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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rivals Lay Siege to TV Center License

Competition for the right to swipe prime broadcast space from Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's television channel is heating up as two pro-Kremlin television companies Monday announced their intentions to take part in the upcoming tender for TV Center's broadcast license.

But analysts said Monday that TV Center still has a chance to hold onto its license thanks to the recent political rapprochement between President-elect Vladimir Putin and his former arch-rival Luzhkov.

Popular second-tier television channel Ren TV and television company VID are preparing documents to take part in the tender, scheduled for May 24, Russian media quoted the heads of both companies as saying.

Ren TV president Irina Lesnevskaya said the channel would naturally be interested in boosting its audience by taking over TV Center, but added that she had doubts whether the tender would actually take place. She said in an interview with Izvestia newspaper Monday that company officials had prepared all necessary tender documents just in case.

Larisa Sinelshchikova, the general director of the television company VID, told Vedomosti newspaper Monday her company would submit its bid for the license this week. VID produces a host of popular prime-time television shows for Russia's No. 1 channel ORT.

Both Ren TV and VID are seen as being connected to pro-Kremlin groups.

Firms connected to oil major LUKoil have been investing in Ren TV since 1997, LUKoil spokesman Dmitry Dolgov said Monday. He would not put a figure on the total investment, and declined to say whether LUKoil owned any shares in the company. However, media experts at Radio Liberty have reported that LUKoil owns 75 percent of Ren TV.

Konstantin Ernst, the head of ORT - the channel over which tycoon Boris Berezovsky is said to wield tremendous influence - is a shareholder in VID, said Anna Kachkayeva, a media analyst at Radio Liberty. She said VID chairman Alexander Lyubimov always followed a firmly pro-Kremlin line on air.

Meanwhile, there have been no bids announced for ORT's broadcast license, which is also up for tender May 24 - a sign that Berezovsky may hang on to his key to political influence for now, Kachkayeva said.

Earlier in March, the Press Ministry announced that neither TV Center nor ORT would be allowed to automatically extend their broadcast licenses, adding that the licenses are to be put up for tender because the channels had violated electoral law during the parliamentary elections.

The ministry claimed TV Center's coverage had been heavily biased in favor of Kremlin rivals Luzhkov and Yevgeny Primakov, co-heads of the Fatherland-All Russia faction. ORT, for its part, was scolded for its outrageous reports against the Fatherland leaders.

TV Center president Oleg Poptsov had at the time denounced the ministry's move as a catalyst to the "process of destroying politically unsuitable media."

However, the mayor has since been keen to smooth relations with Putin. Just days before the presidential election, Luzhkov boosted Putin's campaign by showing his support for the next president during a trip around Moscow's flagship construction sites.

Earlier this month, Luzhkov met with Putin and, shortly after, Press Minister Mikhail Lesin in what appeared to be a concerted campaign to save his channel.

"Whether Luzhkov gets to keep TV Center's air space depends on the state of his relations with Putin," said Sergei Markov, an analyst with the Institute for Political Studies.

"Luzhkov has not been seen as the enemy in recent months - he has openly supported Putin, and Fatherland has tried to form an alliance with the party of power, Unity," he said. "And TV Center has softened its criticism of the Kremlin over the past few months."

Markov suggested the Kremlin may have made the renewal of TV Center's license conditional on the mayor's continued loyalty, or may demand that TV Center hires a Kremlin official as one of its top managers.

"It makes more sense for Putin to reach a compromise with Luzhkov than to take away TV Center's license," he said.

However, TV Center officials would not say Monday whether the Kremlin has tried to impose demands as part of negotiations over the license, and Press Ministry spokesman Yury Akinshin said the tender would be held no matter what.

TV Center, meanwhile, has filed a lawsuit questioning the validity of the Press Ministry's charges and its right to bring the license to tender, TV Center spokeswoman Irina Stepanova said Monday.

A Moscow court has postponed hearings until May 4, she added.

"If we can't decide things in court, then we will bid to take part in the tender," she said.

"It's in the interests of Luzhkov to try to reach an agreement with Putin and avoid the tender, otherwise the Press Ministry might judge the program concepts of VID or Ren TV to be better," Kachkayeva said. "But it seems that nothing is going to be decided until the last minute."