He who controls TV controls Russia

A week ago today the Duma rushed through a bill banning advertising on satellite and cable TV channels – going through the required three parliamentary sessions in just four days. [1] The aim of the bill, according to its supporters, is to create a level playing field in television: currently pay-per-view TV stations get revenue from subscriptions and advertising, whereas free to air stations (mainly state-owned or controlled) rely on advertising alone. To take this at face value would be naïve. This law threatens the future of 150 of the 270 independent stations, with opposition leaning Dozhd (“Rain”) TV relying on advertising for 70% of it’s revenue. [2] Cutting off advertising will lead to higher subscription charges to cover the shortfall and, by simple supply and demand,  fewer subscribers and less people watching the independent TV stations that survive.

The Kremlin was clearly spooked by the protests of 2011-12 that followed the disputed Duma elections and ‘castling’, when it was announced Medvedev would not run again and Putin would stand for the Presidency, and has been cracking down on independent media ever since. TV has been threatened, with Dozhd, one of the few stations to openly cover the protests, barely surviving a recent scandal when they held a survey on whether Leningrad should’ve been abandoned to the Nazis during the war. As a result of the ensuing political storm several TV providers dropped them, reducing their coverage and revenues significantly. This law seems like just the latest step in a series of repressive measures enacted since Putin returned to office in 2012.

However, the control of TV is nothing new in modern Russia. Since 1991 TV has had a special place in politics and new private channels were highly effective political weapons, and the Kremlin knows this. In the 1990s the 3 main channels were the state owned Russia-1 and oligarch-controlled NTV (Vladimir Gusinsky) and ORT (Boris Berezovsky). The oligarch’s stations were personal playthings, independent of the Kremlin and political weapons in the hands of their owners, used when desired to smear business and political rivals. NTV gained a reputation for independence, showing the First Chechen War (1994-96) in all its bloody reality, much to the Kremlin’s dissatisfaction, while ORT was set up by Berezovsky for one reason – he craved the influence over politics it would give him.

Both sold their souls and showed the dangers of equating independence from Kremlin control with the public good as they lined up in 1996 to force through Yeltsin’s victory in the presidential election. Journalistic standards went out of the window as the oligarchs chose to back Yeltsin and crush the resurgent Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov in any way possible. Before the campaign Yeltsin’s popularity was in single figures while Zyuganov led the pack, the clear front-runner. TV played a huge part in the dirty tricks campaign that pushed Yeltsin over the line and prevented Zyuganov’s seemingly inevitable victory. TV had made a President and broken a challenger and people took notice.

As the weapon of Berezovsky, ORT was used in 1999 to destroy Mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov’s ambitions of being President – he was a man who subordinated business to his interests, he was the boss, while Berezovsky thought this was entirely the wrong way round – business should dictate to the state. He used his tabloid-style host Sergey Dorenko to throw smear after smear at Luzhkov, even linking him with the unsolved murder of a US businessman, until his popularity sunk low enough to rule him out of the contest. [3] After making a President in 1996, TV had destroyed the ambitions of a potential President in 1999 and again people took notice, in particular one Vladimir Putin. Despite getting full support from ORT in the 2000 election campaign, as long as this was at the whim of someone else Putin was not happy. If his popularity hinged on the favours of a few oligarchs then he would be permanently insecure – and Putin was not going to allow this.

NTV was hit first. It had a close relationship with Gazprom, the state-owned gas giant, which lent it money and guaranteed its debts. After the 2000 election this supportive relationship ended as Putin turned on it. Gazprom demanded cash payment of what it was owed – trying to force bankruptcy – and fraud charges were filed against Gusinsky. Eventually the company was taken over by Gazprom, now closely aligned with Putin, and Gusinsky left the country, living in exile in the US ever since.

Berezovsky was next. Despite supporting Putin in 2000 he changed his mind soon after, falling out with him publicly. He criticised Putin’s apparent authoritarian measures and aired highly critical TV coverage of the Kursk submarine disaster. [4] In a showdown between the two Putin told Berezovsky, “I want to run ORT. I personally am going to run ORT.” [5] Berezovsky had no choice and in 2001 sold his shares to the seemingly apolitical and unassuming Roman Abramovich, who sold them to state-owned Gazprom in 2005. Berezovsky spent the rest of his days in political exile in the UK until his suicide in 2013. After just a year in office Putin had tamed the oligarchs of the media and the three main TV stations were all in Kremlin, or Kremlin-friendly, hands.

Fast forward 10 years and TV is being targeted again. Putin has seen TV make Presidents and destroy candidates and this made a large impression. Despite controlling the vast majority of TV in Russia the regime is still concerned. The middle-class protests of 2011 seem to have spooked them and they are cracking down on their outlets: independent TV, press and, in a new development, the internet. Making independent media more expensive will limit its reach even further, restricting it to the more urban, middle-class and wealthier opposition-leaning types, preventing it breaking through to the Kremlin-controlled mass media market and threatening support for Putin.

As in the 1990s again in the 2010s: at least in the Kremlin’s mind, he who controls TV controls Russia.


[1] This post is inspired by a combination of the recent law on TV passed and the book I’ve just finished: The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia by David Hoffman, which will certainly inspire a few more blog posts.

[2] Letter from channel owners quoted at: http://www.themoscowtimes.com/business/article/duma-approves-abrupt-advertising-ban-for-paid-television/503043.html

[3] Dorenko called these fifteen shows that smeared Luzhkov his “fifteen silver bullets.” Quoted in Hoffman, The Oligarchs, p470

[4] On 12th August 2000 the nuclear submarine Kursk sunk during a naval exercise after several explosions. The rescue mission was botched with foreign assistance refused, Putin seemed uninformed and misled the public over the incident, and ORT showed him enjoying himself jet-skiing on holiday in Sochi at the time. All 118 people on board died.

[5] Quoted in Hoffman, The Oligarchs, p488


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