Putin the Prime Minister: Media Coverage of Putin May 2008-May 2012

Dmitry Medvedev's 2008 inauguration, with Putin standing on his right. Image via New York Times.

Dmitry Medvedev’s 2008 inauguration, with Putin standing on his right. Image via New York Times.

In May of 2008, Vladimir Putin was suddenly not the president of Russia anymore. He wasn’t, of course, out of a job, as his successor Dmitry Medvedev appointed him Prime Minister a day after Medvedev’s inauguration. From then until May of 2012, on the whole, there were far fewer stories about Putin. Most articles that did appear were editorials, and thus, usually, more openly condemnatory than articles from the previous eight years. The power split between Putin and Medvedev was from the first a topic of interest. The Russian presidency is traditionally a far more powerful role than the prime ministership, and the President handles foreign policy and diplomacy, while the Prime Minister deals with domestic and financial policy. Few, however, expected Putin to keep solely to this traditionally subordinate role. Even as it was understood that Putin was still the more powerful of the two men, Medvedev was the more front-facing figure for these eight years. As such, this will be a shorter blog post than my previous two, since there were far fewer stories about Putin. As always, though, I will discuss a timeline of critical events in US coverage of Putin in these four years and then present what I see as important trends in this four year period, using the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.

After the initial transfer of power, and the buzz of news surrounding it, the next significant event came in August of 2008: the Russo-Georgian War. A brief affair with a long wind-up, the war lasted five days but was fairly complex. Essentially, two Georgian regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both claimed independence from Georgia, and Russia recognized them as sovereign states (later joined in doing so only by three other countries). Throughout the summer of 2008 tensions grew until August 7, when Georgia launched an attack in South Ossetia; Russia, claiming to defend Russian citizens in the region, retaliated. On August 12, President Medvedev declared that the objective had been met and by the end of August had reached and signed a ceasefire plan with Georgian President Saakashvili (Read more about the conflict here and here, and about what’s happening in the region now here).

Georgia, with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in green

Georgia, with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in green

This conflict, while many are unfamiliar with it or fuzzy on the details, was presented in the papers as huge, and there was little doubt in the minds of most reporters that Putin, not Medvedev, was the one making choices here and really in charge. Daniel Heninger of the Journal wrote that “Putin launched a tank invasion of Georgia,” (emphasis mine) despite Medvedev’s official role as head of state, and Frederick Kunkle at the post asserted that “the events of the past five days [since August 7] wiped away any pretense that President Dmitry Medvedev runs the country.” While many had already believed that Putin was the real power in the power-sharing tandem the two talked about, the Russo-Georgian War cemented that belief. It was also presented as groundbreaking. Robert Kagan in the Washington Post wrote that “Historians will come to view Aug. 8, 2008, as a turning point no less significant than Nov. 9, 1989.” It was the first time Putin attacked a sovereign state, and could be seen in retrospect as a prelude for his later involvement in Ukraine.

In September 2011, Putin and Medvedev ended the speculation over which of them would return to the presidency in 2012 when Putin announced his imminent return. The announcement that he would run was seen by the papers as a declaration that he would win.

Protesters in Moscow in February, 2012; the sign says "Russia without Putin." Via USA Today

Protesters in Moscow in February, 2012; the sign says “Russia without Putin.” Via USA Today

The next major event in terms of media coverage of Putin didn’t came with the street protests of late 2011 and early 2012. The Duma elections of December 2011 were widely decried as fraudulent, and thousands turned out from December to March to protest both these results as well as Putin’s return to the presidency. These protests were huge, “A fissure in the foundation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s political fortress,” according to the Post’s Kathy Lally. The papers suggested Putin’s inaction in regard to electoral fraud, and the inaction of the judiciary he controlled, was a miscalculation on his part. While I’ve read earlier articles expressing uncertainty over how much longer Putin would last, they were usually tempered by contemporaneous articles expressing the certainty of his grip. Now, in 2011 and 2012, journalists were not so sure. In the Journal, Masha Gessen wrote imagining Russia after Putin, saying that “he has ceased to be an inevitable leader.”

 

And now for our trends, the themes I noticed throughout this period in coverage of Putin:

  1. Putin vs. Medvedev

From the start, the Putin-Medvedev tension was played up (although it often seemed there was little to play up). In July of 2008, the Post ran an article by Peter Finn about the dilemma Russian officials and bureaucrats throughout the country were grappling with: what portrait to hang. Traditionally, they had a portrait of the president in their office, but many were hesitant to remove Putin’s portrait. Those who would hang both Putin and Medvedev ran into the question of position on the wall—as President, should Medvedev be higher than Putin? Should they be hung next to each other? A metaphor that a writing teacher might call overwrought if their student turned it in, this situation seemed a good representation of the press’s attitudes towards the two men. While they never considered removing the portrait of Putin, the Post and Journal seemed constantly to be shifting the portraits. Especially as his term wore on and discussion grew about 2012, there seemed to be a rise in tensions

While the American news media played up possible tensions between Putin and Medvedev, the two men themselves emphasized their good relationship. Image via The Telegraph.

While the American news media played up possible tensions between Putin and Medvedev, the two men themselves emphasized their good relationship. Image via The Telegraph.

between the two. On topics like Libya, sanctions on Iran, and state monopolies, Medvedev offered contrasting views to his Prime Minister and the media seized on the idea of a Medvedev-Putin split. Even at the same time, though, they recognized that on balance Putin was far more powerful and likely to maintain his upper hand. The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum shared an illustrative anecdote: “Those who have watched the two men together generally come away impressed by Medvedev’s exceptional deference to the prime minister. Someone who took part in a meeting with them some months ago told me afterward that Putin did all the talking while Medvedev took notes.”

 

  1. Economic issues

Putin’s rise to power was fueled by high gas and oil prices. A growing economy was one key to his popularity. As you may be aware, something happened to the global economy in 2008. Now, Russia was not the hardest hit country in the global financial crisis, but it was far from untouched. The downturn in the economy was presented as a key reason for the street protests of 2011 and 2012. Citizens who had before been happy to trade democracy for economic prosperity now saw they had neither, and a key faction of the protestors were young middle-class or wealthy Russians. Georgia had the Rose Revolution and Ukraine had the Orange Revolution, but as Gregory White of the Journal reported, what took place in Moscow in 2011 and 2012 could be termed the “Mink Revolution.” Protestors were written about as young and modern, and were placed in direct comparison to an image of Putin as old-fashioned. Many also turned out for pro-Putin rallies, and while Putin maintained a level of popularity among some citizens, the Papers really presented these rallies as full of bussed-in state employees who had to record their presence for their bosses.

 

Alright, thanks for reading again! My next post will cover 2012 to May 2016; I had to draw a line there because the period from then to now would frankly constitute a research project all its own. It’s going to be longer than this post, for sure; and once that’s done, I’ll be writing up my conclusions.

 

Comments

  1. tlwansink says:

    Very interesting. I like how you’re not only documenting Putin’s actions and giving the context of his life, but you’re also challenging us to reconsider how our knowledge of Putin has been shaped by these representations in the media.

    This post in particular is quite interesting since although Putin’s position of power seemingly changes, Putin seems to have greater amount of control in the subtext. I found it especially interesting that some reporters even kept pointing at Putin as the source of certain changes, with the supposed change of power appearing inconsequential to reporters. The trouble over about the portrait was also intriguing, since it’s a factor I wouldn’t have even considered but it saya a lot about the situation. Looking forward to your next post!

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