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Media Matters: April 23, 2004

23 April 2004, Volume 4, Number 8
By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russian television is a major factor in Belarusian-Russian relations. Viewed by many of Belarus's 10 million people, especially in Minsk, Russian television is an important source of information about the outside world for those living within Belarus's tightly controlled information environment. Although Russian television's news coverage has contracted in recent years with the evolving political situation there under President Vladimir Putin, it is still more complete and accurate than homegrown Belarusian coverage.

In fact, the influence of Russian television in Belarus is so great that the government of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka pulls the plug on it from time to time, especially at moments of crisis in relations between the two countries. This week, Russia's state-owned RTR received a fax from Minsk saying that, due to "routine maintenance," the weekly information programs "Zerkalo" and "Vesti nedeli" would not be shown. RTR had advertised the previous day that the show would be about the "turning point" in Belarusian politics, RIA-Novosti reported on 19 April. Rejecting the maintenance claim, "Zerkalo" host Nikolai Svanidze told RFE/RL on 20 April that the move "shows panic and a lack of self-confidence" on the part of the Lukashenka government. "It confirms that the regime has nothing to disprove the information in the programs that they decided to switch off," Svanidze said. "They saw no other option but to hide their heads in the sand and not allow the whole Belarusian nation to see what would have been shown."

Overall, while always restoring Russian television after such episodic blackouts, Lukashenka has steadily reduced the access of Belarusian viewers to Russian programming, gradually replacing Russian news with his controlled local version of events. Still, especially for those with satellite access, Russian channels including NTV, ORT, and RTR are viewable in Belarus.

The Russian-language Internet is also a boon for Belarusians, although only a tiny fraction of the population has access to it. Reports of stories from Russian television and Belarusian opposition news sources on Russian websites are also an important source of information about Belarus, both for Belarusians and Russians. Recent critical Russian television coverage of Lukashenka and Lukashenka's response to it has prompted speculation that the Kremlin has mounted a sort of psy-ops campaign against the Belarusian president. The point of the campaign appears to be more about bringing Lukashenka around to comply with Russian wishes than it is about the fate of democracy and human rights in Belarus.

Such was the saga of the "Sinner" stories by Andrei Kondrashov, which was posted prominently on the website of RTR's "Vesti" program ( in February and March before being buried in the archive. Under the headline "The Sinner Lukashenka" ran the question, "Is Belarus without Lukashenka an inflamed fantasy or a real prospect?" The first piece in the series coincided with a tense period in relations between the two neighbors as Russian gas companies demanded market prices for their natural-gas supplies and turned off the spigot for Belarus, while Lukashenka howled and denied that Belarus was siphoning off gas piped through Belarus on route to Western customers. Ultimately, the dispute was resolved temporarily, although the problem is sure to surface again because of Russia's goal to secure market prices and also obtain shares in Belarusian companies, if not buy them outright.

In "The Sinner Lukashenka" series on the "Vesti" site, Kondrashov humorously recounts the story of a mural painted on a church wall in the Belarusian town of Bobr. It seems that one of the sinners standing among the damned in the "Last Judgment" mural, wearing a suit and tie, has an unmistakable mustache and a telltale comb-over hairstyle. He is a dead ringer for Lukashenka. When queried about the likeness, the painter of the mural, Ales Pushkin, told RTR, "My hand seemed to move of its own accord, as if a higher power was guiding it."

The local priest blessed the painting, and did not seem to notice anything amiss among the sinners depicted. But people visiting the church noticed the similarity and word began to spread. Worried about official retaliation, the priest asked the artist to paint over the sinner. Pushkin says that he painted out not only the Lukashenka look-alike, but other sinners in his panoply -- riot police officers, a prostitute, and even the Belarusian Orthodox Church head Filaret. But three weeks later, when the parish priest checked the mural again, he saw that Lukashenka and Filaret still appeared to be standing among the sinners. He complained to the artist, who said he had done everything he could to rework them, but if the figures came out looking as they did, it must be God's will.

