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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Sets Up New Press Ministry

President Boris Yeltsin on Tuesday signed a decree establishing a new press ministry with broad powers, and Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin said that while it would "not be a propaganda ministry" its tasks would be "similar."

Yeltsin's decree, as published by Itar-Tass and described by Kremlin officials, liquidated the existing State Press Committee and the Federal Service for Television and Radio Broadcasting. In their place it establishes the Ministry for Press, Television, Radio Broadcasting and Mass Communications.

"I would not say that we want to create a propaganda ministry," Stepashin told a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, in remarks cited by The Associated Press. "But we are starting to create a federal strategy that would consolidate all of the state's capabilities in - pardon the old-fashioned word - ideological work."

Stepashin's comments suggested the Kremlin was thinking of looming elections to the State Duma, which are now just five months away, and also to the Russian presidency, which are less than a year away.

Yeltsin himself, in a rare interview published in Izvestia on Tuesday, said carrying off those elections was the main task left before him. Stepashin, meanwhile, last week met with the rank-and-file of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, and called on them to be vigilant and to keep undesirable elements and criminals out of the Duma.

The new ministry will be headed by top RTR television official Mikhail Lesin, a long-time Kremlin insider, the Kremlin press service said Tuesday.Lesin, who until Tuesday held the post of first deputy chairman of the All-Russian State Television and Radio Company, or VGTRK, proved himself a Yeltsin team player during the president's president's 1996 re-election campaign. The RTR national television station Lesin helps run - many say Lesin is in fact the real power behind the station's chairman Mikhail Shvydkoi - has remained loyal. Earlier this year RTR aired a compromising video clip of the Kremlin's nemesis, Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov, with prostitutes.

But Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Yakushkin, in a telephone interview Tuesday, denied the new press ministry had any naked political ambitions or would be used as an election campaign tool.

"This has nothing whatsoever to do with the upcoming election campaigns," Yakushkin said. Instead, he said, the Kremlin is just trying to keep up with the information superhighway: "There is much more work in this [media] sphere. Technology is moving forward, so a new ministry was created."

Media analysts were skeptical.

"There can be no other reason for the new ministry," said Andrei Richter, director of the Moscow Media Law and Policy Center of Moscow State University. "The Kremlin is obviously getting ready for the elections," Richter said. "Lesin has helped in the past, and now his skills are being called upon once again."

Earlier, Yakushkin told a Russian television audience, "This decree affects all journalists engaged in writing and television." But in a telephone interview later that evening, he would not elaborate on that, saying the ministry's functions were still being determined.

The decree says the new press ministry must be up and running in two weeks, and will "take over those functions of the federal organs of executive power necessary for the realization of its tasks."

Among those tasks, according to the decree are:

- Assembly of a registration list of all Russian mass media organizations;

- "The regulation of the production and distribution of audio and video products, including their registration and production";

- "The development and implementation of a state policy on the process of developing advertising, and also in the distribution [of advertising] by mass media and mass communications";

- The development of a set of licenses and certification standards for equipment used in making audio, video and advertising products;

- The regulation of radio and television broadcast frequencies, including communications satellite orbital positions.

The decree also orders the new press ministry to arrange - by March 1, 2000 - a series of national tenders where "interested organizations" can bid for "licenses for all types of activity listed in the above decree."

While that might in theory include licenses to run a newspaper or an advertising production company, it more likely refers to radio and television broadcast licenses. All countries regulate the handing out of broadcast frequencies, to prevent the airwaves from becoming garbled by competing transmissions.

Russia over the years has been particularly miserly with national television broadcast licenses, however. And the decree suggests even those who have won such concessions, like NTV and TV Center, might have to bid to keep them - something to keep in mind for news program editors planning hostile Kremlin political coverage.

It is still hard to say what the decree will mean in practice. On Tuesday evening, Russia's poker-faced television stations curtly reported its existence but offered no commentary. Lesin could not be reached for comment, though he made a late evening television appearance from the Kremlin announcing his appointment.

"Everything is very up in the air at the moment," said Anna Kachkayeva, a television analyst with Radio Liberty and an associate professor at Moscow State University.

She added that talk of creating a consolidated structure to oversee media communications has sprung up at several moments in the past, usually during "moments of crisis" like the Chechen war - when, for example, Yeltsin sacked the head of ORT television for gory footage of the war's victims.

"This could either be another paper tiger or, in the worst case scenario, a harsh propaganda ministry," she said, adding, "Everything depends on what kind of role the new minister [Lesin] will take."