Russian Public Television (ORT), the 51-percent state-owned television company widely believed to be controlled by Boris Berezovsky, today regained the right to continue broadcasting on the state’s first channel. In announcing that its broadcast license would be extended for five more years, Russian Press Minister Mikhail Lesin said that the Federal Competitive Commission, which ran the competition and chose the winner, had understood “the social significance and scale of the channel ORT,” and had “no doubts” that ORT was the only real contender for the channel (Russian agencies, May 24). In March, the Press Ministry announced that licenses of ORT and TV-Tsenter, owned by the Moscow city government, would be put up for tender because the stations had violated election laws during last winter’s parliamentary election campaign. The only “challenge” to ORT in today’s competition came from a company called RTR-Signal, one of whose founders, according to Lesin, was the All-Russian State and Television Corporation (VGTRK), the state company which includes RTR television. Before becoming press minister, Lesin was first deputy chairman of VGTRK.
The renewal of ORT’s license was yet another sign of the continuing influence of the “Family”–the group of Yeltsin-era Kremlin insiders which reportedly includes Berezovsky, Kremlin chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin, Sibneft oil company director Roman Abramovich and Lesin himself, among others. Meanwhile, TV-Tsenter’s license is set to be auctioned on May 30, despite a Moscow arbitration court ruling earlier this month that auctioning the station’s license would be illegal (Russian agencies, May 23). Many observers predict that TV-Tsenter will lose the tender.
Meanwhile, another “Family” foe, Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media-Most group, took its case to Washington yesterday. Igor Malashenko, Media-Most’s first deputy, testified before the Congress’s Helsinki Commission on the issue of press freedom and the May 11 raid on the Media-Most’s headquarters (Segodnya, May 24).
For their part, the authorities, perhaps worried about the negative reaction to the raid in the West, have been engaging in spin control. On May 22, an anonymous Kremlin official told the Interfax news agency that neither President Vladimir Putin nor the heads of the presidential administration knew about the May 11 raid in advance. The source also said that the raid, which included armed commandos in ski masks, should have been carried out “more carefully.” The source, however, insisted that Media-Most’s security service had been engaged in illegal eavesdropping. The government, along with pro-Kremlin media, has been stressing this charge, along with the allegation that Filipp Bobkov, who once headed the Fifth Directorate of the Soviet KGB, which persecuted dissidents, heads Media-Most’s security service. Media-Most’s officials admit that Bobkov works for the holding, but deny that he heads its security service (NTV, May 16).
For some observers, the Media-Most raid raised doubts that Putin will crack down on all of Russia’s oligarchs equally. This may explain why two top officials from the Prosecutor General’s Office flew to Switzerland over the weekend. On May 21, prior to their departure, one of the officials, Deputy Prosecutor General Valery Kolmogorov, said that he would discuss with his Swiss counterparts the alleged embezzlement of funds from the state airline Aeroflot. The Swiss will reportedly hand over new material related to the case, and Nikolai Volkov, the chief investigator on the Russian side, told the Interfax news agency that this could lead to new charges against Boris Berezovsky, who reportedly owned two Swiss firms that are alleged to have served as conduits for embezzled Aeroflot funds. It was reported the same day that the Prosecutor General’s Office had resuscitated its investigation into Atoll, the private security service alleged to have eavesdropped—on Berezovsky’s orders-on top officials and VIP’s, including Tatiana Dyachenko, Boris Yeltsin’s daughter (Russian agencies, May 21).
This sudden burst of activity by the Prosecutor General’s Office seems, at least thus far, to be little more than public relations, and the renewal of ORT’s license suggests Berezovsky is not in any real trouble. On the other hand, the tax police yesterday raided offices of the AutoVAZ automaker, as part of an investigation into alleged fraud and tax evasion. At least one company closely connected to Berezovsky is a major shareholder in AutoVAZ (Russian agencies, May 23).
FUNDING AND FOOT-DRAGGING DELAY RUSSIAN CHEMICAL WEAPONS DESTRUCTION.