Although did not provide the background, Pushkin is well known in Belarusian opposition circles. He is a performance artist, probably best remembered for a stunt in November 1999, when he wheeled a cart up to the presidential administration building in Minsk and pitched horse manure at it to protest Lukashenka's extension of his original five-year term by manipulating a national referendum and rewriting the constitution. Pushkin was charged with a "disgracing state symbols" and "malicious hooliganism" and handed a suspended sentence of two years after human rights groups and Western embassies protested. At his trial, Pushkin commented that what was in his wheelbarrow represented Lukashenka's contribution to history. The government returned the favor by denying Pushkin permission to travel abroad. In July 2002, Pushkin staged a street performance about the liberation from the Nazis on the Belarusian Day of the Republic, and was arrested, beaten by police, and charged with "petty hooliganism." He was eventually released, but the gallery in Vitebsk where he displayed his works was closed.

Moscow is also not without its art scandals and problems with artistic freedom of expression. The executive director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum, Yurii Samodurov, is still fighting a lawsuit instigated by a group of indignant Russian Orthodox believers who claim they were offended by an art show displayed in the museum that depicted works satirizing some aspects of state-sponsored religion in Russia, such as Jesus Christ in an advertisement for Coca Cola, and that featured icons with head cutouts similar to the photograph stands for tourists on Moscow's streets. The suit followed a raid on the museum by irate Orthodox believers who defaced the paintings and forced the exhibit to close. In August, a court acquitted two of the men involved in that attack, saying their actions were justified because their "religious sensibilities" had been offended. RTR has not reported about these cases, further evidence that the Belarusian "Sinners" story is more about politics than art.

Meanwhile, the mural in Bobr remained, and Kondrashov pondered whether it will have to be scratched off the walls eventually, or whether Lukashenka will finally give up the presidency. Coming to the point of his article, Kondrashov writes that the gas dispute further polarized people in both countries -- those who already hated Lukashenka came to hate him more for his stubbornness and willingness to leave his countrymen without heat, and those who admired him saw him as standing up to the Russians for the sake of Belarusian sovereignty.

Kondrashov quoted Stanislav Shushkevich, who headed the Belarusian state from 1991-94, now a leader of the opposition, about Lukashenka: "I can state with all responsibility: lying is his profession. And with every lie, with all his combinations of outrages, he is trying to do only one thing -- preserve power." Kondrashov goes on to cite various examples of opposition activity and suppression -- a state-sponsored youth group chapter defecting to the youth opposition movement Zubr; the beating of the activist Lyubou Sakalova; and graffiti saying "He Must Go!"

The article was quickly picked up by the Belarusian United Civic Party and placed on their website. Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka has found himself in hot water for his frank comments on RTR's "Zerkalo" and NTV's "Namedni" on 21 and 22 February, respectively. The Belarusian prosecutor has charged him with deliberately insulting the president under Article 367-2 of the Criminal Code. Lyabedzka, who has already been under investigation for "treason" for his contacts with foreign supporters, could face up to five years in prison.

Shrugging off the threats, Lyabedzka told the press that he did not said anything different from what he had already said countless times in the Belarusian opposition media about Lukashenka's "shadow budget" and the alleged kidnappings and murders of politicians in Belarus. The difference is that the opposition papers distribute only a few hundred thousand copies at most, but Russian television can reach an audience of millions. "The effect is huge," Lyabedzka told in an interview on 17 March.

Russian television has continued to cover the Belarusian opposition, showing police breaking up a National Day demonstration on 25 March. All this attention has clearly gotten a reaction out of Minsk. In a follow-up to the "sinner" story, reported that the fresco at the Bobr church has been repainted. A local resident told that a foreign car with Minsk plates arrived in town, and five well-dressed men got out and proceeded to white out the figures of Lukashenka and Filaret.

Russian television also noted Lyabedzka's summons to the prosecutor, saying that he was being questioned about his comments on the "Zerkalo" about Lukashenka's unaccounted-for funds, which might have come from arms sales abroad. "Should we mention that the actions of the Belarusian authorities remain under the vigilant gaze of [RTR]?" concludes Kondrashov ominously.

