As a new Russian law changing the labelling of French bubblies went into effect last month, one must not forget the real message sent by the Kremlin: Putin is still able to get into Western leaders’ heads.
Figure 1:Photograph: Itar-Tass/Alamy
To the dismay of oenologists and oenophiles around the world, the Russian government decided to pass a quirky new law that grants exclusive rights of the Champagne label to Russian wines only. Sparkling wines from Russia, especially from the freshly annexed Crimea, are eligible to stamp Шампанское (shampanskoye, champagne in Russian) on their bottles. All others must be designated as “sparkling wine” when entering Russia. In other words, even a bottle of Dom Perignon will no longer be considered proper champagne in Russia.
Not only is it ludicrous, but it also sounds like a juvenile prank almost – like a high school bully assigning a mean nickname to a nerdy classmate. And to be perfectly honest, the rationale behind the new legislation is not entirely different. This is Kremlin’s strange way of testing boundaries and observing the international discontent it can create with a single stroke of the pen.
Not Your Simple Protectionist Plot
It’s easy to misinterpret the new law as a protectionist measure aimed at sparkling (pun intended) domestic interest towards the Russian wine industry. In fact, some commentators have pointed out that the new rule aims to favour sparkling wine producers in the south of Russia, Krasnodar in particular, and Crimea. From their perspective, the new labelling would encourage people to substitute champagne for a Russian “equivalent”.
But that one only makes sense if one believes that the two wines are even remotely similar, aside from being sold in glass bottles and having bubbles inside. The reality is that they are two very different species, with different prices, quality and customers. And what could possibly prove this point better than Russian winemakers themselves admitting that the new rules would do very little to boost demand for their products? What is more is that the word shampanskoye is already popularly used as a hypernym for any sort of sparkling wine, and the new labelling would do very little to change that.
People who want the real deal will still know the difference and will still pay for the real deal itself. Besides, it’s just a labelling law, not a ban on EU products like the one from 2014, which was a response to the Europe meddling in Russia’s incursion in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.
But if it is neither protectionism nor retaliation, then what is the reason?
Mind Games and Power Plays
Putin knows how to play the game of realpolitik like few others and that is quite established. But what often goes under the radar is how masterfully he establishes authority. And he does so by pushing the boundaries little by little, testing how others react to his power plays.
Sometimes, those affected will acquiesce, so as not to enter a collision course with the Russian President. For example, LVMH Moët Hennessy, which owns some prominent brands such as Dom Pérignon, Moët & Chandon, and Veuve Clicquot, was quick to comply with the new rule. That may not sound like such a big deal. However, the company will spend hundreds of thousands of euros to obtain the new certification as well as to conduct further laboratory tests, deal with new barcodes and labels for bottles. Besides, while Russia may not be the biggest buyer of champagne in terms of bottles, ranking only 15th in the world, a good deal of the most expensive bottles of this luxury beverage are bought by Russians.
Other times, there will be objections. Notable ones include those of The Champagne Committee, the European Commission, the French Ministry of Agriculture, as well as the Foreign Trade & Economic Attractiveness Minister. But the important part of a power move is to get a reaction. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a good one, it serves the purpose as long as it reminds people of just who calls the shots. Negative reactions are nothing compared to what Mr. Putin wants to get out of this law-making spree: forging a national identity after his image.
Foreign Policy as a tool for identity-building
The new shampanskoye law also has symbolic significance in so far as it externalises a process of identity-building very much centered around the Russian President himself. Especially in an age where politics are more and more personalised, the projected images of international leaders have taken on a new significance (Enli & Skogerbo, 2013. 758). These projected images are in turn the representations and mental associations that are consciously promoted to an audience through communicative acts in order to generate a desired perception or response in the target audience (Beale, 2018. 130). In order words, personalistic leaders like Putin and many before him work on making their countries’ images indistinguishable from themselves.
In that regard, Putin has long worked on his personal brand of hero-leader, who can face everything head on and couldn’t care less about what the West thinks of him. Accordingly, the image he wants to build for his country is one of a strong and one-of-a-kind nation that challenges a world order that it deems unfair and unrepresentative of its interests.
Appearing shirtless horseback and trotting around Siberia or fearlessly flying fighter jets are a few ways to project the image of a strong leader to the world. But messing with a centuries-old institution like the Champagne label is just another. That way, you can convey to the others that for a leader like you, and a country like yours, there’s nothing quite out of reach.
Edited by Ayşenur Alişiroğlu
Beale, Matthew. “Brand Putin: An analysis of Vladimir Putin’s projected images.” Defence Strategic Communications 5.5 (2018)
Gunn Enli and Eli Skogerbø, ‘Personalized Campaigns in Party-Centred Politics’ in Information, Communication & Society, 16:5, (2013).