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Russia Report: September 12, 2001

12 September 2001, Volume 1, Number 21
EXIT PRIMAKOV? Yevgenii Primakov's unexpected announcement that he was stepping down as leader of the Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) faction in the Duma provoked a tidal wave of speculation last week about his future political plans. Primakov, who will be 72 next month, said he has no health problems and emphasized that he will not be departing from national politics. A number of Moscow-based newspapers have suggested that Primakov may be under consideration as a new speaker of the Federation Council. "Moskovskii komsomolets," for example, noted on 5 September that the current speaker, Yegor Stroev, has not denied that Primakov could assume the position, saying only that it is "too early" to discuss that possibility.

If Primakov does ascend to the top post of the upper legislative chamber, it would be an odd ending to the episode that paralyzed the Duma following the 1999 elections. Led by Primakov, OVR along with Yabloko, the Union of Rightist Forces and Russian Regions, boycotted the Duma following an agreement between the pro-presidential groups, Unity and People's Deputy, with the Communists and leftist deputies to divide all Duma leadership posts among themselves and re-elect Communist Deputy Gennadii Seleznev as Duma speaker (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2000). At the time, a number of political analysts believed that the so-called "package agreement" was devised in part to remove any possibility of Primakov becoming chairman of the State Duma. It was thought that naming Primakov to such a prominent position would raise his profile too much, setting up an uncomfortable rivalry with then-acting President Putin on the eve of March 2000 presidential elections.

In the intervening months since that episode, Primakov has shown his loyalty to Putin. He has refrained from criticizing Putin while frequently expressing his support for Putin's policies. But at the same time Primakov has shown a desire to remain politically independent. Although officially not a member of the Fatherland party, Primakov reportedly was part of a group within the organization which did not rush toward the proposed union with the Unity party with open arms. Indeed, according to "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 4 September, Primakov found out about the proposed merger of Unity and Fatherland only after it was announced.

However, in his public remarks, Primakov has stressed that his decision "has no kind of political or ideological motivation." At a Moscow press conference, Primakov gave two reasons for his departure. He said that he does not want to work in the leadership structure of the future Fatherland party since he has no desire to join any political party, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported. "It is enough that I was [once] in the Politburo," Primakov said. He added that he also has no desire to lead preparations for the next Duma election and suggested that he will not even run himself in the next election.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Moscow bureau, political analyst Andrei Piontkovskii notes that the question should not be why Primakov has resigned but "why has he taken this obvious step so late" -- after Fatherland's defeat in the 1999 elections. Some nine months before the State Duma elections were held, "Profil" reported that Volodin -- not Primakov -- would head Fatherland's Duma faction. It was likely assumed at the time that Primakov was destined for a bigger and better position. And during this Duma's first sessions, political observers report that Primakov did not really involve himself with the nitty-gritty of Duma life, the haggling over votes and office space with the legislature's apparatus.

Although there seems to be general agreement among politicians, analysts, and the media that Primakov must have some kind of offer of a new position, Gennadii Raikov, leader of the People's Deputy group, pointed out that a resignation usually follows rather than precedes news of a new position. The coming weeks will reveal whether Primakov's resignation was a prelude to a new phase of his public career or a final attempt to assert his political independence. (Julie A. Corwin)

Vyacheslav Viktorovich Volodin -- A New Duma Leader Emerges While some political analysts have dismissed Fatherland-All Russia's new faction leader as an insubstantial figure -- nothing more than a "puppet" of Fatherland leader and Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov -- Vyacheslav Volodin has already emerged on a previous occasion from the shadows of a close ally to become a political rival. And it is not unthinkable that Volodin, 37, will eventually become restless again and start to pursue his own agenda.

During the 1990s, Volodin rose from being a deputy on Saratov's city council to deputy governor and deputy head of the oblast's administration. When he was finally tapped by Luzhkov in April 1999 to come to Moscow to head Fatherland's executive political committee, his name was increasingly being bandied about in Saratov as a potential gubernatorial candidate. According to "Profil" on 22 March 1999, Volodin had become the second most influential and popular politician in Saratov after Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov.

According to a number of different sources, Ayatskov sought on at least two occasions to place Volodin in a federal ministry in Moscow. Ayatskov labeled these efforts an attempt to establish a pro-Saratov lobby in the federal center, but less charitable sources interpreted his desire to "transfer" Volodin to Moscow as an attempt to eliminate future competition.

