Transmission Control

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If you want to get a message to all Russians not just in big cities, but also in the remotest villages of the north or the icebound settlements of Magadan there is only one way to do it: television. Vladimir Putin knows this, and he is determined that the only message on the airwaves should be his.

Sensitive to criticism, even resentful of it, Putin has been single-minded in his push to control the main TV networks. After putting heavy legal and financial pressure on the one major privately owned television channel, NTV, he has now trained his sights on ORT, the nation's biggest broadcaster. ORT its initials stand for Russian Public TV is theoretically state-owned but has for the past five years been controlled and financed by one man, Boris Berezovsky. A billionaire who made his fortune in ways that he has never fully explained and a master at political intrigue who wielded enormous influence in Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin, Berezovsky is now trying to recast his image as a leader of the loyal opposition. As a result ORT, which was ruthless in its support of Putin during his election campaign accusing senior opponents of murder, for example has become sharply critical of the President and his policies. Now Putin has struck back. Berezovsky announced last week that Alexander Voloshin, the head of the presidential administration, had ordered him to hand over to the government his stake in ORT, estimated at more than 42%. The President was angry at ORT's coverage of the loss of the submarine Kursk, Voloshin said, and wanted to run ORT himself. Berezovsky said he was warned that he would "go the same way as Gusinsky" if he failed to comply. Vladimir Gusinsky, NTV's owner, was briefly arrested last June and is now living abroad.

The Kremlin has not challenged Berezovsky's version of events, and the secretive methods he described are typical of the Putin administration. (The government admitted last week that it had classified segments of the 2001 budget dealing with the media as top secret, putting them on a par with defense and intelligence.) But instead of surrendering his shares to the state, Berezovsky announced he would give them to journalists and leading members of Russia's "creative intelligentsia," many of them his close associates and one of them his lawyer. The state should do the same, he said. How intellectuals and journalists would pay for ORT was not clear. But the message certainly was: Putin has a battle on his hands. It will be a dirty one, between two infighters who will use all the weapons at their disposal.

It could also be a significant one. If he feels seriously threatened, Berezovsky could call for help from the Family, as Boris Yeltsin's inner circle is known. These are the people who played an important role in transforming Putin from senior bureaucrat to President. If Berezovsky does involve the Yeltsin entourage, Russians will finally see how far the Family is willing or obliged to help Berezovsky. And how much influence it still has over Putin.