Friday, October 09, 2015

Photoshop Wars: U.S. Ambassador 'Attends' Russian Opposition Rally...And The Moon Landing

A photoshopped image of U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft allegedly attending an antigovernment rally in Moscow. REN-TV later admitted the image was a fake.

Carl Schreck

It was a report guaranteed to inflame Kremlin supporters: the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Tefft, attending a Moscow rally of opposition activists, like a shepherd keeping watch over his antigovernment flock. It even included a photograph purporting to show Tefft at the event.

But there was one major problem with the report by the Kremlin-loyal national television network REN-TV: Tefft was not at the protest in Moscow’s outer Marino district. And the image showing Tefft talking to reporters against the background of the September 20 demonstration was a fabrication.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow responded snarkily to the report on REN-TV’s website, saying Tefft had spent the day at home and publishing photoshopped images showing Tefft speaking to the same reporters against the background of famous historical events -- including U.S. General Douglas MacArthur’s return to the Philippines in 1944 and the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969.

Russia’s state-owned and government-loyal media apparatus has long portrayed Russia’s opposition as fifth columnists who do Washington’s bidding, and responses to REN-TV’s posting of the article on Twitter fit this narrative.

“The U.S. is explicitly and openly controlling paid-for opposition events. That’s who Navalny is working for!” one Twitter user responded, in a reference to leading Kremlin critic and anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny, who was among the rally's organizers:

Following the U.S. Embassy’s response to the article, REN-TV on September 21 slowly walked back its report. First, it edited the report to state that it is “unknown whether these images are real or a common photo montage.” 

A cached version of the original report is still accessible. It reads: “No matter how hard the American diplomat tried to get lost in the crowd, the media asked him why he showed up to this event. The short answer: He came to look at the development of democracy in Russia and judge its scale.”

Later in the day, REN-TV followed up with an item conceding that the photograph was a fake circulated on Twitter and apologized. 

The image of Tefft used in the photo mashup was taken from an interview he gave on February 28 at the site near the Kremlin where Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was shot dead the previous day:

Putin and his supporters have accused the United States of orchestrating the ouster of governments and installing pro-Western leaders in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union over the past 15 years, allegations Washington calls baseless.

Tefft, in particular, has been vilified in Russia as a “diplomatic diversionist” who foments unrest in what Moscow perceives as its sphere of influence, including Georgia and Ukraine. 

REN-TV is majority-owned by National Media Group, a pro-Kremlin media conglomerate controlled by Yury Kovalchuk, one of numerous influential businessmen and officials sanctioned by the United States in response to Russia’s role in the Ukraine conflict.

The U.S. Treasury Department calls Kovalchuk the "personal banker" to senior officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.

National Media Group’s board of directors is chaired by former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabayeva, who has long been rumored to be romantically involved with Putin -- a suggestion that she and Kremlin officials have dismissed and declined to comment on.

Kremlin Spokesman Linked To $7.1 Million House In Latest Navalny Exposé

A blog post by anticorruption blogger Aleksei navalny claims that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov lives in a multimillion-dollar home purchased by his then wife-to-be Tatiana Navka earlier this year.

Mike Eckel

First, it was the watch.

The Kremlin's chief spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was raked over the coals earlier this year by opposition activists after one of his wedding pictures showed him sporting a wristwatch allegedly worth some $600,000. 

Then came the yacht, a Maltese-flagged vessel available for 350,000 euros per week that Kremlin opponents claim Peskov used for his honeymoon, stoking yet more questions about whether Russian officials use their positions to enrich themselves illicitly. 

Now come reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin's longtime spokesman lives in an 8,400-square-foot house, worth an estimated $7.1 million, in an elite district on Moscow's western outskirts. 

In a September 17 blog post, Russian opposition leader and anticorruption crusader Aleksei Navalny published photographs of the luxury home and property records showing that it was purchased earlier this year by Peskov's then wife-to-be, Olympic figure-skating champion Tatiana Navka. 

