Russia’s ORT television, the successor to the first TV station in the Soviet Union, was officially closed in Azerbaijan as of July 11. The decision came as a result of failed negotiations between the governments of Russia and Azerbaijan to continue broadcasting the channel in exchange for broadcasting the Azerbaijani State television channel inside the territory of Russia. Nurshiravan Maharramli, chairman of the Azerbaijan National Television and Radio Council (NTRC), the body that regulates licensing for television and radio, warned that a similar fate is awaiting another Russian channel, RTR-Planeta, if it rejects a similar offer (Kaspiy, July 10). Negotiations with RTR-Planeta will continue for another month (Trend, July 9).
Russian TV channels are not the only losers. The campaign to eliminate foreign television channels in the territory of Azerbaijan was launched in January of this year and immediately Turkish “D” went dark. This latest NTRC decision will close the Turkish Samanyolu TV station and put its frequency up for sale.
While many observers regret the closure of the Turkish channels, the end of ORT’s broadcasting has drawn most of the criticism and discussion. Government officials in the country explain the decision to take ORT off the air by its long-standing debt to Azerbaijan, its broadcast of anti-Azerbaijani propaganda, and the refusal of the Russian side to settle the dispute by exchanging broadcast rights for an Azerbaijani TV station in the territory of Russia.
However, many ordinary citizens, accustomed to years of ORT broadcasts in the country, regret the decision. “It has many interesting programs. Those who still want to watch it will have to now switch to cable TV or sputnik antennas. It is expensive,” commented Vafa Talibova, 27-year-old teacher in Baku. The head of the journalism faculty at Baku State University, Hamid Valiyev, added that ORT was a professional channel and many of its programs were used as teaching tools during classes for future Azerbaijani reporters (Uch Nogte Qazeti, July 12).
NTRC board member Gafar Jabiyev claims that there are already 500,000 cable TV users in the country (BBC Azeri.com, July 11). In fact, some conspiracy theorists believe that the cable TV lobby is actually behind the government’s decision to close down the foreign channels.
Fuad Mustafayev, deputy chairman of the opposition Popular Front party, believes that RT channel was closed because it sometimes broadcast anti-Azerbaijani propaganda (Zerkalo, July 12). Popular singer Flora Karimova agreed and added, “I welcome this step. I believe that from the Azerbaijani side this is rather a calculated step, and I see that the Azerbaijani government is willing to fight the propaganda directed against the country. Most importantly, we have learned to demand, to prohibit, to pay back. I have always seen it in our opposition, and now I am starting to see it in our government as well” (Zerkalo, July 12). Nevertheless, it is not clear how the closure of the TV channel will stop further anti-Azerbaijani news reports in ORT channel.
Popular Azerbaijan filmmaker Timur Vainstein, currently living in Moscow, proposed to solve the issue and fill the vacuum left by ORT by creating a Russian-language Azerbaijan TV channel. “This is the only smart way out of the situation,” he told the Day.az news website on July 14.
Whatever the reasons behind taking ORT off the air, one thing is clear: it is a major blow to Russian interests in Azerbaijan and the Caucasus. In recent years, Moscow has moved to expand its presence in the post-Soviet republics, and one of the ways to achieve it is using non-traditional, non-military tools to influence the public. Possible venues include the media, NGOs, and educational networks. During his May visit to Baku, Russian Minister of Education Andrei Fursenko proposed opening a branch of Moscow State University in Azerbaijan. Many saw it as part of a larger Russian strategy to expand influence in the country. Yet, the closure of ORT is a step backward.
The decision on the part of the Azerbaijan government to curtail Russian television stations is also a sign of Baku’s growing power and self-confidence. Rising oil revenues are making President Ilham Aliyev a confident political leader who is unwilling to bow to external pressure as the leaders of the country had to do in the 1990s.
ORT’s director for international broadcasting, Alexei Yefimov, expressed his regret about the NTRC decision. “Because of the will of the bureaucrats, the interests of the millions of people were sacrificed” (News.ru, July 12).