Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Power Vertical

The Empire Strikes Back -- At Independent Media

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev (far right) visiting the Dozhd TV headquarters in Moscow on April 25, 2011.
Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev (far right) visiting the Dozhd TV headquarters in Moscow on April 25, 2011.
Apparently the Russian authorities were just getting started with their assault on the radio station Ekho Moskvy earlier this week.
The Moscow Prosecutor's Office announced on February 16 that the independent online television station Dozhd TV was under investigation to determine who financed the channel's live broadcasts of massive anti-Kremlin demonstrations in the capital on December 10 and 24.
Prosecutors say their probe came in response to a request from Robert Shlegel, a State Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party and a former spokesman for the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi. 
Shlegel said on Twitter that it appeared to him that Dozhd appeared to be a "sponsor" and "organizer" of the protests that followed the disputed December 4 parliamentary elections. 
And in an interview with Dozhd TV -- which put him on the air as soon as they learned about the investigation -- he went even farther, suggesting the station may be receiving financing from the United States. (You can watch Dozhd's initial broadcast announcing the investigation here.)
"I'm interested to know if Dozhd TV is in fact one of the organizers of this [protest] activity, to some degree, and whether this activity is financed from the Russian Federation or other sources, perhaps some American foundations," Shlegel said.
Dozhd's 31-year editor-in-chief Mikhail Zygar said he was fully prepared to defend the station's financing, which he maintained was completely transparent.
"Our sources of funding are well known to the tax authorities because Dozhd TV, just like any other company, always provides a detailed account to the tax authorities," he said on the station's evening news broadcast.  "[Our live broadcast of the protests was] very basic and quite cheap. I think [Duma] Deputy [Robert] Shlegel is simply mistaken in his assessment of the amount of money [spent]."
Coming just two days after Gazprom-Media's move this week to dissolve Ekho Moskvy's board of directors and a day after that station's editor in chief, Aleksei Venediktov, was abortively issued with a subpoena by prosecutors over alleged labor-code violations, the prosecutorial assault on Dozhd TV has naturally sparked fears that a full-fledged media crackdown was imminent. 
Ekho Moskvy and Dozhd TV have indeed been thorns in Putin's side.
Both have given prominent air time to opposition figures and Kremlin critics (although both have also given plenty of air time to government officials and pro-regime figures as well).

Both extensively covered allegations of vote rigging in the December 4 parliamentary elections. (The evidence of such fraud, however, was difficult for any responsible media outlet to ignore.)

And both have given fair -- albeit undeniably sympathetic -- coverage of the wave of anti-Kremlin protests and anti-Putin sentiment that have swept the country since then. (But who could deny the news value of the largest anti-government demonstrations in Moscow since the 1990s?)
My initial take on this is that it could be the first real hint of Team Putin's changing approach to the opposition since Vladislav Surkov was replaced by Vyacheslav Volodin as the Kremlin's chief political strategist.
As much as Surkov was reviled by the opposition, they may soon come to miss him the more they become accustomed to Volodin's methods. Surkov's stock in trade was subtlety, subterfuge, and diversion. His first instinct when he faced an obstacle to the Kremlin's goals was to charm, trick, and co-opt. 
Surkov also understood the value of safety valves to channel dissent, which is why Ekho Moskvy was permitted to operate independently despite being owned by the state-controlled Gazprom.
Volodin, on the other hand, is more of a steamroller. 
"Volodin just runs over anyone between him and his goal," political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told RFE/RL's Russian Service back in December. "The authorities are moving away from Surkov's methods of organizing elections. Now, whoever is opposed to them will get smacked in the head. This is a clear sign that the authorities are moving toward more stringent methods."
Of course, the cases may not be the result of a direct order from the Kremlin. Speaking on Dozhd TV on February 14, Ekho Moskvy commentator Matvei Ganapolsky said the Russian system was constructed in such a way that officials are very adept at responding to subtle -- or not so subtle -- signals from the top.
He noted that Gazprom-Media's move to dissolve Ekho Moskvy's board of directors came just a month after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin criticized its critical coverage,  accusing Venediktov of "pouring diarrhea" over him "day and night."
"Of course, I doubt that Vladimir Putin gave an order to do something about Ekho Moskvy. But don't forget that Gazprom Media is a state organization, so they feel they need to make some body movements -- I'm quoting [Aleksei] Venediktov here -- to show that, because [Putin] has criticized Ekho Moskvy, now they're helping him criticize it."
In any event, the empire is clearly striking back after being on the defensive for months. Putin is trying to get control of the media narrative by reining in independent voices -- much as he was early in his presidency when he oversaw the takeover of the once-independent NTV station. 
But the question remains whether this is possible in the age of YouTube, LiveJournal, and rising Internet penetration.
-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Vladislav Surkov, Dozhd TV, VYacheslav Volodin, Ekho Moskvy

