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Russia: Media Deals Signal Beginning Of Election Season

Russian newspapers covered the Beslan school tragedy differently from TV (a photo from "Izvestiya") Changes have been rippling through Russia's print-media market in recent weeks, as owners are selling off stakes and reshuffling their management teams. Some analysts suspect the goal of these measures is to boost pliability rather than profitability. With State Duma elections scheduled for December 2007 and presidential elections the following spring, it would seem that it is not too early to start planning.

It's particularly not too early when you consider the "planner" -- a presidential administration that rarely leaves anything to chance. With national television already largely cleansed of controversial political content, the print media and the Internet remain among the few areas left in Russia for relative freedom of political expression.

Several important changes have taken place in the print sector in recent times. The Kommersant publishing company's board of directors on 22 June named Vyacheslav Borodulov as the new editor in chief of the influential "Kommersant-Daily," and Vladimir Lenskii was named general director of Kommersant publishing.
"Nothing happens in the media market by accident, particularly on such a large scale."

It was announced this month that metals magnate Iskander Makhmudov and his long-time business partner, Andrei Bokarev, each acquired 25 percent stakes in Rodionov publishing, which owns the weekly newsmagazine "Profil," Russian media reported on 9 June. On 21 June, Rodionov publishing became sole proprietor of the magazine "Kompaniya" and it is in talks to acquire a stake in "Versiya," reported. The company plans to launch a Russian-language version of "Business Week" in September, "The Moscow Times" reported on 9 June.

Telekominvest purchased the weekly "Ogonek" from OVA-Press and reinstated its former editor in chief Viktor Loshak, new agencies reported on 17 June.

And, in perhaps the biggest development in the sector in recent months, Gazprom-Media announced on 3 June that it has purchased a controlling stake in "Izvestiya," one of Russia's most respected and oldest daily newspapers. Gazprom bought the stake from ProfMedia, the media arm of oligarch Vladimir Potanin's Interros group.

In an interview with "Novye izvestiya" on 21 June, sociologist Boris Kagarlitskii commented that "nothing happens in the media market by accident, particularly on such a large scale." "In Russia today, media resources have more political value than commercial," Kagarlitskii said.

Igor Yakovenko, secretary-general of the Russian Union of Journalists, agreed that profits were likely not the motivating factor, at least with regard to the sale of "Izvestiya" to Gazprom-Media, according to Ekho Moskvy on 3 June. He noted that when Gazprom took over NTV in 2001, it was Russia's strongest television company, and now it has slid to third place.

Former "Izvestiya" Editor in Chief Raf Shakirov explained that during the September 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, the print media showed a different story than television and, in order to prevent future such situations, "it was decided that print information should be brought into line." Shakirov stepped down from "Izvestiya" on 6 September 2004 under heavy pressure from ProfMedia over a controversial photograph that appeared on the front page of the daily during the Beslan crisis.

The liberal-leaning listeners of Ekho Moskvy seem to agree with Shakirov's assessment. In an express opinion poll, the station asked whether recent changes in the media market are connected with the upcoming presidential election. The response was an overwhelming "yes" from 92 percent of almost 1,000 respondents.

However, other observers are less certain that political considerations are necessarily guiding the recent changes. Yelena Bystrova, public-relations manager for "Vedomosti," told on 20 June that the mass media in Russia will gradually stop being instruments of political influence, and "the media that have been built on the old principle need to change." Likewise, "Izvestiya" Editor in Chief Vladimir Borodin told Ekho Moskvy that he would hesitate to conclude the daily was sold for the Kremlin's propaganda purposes during the elections. "Ogonek" Editor in Chief Viktor Loshak also rejected any possible political context to his weekly's changing owners. He told that "Ogonek" has a circulation of only 60,000 copies and can hardly influence the outcome of an election. "Therefore the process is absolutely within the framework of business," he concluded. noted that Plutarch once remarked that "mutual deference and bonhomie, if not preceded by struggle, bespeak inertia and timidity, though they have been unjustly termed like-mindedness." If Gazprom-Media intends to institute editorial-policy changes at "Izvestiya," they would be wise to effect them piecemeal and long after the attention has died away. Borodin, in the meantime, knows he is on shaky ground, since it is not uncommon for a new owner to want an new management team. Borodin was named editor in chief by ProfMedia following Shakirov's resignation.

Commenting in "Novye izvestiya," Institute for Political Research Director Sergei Markov saw former oligarch and proclaimed Putin opponent Boris Berezovskii as the catalyst for recent changes in the media market, rather than the looming 2007-08 elections. He asserted that the majority of the changes in the media market, and not just in the print sector, are connected with the Berezovskii's moves and the need to forestall an "Orange Revolution" in Russia.

In a comment before the appointments of Lenskii and Borodulov at Kommersant were announced, Markov asserted that "Berezovskii is forming a powerful political team that he hopes will enable him to win the future political battle." "The authorities are taking steps, too," he said. "Establishing the [English-language] Russia Today TV news channel is an attempt to brainwash the international community which plays an important role in the legitimization of regimes that come to power in the wake of colored revolutions."

Other commentators, including Gleb Charkasov, do not question that Russia's election cycle has already begun. Writing in on 22 June, Charkasov argued that the massive information attack on Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov is just one indication. Ivanov has been often touted as a likely Putin successor. Since late May, Russia's chief military prosecutor has held two news conferences highlighting a rise in crime in the military and suggesting on both occasions that the root cause of the crime wave is the "lack of discipline" in the armed forces. Ultimately, Ivanov's success or failure at the ballot box will be made on television, but in the meantime, when the battle for successor has not yet been won, it seems more than likely that a few prestigious dailies and weeklies, even with small circulations, could make a difference in this inter-elite struggle.