Acting President Vladimir Putin’s campaign headquarters complains: “A one-sided and tendentious approach … has become the norm for some of the mass media.”
Nothing newsworthy in a little whining by a public figure. But Putin can do more than whine. Using a military term associated with the doctrine of massive retaliation, Putin spoke of “an asymmetric response” to media “lies.”
The immediate target is Media Most, the group of print and broadcast outlets (Segodnya, Itogi, NTV) controlled by tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky and often allied with Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, Putin’s political rivals. Like most privately owned companies, NTV is financially weak. It owes taxes and interest and like all television stations must pay the state for air time. Putin and his friends can exploit these vulnerabilities.
One of NTV’s large stockholders and creditors is Gazprom, the natural-gas monopoly that is Russia’s largest corporation. The Russian state controls Gazprom through its 35 percent equity stake, its protection of Gazprom’s monopoly, its regulation of Gazprom’s prices and costs, and its willingness to accept Gazprom’s tax payments in kind, or to defer or forgo taxes entirely. Gazprom’s chairman two weeks ago publicly threatened to call in its loans to NTV because the station’s coverage of the war in Chechnya did not follow the Kremlin’s relentlessly “patriotic” line.
Since 1996, when NTV backed Boris Yeltsin for reelection as president of Russia, the station has benefited from a Yeltsin decree that allows NTV to pay the state for air time at the same low rate assessed on state-owned channels. A few days after the Gazprom threat, the Supreme Arbitration Court upheld a decision by the antitrust authorities that allows Acting President Putin to cancel the Yeltsin decree at any time. That would sharply raise NTV’s costs. State-owned television stations RTR and ORT (the latter widely believed to be controlled in fact by Boris Berezovsky) would gain a very significant competitive advantage.