High-Stakes Soap Opera
- By Alexei Pankin
- May. 06 2008 00:00
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In my March 11 column, I predicted that there will be a continuation in the relationship between President-elect Dmitry Medvedev and Rossia state television news anchor Konstantin Syomin.
There is indeed a sequel to this story, and it may very well turn into a multipart series.
Part one of the saga: During a live broadcast of his evening news program on Feb. 22, Syomin referred to former Yugoslav Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic as "a puppet of the West who got a well-deserved bullet" when he was assassinated in 2003. That comment raised a storm of protest in Serbia. Several days later in Belgrade, Medvedev was compelled to start his first visit to a foreign country with an apology.
As I wrote in March, these types of setups should not be forgiven. If after his inauguration, Medvedev allows the general director of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Company, or VGTRK, which owns the Rossia network, to retain his post, or if he transfers him to some other high-ranking position, it will be a clear signal that the president is weak or highly dependent on others.
Part two: On April 27, Rossia television aired a 13-minute report by Syomin on its "Vesti Nedeli" Sunday program that characterized members of Russia's intelligentsia as a subversive "fifth column." Coincidentally, they all turned out to be journalists with Ekho Moskvy radio, including Alexei Venediktov, Matvei Ganapolsky and Yulia Latynina.
Many saw a link between his attacks and recent comments in Kommersant by Boris Boyarskov, who heads the state agency that grants broadcasting licenses to television stations. Boyarskov said that when Russian television switches over to digital broadcasting, NTV would be excluded from the list of stations that viewers can watch free of charge. Those wishing to watch NTV would have to pay subscription fees. Boyarskov justified this decision by claiming that NTV programs contain too much violent and indecent subject matter. This may be an accurate portrayal of NTV, but this did not arouse the public's interest.
What really matters is that NTV and Ekho Moskvy are part of the Gazprom-Media, a subsidiary of Gazprom. Although Medvedev said he would formally step down as chairman of Gazprom after he takes the oath of office on Wednesday, the huge energy and media company will probably remain as Medvedev's key power base.
This thriller has a secondary plotline as well. In March, there was an unprecedented attack against the Kommersant web site. The newspaper claims the hackers were retaliating for an article it ran in late January that quoted a high-ranking Kremlin official and possible ally of Medvedev as saying Nashi was a bunch of "enthusiastic thugs." In April, Duma deputies with ties to Nashi passed amendments to media laws that make it easy to shut down media organization for distributing "knowingly false information."
It seems that the whole chain of events represents a coordinated attack against Medvedev and his thesis that "freedom is better than a lack of freedom." These words, pronounced at the Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum in February, were a big inspiration for our democratic-minded intelligentsia.
The stakes are growing in this high-powered game -- primarily for Medvedev himself. In order to save face with his supporters, it will not be enough for him to simply fire Syomin or the general director of VGTRK. Medvedev will have to exile them to some other country -- Britain, for example.
Stay tuned for the unfolding drama in the relationship between Medvedev and Syomin.
Alexei Pankin is the editor of IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.