Could He Be Russia's Next President?

Primakov's control of media makes him a player

When viewers of Russia's RTR TV network tuned into the evening news show Vesti on Feb. 15, the familiar face of anchorman Mikhail Ponomarev was gone. The newscaster was pulled off the air after Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov installed new management at the government-owned network. Ponomarev says he was fired because he fought the managers' efforts to censor his broadcasts. The new head of RTR's news operation, he grouses, is an ex-intelligence officer "who first saw a Betacam camera a month ago."

Maybe so. But Primakov didn't pick RTR's new bosses for their journalistic skill. Five months after taking office, the Prime Minister is making a bold push to consolidate his power--starting with Russia's broadcast media. He is tightening his grip on government-owned news outlets, filling key jobs with operatives from Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, which he once headed. And he is expanding the federal government's role in privatized media organizations, squeezing out rivals and cutting deals to expand his access to regional outlets.

SINGLE-MINDED? These moves have convinced many observers that Primakov is preparing to run for President, even though he steadfastly denies it and has argued against calls for early elections to replace the ailing Boris N. Yeltsin. "Primakov has made his choice to run. Everything he does is directed toward this goal," says Yevgeny Volk, an analyst in the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office.

Primakov's power play began last year at media outlets owned by the federal government. In recent years, "previous governments didn't pay much attention to these media, but Primakov has changed that," comments Vyacheslav Nikonov, director of the Fond Politika, a Moscow think tank. For example, to impose discipline at RTR, which has lost viewership, the Prime Minister hired Lev Koshlyakov, a veteran of the Foreign Intelligence Service. He also placed ex-operatives atop the Itar-Tass news service and Radio Rossiya network.

More recently, the action has shifted to ORT, the country's biggest TV network. The government, which holds a 51% share in the privatized network, is trying to squeeze out financier Boris A. Berezovsky, a minority shareholder who has effectively run the network with the Kremlin's acquiescence. Berezovsky and his allies are battling the move in court. But most analysts expect Primakov to prevail. That would not only give him control of a network reaching 72% of Russian TV viewers daily but also send a message that he is not beholden to tycoons, such as Berezovsky, who grew fat on the spoils of privatization.

Primakov's good relations with natural-gas giant Gazprom could boost his political fortunes still more. Gazprom, Russia's richest company, could be a major source of campaign cash. It also owns 30% of NTV, Russia's biggest independent network, as well as dozens of local TV stations and more than 100 newspapers and magazines. After a private meeting in January between Primakov and Gazprom Chief Executive Rem Vyakhirev, the government gave Gazprom a $400 million break on gas export fees. In exchange, industry experts say, Primakov has been given greater control over Gazprom's political and media activities.

All this is bad news for other Presidential candidates, who fear a repeat of the 1996 elections, when the national networks rallied behind Yeltsin and blacked out his Communist rival, Gennady Zyuganov. Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov is building his own national network, TV-Center, but its viewership is tiny compared with ORT's and RTR's. Other candidates, such as Zyuganov, retired General Alexander Lebed, and liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky, have even less access to the airwaves.

Not everyone thinks Primakov, 69, is really gearing up for a Presidential race. "He's too old and not in good health," says Georgy Bovt, a commentator at the newspaper Segodnya. But for now, Primakov is Russia's most popular politician. If elections to replace Yeltsin were to be held today, he would beat Luzhkov by 46% to 25%, and his other rivals by even wider margins, according to a February poll by the Foundation for Public Opinion, a Moscow-based polling group.

With that kind of head start, backed by a formidable media arsenal, a race for President may be too much to resist.

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