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Russia Report: January 11, 2003

11 January 2003, Volume 3, Number 2
By Laura Belin

No big scandal dominated the Russian media landscape during 2002. Neither President Vladimir Putin nor senior government officials enacted sweeping changes in media policy. Nevertheless, media trends established during the previous two years quietly continued to bear fruit for the president.

Putin and other senior officials, notably Media Minister Mikhail Lesin and Procurator-General Vladimir Ustinov, appeared on "enemies lists" published by several journalists' organizations in Russia and abroad during 2000 and 2001. Putin's media strategy last year appeared calculated to deflect charges that the president is an enemy of press freedom. He made no grand gestures in support of further restrictions on the flow of information, as he had done when signing the Information Security Doctrine in 2000.

On the contrary, in November 2002 Putin vetoed amendments to Russian media law relating to coverage of antiterrorist operations. Watchdog groups and some prominent media managers had assailed the amendments, but few expected Putin to veto the measure given his harsh assessment of the way some media covered the October hostage crisis in Moscow. However, in an official statement, the president said the proposed amendments would not only "fail to make the fight against terrorism more effective, but may also create preconditions for imposing unjustified restrictions on citizens' rights to information."

Putin also handed the print media a surprise New Year's gift on 3 January, when he signed a law adopted during the last week in December to extend a discount on the value-added tax rate for goods and services related to the production and distribution of newspapers, periodicals, and books. That tax break had been scheduled to expire at the beginning of 2003 but will now remain in effect until 1 January 2005.

Like Putin, Media Minister Lesin seemed to cultivate a more conciliatory, journalist-friendly image in 2002. A powerful figure both by virtue of his office (the Media Ministry enforces numerous laws and regulations) and his business connections (the Video-International agency, which Lesin co-founded, dominates the Russian television advertising market), Lesin had figured in several scandals early in Putin's presidency. For instance, in 2000 he signed off on the infamous "protocol number 6" promising that criminal charges against Vladimir Gusinskii would be dropped if Gusinskii sold a controlling stake in his media properties to shareholder Gazprom. Lesin drew sharp criticism again in January 2002, when his ministry pulled the plug on TV-6 broadcasts and temporarily awarded the network's frequency to a sports channel, although its legal authority to do so was unclear.

However, Lesin avoided direct involvement in any major licensing controversy during the remainder of 2002. In February the commission that awards broadcast licenses, dominated by bureaucrats from the Media Ministry and other state bodies, awarded a radio frequency to a group led by Ekho Moskvy journalists. In March, the same commission awarded the Channel 6 frequency to a consortium including leading TV-6 journalists, who had lost their jobs when TV-6 went off the air.

In 2000 and 2001, the Media Ministry applied the media law and the law on terrorism to issue official warnings to media outlets that interviewed leading Chechen officials. But in November 2002, as parliament was rushing through new restrictions on covering antiterrorist operations, Lesin advocated self-regulation by the media as opposed to granting state officials more powers to control media coverage. Lesin even backed media executives who urged Putin to veto the measures passed by parliament.

So the good news for the Russian media in 2002 was that Putin and Lesin adopted a less antagonistic posture toward the journalistic community. Unfortunately, neither the president nor senior government officials took any steps to lift restrictions on news gathering or alleviate forms of pressure which have helped reduced media pluralism since Putin took office. Five major factors helped perpetuate relatively timid news coverage throughout 2002:

1. Controlled Access. It's hard to report the news without going to the places where newsworthy events are happening. Yet news gathering in and around Chechnya remained difficult in 2002 for journalists who sought to avoid constant supervision in military press pools. Although it is not unusual for military officials to restrict journalists' movements in war zones, Russian authorities have sought to limit journalists' visits to any part of Chechnya and even to displaced-person camps outside the republic. Although the current "antiterrorist operation" in Chechnya has entered its fourth year, and the Russian armed forces continue to suffer significant casualties, the debate over the military strategy in the Russian media has been relatively subdued.

