The political event of the fortnight took place at the stroke of midnight on January 22, when TV-6, Russia’s last major national television channel, was taken off the air on the orders of Press Minister Mikhail Lesin. The Russian authorities, of course, would dispute that the Press Ministry’s orders to pull TV-6’s plug was political. Indeed, on one level, albeit a superficial one, it all looked quite legal: Lesin simply carried out the orders of bailiffs acting on behalf of the Higher Arbitration Court, which had ruled on January 11 that TV-6’s parent company be liquidated.
But while government and Kremlin spokesmen insisted that the channel’s shutdown was simply the outcome of a private business dispute that had been impartially adjudicated, the fact that the suit to liquidate TV-6 had been brought by Lukoil, Russia’s largest and perhaps most politically connected oil company, and that the arbitration court had based its verdict against TV-6 on a legal provision no longer in effect, made such assertions less than compelling. More important, it seemed more than coincidental that of Russia’s four major national television channels, including two state-controlled channels renowned for their financial opacity and lack of accountability, it was only the two non-state channels–first NTV and now TV-6–that had been called to account for alleged financial malfeasance and insolvency. And while it was true that the owners of NTV and TV-6–Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, respectively–were not exactly the moral equivalents of Thomas Paine, it was nonetheless difficult to shake the feeling that the state’s ongoing campaign to remove all traces of these controversial Yeltsin-era oligarchs from the corridors of power was less about protecting the public interest than reasserting the state’s former information monopoly.
So when the Press Ministry announced that a tender would be held on March 27 for TV-6’s license, it was hard to imagine that the winner would be any grouping other than one friendly to or allied with President Vladimir Putin, or one non-political and thus nonthreatening to the status quo. As the fortnight came to a close, the latter scenario seemed the more probable one. Putin ordered the government to examine the feasibility of a national sports channel, while the head of Russia’s Olympic Committee, an obscure but Kremlin-friendly sports-oriented TV company and the Russian Orthodox Church all indicated they were thinking about bidding for TV-6’s license.