That was the message seen by television viewers who happened to flip to TV-6, Russia’s last remaining non-state national television network, after midnight on January 22. The Press Ministry had cut off TV-6’s signal, telephone lines, Internet connections and its studio’s electricity on the orders of bailiffs. The bailiffs acted on behalf of the Higher Arbitration Court, which, on January 11, after months of legal wrangling, had ruled that the channel must be liquidated. Within hours, Press Minister Mikhail Lesin ordered that TV-6’s dead air be replaced by sports programming from the NTV-Plus satellite channel, but not before someone at TV-6’s St. Petersburg affiliate, displaying the black humor Russians are famous for, put on Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, just as the Soviet hardliners had done during their abortive August 1991 coup.
It was bad enough that the Higher Arbitration Court, in satisfying the petition for TV-6’s liquidation filed last year by Lukoil-Garant, the pension fund of Russia’s largest oil company and a minority shareholder in TV-6’s parent firm, based its ruling on a legal provision no longer in effect. (That provision had allowed the liquidation of companies that had been operating at a loss for three years.) Perhaps even less credible was the insistence of government spokesmen that TV-6–which is 75-percent owned by Boris Berezovsky, the Kremlin-insider-turned-Kremlin-opponent–had simply been the loser in a commercial dispute that had been adjudicated properly and without political bias.
This was the same tune that top officials, including President Vladimir Putin, sang during the earlier legal prosecution of Vladimir Gusinsky and his Media-Most holding. It was no more convincing in its second rendering. Neither Putin nor Lesin nor anyone else on high had ever explained why only media critical of the Kremlin were being targeted for relentless scrutiny by the law enforcement, fiscal and judicial bodies, while the state’s two main television channels–not to mention Gazprom, the state-controlled gas monopoly that took over the bulk of Media-Most’s outlets last year–were more or less left alone, despite the renowned opacity of their financial practices.
But this being Russia, it makes little sense to try and find genuine freedom fighters or truth seekers on either side of the TV-6 imbroglio. Indeed, just days before TV-6’s signal was cut, the station’s staff, led by its general director, Yevgeny Kiselev, voted to surrender the channel’s broadcasting license and to form a new company that would bid for the license in a Press Ministry-organized tender set for late March. By all accounts, Kiselev and the TV-6ers took this course of action after Lesin and Kremlin chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. To wit: If you form a new company without Berezovsky and Gusinsky as shareholders, we’ll let you stay on the air temporarily and bid for the license in the spring; if you refuse to do this, we’ll pull the plug now. Berezovsky denounced the deal, accusing Kiselev and Voloshin of blackmail and credibly claiming that were the deal to go through, TV-6 would become economically dependent on a pro-government creditor chosen by the state.
Several days later, however, Kiselev renounced the deal. A number of observers in Moscow found this rather fishy. Some speculated Kiselev had been made another offer he couldn’t refuse–this time by Berezovsky. According to this theory, the self-exiled oligarch wanted to be sure that he and TV-6’s team would go down together in order to convince the West–where he now lived–that he was a martyr for press freedom, not simply a shady tycoon who had lost a Kremlin power struggle. These observers did not indicate exactly how Berezovsky might have pressured Kiselev, though several suggested that a sexually compromising videocassette featuring a person resembling Kiselev, which has been circulating around Moscow since December, may have been just the tip of the iceberg.