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Russia: NTV's Past Points Toward REN-TV's Future

Medvedev has been a dominant presence on most Russian television networks (ITAR-TASS) When independent experts this week released their assessment of media coverage of the Russian presidential election, there were few surprises. On Channel One, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev got 32 percent of election-related airtime; on Rossia, he got 26 percent; on TV-Tsentr, he got 35 percent; and on NTV he got 43 percent.

The other three official candidates all got single-digit coverage on all four national networks, with figures ranging from 6.8 percent to 0.1 percent, according to figures released by the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. Also unsurprisingly, President Vladimir Putin -- who isn't running, of course -- got more airtime even than Medvedev, ranging around 50-60 percent.

The one oddity in this bland picture, however, was REN-TV, a small, but still-private national network. REN-TV's figures are truly startling: 31 percent of the airtime went to Putin, followed by 21 percent for Medvedev, 22 percent for Liberal Democratic Party of Russia head Vladimir Zhirinovsky, 21 percent to Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov, and 6.3 percent to Democratic Party head Andrei Bogdanov.

Such even-handedness is unheard of in Russian national media these days. The reduced percentage to Bogdanov can easily be justified by the facts that his support consistently polls at about 1 percent, that his party received less than 1 percent of the vote in the December Duma elections, and that his candidacy is widely seen to be a Kremlin-inspired stratagem to create the impression that at least one liberal politician is in the race.

The contrast between REN-TV and NTV is particularly noteworthy. NTV, it should be recalled, is the once-private and once-respected national television network that was taken over by Gazprom in 2000-01 as one of the first major steps in Putin's dismantling of civil society. At the time, Gazprom claimed the takeover was merely a business dispute and senior managers pledged endlessly the network would be sold off in short order.

Now, seven years later, Medvedev is the chairman of Gazprom's board of directors and that channel is outdoing even the formally state-controlled Channel One and Rossia in violating the law ensuring equal media access to all candidates and in contributing to what the liberal-posing Medvedev has eloquently described as "legal nihilism."

In an interview with "Kommersant" on February 21, Gazprom-Media head Nikolai Senkevich said that Medvedev pays personal attention to this part of the vast conglomerate's empire and confirmed that close Medvedev allies from St. Petersburg -- Anton Ivanov, Mikhail Krotov, and Konstantin Chuichenko -- have worked in the media holding (although Ivanov and Krotov have since moved into high positions in government). Senkevich said Gazprom-Media "has the warmest memories and greatest gratitude" for the work Medvedev and his associates did for the holding.

In 2000, NTV was the odd man out on the Russian media scene. Now, REN-TV is. And its future doesn't look bright.

REN-TV is a network of 864 stations across Russia, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the Baltic states. As of December 2006, 51 percent of its shares are held by a company called Abros, while 30 percent are held by the Luxemburg-based RTL Group, part of the Bertelsmann media conglomerate. Abros also controls 35 percent of the Peterburg television company, which runs the St. Petersburg-based Channel Five. Channel Five, it should be noted, was granted federal status by Putin in November 2007, opening the way for massive expansion.

Abros is part of a complex corporate chain at the top of which sits Yury Kovalchuk, co-owner of the Rossia bank and a close personal friend of President Putin. Kovalchuk's bank came to prominence during the 1990s by handling most of the finances for the St. Petersburg municipal external-relations committee, which was then headed by Putin. Journalists and analysts over the years have repeatedly claimed that Kovalchuk is Putin's personal banker, managing a fortune that some have estimated is worth billions of dollars. Abros, it is worth noting, also owns a major stake in a company called Sogaz, which is major owner of a company called Lider, which in turn manages Gazfond -- the huge pension fund of Gazprom. Sogaz also owns 10 percent of the Peterburg television company.

Kovalchuk's media ambitions extend much further. All the major newspapers in St. Petersburg -- "Smena," "Nevskoye vremya," "Vecherneye vremya," and "Vecherny Peterburg" -- are also considered part of his group, as they are controlled by long-time business ally Oleg Rudnov. Rudnov's media projects have been financed by Gazprom, which is the major advertiser of all of his newspapers. In addition, Gazprom-Media head Senkevich confirmed in his "Kommersant" interview that a deal has been struck (but not implemented) to sell control of the national daily "Izvestia" to Sogaz, which would place it inside Kovalchuk's media empire as well.

In a recent report summing up the results of Putin's eight years in power, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov drew particular attention to Kovalchuk's emerging media empire. They describe it as a "powerful political resource," potentially more influential than anything ever controlled by former oligarchs Vladimir Gusinsky or Boris Berezovsky.

According to "Moskovsky korrespondent" on February 15, Kovalchuk plans to combine his media holdings into a single company called the National Media Group, a name that reflects his ambitions. According to the report, the new holding company will be headed by Sergei Fursenko, the brother of Science and Education Minister Andrei Fursenko. Reportedly, Kovalchuk has been friends with both Fursenko brothers since grade school. The same report asserts that Lyubov Sovershayeva, a former deputy presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District, sits on the boards of directors of both REN-TV and the Peterburg television company.

"Gazeta" reported earlier this month that Kovalchuk has created a new public advisory board to oversee REN-TV. The board will most likely eventually oversee the entire National Media Group. The board will include well-known cultural figures, artists, politicians, and businesspeople, the daily reported, and will be headed by Unified Russia Duma Deputy and former rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabayeva. Kabayeva is also believed to be a friend of Putin's.

What this all means for REN-TV's admirably even-handed election coverage remains to be seen. But political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin is skeptical: "The channel will become controlled and managed," he told "Gazeta." "Everything will happen gradually, just as it did with NTV."

RFE/RL Russia Report

RFE/RL Russia Report

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