One of March’s more significant events was the decision of the press ministry’s competition commission to return the rights to the sixth TV channel to the team headed by Yevgeny Kiselev. Officially, a competitive tender resulted in a victory for Media-Sotsium, which is made up of three groups: (1) oligarchs close to the Kremlin, led by Anatoly Chubais, who are guaranteeing the funding of the project; (2) the political heavyweights, ex-premier Yevgeny Primakov and chairman of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Arkady Volsky; and (3) Yevgeny Kiselev’s team of journalists, comprising staff from Vladimir Gusinsky’s NTV. It was probably necessary to create this complex amalgam, a sort of political sandwich, in order to reconcile the interests of the Family with those of Putin. Clearly, in Russia today, the fate of a mainstream TV channel could not be resolved without Putin’s intervention, either direct or indirect, in the competition. He was undoubtedly the central, decisive member of the jury. Russia has always had a monocentric system, even under Yeltsin. There can be no doubt either that the bankruptcy proceedings against Boris Berezovsky’s TV-6 were also conducted at Putin’s instigation.
All this gives substance to the claim that the competition commission’s decision on the fate of the sixth TV channel was primarily political. More than this, the decision was a model of its kind, as a reflection of Putin’s current psychology, objectives, tactics and strategy. It shows who Putin’s current allies are and who he’s prepared to upset.
BEHIND THE DECISION
Let us look, first of all, at the psychology behind the decision. It is yet another manifestation of Putin’s recent Hamlet syndrome. With few exceptions, he is currently incapable of saying a definite “yes” or “no” on any single question concerning his personnel. Stories of Putin’s iron will and his determined pursuit of his objectives were clearly exaggerated. In recent months Putin seems effectively to have given up his earlier policy of decisive, headlong action in favor of preserving the status quo and trying to surround himself with people with whom he is likely to agree. Here are just a few eloquent examples. Putin disbands the Clemency Commission headed by the well-known liberal and rights activist Anatoly Pristavkin. But, at the same time, he appoints this same Pristavkin as one of his advisers. He sacks the chief of staff of the Northern Fleet, Vice Admiral Mikhail Motsak, following the findings of the enquiry into the causes of the loss of the Kursk. Then he unexpectedly appoints him to a senior government post as first deputy to the presidential envoy in the North-Western Federal District.
It’s exactly the same with the Kiselev team. First, for some far-fetched legal reason they are forced off the airwaves. But then the same team, with a bit of padding, is hailed as a creative, gifted collective, and declared the victor in the race to win the same channel back again.
Putin, both as an old KGB hand and as a generally guarded man, will not have forgotten the past, or how Kiselev and his team gave him such a pasting on Gusinsky’s NTV during the presidential election campaign in early 2000. And to be honest, no one could have forgiven the Gusinsky team–Kiselev, Igor Malashenko and Andrei Cherkizov–for their off-handed arrogance and the personal insults with which they peppered their reports on Putin as a presidential candidate. I don’t think that Yevgeny Kiselev will ever be a friend of Putin. The Itogi presenter dropped clear hints, in early 2000, of a connection between the Moscow apartment house bombings and the beginning of the presidential campaign.
But it is now clear that Putin, whatever his feelings and antipathies, is simply not in a position to clear the TV screen of all his detractors–Yevgeny Kiselev and all those who remained loyal to him. And this is because Kiselev and his team have the backing of the liberal community of the West and, more particularly, the United States. For the West, forcing the old NTV and then Berezovsky’s TV-6 off the air still looks like an infringement of freedom of speech. Putin has to bear this in mind. The impression now is that he will refrain from making any serious move that might cause trouble with the USA or give them grounds to accuse him of violating freedom of speech or the democratic rights of the people. Putin declined to comment even when Radio Freedom began broadcasting in the Chechen language, which is surely a direct interference in Russia’s internal affairs.
