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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Make TV for the People




The latest round of fighting for control over television in Russia has begun. It was signalled by the resignation of Maxim Boiko, the former head of the Russian State Property Ministry, after he and First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais attempted to seize control of ORT television. Chubais and Boiko vowed to wrest control of ORT from the powerful media mogul Boris Berezovsky. They hoped to use the 51 percent of ORT's stock that still belongs to the state and make it into an "open" joint-stock company, thus creating new investors and watering down Berezovsky's share in the station. It is not yet clear whether Chubais will be able to carry out his plans. But a look at the history of Soviet television can offer some clues into the direction ORT is now taking.


Television has always been a powerful force in Russia. The reasons why it has an even greater role here than in the West lie in its origins. The structure of Soviet television was basically totalitarian. It was created for propaganda and not for commercial or any other purposes. Russia has only two channels that reach a nationwide audience -- ORT and RTR, formerly channels 1 and 2 of Soviet television. Because almost every household in Russia has a television set, these channels reach hundreds of millions of viewers.


Life in the Russian provinces is still so dreary and colorless that television is almost the only kind of entertainment most people can afford in the evenings. The idea behind Soviet television was that if all the people watched the same program every evening, they would sooner or later believe what they were being told. If the same news anchor presented the news and entered people's homes every night, that person would become part of the family and the nation, too, would be united.


Television played a more important role in cementing Soviet society than any other medium. The striking similarities in the thinking of all former Soviet citizens -- from Chechen Moslem fundamentalists to Baltic liberal democrats -- are rooted in their common television "origins."


When former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev lessened the state's control of television in the late '80s, it became a powerful outlet for mass discontent over economic problems. Television played a significant role in bringing down the Soviet regime in 1991. But the collapse of the Soviet Union also meant a sharp decrease in state financing of television.


As a result, Channel 1 had planned to cut its broadcasts by 10 hours in 1995. The partial privatization of the channel, 49 percent of which was to be held by private investors, and creation of ORT were aimed at avoiding such drastic cuts. But this has led to a contradictory situation in which Russian television was largely put in the hands of private businessmen but technically remains a powerful weapon of totalitarian propaganda.


Berezovsky, whose LogoVAZ company covers the lion's share of ORT's expenses, has turned ORT into a political tool. He first used it for propaganda during President Boris Yeltsin's election campaign of 1996. Later, when Berezovsky's group lost a privatization bid for the telecommunications giant Svyazinvest to Uneximbank in August, a bank that is known for its ties to Chubais, ORT immediately started to attack Uneximbank and Chubais in person.


Berezovsky's dismissal from the Security Council last month at Chubais' urging made the attacks even more intense. Sergei Dorenko, the anchor of Vremya, the weekly television news magazine on ORT, has openly called Chubais a "corrupt official" and attacked Uneximbank in every program. His reasons for doing so are clear: If Chubais makes good on his vow to "crush" ORT, Dorenko's or Berezovsky's faces will no longer appear on it. Unfortunately, because of the totalitarian structure of Russian television, the entire country has been dragged into the squabbles of politicians and businessmen.


Thus, while politicians and businessmen are busy carving up the television industry, everyone's interests have been taken into account -- Berezovsky's, Chubais', Yeltsin's, for example -- everyone except those of the public or journalists themselves.


In late 1996, for instance, Yeltsin wanted to thank the head of MOST-Bank, Vladimir Gusinsky, for his contribution to his re-election to the presidency. So he gave Gusinsky's NTV television company all of the former Education channel's air time. Almost the entire staff of the Education channel was laid off and there were no cultural or education programs on the air for some time. Yeltsin understood that this was a mistake and ordered the creation of the new educational channel Kultura. Now everything must be started from scratch, which entails huge costs and difficulties.


The current situation is clearly intolerable. Television should not be merely a propaganda tool in the hands of the state or of bankers. There should be either privately owned or state television stations, but not mixed ones. This "mix" of private and state interests has created fertile ground for corruption and the kinds of uncertainties that ORT is now experiencing. Television channels should not be "ceded" by state officials as gifts to political or financial allies. It is time for business and state to go their separate ways and cease interfering in every step that journalists take as they do now.


Dmitry Babich is a correspondent for the weekly television news program Obozrevatel, on TV6. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.