Politicians' access to the television networks that reach the largest audience also remains tightly (if informally) controlled. Critics of Putin's administration who often disagree with each other --such as Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov, Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii, and Union of Rightist Forces leader Boris Nemtsov -- all complained during 2002 that the Kremlin controls editorial decisions at state-owned television networks and uses that power to shut out opposition voices on news and analysis programs.

2. Criminal Investigations. Criminal probes became an important part of state media policy in 2000 and 2001, affecting little-known journalists as well as the high-profile efforts to crush the media empires of Boris Berezovskii and Vladimir Gusinskii. In fact, Oleg Panfilov, who monitored infringements on press freedom during the 1990s for the Glasnost Defense Foundation and currently heads the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, was quoted in the 3 January edition of the "Financial Times" as saying that "There have been more legal cases opened against journalists in the two and half years of Mr Putin's rule than throughout the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin."

To cite just a few examples, the Moscow Prosecutor's Office summoned an editor of "Nezavisimaya gazeta" in March 2002 to face questioning in connection with a criminal libel investigation. Federal Security Service (FSB) officers raided the offices of the Moscow-based weekly "Versiya" in November, confiscating computer equipment. Several staffers were called in for questioning in connection with a story published about sites formerly used for secret establishments, although the editor of "Versiya" said all of the information for that story came from open sources. The same month, FSB officers in Perm and Petrazavodsk raided the offices of newspapers that had published sensational allegations about corruption. Though it is hard to measure the chilling effect a criminal investigation has on news reporting, it reminds journalists that they are being watched closely, even when the journalists under investigation are never formally charged or prosecuted.

3. The Court System. Many courts handed down rulings against journalists or media outlets during 2002. In January, as the LUKoil-Garant pension fund was trying to force TV-6 into liquidation, the Supreme Arbitration Court ruled in favor of the pension fund (a minority shareholder in the television network). Lesin then cited that court ruling as justification for shutting down TV-6 broadcasts. In February, "Novaya gazeta" was hit with two huge libel judgments totaling $1.5 million, which threatened to put the biweekly out of business. The military collegium of the Supreme Court in June 2002 confirmed a four-year prison sentence for journalist Grigorii Pasko, who was convicted of treason in December 2001.

No smoking gun tied Kremlin or government officials to any of those court rulings. However, the losing parties were all out of favor with the authorities, and many political observers and legal experts argued that the cases were influenced by the political climate. The Supreme Arbitration Court intervened with unusual speed to hear the TV-6 case. Russian courts normally award damages for libel equivalent to hundreds or thousands of dollars, fueling speculation that "Novaya gazeta" was being punished for its antiwar editorial policy and coverage of high-level corruption. The Pasko ruling was surprising in light of the fact that the Supreme Court had amnestied Pasko in 1999 after he was convicted of passing information to Japanese television journalists about the Russian Pacific Fleet's disposal of nuclear waste. Moreover, the Supreme Court's military collegium had in February 2002 struck down a Soviet-era rule on state secrets that was used to secure Pasko's treason conviction.

4. Media Owners and Shareholders. At the level of rhetoric, Kremlin and government officials abhor the limitations on press freedom imposed by wealthy financial backers. For instance, Media Minister Lesin acknowledged in February 2002 that threats to media freedom exist in Russia, but claimed that private owners are the main culprits. Similarly, Putin told journalists in April that the media "should not directly depend on" wealthy owners, who provide only "false independence."

In reality, business interests helped dispatch media outlets that were critical of the authorities in 2002. A pension fund affiliated with the powerful oil company LUKoil filed the lawsuit that doomed TV-6 last year, even though the network's finances were improving and neither the oil company nor the pension fund stood to gain financially from forcing the network into liquidation. St. Petersburg businessman Vyacheslav Leibman purchased the weekly "Obshchaya gazeta" in May 2002 for $3 million. He promptly fired the entire staff and suspended publication, a rather strange course if he had been seeking a financial return on his investment.

