The editor of a prominent Russian news magazine said he had been fired after the weekly printed a photograph featuring an obscene message addressed to Vladimir Putin as part of extensive reports on alleged fraud in a December 4 parliamentary election.
Maxim Kovalsky said on Tuesday he had been dismissed as editor of Kommersant-Vlast over the magazine's Monday edition, which included several articles examining alleged electoral violations favouring Prime Minister Putin's United Russia party.
The dismissal appeared to serve notice that Putin still holds vast influence over the Russian media, despite mass protests against him and a decline in his ruling party's support at the election.
The reason is the issue about the election, Kovalsky told Reuters. He believed the Kremlin had put pressure on Kommersant Publishing House owner Alisher Usmanov, a billionaire metals tycoon, and that he had no regrets about the publication.
I acted absolutely consciously and believe I did the right thing, he said.
A spokeswoman for Metalloinvest, a company owned by Usmanov, confirmed that Kovalsky and the head of the magazine's parent company Kommersant-Holding, Andrei Galiyev, had been fired.
Asked for comment, the spokeswoman sent a report on gazeta.ru, a news site also linked to Usmanov, that cited Usmanov as saying unspecified material that appeared in recent issues of Kommersant-Vlast had violated journalistic ethics.
These materials border on petty hooliganism, the news site quoted Usmanov, a billionaire who is part-owner of the London soccer club Arsenal, as saying.
Kommersant Publishing House director Demyan Kudryavtsev told Reuters he had tendered his resignation to Usmanov over the photograph, which he said he had not been aware of before publication. He said he expects a decision later his month.
The shakeup at Kommersant, whose publications include a leading daily by the same name, followed protests by tens of thousands of Russians over alleged election fraud in the biggest opposition rallies of Putin's 12-year-old rule.
Tens of thousands of Russians protested on Saturday over the parliamentary election they said was rigged in favour of United Russia, calling for the annulment of the official results and a new election.
Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have made clear that is out of the question.
Meeting with leaders of the four parties that won seats in the State Duma lower house, Medvedev said that all official complaints will be heard but that the Duma will hold its first session on December 22 -- two days before new protests are planned.
Voters sharply reduced the ruling party's parliamentary majority but opponents say the official results were inflated. Allegations of fraud have spread on the Internet and in some newspapers, while they are largely ignored by state media.
Monday's issue of Kommersant-Vlast had a large section on the election, including articles on alleged violations.
The cover featured a photograph of Putin and a headline with a play on United Russia's name that suggested ballot-stuffing, adding: How the elections were falsified: eyewitness accounts.
A photograph on page 29 showed a ballot paper marked for the liberal Yabloko party and scrawled with the comment: Putin, fuck off!.
The photo caption read: A ballot filled out correctly, deemed invalid.
Kommersant-Vlast deputy editor Veronika Kutsyllo said the magazine published the photograph because it was a document that she believed suggested irregularities. She said she planned to resign.
Kutsyllo said the ballot was cast in London, where Russian citizens were able to vote, and that it was a valid ballot because it was marked for one party.
Putin, president from 2000-2008 and now prime minister, will run for a new six-year term as president in a March 4 vote.
Opinion polls show he remains Russia's most popular politician and is likely to win the presidency, but his ratings have fallen and he was booed at a martial arts event last month.
He alienated many Russians in September by announcing he planned to swap jobs with Medvedev after the March presidential election, leaving many worried he could now rule until 2024.
Putin has long kept a tight grip on the traditional media, although state television showed footage of tens of thousands of people protesting in Moscow on Saturday against the alleged electoral fraud, without showing calls for him to step down.
Two other presidential candidates took steps to formalise their bids on Tuesday, but both are dismissed by the protest leaders as figures who do not present a threat to Putin.
Flamboyant nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky was nominated at a congress of his LDPR party that was given prominent coverage on state television.
Sergei Mironov, leader of the Just Russia party, filed his candidacy papers. Mironov, 58, ran for president in 2004 but supported Putin. He has become more critical after being ousted as speaker of the upper house of parliament this year by United Russia.
(Additional reporting by Timothy Heritage; Writing by Steve Gutterman, Editing by Douglas Busvine)