Lee Hsien Loong New Year Spech

On the whole, it’s a well-judged and nicely reassuring speech, and worth watching here.

 

Un qui aime et un qui se laisse aimer

So, the whole Trump-Putin bromance thing. What’s that all about?

Brokeback Mountain

No, not that.

During Russian President Vladimir Putin’s marathon annual news conference on Thursday, the controversial leader heaped praise on Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, calling the candidate “tremendous,” “very bright,” and “talented without any doubt.”

By Thursday evening, Trump had released an equally warm statement that would seem to belie the current state of affairs between Russia and the United States:

“It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.

I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect.”

Link.

It’s not the first time that Trump has expressed his admiration for Putin. And, counter-intuitive though it may seem, it’s a solid electoral strategy on his part. We know that people who like maverick, nationalist, right wing populist leaders are remarkably colour-blind when it comes to nationality.

What Trump is effectively saying here is “If I was President, I’d be just like Putin.”

He wouldn’t, of course, which brings us to our second point.

Why is Putin apparently willing to play along with the charade*, providing Trump with an endorsement which he knows will play extremely well with his key electorate?

Well, it could just be that he thinks Trump would be a lousy President and he’s looking forward to eight years of playing against the US on a low difficulty setting. But then, if the Obama administration has taught us anything, it’s that Hillary Clinton’s terrible at foreign policy too. Realistically, there’s little to choose between them.

However, if you’re going to have to face off against one or other of the two then Trump is by far the better bet. Why?

Because he’s predictable.

This may seem like an odd thing to say about someone whose success is based on being a wacky eccentric, but this is, in fact, what will make his foreign policy easy to anticipate and counteract.

The foreign policy of the Obama administration has been more or less impossible to predict, as the Nobel Peace Prize committee will testify. Even with benefit of hindsight, it’s difficult to explain. Not because it is being designed by the mind of a subtle and devious chess grandmaster (as the Atlantic seems to believe) but because it isn’t. There’s no unifying intelligence behind it. Instead, it’s the product of thousands of wonks, pollsters, bureaucrats and diplomats all focused on their own particular bugbears and all screaming at once “YOU HAVE TO DO THIS AND YOU HAVE TO DO IT NOW.” The level of entropy in the system is such that no one, not even the individual at the top, is capable of working out the direction in which it will lurch next. Just like no computer is sufficiently powerful to predict the evolution of chaotic systems, no foreign opponent – however smart – can predict what Obama will do next, largely because neither he nor anyone else in the system knows. There’s every indication that Clinton would be exactly the same.

Trump, on the other hand, tends to ignore advice and go his own way, and outwitting one guy is far easier that outwitting total randomness.

As for which option is best for the US as a whole, I couldn’t possibly say.

*If you want an idea of how the Russian leadership really feels about Trump, try Russia Today.

Here’s something confusing for a Monday morning

Putin gun

Sure, but what’s the margin of error?

Here’s an odd little tale. Just recently this story has popped up in the Russian media:

Early in the morning , I heard an intriguing piece of news on Russian state TV: America loves Putin even more than Russians do themselves! He enjoys an 88 percent approval rating in Russia, but the figure is higher in the United States, the report on Rossia 24 television said.

“A lot has already been said about the incumbent [U.S.] president’s low ratings, a night news anchor said. “He has just been dealt a new below-the-belt blow. An opinion poll by the popular New York Daily News shows that U.S. citizens liked Vladimir Putin’s speech at the General Assembly session better than [Barack] Obama’s speech. Ninety-six percent voted for the Russian president and, accordingly, only 4 percent voted for the American president.”

Link. (I’m not entirely sure why it’s suddenly gained in popularity now, since the original poll and the initial reports on it came out over a month ago.)

If you want the RIA Novosti version, you can find it here.

The story has been picked up by various US right wingers:

Though some sites both in the US and Russia have been more cynical, speculating that the win may have been the result of voting by Russian 50 cent parties or even that the whole thing was a fabrication. Meanwhile, the armchair generals of Reddit have congratulated themselves soundly on seeing through the propaganda.

This is intriguing for a couple of reasons:

Firstly, it’s interesting to see the different spin put on the information by the different media outlets, largely because it reflects the way in which Russia’s PR guys take care to modify their message based on the kind of audience they’re targeting. For instance, while domestic and foreign media use similar techniques and have a similar ethos behind them, the aesthetics and the tone is entirely different. Domestic PR appears ridiculously unsubtle to foreign eyes but in fact plays relatively well to the sort of domestic audiences on whom the sly nudge-nudge-wink-wink tone of something like Russia Today would be largely lost.

If what the blogger says is correct, Rossiya 24 was reporting this as a straight-down-the-line popularity poll, which it obviously isn’t. They can get away with it, however, because they know that 99.99% of their audience isn’t going to go online and check. By contrast, Ria Novosti – which tends to target a more serious, grown-up audience – has given one of the more restrained versions of the story, sticking to the facts without trying to make it sound more than it is. Nevertheless, it has reported it – something that you wouldn’t necessarily expect a serious, grown-up news agency to do for every tinpot little online survey. Perversely, RIA Novosti manages to give the tale more credibility by the mere fact of covering it, even while Rossiya 24 is doing the exact opposite.

