Journalist Targeted in Smear Drive

MTA metro car ad featuring Vladimir Solovyov and reading, "In 2008, I earned $2 million with Sberbank. You can too!"
Dressed in black and sporting a grave expression, prominent radio and television journalist Vladimir Solovyov makes a curious celebrity endorsement for state-owned Sberbank: "In 2008, I earned $2 million with Sberbank. You can too!"

This sticker-ad campaign in the Moscow metro in recent weeks is startling considering the reticence of prominent Russians when it comes to their net worth. But in fact, the campaign is a classic example what is known in Russia as "black PR," a phrase that covers everything from negative campaigning to attack ads to outright slander.

Solovyov, host of the "Solovyiniye Treli" program on Serebryany Dozhd radio, claims that law enforcement officers (people "in epaulettes") are waging an information war against him in an attempt to disrupt his journalistic investigations into purported corruption among senior officials.

The smear campaign, which began about three months ago, included one web site in which Solovyov gives diet tips and another promoting his own school of Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, Solovyov told The Moscow Times.

Young people have also dumped paint over his car, said Solovyov, who referred to himself in the third person.

"All of this is the work of professionals wearing epaulettes," Solovyov said. "They have only one goal, that is to make Solovyov shut up."

Solovyov said he is investigating the purported illegal purchase of an apartment by Lyudmila Maikova, the chairwoman of the Federal Arbitration Court in the Moscow District who was suspended from her duties earlier this year for damaging the reputation and authority of the judiciary.

Solovyov added that he was also looking into purported misappropriations by state-owned airline Aeroflot.

Police in Moscow's Fili-Davydkovo District are investigating the smear campaign, said Shota Gorgadze, Solovyov's lawyer. Police officials in the district could not be reached for comment.

"If we find out who is behind this campaign, they will undoubtedly face criminal prosecution [for libel]," Gorgadze said.

Moscow metro spokesman Pavel Sukharnikov said the Sberbank sticker ads featuring Solovyov were "unsanctioned" and "were cleared away on the day they appeared."

No one has been detained on suspicion of pasting the ads in the trains, a metro police spokeswoman said.

A request for comment sent to Sberbank last week went unanswered as of Monday.

One of the web sites apparently aimed at smearing Solovyov -- Stroynost.org -- features a picture of an overweight Solovyov next to one showing him much thinner. The site has him testifying, in often ridiculous-sounding prose, to the wonders of a gastric balloon that supposedly helped him lose 40 kilograms, finally allowing him to see "the thing" his stomach had been hiding. "I can't say I was happy with what I saw, rather disappointed, though I've heard no criticism from my wife," the site quotes Solovyov as saying.

In recent years, Kremlin critics and independent-minded media outlets have been the primary targets of black PR campaigns often organized by pro-Kremlin youth activists.

Haggard, homeless people, for example, have been given signs expressing support for opposition figures such as former world chess champion Garry Kasparov in an apparent attempt to discredit Kasparov's supporters.

In March, young people passed out rolls of toilet paper imprinted with the logo of the newspaper Kommersant and the cell phone number of a female journalist with the daily who had written an article critical of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi.

Solovyov, however, is not a counterculture figure or linked with anti-Kremlin politics.

Last year, he authored a largely positive book about Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and on Saturday he spoke at a rally in central Moscow supporting the government's measures against the financial crisis.