The recent episode involving one of Moscow’s most prominent media companies is just the latest confrontation between the ruling elite and liberal opposition in Russia.

RBC was one of the most influential and most quoted media outlets in post-Crimea Russia. Photo: TASS

For a very different take read: "Was RBC a victim of Russia's siege mentality?"

On May 13 the Russian Internet was shaken by news and rumors about the future of the nation’s independent media, including the suggestion that the Kremlin might take the Russian Internet under its full control by 2020. Just as troubling was the news about a shakeup at RBC, one of Russia’s most prominent media holding companies, which is known for its tough anti-corruption stance.

The dismissal of Maxim Solyus, the editor-in-chief of the RBC Daily newspaper, was followed by the exodus of key staffers, as other members of the editorial staff of the newspaper decided to quit as well. RBC was one of the most influential and most quoted media outlets in post-Crimea Russia, highly regarded for its series of investigations into corruption among Russia’s elite, including close friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Now, RBC is facing what can be best described as a crackdown on its editorial independence.

Unfortunately, what happened with RBC was not unique. In reality, it was commonplace for Putin’s presidency. The imposition of similar measures on independent media outlets follows a predictable pattern: after the replacement of the editor-in-chief and key staffers, the media outlet curbs its criticism of government insiders and become more amenable to following the policy of the presidential administration. In short, the media outlet is “tamed.”

The leadership of modern Russia firmly believes that media should not become independent centers of power and influence. There should be no “fourth estate,” according to the Kremlin: If it has already minimized the clout of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of power, why shouldn’t it curb the fourth one  independent media?

The point at which a media outlet stops being just a newspaper, blog or television channel and starts being perceived as a tool of political influence is a very subtle one in Russia. The tightening of the screws is there but it's highly selective. The Kremlin’s policy typically takes into account several factors, including the size of audience, the type of media outlet, its reputation and the ties of its leadership to the Kremlin itself.         

It’s almost a paradox: media outlets that have achieved a certain status among the liberal opposition (for instance, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta or the Echo of Moscow radio station) can be more flexible in their editorial policy. But this flexibility is not possible for media outlets such as RBC, which targets a large and non-politicized audience.

In this regard, RBC Daily, with its ambitions to be the major source of business news for the nation’s economic elite, has actually been in the danger zone for quite some time. In addition, RBC has actively worked on developing its own television network, which is available now in 43 countries. That expansion of activity and influence apparently represented a threat to the Kremlin.

Putin’s fight for control over the information space is known to have started during the first years of his presidency, with the attack on national TV network NTV, which belonged to well-known Russian oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky. Since then, all efforts to weaken the state’s de facto monopoly on nationwide television broadcasting have met strong resistance.

The practice of interaction between the Kremlin’s administration and journalists shows that it is taboo for the media to cover personal allegations of corruption aimed at the president himself or members of his inner circle. The more convincing the evidence is - the graver are the consequences.

Over the last two years, RBC has launched around 15 journalistic investigations that some might construe as going too far. The titles speak for themselves: “Where did Russian soldiers in Ukraine come from?”, “Behind the scenes of the fight against corruption in Russia,” and “What does the Church live on?” The two most discussed materials were devoted to the multi-billion-dollar projects and questionable business schemes by the woman thought to be Putin’s daughter, Ekaterina Tikhonova, and her husband Kirill Shamalov.

After the launch of investigations on Tikhonova and Shamalov, it became clear that RBC in its current form did not have much time left to live. Events started to happen in quick succession, the meaning of which was easy to understand for all those following Russian domestic policies over the last years.

At first, information started to emerge regarding the financial problems of RBC owner Mikhail Prokhorov and rumors began spreading about his intention to sell the company’s holdings. Then, there were searches at the ONEXIM group of companies, also owned by Prokhorov. Putin and his press secretary Dmitry Peskov strongly denied that there was any connection between the searches and Kremlin’s dissatisfaction with RBC’s editorial policy.

Finally, on May 13, the leadership of the RBC media holding company took the decision to dismiss the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Maxim Solyus, allegedly due to poor business performance. The official comments said that there were no political reasons for this dismissal, only economic ones. Such rhetoric, however, echoes similar episodes of the past 15 years.

Putin’s managing style is sometimes called “timid authoritarianism” (a term first coined by policy analyst Ekaterina Shulman): authorities strive for total control over all spheres of public life, but are for some reason “timid” to openly admit it. Such persistent denial of the obvious can also be seen in foreign policy, especially after 2014.

The same day that the editorial staff of RBC was dismissed, Putin congratulated the staff of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK) with its 25th anniversary. Among other things, Putin stated that, “Monopoly is always bad, especially in the sphere of information.”

While liberals considered these words to be an open mockery, in reality, Putin was not speaking about the domestic situation, but rather, about the situation in the international media landscape. Putin wanted to point out that VGTRK is contributing to form an alternative point of view globally and counter the information monopoly of Russia’s international rivals. Either way, the time and place for such statements was inopportune, to say the least.

However, to some extent over the past 15 years, Russians have gotten used to such rhetoric coming from the Kremlin. Today, few people in the country would believe that the flow of information regarding government officials’ abuses and the president’s personal life would stop after the RBC incident. The Kremlin though aims not to stop the liberal rhetoric altogether, but aims to make sure it doesn't reach a wider public.

Authorities have a different target audience – they are fighting for the hearts and minds of the “Putin majority” (the 86 percent of Russians who have a favorable view of Putin). The key prerequisite for success here is maintaining the light and stainless image of the national leader.

Also read: "Social transformations in Russia: A guide for Western policymakers"

In the confrontation between the ruling elite and the liberal opposition, the advantage in the post-Crimea period happened to be on the side of the elite, as it could without difficulty portray the nation’s liberals as “non-patriotic” in the popular mindset. Against this backdrop, the counter-thesis that “all of the nation’s leadership, including Putin, has stolen enough” did not seem as fresh as it did five years ago, when Alexey Navalny, the prominent opposition leader, introduced the meme “United Russia – the party of crooks and thieves.”

Thanks to the talented journalists and editors of RBC and the stir caused by the Panama Papers scandal, liberals started to gain ground. This was not supposed to be happening and RBC was quickly neutralized according to the typical methods.

On the other hand, this does not mean the end of the game for the liberal opposition. It will become harder and harder to maintain the level of patriotism within the “Putin majority” over the coming year. Solutions to the economic crisis are nowhere to be seen, foreign policy trump cards are to a large extent already used and the public has been overwhelmed with the memories of the Great Patriotic War of 1945.

Liberals, notwithstanding the crackdown on RBC, have many more opportunities for discrediting the ruling elite, which is weak not only due to its high level of corruption, but also due to the longterm process of "negative selection" based on the principle of loyalty to the leader.

The fight for the hearts and minds of Russians continues and the RBC episode shows not only the strengthening of authoritarianism in Russia, but also the ability of the liberal opposition to survive. Given the uncertain state of the domestic economy and the potential splintering of the Russian elite at some point in the future, the liberal opposition media may be down but not out.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.