Secondly, its an excellent example of how Russia’s soft power strategies have developed under Putin. (Soft power is an over-used term;Russia’s media strategy in recent years is one of the few phenomena that merits it.)

Usually, when you are running a PR campaign you decide on a message you want to put across and then look for the best way to do so. The Russians have not taken this path. Instead they provide us with dozens of different possible messages, theories, conspiracies and hints and allow us to pick the one we like best, while nevertheless leaving us uncertain as to whether or not we have picked correctly.

Even the green-black-and-silver aestehtics of the RT site are borrowed straight from The Matrix, something which its intended audience will definitely register at least on a subconscious level, purely because it is such a familiar part of the demographic’s visual vernacular.

Russia Today aesthetics

There is no spoon

As a strategic response to the widespread perception that the “Washington Consensus” has imposed a single narrative on the world, it is a stroke of genius – like something made up by Umberto Eco (or, more probably, by Vladislav Surkov). They’re just providing alternatives: who could possibly object to that? Their slogan is “question more” because they want us to do just that: ask questions, not come up with answers.

The other side of the coin, obviously, is that when all truths are possible, no possibility is definitively true. The cat is both dead and alive at the same time. In other words, the same strategy works equally well to legitimise alternative narratives as to sew confusion.

Moreover, this is approach to mass communications is not simply a sort of invisibility cloak to conceal whatever is really going on inside the Russian state. It is what is going on inside the Russian state. The maintenance of perpetual uncertainty is central to the current government’s management strategies.

To pick one example: the rumour that Putin funds his own opposition has been doing the rounds for ages. It could be entirely true (it’s what I’d do if I was an autocrat, and if I’ve thought of it then he certainly has), or it could be made up to induce paranoia at a relatively low cost.

I’ve even heard from people who should know that Putin’s PR team has, in the past, pressured polling organisations to reduce his popularity scores to make the numbers more democratically plausible. It could well be true, or they could be putting the rumour about purely in the hope that incorrigible gossips like me will repeat it as widely as possible. Either way: mission accoplished.

Slick moves

Watch this video with the sound on. It’s worth it.

It’s difficult to overstate how much I, as a connoisseur of fine PR, enjoy RT’s work.

I assume that this guy genuinely is a spy of some variety. Not just because he has the too-clean look of a secret policeman (he also looks like he’s openly wearing an earpiece, so he’s probably someone‘s security guy to start with, just going the extra mile with the aid of a retro manbag full of directional microphones), but also because I’m not convinced that RT would decide to out a complete stranger just for the hell of it – for all they know he could well turn out to be a Russian spook collecting audio of a supposedly off-the-record meeting.

Also let’s face it, most of the people in that shot look pretty shady to begin with. You could add the Pink Panther soundtrack to footage of any one of them and end up with something almost as hilarious. If they’re picking on this one individual, we can only assume it’s because they know who he is and want to fuck with his employers.

The power of narrative

Putin's daughter

Here’s a strange article:

Since Vladimir Putin began cementing his grip on Russia in the 1990s, many of his friends have grown famously rich.

Not so the president himself, say his supporters, who insist Putin is above the money grab that has marked his reign. His public financial disclosures depict a man of modest means. In April, Putin declared an income for 2014 of 7.65 million roubles ($119,000). He listed the ownership of two modest apartments and a share in a car parking garage.

His daughter Katerina is doing considerably better, supported by some of the Russian president’s wealthy friends, a Reuters examination shows.

After unconfirmed media speculation about Katerina’s identity, a senior Russian figure told Reuters that she uses the surname Tikhonova. Andrey Akimov, deputy chairman of Russian lender Gazprombank, said he had met Katerina when she was little and more recently, and that Tikhonova was Putin’s daughter.

Reuters has also learned that earlier this year Katerina, 29, described herself as the “spouse” of Kirill Shamalov, son of Nikolai Shamalov, a longtime friend of the president. Shamalov senior is a shareholder in Bank Rossiya, which U.S. officials have described as the personal bank of the Russian elite.

As husband and wife, Kirill and Katerina would have corporate holdings worth about $2 billion, according to estimates provided to Reuters by financial analysts. That wealth stems mainly from a large publicly disclosed stake in a major gas and petrochemical company that Kirill acquired from Gennady Timchenko, another longtime friend of Putin…

(It goes on at some length, for the rest, follow the link.)

So what’s strange about it? Surely a story about a despot in some shonky foreign land enriching his family by corrupt practices is the sort of thing you read every day?

Well that’s what’s strange about it. Given how many things there are to dislike about the Putin government, picking on the showbiz lifestyles of his children seems rather like complaining that there aren’t enough photos out there of him engaging in manly outdoor pursuits semi-clothed. It may well be your considered opinion, but I’m going to look at you in an odd way nevertheless.

wtf dog

The fact is that the family as a whole has consistently strived for anonymity in a way that – if you or I did it – would amount to something close to paranoia. Oddly, and extremely frustratingly if you work in the media, barely any information exists about the daughters, who both hold somewhat humdrum jobs under false names and almost never appear in the press.

