MOSCOW - President Vladimir Putin appears determined to rid
Russian television of the influence of powerful exiled tycoons
- even at the risk of damaging his diplomatic credentials with
But surer clues as to how far he intends to go down the road
of media control will come only when the fate is finally settled
of the abruptly silenced TV6 channel, analysts said.
With Putin gunning for TV6 owner Boris Berezovsky, one-time
political king-maker and now opponent-in-exile, Russia pulled
the plug on his station on Tuesday, giving the Kremlin a monopoly
on television for the first time since the Soviet era.
TV6, which had improved its ratings recently, was cut off in
mid-sentence at midnight on Monday after a court ruling that upheld
a shareholder's complaint that the station was bankrupt.
The move raised a strong odour of Soviet-style media control,
provoked criticism in the West and sounded alarm bells in liberal
Russian political circles.
The United States questioned the legality of the TV6 shutdown
and said Putin could have stopped it if he had wanted.
"For some time now, there's been a very strong appearance
of political pressure in the judicial process against Russia's
independent media, including in this case," State Department
spokesman Richard Boucher said.
"This is a huge leap backwards to the absolute supremacy
of a single 'correct' point of view," said Grigory Yavlinsky,
leader of Russia's liberal opposition.
The shutdown followed last year's takeover of independent broadcaster
NTV from magnate Vladimir Gusinsky - also now in exile - by the
Kremlin-controlled natural gas monopoly Gazprom in a boardroom
The conviction of environmentalist journalist Grigory Pasko
on treason charges and the publication of a slavishly uncritical
biography of Putin have also evoked echoes of the Soviet era that
ended formally a decade ago.
TELEVISION - RUSSIA'S MOST POWERFUL MEDIUM
Analysts said Putin, in spite of Kremlin denials, must have
backed the TV6 action after a fight through the courts over the
station's right to keep operating under its present management.
They said he clearly aimed to end Berezovsky's influence in
television, by far the most effective medium for conveying a political
message to regions stretching across 11 time zones.
"Putin wants to get Berezovsky out completely as a television
entrepreneur. He does not have any other goal. He has no interest
in this affair otherwise," said Andrei Ryabov of the Moscow-based
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The 49-year-old Kremlin leader does not hide his contempt for
Berezovsky, as well as fellow exile Gusinsky, and knows better
than most the influence he can wield.
It was Berezovsky's propaganda machine above all that took Putin,
in 1999 an unknown ex-KGB spy, and created a widely idolised image
of him that helped put him in the Kremlin. The two later quarrelled
and Berezovsky left the country. Putin is eager to ensure that
television is taken out of the hands of political actors as he
looks to re-election in 2004.
Analysts noted that no action had been undertaken against radio
stations and newspapers - potentially of lesser influence - under
"Putin sees the threat (from television) as serious. TV6
has a lot of influence among intellectuals and attracts more and
more young people," Ryabov said.
"Putin is not afraid of criticism as such. But he's afraid
that in an election campaign it could be used as a strong weapon
by a consolidation of forces around Berezovsky."
However, by pulling the plug on TV6, Russian authorities have
silenced an alternative voice which has criticised policy in war-torn
Chechnya and exposed alleged Kremlin corruption.
Analysts say Kremlin policy on TV6 and the media will become
clearer at the end of March when a tender will be held for the
channel which the present TV6 team will be able to contest.
Gazprom also says it will sell off NTV, and all eyes will be
on the new owners.
In image terms, the TV6 controversy falls awkwardly for Putin
who has enjoyed remarkable popularity in the West because of his
support for the U.S.-led anti-terrorism drive and who will host
U.S. President George W. Bush in Moscow this year.