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Russia Report: April 2, 2002

2 April 2002, Volume 2, Number 10
By Laura Belin

Losing his job twice within a year was obviously a learning experience for Media-Sotsium General Director Yevgenii Kiselev. Seeking another chance for NTV and TV-6 veterans to work on the air, Kiselev hitched his wagon to a group of investors and political heavyweights who are on good terms with the Kremlin. In the new Media-Sotsium alliance, Kiselev's foremost "noncommercial" partner is Yevgenii Primakov, president of the Russian Chamber for Trade and Industry and a former prime minister, foreign minister, and head of the Foreign Intelligence Service. Speaking to Ekho Moskvy radio on 10 March, Kiselev remarked that "Primakov has enormous clout [and] influence, enormous connections, and to have him on the team is a big plus."

On 27 March, Kiselev's strategy apparently paid off, as his consortium won the competition for the Channel 6 frequency. However, Primakov's record in dealing with major television networks casts doubt on the prospects for Channel 6 to be a haven for alternative perspectives on the news. In his search for a patron with enough stature to protect his team from intrusive state officials, Kiselev may have merely "stepped on the same rake."

As prime minister from September 1998 to May 1999, Primakov was famously thin-skinned. He held two informal meetings with Russian journalists but ended the practice in the autumn of 1998 when one of the attendees wrote an article that annoyed him.

What might worry Channel 6 employees more, though, is Primakov's approach to the two networks over which he had influence as prime minister: fully state-owned Channel 2 broadcaster Russian Television (RTR) and 51 percent state-owned Channel 1 broadcaster Russian Public Television (ORT). Primakov met with RTR journalists and top executives in December 1998 to express concerns about the network's story selection, especially the predominance of "bad news." (Excerpts from his remarks appeared in "Kommersant-Daily" and "Nezavisimaya gazeta," 9 December 1998). Judging from his comments to RTR staff, Primakov's vision of state television's proper role had little in common with the idea of a "watchdog" or "fourth estate." He urged the journalists to consider "state needs" and said the executive branch should be able to count on "information support [and] and an objective understanding of the difficulties facing the country and the government in particular."

Primakov also took concrete steps to create a forum for "information that does not shake up society, but consolidates it," as he put it in his meeting with RTR employees. In late December 1998, Foreign Intelligence Service veteran Lev Koshlyakov took charge of RTR's news division. Koshlyakov had no background in television and had previously worked as a journalist mainly as a cover for espionage. He replaced Mikhail Ponomarev as RTR's prime-time news anchor in early 1999, prompting cries of censorship and an unsuccessful protest by Ponomarev and more than 100 colleagues. A man who once worked in the same KGB department as Koshlyakov gained the top job at state-owned Radio Rossii. In fact, when Primakov headed the cabinet KGB veterans obtained more top jobs in Russia's state-owned radio and television companies than ever before (see "Obshchaya gazeta," 11-17 February 1999).

Primakov's efforts to force Berezovsky out of his commanding position at ORT are even more revealing. His government's shrewd combination of economic pressure and selective application of prosecutorial power foreshadowed the Putin administration's approach to NTV and its parent company, Media-MOST.

An early target of the campaign to restore state power over ORT was Sergei Dorenko, the network's talented hatchet man whose nicknames included "Berezovsky's bull-terrier." Soon after the August 1998 economic crash, Dorenko became anchor of ORT's nightly newscasts. Primakov urged (behind the scenes) that Dorenko be taken off the air. ORT managers obliged in December 1998, but Dorenko returned the following month with two episodes of his weekly "analytical program," in which he blasted Primakov and highlighted a magazine report about the prime minister's foster son that turned out to be inaccurate. ORT managers soon dropped Dorenko's program, ostensibly because of the host's illness (though he denied having fallen sick). Dorenko did not return to Russian television screens during Primakov's tenure.

Dorenko's departure as anchor of prime-time newscasts coincided with ORT executives' desperate lobbying for a bailout. Even after President Boris Yeltsin apparently saved the day with a decree instructing state-controlled Vneshekonombank to loan ORT $100 million, Primakov could have forced the network into financial ruin. Vneshekonombank was unable to disburse funds without a formal document from the government, and Primakov's team were dragging their feet. Meanwhile, the pressure from ORT's creditors grew intense; a Moscow court put the network into temporary receivership in January 1999 pending resolution of a bankruptcy lawsuit. Although the government was not directly involved in the bankruptcy proceedings, even observers who were unsympathetic to Berezovsky considered that case politically motivated. Looking for additional sources of cash, Berezovsky devised a plan to borrow from Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation against a 20 percent stake in ORT, but Primakov rejected the idea. Dorenko's weekly program appeared to have been sacrificed to start the flow of money from Vneshekonombank, without which ORT could not have repaid its other debts. (Dorenko claimed that he volunteered to "keep quiet for a while" in order to save ORT.)

