Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 66

In response to Gazprom’s ouster of NTV management yesterday, journalists and other staff members of NTV television, the flagship channel of Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media-Most group, have begun what Yevgeny Kiselev, the channel’s erstwhile general director and host of its Itogi news analysis program, called acts of “civil disobedience.” Gazprom, the natural gas monopoly and NTV’s main creditor, decided on the new appointments during an NTV shareholders meeting it convened yesterday. Gazprom-Media chief Alfred Kokh is to head the new NTV board of directors, which is dominated by Gazprom officials and loyalists. American businessman Boris Jordan has replaced Kiselev as NTV’s general director. Vladimir Kulistikov, a former NTV official who most recently headed the state’s RIA news agency, was named as the channel’s chief editor. The meeting was preceded by dueling court decisions, with a Saratov court first declaring the meeting illegal and then reversing itself, after which the judge in the case resigned. According to accounts given yesterday by Kokh and Jordan, Gazprom-Media, which holds a 46-percent stake in NTV, was able to come up with a majority in favor of changing NTV’s management after Jordan won the backing of Capital Research Management, a U.S. mutual fund that holds a 4.5 percent share in the channel. Capital Research Management previously supported Gusinsky and his allies on the NTV board (Russian agencies, NTV, April 3-4; Vremya Novostei, Vedomosti, April 4; see also the Monitor, April 2).

In any case, Kiselev and NTV’s other journalists, who last week elected Kiselev as chief editor and continue to recognize him as the channel’s general director, have denounced the Gazprom takeover and, in a statement released yesterday, pinned the blame for the takeover directly on the Kremlin. “We have no doubt that Vladimir Putin, as before, knows full well what is going on and is thus responsible for the consequences,” their statement read. Kiselev vowed that the channel would contest the takeover in court. Meanwhile, in protest, NTV has begun broadcasting only news and information, and is doing so around the clock. News broadcasts are being delivered with the word “protest” written across the NTV logo, and a graphic reading, “As a sign of protest against the attempts to change NTV’s leadership illegally only information broadcasts are being put on the air,” is being displayed during airtime previously filled by advertisements. During a special live NTV broadcast yesterday, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky called the new managers a “GKChP with the participation of foreign capital”–a reference to the State of Emergency Committee set up by the Communist hardliners who attempted to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991. Yavlinsky said that he would dispatch members of his party to be with the NTV journalists during their round-the-clock vigil at the Ostankino television center. A group of State Duma deputies, including Yavlinsky and Fatherland-All Russia’s Georgy Boos, along with members of the Union of Russian Journalists and others, spent last night at the NTV studios. Kiselev and others said yesterday that they would not try to prevent the Gazprom-appointed management team from entering NTV’s studios at Ostankino but would not obey its orders, which they consider illegal. NTV cited unnamed sources yesterday as warning that the new managers would try to enter the premises last night court bailiffs or police, but this did not happen (NTV, April 3-4).

Jordan, for his part, vowed yesterday that as NTV’s new general director he would uphold the channel’s independence and promised to resign before bowing to editorial pressure from the government or the channel’s shareholders. Both he and Kokh told journalists that they were simply aiming to save the channel, which Jordan claimed was US$70 million in the red, from default. Jordan said he planned to hold talks with potential foreign investors, including CNN founder Ted Turner, who heads the consortium of investors who made a bid for NTV earlier this year. Both Kokh and Jordan said that they had no intention of firing any of NTV’s journalists and specifically that they hoped Kiselev would continue as Itogi’s host and to produce documentaries for the channel. They said, however, that any journalists who failed to carry out their professional duties would have to find work elsewhere (Russian agencies, April 3; Kommersant, Moscow Times, April 4). This last comment–added to the fact that Kokh’s remarks about Kiselev were tinged with sarcasm–suggests that there is little chance that Kiselev and the new managers can find any common ground. Reconciliation is made even less likely given the history of bad blood between the two sides, including NTV’s hostile coverage of the 1997 auction of a 25-percent stake in Svayzinvest, Russia’s state telecommunications holding company. Jordan was a member of the consortium that won the Svayzinvest auction, which was presided over by Kokh, who at that time headed Russia’s privatization agency. The losing consortium, which included Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, accused Kokh of rigging the auction (see the Monitor, April 2).

