Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 42

Russia’s embattled independent media won a rare battle yesterday, when the Press Ministry awarded a new media company led by Aleksei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Radio Ekho Moskvy, broadcasting licenses for two FM radio frequencies and a UHF television frequency in Moscow. The decision came just a day after Venediktov announced that he would step down as Ekho Moskvy’s chief editor as of May 31 and take fifty-seven of its ninety-eight journalists with him. Venediktov’s decision was in reaction to a decision earlier this month by Gazprom, the state-controlled natural gas monopoly that last summer gained a controlling share in Ekho Moskvy, to appoint five of the station’s nine directors. In making his announcement to leave the station, which was formerly controlled by Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media-Most group, Venediktov said he would rather keep his reputation than work for a radio station “that belongs to the state” (Russian agencies, February 26-27; Washington Post, February 27).

His new media company, called Media Novosti, plans to launch a new general format FM radio station, to be called Arsenal, later this year. The new station will include one large investor–Nikolai Grakhov, a businessman from the Urals region, who will hold a larger-than-30-percent stake in it. The rest of the station’s shares, according to Venediktov, will be distributed among its journalists.

The Press Ministry’s decision yesterday may help dampen down some of the negative reactions to Venediktov’s announcement that he would leave Ekho Moskvy because it was no longer independent of the state. The radio station was seen by press freedom advocates and other observers as perhaps the last major independent broadcast media outlet in Russia following the closure of TV-6 last month and Gazprom’s takeover of NTV from Media-Most last year. Even Venediktov himself was rather complimentary about the Press Ministry’s actions, saying that its competitive commission, eight of whose nine members voted yesterday chose Media Novosti’s business plan over those presented by eighteen competitors, had recognized “our professionalism against the backdrop of an unfavorable political situation” and had shown by the questions they asked that they were well qualified to render such a decision.

Other observers, however, remain more cynical about the motives of the Press Ministry, whose head, Mikhail Lesin, played a direct role in Gazprom’s eventually successful bid to take over NTV television. Next month the ministry will hold an auction for TV-6’s broadcast license, and many observers believe that it will be awarded to someone closely connected to the Kremlin, not to the team of journalists headed by Yevgeny Kiselev, the old TV-6’s general director. “[E]ven now, after Venediktov’s victory, it is hard to shake off the feeling that his success is only a tactical move by the authorities to prove that everything is alright with press freedom here,” the Gazeta.ru website commented. “Now they will have something to show the critics if Yevgeny Kiselev’s team loses the battle for [TV-6’s signal]” (Gazeta.ru, February 27). Were a Kremlin-friendly company to take over TV-6’s broadcast license, all of Russia’s major national television channels would be in the hands of supporters of President Vladimir Putin.

On the other hand, the Kremlin may be working on a way to let Kiselev and his team remain at TV-6–and thereby avoid another outcry in the West about infringing press freedom–while removing the channel’s current owner, Boris Berezovsky, from the equation entirely. Oleg Kiselev, a Russian metals magnate, revealed earlier this month that he was part of a consortium of businessmen who were negotiating with Yevgeny Kiselev’s ousted TV-6 team to bid for the channel’s license. As described by Oleg Kiselev, the consortium is a veritable who’s who of Russia’s oligarchs: It includes Chukotka Governor Roman Abramovich, former MDM Bank chairman Alexander Mamut, Russian Aluminum director Oleg Deripaska and Vladimir Yevtushenkov, the head of AFK Sistema, the financial-industrial group connected to Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov (Kommersant, February 20). Anatoly Chubais, the head of United Energy Systems (UES), Russia’s electricity grid, revealed that he was also participating. According to one report, the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS), whose leadership includes Chubais, is “said to be behind the consortium negotiations,” with the Kremlin’s blessing. The consortium will be able to provide the Kremlin with a compromise solution to the TV-6 problem–to allow Yevgeny Kiselev’s team to win back TV-6’s license, as long as the new channel’s shareholders are Kremlin-approved tycoons and do not include either Berezovsky or Gusinsky (Moscow Times, February 20-21).