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Frank
February 17, 2012 00:19
Having the likes of Ganapolsky at Ekho Mosvky reveals a situation in Russia, which allows for unfair criticism of that country. Keeping in mind that Ekho Moskvy is by no means the only media option in Russia for one-sided commentary against the Russian government, as well as Russia at large.

A sharp contrast from how others like RFE/RL, openDemocracy and the Kyiv Post operate.

In Response

by: Marko from: USA
February 17, 2012 12:32
Interesting question from a philosophical point of view. Does Putin have the basic right to shut down or limit media that is being funded from abroad by hostile foreign governments or foreign NGOs (read the US) or fugitive criminals (read Berezovsky and his ilk). Sovereignty vs. free speech. Limiting free speech corrupts and invalidates an electoral process but so does self-interested foreign interference. My guess is that it all won't matter much. A Putin victory in March will be followed by some kind of brief abortive riot in Moscow. Things will calm down a bit after that, but VP will have to deal with constant large-scale political opposition in term three (or four depending on how you count it). That will be new and won't help him. Opposition has no program for running the country though-- just for dismantling it. You can see why this has so much appeal in the West, which would benefit immensely in a direct and indirect sense from Russia's demise-- hard to see much for Russians to actually support there though (rather than just being weary of Putin's longish tenure at the top).
In Response

by: Anonymous from: USA
February 17, 2012 17:34
Right, just like the demise of the EU and NATO has tremendous appeal in Russia. 500 million Europeans subdued by just over 140 million Russians. The "Third Rome" (read Third Reich) would then have free reign over all of Europe. There are many Russians that still believe in this fascist delusion.
In Response

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
February 17, 2012 15:44
Not sure what your point is. Echo provides a wide range of public commentary, from the far right to the far left (where one can find both Putin supporters and his detractors). There may be a handful of other stations that feel free to criticize the Putin government, but they are the exception and not the rule. My guess is that should the Kremlin authorities succeed in muzzling the few journalists brave enough to openly complain, the rest of the Russian media will soon follow and adopt a supine position.

Putin understands the passivity of the Russian people better than Echo or Dozhd (and most ‘freedom-loving’ western governments). When he changed the management structure at NTV, and transformed it into a loyal government mouthpiece, most western governments whimpered a bit, but out of fear of damaging fuel contracts and other business opportunities, soon dropped any complaints. In an age of material comfort, and when economic growth is the sole measure of a nation, the pen may no longer be mightier than the sword.
In Response

by: Frank
February 17, 2012 19:41
Ekho Moskvy's idea of "objectivity" is promoting nationalists who're anti-Russian government.

That station is more unfair of its coverage of the Russian government than National Public Radio's coverage of the American government.

RFE/RL has other talking point issues with Russian government involved venues often clueless and corrupted by Western mass media influences.

In Response

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
February 18, 2012 02:40
Frank, Suggest you listen to some of the commentary of M. Shevchenko or A. Prokhanov who are frequent guests on Echo. They are firmly in the pro-Putin camp. I can't name a single Russian 'nationalist' who appears on any sort of regular basis on this radio station. Writers like M. Geller, Y. Latynina, L. Mlechin or V. Shenderovich could hardly be placed in this category. The Echo director (A. Vennediktov) has repeatedly invited Kremlin insiders to speak and give their side of any issue. You really should try listening to this station on a more frequent basis.
In Response

by: Frank
February 18, 2012 13:15
Ray, suggest you check back at what you said. Prokhonov has been a frequent critic of Putin along a nationalist line. Latynina isn't a Putin ally. Overall, Ekho Moskvy has been tilted in a direction going against Putin, with some like Ganapolsky taking positions akin to a Ukrainian nationalist, anti-Russian slant.
In Response

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
February 18, 2012 20:41
Thanks for the comment, and partially agree with you about Prokhonov. Depending upon your political spectrum, he’s far to the right/left of Putin. My guess is that he is used as a Kremlin bugaboo, allowed freely to prattle on about resurrecting the great Russian Empire, fighting the West, etc…. Sure, Putin might not be the purest democrat, but compared to Prokhonov, who is constantly waving the big, aggressive Russian flag, he is someone with whom the West can deal.

