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Dirty propaganda wars in Russia

Mud sticks - that's why politicians love to throw it at their opponents. But in Russia it’s become an art form with TV programs making allegations to discredit government critics. Fiona Clark reports from Moscow.

It must come as a pretty serious shock when your own mother believes the propaganda broadcast against you on Russia's Kremlin-controlled TV stations, but that's the exact scenario the satirical Russian poet, Andrei Orlov, has just faced. Speaking at a recent performance of his works he told the audience how his elderly mother, who suffers from a heart condition, had made him promise not to buy her medicine using the money he'd received from alleged US spies.

Where had she got the idea that her son was on the US payroll? From a documentary she'd been watching which alleged Orlov had taken money from US agents to write anti-government poems. The documentary used secretly filmed footage which showed her son having coffee with two American friends in the luxury shopping centre GUM - right opposite the Kremlin. One of the American men was also secretly filmed entering and leaving the US Embassy, and withdrawing rubles from an ATM. Join the dots and the obvious conclusion, in the mind of the film makers at least, is: Dissident Russian poet is paid by US intelligence agencies to write subversive poems.

Dirty war of words

Now, I'm a foreigner in Moscow. I regularly go to my own embassy to get papers stamped or a passport renewed, and on very rare occasions, I may even turn up for a drink on a Friday night. All of those activities require me to enter and leave the building. I also regularly withdraw money from ATMs. Additionally I have a small circle of Russian friends who I sometimes meet up with - including Orlov who I have known since 1991. (And, by the way, he was writing irreverent and anti-government prose way back then too).

man speaking at lecture copyright: Fiona Clark

A thorn in the Kremlin's side

It's not beyond the realms of possibility that sometimes I might even go to the embassy, withdraw money and meet Russians including Orlov, all in one day. Add all of that up and I too could be accused of acting on behalf of my government and paying him off. The problem is it's so devoid of logic that it almost rivals Monty Python's proof of witchcraft: throw her in the water and if she floats she's a witch.

They've taken three random facts, strung them together, and drawn a conclusion that cannot be substantiated in any way and put it on national TV. Television channels regularly run so-called documentaries that make allegations of corruption or spying against people if they have reached a certain status and dare to question government policy. If you can't get people on money laundering or embezzlement then what other choice is there but to publicly discredit them? And clearly it works, as Orlov's mother's reaction attests.

Good company

Over the years the list of accused provocateurs has grown quite long and includes some impressive names. Ksenia Sobchak, whose father Anatoly Sobchak was said to be Vladimir Putin's mentor when he was the Mayor of St Petersburg in the 1990s, endured a 9-hour police raid of her apartment in 2012 where large amounts of cash - more than a million euros and almost half a million dollars - were found. Having hosted numerous prime-time TV shows including the Russian version of "Big Brother" she said she earned more than $2 million (1. 8 million euros) a year and chose to keep cash at home because, like many Russians, she didn't trust banks. The money and her jewelry were taken away and shown on TV. A tax investigation was launched. Two years later an opinion poll ranked Ksenia as one of the least trusted figures in Russia - a big fall for a previous TV super star.

In 2013 the opposition figure, Alexey Navalny, was charged with embezzlement and money laundering and is serving his sentence under house arrest.

But it was the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov who paid the ultimate price, not publically discredited but shot dead in February last year, just before he was about to release a report on Russian operations in Ukraine.

Chechens are accused of killing him but the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, blamed western and Ukrainian intelligence agencies for masterminding the assassination - trying to stir up trouble by killing an opposition leader pretty much right outside the Kremlin so the government would be blamed. Again no evidence was forthcoming, just an allegation.

man speaking picture alliance/AP Images/M. Sadulayev

Kadyrov wants to see critics and dissidents behind bars

Subversive western agents

And now he's saying other quite disturbing things. As Russia continues to play its part in the war against "Islamic State" terrorists in Syria, the Chechen leader thinks pressure on dissidents at home should be ramped up.

Labeling those who speak out against government policy as failed political aspirants, he told reporters at a press conference on January 12 in the Chechen capital, Grozny, that many opposition figures were "playing the game invented by Western special services" and should be put on trial for "subversive activities."

It's not clear how many people had been arrested for subversive activities but this is cause for serious concern. What does he class as subversion? What evidence is there against these people? What type of trial will they get? Is this a purge? These are just some of the questions that spring to mind.

And while many may think Kadyrov's rantings are fringe views, it's not too difficult to imagine that in this climate of economic hardship, the current acts of public intimidation in other regions of the country could well escalate into exactly what he's saying - charges of subversion or treason. According to the "Moscow Times," Supreme Court records show the number of high treason cases was almost four times higher in 2014 with 15 people convictions compared to four in 2013 and six in 2012. So it's not unreasonable to think that allegations like those against Orlov, that cannot be proven as either true or false, could well see people end up behind bars just like they did in Stalin's day, and the vast majority of Russians who watch state-controlled TV will probably cheer. After all, if it's on TV it must be true.

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