Navalny, who first published the exposés that drove the outcry over Peskov's watch and alleged yacht honeymoon, suggested Navka may have bought the home with funds illegally acquired by the Kremlin spokesman, whose official stated income last year totaled around $137,000.

Navalny called this "the favorite scheme of government bureaucrats."

"First the [bureaucrat] buys expensive real estate in his fiancée's name, and after the wedding you can confidently live in that home, saying: 'Well, my wife bought it before the wedding,'" Navalny wrote. 

Peskov could not be immediately reached for comment and has not responded publicly to the allegation. Reached by the Moscow radio station Govorit Moskva, Navka also refused to comment, calling Navalny a "maniac." 

Navalny and his allies tracked down the home using data embedded in photographs -- known as geo-tags -- sent from an Instagram account used by Peskov's daughter. Using this information, they said they were able to pinpoint where the photographs were posted from.

They then dug up government real estate records that matched the property. The documents, which Navalny published on his blog, show that Navka bought the house in January.

Navalny said the value of the property was calculated using real estate listings for nearby properties, then by figuring the per-unit cost of the land and using an average valuation of other houses in the district.

The luxury dwelling in an elite Moscow neighborhood where Dmitry Peskov and his wife now allegedly reside.
The luxury dwelling in an elite Moscow neighborhood where Dmitry Peskov and his wife now allegedly reside.

​In his trademark sneering commentary, Navalny also quoted remarks Peskov made in April about the importance of fighting corruption.

"But so what? Is it really possible for a bureaucrat so irreconcilably connected to corruption to have to live in a common apartment?" he wrote.

Navalny, a bete noire of the Kremlin, has fueled his political ambitions with exposés of bureaucratic cronyism and political activism, famously dubbing Putin's ruling United Russian party the "party of swindlers and thieves."

A leader of antigovernment protests in 2011-12, he has rallied thousands in the streets of Moscow but is currently serving two suspended sentences on theft and embezzlement convictions. He denies wrongdoing and says the cases against him are politically motivated.

Ukraine Livid As Putin, Berlusconi Swig Crimea's Oldest Bottle Of Wine

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Italian former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visit archaeological excavations outside Sevastopol, Crimea, on September 12.

Claire Bigg

When a scandal-prone Italian and a combative Russian get together on recently annexed territory, you might expect them to uncork a bit of controversy.

Less than a week after their demonstrative visit to Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi stand accused of drinking one of the forcibly annexed peninsula's oldest surviving bottles of wine.

Crimean prosecutors now exiled in mainland Ukraine say the two leaders tasted a 240-year-old bottle of Spanish wine produced during the 18th-century reign of Catherine the Great and brought to Crimea by Count Mikhail Vorontsov.

The wine-loving count served as governor-general of Crimea for more than two decades in the early 19th century.

The Massandra winery that he established in Crimea, including his private wine collection, was taken over by Russia when it seized Crimea from Ukraine last year.

Prosecutors in Ukraine have now opened a criminal case over the incident involving Putin and Berlusconi, citing "large-scale misuse of property."

Russian newspaper Promyshlennie Vedomosti reports that Berlusconi asked whether he could taste the wine during a tour of the winery.

The newspaper, quoting a witness, says Massandra's new pro-Russian director, Yanina Pavlenko, then uncorked the precious bottle of 1775 Jeres de la Frontera for the high-ranking guests.

Prosecutors say the bottle was worth more than $90,000.

At the time of Crimea's annexation, the winery owned five bottles of Vorontsov's famous Jeres.

Two more bottles were sold at a Sotheby's auction in 1990 and 2001. The wine fetched $50,000 at the 2001 auction, which took place with the personal authorization of then-President Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine.

In June 2014, the Massandra winery was placed on the list of EU sanctions after passing into Russian hands.

