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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kremlin's Hand Is Felt Behind TV6 Tender

On Wednesday the government is to award a national broadcasting license in what Kremlin officials have promised will be a fair and open auction. But those with knowledge of the process said the auction will be anything but open.

For weeks, they said, Kremlin aides have been hard at work tailoring a winning bid by Kremlin supporters. The object, said those familiar with the bid, is to portray the Kremlin as a supporter of a free and open press -- but to ensure that the new operator of a national television station does not repeat the sort of anti-government diatribes that turned the owners of NTV and TV6 into unofficial Kremlin foes.

Supporters of the bid hope it will repair at least some of the political damage wrought by what appeared to be state-orchestrated takeovers of those two national stations.

The Kremlin-backed bid, the result of weeks of negotiations, is a strange hybrid of Kremlin skeptics and allies; of a dozen business leaders and a noncommercial partnership; and of people viewed as political commissars and champions of an independent press.

Analysts say the complexity of the bid is a sign of the Kremlin's discomfort with a free, commercially controlled press and its struggle to somehow manage it. "The guys who invented this ridiculous scheme don't understand anything," said one of those involved in the bid, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The license became suddenly available in January after what many saw as a Kremlin-inspired court order to liquidate TV6, a channel controlled by Boris Berezovsky.

And for the second time in a year, the closing of TV6 forced a well-known team of journalists, led by Yevgeny Kiselyov, off the air. The journalists resigned en masse last year from their first channel, NTV, after Vladimir Gusinsky lost control of it to Gazprom.

The Press Ministry announced it was accepting tender offers for TV6's license, and it attracted 15 proposals. Due to the Kremlin's handiwork, one proposal from Kiselyov's group is widely considered the leading contender. Other bidders include a subsidiary of Gazprom, a group promising sports programming and at least five companies set up by other journalists or television broadcasters.

Publicly, the Kremlin has taken a hands-off stance. In fact, though, Putin's aides were deeply involved in shaping the bid of the TV6 journalists, according to two sources knowledgeable about the discussions. The Kremlin's hand in the contest has become increasingly apparent over weeks of negotiations.

The Kremlin's first move, sources said, was to enlist Anatoly Chubais, who heads Unified Energy Systems. Chubais persuaded 12 wealthy businessmen to back Kiselyov's bid.

Leonid Gozman, a top aide to Chubais, said Chubais got involved because he wanted to protect the free press. Chubais said in an interview last month that he was concerned about "political forces not far from Putin" who favor a police state.

Together, the businessmen and the journalists formed a company called Shestoi Telekanal, with the journalists controlling 10 percent of the shares. The capital stake was set at $10 million.

Sources said the firm's bid seemed on track until Feb. 27, when Chubais informed Kiselyov that the Kremlin wanted it restructured. The spokesmen for the Kremlin's position were Alexander Voloshin, the chief of the presidential administration, and Mikhail Lesin, the press minister.

The sources said Kiselyov was told that Putin wanted the license to go not to a business, but to a noncommercial partnership headed by two people: Putin's political ally, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who now heads the Russian Chamber of Commerce, and Arkady Volsky, head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs.

Shestoi Telekanal would be nothing but a contractor. The businessmen's contributions would be considered donations, much like the donations that fund Strana.ru, a pro-Kremlin web site.

In a meeting a few days later at Primakov's vacation home, Kiselyov rejected the plan, the sources said. The two men ultimately agreed on a compromise that would allow Shestoi Telekanal to join the noncommercial partnership, with one vote.

But at the same time, the Kremlin aides diluted the influence of that vote by adding eight more members to the partnership.

Lesin and Voloshin later briefed Putin on the final arrangement and said he found it acceptable, the sources said.

Despite the sense that the outcome of the tender has been orchestrated from the Kremlin, the bidders for the channel 6 license have in the past week held press conferences to convince reporters -- if not themselves -- of the viability of their bids.

"None of the participants considers the victory to be predetermined," said Pavel Korchagin, former executive director of TV6, who paired with the TPG Aurora investment fund to bid for the frequency. "No matter what the circumstances were, there have never been grounds to criticize the tender commission for partiality."

Igor Shabdurasulov, who represents Berezovsky at the old TV6, which is under bankruptcy procedures, predicted Tuesday that because of ongoing court appeals, the winner will not be able to begin broadcasting until at least September.