At a board of directors meeting that it had called, natural-gas monopoly Gazprom took control of NTV, Russia’s only independent television network. The gas company installed its own Alfred Kokh as NTV’s chairman, and Kokh put Boris Jordan, a Russian-born American citizen, in charge of operations as general director.
Gazprom is Russia’s largest corporation. The Russian state is its largest shareholder with 38 percent of the equity, and the company often acts as an instrument of state policy.
The NTV board’s action ends efforts by network founder Vladimir Gusinsky to hang on to his creation. Gusinsky’s Media-Most company had controlled 19 percent of NTV’s voting shares, but even those share had been pledged to Gazprom as collateral for a loan that had not been repaid. At the April 3 meeting, Gazprom, with 46 percent of NTV’s voting stock and allies among some small shareholders, was firmly in control. Legal efforts by Media-Most to block the meeting failed.
NTV’s ousted general director, on-air personality Yevgeny Kiselev, called new chairman Alfred Kokh a “marauder, swindler and scoundrel.” Newly installed general director Boris Jordan, who has no television experience, developed ties to Kokh in the mid-1990s, when Kokh was a public official running privatization auctions and Jordan was a remarkably successful bidder. Clouds of scandal hang over both men. But it is Gusinsky, not Kokh or Jordan, who is under indictment for fraud. Gusinsky is free on bail at his villa in southern Spain, awaiting a Spanish court’s decision on an extradition request from Russia’s prosecutor general.
According to some reports, Gusinsky has closed a deal to sell his stake in Media-Most to an investor consortium led by Ted Turner, founder of the U.S.-based Cable News Network, for $225 million. Turner in January had sought assurances from President Vladimir Putin that NTV’s editorial content would remain free of state control. The assurances were pointedly and publicly withheld.
Kiselev and NTV’s professional staff, which under Gusinsky’s leadership repeatedly broke stories on brutality in Chechnya and corruption in the government, blame the Kremlin for the takeover and say they will contest the takeover in court. Kiselev is now leading the staff in what he calls “civil disobedience,” including what amounts to a sit-in at network headquarters in the Ostankino television tower in Moscow. Popular demonstrations in support of NTV drew crowds estimated at 6,000-20,000 in Moscow last week, among the largest turnouts for any political cause in recent years. Gazprom and the Kremlin will want to proceed with caution.