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The Duel We'd Like To See

"I wonder what's on the other channel...."
"I wonder what's on the other channel...."

Earlier this week “The Moscow Times” had an article whose opening sentence really caught my eye: “An ongoing tussle over the Khimki forest is raising fears that media freedoms are in jeopardy, with the police pressuring journalists into collaborating or revealing their sources of information, media freedom activists said Monday.”

With the drought, the fires, the radiation, and the threat to Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov’s bees, I pretty much thought the news couldn’t get any worse for Russia. But it turns out that it can – now Russian “media freedoms are in jeopardy”!

But don’t despair. There seems to be some good news on the Russian media-freedoms front.

First, congratulations are in order to RT (formerly, Russia Today), which has received an Emmy nomination in the international news category for its coverage of U.S. President Barack Obama’s July 2009 trip to Moscow. RT is a state-funded English-language satellite channel.

Second, longtime broadcast journalist Vladimir Solovyov has announced that he is returning to the airwaves with a prime-time live “socio-political” program on the national Rossia channel. Until April 2009, Solovyov was the host of “To The Barrier!” on NTV. On that program, two guests debated one another while viewers voted by SMS to determine who “won” the debate. The program, while rarely controversial, was fairly popular, but it was cancelled, Solovyov says, “for corporate reasons.”

Solovyov, however, has a pretty solid reputation as a Putin loyalist, though he’s an intellectual of the “reform-the-system-from-within” school. Accused on Twitter today of being in the Kremlin’s pocket, he responded: “I support people’s ideas, not their job titles. Remember, I was sued by a member of the presidential administration. The Kremlin has many towers.”

The new program, “Duel,” will basically steal the “To The Barrier!” format. Speaking to “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Solovyov promised “a collision of emotions, opinions, moods” that will “be very close to politics.” “This will be a pointed socio-political program,” he said. People in the audience will be able to ask questions.

“Duel” is set to go on the air this month, and early topics will be the fires and the draft law on the police. “We will show what people are concerned about today,” he told "Nezavisimaya." “Nothing canned, not an attempt to present evergreen products. For instance, we aren’t going to ask should Vladimir Lenin be removed from the mausoleum. We aren’t going to settle the eternal question of whether Stalin was a bloody murderer. We aren’t going to boldly and ardently argue about collectivization.”

The program could, theoretically, form yet another litmus test of the liberalization of the political climate under President Dmitry Medvedev. It will be worth noting whether “Duel” is able to move beyond the “black list” of subjects and personalities that have been airbrushed from Russian state media.

If Solovyov is looking for programming suggestions, here’s one that came over the wires today. Former Deputy Prime Minister and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov made the daring assertion that if he were allowed to debate Vladimir Putin for one hour on live national television, “it would be the end of Comrade Putin.”

That’s a pretty bold claim. But in any event, it would be a ratings sensation. People still remember how Nemtsov “debated” nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky on live television in 1995 and the orange juice flew (watching that video now, it is strange to realize that the maniacal Zhirinovsky is a longtime deputy speaker of the Duma, while Nemtsov is someone whose views are apparently too dangerous for mass audiences in Russia).

So, keep an eye on “Duel.” Let’s see if it really tests any significant limits.

-- Robert Coalson

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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