Criminal investigations were another potent weapon against ORT. In December 1998, the tax police opened a criminal case against Sergei Lisovskii, a colleague of Berezovsky's who long controlled advertising on Channel 1. According to Dorenko, the tax police were also probing his affairs at that time. Lisovskii paid his back taxes, but just days after he settled that case, the Prosecutor-General's Office opened an investigation into alleged illegal wiretapping by him. In February 1999, the same week Dorenko's show was dropped, Russian law enforcement agencies pursued criminal cases relating to several firms associated with Berezovsky. Of course, Berezovsky's business dealings provided plenty of probable cause for criminal investigations. But since Primakov was notably less eager to probe the alleged misdeeds of his government colleagues (such as First Deputy Prime Minister Yurii Maslyukov), the cases involving Berezovsky appeared to be a political gambit rather than part of a sweeping anticorruption campaign.

In light of later developments, it is easy to forget how strong Primakov's hand appeared in the first half of 1999. Many political analysts, along with rank-and-file ORT employees, expected the prime minister to prevail over Berezovsky, who seemed to have lost much of his influence over the network's affairs. He regained his position as ORT's de facto chief executive only after Yeltsin fired Primakov in May 1999.

In many ways, Primakov's government provided a model for taming television networks, which Putin's administration has followed through. But whereas Yeltsin undercut Primakov's efforts, Putin feigned neutrality while tacitly supporting attempts by government officials and paristatal entities to force management changes at NTV and pull the plug on TV-6.

Primakov's record in media relations prompted some journalists to drop out of Kiselev's consortium before the Channel 6 auction, the weekly "Yezhenedelnii zhurnal" reported earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2002). "Yezhenedelnii zhurnal" speculated that Primakov and Arkadii Volskii, head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, were "commissioned by the Kremlin in order to conduct ideological monitoring" of Channel 6 journalists.

Kiselev is clearly counting on Primakov to intervene on behalf of the editorial staff if conflicts arise with government officials or the "oligarchs" who backed the successful bid for the Channel 6 frequency. Speaking to Ekho Moskvy on 10 March, Kiselev noted: "It's no secret that Yevgenii Maksimovich is one of the people who has direct access to the president. It's always useful to have a partner who in a crisis situation can turn to the head of state." Whether Primakov would side with journalists if bold news coverage provoked a "crisis" is far from clear, however. In a joint appearance on Ekho Moskvy with Kiselev and Volskii on 28 March, Primakov said Channel 6 must not face pressure from the state or from "oligarchs," but he also called on editorial staff to exercise "internal censorship" in order to keep the network "responsible." As then-RTR news chief Koshlyakov explained to one interviewer in February 1999, "Intelligence officers are by mentality state-minded people; they work for the common good and the common cause."

Laura Belin, a doctoral student at Oxford, has written about Russian politics and media issues since 1995.

Soon after the tender results for TV-6 broadcasting rights were announced on 27 March, RFE/RL spoke to the Moscow-based independent media analyst Floriana Fossato for her thoughts. JAC

RFE/RL: What kind of programming do you envision for the "new" TV-6? Do you think it is possible it will provide some kind of "public television" broadcasting?

FOSSATO: I think an interesting question that needs to be developed is whether or not Media-Sotsium will turn out to be some kind of strangely structured attempt to create public television in Russia -- paid for by the oligarchs. Of course, logically, it could not be, because the state has no formal stake in the consortium, but on the other hand some observers in Moscow do not rule this out. It would be an easy solution to one of the big problems the Media Ministry is facing at the moment. The new TV-6 will be a station employing some of the best and most popular journalists in the country. And, there is a strong understanding of the "social" role of TV by [Yevgenii] Primakov, [Arkadii] Volskii and the possibly growing number of representatives of society. The oligarchs that are providing for the financial funding of the new station may or may not be thinking in terms of a 'return' at some stage, but on the other hand the consortium is officially called a noncommercial venture. And, Primakov and Volskii are proudly talking about their plans for creating the "most socially oriented" and the "most democratic" television station in Russia. I think we will likely understand the role of the new station when it will be clear whether or not it will carry advertisements and we will be able to judge its [programming] quality and quantity.