In past parliamentary and presidential elections, Russian television has flirted with the Belarusian opposition, but then mysteriously backed off when it came to providing the kind of coverage the opposition would really need to have a fair chance of influencing Belarusian and Russian audiences. It remains to be seen whether the Kremlin-controlled television coverage of the Belarusian opposition will actually result in more freedom for Belarus. The same Russian news outlets have just as eagerly covered the recent travels of Russian Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov to Minsk to conclude various agreements related to the joint Belarusian-Russian parliament and further moves toward the Russia-Belarus Union.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick is the editor of "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies."

By Jan Maksymiuk

Ukraine's National Council for Television and Radio (NRPTR) on 14 April adopted an unexpected resolution that obliges all national and "interregional" (covering at least half of Ukraine's 25 regions) broadcasters to start broadcasting only in Ukrainian as of 19 April. Broadcasts in other languages -- Ukraine's minority languages, including Russian -- will be allowed only at the regional and local levels in areas with significant ethnic-minority populations and with NRPTR approval of a relevant application from the ethnic community concerned. Moreover, even local and regional broadcasters are obliged to produce no less than 50 percent of their programs in Ukrainian.

The NRPTR is an eight-member body -- four members are delegated by the Verkhovna Rada and the other four by the president -- that is responsible for issuing broadcasting licenses. Licenses are usually granted for five-year periods. However, the NRPTR does not have the legal instruments needed to revoke broadcast licenses; this can only be done by a court. Therefore, the NRPTR also signaled -- apparently, to lend more weight to its 14 April resolution -- that it is going to request that the Verkhovna Rada give it the right to cancel broadcast licenses after issuing three official warnings to a broadcaster. However, as matters now stand, the NRPTR can penalize broadcasters only by refusing to extend their licenses when they expire.

The 14 April resolution also calls for a month-long monitoring of Ukrainian broadcasters to examine how they react to the new regulations, as well as for the creation of a permanent working group to deal with problems pertaining to the use of the Ukrainian language on radio and television. It also requires that all licenses issued by the NRPTR after 18 April will stipulate that nationwide and interregional broadcasters use only Ukrainian in their programs. The NRPTR said the broadcasters that currently operate under licenses requiring less than 100 percent Ukrainian-language programs will not have to apply for new licenses immediately.

The 14 April resolution was unexpected in at least two aspects. First, it came without any previous announcements or public consultations. After all, language is among the most sensitive and controversial public issues in Ukraine. According to the 2001 census, Ukrainian was declared as the mother tongue by 67.5 percent of Ukraine's 48.5 million people. However, according to estimates, at least 50 percent of Ukrainian citizens -- notably those living in the east and south of the country -- prefer speaking Russian. Second, the conditions of existing broadcast licenses -- which routinely stipulate that programs in Ukrainian should account for 50 percent or 75 percent of the entire programming -- have so far been ignored by many broadcasters without any legal or other consequences. Why should the situation be altered right now?

The resolution reportedly has not caused any immediate changes in the proportion of Ukrainian-language and Russian-language programs on most Ukrainian radio and television stations. It seems that most Ukrainian broadcasters do not believe the resolution is serious and are treating it as a recommendation rather than an order. Predictably, the resolution was harshly criticized by the Ukrainian Communist Party, which is supported mainly in Russian-speaking regions. The Communists claim that the decision to switch to 100 percent broadcasting in Ukrainian will "instigate hostility among peoples living in our state."

"Ukraine is becoming a unique state in Europe, a state losing its indigenous language, which is being pushed out by official languages of other states," NRPTR Deputy Chairman Vitaliy Shevchenko said. Even if Shevchenko's assessment of the language situation in Ukraine is exaggerated, it is certain that the Ukrainian language needs "affirmative action" from the state to become a full-fledged means of communication in Ukraine's public life. But it is also very doubtful that an administrative ban of the Russian language in broadcasting -- a method strikingly reminiscent of the Soviet-era command system's practices -- is a step in the right direction. Many would argue that the publication of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels in Ukrainian translation would be a far better contribution to the promotion of Ukrainian than any ban on using Russian in Ukraine.