At least until George W. Bush visits Russia in May, Putin is unlikely to do anything that might damage his standing as a Westernizer or interfere with his ambition to establish a special, amicable relationship with the G-7 leaders.
At the same time, Putin needs to bear in mind that Kiselev and his team have the backing of the oligarchs led by Anatoly Chubais. The idea of creating a consortium of big business leaders to provide financial backing for the Kiselev team was quite a surprise for Putin. He was troubled by the consortium’s inclusion of key oligarchs from the Family, including Abramovich, Deripaska, Mamut and even an associate of the Petersburgers, Fridman. At first, Putin and his inner circle even tried to apply pressure to the signatories; Putin saw the creation of this consortium of the wealthiest people in Russia as a mutiny and a hostile act. Hence his first attempts to take the wayward oligarchs in hand.
But no one except Potanin would renege on the deal. And, after weighing up all the pros and cons, Putin decided to make his peace with the “mutineers.” For the political elite, and especially for the big businessmen involved, this was proof that Putin could be opposed and that, at least at present, he is not in a position to do anything to alter the balance of political forces in the country. Putin seems to have reached the same conclusion himself. The Kiselev saga probably showed him that he currently has no administrative, political or financial resources with which to stand up to the Family, especially when it is acting in concert with the liberal elite and big business. The old Kremlin elite, combined with the Liberal party led by Anatoly Chubais, is now simply beyond Putin’s grasp. So is there anyone Putin can rely on other than those who have helped out Kiselev?
THE FAMILY OLIGARCHS
It seems at least that Putin has recently restored good relations with the leading oligarchs of the Family. In Krasnoyarsk, he gave his support to the aluminum king, Oleg Deripaska, who, through his father-in-law, Valentin Yumashev, recently became a relative of Yeltsin. Deripaska, by some accounts, has taken over the key position in the business bloc of Yeltsin’s ‘family’, which was earlier held by Roman Abramovich. In a significant concession to the oligarchs and the Yeltsin elite as a whole, Putin decided to sack the chairman of the Central Bank, Viktor Gerashchenko, and replace him with a Chubais man, the former first deputy finance minister, Sergei Ignatiev.
But Putin has not put himself completely in the hands of the Family. In the battle for the sixth channel, he managed to solve his tactical problems without any loss of face. Boris Berezovsky has finally lost control of the Kiselev team and the sixth channel. Putin has managed to break the haughty Kiselev, who now publicly maintains that he is no longer in touch with either Vladimir Gusinsky or Berezovsky. And it is quite possible that this former GRU officer might now serve Vladimir Putin just as zealously as he once served Gusinsky and Berezovsky. But will Putin want to have dealings with Kiselev, now that he’s finally on his own? It’s common knowledge that when our intelligence services, like the Americans, have broken their enemy, they want him out of their sight and will eventually throw him on the scrap heap.
Furthermore, Putin has managed to take out an insurance policy in the formation of the Media-Sotsium organization. Everything possible has been done to prevent Kiselev’s team from using the sixth channel to launch a direct attack on the president. This is why the old apparatchiks and representatives of the communist nomenklatura–the head of the Russian Chamber of Commerce, Yevgeny Primakov, and the head of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Arkady Volsky–were included amongst the founders of Media-Sotsium. These ‘heavyweights’, however upstanding, and however liberal their thinking, will still not oppose the will of the president in a crisis. And should Putin need to find legal grounds for the destruction of Media-Sotsium, he can rely on Primakov and Volsky to revoke their signatures so as to invalidate Kiselev’s victory in the tender.
But Putin’s motives in deciding to award the sixth channel to the Kiselev team were more to do with politics than tactics. And politics on the grand scale–a whole strategy, in fact.
