Denouncing opposition figures as agents of the West and portraying Russia as a country under siege, pro-Kremlin television has had no scruples about wading into the Russian election campaign.
The NTV channel, a bastion of private broadcasting in the 1990s but now owned by state-controlled Russian gas giant Gazprom, on Thursday broadcast a documentary bluntly called “They are helped from abroad” on the opposition.
Broadcast just days before Sunday’s elections expected to be won by Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, the “investigative” documentary alleged opposition leaders and activists were financed from abroad and in the name of the CIA to hurt Russia.
Meanwhile private REN-TV, owned by Russian tycoon and Putin ally Yury Kovalchuk, broadcast a programme entitled “The plot against Russians” which showed an apocalyptic Internet video on what would happen if Putin quit power.
The popular video called “Russia Without Putin. Welcome” shows the country occupied by NATO forces in its West and by China in Siberia and the Japanese in the Far East.
Meanwhile, Georgia is organising the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games after gaining control of the entire Russian Caucasus.
“Putin’s campaign is exploiting the image of a fortress under siege and this is helping to reduce his loss in popularity” amid the outburst of protests against his rule, said analyst Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
At a fiery campaign address on February 23, Putin had told supporters that they were engaged in a “battle for Russia” and warned those he said were intending to “betray the motherland”.
The latest NTV documentary — a follow-up to a programme in December that made similar allegations about vote monitors — contained interviews, secret recordings and comments by pro-Kremlin analysts.
It attacked the list of “political prisoners” drawn up by the opposition, saying it was made up of “terrorists, killers and spies”.
Much of the film targeted veteran Russian human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, who is shown exiting the United States embassy in Moscow as the narrator insinuates that he is taking his instructions from Washington.
He is also shown at a lunch with a Japanese diplomat, with the film implying that he is working to transfer the Pacific Kuril islands that are still claimed by Tokyo back to Japan.
Ponomaryov angrily denounced the claims.
“This is a dirty provocation by the Russian security services against those who want the country to cooperate with the West.”
The anti-US tone of the documentary could fall on fertile ground: according to a poll by the independent Levada Centre, Russians’ opinion of the United States has severely deteriorated over the last years.
“Anyone who disagrees with Putin is presented as a US State Department agent and an accomplice of terrorists,” said opposition leader and former cabinet minister Boris Nemtsov, who was also targeted in the documentary.
He denounced the “paranoiac character” of the campaign, pointing to allegations at the start of the week of a plot to assassinate Putin that the opposition said were a sham.
Intriguingly, the same NTV channel had last week re-broadcast a new BBC documentary about Putin’s domination of Russia entitled “Putin, Russia and the West” that has caused controversy among some Russian activists for allegedly being too sympathetic to the Russian strongman.
However in an unexpected move, NTV cancelled at the last-minute Friday a showing of a German-made biopic about Putin, citing concerns its broadcast would be against the spirit of election rules.
Made by the ARD network and already broadcast in Germany, the film is a 45-minute-long insight into Putin’s daily life, and includes scenes of him doing lengths in an indoor pool and going deer hunting.