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Russia: Radio Vatanym Offers Tatar Entertainment In Moscow

Radio Vatanym is Moscow's first Turkic-language radio, broadcasting for the Russian capital's 840,000-strong Turkic-language speakers. RFE/RL speaks with the radio's general director, Ravil Rustiamov.

Moscow, 11 September 2003 (RFE/RL) Indeed, you can hear Tatar music on the radio in Moscow!

For many of the Russian capital's 840,000 Turkic-speaking inhabitants -- mainly Tatars and Bashkirs -- Radio Vatanym sounds like a home away from home, according to Ravil Rustiamov, the founder and director of the Russian capital's first community-oriented radio station.

Radio Vatanym -- or "homeland" in Tatar -- went on the air in June after winning an AM license (1098) with an entertainment radio concept -- mostly music in both Tatar and Russian.

Rustiamov says the mix of music and talk is a success with listeners, if phone calls are anything to go by.

"They call, order songs, congratulate friends and family," he said. "They say 'hi' to each other, to their acquaintances. Apparently, people phone one another and say, 'Listen to the radio.' Sometimes the elderly, grannies, older men call in and cry, reminisce about their life stories."

Indeed, ethnic radio is a largely untapped niche on the Moscow radio market, says Andrey Alekhverdov, editor in chief of the Foundation for Independent Radio Broadcasting, a nongovernmental organization that promotes independent radio.

While RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service is available on shortwave and the Internet, and Radio Druzhba gives many of the former Soviet Union's ethnic groups air time, these stations cater more to those who are looking for news, not entertainment.

Radio Vatanym, on the contrary, is putting its money on music and interactive radio and is already doing well financially. Rustiamov: "There are already some advertisements now, from shops that are owned by the Tatar, the Bashkir diaspora. When I opened a station in Tatarstan, for a year I was running it myself. It didn't bring in anything. And now [after] two months, it brings in money. It's not making [a profit], of course, but we're about to break even."

Radio Vatanym is ready to broadcast just about anything -- from recipes to daily sermons by the chairman of Russia's Council of Muftis, Ravil Gainutdin. But Rustiamov says his station will stay away from politics.

"We have to stay commercial," Rustiamov keeps repeating during an interview, as if it were a protective mantra from the pressures of political lobbies.

Rustiamov knows what he fears. In May 2002, he was shot in the head by unknown assailants while in Moscow to file an appeal with the Russian Supreme Court against a decision in which his previous radio station, Radio Dulkin, lost its broadcast license to the influential Tatar-American Investments and Finance (TAIF) group. One of the heads of TAIF was Radik Shaimiev, son of Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiev.

Rustiamov suggests the incident may have been connected to the 2000 presidential elections in Tatarstan, during which Rustiamov says he gave air time to Ravkat Altynbaiev, one of Shaimiev's opponents.

Today, Altynbaiev is number two in the pro-Kremlin Life party. Rustiamov claims Kremlin support was key in his winning a broadcasting license for Radio Vatanym, even interpreting this initial success as an approbative nod for developing a whole network of local Tatar stations.

Among Radio Vatanym's founders are Renat Akchurin, former President Boris Yeltsin's surgeon, as well as his brother Rassim, who is head of a Moscow Tatar organization.

Rustiamov says he does not want to be perceived as an opposition radio station, either to Shaimiev or to the Kremlin.

So far, he says, there has not been any pressure. Political parties such as Life and the People's Party are paying for air time and Rustiamov says that "whoever is ready to pay will get time, including the authorities in Tatarstan."

While Rustiamov concedes that his station has no ambition to speak for any group in particular, he says it can play an important role in strengthening ties in the Tatar community and promoting Tatar culture outside of Tatarstan: "If there's no radio, then why sing? Just to sell a cassette? But radio is like an explosion -- if there's a good song, they'll play it on the radio. But without radio, there's no way out. You're a talented Tatar who can express his culture, but without radio and television you don't stand a chance."

Rustiamov says his "next steps" are putting Radio Vatanym on the Internet, going to FM in Moscow, and getting frequencies in cities with compact Tatar and Bashkir communities, such as Yekaterinburg, Perm, Tyumen, and Nizhni Novgorod.

Going even further, Rustiamov explains that ethnic radio must develop further if Russia's many ethnic groups -- dominated by Slav and Orthodox culture -- are to continue living in peace. Non-Russians need to feel that Russia is just as much their home: "It's painful for a Tatar who's living in his homeland, say in Orenburg, and his family has lived there, say, since the times of Khan Baty. But there's nothing showing that simply their language has a right to exist -- no radio, no TV. Everything is imported [from Tatarstan]. Or you have to buy a [Tatar] music cassette. But that's like living in the 19th century! So a radio [has] to appear, saying, 'Use your language' or else assimilation [will continue] and [our] people will die out."

In fact, Rustiamov claims he has had a hard time finding Tatar-speaking radio hosts in Moscow.

"To get radio hosts with fluent Tatar," he says, "I had to fly them in from places like Kazan and Nizhni Novgorod."