MOSCOW — Russians surfing national TV stations for debate coverage found mention of the face-off between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, but only in the form of highly edited broadcasts cleansed of any criticism of President Vladimir Putin.
On the last question of the U.S. presidential debate, the candidates united in their position on Russia: Electoral changes that put more power in the hands of Putin, a former KGB agent, are eroding Russia's democracy.
But when state-controlled Channel One television aired its report on the debate on Friday, there was no mention of the criticism.
Reports on other channels overseen by the Kremlin — also devoid of the issues raised by Bush and Kerry — highlighted the Kremlin's crackdown on the press.
"The fact that within the country criticism is almost absent, and to receive criticism from a so-called partner like George Bush, or from a possible future President Kerry, is very painful for the Putin administration," said Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of independent Echo Moskviy radio.
Under Kremlin control
Under Putin, all national broadcasts have been brought under Kremlin control, a point noted by Kerry in the debate.
And over the last month, in the wake of a wave of terror attacks that have undermined Putin's pledge to bring law and order to Russia, there have been more media casualties.
After the publication of graphic photographs of the siege of a school in southern Russia blamed on Chechen separatists, the Kremlin-connected owner of the daily Izvestia fired the paper's editor. The attack in Beslan killed more than 330 people, many of them children, and served as a reminder of the failure of Putin to bring an end to the Chechen conflict.
The editor of one of the country's leading business weeklies, Kompaniya, was threatened with dismissal after his editorial policy fell afoul of the magazine's publisher, which has strategic investments in government firms.
And in a sign of the media's frustration, last month the Russian Television Academy awarded prizes to three programs that have been banned from the airwaves. Members of the academy called the action a "protest vote."
But there is little indication the Kremlin sees the vocal but withering independent media as a concern.
The Russian Duma, or parliament, dominated by pro-Kremlin parties, plans to introduce legislation restricting how the media can cover terrorist attacks. Russian media coverage of the siege in Beslan was widely criticized. In one example of coverage, state television cut to a movie as Russian troops battled the terrorists. Video: Russian reaction
"We're looking at a very peculiar state of affairs," said Vladimir Pozner, one of the country's most prominent journalists. "The three main networks, all government-controlled, have the largest number of [viewers] and therefore the greatest effect on what people think. Whatever they don't want us to know, they don't let us know. And they have that possibility."
Radio and print, with their smaller audiences, are also feeling pressure to toe the Kremlin line.
Echo Moskviy plans to air the debate, translated into Russian, in full on Saturday but expects its regular sparring with its corporate parent, state-controlled Gazprom, to continue.
"It's very important for Russians to see a presidential campaign that includes criticism," Venediktov said of Echo Moskviy's plans to air the U.S. presidential debate. "It's very important to see what other politicians in the world really publicly think of Russia."
Democracy and terrorism
After the Beslan siege, President Putin introduced legislation that will end the direct election of regional governors in favor of Kremlin candidates and appoint Duma deputies based on party affiliation rather than the choice of voters. Putin said the changes to the electoral system would bolster the country's ability to fight terrorism, though he did not detail the link between the two policies.
Loyal governors repeatedly appear on Russian television voicing their support for the measures. Meantime, Russian newspapers have reported that the consolidation of power was planned well in advance and the Kremlin exploited the terror attacks for political gain.
This week, over 100 American and European foreign policy specialists and past and present leaders wrote a letter to President Bush and other NATO leaders accusing Putin of turning Russia back to authoritarian rule.
In Thursday's debate, moderator Jim Lehrer asked Bush whether he misjudged Putin by placing more importance on his partnership in the war on terrorism than the setbacks to Russia's democratic process.
"No, I don't think it's OK, and said so publicly," Bush responded. "I think that there needs to be checks and balances in a democracy, and made that very clear that by consolidating power in the central government, he's sending a signal to the Western world and United States that perhaps he doesn't believe in checks and balances, and I told him that."
In his answer, Kerry said he regretted Putin's actions "in these past months. And I think it goes beyond just the response to terror. Mr. Putin now controls all the television stations. His political opposition is being put in jail."
Kerry was apparently referring to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest oil magnate, charged with fraud and tax evasion. Khodorkovsky says the charges are politically motivated and stem from his support for opposition parties.
Preston Mendenhall is an NBC News' correspondent based in Moscow.