The saga of TV-6, Russia’s last remaining large national television channel, took another turn yesterday, when fifty of its staff members voted to set up a new broadcasting corporation and unanimously elected Yevgeny Kiselev, currently TV-6’s general director, head of the new entity. These moves, in essence, mark a victory by the Kremlin over Boris Berezovsky, the opposition tycoon who holds a 75-percent stake in the Moscow Independent Broadcasting Corporation (MNVK), TV-6’s parent company.
On Monday (January 14) Pavel Korchagin, the executive director of MNVK, which holds the channel’s license, sent a letter to Mikhail Lesin, Russia’s Press Minister, waiving the company’s right to hold the license, citing last week’s ruling by the Higher Arbitration Court upholding an earlier court decision that the channel must be liquidated. In his letter, Korchagin asked that TV-6 be allowed to broadcast until April, when a tender will be held for TV-6’s broadcast license. The new TV-6 corporation will bid for the license (Kommersant, January 15; Moscow Times, January 16).
Late last week, Berezovsky claimed that Lesin and Aleksandr Voloshin, President Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff, were pressuring TV-6’s staff. Specifically, Berezovsky said he had learned from Kiselev that, following the Higher Arbitration Court’s ruling last week against TV-6, there was a telephone conversation between Lesin and Korchagin, in which the press minister said he would ensure that TV-6’s journalists got control of the channel as long as neither Berezovsky nor Media-Most founder Vladimir Gusinsky were among its shareholders. According to Berezovsky, Voloshin subsequently called Korchagin to say he supported Lesin’s deal. Berezovsky said that state officials like Lesin and Voloshin are legally barred from distributing television broadcast licenses and called their intercession “secret blackmail.” He also said that if TV-6 agreed to this deal, the channel, which he claimed is not financially independent, would become economically dependent on a pro-government creditor chosen by the state (Kommersant, January 12).
Berezovsky’s version has essentially been confirmed by Korchagin. Korchagin said in an interview published yesterday: “If Berezovsky winds up among the shareholders of the new company, then the new company will get a warning one day later from another arbitration [court], or a different kind of court, about its liquidation.” Asked whether the formation of the new broadcastingcorporation had been discussed beforehand with Lesin, Korchagin said: “Essentially, yes” (Kommersant, January 15). Meanwhile, the Moscow Times, which interviewed Berezovsky, described him as being “stunned by and categorically opposed to the station’s renunciation of its license.” Berezovsky told the paper that the decision was “outside the jurisdiction of management” and “illegal” (Moscow Times, January 16).
President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, weighed in on the matter. Speaking in Paris at a press conference after his meeting with French President Jacques Chirac, Putin said that the Russian state would not get involved. He said that he knew “many” of TV-6’s journalists personally, that many of them were “talented people” and that he would do everything in his power to support them. He also noted that the channel had operated at a loss for several years, which had aroused understandable bewilderment on the part of one of the station’s shareholders, which had received no return on its investment. Putin here was apparently referring to Lukoil, the giant partially state-owned oil company whose pension fund holds a 15-percent stake in TV-6 and originally went to court seeking the channel’s liquidation (RBK, January 15).
In an interview yesterday with Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper and TVR television channel prior to his official visit to Warsaw, Putin reiterated his view. The conflict surrounding TV-6, he said, like the earlier battle over Gusinsky’s NTV, was a “dispute between absolutely independent economic structures, which the state has practically nothing to do with.” “I don’t quite understand what people want from us,” he added. “Do they want us… to pick up the phone and interfere in the affairs of the court? If so, then where is democracy?” Putin also attacked oligarchs–who, he said, had “partly monopolized” state power: “These people have nothing in common with democracy, and, in [taking over]the media, are not protecting freedom of speech but their personal commercial interests.” Putin added that the way to create a basis for “real freedom of the press” was to create “an economic basis for its own development.” “We will, of course,” he then continued, “be working on that, strengthening simultaneously the judicial, administrative system, creating… the conditions for journalist to fulfill their professional obligation without being dependent on anyone” (Kommersant, Moscow Times, January 16).
Putin, of course, did not explain why Lesin, the press minister, and Voloshin, his chief of staff, had inserted themselves into the TV-6 dispute, which as he put it, involves “absolutely independent economic structures, which the state has practically nothing to do with.” During the battle between Gusinsky’s Media-Most and Gazprom during 2000-2001, the Russian president also insisted that the state was not involved, despite the fact that the latter is 38-percent state owned and that Lesin, then as now, did get involved, co-signinga document in which Gusinsky agreed to sell his media group in return for the state dropping criminal charges–an agreement Gusinsky later renounced. In the TV-6 dispute, few observers doubt that Lukoil, which originally sued to have the channel liquidated, was motivated at least in part by a desire to be helpful to the Kremlin.
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