FATE OF RUSSIAN TV UP IN AIR

With its official launch only a week away, the future of Public Russian Television (ORT) looks more confused than ever.

The assassination March 1 of the well-known and highly respected news anchor Vladislav Listyev – one of the architects of the transformation of Russian TV into a privatized entity – has focused people on the undertakings’ complexity.

It now seems clear that Listyev was the only figure remotely able to unite all the conflicting interests involved in a transition of this scale, one in which ORT is effectively being carved out of the old state-run broadcaster Ostankino.

Sources say it will be little short of a miracle if ORT actually does go on air April 1 without a hitch. There is as yet no clear indication of what its programming schedule will be, though Listyev apparently envisaged a radical cutback in local product and an increase in overseas purchases.

And no one quite knows how Ostankino, with its unrivaled and hugely valuable facilities and top-heavy staff – will interact with the newly privatized ORT, the new body created in one swoop by President Boris Yeltsin last November.

According to the founding charter, the Russian government holds a 51% stake in ORT, while the remaining 49% is divided among several private sources, principally financial and industrial groupings, including the influential LogoVaz consortium. That consortium is headed by Boris Berezovsky, who is increasingly seen as directing ORT’s affairs.

Ostankino is supposed to be a simple program provider to ORT, which would have taken over its facilities at what critics see as a knock-down price, with layoffs at Ostankino following.

As this is Russia – and more importantly, because there are elections for both Parliament and the presidency less than a year away – infighting to control the media has escalated and new faces have popped up.

Increasingly central to the whole issue is Alexander Yakoviev. Until March 16, the 72-year-old veteran ideologue of perestroika held no less than three important broadcasting posts, including the chairmanship of Ostankino as well as head of the Federal Broadcasting Service.

Following an angry meeting of Ostankino employees April 16 at which he was accused of incompetence and blamed for the “destruction” of Ostankino, Yakoviev resigned from his chief duties. His new interest: creating a new political party.

Taking his place is one of his deputies, 50-year-old Valentin Lazutkin, a professional TV man who has been working in the field since 1974.

A more unexpected appointment was made last week, when economist Serget Blagovolin, 55, was announced as the new executive director of ORT to succeed the murdered Listyev.

The most serious problem for ORT may come, however, from politics. The ongoing standoff between Yeltsin and Parliament saw lawmakers at Russia’s Duma (Parliament) last week turn their attention to the Ostankino privatization.

Opposition to proposed changes came loud and long from many quarters.

But after failing to get a motion halting privatization of ORT altogether onto the Duma’s agenda March 22 – only by passing this would its opponents have been able to halt the process before April 1 – it looks as if that avenue has for the moment been exhausted.

ORT will probably go on air but other political objections, say sources, will no doubt make the bow anything but smooth.

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