MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 427: Russian TV Row Splits Azerbaijan

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Fri Jan 18 18:13:49 2008


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WELCOME TO IWPR'S CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 427, January 17, 2008

CAUCASUS NEWS UPDATE JANUARY 17

GEORGIAN OPPOSITION KEEPS UP PRESSURE Following Saakashvili's election
victory, the opposition sets its sights on parliamentary ballot. By
Veriko Tevzazde in Tbilisi 

DAGESTAN IN BLACKOUT CRISIS Protests on the streets of the republic's
capital as claims are traded about who is to blame for power cuts. By
Diana Aliev in Makhachkala 

RUSSIAN TV ROW SPLITS AZERBAIJAN Speakers of Russian complain as
broadcasting dispute leads to Moscow channels going off the air. By
Tamara Grigoryeva in Baku

CAUTION OVER ARMENIAN VISITS TO BAKU The increasing frequency with which
Armenians are visiting Azerbaijan does not mean a thaw in relations is
under way. By Vahan Ishkhanian in Yerevan

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RUSSIAN TV ROW SPLITS AZERBAIJAN 

Speakers of Russian complain as broadcasting dispute leads to Moscow
channels going off the air.

By Tamara Grigoryeva in Baku

"Come in, my dear," said the old woman, her thin bent form clothed in a
sleeveless woollen jacket over a blue dress. She pushed open the door to
admit a tall young man into her sitting-room, which overlooks a park in
Baku, the Azerbaijani capital.

"Here it is, as good as new," said 68-year-old Dina Vasilievna, pointing
to her television set. "Now, son, how much would you give for it?"

The man, 29-year-old Elnur, buys up old televisions and other
second-hand electronic equipment. He says the number of people selling
off their televisions has risen sharply since the New Year, when the
Russian television station RTR was taken off the air in Baku.

"Most of the people selling their TV sets are old people," said Elnur.
"They just don't need them any more."

Dina Vasilievna said she was giving up watching television now that the
Russian national channels had disappeared. 

"I used to watch ORT and RTR every day," she said. "Last year, they
pulled the plug on ORT, and now they've done it for RTR from January 1.
I don't understand the Azeri language well, and the local channels have
no Russian-language programmes. That's why I'm selling my TV. What use
is it to me?"

In Jul, 2007, Azerbaijan's National Television and Radio Broadcasting
Council decided that the rebroadcasting of all foreign television
channels should end. 

The Moscow-based ORT was the first to go off air, followed by the
Turkish STV. The fate of other Russian channels available in Azerbaijan
was then placed in the hands of a joint Russian-Azerbaijani government
commission. The Azerbaijani position was that AzTV should be put on the
airwaves in Russia. 

The Turkish channel TRT-1 remained on air after a reciprocal arrangement
was reached to broadcast AzTV in Turkey.

Negotiations with RTR, however, ended in deadlock. 

"Talks in Moscow showed that Russia is not yet prepared to have AzTV
broadcast on its territory under an intergovernmental agreement," said
Nushiravan Magerramli, who chairs Azerbaijan's broadcasting council. "We
did warn them that we would halt RTR broadcasts if that issue was not
resolved."

The Russians have delayed giving a final answer, citing technical
problems. According to Russian ambassador Vasily Istratov, "It would be
wrong to remove the issue from the negotiating table." 

RTR was still on the air in Azerbaijan on December 31, entertaining
Azerbaijanis with New Year programmes. But early on the morning of New
Year's Day, the broadcasts stopped.

Istratov told journalists the move came as a surprise to him.

"I had great hopes that the political will the two sides expressed in a
political document as far back as July 2007 would make it possible for
us to resolve all the issues," said the ambassador. "Now a quite
difficult situation has arisen since the subject under discussion [RTR]
has been removed from the negotiating table, and I can't see how we can
possibly continue them."

Moscow has not responded officially to the Azerbaijani government's
move.

"We are not expecting any response," said Magerramli. "We've done our
work." 

The closure of the Russian channel came as a blow to Russian speakers
living in the country. Baku has a long tradition as a Russian-speaking
city, with native Azerbaijanis there often speaking Russian better than
their own language. 

"The standard of the Azerbaijani channels is not even average," said
Chingiz Aliev, who teaches in the Foreign Languages University in Baku.
"RTR gave us a chance to see professional work, and now they've deprived
us of it." 

"The impression is that Russian speakers are not treated with respect in
this country," sighed Gulnara Askerova, 25, who works in a bank. "And
this is at a time when the president's website cites Russian is shown as
one of the main languages alongside Azerbaijani." 

Others, however, defend the Azerbaijani authorities' action.

"Our government did the right thing by shutting down all the foreign
channels," said Mahir Gurbanov, a student in Baku's Oil Academy. "We
have our own channels, and people who don't like them should install
satellite or cable TV." 

"All citizens of this country should know the state language after we've
been independent from Russia for so many years," said Sevil Gahramanova,
an Azerbaijani language teacher at a secondary school. "It's ludicrous
that they want to have RTR broadcast just because we have a
Russian-speaking population here." 

Television critic Elshad Guliev said the move would not make a big
difference.

"The population still watches Russian television via satellite or
cable," he said. "To be honest, I am not delighted with the Russian
channels - they are not what they used to be." 

However, the leader of Azerbaijan's Civil Solidarity Party, member of
parliament Sabir Rustamkhanli, said pulling RTR from the airwaves had
left the local public with reduced access to information.

"Azerbaijani channels should cooperate with Russian ones," he said. "I
think it was wrong to shut down RTR-Planeta by making it a condition
that an Azerbaijani channel should be broadcast in Russia." 

Azerbaijan's broadcasting council is taking its time about announcing a
competition for the broadcasting frequency left vacant by RTR. 

Council officials say they might still resume negotiations with their
Russian colleagues.

Many people in Baku not believe such promises and have started buying
satellite dishes or installing cable television.

"I used to have two orders a day at most, but now it seems everyone is
in a mad stampede - they call non-stop and come to the office asking us
to install antennas," said Amil Mahmudov, 23, who works for a satellite
installation firm. He said that he had a waiting list, and customers
sometimes had to wait for two weeks to get a dish mounted at their
homes.

A satellite dish costs 150-180 manats (175-210 US dollars) or more,
including installation costs. A cable television connection costs 10
manats (around 12 dollars) a month. 

Those prices are too much for some Russian-speaking pensioners, who are
left with nothing now that they cannot get the Moscow channels.

"My pension is 70 manats a month, so how can I afford to buy an aerial?"
asked Vasilievna. "So I've had to sell my TV set, and now my only
entertainment will be playing the piano."

Tamara Grigoryeva is a correspondent for APA news agency in Baku.

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