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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Primakov Spy Ally In Battle For RTR

As a result of a fierce power struggle underway in the leadership of the state-owned television and radio system, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov could gain control of what is seen as a crucial campaign tool by having loyal former spies among its top managers.

But he is not going to have an easy time.

Conflicting reports streamed in Wednesday regarding the appointment of the PR boss of Russia's spy agency, Yury Kobaladze, as deputy head of VGTRK, a state-owned management company that runs the RTR and Kultura television channels, Radio Russia, as well as regional radio and television stations and Russia's vast and outdated transmission system.

Wednesday morning, VGTRK chairman Mikhail Shvydkoi's assistant said an official order appointing Kobaladze was expected to be signed by the end of the day.

But in the evening, the company's first deputy chairman Mikhail Lesin denied the reports that Kobaladze would get the post.

"We do not and will not have such a deputy chairman," Lesin was quoted as saying by Alexander Yefimovich, who is Shvydkoi's assistant.

Shvydkoi himself was at home with a severe case of the flu, his assistant said.

Kobaladze, contacted by telephone Wednesday, said he could not officially comment on the appointment before it was officially made. But he said he had been offered the post by Shvydkoi and that he was retiring from the Foreign Intelligence Service on Friday when he turns 50.

At the heart of the power battle is the emergence of a group of intelligence officers, seen as Primakov's levers of control, among VGTRK's top-level managers. Primakov headed Russia's spy agency from 1991 until he became foreign minister in 1996. Since his confirmation as prime minister in September, several former spies have been placed in important government posts.

Late last year, two former intelligence officers took crucial political jobs at VGTRK. Lev Koshlyakov became head of the Vesti news service, which runs all the news reporting and programming units of VGTRK and its network of correspondents in Russia and abroad.

Igor Amvrosov was appointed head of Radio Russia - a popular national radio station distributed to nearly every home by the old Soviet system of radio wire. It is one of the few radio stations in today's Russia that provides extensive political reporting and cultural programming.

Like other Russian television channels, VGTRK was badly hit by the current financial crisis and advertising revenues plummeted by 70 to 80 percent. Sources in the media industry have said that the situation in the company was even worse than in its competitors, semi-private ORT and private NTV.

VGTRK has undergone major internal restructuring. Under a decree signed last May by President Boris Yeltsin, it was turned into a management company running not only RTR, Kultura and Radio Russia, but also regional television and radio stations and transmitters, which are also used by its competitors.

Lesin was seen as a key figure behind the reform and the top money-mind in the company. He was also considered to be connected to Yeltsin and his team of "young reformers" led by Anatoly Chubais, whose interests RTR promoted during the 1997 banking wars involving the oligarchs.

Lesin, who has close ties to the presidential administration, where he served during Yeltsin's 1996 electoral campaign, is the founder of the Video International advertising giant, which sells RTR's airtime.

In a situation of political uncertainty and with this year's parliamentary elections and the 1999 presidential campaign fast approaching, control over Russia's television channels is seen as a prize worth fighting for.

Information about Kobaladze's appointment to VGTRK was reported first by Nezavisimaya Gazeta on Monday. It was then picked up by other newspapers Tuesday. Izvestia quoted Kobaladze as saying that he was to take charge of VGTRK's foreign affairs and public relations.

Kobaladze is not a novice to television. He spent much of his career as a Soviet spy under the cover of a television reporter. From 1977 to 1984, he was posted in the Soviet television and radio's bureau in London. After a stint in the intelligence headquarters, which was then the KGB's first main directorate, he founded the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service's public affairs and press bureau.

Intelligent and witty, Kobaladze has earned the reputation of an efficient PR manager.

Nikolai Leonov, former deputy head of the Soviet intelligence service, said there was "nothing surprising" in Primakov's policy of installing former spies in key government posts. They are "definitely not corrupt" and show both "decency and discipline," Leonov said.

He also said that placing them in key positions in government media is particularly important for Primakov because most private media are "involved with the young reformers."

As prime minister, Primakov has been keen to control the media and limit its access to his Cabinet. He is the first Russian prime minister to hold regular off-the-record briefings for hand-picked journalists.

Anna Kachkayeva, associate professor at Moscow University and a media analyst with Radio Liberty's Moscow bureau, said Wednesday that placing a loyal cadre at VGTRK would make sense for Primakov.

"Either Primakov's people are called to provide for his possible coming into presidency, or to secure [state-run] television from claims of other political and business groups," she said.

Primakov has repeatedly said that he has no presidential ambitions, but he is seen as a possible strong candidate.

Kachkayeva also said that the maneuvering is part of a greater realignment of political forces and capital taking place at other leading television channels.

The emergence of a group of outsiders in key positions at VGTRK could also reduce the role of Lesin, Kachkayeva said, adding that he had hinted in private conversations recently that he might have to leave VGTRK.

But Lesin is not likely to give up easily. "He is a very tough and consistent person in defending his interests and the interests of his business," Kachkayeva said.