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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Broadcasting Beyond Russia

It has been a year since Russia's top broadcast journalists announced ambitious plans to transform the former Soviet Union's broadcast giant into an interstate network that would serve the newly independent states.


This network would offer programming of interest to all peoples of the former Soviet Union, they said in February 1992, respecting cultural differences and interests from the Baltic shores to the steppes of Central Asia. For once television and radio would not be dominated by Russian taste, as it had been for years.


But these journalists have suffered the same fate as the political leaders trying to put together a Commonwealth of Independent States: Despite a year of efforts, no one has managed to do it.


In broadcast journalism, anyway, things may be moving ahead, after leaders at January's CIS summit in Minsk put Gadilbek Shalakhmetov on the job.


Shalakhmetov, 49, a journalist from Kazakhstan, was two weeks ago named the chairman of a new interstate radio and television network that is to answer the Commonwealth's needs.


"The idea is to retain an exchange of information between the former republics", Shalakhmetov said from his office at former state television's headquarters in Moscow.


With eight states -- Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- on board to finance the project, Shalakhmetov is off to a good start.


"I think if we do interesting work, the other former republics will join us", he said.


He has been given a month to come up with a plan. The new company is not a full network; it will not have its own channel, for example. Instead, it is to work through the Ostankino Television and Radio Network, the former Soviet broadcaster whose idea this was in the first place.


The former Soviet network has always been accused by other republics of being too Russian, even in its entertainment programming. When the Soviet Union fell apart, these accusations grew louder.


Ostankino newscasters, republican viewers say, give the Russian perspective to reports on ethnic conflicts. Some of the Central Asian republics, whose populations are predominantly Muslim, have strongly protested the recent Russian fascination with nudity and sex on the airwaves. When Ostankino aired Little Vera, the first Soviet movie to depict sex openly, the cry from those republics was loud.


And the Baltics, whose impatience for things Russian is well documented, often turn off Ostankino altogether.


"Do you know what's really going on in Turkmenistan? " Shalakhmetov asked, leaning forward in his chair. "Of course you don't, because it isn't reported from here".


Moscow may be interested in one thing, he means, but Turkmenistan wants another, and pleasing both on one channel is a tall order.


Turkmenistan has refused to join the network, as has Ukraine, wary of sinking money into a project that will be Moscow-based, and therefore, it says, still predominantly Russian.


Shalakhmetov, as the former head of Kazakhstan's state television and radio network and later press secretary to President Nursultan Nazarbayev, is sensitive to these problems, and determined to erase the perceived Russian bias.


But he also says Ostankino has been doing a good job on its own.


"Ostankino has been doing this all along", he said of programming from the republics. He cited recently aired movies from Kyrgyzstan and Belarus. "Our task is just to come and help".


Shalakhmetov says his network will start out small; in fact, he is its only employee for the moment. Working now with Ostankino, he hopes that he will also conclude agreements with other networks, both state-run and private.


The network's working language will be Russian to start off. But that may change soon; at the network in Kazakhstan, he balanced programming in four languages -- Kazakh, Russian, German and Korean -- to appeal to the republic's major population groups.


But solving the language problem is a headache in the former Soviet Union, where peoples from the various republics once moved freely and settled on one another's territories.


The project has its share of skeptics, but Shalakhmetov is dedicated to the idea.


"This network will keep everyone in touch", he said. "There has to be a way for our states to have access to common information".