RFE/RL: How have regional televisions stations been affected by the TV-6's shutdown? How will the Media-Sotsium win affect them?

FOSSATO: The sudden shutdown of TV-6 had a strong negative effect for some 150 regional television stations that had partnership agreements with it, as well as for 10 regional television companies that were majority-owned subsidiaries of the network. Regional partners complementing local evening newscast and morning entertainment programs with hours of production they received from TV-6 abruptly had to deal with hours of broadcasting vacuum, often in prime time. This, in turn had very hard financial consequences for regional stations. Advertising budgets are formed months in advance and are oriented toward programs enjoying high ratings among the audience. Many TV-6 regional partners found themselves in an odd situation, having to return advertising money they had already cashed. Most had to fight with the perspective of dramatically falling ratings for their stations, in the absence of the popular programs they used to acquire from TV-6. Such a state of affairs means that those who could not switch quickly to broadcasting the production of other networks -- like REN TV or STS for example -- had to face the loss of advertisers in the future months, a terrible prospect for medium and small regional television stations struggling to be independent.

First half of April: State Duma will discuss a bill on alternative military service in its first reading, according to Duma Legislation Committee Chairman Pavel Krasheninnikov

1 April: Russian and Belarusian officials will sign a package of documents aimed at creating a single economic field, according to Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov on 12 March

2-3 April: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will visit Moscow, according to Interfax on 1 March

3 April: IMF mission will arrive in Moscow, according to Interfax on 20 March

7 April: Presidential elections in Ingushetia

8 April: The St. Petersburg Dialogue, a Russian-German forum, will hold its second conference in Weimar, Germany, according to Interfax

9-10 April: Russian-German interstate consultations on the entire agenda of "bilateral relations and key international problems" will be held in Weimar, Germany, according to Interfax

14 April: Gubernatorial elections in Lipetsk and Penza oblasts

18 April: President Putin to deliver his annual message to the State Duma and Federation Council

22 April: State Duma will hold a hearing on the buying and selling of agricultural land, according to Interfax on 17 January

late April: Summit of five Caspian states to be held in Ashgabat, according to First Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kaluzhnii on 24 January

28 April: Presidential elections to be held in the Republic of Karelia

14-15 May: Foreign ministers of NATO countries and Russia will meet in Reykjavik

19 May: By-elections to be held in Altai Republic for State Duma seat left vacant by newly elected Altai Republic President Mikhail Lapshin

19 May: Gubernatorial elections in Smolensk Oblast

23-26 May: U.S. President George W. Bush to visit Russia

28 May: Russia-EU summit to be held in Moscow

31 May: CIS summit to be held in Chisinau, Moldova.

Kiselev, 45, got a good start in life. A native Muscovite, he was born into a family of aviation engineers. He managed to attend one of the Soviet Union's elite educational institutions, the Institute for Asia and African at Moscow State University. He is reportedly a gifted linguist and speaks fluent English and Persian. After finishing school, Kiselev worked as a translator in Iran for a Soviet trading firm, according to "Kto est kto." In 1979, Kiselev had been poised to take a job with TASS in their foreign news department, but he was called up by the army and asked to serve as a translator in Afghanistan. Kiselev had one of the most trusted positions, working with the office of military advisers. From 1982-84, he taught at a special KGB institute, a position which experts on the intelligence services believe requires particularly high clearance. Publicly, however, Kiselev has insisted that he was not a member of the Soviet intelligence service's cadre.

In 1986, he worked at a central radio broadcasting unit for foreign countries, providing "ideological support" for the activities of Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Because he was able to get this job, it is generally assumed that Kiselev was a member of the Communist Party. In 1987 Kiselev switched from radio to TV journalism, starting out as head of international department for the main TV news program, "Vremya."

In 1993, he launched "Itogi," the political-analytical program which he continued to anchor at TV-6, and the program for which he is best-known. The program initially attracted broad attention because it aired all types of political views. And, it was for this, according to "Kto est kto," that Kiselev "won the trust of millions of television viewers." A former government propagandist, Kiselev had now adopted the stance of an independent journalist, declaring in an interview in 1995: "I do not participate in political games. I have not set for myself the goal of influencing political events."