It is hardly imaginable that lawmakers -- from both the left wing and the right wing of Ukraine's political scene -- will heed the NRPTR and give the council the right to revoke the licenses of broadcasters who are reluctant to switch entirely to Ukrainian. First, in a presidential election year, such an administrative tool in the hands of a state body could easily be misused for the politically motivated closures of media outlets. Second, the rekindled stir around the language issue could hurt both government-supported and opposition presidential candidates rather than boost their election chances, although it is difficult to say at the moment who would be the biggest loser. The problem is that most people in Ukraine, both Ukrainian and Russian speakers, are very fond of many of the programs imported from Russia -- especially some of the live talk shows -- and could become very angry if they were to give them up because those shows are not in Ukrainian. Most likely, the NRPTR resolution of 14 April will be "inconspicuously forgotten" -- at least, for the time being.

Jan Maksymiuk is the editor of "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report."

By Aleksandr Kolesnichenko

The "export versions" of the three Russian national television channels -- ORT, RTR, and NTV -- can be seen practically around the world, but their main target audience is in the territory of the former Soviet Union. ORT and RTR are clearly not concerned about the commercial effectiveness of their foreign-broadcasting activities, as can be seen by the fact that they do not encode their satellite signals and turn a blind eye to rampant piracy. NTV is following a different approach to its work in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), so far working exclusively with local cable operators.

All three channels present "cleaned-up" versions of their basic Russian programming for foreign audiences. Naturally, they remove programming such as foreign movies and international sports events for which they have broadcast rights only on the territory of the Russian Federation. Network officials say the "export versions" correspond to their Russian counterparts by 80-85 percent, including all of their informational and public-affairs programming.

Russia's major channel, ORT, is marketed internationally under the brand name Channel One: Global Network. Its satellite covers the entire territory of the CIS, and its signal is not encoded. One only needs to buy a satellite dish to receive it. Moreover, Channel One has terrestrial-broadcasting agreements in Moldova, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Broadcasting in Georgia, the channel's latest move, began at the end of last year, with the broadcast signal covering all of greater Tbilisi.

In Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, Channel One is distributed by cable for a fee. Anton Konshin, ORT's CIS country manager, says the network works with about 20 cable operators in Ukraine alone and that it is available in all the major cities of both Ukraine and Belarus. Channel One also has a cable presence in the Central Asian countries and piracy there is out of control. Konshin says that ORT "has an individual approach" to signing contracts with cable operators, offering Channel One programming for as little as $50 a year. However, many operators prefer not to pay even this symbolic fee. The situation is worst in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where the authorities do not do anything to prevent unlicensed retransmission. But ORT doesn't really object either. The goal of Channel One was created primarily to influence the Russian-speaking population of the CIS. Unsanctioned retransmission does nothing for ORT's bottom line, but it does a lot to boost its rating.

The average daily audience for Channel One in the CIS is about 5 million to 7 million people, or about 5 percent of the total population. The channel is not able really to compete with local broadcasters because of its limited distribution. Cable, as a rule, is only available in major cities. Terrestrial broadcasting is limited to the UHF band and is also limited to a relatively small geographic area, usually a country's capital and its surroundings. Channel One executives, however, do not hide the fact that their main goal now is to increase the channel's foreign audience rather than reaching profitability. Therefore, the policies of un-encoded broadcasting and cut-rate prices to cable operators will continue for the foreseeable future.

RTR's cleaned-up export version is called RTR-Planeta. So far, it is only possible to receive RTR-Planeta via satellite in the European part of the former Soviet Union -- Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The Central Asian countries can receive the satellite signal of a channel called Rossiya Plus Kultura. This is a combined program of RTR and the Kultura channel that is designed for far-flung regions of Russia that do not have access to RTR and Kultura's terrestrial broadcasts. Although Rossiya Plus Kultura is not "cleaned up," there have been no reported cases of complaints concerning intellectual-property rights.

Like ORT's Channel One, RTR-Planeta is not encoded, although technically speaking, a contract is required to use its signal for commercial purposes. However, like ORT, RTR turns a blind eye to piracy because the point of RTR-Planeta is political rather than commercial.

