Preventing outbursts of protests in the regions has been one of the Kremlin’s main recent priorities, several news reports have argued over the years. As the 2014 economic crisis lead to rising discontent, authorities looked for ways to get reliable information about what is really going on in the regions. And, according to the independent TV channel Dojd, one of the methods they came up with makes good use of the State’s control over the media: weekly reports sent by the regional correspondents of Russia’s state TV channel “Perviy Kanal” to the Kremlin.
The scheme is at least a few years old, according to former and current employees of the TV station, though none could say exactly when it was introduced.
It is pretty simple: every Tuesday or Wednesday, regional correspondents send to Perviy Kanal’s head of regional offices a list of the four or five most discussed topics in their respective regions. There is “no censorship”, one of Dojd’s sources said, adding that “if everyone in the city thinks that Putin is an idiot, you can write about that.”
The “people’s topics”, as Dojd sources called them, aren’t just a list of news points, but rather a description of what is worrying the locals, from rising prices to corruption cases. After they’ve been received and compiled, Perviy Kanal send them directly to the Kremlin, Dojd writes.
There has been no official confirmation from either the Kremlin or Perviy Kanal of the existence of such reports. But many analysts have recently pointed out the importance for the authorities of checking on regional discontent, which rose strikingly in 2014 and remains at a high level today.
It has been argued that, though the protests are rarely political and mostly aimed at regional leaders, there is a fear in the Kremlin that, if badly handled, some of those could spiral out of control. The example of Novocherkassk, a small city in Soviet Russia where more than 20 workers in strike were shot dead by the Soviet army in 1962 has left a deep mark on Russian elites, according to Mark Galeotti: “[The elites thought] ‘If it could happen there, bad luck could mean it could happen anywhere.”
In 2015, Bloomberg wrote that the Federal Guard Service (FSO) had been tasked with monitoring the public mood, especially in the regions. The monitoring would then be used to locate the most acute crisis points and dispatch special teams from Moscow to deal with them, according to Bloomberg.
In February 2016, Russian business outlet RBC reported that a poll conducted by the FSO had revealed “large-scale depression” inside Russia’s “monotowns”, those cities dependent on a single firm or industry that were hit particularly hard by the crisis.
Regional governors are the most direct official relay between Moscow and the provinces but relations with the Kremlin has proven difficult in recent months, notably because of an unprecedent shake-up that left many governors worried about their future. Moreover, the rise of political protests, mostly the Russia-wide 26th of March and 12th of June protests against corruption, and the coming presidential elections are making rising discontent an even more problematic issue.