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Russia: Media Congress Turns Into Political Forum

Moscow, 24 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A congress of Russian language newspapers and television stations began this week in Moscow and is now in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

About 300 participants from 48 countries are attending the event, which was organized in part by the Itar-Tass news agency.

Our correspondent reports that one of the most peculiar features of the first two days of the event was its emphasis on politics rather than on media issues.

The goal of the gathering -- highlighted by Russian President Boris Yeltsin in his opening message -- was to have been the exchange of professional information and contacts among Russian-language journalists.

However, judging by the remarks made by many leading politicians who stopped by to address the congress, it's clear the event is being seen as a warm-up for Russia's upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin opened the congress Monday by emphasizing the need to support Russian citizens abroad. With his eyes clearly on the economy and his government's need to attract foreign loans, he put an economic twist on the issue. He said Russians abroad are well placed to encourage foreign businesses to invest and help restore trade ties.

Former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko was also on hand for a speech. Kiriyenko heads a centrist political movement called "New Force" and is a candidate to be Moscow's next mayor.

In a bid to possibly win support for the mayoral vote (set for the end of the year), he told participants he thinks Yeltsin should resign before his term expires next June. He said the resignation would be part of the process of handing power back to the Russian people.

Kiriyenko will be running against popular incumbent Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Luzhkov, however, has his sights set higher. He wants to be Russia's next president.

In his remarks to the congress, Luzhkov openly complained about what he called the Kremlin's ongoing "anti-Luzhkov" campaign.

Luzhkov's relations with the Kremlin have been difficult for more than a year, but they've really soured in the past few weeks. Luzhkov was one of the first top politicians to call openly for Yeltsin's resignation, and his presidential ambitions are reportedly far from being approved by Yeltsin's inner circle.

Also attending the congress was Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov, who talked about the necessity of amending the 1993 constitution in order to give more power to the parliament. Seleznyov's Communist Party controls the Duma and is very sensitive to any attempts to weaken the body.

The chairman of the Constitutional Court, Marat Baglai, told the congress he does not subscribe to Seleznyov's statements. He said political stability in Russia in the absence of a developed party system can only be ensured by a strong presidency.

United Nations' Secretary-General Kofi Annan also attended the forum. He said Russia remains a vital component in solving world problems on the brink of the millennium.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who met with Annan yesterday, said Russia is developing a policy to lessen confrontation in its relations with the West. He said Russia favors strengthening the U.N. and the Security Council.

Igor Shabdurasulov, the general director of Russian Public Television (ORT), addressed the sensitive issue of media control in the elections. ORT is Russia's biggest broadcaster and covers almost 100 percent of the country's territory. The state has a controlling 51 percent share in ORT, but the station is widely seen as being close to Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky.

Shabdurasulov told the gathering that the elections will be the touchstone by which the civic maturity of Russia's media will be judged.

He vowed that ORT's election coverage will be independent and will not be biased in favor of groups with the most money to spend. He said a large organization recently tried to buy media coverage on his television station and that this will not be tolerated:

"I will not name names, but I can say that we received a letter [recently] from a very big organization. The text was straightforward. It said it was organizing an important event for such and such a date and asked that [we] cover the event as part of our Vremya [main news] broadcast. The letter said that payment would be guaranteed. We will not do this kind of thing -- at least as long as I am ORT director. This command-style in relations with the media ahead of elections is unacceptable for us, and this is a position of principle."

Shabdurasulov added, however, that ORT has always been and remains the president's television channel and has never made a secret of this fact.

It's not clear what he meant by this statement, but as an explanation, Shabdurasulov said this is not a matter of personal contact between him and Yeltsin but a system of relations between the channel and the head of state.

Shabdurasulov also said a special system to monitor all hidden and direct political advertisement had been set up at ORT ahead of the elections.

Despite the abundance of political statements, most delegates to the Congress seemed happy to see so many politicians in person. Some delegates told RFE/RL that more professional issues can be focused on in Sochi, where fewer politicians are expected to attend.