First, and most important, Putin has always chosen to rely first and foremost on the liberal elite in the construction of his policies. This is probably because it is to the liberal elite in Russia that the overwhelming majority of the expert community, the overwhelming majority of the big businessmen and the overwhelming majority of the Russian press all belong. Russia, unlike the rest of Western Europe, such as England, France and Germany, has no real right-wing conservatives or real right-wing traditionalists. The conditions in which right-wing conservatism might have flourished were wiped out by our Bolshevik revolution. It will be very hard for Putin to win the 2004 presidential elections if he dares to fall out with the liberal elite.
So, what Putin was actually doing in this instance was gritting his teeth and opting not so much for the Kiselev team as for the liberal elite. He had until then been maneuvering back and forth, pursuing a liberal economic policy based on the support of the traditionalist masses, who dreamed of a firm hand and a great Russia and dreamed, too, of giving the oligarchs their comeuppance. It would be fair to say that Putin’s liberal policies now hinge instead on a corresponding liberal force–not the masses, of course, but the intelligentsia. All that we’ve seen in recent days shows how precious the opinion of that “minority” in Russia is to Putin at the moment. This minority is no more than 10 percent of the population, who continue to subscribe to the ideas and attitudes of the old NTV, who enthusiastically supported the Za Steklom series and who wanted Kiselev’s team to win the contest.
Ultimately, this tactic, though risky, is justifiable. Yeltsin held on to power for so many years after October 1993 with the backing of no one but the liberal elite in the later years. Kiselev’s victory, approved by the Kremlin and the Family, also marks the defeat of all those who don’t share his convictions and views and who were openly pleased at both the overthrow of the old NTV and the expropriation of Berezovsky’s TV-6. As always in Russia, another victory for the Westernizers amounts to another defeat for our pchvenniki (men of the soil), our Russophiles. In this instance, it meant defeat for the Petersburg siloviki (the ex-KGB and military cadres) and for the communists. See how the Duma committees, cleansed of communists, have been falling into the hands of the liberals of the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko.
The whole story of the TV contest has shown that the Petersburg siloviki simply have no standing on information and ideological issues. Despite all their ambitions and influence, they didn’t even put up a fight for the sixth channel. They were unable to gather a professional team around the banner of their so-called statist ideology. In Russia now, as it was ten or fifteen years ago, it is much easier to staff a ‘pro-western’ project than a “great Russian power” (derzhavny) project. Sergei Pugachev, the Orthodox banker behind the new Petersburgers has likewise failed in his plan to establish a statist PR machine. The persistent rumors on this matter remain unconfirmed.
And though great power ambitions and patriotism are proclaimed by Putin as a type of state ideology, there is no corresponding propaganda and material base to underpin it. On TV, all our patriots look like amateurs, taking the responsibility upon themselves.
Finally, in giving his support to the Kiselev team, Putin showed that he couldn’t care less what the leaders of the Communist Party or the 30 percent of the population who vote for them in the elections, think of him. It is already apparent that by opting instead for the 10 percent of the population who sympathize with Kiselev’s ideas and creative style, Putin has placed himself in direct opposition to the overwhelming majority, who regard liberal television as “enemy propaganda.”
So, the Kiselev team’s victory in the contest for the sixth channel is symbolic of Putin’s definitive return to the domestic and, to an even greater extent, foreign policy agenda of Boris Yeltsin. Like Yeltsin, Putin has embarked on open confrontation with the Communist Party and the Left. Like Yeltsin, Putin is pursuing a liberal economic policy. It might legitimately be said that Putin is handling the liberalization of the Russian economy even more decisively and rigorously than Yeltsin. And most importantly, as for Yeltsin, Putin’s main ally in the re-election process turns out to be the liberal elite.
Yet it must be understood that, in choosing to rely on the minority, Putin is taking the old Yeltsin path of confrontation with the “majority.” This means that the problem of national harmony and civilian consensus in Russia is being shelved indefinitely. But, in my view, Putin had no alternative in the current circumstances. And, for the time being, there are no serious threats to Putin’s liberal agenda.
Aleksandr Tsipko is a senior associate at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for International Economic and Political Research and a columnist for Literaturnaya Gazeta.