Putin alludes to power handover plan for 2024
Hello! This week our top story is about Putin’s remarks on changes to the political system, which many have interpreted as illuminating current Kremlin thinking about a power handover in 2024. We also look at the attack on the headquarters of the FSB in Moscow, why Russia’s leading TV network is suffering financial problems, how a vulgar joke about Putin was treated by Russian media and a surprisingly rapid resolution to the widely-condemned criminal case against Nginx.
The main news from President Vladimir Putin’s marathon annual press conference Thursday were his comments on possible changes to Russia’s political system. Putin appeared to suggest that the most likely scenario for a political transition when his current term expires in 2024 is his departure from the presidency and an expanded role for parliament.
Two of the press conference’s most significant questions were asked by a journalist from state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, which means they were prepared in advance by the Kremlin. The questions were: 1) Does Putin think it’s necessary to change the constitution? and 2) What about political system would he change?
The answers also sounded as if they were prepared in advance. Putin said it would make sense to alter the constitution so a person cannot hold the presidency for more than two consecutive terms. This would mean a successor could not follow Putin’s example (he returned for third and fourth presidential terms after a break in which Dmitry Medvedev was president). In response to the second question, Putin said that “one could think” about expanding parliament’s role, but only after a public discussion. In a TV interview after the press conference he also brought up the possibility of boosting parliament’s responsibilities.
- The comments relate directly to a possible transition of power when Putin’s fourth term ends and he will be constitutionally obliged to step down as president.
- Most observers, including RT head Margarita Simonyan who is well-versed in interpreting messages from the Kremlin, understood (Rus) the comments as a hint that Putin will not change the constitution to run for a fifth term. The general feeling now is that Putin will follow the Kazakh path, retaining power after 2024 as a ‘national leader’ with some sort of newly-created title.
- Putin’s words about expanding parliament’s authority fit with the ideas laid out in a recent article by influential Duma speaker, Vyacheslav Volodin, who suggested giving parliament new powers including the right to participate in nominating government ministers. Just a few days before Volodin’s article was published, Bloomberg reported that Duma deputies may nominate Putin as prime minister after 2024.
Why the world should care
Putin’s comments mark the official start of a fight over the best solution to the so-called 2024 problem. It’s no surprise that the president is extremely cautious in his words on this subject: until we get to 2024, everything could change. If the Duma’s powers are altered, though, this must be done before 2021 parliamentary elections — which means we should know substantially more about the power handover as early as next year.
Moscow attack is a reputational blow for the FSB
Putin’s press conference is always the main event of the day it takes place. But this Thursday, it was overshadowed by the most audacious crime to occur in the center of Moscow in recent memory. When 39 year-old Evegeny Manyurov opened fire on the headquarters of the feared Federal Security Service (FSB), Putin was less than a mile away in the Kremlin, congratulating security officials on their national holiday.
- The shooting at the iconic FSB building on Lubyanka Square began around 6 p.m. local time. Two FSB staff were killed, and another five wounded. The number of attackers was unclear for several hours — even state media outlets initially reported that there were three assailants. About an hour after the shooting began, Manyurov was killed. The shooter acted professionally, only targeting police and FSB officers — none of the many pedestrians in the area at the time were hurt.
- Just like in the West, the first theories pointed the finger at Islamic terrorism. But for now, it appears the attacker acted alone. Manyurov turned out to have worked for his entire life at private security firms, and he owned a huge arsenal of legally-acquired weapons. His motives remain unclear although Manyurov’s mother told (Rus) media outlet Baza that her son “hated KGB agents”. Private security companies are a common employer of Russian men who completed military service but who were unable to forge a career. There are about 1.5 million people employed by private security companies across Russia.
Why the world should care
It is far harder to predict a lone wolf attack than more ‘traditional’ acts of terrorism. But the FSB shooting was a real insult to Russia’s all-powerful security services. Two officers were killed in the heart of the FSB’s empire, on the eve of their professional holiday — which has been celebrated almost as a state occasion under Putin. The impact was amplified by the crime happening on the same day as Putin’s press conference. On social media, the event was compared (Rus) to German pilot Mathias Rust’s unauthorized landing of a small aircraft on Red Square in 1987, which became a symbol of the decline of the Soviet military. This is, of course, an exaggeration — but the FSB’s reputation has suffered.
Glamour and poverty at Russia’s leading TV network
The head of state-owned TV network Channel One Konstantin Ernst was the subject of a long New Yorker article last week in which he was portrayed as the Kremlin’s unofficial “minister of propaganda”. But an investigation (Rus) published by Meduza a few days later showed everything isn’t as rosy as it might appear — Russia’s leading television channel is deeply in debt, and Ernst’s influence with the Kremlin is waning.
Channel One and Rossiya are the twin pillars of Russian TV propaganda. They were the Soviet Union’s First and Second Channels, and until recently, the only networks with nationwide reach. At Channel One, Ernst has been entrusted with the government’s most important media tasks: in 1999, he recorded President Boris Yeltsin’s resignation speech, and in 2014, he wrote the script for the Olympic opening ceremony in Sochi. However, by the end of the 2010s, Ernst’s position had begun to weaken.