Volodin was born in the small village of Alekseevka in Saratov Oblast. He attended the Saratov Institute for the Mechanization of Agriculture, where he became first an assistant, then a senior lecturer. His political career began in 1990, when was elected as a deputy of Saratov's city council. Two years later, he became deputy mayor of Saratov. At the same time, he studied for his law degree, defended his dissertation and again took up lecturing. In 1994, he won election to Saratov Oblast's legislative assembly, of which he would later become deputy chairman. From 1996 to 1999, he was deputy governor of Saratov Oblast with responsibility for economic and financial policy. Once Volodin started to upstage his boss, Ayatskov responded in February 1999 by stripping him of one of his titles, deputy head of the oblast administration, "EWI's Russian Regional Report" reported on 4 February 1999. Two months later, Volodin was off to work in Moscow. In December 1999, Volodin was elected to the State Duma from OVR'S party list, becoming the faction's deputy head under Primakov.

According to "Kommersant-Vlast" on 5 May 1999, Ayatskov on at least one occasion called Volodin "one of the best election strategists in Russia." And an unidentified local source also told the weekly that in Saratov it became "impossible to elect anyone without Volodin." As Fatherland prepares for the Duma elections in 2003, Volodin's expertise in that area will no doubt come in handy.

Volodin's willingness to engage in the process of merging Fatherland with Unity may also prove useful. According to "Parlamentskaya gazeta" on 5 September, Volodin took a "most active role" in the process of uniting the Fatherland and Unity parties. He served on the coordination council of the two groups and occupied himself with "smoothing" over the various models of the future union. And at the "unification" congress of Unity and Fatherland last July, Volodin chided Fatherland's faction leaders in regional legislatures for not giving enough support to the Land Code and Labor Code. Primakov, on the other hand, was linked with a group within OVR that sought to place significant conditions on any cooperation with Unity.

Still, the process of joining the two groups is likely to continue to experience some difficulties, as Volodin's desire to join fully with Unity may not be completely without reservations. Last April, Volodin criticized Saratov Governor Ayatskov's order issued to all oblast government officials to join the Unity party. And, although both Volodin and deputy Duma speaker and Unity deputy leader Lyubov Sliska hail from Saratov and both worked for Ayatskov, they cannot be considered allies. (Julie A. Corwin)


Although it attracted less attention than Russian Public Television (ORT)'s announcement last month that it would stop broadcasting the popular children's program of more than 30 years "Spokoinoi nochi, malyshi!" (Goodnight, Kids!), a presidential decree signed around the same time will have much broader implications for television broadcasting in Russia. President Vladimir Putin's decree established a new state-owned company, the Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting System. It will comprise nearly 90 radio and television transmission facilities, including the Ostankino television tower in Moscow, as well as relay communications lines that have been part of the Communications Ministry's jurisdiction.

The Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting System is the brainchild of Mikhail Lesin, head of the Ministry for the Press, Radio and Television Broadcasting, and Mass Communications. Its stated purpose is to lay the foundation for better management of Russia's radio and television transmission towers, which are in urgent need of investment. The towers were run by the Communications Ministry until a 1998 presidential decree (also pushed by Lesin) transferred them to a new state-owned holding company called the All-Russian State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK). In 1998, Lesin was the number-two man at state-owned Russian Television (RTR), which became the central entity in the VGTRK holding company.

Experts agree that Russia's dilapidated facilities for transmitting television and radio signals need better management. The devastating fire at the Ostankino tower in August 2000 was attributed to overloaded circuits. After the economic crisis of 1998, when many television and radio stations had trouble paying for signal distribution, those in charge of Ostankino compensated for lost revenue by signing deals with telecommunications companies, such as paging services, allegedly ignoring warnings about the fire risk.

It is also logical to separate management of signal-distribution facilities from the radio and television broadcasting companies in the VGTRK holding company. In fact, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development made separating management of the Ostankino tower from VGTRK a condition of a loan that helped financed the reconstruction of Ostankino, according to "Novye izvestiya" on 31 August.

However, Russian commentators have expressed concerns about Putin's decree on several grounds. Drafted by Media Ministry staff, the decree is a major bureaucratic victory for Lesin. The Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting System will report to the Media Ministry. Its general director, though appointed by the president, will report to Lesin. The new enterprise will receive federal-budget funds, as well as fees for signal-distribution from virtually all of the state-owned and private broadcasting companies in the Russian Federation. The Media Ministry estimates that the annual turnover of the Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting System will be $150 million to $180 million.

