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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

PARTY LINES: Media Battles Are Something Less Than Epic




Not surprisingly, both sides in Russia's latest "information war" claim they are acting out of lofty motives. Presidential administration chief Alexander Voloshin, for instance, purports to be protecting the state's interests from Vladimir Gusinsky's Media-MOST group. Voloshin says NTV television and MOST's other outlets are hostile to the Kremlin because it refuses to give in to MOST's "information racket" and grant the group favorable financing. MOST, meanwhile, says it is simply protecting Russia's hard-won right of free speech from "the new Korzhakov" (Voloshin) and his ally Boris Berezovsky, who are endangering the people's right to know by sicking the tax police on NTV and its print brethren.


Like everywhere - but especially in Russia - it's wise to start looking for concrete material interests when you hear such heart-stirring rhetoric. So what exactly is at stake in the latest battle? On Thursday, Moskovsky Komsomlets' Alexander Budberg gave a plausible explanation. Two strategic goals of "the family" - the group of Kremlin insiders that includes Berezovsky and Voloshin - represent a mortal danger for Media-MOST.


In Budberg's account, Berezovsky and Voloshin want to put in a loyalist to replace Rem Vyakhirev as head of Gazprom - a post Berezovsky himself reportedly tried to grab back in 1997. Gazprom now holds 49 percent of NTV, Budberg reports, and Media-MOST is heavily indebted to the gas giant. Were a family man to take over at Gazprom, it would be checkmate for Media-MOST.


The family's second goal is to replace Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, currently the front-runner in the race to be anointed President Boris Yeltsin's successor, with its own heir apparent. Berezovsky is reportedly lobbying two candidates - Krasnoyarsk region Governor Alexander Lebed and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. For Gusinsky and Media-MOST, a president beholden to the family would also be very bad news.


Media-MOST's worries should worry others. A number of the Kremlin's actions - including, reportedly, tax investigations into all Russian media and the creation of a new press ministry (which also seeks to "protect the interests of the state," as its head, Mikhail Lesin, recently said) - suggests that ensuring a genuinely free press and genuinely competitive parliamentary and presidential elections are low on the Kremlin agenda.


Yet Media-MOST's complaints ring a bit hollow.


On the one hand, NTV is undoubtedly a cut above Russian Public Television, or ORT, the 51 percent state-owned channel Berezovsky reportedly controls, and the state's RTR, where Lesin ruled prior to becoming press commissar. ORT and RTR seem little more than lucrative advertising monopolies and/or graveyards for (mis)appropriated state funds and credits, lightly garnished with weak programming. By contrast, NTV actually produces programming worth watching.


On the other hand, given that a large chunk of NTV belongs to the state gas monopoly, and that Media-MOST has indeed received hefty credits from the state, just how much more independent is it than RTR and ORT? And just recall the 1996 campaign, during which NTV, like the other two channels, dutifully churned out torrents of pro-Yeltsin propaganda, for which it received various gifts - including the sole right to broadcast on the state's Channel 4.


Lie down with dogs, and you wake up with fleas.