Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Power Vertical

Siloviki TV

Russian opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov (right) gestures as he is escorted from his apartment after being detained in Moscow on October 17.
Russian opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov (right) gestures as he is escorted from his apartment after being detained in Moscow on October 17.
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.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.
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.
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

Tags: ntv,Sergei Udaltsov

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In this space, I will regularly comment on events in Russia, repost content and tweets I find interesting and informative, and shamelessly promote myself (and others whose work I like). The traditional Power Vertical Blog remains for larger and more developed items. The Podcast, of course, will continue to appear every Friday. I hope you find the new Power Vertical Feed to be a useful resource and welcome your feedback. More

18:16 December 09, 2014


...and the Russian Orthodox Church is not happy about it.

17:03 December 09, 2014


10:00 December 09, 2014


What to make of French President Francois Hollande's meeting with Vladimir Putin this weekend? The Moscow Times takes a look in a story today:

The weekend meeting between the French and Russian presidents has given France a chance to become "the new Germany" for Russia, which lost its last Western ally after a falling-out with official Berlin, analysts say.

French mediation "is aimed at preventing Russia-EU relations from going to the dogs," said Tatiana Kastueva-Jean of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) in Paris.

Germany has traditionally been Russia's staunchest defender in Europe. But with Berlin taking a harder line in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, and particularly the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, Paris os trying to fill the void:

Though France has backed EU sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, it has taken a notably moderate stance toward Moscow.

Hollande was one of the few Western leaders who did not give Putin a hard time at a G20 meeting in Australia's Brisbane last month.

Nor have French authorities pressured French businesses to cut connections to Russia like Germany did, said Sergei Fyodorov of the Institute of Europe at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Hollande's "ostpolitik" is reminiscent of that of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy: 

There is a recent precedent for Hollande's attempts to play peacemaker with Russia: In 2008, his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy brokered the end to the "five-day war" between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway province of South Ossetia.

Right. And we all know how well that turned out. Just ask the Georgians.

Read the whole piece here.

09:47 December 09, 2014


Anna Netrebko's decision to donate 1 million rubles to a theater in rebel-held eastern Ukraine, and her posing with a Novorossia rebel flag, has sparked a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #BoycottAnnaNetrebko.

Here are some choice tweets:

09:31 December 09, 2014


Simon Shuster has a new piece up at Time suggesting he did, based on a draft copy of the speech prepared by the Kremlin leader's speechwriters.

Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently cut out a blistering critique of Ukrainian authorities in a speech to human-rights advocates last week, as he seeks to carve out a peace deal with his country’s neighbor. 

In a draft prepared by Putin’s speechwriters and obtained by TIME, the President was set to accuse Ukrainian authorities of the “mass destruction of their own citizens” during their ongoing conflict with Moscow-backed separatist rebels. But at the last moment, Putin appears to have dropped that line.

Read the whole piece here.


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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