Officials say the money will be used to improve technology at the radio and television towers. But the new broadcasting system could become yet another cash cow controlled indirectly by Lesin. The Media Ministry has already been criticized for demanding large deposits from companies bidding for the use of broadcast frequencies and for allocating generous grants for "socially important projects" with little transparency or input from media professionals (see, for example, the 2 November 2000 issue of "Obshchaya gazeta"). Video-International, the advertising firm Lesin founded in the early 1990s, already has a near-monopoly on placing advertisements on Russia's main television networks. In 1998 and 2000, the Audit Chamber uncovered evidence of massive financial mismanagement at Russian Television while Lesin was a senior executive there.

Russia's new broadcasting system is not quite what Lesin originally envisioned, however. Last year, he advocated assembling the radio and television towers in a state-controlled company that would be partly privatized. Like ORT, the new company would be 51 percent state-owned, but private investors would provide the capital needed to upgrade the signal-distribution equipment. (The Media Ministry has estimated that such an upgrade could cost some $350 million to $400 million, "Vedomosti" reported on 14 August.) While some media said Lesin lobbied Putin unsuccessfully in favor of an ORT-style privatization, Lesin countered during a 13 August press conference that officials merely decided against such a plan in the short-term, because the transmission facilities in their current state could not attract a good price, "Izvestiya" reported on 14 August. He did not rule out privatization at some time in the future.

The creation of a separate state enterprise to control the radio and television towers fueled speculation that private broadcasting companies will suffer under the new arrangement. Seeking to allay such fears, Lesin assured journalists on 13 August that all companies would have equal access to the broadcasting system. Yet almost in the same breath he said the most important aspect of Putin's decree was a guarantee that beginning in 2002, the state will subsidize signal distribution for "all-Russian" television networks to population centers with less than 200,000 people. Fees for signal distribution are among the largest expenses for Russian broadcasters, and "Kommersant" on 14 August described servicing small cities and towns as "the main headache" of major Russian television networks in years past.

The Media Ministry estimates that the new subsidies for signal distribution will total $35 million to $40 million annually, saving ORT roughly 75 percent on transmission fees and RTR around 65 percent, "Vedomosti" reported. Like ORT and RTR, the private network NTV is also designated an "all-Russian" television network, but an unnamed high-ranking government bureaucrat told "Vedomosti" that NTV could soon lose that status. So even if the new broadcasting service charges all television and radio companies the same fees for signal distribution, state-controlled ORT and RTR will still enjoy a huge financial edge over their rivals in the private sector.

At the regional level, private broadcasting companies may run into logistical problems. Some regional television and radio towers, though part of state-owned VGTRK, have set up private companies to which they have loaned equipment, according to the "Moscow Times" on 14 August. Those companies have leased the equipment to private television and radio companies. Putin's decree states that all the property of transmission facilities in VGTRK must be transferred to the Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting System, including property that is now rented to private companies, "Izvestiya" and the "Moscow Times" reported. It is too early to know how this point will be implemented, but private companies forced to renegotiate their rental contracts for broadcasting equipment could conceivably be forced off the air if the Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting System demands a higher price than they can afford.

Finally, and most importantly, the move to centralize control over Russia's radio and television towers has sparked new fears about political control over private broadcasting. The Glasnost Defense Foundation's digest of 20 August ( described Putin's decree as creating yet another "power vertical" in Russia, enabling the state to "give orders" to private broadcasters. Writing in the "Moscow Times" on 28 August, Yevgeniya Albats compared the new broadcasting system to the Soviet-era Gosteleradio monopoly, saying that "by virtue of its control over the delivery of national television signals, [the Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting System] has the power to manage the perception of reality for the entire country. Putin wants to make sure that there is no way for an unsanctioned alternative party or presidential candidate to emerge."

Putin has already taken steps to make sure that state-owned regional broadcasters adhere to his political line. In September 2000, he signed a decree giving the presidential representatives in Russia's seven federal districts the authority to appoint the chief executives of state-owned regional television networks. Now that he will be able to hire and fire the top official overseeing all the transmission facilities in Russia, Putin will indirectly gain new leverage over private radio and television stations.

Pavel Korchagin, one of the creators of the private network TNT and currently the executive director of the private network TV-6, told "Kommersant" that he does not expect the creation of a new broadcasting enterprise to make a great deal of difference. As before, the transmission towers will be in the hands of the state, and private companies will not be treated the same as state broadcasters. By way of example, Korchagin asserted that TV-6 was recently unable to transmit material from Khankala in Chechnya, ostensibly because the network was late in paying transmission fees. ORT's large debts for transmission fees have never disrupted that network's broadcasts, Korchagin noted.

Korchagin has a point, but the Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting Service appears likely to strengthen the hand of Moscow officials seeking to cut off unsanctioned newscasts in any part of the country. During the 1999 parliamentary campaign, regional elites in some parts of the Russian Federation (including Primorskii Krai, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan) ordered transmission towers on their territory to switch off certain broadcasts from nationwide networks. During the next election cycle, it may be bureaucrats at the federal level who intervene to cut off transmissions of regional or local programs.

