State TV allows gentle political satire, the first in years

Russian state TV kicked off the New Year by running a cartoon mildly lampooning President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the first sign of political satire in the media for years.

Animated figures of the two are seen dancing in Moscow’s Red Square with Medvedev playing an accordion while Putin beats time with a tambourine against his backside in a special New Year edition of Channel One’s “Mult lichnosti,” a biweekly humor show that pokes fun at public figures.

The 2½-minute clip, broadcast shortly after midnight following Medvedev’s New Year address to the nation, came as a surprise to viewers more accustomed to state TV that has avoided anything but praise for the country’s leaders since former President Putin cracked down on media freedoms a decade ago.

The musical sketch pokes fun at the power play between the two men since Medvedev took over as president from Putin in 2008.

There is banter about international relations with the E.U. and U.S., the pair poke fun at Jacques Rogge, head of the international Olympics committee and even a reference to Russia’s notoriously corrupt bureaucracy.

Although mild by Western standards, the cartoon suggests that the tight controls on TV could be loosening a little.

Under former President Boris Yeltsin, TV enjoyed a brief period of freedom in the 1990s with political satires such as independent broadcaster NTV’s puppet show “Kukly” — inspired by the U.K.’s “Spitting Image” — becoming hits.

The trend died along with NTV, which was closed down by the Kremlin in 2002. Since then state TV’s coverage of political events has been slavishly loyal with evening newscasts given over to Soviet-style reports of the daily activities of the president and prime minister.

The cartoon could signal a return to a slightly less staid approach, according to Channel One head Konstantin Ernst.

The two Russian leaders are being added to the regular cast of “Mult lichnosti,” which also pokes fun at President Obama, Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

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