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Russia: Patriotic TV Channel Nearing Launch, But Will Anyone Watch?

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov (left) and President Vladimir Putin have stressed the need to restore patriotic values in Russia. (file photo) Russia is due next week to launch a patriotic, defense-themed television station whose goal will be to imbue Russians with renewed love for their motherland. Initially, the channel will only be available in Moscow, but by May it is due to begin operations nationwide, thanks to transmitters lent by the Defense Ministry.

Prague, 16 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's Defense Ministry promises that patriots who are sick of the debased sex and violence shown on most commercial Russian television will have something to look forward to next week, with the launch of Zvezda, or "Star" -- the country's first military-patriotic channel.

Zvezda's initial test signal is due to be aired on 20 February, with broadcasts for the Moscow region -- if all goes well -- beginning on 23 February, the traditional Red Army Day.

For years, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov had talked of establishing what he called a "military-patriotic" television channel. Both he and President Vladimir Putin frequently stress the need to restore patriotic values in a country whose moral values have gone astray.

The station's director, Sergei Savushkin, says Zvezda's programming will be designed for broad appeal, including movies, concerts, documentaries, news and cartoons for children -- most of them from the archives of the Defense Ministry and the state film archive.
"They're trying to cross a hedgehog with a motorcycle. On the one hand, they are counting on the current teenage generation.... On the other hand, they are also counting on soldiers and veterans. But these are very different audiences." -- Viktor Baranets, "Komsomolskaya pravda"

Savushkin says the programs will be more positive and socially oriented than what is currently shown on other Russian channels. Advertising will be for reserved for Russian products only.

While few critics dispute the fact that many of the programs aired on Russian commercial stations are indeed lowbrow Western castoffs, with little redeeming value, there is skepticism about the new station's prospects and questions about its financing.

Viktor Baranets is a former press secretary at the Defense Ministry and a current military observer for the "Komsomolskaya pravda" newspaper. He tells RFE/RL that conditions in the Russian armed forces have made most midlevel officers and soldiers so bitter and cynical that they are not going to be swayed by any artful TV programming.

"I do not believe you can raise patriots in a country where the government stands against the people," Baranets says. "You cannot force the army to get into bed with a depraved regime. Officers write to me and say, 'We do not want to defend thieving oligarchs, deputies, and ministers who are stuffing themselves.' An army that hates its country will never fall prey to even the most ingenious brainwashing."

Baranets has questions about the new station's target audience. He says it is so disparate that it makes it nearly impossible to design programs with universal appeal.

"They're trying to cross a hedgehog with a motorcycle. On the one hand, they are counting on the current teenage generation -- boys and girls who are still in school and are studying to be future university students," Baranets says. "On the other hand, they are also counting on soldiers and veterans. But these are very different audiences. And they think they'll be able to cater to each audience with some patriotic production and in this way, to foster love for the army."

Another problem Baranets foresees with content is where to get it. Until a production studio is set up that churns out modern "patriotic" programs, the station will have to rely on Soviet-era fare. And that, he says, is not likely to inspire people to love their government.

"With what are they going to inculcate patriotism?" he asks. "Look, 99 percent of our patriotic movies date back to Soviet times. You have to understand that when you look at these movies, they don't elicit a feeling of patriotism. They awaken a feeling of nostalgic hatred aimed at the current regime because you think about the former regime, which took care of the army. And this one does not."

Reporter Anna Kachkayeva analyzes television trends for RFE/RL's Russian Service in Moscow. She says she is worried by the station's murky finances. Zvezda's director says the station is a commercial project with no government involvement. But he also acknowledges that Zvezda's equipment, transmitters and license belong to the Defense Ministry's Central Television and Radio Studio.

Some reports quote unnamed government officials who say Defense Ministry money earmarked for "patriotic education" will be used to fund the station. Others say it will rely on advertising.

"The company that is going to be broadcasting it is structured as a joint-stock company, although they say it will be 100-percent government-owned," Kachkayeva says. "But there will be shareholders, and it means that at least 51 percent, even if it belongs to the government, will be in the hands of certain investors who will be investing in the project. Who are they? How will it be done, what is the company's charter and how are the shares distributed? No one knows, because none of us has seen any documentation."

If the station is to go national by May, as announced, scores of local frequencies will have to be acquired. If public money is going to be used, Kachkayeva says, the terms of such a deal should be made public.

"If it is a commercial enterprise, then they should take part in a tender, win frequencies, invest money in developing the broadcasting network and not ask for anything from the state," she says. "If it is a state enterprise, then it is perfectly clear that we should understand where the funds came from."

Despite the doubts, if Zvezda's launch is deemed a success, the Russian Orthodox Church may be next in line to apply for a television channel. Senior church clerics have already proposed the idea, and Patriarch Alexy says the soul of the nation must be nurtured by programs free of commerce and politics.