THE INVISIBLE HAND….
President Vladimir Putin had his alibi. He was in Chechnya, reviewing the troops. And the forces that evicted the disobedient staff were private security, not police or government troops. So Press Minister Mikhail Lesin could say that politics played no role in the dismantling of NTV, while pious Putin pled property’s prerogatives–the owners can do what they like, he said, and the state should not interfere.
The independent television network was one of the few voices in Russia to uncover corruption, expose Russian performance in Chechnya, and … That network is gone. The infrastructure and the call letters remain, but the new owner, energy monopoly Gazprom, has fired the leadership and the leadership’s followers. No more Kukly, the satirical puppet show that rankled the thin-skinned Putin: its creator, Viktor Shenderovich, is out. No more Itogi, the news broadcast that challenged the Kremlin’s view of the world: it is off the air.
Gazprom is an arm of the state. The state is the largest shareholder with 39 percent of the stock, and the Kremlin controls the board of directors. The government guarantees Gazprom’s monopoly, sets its prices, negotiates its international sales and adjusts its tax liabilities.
No one, least of all those who declare it, believes that Gazprom’s seizure of NTV and related media outlets was a commercial venture. Mikhail Lesin, for example, offered–in writing!–to kill a federal prosecution of NTV’s chairman Vladimir Gusinsky if Gusinsky would sign his stock over to Gazprom. Gusinsky’s offices were raided repeatedly by various armed, masked, and hazily identified forces–the local police, the tax police, the interior ministry–and Gusinsky himself arrested, jailed, and released, the charges against him quashed and then re-instated. The judge (in Saratov) who issued the order allowing Gazprom to convene a special meeting last month to oust NTV’s management first ruled against the energy monopoly. After some undisclosed event–a threat? an inducement? a legal epiphany?–he reversed himself and then resigned from the bench.
Also dying with NTV are the daily newspaper Segodnya and the weekly magazine Itogi, both products of Seven Days publishers, part of Gusinsky’s Media-Most group. The head of Seven Days, once a Gusinsky ally, has reached an agreement with Gazprom. Segodnya has ceased publication and Itogi’s staff has been fired. Media-Most’s radio station Ekho Moskvy and website NTV.ru are likely to close as well.
Public reaction is hard to characterize. Demonstrations in Moscow in support of NTV have been as large as any since 1993, when President Boris Yeltsin ordered troops to fire on a rebellious parliament. But the defenders of free speech, whatever the intensity of their passion, are still few in number. The president’s approval rating is around 70 percent. Democracy advocate Yelena Bonner, widow of Nobelist Andrei Sakharov, has the last word. “To please the president, our great people will swallow this [Gazprom] shit,” she said.