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Russia: Bashkortostan Rebels Against State-Owned Television

Campaigning for next month's parliamentary elections is in full swing in Russia, and television is a key tool in electoral politics. One Russian republic, however, has rejected the political programming of two state-owned television stations, causing a standoff with Moscow.

London, 26 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Bashkortostan's president, Murtaza Rakhimov, meets with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin tomorrow to try to solve a controversy over politically slanted broadcasting.

Last week, authorities in the Russian autonomous republic of Bashkortostan banned the broadcasting of two weekend analytical programs from Russia's two main television channels (ORT and RTR). Instead of the analytical programs, Bashkir viewers were treated to an American action movie and a comedy.

Observers say the decision, officially made by the republic's parliament, was prompted by Bashkir President Rakhimov. He wields strict control over most political, economic and media structures in the republic. After the parliament announced the ban, Rakhimov said he supports it because the analytical shows, in his words, "sling too much mud."

Russian authorities responded angrily to the ban. This week, (Wednesday) the Ministry of Media gave Bashkortostan until today to revoke the decision. Russian officials say the ban on broadcasting is unconstitutional and violates electoral law.

Prime Minister Putin said as much in answer to a deputy's question following his speech to the State Duma on Wednesday:

"Limiting the activity of [television channels] in the Federation illegally, constitutes a violation of the [continuity of the Russian] information space. I agree with you that this is intolerable. It is the same as prohibiting the movement of goods from the territory of one federation subject to another, or the other way around."

According to Anna Kachkaeva, a media expert with RFE/RL's Russian Service, the Bashkir move does break the law. But she also says that virtually all Russian television channels have been violating the electoral law during the campaign by not offering balanced coverage. The Bashkir president said that the ratings of pro-communist parties in his republic have increased by 60 percent recently because of the bias of the influential weekend programs.

But some Russian observers say Rakhimov may be more concerned about Putin's increasing popularity than about the threat of a communist victory in parliament. Rakhimov is a leading member of the bloc Fatherland-All Russia, led by former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. The two banned programs, and their anchors, are overt supporters of the Kremlin and of Putin -- Primakov's and Luzhkov's rival.

The programs are anchored by two of Russia's best known and most controversial political commentators: Sergei Dorenko and Nikolai Svanidze. Dorenko's "Author's Program" and Svanidze's "Zerkalo" (Mirror) have caused heated discussions for their high level of political bias.

Dorenko's show is broadcast by the first channel of Russian television, ORT. It is extremely influential, since ORT is the only television station that broadcasts to almost all of Russia. The state officially controls 51 percent of ORT shares, but the channel is heavily influenced by the views of its major private shareholder, Boris Berezovsky, a Kremlin insider. Dorenko's deep voice and provocative style have made him extremely popular.

Svanidze's weekend show is broadcast by the fully state-controlled second channel, RTR. Svanizde's program is considered duller than Dorenko's and closer to the views of the Kremlin's inner circle.

According to Kachkaeva, the quick reaction in Moscow against Bashkortostan's decision to ban the programs underlines the political sensitivity of the issue.

"Moscow's hands-on attitude is certainly backed by political motivations. Rakhimov also acts for political reasons only, even if they could seem to be justified on moral grounds. He did not ban [another commentator, Yevgeny] Kiselev. It has to be said that Kiselev acts more decently than Dorenko and Svanidze. [On the other hand], it is also true that Rakhimov is a leading member of the bloc Fatherland-All Russia, and it is clear that he preferred to ban his opponents. Moscow acts following the same logic. They attack those who are their opponents."

Kachkaeva points out that the Media Ministry is reacting swiftly to the Bashkir ban but has done nothing in the Far East region of Primorye. The governor there, Yevgeny Nazdratenko, is a strong Putin supporter and has put a lot of pressure on local media to mute any criticism of the prime minister.

Ilshat Aminov is the chairman of the regional state television of Tatarstan. He told RFE/RL that Tatarstan, Bashkortostan's neighbor, also considers Rakhimov's decision wrong, but for reasons different from Moscow's.

"It is clear that it is a move we consider wrong, because switching a channel off the air means that one is not up to an adequate fight. This was a last resort for Rakhimov. With his methods he put himself in a vulnerable position, because he gave Moscow the opportunity to interpret the controversy as an issue of national separatism. In our republic, this would be absolutely impossible, because our approach is completely different."

According to the reformist Yabloko party, the Bashkir government's interference in media matters is not limited to banning the two analytical shows. Grigory Yavlinsky, the Yabloko party leader, was scheduled to visit Bashkortostan yesterday and appear on local television. But the visit was canceled, Yabloko says, after the Bashkir state secretary forbid local television to carry the interview.