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March 28 (Bloomberg) -- Never heard of the “Crimean Spring?” That’s probably because you haven’t been watching Russian television lately.
As troops have occupied Crimea in recent weeks, Russian television has depicted President Vladimir Putin’s annexation as an awakening that saved the region from being overrun by fascists -- part of a propaganda effort rivaling the machine that shaped public opinion a generation ago.
“What’s happening now with state media and especially TV is unprecedented, even for the Soviet era,” said Tatiana Vorozheykina, lead researcher at the Levada Center in Moscow, Russia’s only independent polling company. “These are propaganda instruments and no one hides it.”
The message is unrelenting: Correspondents across Ukraine and Russia weigh in several times daily with reports on chaos in Kiev, the desperate plight of Russian-speakers under the new regime, and the overwhelming support of Russians for the annexation. The campaign crowds out debate and helps bolster Putin’s approval rating.
In today’s privatized media environment, the news is packaged much more slickly than ham-handed Soviet-era fare -- no more turgid reports of government ministers visiting collective farms -- but it still follows the party line.
State-run channels such as the all-news Rossiya24 are complemented by NTV television, owned by Gazprom-Media, an arm of the state-controlled gas monopoly OAO Gazprom. Ren-TV and Channel 5 are owned by billionaire Yury Kovalchuk, a close adviser to Putin and among the 20 officials targeted by U.S. sanctions.
“The media are a weapon for the Kremlin,” said Jadwiga Rogoza, an analyst at the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw.
A recent evening newscast on Channel 1, one-quarter controlled by Kovalchuk and the rest by the state, showed smiling women holding babies in the Crimean city of Simferopol, cheering on Russian troops. The focus shifted to Kiev, where the correspondent described a chaotic situation and the shooting of three traffic cops. It then turned back to Russia, where a grizzled veteran at a St. Petersburg rally held aloft a “Bravo Putin” banner and a middle-aged man got teary-eyed as he lamented the situation of Russian children in Crimea.
“A new generation of propagandists has grown up, and they are very creative,” said Galina Timchenko, former editor of news website Lenta.ru. “Russian propaganda is now more agile than in Soviet times.”
Deputy communications minister Alexei Volin disputes the suggestion that Russian media use their position to unduly influence public opinion.
“In modern democratic Russia, there is no propaganda machine,” Volin said in an e-mail. “It’s not those who criticize that get closed. Those who break the law do.”
Independent media that have been sidelined include Kasparov.ru, a forum for Putin opponents run by ex-chess champion Garry Kasparov. Access to the site was blocked on March 13 for allegedly calling on Russians to join unauthorized rallies. And in January, many leading cable television systems dropped Dozhd, an independent TV station that had given airtime to dissident rockers Pussy Riot.
Editors and reporters at outlets who don’t toe the line can be fired or demoted. Yuri Fedutinov, director of Ekho Moskvy radio, which often criticizes the Kremlin, in February was replaced with an executive from state-funded Voice of Russia. Writing in the daily Vedomosti this month, Andrei Zubov likened Crimea to Germany’s 1938 annexation of Austria. On March 24, his employer, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, said Zubov’s contract had been canceled due to his “inappropriate” public statements.
Lenta.ru editor Timchenko was sacked after she ran an interview with the leader of a Ukrainian ultra-nationalist group. Roskomnadzor, a government agency that regulates the media, had said the site was publishing “extremist content.”
“My dismissal was partially related to our Ukraine coverage, but it has more to do with the gradual elimination of free media,” Timchenko said.
With such pressure increasing, the bulk of news outlets hew close to the message the government wants them to deliver, said Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a political research group.
“There is a shared line of coverage but not necessarily a centralized guiding body,” Lipman said. “Media executives just know what the line is, and many of them feel that way too.”
Indeed, even before the current crisis, most Russians believed Crimea belongs to their country. For decades, Lipman said, polls have registered overwhelming support for that view.
“I don’t think TV is able to completely overturn people’s beliefs,” Lipman said. “This propaganda is falling on fertile soil.”
The message has been reinforced by foreign experts on chat shows and news broadcasts who back separatist movements in places such as Kosovo, Catalonia and Scotland. On Rossiya, a Scottish distiller was quoted saying that his whisky takes three years to mature -- long enough for Scotland to gain independence from the U.K.
Rossiya and other state-run channels have run clips of Gregor Gysi, leader of Germany’s Die Linke party, calling some of Ukraine’s new leaders “fascists.” And they have cited a CNN interview with New York University professor Stephen Cohen defending Russia’s stance on Crimea. What, the professor asked, would the U.S. do if Canada and Mexico suddenly joined an economic or military alliance with Putin?
It works. A survey by Levada this month said 63 percent of Russians believe state media portray an objective picture of Ukraine. In 2013, Reporters Without Borders ranked Russia 148th out of 179 countries in its Press Freedom Index, down from 141 five years earlier.
Putin’s approval rating reached 82 percent last week, according to the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, up from 61 percent in January. Another poll by the same group found that 91 percent of Russians support annexing Crimea and 83 percent say their country should defend Russians in the region even if it hurts relations with other countries.
“We are seeing claims by Russia that fascism is returning to Ukraine,” said Gene Policinski, chief operating officer at the Newseum Institute, a research group in Washington, D.C. “Repetition of this message can create a psychological tendency for people to think, ‘Of course that’s going on.’”
--With assistance from Torrey Clark and Henry Meyer in Moscow.