I disagree that Echo takes an anti-Russian stance. Yes, they have a number of commentators who believe that Putin is taking Russia in a bad direction, and that if he returns to office for another 12 years, the country will stagnate or decline. As a believer in democracy, however, I consider their reasoning to be actually pro-Russian. Should Echo lose its liberal mandate and become another Fox-like news affiliate, and should Putin continue his kleptocratic form of government, the Russian people will lose something valuable.
In Response

by: Frank
February 19, 2012 12:22
Prokhonov serves the slant of Ekho Moskvy. He recently addressed a rally characterized as more supportive of Putin than the likes of Nemtsov, Kasparov, Yavlinsky and Zyuganov - not that this latter grouping is always on the same page with each other.

Anti-Russian propagandists appealing to neocon-neolib elements can under-handedly use that example to portray the image of Putin being closer to extremists than the the more pro-Western of elements in Russia.

The actual situation is considerably more intricate. Most Russians favoring Putin don't appear to be extremists. At the same time, they've good reason to doubt the RFE/RL preferred anti-Putin elements. There're reasoned Russian gripes with Western neocon-neolib positions, which aren't by default the same as being anti-Western.

I stand by my characterization of Ekho Moskvy. I've some not so fond recollections of that station that include (among other instances) a freak show Albats-Arutunyan exchange. Politically, the two of them aren't so far off the mark from each other. Another Ekho Moskvy show propagandized the bogus whataboutism answer to Russian language rights in Ukraine. Specifically, the absurd comparison with the state of the Ukrainian language in Russia. Leave it to Paul Goble to uncritically reference that Ekho Moskvy farce. The stated comparison is on par with being against bi-lingualism in Canada, by flippently mentioning the status of the English language in France.

by: La Russophobe from: USA
February 17, 2012 13:25
Brian, there is an ENORMOUS gap in your reporting about this, because you fail to address the PATHETIC failure of the so-called "opposition" to stand up for EM, MTV and Dozhd. Did you even try to interview the so-called leaders about their total failure to respond to the Kremlin's moves? Doesn't it make perfectly clear that they are paper tiger (no pun intended), leaderless, even rudderless, and incapable of any type of tactical action?

by: Gordon Ball from: Ottawa Canada
February 17, 2012 15:59
I tthink it is entirely possible that interests outside Russia maybe covertly supporting the opposition.
In Response

by: Frank
February 19, 2012 21:59
Who was behind funding Latynina's not so distant gig in the US?

Harvard's Kennedy School of Government shows a preference for Russian journos with a certain kind of view.

While much can be improved in Russia, there's good reason to question some of those seeking change.

by: Vakhtang from: Moscow
February 21, 2012 06:11
"Of course, I doubt that Vladimir Putin gave an order to do something about Ekho Moskvy. But don't forget that Gazprom Media is a state organization, so they feel they need to make some body movements.."
-------------- Aleksei Venediktov...

I do not agree with Venediktov and recall that when during Russian-Georgian conflict, Echo of Moscow was to publish articles that do not like Putin, it was he and no other,summoned Venediktov on the carpet to the Kremlin and gave him a dressing down..
Until now, Venediktov not disclose details of Putin's wrath..
However, since the Echo of Moscow is trying to write as little as possible about the Ossetian and Abkhaz bandits who create chaos in the occupied Georgian territories.

for Putin the recognition of thugs in South Ossetia and Abkhazia is the same as that for Khrushchev Gagarin's flight into space
and he will fight for this illegal recognition until the end of his life.
The Fatherland is in danger because of the inadequate of some journalists....

Enough you, Mr. Venediktov

All the movement against the independent press is the movement of Putin and his orders:"Sort things out with them, but carefully that on the rotten West did not raise the noise, though I do not care about this noise.."- so says Putin...

About This Blog

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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