The Putin Set-Up

Putin and mask. Russia, 2012.

Last week, BBC Panorama exposed President Putin, and allegations of corruption against him. At first the programme focuses on Putin’s lifestyle – his expensive watches and tracksuits – and quickly moves on to hearing journalists, former allies and politicians dredge up old accusations: $40 billion in assets and the Cape Idokopas palace. It notes that the CIA and the FBI agree that Putin may be worth $40 billion in assets.

We’ve heard much of this before. However, Panorama does flesh out its coverage with new goodies for its viewers. The US Treasury’s Adam Szubin makes an appearance to call Putin ‘corrupt’ provoking outrage from Russia. There have been calls for evidence to be put forward. It’s obvious the truth isn’t really the point here. The US and Russia are at odds more so than ever. The crisis in Ukraine and the Syrian civil war have brought tensions to the surface.

Of course, this isn’t to say Vladimir Putin is beyond corruption. He’s often described as presiding over a ‘Mafia state’, and with good reason. The allegations against Putin are certainly plausible given the state of Russia’s body politic, yet the more interesting question may be why the BBC would take aim at Putin now. It’s not like corruption and authoritarianism are new to Russia. No immaculate figure could pass through the system and reach its heights. History tells us all we need to know.

Rule by Excrement

Under the Yeltsin administration, the level of corruption was so rife there was an investigation into allegations of embezzlement of funds through the refurbishment of the Kremlin. The coterie of oligarchs around President Yeltsin – particularly Boris Berezovsky, Roman Abramovich and Mikhail Khodorkovsky – brought in Putin as a new weapon to be deployed against the investigators. Putin did a good job in quashing the investigation. He was soon on track to succeed Yeltsin and become the leader he is today.

This background story is removed from most reportage. It’s particularly inconvenient given the West’s love affair with Russian oligarchs. The British media romanticises figures like Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky. Both men are now portrayed as dissident critics of the Putin regime. Evidently, the West still harbours nostalgia for the Yeltsin era, when the Russian economy was prised wide open, and the state was stripped bare of its regulatory powers. Never mind corruption. Never mind the plight of Chechnya.

The Panorama documentary shows us that the system is based upon patronage throughout a state-embedded elite. This is far from the free-market utopia, which was meant to emerge under Boris Yeltsin. Instead the period of primitive accumulation created the basis, not for market democracy, but for Russian nationalism to be rejuvenated. As a consequence of Yeltsin’s rule, many Russians jokingly equate democracy with rule by excrement. ‘Shitocracy’ might be the word for it in English.

The best parts of the documentary provided some details of Putin’s inner circle. It turns out Putin has maintained his team from St Petersburg. This includes his old lawyer Dmitry Medvedev, who now serves as Russia’s Prime Minister alongside President Putin. Even neighbours and childhood friends have done very well for themselves. Putin’s former assistant Igor Sechin, who now chairs Rosneft, and economist Alexey Miller, now the head of Gazprom.

None of this is very surprising. It’s compatible with the kind of political system preferred by the former KGB agent. An admirer of the conservative French strongman Charles de Gaulle, Putin believes in the confluence of national and corporate interests. The idea being that this guarantees capital will comply with the body national and its needs. He thinks he can unite the powers of the state with the economy. This leaves room for state intervention, protectionism and a lot of corruption.

KGB lorry in Southampton, date unknown
‘KGB’ lorry in Southampton, date unknown.

The key difference between Yeltsin and Putin has set out to block the US in its pursuits. While Yeltsin allowed the Soviet Union to be dismantled, Putin clearly mourns the loss of the Eastern bloc as a buffer region. NATO can no longer be kept away from Russia’s periphery. The crisis in Ukraine emerged out of the tension between NATO expansion and Russian nationalism. Now Putin has intervened in Syria to challenge US policy on a new front. The BBC has clearly taken sides, but this is nothing new.

The Role of the BBC

Much like the New York Times, the BBC sets the contours of public debate and its coverage becomes history. Contrary to the popular misconception, the BBC does not have a left-wing bias and its coverage really straddles the centre of politics. This is also something the BBC has in common with the Times. It’s standpoint really oscillates around the so-called ‘centre-ground’. Yet the corporation is as much constitutive of the centre, the left and the right, as it channels the flow of discourse.

Although the BBC hopes to stand as an impartial intersection, the truth is far more complex. If the BBC wants to get both perspectives on a political issue it usually asks a Conservative and a Labourite to comment. This excludes everything beyond these tribal affiliations. Programmes like Question Time and Newsnight become opportunities for the political class to assert itself. Discussions can only take place within the realm of certain assumptions.

Despite the right-wing accusations of rampant ‘political-correctness’, the BBC was the home of Jeremy Clarkson for many years and Nigel Farage is a regular guest on Question Time. Many BBC journalists were cheerleaders of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Famously, Andrew Marr was eager to herald the vindication of Blair over Iraq. The same was true over Syria. As David Cameron was pushing for bombing in 2013, the BBC aired discussions with hawks Bernard Kouchner, David Aaronovitch and Paul Wolfowitz. The only dissenting voice was Mehdi Hasan, a liberal Muslim journalist.

However, the pro-war bias is not consistent. With the rise of Islamic State, Newsnight allowed Patrick Cockburn to talk freely about the Syrian civil war, and he is far from an advocate of Western intervention. Meanwhile the BBC has, for the most part, supported a narrative around Ukraine favouring the US and the EU over Russia. You can either support the West and its ‘values’, or you’re secretly sympathetic to Russian aggression. Other positions are disregarded from the outside.

‘Objectivity’ is based on the exclusion of particular viewpoints. There is no space for inclusivity here. If you’re beyond the reach of conventional opinion, you will be policed and demonised. For example, you could only be for some kind of austerity and not against it outright. The contours of official truths can only be perceived once you’ve cleaved away everything else. This is only possible if the BBC is partial. In this way, the BBC sets the agenda for the British media. This is why it is both loved and loathed.

Photographs courtesy of Jon Whiting. Published under a Creative Commons license.