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)

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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 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.

More on Russian opinion polls

Public opinion in Russia

We’ve mentioned the odd world of Russian opinion polls here before.

If you’d like to read more on the subject, here’s a fascinating piece by the Levada Centre’s Denis Volkov, translated by Meduza:

“I don’t believe that Putin’s approval rating is 86 percent!” We hear this phrase endlessly from commentators in Russia and abroad. But interpreting these ratings isn’t a question of faith, but a detailed analysis of all the available sociological data collected throughout Vladimir Putin’s time in power. When non-sociologists discuss the president’s ratings, they usually look at indicators from the past few months, selecting the most dramatic of these figures—Putin’s 86-percent approval rating as president)—without taking into account many other related questions. In doing so, they arrive at the flawed conclusion that Russians ardently support any decision by the authorities.

These misinterpretations usually go like this: instead of digging into the details and trying to reconcile the entire mass of conflicting data, commentators simply express their doubts about the honesty of the sociologists who conducted the poll, the validity of the poll’s sociological methodology in the Russian context, or the candor of the poll’s respondents. At the same time, they automatically classify the 10 percent of the population that doesn’t support Putin and opposes Russia’s reunification with Crimea as “the democratic minority,” which exists in opposition to a majority that’s composed, of course, of philistines and bellicose patriots. This interpretation crumbles, however, under the scrutiny of a careful analysis of the data.

First, let’s say a few words about whether respondents are afraid to answer our questions. Respondent dishonesty is difficult to assess, but the important thing to remember is that it is a constant. Most of the surveys conducted by the Levada Center (or by any other polling company) hold to the same methodology: they make use of personal interviews conducted at the homes of respondents. People’s accessibility (that is, their willingness to take part in surveys) hasn’t changed in the past 20 years. The same number of people open their doors today as did two or five years ago; as before, almost everyone shares their contact information at the end of the interview, so it’s possible to verify that the survey was carried out. Routine, multi-level controls (statistical, analytical, and by telephone) are standard procedure in any large research agency, and they allow us to monitor the quality of the work done by the interviewers.

Much depends on how the interview is designed: if questions about support for the president are going to be taken out of context, it can make respondents uncomfortable. But placed among questions about the economy and about the state of affairs in the country, in a person’s city, or in their household, they can work quite smoothly.

(Continued…)

Link.

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

It’s what you do with it that counts

Forbes’ annual power list is out:

Forbes power list

Link.

There’s nothing wildly shocking in there compared to previous years, but what is interesting are the criteria that Forbes uses to define someone as “powerful”.

Notably, three out of the top five spots – specifically 1, 2 and 4 – are occupied by people who took on roles that were not hugely promising at the beginning, but which they have since made their own in various interesting ways.

In no way is it evident that the President of Russia, the German Chancellor or the Pope should be so highly ranked. Sure, they should have a pretty high score ex officio, but not necessarily that high. Germany is a small European country hamstrung by its neighbours’ problems, Russia is a lumbering giant held together by belligerence and gaffer tape and the Catholic church is a scandal-wracked ruin of its former self. In other words, it’s less the positions themselves that Forbes is complimenting, than what their tenants have managed to do with them.

In fact, Forbes‘ ranking system is something like the opposite of the parable of the talents: starting with many advantages and doing a reasonable-if-uninspiring job with them is rewarded less than making something remarkable out of less auspicious beginnings.

Well ok, but so what?

The fact that Forbes chose to take such an approach reflects on their own editorial department’s modes of thought, but the fact that they had a reasonable amount of latittude in defining “power” isn’t a given. In fact, it’s a matter of language. One presumes that this list was compiled as well as published in English. If they’d been writing in French or Italian or Chinese, however, they would have faced a different set of questions to asnwer.

English has far more words than many languages, partly due to the waves of conquerors that swept across England during the dark ages, and partly due to its rapacious attitude towards useful-looking foreign vocabulary and its willingness to accomodate creoles. (According to Bill Bryson in Mother Tongue, English has twice as much vocabulary in common use as French, for example.) Consequently, it’s a rare word in English that doesn’t come with two or three commonly-used synonyms – usually there’ll be at least one with Germanic roots and one with Latin roots.

“Power” is an interesting exception. We only have one commonly-used word to cover the whole phenomenon. Most Latin languages, for example, have at least two, splitting it into two distinct concepts. So it is that in French “power” can be rendered either as “pouvoir” or “puissance” and these two cannot be used interchangeably to refer to the English-language concept.

I was educated in part at Sciences Po, and thus spent a possibly unhealthy amount of time bent over a creaky old exam desk attempting to define the two. So it is that I feel moderately qualified to speak on the subject (my marks weren’t particularly good, but I never actually got kicked out).

In brief, pouvoir deals with the more administrative and governmental side of things, while puissance has more to do with raw force, whether physical or psychological. In fact, it is easier to explain using examples: high-ranking civil servant (in the Weberian sense) relies more on pouvoir, while a warlord favours puissance.

In fact, in a slightly smug in-joke, Sciences Po still uses a fox and a lion on its crest in reference to the famous passage by Machiavelli (link).

Sciences Po logo

In such a schema, the fox could be said to represent pouvoir – using human ideas and institutions to control events – and the lion would stand for puissance – using brute force or charisma. (If I recall correctly, renaissance Italian also used two separate terms, much like modern French – podestà and potenza – though common usage has changed slightly since, and now privileges potere over podestà)

So from a French point of view, we could interpret the Forbes compilers’ criteria as favouring people who have used puissance as a way to extend pouvoir.

If you move away from European languages things can get even more complicated. Chinese, for example, has several individual characters that describe various aspects of power, and which can all be combined in various ways to provide even more nuance:

or  generally means physical force, though it can sometimes have to do with will power (努力), intention () or ability (视力).

or quán is to do with legally-endorsed authority as well as rights and privileges, though legally-endorsed does not necessarily mean good or benevolent or even law abiding. It is used to refer to human rights (人权) just as happily as hegemony-by-conquest () and intellectual property (知识产权).

The two combine to produce 权力, the term most often used in refering to political power, though, interestingly, it isn’t the word used by the Chinese edition of Forbes in reporting on the 2015 power rankings. Instead, the writers have gone for , which brings us to the third option and the least intuitively easy-to-grasp for a non-Chinese speaker.

 or shì is an odd and complex creature. It does mean power, but it also has connotations of momentum and inertia – of trends within society.  could just as happily be translated as “influential” as “powerful”. If you look at a selection of the various words that use 势 you can get a better idea of its various meanings.

There are various other relevant concepts ( etc.), but 力, 权 and 势 are the main ones. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the Chinese translation of the article may actually express the intentions of the original compilers better than their own English-language title did. 权势 gives a sense of using the ability to mobilise the assets of one’s position in order to improve and extend it, something that is conveyed by the example sentences MDBG gives for the word:

mdbg example sentences

Which is all well and good, but once again: so what?

Well, with China rising it’s worth everyone’s time to take a few minutes and think about how Chinese-speakers think about politics, which is what this blog is all about.