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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Duma Suspends Freeze on ORT's Accounts

The State Duma Audit Chamber has temporarily suspended an order to freeze ORT television's bank accounts so that the channel can give presidential candidates legally mandated free air time, ORT spokesman Grigory Simanovich said Tuesday.

The order was issued in December in retaliation for the state channel's refusal to let federal auditors check its books.

ORT chairman of the board Vitaly Ignatenko "wrote a letter to the Audit Chamber asking that they unfreeze our accounts for the time of the presidential elections for the understandable, objective reason that we must, by law, give air time to presidential candidates," Simanovich said in a telephone interview. "Our colleagues at the Audit Chamber agreed."

A spokesman for the Audit Chamber said the collegium of auditors had voted to unfreeze ORT's accounts as of Feb. 11 on the grounds of Ignatenko's letter.

For the 30 days running up to March 26 presidential elections, ORT - the key pillar of media support for the Kremlin candidate, acting President Vladimir Putin - must provide each candidate with at least one hour of free air time for campaign agitation.

The Audit Chamber spokesman said the accounts would be frozen again after March 26 if ORT did not give in to the chamber's demand to audit the channel.

Simanovich refused to comment on newspaper speculation that the government or the Kremlin might have intervened with the Audit Chamber on behalf of the channel, 51 percent of which belongs to the government.

"I think these hints are unfounded," the Audit Chamber spokesman said.

ORT now has access to its eight commercial bank accounts, Simanovich said.

The Audit Chamber froze them after ORT, which is believed to be controlled by minority shareholder Boris Berezovsky, claimed it had received no budget money for five years and refused access to budget auditors.

The freeze came just a few weeks before December elections to the State Duma. At that time, Audit Chamber chairman Khachim Karmokov told Segodnya newspaper he supposed ORT might have sources of financing of which the auditors were unaware.

"If we stop operations on [ORT] accounts, then ORT's activities will cease," Segodnya quoted Karmokov as saying then.

"But they did not cease," the newspaper wrote Tuesday.

Only one bank, Central Bank subsidiary Vneshekonombank, kept ORT's accounts open, Vneshekonombank chairman Andrei Kostin said in January.

This month, Vneshekonombank granted the channel an indefinite grace period on a $100 million debt, which ORT had failed to pay by the January due date, even though it called in a $42.2 million debt held by a political rival of ORT, the private national broadcaster NTV.