Russia' third major channel, NTV, is formally a private network, but it is owned by Gazprom-Media, the media subsidiary of the state-controlled natural-gas monopoly Gazprom. Since December 2001, NTV's international programming has been marketed as NTV-Mir. The company has agreements with cable operators in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Uzbekistan. The Russian version of NTV is broadcast in Belarus, although with local advertising.

Unlike Channel One and RTR-Planeta, NTV-Mir seems to be watching its bottom line and can be quite aggressive against theft of its signal. The channel's signal is encoded and the company regularly launches lawsuits against suspected pirates. The problem is particularly acute in the South Caucasus and Moldova, where local cable operators have often been found distributing NTV-Mir without permission.

NTV officials acknowledge that the CIS countries are a priority for the company's expansion. In February, a Ukrainian-language version of NTV-Mir began operating in test mode. So far, NTV-Mir's total average daily audience is about 5 million people, including 4 million in Ukraine.

Officially, the satellite company NTV-Plus only broadcasts to the Russian Federation. The company only concludes contracts with Russian citizens and only installs its receivers at Russian addresses. The area of best reception for the channel covers the European part of Russia from Kaliningrad to Tyumen, although it can be received farther east with a larger antenna.

NTV-Plus Deputy General Director Mikhail Nitsberg explains that distribution is limited to Russia because the channel broadcasts many programs for which NTV-Plus only has Russian Federation rights. However, the channel's signal also covers all of Ukraine and Belarus, as well as a large part of Kazakhstan, leading to fairly widespread piracy in those countries. In Ukraine alone, there are an estimated 50,000 such NTV-Plus viewers.

Some of NTV-Plus's programming -- the "Nashe kino" and "Detskii mir" selections -- is legally available through cable distributors in some CIS states. Agreements are in place with cable operators in Kazakhstan and one is almost ready with the Association of Cable Operators of Ukraine. Reportedly, talks are under way with cable operators in Belarus as well.

Nonetheless, a full-fledged effort to expand NTV-Plus in the CIS remains only a long-term perspective. It would require serious additional investment to purchase wider broadcast rights for foreign programming, which Nitsberg says is not currently in the company's development plan.

In the CIS countries themselves, attitudes toward the Russian channels are somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, the programs are relatively popular, and not only among ethnic Russians. The quality of the programming is often considerably better than that of local broadcasters. On the other hand, political objections arise from time to time from those who assert that the stations are tools of Russian expansionism. There are periodic calls for bans on all broadcasting in foreign languages, as happened last week in Ukraine. Such calls will continue to be heard as long as no international agreements covering Russian television broadcasts to the CIS are in place.

Aleksandr Kolesnichenko is a reporter with "Novye izvestiya" and a correspondent for the media-management journal "Sreda" (

Boris Boyarskov, a vice president of Yevrofinans bank, on 19 April was named to head the new broadcast-licensing department within the Culture and Mass Communications Ministry, "Kommersant-Daily" and other Russian media reported on 20 April.

According to "Kommersant-Daily," Boyarskov is considered "a creature of the St. Petersburg siloviki" and was put forward by deputy presidential administration head Sechin. The daily reported that neither presidential media adviser Mikhail Lesin nor Federal Press and Mass Communications Agency Director Mikhail Seslavinskii was consulted concerning the nomination.

The fate of the former Media Ministry's Federal Tender Commission (FKK) remains unclear. "I think that there should be fewer bureaucrats on the commission," FKK member Manana Aslamazyan told "Vremya novostei. "And new members should be suggested by the media community. I don't know what Boyarskov thinks about this."

"Kommersant-Daily" on 20 April noted that there is a gap in Boyarskov's biography between his military service in the 1980s and when he began working for Imperial bank in 1994. Writing that this could indicate that he worked in the KGB at this time, the paper reported that "several years ago" Boyarskov was considered a leading candidate for the post of Central Bank security-service head.

At Yevrofinans, Boyarskov handled the group's media-investment projects. The company owns nearly 30 percent of NTV, a blocking stake in St. Petersburg's Peterburg television channel, an unspecified stake in the Prime-TASS news agency, and is in the process of forming a media-holding partnership with Gazprom-Media. Yevrofinans has denied persistent rumors that it owns a stake in ORT (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," 9 April 2004). (Robert Coalson)