However, within a few years, it would become more difficult for Kiselev to present himself as completely independent. In 1997, together with Vladimir Gusinsky and others, he founded Media-MOST. That relationship was reportedly a highly remunerative one for Kiselev and many journalists at NTV. It was reportedly around that time that Kiselev could be seen being driven around Moscow in a chauffeured Volvo. Kiselev and Gusinsky also developed a very close working relationship. About Gusinsky, Kiselev once said: "Vladimir Aleksandrovich Gusinsky did a lot for NTV. For three years of our work together, this person was for me a very important advisor on many questions.... We are not simply partners but friends." According to "Kto est kto," Kiselev never acknowledged that there were more than a few professionals from the KGB and MVD working at Media-MOST information-analytical service, such as former KGB General Filip Bobkov -- nor did he acknowledge that this department likely provided research for his "Itogi" program.

Kiselev's reputation suffered not merely by association but also by deed. Nixon Center President Dmitrii Simes recently likened Kiselev and his colleagues to "a group of intellectual hatchet men," who had been willing to smear people's reputations at Gusinsky's request (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 5 February 2002). Earlier, analyst Aleksandr Tsipko charged that Kiselev's program, "Crime Without Punishment," about the murder of journalist Vladislav Listev was produced not to shed new light on the case but to "discredit the power ministries, primarily [then Interior Minister Anatolii] Kuikov."

This month, "Kommersant-Vlast" (26 March 2002) conducted an informal poll of a number of leading policymakers, businessmen, and cultural figures, asking them if they were "bored" with Kiselev. While the response to Kiselev was hardly one of boredom, it was not exactly one of support either. And this negative attitude toward Kiselev may partly explain why there was such a small public outcry when TV-6 was shut down last year. In his response to the question about Kiselev, Vologda Governor Vyacheslav Pozgalev replied: "I liked the earlier but not the later Kiselev.... Earlier, he was considered -- not without basis -- an independent journalist, but not now." Novgorod Governor Mikhail Prusak had a similar view: "I was bored by the earlier Kiselev. Then he was simply a good journalist. But when he started to use television for his own public programming, then for me he started to exist."

Many commentators also expressed indifference toward Kiselev's fate. State Duma deputy (Unity) Vladimir Bryntsalov noted: "I am more interested in my own health and how much money I've got in my pocket. Kiselev has no influence on this, and I never think about him." Tatyana Malyutina, president of the Association of Female Entrepreneurs in Russia, declared: "I [can] hardly be bored with such an affected person.... If he again appears on television, I will take this calmly -- I will not be angry but at the same time I won't be filled with joy." Oleg Starukhin, vice president of the Association of Producers and Lovers of Beer, likely summed up the views of a large number of television viewers when he declared: "Is there really only one problem in this country? Without Kiselev, I started to watch even more television -- they are showing more football." Only Yabloko Duma deputy Sergei Ivanenko seemed to look forward to a victory for Kiselev: "The old NTV team was one of the best creative collectives. Despite the break-up, Kiselev has remained their [leader]. And if he wins, then it will not be difficult to recapture that creative potential." (Julie A. Corwin)

By Virginie Coulloudon

On 21 January, during a news conference held at the Ekho Moskvy radio station's headquarters, TV-6 General Director Yevgenii Kiselev said that he had been forced to give up the TV-6 license under duress. He blamed the authoritarianism of Russian President Vladimir Putin's regime and accused Media Minister Mikhail Lesin of forcing his team to include a representative of the presidential administration among the founding members of the journalists' new company, OOO TV-6. Kiselev added that Lesin had asked probing questions about the individuals named as OOO TV-6's founders to find out if they were connected to either former TV-6 owner Boris Berezovsky or former NTV owner Vladimir Gusinsky. This new political scandal smacked of an all-too-common scenario, in which the media are turned into mere cogs in the state's ideological wheel.

The following day, the English-language "The Moscow Times" daily quoted Kiselev as saying that the TV-6 staff had mixed feelings about what to do next, but were united in wanting to remain independent from the government. However, two months later, on 27 March, Kiselev turned out to be the main figure in a consortium of high-profile journalists, businessmen, and politicians that won the tender for the sixth TV channel. Kiselev then told Ekho Moskvy that he did not want to clone the former NTV and TV-6. Whether Kiselev's remarks mean that he no longer wants to report on Russian political affairs or that he is about to relinquish his criticism of the Kremlin remains unclear.