Elton John Says Putin Called Him, Kremlin Denies The Claim

The Kremlin has denied that Vladimir Putin (left) called British singer Elton John (right) this week, but said that the Russian President would "ready to meet" with him if a request was made.

Mike Eckel

Elton John and Vladimir Putin don't see eye-to-eye on many things: first and foremost, the rights of sexual minorities in Russia since Moscow enacted a controversial law banning gay "propaganda" two years ago.
Now there's another point of contention: whether the Putin actually telephoned the gay British rock star and discussed a face-to-face meeting.
John raised more than a few eyebrows this week when he announced on Instagram that he and Putin had chatted on the telephone.
"Thank you to President Vladimir Putin for reaching out and speaking via telephone with me today," John wrote in the September 14 post. "I look to forward to meeting with you face-to-face to discuss LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] equality in Russia."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, however, later told Russian news agencies that there was no such phone call.
"Putin did not have a conversation with Elton John, and, what's more, we have not received any requests from him for a meeting," Peskov was quoted as saying on September 15.
"The president has always been open to discuss human rights issues," Peskov added. "The president, I'm sure, will be ready to meet with Elton John, too, if there is such a request."
On September 15, John's publicist, Gary Farrow, confirmed the content of the Instagram post, The Associated Press (AP) reported.
Official attitudes toward gay rights in Russia have taken a decidedly negative tone in recent years. The Kremlin was resoundingly criticized by many Western nations ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics for the law that made it illegal to spread "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships" among minors.

Last week, the Kremlin awarded Vitaly Milonov, an antigay lawmaker in St. Petersburg whose municipal legislation was the foundation for the national law, a prestigious medal for "service to the Fatherland."

News of the award, issued by decree on September 8, went largely unnoticed by Russian media until several days later. 

In comments published on September 15 in the Russian newspaper Izvestia, Milonov challenged John to a public debate about LGBT rights. He criticized what he called the "unviability of [the gay] community, which is breaking traditional principles, values, and morals."

'Mountain Out Of A Molehill'

John regularly performs concerts in Russia, where he enjoys considerable popularity. At a concert in St. Petersburg in November, he spoke out about the issue of gay rights in Russia, and in particular the removal of a statue of an iPhone dedicated to the U.S. computer giant Apple.
Apple's current CEO, Tim Cook, is openly gay, and the company who sponsored the monument told Russian media that the monument was removed to avoid violating the gay "propaganda" law. A spokesman for the university where the statue was placed later said it had been slated for repairs.
Because Cook is gay, "does that also make iPads gay propaganda?!" John was quoted as saying in a post on his official Facebook page. "Is Tchaikovsky's beautiful music 'sexually perverting'?!"

​"As a gay man, I've always felt so welcome here in Russia," John was quoted as saying. "If I'm not honest about who I am, I couldn't write this music. It's not gay propaganda. It's how I express life. If we start punishing people for that, the world will lose its humanity."
Putin has insisted that the gay "propaganda" legislation he signed into law is not discriminatory. In a September 2013 interview with AP and the state-run Channel One television station, he suggested that critics of the law were "making a mountain out of a molehill."  
"Here, they say that Tchaikovsky was gay. It's true that that we love him not for that but because he was a great musician and we all love his music. And so what?" Putin said. "There's no reason to make a mountain out of a molehill; there's nothing scary or terrible happening here in our country."

The sexual orientation of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, one of Russia's -- and the world's -- greatest classical composers, has been openly speculated about since his death in 1893. Many historians have concluded that he was gay.

Asked if he had or would meet with gay activists, Putin said: "I assure you that I work with these people, I sometimes award them with state prizes." 

Russian Embassy Trolls Cameron, Doesn't Fool Anybody

The new leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, is regarded by supporters as a passionate champion of the left and an antidote to politics as usual, and derided by critics as a fringe politician reminiscent of Labour's days in the political wilderness.

Anna Shamanska

Russia's embassy in London has been known to troll.

