MOSCOW - No more revolutions or counter-revolutions for Russia, President Vladimir V. Putin was saying yesterday in his state-of-the-nation address - just steady reform. But as he spoke, a Kremlin affiliate was ousting the management of NTV, the country's only independent television network, thrusting the company - and the country - into a showdown over free speech.
NTV's employees holed up in the broadcast center last night, vowing to resist. Police circled the building.
Putin, said Mikhail Berger, the editor of the newspaper Segodnya, was really delivering two messages yesterday: a decorative one for public consumption and then the real one, against independent journalism.
"We have no doubt that Vladimir Putin, as before, knows full well what is going on and is thus responsible for the consequences," said a statement read over the air by the NTV staff.
All night long, NTV broadcast a red "PROTEST" graphic over its usual logo. Yevgeny Kiselyov, ordered out as general director, drew a parallel with a similar dispute in the Czech Republic last year, one that ended when huge public demonstrations in support of journalists caused management to back down.
Grigory Yavlinsky, the prominent opposition politician, said the "coup" against NTV reminded him of the Communist coup of 1991 against Mikhail Gorbachev - and just like the earlier one, he said, this one, too, would surely fail.
"We will fight and we will win," he said.
Gorbachev himself went on the air last night. "It's the duty of all of us to protect a station like NTV," said the former Soviet leader, whose once-low standing has gradually risen in Russia over the past year. "Society needs a free press - and so does the president."
NTV has been embroiled for nearly a year in a fight over debts owed to Gazprom, the huge Russian gas company, by its founder, Vladimir Gusinsky. Gusinsky's reputation is unsavory at best - he is currently fighting extradition from Spain - but NTV nevertheless has established itself as an outspoken and often critical voice. Its defenders fervently believe that the fight has everything to do with bringing NTV to heel.
In his Kremlin address, Putin said he had accomplished the main task he set himself a year ago - the strengthening of the Russian state. But one organization more than any other stubbornly stood outside the line of authority, and that was NTV, noted Vladimir Rimsky, of the Information for Democracy Foundation.
"Putin believes that there are times when he must ensure control over all information," Rimsky said.
The president also talked at length yesterday about the need for judicial reform in Russia, and about the development of trust and reliability in financial dealings.
The NTV journalists pointed to the power play over their company as a good example of what needs to be fixed.
Friday, the NTV management secured a court order in Moscow barring the meeting that Gazprom wanted in order to appoint a new board. Monday, the same court reversed itself, without hearing any new arguments. The same day, a court in the city of Saratov also ruled in favor of NTV, but yesterday Gazprom officials showed an order, from the same judge, reversing his ruling of the day before - again without new arguments.
NTV journalists said their efforts to track down that judge yesterday were futile.
Gazprom installed as general director a 34-year-old American named Boris Jordan, who was one of the key players in the controversial privatization efforts of the mid-1990s. The editor-in-chief is to be Vladimir Kulistikov, who yesterday said that NTV journalists had spent too much time organizing themselves as if they were a political party.
Both jobs had been held by Kiselyov, who is perhaps Russia's most prominent TV news star and has been leading the fight against Gazprom.
"The collective doesn't recognize this new board and never will," Grigory Krichevsky, a top editor, said yesterday.
Aleksei Venyediktov, chief of Ekho Moskvi, a radio station under the same ownership as NTV, noted that in his state of the nation speech yesterday Putin made no mention of the civilians killed in Chechnya over the past year or of the sinking of the Kursk submarine. And, dutifully, none of the Kremlin-controlled news outlets made any mention of them, either.
"This is the future of Russia," Venyediktov said.
Boris Nemtsov, a liberal member of parliament, said that Putin's emphasis on judicial, financial and social reforms was laudable, "though he looks as if he personally doesn't believe they can be realized with the present bureaucracy."
Last night, Nemtsov came to the NTV studio and went on the air.
"I don't want this to end in ashes," he said. "You need to continue defending yourselves. I can tell you, a great number of people are ready to help you."