After Berezovskii and Gusinskii lost control over several influential media outlets and fled Russia to avoid criminal prosecution, it is easy to see why media investors would conclude that the road to success lies in good relations with the Kremlin. But perhaps more striking, some Russian journalists demonstrated in 2002 that they had learned the value of working with business interests on good terms with Putin's administration. NTV staffers had protested on the air during the late stages of that network's conflict with Gazprom in 2001. Many of those people lost their jobs again when TV-6 was forced out of business last year. However, instead of staging protests, a group of journalists led by Yevgenii Kiselev forged an alliance with politicians and businessmen. Their Media-Sotsium consortium subsequently won the auction for the Channel 6 frequency.

5. Self-Censorship. The "internal censor" never disappeared from Russian journalism during the 1990s, but by common consent the phenomenon became much more widespread in 2000 and 2001, and that trend continued last year. In fact, the day after the Media-Sotsium consortium won the tender for Channel 6, the consortium's main political patron, former Foreign Minister and Premier Yevgenii Primakov, openly endorsed the idea of "internal censorship" at the network. It is hard to identify specific cases of self-censorship, because one cannot analyze stories that are not reported and angles that are not explored. However, there were some signs of institutionalized self-censorship in 2002. For instance, a group of prominent managers who work for state-controlled media or are sympathetic to Putin's administration formed a Media Industrial Committee, which is drafting a new law on the mass media as well as self-regulatory guidelines for journalists covering crises such as terrorist actions. The committee is working with state security officials on those guidelines.

In addition, editors of some privately owned media attend regular meetings in the Kremlin. Similar meetings occurred during Yeltsin's first term as president. But Vyacheslav Kostikov, who was Yeltsin's spokesman in the early 1990s, wrote in his memoirs that many prominent editors stopped attending those sessions soon after the first war in Chechnya began. The current war in Chechnya has not prompted a similar show of dissent.

Although Putin cannot be tied directly to many methods routinely used to intimidate Russian journalists (or to exert pressure on those who remain defiant), presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii revealed in October 2002 how pleased Kremlin officials are with the current state of media affairs. Speaking at a seminar in Yekaterinburg, Yastrzhembskii noted with satisfaction the demise of an "orgy of free speech," which allegedly prevailed before Putin came to power. Relations between the authorities and the media have vastly improved since Putin took office, Yastrzhembskii asserted, in part because state officials "started to show some political will." With a new parliamentary and presidential election cycle set to begin later this year, that political will is likely to remain in place during 2003.

Laura Belin has written extensively on Russian media issues since 1995.

President Vladimir Putin on 4 January introduced to the State Duma a draft bill amending the law on general principles for organizing legislatures and executive organs in the regions and the law on general principles for local self-government, RosBalt reported, citing the government press service. The bills define the role of the so-called power-sharing agreements between the federal center and the regions and stipulate that such agreements be confirmed by federal law, according to The bill also establishes the basic principles for administering and distributing state property in the regions, and it contains a section regulating the powers of state organs within federation subjects and the cooperation of these organs with their federal counterparts, according to RosBalt. The draft bill is a product of the presidential commission headed by deputy presidential administration head Dmitrii Kozak. JAC

Commenting on President Putin's submission of the legislation, "Izvestiya" wrote on 5 January that the legislation marks the start of one of the Putin administration's broadest reforms of the federal system -- "if the author of the reforms, deputy head of the presidential administration Dmitrii Kozak, manages to overcome the resistance of regional elites." According to the daily, it was likely with this goal in mind that President Putin interrupted his skiing vacation in the Urals to meet with Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov on 1 January. Putin has visited Ufa four times during his presidency, noted on 5 January. "Izvestiya" also reported that the reform of local self-government might face difficulties in the State Duma because it touches on too many interests -- particularly economic interests -- of the regions, and the deputies will soon be devoting their attention to their re-election campaigns. JAC

In an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 27 December, Sergei Shakhrai, one of the authors of the constitution adopted in 1993, commented on the recent activities of the Kozak commission to demarcate responsibilities among the various levels of government. Shakhrai said he takes a positive view of the commission but added that he believes there are people on the commission and in the regions who believe erroneously that everything can be divided up into "yours" and "mine" and then this division can be codified. However, he said, "we tried to invest the Russian Constitution with a model of cooperative federalism based on cooperation between the center and the regions, and therefore joint jurisdictions must be preserved." JAC

