The case of the disappearing newspaper campaign

is Russian media analyst for BBC Monitoring.

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The relaunch of one of Russia's most prestigious newspaper titles has been beset by a mystery surrounding a provocative advertising campaign which may be further evidence of a rift in the country's political establishment.

The Moscow News began life in the 1930s as an English-language newspaper aimed primarily at foreigners visiting the Soviet Union. It continues to publish in English and Arabic to this day.

A Russian version of the paper, Moskovskiye Novosti, was launched in the 1980s and soon became synonymous with the new spirit of Glasnost. In fact, in 1990 it had the distinction of being the county's first independent media outlet. It was also very popular. As human rights activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva recently recalled in an interview with Radio Liberty: "In the Perestroyka era, it was a landmark newspaper. It shaped people's minds. Crowds gathered around shop windows displaying Moskovskiye Novosti, because, despite the huge print run, not everyone was able to buy a copy."

The paper's star waned in the early 2000s as it passed through the hands of a succession of owners, and in 2008 the Russian version disappeared from the newsstands altogether.

Plans to relaunch Moskovskiye Novosti were unveiled last November by the current owner, state news agency RIA Novosti, and the Vremya Publishing House, which produced the liberal daily Vremya Novostey. In accordance with the plans, Vremya Novostey ceased publication on 17 December. Most of its journalists, including editor-in-chief Vladimir Gurevich, have now joined the staff of Moskovskiye Novosti.

The paper's columnists include Mikhail Fishman, the former editor of the magazine Russkiy Newsweek, which folded last autumn.

The first edition of the revamped Moskovskiye Novosti appeared this week with a modest print run of 33,000. It will be published five times a week with a bumper edition on Fridays.

Speaking ahead of publication, Gurevich said that his aim was to bring the prestigious title back into the "ranks of the leading quality press" in Russia. He wanted the publication to respond to "the stirrings of civil society" and to reflect the fact that "what is happening outside the country is having an ever stronger influence on our life within it".

The print edition of the paper is just one part of the new operation. The relaunch is taking place across a range of platforms - a website (left), an iPad supplement and a PDA version for mobile phones. It is also supported by accounts on various social media including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the Russian social-networking site Vkontakte.

The strategy, Gurevich explained to Radio Liberty, is to appeal to both traditional and younger audiences.

Gurevich will have his work cut out to achieve the business plan of breaking even within four years. Moskovskiye Novosti enters a crowded media marketplace where newspapers in particular are having to battle to survive.

To maximise its impact, the relaunch was preceded by a controversial advertising campaign.

A couple of weeks ago, residents of Moscow were confronted by banners and billboards showing the paper's logo and the slogan "telling it as it is" next to historical quotations that appear subversive in the context of contemporary Russia. They included:

"Russian history before Peter the Great was one long funeral and after Peter the Great it was one long criminal case" by 19th-century poet Fedor Tyutchev.

"Honesty is inseparable from freedom, just as corruption is from despotism" by French playwright Anatole France.

"A great empire, like a great cake, is most easily diminished at the edges" by Benjamin Franklin.

The campaign was reminiscent of the publicity for the rebranding of another RIA-backed project: the English-language TV channel RT, formerly known as Russia Today. This featured billboards posing questions with alternating images that suggested possible answers. For example, the question "Who poses the greater nuclear threat?" was accompanied by images of Barack Obama and Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinezhad.

That campaign picked up several industry awards and seems to have helped boost the channel's ratings.

But on 19 March, a scandal flared up over the Moskovskiye Novosti campaign when a number of the banners mysteriously disappeared. Writing on the news website, Aleksandr Polivanov suspected that the newspaper or its owners were responsible. He noted that the first reports about the missing banners appeared on RIA and that the Russian Agency of Legal and Judicial Information, which is controlled by RIA, reacted to the incident "amazingly quickly".

On 24 March, though, RIA reported that advertising space operator News Outdoor had removed the banners and was refusing to sign a contract to extend the campaign. It also said that News Outdoor was refusing to explain its decision. This showed that suspicions about the paper's role in the scandal were "unfounded", Gurevich told RIA. He also said he was sure that opposition to the campaign had not come from the city authorities in Moscow.

So, who might be behind the apparent attempts to rain on the paper's parade?

The Moskovskiye Novosti relaunch appears to enjoy the approval of major figures on the liberal wing of the Russian establishment. For example, its Twitter account has been added to the select number of feeds being followed by President Dmitriy Medvedev.

It may also be no coincidence that the relaunch coincided with reports that the Kremlin was interested in boosting the fortunes of the liberal, free-market party Pravoye Delo (Right Cause) ahead of November's parliamentary elections. The front page of the first new edition of Moskovskiye Novosti featured a prominent photograph of First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov who is tipped in some quarters to take over the leadership of Pravoye Delo.

It is perhaps possible that the disruption of Moskovskiye Novosti's advertising campaign was inspired by figures opposed to Medvedev's promotion of liberal values and is further evidence of a split in the ruling establishment?

On 21 March, Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gave sharply differing assessments of the military intervention in Libya, in their most serious public disagreement since Medvedev became president.

Stephen Ennis is Russian media analyst for BBC Monitoring.

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