Laura Belin, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, has written extensively on the Russian media since 1995.

COMINGS & GOINGS IN: President Putin nominated Gennadii Sklyar as general director of the recently created Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting Network (RTRS), reproted on 3 September (see item above). Sklyar was most recently a deputy governor of Kaluga Oblast and is a frequent contributor to leftist publications, such as "Sovetskaya Rossiya" and "Pravda" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 September 2001).

UP: President Putin signed a decree on 6 September naming Aleksei Meshkov deputy foreign minister. Meshkov most recently headed the department at the Foreign Ministry for foreign-policy planning. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 7 September, it is not yet known on which issues Meshkov will focus. According to Interfax, in addition to Meshkov there are 12 other deputy foreign ministers.

RESHUFFLED: Tax Minister Gennadii Bukaev nominated a new director of the ministry's department for cadre policy, Vyacheslav Gunko, and a new director of the department for tax payments for alcohol and tobacco production, Valerii Gubanov, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 5 September. Gunko has worked as an assistant at the ministry since June, while Gubanov most recently worked as a deputy head of the tax ministry's directorate for Nizhnii Novgorod Oblast. Gunko replaces Aleksandr Veshnyakov, who is in the hospital, while Gubanov replaces Mikhail Odinets, who will continue to work in the ministry's structure as a deputy department head.

POLITICAL CALENDAR 12 September: Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad arrives in Moscow for official visit

13 September: French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine to visit Moscow

14 September: President Putin begins official visit to Armenia

15 September: Cabinet session to discuss possible reform of the wholesale electricity market

15-16 September: Anti-Capitalist Youth March organized by the National-Bolshevik party, the Union of Communist Youth, the Vanguard of Red Youth, the Russian Communist Working Party, the Movement in Support of the Army, and other leftwing organizations, is planned for Moscow

19 September: Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in Washington, D.C. to discuss strategic stability with U.S. counterparts

19 September: Official opening ceremony scheduled for State Duma's fall session

23 September: Gubernatorial elections in Rostov Oblast

25 September: Date by which the Kursk submarine will be lifted from the floor of the Barents Sea, according to Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov on 4 September

25 September: Deadline set by President Putin to finish all restoration work in Sakha (Yakutia) following severe flooding there in May of this year

25-27 September: President Vladimir Putin to visit Germany

25 September: Democratic Party of Russia to hold congress in Moscow

28 September: State Duma scheduled to consider the draft 2002 budget in its first reading, according to ITAR-TASS on 4 September

29 September: People's Deputy will hold founding congress in Moscow to transform group into a party

Second half of September: Union of Rightist Forces will open the group's West European headquarters in London

Second half of September: Security Council to hold meeting to discuss measures to combat drug trafficing and the spread of drug addiction

End of September: The cabinet of ministers will examine the question of reform of the country's banking system, according to Prime Minister Kasyanov on 16 July

End of September: International conference on "Indigenous Peoples, Oil, and the Law" to be held in Khanty-Mansiisk, according to the website

October: Agrarian Party to begin gathering signatures to support holding a nationwide referendum on the buying and selling of land, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 5 September

2 October: EU-Russia summit to take place in Brussels

7 October: State Duma by-elections will be held for the single-mandate districts in Amur and Arkhangelsk oblasts. Two seats were vacated when former State Duma deputy Leonid Korotkov was elected governor of Amur and deputy Aleksandr Piskunov was named an auditor at the Audit Chamber

13 October: Fatherland will hold a congress to reorganize the movement into a party

14 October: State Duma by-elections will be held in a single mandate district in the city of St. Petersburg for the seat vacated by Audit Chamber head Sergei Stepashin

20-21 October: President Putin will take part in the ninth informal summit meeting of the Asia Economic Cooperation forum in Shanghai, according to ITAR-TASS on 2 July

27 October: Unity party to hold its 3rd Congress in Moscow

28 October: Gubernatorial elections in Orel Oblast

November: Federation of Independent Trade Unions to hold congress in Moscow

end of November: Fatherland to hold an all-Russian congress of agrarians, according to TV-Tsentr on 3 August

30 November: CIS summit to be held in Moscow

1-12 December: International chess championship to be held in Moscow, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 15 August

16 December: Presidential elections in Chuvash Republic

28 December: Duma's fall session will come to a close, according to ITAR-TASS on 13 July

January: Presidential elections in North Ossetia