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Putin snipes at Berezovsky in media row

January 23, 2002

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 the West.

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 coup.

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.


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 Berezovsky's control.

"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.


See also:

TV6 case

Reuters, January 23, 2002

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