If you happen to find yourself featured in an NTV documentary, then you'd best watch your back.
On October 5, the state-controlled television station broadcast the second installment of its "Anatomy of a Protest
" series, in which it accused Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov of plotting with senior Georgian officials to stage a coup in Russia.
Five days later, on October 10, Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko instructed the upper chamber of parliament's Defense and Security Committee to investigate the allegations
And on the morning of October 17, agents from the Investigative Committee -- which has gleefully taken on the role of Russia's "politics police
" -- raided the apartments
of Udaltsov and two associates, took them in for questioning, and announced they had opened a criminal case based on the NTV documentary.
If you end up being the subject of discussion on an NTV talk show, trouble could be on the way.
On October 13, the host and guests on the program "Metla
" spent a good portion of their time smearing the upcoming primary elections to the opposition's Coordinating Council. Among the allegations were that opposition leaders like anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny intended to falsify the online vote, scheduled for October 20-21. The program also suggested that organizers had committed financial improprieties involving candidate-registration fees.
Four days later, prosecutors announced
that they were launching a criminal investigation into potential fraud and embezzlement by the organizers of the primaries.
NTV, which is owned by the state-run natural-gas monopoly Gazprom, appears to have become the stalking horse of Russia's security services.
It has long been derisively dubbed "Mentovskoye televideniye," or Cop TV, due to its tendency to air police shows and true-crime dramas. But it is increasingly looking more like Siloviki TV, the place where opposition leaders are smeared with material "leaked" by the security services in slickly produced programs -- complete with dramatic lighting and ominous background music.
The effort has two obvious goals: to discredit key opposition figures in the eyes of the public and to lay the groundwork for potential prosecutions.
And the two most recent targets -- Udaltsov and the primaries for the Coordinating Council -- are particularly telling about what threats the authorities see on the horizon.
A protester holds a banner calling for a boycott of NTV at a rally in support of jailed opposition activists and civil society members in Moscow in March.
Udaltsov is a threat because as the authorities implement what promise to be painful reforms of the social-welfare sector, he will increasingly become a key -- if not the key -- player in the protest movement.
"He is an atypical leftwing politician who could potentially put together competition for the Communists and create a leftist opposition," Igor Bunin of the Center for Political Technologies told "Nezavisimaya gazeta
"We are now approaching a period of strong social protest that is inevitable in light of the impending crisis and the reforms that the regime is being forced to implement."
And if the opposition manages to elect a Coordinating Council with real democratic legitimacy -- admittedly a big "if" given the splits in its ranks -- it could become, at least in moral terms, a shadow parliament that represents what I have come to call "The Other Russia
"The key to [President Vladimir] Putin's black PR campaign is to portray the opposition as radicals, anarchists, or ultranationalists who lack both a cogent political program and leadership experience," opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov wrote in a recent op-ed in "The Moscow Times
"They are portrayed by the Kremlin's propaganda machine as self-serving puppets of Western powers who hang out by foreign embassies in Moscow begging for financial support. The other message Putin is trying to send is that opposition leaders based in Moscow are out of touch with the common people in the regions and don't understand their problems and needs."
But the smears could also backfire and lead to greater solidarity among the opposition's ideologically diverse ranks.
Soon after the smear against Udaltsov was launched, much of the opposition -- from social democrats like Gennady Gudkov
to rightists like Navalny to socialite-turned-activist Ksenia Sobchak -- rushed to offer moral support.
"The little nips at the opposition by the regime are consolidating this community and this entire subculture because they feel they are in a besieged fortress and they're sticking by one another. They are forgetting about their political differences," Bunin told "Nezavisimaya gazeta
-- Brian Whitmore