The only Russian-language broadcaster operating in Tajikistan has officially faded to black. The disappearance of the Russian television channel, RTR Planeta, from the airwaves was related purely to a financial dispute, according to Tajik officials. But Russia observers are convinced that something more than money was involved in Dushanbe's decision.
Officials at Tajikistan's State TV Broadcasting Committee announced in early April that RTR Planeta, the Russian state broadcaster's commercial arm, would not be resuming its transmissions. The announcement came a month after a dispute over fees prompted Tajik officials to suspend RTR Planeta's broadcasts.
In early March, immediately following the suspension, both Tajik and Russian officials expressed desire to resume broadcasting quickly, but only after resolving some organizational problems. Tajik authorities complained that RTR had failed to sign a new broadcasting agreement, and declared that new prices for rebroadcast services in line with the general increase in all state tariffs over the last couple of years.
Russian officials say the decision to up tariffs came as a surprise. Tajikistan's state news agency, Khovar, reported that for January and February 2009 alone, RTR owed 7 million rubles ($210,000 at current exchange rates).
Samad Hikmatov, deputy chairman of the Tajik Broadcasting Committee told journalists on April 3 that the decision to yank RTR-Planeta's programming was irreversible. "No further negotiations will be held with the Russian side, and the frequency [previously used by RTR] will be given to one of the local TV companies," he said.
Hikmatov says Russian broadcasters have had enough time to resolve all technical and financial issues. "We sent letters addressed to the secretary general of the Russian State Radio and TV Company [RTR], asking to support our suggestions [on the increase of rebroadcast [tariffs]," Hikmatov said. The last official letter was sent on February 17, but ever since, the Tajik side has received no answer, he added.
In addition, the State Broadcasting Committee complained that during 2008 it lost 100,000 somoni ($29,000 at 2008 exchange rates) from RTR due to the Russian station's untimely payments for rebroadcast services and the steady devaluation of the ruble.
Hikmatov added that the move to unilaterally cancel RTR-Planeta's rebroadcast contract is entirely apolitical. But Russian experts and officials contend the Dushanbe has indeed been playing politics with the television channel.
"Dushanbe's decision may complicate relations between the two countries, which in recent times have not been simple," said a commentary published April 3 in the Russian daily Kommersant.
Russian officials insist they made every attempt to fulfill Tajik demands. Kamil Magomedov, press secretary of the Russian Embassy in Dushanbe, said that on March 3 the RTR executives sent a guarantee letter stating that it is ready to consider the 50 percent tariff increase. Moreover, he said, RTR was ready to pay off any arrears for February and March. RTR representatives were ready to fly to Dushanbe at any time convenient for their Tajik counterparts, but they say they never received a sign that Dushanbe was ready to bargain in good faith.
The RTR-Planeta dispute flared shortly after Tajik President Imomali Rahmon returned from a late-February visit to Moscow largely empty-handed. In the days leading up to that visit, officials and experts in Dushanbe widely expected the Kremlin to extend to Rahmon some sort of assistance package, along the lines of that handed out to Kyrgyzstan in early February. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Local analysts, fearful of atrophying media freedoms, see a political dimension to the decision. "The termination of RTR's rebroadcast cannot be seen as non-political," said Nuriddin Karshibaev, chairman of the Tajik National Association of Independent Media (NANSMIT). "Logically, it [should be] seen as a limitation of access to alternative sources of information by the Tajik authorities. At the same time, the Russian side could have agreed with the Tajik requirements on the tariff increase." RTR-Planeta is moneymaking venture, he added.
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance correspondent based in Dushanbe.