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Russia: Luzhkov's TV Station Back In Favor

The squabble over the license of TV Tsentr, the television station controlled by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, has been a political one since it started earlier this year. Now it has ended with a political decision. Yesterday, Russia's federal television licensing commission granted TV Tsentr a license that will allow it to continue broadcasting in Moscow for another five years. RFE/RL's Floriana Fossato examines the turnaround.

London, 7 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The decision to grant a new broadcasting license to TV Tsentr, the television station created and financed by Moscow city authorities, does not come as a surprise to anyone who's been keeping an eye on the media minister. Mikhail Lesin has been meeting Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov frequently for private negotiations over lunches and dinners ever since President Vladimir Putin gave Luzhkov a long audience last month. Most observers concluded that a deal was in the making.

And yesterday, when the 10-member federal television licensing commission met to end the battle over the renewal of the broadcast license for Luzhkov's TV Tsentr, it was precisely Lesin who cast the decisive vote.

The broadcast license had been put up for a tender. During a discussion of the broadcasting plans submitted by contenders, five members of the commission supported TV Tsentr. But the commission found itself split when the other five members supported TV Tsentr's rival, VID production company.

Some members of the commission told Moscow journalists that the broadcasting plan submitted by VID was "more creative and more modern" than TV Tsentr's. They said VID lost the bid because the Media Ministry had warned that a decision against TV Tsentr would cause another political scandal.

In the event of a split vote in the commission, it is the media minister who decides where a license is awarded. Lesin was called in to break the tie, and he chose TV Tsentr.

The Moscow television station's future had been in doubt since March, when the Media Ministry said it would not automatically renew the broadcast license. A tender for Channel Three, the frequency TV Tsentr uses, was announced for May 24 but was postponed until yesterday pending legal decisions.

The ministry said it was putting the license up for tender because it had issued two official warnings to the station for alleged broadcasting violations. But the station and outside observers contended that the warnings were a politically motivated excuse to deny license renewal.

They argued that the Kremlin was trying to punish TV Tsentr because the station had supported Luzhkov in his bid to run for president against Putin. Court decisions upheld the TV Tsentr position that the warnings were unfounded.

But then the political climate changed. At the beginning of June, Luzhkov unexpectedly joined President Vladimir Putin on an official trip to Italy, and the two politicians reportedly made peace during a three-hour private meeting.

Following this, Luzhkov began to be seen frequently with Media Minister Lesin. The meetings started the week media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky, who had closed ties with Luzhkov, was arrested (eds: Gusinsky was arrested on 13 June). Gusinsky's arrest created an even bigger scandal over the political implications of the redistribution of media ownership since the presidential election.

Details of the negotiations among Luzhkov and Lesin have not been made public. However, most Russian experts believe the talks dealt with both political and business issues. Lesin was a successful businessman before he took over the Media Ministry. He founded Video International, Russia's biggest advertising agency. Until last year, he was the deputy chairman of the state-controlled media holding VGTRK.

Following Putin's election, political analysts predicted downfall for Luzhkov's political and business interests. Some said that Luzhkov's best option would be trying to reach a compromise with the Kremlin. Apparently, he has succeeded