The glowing coverage that business magnate Mikhail Prokhorov had been receiving from Russia's state-controlled media for months has come to an abrupt end.
And in its place, television viewers are being fed critical -- and clearly orchestrated -- investigative reports targeting the tycoon's allies, including the legendary pop diva Alla Pugacheva and the controversial antidrug crusader Yevgeny Roizman.
In a move that shook Russia's political establishment, Prokhorov resigned from the Kremlin-backed Right Cause party last week.
He also called Russia's party system a sham and accused President Dmitry Medvedev's powerful First Deputy Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov of being a "puppet master" who manipulates the country's politics from behind the Kremlin's walls.
It is unclear what now lies ahead for the billionaire, who according to analysts was tapped by the Kremlin three months ago to lead Right Cause as a regime-friendly and pro-business party in an effort to win votes from the liberal pro-reform minded electorate.
But analysts say Prokhorov must have angered powerful backers in the Kremlin despite originally agreeing with them.
“Prokhorov was from the start [acting] at the discretion of the decision makers in Russia," says Masha Lipman an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center.
"He was given the go-ahead to lead the party and campaign, but not a go-ahead on how he was going to campaign. Apparently, some of what he was doing was in conflict with the ideas of his minders.”
'Same Treatment' As Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky
Prokhorov's resignation on September 15 came after insurgent members of the party attempted to remove him as leader.
Arina Borodina, a television critic
for the influential daily "Kommersant," wrote on September 16 that Prokhorov then simply “disappeared” from federal television channels in the space of a day.
Arina Borodina, a commentator for the "Kommersant" daily
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Russian Service, Borodina maintains that there been a striking change in how Prokhorov is portrayed on television.
"As far as I know the Kremlin ban on bringing the Prokhorov saga to light is extremely strict," she says. "It was very striking when, on the evening of September 15, Prokhorov was referred to without using his name."
"That’s the same treatment as [exiled oligarch Boris] Berezovsky, [opposition leader Mikhail] Kasyanov, and [jailed oil tycoon Mikhail] Khodorkovsky. These are people not worthy of being named by their names."
On September 16, the nominally private but Kremlin-controlled television station NTV state news aired a documentary about Roizman’s criminal past of theft and fraud.
And on September 18, the pop legend Pugacheva, who had joined Right Cause just days before Prokhorov stormed out, was accused of taking part in financial pyramid schemes in a documentary titled "Alla, Give Us a Million!"
Pugacheva sided with Prokhorov against Surkov, calling the top Kremlin official "crazy."
But Borodina said that, while the program “discrediting” Pugacheva would have certainly been viewed as “timely” by the Russian authorities, unlike the Roizman documentary it could not have been part of the black PR campaign since it was planned two weeks ago.
There has been some media speculation that he could suffer the same fate of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was arrested in 2003 after running foul of the Kremlin. Prokhorov says he has no fears of prosecution.
Right Cause Faces Bleak Prospects
Lipman believes the overnight change in media coverage of Prokhorov sends a clear message:
“This [change in media coverage] only emphasizes the ultimate truth," she says.
Russia Analyst Masha Lipman
"Whatever lies behind political intrigue or whatever political maneuvering lies behind the scandal – one thing remains unchanged and that is that the political scene is monopolized by the top of the executive branch and they can play however they see fit.”
Facing bleak prospects in the December 4 State Duma elections, some members of Right Cause indicated on September 21 that they would welcome Prokhorov's return as party leader, but the tycoon indicated that he was not interested. Analysts remain divided on what actually caused the rift between Prokhorov and his Kremlin minders.
The Kremlin is believed to have been angered by Prokhorov’s recruitment of Roizman, a highly controversial figure.
Other speculation has focused on Prokhorov's moves to recruit nationalists to the party and move its platform in a more populist direction, straying from the pro-business orientation that the Kremlin favored.