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Russia: Yeltsin Launches New TV Channel To Control Information

  • Brian Whitmore

St. Petersburg, 29 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russia's President Boris Yeltsin this week issued a decree curtailing St. Petersburg's Channel 5 to a local audience. The channel has been the only national station outside Moscow, enjoying potential audience of some 90 million viewers.

At the same time, Yeltsin unveiled plans to launch on November 1 a new Moscow-based national channel called Culture broadcasting on frequencies until now allocated to the Channel 5. Culture is to be fully state funded and Yeltsin will personally appoint its director.

In recognition of St. Petersburg's status as Russia's "cultural capital" -- made official by another recent Yeltsin decree -- three hours of Culture's daily programming will be produced here.

The new local channel 5 will be reorganized into a corporation, with city holding 51 percent of the stock and the remaining 49 percent to be sold at a future auction.

President Boris Yeltsin's decree appears to be a part of a maneuver by which the Kremlin is attempting to reassert control over all of Russia's national television stations.

The decree comes shortly after the country's leading bankers waged a noisy on-the-air campaign against the Kremlin, using the national media, including television, under their control.

Last month, a consortium led by Uneximbank won a government auction for control of Svyazinvest, the company that controls most of Russia's telecommunications network.

The losers in that tender, Vladimir Gusinsky's Most-Bank and Boris Berezovsky's LogoVAZ, took to the airwaves to denounce the auction as rigged. Gusinsky owns a controlling share in NTV Independent Television, while Berezovsky is the largest private shareholder in ORT Russian Public Television.

"The government is trying to get direct control over all national television channels," said Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The fact that the decree was signed now is connected to the war among the bankers."

The move is also the first step toward the state regaining control of ORT and is thus part of an ongoing battle for influence in the Kremlin between First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais and Berezovsky, who serves as deputy secretary to the Security Council.

"Chubais is the stronger of the two," said Andrei Piontkowsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. "I expect Berezovsky to lose his influence over ORT and be fired from the Security Council."

"This is both a counter balance and a threat [to Berezovsky]," agreed Petrov. "I am waiting for big changes at ORT."

Since last summer's presidential election, Anatoly Chubais has been battling to rein in Russia's television stations in order to ensure control over the flow of information ahead of the next presidential elections in the year 2000, or earlier.

"Everything related to television in Russia must be viewed in the context of the next presidential election," said Andrei Piontkowsky. "The people around Chubais are worried about Berezovsky and Gusinsky monopolizing television."

In last summer's presidential elections, the country's wealthiest bankers and the mass media they controlled united to head off the threat of Gennady Zyuganov's Communists. Since then, cracks have appeared in the alliance, and among Moscow's power elite.

Earlier this year, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov -- who is widely expected to run for president in the next election -- was granted his own national television channel, called Center TV.

"Berezovsky, Gusinsky and Luzhkov all have television stations and Chubais is nervous," said Piontkowsky.

The new nationwide Kultura channel can be used for any purposes. "You can have culture or political advertising," said Petrov, adding: "You can even combine them and have [renowned conductor Mstislav] Rostropovich telling people to vote for a particular candidate."

Irina Mikhailchenko, director of InformTV, Channel 5's news program, agreed, saying: "I don't expect this channel to be 'cultural' for very long."

St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, who previously sought to privatize the national channel and keep it in St. Petersburg, reacted calmly to the news.

"Yakovlev had no choice," said Petrov. "The fact that St. Petersburg is losing its national channel at a time when Moscow is establishing its own shows the real influence of the two cities."