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Russians Break Soviet Monopoly on TV

By Justin BurkeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 21, 1991



MOSCOW

THE Russian Federation has launched its own television station, breaking the Kremlin's iron grip on information. But Russian officials say it will take time before the republic can compete on an equal basis with the tightly controlled central TV. In the Soviet Union, television is not only a form of entertainment but an important political tool. Breaking the Communist monopoly will help bolster Russia's radical government, led by Boris Yeltsin, in its battle for greater autonomy from central authorities.

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"Russia is a vast republic and many people are entirely dependent on television for the information they receive," said Svyatoslav Fyodorov, a reform-minded member of the Soviet parliament. "Finally, the government of the Russian Federation will have the means to convey their views to the people."

Reformers are counting on the station to become a viable competitor to central television, which is headed by Leonid Kravchenko. But Oleg Popstov, Russian TV chief, says it won't happen overnight. "We are far from the point of winning the competition, even becoming a real competitor," he says.

For Russian TV, the toughest part is its dependence on central authorities. For example, it leases much of its equipment from the central TV and radio company.

Russian television began broadcasting May 13, with six hours and 15 minutes of programming daily. Uncensored programming is its main appeal, officials say. And so far, it appears to have lived up to Mr. Popstov's pledge to broadcast opposing points of view, particularly on controversial topics, such as the ethnic violence along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. In addition, the anchors on Vesti, the Russian station's information program, read the news in a rapid style - a refreshing alternative to the st a

id delivery of central TV's Vremya news program.

So far, public reaction has been encouraging, says Popstov. However, the station still faces opposition from conservative local officials resisting Mr. Yeltsin's attempt to introduce a market system in the republic.

"They block the airwaves at the time Russian TV broadcasts its programs," Popstov said. "We knew that would happen. It's a long-term process ... but we will win the competition."

Mr. Kravchenko's unpopularity will eventually make the difference, says television commentator Sasha Lyubimov.

Kravchenko is possibly one of the most hated men in the Soviet Union because of his leading role in taking some of the country's most popular programs off the air. Kravchenko's actions coincided with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's shift to the right and the slowdown of the pace of reform.

"When Kravchenko took over, it became all of a sudden pro-Communist television once again," Mr. Lyubimov says.

Initially during Kravchenko's crackdown on TV, liberals were hard-pressed to find an outlet for their views. But eventually, co-workers' aversion to his style, a budget crisis at central television, and Mr. Gorbachev's drift back to a centrist position, eroded Kravchenko's ability to resist the reform-minded Russian Federation's efforts to gain its own media outlets.

First, the republic managed to launch a radio station. Then in April, it secured Kravchenko's signature on a protocol creating Russian TV. One of the station's first acts was to hire many popular newscasters barred from state television.

As for Kravchenko, his days are numbered, Lyubimov says, adding that he will probably be retired quietly.