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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Not So Great Expectations

A revolution has just taken place in the Russian media. Let me tell you how I first learned of it.

On the evening of March 12, during a relaxed discussion with a few colleagues placed pretty high up in the media sector, someone rushed into the room saying, "Putin is merging Rosookhrankultura and Rossvyaznadzor. The decree was just posted on the Internet."

A scene worthy of Gogol followed, in which we stumbled about, literally struck dumb by the idea that President Vladimir Putin had announced the merger of the Federal Service for Media Law Compliance and Cultural Heritage and the Federal Information Technologies Agency, which are the full names behind the acronyms we were tossing around. Our silence was punctuated only by the kind of interjections and staccato utterances that all people give voice to upon losing their psychological balance.

The first to regain her composure was the only woman in the group. "It might just be the latest Internet hoax," she said. We all ran to the nearest computer, only to discover that the decree was not posted on the web site in question. But we had hardly begun to settle down a bit, when we discovered the presidential decree creating the new organization on an official web site. It now has an even more unwieldy name: the Federal Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications and the Protection of Cultural Heritage. We all dispersed to different corners of the room and began feverishly making calls to various people. We then finally returned to the table to discuss this unexpected turn of events.

"Could it really be that [IT and Communications Minister Leonid] Reiman actually prevailed over [Culture and Press] Minister Alexander Sokolov?"

"Perhaps Sokolov beat out Reiman?"

"Maybe there was a third player behind it."

"I heard there is an unspoken instruction from 'the top' that no independent broadcasters are to remain in operation by the 2008 presidential election."

"And what if, by chance, the government heeded the voice of reason and decided to create a unified broadcasting regulatory agency, along the lines of the Federal Communications Commission in the United States?"

This last comment came from the same woman mentioned earlier. We all looked at her as if she had gone completely off her rocker.

We then began to imagine how our colleagues waiting for broadcasting licenses under the current setup must be feeling. This cheered us up a bit, as it always feels good when others are even more confused than you are.

The point of the matter is this: Broadcasting licenses are currently issued by the federal media law and cultural protection agency, which is part of the Culture and Press Ministry. It can also revoke these licenses. The technical broadcasting license is issued by the information technologies agency, which falls under the auspices of the IT and Communications Ministry. The whole process of receiving a broadcasting license can take up to 500 days.

Another important thing to note is that the most urgent issue for today's television broadcasters is the forthcoming transition to digital broadcasting. The development of the state's plan on this question has taken on the character of a bureaucratic fight between the Culture and Press Ministry and the IT and Communications Ministry. What is at stake for them is billions of dollars in government investment.

Now, like a bolt from the blue, comes a complete reorganization of these agencies. What has been set up, in effect, is a whole new ministry. But none of the efforts my colleagues and I have made over the ensuing days to learn more about the planned changes has delivered anything in the way of results. The agencies in question were as confused as those in the sectors they regulate.

So we have now been reduced to offering our own theories about what is going on. Personally, I'm working from the general assumption that just about any explanation you could conceive of is possible.

There is one more thing that stuck with me from that revolutionary evening. My colleagues -- who carry some punch in the field of broadcasting -- were unable to even countenance the thought that the licensing process in the country might be becoming more ­rational. They didn't deem it worthy of discussion.

There is a popular Russian saying that goes: "Our government is good -- it's the people who are the problem."

I would tweak it a bit to read: "Our government is good -- it's just that nobody expects anything good ever to come from it."

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Mediaprofi, a monthly magazine for regional media professionals.