In fact, even the Reuters article recognises this much:

After unconfirmed media speculation about Katerina’s identity… There is no indication she has made any personal financial gain from this work… Katerina, Maria and  Kirill Shamalov all declined to comment for this article… We have no information whatsoever about the personal life, family connection… Katerina has largely escaped public attention… Little else was known about her adult life…

But wait, there’s more: “under the name Tikhonova, she is listed as an author, along with other academics, of a chapter in a maths text book and at least six scientific papers”.

It’s like the last days of Rome.

So, in conclusion, both daughters lead disappointingly ordinary lives as academics, probably helped somewhat by family connections but almost certainly to a lesser extent than is commonplace within the former USSR. But you’d really need devote some time to deconstructing the article to work that out. The overarching narative is one of decadence and corruption, to the extent that you really have to make an effort to notice that there’s no actual decadence and precious little corruption (take no notice of those network diagrams – I can produce similar ones for the elite of any country you care to name; that is how elites work).

And this is not necessarily because Reuters is an evil anti-Russian propaganda organ of the US authorities. More likely, it’s just that when you investigate the families of the Russian leadership you go in looking to find decadence and corruption, and if it turns out that they’re actually extremely discreet and – frankly – a tad boring, well that just proves that they have something to hide, doesn’t it?

If you want to criticise Putin for running an oppressive police state, destabilising his neighbours and presiding over a country-wide web of corrupt local fiefdoms, be my guest. If you want to criticise his kids’ lifestlyes, however, you should probably take a look at what people like Chelsea Clinton and Euan Blair have been up to lately first.

See also under: “that’s just not what crime does

Star in a reasonably-priced car

Courtesy of Russia Today:

Breaking small rules: it can do so much to endear a politician to the voters. Consider the famous photo of Jacques Chirac jumping the barrier in the Paris metro when he was Mayor:

Chirac jumping the metro barrier

Obviously it’s a photo-op and he’s not really fare-dodging, but it gets a response out of us because we’ve all jumped the barrier at some point. Yes, even you. Don’t play the innocent with me.

To quote an old post:

He was the authorities, but he retained an air of anti-authority chutzpah til the end. People felt as though he was one of us, even when he was more or less openly manipulating the political system in favour of ‘them’.

Boris Johnson takes things a step further, and manages to get away with serial infidelities by reacting to their discovery as though they were just laddish misdemeanours, more or less on the same level as jumping the barrier on the underground. And, by and large, voters are willing to go along with it. As Paul Goodman put it:

In modern politics unconventional politicians are judged by different rules from conventional ones.

Link.

Even the story about David Cameron putting his cock in a dead pig’s mouth at a Piers Gaveston society party failed to damage him in the way that many of the more puritanical elements on the left hoped. We’ve all done stupid things while young and drunk, after all (even, whisper it not, the holier-than-thou Spartists among us). Quoting Brendan O’Neill:

Dave, King of the Lads. If only he would fess up to his pig thing (if it’s true) and take ownership of it. In 2015, it often feels like the world is ruled by the unworldly, by over-spun politicians, a moralistic media class, and fun-allergic student bureaucrats. Pig-gate gives me hope — hope that behind Cameron’s too glossy veneer there might just lurk a real man. Maybe even a bloke.

Link.

And this is where Barack Obama’s PR people may have made their biggest mistake. No, not in preventing him from fucking livestock, but with regards to a habit that – these days, at least – is almost equally reviled. We all know that Obama smokes at least sporadically, and yet there are no leaked photos out there of him puffing away in the Oval Office

Well, actually, there are, but they’re all poor photoshops. But here’s the thing…

Picture of Obama Smoking a Ciggerette

That’s a fake (for the original, see here), but doesn’t he look a million times more sympathetic in that picture than when standing behind a podium, blandly explaining to us why this latest Middle Eastern bombing expedition really is necessary?

Hell, a cigarette can even soften Kim Jong Un’s image:

Kim Jong Un smoking

So why doesn’t the Obama media machine just let us see him smoking? Well, probably because they’re middle-aged Beltway democrats who wear Fitbits and drink kale smoothies and see smoking as being the next thing to genocide.

For the rest of us poor schleps who are just trying to get through the day and put some food on the table, however, a few pics of the leader of the free world demonstrating that he too has his indulgences would go a long way towards increasing our sympathy for him.

More family photos

Slight variation on the politicians-before-they-were-famous theme: politicians’ kids.

One of Vladimir Putin’s daughters just did her first interview, and a dull business it is too, being pretty much entirely about some university foundation for the promotion of science that she’s involved with.

It’s mostly interesting because it’s thrown up this old shot from some Russian magazine of them when they were kids and – apparently – looked uncannily like their father (if you look at more recent pictures, the ressemblance is barely there).

Putin with daughters

Compare and contrast:

young Putin

(And doesn’t he look as though he’d quite happily have you shot, even in high school?)