President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree on July 6 dissolving Russia’s State Press Committee and the Federal Service for Television and Radio Broadcasting, and replacing them with a Ministry for Press, Television, Radio Broadcasting and Mass Communications. Commenting on the measure, Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin said at a cabinet meeting held that day: “I would not say that we want to create a propaganda ministry. But we are starting to create a federal strategy which would consolidate all of the state’s capabilities in–pardon the old-fashioned word–ideological work” (Associated Press, July 6). Apparently fearing that Stepashin’s words might be misconstrued, Aleksandr Mikhailov, head of the government information department, later said the creating of the press ministry “does not mean the introduction of censorship in Russia” (Vremya MN, July 7).
The new ministry will compile a registration list of all Russian mass media organizations, regulate “the production and distribution of audio and video products, develop a state policy on advertising and organize national tenders for various licenses which will be required in order to carry out mass media and communications activities (Moscow Times, July 7). It will be headed by Mikhail Lesin, who until July 6 was first deputy chairman of the All-Russian State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK), which controls RTR television and Radio Russia, among others. While Lesin was officially number two in VGTRK, he was widely viewed as being the real power at RTR. In 1996, Lesin, then head of Video International, one of Russia’s main advertising agencies, reportedly played a key role in Yeltsin’s re-election campaign. He is seen as a key Kremlin insider and believed to be responsible for the RTR broadcast earlier this year of a video allegedly showing suspended Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov with two call girls.
Yeltsin recently tasked Stepashin with formulating the government’s policy and practice regarding the parliamentary elections, which are set for December of this year. There can be little doubt, therefore, that the creation of the new ministry is yet another in a series of Kremlin steps to make sure that it extends and tightens its control over the main levers of power and influence in the walk-up to the parliamentary vote and next year’s presidential contest. The Press Ministry might use various levers, including licensing, against media seen as disloyal–such as Vladimir Gusinsky’s NTV television and the Moscow city government’s TV-Center, which are seen as being in the camp of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.
Last week a group of pro-Kremlin blocs–Russia is Our Home, Right Cause, New Force and Voice of Russia–made an agreement in principle to merge into a right-wing coalition ahead of December’s parliamentary vote, a move which Stepashin greeted with approval. The Press Ministry could be seen as a way to ensure media support for such a coalition.
In creating the ministry, Yeltsin seems to have returned to past practice. In 1992, he made one of his long-time associates, Mikhail Poltoranin, deputy prime minister in charge of information. Poltoranin was said to have been behind an abortive 1994 attempt to merge all state television media into one company.
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