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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

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The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on 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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