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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bashkortostan Blacks Out Pro-Kremlin TV




Who is more fun to watch Sunday night on television - RTR's bearded political commentator Nikolai Svanidze or beefy Silvester Stallone? ORT's vicious Sergei Dorenko or the 1970s heartthrob Richard Chamberlain?


In open defiance of the Kremlin's authority - with potentially broad ramifications for the electoral process and Russia's federal integrity - Bashkortostan's leadership decided Saturday that the republic's people should not be subject to "dirty political tricks" from the two federal state television channels.


The republic's State Council, or parliament, ordered the local state television company to black out ORT and RTR during their big hit Sunday political shows, which regularly run expos?s of Fatherland-All Russia leaders Yevgeny Primakov and Yury Luzhkov.


The decision was backed by Bashkortostan's authoritarian president, Murtaza Rakhimov, who is an active member of the Fatherland-All Russia electoral bloc.


It is the first time a Russian region has blacked out a federal television channel.


Instead of the political talk shows, the Bashkortostan State TV and Radio Company broadcast "Cobra" on RTR starring Stallone and "The Lost Daughter" series with Chamberlain on ORT.


The republic's parliament said its decision was motivated by "responsibility for the fate of democracy" in Russia and was aimed at "preventing the destabilization of the situation in Russia and the Bashkortostan Republic." Federal bodies, it said in the resolution passed Saturday, have failed to take "adequate" measures to guarantee equal rights for electoral blocs in the mass media.


The parliament went further and threatened that if the "violations of electoral law" in Moscow continue, it will have to consider whether to hold State Duma elections on the territory of Bashkortostan at all.


Rakhimov was present in parliament when the resolution was passed and spoke in its favor, his spokesman Viktor Skvortsov said Monday by telephone from the republic's capital, Ufa.


"The very tone of the programs, their quite definite emotional context instigate enmity toward certain political blocs and certain candidates," Skvortsov said.


Although the two programs - particularly Dorenko's show on ORT - have been under harsh criticism for their strong pro-Kremlin, anti-Fatherland stance, officials and observers in Moscow condemned Bashkortostan's action as illegal and said it threatens Russian federalism.


They fear it could create a dangerous precedent for other regional leaders, many of them members of various electoral blocs, who could now be tempted to cut federal television programming - one of the few things that tie Russia together - to their political liking.


The problem is that there is little Moscow can do about it, especially during an election season, when the federal center needs the support of powerful regional leaders more than ever.


Alexander Veshnyakov, chairman of the Central Election Commission and one of ORT's critics, said Bashkortostan was out of line.


"Any, even a good-intentioned, desire to instill order in an illegal way only worsens the situation," he said in televised comments. Objectionable programs should be fought through legal means, Veshnyakov said.


Luzhkov has sued ORT over Dorenko's program, and the Moscow city court is to hear the case Wednesday.


Press Minister Mikhail Lesin said the decision of the republic's parliament was "absolutely contrary" to Russia's Constitution - under which communications are a federal prerogative - and its laws on mass media and elections. It violated the freedom of the press as well as the licensing agreement and contracts between the national channels and local transmitters, who are not allowed to interfere with the channels' programming, Lesin said.


"We hope this decision was made emotionally and will be reversed," he said in a telephone interview Monday evening.


Lesin said Rakhimov did not return his telephone calls Monday and the Bashkortostan parliament's speaker, Konstantin Tolkachyov, rebuffed him by saying that since Bashkortostan is a "sovereign" republic, it can choose where and when to apply federal laws.


Rakhimov was quoted by Itar-Tass earlier Monday as saying the parliament's decision was "absolutely right." But he left some space for a compromise by saying that its legality should be "sorted out in Moscow."


Lesin, who is usually quite outspoken, chose his words carefully in describing the situation and said his ministry will "take a several days' pause" to assess the situation.


On his Sunday program, Dorenko accused Bashkortostan's leadership of "separatism" and described the decision as a "wild practice of distrust of one's own people."


Andrei Richter, director of the Center for Law and Media at Moscow State University, said although he is sympathetic to Rakhimov's view of the ORT and RTR programs, the republic's decision was a "serious violation of the law."


It sets a dangerous precedent, giving each governor the right to "show only those programs that he likes," Richter said.


But Moscow's levers are indeed weak, he said, particularly given the dual allegiance of local state television companies: They report both to Moscow and to the local government.


The Press Ministry could punish Bashkortostan's TV and Radio Company managers for pulling the plug, but they will say they report to their republic's leadership first and to Moscow second, Richter said. "Unfortunately, the trend is that what the governor says is the law," he said.


Nikolai Petrov, an expert on Russian regional politics with the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the Bashkortostan move is indicative of the general situation in the country, when already weak vertical ties between Moscow and the regions are growing even weaker in an election climate.


"Let's see how swiftly and toughly the center will react in a situation when regional leaders have even greater authority than usual," Petrov said. But he predicted that most likely some sort of compromise will eventually be found.


"Political bargaining is under way, and the positions of the center are weaker than usual," he said.


At the urging of the federal Audit Chamber, the State Duma voted Friday to freeze the bank accounts of ORT. But on Monday, two pro-government factions - LDPR and NDR - said the vote had been falsified by the Communists.


ORT protested Friday's decision, saying in a statement it would further complicate the already tense electoral situation. It said the Audit Chamber is entitled to check only the use of state funds at ORT, but the company has not received any state funds for four years.