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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Perils of Dependent TV

There are hundreds of regional television companies and local cable studios in Russia today. New satellite stations are now broadcast into the regions. But for all this, not less than 80 percent of all television viewers continue to watch the four main television channels -- ORT, RTR, NTV Independent Television and TV6. These stations make up a large part of the population's source of information and form public opinion on the basic questions facing the country.

ORT is a television company that is 51 percent state-owned. NTV is a private company. But these two enormous television companies, which have stations by the same names, are informally owned by Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, two powerful entrepreneurs who created banking and other business activities in tandem with their own mass media groups.

Until this year, Berezovsky's and Gusinsky's interests did not always coincide. They put their stakes on various powerful groups in and around the Kremlin. And if, for example, Berezovsky once had firm relations with President Boris Yeltsin's former chief bodyguard, Alexander Korzhakov, then Gusinsky was obliged to sit out four months in London in fear of Korzhakov's anger.

The danger of the communists coming to power this summer, however, united these two businessmen. Both counted on Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. And just to be on the safe side, both lent support to the powerful and promising former general, Alexander Lebed.

ORT and NTV kept up the appearance of a tolerant approach to the opposition and worked toward the defeat of the communists in a subtle way. They also agreed to support the president's chief of staff, Anatoly Chubais, when much of his power was being thwarted by Korzhakov and the former deputy prime minister Oleg Soskovets.

Berezovsky and Gusinsky became natural allies. And this alliance was curiously strengthened by Lebed after he became chairman of the Security Council. The security advisor did not take the necessary measures to show his loyalty and gratitude to the people who helped him win. Lebed's authoritarian manners, high political ambitions and unpredictability apparently made him dangerous for both Berezovsky and Gusinsky. And his open support for Korzhakov's attempts to return to the political scene convinced them once and for all that they should act together, which contributed not least of all to his being discredited and sacked.

Once Lebed was dismissed, both ORT and NTV began to show Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and the Duma deputy chairman, Gennady Seleznyov, in a very respectable light.

The only national channel that belongs entirely to the government is RTR. Because the channel operates on a very meager means from the federal budget, it experiences constant problems with financing its projects and programs and its numerous staff. By definition, the station simply cannot be either fundamentally critical of the present executive authorities or the current course of the government. The former head of the company, Oleg Poptsov, already lost his job at the beginning of the year for painting things in too dark a light. The president nominated Eduard Sagalayev, an experienced and popular television executive, the new chairman.

Three years ago, Sagalayev created and headed the private television company TV6. Now, leaving TV6 in the reliable hands of his former deputy, Alexander Ponamarev, and holding a substantial share of the company, Sagalayev has become a government figure. He will have to give up the habit of presenting family television without politics as he had at TV6.

As for TV6 itself, there is no reason for the authorities to fear any serious opposition from it. Having avoided politics in general, it began only a month ago to produce the apolitical news program "Obozrevatel." TV-6 will hardly ever swim against the general political current. The first showings of Obozrevatel, however, did allow some rather brave statements about Lebed. But it is unlikely that anything similar will be repeated in the future.

Russia desperately needs political stability. Only stability can offer it the chance to get out of the current economic crisis, receive foreign credits and revive domestic industry. And if television helps to promote this, and does not take the authorities too much to task for its mistakes, then perhaps this is to the good.

But there is another danger. When millions of people in the country have not been paid their wages or pensions for months, corruption is rampant on all levels, as many as 100,000 people have been killed in a senseless war in Chechnya, soldiers are starving, the president is ill and the opposition to the current government is strong, and when all the major television stations show unshakable unanimity in their desire to preserve the status quo, then there is something wrong in the way the principles of democracy are applied to the media.

What is lacking is the all-important, free and fair competition to win over public opinion. Of course, there are no television companies, including in the West, that are entirely independent from political establishments or big business. But in Russia, the lack of independence is aggravated by such factors as the small number of television channels, the undeveloped market economy, the lack of paid-subscription television and the clannish and mafia-like relationship between business and power. The border between the free and the politically engaged and private and state television is still too narrow and fragile.

And there's no telling what dangers lie in store if these circumstances do not change.

Grigory Simanovich is a journalist who writes frequently on the news media. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.