- Losses and debts. Ernst is a talented producer, but he is a bad businessman and those close to him said he can’t count money. And Channel One has lived glamorously: financing big budget movies, buying expensive licenses for Western TV shows, and pursuing unprofitable experimental projects. In the early 2000s, all this was subsidized by co-owner billionaire Roman Abramovich, then, after Abramovich’s exit, advertising helped take the strain. But after 2014, advertising revenues dropped, and Channel One began to make a loss. In 2018, losses surpassed $100 million despite $450 million in revenue — and network had debts of over $300 million.
- Falling ratings. Channel One ceded its leading position in viewer ratings for the first time in 2016 and, since then, has remained second to Rossiya. Its troubles were compounded by the transition of Russian television to digital transmission this year (before, remote Russian regions could only watch Channel One or Rossiya but the change means all viewers now have free access to 20 TV channels). Channel One’s audience share has fallen from 15 percent to 12 percent over the last five years.
- Underestimating the internet. Until at least 2013, Ernst failed to understand the power of the internet. Channel One saved money by giving up internet transmission rights — and didn’t invest in the development of its own internet channels. Inevitably, competitors pulled ahead by building their own online cinemas and paid services. Channel One currently gets no more than 5 percent of its revenues from the internet.
- Relations with the Kremlin. With his own powerful connections, Ernst has always had a tense relationship with the Kremlin’s media overseer Alexei Gromov. One theory is that this explains why Channel One, despite its requests, receives relatively little financial support from the state. Over the last three years, Channel One got about $300 million in subsidies while its main competitor, Rossiya, received over $1 billion. Gromov is more focused on his new pet project: RT. The RT network was created to transmit the Russian government’s point of view in other countries and it does not have Russian-language programming — but it is growing fast inside Russia as an internet media project.
Why the world should care
Ernst is often portrayed as a dark genius who can conjure up support for Putin through his manipulation of the airwaves. But reality is more prosaic — and Channel One’s balance sheet reveals that Ernst’s days as a Kremlin insider may be numbered.
Luxury watches, 2 presidents and a ‘dickhead’
The front page of a major Russian newspaper became an internet meme this week after referencing an obscene joke about Putin. Vedomosti published a photograph Wednesday of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky alongside an advertisement for Hublot watches, a combination that suggested a nod to a gag in a TV show starring Zelensky in which his character describes Putin as ‘hublot’ — punning on a Russian swear word, which means ‘dickhead’. The joke was censored on Russian TV a week earlier.
Передаем привет ТНТ. Просто так получилось
- The owner of business daily Vedomosti, Demyan Kudryavtsev, said neither the authors of the article, nor Hublot, knew the advertisement and the article would be placed side by side. But it was likely signed off by senior editors who reviewed the newspaper before it was sent to print.
- It’s unlikely anyone would have noticed the front page if it had not followed hard on the heels of a decision by Russian TV network TNT to censor the very same joke from the first Russian broadcast of Servant of the People a week earlier. The popular Ukrainian TV show tells the tale of high school teacher Vasyl Holoborodko (played by Zelensky), who unexpectedly becomes president of Ukraine. And the joke in question, which references a vulgar Ukrainian football chant about Putin, occurs when Holoborodko is looking at luxury watches. Told that Putin’s favourite brand is the Swiss-made Hublot, Holoborodko asks “Putin Hublot?”
- Servant of the People first aired in 2015, and is credited with helping propel Zelensky to the Ukrainian presidency earlier this year. Immensely popular in Ukraine, the show was acquired by U.S. streaming giant Netflix in 2016. Russian TV viewers, however, were able to watch just three episodes. Alterations to listings suggested the series was pulled by TNT, which is controlled by state-owned gas giant Gazprom. TNT said airing three episodes was a marketing trick to drive traffic to their online platform.
- There may also be a geopolitical slant to this story. Zelenksy met Putin for the first time December 9, just before Servant of the People’s partial Russian broadcast. While there were high hopes the meeting would lead to an improvement in relations between the two countries, little was achieved. Asked about the furore over Servant of the People last week, Zelensky replied that “someone has a nuclear weapon, and someone has Servant of the People.”
Why the world should care
The story of Vedomosti’s front page and TNT’s editing is not just a reflection of Russia-Ukraine relations, but a tale of modern censorship. TNT’s decision shows how censorship frequently operates in Russia, while the not-so-coded message of Vedomosti’s front page shows how it can be mocked.
Nginx in the clear as criminal complaint dropped
As suddenly as it began, a criminal case against the world’s most popular web server, Nginx, appears to have collapsed. Billionaire Alexander Mamut, a shareholder in media conglomerate Rambler, was widely assumed to be behind a criminal investigation against Nginx founders Maksim Konovalov and Igor Sysoev over the rights to Nginx, which was recently sold to U.S. investors for $670 million. But the other major shareholder in Rambler, state-owned banking giant Sberbank, came out against criminal proceedings and, at an emergency board of directors meeting Monday, it was agreed that law enforcement will be requested to drop the investigation. Rambler also announced Wednesday that it was withdrawing a controversial $2.8 billion lawsuit against streaming service Twitch.