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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Warring Factions Take Battle to the Airwaves

Russia's warring executive and legislative powers have tussled over an impending constitutional referendum in roundtables and face-to-face meetings, but now they are taking their differences to a battle for the airwaves.

Only one day after the head of Russia's largest television network turned in his resignation to protest what he called the absolute power of the democrats, hardline leaders in parliament moved to bring the broadcast media under their control.

In a parliamentary hearing called Tuesday morning to discuss a draft law on the broadcast media, deputies urged that parliament assume control of the programming and appointments of executives of the Ostankino Television and Radio Company, the former Soviet Union's main network.

"It's very sad, but if such a law is adopted, then the mass media will be at the center of this political battle; " said Kirill Ignatiyev, a member of the liberal Democratic Choice bloc of deputies who attended the hearing.

Such a law would allow the parliament to set the political orientation of Channel 1, which is now financed and controlled by the federal government.

But the bill remains in draft form and is unlikely to be adopted soon. While hardliners seek to transfer the government's control over the broadcast media to the parliament, liberals like Ignatiyev hope the law will remove the press from the political shackles of both sides.

While Russia has had a general press law since the end of 1991, this legislation would be the country's first specifically to regulate the broadcast media.

The two branches of power have wrestled for control of the airwaves for nearly a year, but with the date for the referendum quickly approaching and the fight over Russia's balance of powers intensifying, television and radio take on greater significance for both now. Tuesday's hearing, the latest in an ongoing battle on the draft law, came one day after Igor Malashenko, Ostankino's director of television, accused the network's new chief, Vyacheslav Bragin, of using the air-waves to promote President Boris Yeltsin's programs, particularly the referendum.

"It is impermissible that one political group, even with the most democratic name of 'Democratic Russia', should have unlimited influence over television", he wrote in an open letter to Bragin.

Malashenko, who served as Ostankino's political adviser before ascending to the network's leadership last summer, has focused on developing Ostankino's commercial side with the eventual goal of weaning the network of government subsidies.

He has spoken out before for an independent, self-financed network that would remain politically neutral.

Ostankino's staff, many of whom spent years fashioning their broadcasts to suit political interests, supported Malashenko on Monday. Among these were Valentin Lazutkin, a deputy chief of the network, who ordered after the August 1991 failed coup that the network become an independent company. Yevgeny Kiselyov, anchor of the weekly Itogi news program, said that he had been receiving "instructions from above" more frequently of late, according to Itar-Tass.

But as tension over the referendum grows, the political camps become more eager to control the media, and journalists like Malashenko are feeling pressure from all sides.

At a press conference Tuesday, Sergei Yushenkov, one of parliament's most liberal legislators who was recently made deputy head of Yeltsin's Federal Information Center, endorsed pro-referendum informational programs as a small part of Channel 1's overall programming schedule.

"There is no referendum campaign on TV, and this is a great misfortune he said, "because this is the state television and radio network. The state has the right to broadcast information about it, but the way things are now, it cannot even get any air time".

He said that Bragin, who was another of Yeltsin's few supporters in the largely conservative parliament, was at work on a political and financial plan for the network, and that he would make it public in the coming weeks.