A Conspiracy Behind the Rumor?

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The political fallout from Moskovskii Korrespondent‘s rumor about Putin dumping his wife Liudmila for contortionist extraordinaire and Olympic medalist Alina Kabaeva is taking political shape.  Last Friday, the Duma passed an amendment to the mass media law that adds slander to the list of unmentionables such as revealing state secrets, supporting terrorism, advocating pornography, and promoting violence.  The law doesn’t use the word “slander” but redefined it with “intentionally false information,” which, of course, is just about anything.  Perhaps more important than the vague, elastic language is the fact that the amendment gives the Ministry of Justice the power to issue warnings to media outlets for publishing slanderous and libelous material. Two warnings in twelve months allows Justice to shut the media outlet down pending trial.

The amendment’s introduction came from an interesting source.  Former Nashi commissar, youngest Duma rep, and Putin loyalist Robert Schlegel introduced it.  Ironically, Nashi was recently saved from a $1.2 million libel suit filed by Garry Kasparov.  Kasparov claimed that Nashi literature slandered him by claiming that he was an American citizen.  The court threw out the suit because, as Nashi lawyer Sergei Shorin argued, “there is no proof that the pamphlet was produced by Nashi.”  Well, in reality, Nashi did produce the pamphlet and claims that Kasparov is a American citizen have been a mainstay of its propaganda.  Granted, I’m no Kasparov fan, but any claim of Nashi’s innocence is completely preposterous.  As this Nashi flyer states, “The USA has another plan.  They want traitors and thieves to win–the American citizen Kasparov, the fascist Limonov, and the seller of the state Nemtsov.”  Nashi’s logo is at the bottom of the page.

But I digress.  It takes no brainiac to note that the law is in direct response to the Putin-Kabaeva rumor. After all, Moskovskii Korrespondent suspended publication after the story hit the international press and Putin had to field questions about its veracity in a press conference with Silvio Berlusconi. According to Interfax, Alexander Lebedev the owner of MK’s parent company National MediaComany (Kremlin friendly but also owns a majority stake in anti-Kremlin Novaya gazeta) pulled tabloid’s financial plug.

But Russia being Russia, nothing is assumed to happen by accident.  And the Putin-Kabaeva story is no different.  The reigning conspiracy theory is that the story is nothing more than black PR in the ongoing political battle between Kremlin factions.  As Mark Ames explains on Radar Online, “It looks more and more likely that someone from the FSB planted it knowing it would make Lebedev and his paper look foolish. That would be a clear retaliation for Lebedev’s attempts to exonerate Storchak, the FSB’s most valuable captured chess piece in its battle against Putin and the liberals he’s propped up. The FSB’s message is simple: If you fuck with us, we’ll fuck with you, your paper, and Putin—in more ways than you know.”  Lebedev’s explanation in Novaya gazeta for closing Moskovskii Korresondent seems to confirm this.  “I now know,” he writes, “that one of the most controversial pieces of gossip was custom-made and was printed in Moskovskii Korrespondent as part of a personal vendetta against me.” That or he’s falling on his sword.

Boris Kagarlitsky also suggests that the story was a “dirty trick” different sort.  Namely, to keep the state bureaucracy and ruling factions guessing.  Will Putin stay or will he go?  The answer to this seems simple.  There is no evidence that Putin is going to step aside in the near future.  He’s already implementing measures to subordinate regional leaders to the prime minister’s office.  His call to purge United Russia of its “useless members” seems to be gathering steam.  Local party organizations have already started their proverka to clean out their “dead souls.” All of this, and more, have some already predicting Medvedev’s future as the next “False Dmitry.”

How false Medvеdev’s role will be ultimately boils down to how he will deal with the siloviki.  They, not Putin, pose the most serious challenge to his legitimacy.  They have the political and police connections and control Russia’s state assets. They are the only real potent force to undermine a president.

If the conspiracy theories are true and the Putin-Kabaeva story is merely another “dirty trick,” then increased restrictions on “slander” is another arrow in their quiver for Putin loyalists to lob against their rivals lurking looking to stir up trouble in the press.  The rules of the game demand that Kremlin infighting remains in house and out of the public eye.  And if keeping this rule enforced means more control over the media, then so be it.  It’s not like these people want a free press anyway.

In his interview with Argumenty i Fakty, Medvedev assured the public that there won’t be any surprises with the transfer of power. Judging from the way Kremlin elites and their clients are continuing their pot shots against each other, I don’t foresee any surprises either.