Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 14

Mikhail Lesin, first deputy chairman of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK), has denied that Yuri Kobaladze, head of the public relations and mass media department of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), is about to be named a deputy head of the state media company. VGTRK runs the RTR and Kultura television channels and Radio Russia. In an interview published today, Lesin said he knew nothing of Kobaladze’s alleged impending nomination, but admitted that “a massive campaign for publicizing this nomination” had been mounted in the Russian media (Kommersant daily, January 21). On January 19, “Nezavisimaya gazeta” reported Kobaladze’s nomination as if it were a fait accompli. Kobaladze, who will retire from the SVR tomorrow, spent much of his career in Russia’s spy agency working under the cover of a reporter for Soviet Gosteleradio.

Naming Kobaladze to a high post in VGTRK would be significant in view of his close connections with Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who formerly headed the SVR. Late last year, Primakov’s government named two former SVR officers, Lev Koshlyakov and Igor Amvrosov, to high positions within VGTRK. Koshlyakov heads VGTRK’s news service, Vesti, and Amvrosov runs Radio Russia. Adding Kobaladze, should it come to pass, could turn VGTRK into a media platform for a potential presidential run by Primakov, who is increasingly thought to harbor presidential ambitions, despite his protestations to the contrary.

VGTRK and Mikhail Lesin have both been been closely associated with “reformers” such as Anatoly Chubais. Lesin is the founder of Video International, one of Russia’s largest advertising firms, and played a key role in President Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 election campaign. Another top figure at VGTRK, Nikolai Svanidze, who hosts RTR television’s weekly news analysis program, “Zerkalo,” has frequently used his show to defend Chubais and other “reformers”–including former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko–from various enemies. Such enemies include Aleksandr Korzhakov, former head of the powerful Presidential Security Service, and tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who is currently CIS executive secretary. Last year, during internecine battles over privatization, RTR defended Chubais and his allies from corruption charges aired on Russia’s other two main television channels–Russian Public Television (ORT) and NTV. ORT is generally assumed to be controlled by Berezovsky. NTV is the domain of Vladimir Gusinsky, the founder of Most-Bank, who now runs Most-Media.

All three channels will play a major role in the parliamentary elections set for this year, and the presidential contest slated for 2000. Should Kobaladze receive a top post at VGTRK, it will be interesting to see whether Lesin and Svanidze stay on at the company.