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Lesin
First name: Mikhail
Gender: Male
Date of birth: July 11, 1958
Last updated: March 16, 2004
Politician
Russia
 
Media Minister

In 1988, Lesin began producing television advertisements, and in 1991 he founded Video International. The company came to prominence for "I believe, I love, I hope" advertisements that it produced for the 1996 campaign of President Boris Yeltsin.

In 1993-96, Lesin served as general director of Novosti-TV. In 1996-97, he headed the presidential press service, and in 1997 he was named deputy director of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK). On 6 July 1999, Lesin was named media minister, and that appointment was reaffirmed on 18 May 2000.

Lesin has been an extremely controversial media minister and has won little respect among nonstate journalists. In July 2000, the Russian Union of Journalists named Lesin its Press Freedom Enemy No. 1, while President Vladimir Putin ranked third. Lesin led the charge to dismantle the media empire of former oligarch Vladimir Gusinskii and bring NTV under state control. The most outwardly embarrassing moment of his tenure as media minister came in the summer of 2000 when it was revealed that he had brokered and signed a deal guaranteeing Gusinskii's personal freedom in exchange for his peacefully turning over his Media-MOST to state-controlled Gazprom-Media. Lesin preposterously claimed that he signed the secret agreement "as an individual," while later admitting that doing so had been a mistake.

Lesin also remains controversial for his purported ties to Video International, which -- thanks to favorable contracts with the state-owned television networks -- enjoys a virtual monopoly over television advertising in Russia. Lesin has claimed, without offering evidence, that he has severed his financial ties to Video International, although none of the required financial statements that he has issued as a government minister reveal evidence of him doing so. Analysts connect Video International's cozy relationship with the state to its role in Yeltsin's 1996 re-election campaign.

It is also worth noting that one of the first salvoes in the war against NTV came in December 1999 when Video International unexpectedly broke its longstanding relationship with NTV and signed an agreement with state-controlled ORT television (the company already had an exclusive agreement with state-owned RTR). At that time, Video International was handling the Duma election campaign of Anatolii Chubais's Union of Rightist Forces. As a result of Video International's move, NTV suffered considerable loss of revenue at a crucial moment in the emerging "business crisis" that eventually brought the company down. Media law expert Andrei Richter said at the time that Video International's decision was very likely "influenced" by the Kremlin.

In recent months, Video International has considerably expanded its business, buying up control of much of the country's formerly state-owned print-distribution networks. It has also publicly confirmed plans to expand its media holdings, especially its print-media holdings, although it has not divulged any details. At the same time, there have been repeated unconfirmed reports in the press that Lesin will soon leave the Media Ministry and be replaced by "Komsomolskaya pravda" Editor in Chief Vladimir Sungorkin. If so, it would be surprising if he did not return to the company with which he claims to have cut his ties, following the example of oligarch Vladimir Potanin. In 1996, Potanin "severed" his ties with Uneksimbank in order to become deputy prime minister. When he quit government in March 1997, he seamlessly returned to his post as Uneksimbank president.

Despite occasional misstatements, Lesin has been one of the leading figures in the Putin administration in terms of recasting the vocabulary of the Kremlin's relations with the media. He frequently makes statements about the need to run media on a market-oriented basis, the need to reduce the state's share of the media sector, the importance of free access to information for a democratic society, and even about the desirability of closing down his own ministry. Such statements have often been well received by media advocates in Russia and abroad.

However, Lesin's tenure as media minister has been marked by deeds that expose the hypocrisy of such statements. His ministry has produced not a single initiative to improve the business environment for the Russian media and has failed to endorse measures put forward by media advocates such as increasing business tax deductions for advertising in nonstate media. He has done nothing to break near state monopolies in television and radio broadcast facilities, printing presses, and print-media distribution networks (beyond turning the latter over to Video International). Lesin has overseen a major expansion of the state-controlled media sector and, most importantly, a return to a Soviet-style state monopoly of national television broadcasting. He failed to prevent the adoption of law on election-campaign coverage that has effectively sidelined the media from the current national election process.

In September, Lesin attacked the Central Election Commission for interpreting too literally the new law on covering campaigns, saying that it was infringing on the rights of journalists and the public. In view of his record as media minister, these declarations must be taken with considerable skepticism and should likely be viewed as a continuation of the "good cop, bad cop" tactics that the Putin administration has developed in recent years to allow it to maintain the pretense of democratic development while creating an increasingly controlled and regimented society.
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