It might send a "Good morning!" tweet with an attached photo of a sunrise in "location: Crimea, Russia," the Black Sea peninsula that most of the world regards as part of Ukraine but which Moscow forcibly occupied then annexed in March 2014. 

It might suddenly announce that Russia and China have signed "landmark agreements on oil and gas supplies" and show the "Russian bear" and the "Chinese dragon" sharing coffee atop the "Power Of Siberia" gas pipeline, with a squawking American eagle ineffectually banging a "sanctions" drum underneath. 

Or it could decide -- as it did on September 14 -- to try to exploit British Prime Minister David Cameron's interpretation of what Jeremy Corbyn's election as leader of the Labour Party means for Great Britain: 

The message was retweeted more than 8,000 times and "favorited" well over 4,000 more.

Some sympathized with the Russian Embassy, or at least acknowledged its wryness: 

There were compliments like "priceless" from a local Labour councilor in Essex and "Spot on! Hit the proverbial nail on the head. LOL.

But most of the responses appeared to hint at Russian officials' hypocrisy for any of a number of reasons.

There was the sheer breadth of the list of "threats" that Vladimir Putin's Russia has identified in the past: 

But perhaps more damningly, @BDStanley highlighted the absence of a credible opposition in a country where independent television has been all but wiped out and other media muzzled, dissidents are jailed on spurious charges or assassinated, and pro-Kremlin thugs are seemingly allowed to commit political violence at will

Another user echoed that sentiment: 

Another user, humorist Brian Sack, noted that Cameron's remarks were downright airy compared to perceived wrongdoing on Russia's political landscape: 

Some recalled the fate of former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, who died in agony from radioactive poisoning in London, where he had lived in exile and authored books accusing Russian authorities of committing terrorism and assassination in their own country: 

The assassination of Russian opposition leader and fierce Putin critic Boris Nemtsov just outside the Kremlin walls came to mind for some: 

Jeremy Corbyn was elected on September 12 to lead the British Labour Party. He is regarded by supporters as a passionate champion of the left and an antidote to politics as usual, and derided by critics as a fringe politician reminiscent of Labour's days in the political wilderness.

Corbyn has been a staunch critic of NATO, blaming the transatlantic alliance's "expansion...into Poland and the Czech Republic" for "particularly increased tensions with Russia" just one month after Moscow completed its military occupation and forced annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. In that piece, titled NATO Belligerence Endangers Us All for, he described NATO and the European Union as having "become the tools of U.S. policy in Europe." But "the resurgence of Russia and the enormous economic power of China are ending" what he called "two decades of unipolar U.S. power."

"The overall issue is still one of the activities and expansionism of the post-1990 United States," Corbyn wrote, further adding that the "long-term effect of the behaviour of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, backed by the EU and the British government, is to divide the world."

Russian Ambassador to the U.K. Aleksandr Yakovenko congratulated Corbyn on his Labour victory, saying he hoped "for positive change in terms of debate, including on our relations." 

Russia Ridiculed On Internet Over Claim Ukraine PM Fought In Chechnya

Many have poured scorn on Russian allegations that Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is a hardened veteran of the first Chechen War. (file photo)

Anna Shamanska

The brutal battles of the first Chechen war bring a lot of images to mind, but Arseniy Yatsenyuk's face was never among them -- until now. 

Social media satirists had a field day after the head of Russia's Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin, claimed in an interview published on September 8 that the Ukrainian prime minister fought alongside Chechen rebels in the first of two devastating post-Soviet separatist wars in the region.
Bastrykin claimed that Yatsenyuk took part in at least two battles in Chechnya's capital, Grozny, in late 1994 and early 1995, "as well as in torture and executions of Russian Army servicemen" in January 1995. 

The allegations are far from funny. But with its latest salvo in the information war over Ukraine, the Kremlin served up an irresistible target for mockery on the Internet.