He also commented that the constitution in its current form does not have to be amended if two or more regions decide to merge. According to Shakhrai, the Constitutional Court issued a decision seven years ago that said that if two regions merge, the passage of a constitutional law is sufficient and the name of the new region can be entered into Article 65 of the constitution by presidential decree. JAC

Municipal workers in the Kamchatka Oblast capital of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii have announced a moratorium on their strike, which began in November, until the end of the holiday season, Radio Mayak reported on 4 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2002). The workers are seeking the payment of back wages and the postponement of the mayor's planned reforms of the housing and communal-services sector. JAC

According to RIA-Novosti on 4 January, the strikers are also demanding the removal of Viktoria Yekimova, who heads the city's legal department. Instead, however, Mayor Yurii Golenishchev has appointed her first deputy mayor. Earlier, he dismissed five deputy mayors. Meanwhile, the local prosecutor's office has conducted a search at the city administration in connection with a criminal investigation into possible misappropriation of city-administration funds. Earlier, oblast-level audit officials discovered that 18 million rubles ($565,000) was missing from the city's treasury. JAC

The Russian Orthodox Church bishop for Magadan and Sinegorsk, Feofan, has been unofficially lending his support to the campaign effort of acting Magadan Oblast Governor Nikolai Dubov for Magadan's 2 February gubernatorial election, RFE/RL's Murmansk correspondent reported on 26 December. According to the report, two days after the oblast administration suggested that the oblast budget's expenditure for the construction of a new Russian Orthodox cathedral be more than doubled to 90 million rubles ($2.8 million), Bishop Feofan appeared on TV-Magadan speaking approvingly of the building of the century in Magadan and the continuation of projects begun under Governor Valentin Tsvetkov, who was murdered in Moscow in October. Dubov's campaign slogan is, "We will continue the [work] of Governor Tsvetkov." Meanwhile, Dubov's chief competitor, Magadan Mayor Nikolai Karpenko, met in Moscow with Audit Chamber head Sergei Stepashin and Deputy Prime Minister Aleksei Kudrin, a meeting that was shown on local television. According to the correspondent, Vladimir Pekhtin, Unity's faction leader in the State Duma, and the chief federal inspector for Magadan Oblast, Anatolii Makhankov, have expressed support for Karpenko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 December 2002). JAC

Former Primorskii Krai Deputy Governor Yevgenii Krasnov was shot dead in Vladivostok on 27 December, Russian news agencies reported. Krasnov, who most recently was rector of the Far Eastern State University, was shot by an unknown assailant outside his home. Krasnov was a member of the team of former Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko, who resigned from office amid controversy two years ago" (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 7 February 2001). As deputy governor, Krasnov headed the krai's fisheries department. JAC

Armed gunmen stormed the building of the Novaya Volna television and radio company in Vladivostok on 27 December, Ekho Moskvy reported. Yevgeniya Golubeva, the company's deputy managing director, said the gunmen were representatives of the legal departments of Primorskii Krai, as well as people unofficially representing mayoral candidate Vladimir Nikolaev. According to Golubeva, the men said that "you heard what happened to Krasnov" and "if you don't vacate the building, the same thing will happen to you." Golubeva speculated that the raid might be linked to a company ownership dispute. The founder of the Novaya Volna media holding, Oleg Sedinko, was killed in Vladivostok last summer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 June 2002). After his death, his shares were purchased by former acting Governor Konstantin Tolstoshein and Sergei Gubich, another founder of Novaya Volna. JAC

Executives of the Alrosa diamond-producing company enjoyed success in the 29 December elections to the parliament of the Sakha (Yakutia) Republic, reported on 5 January. Of the 69 seats available, 14 employees of Alrosa and its subsidiaries were elected, including Alrosa First Vice President Aleksandr Morozkin, Alrosa Vice President Vasilii Vlasov, and Alrosa presidential assistant Mikhail Everstov. Alrosa personnel also succeeded in races for municipal legislatures and to head raion administrations. More than 10 Alrosa employees were elected to the Mirinsk city council, and the new executive-branch head of Mirinsk is the former director of an Alrosa subsidiary. Last January, Alrosa head Vyacheslav Shtyrov was elected president of the republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2002). Other business leaders also did well in the 29 December election. Of the 69 deputies elected to the republic's unicameral legislature, 30 are general directors or heads of local companies, including Yakutskenergo General Director Konstantin Ilkovskii and Sakhaneftegaz CEO Kliment Ivanov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2002). JAC

Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiev met on 5 January in Kazan with Archbishop Anastasii, head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Tatarstan, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported on 6 January. According to Tatar-Inform, Shaimiev traditionally meets with Orthodox clergy on the eve of Russian Orthodox Christmas, which is celebrated on 7 January. The possible introduction of a public-school course on the fundamentals of Orthodox Culture was discussed, and both Shaimiev and Anastasii agreed on the necessity of taking Tatarstan's ethnic peculiarities into consideration, the bureau reported. Shaimiev also warned that if any proposals on the matter are dictated to Tatarstan from above, they will not be carried out. Earlier, the group For Human Rights filed a petition with the Meshchansk Raion Court in Moscow alleging that a textbook called "The Foundations of Orthodox Culture" by Alla Borodina incites ethnic and religious hatred and could be used as a tool by skinheads, Ekho Moskvy reported on 1 January. JAC

President Putin named Azamat Kulmukhametov as Russia's ambassador to Kuwait, replacing Vladimir Shishov, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 9 January. Kulmukhametov previously served as deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Department at the Foreign Ministry.

Aleksandr Khloponin, who was elected governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai in September, was named Person of the Year by "Ekspert" magazine and "Moskovskii komsomolets," reported on 6 January. And "Vedomosti" named Khloponin Politician of the Year.

In a poll conducted by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), Irina Khakamada, deputy head of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) faction in the Duma, was selected by the largest number of respondents -- 18 percent -- as Woman of the Year in Russia, according to the center's website, The poll of 1,600 persons in 33 different regions was conducted between 16-20 December. Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko was a close second with 17 percent of respondents.

Maria Andreeva, a member of the Yabloko party's press service, was found dead on 7 January in a city park in Moscow, Russian agencies reported. Yabloko's press service said that according to preliminary reports, Andreeva died of a heart attack, NTV reported.

11 January: Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to meet with Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Liponnen

14 January: State Duma's Duma Council will meet to set new agenda for lower chamber

14 January: Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam will visit Moscow

15 January: Justice Minister Yurii Chaika expected to report to the Duma on proposals for criminal punishment that do not involve serving time in prison

15 January: Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini will visit Moscow

16 January: Armenian President Robert Kocharian will visit Moscow

17 January: Tverskoi raion court in Moscow will hear lawsuits of former hostages of the Moscow theater takeover in October

26 January: Gubernatorial elections will take place in Taimyr Autonomous Okrug

Late January: International Monetary Fund mission scheduled to visit Moscow to evaluate the development of Russia's economy

End of January: Date by which the issue of whether Colonel General Gennadii Troshev will resign from the Armed Forces will be resolved, according to Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov on 5 January

Early February: President Putin will visit Paris

1 February: New Labor Code will come into effect

1 February: New Civil Procedure Code will come into effect

2 February: Gubernatorial elections will be held in Magadan Oblast to replace Valentin Tsvetkov, who was assassinated in Moscow in October

4 February: President Putin to attend opening ceremony of the Year of Russian Culture in Berlin

16 February: Elections will be held in the Republic of Mordovia to elect the head of the republic (not called a president under republican law)

February: Labor Ministry expected to submit to the government a list of jobs to which young men seeking to perform alternative service (as opposed to military service) could be assigned

February: NATO-Russia Council will hold conference in Rome

4-5 February: An all-Russia conference on "Information Security in Russia in a Global Information Society" will be held in the government building in Moscow

27-28 February: The Union of the People of Chechnya movement will meet in Moscow, State Duma Deputy Aslanbek Aslakhanov announced on 18 December

May: St. Petersburg will celebrate 300th anniversary of its founding