Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 63

Meanwhile, in an article published in Nezavisimaya gazeta, political scientist Andranik Migranyan, formerly a presidential adviser and a frequent contributor to the paper, predicted–approvingly–that Putin would force the oligarchs out of the corridors of state and governmental power. What was particularly intriguing about Migranyan’s article was that he openly called on Putin immediately to consolidate state control over its “media resources,” including Russian Public Television (ORT), the country’s main television channel, which is 51-percent state-owned but generally thought to be controlled by Berezovsky. Migranyan said that if Putin is unable to take ORT under control now, in the immediate aftermath of his first-round election victory, the forces opposing such a move will make it much more difficult to do later. Migranyan predicted that both Berezovsky and his arch-rival, United Energy Systems chief Anatoly Chubais, would lose influence under Putin as a result of the president-elect’s drive to “deprivatize” the state.

What is striking about Migranyan’s piece is that Nezavisimaya gazeta is, like ORT, part of Berezovsky’s media empire. This would suggest either that the paper has rebelled against its owner, or that Berezovsky is playing some sort of clever game. Earlier this year, Russia’s Press Ministry announced that ORT and TV-Tsentr, the television channel owned by the Moscow city government, would not automatically have their licenses renewed, but would have to compete for them in an open tender set for May 24. The Press Ministry’s ostensible motive for this was that both channels had received warnings for political mudslinging during the State Duma election campaign late last year. One suggestion is that ORT, which has a license to broadcast on the state’s first television channel, could be switched over to the state’s second channel, which is currently used by RTR state television but whose signal reaches less than half of the country. Another is that ORT could be merged with the All Russian State Television and Radio Company, RTR’s parent company.

Both scenarios would deal a serious blow to Berezovsky’s influence. On the other hand, some observers have put forward still another scenario: that ORT, which relentlessly boosted Putin and attacked rival candidates during the presidential campaign, will “lose” the May 24 license tender to a new, unknown company which also happens to be controlled by Berezovsky-controlled shell companies. Indeed, the fact that one of Berezovsky’s own newspapers today published what was in essence an attack on his control of ORT suggests that he might pull a fake disappearing act from the world of Russian television. By maintaining a lower profile, Berezovsky would be able to take the heat off himself and allow Putin to claim a major victory in the war against the oligarchs.

On the other hand, Berezovsky has shown no signs lately that he plans to lower his profile. He has been very active in granting interviews, including to ABC News’s “Nightline” program and the BBC. In another interview last week, just prior to the presidential election, Berezovsky said that Putin’s promise to distance the oligarchs from political power was “normal” and “absolutely right,” but that it would “never happen.” Berezovsky said that Putin’s words were right–“for the voters.” Indeed, the tone of Berezovsky’s comments toward Putin was paternalistic, almost condescending (Vedomosti, March 24). Thus it may be that companies under Berezovsky’s control have already been promised a victory in the putatively competitive May 24 license tender, and that the tycoon will be even more open about his leading role at the state television channel once the tender is over. Last year, after playing coy about reports that he had taken over the newspaper Kommersant, Berezovsky openly admitted that he was behind the obscure American investment company which bought a controlling stake in the paper (see the Monitor, July 2, 8, 1999).