In Ukraine, Russia, and further afield, social media users let their imagination soar. In a reversal of the Soviet practice of airbrushing people out of the picture, they used Photoshop to underscore the their rejection of the Russian claim by providing mock, retouched, "evidence" of Yatsenyuk's participation in the Chechen war:


Some of the memes drew a pointed parallel with Chechnya's current Kremlin-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who fought for the rebels in the first war in Chechnya before switching sides. Here is Yatsenyuk in the frame with Kadyrov:

And here he is shown conferring with the late Chechen rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev:

But why stop at Chechnya? The Twittersphere also speculated that Yatsenyuk may have taken part in other historic events.

(Translation: "In 1812 Arseniy Yatsenyuk personally burnt down Moscow.")
(Translation: "Sensation! Turns out Yatsenyuk didn't kill himself in his bunker in Berlin in 1945, but he has lived peacefully until today.")


Born in 1974, Yatsenyuk was 20 years old when Russian forces entered Chechnya to crush Dudayev's separatists.
One Facebook user shared a photo of Yatsenyuk and speculated that just a few days after having his picture taken, without telling his mom, he took a tram to Chechnya.

Continuing on that theme, Internet jokesters imagined Yatsenyuk joining militants from the extremist group Islamic State (IS). These Coubs feature IS propaganda music that has become commonplace in memes mocking the group: 


Yatsenyuk has not reacted to the claim personally, but his spokesperson Olha Lappo advised Bastrykin on Facebook "to undergo a psychiatric examination."  

For many Ukrainians, the Russian claims seem so outrageous that the natural response -- the only response -- is laughter.

(Translation: "I thank the Russian Investigative Committee. You made all of Ukraine laugh, and laughter prolongs life. Thank you once again.")


RFE/RL's Current Time TV put together some of the jucier ones:


Video Awkward Moment: Journalist Waylays Azerbaijan's First Lady In Paris

Azerbaijan's first lady, Mehriban Aliyeva, had an awkward run-in with a journalist not long after meeting with French President Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace.

Claire Bigg

Azerbaijan's first lady, Mehriban Aliyeva, enjoyed a warm welcome from French officials during her high-profile visit to Paris last week, including a tete-a-tete with President Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace.
A new investigative report, however, reveals that a team of French journalists gave a significantly frostier reception to Aliyeva, whose husband has ruled the oil-rich Caucasus nation with an iron fist since succeeding his dying father in the job a decade ago.

The program, Cash Investigation, broadcast on French national television on September 7, shows its reporter, Elise Lucet, approaching the first lady as she opens a photo exhibition held at a city hall in the heart of Paris and titled Azerbaijan, Land Of Tolerance. 

"Is your country really a land of tolerance for you?" the reporter asks.
"Yes, of course," answers Aliyeva, looking slightly alarmed.
The journalist then points out that Azerbaijan, a country with one of the world's worst human rights records, has "many political prisoners in jail."
"How can you say that? It's not true," Aliyeva responds as she tries to inch away, advising the journalist to go and "get correct information."

Unfazed, the reporter asks the first lady to comment on the cases of rights advocate Leyla Yunus and journalist Khadija Ismayilova, two leading critics of Aliyev's regime recently jailed amid an international outcry.
Aliyeva is seen turning her back without answering, while her security guards push the journalist away and order her to "be silent."
"We are in France," the reporter responds, adding that "journalists can ask questions in France."
As the inauguration festivities continue, Aliyeva eventually retreats into an office.

WATCH: Elise Lucet Challenges Mehriban Aliyeva​

The exhibition was organized by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, run by Aliyeva and named after current Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's late father, who ruled the Caucasus country for a decade before his death in 2003.

In August, a court in Baku sentenced Leyla Yunus to 8 1/2 years in jail on charges of fraud, tax evasion, and illegal business activities in a trial widely regarded as retaliation for her human rights work.
Her ailing husband Arif, 60, was sentenced to seven years on charges of fraud.

Ismayilova, a contributor to RFE/RL, was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison on strikingly similar charges.

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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