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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

All News Is Good News on Pro-Kremlin Web Site

The government has had a successful two years. The number of poor people has fallen. The ruble is stable. Peace is taking hold in a war-torn region.

Headlines such as these are a rare treat for the leaders of most countries. President Vladimir Putin, however, can find them any day on Strana.ru, a pro-Kremlin Internet site. So, hopes the Kremlin, will Russian citizens.

As Russia slowly embraces the West's computer-driven lifestyle, Strana.ru represents the Kremlin's attempt to establish a presence on the information highway. It is part of an overall Kremlin media strategy -- a strategy critics say is transforming parts of Russia's once-feisty broadcast media into bland mouthpieces for the state.

The Kremlin's information war has already claimed two national independent television stations. A state-controlled natural gas monopoly last spring seized control of the popular NTV television network, while a state-connected shareholder managed to put TV6 out of business this year using an obscure statute aimed at shutting down unprofitable companies.

Strana.ru and its ilk are the flip side of that trend. Secure in its niche as the Kremlin's unofficial voice on the Internet, the web site has 500 employees as well as branches in almost all of Russia's 89 regions. Its owners -- a group of businesses whose identities have never been disclosed -- are considering expanding from the Internet to radio and television.

Strana.ru is a private project, but some would argue only in name. The site was conceived in the Kremlin, according to former officials, and funded by business leaders who wanted to be considered the Kremlin's friends. Their goal is not to make a profit, but to put out Putin's message on the Internet, according to Marina Litvinovich, general director of Strana.ru.

"It is not a business project," she said. "It's a political project. The idea is to support Russian authorities and the Russian president."

The web site has been at least moderately successful with both the public and the Kremlin, although Kremlin officials have hinted they want it to be simpler and more positive. More than 25,000 people accessed the site one day in February -- about 22 times as many as typically log onto the government's official site at www.gov.ru.

One recent headline on Strana.ru gives its flavor: "Vladimir Putin: Raising People's Well-being Must Be Politicians' Primary Goal."

The potential audience is growing rapidly. An estimated 10 million people in Russia use the Internet. That's just 7 percent of the population, compared to more than 60 percent of Americans. But it is six times as many Russians as logged on in 1998.

Thanks to Strana.ru's investors, the Kremlin now has a channel to these readers. Without knowing who the investors are, it is hard to speculate about what favors they might want in return.

What is clear is their project is part of a Kremlin response to Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, two tycoons -- and enemies of Putin -- who until recently controlled the most important independent media outlets in Russia.

The Kremlin argues that both men grossly abused their media power to advance business aims and to savage political enemies. Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin political consultant, cites Berezovsky's recent allegation that the Federal Security Service engineered the 1999 bombings of apartments in Moscow and elsewhere, killing more than 300 people, to bolster support for a war to subdue separatist Chechnya.

"We have to recall the psychological state of people who at the end of the '90s had to watch and listen how they were accused of blowing up buildings in Moscow," Pavlovsky said. "They did not have any opportunity to refute it. They didn't know how to professionally conduct an information war."

Critics argue that the Kremlin was no victim. Putin simply fails to understand that it is not the mission of the media to help the government, said Alexei Venediktov, chief editor of Ekho Moskvy, arguably Russia's most influential radio station. But Venediktov says he is resigning from the post because the state has taken over ownership."The president is just trying to justify shutting down the independent press," he said.

Strana.ru was part of the Kremlin's counterattack. Former Kremlin officials said Pavlovsky was the natural choice to run it. By the time Putin was elected president in March 2000, Pavlovsky had already established himself as an Internet leader, overseeing a smorgasbord of web sites that included one of Russia's most successful web portals, Lenta.ru.

"The choice was either to create a new division inside the administration or use the ready-made, serious team outside the government," said Igor Zadorin, a former aide in the presidential administration. "It was the state's decision to open the site. Pavlovsky was just the one to execute the concept."

By September 2000, six months after Putin's election, Strana.ru was ready to go online. Pavlovsky said he recruited the investors, who provide most of the financing. Few doubt the financiers' government connections. "It's not government funds," said Anton Nosik, editor in chief of Lenta.ru. "But you know how it works in Russia. You can just tell some oil company: 'Put your money here, or there, and you will get this return.'"

Pavlovsky said he wants to give up management of Strana.ru and that its ownership may also change. He said he is tired of the investors and government ministers or their underlings complaining to him about news items.

Some political consultants say Pavlovsky is under pressure not just from Cabinet ministers, but from the higher echelons of the Kremlin, where some officials want only the government's viewpoint to be presented.

Editors of other media web sites say pro-government sites such as Strana.ru will never present serious competition. Said Nosik: "There are not too many people on the Internet who love being brainwashed and who create a demand for propaganda."

Nor could the Russian government do much to control Internet news, Internet experts say. Even if it shut down a web site -- a fairly easy matter -- the owner could simply reopen it using an international or Western domain such as .com. The Russian government's power to regulate Russian owners of web sites in such domains is open to debate.

Still, given what happened to the major independent television stations, editors of some Internet media sites say they are on guard.

"Today, we do not really feel interference," Nosik said. "That's because they haven't started yet. Ever since Putin has been in the picture, there has been an urge to control the mass media. They are just not ready to come for us yet."

Dmitry Orlov, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, said he doesn't censor the material he puts on the center's web site of political news. Still, he said: "All mass media sources should be very careful when they talk about the Kremlin."

TV6's demise shows the state has the tools to crush any media outlet, he said. "We should all keep that in mind."