Strangely enough, such a contradictory series of statements apparently came as no surprise to either the Russian media or public opinion. Kiselev appears to believe that the media must define itself in relationship to the state: It exists either in opposition to or in support of the state -- not as an independent entity alongside the state. Therefore, the degree of independence the media enjoys depends exclusively on the degree of confidence between the two partners -- the state and the media -- and not on genuine democratization and freedom of speech.

Overall, the March tender for the sixth channel has been much more revealing about the current state of Russia's media than one would have initially believed. First, the outcome of this tender reminded us that media and its freedom are not the monopoly of journalists: The preservation of media freedom requires the active participation of political leaders and the entire population. Second, it highlighted a discrepancy between the goals and the implementation of the Kremlin's reform policies. Third, it showed that, if there is a change in reforms and political programs in today's Russia, then there is also continuity in the mentality of the Kremlin administration and of the elite.

There are at least three aspects of continuity that create obstacles to pluralism in today's Russia: informal networks, an over-powerful executive branch, and a secretive decision-making process.

Putin's state policy, both in the media sector and in the Kremlin's self-described struggle against oligarchs, has shown that there has been no change toward favoring formal political institutions over informal politics. Even though the names of Russia's most powerful oligarchs have changed since Putin came to power and even though Moscow has launched a fierce struggle against a handful of them both at the federal and regional levels, relying on patronage networks remains at the core of the Kremlin policy. Such a systematic policy of patronage on the part of high-ranking officials shows that they still perceive the state not only as a major actor in resource allocation but also as a patron dealing with a select clientele.

The second element of continuity is Putin's vertical power and, even more so, the top-down chain of order with no -- or very little -- feedback from below. At a regional level, with the persistence of an over-powerful executive branch, the media still have to deal with local governors, mayors, and presidential envoys. Obviously enough, the ongoing perception among high-ranking officials that all elements external to the ruling elite and its policy are potential de-stabilizers does not favor a policy based on consensus. On the contrary, it leads to developing even more informal relationships with government officials and further alienation of the state from society. By so doing, Putin's executive power reproduces, once again, a Soviet pattern of governance.

With regard to the media, such a political attitude has sent out a clear message from the top, that of presidential diktat. This, in turn, has encouraged self-censorship of journalists, self-censorship encouraged by Media Minister Lesin himself. Commenting on the transfer of ownership in NTV in May 2001, Lesin voiced optimism and emphasized that the shift had succeeded in "reducing the politicking of the mass media."

This leads us to the third element of continuity in Russia's governance. In the eyes of the post-Soviet ruling elite, the politically tense environment of the transition period has always justified the maintenance of an extremely secretive decision-making process. However, the tender for the sixth channel has shown that leaks could make any tender transparent -- indeed, everyone knew in advance what the outcome of the tender would be. Such a lack of surprise further reinforces the authoritarian image of the Russian state. Here again, Lesin played a key role by being at the source of well-orchestrated leaks: "Nobody says that these people [the TV-6 team] will not get the opportunity to work on this network further on," the media minister told Ekho Moskvy as early as 14 January. "There will be a contest. Having several people deciding on who gets the frequency and how it is used lies precisely at the core of a democratic approach. Besides, I doubt that anybody would be better prepared than the TV-6 team," he added. In other words, Lesin implied that those journalists who had repudiated Berezovsky (Putin's personal enemy) would be able to continue working at TV-6 and that they would most probably enjoy support from the Kremlin.

The Putin regime, as the previous one, seeks to establish a democratic regime with the belief that the end justifies the means. Generally speaking, everybody would agree with the idea that the Russian media needs to be rid of corruption. However, resorting to systematic coercion against journalists of a rival team -- as has been done with both the former NTV and TV-6 -- and then imposing patron-client relationships to take control over a potentially "alternative" television channel, as was the case during the NTV and TV-6 affairs and in the weeks preceding the tender of the sixth channel, reinforces the impression that power politics remain a priority for the Putin regime.

Virginie Coulloudon, director of regional analysis at RFE/RL, is a former project director at the Davis Center for Russian Studies, Harvard University.

IN: President Putin has appointed Sergei Razov to the post of deputy foreign minister, Interfax reported on 19 March, citing the presidential press service. Razov was most recently Russian ambassador to Poland. Former Russian Ambassador to France Nikolai Afanasyevskii is expected to replace him, according to the agency. Razov will be in charge of relations with Central, Eastern, and Southeastern European countries, including "the Balkan knot." He will coordinate problems of Kaliningrad Oblast, according to BNS on 25 March.