NTV’s new Gazprom-appointed management team must now figure out how to end the protest without resorting to force, which would create a scandal which Gazprom and the Kremlin undoubtedly want to avoid. Indeed, in a conference call which reportedly took place on April 2 between Gusinsky–who is in Spain awaiting possible extradition to Russia to face fraud charges–and the NTV journalists–a transcript of which was published today in the newspaper Kommersant–Gusinsky repeatedly indicated that he believed that the authorities were afraid to resort to force against the NTV journalists. He said also that the March 31 pro-NTV demonstration in Moscow, in which 10,000-20,000 demonstrators participated, surprised Putin and made the Kremlin even more fearful of cracking down on the NTV journalists (Kommersant, April 4). The Argumenty i Fakty-Novosti news agency today quoted an unnamed Gazprom official as saying that in response to the NTV journalists’ “rebellion,” an audit of NTV’s financial records may be undertaken. Included in those records are those concerning credits given to correspondents and senior staff–especially for the purchase of property–and expenditures made during trips abroad and to the North Caucasus during both Chechen military campaigns (NTV, April 4). Earlier this year, the Prosecutor General’s Office searched the offices of Imidzh Bank, which holds Media-Most accounts, after accusing the bank of having given NTV journalists and others no-interest loans worth tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Prosecutors questioned NTV newsreader Tat’yana Mitkova concerning a US$70,000 loan she received in 1994 to buy a Moscow apartment (see the Monitor, January 30, February 8, 15).

Things could soon become even more complicated for the Kremlin and NTV’s new management’s team: According to reports today, the Turner-led consortium, which also includes the financier George Soros, has already concluded a deal with Gusinsky to buy out Media-Most for some US$225 million. While Turner’s representatives will reportedly meet this week with those from Gazprom, CNN today quoted unnamed sources as saying that if Turner takes over NTV, he will have the right to appoint the channel’s board of directors and will remove Boris Jordan as general director (Washington Post, CNN, Radio Liberty, April 4). Indeed, Gusinsky, in his April 2 conference call with the NTV journalists, spoke of the possible deal with Turner’s consortium as the best hope for saving NTV’s independence and providing the channel with political “protection” from the authorities. Gusinsky said he “strongly doubted” that Turner would make “compromises” with the Kremlin concerning NTV’s broadcasts, given that the CNN founder has a reputation to uphold (Kommersant, April 4).

On the other hand, a cynic might wonder whether Gusinsky was being a bit naïve about the commitment of Turner and/or his consortium to provide NTV with a total shield against Kremlin political interference. An even greater cynic might even suspect that the Turner consortium has already reached some sort of “understanding” with the Kremlin, and that the appointment of Boris Jordan might simply have been a way to force Gusinsky into finally agreeing to sell off NTV and his other media to the Turner consortium. Some observers have noted that a Kremlin-connected oil baron–Grigory Berezkin, head of the Evroseverneft company former board chairman of the KomiTEK oil company–is playing a key role in the Turner consortium (see the Monitor, February 19, 22, March 9).

The events surrounding NTV came to head on the same day that Putin delivered his annual State of the Nation address to the Russian parliament. During his address, the president, among other things, called for economic measures as scrapping remaining foreign exchange barriers, speeding up the restructuring of state monopolies like United Energy Systems and the railways and passing a Land Code which would allow the free sale of agricultural land. Putin also spoke of the need for judicial reform. Some observers noted the irony that Putin gave what many saw as a surprisingly liberal speech on the day of Gazprom’s takeover of NTV. Grigory Yavlinsky, for example, dismissed the speech having had “neither content nor sense,” adding that Putin’s “real course” had been demonstrated with the NTV takeover. Gusinsky, in his conference call with the NTV journalists the day before Putin’s address, anticipated that the president would give it a liberal spin. “Tomorrow he will be saying the proper words,” Gusinsky said. “Traditionally, both Soviet and Russian governments have always said the proper words. They simply don’t act properly” (Kommersant, April 4).